Noelle Swan

Archive for the ‘Social Issues’ Category

Urban College Offers Hope to Some Unlikely Students

In Social Issues on June 14, 2013 at 12:24 pm

This article was first published by Spare Change News on June 14, 2012.

UntitledBOSTON, Massachusetts—When Cecelia Young enrolled in her first course at Urban College of Boston (UBC), she didn’t know who would watch her youngest son while she was in class.

Young was homeless at the time.

Each night, she had been piling her 12- and 15-year-old boys into the car and driving to a friend or family member’s home to spend the night. They moved from house to house frequently, so as not to overstay their welcome and overburden their hosts.

In the middle of that crisis, Young made a decision that she believes saved her life.

She decided to go back to school.

At UCB graduation earlier this month, Young shared her story with 100 fellow graduates and enough friends and family to fill the Emerson College Majestic Theater. Through tears, she read the essay that earned her UCB’s Jill Alexander Award for Excellence. (Full disclosure: I briefly attended UCB from 2003-2004.)

“In 2010, my sons and I were faced with homelessness. When my life was going from bad to worse, I made the most important decision of my life. In the middle of a severe crisis that caused me such hardship, I chose to become a student at Urban College of Boston,” said Young. “I felt defeated and full of dismay. However, the thought of taking my own life was just a dark thought, but attending Urban College was a necessity.”

Three years later, Young has found her way to the other side of the dark. She has an apartment of her own in Randolph, a fulfilling job working as an emergency department assistant at Beth Israel Hospital, and as of this June an associate’s degree in Human Services from UCB.

This year, UCB celebrates its 20th anniversary as an accredited, two-year post-secondary college offering low to moderate-income students the opportunity to pursue their associate’s degrees in Early Childhood Education, Human Services, and General Studies as well as several professional certifications.

The majority of UCB students live in Boston’s traditionally underserved neighborhoods of Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, and Hyde Park. Nearly all students work full time while taking classes at night. Many are immigrants; many are single mothers. All are considered “non-traditional” students.

There are more than 50 colleges and universities in the Boston area and many of them welcome non-traditional students. However, only UCB offers a non-traditional education that actively supports the whole student, says Dean of Academic Affairs Nancy Daniel.

Many students come to UCB with heavy burdens on their back. Helping these students reach academic success takes a great deal of additional support, Daniel said. “If we don’t look at [students] holistically, it’s not going to be a successful journey for them,” she said.

Instructors try to prevent failure by spending time at the beginning of every course getting to know each student through writing assignments and group discussions, said Daniel. While most universities expect students to check their personal lives at the door, UCB faculty encourages students to share their experiences. What hardships have they endured? What barriers may make it difficult for them to complete the course?

Whenever possible, faculty and staff at UCB offer to help shoulder some of students’ burdens so that they can focus on their coursework.

Faculty may work directly with students to help plan how they will manage the course load. They may refer them to UCB’s caseworker or connect them with UCB’s parent organization, Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) which provides homelessness prevention services, fuel assistance and childcare vouchers.

“There are times when people need clothes; they need books but they can’t order online because they don’t have a credit card; they need a place to cry; they need five bucks to get home; they are hungry and they need food,” Daniel said. Whatever it is, she finds a way to help her students get what they need.

It seems that the faculty and staff at UCB will do anything to help their students succeed, as Young described in her essay.

“Through the course of three years, I have discovered that Urban College of Boston is not just an institute for higher learning, but a place where the faculty show compassion, sympathy, and provide alternative solutions for their students,” explained Young. “The instructor [in my first class] taught me about essays, but most importantly, she spoke life into my broken soul.”

During a pre-graduation ceremony, it became apparent that students extend that same compassion and sympathy toward each other. Students squealed in congratulations and traded hugs and tears of joy as classmates collected awards and honors commendations.

At commencement, UCB President Michael Taylor told graduates, “In addition to acquiring an education here at Urban College, you acquired something else, a new family comprised of your fellow classmates, the faculty, and staff.”

As Taylor spoke, kids shuffled in their seats and a baby in the balcony began to cry, creating a symbolic soundtrack to the event. More than half of UCB students have children at home to care for while attending school and working full time, a feat that has garnered Taylor’s admiration.

“Not only do you have the courage to go to college while you’re working. You have the grit to stick with it for several years while you balanced all the other responsibilities in your life . . . caring for children, managing a full time job . . . helping your kids with their homework. You read, you typed, you researched . . . you attended class until 9 p.m. at night, then you went home, put the kids to bed, and learned some more,” Taylor said.

The payoff for all that hard work was evident as 105 supposedly unlikely graduates marched across the stage to accept their hard-won diplomas and certificates.

In Young’s words, “Through the education I have received at UCB, I am an educated, positive, and a professional woman. I can hold my head up high and be encouraged while encouraging someone else.”


Discussing Race: The pitfalls of racial ‘colorblindness’ and the importance of talk

In Social Issues on May 24, 2013 at 12:14 pm

This article first was published as a guest post on The Christian Science Monitor blog Modern Parenthood on May 24, 2013.

Photo Credit: Flickr user horizontal.integration

Photo Credit: Flickr user horizontal.integration

“Now, I don’t see race. People tell me I’m white and I believe them,” late night satirist Stephen Colbert frequently tells his guests. He isn’t the only one claiming to be racially “colorblind.” Since the days of the civil rights movement, many parents and teachers have adopted this approach with the hope that by simply refusing to point out differences to their children, racism, stereotyping, and bigotry would just fall away.

Instead, “in this supposed racial vacuum created by parents, the kids have been left to come up with their own conclusions based on who knows what. Their own observations? Heresay? Who knows?” said Janie Ward, Simmons College Professor and Department Chair of Africana Studies and author of The Skin We’re In: Teaching Our Teens to be Emotionally Strong, Socially Smart, and Spiritually Connected.

According to recent research, many of those conclusions have not been good.

Ward shared the results of a recent University of Texas study on racial attitudes with a group of parents and teachers gathered for a lunch, lecture, and book signing as part of The Boston Children’s Museum’s Lunch and Learn Lecture Series this week.

UT researchers initially set out to assess the impact of multicultural characters in television programs on white children’s attitudes about race. They solicited hundreds of families to participate in the study and gave the children an initial racial attitude test. They asked the children questions like, “Are white people nice,” and “Are black people nice?” They followed up with additional questions and substituted the adjective “nice” with other adjectives, including “pretty,” “mean,” and “smart.” This was intended to be a base line measurement of children’s racial attitudes.

Then the researchers divided the families into three groups. They sent one group home with a video that included an episode of Sesame Street where the cast members visited a black family at home. They gave the second group the same video,  as well as a list of talking points for parents to use in discussing the video with their kids. The third group took home just the talking points.

However, the researchers soon realized that something was wrong.

Many parents balked at the idea of raising the discussion of race with their kids. Five parents refused to participate entirely. Several indicated that the idea of having such a discussion with their kids was scary. Others said they preferred to raise their children to be “colorblind.” So the researchers shifted the direction of the study to examine the effect of “colorblind” child rearing on children’s actual racial attitudes.

When the researchers returned to the results of the original study that they had already given the kids, they discovered that the children were forming their own ideas about race. When asked how many white people are mean, almost all of the kids responded “almost none.” When asked how many black people are mean, many answered “a lot.” When asked about their parents’ attitudes toward black people, 14 percent of kids said that their parents did not like black people and 38 percent of kids said they did not know how their parents felt. While the parents have been trying to impart “colorblindness,” the kids have still developed white biases, Ward said.

Similar studies where researchers have asked black children to point out which of two dolls — one white and one black — is nicer, smarter, prettier have shown that black children also harbor white biases. The first of these studies proved instrumental during the landmark Brown v. Board of Education court case that resulted in the desegregation of public schools. Many things have changed since then. However, many black kids still identify the black doll as “bad” and “mean” and label the while doll as “nice” and “pretty.”

That lack of ethnic pride is particularly troubling, Ward said. “Ethnic pride is about a whole lot more than just feeling good,” she said. In her research, Ward has found that children’s sense of ethnic pride can affect both their grades and their mental health. Further, she found that teenagers with a strong sense of ethnic pride were able to navigate social inequities more effectively than kids that harbor feelings of shame about their ethnicity.

Parents can start to foster ethnic pride at a very young age. Ward offered the example of one mother who used the opportunity of brushing her child’s hair to plant the seeds of ethnic pride. “Your hair is so beautiful. Other kids have different kinds of hair, but your hair is just like Mummy’s hair and grandma’s hair,” she would tell her daughter. Ward asked the mother why she felt this was so important. “As a black woman in this society I know what my daughter is going to be up against. I’m giving my daughter the tools now that she will need to do battle when she gets older,” the mother responded.

Ward urged parents to talk to their children about race throughout their childhood. “I know that this kind of conversation can be a scary conversation, but the more you talk, the better you get at it. It’s not just about one conversation, it’s about talking about these kinds of things over time and being on the lookout for teachable moments,” she said.

Are Female Veterans Being Left Out In The Cold?

In Poverty, Social Issues on November 16, 2012 at 9:40 am

This article first was published by Spare Change News on November 16, 2012.

Photo Credit: Richard VanHouten, Veteran’s Support Organization

After leaving the U.S. Air Force, Staff Sergeant Barbara Barnes spent years living in fear of stray shadows and sudden noises that could trigger flashbacks to trauma from her days of military service.

Barnes never served abroad or saw combat. She served as an administrative officer from 1984 to 1990, processing legal documents on military bases in Louisiana and Kansas.

The trauma began in 1985, she says, when a commanding officer sexually assaulted her. She reported the attack to his superiors but felt too embarrassed to seek counseling. She said that the officer was reassigned to another unit, but for her, the trauma remained.

“I thought that I would just never get over that stuff, that it would just haunt me for the rest of my life,” Barnes said.

She turned to alcohol and started to abuse prescription drugs. She struggled with addiction, lost contact with her three children, and landed on the streets of Charleston, S.C. And during her long downward spiral, it never occurred to her to ask for help as a military veteran.

She wasn’t the only vet to descend into this particular nightmare.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that 6,500 female veterans are homeless and that as many as 20 percent of them were sexually assaulted while in the service. The department has declared military sexual trauma “an epidemic” and a major risk factor for post-service homelessness.

Women are four times more likely to become homeless after leaving the service than their male counterparts, according to the VA.

While homelessness among all veterans has declined in recent years, the number of homeless female veterans doubled between 2006 and 2011, according to a report earlier this year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

In 2011, the federal Veteran’s Health Administration responded to the crisis by establishing a National Call Center for Women Veterans.

This year, the VA’s Women Veterans’ Task Force highlighted homelessness as one of the key issues facing female veterans in a draft of its “Strategies for Serving Women Veterans” report, which the VA has submitted for public comment.

Wearing a badge with her rank and service information, Barnes sat in a conference room at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans (NECHV) and recalled trying to drown her traumatic memories in alcohol.

“I hit the bottom. When you get to the bottom of the wine bottle, there’s still a hole left. There’s not enough wine in the world to take care of that,” she said.

Barnes says she had been in her share of rehabilitation programs, but it was not until she connected with the VA that she was able to access comprehensive services that met all of her needs.

She didn’t even think of herself a veteran until 2006, when a woman approached her at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and told her that the VA had programs to help people like her.

As the prevalence of homelessness among female veterans has become apparent over the last few years, state and federal agencies have taken steps to connect veterans with services they need.

“We know that women veterans are at risk for homlessness at a higher rate than their male counterparts. We know that their needs are often diffferent. But at the same time, it’s more common for them to not necessarily identify themselves as veterans,” said Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness (ICHH) director Elizabeth Rogers.

The ICHH and the Women’s Veteran’s Network, a state agency that serves as a central resource for female veterans across the state, are working together to reach out to those who are experiencing or on the verge of homelessness.

“[T]here is a need for finding creative ideas for reaching people in the community before they become homeless,” said Rogers. Outreach efforts could occur at the welfare department, at programs distributing emergency food resources, or even through local school systems, she said.

Another NECHV resident, Buck Sergeant Jane Garrow, never considered herself a veteran either, despite having served three years in the air force. By the time someone suggested she seek veterans’ services—23 years after her honorable discharge—she already had spent two years living on the streets.

“Not a lot of women serve overseas in wartime, so we didn’t think we qualified as veterans,” said Garrow, who served as a jet engine mechanic in California from 1978 to 1981.

Garrow recalls meeting many social service providers over the years as she struggled with alcoholism and homelessness, but she did not recognize that she qualified for veterans’ services.

“It wasn’t just us that didn’t realize that we were vets, it was the people trying to help us,” Garrow said, adding with a hint of frustration, “I would go into detox every once in a while, but nobody told me about the VA.”

Garrow says she joined the air force because she had grown bored with working on an assembly line building missiles for the military contractor Raytheon. She recalls hearing the Village People song “In The Navy” night after night, promising pleasure, treasure, and the opportunity to learn science and technology.

In 1978, she enlisted in the air force with hope of gaining new skills that would translate to a better job when she later returned to civilian life.

During her service, she says, she worked her way up to become a jet engine mechanic, served as the first woman to work in the maintenance hangars in California, and graduated to senior airman.

Upon her discharge, however, she learned that her military training did not count toward certification to work on civilian aircraft. She returned to her native Cape Cod where she struggled for years with alcoholism and ended up on the streets.

Today she has secured a housing voucher with the help of the housing program at NECHV and is in the process of looking for an apartment.

The New England Center for Homeless Veterans first started seeing women seeking services in the mid-1990s, said NECHV director of community affairs Stephen Cunniff. In 1996, the shelter added a separate and secure women’s residence with 16 beds, a private TV room, and two showers for women awaiting permanent housing.

“There’s nothing that we need that we can’t get from here,” Garrow said. “They may not offer it here, but they know who to call to get it.”

Any woman with an honorable discharge from any branch of the U.S. military can access a case manager and can participate in shelter programs, including housing assistance, employment training, legal services, medical care, and meals, says Helen Wooten, NECHV director of case management.

Wooten adds that NECHV’s reputation for extensive services and rapid housing placement has prompted many out-of-state organizations to refer veterans to Boston.

Barnes says that a case manager at the VA in New York City suggested that she move to Boston and see if NECHV could help her.

For the past couple months, Barnes has been sleeping at a transitional shelter in Jamaica Plain and commuting to NECHV for additional services. She has entered counseling, which she says has helped her deal with her military sexual trauma. She reconnected with her children with the help of the Boston VA and is currently in the process securing her own subsidized apartment with the help of her case manager.

Barnes credits NECHV with providing her with the tools and resources to help herself.

“I know every time I walk through that front door that I’ll never leave the same again. I’ll be a changed woman. I’ll be an empowered woman.”

Climate Change: The Latest Tax on the Poor

In Civil Rights, Climate Change, Food Security, Poverty, Social Issues on October 19, 2012 at 9:29 am

This article first was published in print and online by Spare Change News on October 19, 2012.

Photo Credit:, Nancy Battaglia

“Poor people are not something that we talk about too much or pay much attention to in our world,” Bill McKibben said, sipping a glass of sparkling water to nurse a throat hoarse from a weekend of meetings and rallies.

McKibben knows something about poverty. In the early 1980s he helped to start a 15-bed homeless shelter at The Riverside Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He spent several months living in the shelter system himself and wrote about his experiences for The New Yorker in hopes of shocking the public into action.

In recent years he stepped out from behind the reporter’s role as an observer and became a leading participant in what he calls the greatest battle the world has ever seen, the fight to halt climate change.

“There’s nothing we’ve figured out how to do that makes life harder for the poorest people on this planet than climate change, and the great irony is that those people have had nothing to do with creating the problem,” McKibben said, hunched over in a rattan chair before a fundraiser at a private home in Newton.

He draws a contrast between the industrialized countries that produce the greenhouse gasses linked to climate change and the developing countries that suffer the effects.

Rapidly industrializing China contributes more carbon dioxide than any other country, largely because of its population size. With less than a quarter of China’s population, the United States comes in a close second with more carbon emissions than India, Russia, and Japan combined. Americans contribute more carbon dioxide per capita to the atmosphere than most people on the planet, second only to Australians.

The developing world has experienced the first effects of climate change, McKibben said, citing outbreaks of dengue fever linked to increasing flooding in Bangladesh, diminished glacial water supplies in Peru, and territorial loss due to sea level rise in the island nation of Maldives. Those countries rank 55th, 61st, and 161st in carbon emissions.

He adds that this years’ widespread drought in the United States, which he attributes to climate change and has led to a 50 percent increase in the global price of corn, has directly affected poor families around the world.

Later, leaning casually against a wall, with hands thrust deep into his pockets and sneaker-clad feet crossed at the ankles, he addressed a small crowd of about 50 environmental activists, professors, and potential donors.

“All over the world, there are people that right now are scrambling around to find enough coins to buy enough corn meal to make dinner for their families tonight,” he told group crowded into the living room and perched on couches, radiators, and the floor.

While the scientific community debates what role climate change may or may not have played in the recent drought, a consensus among climatologists are clear that climate change certainly will bring more extreme weather conditions such as drought in years to come.

McKibben has been warning of the dangers of climate change since he published his first book, The End of Nature, in 1989. He worries that time is running out. Small changes in lifestyle such installing energy-efficient light bulbs and toting reusable bags to the grocery store will not be sufficient to halt or even slow climate change, he said.

McKibben aims to take on oil and gas giants where they will feel it, by going after their stockholders.

His latest campaign calls on universities, institutions, and churches to sell their stock holdings in fossil fuel companies, in a collaboration among, 350 Massachusetts, and The Better Future Project, an environmental advocacy group that seeks a transition to renewable energy.

McKibben scoffs at the idea that Americans are addicted to fossil fuels and suggests that the average American would be just as happy to use energy derived from the sun and the wind as from oil, gas, and coal.

Instead, he charges that the fossil fuel industry is addicted to huge profits, which it has invested in lobbying against policies favoring a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

“They intimidate everybody in Washington. The fossil fuel industry is spending more money on this election than anybody else. Nobody dares offend them and as a result the planet is silently melting,” he said quietly as guests fist started to arrive.

Trying to get politicians to listen to concerns about climate change is like waiting on hold for customer service, he later half-joked with the crowd. Listening to the music for 20 minutes is one thing, he said, but after 20 years, it is time to hang up the phone.

McKibben and earned a temporary victory in Washington last year after staging one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in the nation’s history. Police arrested more than 1,200 people surrounding the White House during a 15-day-long protest of Keystone XL, an oil pipeline designed to carry oil drained from the Canadian Tar Sands in Alberta to Texas refineries.

President Barack Obama backed off of the project soon after, and The Boston Globe declared McKibben “the man who crushed Keystone XL.” However, both before the event and while addressing the crowd, McKibben voiced suspicion that once the election is out of the way, the President, either Obama or Romney, will push forward with the project.

“We are not going to stop global warming one pipeline at a time. There’s just too many oil wells and coal mines and pipelines.” Later he added, “We’re going to have to [attack] more at the center of the whole problem, which is the fossil fuel industry.”

This November, starting the day after the election, McKibben and his supporters will board a bus in Seattle and begin a nationwide tour of 25 cities in 25 days, designed to bring public attention and pressure to his call to universities, churches, and institutions to unload their holdings in fossil fuel companies.

McKibben modeled his new campaign after the campaigns of the 1980s that called on organizations to divest from corporations supporting the apartheid government in South Africa. The movement was not widely successful in getting organizations to participate in divestiture, he noted. “But it was everywhere successful in bringing the issue straight to the heart of the discussion,” he added, pointing out that more than 200 colleges and churches around the country did change their investment practices.

McKibben reminded the group that the first calls for divestment from the apartheid regime came from the United Nations in the 1960s. It took more than 20 years for that action to gain sustained momentum. He worries that this time, the world might not have that long.

“If we don’t do this relatively quickly, in fact quite quickly, then it’s not worth doing, because there won’t be the intact planet to deal with,” he said.

Strike Up The Chorus

In Social Issues, Uncategorized on September 21, 2012 at 3:35 pm

This article was first published in print and online by Spare Change News on September 21, 2012.

Photo Credit: FLICKR/Very Quiet

“Who wants to read a poem?” Saul Williams asked the audience.
The crowd gathered at the Brighton Music Hall in Allston, Mass., was small, just a couple hundred people, but it appeared to be made up of devout fans. Many people clutched dog-eared copies of Williams’ books of poetry to their chests.

The audience froze for the smallest fraction of a second; was that a rhetorical question? Suddenly, a man sprung three feet into the air from the front row, like the first popcorn kernel to break free from its casing, and landed in a squat on the stage. Quickly, as if Williams might withdraw the offer, more poets joined him; six at first, then more as a dozen or so young people popped onto the stage.

Saul Stacey Williams was born in 1972 when his mother was rushed to the hospital from a James Brown concert in upstate New York, as he tells it in his song “Elohim 1972.” The singer, musician, poet, and actor is known for esoteric rhymes, sharp social criticism, and deeply resonant voice. This was his second performance at Brighton Music Hall this year. This past winter, he came accompanied by a band to promote his album, Volcanic Sunlight. This time around, he came without instruments or entourage.

As the young poets lined up nervously along the back of the small stage, Williams explained to the audience that his latest project, a poetry anthology entitled Chorus, aimed to amplify the voices of rising poets. “This is the first book I’ve ever put out that I didn’t write,” he told the audience. He explained that the title refers to the Greek chorus, which answered and criticized the artist rather than the modern musical chorus, which supports and reiterates the performer. He put out a call for submissions on several social media websites. Williams received over 8000 entries, which he whittled down to 100 poems from 100 poets from all over the world. He wallpapered his home in Paris with those poems and spent six months rearranging them so that they flowed together, in what he calls, “a literary mix tape.”

Backstage, after the show, Williams discussed his motivations for the book. “I encounter so much amazing talent and so many well intentioned voices who don’t have the avenue of expression or the doors open to them that have been open for me.” He added that Chorus represented a chance to hold the door open behind him, however briefly. He felt that inviting members of the audience to recite their poetry during his shows was the next logical step. The crowd at Brighton Music Hall literally jumped on his offer.

As each poet recited a poem either from memory, a slip of wadded up paper, or a smart phone notepad, Williams listened thoughtfully, sitting on the floor the stage, his long arms draped around equally lanky legs. Most of the poets never mentioned their names, simply content to add their voices to the chorus. One young man, who did not have any of his own poetry ready, read from one of Williams’ books, just so he could share the stage with his idol.

Williams does not wear words like idol comfortably.

His first taste of fame came in 1998, after the release of the independent film Slam, produced by Trimark Pictures. He co-starred with Sonja Sohn, Bonz Malone and Lawrence Wilson. He played an incarcerated rapper that latched onto poetry as a means to reflect on the culture of violence in the housing project where he grew up in Washington DC. The film won a Grand Jury Prize for Drama at the Sundance Film Festival and the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Williams soon developed a cult following among slam poets and a relatively obscure segment of the hip-hop community looking to counter the “gangsta rap” scene that had dominated the ‘80s and ‘90s.

After spending five years regularly participating in poetry slams, he said that, after the release of Slam, his presence became disruptive. “Suddenly people would change the poem they were going to read because they wanted to read something that I had inspired.” What’s more, he began to hear his own influence in the work of others, which he found surreal and bizarre.

He withdrew from the slam scene and focused on his music. Since, he has tried to find other ways to engage young poets and break that invisible fourth wall separating the artist from his audience. During spoken word shows, he frequently calls for houselights and opens the floor up for discussion in an effort to “break the mold of celebrity.” However, he feels that his fans continue to push him back onto a pedestal, expecting him to have the answers to the social ailments, such as racism, misogyny, and religious strife that he explores in his poetry and lyrics.

When a woman in the audience at the Brighton Music Hall asked him if the nation was ready for a post-race society, he blurted out. “No. I think America is obsessed with race.” He tried to go on, stammering for a moment before throwing up his hands. “Look, I really don’t have the answers. I just have the frustration, and the poems to prove it.” In the greenroom before the show, Williams vented some of that frustration with what he sees as an American fixation on race to a half dozen fellow poets, friends, and fans over a pre-show beer and pizza.

As he talked about moving to Paris with his girlfriend and two children, a friend asked him if he had connected with African-American expatriate community. He laughed, “I didn’t move to Paris to join a gang,” he said. He added that while Parisians are by no means color blind, they do not seem to have the same need to transpose it onto every discussion. However, he said that when his American friends come to visit, the conversation inevitably turns to race. “At first, my girlfriend and I thought it was the couch,” he joked.

Onstage, he approached the issue with solemnity. “Look, if a stick is bent in one direction, you can’t just push it towards the center. You have to push it all the way in the other direction before it can rest at the center.” He added the culture of racial injustice that permeated American history necessitated a violent reaction. The Black Panthers, the Harlem Renaissance, and the reclamation of the word “nigga” served a vital purpose in the evolution of the American perception of race, especially for African-Americans. “I think the phases are necessary, but I think it is also necessary to not rest in those phases and keep moving.” After a moment, he added, “We need to just get over ourselves.”

Several times before, during, and after the show, Williams returned to the idea that enforcement of free labor and control of women lie at the root of not just racial tension, but many of the world’s inequalities. Much of his work highlights the concept of the feminine, which he believes has been demonized by social convention, religion, and culture. As a child, he said he openly challenged his prominent Baptist preacher father’s cronies’ refusal to allow a woman to preach from their pulpits. What Williams saw as the subjugation of women in the church became a recurring discussion between him and Rev. Saul S. Williams.

Williams opened up that discussion publicly in his debut hip-hop album, Amethyst Rock Star, released in 2001 by American Recordings. In the album’s final track, Williams lay down a recording of his father’s sermon. Back in the greenroom, he recalled attending his father’s church one Father’s day when the minister gave a sermon on the importance of the father. “For me, it was ironic because the church was always filled with women and children.” Williams said he stole the recording of that sermon from his father’s office and added a subtle beat around it. At the end of the minister’s sermon, Williams calmly stepped in with his own response.

Our father which art in St. Frances Hospital for hypertension,

Our father which art in jumpsuits and prisons, federal detention,

Our father which art in dark bars and alleys, lethal injection,

Our father which art in denial and delusion,

This cannot happen again.

The beat swelled to a crescendo as Williams chanted the chorus in a throbbing monotone.

Dear Goddess,
We made this break beat just for you,
As an offering.
Can you hear us now?
Dear Goddess,
We made this break beat just for you,
As an offering.
Can you hear us now?

When asked if this was a source of tension between him and his father, Williams replied that the minister had called it beautiful. “I caught him listening to it more than once,” he said with a smile. While his father believed strongly in his convictions and his calling to be a minister, he said that the minister always encouraged rigorous discussion. Williams describes his upbringing as culturally middle class. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of books; and we had a lot of discussion.” He recalled challenging his father’s beliefs right up through his eulogy at his funeral.

Williams continued those discussions throughout his life, by participating on the speech team as a child, studying philosophy as an undergraduate student at Morehouse College, a predominantly black, men’s school in Atlanta, and for the past decade, he has shared his thoughts and opinions with his fans through spoken word and music. With Chorus, he reminds his fans that his voice does not stand alone. He has used the book and the accompanying tour to encourage his fans to take part in the discussion, and strike up the chorus.

The Grand Champ of Women’s Boxing: A Massachusetts story opens the door to first-ever women’s Olympic boxing

In Civil Rights, Uncategorized on August 17, 2012 at 12:14 pm
Noelle Swan
Spare Change News
August 17, 2012

NORTH ADAMS, MASS. — In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court’s first woman justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, was still a newbie. Astronaut Sally Ride had just become the first woman in space. And Gail “The Champ” Grandchamp wanted into the Olympic boxing ring.

She wanted it with all the ferocious energy that coursed through her fists.

That year Grandchamp (yes, her real name) took on the all-male boxing establishment and delivered the legal KO that opened the door to this summer’s first-ever women’s Olympic boxing competition.

This August, two of the three women on the American boxing earned medals. Flyweight Marlen Esparza brought home the bronze, and middleweight Claressa Shields won the gold. Neither of them would have made it to the London games if it weren’t for the little-known welterweight from North Adams, Mass., whose tenacity in the ring was matched by her determination to wage an eight-year gender-discrimination battle for her sport.

“If I could meet Gail right now, I’d probably give her a hug, because she did a lot for women’s boxing,” said 17-year-old Shields in an interview after returning home to Flint, Mich. from the games. “I wouldn’t know how to go to court for women’s boxing. I just want to box.”

At the time, Grandchamp says that no one expected her to succeed in court. Five attorneys dropped her case, sure that she would never win, but she persevered—even after she knew she could never benefit from the outcome herself.

“They thought I would just go away, but I am a strong African American woman and I intended to fight for my rights,” roars Grandchamp from behind a tiny desk tucked by the window of her personal training studio in a rundown strip of storefronts in this western Massachusetts town.

Not only was Grandchamp deprived of her chance to go for the gold, she never even got credit for her historic battle to open the door to other female amateur boxers.

But in the style of a true champion, she refused to wallow in defeat. Instead, she drew on her childhood experiences with gangs and crime to become an inspiration to troubled youth in her community.

Today Grandchamp is gaining recognition by her community for her work in the two arenas of her life.

“She is such a force for girls to look up to,” said Gianna Allentuck, who invited Grandchamp to mentor young at-risk youth in her Springfield, Mass., boxing program, The Officials Club. Allentuck adds she inspires boys as well.

As a teen Grandchamp fell in with a gang, carried a switchblade, and committed thefts. She had many run-ins with the police and accumulated a lengthy juvenile record. While she was serving probation for stealing bicycles, clerks at a downtown department store caught her stealing a clock.

“My probation officer told my mother to pack my bags,” she recalls.

Expecting to be sent away to a juvenile detention center, she begged the judge for one last chance. The judge granted her wish, and Grandchamp changed her ways. She started paying attention in school and reading the Bible. She started playing softball and weightlifting. She says that it was through organized sports that she learned about self-discipline and how to be accountable for her actions.

“This lady was on her way to juvenile detention and got one more chance,” says Allentuck. “Our kids can relate to that. And she is tough and strong and resilient. She teaches them to be a good person, to have dignity, to have integrity, and definitely, never give up.”

People who know Grandchamp’s story are moved by her selfless determination.

“You can only talk about her heart, because it’s just huge,” said Allentuck. “She did this for other women. She’s the reason that these young boxing women are in the Olympics today.”

Last spring the Massachusetts legislature recognized Grandchamp for her “dedication, devotion, and achievements in leading the fight for women and women’s boxing,” as part of a celebration of women’s history in sports.

“I think that her commitment to following her passion has shown countless women that just being told that you can’t do something because of who you are isn’t an acceptable answer,” said state Senator Benjamin Downing of Pittsfield. “She has absolutely been a role model and a pioneer for women, not just in boxing, but in all sports.”

“Gail Grandchamp’s positive force and passion in promoting gender equality in sports is still being felt, especially as women’s boxing makes its Olympic debut,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who grew up in North Adams. Coakley hosted Grandchamp during a visit to the Massachusetts State House in Boston. “Gail is an outstanding role model for young women, and her determination encourages women to stand up and be strong both in and out of the ring.”

Grandchamp is still waiting to get this kind of recognition from the boxing world.

The woman who generally gets the credit as the women’s boxing trailblazer is Dallas Malloy, a blonde light welterweight from Bellingham, Wash., who, armed with attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and Grandchamp’s crucial precedent, challenged USA Boxing’s bylaws in federal court. The judge approved an injunction within moments of hearing the case, and in 1993, at age 16, Malloy became the first woman to fight in a USA Boxing sanctioned event.

Grandchamp says that Malloy, who retired from amateur boxing after just nine months, has yet to publicly acknowledge that Grandchamp laid the groundwork for her historic fight.

“I fought for eight years for this. Nobody else fought that battle. Not Dallas Malloy. Not Laila Ali [daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali and now a famous fighter herself]. Not even a lawyer!”

Grandchamp described her historic journey in an interview at Grandchamp Fitness and Boxing, a personal training facility in North Adams that Grandchamp founded. The battle began in 1984, when her coach tried to register the 29-year-old with the New England Amateur Boxing Federation, a regional arm of the governing body now known as USA Boxing. The coach received a phone call from a puzzled federation official asking if Gail Grandchamp was a girl. Yes, he said, and one of his best boxers. The official replied that no female could register as an amateur boxer.

“He told him, ‘Don’t even bring her down here. There’s no such thing as amateur boxing for women,’ ” Gail recalls.

Devastated, Grandchamp vowed to knock some heads together, figuratively, and change their minds.

In January 1985, she filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission on Discrimination against both the regional and national federations. Feeling that the commission was not taking her complaint seriously, Grandchamp hired an attorney and filed a lawsuit against the New England Amateur Boxing Federation.

By the time she had her day in court, five attorneys had come and gone, including a lawyer from the National Organization for Women who resigned after deciding the case was unwinnable.

Grandchamp watched the birthdays go by as her lawsuit lumbered through the courts, until the hard realization dawned that the battle was not for her, it was for younger women who would follow. As the age limit for amateur boxing—36—slipped by, she gave up her personal dream of amateur boxing and reaching the Olympics. She registered as a professional boxer; but she continued to fight in court.

“I was doing it for all the other women boxers out there,” she writes in her self-published autobiography, Gail Grandchamp: A Fighter with Heart Pursues Olympic Dream. “My Olympic dream became an Olympic dream for all the aspiring women amateur boxers out there.”

Without any formal legal training, Grandchamp decided to represent herself and carry the case forward on her own.

“I had to be the whole football team,” she says, nearly vibrating in her chair. “I drove the ball. I stumbled, I fumbled, but then TOUCHDOWN!”

On April 26, 1992, the Berkshire County Superior Court ruled that the New England Amateur Boxing Federation’s ban on women’s boxing was discriminatory and illegal.

“That day I felt like justice is still here,” Grandchamp exclaimed, springing out of her chair and bouncing around her studio clapping her hands as she relived the victory. “Justice can still come in Massachusetts. It was just incredible that justice prevailed, even though I wasn’t an attorney!”

In the years that followed, Grandchamp refocused her energy on her community in North Adams, a small town in the northwest corner of Massachusetts where roughly one fifth of the population lives below the poverty line. She established the Fighter with Heart Foundation to help members of her community facing financial hardships. She markets a variety of products with her name and logo on eBay to fund the foundation and offer loans and grants to her neighbors needing help paying their utility bills, veterinary bills, and just making ends meet.

Twenty years after her victory, Grandchamp boarded a plane for Spokane, Wash., to witness the first-ever women’s Olympic boxing trials. That trip triggered mixed emotions.

“I was ecstatic. I couldn’t wait to meet the girls,” Grandchamp recalled. “I cried because it’s like giving birth to something.”

On the other hand, those women were realizing the dream that she was denied. Everything she had ever worked for had finally come true, but she was relegated to the sidelines.

“That was hard,” she says quietly. “That was my dream.”

Even more shocking was the realization that the 24 women competing for slots on the first-ever U.S. boxing team had no idea who she was or how hard she had fought for them to be there.

“Most of them don’t even know that there was a time that women couldn’t box as amateurs at all,” Grandchamp said sadly.

Twenty-eight-year-old Olympic hopeful Tiffany Hearn of San Diego had participated in recent petition drives to bring women’s boxing to the Olympic games, but had no idea who had started that fight, or that it had begun when she was just an infant.

“I hate to admit that,” she said. Hearn explained that after meeting Grandchamp at the Olympic trails in Spokane, she and the other girls started asking the older coaches about her and started to piece together her story.

Another Olympic contender, Traversha Norwood of Atlanta, said that although she had talked with Grandchamp, she did not learn about Grandchamp’s role in the history of women’s amateur boxing until after the trials.

“I sat down with her and my coach. It wasn’t about her. She was making it all about me, seeing how she could help me and how to promote myself,” Norwood says. “I didn’t realize the importance of the moment until afterwards.”

Shields laments the fact that many of her peers are unaware of what Grandchamp did for women’s boxing. “That’s like not knowing the name Ali,” referring to former heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali. “You can’t live in the past, but you have to know where you came from.”

The world watched on as three American women competed for Olympic gold, but few knew that the arduous journey to the Olympic arena began before those women were born.

Grandchamp watched the historic bouts on television at home, cheering on the sidelines once again.

The Rise of Women’s Boxing: From Local Gym to Olympic Arena

In Civil Rights, Uncategorized on July 27, 2012 at 3:38 pm

This article first was published by Spare Change News on July 27, 2012.

Photo Credit: Tommy Chevalier

Noelle Swan
Spare Change News

No sooner had the bell rung than Jamie Jacobsen’s fist connected with my nose. Instantly, my eyes welled up with water and a cold chill set in all over my body. By the second round, my nose had swelled up beyond utility, leaving me struggling to learn how to breathe through my mouthpiece.

I staggered through three rounds, eating more punches than I care to remember and wondering what had happened to my two years of training. I bought an ice pop on my way home to soothe my throbbing bottom lip. Clinging to the bit of pride gained from seeing Jacobsen checking out her lip in the mirror after our sparring session, I vowed to myself that I would be back.

That was the first time I climbed into an official ring. More than a year later, Jacobsen and I faced off again, but more on that later.

Jacobsen and I are among a growing number of women who have turned to boxing for exercise and a competitive outlet. Next month, female boxers will contend for Olympic gold medals for the first time ever, at the 2012 summer games in London. Team USA fighters—22-year-old flyweight Marlen Esparza, 27-year-old Quanitta “Queen” Underwood and 17-year-old middleweight Clarissa Shields—will compete in each of the three women’s events.

The road to the Olympics has been paved with lawsuits and controversy even though women have boxed for more than a century. Women participated in a demonstration bout in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, the first modern-day Olympics to include men’s boxing events. It would be another 70 years before women’s boxing took the national stage again.

In the 1970s, Cathy “Cat” Davis became synonymous with women’s boxing. Major networks televised many of her fights, and in 1978 she became the first and only woman to appear on the cover of The Ring magazine. Her career ended after a formal investigation revealed that many of her fights had been fixed.

Through the 1980s the United States Amateur Boxing Federation, now known as USA Boxing, banned women from participating in sanctioned amateur fights until fighters Gail Grandchamp of Massachusetts and Dallas Malloy of Seattle sued for gender discrimination in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

The ‘90s brought Laila Ali and Jackie Frazier-Lyde, daughters of former heavyweight champions Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier into the ring and American living rooms. Both went on to win world championship fights.

Women’s boxing has grown in popularity ever since, but has continued to meet opposition within the boxing world.

John Hazard, former coach of the U.S women’s national team, remembers taking his team to compete in Augusta, Georgia several years ago. He says he arranged for his team to work out at a local boxing gym while they were in town to prepare for the competition. When he showed up, the staff at the gym immediately stopped them. Hazard explained that he had called ahead and had been told that his team could train there, but he was quickly interrupted.

“ ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! I was told a boxing team was coming. Nobody said anything about any women!’ ” Hazard remembers him saying while pointing to a sign barring women from the gym.

Today, Hazard and the coaches at his gym in Boston, The Ring Boxing Club, continue to work with female fighters, whether they are looking to compete, spar for fun or just get in shape. Vogue magazine just listed The Ring as one of the top five gyms in the country in which to learn to be an Olympic boxer. Women make up 40 percent of the membership. Many are students from down the street at Boston University; others are doctors, nurses, scientists, teachers, professors, mothers, and, yes, writers.

Jacobsen and I met at Hazard’s club a few days before she bested me in that sparring session. I had trained for two years with boxing coach Teanna Babcock at a local women’s health club chain. Babcock took me under her wing and pushed me to test my limits physically. Soon I had shed 30 pounds and a lot of uncertainty. For the first time, I felt confident, strong, and ready for more competition.

That was how I first found myself on the receiving end of Jacobsen’s jab … and her right cross … and her left hook.

The Lexington native then headed to Chicago for a year, where she joined an amateur boxing team and started training seriously to compete. A typical training day leading up to a fight included 10 minutes on a stationary bicycle, 30 to 45 minutes of running, a strenuous ab workout, and either circuit training or sparring with her team. Her training ultimately paid off. She fought and won three sanctioned fights, including the Chicago Golden Gloves Championship.

This summer, she returned to Boston to be near her friends and family for a few months before moving to San Diego for school. I met up with her at a coffee shop in Allston on a muggy evening in July to talk about her experience as a female fighter.

“I love the adrenaline rush and I love the one-on-one competition.” She pauses, clearly trying to come up with an eloquent way to explain her passion but instead blurts out, “It’s just fun to hit things!”

Not everyone understands her love of the sport, however.

“People say, ‘But you’re gonna mess up your pretty face,’ or people just think it’s beastly. I know men and women are different. Men are naturally more athletic but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it. I don’t think that makes me a crazy feminist.”

Jacobsen has never been injured while boxing, though it is by definition a dangerous sport. (I once broke a rib while sparring shortly before an exhibition fight.) In amateur boxing, fighters wear protective headgear and a mouthpiece. Black eyes and broken noses are rare compared to the norm in professional boxing.

Still, as with any sport in which participants sustain blows to the head, there is a risk of concussion.

My fear of concussions has kept me from pursuing my own sanctioned fights, at least for now. While amateur fighters are taught to fight for points rather than for a knockout, some women are heavy hitters.

Jacobsen is one of those fighters. She says she has almost no defensive skills and instead relies on her long reach, her relentless jab, and a mean right cross.

“I have successfully used defensive measures in sparring maybe 10 times,” she says. “What I do most of the time is just bash people with my right hand.”

I became reacquainted with that right hand a few days later as she and I once again climbed into the ring together.

“Move your head, Noelle!” called one of the coaches from the other side of the gym. I have heard that more times than I can count. I tend to rush in head on, catching jabs with my face.

Her reach is so long that even when I managed to block her jab my follow-up right cross fell inches short. Though we are comparable in weight, at 5’9” she towers five full inches above me.

Remembering her lack of defense, I manage to slip under her jab a few times, delivering rapid-fire uppercuts to her body and driving her into the corner of the ring. Around the gym, this move earned me the nickname “The Piranha.”

But Jacobsen responded like no one else had. Unfazed by the barrage of shots digging into her abdomen, she fired soft and quick uppercuts at my gloves.

I hesitated a split second, and she pounced.

Jacobsen drove herself out of the corner, firing jab, cross, jab, cross, jab, cross and quickly made her way back into the power circle at the center of the ring.

Blocking what punches I could, eating those I could not, I fought back as best I could.

Red-faced and pouring sweat, we locked eyes through our gloves and grinned at each other. “I forgot how much fun this is,” she said before diving back into the fray.

Even with Jacobsen fighting at 60 percent strength (I had made her promise before the fight not to kill me), she easily dominated both rounds. She is a decade younger, five inches taller, and infinitely more disciplined.

But I will be back.

NOELLE “PIRANHA” SWAN is a writer and editor for Spare Change News.

Transgender Equal Rights Law Shows Promising Start: New laws, while flawed, pave new ways for transgender rights

In Civil Rights on July 13, 2012 at 3:58 pm

This article first was published by Spare Change News on July 13, 2012.

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Claudia Daut

Kim McMurray began her medical transition from male to female at 49 years old. “If I had done this in my early teens, there’s a good chance I’d have ended up in a psychiatric ward and shock therapy wasn’t uncommon then.”

She waited half a century to live as her true self, only to face so much discrimination that she considered hanging herself in the bathroom of the hospital where she worked as a carpenter.

“I thought that after working there for 18 years transitioning wouldn’t be an issue. They just made it so miserable for me that I just couldn’t take it and I quit.”

Jobless and drowning in debt, she signed her mortgage over to a former co-worker to avoid foreclosure and headed for Boston in search of work. Eventually she landed in Father Bill’s homeless shelter in Quincy for five months before receiving subsidized housing.

Until recently, Massachusetts’s law made no mention of discrimination based on gender identity. As of July 1, the Transgender Equal Rights Law went into effect after bouncing around Congress for three terms, making it illegal to discriminate against people based on their gender identity and adding transsexuals to the list of individuals protected under the state’s hate crime law.

Homeless, transgender individuals who are living on the streets and trying to find basic services and basic shelter are often the most impacted by discrimination, says state Rep. Carl M. Sciortino (D) of Medford, co-sponsor of the bill in the House of Representatives.

Sciortino says that he hopes that the new law will begin to have an impact on how transgender people are treated in all communities, but especially in homeless shelters.

Anton Darknight, a 24-year-old transgender man began presenting as male at the age of 20 while living in a homeless shelter. At 22 he began hormone therapy and entered counseling at Boston GLASS, a drop-in center for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth. Although he felt secure enough to define his own gender identity as a young adult, life as a homeless, black, transsexual man (he calls himself a unicorn) was far from easy.

Once he started growing a beard, he says that shelter staff treated him differently. He and his girlfriend at the time moved from shelter to shelter only to be repeatedly banned for a variety of vague reasons. He says that one shelter employee told him, “We don’t allow that type of thing here.”

One of the highlights of the new law renders discrimination based on gender identity in hiring, education, housing, and credit illegal. Sciortino hopes that enforcing equitable hiring practices in shelters will lead to a more tolerant environment for transgender clients seeking a bed or a meal.

McMurray worries that laws banning overt discrimination can only go so far. “This law helps us legally, but like all laws that protect minorities from discrimination, the discrimination can go to a stealth level. They make it very hard to prove that you’ve been discriminated against.”

Others are more optimistic that the law could be the mark of a sea change in Massachusetts.

To date, transgender people experience poverty at a much higher rate than the general population, says Kara Suffredini, executive director of Mass Equality. “Discrimination is often the root cause of the crisis that led to that position of need.”

Gunner Scott, executive director of Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, sees the law’s emphasis on equity in hiring as a move in the right direction. In addition to expanding employment opportunities for transgender men and women in desperate need of a job, he hopes that having more transgender individuals working in visible jobs could help to shift the culture within organizations and the communities they serve.

While staff can set the tone for a tolerant environment, shelters are made up of clients. McMurray says that the staff at Father Bill’s was always accommodating of her needs as a transgender woman. However, the other residents were another story. “People are somewhat hardwired to see people who cross dress as being funny. I can’t tell you how many people laughed at me.”

As with any civil rights movement, implementing systemic protections for transgenders is just the beginning. When people come out from behind their desks and out from under the arm of their workplace, discrimination laws hold little water.

Darknight says that he has routinely felt threatened when in public. In his work at Boston GLASS, he counsels newly transitioned youth to accept themselves. However, when he goes out in public, he wraps his chest up tight concealing his bosom. “I don’t want to have to be stealth. If I could walk around with my beard and not have to bind [my chest], I would, but I’d rather keep to myself than get a brick in the head.”

The bridge between the new law and public acceptance will likely be long. The law itself still has holes. Although businesses cannot discriminate when hiring, the law grants no protections for transgender customers. “Banks, restaurants, basically all places where we interact in public outside of work and school are not included in this law,” Suffredini explains.

Representative Sciortino says that public accommodations were included in the original text of the bill. He says that opposition from the Massachusetts Family Institute “branded the bill as the ‘bathroom bill,’ reducing a comprehensive civil rights bill down to what bathroom transgenders should use.” He describes the removal of public accommodation language as a “necessary compromise,” but vows to push for them once again at the start of the 2013 Congressional session.

“I hope this will begin a process toward cultural change leading to transgender people being treated fairly,” Representative Sciortino says, a sentiment echoed by Suffredini, Scott, McMurray, and Darknight.

“We are people. We’re not monsters under your bed. We’re not in the bushes looking for you. We’re not going to touch you and give you the trans cooties,” says Darknight. “Just respect us for who we are.”

NOELLE SWAN is a writer and editor for Spare Change News.

Mass. GLBT Teens Still Face Disproportionate Risks in Public Schools

In Civil Rights, Social Issues, Uncategorized on June 29, 2012 at 12:05 pm

This article first was published online and in print by Spare Change News on June 29, 2012.

Photo Credit: Flickr/Made Underground

Through tears, Roger Bourgeois described an evening when his high school-age son sat him and his wife down at the kitchen table to tell them why their life would be better if he were dead because he was broken. As they tried to assure him that things would get better and that they could get him help, Bourgeois says his son took a bare light bulb in his hand and crushed it between his fingers. “With blood dripping down his hand he asked us if we could fix the light bulb.”

Bourgeois told the Massachusetts Commission on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth that his son survived high school, thrived in college, and is preparing to work on humanitarian issues in the Dominican Republic. However, he said that should not let the school system off the hook.

Bourgeois told of his son’s school days, when his peers decided that he was different and must be gay. They proceeded to torment him for 10 years, fueling a deep depression and an eventual suicide attempt. “They [the school] should have known what was going on on that playground.”

Calling Governor Deval Patrick’s 2010 anti-bullying law a step in the right direction, Bourgeois added that as a school administrator he knows that school systems are often overwhelmed with the number of trainings they are required to offer teachers. Without a strong message from the state emphasizing anti-bullying training for teachers as a priority, he worries that such trainings might be poorly attended or fall by the wayside.

Despite increased media attention and public education campaigns aimed at reducing bullying, a recent survey of high school students confirms that in Massachusetts, gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens (transgender was not included in the survey) continue to face many dangerous hurdles.

Gay students are still three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Nearly 10 percent of gay students reported having skipped school during the previous month due to feeling unsafe on the way to or at school. Twice as many gay students reported being bullied and being threatened with a weapon as their peers.

These results may come as a surprise to many in Massachusetts, which has a national reputation for being gay-friendly. Several openly gay politicians have been elected public office at the local, state, and federal level. In 2004, the Massachusetts legislature was the first to legalize gay marriage. Governor Deval Patrick even marched in this year’s gay pride parade in Boston.

In 1992, Republican Governor William F. Weld first formed the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, the first of its kind in the nation, to address the health and well being of gay and lesbian youth in Massachusetts. When Governor Mitt Romney (R) dissolved the Governor’s commission in 2006, the legislature continued it by legislative enactment.

In June, the commission held its first public hearings in two decades at the State House and Holyoke Community College.

State Representative Elizabeth A. Malia (D-Boston), chair of the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse and the first openly gay state representative in Massachusetts in 20 years, told the commission at the State House that she is proud to be from the state with the first commission devoted to GLBT youth. However, she added that she is alarmed and embarrassed that suicide rates among GLBT youth have not gone down since the formation of the commission.

Governor Patrick expressed similar concerns in his testimony before the commission saying that he finds the rates of bullying, violence, and suicide confronting GLBT youth “troubling.”

“All young people deserve the chance to feel welcome and supported in our schools and communities,” he told the commission before adding, “Yes, we have more work to do.”

Several dozen students, parents, teachers, advocates, and politicians testified before the commission about cracks in the school system.

Starry Neptune Shihuin testified that she had to transfer high schools three times because students bullied her for being different. “I internalized everything. I didn’t tell my family or my friends what was going on.” She said that the weight of her struggles drove her to consider suicide.

At her third high school in Charlestown, she says she attempted to start a Gay Straight Alliance at the school but soon abandoned the club due to low participation and harassment from other students. She said her only support came from her art teacher, the only openly gay teacher in the school.

While Massachusetts schools are more supportive of gay teachers than they are in some states, it can be difficult for them to be openly gay in front of the students, said Jonathan Nardi-Williams, a middle school guidance counselor.

When he recently married a man, he chose not to tell his co-workers right away, though he since has come out as gay to many of them. Although he has legally added his husband’s last name to his own, to his students he is simply Mr. Nardi. “I worry constantly that students will find me out.”

Nardi-Williams suggested that integrating GLBT people and issues into all areas of the curriculum would go a long way in creating a comfortable and safe environment for gay students and teachers, a request that was echoed by several other speakers.

“Public high school curriculum must include GLBT issues,” said Brandon Sides, an openly gay football player who graduated from Acton-Boxboro High School this June. He and several other speakers suggested that a gay literature should be included in English curriculum and gay rights explored in history class. “GLBT students aren’t necessarily involved in the GSA or may not have gay teachers, but they all have to go to English class,” said Sides.

“Schools are afraid to take that route on their own,” said Nardi-Williams, urging the commission to push for a state directive mandating that GLBT issues be included across all subject areas throughout the public school system adding, “Students say they were taunted as early as fourth and fifth grade.”

Nardi-Williams said that he believes that integrating GLBT issues into core classes such as science, English, and history would demonstrate to all students what it means to be a GLBT person, simultaneously helping to normalize GLBT culture and providing role models for GLBT youth.

The commission will consider the testimony when forming recommendations for state policies, programs, and resources.

Back in the Closet: “Gen Silent” Explores Challenges Facing Gay Seniors

In Civil Rights, Social Issues on June 1, 2012 at 6:03 pm

This article first was published by Spare Change News on June 1, 2012.

Photo courtesy of Stu Maddux Productions.

“Long ago we decided, to hell with hiding,” Sheri Barden told a small group gathered at the Fenway Community Health Center last month for a screening of the documentary film Gen Silent directed and produced by Stu Maddox.

The 78 year-old South End framer and her partner, Lois Johnson, have recently become public voices for LGBT elders, many of whom seem to have fallen silent.

When it comes time to seek assistive care, “they end up going back into the closet really hiding who they are and often times being very fearful of what would happen if someone found out,” says Scott French, program director for Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders, or SAGE.

Gen Silent was first released at the Boston LGBT Film Festival in 2010 and has been screened across the country since in an effort to draw attention to issues facing LGBT elders. On Thursday June 14, the Cambridge GLBT Commission and Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services will be sponsoring a free screening at the Cambridge Public Library.

As Maddux lays out early on in his film, today’s LGBT seniors lived through the McCarthy era, when gays and other groups of Americans were blacklisted as Communists, coming of age at a time when being gay could be a ticket to a psychiatric facility. They saw the Stonewall riots of 1969 force gay rights onto the national stage for the first time. They survived the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and have seen six states legalize gay marriage.

In the 1960s, Barden and Johnson were active in the Daughters of Bilitis, the first American lesbian rights organization, and have been politically and socially active in the LGBT community ever since. They say their participation in the film was a natural progression for the work they have been doing to for the past 50 years.

However, they say that many who marched at their sides have retreated into the closet in their final years for fear of reprisal from hospital and nursing home staff.

In the film, they talk of their friend Bill, an openly gay man who became so fearful of being mistreated by nursing home staff for being gay that he cut himself off from all of his friends.

Later in a telephone interview, Barden elaborates on their relationship with Bill in decades past saying he had helped them find their house in the South End and had taken them under his wing.

“The funny thing is he was one of the founding members of a group called Prime Timers for older gay men” she said, still trying to wrap her head around the dramatic shift he had taken. “But when he had to go into the nursing home he got very fearful of people finding out and how he would be treated.”

Afraid of being found out, he refused visitors, letters, and phone calls from all of his friends and died alone, Barden says. “We didn’t even know he had died.”

Barden says that she suspects Bill’s fears were largely unfounded but adds that whether the threat is perceived or validated, such fears can become paralyzing.

Such threats can come in many forms, from whispers and verbal insults from other patients to neglect and physical abuse from caregivers. In states that have not legalized gay marriage, partners may be barred from visiting each other in the hospital and excluded from the decision making process.

French says that in his work at SAGE in New York, he comes across individuals who refuse to enter into assistive care for fear of losing contact with their partners.

Massachusetts was the first state to legalize gay marriage and partners are afforded visitation rights.

For Gen Silent, Maddux says in an interview that he chose to focus on individuals living in Massachusetts, in part to demonstrate that equality in policy does not necessarily translate to equality in practice.

When Maddux interviewed KrysAnne Hembrough, a male-to-female transgendered woman, she was already suffering from Stage IV lung cancer. Her family had stopped speaking to her when she underwent her gender transition after living more than 50 years as a man, she told the camera. Single and alone, she was managing but already fearing what would happen when she could no longer care for herself.

In the film, she tells the story of what happened the night her lung collapsed and she was rushed to the hospital. The 911 recording reveals the EMTs awkwardly asking each other about her genitalia. Frightened and alone, she wondered if they would be afraid to touch her.

The film also features Lawrence Johnson, who recalls watching his partner, Alexander (Alexander elected not use his last name publicly), a strong and confident man 20 years his senior, descend into fear as Parkinson’s disease claimed more and more of his faculties.

Johnson retired early and attempted to care for Alexander in their home. As therapists began to visit to assist with Alexander’s care, he demanded that Johnson make the home look “as straight as possible.”

As Alexander’s disease progressed, it became unsafe for him to stay at home with Johnson. After an incident in which the two nearly fell down the stairs, Johnson reluctantly brought Alexander to a nursing home.

Johnson says he noticed whispers right away and feared that Alexander was being abused. He spent months searching for a nursing home where he and Alexander could feel comfortable together, where he could kiss him hello and goodbye, rub lotion on his hands, or rest his head on his shoulder.

Creating a welcoming environment takes more than passing a law, says Lisa Krinsky, director of The LGBT Aging Project in Jamaica Plain. Founded in 2001, The LGBT Aging Project works with health care and assisted living providers to create more welcoming environments for LGBT seniors.

Krinsky spends time initially talking with the senior management at facilities throughout Massachusetts, pushing for an organization-wide commitment to acceptance of diversity.

Krinsky says many hospital administrators say they “would be” accepting of any LGBT individuals that sought them out for care. But she insists that it is the responsibility of the provider to open the door and convey that message.

With senior management on board, Krinsky leads workshops for employees. She offers them language to communicate with patients about their orientation.

She stresses that accepting diversity does not have to mean accepting values. Instead, she reminds participants that the responsibility of the caregiver is to provide compassionate and consistent care to patients regardless of their beliefs.

Creating a tolerant space takes work on the part of the caregivers to not only provide an equal standard of care for all patients but also to communicate to staff, patients, and visitors that tolerance and diversity are expected and accepted values of the program, Krinsky says.

While some organizations place a rainbow sticker in a conspicuous place as a symbol of tolerance, Krinsky challenges institutions to do more and cautions prospective patients, families, and friends that a sticker does not mean all staff and residents will be welcoming.

She urges families looking for accepting care for LGBT seniors, or care for seniors with LGBT family members and friends, to spend time visiting each facility in person and talking with staff and residents.

She recommends looking around the facility for other signs of diversity. Are there events posted on the bulletin board for LGBT groups? Is Bay Windows, a free Boston LGBT newspaper, available with other community bulletins? Are there welcoming statements posted?

Further, Krinsky advises families to ask directly if there are any LGBT residents already in the program and to speak with them directly.

NOELLE SWAN is a writer and editor at Spare Change News.