Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Uniting for change

Last Thursday, I spoke at the University of Alabama at the School of Social Work. As I gave my noontime talk, Mexico City’s Zócalo was being prepared for the convergence of three huge marches in support of the 43 missing students from the Rural Teachers’ School in Ayotzinapa. I made ‘understanding’ the topic of my talk.

I explained to the students that Mexicans have the right to demonstrate peacefully in public places without the need for any type of permit. This is a coveted and frequently exercised right that springs from the 1917 Constitution. In sharp contrast, U.S. law requires permits for any large gathering.

I told the students that what was unusual about the recent demonstrations is that many sectors of society are coming together in solidarity with the plight of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa. Much of the organizing is happening at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). This is where many middle class students study. Students from wealthy families who attend private universities are also joining the fray.

And they are protesting in support of poor, rural students. Rural teachers schools such as Ayotzinapa are where students from poor families can receive an education sufficient to obtain a teaching position.

Neither UNAM nor the college in Ayotzinapa charge tuition. But you don’t see a lot of students from poor families at UNAM because only people with sufficient family support can pay the other expenses tied into a college education – textbooks, food, lodging and transportation. In Ayotzinapa, students from poor families figure out how to make do with what they have.

Last week the University of Alabama’s stunningly beautiful campus of elegant colonial architecture modeled on Jeffersonian design was being readied for its homecoming game. A tower of lumber was in place in the center of the quad for a bonfire. Tradition dictates it be lit after the Friday night pep rally.

After the talk I walked around the corner from Little Hall with Ellen Csikai, PhD, the host of my visit. We stepped into Malone-Hood Plaza in front of Foster Auditorium and gazed at the Autherine Lucy Clock Tower.

This is the site where actions by college students had a profound impact on society during the Civil Rights movement. Autherine Lucy was the first African-American to attend the University of Alabama. She enrolled in 1956 and was suspended three days later because of campus unrest.
Vivian Malone and James Hood were on their way into Foster Auditorium in 1963 to register for classes when Governor George Wallace blocked the doorway. To get them through, President Kennedy “federalized” the Alabama National Guard, who persuaded Governor Wallace to get out of the way.

Bronze plaques commemorating the first three African-American students flank the new clock tower. The open doors in the tower are in invitation to all who seek to enter – a fitting tribute to a tense but peaceful step on the path towards justice.

The 1960s U.S. Civil Rights movement has much in common with happenings in Mexico today. To be successful, the movement required the participation of not just the oppressed but those of goodwill with commitment to social justice.

Beginning in 1961, Freedom Riders, young white men and women from all over the United States, courageously traveled to the segregated south to work with African American men and women. They helped register voters and integrate transportation, public restrooms and eating establishments.

Too young to join the Freedom Riders, I used a shortwave radio to follow their progress as best I could from my home. Last Thursday I, and much of the world, followed Mexico’s demonstrations by smartphone.

Technologically, much has changed in the intervening years and so has the University of Alabama – now 12 percent black. Together blacks, whites, Asian, Native American and Hispanic students celebrated homecoming (they won!); and hopefully my talk added to their understanding of their Southern neighbor.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The art and history of the gourd

When I leave my house, the last thing I tuck into my backpack is my water bottle. It is blue and shiny and accompanies me everywhere. Mine is double-walled and keeps cold beverages cold and hot drinks hot for hours on end. I think it is a marvel. But really it is just the latest in a long line of portable drinking vessels that stretch back to the humble gourd.

We take containers for granted. The plastic throwaway water bottles that you see everywhere are proof. But without a way to carry water, we’d be tied to our water source and unable to move around freely.

Humanity’s earliest containers were not man-made. They were provided by nature. They grew on trees as gourds or on vines as bottle-gourds. The bottle-gourd as a container became an essential piece of “luggage” on early migrations. With them hunters and gatherers could extend how far they traveled in search of food.

Jared Diamond, in the epic Guns, Germs and Steel, tells us bottle-gourds were one of the “earliest cultivated plants and grown primarily for their value as containers.”  Their hour-glass shape makes it easy to tie a strap around them and a small aperture at the top can be sealed with a corn cob or cork, providing for hands-free carrying.  Not only is a gourd reusable but it keeps water fresh and cool far better than a plastic bottle.

Hollow gourds that grow on vines are native to Asia and Africa and have been used on five of the continents as water bottles for millennia.  Only aboriginal Australians didn’t have gourds.

The oldest carbon-dated water bottle was found in Peru and is over 13,000 years old. Scientists and anthropologists have long debated how gourds found their way to this hemisphere.  Since gourds float and seeds sealed inside can survive for 200 days, it was long suspected that they floated across oceans. After years of science and DNA testing we now know that the first gourds of the Americas were carried here from Asia by the first undocumented immigrants.

Genetic research on archeological samples, published in 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences, suggests the bottle gourd may have been domesticated earlier than food crops and livestock and, like dogs, brought into the Americas at the end of the ice age.

As hunter-gatherers evolved into farmers, gourd containers were used for storage of grains and gathered food, as well as dishes. They were even used as pots and pans. 

And they make great art. Go to a folk art museum and you’ll see that some of Mexico’s most beautiful artisan work is created on gourds.

I watch for an unusual looking tree, the Crescentia Alata, on my drives to Taxco, Guerrero. It’s known in Mexico as a “jicaro” tree and in English as the gourd tree. It’s easy to spot the jicaro tree because it has disproportionately tiny leaves growing directly along the entire length of its many branches. Only the female trees bear fruit and without a nearby male tree they cannot produce.
Though the cannonball-shaped fruit is too bitter for human consumption, its outer shell makes an excellent container.  When cut in half the jicaro fruit becomes two bowls.

So how do you cook in a thin gourd without catching it on fire?  Recently I ate at an elegant Mexico City restaurant where we were served pre-Hispanic dishes.  My curiosity piqued, I ordered “stone soup.”  A gourd bowl filled with a number of raw ingredients was placed before me, broth was added and then two fire-hot smooth river-stones were added to the mix.  Within seconds the soup was boiling and remained boiling for minutes.  When the boiling stopped the stones were removed and I was treated to a unique, delicious, and memorable dish.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A billionaire’s view on inequality

It’s not often that you hear a billionaire join a conversation about income inequality. But that’s what happened last Saturday in Puebla at the City of Ideas festival. While liberal economist Robert Reich debated with conservative Stephen Moore about how much wealth was enough, Ricardo Salinas Pliego stood up from the audience to speak. “I’m a billionaire.  I’m qualified to answer,” he said.

At the beginning of the presentation Reich had told us that the assets held by the 400 wealthiest people in the United States equals that of the poorest 150 million.  Or more dramatically, the world’s 85 wealthiest people own as much as the poorest 3.5 billion!

Reich went on, “How much do people at the top need as incentive?  Forty years ago U.S. Fortune 500 corporation CEOs earned 20 times the salary of their average worker.  Today they earn 290 times the earnings of their average worker!  How much is enough?”

Stephen Moore maintained, “It’s a decision to be made by shareholders not the government.”
That’s when Salinas stepped into the foray. He is the chairman of Grupo Salinas and Grupo Elektra and listed by Forbes as the 126th wealthiest person in the world, worth $9.9 billion. “How much is enough to create a new company, to create new jobs, to make new investments, to take on new risks?”

“People should have an incentive to do things.  Now, people who criticize extremely rich people like me probably don’t have the experience. You cannot eat more--bad for your belly.  You can’t drink more--bad for your mind.  There are lots of things that are limited.”

He continued, “This wealth isn’t like you have it in your checkbook and you pull it out.  It’s in the form of assets.  To sell the assets you’d first have to find someone interested in buying them.  Then you’d have to pay lots of taxes.  And then what would you do with it?  You loan it to the government.  These days that’s what you do – at a ridiculously low rate.  So the whole concept of wealth is something most people don’t understand because they don’t have these amounts.”

“I can sincerely tell you, it is all about investments.  I just sold a company yesterday for $2.5 billion. Now, if we get a tax hit and I end up with $500 million I’m still going to invest it.  But the other money is going to go into government coffers to no effect.”

Reich replied: “Where do we get the resources to provide good education and good health care for everyone? We are in a system where the wealth is going to the top. So that’s where you get the resources to finance the education at the bottom.  It’s just logic.”

Reich continued “unless you have a growing middle class you don’t have the purchasing power to keep the economy growing.  In the United States we have so much money going to the top that the middle and lower classes no longer have the purchasing power to basically get the economy out of first gear.”

Salinas challenged the two U.S. citizens. “You gentlemen mentioned some very good policies but you didn’t touch on a key point of which I need to remind you.  You Americans have this misnomer called the Defense Department.  It’s not the Defense Department-- it’s the War Department waging war all over the damn world and spending trillions of dollars, money we can’t even contemplate, on bombing people somewhere else.  Why don’t you cut the war spending?”

Robert Reich looked at Ricardo Salinas and said “I’m nominating you for Secretary of the Defense Department.”

Salinas answered, “War Department.  If you change the name I’ll take it.”

Reich replied: “If you can get defense spending down, and you can transfer it to education and healthcare in the U.S., that would be great.”

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A city of ideas

An extraordinary learning festival will be held November 6-8 at the Cultural Center of Puebla’s Benemérita Autonomous University.  3500 people will gather for a fast-paced exchange of ideas. Selected from all over the world, 70 speakers will each have 14 minutes to present on diverse topics from the fields of medicine, science, law, education, the arts, economics, gender issues, and politics.        

This event, the Seventh City of Ideas Conference, is titled “Change the World.”  In their invitation to participate, conference director Andres Roemer and co-creator Ricardo Salinas Pliego of TV Azteca, suggest each individual can effect change.  “Don’t underestimate the power of the beating of the monarch butterflies wings in Michoacan to generate a tsunami in Tokyo.”

I was fortunate to attend last year when the topic was “Dangerous Ideas.” I witnessed a spirited debate on the existence of God between Deepak Chopra and Richard Dawkins.  I was moved by Sanjit “Bunker” Roy talking about his Barefoot College – an educational concept that has successfully trained illiterate grandmothers to become solar electricity engineers, able to electrify their poor and remote villages with solar panels they have learned to both manufacture and maintain. 

I was thrilled to hear a world-wide choir of 7,000 people all singing the same song as the camera moved from nation to nation.

This year’s presenters include economist, author and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and Canadian Nicole Ticea, the creator of a new HIV testing process.

Tickets for the City of Ideas Conference are being sold on a waiting-list basis. However you can register and watch online in real time at www.ciudaddelasideas.com.

Videos of last year’s talks are posted on the same site.  Most are in English with Spanish subtitles.
Dr. Roemer conceived of the City of Ideas as a “Renaissance event, where people come together to discuss ideas and to network on how one can effect change in the world.”

Leonardo Da Vinci was the ultimate Renaissance man.  During the Renaissance it was possible for one person to possess wide-ranging knowledge. Now the world is complex and areas of knowledge highly specialized.

The City of Ideas wants to create a new population of Renaissance people. People whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas are known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve problems.  In a world where there is increased specialization of knowledge these people are vanishing breed, yet necessary to confront and solve the challenges facing today’s world.

Conference director Andres Roemer lives in San Francisco, where he is Mexico’s Consul-General. Perched on the Pacific Rim, with the converging influences of distant Asia and close-by Silicon Valley, he says “I’m here in the U.S. in an area where there are some unique business people.  Their ideas are what’s moving the world.”

Roemer looks to the conference sponsors not just for resources, but also for ideas. The conference was co-founded by Mexican entrepreneur Ricardo Salinas Pliego, who he called a “curator” of ideas. They look to participants from both the private sector and government for ideas.

Roemer added, “This is a festival of science where more importantly than what is said you learn how to think.  The purpose is to become questioners.  How do we empower social as well as individual prosperity?”

I asked Dr. Roemer why, since Mexico revolves around its capital, Mexico City, Puebla was chosen as the site for the City of Ideas.  “For that very reason.  It is important to get away to a retreat-like atmosphere where participants will not only attend but bond and network with one another during breaks, share their own ideas.  Puebla is a World Heritage Site, has one of the best Conference Centers in Mexico and the necessary infrastructure to support the City of Ideas.”
Indeed I was thoroughly impressed last year with the first-rate installation operated by the University of Puebla.

Change the World’s mission makes me think of the phrase attributed to Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  Is it a bit too much to bring him into a meeting sponsored by wealthy business people?  Maybe it’s exactly what needs to be done.  Sanjit “Bunker” Roy certainly got a thundering applause at last year’s meeting when he described illiterate grandmothers becoming solar power engineers.