Monday, March 28, 2011

Bittersweet Treats

Today, I witnessed first-hand what misinformation and a stubborn attitude can do to positive change: kill it. GWU's Young America Foundation (YAF), and the College Republicans (CR), hosted an Affirmative Action Bake Sale on Kogan Plaza this afternoon. The trend is spreading nationwide. For at least the past two years, conservative organziations on college campuses from the University of Florida to Purdue University have hosted these "fundraisers" charging students of ethnic or racial minorities lower prices for baked goods, while white students pay full price. At today's bake sale, "Asians" were charged the highest, at $1.25 per baked good. There was also a "Human Price", apparently the sponsoring organizations' attempt to equalize the playing field, and symbolize what they were aiming to preach- "equal opportunity for all irregardless [sic] of race" as one student said. Strangely enough, the Human Price was the same as what white students had to pay, so their attempt to appease those in disagreement fell a few steps short of effective.

 The 40+ degree weather chilled the fingertips of members from the NAACP, Black Student Union and Voice Gospel Choir; thier hands ached as they handed out fliers to passers-by, and the bake sale's  sponsoring organizations, inviting them to a panel discussion on Affirmative Action this evening at the Multicultural Student Services Center. Sally Nuamah, BSU co-President, said their main objective was to engage in conversation through an "educational protest." When informed by Student Activities that CR and YAF could not be prevented from hosting the bake sale, and despite a last-minute reschedule from last week's bake sale, Sally and other black student organization officers gathered together to figure out how they would respond. "Their clear intention is to spread ignorance," Sally said. They decided to invite the CRs and YAF to the panel because "our main issue is that they are not giving a complete definition of Affirmative Action."

(left to right) Arielle Ford, Freshman- member of BSU, ACE Magazine, and Voice Gospel Choir; Marcus Hendricks, Senior, member of Voice Gospel Choir; Tori Guy, Freshman, member of BSU; Dominique Bozeman, Second Vice-President NAACP

The Young Americans and College Republicans engaged in lively debates with the protesting students, and insisted that affirmative action is racist. In a perfect world, the Magic School Bus would have appeared right in front on top of the table, and Ms. Frizzle would read her copy of Executive Order 10925, clearing up the common misconception that employers and admissions directors are instructed to select applicants based on meeting race quotas. President Kennedy wrote the order to promote equal opportunity for all persons regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin (later added by subsequent Presidents were age, religion, color, and various other elements of discrimination). A few students I spoke with were displeased with what the College Republicans and YAF accomplished. Aleks Marciniak, a junior majoring in Russian, said she has friends who were very upset about the bake sale taking place, and she wished they did something else than this "very simplified version" of explaining affirmative action. CR and YAF explained to her, and any one who would listen that it is affirmative action that creates resentment among students who are not given preferential treatment. But, Gina Bochis, a junior Human Services major, said
she came to the event to see what they had to say and learn more about Affirmative Action, but if anything, the bake sale itself created more division among students.

It was frustrating to have a discussion with folks who were unwilling to hear the rationale behind this policy they so vehemently despise. Michael Tapscott, director of the Multicultural Student Services Center, commended all the protesting students on their dedication to the cause, and despite some pleas to shut the event down completely, he reminded us that "one of the most important things you do in this period of your life, is argue for what you believe in."  Arguments like "my Italian ancestors made their way in this country without affirmative ation, so why should a black kid who has worst test scores get into a university over a white kid who worked hard to get there?" were thrown out in raised voices, and were mostly met with blank stares. I'll be pleasantly surprised if any of the YAFs or CR show up to the panel discussion- all of them turned down the invitations extended this afternoon. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

This Week: Waves of Change

The Washington Post sends Breaking News reports to my cellphone all day long. These reports, Express coupons, bank balances, and AlertDC traffic updates crowd the Yahoo! inbox I've demoted to "important slash annoying emails" status. Last Friday, when I got an alert that Japan suffered an 8.9-magnitude earthquake, and was then struck by a 13-foot tsunami, I shook my head, called His name and put my phone down. Admittedly, ever since Hurricane Katrina, I tend to feel a here-we-go-again feeling every time a natural disaster occurs. I've been desensitized by this incessant email feature, making lives lost seem as unimportant as a quick glance at a cell phone. But, when I saw these pictures, I was brought hurtling back to reality.

My mind was bewildered and full of questions: "Seriously, where is all of that water going to go? Who is going to rebuild all these houses? How are the kids supposed to go to school, what if someone is somewhere having a baby, when are the funerals, what are people eating, where are the doctors...what are they going to do?"

I wish, more than anything, that I had an answer to these questions. I wish I could do more than send a text messaged donation, because what is my measly contribution going to do for a little girl who saw her house, engulfed in flames, swept away by the ocean. When disasters strike, I don't think about it being the end of days. Why think of the end and waste moments that could be the beginning of recuperation? Now, with the threat of nuclear plant disaster, there are brand new problems to solve, amplifying the already unbearable waves of destruction.

Do something. Do anything but sit there and ignore what's happening. The end is not here, and if you're up reading this, it's not near either. You have an opportunity, right now, to make a difference.

Ways to help:
1. Pray. Think nice thoughts. Wish for good things to happen. Spread good karma. Whatever you choose to call it, send some positive vibes Japan's way.
2. Pay. Because money makes the world go round, even though the earthquake shifted the earth's axis.
--Mercy Corps
--Save The Children
Or check Google for even more organizations who are accepting donations.

I know Mother Nature's been busy the past few years, but it's imperative that we treat every situation urgently. Don't become jaded by those convenient reminders that turn news into nuisances. Don't allow (in)famous actors to steal the spotlight from the true stars of the show- our fellow world citizens who are desperately in need of our immediate and heartfelt attention.

*Thanks to for the photos. View more photos by following that link.*

Sunday, March 6, 2011

This Week: U-N-I-T-Y!

Readers, I'm so excited to introduce BPHSN's faculty advisor, Karen Pomerantz, as our guest blogger for This Week. I hope you enjoy the post and are encouraged to become an an advocate for public health across the world, or right here in our own backyard.

From North Africa to the Midwest, conditions for working people are getting worse.  In Congress and state legislatures, Republicans and Democrats have cut funding for housing subsidies, HIV medication programs (ADAP), energy subsidies for the poor, literacy training (Even Start), child care, and education while spending billions to fight wars and prop up dictators.  

Yet, people are not taking this lying down!  Students have shut down the University of Puerto Rico to oppose new fees, and workers have occupied the state house in Wisconsin to protest union busting.  Meanwhile, 10s of 1000s of people in Africa, Iraq and the Middle East have demanded civil liberties, basic services, and jobs.

Why should we care?  As public health students, we know that decent living conditions, such as well paid jobs, employment security, access to higher education, paid sick leave, influence our health and health care.   As employers push down wages and benefits for higher paid workers and slash the safety net, it will be harder for us to enable healthy choices and policies.

We also have a very personal stake.  Most students pay exorbitant tuition rates and leave the University with a burden of debt.  We need jobs and economic security for our own well-being as well as for the public.  For decades, unions set the standard for union and non-union jobs.  But when union workers are forced to take a cut, all working people in the community see their wages, benefits, and working conditions deteriorate.  Employers no longer have to compete for workers by offering better jobs.

Therefore, it is in our interest to support labor actions that demand better – and we don’t have to travel to Wisconsin or Ohio.  Right here in DC are 2 hot labor struggles we can support.
Washington Hospital Center nurses:  The nurses walked off their jobs on a 1-day strike on Friday, March 4 to protest pay cuts in night and weekend shifts and dangerous staffing levels.  Nurses on the picket line described how the Hospital is trying to push out experienced nurses so they can hire new ones with less pay.  The Hospital threatened to cancel clinical practicums if a nursing school didn’t provide scabs for the strikers!  For now, the Hospital has locked out the workers til Wednesday, March 9.  You can join them on their picket lines during this time – let them know public health supports nurses!

Metro workers:  Members of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689, 7,000+ Metro workers, have been working under an expired contract since 2008.  In 2010, binding arbitration resulted in a contract that increased workers' payments for their health insurance, eliminated retirement health benefits for new hires, and froze wages for the first year of the contract.

Nevertheless, the union agreed to abide by this contract because it included retroactive 3% pay increases per year – bare minimum cost of living increases, which they haven't had since 2007.  Now the court has ruled that Metro workers can’t even receive this small pay increase unless they prove the company can afford it! 
Metro's work force is predominantly African American, meaning that cuts to wages and benefits have a racist effect, hitting black families in our area the hardest.  This group is already disproportionately affected by the HIV epidemic, the housing crisis, and cuts and layoffs in public schools.  Metro management also continues systemic racism by cutting bus lines and service east of the river, and threatening to cut late night train service – just when workers in food service, health care, and other service jobs end their shifts.

Workers and riders alike suffer from overcrowded trains and buses, broken escalators, and faulty switches.  Metro operators and engineers are responsible for the safety of their co-workers and hundreds of riders every day.  We cannot protect their health and safety – or our own – by increasing their stress and workload, or blaming the people with the least authority every time a malfunction makes the news. 

Metro workers' wages and benefits help support the entire local economy, especially low-income families.  A minimum wage worker at Walmart, for instance, may depend on their spouse's health insurance from Metro to cover health costs that would otherwise bankrupt the family.

Developers flock to the area around Metro stations because they know they'll make a profit there.  The federal government and businesses like the Verizon Center, Whole Foods, Target, and countless others depend on the Metro system.  If the DC government can afford to offer millions in tax breaks to developers, and the federal government can afford to spend millions every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, surely enough resources exist to fund the Metro system safely and fairly.

- Celebrate International Women’s Month by supporting the nurses.  Join the nurses’ picket lines at 1st and Irving St. NW til March 9th and check back for updates.

- Rally with Metro workers outside Metro headquarters at the JACKSON GRAHAM BUILDING, 600 5th St, NW (Judiciary Square) on March 10, 8:30am – 12pm to demand that Metro fulfill its contract obligations.  Contact for information.

- Circulate this article.  Talk to your own union, co-workers, student groups, church, and community organizations.  Invite Metro workers to speak with your group about what they experience on the job.  Share with them your ideas and experiences.  Metro workers will meet with public health and GWU students in early April.  Stay tuned.

-          Be critical of media coverage of Metro and the Washington Hospital Center.  Discuss why accidents are part of a systemic failure, not the shortcomings of individual workers.  Think about who benefits by cutting wages and busting unions.  What are the public health implications?

“Ultimately, happiness rests on how you establish a solid sense of self or being. Happiness does not lie in outward appearances nor in vanity. It is a matter of what you feel inside; it is a deep resonance in your life. To be filled each day with a rewarding sense of exhilaration and purpose, a sense of tasks accomplished and deep fulfillment- people who feel this way are happy. Those who have this sense of satisfaction even if they are extremely busy are much happier than those who have time on their hands but feel empty inside.” – Daisku Ikeda