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The Newest Avenger: Superhero to Challenge Race Politics

It is no secret that superheroes on the big screen rake in ample box office success. This could help explain why this summer alone has already featured four films with heroes in tights.

By no accident of design, Hollywood reiterations on comic books often reflect on administrations, policies and ideologies taking place in the nation’s capital. Thus, dissecting the seemingly premeditated moves of comic writers and filmmakers, examining the political nuances of plot and deciphering the political leanings of superheroes themselves is a coral reef of vast, colourful, diverse complexity, and a pastime for many.

Take Ironman as an example. Following its 2008 release, Tony Stark was famously described by comic-artist Jorge Lucas as the “first political superhero” post-9/11—albeit hailing from the conservative end of the spectrum, if his occupation as a weapons manufacturer hadn’t given that much away.

Even the first Spiderman, released a year after 9/11, though not overtly political, came with cautionary undertones. The barefaced dictum that “with great power comes great responsibility” uncannily captured the zeitgeist of the Bush pre-emptive doctrine era.

However, Hollywood’s political superheroes have thus far remained very wealthy, very handsome, very male and very white—even though one could argue the legitimacy of some commendable films featuring colored-and-heroic crime fighters, like Will Smith’s Hancock. However, I’d argue that Hancock remains infused with perennial stereotypes of the habitually unemployed, foul-mouthed, lazy drunkard African-American male—who in the context of this particular film gets “saved” when he encounters “a white man with a heart of gold and an angel of a son” wanting to help Hancock with his “image.”

This June, when Marvel Comics killed off its longstanding and most popular character, Spiderman, the comic book industry swung into action.

In the spirit of many a ‘retired’ athlete and rapper, Spiderman will not remain out of the comic book industry for too long and is slated for a comeback this September. This time however, he’s ditching Peter Parker’s persona as scrawny, awkward, white, science-nerd and adopting a new persona as the half-black, half-Latino Miles Morales.

Adding further spin to this intriguing minority web, the sexual orientation of your friendly neighborhood superhero remains deliciously unannounced by Marvel Comics creative team, which includes Brian Bendis.

In the past, both Marvel and rival DC Comics have featured minority superheroes but “changing the identity of Spider-Man… its single most recognizable property, is a watershed moment,” according to Bendis.

I remember a time when getting that rolling ‘r’ and the glottal stop before the ‘s’, when pronouncing the name of DC Comic’s most exalted supervillain, Ra’s al Ghul, left one feeling all sorts of important. Bear in mind, this was the relatively innocuous early-90s, prior to 9/11 and the resulting Islam-induced paranoia. And in those simpler times my sincere fascination with al Ghul, an ecoterrorist, was not as questionable.

But the place and time in which we find ourselves currently stationed does not allow for such aimless victories. We are forced to question, to reflect and to challenge on a larger scale the prejudice, paranoia and ignorance of our day.

Now—forty years since the creation of Ra’s al Ghul, and a half-decade since the Hollywoodization of much of the comic industry—it is hard to bury one’s head in the sand disregarding the obvious: that there has been an acute shortage of minority figures as crime-fighting, world-saving and luxury-living superheroes.

By adding this new identity to its “Ultimate Universe,” Marvel Comics takes home the gold in two considerable ways.

First, similar to when Dick Grayson replaced Batman as the caped crusader of Gotham (giving a facelift to the Batman series), inducting Miles Morales into the Spiderman Hall of Fame will make for a fresher, newer story arc—rife with new adventures and conflicts.

And secondly, Marvel Comics will become the archetypal symbol of present-day America, in all its glory as pantheon of diversity. Since the inception of Spiderman in 1962, America’s socio-economic-political landscape has undoubtedly had a major overhaul, and now those with minority status represent more than one-third of our country, at 34 percent.

To quote Spiderman’s arch-nemesis the Green Goblin, Marvel is merely “rectify[ing] certain inequities”—namely the lack of ass-kicking, kick-ass superheroes of a varied racial or ethnic heritage.

Marvel began stepping up its game, even before inducting Morales into its hall of fame, with the addition of Dust a k a Sooraya Qadir to its X-Men family. Dust, having been liberated from the Afghani slave trade by Wolverine, was described as having a “respect for tradition and a strong moral code.” It is hard to say whether these “Islamic” values coincided or clashed with her voluptuous bosom, sharply defined against her burka-clad body, through which only her eyes are visible.

Not one to be left behind, DC Comics answered the Bat-call for minority superheroes as well, as the Batman series welcomed Nightrunner aka Bilal Asselah, a French-Algerian Muslim, to be head representative of France’s wing of Batman Incorporated. This French-Muslim, parkour-ing ally to Batman, who rejects hate and fear (due to the influence of a pious Muslim mother), would cause quite the uproar amongst right-wing US bloggers.

And then there’s Dr. Naif al-Mutawa’s The 99. Yes, say your Salaams to a team of Sharia-compliant superheroes fighting evil with truth, justice and, of course, preternatural talents. These superheroes, each mirroring one of the ninety-nine attributes of Allah, right wrongs in the Western world and were branded by Forbes magazine as one of the top-twenty trends the world over.

A shift to a superhero bearing differences in the race, ethnicity and/or religion department may no longer be such an anomaly. Nevertheless, it still comes as a welcome change, a step towards an anti-polarization of the American social fabric and a successful demystifying of the Other.

Just think of all our youth picking up a copy of the new Spiderman series or The 99—simultaneously educing that comic book fix coupled with a wholesome dosage of America’s melting pot—at its finest and truest.

But whether changes within the comic industry will trickle down, affecting the racial makeup of those attending Hollywood’s casting calls for superhero flicks, remains unknown.

Nation Interns Choose the Week's Most Important (and Undercovered) Stories

Our media coverage is often dominated by one big story that crowds out most everything else. As an antidote, every week, Nationinterns try to cut through the echo chamber and choose one good article in their area of interest that they feel should receive more attention. Please check out their favorite stories below, watch for this feature each week, and please use the comments section below to alert us to any important articles you feel warrant broader attention.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio:
Letter from Representatives Luis Gutierrez, John Lewis, Mike Honda, and Raul Grijalva to President Obama, sent 7/22/11.
Letter from President Obama to Representative Gutierrez, sent 7/25/11.
Congressman Luis Gutierrez protested outside the White House on eve of the millionth deportation under Obama’s administration. He was promptly arrested, a fact widely reported by the media. But if we dip into some primary sources—namely, the correspondence between Gutierrez and Obama before the arrest but leaked after it—we’ll see that both politicians, ostensibly on the same side, are not even speaking the same language.

Kevin Donohoe:
The State of America’s Children.” The Children’s Defense Fund, July 2011.
This new report from the Children’s Defense Fund shows that between 2008 and 2009 child poverty jumped 10 percent, the single largest annual jump in the data’s history. While Washington focuses on budget cuts and entitlement reform, the study reminds us of just how much our current institutions have neglected American children.

Carmen García:
Bronx Catholic School, Populated by Black and Latino Students, Hires Known Racist as Principal,” by Erica Hellerstein. AlterNet, 8/2/11.
The author explores how a known racist was hired as the principal of the Bronx’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel School (which has a majority black and Hispanic student body). The now ex-principal there, Frank Borzellieri, attempted to create a resolution to teach students the “superiority” of US culture. This is local, civil and relevant racial politicking as it hits close to home:

Sahiba Gill:
Do Austerity Measures Increase the Risk of Social Chaos?” by Henry Farrell. The Monkey Cage, 8/9/11.
If empirical evidence is needed to link austerity with the rioting in Britain and Greece, a working paper from Europe’s leading economic think-tank finds that during the past century there has been a clear and consistent association between expenditure cuts and social unrest of all kinds.

Marc Kilstein:
Iranian Group’s Big-Money Push to Get off US Terrorist List,” by Scott Peterson. The Christian Science Monitor, 8/8/11.
The Christian Science Monitor is out with an important investigative piece on the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an influential Iranian opposition group, and their effort to hire former high-profile US officials to endorse the group’s push to be removed from the US government’s terrorist list. For anyone interested in US-Iran relations, this is a must read.

Shelby Kinney-Lang:
Veracruz AG Sends Wrong Message After Slaying of Journalist,” by Arturo Gallardo. San Antonio Express-News, 8/10/11.
At a scholarship event in late July, the San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists (SAAHJ) honored those Mexican journalists killed while covering Mexico’s intensifying drug war. The posthumously bestowed lifetime achievement award is perhaps the first instance of a US journalism institution recognizing the journalists that lost their lives in Mexico’s devastating war.

Anna Lekas Miller:
British Riots: Elites "Shocked" The Poor Are Rising Up Against Brutal Austerity Measures,” by Laurie Penny. AlterNet, 8/9/11.
Laurie Penny, a freelance columnist, avid member of UK Uncut, and Londoner places the riots in the context of social austerity: Britain’s poor and marginalized (a class that increases as austerity measures increases) are fighting for a sense of empowerment. It is an important piece in that it is an inside personal, yet political commentary rather than a superimposed analysis.

Zach Newkirk:
Leap of Faith,” by Ryan Lizza. The New Yorker, 8/15/11.
With Michele Bachmann steadily gaining in polls, she is slowly and surely becoming more of a legitimate contender for the GOP nomination. Lizza’s profile on the origins of the Minnesota congresswoman’s political and religious views are a sure read for individuals who only know her from occasional sound bites—or unflattering Newsweek covers.

Natasja Sheriff:
Susitna Hydro, In-State Gas Line Take the Energy Spotlight,” by Richard Mauer. Anchorage Daily News, 7/26/11.
This article caught my interest because of the issues and questions it raises. There’s a need to develop renewable energy sources, but hydropower can be contentious and the impacts uncertain. There are a lot of unknowns around this project in Alaska and the outcome could go either way. One to watch.

Britney Wilson:
The Abortion that Mitt Doesn’t Talk About Anymore,” by Justin Elliott. Salon, 8/8/11.
This article was extremely moving and it epitomizes the need for safe and accessible healthcare, including reproductive healthcare, for everyone.

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Sex, Lies and Michael Bloomberg

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently mandated comprehensive sexuality education be taught in all New York City public schools starting this fall. The mandate extends the usual semester of “health” education in high schools, requiring that one semester of age-appropriate sex education is taught in sixth or seventh grade, and another more mature semester is taught in ninth or tenth grade.

Mayor Bloomberg’s progressive mandate is inspired by a broader initiative to improve the lives of black and Latino teenagers who are disproportionately affected by unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Research shows that black and Latino teenagers have less access to sexuality education, indicating a correlation between the absence of sexuality education and failed family planning.

The Bloomberg administration hopes that increasing access to sexuality education will help reduce teen pregnancy and the ensuing poverty that frequently defines teenage parenting.

To its credit, the mandate itself addresses many contentious issues surrounding sex education. It provides age-appropriate sex education at both the middle and high school levels, addressing the common problem that many students don’t receive sex education until after they have had their first sexual experience. In addition, stressing and publicizing the content of “age-appropriate” sex education counters abstinence-only hysteria and smear campaigns that frame sex educators as heathens who are teaching kindergarteners how to have sex.

Moreover, the mandate provides sex educator training. While many “sex ed” teachers in the United States are otherwise untrained health or physical education teachers, the Bloomberg administration is working with the Department of Education to provide mandatory training for all new sex education teachers. Research shows that teacher training and comfort with openly discussing sexuality are not only positively correlated, but also foster trust and discussion between students and educators.

On the surface, Bloomberg’s sex education mandate seems to have it all—teacher training, age-appropriate advice on decision-making and sexual health, as well as essential information on accessing and using contraceptives. However, there is one essential element missing: a program monitoring system, i.e., accountability.

In 1982, New Jersey became one of the first states to adopt a statewide mandate for comprehensive sexuality and HIV education. Every public high school is required to provide unbiased information on sexual health and disease prevention, making New Jersey a model for progressive sexuality education. However, in 2005, Dr. Elizabeth Schroeder, now the executive director of the Rutgers University-based organization Answer, did an independent research project examining how high schools in New Jersey were teaching sexuality education, given the mandate. She was stunned at the number of schools that claimed not to teach sex ed—the mandate notwithstanding. Some schools lacked the funding to teach and promote “extraneous” sexuality education programs. Other programs were eliminated due to a vocal parent or school board member who complained until the program was shutdown.

Regardless of how the classes were evaded, New Jersey's experience shows that a “mandate” is largely meaningless for enforcing sex education in the classroom in the absence of any additonal accountability.

New York City’s sex education mandate is an important step towards political acceptance of comprehensive sex education. However, though it provides the manifesto for an ideal sex education program, it offers no system for accountability. As education budgets are being cut, “extraneous” programs—such as sex education—are often the first victims on the chopping block. In this economic climate, public schools, particularly the lower-income institutions in Bloomberg’s targeted communities, are more likely concerned with retaining funding for academic programs rather than whether or not they are offering state “mandated” sex education.

New York City public schools have both the public and political support necessary to make this difference. Parents overwhelmingly support sex education being taught in public schools, and the new mandate provides schools with the curricula and training they need to implement comprehensive programs. But will New York City schools be held accountable?

Why Arizona's Ethnic Studies Crisis Should Matter to All Educators: Interview With Dr. Rudy Acuna

This piece was originally published on the Huffington Post.

Hailed as one of the most influential educators and historians in the country, Dr. Rodolfo “Rudy” Acuña has played a major role in redefining national views on ethnicity and historical legacy over the past half century.

Nowhere has this role been more important than in the witch-hunt debacle over Arizona’s controversial ban on Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies. And in a chilling battle over First Amendment rights and censorship, nowhere has any other historian and his books gone under such scrutiny.

Acuña is the award-winning author of twenty books. His landmark text, Occupied America: A History of the Chicanos, has been singled out by Tea Party politicians such as Arizona’s former state school superintendent and present Attorney General Tom Horne as “inappropriate” for students. Picking up the Ethnic Studies ban torch, John Huppenthal, the current state superintendent of public instruction who campaigned last fall with the slogan that he would “stop La Raza,” has included Occupied America in his often unsubstantiated attacks on Tucson’s Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies Program.

Case in point: An independent audit of the Mexican American Studies Program commissioned by Huppenthal specifically refuted his own charges against Occupied America—and those of Hornes—and criticized Huppenthal’s staff for taking quotes out of context. Specifically, the auditors found:

Occupied America: A History of Chicanos is an unbiased, factual textbook designed to accommodate the growing number of Mexican-American or Chicano History Courses…. The curriculum auditing team refutes the following allegations made by other individuals and organizations. Quotes have been taken out of context.

The auditors also noted Acuña’s conclusion on page 418: “The challenge of the future for Chicanos will be to sift the realities from the hype.”

Winner of numerous honors, including the Gustavus Myers Award for an Outstanding Book on Race Relations in North America, Occupied America was published in 1972, and continues to be used in university and high school classrooms across the country.

On the heels of attending the screening of the celebrated film documentary on Tucson’s Ethnic Studies crisis, Precious Knowledge, at the LA Latino International Film Festival last month, I did this exclusive interview by e-mail with the 79-year-old Acuña and asked him about his views on the Ethnic Studies debate.

JB: Can you describe your own family connection to Tucson and Arizona?

RA: My mother’s family, los Eliases, were the (Tucson) pueblo since the 1770s. Because of malnutrition the family moved to Los Angeles in the late 1910s. My grandfather was a janitor for the Southern Pacific Railroad and transferred to the roundhouse in downtown LA. I had relatives in Tucson and visited the pueblo since I was five. My teaching experience was in Los Angeles. I married very young and attended LA State College and got my teaching credential there. I earned my PhD from USC attending night school. I have been active since the early ’60s, in not only teaching K-12 but helping to set up Headstart programs. This led to the routine activism of the ’60s.

JB: Your classic text, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, has been singled out by Attorney General Tom Horne as implying “to the kids that they live in occupied America, or occupied Mexico.” Can you discuss the title and its meaning, as it relates to the book’s themes?

RA: I have written over 20 books, seven editions of Occupied America alone. None of the other books is even mentioned by Horne and company. They read the title and assumed that I was talking about the occupation of the United States. From the beginning, in the first preface, I made it clear that “America” applied to two continents and the occupation of those continents by western European nations. Argentines, Chileans, and Mexicans are just as much American as the people living here. In the book I condemn not only Anglo American injustices, but also those of middle and upper class Mexicans of the poor working class. In no uncertain terms I condemn the massacre of Apaches at Camp Grant in 1871. My own relatives were among the guilty. Horne says that I lied because I said the US invaded Mexico: It did. It is a linear history with the available documents forming the narrative. I offered to debate Horne. However, I have made it clear that the discussion has to be based on history and not rhetoric. For example, Horne claims he was there when Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech, which I seriously doubt. In my case the narrative is verified by extensive footnotes, not on beliefs.

JB: Now into its 7th printing, Occupied America has been read in schools across the country over the past four decades. Do you think the recent conflicts over Mexican American Studies in Tucson reflect a lingering refusal on the part of certain political leaders, such as Horne or current Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, to recognize Chicano Studies as a legitimate viewpoint or legacy?

RA: They fail to accept the truth. Americans are still fighting the Civil War—see what is happening in Texas. For them slavery never existed. The South was wronged, according to them. Facts mean little. For example, even the Anti-Defamation League has absolved the Tucson program. Horne resigned from the ADL rather than question his assumptions.

JB: Horne, as you know, is a Canadian immigrant, whose Jewish parents fled Poland before the Second World War II. While Horne has championed his own cultural background as instrumental in shaping his educational views, he has referred to Mexican American and Ethnic Studies Programs in Tucson as based on a “primitive part that is tribal.” How would you respond to such allegations?

RA: Horne is an opportunist. I don’t believe that a rational man could make such a statement. Would he apply this to Jews in the United States? I hope not. They have a beautiful history and culture, which should be respected and appreciated. His response is also very racist. It comes from the member of a group that has suffered a lot. My early professors were Jews and they always encouraged me to get an advanced degree and to work with Mexican Americans. From that generation they were also clannish and refused to ride in a Volkswagen and married only Jews. I did not criticize them and appreciated that their experiences helped them understand me.

JB: In a letter last month, you called out the Chronicle of Higher Education for failing to adequately cover the Ethnic Studies conflict in Tucson. Do you feel that attacks on the Mexican American Studies Program in Tucson, and Chicano Studies in general, continued to be overlooked or downplayed by the national education community?

RA: Yes. Aside from the blatant violations of the First Amendment there is also a pedagogical consideration. Outside La Raza Studies, the drop-out rate among Mexican Americans is over 60 percent. Even the state-commissioned audit says La Raza Studies has been successful. They are doing something right and you would think that they would be curious and study it instead of trying to kill it. What this tells me is that they don’t care if Mexican Americans learn. I am convinced that there is a link with the prison industry that has been privatized and educational outcome. Who is going to fill up those prisons if not Mexicans?

JB: In your long-time experience as an educator and historian, how do you think Arizona’s ban will be seen in American education history?

RA: Like most everything else it will be condemned. More and more educators are Latinos. They are doing much of the research and asking different questions; for example, people such as Patricia Gandara, Gary Orfield and Danny Solarzono from UCLA. There is a counter narrative that was not there 40 years ago.

JB: At the recent National Writers Union meeting in Detroit, you urged attendees to “learn a bit more about Arizona. The racists are not going to win. But it’s going to be very hard.” Can you discuss why you think the Ethnic Studies ban in Arizona could have national implications?

RA: Arizona is being replicated elsewhere, in small states. But even in Texas, with all its racist past, they have not been able to pass a 1070 or 2281. There are too many Mexicans. In California the Cal State Northridge program has been tremendously successful. We offer 166 sections per semester. During the past 40 years, Chicano Studies has helped more Mexican students become doctors, lawyers, judges, engineers and teachers than the University of Arizona during this time frame. If the Tea Party comes to Los Angeles, there will be physical confrontations. People have lost their fear.

JB: Other thoughts?

RA: There are 50 million Latinos in the US. If we were a nation we would be the second largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world. By 2050 we will be over 30 percent of the US. In Arizona today, 41 percent of K-12 students are Latino. We would like to talk out our differences but the other side is crazy. Proof, the present Arizona state superintendent of schools commissioned a study, paid $170,000 to find out if the program was unpatriotic and effective. The report came back absolving La Raza Studies and praising the program. The superintendent then dismissed the study saying he had heard otherwise. Evidence has no meaning. I am sorry but I do believe in reason; I do not base my conclusions on opinion. Some people in Arizona think that God is white and related to them, which is for idiots.

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20 Percent of Veterans in College Have Planned to Commit Suicide

Veterans in college are six times more likely to attempt suicide than the typical student and more than a fifth have planned to kill themselves, a new study presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting shows.

Universities are largely unprepared to meet the educational, and mental health needs, of the more than one million veterans expected to enter institutions of higher education in the next decade according to the report.

“If we don’t think [this] through, it’s going to be a significant and very difficult problem,” the study’s author, M.David Rudd said. “These [mental health] numbers were far higher than anticipated” and veterans are “having dramatically more difficulty than the typical student.”

The study shows that about half of veterans have contemplated killing themselves and that 82 percent of those who attempted suicide also struggled with significant post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Researchers say veterans often feel disconnected from their fellow students. This social separation, coupled with a “warrior mentality” can make seeking emotional help especially difficult.

Since the passage of the post-9/11 GI Bill, the number of veterans attending college has surged. While many universities have worked to welcome and support veterans on to their campuses, the transition has not always been smooth. In Maryland, Charles Whittington, an Iraq war veteran, was suspended from the Community College of Baltimore County after he wrote a paper about his addiction to killing that college administrators found “disturbing.” Other veterans have complained that fellow students are immature or constantly ask, “Did you kill anyone over there?”

Rudd says that colleges and universities need to take a number of steps to support veterans.

His report suggests creating veteran support centers on campuses, setting up special veterans orientation and training college counselors to recognize combat-related trauma. States like Maryland have already tried to enhance veterans experience by fostering greater cooperation between Veterans Affairs office and university administrators. The University of Wyomig will introduce a special transition course for veterans this fall and UMass Amherest already has a “drop-in” center for veterans.

Yet these reccomendations may fall on deaf ears. As Claire Potter argues at The Chronicle of Higher Education, state governments are unlikely to fund the report’s recommendations. In the past two years states have already slashed the budgets that would have provided services for student veterans “from 10 to 20 percent across the nation”:

California, where we can imagine large numbers of vets matriculating because they have deployed from and will return there, is cutting between $1.3 and 1.4 billion dollars from a system that took massive cuts in the last fiscal year. North Carolina, a state that should see similar pressure because of its military bases, is cutting 15% from its state system alone. Private schools have also cut, and cut and cut. Texas? South Carolina? It’s the same story everywhere. Furthermore, as military budgets are reduced over the next several years, do we think that veterans benefits or weapons systems will be eliminated?

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Chilean Students Strike for Education Reform

A national strike by university and high school students is currently under way in Chile to press their demands for reform of the education system. This latest action by students who have been protesting for weeks, arguing that the current system is under-funded, unequal and unfair, follows on the heels of a continuing hunger strike by four students, now into its 15th day.

This video by talented young filmmaker Brittany Peterson offers a good sense of what's motivating the Chilean student movement and includes exclusive interviews with the hunger strikers.

Chilean student hunger Strike from Brittany Peterson on Vimeo.

Based in Chile, Peterson is currently conducting interviews for a new Nation video report on the country's burgeoning student movement and what could come next. Coming soon to thenation.com.

Inspiring Students to Enter Federal Service

Baby boomers working in government are beginning to retire en masse and there is critical need to replace them with millennials. Last month, the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management and the Federal Workforce held a hearing seeking answers and ideas on how to inspire students to enter the federal service.

“The federal government is the largest employer in the United States and federal service is a noble profession,” said Hawaii Senator and subcommittee chair Daniel Akaka. “Our nation, for the first time in history, is facing a huge retirement wave. The way they surf in Hawaii, we want to take advantage of the wave, and use it wisely as an opportunity to get a good ride.”

Around 273,000 “mission-critical” jobs need to be replaced by September 2012 largely due to retirements, a warning that is hardly new. The average age of a federal employee in 2007—the most recent year with available data—is 47 years old. In 1990, the average age was 42.3 years old.

And despite millions of unemployed Americans looking for work, unemployment is consistently under 5 percent for those with a college degree or higher according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The demand for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs is growing, particularly in the federal government.

The hearing’s witnesses agreed that attracting top young talent to the federal government is challenging and necessary. Witold Skwierczynski, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Social Security Administration Field Operation Locals, characterized hiring the next generation of federal employees as serious because federal employees “are the vital threads of the fabric of American life.” He also praised the Obama administration for “making government service ‘cool’ again.”

There are numerous challenges to attracting qualified students to federal service, including a shortage of skilled talent in areas like nursing, a complicated federal hiring process and increasingly negative rhetoric toward the federal government.

“Unless efforts to destroy the image and middle-class status of federal employees are not halted, it will not make a bit of difference if the Obama Administration creates the best possible recruitment programs,” Skwierczynski noted in his written statement. “A candidate with any sense at all would be reluctant to join a workforce which is constantly being maligned and financially undermined for political purposes.”

Timothy McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service also stressed the level of recent negative discourse toward the government and its consequences. “With anti-government sentiment and fed-bashing on the rise we believe that government may lose its competitive edge that it’s worked so hard to gain over the last several years,” he said at the hearing.

“I think a day doesn’t go by without a story in the newspaper about a fed being overpaid,” McManus told The Nation. “What we’ve seen is the more negative press there is around the federal government the less it is for people to think, ‘Hey, that’s something I want to do.’ ”

As levels of scrutiny toward federal employees increase and rhetoric turns toward cutting benefits and pay, prospective employees will likely be turned off, McManus said.

Some improvements have already been made despite daunting challenges. The witnesses at the panel praised President Obama’s executive order to end the Federal Career Internship Program. While the program did succeed in hiring more than 100,000 federal employees since 2001, it came under fire from unions and veterans’ organizations for “abuses in hiring,” according to John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

In ending this program, the administration aimed to make the hiring process for recent graduates more open, fair and competitive.

Its replacement, the Pathways Programs “will allow the Federal government to compete more effectively with the private sector for promising candidates who may be short on experience, but long on potential,” said Christine Griffin, deputy director of the US Office of Personnel Management. “We think it will be a vehicle through which we can improve diversity of the federal workforce.”

Senator Akaka may have called federal service a “noble profession,” but recent graduates may be entering into less “noble” career paths. A report from the nonprofit Kaufmann Foundation found, for example, that the finance industry has increasingly attracted young talent at the expense of other sectors. The increase of highly complex products increased the need to hire holders of advanced degrees in science, math and engineering. Working for these financial companies could lead to salaries “five times or more what their salaries would have been had they stayed in their own fields and pursued employment with more tangible societal benefits,” the report found.

The news isn’t as disheartening for federal employers as recent surveys of college graduates suggest. A 2010 survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers reveals that only 39 percent of college graduates put working in a for-profit, private sector job as their primary post-graduate goal. Interest in working in the government and nonprofit sector consistently grew from the 2008 to 2010 survey, with 21 percent of respondents planning to pursue jobs in these areas.

These trends relate to a certain sense of optimism present at the hearing. “While young Americans want to serve, they do not want to serve simply for the sake of service,” said Ann Mahle, vice president for recruitment at Teach for America. “They want to understand that their work has a real, on-the-ground impact.”

“College graduates, to a remarkable degree, want to make a positive impact in their work.”

You wouldn’t guess that by looking solely at some college’s job listings. Cornell University’s daily newspaper’s job board, for example, is remarkably skewed toward companies like Goldman Sachs, Barclays Capital, Credit Suisse and Deloitte. For a school with robust programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the job listings are overwhelmingly geared toward the private sector. Similarly, Harvard’s paper has numerous listings from, among others, Bank of America, Fidelity Investments and Accenture.

Granted, this foray into college newspaper job listings is hardly a scientific study on the job preferences of Generation Y. But it does speak to the reasonable concept that many graduates want to make quick bucks and plenty of them. With student debt reaching soaring heights, it’s no wonder that there’s a need from students to repay those loans as quickly as possible.

Still, as Mahle accurately suggests, there are hundreds of thousands of soon-to-be and recent graduates who simply want to make a positive impact, including federal service. It will take considerable outreach and marketing from federal agencies and departments to reach out to these young people as well as coordination and training from colleges and universities to facilitate them to these crucial jobs. It would be a mutually beneficial relationship.

“Even in light of the negativity, this is their opportunity to make a difference,” Timothy McManus of the Partnership for Public Service said to The Nation. “It doesn’t matter that you’re looking at issues of housing, or energy or the environment. There’s no bigger stage to make a difference than the federal government.”

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Nation Interns Choose the Week's Most Important (and Undercovered) Stories

Our media coverage is often dominated by one big story that crowds out most everything else. As an antidote, every week, Nationinterns try to cut through the echo chamber and choose one good article in their area of interest that they feel should receive more attention. Please check out their favorite stories below, watch for this feature each week, and please use the comments section below to alert us to any important articles you feel warrant broader attention.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio:
Life on the Line,” by Andrew Rice. New York Times, 7/28/11.

Kevin Donohoe:
Mobile Biometrics to Hit US streets,” by D. Parvaz. Al Jazeera, 8/2/11.          

Carmen García:
Cristina y Mujica Hablaron de un Mundial y de un Tren Binacional,” by Natasha Niebisekikwiat. Clarín, 8/3/11.
For non-Spanish speakers, Carmen explains:
“Argentine president Cristina Kirchner and Uruguay's commander-in-chief are in discussions re: the two countries' ongoing conflict between the agricultural product of the two allies and how they are pledging to remain allies as the South American continent witnesses Brazil's rise to economic power. Among their agreements are strengthening the natural gas resources/ infrastructures of the two countries, as well as dredging Uruguay River's canal system.”

Sahiba Gill:
Tocqueville And the Tube,” by Ben Berger. National Review Online, 5/17/11.

Marc Kilstein:
Goldman's New Money Machine: Warehouses,” by Pratime Desai and Clare Baldwin. Reuters, 7/29/11.

Shelby Kinney-Lang:
Non-Profit News: Assessing a New Landscape in Journalism,” by Jesse Holcomb, Tom Rosenstiel, Amy Mitchell, Kevin Caldwell, Tricia Sartor and Nancy Vogt. Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, 7/18/11.

Anna Lekas Miller:
Seeking Arrangement: College Students Using 'Sugar Daddies' To Pay Off Loan Debt,” by Amanda Fairbanks. Huffington Post, 7/31/11.

Zach Newkirk:
A Disgraceful Deal,” by Robert Kuttner. The American Prospect, 8/1/11.
Zach is also reading, “The Tea Party, the Debt Ceiling, and White Southern Extremism,” by Michael Lind. Salon, 8/2/11.

Natasja Sheriff:
Bangladesh War Crimes Tribunal: A Near-Justice Experience,” by Morris Davis. Crimes of War, 8/1/11

Britney Wilson:
Study: Income Does Not Explain Segregation Patterns in Housing,” by Carol Morello. Washington Post, 8/2/11. 

Memo to Frank Bruni: Women Have Been Devastated by the Economic Downturn

In April, Beyonce released her single “Girls Run the World” and was quickly “called out” by the blogosphere.

“I don’t think it’s right that she’s promulgating historical inaccuracies to impressionable young women,” video blogger nineteen percent said in a YouTube rant that went viral. “[Beyonce is] imparting the false belief that they run the world by lulling them into a false sense of achievement and distracting them from doing the work it takes to actually run the world.” 

Now New York Times columnist Frank Bruni is having his own “Girls Run the World” moment. In his column titled “Celebrating the Girls of Summer”, Bruni writes that while women were sidelined in the debt ceiling debate (he cites a Politico slideshow), beyond the Beltway they "more than held their own this summer, and gave us reasons to rejoice.” He goes on to praise the success of Bridesmaids, pop singer Adele, the US Women’s soccer team and the yet to be released film The Help.  

Never mind that Nancy Pelosi was the one who took entitlement cuts off the negotiating table, facilitated enough Democratic votes to pass the debt deal and will have the power to appoint three house Democrats to the “Gang of 12.” Blinded by his disgust for the debt deal, Bruni argues that women are doing well everywhere except Washington.

Actually, the opposite is true. 

The biggest victory for women this summer— the Obama administration’s decision to require health insurance plans to cover birth control— came from DC, not Hollywood. 

Meanwhile a slew of reports released over the past month expose the devastating toll the economic downturn has had on women. On July 6 the Pew Research Center reported that in the past two years men gained 768,000 jobs while women lost 218,000 jobs— making this "the first recovery in which the unemployment rates for men and women have gone in opposite directions."

A week after the Pew report, Time magazine released a survey showing that only 27% of unmarried women had enough money saved for retirement. And earlier this week the Huffington Post reported that 280,000 students, most of them female, had signed up online for "sugardaddy” arrangements with older men to help pay off hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt. Amid these economic losses, conservative lawmakers are redoubling their efforts in statehouses across the country to effectively ban abortion.    

“The Girls of Summer” ignores this grim picture. And while it’s important to applaud positive media portrayals of women, Bruni seems more interested in Kristen Wigg or Emma Stone than the women sitting in the audience or working at the movie theater. 

There’s a different, and better way, to write about media coverage of women. In this week’s issue of The Nation, the University of Minnesota’s Mary Jo Kane also writes glowingly of the coverage of the US Women’s soccer team. But Kane’s piece doesn’t just start or end with the World Cup. She discusses the economic pressure women athletes work under, the context of the coverage and the work still to be done. Her piece stands in stark contrast to Bruni’s column, which suggests that the feminist revolution is here because a few films have portrayed women fairly. 

Frustrating too is Bruni’s narrow reading of American pop culture. In a time when the average movie ticket costs far more than the minimum wage and social media is free, why would you write a piece about cultural progress by only citing two films, a novel and a sports tournament? Maybe if Bruni had went on YouTube he would have seen nineteen percent’s video— and re-written his column. “But a simple survey of reality is we don’t run anything,” she passionately tells the camera. “These messages of girl power in art, media and music are useless unless there is actual work being done behind them.”  

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Don’t Have Sex—You Will Get Pregnant and Die

In Cincinnati, Ohio, a high school sex education teacher carefully places a Jolly Rancher candy on each student’s desk. The 14- and 15-year-old students feel the crinkly plastic wrapping in their hands, wondering when they will get to eat their tantalizing treats.

“Don’t eat the candy!” warned the teacher, although she had just finished placing one on each desk. “You must wait until after class. It will taste much better if you allow yourself to wait.”

And so begins the young Ohioans' lesson on abstinence—the only method of pregnancy or disease prevention that they will learn during their high school sexuality education class. 

One in every four adolescents receives this type of abstinence-only sexuality education. According to recent statistics from the Guttmacher Institute, 41 percent of teenagers (regardless of the type of sexuality education they received) know little or nothing about condoms and 75 percent know little or nothing about oral contraception. One in three teenagers claims to have never had any formal education on birth control, suggesting that even those not necessarily enrolled in abstinence only programs are still unable to access critical sexual health information. 

There is no significant difference in the rates of teenage sexuality in the United States compared to other similar, developed Western countries. American teens are simply far less likely to use contraception. It is no surprise that the United States has one of the highest teen pregnancy and STI rates in the developed world.

Sexuality education in the United States has evolved to teach everything besides sex itself. Although teenagers in more progressive schools may learn how to slide a condom onto a banana, they rarely learn how to access birth control conveniently and affordably. Instead, students in both abstinence only and comprehensive programs are given projects that test and assess their knowledge of how to avoid sex, rather than their knowledge of sexual health. At the end of a typical course, many students know that they can “go to the movies” or “play soccer” instead of having sex, but they do not know what to do in case their alternative activities plan falls through and the condom breaks.

Sexuality education, more intimately known as “sex ed,” began in earnest in the mid 1980s with the advent of the AIDS epidemic. Once it became established that the HIV virus spread through sexual contact, policy-makers both inside and outside the federal government felt a social and moral responsibility to educate students on disease prevention through the public school system. Despite the Regan administration’s notorious silence on AIDS and support of religion-centered abstinence-only policies, the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) distributed $310 million in HIV/AIDS education marking the first federal funding for “comprehensive” sexuality education.

However, implementing truly comprehensive sexuality education was difficult during the Reagan years, despite the large grant from the CDC: less than half of the programs taught factually accurate information and many programs framed HIV/AIDS education as a gay issue and contended that homosexuality was both sinful and the cause of the AIDS crisis. Only 10 percent of the CDC programs even revealed the great value of condoms as a method of disease prevention.

And we've moved depressingly slowly since that time and, in some important respects, even backward: in 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Bill, which included Title V funding—an annual $50 million allocated for abstinence-only-until marriage programs—as a rider. Although it was slated to expire June 30, 2009, it was reauthorized in 2010 as a condition of Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Thirty states currently receive Title V funding despite an $8 million Congressionally mandated study stating that abstinence-only programs do not significantly halt, or even delay, sexual activity.

In order to receive the grant, abstinence-only programs are required to teach eight key concepts, among them, that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity” and “sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical side effects.” Contraceptives are only discussed in the context of failure rates, and extramarital sex is stigmatized as morally wrong and psychologically damaging.

It is worth repeating that a full one-fourth of all American teenagers receive this type of sexuality education unfettered by any alternative views. 

Even comprehensive sexuality education—curricula that cover and discuss contraception, sexual orientation, and abstinence—can be technically comprehensive while still restricting key information. While contraception is discussed as a method for birth control and disease prevention, abstinence is often stressed as well. Class discussions and projects often show how to resist and avoid sexual encounters rather than how to practice sexual health. 

Making matters worse is the lack of any standardized program monitoring system. Though a state may provide comprehensive sexuality education on paper, what is actually taught in schools depends far more on what material the teachers are comfortable teaching and how much controversy the principal is willing to tolerate. Most teachers are not formally trained in sexuality education, and are hesitant to discuss “controversial” topics out of fear of backlash that could jeopardize their employment.

Many abstinence-only advocates further compromise comprehensive programs by pushing for sex segregation, parental notification and consent, and opt-out policies where students (or their parents) can chose an abstinence-only course instead of other fuller, if still limited, approaches. 

This is not a youth issue. This is not a women’s issue. This is a social issue. It is a war on information, waged against women and teens whose consequences ripple throughout society costing taxpayers through unwanted children, perpetual poverty and a strain on the welfare state. The real tragedy—and whatever hope there is—lies in the fact that, unlike many social issues, this one is immediately preventable.  

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