Ready for a culture jam


Culture jamming is a tactic used to counteract and challenge consumerist culture and to disrupt media culture. It’s about interrupting a consumer-culture message and forcing the consumer to actually think about it.

One example of this is displayed above (I’ve learned a lot from Michael Scott) – throwing red paint on fur-wearers. In our consumer culture, wearing fur is a sign of wealth and luxury….[enter red paint]…it forces us to remember the pain and loss of life behind the fur coat. This is a good culture jam because it takes an image that is popular in our culture and alters it to reveal an obvious aspect of the message that we have been dulled to (murder = fur = murder!)

Now, I am not an animal right’s activist, but I am a strong proponent of critical thinking and overzealous questioning of consumer culture. I hate, with a passion, the power that our consumer ideals have over our lives. I hate that we, as a society, have been lulled into a life that demands thoughtless over-consumption.

I happen to be a consumer. For most of my life, the focus of my consumption was of clothing, shoes, accessories, etc. Now, as a kid and a teenager, I had really limited funds; but let me tell you, it is really easy to buy a ton of clothes with little money. If my dad gave me $50 to buy clothes for back to school, I just had to take one trip to H&M and I’d be set. My birthday money, my babysitting money, my allowance, it all added up to more shirts, pants, dresses, shoes, anything I thought I should have. The clothes let me feel like a normal kid, I liked the identity that they gave me.

Now, fast-forward ten(ish) years. I have more income, since I actually started working, and a lot more freedom. However, I don’t buy nearly as many clothes as I did when I had no money. Why? One day I asked myself, why can I buy a brand new, brand name t-shirt for $2.50? Why can I buy a pair of pants for $5? Sure, I may be getting a good deal, but who is my purchase affecting?

gap-culture-jamOnce I started asking those questions, I couldn’t go back. The answers suck. There’s a reason nothing is produced in Canada anymore: clothes are made by people, and people need to be paid wages, and wages need to be paid by companies, and companies make money from consumers, so consumers need to pay decent prices for their clothes! A t-shirt SHOULDN’T cost $2.50. When I’m shopping now, I don’t thrill over low prices like that, because I know that somebody else is paying the price.

But back to culture jamming as an idea! Its a super effective tool that can cause other people to think about and question things in their every day, consumer lives. It’s certainly not pleasant, but that’s the point. We are living comfortable, blissfully ignorant lives, consuming as much as we can with as little intention as possible…and that is not ok.

We’ve let corporations become members of the community and businesses become actual people. Walmart and Ikea are institutions that we trust, that we don’t question. When they tell us that we need something to be happy or to be normal, then we actually start to need it. When Coca-cola tells us that it cares about us and that it can help us to care about other people, we start to care about it! We download (1).jpgget a warm, fuzzy feeling in our tummies and can suddenly only express ourselves by purchasing, purchasing, purchasing.

Culture jamming forces us to stop. I think I’ve repeated that a few times throughout this blog, but that’s because it’s something we ALL need to do. We need to stop, assess, question, and re-assess. I know it
sounds boring, but if you are a free-thinking human being, you shouldn’t have any trouble with it!


“Good girls don’t protest”

There seems to be a growing list of things that “good girls” don’t do. Things are added every year to this lovely list. Though it looks slightly different country-to-country, or region-to-region, the list is the list.

When my grandma was growing up in a tiny Arkansas town, she wasn’t allowed to read because reading was not something that a good girl did. When my mom was growing up, in a different Arkansas town, she
was told she wasn’t allowed to date a black man because that was not something good girls did. Even when I was little, though nobody ever clearly defined the list for me, I knew the things I could not do if I was to continue being a good girl.

That elusive label is so destructive because its often spoken without thought and without understanding. I’m sure that when my father or my mother used that word around me, they meant absolutely no harm. They didn’t realize that they were dragging a medieval definition of womanhood and shackling it to my ankle (excuse my dramatic visual), but that’s really where the problem lies, isn’t it?

Now, in my life, I haven’t felt the weight of this shackle. I don’t think that I’ve ever stopped myself from doing something because I was worried it wasn’t lady-like, or that I would no longer be a good girl. But just because I don’t need to define myself as a “good girl” doesn’t mean that the term doesn’t have power over me. You see, the term has power because it tells other people how they should look at me.

The term is defined by society, by whoever has power in a society. And no matter how the girl feels about the term, whether she focuses her energy on achieving it or she completely dismisses it, it is powerful.

In Sudan, a movement is happening. It’s been in 08 March 2011: March in El Fasher city, North Darfur, to celebrate 8th March, International Women’s Day. Picture: UNAMID - Olivier Chassotthe works for years, but it happens to be in the news today.Women are rallying together to protect each other, to promote their own rights, and to fight the silence that has been forced upon them. People are noticing this movement because of the violent responses that the women have been met with. Activists are being threatened with rape, sexual assault, mutilation and being publicly shamed as lesbians and prostitutes.

But that’s not all…. one of the women stated that police had questioned her morals because of her activism: “It’s an ethical issue for them. If you are a female in Sudan and go out to protest in the street… that means you are a bad woman or a bad girl.”

There it is again. Bad girl vs good girl. See, from my point of view, these are GOOD GIRLS (I might even use the term bad-ass, but that’s not really appropriate). However, I am not the one who gets to define the term, and by definition, they are not good. But these girls do not care that they are being called “bad”. They state that themselves: “the people know me! … They know that I am not like what you are saying”. The thing is, the term still has power. It doesn’t matter that they ignore it, because society has the standard that they are to be compared to.

The harder we force against the definition, the harder it will push back.

The only way to change anything about it is to change the society that is using the term.

Sorry, I know that’s a pretty big thing to ask, but I think its about freaking time. 

What does poverty look like?

“What does poverty look like….what does poverty sound like….what does poverty feel like?”

You may think those are good questions….but I’m sorry to tell you, they just aren’t. They are certainly answerable questions, as our friend from the Christian Children’s Fund has proven. However, they are not good questions, not in the slightest.

You see, poverty doesn’t actually look or sound like anything. Because poverty isn’t a being, it isn’t some sort of monster that runs around touching people and ruining their lives. Certainly, if it was, those questions would be valid and important! We could say that poverty is a giant blue flying monster that spits fire and violently screeches to warn of its arrival. But that’s just not true…

Poverty is something that exists everywhere and it’s not the same in any two places. Poverty isn’t the sound of a baby crying, it isn’t a child sitting home from school, or a father sitting in hopelessness because his children are starving. Poverty is a complex societal problem, a systemic condition that is supported by economic structures that deliberately impoverish those who the market considers disposable (as Eli Day puts it).

As far as answering the problem of poverty…I have absolutely no clue. I’m not pretending that I understand it or that I know how to solve it! But I do know that the only way we can get moving toward a solution is to properly understand poverty and to help spread that understanding! NOT to dumb it down to an unbelievably simplistic and condescending level for a large audience to understand. Poverty may be difficult to explain, but after many decades of using these same poverty porn tactics, WE’RE NO CLOSER TO SOLVING THE ISSUE!

This ad, though honest in its intentions, does a horrible disservice to the children it is trying to help. By defining poverty as Maria (the little girl from the video), we are actually defining Maria as poverty. This ad doesn’t even present Maria as a human. It doesn’t describe any of the other things that Maria is, like a sister who cares about her crying brother…instead, he is just another reminder of her impoverished state. It doesn’t describe the fact that she has a family who works hard to provide for her needs and just needs a little extra help…instead, she’s lonely in a dark room because her mother can’t take care of her.

So maybe I am too critical of this organization that is doing good work in the world, but there’s just no excuse for tearing the dignity out of the people you are trying to help. If the only way to get a $5 donation from a Canadian audience is to contradict and deny the humanity of a child, then there is something wrong with that Canadian audience. We need to start educating the people who are going to contribute to our causes. We need to tell them, “Hey, we were wrong to tell you that your $5 would save a child…because it won’t. But that’s ok! Because your $5 will help us to create actual, long-lasting change in a community”.

So overall, this ad is pretty sad. Not in an emotional way, but in the way that it perpetuates misinterpretations of poverty that undermine the fundamental solution trying to be achieved! This ad was a distinguished recipient of a Rusty Radiator award in 2014, and it does not disappoint. Let’s hope that in the coming future, we see better ads that will do justice to the CCFC who does great work around the world (and for those who are being helped by this organization).


I’m sorry if this offends anybody who reads it, and I’m sorry if it seems like I hate the Christian Children’s Fund, because that is certainly not my intention. Though this is technically an ad analysis (and maybe a harsh one at that), its really a critique of  development advertising tactics in general! I have absolutely nothing against the CCFC!

Teach a man to fish

We have all heard this proverb: if you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day…but if you teach a man to fish he will eat for a lifetime.

This is a lovely little saying that can be inserted into almost any conversation and apply to almost any topic. When we are talking about development, it tells an important story! Here, we see the difference between somebody (the man) becoming developed versus sombody becoming dependent. Obviously, the former is the general goal!

But what if we add something to this proverb? The other day, I heard it told another way…

If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime. But don’t then go and poison the water.

Wow. Let’s have a moment to let that sink it.

Our development strategies, even the really good ones, are flawed no matter what. In 2014, Canada gave $108 million in international aid to Bangladesh. How lovely of us, right? In the same year, Canada imported $1.2 million of apparel products from Bangladesh. More good, right? Of course, Canada supports the developing economy of Bangladesh by importing from them! And we help their social and political development by giving them our aid money. Right? RIGHT?!

Wrong…unfortunately, that is very wrong. For many reasons that I won’t even touch on here. The one I will focus on is the “poisoning the water” thing. Because that is a very literal problem with the way we are “supporting” their economy. We don’t just import a huge volume of apparel (including all kinds of clothing, footwear and textiles) from Bangladesh, we import a huge volume of apparel at crazy low prices.

So as we send aid money in hopes of improving social conditions and environments, we also promote (and actually demand) degraded social conditions and environments in order to allow ourselves the option of buying $5 jeans. We give money to UNICEF to send a little kid from Thailand to school, but then we buy 10 t-shirts from H&M because they are only $2.50 each. Well, the t-shirts are only $2.50 because they were most likely made by another little kid who didn’t get to go to school.

While we create high volume demand of such cheap products, we also support the destruction of their environment. Garment factories dump millions of liters of dyed waste water into surrounding rivers and lakes. Factories that refine and tan leather dispose of an estimated 88 million tons of solid waste annually. Of course, there are other factors contributing to this problem and allowing it to persist, but if the demand wasn’t there then the problem wouldn’t exist at such a magnitude.

(Source: a beautiful picture, until you remember that rivers shouldn’t be purple)



Helping without hurting

Do you remember when you were in elementary school and you were exposed to some incredibly complex mathematical principle for the first time? Like fractions or algebra? For me, it was integers. I could not wrap my mind around integers. When I failed the math test, my teacher paired me up with the student who had received the highest grade on the test so he could help me learn. This led to more embarrassment as I was paired up with my sixth grade crush (very typical plot line for some pathetic Family channel movie, I know).

So, we sat down to work on integers and I was sure that all of my eleven year old dreams would come true. He would valiantly rescue me from the math and we would fall in love over the course of the forty-minute math class!

Of course, that is not what happened.

He awkwardly sat down next to me and asked what I got on the test…I told him I failed. He asked why. I said I didn’t know. He wrote down the right answers and told me to “do that”. Then he turned around to talk to someone behind me. And it was over.

Why did I drag you down this unfortunate story from my childhood? Was it necessary to give so much detail? Bear with me, I swear there is a point! The point is that I learned nothing that day, except how cruel the world of love is.

The point is that this model for teaching sucks and it only seems acceptable in the mind of an eleven-year old boy. So…why is this the way we have approached development for so long?

There are two serious problems with his method of ‘helping’ me that day.

(1) He assumed that by showing me the correct answers, without bringing me through the necessary steps or telling me the math behind the answer, that I would magically be at the same level of understanding that he was.

(2) He did not think that it was worth it (his time, use of resources, or effort) to actually try to teach me. He didn’t want to actually help me and he probably thought that I was too stupid to understand (sixth graders can be mean).

At the end of all this, I was left with an ‘answer’ that I couldn’t understand. I felt stupid because, through his actions and his attitude, he had told me I was stupid.

Eventually, I learned how to deal with integers. When someone actually took the time to help me learn; when someone explained the method of thinking and allowed me to reach the answers on my own. They didn’t come over and say “the answer is -6”, but actually gave me the tools I needed so I could figure out the different answers needed for different problems (the answer is not always -6).

This is the new thinking that we need to approach development with (in my humble opinion). If you go in to a Kenyan village and start building a water pump for them, that’s great…you gave water to poor, suffering people. But what happens when that pump breaks down? What happens when it is overloaded with people from surrounding villages who also need water? The truth is, you’ve done nothing to help these people. There has been no ‘development’ because you’ve given them an ‘answer’ that they do not understand and cannot replicate (the word for that is agency, they lack agency!).

We’ve used this bad model in almost every place we’ve tried to help in the world. We’ve seen very little actual development occur. But the crazy thing is WE STILL USE IT!! We are obsessed with this model of development because it makes us feel smart and superior. It allows us to feel like we are doing good work, and most importantly to tell other people that we are doing good work.

It’s outdated, broken, and horribly ineffective. It didn’t help me learn integers and it isn’t helping anyone else. We need to throw it out and adopt new ways of thinking. We need to fix the ways we do things, learn from our mistakes, and move forward!

It’s as simple as that, and I can prove it:

-5+ 3 = -2

A different kind of passion

Since I started studying development, my mind has been blown. I was humbled and challenged and I quickly learned that having a passion for something is NOT the same as studying and actually understanding something. So my small window of experience has gone something like this:

First, passion. I went through a period of idealistic excitement during which I was sure I was going to be some kind of game-changer (it sounded something like…”Misha, you are going to change the world!!!!”) .

Second, questions. Questions like “what the hell is development?” and ” why did I not know this before?”. When I started to get into my classes, I realized that development is more than what I see in World Vision commercials and at We Day concerts (and no, I’m not embarrassed to say that this did not occur to me earlier).

Third, jaded(ness). Further into my classes, I started to think that development was doomed. The things that we are fed through pop culture and the millions of sure-fire social justice movements are lies. More questions came with this phase, questions like “what the hell is wrong with us white people (pardon, I mean ‘westerners’) and our god-complexes”, “how is it possible that we have learned nothing after all this time!” and “why does everyone think Africa is a country?!”.

Between the ‘third phase’ and the ‘fourth phase’, I got the opportunity to leave school and work with an organization in Kenya. My friend and I jetted off to a little base in the heart of the country where we spent about 6 months learning and working with communities. Though our duties were centered around faith-based outreach, I took this as a time to look at celebrated development practices and programs (like school sponsorship and water wells) and see what they actually look like in action. Everyone I know (myself included) has bragged about ‘buying a goat’ or ‘adopting a poor kid’, but after we hit [confirm] on the UNICEF website, our part in the cause kind of ends, and we move on to other things. So where does this goat actually go and why would a family want a goat anyway? This bit of time gave me a better perspective of how to view development and it helped me fix my expectations of it.

Fourth, passion (again). So yes, I went to Kenya and it changed my life. But not in the typical way. When I was in Kenya, I saw a lot of good that came from development work (both of national and international agencies). I also saw the consequences of unguided and idealistic development practices, like dependent development. Most importantly, I saw the possibility for change (cue the inspirational music). My passion was reignited and I realized there may be hope for development.

I realize this post may seem a little pointless as it does not really convey any opinions or news…but truthfully I didn’t really know where to start! My task is to create a blog, so here I’ve laid the ground work. You, the reader (assuming there is a reader), can kind of learn who I am and see where I am coming from. I speak from my experiences, my understanding of issues, and my unapologetic world view! I hope you enjoy reading my blogs and I invite discussion and comments. I’m always looking to have my views challenged and to see things from new perspectives, so please feel free to weigh in!


Now enjoy this extra typical Kenyan giraffe photo: