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.

The Case for Historic Buildings: Lessons on balancing human development and sustainability

Written by Isabel Morris

We need quality buildings to safely house our schools, hospitals, offices, and our homes. We also live in a world with limited resources for constructing and operating new buildings, which means we need buildings that are sustainable and resilient in addition to being safe and functional.

Most cities facing this challenge are full of underutilized historic buildings and sites with cultural, social, economic, and technological value. These historic places are precisely the solution required in growing cities, and they have surprising economic and environmental benefits.

Newly opened 20 Washington Rd on Princeton University’s campus: adaptive reuse of existing buildings in the Social Sciences neighborhood. (Source: Author)

Since the 1987 Brundtland Commission’s Report, “Our Common Future,” sustainability has been defined as the ability to meet the world’s current needs without compromising our ability to meet them in the future. This sustainable development, in construction and civil engineering, manifests itself in the environments we build and inhabit: cities. Here, perhaps especially, it is important to balance a building’s quality of life improvements with its environmental and social consequences. From “mega tall” skyscrapers, to slums, to the infrastructure that connects them, cities can be catalysts for economic opportunity, industry, and innovative constructions. Historic buildings are a tangible recording of a city’s story and can teach us not only about our history and culture, but also about sustainability.

Some historic buildings: 7th St and Indiana Ave, NW in Washington DC, Rome’s Colosseum, the Roman Via Appia, and Romania’s Sarmizegetusa Regia. (Source: Author)

As catalyzing drivers of development, cities seem to be in direct opposition with historic structures. Cities need buildings that are safe, resilient, efficient, and accessible…but how? What happens to old buildings that stand in the way of new projects? How do we measure and balance the value of historic buildings with the value of progress and modern sustainable building practices? The momentum of development and emerging green technologies drive cities to build for the future. At first glance, run down historic buildings without some modern features (like adequate steel reinforcement or airtight window frames) seem to stand in the way of city and human development, where it is much easier to opt for cheaper, faster, and larger buildings than investing in an existing building.

Why consider historic structures? Historic buildings can be buildings of any style, construction method, period, or function; important historical sites in the US range from the sites of the 1969 Stonewall uprising to 12th century Acoma Pueblo. Most of the world’s historic buildings and sites are protected by legislation and active conservation organizations, which recognize the invaluable artistic, historical, social, and scientific importance of these places. In addition to these less tangible values, heritage structures have a proven record of longevity and resilience in the face of two millennia (or more) of natural and anthropogenic hazards. Historic buildings are fascinating because they function as both sociocultural bulwarks and priceless repositories of technological advancements. Many of the world’s historic sites are “good” buildings that can teach us important lessons about sustainability and building construction.

By “good” buildings, we can mean a variety of things. In the most basic sense, a good building is one that physically serves its purpose (i.e., to physically encompass and support a hospital). From different perspectives, “good” collects more qualifications: the building’s function must be fulfilled attractively, efficiently, reliably, safely, and/or inclusively. Good buildings become even better when they serve their purpose and carry additional features, like full ADA accessibility, cultural significance, or LEED green building credits. Ideally, sustainable buildings and good buildings are the same. In reality, though, issues like short-term (rather than long-term) economic thinking can deepen the divide between “good” functional buildings and holistically good (and sustainable) buildings.

I argue that sustainable development can embrace the lessons and presence of historic buildings with positive environmental, social, and economic implications of historic buildings. In other words, why the best development solution is not destroying and replacing a historic building with a new and perhaps exemplary green building.

The UN’s 11th Sustainable Development Goal deals directly with the challenges facing cities (see also SDG 11 and SD: Cities). In recognizing the combination of exploding of urban populations (according to the Population Reference Bureau, 70% of the world population will be urban by 2050), and the humanistic value of heritage buildings and sites, the goal reads:

Goal 11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, including “strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.”

These four hallmarks (inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable) can be used to understand the various arguments in support of conservation and reuse of historic buildings.

There is a large body of work establishing the connections between heritage sites and humanity’s collective memory, or shared identity (see, for instance, a search of “collective memory” in the ICOMOS publications, or on Google Scholar). By definition, collective memory is an inclusive phenomenon. Historical sites are physical witnesses to shared heritage in the history and places that bind us together as humans. Our own stories can be shared and understood through physical places and spaces. Less abstractly, the acts of preservation, from documentation to regular maintenance, necessarily employ and involve entire communities (as in proven asset-based community development initiatives). ICOMOS guidelines exist for a project’s community engagement: for example, the Getty Conservation Institute recently completed a project on the participatory conservation of the Kasbah of Taourirt that relied on developing and utilizing local capacity in repair, technology, and documentation. Since heritage sites are rarely privately owned, we are all stakeholders of these resources and involved in decision making and use of these sites.

Safe

Vacant buildings are unsafe, and in many cities those vacant building are also historic. The correlation between increased crime and number of vacant properties has been established in the US. In fact, by using buildings that already exist within cities and reducing rates of vacancy in a city, historic buildings can both make cities safer and counteract urban sprawl (for example, see this excellent post on Sense and Sustainability). Safe cities, therefore, can be cities that embrace the potential and intrinsic value of their heritage buildings.

Resilient

In an age of urgent demand for resilient cities that can respond to increasing natural and man-made hazards (for example, rising earthquake, flooding, and fire risks in Seattle), we can learn invaluable lessons from heritage buildings that remain standing after 200, 300, 1500, 2000, or even 3200 years. The fact that these buildings have withstood assault on every front and remain stable speaks not only to the ingenuity of ancient builders but also to the resilience of these structures. Some ancient constructions intentionally dissipate earthquake loadings better than some modern buildings: compare the stacked drum columns of seismically active Greece to the monolithic columns of less-seismically active Rome. Because of their inherent resiliency, historic buildings do not necessarily require retrofitting and structural modification; like all buildings, historic buildings depend on regular maintenance for their longevity. Structurally safe and resilient historic buildings, with regular maintenance, can be more sustainable than new construction by eliminating the energy and waste involved in construction, use, and demolition of an entirely new building.

Sustainable

“Historic buildings are inherently sustainable.” So begins the Whole Building Design Guide, a knowledge portal for practitioners published by the National Institute of Building Sciences. The greatest advantage for historical buildings in the service of balancing sustainability and human development is, in fact, their inherent sustainability. These buildings can be adapted to a variety of new uses, whether the project is commercial, residential, or for public use. Not only does adaptive reuse of an existing historic building eliminate construction of a new building, it also eliminates accompanying construction and demolition waste. It is certainly important to consider the holistic energy use of buildings, from extraction, manufacturing, transport, and assembly of the materials in a building; to energy used by a building over its lifetime; to the demolition and disposal of its rubble. Recent life-cycle analysis (LCA) studies by the Preservation Green Lab compare similarly sized and used historic buildings to new construction options, concluding that most historic buildings can be reused with fewer environmental impacts than new “green” construction. Because they were constructed before interior climate control technology was developed, they are often equipped with efficient features instead. These include thick walls with optimal overhangs that trap winter heat during the day and release it at night and whose thermal mass helps the interior stay cool during summer months. Adaptive reuse of these structures can result in creative solutions, like Queen’s Quay and other projects in Toronto, that improve the sustainability and overall experience of a city. In looking at the “total energy” of buildings, in many cases the greenest building is one that is already built; embracing and using heritage buildings can be one of the best ways to make them sustainable.

Sustainable development for urban people and places naturally includes and necessitates preservation of our heritage sites. Furthermore, environmental steps toward sustainability simultaneously preserve both human and environmental health. This has a positive effect on our built heritage, reducing degradation mechanisms and threats to these sites, while improving environmental and social factors affecting our health.

Human development and sustainability, especially in an urban context, are balanced in the conservation and reuse of heritage sites. Residential and commercial buildings are responsible for 40% of the energy and 60% of the electricity used globally. Measures to increase building’s sustainability are in both the interest of human development and sustainable use of the world’s resources. In using a historic building, its lessons and embodied values can be preserved for future generations. The conservation of a city’s heritage sites is the conservation of humanity.


Isabel Morris is a 2nd year Civil Engineering PhD student in the Historic Structures Program. Her research is focused on using non-destructive methods, especially ground penetrating radar, to characterize materials for better conservation efforts around the world.

An Apple a Day: Easier said than done

Written by Prof. Fernanda Márquez-Padilla

A few months ago, I pulled a muscle doing yoga and started going to physical therapy on a weekly basis soon after. I was supposed to do a 5-minute routine every day, and my discipline at doing so was mediocre at best. It wasn’t particularly hard, or painful, but still: it was so much easier to not do it.

At the same time, I was starting a research project on hypertensive patients’ behavior with respect to taking their medications as prescribed by their doctors (known in the medical literature as medication adherence), and had been reading about how people tend to be bad at doing so (with non-adherence considered “a worldwide problem of striking magnitude” by the WHO). “It doesn’t make much sense”, I remember thinking. Proper adherence to heart medication has been found to increase life expectancy, and significantly reduce the probability of negative health outcomes such as heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular hospitalizations. And it’s “just” taking pills. Why don’t patients adhere? Then it hit me. I’m one of them: I’m terrible at adhering.

An important issue for health economics focuses on how to modify patients’ behavior. How can we motivate patients to engage in healthy conducts? Patient behavior has been found to be key for keeping individuals healthy. Improving patients’ medication adherence has great potential to reduce the costs of healthcare—especially for chronic patients who must often take specific medications for extended periods in order to manage their condition. However, modifying individuals’ behavior has been proven to be a challenging task, despite its positive implications for health outcomes and cost reductions.

A recent policy in Mexico undertaken by its largest public health provider, the Mexican Institute for Social Security (IMSS), created an interesting setup that unintentionally incentivized patients to improve their health behaviors—in this case, their medication adherence. The Receta Resurtible policy decreased the frequency with which hypertensive patients (i.e., high blood pressure) needed to see their physician and renew prescriptions, as long as their blood pressure remained stable and they were not late for renewing their prescriptions. In the new regime, patients could see their doctor every 90 days (as opposed to every 30). The policy’s main goal was to increase efficiency by eliminating arguably unnecessary check-ups from relatively stable chronic patients in order to free up clinic space and physicians’ time.

Waiting room at an IMSS Hospital. Source: paginabierta.mx

Now, why would this be an incentive for people to improve their health behavior? The key insight is that while consuming healthcare is a benefit for patients, it can also be time consuming and costly. Therefore, allowing chronic patients—who must be checked-up constantly—to go less often to see their doctor could actually be a type of “reward” that may be used to improve patient behavior. We may think of this as children being incentivized to study harder in order to avoid summer school.

In my research, I find that patients on the 90-day regime improved their medication taking behavior considerably. The number of days that they are out of medication between prescription fillings fell by 2.6 days in response to the policy (from a baseline of around 7.5 days). This is an improvement of 35%, comparable to the effects of other interventions for improving medication adherence, such as educational interventions or sending reminders to patients. My estimates suggest that patients improve their adherence as the total cost of getting their medication, which includes the non-monetary cost of actually renewing a prescription, falls. More interestingly, they further improve their behavior to be allowed to remain on the 90-day regime since they value its convenience. I was able to empirically test this thanks to great data from IMSS administrative records and a unique policy design.

Additionally, I find that patients’ health remained stable in spite of meeting with their physician less frequently. This point is particularly interesting for health policy, where the allocation of scarce medical resources should be done as efficiently as possible. Much debate has revolved around some prominent policies that seek to reallocate inputs for the production of health, such as reducing the frequency of certain procedures (i.e., consider the ongoing debate about the recommended frequency of mammograms) or allowing nurse practitioners to prescribe controlled medications. The value of these policies lies in the extent to which they can reduce the costs of providing healthcare, while not generating additional costs in terms of patients’ health or general wellbeing. In this sense, the Receta Resurtible policy appears to have increased efficiency by reducing how often patients should attend doctor’s appointments without harming their health.

I draw several general lessons on how to affect patients’ behavior from studying IMSS’s change in the frequency of prescription renewals. First, it is important to acknowledge that patients have a hard time adhering, and that sticking to a treatment is generally costly. Second, that in order to design the correct interventions to improve medication adherence, it is important to understand all the costs and benefits that patients face for engaging in any type of health behavior, and that these costs and benefits can be both monetary and non-monetary (such as the time and effort required to renew a prescription). Third, that incentives can come in the form of “getting out of something”—in this case, getting out of 8 check-ups per year. In a way, the policy created an additional benefit for improving medication adherence: the possibility of staying on the 90-day regime. This type of policy instrument may be useful to modify individuals’ behavior in other settings, and its design is particularly interesting as this type of incentive can be cost efficient and welfare improving: in this case, providing less healthcare is not only more efficient but it makes patients behave better as well, while keeping their health stable.

Perhaps next time I’ll be better at following my doctor’s suggested treatment!

 

Fernanda Márquez-Padilla holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Princeton University and is Assistant Professor at CIDE in Mexico City. Her research interests lie in the intersection of health and development economics, and is particularly interested in understanding patient behavior. She has worked as a consultant for the World Bank and RAND Corporation, worked for the Mexican Ministry of Finance, and has conducted research at Banco de México.

 

A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body: Towards universal healthcare

Written By Arvind Ravikumar

The third Sustainable Development Goal (SDG3), as adopted in the 2015 UN General Assembly meeting, strives to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages” by 2030. There are nine targets specified under this goal that can be broadly classified into four categories: (1) decreasing maternal and child mortality, (2) reducing the incidence of diseases, (3) reducing human-caused mortality including substance abuse and road-traffic incidents, and (4) expanding access to affordable health care. Compared to prior efforts, SDG3 provides renewed focus on issues like substance abuse, mental health and affordable health-care for all – issues that affect the developed world as much as the developing world. The SDG3 builds on and expands the health-focused millennium development goals that were adopted in 2000. Indeed, the world community has made significant progress in reducing child mortality, maternal mortality, access to reproductive health, and reducing the incidence of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. However, many of these reductions are far from the targets established in the MDGs – for example, maternal mortality has reduced from 386 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to about 216 in 2015, significant but far short of the target of 70 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. More importantly, progress has been uneven, especially across the poorest and the most disadvantages populations in the world.

mmr

Worldwide maternal mortality rate: Number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births (Source: Wikipedia)

Progress toward any of these goals is only as good as the monitoring mechanisms in place. In this context, the SDGs differ markedly from the last decade’s MDGs because of the development of sustainable development goal indicators – these ‘indicators’ refer to various statistical health data that track progress and keep various countries accountable. A thorough global database on these specific indicators and other metrics is already available. And that highlights one of the major problems in all global development goals – the lack of institutional support and robust data collection from many regions (especially in parts of Oceania, and sub-Saharan Africa) hinders any attempt to track progress. Lessons from other global governing bodies like the World Trade Organization (WTO) could help – one way would be to develop regional expertise within the UN to help developing countries better monitor their efforts.

This goal to improve health outcomes through specific and measurable targets might make the issue seem tractable. However there are important challenges in the years ahead that are exacerbated by globalization and improved mobility. For example, road-accident related fatalities have been increasing in the developing world because of economic development. Record numbers in global mobility will simultaneously increase the risk of spawning epidemics like Ebola or Zika, which would demand a robust and rapid global response to contain its spread. The rapid urbanization in developing countries like China and India will further strain urban infrastructure – without massive investments, urban pockets are in danger of becoming hot beds for water-borne and other communicable diseases. And finally, the recent uptick in global conflicts has resulted in over 60 million people being displaced – a number not last seen since World War II. Any global effort to improve health-care will need to be coordinated with other goals that directly affect health outcomes.

While there are many targeted policies that will directly influence healthcare and wellbeing, it would be naïve to assume that improving global health standards is not dependent on progress across many of the other SDGs. For example, access to clean water and improved sanitation (SDG #6), especially in rapidly developing urban areas in Asia and Africa, can significantly reduce the incidence of many communicable diseases. A growing body of research also show that the physical and social environment (SDG #11) can influence the life expectancy at birth – such stark differences can even be seen in the developed world. Recent experiences in reducing the prevalence of AIDS or improving access to reproductive health-care have shown how unequal progress has been – big gaps exist between the poorest and the richest households, between men and women, and between rural and urban regions. Progress even in regional health outcomes would be strongly tied to success in reducing inequalities (SDG #5, #10) and increasing girls’ educational attainment (SDG #4).

Ultimately, the biggest test for the success of any of these programs comes in the form of investments required – capital to the tune of trillions of dollars will have to be mobilized over the next 15 years, largely through public finance and aid. Recent rounds of talks have ended without any concrete commitments in the part of the developed nations. It is not yet clear if equitable mechanisms to fund massive improvements in infrastructure and health-care initiatives across large parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia will be available.

 


Profile

Arvind graduated with a PhD in Electrical Engineering from Princeton University in 2015 and is currently a postdoctoral researcher in Energy Resources Engineering at Stanford University. His professional interests currently lie at the intersection of energy, climate change and policy. Arvind is an Associate Editor at Highwire Earth. Follow him on Twitter @arvindpawan1.

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.”

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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.

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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.

A World Without Hunger

Written by Matt Grobis

Safe, nutritious, and sufficient food, all year, for all people: the United Nation’s second Sustainable Development Goal aims to transform the world’s agriculture and distribution of food by 2030. With 800 million people suffering from hunger – more than 10% of the world’s population – food and agriculture are key to achieving the entire set of sustainable development goals.

Currently, there exists enough food to supply every person on the planet with a nutritious diet. Yet, large imbalances in access to this food also exist. This is often due to the cycle of poverty: people in poverty cannot afford nutritious food, which weakens them and then limits their ability to earn enough money to escape poverty. The results can be devastating. Poor nutrition is responsible for nearly 45% of deaths in children under 5, as well as causing a quarter of the world’s children to be stunted, or unable to develop normally.

Feeding future generations is similarly troubling. We have dedicated approximately 11% of the world’s land surface to agriculture (1.5 billion hectares), but to feed an expected 9 billion people in 2050, we will have to expand our global food production by 60%. Where will this land come from? We can work to improve crop yield from existing land, but the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) cautions that in many cases, local socioeconomic conditions “will not favor the promotion of the technological changes required to ensure the sustainable intensification of land use.” In other words, we can increase our food yield, but do we have the infrastructure in place to do it sustainably?

These are formidable challenges that require fast, efficient, and long-lasting solutions. By no exaggeration, the wellbeing and lives of billions of people – both present and future – depend on the actions taken to address hunger. The UN has therefore made ending world hunger a priority. “We can no longer look at food, livelihoods and the management of natural resources separately,” the FAO wrote in their 2016 bulletin Food and Agriculture. “A focus on rural development and investment in agriculture – crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture – are powerful tools to end poverty and hunger, and bring about sustainable development.”

A World Without Hunger
Mud stoves in Darfur, Sudan. Promoted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations since the 1990s, these stoves decrease the need for fuelwood, a limited resource that can be dangerous to gather. Photo credit: plancanada.ca

How can we address problems as pervasive as hunger, when those problems are intimately linked with Earth’s other greatest challenges, such as poverty and climate change? For the FAO, the answer is to find solutions that address as many of these challenges simultaneously. In Darfur, Sudan, for example, the FAO is working to introduce fuel-efficient stoves that reduce the need for fuelwood, the principal source of energy that is becoming an increasingly limited natural resource. Women must travel far from home to collect fuelwood, which decreases the time they can invest in childcare, work, or education while also exposing themselves to the risk of physical or sexual violence. Mud stoves, on the other hand, require less fuelwood and produce no smoke. The local production of these stoves generates income for women.

“Tackling hunger and malnutrition is not only about boosting food production, but also to do with increasing incomes, creating resilient food systems and strengthening markets so that people can access safe and nutritious food even if a crisis prevents them from growing enough themselves.”
– Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Food and Agriculture

For Darfur, fuel-efficient stoves not only improve food security, hence addressing the UN’s second sustainable development goal of eradicating hunger. They also help decrease poverty (SDG #1), and they promote health and wellbeing (#3), gender equality (#5), affordable and clean energy (#7), climate action (#13), and protecting life on land (#15). Addressing the world’s largest challenges will require such multifaceted approaches.

 

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Matt Grobis is a 4th-year PhD candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Managing Editor of Highwire Earth. He researches the collective dynamics of fish schools in response to predation risk. Follow him on Twitter @mgrobis.

Empowering Communities and Building Resilience: The United Nations’ strategy to eradicate poverty

Written by Julio Herrera Estrada

The beginning of 2016 marked the start of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were agreed upon by the United Nations last September. These 17 goals, broken into 169 specific targets, are set to last through 2030 and address a wide range of interrelated issues such as poverty alleviation, improved health and education, gender equality, sustainable use of natural resources, and biodiversity conservation. The SDGs replaced the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that lasted from 2000 to 2015. Many of the MDGs were successfully met, but huge gaps still remained on issues including access to drinking water, income inequality, and gender inequality (here’s the final report).

The first goal in both the MDGs and the SDGs focuses on poverty. The initial goal was to help at least half of the people who had less than US$1.25 per day (the definition of extreme poverty) rise above that threshold between 1990 and 2015. This goal was successfully met as the proportion of extreme poverty was cut from 49% to 14% by 2015. SDG #1 now calls for reducing this proportion to zero as well as addressing poor communities above the extreme poverty line. Moreover, this goal raises two key needs:

  1. Empowerment of communities to have the ability to rise from poverty, and
  2. Building communities’ resilience against climate, social, and economic shocks

Seeking countries to take ownership of this SDG and acknowledging that poverty looks differently around the world, it encourages each country to use their own definitions of poverty and to design “nationally appropriate social protection systems.” It suggests countries to ensure that poor communities have access to basic social services, financial services, property rights, sustainable livelihoods, and entrepreneurial opportunities. While there is also a call for increasing mobilization of resources towards poverty alleviation and the creation of a supportive international environment, the United Nations is encouraging development from within.

Empowering Communities and Building Resilience: The United Nations' Strategy to Eradicate Poverty
Source: Pixabay.com

In this context, resilience is the ability of people and communities to reduce their exposure and vulnerabilities to natural hazards such as droughts and floods, or economic or social shocks. This is an important aspect to address, given that a recent report by the World Bank found that climate change related hazards would push back 100 million people below the extreme poverty line by 2030, if development efforts do not take them into account and emphasize building resilience.

The good news is that this framework to combat poverty in the next 15 years is addressing the roots of the problem and is treating it as a multi-faceted issue where advances in gender equality, employment, social services, and infrastructure are also recognized as critical. Nevertheless, the resources needed to achieve this goal will put it in conflict with the SDGs that address the conservation of our climate and the planet’s natural ecosystems. There is little doubt that huge strives in creativity, innovation, and will to change some of our habits will be needed if we are to achieve all 17 SDGs.

 

Julio-10 copy

Julio 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.

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.

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“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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.