Filming Ambler Food Co-op

(I must parenthetically begin by saying that, unfortunately, my underground/indie wordpress was coopted by the corporate CPGC machine. Consequently, it is now being hosted through their website, which, coincidentally, also uses wordpress.)

As you can see in that lovely picture that Anna took of David and Sarah, very professional film things were happening at the Ambler Farmers’ Market on Saturday. The basic premise of the shoot is that in exchange for helping us make contacts and meet people in Philadelphia’s cooperative ecosystem, PACA asked us to make a few promotional videos for local cooperatives. This one is for Ambler Food Co-op. The video will be complete soon and when it is I will share it here!

Ambler food co-op us just starting up and is still gathering new members. They hope to open a brick-and-mortar store location soon. Our promotional video will highlight what the community stands to gain from having its own cooperative grocery store.

The borough of Ambler was in peak form on Saturday morning. We probably saw fifteen or twenty dogs, which is always a good sign. Despite some technical difficulties (like not knowing how to use microphones or cameras), we were able to gather some neat footage and meet some people who feel very passionately about the ways in which a food cooperative will benefit Ambler.

Here are some cool pictures of dogs, bread, and people with cameras:

DSC_7456 DSC_7454 DSC_7469


Well, that’s sort of all I have for now. I’m going to say that I will post again soon but evidence stands against me. So, “Check back for more, I’ll post again soon!”

Death by Moped and Other Tales

It’s been three weeks since I landed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia amidst a haze of jetlag, dust, and sweltering 104F humidity.

Some things I have learned:
1.) Death by moped (“moto”) is a real danger that every pedestrian must dodge at least 10 times per excursion.
2.) Just because delicious Khmer food is $2-3 per meal does not mean that I don’t have to budget ~ I cannot continue buying a watermelon a day (it’s the heat ok, the heat!).
3.) Local markets always feature: vendors calling to be in Chinese (t’s funny how often my nationality and ethnicity confuse people here, but I will leave that for another post), dirty flip flops from a unique mix of grime, fish blood, and rain water, a respectable amount of haggling, and mangoes galore.
4.) Tuk-tuk (3 wheeled carriages attached to mopeds) drivers are much cheaper than their NYC taxi counterparts but also often have no idea where it is you want to go.
5.) Waking up at 5am is normal here because that is when the sun decides it would like to pierce your eyes through your flimsy window blinds.
6.) In case of internet outage, there are a surprising amount of cafés, pizza shops, and expat restaurants throughout the city – all with free wifi.
6.) Thunderstorms come without prior warning and disappear just as quickly.

and finally

7.) Teaching fine arts to high school girls who have all survived child sex trafficking and have limited experience in school is both incredibly difficult and surprisingly fun.

I’m in Phnom Penh for 2 months this summer at a school run by Hope for Justice, an organization dedicated to the empowerment of young women with prior experience in sex work. The Shine School provides education for its clients, with classes english, math, khmer, etc. While some students also take courses in the public high school, most attend only the Shine School, due to educational or trauma-related reasons. My fine arts program features: observational drawing and sketching, color theory, perspective, painting, sculpture, and maybe some fun with glitter and pictionary on Friday afternoons. At the end of the summer, we will show all the students’ works for a day at a local art gallery ( I know the girls will be most excited about the dressing up part)

For most of the girls, this class is their first exposure to the visual arts and I’m hoping that many of them will come away with more confidence in their ability create and self-express, both visually and otherwise. And maybe, just maybe, one will be the next Van Gogh and they will remember their old teacher when making millions at the art auctions.

First impressions: my students act like typical high schoolers – complete with giggling, whispered jokes, and love for games involving candy. I am constantly surprised by how friendly and enthusiastic most of the girls are and I’ve realized that speaking VERY SLOWLY in English combined with a mix of frantic hand gestures is key to communicating across language barriers.

In the weeks to come, I’m excited about exploring more of Cambodia on my free weekends as well as discovering new foods (minus the constant threat of traveller’s diarrhea, excuse me I am very open about poop talk) and learning how to better teach and interact with my new students.
Just the other day, a student voluntarily asked to take her art project home to work on and I think I almost cried.

Here are some photos!

Working on a giant Jackson Pollock project with acrylic and gold glitter

Working on a giant Jackson Pollock project with acrylic and gold glitter


Shot of a nearby street at Russian Market, oddly devoid of the usual traffic.

Settling into Rio Blanco, Nicaragua: My Musings

I sit here typing this email out on my phone as the rain pounds on the tin roof of our house. It’s so defining that my attempt to listen to NPR pod casts was thwarted because the words were drown out by the roar, it’s to be expected though, it’s the rainy season (or winter, as they say) in a Nicaraguan cloud forest.

As I reflect back on my week, my first week in my placement in Rio Blanco, I am amazed at how fast something becomes routine and how in some ways that is so welcome and other ways it’s not. I love that Spanish is flowing easily, I have broken down the initial shyness barriers with my host siblings, my family has started to treat me as a person and not a guest, I know the path to work, and I don’t have to guess and analyze every step and thing I do. That being said, I don’t
want it to become so routine that the amazement stops. The amazement at the clouds swirling around the mountains as I walk half an hour to work. The amazement at the sweetness of, and ability of, the aroma of pineapple to fill up a room. Amazement at the way laughter breaks down all language barriers.  And amazement at the opportunity that I have been given, just because I had the privilege to be born in the U.S, a white woman, to inspired and fantastic parents who instilled the value of education and sense of adventure (and desire to explore) in me from a young age.

This past week another thing has become clear to me, my entire time here is going to revolve around the fact that I am living on Rio Blanco, or more specifically Martin Senteno, a small rural community outside of Rio Blanco. Rio Blanco is a city of about 30,000 (including the surrounding rural communities) set in the mountains of Nicaragua. It is frequently called the naval of Nicaragua because it is in the geographical center of the country. It also, 20 some year ago, was in the center of the contra war. The contra war was a war funded by president Regan against the Nicaraguan Sandinista government for fear that they were communists, being funded by the USSR, and that they would journey up and take over Texas as a communist state. It was
devastating for the Nicaraguan people and while it is long past away from the memory of most people from the United States, it still forms the landscape I am living in here. The name of my town, Martin Senteno, was the name of a 6-year old boy who was killed by the contras during the war. The clouds that I find so beautiful, instill a sense of fear into a certain generation here because they were used as cover for the contras as they came into the area over the mountains.

The organization I am working for is 18 years old and was set up in the shadow of the war as part of the reconstruction effort. My boss, and the head of the organization, never went to school because it was too dangerous to make the walk alone to school during the war. Rio
Blanco is a town disproportionately populated by men because the efforts to reconstruct the infrastructure (construction in Nicaragua is a man’s work) are still in process. While there are many men here they are all the same ages, old and young, there are no middle aged men, in fact throughout Nicaragua in general there are very few middle aged men, because a huge number of them were of fighting age on the ’80s and were killed. Rio Blanco is a town that bears he direct scars of war and this continues to form the lives of the people living in it.

On another, less intense note, Rio Blanco is the dividing point between the Caribbean coast and the Atlantic coast, which puts me at a very interesting place in terms of the agriculture. We are the line between the ranching that takes place closer to the Caribbean coast and the cocao, coffee, and fruit farms that populate the atlantic coast. This means that people riding horses down the streets is just about as common as cars, and the part of me that loves farms and agriculture loves this. I am hoping during my time here to get out to some ranches and actually get an up close and personal with the agriculture and the differences on the two coasts, we will see, more to come.


HITAP: Settling Down


I never know how to start these things…

Introduction Take 1:

“Twenty-one hours later and I was finally at Suvarnabhumi Airport. I was hoping to get into the country before it got dark since I had no idea where I was going and I figured ”if you’re going to get lost, at least get lost during the day

That didn’t happen. By the time I got out of the airport (around 8:30pm), it was dark. And raining. (‘positive mindset’: showers of blessing. I was once told by my great uncle that rain means good luck so I was hoping the rain meant that coming to Thailand was the right decision and that my two months here would be nothing short of AMAZING).

Back to the airport [scene]: it’s dark; in a new place; don’t know what I’m doing.

In situations like this, I always think about the worst case scenario…”what’s the worst that could happen traveling at night in a country where you don’t speak and cannot read or write the language?” [Answer: you could get killed, kidnapped, robbed etc.] After coming to terms with the worst that could happen–For instance, thinking to myself: “what is death? Once you die, you die, it’s over, you can’t feel anything so no big deal”— (I take a deep breath; lift it all up to Jesus, and keep it moving).

By the way, none of those things happened. I followed the instructions and signs (stopped and asked for directions a few times) at the airport, made my way outside, and found taxis lined up  across the street. Pretty straight forward. Got into the taxi and told the driver where I was going but he couldn’t understand me so I showed him the address and the contact info of my hotel. He made a quick phone call and was given directions. All this happened in Thai so I just took a leap of faith and assumed everyone was on the same page and went with it.

You might be thinking: “you should have learnt some basic Thai” but honestly at that point, all the Thai I thought I’d memorized just kept on replaying backwards, upside down, inside-out, anything but the right way in my head so…

Lesson #1: Always have a map and addresses of where you’re going and contact info/numbers to call once you’re on ground. If you’re in a country where the written language is different, have addresses, maps, and contacts in that language as well.

Also knowing how anxious I can become, prior to traveling, I looked up the distance from the airport to the hotel (approx. 45 minutes) just to have an idea of how long it’s supposed to take. I might not know where I’m going but if a 45 minutes trip starts to turn into a 3 hour trip (assuming there’s no traffic), you know something is wrong.

Long story short: I made it to the hotel safely and I was met with a warm welcome. I checked in with family and friends back home, planned out things I wanted to get done the next day, danced—(yes, danced, it’s a bit of an addiction and I was sooo glad my suite had more than enough space to dance in), unpacked a few things, had my first Thai meal—chicken fried rice:

Chicken Fried Rice

Chicken Fried Rice


something I know I’ll like—the adventurous food network aspect of the trip will start soon enough so I figured just go with something familiar for the first night), and went to bed.



By the end of the first day/night, I also came to the conclusion that I need to do some serious work on my Thai because the less thai I know (the less I’m able to communicate), the more money I’ll spend: FACT.

A lot of money could be lost in translation lol (for instance, when I pay for something expecting change but don’t know how to express that and the attendant and I are left smiling, making hand signs at each other, laughing at what has become a game of charades between us, and eventually just giving up and going our separate ways).

Just realized, I didn’t even explain what it is I’m doing in Thailand:

I’m working with the Health Intervention and Technology Assessment Program (HITAP)—a semi-autonomous office that functions out of Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health. The office conducts research that evaluates the cost effectiveness and impact of various health technologies and interventions—pharmaceuticals, medical devices, community health promotion, and disease prevention among others (hitap.net). As an intern, I’ll be working with the research and management teams on both domestic and international projects. I’ll be spending most of my time at the Ministry of Public Health in Nonthaburi and at the University of Naresuan in northern Thailand conducting literary reviews, learning economic evaluation, and [tentatively] working on a cost effectiveness analysis project involving osteoporosis medication that may potentially be included in Thailand’s National List of Essential Medicines (NLEM).

On an academic note, I’m really interested in learning about accountability within health systems and see this internship as a great opportunity to do so.

I officially start on Wednesday and needless to say, I am beyooond EXCITED!!!

For more on Health Technology Assessment, check out this article.

I sleep here!

Making Movies; Making Beds

My friend David told me during the last movie that we worked on together (a short film called My Life and the Times of Mr. Messado) that in an interview Hayao Miyazaki said that making movies is the worst, most terrifyingly painful thing a person can pursue. I searched really hard on the internet for the exact quote (which is to say I clicked on the first google link for “miyazaki quotes” and nothing else), but could not find it. I really wanted to start my blog with that quote, so I am at a bit of a loss as to how to introduce my reader(s?) to the delicate art of moviemaking. Luckily, however, I found this other Miyazaki quote:

“Life is a winking light in the darkness.”

Ah. So true, Hayao.

With that introduction awkwardly and painfully out of the way, it would be very professional of me to mention that the project I am working on is in collaboration with David Roza, Anna Bullard, Sarah Moses, head of the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance Peter Frank, and professor of Political Science Craig Borowiak. Furthermore, our project has been generously funded by the Hurford Center, the CPGC, and the provost’s office, so it will also be very professional of me to thank them at the outset for all of the hard work they have already done to make this movie possible. Specifically, I should probably thank the CPGC, as they are funding me personally (and also encouraging me to blog about my experience!!!).

Yet, despite all their belief that I am working hard and making a movie, all I have to report to you today is that I have successfully moved in with my friend Eric (who will henceforth be referred to as Jiggy) in his lovely apartment not half a minute’s walk from the Haverford R5 station. I can, however, show you pretty pictures of where I now live!

This is where I sleep:

I sleep here!

I sleep here!

This is where I make myself food so that I don’t spend my entire stipend at Bruegger’s:

The kitchen where I make foods for eats.

The kitchen where I make foods for eats.

And this is where I blog:

Wow! Look at all those shiny things!

Wow! Look at all those shiny things!

Amazingly, I actually also managed to get to campus to set up the place where we will theoretically be making a movie. It looks like this:

Woah that chair totally swivels!!! Rad!!!!!!

Woah that chair totally swivels!!! Rad!!!!!!

Whew! What a crazy long and exhausting day! Tomorrow I actually have meetings and stuff to go to so that we can make a real movie, so I should probably go to bed. I will return with updates soon and for the foreseeable future, I suppose.

DISCLAIMER: We actually already had some meetings and are making progress on the movie pleasedonttakeawaymystipend!!!

Education Budget Action Days

PCCY (Public Citizens for Children and Youth) still has a few education budget action days coming up! Join them in Philly on Wednesday, April 22, Wednesday, May 13, Tuesday, June 23, or Tuesday, June 30 to take the bus to the State Capitol in Harrisburg to demand fair funding for education. Pennsylvania is one of three states that does not have a fair funding formula. A fair funding formula equitably funds education across the state to limit disparities between school expenditures per student in wealthy and poor districts. For more information, check PCCY’s website: www.pccy.org/event/education-budget-action-days-2015/.Harrisburg-Capitol-steps2-1024x715

Surprises while learning about and amidst change

Only a few days after returning from two weeks in Chile, and I’m already back at Haverford for the spring semester. Thanks to a grant from the CPGC, I spent the second half of my winter break in Viña del Mar and Valparaíso, Chile, conducting additionally research for my anthropology thesis. Since “recovering” in part from the economic decline that the city experienced during much on the 20th Century, Valparaíso is now recognized as a bohemian paradise full of eclectically painted houses and street art, even earning the distinction of UNESCO World Heritage Site. Within the World Heritage Site boundaries lie two neighborhoods, Cerro Alegre (Happy Hill) and Cerro Concepción (Conception Hill), that are highly frequented by visitors to the city and that have faced fairly dramatic changes in recent decades. These two neighborhoods are where many visitors spend much of their visit and shape the visitors’ understandings of what Valparaíso is like. However, for some residents, these two neighborhoods are inaccurate representations of the city, altered to attract high-end business at the price of squeezing out a more representative residential neighborhood way of life. My thesis explores why residents call Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción fake, what that means, and who gets to decide the direction of urban renewal and change in Valparaíso.

My two weeks were undoubtedly satisfying, both personally and academically. As with any project involving other people, my research threw me a few curveballs and my schedule constantly changed from my original plans . Nonetheless, amidst this flux, I found myself stumbling upon enlightening insights. For example, one day when the timing of an interview with the coordinator of a neighborhood organization didn’t work out, I ended up speaking with a friend about what he wants for the future of the city and how he believes that the touristy neighborhoods fit in with the rest of the city. In the end, thanks to conversations like these, I’m leaving Chile with my mind and my field notes filled with diverse perspectives on tourism, urban change, municipal funding, and collective identity. Next on the agenda? Transcribing, sending my final thank you messages, transcribing, reflecting with my advisor, and more transcribing!


The beaches of Viña del Mar, Chile are a magnet for tourists taking a break from the summer heat.



Valparaíso, Chile rises up into the cerros (hills), far above the historic neighborhoods that are downhill and more easily accessible for tourists.

All Together Now

“Somos realistas, y hagamos lo imposible.”
We are realists, and we will do the impossible.

On Saturday morning, the group met with a panel of youth activists living and working in Tucson. Each of the activists, ranging in age, ethnic background, hometown and education, shared their experiences of working in the realm of social justice and migration activism. We had the opportunity to pick their brains and learn something of their connection and experience with the reality of migration within these Borderlands. These activists alternatively approached their work from positions as outsiders of privilege and native Tucsonans working within their own communities. Their projects, too, reflected the vast range of needs for migrants and Tucsonans alike; Jim teaches at a juvenile detention facility, Allison with the Community Home Repair Projects of Arizona, Lupe and Denise at UNIDOS (a program aimed at re-instating the Mexican-American studies program in Arizona), and Rachel with Mariposas Sin Fronteras (a group that supports LGBTQ+ migrants in Tucson). The group and activists engaged in a dialogue about working within systems of injustice in order to better lives, how activism can dismantle those very systems, and the responsibility of those imbued with the knowledge of these systems to act with it. Rachel, for instance, envisions a radical redistribution of resources that would empower those migrants who must work for a living each day to also become activist leaders. Denise, a University of Arizona student and activist, spoke about education’s singular ability to empower systematically disenfranchised youth and the importance of an education that celebrates her heritage. Allison recognized her precarious position as a white woman of privilege working in Tucson and the value of solidarity respect when one enters a new community. Guadalupe, also a native Tucsonan and self-described former “gang-banger,” particularly thrilled, excited, and challenged the group.

His own story of struggle spoke volumes to the structural violence present in Tucson and the immense difficulty in overcoming the difficulties placed on him and expected of him because of his socioeconomic status and gender. He seemed to be one of the more outspoken and radical activists we met with, willing to face police brutality and sacrifice material luxuries and his own bodily health (he has suffered seven concussions over the past three years as a result of altercations with the police). Having studied the concepts of structural inequality and structural violence, we (Caleb and Freda) see Lupe as a living anchor to our theoretical knowledge. Structural violence is a manifestation of underlying and implicit inequality that is mass-produced within a society to constantly oppress, disempower, and assault (physically or otherwise) those rendered expendable. When Lupe said that his activism must assault institutions because the institutions assault the history, education, families, and bodies of poor and brown people, we see that theory is a lived experience. Lupe, even more than his youth activist peers, wants to dismantle the neo-colonial, capitalist system that he sees us as inhabiting. While “every day’s work re-oils the gears of the capitalist system,” he reminded us at the lunch we shared, aptly at Pancho Villa’s Grill, not to become discouraged at being part of this system. Rather, that we should fight against it.

After this panel, then we re-grouped with Jeff and Katie for an extensive reflection on the trip as a whole. We were challenged to think about why people migrate through these borderlands, what our new understanding of the lives lived by undocumented people, and how our personal perspective on the border and immigration has changed as a result of our time here. As we broke up into smaller groups, we delved into deep conversation and reflection and saw that, even though we had identical itineraries, we all interpreted our experiences in different ways. As a whole, we tended to be more pessimistic about the future of these borderlands and migrants and the possibility of structural change (to Border Patrol, to ICE, to our neo-colonial capitalist government). At the same time, we were also challenged to commit to some small goals in our immediate future, ranging from educating ourselves on these issues and policies, engaging our community at Haverford, and even returning soon to the Borderlands.

We concluded our learning with a trip at sunset to San Xavier Mission, the European first mission and settlement and the oldest continually harvested fields in this part of the world. We each lit a votive candle atop a hill overlooking the Sonoran Mountains in honor of some person or group. Some shared those whom they kept in mind – the women who journey, a generation of lost youth, the people of Arivaca – and some kept theirs private.

Our day today was differently vast, beginning with a trip to the desert museum and culminating with a time-warping cross-country journey. As we anxiously wait to return to school, to normalcy, we all reflect on this surreal week, unsure of how to relate the enormity of what we’ve seen and done to another world in Haverford, PA. We are all sure, though, that our experiences have enriched our lives and we will use them, now, to help to enrich the lives of others.

- Freda & Caleb

The Long and Winding Trail

Nine sleepy Fords departed bright and early from HEPAC making their way to cross the border back into the United States. We were struck by the enormous privilege that belonged to us as American citizens. Crossing into Mexico as an American citizen requires no documentation, but the return is another story. “Who is not an American citizen?” The implications of this innocuous question weighed heavily on all of us as the Border Patrol agent leaned in and looked at each one of us carefully.

After returning back into US territory we were again reminded of the Border Patrol presence on our way to Arivaca. This is a small town located in what is known as the Borderlands which is demarcated by checkpoints that continue over a hundred miles into the state of Arizona. At these check points our citizenship status was once again questioned. After passing through, we arrived in Arivaca where we met with John and began our walk along a migrant trail. While this particular trail is not frequented by migrants, we saw physical reminders of those that had chosen this path. A pink backpack, a pair of discarded pants, a blanket caught on a tree branch were pieces of the larger story of migration. They also served as reminders of the uncertainty of this journey. We can never know if these travelers arrived at their desired destinations, or if they perished like innumerable others.

When we returned from our walk we were treated to a delicious lunch at La Rancherita. With full stomachs we then met with Sophie Smith, a representative of the Arivaca Humanitarian Aid office. It was interesting to learn about how the issue of immigration has affected members of this particular Borderland town. Residents deal with issue regarding the legality of providing aid to migrants, harassment from Border Patrol, and the general militarization of their town in response to the migrants seeking aid. Considering the lack of local law enforcement in this town of 700 people it is easy to empathize with the disruptive effect of Border Patrol in the town. However, it was also inspiring to learn of the ways the community organized to resist. After our talk we left with a new understanding of the checkpoints as a means to extend the Borderlands and the dangers within.

We learned more about how the issue of migration can exacerbate and even provoke issues such as gender and sexual inequality. Hearing from Zilivia and Brandon of Mariposas Sin Fronteras (Butterflies without Borders), an organization that provides support to those that identify as LGBTQIA within the detained migrant community. Perhaps one of our most insightful and incisive discussions, we spoke about violence in both their home country of El Salvador and within the detention center. When asked “Why does the border exist?” Zilvia responded, “Para el racismo.” (Racism).

The next day, we made our way to Florence, AZ to visit the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detention Center (ICE) where we received a tour led by head officer Marco Contreras. To the surprise of many of us, the detention center appeared to not only follow regulations, but was clean, comfortable, thorough, and robust in both legal and medical capacities provided to detainees. Despite what we observed, we ultimately concluded that a golden cage is still a cage.

While a legal stipulation states that detainees have a right to legal counsel, they are not provided a public defender when applying for asylum. However, the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in Tucson provides free legal services to detainees who cannot afford a private lawyer.  We finished off the day by meeting with Maria, one of the project’s lawyers, who gave us a legal and political history of SB1070, one of the strictest pieces of immigration legislation.




On the Fast Track From Fresno – Research Update #1

When I left the frigid cold of Philadelphia to fly to relatively balmy Fresno, California for my research trip on public opinion formation and the California High Speed Rail Project, I was pretty anxious. My primary fear was that no one would want to talk to me about some infrastructure project with an almost unfathomable opening date: 2029. I was mentally preparing myself for cold shoulders and awkward social encounters. I didn’t want to come home empty handed.

Because of a delay, I had 6 extra hours at LAX to think about these concerns while I waited for my 35-minute commuter flight to Fresno. “What if someone tells me to piss off?” I thought, “What if no one talks to me about this project? What if no one knows about the California High Speed Rail project?”

From the moment I got on the plane heading to Fresno, my concerns largely melted away. I sat next to a man with some neurological issue that made it difficult for him to speak. Despite this speech hindrance, he talked to me for the entire flight into Fresno about how he’s a 4th generation resident of the Central Valley and how he doesn’t understand why the project is worth the money. “San Francisco has a great transportation system. Los Angeles has a terrible transportation system. Why not spend all that money helping better the transportation system in the city’s biggest state?”

During my time in Fresno, all I’ve had to do is mention the California HSR project in public and people approach me with their opinions. There is near universal agreement among interviewees: opinion on the California HSR project is extremely polarized. People either love it or hate it. People I’ve talked to who love the project tend to mention the potential economic benefit and environmental concerns (the air quality here is some of the worst in the nation…there is visible smog and I have been coughing). Those opposed to the project tend to mention concerns about the budget of the project and apprehensions about the viability of the project. Land rights and government intrusion are also themes I’ve found in those who are opposed.

For my first lunch in Fresno, I went to a local restaurant recommended by a pediatric nurse I interviewed. Within 15 minutes I was holding what seemed like a round table of mostly senior citizens in the restaurant. Over California avocado Kobe burgers, we discussed why people think what they think about the project. One woman, who identified herself as a Fresno-based artist, described to me how there are two Fresno’s (this has been mentioned to me repeatedly). There is a Fresno north of Shaw Avenue (affluent) and a Fresno to the south of Shaw (extremely poor). Supporters of the California HSR project have told me that many of the powerful elites north of Shaw avenue have drowned out support for the project in less affluent areas (One notable exception are residents south of Shaw who will be displaced by the construction of the project, such as in Chinatown). This artist supports the project because it will help Fresno develop economically in the long run (she gave many other reasons, but this seemed to be the primary reason).

One gentleman at a downtown Fresno coffee shop/bar mentioned to me that concern for the environment is huge. “Our air quality is terrible and there isn’t enough investment in Fresno – why not build the railroad?” This is an argument the state has made repeatedly, for the high speed trains would be electrified and are to be powered by renewable energy.

One Hispanic man in the construction industry told me, “There are no jobs in Fresno. It’s desperately poor. We’re putting so much money into this. I worry that we’re not going to get anything out of it.” He emphasized that he worries that the unemployed people in Fresno won’t be hired to complete the work. “I hope I’m wrong” he said. “I also want to mention our bus system – FAX – If they can’t even get our bus system right, how are they going to get a huge railroad right?”

One seemingly universal theme here is concern about the economy. A number of respondents told me that there is a collective sense that “there are no jobs.” Driving around Fresno, one can see the terrible poverty. On my first day in Fresno, I lost count of how many homeless people I saw. Boarded up businesses and homes litter downtown Fresno. On my trip to a demolished Del Monte fruit-processing factory that is now owned by the state of California and will become part of the high-speed rail system, I noticed how many abandoned buildings lie along the path of the future 220-mph train. Some of the areas the train would run through resemble desolate parts of North Philadelphia.

I stopped at one home in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood hoping that someone in the household would take my survey in Spanish. The family was holding a yard sale, or more accurately, they were selling everything and anything I would look at. In an effort to build trust (this has been an issue with Hispanic people I have encountered – there is an air of distrust when I randomly approach a group of Spanish speakers because of the fact that I cannot fully explain myself in Spanish), I asked how much for a really nice jacket that would retail at any REI for 30 dollars. Tres dólares was the response. I offered the Spanish version of my survey, which was promptly denied.

I moved on to a gas station in a predominantly Hispanic section of Fresno (Fresno is very nearly a majority minority community). I pulled up to what looked like a group of farm hands waiting for a bus. I handed out copies of my Spanish survey. No one filled one out. I’ve talked to locals about my issue of lack of Hispanic response, to which one older white lady from the liberal artsy Tower District of Fresno responded, “Many Hispanics are migrants – They commute from the border to work the fields and then return home.” While the California HSR project might not be on the radar of this population, I hope to work over the next week on getting more Spanish-speaking respondents.

One common theme particularly interesting for my thesis about how people form their opinions is the fairly universal response of “I get the majority of my information from local news sources,” such as The Fresno Bee and the local NBC/CBS/ABC/FOX affiliates. The Fresno Bee editorial board has largely endorsed the California HSR project, but there have been numerous columnists and letters to the editor decrying the project.

I’ve asked everyone and anyone about the project. I’ve driven around various neighborhoods, spoken with both homeless people and people living in million dollar homes. I’ve interviewed street vendors, waitresses, doctors and lawyers all alike. I’ve found that there are certain techniques that have yielded the best results. I have not been recording our conversations, because I have found that makes people very nervous. I have also found that being too forceful with my “Could you talk to me for a few minutes” or “Take my survey” makes people nervous. Fresno is not a particularly safe town. Locals have repeatedly told me to “be extremely careful,” especially toward Downtown and more southern sections of the city. I’ve been working very hard to balance my desire to get good responses to my project and my desire to remain safe.

Moving forward
Tomorrow morning (Monday morning), I will travel by Amtrak to Sacramento (I have a rental car, but it’s actually cheaper and easier to take the train…plus I’m not in California to study highways). I have an interview with the Governor’s office/High Speed Rail authority about how they perceive the public opinion surrounding the HSR project and what they’ve done to try to influence public opinion (I’m speaking with the Chief Information Officer). I couldn’t be more excited about my meeting with the Authority. I’m hoping to find that my conversation with the government officials will shed some light on the things average citizens have been saying.

While in Sacramento, I will also be attending the state’s public hearing on the first section of rail construction. I’ve been told various opposing and supporting citizens groups will be in attendance. I very much look forward to talking to them.

Next week I will be traveling out into the countryside surrounding the Fresno metropolitan area to meet with the economic lifeblood of this region: big agriculture. Farmers are reportedly some of the most passionate opponents to the project. I look forward to hearing about why they think what they think about this the $70 billion project that could soon become a reality in Fresno.