Monday, June 28, 2010

First column from Uganda


Another good day here. I have wireless Internet access, a generous cell phone calling plan, and a new manly SUV. Planning continues for my first seminar, in Fort Portal, Uganda, in two weeks. I'm driving a little around town, which is daunting because of heaving traffic, gigantic potholes, and left side of the road driving.

For complete details on my peace journalism project here in Uganda, see

For more information on peace journalism in general, see

An impatient beginning in Uganda

The Parkville Luminary, 7-2-10

Damn, I’m impatient. And that’s a bad thing to be when you’re trying to get settled in to life in another country.

As you read this, I’ve been in Uganda for a little more than a week. I’m on a sabbatical/educational leave from my post at Park University for the next 11 months, directing and teaching a peace, electoral, and developmental journalism project. Peace Journalism teaches reporters and editors that the choices they make about what they cover and how they cover it have an enormous potential to either incite violence or create an atmosphere conducive to peace. Through seminars for media professionals, community mobilization efforts, and a public service announcement campaign, the project aims to prevent media-induced violence before, during, and after the March 2011 Ugandan presidential elections. This effort is funded with three separate U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development grants totaling about $270,000.

Ever since I learned that I was coming here last fall, I’ve been impatient for the project to get started. Now, once that I’m here, I’m impatient for the seminars to start (the first one is July 12), and really impatient for everything to be in place and perfect.

By everything, I mean chiefly cell phone access, Internet access, a car, and an apartment. I bought a car on my third day here. (This will be the subject of next week’s Luminary column). Also, I came to Uganda with a cell phone in hand and an apartment already booked. My apartment, incidentally, is really beautiful—as nice as my Parkville home. However, I was ticked off to learn that the landlord’s idea of fully furnished (furniture only) differed from my idea of fully furnished (furniture plus linens, cooking utensils, pots and pans, etc.). So, this has left me scrambling to buy stuff that I’ve never bought before in my life, like pillowcases, washrags, mops, and spatulas. It’s shocking how ignorant I am. I can’t wait for my wife, who comes in December, to see the mismatched sheets, blankets, and towel sets I bought. (In my defense, I am partially color blind). Also, she’s going to love our new “china”—actually, comically flimsy plastic plates and bowls, also in a rainbow of incompatible colors.

As for the Internet, I had hoped to be connected the moment my feet hit the ground at Entebbe airport, but no such luck. Instead, my colleague and I had to go to the Internet provider’s office and make arrangements, then talk them into agreeing to take a purchase order. Ironically, the access I have here in Uganda is much better than the access I have in Parkville. I’m on a wireless 3G network that provides me Internet access anywhere that my provider, the European telecom giant Orange, has a signal. I’m told that the Orange signal covers all or almost all areas of Uganda, meaning that I’ll never be without Internet, even in the dusty, isolated places I’ll be visiting regularly to teach. At home, my mantra is to not be in touch, to not be bothered. Thus, my cell phone is off at home unless I want to make a call. Here, maybe as a defense mechanism, my motto is this: the more connected, the better.

Now that my virulent impatience is momentarily at bay, I can concentrate not on virtual connections but on actual face to face interactions. My brief stay in Uganda has indeed highlighted my need to enhance how I talk with others. Now, I enjoy a good in-depth discussion, but have always been poor at the 30 second conversation. What we call small talk is anything but small here in Uganda. People here ask “how are you” and are actually interested in your response. In fact, this is one of the many things I love about Ugandans, since it indicates a caring, sincere, and open attitude that is often absent in Western societies. Ugandans’ polite social interaction is endearing and worthy of emulation, although I’m having a hard time myself making nice-nice with the guy guarding the door or the receptionist at the phone company. Naturally, these 30-second asides are difficult for me because I’m in such a big damn hurry to get someplace or get something done or maybe to save a buck or two. This impatience irritates me.

I am relieved to report, however, that I do possess some potential for redemption. Today, I had a nice discussion with a lady who served me tea about how wonderful it is to sleep when it’s raining. She was charming, and I enjoyed our conversation, even though it was just a minute or so long. Maybe there’s some hope for me after all. At this point, I’m just anxious to reach my potential soon, and quickly rid myself of this annoying impatience.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Greetings from Uganda--

Spent a full first few days hiring an assistant for the project. The winner is a wonderful young lady who worked with me for two weeks last year. She will bring a great deal of expertise and experience to our project. The first seminars begin in two weeks, so we're in full planning mode.

Getting settled in ok, but very frustrated about not having internet yet in my apartment. It may be up to another week. Otherwise, all is well. I'm going car shopping today, which should be an intersting cultural experience. I usually love to car shop at home, especially the dickering. Stay tuned for full results.

For complete details on my peace journalism project here in Uganda, see

For more information on peace journalism in general, see

Friday, June 18, 2010

Uganda peace journalism project update
I am leaving for Uganda on June 22, and arrive June 23. My first week will be logistics--interviewing for an assistant, buying a car, organizing meetings, etc.

For details on my peace journalism project, see

For the uninitiated, I have received a third State Dept. grant for about $115,000, and will be in Uganda until April 2011. Stay updated on the project, and on the latest from the two students who will be studying with me in Uganda in July, on this page, on my peace journalism home page ( ), and on my facebook peace journalism page (under search, just type in peace journalism, then join the group).

Anger and Joy

From the Parkville Luminary

This week’s installment features equal parts anger and joy. Let’s dispatch with the anger first.

Sometimes a politician says something that makes you so angry that it leaves you dumbfounded, barely able to breathe and stammering and snorting like a flooded engine. No politician in recent memory from either party has left me as dumbstruck as Ike Skelton, a Democrat who represents Northern Missouri in Congress.

Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, recently discussed the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with reporters. The House voted 234-194 in May to overturn the policy. Skelton was one of only 26 Democrats voting against the bill. He said he opposed even debating “don’t ask, don’t tell” because such a public discourse might force families to discuss homosexuality with their children. Skelton said, “I think it would be a family issue that would concern me the most. … What they might see in their discussions among the kids.” He concluded, “What do mommies and daddies say to their 7-year old child?” (AP, 6-9-10)

Mr. Skelton, are you bigoted or just ignorant?

To answer your question, Mr. Congressman, here’s what mommies and daddies can say to their seven year old child: “Sweetheart, all people are different. Some are tall, some are short, some fat and some skinny. Would you be mean to someone, treat them differently, if they were tall? Or fat? Of course not, since we know what really counts is what kind of person they are inside. Sometimes, differences in people are hard to see. Most men have women for partners, like mommy and I. But some men are different. These men are called gay, and they have other gay men for partners. There also some women who love other women. They are called lesbians. Gay and lesbian people are different. But, should we treat them differently because they aren’t the same as others? Of course not, since we know that what matters most is if they are a good person inside.”

Any 7-year old can understand this. Can you, Mr. Skelton?

And now, the joy.

I had the honor and privilege of “giving away” one of my Moldovan “daughters” (we’re host parents) last weekend. This was our second Moldovan daughter to marry in the last several months.

The bride this time was Simona, who earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Park University. My wife and I were generously honored and recognized as Simona’s American parents last weekend, even though Simona’s real parents flew in from Moldova for the festivities. I was especially honored to have the opportunity to offer a toast for Simona and her terrific husband Curtis at the reception.

In my toast, I recalled how I met Simona in 2001 when I was teaching at her high school in Moldova. (I was on my first Fulbright scholarship). She was 16, and had her hair pulled back, trying hard to pull off an illusion of maturity. She had nothing to worry about. I sensed immediately that Simona was gifted, and not just academically, and that she was going places. My first impression of Curtis was identical—a bright, focused young man who is also going places. I told the guests that it’s wonderful that they’re now going places together, and that their journey will include service to others (Simona, in her work with People to People International) and service to the nation (Curtis, who is in the reserves and has served in Iraq).

My toast concluded with a wish I have for all of my students: for a rich life, full of unlimited opportunities. My family is proud to have played even a small part in providing some of those opportunities for Simona.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Peace Journalism Update

Working on a million last minute details before I leave for Uganda in about a week for my peace journalism project. (for details, see ). I have received a third State Dept. grant for about $115,000, and will be in Uganda from July 2010 to April 2011. Stay updated on the project, and on the latest from the two students who will be studying with me in Uganda in July, on this page, on my peace journalism home page ( ), and on my facebook peace journalism page (under search, just type in peace journalism, then join the group).

KC: Maybe we are underrated

From the Parkville Luminary

Sometimes it’s hard to appreciate what you have until you look at it through the eyes of others.

I was reminded of this recently as I saw Kansas City, Parkville, and Park University in a new light, thanks to my week-long stint as a conventioneer right here in KC. Last week, I attended the 62nd annual NAFSA-Association of International Educators annual convention along with 7,100 of my closest friends from 100 countries.

The event was held at Bartle Hall downtown. I had been in the center’s gargantuan exhibition hall before for car shows, but never in the convention center’s meeting rooms or ballroom. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that our convention center stacks up to anyone’s, and I’ve been in quite a few. It’s nicer (though not as big) as the Las Vegas convention center that I recently visited (strictly business!), and as nice as a state of the art facility in Tampa. I’m embarrassed that this surprised me, although this is not surprising, since many of us locals tend to buy into the ridiculous notion that we are nothing more than fly-over territory.

A wonderful amenity at the convention was the Power and Light District. As an aging (aged?), un-hip Parkvillan, I seldom make it down there, maybe just for a basketball game. But for a convention-goer, P&L is great. Imagine all these great places to eat and party within walking distance! In fact, in this respect, KC has a big leg up on Las Vegas, where the convention center isn’t within walking distance of anything.

The P&L wasn’t just great for lunch, but it’s a fine entertainment spot as well. One night, the cops roped off the streets, and they held the world’s biggest and coolest opening reception right there in KC Live and the surrounding bars. It sure beats the stuffy opening reception one usually gets in the corner of a hotel ballroom.

Are these just my KC-biases coming through, or do we really rock the house? To test this theory, I conducted a thoroughly scientific study using sensitive audio devices (my ears) and a sophisticated (though occasionally creaky) recording device (my brain). This study used direct questioning and combined it with invaluable eavesdropping. The result was unanimous—they love the place. Many were first time visitors. All seemed even more surprised than I was at the quality of the Kansas City experience. I overheard two different women comment that they would definitely come back to KC with their families.

If you think the visitors appreciated Kansas City, you won’t be surprised to learn that they fell in love with Parkville and Park University. Last Wednesday night, the university bused about 150 conventioneers to the campus for a barbeque and blues celebration. I watched and listened with interest as they reacted to what Park President Dr. Michael Droge told the gathering was “America’s most beautiful campus.” Genuine, enthusiastic applause, noting assent, greeted this comment. Tours were given of the campus. After the tours, the attendees marveled as they discussed not only our beauty but our uniqueness. (“The library’s in a cave?!?!).

In discussions with the visitors at the convention and the barbeque, all were complimentary, and a few envious, of Park’s laudable international profile, especially the proliferation of so many international students (from more than 100 countries) on our small Midwestern campus.

I also used the experience to look at Park’s international educators through the eyes of a conventioneer. Michael Hernandez and Kimberly Connelly, among others, were active at the convention itself volunteering and networking, and were as always warm, wonderful ambassadors for our institution. We are lucky to have Kimberly and Michael at Park University.

So, let the east and west coasters sneer at us all they want. We now know the truth—Kansas City, Parkville, and Park University really are terrific. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Peace Journalism Project Update

Working on a million last minute details before I leave for Uganda in two weeks for my peace journalism project. (for details, see ). I have received a third State Dept. grant, and will be in Uganda from July 2010 to April 2011. Stay updated on the project, and on the latest from the two students who will be studying with me in Uganda in July, on this page, on my peace journalism home page ( ), and on my facebook peace journalism page (under search, just type in peace journalism, then join the group).

Assessing seven years of education

From the Parkville Luminary

Dear Park Hill School District:

As my son Alex concludes the mid-way point of his K-12 education in the Park Hill District, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for what has been almost without exception a stellar experience for my son.

Alex’s educational journey began at English Landing Elementary School. Of his six teachers there, four were outstanding, while the other two were merely good. Alex was always a different kid—quiet in class, needing a little extra attention, extra-sensitive to criticism, etc. Knowing this, the administration and teachers at English Landing always did an outstanding job placing Alex with the perfect teacher for him.

For example, his first grade teacher, Renee Weyer, is the kind of teacher kids who have just graduated from high school (and college) come back to visit. I sat in on her class a number of times, and marveled at how she lovingly directed and corralled a wild bunch of first graders, yet somehow managed to deliver the curriculum so that it stuck. Jennifer Wright, Sasha Erwin, and Vanessa Larson were the same way with their kids—firm but loving.

Not only were his English Landing teachers outstanding, but so was the support staff there—nurses, secretaries, the speech therapist, and so on. In kindergarten, we were a little concerned about how much time Alex was spending in the nurse’s office during the first part of the school year, especially since he didn’t appear to be sick. Finally, I marched up to school to get to the bottom of this. It took me 2 seconds to figure out what was going on. The nurse, Mrs. Kellam, was extremely cute and very nice, and it was easy to see that my son had his first real crush. The order went out from that point on: no visits to the nurse unless experiencing an arterial bleed.

Speaking of cute, Alex showed me a picture once of the school’s speech therapist, and asked me if I thought she was pretty. I said yes, and did not comment further. Alex immediately went to school and told her, “My dad thinks you’re HOT.” You can imagine my next embarrassing encounter with her at school. Thanks, son.

Of course, all of the faculty and staff’s professionalism, and English Landing’s nurturing atmosphere, are directly attributable to the principals who manned the school during Alex’s stint there. Kerry Roe and Jeanette Hoy are the kind of principals that strike me as pretty tough, but pretty loving as well. I believe they both knew every kid’s name at English Landing.

From English Landing, my son went to Plaza Middle School this year. For the uninitiated, all Park Hill sixth graders go to this building, which houses only sixth graders. The idea is to give them a chance to acclimate to secondary education, changing classes, multiple teachers, male teachers, without pressure from older peers. I was skeptical of this concept at the outset, but must admit I am now sold on the idea. It really was a tough transition for Alex, and for many others as well, but the teachers at Plaza did an outstanding job of helping the kids work through their anxieties. I was also impressed with the academics at Plaza, which really challenged Alex this year. Especially noteworthy were Alex’s social studies/science teacher, Mr. Comstock, his Communications teacher Mrs. Ninemire, and his math teacher, Mrs. Rietzke. Alex has never done so well in math, a fact I credit to Mrs. Rietzke’s magic. Thanks also to Plaza’s principal, Dr. Michael Brown, who runs a tight ship but doesn’t forget to have fun. Alex came home laughing many times at Dr. Brown’s morning video announcements, which often featured a dance number to the abysmal song, “It’s Raining Men”.

So, because of the professionals at Plaza Middle and English Landing schools, the bar is set pretty high for these next six years. About this time in 2016, I’ll pass along my report on Lakeview Middle School and Park Hill South High School.

Thanks again for seven great years.

Steven Youngblood, parent