Improving Nutritional Outcomes in the City of Dreams

Los Angeles: home to the fifteen dollar pressed juice, empire of Kalerribean smoothies, motherland of kombucha. The food culture of the city is certainly cultivated in a way to promote the health and beauty of its residents who strive to set the standards of health and beauty. But beneath the facade of the City of Dreams lies a nightmare for the 1.2 million Angelenos living in food insecurity (LA public Health Report). In Los Angeles County, approximately 17% of residents are food insecure, with seniors and children in particular being most at risk. In fact, a study found that out of all cities in the United States, Los Angeles has the largest population of food-insecure children, with a whopping one in four children unable to find enough to eat (Goldberg). The problem is exacerbated in the low income neighborhoods in South LA and East LA, where the lack of fresh produce and dense concentration of fast food chains has deemed both regions as food deserts and food swamps (Warshawsky). While hunger and malnutrition would be considered troubling social issues on their own, research finds strong links between food insecurity and countless other afflictions, including increased odds of hospitalization among children, greater prevalence of depression and suicidal thoughts among adolescents, and increased levels of stress and depression in women. Furthermore, people with limited money that are forced to choose between purchasing food or medicine may suffer exacerbated effects of their existing medical conditions (LA health report). This epidemic is a rumble in Los Angeles’ belly that it can not afford to ignore. Nevertheless, the government is trying its best to turn the other cheek.

Efforts to ameliorate the food gap in Los Angeles have largely been taken up by civil society organizations (CSO’s) that gain funding through donors, faith groups, and grants. However, considering the public officials Los Angeles County tout their commitment to welfare and their “many programs to protect, maintain and improve the health and mental health of its residents,” (LA County Website)  it certainly could put in some overtime. In areas like urban planning and education, two spaces in which the government has space to affect change, the city of Los Angeles has greatly dropped the ball in its efforts to fulfill the basic health needs of its citizens. The numbers of hungry residents have risen to such devastating amounts that it is impossible for the city not to acknowledge that not enough is being done. To what extent, then, are existing government efforts affecting or ameliorating the food insecurity crisis in Los Angeles, and why does it persist? Through investigation of current initiatives and an assessment of each’s impact, I have found that the persistence of hunger and malnutrition is largely due to the government’s framing of the issue as a simplistic problem with simplistic solutions, its failure to address the underlying mindset perpetuating LA’s food culture, and its neglect of acknowledging a peripheral yet powerful byproduct of this food culture— monumental food waste.

For the purpose of consistency, food security will henceforth be defined under the terms of The American Institute of Nutrition, as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” This includes not only the requisite of nutritious, safe foods on shelves nearby to these people, but also means to acquire them in socially acceptable ways. This terminology, I suppose, clearly draws a distinction between living near dumpsters of high end vegan markets and living in a place where such products are financially feasible. Furthermore, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies these food insecure households as either coping with “low food security” or “very low food security,” which distinguishes between “diets with reduced quality, variety, or desirability” and “diets with disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake,” respectively (LA Public Health Report).

To begin with, the city Los Angeles faults by constructing simplistic policy to address food security, a highly complex byproduct of the social, racial, and economic makeup of the city. For several years, Los Angeles’ efforts in promoting better nutritional outcomes for its residents have been limited to opening more grocers and supermarkets with a produce section in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. On the surface, this would seem like the sensible solution to combating food insecurity. After all, if food security is defined as safe and socially acceptable access to nutritional foods, putting them in an aisle seems like the easy, breezy antidote. On the contrary, a study conducted by RAND Corporation revealed that there was virtually no link between the type of food and drinks that Los Angeles County adults consume and the proximity of fast-food outlets, grocery stores and convenience stores to their homes, and adjusting these variables actually bore no increase of food security for its residents. This, upon further thought, proves more logical than the formerly held belief. For one thing, putting a Whole Foods in the center of Downtown Los Angeles and hoping that it enables healthy shopping is just as ineffective as putting a SoulCycle on Skid Row and expecting a slew of enthused bikers lining at the door. Lining streets with amenities of a different class is the flawed logic of believing gentrification benefits everyone. Replacing existing food supplies with upscale, expensive fruits and vegetables, conversely, may push more consumers into big fast food establishments that are more affordable and familiar than the introduced foods. Richard Sturm, the RAND researcher that spearheaded the study, submits that the food environment is not that important to the fate of a city’s food security, especially in a highly mobile society such as Los Angeles, where the city is spread out and people travel great lengths every day (RAND). Additionally, the plan failed to realize that such supermarkets offer unhealthy, processed foods and snacks in equal abundance. RAND researcher Strum showed that the cheaper, high caloric foods like chips and instant noodles, were more heavily marketed and thus more in line with consumer knowledge. In another example of misguided well intent, Los Angeles rolled out an ordinance in 2007 that prohibited new fast food chains from opening in the city of Los Angeles. Strangely, a study published in 2015 found that from 2007 to 2012, the percentage of people who were overweight or obese increased everywhere in L.A., but the increase was significantly greater in areas covered by the fast-food ordinance (RAND). The reason for this uptick is unclear, but one fact remains true: attaining food security and promoting health are complicated steps with no easy solution. Other programs that focus on actually providing free nutritional meals to needing families are proven more effective at providing food security, but exacerbate a system of unsustainable dependence. The LA Regional Food Bank, which works with 680 local agencies to feed 280,000 people in Los Angeles each month, is undoubtedly impactful in their efforts to ameliorate hunger. However, despite having the facilities and the volunteers willing to distribute food, the LA Regional Food Bank reports that 41% of its partner agencies reported not having enough food to meet the demand and 43% reported turning people away because they ran out of food (LA Public Health.) In another example, the Summer Meals program offers meals during the summer for students ages 18 and under who depend on the reduced price or free lunches offered during the school year to secure a balanced meal in their daily diet. Efforts like these, though immeasurably impactful, depend heavily on donations that can’t be promised with each coming year. Generally speaking, with initiatives like the Food Bank and Summer Meals, one sees that government programs are geared to flail at the branches of food insecurity, while none are constructed to identify the source at the root.

This root, this fundamental issue that keeps stomachs empty even if shelves are full, is the issue of education. The truth is, 12 percent of the food insecure people in Los Angeles are living above the poverty line, according to Feeding America (Goldberg). This speaks to two findings. First, the cost of living in Los Angeles is unmaintainable for many residents, even those making enough to pass over the line. Secondly, and more importantly, it shows that it would be naive to say that the lack of nutritious foods in diets is strictly a financial issue. Sure, LACHS results indicate that food insecurity increases as household income decreases. Sure, food insecurity is a greater issue among populations that are unemployed. Sure, food insecurity disproportionally impacts African American adults, a demographic with a longstanding history of being socioeconomically disadvantaged in the United States. On the other hand, a look at the data also reveals a prevalence in food insecurity among those who are not U.S. citizens and those with less than a high school education (LA Public Health).

Let’s look at those separately. Firstly, food insecurity among non-U.S. citizens hints at nutritional outcomes being tied to cultural barriers. A family from an ethnicity and a culture tied closely to its food may be predisposed against the introduction to five servings of fruits and vegetables a day that may be atypical in their traditional diet. As an Egyptian who was raised on heavy plates (and seconds, and thirds…) of buttery meats, rice, and bread, the taste I have developed for acai bowls and sugar snap peas since I moved to California continues to raise the eyebrows of my family back in the motherland. Secondly, the prevalence in food insecurity among those with lower degrees in schooling may indicate that malnutrition is, at its core, an education issue. The point of origin in this problem can be seen in the poor eating habits that are seen in children in low income parts of Los Angeles. Two in five children in the county are categorized as being an unhealthy weight, which is often a result of eating an unhealthy breakfast or skipping it altogether. The obesity epidemic produces a snowball effect for a myriad of other problems, including higher school absenteeism, poorer academic performance, increased disciplinary problems, lower graduation rates and poorer health (Business Wire). In an effort to enforce a healthy start, school districts around the county introduced the free and reduced School Breakfast Program, which provides every eligible student with USDA approved breakfast and lunches. Despite this fact, 742,000 low-income children across Los Angeles County do not participate. As a consequence, school districts in Los Angeles County miss out on more than $174 million of federal and state funding each year (Business Wire). This tremendous opt out rate could be one of several reasons. Parents may not think it is imperative for their child to eat a nutritious breakfast before class. Also, a group that investigated this disparity found that many children miss out on breakfast because it is served too early in the day for them to capitalize on the meal. Such an obstacle is more difficult for children of parents who work or do not have the means to accommodate around the meals. Finally, the same group found that children feel too ashamed to admit in front of their classmates that they need the free meal. The kids that leave the food untouched, then, leave school districts in Los Angeles County ineligible for more than $174 million of federal and state funding each year (Goldberg). Ultimately, all these facts point to the larger issue at hand — that misinformation, stigma, and cultural differences all feed into a broken food culture that makes it hard for progressive food reform to stick. Current government effort to offer nutritional information as food for thought are grossly misguided and out of touch with the demographic at hand. To make it easier to measure household food waste and overall health statistics of consumption, Roe and other researchers are developing a smartphone app with Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center (Ramkumar). With this app, the researchers hope that food insecure residents of Los Angeles can educate themselves on the caloric intake and disposal that happens under their roofs. Such an attempt to keep the information accessible yet trendy is seemingly blind to the possibility that low income residents below the poverty line would not have an iPhone or Android at hand.

Even in places in Los Angeles where people are able to access vegetables, most are left being pushed around on peoples plates before being dumped into the landfills. Out of the 2.9 million tons of waste Los Angeles feeds to landfill sites, 28% is comprised food waste. That is 815,000 pounds of scraps of food, much of which is edible and fresh days after it is thrown away (warshawsky). The sites of food waste are aplenty and start from the minute farmers plant seeds into the ground. Due to overestimated supermarket demand, farmers feel pressured to produce tons more produce than is actually ultimately harvest, in order to protect against potential damages of unforeseen circumstances that prevent them from reaching the quotas of their clients. In this stage, the loss is classified as “food losses and spoilage.” The scene of food waste happens in the shelves of supermarkets and cabinets. Researches from the firm SSRS looked into this point of food loss, and found that in a simple of consumers, almost 70 percent threw items away once the package date on the foods expired, in the interest of protecting themselves from food borne illness. This would be well and good if the labels on milk, meats, and vegetables were tested and certified. In actuality, a closer look revealed that package dates are largely arbitrary and determined by some eyeballing on the supermarket end. It makes perfect sense as to why a grocer would overshoot the date the food goes sour, of course: the sooner the foods expire, the sooner Angelenos throw out the “decaying” goods and come back to buy another batch. Almost 60 percent said food waste is necessary to ensure that meals are fresh and flavorful (Bloomberg).

The current structure limits Los Angeles’ ability to implement changes, but leaves much room for the local government to step in. (Warshawsky). In its place, CSOs have implemented many programs that attempt to redirect surplus produce to hungry mouths through food banks and redistribution channels, like the program Food Forward. The fundamental obstacles with these plans, however, is that CSOs can not be certain of their financial support long term. The instability of their funds and operations thus compromise their mission and exacerbates their need for government support. The mass disposal of foods is also largely due to what is commonly called the “Wild West” system of Los Angeles waste governance, in which the government leaves food waste services in the hands of private waste companies that operate on a property by property basis. This inefficiency leaves the potential of recycling, composting, and environmental cautiousness by the wayside without oversight of involvement of public services. Additionally, the state of California does the landfill sites no favors with unfathomable laws to distinguish between trash and non-trash produce. According to Alex Helou, “If you have an apple that falls from your garden, you can put it in the green bin. If you eat an apple, the state considers that a food scrap and you’re not supposed to put it in.” Fruit fallen in a backyard is considered plant material and can be processed at green material composting facilities. The same kind of apple bought at an Albertson’s, however, is considered food material and can be processed only at facilities permitted to accept food material. Fortunately, LA County has taken the first steps in implementing a new model in which food waste recycling is a mandatory condition if the private companies want to continue operating (Washawsky). In another attempt, they’ve taken a stab at a curbside food waste pilot program since 2008. Unfortunately, this bore few solid results, with food diversion rates as low as 1-5%. In the sample of all residents familiar with the program, chosen participation is low “due to lack or interest or knowledge in food waste separation, inadequate city incentives or enforcement and lack of permitted facilities to process food waste.” Here, it is once more revealed that throwing money at a problem does nothing without changing the culture surrounding food waste and environmentalism. There is no reason a low income family should feel motivated to sort through trash and decomposing food when it’s framed at an extra task for the vague feel-good benefit of saving the planet.

As aforementioned, none of these programs can ensure success without a makeover of the ideational constructs that surround healthy food — and their expiration dates. Rescuing produce and overcoming paranoia of food borne illness require the ability of a person to look at a fruit or a vegetable and seeing it as not only a foodstuff that is edible, but also one that is nutritious and integral to a healthy lifestyle.

In the interest of painting a balanced picture of the fight against food insecurity, there are several notable projects implemented by Los Angeles County that have been successful at enacting change, as well as some I would suggest for continued progress. To begin, the Market Match program, born in 2009, works to double the benefits for EBT card holders in farmers markets. In other words, those eligible for the program receive a note that offers 10 dollars of credit for every 10 dollars spend on produce in the farmer’s market. The project has been adopted across the region— in fact, 39% of farmers’ markets in Los Angeles County accepted EBT in 2013. With a new grant from the Department of Agriculture,  it is estimated that $1 million in fresh produce will be added to the shopping bags of Southern California’s low-income families over the next two years under this program. In the interest of the 12% of food insecure people that exist over the poverty line, perhaps the benefits of the upcoming rise of minimum wage to $15 by 2020 could help ameliorate food insecurity.  A higher minimum wage per household would enable more consumers to afford more fresh fruits and vegetables and cover the cost of living.

Additionally, the government must identify solutions from the grocer end. As mentioned before, there are private market incentives to shortening the lifespan of fresh produce. However, as well as legal incentives but the public sphere has recognized the environmental detriment that it produces in the form of food waste. In May of this year, Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, and Representative Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat, introduced a bill to standardize food labels across the country so that the dates offered are informed and accurate (Ramkumar). The implementation of this bill could save millions of pounds of perfectly edible foods from spending their lives decaying in landfills. With a more strategized approach to reshaping food culture and to combating food insecurity, I am confident that the food supply that could be offered to residents can become as bountiful as current attempts to affect sustainable change.


A note from a Muslim with no intel

The minute Martha Raddatz called upon Ms. Gorbah Hamed to ask both candidates a question, I knew we were in for a good one.

“Hi. There are 3.3 million Muslims in the United States, and I’m one of them. You’ve mentioned working with Muslim nations, but with Islamophobia on the rise, how will you help people like me deal with the consequences of being labeled as a threat to the country after the election is over?”

The audience in my living room was made up of seven girls, three Muslims, one immigrant (and I was the one in all three camps). All eyes were locked on Donald, daring him to show his true bright, blazing colors of bigotry once more. The first chunk of the debate was watching a duck and roll performance as Trump managed to turn every directed question about his horrifying, rapey remarks into one about how the Middle East was our main concern. I like to think that everyone watching found that his comments held no water, and that this opening question was one lap in his destructive race to the bottom.

And when it came time to address his stance on Islamophobia, he responded with unsurprising ignorance, but surprising focus on how to address Islamophobia.

“I mean, whether we like it or not, and we could be very politically correct, but whether we like it or not, there is a problem. And we have to be sure that Muslims come in and report when they see something going on. When they see hatred going on, they have to report it… And, you know, there’s always a reason for everything. If they don’t do that, it’s a very difficult situation for our country, because you look at Orlando and you look at San Bernardino and you look at the World Trade Center. Go outside. Look at Paris. Look at that horrible — these are radical Islamic terrorists.”

We looked around at each other in my living room. It seems that the Muslims on my couch have not been doing enough to report activities of ISIS that we’ve observed on the way to the campus center. Our duties as Muslim Americans have been unfulfilled in the fight against terror because we continue to be surprised and horrified when these attacks happen, instead of predicting them before the fact.

Trump’s stunning lack of insight was to be expected, coming from the man who continues to advocate for handing out Muslim ID cards to the 3.3 million Muslims in the States (or did he never say that? He didn’t seem to be sure). What was most disappointing, however, was Hillary’s echo of this ignorance, all the more implicit in its implications:

“First, we’ve had Muslims in America since George Washington. And we’ve had many successful Muslims. We just lost a particular well-known one with Muhammad Ali…. We need American Muslims to be part of our eyes and ears on our front lines. I’ve worked with a lot of different Muslim groups around America. I’ve met with a lot of them, and I’ve heard how important it is for them to feel that they are wanted and included and part of our country, part of our homeland security, and that’s what I want to see.”

On the surface, Hillary’s intentions seem innocent enough — she wants to ensure that Muslim Americans feel included in the country, welcomed into the coalition of Americans against terrorism, not banished under the fear of collusion with ISIS. And that’s all well and good. But this soundbite confirmed my feelings of uncertainty about Clinton’s new on Muslim Americans since her comments form the first presidential debate:

“Donald has consistently insulted Muslims abroad, Muslims at home, when we need to be cooperating with Muslim nations and with the American Muslim community.”

In this start, Hillary separates America into two pieces: a “we” and the “Muslim American community.” She frames her point in a way that implies Muslim Americans are not part of the American community, but an entity of folks that “we” need to cooperate with for the sake of national security. And she continues:

“They’re on the front lines. They can provide information to us that we might not get anywhere else. They need to have close working cooperation with law enforcement in these communities, not be alienated and pushed away as some of Donald’s rhetoric, unfortunately, has led to.”

Certainly, Donald’s rhetoric about branding Muslims upon entry to the states is alienating and harmful. But his rhetoric about insisting Muslims report suspicious activity, one that Clinton echoes in her belief that “they can provide information to us that we might not get anywhere else,” is equally misguided and phobic.

American Muslims do not  have secret intel on the next terrorist attack. Such beliefs are the consequence of media and political rhetoric conflating the term “Islamic” with “Muslim.” Such expectations are what cause Americans to think that Muslims are dangerous, inexplicably linked to hatred and violence. In a sense, Muslim Americans are on the front lines of the coalition against radical terrorism, not because we are armed with the code to crack the crime, but because we are the ones who suffer both from the attacks from the perpetrators and from the subsequent mistrust from the American people. Asking Muslims to be on the front lines to defeat ISIS is like rallying up Mexicans to defeat the cartel. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Ultimately, like any good American would do, American Muslims would be the first to report violence within our community. I can only hope that Trump would respond to such intel in a better manner than what he had panned for Muslims reporting violence against their families and friends after his election: “I am so saddened to hear that. And I say, ‘Stop it.’ If it — if it helps,” Trump said, turning from Stahl to another camera positioned inside his Trump Tower apartment. “I will say this, and I will say right to the cameras: Stop it.” It is likely they may have their own battles to fight, post election.


Why I think Hillary lost the election

The long awaited presidential debate on Monday set Twitter and tempers alight on both sides of the party pole. It seems when you have two steamrollers coming at each other with relentless stamina (though one steamroller would say otherwise), you end up with little but a debate that falls flat. While I think that Clinton demonstrated her abilities in “looking” and “talking”like a president, it doesn’t quite cinch the election for her when it comes down to the swing states.

Nate Silver, our numbers darling, says otherwise about the numbers:

Start with a CNN poll of debate-watchers, which showed that 62 percent of voters thought Clinton won the debate compared to 27 percent for Trump — a 35-point margin. That’s the third-widest margin ever in a CNN or Gallup post-debate poll, which date back to 1984.

Of course, the audience that took the time to watch the debate may not be comprised of the same demographics as the overall masses that will take to the polls in November. The shared members get smaller when we take the sample from watchers who actually took the time to get polled by CNN.

If we take a look at Nate’s daily rack up of voters via his Nowcast, we actually see a decent plummet of people who would vote for Hillary if they went to the polls after the debate. When Hillary is facing off against a man who yaps about the need to follow “law and order” in the same breath that he uses to claim that he’s been evading federal taxes, the fact that she dropped 3.9% overnight doesn’t make much sense.



And it’s largely because sense isn’t the primary force at play in this presidential election anymore. Hillary is speaking to the educated, young millennials that are ducking through the “he lies, she lies” to look at the actual facts. According to the official fact checkers of NPR following the election, Hillary proved to be speaking truthfully about not only with platform positions on issues, like her commitment to maternal welfare and lower taxes, but also her mistakes and shifts in positioning over the last few years with respect to TPP, NAFTA, and those god damn emails. On the other hand, Trump was a couple of miles away from accuracy in China’s devolution of currency, and his tracking of statements he’s previously made about women, climate change, and tax audits.

While I’m sitting on the couch trying to stop my eye from twitching, I quickly realized that I do not sure Hillary’s qualities at remaining calm and collected in the face of opposition. Staying calm under pressure is an undoubtedly valuable asset to have as the leader of the free world — an asset that Clinton demonstrated at the podium on Monday and one that she pointed out as lacking in her opponent:

His cavalier attitude about nuclear weapons is so deeply troubling. That is the number-one threat we face in the world. And it becomes particularly threatening if terrorists ever get their hands on any nuclear material. So a man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes, as far as I think anyone with any sense about this should be concerned.

It is an ironic likelihood that Clinton’s calm demeanor is what caused her to tremble statistically in the polls. By taking the high-road, Clinton missed an opportunity to hold Trump accountable for boundless mistakes and hiccups that looks ugly in any light. What Clinton failed to consider was that those who are listening to facts and aren’t watching to be convinced by her.

Unlike many progressives and democrats, there are masses of blue collar republicans and independents that are turning out to vote in November. This is the target audience that Hillary doesn’t work hard enough to capture. As my friend Baha writes in his blog,

“Trump is leading by 40 points when it comes to having the support of non-educated white youth. Clinton could definitely use the support of the millennials who are not college educated and are not privileged by their economic and educational opportunities. It is imperative that Clinton uses the young blue collar vote to her advantage.”


Trump, in the eyes of these young constituents, won the election because he did not lose. He managed to evade humiliation and hard pressed questions, largely because Clinton didn’t it find it useful to bother him. When Trump accuses Clinton of letting ISIS exist for her entire adult life, and Clinton what Bill Maher calls a Jim-from-The Office direct to camera take,” she’s not looking at the non-educated white youth. She’s calling upon her fans to roll eyes with her, to laugh and brush it off. Trump, when given the opportunity to lambast Clinton, grabs it with both hands.

Ultimately, while Clinton did reveal herself to be prepared in answers, presidential in demeanor, and yes, likable in person, she didn’t really show undecided voters anything new.


Putting a band-aid on terrorism

When I was a sophomore in college, I received an email about the death of another student. It was an attack on a street that for three years now I have ridden my unicycle through to get from my apartment to campus.

What was sent out was a brief and suspiciously quick memo to the faculty and students, one that someone could have scribbled in half a minute on the way out the door, trying to make it in time for dinner. “We are devastated to announce the death of a student who passed away last night after being attacked on X Street.”

(What actually happened was that a handful of men approached a young man walking alone in the evening and beat him senselessly with a sledgehammer. The student crawled home and passed away while waiting for help to arrive.)

“We assure you that this was an isolated incident and bear no threat to the rest of the USC community.”

(The truth was that it did. The boy was killed in the act of a hate crime against Asian students. Violence against Chinese international students, which make up 40% of the expansive international student population on campus, has become so severe that the Chinese Ambassador threaten to stop students from flying to the United States until American universities pledged to make them feel safer abroad.

I share these horrific and graphic truths with respect and condolences to the victim and his family. I also say them because administration pretended it didn’t happen, simply as a measure to wave away unnecessary panic, fear, or legitimate questions about university’s agency in letting things like this happen.

On Saturday, in the hours after an explosion rocked Chelsea, New York, initially racking up an injury count of twenty-five people, the only news that was released was that “there was an explosion in New York.” Hours later, the update was that though the attack was intentional, there was no way that this explosion was a terrorist attack. (Clearly, this conclusion was based on empty assumptions of the attacker’s background, I thought. I have many more thoughts on this that I will likely share later.)

Once another explosion was detected, statements released that it was a terrorist attack were followed immediately after by the popular mantras of not letting the terrorists win, and never allowing the citizens of the United States to fear such attacks.

Keeping the truths hidden about the danger people are in. At this point, we’ve become acquainted with fear. The biggest fear is not that horror like violence and public attacks exists, it’s that we are blindsided when they happen to our families, our friends, or ourselves.

Now, it’s obvious that preliminary precautions are taken to in the interest of preserving peace and order in a hectic time. But it’s another thing entirely for the Mayor of New York to step out only to make the statement that “We believe this was an act of intentional intent there is no credible threat against NYC at this moment”.

Besides the fact that the mayor had so little information that he was compelled to recycle the same word twice, there is no possible assurance that the mayor could give that the city remained safe under attack. In fact, even after the arrest of Ahmad Rahani, officials stated that they could not say with certainty that there were no other bombs left undetected.” Sounds like a credible threat to me.

It is no longer constructive to replace valuable and life saving informations with affirmations that Americans are strong and vigilant. It has certainly never been constructive to make traumatic incidents such as this a push for campaign interests (Trump). Most of all, as Ezinne Ukoha says in her article on the same matter:

It is irresponsible and quite frankly repulsive of our leaders to perpetuate the notion that we don’t have any reason to fathom our vulnerability — despite our country’s heightened exposure and involvement in seedy global affairs.

Our nation’s obsession with appearing dauntless and gallant shrouds the legitimate threats to security that will exist, whether we choose to see him or not.



Mahmood Mamdani: the mouthpiece to the forgotten continent

by Alya Omar

“If power reproduced itself by exaggerating difference and denying the existence of an oppressed majority,’ Mamdani writes, “is not the burden of protest to transcend these differences without denying them?”



In his essay titled, “The Decline of Public Intellectuals?,” Stephen Mack pushes against the lamentation of unheard public intellectuals by touting the enormous “financial, technological, and cultural power” of academic institutions, emphasizing that education continues to be the centerpiece of some of our most cherished social myths. This merits some truth. In fact, the evidence of this fact can be seen in my own backyard (quite literally) at the University of Southern California. With a 4.71 billion dollar endowment and the nickname “University of Scattered Construction,” the bricked administrative buildings and residences are seeping into the Los Angeles community like a gentrifying, domineering powerhouse. From a less cynical standpoint, the money generated by the business that is the university serves to fund groundbreaking research that does indeed change the scientific, economic, and political fields as we know them. Many of the charitable endeavors to “give back” to the community are campaigns with USC student organization names stamped on them. But what Mack fails to mention is in order to maintain the cultural power that these academic institutions carry onto their pupils and neighbors, they are deliberate in selecting and building a backbone of intellectuals that do not challenge its status quo. On the contrary, such institutions must find and only hire faculty and staff that color within the lines of the picture they work so hard to paint. After all, as “the centerpiece to some great social myths,” not many universities can afford to hire just about anybody with loud ideas. Such was the mistake that was made in the case of Dr.  Mahmood Mamdani, the director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. While many American people reading this blog wouldn’t think or blink twice at the name, Mamdani is famously known in African studies as a spearhead of changing the way historical Africa is taught and contemporary Africa is seen. In assigning these two objectives as his academic mission, Mamdani is shouldering the struggle of not only undoing the colonial structure that continues to govern African institutions of learning, but also of dismantling the apathy and the limited worldview that the rest of the world has historically viewed the concept of “Africa.” What I mean by this can easily be seen at media depictions of Africa, which are often limited to topics of war, poverty, and the occasional ebola threat. Such depictions feed (or don’t feed, rather) our worldviews, and we end up with even our own Vice President describing Africa as a “great nation.”

So Mamdani has a lot of work to do. More specifically, however, Mamdani is an intellectual that studied African intellectuals. His book, Citizen and Subject, was contributive to the long had discourse of the racial legacy in colonialism because he uniquely focused on how it persisted in institutionalized academics. In South Africa, whose racial segregation and racial power dynamics ended in astonishingly recent history, Mamdani notes that the oppressive British and Dutch systems continue to shape the way government is structured, classes are taught, and the city is organized. “If power reproduced itself by exaggerating difference and denying the existence of an oppressed majority,’ Mamdani writes, “is not the burden of protest to transcend these differences without denying them?” (Mamdani 8).

It has since been named one of Africa’s greatest books of the 20th century. Following the success of his book, Mamdani moved to went on to teach at the University of Cape Town, a stint which ended after a disagreement between him and the rest of the university on how African studies should be taught (more on that later.)  Following that dismissal, from 1998 to 2002, Mamdani served as President of CODESRIA – the Council for the Development of Social Research in Africa, headquartered in Darkar, Senegal. He joined the faculty at Columbia University in 1999, where he currently spends a semester each year while also heading up the Makarere Institute for Social Research. And just in case he would find himself with any free time between writing journals, he is also Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University in New York. Many who are arrogant with their ignorance would say that a man they’ve never heard of couldn’t rightfully be considered a public intellectual, considering that the “public” part is noninclusive to the majority of my readersphere. On the contrary, Mamdani was once voted the world’s ninth most important public intellectual by the US’s Foreign Policy and the UK’s Prospect magazines. Despite these badges on his sash, much of his teachings have never been caught by the Western world, a cultural barrier between the “west and the rest” that ironically serves as the focus of his writings. Nevertheless, he firmly stands as the quintessential public intellectual of Africa, one whose teachings could make significant impact on the budding intellectuals of individuals in the United States.

In 1996, Mamdani was appointed by the University of Cape Town as the AC Jordan Chair, a position whose mission is to “champion the integration of African studies into research, teaching and learning at undergraduate and postgraduate levels within the university’s various faculties.” Subsequently, he was appointed the director of the Centre of Africa Studies, tasked with the job of developing a foundational course for the new field of study that would best resemble a most holistic and honest education on a very wide and misrepresented subject. Mamdani immediately set to work on designing a course, and was surprised to find himself quickly dismissed and his project hurriedly deferred to another director. It seemed the faculty that reviewed his curriculum found that the course had “too much focus” on history, an approach that was too derivative from the university’s goal of focusing on modernity. From my interpretation (and Mamdani’s), the faculty did not seem to consider the African narrative before the arrival of the white man to be anything of importance. In fact, the curriculum that substituted Mamdani’s was split into three phases: pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial Africa. This last part was focused on Africa’s disintegration after the departure of the white man. In the precolonial section, Mamdani reports that the new curriculum had a focus in Archaeology, an approach that he says is a “poisonous introduction for students beginning school in a post apartheid university.”

By continuing to look at Africa as this unchanging, essentialized process as the birth of humankind and the home of our dusty ancestors, we create no real moving picture of the millions of years that have passed since Lucy died. Instead, we reinforce the framework that plays and replays this still portrait of an undeveloped, archaic land. Another issue to which Mamdani continued to draw attention was the fact that the only real literature in use in African schools was a textbook that was developed for North American students in the 1970’s that had since been updated twice. Furthermore, he points out that though primary texts are widely available, hardly any of them are used in formal curriculum in higher education. What’s more is that little has changed since —  this outline is very similar to the curriculum that I followed in my semester studying at the University of Cape Town just a few months ago, in the spring of 2016.

The support of those following his writings and his suspension spanned across people from every walk of life that were working to decolonize African education. Jonathan Jansen, Vice Chancellor of the University of the Free State, states: “What Mamdani may have done was to touch a raw nerve in the post-apartheid curriculum debate: the colonial fingerprints of the curriculum-makers, their own prejudices and histories, passed on to unsuspecting black students as tried and tested truth. He questions not only the geography of Africa but also those who defined it: white, tribal, privileged, powerful. For Mamdani curriculum is identity and this crucial point in missed by his detractors.” –Jonathan Jansen “But Our Natives Are Different! Race, Knowledge, and Power in the Academy.” In this essay, Jansen echoes Mamdani’s submission that post-apartheid Africa could not be actualized without changing the narrative that resulted from all African education coming from sources outside of Africa. From Bantu administration to customary law, it is maintained again and again that the departure of the white man ruined Africa and made it the unstable and dependent entity that it is today. In this example, Mamdani serves as the public intellectual that doesn’t receive his clout from his university credentials or his institutional power. On the contrary, his established space as a publics intellectual came from his resistance to this status quo. By trying to dismantle these aforementioned “social myths,” Mamdani is stripped of his formalized position. His continued success and widely read articles reveal, however, that public intellectualism is not about who the person is, but rather it their importance comes from what it is they have to say.

It is ironic, then, that the Western world and the United States in particular lends a deaf ear to the contemporary challenges of postcolonial and post apartheid Southern Africa. Mack makes a one sided point when he mentions the lack of hostility that the American people have toward the public intellectual. What he doesn’t mention is hostility’s quiet, deadlier brother — apathy. The only time one will see South African news is in the event of a rugby win, a misguided charity campaign, or some idiot that found himself there with a gun and the desire to murder an exotic animal in the savannah. Barring those events, African news rarely makes an appearance or a ripple in the laundry list of American consumption. Hence, there is legitimacy to the lamentation that the American public doesn’t “respect, follow, or hear the intellectual,” in Mack’s words. More specifically, American attention is focused on public intellectuals that speak to issues that most directly affect the lives that are right in front of them. When African lives are seen as tribal, intensely foreign experiences, there seems little reason to believe that such lives matter in the here and now. Maybe the intersection of the American and African political spheres don’t intersect quite enough to lend urgency to our relationship. Maybe the business opportunities aren’t as apparent in countries that are still working to decolonize their governments and establish financial dependence.

But as Mack mentions, it is arguably the obligation of every citizen in a democracy to understand and participate in institutions that would shape their lives. Furthermore, I would submit that it is the obligation to know about institutions that shape other lives as well. And so if public intellectuals have any role to play in a democracy—and they do—it’s simply to keep the pot boiling. The measure of public intellectual work is not whether the people are listening, but whether they’re hearing things worth talking about. And while it’s been accepted in the general public that nobody needs to care about Africa, it is people like Mamdani that serve as a reason for people to start listening. The truth is that the same limited perception that is being taught through the colonial gaze is the same one that has reached our own textbooks and worldview. If UCT can’t offer a post-apartheid education to its students, there’s little chance in hell we’re getting the full picture either. This limited education is what influences our racist media, shortsighted knowledge-base, and our appropriation of cultures and habits that we don’t bother to understand. If not for the interest of lending an ear and a measure of empowerment to African intellectuals, it should be in the interest of knowing the truth for truth’s sake.




Don’t Shoot the Messenger… But Don’t Draw the Messenger Either

This morning, the office of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical and self-proclaimed “provocative” magazine in Paris was subject to a terrorist attack, leaving 12 people killed. The attack was a response to a series of controversial comics, including one depicted Prophet Muhammad with a human face.

As is the popular sentiment, I am horrified to hear of the massacre of the innocent journalists as Jesuis Paris. It hasn’t been confirmed that this is the doing of radical terrorists, but let’s be real. It was. Their actions were not justified and they deserve to be objected to immediate consequences for their inexcusable actions.

There are two issues here. The first is the misconception that these terrorists are Muslim. For one thing, these people are not Muslims. As I want to shout from every rooftop located in the Western Hemisphere, Islam is a religion that holds peace and acceptance in its highest values. Muslims don’t say hello and goodbye, they say “peace be upon you” and “with peace, goodbye.” Though the political cartoons were targeted at provoking all Muslims, the people that responded with executing them do not deserve to be called Muslims. However, there is an unspoken population here that were hurt and offended by these illustrations. And it’s this silent people that will continue to be mocked the retaliation plans for these terrorists. “Draw Prophet Muhammad Day” is not the right direction to take a reclaim for freedom of speech. As my friend Kyle put it, “I’ve always been of the opinion that satire should mean something more than just “f*** you,” so the whole “let’s keep drawing Muhammad” is pretty despicable.”

With that, I want to talk about the second issue, the issue of provocative journalism.

  1. Who are you provoking? All Muslims. We’re talking a faith that comprises 23% of the world’s population.
  2. Why are you provoking them? Besides the classic “because we can answer,” maybe it can be said that it’s a mission to sensitize words and pictures that people take too seriously. To that, I say that some people will never understand how holy and sacred something can be to some people. Again, not to the extent that they have the right to kill. Let me reiterate that. Killing is wrong.

In a more understandable frame, I think it’s fair to compare the caliber of this to putting the N-word on the cover of a TIMES magazine. Do you have the freedom to do so? Technically, yes. But why, why, WHY would you?

I guess I’m ultimately struggling to understand the concept of a provocative magazine. And I’m struggling to understand how so many crazy people are able to so grossly misinterpret the philosophy of the Muslim faith.


And The Mountains Echoed

Hosseini knows exactly where a person’s heart is, and he knows how to rip it apart. And And The Mountains Echoed left me a total mess.

I tend to cry about a lot. A lot of things do it for me, like cracking knuckles, not getting enough sleep, seeing someone I love unhappy, and Youtube videos of dogs seeing their owners come home from the military. Whatever. It doesn’t belittle the fact that this book is heartbreaking and touching on a universal level. It’s enough to make Nick Offerman crawl into fetal position. 

you get the point.

you get the point.

It starts with a fairy tale about a poor man who encounters the embodiment of Satan after it kidnaps his favorite son. The man finds his little boy living a beautiful, happy life in paradise, and he’s given the choice of letting his son grow up without him, knowing that the boy will never want for anything, or take him home and struggle to feed the boy, let alone buy him that Lexus he’s probably going to ask for once he hits sixteen. At this point, I’m already crying, and this theme of sacrifice, of loving someone so much that it hurts yourself, plays out over and over again in the stories that make up the rest of the book. Each chapter is a subplot of the characters orbiting around the relationship of Abdullah and Pari, a brother and sister that love each other to bits and that get separated (again, more crying). 

The strangest thing for me as I was reading the book was how much of it spoke to my own life. 

Hosseini writes a bit about survivors guilt, as experienced by two young men that move to California before the war in Afghanistan began. Hosseini has given a name and a thousand perfect words to the thing that’s been eating at me since the revolution in Egypt a few years ago. The two boys go back to Kabul and decide to make a dramatic documentary to bring back to America, so that “people can understand,” and so that “they can make a difference,” but most of all so that they can sleep in a suburban house with the windows open, drive a nice car, and take cute girls on dates without having to question every day what they did to deserve a life so much luckier and more hopeful than that of the people they love. In the process though, they alienate themselves from the Afghans that (shocker) don’t want to star in a Hollywood documentary or become the poster child for “those poor people on that side of the world” and just want to reconstruct the pieces of their life that the war tore apart. 

Not to mention that when I say the boys live in California, I mean the Bay Area. Specifically, San Jose. Specifically, in a street fifteen minutes away from my house. As in, one of these fictional boys goes to a Gold’s Gym that I drive past every so often. And Abdullah, the main character of the novel, owns a “fictional” kabob store that’s actually 20 minutes into San Jose. I thought I was going crazy when I was reading, but it turns out Khaled Hosseini, my favorite author of all time, lives a tiny ways away from me in San Jose. I might have taken his order at Sandwich Spot (which would be so much easier to notice if people actually gave me their real names. We live in Cupertino, y’all. I knew how to spell Kshitij before I knew what “Walmart” was. You can’t all be really named Steve.)


Anyway, this book is up there in my top five favorite books (you’re still there, Junie B. Jones), and I recommend it to anyone looking to mess up their mascara. 


5/5 stars