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AIDS and Activism: A 3-Part Series

December 1, 2016

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In honor of World AIDS Day, we are re-posting our 3-part series on AIDS and Activism that was published four years ago. We do this in memory of all those we have lost to AIDS.

AIDS and Activism – Part I

The first posting is the chapter – AIDS in the Gay Community in Grand Rapids – from the film, A People’s History of the LGBTQ Community in Grand Rapids.

AIDS and Activism Part II: Reagan, DeVos and the 1980s crisis 

AIDS and Activism Part III – ACT UP and the power of direct action 

West Michigan Policy Forum Endorsed Legislation seeks to eliminate Public School Teacher Pensions in Michigan

November 30, 2016

It is possible that before the end of the year, the Michigan Legislature might push through a bill that will effectively end public school teacher pensions.screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-9-00-40-am

We wrote about this issue in September, when the major policy issue that the right-wing West Michigan Policy Forum made ending public sector employee pensions the main issue to get passed in Michigan. 

The West Michigan Policy Forum has been instrumental in getting several state policies passed since their inception in 2008, such as making Michigan a Right to Work state, eliminating the business tax and now they are calling for the end of public school teacher pensions.

The proposed legislation, known as HB-5218 in the House and SB 102 in the Senate would eliminate traditional pensions and replace it with 401k-type plans allowing investment firms to make billions managing them. The Michigan Education Association has stated that, “This is a nation-wide attack, led by Enron billionaire Tom Arnold, whose Arnold Foundation is flooding right wing think tanks across the nation with funding to do this work. The Enron meltdown cost public pension funds $1.5 billion in losses.”  

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In Michigan, the West Michigan Policy Forum and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has been pushing the same message, which is all in the name of fiscal responsibility. “Fiscal responsibility,” is really just code for austerity measures and ultimately an attempt to break unions.

The recent announcement from the the Trump camp that Betsy DeVos has agreed to be the Secretary of Education in his administration, provides even more momentum, since Betsy DeVos and the DeVos family has made the dismantling of public education a priority for years. Many of the Michigan legislators who have backed both the House and the Senate version of the bill are endorsed by the DeVos run Great Lakes Education Project. 

Various organization, particularly unions are attempting to prevent the Michigan Legislature from making this happen. The Michigan AFL-CIO has sent out an action alert, asking people to sign this petition. 

However, it will take more than petitions to stop this Neoliberal plan to undermine teacher pensions. The unions and their supporters will need to engage in various forms of direct action if they are to put a stop to ongoing class warfare being wage by the Republicans and their Democratic Party collaborators. 

Why is the GRPS Superintendent praising Betsy DeVos as Trump’s choice for Education Secretary?

November 28, 2016

Last Wednesday, in an article that appeared on MLive about Trump’s choice for Education Secretary, Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of Grand Rapids Public School district, endorsed and even praised Betsy DeVos as Trump’s choice for Education Secretary. Here is part of what that MLive article stated:screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-12-09-45-am

Neal says she has worked closely with DeVos since she began her job five years ago. The relationship started with DeVos asking for a meeting.

“She wanted to know what I was going to do, what was my plan for the children in the district,” said Neal. “I appreciated her asking the question. She was part of the transformation that we have done in the district.”

When Neal said she needed the expertise of a superintendent coach, DeVos picked up the tab, and she continues to send notes of encouragement.

The DeVos clan, especially Amway President Doug DeVos and his wife, Maria, have channeled millions from their foundations to programs that align with Neal’s goals.

Neal acknowledges the toll Michigan’s school of choice policy has taken on urban school districts like her own over the past 22 years when the lawmakers set it in motion with school finance reform in 1994.

“It has been hurt by choice (but) we have also become a much stronger district and able to compete,” Neal said.screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-3-57-23-am

Over the past two decades, the district has lost 8,000 students, closed 35 buildings, eliminated 1000 positions and cut more than $100 million from the budget, according to the district’s spokesman John Helmholdt.

Under Neal, the district’s graduation rates have climbed and chronic absenteeism have dropped, Helmholdt added, although they’re still below state averages.

Neal thinks DeVos can hold up GRPS as a model of what can be done at other struggling districts.

“I’m really excited for the children across the nation,” Neal said. “She has been a wonderful supporter of GRPS and our transition plan. She knows education. She knows what it is going to take in order for our kids to be helped.”

Some have questioned DeVos family involvement in the district and public education in general since they have educated their children in privately-funded Christian schools.

Neal sees the politically conservative family’s focus on education as their commitment to the “greater social good.”

The praise that Teresa Weatherall Neal gives to Betsy DeVos should should raise red flags for anyone who care about public education in Grand Rapids. There are several statements in the MLive article that should tells us something about the Grand Rapids Public Schools, the role of the DeVos family and the GRPS and the programs that align with GRPS that are supported by the DeVos family and the rest of the local power structure.screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-4-15-08-am

However, it is first important to acknowledge that the Grand Rapids Public Schools have been facing tremendous adversity for decades. Some of the main causes of this adversity has been the decades long White Flight, where white families moved out of the district or have chosen to send their kids to other schools. Another cause has been the state-level systematic defunding of local school districts, which the DeVos family has contributed immensely by getting legislators in Lansing that promote their education policies. Lastly, the lack of school funding, coupled with the poverty-level income of many families in the Grand Rapids Public School district has laid the ground work for the privatization of education that Betsy DeVos champions.

There was an acknowledgement in the MLive article that the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation has contributed directly to the Grand Rapids Public Schools. Based on the 990 documents available, the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation has contributed money to the GRPS and programs that align with the school district.

The Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation contributed between 2012 – 2014 contributed $1,509,120 directly to the Grand Rapids Public Schools. If you add the money they contributed to the University Prep Academy, located on South Division, the President of Amway and his wife contributed $550,000 during the same 3-year period.photo

Then there are programs that align with the GRPS, such as the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation, which provides grants to the GRPS. The Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation has contributed $1,496,413 to the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation. Maria DeVos also just happens to sit on the board of this foundation. 

The Grand Rapids Initiative for Leadership (GRIL) is a faith-based youth leadership development program that offers trainings through the GRPS at both Union High School and Ottawa Hills High School. This program is really an offshoot of the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative and is one of the main partners in the GRIL. Doug and Maria DeVos contributed $58,000 between 2012 – 2014 to the Grand Rapids Initiative for Leadership. The Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation also gave $20,000 between 2012 – 2013.

Another faith-based initiative is the Believe 2 Become program, which works directly with the Grand Rapids Public Schools. There is no direct connection that we could find to the DeVos family, but many of the other programs the DeVos family supports are partners of this project.ecp_firststeps_kidsarekentcotoppriority-outdoor

A few other projects, which align with the goals of the GRPS, are First Steps Kent and Talent 2025. First Steps Kent provides resources for early childhood efforts in Kent County. The Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation is one of the major funders of this project, contributing $803,000 between 2012 – 2014. Doug DeVos is the Chair Emeritus for First Steps Kent and many of the Commission members make up the local power structure. 

Lastly, there is the group Talent 2025. This group is made up of CEO’s who want to create and develop talent for their own interests. The GRPS is also part of this effort, which ultimately wants to prepare students to be part of the workforce. The leadership of this group is also made up of the local power structure, with some DeVos family involvement. 

So, you can see why Teresa Weatherall Neal expressed such admiration for Betsy DeVos being chosen as the Secretary of Education. The DeVos family is deeply embedded in the Grand Rapids Public Schools, through their funding and the organizations they have had a hand in creating.

Reflections on the Struggle at Standing Rock

November 22, 2016

It has been 2 days since I got back from our trip on the invitation by the Lakota nation to be part of the fight for justice at Standing Rock.

There are  things that I have been thinking about and wanted to share here.

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First, the fight at Standing Rock is first and foremost about White Supremacy and Settler Colonialism. Settler Colonialism, according to Indigenous scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, is defined as such:

“Settler colonialism has best been defined as more of an imposed structure than an historical event. This structure is characterized by relationships of domination and subjugation that become woven throughout the fabric of society, and even becomes disguised as paternalistic benevolence. The objective of settler colonialism is always the acquisition of indigenous territories and resources, which means the native must be eliminated. This can be accomplished in overt ways including biological warfare and military domination but also in more subtle ways; for example, through national policies of assimilation.”screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-2-42-54-pm

What is happening at Standing Rock is also about White Supremacy. However, White Supremacy should not be confused with those who identify as White Supremacists. Instead, we must see White Supremacy as a system of oppression that has always been part of the United States. Chicana scholar and activist Elizabeth Martinez defines White Supremacy as such:

“White Supremacy is an historically based, institutional perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations and peoples of color by white peoples and the European Continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power and privilege.”

The Dakota Access Oil Pipeline is a more current example of White Supremacy and Settler Colonialism. The immediate goal is to stop the pipeline from being constructed, but the longterm goal is to end Settler Colonialism and White Supremacy.

Second, while the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline should be seen as a Climate Justice issue, it should be framed primarily as an Environmental Justice issue. The movement for Environmental Justice grew out of the struggles that communities of color have engaged in and are significantly different that those of white environmentalists. The principles of environmental justice should be read by everyone. There are several that apply to the Standing Rock struggle, particularly the following: 

  • Environmental Justice must recognize a special legal and natural relationship of Native Peoples to the U.S. government through treaties, agreements, compacts, and covenants affirming sovereignty and self-determination.                                                      
  • Environmental Justice opposes the destructive operations of multi-national corporations.
  • Environmental Justice opposes military occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples and cultures, and other life forms.

Organizations, particularly Environmental groups that do not practice environmental justice and have not made the struggle at Standing Rock part of their work should not get our support.screen-shot-2016-11-18-at-12-31-24-pm

Third, the repression at Standing Rock is nothing short of a military occupation. The pipeline company, the private security forces they are using, police and the national guard are all being used to monitor, police, attack, arrest and make sure that the pipeline construction will be happen. We saw helicopters constantly monitoring the activities of the water protectors on the ground. In addition, those involved in surveillance are hacking people’s handheld phone and computers, in order to disrupt their signal and attempt to get the word out about what is taking place there.

Then there is the militarized repression we saw within the past few days, where water cannons were being used on people, along with rubber bullets. When people are arrested their legal rights are being violated and sometimes people are being held in dog cages. We also just learned from a report by Jeremy Scahill, that the company being contracted out for doing intelligence gathering is TigerSwan Security, which has ties to Blackwater. 

I have spent lots of time in Guatemala, El Salvador and Chiapas and so much of what was happening at Standing Rock felt just like the militarized repression taking place in those countries.dsc00165

Fourth, the resiliency and courage of the water protectors and all the other people their to support them is amazing. The people I talked to kept saying over and over again how the support and sense of community was simply astounding. There are the water protectors putting their bodies on the line, then there is the legal support people, those doing media, people who are cooking everyday, a health clinic, those hosting cultural and ceremonial activities, the volunteer station, the donations people and those that are providing security for the encampment. What is happening at Standing Rock is a highly organized and welcoming space that were all can learn from in terms of how we want our communities to function.screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-2-51-21-pm

Fifth, the level of solidarity and support is incredible. People from all over the world are sending supplies, financial support and sometimes representatives to stand with the struggle at Standing Rock. There were flags from all over, representing indigenous people all across the planet, along with other struggles for autonomy and sovereignty, like the connection between the struggle in Palestine and Standing Rock, which we saw reflected in flags, signs and statements around the encampment. This is truly a struggle that has tremendous international support.

Finally, what is taking place at Standing Rock deserves our solidarity. We cannot ignore it, nor can we say that we have a different focus. We all need to support what is happening at Standing Rock in whatever way we can.leilaabdelrazaqindigenousprint_0

They are asking for financial support ton be send at this link http://sacredstonecamp.org/faq/ or if you want to support the Michigan Host Tent site, go to this link https://www.gofundme.com/www-facebook-com-michigan-host-tent-at-standing-rock-9971858.

There are constant updates for what their needs are, so check this link regularly http://sacredstonecamp.org/faq/. People made it very clear that if they welcome anyone who genuinely wants to be part of this struggle. However, if you can’t make the trek, you can support monetarily, you can write letters to people and send care packages. People kept saying it meant the world knowing that people were thinking of them. We can also engage in actions in our own communities that support the struggle in Standing Rock. We can organize a fundraiser, we can host an informational campaign and we can organize actions that make the connections, like confronting the banks and financial institutions that are backing the construction of this oil pipeline. For updates on what is happening in the Grand Rapids area, go to the Grand Rapids DAPL Resistance page https://www.facebook.com/groups/1800659906878257/.

What Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary Might Look Like

November 21, 2016

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Since last Wednesday, it has been announced that Donald Trump included Betsy DeVos as a potential nominee for Secretary of Education.

Dozens of news sources have affirmed the possible Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education nomination. Betsy DeVos, who is married to Dick DeVos, is the sister of former Blackwater CEO, Eric Prince.

Many people in West Michigan have contacted me with this announcement wondering what it would mean for Betsy DeVos to have a more direct education policy role to play if she was given the job of Secretary of Education and this article is meant as a response to such questions.

However, in addition to looking at what it might mean to have Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, it is important that we also look at how the news has framed the potential nomination and what background has been provided into the role that Betsy DeVos has played nationally on the privatization of public education.

How the News Media frames a possible DeVos as Education Secretary

There have been dozens of news stories with the Trump announcement of a possible Betsy DeVos appointment as Education Secretary. Some of those stories have come from Michigan sources, as would be expected,  but there have also been news stories from DC-based sources.screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-5-06-46-am

The Hill on November 15 has the following commentary about Betsy DeVos.  

DeVos is a billionaire GOP donor, and her family has been a mainstay in party politics for decades. She once served as the head of the Michigan Republican Party and is the current chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, an education advocacy group pushing school-choice-friendly policies.

The DeVos family made its wealth by helping found the direct-selling company Amway. And while the family has given millions to Republican causes, it was not an early Trump backer.

A source familiar with DeVos’s thinking said that while she originally supported Common Core standards at the state level — and funded a group, the Great Lakes Education Project, that promoted such standards — she opposed Common Core once it became federalized.

The Washington Times provided a brief comment on November 19, stating:  

At the private golf club, Mr. Trump has meetings scheduled with former D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee and school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos, who are considered in the running for secretary of education in the Trump administration.

Of all the DC beltway sources, the Washington Examiner provides the most substantive coverage, providing some background information, an interview between Philanthropy magazine and DeVos, along with the video here that provides some interesting insights into how Betsy DeVos frames her work in education, where she talks patronizingly about poor families, how her organization changes policy at the state level and how education that is within the context of the marketplace is the most effective way to teach children today. 

Closer to home there has been plenty of stories, but with limited information. The best story to date has been a Detroit Free Press article, which at least provides some basics into Betsy DeVos’ interest in education policy and at least mentions two of the main groups she is part of, the American Federation for Children and the Great Lakes Education Project. This was also the first article that made it clear how school voucher programs would be funded, by stating, vouchers that would allow students to attend private schools at public expense.

There was a second Detroit News article, but most of it was spent on getting the perspective of the Michigan GOP Chairman, Saul Anuzis.

Lastly, there have been a few MLive articles on the possible Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, with the most substantive piece written by Brian McVicar. However, the McVicar article is still quite limited and provides no analysis of what DeVos and the organizations she is part of are working on in regards to dismantling public education. 

Why is Trump interested in Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary?

One of the political arenas that Dick & Betsy DeVos have distinguished themselves in is their interest in promoting private schools, charter schools and school voucher policies.

Schools and non-public school campaigns have received sizable amounts of funding from the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation between 2008 and 2010. Groups such as the Alliance for School Choice ($50,000), the Educational Freedom Fund ($305,000) and the Florida School Choice Fund are just some of the anti-public school groups to receive money from the couple’s foundation.screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-3-42-49-pm

Researcher Rachel Tabachnick identifies Betsy DeVos as the Four Star General of the School Privatization Movement, in an article she wrote for the Political Research Associates. The article states:

Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State described Betsy DeVos as the “four-star general” of the school privatization movement shortly after DeVos announced the formation of the “new” American Federation for Children (AFC) in March 2010. As Boston noted, the American Federation for Children was not new, but a rebranding of an organization called Advocates for School Choice.

The American Federation for Children is now the umbrella organization for two nonprofits that have been at the center of the pro-privatization movement for over a decade. In addition to the renamed Advocates for School Choice, it includes the Alliance for School Choice, formerly known as the Education Reform Council. Both entities received extensive funding from the late John Walton, one of the Wal-Mart heirs. The boards of the two related entities included movement leaders Betsy DeVos–scion of a Christian Right family who married into the Amway home goods fortune–William Oberndorf, Clint Bolick, John Kirtley, Steve Friess (son of Foster Friess), James Leininger, John Walton, and Cory Booker.

These two nonprofits–Alliance for School Choice, a 501(c)(3) and Advocates for School Choice a.k.a. American Federation for Children, a 501(c)(4)– provided over $17 million in grants to 35 other national and state-level pro-privatization nonprofits from 2006 to 2010. These grants represented a significant portion of the total budgets for many of the state organizations. Today Betsy DeVos and John Kirtley are the chair and vice chair of both boards.

Dick DeVos has his own history with pushing for privatization of public schools, a subject we looked at in an article written after DeVos commented that the Grand Rapids Public Schools might need some attention. Even though Betsy might be the new Secretary of Education, her husband would certainly play a role, along with both the DeVos and Prince families.

In 2002, Dick DeVos gave a speech to the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. In that speech DeVos lays out a strategy for attacking and undermining public education. Here is a video of that speech:

“That has got to be the battle. It will not be as visible. And, in fact, to the extent that we on the right, those of us on the conservative side of the aisle, appropriate education choice as our idea, we need to be a little bit cautious about doing that, because we have here an issue that cuts in a very interesting way across our community and can cut, properly communicated, properly constructed, can cut across a lot of historic boundaries, be they partisan, ethnic, or otherwise.”                  Dick DeVos

The Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation is also an important indication of where the couple provides funding to undermine public education. First, there is the DC-based entity called the Alliance for School Choice. In 2013, they contributed $250,000 to this group, which promotes the privatization of public education.

Another anti-public education source for DeVos philanthropy is the Foundation for Excellence in Education ($100,000 in 2013). Betsy DeVos sits on the board of directors, along with Condoleezza Rice and the board president, Jeb Bush.screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-3-46-36-pm

Lastly, there is the Great Lakes Education Foundation, which has also received substantial funding from the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation. ($200,000 alone in 2013) The Great Lakes Education Foundation is a source of funding that supports the Great Lakes Education Project, of which Betsy DeVos is also a board member, along with the DeVos political operative, Greg McNeilly.

Then there are the funds the DeVos family has contributed directly to the Great Lakes Education Project which received $250,000 from the DeVos family on July 15 of this year.screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-4-38-17-pm

Betsy DeVos is one of the four board members of the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP). The GLEP is part of a larger national network of organizations that are working to undermine public education. The GLEP is the primary entity work on undermining public education in Michigan and has most recently played a critical role in state policy decisions on the future of Detroit schools

DeVos funding of the Great Lakes Education Project just paid off in the most recent election. GLEP announced that 49 of 53 candidates endorsed by the education advocacy group were successful in yesterday’s general election for the Michigan House of Representatives. GLEP-endorsed candidates winning yesterday include 25 re-elected incumbents and 24 new legislators.

Betsy DeVos would certainly fit in the new Trump administration, despite the fact that no one in the DeVos camp gave money directly to the Trump campaign. And even if the Trump administration decides to pick someone else, you can bet that Betsy DeVos will play a role in helping to craft federal policy in the same way she has played a critical role in forming education policy in many states throughout the country.

Resilience and Resistance at Standing Rock: Part 5 – Interview with Regis Ferland

November 19, 2016

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Urgent Appeal – If you are able to donate to the Michigan Host Tent site at standing Rock, please go to this link. https://www.gofundme.com/www-facebook-com-michigan-host-tent-at-standing-rock-9971858 

We conducted an interview with Regis Ferland from Mt. Pleasant. Regis was instrumental in setting up the Michigan Host Tent Camp here at Standing Rock and has made several trips for more supplies.

He and several others arrived at Standing Rock last night and brought with them 3 additional large tents, clothing, food and wood stoves that will be used to heat the tents.

In this interview Regis talks about what he has seen here at Standing Rock, how inspiring everyone has been, how people from Michigan have stepped up to support the struggle here and how much hope he has for the fight!

Resilience and Resistance at Standing Rock: Part 4 – Interview with Nancy Gallardo

November 18, 2016

Earlier this morning we had a chance to interview Nancy Gallardo from Grand Rapids who has been at Standing Rock for the past two weeks. Nancy teaches theater to youth in Grand Rapids.

In this interview, Nancy talks about how inspiring and transformative her experience at Standing Rock has been and why we need to be part of this struggle in any way that we can.

Nancy has been staying at the Michigan Host Tent Camp site and doing lots of kitchen work. She has been an inspiration to everyone who has met her, with her tireless commitment to making sure people feel welcome and get the nourishment they need.