After my wonderful week in Boston, I hopped on a bus to spend a few days in New York City. Siobhan Hogan, the 2005 winner of the Keegan Fellowship (www.vanderbilt.edu/travelfellowship/hogan), graciously hosted me at her apartment in the city during my time there. It was great to finally meet Siobhan after our many e-mail correspondences and telephone calls, as I have solicited a lot of advice from her (as well as from Stacey Worman, the 2006 Fellow, and Erin Feeney, the 2007 Fellow) in the past few months about my own upcoming travels. I actually did have the opportunity to meet Siobhan briefly my freshman year at Vanderbilt because I was the reporter assigned to cover the story about her fellowship project for the Hustler (Vanderbilt’s student newspaper). When I was interviewing Siobhan, I knew this fellowship was something I wanted to pursue, and I guess in a way it has all come full circle now.
I arrived in NYC on a Friday night and was able to spend time with a close friend from Vanderbilt for the evening before gearing up for a full weekend of exploring the city. On Saturday, a friend from New Jersey came to spend the day with me, and together we headed to Battery Park to catch the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Unfortunately, we arrived there a little late, and the line to get tickets was about 2 hours long, so we decided to put that attraction on hold and explore the city. Right next to Battery Park is the Museum of the American Indian, which is operated by the Smithsonian Institute, so we decided to check that out and see what ideas of freedom we would be presented with there. This museum was absolutely beautiful and certainly offered its own unique perspective on American freedom. The current exhibit was entitled “Listening to Our Ancestors: The Art of Native Life Along the North Pacific Coast.” This exhibit includes more than 400 ceremonial and every day objects that representatives from 11 Native communities along the North Pacific Coast give their perspectives on in regards to how these objects connect them to their lands, customs, and ancestors. While touring the museum, we stopped to watch part of a movie with interviews of members from these tribes. There was one quote from the movie that really summed up my experience at the museum, which was that “identity is much larger than the individual.” I think this idea is an important contrast to my experiences around the idea of freedom in Boston, which were largely based in the belief that individual freedom and personal choice are the guiding principles in a free society. Thinking beyond individual identity to that of a collective identity provides a different perspective on freedom. In a way, I think it can be argued that there is a prevailing notion that being categorized into a certain group, or as part of something larger than the individual, can limit freedom. I think that group identity can often lead to stereotypes as a way for people to be able to process those who are different from them, which can limit people’s freedom to formulate their own opinions, as well as limiting the freedom of those who are being hastily categorized. However, as with Native American culture, I think that freedom can also be found within a collective identity as the individual is no longer required to stand alone in beliefs, ideas, etc. While possibly more restrictive from the outside, belonging to a collective identity can provide a safe place in which to be oneself without fear of judgment. I think it is even hard to judge how much individual identity there actually is in society when the information/entertainment age and its predefined social cliques work so very hard to create it for you, often without people noticing. At the Museum of the American Indian, we also watched a video made by a younger member of one of the tribes entitled “4-Wheel War Pony.” This video would go back and forth between showing young men skateboarding and then it would show them dressed up in traditional Native American outfits walking through fields with guns, showing the juxtaposition of two identities, one modern and one traditional, although both are collective. As I travel throughout Asia, I anticipate exploring more the relationship between a collective identity v. an individualistic identity and how they relate to freedom. After finishing our exploration of the museum, my friend and I spent the rest of the day walking around the city and even fitting in a tour of the Met to cap off a tiring, but fulfilling day.
The next day I decided to try going to Battery Park a little earlier than the day before, and this plan worked as I was able to get tickets for the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island without spending all day in line. I had been to both attractions before as part of a trip in 2000, but a lot has changed in the world since then, and especially in New York since Sept. 11, 2001. A lot of the inspiration for my project was drawn from rhetoric of freedom that has emerged since that day, trying to understand what freedoms are important to people and how ideals of freedom are understood in different cultures. It was strange to see the site of the World Trade Center now, as the last time I visited it I was able to stand atop it and look out across the city. Now when I visited it, I had to look down to see the rebuilding that is occurring, which I think is an important testament to the idea of American freedom and to the American spirit—that despite a horrific act of destruction, rebuilding and healing is occurring. I think back to what Minyang told me at the seminar I attended in Boston, which was that in order to accept that you live in a free society, you have to accept certain losses. One of the losses she mentioned to me specifically was terrorist attacks. I think that some of our freedoms as Americans have been lost because of terrorist attacks and the fear of future attacks, and it is my belief that the government has overstepped its bounds under the guise of security (such as the PATRIOT ACT, NSA wiretapping, etc.) While I tend to lean towards having as much personal liberty as possible, I think it is a tricky issue to balance security and protection with certain freedoms. But, I think that when we start sacrificing freedom in the name of security, we are losing a lot of what I value in the idea of American freedom. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
At the Statue of Liberty, I was able to walk around the island and gaze upon the enormity of the famous green lady. Access to go up the monument has been greatly restricted, so this time around I was not able to go up into it. However, I think just standing by it and looking upon it with the eyes of someone trying to understand freedom was even more important to me as its sheer size and its iconic nature as our country’s symbolic of liberty mean so much more to me now than it did when I was 13. The Statue of Liberty has served as a symbol of freedom and beacon of hope for many immigrants seeking a better life in America, which I was able to explore at the Ellis Island immigration museum. As with the Statue of Liberty, I also had the opportunity to tour Ellis Island previously, but once again, visiting this site meant so much more to me now than it did 8 years ago. While at the museum, I began thinking of my own upcoming travels and the great distances I will be covering, and then I tried to image what it would have been like for immigrants coming to America, crossing the ocean on trips that were counted in weeks and months instead of the hours that we are accustomed to now. As I am going out into the world to try to discover the meaning behind freedom, thousands of people have immigrated to America to find their own promise of freedom, whether to escape oppressive governments, reunite with family, find job opportunities, receive an education, or a myriad of other reasons. America is a nation of immigrants, and while many of our families migrated to America many generations ago, I think it is important for us to think about why our families migrated and the opportunities and freedoms they hoped to find, and how these freedoms and opportunities have changed.
On Monday, I was able to visit the United Nations, a place that I had read a lot about in the political science classes I took at Vanderbilt as well as through the news, but have never visited before. Graham Osborn, a 2002 graduate from Vanderbilt, largely facilitated my trip to the UN. Graham has worked at the UN as part of the Peacekeeping division and now works for the recently established UN Democracy Fund. After clearing the security to get inside of the UN, Graham met me in the lobby of the main building and was able to get me complimentary tickets for the general tour of the UN building, where I was able to see where the Security Council meets and the General Assembly room, amongst other rooms where meetings are held and seeing many gifts given to the UN by its member nations. The UN is composed of 192 member countries and has been in existence since 1945 after the end of the Second World War. Many people have strong opinions about the UN, both positive and negative, but I think the UN is an important place to visit as its stated is to “bring all nations of the world together to work for peace and development, based on the principles of justice, human dignity and the well-being of all people.” As an organization that is global in scope and seeks to eradicate universal problems, I think the idea of freedom is important. Since the UN is such a large organization, I will focus on my experiences learning about the UN Democracy Fund and its relationship with freedom around the world.
The UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF) was established in July 2005 with the aim to provide strategic support to catalyze democracy and human rights initiatives around the world. The UNDEF funds projects that support democracy around the world, and in 2008, it received more than 1,800 project applications, which has since been narrowed down to 86 successful applicants. The vast majority of applicants come from civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The UNDEF is voluntarily funded by UN member states, with the largest contributors being the United States, India, Japan, Qatar, and Australia. The following link (www.un.org/democracy fund) provides further information about the funding procedure, criteria for projects, and other information about the UNDEF for those who are interested.
I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Cristina Colón, Senior Programme Officer for the UNDEF. One of my first questions to her was how the UNDEF defines democracy. Interestingly, the UNDEF does not have a definition for democracy because they believe the concept is too broad to limit with one definition. However, Ms. Colón did tell me that she believes it has a lot to do with giving different elements of society a voice, for example, letting civil society have its say in government and NGOs theirs. Next, I asked how the UNDEF sets itself apart from other democracy promotion organizations, such as the National Endowment for Democracy. Colón believes that the UNDEF’s large focus on civil society is their niche as they are giving civil society organizations a footing through funding. An example of a project that has been funded is one in Afghanistan dealing with women’s rights in Islam that is being spearheaded by the group Equal Access (www.equalaccess.org). The group hosts radio shows that are set up like soap operas, but deal with issues such as rights and violence against women. There is even a question and answer call-in session with a well-known soap opera star talking with human rights experts. While it is hard to measure long-term success at this point, as the UNDEF is a relatively new organization, Colón is optimistic about the future of the projects that have been funded. However, the promotion of democracy is not always issue, especially in areas of the world where democracy is not valued. Colón believes that the biggest challenges to democracy promotion are that people don’t know what democracy means (which, I think is also evident by the fact that the UNDEF does not define democracy). Some societies also lack a rule of law and many times it is hard for civil society to influence government. Finally, I asked Colón about the interplay between democracy and freedom, and if she believed you could have one without the other. She believes that it is not possible to have democracy without freedom or freedom without democracy. I followed up this question with asking about countries such as Russia, which define themselves as democracy but clearly violate rights and freedoms of their citizens. Colón believes that in these cases, these countries are not true democracies, but again, I think this is tricky because the UNDEF has not clearly defined what a democracy is. I think that defining democracy is a lot like defining freedom, though. There are several agreed upon elements as to what makes up both, but in the end, there is no one correct definition.
One of the most interesting experiences on my New York trip occurred at the Port Authority as I was preparing to leave the city. What I’ve enjoyed the most about my project so far is talking to every day people about freedom, and while waiting for a bus at the Port Authority I had a chance to speak with Teddy Royal, a jazz musician from New Orleans who plays with Fats Domino (http://homeofthegroove.blogspot.com/2006/09/special-feature-teddy-royal-story.html). Teddy and I were chatting as we waited for the bus, and while we were talking my project for the next year came up. Teddy seemed quite concerned about what I was doing, and said that people like me and him, people searching for the truth, oftentimes disappear as we ask questions of people in charge who don’t want us to know what’s really going on. While I certainly plan on staying safe during my travels, Teddy did bring up an important point of how talking about freedom in some areas of the world is dangerous. However, many of those places are quite difficult for me to travel to, which means my project will not provide a complete view of freedom, but hopefully I will not disappear. What was interesting to me, though, is that Teddy wasn’t just referring to governments in other countries, but also our own government. Teddy’s jaded view of our government, and freedom in America, has come from countless negative experiences he has had as a black man living in America. Growing up in the South during the tumultuous Jim Crow area, Teddy has seen things most of us can’t even imagine. More recently, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the lives of many in New Orleans, an experience that again directly affected Teddy. I greatly enjoyed talking to Teddy, as I enjoyed talking to everyone who I had a chance to discuss freedom with on my trip to Boston and New York. I hope to have many more conversations about freedom with people I meet waiting for the bus.
To wrap up, my time in New York raised several issues related to freedom that I hope to continue to explore internationally. My next major stop in my freedom project is to Delhi, India in August.