02 November 2009

The hidden epidemic threatening U.S. communities

The U.S. faces an epidemic that's making it harder for ordinary people to get to work and access essential services - one that disproportionately affects some of our most vulnerable neighbors. Service cuts and fare increases in many mass transit systems are spreading like wildfire as a result of budget shortfalls triggered by the shenanigans on Wall Street that led to the recession.

In some cases the culprits are outdated federal regulations and red tape. Transit agencies nationwide are resorting to cuts in service, layoffs, and fare increases just when Americans need jobs and affordable transportation options. The economic recovery plan includes the largest investment in our nation's infrastructure since the interstate highways were created in the 1950s - but is there still too much focus on those highways?

The economic recovery is threatened by folks not being able to commute to their jobs. James Corless, the Director of Transportation for America, sees a need for change that includes the federal funding of the entire array of transportation in the United States:

“Congress needs to support legislation to allow for greater flexibility in transportation spending for operating assistance, in addition to a serious overhaul of our current funding mechanism and a renewed vision for our transportation system.”

But Congress and even state legislatures are notoriously slow, so unless it's very clear that transportation jobs are integral to the economic recovery changes in transportation and even maintaining what systems are already in place will remain on the back burner legislatively. Transportation just isn't the sort of headline-catching story that a continuing War in Afghanistan or Health Care Insurance reform represents (despite the present administration's laudable efforts.)

Change is going to require local work from committed community activists working to shine the light on the benefits of focusing on transportation for elected officials - whose sense of priority often has more to do with getting press coverage than the urgent challenges required to foster their community. In the United States, 83% of people and 85% of jobs are located in the nation’s metro areas. It just makes sense to make sure those people can afford to get to and from those jobs efficiently - that's the foundation for a vibrant future.

“This current crisis is not just a short-term problem. Given the scale of this recession, next year’s transit agency budgets are likely to be little better. Even in a healthier economy, transit riders will remain caught up in a fluid, unpredictable, and ultimately unhealthy situation.”

Dave Van Hattum,
Policy and Advocacy Program Manager,
$8.4 billion in public transportation investments from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) has been set aside for states and local transportation authorities to repair and build America's public transportation infrastructure. Commuters need to tell lawmakers that transit needs a real fix, not a band-aid.

These are hard choices, at a critical time. The U.S. needs to make sure that money is spent wisely - that transportation models catch up with best practices elsewhere around the world, with smarter, safer, and cleaner systems that provide access for everyone.

19 October 2009

Reviving the American Dream

Rising unemployment in the U.S. has highlighted a variety of causes for the changes in our workforce, and neither recent government spending priorities nor out-sourcing alone is to blame. Recovering American jobs will depend as much on preparing American workers as it does on removing the incentives for big business to exploit lower wages in overseas markets. We have to invest in the the strategies that position our economy to remain vibrant and growing: technologies to improve productivity, and training to foster success working in a rapidly changing global market.
I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.
~Michael Jordan
We know it's not a teacher's job to make sure kids live up to a "higher" standard, yet that is what teachers aspire to, nearly universally. Nobody goes into teaching to become wealthy, they do so to give others the tools to flourish and succeed. We entrust our most precious resource, our children, our gift to the future, to the care of selfless people who, in the guise of giving out the secrets of geology, grammar, gymnastics, geometry, gravity, government -- everything from germs to galaxies -- become fundamental role models, shaping and socializing each successive generation by their words, actions, and demeanor.
Success is somebody else's failure. Success is the American Dream we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including thirty million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty.
~Ursula K. LeGuin
We know, too, that no matter if it's families, communities, or school systems that are without enough cash, children suffer through no fault of their own. Where poverty is prevalent student outcomes are lower. In Minnesota, for example, Only 60% of students receiving free or reduced price lunch passed the MCA II reading test in 2007 (a standardized test from the Minnesota Department of Education) versus 82% of white students overall (in other words, without respect to family income.)

In Minneapolis, a school district with minority student enrollments well above the state average, the gap was greater: less than 47% of free and reduced price lunch students passed the reading test in that same year. Are these students with lower achievements being prepared to fulfill the American Dream?
Greatness is not in where we stand, but in what direction we are moving. We must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it -- but sail we must and not drift, nor lie at anchor.
~Oliver Wendell Holmes
Instead of just griping about the lack of education and opportunities, actor Hank Azaria, the voice for several characters in the animated TV comedy “The Simpsons,” decided to do something about it. He teamed up with Sara Hahn, a teacher who wanted to go into areas of need, focus on driven students who wanted a good education, and give them the tools to succeed via a nonprofit organization called Determined to Succeed. Students agree to bring the drive and be held accountable to that by their teachers and parents.

In exchange these young dreamers get summer enrichment programs, tutoring, mentoring, and a commitment to stay with them until they graduate from high school -- a seven year commitment to develop and foster the skills each young person needs to flourish in our society. In fact, one student is still a member of DTS even though her family moved from Los Angeles to Oklahoma. She gets tutoring and mentoring help over the phone once a week and through frequent emails. DTS is maintaining contact with her teachers and counselor at her new school - they're committed to her success.

That's a great program, and a laudable initiative from the non-profit sector, but we need to do even more. We need to reach the students sooner so the drive to succeed, their belief that they can grow up to be whoever and whatever they want to be, never falters. We need leadership from the Congress and the White House that prioritizes both education and eradicating poverty for the good of our nation.
I have learned, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
~Henry David Thoreau
The U.S. likes to think of itself as the world's super-power, despite the lingering effects of the recession that has gripped the country for 12-48 months depending who you ask. Re-establishing economic security depends on a solid foundation of well-educated citizens ready to take on 21st century jobs and careers. Another key to that process is to get the middle-men and their overhead out of the college loan process, as the Senate is currently working on - but we need to direct attention and creativity to the challenges of our youngest students, as well.

Frankly, to put the American Dream back in everybody's head we urgently need to cooperate and overcome the disenfranchisement, the disengagement in our communities, and the segregation-driven achievement gap that threatens our collective prosperity by undermining our public school systems from coast to coast.


12 October 2009

Helping local communities thrive

To thrive, a community needs reliable, affordable access to clean water and healthy food. Soil and water contamination from pesticide and fertilizer runoff, which compromises the quality of water available for community use, can also undermine and/or destroy habitats in such a way that even water quantity is threatened (particularly in Europe and North America, where rain-fed agricultural practices are much rarer than in "developing" areas.) These two most basic community resources are inextricably linked.

WaterWe have passed the point where over a billion people do not have access to safe drinking water, while over two billion people do not have adequate water to address basic sanitation needs (according to the World Health Organization/UNICEF report, “Meeting the MDG drinking water and sanitation target: the urban and rural challenge of the decade,” Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment, [World Health Organization and United Nations Children’s Fund, 2006].)

Competing Trends

Privatizing U.S. Water

In the United States and elsewhere a number of local government now rely on "privatized" water systems.  The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy [IATP] has produced a map and a report on the impact of water privatization in the U.S.

Water "Remunicipalization"

Nonetheless, some communities have insisted on returning water and sewage treatment services to public management -- "remunicipalization" -- forcing water multinationals to pull services out of communities world-wide.
The Alliance for Water Efficiency, in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] has put the Water Efficiency Resource Library on the web. Water is emerging in the collective awareness of the public and policy-makers as perhaps the most critical natural resource on the planet: What use is improving energy efficiency or health care, after all, to the billions that have inadequate access to water for drinking, agriculture, and/or basic hygiene?

Within the U.S., the Great Lakes system is perhaps the most vital watershed - it is certainly the most obvious.

Minnesota's Senior U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Representative James Oberstar both recently addressed the the 5th Annual Great Lakes Restoration Conference, stressing the importance of protecting and restoring the Great Lakes. Such attention and initiatives are urgently needed for virtually every fresh-water watershed in the world.


02 October 2009

be the change you wish to see

Today is Mahatma Gandhi's Birthday and the International Day of Non-Violence. Martin Luther King, Jr., described Ghandi as, "probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force..."

"I found," King observed, "in the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Gandhi... the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom."

Gandhi led nationwide campaigns to ease poverty by increasing economic self-reliance, expand women's rights, and end untouchability. His primary political goal was independence from foreign control in India. In 1930 Gandhi famously led the "Non-Cooperation" movement that protested the British-imposed salt tax via a 240 mile Salt March.

"I have nothing new to say...the principles of truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills," Mohandas Karamchand "Mahatma" Gandhi once wrote.

In Ghandi's opinion, resisting evil, or "non-cooperation" as he often referred to it, was as fundamental as cooperation with good. But while "non-cooperation" had typically meant violence, Ghandi asserted that violent resistance only nourishes evil. Furthermore, that evil could only be sustained by violence. Accordingly, only the complete abstention from violence and embracing any penalty for non-co-operation are moral responses to evil.

"I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform. The 'turn-the-other-cheek' philosophy, and the 'love-your-enemies' philosophy, were only valid when individuals were in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups and nations were in conflict, a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was."
~Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

The honorific "Mahatma" means "Great Soul." Its use is credited to the late writer and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian awarded a Nobel prize.


01 October 2009

The Olympic bid is not just about Chicago

In an interconnected world protecting America's interests requires a Olympic logoconcerted, coordinated effort on a vast array of fronts. 60 years ago China underwent a seismic socio-cultural shift, and despite our best intentions we lost our understanding of them as the "Red Scare" led to a purging of those who studied Asia and communism in this country. We can no longer afford that sort of isolation.

Michelle & Barack ObamaWe've embarked on a "War on Terrorism" that doesn't have fronts on a map, or massed armies. Fighting to win means engaging in ways that win the hearts and minds of people half-way 'round the world from us, people who listen to neither Jon Stewart nor the Fox network to inform their opinions of the USA. We have to both rebuild our alliances and work fervently on our reputation - we have to be seen as leading by our example on a range of issues from how we relate to the environment through our compassion for our fellow human beings.

Foreign policy is about more than insuring oil supplies and limiting nuclear proliferation. All our military strength and intelligence gathering wasn't enough to stop the terrorist attacks in 2001.

Chicago candidate Olympic logoWhat better way to show the world the value of our civil liberties than to put our freedom on display on the stage of world opinion by hosting the Olympics?

It's easy to assume the Obamas connections to Chicago are driving their interest, but the reality is they're using that obvious familiarity to the advantage of our entire country in this case. Plain and simply, this is a great chance to put our American principles on display, and it's just a fortunate coincidence that the President and First Lady have personal ties to the only U.S. city in the running for the 2016 games.

This subtle form of diplomacy doesn't lend itself well to sound bites and headlines. We send a message either way: shun the opportunity or Beijing Olympic logocourt the IOC?

It's an opportunity for businesses, including the beleaguered U.S. airline industry, and attracts visitors from overseas who spend money here instead of at home. Not enough to make a big difference to the balance of trade, but every little bit helps.

Don't overlook the real point. The reason Beijing was eager to host recently -- the reason Tokyo, Rio, and Madrid are still in the hunt for the summer 2016 bid -- is that world opinion matters, and hosting the Olympic games boosts any country's image.