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Monthly Archives: August 2016



August, 29, 2016


Introductory Note by Jason Pramas, Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism: For the growing number of American students who come from “non-traditional” (read “Black, Latina/o, Asian, Native American, immigrant, and/or poor”) backgrounds, getting into a university — let alone graduating— remains extremely difficult. All too many colleges — especially elite Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools — simply were not designed to deal with students who weren’t white, wealthy, and WASP. They were designed to exclude them. Things have changed over the past half century after much struggle by university students, faculty, and staff of good conscience (together with off-campus allies) across the country, but not nearly enough in some important respects. So it was disappointing to read last week’sBoston Globe editorial, “Smith College activists cry wolf over bigotry.” In which the immensely privileged editorial board of a major newspaper told a group of students of color at the Smith College School for Social Work — a co-ed graduate program — that they were out of line for protesting racism at their school. Specifically, letters to the Smith administration written by one of their department chairs and an anonymous group of their adjunct faculty. Both stating that many social work students of color should never have been admitted to the college. Globe reporter Laura Krantz took a more balanced look at the Smith situation earlier this week, but that doesn’t excuse the newspaper’s editors for choosing to call the Smith students out for special disfavor without giving them a chance to respond in print. By way of corrective, I thought it was important to reach out to the Smith College School for Social Work student protesters and let them speak for themselves. They graciously agreed to write a response to the Globe editorial, and I now publish it here in the public interest. Read on … 

Several Smith College social work students drafted this statement addressing recent organizing surrounding issues of race and racism at the Smith College School for Social Work. Our voices are a small part of a larger organizing collective committed to this work.

A recent op-ed in the Boston Globe suggests that student activism at Smith College’s School for Social Work is “overwrought,” and advises us as organizers that “not every dispute warrants a social-justice crusade.” TheGlobe’s editorial writers have not been sitting in classes or common spaces on campus, nor have they been talking to professors or students directly. As students in these spaces, we feel that we must provide context that challenges the Globe’s narrative: our actions have encouraged open dialogue to better our school, community, and the larger profession of social work.

Thus, we agree with the authors of the Globe editorial, who write: “disagreements and problems can only get worse when people don’t talk about them.” It is imperative to bring these issues out from behind closed doors, where professors and administrators are discussing their concerns about students without our input. Our actions this summer follow the actions of many before us, extending far beyond the walls of Smith. They are intended to start public conversations, not shut them down. We encourage our administrators and professors to engage authentically with us, not in private, anonymous forums without giving us an opportunity to respond. Students have been left out of these conversations for decades, and the two letters released were written directly in response to student voices finally being a part of the conversation. This was a result of organizing efforts by students. Our hope has always been to have the opportunity to respond and engage in collective dialogue to improve Smith College.

Further, the Globe editorial mischaracterizes Smith students as individuals who don’t know what real oppression looks like. We do in fact understand the reading of “colonialism and racial oppression” in the two leaked letters. When faculty and administrators decry students “lacking academic qualifications,” call our “competence” into question, and criticize a “tainted” admissions process, we understand that this rhetoric has a history. In academia, as Roderick A. Ferguson writes in his book “The Reorder of Things,” words like “ability,” “competence,” and “efficiency” are used as seemingly “neutral” words that are actually used to surveil, exclude, and measure students of color. As one organizer points out, “these notions are only ever deployed in an attempt to ‘neutrally’ or ‘colorblindly’ exclude members of marginalized communities from gaining access to sites of power.

However, it is critical to understand that as student protesters, we are addressing more than these singular letters. Like students from other institutions of higher learning across the country, we are seeking structural changes in faculty and student diversity, curriculum variety, and an academic review process that has disproportionately harmed students of color at Smith’s School for Social Work. As recently as 1986, there were only 3 students of color in the school’s student body of nearly 300. Even today, the school’s widely-publicized anti-racism commitment fails to bring diversity to its teaching staff, its admissions recruitment and retention, and its assigned readings. In the summer of 2015, students at Smith presented a list of demands similar to the demands presented by students at 51 other institutions across the country, demanding that the school live up to its anti-racism commitment. This work carried over into the summer of 2016, and student organizing on campus has had a history of success in bringing about tangible change. In this work, we are not here to shut down speech or dialogue. We are not here to speak over white members of our community. Faculty, students, and administrators can be able to engage in collective conversation around the ways Smith lives up to its commitment.

We are concerned that the Globe has chosen to characterize us as part of the maligned “college crybully” generation. If aligning ourselves with the standards of social work articulated by the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics makes us “crybullies,” then so be it. We seek to “obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion, and mental or physical disability.” We “challenge social injustice.” As students who want to carry our critical thinking skills with us into practice now and in our careers, can we be blamed for our criticisms of Smith’s culture? As Roxane Gay writes in The New Republic, “Whether we agree with these student protesters or not, we should be listening: They are articulating a vision for a better future, one that cannot be reached with complacency.”

As members of the Smith community, we are in pain watching our fellow community-members disproportionately take on the burden of educating peers and professors about their own internalized racist beliefs. We are then saddled with a burden of proof when we engage with professors like the “concerned adjuncts” and Dennis Miehls: individuals who are eager to cast doubt on students of color and our experiences here. And yet, many are not only hesitant to engage in direct conversation with us about our concerns, but consistently invalidate them.

In the words of the “concerned community members” who leaked the letters, “if we are truly to be a leading school for social work with an anti-racism mission, then our faculty must be leading our field to be more inclusive and ever-committed to the pursuit of social justice.” These protests were not simply about the letters; the letters were symptomatic of a culture of latent racist bias at Smith, where students of color are constantly pushed to prove that we belong here, too. We can no longer idly stand by while Smith fails to give us the education we need to be successful social workers.

Readers who would like to communicate with the Smith College School for Social Work student protesters can email them at



August 22, 2016


Now that broadband internet is a public utility, both cable companies and telephone companies need to pay for public access television — not try to defund it

Last week, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) was pleased to welcome the Alliance for Community Media (ACM) 2016 Annual Conference to our mini metropolis. Staff, board members, and volunteers from public access television stations from the around the nation were camped at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel — sharing skills, networking, and, unfortunately, discussing the best way to survive in a hostile political climate. Because despite being one of America’s greatest remaining democratic communications resources, public access TV is perennially fighting to preserve its funding. In honor of the ACM conference, I wrote the following commentary for the pilot episode of Beyond Boston — a video news digest that BINJ just launched this month in partnership with several area public access TV stations, including: Brookline Interactive Group (BIG), Cambridge Community Television (CCTV), Malden Access TV (MATV), and Somerville Community Access Television (SCAT). Our aim is to feature news produced at local public access TV stations and link it to news we produce at BINJ. Expanding the reach of all our work by effectively merging our audiences. Check out the show on participating stations and on the new Beyond Boston YouTube channel. And read on to get some perspective on the crisis facing a vital community media resource.

Public access television is one of greatest innovations of the grassroots movement for media democracy in the last half century. Also known as community television,  it has helped cities and towns nationwide to have their very own cable TV channels. Allowing residents to keep up with local news and views while enjoying a wide variety of arts and entertainment programming — most of which is produced by their family, friends and neighbors. Filling the gap in local nonprofit media options left by PBS and NPR.

One of the best things about public access television is the way it’s funded. Community media pioneers like noted filmmaker George Stoney helped craft regulations back in the late 1960s that made everything go. They were based on the principle that cable companies should pay an annual franchise fee to cities and towns in exchange for being able to build out their systems on municipal rights-of-way. In other words, companies like Comcast have to pay local governments for stringing their cables along public streets. That money can then be used to equip and sometimes staff public access stations. And those stations get used by the local population to celebrate their culture. Expanding free speech in the process.

That funding mechanism worked pretty well — despite a bunch of political speed bumps there’s no time to discuss today — until the telephone companies joined cable companies in offering broadband internet service about a decade back. Soon people in many places were getting all the content carried over the old cable systems and much much more from both telephone companies like Verizon and cable companies like Comcast. This created a problem for funding public access stations because cable companies offering broadband still had to pay the franchise fee to local governments that is used to finance those stations. But telephone companies that now also provide broadband don’t have to pay that franchise fee.

This has potentially provided the cable companies an opening to get rid of the franchise fee by stating that it’s unfair that they have to pay when the telephone companies don’t. Putting public access funding in extreme jeopardy. However, last year, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that broadband internet service is a public utility. Raising the possibility that both cable companies and telephone companies could be mandated to pay a franchise fee to cities and towns in exchange for stringing their broadband wires on public land.

The FCC is still figuring out how to proceed on that front, and they are under intense pressure from cable companies and telephone companies to free them from all responsibility for funding public access stations. So it is critical that everyone who supports public access media gets together with other interested folks in your community and starts building a new grassroots movement to demand the FCC apply the franchise fee to both cable companies and telephone companies. A win on this issue will keep public access stations funded for decades to come. And that’s a big win for democracy.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.



August 9, 2016


The return of the nuclear arms race requires the revival of the disarmament movement

“It is three minutes to midnight.” Young people reading those words probably won’t know what they mean. Folks who were adults when the Cold War ended with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union are more likely to understand. And to be very, very afraid.

The statement refers to the current setting of the Doomsday Clock—announced every year since 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Reaching midnight means nuclear war. The clock was first set at seven minutes to midnight when the United States was the only nation possessing nuclear weapons. In 1991, humanity rejoiced as the clock was set to 17 minutes to midnight when the US and USSR signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty resulting in deep cuts in their nuclear weapons arsenals.

Now, a quarter-century later, nuclear weapons are still very much with us, and the Doomsday Clock has been pushed up to three minutes to midnight for two years running. As close to midnight as the clock has been set since 1984—during the nadir of relations between America and the Soviet Union.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board—consisting of “scientists and other experts with deep knowledge of nuclear technology and climate science, who often provide expert advice to governments and international agencies”—made the decision based on a number of dangerous portents last year that show no signs of abating this year.

Their January 26 announcement stated that in 2015 “ … tensions between the United States and Russia rose to levels reminiscent of the worst periods of the Cold War. Conflict in Ukraine and Syria continued, accompanied by dangerous bluster and brinkmanship, with … the director of a state-run Russian news agency making statements about turning the United States to radioactive ash, and NATO and Russia re-positioning military assets and conducting significant exercises with them. Washington and Moscow continue to adhere to most existing nuclear arms control agreements, but the United States, Russia, and other nuclear weapons countries are engaged in programs to modernize their nuclear arsenals … despite their pledges, codified in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to pursue nuclear disarmament.”

The modernization referred to in the announcement translates to an estimated US investment of nearly  $1 trillion over the next 30 years. Money to be essentially stolen from much-needed social programs. The Obama administration made this commitment even as the President asked nations with nuclear weapons to “have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them” during a historic visit to Hiroshima, Japan—the first of two cities destroyed by atomic bombs dropped by the US in the closing days of WWII. On July 20, eight progressive senators—including Mass Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey (plus Bernie Sanders)—called on Obama to “restrain nuclear weapons spending and reduce the risk of nuclear war by scaling back excessive nuclear modernization plans, adopting a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons and canceling launch-on-warning plans.”

A fine statement. But a display of not even a fraction of the political muscle that will be necessary to successfully challenge the military-industrial complex to change American nuclear weapons policy for the better. And not a sufficiently strong demand given that the only safe number of nuclear weapons is zero. With the US, Russia, and China all planning to build smaller nuclear warheads that are more likely to be used than traditional larger warheads, and developing hypersonic glide vehicles that are harder to intercept than conventional ballistic missiles, the road from a single “surgical” nuclear strike to an all-out nuclear war will soon become much shorter than it has ever been before.

That’s why it’s imperative for everyone to follow the lead of antiwar organizations like Mass Peace Action—who have just organized a series of local protests for Hiroshima and Nagasaki Week—and international disarmament campaigns like Global Zero in demanding the abolition of all nuclear weapons. Failure to do so will at best consign another generation to the lifetime of fear that earlier generations suffered under, and at worst doom the entire biosphere to death by fire. So, get informed and get involved. We’ve got our work cut out for us. There are currently more than 15,000 nuclear weapons on the planet Earth.

For a better understanding of the terrible destructive power of nuclear weapons, check out the classic 1982 BBC documentary “Q.E.D.: A Guide to Armageddon” on YouTube.


Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.