Andrew Blejwas is humanitarian media manager at Oxfam America. He previously worked as Oxfam's regional communications officer for the US, working with communities in the American southeast to tackle poverty and foster social change.
Larry Fitzgerald (white shirt) and Anquan Boldin (right) help women artisanal miners pound rock and sand. Photo by Audra Melton/Oxfam America
The village of Sabodala in eastern Senegal is going through an amazingly difficult transition. Until several years ago the community had access to land on which they farmed for generations. They had clean water whenever needed. The land provided a means of livelihood for the community while villagers turned to artisanal mining for gold in the dry season to earn extra money.
Then a mining company came in and seized their land—and everything changed. People could no longer farm in the same places. They still had access to water through a pump the mining company was generous enough to build in the village – but not generous enough to let the community use for free. Villagers say that sometimes the pump was shut off for days at a time. Farmers in Sabodala were forced to depend on artisanal mining for basic necessities in a way they never had to before. Seemingly overnight, mining changed from a way to generate supplemental income to the only way to earn a living year-round.
I stepped into this situation with NFL wide receivers Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald, and Roddy White on a visit with Oxfam to learn about our programs in the region and what they, their fans, and you can do to support our friends and partners on the ground.
The players saw one of the ways the community of Sabodala has responded to their newly created situation: the creation of a women’s Saving for Change group by a local association that was also working with Oxfam to help farmers get compensation for their lost land and improve access to water. Each individual member of the group saves and deposits about 25 cents a week (roughly $12 each year) to the group fund. That seemed like a small amount to the players and myself, but when combined with the entire group savings, is actually a good sum of money to save in eastern Senegal. The members can then borrow small loans to meet emergency needs or fund a small business venture. The group has given the women access to resources they desperately need.
Changing for the better
We spoke with women who say their lives have been changed for the better through creating and accessing the savings group. It is helping them open up new businesses, money for health care for children in the community, and getting new clothes. Although a savings group won’t solve all the problems in Sabodala, it will help people survive some difficult changes.
Along with millions of other Americans, I’ll be watching Anquan Boldin and the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL playoffs this weekend—but my mind will be in Ethiopia.
I traveled to southern Ethiopia not long ago to visit Oxfam America’s programs in the area. As we drove, my colleague Tewodros Negash explained why Oxfam uses its cash-for-work program to pay communities to clear brush from the fields by hand, something they’ve done for generations by setting controlled fires. As it turns out, the winds, which for as long as anyone can remember have been predictable, are now wholly unreliable. It used to be that people could set fire to the brush, rely on the wind to control the flames, and have a field that was clear in time for the rains. The grass would grow and their animals would have a place to graze. But with wind that’s unpredictable, and rain that’s even more so, communities must now take steps to survive the effects of climate change.
Just weeks later I told that story to Boldin and his friend and former teammate Larry Fitzgerald, NFL wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, during a meeting to discuss Oxfam America’s work. Boldin and Fitzgerald learned this summer of the devastating drought in East Africa and were looking for ways to help, which is why they reached out to Oxfam.
“I’ve been to the Horn of Africa before,” Fitzgerald, who will be appearing in the Pro Bowl for the seventh time later this month, told Yahoo! Sports Radio in a recent interview. “And I’ve seen some of the effects of the drought myself. … When you see [people affected by drought] you definitely want to do something because they are in dire need.”
Since then, in between catching footballs and evading linebackers and safeties, Boldin and Fitzgerald have raised money for Oxfam America on Twitter and Facebook, filmed a public service announcement (below) and used their high profiles to bring attention to the crisis.
Somewhere in Grand Isle, Louisiana, on a road so remote that our GPS thought we were now in a boat on the Gulf of Mexico, it started raining. And then it rained some more. It rained so hard that our small Oxfam film crew of myself, Shannon Hart-Reed, Sarah Livingston, and Michael Prince had to pull over. After several days and hundreds of miles shooting footage for a music video Oxfam was doing in partnership with The New Pornographers, all of us were ready to go home. We were exhausted, drenched, and hungry with nowhere to go – literally. The road ahead of us was flooded, and the road to our right was closed, by British Petroleum, which created the largest environmental disaster in US history, bungled the clean-up process, and somehow managed to dispossess the authorities of the power to manage their own beaches as evidenced by their hand-drawn cardboard “Beach Closed” sign tacked to the telephone pole behind us.
That forced pit stop was a long way from the Saturday night party where Oxfam received an Emmy for the music video. When our music outreach specialist Bob Ferguson stood up to say a few words of thanks after receiving the award he said what I think we all felt in that car in the middle of the rainstorm – and throughout the filming: the video, the award, the music and the work are all part of our effort to “raise awareness that the situation in the Gulf is far from over,” and make sure the people of the Gulf Coast, and in particular those most affected by the oil spill and Hurricane Katrina, are heard.
“It’s not our problem, it’s not our problem, it’s not our problem.”
That’s the frequent mantra of those who are in the position to create significant change—but won’t. And it’s a mantra being invoked again in the southeast United States. This time by Publix Supermarkets, which is resisting calls from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)—an Oxfam partner—to double the wages of tomato pickers.
Publix’s resistance might make sense if it were not for the fact that all it takes to double the daily wage of tomato pickers is paying one more penny per pound of tomatoes picked.
So when Publix officials say “CIW’s complaints should be addressed with the employers of the workers, not with retailers and their customers,” they are essentially saying “it’s not our problem.” But denying that it’s a problem is an easy way to deny ownership of a solution. Companies like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Whole Foods understood that they were in the position to put pressure on their contractors to improve working conditions in the fields. Those contractors don’t want to lose the business of large corporations. That gives those companies, and Publix, significant leverage.
A prayer vigil in support of restaurant workers was held recently in front of Tony Moran's Restaurant in New Oleans.
Oxfam America’s Andrew Blejwas reports on the findings of a new study on the disparities restaurant workers face.
Finding good food in New Orleans is like catching a string of beads during Mardi Gras: stand in the right place and it’s likely to hit you in the face. From Creole to Cajun—and everything in between—the city’s food is as diverse and interesting as its population. And just as New Orleans’s food mirrors the diversity of American culture, the conditions facing restaurant staff in the city reflect American disparities broadly.
A new series of reports, Behind the Kitchen Door, outlines the dramatic racial, gender, and economic disparity among workers in Orleans and four other American cities: Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Portland, Maine. The reports are by the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), an Oxfam America partner in New Orleans. Based on surveys of more than 2,500 workers, the reports reveal two main findings, according to Jose Oliva, ROC’s national policy coordinator: “One, the restaurant industry is resilient, even in the face of this Great Recession. The other is that these are not the kind of jobs we want to have in America when we come out of the recession.”
When I first moved to Alabama five years ago, just about all I knew about the state was that it was hot, and Montgomery was known as both the cradle of the Confederacy and the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. But mostly, it was hot. So last week when we had what amounted to a cold snap—about three days of weather in the 50s—conversations usually started with some variation on the theme of global warming: “So much for global warming,” someone would say. Or, “We really could use some of that global warming about now.”
If only it were that easy to turn global warming on and off like a switch. For a lot of us, global warming is a euphemism for climate change, something we don’t fully understand, something happening somewhere else—certainly “not in my backyard.” Even in sweltering Alabama, we don’t talk about global warming until it gets cold. But climate change is happening, and it is in our backyard.
In the year following Hurricane Katrina, Cleo and Martin Sylvester lived in a FEMA trailer while they put together the financing they needed to rebuild their own home. Photo by Steve Thackston/Oxfam America
On the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina , Andrew Blejwas, one of our colleagues who has been working with many of the communities on the US Gulf Coast, looks back on the long years that have passed since that storm turned so many lives upside down and revealed so much about injustices in our country. Here are a few of his thoughts:
Four years after Katrina, a lot has changed. Many homes are rebuilt, there are far fewer trailers than there were just a year ago, and communities are beginning to get back on their feet. But not much has changed either. There should not be more homes to rebuild, there should not be any families still living in trailers, and communities should have more support getting back on their feet.
Though Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were one-time events, the issues they helped unmask in the region are pervasive and long-standing. It’s going to take more than just a few years worth of work to reverse the poverty and social injustice that are pervasive on the Gulf Coast of the US. Oxfam is making a commitment to address the long-term issues that affect the region and will continue to work with dedicated partners there who are already working tirelessly to do just that.
Oxfam America is a member of Oxfam, an international confederation of 17 organizations networked together in 94 countries, as part of a global movement for change, to build a future free from the injustice of poverty.
Oxfam America is a 501(c)(3) organization. Gifts are tax-deductible to the full extent allowable under the law.