Measuring Difficult Things

I’m super excited to be giving a talk on Wednesday at the One Earth Future Foundation, a local, homegrown, interdisciplinary think tank here in Colorado working on all sorts of issues related to sustainability and making sure that we can keep living on this planet.

Because I don’t get to give talks very often, I may have gotten a bit excited and planned to talk about, well, basically everything I have done the past few years (and frankly a lot that I’m hoping to do in the next few!). The abstract is below. Really looking forward to a fun discussion!

Measuring Difficult Things

Social norms, unobserved characteristics, and hidden statuses can exert significant effects on outcomes ranging from domestic violence to armed group participation to social capital and network formation. In quantitative analysis, not being able to account for these factors can lead to biases in our estimation and thus incorrect or incomplete policy prescriptions. Even when we are able to see that these factors exist, finding a way to include them in our estimation is often limited by issues of measurement. In this talk, I give an overview of some my research on how to measure difficult things, beginning with social norms and intergenerational effects in a study of refugees, list experiments, and how to generate representative samples of hidden populations. I explore challenges in measurement, offer lessons from the field, and describe prospective work that aims to continue deepening our understanding of how to approach measuring difficult things.


Just how much do adults influence their kids?: Nyarugusu edition

In my first paper with Seth Gitter and Savannah Wilhelm on refugees in Tanzania’s Nyarugusu Camp, we showed that, among child respondents, there appears to be a strong social norm around reporting violence at school. Children believe their peers will report victimization, kind of regardless of the things we might think would matter. Boys and girls think their peers would report at roughly the same rate, and the type of violence doesn’t seem to change their perceptions much either.

A natural question to come out of this is whether these attitudes and perceptions are coming from their parents. Luckily, I designed this survey exactly to get at that kind of question. A novel and important part of this study was to survey linked child-parent pairs, so we can compare children’s responses to their parents. We have a second paper, now a Towson University working paper, out to deal with just that question. Here we’re still using the vignettes (one-line short stories of hypothetical situations), so there is some measure of uncertainty given the randomization of the vignette characteristics, and we’re still concerned with reporting norms, not direct victimization, but we have some pretty interesting findings.

First, parents’ and kids’ answers are positively correlated, so while we cannot necessarily identify the mechanism, there does appear to be some intergenerational transfer of attitudes or social norms.

We use the error terms from the parent regressions (basically the variation in the observations that cannot be explained by the vignette characteristics) to represent this sort of nebulous “parent” effect. When we put these error terms into the kid regressions, there is a large and statistically significant effect on those terms. In other words, the unobservable stuff that determines a parent’s answers is clearly and significantly related to his or her kid’s answers, controlling for both the vignettes that children hear and their demographics.

But they’re not perfectly correlated. We wouldn’t expect them to be, given the vignette randomization, so we rely on grouped vignette characteristics to tell us a little more. Parents saw some violence type distinctions where kids did not; sexual violence (teasing or touching) was perceived as more likely to be reported than other types of violence.

Finally, the specific way the surveys were set up allow us to dig a little deeper into parent thinking. Parents were screened at the beginning of interviews and asked to identify and give consent for one of their children to be interviewed immediately after their own survey. Largely, this was the child in the age range who happened to be at home and we believe this to be relatively random (school is half day, most adults had several children in the age range of both genders, parents were chosen via random walk, etc.). Gender and age are balanced for the child sample.

So, given that the child was selected before any data collection took place, we examine the data to see if parents answer vignettes differently depending on gender of the victim, conditional on the gender of the child who was interviewed after them. Spoiler alert. They do. Parents who selected a boy child to be interviewed and heard vignettes about boys were more likely to think the hypothetical victim would report violence. This isn’t true about girls. We think this effect might be something like priming, that the child to be interviewed might be at the top of the parent’s mind while he/she is taking the survey.

Seth and I will be presenting this paper at the MIEDC conference at the University of Minnesota at the end of April. We’re super excited to share it with everyone!

Pop the Champagne: An ode to great coauthors

Yesterday, I took a quick career mentoring phone call with a post-doc at CUNY Futures Initiative. After I had given her the rundown of what I presume to be my extremely fascinating job and life, the post-doc asked me how I managed to keep one foot in academia with everything else I had going on.

I have great coauthors, I told her.

And it’s so true.

Yesterday, I received notification that the first paper using the data I collected with the IRC in Tanzania’s Nyarugusu refugees camp was accepted for publication at Migration Letters. Time to break out the champagne, but first, lemme go update my CV real quick…

K, I’m back.

As background, the IRC hired me in 2015 to conduct a two-country, two-stage investigation of social norms of violence in schools in refugee camps. We started with focus groups and key informant interviews with Burundian and Congolese refugees in Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania, displaced Iraqis in Arbat IDP camp in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, and out-of-camp Syrian refugees in urban Sulaymaniyah. These results were used to inform a survey of 300 randomly selected child-parent pairs in Nyarugusu. We were unable to complete the second phase of research in Iraq.

The survey covers lots of things, but specifically in this newly accepted paper, with Seth Gitter at Towson University and his senior thesis student, Savannah Wilhelm (now all graduated and grown-up, *sniff*), we examine norms around reporting violence to authorities and characteristics of children that may predict reporting in Nyarugusu. I love these data for many reasons, not just because they’re my baby, but because I think they’re a unique and novel contribution to an understudied field.

We survey young kids in an environment where very few large-scale surveys have been done (we have ~300 child-parent pairs, though this paper only looks at the children’s responses); we talk about violence in ways that are designed to mitigate retraumatzation and reduce under-reporting; and the findings are really interesting. Gender, either of the respondent or the hypothetical victim, has no significant bearing on the willingness of kids to report violence. In an extremely unstable, vulnerable environment where kids have fled violence, or grown up with stories of their parents fleeing violence, there appears to be a normative expectation that kids report victimization, and they feel comfortable doing that at school.

I think that’s huge.

This is also the first paper for which I’ve gone through the whole process with a student co-author, which was extremely rewarding. I honestly cannot gush enough about how great it’s been to work with Seth and Savannah (and now Seth and Lauren, and hopefully more to come!). Abstract is below. A second paper using the parent responses as well is in the works and hopefully we’ll get to share that soon, too.

Reporting Violence Against Children: Social Norms in Nyarugusu Refugees Camp

There is substantial evidence to show that the two million children living in refugee camps are vulnerable to violence, although little is known about under what circumstances children will report that violence, complicating efforts to reduce vulnerabilities. We presented 300 children in a Tanzanian refugee camp (Nyarugusu) with hypothetical vignettes regarding a victim’s response to violence. Vignette characteristics were randomized (e.g. victim, perpetrator, and location) to test what factors influenced reporting. Respondents believe the victim was more likely to report violence at school or adolescent perpetrators. Surprisingly, we find no substantial difference based on victim or respondent’s gender.

On Giving Tuesday, Please Remember Refugees


Friends and colleagues often ask me questions like, “should I give money to X organization that you have worked with?” and “if I want to support refugees and displaced persons, where should I give?” Since Thanksgiving is behind us, but Giving Tuesday is upon us, I thought I would take the opportunity to share the answers that I often give to these questions, starting with my quintessential “do your research” mantra.

More personally, last week, one of my refugee staff who had been relocated to the US was faced with eviction. My sister and I got a Friday-midnight text message from my friend obliquely explaining the situation. My sister sprung to action on Saturday morning and I have cried at least three times reading the donations list as high school friends and colleagues donated, and then people who follow me on twitter but I’ve never met in real life, and then people who I’ve never even interacted with on twitter opened up their wallets. Y’all are wow, just wow. I do not know how to begin to thank you and hope that my heart hugs reach you from way over here in the Mile High City. I know Eloco’s heart is also soaring.

Wherever and whether you decide to give, or not, on Giving Tuesday or any other day, I hope your Thanksgiving was filled with light and love and that it follows you into a bright, shiny New Year. This is my small way of paying it forward. Here we go.

  1. First and foremost, do some research. Before donating, read up on organizations through charity raters like Charity Navigator or the Catalogue for Philanthropy (DC-area only) or GiveWell. Newer, smaller, and local organizations (both in the US and in camps or other countries) may not be on lists like these, so take their recommendations with a grain of salt, but it’s always good to know what the consensus is on how organizations are using their money from available information and neutral (or as neutral as possible) evaluations. Keeping up on what the charities you want to support are doing takes precedent over all of what I have to say here.
  2. Decide what’s important to you and find an organization that does that. Do you want to support refugees in America? Or in camps? Or out-of-camp refugees? Specific camps? Specific populations? Do you want to support GBV or anti-violence programming or education or safe spaces for children or access to clean water? Do you want your money to go to immediate, need-action crises like the Rohingya or Mediterranean crossings? Or long-lasting, ongoing crises like the displaced Congolese or Somalis?
  3. Or just go with a big organization that does everything. There is plenty of need, so if you don’t have a specific cause and just want to help refugees, consider giving to a big organization that will put your gift towards where they need the most help. Big organizations, like the IRC or Oxfam or other groups that help resettle refugees, will be able to move funds around and devote some of their budget to higher-level advocacy and advertising, which can multiply the impact of your gift.
  4. Balance local and big-organization giving. If you live in New York or Boston or DC or Florida (or anywhere else with a large, existing PR community right now), you are likely seeing an influx of Puerto Ricans into your communities. With ongoing power outages and food and medicine shortages, many Puerto Ricans are moving to the mainland and they need all kinds of support. Local organizations that are on the ground are well positioned to assess their needs and provide those resources. Similarly, local organizations will have a good idea of which populations are already in your community and know what their needs are. There are almost certainly refugees from other countries being relocated in your community (and have been for some time); find out who is supporting them and feel free to contact them, be it New American Pathways, the IRC, or a small local church . For instance, Colorado has long had large Vietnamese and Russian refugee populations, but more recently seen influxes from Iraq, Burma, and Bhutan. I just learned about Street Fraternity Brotherhood in Denver, which works with young male immigrants and refugees, and while I cannot personally vouch for their work, I’m totally behind the idea. If you’re looking for a small organization on the ground in a camp or in a non-camp situation where there are lots of refugees, these exist, too, but go through contacts in-country to find them and make sure they money is going to where you think it’s going.
  5. Resist bandwagoning. Remember when the ACLU was inundated with donations earlier this year with the announcement of the refugee ban? It created awesome momentum and great press (and most accounts suggest that the ACLU has put that money to good use), but small organizations often cannot use all of those funds efficiently. If you’re inclined to donate to a particular cause that is getting a lot of attention, consider finding a smaller organization that works toward the same or similar cause but doesn’t have the big name or fundraising apparatus.
  6. Yeah, yeah, Erin, how about specifics? Okay, fine. (COI note: I do not benefit personally from any of these organizations, but I mention them because I have witnessed their work first-hand or know someone integral to their programming.)
    1. Upwardly Global works with highly educated immigrants (not just refugees) who are searching for opportunities that better match their skills in the US. Economists should love this one (reducing search and job mismatch frictions!)
    2. IRAP works across the country with volunteer lawyers to provide legal support for refugees.
    3. The IRC supports primary and secondary schools, marginalized populations, gender-based violence awareness and reporting, as well as high-level advocacy and resettlement in the US.
    4. MSF is always there, in the worst, most dangerous of situations.
    5. Oxfam provides clean water and sanitation education in many camps.
    6. UNFPA The family planning arm of the UN doesn’t solicit donations on the scale that UNHCR or UNICEF do (both of which do lots of work with refugees generally and education specifically and would also happily take your money), but I have been consistently impressed working with UNFPA at the caliber of their staff, their commitment to evidence-based programming, and their drive to reach the most vulnerable girls, wherever they happen to be working.
    7. Andi Leadership for Young Women supports peacebuilding and conflict resolution across cultures.
    8. “Every refugee in Atlanta comes through Clarkston at some point,” or so says my ATL-bound sister. Clarkston Community Center outside of Atlanta, GA provides bicycles, and computing and language classes in a community where many refugees first land. Clarkston Community Health Clinic offers free health services to the refugee population there, too.
    9. If you’d like to help more organizations that are on the ground and doing pathbreaking work, consider supporting an organization that identifies and supports social innovation start-ups like The Resolution Project or Echoing Green Fellowship. You may not be able to direct your money towards refugees in particular, but you will support social innovation around the world and beneficiaries are often working with refugees due to the increased publicity around displaced populations.
    10. Did you know that the CDC works on immigrant and refugee health? If you’re looking for a low-cost option to help, call your congresspeople and encourage them to support funding for the CDC and population-based surveys like the Census to make sure we know how best to serve these populations.
    11. Obviously, there are tons more organizations that work in camps and as resettlement organizations and to support refugees here and abroad. This list should not be considered exhaustive in any way nor should it be used to dissuade you if you were going to go with someone else. Also, if I failed to include an organization here, it probably just means I am not personally familiar with their work.

Last but not least, Eloco’s family is still in need. If that story in particular resonates with you and you’d like to help an individual or a family, let me know. I would be happy to introduce you to a number of refugees all over East Africa and in America who are constantly asking me to “keep them in mind” and to “search for a benefactor” for them. One trying to set up a milk business in Burundi, another setting up rotating savings and credit associations for war widows in Nyarugusu camp, another trying to go to school in Uganda, another trying to get into a Ph.D. program in Cameroon, etc.

All my love and gratitude.

Of geniuses, violence, and girls

Today is a pretty special day. I woke up this morning to emails and tweets alerting me that one of my favorite people, a senior scholar whom I feel so lucky to have met and been mentored by and to call a friend, won a MacArthur genius grant. I am of the firm belief that there is no one more deserving. So much of my own work has bits of Betsy in it and I know we’re all so excited to see what she does next.

I also got word this morning that one of my staff from Nyarugusu gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. After several miscarriages and almost losing her life in a previous pregnancy, all are healthy and happy, and I’m bursting with joy for them.

For all these reasons, plus it’s International Day of the Girl, it seems like a particularly appropriate time to share a paper that is forthcoming in JDS, written with my colleague and dear friend, Shatanjaya Dasgupta: Paying for Violence? Spousal Abuse and Son Preference in India.

The abstract is below, but the paper rests on a few key ideas:

  1. Son preference in India is well-documented and leads to disadvantages for girls, including in nutritional status.
  2. In the data, girls tend to be worse off than boys in India on average. Kids of any gender in families with parents reporting domestic violence or spousal abuse tend to be worse off than kids in families where it’s not reported.
  3. But, and here’s the kicker, girls in families where DV is reported are better off than the boys in those families, conditioning on parents’ stated preferences for boy and girl children.
  4. Models of domestic violence in economics have sometimes tried to show how interpersonal violence can be used instrumentally, by the abuser as a form of punishment, or by the abused who accepts abuse in exchange for enacting their own preferences.

Ultimately, we ask whether a model of spousal abuse can explain how mothers who want to give their children more equal treatment or even favor girls accept abuse in exchange for enacting those preferences. This “paying for violence” shows up in children’s nutritional status. We even wrote a (toy) model.

Guys, *I* wrote a model! (I’m pretty proud of myself).

The data are a bit sparse and we lack strong causal identification, but the puzzle itself is interesting and we think our answer is plausible, that domestic violence can have differential effects on children when mediated by parental preferences. It’s important to note that we’re not advocating domestic violence as a tool to improve girls’ lots, but it is worth thinking about, and studying further, how marginalized and abused invidviduals cope and carve out space for themselves to act in the face of adversity.

We find a puzzling correlation in the data on domestic violence and children’s outcomes in India. Using the 2005–2006 National Family and Health Survey, we see that girls in families experiencing spousal violence are less worse off than boys when only fathers report a son preference while the gender bias reverses when only mothers report having a son preference. To shed light on the puzzle in the data, we present a non- cooperative theoretical framework based in economic theories of domestic violence, whereby differing parental son preference and bargaining over investments in girl and boy children potentially explains the observed relationship.

A Cesspool of Misogyny

I spent my first Economics job market in my hometown of Denver, running from interview to interview, trying to meet the Becker student who wrote a similar job paper to mine, networking with colleagues, and looking around corners, highly suspicious that every man I met had been one of those who hurled tens, if not hundreds (I permanently logged off before I could see whether there could be hundreds), of misogynistic and violent comments at me via an online forum for economists the week before.

It’s not an ideal way to look for a job, to be sure.

Alice Wu, an undergrad at Berkeley and future Harvard grad student, has now confirmed what all the women in my field already know, that Econ Job Rumors (I’m not even going to link to it, you can feel free to google it if you are so inclined) is a “cesspool of misogyny” (thank you, David Romer, for the concise description).

I made the mistake of going online before the job market thinking I would get information. I didn’t yet understand the intricacies of the timing of the job market, of who contacts whom and when, and I’d had luck getting telemark skiing advice online, why not some job-seeking advice? It was a mistake to start, it was a bigger mistake to try to engage the commenters in the “who is the hottest job market candidate?” thread.

Yes, that’s a real thing.

The worst men seem to get from that site is “regression monkey,” but women are “sluts,” “prostitutes,” “hot,” “lesbians,” “feminazis,” and I don’t want to go on. NYT has a fuller list.

A few weeks ago, I was on a date with a management professor. We easily fell into stimulating conversation about about research and teaching and the bureaucracy of universities, but, incredibly, he kept coming back to the fact that I, as a woman, was a victim of economics’ toxic environment for women.

I get it; I was there. I left, remember? It was not the whole reason for my leaving academia, but it certainly played a part.

I left despite the fact that I have benefited enormously from the groundbreaking of women who went before me, from the mentorship and support of many successful women in my field, including advisors Terra McKinnish and Ann Carlos; CU professors Francisca Antman, Tania Barham, and Carol Shiue; senior colleagues Jean Fletcher, Susan Averett, Laura Argys, and Eileen Stillwaggon; post-doc supervisor Rohini Pande and others on her team like Rema Hanna, Lena Edlund, and Erica Field; junior colleagues Lena Ogrokhina, Mandy Pallais, Simone Schaner, and Amber Peterman; and women from my PhD cohort, Yiqing Xie, Debbie Baker, and Shatanjaya Dasgupta; and program, Lauren Calimeris, Mariya Burdina, and Christina Peters. Outside my field but still within academia, I found Betsy Levy Paluck and Katina Rogers and Jeannie Annan and Stephanie Schwartz and Zoe Marks and Ruth Carlitz and damn, am I lucky.

I’ve also been the recipient of advice and mentorship from wonderfully supportive men in my field including, Ed Tower, Alan Kelley, Tom Nechyba, and Charlie Becker at Duke; Randy Walsh, Murat Iyigun, Edward Morey, and Jeff Zax at CU; Ed Gamber at Lafayette; Ryan Dodd and Rim Baltaduonis at Gettysburg; and Michael Callen at Harvard. I could not have gotten to where I am without my once-twitter now-real-life friends, Marc Bellemare and Seth Gitter, or my economics writing mentors, Francisco Toro and Toby Bottome.

But for each of them, there was a man who told me I wasn’t cut out for graduate school. A man who thought I disrespected him. A man who demeaned me in front of colleagues. A man who thought it was okay to follow me back to my conference hotel room uninvited. A man who yelled at me in front of students. A man whose “question” following my conference presentation included a sexist joke. A man who decided my hesitancy to take on independent study students was disqualifying. A man who told me that coauthoring with women was a crutch and would get me nowhere. A man who thought I was too uppity. A man who thought I was too emotional. A man who told me that what I study is not economics. Actually, there are lots of men who tell me that I what I study is not economics. And there are plenty of men who go online to say things they wouldn’t dare say to my face.

This is not an easy time to play the victim. I’m still white and I still benefit from that enormous privilege. There aren’t men chanting in the streets with tiki torches that I should go back to where I belong or that they want to cleanse my kind so they can have a homeland or calling me names.

But they are doing it online. And ultimately, it sucks for the field of economics. It makes our ranks weaker when we weed out intelligent, thoughtful women and people of color with fresh ideas and perspectives and the ability to ensure that economics stays relevant, inclusive, and useful. Women continue to fall off the academic ladder at much greater rates than men in economics, and many departments are known as particularly unfriendly to women. Online harassment is perhaps not the cause, but it is a symptom, and it has very real consequences.

After my first year of teaching at Gettysburg, I was congratulated and told that more women had signed up for the major than in years past. I can’t claim strong causal identification of course, but hearing that made me feel proud, that my presence and my teaching could open up the field to more women. In leaving academia, I fear that I have failed to deliver on that continued promise of presenting an approachable female economist role model, that young women could see themselves in me and want to pursue more study in the field.

I commend my colleagues still leading that charge. What you feel is real–we now have the evidence in case you were doubting–and I’m here if you want to rage about it.

Ending Child Marriage

I remember an interview, probably not too long ago, when someone asked what my professional goals were.

“To end gender-based violence,” I said, without hesitation.

Thankfully, I’m often involved in work that actively makes headway on that goal, and every once in awhile a concrete piece comes out of it.

Last Fall, I spent a week in Bangkok, Thailand with UNICEF and UNFPA staff from all over South Asia, as well as invited guests from academia, other multilateral instituions, and INGOs working on child marriage. It’s always fascinating for me to join these conversations, an academic inside a practitioner’s reality. For me, the most striking thing to come out of this meeting was the appetite for evaluation. Practitioners all over this space want to know if what they’re doing is effective, is efficient. Subsequently what is striking is the lack of organizational incentives, technical expertise, and resources to support better and more evaluation. One enduring thought I have from working with various UN agencies over the years is that there is so much potential for learning through fostering greater cooperation with academics and those with more time and resources to invest in evaluation.

I think the best parts of this report are the group picture (see if you can find me!) and the background paper, which begins on page 46 as an annex. The background paper is what I presented at the expert group meeting and it made for some lively discussion. I hope we can continue these conversations about how to better and more creatively use data, analysis, and yes, even econometrics, to understand how programming works, how to tweak it, how best to allocate scarce funding, and to ensure that programs benefiting women and girls around the world are contextual, effective, and rigorous.

Of fish, chicken, and men

In Kasulu, a rural small town in Western Tanzania that is home to many aid workers, if you want chicken, you have to go find the chicken man, probably a day or two ahead of when you want a chicken, and ask him to slaughter one. If you’re lucky, he’ll tell you where you can go to get it cleaned or the local woman you pay to clean and sometimes bake you amazing bread and teach you to cook the local mushrooms might help clean it for you.

Most of the time, you can’t find him. And when you can, he might not have any chicken that is suitable. If you’re lucky, and you find him, and he has a chicken that he can sell you, it’s going to be tough and a little scrawny.

But it will be a delicious treat.


In Clarkston, GA, my friend and former refugee staff has made a home. He and his four children, his wife, his mother-in-law, two sisters-in-law, brother-in-law, and some of their children all live in a ramshackle apartment complex with other resettled refugees and asylees from all over the world.

When I visit them, there is always food. In the morning, there is tea and chapati, and in the afternoon, there is fufu (ugali), or sometimes rice, and these tiny, charred fish from Lake Tanganyika cooked in tons of palm oil.

Always with the fufu. Always with the fish.


One of the first weekends I was in Kasulu last year, I visited several village savings and loan associations on the Congolese side of Nyarugusu refugees camp. I asked them, what would you do with TSh 1 million (about USD500)?

Buy sewing machines, they told me. But more than that, bring fish from Lake Tanganyika. We want fish.

Congolese seem to really love their fish.


Today, in Vox, Chris Blattman writes an open letter to Bill Gates asking him to re-think his chickens plan. It’s a good letter, one that gets you all riled up with a “but!” and then offers the very same “but…”

We don’t know, ultimately, if cash is better than chickens at lifting people out of poverty. It appears to be cheaper to give them cash, but as economists, we’re still noodling (and arguing) over how best to do development.

We also don’t know if there is another, better opportunity to open avenues for business development, income generation, increased demand, trade or export (which is kind of what we’re trying to do at Al Mokha). But I’ll tell you, as much as I would have liked to have more chicken in Kasulu, I think the people who live there all the time should have a little bit more of a say.

They told me they want fish, or rather, that they’d like capital to be able to build a business around selling fish. Maybe that answer is not representative, of Africans or Tanzanians or even Congolese refugees in Nyarugusu, but it’s probably worth asking the people you’re purporting to help.

What haunts me

Sometimes, I try to think about what it would take for me to flee, to leave everything behind.

On Wednesday, the President issued a series of executive orders on immigration. From expanding detention and deportation to denying visas for refugees and asylum-seekers, to moving funds to build a wall on the border with Mexico, these orders represent only part of a turn to isolationism and xenophobia that I don’t think we’ve seen since before WWII.

And we all know how that turned out.

In 2016 and 2015, I had the immense opportunity to spend time in refugee and displaced person camps in Iraq and Tanzania. With researchers and staff at the IRC–a humanitarian organization–I designed and implemented a two-phase study of social norms of violence in schools. I hope that soon I can tell you about what we found, but now I think it’s time to tell you a little bit about what I saw. Unlike many visitors to these camps, I had a lot of time. Those who come in to give technical assistance or to drop off supplies rarely spend much time with refugees themselves. Once I had trained my staff, I just waited for the data to come in. I had hours to spend wandering around the camps, to sit at the community services center and schools, to listen to stories, to visit classrooms, to be a guest of families and principals and community lending organizations, to watch people work and not work, to play with children and learn numbers and animals in Kiswahili and Kirundi and Arabic and Kurdish, to observe.

Sometimes I think about what my life would have been like if I hadn’t been able to leave Venezuela when I decided it was time. If, when I felt unsafe and that I could be mugged or raped or just hooted at any moment of the day, I didn’t have any choice but to stay there. If I didn’t have anywhere to go.

These trips to refugee camps and to schools with significant refugee and IDP populations took their toll on me emotionally. Up to now, I have been unable to write much about it. The structure of most refugee camps means that when someone sees a white person, it’s assumed they are there to help. I visited classrooms where they asked for shoes and desks. As I walked the rows of tents, elderly people held their hands out asking for change, pointing at their empty bellies or ailing hips. Children called me mzungu and asked for money and sweets. It was difficult to explain that I was there to do research, to think about the long-term consequences of their stay. It was true that I had more money than each of them, but also true that I couldn’t feed them all, and I couldn’t choose either.

Sometimes, I wonder how little could I eat before I had to leave, how much of the little sustenance I had could I turn over to those who needed it most? How do you choose between getting enough to keep yourself working and enough to keep those you love alive?

I heard so many stories of pain, of loss, of of helplessness. I also became very close with a number of refugees, particularly in Nyarugusu. I met their families, was welcomed into their homes; they were and still are my friends.

Sometimes, I think about what I would take. Where is my passport? And a little cash? Do you take the pictures? The computer? Or the guns?

Paterne* speaks perfect English. He’s abrupt, formal, and even a little cold, but has one of the most beautiful, welcoming smiles I’ve ever seen, if you can get him to open up and laugh a little. He wants to teach children in the camp English. He sees that the French schooling they receive is inadequate, that going back to Burundi might never be an option for him and his family. In Tanzania they speak English. In the US they speak English. The future he sees is in English, but they have no pencils, no chalkboards, no ledger books.

Sometimes, I have to not think about them. I have to pretend that they are not cold, or not hungry, or not tired of eating only one food, or not plagued by infection and disease.

I saw astonishing feats of ingenuity and self-preservation. Burundians who had carried foot-pedal sewing machines on their backs across the border. Solar panels with far too many wires to be safe protruding from every side. I sat with Peter,* a young Burundian man who sang love songs in Kirundi and Kiswahili while he strummed a guitar made from an oil can. His friend made it while they were in the camp as children; he took it back to Burundi when he was forcibly removed in the early 2000s, and back to Tanzania when the border opened again to refugees.

When I arrived in Iraq in November, I was shown a map of the north, with little red bombs for where ISIS was active. We are here, I was told. Don’t worry, it would take ISIS a week to get to us; we’ll know they are coming.

Many of the children were afraid to use the little English they had with me, but Justin* wanted to be my friend. He wanted me to visit his family, his grandmother, to meet his uncle who had taught him English. His smile was enough to break my heart; he had only just arrived in camp and didn’t want anything from me but to practice his English, didn’t know yet that white ladies were mostly there to give him food and clothes.

If they come, someone else told me, we’ll just run into the mountains. We have done it before. The local people will give us food and somewhere to sleep. We will not leave you behind.

Arnold* went back to Burundi. Unmarried, no children, he feared for his life as his stepmother and siblings had threatened to kill him for his father’s land, but in Burundi, he could continue his studies. So many of my friends had left their studies behind. Doctors and nurses and linguists. In Iraq, many universities are closed. In Tanzania, the government won’t let Burundians study, so they work as teachers, as sanitation educators, hoping someone will hear them. Arnold sends me whatsapp messages occasionally, telling me he is studying hard or that he is running out of money. He has no family, nowhere to go; there is no work and he only wants to finish school.

Sometimes I wonder how bad it would have had to be for me to leave school, to not finish university; my education and my honor were all I was told mattered. Would I have left if my life were threatened? My bodily safety? How threatened? Would they have to rape me or murder my friends first, or would I go knowing it was a possibility?

At the beginning of January, I received a message from one of my refugee staff. He told me that he had been resettled, per the US government’s commitment to help UNHCR to relocate 50,000 Congolese, many of them to the US. Having spent 20 years in camps in Tanzania, Frederic* and his six children and his wife made it out, just under the gun, I said.

I had no idea just how close it would be. I wonder if the others will ever make it now.

Elaine* has had two miscarriages since she arrived at Nyarugusu less than two years ago. The first time kept her from working on our research as she fought infection, unable to get the proper nourishment she needed to heal. She desperately wants a baby, wants to show her family that the wedding they couldn’t afford, the bride price her husband couldn’t pay because there is no work in the camp, that running for their freedom was all worth it.

What could you grab in five minutes? In five hours? In five days?

Ahmed* worked for the US military at a base in Anbar province in Iraq. As a translator for the invaders, he was labeled a collaborator and when ISIS came, he feared for his life, and the lives of his family. We put him in that situation. He sacrificed for our war effort, for the ostensible “safety and freedom of the American people,” but with this executive order, he has no chance of getting out. He now lives in a tent in Arbat refugee camp with his children and extended family all around, the ones that are still alive at least, hoping that he can one day go home.

Sometimes, I try to think about how I would feel, having finally reached someplace safe, someplace I was told people would help me, that I spent years dreaming about and working towards, that it would be wonderful and free from fear, and then be told to leave.

*I have changed all names to protect the identities of people who spoke with me.

They wanted to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds

Saturday morning I boarded an early light rail train to Downtown Denver for the Women’s March. With a few friends from high school and their mothers and friends, we spent the day together: fighting, listening, talking, thinking, and marching. We laughed at signs that were funny, took hope in ones that were uplifting, delighted in the children and young people who came out to support their moms, to advocate for their own rights. We chanted that this is what democracy looks like and mostly not dressed for it, stood in the cold for hours. It was incredible.

Women's March on Denver

(Civic Center Park on 1/21/17. Photo from the Denver Post)

I think it’s important to tell you, to put down on paper, why I’m marching. Though many of you reading this probably assumed I would be, I had reservations. The original lack of inclusiveness and diverse voices in planning the march disturbed me; it felt like co-opting Black labor and Black ideas when we—as white women—suddenly found ourselves marginalized. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be part of such a myopic movement, wasn’t sure I could represent the inclusiveness I feel is often missing from these conversations. I also wasn’t sure who I would go with. Having recently returned to Denver, the politics of many of my friends here were a big unknown. It’s not always something I talked about with new acquaintances, and frankly, I simply never talked about these things with some of my friends from high school.

But go I did, and joyfully, expectantly, with longing and a little fear, and prepared–a bandana and granola bars and sliced apples and water in my pocket. Prepared for the worst (which I didn’t think would actually happen), but also prepared to take what I knew was only a first step. The Women’s March is the start of a very long fight that will be the next four years. It is a symbolic start to a particular fight, but also the continuation of a much older fight for which I have too long remained reticent, hesitant to jump in. Attacks on the rights of all people who identify as women, immigrants and refugees, Muslims, people of color and LGBTQIA; on voting rights; on sexual and reproductive rights and health; on health care; on social safety net programs; on federal lands, the earth, and our climate; on our ability to speak out and speak the truth. These are not new, but they are coming, fast and furious. Now is not a time to congratulate ourselves for marching, but a time to make connections, to find solidarity, to acknowledge the role that privilege and intersectionality play in oppression, to gear up for the next fight.

It’s already here and #icantkeepquiet.

Feminism, as it has been practiced by white women, has long excluded and erased women of color, women with disabilities, women who do not follow traditional gender scripts and norms, and countless others. This has been its failing. For all the gains we have made to put women in positions of power and improve pay equality and open more opportunities for women and girls, you can’t decrease the gender wage gap if growing proportions of women continue to be relegated to low-paying jobs, continue to be silenced. For all the thinkpieces trying to explain the election results with talk of the economic insecurity of “working class Americans,” almost two thirds of people who work minimum wage jobs are women, many of them single mothers, and disproportionately are black and brown.

That said, we have come far. My mother, an extremely accomplished nurse practitioner, recently told me how amazed she was at the opportunities I had. You were a nurse or a teacher, that’s all there was for women, she said. That these were not my only options is part of my immense privilege, one that I want to see extended and expanded to more women, more little girls. I want every little girl in Denver, whether she grows up off Federal, or in Globeville, or in Cherry Hills Village to have that chance, to know that she can be a doctor, or a CEO, or a self-employed Ph.D. economist who does contract work for international organizations.

I’m marching because I do not want to return to a time when I would be unable to get birth control because I am not married, to a time when if I did get pregnant, my list of options would include seeing a back-alley butcher, to a time when executives were wantonly permitted to sexually harass female staff or discriminate against them for promotions and raises.

Let’s not go backwards.

I’m marching because I have many times said that my professional goal is to end gender-based violence, and the current administration is already working to dismantle and reverse progress in that direction. I believe that gutting the Violence Against Women Act is a national travesty. Women, children, immigrants, refugees, and other marginalized people disproportionately face violence from their partners, parents, and people in power and VAWA exists to mitigate those harms. The law needs some rethinking to focus less on law enforcement and to better serve Native Americans, LGBTQIA communities, and minorities. It could include community rehabilitation and childhood education on consent; it should give tribes greater sovereignty over crimes that occur on tribal lands and against their members. But dismissing tens of grant programs that train law enforcement, that support women leaving abusive relationships with financial support and legal assistance and counseling, that fund hotlines and shelters, and more, only puts women in more danger.

I’m marching because I love Colorado’s wilderness, because I picked up and up-ended my entire life to be back here, to spend time with my family, in the sunshine, in the mountains. I don’t want it spoiled by climate change and reckless industry that doesn’t value the health and wellbeing of Coloradans.

I’m marching because my whole life, I’ve been told that I can do anything, that I could be anything. That there were no doors closed to me. The ones that seemed closed, I kicked them down. It’s true that for many of us, many educated white women whom I count among my friends, this is the first time that someone has told us we are not worthy and a (large share of a) nation of voters agreed. And that is part of my privilege, too. It has always been this way for Black women, for Black men, for people of color and other marginalized folks. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve faced haters. Professors who told me that “grad school isn’t for everyone” and men who told me I wasn’t good enough. But never did I believe they were anything but wrong. Never did I believe I couldn’t kick in that door. Never in my lifetime has such a large group seemed to have said, “my perceived economic security is more important than your worth as a person, than your bodily security from rape and sexual assault, than the trauma of listening to abusive rhetoric as it rains hate down on your accomplishments.”

I’m marching because this country needs and deserves to benefit from the color and culture and friendship of immigrants and refugees. Because they deserve to live here safely and peacefully, to know that this a place that will be better than a dry, dusty camp in Tanzania, or a snowy one in Greece, or a gang-controlled city where they fear for their lives. Because a quick look at history tells you that walls don’t work.

I’m marching because I want the newly inaugurated president and the Republican-controlled Congress to know that he did not win by a landslide, not by any measure, and they do not have a mandate to do as they please. I want him to know that if he wants to “win” at being president, and we all know he likes to win, he will have to work WITH and FOR women. He will have to work WITH and FOR groups that have been marginalized and oppressed.

I want the president to know that America is already great. That we have strong, independent, intelligent women who run our businesses, who raise great kids, who make beautiful things, who fight against poverty and oppression and hate every day. And that all of that energy will be directed at any attempts to bring those women down for the next four years. This is only the start.

Saturday morning was uplifting; it was beautiful. I cried seeing pictures of massive crowds of hundreds of thousands of people in Boston and DC and Raleigh and San Francisco and Denver and Chicago. I grinned seeing my friends posing with their moms and their babies and their lifelong friends at marches all over the world. My heart got fuller with each picture of a sister march in Antarctica and Crested Butte and small towns all over. I am sending giant hugs to every single one of you. Thank you for coming out. For speaking out.

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January 21, 2017 was a incredibly special day. Keep it in your hearts, let it burn quietly and consistently. Feed it with love and fervor and hope for a better, more humane world. You will need it; you will need it to fuel you, to keep marching, to keep fighting, to protect yourself from the lies, to make space for those who have been voiceless to speak, or to speak for them when they are silenced, to pull every single one of us forward.

Notes on the title of this post: A few people had this quote on signs at the Denver march, including one of my group. Its provenance is often cited as a Mexican proverb,* but other sources point to the homoerotic poetry of Greek writer Dino Christianopolous, proving once again that everything great comes from gay culture: “what didn’t you do to bury me / but you forgot that I was a seed,” translated by Prof. Nicholas Kostis.

*Quisieron enterrarnos, pero se les olvidó que somos semillas, as adopted by Mexican counterculture and revolutionary movements.



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