Chaeli Mycroft: Hope in Motion

Michaela (Chaeli) Mycroft became the first female quadriplegic to summit Mount Kilimanjaro in September. But this is only one of many interesting facts I learned when I met the 21-year-old South African and her mother Zelda on campus recently.

Chaeli and Zelda were at Quinnipiac University at the invitation of David T. Ives, executive director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute, to speak about Chaeli’s experiences with cerebral palsy and her work as an ability activist.

Chaeli gave her presentation three times before the day was over, the second time without the aid of her slideshow. At the end of each talk, students were given time to meet Chaeli, who is a student herself at the University of Cape Town. These informal interactions were among her favorite parts of the day.

Chaeli spoke about her own desire for mobility and independence as a youngster. Wheelchairs were expensive and fundraising for a motorized wheelchair would wind up being the start of The Chaeli Campaign, a non-profit organization she co-founded as a 10-year-old, along with her older sister Erin and their three best friends, Tarryn, Justine and Chelsea Terry.

In 2004, the five girls came up with an idea to raise money. They would sell cards featuring Erin and Chaeli’s artwork and Sunshine Pots, miniature pot plant kits that included seed and soil. Chaeli got permission from her school to take orders from students and their families, and the girls began to sell. Within seven weeks, the girls had the money for Chaeli’s wheelchair, but orders were still coming in.

Zelda suggested the two families could start a non-profit organization to help other children with disabilities, if the girls wanted to keep being involved. The organization, proud to have been founded by kids, is now in its eleventh year.

The Chaeli Campaign helps about 3,000 South African children a year to receive assistive devices and therapies. It also operates a number of programs designed to create inclusive environments for children with disabilities. A basic tenet of the organization is this:

Physical/intellectual impairment is self-evident and can be dealt with. Disability is created by the way in which society responds to the impairment.

Often, Chaeli said, people with disabilities are seen as a burden within their community, taking up time, energy and space.

“Disability is inconvenient for them to deal with,” Chaeli acknowledged. But it’s important to remember that it is an inconvenience for the disabled person as well.

“Disabled people are still people who have the same needs and the same rights as everyone else,” Chaeli pointed out. “You can’t just give people a wheelchair and think, ‘Cool, my job is done,’”

This is why inclusive environments are so important. They reinforce the message that being different is okay and help to change people’s perceptions about disability and what ability means.

As Chaeli talks about her life, she uses humor to engage her audience. It makes her incredibly relatable, even as she challenges what people might believe are the limitations of a disabled person. Take for example her story about sandboarding.

When she went, no one was sure what would be the best way for Chaeli to ride down the sandy hill. The first option had Chaeli sitting at the front of the board with her ride partner behind.

“It was a bad plan,” Chaeli laughed. “Don’t put a disabled person with balance issues on the front of a sandboard.”

Chaeli had a great time and is thankful to her parents for the bravery they showed in letting her do it, despite the possibility she might get hurt. Like many things in her life, it was tough sometimes, but it helped that her parents always focused on the positives, which fostered her can-do attitude. It’s like Zelda said to me later:

You can’t learn inclusion, you have to live it.

Living a life of inclusion has led Chaeli to many interesting adventures. She gave a few examples, like wheelchair dancing. Chaeli started at the age of 11 and competes with current partner, Damian Michaels.

Or cycling. Her friend, Grant Kruger, introduced her to the idea and she joked about her initial response. “My legs don’t even move; you’re ridiculous,” Chaeli says she told him. “Eventually I was convinced by his face. It was nice.” The pair competed in the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour.

Building on these experiences led to the the idea for something grander in scale, or as Chaeli put it, “a little more epic” – climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

The climb was four years in the planning, and Chaeli needed a custom built wheelchair, and an incredible team to make it happen.

Chaeli celebrated her birthday on day two of the climb. “They made me a cake on a mountain,” she said. “It was phenomenal.”

But on day three she realized what she’d really gotten into. There were many challenges, not least of which was the cold. By day five, she was starting to get frostbite in her feet.

“It’s not like I need my feet, but I like having them,” she laughed.

The group learned many lessons about planning, being creative in the face of problems, bravery and admitting weaknesses. In short, it was an amazing experience.

The whirlwind schedule Chaeli and Zelda have planned for the next couple weeks sounds like it will be pretty amazing as well. They arrived in the U.S. the day before the talks at Quinnipiac, and they were flying out the next day to visit Earth University in Costa Rica.  After that, they are scheduled to take part in workshops at the International Children’s Peace Prize ceremonies in the Netherlands before heading to the 15th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Barcelona.

Chaeli herself won the 2011 International Children’s Peace Prize, and she was also awarded the first ever Peace Summit Medal for Social Activism at the 2012 World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. She has met famous people from Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu to Bill Clinton to Malala Yousafzai, who won the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2013.

But these are not what she is most proud of achieving.

“It’s more the small things,” Chaeli said. She recalls a young boy in a South African township whose bedridden parents had not left their home for seven years. The Chaeli Campaign was able to get wheelchairs for them.

To be able to give something that is a pretty small thing in the big picture … for them it was everything.

The Chaeli Campaign is about changing lives by focusing on mobilizing the minds and bodies of children with disabilities. It is also about hope. Following Chaeli’s lecture, Zelda spoke about some of the programs of The Chaeli Campaign that focus directly on nurturing hope and opportunity.

One is the Pay-It-Forward Ambassadors Program. The program was started in 2009 in order to ensure that The Chaeli Campaign, which was started by kids to address the needs of kids, would be able to maintain the voice of youth leaders as its original founders continued to age.

Children aged between 9 and 14 are invited to invest a year of their time to promote The Chaeli Campaign while learning about social entrepreneurship and how to run their own projects – including fundraising and awareness campaigns within their own communities.

Another program is the Bhabhisana Baby Project. This newly launched independent project is operating under the umbrella of The Chaeli Campaign’s therapies programs.

Their mission is assess babies (0-2 years) who are at risk of developmental delay and disabilities. Where a need is identified, the project aims to provide multi-disciplinary therapy for the child and support and empowerment to family members and carers, so that every baby may reach their individual potential. The Bhabhisana Baby Project saw its first baby on September 29.

Zelda also spoke about The Chaeli Campaign’s Vocation and Rehabilitation Program. Disability is particularly difficult for older children and young adults, she said. Once a disabled person turns 18, they can find themselves in a vacuum where programs that can help with socialization and skill development are absent.

The Chaeli Campaign holds weekly workshops targeted at intellectually and physically disabled young adults to provide them with an opportunity to learn skills and practice them in a work situation.

Sometimes, Zelda said, it can be difficult to raise funds for these ongoing therapeutic programs, but each one is an important piece in helping to change the lives of people living with disabilities and their families.

After listening to Chaeli’s presentation and spending some time speaking to her afterward, Quinnipiac occupational therapy graduate student Samantha Wondsel summed it up nicely.

“[The Chaeli Campaign] takes a holistic approach – bringing in family, leisure, sports and education,” Wondsel said. “It’s really about putting the person first rather than the disability.”

Chaeli Mycroft, her mom Zelda, and David T. Ives, the executive director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute. Photo Credit: Nicki Dakis-Gallagher

Chaeli and Zelda along with David T. Ives on Quinnipiac’s campus. Photo: Nicki Dakis-Gallagher


Don’t Let The Bed Bugs Bite!

Over the past several weeks I have been working to produce a show that has now recently aired on The Colin McEnroe Show on WNPR 90.5 Connecticut Public Radio. The idea originated with one of the station’s producers, Betsy Kaplan. I thought it was really interesting and she was kind enough to let me run with it.

When I started out, I didn’t really know much about bed bugs other than they can be really hard to get rid of and no one wants to have them! I know a lot more about them now …

Our paths probably crossed in an ancient cave when a bed bug decided to skip the usual bat blood and try a taste of a sheltering human’s blood instead. Apparently we were quite to their liking so the bed bug has stayed with us ever since, traveling with us all over the world and adapting to our habits and habitats.

I wondered why I had never heard of anyone having bed bugs when I was growing up since they seem to be everywhere now. Maybe it should have been obvious, but it wasn’t until I researched the show and read Brooke Borel’s book Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World that the obvious became clear to me – DDT. It had virtually wiped out bed bugs, except those that were immune to its effect. When we stopped spraying DDT and the residual effects wore off, the bed bug made a comeback with one slight difference – much of the population had developed a resistance to the chemicals we use to kill them.

From weird bed bug sex known as traumatic insemination to how the selfie may be behind increased head lice among teens, you’ll learn a few things you never knew you wanted to know if you Listen to the podcast of the show here!

Caring Leadership Teaches Reverence For Life

Quinnipiac University students in QU 301 sat wherever they could find an empty seat on the first day of fall classes. The room at the back of the Albert Schweitzer Institute is not exactly a classroom, but it is where “Combating the Causes of Poverty” will be meeting for the semester. Professor David T. Ives teaches the class. His long white hair is receding at the front and caught in the back in a loose ponytail. Tall and broad with a warm, easy manner he resembles a big teddy bear.

Ives goes through the roll and promises to work on remembering names before asking everyone to introduce themselves and share why they are taking his class.

“It’s okay to say because it’s a requirement,” he adds with a chuckle. “I know that’s why some of you are here.”

As the students take turns speaking some admit to it, although they all say the class sounded interesting as well. But many of them say they signed up for this class because of Ives. Different versions of ‘someone I know had you for a class and said you were great’ tell the story of why maybe a dozen of the nearly 30 students in the class are there.

Ives is okay with that. He knows the goal of the institute is to promote the values of Albert Schweitzer on a worldwide basis with an emphasis on peace, humanitarian values and health. He also knows that to do that, he needs students in the classroom. If they were all there for heartfelt reasons that would be ideal, but required service learning and classes may mean getting to reach students who otherwise wouldn’t be there at all.

If Ives could have his way then young people would spend a gap year living in poorer countries. He knows that getting them outside of their own experiences and into the world can be life-changing, not just because about 91 percent of the students that go on a Quinnipiac service trip abroad come back feeling the experience has changed them. No, Ives knows from his own life how experiences can change us.

Changes, even difficult ones, sometimes result in benefits unimagined. Albert Schweitzer once said that each person can do a little to help end misery for others. A physician and humanitarian, Schweitzer believed passionately that by practicing reverence for life we would help others, but we would also help ourselves to become good, deep and alive.

The institute named after him was founded in 1984 and became affiliated with Quinnipiac University in 2001. Ives was brought on as executive director in January 2002. Since then he has sought to cultivate a desire to help those in need in the hearts of Quinnipiac’s student body in a number of ways including arranging and leading service trips to developing countries. It was on one of those trips that Ives found a way to benefit others from a difficult personal experience.

In January 2012, Ives was traveling with a small group of occupational and physical therapy students in Guatemala. They set up a small clinic in a classroom of the local school in the village of Joya de las Flores. Two people came to the clinic that day. One of them was 14-year-old Pablo Enrique.

(You can click here to watch the documentary “Esperanza Lograble (Hope Within Reach): Uniting a Community Through Occupational Therapy.” It records the earlier experiences of a group from the Albert Schweitzer Institute and the Occupational Therapy Department at Quinnipiac University who traveled to San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala in July 2009.)

Pablo suffered from a physical disability and initially the Quinnipiac group believed it was to do with a fall he had three years earlier. The family had sought treatment for him then, but quickly exhausted their meager finances. It had now been many months since Pablo had seen a doctor. As they learned more of Pablo’s history; however, something started to click with Ives. When the family said that doctors years ago had mentioned Pablo might have Guillian-Barré syndrome, Ives became very emotional.


Pablo and his father. Photo courtesy David Ives.

Guillian-Barré is rare. In fact, only about 1 person in 100,000 is afflicted with it. Amazingly, it was a disease Ives had personal experience with. At 41, Ives had been diagnosed with Guillian-Barré syndrome and rushed to the hospital for treatment. He spent the next several months in hospital. “One night,” Ives recounts, “I almost did die.”

Because of this, Ives knew what Pablo needed to do. He was able to send a walker, crutches and canes when the group returned to the United States. He also sent exercise manuals so that local staff could assist Pablo with his therapy.

Just two years later, the same group was overjoyed to witness Pablo walk out to greet them completely under his own power.

“We gave him the gift of walking again and for me, it doesn’t get any better than that in terms of what I do.”

Ives shares personal experiences like this very openly. It is something about him that creates a lasting impression. A former student, political science major Danielle Tomlinson, 20, recalls first listening to Ives speak. “He had a wealth of life experiences,” she said. “He had seen much more than any normal person had seen.”

How much more becomes apparent the more Ives opens up. Although his life begins in the usual way, his telling is certainly unique. “I was born rather young,” Ives begins. “I was in the same room as my mother at the time.”

The room was a hospital room in Lake Placid, New York. The year was 1951. The first two babies born at the brand new hospital received welcome gifts. Ives was born third. Within a few years his father Leland, a landscape designer, decided to become a minister. He moved his family and enrolled in the Gordon Divinity School, a few hours north of Boston.

“That’s probably where one of the more seminal incidents happened, although I didn’t realize how seminal it would be,” Ives recalls about being diagnosed with polio. He was 4 years old at the time and the doctors said he would never walk again. His mother, Dorothy, did not accept that.

“It took about nine months from the time I collapsed in front of the toilet and was diagnosed with polio until I took my first step unaided.” Not surprisingly, Ives said, “That was a big day in our household.”

When Leland Ives got a pastorate, the family packed up and moved to Pierpont, Ohio. “It was a growing metropolis of about 250 people and about 3,000 cows,” Ives explains, only half in jest. “It was kind of a Norman Rockwell existence.”

Surviving polio didn’t afford him any special treatment at home, at least not from his mother. Ives was given typical chores including mowing and cleaning. “My mother,” Ives explains laughing, “was also an initial feminist. When I told her I didn’t want to clean the bathroom because that was ‘women’s work,’ guess what I did for the next six months? I still hated doing it, but I wasn’t dumb enough to say it again!”

Growing up in a small town taught Ives a lot about community and helping others. He remembers how every farmer in town chipped in some of their own store to replace the hay of one farmer that was destroyed by a fire. And he credits seeing the gratitude of families receiving a Thanksgiving turkey through his father’s pastoral work as cementing the idea that he wanted to grow up and help people like that.

Another thing that made a real impression on a 10-year-old Ives was John F. Kennedy.

“I admired him as a young person. He seemed so full of life, of vim and vigor,” Ives said. “I knew I wanted to join the Peace Corps since I was about 10-years-old when John F. Kennedy recommended it, started it in 1961, I think it was.”

When Ives was 16, his mother was instrumental in arranging a family trip to South America. It was there that Ives saw real abject poverty. He remembers a family home they went to that contained a single soggy mattress shared by everyone, the walls made out of laboriously unrolled tin cans.

“Seeing that really changed my life,” Ives shared. “But it didn’t do it right away.”

He enrolled at Ohio State University after high school, but Ives says he really settled on a degree in social work because he didn’t need to take a language. During his freshman year, tragedy struck. Dorothy Ives was killed by a drunk driver and Ives admits his 19-year-old self did not handle her death well. He drank too much and his grades suffered, but he did find a path he enjoyed, planning programs and doing counseling as a resident assistant. When he was accepted into a master’s program, Ives finally began to deal with his anger.

“The master’s program had a counseling aspect to it and part of the deal was that you had to get therapy yourself,” Ives said. “So that’s when I talked about my mother for the first time in-depth.”

Once he had his master’s, Ives worked for five years before finally realizing his dream of joining the Peace Corps at 29. He was assigned to Costa Rica and taught agriculture to the locals, helping them to plant gardens and improve their health through better nutrition. As he worked in the different communities Ives began to realize he wanted to look at issues on a more macro level. It is good to work on the micro level of the Peace Corps, building a pond or planting a garden. When a child eats the produce from the garden then yes, Ives said, their health is helped. But what, he began to wonder, about the tens of thousands of children under the age of 5 who die every day?

This thinking was influenced by another seminal moment in Ives’ life. In a remote area accessible only by boat, a young girl was having trouble breathing. She was severely malnourished and it was clear she desperately needed medical attention. Ives went ahead to hold the boat as the family made their way more slowly behind. The captain did not want to wait and Ives had to resort to threatening to throw the man overboard to get him to hold the boat, but finally they were all on board. Ives held the little girl during the ride, but sadly she did not survive the trip. Her death has stayed with him and often motivates his efforts to help.

Ives met many people through the Peace Corps. One of them was his future wife Barbara, who also served as a volunteer in Costa Rica. When her service period ended, Ives arranged to leave his posting about a month early so that he could go home and chase her. He confesses it took him a little while to catch her though.

“When we were in the Peace Corps,” Ives reveals, “she had a boyfriend. She was the only one in the whole Peace Corps that did not know I was interested in her. To everybody else it was pretty obvious.”

The two were married on May 7, 1983. Within a few years they expanded their family when they adopted their son, Taylor, from the Philippines in 1986. Two years later they adopted daughter Kelsey from the Philippines as well.

In 1989, Ives took a job as executive director of The Louis August Jonas Foundation and settled his family in Rhinebeck, New York, not far from where he ran Camp Rising Sun, a national leadership and training program focused on bringing together young people from countries that have a history of conflict and try to show them how to relate to each other as individuals without violence.

Despite his experience traveling the world and dealing with people of many ethnic and cultural backgrounds, Ives still worried about being culturally sensitive to his children. At 4, son Taylor asked a question about the difference between their skin colors.

“He asked me, ‘When I grow up, will I be white too?’”

Unsure how to answer, Ives said he rambled on for at least 10 minutes discussing heritage and the varying shades of skin color. He spoke about diversity and even mentioned that white people often tan to try and darken their skin to look like Taylor’s.

“Can you believe I used the word diversity to a 4-year-old?” Ives asks, shaking his head at the memory. Taylor went off to play but returned a little later with a question that made it clear the nuanced cultural conversation had gone over the boy’s head.

“This time he asked me, ‘Dad, did you leave me out in the sun too long?’” Ives laughs delightedly at one of his favorite personal stories.

He also shares some of the more deep and meaningful exchanges he had with his own father, albeit when he was much older. During his time in the Peace Corps, Ives began to question some of the political ideals he had shared with his father. Ideals he had even once held sacrosanct. His growing disillusionment with the role of the United States in Latin America was sometimes a bone of contention in correspondence with his father at the time.

Ives felt that not every American working in Costa Rica was there for altruistic motives. Many made no attempt to understand the root causes of why people viewed communism as a good alternative. He saw companies “raping the land” and insecticides leaching into the groundwater. He saw workers in the fields, once including Barbara, being sprayed with DDT. And America held itself forward as “a beacon on the hill” even while some of their covert actions were “a moral abomination.”

Returning to the United States, Ives found it disturbing that many Americans were ignorant about what was happening outside of their own country. He wanted to work at the macro level, but discovered he needed to start at the micro level because of people’s limited knowledge of the wider world.

“I found when I would talk about my experience in Costa Rica, the first thing I had to do usually, if they were really interested, is explain where it was and why I went there.”

Typically Ives’ students have to learn some world geography early in the semester. He believes they need to be able to find a place on the globe and have some basic knowledge of a country in order to understand the problems it faces.

“I could shoot the person that took geography out of the high school curriculum,” Ives states. But once students begin to gain that basic understanding, he feels they become capable of profound thinking on the world’s problems. He works in the classroom to challenge students thinking. He wants to hear their opinions and gives each person his attention to ensure they get the most from the experience. Ives also makes a point of hearing from everyone, every class. He genuinely believes they all have something unique to offer. It’s a big part of why students love his classes.

Elaine Martinez, 20, is a health science studies major and former student of Ives.

“In class he is very intuitive. He’s very open to a lot of different opinions,” she said. “Instead of shutting your ideas down like some professors do, he builds on them.”

Tomlinson agrees. “He sincerely cares about each and every person, each and every student, regardless of their situation, or their attitude, or their views. He truly wants to inspire students and give them the best opportunity possible to achieve the things they want to in their lives.”

His colleagues recognize these same attributes in Ives. Professor Renée Tursi is an associate professor of English. She met Ives shortly after she started at Quinnipiac in 2004. She found him to be very warm and open-hearted, admiring his sense of a personal mission in the world.

“David is one of the people at Quinnipiac who has, single-handedly, changed more students’ lives than anyone else. Faculty, we all love to think that students are never the same after taking one of our courses. But David connects with these students.”

Tursi has traveled to Nicaragua with Ives for several service trips. The trips, she says, are so moving that had she gone on such a trip as a young student, “I might have chosen a different path.”

For Crystal Brian, professor of theater at Quinnipiac since 2001, the impact of Ives was twofold.

“I met him early on and it made a big difference to why I wanted to keep working here,” Brian said. “When he started talking about what he’s done throughout his life to try and take care of people it was so interesting to me.”

Their conversations were one of the motivators for Brian to change her whole idea about the theater program and led to the development of a changed B.A. at Quinnipiac – Theater and Community; something she believes no other college or university in the country has.

But Ives’ impact in Brian’s life goes beyond the professional. In 2013, she suffered a stroke and was in the hospital for more than a year. Ives came to see her on numerous occasions, talking to her when she couldn’t even hear him and sharing his experiences with rehabilitation.

This caring beyond the classroom and the workplace was repeated by Tomlinson. When she was sick last year, Ives went out of his way to make sure she had access to the medical care that she needed, which helped her to stay in school. He also went a step further, taking the time to reassure her parents in Kingston, Jamaica, that she was getting taken care of and contacting Tomlinson and her family over the summer to be sure that everything was going well.

Ives definitely understands what it takes to overcome health issues. Besides his bout with polio as a boy and Guillian-Barré in his forties, Ives, now in his sixties, has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It affects his speech at times and he has some tremors as well.

“I can cover up my disability for most people and that’s sometimes why I tell jokes to kind of distract from that,” Ives confesses. “But my hand still shakes a bit and we can’t tell if that’s from the polio, post-polio syndrome, Guillian-Barré syndrome which turned me into a quadriplegic for a time, or like right now with my Parkinson’s.”

And when he is working with people of different cultures, humor serves another purpose for Ives. “I break down barriers with that,” he adds. “It makes me more human.”

It may be a device at times, but Brian gives another reason for the jokes.

“He’s very funny.”

It seems to be an assessment everyone agrees with. “He has the most amazing sense of humor and buries us in puns,” Tursi notes. “He just must stay up late thinking these things up.”

But it is his genuine sincerity that makes the biggest impression.

“He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, and he doesn’t lie,” Tursi reflected. “He never falters from his sense of purpose. He’s just completely committed and he wants to make the world a better place. It sounds trite, but it’s never come in a more sincere package.”

This warmth and genuine ease may best be reflected in a story from another student, Andrew Chestney, 19, who has traveled with Ives to Guatemala twice. When asked to share something that he felt summed up Ives as a person, Chestney related how during last year’s trip to work on a school for the disabled in the country, Ives and the students visited the homes of some of the students with disabilities in order to meet the people they had been working to try and help.

At one home, a young disabled girl was very excited by their visit. The girl’s family has recently had another child who was still a newborn. Chestney shared the image of Ives, sitting in this humble home, holding the infant in his arms while its sister was standing beside him, hanging off every word. Ives spoke jokingly with the family trying in jest to convince them to name their new child David.

“That,” Chestney said, “is David. He cares about everyone and he doesn’t treat them different. He’s not making them feel like he’s sorry for them, he’s just doing what he can to help.”

The need to help others is the most important thing to Ives. “I would hope that you would do things for altruistic reasons,” he explains. “But if not, do it because helping others is good for you personally and also for your own country.”

As for Ives, he takes his motivation from the small successes and believes they outnumber the frustrations of his job.

“I haven’t been able to bring peace to the world yet, but I’ve got little pockets of positive energy that we helped place around the world,” he said. “I’m probably going to have to be satisfied with that.”

Labor struggles continue

It’s Labor Day and while many of us are too busy bidding a last adieu to summer, maybe we should be thinking about the labor movement and American workers. The fight for better wages, equal pay, reasonable working hours, safer working conditions, an end to child labor, and benefits like health coverage, workers compensation and retirement pensions has had a long history. Labor unions definitely had some great success in their heyday, although membership in unions has, and continues to decline. While there are arguments for and against the continued relevance and effectiveness of unions, many of the same issues that brought about their rise have never gone away.

Take for example the issue of equal pay for equal work. In an article about the history of equal pay, Charlotte Alter quotes an 1869 letter to the editor of the New York Times which cited the fact that women in the U.S. Treasury department were paid half the pay of men for the same grade of work. And even though John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, more than four decades later the U.S. Department of Labor is using this campaign to highlight the fact that women still earn an average of 78 cents on the dollar in comparison to men.

The fight over the minimum wage continues to be fought state by state. The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour. For a full-time worker earning the minimum wage, that works out to just $15,080 a year, not much above the 2015 Poverty Guidelines.  Even though the National Conference of State Legislatures lists 29 states and the District of Columbia with higher state minimum wages, none meet the standard of a “living wage,” and there are several states whose minimum wage is set below the current federal level, and five who have no state minimum wage: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. This means that some workers who are not covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act may legally be paid less than the federal minimum wage.

A non-profit think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, identified a need for higher wages. They reported in August that:

Regardless of where they lived, minimum wage workers were earning too little to make ends meet. 

Fast-food workers began the push to raise their wages to $15 an hour last year. At least two Democrats seeking the 2016 presidential nomination have both endorsed a $15 minimum wage, with Senator Bernie Sanders introducing legislation for it in Congress. Currently few Republican presidential candidates support any increase in the minimum wage, and none at the level that Sanders and Martin O’Malley are advocating. In fact, some like Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio have spoken about eliminating the federal minimum wage completely.

That is only two labor issues that are still at the forefront. Others, like workers’ compensation are hot-button topics as well. So where does that leave our labor unions today? Struggling, but receiving some definite support from the current administration.

In speeches this Labor Day, Vice President Joe Biden told a Pittsburgh audience there was a simple correlation between strong unions and a strong middle class. In Boston, President Obama made his point by referring to the NFL Players Association’s successful fight to overturn Tom Brady’s suspension “You know if Brady needs a union,” Obama said, “we definitely need unions.” 

A drive down Dixwell can take you places

It is easy to become absorbed by a project, and that’s what I’ve spent the past month doing in my Public Affairs Reporting class.

For inspiration, Professor Amy Walker, sent us out of the classroom and into the real world – for a drive down Dixwell Avenue. Between Hamden and New Haven the ideas started to flow. There was so much to focus on – and we all found different facets to explore.

I got to meet some dedicated youth workers and some pretty amazing kids while putting my project together. Read my article Changing the Narratives in Newhallville. Then take some time to explore the rest of the site. It has a variety of multi-media presentations from the rest of the class. Check them all out and post your comments.

Looking at the past through “A Different Mirror”

There are two things that tie this week’s post to my first one. First, these are facts that I never heard before, even though I took all the history classes needed to graduate high school and even more to earn the academic requirements for my associates degree. And second, and what really struck me more, I learned these things outside a traditional history class.

These two things make me feel somehow cheated by my earlier education, and what comes to mind is the quote usually repeated to highlight history’s importance to student’s who wonder why they should care what happened hundreds of years ago:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
– George Santayana, The Life of Reason (1905)

If we have never learned the truth of our past, how can we remember it? If we are repeating past mistakes, how will we know? If we do not know the truth of what has gone before, how do we assess the rightness of the beliefs and values we cling to? Are the opinions we make based on our beliefs actually warped?

This semester I needed to take the second of three required university seminars at Quinnipiac. There are a number of sections offered within the series, but these special courses are designed so that “Quinnipiac students are introduced to major topics from university life to international issues.” QU 201 looks at the national community, and I registered for Professor Ray Lee Ranis’ class, “The Impact of the 1960s on American Life.”

We started off reading “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America,” by Ronald Takaki because it would help to set the stage for The Sixties. Takaki’s book is an examination of America’s past from the vantage of several different racial and ethnic minorities, including African Americans.

Of course I learned about slavery in school. And I’ve since learned that some of the ideas that we are taught about slavery are not necessarily the full picture. For example, despite the impression that we are often given, slavery was not just a southern institution and even after it was “abolished” in the North, many people there profited from its continued existence and racism did, and does, live on above the Mason-Dixon line.

But there are things I did not know until now. Yes, I learned over the years that Thomas Jefferson is a study in contradiction. For example, he was one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence which declares that “all mean are created equal,” yet we know that Jefferson owned slaves – as many as 175. He did not ever free all of his slaves, and in fact, he freed only two while he was alive and five more upon his death.

I had always learned that Jefferson was opposed to slavery and sought to end it in the United States. I did not know until I read Takaki that Jefferson believed freed blacks would have  “to be removed from American society (p.63).” Jefferson believed that “blacks and whites could never coexist in America (p.64)” because of racial differences, including his belief that blacks were “inferior (p.65).” He was also outspoken against interracial sex and said that white America’s “amalgamation with the other color produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent.”

Jefferson advocated a plan of gradual emancipation with the idea that freed slaves would be removed from the United States. But Takaki tells us on page 64 that the economic costs of expatriation were not lost on Jefferson. Being “practicable,” the country could “deport the future generation” by removing black babies from their mothers, giving them occupational training until they were old enough to be deported, then sending them, he suggested, “to the independent black nation of Haiti.” According to Jefferson’s calculations, this would lessen the cost of expatriation from $600 million to $37.5 million. On the notion of taking children from their mothers Jefferson said it “would produce some scruples of humanity.”

The economic considerations of whites were often given priority when making decision affecting black lives. The end of slavery did not end that. Takaki discusses that many argued following the Civil War that emancipation needed to be paired with land distribution to prevent “the development of a semifeudal system based on the cheap labor of exploited and powerless blacks (p.124).”

Special Field Order Number 15 was issued during the war by General Sherman. It gave “‘possessory titles’ to forty-acre lots (p.124)” to black people and allowed them use of military mules. Although blacks believed they owned the land, lawmakers did not pass the legislation known as the “40 acres and a mule” bill. President Johnson pardoned white planters, who reclaimed their land, and the freed blacks were forced to work for the white owners or leave the land (p.124). Historian Rick Beard’s “Forty Acres and A Mule” was printed in the New York Times opinion pages discussing this very episode.

For many blacks there was little difference in their lives as slaves and their lives as freemen. Takaki quotes the words to a black folk song on page 124:

    Slabery an’ freedom
    Dey’s mos’ de same
    No difference hahdly
    Cep’ in de name

For me it brought to mind the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have A Dream” speech where he said:

 America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

What might have been different if land grants were honored? Freedmen in the North were not slaves before the Civil War, yet they were discriminated against, excluded, and forced into menial labor. Would land have changed the southern blacks’ experience?

In the introduction to his book “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” James W. Loewen uses an interesting quote:

Concealment of the historical truth is a crime against the people.
– General Petro G. Grigorenko, samizdat letter to history journal, c. 1975, U.S.S.R.

So my final thought is this … does omitting the parts of our past that we are not proud of, or that show us in a bad light, constitute concealment? Do we do enough to teach the truth about American history, including the negative aspects of our country’s past? If we acknowledge, accept and promote a more balanced view of history, do you think that would change the ways we view minorities in this country? Would it change the way we deal with the rest of the world?

Share your thoughts.

Let me start with some things I thought I knew …

I’ve been standing on the end of the diving board contemplating entering the blogging pool for a while and I finally decided to jump in. Okay, maybe “decided” is the wrong word because, while they haven’t exactly pushed me in, my professors have certainly been letting me know that as a journalism major, I really belong off the board and in the pool. But before you get the idea that this blog is going to be water-related, I’ll end the analogy and introduce myself.

I am a senior at Quinnipiac University majoring in journalism, but my undergraduate studies also include an associates degree from Randolph Community College and a year at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. I grew up in Connecticut, in the city of Shelton, and I currently live in the town of Granby. In between, I have become a wife and mother, lived almost half my life overseas in Australia, then spent a few more years living a little less South in North Carolina where I decided to return to school as a non-traditional student hoping to play a role in what is often pointed to as a dying medium – print journalism.

What always stopped me from diving in to blogging (sorry – last one, I promise!) is not unique to me – What should I blog about? I really couldn’t decide where to start and so I have to thank one of my teachers at QU this semester, Cat Carter, who suggested history as an approach to current topics that interest me. After a little thought I decided to focus my first few posts on some basic history I thought I knew before I went back to school.

And what could be more basic than the discovery of the Americas, right? You’ve probably recited the poem, “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” Of course, you may already know that the Vikings came here long before Columbus – probably half a millennium. But apparently there is evidence of African explorers making their way to the Americas centuries before Columbus as well. Why did I not know that? The book  “They Came Before Columbus”  was originally published in 1976 and its author, anthropologist Dr. Ivan van Sertima, asserted that Africans had traveled to pre-Columbian America and exerted some influence on the culture and history. While his theories are not accepted fact, my point is that I was completely unaware of the speculation which has been in print for almost 40 years.

This wasn’t the only new thing I discovered sitting in Anwar Alston’s grammar class at NC A&T. Remember the Alamo? Maybe you misremember it if, like me, you never learned that the continuation of slavery was one of the reasons it was fought. James W. Russell, a professor of sociology at Eastern Connecticut State University, published the book “Escape from Texas” in 2012. Though this is a fictional novel, it provides an account that argues “the extension of slavery was the true underlying cause of the Texas War of Independence.”

I’ve learned some other facts about slavery in the United States that surprised me. Maybe they’ll surprise you too but you’ll have to wait for my next post to find out …