Exploring the Travesti Community in Argentina

By Sofia Knutson

 

In Argentina, the term travesti is used to refer to transgender individuals. This essay will therefore use the term travesti referring to transgender individuals in Argentina. The discourse regarding sex, sex category, and gender is based on the essay “Doing Gender” (West and Zimmerman 1987). In this essay, sex is defined as the socially approved, biological markers of sex which typically refers to genitalia. The sex category is the sex assumed by others based on actions and other socially gendered displays an individual may have. Gender, on the other hand, is based on the individual’s adoption or rejection of actions and displays, defined by society via the sex category, due to the feeling or desire of being more or less masculine and feminine (West and Zimmerman 1987). The analysis of policy, media, and the travesti community is grounded on the essay by West and Zimmerman. However within the analysis I keep in mind that the travestis in Argentina do not necessarily abide by the local social constructions of sex, gender, and sex category; travestis live in a gray area between male and female and between masculine and feminine. While the evidence for this essay unfortunately does not come from direct interaction with travestis in Buenos Aires, all news articles discussed were published in Argentina. Along with having personal experience of living outside of Buenos Aires for three years, my analysis of the travesti community in the Argentine capital strives to be sensitive and particular to Argentine people and culture.

Understanding the Argentine, and specifically the Bonarenses, sociopolitical space for travestis requires the knowledge of the geographical space travestis occupy. At least for a living, the travesti prostitutes do business in the popular park Tres de Febrero. However this has only been the case since 2008 when the Head of Government of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, decreed that travestis perform their business in the park rather than the famous Rosedal, the capital’s rose gardens (Tomino 2008). While moving the travestis out of the Rosedal reveals prejudice, seeing as the Rosedal is not only in the area most embassies are, but is across from the United States’ Ambassador’s residence, the fact that Macri allotted a popular park as the space for the prostitutes’ economic activities sanctioned the travestis a geographical area. Furthermore, the political action allotted a space within the political sphere for travestis to be discussed. Luckily, the room given for political rhetoric revolving the travesti community in Argentina has progressed to be more accepting of the individuals and their rights.

Argentina can be seen as one of the most liberal countries in the world when assessing the rights endorsed by the government and population granted to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans*, and Queer (LGBTQ) communities. Since 2010 the city of Buenos Aires has allowed same-sex marriage and, as of May 2012, the city passed the Gender Identity law permitting Argentine citizens to legally change their gender regardless of sex. One of the most exciting components of the law is that there are no requirements for an individual seeking to change their gender legally to make physical changes to their bodies: there is no need for doctors to ensure mental sanity, hormone therapy treatment, or sex reassignment surgery. The Gender Identity law is the only one in the world which allows individuals to assert their gender and sex category based purely on how they feel. The law even permits children, those under the age of eighteen, to legally change their gender given that their legal guardians agree (Argentina 2012).

Yet what happens when an individual does not adhere to the normative gender binary? What do you do if you are living in between the hegemonic distinction of male and female? The Gender Identity law does not approach this problem, but also does not give a definition of gender or different genders. The Gender Identity law does allow travestis to legally adopt the name they go by and gender the individuals feel most comfortable with, but this means travestis must conform to gender normatives instead of having a law conforming to individuals outside of the socially defined norm. The Gender Identity law is a success for the LGBT community, then, and allows space for the travesti community.

A look at newspapers shows interest and understanding of the travesti community, but also reveals how strongly violence is correlated with the travesti community. There is an article which mentions violence surrounding travestis when it covers the rape of a young travesti in Buenos Aires (“Violan a un travesti en los bosques de Palermo” 2006). This article was published before legislation recognizing the rights of travesti individuals, but while referring to travestis with a male article, “un,” the article also defends the rights of the travesti individual to not be raped.

One article from a different national newspaper and that takes place in Buenos Aires narrated the story of Marilyn. The headline reads “Mató a su familia, se hizo travesti en la cárcel y se casó”—which translates to “Killed their family, became a travesti in jail, and got married”—without gender identification which is typically found in the Spanish language. When describing the circumstances as to why Marilyn had killed her mother and brother, the article refers to how the family “comenzaron a hostigarlo” and “lo molestaban”—they harassed and bothered him—using references to his masculinity, at least when describing the time before his ‘conversion.’ However, when the article is describing how excited Marilyn is to plan the wedding, she is referred to using feminine language (“Mató a su familia, se hizo travesti en la cárcel y se casó” 2013). While this article appears to be respecting the fact that Marilyn is a travesti, it also highlights that she murdered her family. This article from Buenos Aires, then, reveals how media portrayals, while still associating the travesti with violence, can also keep in consideration the right of Marilyn to affirm her identity as a travesti.

Existing in the gray area between the gender binary makes life difficult for travestis from an economic standpoint as well as a political one. Prejudice, oppression, and discrimination lead to the inability to attain a job as a travesti. Prostitution and other activities parallel to the formal market, and therefore typically illegal, are the easiest ways for individuals and communities who are marginalized to survive. In 2011, an article was published in the newspaper Clarín describing the Zona Roja or Red Light District of the Tres de Febrero park in Palermo (Coronel 2011). The article described how the travesti prostitute community had come together. While Coronel claims that the marginalization of foriegners was visible due to their location in the back of the park, he also revealed that, regardless of nationality or other conflicts, when a travesti is being accosted the travestis forget their differences and come to the victim’s aid. While both foreign and new travestis must earn their geographical area to do business, “where there is a novice there is another with more experience. Always. The bigger ones protect and show the code of practice” (Coronel 2011). Prostitution, then, while dangerous and likely not the ideal economic activity off which to base one’s survival, is a major way travestis are able to form a community. But the desire for other forms of making a living have led to the creation of social support and networking to gain access to human capital.

Since 2008, when the city of Buenos Aires sanctioned the popular Tres de Febrero Park which, during the day, has runners, cyclists, dog walkers, and families, to be the center of travesti prostitution at night, the geographical space allotted to the travestis also allowed for a space in political discourse. Argentina has since become one of, if not the most, liberal countries with regards to government endorsement of rights for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans*, and Queer communities. Progressive political and legal advocacy for LGBTQ rights has also translated into the progressive acceptance of the LGBTQ community in media and thus society. While certain sectors of society criticize travestis, even more conservative critics are concerned with the vice of prostitution and the ills the act causes rather than upset with the travesti community. While prostitution has helped create a community for travestis out of the need to protect each other from stigmatization or to show each other the ropes, other economic activities have been sought out.

While the economic sector might need to catch up with legislation and society, Argentina still proves to be a model for countries looking to endorse the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans*, and Queer communities.

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Sueños Sin Fronteras

By Alex Perez

 

If I had listened to those voices telling me over and over again that I wouldn’t have made it past high school, I wouldn’t be the strong and determined individual I am today. After high school, many have the opportunity to succeed in life, and a college education is a seemingly easy route to success. Even though there is no way to measure the percentage of undocumented immigrants that pursue a college degree, different sources state that less than 5% will get a bachelor’s degree. Once undocumented students finish high school, major road blacks are put in their way since they are prohibited from obtaining federal loans, only 14 states provide in-state tuition for these students, and some universities in Georgia and Arizona prohibit undocumented immigrants from enrolling in their schools.

Currently I go to George Fox University on a full-ride scholarship that was awarded to me based on a combination of my academic and leadership achievements. Out of over 400 students in my junior year, I am the only undocumented student. I wear this status like a badge of honor and am the only student on campus who is open from a handful of DREAMers. Fear of humiliation, rejection, and deportation are some of the factors that keep DREAMers in the shadows about their status, but this is a fear I have learned to let go of. Once a face and name is put on a social issue, they make the situation more tangible and real. I cannot vote for legislators that can advocate for my rights, but by being open about my status and being a positive contribution to my community they will hear my voice. Over the last few years DREAMers have started to fight for their rights, and the light is beginning to shine.

The tides are beginning to turn for undocumented students like myself and over 1.4 million immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, including many who have limited memory of foreign lands they used to call home. President Barack Obama put out an executive order mid-June of 2011 called DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). This means individuals who were brought as children to the US, are continuing their education, and have a good criminal record can be authorized temporary protective status (not having to fear deportation) and obtain work permits.

I could have mentioned all the different troubles that being an undocumented immigrant has brought, but the positives are currently outshining the negatives.  Soon I will be completing my college education, and with a work permit, will be able to give back to my community all the blessings that throughout the years have poured into my life. Thanks to DACA I was able to obtain a paid internship last summer, get my first car, and work full-time while getting my bachelor’s.  More importantly, I do not fear deportation while I continue my education. There are individuals who consider me a criminal, outlaw, illegal, etc. for reasons that are not under my control, but deep inside I consider myself an American.

Good Intentions Are Not Enough: On Listening, Fucking Up, and Having Hard Conversations

By Danielle Blechert

Setting up for aftercare at a predominantly white charter school, I overhear a conversation between a white male teacher and black female parent. She asks if the school’s director and teachers would be interested in participating in a conversation on what Portland Public Schools are doing to promote and support diversity. The teacher nods and gives a brief albeit vague comment about how she can get in touch with the director. The parent revisits the idea of having teachers attend and again gets a glossy, quick response from the teacher. He looks uncomfortable. He looks like he doesn’t know how or want to engage in a conversation about diversity and race. As the conversation trails off, he laughs for no apparent reason. I wonder if his laughter is the byproduct of being uncomfortable, a coping mechanism or a micro-aggression. Racial micro-aggressions are defined as, “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of color.” By laughing he asserts his position of power, subtly and maybe unintentionally, saying, “I’m not taking this conversation seriously.”

So, what does it mean to attend a college largely comprised of upper-middle class, white students, be one and call oneself an advocate for social justice? In part, it means redefining what it means to listen, to really listen. Such listening entails shutting up, giving space for anecdotes and potentially uncomfortable subjects. It means refraining from correcting, redefining and relating the conversation back to you.  All too often we respond to a friend’s story with one of our own. While this is well intentioned, an attempt to relate and build empathy, what it really says is “Ok, you told your story; I half-assedly listened; now it’s time to talk about myself and how your story relates to me.” Advocating as a white upper-middle class individual also means you may feel the inclination to speak for and about a group you have no apparent affiliation with. Accordingly, it means you should probably think twice about “helping” another person before assessing whether they actually want or need it.

That being said, as a recent article by Ngc Loan Trn noted, we should make space for fucking up, for making mistakes and respond by “Calling In” folks, as opposed to constantly calling them out. They define Calling In “as a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes; a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal.” Fucking up is a natural by-product of having biases that are deeply rooted in an often racist, sexist and classist society. We have to own up to the fact that our behaviors are habitual, deeply engrained and worthy of scrutiny. Constantly criticizing and monitoring others behavior discourages conversation and puts people on the defense, especially if it comes from the mouth of someone they do not trust or respect. Often, we’re so afraid of saying something wrong, we say nothing at all. Americans may have trouble openly discussing suicide, domestic violence, and race for this very reason. A coworker recently told me, “When opportunity arises to discuss these ‘taboo’ subjects, when you’re feeling uncomfortable, when things get icky, push through because that’s when progress happens.”

So here we go, let’s get icky. Let’s talk about how problematic the phrase “giving voice” is. It implies an inherent lack of voice when in truth; the voice exists. The phrase “we are giving voice to [insert marginalized community]” is deeply embedded in our language and seldom questioned. It’s problematic because while the “we” may amplify the voice, give it a platform, it sure as hell doesn’t “give” these folks a voice.  The fault lies in our ineptitude with listening. Case in point: the song Same Love. While I am in no way denying the impact of the song or picking a bone with Macklemore for writing it, I am drawing attention to the fact that, for many, it took a white straight male to finally hear the message that queer folks (often of color) have been spreading for some time. Let’s also talk about how problematic it is that middle-upper class white folks often “act thug,” engage in “ghetto” culture and make light of twerking. Let’s talk about how by being in a position of power, upper-middle class white folks get to “visit” what it’s like being black without having to experience the societal injustices often inflicted on black folks. Let’s talk about how I recently had a conversation with a white male LC student on the racist acts on campus and he responded, “What about freedom of speech? What if they were joking?”

Let’s talk about when to listen up and when to speak up. Let’s talk about how to admit and amend our fuck ups.

Let’s talk.

Statistics for Justice: Breaking the Cycle of Inspiration and Neglect by Educators in the Community

By Leo Qin

 

Portland Enrichment’s mission is to facilitate thriving, sustainable, and diverse communities. We do this through the Community Enrichment Program, which:

   —Provides clear and simple actions which help people take their next step in improving the quality of life and lessen the environmental impact of their community.

   —Facilitates a transition towards more livable and sustainable communities.

   —Engages and encourages the community to think, speak, and value sustainable solutions.

In the summer of 2012, Portland Enrichment, with the help of participants of the Portland Summer of Solutions, conducted a listening project and community challenge in the Mount Scott-Arleta and Lents neighborhoods of SE Portland. Portland Enrichment is a fiscally sponsored partner of Grand Aspirations, founding Catalyst Community with the Northwest Institute for Community Enrichment (NICE), and member of the NICE Galapagos Project.

What is Community Engagement?

Community Engagement is a new (or perhaps resurfacing) buzzword in the world of sustainable community development. Taken simply, it refers to the act of reaching out to the people who are already living in the area where one wants to develop a sustainable community. On a more abstract level, the engagement of communities in sustainable development is an integral part of the sustainable aspect of such activity.

Sustainable development cannot perpetuate itself without some degree of buy-in from some population. Simply put, development cannot be sustainable if it doesn’t serve some pre-existing population. The first question, then, is “which population is my sustainable development meant to serve?” Flubbing the answer to this question illustrates the difference between successful development projects that add value to and grow with a community and extractive, manipulative, and gentrifying projects that displace communities and replace them with meaningless enclaves of privilege and artifice.

Power

People and firms who have business in community development, and sustainable development in particular, engage in a very peculiar power dynamic with the communities in which they work. As a rule, aggregations of people have more power than individuals, and individuals with lots of money have more power than individuals with less money. Therefore, it follows that aggregations of people that have lots of money enter into interactions with communities (which, especially in ungentrified areas, tend to be aggregations of people with less money, or even individuals) with a significant advantage in power. The particular peculiarity of the power interaction comes about when the developer seeks to understand and develop around the market forces that exist in an area. They may use a variety of sources to determine that, for example, there may be an unmet demand for a car dealership or grocery store in the area. However, this thought process inevitably leads to the imposition of a new resource (even if in demand) upon a community.

Thus, this poses an imbalance of power because aggregations of people with money have more power than people without money. Even if the net balance of benefit resulting from development is positive, the developer’s advertising campaign is intended to convince the community, after the fact and after the decision has been made, that this new resource adds value to the neighborhood.

Just Ask

Pragmatically, imposing a net benefit is probably preferable to imposing a net penalty. However, avoiding imposition is an even better approach to crafting a sustainable development project because it strikes at the heart of what a sustainable society ought to be: consensual, pluralistic, and equitable. All of this can be achieved through the simple act of curiosity. Instead of entering a community with an idea for a project and a goal of convincing the community that the project will bring net benefit (this is the old idea of community engagement, and is no different from advertising and marketing), the sustainable developer enters the community with no more agenda than to bring a net benefit.

All they have to do is ask: What sort of community do you want to live in, and how can I help you achieve that vision?

The great value of simply asking is that designing a project around community input stacks the deck in its favor. Instead of convincing a community to use a project, developing a project that the community has explicitly expressed a need for upends the disparity in power and provides an ethical framework for developers to bring their resources to bear.

In addition, the mere act of listening and gathering input has more abstract social justice benefits. Lents and Mt. Scott-Arleta, for example, have a history of abandonment (by the city and well-meaning students) and extractive development (by the city and developers). Part of the intent of authentic and meaningful community engagement is to attempt to make amends for these past injustices. It may have happened in the past, but it won’t happen again. And we won’t be the ones doing it.

People First Language

By Allison Curtis 

The way that we talk about people determines, and is determined by, how our society values certain characteristics over others. We can take a few easy steps to shift our perspectives on the way we talk about identity and ability. By recognizing that each individual is a person first, and not identified solely by their disabilities, we can begin to create a paradigm shift that will encourage our society to value every person as an individual with unique abilities, gifts, and needs. As noted in Katie Snow’s work on People First Language:

Disability diagnoses are, unfortunately, often used to define a person’s value and potential and low expectations and a dismal future are the predicted norm. Too often, we make decisions about how/where the person will be educated, whether he’ll work or not, where/how he’ll live, and what services are offered based on the person’s medical diagnosis, instead of the person’s unique and individual strengths and needs (Snow).

While there are quite a few misconceptions and misunderstandings about people with developmental disabilities, the purpose of this article is not to outline those misconceptions, but rather to give a few simple tips that can be used to speak appropriately to and about our peers. It is important to remember that everyone has abilities and disabilities and we all deserve to be celebrated for our strengths and not defined by the things that we may lack.

People First Language “puts the person before the disability and describes what a person has, not who a person is” (Snow). There are times when we must talk about the particular barriers that exist in our lives, and in these cases we can use People First Language.

Use:

A person who has a developmental disability.   

Rather than:

A developmentally disabled person.

Use:

Children without disabilities.

Rather than:

Normal children.

Use:

Danny uses a wheelchair.

Rather than:

Danny is wheelchair bound. (This description makes a wheelchair sound like a punishment, rather than a tool that someone can use to navigate the world.)

Use:

Person who has visibility impairment.

Rather than:

Blind person.

The words that we use generate attitudes about those who we speak of and by simply acknowledging someone is a person first we can begin to value everyone for their abilities.

The Political Thinkers of Our Generation

By Caroline Gray

The following are photographs and responses from students under 18 years of age in Winnetka, IL.

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Abby & Annie: I think being overwhelmed translates into a little bit of hopelessness. All of these problems, being so overwhelmed by all of them, and not feeling like you can make a difference… feeling like you have no power while you hear about all these news stories that are so tragic, and you don’t agree with them, but you feel like you can’t do anything about them… I wonder what the long-term effect of that is.

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Chaitan: We are contributing to the argument in a very uninvolved way: through Facebook and social media. No one is really doing anything about it. Back in the ’70s, you could see people protesting with picket signs and actually PROTESTING things, and now-a-days, it’s like, “Hey, let’s go on Facebook and fix gay rights.” They don’t actually DO anything.

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Greg: No one really thinks about this, but local politics are so important. I wasn’t 18 for the presidential election, but I am going to vote in my local election, and I think that is something everyone should do. You might not be able to do anything on a national scale, but on a local scale, there is so much you can do. If you play a part in your local government, that’s a really good way to make changes.

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Julia & Bevo: I think a lack of caring is a huge part of any kind of issue. I think that we don’t care about our environment, we don’t care about the policies, and if we do care, sometimes our voices aren’t heard. So I would say that with any kind of problem, there is a lack of responsibility that people feel they have.

“Why We Play Basketball”: The Importance of Sport in the Native American Community

By Katherine Quaid

Google “basketball rules” and you will find millions of webpages that will give you information about the rules and regulations of the game. Google “rezball” and only a handful of web pages come up, most of which only mention the word and do nothing to define it or provide rules. This is because rezball doesn’t have rules, not in the traditional sense anyways. It lies at the cross-section of performance, athleticism, and creativity. Instead of trying to define it I will attempt to describe it.

Five on five still applies but the strategies have changed. No zone defense, fouls are many but calls are few, and players must be ready to run for the entirety of the game. Most rezball tournaments take place in community centers and gyms past their prime that are the social hub of most reservations. Players run back and forth trying to beat their opponents down the court. They pass behind their back, in between their legs and even without looking, something I never excelled at. Players will make insane shots from the half court line, from underneath the basket and from positions traditional basketball players would only dream of. Rezball is often described as “fearless” and “creative” by those who are recent newcomers to this “racehorse style of basketball” (Colton 2000: 172). The re-appropriation of basketball into rezball has led to a new liminoid space, where structure is subverted and resistance blossoms.

Anthropologist Jean Comaroff notes that under oppressive authoritarian states, resistance forms in seemingly apolitical spaces in which new stories are created and symbols are fought for (1985: 261, 196-197). Basketball as a symbol, once of assimilation, is constantly fought for by Native American athletes who represent the Native American population. The basketball court is a space in which resistance against dominant stereotypes, concepts of play and racial epithets occurs because of its liminoid characteristic. The term “liminoid” is alternative to “liminal” because it further encapsulates the creativity of activities. Comaroff defines resistance as “typically neither an all-or-nothing phenomenon nor an act in and of itself; it is frequently part and parcel of practices of subjective and collective reconstruction” and these practices, especially as it pertains to basketball, are contained within the body (1985: 195).

To learn rezball is not to be taught rezball. A player must grow up in a certain type of environment, one in which these characteristics of athleticism, performance and creativity are valued and learned through watching others. These are learned and maintained through the body and become a habitus of not only basketball but general sport performance. Anthropologist Marcel Mauss labels these types of bodily practices as “techniques of the body” defining them as an “action [that] is imposed from without, from above, even if it is exclusively biological action, involving the body” (2007: 54). By viewing these as techniques we can see how seemingly apolitical actions become forms of resistance that are transferred from one generation to the next, evolving from the boarding school era to now.

Native American college athletes like Shoni Schimmel, Abby Scott, and Lakota Beatty use the techniques of rezball to prove to the general public and to their own communities that Native Americans are more than just a statistic.  In one interview Schimmel states, “one thing that my mom has talked to me about is, you have to go out there and show that you can come off a reservation and you can make it” (Oregonlive). This concept of “making it” becomes tricky when living in the “White man’s world” because athletes must constantly navigate the line between cultural pride and cultural assimilation. The Schimmel sisters are constantly navigating a line with their coach, who is continually trying to understand the rezball techniques that they use. By continuing their practice of their rezball playing style, the Schimmel sisters are models of agency and resistance for young girls all throughout Indian country.

Their position as star athletes and as some of the only female Native Americans in the public eye gives them an extreme amount of power and responsibility. Buford May found that kids don’t just pick role models based on their athletic skill but also what they do for their communities (2009). All of his participants viewed their “chosen role model as a resource to the overall Black community. Thus, the young men take into consideration professional players’ off-the-court behavior” (450). The athletes must also give back to their communities in order to fulfill the role of role model. Most of the communities that support these athletes, view the athlete’s success as helping the population (Anderson 2006).

Jude Schimmel, for example, was nominated for the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Allstate Good Works Team, an award that commends student athletes who are active members in their communities through volunteerism and civic service (Gocards.com). During her spare time Jude travels all across the country to speak at reservations and let other Native Americans know that “they can do it, too” (Gocards.com). The Schimmel sisters, Scott, Beatty and all the other female college athletes out there not only subvert societal notions of gender and race but they provide role models for women and girls on the reservation.

Women are able to fit into this role because, in general White society, they do not threaten the status quo, and they become subverters of patriarchy as they become the main role models within their own societies. By getting a foot in the door female college basketball players give a voice to Native Americans and take over the role of representing culture and pride in an apolitical realm. By doing so, they provide millions of young Native girls with hope for upward mobility, education and opportunity.

Brad

By Marc Steiner 

 

Brad grew up in a house two doors down from the house I grew up in. We went to the same high school. He ran cross-country, track & field, and competed in the state meet—just like I did.

Brad is 50 years old. He lives in the same house he grew up in. He has a mustache and wears plaid shirts with Wranglers. If he had more free time, he would spend it fishing. Brad’s father was born in the same town and worked as a truck driver. Brad doesn’t speak—he talks.

When I was younger Brad worked as a logger. He had a bumper sticker that proved it. It was an anti-environmentalist joke advocating wiping your ass with a spotted owl to save trees. Once in a while he would come home with a buck in the bed of his truck, dripping blood with its tongue hanging out. He also brought home firewood for the entire neighborhood.

Now Brad works as a farmhand for a family-owned organic farm. The farm totals 14,000 acres and makes almost $50 million a year. Brad sometimes works 16-hour days. He makes less than $12,000 for an eight-month season. I don’t think this is what people imagine when they think of organic, non-GMO, sustainable farms.

Despite this income difference, Brad’s political philosophy aligns with the family he works for. Brad has health problems but is against universal healthcare. He votes for politicians that benefit the people he works for and not people like himself.

Brad and I stand on opposing sides of the political spectrum. He serves as someone for me to think about when anybody speaks poorly about people with different beliefs than their own. I have the utmost respect for Brad. He treats people with only kindness and charity. He always smiles. He is a red-blooded-flag-waving American, but he also transcends the stereotype of what many would consider him—a “redneck.” I think many liberals would point to him as a political problem. I think of him as a good person.

He is a hero of mine.

Interview

With Brian Lindstorm 

What are some tangible, everyday things folks can do and say to advocate for individuals with mental illnesses?

I was recently at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India with my wife, Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild, Tiny Beautiful Things, and Torch. We had the pleasure of seeing Gloria Steinem. She talked of her early political organizing in India in the ’50s. She would go into villages and sit down and talk with “everyday people” about women’s rights. This experience re-enforced for her the Ghandian principle that true change starts at the bottom. We can’t wait for our leaders to lead. We must lead. So I think the first thing to do is to risk a simple “hello” the next time you encounter a person with mental illness. Even that little effort can help reduce mental illness’ stigma. And then I suggest joining and supporting the Mental Health Association of Portland, which advocates tirelessly for people with mental illness and has an excellent newsletter about challenges facing people with mental illness in Oregon, and opportunities to help.

What are some societal misconceptions about schizophrenia?

The unfounded fear that a person with schizophrenia is likely to be violent. The fact is that schizophrenics are less likely than the general public to act violently.

Since the release of Alien Boy what, if any, changes have you seen in the way police interact with individuals with mental illnesses? (Referencing the DOJ report on Portland Police Bureau use of excessive force when interacting with folks who have mental illnesses.) Do you have any comments on the implementation of the settlement agreement and the success (or lack thereof) of it’s terms?

A lot of people, myself included, thought that the DOJ coming on the scene would quickly and substantially change Portland Police Bureau practices for the better. That hasn’t been the case. And as Alien Boy makes clear, the incredible power of the Portland Police Union is an impediment to meaningful change.

In the past, you’ve done  participatory video projects. Can you elaborate on these and how they empower the folks you work with?

I’ve done several projects that put a camera in the hands of hard-hit folks: Kids in juvenile detention for Measure 11 crimes, Long term addicts in clean & sober housing, residents at the Blanchet House, a homeless shelter in Portland, Middle School students in one of the poorest sections of the South Bronx, immigrant teens in Hermiston, Oregon, People dealing with “Dual Diagnosis” (mental health and addiction issues) in supportive housing in Old Town,  and many others. I’ve found over and over again that the collaborative nature of filmmaking is a powerful antidote to the isolation that so many of these people feel. And the opportunity to share their visions of themselves and their world with a large audience can be transformative both for the filmmakers and the audience. These projects offer a bridge from “the other” to “us”, starting meaningful conversations that otherwise might never take place.

You visited Coffee Creek Prison recently and mentioned you were interested in making a short documentary with the women in the program. What was your experience like and how did it reveal misconceptions folks have about those in prison? Have there been any developments with the project?

I recently showed my film Finding Normal to 150 inmates at Coffee Creek. After the film, one of the women asked me: “Who can I trust? I’ve trusted the wrong people and it ended me up here. I don’t know how to trust or who to trust. Who can I trust?”  You can imagine the self-knowledge and confidence it takes to ask such a question in a group setting. And it seems to me that incarceration ideally is about this kind of self-reflection and soul searching.

The Family Preservation Program at Coffee Creek works with inmate mothers to examine their lives and identify what forces led to their incarceration. The women make “geneagrams”–visual representations of the major forces in their lives– a sort of life map. I was present the day several of the women presented their geneagrams to the group and it was enlightening. Mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual abuse, poverty, incarcerated parents, major illnesses, deaths of parents and siblings were all represented in personal symbologies that vividly illustrated the major forces that contributed to the choices that led to incarceration. This exercise was very freeing to the participants because it took some of the shame away so that they could evaluate their life not with the outlook of “I’m a bad person because I did these things and I’m now in prison” but with the outlook of “I’m aware of the roles that say drug addiction or family dysfunction for example have played in my decisions that led me here, and I can now make changes that will empower me to make better choices.”

I’m happy to report that the Regional Arts & Culture Council awarded me a grant to make a film with the women of the Family Preservation Program at Coffee Creek. We plan to start shooting in March.

Your films have been featured at international film festivals, screened in penitentiaries and correctional facilities, and appeared on public television. What role has higher education, especially at a liberal arts institution, played in helping you reach your achievements?

I transferred into LC as a junior after attending the University of Oregon and Rutgers University. I was looking for a more personalized college experience. I was incredibly fortunate to take Communications classes from Prof. Stuart Kaplan. He showed me that there was a documentary tradition that “spoke truth to power”. He showed Harvest of Shame and I remember feeling that I was in the right place with the exact teacher/mentor that I needed. He challenged me and inspired me. After I had taken all the video classes that LC offered, Stuart gave me a gift certificate to take a class at the Northwest Film Center which enabled me to make my first documentary. Flash forward all these years later, and when LC alum/Alien Boy editor Andrew Saunderson and I finished the last edit of Alien Boy, the first person we showed it to was Stuart and he made a suggestion that greatly improved the film.

As the first person in your family to go to college, what surprised you most about your time at Lewis & Clark?

The incredible kindness and support of people like Prof. Stuart Kaplan, Mary Potter, Louise Hankenson and Kurt Armstrong. And the overall ethos of the place which was if you have a goal and are willing to work hard, the college will be there to guide and support you.

Provide two words of advice to current students interested in combining theory with practice.

Level gaze. Meaning:  look at the people you will be serving as your equals. And remember that they have a lot to teach you. Hard hit people almost always do.