Category Archives: News

Learning the Back-to-the-Landers

This interview originally ran in the Feb. 17 Ithaca Times. I thought the story near the end about Cornell brass submarining a grant proposal was pretty fascinating. My photo – these Q&A “speakeasy” interviews appear with the subject as a cutout, so we’ve been doing our best to avoid the person-standing-against-wall shot. Green and I foraged in the Agway on a zero degree day to find a prop that worked and we ended up with a wagon. My production guy didn’t like me, because there was no brick wall background. Alas.

The Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming is going through the first leadership change in its history this month, with the retirement of founding director Joanna Green. Elizabeth Gabriel, who operates Wellspring Forest Farm with her husband Steve in Mecklenburg and was the founding director of Common Good City Farm in Washington, D.C., will replace Green as executive director of Groundswell, which focuses on educating potential farmers in sustainable agriculture practices.

After Green took an early retirement from Cornell Cooperative Extension in 2008, where she worked with the farming alternatives program, she put in lots of unpaid time to help launch Groundswell. The center started offering classes in 2010 after receiving funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) beginner rancher and farmer development program. Groundswell, which is part of Cornell’s Center for Transformative Action, now offers numerous courses on everything from pasture management to marketing, and has an incubator farm where aspiring farmers without land can get a start.

The Ithaca Times sat down with Green to talk about her work with Groundswell.

Ithaca Times: How did Groundswell come about?

Joanna Green: It grew out of EcoVillage, where I used to live. We had always done a lot of sustainability education—West Haven is a beautiful farm, a really well run organic CSA, and they did a lot of great educational work. There was more demand than they could fulfill and still farm, so we started about making a non-profit institute for sustainable agriculture. The farmers weren’t going to build a non-profit, and EcoVillage had its own education agenda. In 2008, EcoVillage held a fundraising dinner and raised a few thousand dollars, and in 2010 we started programming.

IT: In your view, what’s been the overall mission of the Groundswell Center since it began?

JG: Increasing diversity in agriculture. And one of the challenges is we are a predominantly white region. There’s a matter of expectations on both sides: people in the agriculture world aren’t used to thinking about [diversity] or might not realize there’s interest from people of color in farming. In communities of color, in some cases, there’s a stigma attached, especially with African-Americans, where their historical role in agriculture is one of being exploited.

There is a growing movement to farming. It’s an honorable occupation that has a lot to do with sovereignty today. People don’t want to be dependent on a food system that’s poisoning them. If you’re not involved in producing food, you’re subject to a system that’s just feeding you junk and contributing to massive health problems.

IT: How do you go about increasing interest in farming from a diverse group of people, then?

JG: The challenge of those of us who are white and in institutions primarily led by white people is how do you actually do the work that engages and eventually turns power and resources over to people of color. The most basic thing is building relationships. In working for 20-some years in Cornell in agriculture, almost all of my colleagues and farmers—the whole world—was white. If we take on the mission of changing the face of agriculture and don’t have personal relationships, we can’t get very far. The organization has to build credibility and trust based on personal relationships. All the setbacks are learning opportunities for us. Coming to understand power we have as white individuals, the learning curve is painful sometimes.

IT: What places in life are those taking classes at Groundswell coming from?

JG: We’ve had anyone from their late teens and early 20s from any number of places, some really impoverished and some affluent college graduates. At the other end of the spectrum there are people in their 50s or 60s wanting to do something totally different in retirement or as a second career. We have a lot of midcareer people thinking, ‘I can’t keep doing what I’m doing.’ At least one couple with adult children who have started farming in T-burg moved to the Finger Lakes from Tennessee to do this. It’s people who want to farm but need to learn.

IT: And what do the prospective farmers who come through your doors learn?

JG: One of our most intensive courses is farm business planning, which we give every winter. There are 80 or 100 people who have taken it, and a substantial portion of them go into business. A lot of them come into this endeavor with little financial management skills, so we provide a much greater chance of succeeding by giving a realistic picture of what they’re up against.

For the same reason farming is super challenging, it’s super rewarding with those for which it’s a good fit. It’s a small segment of the population who’s really cut out to succeed in farming. It’s not a failure on anybody’s part or on Groundswell’s part to expose people to farming and our programs and they decide it’s not for them. And we have people who say what I really want to do is homestead, have a big garden, a little bit of livestock, but I’m not going to try and make a business of it.

IT: How have you seen support for sustainable agriculture education change over the years?

JG: The demand’s been increasing over the past 10 or 20 years. The USDA has supported development of all these different variations in farmer education nationwide. We have to reinvent a training system that fell apart over the last 60 or 70 years. It used to be farmers grew up on farms, and there was a natural organic learning process they went through. Then the [agricultural] colleges started taking on a lot of that—but all the practical how-to-farm stuff was gutted. It became all biotech, aimed at the large industrial model of farming.

The following questions are online exclusives! (There’s no limit to space on the Internet.) 

IT: Do you have any personal experience with institutions orienting themselves more toward that industrial farming model?

JG: At Cornell, we had a civic agriculture program under the direction of Thomas Lyson [a professor of sociology]. The Kellogg Foundation was pushing in the ’90s for sustainable agriculture to get a foothold in the land grant universities, and we had a grant written for three years and $750,000. Kellogg sent a team to meet with us to see if we had the support of the institution, if it was a wise investment. And a dean came into the meeting and said Kellogg shouldn’t bother putting their money here. They should invest the money into dairy manure management research. The Kellogg people were shocked. That was a low point in my career.

IT: What do you plan on doing with your increased free time in retirement?

JG: I’m going to play in my garden. Do more music. I’m going to step back from a lot of stuff and reinvent myself. I’m a good grant writer, but Elizabeth is someone who can put Groundswell on a footing where its not so dependent on the federal grants. I’m really confident in all the younger energy coming into the field and I’m going to embrace my role as an elder now. I’ve tried to model to staff and coworkers that being a human being is really important. There’s more to life than a job.

Raza Rumi on Pakistan, Terrorism, & Free Expression

This interview originally ran in the March 23, 2016, Ithaca TimesYou can read Rumi’s account of the March 2014 assassination attempt in an essay on aeon.co entitled “On the run,” and find more of his writings on his website: razarumi.com.  Photo by Diane Duthie. 

Raza Rumi left Pakistan for the United States nearly two years ago. An attempt on the journalist’s life made by armed militants on March 28, 2014 left his driver, Ghulam Mustafa, dead, and him feeling unsafe in his home country.

On the evening of the attack, Rumi was leaving the Express News television studios after an Urdu-language news and commentary broadcast. He had moved to Pakistan’s second-largest news network a few months before, the latest step in an increasingly visible media career that had earned him a spot on a Taliban-authored hit list of journalists and writers for expressing reformist views.

Last September Rumi began a two-year residency hosted by Ithaca City of Asylum at Ithaca College. This semester he is teaching an honors class on the history and culture of South Asia and a class in journalism research. He published Delhi by Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller in 2013.

The Ithaca Times sat down with Rumi to talk about his work—in past, present, and future—the state of Pakistan, and his impressions of the United States so far.

Ithaca Times:You took an unorthodox path into journalism. Tell us a little bit about your background and how that informs your work now.

Raza Rumi: I was a civil servant in Pakistan, and then got into international development. I was with the Asian Development Bank for nearly a decade, during which time I began to write for Pakistani papers. I was enjoying it so much, getting so much feedback, that I said, ‘Let’s give it a try and make it into a kind of career.’ In 2008 I took a leave from the Asian Development Bank and started editing the Friday Times, a liberal weekly newspaper in Lahore … My background gives me an immense edge in terms of commentaries and analysis. I write with that experience; I know which parts of government talk to each other, how transactions come into effect.

IT: What are the restrictions on freedom of expression in Pakistan?

RR: There are red lines which journalists must not cross. You can’t be critical of the military intelligence agencies of Pakistan. You need to be very careful what you say about religion and Islam, because of the power of the Islamic clerics and militant, violent groups like the Taliban and Pakistani Taliban affiliates. You can’t call for the repeal of the blasphemy law in public. You can call to change the procedures, amend it, review it. But the blasphemy law is said to uphold the sanctity of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, so even to challenge that you’re seen as a kind of heretic.

IT: What are the uses of religion for the power structure in Pakistan?

RR: A good way of maximizing political capital is to use Islam. They say, ‘I’m a good Muslim politician, for people who are faithful, practicing Muslims.’ The military has used it even more since the dictatorship [of General Zia-ul-Haq] in the ‘80s, which used Islam to strengthen their rule for a decade. He kept telling Pakistanis he was here to enforce real Islam, to turn Pakistan into a greater Islamic country, and he took it to another level. During that time Pakistan was using jihadist groups to seek influence in neighboring Afghanistan, with the U.S. and Saudis as part of that project. … The use of Islamic militant groups is part of state policy. That’s what I was trying to challenge every evening with my own show and other shows as well, every evening for hours.

IT: And you were talking about reforming the blasphemy law and the state at the time you were attacked?

RR: I was commenting a lot on that when, in 2012, I started engaging with broadcast media more. I had been writing about these issues since 2005 in English, but there’s a limited readership. On a TV channel there’s the mass media effect of millions watching and noting what was being said. Toward the end of 2013 I was getting a lot of feedback from a lot of people. I was engaging people with what I had to say, but also getting a lot of threats, particularly on social media, on views about Islamic extremism and criticizing the state. … My ideas were getting more traction. I tried to be cautious always, but I had given up all my careers for freedom of expression to get this sort of kick and engagement. I feel like journalism has to guard and stand for the public interest, and use the most powerful and important means to achieve that.

IT: How do you compare the media climates in Pakistan and the United States?

RR: TV is the same format, the same sensationalization. Generally journalists are safer in the U.S., and media has far [broader] limits to criticize religion, policy, and politicians. The one similarity I would say is on national security, in terms of policy and objectives, by and large the mainstream media follows what the Pentagon, White House, and CIA say. The Iraq war is a great example: there was hardly any criticism of that when the U.S. went to Iraq—even the New York Times supported the invasion. Almost a decade later we know it was a disastrous thing to have done. It destroyed Iraq, there were no weapons of mass destruction found, and it led to the growth of groups like the Islamic State. And now the U.S. wants to fight them again. In Pakistan also, being critical of national security is taken as an act of being unpatriotic.

IT: What projects are you working on during your time in Ithaca?

RR: I’m working on a memoir about the last few years, about my work, about almost being killed, and my ideas of what it means to be a public engager. I did one third of the writing the last freezing winter locked up in this house, and I didn’t go anywhere. Now I plan to, hopefully by summer—fingers crossed—to finish a first draft. Once that’s out of the way I want to work on other book projects, including one on international development.

/endprintversion. Internet extras below, in which the interviewer drops the pretense that he actually asked those exact questions to get those exact answers. 

On the feelings of the Pakistani public toward extremism and violence:

Rumi: The majority of Pakistanis don’t support violent extremists. Since 2004 they have been attacking Pakistanis and have killed more than 50,000 civilians and military personnel. When I was engaged in journalistic work, terrorism had gotten beyond control. That was why my voice was loud and heard, because I was saying this terrorism is our own doing. The Pakistani government created these proxies to control Afghanistan, to attack India. Our policy needs to change that we view national security as acting through these proxies. It’s not too much different from what the U.S. did in many parts of Latin America, setting up the Contras groups to do regime change …

So the story is the Pakistani public by a large number does not support these kinds of policies, but they are influenced and controlled through the public opinion, and the media majority echoes the line of the Pakistani military.

(The military) tells us ‘The West is going to take away our nukes. The U.S. bombarded Iraq and Afghanistan and they can come and bombard us as well. We need to be anti-American.’ Or India is our enemy. ‘They harmed us, they broke us into two parts.’

That was 1971. It’s 2016. These ideas are drummed into the heads of ordinary Pakistanis. It’s like manufactured consent, the Chomskyian construct. The majority of the media is like Fox News. The few of us talking about this are called liberals, liberal fascists, traitors, liberal extremists, unpatriotic, sellouts to the West. Now that I’ve come to the U.S. I think I’m certified as a sellout leftist in Pakistan.

On the recent history of Pakistani media:

Rumi: In Pakistan there’s a big history of censorship, media muzzling, but over time it has changed. In the early 2000s General Musharraf deregulated Pakistani media and there was the emergence of many private channels, newspapers, and magazines. Television was all state owned – newspapers were not state-owned, some were, but those that were privately owned were under tight controls. The results have been very mixed. Media played an important role against General Musharraf in 2007, ’08, when new elections were held and democracy returned, the dictatorship was over.

On how he’s continuing to work with the Friday Times using technology.

Rumi: I still commission new stories and edit them (for the Friday Times). Initially when I came here I said ‘How will I do it?’ But technology has really facilitated that. There’s all of this talk in journalism of changing frontiers and it is actually true. I use Whatsapp, Skype, Viber, Twitter, countless other platforms. All day long I can be connected with my team, sources, and colleagues in the industry, so as these conversations are going on I manage to do work with the paper. I did a story on HuffPost where I interviewed a Yazidi refugee from Iraq via Skype. He took the camera into this refugee camp and showed me the camp. I walked with him, technologically speaking.

Rally ‘Round The Gadsden: A Meeting Of Upstate New York Secessionists

Vice News expressed interest in coverage of an Upstate New York secession rally, held on Sunday, August 30 in Bainbridge – a lovely little village on the Susquehanna about halfway between Binghamton and Oneonta. So I went, and wrote the story pretty “straight” on Monday morning, as was requested, and it must’ve been too straight, or something, because it was killed. There were a couple TV reports from the rally, but this is the only “print” report so far as I can tell.

If, someday, the state of New York decides to get a legal divorce, whatever government or revolutionary committee is operating in Chenango County will have to spring for a historical marker in the village of Bainbridge.

The first “Secession Movement Rally” was held there on Sunday, Aug. 30, in General Clinton Park on the banks of the Susquehanna River. Southern Tier landowner groups who want to allow fracking have proposed joining Pennsylvania, a story that made news this past February. Another proposal pitched by the “Divide New York State Caucus” calls for a two-region “autonomous zone” that separates the city and Downstate from Upstate. Regional governments would do most of the legislating – the new one region is to be called “New Amsterdam” – with the state governor retaining “no more power than the Queen of England,” according to caucus chair John Bergener, Jr.

Bainbridge Rally Cuomo Must Go
The nitty-gritty business of how to secede was discussed some during the rally, but the majority of the 11 speakers throughout the nearly three-hour event focused on why they have problems with living in Upstate New York. Burdensome regulations – on guns, gas, and schools – figured prominently in the litany of woes, as did Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s existence. Safety-green T-shirts with “CUOMO MUST GO” on the back and a handful of red “Yes, I Can Say Windsor, Pennsylvania” were dotted throughout a crowd that peaked at about 150, though it dwindled to perhaps half that by the end. They mingled under a row of pop-up tents sheltering tables loaded with literature on too-high taxes, unconstitutional gun control, jury nullification, and how to frack safely.

Dan Devlin, of the New York Oath Keepers, began the proceedings by decrying New York’s SAFE Act, the state gun control law passed in 2013. The greatest injustice, Devlin said, is the state’s mistrust of those who served in the military or police.

“You have to go to the state or county and say, please, may I have a firearm,” Devlin said. He called for men to stand up and defend their rights and the rights of those scarred by war. “I can tell you of people who lost arms and legs and their sanity and sight because they believed you’d take care of the country they left you.”

Devlin made clear his position on whether he feels the Constitution is actually in effect when the next speaker asked him to lead the Pledge of Allegiance and he called for someone else to do that duty.
“Are there any veterans in the crowd who would like to lead this pledge?” Devlin asked. “It’s a pretty important thing to decline to do this … Until people know what they’re taking the pledge to, I’ll decline on occasion.”

Upstate Secession Bainbridge
Several horror stories of “American heroes” screwed over by stringent gun laws were told by Steve Aldstadt of SCOPE, including one about an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who “had a few rifles with the pistol grip on them, the scary kind,” that he needed to sell to make ends meet. After visiting a dealer with these guns, which Aldstadt said were legal in other states, the veteran was reported to “the feds.” They posed as a gun buyer and are now charging the veteran with felonies.

“They’re making good, honest people into criminals,” Aldstadt said, before closing his piece with a shout of “Andrew Cuomo, let my people go!”

The “New York 2nd Amendment Grassroots Coalition,” or NY2A for short, was handing out postcards with four emphases listed – education, voter registration, nullification, and non-compliance. REGISTER NOTHING the card said, in government-stamp font, alongside a picture of four men feeding papers into a lit kettle grill.

Jake Palmateer of NY2A told his story of New York’s Sullivan Act, a concealed weapons law passed in 1911. The sponsoring state senator, Tim Sullivan, was “suffering from syphilis, he was crazy,” Palmateer said. To boot, the law was “born out of ethnophobia” – the Irish didn’t want Italians to have handguns. This led into a mention of the National Rifle Association helping to arm Southern blacks against the KKK during Reconstruction.

Secede! Upstate Secession - Bainbridge

 

Freeing gas from the ground after New York’s statewide fracking ban was also a popular talking point.

Vic Furman said he was watching his grandchildren play in the yard the morning of the rally and was wondering how their lives would turn out.

“They’re going to have people like Yoko Ono telling them how to live their life, while flying around in jets,” Furman said, referring to Ono’s Pennsylvania tours with Gasland director Josh Fox. “We have to get these assholes in Albany out,” Furman concluded.

Sandra Davis, of the Deposit Gas Group, had her own big closing line after she talked about gas drilling benefiting everyone: “It’s all well and good to save the whales. Let’s save our young families, too.”

And Jane Stebela, of Americans for Restoring the Constitution, read a Jeffersonian declaration of secession, which started its litany of grievances with this: “Property Rights is the Cornerstone of our Freedom and our potential Wealth. This Right has been usurped by the Royal Governor and his Activist Minions by restricting the opportunity of extracting precious minerals provided by the Infallible Creator himself. Surely God had no plan to harm us with the bountiful Natural Resources provided for our consumption.”

Common Core requirements and testing came up for criticism. Cathy Sapeta, of New Yorkers United For Kids, told the crowd that the new education requirements are “not about education, it’s about control and money.”

“’It’s going to take about 10 years to see if this education stuff works,’” Sapeta said she had read in an interview with Bill Gates, “the biggest sponsor” of Common Core. “They tell you it’s about education, but it’s about sorting children.”

Gilda Ward, of a local Tea Party group, expressed the most wide-ranging frustration. She told of her son having to leave the state to find a job, and talked about Upstate towns that “look more like inner-city Detroit.” Cuomo is all about control, Ward said, citing the “Upstate New York Economic Revitalization Competition,” the governor’s initiative to fund three $500 million proposals from seven different regions from financial crisis settlement monies.

“Again, we have to have a contest,” Ward said, “for these public-private partnerships that don’t have much to do with the needs of the people. They call it the upstate Hunger Games. Isn’t that lovely?”

Bergener said in a phone interview that much of his motivation for working with the Divide New York caucus the past seven years is also frustration that his own children and friends’ kids have had to move out-of-state to find jobs. Bergener acknowledged that a new region without Downstate’s tax revenues would have less state income, but it “wouldn’t be a super-poor place.” One of the things the “token state government” would still take care of through some taxation power, Bergener said, is outstanding pension obligations – “one of the most expensive things.”

“The current regulations are destroying everything,” Bergener said. Since no Congressional approval is needed for the New Amsterdam plan, two separate regions is realistic, he believes.

“Once people accept that it’s a workable plan, it’s getting people to believe it could actually happen,” Bergener said. That will require voters saying yes to the every-20-years ballot question of “should New York have a constitutional convention?” in 2017 – and then sending delegates to that convention who will work for regional autonomy.

Palmateer told the ralliers that the idea for secession has come “from strange places before” – that is, New York City. He cited Norman Mailer and Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaigns and said that the city’s support will definitely be needed if any sort of secession plan can happen.

“We won’t get anywhere without the support of New York City,” Palmateer said. “They get to keep their lifestyle, and we get to live free. Or freer.”

Josh Brokaw is a writer currently based in Ithaca, N.Y. Direct critiques, communiques, and cash to jaydbrokaw at gmail.com

This One Thing Communal Kitchens & Music Fests Have In Common!

Originally published as a ‘Reporters’ Notebook’ in the Ithaca Times on July 15, accompanying features on a five-day-a-week community kitchen and the GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance. Photo from a Second Wind Cottages workday, which I wrote up here.

An economics textbook would never call an organization like Loaves and Fishes or GrassRoots classic examples of “horizontal integration.”

There’s no incentive for a community kitchen to expand across the nation to control all the free lunch spots like Rockefeller’s Standard Oil eating up all the refineries in the late 1800s.

There’s far too many artists in this country for one amorphous group of music-lovers based in an office in Trumansburg’s Masonic Lodge to watch all the shows on YouTube and book all the fairgrounds. No one group can monopolize feeding the hungry, whether the nutrition they serve is soup for the stomach or music for the soul.

Yet, those who do the work for these two local institutions are very “horizontally integrated.” Both organizations have only a handful of paid staffers and absolutely could not keep going and growing without volunteer workers that come from all walks of life. And neither Loaves nor GrassRoots hold it against those who keep showing up to feed themselves and don’t take a turn at the dishwashing sink or ticket booth.

“I think the philosophy for 31 years has been we’re all in this together,” Christina Culver of Loaves told me. “We purposely don’t want to be hierarchical and say ‘Oh, here’s these great volunteers helping you, who are the needy.’”

At Loaves, that philosophy shows through as people who come there at low points start asking how they can help, and end up serving people who come in uniform or shirt and tie. And who knows how many salaried daily suit-wearers will be enjoying music and food and yoga at GrassRoots this weekend, while there are broke students and fixed-income retirees working the gates and cleaning the latrines. Taking in all comers and operating generously and freely in one place for years, this is how a daily meal or a now quarterly festival starts getting called a “sweet community,” a “tribe,” a “family.”

There’s all sorts of need in this world, and sometimes it’s dire; organizations like the Red Cross have press agents who constantly remind us that people and resources are getting sent to places around the world to help when flood and famine happen. Sending a few bucks their way via text or Facebook link is doing someone, somewhere, some good.

Every day, though, there is work to be done so that people in Tompkins County have something to eat, something to hear, something to do. Not everyone can show up to cook five times a week, or spend two weeks in July setting up tents. Looking up from the daily grind, though, surely everyone can find a few minutes to look someone in the eye and say, “What can I do to help, here, today?” •

“Because Democracy” Ain’t Enough Of An Argument

An opinion piece originally run in the April 8 Ithaca Times.
School teachers are overpaid! Governor Cuomo is a scumbag! Stop attacking our kids! Let the teachers teach! We have got to stop graduating idiots!
Do I have everybody’s attention now? And if so, have any of these bold statements convinced you of a new belief over how public education should be?
While talking with and listening to many public educators in the course of writing last week’s
cover story (“Fight Still On,” April 1), there were some very fair points made by administrative types that Cuomo’s tactic of withholding school funding numbers till the budget was agreed on wreaks havoc on local schools’ planning. Albany politicking making life no fun for New Yorkers is an old story, and the order of operations that applies to the school funding formula is an obvious symptom of dysfunctional governance. That sort of mess is the newsman’s job to report and interpret until his readers’ eyes droop shut of statistic and acronym fatigue.
Headline­worthy quotes, though, do not come from administrators patiently explaining the effects
of the GEA on their district. They come from a place of real anger at Cuomo’s education agenda – believed by many to be driven by Wall Street hedge fund billionaires that want to privatize schools nationwide – and what one hears from the incensed at rallies and the like is a lot of “stops.” Stop cutting our funding. Stop balancing the budget at the expense of our kids. Stop requiring all these standardized tests that take away our teaching time. Stop funding privately­-run charter schools at the expense of public schools. Leave us alone!
The “leave us alone to teach, we know the kids better, just fund us!” argument hasn’t changed much in at least the past 15 years or so this observer has read the news. It needs updating, because if the crisis is as dire as the public school advocates say, they have some powerful opponents who have already claimed plenty of rhetorical high ground.
Those who argue, with Cuomo, that teachers need to be held to a higher, more measurable standard have some deeply ingrained public beliefs on their side: In short, that education can be measured in results, and so a completed college degree should lead in a straight line to worldly success. If society agrees that the aims of education are to turn out students who go to the best colleges [measured by U.S. News rankings]; then go on to get the best jobs [measured by salary]; and then contribute the most to society [measured by charitable giving] then test, test, and test some more.
The student should be prepared for the hardships of the Global Marketplace, which has ever-
increasing requirements for the “hard” intellectual, STEM skills. Can you build a bridge? asks the Marketplace. Can you code a program that lets teenagers send each other inappropriate photos? Will you provide value to our shareholders? This is the apparent aim of New York City’s Success Academies, if one believes the April 6 report in the New York Times on those schools’ philosophy: Test a lot; everyone sit up straight all the time; somewhat regular peeing-­of­-pants during tests.
Starting with “we do not encourage pants­wetting” might be a good start for public schools advocates to refresh their rhetoric, if creating a class of technical adepts who can beat the Commies to Uranus or best the Chinese in smartphone design is not granted as the only social good. To shape society’s beliefs about what education should be, though, without a reliance on “stops” and “nots,” will require first some reflection on the part of educators. Why do we need public education? [Hint: The answer is not “because democracy,” go deeper]. Then, convince me of your answer.

What’s Wrong With The Silent Pro-Dog Minority

An opinion piece, originally published in the March 11 Ithaca Times

If the Internet is to be believed, a large majority of Ithacans would love to take their dogs for a walk on the Commons whenever the downtown pedestrian mall gets to looking fresh again.

Mayor Svante Myrick asked his Facebook followers their opinion both last September and in late February: should the 40-year-old ban on Commons canines should be lifted? Over the course of a couple hundred comments between the two strings, the Yays outnumbered the Nays about three to one.
“Why not Fido?” asked the online dog lovers. “S/he goes with me everywhere,” they said. “Dogs are everywhere in Europe, and Paris/Rome/Berlin is beautiful.” “Whenever we visit City X (Burlington, Asheville, Portland, any weird little city, really), no one there has any problem with dogs downtown.” Mostly, the affirmatives said “yes,” “yeah,” or “YES YESS YES.”

If one asked a selection of Commons merchants their opinion, several said they welcome in four-legged patrons. If not they seemed unconcerned, even blasé about the issue. One found it “very interesting” that a ban existed, then complained about smoking on the Commons. Some thought allowing dogs might help business, as tourists tend to bring along their pets – especially that yearly tourists-and-their-greyhounds bus. One merchant of 26 years said that dogs have been on the Commons “since Day One” and there’s no way to keep them off, “legally or illegally.”

Economic impact and certainty in enforcement were the two driving reasons why the Commons Advisory Board recommended dogs be legalized. Economic, because merchants have been hard-hit by reconstruction and will take all the business they can get, drool or no. Enforcement is difficult for police because it’s very easy for someone who’s caught with a poodle on the Commons to say “Oh, no, my Fifi is a service dog.” Those papers are easier to acquire than your Wednesday Ithaca Times.

Sniff those winds of prevailing opinion. Stop into a Lake Street tavern where a pit bull has claimed a stool. Watch passing strangers, man or woman, young or old, having an oh-you’re-soooo-cute squeal over one another’s poodle or pit bull. It seemed concluded that Ithaca and its Commons was gone to the dogs.

The only obstacle was a vote of Common Council at their March 4 meeting, where they were to consider a whole package of Commons law rewrites on everything from outdoor dining boundaries to a move-along rule for buskers. This was when Fido’s foes showed up in force. A force of a half-dozen or so, but they were there.

The no-dogs minority had stated their opposition on the Internet strings. They said they were either allergic, or afraid – of doggie disputes, of scaring the kids, of the few ruining it for the many, of poop smeared upon the shiny new Commons pavers. Besides one Ithacan arguing for a statue of Odysseus’ hound, these were the people Council heard talk. And Council said, “Well, dogs can wait,” because councils give more weight to people who show up than those who do not.

Council is not required to read Facebook comments – though 50 or so old-fashioned emails to one alderperson or another, which do go on record, might have changed the debate’s tone. There wasn’t one. And a lively Facebook presence might make national reporters drool, but it doesn’t give Mayor Myrick the power to tell Council to roll over.

Perhaps it’s true that all this means is that “people in Ithaca know the law is soft,” as the one, dog-opposed, Commons merchant who showed up March 4 said. Maybe Ithacans do “laugh at the signs.”
Until Ithacans start telling their government what to put on the signs, though, no one should be whining when on a trip with Toto to the pretty new Commons, an officer says “Get off there! I said, GET OFF!”

Time To Buy Some Frying Pans

Originally published in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on July 11, 2013.
Another local family-owned restaurant succumbed to the pressures of the market this past week.
Patrons and long-time employees of Fox’s Family Restaurant, in Halls, hugged and laughed and cried and told each other they’d becomes friends on Facebook on Saturday evening, as the last night of meals were served at a restaurant that began in the early ’50s as a grocery store and ice cream shop on the corner of Jordan Avenue and Montour Street in Montoursville.
“You don’t know where we’re going to pop up,” waitress Kenna Snyder told a long-time customer as she was leaving. “You’ll find us working in a restaurant and you’ll see us around.”
“I’m really upset about this,” said Betty Jo Soohy, of Hughesville. “They’re family. I’ve been going to a Fox’s since I was 16. It’s just like home cooking, and I got to know all the waitresses’ life stories. Every time I think about it I cry. I never thought there’d be a time when I was going to be alive when there wouldn’t be a Fox’s.”
Long-time regulars don’t know where they’ll eat out now.
“I knew the Foxs since I was a little kid, I was 10 or 11. I went to Canada with Jack and Mary,” said Bill Boyles, of Pennsdale. “We’ve gone here every week — we like to support the hometown people versus the chain.”
“I’ll miss the jokes,” his wife Christine said. “You got to be in on the in-crowd here.”
“These people are like family. They sent flowers to my aunt when she was in the hospital last December,” said Linda Kibbe, of Williamsport. “When my mother was living we’d come two or three times a week. The chains are nice for a change now and then, but it’s so unfortunate to see family businesses struggle.”
Fox’s baked goods and bread were highly regarded in the area. On Saturday some half-price loaves of their Italian, raisin and English muffin breads were all that was left, with only crumbs remaining on trays where their last batches of delicacies were displayed, and their home-style menu bore headings like Serious Salads, Gram’s Cupboard, and I Want a Burger.
Tim Fox, who co-owned the restaurant with his brother Dennis and sister Susie, said that competitive pressure from chain restaurants was one of the reasons they decided to close.
“When Mr. Gleason, who owned the property we have now, decided to sell off some of his farm, the agreement was there would never be an off-ramp to the mall other than this one.”
The last Fox’s opened on June 23, 1976, after time spent in the current Johnson’s Cafe and a location in Muncy opened in 1972 that flooded three times in four years.
“Gleason came over to the restaurant one day, and we were mudding out,” Fox said. “Mom asked, ‘Mr. Gleason, do you have some land for sale?’ He said yes, and Mom put down her shovel and said ‘We’re moving.”
“Our employees, other than a few hostesses and dishwashers, were the same employees for 30-plus years,” Fox continued. “I grew up around these people and now I’m their boss. It’s bittersweet … though Dad built the building himself, it’s just a building. The memories we take forever.”
Holly Baker waited tables at Fox’s for 30 years.
“I’ve been with the family now through thick and thin. The people are so wonderful. Mrs. Fox, when she was alive, everyone got the gospel preached to them. To have to leave and walk out is so hard. I’ll spend a lot of time with my grandchildren this summer, and hopefully by fall find myself another job.”
For the last 23 years, Glen Zarr bussed tables at Fox’s.
“The girls in the bakery made me everything,” he said. “I’ve got to cook myself now. I’ll have to buy myself some frying pans.”

Cornell Protesters Don’t Like Getting Investigated

Originally published in the Ithaca Times on May 6. This is my original draft.

In the week before Cornell’s big Charter Day celebration the weekend of April 24-27, several students active in “#FightTheFee” protests were called in to speak with administrators, or, in two cases, with Cornell police investigator Justin Baum. The student organizers, who had staged two protests during spring 2015 against the university’s proposed $350 health care fee for those not enrolled in Cornell insurance, say the irony of these conversations is that they had nothing scheduled for Charter Day events at all.

“We’re not nearly as cool as they think we are,” said Alex Brown, a Ph.D student in German studies, before Charter Day weekend.

“We anticipate that you will use (Charter Day) as an opportunity to continue your protests,” vice president Susan Murphy wrote students Wyatt Nelson and Michael Ferrer on April 19 in an email requesting a meeting, “and want to discuss with you what we expect to happen over the course of the weekend.”

What did end up happening over Charter Day weekend was an April 26 demonstration announcing the formation of the “Cornell Independent Students’ Union” – an entity organizers say is unrelated to #FightTheFee, though several people are involved in both. That gathering of about 60 students was held outdoors, where protests do not need approval under campus rules.

Where students and faculty say the administration and police crossed a line in the run-up to Charter Day was during Baum’s interview with Daniel Marshall, a class of 2015 undergraduate. It’s the recording of that interview that has students and faculty crying intimidation – some faculty have said it’s the most nervous they have seen the administration since the fight over chopping down Redbud Woods in 2005.

The Interview

In a recording of the approximately 15-minute interview provided to media, Baum first tells Marshall he’s “just in the information finding stage” and that he doesn’t “suspect there will be any charges forthcoming, at least from what I’ve been told.”

Baum was trying to gather information about an image posted on the “Save the Pass” Facebook page in the early morning hours of March 26 that shows an image that says “Welcome the Trustees” projected in the Statler Hall auditorium. (Later that day, protesters welcoming Cornell’s trustees followed them inside Statler Hall, where they made a ruckus outside the closed door meeting).

After Marshall declined to answer questions about what he knew of the picture and some butcher paper that was allegedly hung on the walls, Baum changed his tone. He told Marshall he had “subpoenaed” information from Facebook about page organizers, and had the “ability to charge you with a D-felony and two misdemeanors right now.”

“I don’t want to charge you with burglary, I don’t want to ruin your life,” Baum said. “Your cooperation is going to produce that. If you cooperate with me you will not be charged with a burglary. If you don’t cooperate with me I’m going to charge you with a burglary and probably come into one of your classes the next few days and walk you out in handcuffs.”

Once students posted an online “communique” about the incident, faculty got wind and over 100 had signed their names to a brief letter written by associate professor of history Ray Craib that reads in part: “Flat-footed, heavy-handed, offensive: that sums up the actions of the administration and its police force. Is the central administration that insecure?”

Organizing from the top down

“The administration is our best organizer, and now maybe the CUPD is there,” Marshall said. “Over last two years I’d say our numbers have quadrupled or quintupled.”

Many of those active in the #FightTheFee protests this spring got their start in efforts to save freshman bus passes in spring 2014. While the administration says that protests should not be disruptive, and some students critique actions like the sit-in at Day Hall on Feb. 10, Marshall says that was how the bus pass effort was won.

“They kept saying ‘We don’t have the money – and then suddenly one day the money appeared,” Marshall said. “We had about 50 people outside of Day Hall ready to do a sit-in when Skorton came out with Joe Malina and an entire media crew and said the passes were staying.”

Marshall doesn’t think his job as an activist, though, is “to get people riled up.”
“Our role is to connect the dots on how their policies are affecting people,” Marshall said. “There’s this kind of insistence that ‘You’re here to study, we’re here to administrate’ – this isn’t your role. That might be what a lot of students want to do, but policies they’ve been enacting like budget cuts in the arts college, tuition increases that equal about $4,000 over past 2 years … there’s a growing list of things that are threatening students’ abilities to be here.”

Brown also sees the role of campus organizers as connecting the dots.
“We’ve been careful from the beginning to not make (the health care fee) an issue in isolation from everything else,” Brown said. “It’s connected to low-income students who get promised no-loan financial aid, then are forced to take out loans, when their work-study and summer job won’t cut it as part of their expected student contribution.”

Faculty response

“Overkill is the first word that comes to mind,” Craib said of his feeling when he first learned of the investigation. “The students are asking good questions, the same ones faculty have been asking about the deficits. Maybe the jumpiness is coming from the willingness of the students to do their homework on the trustees.”

Eric Cheyfitz, a professor in English, thinks the investigation “violates both the spirit and the letter of what it means to be a part of the community at Cornell.”
“I think it’s a bad mistake, the administration isn’t getting good advice,” Cheyfitz said. “They’re upping the ante in a battle where they can only become more and more alienated from their constituencies.”

There has been speculation that recent budget cuts have something to do with overbuilding, Cheyfitz said, though no one knows for sure. Arts college faculty sent a letter to the administration on April 23 protesting cuts.

“This whole budget crisis has suddenly materialized out of nowhere,” Cheyfitz said. “That means belt tightening across the board. There’s supposed to be consultation with the faculty senate on these matters and that has not been the case.”

Whatever the motivations behind the investigation, there have been calls for a fuller explanation from the administration than the statement released by Cornell police head Kathy Zoner that stated CUPD “was asked to conduct a criminal investigation into alleged felonious behavior” that was not related to the protests on Feb. 10 or March 26.

“The whole community deserves a full explanation from the Cornell police and Cornell administration of what they did and why they did it,” said Risa Lieberwitz, a professor at the Industrial and Labor Relations school. “If it turns out when we hear all the information that it was an overly aggressive action then there should be consequences.”

Hanging With The Mayor & Chief

Originally published in the Ithaca Times on May 20.

Now that tobacco use is nearly as unhip as one-party machine politics, smoke-filled back rooms are a thing of American political history. Back room consultations over coffee, however, are still alive and well, if the “Coffee with the Mayor & Chief” meetings going on in Ithaca are any indication.

The difference between these meetings with Chief John Barber and Mayor Svante Myrick and the typical back room summit is that no one is summoned to attend. Anyone can come into the public space of the coffee shop, sit down, and have a chat with the leaders of their city and police department.
Two more of these sessions are scheduled this spring for the mornings of May 20 and 27 at the Gimme! Coffee on West State Street. Four have been held this spring, three at local Dunkin’ Donuts.

Citizens attending these sessions might want to have a question or two prepared, since the meetings are not an entirely open affair. There is a sign-up system in place with a place to put one’s questions, so the mayor and chief can have one-on-one conversations with their constituents.
Though taking people in by ones or twos doesn’t quite capture the free-ranging marketplace aesthetic of Athenian democracy to which some idealists might aspire, the measure of privacy does allow people to speak a bit more freely about their issues.

For example, on the morning of May 13 a mother speaking with Barber and Myrick wondered how the city could provide more programs for teenagers. She wasn’t excusing some “punk ass shit” her youngster pulled that brought down trouble, but had looked around for mentorship programs to keep older youth, high school-aged, out of trouble and found little. Barber suggested some places she might go, and then Myrick answered her second question – “What are the city’s quality of life goals?”
“Security,” he said first, “so that people can walk down the street without fear.”
The second, Myrick said, was economic security/affordable housing – “I think we’re better than most cities on the first one, and we’re struggling with the second.”

Helen Kuveke, a West Ender, said that she was concerned with people she sees struggling to walk down the street on their own, under the influence of heroin or other substances.
“I can look out my kitchen window and buy any drug I want,” Kuveke said. Treatment and enforcement are the city’s two avenues of action, she was told, – there are no easy answers to an epidemic that’s gripped rural America for the past 20-plus years.

On the topic of affordable housing, Sean Gannon suggested the city look into guaranteeing loans for housing sales, so “Grandma can get the money from a home, and the grandson can get a house he can afford.” The University of Pennsylvania operates a program in Philadelphia that works to get employees into homes in the city they can afford, Gannon told Barber and Myrick.

Arron Bound, a South Sider, came in to pay the IPD a compliment. He’d seen a street fight broken up by officers a few years ago, in a peaceful manner, and said that in his native Cleveland “they would’ve been thrown to the ground and everybody would have been arrested.”
Bound did have a question for the chief: Why does the department buy so many SUVs, compared to sedans? Isn’t gas mileage an issue?
“Really, the mileage is comparable (with sedan cruisers),” Barber said. “They allow us to carry equipment, put a full cage in it, and they’ve got four-wheel-drive which is really helpful.”

The long, morning lines at Gimme! had both the mayor and chief wondering whether that was just the line for java or if they had far more folks waiting to talk. On this morning, over two hours, they had about 15 conversations. Some heavy issues were raised, and some were more of a hello and a chat. Betsy Herrington came by to say hello and give a hug to Myrick, and met Barber for the first time.
“About 1 out of 10 are coming to see me,” Barber said. “Well, no, for the record, let’s say two out of three.”