Tuesday, March 15, 2016

All in the Game: Foucault, Bourdieu, and The Wire

 Introduction: All in the Game
“We got our thing, but it’s all part of the big thing”- Zenobia

David Simon’s groundbreaking HBO series The Wire is, on the surface, a crime drama. However, the show contains layers of commentary regarding some of our society’s most urgent social problems. Set in the city of Baltimore, the show highlights the interlocking power structures that govern individuals’ lives: the political and economic systems, law enforcement, the education system, and the drug organizations that dominate the underground economy of Baltimore’s inner city. All have their own complex and to some extent fluid internal hierarchies, yet as Simon depicts throughout the series through mirroring scenes, “it’s all part of the big thing” (“Corner Boys”). The unifying force that binds each of these seemingly conflicting power structures is the War on Drugs, of which Simon presents a scathing critique.
Ostensibly, the dominant theme of The Wire seems to be that of a dysfunctional system. However, all the manifestations of this “dysfunction”—the political and police corruption, the drug epidemic, the failed education system—actually enable the power structure to survive and perpetuate itself. This presents the show’s fundamental and most disturbing thesis: dysfunction is precisely how the system functions. As a result, the few characters who attempt to subvert the power structures—paradoxically by trying to do their jobs properly or institute positive changes—invariably pay a severe price for their actions.

In many respects, Simon’s critique of the War on Drugs parallels the theories of two of the twentieth century’s most influential social critics, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. Both theorists study social stratification and the social reproduction of power structures—The Wire’s most prevalent underlying theme. Foucault and Bourdieu are concerned with the internalization and transmission of socially imposed constraints. According to both theorists, these constraints are perpetuated through self-regulation and self-policing (Foucault) and through the internalization of social roles (Bourdieu). Foucault and Bourdieu also show how these social roles—and their accompanying norms—are transmitted to children by their parents and the education system. The latter not only reinforces the power structure through discipline, but promotes “classification and division” (Foucault) that perpetuates the illusion of meritocracy Bourdieu deems “misrecognition” (Swartz 43).

To both theorists, power relations are represented symbolically, through language and the body. Bourdieu and Foucault share an interest in the fundamentally binary nature of language, and the use of binary labels in the construction of our social reality. Similarly, The Wire abounds with binary oppositions, whether between law enforcement and criminals, “soldiers” and “citizens,” or “corner kids” and “stoop kids.” As the show consistently reveals, these apparent binaries are not at all as oppositional as they appear; all are parts of a cohesive system, where one cannot exist without the other. In the series, individuals’ roles within this system are dramatized through the mechanism Bourdieu labels “bodily hexis” ("Distinction" 243): the carrying of weapons, wearing of uniforms (both official and unofficial), and geographical positioning (hence the characterization of “corner” vs. “stoop”).

Power is enacted not only through language, but through the regulation of knowledge and the discipline of the body. According to Foucault, the acquisition of knowledge plays a central role in the maintenance of power. One-sided knowledge, Foucault argues, allows the powerful to “discipline and punish” the subjugated population. As evidenced by the show’s very title, which refers to the wiretap that forms the series’ core narrative thread, surveillance is a critical means of control. Knowledge garnered through surveillance—which is carried out not only by law enforcement, but by political cabals, drug organizations, and school administrators—is used to enforce discipline throughout the series. 

Post-Industrialism and the Inner City
“This is Baltimore, gentlemen…the gods won’t save you” - Ervin Burrell

Social and historical context are critical in approaching The Wire through the lens of historicist Michel Foucault and social theorist Pierre Bourdieu. Foucault's Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison addresses the structural changes that accompanied the transition to an industrial society. Often characterized as The Gilded Age, this period was marked by rapid social change, extreme economic disparity, corruption, volatile markets, exploding urban quarters plagued by social problems, and waves of reform aimed at curing these ills. The Wire, by contrast, is set in post-industrial Baltimore, a city reeling from economic decline and simmering with the collective frustration of a marginalized population. In many respects, the show's setting parallels the period Foucault studies: wracked by the upheaval of deindustrialization, The Wire's Baltimore suffers a breakdown of the social fabric, as social bonds, values, and concerns for the collective interest disintegrate.

Before the deindustrialization process and economic decline that began in the 1970s (Anderson 108), Baltimore was a thriving urban center, with industrial giants such as Bethlehem Steel offering an avenue to middle class prosperity. With the decline of manufacturing, however, one quarter of Baltimore’s population now lives in poverty (Holleman), forming a vast disenfranchised underclass. The Wire devotes a major part of its second season to the effects of deindustrialization, dramatizing the loss of livelihood suffered by Baltimore's dock workers and the ravaging of their unions. The season's first episode opens with Detective Jimmy McNulty surveying Baltimore's Inner Harbor and discussing his father's layoff from Bethlehem Steel in 1973 ("Ebb Tide").

As in the Gilded Age, the disintegration of social obligations is manifest in the political sphere as growing corruption and the increasingly central role of money in politics. In the show, corruption taints virtually every sector of society. Embodying the devoted steward of a dying union, veteran stevedore Frank Sobotka struggles to maintain his value system in the face of financial crisis. Eventually, he resorts to complicity in a smuggling ring, using the proceeds to aid his union through political lobbying. In one telling scene, Sobotka laments, "You know what the trouble is, Brucey? We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy's pocket" ("Bad Dreams"). Politically, "putting our hand in the next guy's pocket" takes myriad forms, from the incessant "dialing for dollars" of mayoral hopeful Tommy Carcetti to the shameless corruption of State Senator Clay Davis, who is shown pocketing bribes and funding campaigns with laundered drug money. However, the economic and moral breakdown is most poignantly shown in the erosion of the moral code that once pervaded the streets of cities like Baltimore.

The Wire's Baltimore mirrors the newly industrial Gilded Age in that both eras are characterized by the anomie that accompanies great social transition and upheaval. As demonstrated by the decline of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the deindustrialization process is experienced as threatening and deeply unmooring. By portraying the complexity and humanity of those caught up in all levels of the drug trade, Simon shows the effects of these seismic economic changes on members of city's impoverished black underclass. "For the most desperate people," writes sociologist Elijah Anderson in his Code of the Streets, "many of whom are not effectively adjusting to these changes...the underground economy of drugs and crime often emerges to pick up the slack" (108).

Even among the most marginalized social groups, a social structure pervades, complete with norms, values, and morals. Echoing Anderson's Code of the Streets, The Wire's characters make frequent reference to the "rules of the game" that govern their behavior. For stick-up man Omar, who once proclaims that "a man got to have a code," the rules stipulate that he cannot "pull a gun on a citizen" ("Unto Others"). In other words, despite his propensity for lethal violence, Omar restricts this violence to participants in the drug game. The universality of this code, which can be likened to the honor code of the feudal societies supplanted by capitalism during industrialization, becomes systematically eroded as the show progresses. As longtime drug "soldier" Cutty Wise finds when he returns from a long stint in prison, "the game done changed" ("Hamsterdam"). As the hunger for profit increasingly trumps social ties and traditional norms, those who maintain the dying code invariably pay a heavy price.

Central to The Wire's narrative is the emergence of feuds both between and within drug organizations. These feuds further represent the transition from an honor-based social framework to one that is solely profit-based. Within the Barksdale organization that dominates the show's first few seasons, a growing rivalry emerges between its two leaders: Avon (whose oft-repeated refrain is "family") and the calculating Stringer (who gives the appearance of a corporate executive in all but the product he sells). In one confrontation between the two, Avon tells Stringer, "I ain't no suit-wearin' businessman like you. You know, I'm just a gangster, I suppose. And I want my corners” ("Homecoming"). Put another way, Avon's values are rooted in blood, honor, land, and a certain chivalry. Avon is outraged when Stringer violates the Sunday truce traditionally observed by the gangs, shooting at Omar's grandmother on her way to church. Stringer, by contrast, is shown owning a copy of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations and attempting to convince Avon to transform their drug organization into a legitimate business.

Later in the series, the Barksdale group is overpowered by the even more ruthlessly profit-driven Stanfield organization. Its leader, Marlo Stanfield, cares only about "business.” Like that of Stringer before him, Marlo's rise parallels the further unraveling of Baltimore's social fabric. Both Foucault and Simon address not only the tumult that accompanies profound economic change, but the consequences of attempts to institute reform. With the loss of livelihood and the weakening of traditional moral codes, marginalized populations are left without traditional sources of discipline and authority. As Discipline & Punish describes attempts at reform, such as the establishment of the modern prison system, The Wire portrays one of today's most ambitious attempts at social reform: the War on Drugs.

The Mechanisms of Power
“All in the game, yo. All in the game.” - Omar 

In Foucault's Discipline & Punish, the modern apparatus of authority "automatizes and disindividualizes power" (555). This concept is evident throughout The Wire in characters' frequent references to "The Game,” a term that also appears frequently in the writings of Bourdieu. In Bourdieu’s paradigm, the unquestioning devotion of street-level characters to the logic and values of the drug trade constitutes illusio, or “the fact of being caught up in and by the game, of believing…that playing is worth the effort” (qtd. in Webb, Schirato, and Danaher 26).

The term itself carries an important significance. According to Bourdieu, labels have the power to confer legitimacy ("Distinction" 249), and this designation legitimates the drug economy in the eyes of its participants. Further, "The Game" depersonalizes the drug trade, allowing individuals to deny responsibility for its violence and injustice. Other words in the street lexicon serve the same purpose: drug dealing is "business," an alliance of dealers is "the Co-Op" (whose meetings appear almost identical to corporate board meetings), and crew members carry military titles ("soldier," "lieutenant"). 

The Wire's core message, however, is that The Game extends far beyond the drug trade. Far from pitting the interests of organized crime against those of political authorities, the War on Drugs is shown uniting those interests. In accordance with the structural functionalist theory of Robert K. Merton, the series exposes the manifest and latent functions of the interlocking political, law enforcement, and education systems. In an analogous example illustrating Merton's theory, sociologist Peter L. Berger writes, "The 'manifest' function of antigambling legislation may be to suppress gambling, its 'latent' function to create an illegal empire for the gambling syndicates" (40). Similarly, while the manifest function of the Drug War is to stamp out drugs, on The Wire, its latent function is to build the careers and fill the pockets of savvy officials. The contrast between the manifest and latent is dramatized in mirroring scenes inside the police headquarters and a school. In these scenes, police officers and teachers page through binders and watch instructional videos, interjecting with sarcastic comments indicating that their official training bears no resemblance to reality on the ground ("Boys of Summer").

To advance their careers, The Wire's officials must maintain the appearance of the Drug War's manifest function while hiding its latent function. While benefiting from drug money—or from alliances with those benefiting from drug money—these officials manipulate crime statistics in order to project success in the Drug War. This practice, known as "juking the stats," is explained by cop-turned-teacher Roland Pryzbylewski (Prez): "Making robberies into larcenies, making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and major become colonels" ("Know Your Place").

Space, Segmentation, and Surveillance
“That’s right, I know your name. I know where you live, and I know where y’all hang” - Lt. Ellis      

In Discipline & Punish, Foucault describes the spatial expression of power in industrial society, using the modern prison as a representative example. Foucault examines the "Panopticon," a prison design created in 1791 by social reformer Jeremy Bentham, characterized by "enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point" (552). The Wire's setting—the most impoverished neighborhoods of inner city Baltimore—strikingly follows the same pattern, visually depicting the relationship between the prison environment and the urban ghetto.

Geographical segmentation appears throughout the series as a recurring, if subtle, theme. In mirror scenes, maps are shown in various political and law enforcement settings. One episode shows the segmentation of potential voters into color-coded districts on a campaign map, revisiting this image in a later scene in which the police headquarters displays a color-coded map of city crime ("Boys of Summer"). As Jeremy Crampton writes in Space, Knowledge, and Power, "Foucault's work suggests that mapping is not just the manufacture or printing of a map...but that maps are both a product of and intervention in a distributed series of political knowledges" (224). The Wire's use of maps highlights the power of knowledge and surveillance over a subject population.

The centrality of surveillance is evident in the show's very name, The Wire, which refers to the wiretap used to monitor the Barksdale and Stanfield organizations. Surveillance takes myriad forms, including not only the wiretap, but visible and hidden security cameras, the photographing of drug dealers, the use of informants, meticulous record-keeping, and the perp wall maintained by the police. In most cases, in a manner consistent with the Panopticon design, surveillance is conducted surreptitiously, creating one-sided knowledge and power.

Importantly, however, not all of this power rests within the political leadership and law enforcement agencies. Within the isolated, impoverished neighborhoods depicted in the show, drug organizations exert control and enforce discipline. Sometimes, given the mistrust of police in these communities, these organizations serve as the primary sources of authority. In an interesting parallel to the Panopticon structure—which features a central omniscient tower—the power of the Barksdale leadership is represented by its headquarters, known as The Towers. Street-level dealers, by contrast, are based in The Pit (the courtyard of a housing project), where their actions are constantly monitored by their superiors.

In addition to the Panopticon, Foucault introduces another example of geographical segmentation and control: that of a city stricken with the Plague. Due to the Plague's virulence, quarantine would prove useless, so the entire city must instead be controlled. In contrast with the isolation of the leper colony, the city in question follows the Panopticon model through enclosure, segmentation, discipline, and surveillance. Likewise, the scale of devastation caused by the drug "plague" necessitates—according to the logic of the War on Drugs—the policing of an entire community. The Wire, however, insinuates a more cynical interpretation: that deindustrialization has created a large population of disenfranchised individuals over whom the Drug War provides a politically and financially expedient means of domination.

This latent function of the War on Drugs is driven home by the character Bunny Colvin, a police major who (subverting the chain of command) institutes an experimental program to legalize drugs in a mostly abandoned "free zone." This zone is named "Hamsterdam" by the young dealers, who—in a telling display of their lack of geographical knowledge—misunderstand a police officer referencing Amsterdam. Hamsterdam strongly resembles the scenario that the Panopticon seeks to avoid: the "compact, swarming, howling masses that were to be found in places of confinement" (“Discipline & Punish” 554). Though successful in reducing the violent crime associated with the drug trade, Hamsterdam threatens the entire structural framework surrounding the Drug War and infuriates Colvin's superiors, who have built careers around that framework.

The Deadly Power of Knowledge
“No loose talk, no second thoughts and no snitching. Play it like that.” - D’Angelo Barksdale

Within the moral life of the inner city, one of the chief mores is the proscription against snitching. From a young age, children are already aware of this grave taboo and reinforce it within their peer groups. After a friend is punished for tagging the walls of their middle school, eighth-grader Namond is shown punching the air while commenting, "Kids be snitching." His friend Randy—the one who snitched—looks on with silent trepidation, foreshadowing the tragic consequences of breaking this taboo later in the series ("Refugees").

Because of these consequences, and because of the centrality of information in the maintenance of power, the ordinary people in neighborhoods depicted in The Wire live in constant fear of knowing too much. Knowing what they shouldn't know can endanger their lives, as shown by the killing of a murder witness in the show's pilot episode. As the pilot ends with the image of the witness lying in the street, viewers observe that ordinary citizens are caught between two competing authorities: law enforcement and the drug organizations. However, as the series unfolds, it conveys a more cynical underlying message. In fact, the careers of individuals within the police, political sphere, and underground economy are so interdependent that no one benefits from snitching. Facing an ugly election season, where crime is a key issue, the city's mayor presses the police command to minimize the appearance of rising violence. The significance of the murder is driven home when the Barksdales, the police, and the mayor's office alike take measures to symbolically bury the witness.

In the interest of keeping the system's latent functions hidden, the police and political spheres are shrouded in as much secrecy as are the drug organizations. The career-killing consequences of exposing others’ clandestine dealings are expressed by Detective Moreland Bunk when he warns Detective Jimmy McNulty against "giving a fuck when it ain't your turn to give a fuck" ("Unconfirmed Reports"). Working together to "follow the money" from the Barksdales to corrupt state senator Clay Davis, McNulty and Detective Freamon are confronted by an irate chain of command. Both pay a political price for their insistence on, essentially, doing their jobs. Meanwhile, their wiretap, which threatens not only the Barksdales but the entire system, is thwarted.
As the snitching issue demonstrates, word of mouth constitutes one of the chief modes of surveillance, and this concept extends far beyond the drug trade. The power of illicit knowledge is emphasized by its use in the otherwise unlikely ascension in rank of multiple characters. Herc, a bumbling detective, accidentally witnesses a compromising scene involving the mayor and uses this to wrangle a promotion to sergeant. He does this on the advice of district commander Stan Valchek, a character who epitomizes the strategic leveraging of "dirt" against rivals. Valchek's shrewd maneuverings highlight the extensiveness and interconnectedness of corruption in the series. In one scene, he uses careerist Deputy Commissioner Ervin Burrell's intentional suppression of the Barksdale investigation as blackmail, gaining his cooperation in uncovering the smuggling activities of Frank Sobotka, with whom Valchek has a petty rivalry. Ironically and purposefully, the illicit funds of Sobotka and Burrell originate from the same (drug-related) source.

In "Discipline & Punish," Foucault references the "crows," who are the only individuals allowed to move about the streets and between infected houses in his Plague example. These are "people of little substance who do many vile and abject offices" (551). Like the crow of European mythology—which crosses life's most fundamental boundary to carry the souls of the dead to the underworld—these outcasts are able, by virtue of their marginality, to transverse borders. As The Wire shows, the disenfranchised urban underclass has its own hierarchy, complete with outcasts and untouchables. Among these are the strippers/prostitutes and drug addicts who are used by police as informants. Bubbles, a homeless heroin addict, is rendered invisible by his social status; unlike other characters, he is able to move about freely and violate the snitching taboo without fear. Significantly, however, even the outcasts have strongly internalized the social norms of the community that shuns them. When Bubbles confides his informant activities to friend and fellow addict Johnny, the latter expresses moral indignation—even though Bubble's motivation is to incriminate dealers who nearly beat Johnny to death. "It's all part of the game, right?" Johnny objects ("The Pager").
Children and Socialization
“For every soldier that stood tall.” - Namond Brice

The Wire shows that even the most marginalized groups are characterized by social structures complete with norms, values, and morals. Further, as the series demonstrates, these structures largely resemble those of the mainstream society. Simon portrays the complexity of licit and illicit social systems and the individuals who comprise both. The resulting message is that there are no straightforward “good guys” and “bad guys”—morality is relative to the social group to which one belongs.

Among the characters immersed in the gang subculture, the central values are "being a soldier" and "standing tall," two phrases oft-repeated throughout the series. In this subculture, a soldier maintains unquestioning loyalty to the gang, even at great personal cost. Such loyalty exemplifies Bourdieu’s concept of misrecognition, which—similar to the Marxist concept of false consciousness—“denotes ‘denial’ of the economic and political interests present in a set of practices” (Swartz 43). Reinforcing the soldier’s identification with a subservient role, the ethos of "standing tall" drives low-level dealers to sacrifice themselves in order to protect their high-level counterparts and keep them in power.
In his article "Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction," Bourdieu describes how social classes reproduce their tastes, values, and behaviors through the parent-child relationship. Accordingly, The Wire offers many examples of the inculcation of children into the "soldier" morality. As Anderson points out, within this urban subculture, parents "teach their children to stand up for themselves physically or to meet violence with violence" (109). Socialization begins almost at birth, as shown in an encounter between Avon Barksdale and his nephew D'Angelo. When D'Angelo brings his infant son to a family event, Avon picks up the baby and comments on how strong he is. Handing him to a female relative, Avon remarks, "take care of my li'l soldier" ("The Detail").

According to Foucault, the transmission of social values to children constitutes a form of social control, preserving the hierarchical power relations of the larger society. "Intra-familial relations," he writes, "essentially in the parents-children cell, have become 'disciplined'" ("Discipline & Punish" 561). Namond's mother, DeLonda, is frequently shown shaming and punishing her eighth-grade son when he deviates from the culture of the drug organization of which their family is a part. As Namond is constantly reminded, his father, Wee-Bey, embodies the "soldier" ideal. A loyal enforcer in the Barksdale organization, Wee-Bey "stands tall" by taking the rap for a string of murders, consequently serving a life sentence in prison. When she and Namond visit Wee-Bey, DeLonda praises her husband, saying "you a soldier," then chastises her son for his lack of "work ethic" in dealing drugs. Reinforcing her message, Wee-Bey instructs, "Either you real out there or you ain't. See what I'm saying, Nay?" ("Soft Eyes").

Segmentation, Classification, and Education
“Ready for gen pop. This is prison, yo…and we in solitary.” - Namond Brice

According to Foucault, the role of the school is "to map aptitudes, to assess characters, to draw up rigorous classifications" (“Discipline and Punish” 556). Through these "classificatory schemes" (Bourdieu, "Distinction" 248), the modern education system not only maintains order and discipline, but reinforces misrecognition by promoting a false sense of meritocracy. The Wire devotes an entire season (Season Four) to the ostensibly broken education system and the "school-to-prison pipeline," which isolates the most disadvantaged students and subjects them to harsh punitive measures, effectively socializing them for the criminal justice system (Wald and Losen). At Tilghman Middle School, the students are subject to "binary division" and "branding" (Foucault, "Discipline & Punish," 553) when teachers label them "corner boys" and "stoop kids." Both are members of a marginalized community, but they are distinguished from a young age; one is socialized for menial labor, the other for prison.

Though the surface message may be the brokenness of the system, Simon's deeper message is that the education system is not broken at all. While it appears to fail in its manifest function of imparting knowledge, The Wire's Tilghman Middle succeeds—more importantly—in its latent function of reinforcing the existing social structure. Throughout the season, teachers and administrators make frequent reference to the statewide standardized tests that determine funding. In the words of veteran teacher Grace Sampson, "From now 'til they're done, everything's about the tests" ("Misgivings"). These tests not only provide a pretext for allocating national resources in an unequal fashion, but ensure compliance with a curriculum that disadvantages students who lack cultural capital.

Like the prisons shown in many episodes of The Wire, Tilghman Middle embodies the spatial positioning described in Foucault's "Discipline & Punish": "enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point" (552). Outside, the school building resembles a prison; inside, students are subject to uniforms, closed circuit cameras, the presence of armed security and police officers, and constant surveillance. Notably, the students are not the only individuals being monitored. Administrators are often shown observing teachers through well-placed windows in classroom doors (again, mirroring the design of the prison shown on the series).

Foucault stresses the centrality of bodily discipline in the prison setting; here, too, The Wire offers a parallel message regarding physical control in schools. During their conversation about the importance of standardized test scores, new teacher Prez asks Ms. Sampson why the building's heat has been turned up so high (alluding, also, to the high-stakes pressure imposed on teachers). She explains that the heat keeps the children subdued amid the grueling test preparation, adding: "Keep your windows closed. Makes 'em drowsy, and drowsy is good" ("Soft Eyes").

Ultimately, the school environment creates a no-win situation for "corner kids," who are caught between the disciplinary authorities of the school and the street. This dilemma is personified by Namond, an eighth-grade corner kid who, upon being placed in a special program, remarks, "This is prison, yo...and we in solitary" ("Margin of Error"). Namond's social well-being and even physical safety depend upon his conformity to the "code of the street." He is continually pressured to adopt the bodily hexis of the corner through language, gesture, and dress, particularly by his overbearing mother. Determined to mold her son into a "soldier" in the image of his father, Namond's mother buys him expensive clothes and encourages him to wear these to school, despite the uniform requirement. Within the corner culture, where expensive clothing can make one a target for violent theft, these clothes play the vital role of showing the wearer's "nerve" or "heart." As Anderson writes, "Material goods play an important and complicated role in establishing self-image...the staging area is a place to show off, to represent, even to dare someone to mess with you" (78). However, the clothes and other "street" behaviors get Namond in trouble with school authorities. He is thus forced into a deviant role, justifying his marginalization within the education system.

Thus marginalized, youths like Namond are easily channeled into the criminal justice system. The detrimental effects of classificatory schemes on children are described by Wald and Losen of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, who state that "'gatekeepers'...often make assessments of youths’ character--their potential for academic success (as indicated by standardized test scores, track placement) and rehabilitation” (11). Wald and Losen closely correlate student marginalization within schools with later criminality and incarceration, providing evidence of the school-to-prison pipeline. As Bunny Colvin remarks in Season Four, "You know, this right here, the whole damn school, the way they carry themselves...it's training for the street. The building's the system. We the cops" ("Corner Boys").

In an echo of his effort to isolate the drug problem in "Hamsterdam," Colvin devises an experimental program to provide the corner kids with individualized instruction tailored to their unique needs. There, students like Namond make noticeable progress, developing their ability to think critically about their own social milieu. Nonetheless, the program is discontinued by the administration because it interferes with the focus upon standardized testing.

Know Your Place: Habitus & Cultural Capital
“The king stay the king.” - D’Angelo Barksdale

In his essay "Distinction," Bourdieu introduces the phenomenon he deems habitus, which constitutes and individual's "sense of place." This sense of place, in turn, prompts one to "exclude oneself from the goods, persons, places and so forth from which one is excluded" (241). The concept of habitus is dramatized in many scenes throughout The Wire, including one in which Avon Barksdale's nephew, D'Angelo, takes his girlfriend to a posh restaurant. When D'Angelo confides that he feels they don't "belong" there, his girlfriend counters, "but you're money's good, right?" and points out that they are not the only black patrons. "It ain't about that," D'Angelo explains. "I feel like...you know, some shit just stay with you" ("The Pager").

Often, characters' sense of their place is further constrained by lack of knowledge about the world outside their immediate social environment. This is especially pertinent in light of Foucault's discussion of geographical knowledge and power. Namond expresses unawareness and even fear of life outside Baltimore City when he tells friends, "The Ku Klux Klan live out in Howard County--I know that for a fact" ("Soft Eyes"). Even though Howard County is a mere 25 miles from downtown Baltimore, the wealthy, primarily white area is worlds away from Namond in terms of economic and social status.

Like Namond, fellow young Barksdale crew member Bodie has never had the opportunity to leave his neighborhood. When he is sent to pick up a drug package in Philadelphia, Bodie turns to his partner, puzzled, when the radio station goes out of range. His partner tells him to find a Philadelphia station, prompting Bodie to ask, "The radio in Philly is different?" Later, he wonders, "Why would anyone want to leave Baltimore?" ("Ebb Tide").

Bodie, who identifies strongly with his social environment and its values, often demonstrates the concept Bourdieu labels "doxa," or "common sense" (“Distinction,” 241). He often imparts this common sense to the younger dealers whom he supervises, such as the eighth-grader Michael, reinforcing their habitus and keeping their aspirations in check. As a new school year approaches, Michael informs Bodie that he plans to quit dealing in order to return to school. "What you wanna go to school for?" Bodie replies mockingly. "What the fuck you wanna be? A astronaut? A dentist? A lawyer?" ("Boys of Summer"). 

In Bourdieu’s paradigm, Bodie’s steadfast belief in the legitimate and just nature of the Barksdale hierarchy conveys misrecognition. Bodie's frequent espousal of a strong "work ethic" shows that he views himself not as a criminal, but an honest worker just trying to get by through the only means available to him. He believes in the moral legitimacy of his employer and in the potential for mobility within the organization. In a Season One scene that establishes one of the show's central messages, D'Angelo teaches Bodie and another young crew member the rules of chess. Over the chess board—symbolic of "the game" that the characters constantly invoke—D'Angelo explains the fixed roles of each piece. When D'Angelo explains that pawns cannot become the king, Bodie counters, "unless they some smart ass pawns," showing that he buys into the illusion of social mobility through intelligence and hard work. Though Bodie consistently displays both of these traits, he is unable to transcend his role as an expendable pawn in the Barksdale organization. 

Strongly related to Bourdieu's concept of habitus is that of cultural capital, which consists of the linguistic and cultural competencies that middle and upper class parents transmit to their children ("Cultural Reproduction"). In The Wire, cultural capital is frequently portrayed in scenes that sharply contrast the habitus of inner city characters with middle class and elite settings that are alien to them. The opening scene of Season Four introduces Snoop, a ruthless enforcer in the Stanfield organization. Snoop is shown shopping for a nail gun—which she plans to use to seal victims' bodies into vacant houses—at a suburban chain store called the Hardware Barn. The very name of the store evokes a contrast in habitus, as a barn could not be further from Snoop's urban environment. Inside the Hardware Barn, Snoop's language and violent humor confuse the salesman, and—accustomed to the norms of street commerce—she pays for her merchandise by stuffing $800 in the bewildered associate’s hand ("Boys of Summer").

Mirroring D’Angelo’s earlier restaurant incident, a scene in Season Four shows Bunny Colvin treating a group of “corner kid” middle schoolers to dinner as a reward for a class project. Lacking the cultural capital to observe its norms, the students are uncomfortable inside the upscale restaurant. While dining, they are bombarded by unfamiliar displays of bodily hexis—the hostess attempting to take their coats, the names of menu items, and the demure behavior of patrons. By the end of the meal, the children are visibly shaken by the experience and ask Colvin if they can stop at McDonald’s on the way home (“Know Your Place”).

From the perspective of former law enforcement, Colvin and Prez offer unique insight into the children’s educational needs. Like Colvin, Prez quickly learns that traditional teaching methods fail to reach his students. For example, when he gives students a math problem about a man traveling from East to West Baltimore, they erupt into a discussion of the gang-related implications of the scenario. Later, Prez tries a different tack, successfully teaching probability through one of the few ways it will realistically be useful to them: gambling (“Homerooms”). Though Colvin and Prez both attempt to take cultural capital into account in their teaching, their efforts are thwarted by an administration that cares only about standardized test scores. Fearful of losing funding and their own jobs, the administrators pull the plug on all experimental teaching methods. Forced to drill his students in practice test problems, Prez draws a connection to his former police superiors' tampering with crime statistics. "Juking the stats," he says. "I've been here before" ("Know Your Place").

The Web of Power: Beyond Foucault & Bourdieu
“I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase.” - Omar

In its depiction of structural maintenance of power, social stratification, and socialization, The Wire strongly reflects the theories of Foucault and Bourdieu. In some regards, however, the show transcends these theories by portraying power relations as highly complex. Rather than a binary relationship between a dominating and dominated class, the series depicts power structures as evolving, closely entwined, and mutually reinforcing. In a reversal of Foucault, who wrote that "any individual...can operate the machine" ("Discipline & Punish” 555), The Wire shows the machine as manipulated by individuals with clearly personal agendas.

The depersonalized and disindvidualized system Foucault describes is, essentially, modern bureaucracy. While nearly every episode of The Wire shows characters entangled in bureaucratic red tape, virtually every instance of paperwork and regulation serves as an individual's political maneuver. Paperwork is used to punish wayward characters for angering superiors (invariably for subverting their political agendas), to thwart investigations, or to sabotage rivals. In Simon’s representation of bureaucracy, the system’s manifest function projects impartiality, hiding its latent function of serving personal interests.

Further, within The Wire's complex power dynamics, no singular Panopticon presides over the dominated masses. Just as the police carry out surveillance, members of the criminal underground are shown turning the camera right back on the authorities. In one of the mirror scenes favored by the series, Detective Kima Greggs takes surveillance photographs of a bodega serving as a drug front, while stick-up man Omar spies on her. Rather than complying with official systems of authority and policing themselves, the Barksdales and Stanfields circumvent police surveillance by destroying or stealing cameras, using "burner" cell phones and pagers, and speaking in code. Even the ultimate form of bodily control, prison, fails to subdue the powerful drug organizations. Instead, their leaders manipulate the inner workings of the prison and continue their criminal activities through visits, phone calls, smuggling, and complicit guards.

If a dominated class does exist in The Wire, this class consists of the ordinary citizens of the inner city. These individuals are harassed by police, used and manipulated by political leadership, and coerced by the drug organizations that constitute a legitimate and feared source of authority. As a result, members of these marginalized communities are shown—in accordance with Foucault and Bourdieu—policing themselves and keeping their dreams in check. The realism of The Wire's setting and the humanity of its characters encourage viewers to empathize with members of the community it portrays, and to better understand the complexity of urban social problems. Although The Wire contains all the elements of a compelling drama, what makes the show so powerful is that it is more than fiction. The dramas unfolding on the screen are also those unfolding on the streets, and for those concerned with social change, Simon’s indictment of the War on Drugs sounds a potent clarion call.

Works Cited
Anderson, Elijah. Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. Print.

“Bad Dreams.” The Wire: The Complete Second Season. Writ. David Simon and George Pelacanos. Dir. George Pelecanos. HBO, 2003. DVD.

Berger, Peter L. Invitation to Sociology. New York: Doubleday, 1963. Google E-Book.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction.” Knowledge, Education & Cultural Change: Papers in the Sociology of Education. Ed. Richard Brown. London: Tavistock, 1973. Google E-Book.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Distinction.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 237-253. Print.

“Boys of Summer.” The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season. Writ. David Simon and Ed Burns. Dir. Joe Chapelle. HBO, 2006. DVD.

Crampton, Jeremy. “Maps, Race and Foucault: Eugenics and Territorialization Following World War I.”  Space, Knowledge and Power: Foucault and Geography. Eds. Jeremy Crampton and Stuart Elden. Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2007. 223-244.  Google E-Book.

“Ebb Tide.” The Wire: The Complete First Season. Writ. David Simon and Ed Burns. Dir. David Simon. HBO, 2002. DVD.

Foucault, Michel. “Discipline & Punish.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 549-565. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Print.

“Hamsterdam.” The Wire: The Complete Third Season. Writ. David Simon and George Pelecanos. Dir. George Pelecanos. HBO, 2004. DVD.

Holleman, Martha. “A Local War on Poverty.” The Baltimore Sun. Baltimore Sun, 16 Jan. 2014. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. .

“Homecoming.” The Wire: The Complete Third Season. Writ. David Simon and Rafael Alvarez. Dir. Rafael Alvarez. HBO, 2003. DVD.

“Home Rooms.” The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season. Writ. Ed Burns and Richard Price. Dir. Richard Price. HBO, 2006. DVD.

“Know Your Place.” The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season. Writ. Ed Burns and Kia Corthron. Dir. Kia Corthron. HBO, 2006. DVD.

“Margin of Error.” The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season. Writ. Ed Burns and Eric Overmyer. Dir. Eric Overmyer. HBO, 2006. DVD.

Merton, Robert. “Manifest and Latent Functions.” Sociological Theory in the Contemporary Era: Text and Readings. Eds. Scott Appelrouth and Laura Edles. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2011. Google E-Book.

“Misgivings.” The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season. Writ. Ed Burns and Eric Overmyer. Dir. Ernest Dickerson. HBO, 2006. DVD.

“Refugees.” The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season. Writ. Ed Burns and Dennis Lehane. Dir. Dennis Lehane. HBO, 2006. DVD.

“Soft Eyes.” The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season. Writ. Ed Burns and David Mills. Dir. David Mills. HBO, 2006. DVD.

Swartz, David. Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Google E-Book.

“The Detail.” The Wire: The Complete First Season. Writ. David Simon and Ed Burns. Dir. David Simon. HBO, 2002. DVD.

“The Pager.” The Wire: The Complete First Season. Writ. David Simon and Ed Burns. Dir. Ed Burns. HBO, 2002. DVD.

“The Target.” The Wire: The Complete First Season. Writ. David Simon and Ed Burns. Dir. David Simon. HBO, 2002. DVD.

“That’s Got His Own.” The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season. Writ. Ed Burns and George Pelecanos. Dir. George Pelecanos. HBO, 2006. DVD.

“Unconfirmed Reports.” The Wire: The Complete Fifth Season. Writ. David Simon and William Zorzi. Dir. William Zorzi. HBO, 2008. DVD.

“Unto Others.” The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season. Writ. Ed Burns and William F. Zorzi. Dir. William F. Zorzi. HBO, 2006. DVD.

Wald, Johanna and Daniel Losen. “Defining and Redirecting a School-to-Prison Pipeline.” School-to-Prison Pipeline Research Conference, Northeastern University, Boston, 16-17 May 2003. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

Webb, Jen, Tony Schirato, and Geoff Danaher. Understanding Bourdieu. London: SAGE, 2002. Google E-Book.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Commentary:Protect Children from Lead Poisoning

Published March 8, 2015 in the Cherry Hill Courier-Post


lead poisoning

On the hardwood floor of a Camden apartment, a toddler crawls in circles, playing with her favorite stuffed bunny. Sunlight streams through the picture window framed by peeling white paint. The midafternoon light illuminates the tiny flakes of dust swirling like snow from a snow globe, before settling on the floor around her.

She makes the bunny hop from the sofa to the chair, gathering the nearly invisible dust on its paws. Giggling, she chews on the toy, delighted at the sweet taste. With this innocent act, her life is changed forever.

She has become one of the 5,000 children poisoned by lead each year in New Jersey.

Lead poisoning, which causes irreversible brain damage and disproportionately affects our state’s most vulnerable children, is easily prevented. By supporting state Senate Bill S1279, we can restore the nearly depleted fund to remove this hidden threat.

Though lead was outlawed as a paint additive in 1978, it lingers in older homes, posing a special danger in poorly maintained low-income housing. Young children often ingest the poison while crawling on floors contaminated by paint dust, and then putting fingers and toys into their mouths. Often, they are drawn to the sweet taste of the metal.

Tragically, the children most easily exposed are also those who suffer the worst effects. Lead is devastating to a child’s developing brain, causing learning disabilities, significantly lowered IQ and behavioral problems. The Environmental Protection Agency warns that particles only the size of two grains of sugar per day, ingested over a month, can cause impairment.

This devastation, in turn, ripples throughout our society. By impairing the brain mechanisms that govern impulse control and recognition of consequences, the toxin increases the likelihood of aggressive, criminal and even violent behavior. Studies by Harvard researcher Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, economist Rick Nevin and others have closely linked childhood lead exposure with crime rates.

Lead constitutes a special hazard for our state, due to the aged housing stock in New Jersey’s cities. Further, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, lead safety is imperative as damaged homes are restored. Yet New Jersey’s lead standards lag shamefully behind those of other states.

Though there are no safe levels, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set the threshold of concern at 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood. New Jersey has not only failed to formally adopt this guideline, but has consistently mismanaged the fund meant to remedy our lead problem.

New Jersey’s Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund provides lead abatement, home testing, and lead safety education. However, an Asbury Park Press investigation revealed that since 2004, over $50 million has been diverted from the fund to pay routine state salaries and bills. In a further demonstration of negligence, state officials have failed to enact a 2008 law to ensure lead-safe conditions in one- and two-family rentals.

While the harm from lead is irreversible, New Jersey’s pattern of neglect is not.

With S1279, we can ensure a lead-safe future for our state’s children. The bill, scheduled for a March 9 hearing, will pump $10 million into the nearly empty lead hazard control fund. These funds will be used to abate lead-contaminated buildings, provide emergency relocation and early intervention for children with elevated blood lead levels, offer training in lead-safe building maintenance, and distribute free dust-wipe kits for families and X-ray fluorescence analyzers for health departments. It will also promote statewide education and transparency regarding this insidious toxin.

By voicing support for S1279, we can let our state senators know that the futures of low-income children matter. Through the simple, cost-effective measures provided by this bill, New Jersey can save thousands of innocent children from the scourge of lead poisoning.

Valerie Saturen is a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in In These Times, Yes! Magazine, the Jewish Week, Next Step Magazine and other publications. She lives in North Haledon.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Protecting First Responders

Published September 11, 2011 on the earthbongo blog: http://blog.earthbongo.com/2011/09/protecting-first-responders/

Ten years ago, amid the tragedy of 9/11, we saw the sacrifices first responders make to save others’ lives. Their heroic deeds remind us that ordinary people are sometimes called upon to do extraordinary things. As we honor our firefighters, we should also recognize the emergency personnel who perform critical tasks but remain out of the public eye.

Among the ranks of these unsung heroes are fire police like those of the Fountain Hill fire station in eastern Pennsylvania. They spend sleepless nights at the fire hall, brave extreme weather conditions, and put themselves at risk to ensure that firefighters can do their jobs safely.

As Hurricane Irene wreaked havoc across the eastern seaboard, fire police officer Tiffany McCartney knew she was in for a long night at the station. She and more than twelve other “Hurricane Crew” members stayed up through the Sunday night peak of the storm, frantically fielding calls. From 2 a.m. until 5 p.m., 47 calls came in, sometimes four or five at a time. The crew rushed to pump out basements flooded by torrential rains. At a local elementary school, they prevented a potentially disastrous fire by stopping water from leaking onto a generator.  While the storm unleashed high winds and heavy rain, Tiffany stood in the downpour, making sure no one hit the firefighters as they came out of their trucks in the dark.

Besides protecting firefighters, fire police keep the public out of harm’s way by controlling traffic and crowds, securing emergency scenes, and evacuating residents from unsafe areas. Tiffany says that the challenges of working with the public have taught her to be patient and understanding, yet firm in enforcing the rules. “People may not understand why you’re there,” she remarks, and may jeopardize firefighters by ignoring a barricade. In these situations, fire police risk their own safety to prevent firefighters from being hit. Some have lost their lives doing so.

Tiffany is continuing a family tradition that began with her father, Marlin Bozes, who served as a fire police officer. Growing up, she excitedly watched him go out on calls. “I saw what he got to do, and that he was out in his community helping people,” she says. “That inspired me.” She has been following in his footsteps for seven years, volunteering alongside her husband, firefighter Glenn McCartney. Serving together has brought the couple closer together, giving them a shared sense of purpose. Tiffany reflects that volunteering “was a joint effort, and doing it together gave us a common bond.”

Tiffany is keenly aware of the dangers confronting the firefighters she has worked with for so many years. “Being on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, you never know what’s going to happen,” she says. She was reminded of this reality when, during a home fire, a floor collapsed and nearly trapped a firefighter in a basement. Luckily, he survived, but had to be taken to the hospital. When he was released, the firefighter eagerly returned to keep battling the blaze.

Another vivid memory is the five-year anniversary of 9/11.  A local family was remodeling their home when a lamp fell on some plastic, engulfing the entire house in flames. Strong winds made the fire especially difficult to put out. To Tiffany, the fire crew’s work was a fitting tribute to the 343 first responders who lost their lives in the Twin Towers.

On this anniversary, Tiffany is organizing a commemoration ceremony at the fire hall. She has asked firefighters to share their thoughts and memories of 9/11. “To me, that was the best thing,” she says, “because it’s coming from the mouths of people who do the same thing for their community as those guys did in those towers.” For those who share that common bond, remembering the events of that day—and the protracted recovery effort that followed—takes on a special meaning.

The fire service forms a close-knit community forged by trust, and each member is conscious of his or her responsibility for the others’ lives. “Everybody’s connected,” Tiffany says. “Everybody’s in that brotherhood or sisterhood of the fire department. It’s like an extended family, and most of us would do anything for anybody else.”
We at earthbongo salute the heroes of 9/11 together with Tiffany and other first responders across the world. Thank you for your service.

September is National Preparedness Month, which is a great time to plan ahead for emergencies.  Check out earthbongo project Be Ready for Emergencies to see what you can do to keep your family safe.

Improving Kids' Lives with a School Supply Drive

Published August 21, 2011 on the earthbongo blog: http://blog.earthbongo.com/2011/08/improving-kids-lives-with-a-school-supply-drive/

It’s almost time to go back to school, and that means parents are scrambling to get the supplies their kids need for the new year. For many families who struggle to pay the bills and put food on the table, this can be an enormous challenge. That’s where Queen Anne Helpline comes in. The Seattle organization is filling backpacks with much-needed materials to make sure local kids are ready to learn.

Founded in 1982, Queen Anne Helpline provides an array of services to disadvantaged families, including residents of the approximately 800 low-income housing units on Queen Anne hill. With the economy still suffering, the Helpline has seen a skyrocketing demand, including people who had never before asked for help. According to board secretary and volunteer Donna Hegstrom, 11 new families have approached the organization this week alone. Some walk into the office bearing eviction notices. Many are among the over 2 million “99ers” whose unemployment benefits have run out after 99 weeks of joblessness. “Most never thought they’d find themselves in this position,” says Donna. “The need is growing by leaps and bounds.”

At the same time, parents are shouldering a higher burden to provide supplies public schools can no longer afford. Donna explains that deep budget cuts to Seattle’s public schools mean that parents are obligated to provide items not only for their own children, but for the classrooms. They receive long lists of requirements, including items like white board markers, scissors, pads of sticky notes, and hand sanitizer—all for communal use. The kids must also come to school with supplies for themselves, from notebooks to ear buds and USB drives for working on the computer. “If you’re a single or low-income parent with more than one child,” says Donna, “these costs can really add up.”

How much do they add up to? Running down the lists, I did some virtual back-to-school shopping at Kmart.com, looking for the most inexpensive brands I could find (except for the items where high-quality name brands were specifically listed). It turns out that one second grader’s list totaled $77.87. An eighth grader’s was $96.53. You don’t need to buy a calculator to see how these sums can multiply.

Luckily, there’s help. Donna led me to a room in the Helpline office filled with cardboard boxes overflowing with folders, crayons, glue sticks and other back-to-school needs. The majority of the supplies have been purchased by the Helpline and its volunteers, often out of their own pockets. In one corner sits a box of backpacks waiting to be picked up August 26-29.

Will you help Donna and the other Helpline volunteers fill them? The packs are almost ready, but two of the required items are still needed to make each one complete. Join volunteer Nancy’s projects, USB Thumb Drives for the Kids and Headphones for the Kids, to help the children walk into the classroom prepared!

Smiling All the Way to (and from) the Bank

Published August 10, 2011 on the earthbongo blog: http://blog.earthbongo.com/2011/08/smiling-all-the-way-to-and-from-the-bank/

Sharon Fillingim’s puppy knows all about the benefits of local banking. On walks down Seattle’s Queen Anne Avenue, the puppy eagerly tugs on the leash when Sharon passes HomeStreet Bank, hoping for one of the treats stashed there.

A trip to this small community bank is a treat for customers, too. The name says it all: HomeStreet is a welcoming hub for many residents of the Queen Anne neighborhood. Instead of rushing through their transactions and leaving, they linger to chat over coffee. On Fridays, they can munch on one of the scrumptious cookies a customer bakes herself. According to branch manager Hossein Soleymani, she has never asked for reimbursement.

Hossein has been with HomeStreet for over a decade. “Small banks have more opportunities to help the community,” he says. “It’s not just a good idea to do—it’s something you must do as a neighbor.” He and other employees have put in numerous hours volunteering for local charities, including Queen Anne Helpline, which provides a variety of social services to neighbors in need. Hossein says the bank’s growth stems not from spending money on advertising, but from building community trust through word of mouth. “Our customers bring customers,” he says.

The cornerstone of this trust is customer service that goes the extra mile. Sharon owns the charming Le Reve bakery just down the street from the bank. When I tell her Hossein sent me, her face brightens. “He was just here today for lunch!” she exclaims. Since she opened her business account at HomeStreet, she has gotten to know him and the tellers, who have typically held their jobs for many years. If Sharon and her staff run out of change, they deliver it, a time-saving favor she can’t imagine many banks doing. It’s all part of the personal atmosphere that often distinguishes local banks from their huge Wall Street counterparts. “What impressed me most is that they greet each customer by name,” she says. “It makes you feel special.”

Ronda Miller says the same thing about her local bank, Umpqua. She’s the proud holder of the key to the second safety deposit box at its brand-new Queen Anne branch, which  opened its doors July 20th. For many years, she did her banking at Washington Mutual. But when WaMu was acquired by JPMorgan Chase amid the 2008 financial collapse, things began to change. “Whenever I walked in the door,” she says, “I felt pressured to buy something.” These high-pressure, often deceptive sales tactics were so bad that in June, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) fined the bank $27 million. Employees might approach Ronda more than once, delivering the same pitch without recognizing her face or recalling their previous encounter. While the impersonal service was off-putting, it wasn’t until Ronda had a problem with her credit card that she decided enough was enough. The bank gave her the run-around, passing her from one person to the next without resolving the issue. Ready for a change, she closed her account and opened a new one at Umpqua, where she says, “I’ve never felt like I was being sold a product.”

Ronda had read good things about Umpqua in a newspaper article about its Green Street lending program. Through the program, Umpqua offers homeowners affordable loans to make energy-saving improvements and install solar panels. The bank is part of a program called Solarize Seattle, a project of the nonprofit organization Northwest SEED. Its partners include the local solar company Sunergy Systems and Sustainable Queen Anne, a grassroots group promoting economic and environmental sustainability.

While other banks may have a business plan, Umpqua has a manifesto. In it, the bank says it’s “equal parts checking account and knitting club, commercial loan and local music store, IRA and Internet cafĂ©.” Supporting the local economy is an obvious Umpqua priority. All the goodies customers enjoy, from daily coffee to free massages on special occasions, come from local businesses. To say hello, the new branch hand-delivered plants to the front porches of each of its new neighbors.

At Umpqua, Ronda receives all the same services she did at her Wall Street bank, but instead of fees and aggressive sales, she enjoys a personal atmosphere that puts a smile on her face. “When you go into Umpqua,” she says, “you talk to one person, not three. You walk up, and they help you with everything.”

Isn’t that the way it always should be? Recently, I heard about a campaign called Move Your Money, a large-scale movement to “invest in Main Street, not Wall Street” by switching to a local bank or credit union. I decided to do the same and moved my money to the Washington State Employees Credit Union. I’ve never looked back. Here’s how you can join me, Sharon, Ronda, and millions of other people in finding a bank that really knows how to make change: http://earthbongo.com/project/243/move-your-money-to-a-local-bank.

Careers in Public Relations

Published March 2012 in Next Step Magazine: http://www.nextstepu.com/plan-for-college/career-path/careers-in-public-relations.htm

Every business or organization needs a good reputation in order to succeed. That’s why companies, nonprofits, government agencies, hospitals and educational institutions all have a growing demand for public relations specialists. If you enjoy working with people and have a way with words, this could be the career for you.

Public relations specialists build positive relationships between their organization and the public. They write press releases, contact the media, coordinate events and stay up to date on public attitudes and developments in their field.

Education, skills

Careers in public relations typically require a bachelor’s degree, and it’s best to major in communications, journalism or marketing. While in college, internships are one of the most valuable ways to gain experience and network with professionals in the field. They are often the best routes to finding your first real job.

Kristina Tirloni is a media/public relations specialist for TG, a Texas nonprofit that guarantees student loans and helps students plan financially for college. At the University of North Texas (www.unt.edu), she looked for a major that would suit her interest in discovering what makes people tick. She ended up studying journalism, with a focus in public relations and marketing. After graduation, she began an internship with a small company that later hired her as an account executive.

Tirloni recommends doing more than one internship, preferably in diverse industries, in order to find the best match. “Always be willing to try something different,” she says.
Besides internships, there are many opportunities for students to gain real-world experience and start building a writing portfolio. Many local newspapers have junior writer programs in which high school students can submit articles and photographs. Or, try writing for a magazine or website with a young readership.

Another way to learn about the industry is joining the student chapter of a professional association like the Public Relations Society of America or the International Association of Business Communicators.

Typical day

Job descriptions vary with the size of the company. Within small organizations, one person often handles many or all of the marketing and public relations responsibilities, while employees in larger organizations have more specialized roles. For example, they might promote their company online through social media.

This career involves a great deal of research and writing. Public relations specialists keep informed of new developments by maintaining files of relevant articles from newspapers and magazines. They also write publicity materials and editorials for publication.
In this fast-paced industry, be prepared for long hours, tight deadlines, unpredictable schedules and constant pressure to generate new ideas. Public relations is hectic work that includes juggling several projects at once and traveling to attend events or represent the company at conferences. If a crisis comes up, you may have to work around the clock until it is resolved.

Is it for you?

Public relations specialists must have strong oral and written communication skills. They should have an outgoing personality, confidence, exceptional judgment, creativity and a natural understanding of people’s desires and motivations.

People skills and a willingness to take the initiative are also important. As the public face of your company, be prepared to really put yourself and your company out there.
Tirloni emphasizes, “You’ve got to be willing to pick up the phone and talk to somebody you’ve never met and sell your message.  You have to go out on a limb.”

One of the biggest keys to success is flexibility. Be ready to handle unpredictable situations and build relationships with people who have different viewpoints.

“If something doesn’t work out the way you planned, you’ve got to be ready for Plan B,” says Tirloni.

This field offers an opportunity to exercise your creativity, build relationships and play a key role in helping an organization succeed.

Vital stats
  • National average salary: $51,000
  • Education: Bachelor’s degree in journalism or communications, along with real-world experience through at least one internship.
  • Pursue if: You are outgoing, possess excellent written and verbal skills and can think on your feet.

Consider HBCUs

Published February 2012 in Next Step Magazine: http://newserver.nextstepu.com/plan-for-college/college-planning/consider-hbcus.htm


Students who enroll in historically black colleges are likely to find a supportive atmosphere, close relationships with faculty and a longstanding tradition of African-American excellence. With notable alumni including Martin Luther King, Jr. (Morehouse College, www.morehouse.edu), Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State University, www.tntstate.edu), Spike Lee (Morehouse College) and Thurgood Marshall (Lincoln University, www.lincoln.edu), these institutions have long played a key role in educating African-American leaders.

A supportive environment

According to the Higher Education Act of 1965, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are institutions that were established before 1964 with the primary mission of educating African-Americans. These institutions originally provided educational opportunities to black students when they were systematically barred from other colleges and universities. There are 105 public and private HBCUs, including four-year colleges, community colleges, medical schools and graduate or professional schools. Most are located in Southern states.

For African-American students, attending an HBCU offers an opportunity to be part of a close-knit campus community where many others share their heritage. “They allow African-American students the opportunity to share, develop awareness, bond and connect in ways that may not have been made available at other institutions,” says Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina, Professor of History at Coppin State University
(www.coppin.edu). At the same time, students of other races benefit from exposure to fellow students from a different ethnic background.

Pamela Champ is a five-year MBA student at Hampton University (www.hampton.edu), a historically black university in Virginia. To Pamela, a key advantage has been the presence of positive role models on campus. “It exposes African-Americans to other successful African-Americans, whether it’s the peers you see on the road to success or the professors you see daily,” she reflects. Because of the lower student-to-faculty ratios at many HBCUs, professors are not only positive examples, but also mentors. “At an HBCU the classes are generally smaller, so I’ve really gotten to know my professors one on one, and I wasn’t just a number,” says Pamela. “The intimate learning environment really helped me.”

Living history

The majority of HBCUs were founded shortly after the Civil War, and they often have a rich and storied history. Their legacies are intertwined with the history of Civil Rights and the struggle for equality. “Most colleges may teach history,” says Pamela, “but at Hampton I felt like I was a part of it, right in the middle of historical events.” Hampton students can study beneath Emancipation Oak, the site of the first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.

This year, a group of Tennessee State University students traveled to Jackson, Mississippi for a special event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. They met Civil Rights activists, including Freedom Riders who were alumni of their university.
Dr. Adrian Samuels, Vice President for Student Affairs at Tennessee State University, says that this “deep-seated, rich history” helps forge a strong sense of community. He adds that, “from a retention standpoint, students understand the historical context of the institution,” which keeps them engaged and motivates them to continue their education.

The celebration of African-American culture and heritage often extends to the curriculum. As a student in Hampton’s Honors College, Pamela took seminar courses on hip hop music, the African-American church and the pros and cons of historically black higher education institutions.


Despite the high caliber of academics, availability of resources can present a challenge. According to Dr. Bankole-Medina, HBCUs are often underfunded and face structural challenges. They have also suffered disproportionately in the current economic downturn, facing budget cuts and faculty layoffs.

This can mean they have fewer and less well-maintained facilities than their bigger-budget counterparts. And while their tuition rates are generally lower than those of other schools, fewer scholarships may be available.

College to career

Dr. Bankole-Medina says that HBCUs “offer the kind of education that leads to the development of leadership abilities and real world skills that lead to meaningful employment opportunities.”

The transition from college to career is a priority at Tennessee State. Freshmen are required to visit the Career Development Center, which maintains a relationship with them throughout their studies. They also take a Service to Leadership orientation course, where they get hands-on experience through community service.

Diversity is a growing priority in the corporate world, and many businesses seek the best and brightest diverse candidates by recruiting at HBCUs. This can be challenging because each student is competing with other highly motivated, predominantly black students. According to Pamela, whose campus enjoys frequent career recruitment, “You have to work harder to set yourself apart, and you have to be more driven.” When she graduates this spring, she will begin the job she already has lined up at one of the Big Four accounting firms.

All are welcome

While 80 percent of students enrolled in HBCUs are African-American, these colleges welcome students of all backgrounds and ethnicities. Students of all races are drawn to their affordability compared to other institutions, and to their unique academic offerings and friendly environment.

For many students, historically black colleges and universities can offer unparalleled educational and social opportunities. Whether they are a perfect fit, however, depends on the individual. For a full list of HBCUs, visit the U.S. Department of Education’s website (www.ed.gov).

Above all, setting up a campus visit is the best way to find out whether a particular HBCU is the right choice for you.