The world is growing more unequal, but not quite because “the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer.” The good news is that the percentage of extremely poor people has actually shrunk greatly worldwide over the last several decades. The bad news is that the already-rich are getting richer. There are a number of reasons for these trends, but my purpose here is to remind us all that despite growing inequality worldwide, ordinary people have three specific, significant and actionable forms of equalizing power.
First, rich or poor, weak or powerful, everyone has 24 hours in their day. That may sound obvious, but what you make of your non-working waking hours is up to you, and activists beg for your volunteer time for good reason: time is not just money, time is power. Given this equalizing fact that we all have 24 hours per day, and that there are millions of good people who don’t volunteer their time for the greater good, the potential for social change is great if more people invested more hours per day, week or month to making the world a better place for all.
Second, each person has one vote, no matter who they are. We often hear that the rich rule, or that “money talks.” That’s often true, but in functioning democracies, all the money spent on elections is devoted to getting people to vote because money doesn’t vote, people do. That’s why you sometimes hear of candidates that come out of nowhere, and win with little money, but a lot of time (Point #1 above) invested in organizing (Point #3 below) connecting with voters.
Third, in all places, there is power in numbers. I am not talking about numbers of dollars, but numbers of people. I sometimes hear children or foreigners say “I can’t vote, so I don’t have a voice.” Nonsense. Anyone who can mobilize voters has power, and the more voters you mobilize, the more power you have. A fourteen-year old can’t vote, but if she mobilizes five people to vote the way she wants them to, she has exercised five times more power than the adult who voted alone. A foreigner can’t vote, but can assemble at their home a group of neighbors who vote then invite a local politician. Aspiring and elected officials flock not just to money, but to groups of voters, like issue groups, churches, senior citizen communities, etc.
If you hope for and/or fight for equality and justice, never forget these three equalizers.
Thanks to Learning Life intern Thalia Navia for her assistance in the research for this post.
Globalization is increasing, and for good reason. Advances in transport and communication technologies are making it easier for people to travel and talk across national borders. This leads to greater trade and movement across borders, which in turn brings people more and cheaper goods and services as well as more opportunities to explore, learn, collaborate and prosper.
Globalization – simply defined, more connections and interdependence between countries – is driven to a great extent by businesses searching for profits. When businesses are able to sell their goods and services to more consumers abroad, they expand their potential for growth and profits. This helps explain why pay tends to be higher in international trade-directed than non-trade directed jobs (Griswold 2016), and why international jobs – like customer service representatives, market analysts, digital map-makers, language interpreters and translators, and airline and hospitality workers – are proliferating (Sentz 2016, Peltier 2018).
Given our world’s globalizing trend, persisting socio-economic inequities as to who participates in and leads foreign affairs threatens to further marginalize already disadvantaged groups, and undermine the representativeness of international business and policy-making. In the United States, this is especially true for African and Hispanic Americans, who comprise 14% and 17% of the U.S. population, respectively, yet who represent just:
5% and 7.5% of U.S. college students who study abroad (Carr 2014)
4% and 5.1% of U.S. Foreign Service officers (Miller 2015)
2% and 3% of executives of Fortune 500 companies (Jones 2017)
Unfortunately, race and ethnicity dovetail closely with income and wealth, and Hispanic and African Americans have substantially less of both than European and Asian Americans on average (Peterson Foundation 2018). This makes it more difficult for blacks and Latinos to take advantage of travel abroad opportunities that help stimulate interest in the wider world.
While some individuals can overcome disadvantages to pursue successful international careers, it is much more difficult for marginalized groups to do so without government policies – like annual grants for travel, study and work abroad in high school and college, and consistent funding for effective international engagement programs at all ages – that widen opportunity on a large scale. Of course, there are a number of U.S. programs that fund international study, exchanges and travel abroad, such as the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study Abroad Program, the Critical Language Scholarship Program, and the Youth Ambassadors Program. However, the number of spots or grants offered are often quite limited, and those who take advantage of these programs – even programs meant exclusively to benefit ethnic and racial minorities, like the Thomas Pickering Fellowship and the Charles Rangel Summer Enrichment Program – tend to come from economically relatively privileged backgrounds.
Reformers who wish to open the world to marginalized peoples cannot create programs and expect the disadvantaged to throng to them. If they do, they will continue to disproportionately attract privileged applicants. Inequality segregates the disadvantaged and tends to narrow their geographic horizons, so they are much less inclined to take advantage of opportunities to engage with a world so foreign to them. Thus, reformers must go to the marginalized, opening opportunities in direct and sustained ways in their otherwise segregated communities.
It takes time and an accumulation of experiences – conversations, books, magazines, games, films, travel, classes, volunteering, internships, work — to understand, care about, and act effectively in the world. That’s an accumulation the advantaged are more likely to gather, little by little, as they grow up. Absent government policies to provide marginalized groups with such bridge-building opportunities in their own communities, nonprofits can do much to open the world to the disadvantaged. This includes mentorship, field trips, games, documentary discussions, volunteering, virtual exchanges, and other opportunities that can enrich marginalized neighborhoods, and connect the traveled and untraveled, with or without costly travel abroad.
Globalization holds much promise, but whether that promise is fulfilled for all rather than a few depends on clear-eyed purpose, sustained effort, and bridge-building to connect the marginalized to the world.
Good health is vital. The less healthy one is, the less one is able to perform as a private individual in school, work and family, let alone as a public citizen in community and society. The vigor and happiness of individuals, families, communities, societies, indeed the entire world, thus depends on good health. In turn, human health is also impacted by a myriad of factors, from the local food supply to global climate change. These are two major reasons why Learning Life has begun orienting our programming toward health.
Countless pressing public issues are health issues, including bullying, child abuse, domestic violence, depression, loneliness, drug abuse, drunk driving, gun violence, hunger, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, homelessness, poverty, unemployment, income and wealth inequality, human trafficking, communicable diseases ranging from common cold viruses to deadly Ebola, terrorism, war, pollution, and climate change. As this long yet far from complete list demonstrates, health issues run from violence at home, or bullying in one’s school or neighborhood, to international phenomena like human trafficking, terrorism and climate change. Furthermore, many of these health issues are interconnected and happen in many localities yet they are shaped by big, complicated histories and institutional actors — religious faiths, multinational businesses, national governments, international governmental bodies — whose powerful actions are often invisible and incomprehensible to all but a few trained and paid specialists. Thus, human health is affected by so many issues local to global yet the connections and causes of those issues are dauntingly complex.
Faced with such complex health problems, it is tempting to ignore them. But ironically, the less one knows, the more one is at risk for avoidable health problems (e.g., those less educated are more likely to smoke, take drugs, overeat, etc.) while other health threats, like drunk driving, inequality, and climate change, one can ignore but cannot avoid entirely, if at all. Those who are resource-poor are the least able to avoid many public problems that have health impacts. So, we can either put our heads in the sand, or take action, and Learning Life aims to take action.
Accordingly, in fall 2017, Learning Life began collaborating with the Georgetown University School of Medicine’s (GUSM) Community Health Division. That collaboration helped propel Learning Life’s research this year comparing the health and food cultures of our CDI (Citizen Diplomacy Initiative) families in Washington DC, San Salvador, El Salvador, and Dakar, Senegal (click here for the first study, with further research results coming soon), and our larger family food culture project. Food clearly impacts health, and has the educational advantage of being a universal, daily preoccupation of interest to most people. Food culture — which we define as a group’s food shopping, cooking and eating habits and beliefs — also varies substantially cross-nationally, and can be shaped to advance health and learning about the world. Hence, food culture seems a fitting focus for our project work between CDI families in different countries.
The GUSM Community Health Division, under the leadership of Dr. Kim Bullock, welcomes partnerships with community organizations to help improve community health education while giving Georgetown medical students experience in what the medical profession commonly calls “the social determinants of health” (SDHs). A pie chart (University of North Carolina-Charlotte 2018) often employed to provide U.S. medical students and health professionals with perspective on the determinants of health gives a sense of the importance of SDHs:
As the chart shows, SDHs have the largest impact on people’s health, surpassing individuals’ own actions (diet, exercise, smoking, drug-taking, etc.), and much surpassing a person’s genetics, environment, or medical care resources. The second chart below (Kaiser Family Foundation 2018) unpacks the SDH term, giving a sense of the wide range of SDHs, and hence why these factors, together, matter so much to human health:
The chart underscores that while good or bad health is experienced individually, it is shaped by a range of social factors, some of which, like literacy and language, too many people may not realize are linked to their health. As our world grows more interconnected economically, socially and politically, many of these SDHs are shaped more and more by international forces like trade, immigration and climate change. It thus behooves health educators to frame learning about health in local to global terms.
In the shorter term, the shared challenge of Learning Life and GUSM’s Community Health Division is to improve CDI families’ understanding of health, including nutrition and SDHs, and food culture, wherever they are in the world. In the longer term, we hope to improve the health outcomes of our families worldwide. Much that is good on this Earth takes time and patient work to happen. That is why we are in this for the long haul.
Kaiser Family Foundation. “Beyond Health Care: The Role of Social Determinants in Promoting Health and Health Equity.” Chart retrieved from https://www.kff.org/disparities-policy/issue-brief/beyond-health-care-the-role-of-social-determinants-in-promoting-health-and-health-equity/ on 9/7/18.
University of North Carolina-Charlotte. “ARCHES Mission & Goals.” Chart retrieved from https://arches.uncc.edu/mission-goals on 9/7/18.
Earlier this month, my wife and I took a remarkable trip to Senegal for about a week. We visited Dakar, the capital, then Gorée Island, one of the most infamous sites of the slave trade, then Saly a small beach town about an hour south of Dakar. But the most memorable parts of the trip were our three days with three Senegalese families studying their food culture. The following reflections consider where Senegalese and American food systems are now, and may be headed, with lasting consequences for public health.
Since fall 2017, Georgetown University Medical Center community health fellow, Dr. Melissa See, and I have been collaborating on research comparing the food cultures of three lower-income African American families in Washington DC with three lower-income Senegalese families in Dakar. Combining observation, interviews plus photo and video data taken over several hours with each family, we are studying how these six families participating in Learning Life’s Citizen Diplomacy Initiative (CDI) shop for, cook, and eat their food, and the meanings they attach to these practices (i.e., their food culture). Dr. See is conducting the research with the three African American families while I conducted the research with the three families in Dakar with my wife’s able assistance.
Our hope is that this research will deepen our understanding of the diet-related challenges our CDI families face in living healthy lives in DC and Dakar. This concern grows out of Learning Life’s turn toward community health as a focus of CDI work. Health is fundamental, and it’s a serious concern in many lower-income communities worldwide. Health also connects to so many forces — like culture, business, politics, and the environment –in interesting ways that can help us better understand our world. (More on health, and particularly community health, in an upcoming post).
Food, in turn, is central to health, so studying food culture is helpful to identifying families’ health challenges and opportunities. One of the most striking differences we’re finding in the food culture of the Senegalese and American families is in the processing, packaging. Like many Americans, our CDI families in DC generally eat a lot of processed, packaged foods. In contrast, the Senegalese families’ food we observed was on the whole far less processed and packaged. Americans of all income brackets are typically used to shopping at supermarkets with lots of packaged, processed foods. In Senegal, by contrast, there are far fewer supermarkets per capita. When we went shopping with one of the Senegalese families, we went not to a supermarket but to an open air market with many merchants selling fruits, vegetables, meats, spices and many other foods, most minimally packaged, and unrefrigerated.
These striking contrasts do not necessarily mean one country has it better when it comes to food. Americans might assume we have the best food system in the world, and ours is indeed among the best in food safety, abundance and affordability. However, our mainstream diet of cheap, processed foods high in sugar, fat and salt — the sodas, chips, burgers, pizzas, donuts, cookies, cake, ice cream, etc. we eat in abundance — generate all kinds of widespread health problems, including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and stroke. The Senegalese diet is less varied, high in starch — mainly rice but also other cheap grains — and less safe due to lack of refrigeration and standardized food safety practices (e.g., cleaning, disinfecting, cooking at safely high temperatures). Nonetheless, the Senegalese obesity rate is around 9% vs. 36% in the USA. The Senegalese live much shorter lives on average than Americans — 62 vs. 80 years, respectively — but living longer does not necessarily mean living better.
Many factors affect health and longevity: not just diet but activity levels, the number and quality of one’s relationships, air and water quality, housing conditions, transportation safety, crime levels, education levels, the availability and quality of health care resources like doctors, hospitals, parks and gyms, etc. However, to the extent that our diets are central to our health, major food companies that sell processed foods high in salt, fat and sugar pose a serious threat to global health that often goes unrecognized. Besides the obvious threats — fast food chains and convenience stores that market and sell cheap, tasty but unhealthy food products — the modern supermarket presents less recognized problems. To their credit, supermarkets commonly sell fresh produce, even if there may not be many varieties of fruits and vegetables, and much of it may not be local or even domestic. However, most other food aisles of any supermarket are filled disproportionately with processed foods high in fat, salt and/or sugar. Why? Such food is generally cheap to make, “shelf-stable” (lasts long without going bad), can be manipulated easily (new flavors, different quantities and types of ingredients) to cut costs and boost appeal, and tastes good to most consumers. These are the main reasons why food companies sell processed foods high in fat, salt and sugar.
The abundance of packaging that envelopes many processed food products serves three key functions. First, packaging is a vehicle for advertising to seek to distinguish the product, attract consumers and build “brand loyalty” (consumer loyalty to the company’s product or product line). Second, governments often require companies to reveal certain information on their packaging, such as the ingredients in and nutritional content of their products. Third, packaging helps preserve food products and protect them from contaminants in the environment. Despite these functions, food company packaging is often excessive, and contributes substantially to resource waste, environmental pollution, and the world’s ever mounting trash heaps.
Perhaps the most important point to keep in mind though is this: like most businesses under capitalism, the primary goal of food companies is not environmental health nor the public good, but profit. This does not mean businesses are evil, but it does mean they are self-serving. Furthermore, they are rationally single-minded and tireless in their pursuit of profit. For these reasons, businesses, alone or in concert, tend be very powerful actors who do their best to shape resources, markets, laws and consumers to their profit-seeking ends. This makes it hard to underestimate the extent to which the food cultures of Americans and other higher-incomes peoples are shaped by food companies.
Many of the healthiest foods — whole foods like apples, pineapple, carrots, broccoli, beans, nuts – require minimal processing, are not shelf-stable, cannot be easily manipulated, and do not taste as good to consumers because people are naturally drawn to foods high in salt, fat and/or sugar. Hence, supermarkets grudgingly sell whole foods, but tend to make their best profits from packaged, processed foods.
As the Senegalese and other peoples of developing nations increase their income, international food companies will be more attracted to them in search of profits, and they will bring their familiar fast food chains, convenience stores and supermarkets with them. That will mean more processed foods high in salt, fat and sugar, and accordingly, more obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Already, an ambitious Senegalese food company named Patisen is pervasive in homes, markets, and on street billboards in Dakar. Further, Patisen is working to bring its line of sauces, spreads, condiments and drinks high in salt, fat and/or sugar to other West African countries, with the help of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation. The same trend is happening worldwide wherever incomes are rising, including much larger nations like India and China, where diets are becoming more processed, and diet-related diseases are consequently rising.
Nothing is inevitable, yet profit-seeking food businesses are powerful players whose answer to the diseases they help create are a plethora of processed “health” and “diet” food products that are not necessarily healthy, and are certainly not whole foods. Fortunately, there are plenty of smart food critics writing influential articles and books (e.g., Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, Michael Moss), a growing body of popular food documentaries (e.g., Food Inc, Forks Over Knives), and encouraging socio-economic trends, like slow food, local food, organic food, farmers’ markets and urban gardening. The secret to fighting the food industry giants may be more of this — reading, talking and acting locally and internationally for whole food diets and a healthier planet.