In the last post I talked about setting up your budget so that you can save for retirement, build an emergency savings plan, and pay off debt all at the same time. What I didn’t mention is that when I have a plan I am a very impatient person. And even with my budget designed to do all three magical things at once I wasn’t paying off my debt as quickly as I would like, which led me to…getting a second job.
The real reason I’ve been able to save so much money by not going out as much is because I don’t have as much time to go out since getting a second job. To be honest, I was just getting sick of chipping away at my debt and I wanted to get it over and paid off as quickly as possible. I considered several options until I got a kitten, and then I wanted to find something where I wouldn’t have to be out of the house 12 hours a day. Luckily, it was just around this time last fall that I started following The Penny Hoarder on Facebook and learned about opportunities with Appen Global and Leapforce. Both of the opportunities are very similar, but I ended up going with Appen because they contacted me right away and the on-boarding process only took a few weeks. For comparison, I only heard back from Leapforce about a month ago and their compensation was 25 cents less per hour than Appen is paying me.
So what’s the job? My official job title is “Social Media Evaluator,” and while consultants sign an NDA when they start – so I can’t reveal too much – I’ll share what’s in the job description.
Basically, my task is to help “improve the relevancy of the newsfeed for a leading global social media client.” It’s pretty easy and somewhat mindless once you get the hang of it. You can be contracted for 1, 3, or 4 hours a day for 5 days a week. Appen provides a training program (unpaid) and will test you on your ability to follow the guidelines before you begin work. If you can consistently meet their standards, keep pace, and fulfill your contracted hours you’re good to go. This onboarding process took me a few hours over one week, so don’t worry too much about that part not being paid.
The only caveat to this opportunity is that you’re technically an independent contractor, not an employee. So while the pay is quite good, you must remember to sock away some of it each month for taxes. I didn’t last fall since I was only being paid the last 2 months of the year, but even that small amount affected my 2016 tax returns. My refund was quite a bit less because of this extra work. On the other hand, if you’re doing your taxes and withholdings correctly you don’t want to see a huge refund every year anyway since it means you’re just giving the government an interest-free loan. That money could be put to better use in your own investments over those same 12 months.
Stepping off the tax soap box now. If you’d like to know more about the Appen or Leapforce opportunities, I’ve linked them above. My plan is to take the next two years and pay off all of my debt solely with this income.
One thing I struggled with when I set up my budget is deciding how much money I put towards debt and how much I put towards emergency savings and retirement. As I said before, I automatically set up my retirement deductions based off my company match. That money leaves my paycheck before I see it, so it’s easy to make a budget without it.
The next thing I did was start a savings account. Knowing I had more debt to pay off I started small each month just saving $50 per paycheck ($100 per month). If I needed to raid it to make ends meet at the end of the month I did (a few times at least), but I kept the automatic transfer so that, eventually, my savings would automatically grow.
Next I tackled my debt. I was able to consolidate my student loans a few years ago when I wasn’t making as much money. My income-based repayment plan, therefore, is not a huge amount each month and my interest rate is low enough that it won’t hurt to keep paying the minimum until I get the higher interest debt paid off. Check and see if your loans can be consolidated if they haven’t been already. And remember, if you set up auto-payments each month your lender may lower the interest rate a bit.
High interest debt, on the other hand, should be tackled as quickly as possible. After your monthly expenses, small savings plan, and any other essentials (e.g. food) put as much of your discretionary income as possible toward getting a zero balance on your credit card. Cutting cable and not going out to eat as much helped me shave quite a bit of cash from my spending (seriously, happy hour is a budget killer). I now put that toward my debt and find I can take a pretty good chunk off the principal each month.
So when you’re setting up your budget and asking if you should be saving for retirement, saving for emergencies, or paying off debt, the answer is, “Yes.” Do all three but change the percentage of your budget you spend on each as you first eliminate high interest debt.
This one is short and sweet, because I covered a bit of it before. Today we’re going to talk about savings and budgeting.
Step 4: Your First $500, $1,000, 3-Month Fund
When you’re making your budget and building in a savings plan it can be daunting to think about starting small and getting to a 3- or 6-month emergency fund. Take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. Studies show that only 28% of Americans have saved a 6-month emergency fund. If that’s not depressing enough, that same study says 66 million Americans report having no savings at all.
We’re always told that it’s smart to have an emergency fund in case anything happens, but when you’re looking at your paycheck versus expenses it’s easy to put it off in favor of other spend.
The key is to start small.
Sock away $10, $25, $50 a paycheck…whatever you can afford. Reevaluate how much you’re putting away every six months. If your bank offers it, use a service that rounds your purchases up and puts the difference into your account (this would counteract the use of the Acorns app to round up into an investment account).
Work towards saving your first $500…then your first $1,000…then a 1-month emergency fund, and so on. Work your way up to a 3-month fund that would cover your essentials. It may take many months, but you’ll love watching that number grow. This little guy wants to be fed.
If it helps to have an example, you can use my experience. I started my new job by automatically deducting $50 every paycheck into my savings account. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but there were still a few times I had to raid my savings to fix a cash flow problem at the end of the month.
Overall I was saving $100 per month.
Each year I’ve received a cost-of-living increase and raised that automatic deduction by $25 per month. Again, not a lot, but enough to notice the number in my savings account getting higher every time. I even have a chart on my online banking dashboard that tells me what my expected savings will be over time. It’s become a personal challenge to see or beat that number.
I was always taught that money doesn’t grow on trees, and while that’s mostly true it’s also a fact that technology and online shopping can be your best friend in getting you some free money for doing the things you already do.
The apps and sites I mention below are ones I currently use and recommend. There are others (e.g. Wikibuy) that I haven’t used extensively and so I’m not going to give you a full write-up. These sites won’t make you a millionaire, but they will keep you in Starbucks…or beer…or whatever your vice may be. And, hey, it’s just nice to earn a little cash back from the purchases you already make.
Step 3: Get Free Money
- Ebates – if you use Chrome as your web browser I recommend signing up for Ebates and installing the Chrome extension. Every time you shop online you can activate a cash back deal on your purchase. Every 3 months they will send you a “Big Fat Check” for that amount. I just installed the extension 4 days ago and already have $14 cash back. I’m not sure what that says about my shopping habits, but I buy most of my essentials on Amazon (free shipping to my door with Prime!) and get 3% cash back on my Amazon credit card AND cash back from Ebates as well. If you sign up using my referral link we both get a cash bonus.
- Honey – another Chrome extension I use is Honey. It works similar to Ebates with a cash back bonus for every purchase, but there’s an additional coupon code search function. Whenever you shop online Honey will search for known coupon codes and try to apply them to your purchase. It doesn’t always work, but I’ve gotten discounts on a ton of stuff I was going to buy anyway. The Honey Gold (cash bonus) you earn can be redeemed for gift cards to the store of your choice.
- Cashback Credit Cards – as I mentioned earlier I have an Amazon credit card, which gives me 3% cash back on all Amazon purchases and 1% everywhere else. I mostly use it to buy stuff on Amazon and then immediately pay it off with my debit card. I also use a cash back credit card from my bank. I get 1-2% cash back on all purchases, which isn’t a ton, but it adds up. I tend to use this one for travel (booking with Expedia to rack up rewards points and then miles on airlines). Right now my bank is giving me 10% cash back on everything for 6 months because they switched from Mastercard to Visa. I’m not exactly sure why, but I’m not asking any questions. For the next six months anyway, I’ll be paying everything with this card and using my debit to pay it off right away.
- Follow /r/beermoney on Reddit for more ideas – if you’re on Reddit a great subreddit to follow is /r/beermoney. They have a lot of tips and tricks to save or earn a few extra bucks each month. One of them is an easy, no cost solution if you have an unlimited data plan on your phone (or even if you don’t, and if you don’t sign up for TMobile, they’re amazing). Mobile Performance Meter is an app owned by one of the largest market research companies in the U.S. The app tracks your data usage – and only your data usage. They do not collect personal information or interfere with your phone in any other way (read their TOC and FAQs for more info). People average about 10-20 points per day with options for bonuses by taking surveys or making referrals. They’ll send you a gift card to the store of your choice when you rack up enough points (starting at 500).
None of these methods are going to make you independently wealthy, but they are easy ways to make a few extra bucks without having to change your behavior. If you’ve come across any other opportunities please let me know in the comments!
I don’t know about you, but a lot of my money management issues stem from trusting myself a little too much (haha). If I see the funds in my bank account I think that’s actually how much money I have, yet tend to forget about which bills are coming due and when before the next payday. And forget about saving. If it doesn’t happen automatically I take no joy in shifting leftover funds into a savings account. So my solution is to get the bill paying and saving out of the way each payday before I even look at my checking account, which is my Step 2 in building financial health.
Step 2: Automate Your Budget
Now, one thing I want you to note is that the steps below can be done when you’re comfortable with your budget and your cash flow. If you need to build a cushion into your checking account before setting up automatic payments (like I did), then do so, but I strongly urge you to take these steps as soon as financially possible…they’ll save you headaches and maybe even some money.
- Save for Retirement At Least Up to Company Match – the first thing you can do to easily save more money is deduct a percentage of your paycheck to your company’s retirement fund up to the amount that your company matches. That match is free money. For example, my organization matches up to 5%. So when I deduct 5% of my gross pay into our 403(b) I get 5% more money from my company for free, basically. And my org is extra special because I’m 100% vested right away – sometimes the company requires that you stay on the job at least 2-5 years in order to get that full 5% or they take it back when you quit. It’s worth reading the fine print. And it’s worth automatically deducting this amount every month and beginning your budget there.
- Auto-Deduct Into Savings Account – this is a step you may want to hold off on until you make sure your budget works every month, but the age old question of “Should I save or should I pay off debt?” is answered best with, “Yes.” Start a savings account as soon as possible and shift even a small amount each paycheck. I started with $50 and then increase it by $25 every year when I get a cost-of-living increase. When I first started and had to get my feet under me I had to raid my savings a few times, but now that I have a cushion built up in my cash flow it’s incredibly satisfying to see this number tic up every two weeks. Seriously, the person who figures out how to gamify personal finance will be the next Silicon Valley tech millionaire.
- Auto-Pay Debt – if, like me, you have some outstanding debt (student loans, credit card, etc) try to pay as much as you can each month beyond the minimum payments. Anything beyond the minimum will save you in interest. This is another great place to set up auto-payments so you don’t have to worry about making a late payment, racking up fees, or taking hits to your credit score. Sometimes you can even get a break on your interest rate if you set up Auto-Pay. For example, my student loan lender knocked off half a percent.
- Auto-Pay Bills – another great place to set up auto-payments is on all of your bills (rent/mortgage, utilities, etc). Online payment services for these accounts usually charge a transaction fee for using a credit card but will remove the fee if you do a bank transfer. If you pay by check you’re paying for postage every time. As my grandma always said, “Watch your pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.” The other important tip I have for you in this regard is to set up a second checking account for bill payments and, every paycheck, auto-deduct your budgeted amount into this account. Pay your bills from here and your other checking account turns into spending money. Right now, for example, I take my rent and utility costs for the month, halve it (because I get paid twice monthly), and have that amount get redirected to my Bills checking account every payday. Makes knowing what I can spend on food and sundries much easier to visualize.
- Auto-Save/Invest – so I shared some tips about auto-payments and auto-saving, but one other trick I’d like to share is auto-investing. You’re not a hedge fund manager. I get it. None of us are billionaires. But we can take advantage of stock market investing at a small scale using the Acorns app. When you download the app and connect a card and/or bank account, Acorns simply rounds up every purchase to the nearest dollar and invests it for you. You never even miss it. Some banks will do this for you and automatically round up into your savings account, but I find it’s a lot of fun to have a small investment account and see that graph steadily increasing every month. For the time I’ve been using it, my account and the investment fund have seen a 5.46% return. I’ve been using Acorns for about 7 months now and have $400+ in my account. And the great thing about the account is that I can divest and transfer the money into my bank account any time I need it. Right now I’m having too much fun watching it grow, but it could be a good rainy day fund as it’s pretty easy to liquidate (the transaction takes 4-5 days). Acorns also partners with a few sites where you can spend money and a percentage of what you spend goes into your Acorns investing account. For example, if you book an AirBNB, a percentage of the total booking cost is invested, and if you sign up for Hulu a percentage of your subscription fee gets invested, etc. The beauty of affiliate marketing.
This month I’m focusing the majority of posts on my improvement plan from Year 2 in DC: Financial Health. Each post I’ll outline one step I took to make my life a little easier when it comes to money management. I haven’t always made good choices in the past and I’m not 100% fixed yet, but these steps have helped me get better and improve my credit score by 176 points in less than 2 years.
Step 1: Get a New Job
In my experience completing step one was the catalyst that made all of the rest possible. I know that not everyone can uproot their lives and move across the country in search of a better paying job. But there are solutions you can explore in your own backyard, so to speak.
- Ask for a Raise – if you’ve been working in the same place for several years, maybe it’s time to ask for a raise. Are you one of the more dependable employees? Have your performance reviews been good over several years? Are there other responsibilities you can take on to justify an increase in pay? If even one of the questions results in a “yes,” then meet with your boss and make your case. Emphasis on that last part; if you’re going to ask for more money you have to prove your worth. Sometimes the boss’s hands are tied. That’s where the next option comes in.
- Create a Professional Development Plan – so maybe you can’t get a raise for doing the job you’re currently doing. I get that. Some industries are conservative and highly regulated, but there may be an option to work with your boss to develop a plan for professional development. Let him or her know that you’re interested in more responsibility and/or other opportunities within the organization. Share your ambition. A good organization wants to keep good workers. They may surprise you. Your boss may say, “I’m sorry a raise isn’t in the budget…” but maybe there’s an opportunity for advancement or a lateral move that will earn you higher pay. I worked for minimum wage at a deli a few years ago, and this is what happened to my colleague. The owner wants to keep good, dependable workers, and my colleague took on additional front-of-house responsibilities to earn the raise. It was a win/win for the owner and the employee.
- Negotiate Better Work/Life Balance – okay, so maybe there simply isn’t money in the budget for a raise and your organization is efficient and flat so there also isn’t a lot of opportunity for advancement. Now what? Well, maybe making the case for more money isn’t possible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t negotiate for other types of compensation. If your boss is sympathetic but can’t make something monetary happen, make the case for other benefits to increase your work/life balance. Perhaps an additional vacation day or two, or maybe a company match on your retirement contribution. What about comp time for days you work long hours? Or a flexible working schedule so that you can telework (if possible)? If your work cannot be done remotely, what about negotiating a daily schedule that works better for your family (arriving earlier or later, for example)? There are other ways employers can show good employees that they are valued – explore some options, even if additional monetary compensation may not be a possibility.
Now, some of you may be reading this and thinking that none of these options are possible at your current job. That’s okay. Maybe then it’s a matter of doing a cost/benefit analysis – is your current job paying you enough and providing the benefits you need? Are you content to stay there? Or do you want to find something else? Or do you want to go back to school to learn a new marketable skill and move into a different industry?
The decision is up to you and the opportunities available to you right now. The main point is to not leave money on the table and know what you’re worth.
As you’ve probably noticed there’s a new look and feel to this site. I’ve already come clean with my newsletter subscribers, but if you’re relatively new here then know that I’ve developed a slightly new strategy and focus for The Digital Storyteller in the recent months.
What’s Different, What’s the Same
You’ll still find the usual digital storytelling training and resources you’ve come to expect, but I’m refocusing the content to be a little less Digital Storytelling 101 and more strategic and thematic-level learning. I’m hoping this will make the posts more adaptable to your level of need. There are plenty of sites that will tell you how to start a Facebook ad campaign, but I really want to focus on why we’re doing this.
How to Use the Site
In addition, I’ve decided to become a little more open and take the personal content I have segmented across the web and centralize it all here. That’s where the new categories come from. You can still search for your favorite topics using the tags feature, but I really want all content on my site to fit within one of the five categories listed in the main menu. Whatever I write will be designed to help you Improve, help you Learn something new, Inspire your creativity, or Believe that there’s a purpose to all of this. These categories cover both professional and personal content.
If you need more clarification, you can find it on my About page.
Some of you sharp-eyed readers may have noticed I said “five” categories yet only list four. The fifth category of posts will be announced this summer and are an exciting part of some creative goals I’ve set for myself this year.
So stay tuned and I look forward to sharing more with you very soon!
Every so often I like to share what I’m reading because, well, I live alone and have no one to talk to about it.
That’s a lie. Two of the following books come from my company’s Inclusion Book Club.
I just like to share what I’m reading because I (obviously) think it’s interesting, and because I find it interesting I think that more people should be reading it. That’s it really.
So in no particular order, the most interesting books I’ve read in the past year…
The Moor’s Account
From the publisher: In 1527, the conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez sailed from the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda with a crew of six hundred men and nearly a hundred horses. His goal was to claim what is now the Gulf Coast of the United States for the Spanish crown and, in the process, become as wealthy and famous as Hernán Cortés. But from the moment the Narváez expedition landed in Florida, it faced peril—navigational errors, disease, starvation, as well as resistance from indigenous tribes. Within a year there were only four survivors: the expedition’s treasurer, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca; a Spanish nobleman named Alonso del Castillo Maldonado; a young explorer named Andrés Dorantes de Carranza; and Dorantes’s Moroccan slave, Mustafa al-Zamori, whom the three Spaniards called Estebanico. These four survivors would go on to make a journey across America that would transform them from proud conquistadores to humble servants, from fearful outcasts to faith healers. The Moor’s Account brilliantly captures Estebanico’s voice and vision, giving us an alternate narrative for this famed expedition. As the dramatic chronicle unfolds, we come to understand that, contrary to popular belief, black men played a significant part in New World exploration and Native American men and women were not merely silent witnesses to it. In Laila Lalami’s deft hands, Estebanico’s memoir illuminates the ways in which stories can transmigrate into history, even as storytelling can offer a chance for redemption and survival.
My Recommendation: I read this book for our Inclusion Book Club at work and really liked viewing the discovery of the United States from a another minority’s perspective. For me it was really interesting to read about Estebanico’s discovery of and interaction with Native Americans, and especially his view of the white explorers’ interactions with them. He could view the oppression through the lens of one who was oppressed. The book is based on a true story, but Estebanico’s point of view is largely fictionalized based on what the author knows of the slave trade in that time period. It was a quick read, incredibly interesting, and will leave you thinking.
Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States
From the publisher: In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Dunbar-Ortiz adroitly challenges the founding myth of the United States and shows how policy against the Indigenous peoples was colonialist and designed to seize the territories of the original inhabitants, displacing or eliminating them. And as Dunbar-Ortiz reveals, this policy was praised in popular culture, through writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Walt Whitman, and in the highest offices of government and the military. Shockingly, as the genocidal policy reached its zenith under President Andrew Jackson, its ruthlessness was best articulated by US Army general Thomas S. Jesup, who, in 1836, wrote of the Seminoles: “The country can be rid of them only by exterminating them.” Spanning more than four hundred years, this classic bottom-up peoples’ history radically reframes US history and explodes the silences that have haunted our national narrative.
My Recommendation: This book took me awhile to get through because every section I’d be so outraged that I couldn’t continue right away. I only have so much outrage in me, apparently. It’s easy to forget that not everyone has had the education I have on native issues, and what most people know of Native Americas comes from textbooks written by white people in Texas. And the stories in those textbooks are based off transcripts, narratives, and memoirs by other white people. I think this should be required reading for everyone hanging their hat on what they’ve been taught about U.S. History. Read both perspectives knowing that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Read this book knowing that it’s one of many attempts to get the native perspective known. Read this book knowing that natives were not just silent witnesses to Manifest Destiny, but instead actively fought relocation, assimilation, and termination as best they knew how. That 500+ tribes still exist and fight today is proof that they succeeded.
That the Blood Stay Pure
From the publisher: That the Blood Stay Pure traces the history and legacy of the commonwealth of Virginia’s effort to maintain racial purity and its impact on the relations between African Americans and Native Americans. Arica L. Coleman tells the story of Virginia’s racial purity campaign from the perspective of those who were disavowed or expelled from tribal communities due to their affiliation with people of African descent or because their physical attributes linked them to those of African ancestry. Coleman also explores the social consequences of the racial purity ethos for tribal communities that have refused to define Indian identity based on a denial of blackness. This rich interdisciplinary history, which includes contemporary case studies, addresses a neglected aspect of America’s long struggle with race and identity.
My Recommendation: I went to advance screening of Loving where the author of this book came to speak about Richard and Mildred. One thing she said knocked my socks off – that on her marriage license Mildred Loving is identified as an Indian. On her deathbed Mildred Loving claimed her heritage as Indian. In between those two events her identity vacillated between Indian, negro, and a combination thereof, but I wanted to know why. As a member of a woodlands Indian tribe in the north, we didn’t really have that much historical integration with blacks…at least, not like tribes in the Southern states did. So I suggested we read this book for our Inclusion Book Club at work, and it was really interesting to see how identity shifted to protect personal safety and/or property rights. The experience of Eastern tribes (in areas of the original colonies, East of the Mississippi River) is so different than that of Western tribes. It was fascinating to learn a little more about the racial issues that emerged and are still being dealt with today.
Good Girls Revolt
From the publisher: On March 16, 1970, the day Newsweek published a cover story on the fledgling feminist movement entitled “Women in Revolt,” forty-six Newsweek women charged the magazine with discrimination in hiring and promotion. It was the first female class action lawsuit–the first by women journalists–and it inspired other women in the media to quickly follow suit.
Lynn Povich was one of the ringleaders. In The Good Girls Revolt, she evocatively tells the story of this dramatic turning point through the lives of several participants. For many, filing the suit was a radicalizing act that empowered them to “find themselves” and fight back. Others lost their way amid opportunities, pressures, discouragements, and hostilities they weren’t prepared to navigate. The Good Girls Revolt also explores why changes in the law didn’t solve everything. Through the lives of young female journalists at Newsweek today, Lynn Povich shows what has–and hasn’t–changed in the workplace.
My Recommendation: I read this book before seeing the Amazon Prime show and thought it especially relevant for today’s political anti-feminist climate. The reason we females enjoy so many opportunities is the fight and sacrifice of those who came before us. What really struck me though is that for every two steps progressed we stumble one step back…and I think that could be true of any civil rights fight – not just gender equality.
From the publisher: When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, his beautiful and flamboyant daughter was transformed into “Princess Alice,” arguably the century’s first global celebrity. Thirty-two years later, her first cousin Eleanor moved into the White House as First Lady. Born eight months and twenty blocks apart from each other in New York City, Eleanor and Alice spent a large part of their childhoods together and were far more alike than most historians acknowledge. Blood may be thicker than water, but when the family business is politics, winning trumps everything. Vivid, intimate, and stylishly written, Hissing Cousins finally sets this relationship center stage, revealing the contentious bond between two political trailblazers who short-circuited the rules of gender and power, each in her own way.
My Recommendation: If you need an historical reminder that politics in the United States have been just as acrimonious as they are now, then this book would be one of many to read. I admit that I didn’t know much of Alice Roosevelt Longworth before reading this book, and it’s interesting to imagine what her heyday would be like if it were happening now. Would she have such unfettered access to the White House and Congress or would our current sensibility against political dynasty blunt her influence? It’s hard to say. Because in politics, what’s in fashion and acceptable is generally up for a matter of opinion based on how well it fits your own narrative. This book tells the story of a relationship between to cousins at the center of Washington for decades, but I think it also tells the story of two fiercely opposed political ideologies. And it’s fun to read knowing how it plays out (up to now, at least).
Are we entering an age of authoritarianism in American politics? Are sentiments of white nationalism – that seemed to always be on the fringe – now ever-popular and creating an opening for fascism to gain a foothold?
Having never lived under a fascist, authoritarian government before I can’t be sure of the signs. But we can learn from our global allies.
Strategic Dialogue with Global Leaders
I recently had the privilege of attending a listening session at Capitol Hill sponsored by a global conference I was attending by an organization that supports and promotes international exchange programs. The NGO I work for contracts with the government to implement such programs for youth, mid-career professionals and emerging leaders around the world.
Diplomacy is an important component to our nation’s safety. One-third of all current world leaders are alumni if USG exchange programs. Throughout history over 500 world leaders have been alumni. These diplomatic programs are incredibly important to America’s place on the global stage and to increasing understanding between global cultures and everyday citizens.
They represent a minuscule fraction of our national budget, yet may now be under threat from the new administration.
A Bridge is Built from Both Sides
One of the things we tend to forget about these exchange programs is that the learning goes both ways. As we showcase what makes America great (not again, but always), we can learn from the lessons and experiences these visitors have lived in their own countries.
During one of the panels, I asked the Hungarian Ambassador to the U.S., Réka Szemerkényi, if she thought Hungary’s role in relations with Western governments would change as we’ve seen more of a rise of authoritarian leaders in the U.S., Britain, France, etc.
A Bit of Background
You see, I lived in Hungary a few years ago in a mid-sized city that sat at the edge of the Austro-Hungarian border. At the turn of the 20th century the citizens were given the choice of becoming a part of Austria or to join Hungary. They chose Hungary, and that choice would have significant consequences at the close of WWII.
In essence, the population of Sopron lived with freedom in sight for the decades that they were locked behind the Iron Curtain.
My time in Sopron took place a little less than two decades after the curtain fell. It was easy to notice the effects this historic tension had on generations of citizens. In the words of my American colleague, “Hungarians are tough to crack.” They were not quick to trust you or open up to you. They also had a voracious appetite for learning and understanding different perspectives and worldviews.
What I found especially unique – from my purely American upbringing – was their celebration of an attempted revolution against the U.S.S.R. that Hungary led in 1956.
I happened to be in Budapest that weekend in October and the entire country shut down. There was a distinct somberness to the festivities, if you can call them that, and I asked my Hungarian colleague why they were celebrating if the uprising was ultimately a failure.
“Because we tried,” she said.
I was taken aback. As an American it was a surprising idea – celebrating a failure. It’d be like if we continued to hold extensive celebratory 4th of July parties but the revolution had never happened and we were still British colony.
So, What the Hell Am I Trying to Say?
So, why my question? Why this memory?
I already knew the answer when I asked Ambassador Szemerkényi what Hungary can bring to the table by taking a more leading, outspoken role in foreign relations. But I wanted everyone else in the audience – representing the international exchange industry around the country and from all walks of political life – to hear it and realize it too.
Because the answer is that nations and citizens have dealt with this political climate before, sometimes to disastrous consequences. And we can learn a lot about the warning signs of when nationalism and isolationism go too far. We can learn that democracy is fragile.
And maybe, by learning from our peers in Central and Eastern Europe, we can again appreciate the freedoms we have and learn to fight for them. Because Ambassador Szemerkényi’s answer was complex, but it really boils down to the fact that we here in the U.S. have been spoiled. We don’t have a collective memory of anything other than democratic freedom. Sure, it’s been a rocky road (to put it very, very mildly), but we’ve always been free in ways other nations have not. And that’s a privilege. And I think that’s what set Hungarians apart to me…that they have joy – not arrogance – in their freedom. They appreciate it and understand how fragile it is.
We could do well to learn from them. And if the pessimists and Chicken Littles are correct and it all goes to hell, well, we can also learn from the Hungarians of 1956. Because they tried.
So to sum up my previous posts, year one in DC was about gaining confidence and rebuilding my emotional health. Year two was about building a strong financial foundation and gaining professional health. As I look forward to year three I’m hoping to build on my mind (creative) and body (physical) health. I feel like I finally have enough of a routine in DC that I can dedicate my extra time to creative and physical pursuits.
After my health issues a few years ago I never really got back into a workout or running routine. Then I moved and my free time really became chaotic. Now that I have some semblance of stability, I thought it high time to get back into fighting form.
To that end I joined My Peak Challenge, a group that supports healthy lifestyles through physical and creative challenges. For only $100 per year I get access to daily workouts and nutrition plans, and a global community of support…which is what I’ve really been lacking to hold myself accountable. And 50% of the $100 fee goes to support Bloodwise, a UK-based charity. So I can get fit while doing something good for the world.
My goal is to get back to running and get into races once more. To that end I am looking for a 5K in the DC area to complete in the next 2-4 months. I’m thinking my next half marathon will happen in 2018.
Now that I feel like I finally have some brain power to spare, I’m pursuing something I’ve been thinking about for years: podcasting.
It’s been on my mind for many years that what I was taught in school about Native American history, what I learned in college completing my American Indian Studies minor, and the stories I heard during my internship with Oneida are not widely known. Native history, mythology, legends, and science are known throughout the local tribal communities, but not widely taught unless students seek it out.
I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a podcast to share these stories and recently took the first step of developing a website and newsletter to hold myself accountable. Through research at the Library of Congress (and my own bookshelves of course) and interviews with tribal elders at home and possibly elsewhere, I hope to do these stories justice and educate listeners on a different worldview.
Look for updates in late summer as I hope to launch the podcast next fall.
So these are the two main projects I’m tackling in 2017, with the addition of this new website/blog revamp. Looking forward, expect many more updates in the near future as well as a resurrection of my monthly(ish) e-newsletter.