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December 2015

 

What we can learn from Zimbabwean orphans about social justice and collective action
Cynthia Eaton

 

tinashe and dennis
Tinashe Basa, left, and Dennis Gaboury share a laugh during their presentation about ZimKids Orphan Trust on December 2 at the Eastern Campus. (photo by Victoria Pendzick)

I expected to learn from our Zimbabwean guests something about how abject poverty impacts the lives of orphaned children in Bulawayo.

I did not expect to learn something about how abject poverty has impacted me as an academic unionist.

On December 2-3, Dennis Gaboury, the American sculptor who founded ZimKids Orphan Trust, and Tinashe Basa, the ZimKids director, visited the Eastern Campus to speak about the good work they do running an educational center in one of the poorest nations on earth—a place that was built by orphans and run by orphans for orphans.

I first met these gentlemen when they presented at my sons' school on November 13 (and immediately decided to work with student groups to bring them to the Eastern Campus through a Lyceum Grant). Watching them talk about their work with a group of elementary children and parents was a powerful moment for me. No doubt many in the audience were likewise moved, but the minute I got in my car it felt like I had been kicked in the gut.

childhood home of author
A photo of the upstate New York childhood home of the author, recently discovered in the recesses of her attic. (photo by Cynthia Eaton)

You see, as a forty-something professor and long-time union activist, I like to think I know a few things. But listening to Dennis and Tinashe really hit me hard.

All my life I've carried a secret shame about where I come from. I grew up in a trailer in the weeds of upstate New York. We availed ourselves, for some time, of government rice and cheese to supplement whatever could be shot in the woods or grown in the garden. On Saturday mornings, while my classmates were cuddled up in pajamas watching cartoons, my family was at the town dump, breaking open trash bags with sticks to see what we could salvage. My sisters and I shared clothes so as not to repeat "outfits" too often. This was my home until age 15, when authorities pulled me from that place for my own safety because I stupidly went to school one morning after my mother confused my face with a punching bag.

It was a challenging home for many reasons, and I became determined at a very young age to never let anyone know anything about it and to excel at school so that I never, ever had to go back there. I've been pretty darn successful on both counts.

But Dennis and Tinashe broke that down. Having carried this secret shame of poverty and abuse nearly all my life, I simply lost it on that mid-November morning. I pulled to the side of Route 51 and put my head on the steering wheel and cried. Decades of tears. Thinking about the more than 200 orphans Dennis and Tinashe care for, I realized that, my god, at least I had a house. At least I had parents. It'd be an understatement to say they weren't the greatest but I suppose they were doing the best they could with what little they were given.

Here's why I think listening to Dennis and Tinashe talk about ZimKids had such an effect on me: there are important lessons we academic unionists can learn from these Zimbabwean orphans.

What attracted me to get involved in my first faculty union, the Mohawk Valley Community College Professional Association, in 1998 was their deep commitment to social justice in the blue collar community of Utica. It resonated perfectly with why I like teaching at a community college: the feeling of having a direct, positive impact on others' lives. When students talk about their messy lives or their desperation for scholarships, I know exactly what they mean. I've been homeless. I've been hungry. I've been desperate for financial support via any means.

Thus, I've taught literature addressing socioeconomic status for nearly two decades. My advanced expository writing class is structured exclusively around socioeconomic issues. My students study and research and write about the work of leading economists like Joseph Stiglitz and sociologists like Robert H. Frank. I speak passionately about the impact of the wealth gap and the lack of social mobility but always at a safe distance—as if these academic discussions have nothing to do with me.

From ZimKids, I've realized that this is ridiculous. This does have to do with me. And with you. With all of us. As educators and as unionists, we have an obligation to make these issues explicit, to not present them as if from an ivory tower.

We can also learn a lot from how similar ZimKids Orphan Trust is to unionism in its founding principles and social justice mission.

Dennis and Tinashe are making a real difference in the lives of children who have watched their parents die, mostly due to the AIDS epidemic. Many have been traded around among relatives, used as servants or trapped in parental roles at early ages by raising younger siblings. Discipline is swift and harsh in traditional Zimbabwean families. With an unemployment rate of over 90%, these children know suffering.

When they come to ZimKids, they find a place of safety and stability. It takes a while for the ZimKids staff to get new arrivals to trust them, but most come around. ZimKids offers education and vocational training for the children. True to their mission of being run by orphans for orphans, the older ZimKids teach the younger ones; they tutor them and teach them to read. The staff of the new preschool are former ZimKids who are now reaching out to the littlest ZimKids.

Vocational training includes computer skills, construction skills, carpentry, gardening, and sewing and welding which are important, marketable skills in Zimbabwe. Given the harsh economy there, ZimKids takes steps to effect positive social change. For example, they offer a girls' welding class due to many Zimbabweans' resistance to hiring women because if the only skilled welder in the area is a young woman that's who will get hired.

collage of student selfies
Eastern students taking selfies with their ZimKids dolls. Clockwise from top right: Irene Bell, Tom Pennachio, Megan Behrens, Barbara Mellace, Sydney MacKenzie and Amanda Hynes. Center: Cynthia Eaton (right) sells a ZimKids doll to campus head librarian Dana Antonucci-Durgan. (Click here to view these and other photos from the event by Victoria Pendzick)

In addition to their profound commitment to social justice through education and training, ZimKids recognizes the need for all humans to appreciate the arts and to celebrate life. Thus, the "elder" ZimKids (beneficiaries over the age of 14) plan, schedule and direct the daily recreational activities, including chess, dance, choir, sports, visual arts and performing arts. This is a haven from the toughest streets in Pumula North, Bulawayo.

The children, who make dolls and toys for their own play, are asked to make an additional 12 dolls or wire toys each year, which Dennis and Tinashe bring to the United States as a thank you to donors who also receive a brief biography and photo of the toymaker. Donors are encouraged to take a "selfie" with the doll and send it back to the dollmaker as a way to initiate a pen pal relationship. One hundred percent of the proceeds are taken directly back to Zimbabwe by Dennis to avoid theft in the mail.

ZimKids learn that they all have a responsibility to contribute to their own well being. They don't live by charity and handouts; each ZimKid learns the dignity of using their own two hands to keep ZimKids growing.

A good union does the same. Good unions work to get as many members involved in the life and vitality of the union as possible. We cannot take for granted the safety and stability we enjoy. Good unions show how everyone in the bargaining unit has a responsibility to take care of everyone else in the union, from adjuncts to full timers, from classroom faculty to PAs to coordinators to librarians to specialists. Like the newly arrived orphans at ZimKids, it sometimes takes time and effort to ensure that we can trust and will support one another. But we must. We find strength through unity.

We also need to talk with our students and with one another openly and honestly about the diverse places we come from. We need to work together to create positive social change. Together we need to celebrate the arts and celebrate life.

With the ever-increasing attacks on public education and on unions in America today, I think we all have much to learn from these good people in Zimbabwe about the strength and success that comes from working together.



Postscript: No need to feel sorry for me. I have a great job with terrific colleagues. My work with students and my union work are tremendously fulfilling. And the family I've created for myself is happy, healthy and loving. I'm among the lucky few—way too few—in this country who have enjoyed significant upward social mobility, and I see my union work and my teaching as two avenues by which to help others do the same.