Category Archives: utopian

What could we do to build utopias? Liberatory practices, ambiguous utopias, possible worlds.

The Economics of Parenting

Economists study things and make theories, and based on what they say, lawmakers set policy. That’s just one of the things that makes the world go round, and we don’t think about it too terribly much, or at least I didn’t, until I started seeing the phrase “human capital,” but now that I have, I pay attention. And I come up onto statements like this:

While such policies may increase the size of the next generation, their impact on the generation’s total human capital are unclear, since per person human capital may change as well. . . . This paper explores a potential national policy tradeoff, embodied in motherhood timing, between the quantity and quality of children.

This excerpt is from the article “Motherhood Delay and the Human Capital of the Next Generation” by Amalia R. Miller, American Economic Review, 2009. It looks at whether standardized test scores, an indicator of the future economic value of children (a.k.a. “human capital”), are affected by whether or not mothers delay childbearing. The answer to this question is intended to help countries decide whether or not to set “pro-natalist policies” — that is, policies that encourage women to have lots and lots of babies.

(A quick note on human capital, if you’ve never heard the term: it is the set of skills, education, and expertise of a worker or a labor force. Sometimes the term is used to refer to something the worker owns, and other times it means an asset a company owns, or a nation.)

I should mention I’m pretty creeped out by now. First off, I thought my kids were, well, children, not wealth. Next up, it’s disturbing that legislation surrounding childbearing should be affected by the wealth a nation is expected to reap from the children’s future labor. It means that human capital considerations could affect anything from anti-abortion legislation, if a nation is perceived to be running out of human capital, to forced sterilization, if the cost of raising a child is perceived to be higher than the human capital reaped.

But there’s one more thing that stands out when I look at articles regarding mothering and human capital. The unpaid labor mothers do, when we are perceived to be “not working,” has economic value to somebody outside our family, and people in power have measured that value. That’s interesting.

The United Nations is conducting a study called the “Inclusive Wealth Project.” There’s a 2012 report and a 2014 report. It is about the development of a new measure of the wealth of nations, on par with the gross development product (GDP) and human development index (HDI). The new “Inclusive Wealth Index” includes natural resources, produced resources, and human capital.

Here’s a taste of the math, from page 30 of the 2012 report:

Wealth = Pmc * Manufactured Capital (MC) + Phc * Human Capital (HC) + Pnc * Natural Capital (NC)

(Don’t ask me about the Pmc, Phc, and Pnc, because I have no clue. Nor do I have any desire to have a clue.)

The math for calculating human capital is laid out also on page 30 of the 2012 report and is too long to include in this post, but here’s a taste of it:

. . . measuring the population’s educational attainment and the additional compensation over time of this training, which is assumed to be equivalent to the interest rate (8.5 percent in this case) . . .

and

The shadow price per unit of human capital is obtained by computing the present value of the labor compensation received by workers over an entire working life.

and

. . . for each nation we computed these shadow prices for every year within the 1990–2008 time period, and then used the average of this rental price of one unit of human capital over time as the representative weight . . .

It must be strange to be an economist. The people who made this report are focused on “social value” — attempting to make capitalism work for the health and well-being of our people and planet, by reducing said health and well-being to dollars and cents. I’m skeptical, but I’m glad at least that somebody is trying to account for the rapid depletion of our natural resources.

Anyway, back to what I said about somebody measuring the economic value of the unpaid work of mothering. That’s not exactly what they’re doing. They’re measuring the value of educating. Here’s a widely-used graph, from a Science Magazine article “Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children” by James D. Heckman (2006).

Graph showing that investing in preschool has great benefit to future earnings. Source: http://jenni.uchicago.edu/papers/Heckman_Science_v312_2006.pdf

Source: Science Magazine

 

The article has a curious blind spot when it comes to the job of the earliest education, the contribution of the parents. A lot of studies focus on “disadvantaged children” and “children in developing countries.” Here’s a quote:

Research has documented the early (by ages 4 to 6) emergence and persistence of gaps in cognitive and noncognitive skills (3, 4). Environments that do not stimulate the young and fail to cultivate these skills at early ages place children at an early disadvantage. Disadvantage arises more from lack of cognitive and noncognitive stimulation given to young children than simply from the lack of financial resources.

The assumption here is that a normal environment, which somehow appears naturally and out of the blue, provides adequate stimulation to cultivate skills needed later in life. Actually, no. Somebody made it happen. A parent.

And it was a hell of a lot of work.

Here’s an estimate of the unpaid labor value of a mother’s work:

If paid, Stay at Home Moms would earn $134,121 annually (up from 2005’s salary of $131,471). Working Moms would earn $85,876 annually for the “mom job” portion of their work, in addition to their actual “work job” salary.

(From “What is Mom’s Job Worth,” by Salary.com.)

(Note: there’s a serious omission here. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of stay-at-home parents who are dads is up to 16%. I don’t know if anybody’s ever run the numbers for dads.)

Never mind the costs of raising a child. According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which says that “a middle-income family with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend about $245,340 ($304,480 adjusted for projected inflation*) for food, housing, childcare and education, and other child-rearing expenses up to age 18. Costs associated with pregnancy or expenses occurred after age 18, such as higher education, are not included.”

By “middle-income family, they mean “the middle third of the income distribution for a two-parent family with children.” This is the “normal environment” referred to in Science Magazine, although the number of single-parent households in the U.S. has jumped from 19.5% to 29.5%.

And the annual income at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is only $15,080.

On a family level, the economics of parenting just makes no sense. Wages are far too low to raise children.

It makes no sense on a societal level either. What happens, I wonder, if you take the cost of raising a child, plus the cost of a formal education, plus the unpaid labor of the parents, and compare it to that person’s “human capital” over a lifetime? You could calculate it. But honestly, I’m afraid to even try.

The problem here isn’t with the children. And it isn’t with the parents. It’s with the way we understand (or don’t) understand our own economy.

-END-

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Lego People by Joe Shlabotnik from http://www.flickr.com

 

 

Women’s Liberation

I’m having a lengthy and deep conversation on feminism with a friend on another blog (will share the link when we’re further along) and found to my surprise that I had used the term “women’s liberation.” I haven’t really heard that since the 1980s. Honestly, I thought feminism was past it. Aren’t we in the fourth wave or something like that?

Women, as a group, have not yet liberated ourselves, and that has much to do with childbearing and childrearing. Start with the very beginning: conception. Our technology gave women the ability to postpone or prevent it – birth control. That was huge. It changed gender. It gave women of childbearing age the ability to function socially, economically, and culturally like men. But from the beginning, legislators passed laws prohibiting this new technology from being used. (See the Comstock Laws.) Women are still fighting for the right to access birth control and this means that some women are prevented from choosing whether or not to have babies. The phenomenon of rape makes this even more true.

So even if we didn’t choose to give birth, we find ourselves suddenly presented with the all-consuming and unpaid job of caring for a baby.

We can give our children up for adoption, but to suddenly lose a human being that has been a part of your body for nine months, not knowing whether that human being will flourish, is a hard choice.  A woman who does this is at risk from suffering long-term physical, psychological, and social repercussions. (Here’s a 1999 review of the research, mostly from the era of closed adoptions. Apparently more recent research, including open adoptions, is scarce.)

For those of us who keep our babies, we are presumed by our current Western patriarchal culture to have primary responsibility for caregiving. Feminism has changed that, to some extent. Men can and do share caregiving responsibilities. Did you know that even men can nurse, by the way? All men can nurse for comfort, and some can lactate. A man can mother every bit as well as a woman. But we don’t call men “mothers,” and why? The overall cultural assumption is that only women can mother.

Meanwhile, feminism didn’t change a more fundamental problem: in an economy that depends on the exchange of labor for a wage, and requires money to carry out normal life activities, the job of caregiving of children doesn’t come with a wage. This set mothers up for economic dependence, or, in other words, a lack of liberation.

The phenomenon of men as primary caregivers doesn’t change this fundamental reality. It only extends this economic dependence to a new group of people. The only way we could really be liberated from caregiving-specific economic exploitation is if the entire community took on the responsibility of bringing up our children. But the U.S. has really gone backward in this area–cutting funding for education, using “stranger danger” to restrict children to the home, and prolonging adolescence. Where are all the kids you used to see playing in the streets?  (There’s a whole movement in opposition to this, BTW.)

Our role as primary caregiver, combined with economic exploitation, means that a woman is left largely alone to take on the multi-year, 24-hour-a-day responsibility to bring up the child. If we have money, we can pay somebody to do it part of the time. But that just means we can use economic privilege as a workaround, to avoid some of the consequences of our exploitation. If we are living in a relationship with equals, our partner can help care for the child. Since one or both partners end up needing to be in the paid workforce, though, that just spreads the exploitation to two people. And for the many women who are still following the model in which the wife obeys the husband, we’re just back to women being economically dependent on men.

All in all, there are plenty of women without access to money or social supports, and for these women, having a baby puts them in a position where all their options are bad. Marry someone who might be abusive and controlling? Give up the baby, abandoning it to who knows what fate? Keep the baby, but work long hours in addition to the 24-hour-a-day job of caring for a baby? Many women will put up with slavery-like conditions to make sure our children are O.K. We are not liberated.

If women require money to be liberated, and not all women have money, women as a group are not liberated. Women’s liberation is an ongoing struggle.

(Don’t get me wrong, by the way–I am not saying women’s liberation is the only struggle. See my post on collective liberation.)

What about women who are not mothers? Let’s divide them into two groups: fertile and infertile. The phenomenon of rape, combined with legislation that prevents women from accessing contraception or abortion, means that a man can convert a fertile woman into a mother without her consent. Any fertile woman at any time, could potentially lose her liberty through no action of her own. In such a case, can any fertile woman be considered free? Our liberation is provisional. Many women can solidify this provisional liberation into real liberation, but again, in society as we have currently set it up, that requires economic privilege.

What about women who are infertile? (Girls, women on reliable birth control, post-menopausal women, male-bodied women, and so forth?) Are they liberated now that women can hold jobs, vote, and generally participate in what used to be considered a man’s domain?  Or does a lack of liberation for fertile women bleed over and affect infertile women too? After all, there’s no clear visible difference between women who are fertile and women who are not. The decreased social status conferred on one group will indeed spill over to another. Social oppression goes hand-in-hand with economic exploitation.

Women’s liberation has yet to be achieved.

So what should we do? Keep on keepin’ on.

womens liberation

image found on libcom.org

 

Collective Liberation Simplified

Power has a tendency to centralize, and the more it does, the more the working class (the 99 percent) faces economic exploitation, political disenfranchisement, and social inequality–difficulties that can be broadly classified as “oppression.” They’re all linked. Different groups within the working class (men, women, people of color, immigrants, scapegoats-of-the-year) face these issues in different ways, but we all face them.

Some people face multiple forms of oppression at once. They might be at the intersection of racism, sexism, or any number of things. They teach us intersectionality: that is, is the understanding that everybody’s oppression is connected.

Fighting any one thing at the expense of another is bound to fail. That’s why we should never be too busy with our own liberation that we fail to lend a hand in someone else’s. When we do, we are working toward collective liberation.

Any questions? Read these next.

“The Combahee River Collective Statement”

and

“Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy” by Andrea Smith

and

“Refusing to Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality” by Deric Shannon and J. Rogue

 

Cons, books, and guests of honor?

So there’s a convention called Readercon. It’s all about books. How awesome is that? This year the Guest of Honor was Andrea Hairston, a woman of color with a long list of credentials and awards. Unfortunately, the dealer’s room at the con neglected to carry her book.

Here’s a blog post about it, “Erasure Comes in Many Forms” by K. Tempest Bradford. She writes:

The fact that none of Andrea Hairston’s books were in the dealer’s room is bullshit of the highest order. Andrea was a Guest of Honor. You don’t fucking NOT stock the book of a guest of honor at a con where you are a book vendor. How is this not con vending 101?

In the comments, people who were involved or attended the conference talked about how that could possibly have happened, and who might have been responsible or not responsible for this failure. From what I gather, here were some of the reasons: 

  • cons don’t exercise authority in telling booksellers what to stock
  • booksellers at cons don’t necessarily make the effort to carry Guest of Honor books
  • the publisher, Aqueduct Press (a small press), applied for space in the dealer’s room and was turned down
  • the terms and availability from the book distributor made it difficult for booksellers to get the books

Does it all boil down to economics?

A little background on publishing and book distributing might be helpful here. Beginning with the era of big-chain bookstores like Barnes and Noble and continuing on with Amazon, it has been getting harder and harder for small bookstores and small presses to make any money on books. The industry does all kinds of mysterious things, invisible to readers, that impact the availability of the books we love.

See AmyCat’s comments on that. Sounds like book distributors don’t always offer the same terms to booksellers for small presses. She writes:

Only about 1/3 of the titles in the database, though, are in stock AND at full discount AND returnable… 😦   When small-press titles aren’t available at full discount, my choice is to make an even smaller profit on them, or mark them higher than cover price, and lose sales to Amazon

Some books can be returned to the distributor if they don’t sell, and others can’t. This is a big deal for bookstores, because they stand to lose money on books they can’t return. Another option is for authors to offer their books on consignment.

If the guest of honor had been a white person, I could just call it a Free-Market Fail. That is, basic economics got in the way of respect (and income!) for the Guest of Honor. 

Or does race play a part as well? And if so, how?

But here’s something interesting . . . one commenter wrote:

It wouldn’t have occurred to me except for reading this post, but now I recall that even a Big Name like Delany was not much in evidence amongst the booksellers, despite his prominent attendance at the con

Delany is another writer of color with a long list of accomplishments and honors, including being named the 30th “Grand Master” of the Science Fiction Writers of America. And he’s particularly well known on the convention circuit. So why wouldn’t his books be sold? 

And come to think about it . . .

As I’ve been pondering all these questions, I’ve also been considering my recent visit to my local library. There were about ten sci-fi / fantasy books singled out as being interesting to readers. All or almost all of the writers chosen were white. (One used a pseudonym, so who knows.) I later followed that up with a quick search on the library catalog and found that many respected SF/F writers of color are not represented except in ebooks. And there aren’t that many copies for the really big and well-established names, like Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney. 

And yet here is one of the library’s guiding principles:

Respect and embrace the entire community

We celebrate Seattle’s diversity and strive to ensure that all people feel welcome in the Library. We strive to meet the needs and expectations of every Library patron. The Seattle Public Library actively supports efforts that combat prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination.

I see this guiding principle being followed in the children’s section, where I spend most of my time these days. The kids on the covers are more diverse than my neighborhood is, to tell the truth. But the sci fi / fantasy section is less so.

What is to be done?

Cons and libraries alike are fighting racism. But Fails like this one keep happening. How come? Everybody’s doing business as usual, aren’t they, so what’s the problem?

The problem is that everybody’s doing business as usual, in a society plagued by systemic racism of all kinds. It probably seems fair to some — like everyone is being treated equally. But they’re not, because the playing field isn’t level. Special effort has to be made to stop business as usual, to act intentionally, notice what goes wrong, and fix it. And that is happening, for sure. A lot of the people commenting on K. Tempest Bradford’s post gave suggestions for how to make sure this particular Guest of Honor fail doesn’t happen again. One suggestion was to have an “Authors Alley” where authors could sell their own stuff.

But perhaps there should also be a hard look at whether the dealer’s tables are stocking books by people of color — and if not, what are the barriers, economic and otherwise . . .

. . . and how do we tear them down?

breaking down the wall

Aside

Walk into a bookstore and pick up a highly acclaimed book. Look at the cover. Some of them have accolades like “National Book Award Winner” or “Pulitzer Prize winner.” That’s a mark of favor by the literary establishment, which includes … Continue reading

more on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop

In my post “Creative writing programs and the CIA fan club,” I talk about Eric Bennet’s essay on how Iowa Writer’s Workshop director Engle (1941-1966) procured lots and lots of money from govermental and private organizations for the explicit purpose of anti-communist propaganda. Fifty years ago, so that’s ancient history, right? Nope.

Here’s just one example of how its influence passed through various people to me. John Gardner, 1958 Iowa Writers Workshop graduate, wrote The Art of Fiction, championed by one of my professors as the authoritative volume on how to write. It’s really good in many ways. I love his concept of fiction being a “vivid and continuous dream.” But there are certain Rulez in the book that limit the types of stories that can be told.

John Gardner inspired Raymond Carver, another student of the Iowa Writers Workshop (1963-1964), and Raymond Carver was a leader in “minimalist” writing, which was in favor during my undergraduate years. He’s a great writer. My favorite: his story “A Small, Good Thing.” But minimalism leaves out a lot of things — language, intrusions by the narrator, and commie politics. How much of that was influenced by the Iowa Writers Workshop of the 1960s?

It would be an overstatement to say that Gardner and Carver took anti-communist propaganda whole cloth and passed it on. (We’ll leave that to John Irving, graduate of the late 1960s, who according to Wikipedia wrote, “This is Marxism. It’s leveling everything by decimating what works … It’s that vindictive ‘We’ve suffered, and now we’re going to take money from your kid and watch you squirm’… There’s a minority which is an open target in this country which no one protects, and that’s rich people”)

No, this is only influence, and one influence among many. But it passes on from writer to writer, from institution to institution, and its ripples will be felt for years to come.

Creative writing programs and the CIA fan club

This week, author Eric Bennett dropped a rather enormous bombshell on the literary world. The CIA, as it turns out, helped spread propaganda through creative writing programs all across the United States.

What? How?

Through the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the most prestigious and influential creative writing program in a U.S. university. To make a long story short, in 1960 Paul Engle, the head of the program, wrote to the Rockefeller Foundation explaining exactly how his program could help fight communism (by bringing foreign writers to Iowa to indoctrinate them). He got the money, and later money from the CIA and the State Department, and used it to implement his plan. In essence, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop under Engel became the CIA Fan Club. The money, and the director who sought it out, left an enduring mark on creative writing programs all over the country.

You can read more about this from Bennet and a rebuttal from a University of Iowa Professor Loren Glass.

All this money brought prestige and influence to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which in turn influenced the creative writing programs that came after. Bennett writes, “The Iowa Writers’ Workshop emerged in the 1930s and powerfully influenced the creative-writing programs that followed. More than half of the second-wave programs, about 50 of which appeared by 1970, were founded by Iowa graduates. Third- and fourth- and fifth-wave programs, also Iowa scions, have kept coming ever since.”

With this influence, the Iowa Writers Workshop exported its long-held values – “middlebrow realism,” as explained by Glass in his rebuttal. And it exported Cold War propaganda.

Having gone through an MFA program and a creative writing undergraduate program, I have to say that this explains a whole lot. I’ve been busy re-evaluating my experiences in view of the larger picture. I wasn’t just learning writing, I was learning what the rich and powerful wanted me to learn.

The most obvious example took place in graduate school. Many writing professors will tell you that political writing is bad writing. (Of course, that’s a complete misunderstanding of politics. Everything is political. If you don’t see it, that’s just because it reflects the politics of the dominant culture.) At the time Paul Engle headed the program, that would have meant commie writing is bad writing, but today it means more than that. So on time my professor asked us to hand in some story ideas. I had an idea about something that happened to the anarchist Emma Goldman. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off – it would involve doing historical research and somehow transforming that moment into fiction. He returned it with a note explaining that stories starting from politics turn out badly. So I chose a different idea, having to do with a husband and a wife and some turtles. The Emma Goldman incident never made it into story form, although I did write an essay about it for the Aqueduct Press blog.

I would have been more skeptical of the concept if I had thought it came from the CIA. But no, it came from a trusted professor. And who taught him? Not any particular person, I imagine. It was just in the air.

That’s the obvious example. But the influence of the CIA Fan Club also spread to the seemingly apolitical – to general questions of content, style, and narrative structure. Good writing met the expectations of the “middlebrow” white male with his wife and children and white picket fence. Bad writing didn’t.

Those seemingly apolitical questions played a huge part in my writing development in my very first university courses. Creative writing programs at the university are deeply influential in a writer’s aesthetic. Writers, and especially beginning writers, have the disadvantage that they really don’t know which stories are good and which aren’t. We write what’s in our heads, and it may or may not please the reader. We don’t know until someone has read it and given us feedback.

I first studied creative writing in the early 1990s at the University of Utah under writers such as Jan Nystrom and François Camoin. They taught both the “traditional” writing that the Iowa Writers Workshop favored and “experimental” writing, a kind of writing that plays with narrative structure and style and today would be called postmodern. I felt the pull of both.

One of the wonderful things that Jan Nystrom and François Camoin did for me as a writer was to expose me to all kinds of interesting “experimental” writers. This was important, because the writing I was already doing coming into the creative writing program differed from the expected norms. I felt very much at home with Leonard Michaels’ lyrical prose, especially a story about a hotel maid who kept cleaning the same room over and over and finding more and more disturbing things. That was a story that went straight to the imagination and the spirit. I also felt at home with Grace Paley’s stories, which didn’t use quotation marks for the dialogue. This gave the dialogue an internal feel.

These stories became part of what I saw as possible in literature. Another couple of things that stood out –

  • Jan Nystrom wrote a story about women who fly around and leave shoes on roofs. There wasn’t any (rather Freudian) climax, but I loved it, and along with the work of Leonard Michaels and Grace Paley it became part of the inspiration for my Pushcart Prize-winning story “The Wings.”
  • Sophia Kartsonis’ first story was very lyrical and poetic. Somebody questioned whether it was too poetic to be a good story. To me, the poetry enhanced the appeal. I raised my hand and said so. As for me, my first story to be workshopped had comma splices for most of the sentences. This was entirely intentional and was part of the rhythm of the story. One of the classmates saw that as a big flaw and said so, but Camoin stuck up for me. In a different workshop, I might have been squashed by both the classmate and the teacher.

Also on the plus side, Camoin told us which literary magazines would accept experimental writing. It was only a small fraction, but it saved me a lot of trouble and got me published.

On the minus side, even though there was a lot of freedom and flexibility in the curriculum, there was also a lot of emphasis on “minimalist” writing, which is basically “show, don’t tell” taken to an extreme. The author’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions are theoretically omitted, as are explicit politics. This is one of the three favored forms of writing by the Iowa Writers Workshop, according to Bennett. (Bennett called it “cold” writing, but the kind of minimalist writing we looked at had dazzling language. Dazzling, but not gorgeous in the way something like Virginia Woolf’s work is gorgeous. More like a stained glass window than a river.) Just from a craft side, I learned a lot of bad habits there, which I had to unlearn in graduate school and beyond. Thing is, you can only skip telling if your reader is coming at you from a common cultural context, which is rarely the case.

Also on the minus side, this freedom of narrative structure came at the expense of the ability to publish some of my stories. I have written a couple of stories that just weren’t suited to go anywhere. They’re not bad stories; they just didn’t meet a particular literary aesthetic.

And so the years went by and a lot of things happened with my writing that I’ll also write about if I have time. I’ve abandoned a fair number of stories that didn’t meet expectations for narrative structure and I’ve edited out various experimental aspects of stories. And I’ve always wondered: Is something wrong with my story, or is there something wrong with the writing aesthetic? I still don’t know. Writers can judge their own work, but only to a point.

But you know what? Every time I did something unusual, whether it succeeded or whether it failed, I was fighting Cold War propaganda.

I’m pleased.

Desegregation, Segregation, Integration

Corrected 4/30/218 – see comments

NPR just did a story on desegregation in Little Rock. (I can’t remember which day, so I’m not sure which one.) I only caught snippets of it, but from what I heard there was some good stuff and some parts that completely missed the boat, in the same way that adults have been missing the boat for a while.

Good stuff first: they made the distinction between desegregation and integration. A school is desegregated if it includes white kids and black kids. But it’s not integrated unless those kids actually hang out together. I went to a desegregated middle school in the 1980s. Kids in the advanced learning program, mostly white, were bused to a school that was mostly black. Today’s name for that would be “magnet school.” Good intentions . . . but most of the classrooms were still segregated, because so many of the kids in the advanced learning program were white. It was kinda half a solution.

Thirty years later, we’re still doing the same thing. The NPR program talked about the way the kids had separate classrooms and sat apart from each other in the lunchroom, and it included some student voices talking about how they could take responsibility for the problem. That’s good.

But what it did wrong, its blind spot, is that it placed the blame for the segregation on the high school kids and not on the adults who set up the classroom situation in the first place. If the classrooms are segregated, is it any wonder the lunchroom would be too? I know it’s a tricky and difficult situation, and the adults are taking steps to change this. But we can’t just let the kids shoulder all the responsibility and blame.

Now, I just heard a snippet. It could well be that NPR covered that ground later in the program. Regardless, this is a huge blind spot that we have. The adults need to be doing our part to make sure that we break down as many barriers as we can to integration.

Instead, sometimes we’re putting more barriers in the way, like when Seattle Public Schools shut down a successfully integrated K-8 program called Summit. Or when it closed down a schools race and justice curriculum last year.

We’ve got to get this right.

And we also need to be explaining to our kids that the work of desegregation is not yet done. Our school is celebrating Martin Luther King right now, and talking about the civil rights movement and the ending of segregation. This is misleading. Our school is 61 percent Caucasian and 7 percent African-American. If my kids grow up thinking segregation is over, they’ll also grow up thinking that our country is populated by 61 percent white people and 7 percent black people. Not true! In our school district, whites are a minority, at 43%. (Full detail: American Indian 1%, Black 19%, Hispanic 12%, Asian/Pacific-Islander 19%, White 43%, Multiracial 6%)

At the same time, while I need to explain that we still have plenty of troubles, I can’t be filling my kids’ heads with doom and gloom. Kids need to know the hard truths, but they also need to have hope.

Enter Ruby Bridges! She was the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school. Last year, my daughter got a book about her from the school library, The Story of Ruby Bridges. So this year, when she was assigned a Great American Leader biography project, she chose Ruby Bridges. Martin Luther King is an inspirational role model, and so is Rosa Parks. Big, important people. But Ruby Bridges is a child. My daughter can identify.

I wasn’t so sure that Ruby Bridges would fit the bill of a Great American Leader, though. It’s not like she had a choice to attend that all-white school. Her parents made that decision, and she had to live with it. It was a long, hard road for a lot of those first kids who attended all-white schools, and nobody came out of it unscathed. (It’s STILL a long, hard road.) So I had to find out what happened to her later in life. Here it is:

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ruby-bridges-rockwell-muse-goes-back-to-school/

To summarize the video . . .

When Ruby Bridges first walked into the school, she was surrounded by an angry mob. Fortunately for her, she didn’t understand at first. “I actually thought it was Mardi Gras. . . . They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.” White parents pulled their kids out, and all the teachers but one left the school. Ruby was all by herself at that school, except for another white student, five-year-old Pam Foreman Testroet, whose parents refused to go along with the boycott.

Fast-forward past the consequences Ruby’s family faced for their heroic efforts, and whatever hard and scary things Ruby had to endure, because my daughter is not ready for this yet. Now, as an adult, Ruby is continuing the important work that she began.

She visited her old school, the one she helped desegregate, and was reunited with her schoolmate Pam. It was a time of celebration, but Ruby also pointed out that the school is now all black. The work of desegregation is not done.

It’s a grand, epic tale about a Great American Leader. But what really touched my daughter? The reunion with her classmate Pam.

That’s where integration happens: in our hearts and in our children’s hearts. If we let it. Image

 

Are nonprofits our frenemies?

In yesterday’s post, Mysterious timing for Chicago school closures, I talked about how the Teach for America Board of Directors sat down at a planning table and projected that they would be staffing 50 new charter schools in Chicago . . . several months before 50 public school closures were announced. The question is, did they help cause the closures?

I say yes, absolutely. Privatization of public schools is in their mission statement. Their board of directors is responsible for planning and strategy. They benefit financially from the conversion of public schools to charter schools, because they staff charter schools far more often than they staff public schools. And they have the means to influence public policy, through financial and personal ties between TFA, charter school organizations, and public officials. These ties are well documented here, here, here, and here.

However, “TFA is evil” is not the lesson we need to take away from all this. The lesson to take away is that 501c3 nonprofits make good frenemies. They can have a beautiful awe-inspiring mission statement. They can have lovely documentaries on PBS and Univision. And they can still be acting against you.

Why?

It’s because of what 501c3 nonprofits are. They’re organizations that claim to have a social benefit, and maybe they do or maybe they don’t. They’re tax-exempt because of that supposed benefit. Donations made to them are tax-deductible, making them a playground for the ultra-rich with their charitable foundations. And they live or die by their funders. That means their funders have to like the work they do in some way, shape, or fashion. The board of directors is responsible for making sure that a nonprofit follows its mission statement, and even more importantly, pleases the funders.

Maybe it pleases the funders and has a social benefit too. Yay. Except not exactly. Unlike the public sector, which is accountable to the public, the nonprofit sector has no accountability to the public or to the people it is “helping.” What’s lost here is the power of self-determination.

So to know what a nonprofit is really doing, you need to look at the funders and the board of directors. This is easy to do. Google “Teach for America donors” and “Teach for America board of directors” and there you have it. You can learn some interesting things that way. Well, here’s what I learned, starting from the Lines of Influence diagram made by Dora Taylor and Sue Peters, and going from there. I’ll start with a diagram and then explain a few of the highlights.

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The first thing to notice is that TFA’s big funders include the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation (owners of WalMart). Those three philanthropies hold enormous amounts of money — tax-free. They get the tax exemption because of their supposed social benefit. And they get to advance their aims, which in this case involves the privatization of public schools and teachers.

The second thing to notice is that these three funders donate both to Teach for America and to charter schools. In practical terms, that means that they have the power to use any of the organizations to advance the aims of any of the other organizations. And they do.

The third thing to notice is that charter schools and TFA have a symbiotic relationship. Charter schools provide opportunities for the TFA teaching corps, whereas TFA provides low-cost, inexperienced teachers to charter schools. So they have a natural tendency to help each other out.

The fourth thing to notice, Paul Finnegan, was just a sideline for me. It’s the kind of thing you find out when you go peeking into boards of directors and seeing what their members do. I have to be careful not to do too much of this, but since I looked at him, I might as well explain the connections.

I have to pause here and say I have not found a smoking gun or anything earthshattering or anything like this. This is just the normal way a nonprofit does business. The members of its board of directors often come from leadership positions in the private sector, because managing a nonprofit is a whole lot like managing a for-profit. And the members of its board of directors often come from funders, because after all, what happens if you say no to a funder who wants to sit on your board of directors?

Okay, so Paul Finnegan. He is the regional chair for Chicago. So of course, he makes strategic decisions for Chicago. I imagine he must have sat in on that board of directors meeting in January where they discussed the plan for 50 new charter schools.

When you look at his name on the TFA Board of Directors web page, you see the words “co-chair, Madison Dearborn Partners”. Well, what’s that? Bless you, Google and Wikipedia, for magically providing an answer:

Madison Dearborn Partners (MDP) is a private equity firm specializing in leveraged buyouts of privately held or publicly traded companies, or divisions of larger companies; recapitalizations of family-owned or closely held companies; balance sheet restructurings; acquisition financings; and growth capital investments in mature companies.”

I have to admit, a lot of this is gobbeldygook to me. But you know what isn’t?

“Total assets: 14 billion”

Holy cow! This guy is the co-CEO of a company with 14 billions of dollars worth of assets. That means he controls 14 billions of dollars worth of assets, as well as all the subdivisions and acquired companies and so forth.

I’m sort of starting to understand why a person like that wouldn’t care about the closure of the 50 public schools or the impact it will have on the communities, children, and displaced teachers. He just plain lives in a different world, that’s all. I just wish he would stay there and quit messing with things he doesn’t understand.

That was the big reveal there. 14 billion dollars. But it’s worth digging a little deeper. Madison Dearborn Partners own at least two interesting things:

  • Univision, a Spanish American TV company. Free PR for whatever nonprofit he wants to support! Yay!
  • CDW. Who-what? Wikipedia to the rescue again. “CDW Corporation, headquartered in Vernon Hills, Illinois, is a provider of technology products and services for business, government and education.” That’s profiting off another kind of privatization, outsourcing, but really beyond the scope of this post.

And they donate to something interesting as well: Chicago International Charter School (CICS). Haven’t I seen that somewhere before? Oh yeah, I have.

It was in this spreadsheet of charter schools that are expected to open. Six new schools, serving 3500 students, and providing a whole lot of jobs to TFA.

That’s convenient.

To recap: a 501c3 nonprofit, whatever its social benefit, is ultimately accountable only to its funders and its board of directors. And to understand what a nonprofit is up to, you don’t have to look any farther than that. Friend or frenemy? Check them out.

Next up: How to check out a nonprofit and How to check out a nonprofit, part two

Much obliged, astronomers!

Guess what? Astronomers have “eliminated most of the risk from global-scale, civilization-ending asteroid impact events during our lifetimes and the lifetimes of our grandchildren.”

They really ought to be bragging about this. But no. It was buried deep in the middle of an article in Sky & Telescope. The article was about the asteroid that hit the Russian city of Chelyabinsk this February. People wondered why astronomers didn’t detect the object before impact. Part of the answer is that it is relatively small, compared to the asteroids we really need to worry about. NASA began a program in 1992 called the Spaceguard Survey Report, with a goal of finding 90% of the objects that are near Earth and larger than 1 kilometer.

And . . . mission accomplished! Now they can look for the smaller stuff, the kind that has the ability to kill people but not wipe out entire civilizations.

(From “The Chelyabinsk Super-Meteor” by Daniel D. Durda in the June 2013 issue of Sky & Telescope.)

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