Tag Archives: social justice

Bangladesh Factory Fires: Why Brands Are Accountable and Must Compensate Victims Now

Dhaka_Savar_Building_Collapse

On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza in Savar, Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than a 1,000 people and injuring more than 2,500.

On the evening of April 23, 2013, garment factory employees of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, pleaded with management to take notice of the sudden cracks that had appeared in the walls and foundations. Their requests for evacuation were ignored on the basis that the building owner, Sohel Rana, had just hired an engineer who had pronounced the building safe. The mostly female labor force, who were threatened with losing a month’s pay if they did not return, were ordered to work the next day. As they arrived at the building, the first thing they heard over the loudspeaker was this: “All the workers of Rana Plaza, go to work. The factory has already been repaired.” Just half an hour later, the eight-story building collapsed, killing over 1,000 people and injuring more than 2,500. Local workers and relatives were some of the first on the scene, digging out mutilated bodies, including those of children who had been staying at the building’s day care center, from the rubble.

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Never again. Two victims hold each other amid the rubble of the Rana Plaza collapse (photo courtesy of Taslima Akhter).

And then, there was that picture. That haunting image of two people clinging to each other for survival, with their lower parts of their bodies buried under concrete and a tear of blood running down the man’s cheek. This photo served as a harsh reminder of what happens when we treat humans as just numbers, or as simply ‘cheap labor’ within a global supply chain that feeds the consumption patterns of the United States and European Union by delivering low-cost clothing from Bangladeshi factories to stores in the West. It is an industry that operates according to a logic of distance, in which a consumer is so removed from the condition under which a producer labors that they are less likely to have awareness, let alone any motivation to protest. The consumer was suddenly forced to get close and personal as people around the globe were confronted with the image of that heartbreaking final embrace.

Deemed the worst garment factory disaster in history, it implicated not just the lax regulations of the Bangladeshi garment industry, but companies such as Wal-Mart, The Children’s Place, H&M, Mango, Primark, Joe Fresh, and Benetton which used Bangladesh as a source of cheap labor. There were of course initial attempts to deny responsibility, with Wal-Mart claiming that they never contracted with the factory, and Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith dismissing the collapse as “not really serious” and, an “accident.”

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‘Accidents’ don’t happen again..and again. Bangladeshi Army personnel walks through the rows of burnt sewing machines in the aftermath of the Tazreen factory fire, which killed at least 117 people in November, 2012 (photo courtesty of Stringer/AFP/Getty Images).

The factory collapse of Rana was not an accident, as various government officials, corporations, and even certain media outlets have described it. An accident is something that is unexpected, that occurs infrequently, but also is something that is not necessarily preventable.  This tragedy was not an isolated event. It was, in fact, one of several hundred other factory incidents that have killed over 1,000 workers from 1990 to 2012 in Bangladesh, a country that employs four million garment workers, 85 percent of whom are women, in its growing garment industry. And, like the dozens of other factory fires that have been reported across the industry in countries like China, India, and Pakistan, it could have been prevented with proper safety measures and a workplace in which factory managers listened to workers’ concerns.

Walmart Bangladesh factories

Garment workers in Bangladesh, 85% of whom are women, are paid $37 a month…far below the living wage of $120 that is needed to survive. Unions, which can give workers a collective voice, are all but outlawed (photo courtesy of Reuters).

Ultimately, these deadly fires only reveal the exploitative working conditions of an industry that treats its workers as disposable items.  In Bangladesh, a country rich with culture and natural resources but ridden with poverty, the government has long viewed the garment industry as the path to improving a grim standard of living. Currently garments represent nearly 80 percent of the country’s manufacturing export income of $19.1 billion between 2011-2012, making it the second largest exporter of apparel in the world. Yet despite the industry’s rapid growth in the last thirty years, Bangladeshi workers are still the lowest paid garment workers in the world, earning a minimum of $37 a month – far below the living wage of $120 that is needed for basic household necessities. Workers’ efforts to organize for better pay and safety regulations are all but outlawed, and a new labor law that was passed in July has been criticized by labor advocates as actually weakening, rather than strengthening, protections for workers.

Politically connected owner (photo courtesy of AP)

In Bangladesh, factory owners are often entrenched in the political elite. Due to global outrage after the Rana Plaza fire, factory owner Sohel Rana was arrested (photo courtesy of AP).

This isn’t surprising, given that Bangladesh’s legal system has remained largely unchanged from the British imperial era, in which laws were designed to uphold the colonialist power structure and control the population. In fact, many factory owners and members of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) are heavily involved in the political elite, often holding government positions that allow them to wield enormous political influence. Given the tremendous emphasis on maximizing wealth in the global economy, it is thus not surprising that governments of poorer countries like Bangladesh often sacrifice human rights at the consummate altar of economic ‘development.’

(photo courtesy of AFP)

Bangladeshi labor activist Kalpona Akter found Wal-Mart brands such as Faded Glory in the remains of the Tazreen factory fire. Brands place immense pressure on factories to produce cheap clothing on short deadlines (photo courtesy of AFP).

At the same time, the Bangladesh government may feel trapped when companies such as Wal-Mart and other big retailers place immense pressure on factories to produce forever falling prices by selling cheap and producing quickly on shorter deadlines. Low prices in the garment industry are, after all, the country’s best selling point in the global economy. So suppliers cut their prices at the expense of their workers, who are paid poverty wages and made to work excessive hours. Factory owners, squeezed by their buyers, often find their efforts to invest in factory safety undermined by the pressure to reduce costs.

Companies in turn claim that social auditing programs are an effective way to monitor working conditions in their factories, but these programs have been criticized as corporate-funded, voluntary, and a public relations cover. Who can forget the massive factory fire in Pakistan that killed more than 260 workers last year, which just three weeks before, had been granted certification by the social auditing group, Social Accountability International. Of course, companies could have saved lives by releasing their audit findings to the government and sharing them with Bangladeshi unions and labor rights groups, but they are under no obligation to do that given that these audits are confidential and are treated as their own private intellectual property. Instead, workers’ input is rarely taken into consideration, and those who do dare to complain are often harassed or even terminated.

As Mafusa, a survivor of the Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed at least 112 people last November, revealed:

 “We never got our salary on time. We were always informed one day before foreigners came for an audit. We had to clean, make everything neat and we were given instructions about what we had to say like that we get our salary always on the seventh of the month and about our working hours.”

To make matters worse, the global demand for cheap clothing forces many factories to subcontract their work to other suppliers, making it difficult for brands to trace who is making their clothes in an increasingly complex supply chain.

The ever increasing global demand has led to another flagrant human rights violation. Although child labor is illegal, recent reports have revealed the use of children as young as nine working in many of these factories. This reliance on child labor is the devastating consequence of not paying adults a living wage. Yet, instead of investing in workers’ rights and safety upgrades, apparel consumer companies will often choose to run from these factories once they learn that unauthorized work was used to produce their clothing, as Wal-Mart did after the Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh.

Toronto Star Reporter Raveena Aulakh works undercover in a Bangladesh garment factory with a nine year old girl as her boss:

Several years ago, Nicholas Kristof wrote a now controversial piece arguing against the ‘anti-sweatshop’ movement, claiming that for many workers, sweatshops were the only viable option for making a living. He argued for labor advocates to fight for more sweatshops as the best option for workers in the Global South. In Bangladesh, women do indeed come to the cities from the rural areas to work in factories after fleeing environmental destruction and repressive family structures in their home villages. Yet, does that mean they should be forced to endure harassment and abuse from their predominantly male bosses? Or rely on precarious employment in which they are often paid less than their male counterparts, despite being the sole or primary breadwinners in their families? Shouldn’t they have a right to a workplace that doesn’t push their bodies to the point of exhaustion, that doesn’t fire them once they get pregnant, and that gives them a voice and treats them with a measure of dignity?

Morium Begum lost her baby (photo courtesy of thestar.com)

A Bangladesh factory that sews garments for The Gap and Old Navy was implicated in abusing their pregnant workers. Morium Begum, shown here with her husband Golzar, lost her baby after being forced to work 100 hours a week (photo courtesy of thestar.com).

Kristof may have been well-meaning, but his argument didn’t address the true intent of the anti-sweatshop movement, which is to progress the cause of workers’ rights and advocate for living wages by pressuring multinational corporations to improve factory conditions. The international climate is starting to change as people wake up to the fact that they shouldn’t put clothes on their back that were made in conditions that have not been seen in the West since the Industrial Revolution. Currently, over 100 apparel brands and retailers in Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, an unprecedented legally-binding agreement that was created by Bangladeshi and global trade unions in alliance with leading NGOs and the International Labor Organization (ILO) to ensure safety in Bangladeshi factories.  This five-year contract will require independent safety inspections of their facilities, public reporting, safety upgrades financed by brands, the integration of workers and unions in both oversight and implementation, and higher wages.

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“There’s an abundance of wealth in the industry, so why can’t we have fair treatment for workers?” – Sarah Ziff, model who protested with Bangladesh activists at Nautica’s Spring 2014 show.

The Accord has been hailed as a transformative move away from the corporate-controlled social auditing programs that rely on largely “voluntary, confidential, and top-down” initiatives. It has also been supported broadly, with senators, students, and fashion models protesting brands that have failed to commit to the agreement. And just recently, the Accord publicly disclosed information about the building safety of the 1,600 factories covered by the pact, bringing a measure of openness, transparency and accountability to an industry that has been shrouded in secrets.

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A safety effort proposed by North American retailers has been criticized for not being legally binding (photo courtesy of Inhabitat).

While notable (mostly European) companies such as H&M, Inditex (Zara), and Primark have signed the Accord, there are still a number of North American retailers that have been unwilling to join the agreement. U.S. industry leaders such as Gap and Wal-Mart launched the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative in July, a comparatively weak agreement that promises safety upgrades, a hotline to report complaints, and regular inspections without any legal commitment. The need for a legally binding agreement is even more pressing when considering that the $42 million raised by the companies involved in the initiative to improve factory infrastructure is paltry compared to the actual estimated cost of necessary improvements, which is $300,000 to $500,000 per factory. The companies that reject the accord cite concerns that the provision for legal enforcement through arbitration makes them more ‘vulnerable’ to class-action suits. But two law professors writing for the Los Angeles Times disputed this claim, stating that the only legal liability for signatories would be to abide by its terms. They further argue that in fact, Gap and Wal-Mart sign legally enforceable agreements all the time in their global business dealings, and that their reluctance to join the Accord stems from its purpose, which would be to help protect worker’s rights rather than simply facilitate the buying and selling of apparel for corporate profit. As they put it, “underlying the American firms’ objections, it appears, is the fear of both financial and moral responsibility.”

Relatives of Rana Plaza disaster victims form a human chain in

Relatives of Rana Plaza victims demand compensation from Wal-Mart, which along with other U.S. retailers such as Gap, Sears, and Children’s Place, have refused to pay compensation (photo courtesy of Abir Abdullah/EPA).

Even more distressing is that very few companies have initiated concrete proposals to secure compensation for the victims of either the Tazreen or Rana Plaza factory fires. The UN Guidelines on Business and Human Rights dictates that companies must go beyond simply defending human rights and actually take action in remedying these tragedies. And an internationally-recognized formula that has been implemented in compensation plans after numerous other building safety incidents and fires has determined that brands and retailers are the most accountable for the failings that led to the disasters. Companies that had a direct or indirect relationship with the Rana Plaza factory or Tazreen are thus responsible for paying a full and fair compensation to the wounded workers and the families of those who were killed, so that they can access the medical care they need and continue to help support their families. This is especially important in Bangladesh, where the lack of a safety net such as social security, unemployment, or medical aid exacerbates the poverty wages and miserable living conditions for workers.  Just recently in September, the Rana Plaza Compensation Coordination Committee consisting of various apparel brands, the Bangladesh government, local and global trade unions and NGOs, met to develop a mechanism dubbed the “Arrangement” by which compensation for the families of the disaster could be determined. Although some progress has been made, with brands like Loblaw and Primark just recently committing to long-term relief, far too many have failed to join the Arrangement, leaving workers with little hope for palpable improvement in their dismal conditions.

As Liana Foxvog of the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) stressed,

“When global apparel brands establish factory inspection programs that are confidential and voluntary, they communicate to Bangladeshi managers that they see no reason for workers to be informed of workplace risks. When global brands create programs that circumvent union initiatives – as many of the North American brands that have created the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety are doing – they perpetuate the understanding within Bangladesh that solutions do not require workers’ having an independent voice and an equal place at the bargaining table. And when global brands don’t participate in the compensation for victims, they signal to Bangladesh’s leaders that it is okay to put workers lives at risk and walk away from the consequence.”

The time is now for multinational corporations to stop hiding behind deceptive and dishonest corporate social responsibility schemes that rely on corporate-sponsored monitoring and ‘codes of conduct’ plastered on their websites to mask worker abuse in their supply chains. If Gap Inc. is truly ‘committed’ to Bangladesh worker safety as they state on their CSR page, then why haven’t they made a commitment to renovate one factory? Why did they violate their own codes of conduct by sourcing out to a factory in which their workers are forced to labor over 100 hours a week and some pregnant women are illegally fired and denied paid maternity leave? If U.S. retailer Children’s Place is “deeply saddened” by the Rana Plaza factory fire, then why have they not agreed to compensate the victims, many of whom are orphans who lost their parents in the fire? Shouldn’t a clothing line that caters to children feel a certain degree of responsibility to the children on the other side of the supply chain?

Retailer Children's Place refuses to pay compensation to the orphans left behind after the Rana Plaza fire (photo courtesy of orphansplace.com).

Retailer Children’s Place refuses to pay compensation to the orphans left behind after the Rana Plaza fire (photo courtesy of orphansplace.com).

These tragedies have ultimately implicated Western buyers as complicit in the apparel industry’s dark side. However, contrary to what Nicholas Kristof and others may believe, what labor rights organizations are advocating for is not an end to this relationship between brands and the countries from which they source. In fact, the hope here is that by deepening their engagement, these companies could be the best hope for transformative change in the industry. As Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity stressed in a recent interview with The Nation:

“If consumers stop buying, that is like a boycott and a boycott doesn’t help us. Instead, we want people to write letters to Walmart, talk to their communities and friends about what is happening, raise their voice and protest at the stores with their physical presence. We want US consumers to say, “‘We’re watching you and we demand that you pay attention.'”

This is an appeal for all the apparel companies sourcing out of Bangladesh to not just join the Accord but to contribute to the process of compensation for the victims and their families, so that the nearly four million women who make our clothes can get a sustainable living wage and be treated with dignity. Furthermore, there needs to be a sustained conversation from brands about how to change the industry that goes beyond just apologies and knee-jerk CSR responses. In an industry where labor costs represent one to three percent of the retail price, the validity of a living wage needs to be on the table. Since, adjusting for inflation, clothing is far less expensive now than it was fifty years ago, prices need to be adjusted. Most importantly, companies need to invest in a long-term commitment with their factories instead of leaving when something goes wrong. Brands like WalMart need to acknowledge when they have lost control over their supply chain instead of displacing blame onto others.

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(photo courtesy of justmeans.com).

Finally, the media and consumers need to make a continuous and consistent call for change in the industry, so that the victims of these tragedies are not dismissed as merely collateral damage in an ‘unfortunate accident,’ but as fellow human beings who live, breathe, have children and go to work. Seeing, after all, isn’t always believing. Sometime we have to believe, so that we can see.

Bangladeshis show photos of missing relatives after building collapse

We must never forget these faces. (photo courtesy of Andrew Biraj/Reuters)

Take Action:

Tweet! Want to take part in a twitter campaign to pressure retailers like Walmart, Children’s Place, The Gap, and Sears to sign the Accord and pay compensation to victims’ families? Here are some examples you can use:

Sign a petition! Demand that retailers end deathtraps and pay compensation to victims and their families. Here are the links for petitions to Gap, Wal-Mart, and The Children’s Place

Share: Both of these videos (here and here) interviewing survivors of the Rana Plaza fire are a must-watch.

Get involved! Check out United Students Against Sweatshops campaign to get universities to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety. They have already had a few victories! Also check out the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, the Clean Clothes Campaign, International Labor Rights ForumJobs with Justice, United with Respect, and SumOfUs.

Get inspired: Read about Cambodian factory workers winning a settlement against Wal-Mart, how workers defied Wal-Mart this holiday season, and how university students successfully pressured Adidas to sign the Bangladesh Accord!

Want to learn how an apparel factory in the Dominican Republic is making a profit while paying its workers a living wage? Stay tuned for an upcoming post on this amazing company!

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ABAN: Empowering Girls in Ghana, One Fabric at a Time

ABAN co-founder Callie Brauel, bottom right, gathers with a group of young Ghanaians benefiting from their own work throug ABAN. At top left is Emmanuel Quarmyne, ABAN's Ghana Programs Director, beside UNC graduate Carly Brantmeyer.

ABAN co-founder Callie Brauel, bottom right, gathers with a group of young Ghanaians benefiting from their own work through ABAN. At top left is Emmanuel Quarmyne, ABAN’s Ghana Programs Director, beside UNC graduate Carly Brantmeyer.

So, I thought I would start this week off on a bit of a lighter note than the one I left you with on Friday (sorry girlfriends, but I have to keep it real, you know?). Before turning to the final installment of my interview with Eco Fashion pioneer Marci Zaroff, I wanted to highlight a truly inspiring non-profit called ABAN (A Ban Against Neglect), co-founded by Callie Brauel and Rebecca Brandt while studying at the University of Ghana in the capital city of Accra in 2008.  Upon arriving for their semester abroad, the two students were confronted by the huge problem of environmental waste left behind by the plastic bags of pure water sold to Ghanians, in the amount of forty tons a day. As their semester progressed, they eventually discovered another haunting problem: the 30,000 street girls from rural areas of the country who had left their families in the hope of finding work in the capital, only to be left homeless in the streets. Although they volunteered at a local agency that helped some of these girls, it was only when they developed a mock nonprofit company for recycled products for a class, that the idea for ABAN began to form. Why not give these girls much needed job skills and economic independence by having them take the plastic waste from the water bags and ‘upcycle’ them into cute bags and purses? Teaming up with Ghanian University student Emmanuel Quarmyne, who is currently ABAN’s Ghana Director, the three students were able to get a few sewing machines donated by non-profits, and partnered with Street Girls Aid, a Ghanian NGO that aids a small group of mothers and girls that are living off of the street. In 2010, after winning the Carolina Challenge, the team launched their own job skills and vocational training non-profit with ten young mothers aged 15-20 coming off the streets of Accra. Now, two years later, ABAN has not only graduated their first class of girls, but recycles over ten thousand plastic bags a month!

OK, stop. Building cross-cultural coalitions to empower young girls? Through the craft of sewing? And upcycling waste while doing it? ‘Listen Girlfriends’ DIES.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with Callie Brauel, who currently resides in Chapel Hill, the other day over coffee, and she shared with me some of the challenges ABAN initially faced, how the organization works, and how they plan to move forward.

Nadia: So ABAN’s mission seems to be really holistic. In addition to the health care, living wages, daycare, and job employment the girls receive, there is also a staff of ten people, including a  house mother and psychologist on board. Was it always this way?

Callie: No, it wasn’t. When ABAN first started, we hired a seamstress and we thought it was enough to provide our class of ten girls with a job from nine to five every day. It became very clear however, that these girls had gone through so much trauma, and that unlike many Ghanians, who have a strong social and familial network, they really lacked that support.  They had, in some way or another, been neglected. And that obviously leaves scars, and it was clear that they needed emotional support as well, especially since most of them, even though they were all under the age of 20, had children. Once we realized this, we knew that we had to expand our organization’s mission and team.

So in May of 2011, Rebecca and I came back to the United States, and we went on a house tour through different parts of the U.S., and we raised $30,000 in two weeks. And with that money, we decided to get the girls out of Accra, and rent our own facility in Aburi, which is just east of the capital.

Nadia: So how does the program work now? What is a day like at ABAN?

Fun while sewing.

Fun while sewing.

Callie: Well, in the morning the girls work on their products, and in the afternoon, they take Math, English, Business Education, Leadership and Empowerment courses. We really try to empower the girls as much as possible, so they take turns cooking as well. Keep in mind that most of the girls come into our program without having had much or any formal education, so vocational training is key to their success. Often the skills they learn at ABAN will prove useful in future careers or side businesses. Since the girls are paid for their work they also get the added benefits of learning to hold a job and budget their money before they graduate from ABAN, all of which are necessary skills to provide for themselves and their children.

Nadia: You describe ABAN as a ‘fabric of change.’ So how do the girls make their products?

batik dying

Two students practice the art of batik dying.

Callie: What is awesome about the ABAN products is that each one is a piece of art. There is so much involvement in every step of the process, making each handmade product unique to the girl who made it. The first step involves the collection of bags. We network with local schools in the area to collect bags and promote environmental education in doing so. After collection, the bags are hand washed, sanitized and laid in the sun to dry.

We’re also working on producing a batik fabric, which is a multi-toned fabric. To make this, the girls take a piece of white fabric, and then use a wooden stamp to dip it into wax. You dye it in the first color, which is a lighter color, and then repeat the process with a darker color. That gives you the three-toned look of the fabric. And then water is used to remove the wax. And the dye we receive differs so much in color, because it is dependent on the weather and climate. So a red we get one day might be completely different from the red we receive the next. Which makes the process all the more exciting and a true learning process! Currently, the girls are learning how to make the batik fabrics,  and we’re also supporting local artisans to meet our demand. The products are finished with a final detail- a key chain made from recycled glass! We had college students come over this summer and work with a local artisan to make us a bead center on site.

Nadia: So where do you sell your products?

Desmund, Denicia’s son, sits with an ABAN travel case. One case recycles 24 plastic sachets, and provides life and job-skills training for a month for an ABAN girl.

Callie: We have an online store, and the list of retailers who sell our products are listed on there as well. Currently, 40% of our revenues come from sales, and 60% from grants and donations. We really like the idea of becoming self-sufficient through sales and having 80-90% of our revenue coming from sales, eventually.

Nadia: Are you looking to expand in the future?

Callie: Yes! We recently bought six acres of land, and in the next one to two years we will expand our program to thirty girls. Our hope is that within the next five years, we can start an actual ABAN campus for seventy to eighty girls! We are also have a sister organization called ACE (ABAN Community Employment) with ten seamstresses employed at fair wages and with key benefits who further support our organization as demand grows it the US. This extra revenue will help us expand our mission on the ground to support more girls in the ABAN school.

Nadia: So I have to ask, why is ABAN so invested in girls?

Callie: Well, for two reasons. Living in Accra, you see how vulnerable the girls are, because they are the ones who are forced to migrate to the capital to find work for their families. Secondly, there is a mounting amount of research supporting what is being labeled as The Girl Effect, that investing in a girl’s education doesn’t just change that girl’s life, it changes her family’s life as well, and betters the community. And we are definitely seeing that with the young women who have children. When their lives are improved, economically and emotionally, they can provide a better life for their children.

first graduation

First graduation!

Nadia: Do you have any success stories you would like to share?

Callie: Well, there is Asimaw, who loves to sew and is currently working as an apprentice. She is dreaming of starting her own business and employing and educating many other women like herself. Oh and I have to tell you about Denicia! She’s another girl who graduated from her program and received a scholarship at a private boarding school just outside the capital in Ghana. We have recycling initiatives with several schools that send us their plastic waste, and for several months we tried to get a recycling initiative started at her school, but it never transpired. Well one day, she saw all of these bags and bags of plastic piled outside of the school that were going to be dumped in a landfill. When they started to burn all of these bags, releasing all of these chemicals into the air, Denicia sprinted across the field and put a stop to it. And now the whole school has a recycling initiative, and they send all of their plastic bags to us. She is determined to be a top military officer in Ghana and with her determination, I know she is bound to get there.

Nadia: So how can people get involved and help?

Callie: There are so many ways! We have some great educational resources for teachers who want to introduce the culture of Ghana to their students, such as the craft of bead making, music, and dance. We also have a ‘Life Change’ kit where we send students a recycled water sachet, a piece of hemp, and beads to decorate with. It is a wonderful way to empower students with the idea that they indeed, can make a change.

You can also check out our website and donate online. We have a detailed explanation of where the money goes and how it changes a girl’s life. Or you can throw an ABAN party to raise awareness with your peers. We have all of the resources online to make it really easy!

Looking for other ways to connect with ABAN? Check them out on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Want to share a short video on what ABAN is all about? Click here.

Interested in selling ABAN products at a retail location? Click here for a promotional video of all of their products!

Here’s a ten-minute documentary on the girls of ABAN:

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Ethical Fashion: Introduction to an Ongoing Series

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The Human Impact of the Textile Industry: Pesticide Poisoning, Farmer Suicides, and how Organic and Fair Trade Can Help

In my last post, Marci Zaroff shared with us her knowledge about the toxic environmental impact of the textile industry, and today, we turn to the devastating human impact. Up to 77 million cotton workers suffer poisoning from pesticides each year, and in India, 300,000 cotton farmers have committed suicide—almost 26 a day—to escape debt.

Nadia: So, could you expand a bit more on what is being referred to as a ‘pesticide treadmill?’

Marci: So here are the hard facts. Just as germs infest on people who are weaker, when plants are sprayed with chemicals, they also get weaker. And then the soil weakens, and the eco-system isn’t building a healthy plant. So this ultimately results in less yield for the farmer.

And then, these bugs build resistance to these pesticides, and the farmers have to buy stronger and more expensive pesticides, which they can’t afford, so they have to leverage their farms to the banks. Then, as the cycle perpetuates and continues, the soil gets depleted & destroyed, the bugs get out of control, and the farmers can no longer sustain their livelihoods. Stuck in tremendous debt, many farmers are committing suicide with the very pesticides that they used on their plants. Every half an hour in India, a farmer is committing suicide. There’s an upcoming documentary called Dirty White Gold that will reveal what is now being referred to as this ‘pesticide treadmill.’

Nadia: I just read that genetically modified crops are decreasing pesticide use for farmers, is this true?

Photo courtesy of cottondon.org

Photo courtesy of cottondon.org

Marci: While there may be artificial decrease in the pesticides use in the short-term, in the long term we’re already seeing an increase in pesticide use again, because of genetic resistance and falling crop yields. Over 90% of the world’s cotton is now genetically modified (GMO), which has resulted in a monopoly for Monsanto, giving them the power to dramatically raise the prices on GMO cotton seed and the additional inputs and pesticides, which they also provide. At the mercy of these altered and chemical inputs, the GMO paradigm is not sustainable financially for farmers, and further, we are just beginning to learn of the harmful ramifications of GMO seeds in relation to human health. In addition, monocropping with GMO seeds is not only depleting the soil and its ecosystems, but risking the very survival of thousands of natural cotton varieties as well.

Nadia: And I just read that in the last year, the costs of cotton cultivation has jumped due to the rising costs of these pesticides, so it’s not as profitable as it used to be? And supposedly there have been more suicides among the farmers that have used these GM crops …

Marci: YES, these are sad facts, as stated prior.

Nadia: So you told us yesterday how organic cotton helps the earth, how does it help farmers?

Photo courtesy of cottonedon.org

Photo courtesy of cottonedon.org

Marci: Well first of all, there’s a risk with using GMO seeds. We are continuing to learn of the consequences of GMO, across many agricultural crops (food & fiber), which is why there is a huge movement towards GMO labeling in the USA. We are one of the only developed countries in the world that doesn’t require GMO labeling! On the contrary, since organic farming prohibits the use of any GMO seeds, organic farmers are allowed to work with their environment and economic situation in a sustainable way, while building and protecting their soil and farms. They also can diversify their crops, which allows them to diversify their income. If they have more than one crop to rely on, then it helps protect them in case there is a crop failure, market demand, etc. And of course, they don’t have to breathe in toxic pesticides that harm more than 77 million cotton farmers a year. It is devastating to see conventional cotton farmers walking thru their fields with pesticide tanks on their backs, not realizing that they are spraying poisons in their own faces. And even worse, often in the faces of their babies, who they are carrying in slings while walking their farms. They are often lured in by the seed and chemical companies. It is a tragic human situation that we can help to change by supporting the growth and market for organic cotton.

Nadia: I know you were instrumental in helping Fair Trade USA develop the first USA Fair Trade certification of textiles and will be spearheading their national launch in 2013. (Fair Trade farmers receive a minimum price for their product, covering the cost of production, with a Fair Trade premium paid in addition for investments in social, environmental or economic development projects). Could you explain a) what drives your passion for Fair Trade, and b) How it connects with your environmental/organic concerns and advocacy?

Marci: I am passionate about building community and connecting humanity.  I believe it is extremely important to be in touch with the people who grow, sew and receive our products.

Nathuram Pal, a 45-year-old farmer of Nibhghana village in Garautha tehsil of Bundelkhand region, committed suicide by hanging himself with a ‘Babool’ tree on the night of 18th June. He was under pressure to pay back the loan of Rs 12,000 taken from the coopertive bank and another Rs 40,000 taken from the local people.

Nathuram Pal, a 45-year-old farmer of Bundelkhand region, committed suicide when he couldn’t pay the loan of Rs 12,000 taken from the coopertive bank and another Rs 40,000 taken from the local people (Full article here).

When you look at the triple bottom business model, which is ‘people, planet, profit,’ in textiles, much of the attention has been put on planet. But, as the example of the Indian farmers demonstrates, it’s also about people. When you start to work with people, the environmental ramifications are serious because they are being exposed to the toxins, and they can’t sustain their livelihoods. They can’t afford to feed their families. The cycle of fast fashion has driven costs down so low, that consumers only want extremely cheap clothing. So the question is, how do we create a more efficient supply chain where farmers can share grievances and are paid fairly? Where American consumers can understand that their clothing isn’t growing & made in their department store, but instead that people’s lives are being affected by the products and brands they are buying and supporting?

What Fair Trade does is to create an account for these farmers and/or factory workers so that they have a forum to voice their concerns. Marry that with the orders that the USA companies are placing. When you add the Fair Trade premium to the account, the farmers and/or workers can be paid “bonuses” that equate to a living wage, while also using their funds to invest into important and much needed community development initiatives such as education and health care.

And Fair Trade and Organic definitely compliment each other because not only are farmers getting paid more, their health is also being protected from the adverse effects of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and they don’t have to pay the extra money on these pesticides. Nearly half of Fair Trade Certified products that were imported into the USA in the last few years were certified organic.

Organic cotton farmers in India don't have to worry about pesticides damaging their health. India is the largest supplier of organic cotton, accounting for 80% of global production.

Organic cotton farmers in India don’t have to worry about pesticides damaging their health. India is the largest supplier of organic cotton, accounting for 80% of global production.

Nadia: What does the Fair Trade USA Garment and Textile certification ensure?

Marci: It protects both cotton farmers and/or factories from wage exploitation and terrible working conditions. A new model for living wages has been built in on top of the basic social standards (no child labor, fair working conditions, etc.) that have already been implemented by many USA companies. Farms and factories are checked periodically. It gives them premiums (funds) that are for community and social investment. So let’s say a company in the USA, like Under the Canopy, for example, bought Fair Trade Certified items from an Indian factory for $100. We would pay a percentagesomewhere between 5-10%- into a fund that the workers would control. Then, as a collective, the workers would decide where to invest their moneyin health care, the building of a school, child care, etc. We would then, in turn, be able to monitor and measure these specific impacts, to communicate back to our customers and loyal consumers. It is our job to offset some of those premiums in other creative ways, such as enhanced design, product innovation, and by creating efficiencies in our supply chain.

For Fair Trade flower farmers in Ecuador, the Fair Trade premium supports education for their children (photo courtesy of oneworldflowers.org).

For Fair Trade flower farmers in Ecuador, the Fair Trade premium supports education for their children (photo courtesy of oneworldflowers.org).

Nadia: I recently read that Fair Trade cotton is grown by 37 certified cotton farmer groups in 10 countries, and that in Mali, 95 percent of children of Fair Trade farmers go to school, which is more than double the national average for school attendance in a very poor country.

Marci: Yes, buying and supporting Fair Trade Certified products is truly affecting positive change in the lives of others in our global community. When I am in these projects, with the farmers and workers making our products, I am fueled by these efforts towards social justice, knowing that “like water for chocolate”, the happy energy of our growers and/or makers is in the soul, or DNA, of my brands.

 Nadia: One of the really cool things about companies that work with fair trade artisans is that they absorb the costs of any discounts they may be having. Like, I can get a ring 25% off, and the artisan is still paid in full.

Marci:

Farmers and factory workers shouldn’t have to suffer when other people win.

But that’s how the current system works. We have to look at every way we can support farmers and factory workers. The minimum wage isn’t enough to sustain a family of four in most countries, so these efforts will support our partners’ basic needs (which is different for each country.) With the recent fire in the Bangladesh apparel factory where over 112 workers died due to poor working conditions, it is clearly imperative that we protect our fellow humanity.

Also, while I think Fair Trade is essential, if our cultural tendency is for faster, cheaper, “more” consumption, it will remain a challenge to balance market demand with a more sustainable model. Education & awareness are paramount and the time is NOW.

The impact of organic cotton farming and Fair Trade on people’s lives:

Additional Resources:

  • Want to learn more about Fair Trade? Here’s a primer.
  • Want to see how Indian farmers are growing organic cotton on their farms? Click here.
  • Need help finding brands that use organic cotton? Check out this link.
  • Organic cotton grown in the United States? Watch here.

My Related Posts:

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Are Our Clothes Toxic? Marci Zaroff, Eco Fashion Trailblazer, Weighs In

Did you know that:

  • A recent study of 20 name brands revealed that clothing companies like Calvin Klein, Levi’s and Zara, contain traces of hazardous, potentially cancer-causing chemicals?
  • More than 8,000 toxic chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles, many of which are carcinogenic, corrosive or include biologically-modifying reagents?
  • Producing one pair of jeans requires more than 1,800 gallons of water?
  • Bamboo is actually a synthetic fiber that some companies market to appear more environmentally friendly?
  • The average U.S. citizen throws away 68 pounds of clothing per year, with 2.5 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste ending up in our landfills annually?
  • 20 percent of the world’s industrial fresh water pollution comes from textile treatment & dyeing?
  • More than one trillion kilowatt hours are used annually in the global textile industry, representing more than 10% of the world’s carbon footprint?
  • Every half hour, a cotton farmer in India is committing suicide by drinking the very pesticides that he uses on his crops?

ZaroffI certainly didn’t until recently, and as I leaned more, I started to feel disillusioned with an industry that I began to realize was not just exploitative in its labor practices, but environmentally toxic. To help me navigate through the overwhelming amount of information out there on the topic, I talked with Marci Zaroff, a true trailblazer in the sustainable fiber and fashion industry. In 1995, Zaroff coined the term ‘Eco Fashion,’ as a way to fuse the glamorous world of fashion with environmental and social responsibility, and that phrase has now turned into a six billion dollar industry. Zaroff has also helped to define and draft the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the first USA Fair Trade certification for textiles with Fair Trade USA. Currently expanding her pioneering Eco Fashion lifestyle brand “Under the Canopy,” while working on her upcoming sustainable fashion brand FASE, as well as the documentary Thread, which she hopes will educate citizens on the environmental and human impacts of fashion & textile production, she is a true wealth of knowledge on the subject. For this first part of a three-part series, I wanted to focus more on the toxic environmental impact that the textile industry has on the environment and on ourselves before turning to the human costs on Friday. Then we will discuss how to gauge which companies are truly transparent in their sustainable practices and which ones are just greenwashing, and how to best move forward with the movement.

Nadia: So could you tell us a bit more about what motivated your passion to educate others about environmental issues and “Eco-Fashion?”

Marci: I am passionate about education, innovation, building community and connecting humanity. I have always felt a deep sense of global responsibility, and the foundation of many of my efforts over the last two decades is built under the notion that we are all interconnected, that we are all part of the same eco-system. The first eco-fashion brand that I started in 1996 is called “Under the Canopy,” and the premise is that we all live under the canopy of the planet’s eco-system together. The Native American philosophy is to protect our canopy, to protect life, for generations, which can best be expressed through the saying, “We do not inherit the land from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” If you’ve ever been to any of the rainforests in the world, you’d know that the canopy is the top layer of the rainforest. So there is more life under the canopy of the earth’s rainforests than anywhere in the world, and it is that very life, and those eco-systems, that provide the oxygen that we all depend on to exist.

Who knew that something so cute could be so toxic?

Who knew that something so cute could be so toxic?

So going back over the past 20 years, as I worked with the natural food and beauty industries, I gained a deeper understanding of the relationship within agriculture, and that you can’t support one part of the equation without the other. In agriculture, all of the crops that grow, especially if you are growing organically, they’re very much interconnected. One of the main foundations of organic agriculture is crop rotation, and one of the main crops that are rotated is cotton. 60 percent of a cotton plant ends up going into the food chain—for oils, for bread products. If you read the back of many packaged products on the market today, they will have cottonseed oil as an ingredient. As I started to learn about the connection between food and fiber and the harmful chemicals used at all stages of the textile industry, I wanted to pull the curtain back, shift the paradigm, and offer consumers more sustainable choices. I was disillusioned when I discovered that the manufacturing processes of conventional textiles are extraordinarily toxic. When I started to learn the impact that conventional textiles were having, both from the fiber standpoint and the manufacturing standpoint, I coined the term ‘Eco-Fashion’ because I wanted to fuse those two very dichotomous worlds together— one being ecology, eco-systems, and our connection with the environment, the other being fashion. My mission was to revolutionize the fashion industry and demonstrate that those two worlds were not mutually exclusive.

Nadia: It was so surprising to learn how toxic cotton was. I mean, I had always thought of cotton as a ‘natural’ fiber!

A model wearing an oxygen mask, walks along a make-shift catwalk during a fashion show organized by environmental group Greenpeace titled 'Toxic Threads - The Big Fashion Stitch-Up', in Beijing November 20, 2012. (photo courtesy of REUTERS/David Gray)

A model wearing an oxygen mask, walks along a make-shift catwalk during a fashion show organized by environmental group Greenpeace titled ‘Toxic Threads – The Big Fashion Stitch-Up’, in Beijing November 20, 2012. (photo courtesy of REUTERS/David Gray)

Marci: It’s not. In fact, conventional cotton is one of the world’s leading sources of air and water pollution! Even though conventional cotton represents less that 3% of the world’s agriculture, it uses as much as 25% of the most harmful insecticides, and up to 10% of the most toxic pesticides to grow it! It is also incredibly wasteful in the amount of water that it uses—100 gallons to make one pound, and almost 3% of the world’s yearly water usage. In fact, not only does it take 700 gallons of fresh water to make just one cotton T-short, but in 2009, the world used three trillion gallons of fresh water to produce 60 billion kilograms of cotton fabric. Furthermore, other harsh chemicals, such as chlorine bleaches and formaldehyde, are used in conventional cotton production processes.

Victoria's Secret, named in Greenpeace's Study for containing chemical residue in their clothing

Victoria’s Secret, named in Greenpeace’s Study for containing chemical residue in their clothing, is parodied in an ad.

Nadia: Well, and I can’t believe the chemicals that are released to make our clothes! I recently read in Elizabeth Cline’s book Overdressed that making synthetic fibers such as rayon, viscose, acetate, cupro, and even bamboo requires treating substances like wood pulp and scrap cotton with toxic chemicals. And then I learned from this recent study released by Greenpeace, which tested 20 brands such as Calvin Klein, Levi’s Victoria’s Secret and Zara, that several of the hazardous chemicals found in the garments contained toxic phthalates and even cancer-causing amines from the use of certain dyes!

So what is different about organic cotton?

Marci: In order to have organic food crops, you have to nurture and build the soil, versus conventional agriculture where you are depleting and destroying the soil via poisonous sprays and monocropping, which is when you grow a single crop year after year on the same land. These healthier soils make better use of water inputs and are more resilient in drought conditions. Also, when you eliminate synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, the water pollution impact from organic cotton is 98% less than non-organic cotton production, and it produces 94% less greenhouse gas emissions.

Nadia: So can you point us to other sustainable fabrics to look for?

Marci: Tencel from Lenzing, which I am rebranding as ‘ECOlyptus,’ is the cellulose that’s extracted from the eucalyptus plant, grown without water on non-arable land, broken down by a non-toxic, recycled detergent, and manufactured in an efficient closed-loop system that takes minimal energy. It feels like silk and is three times stronger than cotton. Recycled Poly is a great alternative to conventional polyester, which is made with fossil fuels, using an enormous amount of energy.

Nadia: What is recycled poly made with?

Marci: Recycled Poly takes recycled plastic bottles out of landfills and turns them into fiber. There’s a recycled poly yarn fabric called Repreve made by a company in North Carolina called Unifi. In 2012, this company kept 900 million plastic bottles out of landfills in one year! It’s really amazing.

Nadia: Do you have any online suggestions for good eco-fashion information and retailers?

Marci: Compassion Couture, Coco Eco MagazineEco Fashion World, EcouterreECOfabulous, Ethica, Ethical In Style, Fashioning Change, Fashion-Conscience, Honest by, Indigenous, Inhabitat, Magnifeco, Modavanti and People Tree are just a few of the resources out there!

For future updates on Under the Canopy, FASE & Portico, as well as other Eco Fashion ventures, check out Marci’s website at marcizaroff.com.

Stay tuned for the second part of our interview, where Marci will provide more information on the human impact behind the conventional textile manufacturing process!

How cotton production has eradicated the Aral Sea and poisoned its workers:

How Patagonia uses recycled soda bottles and fibers such as hemp to make their clothes:

My Related Posts:

Ethical Fashion: Introduction to an Ongoing Series

The iPhone 5 and the Latest Technology: Why We Consume at the Expense of Others

 

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Can We Really Label Racist Teens as Racist?

A few days ago, online feminist magazine Jezebel decided to publish an article for their racism column that exposed all of the tweets sent by high-schoolers across the country that used the n-word after Obama’s re-election. Jezebel followed-up by contacting these teenagers’ high schools to determine whether they had a policy about hate speech, and decided to out these kids by publishing their full names online. So, done. We’ve got a black president, and we can move on knowing that racism is solved, right?

I know my peeps are with me when I say, ummm. NO.

Is this really how we have resorted to addressing racism in our country? By simplifying such a complex institution into the use of a single racial slur? By slandering the names of kids whose life experiences might not have given them the opportunity to understand the consequences of their actions, or in this case, hashtags?

Of course I am not condoning the behavior of these students, but I’m going to keep it real here. We, as a culture, do not know how to talk about systems of oppression. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why, despite teaching some exceptionally bright and compassionate college students in my years of teaching, I have been surprised to find that many are pretty ill-equipped to discuss issues of race. Very few come into the classroom well-versed on the racial history of this country. They may know about Martin Luther King, but struggle to understand the larger Civil Rights movement for which he fought. When we discuss the racist implications of using cultural artifacts like feathers and headdresses as a guise for multi-culturalism, many grow defensive and protest that this is a form of cultural celebration. Yet, very few have ever been exposed to voices from these ethnic communities who make these protests.

Is this completely their fault?

It is true that Americans value the individual, but is it fair to imbue even young people with a foresight that is supposed to overcome their institutional limitations? Granted, I do think that some people are naturally a little more sensitive, a little more thoughtful, a little more critical and self-aware of their privilege than others. But I also know that one of my good friends, who is an exceptionally sensitive person and an advocate for human rights, grew up in a tiny, segregated, rural community where racial slurs were commonly spoken, and it wasn’t until he left his small town and interacted with different groups of people did he gain full awareness of just how much these words hurt.

I remember reading another post on Jez last year titled the “complete guide to hipster racism” that lambasted white kids for wearing ‘Indian headdresses.’ While I agreed with the sentiment, I had an issue with the paternalistic tone and the focus on individual behavior that seemed to imply that these ‘hipsters’ should know better because well, they’re hipsters, and that means they’re ahead of the curve, right? As I wrote in myrecent post on fashion’s problematic relationship with race:

“For me, the issue isn’t so black and white, in part because we have not allowed for an inclusion of American Indian voices into the dialogue about this issue until very recently, leaving many truly ignorant about why these supposedly ‘harmless’ statements are indeed very harmful. It is difficult for me to point fingers at teenagers who, dressed up as ‘Indians’ for  Thanksgiving when they were five by their parents and teachers, are now expected to understand the complex meanings behind the hipster headdress they choose to rock to signify their escape from the rigid conformity of suburbia.”

When it comes to issues of oppression, we need to start shifting our focus, and subsequent criticism, from individuals to institutions. To the parents who fail to have these important conversations with their children (you’re a mom who grew up in the 70s and can’t talk to your kids about a movement that gave you rights? I’m sorry, but that’s one big struggle). To our educational system that fails to incorporate these important conversations in our mainstream history texts, instead relegating them to the dusty bookshelves that are only taken out during ‘African-American history’ and ‘Women’s history’ months. To our culture that celebrates Columbus day as a day in which Columbus ‘discovered’ a country that had been inhabited by indigenous people for years, but focuses little on the suffering caused by European colonialism. To our neighborhoods that have become increasingly segregated thanks in part to ‘white-flight,’ making it almost impossible for so many American kids to go to school with and live near people of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. To the public policies that have increased the gap in wealth between middle-class white and black Americans, thanks in large part to the limiting of value property in these racially segregated neighborhoods. To our media institutions that marginalizes the voices of women and people of color in the newsroom on one end, while depicting them as looters and welfare queens on the other.

I believe that we as a society need to focus on these larger, more important issues of oppression, instead of a few ignorant tweets. And rather than pointing our fingers solely at these teenagers, it would serve us better to also address the societal problems and institutional policies that helped shape their behavior, and in which we are all implicated.

White Flight, defined.

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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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