Sowing the Seeds of Environmental Justice in Trenton

Written by Laurel Mei-Singh

(Source: Trenton People’s Bookfair)

Magnificent, a hairdresser who lives and works in downtown Trenton, New Jersey, is one of ten adults gathered together in a community space. Meanwhile, an equal number of children paint pots outside, fill them with soil, and plant seeds to grow. On the topic of the lead-contaminated water flowing from the taps of many city homes, Magnificent asks, “What can we do, as a community, to address this issue?” This is Earth Day at the Orchid House: Sowing the Seeds of Sustainability and Justice, planned by the organizing committee of the Trenton People’s Bookfair and the SAGE Circle. We are discussing environmental justice issues in Trenton, a place just fourteen miles from Princeton but worlds apart in terms of access to resources such as clean water.

Environmental justice means that all people have a right to a safe and healthy environment with clean drinking water, fresh food, and life-supporting homes. Its inverse, environmental racism, means that environmental hazards disproportionally shape the landscapes and lives of people of color. A 1987 report, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, and a 2007 report, Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty, confirm that race stands as the most potent indicator of proximity to commercial hazardous waste facilities. Why? Because a long history of racist policies has shaped places in the United States along racial lines, concentrating people of color in areas often near toxic sites while cleaving places into segregated spaces partitioned by highways, train tracks, and walls. The development of industrial facilities in areas populated by people of color shaped US cities in the twentieth century as white people moved to suburbs—a state-subsidized project that ballooned after World War II. Further, the Federal Housing Authority’s A-D ranking system from 1934-1968 used the racial composition of neighborhoods as criteria for insuring private loans, making it nearly impossible for Black people to obtain a mortgage.

Residential “security map” of Trenton, NJ with A-D “area descriptions” from the 1937 records of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. (Source: Mapping Inequality Project, University of Richmond)

Responding to these conditions, community leaders in Warren County, North Carolina merged the environmental and civil rights movements in the late 1970s to address toxic dumping in their predominantly Black community. This became the environmental justice movement, which sought to incorporate environmental problems confronting communities of color into growing mainstream environmental consciousness. Urban centers, such as Trenton, are what Ruth Wilson Gilmore, director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics and professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, describes as “sinks of hazardous materials and destructive practices.” This is largely due to the organized abandonment of “marginal people on marginal lands.”

. . .

Most who live in Trenton know not to drink water straight from the tap. It became obvious after I moved into my Mill Hill home in 2016 that the water tasted oddly metallic and slightly rotten, and we began to buy 5-gallon jugs from the grocery store, the kind that pull your back when you lift them up if you’re relatively small like me. Soon after, news outlets began to report that Trenton’s water supply is contaminated with lead; lead poisoning is dangerous for young children, causing developmental delays and learning challenges, and affects adults too. Even more disturbingly, test results from a 2016 study showed that twenty of the Trenton Public School District’s twenty-six buildings have at least one sink or water fountain emitting water with lead concentrations that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion. At Daylight/Twilight, a high school in downtown Trenton across the street from where we held our Earth Day event, a sink had levels as high as 1,600 parts per billion. Despite this study and media acknowledgement that Trenton Water Works has become a “failure” as a public utility, public officials have failed to communicate with Trentonians about the risks of drinking its water and how to remediate it. A July 31, 2018 letter sent to Trenton residents from Trenton Water Works indicates that contamination stems from lead service line pipes, banned for use since 1960. An added insert acknowledges that, “We violated a drinking water requirement” due to the fact that they failed to replace 7% of the lead service lines within one year of action level exceedance.

This neglect stems from the fact that Trenton is a “forgotten place,” typically regarded by its middle-class neighbors through the skewed lens of racist and dehumanizing tropes, particularly violence and poverty. But how did we get here?

Depiction of Trenton, NJ drawn circa 1882. (Source: Industries of New Jersey by Richard Edwards)

Multiple historical events have shaped Trenton’s environment. For centuries, the Lenape people lived in organized communities along the shores of the Delaware River until the 18th and 19th centuries, when genocidal projects displaced and killed many, while some remain in the region today. In 1679, Quakers led by Mahlon Stacy established a town called Falls of the Delaware and built a gristmill. William Trent purchased this land in 1714 and expanded the mill to become the major source of commerce—made possible by slave labor. In the 1800s, industrialists began to manufacture pottery, iron, and steel. The 1920s brought automation, mergers and consolidations, and attacks on organized labor. In the 1960s, businesses began to close shop in search of cheaper labor, and people with nominal wealth and resources capitalized on the expanding highway system, one cutting through the heart of the city, and moved to suburbs. The aforementioned race-based housing policies enhanced racial segregation, and white flight in Trenton’s environs continues today. While economic development often inoculates the wealthy from the ravages of capitalism, the disenfranchised—whose poverty contours along racial lines—must fight for their very lives. The famous Trenton riots of April 1968 that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King expressed the anger and frustration of the Black community confronting concentrated poverty and unemployment.

Mayor Carmen Armenti talking to Trenton residents after the riots of April 1968. (Source: Times of Trenton file photo)

A few decades later, the NJ Department of Transportation’s construction of the Route 29 extension that began in 1998 destroyed one of the city’s remaining environmental treasures: “a corridor of sycamore trees along the [Delaware] river’s embankment.” This cut off “the community’s once free and easy access to the water’s edge.” This area was once called “South Trenton’s Jersey Shore,” where kids swung from rope swings and frolicked in the water while adults fished upriver. Today, Trenton is full of contradictions. Trentonians rarely cross the highway to reach the Delaware River shore, despite their proximity to the water. The 2008 financial collapse largely thwarted aspirations for redevelopment and wrought a foreclosure crisis exacerbated by skyrocketing taxes. At the same time, Trenton is a vibrant and close-knit place, where “everyone knows your business [and] your neighbors watch your back.” It hosts city treasures like the Trenton Coffee House and Vinyl, Championship Bar, and Classics Books. Its current revitalization can be attributed in part to recent migrants from Central America.

Video of a performance by the band Buy Nothing, featuring Abdul Wiswall, owner of Trenton Coffee House and Roaster, performing a song about Trenton’s lead contaminated drinking water. (Source: Tess Jacobson).

I recount this history to show that, when tackling environmental racism in Trenton, a narrow focus on the intentional decisions of racist individual policymakers cannot possibly address the myriad environmental injustices that the people of Trenton face. Rather, the issue of lead poisoning and the failure of those with political power to address this problem cannot be separated from long and overlapping histories of racism, capitalist restructuring, and careless development plans literally built into the environment. Addressing this issue requires first and foremost an awareness of the many processes that have historically produced the organized abandonment of the city.

This brings us back to Magnificent’s inquiry: What can we do, as a community, to address this issue, or rather, all of these issues? Some of my neighbors believe that only two options exist for Trenton: the current state of disinvestment OR gentrification, the latter of the green variety that entails the planting of trees and the revitalization of waterways for tourists and professionals moving into the city. Yet neither of these options will serve people already living there, those who can barely pay the bills for the lead-contaminated water.

New Jersey-based public health psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove argues that when considering these rooted, metabolic connections of people to places a third way is possible. She calls this “Urban Alchemy.” It calls for holistic redevelopment grounded in community-based planning and collective place-making, a process that requires the coming together of people to fight for the whole. It calls for “unpuzzling fractured spaces” so that people can move freely and reconnect with people and places, for example, heeding calls to remove the Route 29 freeway. While bottom-up strategies such as urban alchemy are needed, strategies such as “social urbanism” involve government investment in infrastructure and services for the poor, including clean water and improved transit. These are the keys to an urban ecology that promotes environmental health and general well-being.

The organizing committee of the Trenton People’s Bookfair has initiated this process by opening up space to collectively envision what environmental justice means. We support not only lead-free water, but also community-based agriculture and arts, mom and pop stores, the retrofitting of abandoned buildings to benefit neighborhoods, sanctuary spaces for migrants, an anti-exploitative economy, and restorative justice and rehabilitation not incarceration. Grassroots, collective learning and visioning can serve as a foundation to make Trenton a healthier place, with clean water and other life-sustaining resources. It can spur informed action grounded in the daily lives and experiences of people living in the city, and in solidarity with people in places like Flint, Michigan.

This work does not aim for a balance between development and sustainability, or, in the case of Trenton, between gentrification and sustainability. This is a false choice. Planning and development must work to recuperate our connections to resources so that we can make thriving places for all, for many generations. The environment isn’t a distant place for recreation. It’s here, in our homes and neighborhoods, wholly embedded in our social and political life. Our environment makes the difference between a healthy life enriched by vibrant community and one cut short by toxic exposure. Consider not only the water we drink but also the food we eat and the systems that bring them onto our plates, the places we mingle with neighbors, the air we breathe and the industries that pollute it, the jobs we work and how our labor interacts with land to produce profit, our modes of transportation, and our systems of waste disposal, to offer a few examples.

Our efforts can take cue from environmental justice activists who have engaged in collective action for decades to envision economic and social alternatives that affirm all forms of life. Most importantly, this work recognizes that our communities and our environments are wholly interconnected, shaping our lives, livelihoods, and life chances, and the urgency of making our cities and neighborhoods life-affirming places for all.

This year’s Trenton People’s Bookfair will focus on environmental justice and will be held on October 6, 2018.

(Source: Trenton People’s Bookfair)

 

Laurel Mei-Singh recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship in American Studies at Princeton University and now serves as an Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawai‘i. She is currently writing a book that develops a genealogy of military fences and grassroots struggles for land and livelihood in Wai‘anae, Hawai‘i. You can reach her at meisingh@hawaii.edu.

Evaluating the geoengineering treatment

Written by Xin Rong Chua

Might there be a remedy for the worldwide temperature and rainfall changes caused by humanity’s emissions? If so, what would the cure cost? We watch as Mr. Human grapples with these questions with the help of Dr. Planet.

Dr. Planet was about to put an end to a long, hard day of work when the distress call came in.

“Dr. Planet! Dr. Planet! Our planet Earth needs your help!”

Dr. Planet quickly boarded his medical spaceship and sped towards the solar system. As the ship passed through Earth’s atmosphere, his instruments began to gather the planet’s climate records. The temperature indicator began to blink red. Then the indicator for circulation changes in its atmosphere and oceans. Then the sea ice indicator.

The moment Mr. Human boarded his spaceship, Dr. Planet knew why the planet was ill.

Mr. Human was holding a long, black cigar labelled ‘Fossil Fuels’. It was still smoking at the tip. In front of him, the reading on his carbon dioxide indicator soared.

“I advise you to cut down on your emissions,” said Dr. Planet. “Otherwise, your planet will experience sea level rise, ocean acidification, and stronger storms.”

“We know that,” said Mr. Human. He sounded as if he had not slept for days. “We’ve known about it for decades. I was so excited after the Paris meeting, when the world first agreed on concrete pledges to cut down emissions. Then we did our sums and realized that even if every country fulfilled its promised reductions, global mean temperatures were still set to increase by more than 2 degrees Celsius come 2100. And then the United States announced that they would pull out of the agreement, which was…”

Mr. Human’s gaze fell as he trailed off. He then straightened and looked Dr. Planet in the eye. “Dr. Planet, you are a renowned planetary climate surgeon. Do you have a geoengineering treatment that might be able to cure our Earth?”

Mr. Human took out a few geoengineering brochures and laid them on Dr. Planet’s desk. They had been produced by the hospital’s marketing department.

Dr. Planet resolved to have a chat with the marketing department about a more moderate portrayal. He was getting tired of patients either believing that geoengineering was a panacea or cursing him for attempting to play God. In fact, the carbon dioxide removal and solar geoengineering tools he possessed only allowed for a limited range of outcomes. More importantly, all of the choices involved tradeoffs and risks. However, experience had taught him that it was best to begin by explaining the science.

Schematic depiction of climate engineering methods (Source: Climate Central)

Carbon dioxide removal

Dr. Planet picked up the first brochure. It was about Canadian entrepreneur Russ George, who in 2012  dumped a hundred tons of iron into the ocean to trigger a massive plankton bloom. There were record hauls of salmon right after the fertilization. George also pointed out that the plankton removed carbon dioxide from the air as they grew.

“It’s easy to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” began Dr. Planet. “The problem is keeping the carbon dioxide out. If the fish is harvested and used as food, the carbon makes its way back into the air. Also, when the plankton respire, or are eaten by organisms higher up the food chain, most of that carbon is released once again. In addition, the immediate phytoplankton growth triggered by fertilization robs the iron or phosphorous that might have been used by other organisms. If you are looking for a long-term solution, don’t get tricked into looking only at the initial gains.”

“Besides, iron fertilization can’t be the only solution. In the most optimistic scenarios, the bulk of the carbon uptake would be used to form the shells of marine organisms such as diatoms. Since the shells would eventually fall to the bottom of the ocean, there would be a net removal of carbon from the surface. But based on the availability of iron-deficient waters around your planet, I estimate that iron fertilization can sequester at most 10% of human annual emissions.”

“Our clinic also has some options to store carbon underground by pumping it into porous rock,” said Dr. Planet, taking a brochure from a nearby shelf and handing it over. “However, the technology is still experimental and expensive.”

Mr. Human brightened as he saw that this technology could store about 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. If humanity continued emitting at 2014 levels, this would lock up about 45 years of carbon dioxide emissions. When he came to the section on costs, his jaw dropped. “Double the cost of our existing power plants?” He took out his bulging wallet and removed a stack of bills. Dr. Planet wondered if Mr. Human considered this so cheap that he was willing to pay upfront.

Mr. Human waved the bills. “Look at all the IOUs! There is no way we can afford that cost. I’ll bet the aerosol plan is cheaper than that.”

Solar radiation management

Mr. Human pointed to a printout explaining how particles called aerosols could be placed high in the atmosphere. Choosing aerosols that reflected solar radiation would help cool the Earth’s surface.

Dr. Planet understood why Mr. Human liked the aerosol plan. It made sense to place the aerosols far above the surface. That way, it would take many months before the aerosols settled below the clouds, where rain could flush the particles from the air. Furthermore, after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, global-mean temperatures in the Northern hemisphere fell by half a degree Celsius. With such a natural analog in mind, it was no wonder that Mr. Human thought he knew what to expect. He even was correct on the costs. Starting from 2040, dedicating 6700 flights a day to sulfate injection would keep global-mean warming to 2 degrees Celsius. This would involve a mass of sulfates roughly similar to that of the Pinatubo eruption and would cost about $US20 billion per year.

Volcanic ash after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 (Source: USGS )

“It would be cheaper,” agreed Dr. Planet. “But tell me, is global mean surface temperature all you care about?”

“Of course not,” said Mr. Human. “Rainfall is important too. Also, I want to make sure we keep the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and reduce…”

“Then I should let you know that using aerosols means making a choice between overcorrecting for temperature or precipitation,” said Dr. Planet. He used the same serious tone a human doctor might use to explain that chemotherapy might remove the tumor, but would also cause you to vomit and lose all your hair.

Mr. Human folded his arms. He looked most unconvinced.

As Dr. Planet cast about for a good explanation, his eyes fell on Mr. Human’s wallet. It was still on the table and still full of the IOUs. He picked up a stack of name cards from his table.

“What if I asked you to place all of the cards into your wallet?”

Mr. Human frowned at the thick wad of paper. “I would have to remove some of my old receipts, or the wallet wouldn’t close.”

“Think of the Earth’s surface as the full wallet,” Dr. Planet said. “If we put in energy from increasing sunlight, your Earth has to throw out some energy. Because we’re trying to keep the temperature unchanged, the surface can’t radiate more longwave radiation by warming. It therefore has to transport heat, which mostly happens through evaporation. In the atmosphere, what comes up must come back down eventually, so increasing evaporation increases rainfall.”

“So, increasing radiation towards the surface increases rainfall,” said Mr. Human. “Don’t sunlight and carbon dioxide both do that?”

“They do,” said Dr. Planet. “But the atmosphere is mostly transparent to solar radiation and mostly opaque to longwave radiation from carbon dioxide. Energy entering via solar radiation thus has a stronger impact on the surface and rainfall. Hence, trying to correct for the change in temperature from carbon dioxide by stratospheric aerosols is expected to lead to an overcorrection in precipitation .”

Mr. Human was silent for a while, before he perked up. “Well, a slight change in the weather we’re used to isn’t that bad, especially if it avoids a worse outcome. Besides, you’ve only talked about the global-mean. With some fine-tuning, I’m sure we could come up with an aerosol distribution that delivers a good balance.”

“We have produced hypothetical simulations that investigate a range of outcomes. As a case in point, tests on a virtual Earth show that we can control the global-mean surface temperature, as well as the temperature differences between the North and South hemispheres and from the equator to pole. This was achieved by injecting sulfate aerosols at four different locations in a computer simulation.”

“However, given the lack of rigorous clinical trials on planets like your Earth, I must warn you that it will remain a highly uncertain procedure,” said Dr. Planet. “For one, we will encounter diminishing marginal returns as we attempt to increase the sulfate load to achieve cooling. The increased amount of sulfate in the atmosphere could form bigger particles that reflect sunlight less efficiently rather than create new ones.”

“The treatment procedure of sustaining the thousands of aerosol-injection flights will require the commitment and coordination of all the peoples of your planet. A disruption due to conflicts could be catastrophic. If the aerosol concentrations are not maintained, the decades’ worth of change from greenhouse gases that they are holding back would manifest in a couple of years. The change would be so sudden that there would be little time for you to adapt.”

Mr. Human paled. Countries might well balk at paying the geoengineering bill. After all, that was money that could go to feeding the poor or to reducing a budget deficit. A rogue country might threaten to disrupt the injections unless sanctions were lifted. Or a country that might benefit from warming could sabotage the flights…

“I think you already know what I’m about to say,” said Dr. Planet as Mr. Human buried his face in his hands. “There’s no magic pill here. There never has been. I can help perform some stopgap surgery by removing carbon dioxide or provide some symptomatic relief through solar radiation management. Ultimately, though, your species has to stop lighting up in the way it has.”

Mr. Human sighed; he had to deliver the sobering news that geoengineering was riskier and more complicated than his colleagues they had expected. As he rose from his chair, he realized that he was still holding his smoking carbon cigarette. The numbers on Dr. Planet’s carbon dioxide detector were still rising. He watched the readout as it went past 400ppm, then 410ppm. With a regretful sigh, he ground the lit end of his cigar into an ashtray and stepped out to continue the long journey ahead.

Acknowledgments: This article was inspired by a group discussion with Dr. Simone Tilmes at the 2017 Princeton Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Workshop on Climate Engineering. Katja Luxem and Ben Zhang read an early draft and helped improve the clarity of the article.

Xin is a PhD candidate in Princeton’s Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, a collaboration between the Department of Geosciences and the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. She combines high-resolution models and theory to better understand the changes in tropical rainfall extremes as the atmosphere warms. She is also interested in innovative approaches to science communication.

 

Pulp Non-fiction

Written by Timothy Treuer

A story (but careful, there’s a twist):

In 1998, the Costa Rican Sala Cuarta (their highest judicial body) issued a ruling against a company that had dumped 12,000 tonnes of waste orange peels in one of the country’s flagship protected areas, Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG). The ruling came at the urging of some members of the Costa Rican environmental community, and studies had found elevated levels of d-limonene–a suspected carcinogen–in local waterways as a result of the company’s actions, raising tensions with neighboring Nicaragua over the possible pollution of their downstream eponymous lake. The court ruling demanded the immediate removal of the orange peels from where they lay–a site that some had labeled ‘an open air dump.’

A keen observer at the time would have noted one immediate hiccup with the court’s order: those 12,000 tonnes of orange waste? They didn’t exist anymore.

Six months of unfathomable ecstasy on the part of four species of flies had converted the mega pile o’ peels into several inches of black, loamy soil, smothering the invasive African grass that had previously dominated the heavily degraded corner of the national park. Oh, and d-limonene? Turns out it’s more of a cancer-fighter than a cancer-causer (See Asamoto et al. 2002 Mammary carcinomas induced in human c-Ha-ras proto-oncogene transgenic rats are estrogen-independent, but responsive to d-limonene treatment. Japanese Journal of Cancer Research), and can now be purchased on Amazon for $0.16/gram (note I do NOT endorse herbal supplements as a general rule–talk to your doctor if you or your transgenic rat suffer from mammary carcinomas).

See, the orange peel dumping was actually part of a grand plan hatched by rockstar ecologist turned conservationist, Dan Janzen (best known for his hit singles like ‘Herbivores and the Number of Tree Species in Tropical Forests’ and ‘Why Mountain Passes Are Higher in the Tropics’, but I prefer his deep tracks ‘How to be a fig’ and ‘Mice, big mammals, and seeds: it matters who defecates what where’). He and his partner Winnie Hallwachs had noted the following upon observing the development of a huge new orange juice processing facility on ACG’s northern border by a company called Del Oro: (1) most people don’t like peels in their orange juice, (2) megatonnes of orange peels probably weren’t the easiest thing to deal with on the cheap, and (3) of the 170,000+ species of creature in ACG’s forests, at least one probably would nosh some citrus rind. Upon discovering that Del Oro planned to construct a multi-million dollar plant to turn their waste into low-grade cattle feed, Dan and Winnie engineered the following plan:

  1. Dump orange peels on former cattle ranches recently incorporated into ACG.
  2. Fly orgy.
  3. Profit.

Amazingly this plan nearly worked perfectly! Del Oro was all over the idea of getting a little weird with ACG. After a promising test deposition of 100 truckloads of orange peels in 1996, Del Oro and ACG signed a contract wherein the park would provide waste disposal (and interestingly, formalized water provisioning and pest management ecosystem services that Del Oro enjoyed by virtue of being neighbors with a fat block of mountainous rain-, cloud- and dry forest) in exchange for donating a huge amount of still-forested land that they owned on the ACG border. Janzen threw in some ecological consultation and help in getting eco-friendly certifications as a sweetener. A seemingly beautiful win-win deal.

But of course, we can’t have nice things.

You may have already pieced together what happens next: after executing the first year of the contract wherein Del Oro trucked in ~12,000 metric tonnes of peels and pulp into a heavily degraded corner of ACG that was seemingly caught in a state of arrested succession, a rival orange juice company caught wind of the party, and did as one does when they get spurned by a guest list omission: they sued.

And won.

What seemed to get lost in the debates that raged at the time though, was what effect all these orange peels would have on the forest itself. Dan and Winnie had the intuition that killing off the fire-prone grass and adding nutrients to a plot of land that had been continuously trampled by bovid beasties for a couple hundred years would be a positive change for an aspiring forest, but that wasn’t a certainty.

In 1998, 1000 truckloads of orange peels were deposited in a degraded section of Costa Rica’s Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG). (Photo courtesy of Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs)

After the fallout from the lawsuit and the court ruling, it’s understandable that Dan, Winnie, and ACG’s staff didn’t want to draw too much attention to the site (a couple of ACG officials nearly were thrown in jail for failing to adhere to the court order). They visited a few times early on to photograph the progress, and sent a botanist in the very early years to write down what species of plants were occurring in the fertilized area and the surrounding pasture, but other than that the project was more or less consigned to the quirky annals of ACG history (alongside such fascinating historical tidbits as a starring role in the Iran-Contra Affair–read the book Green Phoenix by Bill Allen for the full fascinating history of the park).

The reason I’m relating this story is that some collaborators and I started revisiting this site a few years ago, and we were so blown away by what we saw that we had to tell the world. The area where the orange peels had been? It had become just about the lushest forest I’d ever seen. Literally, vines on vines on vines. And the surrounding pasture? Still pretty much looked the same as in old photos.

In the summer of 2014, I set up Princeton senior thesis student Jon Choi ‘15 at the site, and let me just say, he scienced the crap out of it. We set up some vegetation transects and developed a soil sampling regime, and then he went full Tasmanian Devil in a labcoat. We’re talking camera traps, audio recorders, pitfall traps, and theoretical modelling of ecological state transitions–the whole nine meters. It truly impresses me that he managed to say so much about what ultimately boils down to a very simple observation: orange peels jump-started forest recovery–where there would otherwise be a stunted savanna, there’s now forest so thick you literally have to hack your way through with a machete.

Images from early 2014 of the unfertilized, control site (left) and the site that had been fertilized with orange peels in the 1990s (right). (Photos courtesy of Timothy Treuer)

After a few years of trying to distill this work into something palatable to reviewers, journal editors, and our team of co-authors, we are proud to finally drop our LP: ‘Low-cost agricultural waste accelerates tropical forest regeneration,’ available exclusively from Restoration Ecology.

In all seriousness, I really do believe there’s an incredibly exciting idea at the core of this project: it wasn’t just a win-win initiative. It was win-win-WIN. Carbon was sucked out of the atmosphere, biodiversity was increased, and soil quality improved. All FOR A PROFIT! Despite this, we couldn’t find a single other example of ag waste being used to speed forest recovery. We hope that changes. The world really shouldn’t contain both nutrient-starved degraded lands and nutrient-rich waste streams.

Tim is a PhD candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology studying large-scale tropical forest restoration. More broadly, he is interested in the effective communication of and policy solutions to complex environmental challenges in an era of global change. He’s on Twitter (@treuer) and tumblr (treuer.tumblr.com).

Beyond the Olympics: The role of sports in social development

Written by Julio Herrera Estrada

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers.” -Nelson Mandela

One can’t help but grin and gasp when watching those close Olympic races where the winner came from behind in the last few seconds, or those brief moments when gymnasts are in the air before they land (amongst countless other remarkable instances across sports). The Olympics is one of the few events that brings together people from almost every nation around the world, and though the main objective is to compete against each other, one can often see good camaraderie between athletes and fans of different countries.

olympics-selfie
Selfie between Lee Eun-Ju from South Korea (right) and Hong Un Jong from North Korea at the Rio Olympics. Picture Credit: Time.

But sports are much more than entertainment and a career path – they can contribute to the integral development of whoever practices it, and they can help unite communities. This is why sports have been recognized by organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the United States Agency for International Development as powerful tools to build peace and contribute to countries’ social development.

Helping One Grow as an Individual

I did Tae-Kwon-Do when I was a kid and then swimming as a teenager. Thanks to these sports I made friends, travelled to new places, and managed to win a few medals to display in my room. However, it was not until I left home to go to college that I fully appreciated all that I was bringing with me thanks to these two sports.

First, I learned discipline: to listen and follow the directions of my coach, to respect my teammates and opponents, and to behave with integrity both when winning and losing. Martial arts also teaches self-control since having the ability to cause serious harm to someone means that you have to be very mindful of when and how you use them (“Fighting not good. But if must fight… win.” – Mr. Miyagi, The Next Karate Kid). I reinforced these skills and values when I started swimming, and I mastered one more: perseverance. As I focused on long-distance swimming, I had to learn to keep going, one stroke at a time, through the pain that you feel after you have been swimming continuously for close to an hour.

Knowing that you are good at something, and even more, that you are getting better at it, helps build your self-esteem. This is arguably easier to do with sports and other physical activities, because the pain and fatigue you are fighting to overcome at each practice, each game, and each competition is very tangible. This self-esteem came very handy as a teenager, when I resisted peer-pressure to smoke, since I would not do anything that would harm my swimming.

I was not an amazing athlete and I was not close to being able to qualify for my college swimming team, but I still carry all these things that I gained from sports, and I recognize that they made me stronger mentally, even more so than physically. My experience is not an exception but a common trend for whoever practices a sport regularly, from amateurs to professionals.

Integrating Communities, Healing Wounds, and Keeping the Youth Safe

The European Union has recognized the power of sports in helping integrate immigrants and asylum seekers, and last June the Council of Europe’s Enlarged Partial Agreement on Sport met in Vienna, Austria to discuss policies to aid the integration of refugees through sports. The International Olympic Committee also contributed by creating the first Refugee Olympic Team. The expected outcome of this decision is summarized best by the words of Yusra Mardini, a swimmer who was forced to flee from Syria and now lives in Germany, and who competed last week in the Olympics: “I want everyone to think refugees are normal people who had their homelands and lost them not because they wanted to run away and be refugees, but because they have dreams in their lives and they had to go.”

7477336-3x2-700x467
Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Image Credit: UNHCR

Popular team sports, including soccer and basketball are being used to help integrate people across communities and countries following conflict – i.e. Sports Diplomacy. For example, the World Bank organized The Great Lakes Peace Cup in 2012 between the countries of Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda to help bring their people together after years of wars in the region. Each team was purposefully made up by an equal mix of civilians and former combatants. Events like these bring former opponents together, allowing them to meet and realize that they are not so different from each other, hopefully making future conflicts less likely.

Sports can improve young children’s motor skills and coordination (which are critical for their development), and teenagers’ hygiene and dietary habits. Practicing sports can also help them stay away from danger and bad influences. In Brazil, the land of soccer, a man created an interesting initiative in the favela (i.e. a Brazilian slum) of Chacrinha in Rio de Janeiro that is known for its crime and poverty. He introduced the youth to badminton by building a training center in the middle of the favela with funding help from NGOs and philanthropists. Even better, he mixes Samba dancing into practice to teach the players rhythm and coordination. Projects like this benefit the kids in the community by keeping them away from drugs and gangs, and by helping them develop self-esteem and values such as respect and integrity. It also gives them a chance to dream of one day becoming a gold medalist who comes from a favela.

P1010834
Girls from poor neighborhoods in Mumbai, India playing soccer as part of a program organized by OSCAR Foundation, an NGO. Photo Credit: Deutsche Welle.

Sports can bring many benefits to individuals and their communities that can translate to improvements in public health (Sustainable Development Goal, SDG #3), reduced violence (SDG #16), and increased community cohesion. A company even leveraged the popularity of soccer to create a ball that harnesses the energy from kicking it around to later be used as a lamp, helping improve access to electricity in remote communities (SDG #7). Thus, it is essential to invest seriously on projects that introduce the youth to sports and allow them to practice them throughout their life.

Moreover, it is key that such initiatives include both girls and boys so that everybody benefits from their rewards, helping us bridge gender inequality along the way (SDG #5). Often times girls are not allowed or discouraged from practicing sports, but they can be a critical pathway to help girls develop confidence in themselves, and break gender roles and stereotypes. It is vital that this divide is also bridged in professional sports, so that young girls have more role models to whom they can relate better, and who can inspire them to pursue their own goals and dreams.

The closing ceremonies of this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will start the countdown for Tokyo, Japan in 2020. As the athletes return to their countries, many young children will surely be inspired to pursue a sport, though many in the poorest communities of the world will find this challenging. Much needs to be done to increase their access to sports. While the most formidable and entertaining matches and competitions happen in large and fancy stadiums, the most important for countries’ development happen in empty fields and at local swimming pools and gyms.

 

Julio-10 copyJulio Herrera Estrada is a 5th year PhD Candidate in the Environmental Engineering and Water Resources Program, and the Editor-in-Chief of Highwire Earth. His research focuses on the mechanisms and human impacts of droughts, and the policies that can help make our resource management sustainable and resilient. Follow him on Twitter @JulioSustDev.

Conservation Crossroads in Ecuador: Tiputini Biodiversity Station and the Yasuní oil fields

Written by Justine Atkins

On an early morning boat, mist still rises off the water and the Amazonian air is thick with the characteristic dampness of tropical rainforests. We’re heading out in search of a nearby clay-lick where many parrot species congregate. In the partial slumber of any graduate student awake before 6 am, we sleepily scan the riverbank and tree line for any signs of life. It’s from this reluctantly awake state that our guide Froylan suddenly jolts us to the present and directs our gaze to a small clearing alongside the river. There, out in the open, a female jaguar sits in the grass near the river’s edge. By what seems like sheer luck, we have seen one of the most elusive Amazonian species, something our second guide José says he himself has only achieved five times in seven years.

This majestic female jaguar watches us closely from the safety of the grassy river bank, perhaps waiting for our boats to move on so she could continue on her route across the Tiputini river. Photo credit: Alex Becker

Of course, luck is only part of the story. The river we’re traveling down is the Tiputini River, which forms one edge of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park — an area of some 3,800 square miles of pristine rainforest, historically left untouched by human development, that is practically overflowing with biodiversity. There are more species of plants, reptiles, insects, mammals and birds here than almost anywhere else in the Amazon and, by extension, the world.

Nestled in the dense array of kapok, ficus, Cecropias and Socratea or “walking palm” trees, is Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS). Established in 1993 and chosen specifically for its isolated location, the research station at Tiputini is a collaborative venture between Universidad San Francisco de Quito and Boston University. TBS supports ecological research at all levels, hosting everyone from visiting undergraduate students to PhD candidates to senior academics.

Almost everything about TBS and its surroundings reinforces the feeling that this is truly one of the most pristine and isolated centers of biodiversity in the world. As visitors to TBS for our Tropical Ecology field course, the first-year graduate students in Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology travelled by multiple planes, boats, buses and trucks over five hours from the nearest city (Coca) just to reach the field station itself. Photo credit: Alex Becker

Yet, as unfortunately seems inevitable whenever anyone talks about these last remaining ‘untouched’ areas, the pristine nature of TBS and Yasuní National Park comes with its own caveat. On our journey to the station, we are, probably naïvely, surprised to have to go through a security checkpoint run by the national oil company Petroamazonas. The mere presence of Petroamazonas indicates that the as yet undisturbed area surrounding TBS is up against a rapidly ticking clock. And with only a cursory glance over the basic facts of this situation, the sound of that ticking clock becomes deafening.

*     *     *

There are hundreds of millions, possibly billions, of barrels of Amazon crude oil lying beneath Yasuní National Park. For any nation, but particularly Ecuador — a relatively poor, developing country — the temptation to drill is immense. (Ecuador’s per capita GDP in 2013 was $6003, compared to the US GDP in the same year of $53,042.) For example, the government stood to make over $7 billion net profit (at 2007 prices) from the extraction and sale of 850 million barrels of oil from these reserves.

Yasuní had the potential to be a model for innovative environmental policy. It possesses unparalleled species’ richness, is located in a nation dependent on the extraction of non-renewable resources, and is home to the indigenous Waorani and two uncontacted groups, Tagaeri and Taromenane. In many ways, the variety of stakeholders and conflicts of interests and aims among them represents one of the most daunting conservation and sustainable development challenges the world faces today. How do we balance the needs of biodiversity maintenance, socioeconomic parity and protection of indigenous people when the goals of each seem to fundamentally misalign with one another?

The attempt to resolve this conflict was compellingly detailed in a National Geographic feature in January 2013. In 2007, President Correa proposed the so-called Yasuní-ITT Initiative (named after the three oil fields in the area it encompasses: Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini). The Yasuní-ITT sought $3.6 billion in compensation (to be contributed by international donors, both countries and corporations) in exchange for a complete ban on oil extraction and biodiversity protection for the ‘ITT block’ in the northeast corner of Yasuní.

With this initiative officially instated in 2010, Ecuador became one of the first nations to attempt sustainable development and action against climate change based on a model of truly worldwide cooperation. For this model to be successful, the government relied on other countries to recognize that an international desire to preserve the ecological value of Yasuní also meant an international responsibility to contribute to the opportunity cost of this preservation. There was a ground swell of support for this proposal within Ecuador and initially this was also met with enthusiasm abroad. However, by mid-2012, the Ecuadorian government had received only $200 million in pledges, contributions stalled and the Yasuní-ITT initiative was officially abandoned in August 2013.

Similar sustainability issues were at the forefront of the recent UN Climate Change Conference 2015 in Paris, also known as COP 21 (21st session of the Conference of Parties). Much of the prolonged negotiation and disagreement among the attending countries was based on the divergence of priorities among developed and developing nations. The former group was, by-and-large, pushing for uncompromising targets on emissions reduction and renewable energy use from the current highest emissions contributors, chief among which are developing nations like China and Brazil.

But developing nations felt strongly that they should not be excluded from the full benefits of industrialization, which developed nations have profited from in the past. One potential solution to this conflict, and one which led to part of the Paris Agreement, is for developed nations to support developing nations in the transition from fossil fuels to renewable, lower emission energy sources through financial compensation. Sound familiar? This was exactly the logic behind the Yasuní-ITT, so the failure of this initiative represents more than just a threat to Yasuní — it symbolically threatens action against climate change worldwide.

A closer look at the failure of the Yasuní-ITT reveals that there were in fact more complex considerations at play than simply a lack of pledged contributions. In an essay evaluating the decision to abandon the initiative, Ariana Keyman, an associate at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics in Nairobi, assessed the particular political, economic and social factors that contributed to the Yasuní-ITT’s demise. Due to his dogged pursuit of a ‘New Latin American Left’, Ecuador’s President Correa was determined to increase spending on pro-poor socioeconomic development while also preserving the status of Ecuador’s environment and biodiversity. Unfortunately, as is often the case, something had to give and it was ultimately the environment that was compromised. This was only exacerbated by the historic dependency of this country on the oil industry and the ‘closed-door’ manner in which the Yasuní-ITT was both adopted and abandoned by the government. In this light, perhaps the case for international collaboration and economic cooperation on tackling the challenges of biodiversity conservation and climate change is not so hopeless, but it is still likely to be a bumpy road ahead.

*     *     *

Tiputini Biodiversity Station itself still seemed largely untouched during our trip in January 2016. Part of this was surely due to our unfamiliarity with the oil extraction process, but it’s clear that the continued tireless efforts of environmental groups are at least holding off the worst of the potential destruction for now. The founding director of TBS, Kelly Swing, wrote in a guest blog post in National Geographic in 2012 that the incursion of oil companies in this area has also in some ways helped scientists learn more about the incredible ecological communities in this region, thanks to increased funding and accessibility.

More than the literal isolation, the overwhelming presence of a brilliant array of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects that seem to be almost dripping from the trees was a constant reminder of how far from urbanization we were and the sheer uniqueness of the location of TBS. Every morning, we awoke to the reverberating booms of howler monkeys and the screeching calls of caracara and macaws high above us. Walking to and from the dining area, we routinely spotted roosting bats, several species of anole lizards and learned to recognize the squeaking communications and rustling branches around us the local woolly monkey troop on their morning or evening commute. All of these wonderfully unique species (clockwise from top left: white-necked jacobin, motmot, woolly monkey, and tree frog) are threatened in some capacity by the oil industry. Photos credit: Alex Becker.

It appears, however, that the benefits are unlikely to outweigh the costs, particularly when the long-term consequences of the oil industry in Yasuní will be unknown for years to come. Swing was quick to point out that alread there are documented negative impacts — insects are being drawn to huge gas flares and eviscerated in large numbers, eliminating important food resources for frogs, birds and bats, and industrial noise pollution disrupting the communication channels of calling birds and primates, potentially limiting their ability to find mates, locate food, and avoid predators.

In establishing the research station along the Tiputini River, Swing said that their goal was “to be able to study and teach about nature itself, not human impacts on nature.” From our experience there, this goal was definitely realized in the most fantastic way possible, but how many other visitors who come after us that will be able to say the same thing we cannot say with any certainty. As global citizens, this is a concern that we should all be dedicated to addressing.

Justine is a first-year PhD student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department at Princeton University. She is interested in the interaction between animal movement behavior and environmental heterogeneity, particularly in relation to individual and collective decision-making processes, as well as conservation applications.

Americans Are Paying Too Much for Mass Incarceration: Prison education programs provide a way out

Written by Kaia Tombak

Some names in this blog post have been changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned.

Jack greeted me cheerfully as he strolled into class, asking me how things are going.

“I’m fine, thanks,” I replied. “How are you?”

“Oh, I’m good,” he chuckled. “You know, given the circumstances!”

We were sitting in a men’s maximum security prison in New Jersey with nine others settling down for a lesson in environmental sciences. Through the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) program and the Prison Teaching Initiative (PTI) at Princeton University, I was one of five teachers at the prison that night. The others were teaching classes on algebra, history, psychology, and the biology of woody plants.

Education programs within prisons in the U.S. are widespread but underfunded and they depend heavily on volunteer teachers and organizers. A student in my class today asked me to write to an NJ-STEP representative to push for a fundraising campaign to make the organization self-reliant. He was worried because the program has dealt with pushback from the public by those who argue that prisoners should not receive a free education on the taxpayer’s dime while others must go into debt for one. By the time you’ve finished reading this, I hope that you’ll agree that prison education programs should receive more public funding, not less, for both social justice and economic reasons, and that the U.S. should save taxpayers’ money by phasing out its unsustainable mass incarceration system.

__________________________________________________________________________________

“Tough on crime” really means “tough on the marginalized”
The U.S. used to be on par with European countries in its rate of incarceration. Between 1930 and 1970, the rate of imprisonment in the U.S. held steady at about 110 in 100,000 residents. This was comparable to rates in Europe, which have remained stable and low (e.g. Germany imprisons 93 in 100,000 residents, Turkey imprisons 112, and Denmark 67). Beginning in Nixon’s second term in the 1970’s, however, the prison population in the U.S. exploded, and now stands at 750 incarcerated people for every 100,000 residents (for the sociopolitical history behind this see this article in The Atlantic). The concurrent increase in the number of blacks imprisoned, the number of privately owned prisons, and the virtually free labor their inmates provide them has prompted some to equate this with the reinstatement of a form of racial segregation, and of slavery.


“Doubling the conviction rate in this country would do far more to cure crime in America than quadrupling the funds for [the] War on Poverty.”
Richard Nixon, TIME Magazine 1968

Nixon was wrong. Crime rates peaked in 1991, and only after that did they fall precipitously. While incarceration rates continued to climb afterward, the contribution that mass incarceration may have made to the decline in crime rates is estimated to be as low as 5%, with diminishing effects the further incarceration rates escalated. Moreover, crime has continued to decline in states that have recently cut back dramatically on incarceration rates.

Meanwhile, the excessive tough-on-crime policies Nixon adopted have resulted in unjust restrictions on the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for a huge portion of America’s citizens and have increased poverty in the country as a whole. Most incarcerated men contributed significantly to their household incomes prior to institutionalization, and the incarcerated population is drawn mostly from families that already have a low income. In poor neighborhoods, entire communities have lost a significant portion of their local economies to mass incarceration.

The costs of mass incarceration are not borne solely by incarcerated Americans and their families. Most of America’s incarcerated people are in state prisons. At an average annual cost of roughly $31,000 per inmate in state prisons, taxpayers are taking a major hit as a result of mass incarceration. Over the past couple of decades, correctional costs have been the second-fastest growing budget item at the state level after Medicaid. If the U.S. released half of its imprisoned that have been incarcerated for non-violent crimes, taxpayers would save $16.9 billion a year, a figure roughly equivalent to the GDP of Estonia.

__________________________________________________________________________________

The trauma of disadvantage
For many, including myself, it is difficult to understand the effects of growing up within a low-socioeconomic status (SES) household and/or with systemic racism without experiencing it firsthand. This cartoon summarizes some of those struggles, and this man’s story chronicles the anxiety of living under constant suspicion and racial profiling as an urban black man.

The effect of intersecting disadvantages is greater than the sum of its parts. Due to factors like discriminatory zoning policies that imposed segregation across race and class in American cities, many people in prison are from poor neighborhoods. In these communities, public schools are more likely to be overcrowded and underfunded, with low graduation rates and limited post-graduation opportunities. Some turn to illegal business to get out of this situation, and may become examples to youth of those who appear to have ‘made it’. Many do not, yet to be black or Hispanic in many American cities includes growing up under constant vigilance — from police officers to shopkeepers. Superfluous identity checks, pat-downs and arrests for innocuous offenses or actions that are not even offenses (e.g., eating French fries on a subway, sitting in a car in your aunt’s driveway, or video-recording an arrest), are not uncommon.

In a country that incarcerates more people than any other on the planet and about a third of its black men and a sixth of its Hispanic men (New Jersey is among the five worst states in this regard, with a black:white ratio of 12.5 to 1 and a Hispanic:white ratio of 3 to 1 in its prisons), it doesn’t take much imagination to understand how badly the odds are stacked against them. Many of the roughly 2 million incarcerated people in the U.S. don’t have to imagine it — they’ve lived it.

“. . . over the last few decades, I think many in the African-American community have been seduced by the argument that, well, this is all our fault. Somehow we’ve brought mass incarceration upon ourselves. If only we would pull up our pants or stay in school or not experiment with drugs, if only somehow we could be perfect and never make a mistake, that none of this would be happening. But, of course . . . young white kids who make mistakes, commit misdemeanors and jaywalking and smoke weed, they are able to go off to college if they’re middle-class. But if you’re poor or you live in the hood, the kinds of mistakes that people of all colors and classes make actually cost them their lives. And yet, then we turn around and blame them and say, ‘This is all your fault’.”
Michelle Alexander, Democracy Now!

__________________________________________________________________________________

On the way home, the other teachers and I stop for some dinner and share stories of our experiences. Although all of us have to be careful with the way we phrase certain things in class, those teaching psychology have to be extra sensitive.

“Today’s class was on childhood development. The section about theories on how early childhood experiences can affect one’s life trajectory,” explained Nicky. “That was sort of tricky to talk about. Some students would bring up their own past experiences, and some wondered what was going to happen to their children while they were away for so long.” The teachers didn’t have definite answers for them, emphasizing that there was still so much that was not known about the brain.

__________________________________________________________________________________

We do know, however, that the psychological effects of negative stereotypes, many of which our students grew up with, can be pervasive and affect performance in school or at work. A famous study by Steele and Aronson showed that black students performed as well as white students on an aptitude test, except when told that the test was meant to diagnose their intelligence. The researchers ascribed this psychological effect to the feeling of being at risk of fulfilling stereotypes associated with one’s group, which they termed ‘stereotype threat’. The same phenomenon has been shown in women, Hispanics, people of low SES, and even in white men when told they were being tested on a math test against Asian men [1–3].

Part of our task as teachers in prisons has become, at times unconsciously, to reverse the effects of what is often a lifelong belief that one is not intelligent, good at various school subjects, or deserving of a good education. The students’ reactions to our efforts have been rewarding but heart-breaking; even the slightest bit of encouragement from us is met with gratitude, and they repeatedly express how much they love to be able to come to our classes. For many of them, class time is an important psychological break from being insulated from the outside world and a sign that it has not forgotten them.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Releasing birds with clipped wings
Pushing for social change for a more equitable American society is the main task at hand, but it will take time. Meanwhile, over 600,000 people are released from prison every year. Many of them have nowhere to go and end up in shelters or on the streets. They are expected to integrate into society and make an honest living despite years of missed opportunities and despite having to inform potential employers that they have been incarcerated (they have to check ‘the box’, an enormous impediment to success in the employment race). These are not trivial hurdles for someone who has lived in an insular world and must now relearn a different lifestyle, operate new technologies, and catch up with the outside world that has surged ahead full-throttle without them. This New York Times article describes the shell shock of being released after many years in prison, and how some non-profit organizations are working to ease the process. Many of these discharged men and women (about 68%) are rearrested within two years following release, a shocking proportion only until one realizes that they are usually worse off than they were before their original incarceration.

Most federal and state prisons do offer some form of high school or college-level education, but only about 2% of the inmates in a given institution can participate in these programs because capacity is so limited. A provision of the 1994 Crime Act severely diminished these opportunities by discontinuing eligibility for Pell grants for the incarcerated. Judicial scholars have been recommending the reinstatement of this eligibility ever since (e.g. refs 4–5). The costs of doing so would be modest: $34 million or 0.1% of the $53 billion grant fund was granted to prisoners in 1994. This investment pays for itself and then some, with vocational education in prisons returning, on average, about five times the investment in benefits to taxpayers through crime reduction alone. Not to mention reductions in recidivism by roughly one-half in formerly incarcerated people that participate in prison education programs, and further reductions in those that successfully complete courses while in prison.

__________________________________________________________________________________

From baby steps to leaps and bounds
“You should see how hard-working and disciplined my students are,” Katie told the rest of us. “One of them has a strict schedule of work, exercise, and studying. He’s preparing for having to juggle work and study when he goes to Rutgers next year after his release!” We all gushed and the conversation turned to the recent news about how a Bard Prison Initiative prison debate team beat a Harvard debate team.

To respect our students’ privacy and to ensure that we can teach them without prejudice, we generally aren’t aware of what our students are there for or for how long. However, with little tidbits that our students have offered us, we’ve gathered that some of them are in class to prepare for work or further education after being released, and that others are there despite having little hope of being released for a very long time. This dynamic makes the class a joy to teach and interact with because they are all there voluntarily, they are highly motivated, and many are there just to learn for the sake of learning. Regardless of their particular situations, the opportunity to take courses in prison represents a sliver of hope for building themselves up to a better future.

__________________________________________________________________________________

A recent turn of events has brought more hope for the imprisoned: in July 2015, the Departments of Education and Justice announced that eligibility for Pell grants in support of pursuing post-secondary education and training for incarcerated Americans has been re-established through the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. This announcement came with more welcome news, including steps being taken by the Federal Government to join the rising number of businesses and institutions that are “banning the box” on job applications (at least for the initial candidate screening), new funding to address homelessness and reduce recidivism in people released from prisons, and improving opportunities for children with incarcerated parents.

These are great first steps, but as long as prison education is not a standard option offered to most imprisoned Americans, many will still be released without having had opportunities to improve their chances of integration. Even with the current policy improvements, prison teaching programs will remain highly limited in capacity and dependent on volunteerism and donations. Most imprisoned Americans will still never get to study in a prison classroom, despite the supposed reformative purpose of prisons and the opportunities within them to close the education gap in the U.S. (39% of the incarcerated are below the literacy line, compared to 20% in the population as a whole). There is no quick fix for a voracious carceral system that has run on overdrive for four decades and a social system that has never been equitable, but there are big things that can be done now. It is essential to pull people out of the prison cycle by funding prison education; we cannot afford to abandon those who have been failed by this society. The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program will help, but reallocating resources to make education programs a standard resource for people in prisons would convert this baby step to a great leap forward.

This is what it comes down to: mass incarceration is expensive to taxpayers and contributes to the cycle of poverty, but releasing people from prison without improving their chances at integration often lands them back into prison. Offering incarcerated Americans opportunities to build themselves up through prison education programs pays for itself through reductions in crime and recidivism and gives them hope for the future. Empowering the casualties of a dysfunctional system through these training programs is therefore not only just, but is also good social and economic policy. Taxpayers can afford to give more of America’s imprisoned a ‘second chance’, especially considering that most did not have a fair first chance to begin with.

__________________________________________________________________________________

They Teach Us
On the next Tuesday at the prison, another small group assembled behind the teachers in the lobby, waiting to be let in.

“Are you teachers as well?” I asked.

“No, they teach us,” replied the man with a smile.

He was with an Alcoholics Anonymous group that meets with imprisoned alcoholics for group therapy sessions. Like him, it didn’t take very many classes for me to realize how much I was learning from my students. My initial preconceptions and prejudices about what it might be like to teach in a maximum security prison were whittled away and I was impressed at the depth of knowledge several of them had on important environmental issues. They were very hard-working and keen students — among the best I have ever taught. By the second class, teaching in prison had become the highlight of my week. It was my opportunity to climb out of the ivory tower and do something. An opportunity to understand a world that is tucked away in large buildings in the forgotten corners of America, where 2 million Americans live, yet from which many of us are completely disconnected.

If you are a member of the Princeton community, sign the Students for Prison Education And Reform (SPEAR) petition for our admissions system to abolish ‘the box’ here.

If you would like to contribute to Princeton’s Prison Teaching Initiative (PTI), whether through volunteering or donations, please contact Sandra Sussman.
ssussman [at] princeton.edu


Some of the other teachers shared end-of-semester student feedback with me for this article:

“Thank you so much for taking the time to teach us. You are greatly appreciated!”

“I really appreciate all of the professors and the opportunity to learn about the natural world. It is AWESOME!”

“I will never look at trees and plants in the same way again. I am glad I took this class.”

“Thank you for your time and volunteering to teach us. Prior to this section we had no idea you all did this on your own time. I thank you all and appreciate the gift of education.”

kaia1

Kaia Tombak is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. She studies social organization in gregarious animals and ecological networks in East Africa.

References

[1] Aronson J, Lustina MJ, Good C, Keough K, Steele CM, and Brown J. 1999. When white men can’t do math: necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 35: 29–46.

[2] Schmader T, Johns M. 2003. Converging evidence that stereotype threat reduces working memory capacity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 85: 440–452.

[3] Croizet J-C, Claire T. 1998. Extending the concept of stereotype threat to social class: the intellectual underperformance of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 24: 588–594.

[4] Karpowitz D, Kenner M. 2001. Education as crime prevention: the case for reinstating Pell Grant eligibility for the incarcerated. New York, http://www.bard.edu/bpi/images/crime_report.pdf

[5] Tewksbury R, Erickson DJ, Taylor JM. 2000. Opportunities lost: The consequences of eliminating Pell Grant eligibility for correctional education students. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 31: 43–56.