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I hate having to be an activist

I received an email advertising my town's activities guide and I was
angered to discover an introductory message from the Parks and
Recreation Director labeled "Childhood Obesity - Problem & Solutions".

I send him an email as follows. If anyone is willing to provide me with
references to back up my points or to challenge his statements, I would
welcome them, in case he decides to respond to me. You could also reply
to the email message yourself, using the email address provided, but it
might not mean much if you don't live in San Carlos, California.


bweiss@cityofsancarlos.org

Dear Mr Weiss,

I'm disappointed that you uncritically parrot the rhetoric of the
multimillion dollar diet industry in your "Childhood Obesity - Problems
and Solutions" letter in the San Carlos Parks and Recreation Department
Activity Guide. In the future, please familiarize yourself with more of
the research in this controversial field before repeating fear-mongering
statements such as "children born today have a shorter life expectancy
than their parents."

The life expectancy of people in the US has done nothing but rise
throughout the history of our country (just as our height *and* weight
have continued to rise, due to improvements in nutrition and health
care), and it's sheer statistical nonsense to claim that the trend will
suddenly reverse with the next generation.

It's fine to encourage children to engage in physical activity and teach
them about sound nutritional practices, but doing so in the name of
"obesity prevention" sends the wrong message that weight is more
important to health than physical fitness, nutritional choices, and
other elements that make up a healthy lifestyle. It tells our youth that
thin children (and adults) don't have to exercise or eat well to
maximize their health, all they have to do is be thin.

Studies that control for fitness level and not just for body size show
that fitness cannot be determined by a person's body size because
exercise and good nutrition do not automatically make a person thin, and
fitness and activity level is a much better measure of health and
longevity than body size.

Society puts tremendous pressure on children to be thin and one of the
results is that some young people, especially young women and girls,
struggle with dangerous anorexia and bulemia disorders. Why add to this
pressure when you can simply encourage physical activity and good eating
for everyone? Scientists studying body composition, nutrition, and
physical activity probably need to play up the so-called "obesity
epidemic" in order to get funding for their research, but surely San
Carlos taxpayers are more enlightened than that and will fund physical
activity programs and healthy snack programs for the youth center
without the scare-mongering.

*Providing* healthy snacks and opportunities for movement is great.
*Forcing* children, in the name of "obesity prevention," to engage in
competitive cardiovascular activity runs the risk of socially isolating
larger children who may be subject to teasing and rejection in the
context of competitive sports. Social isolation will cut down on these
children's opportunities for physical activity and limit them in other
undesirable ways.

Stef Jones
1372 Rosewood Ave.
San Carlos, CA 94070

===
The pdf of the activity guide is available here:
http://www.cityofsancarlos.org/civica/filebank/blobdload.asp?BlobID=3272

This is the introductory message:

Childhood Obesity - Problem & Solutions

For the first time in history, children born today have a shorter life
expectancy than their parents (Dr. Kelly Brownell, Yale University).
Children spend about 44 hours a week on "recreational" media use (Kaiser
Family Foundation Study). Within California, 26.5% of our children are
obese and 39.6% are unfit/overweight. 50% of obese adolescents become
obese adults, putting them at a much higher risk for heart disease,
cancer, stroke and diabetes later in life. Obesity costs California an
estimated $14.2 Billion a year in direct medical costs and lost
productivity (California Center for Public Health Advocacy).

San Carlos Parks & Recreation is excited to be a leader in addressing
this community issue. Your Youth Center is one Parks & Recreation
facility that successfully focuses on health and wellness programming.

* In 2003, the Youth Center embarked on a nutrition and fitness
challenge. All snacks in vending machines were analyzed and those not
meeting our nutrition guidelines were removed and replaced with
healthier options. All snacks now follow the SB 12 and SB 965 standards
for schools. All vendors must now comply with our nutrition guidelines
for healthier options.

* For every hour a Youth Center participant is in attendance and playing
a sedentary game or engaged in the Homework/Computer Lab, he or she must
complete at least 10 minutes of cardiovascular activity. Engaging
cardiovascular activities were identified and implemented including
"Dance Revolution," a cardio building video game, and Dodgeball.

* In 2004, the Sequoia Hospital Health and Wellness Department provided
a Certified Nutritionist to train Youth Center staff in dietary
guidelines, portion sizes, balanced diet, fat intake, the importance of
protein, and fruit and vegetable intake. Through a generous grant from
the Gellert Foundation, staff and participants created a cookbook for
teens utilizing the knowledge gained.

* A list of healthy snacks and lunch options is provided to Day Camp
participants and parents. We make a similar list available to any camp
providers who desire a copy. Classes are offered in nutrition, physical
activities, and community programs.

We have fascinating nutrition and engaging physical activity programs
for all ages -- tots, youth, adults, seniors -- everyone! Please take a
look through this Activity Guide and select a health and wellness
program for yourself and your entire family.

Creating Community through People, Parks & Programs,
Barry E. Weiss, Director
San Carlos Parks & Recreation

The part where I hate being an activist is the part about how I now feel
like [insert all sorts of negative things here] because I sent that.
Even though I know it's needed. I don't know why I feel that way.

Comments

gconnor
Dec. 1st, 2006 09:23 am (UTC)
I agree with the letter (both the factual content and the sentiment).

There's nothing really wrong with it, but be aware that it carries a fair amount of emotion. If you wanted the letter to pack a punch, you've done that well. However, if you were writing it for a different person (for example, explaining to a friend why you were upset about something) you might rewrite it to be less strident and less accusatory.

You obviously feel strongly about the topic, and yet the only bit that mentions your own feelings at all is "I'm disappointed". There's plenty of other emotionally loaded statements, though. Reading between the lines just a bit, I get:
Your research is sloppy/careless/incomplete
You are using fear-mongering statements
You believe (and repeat) nonsense
Those are pretty important challenges, bordering on name-calling but not quite, and yet they're presented pretty passively.

Interestingly, it looks like only the first two paragraphs are emotionally loaded and the rest of the letter looks like "just the facts ma'am." (Well, except a minor flare-up in paragraph 5 where you refer to certain scientists as scare-mongering but it's not clear whether it's pointed at the original author).

In my opinion, there's nothing at all wrong with having emotion play a role; in fact it should. Personally I feel I have better luck when I state my own emotions clearly (such as saying I think, I feel, I believe statements) rather than attributing my feelings and opinions to anonymous others. You're certainly not alone in feeling what you feel, but saying "I feel" can often be much more powerful than describing how the article might make others feel. Think of it as "full disclosure" in journalism jargon.

In other words, if you really want to accuse someone of fear-mongering, sensationalism, sloppy research, etc. you may get better results by just coming out and saying that, rather than implying it. That sometimes makes the difference between sounding strident and sounding like you're being matter-of-fact and cool about a fairly hot topic.

I'm not sure if this "indirect emotion" has to do with the "icky" feeling. You also mentioned in comments that you feel uncomfortable with (what I read as) telling people off, but you feel much more comfortable talking to someone who is open-minded and with providing information for those who are curious. In that case, maybe it would help to *imagine* that someone really is open-minded and just address them that way. It may in fact be that they're just repeating what they've heard and haven't taken the time to even check whether there's an alternate viewpoint. In which case they're still misleading others, but not doing so intentionally, so they may be more receptive to a correction than we'd initially assume. (It's always hard to accurately judge someone's intent, which is another reason I like to avoid accusing people of having bad intentions until it's nearly incontrovertible :)

Anyway, please do keep up the good work. If the above opinion (and unsolicited advice, mostly implied :) helps you to stick up for yourself and be active and vocal without as much feeling icky, then even better.
firecat
Dec. 1st, 2006 10:03 am (UTC)
My experience differs from yours over the value of directly sharing emotions as part of public activism (as opposed to private conversation among people who know each other). In my observation, public statements based on "I feel angry/hurt/whatever" are not taken seriously, especially when they come from women.

I realize, responding to your comment, that a large part of what I feel icky about is the situation of having to communicate to someone potentially not on my side when I am angry. Unfortunately I am not able to pretend that someone is on my side if I don't know they are. If I'm only slightly angry, I can write in a neutral way that doesn't express any anger, but I still have an icky feeling in that situation, albeit a slightly different one.
gconnor
Dec. 2nd, 2006 10:12 am (UTC)
Excellent point, and you're right... the more public the activism, the less place there is for personal emotion. Thoughts and beliefs maybe, emotion less so. I admit to having little or no experience in that type of arena... most of my opportunities for communication are individual or on a cozy mailing list. :)

I think what made *me* uncomfortable about the letter was the implied accusation. There was definitely some "angry" being expressed there, but being expressive is not necessarily bad. It seems like you're able to recognize that you're angry and figure out why, and then decide whether to put that into the writing or not. Which means you're ahead of the game -- you can channel it and use it as a motivator, or you can write something neutral if you need to as well.

Anyway, be well, have a good night.
firecat
Dec. 2nd, 2006 06:35 pm (UTC)
I much prefer individual and cozy mailing list communication, but on some issues I feel that's not enough and feel I must go outside my comfort zone. That's precisely why I hate being an activist.

I think the accusation that Mr Weiss perpetuated a false, damaging message is quite direct, not implied at all. (Any other accusations that you see in there are imputed.) I am not surprised that this causes discomfort.

I didn't have much of a choice whether to put "angry" into this message, because I am too angry about this issue to be fully strategic. I do think that angry political speech, if it's also well written and not just frothing at the mouth, can be effective. I also think neutral political speech can be effective. I generally think a mixture of political actions gets more attention than a single form.

Thanks for the interesting conversation.
beaq
Dec. 1st, 2006 07:25 pm (UTC)
I'm having a hard time understanding how you get "strident" out of factuality and indirect confrontation. She's confronting the facts and attitudes, not the person. I'm not sure how a more personally accusatory letter would get any kind of hearing at all.

You might get less icky feeling out of imagining good will; but as for content, how better do address the issue than by taking the assertions apart piece by piece and showing the consequences of wrong thinking?
firecat
Dec. 1st, 2006 08:41 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this feedback.
gconnor
Dec. 2nd, 2006 09:38 am (UTC)
Thanks for the perspective. I was trying to describe a style that seems to work for me, but firecat rightly pointed out that a more "direct" and "personal" discussion of ones feelings is not the style for everyone, nor every situation.

I used the word "strident" because someone else said that in the comments, and it seemed to be an accurate description of the "tone" of the letter. Factually, it is a totally reasonable letter and makes appropriate points in a clear way. Yet I was having trouble figuring out why after two readings I still came away with a distinct negative tone. I thought to myself, if I had sent this letter, I would feel a bit icky too.

I think perhaps I overreact when I see anything that looks like "passive-aggressive". *That's* what firecat's letter reminded me of, though I readily admit I might be seeing passive-aggressive where it isn't intended (or maybe where it doesn't exist).

It comes down to a style choice, and depends a lot on the context. My own *personal* style choice is that I usually prefer to make accusations and uncomplimentary characterizations very explicitly, or not at all. I try to avoid characterizing someone else's speech/behavior as manipulative (a.k.a. fear-mongering) or foolish (a.k.a. nonsense) without adding "I think" or "I feel". I admit that's my personal taste though.

For those who like indirect communication, more power to them... it can be extremely effective in certain contexts. Lots of activists use it well and it's quite effective. (Probably would be difficult to write an effective political ad without it).

Telling someone they're being careless/sloppy, writing nonsense, or either duped by or complicit in fear-mongering *is* confronting the person. Doing so indirectly can be kind of rude, but sometimes you have to do it anyway. It was mostly firecat's comment about feeling icky that she had to do it, which prompted me to suggest some alternate possible methods.

Anyway, that's a long and rambling answer but hopefully that clarifies my intent a bit, which I wasn't very clear on in my earlier comment. I do appreciate the question and follow-up.
beaq
Dec. 2nd, 2006 03:20 am (UTC)
I should have added that imagining that the audience is receptive and interested is very good advice, which I forget to my detriment.
gconnor
Dec. 2nd, 2006 09:48 am (UTC)
Thank you for that. All is well.

The rest of my rambling about making something personal/direct rather than passive/indirect was less important, I now think. Spotting an opportunity to make something into a positive beats the heck out of choosing a more graceful way to handle a negative.

Thanks again for the thoughtful responses.

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