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Revisiting Healthy Schools

A few months ago, I wrote a post titled, “Thoughts on Childhood Obesity and Poverty”. In this piece I pointed out that obesity is commonly perceived as either an  individual problem or the by-product of America’s fast-food junkie, television zombie culture. I argued that individual habits and regional cultures are not sufficient to explain the rising rates of obesity in America—corporate food giants (who enlarge portions of snacks and sodas to jack up prices), resource inequalities, unhealthy school lunches and a variety of other structural factors all contribute to the prevalence of childhood obesity and type II diabetes, especially in inner city communities.

So how can we reverse the obesity epidemic in low income communities?

In my experience, many interventions focus on educating students on the virtues of eating healthy. When I worked as a social work intern at Rogers Park High School, the school health clinic invited a food critic to visit the classrooms and conduct an apple tasting with the kids. We helped her haul buckets of organic apples into the classrooms so that the kids could learn to identify the subtle differences between pink ladys, macintoshs, and fuji apples. “Isn’t it wonderful? The kids are actually excited about eating apples! They’re exciting about eating healthy!” my supervisor gushed. Frankly, I felt conflicted about the whole idea. Most of our kids came from poor families–they couldn’t afford to buy organic apples and even if they could there were no groceries stores in their neighborhoods. They didn’t even serve fresh fruit in the cafeteria. What good was teaching kids about eating healthy when they didn’t have any access to healthy food?

After this experience I felt convinced  that we must increase the access that poor kids and their parents have to healthy foods in order to combat childhood obesity. In my earlier post I proposed that governments offer subsidies to help poor families buy produce, that schools make healthy lunches a priority, and that cities offer incentives for grocery stores to move into poor neighborhoods.

Recently, I’ve begun to realize that these structural solutions are also not sufficient to curb unhealthy eating habits among children. In one of my courses last semester, we attempted to devise school based programs that might prevent the development of type II diabetes among urban kids. During this discussion I realized that I had overlooked a few important facts.

Foremost, I forgot the obvious fact that kids–all kids, everywhere, like to eat junk food. Simply put, kids are less likely than adults to worry about what they eat. Furthermore, many kids (especially adolescents) may exercise control or independence from their parents by making choices about what they eat. (I.e. the more your mother yelled at you to eat your vegetables the less likely you were to eat them, right?). A recent New York Times article described parents in Philadelphia who stood outside corner stores to discourage kids from stopping in and buying candy or chips on their way to and from school. Guess what the kids did? Most of them barged right past those parents and bought candy anyway. They were acting out their role as adolescents–asserting their ability to make their own choices.

We can educate kids and provide them to access with healthy foods, but ultimately we can’t control what kids eat. This is especially true for urban children who may spend more time unsupervised than micro-managed suburban children. My professor pointed out that school-based health programs need to create a shift in kid’s attitudes. This means that we need to create school cultures were kids are committed to making healthy decisions.

How does that happen? Our class came up with a few ideas I thought were valuable. First, kids need “possible selves”. This means they need to see people who come from their communities, people who look and talk like them modeling healthy habits. For example, a white, middle-aged food critic is less likely to influence the way kids eat than a speaker from their own community. When white teachers or school leaders do educate students of color about healthy eating, they should incorporate Black or Latino role models into the discussion (the Obamas are great examples) so that students do not equate healthy eating with “acting white”.Kids also need to have a sense of ownership, mastery and choice. For example, educators can frame obesity or type II diabetes as a social justice issue and encourage kids to be activists and spread awareness of the issue within their communities. Or schools might provide an array of physical activities (from traditional sports to activities like dance, karate or yoga), so that kids who don’t identify as “athletes” can find a way to demonstrate mastery in an activity that includes some aspect of exercise.

I think the bottom line is that programs need to recognize that personal, cultural, and environmental factors all contribute to poor health outcomes in low-income neighborhoods. Furthermore, we can’t overlook the fact that kids themselves can be powerful agents of change. In order to be successful, we need their insights, participation, and buy-in.

Making Mindful New Year’s Resolutions

We never did much to celebrate New Year’s Eve in my family. “Time is arbitrary”, my father said every year, before going to bed at 10’clock. Nonetheless, like many Americans I always made a New Year’s resolution. While I seldom stuck to these goals, year after year I declared them in my diaries in capital letters. In years past, my resolutions have included eating healthier, meditating daily, and learning to cook. I imagine such resolutions sound fairly typical. Like many Americans who vow every year to hit the gym, quit smoking, or land a better job–my goals have always focused on self-improvement.

American culture is obsessed with the notion of self-improvement (hit TV shows like “The Biggest Loser” , cult classics such as “Rudy”,  and the endless publication of self-help books are all a testament to this fact). It’s not surprising that our New Year’s resolutions often reflect our preoccupations with becoming wealthier, happier, slimmer or more accomplished. Perhaps this is the natural consequence of living in a culture so firmly rooted in individualism.

Certainly there is nothing wrong with self-improvement. But we ought to balance our desires to improve ourselves with an equal commitment to improving the world around us.

Just imagine–what if a million Americans this year resolved to reduce their carbon footprint rather than losing ten pounds or saving up for a new car?

In this spirit, I propose the “Compassionate New Year’s Resolution”. The idea is simple, pick a resolution that focuses on the making the world a better place rather than making yourself a better person. For a change, community trumps individualism. If you like, share your resolutions in the “comments section” of this blog.

Here are just a few ideas for Compassionate Resolutions…

1) Reduce your carbon footprint any way you choose. You can give up eating meat, use public transportation or bicycle to work, or make a commitment to use less energy or water.

2)  Consider making a small monthly donation to a favorite organization or charity. (Nicholas Kristof’s column “The Humanitarian Gift Guide” provides a list of wonderful organizations to help get you started).

3) Make a commitment to volunteer on a weekly or monthly basis.

4) Commit to spending more time with family or friends.

5) Make a commitment to abide by an ethical practice. For example, you might decide to stop talking about others behind their backs.

6) Engage in advocacy or social justice work.

These are just a few ideas. Personally, I’m making the commitment to stop eating red meat (gases emitted by cattle are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases) and to begin using re-usable shopping bags. I’m a  graduate student, so I don’t have a lot of income–but I’ve also decided to commit 5% of  my paycheck from my part-time job to a different organization each month.

Like all New Year’s resolutions, your goals can be modest, but they should be specific and attainable. Don’t underestimate the power of  your personal choices to make a difference. Like Margaret Mead said, “A small group of thoughtful people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Does Cathleen Black Have What it Takes to Run the New York City School System?

It’s official; Mayor Bloomberg has appointed media-mogul Cathleen Black as chancellor of the New York public school system. Apparently the mayoral takeover of the public schools is also a corporate takeover. With Cathleen Black as commander in chief, Bloomberg is enlisting his multi-millionaire cronies in full-scale coup d’ etat on the public education system.

Perhaps I sound a bit dramatic. It’s just that Black’s nomination has left me feeling wary. The new chancellor attended Roman Catholic schools and sent her children to elite private academies. Black has never stepped foot in a school as a teacher or administrator.

I’m briefly reminded here of a conversation I once had with a parent activist and leader of a Chicago-based advocacy group. This parent reflected, “you know, the politicians, the mayor, the alderman—they all send their kids to private schools. I’ve never once met one that that sent their kid to a CPS school. They can’t really understand the problems in our schools because they haven’t spent any time there.”

Personally, I agree with the words of this parent. After working as a teacher in an inner-city high school I might be a bit biased—but I feel like experience counts for something. As Chancellor of the largest public school system in the country, Ms. Black will be making decisions that affect the life-outcomes of millions of poor and working-class children. How is it possible that Ms. Black will possess the necessary empathy, understanding, and passion to make the right choices for these students? Can Ms. Black descend from her penthouse apartment and build rapport with principals in Harlem or parents in the South Bronx?

I’m worried that for Ms. Black the students of the New York public school system will merely be a series of numbers, statistics and dollar signs. When you are looking at numbers in columns—and not thinking about the real kids sitting in classrooms—it is easy to slash budgets or try out experimental policies without really weighing the consequences. I think New York Times columnist Bob Herbert summarized my uneasiness the best his column yesterday titled “Winning the Class War”. Herbert writes:

“Ms. Black will be peering across an almost unbridgeable gap between her and the largely poor and working-class parents and students she will be expected to serve. Worse, Mr. Bloomberg, heralding Ms. Black as a “superstar manager,” has made it clear that because of budget shortfalls she will be focused on managing cutbacks to the school system. So here we have the billionaire and the millionaire telling the poor and the struggling — the little people — that they will just have to make do with less.”

I’m nervous about the parallels being drawn here between managing a business and running a school system. Mr. Blooming argued that Ms. Black’s managing expertise and experience serving customers have prepared her to lead the school system and to work with parents and children.

Schools are not businesses. Preparing students to be thoughtful, well-rounded and productive citizens—despite the formidable obstacles presented by poverty is a much more complicated enterprise than making a profit. Student achievement is harder to measure than annual revenue. Not to mention, there is a lot more at stake when educating millions of New York children than there is selling magazines. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t see how being a successful business manager is any indication of how one might perform as a school chancellor.

Bloomberg’s bad appointment certainly reveals the downside of a Mayoral takeover of schools. In Chicago, the story is similar. When Arne Duncan was appointed the Secretary of Education by Obama, Mayor Daley appointed Huberman a former cop and a long trusted employee in the Mayor’s office as the Chicago Public School’s CEO. Like, Black, Huberman had no experience in education but was a part of the Mayor’s inner-circle.

Perhaps it’s natural that Mayors looking to consolidate power will place trusted cronies in top positions. However, this strategy does not put kids first. I believe that effective administrators are as important as effective teachers. If we want to make our public school systems better, way may want to re-think an arrangement that gives our Mayor (one individual—inevitably guided by his own self-interest) the unchecked power to choose educational leaders.

Poverty, Fear and Social Isolation: Some Thoughts on the Challenges Facing Older Adults in Poor Neighborhoods

Much of the previous discussion on this blog has focused on the hardships of inner-city children. I have talked about the consequences among children of poor nutrition, unequal schools, inaccessible health care, and youth gang violence. However, it is important to acknowledge that poverty—and especially the experience of living in a poor, segregated and isolated neighborhood—have catastrophic effects on the health and wellbeing of adults and older adults as well.

As a social work intern working at the University of Chicago Hospital my job was to check in on patients and to assist with their discharge planning. During this time, I spoke with many elderly patients—the majority of whom were African American and lived in impoverished South Side neighborhoods surrounding the University of Chicago.

As I interacted with these patients and gently probed for information about their home life (it was a part of my job)— their stories began to unravel.  I’ll never forget one woman, a frail but spunky African American lady in her mid nineties. When I asked this patient (we’ll call her Ms. Price) how her stay at the hospital was going, she retorted, “well, now I know why Obama is sayin’ we need health care reform.”

Ms. Price had lived in the same Chicago neighborhood since she arrived from the South at age 18. Since her husband died from cancer thirty years ago, Ms. Price had managed the upkeep of her home on her own and led a largely solitary life. Overtime, Ms. Price’s neighborhood became more dangerous and depopulated. The sidewalks were cracked and littered with broken glass. Drug dealers hung out in vacant buildings, and neighborhood shootings were common.

Fear held Ms. Price hostage. She worried that if she left the house she would trip on the crumbled sidewalk or be caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting. She stopped going to church, visiting friends and attending community socials for seniors. Ms. Price only left her home to buy groceries and visit the doctor.

When I asked Ms. Price if she had any friends or family that could help care for her after her surgery, she answered wistfully, “No…I just always take care of myself. You get to a certain age and all your friends are dead. I used to have a friend who called me once a year, but this year he didn’t call…I think maybe he died.”

As I continued my internship at the hospital, I continued to meet more people like Ms. Price— black and Latino senior citizens living lonely, isolated lives in poor neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides. For many of these people, safety was a major concern. I found that many senior citizens were afraid to leave their homes—and often ended up severing important social ties and connections to their communities. Too often, fear prevented senior citizens from attending community events, getting fresh air and exercise, seeking medical help and leading active and fulfilling lives.

I later learned while reading an excerpt from Eric Klineberg’s book “Heat Wave”, that one of the leading causes of death during the 1995 Chicago Heat Wave was social isolation among the elderly. Older adults, who were afraid to leave their homes during the heat wave, were less likely to seek reprieve in air-conditioned public spaces such as shopping malls. They were also less likely to seek services that might be provided by community organizations and nearby churches.


Although older adults living in poverty may face many challenges (unsafe neighborhoods, health problems, social isolation, costly medications—to name a few)—people of all ages can be valuable assets to their communities and agents of positive change.

Last Saturday, I attended a leadership-training workshop for Black and Latino older adults. Gamaliel Metro Chicago (a local chapter of a nationwide community organizing group) and the AARP ran the workshop. The aim of the workshop was to train older adult leaders to be community organizers and to advocate for issues important to older adults on Chicago’s South and West sides.

When the doors opened at 9 am, there was already a line of chatting, silver-haired participants waiting outside. By the time the training started, there was close to ninety people clustered around circular tables in the conference room.

I hadn’t anticipated just how inspiring this event would be. As the participants shared their personal histories, I learned that many of them had overcome unimaginable personal hardships before becoming formidable leaders in their communities. One remarkable woman I met recalled her childhood growing up in Louisiana. She remembered walking on a dirt road each day to a one room school house with the other black children in her neighborhood—and watching when a school bus carrying the white children to a different school rattled by them each day. This injustice gnawed at her deeply. When she finally came to Chicago as a young woman, she felt disheartened that things didn’t seem much better here than they were in the South. Black and Latino children were still attending deeply segregated and unequal schools. Since that time, she told me she’s spent a lifetime working or volunteering for education reform. When she spoke about the limited ESL services available for immigrant children at her community school she remarked, “Oooh, it just burns me up. One thing, I know I’ll be working on this til I die. I just know it.”

Many of the other workshop participants also held impressive leadership positions within their communities. One man I met ran a food pantry, and other man described a mentorship program for high school students he started and coordinated on his own—after he was denied at job at Burger King because he didn’t have a college degree.

Like Ms. Price, many of the seniors were concerned about safety and community services for other seniors. After some questioning, one woman told me that she had decided to come to the event after an elderly man at her church been beaten to death in the street. “He was such a gentleman”, she recalled fondly, “he was always helping the old ladies down the altar after communion—even though he was an old guy too.”

Throughout the training, it occurred to me that like young people, older adults are also in a unique position to help their communities and to foster positive change. Unlike many middle-aged adults who must balance the demands of work and parenting, most older adults have an abundance of free time.  Furthermore, many older adults have a reached a point in their lives where they have accrued a lot of wisdom and have developed an acute sense of compassion and a desire to “give back”.

It is important that we begin to bring more awareness to the struggles that older adults in poor communities may face. This demographic is vulnerable but if organized, they can also be powerful. Older adults deserve to live in safe places and to have social services that will allow them to be fruitful and productive in the final chapter of their lives.

My First Meditation Retreat

Buddha Statue at IMS Retreat Center

My first meditation retreat was far less glamorous than Elizabeth Gilbert’s turn as a yogi in “Eat, Pray, Love”.  For starters, there were fewer self-revelations and spiritual epiphanies. There was no swooning over lost loves and no friendships with wise, rough-around-the-edges guys from Texas. There were no visions and alas, no enlightenment.

All of this might sound like a let down, but the week I spent at the Insight Meditation Society’s (IMS) retreat for Young Adults was fruitful, challenging, and (appropriately) insightful.

The retreat I attended was a silent retreat. This means talking, eye contact, books, journals, cell phones, IPods, laptops and all other forms of amusement or distraction were forbidden. Yogis were even asked to take the plunge and deposit their cell-phones into a large wicker basket at the start of the retreat. (Confession: I kept mine and may have sent a text message or two).

When I signed up for the retreat I had been practicing Vipassana style meditation for almost two years. Although I spent fifteen minutes dutifully meditating each day, I often worried I wasn’t “doing it right”. I felt I needed instruction and I was ready to deepen my practice. Signing up for a meditation retreat seemed like a logical way to go about it.

Although I was initially excited for the retreat, as the date approached I started to experience doubt, regret, and eventually terror. I even dreamt that I arrived at the retreat only to discover it was actually a prison.

Somehow, (perhaps because I’m too embarrassed to quit something once I publicly tell people I going to do it), I forced myself to go. When I first arrived at the retreat center, I was enamored by the stately brick building and the charm of the 50-something bohemians who worked there. The place was a kind of eco-hippie utopia: there were no locks on any of the doors, all of the food in the cafeteria came from local farmers, and every scrap of left over food was composted.

However it didn’t take long for my fears to be confirmed. When I saw the week’s schedule I felt like someone had dropped an anvil on my chest. Between walking and sitting meditation session it included about 10 hours of meditation a day. I could barely meditate for 30 minutes let alone 10 hours! Briefly I was reminded of the previous longest week of my life—a Christian summer camp my parents shipped me off to at age ten. I have a very vivid memory of wanting to stick my head into the campfire while the other kids sang Bible hymns for the 3rd night in a row.  I wondered if this week would feel even longer.

During the first day I struggled with a mix of sleepiness and boredom. At the 6:30 am meditation session, I learned I could drift off to sleep sitting down, standing up, and even with my eyes opened. No matter how hard I tried to focus on my breath I began to fall back asleep within a few moments. During the afternoon sessions I found myself constantly peeking at my watch, waiting impatiently for the time to go by.  Each hour felt like an eternity. There was simply nothing to do except to follow my breath. I contemplated packing my things in the middle of the night and jailbreaking out of the place unnoticed.

For some reason, I stayed.  I kept meditating from dawn until dusk and when I felt I couldn’t meditate anymore I drank a cup of tea and watched the wind move through the trees. There were times I felt bored and times I simply longed for pizza, beer and loud music. However, those low points were more and more frequently punctuated by subtle revelations. I noticed just how much I missed “doing stuff”—even mindless activities like running errands or cleaning my apartment. I reasoned that perhaps in a society where we are constantly moving and keeping busy, we identify much more with “doing” or “achieving” than with “being”. Removed from my normally active life, I noticed I felt lost without my daily to-do list and the satisfaction of completing the tasks lined out ahead of me. During a dharma talk, one of my teachers commented, “movement disguises pain”. After hearing this remark, I reflected that perhaps all the constant busyness in American society makes it easy for us to avoid contemplating deeper questions about what it means to be a human being. I reasoned that the retreat experience may not be pleasurable, but it was certainly forcing me to terms with the “real me”—that is, the real experience of having a human mind and body that are normally hidden by the distractions of my day to day life.

With the guidance of my teachers, I practiced being mindful of my thoughts and emotions. When I felt sleepy or bored, I explored the physical sensations those mind states produced, and the thoughts that came with them. As I paid closer attention, I noticed that my mind moved through familiar, well-worn paths. I began labeling and observing each state of mind. There was my “desire mind” where I often fantasized about future vacations in elaborate detail, or thought about the clothes I wanted to buy for the fall. Then there was also the “planning mind” where I unnecessarily planned out details for the near future—such as deciding when to go get a cup of tea, or where I would go do my walking meditation. In addition there was the “judging mind” (where I alarmed myself by making all kinds of nasty judgments about other yogis as they sauntered by) and the “catastrophic mind” (where I worried incessantly about loved ones ending up in car accidents or plane crashes).

My thoughts seemed to amble randomly between these states mind, traveling the same familiar paths over and over again. Before long, I realized that most of these paths were not very interesting places to go, nor did they have very much do with real life. I began to understand that many of thoughts were only seductive illusions and that they were mostly a waste of my time. After a while, when I found myself slipping into a familiar mind state—perhaps planning a trip across Africa in my desire mind—I began to ask myself, “do I really want to follow this thought?  Is it better to be with this thought than be with the present moment?”  If I was honest with myself, the answer to that questions was usually “no”.

I’ll be honest I didn’t leave the meditation retreat a transformed person. Some days I watch TV for an extra half hour instead of meditating. Sometimes I forget to listen to others and I often end up lost in thoughts. However, there are also times when I remember to stop daydreaming and to reconnect with the present moment. In some cases, I wake up just in time to see something beautiful—like a string of preschoolers walking while holding hands or a bone-white plane cutting through a cloudless blue sky. For me, that’s enough to make the whole experience worth it.

My Writing on Dissident Voice

The article below is now posted on the online line newsletter dissident voice. You can check it out at