Public Transit Is Necessary, But Getting Worse July 2, 2014 No Comments

ptinThe question is no longer whether Rosa Parks can sit at the front of the bus. It’s whether she gets to ride the bus at all. Although more overt racial discrimination in public transportation has given way, inadequate transit services affect many people’s access to work, recreation and health services. And because of the high costs of owning and driving a car, private automobile transportation is often not an affordable option.

Federal policy has heavily favored automobile use, with $205 billion provided by the Highway Trust Fund for state road projects since 1956, compared to only $50 billion for mass transit over the past 30 years. Highway investments provide less direct benefit to the poor: In 1990 half of the households without access to a car earned less than $10,000 (78 percent of the households without access to a car earned less than $20,000), while 96 percent of households with incomes over $35,000 owned at least one vehicle. The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that the poorest fifth of urban residents in southern California receive only four percent of the area’s transportation benefits.

Society’s dependence on automobiles concerns both social justice advocates and environmentalists. But their approaches to solving transportation problems are often divergent. Environmentalists struggle to find ways to discourage automobile use, such as placing higher taxes on fuel or pro-rating registration fees based on the number of miles driven. Advocates for poor working people, on the other hand, focus on survival, such as fighting cutbacks in transit service or the construction of highways that cut through communities.

Despite these differences, some common areas of concern are emerging. The environmental and social impacts of suburban sprawl, poor land-use planning and disinvestment in cities are beginning to bring these constituencies together. The country’s reliance on automobiles and the dominant planning role played by state Departments of Transportation, highway builders and engineers provides a clear target for joint activities.

As a sponsor of a series of Energy and Equity Roundtables, the Environmental Action Foundation is reaching out to a diverse range of groups working on transportation and energy issues. In November, I spoke at the Transportation, Environmental Justice and Social Equity Conference co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration and the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a Washington-based coalition. These forums are among the first attempts to start a national dialogue among diverse advocacy communities around transportation issues. Although there is still a lot of mutual learning and listening yet to do, we are beginning to understand that working together toward common solutions is needed in order to aim for the kind of fundamental changes in transportation and government services we seek.

As environmentalists and social justice advocates move from parallel tracks to the same one, we are beginning to share victories and lessons.

* The Urban Habitat Program of the Earth Island Institute worked with the Bayview Hunters Point community, the largest African American neighborhood in San Francisco, to formulate the country’s first community-designed transit system plan based on social and environmental justice criteria. In 1992, Urban Habitat found that none of the San Francisco Municipal Railway system’s development proposals would adequately meet the transit needs of Bayview Hunters Point. With the assistance of residents and city planners, Urban Habitat developed a strategy that includes commercial development, adequate transportation services, conveniently located stations and plans for stimulating local jobs.

* Public transportation will only be fully utilized if it is accessible. In 1970, the Chimawa Indian Health Clinic expanded to serve the Native American population in western Oregon. But the public transit line in the area stopped a mile from the clinic. Since there were no sidewalks, transit-dependent patients had to walk a mile through what amounted to a muddy trail. After years of legal challenges and protests, the bus line was extended. But today the line is in jeopardy because of low ridership, and activists are asking for the transit agency’s assistance in educating patients about bus availability.

* In Gary, Indiana, which has the largest African American population in the state, Michele Nanni of the Hoosier Environmental Council is pushing for a more sustainable regional transportation plan. A loose voting bloc has been organized, made up of community representatives and transit operators, to support policies that address both environmental and social justice concerns. Although the region’s long-term plan is still based on highway use, Nanni has succeeded in making the planning process more accessible to the public.

As Nanni and other activists have found, one of the basic solutions to transportation problems is encouraging citizen participation in the planning process. For the first time, such participation is legally mandated; through the landmark Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA). ISTEA changed the power dynamic by enhancing the role of metropolitan planning organizations and the governor, and by adding a significant new player: the public.

Enhanced political strength through education and advocacy will help to level the playing field and create a partnership on transportation planning, eventually leading to transportation systems that fulfill both social and ecological needs.

Another tool for public inclusion is Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (1964). ISTEA’s planning regulations explicitly require states and metropolitan planning organizations to be consistent with Title VI, which states that: “No person in the United States shall, on the grounds of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” This can be interpreted to mean that the planning process must allow representation of diverse groups in decision making, make the transportation system accessible to all populations, and have a fair ratio of transit and highway expenditures by region. For example, in Los Angeles, the Labor/Community Strategy Center has sued the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on the grounds that bus riders, who are low-income and overwhelmingly people of color, have had to increase the amount of their bus fares to pay for suburban projects, whose riders are mostly white and have higher incomes.

The Civil Rights Act and ISTEA have laid the legal groundwork for change in this arena. With environmentalists and social justice advocates joining forces to significantly improve the transportation planning process to be much more inclusive, there is a greater opportunity to hold government accountable and to design transportation systems that serve us all.

Cities Make Sustainability A Priority June 11, 2014 No Comments

cmsyWhen Richard Morgan first conceived of a program to teach carpentry skills to at-risk youth, he didn’t intend for it to be a cutting edge environmental project. Through the American Institute for Learning, an adult education center in Austin, Texas, where Morgan works, he hoped to set up a cabinet shop that would serve as an apprenticeship program.

But when the city’s Environmental and Conservation Services Department heard of Morgan’s plans, it suggested an environmental spin. Why not build energy-efficient, sustainable housing for low-income people? Morgan was intrigued, and the result is Casa Verde, a model “green” construction program that has multiple benefits for low-in-come people.

A three-bedroom “sustainable” house was built last year as a pilot project and sold to a low-in-come family for $40,000. With its successful completion, Casa Verde received funding both as a HUD YouthBuild program and an AmeriCorps program, President Clinton’s national service initiative. Support also comes from the Community Housing Development Organization.

Sustainable construction uses methods and materials that don’t deplete natural resources, and that are safe, healthy and light-enhancing, Morgan explains. “It has positive impacts on the occupants, the builders and the area,” he says. “The houses are durable, resource-efficient and adaptable.”

This year three more houses are under construction. They are made from Faswall, a mineralized wood fiber that is filled with concrete. Among the energy efficiencies are a heating system fueled by energy from the hot water heater, large overhangs and a porch for shade, a metal roof with a radiant barrier to decrease attic heating and ceiling fans.

Not only will Casa Verde provide affordable, energy- efficient housing for low-income people, but it also offers a foot in the construction trades to at-risk young adults, between the ages of 17 and 25. “Construction is a good medium to teach responsibility and citizenship,” says Morgan.

This year, 64 apprentices are being introduced to the building trades; more than half of them had a troubled past with the justice system. They work in eight-person crews, alternating their workweeks with classroom study. They also perform community service by assisting with weatherizing other low-income housing and with making houses accessible for people with disabilities. Casa Verde apprentices are paid minimum wage, and receive free health insurance and child care, as well as a $4,725 educational grant through AmeriCorps.

“It’s really exciting,” says Morgan. “When they leave our program, they will have been exposed to all of the trades that are involved in residential construction.” Morgan estimates that as many as 40 percent of the program’s graduates will go on to work in construction.

Philadelphia: Neighborhood Centers Wage Valiant Fight

Philadelphia is one of the nation’s utility nightmares. High gas and electric rates, costly modernization of a deteriorating infrastructure, older homes and an aging, poor inner-city population combine to fuel an ongoing energy crisis.

In the mid-eighties, the situation came to a head when gas utility shut-offs mushroomed from 3,000 to 30,000 a year. At the same time, the state’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) was poorly managed, not even spending its full $24 million allotment from the federal government. The Weatherization Assistance Program was in shambles.

“There were all kinds of horror stories,” recalls Liz Robinson, executive director of the Energy Coordinating Agency of Philadelphia. “Insulation was ending up on people’s beds from the roof. Storm windows were installed that were six inches too short. There were resources, but they were poorly managed, poorly delivered and the result was a problem raging out of control.”

The financially-strapped city, leery of creating a new government agency, established the Energy Coordinating Agency as an independent nonprofit to help low-income people avoid shut-offs. It has grown into a comprehensive program that is fighting the crisis on many fronts.

“We’ve tried to create a rational system from the customer’s point of view,” says Robinson. Seven neighborhood centers serve as “one-stop shopping” for people with utility problems. Paperwork has been streamlined and made uniform for all utilities. Counselors at the centers not only help with bills and shut-offs, but also educate clients on energy conservation. Home repair advice and services are offered, and a homeless prevention program was launched this year. Twenty-two thousand households are served by the centers.

“There’s a big emphasis on self-help and education,” says Robinson. “Most people do not understand how their houses work. They don’t know how to make their heating system run efficiently or how to do caulking and repair work.”

Those who are physically able are taught how to make the repairs themselves. For the elderly and disabled, the centers offer limited services or refer them to another agency that handles major systems repairs.

“All the centers aggressively recruit volunteers from their client base, as well as local universities and businesses,” says Robinson. “They work to bring volunteers up to the level so that if there’s a staff opening they’re able to be hired.” The majority of paid counselors come from the ranks of the poor and unemployed. Crews doing weatherization and home repair also generally come from the local neighborhoods where they work.

The Energy Coordinating Agency and the centers are supported by the city, state and utilities, as well as federal block grants. “The hardest part is maintaining the commitment of institutions and government. Unless you have that, the coordination is very hard to do,” says Robinson. “It requires agreement by all the players that the program makes sense and that it’s in their interest to coordinate their services with others.” This year, the program will be working with the city to crack down on landlords who maintain substandard housing. “We’re going after the landlords. We’ll give them an opportunity to make the repairs, and give them a low interest loan,” says Robinson. “But if that fails, we’ll use power of code enforcement to put a lien on the properties.” More than half of the low-income clients are renters.

Despite the intensive efforts of the agency, the energy crisis in the city is unabated. Utility shut-offs have continued to rise, with 50,000 people having their gas shut-offs a year, 20,000 households losing their electricity, and nearly that many families without water. The persistence of the problem is aggravated by the relatively low priority given to conservation and education by utilities.

“The utilities have moved from no role in low-income efforts to a very major role,” says Robinson. “They now contribute more resources locally than the federal government. Those resources tend to take the form of bill subsidies, with too little going to conservation and education. You can be investing $1,000 in a bill subsidy every year, and meanwhile, if that house is not properly maintained, it continues to deteriorate and the bills continue to go up. The investment in conservation and education needs to be comparable if we’re ever going to turn the corner.”

Portland: Nonprofits Focus on Education and Self-Help

Portland, Oregon, has led the way in fashioning a comprehensive energy strategy that includes improving energy efficiency in municipal, commercial, industrial and residential buildings, increasing recycling and decreasing waste, and developing telecommunications as an energy-efficiency strategy. By the year 2000, Portland hopes to increase energy efficiency by 10 percent, thereby freeing $100 million for other needs.

Included in this effort are two programs, one citywide and one statewide, directed towards the energy concerns of low-income people.

The Community Energy Project is a nonprofit self-help program that runs free workshops for low-income households, teaching participants how to weatherstrip, caulk, install vinyl storm windows and other measures. Participants who meet the income criteria are given materials, in the form of rebates from the utilities.

“The whole idea is to make the houses more comfortable. We also reduce the energy bill by encouraging behavioral changes,” says Bob Chaples, executive director of the project.

The two-hour workshops are held in the evenings in schools and community centers and are led by people from the neighborhoods who are trained and paid a $25 stipend.

Each year, 45 workshops are held for low-in-come people, 10 of them targeted at special groups, such as immigrants for whom the workshops are held in Spanish.

In addition to the workshops, the project organizes teams of volunteers to help elderly and disabled people with home repairs. Seven-hundred volunteers, recruited from local factories, schools and businesses, participate annually, working on 200 homes.

“With the senior program, we do a pre-work audit of the home, which tells us which materials are needed,” says Chaples. “We walk the residents through the house and show them where their energy dollars are going, and how our materials will help make their home more comfortable.”

Also based in Portland is Oregon Heat, a statewide program, that is striving to fill the void left by shrinking energy assistance federal funds. “In 1983 our LIHEAP allotment was $25 million. This year, it’s down to $10.8 million,” says executive director Jay Formick. “The trend seems to suggest it will continue to be cut until there’s nothing left.”

Oregon Heat’s main mission is to raise funds for energy assistance. Last year, they raised $630,000. “What we would like to do is help low-income households become more self-reliant so they don’t need energy assistance,” says Formick. “We want to empower people, not just give them a handout.”

To that end, Oregon Heat organized the Energy Education Project, staffed by VISTA volunteers. The volunteers go to communities across the state, working with local social service agencies to identify low-in-come families who would benefit from energy conservation education.

Volunteers must learn to tailor their education and advice to a wide variety of circumstances. For one, Oregon’s climate ranges from high desert to rainforest to coastal. There are also differences in urban and rural needs and in culture and language – in eastern Oregon, for example, there is a large Hispanic population. And people use many different heating sources, including gas, oil, electric and wood.

“All of this presents a challenge to meet the needs of low-income households,” says Formick.

Pilot studies show that energy education can result in an 18 percent reduction in energy use in low-income households, a goal for which Oregon Heat is aiming. Combined with weatherization, reductions can be as high as 30 percent.

The Project is labor intensive, and its original plans of a massive statewide saturation have been scaled back to a more modest goal of reaching 1,200 households by early 1996. Volunteers begin with a home walk-through and energy audit. This is followed by a workshop and one final home visit, to make sure people understand the conservation suggestions.

Half the clients are renters, mostly based in Portland, and the other half are homeowners living in rural areas. “We discovered that renters are often disinclined to effect any kind of behavioral change,” says Formick. “They see it as the landlord’s problem, even when [the renters] are paying for the electric bill.”

The Project’s goal is to set up ongoing energy centers, which will continue to educate people after the VISTA volunteer moves on. “We don’t want a centralized program,” says Formick. “It’s our intention to get local communities organized so they’ll pick it up and run with it.” For example, in the town of LaGrande in eastern Oregon, the VISTA volunteer recruited employees at a local hardware store to support an ongoing energy education effort in the community.

Formick acknowledges the challenge is formidable – even in Oregon, a state with low utility rates. “There are more and more working poor who have a bona fide need but who don’t qualify for LIHEAP,” he says. “All the energy education in the world probably won’t help meet that need. But we’ll make a dent in it, and also have a not insignificant benefit to the environment.”

Bullying: Not Going Away June 6, 2014 No Comments

bngaIt’s been a season of horror stories. And these stories of violence aren’t set in a dark alley at midnight … but in the halls and classrooms of America’s schools.

In Bethel, Alaska, a 16-year-old boy shoots and kills the school principal–and a classmate who had teased him.

In Pearl, Mississippi, a 16-year-old high school sophomore pulls a rifle on a crowd of classmates and opens fire. Two students are killed in the attack and seven others are wounded. Police arrest the boy, Luke Woodham, as he tries to drive away. Days later, five other students at the high school are arrested; police say they may have known in advance about Woodham’s plans.

In Paducah, Kentucky, a tall, thin freshman named Michael Carneal tells a curious teacher that the four guns he has rolled up in an old blanket are “a poster for my science project.” Waiting in Heath High School’s central foyer, where a group of teens were ending their morning prayer group, Michael pulls a semiautomatic pistol from his backpack and fires 12 shots, killing three girls and wounding five other students. Carneal’s friend Ben Strong, a minister’s son who was the prayer group leader, talks Michael into giving him the gun. Later that week, at the funeral for the three girls who died, classmates write messages in markers on their caskets–and Michael Carneal’s older sister sings with the choir.

Most people like to think of schools as safe places–even in neighborhoods that aren’t safe. Maybe that was never quite as true as moms and dads liked to think: Even Mark Twain, writing more than a century ago, had vivid memories of schoolyard bullies and fistfights.

But there is a difference today–in how much violence there is at school, and in the increased level of the violence. “More than 2,000 students are physically attacked on school grounds each hour,” says a National Education Association study. “Confrontations that once resulted in scratches and bruises are now ending in gunshots, stab wounds, and even death.”

How much violence you experience often depends on where you live and where you attend school. Teens in private schools or schools in affluent neighborhoods generally report that guns and gangs aren’t a part of their world–while schools in neighborhoods with a high rate of crime and violence tend to mirror the violence outside.

But school violence isn’t found only at inner-city schools: Suburban, small-town, and “country” school districts report plenty of problems, too–even the city-style gangs that sometimes move to small-town or rural locations hoping to find a lack of organized law enforcement. One Virginia judge, pointing to rising juvenile violence in the rural area he serves, noted that teenagers see the same violent movies and TV shows whether they live in the country or in urban areas. He felt media violence was helping shape teen behavior.

Fear of Violence

Surveys show that, whether or not they’ve directly experienced violence, all American teens are increasingly aware and afraid of violence at school and in their out-of-school lives–afraid enough to be making some changes in how they live. A recent Harris poll of 2,000 teenagers found:

* One in eight teens reported carrying a weapon for protection.

* One in nine teens (and one in three from high-crime neighborhoods) said fear of violence had caused them to cut classes or stay home from school at times.

* About one in five teens reported that they had changed to a different (and, they hoped, safer) circle of friends.

* Almost half the teens polled said they’d made some kind of change in their daily routine because of crime and violence: avoiding certain parks or playgrounds, for example, or taking a different route to and from school.

Violence “is this generation’s Vietnam,” says Erin Donovan, who works with a group sponsoring violence-prevention programs in 40 states. Donovan notes at least one encouraging finding from the Harris poll, though–nine out of 10 teens said they’d be willing to take an active role in trying to do something about violence through “mentoring, education, or community awareness programs.”

Feeding the Monster

Where does the violence come from–and what keeps it coming? The answers aren’t simple. Here are some pieces of the puzzle:

A loss of “connectedness”: Parents work, and kids stay home alone. Neighbors don’t know neighbors. Community groups are finding it harder to recruit volunteers. Teens working after-school jobs say there’s no time to hang with friends anymore. Increasingly, many Americans feel isolated from other people. Some psychologists say this lack of connection contributes to the kind of self-centered, “I’m gonna get mine” attitude that can easily turn into violent behavior when somebody gets in the way.

Lack of family support and control: According to the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, today’s teens spend much less time with parents and other adults than they did just a few decades ago, and more time “in front of the television or with their peers in … unsupervised environments.” Parents, who may be struggling to make it financially, working long hours, or focused on their own problems often aren’t providing the warmth, guidance, and discipline that help kids grow up into connected, caring young adults.

For teens who live in high-crime, violence-prone neighborhoods, family support is even more critical. Children surrounded by violence want adults to give them the feeling they are being held and protected–kept safe from danger, says psychologist Mohamed Seedat, who counsels teens in some of Boston’s roughest neighborhoods. When parents and other adults a ‘ re uncaring, abusive, or simply don’t have the power to protect, says Seedat, children and teens feel abandoned and angry–and may fight back with violence.

Media influences: The “glitzy” portrayal of violence in, the movies, on TV, and in music videos may not make you become a person who turns violently on somebody else. But Harvard violence expert Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith says that media violence not only “tells [us] that violence is an everyday occurrence, a justified form of self-defense,” but it also makes violence look easy and attractive:

The camera loves action, especially violent action. [But] in real life, mashed and mangled bodies are not attractive. In real life, the impact of a moment of violence reverberates through time. Years later, parents are still mourning the loss of a child, children are still mourning the loss of a parent, a police officer may still feel anguish that he was required to use deadly force, even to save his own life. On film or videotape violence begins and ends in a moment. “Bang, bang, you’re dead.”

Does viewing violence make teens act more violently in their real lives, though? A social worker in one inner-city neighborhood says he sees the huge impact that viewing violence has on fatherless boys looking for male role models. “They ask their imaginary heroes [in movies and on TV] for advice. How should they handle themselves? The answer they receive is always the same. Their heroes tell them to be tough … to fight.”

Teen subcultures/guns: Dr. C. Everett Koop (then Surgeon General) talked about violence as a “national health emergency.” Violent behavior is often a way of gaining respect within teen gangs (male or female). Combine that with easy availability of “junk guns” and knives, and you have all, the ingredients for an explosion of violence.

Alcohol, drugs, and risk-taking: Why does drinking or taking drugs so often link up with violent behavior? Psychologists say mind-altering substances tend to bring our strongest emotions to the surface–and for some teens, the strongest emotions are rage and anger. What’s more, using alcohol and drugs is often part of a pattern of violent, risky behavior that may also include smoking, binge drinking, driving drunk (or riding with an “under the influence” driver), or engaging in casual sex.

Poverty: Studies show that murder rates soar in neighborhoods where men have no jobs and women struggle to raise children alone. Poverty in the United States doesn’t just mean not having enough money to live decently. It means living closer to violence–from the streets, from gangs, from the drug culture that breeds crime, and so on.

Living in a Bad Dream

It was still nearly dark that Tuesday morning at the east entrance to Sam Houston High School in Arlington, Texas. Buses were unloading hundreds of students. When sophomore Brandon Tillman climbed off the bus, he was followed into the school building by an older student, Ronell Tate, who challenged him to “step outside” to settle a fight (whether about a girl or rival gangs, nobody’s sure).

Outside the building, Tate pulled a gun on Tillman, who turned and ran toward the school. Tate fired six shots; one wounded Tillman in the upper thigh–but the others miraculously missed the dozens of students who were in the line of fire.

The only thing freshman Lindsey Kitchell saw was the blood in the hallway outside her first-period class–and the “freaked out” look on her teacher’s face. Panicked parents, alerted to the shooting by a radio broadcast that wrongly reported a student had been killed, stormed through the halls and took almost half of the 2,300 students home for the day.

Some haven’t come back. Though many students insist “Sam” is as safe as any other school, there has been an upswing in requests for transfers. Lindsey Kitchell loves the school and says “I’m not scared. I’m not a gang member, and so they wouldn’t have any reason to hurt me. I guess I could have been shot just being there when he pulled the gun, though.” She says, however, that the atmosphere around the school is tense. “The teachers are really upset–they’re bringing metal detectors to every class and yelling at kids who aren’t wearing their badges.”

From his hospital bed, gunshot victim Brandon Tillman says he likes the school, too. “Enough to go back there?” asks a reporter. Brandon doesn’t answer.

Psychologists say exposure to a single violent event is unlikely to cause permanent psychic damage to the students who were at the shooting scene. But what happens when children and teens have to live month after month in the middle of a war zone–in communities where they may experience violence both outside and inside their homes?

Mothers in a study of one neighborhood said their children became “sad, angry, aggressive, and uncaring” after exposure to continuous violence. Children and teens may have trouble sleeping or concentrating, or relive the day’s events as nightmares. To avoid thinking about the reality of their situation, they may try to distract themselves with fantasies/daydreams or hyperactive behavior–and both can cause trouble at school. Some children develop a sense of hopelessness about the future: “If I live to be 20…” Others become outwardly tough and superaggressive; some become gun-toting gang members.

In most cases, children and teens trapped in these situations can’t just dig themselves out. They need help from adults who care about them, and communities that are willing to spend time and money on the problem. How does it work?

Finding a Better Way

What keeps teens away from violence? There’s no simple answer. But studies show that teens who don’t engage in violence have some things in common:

* a positive family environment (or sometimes just one very caring, involved adult relative or friend)

* parents who expect them to live up to standards

* plans for a good future

* something that really interests them (athletics, community service, music, etc.)

How many of these “positives” do you have in your life? Even if your home life isn’t all you’d wish for, there are ways to take charge of your life and your future–and create a positive spin for yourself!

Youth violence increases when the school doors close, and young people have nowhere to go and nothing to do at the end of the school day, on weekends, and during vacations, says the Pacific Center for Violence Prevention in San Francisco. That’s why across the country, more and more schools are putting up “open all hours” signs and giving students something to do that’s interesting, fun–and safer than the streets.

In California, these kinds of full-service schools are called “Second Shift Schools”; in other parts of the country, they’re called “Beacon Centers,” “YouthNet Centers,” “New Beginnings,” or “Village Centers.” Programs often include athletics, drama and music classes, computer and job training, counseling, health clinics, social services, parenting classes, leadership and volunteer groups. At a typical center, parents might take an ESL (English as a Second Language) class while teens play basketball or learn something new about computers.

These kinds of centers have a lot going for them. They give adults and young people a chance to reconnect and get involved in each other’s lives; give teens healthy adult role models; improve physical and mental health (leaving parents and teens better able to cope with problems); and provide opportunities for teens to act as leaders, mentors, and volunteers–letting them know they are valued and needed by the community.

At one New York City Beacon Center, a group of teenage girls would hang around the doorway of the Center, but said they were too “bad” to actually sign up for any of the classes or activities. A Beacon youth worker started to talk with the girls every night, and challenged them to come up with something they really wanted to do.

Finally, the girls agreed–they wanted to be cheerleaders! The youth worker agreed to coach them, and found parents who would make uniforms. Six weeks later, the team of six girls competed in an area cheerleading competition–and won second place. Today, the original girls are involved as leaders and peer counselors at the Beacon Center, don’t hang out with their old friends who are involved in illegal activities, have stayed in school–and the cheerleading team now has 65 members!

Making Peace

“Hey, man, take it easy. It was an accident.”

“Why would you want to call me that and hurt my feelings?”

“If you’ve got a problem with me, I’ll talk, but I don’t want to fight.”

“Let’s go get a Coke and give this guy some time to chill out.”

Across the country, schools are sponsoring conflict resolution programs aimed at helping teens find nonviolent ways to resolve problems: by learning comeback lines to use in “hot” situations, by role-playing in a “pretend” fight situation, and by analyzing a videotape of the fight later.

Dr. Prothrow-Stith says these kinds of exercises help teens understand that fights do not just happen, and that fighting is NOT the only way to deal with problems. Prothrow-Stith doesn’t tell teens to ignore their anger–she says it’s “a normal emotion … that each of us must learn to handle without hurting ourselves or others.” She asks teens to make lists of “What Makes Me Angry,” and of “Healthy and Unhealthy Responses to Anger.” Fighting is always on the list–and so she asks teens to analyze the possible costs and benefits of fighting: “What’s Good and What’s Bad About Fighting?” Looking at their own lists, teens (including young men who haven’t ever thought about not fighting) begin to think about how much a fight could cost them. And by watching themselves on the videotape, they begin to see how much peer pressure and rising emotions have to do with fights–and that once you start recognizing the patterns, there are ways to stop fights early on–before emotions get red-hot.

We’re not saying it’s easy. Says Prothrow-Stith: “Teens who choose not to fight are bucking the trend, or rather, they are beginning a new trend.” For teens living in a society that largely condones violence, she says, avoiding conflict doesn’t always mean a pat on the back. Sometimes, it means seeing friends being embarrassed at your walking away from a fight–or even losing those friends. But if you think your life is drifting toward violence, you need to find a new direction … even if it’s hard.

How to Play It Cool

Jack Bernal is a quiet but funny 16-year-old junior at O’Bryant High School in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a vintage but rough-edged town just east of Boston that’s home to working-class families from many different races and ethnic groups. In the recent past, the area has seen plenty of street violence.

But Jack doesn’t fight. “Mostly, I see that people get into fights for no reason–and even if they have a reason, they come out looking really dumb. I’ve got no reason to fight with anybody. I have friends, we stick together, and if somebody tries to pick a fight with me, I just say `Whatever…’ and walk away.”

Dr. Peter Stringham’s work with families and teens like Jack at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center is known around the United States. His strategies aren’t a “magic pill,” he says–but they can help you sidestep plenty of trouble.

Here’s Dr. Stringham’s seven-step process. After each step, draw on your own experiences and think about how this step might have helped you in past situations–or how you might use it in the future. (You can write ideas/notes on paper, or brainstorm with a small group of friends.)

STEP ONE: Don’t lose your temper. If trouble is brewing, keep a strong grip on your emotions–and your mouth.

STEP TWO: Learn to recognize the “triggers” for fights. “The classics are name-calling, talking about your family, swearing, and racial or ethnic slurs,” says Stringham. Hearing “trigger” words or phrases should alert you to start looking for a safe way to avoid conflict.

Jack says he thinks of himself as a “brick wall” when he’s in a tense situation. “When somebody tries to talk trash to me, about my mother or whatever, I just don’t say anything. I’m a brick wall. And they get bored and go away because I won’t let them push me into doing something I don’t want to do, which is to talk trash back at them and give them something to get madder about. Why would I do that? It’s stupid.”

STEP THREE: Keep calm, and say to yourself: “This person is upset about something, and he/she is trying to use fighting to solve the problem.” What he/she is angry about may have something–or nothing at all–to do with you, says Stringham. Your goal should be to avoid fueling this person’s anger.

STEP FOUR: Remember that part of this kid Is a decent kid. “Part of EVERY teen you meet is a decent person,” says Stringham. Remembering that makes it harder to “demonize” the person who is yelling into your face.

STEP FIVE: Try to talk calmly to the “decent side” of the other teen. “When I’m talking to teens, we work out examples: A friend is really upset, and says `You’re ugly, and so’s your mother.’ What can you say? You remember he’s your friend, he’s angry, and you DON’T want to fight him! So maybe you say, `If I’ve done something wrong, tell me, I’ll fix it. I don’t like you talking about my mother, but if you have a problem, let’s talk about it.'”

STEP SIX: Recognize that sometimes you have to walk away. “Does talking always work?” Stringham asks teens. “Of course not So sometimes you have to walk away. It’s hard to do that when your friends are saying `You can beat him.’ But fighting is the easy way out–teens know that. It takes more courage to walk away when you have to.”

STEP SEVEN: Decide if the fight is really over. “Have things really been worked out–or is somebody going to be looking for revenge? And if the fight isn’t over, you have to ask teens to identify people who can help settle this without violence. Kids will know other teens or adults who can negotiate and explain things. Our neighborhoods are full of these natural peacemakers–they’re superstars, and we all need to use them.”

Run From UV. Now! May 24, 2014 No Comments

uvrMarci was athletic. An avid volleyball player, the fairskinned blond spent hours outside playing her favorite sport and getting well-tanned at the same time. At age 21, she noticed a mole on her back that had changed. She went to see Dr. Tina Hieken, and she was diagnosed with skin cancer. In 1993 she had a melanoma removed from her back. Today, says Dr. Hieken, a surgical oncologist from Skokie, Illinois, “Marci doesn’t go out into the sun in the middle of the day, she wears a T-shirt when she plays volleyball, and unlike the time prior to her diagnosis, she wears sunscreen.”

Marci has had no recurrence of skin cancer in the last five years, but as Dr. Hieken points out, her case is evidence that “we are seeing skin cancers developing at an earlier and earlier age; it is not just a disease of the middle-aged and elderly anymore.”

Tanning Truths

Whether you sunbathe, are athletic, or get a little brown just being outside, you are at risk. “There is no such thing as a safe tan. Even a healthy-looking tan is the result of the skin attempting to repair itself,” says Dr. Alan Moshell of the National Institutes of Health.

You’ve probably heard someone say, “I never burn; I just tan right away, so I don’t have to worry about skin cancer.” Whether you turn pink, red, or brown, you are at risk. When ultraviolet radiation from the sun hits your skin, your body knows it is being injured. It then produces melanin (a dark pigment that the skin cells produce) to act as the body’s natural sunscreen, and a defense mechanism to block out harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. A tan is a sign of skin damage.

Another myth about tanning is that as long as you build up your exposure to the sun gradually, you won’t do any damage. As soon as you are out in the sun, the damage starts. And, according to Dr. Hieken, that length of exposure, especially during adolescence on, can lead to skin cancers.

And what about cloudy days? Or the fact that you aren’t sunbathing, you’re just mowing the lawn or walking to the bus stop? More myth. You can burn on cloudy days, too. And no matter what you are doing in the sun, it is still blasting your skin with ultraviolet rays.

The ABCs of UVs

Our ancestors gravitated to the sun for warmth. It makes us feel good to see a bright blue sunny sky. What makes the rays from this wondrous star so dangerous? Think for a minute about what a powerful ball of light and energy the sun is: It can fade a carpet, dry out the earth to parched dust, and heat our homes. That’s pretty strong stuff, and it’s all that ultraviolet light that also tans and burns our bodies. There a re two basic types that reach the surface of the earth:

UVB–the sun’s burning rays (blocked by glass); primary cause of sunburn and skin cancer

UVA–(pass through glass); penetrate skin deeper, cause premature wrinkles, and contribute to skin cancer

Taking Cover

How can you be outdoors and avoid the harmful rays of the sun? There are many effective ways to protect yourself from the sun, according to the American Cancer Society:

* Stay out of the sun when it is most intense–between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

* Wear wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses, and dry, tightly woven clothing (loose weaves will let sun come through, and wet T-shirts lose their protectiveness).

* Be aware of the reflective power of the sun: It’s stronger than direct sunlight. Snow, sand, concrete, and glass can reflect harmful radiation. And sitting in the shade isn’t always enough. The sun can find you. (See “Those Sneaky, Snaky Rays,” page 15.)

* Summer isn’t the only time to worry. The sun can be harmful in the cold weather, too–especially if you are skiing or living in higher elevations where the thinner air doesn’t absorb as much UV light and allows more of the harmful rays to come through.

Rubbing It In

Wearing sunscreen when you are outdoors will also protect you from the sun’s harmful rays. Sunscreens contain a chemical that absorbs ultraviolet light to protect our skin (like the melanin in our body does). The amount of protection a sunscreen provides is indicated by its sun protection factor (SPF). SPFs range from 2 to 50–the number being part of the formula that tells you how long you can be out in the sun before you burn. (An SPF of 15 means that if you would normally burn in 10 minutes, with sunscreen applied you can stay in the sun 15 times longer before burning–150 minutes.)

For most people, a cream, lotion, or spray sunscreen with an SPF of 15 is adequate. Those people with very fair skin, red or blond hair, and freckles may benefit from a higher SPF. Here are some tips on making the most of sunscreens:

* Apply liberally and evenly.

* Put it on 20 to 30 minutes before you go outdoors.

* Avoid getting it in your eyes.

* Pay special attention to easily burned areas–your ears, neck, chest, tops of your feet, nose, and tops of your legs.

* Lips and your nose often need extra protection–a zinc oxide product is now available in funky fluorescent colors.

* Reapply sunscreen every two to four hours, especially after excessive sweating or toweling off.

* If you are taking antibiotics, you may be more susceptible to the sun’s rays. Apply sunscreen generously. Check with your doctor about the effect of other medications on sun sensitivity.

* If you develop a rash after using a sunscreen, try another product. Some contain the chemical PABA, which can cause allergic reactions in some people.

When choosing a sunscreen, Dr. Hieken tells patients to “find one that has a fragrance and feel you like, choose an SPF 15 unless you are very sensitive to the sun, and reapply.” “Some products,” she adds, “claim to be `supersport blocks’ and tell you that you don’t need to reapply–but do it anyway.”

Some cosmetic products on the market today claim to be sunscreens or contain sunscreen. If a product says it contains sunscreen, it may only be a small amount (SPF 2 to 4)–not enough to protect your skin. To be safe, the label on these products should say they have an SPF of 15.

On the Fair Side

For years Hollywood made it fashionable to sport a dark tan. But look at the covers of some current magazines–stars are opting for the fair, healthy look.

There are tempting options for a “safe” tan, but don’t be fooled. Tanning booths and sunlamps both produce harmful rays, and tanning pills have side effects. Some of the high-quality tanning creams that actually color the skin may be safe, but you need to exercise caution when using any product that contains dye.

The American Academy of Dermatology points out that sunburns you get during adolescence and through age 20 greatly increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Researchers say that 80 percent of skin cancers could be prevented by using adequate sun protection.

When you are tempted to go out in the sun unprotected, consider this scenario: If you saw someone out on a frigid day without a coat, you’d tell him to cover up before he freezes! Think of covering up from the sun in the same way–but this time, before you burn.

Is 911 A Joke In Your Town? May 8, 2014 No Comments

911jiytEver notice how the bad news finds its way into the headlines and onto the TV news? Perhaps you’ve heard stories about people who called 911–the emergency telephone number–and then were put on hold or had difficulty receiving emergency care.

However, in the vast majority of cases, 911 is a real lifesaver. It connects people to emergency medical care and fire and police services in the quickest, most efficient way possible.

Consider the case of high school freshman Bobby Kaurin.

Bobby Kaurin will never forget December 16, 1997. That’s the day he helped save the life of his friend Micky McKee by keeping cool in an emergency–and by dialing 911.

The two boys were skateboarding inside a large drainage pipe near their Lakewood, Colorado, neighborhood, when Micky–who wasn’t wearing a helmet–fell headfirst down a 12-foot-deep drain.

“After he fell, I said, `Micky, can you hear me?’ and he was making this growling noise,” Bobby told the Rocky Mountain News. Bobby then ran to a nearby business. “I told them, `I think my friend’s badly hurt. Do you have a phone?’ Then I called 911.”

Paramedics raced to the scene. Inside the ambulance, Micky’s heart stopped beating, and he stopped breathing for a short time. “If Bobby hadn’t called 911 when Micky fell, my son would have lost his life,” said the injured boy’s father.

Micky was treated for fractures to his collarbone and shoulder bone as well as for a blood clot in his head.

What Is 911?

911 is the phone number established by telephone companies throughout the United States to put people in touch with police, rescue, and fire departments. The number was chosen because it’s easy to remember, and most telephone equipment can be modified to work with the 911 system.

Anybody located in an area served by a 911 system may use the number in an emergency. You never need a coin when calling 911 from a pay phone. And 911 is always available, 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

When to Call

Don’t hesitate to call 911 if:

* You see a fire or witness a crime.

* You see someone suspicious who is threatening you, your house, or your neighborhood.

* Someone is hurt and requires emergency medical care.

Some warning signs of a medical emergency include difficulty breathing or shortness of breath; chest pain; fainting; sudden dizziness, weakness, or change in vision; confusion or change in mental status; any sudden or severe pain; bleeding that won’t stop; severe or persistent vomiting; coughing or vomiting blood; suicidal or homicidal feelings.

Talking to the Dispatcher

911 dispatchers are professionals trained to make important decisions during times of crisis. In many communities, the 911 system stores a wealth of information in its data base. For example, in many systems the caller’s phone number and address are displayed on the dispatcher’s screen the moment the call is received. If the caller is unable to talk or is a child who doesn’t know his or her address, help can still be sent instantly.

But a dispatcher’s skill and the available technology may not be enough. When you call 911, there’s much you can do to save time–and possibly lives.

As a paramedic and firefighter in Lincolnwood, Illinois, Marc Small has been responding to 911 calls for nearly nine years. Here’s how he advises people to use the 911 system:

1. First, give the dispatcher your name and the telephone number you’re calling from.

2. Explain the nature of the emergency–whether there is a fire, an injury, or whatever else may have happened. Try to explain in as much detail as you can.

3. Give the address or location where the emergency has occurred.

It’s also important to:

* Stay calm and describe your emergency accurately.

* Be prepared to say which kind of service is required–fire, police, or ambulance.

* Speak clearly and answer all questions.

“The dispatcher may put you on hold while emergency services are dispatched,” says Small. “Don’t hang up until you are instructed to. After dispatching the emergency service, the operator may be able to guide you through emergency procedures over the telephone. You should be the one to hang up last, in case the dispatcher has additional questions or instructions.”

It’s better to call 911 instead of dialing “O.” You may get an operator many miles away. The operator–not the dispatcher–must then determine which emergency service to call, and then dial a seven-digit number, all of which costs valuable time. Remember: A call to a regular operator is not treated as an emergency. It may take some time before it’s answered.

When Not to Call

Don’t use 911 for traffic or parking information, to ask directions, to inquire about road conditions or snow removal–or when your cat has gone up a tree.

Small warns: “The biggest problem in large cities is people calling the emergency telephone line for nonemergencies. The system is often abused. Don’t call 911 if you have a small cut on your finger or a cat is caught in a tree. Someone may be having a heart attack. And when someone is having a heart attack, every second is vital. We don’t want to waste seconds.”

Be Prepared

Some people live in areas that aren’t served by a 911 system. Check the first few pages in your phone book under “Police,” “Fire,” and “Rescue Squad” to find the emergency number in your area. Post any important numbers by your telephone, including those of your family physician, family members, a trusted neighbor, and the poison control center.

One final piece of advice: “in case of emergency,” Small says, “your family should always have a meeting place outside the home. In my family’s case, everyone knows to meet at the big tree in front of our house. Of course, it’s important to plan something like this before there’s an emergency.”