Tag Archives: Occupy

The Year’s Fiercest Cultural Figures

Sooo (drum roll please) it’s officially time for the list of 2013’s (and a bit of January) fiercest figures, and just in time for the Lunar New Year (we’re going global girlfriends)! And trust, this past year really brought it with the incredible people and movements who didn’t just encompass fierceness, but defined it. As I mentioned in my 2012 round-up, fierceness to me is all about  those “who challenge the norm, go against the grain, and beat to their own drum. It’s standing up for what you believe in, thinking outside the box, and fighting for equality and social justice.” Needless to say it was a little difficult to pick who would appear on this much coveted (at least by me) list, but somehow, I managed to get over my Libra indecisiveness and get. it. done. So, let’s do this.

Fashion:

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Bangladesh workers and United Students against Sweatshops in solidarity (photo courtesy of USAS.org).

Accord on Building and Fire Safety in Bangladesh: 2012 was by all accounts a pretty depressing year for fashion, but in April 2013 the horrifying images of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Savar, Bangladesh seemed to finally shock the world out of its acquiescence. Over 100 apparel corporations from nineteen countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia (including H&M, C&A, Zara, Primark and Tesco) signed the unprecedented, legally binding agreement brokered by non-profit advocacy organizations The International Labor Rights Forum and Worker’s Rights Consortium – in solidarity with Bangladesh workers – that required retailers to fund independent safety inspections of their facilities and give workers a voice to negotiate on working conditions and higher wages. United Students against Sweatshops, a college student activist group that knows how to keep shit real, have so far successfully pressured NYU, Temple, Duke, and University of Pennsylvania to stop doing business with companies that produce clothing in sweatshops and refuse to sign the Accord.  They also demanded that the four largest retailers that produce college-logo apparel – Fruit of the Loom, Knight’s Apparel, Adidas, and Top of the World – sign as well. And guess what? They. did. Can we talk?? There’s still plenty of work that needs to be done, as North American companies such as Wal-Mart (ugh, go away already), Gap (your swing dance ads were cute, your constant abuse of child labor? Not so much. Oh and congrats on winning the Public Eye award for the worst human rights and environmental violations. You rock like that), Target, Disney and Children’s Place have refused to sign and offer victims compensation, even pressuring US lawmakers to cut a provision in a bill that would have promoted better labor standards in Bangladesh.  Still, with European retailers signing on and charges being brought against factory owners and government figures, it’s clear that an industry that has always had a tendency to displace accountability is starting to change. Mad props to the mainstream media for keeping not just Bangladesh in the headlines, but for also covering the garment industries in countries like Cambodia, Haiti, and India. And the NPR series that detailed the global industry involved in making one t-shirt? Fab.

The Model Alliance, a labor union aimed to improve working conditions for models, passed an unprecedented labor law in NY for child models (photo courtesy of modelalliance.org)

The Model Alliance, a labor group for fashion models, passed an unprecedented labor law in NY for child models (photo courtesy of modelalliance.org)

New law protects rights for underage models: The Model Alliance, a labor organization founded in early 2012 for fashion models working in the American fashion industry, decided they needed to do something to protect young models from exploitation. So they lobbied Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign a bill guaranteeing underage models the same rights and protections in New York State as other child performers, including regulation of work hours and wage oversight. Susan Scafidi, the academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University, argued that it was one of the biggest developments in a century in terms of fashion and labor law, “bringing a whole new group under labor protection.” Talk about getting it done.

After worldwide protests when hazardous chemicals were found in children's clothes, Burberry committed to being detox-free by 2020 (photo courtesy of Ecouterre).

Did you get the memo Burberry? Toxic is SO last season! (photo courtesy of Ecouterre).

Environmental Exposes: Last year Greenpeace made this list for writing a report that revealed the toxins in our clothes, sparking a global protest movement that effectively led to twelve global fashion leaders like Nike, H&M and Zara to commit to the elimination of hazardous chemicals released into our clothes and water. Yeah GP, you do that. This year they released another report; that “hazardous, potentially hormone disrupting chemicals” were found in numerous children’s brands, from Burberry to Adidas to Disney. After some fierce social media campaigning and live demonstrations, Burberry committed to toxic-free clothing by 2020. While many of these deadlines seem far away (this article breaks down why and how  change can come sooner) it’s clear that transparency in the fashion industry is starting to be taken seriously, and why shouldn’t it be? We only come in direct physical contact with textiles for 99% of our lives! Want to get involved? Check out Greenpeace’s Detox campaign and sign their manifesto. Toxic is so last season.

Carmen Carrera, a transgender model, is auditioning to be a Victoria's Secret Angel (photo courtesy of Getty Images).

Carmen Carrera, a transgender model, is auditioning to be a Victoria’s Secret Angel. You go girlfriend! (photo courtesy of Getty Images).

Carmen Carrera/Elliot Sailors/Casey Legler: All three of these women defied heteronormative views of beauty this past year, with Sailors (a former swimsuit model) and Legler (an artist and athlete) working as male models and transgender model Carmen Carrera making headlines for her campaign to be the next Victoria’s Secret Angel. But as Casey Legler wrote in this fantastic essay, to focus this conversation in a sensationalist way on gender would be not just limiting and potentially harmful to marginalized communities, but would also be ignoring a historical tradition (as this amazing photography series of the ‘modern dandy’ demonstrates)  of others who have come before her. As she put it, “This is not just about gender. It is about being fierce.” Isn’t everything about being fierce? Seriously though, love. them.

A$AP Rocky: Trust. Believe it or not, his collaboration with designer Jeremy Scott has helped to challenge gender boundaries in hip hop in a way that no other rapper has done before. Respect.

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A$AP Rocky and Jeremy Scott’s fashion collaboration may be more subversive than you think…

Bethann Hardison: Fashion model legend Hardison of The Diversity Coalition didn’t just write an open letter to the governing fashion bodies of the major fashion cities blasting the industry for its “white-washed model casts,” she also called out the designers who were the worst offenders, sparking a larger conversation about racism on the runways. But as Naomi Campbell put it when she threw it down (as only Naomi knows how) with this interviewer, change isn’t going to happen by pointing fingers. It needs to be systemic. Although the fall shows did include more models of color, there still needs to be a push for what Hardison notes is a failure to commit to consistent change. And that, as scholar Minh-Ha T. Pham wrote in this essay, might take completely restructuring the industry’s dynamics of “race, power, and profit.” It probably won’t happen overnight, but at least the conversation has started, right?

Christian Vs. Barney’s New York: After being arrested by Barney’s for daring to buy a couture belt, nineteen year old student Trayon Christian sued the luxury retailer for racial profiling and false arrest. The media coverage inspired others, including Rob Brown of HBO’s Treme, to reveal their own personal stories of being profiled and arrested by retailers ranging from Barneys New York to Macy’s for what some labeled as simply ‘shopping while black,’ challenging the notion that we live in a post-racial world. And when Jay-Z failed to show solidarity by refusing to cancel his collaboration with Barney’s, the ensuing outrage added another level of complexity to the debate.

The Paul Frank/Native designer collab featured this gorgeous necklace by Autumn Gomez of The Soft Musuem (photo courtesy of cnn.com).

The Paul Frank/Native designer collab featured this gorgeous necklace by Autumn Gomez of The Soft Musuem (photo courtesy of cnn.com).

Native Artisan/Paul Frank collaboration:  I’ve written before how the fashion industry has a history of treating Native people like trends, and the ‘Pow-Wow’ party that designer Paul Frank threw for Fashion’s Night Out was a great example of that. But then, something really rad happened. Paul Frank’s team didn’t just apologize after the ensuing backlash, they expressed interest in developing a capsule collection with Native designers and donating the proceeds to a Native cause! Love me some self-reflection. I mean seriously, how many people in positions of privilege are willing to clock their own T? The amazing ladies of Beyond Buckskin and Native Appropriations, Jessica Metcalfe and Adrienne Keene, respectively, helped to launch this collection, which featured pieces by four amazing designers. And when Paul Frank failed to mention in his press releases the reasons for why this collaboration came about in the first place, Adrienne took to her blog to remind everyone that “remembering the origins reminds us of the inherent power structures in society (and therefore the fashion industry) and that it took hundreds of angry voices.” It is these voices that influenced not just the Frank collection but also brought greater visibility to the issue of cultural appropriation in the fashion industry, demonstrating how the power of the blogosphere coupled with community activism can actually spark social change, when it’s done right (I’m looking at you ‘Invisible Children/Kony 2012’).

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Bob Bland of Manufacture NY, which will provide production facilities to local designers (photo courtesy of Ecouterre).

Designers bring back local production: The New York manufacturing industry alone has seen a 90 percent decrease in jobs since the early 1900s. That’s pretty depressing. Which is why it’s so refreshing that designers like Bob Bland, Kelly Jones and Dana Arbib are providing facilities and support in the U.S. for upcoming independent designers who need help getting started in an industry that can be tough to break through. Mad props to these chicas for encouraging local production and consumer transparency. Mad. props.

Fierce People/movements who challenged gender/sexuality ‘norms’:

Students protest outside of the Department of Education, demanding better Title IX enforcement (photo courtesy of Feministing).

Students protest outside of the Department of Education, demanding better Title IX enforcement (photo courtesy of Feministing).

The Global Movement to end sexual violence: There have always been people and movements that have worked on fighting sexual violence, but 2013 was the year that witnessed a true shift in cultural consciousness, becoming blatantly clear that ignoring or brushing aside sexual assault was no longer an option. In the United States, a coalition of hundreds of sexual assault survivors, advocates and allies came together through the ‘IX Network’ to combat campus rape culture, with its mission being to “support all survivors, to change how colleges and universities handle sexual assault, and to change a culture where violence is normalized.” Federal complaints were filed nationwide against universities that had a history of treating sexual misconduct as a less egregious crime than plagiarism, allowing, for example, serial predators back on campus after they had written book reports and purposefully under-reporting the number of sexual assault cases that had occurred in a year. The blogosphere (which has arguably transformed the feminist conversation) expectedly kept up with these stories, but surprisingly so did the mainstream media, forcing this long ignored injustice into the public sphere. And then, there was the outrage over the rape in Steubenville, sparking broader debate about cultural misogyny, rape culture, media framing of sexual violence, and even trigger warnings.

A young woman protests sexual violence after the gang rape in Dehli, India.

A young woman protests sexual violence after the gang rape in Delhi, India (photo courtesy of usilive.org).

These conversations were connected globally after the brutal gang rape of a student from Delhi, India. Even Bollywood actress Mallika Sherawat made her voice heard, giving a fiery press conference on the rights of women in her country that was pretty much the fiercest. thing. ever. And of course, who can forget the massive online campaign forcing Facebook to revisit their policies on misogynist hate speech? Changing how our culture treats sexual assault and violence is going to take a lot of work, but I’m hopeful that survivor activist Angie Epifano is right when she said, “I think people will look back in 20 or 30 years and say, ‘This is when things started to improve.'”

Edith Windsor: Her Supreme Court win striking DOMA down guaranteed rights to an entire group of people. That pretty much redefines fierce.

Edith Windsor, redefining fierce after her Supreme Court win.

Edith Windsor, redefining fierce after her Supreme Court win.

Malala Yousafzai: Why is 16 year old Malala on this list? Um, let’s see. Girls education advocate. Survived an attack by the Taliban, and then went on to write a book about it. Oh, and get nominated for a Nobel Peace prize. Whateves. I do that like every day. Not to mention she basically told President Obama drone attacks were fueling terrorism and killing innocent people in Pakistan. As she put it in her book I Am Malala, “We realize the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.” Now that’s a guiding post quote for every activist! Check out this interview with Jon Stewart, whose mouth literally drops as Malala expresses her belief that the best way to fight those who are trying to oppress you is not with cruelty, but with dialogue, education, and peace.

Roya Mahboob and Ory Okollah: I’ve written before about how peeps in the West tend to take technology for granted, while those who live in countries where technology is less accessible often use new media as a powerful tool for change. Mahbook and Okollah are no exception, as they are both using the blogosphere to give women a platform in their countries of Afghanistan and Kenya respectively. Their hope is that by encouraging these young women to connect with each other and make their voices heard, they will feel empowered to transform their communities and push countries forward. As Okollah put it, “We talk about African governments like they’ve been dropped from Mars, you know? They come from us.” Truth. 

Ory Okolloh didn't just "put Kenya on the map as a tech innovation hub," she's using her position to empower future female leaders of Africa (photo courtesy of good.is)

Ory Okolloh didn’t just “put Kenya on the map as a tech innovation hub,” she’s using her position to empower future female leaders of Africa (photo courtesy of good.is).

Uruguay: Defying stereotypes, Uruguay passed a bill in favor of marriage equality, adding to Latin America’s reputation as a region that values gay and trans rights as human rights and is more progressive in that sense than the U.S. and many Western European nations (they’ve also edged ahead of the U.S. in women’s political leadership). But because they’re ‘third-world’ they’re totes backwards right? Hmm….

Charlotte Laws:  After computer hackers from the revenge porn site ‘Is Anyone Up?’ stole pictures of her daughter, Lawson waged a ‘war’ against revenge porn creep Hunter Moore, successfully helping to both pass anti-revenge porn legislation in the state of California and launch a FBI investigation that led to his arrest. Guess even Moore couldn’t deal with a bad ass mama taking on the misogynist internet.

Charlotte Laws took on revenge porn creep Hunter Moore...and won.

Does Hunter Moore regret the day he tried to mess with this Badass mama?

Sarah Slamen and Wendy Davis:  After Wendy Davis pulled a marathon filibuster to stop a restrictive anti-abortion measure in Texas, Sarah Slamen testified at a state Senate committee and was thrown out by troopers after she called out Texas’s hypocrisy in upholding the death penalty and refusing to teach sex education in schools. The Texas legislature received widespread criticism over the stifling of citizen speech, and her powerful statement of “Excuse me, this is my government, ma’am. I will judge you,” was reblogged and tweeted like crazy.  Talk about shutting. it. DOWN.

The Selfie: Ok, so I know a lot of people groaned when ‘the selfie’ was picked as the word of the year by the Oxford Dictionary, claiming that young teen millennials (specifically girls), had reached a narcissistic, desperate low. But I loved this article that argued for a smarter conversation than always viewing young women as passive victims (imagine that!) and not as agents of their own lives. As this blogger put it,

“The act of women taking selfies is inherently feminist, especially in a society that tries so hard to tell women that our bodies are projects to be worked on and a society that profits off of the insecurities that it perpetuates. Selfies are like a ‘fuck you’ to all of that, they declare that ‘hey I look awesome today and I want to share that with everyone’ and that’s pretty revolutionary.”

Beyonce isn't just a feminist, she's a fierce feminist. Which is the best kind there is, right GFs?

Beyonce isn’t just a feminist, she’s a ‘fierce’ feminist. Which is the best kind there is, right GFs?

Feminism became cool again: Any movement promoting equality should automatically get respect, but feminism has often suffered from political (thanks Limbaugh), social, and media backlash that has resorted to sensationalist depictions of feminists as ‘bra-burners’  (which never actually happened btw) or worse. In past years we’ve heard from singers like Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson who have resisted the feminist label, which is why it was so refreshing to see so many embrace it this past year. There was Beyoncé mentioning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted talk “We should all be Feminists” as an inspiration for her video series on imperfection accompanying her latest album. Sixteen year old music sensation Lorde openly spoke about her feminism, not backing down when Selena Gomez fans attacked her for criticizing the pop singer’s sexist lyrics. John Legend, after performing at a charity event for Chime for Change, stated his opinion that “All men should be feminists. If men care about women’s rights, the world would be a better place.” Can I get a PREACH?! Even Miley Cyrus claimed in an interview “I feel like I’m one of the biggest feminists in the world cause I tell women not to be scared of anything” (yes Miley, I was totes afraid of twerking until you ‘introduced’ it to us…thank you for showing me the light!). Amy Poehler and Ellen Paige also weighed in, questioning in interviews why some celebrities balked at the term. As Amy Poehler put it,  “That’s like someone being like, ‘I don’t really believe in cars, but I drive one every day and I love that it gets me places and makes life so much easier and faster and I don’t know what I would do without it.'” True. dat.

#solidarityisforwhitewomen: This hashtag went viral, reminding us that while feminism is dope, it needs to be intersectional to really work.

Subjectified and Do Tell: Melissa Tapper Goldman’s documentary and the blog project that came out of it offers authentic, uncensored personal stories about women’s sexuality that we too often ignore in a society that is in turn both sex-saturated and silencing of honest (sexual) experiences. Thank you girlfriend.

Evan Rachel Wood: Speaking. of. that. This statement by actress Evan Rachel Wood. Omg. THIS.

Laverne Cox: One of the stars of  the new series “Orange is the New Black,” Cox has become a transgender icon and activist who with co-guest Carmen Carrera schooled (in the most gracious way eva) Katie Couric for expressing a fixation with gender reassignment surgery. As she put it:

“The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.”

Germany offers third gender option: Every year, there are children who are born of indeterminate gender. Instead of parents being forced to choose their gender identity for them, Germany has given a third option on birth certificates so parents can leave it up to their child to decide whether to identity as male, female, or neither. Heyy Germany, we see you!

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler host the Golden Globes: Sarah Silverman is probably right that making a big deal about women in comedy is a little passe, but Tina and Amy rocked it in both 2013 and 2014 and proved themselves to be two of the best hosts of any award show eva. I mean seriously, this video deserves to be on this list for that Leo DiCaprio dig alone (you know you loved it).

Media and Culture

Sorry Murdoch, you didn't win this time buddy.

Sorry Murdoch, you didn’t win this time buddy.

FCC ditches media mergers: This was SO huge. I’ve written before about how an increasingly corporatized media landscape that puts the vast majority of media into the hands of the few is challenging our democracy. So it was pretty depressing when the FCC announced they were considering changing the one rule that was preventing Rupert Murdoch from buying out pretty much every media outlet. But hundreds of thousands of peeps took action and stopped Murdoch in his tracks in a citizen protest that was pretty much epic. Love.

Occupy’s Legacy: Speaking of citizen protests, whether or not the members of the movement are still camped outside of Zuccoti Park in New York is irrelevant. Their economic framing of the 1% vs. the 99% has resonated with the American public, completely changing the conversation at home, in workplaces, newsrooms, and the political sphere. Language matters.  And by reframing the discourse on inequality, they also broadened the conversation beyond just Wall Street and economics.

The tents have gone, but the language has stayed.

The tents have gone, but the language and impact has stayed.

Comics take on racism/privilege: Speaking of that. Did anyone else get this sense that American media and culture was discussing privilege and racism in a way that we’ve typically been reluctant to do? Whether we were debating the outcomes of the Trayvon Martin trial, the ‘Affluenza’ defense used to excuse a wealthy teenager’s crimes, and the data revealing that African-Americans are far more likely to be singled out for drug arrests and random frisks, it was clear that Americans were finally starting to acknowledge that we hardly live in a post-racial world. Going through all the media coverage would be a bit much (I mean, this post needs to end at some point, right?), so I’ll highlight three comedy routines that really captured our current cultural moment. This ‘Key & Peele’ sketch on the hoodie, this Louis CK routine that perfectly explains the historical context of racism, and this routine by stand-up comedian Aamer Rahmen where he covers issues like inequality, colonization, slavery, war, and internalized racism as a way to break down why the idea of ‘reverse racism’ doesn’t work. In like, three minutes. You do that.

Edward Snowden: You know how he do. Exposed the massive surveillance program conducted by the U.S. government. Sparked a national privacy debate. Raised questions on the constitutionality of the program that might rein in the ability of the executive branch to conduct surveillance. From an ideological position, whether I’m condoning or condemning him is not the issue. The issue is whether he meets this blog’s definition of fierceness, and based on that I think to not include him on this list would be a straight up act of treason (oh no. I. didn’t. Oh yes I did! Snap!)

Colbert’s report on Mayor Johnny Cummings: This profile on Vicco, Kentucky, the smallest town in the nation to pass a non-discrimination ordinance that included sexual orientation, was hilarious and a wonderful turn on Appalachian stereotypes. And I might have cried just a little bit (shhh…don’t tell).

Antoinette Tuff: The stunning 911 tape of bookkeeper Tuff, who worked at an elementary school in Georgia, talking a gunman into surrendering to police went viral because of the compelling way she used empathy and compassion to connect with a mentally ill man who was in despair. Tuff not only shared her own stories of her struggles and attempted suicide during the call, she even told the young man that she loved him. Her story is a testament to how, as scholar bell hooks put it in her piece “Love as the Practice of Freedom,” the “moment we choose to love, we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.” Amen. And on a related note…

bell hooks and Melissa Harris Perry OMG: Did these two really just sit down and cover politics, race, black womanhood, media, and love in one conversation? And was it even more brilliant, honest and critical an analysis than I expected it to be? Yes, they did, and yes, it was.

Misee Harris – the first Black Bachelorette: So you don’t  think a reality television show has a place on this list huh? Why don’t you read this post and get back to me. You back yet? Ok chill, now that we’re on the same page (obvi), I think we can agree that starting your own campaign as a response to the racial exclusion of minorities on a popular television show and forcing a conversation about racism into the national spotlight is pretty. damn. fierce. The pediatric dentist/model/philanthropist is still in the spotlight, and has recently patented her own line of athletic mouthguards, advanced in casting for the show Shark Tank, and is also working on her own reality show that will present black women beyond the simple caricatures that are too often on our TV screens (I’m looking at you Atlanta Housewives)  Love. her.

Read more here: http://www.idahostatesman.com/2014/01/02/2953484/windsor-snowden-became-big-names.html#storylink=cpyMedia Mergers, not happening. (Big win: FCC Ditches Media consolidatiAppalachian stereotypes-Jon Stewart

Music/Theater/Dance:

Cyndi being Cyndi after her big Tony win!

Cyndi being Cyndi after her big Tony win!

Broadway makes history: The Tony Awards in 2013 were pretty epic. Four African American actors won awards, with 88 year old Cecily Tyson making history as the oldest person to win a Tony for a role that wasn’t originally written for a black woman. Not only that, but the two directing awards both went to women, including my girl Cyndi Lauper. Sure sometimes girls just wanna have fun, but sometimes they wanna win awards and make history too.

Pussy Riot/Riot Grrrls: This punk rock band from Russia makes the list again, for clocking the T on the Kremlin when they accused them of pulling a ‘publicity stunt’ for finally releasing them from jail…right before the Winter Olympics. Also, shout out to fellow riot grrrl bands The Shondes and Kathleen Hanna (the queen mother of all riot grrrls) and her band The Julie Ruin for their fierce new albums. Oh and we can’t talk about punk and not mention Rupaul, who spoke so much truth in a recent interview with Rolling Stone when he said, “Doing drag in a male-dominated society is an act of treason. It’s literally the most punk rock thing you can do.” And we’re done GFs, DONE.

BRITAIN LONDON PUSSY RIOT PROTEST

You gotta think twice before throwing shade at a riot grrrl….

Janelle Monae: We all know Monae’s music is off the hook (I mean her song Q.U.E.E.N. with Erykah Badu??), but it was her interview below that really gave me life. It’s here that you get insight into Ms. Monae’s true philosophy and vision. I loved when she talked about her ‘androids of the future,’ which she envisions as “the new woman, the new minority, the new gay” who are “deeply connected and committed to community.” I. die.

Prancing Elites: A few months ago, one of my homegirls sent me the video below as a congrats when I met a big deadline. An hour later, I still couldn’t get enough of this gender-bending dance troupe from Mobile, Alabama. Dancing in the ‘J-Setting’ style, which was popularized by the Beyoncé video, “Single Ladies,” the fearless group members have been celebrated by their hometown and even on the show ‘The Real’ in Los Angeles. So happy they met their Kickstarter…can’t wait to see them werk it out in 2014!

Six year old B-girl Terra: This girl is SO dope. And Badass. And fierce. And yes, I’m inspired by and look up to a six-year-old. Suck it. Be sure to check out her Facebook page!

Becky G: Much like Kitty Pryde, Mexican-American teenager and rapper/singer Becky G gained recognition when she posted remixes of songs on YouTube. Her song “Becky from the Block” was released in 2013, and the video features a shout-out to her Latin culture and plenty of bravado as she raps, “Right now its just who is that girl? But one day Imma be all around the world.” This. Girl.

Jenny Suk: Another YouTube sensation I can’t get enough of. Her cover of Justin Bieber’s ‘Boyfriend’ actually made me appreciate the song and Bieber (trust), but it was this cover of the song ‘Wildfire’ that made me a hardcore fan.

Valerie June: I’ve always loved peeps who can’t be put into a box, and I think after watching this teaser of her upcoming album you’ll agree that pigeonholing this Tennessee blues/country/folk/gospel singer would be pretty much impossible. Obsessed.

Qaadir Howard: Speaking of out of the box. Qaadir (aka Timaya) certainly isn’t new to the Youtube game – he’s  been putting out videos since 2007.  But I’ve been pretty much addicted to his channel since he kept it real in 2013 with this video about the shady politics of YouTube. He serves a little bit of everything – music, sketches, inspirational videos, and really, really hilarious rants. It literally hurts me to pick just a few of my favorite videos, but I would def check out  “The Wal Mart Terrorist,” “Get off My Phone Sanjay Gupta,” (Sanjaaaaay!!! LOL), his sketches on Nicki Minaj and “Gary Mars The Space Alien, his beautifully spiritual and humanist video “I Was Homeless For a Night,” and when actress Tracee Ellis Ross hilariously bombed him in her own video.  I also love me some inspirational Qaadir, like his videos on “Making Lasting Change” and the one posted below. Thank you Q, for always keeping it real and teaching us all how to “clock the T where it needs to be clocked!”

Can’t wait to see what this next year brings us! Does anyone else get this intense vibe that 2014 is going to be the year? For all of my girlfriends who have joined in the conversation and shared links with me on Facebook and Twitter, thank you. You have really enriched my knowledge of the world and I’m so grateful to all of you. Here’s to the fiercest. year. EVER!

And let me know in the comments below if there’s anyone else who should have been added to the list –  I’d love to hear from you!

My Related Posts:

2012: The Year’s Fiercest Cultural Figures

 

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The Chocolate Industry Exposed: Child Labor, Trafficking and Fair Trade Mislabeling

Our favorite chocolate brands look sweet, but what lies behind the wrapper?

Our favorite chocolate brands look sweet, but what lies beneath the wrapper?

With Valentine’s Day behind us and Easter just a few weeks away, I thought there was no better time to write a post on the chocolate industry than now, when ‘chocolate season’ seems to be in full bloom. Even though it may seem that I am taking somewhat of a detour from my current series on fashion by writing about all things cocoa, the fact is, the chocolate and textile industries share much in common. Both produce things that give people around the world pleasure, and yet that pleasure often comes at a cost. My previous posts on fashion, conflict minerals and technology have attempted to reveal the obstacles in maintaining transparency across our global supply chains, and chocolate is no exception here. If glamor is a facade that often hides the exploitation behind the fashion industry, then the sweetness of chocolate found within the brightly foiled wrappers can be an easy distraction from the gritty, sad reality of how that chocolate is made. The ultimate irony is that an industry that especially caters to children’s Willy Wonka fantasies too often relies on the trafficking of children to make it.

Sigh. There is always a buzzkill. But don’t worry gfs, we’re going to talk about what’s wrong with the cocoa industry, and then we will discuss actions we can take to make it better.

A child labors in the cocoa fields (photo courtesy of ethical living).

A child labors in the cocoa fields (photo courtesy of ethical living).

Here are the hard facts. Two million cocoa farms across West Africa produce around 73 percent of the world’s four million tons of cocoa. Exports from the Cote d’Ivoire account for 10 percent of its GDP, bringing in $2.3 billion to the region annually. This lucrative business relies on more than 1.8 million children, most of whom work without pay and in hazardous conditions, which include exposure to harmful pesticides and forced use of machetes in their work. Between 200,000 and 800,000 children under the age of 18 are working under the ‘worst forms of child labor,’ and it is estimated that over 10,000 are trafficked annually in West Africa alone.

The child labor situation in the cocoa industry is tragic, and yet too little has been done to institute the needed regulations to ensure that this exploitation does not occur. In 2001, a few members of U.S. Congress proposed a federal system to certify and label chocolate products as slave free: right on the wrapper, next to the calories and ingredient list where it sometimes says “may contain peanuts,” it would read “may contain child labor.” This proposal—the Harkin-Engel Accord—passed the House of Representatives, but lost by a razor-thin margin in the Senate when chocolate manufacturing giants like Hershey, Mars, Nestle and agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland threw their money into a massive lobbying effort.

Thanks to the efforts of Senator Harkin and many others committed to see a change, a ‘voluntary protocol’ was nonetheless negotiated. That meant cocoa companies could try and stop child labor, if they wanted to. It set goals for ending abusive and forced child labor on cocoa farms by 2005. These terms have still not been implemented, due to a lack of certification standards, the Ivorian Civil War in which ‘blood chocolate,’ along with conflict minerals, was making money for the militants, and a lack of political will among cocoa corporations. I mean, they didn’t see fit to end child labor before—why was a law with no teeth going to change their behavior now? Every few years, the law gets reviewed, the lobby pushes back, and a new deadline for implementation is set. Meanwhile, kids are enslaved in the cocoa fields. Farmers dream of making as much as $1 a day—a dream as far off as tasting a chocolate bar most never have, since it’s too expensive. At the same time, kids in the West buy cheap chocolate, and dollars pile into coffers of the same giant companies that continue to bat down this legislation.

The Harkin-Engel Protocol - a commitment or wish list? (photo courtesy of candyusa.com)

The Harkin-Engel Protocol addressed again, in 2010. A commitment or wish list? (photo courtesy of candyusa.com).

What do we have to show for these efforts, a decade later? Miki Mistrati and U. Roberto Romano wanted to find out, and launched an undercover investigation into the cocoa industry, which they revealed in their startling, award-winning documentary, The Dark Side of Chocolate. The film reveals that, contrary to the chocolate industry’s claims, child trafficking is still very much central to the production of cocoa in Western Africa, especially the Ivory Coast. Many of these children come from the poorest families in the region, and are tricked into thinking they will be paid for their work so that they can help support their families. Children as young as eight years old travel miles from countries like Burkina Faso or Mali, and are forced to labor in hazardous conditions from sunrise to sunset and live in small shacks in the plantations.

Who is to blame for 8-year old Hussein being a child laborer? Is it corporations, suppliers, consumers or governments?

Who is to blame for 8-year old Hussein working on a cocoa farm? Is it corporations, farmers, suppliers, consumers or governments? Or is everyone to blame? (photo courtesy of Jessica Dimmock for CNNMoney).

But who is to blame here exactly? Much like the fashion industry, the transnational nature of the cocoa industry makes it difficult to ‘pin the blame’ on any particular person, country, or institution. The chocolate companies point fingers at farmers, who in turn have argued that what they’re paid for cocoa is too little for them to pay adult wages—so they hire cheap children instead—or worse. The Ivorian government has similarly accused chocolate companies of not paying farmers enough for their produce since farmers must sell their beans to middlemen at dramatically low prices, even though the prices for cocoa in the commodities market have risen. In response, chocolate companies have countered that it is too complex to track where their cocoa beans come from, especially since global commodities exchanges might mix Ivorian cocoa with other cocoa. The suppliers in turn argue that they can’t be held responsible because they don’t control the farms. Meanwhile, consumers claim that it is difficult to know where their chocolate was produced given the distance between consumers and producers.

Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign is revealing the hidden costs of their sweet chocolate.

Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign is revealing the hidden costs of their sweet chocolate.

So what can be done? Mistrati recently gave an interview on the issues of transparency revealed in The Dark Side of Chocolate, and he believes that if major manufacturers who are located in the Ivory Coast are truly concerned about where their cocoa comes from, then they should buy the fields and control the cocoa directly. He also doesn’t think companies are spending enough money on projects fighting child slavery in Africa relative to the revenue they make. For example, take Hershey, which owns a whopping 42 percent of the U.S. market for cocoa, making it the country’s largest purchaser of West African chocolate. Although the company is investing in a $4 million, five year program that helps to train Western African farmers on good farming and labor practices, scorecards recently released by Not for Profit Uniting Church Across Australia and the International Labor Rights Forum revealed Hershey is lagging far behind retailers like Mars and Nestle in eliminating child labor in its supply chain. Hershey has since announced its plan to produce 100 percent certified cocoa for all of its products by 2020, which, if met, could have a profound effect on an industry in which only five percent of its cocoa volume is certified.

Students protest in Times Square in front of the Hershey store (photo courtesy of fairtradecampus.org).

Students protest in Times Square in front of the Hershey store (photo courtesy of United Students for Fair Trade).

Still, as I have written before, there is always a potential that companies will resort to greenwashing when they are not legally bound to follow through with their promises, and Hershey thus far has been somewhat vague on what their certification plan would entail. In fact, Whole Foods Markets Inc. just recently pulled Hershey’s ‘artisan’ chocolate brands Scharffen Berger and Dagoba off the shelves after activists in International Labor Rights Forum, Green America, and the Organic Consumers Association raised concerns about the company’s lack of transparency in their social accountability programs. One of Hershey’s largest shareholders has filed a suit against the company for its alleged use of child labor. The ‘Raise the Bar Hershey‘ campaign, which involves elementary school children as its core base, aims to pressure the company to ethically source 100% of its cocoa by its proposed deadline of 2020. Many children have given up eating chocolate from Hershey’s until the brand makes the full switch. One can only hope that a company built by Quakers on a foundation of educating disadvantaged children would once again become an industry leader.

A young boy dries out cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast. Would more Fair Trade certification make it possible for him to go to school?

A young boy dries out cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast. Would more Fair Trade certification make it possible for him to go to school? (photo courtesy of IRLF).

The Hershey example outlined above clearly demonstrates why companies must operationalize according to a ‘logic of distance’ between producer and consumer as a way to maximize their profits. This logic assumes that the further removed a consumer is from the conditions under which a producer labors, the less likely they will be to have awareness and ultimately, motivation to protest. This is perhaps why Mistrati believes that change in cocoa production methods will be more likely to happen when consumers demand change and pressure chocolate manufactures to increase their purchases of Fair Trade cocoa. The standards for the Fair Trade certification mark prohibit child labor according to the ILO conventions, and qualified auditors are supposed to routinely check producer organizations to ensure that these standards are being rigorously met. By working to strengthen the position of farmers and workers in international supply chains so that they do not have to rely on child labor, a convincing argument can be made for the elimination of child trafficking by creating a greater demand for Fair Trade chocolate. And when children are not forced to work the argument is that they will have greater opportunities to go to school, which is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty that fuels child trafficking in the first place.

However, sometimes transparency in labeling for even movements we trust can be suspect. While Fair Trade advocates have always touted transparency throughout the Fair Trade supply chain as central to its mission, there is a growing concern that as more businesses incorporate the Fair Trade label into their products in an effort to gain new consumers, the high bar for accountability might become filtered. The Fair World Project decided to go to various stores to investigate how transparent various chocolate brands were about their labeling. They were shocked to find out that two “privately labeled chocolate bars,” one of which was from Trader Joe’s and the other from Whole Foods, claimed to be Fair Trade when in fact, only a few of their ingredients were certified Fair Trade. So if Whole Foods’ brand chocolate bar has fair trade cocoa butter, how does the consumer know that the sugar and vanilla included in the bar was not made with exploited labor? Trader Joe’s is even more secretive about its Fair Trade ingredients, with none being identified in their ingredient list (this lack of transparency on sourcing and labor practices is not just limited to chocolate at the cheap retailer, as this article points out).

Misleading labels: This Trader Joe's bar is cheaper than other Fair Trade chocolate bars, but how do we know the ingredients on this bar weren't made with exploitative labor?

Misleading labels: This Trader Joe’s bar is cheaper than other Fair Trade chocolate bars, but how do we know the ingredients on this bar weren’t made with exploitative labor when the labeling isn’t transparent?

This is egregious not just because it allows these companies to sell a Fair Trade product without being fully transparent about their supply chains, but also because these private brands are cheaper than true Fair Trade companies like Alter Eco, Divine, and Equal Exchange, all of which invest in fair prices and premiums to ensure that more money is going directly to cooperatives controlled by farmers. Their bars clearly indicate which ingredients are Fair Trade, and furthermore, they include relevant information and pictures about the co-ops they work with in the inserts of their packaging and on their websites. Still, consumers have become so conditioned to trust the label, they might buy a cheaper product that has fewer Fair Trade ingredients (and yes, I was one of those consumers. I’m not exactly a fan of being lied to, so hence. this. post.).

What is so strange is that the Swiss-based Institute for Marketecology (IMO), a certifier for companies using the ‘Fair for Life’ label, requires that a product be 80% fair trade by weight in order to display the Fair for Life logo on the front. Furthermore, neither of these bars indicates the audited company responsible for manufacturing the bar, a key component of IMO’s Fair for Life program. So, what explains these misleading labels?

Certifier IMO failed to intervene when Theo, a Fair Trade certified company, did not uphold its Northern workplace standards.

Certifier IMO failed to intervene when Theo, a Fair Trade certified company, did not uphold its Northern workplace standards.

Even more difficult to explain is the recent lapse in Fair Trade workplace standards that was revealed a few weeks ago when the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) released a report titled Aiding and Abetting. The report documents how certifier IMO neglected to uphold its commitment to international labor standards promoted by its Fair for Life label when it failed to intervene on behalf of workers at Theo Chocolate who were attempting to organize at their North American factory. In fact, IMO then proceeded to initiate new labor standards that included recommendations for employer-hired consultants who discourage union organizing to be included in a list provided to its workers. While one can argue that this violation was a failure to uphold their Northern workplace standards, not necessarily their ‘Fair Trade’ standards, we should still question, if the certification system wasn’t working in North America, whether it would work for producers in the Global south.

The question is then, how do we make the system financially accountable to the people it is supposed to help, namely both workers and consumers? According to Rachel Taber, who worked at Theo Chocolate for three and a half years as a tour guide, one of the central problems lies with the fact that auditors are being paid by the management of companies like Theo, thus setting up a potential conflict of interest. This is why the ILRF is recommending that complaints by workers be reviewed not by company-associated auditors, but by an independent “International Fair Trade Board of Appeal.” As Judy Gearhart, Executive director of ILRF noted in an interview with me:

“We definitely need more accountability and transparency in our system. And we need to acknowledge that not all of these systems are treated equally. Fair Trade International, which is based in Europe, can partly attribute its more rigorous Fair Trade standards to more robust support by the labor movement there. And that makes a big difference. While we feel that Fair Trade has the right social justice commitments, we need to work harder to ensure that farmers have a strong share in these companies.”

Yes. Because ultimately, farmers and producers, not labels, are at the heart of this movement. There are some wonderful company leaders who are indeed staying true to their Fair Trade ethics, in that they are constantly striving for transparency and are committed to giving their workers a platform to voice their concerns. They’re reaping economic benefit on a more equitable level and taking unique approaches to do it.

Children of the families of the Dominican cocoa co-operative CONACADO, a partner of Equal Exchange.

Children of the families of the Dominican cocoa co-operative CONACADO, a partner of Equal Exchange, at their elementary school.

Take for example, Equal Exchange, the oldest Fair Trade coffee company in the United States. Of the nine seats on their board, six are reserved for non-management worker-owners, and all nine are nominated and elected by the workers themselves. They share worker testimonials on their online site, and as Rocio Motato of the Columbian cooperative ASPROCAFE put it, “We have not only a commercial relationship through the coffee, but more importantly, a very human relationship.” Their commitment to environmental sustainability and organic food practices is evident in the quality of their products—the chocolate bars sourced from purely made ingredients are some of my favorites in the business (and I know my chocolate!).

18-3farmers_gathering

Farmers in Madagascar gather their beans after sun-drying. Madecasse works with cooperatives to keep the profit in the region so that farmers do not have to rely on cheap child labor (photo courtesy of madecasse.com).

There are other notable models that should also be highlighted. Divine is a Fair Trade company in which farmers own 45% and share the profits, and there is a special focus on women leadership. Alter Eco Foods works with small-scale cooperatives in countries that include Bolivia, Peru, and Thailand, and is an interesting company because its environmental commitments include organic agriculture training for farmers and also partnering many of their cooperatives with reforestation projects. And then there are other chocolate producers that are not certified Fair Trade, but are making quality chocolate that benefits local communities. For example, the Chuao cooperative in Venezuela sells to high-end chocolatiers, and the farmers organize and distribute money fairly among themselves and make really amazing chocolate that is culturally appropriate to their land-based indigenous background. The Granada Chocolate company makes organic chocolate in Granada using their own cocoa beans, while Madecasse, a chocolate company sourced and manufactured from bean to bar in Madagascar, keeps the profits local.

The certified Fair Trade and non-certified Fair Trade companies highlighted above are all excellent examples of models that work, and provide a compelling rationale for why consumers need to start looking beyond the label to truly transform the system, because the Fair Trade seal, which traditionally used to symbolize rigorous monitoring and transparent labeling, is in danger of being diluted and hijacked. Furthermore, we need to start thinking more deeply about whether we should rely solely on a certification to bridge the gap between producers and consumers. While the Payson Center proposal of an oversight committee on certifiers is a good, easy starting point for where we are now, to create a more accountable workplace, Rachel Taber believes that we can go even further to institute a real system of “checks and balances.” As she told me:

You need a union, a real functioning democratic co-op, a way that workers themselves can communicate directly with consumers in a way that their own words will be heard. I mean really, skyping with interpreters would probably be much cheaper than paying out of country auditors.”

On a related note, NGO-sponsored ‘worker tours’ which include a small panel of workers sharing their personal narratives of laboring within global commodity chains are proving to be a powerful way for producers and activists to build coalitions with schools, congregations and most urgently, unions.

Two Cacao farmers from the cooperative CONACADO speak on tour:

Finally, we need to encourage civic engagements and direct action of consumers and workers together to hold abusive companies responsible and reward companies that have implemented worker and consumer demands on them and are actually following through on their commitments. Organizations like the United Students against Sweatshops (USAS), Coalition of Immokale Workers (CIW), and even the Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign have given corporations a taste of the power of consumers rising against them.  For example, after learning that Nike had failed to pay $1.54 million in severance pay to over 1,800 workers in Honduras, USAS led several University boycotts of the brand which led to Nike ultimately agreeing to pay the workers the severance that was owed to them. It is clear that the corporate accountability model is capable of working, in that costing companies money gets things done. You might be surprised just how much your voice can make a difference.

USAS organizers, here with BJ&B workers, have had some key victories (photo courtesy of USAS).

USAS organizers, here with BJ&B workers, have had some key victories (photo courtesy of USAS).

Here is the deal. Child trafficking in the cocoa industry is very real, and it is tragic. If we are going to seriously address it, then we need to not just resort to knee-jerk responses such as ‘buy Fair Trade chocolate’ if we don’t even know what that means. Though I want to be clear here, my issue isn’t with the person who buys an Equal Exchange bar over a Hershey bar knowing that the former supports democratic co-ops while the latter is potentially trafficking children to supply their cocoa. We do need to demand more ethically sourced chocolate, and supporting disenfranchised farming communities is a very powerful choice.

Where we get into a problem is when we buy products because we trust the label and we don’t realize that the label might be diluted. Or when we think of ourselves only as consumers and not also as citizens who have the power to organize for system-wide changes, such as the Harkin-Engel accord, or anti-corporate campaigns against cases of abuse. We need to get to know the companies behind the labels to see which ones best represent our values of social justice and transparency, and take cues from organizations we respect, such as the Fair World Project, or a faith-based organization which is active in Fair Trade issues, or any of the ones mentioned above. In the words of Public Enemy, ‘Don’t believe the hype.” In order to better direct the energy of the labor rights movement, we need to think critically, ask questions, and ultimately, refuse to lower the bar for justice.

Update: In late March, Hershey announced that it would commit to 100% Fair Trade cocoa by 2020, and that it would source through certifiers UTZ, Fair Trade USA, and Rainforest Alliance. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, we need to keep in mind that these three certifiers are known for being less rigorous than other Fair Trade certifiers. The Fair World Project’s list of credible Fair Trade certification programs does not include any of these certifiers. Here are links to criticisms of Fair Trade USARainforest Alliance and UTZ. This demonstrates again, the importance of sustained conversation, and thinking beyond the label!

In late 2012, IMO wrote this letter to the Fair World Project promising that they would remove the Fair for Life logo on the front of their label until they had ensured that they had corrected the Fair Trade ingredients percentage in their chocolate. The Fair World Project confirmed that as of 2014, the private labels are sourcing fair trade sugar.

Trader Joe’s has pulled the Fair for Life logo from their fair trade chocolate, but they are still not indicating who it is that is certifying their chocolate as fair trade, if anyone.

Fair Trade USA has repeatedly been criticized for its labeling policy that lacks transparency and its low percentage of required fair trade ingredients. They have made some changes, such as agreeing to mandate a percentage disclosure and to not exempt milk from calculations of fair trade ingredients. But they are still excluding sugar and vanilla as mandatory in products labeled ‘fair trade.’

In December 2015, a food blogger published a series of posts on DallasFood.org investigating how the Mast Brothers – an “artisanal” chocolate company known for its “bean to bar” production and  commitment to authenticity and transparency – did not always make its chocolate from scratch and is less than transparent about its production sources.  As this Quartz piece noted, the story highlights how a company’s marketing, which in this case included beautiful packaging and bearded, hipster founders, can successfully launch a product of questionable quality into the market and help shape it into a consumer and media darling.

Take Action:
  • Want to email companies like Hershey and Nestle, as well as the World Cocoa Foundation, pressuring them to abide by Harkin-Engel? Check out this page where you can also message Tom Harkin and Eliot Engel!
  • Get involved in the Hershey, Raise the Bar! Campaign, where you can find petitions and some great resources!
  • Check out 10 Campaign’s excellent breakdown of the main issues around child labor in the chocolate industry, and be sure to download their comprehensive but clear “Campaign Briefing Document.”
  • Sign this petition initiated by the Food Empowerment Project asking Clif Bar to disclose where they get their cocoa beans.
  • The Global Cocoa Project has some great resources for increasing awareness about the realities behind the cocoa industry.
  • Looking for more ideas on how to get young people involved? Or how you can raise awareness by hosting your own ‘chocolate party?’ Stop the Traffick can hook you up!
  • How about hosting a screening of ‘A Dark Side of Chocolate’ as a way to spread awareness among your peers and larger community? You can purchase it on ILRF’s website. And check out their ‘Take Action’ page.
  • Concerned about Theo’s recent actions against its workers, and IMO’s failure to uphold Fair Trade standards? Want to hold accountable and improve the parties involved? Sign this petition demanding that IMO’s Fair for Life certification label adopt reforms to protect workers.
  • Share this video testimonial of a former Theo worker.
  • Share this amazing TEDx talk by ChocoSol founder Michael Sacco, where he discusses the horizontal trade model that emphasizes community supported agriculture, diversity of production, and intercultural relationships. Watch the ChocoSol philosophy here.
  • Share this video about chocolate company TCHO‘s work in Costa Rica.
  • Screen Nothing Like Chocolate, a documentary by Kum-Kum Bhavnani, which focuses on how Mott Green of the Grenada Chocolate Company and independent cocoa farmer Nelice Stewart produce chocolate sustainably and ethically. You can watch the trailer here.

Good Chocolate List:

  • You should take these recommendations with a grain of salt given some of the points made in this post, but this is a good basic list of which chocolate companies source from areas in West Africa where child slavery is the most pervasive, as well as ethical and sustainable alternatives.
Additional Resources:
My Related Posts:

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Political Apathy and why I’m SO not feeling it.

So I’ve had a few readers ask me why I haven’t really blogged about the election, and I think I need to clarify that I am absolutely NOT apathetic about politics. I follow the news, subscribe to the Economist, as stressful as that is (one issue a week is a bit of an overkill, just sayin’), and generally try to stay as informed as possible. I’m just not a political blogger. There are already a ton of policy wonks writing about politics and doing it way better than I ever could. My interest is in culture and media, and when I have written about politics on this blog, it’s always through a critical cultural-media lens. That is why when I interviewed a woman on development in Afghanistan a few weeks ago, I focused on media coverage and gender issues. And when I addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I didn’t really take a side on the issue but instead critiqued the erasure of such an important topic in our public space. And I did attempt to tackle an election debate by questioning the narrow scope of the corporate media’s coverage and arguing for why we need independent media and third-party candidates.

As I wrote in my first post,  I’m uncomfortable with the divisive nature of partisan politics, the Bill O’Reilly vs. Chris Matthews screaming matches that our news media has fostered, and the corporatization of our culture that is diminishing our public space. I agree with rapper Killer Mike that our country tends to think in ‘teams,’ and ultimately, I believe that change comes from the people. That’s one of the reasons why I was behind so much of what the Occupy movement did. It’s also why I absolutely loved this article on how a performance-poetry group who have cared for their children through extreme poverty are now working with the Occupy movement and other advocacy groups to teach people about poverty. It makes sense that poor people would actually have the best anti-poverty ideas. If only policy-makers and politicians would listen to the people more, and if only the news media would represent these groups instead of constantly interviewing elites with the same recycled opinions. It’s frustrating, and it needs to change.

But here’s the thing. I DO think elections matter, and very few things annoy me more than apathy. And this is where I’m going to abandon all of my Kumbaya inclinations of always wanting to bring people together by avoiding divisive talk, and I’m just going to BUST. Because I have come to the realization that people who make arguments like ‘the president is just a figurehead’ or “Obama did nothing these past four years, he’s no different than Bush,” are really annoying and need to be called out. Honestly, I don’t care who you vote for. But if you’re a liberal who is ‘disappointed’ with Obama’s presidency because he didn’t get as much done as they wanted, well…he ended up with a Republican Congress!! What did you expect him to do?? The government got gridlocked because of that. That’s the way politics works in this country people. Did you miss the massive health care bill he passed? Or how he ended torture? He bailed out the auto industry (I have friends and family who live in Ohio and Detroit who have seen real effects from this…ie, no economic meltdown). He protected women’s reproductive rights and passed the historic Lilly Ledbetter bill that protects women from discriminatory pay. He got rid of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and vouched his support for marriage equality. Oh, and he got us out of Iraq and caught Bin Laden. So people are pissed because he didn’t do every little thing he wanted to do. They wanted public health care. They’re mad that he cracked down so hard on immigrants. I get these concerns, but here’s the thing, change doesn’t happen overnight. I think a lot of people in my generation were raised on these ridiculous expectations a la Veruca Salt of “I want the world to change overnight NOW DADDY!” And that’s not how the world works. How many years did it take for women to achieve the right to vote? For the Civil Rights movement to win their demands?

I’m going to argue that Obama was effective in planting the progressive seeds that, if given the opportunity, he and other presidents afterwards will help shape. Whether you agree with those politics is neither here or there, but for everyone who says crap like ‘The president is just a figurehead…” PLEASE SPARE ME. Maybe you should check out this link from ‘On the Media’ that discusses Kennedy’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. You know, like how it was basically him against his cabinet. How he won out. How a president DOES shape policy.

I am done with apathy and cynicism. DONE. And I’ve never bought it. Your cynicism does not make you superior to me because I actually fucking care and am fighting to make this world a better place. It just means you aren’t informed. Yeah that’s right, I said it. You’re LAZY. You haven’t done your research. You’re using your holier-than-thou attitude as a guise for your ignorance. And your apathy insults me. Yes, this is what a Nadia bust looks like. I’m sorry, but as someone who has lived and voted in swing states for the last decade, who realizes the importance of every little vote, I am really losing patience for this kind of attitude.

Do I believe that change comes from the people? YES. Am I frustrated with the two-party system, with the gross amount of money that is pumped into political ads when there are so many people living in poverty? YES. But that doesn’t take away from my belief that politicians and elections matter. Don’t kid yourself by believing that your vote doesn’t make a difference. Do you really think a Bush presidency was identical to an Obama one?! Really?? If so, then maybe you should stay home and not vote. Yup, now I’m being rude. Again, I don’t care who you vote for, as long as you stay engaged and realize that your engagement matters. And there really is no excuse anymore to not stay engaged. I’m going to end with Saturday Night Live‘s brilliant parody on ‘the undecided voter.’ Because I’m done. I’ll be back tomorrow blogging about all things culture and engaging with peeps who actually give a damn and have some faith in the power of their voices.

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Filed under Media & Culture

The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Can We Talk…Please?

There are few international issues that incite as much global anger as the Palestinian-Israel conflict.

And yet, despite our government’s political and financial support of Israel that relies on American tax dollars ($30 billion in the last ten years alone), it is the one issue that I would argue is impossible for Americans to discuss openly in the public sphere.

This past summer, the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, decided to challenge this stifling of the conversation when they bought advertising space inside the public bus system that read, ““Join with us. Build peace with justice and equality. End U.S. military aid to Israel.” Continue reading

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Filed under Media & Culture

Why We Need Independent Media

Tonight marks the second Presidential debate between Obama and Romney, and pundits have spent the last week trying to predict what the strategies of the president will be in order to make a comeback after a lackluster first debate performance. But if, like me, you’re getting a little sick of hearing the same talking points repeated over and over (Iran is bad, the economy is worse, and abortion, abortion, abortion) and wished that other issues you cared about were included in the debate, you might want to check out Democracy Now!, an independent media organization that will be including third-party candidates excluded from the debate!

Meeting Amy Goodman and Dennis Moynihan during her Election 2012 tour! So excited to get a signed copy of their book, The Silenced Majority.

Amy Goodman is one of my heroes, and her commitment to represent alternative voices in political debates that have been excluded or marginalized by the mainstream media is just one of the reasons why we so desperately need independent media outlets. Here are ten other reasons:

1) The American press is not ‘free,’ it’s Corporate.

Freedom of the press is a constitutional right, and Americans have always taken pride in our ‘unbiased’ media system that supposedly gives journalists freedom to pursue the stories they want without censorship. What many Americans may not be aware of, however, is that there are more subtle forms of censorship bias than the ones we associate with countries like China. As media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) documents in their article, “What’s wrong with the News,” advertiser sponsors and corporate ownership inflict their own kind of propagandistic influence on media outlets. Thanks to deregulation of the media industry during the 80s and 90s, and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that allowed for corporate mergers, all of the media we consume is controlled by just six main corporations. SIX. So what does that mean exactly?

2) Ummm … conflict of interest, obvi.

So here’s the problem. When a news organization like NBC is owned by a corporation like General Electric, it’s going to be difficult for NBC to report on issues that challenge ideologies and practices held by GE. Perhaps that’s why you so rarely read stories on nuclear waste in any GE-owned outlets (thanks to GE’s investments in the nuclear power industry), and why, when it was revealed that the largest American corporation had avoided paying federal taxes (whoops!), every major news outlet reported on the story except … yup, you guessed it. NBC.

Watch this brilliant little skit from a Saturday Night Live episode called “It’s a Media-Opoly” that aired in the late 90s, and has since been banned. Was it perhaps because GE execs were uncomfortable with the critiques that SNL leveled at their parent corporation? Do I need to repeat ‘obvi’ again girlfriends?

3) Because Americans support climate change, the mainstream media does not.

When the Washington Post’s two-page story on energy policy excluded critics of the big energy giants, it was revealed by FAIR that the ‘debate’ was actually sponsored by an oil industry player, the American Petroleum Institute. Sigh.

4) Because Britney Spears shaving her head was a headline on CNN.

It wasn’t just BS because Brit-Brit showed the world her shaved head for like, two seconds before covering herself with a hoodie and then resorting to wigs for next six months (if you’re the main news story for the day, I’m going to expect you to rock it, just sayin’). But it was also just one more example of how our media is now fixated with increasing ratings to make money for their corporate owners, choosing to cut expensive funding for international reporting and focusing on entertainment-related news, also referred to as ‘info-tainment.”

Imagine going to school for journalism because you dreamed of covering hard news and possibly taking down people in power a la Watergate, and then being forced to report on Paris Hilton. If you’re like MSNBC reporter Mika Brzezinski, this realization might make you snap. Watch below.

5) Because media outlets like Fox are to News as Alexis Wright is to Zumba.

Alexis Wright used her Zumba studio as a front for prostitution, and Fox uses its ‘news’ station as a disguise for partisan hackery.

In an effort to increase ratings, ‘fair and balanced’ cable news stations like the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox have thrown nuance out the door and have instead resorted to distorting facts for the sake of supporting their singular partisan world-view. Maybe that’s why Fox viewers are notoriously uninformed on important issues. Check out this hilarious prank played by college student Max Rice, who wrote in posing as a ‘disillusioned former Obama supporter.’ Fox didn’t do any research on him, and he was kicked off mid-interview by a noticeably flustered Gretchen Carlson.

6) Because it’s not the media anymore, it’s the Media-Lobbying Complex.

It doesn’t matter the political affiliation really. Both Republicans and Democrats have appeared on media programs critiquing or promoting certain issues without revealing their conflicts of interest. So “NBC Military Analyst” Barry McCaffrey appears on MSNBC to promote more military spending on Afghanistan, without revealing his investments in DynCorp, a global government services provider that received billions of dollars to aid U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Other ‘analysts’ have appeared on the show to critique the health care plan, without revealing their ties to pharmaceutical companies. I could wax poetic, but you get the idea.

7) Because lack of critical media coverage helped fuel the Iraq War in 2003.

Americans were actually pretty ambivalent about invading Iraq in the weeks leading up to the war. You would think this complexity in public opinion would reflect in the mainstream news coverage. But according to a FAIR study, in the two weeks leading up to the invasion, only 3 of the 393 sources that were cited in mainstream media outlets ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS (yes, even PBS) on issues relating to the Iraq War were identified with anti-war groups. THREE. Of the THREE HUNDRED AND NINETY THREE.

While the world gets a critical take on Afghanistan, Americans get a celebrity photographer.

What is even more distressing is that while Americans are fed fluff by our news organizations, the international versions of these outlets will often prominently feature global issues on their covers. Check out this comparison of the domestic and international versions of Time and Newsweek.

Last I checked, wasn’t the media an institution that was supposed to inform us on various aspects of different issues? This exclusion of critical voices has serious implications. How could the public gain any understanding of the ramifications of war, both in Iraq and at home, if they weren’t exposed to alternative viewpoints?

Below, Amy Goodman’s phenomenal half-hour documentary, Independent Media in a Time of War, explores the mainstream media’s mishandling of coverage in Iraq.

8) Because the mainstream media has a history of marginalizing protest movements.

Just look at Occupy last year. As I documented in a recent post, the media’s coverage of Occupy was condescending at best and utterly dismissive at worst. Are media organizations really going to write fairly about an anti-corporate movement when they are themselves owned by corporations?

9) Because the mainstream media supports politicians.

Amy Goodman recently interviewed Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald and Open Debates founder George Farrah on the ‘faux objectivity’ of mainstream journalists, highlighting the recent debate moderators. Their main point was that the moderators asked questions based on assumptions which the candidates had to take as a ‘fact,’ such as the notion that “there is no greater security threat than Iran” (laughable when you consider that Iran has an anemic military budget compared to the United States).

As Greenwald noted: “So you don’t just have third-party candidates being excluded by—as a result of these rules; what you have is the vast bulk of political opinions and political facts being excluded because these moderators are chosen very specifically to ensure that they will embrace only the orthodoxy shared by both parties while posing as objective, neutral and non-ideological actors.”

Jon Stewart made a similar point when he appeared on CNN‘s now defunct show Crossfire, in which a Republican and Democrat basically just yelled at each other for an hour. Hilariously, and without raising his voice, Stewart accused the hosts of partisan hackery and serving politicians and corporations instead of the public.  The show was cancelled a week later 🙂

10) Because in a democracy, you need dissent.

If the mainstream media is failing to provide alternative voices, than we desperately need independent media. We need to support movements and protests that critique the growing corporatization of our media, schools, and public space. We need to support the media as an institution that informs citizens, instead of selling advertisements and corporate interests to consumers. We need to figure out how to take the public discourse back, and we need the media to help us do this. Dissent, and embracing a diversity of viewpoints and ideologies, is the foundation of the very democracy upon which America was founded. So let’s embrace democracy, now!

To check out Amy Goodman’s book, The Silenced Majority, that recently made The New York Times best-seller list, click here.

Here are some of my favorite independent media sources and media watchdog group, feel free to suggest more:

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A homeless man named Dwayne: Occupy, one year later

Just three hours ago, I had no intention of writing a blog post about the meaning of Occupy one year later. It certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t empathize with the movement; in fact, I was involved with local activities and even took my ‘Critical Media’ students to a sit-in with protesters so that they could gain insight that wasn’t filtered by the corporate media. But, it has been an exhausting week. Driving home after treating myself to a much-needed massage, I was daydreaming of an evening filled with pop culture magazines, chocolate and a relaxing bath.

And then I met a man named Dwayne.

Right at the intersection, before I got whisked off into the highway with other tired, irritated drivers making their way home during the height of rush hour, I was stopped at a red light for about three minutes. When I turned my head, I saw him at the intersection. He was holding a sign, with an orange vest on and I immediately felt a mixture of empathy and guilt. Empathy because of his situation, and guilt because I was in no position to help at the moment, trapped in my car in the middle of a highway, with no money of my own to give.

And then, he smiled at me, and pointed to my long dangling earrings that were made of seeds from Brazil, tinged in a vibrant shade of orange (when I do fall colors, I do fall colors). He gave me a thumbs-up, and I felt a rush of disbelief overcome me. Here was this man, clearly struggling, trying to remain visible to a stream of people in moving vehicles, many of whom were probably pretending that he was not there, noticing something about me and wanting to make a connection. I was immediately grateful.

I rolled down the window, and we talked, for two short minutes. His name was Dwayne, and he had been homeless for the last six months. He was looking for work, he told me, but not having a driver’s license made it difficult to get to job interviews. He then acknowledged that “everyone’s struggling, so no one is really able to give me much money” and that this month in particular had been the hardest for him. He asked me for my name, and I told him, in the midst of honking cars that indicated the light had turned from red to green. When I was forced to drive away, he shouted ‘God Bless’ and blew me a kiss.

I thought of Dwayne the entire drive home, while standing in the checkout line at Food Lion, and as I sat on my futon at home, reflecting on our conversation and his comments about shared struggle. And it was then that I suddenly felt inspired to write about Occupy.

An Occupy Wall Street campaign demonstrator stands in Zuccotti Park, near Wall Street in New York (photo courtesy of Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

When Occupy Wall Street erupted last September, it was one of the most exciting protest movements my generation had witnessed since the WTO protests in 1999. Building momentum from both the Arab Spring and the public frustration over the debt ceiling crisis in the summer of 2011, at the heart of the seemingly disparate movement were two main points of critique: that the distribution of wealth and opportunity in our culture was inequitable, and that the media system, controlled mainly by the ‘big six’ corporations, contributed to that status quo.

And not surprisingly, the media lived up to its reputation as an institution that never disappoints in its marginalization of activist causes. Media watchdog groups like Free Press and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting published stories on how Occupy was denigrated as a ‘hippie movement’ that didn’t have any idea what they wanted. Instead of interviewing the people who were involved in the movement, the media chose to rely on a stream of ‘experts’ and scholars to speak on behalf of the protesters, who were labeled in different media outlets as ‘crackheads’ (Bill O’Reilly for Fox, 10/14/11), ‘boring’ (Bill Keller, former executive editor for the New York Times, 10/14/11), ‘indignant indolents’ (Charles Krauthammer, The Washington Post, 10/17/11) and ‘Milquetoast Radicals’ (David Brooks, The New York Times, 10/11/11).

And in a way, it makes sense. Mainstream news organizations are often reticent to report favorably on anti-corporate movements because they are themselves, owned by corporations. It creates a conflict of interest. Take Erin Burnett, a CNN reporter who was lambasted for her derogatory remarks towards the protesters. Guess where she worked before her tenure at CNN? Goldman Sachs and Citigroup—the same financial companies that profited from the bailouts the Occupiers were protesting!

To be fair, the media did start to portray the movement more evenly, as public opinion revealed a majority who were sympathetic to the Occupy cause. Even then though, the political media’s attempts to frame politics in a bipartisan manner often resulted in Occupy being labeled as a counterweight to the Tea Party, which conflicted with the anti-establishment message of a movement that freely critiqued Obama as much as it did the banks.

Jonathan Wall releases his statement on how a sports bar in Raleigh kicked him out for no reason.

Now, celebrating its one-year anniversary, Occupy finds itself again denigrated by a media establishment that never really understood it. FAIR published a story on the different news outlets that proclaimed the Occupy Movement to be a failure and a fad. While there is some truth to the claim that Occupy was not able to create legislative and regulative change in the banking system (more likely due to the barriers in our political climate than any real issues within the movement itself), it succeeded in other important ways. Most notably, it helped to change the national conversation on wealth and inequality, creating the Twitter meme of #occupy and spurring occupy movements across the country that responded to local needs and issues. One local example I can personally cite was the ‘Occupy Downtown Sports Bars’ in Raleigh which was organized after a black Harvard graduate student got kicked out of a downtown bar for no apparent reason.

My students attend a local Occupy sit-in.

And since when do protests have to achieve everything they hope to accomplish in a span of one year? If the Occupy movement hoped to deliver a marked critique of inequality, and call for a government that represents the needs of citizens instead of the big banks or corporations, then I would argue that they did a pretty decent job in 12 short months. They centered this question of economic inequality in national discourse for the first time since the 1960s, were involved in movements to protect citizens from evictions and foreclosures, pressured President Obama to ease the loan burden, if marginally, to current recipients and focused the attention on police brutality towards marginalized communities. They bravely critiqued the corporatization of society, including that of the mainstream media, and encouraged people to become active citizens by seeking out alternative sources of information and media. As an instructor of cultural and media criticism always trying to instill the importance of societal and political engagement, I couldn’t have asked for better inspiration for my students.

So yes, one year later, a man named Dwayne is still homeless, and many people, as he himself so compassionately put it, are struggling. But that doesn’t mean that this revolution has failed. It has started a conversation about shifting the national paradigm to one of connection, to an inclusive society, to one that focuses on the needs of the people, to the 99%. It was about creating a world that works for everyone, including the 1%, who are also implicated in our society’s loss of community and intimacy.

Occupy reinforced my belief that the worst crimes committed are the ones that happen when we don’t ask questions. After decades of apathy that helped to create our current economic and cultural crisis, we can no longer stand to look the other way. So here I am writing at 2 a.m., wishing that I could forget about Dwayne and lose myself in the mindless world of celebrity magazines, but knowing that I can’t, because the conversation must go on.

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When the 1% shares: the Kalamazoo Promise, and why Romney got it wrong :)

In the same week that Romney’s secret videotape was leaked, where he revealed his ‘off the cuff’ (read: from the bottom of his heart) remarks that 47% of the country who would vote for Obama “no matter what,” are freeloaders relying on the government, and not hard work, to succeed, The New York Times printed one of its most inspiring Sunday stories in the last year. To sum up: In 2005, a group of anonymous donors pledged to pay up to 100% percent of state college tuition for any high school graduate within the Kalamazoo district. Kalamazoo has high high poverty rates, and many many children come from families where their parents do not have a high school education. The Promise was not just an altruistic gesture, but an experiment, one that would hopefully boost the economy around it.

And for the most part, it has. To quote the article,

High-school test scores in Kalamazoo have improved four years in a row. A higher percentage of African-American girls graduate from the district than they do in the rest of the state, and 85 percent of those go on to college.

Overall, more than 90 percent of Kalamazoo’s graduates today go on to higher education. Six in 10 go to Western Michigan University or Kalamazoo Valley Community College. And over time, a greater number of students are landing at the more selective University of Michigan and Michigan State.”

Equal Opportunity in Education-The Kalamazoo Promise

The measure has also improved the economy. School enrollment has gone up, and new schools have been built. The success of Kalamazoo has encouraged surrounding areas to compete with its success, strengthening the rest of the region. Furthermore, while there was a steady trickle of ‘white flight’ from Kalamazoo to the wealthier suburbs of Portage since the 1970s, since the Promise, that suburban flight has stopped, and the demographic mix in the school system has steadied.

Of course, not everything is rosy. Many of the students have difficulty finishing four year college degrees due to lack of preparation  and resources that students from college-educated, middle-class families take for granted. To that end, the director of The Promise Janice Brown is working on strengthening early-child education so that students are more prepared for a rigorous college environment. Now that they have the resources, this might prove possible.

Romney’s comments may have been focusing on income taxes, but they had broader implications. Part of the dialogue of the right is that when wealth is shared, people become lazy. They aren’t inspired to work hard when things are given to them. The Kalamazoo Promise strongly suggests that contrary to this belief, when young people are given the ‘promise’ of opportunities that were once barred to them because of economic disadvantages, they take them. In the past year, the Occupy Movement has made much of the inequity of a system where 1% of the population holds the majority of the wealth. Does the Kalamazoo Promise reveal all the progress and good that can happen when the 1% shares?

Check out this adorable montage of children from Kalamazoo talking about their dreams ‘when I grow up.’

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