How to Be a College Graduate

27 May

Be terrified. It all ends or, if you’re optimistic, starts here. With a simple walk across a stage, a nervous shake of a hand and a turn of the tassel, you’ve entered the scary limbo of being a college graduate. Decide to make an exception just this once and post a personal story on your “strictly academic” blog.  Partly because the coursework part of your life is over, for now at least, and partly because as you sit still shell-shocked in your Los Angeles apartment two weeks post grad, you decide you need some type of closure. Instead of going to a therapist or complaining to a girlfriend like a normal person, decided to write down, not everything, but as much as you can.

See that college saved your life. Look back on the girl who waved good bye to her mother at the Dallas airport terminal four years ago, and feel you’re looking at a complete stranger, some fun house mirror doppleganger of your present self. Realize that since you stepped into your dorm freshman year and met the people who would become your best friends, you’ve changed, you’ve grown, you’ve metamorphosized. You would like to think you’ve become better. Though you’re only a short three-hour plane ride away from your home in Fort Worth, feel you might as well be on a different planet in terms of exposure. You’ve met people, gone places and had experiences you never imagined you would have. Your world that was previously the size of a thimble exploded into an entire galaxy, a big bang your mind is still trying to keep up with.

Look backwards more than you should. Remember late nights in the library staring at a blinking cursor. Remember the classes you ditched to lounge at the beach. Remember not remembering your best friend’s 21st birthday party. Remember that one political science professor who changed your views on just about everything. Remember obsessing about that one frat douche for an entire semester sophomore year only to say ‘have a good summer’ on the last day of class. Remember impromptu weekend road trips to Vegas and San Francisco. Remember the endless parade of unpaid internships. Remember spending the most transformative four months of your life in Prague. But most of all remember the hours you spent with your friends doing absolutely nothing. Realize your life will never be like this again.

Take a furtive look forwards. Have a slight panic attack. Fear moving back home. Live in denial that the friends who have defined your life for four years are leaving. Feel you’re standing still while everyone else leaps forward confident and self-assured. Doubt if this degree really means anything. Wonder if you will fail.

Decide you will be successful and happy. You went to a great school and did great things. Hope that hope is enough.

Try to end the post with a pithy philosophy about life that wraps everything up in a sentimental Boy Meets World series finale sort of way, but realize you aren’t clever enough for that. Besides what’s the point when countless people before you have said it better?

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around every once in a while you could miss it.”


The Real Cost of Fakes

17 May

When one walks down Los Angeles Street, it is easy to miss a small storefront with a prominent yellow awning reading “Caprichos.” In the middle of downtown Los Angeles, near the Fashion District, Caprichos is one of the many stores that sells fashion items and accessories for a discounted price. Though unimposing in nature, stores like Caprichos are the gateway to a festering underbelly of counterfeit goods that are making their way through the country.

Los Angeles has become a hub of counterfeit trade within recent years with millions of items being smuggled across the Pacific from China each year and billions being made within the counterfeit economy alone.

The production and sale  of counterfeit and pirated goods, including but not limited to clothing, shoes, CDs and DVDs, led to the creation of the LAPD Anti-Piracy Task Force, which is devoted solely to stopping criminals who trade these illegal goods.

“After we received several tips regarding the store [Caprichos], the department decided to send someone undercover to investigate the issue,” said Detective Rick Ishitani, who has worked with the anti-piracy since 2003 and served with LAPD for 14 years.

The Anti-Piracy unit decided to send Rosie Vega, an LAPD consultant, to Caprichos to find evidence of the sale of counterfeit goods. The store had been under suspicion for selling fake Gucci, Coach, Chanel, Prada and Lois Vuitton bags in addition to the genuine designer bags. Upon arriving at the store Vega looked at the display case of genuine Gucci bags and after conversing with the store clerk about the cost and quality of the bag, the clerk, who identified herself as Alondra, said she had additional Gucci bags in the back of the store.

Alondra then showed Vega several counterfeit Gucci bags at a significantly reduced price from several boxes in storage. One of these bags was purchased and then examined by Hector Villegas, an investigative consultant who is an expert in identifying fake bags. He was quickly able to find several discrepancies in the bag that proved it to be fake.

“Counterfeiting goods is very attractive for people because you don’t pay any taxes, everything is pure profit. The owners at Caprichos could have been making anywhere from $160,000 to $200,000 a month selling those fakes,” said Ishitani.

Caprichos is only one of countless, innocuous-seeming storefronts in Los Angeles that sell counterfeit goods. The days of Santee Alley, the downtown block with open air markets that was a former mecca for frugal shoppers looking for a great knock-off, are over, replaced by actual retail stores. The anti-piracy unit is the reason for this shift as the new unit began cracking down on counterfeit dealers, forcing them to be more clandestine.

“They’re getting smarter. Instead of doing it blatantly out in the open, they’re hijacking the legitimacy of stores,” said Ishitani. “You’ll walk into a hand bag store and once you get the worker to trust you, you’ll be taken to the back room where the fakes are kept.”

Despite increased attention to counterfeiters given from LAPD, the illegal business is still burgeoning. It’s a difficult problem to suppress, according to Ishitani, because the benefits often outweigh the risks.

“You make more selling counterfeits than you would dealing narcotics, which is a major draw. It’s also less dangerous than selling drugs and appeals to a larger pool of buyers, since while everyone doesn’t do drugs, everyone does want to own nice things,” said Ishitani. “This is why gangs are transitioning from narcotics to the manufacturing and sale of counterfeit goods.”

Also the punishment for selling counterfeit items is not as severe as punishment for selling other illegal items. The owner of Caprichos will most likely just be put on probation and pay several fines, according to Ishitani.  It isn’t until she is caught a third time that she could face several months of jail time.

“From the standpoint of the seller, it’s worth it,” says Ishitani.

The efforts of Vega would culminate in a search warrant being requested for the property at 1262 S. Los Angeles street on March 2, asking the judge for permission to scour the property, confiscating all fake merchandise, taking all money made from the illegal sales for evidence and booking all receipts and records that would serve as proof of a felony.

LAPD has been striving harder to squash the sale of counterfeit goods because, unknown to consumers who are just hunting for a bargain, fake bags have a real cost. According to a report from the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, it takes more than $5 billion from the Los Angeles economy every year, costs 100,000 jobs to be lost and costs the real distributors more than $2 billion in sales dollars a year.

“In the end, there are people who lose from this, and that’s who we’re trying to protect,” said Ishitani.

“You think you’re getting a bargain but that knockoff has a price tag you don’t see.”

The Toxic World of Disney

9 Apr

The wonderful world of Disney, a childhood icon for millions of fans young and old, is embroiled in a not-so-wonderful environmental lawsuit against its Buena Park facility, located only 35 miles away from the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Ca.

Plaintiffs Lorraine Baptist, Diane Charles and Debra Rendon, residents of a Burbank community near the facility, are suing the Walt Disney Corporation for allegedly contaminating the groundwater of the neighborhood by dumping toxic wastewater laden with the poisonous hexavalent chromium, which at certain levels can lead to the development of malignant tumors, according to a two year study by the National Toxicology Program.

The exposure to chromium allegedly caused the death of Burbank resident Louis Jackson, a wife and mother of two, according to the plaintiffs, as well as caused illnesses among other residents and pets.

The Buena Vista facility, a television and film production site built in 1939, had on-site cooling systems and allegedly allowed them to leak polluted water into the surrounding land.  The lawsuit alleges that the dangerous waste water containing carcinogens had been released by the Buena Vista facility via pipes for decades, flowing into the property owned by the plaintiffs and passing into drinking water sources.

The lawyers of the plaintiffs, described the acts of the defendants in the lawsuit as “willful, wanton and despicable, carried out with conscious and/or reckless disregard of Plaintiff’s rights and well-being and continues to subject Plaintiffs to cruel and unjust hardship.”

Sacramento law firm, Kershaw, Cutter and Ratinoff LLP, is litigating the case of the plaintiff and has been joined by the firm of Girardi and Keese, LLP. The case smacks eerily of the famous Erin Brockovich case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, a suit that also involved the deleterious chromium six and that was also litigated by the Girardi and Keese law firm.

The plaintiffs filed complaints against Walt Disney, citing numerous damages including causing permanent and continuing nuisance, causing special injury to residents, being liable for “ultra-hazardous” activity, negligence and attempted concealment through fraudulence.

The Burbank residents involved in the suit state they did not discover until 2009 that Disney had added dangerous chromium compounds to the cooling system of the facility, until the watchdog group, Environmental World Watch, took water samples from the area and found significant quantities of chromium six.

The plaintiffs filed the exhaustive complaint of damages in Los Angeles Superior Court in 2009, and the case had its first hearing February of 2010 despite the defendants’ request to the judge that the case be thrown out. The judge decided there was sufficient evidence for the case to move forward, and the next hearing will take place on May 5.

Disney denies all of the allegations and states its Buena Park facility, which was behind the animation of classics such as Cinderella, Aladdin and Bambi, has never used chromium six in its cooling system, a chemical banned by the 1990 Toxic Substances Control Act.

The Disney legal team is also prepared to argue that the statue of limitations for this claim, which is three years, prevents the plaintiffs from pursuing a lawsuit. However, according to the lawyers of the victims, the statue of limitations is suspended when a “defendant fraudulently conceals the existence of facts giving rise to the claim.” The plaintiffs aim to prove that Disney not only knew about the cancer-causing chromium waste water, but attempted to hide it from “the government and the surrounding community through false statements and omission regarding their wrong acts.”

The plaintiffs are demanding that Disney give them compensation for all past and future medical care since many of these costs would not be covered by their insurance. They also seek compensation for the decrease in value to their property and any loss of income they may have suffered due to contamination-related illnesses.

No one from the legal teams of the plaintiffs could be reached for comment, and the Disney Corporation declined the request for an interview.

Teaching and Learning at Foshay

31 Mar

When I followed the shouts and clamor to the second floor of the James Foshay Learning Center, I was greeted by some of my new friends Homer, Jesus of Nazareth and Alexander the Great.

“You are so late dude.” shot Jesus accusingly.

These historic figures were some of my students, James, Matthew and Rigo, and today was Foshay’s fourth annual Ancient Civilizations Fair hosted by history teacher Jennifer Saparito.

Wading past the sea of plastic swords, ripped shirts and paper hats, my students insistently dragged me from booth to booth and from display board to display board, proudly showing me what their classmates had done.

James Foshay Learning Center

I couldn’t help but feel impressed by what the classes had accomplished and how much they had learned about history and travel. Thinking back to my middle school days, I never had a clue who Yochanan ben Zakai was and was never familiar with the stories of Homer or Aesop until my senior year of high school. Having attended low-performing majority minority schools until I came to USC, I thought I knew all about what to expect when I came to the South Central-located Foshay. My impression of South Los Angeles schools was clouded with images from a geopolitical media and with my own childhood experiences of receiving an education in blighted neighborhoods.

After making the 15-minute weekly bike ride to Foshay to teach my students the basics of journalism writing, my preconceived notions about majority minority schools and South Los Angeles was shattered.  I found myself surrounded by bright and motivated kids who were teaching me as much as I was teaching them, and as I stood in the decorated and crowded hallway of Foshay at the Ancient Civilizations Fair, I felt a burst of pride at my students and replenished hope for students in low-income communities.

From my high school, I was one of the few who left the state or attended a four-year university. Many of high school friends tried out local community colleges for a semester or two, dropped out and then started working to support their parents or in some cases, the children they had in high school. Students who excelled academically or fostered a natural love of learning were often just exceptions to an immutable rule.  I left my high school in Fort Worth, Texas, grateful for the opportunity I had to attend USC Annenberg, but incredibly jaded by the lack of scholarly ambition I witnessed among my friends and classmates.

What I found most striking about the World Civilizations Fair was that it, in a way that thought-provoking and interactive, introduced the idea of travel to the students. None of my students have ever travelled outside the United States and Mexico, and during the fair, I could overhear them talking about how one day they wanted to visit the places they read about in class. From my grade school education, I knew that life could seem very limited, and the spectrum of experiences beyond your neighborhood or your school can seem very far away. When I was my students’ age, I never thought of traveling to other countries. I knew there was a world beyond my own since I was a voracious reader, but these places seemed as inaccessible as the moon. I had no idea how to reach these places that glossed the pages of my novels, and a harsh reality had taught me not to entertain such phantasmagorical dreams.

I guess James and Natanel don't like getting their pictures taken.

It is indispensible to be imprinted with a global mindset at a young age. Once I realized these places I read about were places I had the power to go to, it encouraged me to move out of my comfort zone and open my mind to the idea of exploration. Ten years later, I’m leaving the country for the first time for a semester abroad, and it’s the fruit of a seed that was planted a very long time ago.

These students are at a crossroads. Now is the time, when their minds are impressionable, to delineate the importance of independently cutting a path for themselves in a world that’s so much bigger and more awe-inspiring than they could imagine. I saw the start of this at the Ancient Civilizations Fair.

Despite knowing Foshay is radically different from other South L.A. schools and doesn’t represent the norm, I still feel relief knowing that places like Foshay exist and that they may one day become standard.

Hey Baby, I’m Talking To You!

1 Dec

If you’re a young woman and have been in any big city for at least 24 hours then you know what I’m talking about.

It starts out with the kissy noise or the whistle you hear faintly behind you, but you convince yourself maybe it was just in your head….then the catcalls start.

“Hey baby!”

“Can I get some of that over here?”

And the ever so classy “Mmmmm…nice ass!”

The cocoon of independence, confidence and empowerment you weave around yourself every morning has been split open.

You tuck your coat even tighter around you. You quicken your pace, and you finally heave an exasperated sigh, because it has happened once again. You’ve been a victim of street harassment.

Street harassment towards female pedestrians is an overlooked form of sexual harassment since it doesn’t take place at work or in school. It’s lurking on every sidewalk, at every corner, and in every passing car,  and it can’t be escaped or avoided. It has become an institution in metropolitan cities across the U.S. and has been generally accepted as a product of a male-dominated society.

I’ve been harassed when wearing anything from a dress to a t-shirt and jeans to sweats and at all times of the day whether I’m coming back from a late night at the library, going to class or just doing a quick food run to the grocery. It’s frustrating, it’s belittling, it’s disturbing, and it’s borderline tragic that simply being a female in a public space equals you being public property.

And one day last week, I had enough of it.

I was carrying groceries back to my apartment late Tuesday evening when this older man approaches me and starts making comments about how I look and asking me my age. I executed my usual course of action and just ignored him.

This backfired.

Instead of seeing my blatant aversion as a deterrent, he became angry that I wouldn’t acknowledge him, and the situation escalated. After a few minutes of following me and attempting to talk to me, he physically stepped in front of me and blocked my path.

To make a long story short, my typically calm demeanor evaporated as I found myself locked into a heated yelling match with a very intimidating stranger. He asserted I should be flattered (Ha!) and appreciative (Ha!) of the fact I garnered his attention.  I begged to differ.

This incident uncovers the very root of street harassment: the grossly skewed perception by some males that women enjoy being talked to in sexualized.

It’s patriarchy and male supremacy flexing its muscles, and I refuse to flinch.

My situation didn’t move beyond verbal abuse into violence, but knowing that it easily could have was jolting.

Organizations like HollaBack California, HollaBack New York and the Street Harassment Project were started to give women an outlet for the daily frustrations they face with street harassment and verbal abuse. A growing trend started by the HollaBack sites is to have  women take a mug shot of their harasser and upload it to the site with their personal story. Organizations like this bring street harassment into the public dialogue and help raise social awareness of the sexual terrorization women face every day.

So to the next perv who hits a nerve by thinking my first name is ‘Baby’, I’ll have my camera phone ready.


Why Blacks Should be Down with the Green…

26 Nov

When you hear the all-too-familiar news story about the crazed environmentalist who lived in the branches of a redwood tree for three weeks because the city planned to cut it down to build Starbucks #673, you would probably imagine a young and unshaven guy who wears North Face jackets, carries an L.L. Bean backpack and doesn’t mind the occasional bong hit. A working-class black guy or a single black mother from the inner city doesn’t really come to mind.

There has long been an underrepresentation of minorities in mainstream environmentalism with many tree-huggers and green lobbyists being considered the “white elites” who have a college degree and come from stable financial backgrounds. In the wake of the green age where more and more people are becoming more aware of their carbon footprint and how they use resources, minorities are being left behind as mainstream environmental groups like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth tend to have low minority enrollment.

The reason for this underrepresentation is usually class related. Upper class whites would have the disposable time to devote to issues like wilderness preservation and wise resource management, while working-class minorities would not. Even they did have the available time and resources, all of their activism would rally towards causes they felt had a direct impact on their lives like issues of social justice. No one has time to worry about an endangered species of dung beetle or the Amazon jungle when they’re battling institutional barriers daily. The jungle they’re trying to keep from plunging into chaos is the concrete jungle of their neighborhoods and communities.

However, there is a common thread between environmentalists and working class minorities and this thread has the power to cross class and race divisions. Minorities face environmental threats every day in their community as they tend to live in communities where the land is cheap and are often targeted by corporations for the placement of toxic dumps and hazardous waste facilities. In addition to dealing with decreased air, soil and water quality, these same disenfranchised communities face unequal protection under the law as the government is slower to enforce environmental laws in their communities, facilitating and encouraging environmental abuse by companies. These unequal environmental burdens fueled by racism and structural discrimination disproportionately impact minorities as their health and quality of life is adversely affected.

This unlikely intersection of environmentalism and justice provides a unique opportunity for proponents of environmental justice and environmentalism. The banding together of these two seemingly disparate groups in the fight for a healthy environment, both in the wilderness and in the cities, makes room the exchange of knowledge and tactics that would expedite the solving our environmental crisis. While mainstream environmentalist usually focus on lobbying and strategic litigation, environmental justice leaders use direct action through protest and boycotting as their weapon. The combination of these battle methods could create an unstoppable top-bottom approach in saving the environment and our cities.

For the sake of saving green, let’s hope black and white are colors that go well together.

Class trumps race in America’s inner cities

17 Nov

The marriage of wealth and power means disaster for those who have neither, and it’s a catastrophe for low-income people of color.

In urban centers across the country, minorities are being shunned to the side as real estate developers turn them out of their homes, and housing authorities turn a blind eye. The forced gentrification of majority minority neighborhoods is happening quietly and deliberately as bloated rents force impoverished renters to vacate in order to make room for the wealthier tenants. Public housing projects in inner cities like Oakland, Chicago and Brooklyn now face the threat of demolition as city-planned ‘urban renewal’ duplicitously masks city-conspired ‘gentrification.’

There is a shift of high-income families back to the urban centers. Real estate owners want low-income people displaced so they can bring in white-collar tenants who can pay more.

The city of Oakland, Calif., recently approved a plan called the Hoover/West MacArthur Vision Statement that would allow the redevelopment of several housing projects and result in the displacement of hundreds of low-income renters. This is all part of the city’s plan to “clean up” the Hoover/West MacArthur area.

In their vision statement, the West Oakland Project Area Committee wrote:

“This area is a containment zone for Oakland’s social problems… We need to attract residents with disposable income, who don’t soak up social services, who can fix up the housing stock, who will in turn attract retail businesses.”

This plan of fixing up the impoverished parts of Oakland is a thinly veiled collision between housing authorities and real estate developers to get rid of the poor. Land is money. Landlords are raising the rents to exorbitant amounts so tenants are forced to vacate, and developers can swoop in to renovate the buildings. This attracts upper-class tenants who can afford to pay higher rents, thus raising the property value.

It’s another classic example of low-income people being pushed out of their neighborhoods once their presence becomes an inconvenience. Blacks and Hispanics were once driven to the inner cities after World War II by the possibility of jobs and pushed out of suburbia because they were usually denied access to suburban home purchases. Now history is repeating itself in reverse, as whites flee back to cities and oust low-income tenants. Now it’s primarily class and not race that has become the separating line. Fifty-three outraged Oakland renters even filed a $53 million claim against the city in 2008 because they felt their rights had been violated.

The situation doesn’t bode any better in San Francisco, where the St. Peter’s Housing Committee faces an even bigger challenge since most of the victimized tenants it serves are immigrant Latinos. Landlords are raising rent prices while the incomes of Latino immigrants are dropping due to the recession. It all paints a dire picture for the low-income residents of San Francisco.

Rents have doubled in the last 10 years, which forces immigrant families to either move out of the city or live in overcrowded conditions. Picture three families sharing a household meant for one or a family trying to break their lease because they can no longer afford to live there.

It’s more of a class issue than a race issue.

High-income people don’t want to live near the projects either because of dipping property values or because of perceptions they have of the poor as criminals.

In the fight for equality, it looks like America has only managed to make a lateral move with the invisible barrier becoming class instead of race. The truth is being silently mapped out across urban grids everywhere, as income becomes the great de-equalizer. The war on poverty has finally turned into a war against the poor where class can substitute for race.