Summer Film Series: Zambia

“My Video ‘Democracy is like a smoothie’ was intended to convey a universal concept of democracy, which would draw discussion and interpretations from people, of different backgrounds, and cultures with varying experiences. I made the video as a tool, which can be used to stimulate discussions or dialogue from people of all ages, from primary schools to higher institutions of learning, as well as from government to the civil society.”
– Chansa Tembo, Democracy Video Challenge Winner.

In a few short weeks, the six winners of the Democracy Video Challenge will travel to the U.S. to visit New York City, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles.

Chansa TemboTo get ready for their trip, we’re featuring a different winning video each week for the rest of the summer. First up was the winner from the Philippines.  Next came Brazil and then Nepal, and most recently Poland.  This week it’s winner Chansa Tembo from Zambia, whose appetizing video is called, “Democracy is…Like a smoothie.”

And remember to join Chansa this Friday, August 21, for a webchat, when he’ll talk about his film, his life, and his thoughts on democracy. You can submit questions to Chansa in advance in the comments portion of this blog or by going to the chat room. Simply enter as a guest, and leave your question in the chat box provided. We look forward to chatting with you on Friday!

Webchat with Chansa: https://statedept.connectsolutions.com/americagov

Watch Chansa’s Video:

Mmmm…Cookies

Cookies!I like cookies. Chocolate chip, peanut butter – pretty much any (except ones with raisins, I hate raisins.)

I also like persistent cookies. A persistent cookie, as the White House explains, is “a small piece of software that tracks or authenticates web viewing activities by the user.” A 2000 federal policyprohibits use of cookies on U.S. government Web sites. The goal of the law is to protect Americans’ privacy, to ensure that the U.S. government is not tracking citizens’ personal Web use.

But, as the White House wrote in its blog, “in the nine years since this was put in place, website cookies have become more mainstream as users want sites to recognize their preferences or keep track of the items in their online shopping carts.”

I, like most Americans, value my right to privacy. But in the Internet age, I have come to accept that by having an online identity, I am choosing to make more and more personal information available. When I log into Amazon.com, it knows with remarkable accuracy what products I may be interested in buying. When I was planning my wedding, Facebook knew it – and showed me lots of advertisements for bridal products. Cookies help Web sites do this.

Is it necessarily bad for governments to be able to do the same? Couldn’t it be helpful for citizens if their governments could see what people were searching for? It could help them better provide information.

The Obama administration is reviewing the cookies law, and I’m eager to see what happens.

Mull This Over Before I Cram it Down My Throat

I’m listening to “Caring Is Creepy” by The Shins

I’m standing in a grocery store aisle with a can of chopped tomatoes in each hand, eyes darting back and forth as I equivocate and compare.

In my right hand, I’ve got the larger corporate brand that’s on sale.  Today’s economic concerns have everyone thinking about ways to save money.  And besides, I’ve had this brand before, and I know it will taste just fine for the curry dish I’m making.

In my left, I have the certified organic brand, which is not on sale.  I haven’t noticed that it tastes all that much better than its agribusiness competitor, and even if it did, it’s still going to be infused with a heavy dose of spices.  But organic farmers do not use pesticides, which, besides getting transferred to the food, are also detrimental to the environment.

Although I am standing in the middle of a grocery store, I am really in a ballot box preparing to vote, thanks to the rules of supply and demand.  Which agricultural practice deserves my financial support, and, by default, which one do I effectively boycott?  Are my economic pressures so difficult that it is no longer practical to base my vote solely on my values?

The store essentially acts as the election commission when it tallies up the number of items sold at the end of every day, or month, tracking which is the more popular item and deciding which should be reduced or maybe discontinued altogether.

I did ultimately decide on the organic tomatoes.  But summer is coming and I intend to grow my own.  That will be another story.

The Power of Facebook (and Chocolate)

I have been reading a lot of stories in the media of how groups are using the popular social networking site Facebook to further their causes. In India, thousands have joined a Facebook group called “Rise Up Mumbai, Rise up India” encouraging young people to take an active role in elections that begin later this month. In Moldova last week, Facebook was one of many technological tools young people used to draw thousands to take to the streets to protest the government.  In Moldova, the scene turned violent, so the value of promoting this cause is debatable.

I decided I wanted to test out the powers of Facebook myself. At 8:40 a.m., I updated my status: “Michelle Austein Brooks needs chocolate. Could one of her lovely coworkers be so kind as to drop some off at her desk? Thank you!”

Chocolate!I figured one of my 30 or so Facebook friends who work with me at America.gov would read it and rise to action. At 10:18 a.m., Jason, of America.gov’s video team, showed up with a pile of Hershey Kisses. Great!

But that wasn’t enough. So I took my campaign a step further. I posted a note, tagging a dozen of my coworkers. “Chocolate. I really need some! Won’t somebody (besides Jason) bring me some?” I asked.

Within 20 minutes, my note had an impact! America.gov’s science writer, Cheryl , came over with a whole bag of chocolate goodies! Chocolate cookies! M&Ms! Hershey Bars!

If I can sway two people in a matter of hours for a cause as silly as this, imagine what I could do with a real Facebook group page and a real issue to promote?

Oscar Morales of Colombia did just that. His story really speaks to the power of social networking. Outraged by actions taken by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the Spanish acronym FARC, he created a group in January 2008 called called Un Millón de Voces Contra las FARC (One Million Voices Against the FARC). He urged other Facebook users to stand up and express their anger with this group over its use of violence. 

Within a month, 150,000 joined his group. And when the group organized protests in more than 200 cities in 40 countries, about 12 million participated. You can watch Morales’ story on America.gov. And for our Spanish speaking audience, check out this article.

Perhaps next week I’ll test out the power of Twitter (and coffee.)

How Americans Shape the Rules

I recently baked a cake designed to look like a toilet. Yes, a toilet. My boss renovated his bathroom, which now has brand new tiling and fixtures. In celebration of his accomplishment, I baked him the toilet cake.

He was not only impressed with my creativity, but with my baking skills. The cake was actually quite delicious. This is not surprising since its key ingredients were butter and sugar. Tasty, but not at all healthy. I know this, and so does the U.S. government.

The U.S. government has a wealth of information about nutrition and has entire Web sites devoted to the topic, like Nutrition.gov, which provides tips on how to maintain a healthy diet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Pyramid helps Americans determine how many servings of grains, meats, fruits, vegetables and dairy they should consume on a daily basis.

vegetables

But people are constantly learning new things about health every day. Some foods we thought were bad for us we later discover are actually beneficial in moderation. And of course some foods we thought were good for us, science later proves are not healthy. This is why the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services review the nation’s Dietary Guidelines every five years. They are already at work preparing for the 2010 review, and are seeking public comments.

And wow, a lot of people have weighed in! Many people comment on what they say are the values of a vegetarian-based diet. One citizen suggests that the government advocates Americans eat many small meals throughout the day so that they do not overeat between larger meals.

Another person writes that chewing gum actually has some health benefits and asks that the government consider noting those benefits in the dietary guidelines. That person also happens to work for the Wrigley Company, an organization known for its famous brand of gum. While average citizens can use this public forum, so too can businesses, including those that might benefit from revised guidelines.

It got me thinking: What are the advantages and disadvantages of opening guidelines like these up for public comment?