Today (July 12) is Malala Day

When people think of role models, they usually think of those who are older, who have lived long enough to have gained some amount of wisdom about the life that we are all living together. Rarely does a 16-year-old girl come to mind, but when one watches the video footage of Malala giving her speech eloquently, calmly, and passionately to the United Nations, one can hardly keep from admiring her.

Growing up in The West, I can’t count how many times a minor infraction can lead to much anger from myself and others during the day. A sloppy parking job, cutting in line, or even indecisiveness on someone else’s part can make another person fume for several minutes, or even hours.

Grace is nonexistent in those scenarios, and yet one can find it abound in this 16-year-old girl who has been shot in the head for simply trying to go to school. In fact, instead of reverting to anger, she draws upon the strength and wisdom of some of the most peaceful people to have walked on this planet–Muhammad, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., The Buddha, Mother Teresa, as well as a few more. She understands Martin Luther King Jr.’s words that “hate cannot drive out hate,” and inspires those who watch her speech to understand and believe in those words as well.

While I was left in awe of her strength and eloquence while watching this speech, what I felt the most, as I am sure was her intention with her speech, was inspiration and empowerment. I was inspired to keep going, to continue to use my voice as often as necessary and appropriate for justice, peace, and equality. I was also inspired to stop taking my freedom for granted but at the same time to keep fighting for freedom until equality for everyone is achieved.

So today, Malala Day, I am taking up my “pen” (well, cyber-pen) as Malala suggests because I can and because it is my right as a global citizen. I am writing to encourage others to take up Malala’s cause and empower themselves and others through education and using their voice to push against the status quo. I am, as Malala said, “call[ing] upon our sisters [and brothers] around the world to be brave, to embrace the strength within themselves and realize their full potential.”

Heartside GR: Gentrification or Blended Community?

Much of life is lived -if we are living it right, and honestly- in the tension. It is in those moments that can be found not in the perfectly cultivated and contrived moments, rather in those moments where our own control is forfeited to that which forces our consciousness to really pay attention to what is around and in us. Inner and outer tensions abound, the most open and fully engaged lives are often lived by people who are able to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Unfortunately, this is rarely how society functions and instead we live in blandness and comfortability if we are “lucky” or else fear.

Welcome to Heartside

Welcome to Heartside

In my city, one of the most uncomfortable places for many is the Heartside Neighborhood. Often thought of as Grand Rapid’s “Skid Row,” the Heartside Neighborhood (usually referred to just by a single street name: Division) is where a large majority of the city’s homeless/poor reside and is also subject to much fear, disdain, and apprehension by the other parts of the community at large…

And it is also becoming one of the biggest sites for “urban renewal” (although not quite to the gentrification level) in the area.

Could problems arise? Yes. Have they already arisen? Possibly. Is there tension? Undoubtedly. Should this lead to a zero-sum geographic battle between the original, poor occupants and the new, affluent ones called gentrification? Absolutely not. It should be seen as an opportunity for growth, honesty, and mutual gain between seemingly contrasting parties.

For now, Heartside is in a liminal space. It is neither the run-down “eyesore” it used to be, nor is it completely “cleaned-up” and posh. Some of the trendiest businesses and loads of art galleries have moved into the stigmatized area. However, they have not driven out the poor that already occupied the area, as true gentrification is known to do, but have built around them. Besides, the area has been home to the missions (that claim they are not going anywhere) long before it was home to these businesses. One of the local missions even has a large art gallery itself that features art and a newsletter filled with poems and stories all created by its patrons which could act as a buffer zone between the homeless, mentally/physically ill, and drug addicts that live in the area and the business owners and artisans that work there.

The artists in the area have begun to band together to transform the area into “The Avenue for the Arts.” However, instead of these artisans running the mission patrons out of the area, the current set up seems to offer the chance of collaboration and a symbiotic relationship between people who may seem very different at first, but may very well have similar stories.

I visited the area a few weeks ago for the annual market that is a part of the Festival of the Arts celebration, to see a plethora of Heartside Ministries patrons sitting outside the mission, proudly displaying their artwork for sale alongside traditional artists and business owners. Let’s hope this image remains, or better yet, the groups homogenize even more.

In a polarized world, truly diverse areas are rare. Heartside has the opportunity to do it right, if it dares, and lean into the tension that the area presents to create a vibrant, homogenized neighborhood.

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To learn more about this area, follow the links:

http://therapidian.org/development-heartside-part-one (parts two and three can be found on the sidebar)

http://www.avenueforthearts.com/index.php

http://www.dwellingplacegr.org/

The Business Section

By Paulsmarsden (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Today I have created my own business section for you. I have compiled some links to articles and business resources that may be useful if you are looking to start your own business as well as some interesting/inspirational pieces. This is particularly geared toward those who would like to start a small business in “developed” countries and in particular the US.

For general business resources including mentoring, workshops, templates & tools, and definitions for business related terms here are two resources:

http://www.score.org/ -A lot of great resources are provided like how to write a business plan, and information on the legal, financial, marketing, and management sides of a business.

http://www.investopedia.com/ -This has a great business dictionary, professional quizzes and tests, personal finance and investing advice.

Another good resource to have is a funding source like kickstarter.com. Kickstarter funds creative projects and has funded over 42,000 projects to date. Micro-loans are also available (as I have talked about a lot on this blog) and are not just for those of developing countries. Kiva.org is a great resource for that.

Here are a couple of articles that challenge some of the traditional ideas in business:

An article on creating a Business plan or business map?

Another article that challenges the need to attend business school

Finally, an inspirational yet in some ways challenging article about a business that I frequent and its business model: “For-Benefit” business

I’d like to end this post by encouraging you, if you are a budding entrepreneur, to think creatively about your business and find out how you can make a greater impact worldwide as well as in your community with it as a for-benefit business. Henry David Thoreau advised individuals to “be not simply good; be good for something,” but his advice can also apply to business. For-benefit businesses seeks to not only provide a good product and good service but also be “good for something” as well.

Some Customer Service Guidelines

Original photo titled "Feels Like Home" by Quinn Dombrowski (Quinn.anya) on Flickr. Licensed under the creative commons attribution and share alike conditions. http://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/7306741752/

Original photo titled “Feels Like Home” by Quinn Dombrowski (Quinn.anya) on Flickr. Licensed under the creative commons attribution and share alike conditions: http://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/7306741752/

Have you ever gone into a store just to look around only to notice that the attendant working that day was also looking, but this time just at you. Unnerving, right? It almost feels as if that person suspects you are going to steal something at any moment and thus must be on guard while you are in the store. This may not be their intended message, but it quickly becomes the communicated message to the customer who is thinking the whole time: “I’m not going to steal anything; I’m not going to steal anythingI’M NOT GOING TO STEAL ANYTHING!” and eventually gets so uncomfortable that they flee the store. THIS is bad customer service at its finest.

Customer service is a crucial part of any business, but it can also be an art if done well. Art as customer service is not , but there are some dos and don’ts that are. Here are some examples that I have learned through not only my own experience with customer service this past year, but also through observation of good and bad customer service by others, as well as some pointers found in books.

Don’t: Be a “Hawk-er”

From someone selling high-end diamond jewelry to a local garage sale operator, a “hawk-er” (one part traditional definition, one part gawker, and one part the phrase: “to watch like a hawk”) is that person I mentioned before. Their eyes are on you the whole time, and they tend to make people think that they suspect them of stealing. It’s important to note that this offense can be intentional and unintentional.

Sometimes the worker may not be concerned about the customer stealing or not, but is watching them for a number of other reasons. One may be boredom, another may be due to a company policy, and another yet may be a genuine interest in the person and wanting to address their needs. Unfortunately, on the receiving end the message is the same: “I don’t trust you.”

To avoid this, make yourself useful (clean lightly, work on small projects that others can interrupt, etc.) The objective is to not freak people out, but also not abandon them either (more on that later.)

Do: Make sure you have some anti-theft methods in place

So while customer service workers want to their customers to feel trusted, it is a fact of the industry that too much trust can go awry. Therefore, there must be a balance between accusatory behavior, but making sure that theft is (as much as possible) not going to happen.

Don’t ignore people:

On the flip-side of the don’t be a hawk-er rule, is the don’t ignore people either, rule. My roommate has come home on at least two occasions being really frustrated by workers who seem to ignore her or another customer in the store. One was bad enough that she has told nearly everyone with whom she was discussing the product (frozen yogurt) about her experience there. Word of mouth is really important when it comes to retail/customer service -this cannot be stressed enough.

Do: Be generous

Seth Godin’s book Linchpin focuses on this idea a lot. Give lots of gifts. This doesn’t necessarily mean give everything you in the store away -it would very quickly cease to be a business if you did that. Generosity can be shown in many different ways. Be generous with your time, your patience, and occasionally your product.

An anecdote to help elaborate: My roommate and I went to a Galleria in our area that has a lot of various things like pottery, some clothes, funny cards, etc. The store doesn’t necessarily cater to our demographic, but my roommate did buy some lotion there. The woman who rang her up was the owner and chatted with us for a bit. Near the end of the conversation she told us that she knew how tough it is to be our age –fresh out of college with little to no substantial income- and that if there is anything in her store that we really wanted but couldn’t afford we should let her know and she could help us out. We walked out of the store completely astounded. Neither one of us had ever had a customer service experience like that. She will definitely continue to have our business because of that one generous gesture.

Don’t: Have an attitude

This seems like it is pretty obvious, but it does happen pretty frequently, and can be pretty tempting. Here are a few anecdotes to help elaborate further:

My roommate and I went into a retail store the other day just on a whim. I had gone in the store a few times before, and the owner (who seems to be the only worker) had left a good impression on me the first time. When I had visited then (my roommate was there that time too), we talked to her before leaving and she told us that her customer service style was more laissez faire (my words, not hers) in that she preferred not to bug her customers. This time when we visited her store, her style seemed too extreme. She didn’t greet us at all when we entered and when we left, my roommate told her as tactfully as she could that a word on a hand-written sign was spelled wrong. The lady gave her a disgusted look, to which my roommate replied: “Well, I thought I’d let you know just incase someone else notices.” The lady then retorted with “Yeah, or if anyone cares.” We are never going back there, and have begun to spread this story amongst our friends.

The second anecdote is about a former co-worker of mine. Working with her was really difficult because of her attitude and eventually she let it spill over into her treatment of customers. Every night when she would work, the more people that came in the closer to closing time, the more her irritation grew and grew apparent to everyone around her. Eventually she pushed the envelope so far with one group of customers that they complained pretty strongly and she no longer works there.

Do: Make eye contact

My roommate swears by this. A fellow server at a restaurant she worked at told her this and she says he is one of the best servers she has seen. I tried doing this at my job for a while and when I remembered, it seemed to make a difference. (I also got a lot of people going gaga over my eyes though –another story for another time- so that may be why I didn’t do it as much by the end.)

Do: Connect with people

This is essentially what results from the previous dos and don’ts. It is the ultimate goal. Connecting with people is what customer service is all about. It takes an ordinary task and turns it into art.

A Few More Pictures of the Merch

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Most of the paper used for these are made in the US. The two exceptions are a couple of the flowery-printed handmade paper (found in the second and fourth pictures) which is made by a cooperative of women in India. The paper is supposed to be used as wrapping paper, but I found it too beautiful for just that purpose, so I’ve been recycling it. I got it at a local store that specializes in selling fair trade gifts.

My Creative Station

My Creative Station

Sneak peak at the new merch I’m making for the summer; coming to you hot off the porch! I’m looking to sell these bad boys, among others, at some artisan markets. That is if I can find some other suitable means of employment for the summer in the next few days in the Grand Rapids area. Wish me luck!

So I was catching up on The Daily Show last night and this segment came on. First of all, I would like to say that I admire the way The Daily Show is able to point out that what in the mainstream news is supposed to be seen as intelligent, serious debate is actually ludicrous and laughable.* I also am fully aware that it is not an official news source, but these days, what is? I appreciate that the show brings some really serious flaws with our current political structure, and the thinking of those who find themselves broadcasting about that political structure, to light. With that being said, here is my response to the information that is presented in the video:

It pains me to think that I live in a country where people believe that the poor are the “moocher class.” While I am not disputing whether or not there are people that abuse the system (I am sure that there are) it is unjust and egregious to assume that every person that is poor is so because he/she doesn’t want to work and is content being an economic parasite. Those who assume such things act as if they’ve never paid attention to the news**, the economic status of the country in which they reside, or have ever come in contact with anyone who has made less than $100,000 a year.

In what ways are these people who are supposed to be broadcasting the news exhibiting that they really know nothing about current events? Well it is no secret that unemployment has been high, and underemployment even higher. And I’m sure even a simpleton knows that many blue-collar jobs have been sent overseas which has led to greater profit for those who are running the company and the demise of many of those who were seen merely as “dispensable” employees. Jobs that were once seen as secure no longer are and that has created a growing poor class in America along with the greater need for government assistance (a necessary evil in many cases.) Somehow, these political pundits and politicians seem blissfully unaware that in fact these numbers are affecting actual humans and have hit the poor FIRST. What do they need to worry about though, really? They are just phantom numbers, rendered arbitrary in their lives. I mean they still have jobs… for now.

The video made me think of another, more serious video (film, technically) I saw recently called, A Place at the Table and how I wished those saying that the poor are nothing but a moocher class would sit down and watch what is happening to their own country. Here is the trailer for that, but know that it does not do justice to the heart-break that one receives when watching the full film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ArI_ZHc-n5A.***

If you ask anyone in this second film if they take pleasure from getting government assistance, from feeding their children food that is in many cases handicapping them both temporarily and permanently due to lack of sufficient nutrition, I guarantee that they would say “absolutely not.” But as one woman in the film who is working a low-paying job along with going to school says: “you can’t tell your kids that they’ll eat in two years.” The government assistance which -ahem- ISN’T MUCH and means that they can primarily afford food-like substances such as soda, is what is keeping them alive. I believe that is what sickens me most about the juxtaposition of these two videos -the parts about the soda. In The Daily Show video, one person claims that if we tax soda, it is only hurting the poor. Yes, because all poor need soda to survive (insert eye roll here)… well let me amend that: calorically, yes, in a way they do, nutritionally, no, it is killing them. It is one of the few foods that they can afford, true, but why? More importantly, who would the tax on soft drinks actually be hurting? The poor or the producers of the soft drinks?

“Mooching for life” takes on a whole new meaning here… many of the poor in America are forced to humiliate themselves by essentially begging for food and then receiving food that is basically poison. With that, at least the politicians can rest assured that the “mooching for life” that the poor are doing won’t be for too long because they will die sooner than those who do not need to subsist on nutritionally inert foods paid for by government hand-outs.****

I shall finish this post where The Daily Show video begins: with the quote from the man lamenting that there are “people who are perfectly content to live at the expense of others.” Honestly I couldn’t agree more with this statement. It is abhorrent that we have a group of people in this country who are willing to compromise others’ health, security, and even lives for their own fortunes. Maybe the poor wouldn’t mooch if the greedy class didn’t take so much from them to begin with.

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*Well, perhaps tears of a clown describes it better.

**which they are somehow in charge of broadcasting

***It is important to note that this film does not tell the whole welfare story in this country and shows only those with heart-wrenching stories for a reason. It is just as biased as those who claim that the poor is a moocher class (or just as biased as I am, for that matter), but together it is easier to get a glimpse at what is actually going on.

****What are subsidies but glorified government hand-outs anyway?

“The Moocher Class” revealed

When I heard what name Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had chosen for his Papacy, I smiled and thought: “How fitting.” Francis. While I am not Catholic (although I did go to a Catholic college) my favorite saint is Francis of Assisi and I knew without even watching this video that that was who his inspiration was.

Saint Francis (Francis of Assisi or San Francisco for my latino amigos) lived a luxurious life during his adolescence but slowly began to see his love of money, luxury, and beauty was his biggest downfall. He started giving everything he had away or disposing of it anyway he could. He slowly gained followers and they took up the passage Matthew 19:16-26 (the story where Jesus commanded the rich young ruler to sell everything and give to the poor) as their adage. Saint Francis served the poor from then on.

While Latin America holds the largest percentage of the Catholic population with 39%, or over 425 million of the world’s Catholics living there, it also has about 167 million people living in poverty. This number is also significant as it marks the lowest level of poverty in Latin America in three decades. Pope Francis lived in Latin America during a time where the continent had some of its biggest struggles with class and unequal distribution of wealth. He has seen first hand the devastating affects that poverty can have on people and society and during his time as a Cardinal there he chose to live alongside the poor rather than above them just as Saint Francis had done. I suspect this will be his approach to his papacy as well.

¡Viva el papa de Latinoamérica, el papa de la pobre!

“How I would love a Church that is poor and for the poor!” –Pope Francis

How Poverty Affects Everyone, Even the Rich

One of the most frustrating things about the issues of poverty and social justice is that often times it feels like no one really cares. Sure many people may hear a statistic or see a picture of a hungry baby and feel sad, but they usually carry on with their day virtually unaffected. Or worse yet, they are confronted by a homeless person on the street and they hand them a couple bucks or some loose change in the hope that that will appease them. In the hope that they will disappear. They refuse to engage them, hear their story, acknowledge that they are human, and they especially try their hardest not to think of them again. They are part of the scenery of a big city, not people, just ugly, moving statues that for some reason terrify those who are more fortunate. Why is this?

I believe there are many reasons why, but one of the main reasons is that it either doesn’t affect them or they refuse to believe that it affects them. Many rational and intelligent people can see that certain issues, if they don’t affect them now, can affect them in the future, making those issues easier to take up. Causes like cancer awareness/research, environmental issues, domestic violence, etc while all noble, are to varying degrees tainted with the threat that it will affect the person intimately at some point in their lives. Rarely do people (in the US especially) see poverty affecting them intimately until it is too late. That is because wealth (or perceived wealth) is the cultural norm and it is thus revered as a fulfillment of our constitutional obligation to the pursuit of happiness.

Poverty is also ignored by the masses because it means that people have to care and get emotionally involved. They know it is easier to keep emotions at a platonic level so that their lives can remain unchallenged and thus unchanged. Change means being uncomfortable, or worse yet, could lead to pain and most people (especially in the West) do everything to avoid discomfort. They keep their eyes down, keep their slippers at the edge of their bed, buy and install electric towel warmers in their bathrooms, start their cars from indoors to warm it up on a snowy day, and most tragically, they have refused to talk about the issues that really matter.

Quickly, however, this obsession with comfort creates a numbing effect. Because people can no longer feel pain or discomfort, they can no longer feel joy and connection. As Brené Brown said in her TED Talk: “You cannot selectively numb emotion.” Furthermore, when people seek to numb their emotions they end up numbing the most human part of themselves. Thus it is imperative to understand that when people refuse to take on the burdens of others and become emotionally invested in their stories, they are not only denying those “others” but also denying their own humanity.

By Darwinist, originally posted here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/darwinist/23092205/