Voting With My Dollars

July 24, 2012

Buying sweatshop free items is very important to me.  Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find things that I like which fall in to this category.  It takes time, research, effort and patience to make good choices especially when it is much easier to race over to a big box store and quickly find similar items (that are usually less expensive too). I liken my thoughtful spending as ‘voting with my dollars’.  One purpose of this blog is to share my experiences and my finds, to make it easier for others to find fair trade goods, and to hopefully convince a few readers to be more mindful in their choices.

Prior to making purchases these are a few of the things I consider:

  1. Where is the item made?  Is it made in a country that treats its employees “fairly”?
  2. What is the item made of?  Is it organic, natural fibers or recyclable?
  3. Is it made locally? How many miles did it have to travel to reach me?

My two most recent purchases involved shoes.  Quinn needed new sneakers and I needed new sandals. After a surprisingly quick online search I found the Autonomie Project’s fair trade, vegan, organic cotton sneakers.  They were reasonably priced and came in many colors.  It took only a few short days to arrive and so far she has worn every day.

The sandals were a bit trickier.  I searched online and just couldn’t find much that I liked.  Luckily, I had remembered seeing some pretty sandals, handmade in Spain, at Berk’s Shoes on Thayer Street.  When I made my way back to the store I found the Eric Michael sandals half price.  My patience had paid off.


Pages for Peace

May 1, 2012

ImageWhat is world peace? Will there ever be world peace? Where do you see the world in twenty years? What can KIDS do to help create a more peaceful world? What have you done to help create peace in your lifetime? In the spring of 2010, East Bay Citizens for Peace (EBCP) posed these questions to students and staff at Kickemuit Middle School (KMS) who participated in the Big Book: Pages for Peace project. They responded by contributing artwork to what has become the largest book in the world… and it’s all about peace.

The 10 foot by 12 foot book weighs just under 1000 pounds and contains nearly 1000 pages filled with letters, poems and art submitted by people all over the world, including Nobel Laureates Nelson Mandela, the 14th Dalai Lama, Helen Caldecott and former President Jimmy Carter. More than 2000 submissions were received from refugees, students, teachers, veterans including General Peter Pace, retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, politicians including Senator John Kerry and the late Senator Edward Kennedy, and celebrities such as singer Pete Seeger, poet/writer Maya Angelou and skateboarder Tony Hawk.

The Big Book project began in 2004 by the Bookmakers and Dreamers Club, an after school enrichment program for middle schoolers at the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District, and is now complete. A special “First Look at the Big Book” event is planned for June 2nd at 11:00 a.m. at the Groton-Dunstable Regional Middle School, 344 Main Street, Groton, MA. Members of EBCP and participants from KMS will be in attendance for the unveiling. After the ceremony, the goal is to display the Big Book in museums for other children to see. President Jimmy Carter has already offered to display it in his presidential library in Georgia.

Achieving world peace is never an easy task, but neither is creating the biggest book in the world. It seems kids have a lot to teach us too! For more information on EBCP and how to get involved, please go to

Making History

February 27, 2012

I promised my good friend Duncan Putney, co-writer of the screenplay that placed second in the Rhode Island International Film Festival’s Spotlight on RI contest, that I would pitch his latest project on the Bull Raker blog. I probably would have honored the request whether I liked his idea or not… But it helps that I do!

All too often we fail to recognize the efforts of older generations in shaping the world. And unfortunately, as time marches on, we lose more opportunities to connect with them, to learn from their failures, and to build upon their successes. Duncan hopes short films like Half Pint kickstart the conversations we ought to be having with our elders.

After all, what’s the point in making history if we can’t preserve it?

The Separation Of Church And Reality

February 12, 2012

There are lots of reasons why people, myself included, don’t particularly like President Obama. He fails to keep promises… um, except that one about expanding the war in Afghanistan. He’s backed (and led) by the 1%. Plus, he’s a socialist! Don’t I wish.

See, mixed in with all of the legit criticisms of our commander-in-chief are the ones that seem to come from the heavens — like the written statement by Bishop Tobin, which was given to Mt. Carmel churchgoers this weekend. The document was in response to Obama’s recent mandate requiring all private health care plans to cover FDA-approved contraceptives. Sparing the gory details about “pro-abortion” politicians who worship a “culture of death”, let’s just say the Catholic church feels the decision violates its freedom of religion. The bishop’s knowledge of the constitution, let alone his flock, must be based entirely on faith because there’s absolutely no truth to it.

The 1st ammendment guarantees us the freedom from religion as much as it does the freedom of religion. In other words, the separation of church and state cuts both ways and people (Catholics, non-Catholics and their doctors) should be just as free to choose contraception as they are not to choose them. This simple point, along with the fact that 98% of sexually active Catholic women of child-bearing age have used contraceptives, is lost on Tobin. I guess he would rather resort to unholy name-calling and political heavy-handedness than actually do his job. I mean, honestly, pro-abortion? Yeah, because, as all non-believers know, the only thing better than one abortion is two, right?

In what world, other than Tobin’s imaginary one, does simply forbidding people from doing evil suddenly make them good? The bishop would clearly be better served to practice what he preaches. If he’s truly opposed to a culture of death, then where are the statements condemning capital punishment or the longest war in US history? I’m afraid no amount of faith will make them miraculously appear. Fortunately, you can be a part of a more consistent pro-life crowd.

As for Obama, you know he’ll back pedal. That’s how he rolls, that’s why I didn’t vote for him and hopefully I won’t feel the need to stick up for him again. Remember to vote 3rd party in November!

Anything For Money

December 9, 2011

When my family and I first drove by the above image, which once graced a billboard in Bristol, I couldn’t believe my eyes. You see, until recently, prostitution was legal in RI! So you can imagine my disappointment when, after fumbling for my cell phone in a mad attempt to dial the number listed, my wife informed me these ladies were only selling real estate. Bummer.

That’s when I got to thinking. Did you ever notice how some people will do just about anything for money? No? Oh, well, me neither. I’m too caught up in my own life to be concerned with the problems caused by greed (e.g. wars, poverty, climate change, a broken healthcare system) until those issues start impacting me and mine. Of course, by then, it’ll probably be too late for the good old USA, if not the planet.

But, honestly, who cares? Especially when we can take advantage of the downtrodden along the way through stuff like payday loans, pawn shops (as long as they’re not downtown), home foreclosures, corporate takeovers of public institutions, you name it! No sir, life is still good for the 1% and their uncritical followers. In fact, not being critical is the key to it all. Ignorance is bliss as the saying goes.

I mean, sure, being critical has its advantages. It allows people to become independent, productive citizens who make informed decisions and help protect society from the uncontrolled selfishness that leads to so much of the chaos in the world. Beyond that, though, it’s kind of limited. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather have giant displays of voluptuous women selling… anything.

Am I Chicken Little Or Is Everyone Else A Little Chicken?

November 19, 2011

I recently read Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon by Gretchen Morgensen and Josh Rosner. The authors (Morgensen, a New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, and Rosner, the Managing Director at the independent research consultancy Graham Fisher & Co who advises regulators and institutional investors on housing and mortgage finance issues) do an excellent job of breaking down this complex topic into understandable terms. They reveal how the financial meltdown emerged from the corrupt practices, not only of Fannie Mae executives, but also of enablers at Countrywide Financial, Goldman Sachs, the Federal Reserve, HUD, Congress, the FDIC, and the biggest players on Wall Street, which led countless officials to ignore warning signs of an imminent disaster.

As I read the book, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the factors that caused the mortgage crisis and what is currently happening in the national education reform movement. During the past two years, the Bullraker blog has been filled with posts trying to warn readers of the consequences of some of the reforms (e.g. privately-run, publicly funded charter schools and digital learning environments), which have far less educational value to students than financial value to investors, tech companies, and politicians.

However, since most of my rants seem to have fallen on deaf ears, I sometimes wonder if the sky isn’t actually falling. That is, until I read things like this excerpt from the epilogue to Reckless Endangerment:

In the fall of 2007, Johnson returned to his old playbook. It was a time for another partnership, he said, in which the public sector and private industry would join hands for the greater good. A Blueprint for American Prosperity, designed to bolster America’s cities, was put forward by Brookings in November 2007. Promotional materials for the push sounded remarkably like the homeownership push made a dozen years earlier.

The Blueprint was “a multi-year initiative aimed at creating a new Federal partnership with state and local leaders and with the private sector to advance American prosperity,” Johnson announced at its launch in Washington. “The ability of the United States to compete globally and to meet the great environmental and social challenges of the 21st century rest largely on the health, vitality and prosperity of the nation’s major cities and metroplitan areas.”

Many of the same figures were on hand for this launch who had been standing alongside Johnson twelve years earlier. Henry Cisneros, the former HUD director who had sat on the board of KB Homes with Johnson and had overseen Clinton’s National Partners in Homeownership a little more than a decade before, delivered the keynote address at the Blueprint’s launch. Brookings created a Metropolitan Leadership Council to help promote the agenda; its members included Johnson, of course, but also executives from Goldman Sachs and Target.

The Johnson referred to above is one of the most vile of the book’s villians: James A. Johnson, the former CEO of Fannie Mae and former director of Goldman Sachs and KB Home, who is now chair emeritus at the Brookings Institute. It should then come as no surprise what types of reforms Brookings is calling for in education… But yet hardly anyone locally seems concerned about the validity of the reforms. How can that be? Do people not see the connection? Are they too afraid to ask the critical questions? I don’t know, but the longer citizens go without a conversation about the inner workings of these large private-public partnerships, the more vulnerable we will be when the next economic bubble pops.

As for me, I may be going crazy but at least I’ve become bold enough to occupy the board room. Meanwhile, I highly recommend Reckless Endangerment to anyone who doesn’t understand what 99% of America is so upset about, or how inside baseball is played at the highest levels… And, no, I’m not talking about Old Hoss! 🙂

A Hard Sell

October 14, 2011

Heading into tonight’s 2nd Annual Bristol Economic Development Forum, I promised myself I wouldn’t make comments or ask questions of the panelists — a veritable who’s who on the Bullraker education deformer shit list. I wanted merely to bear witness to the encroaching corporatization of Bristol-Warren public schools… and, in a way, I got my wish.

Despite preparing two statements during the forum and having my arm raised for close to a half hour waiting to be called on during the Q&A session, I was continually passed over by the moderator (a.k.a. Bullraker gadfly, Mike Byrnes). I can’t speculate whether Mike did this intentionally, though he has made it quite clear on this blog that he disagrees with my take on the education deform movement. However, I am certain that without an open and honest debate on the topic, we risk being sold a bad bill of goods. But, let’s face it, telling the truth about the deforms would be a much harder sell. And that’s bad for business!

In case anyone out there is curious, here were the comments I intended to make:

I have responses to two statements made earlier by Angus Davis.

The first is in regard to the U.S. spending over half a trillion dollars on K-12 education per year, even more than what we pay for defense. I’m for one am glad that’s the case. In fact, we should be spending way more on education than defense. And I don’t say this lightly. I have two advanced degrees, one in Mathematics and the other in Teaching & Curriculum, and I’d much prefer to be a teacher than a defense contractor. Unfortunately, one job pays 3 times more than the other! If we believed in education, then we would fund it like we believed in it. Not cut millions from schools districts!

The second thing I want to address is the notion that “innovative” ideas, like trying to bring Achievement First (AF) charter schools to Cranston, are regarded as controversial simply because people fear change. That’s untrue. I don’t fear positive change, but I do have serious doubts about whether charter management companies like AF can bring about positive change.

Here are a few sources that back up my position and will hopefully enlighten Mr. Davis and others on the genuine criticisms of the types of reforms he espouses:

Get Motivated!: Join The Peaceful Revolution

October 5, 2011

On Monday, Providence public schools were delayed two hours in anticipation of the traffic caused by a Get Motivated! motivational seminar. When the horde failed to materialize, the cynic in me saw the overreaction to a bunch of pro-corporate speakers as simply an unsuccessful commercial made by politicians who have already shown their willingness to allow private interests to take control of public education. But, just two days later, the optimist in me now sees crowds all over the country with enough motivation to put an end to the plutocracy and restart our democracy.

For example, the majority of Americans:

Isn’t democracy a great idea? So, while the mainstream media too often covers the fake news, join a global movement called Occupy Together that is growing exponentially. Find the nearest occupation site (in my case, it’s Burnside Park in Providence’s Kennedy Plaza) and help change the world!

Campbell’s Law

July 15, 2011

Campbell’s Law states:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to measure.

Community activist Diana Campbell, who as far I know isn’t related to the author of the above quote, essentially applied the law in a blog  on Bristol-Warren Patch that discussed the recently passed Voter ID legislation in Rhode Island. She claimed the bill, which was supposedly designed to protect against voter  fraud (an almost non-existent crime as evidenced by the extremely small  number of cases throughout the US), will disenfranchise significant portions of our poor, elderly and minority communities. Unfortunately, the people who replied to the post don’t seem quite as enlightened as the Campbells.

Among her many job titles, Diana is a member of the Bristol-Warren School Committee. So it’s fitting that I should stumble onto Campbell’s Law while reading an article by the former executive director of the American Mathematical Society on how politicians across the country are using mathematical intimidation to push their school reform agendas. Having written on the subject of how poor mathematics contributed to Rhode Island’s unfair funding formula, I was encouraged to learn that I wasn’t  the only mathematician speaking out about the injustices of the school deform movement.

I hope Diana, perhaps the person most responsible for getting me started on a path of political activism, will read this post and also be comforted to know she isn’t alone. The voices for the voiceless could always use some accompaniment.

The Wheels Are Coming Off

June 13, 2011

Witnessing the downfall of the Bristol-Warren Regional School District will be like watching a train wreck in slow motion unless enough concerned citizens somehow manage to steer us clear of the oncoming disaster. The wheels were, of course, set in motion last year when the RI Department of Education unrolled a series of changes, including a funding formula that slashes millions of dollars from the district’s budget. Unfortunately, since then, only a handful of local residents have tried to slam the brakes on the reform (or, to be accurate, deform) movement taking place here and in school systems across the country.

Quite frankly, I’m amazed that more people haven’t questioned these educational policies, which have little to do with what actually takes place inside classrooms. Sure, high stakes tests and charter schools are fancy buzz words, but neither are the silver bullets with which their supporters wish to blaze a trail through public education. Evidently, the original intentions behind both ideas are lost on the deform crowd. Charters were meant to be utilized as laboratories for teachers to experiment with innovative curriculum, and tests as metrics to assess the strengths and weaknesses of students. In other words, charter schools and tests were supposed to inform and improve the teaching profession.

Instead, they are being used to drive and damage it. The deformers often cite poor test scores as a reason for firing teachers and closing schools to open up RI’s own version of charters, called Mayoral Academies — like the 5 Achievement First schools now proposed for Cranston and Providence. What they fail to cite as frequently, however, is that most charters don’t perform better than public schools. Hey, but at least with privately managed schools they don’t have to deal with those pesky unions anymore! With teachers’ unions out of the way, they can end all the messy labor rights stuff like tenure and collective bargaining and save tons of money by hiring inexperienced scabs to teach our kids on the cheap! It’s practically a no-brainer… because if you believe that junk passes for real education reform you might not have a brain.

Teachers’ unions definitely have problems. Their leaders don’t always represent them well… maybe because they’re too busy representing Doug Gablinske in emails, I don’t know. But trying to get rid of unions altogether will create a lot more problems than it will solve, especially since rank-and-file members didn’t cause an education crisis. Teachers aren’t failing schools. Politicians are. The next time I hear someone rail on “lazy teachers stealing from taxpayers”, I’m going to ask them to name names. Either they won’t because they don’t have the guts to defend their position, or they can’t because they’ve been led to believe in boogeymen. You know those pricy pensions that everybody’s talking about, the ones that were raided by state governments to pay for their deficits the same way the federal government has borrowed from Social Security? Yeah, those aren’t really the issue. Neither are “bad” teachers. No, to get to the heart of the matter, we’ve got to understand one reason why public funds are drying up so quickly (I mean, besides the obvious multi-trillion dollar wars and bank bailouts).

But, before that, let me just state something for the record. My wife and I believe in certain forms of philanthropy. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have worked with groups such as the Bristol Land Trust or the Bristol-Warren Education Foundation (BWEF), to name just two of the volunteer organizations to which we’ve donated time and money the last few years. A lot of good can come about through philanthropic work, but a new form of philanthropy — known as venture philanthropy — makes me more than a little wary. Venture philanthropists don’t donate to causes in good faith, they heavily invest and control them,  creating organizations which care more about short-term profits and tax evasion and less about long-term sustainability and problem solving.

Cuts to school aid, high stakes tests, and charter schools aren’t going to produce educational miracles. They are simply the vehicles which will allow for the privatization of public schools. As for teachers, they’re the scapegoats not because they’re “pigs at the trough” but because they prevent greater profit margins and have enough power to resist impending school deforms. Sadly, when I first brought this message to neighbors earlier in the year, I don’t think it was warmly received… and that’s putting it mildly. Although I now wonder if, in light of what’s happening in Cranston and Providence, it’s starting to sink in a bit.

It’s not by accident that Mayoral Academies aren’t accountable to elected school committees, but to a board stacked with pro-deform advocates. Nor is it a mistake that a RI-CAN Board Member, Kara Milner, is heading up a group in support of a school funding task force in Bristol-Warren to provide budget recommendations to the Joint Finance Committee. While her work as president of BWEF has been admirable (and taken alone might merit her inclusion on such a task force), Kara’s presence on the board of a pro-charter group should send up red flags when determining whether she should also have a say in school budget decisions. It’s easy to see how this connection to RI-CAN could be a huge conflict of interest. In offering advice on where and how much to cut from the district, she could weaken BWRSD in a way that makes charters an easier sell to desperate citizens and opportunistic politicians. Then, once the mayoral academies are put in place, who’s to stop the appointment of the pro-deformer(s) from the task force to the mayoral board? Not the school committee!

The battles in defense of public education have already proved costly on a personal level. I can’t sleep (It’s 3:30 AM!). I’m sure I lost some friends. Okay, they’re only acquaintances (People who write blogs on education in the middle of the night probably don’t have many friends.), but it still sucks! I also lost a little faith in society when I realized that ideas don’t win out necessarily on merit, but on momentum. My writing on the subject of school deform has been called conspiratorial. Even theatrical. Well, being a screenwriter by hobby, I guess I should take that as a compliment. If I were to ever write a script based on the losing fight over public education (Don’t worry, I won’t — it’s much more horrible and dramatic to watch everything happen live!) the screenplay would be a twist on a theme of one of my all-time favorite movies, the Oxbow Incident, which fittingly starred a Bristolian. Here’s a quick outline:

Crazy Train

Act I: A young family boards a train heading cross-country only to learn that it was chartered by financial terrorists and rerouted to an incomplete new track so they can bet millions on when it will derail.

Act II: The family is only able to convince a few passengers of the plot. They ruffle a few feathers. Most ignore the family’s pleas or dismiss them as crazy upon the rebuttals of the people convinced that the new route is the right way to go. The family gets off the train at the last safe stop, but continue to warn people around them of the possible calamity.

Act III: ? I haven’t gotten that far yet. 🙂