New Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Offers Hope to Canada’s First Nations Populations

Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire, arrive with his cabinet to his swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on November 4, 2015.

Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire, arrive with his cabinet to his swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on November 4, 2015.

Outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper was nearly universally viewed by First Nations (known in the US as “indigenous” or “native” people), Métis and Inuit peoples as, at the least, insensitive to their concerns and, at worst, actively hostile towards Canada’s indigenous populations.

Pamela Palmater, Associate Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, declared, “In ten short years, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has set the relationship with First Nations back a hundred years. While all past governments have had a hand in the colonization and oppression of First Nations, the Harper government stands out as one of the most racist and aggressive governments that First Nations have had to work with in many generations.

It is no coincidence that Idle No More, Canada’s largest, most coordinated social protest movement, whose stated vision is “to honour Indigenous sovereignty, and to protect the land and water” formed during Harper’s tenure.

It is also no coincidence that the recent election saw the largest turnout of First Nations, Métis and Inuit voters, so high that some communities ran out of ballots. Their votes helped Liberal Justin Trudeau to become Canada’s next Prime Minister. The 2015 election also saw a record ten indigenous MPs elected to the House of Commons.

Trudeau and Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde, July 2015.

Trudeau and Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde, July 2015.

Although at the national level, scant attention was paid to aboriginal issues during the 12-week campaign, Liberal party leaders and candidates did make efforts to do so at the local level. Trudeau, the 43-year-old son of the late Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s 15th Prime Minister, spoke to the Assembly of First Nations and participated in the Aboriginal People’s Television Network’s (APTN) “Virtual Town Hall” broadcast.

Crowds at the grounds of Rideau Hall, which were opened to the public for the first time ever, so crowds could watch the swearing-in ceremony on giant TV screens.

Crowds at the grounds of Rideau Hall, which were opened to the public for the first time ever, so crowds could watch the swearing-in ceremony on giant TV screens.

Canada’s roughly 1.4 million indigenous people, the most overlooked demographic in Canada, face serious issues that are frankly shocking in a country recently ranked fifth in the world on the Legatum Prosperity Index. Among the most critical:

  • Poverty and Standard of Living
    • In 2005, the Census estimated the Aboriginal poverty rate at 18.7% for families and 42.8% for unattached individuals, as compared to 5.9% for non-Aboriginal families and 26.9% for non-Aboriginal singles.
    • A 2013 study by Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives indicated that the average child poverty rate for all Indigenous children in Canada is 40%, compared to 15% for non-Indigenous children.
    • Reserves are not included in official Canadian labour statistics, but their residents may have an unemployment rate as much as five times that of the non-aboriginal population.
    • 5% of homes on reserves need major repairs, compared with 7% in non-aboriginal households outside reserves, and that rates of overcrowding are six times greater on reserve than off.
    • Two thirds of all indigenous water in Canada has been under an arcane “boil water advisory” at some point since 2004, with 400 out of 618 First Nations communities without a secure supply of drinking water.
  • The Justice System
    • While Aboriginal people make up about 4% of the Canadian population, they constitute 23.2% of the federal inmate population, with a 43.5% increase since 2005-06.
    • Aboriginal women are almost three times more likely than non-Aboriginal women to be a victim of a violent crime, regardless if the violence occurred between strangers or acquaintances, or within a spousal relationship.
    • In the last 20 years, there have been nearly 1200 missing and murdered Aboriginal women, prompting a UN expert committee to charge Canada with “grave violations” of human rights.
  • Health and Wellness
    • In 2017 the life expectancy for the total Canadian population is projected to be 79 years for men and 83 years for women. For indigenous peope, the figures range from 64-74 years for men and 73-80 years for women.
    • Twice as many First Nation adults living on reserve experienced major depression as among the general population; surveys also show most see alcohol use as a significant problem in their communities.
    • Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading causes of death for First Nations youth and adults up to 44 years of age, at a rate several times that of non-Aboriginal youth.
Protest demanding justice for missing and murdered indigenous women.

Protest demanding justice for missing and murdered indigenous women.

History of Residential Schools

The Indian Residential School System was a state-sponsored, church-run network of residential schools that operated between the late 1800s and the 1990s. It was designed to teach Aboriginal children the English language, as well as the religion, values, and work skills of Canadian society. The overall goal, as set by the Canadian government, was to “get rid of the Indian problem.”

In the words of Georges Erasmus, President of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, “The ‘Indian problem’ consists in the fact that Aboriginal people, given the choice, prefer to be Aboriginal people, and not something else… the residential school system came to represent both in theory and practice a deliberate systemic effort to sever generations of Aboriginal children, one by one, from family, community, language, culture, and, broadly speaking, Aboriginal ways of living in the world.”

Although exact figures are unknown, it is estimated that more than 150,000 children were sent to 130 schools. The intergenerational effects of the systematic removal of seven generations of children from their homes has been devastating. In the early 1990s, survivors came forward with disturbing disclosures of physical abuse, such as beatings, bondage, electric shocks and needles pushed through tongues as punishment for speaking Aboriginal languages; sexual abuse; forced eating of rotten and/or maggot-infested food; use of students in medical experiments; forced labour and more.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) examined the residential schools saga and released a comprehensive and critical report in June of this year, from which Stephen Harper distanced himself. In sharp contrast, Trudeau immediately endorsed the report and the Liberals pledged in their election platform to enact its recommendations. In at least one speech, he mentioned that implementation would start with the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

At the core of the declaration is land restitution, Article 26, which stipulates that “Indigenous Peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.”

Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the TRC was quoted in the Ottawa Citizen as saying “I’m much more hopeful” now that Trudeau has been elected Prime Minister.

Many First Nations people found hope and encouragement in Trudeau’s campaign promise to deal with them at a “nation to nation” level. Trudeau promised to review all Harper-era legislation on First Nations and repeal those that contravened Section 35 of the Constitution respecting aboriginal and treaty rights.

Jody Wilson-Raybould, the first indigenous Minister of Justice in Canadian history.

Jody Wilson-Raybould, the first indigenous Minister of Justice in Canadian history.

The introduction and swearing in of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet on November 4 provided further hope for a new direction for Canada. PM Trudeau’s cabinet is comprised of half men and half women. Additionally, the new cabinet reflects Canada’s ethnic and religious diversity and includes Hunter Tootoo as New Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, the second Inuk to ever be appointed to a cabinet position; and Canada’s first aboriginal federal Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde welcomed Trudeau’s appointment of two indigenous MPs to cabinet as a “new era of reconciliation.”

New Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Hunter Tootoo, the second Inuk to ever be appointed to a cabinet position.

New Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Hunter Tootoo, the second Inuk to ever be appointed to a cabinet position.

“It sends a powerful statement about inclusion and it sends a powerful statement about the reconciliation that is going to be required in rebuilding a new relationship between Canada and Indigenous Peoples… One of the most important things is to start rebuilding the relationship we have in a co-operative and a collaborative manner.”

That kind of hopeful reaction is sweeping through the country among indigenous people. But former Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine offered words of caution, “We have to be careful, at least on our part, the indigenous community — that we temper our expectations somewhat, so that we give the government the time and space to do its job.”


Berenice L. Ruhl is a consultant and educator who specializes in diversity and inclusion issues and an Illinois native. She currently divides her time between Illinois and Canada and enjoys being a volunteer and airshifter at WEFT 90.1 FM in Champaign.

Posted in Indigenous, International, Politics, Section | Comments Off on New Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Offers Hope to Canada’s First Nations Populations

Children With Incarcerated Parents Played Key Role in Phone Justice Victory!

IMC at the FCC: Wandjell Harvey Robinson () and Danielle Chynoweth () lobby for Prison Phone Justice.

IMC at the FCC: Wandjell Harvey Robinson (second from right) and Danielle Chynoweth (far left) lobby the FCC for Prison Phone Justice.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted recently to cap the rates of phone calls from prisons and jails after years of profiteering by telecommunications companies that have made millions off of those incarcerated and their families. In her comments before the vote, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who has long championed this issue, recognized in the audience Kevin Reese, Jr., a 12-year-old whose father is incarcerated. “The reason we are doing this is because we care about your future,” said Clyburn, her voice trembling. “The reason we are here today is because you deserve relief.”

Kevin Reese travelled to Washington DC for the first time with his mother along with a delegation attending the FCC hearing. Since he was just a baby, his father has been incarcerated at Lino Links Correctional Facility in Minnesota, which has the highest rates for phone calls in the country. As Kevin was growing up, the phone was the way he stayed in touch with his father. “If I wasn’t able to talk to him,” he says in a video made by the campaign, “I wouldn’t know my dad. Everyone should have a dad.” Now that the FCC has lowered rates, “It’ll be better, just knowing I can talk to him every day.”

Under the umbrella of the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, this effort has been led by the Human Rights Defense Center, Center for Media Justice, and Working Narratives. It has involved pro bono attorneys, policy experts, lawmakers, media activists, and civil rights organizations.

In this campaign, the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net), a national coalition of social justice organizations including, among others, Voices for Racial Justice, Generation Justice, and our own Independent Media Center, played a critical role in advancing the voices of those impacted, particularly children like Kevin Reese.

There are an estimated 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent in the United States. MAG-Net sent a delegation including children with parents incarcerated to advocate before lawmakers and attend the FCC’s final ruling. I talked with some of the organizations working with them to find out their strategies of spotlighting the lives of those who for too long have remained in the shadows.

Building Power

Activists today have organized around the hashtag #PhoneJustice, but the campaign goes back to a time before Twitter when the Internet was still young. In 2000, Martha Wright filed a lawsuit seeking legal remedy to the high cost of phone calls she was paying to talk to her grandson locked up in a federal penitentiary. The case was eventually referred to the FCC which in 2013 took its first step of capping rates for interstate calls.

On October 22, 2015 the commission approved its second ruling which will bring sweeping reform of the industry. Rates are capped at a maximum fee of 11 cents a minute for state and federal prisons. For Kevin Reese, what was once a six dollar call to talk to his dad will now be only $1.65.

The 12-year old got involved in the phone justice campaign through his father, Kevin Reese, Sr., who is an activist from inside prison and works with the group Voices for Racial Justice, based in Minneapolis. Two years ago, the older Reese heard Vina Kay, Executive Director for the organization, on the radio talking about the prison phone justice campaign. He wrote her a letter and they began a correspondence. Soon, Kay was introduced to Reese, Sr.’s family, including his son.

Last month, after Kevin Reese, Sr. gathered 100 letters about restoring voting rights for those released from prison, his son personally delivered them to Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton. In just a short time, young Kevin was able to connect with the governor. In an interview with Truthout, Kay said he was able to “humanize incarceration for families, and for children in particular.” When it came time to send a representative to lobby the FCC, Kevin immediately came to mind. He was featured in several media stories about the FCC’s decision on prison phone calls, including an NBC report.

The goal of Voices for Racial Justice, Kay told Truthout, was “building power” and creating a space to elevate the voices of kids like Kevin. Especially when working with people of color, it is important they don’t feel used, but that they have a sense of agency.

“I’ll Stand Up for Him”

Jazlin Mendoza was another young person whose story was mentioned by Commissioner Clyburn as she moved to vote for reforms. Clyburn described Jazlin’s family forgoing a computer for college in order to pay for the phone calls to her father in a federal penitentiary. Jazlin, now 21 years-old, has grown up while her father has been in prison for the past 12 years.

In a video online produced by Generation Justice, a youth media project located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Jazlin gives a moving testimony. “I lost the bonding that me and him had as a young girl,” she reflects. Jazlin only has the chance to talk to him about once a month, and then only for five minutes, as there are other family members who also want to talk to him. This video was the first time of publicly telling her story. Today, she wants to be an advocate for her father, “I’ll stand up for him and be his voice.”

Roberta Rael, Executive Director at Generation Justice, talked with me about how Jazlin’s story made it to the FCC. The organization’s work with youth is not a “one way street,” she said, but is focused on building mutual relationships based on trust. Over the past six years, Jazlin has produced radio and video with Generation Justice around social justice issues. “We encourage young people, especially young people of color to speak out through media,” said Rael.

Use Those Bricks and Build a Castle

Wandjell Harvey-Robinson

Wandjell Harvey-Robinson, of Champaign, at the FCC.

In the audience at the FCC meeting was Wandjell Harvey-Robinson, of Champaign, also a part of the MAG-Net delegation to Washington DC. She spoke at a press conference before the hearing. Both of her parents were incarcerated when she was in the third grade. “I didn’t necessarily know why they weren’t living with me anymore,” she recalls in an online video. She is grateful for the FCC’s intervention so that children like her can now more easily talk to their parents incarcerated.

Wandjell volunteers with Ripple Effect, a support group for families with a loved one incarcerated. They meet at Bethel AME in Champaign to share experiences, comfort one another, and write letters to those inside. At a public event they held in September, Wandjell told her story about growing up with her mom and dad in prison. She was approached by those with the Illinois Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, based at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center. A month later, she was in Washington DC advocating on behalf of families.

“It is high time that the families of people incarcerated get the attention due to them,” said James Kilgore, a member of the campaign and author of the new book featured in this issue of The Public i.

Prison phone justice activists expect a lawsuit will challenge the FCC’s ruling. The phone companies feel they are being negatively portrayed as the bad guys. They say the vote is a “business-ending event.”

“Use those bricks” that the phone companies and police throw at you, says Wandjell Harvey-Robinson, “and build a castle. Because we did it.”

A longer version of this article was published at Truthout. Reprinted with permission.

Posted in African Americans, Community Forum, Human Rights, IMC, National, News, Policing, Politics, Prisoners, UC-IMC, Voices of Color | Comments Off on Children With Incarcerated Parents Played Key Role in Phone Justice Victory!

Mother Nature EP by Klevah and T.R.U.T.H: The Elements Personified

T.R.U.T.H. and Klevah a.k.a. "Mother Nature."

T.R.U.T.H. and Klevah a.k.a. “Mother Nature.”

There is no greater time to be a hip hop head in Champaign-Urbana. While the towns have always boasted superb talent―there is deep hip hop history here―that two emcees joined forces to create something new is newsworthy.

Shasta Knox a.k.a KLEVAH, born and raised in Urbana, is goddess of the hip hop crossroads. She is a trickster warrior on the mic, unafraid and for good reason; her skill is second to no one. Tierney Reed a.k.a T.R.U.T.H looks up to KLEV as a big sister and rhymes like a mac truck going over the speed limit cuz the stories she tells are just that urgent. The highly anticipated drop date for their first joint project Mother Nature EP is Spring 2016, with several singles from the project already available via You will not want to miss their headlining performance on December 10th at Cowboy Monkey because with Mother Nature, KLEVAH and T.R.U.T.H elevate their already superior independent sound. As artists who produce so much in so little time and collaborate with so many different people, they know something about a quality whole and how to cooperate as a matter of survival. The conditions have been met for their coming together, therefore the Mother Nature EP deserves our full public attention. To do otherwise would only cost us more lives and unheard Black girl truths, neither of which we can afford.

“Or maybe it’s just different when you modest and you gifted and you give it,” KLEVAH rhymes on Golden, and the words are not lost on me. That’s a difference I want to live in and the kind of difference that makes a difference for those of us interested in social justice. Difference is the change she masterfully embraces to confront the darker sides of life in her music, making her an exceptional rapper whose rhyme play with life’s light is naturally effortless. Holding both/and simultaneously with hella audacity, in every verse spit, is definitive KLEVAH.

More than KLEVAH’s honesty, it seems to be her generosity imploring her to take to studio and stage for collective benefit. She started The Culture, an open mic set for people to express themselves creatively. For as dope of an emcee as she is, she can also run the bar, work the door, host, organize, design the space and manage it all to create the opportunity for someone else to express their vision in a spotlight that shows their art is cared for and appreciated. KLEVAH knows in-town hip hop talent deserve the very best platforms from which to showcase their art just as much as anyone else. Therefore, if access to the best stages continued to be ignored and/or denied by premier performance arts complexes and downtown establishments, KLEVAH creates the space needed for a necessary people, herself. It’s that hip hop can’t stop won’t stop ambition for the sake of belonging that those hostile to hip hop need to hear and heed through her music. So whether you riding out to KLEVAH’s music or fangirling a live performance, she is going to look back at you to make sure you got it, because that is love. But also recognize she’s looking back at you already so far gone, legions ahead of the rest. Don’t ever get it twisted.

To rewind back to T.R.U.T.H’s first project, Luxocracy, there is no realer moment than when she raps “wats real/how you really feel/cuz I don’t like what I see.” Her rhymes are to the point, intensely personal, and encourage you to look in the mirror to become a better person right along with her. Born and raised in Chicago, T.R.U.T.H is a part of the crew that decided to stay in Champaign-Urbana intentionally post-collegiate graduation. Like many who stay and give back to the town, she ought to be heard with the excitement reserved for national treasures and heralded as our very own hometown superhero.

Political and social issues are at the heart of her music, though it never comes across as preachy because you can always count on T.R.U.T.H. to also come through running strong game. Before, after, or during the rally, strategic meeting, protest, and one-on-one T.R.U.T.H fearlessly reminds us there is good love to be had. Her follow up project, E.V.E., proves she is a tried and tested champion emcee whose music boasts progressive metaphors, politics, and danceable beats at the same time. Behind the signature shades there is a complex mastermind vulnerably bearing her soul for collective witness and individual wholeness. She rhymes us to wellness, destination liberation. Her notebooks are freedom maps. T.R.U.T.H’s code is readiness, her mantra preparedness. Where T.R.U.T.H goes, you want to follow, and not turn back.

That these creative individuals came together to form a mighty duo giving us Mother Nature means, Black girl genius not only survives but wins with an uncompromising sound! In the tradition of unstoppable Black womanhood, both artists are also a part of other groups. KLEVAH is a member of The Gr8Thinkaz, and T.R.U.T.H represents Paradigm Shift. While working on their joint project, Mother Nature, they also recently released solo projects, including Golden and E.V.E., respectively.

In a system oriented toward competition, rather then collaboration, their resistance is a really big deal. Their commitment to interdependence and insistence on each other is evident on stage when they rhyme side by side, arms wrapped around the other’s back, supported by a lived out loud sister-soulhood. That they respect the long arc of each other’s triumphs as their very own is obvious by the way they interact after the lights go down, the crowd dissipates, and the show is over. Steady in the reach of their gifts, Mother Nature is a come up and a come back for all the people who desire forward movement. With the most gangsta all Black lives mattering barz, this EP means more than hope, but reveals Black girls done it again.

On the title track, Mother Nature, KLEVAH and T.R.U.T.H chant:

“I’m the one that u need

Meet me in the sky

217 i’m queen

But my reign is worldwide”

And they ain’t never lied. This is music for the public because it mobilizes and organizes us here while pointing toward new universals. We need KLEVAH and T.R.U.T.H because they are rhyming for our lives by showing us how possible we are. They’re right here, right now in the CU, soundtracking our politics and our private leisure activities, fully deserving of the kinds of opportunities Viola Davis recently called for in her 2015 Emmy Awards speech after winning for best leading actress. KLEVAH and T.R.U.T.H should be presented with so many opportunities here, the privilege of figuring out what to actually turn down would feel like a burden because it’s only 24 hours in the day. KLEVAH and T.R.U.T.H run the bizness and never not the other way around.

Regardless, before a big move, it all goes viral, and the producers have to construct a “where it all started Urbana-Champaign narrative,” it would be good to have to say, we heard them when they showed us the power of hip hop, while they were here. Whether they are organizing to stop local jail expansion, remembering Sandra Bland, kicking it with friends on the low and late night, or making music at somebody’s studio together and separately, KLEVAH and T.R.U.T.H punctuate the revolution impeccably, with dope beats, sublime poetic lyricism, and hopefully more Chris “Two Brainz” Smith visuals. Before it ever becomes mainstream, it is local. When the “Mother Nature EP” drops in the spring, support the artists who “rayze” us higher. The elements of hip hop personified by this duo sound like a balance between our community and the whole unknown universe.

rnbrownphotoRuth Nicole Brown is a mother and SOLHOT homegirl. Currently, she works as an associate professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Education Policy at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.


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Cuba-US Relations: New Beginning or New Offensive?


Marta Terry González speaks in Champaign-Urbana

The US has opened up talks with Cuba and reestablished formal diplomatic relations so that the two countries’ “interest sections” are now embassies. Could this be a full normalization of relations, or is it just a new US offensive for regime change? Our answer is: Both.

We are scholar-activists who have been to Cuba on many occasions and support the goals of the Cuban Revolution. Opening the possibility of people-to-people contact, better conditions for trade, and better government exchanges is a welcome process for peace and stability in the region. On the other hand, basic US policy has not changed. The illegal blockade continues. The illegal occupation of Guantanamo continues. And the US government objective of regime change holds firm.

The US blockade, or embargo, has been in place since 1960. The US government has reinforced it several times since then. It keeps Cuba from doing business with US entities or with anyone who wants to do business with the US. It isolates Cuba from the world’s banking networks, from shipping, from buying and selling. As a result everything costs more on the island, or is not available at all.

A second event that has put Cuba in deep crisis is the end of its preferential trade with the Soviet Union. The capitalist restoration that tore the USSR apart led Russia to immediately end this trade agreement. The Cuban economy shrank by one-third in three years. The Cubans called this a “Special Period in Time of Peace,” and there are aspects that continue to today. The third major challenge is the constant state of war facing Cuba, based on a history of US-sponsored military interventions and provocations and forcing Cuba to use a huge amount of its resources for the military.

People in the US need to learn more about Cuba, not from the bias of anti-Cuban propaganda, but in face-to-face talk with Cubans themselves. Likewise, Cubans need to learn about the US from all of us. We had this opportunity in CU just last month.

This October, Marta Terry González was a Miller Visiting Professor at the University of Illinois, giving talks and meeting people, thanks to support from eight units on campus and the organizing work of Kate Williams. Marta has been a leading librarian since the Cuban Revolution took power in 1959. She has led Cuban libraries and developed the library profession in Cuba and represented Cuba in international library discussions and debates for over 50 years. At this very moment of an apparent opening of a new stage of US-Cuba relations it was very helpful to have such a visit.

The initial stimulus for organizing this visit was the publication of a biographical study of Marta: Roots and Flowers: The Life and Work of the Afro-Cuban Librarian Marta Terry González by the two of us (Library Juice Press, 2015).

Although in her 80s, Marta spoke on campus every day and also one day in Chicago. Her main MillerComm talk took the form of a dialogue with Abdul Alkalimat. She gave a historical review of the different leadership roles she has had. She was head librarian at the Economic Planning Board (JUCEPLAN) for six years, with Che Guevara among the leadership. For 20 years she directed the library at Casa de las Américas under the leadership of Haydée Santamaria, one of the handful of women who fought with Fidel in the mountains before taking power. For 10 years she directed the José Martí National Library of Cuba, working with Minister of Culture Armando Hart. She has also worked at or established several other libraries. She helped expand the internationally acclaimed annual Cuban book fair.

Marta helped to clarify how Cuba is using libraries to build democracy. When the revolution came to power, as they put it in Cuba, overthrowing the US puppet and dictator-president Fulgencio Batista, one million people on the island could not read. There was barely one public library. A slogan emerged, “Don’t believe, Read!,” and to make that possible, the Cuban revolution organized a literacy campaign that became world famous. More than 100,000 teenage literacy teachers went off into all regions of the country to teach people how to read. As a result literacy in Cuba went from 70% (1953) to 96% (1964). The “Battle for the Sixth Grade” followed, and so on. School enrollment went from 56% (1953) to 100% (1986). Marta has a personal tie to this reading culture, as her nephew Pelayo Terry is editor of the daily national newspaper Granma. Put another way, as she said, “The revolution is just people doing things.” In other words, this has meant staying active and on point towards, for instance, free health care provision and free education through the PhD. It has meant building up their country to not be an impoverished neocolony of the United States governed from Washington and New York.

In 1959, when the revolution took power, many of the middle-class elites left the country thinking that they would be returning in a matter of months. They left their belongings including their books. Marta and her long time classmate Olinta Arioso led in sorting through the books and setting up the first school libraries. Later, as head of the National Library, Marta was responsible for building up the entire Cuban public library system. She stabilized this process by helping to form the Cuban professional association for librarians, ASCUBI. Libraries are essential for a democratic society so that the broad population has access to information required for informed decision making.

She led ASCUBI to join the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) to learn from and to share with other librarians. As IFLA Vice-President, she was able to arrange for Cuba to host IFLA’s 1994 meeting. She was eventually named an IFLA Honorary Fellow, the first from the Global South. But also at IFLA Marta faced down an attack on Cuba that (it later came out) was funded and fomented by the US State Department. She was engaged in tense ideological and political battles even after the American Library Association sent a delegation, including several librarians from Illinois, to Cuba to investigate. They found small book collections in the living rooms of Cuban dissidents, often funded and supplied by the US government, claiming to be better than the island’s actual libraries. All of this while the US-enforced blockade prevented official Cuban libraries from buying books and subscribing to US publications.

One of the purposes of Marta Terry’s visit was to begin discussing possible connections between US libraries and Cuban libraries, including between the University of Illinois and the University of Havana. Marta was a lead person in building up the library studies program at the University and has been an adjunct faculty since the 1960s. As a result of her trip, faculty and graduate students interested in Cuban research and teaching are planning to begin meeting on a regular basis.

Cuba offered to send health workers to volunteer after the Katrina crisis but the US government refused. Cuba graduates low income students from the US from their international medical school with free tuition; many of them are now practicing in low income inner city and rural communities. More doctors from Cuba have volunteered to help fight Ebola in West Africa than any other country. Maybe the US can learn something from Cuba.

for public i - abdulfor public i - kate

By Abdul Alkalimat and Kate Williams

Abdul Alkalimat is professor emeritus of African American Studies and Library and Information Science, retired from the University of Illinois.  Kate Williams is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the U of I.

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Hometown Dedication

The below poem was read by Coco Harmon at the 15-year anniversary celebration for the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center. You can watch it online here thanks to UPTV.

Have you been there?
You know, that moment when your legs go numb
as if they’ve finally given up
finally had enough
But, some how you are still moving

You scan your surroundings in a search to locate the source
Not realizing that it serves as the main function of your very own core

Do you remember the first time you experienced resilience?

The way it felt when it squeezed it’s way out of the piles of pain, pity and doubt
And introduced itself as the face of a fierce forever?

You wondered where you could have possibly gotten the access to such a anomaly
See, normally… we end up at the mercy of defeat because we cannot bear to go on
So we give in to complacency
Rejecting the opportunity to be considered valiant
We accept becoming stagnant

But not this time

You see, I remember my first date with irrepressibility
It could not wait to get into me
Because it saw my potential of becoming unending in my calling

It mixed the hurts of never being heard
And the elation of having a masterpiece as your creation
And stirred them into a stew to feed the same souls that came out to support it.

It was you
The same people in these chairs today that held me up
When my hopes had gave in and went away

We’ve worked through the hurt and pains
that plague and stain
every generation of this communal location

It was you who I marched with in the name of unity
When I didn’t even have myself together
It was you who understood my rage
And saw that if given the right platform
I could express it in an impactful and eloquent way
So then YOU built the stage

Besides my mother and father, you were my first example of resilience
Chambana, we’ve been through a lot of Paign
But still we have endless initiatives to try to make this a better place

We’ve created a type of cycle
where we take turns reviving the hope that keeps us alive and striving

When I look at the hurricane taking place in my heart
The tsunami disturbing my soul
And the blizzard freezing the thoughts in my brain
I realize that what I’ve learned right here—
In the #1 transit town of Illinois—is one of the only reasons why I can still have joy
You taught me that the best has yet to come
Because we are still creating it

Coco HarmonCollette Harmon, a Unit 4 alum and UIUC college student, is dedicated to the task of informing others of the importance of expression. Using empathy, artistry and her access to a multitude of emotions, she writes and performs ‘pieces’ of her heart in and around the CU community and campus. She has been an active poet and performer since she was 12 yrs old.

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Supporting the Voices Inside: The Freedom Archives and Preserving the Prison Movement


Nathaniel Moore is the archivist at the Freedom Archives, He lived in Champaign from 2007-2011.


Supporting the Voices Inside: The Freedom Archives and Preserving the Prison Movement

“When the prison doors are opened the real dragon will fly out.”  Ho Chi Minh

The movements to end mass incarceration were re-invigorated in early September as a settlement in the class action lawsuit Ashker v. Governor of California was reached, a major step in ending indeterminate, long-term solitary confinement in all California state prisons. The settlement should result in a dramatic reduction in the number of people in solitary across the state of California and become a model for other states moving forward. (For example, in 2013, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections, 2,300 people were in solitary confinement in Illinois, about 5% of the prison population.) The suit was filed in 2012 on behalf of prisoners held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison, often without any violent conduct or serious rule infractions, many for more than a decade, and all without any meaningful process for transfer out of isolation and back to the general prison population. In addition to limiting the amount of time a prisoner can spend in the Pelican Bay SHU (Security Housing Unit), and of particular importance, is the creation of a behavior-based system; prisoners will no longer be sent to solitary based solely on “gang affiliation,” but rather based on serious rules violations.

Central to this agreement was the incredible organizing that took place inside prison walls. The prisoners’ victory in this struggle to limit the use of solitary confinement was led by the prisoners themselves – by their ability to organize massive support for their demands within the prisons, including embarking on two hunger strikes in 2011, and another in 2013 that became the largest prisoner hunger strike in history, with over 30,000 prisoners across California and the country refusing food! Their battle against solitary is a long-standing struggle to abolish a torturous practice that was designed to repress and attack the powerful prisoner-led movement in the 1960s and 70s.

The 1960s and 70s were a robust time for prisoner-led organizing and resistance. Across the country people behind bars were educating, organizing, writing, creating and theorizing revolution and social change. During these decades there were countless strikes, rebellions, and numerous other challenges to state control and the racist, inhumane conditions that accompanied imprisonment. These contributions inside were an integral element to the organizing that was happening on the streets during this era and the prison movement was vital to strengthening the theory and practice of liberation. An important aspect of the current struggle must be to learn from a previous generation. Some of the most vibrant voices of this period are contained in the Freedom Archives.

The Freedom Archives is a non-profit educational media archive located in San Francisco dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of historical audio, video and print materials documenting progressive movements and culture from the 1960s to the present. Offering a youth development program that encourages engagement with these historical materials and providing media production training, the Freedom Archives also produces original documentaries and educational media for use by schools and organizations as tools for community building and social justice work. Materials housed at the Freedom Archives include: weekly news, poetry, music programs; in-depth interviews and reports on social and cultural issues; numerous voices from behind prison walls; recordings of diverse demonstrations and activists; and pamphlets, journals, newspapers and other print materials from many radical organizations and movements. Many of these materials are digitized and free for use on the website.

Amplifying the voices of prisoners is a core value of the Freedom Archives. One of the primary ways we do this is by using archival materials to create educational resources that help cultivate foundational knowledge for understanding and advancing the prison movement. In addition to familiarizing people with important events, leaders and thinkers, and information, linking the past and the present allows us to expand our analysis beyond mass incarceration as just an unfortunate phenomenon or as the result of poor public policy, but as a key component of continued state repression. To that end, we have created short video documentaries about the Attica Rebellion and George Jackson and an audio tribute to recently murdered political prisoner Hugo Pinell (of the San Quentin Six) to help ground younger generations in how important prisoners have been and are to movement building and theorizing radical social change. In 2013 we published a book, Out of Control: A 15-Year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons, that chronicles the inspiring story of the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML), which organized against control unit prisons and related inhumane practices at the notorious federal prison in Marion, Illinois, beginning thirty years ago. We are excited that the web version of this book allows readers to view, read or listen to archival materials referenced in the text and, if you wish, download it to your computer. This interactive resource allows a fuller and more engaging understanding as the primary sources speak directly to what you are reading.

In addition to our educational resources, one can make use of our digital search engine which allows for increased access and user-friendly exploration of our holdings. Inside many of our collections are the voices, writings, poems, statements and interviews of political prisoners. As the United States claims it has no political prisoners, our robust collections serve not only to challenge that fundamental untruth but also to illuminate and disseminate the voices of former Black Panthers and people in the Black Liberation Movement, Puerto Rican independentistas, White anti-imperialists, Native Americans, grand jury resisters and many others. Video showing the strength and determination of the women formerly held in the underground Lexington Federal Prison; statements capturing the unyielding defiance of Puerto Rican prisoners of war and the beauty and hope of political prisoner Marilyn Buck’s poetry are but some of the powerful and impactful content contained in the Freedom Archives.

Over the past 15 years, the Freedom Archives has become a national and international source of media of great interest to young people and students, but also to teachers, diverse community organizations and media outlets, filmmakers, activists, historians, artists and researchers. Our materials are regularly used in schools and as tools for community building and social justice education. Our full collection is searchable at We also maintain an email list that disseminates important news, updates and writings about prisons from current and former political prisoners. For example, we were able to use this organ to play a role in publicizing the state’s recent settlement as well as the hunger strikes of previous years.

Connecting lessons of the past with current political resistance is a vital task for our movements today. How can we best support the work that is occurring on the inside? How can we make sure that our work is consistent with the values and goals of prisoners? How can we most effectively disseminate their ideas? As we grapple with these questions across the country, the Freedom Archives exists as an important resource to preserve the past, illuminate the present and shape the future. As the voices inside continue to grow in intensity, we endeavor to support and amplify the power of the dragons that will one day fly to freedom.

Nathaniel Moore


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The Criminalization of Poverty

When most people think of mass incarceration they think of massive prisons–Stateville, Sing Sing, Angola. But mass incarceration has a local face: jails. In our own county Build Programs, Not Jails has fought for three years to halt plans to spend more than $30 million to build new jail cells in East Urbana. We have opposed this largely because jails have become repositories of the poor and in many cases virtual debtors’ prisons. The following passage on jails descries the process of criminalizing poverty. It a slightly modified version of the text from Chapter 7 of my book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time.

Changes in Local Laws and Punishments: The Criminalization of Poverty.

Across the country policing of urban spaces has intensified in the last three decades. This constitutes part of the criminalization of the poor, a process researcher Christopher Petrella calls “from welfare to cellfare.”

The criminalization of the poor not only fits in with the aggressive policing of the War on Drugs, but also includes “zero tolerance” or “broken windows” approaches to policing that have become the norm in many cities. The broken windows idea comes from a 1982 article by sociologists James Q. Wilson and George L Kelling. Written at a time of escalating crime rates, the “broken windows approach” suggests that small crimes, such as vandalism leading to broken windows, are the first step to more widespread and more serious criminal activity.

In response, many police departments, led by New York City under Police Chief William Bratton, began a “zero tolerance” policy by systematically arresting people for minor ordinance violations like loitering, graffiti writing or public drunkenness. In addition, many cities passed ordinances making it illegal to engage in some of the survival activities common to many poor people especially the homeless: “aggressive” panhandling, selling goods and services on the street (like windshield washing at stop lights), sleeping or urinating in public. A survey undertaken by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and The National Coalition for the Homeless in 2009 found that of 235 cities surveyed:

  • 33% prohibited “camping” in particular public places in the city and 17% had citywide prohibitions on “camping.”
  • 30% prohibited sitting/lying in certain public places
  • 47% prohibited loitering in particular public areas and 19% prohibited loitering citywide.
  • 47% prohibited begging in particular public places;
  • 49% prohibited aggressive panhandling , 23% had citywide prohibitions on begging.

In some places restrictions extend to outlawing sharing of food in public. For example, Las Vegas passed an anti-food sharing ordinance to halt a program organized by the group “Food Not Bombs” to feed the homeless in public spaces. Further restrictions have targeted people who live in cars. Silicon Valley in California was one of the first places to make this illegal, taking away one of the last living space options for many homeless people.

Apart from these changes in the law, forceful policing has become more common. For instance, in some cities, police carry out sweeps of areas where homeless people are concentrated. These often lead to arrests, personal injury to the homeless and the destruction of their personal property, or confiscation of their medication.


Fines and Poverty Penalties: The Re-birth of Debtors’ Prisons

This array of new legal sanctions against urban survival activities has been accompanied by the increasing use of fines and fees as additional punishment. These financial penalties come in a variety of forms and often end up being the reason for people being re-incarcerated. The American Civil Liberties Union has said that this effectively amounts to a restoration of debtors’ prisons, a form of punishment the US outlawed in the 1800s. Many states impose charges simply for entering the criminal justice system. In 2009 for example, the North Carolina state legislature passed a set of fees to be levied on all defendants. regardless of whether they were eventually found to be guilty. These included a “general court fee” of $95.50-102.50 and a “facilities fee” of $30.00. Louisiana has a $300 judicial expense fund, while Washington state adds $100 for taking a mandatory DNA sample and a $600 Legal Financial Obligation for each felony conviction. Washington authorities also charge 12% annual interest on money owed to the criminal justice system. Arizona levies an 83% surcharge on all fines. Hence, in Arizona a $500 traffic ticket actually costs $915.

In 2010 the Brennan Center carried out a survey of fifteen large population states. They found that fourteen had jurisdictions that used “poverty penalties”- adding extra charges onto unpaid debt. All had jurisdictions that incarcerated people for failure to pay fines and fees. Eight of the fifteen suspended driver’s licenses for non-payment, while seven revoked voting rights until the debt was paid. Several offered defendants an opportunity to “volunteer” to serve time to settle their criminal justice debts.

In Alabama and Georgia, further financial complications have come via the outsourcing of probation to private firms such as Sentinel Offender Services and Judicial Correction Services. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, in some instances, these firms offer no real probation program other than collecting fines on behalf of the local government. However, they top up the fines with monthly fees for their own services and then use the threat of incarceration on people who fail to pay these service charges.

Many local authorities argue that these fines are necessary in order to finance the operations of the criminal justice system. Yet the Brennan Center report questioned the financial viability of this system. They found that most states had not even studied the costs of collecting fines as compared to the revenue generated. Until we halt this criminalization of the poor and provide some form of “welfare” instead of “cellfare,” mass incarceration will persist. This involves not only a change in policy but a change in mindset from demonizing poor people to finding ways to create bonds of solidarity across class and racial divides.


Criminal Justice Debt: A Life Sentence?

For many people going to jail ends up in a series of fines, fees, and penalties which become a long term burden, Sociologist Alexes Harris, an expert on criminal justice debt, argues that this can set up a cycle of debt and incarceration which in some cases can amount to a “life sentence.“ She maintains that “as a result of interest and surcharges that accumulate on these financial penalties, this portion of a person’s sentence becomes permanent legal debt, carried for the remainder of their lives.”

Harris advocates the abolition of all criminal justice fines and fees apart from restitution.

Other people argue that such fines, along with excessive bails violate the eighth amendment of the US constitution. While many people are aware that the eighth amendment bans cruel and unusual punishment, it also outlaws the “excessive bail” and “excessive fines.”


How Criminal Justice Debts Lead to Debtors’ Prisons:

The Brennan Center has cited four ways failure to pay criminal justice debt can land someone in a “debtors’ prison”

  • Their parole or probation can be revoked
  • A civil or criminal court action can order them to jail
  • Their probation or parole can be extended
  • People “choose” jail as an alternative to cash in order to pay off their fines.
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Illinois Budget Stalemate: A Third Way

Top Seven Myths About Illinois’ State Budget:

1: “Illinois is a High Spending State”

Not true. Illinois is a low spending state compared to the rest of the U.S. (This and other figures are from the bi-partisan, non-profit Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.) It ranked 28th in General Fund spending on services per capita, and 36th in General Fund spending on services as a share of GDP in FY2012.

Yet Illinois is a rich state. Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the fifth highest in the U.S., and its GDP per capita is the 12th highest. Illinois’ economy is the 20th largest in the world.

Therefore, it is simply false to argue that Illinois’ budget problems are driven by overspending. In fact, the opposite is true.

2: “Illinois Needs to Cut Spending to Balance its Budget”

In fact, it already has, but politicians confuse people. Between FY2000 and FY2015 General Fund appropriations increased 19.1 percent in nominal dollars for the four core service areas of education, healthcare, social services, and public safety. But when adjusted for inflation and population growth, these appropriations decreased in real terms 27.4 percent (Senate Revenue Hearing, slide 15).

2015 11 05 CBTA 3

Therefore, spending is not the problem. And spending less has not fixed the problem. Instead, the problem is a structural deficit (see below).

3: “Illinois Needs to Shrink Government by Cutting State Workers”

Illinois is already next to last in the nation. It ranked 49th in the U.S. in the number of state workers per 1,000 residents in 2011, the most recent year for which comparative data exists.

No, the number of public sector state employees is not driving the budget problem.

4: “Illinois Needs to Reduce Pension Debt By Cutting Pension Benefits”

Overly-generous pension benefits are not the cause of the pension debt.
Illinois tried to cut benefits despite the plain language of the state constitution that states that these benefits cannot be “diminished or impaired.” No wonder it lost in court.

To avoid modernizing its tax policy, Illinois borrowed from the pension systems to fund current services. Repayment plan for that debt was “backloaded,” that is, annual payments increase each year. The “pension ramp” created thereby is unsustainable: Illinois will never have enough money to pay the costs ramped-up over time.

5: “Illinois is a High Tax State”

Wrong. As a percentage of personal income, Illinois’ total state and local tax burden usually ranks in the bottom 10 nationally. Of seven Midwest states, Illinois’ tax burden is next to last; only Missouri’s is lower (Senate Revenue Hearing, slide 20).

2015 11 05 CBTA 4

The good news is that because the tax burden is relatively low, Illinois can increase taxes and still remain a low tax state.

6: “Illinois Corporate Taxes are Too High and Driving Business Away”

Nonsense. In 2010, before the tax rate was temporarily lowered from seven percent to 5.25 percent, almost 70 percent of corporations paid no tax, and nearly 93 percent paid $5000 or less (Senate Revenue Hearing, slide 23).

2015 11 05 CBTA 5

Moreover, corporate profits are at an all-time high. Using 1970 as a baseline, neither labor income nor GDP has kept pace with increased corporate profits through 2011 (Senate Revenue Hearing, slide 26). The spike in profits before and after the 2008 recession is particularly striking.

2015 11 05 CBTA 1

7: “Illinois Needs to Cut Taxes on the Wealthy To Trickle-Down Money to Spur the Economy”

In effect, this is what Illinois did in rolling back the temporary 2011-2014 tax increase from five percent to 3.75 percent. But the top 40 percent income earners received nearly 87 percent of the resulting tax relief.

2015 11 05 CBTA 12

lllinois State & Local Taxes Paid as a Share of Family Income for Non-Elderly Taxpayers,   Senate Revenue Hearing, slide 12

Meanwhile, tax revenue will decrease from $36.7 to an estimated $32.1 billion in 2016. This constitutes the “fiscal cliff” Illinois is racing towards.

Giving millionaires a tax break does not stimulate the economy, while cutting taxes on the less-wealthy does. This is because of the “marginal propensity to consume” (MPC), according to which the latter will have more to spend on necessities, while the former will sock more away since they have already purchased their necessities.

What is To Be Done?

1) The cause of the budget problem is the structural deficit in the general fund due to the tax system

The “structural deficit” is the ongoing gap between the cost of maintaining current services, and tax revenue.

Instead of revising its outdated tax policy to generate more revenue, Illinois politicians, both Democratic and Republican, have chosen for decades to take ‘a pension holiday,” and borrow from what it owes the pension systems to subsidize the cost of current services not covered by current taxes.

To pay back the pension systems, Illinois created the “pension ramp,” a repayment schedule that increases annual payments over time to unaffordably high levels.

2) Reform tax policy to generate more revenue

The structural deficit results in turn from poor tax policy.

That is the bad news. The good news is that there are a number of ways to raise revenue, and still keep Illinois a relatively low tax state.

Reform sales tax policy by expanding the base of the sales tax to include most consumer services

Illinois’ tax code is woefully out of date. The problem is that Illinois generally taxes goods (such as clothing and furniture), but not services (pet grooming, health clubs, lawn care, and the like). Between 1965 and 2012 the sale of goods as a percentage of GDP declined from under 41 percent to under 18 percent. Meanwhile, the sale of services increased from over 51 percent to over 72 percent (Senate Revenue Hearing, slide 33).

2015 11 05 CBTA 33

What this means is that even as the economy changes – and grows – Illinois collects relatively less and less. Measured as a share of the state economy, the sales tax base lost more than half of its value in the last 45 years.

Increase the personal income tax rate from 3.75 percent to 4.75 percent or 5 percent

As we saw above in discussing Myth #5, Illinois even at a five percent rate is a low-tax state.

Tax some retirement income

Of 41 states with a personal income tax, Illinois is one of only five that does not tax retirement income, contributing to its unfair tax policy.

Therefore, tax retirement income, but phase it in from $50,000 so that it will not adversely impact low income retirees.

Increase the corporate income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 6 percent

At either rate, Illinois would still be low relative to other states – 6 percent would be in the mid-range.

Eliminate corporate tax expenditures that do not generate a public good or stimulate the economy

Some corporate tax expenditures do generally produce a public good or service, such as underwriting research and development. Others, however, do not, and should be eliminated. This is the case all-too-often with tax expenditures to stimulate job creation.

Impose a Tax on sugary sweetened beverages

This is a no-brainer.

3) Re-Amortize the Pension Debt

The second major requirement for eliminating the structural deficit is to re-amortize Illinois’ pension debt.

Re-amortization simply means changing the annual repayment schedule for the pension debt Illinois already owes. Get rid of the backloaded, unsustainable “pension ramp” repayment plan. Repay the same amount over an increased number of years, just like a traditional, fixed-rate mortgage.

Illinois can resolve its unfunded liability, grow its funded ratio, meet all system cash flow obligations to pay retirement benefits, and free up substantial current revenue to fund current services by utilizing a level dollar annual repayment of its pension debt of approximately $7.014 billion.

Conclusion: A Real Budget Turnaround

2015 11 05 CBTA 39

Senate Revenue Hearing, slide 39

If Illinois were to increase income taxes to 4.75 percent, tax some retirement income, expand the sales tax base to include most consumer services, eliminate the tax expenditures noted above, and impose a new tax on sugary beverages, the state would raise over $7.9 billion in new revenue in FY2016.

Budget problem solved, economically. What is necessary is the political will to do it.

2014 05 21 cell meeting for Roediger 3

David Prochaska formerly taught colonialism and visual culture in the UI History Department

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History Matters: Compromising How We Teach Slavery

If you checked your Facebook feed early in October, there is a good chance you saw a news story about a textbook controversy in Texas. In case you missed it, here is what happened. A ninth grader opened his World Geography textbook from McGraw-Hill. He found a map labeled “Patterns of Immigration.” Next to the map was a text box reading, “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and the 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.”

The student contacted his mother about the page, who then spoke out about it publicly. The story quickly went viral on Facebook and other social media.

Characterizing the forced enslavement of millions of Africans under the category of “immigration” erases the violence and murder wrought by the slave trade. Describing enslaved people as “workers” likewise erases the involuntary nature of their forced toil and the daily violence that structured plantation enslavement.

Due to the outcry, McGraw Hill apologized for the wording, promised to change the online version of the textbook and also to send stickers with alternative wording to cover over the poorly chosen text box.

And maybe those stickers will help solve the problem of the language on that one textbook page. And anyway, why should residents of Illinois care about one textbook page down in Texas?

The History According to Texas

This textbook story is part of an alarming trend that won’t be so easily stickered over. In 2010 the Texas Board of Education approved new guidelines for history textbooks. The vote was bitterly partisan, with nine Republicans voting for the new standards and five Democrats standing against them. The board’s new standards sought to reverse what they termed a “liberal bias” in education. The standards deemphasized the roll of slavery in the Civil War. Instead the curriculum was to characterize the War as a matter of “States’ Rights,” in which slavery was a side issue. The textbooks were also to downplay mentions of Jim Crow laws or the Ku Klux Klan.

The only required primary sources for the Civil War included in the Texas high school curriculum are the inaugural addresses of President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate leader Jefferson Davis. Neither of those sources mention slavery in relationship to the war. Many, many other documents do however focus on slavery as the cause of the war.

This includes Texas’ own declaration of secession, which cites protecting the institution of slavery as the main reason for leaving the Union. One paragraph from Texas’s announcement on leaving the United States read, “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.” Later the document reads, “By the secession of six of the slave-holding States, and the certainty that others will speedily do likewise, Texas has no alternative but to remain in an isolated connection with the North, or unite her destinies with the South.” This is just one of multiple primary sources that clearly lists slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War.

Many educators, both in Texas and beyond, protested these new standards, forcing the textbook companies to dial back some of the changes. In 2011, Texas passed a law that teachers could choose books not on the state approved list. However, the vast majority of schools still purchase their books from the School Board’s list.

There are five million students in Texas. The state has the second largest school population, behind California. A total of 48 million textbooks across subject matters are purchased in Texas each year. That market share means that Texas influences curriculum on a national scale, as textbook writers want their volumes to sell.

American Exceptionalism

But this attempt by conservatives to change how history is taught has not stopped in Texas. In 2014, the College Board released new national guidelines for the Advanced Placement exam in US History. AP courses allow high school students to prepare and take a test for college level credit. The new framework, amongst other things, places more emphasis on the histories of American women and minorities. It also has more of an international framework for teaching US history.

Conservative backlash quickly flared. The Republican National Committee adopted a resolution in August 2014 calling the changes “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” In September 2014, students and teachers at four Jefferson County high schools west of Denver staged walkouts to protest local school board demands for a more “patriotic” teaching of American history.

In February of this year, the committee on education in the Oklahoma House of Representatives voted along partisan lines to pass House Bill 1380. It would ban the use of state funds for teaching AP history. The backers of the bill were angry that the new AP standards undermined what they called “American Exceptionalism.” Protests from teachers, parents and students who did not want the legislature deciding what is taught in their classrooms helped stop that bill. Similar protests have emerged in South Carolina and Texas.

What is at stake in all of these protests and counter protests is more than just a couple of pages in a history textbook, or a few questions on a test for college credit.

The subject of history, and particularly the history of race and slavery in America, has always been contentious ground. In the early twentieth century, the historical scholarship on the subject mostly treated the institution of slavery as relatively benign and promoted the racist idea of the inferiority of the African race. Many historians since then have worked to correct this record.

W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction

In 1935, the great scholar, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote his groundbreaking work Black Reconstruction in America as a powerful corrective to accounts that sought to denigrate the contributions of black Americans during the post-Civil War period.

Toward the end of his book, Du Bois attempted to explain why earlier histories failed to accurately wrestle with the histories of African Americans. He wrote, “We fell under the leadership of those who would compromise with truth in the past in order to make peace in the present and guide policy in the future.”

Today we are faced with another push to “compromise with truth in the past:” To smooth over the tough questions in our national history. To tell our children easier stories about ourselves.

But we all must resist such urges. History matters. Because how can we hope to promote justice and equality in the present if we are not willing first to look unflinchingly at our past?

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NTFC Local #6546: The Time for Action

The end of October marked a change in the weather in Champaign-Urbana—a few days of rain and a change in temperature that brought Fall to town. And NTFC Local #6546, the union of non-tenure-track faculty (NTTs) at UIUC, was out there in it, with a unified teach-in and rally on the last Wednesday in October. Our members were out on the Quad and in the Illini Union, teaching our classes, meeting with our students, collaborating with our partners, and making our voices heard. In short, we were doing our jobs, making ourselves and our work visible, to highlight our mission, putting Education First.

This action was one of the first major actions with events on all three University of Illinois campuses—Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, and Springfield—coordinated by higher education unions who are all affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT). These IFT higher education locals include thousands of tenure-track faculty, non-tenure-track faculty, graduate employees, and staff who do a huge chunk of the work of the University of Illinois system. This coalition thus represents much of the core of the educational mission of the University, and is why we’ve been using the motto “Education First.”

As I’ve pointed previously in The Public I, we believe that one of the best ways to embody this motto is to put on display the various ways education really happens at the University of Illinois. This time around, it was teach-in and rally at Urbana-Champaign, a panel discussion on the state budget and higher education at Springfield, and the conclusion of the contract ratification vote at Chicago. Each of these actions represent the ways in which unionized faculty and students really do our work: we teach and rally, we elucidate and discuss, we organized and settle contracts. Unions and their members are committed to all of these activities, and none of them can happen in isolation. Without our specialized knowledge and skills, we can’t teach or research effectively; without bringing attention to the problems of our times, we can’t find solutions; without fair contracts, we can’t effectively do any our jobs.

Earlier that same week, at UIUC’s Annual Meeting of the Faculty, University President Timothy Killeen and Interim Chancellor Barb Wilson addressed the role of NTTs on our campus (which the administration refers to as “specialized faculty”). Killeen described us as “part of our family,” who “need to be listened to” and “respected.” Wilson went on to describe her sense of the administration’s ideal relationship with the NTT faculty: “our goal is to create a stable and strong sense of commitment to our specialized faculty.”

We couldn’t agree more, but Killeen and Wilson both deferred on the mechanisms by which that lofty rhetoric would be translated into action. Wilson mentioned contract negotiations, and that negotiations with NTFC were but one of the more than twenty or so that are ongoing (in one stage or another) at UIUC. Which is quite true. But we have been negotiating our first contract for more than a year, having starting at the beginning of October 2014. To date, we’ve tentatively agreed on only a handful of proposals, and the administrative bargaining has taken more than six months to respond in any way to our economic proposal. They now blame the stalled state budget, but didn’t want to propose such language in the months before the budget crisis, so the delay seems more tactical than anything else.

Our members deserve the “respect” that President Killeen suggests and we demand to be listened to. It’s all well and good to have administrators take a few questions from us at their occasional fora for doing so, but those principles must be translated into the negotiating room. When the administration’s bargaining team proposes that management rights includes their full control over all aspects of “courses, curriculum, and instruction, including content, methods, and instructional material […] the nature and the form of assignments required […] research, research compliance and academic integrity, and other scholarly, scientific, and service-related activities [… as well as] grading policies and practices,” where is the respect? When they retreat to caucus for more than half of each bargaining session, where is the respect? When they aren’t even sure what their proposed language means or why they included it, where is the respect?

NTFC Local #6546 isn’t going away, and we’re not going to wait around for respect; we’re demanding it. We’ll be making our work visible. We’ll be making our demands visible. We are not alone—there are thousands of other union members across the three University of Illinois campuses. And we want the same thing: fair contracts that give us the respect, security, and stability to do our jobs and make the University of Illinois work.
We’re not going away, and we’re not going to wait.

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