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News Briefs

Warren Joins Markey and McGovern in Pushing ERA Extension; Transgender Day of Remembrance; Homeless Students in Our Schools; A Poetry Fight of Dickinsonian Proportions


Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Steven Senne photo
Elizabeth Warren

Warren Joins Markey and McGovern in Pushing ERA Extension

Remember the ERA, the proposed Constitutional amendment from the early 1970s that sought to guarantee that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex”?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren remembers it—and she recently signed on as a co-sponsor of a bill that would remove the deadline for the ERA’s ratification. Her fellow Massachusetts senator, Ed Markey, is already a co-sponsor; U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, whose district includes a large portion of the Valley, is a co-sponsor of a similar bill in the House.

The Equal Rights Amendment passed in the U.S. House and Senate back in 1972, 49 years after an earlier version, written by suffragist leader Alice Paul, had first been introduced in Congress. From there, it went to the states for approval. The bill needed to be ratified by 38 states for final passage but was approved in only 35 states (including all of New England) before the 1982 deadline imposed by Congress.

Since then, the ERA has been reintroduced in every Congressional session (with the late Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy one of its prime champions). Last year, on the 40th anniversary of the ERA’s passage in Congress, Sen. Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, introduced a bill that would remove the ratification deadline and open the door for more states to ratify the ERA and push it over the 38-state threshold.

Warren signed on as a co-sponsor of Cardin’s bill late last month, joining Markey, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). In addition to McGovern, the House version of the bill is co-sponsored by Massachusetts reps Niki Tsongas, John Tierney and Joseph Kennedy. Richie Neal, Western Massachusetts’ other member of Congress, is not a co-sponsor.

The activist group Progressive Democrats of America notes that the Senate bill now has 33 co-sponsors and the House version, 91. But PDA is calling on more legislators to sign on and notes that of the 75 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, only 41 have done so.•

 

Rallying to Protect Endangered Species

As the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture held a hearing last week on two bills that would radically alter the state’s protections for endangered species, a coalition of environmental and public interest groups spoke up in opposition.

Eighty-six groups (including Mass Audubon, Clean Water Action, the Trustees of Reservations and the Mass. Sierra Club) submitted a strongly worded letter to the committee voicing their concerns about two bills that would undo the Mass. Endangered Species Act, which seeks to protect threatened plant and animal species. One of the bills was filed by state Sen. Gale Candaras, a Wilbraham Democrat, and was inspired by the case of Bill Pepin, a Springfield resident and general manager of WWLP, who has been battling for several years with the Mass. Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, which oversees MESA. Pepin wants to build a retirement home in Hampden but objects to the state’s designation of his land as a protected habitat for the Eastern box turtle. (See “Endangering Species,” July 26, 2012, www.valleyadvocate.com.)

The groups, led by Mass Audubon, dispute the idea that the endangered species law imposes undue burdens on property owners, writing, “MESA is NOT about choosing between endangered species and growth. Rather, MESA is a vital, flexible law that enables project proponents, regulators, technical experts and communities to work together to ensure that as we grow and pursue economic development, we do so in a way that ensures that our most imperiled animals and plants will not disappear from the Commonwealth—a goal the Legislature established when it passed MESA and that remains compatible with preserving the character of the Massachusetts communities where we live and work.”

Mass Audubon backs a consensus bill, sponsored by Rep. Steve Kulik (D-Worthington), that would retain the protections offered by MESA while making improvements to the process for property owners and developers.• —MT

 

Homeless Students in Our Schools

In the years since the financial downturn, the number of homeless students in the U.S. has increased 72 percent according to five advocacy groups, including the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare.

According to the federal Department of Education, 1,168,354 homeless children were enrolled in grades K through 12 across the country during the 2011-2012 school year, 10 percent more than in the previous year (in Massachusetts, the percentage of increase was somewhat lower: 6 percent). Children in that situation struggle to complete their education under conditions that make it difficult to maintain continuity of curriculum and to find quiet spaces in which to study at night.

Even college students are identifying as homeless: 58,000 of them around the country this year, according to data from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

In Massachusetts, 15,812 students in grades K through 12—one out of 60—is homeless, according to the state Department of Education. But the DOE estimates that the real number of homeless students in Massachusetts public schools may be closer to 44,000, because children who are homeless don’t always identify themselves that way; if they are staying with a friend or member of their extended family, for example, they may not describe themselves as homeless.

In the Valley, the Springfield school system has 1,027 students identified as homeless, Holyoke has 617, and Chicopee has 213. The cost of transportation for homeless students in Springfield is more than $400,000 per year. Numbers that are smaller, but that illustrate the growth in the homeless student population, come from West Springfield, which reported 89 homeless students in 2010, 101 in 2011, 120 in 2012 and 172 in 2013.

And it’s not only cities in heavily populated parts of Hampden County that have homeless students. Greenfield has 96, Orange 66, Westfield 55, Northampton 54 and South Hadley 21. Last year it cost the Northampton system $30,824 to transport homeless youngsters to and from school, Joy Winnie, who oversees services to homeless students in Northampton, told the Advocate.

“We have kids going everywhere, from Greenfield to Springfield to Holyoke and Chicopee,” said Winnie. “We have to make sure that they get the transportation in place, so if they become homeless for whatever reason and they end up in a hotel or motel, or doubled up with friends or family outside the district, they get that continuation of normalcy in their life.” •

 

A Poetry Fight of Dickinsonian Proportions

When the Emily Dickinson Archive was released online recently, it rekindled a literary rivalry between Harvard University and Amherst College that goes back over a hundred years.

The archive “gives free access to high-resolution photos of thousands of the poet’s manuscripts, including envelopes or bits of paper with poems jotted down on them, letters, doodles and many, many exuberant em-dashes,” National Public Radio reports.

But Harvard has been accused of taking too much credit for the project, in part to boost the status of Ralph Franklin’s 1998 collection of Dickinson poems, which was published by Harvard University Press, reports The Guardian.

The Dickinson collection held at Harvard’s Houghton Library was originally gifted to Harvard by Susan Dickinson, the wife of Emily’s brother Austin. The collection at the Amherst College Library was donated by Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin’s lover.

“It all goes back to the adultery and the two homes,” Oxford University Dickinson biographer Lyndall Gordon told The Guardian. “Austin had an explosive affair with Mabel … [who was] an incredibly accomplished young woman … But she was malicious, and she maligned Susan, and so it became embittered very quickly.”

Todd collaborated with Thomas Wentworth Higginson to publish the first collection of Dickinson’s poems in 1890, four years after the Belle of Amherst passed away.

Amherst’s Emily Dickinson Museum includes both the house where Dickinson was born, lived—in self-imposed reclusiveness—and wrote, as well as the neighboring house of her brother Austin.

According to executive director Jane Weld, however, the Museum is pleased that the archives have become more accessible, regardless of who is making them available or getting credit for the work.

“As readers know,” Weld tells the Advocate, “Dickinson’s connection to home was unusually intense. Here, in this place of inspiration and reflection, they can find a solid touchstone to Emily Dickinson and an avenue to appreciating her poetry. We need both—access to the manuscripts and the material context of the poet who produced them.”•

 

Springfield Libraries Fly Their Peace Flag

Earlier this year, the Interfaith Council of Western Mass. asked community organizations in Springfield to make Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags as a sign of commitment to ending violence in the city. The project, called “Creating a Peace-full City: Our Community Responds to Violence,” culminates later this month, in time for Thanksgiving, when the Council plans to display the flags at houses of worship around the city.

The Springfield City Library was eager to sign on, taking flag-making kits for patrons to put together at library branches, said Jean Canosa Albano, manager of public services for the library system. But the library staff, she said, wanted to do more, wondering, we can’t stop gun violence ourselves, but what else can we do to make a difference? 

The result: a series of library-based events throughout the month of November called “Imagine a Peace-full City.” The program began with a workshop on firearms safety at the Central Library and has included an open-mic event for young people at the Mason Square library and a discussion on community approaches to public safety at the Sixteen Acres branch.

Still on tap: 

• On Wed., Nov. 13, at 1 p.m, Stephen White, a retired Marine colonel, will discuss “Peacemaking from a Veteran’s Perspective” at a brown-bag lunch event at the East Springfield branch.

• On Thursday, Nov. 14, from 6 to 8 p.m., local photographer Leonard Underwood will photograph heretofore strangers together for a project called “Strangers Become Friends” at the Brightwood branch.

• On Friday, Nov. 15, at noon, the East Forest Park branch will host a discussion on starting a neighborhood watch.

• On Saturday, Nov. 16, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Mason Square library, there will be a panel discussion on making Springfield a more peaceful city, moderated by WGBY’s Jim Madigan and including Police Commissioner William Fitchet. 

While firearm safety classes and neighborhood-watch organizing might not seem like typical library fare, Canosa Albano sees the project as being in keeping with the city libraries’ commitment to community service. (And, she added, she considers the recent expansion of hours at branch libraries as a public safety issue, by providing kids a safe place to come after school, meet other kids and take part in positive activities.) 

The “Peace-full City” events are also in keeping with the libraries’ commitment to offering programs that are dynamic and that respond to community needs; in February, for instance, rather than mark Black History Month with the typical book display, the department worked with the Mason Square Health Task Force to put together a film series on health issues in the African-American community. And, Canosa Albano said, she’s already looking forward to the library’s next big community project, focused on food justice, urban gardening, ethnic food traditions and related issues. 

For more information on “Imagine a Peace-full City,” go to www.springfieldlibrary.org.• —MT

 

Does Your Town Meeting Have Phantoms?

A new report from the Easthampton-based Prison Policy Initiative shows that the federal census’ method of counting prisoners harms that bastion of New England democracy—the town meeting—including in Ludlow.

The report is the latest in PPI’s ongoing work on what it calls “prison gerrymandering”: the skewing of democratic representation by local prison populations. At the heart of the problem is the U.S. Census’ practice of counting people who are incarcerated in the communities where they are locked up, not the communities they lived in before their sentencing (and, in many cases, will return to after their release).

That census data is used to draw legislative districts on the federal, state and local level. Those districts are based on population, which means that communities that host prisons and jails see their populations—and, by extension, their political power—artificially boosted by their prisoner populations. Meanwhile, communities (largely urban areas) with significant portions of their populations incarcerated elsewhere see their populations, and therefore their political influence, artificially decreased.

Heightening the problem: in 48 states, including Massachusetts, incarcerated felons cannot vote, so while they plump up the population in the district where they’re locked up, they don’t actually have a say in selecting that district’s representative. (See “The Prison Town Advantage,” Oct. 8, 2009, www.valleyadvocate.com.)

While PPI has emerged as a national expert on the issue of prison-based gerrymandering, the new report takes a very local view, examining its effect on Massachusetts’ town meetings. Titled “Prison Gerrymandering in Massachusetts: How the Census Bureau Prison Miscount Invites Phantom Constituents to Town Meeting,” it found that in seven towns that host prisons—including Ludlow, home to the Hampden County Correctional Center—the presence of a correctional facility causes an imbalance in political power between precincts.

In Ludlow, for instance, 35 percent of the town meeting representatives from the precinct where the prison is located can actually be attributed to the prisoner population. “That gives any 65 people who live in those precincts the same voice at town meeting as 100 residents from any other precinct,” the report noted.

“Everybody is supposed to get the same representation across all the precincts, but five of the representatives in Precinct 5 aren’t there because of the actual residents of that precinct—they’re there solely because the population in the local correctional facility gives that precinct the illusion of having [a larger] population,” explained Aleks Kajstura, the report’s author. As a result, “unless you live in Precinct Five in Ludlow, your voice is weaker at Town Meeting.”

The report found a similar situation in Plymouth, where 35 percent of town meeting representatives in the precinct where the Plymouth County Correctional Center is located can be attributed to the prison population. In the other communities looked at—Billerica, Dartmouth, Dedham, Framingham and Walpole—the population at the local correctional facility accounted for anywhere from 17 to 30 percent of the town meeting representation in its precinct.

Much of the research on prison-based gerrymandering shows that the problem tends to hurt urban communities, from which a disproportionate percentage of prisoners come, and help communities in rural areas, where correctional facilities are more likely to be located, Kajstura added. The new PPI report, however, shows that adverse effects can also be felt by host communities, she said.

So what’s the solution? There are a few options, Kajstura said: individual towns can adjust the way they draw precincts, excluding the prison population or reapportioning Town Meeting members to counteract the prison effect. Even better, she said, the Secretary of the Commonwealth, who provides maps and other technical support to municipalities when they’re drawing precincts, could provide those communities data showing the effects of their prison populations and guidance on avoiding the problem of prison gerrymandering.

Ultimately, though, the most comprehensive solution would come from the Census Bureau, which could change its policy on where it counts incarcerated people rather than leave individual states or local governments to make their own adjustments. Right now, the Census Bureau is researching the issue, Kajstura said—and pressure from the states could help influence its decision.

Indeed, after Massachusetts’ most recent redistricting process, the legislative Special Joint Committee on Redistricting, co-chaired by state Sen. Stan Rosenberg (D-Amherst), released a report that noted the problem of prison-based gerrymandering and called for a change in the way prisoners are counted. A resolution calling on the Census Bureau to count prisoners at their last address is now pending at the Statehouse.• —MT

 

Transgender Day of Remembrance

Local residents will come together to observe the international Transgender Day of Remembrance on Tuesday, Nov. 19, celebrating the lives of transgender individuals who have died during the past year. The event will begin with a candlelit procession from the First Churches in Northampton to the Unitarian Society, where participants will attend a service involving reflection and music. A light dinner will be held afterwards.

The event is part of a larger series of related memorials that will be held across the United States and around the world in the days surrounding November 20 (more information is available at http://www.transgenderdor.org.).

The Transgender Day of Remembrance was established in honor of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was brutally killed in Allston, Mass. on November 28, 1998. Her murder remains unsolved. The next week, on December 4, more than 200 people came together to mourn Hester’s death in the Arlington Street Church in Boston. That outpouring of sadness and love inspired the first Transgender Day of Remembrance, which was held across the country in San Francisco in 1999.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “transgender individuals are four times more likely to live in extreme poverty than the general population, and 41 percent reported attempting suicide.” •


First Union Formed at Springfield College

Ninety food service workers employed by Aramark at Springfield College have joined a union, the first-ever union on the campus of the college where basketball was invented. The unionizing drew a notable show of on-campus support; hundreds of students and nearly 100 faculty members had signed petitions and offered cookies and cupcakes to the workers to express solidarity with them during their organizing drive.

The movement began in May and mustered 70 percent of the workers to present Aramark with a petition in September. It concluded on October 24 with the vote to join the union UNITE HERE.

Pay, health care, scheduling and promotions were among the issues the cooks, dishwashers and other food service employees wanted to bring to bargaining sessions with Aramark, a multinational food service company that was named one of the 20 lowest-paying companies in the U.S. by the National Employment Law Project earlier this year. UNITE HERE organizes workers in the U.S. and Canada in several service industries, including food service, laundry, airports, hospitality and gaming.• —SK

 

 

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