Laurita Dianita

Reflections and art on the topics of public health, social justice, and love

Archive for the ‘racial equity’ tag

On the occasion of Fidel Castro’s death, brief thoughts on Cuba and the US American Left

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I wrote this yesterday, as the world learned of Fidel Castro’s death, on my phone as a Facebook post. Today, with both kids napping, I finally have a moment to make it into a blog post.


In the upper left, my traveling companions and friends, Sandra and Clare. On the right and bottom, the gregarious and adventurous children we met in La Sierra Maestra.

Fidel Castro’s death comes at a time when the US American left-of-center is asking a lot of the questions about unity vs. diversity of cause that my friends Clare and Sandra and I were asking when we spent 3 weeks in Cuba in the summer of 2005. (This was Clare’s return to Cuba after having studied abroad there 2002 – 2003, the first trip there for me and Sandra).

We wrestled with many questions that trip, as we talked politics and history with our friends and hosts throughout the island (including La Sierra Maestra, where the revolution was fought and where I took the photos above) and as we poured through essays on the Bautista dictatorship and US Imperialism, La Revolución, the literacy brigades (a host family even taught us the song of the brigades — “alfabetizar, alfabetizar, venceremos!”), the healthcare system, public transportation, and more. We were so impressed by the egalitarianism and base level of health: everyone had food, shelter, potable water, healthcare, mental healthcare, education, and jobs. No children died of vaccine-preventable diseases or diahrrea. There was not much crime. Women and men were camaradas. The only people with a whole lot of extra stuff were those with family in the US sending them Playstations and dollars they could use to get “Divisa,” the tourist money. We were very impressed by the government support for artists and the arts, the celebration of cultural diversity, and the revolution’s efforts to increase gender equality.

And yet, from what we could gather, all of these reforms were done because of a “unity” that required repression of diverse viewpoints and a repression of the voices of those who were still not enjoying full equality. Race equity was better there than in the US, but most top government posts were filled by light-skinned Cubans, and the largest houses seemed to be all occupied by lighter-skinned Cubans as well. The government’s support for the rise of women in the professional world was not accompanied by as strong of a push for men to take up an equivalent share of the housework and childcare duties, or significantly reform sexist treatment of women. (Related to this, we experienced sexual harassment in the big cities, but never in the small towns.) Universal healthcare was great, but the standard approach to childbirth left much to be desired, from my perspective as a proponent of the empowering midwifery model of care. With few opportunities for advancement in certain kinds of jobs, the quality of effort and innovation seemed to be compromised. The limits on seafood for Cubans, which in effect meant that most of the time only tourists could eat the amazing lobsters and shrimp that were abundant in their oceans, grated on us (so we bought some lobsters from a fisherman we literally met while in the ocean, and cooked them with our friends in La Habana). In fact, there were a lot of systems that favored tourists at the expense of Cubans, and in one experience we had, used race informally as a marker of who to exclude. And of course, the imprisonment of gays and political dissidents, the government control of press, and the fact that Fidel still hadn’t ceded power was super messed up.

We had rich political conversations with many Cubans of all racial backgrounds and different professions and ages. Their perspectives were often a complicated mixture of admiration for and disappointment with their system and their leadership. Clare and Sandra and I asked ourselves a lot of questions about whether the US American Left would be more successful if we could concentrate on fewer issues and all gather behind a charismatic leader and an economic and egalitarian vision like Cuba had done. We wondered if each person concentrating on separate causes divided us too much to be able to compete with the hyper-organized and controlled Right. But we couldn’t reconcile the Cuban “unity” approach with the intersectional, anti-racist, feminist, pro-LGBTQ, freedom-loving vision we had for our future. We really couldn’t.

I have been thinking about those questions a lot in the last few weeks as I hear Dems saying we lost for lack of focus on a singular economic vision that Blue Collar whites in the middle of America could get behind, that we lost because our voices and causes were too diverse. I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but I would hope that we could learn from Cuba how to gather behind a bright and beautiful idea, but avoid the repression of voices that Fidel propagated, which left them a more hollow version of that vision.

Ciao, Fidel. A complicated legacy you left.


Billboards are used for public health and social messaging. This one says “Ideas are more powerful than nuclear arms.”


Our friends Beatriz and Denis, who we met at a party in the Verbenal neighborhood of La Habana. I am still in touch with Denis, 11 years later.


Children I met in La Vieja Habana while waiting for food — a cardboard plate of congrí with pork and green beans sold from a residential window.



One of my journal entries from Santiago de Cuba, on the Eastern end of the island



Enjoying lobster and congrí with Denis and his family in La Habana Vieja

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November 27th, 2016 at 1:31 pm


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This mixed media drawing/collage, currently showing at Middle Way Cafe in Anchorage, Alaska until December 7th, represents race. Race is a structure, a concept created by economic, political, and national circumstances rather than by biology. Inside, we are all pink . And person-to-person, we have incredible genetic diversity. There are no racial genes that determine the categories we know of as race today. Race, and therefore racism, is a construct that changes depending on the time and setting and who is in power.
And yet, while constructed politically, it is very real in the lived experiences of people, and experienced in a very real way in the body. Racism and its stress, and racial inequities in society all contribute to damage to the physical body, where the race privilege enjoyed by the dominant group (in the US, white Americans) does not damage bodies–this is why we have enormous health disparities in this country, and in the world. The structures of race weighs heavier on some bodies than on others, which is why the black lines above some of these figures are heavier than others.
One of the ways in which racism affects people’s health is through practices of “othering”–naming racialized/cultural groups as “Others” and fencing them off, treating them as though they were wild things that need to be controlled. Dominant cultures fence off these “Others” and control them in various ways –through literal fences sometimes, through steroetyped portrayals in the media, through the exotification of women of certain races and their marketing as sex objects, and through political decisions around funding for programs, access to health care, etc. These fences, represented here in media clippings, hold back those who are “Othered” and isolate the dominant group at the same time.
Race’s structure, reinforced through such fencing, is imperfect, however, and unravels some when there are people who are multi-racial and can cross cultures, or when people bridge between dominant and marginalized groups, as represented by those structures who fray at the edges.
What can we do to wear away at, to fray the fences that reinforce race inequities? What will you do?

[Special thanks to Enzina Marrari for organizing the “Wild Things” group show at Middle Way, to Liz Medicine Crow and Oscar Avellaneda-Cruz for prompting us to draw race in a training, to Kiatcha Benson for drawing race pink on pink to illustrate its artificiality, to Tiffany McClain for helping me fit my race drawing idea into the “Wild Things” theme via the idea of othering, and to all the critical race theorists, activists and storytellers who’ve taught me over the years.]

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October 13th, 2011 at 7:01 pm

Posted in art

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An all-the-things-I-want-to-write-about list

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I’ve been meaning to write, needing to think out some ideas thoroughly the way only writing can help me do, needing to share and dialogue. But I don’t know how to make time to write when…

  • buying a house
  • planning a wedding
  • dealing with a torn something in my shoulder and an obdurate and dishonest insurance company
  • planning somewhat regular presentations or speeches
  • until recently studying for my MSW licensure

So I will make a list instead! (Always a more fun and less intimidating undertaking.)

List of things I want to write about (and/or talk to y’all about in person):

Conference poster in Germany with my photo!

1.)  A research conference in Germany about Latin America, identity, and intersectionality, paid me to use one of my photos for their poster and conference materials! Super excited. And I have Flickr to thank.

2.)  How house buying seems to bring out the classist in us. (e.g. When you invest in a home, you want to think about resale value, and resale value depends on your neighbors, so if your neighbors have trashed-out cars in their yards…you get where this is going, right? We find ourselves in a position we never imagined ourselves in, with ideas we had scorned before now here in our palms…It’s an important thing for me to see, to better understand how disparities widen.)

3.)  Did you know that some guy named Satoshi Kanazawa who seemed to have miraculously landed himself a professorship at the University of London (lord knows how, since the man seems to have no concept of scientific rigor or even basic tenets of science) wrote an article that Psychology Today was dumb enough to publish on their Scientific Fundamentalis Blog the other day. The title of the article? “Why are Black Women Less Physically Attractive than Other Women?“ Hm. I thought we had put an end to eugenics being accepted in the scientific world. I…could go on here, at length, but the point was a list, not an essay, so I will direct you to one of many blogs about the “study”:

4.)  I want to talk about this concept that keeps coming up in my work examining health disparities in sexual and domestic violence, and keeps coming up in pop culture: this idea that some people, and most often, some women, are more “rapeable” than others. That is, in various eras of history (and today) social norms are created, often as a consequence of colonialism or slavery, that make people view forced or coerced sex against certain groups of women as more natural or inevitable or even justified. Therefore, victimization rates are higher and prosecution and conviction rates lower when someone rapes a woman from one of these groups.  Some of the things that have brought this up lately:

  • The scene in the (1950’s?) musical “South Pacific” where the Lieutenant, who previously had his eyes on the Southern white woman but had kept his respectful distance, is  presented to the very young Polynesian teenage girl. They immediately have sex on the ground. He claims this is love. And all the other men go over to the island to have sex with the Islander women as well. All this sex with the “Natives” is seen as comical and light and romantic. Meanwhile, the courtship of the Southern white woman by the Frenchman is proceeding in an entirely different manner.
  • When I was in Dillingham for a Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault training, I met a wonderful Yup’ik man working as a Behavioral Health Aide Practitioner in one of the surrounding villages. He told us stories about military training officers he met in college who would ask him, “Oh, is it true what they say about Native women, that you can give them a bottle of vodka and they’ll do the whole barracks?” He told us how his son in the Marines heard over and over again that soldiers were lucky to be stationed in Alaska because of what they can do with those Native women…And they seem to act on that encouragement. Both this Behavioral Health Aide Practicioner and Shirley Moses, the director of the Alaska Native Women’s Coalition, spoke to the incredible number of rapes and pregnancies, many of them drug and alcohol-related, caused by men from the barracks in Fairbanks. I imagine this dynamic exists from our military here in Anchorage too.  And not just the military, either. My friend Dena, who is Yup’ik and grew up in Bethel, was always sternly warned by her dad not to hang out with pilots because he had heard so much racist and sexist talk from them about Native women. We need good data on this issue and don’t have it yet.
  • Wonderful forms of media: Aishah Shahidah Simmons’ powerful film “No! The Rape Documentary”; a radio interview with her, Marc Anthony Neal and others in which they talk about the way forced sex with Black women in the South was not considered rape—not only during slave years but well after them–; and Andrea Smith (Native American anti-violence activist and academic)’s book Conquest, in which she speaks of the US colonization of American Indian land and the way Indian women have, like their land and treaties, been seen as inherantly violable, an attitude reflected in the disproportionate rates of victimization of Native women and children).

5.)  How I get frustrated when I hear social scientists or social critics talk about health problems such as obesity, violence, lung cancer, etc. as being caused primarily or overwhelmingly by only one thing or the other.  Even after we get through the nonsense of those folks who claim that all disease—including social disease–is largely genetic, there seem to be divided camps within those who look at environmental factors. There are those who say it’s an individual’s experience of trauma, (for which there IS overwhelming evidence) and those who point to the larger societal messaging about food, body, smoking, gender, etc. and strucutral barriers, such as lack of safe exercise space or fresh veggies in urban centers, etc.–there’s also a lot of evidence for this.  I encounter people so often who concentrate or offer only one side of this, skipping by the other factors with an almost dismissive mention, if anything. My response is that, uh, it all matters. And not only does one causal factor add on to another, but they intersect in really powerful ways that I’d love to see explored more. I’d love to see more research on, for example, how experiences of trauma shapes one’s reactions to racist and sexist messaging in the media and fast food and alcohol advertising.  Can’t we combine these critical analyses and get somewhere deeper?

6.)  Unresponsive and disconnected institutions and people within the institutions that are supposed to help people but don’t buy into the basic tenet of asking and involving the people they are supposed to serve.  (I’m dealing with this from a particular Federal Government body right now at work. They seem to be very out of touch and non-participatory, very top-down.  This is not effective, especially when working with indigenous peoples who have very good reason to mistrust agencies of the Federal Government.)

So if you want to talk about one of these things or argue about one of these things, please, when you run into me, just start. These are conversations I want to have. Or write me (though I can’t promise I’ll be quick in responding, what with moving and the wedding coming up in a month and a half).

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May 30th, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Sherman Alexie & Making Education Relevant

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I heard Sherman Alexie, my favorite author in the world, speak last week at the University of Alaska Anchorage. I am so excited to have heard and met this author and poet from whom I’ve learned so much over the years, but even more excited for the youth in the audience, particularly the Alaska Native youth to whom he spoke directly, at times crouching down on the stage to look into their eyes.

Alexie came from the most tremendous set of challenges, which he described in simultaneously hilarious and tragic detail—hydrocephalus & its many concomittant disabilities, poverty, social isolation, alcoholism, racist medical practices, etc. But education & leaving the reservation allowed him to find and become the poet and novelist he is now.  “We are nomadic people, we are meant to chase opportunities,” he told the Native youth specifically, urging them to go to school.

Sherman Alexie does in speaking—and his speech is a stand-up routine that could rival or better any so-called comedian—what his recent young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian does for people who do not typically read: he hooks them with humor, with fun, with a story that is so lyrical and visual and so crudely honest that people can’t help but find their own lives in it and can’t help but be seduced, at least a little, into reading and into education. Sherman Alexie does this with a wit and humor that us educators or policy makers can’t ever quite match, but I believe he sets up a model for what we should aspire to in education.

We should strive to make education so real, so relevant to the lives of students, so engaging and fun (and even funny) and empowering to their identities that they get sucked in. It should speak to the tragedies and beauties of their lives so that students find themselves in their schoolwork rather than just finding a world from which they feel alienated.

This is particularly salient for me now because of what seems to be a preponderance of textbook and worksheet teaching in the Anchorage School District and a curriculum (at least the history curriculum) that makes irrelevant most of the global South and most indigenous people. It seems that children are being asked to remember events from history or describe the contributions of famous artists without looking at their art, without understanding the link between that history and today, without really doing anything other than searching for answers to test questions.

Here are some basic things I’d like to see and help to create in schools:

  • History classes would start with the question of “Why are we learning this?” and would begin by discussing social issues that the kids are aware of today and how those can be traced back, or talk about the rights they enjoy today and how those are the products of social movements. The teacher can present some of this and the kids would have to find some of this on their own to make it real for them.
  • Maybe as an introductory project to get kids hooked into history class, students would have to conduct oral histories and figure out their own family’s history of immigration to or indigenous ancestry in this land.
  • All students would come out of their mathematics and economics classes knowing how to make and balance a budget, avoid credit card debt, read nutritional labels and shop for healthy food effectively, and other survival skills.
  • Math classes could begin with and integrate hands-on examples and guest professionals who could demonstrate how math gets applied in the worlds of medicine, engineering, art & design, social science, etc.
  • Kids would learn by doing.
  • Students would see themselves, their cultures and socioeconomic class experiences and genders, in the literature selected for storytime or for literary analysis, in the examples used for math problems, and in “World History” class.
  • The content of health class and the way it’s taught would be informed by the public health and social pyshcology research that shows what does and doesn’t work to promote healthy sexual and nutritional/lifestyle decision-making. It would not just be based off of the fears and self-righteous dogma of educators, NGOs or policy-makers.
  • Educators would be paid enough and have enough time and administrative support to make all of the above possible.

I get to implement this philosophy of pedagogy with my students in the after-school program, two of whom are pictured above shopping for groceries as part of a nutritional-literacy and food budgeting segment of the math course I am teaching. It is thrilling to see these kids stay til 6 pm excitedly calculating family budgets, calculating net income, writing pretend checks, comparing the nutritional information of meals, multiplying recipes. It is a profound reminder of why kids—and learners of all ages—need to investigate, apply their knowledge to solve real problems, and create meaningful products in order to truly invest in and learn an idea.

This is not to say that my math instruction works to make mathematicians or healthy eaters or provident spenders—this is a very humble beginning and could be far more effective. But it does reinforce for me the need for schools to engage and excite students, to make learning so relevant that students are seduced into learning more, just like Sherman Alexie does with his books and his humor.

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March 9th, 2010 at 11:37 pm

On Education: Close the Achievement Gap & Have Fun Doing It?

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(Left: photo by Oscar Avellaneda. Right: photo I took of my newcomers reading group in 2005)

Now that I am teaching again (math in an afterschool program & substitute teaching for the Anchorage School District), I am compelled to put words to paper. Teaching is inherently difficult and if we are at all self-reflective, teaching requires of us that we grapple with questions about how best to educate. Here are the questions that have come up for me lately:

How do we marry the need for creative, holistic and culturally-relevant education with the careful, structured and measured approach that seems to help move underprivileged kids forward in school? That is, how do we create forms of education that promote and reward creativity, that encourage children’s curiosity and love for learning, that are holistic and open to the different ways that children learn, that incorporate the best of the “open optional” kind of education I was blessed to receive, and that do this not just for the overwhelmingly white and upper class population of open optional magnet, charter, or private schools? How do we close the achievement gap between kids of color and white kids, between poor kids and rich kids, BOTH using the careful and structured approach of measurement, goal-setting, and data-driven instruction that studies show to be effective AND not leaving the holistic and creative approach behind?

At least in my own short life as an educator, it seems that sometimes in the effort to bring kids up to grade level and achieve educational equity, we are so focused on the core academic areas and on measurable achievements in those areas that we tend to push art, dance, P.E., music, sometimes science, and the open exploratory wonder of learning off to the side.  We are so focused trying to motivate kids to bring up their scores or graduate, that we frame education as a means to an end and may not encourage them to get immersed in the fun process of learning.  Lastly, we may be so (rightly) concerned with educational equity that we feel all underprivileged youth should have the opportunity to go to college and therefore need to excel in all academic areas, and in doing so we may miss that genius dancer or painter or singer in our classroom, or we may be pushing them to behave better and do their math when they should be in art school instead…On the flip side, of course, more underprivileged kids who have been in underfunded and racist systems may only believe that they can dance and may not have ever discovered their inner mathematician, and we must give them the chance to do so.

This conflict has come up recently with a student in the after-school program who attends a private alternative school and who is very far behind in math. I tested the kids in my best effort to do data-driven instruction and have the kids use scores and standards to set goals for themselves. But for this little girl, seeing her score crushed her and pissed off her mom. Her mother told me, “We don’t believe in putting kids into pegs and levels and scores.” And in a way, I agree with her. Learning should be fun and kids shouldn’t be overly burdened with scores and judgments. But the girl needs to know how to identify fractions, read a clock, divide, etc., and I needed to identify those areas so we could work on them.  Yet I felt terrible telling the girl a score that made her feel like a failure. I don’t believe in that. I am conflicted on this still.

This question also came up when substitute teaching for a 3rd grade class. There was one boy with extreme and violent behavior difficulties who, I discovered, loved to draw. After a lesson on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, I had the kids do the silly worksheet that the teacher left behind (ugh, there is WAY too much worksheet teaching going on) and then told them they could write or draw about it in their journals. This kid with the behavior problems drew a great picture. I gave him some ideas for how to make it more detailed and he did, and so here was this fantastic visual demonstration of what he had learned about segregation, Rosa Parks, etc. As a teacher, I knew I had to catch the kid being good at things, so I praised the drawing and put it on the board. When the teacher came in at the end of the day, I proudly showed her the drawing and she said, “Oh, he knows he’s not allowed to draw in my class. But I know what it’s like to be a substitute and sometimes you have to do whatever it takes.” I told her, in the friendliest voice I could muster, that I actually think drawing is a good way to integrate information, particularly for visual learners.

I was fuming.

Yes, the kid has to learn to write, but we also have to have an educational system that approaches writing through the strengths that kids have.  And sometimes art is the only thing keeping kids in school! (A great example is that my love, Oscar, excelled in photography class in high school and actually ended up teaching the class; this was what kept him attached to a school system that was otherwise not built for the way he learns. It encouraged him and kept him going.)

In the after-school program, I have enough control to experiment with fun, holistic, real-life learning and data-driven instruction. I tried back when I had my own third grade classroom too, largely scrapping the scripted curriculums and using CELL and ExCELL practices and culturally-relevant examples. I have yet to find that balance between the education I grew up with and the Teach For America-move-kids-1.5 grade-levels-or-more approach in which I was trained. Since I am not a full-time educator, I imagine I will not have time to develop that balance.

I think what this foray back into education is helping me figure out is how I want to combine my love for community based participatory research and social services with schools and education. I have a long and exciting journey ahead to do this and look forward to insight from others on how.

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February 20th, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Posted in social justice

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