Saturday, February 02, 2008

Drums for Peace

We're really excited about the latest Food for Thought story on the Rex Foundation site. It's about a recent project in which Christine Stevens, renowned drum circle leader and friend of Mickey Hart, was invited to come to Iraq and teach drum circles to local people as a peacemaking tool. The results were very moving, and we're really proud to have been part of this project.

The story also includes a text and/or audio interview with Mickey on the healing power of drumming. Check it out!

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Wounded Warrior

Wounded Warrior

Project Disabled Sports USA

by Mary Eisenhart

Back in the late ’60s, Kirk Bauer, a decorated soldier, a lifelong athlete, and the kind of guy who had frequently cut school in his native Oakland to go surfing in Santa Cruz, lost a leg in combat in the Vietnam War and endured a grueling convalescence.

“After struggling with seven operations and six months on my back,” he recalls, “they put me back together at the hospital. It was a pretty frustrating experience — a lot of pain, a lot of frustration, a lot of doubt. I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence about what I would be doing with my life.”

Into this private hell came the National Amputee Skiers Association, launched a few years earlier by other disabled vets.  “Some fellow veterans visited me and got me out of the hospital and took me up skiing,” Bauer recalls. “I really didn’t think I could do it, but I went up anyway just to try it.”

It turned out to be a life-changing event, and a planned one-day trip extended into four. “I was able to actually make a turn down the slope on the first day,” he says. “It was the biggest high in the world to be able to move again, go fast, feel the wind against my face — it was a transforming experience for me, and I couldn’t leave.”

The ski trip made such a difference in Bauer’s life that he immediately signed on as a volunteer. Today he’s served for 23 years as the executive director of the group, now known as Disabled Sports USA. The group has expanded its offerings considerably, with a variety of sports rehabilitation programs around the country for those with permanent disabilities. It also sponsors competitive events.

Most of the organization’s work over the years has been with civilians, but in 2003 DS/USA had an opportunity to return to its roots. A group called the Wounded Warrior Project, which was working with seriously injured vets returning from the Middle East, asked about forming a partnership.

“Both of us were at the hospitals serving the severely wounded,” Bauer explains. “They are there to provide counseling and financial assistance to the family, clothing and so on. They saw what we were doing and said ‘Hey, we love what you do. We look on this as part of what we want to do. Let’s be partners.’

“DS/USA is a sports organization for people with disabilities, primarily civilians and not military. They realized we were doing a great job and wanted to support it; we were looking for funding and they’re one of our major funding sources. So we’ve come together as partners for the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project.

“We’re focusing on those who have lost, or lost the use of, something for the rest of their lives,” he continues. “People with amputations, visual impairment, spinal cord injury, head injury, where they’ve become permanently, severely disabled. That numbers in the couple of thousands so far in this conflict.” Since the project’s launch in 2003, it’s worked with over 700 vets and 400 family members. In 2005, the Rex Foundation, which had previous given DS/USA a grant in 1995, contributed funds to support the project specifically. Rex presented Bauer with a check at that year’s Black Tie-Dye Ball in D.C. — “lots of tie-dyed shirts,” says Bauer, “but not so many black ties.

“We couldn’t do all of this without people like the Rex Foundation,” he adds. “What I find gratifying, quite frankly — and it’s very different from what happened during the Vietnam War — is that no matter whether somebody is for or against the war, they all want to help the guys who’ve been severely wounded who’ve given the most to this country. I am very grateful that the American people have pulled behind this project and supported it. We rely on private sector donations — we do not get federal funding.

“This program is changing lives, there is no question about it,” he continues. “It is making a difference very early on, and helping to set the vets on a good positive track. And it needs support.”

Rex Foundation: Who are the vets you’re serving today — and why have sports turned out to be such a great tool for rehabilitation?

Kirk Bauer, Disabled Sports USA: My experience as a vet back in the ’60s is still very typical of hundreds of these guys that we serve— they’re very active, many of them were and are athletes, they’re big into stamina events like marathons and army 10-milers. So for them, the comedown of being permanently disabled is even greater.

When these guys crash, they really crash. They’ve come from being trained to take cities to lying flat on their back. When I first visit them they’ve got tubes coming out of them, they’ve got pins in them, they’re in pain. The comedown is a huge, huge hit. It tends to create a mental state that involves depression and despair and a lot of other negative things.

We go in there and start talking to them real early, introducing them to the idea that they can be active sports people no matter what, even with a severe disability — and here’s how we’re going to do it.

I’ve had people ask me to leave the room; that’s OK, they’re not ready for it. But it plants a seed early on. Then later on, sometimes only a few months later, we’re actually able to get them out and get them to do something. And that early experience helps to turn their confidence, their mindset around, so they can basically build their lives again.

One of the beauties about sports is that we can introduce it very early. In some cases we can take amputees who haven’t even gotten their leg yet, and we can get them out skiing or water skiing or bicycling without the prosthetic aids.

People say “Gee, you’ve got a triple amputee here, how are you going to teach them to ski or water ski?” And not only can we do it, we can almost do it faster than with a person with all their limbs, because of the adaptive equipment available and because of the trained instructors; they get individualized instruction, which helps.

Recently we had 58 young men and women at a ski event. In order to get on a chair lift you have to be able to make a turn and stop so you don’t kill yourself. You learn how to ski the first day, then we take you up in the chair lift. Every one of them got up on the chair lift the first day.

There were eight double amputees in that group. There were men, there were women, didn’t matter. We were able to get them going, and right away they had a successful experience, just a little thing like being able to turn a ski. This starts to rebuild their confidence: “Hey, I can do this.” It really is a tremendous tool for rehabilitation.”

Rex: How long do you typically work with each vet?

DS/USA: We do whatever it takes to get that person to a point where they feel independent, confident and fit, and ready to take on the world.

The first stage is just to teach them a skill and let them focus on becoming accomplished in that skill. That’s the rehab part — they focus on something positive, and it really begins their road to recovery. That can take place literally within a few months of their injuries. Over the next months and years we make available to them every opportunity they want to take advantage of to learn sports skills. We can teach them over 20 different sports — golf, cycling, rock climbing, fly fishing and many other sports besides skiing.

When they become proficient in one or more skills, we turn information about them over to our local chapters. When the vets get discharged and go back into civilian life, they can take advantage of the programs locally or continue to take part in the project. We are still serving some young men and women who were injured in 2003 and 2004.

The big thing is, once they learn those skills and get that adaptive equipment, they can do that sport anyplace in the country, with anyone. The ideal is to give them the tools to do it anywhere, with or without an organized group like DS/USA. They can do that — they can go skiing anywhere, they can go cycling anywhere. So we sometimes stay with them for not months but years. Our commitment is open-ended until they are back and fully confident in their mobility.

Rex: What’s changed over the decades in terms of who your clients are, and what resources you have available?

DS/USA: Everything.

First of all, let’s talk about opportunity and availability. DS/USA as an organization really reflects the transformation. We started out as one chapter in California doing one sport, winter skiing, basically for one group of disabled amputees. And now DS/USA is 90 chapters operating in 36 states, offering over 20 different sports activities year round.

Also, as far as opportunities are concerned, the cities and counties are starting to open up their recreation programs to people with disabilities and trying to accommodate them. There’s still a long way to go, but the movement is in the right direction.

The second thing that’s really changed is equipment. Using aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, some of the space-age materials, and using some of the engineering that’s been developed around motorcycle cross-country racing, and running dynamics and aerodynamics that are literally performed in wind tunnels for wheelchair devices — you now have a piece of equipment available to all the sports we offer, everything from adaptive prosthetic devices to adaptive vehicles like racing chairs or hand cycles, to adaptations such as swiveling chairs that can be used so a disabled person can operate a sailboat single-handedly.  All those things, developed in the last 40 years, have transformed the availability of adaptive sports to people with disabilities.

The third thing that’s changed is the trained instructors. Back in the late ’60s every time we taught a student we had to reinvent the wheel. Somebody would teach an amputee in California and then somebody else would do it in Colorado, and they’d both be stumbling around trying to figure out what’s the best way to make this happen. Many more teaching programs exist now that enable professionals or volunteers in the field to teach the latest adaptation and to know how to do it before they go to teach a student, so they don’t fumble around. There’s a certification program offered by the Professional Ski Instructors of America, there’s a certification of instructors in SCUBA, there’s certification for instructors in skiing and sailing.

We have a new a program with the PGA — we have trained 36 of their professionals near a hospital where severely wounded vets are being treated, and they’re going to be able to provide continuous instruction free of charge to any wounded warrior who wants to learn golf. They’ve been trained to teach somebody who’s in a wheelchair, somebody who’s blind, somebody who has one arm or one leg, to play golf.

We just employed the American Canoe and Kayak Association to teach the instructors at a new amputee center for wounded warriors. So the opportunities are greater because of more trained instructors.

Rex: It also seems that in contrast to the days of the Vietnam War, everybody seems to support the troops, whether they support the war or not.

DS/USA: That’s true. People now are much more aware that these young men and women are here to serve their country, that’s what they want to do. Back in the days of Vietnam, when people turned against the war they turned against the soldiers as well. That’s not happening in this war, and I hope that continues, because they’re deserving of our support no matter how you feel about the war.

Rex: In the Vietnam days, a lot of the troops were draftees. Today some of them are career military, but a lot of them are also ”citizen soldiers” from the reserves or National Guard. Do you see that making a difference for the vets you serve and the issues they’re facing?

DS/USA: Well, the first thing is attitude. All of the people that are serving did volunteer to serve. Their attitude is much more “I signed up, I knew that I might go to war, and in war you do get injured. What I want to do is learn to how live with this.” That attitude is much more prevalent.

That does not mean that they don’t suffer depression, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have setbacks, but they seem to be more willing to try to move on and accept what happened to them, and try to make the best of it.

The biggest change, though, is the women. Quite frankly, as a male who has seen the war, it’s distressing to see women who are amputees coming back. They are serving on the front lines right along with our young men, and doing this valiantly and heroically. My heart goes out to them for their service, but it’s probably the toughest thing for me personally to witness.

Rex: Does the fact that more of them have families and adult responsibilities have ripple effects on your work and the problems you’re trying to address?

DS/USA: It does and it doesn’t. We’re still seeing a lot of young people, but we’re also seeing a lot of middle-aged people in the National Guard and the reserve, and we also see more who have families. In that respect, they have more responsibility, more pressure on them.

One of the things we’re committed to — and thanks to our partners we’ve been able to meet that — is that no matter what program we offer to them, everything, once they go out with us, everything is paid for. Instructions, lodging, airfare, everything that it takes for them to take part in the sport is paid for. We realize that some of these guys and gals are young, low-level NCOs and enlisted people. They don’t have a lot of money, they’re trying to raise families, and they could not take part in these programs without the cost being paid for. So we are much more sensitive to their financial needs and try to respond to that by making this free of charge.


Rex Board Perspective

Rex board member Diane Blagman says: “The mission of the Rex Foundation is to help secure a healthy environment, promote individuality in the arts, provide support to critical and necessary social services, and assist others less fortunate than ourselves.

“The original Rex Foundation grant to DS/USA was many years ago, in 1995. One of the strongest supporters of this grant was Jerry Garcia.  He sat next to me at the board meeting and spoke up to support this proposal.

“I was really proud of Rex when they approved funding for the Wounded Warrior Project/Disabled Sports USA.  Kirk Bauer is an amputee and a Vietnam vet.  He received no federal funding for this project — he simply and quietly went out and helped those who were returning from  Iraq and Afghanistan and suffered loss of limbs.  He showed them that there they can have a productive and fulfilling life, and literally changed so many lives.”

Meet Orlando Gill

Born in the Bronx, Orlando Gill was 19 when he enlisted in the Army in 1992. Over the course of his service he traveled around the world, and was in his second tour of duty in Iraq when he took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) in Ramadi. The explosion amputated one of his legs at the knee.

That was in October, 2004. When he got to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington D.C., he quickly got a visit from Kirk Bauer of DS/USA. “We came down to the fact that I like snowboarding and snow sports, that I was a snowboarder before,” Gill recalls. “He said he’d get me back up on the mountain.

“And sure enough, in January of 2005 he had me back out on the mountain again. We went to Vail, Colorado. They gave me an instructor and started teaching me how to relearn how to snowboard again. It was great!”

Today Gill, who married a soldier he met at Walter Reed and has a son, is retired from the service and living in the D.C. area. He volunteers full time with DS/USA, helping other soldiers in the program — transporting them to events such as the newly launched golf clinic, helping in the office, and especially visiting wounded vets in the hospital. “I do get all kinds of different responses when I talk to them about doing things,” he says. “Some guys, they’re not ready for this, but we still talk to them, trying to get them into doing it. And then others are all excited and really want to get into the swing of things.”

Gill reports that the golf clinic is turning out to be a big hit with the vets he’s working with. “A lot of them are really excited. When they first go there they don’t know what’s going on — and then they’re all up for doing it again, and asking if I’m going to pick them up next Saturday.”

And it’s not just the vets themselves who benefit — the program helps their entire families, who can all get involved in the sports activities. This is a real boon to overall morale — “It gives the family something to do besides just sitting in the hospital,” says Gill.

While the program has benefited many and received huge support, he says, there are always more vets in need than there are resources.

“The support the American public has given to the soldiers is incredible,” he says. ”We have a lot of support from everybody.

“But there’s never enough to help out somebody; there’s no such thing as ‘I’ve done enough.’ It’s about, ‘What else can we do for somebody?’”

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Monday, May 14, 2007

More Than A Cooking Class

For San Francisco’s Nextcourse, food is a tool for building a better world, and better lives

By Mary Eisenhart

“We believe it is our social responsibility to make healthy food accessible to the entire community, and we are dedicated to preserving local farms and farmland. Chefs are offering up their skills not to make a better chicken, but to make a better world.”
– Nextcourse founder Larry Bain

Once a week at the San Francisco County jail, about 20 women inmates participating in the SISTER (Sisters in Sober Treatment Empowered in Recovery) program leave their cells and gather in a classroom. After listening to some information on health, nutrition and food choices, they join the instructor and pitch in to prepare and eat a meal together. Criteria: the meal is made from fresh, healthful, locally produced ingredients; the meal is delicious; the cost per serving is $5 or less.
Nextcourse founder Larry Bain recruits some Mission High kids to help out at his healthy hot dog stand, Let's Be Frank.

For these women, it’s probably the only decent meal they get all week. As in many institutions, the jail’s food service is the province of a contractor whose offerings are mass-produced, heavily processed, short on taste and nutrition — but highly profitable to the vendor. Ironically, this takes place at a time when California’s prison health care system is so lethally dysfunctional that a federal judge took control of it, so anyone unfortunate enough to land in the system gets a double whammy of food that’s bad for their health and substandard care when they get sick.

The determination to do something about this problem came from a somewhat unlikely quarter — a group of chefs and food professionals who, in their day jobs, cater to a very different, very upscale clientele. In 2003, restaurateur Larry Bain, who among other achievements pioneered the introduction of grass-fed, sustainably and humanely raised beef at his Acme Chophouse, decided to do something about healthy nutrition for people who were unlikely ever to be able to afford fancy restaurants. He soon attracted other like-minded food professionals in the Bay Area, and Nextcourse was born.

Offering nutrition, food preparation and camaraderie, Nextcourse’s classes in schools and jails, taught by chefs and other food professionals, provide a potentially life-changing resource to people most likely to be on the receiving end of a food industry more focused on profitability and convenience than nutrition and health. In addition to meal planning and cooking skills, they show how to take advantage of local farmers’ markets to create tasty dishes that are at least as affordable as overprocessed supermarket and fast-food offerings, and which kids will happily eat.

One project where the kids themselves are involved is at Mission High School in San Francisco, where a pilot project last year was such a hit that its participants are now Peer Leaders to this year’s crop of students. They’ve spread the word to friends and family by word of mouth and, most recently, in a community newsletter.

In 2006, the Rex Foundation gave a grant of $5,000 to help support Nextcourse’s jail program, which is perennially strapped for funds. “Rex was a lifesaver for us last year,” says Susie White, Nextcourse’s project director, who took over the running of its community projects when Bain decided to focus his energies on the Food From the Park program, another Nextcourse project.

Nextcourse instructors and food pros Megan Hanson (left) and Rania Long (right), in aprons, teach Mission High School students about fresh produce.

We recently spoke with her to learn more about Nextcourse, its work, and the challenges it faces.

Rex Foundation: What inspired the creation of Nextcourse?

Susie White, Nextcourse: Nextcourse was founded in 2003 by Larry Bain, who at the time was the general manager for Jardinière and Acme Chophouse restaurants. Larry had worked for many years in the Bay Area restaurant community modeling green business practices, particularly in the area of using sustainable foods — fresh, local, seasonal, free of chemicals, humane and just.

Larry and some of his like-minded colleagues were well aware of the growing food divide in this country and wanted to take the message of sustainable eating to people who needed it the most: low-income communities where the risk of hunger is high. Their belief was that eating in a sustainable manner can be more economical and healthier than a diet based on convenience and processed food, and no one was out there advocating this approach of food education.

Because many of our founders were professional chefs, cooks, and restaurant people, and we utilize cooking as a means of teaching people about food, we are often referred to as a cooking class. However, our true focus is to provide people an opportunity to acquaint themselves with fresh, whole foods, and to begin a new and conscious relationship with their food.

While sustainable food philosophy is at our core, our message is consistent with good nutrition, and some of our programs, like Mission High, operate under the heading of nutrition education. We think we have a more effective way to teach people about eating healthy, starting by raising awareness of how our food system has changed. We talk a great deal about the difference between whole and processed foods, and just a small bit about hidden sugars and good fat. Most traditional nutrition education programs spend much of their time reading labels; however, we encourage people focus more on foods that come without labels — whole, fresh foods.

Our belief is all people deserve the highest quality food available, and the best food available is grown locally, picked when it is at its peak of flavor and nutritional content, and doesn’t have harmful additives that detract from good health and well-being. Our low-income communities are under siege by food corporations selling cheap and empty-calorie foods. The people in these circumstances are most in need of what we have to offer, and need inspiration to act on their own power to change things.

Mission High students discover the joy of pie.

Rex: You have quite a few projects addressing different aspects of food and nutrition issues. Given that there’s always more to be done than resources to do it with, how do you decide which projects to pursue?

Nextcourse: We are asked all the time to conduct cooking and nutrition classes for various groups, but in terms of our mission, the educational piece is only the first step. Our choice in projects is based on the potential to involve our participants in improving their own food system. This requires organizational partners that recognize the need for change and have a genuine commitment to our philosophy.

We not only want people to be able to make healthier changes in their own lives and to understand that their choices can be votes for better food, but to also begin to identify ways they as a community can effect change.

Rex: Particularly in view of the much-publicized dire state of California’s prison healthcare system, and the contribution of bad food to the prison health problem, how does Nextcourse’s program at the jail make a difference, and what difficulties does it face?

Nextcourse: The fact that the jail system doesn’t see the correlation between what people eat (or what people are fed, in this case) and the implication for health is just a reflection of that same disconnect in our larger society. We also see this same thing in public schools and the declining health of our children.

When people come to jail, they are usually at their lowest point. They have not tended to their health, may have abused their bodies, and are generally just a mess. Healthy food (and exercise) could do a great deal to curb the diet-related chronic diseases that consume institutional budgets.

In our class, we teach our core concepts about sustainable eating, and prepare a complete meal that highlights simple cooking methods, the importance of fresh ingredients, and affordability. Each serving of our menu is under $4-5. From a practical standpoint, it’s one healthy meal a week the women eat. They also experience the sense of community involved in cooking together and sitting down together to enjoy the meal.

The women participating in our jail program are housed in a special substance abuse and academic facility, so they’re involved in intensive rehabilitation programming. Since how we eat is such a big part of self-nurturing, emotional and physical well-being, it seemed logical that there should be a food education component.

When we started at the jail, we knew the available food was not conducive to the women’s needs. The jail’s food is much like every other jail and prison in our country — based on calories and not nutritional value (or taste). Most of the food is highly processed, with little or no fresh offerings, and it generally tastes so bad that the women don’t rely on their three meals. Instead, they supplement their diets with snack foods from the jail’s commissary.

The regular food service is highly regulated and restricted by budget constraints, so we decided to work with the women on getting better foods in the commissary system. With the help of our class participants, we did a formal assessment of the commissary foods and presented our findings to the Sheriff. He gave us the green light to move forward as long as there was no increase in the costs of the foods.

Working with the commissary provider has been frustrating. It is very frustrating when you sit down at a table with people to talk about a real moral responsibility for the people who are in your care, and you’re spending most of your time talking about profit margins, and this supplier or that supplier that’s not going to budge because they’re not willing to give up part of their profits. It’s a different set of priorities.

The kind of thing that we’re running into with the commissary provider at the jail is no different from any other food corporation, and the way they control the foods that are available in our supermarkets and convenience stores. It’s all about making money and providing the cheapest food so the companies can make the greatest amount of profit. It’s a hard thing.

There has been a small victory on the jail front in terms of the commissary project. When we heard that the contract was coming up for renewal, we went and met with the contract manager for the sheriff’s department, and talked with her about our assessments and our vision for how this commissary system could really support good health and not detract from good health.

This woman knew about the benefits of nutrition from her own experience, and championed our cause. She inserted some language into the RFP (request for proposals) requiring that the new commissary provider provide at least 10 percent of the items that were healthy items, as determined by us and by the sheriff’s department.

(laughs) It doesn’t sound like a lot; it’s almost laughable to say, “You have to provide 10 percent healthy foods, but 90 percent can still be crap.” But I’ll take the 10 percent and work with that, and hopefully next time around we can increase that percentage. It’s really about changing the culture that has been entrenched for so many years.

With regard to the healthcare system in the jails and prisons, if they had a higher priority for healthy food and exercise, they would have completely different outcomes for the inmate population. A lot of people aren’t really paying attention to what’s happening in our jails and prisons, and that’s why things like this are allowed to continue. But again, it is representative of a larger problem in our society regarding health, nutrition and well-being, and just not putting a high priority on it.

Nextcourse instructor Rania Long shows the fine points of preparing kiwi fruit.

Rex: Who are the women who participate in the program, and what happens to them when they get out?

Nextcourse: Because it’s a jail, most of the women we meet are incarcerated for fairly minor offenses and are going to be out within six months. By being in the jail’s recovery program, they’re already trying to turn their lives around. But we do see them come back; some of the women have taken the program a couple of times.

It’s just the chronic nature of substance abuse, that you kind of get yourself a little together, and then when you have an emotional struggle or stress you relapse. And these women have a lot of stresses in their lives. They have children and often can’t make enough money to support them; the kids may be staying with relatives, they may be in foster care. There could be an abusive husband or boyfriend — just a lot of issues they have to struggle with. When you look at all that and see what they go through, it’s not hard to imagine the odds are against them, so we’re always looking at ways to strengthen the program. We’re thinking of doing part of the program in their re-entry center after they’re released, rather than all at the jail. That would be the ideal time for the women to have somebody working intensively with them and integrating their nutrition and their recovery.

Also the sheriff’s department has some needs for food, and we’re looking at ways to see if women who have been through our program could work alongside us in preparing those foods, so they wouldn’t just be getting the content from being part of this program, but also some job training as well. We’re looking at ways we can strengthen the outcome, and the sheriff’s department is very committed to helping us do that.

Rex: How did the program at Mission High get started, and how is it working out?

Nextcourse: The kids we’re working with at Mission High have been amazing to watch, and it has been their steady progress that has really guided the evolution of the program.

We started two years ago as a pilot in partnership with an educational farm called Pie Ranch. We had a straightforward agenda: to provide a small group of students with some classroom-based food education, and to augment the classroom piece with monthly trips to the farm focused on sustainable agriculture.

The students we started working with were from the special education track because they had a less restrictive curriculum that allowed for “alternative” teaching opportunities. On each trip, the kids would learn about and participate in some farming activities, and we would all prepare and enjoy a lunch from ingredients sourced from the farm. There was also some journaling to reflect on their experiences. It was an all-day event!

By the end of that school year, these kids had been transformed. They were eating healthier foods, trying new foods, encouraging their parents or caregivers to buy better foods, and to shop at (health food store) Rainbow and farmers’ market. They become our biggest advocates, and strongly encouraged us to do more and involve more kids. So, we went to work and managed to get some funding, and just this past October started doing our school-based classes and ranch trips with 9th and 10th graders, with the assistance of last year’s students who serve as Peer Leaders.

We hope to grow new leaders from this year’s students, and begin the cycle anew next year.

Sampling fresh fruit in the neighborhood.

Rex: It sounds as if the kids go out and become evangelists for healthy eating in their communities.

Nextcourse:: They do. I definitely feel that way about the kids we’ve been working with at Mission High, because they’ve been so proactive in communicating the things they’ve learned to other students and their families and friends. They have really been an inspiration that has driven this program, because we were just intending to do the pilot program, and weren’t sure where it would go or if it would go anywhere. And seeing how these 12 kids, in a matter of nine months, were so transformed...

It wasn’t just about food, either, it was about this small community that we had been involved in for nine months around food. When you come together and you eat and you make food and you do all those sorts of things, you really start to bond with people. These kids were from the same classroom, and they knew each other, of course, but they weren’t really friends. And I swear, when you see them at the school now, you don’t see one without seeing two or three or four or five of the others. They have really become great friends around this; they’ve had a shared experience that has made them a sort of family, and they often will refer to their class in that way, as a family.

Rex: Given the fact that the Bay Area food scene is overwhelmingly the province of affluent people, how do you avoid the pitfalls of being perceived as rich people talking down to the less fortunate and telling them what to do? How do you make sure people don’t feel patronized?

Nextcourse: You raise a really valid point. So much of the food community is represented by rich white people (laughs) and because we have our roots in that, it’s logical that those would be the people to get involved in this kind of program.

But we’re not coming in and telling people how to run their lives or be better people. What I think we’re doing is giving people information that they can then use to make different decisions — or they can choose to not make different decisions if that’s their choice. The emphasis is on communicating to people that they have the power to change the situation if they don’t like it.

In this case, if they don’t like the food that’s represented in their neighborhood or their community, or that they’re being served at school, because of the information they’ve gained from taking part in a program such as Nextcourse, they know how to go about making changes. They can voice their opinion. We’re not trying to foster a dependence on our program; we’re trying to give people the tools they need to empower themselves, to vote with their dollars.

One of the real benefits of involving professional food people in these programs is that they have a really true passion for food and for the work that they’re doing, and we’ve found that that’s really inspirational and motivational for people, who see that somebody has such a love and passion for what they do and what food can mean in people’s lives. How it can bring people together and families together, and be a source of pleasure and community. That’s the ingredient that they bring to the table. We have a lot of content we share, but using professional food people really brings the passion.

Rex: Is Nextcourse an only-in-the-gourmet-ghetto kind of project, or can it be replicated elsewhere?

Nextcourse: I don’t see any reason why this type of program can’t be done in other areas. Almost every community in our country is struggling with these same issues and questions, and there are people in the community like the people who started Nextcourse who could step up to the plate. There’s a restaurant community, a food community, a culinary community, whatever you want to call it, in almost every area of the country, and these people have a lot of knowledge and skills.

So I think you can definitely use this model in other places. The tools and the ingredients are all there for people to do it; it’s just a matter of bringing them together and coordinating it.

Susie White: “We’re not coming in and telling people how to run their lives or be better people. The emphasis is on communicating to people that they have the power to change the situation if they don’t like it.”

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Friday, September 29, 2006

The Innocence Project

A Rex grantee in 1995, this law clinic at the Cardozo School of Law is often the last hope of the wrongfully convicted.

by Mary Eisenhart

On May 5, 2006, a Virginia jury awarded Earl Washington Jr. a $2.25 million judgment against the estate of state police inspector Curtis Reese Wilmore, having found that Wilmore, who died in 1994, had deliberately fabricated the evidence that sent Washington to Virginia’s Death Row in 1984.

Washington, a young, mildly retarded African American man, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the 1982 rape-murder of a young mother in Virginia. The only evidence against him was a "confession," extracted a year after the fact and consisting entirely of elements spoon-fed to Washington — who happily deferred to all authority figures by way of compensating for his disability — by law enforcement. Inexplicably, his defense attorney failed to point this out at trial, or to present evidence of Washington’s limitations at the penalty hearing.

Earl Washington (Photo: AP)

Washington came within nine days of execution in 1985, surviving only because a New York law firm took his case pro bono and secured a stay of execution.

"Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong," Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld, one of Washington’s legal team, said later in an NPR interview. "His lawyer did a bad job. There was police and prosecutorial misconduct, and there was a coerced confession from a man who was retarded."

By the early ’90s, DNA testing had made it clear that Washington could not have been the rapist-murderer, yet he languished on Death Row until 1994, when an outgoing governor commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. Six years later, another governor gave Washington a full pardon. After nearly 18 years in prison, most of it under sentence of death, Washington was free — but his parents, who’d stood by him when he went to prison, had long since passed away.

To date, despite the fact that DNA evidence has pointed to another man in police custody, there have been no other arrests in the case. Neufeld told NPR that while normally prosecutors would be eager to seek an indictment with such evidence, to do so here "would require a public admission that Earl Washington was completely innocent, and that an innocent man was almost put to death."

Outrageous as Washington’s case appears, it’s far from unique. DNA evidence has conclusively exonerated hundreds of prisoners to date, many of whom had been awaiting execution.

When DNA testing first emerged as a viable forensic tool in the early ’90s, Neufeld and colleague Barry Scheck, both veteran defense attorneys and professors at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, saw it as an opportunity to address the problem of wrongful conviction. In 1992 they launched the Innocence Project at Cardozo, as a legal clinic that put law students to work pursuing justice for the falsely imprisoned.

Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck (Photo: Uli Holz)

The Rex Foundation was an early supporter of the Innocence Project with a grant of $10,000 in 1995. IP had come to Rex’s attention via Jonas Kant, who was then working with the group; Jonas was also the son of Rex board member and Grateful Dead attorney Hal Kant, who became a strong advocate.

"With regard to violence, I’m a law and order kind of guy," says Hal Kant, currently Rex advisory board member emeritus and still a strong supporter of the Innocence Project. "Which makes it incumbent upon me to help make sure the innocent are not convicted.

“‘Better 100 guilty should go free than one innocent be convicted’ is an essential aspect of American justice,” he adds. “The Innocence Project has led the way in getting the innocent exonerated. It also teaches law students to be suspicious of government, prosecutors and unjust laws — while respecting the judicial system, which is the best there has ever been.”

IP director of development Audrey Levitin notes that in the years since 1995, the Innocence Project has grown from a startup legal clinic to “a leading organization in the effort to strengthen the fundamental integrity and truth-revealing function of our criminal justice system.”

Now an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Innocence Project continues to train Cardozo students (over 500 to date) in its legal clinic. Besides its legal work, IP now has a policy department working to bring reforms to the criminal justice system. In addition, it’s inspired a national network of more than 30 organizations engaged in innocence-related work.

And slowly, change is coming. “After years of a singularly ‘tough on crime’ approach in criminal justice, the paradigm is starting to shift,” Levitin says. “The work of the Innocence Project and the exonerations of innocent people have shifted the national debate about crime from a discussion of rights, which was not capturing mainstream support, to a discussion about innocence, which is — and by so doing have created an historic opportunity for bringing greater integrity to criminal justice.”

We recently spoke with Ms. Levitin about the Innocence Project’s current work, the need that drives it, and what people can do to help.

Rex: How widespread is the problem of wrongful conviction, and what are its causes? Has it always been there to this extent, or is it a new problem?

IP: It is impossible to estimate how many wrongful conviction cases there are nationally, but since 1992 the Innocence Project has received thousands of letters from inmates across the country who are trying to win their freedom. Today, we continue to receive an average of 250 new letters each month from inmates writing to us for the first time.

After more than 10 years of working to free the innocent, the IP has identified many of the systemic causes of wrongful convictions. Chief among them are:

• Mistaken eyewitness identifications
• Careless or disreputable forensic science
• False confessions
• Use of jailhouse informants or snitches
• Police and prosecutorial misconduct
• Poor defense lawyering

These problems are not new and have always plagued our justice system, but in earlier eras, when wrongful convictions were overturned, those cases were seen as exceptional and not indicative of widespread problems. However, the IP’s pioneering work with DNA has proven that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events.

DNA exonerations have created a wealth of cases that can be studied, where innocence is not in dispute because it is supported by objective scientific evidence. Research has revealed a handful of disturbing causes that are common throughout the majority of these cases and proven that these trends are endemic. In response, the IP has crafted a forceful plan for reform to address these issues.

Rex: How do you decide which cases to take on?

IP: The IP has one standard for accepting cases: if biological evidence from a case still exists and that evidence could be subjected to DNA testing, would that testing yield conclusive proof of innocence?

The IP does not require that the biological evidence be found and secured before we accept a client. Our Cardozo law students take on the task of tracking down evidence once a case is accepted.

The Innocence Project does not accept or reject potential clients on the basis of their previous criminal records or their character. In essence, our process is blind, based only on the facts of the case.

Rex: Is there any common pattern in those cases, beyond a defendant who says he’s wrongfully convicted?

IP: Those who have been exonerated span the spectrum of America’s racial, economic and ethnic diversity. The IP’s clients include a Marine corporal from California, a 20-year old truck driver and volunteer firefighter from Virginia, a college student and army veteran in Texas, and a Cuban-American immigrant.

Rex: Once you’ve taken on a case, what do you do, and who does what work?

IP: Once we decide to take on a client, the search to track down the biological evidence begins. Cases are assigned to one of our three staff attorneys based on geographic location. Attorneys then divide their cases among the Cardozo clinic students assigned to them.

Clinic students have a variety of cases in different stages of investigation and litigation. With a new case, the first task is to determine what evidence might exist and set about finding it. Because many of our cases are 10, 15, or even 20 years old, and because there are no uniform regulations for the storage and preservation of evidence in states or even between local jurisdictions, the evidence search stage can take many months and often years. Once evidence is located, our attorneys can move forward with a motion for DNA testing and other litigation.

Rex: What factors affect the outcome of the cases you take on, and how long does it take to achieve that outcome?

IP: The IP faces numerous hurdles in litigating all of our cases. The search for evidence in a case can take many years and often ends with the discovery that crucial evidence has been destroyed or has degraded after having been kept in unsuitable storage facilities. Because the IP works in all 50 states and has a limited travel budget, the vast majority of student inquiries must be conducted over the phone and through correspondence with police departments, courthouses, and storage facilities.

Furthermore, while over half of states have some form of post-conviction DNA testing statute, in many, our clients face an uphill battle to win access to the evidence from their cases. Prosecutors are able to prevent testing due to highly restrictive state laws that exclude many prisoners and force defense attorneys to enter into lengthy litigation. These delays can thwart efforts to prove innocence, again putting biological evidence at risk of being destroyed or becoming too degraded for testing.

As a result of the unique factors in each case, the length of time it takes to achieve an exoneration can vary from a year to as long as a decade.

Rex: Have there been instances when after all your work, the evidence conclusively proved your client guilty? And, if so, does this discourage you from the overall mission?

IP: Yes, in approximately 40% of our cases that reach the testing stage, results come back with a positive inclusion. The Innocence Project makes clear to every client that the results are based on science and will reaffirm guilt when that is the case. We have accepted that inclusions are part of the process.

Rex: In many cases, your wrongfully convicted clients are released after decades in prison. What difficulties do they encounter in getting their real lives back? What resources do they have to help with the transition? What happens to them long-term?

IP: Exonerees face enormous challenges upon release, including an immediate financial crisis if no family is available or able to help. As time goes by exonerees face a lack of job opportunities and adequate housing, and often experience post-traumatic stress.

Most people are shocked to learn that exonerees in the majority of states do not receive reentry services (for housing, jobs, education, financial support, substance abuse treatment, psychological services, and more) provided to prisoners on parole. They must fight to have their conviction records expunged and often need to file lawsuits to get any type of monetary compensation.

Many exonerees have been able to successfully rebuild their lives with the help of family members and friends, but there are also those who are still in need of help. This issue is of great concern to all of us at the IP, and the organization has recently taken steps to address it. This year, our Board of Directors voted to create an Exoneree Emergency Fund, which provides small needs-based grants of up to $10,000 to exonerees, as well as other funds for long-term support. In addition, we have hired a part-time social worker to act as a caseworker for exonerees in need.

Rex: What resources do you need to do your work, and how do grants and donations help? What can individuals do to help?

IP: Since its inception, and with the start-up support from friends such as the Rex Foundation, the Innocence Project has built its organizational capacity to 27 full-time employees. Currently, our greatest needs are for more attorneys and policy experts. Grants and donations from individuals make it possible for us to expand our staff, and support the exoneree fund.

We also rely on the generosity of our valued volunteers and clinic students, and especially the many law firms who offer pro bono support in some of our most complex legal challenges.

If we had more resources we could focus more on public education about our criminal justice system and outreach to prisoners in states where we have very little correspondence relative to their prison population. For example, in 2004 only 50 of the over 3,000 letters we received that year came from Mississippi, a state with a harsh prison system. With more resources, we could find out why some prisoners can’t or don’t write to us.

More resources would also allow us to take on more cases and devote time to pursuing important legal challenges to current standards of eyewitness identification and forensic evidence that often hamstring our work. Legal rulings that help remedy these problems can have a powerful impact, and also take effect immediately.

Rex: Do you see any hopeful signs of the problem of wrongful conviction being addressed at a systemic level?

IP: The collective force of DNA exonerations has galvanized public support for progressive reform of the criminal justice system — a trend that was unimaginable just a decade ago. Enormous progress has been made on several fronts to reform the causes of wrongful convictions and make all Americans safer from wrongful prosecution. Now, close to 40 states have some kind of post-conviction DNA testing law.

Several states and major jurisdictions across the country have adopted our recommended reforms to eyewitness identification procedures, and more are engaged in pilot programs to test their effects. Crime lab misconduct has been uncovered and led to the lab being shut down in the city of Houston, which sends more defendants to death row than any other county in the country. Audits of lab work are being conducted there, as well as in Virginia and Cleveland.

These are just some of the victories that have been won, and the IP is determined to capitalize on the growing momentum for change sparked by DNA exonerations.

Exonerated Prisoner
Thomas Doswell
19 Years

Photo: The Innocence Project

After spending 19 years behind bars for a rape he didn’t commit, Tommy Doswell was set free. He's now pursuing a music career.

On August 1, 2005, Tommy Doswell was reunited with his family after spending almost 20 years in prison.

Doswell was convicted of rape in 1986. His case involved a troubling identification procedure: When his photograph was shown to the victim, it was marked with an “R” to suggest he was a rapist, though he had never been convicted of any sexual assault.

Doswell first contacted the IP in 1996, hoping that DNA tests could prove his innocence. While he waited to win testing, he turned down parole four separate times because he refused to admit guilt in a crime he didn’t commit. His evidence was finally tested in 2005, conclusively proving his innocence.

Since his exoneration, Doswell has spent time with his two sons, who were toddlers when he went to prison. Both are now grown men. He has also successfully pursued his music career. In the fall, he opened for blues legend B.B. King in Pittsburgh.

Exonerated Prisoner
Robert Clark
24 Years

Photo: The Innocence Project

Robert Clark and some of his supporters on the day of his release: (l-r) Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld, Cardozo law student Annie Eisenberg, Robert Clark’s son Rodrickus, Robert Clark, IP staff attorney Vanessa Potkin, Cardozo law student Emily Robb.

Robert Clark was wrongfully convicted in 1982 at the age of 21 for the rape of an Atlanta woman.

A week after the crime, Clark was spotted driving the victim’s car and arrested. Initially, police did not consider him a suspect because he did not match the victim’s description of her attacker as 5’7” (Clark is over 6’1”); Clark told police he got the car from a friend, Tony Arnold, who at 5’6” was closer to the victim’s description. Yet, once the victim picked Clark out of a lineup, the police narrowed in on Clark and never investigated Tony Arnold.

After 24 years, DNA testing proved Clark’s innocence and he was released in December of 2005.

The test results also identified the likely perpetrator as Tony Arnold, after a CODIS DNA database search of the evidence matched his profile. Arnold has been in prison since 2003 and was due to be released in January 2006 until these results came to light. After the CODIS match to Arnold, the Innocence Project also learned that he had been matched to two other unsolved Georgia rapes in 2003, yet had never been charged with either crime.

Today, Clark is employed at an Atlanta warehouse company and is working towards his GED.

Further reading

The Innocence Project

Actual Innocence; Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, Jim Dwyer; (ISBN 0451209826)

"Fatal Flaws: The Case of Earl Washington"

"Exonerated Death Row Inmate to Get $2.25M"

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Tiny Group, Huge Impact

North Bay’s New Economy Working Solutions (NEWS) helps working families, by getting often-hostile factions to form coalitions and work together

by Mary Eisenhart

"Winning the Community Benefits Agreement from the SMART train transit district has really emboldened all of us. All of these groups have been working in these trenches for years. None of us would have been able to accomplish this alone, but having put together this very coherent entity — we’re on the map now. The policy-makers know us.” – Ben Boyce, NEWS

The old track still runs through downtown San Rafael

Getting the voters to pay for transit projects is often a hard sell. This November, when the voters in Sonoma and Marin Counties, north of San Francisco, go to the polls to decide whether to charge themselves a half-cent of additional sales tax to pay for the Sonoma Marin Area Rapid Transit (SMART) train, the measure they’re considering will enjoy unusually broad community support. Even from groups who are normally a little nervous about being in the same room with each other.

Say, major developers, workers’ rights advocates, union leaders, and environmentalists.

This is no accident. Because these groups and other local stakeholders figured out how to put aside their differences and work together on common goals, the transit plan incorporates a number of community-driven features that probably wouldn’t have come up otherwise.

Instrumental in building this consensus was Santa Rosa based New Economy Working Solutions (NEWS), a Rex grantee in 2003 and again in 2006. NEWS helped put together the Accountable Development Coalition of Sonoma County, which hammered out the agreements with the transit district in return for supporting the ballot measure.

“The SMART board’s political motive was to get all of these groups lined up endorsing the rail tax, which will be on the ballot in November,” says Ben Boyce, coordinator of NEWS' Living Wage Coalition. ”As a result of our involvement, the Santa Rosa SMART train station project is using union labor; it is using green building materials and techniques, and there’s going to be a very large affordable housing component, as well as a living wage requirement for commercial properties within that district. It’s like hitting the trifecta.”

Members of the Living Wage Coalition stand up
at a rally for the United Farm Workers

From Rex’s standpoint, as board member John Leopold explains (see sidebar: Rex Perspective), helping fund NEWS’s SMART train effort in 2006 was a sort of trifecta of its own. Rex originally gave a grant to NEWS in 2003 after Leopold, who’d been involved in similar efforts in Silicon Valley, heard about the Living Wage Coalition project. Since those days NEWS has racked up impressive achievements in the region, from helping pass living-wage ordinances in a growing number of cities to organizing community input in development projects. Most remarkable was its ability to bring disparate groups into coalitions around common interests. All in all, supporting NEWS allowed Rex to support multiple efforts with a single grant.

NEWS is a volunteer-based community organization with several hundred members. Founder Marty Bennett, a longtime labor activist and a history professor at Santa Rosa Junior College, and Boyce, a graduate of Sonoma State University’s master’s program in public policy studies, are the core staff. While Boyce is busy with alliance building, community organizing, and activism, Bennett’s responsible for research operations, which have so far resulted in the publication of three papers and numerous articles on subjects related to the regional economy.

A growing concern is that the North Bay’s economic growth is increasingly lopsided — a so-called “hourglass economy,” with growth in very high-paying jobs and very low-paying jobs, a vanishing middle class, and a general lack of economic sustainability. Addressing these issues led local groups from lobbying for living wage ordinances to the idea of “accountable development”: the notion that, if public funds are going to be used to fund or subsidize a project, it must truly benefit the entire community.

As early as 2000, Marty Bennett invoked the principle of accountable development in connection with the building of the Petaluma Sheraton, a nice hotel on a municipal marina for which the city was lending the developer millions in taxpayer redevelopment money. Bennett successfully persuaded the city council that in return for this largesse, the hotel jobs would pay living wage (so, after all, the workers wouldn’t be forced to get health care from the public sector at taxpayer expense), and the hotel would not oppose its employees’ efforts to organize. “As a result of that, we have a union hotel in Petaluma,” says Boyce.

Petaluma Sheraton worker

We were recently able to speak with Boyce about NEWS’s ongoing work, and in particular the real-life challenges and rewards of coalition-building.

Rex: For the benefit of those who are new to these issues, could you explain a bit about your work, and why it should concern everyone?

NEWS: We’re trying to challenge the assumptions that are condemning about a quarter of the population to low-wage jobs that typically don’t pay health-care benefits, that are very unstable, highly insecure, and don’t actually pay people’s bills. So people have to work two and three jobs and engage in lots of underground economic activity to make up the shortfall.

The NEWS director, Marty Bennett, has made it his mission to awaken policymakers and the citizenry to the growing crisis of the working poor — so they can make appropriate policy solutions for the problems generated by low-road economic development, which has been going on since the ’80s. We’re setting up demonstration projects, and showing people: “This is an alternative. This is what it could look like.”

NEWS founder Marty Bennett, speaking at the
Limits of Prosperity conference in 2005

Different models of economic development place different emphasis on the role of labor and the function of government in relationship to the role of public policy in regulating job markets. The currently dominant philosophy that’s coming out of Wall Street and out of the neoconservative movement is what we call the low-road economic strategy, or free-market fundamentalism, which basically regards labor as a cost center.

What we’re trying to do, at NEWS and with the Living Wage Coalition, is reframe the discussion and introduce people to what we call a high-road, sustainable economic development model, one that looks at labor as an investment; one that seeks public policy that provides incentives for companies and employers to create more good full-time jobs with health benefits, jobs that pay a self-sufficiency wage or a living wage.

We’re establishing a metric other than the minimum wage in order to talk about wages. As the comedian Chris Rock says, minimum wage means “If we could pay you less, we would.” That should not be the standard by which wages are measured. A more adequate standard is the self-sufficiency wage — what it takes to pay for food, gas, rent, basic expenses. That’s the living wage.

From a moral standpoint, paying a living wage is the right thing to do. We as a society have chosen to value work as a way of demonstrating commitment, by showing up and doing the work. There’s something morally odd about a situation in which people make that socially positive gesture, but it doesn’t pay off in terms of being able to support their family. This is not inevitable; this is not because it was decreed by the invisible hand of The Market, like a commandment from God; it’s the result of deliberate corporate decisions, which are then reinforced into the legal structure by their bought-and-paid political functionaries. The crisis of the working poor is a socio-economic phenomenon that we have the capacity to address through public policy.

In our view, the purpose of public policy is to set some kind of norms so it doesn’t become this kind of social Darwinist race to the bottom — particularly since the spread of this low-wage economy is actually reducing our total economic growth. The bottom end of the wage scale has been pretty much stagnant for decades, and increasingly that end of the population is not able to participate in wealth creation: they can’t save; they don’t have the money to spend on the plethora of consumer goods being produced.

Ben Boyce of NEWS addresses the Sonoma City Council

In areas where they’ve passed living wage or minimum wage laws, there’s a measurable uptick in local business activity because of increased disposable income for working people. We support creating this virtuous cycle of economic activity by raising the wage floor, as contrasted to creating a vicious cycle of working poverty through low-road wage and benefit policies.

Rex: There’s a strong presence of churches and religious groups in your coalitions, which some might find surprising.

NEWS: Part of that is the result of a conscious effort on our part, as there’s been a growing realization nationally that we need to bring back into the fold the progressive elements of the religious community.

The high-water mark of the progressive movement in this country was the civil rights era, when there was a deep involvement of the religious community. A number of things — not least of which was a sort of residual hostility on the part of a lot of secular activists toward religious expression — drove out of the movement what should be a natural ally.

This left the field open to the right, which has been vigorous in recruiting the evangelicals and the various conservative religious movements, even to causes that are contrary to their own constituents’ economic interests. So we’re making a deliberate effort to welcome and engage with the faith community.

Also, for us it’s a natural way to help create community support for low-wage workers, who in this area are mostly Latino and Catholic. One of the greatest sources of support for worker organizing we’ve had from the beginning has come from these Catholic social justice groups.

We’re currently supporting the drive to organize the health workers at Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa. Many of these workers are Latinos, and some of them are parishioners at my church, St. Leo’s. St. Leo’s has also served as base for a local organizing drive for nursing home workers at the Sonoma Valley Health Center in Sonoma, and it gives these workers a great deal of comfort to know that the people who go to the same church they do and share their values are supporting them in their struggle to get representation.

Rally in support of union organizing efforts at Memorial Hospital
in Santa Rosa. Photo: Dogzen Arts

A lot of my colleagues who are what I call secular fundamentalists have this belief that they are oppressed if they have to hear religious language. What I explain to them is that they’re defining a public square in which the only way religious allies can enter is if they shed their religion when they walk in. Now, that’s not going to work, when in fact their primary motivation for being involved is that Moses and Jesus said that you need to help the poor. It’s not that you have to believe it yourself; it’s that you have to allow a space for them to express their engagement in the cause in a way that works for them.

Rex: How did the Accountable Development Coalition emerge?

NEWS: Over the last few years, the living wage movement has evolved to a broader agenda of accountable development: that public money should not be used to subsidize low-wage employment that benefits the owners of the business but has a deleterious effect on the rest of society by offloading their costs, in terms of the low wages and lack of health care benefits.

The thing about the use of public money is that you, we, as a citizen’s group, have standing to come before councils, boards and commissions and demand an accounting. There has to be some accountability for how this money is used. Literally tens of billions of dollars are given away every year under these redevelopment grants, and it’s typically a very shadowy, opaque process.

Two years ago, we joined forces with the North Bay Labor Council, the building trades, housing advocacy groups, environmental groups and others to form the Accountable Development Coalition of Sonoma County, looking at a broader picture of a sustainable and equitable economic development.

We wanted to find a project where we could interject ourselves early on and make a difference, because what normally happens is that people don’t get wind of things until they’re practically a done deal; by the time it’s been endorsed by the planning commission and approved by the city council, it’s too late. And people feel frustrated because their government is not responsive.

There was a $100 million project proposed for downtown Santa Rosa, revitalizing the downtown — the anchor depot for the SMART train. A couple members of our coalition were on the SMART train campaign committee, and they said, this is a project where we should get involved.

The old can become the new

So we got in early on. We lobbied the public officials involved, we held a number of forums and public events to educate people. As a result of close to a year and a half of lobbying work, public education, op-ed writing and lots of groundwork, our group was able to produce an excellent Community Benefits Agreement, or CBA.

For us it’s been very encouraging. It’s proof that this kind of coalition-building works.

Rex: And without that broad network of contacts, you wouldn’t have had allies on the SMART board giving you the heads-up.

NEWS: Exactly. I think it’s really emboldened all of us. All of these groups have been working in these trenches for years — the housing groups have been doing it, the Sierra Club and the environmental groups. None of us would have been able to accomplish this alone, but having put together this very coherent entity — we’re on the map now. The policy-makers know us.

We’re very disciplined; we all walk in, half a dozen of us, we’ll get our speaker cards all in a row, we’ll have caucused with each other so we don’t just get up there and rant about the same thing; each of us is touching on a different point. So they know that these guys mean business. We have material to give them; we’ll be lobbying them. We’ve become hard to escape (laughs) and that’s our goal.

Rex: What are the biggest challenges you face going forward?

NEWS: Currently we’re working to pass a living wage ordinance in Petaluma, which is going to mean negotiating with some of the council conservatives. That’s a difficult process, but I actually think we’re succeeding with that.

Our ultimate goal with that is to pass a countywide living wage ordinance; our biggest opposition in that comes from the Chambers of Commerce, who, at least on the national and state levels, if not the local levels, are dominated by free-market fundamentalists who are ideologically opposed to intervention in labor markets.

In terms of our accountable development work, it’s a constant challenge to hold the coalition together.

One of the places it’s easy for the coalition to break apart is between labor and the environmentalists. The people in the building council — they want to see construction going on. And there are certain elements in the environmental movement who, if it involves pouring concrete, they’re “agin’” it. And so our environmental allies kind of have to keep a wing of their own constituency in check.

What we’re trying to do is move away from this idea of environmentalism as preservationism, toward an idea that environmentalism is more of a strategy that involves what we call smart growth. As long as the population’s growing, there’s going to be growth; the real issue is if it’s going to be intelligently designed and economically viable.

We’re working as a coalition to try to encourage that city-center, infill kind of development, concentrating development along the 101 corridor. So we have our internal work of selling parts of the environmental community on this vision, as opposed to stopping everything they can, a strategy that has historically diminished their power. If people’s only options are unreasonable people who will oppose any project, no matter how socially valuable, or the right-wing guys who will approve it, you’re forcing people into their camp.

We need to provide an intelligent alternative that involves not just approving anything that comes along but looking at whether it meets certain criteria. We try to establish those criteria and make it part of the public conversation. I think that’s a real challenge for us.

Our internal meetings can be pretty fierce. But we try to iron it out behind the scenes so that when we do step forward publicly we’re speaking with a united voice.

Rex: How do you manage to get so much done with so little?

NEWS: Marty Bennett is a driven man. (laughs) He’s 24/7 and brings me along in tow. We have quite a bit of volunteer help; a number of members of the coalition put time and energy into helping us with our lobbying projects or helping us with our materials.

To really get up to speed we need to hire a Spanish-speaking organizer; that’s the missing piece for us organizationally. So much of our work in support of the low-wage worker organizing is with the Latino immigrant community, and it would be really good if we could get someone who’s bilingual and bicultural. I’m not that person.

And at some point we’d like to get a development director, or a consultant that we could hire, because it’s very time-consuming. Marty puts a lot of time into it and I help him, but the funding thing is a whole world in itself, and personally I prefer putting my energy into the organizing part rather than the fundraising.

“In my personal experience, I have found that coalitions of interests working together to create community change make the most difference,” says board member John Leopold, who first brought NEWS to the Rex Foundation’s attention several years ago.

John had worked on living-wage issues with a group called Working Partnerships in Silicon Valley, and seen for himself the results that could be achieved when local community groups figured out common goals and worked together. Thus he was intrigued by the fledgling organization’s Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma project. NEWS was achieving remarkable results with very little — and, like many small grassroots groups in outlying areas, it faced a very uncertain future, to the point where a well-timed small grant from Rex could make the difference between surviving and not surviving.

“They were having a hard time getting the attention of funders,” John recalls, “because Sonoma County isn’t considered a major urban area; it wasn’t considered on the front line of the effort to change the way local government treated its workers, or the people it contracts with, their workers, or environmental concerns. But to me they were doing very interesting work. That was a good match with Rex, because so much of what we’ve funded in the past is activity that’s going to benefit many people, where our money can make a big difference, and maybe they haven’t attracted mainstream funding. I thought it was an excellent marriage of interests to create positive change for the community.”

At John’s suggestion, Rex made a grant to the Living Wage Coalition in 2003. Three years later, he says, NEWS’ success in putting together the Accountable Development Coalition and in winning major community benefits as part of the SMART train development were a perfect fit for more Rex support on several fronts. “What impressed me was that they were leveraging the work we had already funded,” he explains. ”They were bringing together the coalitions they had formed around the living wage campaign in Sonoma County to create a larger coalition around community benefits with this SMART train station: Environmental issues, human rights issues, worker rights issues, and transportation issues. Within the SMART train activity were issues we’d supported individually in the past, and here it was all wrapped together.”

The coalition NEWS has helped spearhead has not only produced some short-term victories for the community, says John; the entire process has served as a model for future collaborations. He says, “There are several benefits to the local area: the actual construction and jobs that are created; the environmentally friendly way it’s going to be created, which has a long-term community impact; the fact that everybody who works there is going to get paid a livable wage, that has ripples. But it also becomes an important activity for the community to say: These are the values we care about as a community. So when it’s building the next office park, the next highway or the next school, these are issues that have been identified and supported by a broad base in the community. The ripple effects are that it will affect other projects in the area that will hopefully impact lots of different people, outside the ones directly impacted by just this one train station.

“One of the interesting things that could potentially flow from this is that they’ve brought more people into the coalition around these issues. Once you’ve got a county supervisor who’s worked with this coalition on these various issues, when you come to them and say, now we’d like you to support a living wage initiative at the county level, they’ve already been won over. They’ve already supported that kind of activity, and that will make it a lot easier to leverage this kind of work to the next level of NEWS’s community work.

“To me, people working together is always more powerful than people working separately. When you’ve got, for example, the building trades and the environmentalists and the progressive students working together, you’ll be able to do a lot more things once people have the experience of working together. You’ll find a lot of common goals.”

Suggested Reading

Ben Boyce Recommends:

The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back From the Religious Right, By Rabbi Michael Lerner

A look at the rift between the political left and the faith-based world, and how it might be mended.

The Great American Jobs Scam. By Greg LeRoy

An exposé of how vast sums of public money are handed out to developers in the name of jobs creation and other public benefits, and how little public benefit actually results.

“Maximum Support for Raising the Minimum”

Pew Research Center report on increasing bipartisan support for raising the minimum wage.

“Minimum Wage Lowest in 50 Years”

The federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised for nine years, a period in which Congress voted itself pay raises totaling close to $35,000 a year.

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