The first time I was in Casablanca, I stumbled completely by accident on a small piece of Chicago.
I was on a day trip to Casa with my SIT group in 2005 when I spotted a familiar logo of a pine tree on a building near where the tour bus was parked. It took me a few minutes to identify it as the logo of the Lycee LeCedre, sister-school to both my elementary and high schools. I opted out of a group tour of an NGO to wander into the school, not sure of what I would find but eager to make a connection.
All over the inside walls were pictures of Chicago, my former schools, my former principals, and Mayor Daley shaking hands with representatives from Casablanca. What a feeling, in the first months of my first experience abroad, to find a link with my world back in Chicago. A few helpful students eventually pointed this dazed American to the principal’s office, where I was shown clippings of articles that talked about the sister-city relationship between Chicago and Casablanca. The school director boasted that he had sent a team of Moroccan artisans to Chicago to build us mozaic foundatins, one to be built in Abraham Lincoln Elementary School and the other in Garfield Park, right near where I grew up.
Later, when I finally visited the fountains in Chicago, I had the eerie feeling of standing in front of a portal to the other side of the world.
I first heard about the Sister-City relationship between Chicago and Casablanca after I had graduated from Lincoln School and it was already too late for me to go to Morocco on the brand new school exchange with Lycee LeCedre. A few years later, after I had left Lincoln Park High School, I learned that I had also missed the boat on the new high school exchange to Casablanca. These days, in addition to a completely functional Moroccan fountain Lincoln Elementary has also signs outside of offices, classrooms, and bathrooms in English, French, and Arabic.
After college I wanted to study the cultural exchange between Casablanca and my hometown while in Morocco on a Fulbright. So I approached the Casablanca Committee of Chicago Sister-Cities. I learned from the chairs of the committee that in addition to the cultural exchanges between schools, a meeting had also been organized between urban planners from both cities involved in park reclamation projects. Sadly I was wait-listed for the Fulbright, but the idea of urban planning exchange between countries hooked me.
A key takeaway of my informational interviews with the chairs of the Casa Committee was that the urban planning meeting was between peers, and not a top-down offering of expertise. Rather, in the Sister-City spirit of world understanding and genuine cultural exchange, the meetings were meant to be educational to representatives from both cities. I went through several drafts of my proposal to avoid suggesting that I wanted to study what Chicago “had to offer” Casablanca. Arrogant American reflex on my part? The subtext of my conversations with the Casa committee chairs was not only that Moroccans would be offended by implications that they should learn from Chicago, but that such condescension was counter to the concept of cultural diplomacy.
An NBC Nightly News segment I recently saw posted on the Sister-City website made me cringe, precisely because it ignored the cultural diplomacy angle and went straight for a jumbled bunch of cliches involving slums in the developing world, American high school students, and the now-obligatory “bringing” of “hope.” The segment is called “Making a Difference.”
It opens with a shot of the Chicago skyline. At the first mention of Casablanca, the camera pans out on one of the city’s bidonvilles, or slums. Apparently whereas Chicago is a modern and impressive city of skyscrapers, Casablanca can be summed up with an image of some of the most extreme poverty Morocco has to offer.
The segment could have featured a pocket of poverty anywhere in the world, including Chicago. How many times have I watched the news and seen the trite images of kids playing in the streets of Chicago’s West or South Side, righteous poor people talking into the camera about tragedy, opportunity, and hope, and a somber-voiced reporter pressing on the last few words of their depressingyetuplifting tale… of inner city blues.
Cynicism is cheap, so I’ll try to rein it in a bit.
Considering that most Americans can’t locate Morocco on a map, it might have been more helpful to first present some basics about the country, and about Casa, instead of only giving us the shorthand for our perceived superiority to the rest of the world.
Here we have American students teaching English to Moroccan kids (do we know what their native language is?), here we have an ambitious third-year Physics student–and a woman to boot! (but do we know that once she graduates it will be extremely difficult for her to find a job because the equation is not as simple as “ambition + education = getting out of the slums”?)
Check out this TIME article, titled, “What Chicago can learn from Casablanca’s ghettos.” Katz’s description of the objectives for the September 2009 trip to Casablanca is almost completely the opposite of the NBC segment’s account:
This September, a delegation of high school students from Chicago will visit Sidi Moumen to study Mazoz’s methods and implement them in deprived neighborhoods back home. “The grand vision is to make his endeavor into an international model,” says Marilyn Diamond, co-chair of the Chicago Casablanca Sister Cities International Program.
That’s a far cry from the tired “bringing hope to the underprivileged” narrative. Even in the context of service-learning there is typically (or should be) some critical thought about the nature of a social problem, a self-awareness about the student’s role in the community and skepticism about one’s ability to truly “make a difference.”
In this sense the article hits much closer to the mark than NBC, noting the importance of home-grown efforts to combat the effects of extreme poverty and apathy. Katz talks about the same community organizer profiled in the NBC segment, taking a very different angle that focuses on his goal of cultivating local leadership.
Instead of recruiting privileged volunteers who live miles away, Mazoz is determined his organizers should hail from the slums he is targeting. “No one can speak the language better,” he says. By creating role models who work and live in the community, Mazoz hopes the impact of his pioneering program will endure.
The article, like the Casa committee, gives Mazoz credit for innovation, presenting him as a social entrepreneur rather than a savior. Katz even goes so far as to hint a comparison of Mazoz’s work to that of Barack Obama on Chicago’s South Side.
Although I think the parallel between Chicago’s and Casa’s poor neighborhoods is a little tenuous, I think the more important point is that we are hardly in a position to look down our nose at another country for having slums in its most populous city. To be honest I’m not yet completely sold on the idea that Chicago and Casablanca can simply “learn from each other,” only because there are layers upon layers of sociological subtleties in the nature of slums and ghettos, as well as cultural nuances in the ways that we approach such issues. Still, as an aspiring urban social-scientist-of-some-kind I think it’s worthwhile to learn about the issues that cities around the world must address. We might not necessarily be surprised to find that a Sidi Moumen model cannot be directly applied to West Humboldt Park. It might however blow our minds to look around and realize that there is a world outside of Chicago, where what is superficially the same “urban poverty” problem is actually very different. In the process we can, hopefully, gain some self-awareness.