On ‘The Uncounted’ by Sara ‘Meg’ Davis

The Uncounted by Sara L.M. Davis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


In today’s world in particular, there are days when it seems as though we are drowning in information. Too much data. Too much ‘stuff’ to process and make sense of. That feeling is only partially true, however. Across various areas and arenas, we know far too little, particularly when we focus on issues surrounding health and human rights. All too often we take the absence of information or data or evidence as a sign that we may relax a bit.

We desperately need to shift that thinking. The Uncounted, by Sara ‘Meg’ Davis provides a road map for how we may begin to shift our thinking and perspectives in order to adjust how, amongst whom and what we collect data in a relatively simple way, and in a way which may pay huge dividends, particularly amongst those most in need and previously most neglected in policy planning and financing.

‘The Uncounted’ is a fantastic read, one which profoundly challenges the notion that in the absence of information or evidence we don’t need to worry about issue X. That is, if we carefully examine those variables for which we have no data or evidence, perhaps upon digging deeper and enlisting assistance from those more acutely and intimately aware than we are, we will find previously hidden information and data. And, that data and information are likely to radically shift how we design programmes or policies on various issues. We will no longer be able to simply dismiss an issue as unproblematic. Quite simply, ‘The Uncounted’ provides a profound argument for carefully considering how we examine and apply the absence of evidence as an indicator.

‘The Uncounted’ is rich in ethnographic descriptions, documenting the various assumptions made by multilateral agencies charged with dispersing funding to and establishing guidelines for countries in how they respond to HIV, tuberculosis and malaria (e.g., The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, UNAIDS, WHO, PEPFAR, etc) and local-level agencies and individuals best situated to argue for expanding programmes and funding schemes within communities. For those unfamiliar with such agencies, Dr Davis disentangles these various personalities and agencies rather neatly, making it clear who does what and whose voice is perhaps most necessary in deciding upon programmes and policies to address HIV in particular. Following the progress and steps necessary to count the uncounted within the Caribbean region provides evidence for how we can begin to shift our thinking and truly ensure full inclusion of all individuals affected by HIV and specifically those least likely to date to receive crucial services and support.

Reading ‘The Uncounted’ during a global pandemic proved rather surreal,not simply because some of its key characters are also playing a crucial role in current events vis-a-vis Covid-19. As our global health-related realities have been thrown into chaos this year with the emergence of Covid-19, I’m curious to see how various elements of Dr Davis’ careful and thorough work play out. Whilst focused primarily on HIV, and the very real oversights in counting typically hidden populations such as men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers and people who use drugs, certainly many individuals, and perhaps the most vulnerable, will go uncounted in the wake of Covid-19. Will health, social, and economic policy makers and planners at local, national, and international levels solicit the perspectives from those at the community levels most intimately associated with the epidemics and acutely aware of problems in providing treatment, care and support to those affected in order to understand who, what, why and where? Or will they rely on the absence of evidence as evidence of absence simply because individuals are not counted by the powers that be? How will key populations be accounted for? Will they?

My hope is that the powers that be across power structures would heed the advice and road maps provided by Dr Davis. The reality is that in some places, that advice and those road maps are not being considered. And, in those places it seems as those Covid-19 is raging unchallenged. [Insert heavy sigh here.]

‘The Uncounted’ provides this cynic with a bit of hope, however, particularly with regards to HIV. Hope that we expand our perspective ever so slightly, yet in a way which we can make a huge difference to communities and key populations who may have previously faced stigma, discrimination and institutional neglect, and who may finally receive the crucial support to transform structures that place them at the response to HIV. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary. And, to my mind, long overdue.

Clearly, we can no longer that that ‘absence of evidence as evidence of absence’.



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On ‘The Color of Fear’

Yesterday evening as a few fellow American friends and I gathered to simply enjoy in-person company after months of social distancing, we found ourselves reflecting upon current events in the US. It’s hard not to. We shared our frustrations and concerns, and also shared a bit about what we were reading and what has had a profound impact upon each of us. One friend mentioned the documentary film ‘The Color of Fear’, and how ten years later it resonated with her and made a profound impact upon her.

Indeed.

Please spend some time really taking in this powerful, emotional and brutally honest discussion from 1994 on race in the United States among men.

The conversations we need to have will not be easy. They will make us uncomfortable and force us each to confront realities about ourselves and one another which we honestly don’t want to. But once we do, we might also achieve a better understanding of one another, and an understanding of what we need to do in order to achieve equity and justice for all.

Along with acknowledging our own flaws and culpability in how we have consciously or unconsciously sustained a system of racial inequity and inequality along with systemic and institutional racism, we might understand what we can do to dismantle it. And along with that we might just begin to heal long-festering wounds left raw and untended. It is likely we will feel rage and anger, and there will be fear and there will be pain. But, unless we have those conversations, we will never clean out the rot and truly heal. We will not change ourselves or society. And, neither will those institutions.

So,…. Listen. Learn. Do better.

On ‘Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I’m not sure that writing a review of this particular book is necessary. My first reaction can be summed up quite simply: Read this book. Now. Right now.

Given the long-overdue awakening taking place not just in the United States at this moment, but across many former colonisers and countries characterised by white privilege and power at the expense of everyone else, those of us who know nothing about the lived experiences of POC need to listen carefully and silently to their voices now. This book goes a long way in granting us at least one voice rather clearly and unapologetically. She is not angry, although she has every right and reason to be. She is not preachy or admonishing, although I’d certainly expect anyone writing a book like this to be. This book made me uncomfortable and angry, despair and cringe, and it made me mutter again and again, ‘what the fuck is wrong with people’?! Not POC, but those of us who have and know white privilege without ever accepting or acknowledging it.

The simple notion that history and institutions have made it difficult for those of us not lucky enough to have been born white is undeniable. Correcting it, let alone simply accepting it, shouldn’t be a matter of debate. And, yet, here we are in 2020 still wondering why a statue for a slave trader or Confederate general is so offensive to some.

As much as this book angered me, it oddly and rather refreshingly offered up doses of hope. I am a firm believer in knowledge being a powerful weapon if wielded properly. I suspect Reni Eddo-Lodge shares that old adage. She provided me with a bit more information about racism and racist institutions in the UK, and by doing so allowed me to gain a bit of objectivity on institutions which have parallels in my own country, the US. She also understands how we all need to be gentle with ourselves as we disentangle and make sense of atrocities from our historical past in order to do the hard and necessary work of dismantling them as we move forward. This is painful as a process and incredibly uncomfortable at times. As long as we, each of us, does something with the knowledge we gain and the awareness necessary to be and live as antiracists, those small steps collectively can help us to achieve our goals. Let’s move forward rather than stand still in our despair and anger and frustration.

I will read this book again. More so, I will continue to think about every bit of this tiny, powerful book, and how I can be the change and do something and do better every single day.



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One conversation at a time

NB: Like many, I’m genuinely struggling to put into words what I feel or to process what we’re collectively witnessing and experiencing in this moment. This is my own first step, based on a personal experience from this morning and how it might help me, at least, move forward and do something — anything — to affect positive change within my own network. The specifics of this morning’s experience are anonymised in order to protect my friend’s identity. This is my own perspective and reflects that alone.

Uncertain future. Illustration: Chris Riddell

I am not necessarily good at difficult conversations. I have never have been, and it’s perhaps the flaw I recognise as most unfortunate about myself. And, the flaw I struggle with the most.

If I am completely honest, I see the ugliest parts of myself surface during those moments. Specifically, I do not deal with criticism well at all, despite being more critical of myself than anyone else could ever hope to be. Contrary to understanding its necessity in helping me do and be better as a wife, friend, instructor, writer, [insert descriptor/role here], constructive criticism makes me exceedingly uncomfortable in the moment. I have no problem questioning my own beliefs on my own, but publicly I find such instances particularly painful and typically shy away from them whenever and as much as possible. I am also working on this. Because I want to grow as a person and be a better person for those in my life as well as my own community. But, it’s damn hard work.

Given the current backdrop of various bits of chaos that has become 2020, and the unreal events unfolding in the United States specifically, difficult and uncomfortable conversations are necessary. So, when a friend with whom I share very little ideologically reached out to ask me about a sensitive topic, I took a deep breath and dove in head first.

And, you know what? I regret nothing. It felt good. It worked. It was respectful and honest. Unresolved, but solid and a step in a direction we both welcomed. And, that’s something.

Because neither of us approached this conversation from the perspective of needing to be right or correct or proving our point, it worked.

To me, this moment provided an opportunity, not only offering the chance to reach an understanding of a perspective and the thoughts of someone with whom I do not share a world view. But, also, a chance to help someone I know understand a bit more about where to find resources and perhaps look at their own world view in a slightly different way, one which might prove more beneficial to those unlike us who desperately need allies who look like us. This moment hearkened back to a time when liberals and conservatives / Democrats and Republicans / blue states and red states could discuss the issues of the day and find a way forward rather than ripping one another apart.

This friend and I conversed with the intention of listening and gaining insight rather than being heard and judging one another. We challenged one another (I hope), but we also chatted aiming to help one another rather than selfishly and myopically support and validate our respective viewpoints. We did not approach the conversation intending to pick apart everything; instead, we tried to unpack one thing. We asked probing questions and patiently waited for responses. We left labels aside, placed pins in other important topics which were tangential to this specific topic and focused instead upon the meanings we might have missed by using various labels previously.

And, we left the conversation with points to think about and consider, with an agreement return to our discussion later. We did not leave feeling frustrated, angry, hurt of belittled.

We provided ourselves with a way to move ourselves as well as our communities forward. And, that’s huge.

So many of us right now are hurting, whether we agree on what pains us or not. So many of us lament and despair the loss of innocent lives and the inhumanity we are collectively witnessing, all in the middle of a global pandemic that demands social distancing and has impacted our social and economic realities if the not the very fabric of our lives. We may not necessarily agree on what causes the pain or anguish, or indeed upon on what specifically what must change. But, we agree that the wounds run deep and divisions are killing us. And, that change is necessary.

To me, we must also confront continuing injustices such as institutionalised racism and a system rigged to maintain the status quo and extreme power differentials in place. Doing so requires finding common ground and understanding wherever and whenever we can. It won’t be easy, and perhaps might result in more than a little blood, sweat and tears, for some real and for others allegorically and metaphorically. But, the difficult, sensitive and hard conversations and discussions must take place.

So, here’s an invitation: Come talk to me.

I will listen. I will do my best to be open to those difficult conversations, without judgement or justification. I will do my best to be respectful and less reactionary or defensive. Primarily, rather than shy away from them, I invite those discussions and conversations, welcoming them and genuinely consider them. I may not always agree, but I will seek out ways to reach consensus where possible and check my own biases and privileges and assumptions as necessary. I hope all of us will do likewise. Otherwise, nothing will change.

Simple, necessary changes

l’ll be honest — climate change has become one of the things that keeps me up at night. The more I read, the more I fear for the future world we will likely face. It may not be a world I personally face, but I definitely fear the world we leave for the next generation.

So, I’m taking more steps to limit the impact my life has on the lives of those who follow me.

We use LEDs more these days, after seeing first-hand how much brighter they are during the long, cold and beyond-dark winter months in Helsinki. I no longer drive since my US driver’s licence expired more than a decade ago. I walk when I have the time more often than not. And, since last September I’ve been a vegetarian (completely unrelated, but now I can’t imagine going back). For those who understand my undying devotion to every single cheese ever made, I now eat about half if not a quarter of what I once consumed. And, because y’all understand you’ll need to pry my coffee cup from my cold dead hand, oddly, I prefer Oatly for my daily java jolts. I tried it after being dazzled by a rather witty ad blitz earlier this year, and it’s actually quite tasty. Since they also make other non-dairy ‘dairy-like products, I’ve tried them and like them as well.

I’m fairly certain my own carbon footprint sucks. But, I’m working on as many changes as possible to reduce it as much as possible. And, my life is largely unchanged if not fitter. Walking (and running) about 50 km per week has it’s benefits, from reducing my carbon footprint to allowing me to process the anxiety related to it.

You don’t need to go to extremes to reduce your carbon footprint. Small changes can make a huge difference. If you aren’t that concerned about the world you’ll inhabit in your own future, perhaps you’ll pause to think about the world your children and grandchildren will be forced to endure. That world may not be nearly as beautiful nor as hospitable, and that’s on us. Particularly if we continue to shirk our collective responsibility to implement incredibly simple changes in addition to larger ones that might just save us all.

Words matter

Words matter. The words we use and choose reflect where and upon what we place importance. They convey our emotions; they create our narratives, and help others understand our positions as well as our passions. We all need to choose them a bit more carefully and with far more thought, particularly on those issues which are most important to us.

As various white men in the US decide that women must be incubators in some states, the world is melting. Rather than do something that requires immediate action and would potentially save countless thousands if not millions of humans lives (never mind plant and animal species) from the very real possibility of the devastating coming climate crisis we’ve created and accelerated, let’s instead focus on forcing women to breed.

Thank you, The Guardian, for changing your language and not sugar-coating your coverage. Climate crisis, climate heating, species extinction, and all that comes with it petrifies me. Because I’d like to see my friends’ children thrive and live long lives to enjoy their own children and so on.

And, I’d like that world in which they live to feature more than mere pictures of various creatures that once existed.

On ‘The View from Flyover Country’

The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten AmericaThe View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If we ever hope to move beyond that which divides us, we must collectively rip off those band-aids, acknowledge various problems that plague us as a nation and society, and begin the truly difficult discussions in order to find long-term and permanent solutions to address those problems.

This book helps with that first step: ripping off the band-aids, and highlighting how we did not simply arrive at this particular moment. We should have expected it. And, anyone living in or from a flyover region most likely intuitively knows this. Class. Race. Gender. All of these issues have divided us for much longer than the current political rhetoric of divisiveness. Really, rather than collectively rising up against a system rigged from day one to benefit those already in power at the expense of the rest of us, we fight one another based on characteristic X [insert identity here]. Yet, we all continue to struggle. We all continue to lose our footing or positions. And, we all continue to work harder to move towards attaining that American dream as we navigate the worst sort of nightmare.

Thank you, Sarah Kendzior, for this collection of rather timeless essays and commentaries on the condition of life in flyover America. It’s brutal. It’s real. And, it’s completely necessary.

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On World AIDS Day 2018

Red AIDS ribbons concept tree. Vector illustration layered for easy manipulation and custom colouring.

This World AIDS Day, as with many in the past, I am hopeful. More cautiously optimistic than equally hopeful, however. Thirty years ago, the first World AIDS Day passed, allowing us to collectively raise our voices to raise awareness of HIV. Globally and locally.

This morning, as I scrolled through my news feed, in addition to the traditional AIDS red ribbon tree of life I’ve posted for years on this day, another image gut-punched me, just as it did the first time I saw it and every time since.

The men in white represent the surviving members of the original San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. Eric Luse, 1993. 

This image of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus reminds me why this day isn’t so much a simple celebration of how far we’ve come, but of how vigilant we must remain in our resolve to continue to respond to this most pernicious virus. But, more so, we must resist and overcome the various prejudices and judgements attached to HIV. Far, far too many have died senseless, needless and agonising deaths only because we refused to act to prevent further infections, because we isolated and demonised those living with HIV, and because we refused access to live-saving and life-preserving treatment for those who desperately needed it. 

Why? 

Fight AIDS, not people affected or living with HIV. Fight the damn virus and the cultural, social, political and economic institutions which continue to allow it to spread and allow people to die when, today, they don’t need to. Fight the injustices borne through stigma and fear that allow the virus to flourish.

Do not fight the individuals most affected and least wanted by society.

HIV doesn’t care where you live, what you look like, what you do for a living to simply survive. Nor does it care who or how you love.

Today, and every day, we must collectively remember what inaction and isolation do to those affected when society shuns them and deems them unworthy and undesirable. Every. Single. Day.

So, on this World AIDS Day, here’s to all those affected and living with HIV, and here’s to all those who continue working damn hard and often thanklessly to ensure no one is left behind and that we can all live in a world more just and more equitable. For all. 

And, here’s to those we failed. Your memory lives on and you will not be forgotten. 

Vote. Please.

I voted weeks ago.

The process as an overseas American voter was relatively easy and straightforward for me. My biggest concern was that my voter registration information made its way to the Voter Registrar’s office in Connecticut by the deadline, and that I’d receive my ballot with plenty of time to mail it back ensuring its arrival before election day.

My registration arrived. My ballot arrived (via email—a first for me). I printed it off that day and mailed it back in early October. My civic duty was fulfilled.

This process is not new to me, given that I’ve voted via absentee ballot in every election since 2000.  I miss the I voted stickers, naturally. But, each year, I complete and fill in the overseas voter registration forms, mail them off and wait. It’s a pain, but it is necessary. Particularly now.

Please, vote. Far too many individuals do not take the time to exercise their right and civic duty by voting, particularly in mid-term elections. Far too many individuals assume that their one vote doesn’t make any difference at all. Far too many individuals think that politics has absolutely nothing to do with their daily lives.

There was a time in my life when I didn’t think of mid-term elections or my one absentee ballot as all that important. That changed in 2012, when I watched my husband vote in a municipal election in Finland.

Because we are residents in Finland, who have lived here for more than two years, we are granted the right to vote in municipal elections — not national elections since we are not citizens. But, we can exercise our voices on matters related to community-level issues, issues which perhaps affect us more. Those elections coincided with elections in the US, and I found myself researching candidates on both sides of the pond for both of my homes. But, I also watched as my husband took his civic duty incredibly seriously.

It wasn’t until after he voted that I fully understood how meaningful that experience was for him. Immediately after he voted, he said to me, ‘That’s the first time in my life that I’ve voted and known that my vote would be counted and it mattered.’ He was 52 years old at the time.

As a Cuban, who lived at times in the US and Russia, he was never able to take part in elections other than those in his home country. Cuban elections are not exactly ‘elections’. Given this experience, he understands perhaps more than most just how important showing up and exercising that privilege is. And, he understands voting as a mighty powerful privilege granted to few. He has not nor will he miss an opportunity to vote in Finland since being granted that right.

[To give you an idea of how seriously he takes this, during the last municipal election, he again researched candidates and platforms, discussed it at length with me, and then voted, and helped me get to the local polling station before they closed. Those elections coincided with a particularly awful bout of the flu which had me bedridden. As much as I was ready to blow off voting, he all-but offered to carry me to the polling station. I ended up voting about 30 minutes before the polling station closed.]

Voting is a beautiful thing to witness. That democratic process carries immense power, if only we exercise it. It conveys even more meaning and power to those who enjoy it later in life and do not accept it as a given. Voting is precious and can just as easily be taken away. We must exercise that right and we must protect by making informed decisions which matter not just for our own personal selfish reasons, but also for our society as a whole.

Please, vote. Encourage your friends and family and strangers to vote. Take the time to help someone vote if they need assistance finding or getting to their polling station. So, so many individuals wish they had the opportunity, right and privilege so many of us take for granted.

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Kids these days…

I am astounded by the bravery and logic of kids today. I am also shamed by them.

We, the adults, have largely failed them. As we have argued and shouted into our own echo chambers, disregarding any voice of dissension, we’ve polarised ourselves into wider and and more disparate perspectives. The results have been stalemates and inaction.

We’ve forced kids to take stands for their own rights and own safety because we, the adults, have behaved like children. We have risked their lives and their safety, and have not allowed them, the kids, the simple luxury of being kids.

Today, these same kids will be marching for their own lives, not just in the US but across the globe in nearly 820 cities. And, many of us adults will be following their lead.

It shouldn’t take a Parkland or a Sandy Hook or a Columbine, let alone atrocities and scenes of carnage like that in Las Vegas, to spur action. In fact, little action other than shouting back and forth has taken place, at least at the adult table.

That is, until the kids started making noise. And, asking questions. And, speaking up and organising. Maybe they should be in charge?

A friend posted a screen shot of a letter sent out to the parents of a school in some average place in the US alerting them to a possible ‘threat’ at the school. Her daughter opted to stay home the next day, and quite rightly was extremely upset by what might happen. Another friend’s four-year-old, when telling his parents about his day, recounted an ‘active shooter drill’ at their daycare facility just after Parkland. Four years old. Let that sink in for a moment. What were you telling your parents about your day when you were four?

These are but two instances of hundreds from amongst my network in the US. And, these do not include the many posts from teacher friends not just afraid for their students, but for themselves. Every. Damn. Day.

Personally, I don’t like guns, and decided long ago that they would not be a part of my life and would not be allowed in my home. That is my choice and my right. I now live in a country with fairly strict gun control laws, and I feel safer for it. As civilians, I do not think we need to have access to things like AR-15s, nor do I think anyone should be able to buy as many bullets as they want. Again, these are my personal opinions. Would I like to see a world without guns? Very much so. Do I think that is at a reasonable possibility or position? Nope.

Regardless of my personal beliefs opinions, we must talk about policy options and allow research to understand why so many die in massive shootings in the US. We must find common ground and consensus to move beyond where we stand now. To my mind, kids these days are providing the adults with a path towards action.

Today, as I sit behind my desk adulting working, I am also applauding all those marching. I stand with you all, particularly with you kids these days. I’d prefer you enjoy the silliness of just being kids. But, I’m incredibly glad and proud that you are taking the lead. May we all follow your lead. (And, please remember to register and vote!)

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