Monday, July 15, 2013

We Should Be Angry About Zimmerman

This week, it is shameful to be a Floridian.

The danger in the Zimmerman verdict is not merely that a man was allowed to walk free after shooting and killing a young boy. That in itself is horrific. But his acquittal reinforces a dangerous and life-threatening narrative: that a young, black, hoodie-wearing teenager is a legitimate threat. 

This narrative is what led to Trayvon's death in the first place. In Zimmerman's eyes, Trayvon fit the profile of a criminal, thus leading to an encounter between the two in which Trayvon was shot and killed.

Had Zimmerman been convicted of the crime he actually committed, this narrative would have been broken. Blacks and whites alike could mourn the untimely death of a young boy and begin to undo an ancient fear paradigm that casts hoodie-wearing black youth as criminals.

But the jury ruled differently. It affirmed and reinforced the existing narrative. Merely by labeling Zimmerman "innocent" and Trayvon Martin as a "threat," the jury eliminated the potential for a paradigm shift.

It doesn't end there, though. We need to be angry. We must accept the ruling of the jury, but we cannot accept what it implies. Start conversations. Change minds. If Trayvon's death sparks a national shift in attitudes against black youth, then he did not die in vain. But it starts with us.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

ADHD: The Affliction of the Millennials

The New York Times in March 2013 reported that a staggering 6.4 million American children between the ages of 4 and 17 suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. If this number doesn’t shock you, it should. According to the article, that translates to one in five high-school aged boys in the United States; and this number has increased 41 percent in the past decade.

I studied ADHD when I was working on my undergraduate degree in Psychology at Florida Atlantic University. It is a disorder, typically manifested in early childhood, that is characterized by inattention, lack of focus and distraction.

Students affected by ADHD struggle to concentrate on classwork, so the initial signs are often picked up by the student’s teacher and then brought to the attention of the parents.

Most anybody can point to a family member or a close friend who has the disorder; it has become as ubiquitous as the common cold. For me, it was my younger sister. From an early age, she struggled to concentrate in school, was easily distracted and performed poorly in her classes; not because she was an inadequate student, but because she couldn’t stay focused.

What my sister lacked in focus, though, she made up for in sheer determination. She attacked her studies and turned her grades around, transforming her disorder from a disability into a minor inconvenience. She graduated from high school last week with the class of 2013, and I could not be more excited or proud. 

ADHD is a crippling disorder-- no doubt about that-- and can magnify the everyday challenges of an average student. I watched my sister struggle with it for her entire life. 

Still, there is a piece missing to this puzzle. As I mentioned before, student cases of ADHD have risen by 41 percent in the past decade. Why is the prevalence of ADHD so much higher today than it was ten years ago? Why are so many more students being diagnosed with the disorder? 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a manual detailing every known psychiatric and mental disorder. The newest version of the DSM, projected to be released in 2013, is expected to include an updated definition of ADHD with less stringent parameters for diagnosis.

While the updated version of the DSM will contain the most current research and information available on the subject, I would suggest reading it with a grain of salt. The manual is not as black-and-white as it should be, and is often the subject of zeitgeist rather than empiricism. Until the 70s, the DSM listed homosexuality as a mental disorder. The listing was amended when a rapidly shifting social climate overpowered the myopic perspectives of its authors, but the fact remains: the medical field is inevitably coupled with the attitude of its culture. 

I do not believe that ADHD is 41 percent more prevalent today than it was a decade ago; rather, I think that the widespread rise in ADHD is more indicative of the American zeitgeist than a biological phenomenon. While students like my sister truly struggle with the disorder, more and more children are misdiagnosed with ADHD as doctors attempt to explain a widespread attention deficit that is endemic to the culture of the millennial generation. 

For the first time in history, children are growing up in a world saturated with digital technology and instant information. The advent of the smartphone industry in particular highlights the underlying needs of our generation: we want information and we want it now. 

The challenge of the millennial generation is no longer to develop knowledge, but rather to discern the relevant from the irrelevant. Log on to any website and you’ll see countless advertisements, videos, and images lining the page. We have come to accept this inundation of information as a way of life, and, thus, made space for the proliferation of the privacy economy-- an economy where we provide personal information in exchange for free services.

We give an e-mail address for a music download; we provide information to marketers for a social profile. And, at every turn, we are paid in due with e-mails, ads, videos, and commercials all screaming for attention, for allegiance, for money. 

No wonder our kids can’t focus. 

Dr. Michael J. Breus suggests that children and adults diagnosed with ADHD might actually be experiencing symptoms of sleep disorder, and attributes disrupted sleep cycles to the “nonstop, perpetually wired, always ‘on’ culture we live in today.” He argues that we can realign our sleep schedule by unplugging ourselves from the digital world and creating quiet, dark, “gadget-free sanctuaries” to facilitate the body’s natural sleeping process.

In Psychology Today, Dr. Marilyn Wedge compares the prevalence of ADHD internationally, citing a 9% diagnosis rate in the United States against a .5% rate in France. If there was ever evidence of a cultural trend, this would be it. Dr. Wedge suggests that this gap is the result of mismanaged priorities in pediatric medicine. While American doctors look for the easiest “pharmacological bandaids with which to mask symptoms,” the French target the root causes of the child’s symptoms. It is often easier to diagnosis an inattentive child with ADHD and write a prescription for Ritalin than it is to examine any environmental or personality factors that might result in similar symptoms. 

Our chemical culture wants the easy answer, a simple prescription to reduce the deleterious behavior. We see a problem, and we want an easy fix. While this practice may provide the short-term solution that we seek, it is far more harmful to our society in the long run. We continue to overmedicate and numb ourselves to the real problems, providing the space to let them grow. I have a friend who refuses to take pain medicine when she has a headache because she believes pain is a sign that her body needs to rest and recover; ignoring this warning could cause more overall stress and lead to sickness or more pain.

Rather than seek a pharmacological bandaid, I think we need to realign our priorities and pursue the underlying root of attention deficit in early childhood. If, as Dr. Breus suggests, ADHD shares common symptoms with sleep disorder, it might be time to focus on a more natural solution to the problem. 

Ritalin and Adderall are effective drugs insofar as they keep the mind focused and assist with concentration. But they do not address the underlying issues that face a majority of today’s youth: disruption by digital technology and information overload. It’s time to ditch the prescriptions and seek a more permanent solution to the ADHD problem. Our children need to unplug. They need to come offline, step outdoors, read a book, or go for a hike. Most of all, they need to get some rest.

Our problem isn’t that 41% more children have ADHD today than they did ten years ago; our problem is that we have developed an ADHD culture. The millennial generation must learn to unplug and relax if we ever want to accomplish anything of lasting value.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

In Times of Crisis, We Cling to Fear

Tragedy can bring out the best and the worst in humanity. 

I, along with the rest of the country, watched closely as events unfolded after the Boston marathon bombing this Monday. 

Having spent much of my developing years in a post-9/11 world (I was 10 years old when the attacks happened), I am all too familiar with the panic and fear that immediately follow a national tragedy. I was homeschooled in the fall of 2001 and spent the morning of September 11th in front of the television; I saw the second plane hit the south tower and can remember with untainted clarity the images of billowing smoke and panicked bystanders. I remember the dazed confusion that followed as a broken nation attempted to piece together a picture of who and why

When the Boston bombing took place on Monday, a nation collectively returned to the horror of September 11th in a somnambulism of post-traumatic panic. The comforting silos built up after years of war, of increased TSA security at airports and the confidence in a protective government came tumbling down as we realized that no government is omniscient and some things do slip through the cracks.

Old wounds were re-opened and a scared nation, desperate for answers, demanded once again to know who and why

In times of crisis it is not uncommon to jump to conclusions or make baseless accusations grounded in fear. We want to know answers and the sooner we can figure out who did it, the sooner we can write them off and go back to our normal lives. There is a comfort that comes with knowing who the enemy is. 

But in the days following the Boston attacks, I witnessed such a present and dangerous prejudice that, despite lying dormant in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, was all too ready to re-emerge in the face of tragedy. 

Even before authorities started using the phrase Act of Terror to describe the bombings, the mass public, fueled by groupthink and encouraged by the accessibility of instant-- yet adulterated-- information, was quick to accuse. 

This is about the time that the rumors started leaking through the press. Fox News and The New York Post reported a Saudi “person of interest” held under guard by the Boston Police Department at a hospital. This same individual-- himself a victim of the attack-- had been tackled by a bystander who, seeing a Middle Eastern man running away from the scene of the crime, could not escape a panicked post-9/11 fear paradigm and jumped to conclusions.

This fear paradigm was not limited to bystanders. The New York Post published a cover story shortly after the bombings featuring the image of a Moroccan-American high school student under the title “Bag Men.” This 17-year-old student, who had attended the marathon like every other Bostonian to celebrate and encourage the runners, soon found himself the victim of cyber-stalking. His name was circulated online and within moments the twitter and reddit communities were discussing his history, his place of employment and the fact that he liked The Hunger Games

The most shameful story, in my opinion, is the report that two Middle Eastern men were removed from a flight after concerned passengers overheard them speaking Arabic. The flight-- a Boston to Chicago route-- was carrying a number of Boston marathon runners. 

To be fair, our nation had just been attacked and, in the three days following the marathon bombings, law enforcement officers had still not produced a suspect name or profile. A vigilant nation was on guard against a terrorist that it knew was at large. Yet the rumors and suspects that a panicked nation provides in times of crisis are revealing: the fact that most of the accused were Middle Eastern is the manifestation of a dormant post-9/11 fear paradigm that has come to inform our experience of terrorism. 

Even now, as one suspect has been killed and the other arrested, press outlets continue to discuss the Tsarnaev brothers’ Islamic roots as if religious radicalism is the only valid motive for violence.

Only time will tell the true motives of the Boston bombers; until then, we need to let the news develop and, for the sake of recognizing our common humanity, consciously work against the panic-driven narrative we so desperately cling to in times of crisis. Islam is the world’s most prevalent religion and terrorism is no more representative of our Muslim brothers and sisters as the Westboro Baptist Church is a reflection of Christianity. 

Let the lesson from the Boston bombings, rather, be not the prejudice and marginalization of a post-9/11 fear paradigm, but instead the display of camaraderie and spirit manifested by a nation recovering from a devastating attack. Remember the heroes who continued running to the hospital after finishing the marathon to donate blood for the bombing victims. Remember our nation’s leaders who set aside partisanship to support the President in a time of crisis. Remember the crowd at a Boston Bruins game that overpowered Rene Rancourt and shook the stadium during the “National Anthem.” 

These stories of empathy and solidarity display the true potential of humanity to veer towards compassion-- rather than hate-- in times of crisis. Let us cling to love rather than fear and lend a helping hand when our brothers and sisters need it the most. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

One More Makes Four

It is the evening of August 21st. There are just over two weeks left of tour, 51% of our tour is booked, and there is no end of anxiety about the coming future. Nevertheless, we are pushing hard and forcing ourselves to defy the odds. Each new day is exhausting; but each new day is equally rewarding. Every screening booked is another school we will be able to visit on tour. Some only a few short weeks away.

Booking aside, today was a very significant day. For the past three weeks, our teams have been incomplete. With only three Westerners per team, there has always been the knowledge of an unfilled void. An empty chair, so to speak. We have waited patiently for weeks to hear of our Ugandan teammate and, after all the waiting, we finally got the news.

Okello Quinto is the name of our fourth teammate. He will be flying in from Uganda tomorrow and we are planning to greet him at the airport at 6:15. I couldn't be more excited! From what I hear, Quinto is a world-renowned Ugandan dancer and I am looking forward to the energy he will bring to the team. This is going to be a rough tour. There are a lot of enemies to fight against: apathy, negativity, ignorance. But I couldn't have asked for a stronger team.

With Quinto, our team is finally complete and the reality of what is about to happen is beginning to settle in. We are hitting the road. I am going back on tour. Am I ready? You betcha. Let's do this!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Roadies Are Here


Saturday night.

The garage door is open and a cool breeze ventilates the room. I am sitting on a reclaimed van bench that has turned into a make-shift sofa while several friends sit around on their computers and phones. The house is busier than normal. The roadies are here.

The first week is always the craziest, not because of the endless trainings or the constant shuffling between the movement room and the conference room, but because of the sudden urgency of tour. Summer was like a dream. We were booking nine hours out of the day and the work was hard, but it almost seemed like we were working for a far-off goal; for a day that would never come.

That day is quickly approaching.

There are just more than four weeks left until we leave. Just a short month until I am a roadie again. But this time, there will be new responsibilities and new challenges.  I am a team leader now and with that title comes a lot of weight. Who do I turn to in times of trouble or conflict? Who will make the hard decisions? I have to be prepared to lead my team to success during a potentially hostile climate. I have to be able to set the standard for positivity and encouragement and put on a smile even when everything is going wrong. Can I measure up to that?

It didn’t hit me until this week how real this whole thing is. But now the roadies are here, Greater LA is 3/4 of a team, and we are making preparations to hit the road.






***


That’s as far as I got last weekend. I am continuing this post from a coffee shop in San Diego where I sit with a good handful of other roadies. The wifi isn’t working in the house, so we have come here to catch up on work and plug into the rest of the world. The place is called Lestat’s and it’s got a pretty hip, alternative vibe. Instead of seats, there is a collection of Craigslist sofas, each of varying colors, and studded leather couches that look like they were transplanted from a cigar lounge of another time. The artwork is intriguing. I won’t go into details.

It is only Wednesday but it feels like each day this week has contained within it another week. We are working 11 hours out of every day. Into the office by 7:00 AM. Out by 6:00 PM if we are lucky. The work is hard but our resolve is strong and our team of fall 2012 roadies is growing tighter by the day. Every day, new roadies knock Q and A questions out of the park. We are picking up speed with booking and the reality of tour becomes more cemented with each new training.

And I honestly can’t wait. Despite my fears and insecurities, I know there will be a lot of freedom to make this tour what I want it to be. There is a lot of work to be done now but I know it will pay off in the end. We work hard, but we work for a cause far bigger than any of us. And our mission couldn’t be more just.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Colorado to California


Let me open this week’s post by expressing my condolences for the victims of the Aurora, Colorado shooting. A tragedy like this is both terrifying and unifying. It is easy to allow that sly disease called fear to drip from the words of journalists and eye-witness reporters and sliver into our hearts. But it is important to remember that this is not a tragedy faced alone. Like Columbine, like any other unexcused public shooting, our nation grieves as one. We must not let it become a polarizing issue. It is time for us to recognize the common fragility that we all share and to unite with empathy under the banner of our own humanity. If we do this, then James Holmes fails. 
Keep that in mind.
On a slightly warmer note, this has been a fairly significant week for the fall 2012 Invisible Children team leaders. I think it’s safe to say that summer has officially ended and the impending tidal wave of the fall semester has cast its shadow over our assorted crew. 
It started on Monday when we learned for the first time the names of our team members. It’s funny how easy it is to get into the routine of saying “my team” on the phone or in e-mails without having a face or a name to paste over that mental silhouette of our group. But the names have been announced and the first three-fourths of our teams are complete. 
I, for one, couldn’t be happier about my team. Christian Huisman is one of my close friends and our paths have been intertwined for nearly a year. He arrived in San Diego shortly before I left to join my old teammate Maggie on tour to Texas. For the spring semester, he led a team through the deep south, a region that includes my home state of Florida. And now he will be joining me for his third tour to travel the Greater Los Angeles area. I am excited for the experiences and positivity he will bring to the team. 
Claire Shannon, our other teammate, instantly brings energy and fun into any situation. She has been living with us here at the La Mesa house all summer and has been working for Invisible Children as an engagement intern. Her positivity has been essential when speaking on the phone to supporters and dealing with the not-so-supporters. I am excited to have her on my team.
If knowing our teammates wasn’t sufficient to allow the weight of tour to sink in, the team leader retreat this weekend certainly did the job. We ended the week early to drive up to Lake Arrowhead for an intensive, two-day leadership program. At the retreat, the Movement staff laid out their expectations for the team leaders and explained our responsibilities for the read, but also left room for a little bit of fun. We returned yesterday with a nervous energy but also a contagious excitement for the road. 
One week from now, the fall roadies will be arriving. It is time for us to step up and assume the responsibilities that this role entails. Summer is over and the fall tour is inevitable. I, for one, can’t wait.
P.S. I am still accepting donations at https://invisiblechildren.secure.force.com/pmtx/Donations_IC_DirectSupport?id=70170000000k3L6AAI. Please don’t feel obligated to donate, but if you are compelled to give I would really appreciate it. Living in San Diego is expensive. Especially when you work as a full time volunteer. Anything from 5 dollars to 50 dollars will be a huge help.
P.P.S. If anybody wants more current updates on what I am doing, follow me on instagram! My handle is austin_estes

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Letter to Home


Back.

Again.

When I left San Diego in August of last year I knew I would return one day, but I never realized it would come this soon. You have to be careful to keep your eye on the time because as soon as you look away, days become weeks and months fly by in a whirlwind faster than the blink of an eye. Fall 2012 seemed so far away when I whispered the words “I’ll be back” last August. “I’ll be back some day.” But one year left of college became one semester left. My senior thesis became my first draft, became my final draft. I graduated from college. I said goodbye to my best friends of four years, my girlfriend of eight months, and my family. And I boarded a plane back to sunny San Diego. 

I am in this phase of life where “home” becomes such a flexible term. Where is my home? Is it in Melbourne, Florida? Melbourne is certainly my hometown. It is where I grew up. It is where I learned to love music, developed my faith and identity as a Christian, kissed my first girlfriend. I learned to love, learned to laugh, learned somewhat how to surf (or at least how to stand on a longboard). My family lives there and, if only for this reason, I would consider it home. 

And I think I think of Jupiter and I feel like I have to eat my words. My college years were so defining to my identity and the people I met there are lifelong friends. There were days when we wanted nothing more than to play board games and laugh, or take midnight excursions to fast food restaurants. The young soul is a wanderer’s soul, if only for a burrito grande and a Baja Blast. But then there were nights when we would talk about serious matters; of faith, world politics, of identity and truth. College taught me to think critically and to share my thoughts with my friends, for I believe that conversation is the best way to approach truth.

But isn’t home where your heart is? And isn’t your heart where you feel most alive? If that is the case, San Diego is my home. The community and energy that I have found within the walls of the Invisible Children office are addicting. When I was here last spring, I felt challenged to approach the world in a new light; to experience a more hopeful paradigm. Society is fluid and malleable. It can be changed for the better so long as your hands are well practiced and your intentions are humble. 

Where is my home? Perhaps this is the critical question. Where would I consider myself from? Where are my “headquarters”? Where and what is “family”?

I don’t think I can answer that question, at least not yet. For now, my home is everywhere, and my family is spread out across the country. Perhaps I am the luckiest person alive because I am always surrounded by people I love no matter where I go. 

I have a vision for this blog. I want to us it to connect with family and friends all across the country. For now it will serve to update everyone on the east coast about my adventures and activities. Once tour starts, it will hopefully be a useful way to keep everyone informed on my whereabouts and mischief within Los Angeles. I only hope that it can serve to bridge the gap between the miles.

For those of you who don’t know, I am working for the non-profit organization Invisible Children this fall. I am going on tour as a team leader in the Greater Los Angeles region on a campaign to educate and update students on the LRA conflict in central Africa (Africa’s longest running armed conflict). I will be leading an international team of four on a ten-week tour through Riverside, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and the surrounding region of southern California.

As you can imagine, this is a very taxing experience. Before I go, I have one simple ask.

As it stands, I am a poor college graduate working at a non-profit for a meagre stipend. I have enough to live off of, but not comfortably. I hate to ask for money, but I could really use some support and assistance from my friends and family back home. I want this blog to be a blessing to everyone and I don’t want anybody to feel obligated to donate. But if you have a spare 5 or 10 bucks, I  would really appreciate some financial help. Consider it an early birthday present. 

I have a page set up through Invisible Children where I can accept donations for support. Here is the link:


Again, I know a lot of you are in the same position as I am and I would hate to see you give out of your own scarcity. But if you could do me just a small, favor, share this blog. It could make a world of difference.

Thanks to all of you who are supporting me in your thoughts and prayers. I couldn’t do this without you. I miss you all and I think about you constantly.

Here’s to home. Here’s to adventure, and to redefining family.

-Austin