It’s a rabbit-hole, yes. But one that’s well worth going down in as I immerse myself in the racial past and present of St. Louis. It’s fascinating. It’s depressing. It’s a must.
As the editor of a new Corporation for Public Broadcasting-funded “diversity” coverage initiative, I am based at St. Louis Public Radio and supervise a team of four reporters: One is here; the others are in Kansas City, Hartford and Portland, Ore. While the paperwork for the CPB grant says “diversity,” I feel like this whole initiative will be more about identity: About how Americans think of themselves and about “the other,” in their communities.
In this regard, the issue of where St. Louis people lived and live looms large. The scars of redlining, blockbusting and segregation seem to be everywhere–once you know where to look. Could Ferguson have happened as it did elsewhere? Yes, certainly. But it happened here–how and when it did–for reasons that have to do with both race and place.
So here’s what I’ve been reading, watching and listening to:
Remember when Twitter was everything? It’s still got more than 320 million monthly active users, but it’s no longer the hot social media platform. While Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram continued to grow between 2012 and 2015, Twitter stagnated starting in 2014 (Pew Research Center).
When I spent six months in Belize last year, I began using WhatsApp to send free messages and make free phone calls to family and friends in the U.S. I also found that Belizeans use WhatsApp quite heavily to message and talk to each other within the country.
If you are unfamiliar with WhatsApp, here are the basics:
WhatsApp allows smartphone users to exchange text, image, video and audio messages for free
WhatsApp uses the internet to send messages, so the cost is significantly less than texting
So, now you’re asking: How does WhatsApp, which sounds like a utility, qualify as a social media platform? How do people get news from such an app?
Percentage of people using each service at least once a week
Source: Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017
While in Belize, I was invited to join a WhatsApp group called Newz@Ur Finga Tipz. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was intrigued. Soon, I saw that the curators and users of the group were sharing details about car accidents, severe weather (flooding and tropical storm activity especially), missing persons, and other tidbits that you might normally expect news outlets to report.
In Belize, where newsrooms are not always staffed to keep ahead of breaking and developing news (especially on weekends), Newz@Ur Finga Tipz was delivering information in a timely fashion to a group of “subscribers,” if you will. There were rumors bandied about, but the group’s curators and members took pains to debunk and/or confirm and then spread the news.
My job in Belize involved public relations and marketing for the nation’s leading cultural and historical institutions, including the Maya archaeological sites around the country that provide employment for Belizeans and draw tourists and researchers in (for Belize) huge numbers.
In the wake of August 2016’s Hurricane Earl, I jumped on Newz@Ur Finga Tipz as one channel for providing updates on which archaeological sites were closed due to storm damage, and which other venues (e.g. the Museum of Belize and Bliss Center for the Performing Arts) had been affected by the hurricane.
In Belize, WhatsApp is free way to inform and communicate, but the platform is even more widely used for sharing news and views in other countries–countries where tweeting or posting a news item could get you into trouble with government officials, religious authorities and others with the power to make lives uncomfortable.
WhatsApp is private. So, as long as you know and trust people you connect with, it’s a safe means for connecting.
For its latest Digital News Report, the Reuters Institute For The Study of Journalism worked with YouGov to survey people in across Europe, the Americas and Asia. The study was sponsored by the BBC and Google among others. A total of 71,805 people were questioned in January and February to generate the data.
Facebook is still the most popular social media and messaging service for news engagement in all but two countries – Japan and South Korea – where, respectively, YouTube and Kakao Talk dominate.
Sharing news stories and chatting about them appears to be on the rise within private instant messaging apps, and WhatsApp in particular.
WhatsApp is now the second most popular social service for news in nine of the 36 locations, and the third most popular platform in a further five countries.
“Some of the biggest growth we’ve seen is in places like Turkey, where it’s positively dangerous for people to express anti-government preferences on open networks like Facebook…. As a result people are using closed groups where they are more confident of expressing their views.” — Nic Newman, Digital News Report
Another attractive quality of WhatsApp is that content is not selected by journalists. The gatekeepers are WhatsApp users. According to a BBC article about the Digital News Report, some news organizations are trying to jump on the WhatsApp bandwagon (of course), but: “….part of WhatsApp’s appeal is that users don’t get interrupted by brands, making it a very pure form of messaging. That’s something [its developers] will really try to hold to.”
Here’s a look at WhatsApp usage in many countries (Percentage of YouGov respondents who report using WhatsApp on a weekly basis)
Source: Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017
Wondering how Facebook feels about the rise of WhatsApp? The world’s dominant social network acquired the hot, new upstart in 2014. Now, naturally, Facebook is looking to monetize the app, so it will be interesting to see how that works out–given that WhatsApp users may be flocking to the service because it’s devoid of advertising and other money-making features.
Saturday, June 24, was weird. I woke up to a sweet Lake Erie breeze coming in through the huge windows of the loft-style apartment where I’ve been living since February. The sky had that look that indicates it will be a sunny, mostly clear day.
I did some work after drinking my coffee, with the news on television. There was nothing too horrible in the headlines—or perhaps I am getting used to the new normal in these tumultuous times.
Breakfast. For a few weeks now, I’ve been going to a locally owned place called Yours Truly on either Saturday or Sunday. There are several around the Cleveland area, and I can walk to one downtown. It’s just shy of Playhouse Square.
The previous Saturday I’d gone in, and a server told me I couldn’t sit in a window booth because it was reserved. There was no sign or anything on the table. He said the reservation had just come in. OK, fine. The other window booth was occupied, so I sat elsewhere.
On my most recent visit, after another server told me I could sit in a vacant window booth, server #1 swooped in to say it was reserved. I pointed out that I was told I could sit there and he said server #2 didn’t know about the reservation. I was furious. And I usually don’t get furious.
I asked to be seated elsewhere—not in server #1’s section—and to see the manager. After outlining what had happened, I received an apology and assurances that I was in the right. There was no particular explanation for the way server #1 behaved, but I was offered my meal for free.
Then, the general manager came down and gave me his card. Another apology. Oh! And both told me the restaurant doesn’t even take reservations; it’s first come, first served.
I don’t know what actions the manager took; I could see server #1 working as if nothing had happened.
So, what should I conclude?
Solo diner discrimination (a.k.a. fear of meager tip)
Some combination of the above
I posted this experience on my Facebook Page and many friends opted for the racial discrimination explanation. As I left, I noted four black women were now seated in a window booth.
Needless to say, I took to Yelp and TripAdvisor to share my frustration. A sad experience, since I really like the Yours Truly Barcelona omelet. (Blog continues below map)
Still steaming, I walked toward Playhouse Square, where the universe instantly tried to make up for what had happened at the restaurant. The area’s busy intersection was blocked off from traffic for the huge Tri-C Jazz Fest stage, surrounding which sat hundreds of people on yoga mats, waiting for the session to begin.
The vibe was just as you might expect: reggae music floated through speakers and the yogis–mostly women—murmured, chatted, and stretched. I stayed around to watch for a bit, not being a yogi myself: Quite a sight! I felt better.
Next, I wandered down to the area near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where people were lining up to get into the Cleveland Pride Festival. There were smiles and laughter everywhere.
After that, I headed over to Public Square where the Cleveland Pride Parade was about to begin. I noted with interest that the largest contingents represented the likes of Walmart, USBank and Giant Eagle. Churches were well represented, as were a handful of political candidates.
To see the exuberance and joy in the faces of the people marching made me emotional.
Realization: This is what it looks like when people, long marginalized and worse, can celebrate life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
So, I wrapped up my morning rambles by heading back to the apartment. It was not quite 1 p.m., and I was spent.
What is it that’s so cool about podcasts? The little burst of excitement I feel when a new one is ready reminds me of getting letters or cards in the mail back when people used to send letters and cards.
Perhaps podcasts are like magazines; so many subjects and themes that there is something for everybody. Even better, the podcasts you love don’t have annoying perfume sample inserts.
It’s not likely that most people who podcast will become overnight millionaires; advertising is sparse for the smaller players (which is part of the charm). Some podcasters get donations a la public radio; others sell swag like t-shirts. Crowdfunding is another option.
Still, as it turns out, if you have an attractive concept and a devoted, growing audience, you might attract venture capitalists to back you.
An article at NiemanLab.org says “We can mark 2016 as the year the podcast business came of age.” Ad revenue is growing, according to stats in the article.
Spending the holidays in the US after six months in Belize, I have employed a variety of transportation methods: borrowing my sister-in-law’s minivan, renting a car and using Uber.
Side note: Uber is the Craigslist of the transportation space: Once you’ve gone Uber you realize just what a big opportunity taxidom missed out on!
It’s fascinating to chat with an Uber driver; each one has his or her own style and reasons for driving strangers around in their car.
6 Uber drivers you might encounter in St. Louis:
1. The chauffeur. He wears a sweater vest, a tie, and a crisp white button-down shirt. His vehicle is immaculate and smells of the peppermints he offers passengers. He also provides small botttles of water to the thirsty. Car: Dodge Grand Caravan
2. The as-needed driver. This is a young man who tells you he’d rather be watching football but needs to drive a few hours to pick up a few extra dollars. Turns out he played college football and is in limbo while he decides on his next move. Car: Chevy Impala
3. The single mother. She indicates you should sit in the front passenger seat because the back seat “is a mess.” Her routine is to drop a bunch of kids off at school in the morning, Uber until the school day ends, and then pick up said group of kids to deliver them home. The group includes her musical genius high school daughter who is already being scouted by prestigious conservatories. Car: Kia Sedona
4. The full-timer. This driver tells you he’s started driving up to ten hours a day because he was recently laid off from his job or recently lost his disability benefits. He studies YouTube videos posted by expert Uber drivers who provide tips on maximizing the system. Knows the city like the back of his hand. Car: Toyota Corolla or Kia Sorrento.
5. The NRA member. Conversation quickly turns to the fact that Uber doesn’t allow him to carry a gun while driving, but he does have a pocket knife on his person. Turns out he used to work as a repo man, so he may have reason to fear passengers. Car: Volkswagen Jetta.
6. The juggler. He Ubers in the city for several hours most mornings (including Christmas Day), then heads to the county (far west) for his full time job at a nursing home. In addition he serves as a Kurdish and Persian interpreter at a local center that provides support services for new immigrants. Car: Nissan Quest.
1. Buying a car. There are few dealerships of the kind you’ll find in the U.S. and other bigger countries. However, the streets of Belize City can be considered one giant used car lot. Just look for vehicles with large white dollar sign and phone number decals on their rear windows. Call the number for a quote and test drive!
Or, you can go to the Facebook Group “Belize Buy & Sell,” where you will find a number of posts showing photos of cars along with prices and contact information for the sellers. (You can also find clothes, cell phones, jewelry, and just about anything else you can think of).
I opted to buy a used car from a broker-dealer named Brian who has a mostly empty lot along the highway and a great website, where I spotted my intended. His office is a tent, or the driver’s seat of a car he’s trying to sell.
I paid cash for something called a Nissan Platina, made in Mexico. Someone said to me later, “Oh, that’s a Third World car.” I took this to mean it was hardy and could handle the rigors of dust, iffy fuel and rough roads. Fingers crossed on that one.
Anyway, Brian defines full service! He drove me to the Traffic Division to meet the person who hired him to sell the car so we could transfer the title. The seller was a nun named Sister Rose. The car, I should say, is more than 10 years old and has only about 50,000 miles on it. It’s not fancy, but it runs and doesn’t guzzle gas. Sister Rose took great care of it.
Next, Brian drove me to the insurance company of my choice, where he waited with me until I was duly insured. Finally, he recommended a mechanic he trusts.
2. Servicing your car. You can take your car to one of the major dealers and wait a day or more for an oil change. Or, you can get a referral for a good mechanic who works out of his yard. The guy Brian recommended to me is named George, and it turns out he is the first cousin of my first cousin’s wife. And he lives around the corner from me.
When I called to make my appointment, George advised me to buy my oil and filter, as well as steering fluid (my wheel was stiff and making ominous sounds) and bring these items to his yard. I made my purchases at Westrac, a place—let it be said—that is an automotive paradise: You go in and sit at a kind of bar to share your vehicular woes with a sort of bartender/car expert who pulls the items you need. My filter had to be brought in from another store, but—no worries—they’ll get it in the same day. George serviced my car in less than an hour and drove it around the corner to my place.
3. Parking. There are a number of actual parking lots around downtown Belize City, which is a relatively new development. Parking there will cost about two Belize dollars per hour. Still, you will find yourself parking on the narrow city streets much of the time. In this regard it is helpful to have a Platina, which is about the size of a Toyota Tercel! Parking can sometimes be precarious, as many streets are lined with open drains and a few inches here or there can land you in their murky waters.
Thankfully, whether in a parking lot or not, there is usually someone to help. On the street this will be a random guy who appears out of nowhere and provides expert advise via hand movements, shouts, and thumps on the side of your car. He will be genial and quite pleased to help you. It’s not so different in a parking lot, although the guy helping you is an actual employee.
4. Getting a carwash. Once you have parked your car in the lot across from Brodie’s rear entrance on Regent Street, a shirtless man bearing a bucket will offer to wash your car while you go about your business. There is no set price, but I try to be generous.
There is a guy who combines parking and washing services in the area of the Bliss Center for the Performing Arts nearby. He must have a sixth sense about when I will be in the area, because he materializes out of nowhere–guaranteed.
5. Getting gas. Filling your tank in Belize will cost you about twice as much as in the U.S. One thing that might ease the pain at the pump is the fact that gas stations are full service. Young men in neat uniforms (and baseball caps) will do the honors and clean your windshield and rear window while you wait. They will also put air in your tires.
What must it be like to be a beauty pageant contestant in Belize in the age of social media? When I was pageant-ing in 1986, there was no way for members of the public to instantly criticize me and share that criticism with hundreds–even thousands of other people. I heard very few negative comments; I suppose my friends and family shielded me. The few I did hear were baffling as well as dismaying.
So, I salute the ten contestants in this year’s Miss Belize Universe Pageant, whose pageant month was full of public appearances and opportunities to be scrutinized.
If I were to provide advice to young women about whether to enter a beauty pageant in Belize, here are a few items I would ask potential contestants to consider.
Do you know what it feels like to lose? I suspect young women who know what this feels like will be able to face what’s coming. So, if you have competed before (e.g. in sports, academically, in other kinds of contests) and survived defeat with your ego intact, that is a point in favor of entering a pageant.
Do you know how it feels to win? This is important because the minute you triumph you will become a magnet for people who want to be in your life, for better and worse. Being a gracious and humble winner can go a long way in keeping your ego intact.
Is your support system strong and absolutely on board? Any ambivalence in the people closest to you can lead to self-doubt. Your friends and family love you, but they may not see entering a pageant as something they want you to do. Also, a ride-or-die crew will make sure you have the resources you need: They’ll help you find sponsors, be your cheering section, and remind you that you’re awesome no matter what happens.
Are you confident? Confidence is not the same as courage. In my mind, courage gets you through something you may not believe you can actually survive. Confidence means that no matter what happens in the pageant, you’ll be fine. Maybe you’ll shed a few disappointed tears, but you won’t be shattered.
What happens next? Do you have a plan to get on with your life, win or lose?
Would I do it again? Yes. I won a college scholarship (as did the 2016 winner, Rebecca Rath). I traveled to Singapore, Europe and all around Belize. I was probably too young; at age 17, my ego was fragile and the Miss Universe experience was overwhelming. Still, no regrets.
A foodie visitor to Belize might observe that the country has a vibrant “street food” scene. In Belize, we just call it food, comida, and dinna (dinner). There are small vendors everywhere. On a recent five-minute car ride from my neighborhood to the grocery store I counted at least ten pop-up, semi-permanent and permanent purveyors of food: meat pies, tamales, panades, barbecue, johnny cakes, rice and beans with stewed chicken–you name it!
For a poor country, there is a lot of food around. Grocery stores are plentiful and well-stocked. Upscale eateries and casual eateries abound in the tourist areas (there are not as many in Belize City). Portions, whether on the street or in a hotel dining room, tend to be generous. Prices range, depending on where you are (in the districts versus a tourist destination, for example), but a few Belize dollars can fill your belly.
And yet, children go hungry.
Recent years have seen the rise of school feeding programs for children who may not get a nutritious meal on any given day.
It’s hard to find information on the exact numbers or reasons for hunger in Belize. I did find the World Food Programme Hunger Map, which calls the “prevalence of undernourishment” among Belizean children “relatively low;” about 9 percent of kids ages five to 14 don’t get enough to eat. That seems rather high, in a country where food (literally) grows on trees and in the sea. Are adults simply hogging all the food for ourselves?
The second largest population group consists of children 0-14 years: 34.87% (male 61,822/female 59,312)
Children under the age of 5 years underweight: 6.2%
An informal economy
Back to the food vendors. Are their families eating the food they prepare?
I also wonder whether the official economic statistics include these entrepreneurs. Then I think of the people who have day jobs and do other things on the side to make ends meet, to feed their children.
They do nails or hair in their parlours (living rooms); sell clothes out of their bedrooms (using Facebook to advertise); cook in their own kitchens and deliver to customers. There are car dealers without car lots (they park their vehicles on the streets and post contact phone numbers in the windows). There website designers, domestic workers and childcare providers.
Which is harder: To realize one is out of one’s element or in one’s element? This is not a trick question, but it’s not easy to answer.
I think one can be out of one’s element and function perfectly well. Coping is what we as human beings strive to do. Survival, right? The problem is that coping can come to seem normal, since there may be nothing in particular to point to that is making one feel that things don’t quite fit. And yet, things don’t quite fit.
“I acknowledge the four elements. Water in the North; incense to recognize the air in the East; flowers for the earth in the South; a candle for light from the West. It helps me keep perspective.” Laura Esquivel
Mind you: It’s not all sunshine in one’s element, either. Still, it feels different. Even bad days or in frustrating moments, the element feels different. Moving through the trouble (whether a little or big one) feels different. The element is working in one’s favor, so to speak.