Privilege: What Most People Have but Overlook

Most people that know me know that I work full-time in Marketing, but that I dedicate additional time to not just read about issues that I care about– such as poverty alleviation and female empowerment–, but that I work hands-on with those issues. About 8 months ago, I got involved with an organization called Budget Buddies, a non-profit organization that pairs volunteer financial literacy coaches with low-income women.

The way the program works is that each volunteer is assigned a “buddy” who is trying to build financial literacy and every other week you meet with them and a large group of volunteers and buddies to discuss such topics as “Keeping Your Money Safe” and “Smart Credit” strategies and the weeks in between, you meet one-on-one with your buddy to make SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound). In total you meet once a week for 6 months (or about 22 hours). The final day is celebrated with a graduation ceremony where women are given an extra boost of confidence to be financially independent and savvier than before.

How Privilege Comes Into Play

My “buddy” and I worked diligently on creating a vision board. She dreams of taking a vacation to Jamaica with her baby.

I met my first buddy after a short meeting with volunteer staff. My buddy is in her early twenties with a 1.5 year old baby who is just beginning to complete her GED. She grew up in Boston and but somehow ended up being placed in a shelter. I do not know too many personal details about her, but all I know is that even though her situation seems like a sad one, she carries herself with dignity as every person should who is working towards a better life. My buddy does not have many privileges but she still makes her life “work.” She has a lot of potential; to get a job, go to school, whatever her heart desires. There are other people in the shelter that are in far worse situations–they have become addicted to drugs and/or have lost custody of their children, are currently pregnant, and even have many children living in the shelter. The shelter is a transitional housing facility that holds 15 young mothers and their children and even with the tight space, you can still hear and see children laughing and playing.

Upon reflection, it isn’t hard to see that most of us are enormously privileged. There are more than 32,000 families in MA alone that are living below the poverty level and I have never been part of that group. That is great fortune. Most people get caught up on problems like “What new car should I buy?” and “How can I negotiate a higher salary?” but during those stressful times, people  forget that the most basic things that they do have would be a dream-come-true to a lot of people. Even with so much that I feel like I need to accomplish in my life, I continuously like to check-in with myself to reiterate that during all the times that I am stressing over something, a far worse situation could be presenting itself to someone else. Count those blessings.

Better to Be a Crusader for Peace, Than For Violence

When I think of September 11, 2011, I only think about one of the saddest days of my childhood. Though I was lucky enough to not lose a loved one that day, the amount of sadness was palpable anywhere you went. I was only 12 years old at the time, and that is when I first heard the word “terrorist.” My mother was taking me home early and when I asked my mom what happened–why all the teachers were acting strangely at school–she said that “there was a terrorist attack,” but I did not know what that meant. We went straight home and watched the footage together on the television but even then, I could not completely grasp what had happened. It did not look real. It was not until years later that I accepted that there are people in the world that would commit such evil crimes, and I would get an idea of what a “jihad” or “holy war” was. As much as I value the opinions of others, it sometimes still shocks me that there are some people in this world that have violence so deeply ingrained into their lives; where they need to use violence to make a statement.

A terrorist is like a murderous bully. A terrorist will use fear tactics to disable a person because they are unhappy about something, just like a bully would. In both situations, the victim is normally weakened, but only temporarily, until they are able to build strength and even become stronger than their opponent. The feeling may be universal: At one point or another in our lives, we encounter at least one person who wants to make us feel miserable and brings us down. It is only until we come to terms that it is due to some problem on their part, when we can start to rebuild confidence. On 9/11, terrorists targeted three symbol representations of the United States: The Twin Towers for representing globalization and economic wealth, the Pentagon which represents U.S. military power, and the Capital building (whose attack never came into fruition due to the brave passengers of flight 93) which represents American political power. The terrorists chose some of the best representations of the United States to tear down, just as a bully would tear down the unique qualities of an individual. Although a stereotypical bully is not even close to matching the violence of radical Islamic extremist, both feed on negative energy to harm others.

Photo courtesy of NBC New York.
Photo courtesy of NBC New York.

The late Nelson Mandela was a man who understood how violence had no place in a society trying to create peace.  “People respond in accordance to how you relate to them. If you approach them on the basis of violence, that’s how they’ll react. But if you say, ‘We want peace, we want stability,’ we can then do a lot of things that will contribute towards the progress of our society.” The terrorists of September 11 could have had an opportunity to create peace among two nations if they had wanted, but instead chose to commit senseless acts of violence. As much as I try to understand the indoctrination process of becoming a radical extremist, I still get stuck on the idea of choosing between peace and violence, and why shedding blood would be considered before trying to spread peace.

If anything good comes out of 9/11, it is that Americans have become stronger than ever. They share their stories and strength, as opposed to only brewing hatred towards those who took the lives of nearly 3,000 innocent people. America is nobody’s victim. Today is a day in which bravery and the human spirit is commemorated so that we can continue to try and coexist peacefully with others.

America’s Cups Have Runneth Over: The Topless Debate

There is a new war and it is on… breasts. At least, some would say. Being topless in America has recently sparked a debate this week when New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio decided that the infamous topless women covered in body paint were driving away tourists.  Though it seems to have been the opposite case—tourists have flocked to these women clad in patriotic colors and body paint (wearing thong underwear as main coverage), there has been rising hostility towards women’s ability to express themselves in this manner.

Laws on being topless in the United States vary. In New York City, it is permissible for women to be topless in areas in which men are topless. However, it is still possible that a woman could be cited for disorderly conduct should her exposure seem to cause a disturbance. Even though the law may not be the most important part to understanding this debate, it sure is a reflection of our ideologies and culture as a whole towards sexuality and acceptance of the female body.

Nudity does not cause a stir in Europe. In the case of Spain, where I studied and taught for a year post-college, I did not tend to see nude people walking the streets often but I knew that nudity was legal. In many secluded beaches like the one my friends and I walked to in the south of Spain, full nudity was acceptable. No one spent time ogling other people’s naked bodies and despite the fact that the majority of people would be characterized as “beautiful” by our cultures’ standards (a former roommate used to call Spain “the land of the pretty people”), there were not solely women who were rail thin. Though I cannot recall many plus-sized women on those beaches, there was more than one shape on display and the women appeared to be genuinely content.

Cabo de Gato, Spain, 2012. My girls and I celebrating some new freedom.
Cabo de Gato, Spain, 2012. My girls and I celebrating a new freedom.

One thing that both men and women alike are taught at a young age is acceptance of their bodies. It doesn’t all have to do with beachwear being lacking, but a lot to do with the media. I remember sitting with my Spanish “host” mom one night after dinner and they featured a movie segment where a man and woman were engaged in sex act and there was no censorship of her breasts.  My host mom didn’t bat an eyelash. I, on the other hand, felt enormously uncomfortable. Maybe this situation of me watching softcore porn with my host mom is a little extreme, but one cannot deny that sexuality in Europe is a lot more accepted than in the United States. Our mainstream TV stations would not include graphic sex scenes, especially not in such a blasé fashion. However, one cannot deny that women appear to have a lot more comfort with their bodies in Europe. To simply say, “Well, that’s Europe and we are in America” may not be the best response.

The United States is a great nation with its flaws, like any country. Instead of legalizing nudity as in most parts of Europe, Americans would reap many benefits by opening the dialogue between parent and child about the body and sexuality. Most people would be unnerved to see a woman topless in public because we are not used to seeing it. However, an issue arises when people see nudity as profanity. Nothing is profane about the female form. When it comes to reproductive health, words between parent and child are sparse. A good case study on how opening up the dialogue between parent and child can lead to benefits is TLC’s 2011 documentary “Let’s Talk About Sex.”

In the documentary, European teenagers are compared to their American counterparts and unsurprising, teenage pregnancies and STD rates are very high in America, unlike European youth (teenage pregnancy 4 times higher in America than in Netherlands alone). The focal point of the discussion is, unsurprisingly, the way parents talk with their children. A family from the Netherlands can be seen discussing sex at the dinner table while American families interviewed discussed NOT discussing the topic. The message is clear: when there is silence regarding sexuality and the human body, American youth pay the price. If we cannot discuss something so basic, no wonder a topless woman covered in paint, parading the streets of New York, can cause such a stir!

There is no simple answer as to how America should approach this issue but something so small as opening the dialogue between parent and child about sexuality could be a huge help. The documentary discussed focused on disease prevention and early pregnancy but opening discussion would help enforce positive attitudes about the human body, a step in the right direction.

Nelle botti piccole sta il vino buono

This Italian proverb means literally, “there’s good wine in small barrels.” In American English, we know this phrase to be “good things come in small packages.” I am the petite activist and I think that whether or not we are any size, any race, or placed into any socially recognized category, we all have voices that should be heard when we need them to be.

Each of my maternal grandparents left Italy during the World War II era to pursue a better life in other countries. For my father’s parents, they came to the United States via Ellis Island. For my mother’s parents, they landed in Melbourne, Australia (how my parents met is a long story). My grandparents and parents worked very hard to teach me about humility and the power of perseverance. I have been extremely fortunate to be able to go to college, live and travel throughout Europe, and to never be hungry. These are just a few ways in which I have been fortunate, but they are all privileges that not everyone in this world are afforded. I do not believe that every major issue can be solved easily, nor with one voice alone, but I will contribute a global perspective in which one can begin to look at the world differently.

Understanding how the world works is not just limited to babies, I am still learning to this day. Who is with me!?