Thursday, September 29, 2011

Conveniently Remote

Although I think there is a lot more to geographic education than learning place names, I have been trying for the past year or two to master place names, often using geography games to help me during otherwise idle minutes. It is much easier to remember the basic facts about a place, however, if stories about the place are known. 
My friends at are very helpful in this regard, as they are geography completists, striving to include every place they can in their guide to the discipline. During the summer, for example, I noticed an interesting article about the principality of Andorra (capital: Andorra la Vella), a tiny country with a population smaller than our neighboring city of Brockton.

I drew on Amanda Birney's article about Andorra to write a short post on the Wiley GeoDiscoveries blog, explaining how Andorra is a sovereign nation whose sovereigns (plural) are not residents, and why the chances of finding an Andorran at random in Andorra are not as good as getting the 00 on a roulette wheel.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Freetown and Beacon Hill

Credit: Ashley Costa
Many readers will know that over the past three years, our EarthView team has had the privilege of setting up our 20-foot inflatable globe in dozens of school gyms and providing brief but memorable educational experiences to nearly 30,000 individuals -- mostly middle schoolers. 

As much as we enjoy working directly with students and their teachers, we know that we can teach and energize only a tiny percentage of the young people in the Commonwealth who need -- and for the most part are denied -- a sound geographic education. For this reason, we sometimes use EarthView in unusual ways to generate interest in promoting the teaching of geography. 

Particularly effective, as it turns out, have been our visits to the State House in Boston. Thanks to our friend Senator Brewer of Barre, we have set up EarthView two times for legislators, staff members, and visitors (the beautiful building itself is a major tourist attraction, so we have met people from all over the world there). Some legislators have been very surprised to learn that geography is taught only at the 4th and 7th grade levels (U.S. and world, respectively) and that it is no longer possible for high school teachers to obtain certification in the subject. We have spent more than a decade arguing the obvious on both counts, and are very glad that several members of the legislature are now willing to champion the cause.

Senator Brewer, in fact, introduced a geography education bill, with Representatives Gobi, Alicea, and Smola as co-sponsors. We are very pleased to have the support of this bipartisan group, and especially of Rep. Smola, who is the only geographer in the General Court (as our legislature is formally known). Having earned a degree in geography and regional planning from our sister institution in Westfield, he is well aware of the value of a sound geographic education.

Earlier this week, as we climbed Beacon Hill -- just a couple of geographers without a giant globe -- we noticed a knot of people, excitedly awaiting the arrival of someone. One man was wrapped in a flag, and though this should have been a clue, this vexillologically challenged pair inquired of the crowd and quickly learned that they were awaiting the arrival of Ernest Bai Koroma, the president of Sierra Leone. As reported in Cocorioko, President Koroma, though graciously received by Governor Deval Patrick, was in Boston primarily to speak with members of the local Sierra Leonean community. He and his delegation -- along with First Lady Sia Nyama Koroma -- made similar visits to West Virginia, New Jersey, and Georgia.

We got only a glimpse of the visiting president, but while waiting in a longer-than-usual security line, we had the great privilege of meeting a few other Sierra Leoneans, and especially of talking with a man named Josiah, who is a community leader and educator who has been in Boston for over three decades. He also has a restaurant in Dorchester that is on my short list for a visit!
Dr. Domingo with a member of the Sierra Leonean community
whose clothing represented her country's flag.
Josiah confirmed what we already knew, which is that a high school student in Freetown is likely to learn more  geography than his peers in Boston! As we continue to push for more geography education, we make the point that we are behind not only other rich nations, but just about every country in the world, in our commitment to geography education. Our new friend Josiah is one of many who inspire us to continue pushing to make Massachusetts stand out as a leader in geography education.

Regarding the EarthView program at the top of this article, we have now reached 85,000 people (all in groups of 20 or so individuals), mostly in Massachusetts but in other states as well, and in Nicaragua and Brazil. Our legislative efforts have been thwarted, though repeated visits to Beacon Hill have garnered more supporters -- our most recent bill had 18 sponsors but was still killed in committee by education bureaucrats who do not want to consider more geography education.

And I have still not made it to that Sierra Leone restaurant....

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Thank the Farmer

At Casa Hayes-Boh, if someone is thanked for a meal, the "you're welcome" is followed by "Thank the Farmers!" In fact, when the giant coffee cups at a favorite bookstore/cafe inspired us to commission our own, we asked the artists at Just Claying Around to include the phrase on the cup we use as a planter in our living room. (So far, our dream of growing coffee has not been realized.) I also use the image in all of my coffee presentations, and we apply the phrase to food from the many other farmers upon whom we rely daily.

This week, though, the phrase has been shortened by one letter, to "Thank the Farmer!" One of the great problems in the conventional coffee industry is that producers are separated from consumers by many layers of middlemen (and they are mostly men, often called coyotes, and with good reason). In addition to the interference of layers, the connections are blurred because coffees are usually blended from all over the world to get a consistent flavor year to year. Fair Trade reduces the layers, increases transparency, and brings consumers and producers closer together.

CoffeeCSA is a company that goes even farther than fair trade in vertical integration -- the farmers own the entire business! Using the model of Community Supported Agriculture, customers are able to subscribe to the company's production, receiving coffee directly from an individual farmer each month. We have enjoyed supporting (and being sustained by) a local farm under a similar model for a few years, and we are always looking for new coffees, so I decided to give it a try.

Somehow, it was from the second shipment that I became deeply aware of the difference in the geographic connections. Even most Fair Trade coffee is blended from many regions; even "Single Origin" coffee is blended from the farmers in a given area. The only coffee I routinely purchase from a single farm is from Selva Negra -- one of my favorites, but still at an estate scale. The coffee I am drinking as I write this is from a single, small farm in southwest Guatemala. And the farmer has a name: Catarina. So while we have this coffee in the house, her photo is on our table to remind us of her contribution to our far-too-comfortable life, and of the millions of other individuals who work to produce the coffee, cacao, tea, and other crops we enjoy.

So for now, the phrase is: "Thank Catarina!"