Government and Peer Pressure are Hobbling Scientists

usa-climatechange-marchNew Orleans   Just when I thought I might be out of my element and moving into the quicksand of squishy opinions in areas outside of my expertise, I just caught a lifeline thanks to Scientific American.

Ok, what the heck am I talking about?

Careful readers and listeners may remember my objections to the way super lead-head West Virginia research, Dr. Marc Edwards, who has been mega-helpful to Local 100 and ACORN’s efforts around lead testing in schools and elsewhere, was characterized by headlines in the New York Times Sunday magazine calling him a “zealot,” as well as quotes from other scientists that seem to be taking him down and denigrating his research, because he was speaking out on lead dangers. A year earlier, I trumpeted Professor Naomi Oreskes’ work in looking at how scientists had banded together to research explaining continental drift because it was not part of prevailing elite scientific consensus at the time. I’ve even argued that maybe Tom Wolfe has a point on linguistics, if for no other reason to encourage scientific argument about prevailing consensus, if it advances knowledge. Some might wonder what this has to do with organizing and my usual interests and concerns, and the simple answer is that the heart of organizing is a way of thinking critically and looking past prevailing consensus in order to advance the empowerment of people, so science is not off limits to that broad definition. Now, the October issue of Scientific American pulls the curtain aside and lets us understand better a couple of prevailing trends that make a mockery of the ideology of the scientific method.

First, they raise the issue of what are called “close-hold embargoes” being increasingly used by the government to release their research and by many other elite universities and research institutions in order to curry the most favorable press. An embargo in the press world is common. It is a message to the media that they are getting the information early so they can pay attention and give it priority, but they cannot write about until the date named when everyone has their shot at the news. A close-hold embargo is often in secret to a select number of papers or in this case science reporters, which gives them the research release early and restricts who their ability to even get comments or reactions from other experts and scientists in the field in exchange for the exclusive report. One professorial observer who writes a blog about these embargoes argues that they are reducing reporters to little more than stenographers, simply mouthing whatever the government or university wants them to write. The reporting by Charles Seife was eviscerating on this practice with universities and government response fumbling and dissembling. For all of us biscuit cookers the message becomes, “be careful about believing what you read” when these science reports come out until they have a chance to ferment in the community.

Perhaps as devastating was another piece in the same special section of Scientific American which looked at the way the scientific community bans together in a sort of elderly high school clique to punish so-called “celebrity scientists.” You know scientists like Marc Edwards who are in the news and acting as advocates for the public. The authors had interviewed and surveyed scientists who had written popular works allowing the general public to access scientific information better or who were regular commentators or public spokespeople for their work. Overwhelmingly, the message from all of these scientists is that their best advice was “keep your mouth shut” until you had tenure protection at your university or were well-advance and established in your field or you would be punished. The scientific community seems more like a secret society than a public good.

I find this scary and dangerous. It allows there to be concocted controversies on issues like climate change, chemical and pollution dangers, food, environment, space, and almost every area where modern life intersects with basic health and welfare thanks to manipulation of the public by our own government and the scientific community based on what they believe we “need to know,” rather than what we “want to know” by taking away our ability to decide and act in our interest on what we need to know.


Getting the Lead Out of Schools


New Orleans       Increasingly, we are going to ask which school district is going to be the last one to stand up for its children and workers and test for lead.  There really is no rational reason in the face of the devastation that lead brings to children and others and the overwhelming evidence of its ubiquitously destructive impact in schools, and for that matter, other public buildings, for any steward of public trust and responsibility not to assure communities that they are protecting the safety of families and workers.

            After our success in Houston in winning testing for lead in all the districts’ water fountains and other water sources, and what seemed to be the quick agreement in New Orleans to move in the same direction, we have been heartened.  Attention is growing as well.  PBS is coming to New Orleans to film ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice and LSU Health Science Center’s testing program in both the schools and adjoining neighborhoods.  A lead education program that is embedded in the ACV housing education classes is also going to be filmed and featured.   Three New Orleans schools have already been tested for the impact of lead on both the soil and water sources.  The PBS angle focuses on the way in which science is being used as a tool for change in the communities, which seems spot on in this fight.

Local 100 United Labor Unions was somewhat surprised that Dallas continued to drag its heels in responding to us on this issue.  With fall and the return of classes, a meeting with a school board member and resumption of school board meetings as well as an emerging coalition of various groups united in their call for such testing, found a positive response finally.  Not only are they going to do the testing, but the Dallas Independent School District also finally agreed with our position to test retirees that had been exposed to lead and other chemicals in the warehouses.

            Dallas had little choice as well because they were beginning to seem a pariah in the metroplex.  Fort Worth had already not only agreed to test all of its water fountains, but having found evidence of lead already in several of them, has moved to replace them.  Arlington, half-way between Dallas and Fort Worth, has also announced a testing program as well.  Other school districts in the Houston area, including neighboring suburban districts of Alief and Cypress-Fairbanks are also moving forward on a testing plan now.   In Texas, districts are beginning to fall in line, but although Local 100’s representative in Arkansas reported some success in lining up allies among teacher groups to push for testing in Little Rock and Pulaski County, both districts are still lagging, even as so many of the trains have pulled out of the station on this issue.

            Other public buildings where we clean, as well as state and public facilities where our members work, are high on our list as well.  The simple rule of thumb should be that wherever there is a public water fountain, there needs to be a lead test. 

How hard is that to get done?


Making Big Plans for Expanding Organizing in Africa

Making Plans

Making Plans

Douala   After six straight days of meetings, almost nonstop, for the Organizers’ Forum in Cameroon, we spent the last two days in critically serious conversations with all of the ACORN-allied organizers and organizations in attendance including ACORN Kenya on Skype until there was a power outage in Nairobi. It was a historic meeting for all of us, and if we can hit the marks we’re setting, it would be indescribably exciting!

The first day we spent a lot of time sharing experiences, country to country. Our partner ReAct had implanted the organizing model developed by ACORN and used by the Alliance Citoyenne in France with great success. Membership had soared, particularly in Cameroon and Liberia as the organization transitioned from largely a campaign-oriented program to a deeply rooted, membership organization in each country in the villages surrounded by Bollore rubber and palm oil plantations. Despite all of the progress, the organizers and many of the local leaders who had participated in various meetings of the Forum felt that we needed some clear victories with the company and needed to accelerate our actions and activity to final force them to be accountable to their promises and agreements. We also needed move the campaign to other battlefields nationally and internationally. ACORN committed to helping with this expansion.


Adrien Roux, the coordinator of ReAct, in opening the last day of strategy, training, and planning meetings, framed the discussion of our expansion in Africa as adding “pillars” to hold up the foundation of our mass organizing strategy. The first pillar was already in place especially in Liberia, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast with our growing base in the plantations as well as the work in Nairobi over recent years. But, as Adrien laid out the summary of our discussions, we now needed to develop the other pillars that were critical in the ACORN experience in building community-based organizations in the larger cities where we were working and potentially organizing informal workers’ associations and unions as we had done in the USA and India.

More specifically that meant beginning to identify human and financial resources to dramatically expand our organizing in Douala, the largest city in Cameroon, and also a chokepoint for the Bollore campaign. We set early 2017 as the launch date. We also targeted Abidjan, an even larger city in the Ivory Coast for early in 2017, using Cameroon as a training city for our Francophone organizers, and hoping to launch there between spring and summer, if we can put the pieces together. On the Anglophone side, we are integrating the ACORN Kenya operation more closely with the rest of our work in Africa, and exploring opportunities to develop a training capacity between there and South Africa potentially, but time will tell. In the planning meeting for Liberia, organizers there identified potential opportunities that might be available to organizer street vendors given the constant threats in Monrovia to a central market with 4000 sellers constantly under threat. Finishing the day, we also looked at the emerging prospects for our domestic workers’ union finally being resourced for launch in early 2017 in Morocco, which is also likely the site for the 2017 Organizers’ Forum, as well as training opportunities that could also develop more organizing prospects in Tunisia.


When it was over we were spent. The one picture that we didn’t take was Adrien, Jill O’Reilly, ACORN Canada’s head organizer in Ottawa and Quebec, and myself sprawling out on the concourse of the Douala airport on the stools with our gear across the floor exhausted, but exhilarated as we continued making plans, looking up travel schedules for the next visits, and moving to the next steps to make all of this happen, exhausted, but exhilarated as we drug ourselves to the gates and flights back home.



The Election Gauntlet of Cameroon

Phillipe Nanga, head of an election observation NGO

Phillipe Nanga, head of an election observation NGO

Douala    Make no mistake. Any notion that Cameroon is a democracy is the same as believing that an obstacle course is the same as a straight road. Yes, there are parties. Yes, there are elections. But, there is no even playing field, so whatever one might want to call this form of government, no matter how you shake-and-bake it, there’s nothing particularly fair about it. It is no surprise that the existing president has been in office for more than 34 years, is 84 years old, and is expected to stand for another seven-year term in 2018.

We spent some time early in the Organizers’ Forum in a visit with Phillipe Nanga, the head of Un Monde Avenir, the World to Come, a fair elections NGO, and his staff, who gave us a good sense of the problem and a crash course in the election obstacles and voter suppression. They work closely with Elections Cameroon, called EleCam, a state agency that is responsible for registering voters. There is nothing easy about voter registration. I’m not saying that they invented difficult registration, but I will say that the system is reminiscent of the process used by many southern states even at the dawn of the 1970’s in the USA. A graphic illustration over his head went through their steps of training election observers down to protection of the ballot box. I asked Nanga if ballot box theft was common, and he answered without hesitation, yes.

difficult election process

difficult election process

To register you either have to personally go into the EleCam office nearest you and successfully present your documents or someone employed by EleCam has to somehow come to you in a meeting, rally, market, or some such. The reason EleCam is a good partner for Un Monde Avenir is that they are on a quota for registrations by the government so anything that is organized for them, makes their jobs easier, and allows them to keep their jobs. Voting of course requires an ID, but a national ID is required to do everything in Cameroon, so that is not an obstacle here since everyone has one. More than half of the population is under 19 years old, so, not surprisingly, you cannot register to vote until you are 20 years old. Un Monde Avenir has been focusing on registering youth. We were told by their staff that they had registered 100 people so far this year.

Of the 23,130,708 people in the population as of June 2015, 5, 981,226 were registered. There are no accurate figures but a solid estimate would mean that between 40 and 45% of the eligible voters in the population are not registered to vote: a very large voting pool! When those who are successful in registering are allowed to vote, a fair number do so. 68% of the eligible voters in fact did vote in the 2011 presidential election, the last time they had a chance.

leader of largest opposition party

leader of largest opposition party

We spoke to two leaders of parties in Cameroon, one was the leader of the largest, Elembe Lobe Abel. His party, SDF, has close to a score of national parliamentarians in each house and more than 800 local office holders in the country. I asked him how he saw his party’s prospects in the election expected sometime in 2018. He answered that for any opposition party to have a chance, the constitution would have to allow for a runoff. The winner is now “first past the post,” which always favors an incumbent. He felt the only way anyone would have a chance without a change in the no-runoff election would be if the existing president somehow declined to run. Interesting to the Forum delegates was Abel’s description of Bollore as a criminally, corrupt corporation in Cameroon.

head of the CPP party and Cameroon Obasso

head of the CPP party and Cameroon Obasso

We also spoke to the dynamic head of another large party CPP which is also interesting in that it has a political, but nonpartisan operation called Cameroon Obasso or Cameroon Let’s Go which operates almost like a community organization with various marginal populations. They are also part of an amalgamation called Stand Up for Cameroon, which has attracted wide support. She had run for president in 2011. She was more focused on the transition or, said another way, the inevitable death of the existing president, when the country would have the opportunity for change.

There are hundreds of parties in Cameroon. The law also prevents them from fusing or cross endorsing, so each is on its own in the fight for democracy against great odds in Cameroon.


Rough Road for Unions in Cameroon

DSCN1852Douala   About 30 years ago in the 1990s there was a “liberalization” in Cameroon. Citizens were given freedom of expression, the total autocracy was diluted, and they gained freedom of association, including the ability to form unions. There is a labor code. The state does actively involve itself in labor-management disputes. In talking to workers who had the experience of organizing unions even in recent years, make no mistake though, this is not an easy road to travel.

We met at length with a leader of the teachers’ union branch that has been involved in trying to win recognition for a union of more than 740 parochial school teachers in the Archdiocese of Douala. Listening to the story of his own career as a teacher, it was no surprise that they had sought a union. He had been a teacher in the Catholic system for 42 years and his top pay was 38,000 francs per month or about $65 USD monthly, less than $1000 per year.

They began organizing in 2012. It took them two years to receive the necessary filings from the state for their organization. A first reaction to their unionization by the diocese was to fire all 65 of their leadership delegates. A strike then lasted six weeks before they were back to work without many concessions, and 14 of their leaders were still not reinstated and continued not to be paid.


They had enrolled more than half of the teachers in their union and sought to win recognition, move pay to 50,000 francs per month, get some minimal benefits, win seniority pay and some pay recognition for additional degrees, an end to arbitrary transfers, and better conditions in the schools. Meetings with school management were fruitless even though the system reportedly produced more than a billion francs per year in surplus revenue. They struck again for two days on November 11th, 2015. 654 of the 750 odd teachers participated in the strike. They went back to work after two days waiting for a new governmental minister to be appointed and the Bishop to return from Europe. The government sided with their demands for an increase to 50000 francs monthly and more than a dozen of their other conditions. Management promised to comply, but did nothing other than raise pay to 50000 francs monthly. Seeing no action, they struck again in the middle of March. Of their eighteen demands, the Archbishop had claimed he had met them all in a letter to the state, but the union knew only two had been met.

They are now before the labor court trying to win compliance given the state’s support. Meanwhile nothing more has changed. More promises are not kept, and more than a dozen leaders are still off the job. No ending to this struggle is in sight, and no happy ending seems possible at this point.

We heard similar stories from a member of the shipyard workers union. We listened to three student union leaders tell of having been jailed for challenging the imposition of a new fee for a student ID after the costs for schooling had been set by the university. The president has to register with a human rights organization in France whenever he travels and avoids any nighttime travel feeling that they are still under threat from the government for their protests on fees and housing.

Unions do not even exist by and large among informal workers, and they constitute 80% or more of the employment.

No one was giving up, but there was also little optimism in the room.



Video Activism

video-aktivisam-385x250Douala, Cameroon   Being in central, west Africa for the latest edition of the Organizers’ Forum and, even more excitingly, the first-ever meeting of all ACORN-affiliated organizers in Africa, my eyes immediately caught a piece in the on-line Times touting that “Inspired by the US, West Africans Wield Smartphone to Fight Police Abuse.” For several reasons I thought, well that’s something.

But having just arrived in Douala, Cameroon after a grueling 3-stop flight across the time zones, my real reaction was to reflect on the amazing courage taking videos of the police would require. We had just gone through an episode which could only be described as hapless and almost touristic in our joy to hit the green fields around the airport. My son, Chaco, had taken several pictures of the airport and its surroundings with his phone in celebration. Six of us were together as we left the airport including Toney Orr from Local 100 in Arkansas, Eloise Mallet from Re-Act in Grenoble, and the two local Cameroon organizers along with Chaco and myself.

We were hauling our bags around the long field to a cheaper spot to take a cab into town. I was walking ahead with Josef, one of the Cameroonians, when we turned because there was some commotion after we had crossed the street to meet our cabdriver. The police were converging on Toney and Chaco at the curb. One short policeman grabbed Chaco’s phone, and the look on Chaco’s face was nothing but shock and surprise, as he tried to understand the problem. A policewoman was also there, and our people started asking, and arguing, about what the problem might be. Suddenly, we were in the middle of a mess, and couldn’t help much since it was all conducted in French.

The problem simply put is that we were informed that it was illegal to take pictures of the police. Period. Something everyone presumably in Cameroon knew, but as dumbass visitors we were going to learn. Eventually, with a third policeman who was the supervisor, an agreement was concocted that allowed the pictures to be deleted and the phone returned. If this is what happens to folks within meters of the airport, I can’t even imagine the risks that others might take trying to record corruption or police abuse in West African countries.

Despite the fact that this was a story of hope in the Times, a more careful reading was also cautionary as they wrote:

Human rights workers say that the practice of sharing videos in West Africa is a natural extension of longstanding frustrations with abuse of power in the region. But even with today’s ability to capture and broadcast evidence immediately, the videos have not always produced tangible results. Often the clips are hard to verify, and few prosecutions have followed, experts say. Scenes of police officers seeking checkpoint bribes or beating civilians sometimes amount to no more than a handful of Facebook comments expressing indignation.

My first message back to the rest of the participants coming to the meeting in Douala once we were on the internet, was plain and simple: Don’t take any pictures of police!

Our message this week in Cameroon will be to build strong organizations. Smartphones and Facebook are not going to be enough.