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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

I Am Malala and We Have Some Work to Do

I would run to rejoin the children. Especially when it was time for the kite-flying contests- where the boys would skilfully try to cut down their competitors' kite strings. It plunges. It was beautiful, and also a bit melancholy for me to see the pretty kites sputter to the ground.
Maybe it was because I could see a future that would be cut down just like those kites- simply because I was a girl. - Malala Yousafzai, I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World

For about ten years I lived in a small town just outside of Logan, UT while I went to college and later got a real job and bought a real house. It's a beautiful area and I often miss it and wish I could have stayed, but such a thing was not in the cards. Nowadays I go back two times a year. We do a ski trip every winter, and I go to an environmental restoration conference on campus.

It's the second one I want to talk about because I'm not quite ready for snow yet (though I desperately want a lot of it, just piles of it, to come eventually--just not yet) and because it's fresh in my head since I just got back. I knew I'd written about this kind of thing in the past, and not-coincidentally I had a very similar reaction last time, too. Yes. This is another Howie's Optimism Club post.

See, I really needed it. Just under a year ago a lot of us had to do some soul-searching about the state of our country. I don't know why it isn't all of us. I'm just shrugging my dang shoulders over here. The simple fact I have to face is that there are people, a huge amount of people, in this country who are so fundamentally different to me as to throw out everything I thought I knew about people. 

This isn't a new insight. I remember as a kid around Halloween that Nick at Night was having a telephone poll where people would call in and say whether they preferred The Addams Family or The Munsters. Did they prefer a frankly revolutionary show about an iconoclastic family that was profoundly bizarre but still loving and supportive and fiercely, fiercely loyal to one another, or would they rather watch another bland sitcom where all the jokes are the same but the people dress like monsters? Reader, The Munsters won that contest. That's when I should have figured this out.

I just saw a picture of a cute little boy dressed up as Ezekial Elliott for Halloween. He was too little to have chosen the costume himself, I think, and I had to wonder why someone would dress up their child to look like a guy who is just about to (finally, I hope) serve a six-game suspension for beating his girlfriend. The reality is that his family are Cowboys fans, and Zeke is playing great football so they love him. They're willing to forgive a man who repeatedly choked, hit, and dragged a woman because he's on their team. Even still it's hard to wrap my head around. A guy's a dillweed regardless of what uniform he's wearing or which political party he represents.

There is so much about the political differences in this country that make a lot of sense to me. It really is a completely different country for different groups of people. I keep reading articles and books by liberal reporters from blue states embedding themselves in Republican strongholds and coming back so amazed that there are people in there. They go to a church and people there are raising money for refugees and they can't believe that they aren't all dressed in camouflage and confederate flags and literally devouring them instead. Wait, these astonished voyagers in enemy territory seem to say, why is there a library here if nobody knows how to read?

That's never been my problem. All my life I've been embedded in one of the most predictably Republican states in the country in the reddest counties in that state. It's not like I've never heard the argument for trickle-down economics, or for government deregulation, or privatizing public land or abortion or traditional marriage or whatever. I see nice families at the park or parades and have no problem sharing a space with someone who disagrees with me about taxes vs. entitlements or how many green cards we should issue every year.

What surprises me is the continued support of someone who has the temperament and professional acumen of a third grader and the xenophobia, racism, and staggering ignorance of the bad guy opposing coach of a sports movie in which black players are finally allowed to participate. I get that some people thought Obama was a cartoonish villain whose whole goal was to institute Sharia law and create a liberal haven in which the only way to get a job was to be gay and undocumented, but a lot of people just hated his policies. I can live with that. If Ted Cruz had won, I'd be angry every day too, I bet. Maybe angrier because he wouldn't be undermining everything he tries to do with tweets and off-the-cuff speeches picking fights with football players and therefore would actually be passing laws.

This new thing I just don't get, though. I mean, I understand it because we've seen and are seeing it over and over all over the world, but each time it feels like a horror movie where the protagonists consistently make the wrong decisions. It's discouraging and depressing and it makes it hard to get up in the morning. Maybe it's narcissistic but I keep going back to my own words and reminding myself that I need to be consistent. Two years ago I was frustrated by doomsday preppers within my community who were predicting the end of the world because we had a Democrat as president. At the time this is what I said:
Each day the great blackjack dealer in the sky says to us, "Place your bets, gentlemen," and we do. Some of us bet on calamity. We burrow into our basements with ammunition and dry food and prophecies of doom and gloom. We hoard our resources and we dare our neighbors who we have previously been told that we are to love as ourselves to even try to come and get them as we polish our guns. In essence, we spend all of our free time soaking up resources and give nothing back. It's us against the world and what has the world ever done for us? 
Those guys I can take or leave. I like the optimists. The ones who bet on the future. I cried three times watching Inside Out. A Pixar movie takes somewhere between four and seven years to make and costs from $175 to $245 million to make. The company employs around 1,200 people. That's a pretty steep bet. Of course, it made almost a billion dollars back and taught kids that their emotions are not their enemies. That growing up has some sad in it but that the sad can actually be pretty important. It said that it's not wrong to be down in the dumps sometimes but overall there are lots of exciting things in the world.

Great people make great things. They invent computers and smart phones. The build massive bridges. They create theme parks, and gorgeous religious buildings. They save and rehabilitate national parks. They spend their lives protecting endangered species, or restoring rivers, or planting trees. There is no bolder bet on the future than planting a tree. People who bet on the future travel to Haiti to help rebuild a broken city. They create vaccines. They paddle around the flooded streets of New Orleans to pull elderly people off of their roofs. They take seven bullets while blocking a gunman at a university. They do this because they don't know if we'll survive as a society, but they sure hope so
So. Against my instincts every time I open a newspaper or read the day's headlines on my phone, I refuse to fall into the same trap. If those things were true last year they still are. I can disagree with the president and shake my head in bemusement every time he stares at the sun during an eclipse or retweets a white supremacy group or tells kids they can have candy on Halloween because they aren't too fat yet and can't tell two blonde reporters apart. I can also feel my heart break for refugees who were approved to come to the United States after a grueling vetting process and then had that approval revoked. I can do all of that and still have hope for the future.

Here's why: when I go to conferences I see professors and grad students and land managers gather together and figure out what we can do to fix the messes that we are in. Even with a president--their boss--who denies climate change and a secretary of the interior who is actively gutting federal agencies of climate change scientists, the actual managers of the land are using the most accurate science available to them to make decisions that are best for their forests. And including climate change in their models. And there are grassroots organizations helping them. Citizen scientists pick up some of the slack from slashed federal budgets; native tribes gather their elders and their scientists to advise on how to restore ecosystems to match historic records; rural land users partner with federal biologists to improve their own land.

People wake up every day and in tiny ways keep on trying to save the world. Are there enough? I don't know. Is it the equivalent of a little kid trying to stop a wave from crashing onto the beach by stretching her arms out really wide? Are the plants I plant for my job vastly outnumbered by the ones being replaced by housing developments and tech companies and highways? Is our annual refugee sponsorship helping one family while thousands more suffer in under-staffed and under-resourced camps all over the world? Probably. I think we can win, but in the words of George Washington in Hamilton, "Not yet."

There's hope in that "yet."

There's also hope in Malala Yousafzai's I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World. Similar to Marjane Satrapi describing the takeover of Muslim fundamentalists in Iran in Persepolis, Malala tells the story of the Swat District in Pakistan as it undergoes a Taliban takeover started by a conservative cleric whose illegal radio show started an internal revolution.


Like with so many stories of people who have watched an ideological fanatic take power, it happens gradually. For Malala, who is 11 when it begins, it all starts with her education. Her father runs a school for girls, and she treasures her education. In a country where it's traditional that girls are married at 12 and education is at best ignored and at worst preached against outright, she recognizes how unique her situation is, and is grateful for a family that values school.

As the Taliban gains converts and supporters, girls' schools are one of their first targets. Why waste money on education when they're just going to be housewives anyway? They pressure the parents of students to pull their girls from school, then threaten them. Then schools start to be bombed or burned. Some are attacked by Taliban fighters, but others are burned by locals after being whipped up in a frenzy after listening to the radio. The Taliban uses natural disasters like earthquakes and floods, telling locals that they are punishments for straying from "true" Islam.

There is fighting in the streets. Machine gun fire, suicide bombers, and IEDs become so commonplace that they start to feel normal. Malala's family can sleep through them. And Malala and her friends are still going to school. Then she starts to speak up. She's interviewed by local news, writes a blog for the BBC under a pseudonym, then is followed by a documentary crew. The Taliban gets driven out of her district, but they fight in secret. People start disappearing, police officers and soldiers are publicly executed. And then one day after school two men board her school bus, ask which one is Malala, and shoot her in the head.

You guys know this part. Miraculously, she lives. Here's a moment that I won't forget. It's right after the Charleston church shooting and we are mourning. Jon Stewart has no jokes. Instead, he introduces Malala Yousafzai. "Her perseverance and determination through that, to continue on, is an incredible inspiration,” he says. “And to be quite honest with you, I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world I would rather talk to tonight than Malala. So that’s what we’re going to do. And sorry about no jokes."

During their interview, she says, "Sometimes we wait for others and think that a Martin Luther [King Jr.] should raise among us, a Nelson Mandela should raise among us and speak up for us. But we never realize that they are normal humans like us, and if we step forward, we can also bring change—just like them." This echoes another Malala quote: "If one man can destroy everything, why can't one girl change it?"

Stewart finishes with this: "I have to tell you that you are a wonderful tonic. I felt somewhat despairing today, but I think your single-mindedness has helped lift a bit of that fog for me, and I really thank you for that, even though it is not your responsibility to do that."

Now. Mr. Rogers could read the Applebees menu and I would cry (mostly because of the sodium content), but I'll be darned if this doesn't get me every time.



You see this quote come up every time something horrible happens, and yeah, it doesn't fix things. It doesn't change laws that might make it more difficult for people with a history of domestic violence to have guns, it doesn't do anything to stop the spread of terrorism--both domestic and otherwise--from taking root in the United States. And it doesn't magically solve racism. But it's still true. It is, as Stewart says, a tonic. There are still helpers. There's no reason it can't be us.

I have a tendency to end these posts with a kind of generic "you can do it, too" stinger, mainly because I have such a hard time coming up with endings. This time, I'll tell you how. Girls' education has massive benefits to the world, including drops in infant mortality, increases in child health and nutrition, and a more informed electorate. Educated women are more likely to stand up for their rights, reducing child marriages and abuse. And they are more likely to raise educated daughters who are even more likely to stand up for themselves and be politically active.

You can support The Malala Fund here. The Malala fund is dedicated to providing a 12-year education to every girl in the world.
The International Rescue Committee helps settle refugees in the United States, three-quarters of whom are women and children. Find out more here.
If you're like me and can rarely help financially, consider volunteering. You can volunteer with the IRC. Also VolunteerMatch and JustServe are great resources pairing volunteers with opportunities. A glance at the JustServe page shows multiple tutoring and mentoring opportunities at schools in my community. I bet they have some in yours, too.


The version of I Am Malala that I read is the "Young Reader Edition" that my daughter's teacher kindly lent me. I didn't know there were two versions, but apparently they are different books. According to at least one blogger, the Young Reader Edition is preferable because it "sounds more like the Malala we hear in her speeches."  You can find a better explanation of the differences at that link. I've decided to stick with this one because it's the one my daughters will probably read and I want to be able to talk with them about it.