Friday, May 29, 2015

Getting my hands Dirty: A day with Lava Mae

"Hygiene brings dignity and dignity opens up opportunity"
                 - Doniece Sandoval, Lava Mae founder

Last night before I went to dinner with a friend I took a shower. Not that I really needed one, but it's something I tend to take for granted that I will be able to do... to freshen up for company.

This morning I woke up at an ungodly hour and headed into San Francisco to work an opening shift for LavaMae, a mobile shower (and toilet!) facility serving San Francisco's homeless population.
I arrived at 730 Polk Street at 9am, and was immediately put to work assembling 'hygiene kits' in the front of the bus. These were ziplock bags full of donated toiletries including soap, bodywash, toothbrushes and toothpaste to provide to clients who didn't have their own (which was a large percentage.)

By the time we opened at 9:30 there was already a fairly long waiting list for our two shower units. People can arrive on a drop-in basis and sign up. They get about 15 minutes in the shower and we clean it after each one, but there's a lot of down time for the volunteers in between, so I got to talk to the clients.

It is truly a vast cross section of humanity. One man who stopped by told me he hadn't had a shower in 14 months. He goes for a swim when he needs a wash, but last week when he tried to get on a bus to go home to see his mother (who he hasn't seen in 15 years) he was turned away because he was too dirty. He thought he might come back and shower before he tries again next week. We also talked about whether he should shave his beard "I don't want her to think I've been living under a bridge... even if I have!"

Another man told me about traveling the world and his time in Thailand. Another told me about how he spends the days collecting bottles to recycle, and it's a pity more people don't take an interest in keeping the streets clean. A couple of young entrepreneurs traveling down the west coast on a budget stopped by. A young man helped me rescue a bee that had fallen on the sidewalk because it was too cold to fly.

Lava Mae was the brainchild of Doniece Sandoval, a marketing and PR professional, who is passionate about creative solutions to problems like homelessness. When she heard a young woman on the street crying that she had never been clean a seed was planted, and when she heard that Muni was upgrading their busses and had a donation programme for the old ones she came up with a crazy idea. If you can have food on wheels why not showers on wheels? So she secured a bus, donors, an architect, and last year the first LavaMae bus hit the streets of San Francisco.

Several asked me during the day what made me want to volunteer, and I fumbled with an answer ("Because I'm interested in toilets... it's a long story...")

I suppose in part the day was dedicated to a Toilet Attendant who became a close friend in London. I used to spend time chatting, and watching his interactions with customers. The trials and tribulations of the life of cleaning up after other people. He was pretty direct about calling me and his boss out on one thing: "You get to drop by, but this is my reality all day every day." He was amused but baffled by why I (or anyone) was so interested in Toilets. I like to think he'd be proud of me, but in reality I'm sure he'd still be baffled ("Why on earth would you voluntarily spend the day cleaning toilets?")

Lava Mae has been on my radar for quite some time, since they did a world Toilet Day promotion a couple years ago, and I've started and failed to finish several posts about them in the past, partly, I think because I've lacked the words to express the uniqueness of what they do. I needed the hands on experience.

One thing that is incredibly important to me as a researcher is not to remain above the fray. It's an easy comfortable place analyzing, reading and thinking, but I think if you truly care about something you have to be willing to get down and dirty, or at the least dip your toes in. What I learned from the day of working on the bus may not be the stuff which anthropological PhDs are made on, but it was a more important reminder about the power of human connection.

Incidentally there was a recent NPR article on a related subject: "Nonacademic Skills Are the Key to Success: But What Should We Call Them." About the semantics of how we deal with all those things that can't be measured by tests. A quote that particularly jumped out at me was this thought from Noah Webster (the dictionary guy!) in 1778:
"The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head."
So more food for thought as I think about whether and where to do a PhD, and what angle to approach it from.

Something I admire about Doniece and the way she approaches her work is it's very specific to people and place. A group of private citizens responding to a need and leading by example. They're not trying to solve homelessness or launch a massive sweeping campaign that will slowly mobilize the government into action. They're not even trying to create something that can be scaled massively, since, as she explained to me the first time we met, each place and population has its unique circumstances and issues. The dream is to inspire others, perhaps to provide guidelines for them to replicate and adapt the model (more, I think, on scalability in a future post.)

For the clients it's 20 minutes of clean private space. Dignity. Possibly a first step towards getting on a bus, going to a job interview, or other opportunities.

For volunteers like me it's a chance to scrub away labels and prejudices both conscious and unconscious. A reminder that the overarching label of 'homelessness' encompasses a wide spectrum of circumstances... but that all of them are no less human or deserving of respect than any of the rest of us.

When I got home I took a shower before going to my afternoon job... because you can't show up for babysitting smelling like toilet cleaner. I suppose still took it for granted, but at least I have a greater appreciation for how lucky I am to be able to do that.

If you're in San Francisco I highly recommend volunteering, especially if you like meeting interesting people. Or donating... money, soap, tooth brushes, hand cream... it's all useful.

Dancing at the Lava Mae "Showered with Love" fundraiser gala in March... they're raising money for additional busses in San Francisco.

This was a very different atmosphere to being on the bus on the street. Fun as it was, I think if I had to choose just one place to be I'd pick the bus. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Being a Diva: Menstrual Taboo

Img source:
Yesterday was Mother's Day in the US, so what better time for a reflection about women's bodies and the weird and wonderful things they do. Once you've been sucked down the world of toilets it's a short leap to the subject of menstruation.

Two years ago as a fly on the wall at the predominantly male British Toilet Association's annual meeting the topic was covered only briefly, as a slightly redfaced gentleman explained the problems it creates for restroom cleaning: "You women tend to...  erm... sync up in offices... so we can't just have the bins emptied on a regular schedule."

Tampons can be an awkward thing to deal with for a lot of other reasons too. Imagine that moment on a dinner date (or worse, a job interview) when you need to use the loo and go through the mental process of "Oh shit! This dress has no pockets... will it look bad if I carry my backpack to the bathroom with me? Will they think I'm running away? Will they know? Maybe I can maneuver it into my sleeve?"

Gentlemen... if a woman ever dives under the table digging frantically through her purse, casually re-emerges 30 seconds later, shrugs it off and then excuses herself you now know why. Somewhere on her person- up a sleeve, in a shoe, or in extreme cases, in a bra, is concealed a small piece of cotton that will afford her another three hours -give or take- of dignity.

My days of dealing with this are mostly over. I've become a convert to the Diva Cup.

I'd say that I can't believe it took me 25 years of my life (or, more accurately, 12 years of menstruating) to discover this, only that is partly my own fault. My freshman year of college one of the seniors actually did, as her senior project, an educational theatre piece with stories about periods, and well dressed women dancing in large plastic cups. My younger more easily embarrassed self didn't quite know what to make of it, so I watched awkwardly and then forgot about it.

Fast forward six years and a lot of toilet tours later when there's nothing much I won't talk about, and I came across an article about eco feminine hygiene products. Vague memories of the diva-cup were re-awakened and I thought 'maybe this is worth a go after all!'

The advantages are numerous. They are re-usable, so not only are you saving money in the long-run not buying tampons and pads every month (Tampon tax has been getting some interesting press lately), but you spare those poor long-suffering gentlemen of the BTA the need to constantly re-calculate the bin emptying schedule.

It's a weird concept to get your head around. Essentially sticking a little squishable cup up your neither regions. I thought for sure it would leak, or fall out, or get stuck, or just plain wouldn't fit in the first place. It doesn't do any of those things. It's actually so comfortably you can pretty much forget it's there.

Chances are the intricacies of female plumbing aren't your forte. They aren't for most people- including most women (any more than most of us know how the pipes and wires are set up in our homes.) So here's a lesson in female anatomy 101: The blood comes from the uterus shedding its lining, so it's all coming from the cervix which is at the top of the vagina. So the cup catches it pretty much right at the source, getting rid of a lot of the mess of tampons.) The urinary tract is a separate hole entirely slightly in front, so it doesn't interfere with that.

Are you blushing yet? This topic is still definitely a step beyond my normal toilet and pee and poo talk in terms of taboo. Where most people warm pretty quickly to toilet humor in the right environment you can see them get visibly uncomfortable when it becomes too personal. Maybe because it's moving from what comes out of the body to what goes on inside the body? Maybe because as a gender-specific topic we don't have it as universally in common.

I'm still exploring how to talk about it without making people shy away and shut down (like I did when I saw that play as an 18-year-old freshman.) It needs to be talked about, because it's so fundamental to women's equality. One of the primary reasons for girls dropping out of school in developing countries is a lack of toilets and safe places to go when they start their periods.

On the home front, if you want more women in the workplace you can't take the body out of the picture. A lot of workplace routines are designed for male bodies that don't spend 5 days out of every month bleeding and dealing with cramps, back pain, headaches and haywire hormone levels. Usually, as women, we try not to let that show, and carry on with business as usual, lest it be seen as a sign of weakness. A friend of mine used to like to say "never trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn't die." Maybe there's something in that... we're tough creatures! Beware our power!

Anyway, all this is to get back to the fact that when you don't talk about something, progress and innovation is difficult. Hence the slow rise of an amazing product like the divacup. You won't see people queuing up for the latest model, like an iphone 6.

If you can get over the initial awkwardness, it's probably the best gift you can give to any of the women in your life. I recommend who not only carry a lot of lovely products, but donate a significant portion of their proceeds to supporting girls in developing countries.


Just for some comic relief, here's Sarah Silverman talking about lady parts.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Music and potty training

"Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents." --Ludwig van Beethoven
Warning: This blog post contains a lot of ear worms.

Recently I've been particularly into toilet training songs. If you don't have a 2 year old (or spend much time around one) this is probably a foreign world to you, so here are a couple highlights to get you in the mood:



Okay, so as a 25 year old maybe humming potty training songs to myself at the bus stop is possibly a bit odd. But they're catchy! And this is the point.

I have always remembered things best in songs and verse. From the alphabet, to my eights time tables to how to be a good friend, a lot of my education has been shaped by songs. They may not be high art, but they're fun. In "Music and Learning: Integrating Music into the Classroom" Chris Boyd Brewer writes:

"Music helps us learn because it will--
  • establish a positive learning state
  • create a desired atmosphere
  • build a sense of anticipation
  • energize learning activities
  • change brain wave states
  • focus concentration
  • increase attention
  • improve memory
  • facilitate a multisensory learning experience
  • release tension
  • enhance imagination
  • align groups
  • develop rapport
  • provide inspiration and motivation
  • add an element of fun
  • accentuate theme-oriented units
(Article source:

At some point in our education music (and fun in general) stop being a generally accepted part of the experience. As grown ups we're expected to be able to learn and do things because we know we should, without having to go through the extra step of making them creative and fun. While it's a useful skill to be able to sit still and study even when you don't want to, I think it's the wrong approach. As I continue to think about and refine where I want to go with my research and studies the question of 'how could we make this as fun and interesting as we would for kids, but in a non-patronizing way?' keeps coming to my mind (This goes for all adult education... not just toilet behaviors... how much more awesome would any office job be if you started the morning with musical circle time?)

Combatting open defecation: The first Bollywood Poo Music Video 

The closest thing I know to an adult version of a potty training song is this musical Public Service Announcement produced in India in 2013. This song was written by Shiri, whose other credits include the theme song for the Life of Pi, so we're talking seriously professional shit here:


The Take the Poo to the Loo campaign was launched by Unicef to address the fact that 45% of India's population practices open deification, collectively producing 65 million kilos of poo each day (for perspective: if an average elephant weighs 5000kg that's 13,000 elephants!)

Sadly there isn't much analysis publicly available for this video or what sort of reach and affect it had. How many people, as a result of having "take the poo to the loo-oo-oo" running through their heads made a point of avoiding open defecation?

It's not a perfectly parallel comparison in any case to the children's potty training. The steps aren't quite as clear or as simple. The aim is behavioral change on a much larger societal level. Toilet training of young children is generally focused at normalizing them into a society that can already provide them with the tools they need to accomplish the task (a potty, toilet paper, a sink to wash their hands.) For the target audience of this video there's likely a more complex chain of steps required. It's more like if you asked your child not only to start using the potty, but also to finance the purchase of a potty chair, and install it in your home. A combination of marketing playing on emotions of shame and aspiration.

Change begins at home

The bollywood video is tangentially related to Theatre for Development (TfD) which featured heavily on my Applied Theatre MA course. Most academics would probably argue it doesn't fall under that umbrella because a) it's not live performance and b) it's not participatory, but that's arguing apples and oranges. Whatever you want to call it it's a piece of art used to create dialogue and affect behavioral change.

One ethical issue I have always taken slightly with a lot of TfD work is the fact that despite the best efforts of well-meaning practitioners it tends to be an attempt at westernization. Even under the guise of a bottom-up participant-lead approach there is an element of 'our way is better' leading towards certain conclusions. You can see slight hints of that in the music video: the toilet that all the dancing poos get flushed down in the end: it's a decidedly western design: in fact you could go so far as to say it is a strong symbol of the age of British imperialism. The seat with cistern, lid and flush pull chain, which evolved from the likes of Alexander Cummings, George Jennings and Thomas Crapper, is still, 150 years later, a symbol of the height of sanitary technology, but not in fact the most practical or ecological solution.

We're getting to a point where it's not a great solution in California either. While we thankfully aren't dying from diarrhea and other fecally transmitted diseases on a daily basis we certainly haven't got the toilet thing figured out in San Francisco. In the midst of the worst drought we've ever experienced we're still flushing 1/3 of our drinking water down the loo because that's what we're used to. Someone said to me once (and I paraphrase) "One of the problems in developing countries is people want what they see as a luxury item... not some second-best solution. If Obama would install a composting toilet in the White house then everyone would want one of those instead."

So perhaps by focusing more of our energies closer to home we'd have a larger knock-on effect than we might at first realize. A challenge to people who are more musically/lyrically inclined than I am: how do we introduce water saving behaviors in song and dance?