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Campus-oriented news, first-person reports from student activists and journalists about their campus.

Students Storm Christie-Corbett Fundraiser, Sideline Westboro Baptists and #RiseNGrind

Philly

Activists from across Pennsylvania and New Jersey sit down in front of Comcast—where Christie and Corbett were fundraising together. (Photo: Steven M. Falk, philly.com)

Last spring, The Nation launched its biweekly student movement dispatch. As part of the StudentNation blog, each dispatch hosts first-person updates on student and youth organizing. For recent dispatches, check out May 19 and June 3. For an archive of earlier editions, see the New Year’s dispatch. Contact studentmovement@thenation.com with tips. Edited by James Cersonsky (@cersonsky).

1. After Westboro Baptists Show Up, 1,000 Mass at Wilson High

On Monday, June 9, more than 1,000 students and community members from DC, Maryland and Virginia gathered in front of Woodrow Wilson High School to hold a counter-protest to the Westboro Baptist Church, which was picketing the school community’s accepting attitude at annual pride day. During our second pride day, our principal came out as gay. In front of the school, ten student leaders from Genders-Sexualities Aligned, or GSA, and the school’s student government led the group in a series of “pro-love” and “pro-equality” chants during the counter-protest; Westboro members protested on the opposite side of the building and received little media or civilian attention. The action sparked a huge outpouring of support from the community, including more than $500 raised for a local organization focused on supporting local GSAs and SMYAL.

—Aidan Parisi and Tao Marwell

2. After Four Years of Silence, Twenty-One Get Arrested for Mass Transit

On the morning of June 9, the Youth Affordability Coalition held an Oppotuni(T) sit-in at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Building. This sit-in was part of an ongoing effort to demand a Youth Pass, which would give youth from ages 12–21 transportation for $10 every month. We were promised to pilot a version of the Youth Pass by Richard Davey, Massachusetts secretary of transportation, four years ago, and officials have made ongoing commitments to us—but have never delivered. During the sit-in, hundreds of YAC members and supporters held a rally and vigil. At 7 pm, after three warnings by state police, twenty-one people were arrested for trespassing. On June 12, the YAC 21 were found not guilty—but still owe legal fees and fines, for which we are fundraising. YAC will continue pressuring Secretary Davey and Governor Patrick for affordable transportation.

—Collique Williams

3. Christie and Corbett Get a Mid-Atlantic Cheer

On June 9, students, teachers and community members converged on a campaign fundraiser for Governors Corbett and Christie—two politicians at the root of school privatization and closings in their respective states. A range of groups, including the Philadelphia Student Union, Newark Students Union, Pennsylvania Working Families and New Jersey United Students, rallied outside the Union League in Philadelphia. When hearing that the fundraiser had been moved under threat of protest, we marched to the new location at Comcast Headquarters. Protesters sat down in the street demanding to be heard by their governors; an hour later, six were arrested. Under state takeover, the Camden, Newark and Philadelphia school districts have been brutalized through waves of closings and privatization. Comparably, New Jersey public universities and colleges have been gutted via state divestment, pervasive use of adjuncts and extreme administrative salaries. Last year NJUS helped win tuition equity for undocumented youth and is now pushing for a $1.9 million increase to the Equal Opportunity Fund, a program that helps students from low-income districts.

—Timothy Kyle

4. Two Days Later, Philadelphia Students Walk Out

On June 11, students from Philadelphia’s Youth United for Change led a walkout of more than 300 students from twelve different high schools across the city. Marchers walked from the school district building to City Hall and ended at the governor’s office. We staged this walkout to amplify student voices amid the ongoing school budget crisis. The majority of students who walked out were black and came from low-income families, who have been affected severely by the budget crisis. We asked for fully funded schools and the revival of local school board control and expressed deep concern about the city’s proposal to allow class sizes of up to forty-one students.

—Xuan Nguyen

5. At Harvard, Grads Tape Up Against Sexual Assault

On May 29, graduates across Harvard University stood in solidarity with survivors of campus sexual assault by marking their mortar boards with red tape during commencement. Following student activism at Columbia and Brown, Our Harvard Can Do Better, an undergraduate student group aimed at ending rape culture at Harvard, launched Our Harvard 14 to demand that Harvard be proactive in creating a safer campus in which cases of sexual assault are treated justly by the administration. Student groups across the university including Harvard Students Demand Respect, Divest Harvard, The Diversity Report and Student Labor Action Movement united in support of the initiative.

—Michelle Maziar, Rory Gerberg and MaryRose Mazzola

6. At Stanford, the Gates Take the Stage—$172 Million Later

In May, a coalition of forty students at Stanford launched the Gates Foundation, Divest G4S campaign. We called on our 2014 commencement speakers—Bill and Melinda Gates—to divest their foundation and its $40 billion endowment from the world’s largest private security company, G4S, which violates human rights around the world. Through direct pressure on the Gates Foundation and organizing from the Palestine solidarity movement, we won. On May 22, Bill Gates partially divested from G4S, and on June 6, a representative of the Gates family e-mailed us to announce full divestment. While our second demand—that the foundation re-evaluate its investments in objectionable industries like privatized prisons and publish transparent guidelines for ethical investment—remains unanswered, the G4S win has put us in a position to launch new campaigns with the coalition of groups that formed around it come the fall.

—Kristian Davis Bailey

7. A Groundbreaking Contract for Grad Workers

On June 4, after an eighteen-month campaign, the UC Student-Worker Union, UAW 2865, which represents 13,000 teaching assistants, readers and tutors across the University of California system, won a game-changing contract. Management initially refused to bargain over the union’s quality of education and civil rights issues, instead escalating threats and intimidation against workers with arrests and discipline for picketing. The UAW responded with multiple Unfair Labor Practice charges and two system-wide strikes. Last week, as a third system-wide strike loomed, an unprecedented agreement for labor peace was signed that, in addition to solid progress on wages, addresses workers’ concerns over growing class sizes, professional and academic opportunities for undocumented students and access to gender-neutral bathrooms. The contract also includes significantly expanded parental leaves and childcare support.

—Josh Brahinsky, Michelle Glowa and Jonathan Smucker

8. A New Union in South Carolina

Since an initial meeting on April 24, the Coastal Carolina Student Union has grown to more 100 students. Many became involved feeling they needed a larger body to boost their organizing, from protecting people from sexual assault and combating gender oppression to LGBT justice and advancing representation of students of color. In the upcoming school year, we will push the student government and administration for weekly notifications of crime on campus; policy protecting student and faculty protesters from retaliation; the ability to petition for open forums between students and administrators; re-evaluation of CCU’s application of Title IX’s sexual assault protocols; clearer criteria as to what deems an event or flyer “appropriate”; checks and balances within the non-academic complaint procedure; and transparency and notification about meetings of the Board of Trustees.

—Courtney Hammett

9. Next Up

From May 30 to June 4, activists from across the country converged on Detroit for the AFL-CIO’s Young Workers Leadership Institute. We engaged in a variety of trainings and discussion on topics including mentorship and peer coaching; the AFL-CIO’s new economic empowerment initiative, Common Sense Economics; the importance and tactics of direct action; shifting the balance of power in order to run successful campaigns; and confronting privilege in order to build a more inclusive labor movement. AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Liz Shuler, who helped launch the Next Up program, which now has chapters in fifty-plus cities and states, pushed us to return to our communities and work to strengthen the young worker movement by providing our groups with the skills we learned.

—Crystal A. Young

10. #RiseNGrind

 

Media depicts young workers as millennials, students, graduates, hipsters, even criminals, but doesn’t seem to note the work hustle. Meanwhile, it’s widely stated that we are the future of the labor movement—but this doesn’t guarantee us a voice in the movement, let alone in the workplace, or in the broader conversation. So, we need our own media. As our project takes off, we are calling on workers everywhere to share their stories.

—Young Worker Media Project

At the Frontlines, Youth Continue to Fight Queer and Trans Homelessness

Rainbow Youth

Ban Nguyen, 16, and Ivy Hammond, 17, stand in the shade of a rainbow flag s they listen during a protest rally at the East Los Angeles Recorder Office in LA on May 26, 2009. (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

This piece originally appeared in {Young}ist and is reposted here with permission.

The LGBT Rally for Homeless Youth began even before the hundreds of people who had gathered in Washington Square Park stood at attention before the stage, while they were still milling around and greeting one another. A smattering of joyous attendees, young and old and somewhere in between, took to the empty stage to dance in the late afternoon sunshine. Some performed near-acrobatic feats of motion—leaping, and falling, and seemingly flying—while others swayed their salt-shaker hips and laughed. The crowd clapped for them all.

On June 2, the Ali Forney Center, the National Coalition for the Homeless, and their friends and supporters kicked off the National Campaign for Youth Shelter with a rally calling for the end of homelessness among young people, and young LGBT individuals in particular. Junior Labeija, of the film Paris is Burning and the New York City ballroom scene, MC’ed the event with signature sass and curtsies for all the “fierce warriors” of the LGBT community. As the dozen or so speakers came up to the microphone, sheltered by Labeija’s paper parasol, the message that emerged was one of outrage, of hope, of shared history, and love. “When I was fifteen years old I was homeless and I used to ride the subways,” said Labeija, “Just because we come out of the closet, doesn’t mean we have to live in the streets.”

According to the campaign, there are 500,000 homeless youth in the United States; 40 percent of them are LGBT. This number comes from The National Alliance to End Homelessness. Many other studies estimate the number to be much higher. The Center for American Progress, for example, put the number of homeless minors alone at 1.7 million, and the 18- to 24-year-old population, for which there are even poorer estimates, at anywhere between 750,000 and 2 million.

However, many counts of homeless youth focus on homeless families with children at the expense of children who are on their own, outside of a family structure. The numbers the campaign uses are of young people who are alone on the streets without shelter. The number of LGBT youth in this situation are so staggeringly high because many are abused within their homes or thrown out of them entirely for being who they are. Once on the streets they are exposed to hunger and devastating physical and mental health problems; many trade sex for survival. They are also criminalized in droves by the police; trans women of color are singled out in particular as targets of violence.

The demands of the campaign are three-fold: A long-term federal commitment to give safe shelter to anyone in the United States under the age of 24, an immediate commitment to add 22,000 shelter beds and the appropriate services that come with them and a comprehensive effort to count the number of homeless youth in the country to determine how many more beds will be needed in the near future.

This number 22,000 comes from the most recent point-in-time count, the traditional method by which homeless individuals are counted by government agents and volunteers from communities across the country. Seeing as these are only the bodies that could be counted by volunteers in a single night, the actual number of unsheltered youths 24 or younger is undoubtedly much higher.

Carl Siciliano is the CEO of Ali Forney Center, which he founded in 2002. The Center provides homeless LGBT youth in New York with a safe place to stay, community and support. I spoke to Siciliano about the origins of the campaign and how the formulation of its demands came about. “Most of my focus has been on New York City in the past few years,” he said, “In New York City at least homeless kids have the subway system to sleep in. But kids are talking to me about freezing in the winter, being pimped out, and just terrible things, and it’s really opened my eyes to the fact that as much as I’ve been focusing on New York City and New York state, I feel that the root of the problem is a grossly inadequate federal response.”

State and local response to youth homelessness has been slow, sometimes progress is made, but more often beds are lost. In New York City, for example, Mayor Bloomberg attempted every year to cut the number of shelter beds for homeless youth, already fewer than 300 when he took office. The population of children sleeping in New York City’s municipal shelter system in 2013, Bloomberg’s last year in office, was up 22 percent from the previous year. As of January 2014, the Coalition for the Homeless has the number of homeless children in the city at 22,712.

Meanwhile, efforts to combat youth homelessness on the federal level have largely been toothless, focused on maintaining past gains, rather than pushing for progress that is swift and sweeping. “Most of the advocacy for homeless youth has been around trying to retain and maintain the [Runaway and Homeless Youth Act] funding. This is only funding 4,000 beds, so, yeah, it needs to be reauthorized every year, but it struck me as really problematic that there wasn’t advocacy for LGBT issues.” In this vein of creating a national movement, the next rally for the National Campaign for Youth Shelter will be a march in DC on December 8.

Last week’s rally, at the start of Pride month and three weeks before the forty-fifth anniversary of Stonewall, looked back at the history of the LGBT movement since the ’60s, using the power of past and continuing struggles to launch this new campaign. The names of Sylvia Rivera, Stormé DeLarverie, Marsha Johnson and others were invoked often throughout the rally. So was ACT UP and the many campaigns and court cases that eventually brought down DOMA. Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case which, last summer, made it illegal for the federal government to deny married gays and lesbians equal protections and benefits, was among those who spoke out against youth homelessness.

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Martin Boyce, a veteran of Stonewall and lifelong LGBT activist reflected on the many victories since Stonewall, but added poignantly that, “some things haven’t changed, homelessness hasn’t changed. Or maybe I should say it has changed. Because it was episodic in my day, it’s an institution now.”

This sentiment was echoed in the words Chris Bilal, of the organization Streetwise and Safe and a generation that came of age decades after the Stonewall riots.

“Spaces that were once safe havens for the criminalized and the brutalized amongst us became private parks and dog walks,” said Bilal. “We are pushed out of parks just like this through intimidating and discriminatory policing tactics like stop-and-frisk and the use of our condoms as evidence that we are prostitutes.”

The rally concluded on a note similar to the one it had started on, with a performance by a trans woman of color, introduced as “Miss Tara,” of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” And with these words from Siciliano, who was last to speak,

“The LGBT community is considered different because of how we love. There’s something remarkable about that. As a community we’re defined by how we love.”

 

Read Next: “How Did This Highschool Student Go from Being Suspended 20 Times to Graduating Valedictorian?”

What Are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 6/13/14?

SOUTH AFRICA WORLD CUP

South African fans blow the "vuvuzela" trumpets before the 2010 World Cup (REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach)

—Hélène Barthélemy focuses on the criminal justice system, activism and culture.

"Work It! The New Face of Labor in Fashion" by Annemarie Strassel. Dissent,Spring 2014.

Increasing poverty is making the difference between previously defined "good jobs" and "bad jobs" more tenuous. While the poor are more and more disenfranchised, the creative classes are similarly losing ground. This article describes unionizing efforts across professions and countries in the fashion world, highlighting the commonality of the struggle between more privileged laborers (models), unpaid interns and overseas factory workers, all of which represent different degrees of precarious labor. As many have said in the past, the precariat, which unites the traditional working class to freelancers, temp-workers and interns, has revolutionary potential. The objective is now for all to work together and build links across unions, to organize and make pressure in idiosyncratic ways to advance popular interest, raise wages for low-wage workers (fifteen now!) and ensure better working conditions for all, while not forgetting to use this widened platform to give a voice to the more powerless.

—Summer Concepcion focuses on race, gender and criminal justice.

The Prisoner's Daughter,” by Albert Samaha. The Village Voice, June 10, 2014.

Because prison has the effect of dehumanizing the people in them, stories that put a human face to the prison experience often prove to be especially worthwhile. "The Prisoner's Daughter" sheds light on Amanda Rosario, a young woman whose father has been in prison for as long as she can remember. Despite the distance and time that passes, Rosario continues to hold onto the relationship she has with her father and sees him well beyond the "criminal" label.

—Erin Corbett focuses on national security and reproductive rights.

"American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: The Misleading History and Messages of the 9/11 Memorial Museum"by Patrick L. Smith. Salon, June 9, 2014.

While briefly seeing some debate over the 9/11 Memorial Museum as a commercial product, I came across Patrick Smith’s piece at Salon.com, where he discusses the museum as an exploitation of “tragedy, confus[ing] history with ideology.” I thought this piece was interesting, as he uncovers the complexities of layering memory, history and grief, as well as Smith’s discussion of the ways in which memorials, known as “sites of memory,” often tell us HOW to remember events.

—Victoria Ford focuses on African-American identity, feminism/womanism and the arts.

Am I My Sister’s Keeper?” by Hope Wabuke. Ms. Magazine, June 10, 2014.

This article asks an unsettling question being faced by women around the world: What's happening to our girls and when will we save them? Women of color have time and time again been excluded from the movements fought for civil rights and discussions involving civic membership. Their (our) omission from “My Brother’s Keeper,” the $200 million private-public program launched by President Obama, suggests that "we know that structural racism exists in a gendered way" but we aren't doing anything to change the frames (mass incarceration, unequal employment opportunities, debilitating school systems, etc.) in which they exist, an argument made recently by Rutgers Professor Brittany Cooper on the Melissa Harris-Perry show and, indirectly, by this open letter from 200 black men (including the article's interviewee, Kiese Laymon) calling for the inclusion of women and girls in the President's initiative.

—Douglas Grant focuses on labor and income inequality, gender politics and American politics.

Jocks and nerds of the world, unite!” by Amy B. Dean. Al Jazeera America, June 11, 2014.

Grad students slogging through dissertations and athletes giving it all on the gridiron might have little in common at first glance. But Amy Dean provides a glimpse into how these disparate groups opened a new debate on campuses across the country about student athletes and scholars demanding rewards for work that goes unpaid or exploited for a university's bottom line. The athletes sell our merchandise, fill stadiums (and their colleges' coffers) without financial reward and after, they are often left without health insurance, oftentimes besotted with injuries after the grueling work on the field and least of all without a chance at the pros. Graduate students that do plenty of the work that professors do—teaching and grading papers—are often left with no better bargain. Despite their PhDs in hand, barely a quarter of adjunct professors have health insurance and even fewer are on a tenure track. With an unlikely alliance, students and student athletes are changing that across the country as they vote to unionize and petition their demands.

—Hannah Harris Green focuses on South Asian Culture and Politics, and Sexual Assault.

"Some Shocking Facts About Maharashtra's Muslims the States Does Not Want You to Know" by Aarefa Johari. Scroll, June 10, 2014.

This week, Aarefa Johari of Scroll.in revealed the contents of a damning report on the condition of Muslims in Maharashtra, India, which the state government had failed to release. According to the report, Maharashtran Muslims suffer from generally worse conditions than their counterparts who belong to scheduled castes and tribes—groups that have traditionally been oppressed under the caste system hierarchy. 45 percent of Muslim households in the state have a monthly income of less than RS 500 (approximately $8.50) per person, and Muslims also experience discrimination while trying to attain public services.

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—Alana de Hinojosa focuses on immigration, race and racism, Latin@ identity and feminism.

The Racism Beat,” By Cord Jefferson. Medium, June 9, 2014.

For the last couple of years, I've pretty much dedicated my young career in journalism to writing about the stories, struggles and politics of Latin@s in the United States. Cord Jefferson, the author of this blog post and former editor at Gawker, has pretty much done the same thing, except geared toward African-Americans. The difficult thing about this sort of "beat" writing, as Jefferson points out, is that it's both important and uncommon work, but that it's also personal. And when something like the prevalent occurrence of racism in American society is not only part of your job, but also part of your life, this can be exhausting work.

—Crystal Kayiza focuses on the African diaspora,immigration, Black Feminist thought, and police brutality.

Why do African teams under-perform at the World Cup?” by Antoinette Muller. The Guardian, June 11, 2014.

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil has elicited immense controversy. From the marginalization of low-income communities to the monumental expenditures on infrastructure across the region, rage towards FIFA has finally matched the intense excitement for the games. But the lack of representation of the African continent within the immaculate FIFA event has gone largely unnoticed. Similar to political and economic representation on the world stage, in her article, Antoinette Muller points out that African nations are oftentimes unequal participants in the World Cup. "As a continent, Africa has 48 countries competing to get to the finals but only five places available. Europe gets 13 places. It used to be even worse, with Africa only allocated two places," writes Muller. She details many reasons for the underperformance of African nations in the World Cup, ranging from institutional corruption to bad sportsmanship. This year more than ever, the winners and losers of the games will speak volumes on the political stage. And hopefully, this time will in fact be for Africa.

—Agnes Radomski focuses on labor, mass incarceration, the war on drugs and the military industrial complex.

Ten Years a Temp: California Food Giant Highlights National Rise in Exploited Labor,” by Bill Raden and Gary Cohn. Capital & Main, May 27, 2014.

From big-box superstores like Wal-Mart to fast-food chains like Burger King and McDonalds, cases of exploitation among American workers continue to proliferate. Now temporary or "contingent" workers at California's Taylor Farms, one of the country's major salad producers, adds to this daunting trend. Two-thirds of Taylor Farm's 900 workers in the Central Valley town of Tracy work for subcontractors or are considered temporary employees. What does this mean? Low wages (employees start at the state minimum of $8 an hour), little to no job security and limited protection for worker's under labor laws. The authors exposed yet another player contributing to the American workforce's race to the bottom. As they so bluntly put it, their investigation "reveals a business model in which Taylor Farms' Spinach is treated with more respect than their workers."

 

Read Next: "What Are 'Nation' Interns Reading the Week of 6/6/2014?"

How Did this High School Student Go From Being Suspended 20 Times to Graduating Valedictorian?

(YouTube/StoryCorps)

High school student Damon Smith had been suspended more than twenty times before entering Ralph Bunche High School in Oakland, an alternative high school for chronically expelled students. After working with Eric Butler, a restorative justice counselor at the school, Damon left behind the gang violence he had been embroiled in, earned a 3.7 GPA and graduated valedictorian in his class. How did it happen? This new video produced by Storycorps and the Atlantic Philanthropies tells Smith’s story of his struggle between realizing his true potential academically or falling back into the street violence of his hometown.

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Read Next: Sam Warren on the battle for freedom of speech

Students Blockade for Trans Justice, Dish 18,000 Red Squares and Push California to Divest From Guns

Santa Ana

Five block the intersection outside the Santa Ana City Jail. (Photo: NQTLA)

Last spring, The Nation launched its biweekly student movement dispatch. As part of the StudentNation blog, each dispatch hosts first-person updates on student and youth organizing. For recent dispatches, check out May 6 and May 19. For an archive of earlier editions, see the New Year’s dispatch. Contact studentmovement@thenation.com with tips. Edited by James Cersonsky (@cersonsky).

1. As Deportations Rage, Five Blockade for Queer and Trans Justice

On Tuesday, May 27, LGBTQ organizers from across the country took over the intersection outside the Santa Ana City Jail demanding a halt to deportations and an end to the systematic criminalization of the undocu– queer and trans community. Three activists chained themselves inside a cage in the middle of the intersection, while two others, including me, chained ourselves to the outside as 100 supporters marched chanting, “Not one more deportation!” “Obama, Obama, no deportes a mi trans hermana!” and “Liberation not incarceration!” The Santa Ana City Jail was the target of the action because of its mistreatment of queer and trans detainees and its contract with ICE. The five of us were arrested, detained for seven hours and released on bail after our charges were commuted to misdemeanors.

—Ramiro Gonzalez

2. As Georgia Leaves Undocumented Students Out, Ten Take the Street

On Tuesday, May 20, the Georgia Dreamers Alliance demonstrated against policy 4.1.6 and in favor of in-state tuition. In 2008, the board of regents mandated that undocumented students pay up to five times more in tuition than other state residents, and, in 2010, it banned undocumented students from attending the five most competitive universities in Georgia. After protesters disrupted a board meeting and were escorted out, ten got arrested for blocking the intersection of Trinity and Washington. Meanwhile, undocumented students who have sued the regents over in-state tuition await a response from Fulton County Court.

—Eduardo Samaniego

3. UChicago’s South Side Priorities

There is no adult trauma center on Chicago’s South Side, which sees the city’s highest rates of violence; instead, victims are taken over ten miles away, increasing their chances of dying. On May 19, members of Fearless Leading by the Youth and Students for Health Equity kicked off a week of action for a trauma center with civil disobedience at the University of Chicago Medical Center, the most resource-rich hospital on the South Side, which has refused to be part of a solution to the lack of trauma care. After shutting down a hospital construction site, we were violently dragged off by University of Chicago Police. The week continued with an interfaith prayer vigil, actions by National Nurses United and local doctors and a 350-person march. We also took advantage of a visit by President Obama to ask him not to place his library at the UofC until it shows a commitment to black lives on the South Side by supporting a trauma center.

—Kayli Horne and Emilio Comay del Junco

4. UC’s Guns

In response to the University of California Santa Barbara shootings, the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice and the Campaign to Unload are petitioning the University of California to examine whether the system’s $88 billion endowment is contributing to violence via investment in companies that profit from gun violence, obstruct common-sense gun legislation and fund the NRA. This effort joins a nationwide campaign to divest in order to reduce the epidemic of gun violence, with a summit in Philadelphia in June to provide students with the tools and resources to win gun divestment and end the criminalization of young people of color.

—Dante Barry

5. In Newark, Students Take Over the Board of Ed

On Tuesday, May 20, the Newark Public Board of Education held its monthly business meeting—one of the rare meetings Superintendent Cami Anderson attends. Outside the building, the Newark Education Workers caucus of the Newark Teachers Union organized a rally in opposition to the One Newark plan. The Newark Students Union decided, after months of organizing and planning, that we would shut down the meeting and hold a sit-in until our demands—a new superintendent, an end to the One Newark plan, the implementation of the Newark Promise plan and a meeting with the state commissioner of education—were met. When threatened with arrests, we held our ground on the floor in front of Cami Anderson and were allowed to continue the occupation. The “Newark Nine,” eight high school students and one college student, remained inside for seventeen hours. We moved the next morning when Commissioner Hespe scheduled a meeting with the NSU.

—Kristin Towkaniuk

6. In Sacramento, Students Fill the Capitol—in Silence

On May 8, students from eleven cities and school districts descended on Sacramento to send a message to the State Board of Education: “Student Voice Matters!” The day marked the launch of the Student Voice Coalition, as students continue to be overlooked in district implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula in California’s public education system. Students staged a silent protest inside the State Board of Education meeting, bearing numbered placards over their faces. Others took the stage to demand a student role in helping decide how the new funds, meant for low-income, English learner and foster care students, will be spent in their school districts. While the action prompted board president Michael Kirst to release a statement reading, “student voice is essential to the local stakeholder process,” students remain unconvinced that districts will take notice. On July 10, we will return to Sacramento to ramp up pressure on thus-far-hesitant board members Michael Kirst and Sue Burr.

—Saa’un Bell

7. #WTFee

In 2012, chancellor Charles Reed issued Executive Order 1078, authorizing schools in the California State University system to implement “student success” fees by way of an “alternative consultation process” instead of a student referendum. San Jose State is one of 11 CSU schools being burdened by these fees. In February, SJSU’s Students for Quality Education began organizing against impending fee increases in fall 2014 via social media, the school and local papers, flyering, chalking, classroom presentations and an April 9 open forum—leading to a walkout on April 29. On May 15, after Sonoma State SQE thwarted the implementation of fee increases, SJSU became the first school to roll back increases already in place. Moving forward, our goal is to win a student vote on these fees and reverse the two years of increases on the books.

—Diana Crumedy

8. #DebtFreeNC

With the backing of a state constitution that declares that higher education in the state should be “as free as practicable,” North Carolina students have launched the #DebtFreeUNC campaign, asking lawmakers to consider policies that would make the seventeen UNC campuses debt-free for incoming first-year students by the year 2020. On Friday, May 23, the NC Student Power Union took these demands to the offices of Governor Pat McCrory and US Senate candidate Thom Tillis, delivering a letter along with over 18,000 red felt squares—each representing a student in the UNC system who graduated this May with debt. At the end of the action, students committed to handing out all 18,000 red squares to young people across North Carolina and asking them to join the fight in Raleigh this summer.

—Matt Hickson

9. How Long Will Louisiana Youth Be Locked Up?

In honor of the sixtieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children participated in the National Week of Action Against Incarcerating Youth organized by Dignity in Schools Campaign member organization Save the Kids. FFLIC, which has organized successfully against SB 652 and HB 541, facilitated a discussion regarding the relationship between New Orleans schools’ current disciplinary policies and incarceration. The week of action raised awareness about the school to prison pipeline from New Orleans to Los Angeles to the Twin Cities, supporting rallies, conferences and teach-ins.

—Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children

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10. When Will California Wake Up?

On May 15, UAW Local 2865, the University of California graduate student TA union, hosted a grade-in at Stephens Hall Graduate Study Lounge, currently slated for closure in November 2014. Students took selfies with towering stacks of bluebooks to make their labor visible and draw attention to the union’s outstanding contract demands: competitive compensation, a voice in TA-student ratios, employment rights for undocumented grad students, support for student parents and anti-discrimination protections. A coalition including Stephens Study Lounge organizers, union members, students organizing to protect the Gill Tract public farm land and University Village affordable student-family housing organizers discussed their intersecting struggles—all with the UC Berkeley administration—concerning access to and allocation of space, labor, livelihood and democratic transparency. That evening, twenty students held a “sleepover” at Stephens Lounge to keep pressure on the administration to preserve graduate student workspace.

—Ianna Hawkins Owen and Elise Youn

 

Read Next: Since when does free speech require students to stay quiet?

Since When Does Free Speech Require Students to Stay Quiet?

Haverford College

Haverford College (Haverford_03/Flickr)

This piece originally appeared in {Young}ist and is reposted here with permission.

Since former University of California, Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau declined to receive an honorary degree from my very own Haverford College, commentators have decried the intolerance of the protesters who criticized his invitation to commencement. Student speech obstructed Birgeneau’s right to free speech, they say—as if its legitimate exercise requires the conferral of an honorary degree and a perch on a podium.

Haverford President Daniel Weiss echoed such sentiments, if more diplomatically, in a May 20 editorial for The Philadelphia Inquirer: “When an individual is invited to speak at an institution that holds freedom of expression as a core value, and then for whatever reason does not attend, the cause of free speech has inevitably suffered.”

That “for whatever reason” bothers me. For whatever reason whitewashes Birgeneau’s role in the violent suppression of student speech. “For whatever reason” ignores that students spoke up against honoring Birgeneau for fear that doing so would itself stifle free expression. “For whatever reaso” claims that context isn’t important.

I disagree. Context is everything. So, out of frustration with that “for whatever reason,” I would like to provide some.

Weiss announced Haverford’s four honorary degree recipients on April 17. “Each of these individuals exemplifies ideals we hold dearly at Haverford College,” he wrote in an e-mail to the senior class, “and I hope you share my excitement that they will be connected with your graduating class in perpetuity.”

As a sophomore, I did not receive Weiss’s e-mail, but I was already familiar with Robert Birgeneau. I grew up the son of a professor at the UC campus in Davis, California, about an hour’s drive from Berkeley; University of California matters were dinner table talk for me. Birgeneau’s had been a household name in my family since November 2011, when police brutally dispersed the peaceful Occupy Cal protests at UC Berkeley at the behest of Birgeneau and other campus administrators. Even after video of the incident went viral, Birgeneau stood by the police action, releasing a statement that described linking arms as “not nonviolent civil disobedience.”

Such words would be objectionable in any context, but they are especially so for an honoree of Haverford, a Quaker-founded college that prides itself on a commitment to nonviolence and social justice—values, Weiss would surely say, that we hold dearly.

Michael Rushmore thought as much. A member of the class of 2014, he looked up his honorary classmates shortly after receiving Weiss’s e-mail, and was alarmed by what he found about Birgeneau. Rushmore posted on Haverford’s online forum, where he gathered a group of similarly concerned students and faculty—Maud McInerney, an English professor and Berkeley PhD, was an early supporter. When Rushmore and fellow senior Brian Brown met with Weiss and other administrators, all agreed that the dissenters should write a letter to Birgeneau.

The resulting letter has drawn much criticism for what some have construed as its overly strident tone. “When trust is violated in our community, we seek to restore our bonds through restorative, not punitive, processes,” it reads in part. “In the spirit of these restorative processes, before you are honored by our community, we believe it is necessary for you…to take responsibility for the events of November 9, 2011.” The letter then urges Birgeneau to take nine actions, such as accepting responsibility for his role in the violence and supporting reparations for those peaceful protesters assaulted by police; were he to “refuse to confront the issues before him,” it says, the dissenters would have “no other option than to call for the college to withdraw its invitation.”

Weiss himself was disappointed with the letter’s tone, describing it as “an ultimatum with a long list of conditions”; former Princeton President William G. Bowen, accepting his own honorary Haverford degree on May 18, characterized the letter in his commencement speech as “an intemperate list of demands.” McInerney objects to this characterization, which has nonetheless been widely repeated in the national media. “To say, ‘We urge you to do x, y and z’ is not to make a demand. It’s to ask forcefully that you do something,” she told me later. “I am still frustrated by people’s determination to misread that letter.”

Birgeneau, for his part, seemed disinclined to support McInerney’s interpretation. His response to the student letter read, in its entirety: “First, I have never and will never respond to lists of demands. Second, as a long time civil rights activist and firm supporter of non-violence, I do not respond to violent, untruthful verbal attacks.”

To Weiss’s credit, he did share Birgeneau’s response with the campus community, via a May 6 e-mail in which he also called a forum to discuss the controversy. The forum, held two days later, was attended by a substantial number of students and faculty members, as well as several representatives from the Honorary Degree Committee and Weiss himself. So many felt moved to speak that the forum did not conclude for over two hours.

While sentiment on the letter was split, speakers—almost without exception—either came down against Birgeneau’s invitation or took no position on it. Honorary degree committee member Sarah Willie-LeBreton remarked near the end of the forum on the obvious lack of consensus around Birgeneau’s acceptability to the community, expressing a desire to “re-evaluate” his invitation. Weiss himself later wrote that he had acquired “a respect and empathy for a number of perspectives that I had not fully appreciated beforehand,” and that the forum was for him “an illuminating and valuable conversation”—though one that “regrettably did not include Dr. Birgeneau.”

Birgeneau’s absence was not what weighed heaviest on my mind, though I certainly would have liked to see him join our discussion; rather, it was the absence of voices like that of Amanda Armstrong, a graduate student at Berkeley who joined Occupy Cal and found herself at the wrong end of a nightstick. In her stead, Rushmore read a statement she had emailed to him.

“Three times throughout the day, UC police officers attempted to force us to move by striking many of us repeatedly in the chest and stomach with batons, and by pulling others down to the ground by their hair,” wrote Armstrong. “Some of my friends and classmates were arrested that day; some had their ribs broken, or suffered other injuries. We all continue to carry psychic, and in some cases physical, scars from November 9, 2011.”

Despite the tenor of the forum, Weiss and the honorary degree committee reissued their invitation to Birgeneau. I was disappointed but not surprised, given the complicated and often political nature of such decisions. At least, I thought, our voices had been heard.

In the days since then, however, I have wondered whether Weiss really did hear our concerns as I had hoped he had.

To honor a man who staunchly refuses to discuss his past endorsement of violence would itself tacitly support violence. When Birgeneau ultimately declined to attend commencement, then, I was relieved; I did not wish to see my own college reinforce the apathy towards violence that pervades much of our society and which surely contributed to the events at UC-Berkeley. Certainly, I would have preferred to engage Birgeneau in a productive dialogue, but as Rushmore and fellow graduate Jon Sweitzer-Lamme recently noted, a commencement speech is the very opposite of a dialogue. “At our graduation, Mr. Birgeneau was to receive the honorary degree and speak to an audience of nearly 3,000 people. Full stop,” they wrote. “Where is the opportunity for dialogue in that scenario, except through protest?”

In any case, the reason that there has been no open conversation about the events of November 9, 2011, is not that fifty students and faculty at Haverford College were too aggressive in their letter-writing. Dialogue requires a willing partner, which Birgeneau has given no indication of being—not at Haverford, not anywhere else.

I was shocked, then, when Bowen, one of the three remaining honorees, took to the podium at commencement to insult the graduating seniors who had signed the letter—apparently with Weiss’s foreknowledge. Lamenting that Birgeneau “failed to make proper allowance for the immature and, yes, arrogant inclinations of some protesters,” Bowen said of Birgeneau: “Aggravated as he had every right to be, I think he should be with us today.” In Bowen’s telling, Birgeneau has more right to be angry with a letter than students do with violence.

Perhaps I should have expected as much from Bowen—who, at the very least, had the excuse of ignorance. He had not been privy to the countless conversations held at Haverford over the past few weeks, and could not fully appreciate the complexity of how the issue played out on campus. So I was doubly saddened when President Weiss took to the pages of the Inquirer two days later not to defend his students against the often erroneous and offensive narratives that had taken hold in the wake of Bowen’s speech but to reinforce them.

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Consider the claim that, “at Rutgers, Smith and my own college, Haverford, students threatened to protest or otherwise disrupt” commencement—as if protest is inherently disruptive. Were Robert Birgeneau to show, the planned protest had been for students to wear buttons that read, “Ask Me About Robert Birgeneau,” in the hopes that they would spark conversation. Weiss and I must have different standards for disruption.

But Weiss’s editorial is most remarkable for what it leaves out. It makes no mention of the fact that student concerns about Robert Birgeneau were entirely based on Birgeneau’s complicity in the violent suppression of free speech at his own university—nor, of course, does it bother to point out that Birgeneau characterizes words as violent but shrugs his shoulders at the very real violence committed against his own students and faculty. It leaves out this crucial bit of context in favor of bland platitudes and for whatever reasons.

But for whatever reason is false. Free speech does not suffer when someone walks away from receiving an honor he was not entitled to in the first place. Free speech suffers when those who speak up are shamed for doing so—or, for that matter, beaten.

 

Read Next: Catch up on the latest reading selections from Nation interns.

What Are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 6/6/2014?

Prison

An inmate serving a jail sentence rests his hand on a fence at Maricopa County's Tent City jail in Phoenix. (Reuters/Joshua Lott)

—Samuel Adler-Bell focuses on labor, mass incarceration and literature.

"Net Neutrality." Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, June 1, 2014.

For my other job, I spend a lot of time trying to figure how to make Internet users care about something called "net-neutrality," a notoriously difficult-to-explain (and horribly dull-sounding) regulatory principle, the preservation of which is absolutely essential to the future of the Internet, democracy, videos of your kittens and other generally good things. Put "simply," net-neutrality is the idea that Internet service providers should treat all data equally, neither privileging nor impeding the flow of any particular information on their networks. Thanks to net neutrality, your kitten blog takes no longer to load than ebay, TheNation.com than NBC—this despite the fact that NBC is owned by Comcast, one of the nation's largest broadband providers. In a world without net neutrality, ISPs like Comcast could theoretically privilege the content of their subsidiaries over competitors, and sell access to an Internet "fast lane" for extremely wealthy clients—leaving the rest of us to fight over what remained of the slow, shitty corners of the web.

On a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver explains precisely why it's so difficult to get people fired up about net neutrality: "The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America: if you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring." (Andrew Jacobs' 6000 word piece on the topic for n+1 is uniquely comprehensive, erudite, elegantly written and basically impossible to read in its entirety. I took two kitten-vid breaks and still had to skip to the end.) Oliver goes on: "Apple could put the entire text of Mein Kampf inside the iTunes user agreement and you'd just go, 'agree, agree, agree.'" This is the nefarious banality of the digital age. The Internet—with its endless supply of immediately gratifying GIFs, lists, tweets etc.—has made us all allergic to the dense, esoteric language in which its future is being written.

—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.

"Drugs trafficking in the Caribbean: Full Circle." The Economist, May 24, 2014.

The American agencies tasked with stemming the flow of drugs into the United States like to picture themselves as the proverbial little Dutch boy, valiantly plugging the hole in the dike with his finger. In reality, they are more like inept doctors putting a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage. As soon as one hole in the border is plugged, several more open up. Researchers have a name for this phenomenon: "the 'balloon effect,' the idea that increased pressure on one drug route produces a bulge elsewhere." Several pieces have recently highlighted the futility of the plug-the-dike strategy, as the trafficking of drugs and migrants has shifted away from Central America and to routes traveling through the Caribbean. The ultimate irony in all of this is that these are the very same routes that were popular in the 1980s for drug kingpins like Pablo Escobar. The drug trade has come full circle, although this time around it's even more violent and lucrative. While officials continue to deliver their standard "it will get worse before it gets better" platitudes, the drug trade rolls on. It's time that we start thinking of new policies, and put an end to the ineffective drug war.

—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.

Modern-Day Slavery in America's Prison Workforce,” by Beth Schwartzapfel. The American Prospect, May 28, 2014.

While it doesn't confront some of the deeper questions about mass incarceration in this country, this article offers some fascinating and disturbing insight into the specific problem of the exploitation of inmates' labor. It's well known by now that inmates are more or less excluded from the protections of the 13th amendment and often forced to work for little or nothing. But this article provides a survey of the varieties of this exploitation and the complicated effects it has on other institutions (private industry, the state, unions) and society at large. It also provides some glimpses of the often twisted rationalizations behind even the more benevolent policies relating to inmate labor: “‘What we want to do is, when they’re released, for them to feel unnatural not to be working,” says the head of one state inmate work program. "We’re trying to change that habit to where they need to work, mentally, just as much as you and I do.” While the article doesn't choose to tackle the assumption that work is basically good and access to work (as long as it's a "competitive" wage) is the obvious way to ensure individuals' wellbeing, it does hit on this key point:  "The country could not afford to incarcerate 1.6 million people if they all had workers’ rights." Which of course should be an argument for, not against, granting them.

—Cecilia D’Anastasio focuses on ethics, feminism, press freedom and tech.

"#YesAllWomen Changes the Story of the Isla Vista Massacre," by Rebecca Solnit. TomDispatch, June 1, 2014.

The "problem that has no name," the fact that "American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities," still has no name. Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me and the article "#YesAllWomen Changes the Story of the Isla Vista Massacre," says that it has, through time, gained several names: "male chauvinism, then sexism, misogyny, inequality and oppression," but it's important to ask if the names have challenged the underlying problem. Words shine their light on the problem, but it's an amorphous, transparent mass that refracts our words into types of criticism: misogyny, inequality, oppression. The problem with no name is basically crystalline-invisible. The problem is bigger than even an action we can deem "misogyny"; it's a mindset, a pathology. So can we fight it with names?

Rebecca Solnit celebrates the growing diversity of words with which we've been better able to spread consciousness of the problem. "Language is power." It's hard not to agree, now that "rape culture," "mansplaining" and "sexual entitlement" have become weapons against the problem with no name. Her piece celebrates the new feminist vocabulary. But the haters have new vocabulary, too: "thot," "busted," "ratchet." Solnit's celebration of words is worth a read; but let's take our literary comprehension of feminism onto a level of visceral understanding.

—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.

State-Based Visas: A Federalist Approach to Reforming U.S. Immigration Policy,” by Brandon Fuller and Sean Rust. The Cato Institute, April 23, 2014.

The Naturalization Clause (Article 1, section 8, clause 4) gives Congress sole power in establishing rules for gaining US citizenship. However, as this executive summary points out, “Congress can also allow states to be involved in immigration policy in areas besides naturalization, such as managing a state-based visa within federal guidelines.” And the conservative Cato Institute is not alone in contemplating the role of state and municipal governments in US immigration policy. Detroit, New York City, Dayton and Baltimore are experimenting with more local visa programs, and California and Utah have created their own guest worker visa policies, though the federal government struck down both.

Cato points to Canada and Australia’s regional visa programs for lessons to learn. But their vision for the United States is at times worrisome and contradictory. Advocating funneling “immigrants to parts of the country where they will generate the largest benefits” triggers ethical revulsions. That immigration “lowers the costs of certain goods and services,” is proof of the unjust wages immigrants currently win—it is not a reason to "like" immigration.

Many questions, like how “authorized immigrants” will be stopped from illegally moving to a different state, are touched on. “For instance,” they write, “California farmers could be allowed to hire an individual guest worker for the spring and summer while Washington farmers would be able to hire the same worker in the fall.” Such a "solution" would only further institutionalize the guest-worker programs already undercutting wages and working conditions in the United States. In contradiction, the summary also points out the ethical problems with current guest worker programs that “tie immigrants to one employer,” and how state-based visas could redress this problem by giving workers more choice in whom to work for. Sensical, local, pro-immigration policies like issuing local or state identification cards and prohibiting law enforcement from asking about immigration status are also highlighted.

As DC remains intentionally gridlocked, it seems inevitable that non-federal experiments will continue to gain momentum. What is not inevitable however is whether these experiments will be exploitative or progressive.

—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups' relationship with technology and development.

"Is 'The Fault In Our Stars' Author John Green His Generation's Pop Philosopher?" by Clare Malone and Amelia Thomson-Deveaux. The American Prospect, June 1, 2014.

I'm not alone in thinking that online fan communities tend to serve the role more often played in the past by religious communities, but generally the cultishness of "fandoms" tends to get played up more than their potentially moral dimensions. So it's interesting to see the authors of this piece look at a fan community that's constructed fairly explicitly around that moral aspect. The moralizing tendency among the John Green fan community's "Nerdfighters" means that this author-led fandom, along with fandoms constructed around fan fiction and art without as much of an author's guiding hand, offer a good deal of earnestness in a society that's famously, tritely, distrustful of earnestness and triteness. In doing so, they raise questions like: does writing "well" really matter, do literary originality and emotional honesty tend to be in tension, and if so, how should they be balanced or prioritized?

—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.

"The education-reform movement is too white to do any good," by Andre M. Perry. The Washington Post, June 2, 2014.

Andre Perry lays out what's missing in the battle between self-titled education reformers and their detractors: the voices of black educators. It is not simply a matter of choosing a side and speaking from that ideological perch—the problem is that the terms have been set largely by white people, fighting to control the educational destinies of children and communities of color. Perry reminds us of the historical roots of education reform: "Particularly in the South, public education is a direct result of blacks’ struggle for control of their own schools, of which blacks worked with multiracial coalitions of faith-based organizations, white philanthropists and industrialists as well as progressive elected officials to create a portfolio of independent, faith-based and publically funded institutions. Now that was reform!" In its present incarnation, "reform" is a signifier so disconnected from that legacy that it would probably be best to drop it: "We need less 'reform,'" concludes Perry, "and more social justice."

—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.

"Why Can't Doctors Identify Killers?" by Richard A. Friedman. The New York Times, May 27, 2014.

With the nation still reeling from the horrifying Isla Vista shootings and the misogyny spewed by Elliot Rodgers before he acted, America is grappling with how this could have happened (yet again). I've read the news voraciously this week, trying, as so many others are, to understand what prompts these mass murderers.

Writing in The New York Times, Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, notes that mental illness can't be solely to blame, as many in the media are claiming: "While it is true that most mass killers have a psychiatric illness, the vast majority of violent people are not mentally ill and most mentally ill people are not violent." He does, however, say that "mass killers are almost always young men who tend to be angry loners." Why? Rebecca Solnit, writing on TomDispatch.org (and re-posted on The Nation), offers one answer—those who are mentally unstable soak up our culture's ills and woes. Solnit quotes her friend, a criminal-defense investigator, who says, “When one begins to lose touch with reality, the ill brain latches obsessively and delusionally onto whatever it’s immersed in—the surrounding culture’s illness"—in this case, misogyny and violence against women.

Friedman says that simply amping up mental health services—while good in it's own right—will not lead to an automatic reduction in mass shootings because doctors can't differentiate between someone who poses a threat and someone who doesn't. He asks, "If we can’t reliably identify people who are at risk of committing violent acts, then how can we possibly prevent guns from falling into the hands of those who are likely to kill?" An opinion piece in the LA Times has a solution, which may seem radical in the context of America's framing of the gun debate, but is common sense from a public health perspective: ban guns.

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—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.

The happy secret to better work,” by Shawn Achor. TEDxBloomington, May 2011.

Shawn Achor, a Harvard-trained researcher on positive psychology, believes our intuitive understanding of the dynamics of success and happiness is all wrong. We think that if we work hard, we’ll be more successful, and if we’re more successful, then we’ll be happier. “Our brains work in the opposite order,” he says, “If you can raise somebody’s level of happiness in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage,” a sort of dopamine-induced competitive edge. “Your brain at positive performs significantly better than it does at negative, neutral or stressed… Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise.” He highlights some of the happiness-boosting strategies researchers have found to be most effective; among them are regular exercise, mindfulness meditation, and conscious acts of kindness, like praising or thanking people in your social support network.

—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.

"Twists of Hate," by William T. Vollmann. Bookforum, June/July/August 2014.

Reviewing two new works of fiction centered around the war in Iraq, William Vollmann grapples with the possibility (or impossibility) of representing the experience of living in a war zone. Beginning with Hemingway, Vollmann traces the different ways that authors have attempted to go about this, drawing on his own experiences traveling and reporting around the world. What I found most interesting about the review was how reading these books forced Vollmann to confront attitudes among soldiers that he finds abhorrent yet recognizes may reflect reality. "I am hiding my head in the sand until I accept that they think so," he says, referring to a soldier's remark in one of the books about attacking a mosque. Is this the only possible reaction? Isn't there a way to fight these opinions, to try and change people's minds?

 

Read Next: Classes may be ending, but student activisim continues.

What Are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 5/30/2014?

Wildfire

A helicopter drops water on a wildfire raging at the edge of Colorado Springs that in one night doubled in size and forced more than 32,000 people from their homes. (Reuters/Rick Wilking).

—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.

Opponents Barred From Speaking as Cobb County Approves Braves Stadium,” by Barry Petchesky. Deadspin, May 28, 2014.

With the World Cup just weeks away, protests have been erupting across Brazil as people reject the spending of public money for the financial profit of the few. While the World Cup might dominate headlines as the most glaring example of wasteful spending in the sporting world, this is an increasingly common trend across the world. Lavish, luxury-box-filled stadiums are approved and built when owners insist on a team’s “important role” in “the community”—the same community that is denied a democratic vote in the process, robbed of tax dollars used to fund the construction and is eventually priced out of attending games altogether. In my home state of Georgia, Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves have jumped aboard this elitist bandwagon with unbridled enthusiasm. On Tuesday, a public meeting was held on the building of a new stadium for the Braves in the Atlanta suburb of Cobb County. Pro-stadium business interests waited in line for several hours in the middle of the day, snatching up all twelve of the meeting’s speaking slots while normal people worked. Speaking to The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Rich Pellegrino of the group Citizens for Governmental Transparency decried the situation. “We’re working people,” Pellegrino said. “We’re not on corporate welfare. It’s a slap in the face.” Unsurprisingly, all twelve speakers spoke in favor of the stadium, and the county commissioners unanimously voted to devote almost $400 million in taxpayer money from a county that is laying off teachers and slashing spending on public services.

—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.

Let’s call the Isla Vista killings what they were: misogynist extremism,” by Laurie Penny. New Statesman, May 25, 2014.

Innumerable responses to the Isla Vista killings have made their appearances in the last few days, but Laurie Penny has delivered, I think, the most important, the most eloquent and the most biting. She refuses to allow statements like “There is no creature more evil and depraved than the human female” and “Women should not have the right to choose who to mate and breed with” to be read as the random products of mental illness rather than as an integral part of a culture-wide ideology of violent misogyny. Female writers and public figures receive messages of hatred and threats of gruesome violence from strangers every day, she reminds us, and the fact that most of these are not acted upon shouldn’t mean we can mentally separate them from the language and actions of Elliot Rodger. I think the most important demand this essay makes is that violent misogyny and misogynist violence be denaturalized: it is not “normal” or inevitable that women are treated this way merely for existing, and it should be recognized as part of backlash against not (just) individual women who deny people like Elliot Rodger what they think they deserve, but against women in general who “as a class, as a sex” are fighting gendered oppression.

—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.

Spain shows that the ‘anti-politics’ vote is not a monopoly of the right,” by Luke Stobart. The Guardian, May 28, 2014.

The rise of new far-right parties has our attention, and for good reason. May’s European elections, however, have shown a similar expression of dissent coming from the left. In Spain, where the two dominant parties saw their share of the electorate drop from 2009’s 81 percent to 50 percent, a new left-wing party captured 8 percent of the vote. What are the virtues and dangers of these trends? How is apathy rousted?

—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups’ relationship with technology and development.

Generation TBD: With opportunity scarce, Brazil’s youth demand more than the World Cup,” by Corinne Chin and Fabiano Leal. GlobalPost, May 28, 2014.

This first installment of GlobalPost’s series on youth unemployment around the world looks at not only the protests against the World Cup but also the broader socioeconomic marginalization fueling them. While it’s richly reported, it doesn’t suggest many solutions for the issue beyond that the Brazilian government, of course, already ought to have focused its resources on projects that would more directly benefit its poorer citizens. But it’s hard to fault the article too much for that—the massively challenging nature of the problem is why GlobalPost launched this series in the first place. It will be interesting to hear if youth in other countries agree with the young favela tour guide quoted here, who, despite expecting to benefit personally from the World Cup’s tourism boost, “would trade the business for more social equality in his own community.”

—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.

In New Orleans, major school district closes traditional public schools for good,” by Lyndsey Layton. The Washington Post, May 28, 2013.

After Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana took control of almost all of New Orleans’s public schools in what became the Recovery School District, now the first district in the nation to go all charter. It is, writes Lyndsey Layton, “a grand experiment in urban education for the nation.” The fruits of the country’s “experiments” with public education over the past two decades are clear throughout the piece, from the measures chosen to rate school effectiveness (test scores, naturally), to the tired argument that charter schools bring agency to parents and their children. There is no choice, however, when it comes to determining test subjects for these grand experiments: in most instances, poor children of color.

—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.

“Heralded medical treatments often fail to live up to their promise,” by Alan Bavley and Scott Canon. The Kansas City Star, May 17, 2014.

This article is a breath of fresh air. It’s incredibly comprehensive. It offers detail. It’s well written. It’s accurate.

Those words sadly can’t be used to describe much health journalism produced today, especially as reporters are losing their jobs and those who stick around are tasked with producing shorter pieces at a more rapid pace.

But Bavley and Canon thoroughly examine their subject. They consider multiple cases where supposedly blockbuster treatments—hormone replacement therapy, Vioxx and others—were proven to not only be unworthy of their high cost, but actually harmful to patients. Journalists (who want a feel-good story, and fast) are implicated in hyping up new treatments before they’ve proven their worth, as are doctors and medical centers (who get more cash for using expensive treatments). But arguably medical companies and the Food and Drug Administration are most to blame. The FDA doesn’t require large-scale studies for a new drug or device to come onto the market, and medical companies are likely to only conduct clinical trials that get them the results they need for marketing approval, not to find whether their invention is truly better than what’s already out there, or good for patients. Both of my parents have battled medical issues in the last few years, so I understand the desire for a perfect cure and a quick fix. But good science takes time, effort and money, something most medical companies are unwilling to invest if it means slowing down a potentially blockbuster product. Without more rigorous oversight, patients end up paying more than they need to—both with their pocketbooks, and potentially their lives.

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—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.

Avoiding Africa’s Oil Curse: What East Africa Can Learn From Past Booms,” by Ricardo Soares de Oliveira. Foreign Affairs, April 16, 2014.

The next decade will see Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and others become major African energy exporters. That this will benefit the citizens of these countries is far from certain. Economists use the term “resource curse” to describe the counterintuitive phenomena whereby the economies of nations blessed with natural resources perform worse, on average, than those with no such advantage. Too often what happens is that rather than investing mineral and petroleum wealth into public goods like health and education, a corrupt government will use the profits to consolidate power and insulate itself from public pressure. According to Freedom House, only a quarter of the world’s top twenty oil-producing countries can be said to be “free.” In the worst cases, sales of natural resources fund armed conflict, as occurred with “blood diamonds” in Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Ivory Coast. The environmental impact of poorly run mining or drilling operations can also be devastating; since 1970 there have been some 7,000 oil spills in Nigeria alone. Here political scientist Ricardo Soares de Oliveira points out that the discovery of natural resources need not produce such dire effects; Botswana, to cite just one encouraging case, put its diamonds to good use and is presently one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Outsiders in solidarity can leverage what influence we may have, but ultimately, as de Oliveira writes, “success depends most on popular mobilization,” on the ability of local reformers to “push questions surrounding oil and gas to the center of political life and foster large-scale activism against bad governance.”

—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.

Fire on the Mountain,” by Brian Mockenhaupt. The Atlantic, May 21, 2014

While Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article has deservedly been drawing a ton of media attention in the last week, I’d like to highlight another feature in the current issue of The Atlantic. In “Fire on the Mountain” Brian Mockenhaupt looks at the way that Western states are dealing with destructive wildfires, wildfires caused by a combination of severe drought and years of an overly aggressive fire suppression policy. This article is a poignant look at the difficult risk calculations that go in to fighting fires, both on the national level and by firefighters on the ground. With devastating weather events likely to become more common over the next several decades, we would do well, as this article suggests, to think about the safest and most effective means of combating disasters.

 

Read Next: The human costs of building NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus.

What Are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 5/23/2014?

Beyonce

Beyoncé performs during the Super Bowl half-time show. February 3, 2013. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

—Samuel Adler-Bell focuses on labor, mass incarceration and literature.

"Does the term 'apartheid' fit Israel? Of course it does," by Saree Makdisi. Los Angeles Times. May 17, 2014.

Secretary of State John Kerry's warning last month that Israel risks becoming "an apartheid state" in the absence of a peace deal has predictably launched an uproar in the halls of American political power—where an avowed "commitment to Israel" remains more or less a prerequisite to entry. Republicans have called for his resignation. California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer said, "Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, and any linkage between Israel and apartheid is nonsensical and ridiculous." Inevitably, Kerry was forced to backpedal ("if I could rewind the tape, I would have chosen a different word…") and the "apartheid" label was shunted back to the radical fringe, where it was surely devised by closeted anti-semites to undermine "Israel's brand." In all this noise, it's easy to forget—and I'm thankful to Saree Makdisi for reminding—that "apartheid" is more than a mere insult to be hurled back and forth by political foes. In 1973, the UN General Assembly adopted the "International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid," which explicitly defines the crime and lists those practices falling within its ambit. Makdisi, like many others before, makes a compelling case that Israel's policies toward Palestinians fall within the scope of the UN definition. "The question," he says, "is not whether 'apartheid' applies here. It is why it should cause such an outcry when it is used."

To be entirely fair, however, the United States has never formally endorsed the UN definition. Back in '73, we were among an intrepid group of four members of the UN general assembly who voted to reject the Apartheid Convention. The others opposed were Portugal, the United Kingdom and apartheid South Africa.

—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.

"Tight polls and blossoming scandals agitate a once dull Colombian presidential race," by Jim Wyss. Miami Herald, May 21, 2014.

Colombians go to the polls on Tuesday in what is turning out to be highly contested election. Incumbent Juan Manuel Santos was expected to coast to victory on the successes of peace talks aimed at ending the country's sixty-year civil war with the leftist FARC rebels. Just this week, the two sides came to a long-elusive agreement on drugs and drug trafficking. However, former Finance Minister Óscar Iván Zuluaga has skyrocketed in the polls, undoubtedly ensuring a mid-June runoff election. Zuluaga's ascent highlights an issue that isn't being widely discussed in the English-language media: the incredible influence that former President Álvaro Uribe has on this election. Zuluaga is Uribe's hand-picked candidate in this race, and has pledged to end the peace talks if elected. Uribe is himself famous for his refusal to negotiate with the rebels, preferring aggressive military policies like recruiting brutal rightwing paramilitaries. He left the presidency in the hands of his national defense minister Santos four years ago, and his influence continues to permeate Colombian politics. This tweet really says all there is to say about the his role in the upcoming elections, where every candidate is in some way connected to him: "I don't know whether to vote for Uribe's candidate [Zuluaga], Uribe's ex-candidate [Santos], Uribe's ex-minister [Marta Lucía Ramírez], Uribe's ex-mayor [Enrique Peñalosa] or Uribe's ex-girlfriend [Clara López]. Damn Uribe!"

—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.

—Cecilia D’Anastasio focuses on ethics, feminism, press freedom and tech.

"I’m Katha Pollitt’s 'Highly Educated' Leftist—And A Sex Trafficking Victim," by Ecowhore. Tits and Sass, May 22, 2014.

How should a sex trafficking victim present if they're trying to draw attention to the horrors they experienced? Sobbing and "subaltern," in Katha Pollitt's words, or perhaps as a "highly-educated" reader of The New Inquiry? A tension has grown in response to Melissa Gira Grant's new book, Playing The Whore, which in Pollitt's words, "says barely a word about the women at the heart of this debate: those who are enslaved and coerced—illegal immigrants, young girls, runaways and throwaways." Instead, the book attempts to redeem sex work as simply work - which should offer basic protection to workers - by discussing the narratives of women who had positive experiences with it. Without passing judgement on sex work itself, I invite you to read about both sides of the debate on the presentation of trafficked persons: "Let’s be honest," Ecowhore writes, "[Pollitt] doesn’t care about my victim credentials, unless I present as a good, sobbing, opinionless victim she can use as trauma porn to promote her own ideas." Ouch! But, in truth, do the illegal immigrants, runaways, etc. have the kind of access and tools that would allow them to influence the debate, nevertheless their own presentation as trafficked persons?

—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.

“Presidents, Bankers and Patriarchies,” [currently unavailable online] by Nomi Prins. The Washington Spectator, May 1, 2014.

The late Walter Karp (1934-1989) always noted that history is made not by trends but by the decisions of men and women. Nomi Prins’s new book All the Presidents’ Bankers—as well as her article in The Washington Spectator—follows this lens. What were the personal relationships and individual decisions that created the Federal Reserve, passed and repelled Glass-Steagall and removed the gold standard? Prins answers these questions while examining the intimate ties between bankers and the oval office, throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. She calls it a “hereditary bipartisan political-finance power complex.” And by explaining this complex through the acts and relationships of individuals, Prins does well in demystifying recent world history.

—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups' relationship with technology and development.

"Shiny, Shiny Data: The Thrill of the Chase," by Kalev Leetaru. Foreign Policy, May 14, 2014.

Leetaru's analysis of the disjunction between Silicon Valley techies who know how to actually analyze rather than just compile data and the policymakers who have the background and authority to apply such analysis echoes the older disjunction between academia and policymaking, with some key differences. The academic world has rarely asserted itself with the same confidence now typical of believers in the ability of big data to answer almost anything—a trend that's now transforming academia itself (as well as journalism). I don't think policymakers were ever afraid of scholars taking their jobs in the way Leetaru asserts the intelligence community now fears computers. Of course, he may be exaggerating the potential of big data as a panacea, both in what it can answer and what we'd actually want it to—concerns are that the NSA's PRISM program is both ineffective and a violation of rights, after all. 

—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.

"In the Land of Nigeria's Kidnapped Girls," by Chika Oduah. The Atlantic, May 21, 2014. 

"Delighted to welcome all the new Nigeria experts," tweeted author Teju Cole when the #bringbackourgirls campaign brought Boko Haram's abduction of over 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria into international focus. His tweet holds a warning: much of the reporting and analysis that describes the group from a point of authority should be treated with skepticism. The more authoritative take is that there is not much we definitively know about the group, the result of a confluence of factors that include the difficulties of reaching and reporting from the sandy, isolated land that makes up BH territory, and the group's 2013 designation as a foreign terrorist organization by State, which prohibits contact with the group. But Chika Oduah contributes something more important in this piece, in which she travels, at great risk, to Chibok: context. As much as Boko Haram affects its environment, it is also its product. Small clues to its future pepper this piece, like the roving anti-BH vigilantes, comprised largely of former BH members, who joined during a once-enticing recruitment campaign.

—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.

"Always Hungry? Here's Why," by David S. Ludwig and Mark I. Friedman. The New York Times, May 16, 2014.

Is our obsession with calorie counting as a way to lose weight seriously misguided? Two researchers, Ludwig and Friedman, have published an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association that suggests so. They say that we're not becoming fatter simply because we're eating more, but rather because we're eating the wrong things. The authors argue that by consuming more carbohydrates (as we have been increasingly doing for decades), our body produces too much insulin, which, among other factors, causes our bodies to store calories in fat cells; because these calories aren't accessible, we end up eating more, and pack on the pounds. While the authors suggest that more studies are needed to test their hypothesis, if they're right, our focus on cutting out fat, and sometimes replacing it with carbs instead, all the while solely focusing on reducing calories (rather than considering what those calories are made up of) may in fact be provoking an obesity epidemic, not helping to stem it. If carbs are the culprit, our individual eating habits, nutritional policy and companies' behaviors will have to radically change to reshape not just how much we eat, but what we eat.

Recently several articles have explored the reasons for our heavy-set existence (check out this one on toddlers' sleep and obesity). Ludwig and Friedman's suggestion—laid out in a fascinating, well-written and accessible manner in the NYT—could provide one more piece of the puzzle.

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—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.

Show Them the Money: Why Giving Cash Helps Alleviate Poverty,” by Christopher Blattman and Paul Niehaus. Foreign Affairs, May/June 2014.

Each year, high-income countries spend $150 billion on development assistance. By custom, if not unacknowledged prejudice, very little of this takes the form of direct cash transfers to the poor. Conventional wisdom among donors and development professionals has it that giving money directly to the poor—without conditions or supervision—is bound to produce waste and dependency. But this attitude is giving way as new research emerges suggesting that “cash grants to the poor are as good as or better than many traditional forms of aid when it comes to reducing poverty.”

The authors, a political scientist and an economist who co-founded the charity Give Directly, argue that “Western officials and organizations are not the best judges of what poor people in developing countries need to make a better living; the poor people themselves are.” While they stipulate that direct cash transfers may not be applicable in all settings and at all times—you can, for example, imagine a cash recipient with immediate needs forgoing a vaccine—they rightly challenge donors to ask themselves: “With each dollar we spend, are we doing more good than the poor could do on their own with the same dollar?”

—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.

"On bell, Beyoncé, and Bullshit," by Brittney Cooper. Crunk Feminist Collective, May 20, 2014.

Venerable literary theorist bell hooks caused a minor stir when she labeled Beyoncé a "terrorist" in reference to the singer's image on the cover of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People issue. While most denounced hooks' remarks, a few voices criticized Beyoncé's defenders for not sufficiently understanding the singer's complicity with the worst aspects of American culture. In this piece from the Crunk Feminist Collective, the author pushes back against those who insist on a so-called radical critique, showing how this kind of theorizing can flatten people's humanity and reproduce an out-dated, misogynistic attitude. Along the way I think Cooper makes the most salient point by insisting that the words we use to talk about popular culture matter, and the violence that these words can enact.

 

Read Next: Corrine Grinapol on what the media gets wrong about commencement speaker protests.

Reports of Worker Abuse Continue at NYU’s Newly Completed Abu Dhabi Campus

Abu Dhabi workers

Laborers work on a newly constructed housing village for construction workers on Saadiyat Island, UAE. (AP Photo/Andrew Parsons-File)

This article was originally published by the NYU Local and is reposted here with permission. 

Last month, NYU Abu Dhabi announced in a press release that its lavish, state-of-the-art, 450,000 m2 campus on Saadiyat Island had finished construction. Yet as the New York Times reported yesterday, the human costs were immense, and possibly unprecedented for an academic institution. The Times’s Ariel Kaminer investigated the labor conditions at NYU Abu Dhabi and found physical abuse, illegal recruitment fees, withheld passports, squalid living conditions and debilitating pay droughts, with minimal oversight from the university.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about labor abuses at NYU-AD. The Guardian’s report on migrant workers is a stunning indictment of the system of labor in Abu Dhabi, where satellite versions of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums are currently under construction on Saadiyat Island. Yet this newest article, in focusing on NYU’s explicit role in labor exploitation, takes the university to task.

To build the university where Bill Clinton will speak this week, laborers are paid less than what was contracted, are refused their own passports and bank cards, and sleep a dozen to a room. When attempting a strike, workers were arrested and beaten by the police. This is par for the course in Abu Dhabi—strikes are illegal and brutally suppressed—but it is a stunning contrast with NYU-AD’s commitment to academic freedom and university core values.

When the worker’s complaints were relayed to them, university officials stated that they were unable to verify the complaints either way, as the laborers are not employed by NYU—rather by contractors, in turn working for the UAE government. Margaret Bavuso, the executive director of campus operations for NYU Abu Dhabi, said that the university doesn’t monitor the wages paid by the construction companies at all.

The cornerstone of John Sexton’s Global Network University, NYU Abu Dhabi’s “walled garden” is luxurious for students and faculty. The campus was financed by the Abu Dhabi royal family, and all expenses are paid. The university compensates tuition, room, board, food, and even travel. Yet despite star professors and a Rhodes Scholar, the grim realities of the institution’s genesis have crept over the garden gate.

Outside of NYU-AD’s ivory tower, academic freedom and human rights are routinely abused. Human Rights Watch published a disturbing report from the UAE, illustrating the social and gender inequalities systemic in the country.

Two weeks ago, Gulf Labor published an investigation of Saadiyat Island working conditions, which detailed eight specific violations of NYU’s official Statement of Labor Values. Two violations in particular involved workers being deported without due process and not receiving promised salary increases. Responding in a statement to WSN, NYU Vice President for Public Affairs John Beckman said, “this was the first time we had ever heard” of the allegations, adding that “the bottom line is that those working on the NYU-AD campus project are paid significantly more than what is quoted.”

The Times found otherwise: With NYU’s new campus now complete, many workers have found themselves unemployed and stuck in financial limbo. Almost all of the workers interviewed said that they were forced to pay huge recruitment fees for which they’ve never been reimbursed. Two Nepali workers, Ramkumar Rai and Tibendra Kota, completed their work in 2013 but are unable to leave the Emirates. They recount spending the last sixteen unpaid months with expired work visas, unable to pay off debts and unable to afford flight tickets home.

According to NYU, the Saadiyat Island site’s accident rate was very low; only one worker death occurred during construction. The Guardian reported riots at the labor camp last August: “Workers described men being beaten with lump hammers and stabbed with spears in the dining halls. Golf carts, normally used to carry diplomats around on tours, were being used to ferry injured workers to ambulances.”

Vice Chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi Al Bloom spoke to the laborers. “All of you have worked so very hard on this project,” the Times reports Bloom saying. “Your children are benefiting from the work that you do on this project. There is no reason that those children, as they get educated in your country, that they can’t apply to go to school here. And just think about how exciting it would be for them to attend a school that you built.”

This week, the Coalition for Fair Labor at NYU launched a campaign urging NYU-AD to overhaul its human rights practices and labor standards. A petition letter with over 200 signatures from students and faculty from both NYU New York and NYU Abu Dhabi was sent to John Sexton and several members of the board of trustees Friday morning.

As of 2:59 pm, university representative John Beckman has a released a statement:

The occurrences cited in today’s New York Times are, if true as reported, troubling and unacceptable. They are out-of-line with the labor standards we deliberately set for those constructing the ‘turn-key’ campus being built for us on Saadiyat Island and inconsistent with what we understood to be happening on the ground for those workers. Moreover, they are wholly inconsistent with the level of compliance we know to be the norm for those working directly for NYU Abu Dhabi at our existing campus over the last five years in operational contracts covering services for food, safety, transportation, and all other matters.

In undertaking the creation of NYU Abu Dhabi, we specifically put in place what we believe were unprecedented labor standards that reflect the NYU community’s values and address standing concerns for workers in the region. Our standards include:

—top-of-the-market wages and benefits (including healthcare)

—clear contracts

—limits on hours

—overtime that was voluntary and compensated

—better housing conditions in accommodations near the worksite

—possession or ready access to personal documents, including passports, and

—reimbursement of ‘employment fees’ to those specifically recruited to our job site

And, knowing that achieving new standards might prove to be challenging, a monitoring system was put in place to detect and fix non-compliance.

No questions have been raised about compliance among the operational services — such as food,safety, and transportation — for which NYU contracts directly. The Saadiyat Island campus — on which construction is all but complete — was a ‘turnkey’ project that was built for us; contracts for building the campus were not under NYU’s direct jurisdiction, although all were subject to the same labor standards.

Moreover, the safety and well-being of those working on our project must be a foremost concern in any discussion of labor. In this area, the record has been outstanding: On a four-year, 21 building, 4.8 million sq. ft., 38 acre project, involving 51 million person-hours of labor, the project had an accident frequency rate (AFR, the number of accidents per 100,000 person-hours) of .03; by contrast, the UK construction industry has an average of .55, and the AFR for the London Olympics development was .16.

We will be working with our Abu Dhabi partners and Mott MacDonald, the compliance monitor for the project, to look into these reports, which are so at odds with the labor values we put in place. On a project this enormous, we expected that there would be instances when our standards were not met; our goal, for any worker who was not treated in accord with the standards we set for the project, has been to identify and correct those occurrences. And to any worker who was not treated in line with the standards we set and whose circumstances went undetected and unremedied, we offer our apologies.

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At 7:21 pm, University President John Sexton released a statement in a university-wide email:

The occurrences cited in today’s New York Times are, if true as reported, troubling and unacceptable. They are out-of-line with the labor standards (here and here) we deliberately set for those constructing the ‘turn-key’ campus being built for us on Saadiyat Island and inconsistent with what we understood to be happening on the ground for those workers. Moreover, they are wholly inconsistent with the level of compliance we know to be the norm for those working directly for NYU Abu Dhabi at our existing campus over the last five years in operational contracts covering services for food, safety, transportation, and all other matters.

We will be working with our Abu Dhabi partners to investigate these reports vigorously.

When we first undertook the NYU Abu Dhabi project, the values of the NYU community as they related to those who would build and work on our campus were very much at the forefront of our thoughts. Where did that lead us?

To set new, high standards, and establish a compliance process: The standards we set for workers (see the links above) were well received, even by Human Rights Watch. The standards ultimately encompassed:

—wages (those on NYU’s project are paid wages that place them squarely atop the market) and benefits (including healthcare)

—higher standards for housing

—limitations on working hours, and guidelines for overtime compensation

—guaranteed annual leave and maternity pay

—access to personal documents

—health and safety

—reimbursement for recruitment agency fees

In addition, knowing that on any large project there are issues of non-compliance, with our partners we also set in place inspection, compliance, and enforcement mechanisms to ensure that the labor standards are met, and to address any shortcomings as soon as they were identified. Since the beginning of the project some four years ago, approximately 1,600 worker interviews have been conducted; nearly 300 payment-record inspections were made; and multiple site visits conducted to the Saadiyat Island construction site, the worker accommodation facilities, employers offices, and the residential facility for NYU Abu Dhabi students and employees, among others, all aimed at discovering and remedying instances when our labor standards were not met.

To ensure that the standards were applied with utmost conscientiousness for the men and women working on contracts directly for NYU Abu Dhabi: With regards to those men and women working on assignments directly contracted to NYU Abu Dhabi – over 200 individuals in such operations as food, public safety, and transportation, where they interact with students, faculty, and staff daily — there have been no questions raised about compliance with the high standards we set. And, indeed, there has been a record of success: All of our directly contracted employees hold their own passports; over the past two years, 20 workers were reimbursed for employment agency fees; and the wages we pay are at the top of the market. Moreover, 97% of these workers were interviewed in the last year alone to ensure compliance with our standards.

To make safety on the construction site a foremost priority: In any discussion about labor and any effort to set high standards for workers, the safety and well-being of workers must be a topmost concern. No one has questioned our safety record, which has generally been judged to be an extraordinary success. In spite of the enormous size of the undertaking — a four-year, 21 building, 4.8 million sq. ft., 38 acre project, involving 51 million person-hours of labor — the project had an accident frequency rate (AFR, the number of accidents per 100,000 person-hours) of .03, which contrasts very favorably with a UK construction industry average of .55, and an AFR for the London Olympics development of .16.

And so we come to the issue of the application of the labor standards we set on the Saadiyat Island construction site, and the reports in the New York Times. Those cases are very much at odds with what we set out to do and what we understood to be happening on the site of the new campus.

As an institution of higher learning, facts matter to our community; truth matters to us. Though construction on the campus is essentially over, we nonetheless want to know, if we can, whether these were anomalous exceptions – still not acceptable, but a confined phenomenon, perhaps a result of having small subcontractors on the job-site for short periods of time – or whether they represent something more widespread.

As I noted, we are working with our Abu Dhabi partners to investigate these reports and seek more information on these cases to determine why, if the claims are accurate, they were not picked up by the compliance monitor, and to try to correct, to the extent still possible, any lapses in compliance.

It is surely the case that the welfare and safety of the workers who built our campus – which we sought to elevate – should be our focus for the moment. Today’s story appears to have found non-compliant conditions which we missed, and which we must address.

But I would also make the following observation: that today’s news, as troubling as it is and as demanding of attention as it is, should not come to represent the totality of how we think of NYU Abu Dhabi, because NYU Abu Dhabi is so much more.

Against great odds, we have – through the hard work of many faculty, students, and administrators drawn to the idea of creating a unique, global university — forged an enormously successful liberal arts research university in Abu Dhabi. It is able to attract students worthy of winning top scholarships, able to recruit outstanding scholars to its ranks of tenured and tenure-track professorships, able to undertake meaningful research, and routinely able to persuade those who visit of its specialness and successfulness. As we approach the graduation of its first senior class, it is worth remembering that it is this community of scholars and teachers and learners that is truly at the heart of NYU Abu Dhabi.

The University will be back in touch when we have more information to share on this matter.

 

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