Sunday, June 1, 2014

Reclaiming UCSA Congress

Originally Posted 8/6/13

A Critique of The Operating of UCSA

UCSA congress has always held a special place in politics for me. From its voting method to its impromptu cafeteria coalitions, the entire process is filled with the energy and reflective inefficiency of true Democracy. Last summer, spending $.10 a minute in a Quito Internet cafe, I eagerly checked what the students had voted on to be their yearlong campaign. I was more than delighted to see they had chosen Regent Reform. Similar campaigns had come up before, but their dry procedural nature, though tangibly able to increase the students' control of their future, caused them to get lost amongst the charismatic speeches supporting the more sexy campaigns. But this year regent reform had been fairly elected by the UC students just as the other campaigns had in the past. The democratic process had selected a campaign I loved just as it had selected others I didn't always agree with. I respected those other campaigns however. The Congress, with an engaged, informed and intelligent population of voters taking days to hash out details, represented the height of true democratic process. To not respect the campaigns this congress picked would be have to no faith in the process of Democracy itself. This year however the plan was set, the history explained, and the troops ready for the first Regental Reform in 30 years. I expected the UCSA board and the various lobby corps to push hard for this campaign just as I and they had done in the past with other campaigns.

And then, nothing. The campaign was dropped with zero outside progress made. My next three weeks were dedicated to finding out why the board had turned against the student's wishes. The investigation allowed me to find some major inefficiencies with UCSA that I believe all helped contribute in some way to this and past controversial decisions by the board. First was the fact that the UCSA board minutes and agendas are not readily available. They are not on the official website (specifically no documents can be found under the "Document" section as of 8/6/13), nor are they posted on their official Facebook page. This caused many students concern last summer when the board released a statement urging divestment from Israel. Not making minutes readily available is against the California Constitution as well; Art. I Sec. 3 (b)(1-3) and Art. IV Sec. 7.

I knew from the website and my work in BLC that the lobby corps and board were working heavily on a campaign called Fighting Incarceration Reclaiming Education (FIRE), a noble cause, but one brought up as a supposed afterthought months after congress. With no minutes to see the discussion about the swap between Regent Reform and the FIRE Campaign, I had to start asking people knowledgeable about both campaigns and the board members themselves. This is where I found a second major stumbling block. No one seemed to be able to tell me what was going on with anything. Many couldn't recount events, only able to provide me with generally what happened. They had trouble finding even personal minutes so that the order of things could not be confirmed. I also heard from various people close to each campaign that: the regent reform was supposed to be a two year campaign, that regent reform legislation was written, and that the FIRE campaign was brought to the students. Only the written legislation seemed to pan out.

With the help of some sympathetic board members and campaign leaders I was able to attain enough documents to tie together just how Regent Reform was dropped and the FIRE campaign taken up. On Oct 13th the UCSA Board of Directors was first notified that a grant proposal had been submitted the day before to Rosenberg Foundation for $25,000. On the 16th board members were notified that they were not bound to accepting the money and that the board themselves could decide once they knew if the grant was awarded or not. However if they accepted the grant, all money would specifically have to go into prison reform. The president of UCSA at the time justified this move by saying it only opened up opportunity for board money, while not restricting them to the president's wishes and thus was an appropriate use of her office to apply. I completely agree with this. However the board did not take it to the various students. On Dec. 10 the Organizing and Communications Director announced to the board that, "The Rosenberg Foundation grant to work on prison reform was approved!" The president made an interim decision and accepted the money. The board at a later date approved this decision. Once again there is no public record that could have told any students this was going to be talked about, or that it was decided and voted on after the fact. In many EVP offices they were not even aware of the money. Even before the dropping of Regent Reform, prison reform took considerable resources as a full time intern was hired to help in the task.

             When it came time to plan for the Student Lobby Conference (SLC) in March, regent reform was not in the talking points. This was because the legislative director could not find an author for the bill the students wanted. She then suggested it be made into a two-year bill. This is understandable as big paradigm changing bills usually need a culture started around them first (See Fund the UC). At the next UCSA Board meeting in April, in the undergraduate caucus, there was an unofficial vote to change the focus of Regent Reform away from the student campaign and towards filling Regental vacancies with student-friendly appointments. The board justified this by saying that a "potential author" wanted to see support and coalitions before moving forward with Regent Reform. For this to be accomplished the board would need to devote considerable attention and resources to Regent Reform for the rest of the year. A divided board voted and chose to drop Regent Reform completely and focus all attention on the FIRE Campaign. As far as I know (once again no minutes), the full board never officially voted making their decision completely behind closed doors (even if Art. I Sec. 3 prohibits this behavior specifically).

This is the third problem I see that allowed for this reversal to happen. The board has not actively held themselves accountable to the various students who voted them in and pay for the resources they use and stipends they receive. Worst of all they dropped the student-selected campaign while completely within the bounds of their powers. Yet I still find this unacceptable as UCSA actively uses the numbers it has behind them to influence policy. In lobby visits at the various schools as well as at SLC, lobbyists are encouraged to use the support of the entire UCSA student population to get politicians attention. In lobby visits FIRE was presented as a campaign of the students, citing the number of students that belong to UCSA as their legitimacy. And yet the campaign these same students organized and voted on was dropped. The students' voice was purchased for $25,000 dollars. So I ask our new UCLA board member and board member designates: Maryssa Hall, Tyler Cherry, Anthony Phan and Andrea Chu, what will you do to make sure this does not happen again? How will you make sure when you use our numbers and our money that it is truly in line with our wishes? How will you make sure that UCSA Congress actually means something and is not just an expensive fancy show like last year’s congress?

Speech In Defense of The Affordable Care Act; Delivered for Rep. Henry Waxman

Originally Posted 9/26/12

When I was 16 I watched my 19-year-old sister, Emily, have a stroke right in front of me. This was only the second of three she eventually survived. In a matter of seconds I watched as a genetic condition manifested bringing her from the competitive soccer player I knew to someone barely able to get out of bed. Over the next five years I watched as my family too changed from a comfortable middle class family to one solely focused on the health of my sister.

My father continued to work as an engineer and my mother still worked at her physical therapy clinic so we could pay the bills, but all our free time went into figuring out what was happening to Emily. At the time she started getting sick the healthcare system, a system that was in place just a few years ago, seemed to be working against us.

As that first year pounded ahead in a constant rush of hospitals, doctors, and false hopes she started to rapidly approach the age limit at which my parents health insurance would kick her off. Eventually Emily had to withdraw as an honors student from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the hopes that becoming a full time patient may help us find a cure before she was deemed unfit for insurance.

Another year passed and she made great progress, we confirmed a diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, but still I saw as her enthusiasm for life started to waver. This diagnosis would mean she would need to frequent hospitals the rest of her life to receive IVs. As it stood she could not do anything physically demanding, she could not get a real job, and she needed constant medical attention. Even if she went back to college, received a degree, and got a job, no one would insure her. She could never receive the healthcare she needed to live a real life.

This was the state of the healthcare system before the Affordable Care Act. This was how patients, with undeserved conditions, were treated. My sister is an economic pitfall because she is sick with no known cure. She does not make economic sense to treat. Before the Affordable Care Act this would be the end of the story for my family. Too bad. Better luck next time. Some lose, some win. These were the only words of comfort we ever received.

And then a bold congress, pushed forward by some great women and men, decided that we were better than this as a country. My family sat glued to the TV as we watched the role call vote for the greatest piece of social legislation since the Great Society. And together we watch as it passed. And in that moment it passed I saw my sister receive her life back. With the passage of that bill, we witnessed healthcare becoming about health again.

From now on my sister could not be denied coverage just because she needed help. This meant for the rest of her life there was a path in front of her and a government beside her to help her walk it. She went back to college, graduating with a degree in kinesiology and with honors to boot.

I called her two days ago to wish her a happy 24th birthday, something that would have been tragic a few short years ago. We couldn’t talk long because she was rushing to her grad class at Tufts University in Boston. She is now going for an advanced degree in Occupational Therapy with strong hopes of finding both a job and insurance. Insurance she thought she never could get. And insurance that will allow her an IV once a week that can keep her standing upright and working.

When I told her I was speaking about the Affordable Care Act she had one request for me. She wanted me to thank everyone who made the legislation possible, not because it helped insure her, but because it let her be a part of the country she lived in. It let her get a degree, and eventually get a job, pay taxes…and even volunteer. More than anything the Affordable Care Act let her be a citizen and contribute to the land that stepped up and took care of their own. Thank you Congressman for all you have done for my family. Thank you for giving my best friend, my sister, the most caring, and ambitious person I know, her life back and, as she said it, her citizenship back. The American Dream is attainable for millions more like my sister because of the work you did to pass this bill. Thank you. Thank You. Thank You

Fighting Big Brother is Sexy

Originally Posted 3/17/12

With the organizational power provided to citizens by the Internet, it has become easier than ever to protest and petition corrupt governmental proceedings. One does not even need to leave their computer and gather on the mall of our nation’s capital, or in the streets of LA any longer to feel like a crusader for Emanuel Goldstein. This new breed of “slacktivists,” has a new found faith in words to combat corruption in the constant Orwellian battle. To our generation this justifies our declined physical mass mobilization. This is in absolutely no way a harmful trend, but one that must be looked at critically. It is worth mentioning right off the bat that these slacktivists accomplish amazing feats of civil disobedience and exercise massive control over elected officials and are something worth respecting in some instances.
The most current and potent example would be the American “online protests” against SOPA and PIPA. The bills would give federal government unprecedented control over Internet content and were compared by many to Stalinist like censorship. Of course these bills came into quick and fierce conflict with many Internet based tech firms across the nation. Big name corporations such as Google, Wikipedia, and Reddit teamed up to release public condemnations of the bills on their respective websites. Some even blocked use of their site for 24 hours to hammer home their opposition. The market that these firms command was powerful enough to make legislatures sit up and notice as handfuls of congressmen and congresswomen pulled their support for the bill leading to the eventual tabling of the legislation within the period of the 24 hour blackout.
On the underground side of this popular protest there was also seen cyber-civil disobedience.The group Anonymous, a “hacktivist” organization that originated on the underground site 4chan and is supported and perpetuated by more populace friendly sites like 9gag and Reddit, led this tactic. When the government shut down Megaupload, the hacking clan in turn hacked and shut down high profile government sites such as the CIA and FBI. Their idea was simple, “you take away stuff from the people, and the people will take things from you.” Their actions were a modern twist on the old adage that a government should be scared of their people.
These two tactics, major internet blackout and hacking government sites, were quickly galvanized into a single battle against the big brother American government. Popular support was rampant and loud. On any culturally oriented site (Reddit, 9gag, 4Chan) people from all over the globe posted pictures of Guy Fawkes masks, quotes from cultural icons against the bills, and pictures of the bills’ author with hate language accompanying it. George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece provided the basis for large amounts of this language as people talked about big brother and the underground revolution. It was a mobilization that Orwell would probably be proud of. There is however another side to biopower control than the Orwellian method that did not fall into the dialogue of SOPA and PIPA.
George Orwell had a literary mentor named Aldus Huxley in his early career. Huxley wrote a book semi in response to Orwell’s 1984, titled Brave New World. In this novel, Huxley presented an alternative to Orwell’s “boot in face” government with a “T.V. in face” one. In short he advocated that a government has an easier time controlling us when it hides behind a jumble of irrelevant cultural bombardment, than stand for all to see as the source of coercive power. It should be said that both are incredibly dangerous but one is significantly more insidious, especially in our current cultural framework. It is important to fight against possible Orwellian nightmares, and the U.S. government does lend us a hand in this fight. Lemar Smith, the author and main force behind SOPA, can easily be searched on the Internet. On many publicly run sites a concerned citizen can find a picture of the congressman, the district that elected him, his main campaign contributors, and several methods of contacting his office. Someone could just as easily find out the same information about opponents and supporters of the bill and voice their concerns. This is important, as in conjunction with the Internet, citizens of the U.S. can rapidly learn about harmful legislation and target those who are putting it forward. With these resources the fight against the bill continues. It is sexy, it gives a sense of community with the populace and it has very catchy slogans.
An important question must be asked though: do the people leading the charge against the U.S. government grant you the same transparency? The people making up Anonymous are taking it upon themselves to make large and potentially dangerous acts claiming free speech as their justification. And if one were to protest their method how could they reach this group of hackers? We do not know who these people are, what their motivation is or even who supports them structurally. This fact also brings into question the legitimacy of their civil disobedience. Too often civil disobedience is used to justify breaking a law, but it is too important of a tool in a free citizens’ pocket to be simply that. Civil disobedience must have responsibility and purpose behind it for the action to ever move a community forward. Anonymous has purpose, and a purpose that many agree with, but it is completely lacking responsibility. Without the women and men stepping forward and showing their faces to the world stating that they have knowingly violated the law for a just purpose, how can their act be anything more than disruptive. The rhetoric behind the organization is that they are a symbol for change, but as of now they hide behind a mask as others suffer, refusing to take their punishment from the government and become a tangible symbol people being oppressed can actually stand behind, thank and join.
I am not saying that Anonymous is a malicious group or has bad intentions but that their methodology is not conducive to their supposed morals. To a large extend we all fall into the Anonymous trap as well. The Internet facilitates this problem. A large portion of the Internet is populated by ambiguous user names, tied to fictitious information. We all have the ability to put forth cultural ideas and we no longer need to even stand by them. Our credibility thus no longer rests in who we are, our legitimacy, or our knowledge, but instead on how entertaining we are. People cannot gauge whether posters have an ax to grind or what their motives are and thus these ideas tend to get ignored. If the picture is funny who cares if it is true? If the rhetoric is hot who cares if it carries moral weight? In essence all popular chatter going around on the Internet boils down to entertainment. We can feel accomplished by actually doing nothing, the perfect atmosphere for a big government to work. Like say for example while the internet is cheering a job well done on SOPA and PIPA, the government can try and push through a similar bill with a less sexy name: HR 1981. As you can see it is happening. Though it is not sexy to fight Huxley’s nightmare like it is to fight Orwell’s, it is necessary. We must all be critical of what entertains us, who fights for us, and who leads us. We must all stand in the light next to our ideas we put forward. Otherwise we will find ourselves in the same mess we are desperately trying to fight just with cake in hand.

The Power of Words

Originally Posted in Nov. 2011

There is a new trend in modern thought that claims that words are near powerless. That a cat is only a cat not because it is articulated or related to any idea, but because there is a tangible four legged furry animal in our mind. To this I say what animal, what object, can come to mind with words like liberty, freedom, or hate. Are these words then superfluous human inventions to justify fortuitous action? NO. We need not look far nor wait long to see the fallacy behind this irresponsible idea.
Words are what caused a compassionate desert carpenter to be feared by the world’s greatest empire. Words are all Frederic Douglas had in slavery and with those words he rose above to “become human once more.” Starving, tortured, and broken Elie Weissel only had words to help him try and survive the horrors of the Holocaust.
As beautiful as this human ability is, there is a dark side to it. For each case of transcendence, and creation there is constriction and destruction. The dogma of the Romans, the racism of our country, and the eugenics of the Nazis. All of these were propelled forward by words. For it takes something powerful, not ethereal, to make a man look in the eyes of a child and pull the trigger.
This kind of power is contemporarily called hate speech. It beats against our common goodness and tears at our natural empathy until we see another as no more than an animal, all because he looks different, or loves different, or worships different, or even talks different.
It is what caused the murder of innocent students and leaders at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Laramie, Tucson. These are extreme examples of course, and yet they all have their roots close to us. It starts small; commie, whore, Yid, terrorist, faggot, nigger, illegal, gook, and it makes you squirm a little in your seats. But never mind, it passes. As time goes by it passes. It passes if you are white, it passes if you are male, it passes if you are straight, well off, naturalized, quiet and don’t forget to keep your head down. And if you aren’t? It sticks to you. It churns in your head. It can become a part of how you think. Eventually it has been said too much; internalized too deep.
We have seen where this leads earlier this year when the suicide of several homosexual teens was taken up by the media. We cried and said how sad it was. A week or two later we had moved on. Some of us even continued to say “that’s so gay.” Or even “fag.” Can we be blamed? It is just a word. It floats off the tongue so lightly. And yet do we know what these words carry when we innocently let them slip. Do we know that fag reminds of the time when men and women were burned alive on bundle of sticks, called a faggot, for being true to their love? Do we know that gook tells of the dehumanization of an entire people to help scared young boys feel justified in killing their fellow man? We of course know the terrible history of nigger, but oh no we don’t mean it like that. It is a term of endearment. And I don’t mean “gay” I mean stupid. Words mean what WE want and that is our justification.
Do you think gay and lesbian individuals ignore the history? Do you think African Americans do? Jews? Hispanics? Men and women marginalized for any hue or creed? It is not their responsibility to know what we mean but ours to realize the history of what we say. We inherited these words along with the wrongs of our forefathers.
So what do we do? We can take personal responsibility. Most of us in this room already have. And many others, including myself, have pledged to be more conscious of our responsibility. Each working hard themselves not to engage in even innocent slurs. That unfortunately will not stop the pundits, the ignorant, or the narrow minded. Our silence cannot drive out hate.
We can legislate. It has worked so well for other causes in our democracy. But that can step on our first amendment rights. But it is this amendment that can bring us to the answer. For while rights and privileges should always be upheld, we can now more than ever see that they come with a responsibility. That responsibility goes beyond silence. It is the opposite of silence. We must fight. We must exercise our right to extents unprecedented. Not just to stop the hate towards us but towards our brothers and sisters.
Look to the history of that beautiful amendment. In a land of majority rule it is there to protect the voice of the minorities of all backgrounds. It opens a door, but it is us that must step through. It is us that must keep this door open through the tumultuous winds of 24 hour news, and internet overload. For no matter what gallop polls say, or the media reports there are still minorities in our country whose words are not heard waiting for someone to walk through that door. Rev. King said “a leader is not a follower of consensus but a modeler of it.” This same man also showed us the power to lead inherent in all of us. The first amendment is not for the abuse of the mainstream or for the few but for the people. A leader is for the people, all of the people. He or she must not let words insulate them in a cocoon of mindless babble and dogma until for them words truly have no meaning. For it takes a leader to seek other minorities and other communities and other words. It will take many leaders to stop our most entrenched problems. Truly as the Rev. said “everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.”
We all have a group we feel comfortable marginalizing. Think of the disabled. Well they don’t know it’s offensive, or maybe it is because they don’t have the same capabilities, so they must not deserve the same respect. Or maybe you feel just a little uncomfortable around our Muslim brothers and sisters. You have never read the words of their holy Quran but you HEARD it teaches hateful things. You can insert any community you want to marginalize into these statements. So long as we have not heard their words enough and therefore we are able to justify this racism to ourselves. It is attitudes like this that allows hate speech to continue. For until we become our brother’s and our sister’s keeper this cannot stop. We must actively strive to learn the history of all those around us. Learn their words and the way they live. For when a gay man is beaten to death in Laramie, it is all of us that received the punches. It was all of us tied to the fence. When a Christian girl is killed at Columbine, it was all of us that pulled the trigger and all of us who had to stare down the barrel. When a Muslim cultural center is forced to move, it is all of us who are forced to feel ashamed of our religions and all of us who lose our freedom of religion. We must feel the weight of our collective history that burdens each word we say. We must fight the light nature of words in our sound bite culture.
This will be far harder for us to do than it seems. Not just because of effort. It requires that we put down our cause for a day and immerse ourselves in the words of others. You may find yourself in a place where you are the only Caucasian person, or the only Hispanic person, or straight person, or homosexual person. But you must still stand there and speak your words and listen to the words of these foreign brothers and sisters around us. You will be scared by these new words or even angry. But when you clench your fist, take a deep breath, and do what Martin Luther King Jr. did so well, unclench your fist and open your mind. It is hard but remember, it was the strange and foreign words of Thoreau that inspired Gandhi to adopt civil disobedience, and the strange and foreign words of Gandhi that inspired Martin Luther King to do the same. As they opened their eyes and their mouths so must we.
We must do this for what is at stake is everything that makes us human. For words are our creation not our gift. And though words are powerful their power lies in OUR breast. So with this power we have a responsibility tied to it. And this responsibility is tied to our history. And our history ties us to each other. For when our brothers and sisters are killed or take their own lives, we all lose a sister, a mother, a father, a friend, a teacher. And we lose the words that will help dry our eyes and make us laugh together again.
I am in love with words and I fear losing the power that they carry and the people who carry them. Fitzgerald, Elliot, Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, Faulkner, Shakespeare, Douglas, King, Kennedy, Lincoln, Washington. What could we do without their words? What could we do without those around us, forced into the shadows by hate speech? For we all create these great words for each other. We can only lose our collective humanity. But we have the world to gain and uphold.
Rev. King once preached that “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” As I said before language was not a divine gift but something we struggled for centuries to create and cultivate. Now, as in all times, the power we have invested in the words of our languages is being used to cultivate, not the highest creation we are capable of but the base instinct to violence. This misuse of our faculties lies on all of our hearts and all of our shoulders. For until we decide to be leaders, to leave the trenches of verbal warfare and to climb up to that city upon a hill we have so long strived for, we will have to live in fear of one another. Our continuance of hate speech can only lead to hollow words for a hollow human race capable of nothing save destruction. Our alternative is to find the leader in our selves and take that beautiful city so high up by storm. To walk through the door left open to us by our founding fathers. For it is us that must walk. No one, divine or corporeal, can take us there. But the prize is far worth the discomfort caused by foreign words. For when we finally enter that city we will see the beauty of our words in their fresh and diverse incarnations. And only once we are there can we look back and see that the most precious things we have, each other and our ability to empathize, stood moment by moment on the edge of chaos and was worth the entire battle. For the world will always note and forever remember the words we say as we walk this earth. It is up to we the living to protect this power of words for our posterity and to teach them by example the responsibility that accompanies it. All that we are, all that we have, all that we could ever hold dear hangs in the balance.