Monday, April 19, 2010

The Silent Genocide in Guatemala

Okay, enough about Belgian frites and waffles. Time to get back to the serious stuff.

In between working full-time and my graduate studies, I decided to take a little vacation.

Destination: Guatemala.

In February, I traveled to Guatemala City on my own where I volunteered through the organization, Cross Cultural Solutions. In addition to helping create a computer room for children in a school, I had the opportunity to play with the children while experiencing the culture all in a short week. And with minimal knowledge of Spanish. I was a source of entertainment for the children as I failed miserably at speaking their language.

A week was not enough to absorb the full essence of Guatemala but for what little time I had, it was an amazing experience. The volcanic and mountainous landscape was phenomenal, the people were friendly and warm despite the language barrier and the hospitality of my home-base manager was endearing.

The country has one of the most unequal economic distributions within the western hemisphere according to the World Bank and over fifty percent of the population live in poverty. Guatemala City, its capital, is adorned with vibrant colored buildings that are contrasted with stiff coils of barbed wire and cold steel bars on windows. Antigua, the country's former capital, offers more antiquity with its cobble-stone streets and beautiful churches.

Three of Guatemala's most popular volcanoes: Agua, Fuego and Acatenango

The streets of Antigua

A Mayan woman making traditional coffee

Despite the reality of poverty, I still found myself getting lost in the charm of the people and quickly adjusting to what Guatemalans referred to as "Latin American time" which offered a welcomed break from the rigid precision I am used to in my everyday life here in the States. But just as I found myself easing into Guatemala, I was reminded of the turbulent past the country has had, learning surprising details about a genocide I had never heard about.

I was aware of the Civil War that raged on for over thirty years from 1960-1996 but was clueless to the Mayan genocide that took place during it. As I sat down to hear about the country's history from the guest speaker that came to talk to the volunteers, I was completely caught off guard by the information and testimonies that were presented.

The war, fought between the government and insurgents, was sparked by a military takeover and civil unrest. The Guatemalan military targeted the country's Mayan population, claiming they were an internal enemy with a communist plot to take over the government. Over 200,000 Mayans were killed or disappeared in the conflict with the peak of violence occurring between 1982-1983. The stories of men, women and children being tortured and raped were horrifying.

Despite the atrocities that occurred, it was not until 1999 that the genocide gained attention, when the Commission for Historical Clarification in Guatemala released its report, "Memory of Silence." In the report it was revealed that the United States gave money and training to Guatemalan military who carried out acts of genocide.

President Clinton apologized for the U.S.'s role in the genocide, noting, "We are determined to remember the past but never repeat it." How ironic that five years prior in 1994, history had already repeated itself yet again in Rwanda.

Discrimination against Mayans is still prevalent today in Guatemala. Despite their contributions to the country's rich history, they are still looked upon as inferior people and it is a struggle for them to maintain their indigenous roots and lifestyle.

Below is a video with more in-depth information about the Mayan genocide in Guatemala.

Guatemala - La Cama Massacre from Suneil Singh on Vimeo.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Belgian Frites by Saus

Yes, shame on me, I've been MIA again. It's amazing how much time work and grad school take.

But I digress. And I'm going to get off topic even more. But it's my blog so I can.

I wanted to spread the word about a little endeavor by one of my friends. Coming soon to Boston is Saus, a Belgian street food restaurant specializing in traditional Belgian pommes frites and Belgian waffles with dipping sauces for both. Because I'm a food enthusiast and I'm so proud of the progress my friend and her business partners have made, I wanted to give a shout-out from the virtual rooftop.

Check out their coverage in the Boston Globe and their humorous blog that follows the (mis)adventures of opening a restaurant in Boston.

It's good stuff. And the Boston Globe article talks about their use of social see, my post isn't completely off topic.

If you're in the city, be on the lookout for this place.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Modern Approach to Some Historic Landscapes

Expanding on my previous post about online mapping, I thought I'd share a more lighthearted project.

Google Maps has teamed up with The National Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving historic sites throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland, to provide viewers with virtual tours of some of these countries' preserved locations.

"Trike riders" have peddled around the United Kingdom, documenting 20 historic sites including Corfe Castle in Dorset, Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, Plas Newydd in Wales and Downhill Demesne in Northern Ireland.

While Google Maps has previously only provided street views of roads, this project allows 360-degree views of the UK's iconic landscapes.

This is perhaps my one way to view the rolling hills and centuries-old castles in the UK for now until I get the chance to head back at some point to see everything I didn't get to while I was over there.

I'm not much of a cycler (well, who am I kidding, I'm not one at all) but I'd give it a try if it meant I got to have the full access that these trike riders get.

Now that's a decent gig.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Online Mapping: From Haiti to Kenya

In the recent tragedy that came from the earthquake in Haiti, it is interesting to see the role that technology has played in communication during the chaos that has ensued.

Many, many posts ago, I discussed the online mapping project, Ushahidi, which served as a portal for Kenyans to report the violence that erupted after their presidential elections in December 2007. Since then, Ushahidi has expanded to document crises in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the War on Gaza and violence in Pakistan. Its latest project has been helping those in Haiti.

With phone lines collapsed and many anxious over the fate of their loved ones, Ushahidi teamed up with Digicel, a local mobile phone operator, and established a way for people to send text messages.

Here's how it works:
  • People can send their message to text number 4636 via cell phone or through the Web site
  • The message is then translated by volunteers
  • Once the volunteer finds more information and verifies it, the report is mapped
  • Aid agencies are then able to directly act on the message
Here's a full report from the BBC.

Additionally, online mapping is being utilized to help Kenyans in a different way than Ushahidi once did. In response to the massive droughts from last year which made it increasingly difficult for herdsman to insure their livestock, satellite imagery is making it possible to get insurance. These images can gauge the severity of drought allowing herdsman to receive automatic payment for any losses. This will help replace the expensive process of insurers having to check reported livestock deaths before making any payments.

The potential for online mapping is diverse as seen by the projects mentioned above. If it can already be used in a variety of different ways from communicating during an environmental disaster to creating a more efficient way to earn a living, there will be vast opportunities for this technology to be utilized in even more productive ways as it continues to evolve.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Focus Fail: Confessions From the Distracted

As a former journalism student, I'm embarrassed to even admit to this--I'm horrible at reading the news.

Growing up, I remember watching cartoons and eating my breakfast on the weekends while my parents sat at the kitchen table with our local newspaper spread out in front of them. If they weren't able to read it in the morning, as they often didn't during the week because getting two children ready for school while trying to get to work on time was time-consuming enough, they always made the effort in the evening.

Now both retired, they still sit every morning, reading each news article, discussing them amongst themselves. I noticed while I was visiting them for the holidays how different their habits of absorbing the news are from my own.

I always thought that one day, when I was old(er), I'd be doing the same exact thing because sitting down and reading the news is an adult thing to do. Well, now in my mid-20s, I say with reluctance, that I'm a legitimate adult but I sure don't have the focus that my parents seem to have.

Given I studied journalism during my undergraduate days at Northeastern, I understand the importance of the news and knowing what is going on around you but as the industry has shifted from print to digital, how I receive the news has also affected how I absorb the news.

Let's just say, I'm a bit distracted. And I'd be willing to bet that the rest of my generation may be experiencing some of the same struggles.

I became remotely aware of it within the last couple of months. Specifically, when I was reading an article about Sudan on the New York Times Web site and my eyes happened to stray away from the text to catch a teaser about traditional food for Rosh Hashanah (I'm a bit of a food enthusiast). I immediately clicked on the link to that article and soon forgot about Sudan.

Because the digital age of online journalism and social media offer so many options for obtaining news, I tend to feel a bit of information overload. Web pages are riddled with advertisements and links galore tempting readers with instant gratification for anything that grabs their attention. I never seem to have enough will power to resist those temptations and just finish the article I originally started reading.

In other instances, I have been in the middle of reading an article online, only to become distracted by another thought that I instantly feel the need to exlpore by searching on Google. Instant gratification at its best yet again.

It is not to say that the interest is not there--it is, unfortunately, a short attention span that seems to be the culprit. Information is coming at us in all directions and for me, the news has become a mish-mosh of scattered headlines that give me just enough information to have a general idea of what is going on in the world. My main source of news is through the Internet, whether it is browsing headlines on different news sites or through random items posted on Facebook and I can't help but wonder if my abundant sources for information have left me over-saturated, dwindling my patience for in-depth news.

I find this disheartening, considering my previous studies and my current studies in global and international affairs but I figure the first step to overcoming such obstacles is confronting them.

I've managed to stay informed on current events despite my failure to focus--just not to the extent that I should. So as the new year has come upon us, I guess if I had to make any type of resolution, it would be to train myself to be a bit more patient and shift away from my current distracted mentality.

Perhaps I'll take a note or two from my parents.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

With Blogging Comes Responsibility: New FTC Advertising Guidelines

Yes, it's been a while. Over three months since I've written anything--although it's not to say I haven't thought of things to discuss. Let's just say I've been slow to act. Between moving into a new apartment during that dreaded September 1 time frame, starting grad school, working full time and yes, I admit, a sheer sense of laziness at times, this endeavor has taken a minor back seat. But I've decided to dive back in, so to my two loyal followers (thanks, mom and dad), sorry for the delay.

Back when I was just "thinking" of topics to potentially discuss, I stumbled across this article from the BBC in October about the tenth anniversary of Blogger which chronicled its evolution from a tool to aid in-house communication to a "personal printing press" for the masses. Interestingly enough, the Boston Globe recently explored how bloggers are now being mandated by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose to readers the acceptance of any free products or payment they've received for writing about an item. As blogs have progressed from their humble beginnings, it appears they may just need to start obliging to some journalistic standards. (The new guidelines also apply to endorsements by celebrities and those on Twitter.)

This has rubbed some bloggers the wrong way, according to the Boston Globe:

Fueling the controversy over the guidelines is the fact that mainstream media such as newspapers and magazines are exempt. Some bloggers are offended by what they perceive as an attack on their ethics. Others acknowledge the problem but chalk it up to a few bad apples.

A whole new can of worms has been opened--especially in terms of defining the role of blogs in journalism. It's clear that blogging has squirmed its way into a respected form of media in many senses and, in other ways, it still remains a tool that has steered clear of journalistic norms and ethics, maintaining its free-spirited, anything goes vibe.

But if you're looking to be heralded as a respectful contributor to media, don't you need to be held up to some respectable standards? It comes with the territory.

And no, this is not an attack on bloggers' ethics. It is exactly the opposite. It is that idea of transparency for consumers which lets them know you have nothing to hide. This is a way of upholding ethics.

During some of my intern days at a consumer public relations agency, we did blogger outreach with some of our products and for the most part, writers made it a point to disclose that the products were given to them to be reviewed and as consumers, shouldn't we all be expecting that? It's not to say that every free product received by bloggers has received rave reviews, but ethically speaking, the danger is there for that to happen if there is a lack of transparency.

This is why media outlets have Codes of Ethics. The New York Times Code of Ethics states:

Staff members and those on assignment for us may not accept anything that could be construed as a payment for favorable coverage or for avoiding unfavorable coverage. They may not accept gifts, tickets, discounts, reimbursements or other benefits from individuals or organizations covered (or likely to be covered) by their newsroom. Gifts should be returned with a polite explanation; perishable gifts may instead be given to charity, also with a note to the donor. In either case the objective of the note is, in all politeness, to discourage future gifts.

PBS' Guidelines states:

Audiences must be able to trust the information in our programs, but that trust could be jeopardized by the appearance of commercialism. At one extreme would be a perception that the program was created primarily to sell the funders' productions and services. Thus, a producer must avoid any arrangement in which an entity is paying for placement of its product or service in the program. If a producer needs to use products associated with the content of the program in the course of making the program, best practice is to cover the names of those products, but if that is not feasible, then the funders products can be used so long as they are treated no better or worse than other brands. The use of particular products in a program to demonstrate a point is an editorial decision. If products are donated, proper recognition belongs in the credits. Nothing in this rule would prevent the appearance of products in the course of reporting a story about the products themselves, nor would it violate the rule if the product appeared naturally in the course of shooting a location.

Why should bloggers be faced with anything different? Why wouldn't they want these types of guidelines if they want to be taken seriously? This is of course one of the fundamental issues of blogging--a lack of a code of ethics.

But the paradox is that blogs don't have a code of ethics because it is in many ways impossible. While anyone can start a blog, the same ease is not permitted in establishing a media company. Magazines and newspapers are exempt from the new guidelines but they are held accountable through their companies by their code of ethics. This is not a viable set up for the online world of bloggers, where the majority have no one or nothing to hold them accountable. Thus another fundamental issue: how do you enforce such guidelines on the black hole that is the Internet?

That's grounds for a whole new discussion!

Nonetheless, the new FTC guidelines are at least a step in the right direction. Yes, there will be some gray areas that need clarification but you need to start somewhere, right?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sound Off: From the Donor's Perspective

I'm a little irked. I'll tell you why.

For those who live in the city, we're all used to the street teams that organizations use to collect random donations.

Do you have time to save the whales? Polar bears? Or children? Or what about stopping global warming?

You know the routine and when you see them on the street wearing their t-shirts and grasping their clipboards, you avoid all eye contact, play with your phone, anything to divert their attention from you.

For the most part I'm guilty as charged when it comes to avoiding these fundraising attempts but recently I caved in. Walking down Huntington Avenue, a notorious spot for street teams to linger, I stopped. Why, I'm still not sure, but the important thing is, I did.

After being pressured to make a donation to sponsor a...well, for all intensive purposes of keeping this organization anonymous, let's say I was pressured to sponsor something ridiculous like a computer...I insisted that I don't have the funds to make such a commitment, which is the truth. As much as I wanted to save the, uh "computers," I just couldn't commit but I was happy to make a one-time donation.

While I don't regret giving to a good cause, I'm a bit peeved with the treatment of donors by these street teams. I was barely thanked for my donation. It appeared that because I wasn't going to make a long-term commitment, my donation wasn't really good enough but they would take it anyway. In fact, I even had to repeat several times that I was willing to give some money as he kept badgering me to sponsor a "computer." I was about ready to withdraw my offer and leave him with nothing.

My story doesn't end here.

Over the next two weeks, as I walked down Huntington Avenue like I do every day, this same organization hounded me for more money on three separate occasions. I even ran into the guy to whom I originally gave my donation. I responded politely that I had already given money to them. Rather than receiving a "thank you" he said, "Great! Now you can sponsor a [computer]!" This happened with each run-in I had until finally, one woman said, "thank you."

That's all I needed. My anger has subsided...a little.

It is one thing to follow up with donors to see if they would be interested in continuing their support. This is absolutely necessary in nonprofit development and it was an appropriate question to ask me when they attempted to stop me. But it is another thing to completely disregard a donor's initial support and pressure them into more without even an inkling of gratitude.

It's all about the execution. Donors want to feel appreciated. It doesn't mean a song and a dance over how great they are for forking over some cash. It is simple recognition that the donor has given what they are capable of giving and no matter how small the amount, it is helpful to the organization.

If my money isn't making a difference, why donate?

I take into consideration that the response, "I've already donated," is probably heard on a frequent enough basis by street teams, if they even get a response at all, and the possibility that it is an outright lie people tell to be left alone is high. Fair enough. But that is the risk that is taken when using this type of fundraising technique. Therefore, the golden rule should be to thank every person that offers such a response because sometimes it is the truth and it is a bigger risk to irritate donors.

So, to the woman who actually thanked me for the donation I made, I thank her for her gratitude.

I'm ready to step off of my soapbox now.