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Paroling the Mind: A College Program Opens New Doors for Former Convicts

Romarilyn Ralston’s life became a dramatic example of redemption after being convicted of murder when she was 24.

Charles Davis



Project Rebound’s Romarilyn Ralston. (Photo by Christian Cook)

Founded by a formerly incarcerated man in 1967, Project Rebound has grown from one school, San Francisco State University, to eight other Cal State campuses.

As fires blazed across California last month, killing 43 people, scorching more than 210,000 acres and causing $3.3 billion in damage, about 250 female inmates were sent to the front lines to battle the flames.

“Who doesn’t want to get out of a prison?” asks Romarilyn Ralston, program coordinator for Project Rebound at California State University, Fullerton, an effort aimed at helping former inmates gain access to higher education. Fighting fires while incarcerated is a coerced choice, she adds, with wages capped at a couple of dollars a day.

“You go through a couple weeks of training and then you’re sent off to fire camp to go protect other people’s lives and property at the expense of your own. And you do that because you want to prove to yourself and your family that you’re not the worst thing that you have ever done in your life — that your life is redeemable.”

Ralston’s life became a dramatic example of that redemption after being convicted of murder when she was 24. “I was involved with drugs,” she says, seated at her desk in a cozy two-person office on campus. “I shot a woman, and she died.” Now in her 50s, her long dark hair pulled back to reveal gold hoop earrings, she says she does not define herself by her crime. She spent 23 years in prison before she was paroled in 2011 and has earned a bachelor’s degree from Pitzer College in Claremont and a master’s from Washington University in St. Louis.

“Education is something
people cannot take away from you.”

Ralston is now program coordinator for Project Rebound at Cal State Fullerton, helping other former inmates get the education she believes saved her life. That can mean helping people behind bars apply to take part in the program that advertises in the San Quentin News. Once they are released, the program gives them access to financial aid, money for books and food, counseling, health care, academic and career advice, tutoring, legal assistance and a community of formerly incarcerated people who have made it out of the same traumatic experience.

“I believe that change is possible,” Ralston says. “Redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness, rehabilitation. All those things happen.”

By the time she was released, Ralston had spent half of her life in prison. “Am I always going to be viewed by the crime I committed 30 years ago?” she asks. “Should it negate the rest of my life?” There had always been the chance of Ralston writing another chapter. “I wasn’t sentenced to life without parole,” she says. “So that was one thing. I knew at some point I might have a chance to go home.”

Growing up, she had wanted to be an astronaut. Instead, she found herself “going into the system — and it was the first time I had ever been arrested. That trauma was so severe to me that I thought, ‘It’s not going to happen to me again.’ Of all the things I wanted to be in life, prisoner number W32881 was not one of them. And so I had to look at some of the things that had put me on that path, and then reconnect with the things that I wanted to be as a child.”

She never made it to outer space but, this being the 1980s, she was able to make it to a classroom, with a real-life instructor, inside the California Institution for Women. That was before the 1994 federal crime bill passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. That measure took away the grants that had subsidized (and in most cases, made possible) in-person, university-level courses for incarcerated students.

The impact of depriving human beings of the ability to better themselves is predictable enough. Nearly half of those released from prisons in California are locked up again within three years, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. And that’s progress. A little over a decade ago, two-thirds of those released were back in a cell 36 months later. Part of that is due to “tough on crime” policies from the ’90s slowly giving way to less punitive approaches to a law enforcement — some imposed by voters, like Proposition 47, which reduced many drug felonies to simple misdemeanors, and some imposed by courts, like the federal mandate that California release prisoners to address severe overcrowding.

A RAND Institute study found that incarcerated people who participate in educational programs are 43 times less likely to recidivate within the next three years.

These reforms have meant fewer people being put in cells in the first place, and fewer people being sent back to them for minor parole violations. But despite renewed interest in rehabilitating those inside, a prison is a prison.

Prison is not a place where most people can rehabilitate themselves,” Ralston says. “The majority of folks who enter prison are coming from a place of severe trauma. “It’s not a supportive environment where people come to heal and become their best selves. Prison is overcrowded. There’s a lot of abuse and violence, and it can be a place where folks learn to check out.” Those conditions can lead to dulling the senses with drugs, or even acting out, as it were, so as to experience sensory deprivation in solitary confinement. “A lot of times folks just don’t want to deal with it,” Ralston says.

And when they get out? Not even those who fought fires for pennies an hour have much to bank on. The vast majority, like the vast majority of other prisoners, walk out poor and unemployed. Some make it, but the system that treats them like numbers does not put them in a position to succeed. That system, says Ralston, is “why we see a lot of people leaving prison worse off.”

“That’s the beauty of Project Rebound,” Ralston says. “We actually walk people out of being an incarcerated student to being a CSU student.” Founded by a formerly incarcerated man in 1967, the program expanded last fall from one school, San Francisco State University, to eight other Cal State campuses, from San Diego to Fresno.

The key, in Ralston’s experience, is giving people more than just the narrow technical skills to survive financially, but the language to describe their own experiences as well.

“Education is that transformative practice that people can own and have agency,” Ralston says. “Education is something people cannot take away from you. At some point within your education, the more education you have the less likely you are to recidivate. It opens up new pathways, new career opportunities. But education also helps to change the way that you see yourself in the world. That’s what it did for me. The more education I gained, I saw myself doing other things — different things, better things. I found myself in spaces with people that had no clue I had spent 23 years in prison and still don’t have a clue that I spent 23 years in prison.”

Twelve Fullerton students are now enrolled in Project Rebound, ranging in age from 23 to 54. Some have served just a few months in a county jail and others a couple decades in a state prison. There are many more who would like to participate. There is no lack of ex-prisoners in a state that imprisons roughly 130,000 people on any given day. Many are non-violent drug offenders, and many others committed property crimes. But there are also those who committed violent crimes. It’s no excuse for what they did to note that rehabilitation, of which education is a vital component, is in the interests of all — perpetrators, victims and neighbors.

A RAND Institute study found that incarcerated people who participate in educational programs are 43 times less likely to recidivate within the next three years. “This study demonstrates that education programs can help adults get back on their feet upon release from prison,” they wrote. Project Rebound encourages and enables that participation to continue, with internal data showing “only three percent of its students return to prison,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

“People don’t know there’s more people like me who have incarceration experiences in the community than folks like they see on television,” Ralston says. “Ninety-five percent of the folks that go into an institution come out. We’re everywhere. We’re serving your food, we’re riding in that Uber with you if you’re Uber Pooling. We’re flying on airplanes. We’re in classrooms with you. We’re everywhere.”

Copyright Capital & Main

Culture & Media

Persistence of Vision: The Autry Museum’s ‘La Raza’ Photo Exhibition

A photographic exhibit reveals long-unseen images of the Chicano community at a time of political upheaval and demands for civil rights.



1970 Chicano Moratorium March (Luis C. Garza/Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA)

After 47 years, the old black-and-white news photograph can still shock: A helmeted Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy points a teargas gun toward a small unarmed group crowded in the doorway of the Silver Dollar Café, a tavern on Whittier Boulevard in East L.A. It’s a local pub, next door to a wig shop, with an outer wall advertising itself as a swinging destination with a collage of cartoon martini glasses, musical notes and topless women. But that afternoon in 1970, it was just someplace to grab a beer for journalist Ruben Salazar before heading back to the office.

He’d spent the day covering the National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War, which ended with deputies breaking up the demonstration and clashing with protesters. But Salazar, 42, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and news director at the Spanish-language station KMEX-TV, never made it out of the Silver Dollar. Moments after the photograph was taken by Raul Ruiz of the underground La Raza newspaper, the deputy blindly fired a teargas canister into the bar, striking Salazar in the head and killing him instantly.

(Maria Varela/Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA)

(Maria Varela/Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA)

That picture is now at the center of LA RAZA, a photographic exhibition at Los Angeles’ Autry Museum of the American West that was culled from an archive of 25,000 images created for the publication between 1967 and 1977. During those years, La Raza evolved from a small tabloid newspaper into a slicker magazine, but the mission never wavered: representing the Chicano community at a time of political upheaval and demands for civil rights.

The exhibition, which runs through February 10, 2019, shares La Raza‘s photographic collection for the first time with the public. It is now part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, the Getty’s countywide exploration of Latin American and Latino art, where the recently unearthed photographs offer an essential document of a movement too often overlooked.

“The purpose of the newspaper-magazine was that of an organizing tool, first and foremost,” says Luis Garza, who was then a young photographer on the all-volunteer staff, and co-curates the Autry show. “There was little representation whatsoever of the Chicano community … within the body politic of Los Angeles. Decisions were being made affecting our community that we had no voice in.”

Many of the images at the Autry depict a community newly engaged with the political moment, filling city streets in protest and carrying signs that confronted issues of immigration, cultural identity, civil rights and foreign wars that remain relevant a half-century later. In one picture, protesters march past the stately Times building in downtown L.A., with one sign reading, “Stop Nixon’s racist deportation raids.”

Other photographs document marches through rural California, beneath banners for the United Farm Workers and the slogan “Be Brown & Be Proud.” Teenagers take to the streets in pictures from a series of walkouts and “blowouts” at several L.A. high school campuses named for presidents Wilson, Jefferson, Garfield, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Also at the Autry: A row of large blowups of police officers on rooftops and bridges, watching with binoculars, cameras and rifles as the demonstrations unfolded. La Raza was there to report on a community speaking out and under siege.

There were consequences for the mostly young staff. One prominent photograph at the Autry captures a little girl in braids, yelling into the lens while holding a stack of La Raza newspapers with an alarming headline: “La Raza Raided — Editor, Staff Imprisoned.” Another picture shows La Raza photographer Ruth Robinson being handcuffed along with a Brown Beret activist.

“They got arrested all the time,” says Amy Scott, chief curator at the Autry and co-curator of LA RAZA. “For them, activism and photography were not two separate things. The photographs were a way of making these arguments and putting them out there.”

The mission was not simply to document the era’s homegrown political uprising, but to capture something of the culture asserting itself as “a much more complex and dynamic community than had ever been portrayed in the mainstream media,“ adds Scott.

La Raza began life in the basement of an Episcopalian church in Lincoln Heights, debuting September 4, 1967, as a modest eight-page publication. By the time it had grown to more than 60 pages, its focus had expanded beyond local issues to concerns about Vietnam, indigenous land rights, immigration and Latin America. Mainstream media in the late 1960s was dependably conservative and “gave no coverage to our community whatsoever except to depict us in a negative light,” says Garza.

Police in front of Lincoln High School. (La Raza/Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA)Police in front of Lincoln High School, 1970. (La Raza/Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA)

The photographers at La Raza provided their own cameras and 35mm film, while editors struggled to keep the no-budget operation afloat. “We tried at first to be bi-monthly, then it became monthly, then it became whenever you had the funds to print,” recalls Garza, a University of California, Los Angeles student at the time. “It could be weeks, months or even a year before the next issue came out.”

The paper’s most dramatic moment of recognition came with the Moratorium March and the death of Salazar. After working as a foreign correspondent in Vietnam, the Times reporter returned to Los Angeles to find a vibrant subject in the growing Chicano movement. He was often critical of police — and was one of four fatalities on a violent day of deputies clashing with protesters. Pictures at the Autry show police clearing streets with batons and shotguns, and of squad cars with shattered windshields.

After Salazar’s body was carried out of the Silver Dollar, the L.A. Sheriff’s Department denied any role in his death, even suggesting that snipers were responsible. It was La Raza‘s photographs of the shooting, also published in the Times, that revealed the truth. Some suspected Salazar had been targeted for assassination. Whether through malice or utter incompetence, the incident was a bleak example of law enforcement’s posture within East L.A. The deputy who fired into the bar was never charged.

In 2012, Garza and others began an effort to go through the La Raza photographs, which had been largely unseen and stored in multiple three-ring binders by one of the founding editors. Images had to be identified and cataloged, a process Garza describes as “photo-forensics.” The archive was placed at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, and with a grant from the Getty, the pictures were digitized, culminating with the Autry exhibition.

“I view it as karma and the blessings of the gods,” Garza says of the successful effort to bring the pictures back into circulation after four decades in storage.

“The reaction from everyone is very positive, it’s very emotional,” adds Garza, who went on from La Raza to documentary work for KABC-TV. “For the first time we’re getting recognition of who we are, what we accomplished and what we attempted. It isn’t just about our community as Chicanos. It is about Los Angeles. It is about this country as a whole.”

LA RAZA, Autry Museum of the American West, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles; through Feb. 10, 2019.

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Students Blast USC’s Handling of Sexual Harassment Case

Less than a week after a graduate student sued the University of Southern California for allegedly failing to adequately protect her from a professor who she said had sexually harassed her, students in USC’s School of Social Work told administrators they did not feel safe.



Photo by Padsquad19

68 faculty members signed an October 28 letter that questioned the university’s handling of Fenwick’s complaint against Guerrero.

Less than a week after a graduate student sued the University of Southern California for allegedly failing to adequately protect her from a professor who she said had sexually harassed her, students in the university’s School of Social Work told administrators they did not feel safe.

“Our main message to the administration was that we don’t feel safe the way things are right now,” Social Work doctoral student Robin Petering said after what she described as a “tense” but productive meeting on Monday where she said students covered the room’s windows to ensure their anonymity.

In her suit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, USC doctoral candidate Karissa Fenwick said Social Work Professor Erick Guerrero, her dissertation advisor, tried to kiss her, causing her to flee his hotel room in January when they attended a conference in New Orleans. The next day, the suit said, Guerrero warned her not to tell anyone about the incident, saying, the Dean “has invested a lot in me and would never take your side.”

Fenwick said she wrestled with whether to report Guerrero. “On the one hand, reporting him felt like I was sabotaging my whole career,” she told CBS news after filing her lawsuit. “And on the other hand I felt like I could not stand back and just wonder if it was going to happen to somebody else if I never said anything. I felt I had to do it to protect other students.”

The university said in a statement that it took Fenwick’s complaint “very seriously” and “thoroughly investigated the claims.” Based on its findings, the statement said, USC disciplined Guerrero. “A financial penalty was imposed, he was barred from leadership positions, his office was relocated away from students, and he will not teach classes or supervise students for the current academic year and beyond,” the statement said. “And he was warned that any recurrence or retaliation could lead to dismissal.”

The statement also said USC “sought to support” Fenwick by providing a new dissertation advisor and prohibiting Guerrero “from any and all contact with her.”

Guerrero has denied the charges in Fenwick’s suit and has filed a grievance against the university for its handling of the case. He alleged in court papers responding to her complaint that Fenwick is retaliating against him for confronting what he called her inappropriately flirtatious dancing at a piano bar they and other colleagues visited before returning to his hotel room where he went to charge his phone. He said he also suggested that she find another supervisor for her dissertation.

“I would never put myself in a compromising situation that can take away all the things I have worked so hard to accomplish,” Guerrero said in a statement to CBS news.

Fenwick has denied Guerrero’s accusations, and her lawyer, John Winer, called his characterization of the evening in New Orleans as “slut-shaming.”

Fenwick’s lawsuit contends that a second student, identified only as “Student X,” also received unwelcome sexual attention from Guerrero about six years ago with invitations to the opera and compliments about her hair and outfits. Guerrero, the complaint alleges, once told Student X’s boyfriend at a dinner they attended, “You have good taste, and I’m not talking about your plate of food.”

Sixty-eight faculty members signed an October 28 letter that questioned the university’s handling of Fenwick’s complaint against Guerrero.

“We simply cannot reconcile the limited sanctions imposed by the university in light of our Office of Equity and Diversity’s determination that this colleague not only sexually harassed two students, but also then attempted to dissuade a complainant from reporting the incident,” the letter said. It also called on the university to consider dismissing Guerrero.

Fenwick and her supporters would like to use her case to make university-wide changes that result in more stringent discipline for harassment and more transparency about the results of investigations.

The lawsuit and university investigation are playing out against the backdrop of a rash of media reports of sexual harassment and other improprieties at USC, raising the question for some whether the university is doing enough to create a safe environment on campus. The Los Angeles Times has reported that USC Vice President of Advancement and Health Sciences Development David Carrera left his job in the wake of allegations that he sexually harassed female colleagues.

The Times reported in July that the former Keck School of Medicine Dean, Carmen Puliafito, had engaged in illegal drug use and consorted with prostitutes. Puliafito’s replacement, Rohit Varma, resigned as dean in early October after the Times revealed that he had been disciplined after a sexual harassment allegation from a young researcher in 2003.

These administrators were in high-profile positions and responsible for raising millions of dollars for the university. Guerrero, an associate professor, is an important figure his field, according to Fenwick, who has published with him.

The university has taken some steps in response to the harassment cases that have come to light over the past year. It has created a task force to oversee and implement workplace standards and a new vice provost of leadership development is being established to oversee hiring processes and work environment, according to the Daily Trojan, the campus newspaper.

Fenwick, who does not know if she will continue to pursue a career in academia, told Capital & Main she was asked to keep the investigation confidential even after the university found that Guerrero had violated the school’s sexual harassment policy. That sends the wrong message, she said.

“It’s hard to prevent sexual misconduct if people don’t ever see any deterrent to those behaviors,” Fenwick added. She said that while she can understand the impulse to want protect the professional reputation of someone found to have engaged in harassment, it is more important to the overall culture of an organization to send a message that the behavior will not be tolerated.

“I think we need to have more open conversations about what went wrong in my case,” Fenwick said. “We need to discuss what zero tolerance really means for anyone who is found to have engaged in sexual misconduct.”

Guerrero’s attorney, Mark Hathaway, said this case represents what’s wrong with having university administrators enforce Title IX rules governing sexual misconduct cases that can have such dire consequences for the accusers and the accused.

Hathaway said his client was unable to examine the evidence used to support the university’s sanctions against him. “The use of secret evidence in the 21st Century of the United States” for making important decisions is “unfathomable,” Hathaway said. The university did not respond to Capital & Main’s request for a response to Hathaway’s comments.

On Monday, School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn released an open letter to students, faculty, staff and friends of the school in which she addressed the broader discussion around sexual harassment taking place across the country.

“The situation we find ourselves in today is sadly playing out in greater numbers and far beyond the walls of our institution,” Flynn wrote. “I am proud that the shame or fear that drives these incidents into secrecy is being replaced by the courage to come forward and say, ‘This happened to me and I won’t be silent about it anymore.’”

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly ascribed Erick Guerrero’s quote to Student X’s boyfriend as having been made to Karissa Fenwick’s boyfriend. We regret the error.

Copyright Capital & Main

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Culture & Media

Epoch Story: A Stage Chronicle of Watts

A new historical play looks at a disputed tract of land that would eventually become Watts.



Cheryl Umaña and Jeff Torres as Toya and Enrique. (Photo: Grettel Cortes Photography)

Early on in Evangeline Ordáz’s engaging and arrestingly mounted historical melodrama, an altercation ensues between Toya (Cheryl Umaña), a proud and angry Indian princess, and Enrique (Jeff Torres) the amiable son of a Mexican landowner. The year is 1843 and the issue is water; Enrique’s father, who was “granted” the land that had belonged to Toya’s Tongva people, has built a dam to detour water to his fields, leaving little for the Indians. Toya, whose chieftain dad (Richard Azurdia) is being held prisoner in the local mission, rages in her own language at the bewildered Enrique who, smitten, later marries her and tries, without much success, to make amends.

The story of Toya and Enrique is among five interwoven threads in this fictional tale that spans the 1840s to the present. Most of the events, which are contextualized by historical fact, take place in Watts, which Rancho Tajauta, the disputed tract, would later become. Over the years, the land was developed and came to be settled by white families, black families and then Hispanic ones. Directed with skill and sensitivity by Armando Molina, with the various characters depicted by seven performers, Ordáz’s script follows several generations of kin as they struggle to overcome racial tensions and defend their homes against gentrification and the wiles of unscrupulous buyers.

One bridge-building relationship evolves between two women: Leola (LeShay Tomlinson), an African-American widow who, in 1949, relocates from the South in search of a life with more dignity, and Maeve (Johanna McKay), her white neighbor who, unlike the bigots in their community, welcomes Leola with coffee and cake. Their friendship lasts for decades. Leola has a daughter, Leslie (Niketa Calame), who is a political activist in the ‘60s but later becomes a drug addict. She in turn has two daughters: Sharon (Tomlinson), a tough-talking gal who works at the DMV, and her younger half-sister Mel (Calame), a sweeter soul who, defying her sister’s prejudice against Mexicans, falls happily in love with their new neighbor, Fidel (Azurdia). Meanwhile, Maeve’s son (Ian Alda) has moved to Pasadena, changing his name so as not to appear Jewish like his father; his own son (Alda) becomes a land developer who returns to the old neighborhood to buy up property.

Johanna McKay and LeShay TomlinsonJohanna McKay and LeShay Tomlinson as Maeve and Leola. (Photo: Grettel Cortes Photography)

Some of the characters are sparely drawn, a by-product of an extended time frame and multiple scenarios compressed into about two hours. But under Molina’s direction, the ensemble steps to the plate, with textured portrayals that make up for any lack of depth on the page. Umaña is lovely as the spirited and then spiritually splintered Toya, while Tomlinson’s forthright matriarch is warm and familiar; she’s even better as the bossy and opinionated Sharon, whose scenes with Calame as her more spontaneous sister evoke the droll intimacy of people who know each other well. Both Calame as Mel and Torres (the latter in various roles, but especially as Toya’s kind and loving suitor, then spouse) project the winning charm of guileless individuals. These are people you like.

Time changes take place against an artfully conceived bleached landscape (set designer Justin Huen), effectively elaborated on by shifting lighting (Huen) and Benjamin Durham’s videography. Rebecca Kessn’s sound design aptly punctuates the drama.

One caveat: I would have appreciated a chyron to indicate at the beginning of each sequence what decade I was in. In some places, it took me a couple of minutes to get it. In particular, Calame’s transitions from the upbeat Mel to the depressed and angry Leslie could use sharper delineation in terms of costume or wig.

Company of Angels, 1350 San Pablo St., Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Nov. 13.

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South L.A. Residents Demand End to Urban Oil Drilling

Los Angeles is the most densely populated city in the country with oil drilling within its borders. It sits on top of one of the largest oil fields in the country, and oil fields are peppered throughout the region, usually hidden from sight.



Neighbors: Oil platform in the middle of a residential neighborhood. (Photo: Larry Buhl)

At a site known simply as Jefferson, 36 oil wells are pumping closely – too closely, residents say — to occupied multi-unit apartment buildings at a drilling site on Jefferson Boulevard, just west of the University of Southern California. There is no noise buffer, vapor capture or enclosure around the site, and at one point there is no more than three feet between a resident’s bedroom window and the drill site wall. An Environmental Impact Report has never been done. Because the land was bought by Union Oil in 1965, the Jefferson drilling site predates the Environmental Protection Agency.

Corissa Pacillas said she has lived in a Craftsman-style building across from the Jefferson site for four years, and the oil production has made her sick at times.

“The noise pollution is severe when they’re putting pipes into the ground,” Pacillas said. “The chemicals that they use smell like rotten eggs. The area around here just stinks. The fumes give me headaches, and the neighbors have experienced that too.”

The Jefferson site’s operator, Denver-based Sentinel Peak Resources, doesn’t notify residents when toxic chemicals are being used in the neighborhood, said Niki Wong, a neighborhood resident and member of Redeemer Community Partnership, a community development nonprofit in South Los Angeles and a group opposed to urban oil drilling. “Sometimes we’ve seen four or five tanker trucks containing 5,000 gallons of hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acid,” Wong said. “After one of these acid jobs, all the plants downwind of the facility died.”

“There are studies that say explosions from sites like this could result in a 750 foot crater,” Wong added. “We are standing in a blast zone.”

Pacillas claimed she has to diligently monitor the company’s website to learn when production is underway. “The website that tells you when it’s going to happen is this long obscure [web address] that you wouldn’t be able to find if you didn’t know where to look,” she said.

Los Angeles is the most densely populated city in the country with oil drilling within its borders. It sits on top of one of the largest oil fields in the country, and oil fields are peppered throughout the region, usually hidden from sight. Some of the region’s biggest names, including Getty, Doheny and Bell, made their fortunes from oil after it was discovered that the area contained a huge stock of crude.

A 2014 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that one in three Angelenos live within a mile of an active drilling rig. The report also found that in Los Angeles County, more than half a million people live within 1,320 feet of an oil or gas well and that the vast majority of those residents are people of color.

A report from the Los Angeles-based Community Health Councils estimated in 2015 that 5,000 active oil and gas wells, spread across 10 oil fields and 70 different sites, were embedded in neighborhoods, parks and commercial districts throughout the city.

Though oil production slowed in the 1970s, new techniques like fracking (the injection of highly pressurized, chemical-laced water deep underground to break up rock formations containing fossil fuels) have returned some oil fields to production.

“Increased oil and gas production using these new technologies can bring more contaminants—many of which have been linked to respiratory and neurological problems, birth defects and cancer—to backyards, communities and cities,” the Natural Resources Defense Council report said.

In the wake of the Aliso Canyon natural gas blowout in 2015, which forced thousands to evacuate their homes in the San Fernando Valley, oil and gas development has been under greater scrutiny throughout Southern California.

For Angelenos living near drill sites, the battle is about health and safety, racial justice and, for some, faith and religion. For regulators, the issue is more about who is in charge of oil field operations within the city and what departments can hold drill site operators accountable.

In 2013 EPA investigators called a facility operated by Los Angeles’ AllenCo Energy “shoddy” after investigators who toured the site reported sore throats, coughing and severe, lingering headaches. Their experience prompted U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer to call for the site to be shut down. The Los Angeles City Attorney’s office demanded in 2016 that the company stop operations until it could meet stricter conditions, and AllenCo was also ordered to pay a $1.25 million.

Earlier this month, the city hit the Jefferson site and Sentinel Peak Resources with some of the toughest restrictions yet on an urban drilling. The Planning Department decision gave the company with 90 days to install new systems to continually monitor noise and vibration and to record video. The company must also measure air quality on the property’s perimeter, install new systems to capture emissions and build its walls higher to better enclose the site.

The decision was a response to a 2016 petition by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which found that other sites in the city were quieter and had better protections for residents’ health.

Advocates for shutting down, or at least curtailing, drilling in Los Angeles are also enlisting faith leaders in their fight. And those leaders have found themselves arrayed against their colleagues of the cloth in  Los Angeles’ Roman Catholic Archdiocese.

The AllenCo drill site, near the University of Southern California, and the Murphy site in the historic West Adams district, sit on land owned by the L.A. Archdiocese. At a rally outside the archdiocese offices in early October, dozens of residents and faith leaders from South Los Angeles called on Archbishop José Gomez to terminate his church’s lease with the owner/operator of both sites, AllenCo Energy.

Rev. Oliver E. Buie of Holman United Methodist Church said he attended the rally because “God has called us to be good stewards over the earth. Many of the residents are not aware of these oil wells in their communities. People are . . . being harmed by these big oil companies that don’t care about the people, only the profits.”

Faith leaders attending the rally also pointed out that 40 Catholic organizations had recently pledged to divest from fossil fuels, and that Pope Francis stressed the importance of a carbon-neutral economy in a 2015 encyclical.

The archdiocese responded to protesters in a letter claiming it was not directly involved in the permitting process and does not operate the site. The letter also said the archdiocese was “working with the Mayor’s Office, the City of Los Angeles Oil Manager and AllenCo to explore possible alternative uses for the site in our continued commitment to the health and well-being of the entire community.”

Eric Romann, an organizer with STAND-LA (Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling), said the Archdiocese continues to avoid taking responsibility by not breaking its lease with AllenCo.

The archbishop “could shut down the AllenCo site with the stroke of a pen,” Romann said. “We want the church to be a good neighbor and not profit financially from something that’s poisoning residents.”

Ultimately, Romann said, STAND-LA and other community groups want urban oil drilling to end. Until that happens, they are demanding a 2,500-foot buffer between active drilling sites and homes, schools, churches and hospitals. The distance was determined after consulting experts in environmental burdens, the group said. That kind of setback could be difficult to achieve unless 90 percent of the city’s 322 active wells are shut down, according to the California Department of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources.

Sabrina Lockhart, a spokeswoman for the California Independent Petroleum Association, which represents small oil producers, said shutting down wells on private property would be legally risky and, if successful, would lead to increased imports of oil and gas to meet the region’s needs.

“Los Angeles grew up around oil drilling, but recently producers have changed production techniques to have a much smaller footprint,” Lockhart said.

Industry opposition aside, there are indications that city and county officials are beginning to take the issue of urban drilling more seriously, even if it’s not clear exactly what can or should be done.

In 2014, on a 10-0 vote, the City Council passed a new ordinance ordering city staff to draft regulatons to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and other well-stimulation activities, but those regulations have yet to be developed. Even so, Wong and other advocates say they are less concerned with the methods used – enhanced techniques versus traditional oil extraction – as much as they are about the proximity of the sites.

In 2016 Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Uduak-Joe Ntuk as the city’s petroleum administrator, a position the mayor’s office said had been vacant for more than 30 years. It’s considered largely an advisory position, but earlier this year, the city council demanded that Ntuk study how the city could phase out oil and gas drilling near homes, schools, hospitals, parks and other public places.

In June the city council adopted a motion to study the health impacts of oil drilling in neighborhoods. A report is expected late this year. The county is reviewing existing studies and papers to identify what is known about oil and gas exposures and impacts on health.

Wong said recent efforts to look into problems associated with drilling are encouraging but that pressure must be brought on the mayor, city council and the city planning commission to scale back and phase out drilling in the city.

“We believe that oil drilling is fundamentally incompatible with urban life.”

Sentinel Peak Resources and the L.A. Archdiocese did not respond to a request for comment by publication time. AllenCo Energy said they had no comment on L.A. drilling sites.

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Culture & Media

Dick Gregory: A Stand-up Activist

This illuminating stage work about Dick Gregory, the late iconic comedian and civil rights activist, receives a powerhouse performance from Joe Morton as the stand-up comic.

Deborah Klugman



Joe Morton as Dick Gregory. (Photos by Lawrence K. Ho)

Before Dick Gregory, black entertainers weren’t allowed to sit on the Tonight Show ’s couch. A talk with Gregory and Jack Paar changed that.

In his powerhouse performance as Dick Gregory, the stand-up comic who rose to fame in the 1960s, Joe Morton tells the following story: He was civil rights organizing in the South with his good friend Medgar Evers, when he received a call informing him that his infant son had died. Gregory packed up and went home to comfort his grieving wife. Two weeks later a white supremacist shot down Evers in his own driveway as his family watched — an end, reflects Morton’s Gregory, that might have been his had not fate intervened.

The anecdote is one of many that emerge in Gretchen Law’s Turn Me Loose, an illuminating work about this iconic comedian who passed away last August at age 84. Directed by John Gould Rubin, the play shifts back and forth from the 1960s, when Gregory was a trailblazing black entertainer — widely regarded as the first African-American comic to successfully perform before both black and white audiences.

Turn Me Loose isn’t a chronological narrative, but we do learn about Gregory’s background, confided to us in the course of his stand-up routines. Born dirt poor in Alabama in 1932, he grew up exposed to racism at its rawest: When he was 10, he had two front teeth knocked out for touching a white woman’s leg. (He was shining shoes.) He made it to college by dint of skills as a runner, but left before graduating to pursue his career as a stand-up. Hugh Hefner spotted him and gave him a gig at the Playboy Club, where he performed before groups of white Southerners who heckled him viciously, shouting out “nigger” and other epithets. In the play, reminiscences like these are vividly re-enacted, with supporting actor John Carlin (spot-on in multiple roles) depicting these bigots with frightening credibility.

The play also highlights a turning point in Gregory’s career when, in 1961, he was invited to appear on the Tonight Show with Jack Parr. At the time, black entertainers might be invited to perform, but they were never permitted to “sit on the couch” with the host and chat as equals. On principle, Gregory refused the invitation numerous times — even hanging up on some of the calls. One particularly intense scene re-imagines Gregory’s frenzied frustration at turning down an opportunity that might change his life. In the end Parr personally called, and after the two men spoke, Gregory became the first guest of color to sit on the couch.

Some of the mid-20th century riffs are a “blast from the past” and not in a good way: They take you back to when racism was everywhere crude, overt and systemic, and the threat of violence was ever present. But these same elements underscore the courage of this smart, talented man who put himself out there, on the theatrical stage and the public one. The play actually becomes more powerful when it draws away from Gregory the entertainer to Gregory the activist and thinker, who warns us that our focus on Middle Eastern terrorists or on political skirmishes based on religion or ethnicity are merely distractions foisted on us by powerful oligarchs who stand to gain from our squabbling.

Morton is just terrific: Beautifully paced by Rubin, his portrayal is an uplifting tour de force that begins modestly and gradually grows more emotionally encompassing. His physical energy is inspiring. As Gregory, his moments of rumination on the death of Evers are especially moving. Reportedly, Evers’ dying utterance was “Turn me loose” — an apt title surely for Law’s play about someone who told it like he saw it, and held nothing back.

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2:30 p.m.; (310) 746-4000 or; through Nov. 19.

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Baby Money: Can Cash Allowances Help Young Brains Grow?

Higher income has been found to correlate with larger surface area of the brain, especially in those parts associated with executive function and language.



Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Co-published by The American Prospect

Ever since the election of a Republican majority in Congress in 1994, the trend in assistance to the poor has been to reduce it. Work requirements for recipients, time limits on assistance and stricter eligibility conditions to receive food stamps were all part of the 1996 welfare reform overhaul signed by President Bill Clinton. The result was fewer kids receiving aid, and those who did received less money. In 2015, while 15 million American children, or about 21 percent, grow up in homes with incomes below the official poverty line—which many children’s policy experts maintain is set far too low—just 2.3 million of them received welfare benefits, down from a peak of 9.5 million in 1993. (The poverty rate was even higher in California.)

But what if mothers in poverty received a cash handout every month, beginning shortly after they gave birth—no questions asked? And what if, by enabling those moms to buy toys or books, move to a different neighborhood, afford better childcare, attend continuing education classes, or just reduce the amount of stress they experience from not having to worry about money all the time, those extra funds resulted in their children’s brains growing more than they would have without the money?

That’s the idea behind a groundbreaking study conceived by Greg J. Duncan, an economist at University of California, Irvine who studies the relationship between family income and children’s achievement and attainment as adults. Already five years in to the work, Duncan and the team of three social scientists and one neuroscientist he has assembled hope to begin recruiting subjects next year.

“Politically, the question is very important,” said Katherine Magnuson, an associate director of the Institution for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and one of the designers of the study. “People in Washington talk about the pluses and minuses of programs that put money in people’s pockets or take it out, and we need to understand the consequences of their decisions in terms of children.”

Evidence that poverty manifests in children’s development has been building for years. “Childhood socioeconomic status is strongly associated with IQ, graduation rates and test scores,” said Kimberly G. Noble, MD Ph.D., the team’s neuroscientist and a pediatrician and associate professor of neuroscience and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. The gap emerges early and widens through the elementary school years. Children who score poorly relative to other students on intelligence assessment but come from families of high socioeconomic status—which combines income, parent education level, parent occupation and occupational prestige—see their scores go up, relative to other kids, over time; kids who score high early on but are in low socioeconomic-status families see their scores fall.

Early in her career, Noble wanted to know which particular cognitive skills were associated with socioeconomic status. A 2007 paper she and colleagues published in Developmental Science showed that the greatest differences were in language, memory and executive function (the ability to plan and focus). Just the skills, in other words, most needed in a 21st century economy.

Exposure to violence has been shown to effectively age children prematurely, according to research published in 2012.

That led Noble to more questions: “How do differences in cognitive skill relate to differences in brain structure?” In 2012, she and colleagues found that higher family income is associated with a larger hippocampus, the part of the brain believed to govern memory and emotion. Income was also found to correlate with larger surface area of the brain, especially in those parts associated with executive function and language.

In 2015, Noble published data that extended this finding to the cerebral cortex. Four labs, independently of one another, have since replicated this research. While it wouldn’t be possible to predict a kid’s brain size from his parents’ income—plenty of kids from well-off homes had smaller surface areas to their brains than some of the kids in poorer homes—Noble’s paper showed the effect was strongest among the most disadvantaged children. “The proportional differences in income were associated with greater differences in brain structure among the worst-off kids,” she said.

Media trumpeted the research with headlines like, “How Poverty Changes the Brain.” But Noble knew that her results were only associational. “We can say differences in family income are associated with differences in brain structure but we can’t say what’s causing what,” she said. “Is it other things, meaning that changing income might not make a difference?”

Then, several years ago, fate intervened. Noble met with a graduate student whom Columbia had randomly matched her with to mentor, and they got to chit-chatting. The student asked about her research, and after Noble answered, she recalls, the student mentioned that her father does similar work, but as an economist. “Well, there’s like one economist in the world, maybe two, who fits that description,” Noble said. “So I looked at her ID badge and said, ‘Wait—is your dad Greg Duncan?’”

It was, and he happened to be in New York at the time. So the two professors had lunch.

“I’d always wanted to meet her,” Duncan said of Noble. He knew that a $4,000 increase in annual income prenatally to age 2 can mean a 19 percent increase in the child’s earnings as an adult. He told her of an idea of his: What if they could do an experiment that alleviates poverty and test causally the effects on child development? “She knew what the problem was with non-experiential data,” Duncan said. “A lot of neuroscientists in this area take the work and say ‘poverty destroys brains,’ but she understood the value of random assignment.” Noble told Duncan that if he ever developed this idea into an experiment, count her in.

Duncan soon spoke to some social scientists he had worked with before and assembled a team with the right combination of skills necessary to pull off a study to measure the effects of income on the developing brain during the first three years of life. They would need to find subjects, evaluate parent stress and parent involvement, and—Noble’s specialty—measure brain activity.

Their study will recruit mothers who are in hospitals to give birth, with incomes no greater than the federal poverty threshold, and randomly assign them to one of two groups: Members of the treatment group will receive $333 per month as an automatic deposit on a debit card. Mothers in the control group will receive $20 per month. The researchers plan to recruit 250 new moms at each of four sites, chosen to represent a diversity of state benefits offered and of racial or ethnic composition, among other things. After they secure agreements to participate, researchers will interview the moms for 20 minutes. “You’d be surprised at how hard it is to give away money,” said Magnuson, who is a former student of Duncan’s. Special legislation had to be passed in Nebraska and Minnesota, two of the study sites, so the income would not threaten participants’ eligibility for public benefits and thereby negate the “treatment.”

Poor neighborhoods can have physiological effects: A mother’s address at pregnancy predicted cortisol response and length of DNA sequences that protect infant chromosomes.

At 12 months, researchers will conduct a longer interview by telephone. When the children reach age 2, the researchers will conduct home visits and collect hair and saliva samples to test them for cortisol levels, an indicator of stress that has been shown to damage the developing brain. Researchers will also videotape the mothers’ interactions with their children during a standardized play task; the videos will be coded for different aspects of parent sensitivity such as perceiving gestures from their children and picking up and responding to them. “We expect to see more sensitive reciprocal interaction in the parents in the treatment group,” Duncan said. At age 3, the families will be brought into the lab to measure cognition and brain development in detail, using EEGs.

Noble would have liked to begin the study prenatally, but that would have risked missing women who weren’t receiving prenatal care. “Almost everyone in the U.S. gives birth in a hospital, but the degree to which mothers receive prenatal care varies quite a bit,” she said. Walking up to women with big bellies on the street wouldn’t have been practical. “If there was a way to get everyone prenatally, for sure we would have loved to try that,” Noble said.

Another limitation of the study will be the use of EEG instead of MRI data—or, better yet, examining the brains directly, which you can do with monkeys but not humans. Older kids can be relied upon to sit still in the noisy, dark MRI tubes, but 3 year olds not so much. An EEG scan involves a series of electrodes fitted into a cap that is placed on the child’s head. “Most kids don’t mind it,” Noble said. “They can sit on their caretaker’s lap. It gives a pretty good window into the electric brain function.”

Children who grow up in more well-off families have vastly different experiences than  those in poverty today. Living in a poor neighborhood has been shown to have physiological effects: A mother’s address at pregnancy predicted cortisol response and length of telomeres, DNA sequences that protect chromosomes, in their children at 12 months. The poor tend to live in more polluted areas, increasing exposure to toxins, and in more crowded and less stable housing environments, which can cause stress. They may live in violent neighborhoods; exposure to violence has been shown to affect the length of children’s telomeres, effectively aging them prematurely, according to research published in 2012 in Molecular Psychiatry. Poor moms have higher rates of psychological distress and depression, which can affect how they interact with their children. They tend to be in lower-quality childcare if they are in childcare, and to have less stable family relationships.

“None of this is to say poor children don’t often live in incredibly loving and warm families who do their best to support their children,” Magnuson emphasized. “But it’s hard to be the parent of a young child in our country—there are very few supports for it—and incredibly hard to do it with very limited financial resources.”

The debit cards will show how participants are spending the money, but not what they spend it on; researchers will need to rely on surveys for that information. They are trusting that families are “able to optimize and understand their own needs,” Magnuson said. Some moms might put their kids in better quality childcare; others might spend the money on ESL classes. Some may decide to move into an apartment in a safer neighborhood; others may calculate they can afford to delay returning to work and thereby spend more time with their infant. The money is expected to just generally reduce mothers’ stress. “If they’re less depressed maybe they’ll have more bandwidth to talk more to their children, or take them to the library,” Magnuson suggested. “Anything that’s going to reduce the child’s experience of stress could very likely improve their brain development.” The surveys, physiological samples and videotaped interactions should provide such data.

“Greg and I have been studying child poverty for a lot of years, particularly Greg,” Magnuson said. “We come from the perspective of wanting to know if something is causal or not, because you want to know how much money really does matter. We’re not here to find something that doesn’t exist. Then I’ll think of other ways to help children.”

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Finding Resilience in the Face of Disaster

The press tends to cover the immediate aftermath of natural disasters. Readers get heroic stories, viewers see great visuals, and if they are lucky, the victims get help while people are paying attention. Then comes the long road to recovery.

Rev. Jim Conn



A home in Puerto Rico with the word “HELP” painted on its roof, Sept. 24, 2017. (Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection )

“I think I was in total disaster fatigue last week,” my wife Susan said to me as we began a little down time over the weekend.

And no wonder. Hurricane Harvey had no sooner finished devastating Houston and surrounding areas, than three more storms lined up facing Florida and islands in the Caribbean and the Atlantic. People fled several small outer islands, like Barbuda, only to find themselves stranded in a Puerto Rico shattered by record rains and winds.

Then came the news of vast wildfires throughout the American and Canadian West. From the Columbia River Gorge to the worst ever inside the Los Angeles city limits, these fires consume almost two million acres, a territory nearly the combined size of Rhode Island and Delaware. This was not supposed to happen in the wake of last winter’s drenching rains. The land and the vegetation were expected to be wet enough to forestall such horrors.

At the same time, monsoon season dumped record rains on Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, while an estimated 20 million people face famine across northeast Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. Then the earthquakes hit Mexico.

The storms and the fires come with warnings that this is what human-caused climate change looks like. The increasing incidences of catastrophic storms and fires come from a common source. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, which is part of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), sea levels, temperatures of sea water and its surface, the air above the oceans, and over the land have all gone up. Meanwhile, sea ice, glaciers, ice sheets and snow cover have decreased. These phenomena all result from the amount of carbon dioxide humans put into the atmosphere.

With information that clear, no wonder climate change deniers don’t want the American people to know. So President Trump has salted his cabinet with deniers and wants climate change information scoured from the government’s web sites, just like the governor of Florida has forbidden his Environmental Protection Agency’s employees from using the words like “climate change” or “global warming.” But there is a reason why NOAA is in the Commerce Department and not, say, at Interior, where you might expect it: Business relies on forecasting calamity. Stability matters. Predictability makes a difference in the profit/loss column.

Knowing what’s coming matters to people in the pathway of destruction, too. Newspapers and television cover the threat of approaching catastrophic fires and storms because they provide warnings and generate suspense for the rest of us. The press also tends to cover the immediate aftermath because people want to know what happened. Readers get heroic stories, viewers see great visuals, and if they are lucky, the victims get help while people are paying attention. Then comes the difficult stuff and the long road to recovery. Network television turns away, and newspapers and broadcast outlets—except those based in the disaster area–may only continue a storyline for a brief time, unless they return years later for a historic look back.

But for the people on the ground, the horror of tragedy continues. Following Katrina in 2005, my wife joined a team of church people who volunteered in New Orleans. She came back shell-shocked by the devastation. Six months after the hurricane, the streets were still filled with piles of debris, fallen trees, uprooted shrubbery. Houses just being opened still held dead refrigerators filled with toxic mold.

Construction workers in hazmat suits gutted a home, down to the studs, so it could be rebuilt. A year later when we went back together, homes still stood empty, uninhabitable, some with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailers in the front yard. Trees, stripped bare by the winds, were just beginning to leaf again. Remnants of the wreckage sat everywhere. Street car lines weren’t operating in some locations. That was still true a year later. Vast areas like the Lower Ninth Ward, remain mostly vacant even now. It takes a long time to recover from disaster.

In these situations local resilience and national response make a difference. People sharing food, cooking together, sorting through the rubble, building temporary shelters – all these efforts matter. In the immediate wake of Harvey, the volunteer “Cajun Navy” showed up with their small boats and skiffs. They rescued everyone they could without regard to race or religion or wealth because “Floodwaters don’t discriminate,” as they say. FEMA-sponsored teams soon began arriving from across the country, including California.

Donation centers popped up, of course. Some are worthy, others not. Before contributing to the rebuilding anywhere, make sure you find an organization that’s trustworthy. And sometimes the best known – like the Red Cross – are not the most locally effective or transparent.

These devastated places will take a long time to be habitable again. Lives will be upside down for a very long time. We Americans have a short attention span. As these catastrophes pile up, my fear is that we will get worn out before we work it out. A significant part of that work will be reducing our impact as human beings on this planet.

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Vaccination and the Virus of Fear

American children die of measles and whooping cough not because of shortages of vaccine sera, or trained nurses, but because their parents have bought into antivaccine narratives that argue, without providing scientific proof, the sera are linked to children developing autism.

Sasha Abramsky



Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.

Editor’s Note: The following chapter is excerpted from Capital & Main contributor Sasha Abramsky’s new book, Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream (Nation Books). Publishers Weekly says of Jumping at Shadows: “In eloquent and devastating terms, Abramsky shows, over and over, how fear hijacks rational decision making, empathy, and rational analysis, and instead plays on implicit bias and gut response.”

We don’t have to be right-wing zealots to fear that the walls that hold up our reality will one day come tumbling down, even without really agreeing on what will cause that cataclysm.

Take, for example, parents who read rumors on the Internet that vaccines might be linked to autism and thus refuse to have their children inoculated for diseases such as measles, diphtheria, and pertussis (more commonly known as whooping cough). Since the inception of mass-vaccination campaigns in the nineteenth century, every so often a public panic has set in against one or another vaccine program. Early advocates of the smallpox vaccine were ridiculed and attacked by skeptics.

Some believed that diseases were sent by God as punishment for human sins, and that any attempt to inoculate against them was an affront against divine authority. Others feared the vaccines would hurt young children. Still others resisted compulsory vaccination programs for political reasons, fearing the intrusion of the state into intimate family decision making. In England, in the nineteenth century, thousands of families were fined for resisting the smallpox vaccine. In the United States, from 1879 onward, antivaccine campaigners coalesced into the Anti-Vaccination Society of America and also, a few years later, the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League.

We all have our particular set of irrational fears, be they of exotic diseases or of everyday vaccines. Usually we can find ample examples online, on TV, radio, or in newspapers to add fuel to the fire of our specific terrors.”

In our era, the panic was triggered by Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist who in 1998 published a research paper in the prestigious Lancet journal claiming to have found a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the sudden emergence of autism and bowel disease in previously healthy children. On both sides of the Atlantic, Wakefield’s work set off a storm of hostility to vaccinations. The only problem? It turned out that the good doctor had fabricated much of his data. Wakefield was ultimately barred from practicing medicine, and the Lancet retracted the article, with the editor in chief denouncing Wakefield’s work as “utterly false.” Between 2003 and 2015, the Centers for Disease Control funded nine large-scale studies investigating the purported vaccine-autism link. No such link was found.

Yet the suspicions Wakefield unleashed have proven harder to contain. When I contacted a group called Vaccination Liberation, hoping to line up an interview on antivaccination theories, I received back a list of questionnaires and reports that represented a smorgasbord of conspiracy thinking. “Are you dangerously stuck in the matrix?” was the title of one of the group’s questionnaires, which came complete with a set of “true” answers. Ostensibly designed to contextualize the antivaccine ideology, it argued that the fluoride put into drinking water was “toxic waste”; that the U.S. Constitution ceased to be the law of the land in 1933, when “Federal Reserve bankers bankrupted the ‘federal government’”; that “the media in America was captured by the Robber Barons back in 1917 via the Council of Foreign Relations”; and that the visible trails of heated air created behind jet planes are, in fact, “part of a covert geoengineering/weather control program.”  All of this might be funny—clichéd conspiracism—were it not for the fact that the VacLib woman who emailed me this from her headquarters in rural Idaho also emailed me a set of questions that she wanted me to answer before talking to me, all of them clearly intended to steer participants toward a conspiracy-based understanding of vaccines.

GettyImagesGetty Images

“Do you believe that injections of pus from cowpox pustules led to the eradication of smallpox?” “Do you believe that polio has been eradicated due to vaccines?” And so on. In case correspondents weren’t sure which way to answer these questions, under her email signature was the slogan “Free Your Mind . . . From the Vaccine Paradigm.”

Less than 1 percent of children are unvaccinated for the common, and preventable, childhood diseases in the United States, but those children tend to live in clusters, their families either responding to religious sentiments against vaccines in the communities in which they reside or to political and cultural discomfort with vaccinations. Like-minded people often group with each other. And so, rather than a random distribution of nonvaccinated children nationally, they are found in particularly large numbers in certain regions of California, Oregon, Washington, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and a few other states, making those communities particularly vulnerable to disease outbreaks. In some states, at the height of the antivaccine craze as many as 5 percent of children weren’t being inoculated.

“It’s risk perception combined with the fear factor. A real gut fear, your body being invaded by a needle. It’s personal,” argued Catherine Martin of the California Immunization Coalition, as she sipped an iced tea at an outdoor café across from the California Capitol building in Sacramento. A year earlier, the Coalition, along with the California Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and other scientific groups, had gone to bat on behalf of SB277, a state bill to require all families to vaccinate their children unless those children had a medical condition that made it unsafe for them to receive vaccines. If parents refused to vaccinate, the kids would no longer be allowed into public or private schools in the state. The bill, which eventually passed and was signed into law by Governor Brown, had been very controversial, and Martin, suntanned, wearing a short polka-dot dress in the California sun, her long, wavy brown hair falling over her shoulders, still recalled the huge numbers of opponents who came into town to argue their point in the halls and offices and hearing rooms of the Capitol. The antivaccine movement had, after a while, begun to grate on Martin. “It’s a lot of conspiracy. ‘Make it up and say it.’” She distrusted the anecdote-driven pseudo-science behind the movement and also the “parental choice” arguments. After all, she said, laughing, we don’t give drivers a choice as to whether or not to obey the speed limit, because we know that if people can drive at a hundred miles an hour down a residential street, there will at some point be casualties. The same held, she believed, for choosing to leave one’s children exposed to potentially lethal diseases.

When I contacted Vaccination Liberation, I received back a list of questionnaires and reports that represented a smorgasbord of conspiracy thinking.”

Unvaccinated children, argued Amy Pisani, the long-time executive director of the pro-vaccine organization Every Child By Two (ECBT), are thirty times more likely to come down with measles during an outbreak than are vaccinated kids. If they are not protected against pertussis, the risk factor for whooping cough increases eightfold. These are potentially deadly diseases, spread quickly both within families and into the broader community. When outbreaks occur—as one did with measles in 2015, after an infected child visited Disneyland in California and spread the germs to other visitors; soon afterwards dozens of measles cases were reported in several states around the country—unvaccinated children are peculiarly vulnerable. Just as importantly, when a critical number of children in a given area aren’t vaccinated, what doctors term “herd immunity”—the general resilience within a community to a disease, based on the overwhelming numbers of immunized individuals acting as a firewall against its spread—begins to break down, and the risk of epidemic increases. With a highly contagious disease such as measles, you need upwards of 96 percent of the population vaccinated to ensure this herd immunity. Once you head much south of that number, you risk large outbreaks of the potentially deadly virus.

The World Health Organization estimates that each year, around the world, up to 3 million children avoid death from diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, and measles simply because they have been vaccinated. Yet another 1.5 million children, unvaccinated, still die from these diseases. Most of these kids are in poor countries with dilapidated public health systems. Their parents, one can only assume, would give pretty much anything to have had access to medical services that would have helped protect their children from the diseases that ended up killing them. Yet some are from wealthy countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, with massive vaccination efforts in place. They die not because of shortages of vaccine sera, or trained nurses who can deliver the vaccination, but because their parents have bought into Wakefield’s antivaccine narratives that argue, without providing scientific proof, the sera are linked to children developing autism.

Misunderstanding risk comes with societal consequences. If I read a debunked report about the extreme dangers of immunizing my children, and I don’t realize that the science is faulty, I might jump to the erroneous conclusion that inoculating my children is as dangerous as playing chicken with them on the highway. And so I refuse to have them immunized. As long as all the other kids in my neighborhood are still vaccinated, it’s fairly likely my kids will be okay; they will be free riders in an overwhelmingly immunized society. But if I don’t vaccinate my children, and if my neighbors, on my advice, also don’t vaccinate theirs, and if clusters of unvaccinated kids start to show up all around town, at some point, as happened with the unvaccinated children who visited Disneyland, there will be a measles, or polio, or whooping cough, or diphtheria outbreak, and there’s a pretty good chance that a lot of kids will end up very sick, and some of those kids will die.

The World Health Organization estimates that each year up to three million children avoid death from diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, and measles simply because they have been vaccinated.”

The same holds for the recently perfected vaccine against Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is an extremely common sexually transmitted disease, and it is known to trigger cervical cancer, which kills upwards of a quarter million women globally each year, as well as penis cancer and several other cancers. It’s not that every woman who is infected with HPV will subsequently develop cervical cancer; in fact, most won’t. Rather, it’s that without having been infected with HPV a person will not develop cervical cancer. It’s a necessary precursor to the more serious disease, and thus preventing its transmission is, from a public health standpoint, a very good idea.

Since most everyone has sex at some point in their lives, it ought to be a no-brainer that as children approach adolescence they are given this potentially life-saving vaccine. But, as with most things sex-related, an awful lot of parents get awfully squeamish and kick up all kinds of fuss about having their kids vaccinated. Some argue, despite the lack of research evidence backing up the claim, that simply having children vaccinated against HPV will make them more likely to engage in promiscuous sexual activity. Others cherry-pick information from the Internet, much of it bizarre in the extreme, to bolster their reluctance to vaccinate. “We have a cancer vaccine, and they’re delaying it for their children,” Pisani said, her voice conveying bemusement more than anger. “Why? Because of these crazy notions they get on the Internet. One report said a woman got the HPV vaccine and could only walk backwards afterwards. She was a famous cheerleader, so it went all over. Another story said a woman could only talk French afterwards. It’s so irrational.”

We all have our particular set of irrational fears, be they of exotic diseases or of everyday vaccines—and usually we can find ample examples online, on TV, on the radio, or in the newspapers to add fuel to the fire of our specific terrors. So, too, many of us experience, at one time or another, a pervasive, nonspecific sense of dread, a sensation of everything going off of the rails. Through a selective reading of the world around us—a substitution of anecdote for big-picture data—and an evermore pervasive and sensationalist mass media that feeds off of our fears and our anxieties, we can create echo chambers within which our nightmares reverberate.

It turns out that pretty bizarre understandings of risk and fear are the norm rather than the exception. It takes a continuous effort to even remotely calibrate scales of risk correctly. And this has huge effects on how we live, how we allocate resources, and how we interact with others. For if we can’t work out ways to contain our internal Doomsday Prepping impulses, if we let our fears run amok, be they of particular diseases or particular groups of people, the end results can be utterly destructive of civic society. As with the unvaccinated children and the spread of measles, if critical numbers of people fall prey to certain fears we can end up with the cultural equivalent of an epidemic. Panics around school safety, say; or about the risk posed to civic peace by immigrants; or about the dangers bubbling up out of the inner city. When we compete with each other as to which of our fears is more worthy of attention and of resources, we spiral into a black hole, into a place of crushing anxieties. It’s hard to think about creating a better future if you’re being pushed down onto your knees by the burdens of a present that you perceive to be filled with miscellaneous terrors.

Excerpted from Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream by Sasha Abramsky. Copyright © 2017. Available from Nation Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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Politics & Government

Now More Than Ever: ‘We the People’

After about 90 minutes of copying the U.S. Constitution by hand, we all seemed to have one experience in common: writer’s cramp.

Rev. Jim Conn




I think of the Constitution’s Preamble as a kind of national mission statement.

Some Americans recently noted a day most of us haven’t even heard of:  Constitution Day. This year marks the document’s 230th year – but the commemoration hardly matches the Fourth of July. Nevertheless, a few people paid attention in a most intimate way. 

Their inspiration began months ago in New York City, where artist Morgan O’Hara had invited a few friends to the New York Public Library to hand copy the Constitution. Frustrated and distraught by Donald J. Trump’s impending inauguration, O’Hara wanted a way to calm down, contemplate the future of our country and think. And she didn’t want to do it alone.

She put together a bag of pens, several types of paper for writing, staked out a table, and started. Others joined her. Some were invited friends. Others just saw what was happening and joined them. Eventually, O’Hara wrote about it in the New York Times.

Friends of mine in Venice saw the newspaper piece, went to the local librarian and made arrangements for a similar experience in another Los Angeles library. So on a Thursday afternoon a dozen of us – some of us friends, others who just showed up – gathered at the library. Staff provided supplies, several kinds of pens for writing, some felt-tipped with a spectrum of colors, plus a variety of paper choices as well as copies of the Constitution. After an introduction of a few sentences, we started writing, silently.

That’s when a woman walked in rather brusquely, sat down in the seat next to me and whispered, “So what are we doing?”

I said, “Copying the Constitution.”

“Just copying it?” she asked, with a bit of an edge. “No discussion?”

“No discussion,” I affirmed. “Just writing it down.”

Apparently, she had her talking points lined up, whatever they might have been, but joined the silence like the rest of us and wrote.

I started at the beginning because the Preamble to the Constitution is my favorite part:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It embodies “the core values of our country” as one of the New York participants noted. I think of it as a kind of national mission statement or declaration of purpose.

Others copied the Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments that were adopted following the ratification of the Constitution itself. Still others began at some random point. But after about 90 minutes we all seemed to have one experience in common: writer’s cramp. Those fingers just wouldn’t keep holding a pen much longer, and after writing a bit more, we stopped.

Someone asked what struck us most by copying it down. “There’s no mention of God,” my friend who had organized this experience said. She’s right, of course. God is not even mentioned in the U.S. President’s oath of office (located verbatim in Article II, Section 1).

Then a couple of young men who had joined us showed their work, done in a graceful script, in multiples of colors. We all acknowledged the beauty. Then we left.

Later I asked a few of the people I knew how they viewed the experience with some days’ perspective. One remarked on the “concision” of the document – how many details were included in such a brief space. Another thought it was a nice meditation that could have been done at home, but which felt even better in a group. Another said it focused him on the document for the first time in very many years. Someone else pointed to words like “emolument,” which feels archaic, except it is finding usefulness again in connection with the Trump administration. Another wondered if the experience felt particularly “meaningful” because she’s a writer.

As for the librarian, she’s planning to repeat the experiment, this time on the date this year that Constitution Day will be observed, Monday, September 18th. No discussion. Just writing it down. Abbot Kinney Memorial Branch Library, 501 S. Venice Boulevard, Venice; 4-6 p.m. (310) 821-1769.

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Labor & Economy

Organic Oranges for the Homeless? Bringing Good Food to Skid Row

Not eating well sparks a cascade effect in anyone, but the effect is especially pronounced among a homeless population experiencing high levels of stress, mental illness, substance abuse and all the pains that accompany the aging process.

Charles Davis



All photos by Charles Davis.

Poor nutrition is the rule among those experiencing the most extreme form of poverty. According to a Harvard Medical School study,  a third of the U.S. homeless population is obese.

An organic farmers’ market opening up in the poorest neighborhood in Los Angeles might be taken as a sign the rent there is about to go up. But on Skid Row it’s a useful a reminder: The poor also need and desire good food — and even those with the least to lose, materially, care about their physical well-being.

“It is not something that people probably think of in this community,” said Ariana Alcaraz, an organizer with the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), a homeless advocacy group. “‘Oh, where am I gonna get my organic food?’” But it’s something Alcaraz and LA CAN thought the city’s homeless should start thinking about.

Since August 3, LA CAN has been running a small market out of a garage in the group’s Skid Row office, selling oranges, tomatoes, grapes, potatoes and eggplants — all organic. Most customers are homeless or are struggling to avoid falling into a life on the street, but Alcaraz said the market has attracted “some yuppies” too.

“A big part of our work is ultimately education about the importance of organic produce,” Alcaraz added. That education includes teaching people who may not know how to cook how to consume it, even if they don’t have a stove.

Just over 50 people came the first day of the market, which builds on an existing food delivery program and complements another market in a nearby housing project.

farm2Terry, a Skid Row resident for “the last few years” who declined to give his last name, said it was a welcome addition to the neighborhood. “The body runs like a car,” he said. “Put good fuel in it and it’ll run better.” But it’s hard to find good produce anywhere on Skid Row, “and a lot of these places don’t take food stamps,” he said. “They do here. And that’s good. Good prices, too.”

Poor nutrition is the rule among those experiencing the most extreme form of poverty. People living on the street “are more likely to buy inexpensive, low-nutrient but high-caloric foods,” according to a a Harvard Medical School study, with researchers finding that a third of the U.S. homeless population is obese.

While many groups distribute food in areas with large homeless populations like Skid Row, often that food is of the “comfort” variety. In 2013, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco found that free meals — which “often serve as a primary food source for adults living in poverty, particularly the homeless” — provided “too little fiber and too much fat,” and were “below target for potassium, calcium, and Vitamins A and E.”

And for those cooking in their makeshift homes, convenience stores are unlikely to offer anything healthier than an onion or potato that has seen better days.

“Where I live, they’ve been taking stores from us,” said Lydia Trejo, who was staffing the LA CAN market and lives in an apartment on Skid Row. One store that used to sell produce, she said, is now a bar.


Not eating well sparks a cascade effect in anyone, but the effect is especially pronounced among a population experiencing high levels of stress, mental illness, substance abuse, and all the pains and illnesses that accompany the process of aging.

“There are people in the area that have physical conditions, such as diabetes and other ailments, where their diet can really promote change,” said a man who introduced himself as Mr. Pancake and a community liaison for LA CAN. “They feel more healthy,” he said. “Healthy eating leads to a healthy mind. That’s what we’re really promoting.”

There’s also now a garden on LA CAN’s roof, though it doesn’t yet produce enough food to sell. For now, it’s primarily a learning experience.

“None of us have ever managed a rooftop garden,” said Matt Horns, an LA CAN volunteer during a tour of it. “Lots of trial and error — lots of errors.” He showed a lettuce plant that had all but withered away and had attracted aphids. But mistakes are teachable moments, and on the roof those buying food downstairs can learn how to grow tomatoes, melons, squash, carrots, raspberries and peppers at home. And those aphids attracted ladybugs, making the garden healthier as a whole.

“We set this up to engage our produce customers — to get them engaged in growing produce,” Horns said. “We consider it a community garden, but envision a gardening community.”

The vision is not just better nutrition, but sustainability and empowerment for an oft-dependent, disenfranchised community on Skid Row. Buy a tomato this week, the hope is, and you may just decide to plant one the next.

Copyright Capital & Main

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