Author: Kate Fridley

Politics disadvantage women

With the United States already gearing up for the 2016 election season, arguments are inevitably surfacing about whether Hillary Clinton – or a woman in general – is suited for the presidency. An article I read recently claimed that Clinton’s new role as a grandmother would interfere with her presidential duties.

I will spare you the details of why this article made me want to rip my pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution to shreds. It’s probably obvious to most Oles why this is ridiculous, so I will move on after mentioning that Mitt Romney has five sons and more grandchildren than I feel like looking up right now, yet we heard nothing about his family life getting in the way of his political career.

There are, however, a number of common arguments regarding women in politics that I would like to stop seeing:

1 “The U.S. has a lower percentage of women in its government than countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan do.”

While people who say this may have good intentions, this argument is problematic because it assumes that Western countries represent the paragon of all that is good and just in this world. Shaming the U.S. for falling behind non-Western countries does nothing to mitigate our own shortcomings.

2 “Women basically have equality in this country, so I don’t see why feminism is relevant to politics.”

It’s true that women are much better off today than they were 50 years ago. However, people use this argument with the stereotypical white, empowered feminist in mind, when in reality many modern feminists ascribe to the idea of intersectionality. These feminists recognize that different types of oppression frequently overlap. A black woman faces discrimination based on both her race and sex; the two oppressions intersect in a manner that proves difficult to separate.

Feminism also encompasses those who identify as LGBTQIA+. No federal law exists that provides explicit legal protection against discrimination based on gender identity. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, trans people face an unemployment rate double that of the general population, and 97% of trans people have experienced harassment at work. These injustices are just the tip of the iceberg. Political feminism will lose its relevancy when all people achieve political, social and economic equality, not just upper-class white women. And by the way, white women still are not fully equal to men. I’ll stop my feminist complaining when we’ve had 44 consecutive female presidents.

3 “I’m not sexist.”

No one wants to admit that they possess problematic attitudes about oppressed groups. Before you go into defensive mode by claiming that you are not part of the problem, however, do some research on feminism as well as racism and classism. Ask yourself: why would someone accuse me of being sexist? How does my own privilege play out in my relationships?

We like to think that we’re perfect, but the fact remains that we live in a society that conditions us to embrace problematic views of underprivileged groups. I doubt an Ole exists who has not inadvertently exhibited problematic opinions or behaviors at some point during their four years on the Hill. The good news is that once we figure out what we’re doing wrong, we can fix it, and help others to do the same. Maybe when we all take a step back and examine our attitudes about feminism, we can all have a productive conversation come election season.

Kate Fridley ’14 fridley@stolaf.edu is from Apple Valley, Minn. She majors in English.

Graphic Credit: CAROLINE WOOD/MANITOU MESSENGER

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Voluntourism may overshadow effective aid

As pleasant memories of spring break fade into the background, many Oles are now looking to the summer for their next big adventures. Sometimes this involves taking a mission trip and doing volunteer work. When it comes to such trips, however, Oles must be wary of the dark side of charitable work. Namely: voluntourism.

“Voluntourism” describes the efforts of volunteers, often educated and of high socioeconomic status in Western countries, to travel – usually abroad – to an underprivileged community and perform charity work while simultaneously partaking in “touristy” activities. Charity work can range from constructing new homes for locals to teaching English in impoverished communities.

Some organizations embrace the term “voluntourism” and use it to advertise the nature of their trips. But while it can appear to be a good idea – struggling communities get free help, and volunteers get to travel the world – voluntourism leads to more harm than good.

Traveling volunteer efforts can tend to be short-sighted about the communities they visit. In fact, their touristy escapades can even damage underprivileged communities by preventing sustainable growth. Bringing temporary labor and resources to impoverished communities sometimes encourages the continuation of the very poverty the volunteers hoped to mitigate. For example, CNN reports that an organization called Responsible Travel discontinued all volunteer trips to orphanages because the initiatives were “fueling demand for orphans.”

On some voluntourist trips, the volunteers’ work is superficial and limited. However, the experience looks good on a resume and can serve to temper Western guilt over poverty.

Volunteers who are fortunate enough to embark on such trips must keep in mind how incredibly privileged they are to step into a new community, often in a completely different state or country, and attempt to influence its well-being. This level of privilege often accompanies a myopic view of how these communities function. Before a volunteer takes on these missions, he or she must develop a broader understanding of the community and its cultural, historical and political context.

Voluntourists and their supporters may develop a “white savior” complex, especially when working in developing countries. I can’t even count the number of Facebook photos I’ve seen of white American students posing with poor children in Africa. These students often garner high praise from their peers, which only reinforces the unequal relationship between the volunteer and the beneficiary. We look at these photos and think, “Look at those poor African children. They would be practically helpless without our volunteers going out there, teaching them English and giving them free t-shirts.”

This could not be farther from the truth. What these struggling communities need are strategies for developing functioning economies and becoming self-sustainable. Our attitude that they cannot function independently of intrusive volunteer efforts spearheaded by generous Westerners only holds them back.

I do not intend to demean the efforts of Oles who have gone on altruistic volunteer trips. However, we must remain critical. Before signing up for a volunteer trip, ask yourself: What is the nature of the trip and its mission? Will I be performing temporary work, or am I contributing to a project that will lead to long-term, sustainable solutions for the community in question? Most importantly, could my work actually stunt a community’s growth and autonomy by providing temporary, superficial solutions to bigger problems?

As St. Olaf students and educated citizens of the world, these are questions we must ask in our ongoing quest to make a positive difference in the world.

Kate Fridley ’14 fridley@stolaf.edu is from Apple Valley, Minn. She majors in political science with concentrations in Middle Eastern studies and management studies.

Graphic Credit: ALLI LIVINGSTON/MANITOU MESSENGER

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New group asks students to discuss diversity

“Do you speak Mexican?” asks a bold-lettered poster on the bulletin board outside Fireside Lounge. The provocative campaign is the work of the Bridge, a new group on campus devoted to promoting discussion about diversity.

The lack of diversity on campus inspired Traveon Rogers ’16 and Kathy Trieu ’16, both from Houston, Texas, to start the Bridge group. The two felt that Oles face many problematic social norms and “taboo” topics, and the way they talk about and deal with these issues needed to be changed. Their solution, the Bridge group, is now part of Multicultural Affairs and aims to address the lack of cultural understanding among students.

“We realized students and faculty were only exposed to multicultural aspects of student life through food tasting events and cultural performances, but there was not usually anything that brought these different cultures together as a community,” Trieu said.

The group’s poster campaign is based on a question they often hear around campus: “Can I ask you something and you promise you won’t get offended?” The question’s ubiquity in conversations about diversity inspired Trieu and Rogers to do something about the awkwardness and uncertainty surrounding the diversity conversation on campus.

The Bridge meets every Thursday night from 7-8 p.m. in Trollhaugen. Trieu and Rogers hope that the meetings, which are discussion-based, will help students become more comfortable talking openly about difficult topics.

“We have professors who don’t know how to address students from different backgrounds, and we have students who are afraid to ask questions about each other’s culture,” Trieu said. “It shouldn’t be this way.”

Eight students serve on the Bridge’s executive board, and between 30 and 35 members show up regularly to the Thursday night meetings. The group also hosts guest speakers or organizations at their bimonthly Family Dinners. For their next dinner, they have invited activist Stevie Larson to give a lecture and host a workshop for students.

According to Trieu, Houston is one of the United States’ most diverse cities, so the transition to St. Olaf’s culture has heavily influenced her and Rogers’ college experiences so far.

“We too have much to learn about Minnesotan culture, so it really goes both ways,” Trieu said.

In addition to hosting meetings and events on campus, Rogers and Trieu hope to connect students with the culture of the Twin Cities. They intend to hold monthly events in St. Paul or Minneapolis to establish a connection between Oles and the variety of cultures there through volunteering and personal interaction. Above all, Rogers and Trieu want students to remain open to new experiences and cultures.

“We want everyone to be curious about differences in a productive and positive way while not being afraid of offending someone,” Trieu said. “I think if St. Olaf could be a place where curiosity felt safe, that would be the first step to creating a comfortable environment.”

fridley@stolaf.edu

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President of Estonia to speak at graduation: Honorary degree will recognize history with college

St. Olaf College recently announced that Estonian President Toomas Ilves will speak at this year’s graduation ceremony and will receive an honorary degree from the college.

This choice of graduation speaker comes as the result of an extensive relationship between St. Olaf and President Ilves.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the old Soviet zone turned economically to the West but remained heavily invested in its past rooted in the East. Intrigued by the transitioning region, Professor of Economics Steven Soderlind and Professor of German Lavern Rippley made plans in the mid-1990s to bring students behind the Iron Curtain on an Interim trip now known as Mare Balticum.

Soderlind and Rippley made their first trip with students in 1997, when Ilves was serving as Estonia’s first full ambassador to the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Oles toured the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Estonia, and Rippley recalls asking Ilves to speak to the group.

Ilves treated the students to a talk about his work in Estonia, which involved promoting freedom from the USSR and from the effects of WWII.

“When he became president we managed to extract an invitation to see him in his presidential palace,” Soderlind remembered.

The 2011 Mare Balticum students were the first to see Ilves in his new role as president. Ilves also gave an hour-long lecture to the 2014 group during which he discussed Estonia’s excellence in technology.

Despite its many hardships as a post-Soviet state, the country has flourished in the tech industry, leading Ilves to coin the term “E-stonia.” Soderlind noted that despite thepoverty that permeates the country, everyone has access to broadband and studies coding in school.

“I think it’s that sophistication that intrigues our students the most,” Soderlind said.

Mare Balticum follows the trail of the Hanseatic League, an international sea trading route that dominated Northern Europe in Medieval times. The program is popular with economics students because it offers an economics credit. However, students of many majors, from physics to English, sign up for the trip.

This year, 43 students took the trip, and in past years enrollment has exceeded 50 students. Soderlind estimates that it is among the largest programs to cover so much territory – eight countries – in one trip.

Ilves first came to St. Olaf to visit then-Professor of Psychology Olaf Millert, who emigrated from Estonia to attend Augsburg College and later received his doctoral degree at Harvard University. St. Olaf’s relationship with Ilves has resulted in a scholarship program that brings one student from Estonia every year to study at the college.

According to Rippley, Ilves will receive an honorary degree in acknowledgement of his long relationship with the college as well as his admirable work fighting for Estonian prosperity and independence from Russian influence.

During the Cold War, Ilves joined the U.S.-supported Radio Free Europe, which proved instrumental in disseminating news, information and analysis to countries under the influence of the Soviet Union. As an ambassador, his relationship with U.S. congressmen and Clinton administration officials aided in pushing Estonia toward freedom from Russia and membership in NATO.

Ilves was also responsible for Estonia’s status as one of only five “eastern bloc” countries, and the only country formerly under Soviet rule, to be invited to pursue membership in the E.U.

In 1998, the Economist dubbed Ilves the most successful European foreign minister in recent history. He became president of Estonia in 2006 and was re-elected for a second term in 2011.

“He speaks better English than he speaks Estonian, which is an odd situation for a president, but that’s because he grew up here,” Rippley said.

Ilves was born in Sweden to Estonian parents who were refugees from communism. He later traveled with his family to the U.S., where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and a Masters in Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rippley, Soderlind and many graduating seniors and alumni of the Mare Balticum trip look forward to seeing the president again as the graduation speaker.

fridley@stolaf.edu

Photo Courtesy of Lavern Rippley

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Nobel Peace Prize nominee advocates peaceful dialogue

On Friday, Feb. 28, more than 30 students and staff gathered in Dittmann Center to see five-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee Steinar Bryn and to view an award-winning documentary, “Reunion: Ten Years After the War,” focusing on Bryn’s peace and reconciliation efforts.

Bryn is the director of the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue in Norway, where he has worked with St. Olaf students participating in the Peace Scholars program.

On Friday, Bryn was in the process of traveling through the Midwest and showing “Reunion” at various colleges. He said he appreciated the willingness of students at small Lutheran colleges to learn about and engage in peace efforts.

According to Bryn, the dialogue process can be described as a movement toward understanding among people. It corrects participants’ preconceptions that society has given them about issues and the people involved. Bryn said it “questions the very fundament of how we see reality.”

This process, however, takes time.

“Dialogue and reconciliation is not given the place it deserves in peacebuilding,” Bryn said.”But it is not the magic fix. It is a long-term way of working.”

Directed by Jon Haukeland, “Reunion” follows the dialogue sessions, facilitated by Bryn, between Serbians and Albanians immediately before and after the 1999 NATO bombing of Kosovo. Bryn described the documentary as “a movie about a movie”: Two groups of students had held peace talks immediately before the bombings, and footage of these meetings was made into a documentary. Ten years later, the same group watched themselves participate in the peace talks and discussed how their perceptions of the war had changed.

The documentary was telling as well as moving. As the participating Albanians and Serbians reflected on the war, they asked each other how one side could have felt relief while the other was bombed and driven from its homeland. One woman implored the Albanians to allow her to return to her home in Kosovo.

Lasting just over an hour, the film came to a close in a room full of emotion. Students participated in a question and answer session, during which Bryn described his experiences facilitating peace talks. While he had held dialogue sessions nearly every weekend, this was the first time he had attended a reunion of participants.

Bryn emphasized that while great gains are made, peacebuilding dialogues take tremendous effort from all involved.

“If you want to make change you have to commit yourself,” Bryn said. “TTT – Things Take Time.”

After stopping at St. Olaf, Bryn went on to present at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum at the Minneapolis Convention Center on Saturday, March 1. He said that many do not have faith that peace talks actually work, and he wants to dispel this perception.

“Can we imagine overlapping borders? Can we imagine citizenship not as connected to territory?” Bryn said. “If we create that dialogue culture in negotiation climates, we might be able to come up with something that unlocks that dialogue and creates movement.”

fridley@stolaf.edu

Photo Credit: MARIT AASENG/MANITOU MESSENGER

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