Advent Calendar for Social Justice

Check out the Advent Calendar for Social Justice here!

We have one month left before we’re in 2017, and although it’s tempting to just curl up into a ball until it’s over, we know that we need to prepare to live in a Trump world. (For the many people who see how this year has just pulled back the mask on what wasn’t all that well hidden to begin with – I hear you. I’m sorry it’s taking some of us so long to figure it out.) Okay, so let’s live in this world, let’s make it as good as we possibly can, and let’s do it together.

anarchy

I used to be a weekly churchgoer, and the rhythms of the church year still echo in my life. The season leading up to Christmas is called Advent. Advent is a time of preparation, during which Christians prepare for the coming of the savior of the world. They prepare for the end of the world as we know it and the arrival of a better world we can barely imagine. This year, we are preparing for what certainly feels like the end of the world, and it’s hard to see anything beyond it. Trump is the opposite of a savior, no matter how he brands himself in his populist speeches. So this year we need to prepare ourselves to be our own saviors, to save ourselves from what we’ve allowed to happen. (I’m speaking mostly to my fellow straight white cis folks here – people of color and queer folk have been doing the heavy lifting since forever.)

This election seems to have served as a wake-up call for many of us. It’s not right that it took a loss that will devastate so many lives and alter the fabric of our democracy to serve as such, but here we are. So now what? is the question I see most frequently on Facebook, Twitter, in the news. There are a lot of good answers out there, from better thinkers than I. Read them, discuss them with friends and family, take action.

But for what it’s worth, here is my “what now?” response. Advent is a time of preparation, so let’s prepare. For each day of December, I’m going to take concrete action that makes me more prepared to resist the Trump presidency, or that offers some resistance now, or that contributes something good and kind to the world. Some of these actions can be done anywhere in the world, and some are US-specific.

I also think it’s important to do a mix of overtly political and more community-building or “good deeds” type things. Especially if you haven’t been politically active before, you may find this a little intimidating, but what we’ve seen from the way Trump’s campaign was run, and now after the election, is that white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia play a prominent role in people’s political decisions and everyday lives. Coaching Little League builds community, yes, please keep doing that — but also see how you can assist your local Black Lives Matter chapter, to build community in that way as well. And artists — keep creating, always. Artists are vital.

black-lives-matter

Will you join me for this month? Especially for people who wouldn’t normally consider themselves political, or who don’t have much experience with activism, I tried to make this an accessible collection of things to do that will show how easy it is to fit these things into our busy lives, and how it’s not that scary to do.

If you have suggestions, please comment. Share this with anyone you like. The key is to take action, and to do it together. So call your mom, talk to your coworker, make a new friend, and go all in. As Angela Davis recently said, “How do we begin to recover from this shock? By experiencing and building and rebuilding and consolidating community. Community is the answer.”

Here is where I was going to put the calendar, but I can’t get it to embed. So please click through to the Advent Calendar for Social Justice. Be sure to click on each day to see notes and useful links with further info for each action item.

This calendar is intended as a helpful tool for people who want to do something, but aren’t sure where to start. I hope it will help you sample different ways of taking action, so that in the new year, you’ll be better prepared to really dig in to volunteering, donating, and organizing roles. I’d love your feedback. I consider it a live document and will adjust it as necessary.

Shout-out to Liz and Emmett for providing excellent advice and action items.

niwj1nyd

Resources for Educating Yourself and Taking Action:
Accomplices Not Allies
A List of Pro-Women, Pro-Immigrant, Pro-Earth, Anti-Bigotry Organizations That Need Your Support
Oh Crap! What Now? A Survival Guide
Opportunities for White People in the Fight for Racial Justice
“We’re His Problem Now” Calling Sheet
What Educators Can Do to Support Undocumented Students
What to Do Instead of Calling the Police

Organizations Fighting the Good Fight:
350
American Civil Liberties Union
Amnesty International
Black Lives Matter
Campaign Zero
Council on American-Islamic Relations
Emily’s List
National Center for Transgender Equality
National Coalition for the Homeless
National Disability Rights Network
National Women’s Law Center
Planned Parenthood
Showing Up for Racial Justice
Southern Poverty Law Center
Sylvia Rivera Law Project
The True Colors Fund
Welcoming Refugees

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Where Should I Go Next?

All right, dearest fellow travelers, are you ready to tell me what to do? It’s time for me to be moving on again, and I’m planning to make South America my next destination. If you’ve been, or you know someone who’s been, or you’ve planned your own trip, or you read a cool article once–I want to hear from you.

Sala de Uyuni (salt flats in Bolivia)

Here are a few places I definitely want to go:

1) Machu Picchu (Peru)
2) Iguazu Falls (Brazil, Argentina)
3) Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia)
4) Buenos Aires (Argentina)
5) Amazon jungle (Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador)
6) Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)
7) Patagonia (Argentina, Chile)
8) Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)
9) Beaches (oh, any country)
10) Angel Falls (Venezuela–I know, the political situation, but it’s still a sight I want to see)

Carnival

Here are a few things I definitely want to do:

1) Spend a month in one town, learning Spanish at a language school
2) Volunteer for at least a couple weeks somewhere
3) Party at Carnival (not necessarily in Rio)
4) Attempt to tango in Argentina
5) See wildlife I’ve never seen
6) Hike at least part of the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu
7) Find a quiet place to write for awhile
8) Learn to distinguish among the various cuisines
9) Go to a futbol game
10) Dance all night to a local band

Sometimes called The Death Road, sometimes called The Most Dangerous Road in the World–either way, I’m not cycling down it

Here is a thing people do that I do not want to do at all:

Ride a bike down The Most Dangerous Road in the World

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So! Whaddya think? Know anyone who lives down there, or have a favorite hostel I should check out? What’s your favorite village I won’t find in the guidebooks but should totally check out? Got any online resources you found useful? Are there places you’d recommend I skip?

I will leave sometime in January, and I hope to stretch the money out for six months of travel. I’ll keep blogging here at Stowaway, and I’ll be working to get published elsewhere too. I’m getting excited for Phase 2 of my trip around the world! Join me.

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Volunteering at Big Brother Mouse in Laos

Following the glowing recommendation of a blogger I follow, I volunteered at a literacy organization while in Luang Prabang. Big Brother Mouse–so named for the cartoon mascot, who acts as a friendly “big brother” encouraging kids to read–says its mission is “making literacy fun,” and it looks like they’re succeeding.

Big Brother Mouse Bookshop

Big Brother Mouse Bookshop

It was founded by a non-Laotian, American publisher Sasha Alyson, but he now serves as an advisor, and all paid staff are Laotian. The website emphasizes the importance of Lao educational efforts being headed by Laotians, rather than foreigners coming in and doing things their way. I strongly agree with this philosophy, so I was all the happier to give my time to an organization that values this kind of empowerment.

Big Brother Mouse is a publishing and distribution outfit. There’s a lot on the website about how hard they’re working to write and publish books in the Lao language so that kids will want to learn how to read–and so they’ll take pride in the Lao language and culture, rather than learning to read only in English.

Once the books are published, the distribution part kicks in. You can sponsor a book party, which is what they call it when volunteers strap books to their backs and hike into remote parts of the country to distribute one book per child in the villages they visit. Kids who have never seen a book before, or who have only held a tattered textbook from the ’50s, now have their own book, written in their own language, about a fun topic that interests them. A lot of kids get really attached to their books, and eagerly await another book party in their village.

That’s the main purpose of the organization, and you can, of course, contribute funds to help publish and distribute the books. But there’s also volunteering, two hours twice a day, to help locals practice their conversational English. You don’t sign up or anything, you just show up and talk with whoever wants conversation. Suggestions for how to be a good conversation partner are posted on the tables inside the small store where these makeshift meetings take place: talk slower, enunciate clearly, ask simple questions but not yes/no ones, and talk slower.

Sy, Khmsy, and other students at the Big Brother Mouse conversation hour

Sy, Khmsy, and other students at the Big Brother Mouse conversation hour

When I arrived the first time, a staff member was doing calculations at the cash register and didn’t give me any advice on what to do. I saw one volunteer talking with one Buddhist novice, and a couple other white people sitting around, presumably waiting to help out if other Laotians showed up. After about 20 minutes, several people did arrive, so we all split up and ranged ourselves around the long table and started talking. The other two times I went, there were people waiting and eager to talk as soon as I got there.

I talked to just one woman, who runs a business in town and is always on the lookout for ways to improve her slang so she can be more familiar with her customers. Everyone else I spoke with was male, mostly university students and young Buddhist novices.

One guy wanted help with his workbook–should he use “his” or “her” in these instances? Another brought out a book in English and wanted to practice his pronunciation–he read a paragraph on astronomy and I corrected pronunciation in the few places he needed it, and then he read another paragraph. Several students sat there wide-eyed, pencils in hand, ready to write down any words I mentioned that they were unfamiliar with, so they could add them to their vocabulary. There was one communal Lao-English dictionary, which was passed around as needed when we came to a translating impasse. Everyone spoke heavily accented English, but their skills varied widely; some were beginners fumbling over “My name is,” and some held a conversation easily.

I had no idea what I was doing; I didn’t have a pedagogy and I’m not a trained teacher. But I tried to take to heart the “talk slower” imperative, and I smiled a lot to encourage the shy ones, and I think I was a little bit helpful.  We were all happy to see one another, and I was happy to be part of an organization run so well that the local people see it as a reliable, useful resource. If you’re in Luang Prabang, I recommend making volunteering at Big Brother Mouse part of your itinerary.

I’m Off to Live with the Elephants

Dearest fellow travelers, I’m spending the week in the jungle, living with elephants. I’m volunteering as a general helper at the Elephant Nature Park, a rescue and conservation reserve located an hour’s drive outside of Chiang Mai. I’ll be feeding them, bathing them, and scooping up their poop. I’ll be doing various odd jobs like cutting down corn with a machete and laying in foundations for new buildings. I know, me, with the animals and the physical labor. Who’d have thought?

elephants in the jungle

At the Elephant Nature Park

I am very nervous about being able to keep up and be useful, especially after reading this account of how hard the work is. But I think it’s time to do something tangibly helpful on this trip (it’ll be my first volunteer gig), and it also seems sort of magical, to live in close quarters with these gentle giants. (Not so gentle if you annoy them, as my friend Mindy is quick to point out–no matter how domesticated they may be, they are at heart wild animals, so tread carefully.)

My friend Hannah visited me here in Chiang Mai last week, and she went to the ENP on a day trip. She said it was amazing, beautiful, etc., and while I expect it will be quite different to be literally in the muck, I also expect the close, constant contact might make the whole experience even more meaningful.

Those of you who have donated, thank you so much! You may remember that this is one of the things listed on the Fund This Stowaway page. (Apparently it costs a quarter of a million dollars to feed the elephants each year, never mind all the other costs, so volunteers pay $400 for their week’s stay, and that includes food and lodging). I’m happy to say that your generosity has almost entirely funded this week; I’ll be thinking of you all as I hand-feed the elephants and bathe them in the river.

Just because I’m leaving town to sleep on a wooden deck with generator-powered electricity, don’t think that’ll make me abandon my New Year’s resolution only two months into the year; I’ve set up posts for the rest of the week so you can catch up a bit on my adventures in New Zealand. I won’t have access to Internet (unlike the rest of my trip, when I haven’t been away from it for more than two days at a time), so apologies if the system holds up some of your comments for approval. I’ll get it all sorted as soon as I’m back to Chiang Mai on March 3rd.

Have a wonderful week!

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ACAM: What to Do in Laos

Where shall I go and what shall I do in Laos? Here are some ideas; please add your own in the comments!

The literacy mouse of Laos

Volunteer at Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang
Big Brother Mouse is a Lao-owned business with the motto “books that make literacy fun for children in Laos.” They publish books in Lao and deliver them to children all over the country; sometimes these are the first books the children have ever seen. A couple things I really like about this organization: non-Lao people contribute to it, but it’s owned and run by people from Laos who want to improve literacy in their own country, not just foreigners who want to import their own ideas; along those same lines, while they publish some public domain books in English, their main focus is publishing in Lao so that children grow up reading their own language; and as you can see in their motto, they present reading as a fun pastime, not just another form of schoolwork. You can donate money to help fund publishing (you can see how trustworthy they are here). You can also drop by their bookstore in Luang Prabang and do some informal English practice with young folks, and that’s what I intend to do when I’m there. (I learned about the program from this post by the niece of a travel blogger I follow.)

Plenty of storage space

Wander the mysterious Plain of Jars
Like Stonehenge or the Pillars of Carnac, the Plain of Jars is a collection of stone objects with some significance lost to the modern age. No one is quite sure who made these jars or why, but various sizes of stone jars are scattered near the town of Phonsavan, and you can pay about a dollar to walk among them and speculate to your heart’s content. Funerary jars? Food containers? Alien practical jokes a la the pyramids? An interesting tourist destination, anyway, that’s for sure.

Golden grace

Visit the temples of Luang Prabang
Because this formerly royal city is a Unesco World Heritage site, trucks and buses are banned from the city center, so it’s retained much of the calm that attracted worshipers and tourists alike. There are over 30 Buddhist temples in town, most of them active, so many orange-robed monks mix in with the crowds of locals and visitors. The daily alms giving ceremony is either not to be missed or overrun with tourists and devoid of meaning, depending on who you ask. I probably lean toward not gawking at ceremonies of the devout, but we’ll see what the situation is when I’m there.

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