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Writing, learn-ing, jewelry, deconstructing t-shirts and reality - it's what I do. I live to be inspired, and to inspire.

Monday, October 19, 2015

New Real (or Virtual) Estate

Hi everyone!

I just wanted to let you know I have moved my blog. I've made my own website: keleneblake.com complete with blog. I've enjoyed having you here at "The Scent of Dying Roses" and invite you to join me at my new space Blackademically Inclined where I post weekly on topics of health, social justice, race, and my experiences as an international Black PhD student in a predominantly white institution. I've been consistently posting weekly since summer so there's a lot for you to read. I can also be followed on Twitter @BlackTygress and on my artist page on Facebook.

Thank you and see you soon!

Kelene :-)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fixing Women Who Are Not Broken to Appease Men Who Are

I don't really pay attention to Steve Harvey's relationship guru direction, or anything on TV in general, but I found this particularly disturbing and I can't help but wonder why it is acceptable of anyone. In the above clip a husband has extreme negative reactions to his wife's natural hair when she takes a break from wearing weaves. Harvey playfully admonishes the husband for not supporting his wife then brings in a "professional", Nikki Walton to speak with them about natural hair. The "professional" treats it as if it is all about the woman and her confidence and the whole fix is to teach her new hairstyles. This is not okay.

It was disappointing and frankly upsetting how this situation was handled. I don't generally care for conversations that treat natural hair like an anomaly. This sort of conversation stems out of white supremacy, an obvious legacy from this world's history, the consequences of which are still, to this day, damaging and real. The concept that "straight silky" hair is the norm and that other people with other textures of hair are abnormal and ugly is an example. This is why grown white people will ask me how I get my hair the way it is, because surely having hair of my texture and shape is not natural and I must be doing something drastic to make it all stand up like this. I always find it surprising that people can grow to adulthood without the basic understanding that people have all sorts of natural differences and not everyone's hair lies flat or is similar to theirs. Unfortunately the "normalcy" of whiteness is so deeply ingrained in so much of society that, even among the African diaspora, natural African hair is treated with scorn - especially the shorter and more tightly curled its texture. The natural hair of people of African descent comes in various textures and lengths and is extremely versatile. Healthy hair is beautiful, no matter what the texture, color or ethnicity of the person whose head it crowns. It really should be that simple. Instead what we have is a devaluing of hair that seems more "African" or "nappy" or "kinky", and even in natural hair circles, people are encouraged to disguise the texture of such hair to make it more wavy or to "tame" it.

I care passionately about a woman's right to own her natural body, to love herself and be loved as she is without having to change her natural features to suit a shallow and misguided society; which brings me back to the above clip and why I consider it more damaging than helpful. The husband in this story needs to be called out on his shallowness, his mental slavery and overall horrible selfish, childish inconsiderate behavior. If he can't let his lovely wife be herself at every stage of the "growing process" he doesn't deserve her.  Her hair is beautiful AS IS, at the length and texture it is. All the styles offered as solutions are about either hiding her hair or changing the appearance of it. It is not her fault her husband is inconsiderate and ridiculous, though she literally states she feels guilty, and she shouldn't have to "fix" her hair for the situation to improve. This solution reinforces patriarchal ideas that the husband is not responsible for his own behavior toward his wife, but rather she caused him to behave that way towards her. 

We are looking at a grown man here. He ought to have the maturity to accept that he does not own his wife's hair, that she is taking actions for her own true natural health and beauty, and that he needs to move beyond shallow "white-is-right" ideologies to accept his wife for who she is and not just how she looks. When he met her he knew she was a woman of African descent and he had an idea of what her natural hair texture is like because he has the same hair. The fact that he is repulsed by his wife's similar hair texture to his own seems to demonstrate some self-hate. As a grown man he needs to recognize and work on that. His wife also needs to work on her own discomfort with her natural hair. Both need to journey to a place emotionally where they can see each other and themselves in their natural state without the lens of white supremacy, patriarchy or any other ingrained misconceptions and judgments that teach them they are anything less than beautiful and good. Anything else is simply not enough. Harvey and Walton are putting band-aids over bullet holes and I refuse to condone such carelessness.

I have nothing against twist-outs, iron-outs or pin-ups. Hairstyle is not the point (and if you think that is you've definitely missed it). I do have something against people of influence reinforcing damaging concepts or trying to fix women who are not broken to appease men who are. If you know better, do better. If you don't know better, you better learn fast or give voice to those who do know better. Band aids over bullet holes will not produce the type of healing we need. Let's do the surgery necessary, dig deep and find healing for ourselves and by extension our larger society.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The November Experiment: Health and Poverty

If "Health is Wealth" what does that mean for the poor?
November 2013 I embarked on an experiment looking at healthy eating on a tight budget. I promised to spend $20 per week on food and still eat healthily. The first 2 weeks went smoothly and then I reached a budgeting roadblock in the third week. I wanted to celebrate a special birthday with a friend so I used my $20 allotment for that and skipped the grocery that week. I was fine for week 3 and 4 with what I had already in my pantry and making use of leftovers – another important skill on a budget. I used the remainder saved from the previous weeks to splurge for Thanksgiving ($25) and by the end of November I averaged $19.80 for each weekend that I would have gone to the grocery.

Now in doing this experiment I was not going far off the road I am used to. I have been putting myself through school and money has always been tight. Oftentimes I’ve had less to work with and sometimes more. The purpose here was to get concrete information about shopping with a set limit for healthy eating. As an educator I hope to use this information to prepare health and wellness workshops for people in financial hardship. During this time though, there were other things I learned  too.

For one I learned there are some psychological roadblocks that can be associated with or exacerbated by poverty which a recipe list and mere shopping advice cannot solve. Anxiety and depression can be triggered or exacerbated by the very real struggles of poverty. This was well expressed here in a blog post by a woman living in poverty entitled “Why I Make TerribleDecisions, or, poverty thoughts.” 

So in addition to caring for the physical health of those with low socioeconomic status, we need resources caring for their mental health. Taking care of oneself and one’s family is a commitment that can truly be derailed when issues of depression and anxiety overwhelm. Everything starts with the mind, health included. 

The tangible limitations of the cost of food can be worked around with the right MIND set and SKILL set. Knowledge and application of what your body needs, what foods are healthy, how to cook, how to shop for  or grow them; these are all important in overcoming the challenges of being healthy when funds are scarce.

So it comes down to education: not necessarily the institutional classroom and grades type, but the education generations before us were receiving in the home, in the kitchen, the market and the yard. In many U.S. families, for about 3 generations (both boys and girls) have not been leaning how to cook for themselves and their families (here is Jamie Oliver’s TED talk about this). That leads to a deficit contributing to poor health among lower socioeconomic classes. If you are poor and do not know how to cook for yourself, you do not have the money to pay someone else to prepare wholesome meals for you and your family. You end up paying cheap fast food restaurants to cook for you instead. You are stuck with low quality nutrition form the cheapest prepared food sources: fast food and cheap processed bulk foods.

In order for us to truly address the health of the socioeconomically disadvantaged we need to make available resources for their mental health as well as help them develop the necessary skill sets through education.

Truth is socioeconomic imbalance should not even exist and is a symptom of the many things wrong with this world and how it is governed and controlled. The argument that a poor person is responsible for his or her circumstances because of laziness or poor character is the highest level of bullshit. The deck is stacked. Those of us who have knowledge and resources to do something need to look out for those who do not – that is how we build and grow together. The November Experiment helped me gain new insight into what I need to include in developing my strategy to help. I hope it also helps you get a wider perspective of the issues of health and poverty.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The November Experiment a.k.a. Project “Don’t Starve. Thrive.”

Week 1 Groceries. Photo by Kelene Blake

This month I am starting an experiment. Each week I will go to the grocery store with only a $20 bill and attempt to buy healthy food to last a week. People say that eating healthy is expensive and to some extent that is certainly true. Buying organic tends to cost more. Healthier frozen meals cost more. Yet I don’t believe that all healthy eating has to be expensive, so I have given myself the challenge for November to eat healthily 5-6 times a day (3 meals, 2-3 snacks) on $20 per week. I’m doing this for 4 reasons:

  1. Because I told an acquaintance of mine that I would prepare a health workshop for low-income housing communities on eating healthy even with a low budget;
  2. Because this study (link) by Dr. Katz et al concluded that healthy food does not necessarily cost more and I want to see if it holds true for people with the tightest budget;
  3. Because many people’s food stamp benefits are being cut due to the U.S. government budget deadlock and people still need to eat, and eat healthily, but now have less money to work with;
  4. Because it’s just that kind of month (the kind where the less money I spend, the better). The struggle is real. But hopefully I can learn from it and benefit others too.

This isn’t a highly controlled research experiment. I am starting off with some food already in my pantry – mostly rice and peas/beans, seasonings, baking ingredients. This experiment is only for food and any non-food items are not included in that $20 grocery list. What I am doing is a real-world experiment. In the real world we don’t go to the grocery each week with a blank slate. However the reality is some people do go to the grocery store with very limited funds and they do their best with those funds to not go hungry. They are forced by their financial restrictions to buy cheap bulk foods just so they and their families have something to eat and avoid hunger pains, even if that something has little nutritional value. Instead of foods rich in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, fiber and other good things that help our bodies function well, the cheapest foods in most grocery stores have mostly empty calories, are nutrient poor and not particularly wholesome – made with white flour, sugar, chemicals, preservatives and unhealthy fats. It is a backward system where it is cheaper and easier to be unhealthy than healthy.

My hypothesis is that with $20 each week I can use the skill set I have to prepare for myself healthy, tasty meals that are nutrient-dense, full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytochemicals. It will be a mostly plant-based diet but will still provide enough protein and healthy fats. It will require more food preparation time than typical convenience foods, but with careful planning and efficient use of time I will be able to fit it into my schedule. I am hoping it will reveal what skills are most useful under these circumstances so I, as a health professional, can better educate the wider community. I also want to help those who have not experienced it understand some of the basic health challenges of poverty.

I already have my first week of groceries as shown in the photo. It came up to $18.91. I’ve already learned a bit in the process. I experienced quite a bit of anxiety on the way to the grocery store; worrying about whether I can actually do this, worrying what people would think of me, worrying about the embarrassment of going over budget and having to ask to remove some items at the cash register. That first worry I defied by actually doing it. The last one I combated by plugging each item price into my calculator to check the total to make sure I didn’t go over, and took note of which items were on sale to make sure they weren’t rung up at full price. And the one worrying about what people think… I came to the following conclusion: 

When you tie your self-worth to how others think of you or treat you, then you tie yourself to a burden that will inevitably drag you down. Your worth as a human being, a creative, intelligent, magnificent creature of this earth is intrinsic and unchangeable. No one can give you your worth. No one can take it away. All that remains is for you to see and accept your own immeasurable worth, wear it fearlessly and live your greatness.

The most difficult thing I learned so far is that in addition to the tangible hardships of life, these anxieties are a constant part of daily existence for many people in poverty. $20 U.S. a week, roughly $2.86 a day, on food alone for a single person is still more than millions of families around the world have to supply all their needs.  It is not fair. If this project can help people caught in this unfair system to lead healthier lives even with financial restrictions, then that is far more important than a little anxiety. I will keep you updated on this blog on how this experiment is progressing. In the meantime I have some food prep to do. Bless.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Insanity of Health Disparities

I knew from childhood I am susceptible to diabetes and have valued and studied health to give myself the best chance of avoiding that life sentence. I took for granted what turned out to be an important part of health – the certainty I had some control over my own wellbeing. I understood my choices and actions could affect how I feel and my health outcomes as I aged. Years of studying the human body, how it functions and how it functions best, led me to the conclusion that health is more than a personal issue, it is a social justice one. I took a closer look at health from this perspective. Here is what I found.

In the U.S., a person’s health is too often contingent on factors such as socioeconomic status, race, gender and education. The more money one has, and the more education, then the more likely you are to be healthy and the longer you live. Generally women live longer than men but when it comes to healthcare, women face unequal access and institutionalized sexism in the healthcare industry. The most dramatic health disparities are the racial disparities. In the U.S., African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans all have disproportionally higher rates of chronic diseases, higher mortality and poorer health outcomes than European Americans. Furthermore these minority groups have less access to healthcare and receive inferior care than European Americans.

The image shows graphs and information about life expectancy from the CDC’s “Health, United States, 2011” report. It suggests that the life expectancy for a black male in the U.S. is 8 years less than that of a white male and 6 years less than a Hispanic male. Life expectancy for a black female is six years less than for a white female and four years less than a Hispanic female. This is by no means a full picture because Asian Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and people of mixed race are left out; but it does show the seriousness of health disparities in the U.S.

What does all that mean? Well it means that if you are a rich white woman with at least bachelor’s degree in the U.S. of A. you’ve won the health and lifespan lottery. If you are a poor black man who didn’t make it through high school you’re at the bottom of the health and lifespan barrel as a result of institutionalized classism and racism. Even then; despite the lifespan advantage a female naturally has due to gender, her access to healthcare is even lower than that of any male due to institutionalized sexism.

Health in the U.S. paints a messy picture and right now I am a can of paint about to be splashed all over the canvas. I am embarking on a career as a Health Coach and Educator and determined to make it more than “just a job.” I don’t know if I can impact enough lives to make a tangible difference in this situation, but I’m going to try. Five of the ten leading causes of death in the United States are preventable “lifestyle” diseases (heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, diabetes, kidney disease) and a further four can be influenced by healthy lifestyles (cancer, Alzheimer’s, influenza/pneumonia, septicemia) this means 9 out of the 10 leading causes of death can be reduced dramatically if people learn to lead healthier lives. I can help with that! (The remaining one is unintentional accidents.)

Institutionalized problems like racism, classism and sexism are big issues and the journey toward change will continue to be long and arduous. While that journey is taking place we can work from the ground up in changing our own mindset and culture when it comes to health; that way we’re not dying off from preventable diseases while we wait for the insanity of these inequalities to be fixed. I will not place the onus of oppression on the oppressed. Institutionalized racism, classism, and sexism all must be fought and done away with. Yet, I will use the one advantage I do have, my education, to wage battle on this problem from where I stand. That’s something we can all do isn’t it? We can use the gifts we have to make a difference where we are – improve our own lives, the lives of our loved ones and extend to our community. Hopefully if enough of us care enough to make a difference, the whole world can be different (better).

CDC’s “Health, United States, 2011” report
Chapter 24. Health and Medicine. Introduction to Sociology. Cragun R., Cragun D., Konieczny P. (Open source)
Chapter 19. Health and Medicine. Introduction to Sociology. Openstax College. Rice University (Open source)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Overcoming "Normal"

Normal is an illusion. What is normal to the spider is chaos to the fly.” ~Morticia Addams

It’s normal for a men to be given more money and resources than women. It’s normal for African-Americans to have lower incomes, health and education. It’s normal for a woman to put her husband and family above her personal needs, goals and dreams. It’s normal for a man to put his own sexual desires ahead of respect for a woman. It’s normal for certain people to be born into privilege, have more economic and political power, and for certain other people to be born into poverty and live the “hard life.” It’s abnormal to love or marry outside the bounds set by religion, law, caste, class or race. It’s abnormal for a woman to not be interested in pursuing marriage or to not want children. It’s abnormal for a young black man to be more interested in writing poetry than playing sports; abnormal for to walk down the street in an “English-speaking” country and hear residents speaking languages other than English. It’s abnormal for someone “different” to not want to assimilate, give up their culture and beliefs to be more like the dominant class.

Injustices, inequalities, discrepancies and double standards are passed off as normal – just the way it is – and people’s freedoms and rights are infringed on the basis of them not falling within the dominant class’s category of normalcy. Sometimes people are so afraid of change that they fail to realize that the “norm” is not the ideal but is actually oppressive to many groups. But when the current system gives you an advantage or stability, it is difficult to see its flaws. Even those on the wrong side of those flaws may resist change because, as the saying goes, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”

Yet the “natural order” of things is not so “natural.” Humans have created these norms through patterns of domination and strategy, decisions and actions over the course of history. If we so haphazardly and very carefully created this world of haves and have-nots, then we can create a better one. People with power and privilege are not likely to want to change a system that gave them power and privilege, so we really need to stop waiting for those people to “do something.” Such people will appease the masses by giving an inch as they continue to take yards and yards.

One of the first things we need to do is change the way we think. If more people examine themselves, their biases, stereotypes, conditioning and apathy we can stop thinking what we’re taught to think and start thinking critically about the world around us. Critical thinking allows us to question the norms, recognize their flaws, change our behaviors and find solutions. It is crucial to transition from thinking to action

Changes in our every-day behaviors, choices, how we spend our money, how we treat others, all baby steps in creating a better world around ourselves. Actions that extend beyond, teaming up with others in finding solutions that can have positive impact on a larger scale, is also a big part of re-writing the norms. It’s important to focus on things you can do rather than get frustrated by what you cannot do (right now). The process is slow and uncomfortable – quite opposite to the convenient instant gratification that consumer society is trying to make into the “norm” at the expense of many around the world.

This world is not static and norms are not absolute. If no one believes things can be changed for the better then no one will ever change anything. But things can change for the better when people are determined to make these changes happen. Question “normal” and acknowledge the chaos it causes to those trapped in its web. Let us each commit to doing our part to make the world better than “normal.”

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Doing More With Less

Things are tight and many of us are learning to do more with less. There are things we all want to do one day. Dreams. Goals. When trying to accomplish something you need to be prepared to do so “in spite of.” The time will never be perfectly right. You will never be perfectly ready. What we often fail to realize is that achieving our goals isn’t a one-off effort: it is the culmination of many, many little efforts over a long time. 
There are always little things we can do every day that lead up to those goals. Some of these practical things can be tangible – like registering a business name or writing a blog post. Others are less tangible like reading a book, working out a timeline or putting aside money each month.

Money is the first thing many people cite as the reason they cannot chase after their dreams or achieve certain goals. Saving and making good decisions about money is important. Too many people have a mindset of getting debt and taking loans. This culture has turned debt and credit into a “good” thing that “responsible” people are expected to have. Horse-shit! I’m not a financial advisor but I am practical about money which is one of the reasons I’ve survived this long. The first and foremost thing I’ve learned is to avoid debt like the plague – save up for what you need or want. Below is some saving advice that can help you accomplish a lot with a little over time. It assumes you have an income – however small, large or indifferent.

·         Before anything else: subtract 10% of your paycheck every month for savings. This first 10% is savings. It may be savings for a specific purpose (like a car etc) or in case of emergency (like unemployment). Do not touch it for any other reason! Put it aside then figure out how to live the rest of the month without it. If you have to eat nothing but rice and beans for a while then so be it.

·         If you can do a second 10% then put that aside as investment/givings. This is multi-purpose and a bit more flexible, but still not for bills and typical life expenses. Put it into your children’s or nieces and nephews mutual fund or college savings; put it aside to invest in your future business plans; or give it to whatever cause or charity you feel like contributing to. Heck! Split it up and do all three of these things if that 10% chunk is big enough. Point is use it to invest for the future, your community, and to make a positive difference.

·         Next: pay your rent and bills. Include in here payment for credit card and loans. Do not pay only the minimum on debt. Pay as much as you can spare to get rid of debt. Debt is a blight you need to get rid of as soon as humanly possible.

·         Buy groceries. If you plan meals, buy groceries and budget for food monthly, you’re less likely to end up eating out (spending extra/wasting money).

·         If there’s any remaining, the rest is your disposable income. Dispose of it as you wish and try to have some fun. Sometimes you won’t have this and your entertainment might have to be staying in and reading a library book. That works too.

I know it doesn’t sound exciting; being smart and cautious never does. But savings and investment are truly important and key in helping you make things happen. You are in control of your money. It isn’t some willful thing that comes and goes into your life like an on-again off-again relationship. It is something you work with logically, not emotionally, and you make it work for you.