Children sleeping in Mulberry Street (1890) by Jacob Riis
All last week, the New York Times ran a five-part series on homelessness focusing on an eleven-year-old African American girl named Dasani (after the water), who has lived almost a quarter of her life in a homeless shelter with her mother, stepfather, and seven brothers and sisters. In Hollywood versions of such stories focusing on poverty and homelessness, like the 2006 hit The Pursuit of Happyness staring Will Smith and his son Jaden, there is a family at the center of the film for whom we are rooting because they are good people with unquestionable values and strong family bonds. The father in the story is homeless, yes, and raising his son in a shelter, but he is smart, credentialed, hardworking, decent, and a creative and compassionate parent. He ends up charming his way into an executive training program and at the end of the film is rewarded with the financial security we are clear he worked for. He was poor but noble, educated and hard working.
Dasani and her family are not like this. Her mother is unemployed and doesn’t even have a GED, much less a college degree, and she isn’t going to be in anyone’s executive training program because she doesn’t know how to use a computer. She is prone to drug addiction and was raised in much the same situation as she is raising her children. Dasani’s father is an on-again, off-again drug addict who doesn’t work either, and together their parenting skills are the type that serially put social service agencies on alert. It’s not clear that these poor people didn’t mostly bring this circumstance on themselves.
From Wisconsin to Washington, DC, the claims are made: unions are responsible for budget deficits, and their members are overpaid and enjoy cushy benefits. The only way to save the American economy, pundits claim, is to weaken the labor movement, strip workers of collective bargaining rights, and champion private industry. In "They're Bankrupting Us!": And 20 Other Myths about Unions, labor leader Bill Fletcher Jr. makes sense of this debate as he unpacks the twenty-one myths most often cited by anti-union propagandists. Drawing on his experiences as a longtime labor activist and organizer, Fletcher traces the historical roots of these myths and provides an honest assessment of the missteps of the labor movement. He reveals many of labor's significant contributions, such as establishing the forty-hour work week and minimum wage, guaranteeing safe workplaces, and fighting for equity within the workforce. This timely, accessible, "warts and all" book argues, ultimately, that unions are necessary for democracy and ensure economic and social justice for all people.
At the risk of being labeled a Tea Party toady or
right-leaning deviationist, I have to ask if the severing of the Supplemental
Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) from the
Farm Bill by the Republican House Majority isn’t an opportunity worth taking
advantage of. And in the same breath, I have to ask if the lockstep resistance
to that move and piling on of liberal vituperation isn’t yet more evidence that
the left-leaning social policy machine is running on empty.
Federal spending on the food stamp program has been pushing
north of $70 billion a year. It has been justifiably credited with keeping many
people’s heads above water during the Great Recession while modestly
stimulating local economies. Representing some 70 percent of the current Farm
Bill– the rest being divvied up between the much reviled agricultural commodity
programs and the much beloved conservation and sustainable farming programs– food
stamp support has allegedly relied on an unholy alliance of sorts between Big
Agriculture and anti-hunger advocates. “I’ll support billions in agricultural
subsidies if you support tens of billions in SNAP benefits. That way we can eat
our food stamps and high fructose corn syrup too!”
By tearing asunder that which unlikely partners hath joined
together, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor put a lot of federal spending in
play for the government downsizing Neanderthals. As Emerson once noted, “There
is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatives,” and what can be
meaner than taking food away from hungry children? Though doing marginally
little to pull the current 50 million food stamp recipients out of poverty, the
program is one of the few tools that government has to mitigate it worst effects.
That being said, one can’t help but ask if we didn’t see
this dramatic House action coming. After all, food stamps have been under siege
for years, even before their association with President Reagan’s nefarious
welfare queen remark. Getting their start in a somewhat different form during
the Great Depression (not Recession),
and codified in its present form as the first executive order of President
Kennedy, food stamps and the food benefits they bestow reflect two sides of the
American character. Being as compassionate as any people, we simply don’t have
the heart to let anyone starve to death. But being up-by-the-bootstraps
individualists, Americans generally blame the poor for being poor and don’t
trust them to spend the taxpayer’s largesse wisely. Hence food stamps can only
be spent on food, and not any other of life’s necessities.
But even then the hapless food stamp user must run a
gauntlet of consumer scorn. The smug conservative shopper will ask aloud why
“those people” are buying filet mignon with their food stamps, while righteous
foodies ask why “they” are allowed to buy Coca-Cola, Twinkies, and host of
other highly disparaged processed food products.
Being a food stamp recipient isn’t for sissies. Not only do you
wear a bull’s eye on your back for every cost-cutting politician to take aim
at, your purchases are relentlessly scrutinized and the subject of a never
ending public critique. You endure derision from every quarter all for the
princely sum of about $5 a day.
Whether we have more food stamp spending or less begs the
question of why such a major act of social policy that nobody, including the
recipients, seems to like, continues unreformed and unevaluated. With a national poverty rate locked at 15
percent and a near-poverty rate bringing the combined numbers to well over 30
percent, food stamps provide some relief but no solutions. With overweight and
obesity affecting 65 percent of the population and eclipsing hunger as
America’s number one diet-related health problem, food stamps do little to
encourage healthy eating and less to discourage unhealthy eating. And with high
unemployment, low wage jobs, and few prospects for growth— other than big box
stores and casinos— leaving the economy stuck in neutral, the $70 billion in
federally generated buying power helps Kraft Foods (food stamps are 1/6 of its
sales), but nearly nothing to infuse local economies with new energy.
But the anti-hunger orthodoxy that SNAP is a vital part of
the nation’s safety net and must never be altered goes unchallenged. Whenever
an innovation is proposed, e.g. Mayor Bloomberg’s request to prohibit the use
of food stamps to purchase sugary soft drinks, the program’s pit bull defenders
bare their teeth threatening to rip the limbs off heretics who might modify even
one of SNAP’s holy sacraments. It may be that they are in bed with Wal-Mart and
others who have tragically dumbed-down American wages and whose workers are
subsidized by the food stamp program, or it may be that they are riveted to the
notion that they are all that stand between a modicum of food sufficiency and
mass starvation. Either way, the tenaciousness of their enterprise, which
opposes food stamp change at any cost, is only matched by an equally fervent
brand of conservatism embodied by the Tea Party. The result: A program now more
than 50 years old remains largely unchanged even though the nation that it
helps feed has changed in myriad ways.
Imagine a corporation or major private institution that did
not conduct research and development, kept the same product line for
generations, and never engaged in strategic thinking. That enterprise would be
out of business (or subsidized by the federal government). While a nation’s
social policy is albeit more complicated and subject to a host of conflicting winds,
it cannot go unexamined by those who genuinely care about people and their
communities. Anti-hunger advocates will say that any meaningful examination of
the food stamp program opens a Pandora’s Box that allows Tea Party-ites to
wield their machetes, but that process is underway already; better to get out
front with new ideas and positive energy.
Both history and biology amply demonstrate that change is
inevitable, and that those who resist the need to adapt and reinvent in the
face of new exigencies are eventually subject to denigration, decay, and
decomposition. While we cannot realistically count on the Republicans (though I
think exceptions do exist) to enthusiastically embrace a food stamp reformation
that places poverty reduction, nutritional health, and sustainable agriculture
above basic caloric intake, we might expect more from food stamps’ stalwart
defenders as well as progressive forces within the food movement.
The time to re-think food stamps is upon us. If the best and
most compassionate don’t do it, if we don’t find a way to build a model 21st
century social program around the bones of an aging 20th century
program, food stamps will become nothing more than carrion for circling vultures.
In honor of Mother's Day and moms everywhere, where sharing a few of our favorite Mom moments in Beacon books. In these passages we've posted on the Beacon Press Scribd page, we have three varied perspectives on motherhood. Michael Patrick MacDonald reflects upon his mother's strength in a passage from All Souls: A Family Story From Southie. Amie Klempnauer Miller recounts the decision-making path she and her partner went down on their way to becoming moms in an excerpt from She Looks Just Like You. And, in Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words, Kate Whouley tells the story of the challenges funnier moments of one Mother's Day with her mom.
If you take the time to watch one TED Talk this week, make it this one. Geoffrey Canada is an educational innovator, and in this video (part of which appeared on PBS) he makes a powerful argument for changing the way we think about public education.
Canada knows how to help kids achieve great things: as the president of Harlem Children's Zone, he has changed countless lives and transformed a community. While the Harlem Children’s Zone started out focusing on a single block -- West 119th Street -- it has since expanded exponentially. It now encompasses more than 100 square blocks and serves an estimated 10,000 children, providing pre-kindergarten care, after-school programs, health care, college planning and classes for soon-to-be-parents.
Long before the avalanche of praise for his work—from Oprah Winfrey, from President Bill Clinton, from President Barack Obama—long before he became known for his talk show appearances, Members Project spots, and documentaries like Waiting for Superman, Geoffrey Canada was a small boy growing up scared on the mean streets of the South Bronx. His childhood world was one where "sidewalk boys" learned the codes of the block and were ranked through the rituals of fist, stick, and knife. Then the streets changed, and the stakes got even higher. In his candid and riveting memoir, Canada relives a childhood in which violence stalked every street corner.
"I wish every city had a Geoffrey Canada." —President Bill Clinton
"Geoffrey Canada's realistic yet hopeful voice finds fresh expression through the comic style of Jamar Nicholas. Canada's account of his childhood and the role that violence played in shaping his experiences provides hard-won and crucial lessons." —Pedro A. Noguera, Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University
"Jamar Nicholas is a master of his craft—his drawings are full of life and truly stunning." —Bryan Lee O'Malley, creator of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
"Geoffrey Canada is one of this country's genuine heroes. His personal meditation on America's culture of violence is a beacon of hope for our humanity." —Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage
"Canada has never lost touch with the child within himself or with the fears of the children around him struggling to reach adulthood in the violent streets of America." —Marian Wright Edelman, author of The Measure of Our Success
"Canada takes us on a powerful journey. . . . He is a man of hope and a wonderful storyteller." —Henry Hampton, executive producer, Eyes on the Prize
Did you unwrap an e-reader this holiday season? Or did you treat yourself to one? (Don't worry, we won't judge.) Here are Beacon's most popular e-book titles for 2012 along with a few suggestions for titles sure to be on next year's bestseller list. Download one or two and see why they've inspired people to click and read.
At the time of Frankl's death in 1997, Man's Search for Meaning had sold more than 10 million copies in twenty-four languages. A 1991 reader survey for the Library of Congress that asked readers to name a "book that made a difference in your life" found Man's Search for Meaning among the ten most influential books in America.
"One of the great books of our time." —Harold S. Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People
"One of the outstanding contributions to psychological thought in the last fifty years." —Carl R. Rogers (1959)
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Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana's life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.
"Octavia Butler is a writer who will be with us for a long, long time, and Kindred is that rare magical artifact . . . the novel one returns to, again and again." —Harlan Ellison
"One cannot finish Kindred without feeling changed. It is a shattering work of art with much to say about love, hate, slavery, and racial dilemmas, then and now." —Sam Frank, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner
"In Kindred, Octavia Butler creates a road for the impossible and a balm for the unbearable. It is everything the literature of science fiction can be." —Walter Mosley
In this beautiful and lucid guide, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offers gentle anecdotes and practical exercise as a means of learning the skills of mindfulness--being awake and fully aware. From washing the dishes to answering the phone to peeling an orange, he reminds us that each moment holds within it an opportunity to work toward greater self-understanding and peacefulness.
"Thich Nhat Hanh's ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity." -Martin Luther King, Jr.
"He has immense presence and both personal and Buddhist authority. If there is a candidate for 'Living Buddha' on earth today, it is Thich Nhat Hanh." -Roshi Richard Baker, author of Original Mind: The Practice of Zen in the West
All Souls by: A Family Story from Southie Michael Patrick MacDonald
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A breakaway bestseller since its first printing, All Souls takes us deep into Michael Patrick MacDonald's Southie, the proudly insular neighborhood with the highest concentration of white poverty in America. Rocked by Whitey Bulger's crime schemes and busing riots, MacDonald's Southie is populated by sharply hewn characters like his Ma, a miniskirted, accordion-playing single mother who endures the deaths of four of her eleven children. Nearly suffocated by his grief and his community's code of silence, MacDonald tells his family story here with gritty but moving honesty.
The Cure for Everything! Untangling Twisted Messages About Health, Fitness, and Happiness by Timothy Caulfield
In The Cure for Everything, health-policy expert and fitness enthusiast Timothy Caulfield debunks the mythologies of the one-step health crazes, reveals the truths behind misleading data, and discredits the charlatans in a quest to sort out real, reliable health advice. He takes us along as he navigates the maze of facts, findings, and fears associated with emerging health technologies, drugs, and disease-prevention strategies, and he presents an impressively researched, accessible take on the production and spread of information in the health sciences.
Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health by Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, Dr. Lisa M. Schwartz, and Dr. Steven Woloshin
Drawing on twenty-five years of medical practice and research, Dr. H. Gilbert Welch and his colleagues, Dr. Lisa M. Schwartz and Dr. Steven Woloshin, have studied the effects of screenings and presumed preventative measures for disease and "pre-disease." Welch argues that while many Americans believe that more diagnosis is always better, the medical, social, and economic ramifications of unnecessary diagnoses are in fact seriously detrimental. Unnecessary surgeries, medication side effects, debilitating anxiety, and the overwhelming price tag on health care are only a few of the potential harms of overdiagnosis.
Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels by Hella Winston
When Hella Winston began talking with Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn for her doctoral dissertation in sociology, she was surprised to be covertly introduced to Hasidim unhappy with their highly restrictive way of life and sometimes desperately struggling to escape it. Unchosen tells the stories of these "rebel" Hasidim, serious questioners who long for greater personal and intellectual freedom than their communities allow. In her new Preface, Winston discusses the passionate reactions the book has elicited among Hasidim and non-Hasidim alike.
"Winston . . . builds fascinating case studies, inviting readers into her interviewees' conflicted, and often painful, lives . . . show[ing] us a Hasidic underworld where large families and a lack of secular education have resulted in extreme poverty and some serious at-risk behavior among youth. Her story of courage and intellectual rebellion will inspire anyone who has ever felt like a religious outcast." -Publishers Weekly, starred review
Around noon on January 15, 1919, a group of firefighters was playing cards in Boston's North End when they heard a tremendous crash. It was like roaring surf, one of them said later. Like a runaway two-horse team smashing through a fence, said another. A third firefighter jumped up from his chair to look out a window-"Oh my God!" he shouted to the other men, "Run!"
A 50-foot-tall steel tank filled with 2.3 million gallons of molasses had just collapsed on Boston's waterfront, disgorging its contents as a 15-foot-high wave of molasses that at its outset traveled at 35 miles an hour. It demolished wooden homes, even the brick fire station. The number of dead wasn't known for days. It would be years before a landmark court battle determined who was responsible for the disaster.
Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish by Joe Mackall
Joe Mackall has lived surrounded by the Swartzentruber Amish community of Ashland County, Ohio, for over sixteen years. They are the most traditional and insular of all the Amish sects: the Swartzentrubers live without gas, electricity, or indoor plumbing; without lights on their buggies or cushioned chairs in their homes; and without rumspringa, the recently popularized "running-around time" that some Amish sects allow their sixteen-year-olds.
Over the years, Mackall has developed a steady relationship with the Shetler family (Samuel and Mary, their nine children, and their extended family). Plain Secrets tells the Shetlers' story over these years, using their lives to paint a portrait of Swartzentruber Amish life and mores. During this time, Samuel's nephew Jonas finally rejects the strictures of the Amish way of life for good, after two failed attempts to leave, and his bright young daughter reaches the end of school for Amish children: the eighth grade. But Plain Secrets is also the story of the unusual friendship between Samuel and Joe. Samuel is quietly bemused—and, one suspects, secretly delighted—at Joe's ignorance of crops and planting, carpentry and cattle. He knows Joe is planning to write a book about the family, and yet he allows him a glimpse of the tensions inside this intensely private community.
“I was born male and now I’ve got medical and government documents that say I’m female—but I don’t call myself a woman, and I know I’m not a man. . . .”
Scientologist, husband and father, tranny, sailor, slave, playwright, dyke, gender outlaw—these are just a few words which have defined Kate Bornstein during her extraordinary life. For the first time, it all comes together inA Queer and Pleasant Danger, Kate Bornstein’s stunningly original memoir that’s set to change lives and enrapture readers.
Wickedly funny and disarmingly honest, this is Bornstein’s most intimate book yet. With wisdom, wit, and an unwavering resolution to tell the truth (“I must not tell lies”), Bornstein shares her story: from a nice Jewish boy growing up in New Jersey to a strappingly handsome lieutenant of the Church of Scientology’s Sea flagship vessel, and later to 1990s Seattle, where she becomes a rising star in the lesbian community. In between there are wives and lovers, heartbreak and triumph, bridges mended and broken, and a journey of self-discovery that will mesmerize readers.
The $60,000 Dog: My Life With Animals by Lauren Slater
From the time she is nine years old, biking to the farmland outside her suburban home, where she discovers a disquieting world of sleeping cows and a "Private Way" full of the wondrous and creepy creatures of the wild-spiders, deer, moles, chipmunks, and foxes-Lauren Slater finds in animals a refuge from her troubled life. As she matures, her attraction to animals strengthens and grows more complex and compelling even as her family is falling to pieces around her. Slater spends a summer at horse camp, where she witnesses the alternating horrific and loving behavior of her instructor toward the animals in her charge and comes to question the bond that so often develops between females and their equines. Slater's questions follow her to a foster family, her own parents no longer able to care for her. A pet raccoon, rescued from a hole in the wall, teaches her how to feel at home away from home. The two Shiba Inu puppies Slater adopts years later, against her husband's will, grow increasingly important to her as she ages and her family begins to grow.
The $60,000 Dog is Lauren Slater's intimate manifesto on the unique, invaluable, and often essential contributions animals make to our lives. As a psychologist, a reporter, an amateur naturalist, and above all an enormously gifted writer, she draws us into the stories of her passion for animals that are so much more than pets. She describes her intense love for the animals in her life without apology and argues, finally, that the works of Darwin and other evolutionary biologists prove that, when it comes to worth, animals are equal, and in some senses even superior, to human beings.
Written during the 1940s and early 1950s, when Baldwin was only in his twenties, the essays collected in Notes of a Native Son capture a view of black life and black thought at the dawn of the civil rights movement and as the movement slowly gained strength through the words of one of the most captivating essayists and foremost intellectuals of that era. Writing as an artist, activist, and social critic, Baldwin probes the complex condition of being black in America. With a keen eye, he examines everything from the significance of the protest novel to the motives and circumstances of the many black expatriates of the time, from his home in "The Harlem Ghetto" to a sobering "Journey to Atlanta."
Notes of a Native Son inaugurated Baldwin as one of the leading interpreters of the dramatic social changes erupting in the United States in the twentieth century, and many of his observations have proven almost prophetic. His criticism on topics such as the paternalism of white progressives or on his own friend Richard Wright's work is pointed and unabashed. He was also one of the few writing on race at the time who addressed the issue with a powerful mixture of outrage at the gross physical and political violence against black citizens and measured understanding of their oppressors, which helped awaken a white audience to the injustices under their noses. Naturally, this combination of brazen criticism and unconventional empathy for white readers won Baldwin as much condemnation as praise.
Notes is the book that established Baldwin's voice as a social critic, and it remains one of his most admired works. The essays collected here create a cohesive sketch of black America and reveal an intimate portrait of Baldwin's own search for identity as an artist, as a black man, and as an American.
Melanie Hoffert longs for her North Dakota childhood home, with its grain trucks and empty main streets. A land where she imagines standing at the bottom of the ancient lake that preceded the prairie: crop rows become the patterned sand ripples of the lake floor; trees are the large alien plants reaching for the light; and the sky is the water’s vast surface, reflecting the sun. Like most rural kids, she followed the out-migration pattern to a better life. The prairie is a hard place to stay—particularly if you are gay, and your home state is the last to know. For Hoffert, returning home has not been easy. When the farmers ask if she’s found a “fella,” rather than explain that—actually—she dates women, she stops breathing and changes the subject. Meanwhile, as time passes, her hometown continues to lose more buildings to decay, growing to resemble the mouth of an old woman missing teeth. This loss prompts Hoffert to take a break from the city and spend a harvest season at her family’s farm. While home, working alongside her dad in the shop and listening to her mom warn, “Honey, you do not want to be a farmer,” Hoffert meets the people of the prairie. Her stories about returning home and exploring abandoned towns are woven into a coming-of-age tale about falling in love, making peace with faith, and belonging to a place where neighbors are as close as blood but are often unable to share their deepest truths.
In this evocative memoir, Hoffert offers a deeply personal and poignant meditation on land and community, taking readers on a journey of self-acceptance and reconciliation.
I met Amber at a tutoring program for inner city children. It was 1966, my senior year in high school, and the war on poverty was on, a war we’ve failed to win.
At nine years old Amber looked like a scarecrow, an old scarecrow at that, bird-picked, weather beaten. She was stick thin. None of her clothes fit, hand-me-downs from her sister Bunny who quickly outgrew her clothes while her younger sister didn’t seem to grow at all. Her eyes were dark circled; her hair, straw and falling out.
Saturday mornings she was one of the first kids through the church basement doors. My friends and I weren’t naïve. We knew that that gaggle of children who showed up each week wasn’t there for the mandatory hour of instruction. They put up with our drilling them on the timestables or helping them parse a paragraph. They were really there for the cookies and milk, and the tables spread with art supplies and games. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that they may have been just as eager for our attention, our reliability, and perhaps even our youthful faith in the future as for those treats.
I worked with Amber all that year. She didn’t progress much. But that didn’t seem to matter. She was always there. Besides, there was something else going on: I was being tutored in what poverty was really all about.
Walking Amber home several times I got to see where she lived—a cramped, drafty tenement—and to meet the rest of her family. Her mother, Mrs. Laurel, was as frail and battered looking as Amber. She had a nervous tic that twitched her head, a purple bruise on her cheekbone, a baby on her hip and a toddler pulling at her housecoat. Peter, a year older than Amber, dervished through the apartment while Bunny, a twelve year old with a fifteen year old’s body, refused to say hello.
There were no secrets in the Laurel family. Sitting at their kitchen table I heard how Bunny was boy-crazy, how Peter ate paste in school, and how they all loved margarine and sugar sandwiches. Amber, I was told, shared the bed of whatever brother or sister let her: she was a bed wetter. Pointing to the toddler pulling a waste basket over and the baby on her lap, Mrs. Laurel told me how “Mr. Laurel” was in and out of the house. “That’s what these two are all about,” she laughed ruefully then touched her cheekbone.
I lost track of the Laurels when I went off to college and got involved in another war—the war against the war, the Vietnam War. I didn’t think about them until Ronald Reagan in the 1980s started talking about the “deserving poor.” By then I was teaching kids in an alternative high school that very well could’ve been the children of an Amber or a Peter or a Bunny. I remember at the time wondering if the Laurels would’ve fit Reagan’s criteria for “deserving.” What would he have made of that bubble bath that tumbled out of the grocery bag Mrs. Laurel plopped down on the table one day when I was there? Or the endless packages of Lick-a-maid her kids lapped up from their grimy palms instead of lunch.
And now, years later, census figures show that the US poverty rate has hit its highest levels since President Johnson declared war on it, and that child poverty has increased from its 2010 twenty-two percent level.
This is especially bad news in these high stakes, high pressure days of “educational reform.” How will the Ambers of this world fare with so much depending on a student’s test performance especially when “education reformers” continue to refuse to acknowledge the crippling role that economic disparity plays in academic performance? Yet the stakes have gotten higher. According to a recent Council on Foreign Relations report, “US Education Reform and National Security,” (a report Diane Ravitch called the latest education “jeremiad”) educational failures are indeed a threat to national security. Another burden put on young shoulders.
In 1962 Michael Harrington showed America the face of “the invisible poor.” Now that the ranks of the Ambers among us are growing will we finally be able to look squarely into those faces and help the children of poverty achieve true academic parity? Or do we—and they—have to wait another 50 years?
The problem with Slaughter’s piece—and now planned book—is not that she doesn’t speak for most women, but that she and other women in the 1% fail to recognize how their failure to exercise power in support of women at the economic bottom hurts all of us. Take a fictionalized, working-class black woman named Crystal living in a city like Baltimore, a town blessed with a large number of highly-ranked hospital systems. Jobs in health care are plentiful and a woman with only a high school education and who is, say, a practical nurse may be able to find employment as a home health care worker or as an aide in a hospital. If she lives in West Baltimore and has no car, she will have to leave her home early—most likely while it’s still dark to get to work at 7 or 8am when her shift begins. Baltimore has one of the most limited subway systems for a major American city. Thus, Crystal will have to wait at a bus stop and take a ride that will last about hour or more before she makes it to her job. When she leaves home in the morning, she must leave her children—ages 12, 9 and 7—to get ready for school. This means that the 12 year old will have responsibility for waking and organizing the two younger children, and ensuring that they make it to school on time. This includes seeing to it that her siblings have their notebooks and homework in their backpacks, locking the door to the home, and navigating bullies (her siblings’ and her own) on the walk to school.
If her shift at work is 12 hours, Crystal will make it home by 8pm or 9pm. Perhaps she has a neighbor or sister or cousin look in on her children in the afternoon. Maybe not. If she has a normal 8 hour shift, she will make it home, physically exhausted, by 7 or 8, with precious little time, or perhaps even inclination, to read with her children or to spend “quality” time asking about their day and getting familiar with the names of their teachers and friends.
So what do the women of the 1% percent, who’ve just discovered that they can’t have it all, have to do with Crystal? The women in the 1% have the power to take the lead in changing the conditions that make it nearly impossible for Crystal to work and parent effectively. They are regular voters. Perhaps they work in city or state government, or they are doctors, professors or partners at a major law firm in town. Perhaps they work in the federal government like Slaughter did, taking the Amtrak Northeast Corridor train to their job at a federal agency in D.C.
Despite Slaughter’s accurate portrayal of the difficulties these women face in balancing their home and work lives, these women actually have power. But the failure of the transportation system in Baltimore to meet the needs of working class people is not a priority for them. They drive or take the commuter train to work. They have a nanny or regular babysitter who meets their children at the bus stop and brings them home. So they did not seek to ensure that the billions of dollars in stimulus money were allocated for construction projects would go to projects that would benefit working women—like inner city transportation improvements—rather than highway construction projects more likely to benefit those at the top.
Women of the 1% vigorously supported the Lily Ledbetter Act, and are mindful at their own workplace of pay equity between men and women. But these same women are not at the forefront of efforts to increase the minimum wage, which stands at a pitiful $7.25/hr. That would give Crystal less than $300/week before taxes on which to raise her 3 children.
What role have elite women played in seeking to change oppressive criminal justice policies like stop-and-frisk, California’s “3 strikes you’re out” sentencing law or the proliferation of long criminal sentences for non-violent drug offenses that might be responsible for landing Crystal’s husband in jail for years, without the ability to contribute to the well-being and support of his children and wife? Isn’t the emotional stability of Crystal’s son—who if he lived in New York City might be stopped and frisked by police a dozen times during his teen years—just as important as that of Slaughter’s son? What choices does the working-class mom of a black, teen stop-and-frisk victim have to help her son through the emotional fallout of police harassment?
And let’s be real. Many women in the top 1% employ women at the economic bottom. All over Manhattan one sees the startling visual of black and Latina women pushing white babies in carriages and strollers. What worker protections do these women enjoy? Many of these domestic workers leave their own children all day in the care of others to take care of the children of economically elite women. Organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance have worked for years to organize and obtain basic labor protections for domestic workers. Where do 1% women stand on the efforts to afford labor rights and benefits to the women who care for their children and clean their homes?
Finally, we should remember that Crystal and women like her are not without ambition. Like Slaughter and other economically elite women, they have a strong desire to elevate their educational and professional status. Crystal enjoys working with patients and also knows that if she were able to get her degree as a registered nurse, she would make considerably more money than she is able to make now. Having children should not mean the end of education or professional development for women. How can we support the ability of working class women to move up the ladder?
Slaughter’s piece fails to recognize that women in the 1% have real power to transform the work/family reality for women at the economic bottom, who are seeking the luxury of the kind of choices about which Slaughter and I wring our hands.
As a weekly rider on the Amtrak ACELA train on the run from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, it’s been hard not to notice over the past two years how many high-powered white women on the evening train seem to unwind by reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. With briefcases tucked behind their knees and power lipstick faded after the day’s meetings, exhausted 1% women on the evening train ride seem to find a kind of perverse relaxation in reading a romanticized account about the bonds that might develop between privileged white women and their black maids. But we needn’t rely on fanciful, retro fables that elevate personal friendship over economic, educational and social transformation. Change for women in the workplace will happen from the bottom up, and will take hold when powerful women expend their capital on behalf of women in the 99%. But I suspect that we shall wait a long time before there is a book deal that tells this story.
Like most teachers I’ve gotten some praise from my high school students over my 26 years of teaching—a lesson “wasn’t bad,” or a particular class was “sorta interesting.” I’ve even been told that I was a “pretty good teacher.” High praise coming from teenagers.
But the truth is I wasn’t a “good teacher.” I was a “failure,” at least according to America’s “education reformers”—that “odd coalition of corporate-friendly Democrats, right-wing Republicans, Tea Party governors, Wall Street executives, and major foundations” as Diane Ravitch aptly defines them—because the kids I taught consistently lagged behind their peers in every measure, performing well below grade level, failing state standardized tests.
Given the present state of teacher evaluations, with a significant portion allotted to student performance on mandated tests, I’d be in big trouble if I hadn’t left teaching recently. I certainly wouldn’t get any bonus pay. If it were up to the Obama Administration I might not even have a job since I would be one of those teachers who, as the President noted in his 2012 State of the Union address, “just aren’t helping kids.” And if I still taught in New York I’d be facing the prospect of having my name and ratings published in newspapers and on the internet if the Legislature gets its way in what the New York State Union of Teachers called the “name/shame/blame game.”
But I know that I wasn’t a “failure,” and more importantly, that the hundreds of kids I’ve taught weren’t either. My students were mostly young people of color, living in neighborhoods and families destroyed by poverty and substance abuse, racism and violence, physical and sexual abuse. Overall, life—shaped by their own mistakes and by conditions they couldn’t control—left them little time for, or interest in education. Frequently that lack of time and interest led to trouble which led to repeated suspensions, expulsions and in some cases, incarceration. But sometimes trouble translated into being placed in a small community alternative high school or the jailhouse classroom in the county penitentiary, both places I taught in.
By the time they made it to me, my students were pretty damaged. They hated school. They could barely read or do basic math. And forget about writing. “You expect me to write?” more than one teen squawked in horror at me. But eventually they did. They read, piling up grade levels like some Americans pile up debt. They calculated. They even learned the magic of connecting sentences that made sense.
But by the state’s educational rubric, they didn’t cut it. As noteworthy as their successes were—both academically and behaviorally—they were still “failures” and I along with them: success was only validated by passing the standardized tests.
One of the hardest things I had to do was send kids into those tests who weren’t ready. I tried hard beforehand to get them out of it. I’d explain, downright argue at times, with the school administration that although my students had made solid progress it wasn’t enough to tackle the exam and so they should wait and take it next time. It never worked. “It’s the law,” I was told.
Every time I think about Tyler my palms sweat. He was a jailhouse student, lanky, 16, with an Afro picked out to an angel’s halo. But he was no angel, and he had the missing front teeth and two years at the county pen to prove it. When he first came to class he was reading on a second grade level. For some reason he was determined to improve this time round in school. He came every day, took work to his cell every night and returned it completed every morning. Slowly his reading level increased. He was pleased with himself. You could see it in the almost toothless smile he didn’t bother to hide anymore.
But he wasn’t close to test-ready. When I petitioned to delay Tyler’s exam the administrator refused but offered me her idea of comfort, “Look, it’s okay if he fails. Then he’ll be eligible for remediation.” I couldn’t help shooting back, “Sure, send the kid in so he can get shot down one more time.” I prepared Tyler for that test as best as I could. He worked harder than ever. He was psyched. “I’m gonna ace it, Mr. C.”
You know the end of the story. It’s the same for many damaged kids living in poverty and neglect, factors that the pundits say can be overcome by good, dedicated teachers. Once again Tyler “failed.” He never came back to class for remediation.
If Tyler and kids like him are “failures” then I—and all the other teachers who teach in tough places—are too. But I don’t think we should take the rap alone. As long as our educational policies let down students like Tyler in the name of “reform” and “the law,” continuing the “name/shame/blame game” instead of addressing the social conditions that cripple these kids’ lives and learning, then we as a country are failures as well, in need of some serious remediation.
Tom Wooten is the author of We Shall Not Be Moved: Rebuilding Home in the Wake of Katrina, forthcoming this summer from Beacon Press.Since graduating from Harvard in 2008 and moving to New Orleans, he has worked as a researcher at Harvard's Kennedy School, as a neighborhood volunteer coordinator, and as a fifth- and sixth-grade writing teacher.
Nathaniel Rich’s recent New York Times Magazine article about urban abandonment in the Lower Ninth Ward is called “Jungleland.” Fascinated by the process of “nature reclaiming civilization,” Rich describes a dystopian city neighborhood: alligators drink from leaking fire hydrants; shadowy figures emerge from derelict houses to rob and rape honest residents; everywhere, lush green vines envelop blocks that were once densely populated. There is truth to Rich’s Joseph-Conrad-meets-David-Simon portrayal, but it isn’t the whole story.
Life is being restored to significant portions of the Lower Ninth Ward, and the heroes of this effort are fiercely determined residents who have returned to their blocks and rebuilt their homes. Approximately a quarter of the Lower Ninth Ward’s 20,000 pre-storm residents are back, mostly concentrated in the southern half of the neighborhood on higher ground close to the Mississippi. Shortly after the storm, residents collaborated to reopen the K-8 Martin Luther King Charter School, one of the rare community success stories in an education system increasingly dominated by outsider-run schools. A grocery store is set to begin construction soon on St. Claude Avenue. Considering the unique set of challenges residents faced after the flooding of Katrina and Rita, their progress to date is noteworthy.
What obstacles have the 5,500 residents who have returned to the Lower Ninth Ward overcome? Because of a particularly severe levee breach, their neighborhood experienced the most concentrated physical destruction in New Orleans. Not only did they have to work harder and spend more to rebuild than other residents, but they also had to overcome a unique stigma. Although the Lower Ninth Ward was no more vulnerable to flooding than dozens of other low-lying neighborhoods, Americans incorrectly inferred that the area was particularly at risk, and a national debate ensued about the merits of rebuilding there. The neighborhood remained sealed off months after the rest of the city reopened, straining displaced residents’ finances and forcing many into permanent exile. Owing to controversy over the Lower Ninth Ward’s fate, utility providers were slow to restore service to hundreds of blocks in the neighborhood, forcing some families to wait for years to return and prompting others to give up and settle elsewhere. The federally funded and state-administered Road Home program awarded rebuilding grants based on pre-storm property values, a policy that yielded higher payouts for residents of wealthy neighborhoods and put black working class areas like the Lower Ninth Ward at a distinct disadvantage.
In light of these challenges, restoring life in the Lower Ninth Ward has been a collective undertaking by necessity. As occurred in other New Orleans neighborhoods, a remarkable coalition of residents rose up to help their neighbors come home. Patricia Jones founded The Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association in 2006, providing financial coaching, free architectural services, and volunteer labor to hundreds of returning Lower Ninth Ward families. After years of pre-storm work with the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, the late great Pam Dashiell teamed up with dozens of other residents to found the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED). Mack Mclendon had the courage and vision to convert his newly purchased Lamanche Street warehouse into a multi-purpose community center, with the long-term goal of converting the space into a hub for neighborhood youth.
These community-based efforts are driving the Lower Ninth Ward’s recovery, and not only because of the direct services they provide. For one thing, they have created the social infrastructure needed for outsider-led groups to effectively do work in the neighborhood. Common Ground partnered closely with each of the above groups to provide them with volunteer labor. Brad Pitt’s meetings with CSED resident leaders helped to seal his Make It Right foundation’s commitment to the Lower Ninth Ward, and informed its focus on building physically resilient and energy efficient houses. More importantly, resident-led recovery efforts in the Lower Ninth Ward have given returning families confidence that they are not alone. There is a community meeting every Thursday night at the Greater Little Zion Baptist Church, and the optimism at each meeting is palpable. Every week, families who have just moved home are asked to ring the church bell to announce their return.
So what should our orientation be to struggling urban environments? Without much prompting, Americans felt a profound sense of collective responsibility about rebuilding the World Trade Center site in Manhattan. We should apply the same sense of resolve and moral clarity to other sites. Cities are national treasures. They are centers of tremendous commerce and creativity; they are cultural and religious melting pots; they are humane refuges where Americans can live comfortably without cars. Like interstate highways and public universities, they serve a profound collective good, and they are worth maintaining even if their most direct beneficiaries cannot always foot the entire bill.
The Lower Ninth Ward is now internationally famous, often standing symbolically for the destruction wrought along hundreds of miles of the American Gulf Coast. With enough genuine will at the city, state, and federal levels, Lower Ninth Ward residents can transform their neighborhood from a symbol of abandonment into a symbol of hope.
Arizona’s Legislature recently passed a law charging prison visitors a onetime $25 fee as a way to help close the state’s $1.6 billion budget deficit. Middle Ground Prison Reform, a prison advocacy group, challenged the law in court as a discriminatory tax, but a county judge upheld its constitutionality.
Fees like that, slapped on prisoners and their families, couldn’t be more counterintuitive. But then again, so many of our criminal justice policies are just that. Since it is mostly the poor, the desperately poor who fill U.S. prisons, the $25 fee is one more economic hardship offenders’ families have to struggle with. It becomes another bill they have to scramble to pay — that is if they can.
These kinds of charges (and Arizona isn’t the only jurisdiction trying to shift the cost of incarceration to the poor) have even graver consequences. When a family can’t pay the fee, their contact with their loved one is limited, essentially cutting an offender off from the only supports he or she has in the outside world.
Psychologists have long known how central it is for an individual to have nurturing people in his or her life in order to develop emotionally, psychologically and socially. This need for a supportive network is even more essential when we talk about the young people who are locked away from family and loved ones in our nation’s prisons and detention centers.
As anyone who has worked with kids in the penal system knows on a gut level, it is crucial to have families and other supportive community members involved in young offenders’ lives as they serve their time. Now, that commonsense intuition has been given empirical strength by studies done by such juvenile justice groups as the Vera Institute of Justice which have demonstrated that maintaining young people’s connection to families is a major factor in helping kids stay out of jail once they are released.
But it’s easy to question whether these families are really such a positive influence. After all, if they were doing such a great job what are their kids doing in jail?
It’s an easy assumption to make until you see some of those family members in the prison visiting room with their sons and daughters. I got to do that at least twice a year when the jailhouse high school where I taught for 10 years in a county adult facility had its open house for families and caregivers.
The place was packed with mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, or the people who stepped into those roles when circumstances — AIDS, death, addiction, incarceration, abandonment, all the things that ravage the lives of the poor and disenfranchised — demanded it. It wasn’t easy for many of them to get there. Meals had to be missed. Second jobs skipped. Long cross-county bus rides with tickets to pay for, transfers to be negotiated, at night, often in bad weather.
The grandmother of one of my students, Leon, a skinny 15-year-old who was finally making progress in class, had to travel over an hour on three buses to get there. It was a trip I knew she faithfully made twice a week to see her grandson. “I wouldn’t miss a visit with my boy for anything,” she told me, reaching over and giving Leon’s hair a playful tug. “But now you tell, Mr. Chura, how’s he doin in class?” That set Leon squirming.
It was a conversation I had over and over during those family visits. Miguel’s uncle who gave me his phone number and urged me to call him if Miguel wasn’t in school. Luis’ mother, frail and in a wheelchair, holding her son’s hand, telling me how when Luis got out of jail she was moving her whole family out of state to get away from the gangs that ran wild in the streets. “I just want my boys to be safe,” she said, her English halting but her fear and determination palpable.
It was hard to hear in the visiting room sometimes with people chattering in several different languages, children running around, little brothers squealing when their big brother in his funny orange jump suit picked them up, mothers crying, locked-up sons trying to explain, promise, console. It was hard to hear but it was easy to know what was going on: Families — fragile, fragmented, strained, mending — were desperately trying to stay a family.
Many of those visitors would be willing to admit that they hadn’t done such a good job at maintaining the family bond, but that they did the best they could given the problems they had to face. Like Luis’ mother the determination was there but the resources weren’t.
If we as a nation are serious about reducing crime (and not just by increased incarceration) it is important that we not put more obstacles in the way of young inmates’ families but rather that we give them the opportunities and resources to develop and sustain those crucial connections. It’s an investment that’s worth losing 25 bucks over.
One idea promoted at last month's UN Climate Summit in Durban was “climate-smart agriculture," which could make crops less vulnerable to heat and drought and turn depleted soils into carbon sinks. The World Bank and African leaders are backing this new approach, but some critics are skeptical that it will benefit small-scale African farmers. Here, in a post that originally appeared on Yale Environment 360, Fred Pearce looks at what this kind of agriculture could mean for some of the world's poorest farmers.
The glacial pace of international efforts to curb climate change continued at the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa last month. Governments concluded that by 2015 they should agree on legally binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions that involve all major nations — including China, India and the United States. But they also agreed that those targets would probably not come into force until 2020.
The climate isn’t waiting for the diplomats. Most experts agree that by 2020 it will likely be too late to halt dangerous warming above two degrees Celsius. So the race is now on to find new, unconventional initiatives to fill the gap. One possibility that came to the fore in Durban is fixing some of that carbon dioxide in the soils of Africa. And that is why the continent’s political leaders met in Durban to launch an initiative known, somewhat cryptically, as “climate-smart” agriculture.
The new buzz phrase went down well. Host president Jacob Zuma extolled it. Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian former UN secretary-general, praised it as a panacea to Africa’s problems. “Till now agriculture has been sidelined from climate change discussions,” he said. “But Africa has a huge potential to mitigate climate change.” Beside him sat the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the chair of the African Union Commission. They were all on hand as the World Bank announced plans to turn climate-smart agriculture into the next big thing for the world market in carbon offsets.
So what exactly is climate-smart agriculture? It sounds as if it might involve making agriculture resilient to climate change, by making soils and crops less vulnerable to droughts and heat waves. And that is part of the plan. But only part. The real prize — the one that can lure private finance — is the potential for carbon offsetting. If farm soils can be used to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, then they can generate carbon credits that can be sold to industrial polluters who want to offset their emissions.
The offer from the world of carbon finance to poor farmers in Africa and elsewhere is this: Let us use your soils to capture carbon from the atmosphere, and we will, in return, make those soils more productive and less vulnerable to the climate.
This is a big deal. Nurturing the organic matter in soils on the world’s farms has as much potential to absorb carbon dioxide emissions from industrialized countries as the much better-known plans to fund forest conservation, such as REDD. Rattan Lal of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center at Ohio State University suggests soils worldwide could capture as much as a billion tons of carbon a year — more than a tenth of man-made emissions.
Climate-smart agriculture neatly combines the twin goals of today’s climate negotiators, helping to prevent climate change while at the same time adapting farms to inevitable change.
Africa is the big prize. Its farmers are more vulnerable than any others to climate change. Some estimates suggest a hotter, more dire world could cut African farm yields by as much as 20 percent by mid-century. Without an African green revolution, that would spell disaster for a continent with a population that is expected to double to two billion people.
But the continent’s huge land area — greater than the U.S., China, India, Mexico and Japan combined — also holds huge potential as a planetary carbon sink that, many believe, could create the necessary green revolution.
Currently, African soils are leaking carbon as they erode and lose organic matter due to bad farming practices. An estimated 43 percent of Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions come from land clearance, including farming. But the same soils could be turned from a carbon source to a carbon sink, absorbing many tens of millions of tons of carbon a year, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
If an agricultural carbon offset program were in place, carbon dollars from Western companies could pay for composting, mulching, recycling crop waste, planting farm trees, and much else on the world’s poorest farms. Those improved soils, richer in organic matter, would grow more crops, help soils withstand droughts and floods, and — vital to earning those carbon dollars — capture carbon from the atmosphere.
The World Bank is keen to mastermind a global effort to fix carbon in African soils. It brought agriculture ministers from across the continent to Johannesburg in September to promote the idea and continued to push it in Durban.
For the past year, the bank’s BioCarbon Fund, which sets up demonstration carbon-capturing projects in both forests and farms, has been running the first pilot African soil project among smallholder farmers near Kisumu in western Kenya. The bank’s climate envoy Andrew Steer said in Durban that the maize and bean farmers “are getting higher yields, improving the resilience of the soils to drought and getting stronger soils that sequester more carbon.”
If all goes according to plan, the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project, which covers 40,000 hectares of farmland in a densely population region of the country, should capture 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year. It could also increase annual farm incomes by $200 to $400 per hectare.
That’s the plan. Will it work? The Stockholm Environment Institute, a think tank that looks at both climate and development issues, is supportive. The institute’s Olivia Taghioff, who has studied the Kenyan scheme, says, “Carbon finance even in modest amounts can make a big difference for smallholders.”
But there are concerns. In Durban, Annan warned: “These efforts must have at their heart smallholder farmers. Without their participation we will fail.” And many critics fear that climate-smart agriculture is in reality a Trojan horse for marginalizing smallholder farmers. They believe the arrival of carbon markets, brokers and traders in the fields of Africa can do nothing but harm.
“Soil carbon offsets will promote a spate of African land grabs and put farmers under the control of fickle carbon markets,” said Teresa Anderson of the UK-based Gaia Foundation, an NGO that promotes indigenous farming, speaking in Durban. “The [World] Bank’s agenda is more money for the bank and for carbon project developers, not development,” said Doreen Stabinsky of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
The high costs of employing scientists, consultants, and field surveyors to assess and monitor the carbon uptake of farm soils will make it impossible for smallholder farmers to pocket any income from the sale of the carbon absorbed by their soils, these critics maintain. Only large landowners will be able to reduce these transactions costs sufficiently to profit from the carbon markets, they say, and the result will be a new phase of land grabbing. “Soil grabbing,” some are calling it.
Across Africa, governments are already leasing wide areas of land traditionally used by smallholder farmers to foreign companies for industrial agriculture or for planting trees as carbon sinks in order to gain carbon credits. The fear is that the process will accelerate if the soil itself becomes a carbon commodity.
There is another reason why peasant farmers may lose out. Early evidence gathered by the World Bank in Kenya suggests that the cultivation of commercial crops of the kind that large agribusinesses specialize in have a much greater potential to soak up carbon than smallholder subsistence crops.
Data presented last year at the FAO in Rome by Rama Reddy of the World Bank’s carbon finance unit show that the carbon-capture potential for a hectare of smallholder maize in Kenya is around half a ton of carbon dioxide per year, whereas the potential for commercial biofuels is between 2.5 and 5 tons, and for a sugar cane plantation up to 8 tons per hectare.
The dream of enthusiasts for climate-smart agriculture is that investors will one day invest billions of dollars in the fields of Africa in order to purchase the resulting credits from capturing carbon, while at the same time improving the continent’s soils. In truth, any credible solution to climate change will probably involve finding ways to get the landscape to absorb more carbon, whether in trees or soils, probably financed from carbon markets. Can it be done in a way that helps smallholder farmers? Or will it drive them off their land? That remains far from clear.
Yesterday, the Justice Department announced the filing of "its largest residential fair lending settlement in history to resolve allegations that Countrywide Financial Corporation and its subsidiaries engaged in a widespread pattern or practice of discrimination against qualified African-American and Hispanic borrowers in their mortgage lending from 2004 through 2008." In the settlement, Bank of America agreed to provide $335 million to compensate victims of lending discrimination.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the settlement showed that the Justice Department would “vigorously pursue those who would take advantage of certain Americans because of their race, national origin, gender or disability,” adding: “Such conduct undercuts the notion of a level playing field for all consumers. It betrays the promise of equal opportunity that is enshrined in our Constitution and our legal framework.” (New York Times)
By 2006 a number of major banks—including Bank of America, Countrywide, and Citicorp—and smaller banks that specialized in sub- prime loans were in this lucrative market. Over 25 percent of home purchase loans made in 2006 were subprime loans. And that same year, 31 percent of mortgage refinancing was made on subprime terms. (Anita Hill: Reimagining Equality, p 130.)
The Justice Department was not the first government entity to address discrimination in the lending market. In Reimagining Equality, Professor Hill looks at court cases in Baltimore, Illinois, and elsewhere that aimed to shine a light on these abuses and make communities financially whole. What follows is an adapted excerpt from the book that provides context for yesterday's settlement announcement.
As the mortgage meltdown went into full force, hundreds in Baltimore saw their American Dream vanish. Hundreds of homes went into foreclosure, and a host of associated costs began to pile up. Nevertheless, United States District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz viewed with skepticism the city leaders’ lawsuit aimed at recovering some of Baltimore’s losses. In January 2010, Motz, a Baltimore native, dismissed the claim, citing “other factors leading to the deterioration of the inner city, such as extensive unemployment, lack of educational opportunity and choice, irresponsible parenting, disrespect for the law, widespread drug use, and violence.” Judge Motz’s critics would attribute his remarks to his background in law enforcement or what many had long perceived as conservative, pro-business leanings. Over the course of his career in the legal profession, Motz had served as both assistant U.S. attorney and U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland. President Reagan had appointed him to the federal bench in 1985. As a judge, he had heard a number of high-profile cases involving the likes of the Microsoft and Wal-Mart corporations. His “probusiness” label came from a decision he rendered in favor of the latter in a case that challenged Maryland’s legislative attempt to require large employers to provide health care for their employees. Motz’s choice of language in the Wells Fargo case echoed the political rhetoric of the man who put him on the court. The federal judge concluded that the bulk of the problems alleged in Baltimore’s litigation against Wells Fargo Bank were due not to the bank’s actions but to flawed government policies (“lack of educational opportunity and choice”), individual neglect (“irresponsible parenting”), or criminal activity (“widespread drug use, and violence”).
Judge Motz’s observations can’t be chalked up to politics entirely. As a prosecutor and a judge, he was perfectly positioned to observe what happened in the city. Frederick J. Motz had lived in Baltimore most of his life. For eight years, during some of the city’s most troubled times, he had been a member of the advisory commission for the City of Baltimore’s Department of Social Services. Judge Motz, like The Wire creator David Simon, portrays a city that few could love.
Judge Motz had concluded that the collapse of the housing market in the city was the inevitable result of years of urban decline. Motz’s words amounted to a sweeping pronouncement that Baltimore’s black neighborhoods were destined to fail. Indeed, for decades prior to the subprime era, many Baltimore neighborhoods were notorious for high crime rates and communicable disease outbreaks. Some would declare them dysfunctional. Yet they had never completely collapsed as they did under the weight of the mortgage meltdown. Was it realistic to believe that such massive disintegration could be attributed to preexisting conditions in a few neighborhoods? Presumably, homeowners held titles to structures with some market value; landlords still collected rents; and the city continued to assess taxes on the properties in even the most troubled areas. And neither any of the city’s leadership problems nor the decline in Baltimore neighborhoods should have given Wells Fargo a free pass to exploit Baltimore’s residents.
One might read Judge Motz’s assessment as an attempt to distinguish blighted neighborhoods from other Baltimore communities that still had some chance of weathering the foreclosure storm. Taken in this light, in giving the city leave to refile against the bank after dismissing the first complaint, Judge Motz may have been engaging in a bit of ju- dicial triaging, encouraging the city’s legal counsel to narrow its claim to neighborhoods whose circumstances were less notorious. But in its second amended complaint, the city chose another route. In essence, the new pleadings alleged that Wells targeted poor black men and women in distressed communities because they were in the throes of crisis and were individuals desperate for credit. The attorneys set about to convince the court that Wells Fargo had siphoned off the equity left in the residences of down-and-out neighborhoods and left those communities to perish along with the rest of the municipality.
The City of Baltimore’s attorneys reasserted that “Wells Fargo’s discriminatory practices, and the resulting unnecessary foreclosures in the city’s minority neighborhoods, [had] inflicted significant, direct, and continuing financial harm on Baltimore.” This time the city’s claims were more circumspect, but its allegations of deliberate bank wrongdoing directed at black neighborhoods were still detailed and damning. Baltimore introduced into the record statements from former bank employees about training they had received that helped them sell loans in poor, primarily African American neighborhoods throughout Maryland. One New York Times article quoted a Wells Fargo bank officer, Elizabeth Jacobson, describing the bank’s “emerging-markets unit that specifically targeted black churches, because it figured church leaders had a lot of influence and could convince congregants to take out subprime loans.” In her affidavit submitted by the City of Baltimore in its amended complaint, Ms. Jacobson attested to a consistent pattern of steering black loan applicants to subprime loans, even though they may have qualified for conventional loans at lower interest rates. Jacobson even admitted that loan officers would tell the bank’s underwriting department that applicants who had been steered to subprime loans did not want to file proper documents that would qualify the customers for prime rates.
In the heat of the meltdown, commentators would question what kind of individuals enter into potentially disastrous loans, loans that they could not possibly repay once teaser rates expired. As I read the allegations in the Baltimore suit, I began to ask what kind of persons would market these kinds of products to homeowners. But that approach puts undue emphasis on the individual participants. Although it is admittedly tempting to demonize Jacobson and her fellow agents, the problems that led to the lawsuit were systemic. The more revealing inquiry looks into the atmosphere that existed inside banks and the banking industry as the subprime crisis brewed. The environment was one that, from top to bottom, fostered detachment. And my conclusion is that there were agents who were given financial incentives to make high-risk loans while simultaneously being encouraged to disengage from borrowers and the neighborhoods in which the borrowers lived. Reportedly, Wells Fargo also gave lavish gifts and trips to successful subprime loan officers.
Parts of Jacobson’s declarations and those of Tony Paschal (another Wells Fargo employee) read like instructions for how to marginalize cus- tomers based on where they live and skin color. The two reported that “subprime loan officers described African-American and other minority customers by saying ‘those people have bad credit’ and ‘those people don’t pay their bills,’ and by calling minority customers ‘mud people’ and ‘niggers.’” Paschal reported hearing fellow employees refer to “loans in minority communities as ‘ghetto loans.’ ” Elizabeth Jacobson was an extremely productive lender: in a span of three years, she reportedly sold more than fifty million dollars’ worth of subprime loans in Baltimore’s black communities.
Wells Fargo also relied on brokers, who would take loan applications from potential borrowers and shop the papers to a number of lenders. These independent brokers sometimes earned as much as $15,000 in com- mission on $130,000 loans. Even when brokers knew the borrowers or knew the neighborhoods, they rarely had any idea of the terms the lenders ultimately offered Baltimore residents. Brokers never evaluated borrowers. Their job was to fill out the forms, and Wells Fargo exercised stunningly little oversight over how they accomplished that task.
And just what were the consequences of the bank’s purported “sub- prime lending spree”? According to the lawsuit filed by the city, subprime loans led to foreclosures, and foreclosures led to abandoned properties. Baltimore’s housing department has had to board up scores of vacant homes, stabilize properties that threatened public safety, and condemn some others that could not be boarded and stabilized. The crisis has strained public safety resources, as police and fire departments have had to step up efforts to respond to incidents related to unoccupied homes. It is clear that the fallout is citywide, not limited to geographically or racially distinct neighborhoods, when public safety costs and losses in tax revenues attributed to the foreclosures are taken into account. Although Baltimore was once nicknamed Charm City, if the projection of nearly half a million home foreclosures is correct, its lure may be a long time re- turning. And sometimes lost in the talk about lost tax revenues and police and fire department expenditures are the individuals who had no part in the subprime market debacle but are left behind in impacted neighbor- hoods. Some remaining residents are at the mercy of squatters who take up residence in foreclosed and unsellable properties as close as next door.
Beginning to See a Pattern
Skeptics might conclude that the situation in Baltimore was an anomaly. And even with the evidence against Wells Fargo, it’s uncertain exactly what part of the problem in Baltimore was the fault of that one lender. Judge Motz dismissed the City of Baltimore’s second complaint against Wells Fargo too. “Theoretically, the city does have viable claims if it can prove property specific injuries inflicted upon it at properties that would not have been vacant but for improper loans made by Wells Fargo,” he wrote. “ In the interest of justice,” Judge Motz gave the city “leave to file a third amended complaint.” Nevertheless, the dismissal casts doubt on whether Wells Fargo will ever be held liable for the problems in Baltimore.
But when other public officials began raising claims, questions about Wells Fargo’s behavior got more intense. Were the practices alleged in the Baltimore lawsuit the product of rogue loan officers, or of local—or even headquarters—Wells management, or were they the way business was done throughout the industry? In March 2008, Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan gave two lenders, Countrywide and Wells Fargo, a chance to explain what she described as the “alarming” disparities “between the home loans sold to white borrowers and those sold to African American and Latino borrowers.” Madigan’s investigation looked into disparities in the issuance of “high-cost” loans—those that were three percentage points above the U.S. Treasury standard—which performed in ways similar to subprime loans. The attorney general had been tipped off to the problem by an investigation conducted by the Chicago Reporter, a monthly investigative news magazine. In a study of loans issued in 2003, the Reporter found that African Americans, even those with six-figure salaries, were far more likely to get subprime loans than whites or Asians and that the preponderance of those loans were given out in black and Latino neighborhoods. High-cost loans made up 64 percent of all the loans Wells Fargo made to blacks and 50 percent of the loans Countrywide gave to blacks. Comparable figures for Wells Fargo’s and Countrywide’s white borrowers were 17 and 20 percent, respectively.
In October 2008 Madigan’s office settled with Countrywide, which by then had been bought by Bank of America. The State of Illinois was granted both injunctive and prospective relief, including an agreement that qualifying borrowers might have their loans modified. In July 2009 the attorney general announced a lawsuit against Wells Fargo Bank. The bank was once again accused of targeting black communities. And in the Illinois case, Latinos were also allegedly preyed upon for subprime loans. “As a result of its discriminatory and illegal mortgage lending practices, Wells Fargo transformed our cities’ predominantly African- American and Latino neighborhoods into ground zero for subprime lending,” said Madigan. “The dreams of many hardworking families have ended in foreclosure due to Wells Fargo’s illegal and unfair conduct.” This lawsuit continued even after Madigan’s office settled another claim against Wells Fargo over allegedly deceptive marketing of extremely risky loans. The costs of foreclosures in Chicago specifically are social and economic, with borrowers, their neighbors, local businesses, and the city all paying a price.
Where the complaint in the Baltimore suit gives one a sense of sub- prime lenders’ predatory assaults on the African American community, the Illinois complaint does that and more. It chronicles the growth of sub- prime lending practices nationwide and the parallel expansion of Wells Fargo’s role in it. Madigan’s filing gives insight into how the subprime mortgage market grew—both because of larger immediate returns and because bankers assumed that securities backed by subprime mortgages would perform in the same way as those backed by prime mortgages. The court documents state that Wells Fargo undertook an aggressive growth strategy and, according to one bank employee, “wanted to be the number one lender in all markets it served and wanted to serve all markets.” One employee maintained that Wells Fargo’s goal was to have the subprime lending division cover the fixed costs of all the bank’s operations.
In time, as the company vigorously pursued its fast-paced growth, the market for subprimes grew. According to the Illinois complaint, subprime mortgage lending increased from $35 billion to $625 billion between 1994 and 2005. By 2003 Wells Fargo’s subprime lending totaled $16.5 billion, and by 2007 Wells was the eighth largest subprime lender, by loan volume, in the nation. At roughly the same time, Wells Fargo was the Chicago area’s second-largest lender by volume, making over twelve thousand high-cost loans. The complaint suggests a culture inside the bank that was dominated by subprime loans. The bank set quotas for the number of sub-prime or high-cost loans “every area had to close” and “kept scorecards” that recorded managers’ subprime loan tallies.
In 2009 the City of Memphis filed a suit against Wells Fargo Bank. Allegations mirror those in the cases coming out of Baltimore and the State of Illinois. Wells Fargo denies the allegations of the plaintiffs in these suits. In addition to existing urban woes, they blame the foreclosure problem on borrowers themselves.
Indeed, by 2000 a number of cultural and economic factors had fueled a passion for home ownership among single black women. In the popular press, Essence magazine ran a campaign for home ownership. Even the Economist, a magazine that caters to middle-class and business readers, promoted owning a home as a way for black women to live the Ameri- can Dream. In fact, since the mid-1990s, even the gap between black and white unemployment rates, a historically persistent and seemingly intractable problem, had been shrinking. Apparently unaware of the dramatic rise in subprime lending, the Economist reported:
The growth in home ownership both drives and feeds off continued gains in wealth. The University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth says that black buying power has increased steadily across the country, from $318 billion in 1990 to $723 billion in 2004 and a projected $965 billion in 2009. At a time when every American seems to be paying for his credit-card debts with home-equity loans, blacks have (for better or worse) joined the party, helped partly by the fact that many mortgage firms now rely more on color-blind computers than on sniffy clerks to check up on applicants.
But when lenders began targeting black and Latino communities for subprime loans, the positive effect of computerized processing went out the window. Race and ethnicity were reembedded in the process in a way that no computer could deflect.
In 2006 Corey Booker, the dynamic and popular mayor of Newark, New Jersey, advocated home ownership as “a critical step, especially [for] those [families] headed by a single parent, in breaking the cycle of violence and poverty.” Not-for-profit agencies set up seminars in Newark to show women how they could make home ownership a reality despite high interest rates and poor credit ratings. And why not? At the end of an era when the political message to those in poverty was to take personal responsibility, how better to evidence responsibility than to invest in their own neighborhoods and put a roof over their children’s heads. In the mid-1990s President Bill Clinton had used the rhetoric of personal responsibility and economic prosperity in reforming welfare and in his National Homeownership Strategy, which was introduced by a document subtitled “Partners in the American Dream.” Following in Clinton’s footsteps, President George W. Bush and Alan Greenspan, the longtime Federal Reserve chairman, also promoted the idea of home ownership in both rhetoric and policy. In 2003, when housing prices were beginning to spike, Bush introduced the American Dream Downpayment Initiative, promising that the law would help Americans realize the dream of home ownership and help close the gap between “minority households and the rest of the country” in that regard.
Nevertheless, none of the leaders, conservative or liberal, seemed aware of what was happening in the financial industry. Bush and lenders encouraged potential purchasers to “buy high” with the promise that housing values would continue to climb. Builders and developers responded. The average size of new single-family homes increased from around 2,000 square feet in 1992 to 2,241 square feet in 1999, then to over 2,500 square feet in 2006. Understandably, buyers spent more on new homes. The average-size home in 1999 cost $195,600. By 2006, in order to get the average home a buyer would have to come up with $305,900. Average household income enjoyed some growth, but it wasn’t steady and didn’t keep pace with the cost of housing. During this period of steeply rising home costs and inconsistent income growth, the number of sub-prime and high-cost loans spiraled upward.
Whether Baltimore or Memphis or the State of Illinois will be able to prove that Wells Fargo or any other bank targeted minority neighbor- hoods and violated fair housing laws remains to be determined. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s analysis of data available under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) suggests that in the late 1990s, a potentially calamitous situation existed in black neighborhoods. HUD’s analysis of the situation in Baltimore, for example, pointed out the following facts:
1. As reported in HMDA, the number of subprime refinance loans originated in Baltimore increased over ten-fold between 1993 and 1998....
2.Subprime loans are seven times more likely in low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore than in upper-income neighborhoods. . . .
3.Subprime loans are six times more likely in predominantly black neighborhoods in Baltimore than in white neighborhoods. . . .
4.Homeowners in middle-income predominantly black neighbor- hoods in Baltimore are almost four times as likely as homeowners in middle-income white neighborhoods to have subprime loans. . . .
5.The findings are similar when borrowers (rather than neigh- borhoods) throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area are examined. . . .
6.Like originations, the subprime share of foreclosures is highest in low-income and predominantly black neighborhoods.
In the HUD’s own words, Baltimore’s African American residents bore an “unequal burden” of the burgeoning high-cost and subprime mortgage product market. Baltimore’s attorneys have filed for the third time in the suit against Wells Fargo in an effort to persuade the court of the merit of the discrimination claim. Will the numbers ultimately speak for themselves? An attorney in both the Baltimore and Memphis suits explained to a Memphis newspaper why the data reveal disparities that are, absent racial targeting, hard to explain: “Wells [Fargo] is getting it eight times more wrong in the black community than in the white community [in Memphis]. . . . That just can’t happen in and of itself. What it means is they’re making loans they know at the time can’t succeed. Or they’re pricing people beyond their means or too high.”
“With extraordinary grace and clarity, Anita Hill weaves the story of her family with that of other American families struggling to find and define homes for themselves. What emerges is a powerful story of our nation’s ongoing quest for equality of opportunity, viewed through the eyes of the people who have been deeply engaged in that quest. Beautifully written, elegantly seen, compellingly argued.” --Robert Reich
From the heroic lawyer who spoke out against Clarence Thomas in the historic confirmation hearings twenty years ago, Anita Hill's first book since the best-selling Speaking Truth to Power.
In 1991, Anita Hill's courageous testimony during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings sparked a national conversation on sexual harassment and women's equality in politics and the workplace. Today, she turns her attention to another potent and enduring symbol of economic success and equality-the home. Hill details how the current housing crisis, resulting in the devastation of so many families, so many communities, and even whole cities, imperils every American's ability to achieve the American Dream.
Hill takes us on a journey that begins with her own family story and ends with the subprime mortgage meltdown. Along the way, she invites us into homes across America, rural and urban, and introduces us to some extraordinary African American women. As slavery ended, Mollie Elliott, Hill's ancestor, found herself with an infant son and no husband. Yet, she bravely set course to define for generations to come what it meant to be a free person of color. On the eve of the civil rights and women's rights movements, Lorraine Hansberry's childhood experience of her family's fight against racial restrictions in a Chicago neighborhood ended tragically for the Hansberry family. Yet, that episode shaped Lorraine's hopeful account of early suburban integration in her iconic American drama A Raisin in the Sun. Two decades later, Marla, a divorced mother, endeavors to keep her children safe from a growing gang presence in 1980s Los Angeles. Her story sheds light on the fears and anxiety countless parents faced during an era of growing neighborhood isolation, and that continue today. In the midst of the 2008 recession, hairdresser Anjanette Booker's dogged determination to keep her Baltimore home and her salon reflects a commitment to her own independence and to her community's economic and social viability. Finally, Hill shares her own journey to a place and a state of being at home that brought her from her roots in rural Oklahoma to suburban Boston, Massachusetts, and connects her own search for home with that of women and men set adrift during the foreclosure crisis.
The ability to secure a place that provides access to every opportunity our country has to offer is central to the American Dream. To achieve that ideal, Hill argues, we and our leaders must engage in a new conversation about what it takes to be at home in America. Pointing out that the inclusive democracy our Constitution promises is bigger than the current debate about legal rights, she presents concrete proposals that encourage us to reimagine equality. Hill offers a twenty-first-century vision of America-not a vision of migration, but one of roots; not one simply of tolerance, but one of belonging; not just of rights, but also of community-a community of equals.
The rum-soaked beverage and balmy breeze were starting to erode my leftist resistance to luxury. Let’s face it, sipping a Mai Tai from a beachfront terrace with a million-dollar view of Diamond Head will dull the edge of the most hardened class warrior. But just as I was slouching into vacation mode, I made the mistake of cracking open Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes. With my second cocktail in one hand and her book in the other, I soon discovered the whole sordid tale of how Christian zealotry, political chicanery, and ruthless exploitation dropped the Hawaiian Islands into the laps of America’s 19th century conquistadores.
Damn, just as I was starting to enjoy this place my social conscience kicks in!
Motivated – though somewhat reluctantly – to find Hawaii’s contemporary oppressors, I accepted an invitation from Derrick Kiyabu to visit MA’O Organic Farm on Oahu Island’s west side. The drive took me past Honolulu’s cheek-to-jowl ocean view condos and the Pearl Harbor Naval Base before the H1 Freeway deposited me onto Highway 93. This is the approximate place where the sign “Now Leaving Paradise, Welcome to Poverty” would be placed if tourist officials chose to acknowledge such things. But lacking most of what vacationers are looking for from a tropical getaway, the Wai’anae Coast, as it is commonly known, can only offer fast-food joints, scruffy commercial buildings, and residential housing that rival the worst of third-world Asia. I guess this is why the Lonely Planet guidebook refers to the region, almost quaintly, as “a little bit of Appalachia by the sea.”
My pre-farm tour reached a crescendo when I happened by a homeless encampment cobbled together along a one-mile stretch of state beach. Late model cars – many rusted and in various states of disassembly – jerry-rigged shelters, and a mish mash of makeshift camping and cooking gear presented such a scene of utter destitution that even knuckle-dragging conservatives would advocate for immediate relief.
As I moved inland a couple of miles, the landscape and impressions changed. Small sections of dry, flat farmland intermingled with vast tracks of military land – securely fenced and sporting giant arrays of submarine-tracking sonar towers capable of detecting a flushing toilet in a Russian sub north of Okinawa. It is here though, amid palm and banana trees, that you’ll find the peaceful acres of MA’O Organic Farms, armed with nothing more dangerous than wholesome organic produce and 40 or so farm interns between the ages of 17 and 24.
Like almost all the interns and staff, Derrick is wearing the farm’s “No Panic, Go Organic” t-shirt. Noting some of the underlying principles of the program, he reminds me that “pre-contact” Hawaiians were 100% food self-reliant and that their traditional farming methods were totally organic. In a more pragmatic vein, he also explains the program’s business model: “Organic produce generates the most revenue from our customers such as Whole Foods, numerous natural food stores, CSA members, and Honolulu’s high-end restaurants.” As a self-described social enterprise, the non-profit farm generates 40 percent of its million-dollar-plus annual budget from produce sales. This is how they support the youth development and leadership program that is at the core of the farm’s mission. Promoting food security in the surrounding region is secondary to the need to generate funds for instructional costs, community college tuition, and stipends for the workers.
Without a doubt, the produce is top-notch. The packing sheds – two retrofitted chicken coops – are filled with interns washing and packing perfect heads of green and white bok choy, glowing red radishes, and gorgeous greens. A big whiteboard lists all the customers and the number of units each will purchase that day. As the young people pack each order in MA’O Farms custom boxes and load them on to the refrigerated delivery truck, the pride is evident in their smiles; after all, they grew it, picked it, and packed it. From the sales revenue, they’ll be paid a monthly stipend by it. Moreover, the produce will help send them to college.
But MA’O isn’t just another scheme to reconnect kids to land, food, and a little income. According to Kamu Enos, MA’O’s Social Entrepreneur Director, the farm is a training and leadership development program designed to overcome the poverty and social dysfunction that was so evident on my drive in. He tells me that “this region of Oahu has the highest concentration of native Hawaiians on all the Islands. We also have a 20% poverty rate, which is disproportionately higher for Hawaiians. Over 40% of our kids drop out of school and only 10% of our graduating high school class goes to college, and many of those leave during the first year.” Derrick puts the problem more succinctly, “Our public education system has ripped off our kids.”
When I noted the unusually high number of very heavy people I saw in Wai’anae, Kamu explained that, like other Native American communities, the ravages of Spam, loss of land, and the decline of traditional practices have taken their toll on peoples’ bodies as well as their souls. In what might be called the second wave of white man’s disease (the first, as Sarah Vowell makes clear, was the 19th century smallpox and measles epidemics brought by missionaries and seamen that reduced the native Hawaiian population from 300,000 to 40,000), the American fast-food diet and the paucity of fresh fruits and vegetables are degrading the community’s health. “The root problem,” said Kamu, “is the disconnect between our land, people, and economy. Instead [of controlling these things], we exist under the predatory practices of the military.” Not only does the Defense Department control most of the land in the region, military recruiters find local Hawaiians easy targets for enlistment because good civilian job opportunities are so few.
Getting control of land, especially for farming, is a daunting challenge for Hawaiians – there’s not much affordable, arable land that developers don’t already have their mitts on. But sugar daddies do show up, and they are not always the kind that operated sugar cane plantations. In MA’O Organic Farms’ case, the sweet guy is none other than Pierre Omidyar, founder of E-Bay. He generously dropped a cool million on the program, which, with assistance from the Trust for Public Land, bought the 11 acres that are now the heart of the farm.
Pua, 21, is a MA’O youth leader and the first member of her family to go to college. She recently received her associate degree from Leeward Community College and is scheduled to start at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in August. She tells me that high school didn’t prepare her for college, but with her mother’s encouragement and MA’O’s help – counseling, remedial instruction, and peer support – she’s climbed some pretty steep personal cliffs and is now ready for bigger challenges. While she’s not likely to pursue farming as a career she credits the farm program with giving her the emotional tools she needed to succeed. “The farm experience is an inspiration. Like college, it’s hard work. The farm grounds you because you have to manage your time, you have to work as a team with others to succeed, and you have to face the consequences of your actions.”
For other young people like Pua, the path out of poverty starts with a walk down the farm’s vegetable rows. Many start to eat better and lose weight. Kainoa is one youth worker who actually lost 130 pounds by exercising and changing his diet. But what the program cultivates even more than the farm’s well composted soil is the interns’ state of mind. Disempowered, brought up with low expectations, some homeless, they were staring at a future that promised little but a swift descent into diabetes and a life in the unemployment line. Now the steps out of poverty are more visible.
To grow and sell a half-million dollars of organic fruits and vegetables every year is no small feat. But to raise dozens of young leaders who can challenge the dominance of the condo kings and restore the economic and physical health of their people would no doubt bring a smile to the ancient kings and queens of Hawaii.
In a six by eight foot jail cell there’s barely room for a bunk, a seatless toilet, and a postage-sized sink. The only other space you have in jail is in your head, and even that gets crowded with all the people you carry around in there who you resent for the things they did to you.
The world is pretty small when you’re locked up, especially if you’re a kid doing time with a healthy body that needs to move, energy sizzling through you like high tension wires, your emotions threatening to blow the power grid any second as you struggle with those nagging teenage questions, “Who am I?” “Why me?” It doesn’t help that the only answers you get come from walls and bars, gates and guards, and maybe that crowd of unreliable experts in your head.
Many of my jailhouse students lived that loneliness and isolation hour after hour, day after day, and for some, year after year until it was hard for them not to see the world as anything but confining, and brutally uncaring. It’s a vision that, as hard as they might work against it, too many of them carry throughout life.
Even though I taught high school in a county penitentiary for over 10 years and experienced in a minor way some of that same isolation and indifference I still know otherwise about the world: That there are people out there who care about real justice, not just for the “done to” but for the “doer” as well; who worry not only about “the system”—child welfare, juvenile and criminal justice—but about the kids, each individual kid, consigned to those systems.
But it’s hard a sell to young people whose world has taught them otherwise. Sometimes, listening to them talk about their lives, I feel as though they are living an alternative reality. Then again, maybe that is the reality of today’s America.
This summer I got to talk with various groups about these issues and met some people who could back me up on my view of the world. I just wish my students could’ve met them as well.
I’d like them to meet the 15 or so law students whom I met who were interning at the New York Center for Juvenile Justice (NYCJJ) in New York City, an organization working to ensure that kids in trouble are treated compassionately and fairly in the justice system. Even the toughest guys that I taught, and I’ve taught quite a few “thugs”—scarred, tattooed, hearts tough as stone (or so they’d like you to think)—would’ve had a hard time not being affected by the interns’ sensitivity to, genuine concern for, and insights into their lives and “the system” that had them (in so ways.) But my students were used to words—judge words, cop words, social worker words, even teacher words, so they would have been impressed by the students plans to establish juvenile justice chapters in their law schools and gotten a kick out of the fast-cut videos they made about laws that treat kids as adults when it comes to crime but not when it comes to voting or drinking or going to the movies.
And I wonder what they would’ve thought of the group of German juvenile justice professionals visiting the center. In halting English or through the slow process of translation, these professionals shared the same concerns about their criminal justice system that people in this country have about ours: a system that refuses to treat children as children; that refuses to look at the real reasons—poverty, discrimination, failing families, lack of money and resources for youth programs—that young people get drawn into crime.
At times the conversation in two languages was stumbling and drawn out. However, what translated fluently was the universality of the concern and compassion that is out there for the world’s young throwaways. It was moving to realize that there is a worldwide network of people just like me, just like the student interns and the staff at NYCJJ, just like the many other folks I know—teachers, lawyers, judges, social workers, clergy, parents, and yes, correctional staff—involved in this work. We may not be many but we’re out there, and, if you’re like me, it helps just knowing that.
Because the work never stops. As concerned as many of us from various nations are about the already bleak treatment young offenders receive, there are in some countries loud demands to make that treatment even harsher and more punishing. Canada for example “is planning to shift toward a jail-intensive approach” when dealing with its juveniles according to Toronto’s The Globe and Mail. And in the wake of Britain’s’ recent riots there are renewed calls for a retaliatory approach to young offenders rather than a rehabilitative one.
The global picture can be bleak. Nevertheless, that network of concerned and committed people is still out there. Despite everything, they keep doing what they can for the world’s locked up kids because no matter how much as those kids might bad mouth their country, society, “The Man,” their lives, they don’t give up hope. So, I ask you, how could any of us do otherwise?
Maria Kefalas (Saint Joseph’s University) and Patrick Carr (Rutgers University-New Brunswick) are husband and wife sociologists who have been working with youth in Philadelphia for over a decade. They are founders of the Philadelphia Youth Solutions Project (www.pysp.org), and Kefalas directs the Richard Johnson Center for Anti-Violence at Saint Joseph’s University. They are the authors of Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America.
The fact that Philadelphia is now in the throes of our second experience with violent teen mobs in two years should surprise no one. What we are seeing is the City of Brotherly Love's version of the events taking place in many cities in England: dispossessed, frustrated, bored kids looking for something to do and a way to express their anger. In a city where our pools barely had funds to open and where rec-center camps and summer schools often lack the funds to keep the lights on and air conditioning running, what is amazing is that the mobs didn't happen sooner and weren't bigger and more destructive.
In Philadelphia, as in Tottenham, Toxteth and Handsworth, we have been here before. The young people who are cast as the folk devils du jour come from the most disadvantaged of backgrounds. Steep budget cuts have pared down education and social services to bare-bones levels. Endemic violence plagues their neighborhoods -- in Philadelphia we average a murder a day and over 1,000 non-fatal shootings annually for the past decade. And most tellingly of all, the gap between haves and have-nots has increased inexorably, condemning many to a marginal, socially isolated and powerless existence.
When a minority of what we call "socially excluded" youth lash out violently, their crimes are met with outrage, revulsion and an almost exclusively punitive response. It is, after all, much easier to reach for the stick than it is to try to explain what is going on. But there is more to young people than flash mobs and riots, which is sadly buried in the race to be toughest on crime.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter's response to the "teen mobs" has included extending hours of operation for rec centers, keeping more police on duty, enforcing curfews for minors and, most tellingly, accusing young people involved in the attacks of "damaging your own race." Yet in all the official responses, we have yet to see young people speaking publicly about what is taking place, why so many of them are out on the streets and what from their perspective can be done about it.
The PYSP is a collaboration between young people and adults that was inspired by Harvard University's Dr. Felton Earls. Earls argues that with the guidance and recognition of adults, adolescents can participate as engaged citizens in their communities. Dr. Earls believes young people are uniquely positioned to enrich and improve their world, particularly on the issues of youth violence.
The goal of the PYSP is to offer a safe space for young people to explain their views and emotions about the danger and violence that consumes so much of their daily lives, to ask questions of themselves and the people charged with running the city they live in, and to have a serious conversation with teachers, parents, city officials, community leaders, state legislators, reporters, politicians and anyone else who wants to know what is going on in their community. The ultimate goal is to move forward on solutions to the epidemic of violence informed by the youth perspective. The founding principle of the PYSP is that young people are the experts offering their advice. Our "delivery system" for cultural change is the Internet. Facebook, YouTube and other forms of social media are just as powerful tools for doing good as harm.
If anyone asked the young people we work with in the PYSP, they would say that they want to be safe in their neighborhoods and their schools. They feel angry when the see how people care more about violence when the victims are not kids like them, or from neighborhoods like theirs. If they could speak to the mayor and the media, they would remind us that some of the kids committing acts of violence against law-abiding citizens regularly commit acts of violence against their classmates and neighbors, yet there are no reporters or camera crews around when it happens. They would say that the supposed "celebrations" in the wake of the Phillies' World Series victory in 2008 resulted in looting and rioting. But those acts of violence and vandalism were committed by fans who got a little out of control; no one said that they were damaging their own race. They want to know why the Phillies fans were not punished as harshly as the flash-mob teens.
One of the most interesting things to have come out of the riots in England is the flash mobs who have assembled in the aftermath of the mayhem. Summoned by Facebook and Twitter and armed with brooms instead of bricks, these young people came out to help ravaged store owners clean up and reclaim their property. Maybe young people ought to be part of the conversation if we are not going to be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, and just maybe someone should ask them.
In celebration of the MLK Memorial Dedication, we are also giving away books by Dr. King. Enter for your chance to win hardcover editions of recent titles released by Beacon Press: Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Why We Can't Wait, The Trumpet of Conscience, "All Labor Has Dignity," and MLK: In Word and Image. One grand prize winner will receive ALL SIX BOOKS. Five winners will receive one book of their choice. For more information and to enter, see the Beacon Press website.
Today's excerpt is from Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, the last book written by Dr, King.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., isolated himself from the demands of the civil rights movement, rented a house in Jamaica with no telephone, and labored over his final manuscript. In this prophetic work, which has been unavailable for more than ten years, he lays out his thoughts, plans, and dreams for America's future, including the need for better jobs, higher wages, decent housing, and quality education. With a universal message of hope that continues to resonate, King demanded an end to global suffering, asserting that humankind-for the first time-has the resources and technology to eradicate poverty.
Civil rights activist, theologian, and historian Vincent Harding wrote the introduction to the Beacon Press edition of Where Do We Go from Here. You can read it below or on Scribd. (Follow the link if the excerpt does not display properly in your browser or email.)
Dan and Isabelle sit patiently on the folding metal chairs in the tastefully decorated waiting room of Seattle’s Ballard Food Bank. Intelligent, soft-spoken, and in his late 50s, Dan is a chronically underemployed architectural draftsman who barely managed to eke out three days of temporary work over the past week. His unemployment benefits have long since evaporated and he’s thinking about applying for food stamps, although he cringes as the words leave his mouth. With his shrunken income dedicated to keeping a roof over his head, he and Isabelle are two among 1,200 or so neighborhood residents who will request a shopping cart-full of food this week at the food bank.
Peggy Bailey, Ballard’s Operation Manager, is one of those dedicated, unflappable souls whose work holds the lives of others together as the larger universe spins out of control. Her recitation of statistics is the “growth” story that you’ll hear from any of the 60,000 emergency food sites across America. “In 2001 we were serving about 350 people per week; four years ago it was 450; now we’re serving between 1,100 and 1,200.” Peggy escorts me past tattooed skateboarders, young women clutching babies, and unshaven men for whom a good night is a dry patch of grass underneath a bridge.
Like all the 25 volunteers (out of a total of 100) on hand this day – good neighbors who keep the flow of people safe and dignified – Peggy beams with pride over the food, large walk-in refrigerators, and the recently retrofitted 6,200-square-foot machine shop that’s been their new home for only a year (after relocating from their cramped, dilapidated home of nearly 40 years). Almost half of the available food is produce, some of which comes from nearby Pea Patch community gardens and local fruit tree gleaners. An abundant supply of artisan bread, fresh dairy products, and even enough frozen meat to give each person two packages, fill the shelves. Not only can you select from a rather remarkable range of products: e.g. microwaveable entrees that retail for $9.00 at Trader Joes, there’s also a “no-cook” section that, in an average month, serves 350 people without kitchens. In addition, nearly 100 bags are assembled and delivered weekly to shut-ins and people with special dietary needs.
Unlike food banks in days of yore, Ballard does more than give away food. If you don’t have a permanent address, they’ll act as your personal post office box, a service currently used by 480 people. Case workers from the Department of Social and Health Services try to connect food bank users with SNAP (food stamps) as well as medical and dental services. Need help paying your rent or electrical bill? You can apply for a $300 voucher for the former and $200 voucher for the latter.
When I asked Peggy how she keeps up with the demand for food, she told me, almost blithely, that enough food was not a problem. In a comment that would make her the envy of every food bank worker in America, she said, “We’ve never had to turn anyone away due to lack of food. This is a very generous community. We have Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Safeway and dozens of other food donors.” While supporting five paid staff, three trucks, and a good-size modern facility, the food bank gets 95% of its operating funds from private donations, receiving only $40,000 per year from Seattle city government. One anonymous individual, for instance, gives the Ballard Food Bank $2,000 each month just to buy fresh dairy products.
In contrast to the generosity of the surrounding neighborhoods, you have the U.S. House of Representatives. If the miracles that these Seattle residents pull off every day make Christ’s feeding of the 5,000 look like a cheap card trick, the House majority’s proposal to slash $3 billion from SNAP, WIC, and TEFAP makes Scrooge look like a Salvation Army volunteer. At a time when the nation’s economy is still on life support and when a record 43 million Americans are receiving food stamps, the House Republicans want to hack the safety net with a machete while leaving the silver cutlery of hedge fund operators untarnished. Take from the poor, but don’t touch a dime of the rich.
Ballard is a human-scale urban environment whose sloping landscape gently lowers you to the shores of the Puget Sound. On street corners, food bank volunteers greet the homeless people by name, who, in turn, respond in a friendly manner, pleased that there are people who don’t avert their eyes. Stroll a few blocks north of Market Street, and you’ll come to a lovely park where grassy slopes and park benches are populated by homeless men catching a ray or two of Seattle’s stingy sunlight. In the opposite corner is a small skateboard tunnel where young dudes, hat brims cocked at precise angles, practice their chutes and curls. Between the skaters and the homeless are several fountains that spray giggling toddlers cheered on by happy moms.
The park reflects Ballard’s values: there’s room for everybody, diversity is encouraged, and the community does its darnedest to meet everyone’s needs. But, beneath this cloak of tolerance, there is a creeping sense that there may be limits to what any group of caring people can do. Perhaps it’s symbolized by the police cruiser stationed just across the street from the “homeless end” of the park. Maybe you hear it in the voices of the young men at the food pantry who were too ashamed to give me their names, but did say that in spite of a couple of years of college they couldn’t find jobs. “We’re not trained for anything.” Or perhaps you can smell it on the breath of the middle-aged drunken man, who according to Peggy had been “doing so well up until now.”
If the House Republicans have their way, the Ballard Food Bank’s waiting room could very well become so crowded that the smiling volunteers will be replaced by stern-faced security guards. When I asked John, an 87-year old food bank volunteer of 12 years, what he thought was behind the ever rising number of clients, he said emphatically, “It’s all about the economy. I see how embarrassed people are who are asking for help, but you can either sleep on the street or come to the food bank.” One has to ask if that is the vision that the budget cutting, non-taxing conservative minority have for America. If that is true, and every statement from the Republican leadership seems to suggest that it is, then one has to ask where the rage is at this time in our nation’s history.
How big must food banks get to contain the ever-swelling legions of un- and underemployed workers? How much food will Ballard’s neighborhood grocers have to donate to ensure that all the young mothers can feed themselves as well as their babies? Is there indeed a tipping point when community compassion can no longer clean up the mess made by mean-spirited politicians who avert their eyes from the growing victims of a failed American dream?
Evelyn, 87, has been volunteering at the Ballard Food Bank for 15 years, longer than anyone else. She’s a feisty, retired machinist who worked for a Boeing Aircraft subcontractor. Sitting at a table where she was sorting nuts into small plastic bags for the home delivery sacks, Evelyn shared the most commonly expressed reason for volunteering at food banks. “If you’ve been blessed, you have to give back.” Yes, I said, I’d heard that sentiment from many people in the emergency food world, but I wondered if there wasn’t something else. At that point the fiery machinist union member took over from the charitable grandmother. Growing up during the Great Depression on a Minnesota farm, she did not need the reason for rage explained to her. “Things have to change in this country,” she said, eyes narrowing and pronouncing each syllable more distinctly. “The idea of not taxing the rich is ridiculous. We have to stop farm and oil subsidies. We got to get politicians to care about people all the time, not just when they’re trying to get elected.”
Compassion and “giving back” may not be sustainable when one class of Americans lives under the House Republicans’ Golden Fleece, while bourgeoning flocks live under highway overpasses. So that compassion may live, we must sometimes release the rage.
"The suicides and murder-suicides, the property crime, the child neglect -- we often assume these are tied to problem gambling ... but we rarely tie the disparate pieces together into the obvious whole." Review of High Stakes in the Las Vegas Sun, July 5, 2011
America is becoming hooked on gambling. From the millions of dens and dorm rooms lit by online poker games to the neighborhoods transformed by new casinos and slot machine parlors, legalized gambling has become an integral part of our lives.
With a singular blend of investigative journalism and poignant narratives of gambling addiction, award-winning journalist Sam Skolnik provides an in-depth exploration of the consequences of this national phenomenon. The result is High Stakes, an unflinching look at the explosive growth of legalized gambling in our country, the concurrent rise of addicted gamblers, and what it all means.
Thirty-five years ago, casinos were legal in just one state, Nevada. Today, legalized gambling has morphed into a $92 billion industry established in all but two states. As elected officials are urging voters to expand gambling's reach, the industry's supporters and their equally impassioned detractors are squaring off in prolonged state-by-state battles. Millions of Americans are being asked to decide: Are the benefits worth the costs?
Industry officials and their political allies assert that gambling is an effective way to raise revenue and create jobs. But these rewards come at a steep price. Fast-rising numbers of addicted gamblers are causing higher indebtedness and bankruptcy rates, as well as increased divorces, suicides, and gambling-related crime. Skolnik shows how the gambling industry is targeting Asian Americans-and why this population, more than any other ethnic group, is likely to develop gambling problems. He also illustrates how gambling has helped turn Las Vegas into America's most dysfunctional community, and how the upsurge of poker and Internet gambling has created a new generation of gambling junkies.
In High Stakes, we meet politicians eager to promote legalized gambling as an economic cure-all, scientists wrestling with the meaning of gambling addiction, and ensnared players so caught up in the chase that they've lost their livelihoods and their minds. Throughout it all, Skolnik-an avid poker player-never loses sight of the human side of these struggles.