August 31, 2009

The Farmer’s Wife

After its debut over a decade ago on PBS, David Sutherland’s documentary for Frontline, The Farmer’s Wife, remains a unique and compelling glimpse of an American family struggling to survive.

Juanita and Darrel Buschkotter are Nebraska farmers caught in a cycle of debt and never-ending work, that leaves them exhausted, on the brink of financial collapse and both dreaming of a better life for themselves and their three young daughters. The debt and lack of revenue from the farm force both Darrel and Juanita to find jobs “off the farm.” In addition to their responsibilities on the farm, Juanita cleans upper middle class homes while Darrel works on an assembly line. Not surprisingly, this leaves both husband and wife no time for relaxation, but gives them much time for reflection.

The Buschkotter’s story is all the more relatable 11 years later at a time when many Americans are caught in a financial struggle. The current U.S. unemployment rate hovers around 9.5% and presidential economic advisers warn that it could hit 10% by year’s end*. What is striking now is the fact that a decade ago, Americans could find second jobs to help put food on the table. (Sadly, for the Buschkotter’s that was a mere $11,000 to feed a family of five for a year.) Now, those jobs are few and far between.

What is most compelling about this documentary is the raw intimacy of it. The viewer is invited into some of the most private conversations between Darrel and Juanita - in bed, late a night before they turn out the lights. We get the opportunity to watch them meet with bankers to discuss their debt and see their individual reactions to each other’s day-to-day actions and decisions. It is this guileless intimacy that makes The Buschkotters immediately relatable whether you are a farmer in the Midwest or a young professional on the East Coast. There is no sensationalism in this three part documentary, instead raw honesty about love, life, family, money and poverty.

The Farmer’s Wife is available on DVD for rent or sale through the following vendors:

Blockbuster (online only)

To learn more about the documentary and the filmmaker, visit:
David Sutherland Productions

Source: *”First Time U.S. Jobless Claims Fall Again”, New York Times, August 28, 2009

This post was written by Leslie Marie, a volunteer blogger with the Literacy ‘n’ Poverty Project. Leslie lives in New York City and has done outreach and research for the Ad Council. For the past year she directed the marketing and recruiting efforts for an alternative teaching certification program run by a national education consulting organization. Please leave your comments or email with your questions.

August 25, 2009

Addicted to Plastic

I just finished watching the 2008 documentary Addicted To Plastic by filmmaker Ian Connacher. The film documents a three-year journey that explores the environmental consequences of the irresponsible use of plastic materials. Connacher travels to 12 countries on 5 continents, including two trips to the middle of the Pacific Ocean where plastic debris accumulates. This extraordinary film details the history of plastic over the last 100 years, provides a wealth of expert interviews, and cutting-edge solutions for recycling, toxicity and biodegradability. These solutions - which include plastic made from plants – provide a new perspective about the future of plastic.

As an environmentally-savvy activist, I was aware of the negative impacts of the use of plastic materials, but I didn’t realize the magnitude of the problem. According to the film, only 5% of plastic materials are recycled in America and the rest ends up in dumps, landfills and, very commonly, in the middle of the ocean. Yikes! All of that junk just floating around really makes one think: How did this all happen?

Most of us can’t remember a time before that popular slogan “plastics make it possible”. In post-war America, plastic materials were marketed to the public as disposable, fly by night sort of material that was meant to be thrown out. These materials were intended to make American lives easier and they certainly did, but not without consequences. It seems that we still live that way –consuming plastics and then throwing them away. If we, as a society, continue to produce, consume, and throw away plastic materials, we will eventually find ourselves living in our own filth. As we become more knowledgeable about the consequences, we’re realizing that plastics do not make it possible. As a matter of fact, plastics are taking a difficult toll on our environment.

So, how do we fix this problem? There are many eco-conscious products that can be used as a substitute to plastic materials. The film suggests using corn and soy based materials, recycled plastics, and bio-degradable plastic alternatives. It is also important to be mindful of what we consume and how we dispose of them. These environmentally-friendly materials encourage us to consider our actions and how they impact the future.

Social change requires thought and action in order to make it a reality. I encourage everyone to take a proactive part in the transformation of our shared environment. I believe that begins with developing a shared respect for each person’s space.

Have you seen Addicted To Plastic? What are your thoughts on the use of plastic products and our environment?

This post was written by Laura Scroggs who is a feminist scholar living in the mid-west. She is currently an active community volunteer and volunteer blogger with the Literacy 'n' Poverty Project. Please leave your comments or email with questions.

August 24, 2009

Half the Sky

How do we work to empower, rather than oppress, women and girls worldwide? The answer to that question, and its impact on addressing global poverty, is the basis of a new book, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide”.

Did you know …

girls between 1-5 years old in India are twice as likely to die than boys?

… women account for only 1% percent of the world’s landowners?

… that approximately 1 million children are currently in the sex trade in Asia?

Access to and emphasis on education and health care can work to change these conditions.

The Women’s Crusade” essay by the book’s authors in the Sunday New York Times Magazine told a powerful story about a Zimbabwean woman named Tererai Trent who was drawn to education at an early age. Her father would send her “indifferent” brother to school, but would not send her, the child with a thirst for knowledge. Married off at a young age, her husband also thwarted her efforts to practice her self-taught reading. But Tererai was inspired to hope by an American economic activist who brought cattle to her village. Her hope was to get an education.

Specifically, Tererai wanted a college degree, a master’s degree and a PhD. Tererai has succeeded in getting her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and bring her 5 children to the United States. She returns to her village after each achievement. She is currently working on her PhD dissertation on AID programs for the poor in Africa. This is what education can provide – impact on health and the economy for successive generations.

Why is this issue, some which might say is “only” a women’s issue, so important? Actually, it is a universal issue that affects national and global economies. Bill Gates made a brilliant point when responding to an audience member in Saudi Arabia who mentioned that the country’s goal was to be a Top 10 tech country by 2010. His response to the gender segregated audience, “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.”

Do you want to get involved and make social change a reality? Check out these links to learn more about the issue and how you can work to address it.

For more resources:
CARE: Defending Dignity. Fighting Poverty.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” (2009), by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

KIVA: Loans that Change Lives

White House Council on Women and Girls (source: “The Women’s Crusade” New York Times Magazine, August 17, 2009)

This post was written by Leslie Marie, a volunteer blogger with the Literacy ‘n’ Poverty Project. Leslie lives in New York City and has done outreach and research for the Ad Council. For the past year she directed the marketing and recruiting efforts for an alternative teaching certification program run by a national education consulting organization. Please leave your comments or send us an email with your questions.

August 20, 2009

Elyse D. Moskowitz Joins LnP to Make Social Change A Reality

I must start this, my first blog entry, with an admission. I am far from an expert in adult literacy. I came across Literacy ‘n' Poverty Project on while searching for volunteer opportunities where I could contribute my law degree and graduate-level career counseling experience. My goal is to help adults in underserved communities through the use of my research skills and career training.

I intend to become more knowledgeable about literacy programs and resources around the country and to share this information here. To that end, I have begun researching and learning of new and existing literacy programs in our communities. One website I am exploring that I think you should check out if you have not already is the National Institute for Literacy. According to the site, its goals are to support, disseminate, and provide access to research, resources and information related to adult and youth literacy to families, educators and administrators.

With a sigh of relief and that admitted, I'll add that I am, and have long been, deeply committed to promoting literacy through education as a way to reduce poverty and address social issues. In addition, as a member of faculty and administration in graduate-level education, I have focused on developing the best practical training and career development programs and resources for adult students. My experiences have shown me invaluable insights into the development of successful adult literacy programs and resources. I have found that:

* Many successful graduate education skills programs are organized for our students through their institution or affiliated organizations. Likewise, I suspect that most successful literacy programs come to underserved communities and individuals through their own community centers, libraries, and places of worship.

* The best programs are typically led or supported by faculty, alumni and others connected to our students. I suspect that most successful literacy programs are led or endorsed by trusted members of the communities in which they are offered.

* Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many successful career development initiatives provide students with clear and specific steps for students to follow in setting objectives and reaching them. I have found that successful literacy programs must present concrete suggestions and small steps to be taken on the road to literacy, training and social change.

So, this is where I hope to make a contribution to the Literacy ‘n' Poverty Project. I hope to share resources and offer concrete suggestions that inspire people to develop, implement and follow the path to increasing literacy and social well being. I look forward to this opportunity.

This post was written by Elyse D. Moskowitz. Elyse works as a law school career development counselor and advisor in New York. She is a former practicing attorney, law school adjunct faculty member, and instructor of legal writing and practice skills. She is also a volunteer blogger with Literacy ‘n' Poverty Project. Please leave your comments or email with your questions.

August 18, 2009

Knowledge is Key

Elementary to college
Become scholars
Not just for the dollars
But for the life that follows

Blue or white collars
Or those without them
Be the one with so much knowledge
No one can doubt him
World leaders wanna know about him
Can he be the next Barack
Or can she bring her nonprofit to the top

Never stop learning
Keep yearning
The passion for knowledge is burning
Deep within everyone soul
So take hold
To what's in front of u
God has a plan for every last one of u
U just don't know it yet
So dive into the sea of information
Get soak and wet
Tell me these words don't got u open yet

Most be hoping that school will flow by
But what example will u have
For your life to go by
So many books for research and info
All u need is to listen
Grab some paper and a pencil
We even got the web for media
Along with a thesaurus, dictionary and encyclopedia

Now that I named all these sources
I'm giving u the guidelines to be bosses
No matter what it is u wanna do
Just pursue till it's through
You'll have accounted for no losses
Isn't that the best feeling to have
Try to graduate at the top of your class

This poem was written by guest blogger Allan D., a poet from Brooklyn, New York.

August 12, 2009

Teachers: The Biggest Influence on a Student's Success

According to a 2002 study conducted in Texas, “having a high quality teacher throughout elementary school can substantially offset or even eliminate the disadvantage of low socio-economic background” (Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain, 2002).

Parents, friends, and the community impact a student’s performance, but his or her teacher is directly connected to their achievement. That is why it is imperative that we work to ensure that students in poor and underserved communities have highly qualified and motivated teachers like their counterparts in more socially-economically advantaged communities. That is what I have been working to ensure for the past year.

Many urban cities face teacher shortages every year. Schools are poorly funded and hard to staff. The students who attend these schools suffer the greatest. Alternative certification programs like the teaching fellows programs started by The New Teacher Project and Teach For America aim to fill those shortages with highly qualified and dedicated new teachers.

The NYC Teaching Fellows is the largest alternative certification program in the country, helping to serve New York City’s 1.1 million students. Started in 2000, the NYCTF helps the city’s Department of Education address the needs of hard to staff schools and hard to staff subjects – such as science, math and special education – by recruiting, selecting and training a new cohort of fellows each year.

Members of each cohort are granted a temporary teaching certificate following an intensive summer training program and contingent on the completion of a masters degree in education. It is a highly selective program, as is Teach For America. In 2009, only 9% of those who applied to NYCTF were offered admission into the program. Teach For America is currently accepting applications for their 2010 class of teachers. Their next deadline is Friday, August 21st.

The goal is not to just fill these open teaching positions, but fill them with high quality teachers. Research has illustrated the fact that teaching fellows programs are narrowing the gap in teacher qualifications when comparing high- and low-poverty schools, as studied between 2000 and 2005 (Urban Institute, 2007).

Each alternative certification program has their own selection criteria and process, but the most effective are tied back to student achievement data. Their success is dependent upon how effectively they assess the criteria by which they select their prospective teachers and how that correlates to the academic achievement of the students they serve. NYCTF is celebrating its 9th year and Teach for America is 19 years old. Success breads success.

Here are some resources to learn more about bringing high quality teachers to underserved communities, and how to get involved.

Eduwonk blog:

NYC Teaching Fellows:

The New Teacher Project (TNTP):

Teach For America:

Urban Institute:

"Work Hard. Be Nice." by Jay Mathews (2009)

This post was written by Leslie Marie, a volunteer blogger with the Literacy ‘n’ Poverty Project. Leslie lives in New York City and has done outreach and research for the Ad Council. For the past year she directed the marketing and recruiting efforts for an alternative teaching certification program run by a national education consulting organization. Please leave your comments or email with your questions.

August 11, 2009

Go for the Discount and Participate in the Exploitation of Human Labor

Author Ellen Ruppel Shell, after spending years researching the cost of stuff, has recently published a thrilling book entitled Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Her book examines not only the impact of cost on the direct consumer — high debt, low incomes, job losses and a whole slew of other troubles — but also the price for the people that produce the goods.

This is particularly interesting to me today as her book outlines specific examples in which the exploitation of both human labor and the environment is clear. One example given in a New York Times review, explains the surge in the shrimp market from the 1970s to today. The impact on the change in shrimp farming and our subsequent shrimp consuming has triggered loads of troubles.

The article explains:

“for a while, there were some newly affluent shrimp-farmers along the coast of Thailand as traditional operations were transformed into gigantic factories with the help of international lenders and investors. Massive onslaughts of chemicals made the factories productive, but fish — like cows, pigs and chickens — do not flourish in the long run under such extreme, artificial conditions. They get sick, and their ponds become black holes of pollution and toxic waste."

Ruppel Shell writes "what followed was ruinous debt, environmental degradation, horrifying human rights abuses and violence that left millions destitute." This isn’t just shrimp. This sort of chain link is implicated in everything we buy. The actual cost for production of many items is considerably higher than what we are charged.

Who is paying the extra cost?

I agree with Ruppel Shell here that working people pay the cost. She notes that a third of the poor have jobs in retail with a historically low wage, but that is just one side. The other is the seedy underbelly of how our goods are produced. Sweatshops, while presenting a different opportunity for the poor Chinese, Mexican and Vietnamese, give the workers no chance to demand higher pay or better working conditions because the manufacturer could easily close the factory or move their operations somewhere else.

Our goods, assembled by people working for much less than fair wages, pay the price for the $4.99 tee-shirt we are taking home from Wal-Mart. This is a sad reality of our consumption and the way we look to get things produced. We are impacting others (and in particular the poor) with every item we purchase. Not only that but we haven’t even begun to talk about the impacts of this on the environment!

So, what do we do?

I think the first thing we can and should do is to understand our individual relationship with consumption. Of course, this is if we have the privilege to do so (see my post on Paying to Be Poor).

Understanding ourselves in relation to our spending and consuming is a must. Many Americans are spending away at things that are unnecessary, driving the machine for more stuff, and turning the wheel toward more exploitation. I wonder if we all became mindful of who is paying the price for the discounts, we might just be able to turn this around.

There is a great video called The Story of Stuff which I highly recommend viewing. The blurb from their website puts it best:
“The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world.”

You also can watch Ruppel Shells' one minute YouTube video or read her interview via the Environment Report.

This post was written by Laura Scroggs who is a feminist scholar living in the mid-west. She is currently an active community volunteer and volunteer blogger with the Literacy 'n' Poverty Project. Please leave your comments or email with questions.

August 4, 2009 Is a Good Start…but Don’t Wait….Initiate

It has already been eight months since Barack Obama won the Presidential election. On that November evening the enormous crowd that had gathered at Grant Park in Chicago listened with anticipation to hear the victory speech of the President Elect. One of the most noteworthy lines of his speech was when he exclaimed: “Tonight, because of what we did on this day in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America.”

This is exactly what his fervent supporters wanted to hear.

Candidate Obama had promised this many times during the campaign. He promised to bring about real change – social and economic. He promised that there would be a “new kind of government”- open and transparent. A government that would be accessible by and accountable to all the people.

Has our new President kept his campaign promises?

The answer could be a simple mouse click away by going to the official website of the White House This website provides information to the public regarding legislation, open government initiatives and provides a link the website which enables the public to track the stimulus spending. People can also use this resource to contact the White House, learn about The Cabinet, read about upcoming tours and events and review the White House Blog.

In the Washington Post article Grading, Round Two five people from various political and cultural backgrounds graded the site. The overall grades varied from C to A- with the average being a B.

While this may be an interesting exercise (and maybe a bit pretentious) it was also very predictable. It was no surprise that a gentleman who was an early Obama Supporter gave the highest grade – an A- while another gentleman who worked for President Bush gave the site a C.

But this is where political bias should be set aside. We should consider it our obligation to express our thoughts to the government and implore them to implement the changes necessary to improve the country. When people utilize a site like it sends a clear message to the government that people are engaged in the political process, eager to get learn more and are hungry for results.

But let’s not be misled. Real change doesn’t come that easily. Sending a comment or suggestion to a government website is fine but that should just be the start. We cannot sit idly by expecting change to just happen.

As President Obama stated during the campaign: “Real change doesn’t happen from the top down it happens from the bottom up”.

The people need to be as diligent as they are diverse in voicing their opinions, bringing their concerns to the forefront and taking action. Simply said: Let the government know that you’re paying attention but don’t wait….initiate.

Be the catalyst to make change happen.

The Literacy ‘n’ Poverty Project (LnP) is a great example. By working to alleviate poverty and improving adult education worldwide this startup is using the “bottom up” approach to bring about real change to affect people in a positive way. By bringing together people of different backgrounds in their on-line community, LnP puts people in an environment to form a real movement for social change.

This post was written by Robert Connor, Sr. IT Manager for Giorgio Armani Corp and formerly a Computer Consultant for companies such as Anne Klein II, Donna Karan & Chanel Cosmetics. Robert is a volunteer blogger with the Literacy 'n' Poverty Project. Please leave your comments or email with questions.