8/28/2009 2:37:31 PM
If thinking about Detroit conjures up depressing images of battle-scarred landscapes, you must read Mark Dowie’s proposal to turn the city into an “agrarian paradise.” Writing for Guernica, Dowie lays out an ambitious argument for why this maligned city—which is home to zero grocery chains or big-box stores and is very nearly a complete food desert—“may be best positioned to become the world’s first 100 percent food self-sufficient city.”
The most intriguing visionaries in Detroit, at least the ones who drew me to the city, were those who imagine growing food among the ruins—chard and tomatoes on vacant lots (there are over 103,000 in the city, 60,000 owned by the city), orchards on former school grounds, mushrooms in open basements, fish in abandoned factories, hydroponics in bankrupt department stores, livestock grazing on former golf courses, high-rise farms in old hotels, vermiculture, permaculture, hydroponics, aquaponics, waving wheat where cars were once test-driven, and winter greens sprouting inside the frames of single-story bungalows stripped of their skin and re-sided with Plexiglas—a homemade greenhouse. Those are just a few of the agricultural technologies envisioned for the urban prairie Detroit has become.
Dowie examines a few interesting proposals and checks in with several burgeoning urban-farming movements in the city, from nonprofits and schools to the “backyard garden boom” being spurred by immigrants from Laos and Bangladesh.
He also meets a few skeptics who are wary of a field-filled Detroit, but he remains excited at the prospect of the city’s “rural future.”
“Where else in the world can one find a one-hundred-and-forty-square-mile agricultural community with four major league sports teams, two good universities, the fifth largest art museum in the country, a world-class hospital, and headquarters of a now-global industry, that while faltering, stands ready to green their products and keep three million people in the rest of the country employed?”
Image by photofarmer, licensed under Creative Commons.
8/28/2009 12:36:04 PM
The walls of Walid al-Ani’s plastic surgey clinic in Fallujah, Iraq are scarred from years of gun battles and American bombardment. He’s a popular guy these days, according to a piece by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting on the surge in demand for plastic surgery in Iraq’s war-torn Anbar province, known to most Americans as the “Sunni triangle”:
Saad Nasir, a 44-year-old bank employee, recently took his wife to see Ani for skin grafts. In March 2006, she suffered severe burns on her back when the US military dropped flares during clashes with insurgents. One of the flares set their house alight. At a cost of 3,000 dollars, the grafts “are not risky, but they are expensive,” Nasir said.
…According to a report released in July by Anbar’s health directorate, an estimated 100 people with war-related injuries undergo reconstructive surgery in the province each month. Between 130,000 and 250,000 US dollars is being spent on the procedures in Anbar monthly, the report said. Most of the patients are women.
Source: Institute for War and Peace Reporting
8/27/2009 4:42:42 PM
New York public schools are giving students cell phones and rewarding them for attendance and good behavior with free phone credits. The program, called the Million, was designed by the advertising agency Droga5, and has already been implemented in various Brooklyn public schools. Creative Review reports that the Million has won awards and praises in the advertising world, and may soon expand to the entire New York public school system. Some teachers have said that the cell phones provide unexpected benefits, including, at least one case, the first contact number they’ve ever had for some students.
Praise for the program hasn’t been universal, however. Critics have accused the Million of “replacing learning for its own sake with a market-driven system” according to Creative Review. Others have pointed out that the incentives could unfairly punish children with serious behavioral problems. Camila Batmanghelidjh, of the charity Kids Company, told the magazine, “it’s suggesting that all negative behaviour from these children is self-chosen, and actually the ones with the serious problems do not choose. And it’s unfair then, because they’ll never get there. It actually exaggerates the divide, rather than facilitates the solution.”
The Million could also provide an avenue for direct marketing to children, though Droga5 animatedly denies that accusation. The president and CEO of the agency, David Droga said, “It was always the agreement that eventually it would be able to subsidise itself by brands being able to support initiatives, so you might have brand x that is associated with fitness, not selling shoes, but sponsoring a programme or something. There always has to be an education link, it wasn’t going to be suddenly selling burgers. That would kill it straight away because it would undermine everything.”
Image by GustavH, licensed under Creative Commons.
8/24/2009 8:14:37 AM
Two young architects are taking a novel approach to housing in one Indian slum: They’re working with the community to improve its houses gradually and organically, based on design input and support from the people who live there.
This may not sound radical, but it is, reports Canadian architecture and design magazine Azure (article not available online). The magazine spotlights Filipe Balestra and Sara Göransson, whose incremental housing strategy is quite a departure from most slum “improvement” projects. “Upgrading a slum usually means tearing everything down and building housing blocks,” Göransson told Azure. “We wanted to improve their living conditions and allow them to keep their neighbors and social networks.”
Göransson and Balestra are working with architects and nonprofits in India to roll out the project in Netaji Nagar, a neighborhood within a large inner-city slum in the city of Pune. After a series of community workshops (pictured below), they settled on three different house prototypes, all of which are easy for families to expand or change in the future. One of the prototypes leaves a “void” on the ground floor, so that the space can be easily used as a shop, to house livestock, or store a rickshaw.
Construction is scheduled to begin after the monsoon season, probably sometime in September. Read all about the project on Göransson and Balestra’s website, which houses tons of fascinating details and beautiful photos, illustrations, and maps.
“The poor really need architecture, but they cannot pay,” Balestra told Azure. “We want to contribute.”
Image courtesy of Filipe Balestra.
8/20/2009 10:30:56 AM
For the past few years, the Texas Observer has been tracking the under-funded and inadequate Texas state institutions for the mentally disabled. Workers at one such institution made international headlines when footage of resident "fight-clubs," organized by guards, found its way to CNN. The September-October 2008 issue of Utne Reader highlighted one of the Observer’s findings: “The culprit behind some 1,266 incidents of abuse in the past three fiscal years...is a systemic failure to fund enough qualified workers to provide decent care.”
The U.S. Department of Justice, after conducting its own investigation, threatened to sue the state of Texas if it didn't clean up its act, and quickly. The state did not act quickly, but it did act.
In June, the Observer delivered some good news. The Texas legislature finally voted to add $279 million in state and federal funds to the state school budget throughout the next five years. 1,160 more doctors, dentists, nurses, and direct care workers will be hired.
But one problem lingers: You get what you pay for and workers will still be paid "fast-food wages." Direct care workers are, on average, the lowest-paid state employees in Texas. If the state doesn’t move to fix this lingering issue, it faces the threat of another Justice Department lawsuit. "The hard work of bettering these sprawling institutions," writes the Observer, "has only just begun.”
The Texas Observer
8/19/2009 5:29:10 PM
Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, and other hate groups can’t hide from the Southern Poverty Law Center. The organization created an interactive map, detailing the whereabouts of the 926 active hate groups in the United States. Users can find out which of groups are located in their home states, using interactive location markers to differentiate the neo-Confederates from the racist skinheads.
Southern Poverty Law Center
8/18/2009 9:24:43 AM
Transparency advocates are questioning the sincerity of Barack Obama’s inauguration-day pledge to create “a new era of openness” in government. The administration has taken concrete steps toward creating more transparency and cooperation between the government and the American people, but it’s also disappointed many with a sometimes baffling degree of secrecy. Ellen S. Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, told Congressional Quarterly, “There is real transparency, and then there is transparency theater. I can distinguish between the two.”
Miller’s criticism is notable, in part because the Sunlight Foundation has been one of the White House’s best partners on transparency issues. At the National Civic Summit in July, the administration’s Chief Technology Officer, Aneesh Chopra, touted the organization’s Apps for America contest as a prime example of the government’s commitment to cooperation.
Participants in Apps for America try to create the best application presenting raw government data in a new and interesting light. The winner of last year’s contest was Filibusted, a website that tries to hold Senators accountable for their use of the filibuster. Applications for this year’s Apps for America 2 include SpendTrendus, a website that allows users to track government spending by keyword.
The Sunlight Foundation was also cited recently in an $18 million government contract awarded to the software company Smartronix to help the federal government bring more transparency to the “stimulus package.” The problem with that deal, according to the investigative website ProPublica, is that the details of that contract released to the public “are so heavily blacked out they are virtually worthless.”
The software company asserted in the contract that the Sunlight Foundation “is willing to advise Team Smartronix on transparency,” a characterization that the organization disputed. Clay Johnson of the Sunlight Foundation told ProPublica that he had never been contacted directly by the company and isn’t involved in the contract. He added, “We’re willing to advise anybody on transparency.”
The issue with the Smartronix contract isn’t really transparency, since the company’s work could actually increase openness. In an interview with Utne Reader, Johnson emphasized, “people want authenticity” in government. That authenticity, according to Johnson, is what separates real transparency from “transparency theater.”
For more, read Utne Reader’s past coverage of government transparency and accountability.
Sources: Congressional Quarterly, ProPublica, Sunlight Foundation
Image adapted from photos by the
and TheTruthAbout, licensed under Creative Commons.
8/17/2009 1:34:02 PM
Ten years ago a Dutch organization called Women on Waves devised a solution for women seeking abortions in countries that ban it: an abortion clinic on a ship where doctors would perform the delicate operation in international waters under the jurisdiction of The Netherlands.
All told, only a symbolic number of abortions have been performed on the boat, and now that Dutch law is leaning conservative on abortion the ship is docked—for now.
Paul Ames interviews Women on Waves founder Rebbeca Gomperts for Global Post:
Gomperts said WoW's biggest achievement was perhaps a 2004 campaign in Portugal where warships were deployed to prevent the Dutch ship Borndiep from approaching the coast.
No women were able to come aboard for abortions, but Gomperts said the publicity generated helped win over Portuguese public opinion in a referendum that voted to legalize abortion in 2007. Early in 2009, WoW won a case at the European Court of Human Rights against the Portuguese navy’s action.
"We have been able to help a symbolic number of women in order to create a better awareness about the social injustice that is created by illegal abortion and the suffering that is caused for women," she said. "The ship is never a solution … It has been a very important tool to mobilize women's organizations, and other groups, doctors and lawyers, around safe and legal abortion."
…While political developments have hampered the movement, Gomperts said medical progress has made abortion easier and safer, with the widespread availability of pills like mifepristone and misoprostol. The use of such drugs in so-called medical abortions removes the need for the traditional intrusive procedures which, when carried out illegally by backstreet abortionists, kill almost 70,000 women every year.
Source: Global Post
Image by Women on Waves.
8/17/2009 12:51:16 PM
The detention, torture, and murder of lesbian, gay, and transgendered people in Iraq is the subject of a Human Rights Watch report released this week. We've reported on the slow response of the human rights community to sexual cleansing in Iraq, and we've reported on the brutal torture techniques captured on video and distributed via cell phone as a warning to members of what some iraqis call the "third sex." The Human Rights Watch Report, They Want Us Exterminated: Murder, Torture, Sexual Orientation and Gender in Iraq, contains several terrible survivor stories and implicates the militias, political, cultural, and religious leaders, and the Iraqi government in no uncertain terms.
The horrors detailed in the report are numbing. Here is an excerpt from the testimony of a man we only know as "Nuri":
I was in a taxi in the middle of Karada when special police stopped the car, asked me for my ID, and searched me. They took my phone and my wallet, and handcuffed me. They put a bag over my head, hit me and put me in a car. They took me to the Ministry of Interior.
They put me in a room, a regular room, took the bag off my head, and there I was with five other gay men.
…They separated us and put each in a room … a police officer came and said. "Do you know where you are? You are in the interrogation wing of the Ministry of Interior." He told me, "If you have ten thousand US dollars, we will let you go."
I said I didn't have that kind of money.
The next day at 10 a.m., they cuffed my hands behind my back. Then they tied a rope around my legs, and they hung me upside down from a hook in the ceiling, from morning till sunset. I passed out. I was stripped down to my underwear while I hung upside down. They cut me down that night, but they gave me no water or food.
Next day, they told me to put my clothes back on and they took me to the investigating officer. He said, "You like that? We're going to do that to you more and more, until you confess." Confess to what? I asked. "To the work you do, to the organization you belong to, and that you are a tanta" [queen].
"They knew the name 'Iraqi LGBT'-and they knew it helped mithliyeen [homosexuals] financially. They knew about the safe houses. All they wanted to know was, 'Who's paying? And why are they helping you?'"
When I was questioned, they said, "You have to confess." And I said, I have nothing to confess. Then they showed me a police report. I read it and it showed everything about me from 2005 until the day I was arrested. ... They knew personal details, through gay informants. And then they took me into another room, and began torturing me again.
One day, they took me up to the top floor, where there was a little window, straight onto the courtyard. They gave me binoculars to look. I could see: there were the five men from the cell when I was first arrested. They were lying dead. They'd been executed.
Source: Human Rights Watch
Image by Stephanie Glaros.
8/13/2009 12:54:54 PM
In 1996, shortly after Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her house arrest she met with a visiting journalist and told him: “I'm afraid that countries and events keep slipping from the headlines, and we have slipped.”
Suu Kyi’s freedom would be short-lived, and today Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi are in the headlines. The European Union is broadening its sanctions against the murderous Burmese regime, and this weekend, as the Obama administration mulls its response to yet another house arrest sentence for Suu Kyi, U.S. Senator Jim Webb will become the first senior U.S. official to meet with Burma’s leadership. Ever.
Burma’s constant media blackout, enforced by the regime, makes keeping up with current events in Burma is difficult enough. Learning its history is another thing altogether. John Pilger attempted to write some of the unwritten history of Burma in 1996, and we reprinted his dispatch from the country in the pages of Utne Reader. It’s a history of inspiring grassroots action and terrible government violence. Here’s Pilger recounting the dramatic events that led to Suu Kyi’s first house arrest:
Few outside Burma know about the epic events that took place here between 1988 and 1990. Few have heard of the White Bridge on Inya Lake in the center of Rangoon, now known to foreign businesspeople as the site of an "international business center." Yet it was here that an uprising as momentous as the storming of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was sparked. On March 18, 1988, hundreds of schoolchildren and students marched along the bridge, singing the national anthem, signaling that they wanted no more of the authoritarian rule that had been in place since a 1962 military coup. The march was as joyful as it was defiant. When suddenly they saw behind them the steel helmets of the Lon Htein, the "riot police," they knew they were trapped.
According to eyewitnesses I have interviewed in exile, the soldiers systematically beat many of the protesters to death, singling out the girls. A few protesters managed to escape into the lake, where they were caught, beaten, and drowned. Of those who survived, 42 were locked in a waiting van parked in the noonday sun outside Insein prison, where they died of suffocation. At the White Bridge fire engines were brought in to wash away the blood.
This state-sanctioned violence did not put an end to the protests. On the contrary: After months of rising popular confidence, the moment of general uprising came precisely at eight minutes past eight on the morning of the eighth day of the eighth month of 1988. This was the auspicious time the dockers chose to go on strike, and the country followed: teachers, journalists, railway workers, weather forecasters, grave diggers, even prison warders and police. The massive demonstration, soon joined by students, numbered more than 10,000 protesters.
When Ne Win, the now-retired chairman of the ruling junta, kept his promise to "shoot to kill those who stand against us," there were no television comeras linked to satellite dishes, as there were during China's bloody response to the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square the following year. Over the next four days several thousand Burmese died in the streets and in the prisons, under torture, and even in their homes as the army stormed the crooked lanes, firing at random into flimsy homes. Anyone with a camera was a target. Perhaps the world really took notice only when a charismatic woman, Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the national hero Aung San, was placed under house arrest in July 1989. Thereafter, so the junta calculated, they could proceed with an election that, without her, they were certain to win and that would legitimize their dictatorship. In fact, they lost spectacularly: Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won 82 percent of the parliamentary seats; she even swept the board in principal army cantonments.
Shocked, the generals (who had renamed the regime the State Law and Order Restoration Council, known by its Orwellian moniker SLORC) threw most of the newly elected Parliament into prison and turned Burma into what Amnesty International has described as "a prison without walls." Since then, year upon year, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has translated Burma's tyranny into the following catalog: "Torture, summary and arbitrary executions, forced labor, abuse of women, politically motivated arrests and detention, forced displacement, important restrictions on the freedoms of expression and association, and oppression of ethnic and religious minorities."
Read the rest of Pilger’s dispatch, Burma: Slave Nation.
8/12/2009 2:15:11 PM
To win the videogame Star Wars: TIE Fighter, players must defend a galactic empire against an overmatched, guerilla “terrorist” insurgency. Players capture suspects for “interrogation,” spy on their fellow officers, and quell ethnic strife using force. Writing for PopMatters, L.B. Jeffries writes that the 1994 videogame “reveals how easy it is to slip into a mindset of blind loyalty, nationalism, and unquestioning service to a greater authority.”
This isn’t the first time the United States has been compared to the Empire from Star Wars. Jon Stewart often portrays Dick Cheney as Darth Vader. The difference is that Star Wars: TIE Fighter forces players to identify with the Empire as they pull the trigger and destroy the rebels. Jeffries writes that players must struggle to maintain perspective, while being “constantly assured that you are spreading peace and order with each battle.”
8/12/2009 11:11:18 AM
After risking their lives for American troops in Afghanistan, translators are often abandoned and mistreated. The largest suppliers of translators to the U.S. military, a company called Mission Essential Personnel (MEP), sees one of its translator die and two severely injured every month, on average. In an exposé by the investigative site CorpWatch, injured employees are speaking out against MEP, accusing the company of withholding compensation and care from injured or killed employees and their families.
One former MEP employee, Basir Ahmed, told CorpWatch that he was fired after a suicide bombing in the Khogyani district of northeastern Afghanistan severely injured him. Mission Essential Personnel fired Ahmed, accusing him of being frequently late and sometimes not showing up to work—charges that he insists are trumped up. Ahmed tells a story of being moved from hospital to hospital, being forced to wait in the dead of winter for medical visits, and of promised compensation arriving months late. CorpWatch reports:
Today, he lives in hiding in nearby Jalalabad for fear that his family will be targeted because he had worked with the U.S. military. The 29-year-old has no job and had to wait nine months for disability compensation to pay for medical treatment for the burns that still prevent him from lifting his hand to his mouth to feed himself.
You can watch a video from the report below:
8/12/2009 9:56:11 AM
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that paratransit be available within three fourths of a mile of a fixed-route transit line, offer the same hours as fixed-route transit, and require fares no more than twice the fixed-route transit fare.
The 1990 passing of this law was considered a huge win for the disabled community. However, as reported in Governing, no one is happy with paratransit—neither the cities who pay the expensive bills nor the people using it who point to the inconvenience of having to request a ride days in advance, the geographic limitations of the system, and the often late arrivals.
A few cities are coming up with alternative systems. Pittsburgh, for example, determines eligibility on a trip-by-trip basis:
Some applicants are classified as eligible for the service only when traveling to a place without accessible bus stops. Or only in adverse weather conditions. A blind person or someone with a cogitative impairment might be eligible for trips to unfamiliar places, but not for trips they make routinely and are capable of navigating.
King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, is testing a system in which a trainer rides with a person in need for a few days so the person can become a regular bus rider:
While advocates for the disabled are cautious about efforts to push people into fixed-route transit—fearing that transit agencies will try to overdo it to save money—almost everyone agrees that it can be liberating for a disabled person to learn to navigate the regular transportation system.
Image by Jason McHuff, licensed under Creative Commons.
8/11/2009 8:25:52 AM
Breastfeeding is a natural act, but in the United States in recent years, it has often turned into a political one: Breastfeeding mothers have been kicked off planes, intimidated by restaurant managers, even singled out by Barbara Walters as an affront to decency. The response from the pro-breastfeeding community—call them “lactivists” if you must—to such snubs has often been swift and vigorous, and some moms have even organized public “nurse-ins” to publicize their right to feed their babies.
So it was refreshing to read “Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan” in the July-August issue of Mothering, in which Canadian-born Ruth Kamnitzer writes about Mongolians’ distinctly different attitude toward the practice. Living in Mongolia while nursing her son, she soon learned she didn’t have to take pains to be discreet:
In Mongolia, instead of relegating me to a “Mothers Only” section, breastfeeding in public brought me firmly to center stage. Their universal practice of breastfeeding anywhere, anytime, and the close quarters at which most Mongolians live, mean that everyone is pretty familiar with the sight of a working boob.
Kamnitzer still felt a bit out of step with cultural norms—but this time, roles were reversed. She had to learn to become comfortable with much looser standards about who should be drinking breastmilk:
If weaning means never drinking breastmilk again, then Mongolians are never truly weaned—and here’s what surprised me most about breastfeeding in Mongolia. If a mother’s breasts are engorged and her baby is not at hand, she will simply go around and ask a family member, of any age or sex, if they’d like a drink. Often a woman will express a bowlful for her husband as a treat, or leave some in the fridge for anyone to help themselves.
Sources: Huffington Post, Blisstree, New York Times, Mothering (article not available online)
Image by maessive, licensed under Creative Commons.
8/9/2009 5:31:06 PM
Writing for Foreign Policy, Reihan Salam declares that the global dominance of men has come to an end. And what caused this “monumental shift of power from men to women”? Salam argues that the Great Recession is a “mortal blow to the macho men’s club called finance capitalism.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, men lost 80% of total jobs lost since November. Men struggle to deal with the mental effects of job loss, and the world increasingly looks to women for leadership:
Indeed, it’s now fair to say that the most enduring legacy of the Great Recession will not be the death of Wall Street. It will not be the death of finance. And it will not be the death of capitalism. These ideas and institutions will live on. What will not survive is macho. And the choice men will have to make, whether to accept or fight this new fact of history, will have seismic effects for all of humanity—women as well as men.
Although not all countries will respond by throwing the male bums out, the backlash is real—and it is global. The great shift of power from males to females is likely to be dramatically accelerated by the economic crisis, as more people realize that the aggressive, risk-seeking behavior that has enabled men to entrench their power—the cult of macho—has now proven destructive and unsustainable in a globalized world.
Source: Foreign Policy
Image by Elsie esq., licensed under Creative Commons.
8/5/2009 1:18:55 PM
The Hartford Advocate wants to know: What happened to New Haven, Connecticut’s 800 missing high school students? Four years ago, the city enrolled a freshman class of 1,796—this past June, only about 1,000 graduated. The state can’t fully explain the disparity because it doesn’t yet have a system in place to track students during their educational careers; if you drop out, you disappear.
Better student tracking is coming next year, but the stats nonetheless put an “antiquated formula” for calculating high school graduation rates in stark relief. If all of the missing students dropped out, then New Haven’s 2009 graduation rate is about 55 percent, reports the Advocate. That’s “a far cry from the mid-70s New Haven has been reporting to the state for the past few years.”
But this isn’t just Connecticut’s problem. Four years ago, all 50 states made a pact to update how they measure graduation rates—the new system requires counting 9th-graders and keeping tabs on how many earn diplomas. Only a third have made good on the pledge. Connecticut is not one of them: It currently counts students who spend more than four years completing high school or earn their GED, but doesn’t account for students who drop out or leave for another school without giving official notice. “In other words,” the Advocate writes, “it’s not very accurate.”
And the truth can hurt: Hartford, Connecticut schools began voluntarily crunching pact-compliant numbers in 2007, which resulted in publishing a 29 percent graduation rate. That same year, the state’s method of educational accounting came up with 77 percent. Connecticut has promised to get up to speed by 2010.
Source: Hartford Advocate
Image by Werwin15, licensed under Creative Commons.
8/3/2009 11:37:46 AM
Think outside the box! There is perhaps no command more irritating (and nearly meaningless) than this one. The next time I hear it, so help me God, I'm going to...play this video and laugh really, really hard.
You can do better than thinking outside the box. Here's how:
(Thanks, Daily Dish.)
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