Saturday, November 08, 2003

This was not one of my finest of weeks.

Found myself so out of sync with the mission of my job that I actually gave notice of my intention to leave on Thursday. Yes, it was that fundamental. Important thing is that within 24 hours I'd reconsidered and rescinded my pronouncement -- at least for the time being. The second important thing is that, even at this age, there are options. It doesn't necessarily mean that I'll retire -- can't imagine doing that -- but it does mean that I'm considering the possibility of a career change, and that may make sense. But I'm committed to hang in for a little while longer, at least long enough to complete some work that interests me, and to give my co-workers a chance to find my replacement without straining the system too much. We'll see. Not knowing what to "blog" kept me from writing anything at all over the past two days. Things were too volatile and needed some settling down time.

So, it's again Saturday, and I've just returned from taking Dorian on our weekly trip to the supermarket for groceries. After some months of being clinically depressed, she's on some new meds that are working their magic and it was comforting to see her in good spirits. I'm sure that a part of my own angst is related to the fact that -- after a couple of years of fine work by a dear therapist/friend -- Dorrie's funding agency (Regional Center of the East Bay) must discontinue some of her services, including this one. I am aware that some of my ability to cope with the vagaries that plague the developmentally disabled, has been due to my reliance upon this fine professional. These cutbacks won't just effect Dorian, but her mother as well.

I cannot imagine how families cope when there are other children to consider, and when jobs have been lost. Not sure what happens to people when the cost of living has spiraled out of control and both parents must work outside the home in order to put food on the table, and one of their youngsters is disabled. What does it mean -- that 627% rise in Autism since 1987? At least I have no other dependents to consider.

I wonder how those who are supporting families on the prevailing wage of $8.89/hour (current pay for those working with the disabled in groups homes, etc.) ... how on earth are they managing in this new "recovering" economy? That is what is currently being paid to those who serve our most vulnerable citizens and even that may be cut back under the state budget passed last fall. The Department of Rehabilitation will now combine with the Regional Centers, as I understand it, an already overloaded system. The cuts are many and most have not yet kicked in, so we have no idea what the effects will be. The advocacy groups are gearing up for shaping their response on behalf of the disabled.

It was around some of these questions that I found myself unable to properly do my job this week. Found myself unable to be a field representative in a situation where I was really an angry constituent! The constituent won the battle and I blew up! I was in a situation where it was required that I represent my legislator on a panel before the Disabilities Council, along with other knowledgable legislative representatives. It's a 9:00 'til noon very important meeting -- the subject of which is "Assuring the Civil Rights of the Developmentally Disabled." It would have been necessary for me to explain if not defend the budget cuts (to the extent that they are defensible, of course), to some of the most sophisticated professionals on the planet. These are the specialists on the Lanterman Act, and who know the statistics and their implications better than I do.

It was an impossible assignment. I was ready to quit my job over it. I did. Fortunately for us all, 24 hours of involvement with some environmental issues intervened, and it was possible to back away from the edge enough for staff to modify the assignment enough so that I'll not have to be a panelist after all. How well this will satisfy the "angry constituent Betty" is yet to be seen, but the dynamics have changed enough so that peace has returned.

...and we haven't yet seen the changes anticipated by Governor Terminator. My only hope is based on the fact that it was Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Founder of the Special Olympics who is the mother-in-law of this man, and this may have some effects on future budget negotiations. Let us pray... .

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

My calendar has become cluttered ...

with short-term events that nonetheless demand complete attention. Assemblywoman Loni Hancock is here in the district since the legislature is in recess, though Governor Terminator has called them back on the 18th for a week of extraordinary session. That means more staff meetings, usually, and additional occasions to accompany her to one place or another.

Visited a huge plastics recycling firm on Monday that was pretty impressive. It was one of the many California firms that is considering relocating to China in order to remain competitive by taking advantage of dramatically lower wages. It's hard to argue with this practice that's so devastating our economy - not when you sit across the conference table from these CEOs and listen to their woes (i.e., rising Workmens' Comp, costs of energy, competition from the many corporations that have already moved offshore). It's grim. Can't imagine where it will all end, but the shifting elements in this huge movement seems equal to that of the Industrial Revolution that occurred early in the last century.

Find myself watching for a matching rise in worldwide unionization to take place, some attempt at bringing foreign and domestic workers into alignment so that ordinary folks can begin to benefit by globalization. That will be cause a monumental upheaval, I'm certain, and it hasn't yet begun to take shape in any meaningful way, though there are signs ... .

Today I visit two high school classes for a look at some small attempts at raising the awareness of teens to the environmental hazards waiting in the wings.

It's far easier on some days to get to and from my various involvements in my car than it is to move my brain from one era to another -- especially when it requires leaping years and decades -- back and forth. That takes some down time, and this week has offered little.

I'm off now to attend a meeting of the Federal Task Force on North Richmond, a coalition of nonprofits and agencies working to rehabilitate one of the more needful areas of the city. We've been at it for about four years, and only recently has it been possible to measure some real progress.

More later ...

Oh! In the rush I've neglected to tell you that I'll not be doing the Rosie piece on national television on Veterans Day after all. Will be involved in some public service announcements about the new website and the Rosie Memorial, but they're going with a real Rosie who actually held a welding torch and wore a hard hat, I believe. I spent the war as a clerk in a Jim Crow union office (Boilermakers A-36) far from the shipyards, so I represent something of an anomaly. That feels a little less than completely "authentic," to the media so that won't happen. Getting up at 3 in the morning to go to San Francisco to satisfy the east coast schedule wasn't something to look forward to anyway. Stardom will have to wait.

However, there is now a web site (Put in Rosie The Riveter or go the Ford Company web site for the link) so that you can see what they're planning. I'll be involved in the interview portion with lots of media at the old Ford Plant building on November 11th, but that will be at the reasonable hour of eleven o'clock.

Gotta go... .

Monday, November 03, 2003

Event-filled Saturday...

Every legislator produces several Select Hearings a year in the home district. These are ordinarily 9:00-12:00 workshops with a panel consisting of authorities in a specific area of concern. The goal is to look closely into some issue in the hope of exposing weaknesses in current law or finding ways of enhancing existing processes. Yesterday the hearing centered on the achievement gap as related to the new federal legislation known as "No Child Left Behind." A federal mandate, you must remember that has been imposed on the states without federal funding. The panelists included another member of the Assembly (from Southern California), principals, members of a local Board of Education, a specialist from the State Department of Education, etc. Attending as well were representative from other legislative offices, both State and Federal. It was well-attended with lots of audience participation.

The central theme turned out to be standardized testing, as usual, and appropriately so. It's clear that teachers are leaving the profession from overwork and underpay as well as their resentment at the excessive paperwork connected to the new federal mandates and of being forced to respond to the needs of test preparation instead of individualized teaching according to the needs of children.

These experiences, while they always turn out to be learning experiences for me, also have their down side. Before joining the staffs of a series of elected officials, I usually was an outspoken critic of and participant in matters of social significance. Yesterday I had many questions that -- in the past -- would have pulled me to the floor mike, but it would have been inappropriate as a staff member to do so. So, I sit in my seat and chew the insides of my cheeks, instead.

Case in point: After learning last week on one of my field trips to a local high school to observe two science classes, that in the State of California 48% of African American and Latino youngsters have dropped out of school by the tenth grade. Now there's an achievement gap! And that's a statewide figure. I can only guess that in the low income parts of my county the percentage would be higher still.

The high school I visited two weeks ago has a student population that is 65% Latino. Because of the huge drop out rate among AA kids, the black percentage (though in a community that has a 40% black population) is probably less than 25%. In the two science classes I visited, in one there were 3 AA kids. In the second (an AP -- Advanced Placement Class) there was only one young girl. When I asked the teacher why this was her answer was, "it's tracking. In middle school, the Black kids are all steered toward something called Health Sciences." This aborts all hope of college prep and results from low expectation of black students, I'm sure. I was also told that were I to visit the Special Ed classes, I would have found them to be 98% African American. Stunning!

It is also true that at the first school I spoke of, there are only 3 African American teachers on the faculty. Those few who have worked their way into teaching positions have only done so over the recent past so were "last hired." That means that, in compliance with union mandates, under succeeding budget cuts, they've been swept out for reasons of seniority. Non-white kids have little reason to see that education leads to anything in terms of life careers. There are too few role models in the field of education, the central and most influential part of their lives for their entire childhood provides no guideposts for their future.

A beginning teacher is lucky to receive $22,000/annually -- this after completing college plus advanced studies in many cases. Under the new federal mandates of "No Child Left Behind," he or she must invest in continuing education courses in order hold his or her position. A beginning prison guard with no more than a high school diploma receives a starting salary of $45,000. What's wrong with this picture? Some teachers who testified yesterday reported that -- though they've been in their classrooms for 9-10 years, under the new mandates, they are assumed to be insufficiently educated and are no longer qualified to teach. It appears that the dismantling of the entire system of public education is nearing completion. It is so sad, because I heard testimony from some dedicated and passionate educators yesterday, who are being ground up in the machinery of a hostile bureaucracy.

It's hard -- with my long view of history -- not to see a glaring connections between Brown vs. The Board of Education decision that attempted to dismantle segregation in the schools and what's happening today. It's taken over 50 years, but the Southern response to busing of children and forcing white schools has defeated the best intentions of Justice Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court. What started out in the deep south as the pulling back of support for public schools in favor of a movement that created "academies" for white kids (private) is now nationwide in scope. It has created the re-segregation of the schools. It's what vouchers are about, and the Faith Based Initiative that allows parents to collect resources from the State with which to set up "charter" schools (read that "academies"), and parochial schools, all draining the resources that used to underwrite public education.

How on earth can we have standardized testing without standardized resources? Children in the suburbs have textbooks to take home while kids in urban schools have few to use, even in class. Teachers report that they have to print out individual pages from a master copy in order to supply kids with a few pages at a time. Some textbooks in these schools were printed in 1975. In some, we have yet to land on the moon! And -- just as the pharmaceutical companies have been allowed to profiteers disgracefully on the backs of the poor and the aged, the book publishers are charging from $75/and up for a single textbook! Can anyone tell me why I can purchase a best-selling book on the web for under $30 and the purchase of textbooks for school systems that buy in huge volumes cannot be discounted? But of course, that's another powerful lobby, and, under term limits, the lobbyists have become the "Third House."

It's days like yesterday that cause a restlessness in me and an impatience with what I see as the failure of Capitalism -- based upon sheer greed. We're living at a time and under an administration that emphasizes the dark underside of our economic system. The same system that produces some unprecedented philanthropists like George Soros and, yes, Bill Gates, et al -- has given us Enron and Tom DeLay and the energy gougers and the stock market thieves, and yes, Ashcroft and his minions. Under a system of governance that supports the freedoms we so enjoy, vigilance must be constantly practiced in order to preserve the promises of our founding documents. There is always the threat of losing them, and never before in my long lifetime has that possibility seemed more immanent.

But even as I type the words, I'm buoyed by the knowledge that there is and the millions of voters who have begun to participate in the electoral process through the presidential campaigns. By our successes with the turning back (at least for the moment) of the FCC's attempts to further monopolization of the media. California's recent recall of a governor in favor of another Hollywood icon scares me a little, but I'll keep looking for positive "embers" to blow on and will let y'all know when I see them on the horizon.

Meanwhile, have a happy Sunday.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Home again from an afternoon of Arts & Culture ...

Really pretty boring, actually, and not nearly as interesting as the story that's been doing a "crawl" (a la CNN) just under the surface of my brain.

Thinking that my father was the world in microcosm. His racist attitudes were not unlike those of Ariel Sharon, a Jew who survived the holocaust but who has forgotten, as did many of the Israeli leaders who preceded him. To have been so cruelly victimized by the Nazis only to brutalize another race of people -- for whatever reason. The examples are plentiful throughout history and into the present. Find myself wondering if it's a male thing?

The major difference was that Dad was a mild and loving man of little power to act out his prejudices. I'm sure that he exemplified the attitude of his peers. He was far from alone. Those blind spots caused by racial differences know no limits. Mother suffered from the same malady, but was less adamant about it. Because I cared deeply about my parents, I learned at an early age to see the world -- not in black and white -- but to ever-so-carefully pick my way through the many shades of grey.

I had help. Several teachers opened doors that I walked through, alone. In fifth grade it was a motherly pear-shaped music enthusiast who introduced me to the masters. It was in her class that I learned to sing (badly) the works of Giuseppe Verdi (Miserere and the other great oratorios), and Sibelius' Finlandia, and simple Quaker hymns ("Tis a gift to be simple..."). Fifth grade glee club opened an entire world of great music to me, and those pieces are recognizable to me to this day -- upon hearing the first two bars.

It was a sensitive tall and reed-thin Miss Cunningham who first led me to Edna St. Vincent Millay and the Ruth Fielding stories. She presented me with a copy of Jane Eyre for reasons I can't recall, and probably accounts for my passion for the poets.

Castlemont High's Mr. McLaughlin, a devilish public speaking teacher who gave me the confidence to stand on my feet and debate the best of them. I can still see him standing against the blackboard at the back of the classroom -- grinning and goading me on to make my point. He was proud of me, and I knew it. My parents never knew.

There was John W. Hughes, a 7th grade teacher who'd returned to teaching after years as a social worker. He was a close friend to principal, George Axtell of Lockwood Junion High, who left the west coast some years later to become the president of CUNY. Hughes remained a dear mentor and confidant into my young adulthood. In the summer of my 16th birthday, he was chosen the Alameda County Chair of the Olson for Governor campaign. With the support of Aunt Vivian (who took me downtown and outfitted me in secretary clothes), I got my first lessons in electoral politics. I worked at the campaign headquarters all summer, have been politically active since that time, without messing a beat. When I was 18, Mr. Hughes went to live in Japan for a few years where he created the Nara Foundation that would address the plight of mixed-race children left behind by the armed forces of WWII. I was the secretary of his foundation, by long distance. Hughes was Canadian, but I really knew little else about his personal life. He had a wife somewhere in the Bay Area (also a teacher), a son and a daughter, but I scarcely knew them. He came to my home to meet with my parents from time to time (that I didn't particularly like, as I recall), nor did they.

There was a definite split between my home and school lives. My parents asked few questions. I fulfilled my obligation to them simply by attending classes. I rarely did homework. Was barely challenged, either by school or home. Wasted an obvious potential to do big things. But no one in our family had been to college and, though I did have friends who were on local campuses, by my 18th birthday I was consumed by the thought of leaving home. That would only be possible if I married, and I did. The man I married was attending the University of San Francisco on a football scholarship. It was the man who needed the education, right? I was content to do his homework and shine in reflected academic glory. John Hughes was clearly disappointed. His was the only voice that encouraged me to prepare for college. I began to see him as a hindrance to my hopes for leaving home just as soon as I could do so, and in this my parents seemed to agree. They did not welcome his interference.

Mother advised me to learn Spanish (I wanted French) so that I could get a good job. It was her hope that I might pass, and since I was just a bit darker than my sisters, being Latino would offer the greatest chance for crossing the color line. She believed that the only option for a colored girl -- other than maid's work -- would be to do so in order to work in an office.

I'd done well in high school. Hughes had broadened my cultural base and given me some skills for moving about in the world of commerce. My ambitions didn't include further study. It was time to marry and raise a family.

I went straight from being my father's daughter to being Mel's wife. None of this allowed for the "woman" to emerge. I didn't meet her until my children were almost grown. And even then, not a fully independent woman until after 1987 when the men in my life passed on.

If we could only have a chance for a rehearsal, right?

The curtain will fall and I'll never get to read the reviews ... .

If "The Human Stain"

stirs as much introspection in others as it does in me, maybe it was well worth seeing. Had a hard time dropping off to sleep after writing last night. There was so much missing, as if we've just not found the right conversation yet. We're stuck with one that just doesn't address the problem. That conversation is almost addressed by Ward Connerly, but he misses, too, but he's close. It's one of the cases of trying to deal with conflicting truths. I'm unconditionally in favor of Affirmative Action. Maybe I'll figure it out at some point. It's illusive.

In his way, my father was as much of victim of racism and a racist as was fictional Coleman Silk. There was as much racial bigotry in the home I grew up in as there was in those of my bigoted suburban neighbors many years later. Maybe that was why I felt so inadequate to deal with it (but I learned, in time).

I adored my father, but he spoke of African Americans (other than N.O. Creoles) as "
"Americans Negroes." He spoke nostalgically of life in New Orleans, "before the Americans came," always a puzzling thing to me. He dealt with dark-skinned people as underlings, and with no apology. His concern (and mother's) that their daughters would "marry black" exposed a virulent racism that eventually pulled us apart as I grew into adolescence and developed my own sense of ethics. I was growing up in a world so different from the one they knew, one with very different values. My kids grew up in the one Mel and I provided for them, one that was still a cauldron of hatred and ambiguity, while relatively privileged. I wonder that they survived the "disconnects."

It must have been extremely hard to come from a place of privilege, though limited, but where name meant something. We were Charbonnets, after all, and early on I developed a kind of Anastasia Romanov view of the world. There was that sense that -- in some mythical place in the world we'd been "somebody," though we were as poor as the proverbial church mice, this was always a temporary state. Someday mother wouldn't have to leave early on Thursday morning to be first in line at "Sally Ann's" (code name for the Salvation Army Store) to get the best pickin's. That was the day that the truck came around with new old stuff. And we wouldn't have to spend hours on end in the waiting room at the free County Clinic on Grove Street or be dragged, terrified, into the dentist's chair at the miserable dental clinic. We were Charbonnets and someday things would be different. But these were the Depression years, and our lives were not unlike those around us.

With three pretty daughters to marry off (before they got pregnant, hopefully) the bar was set prit-tee low. There was no thought of college. No such talk. Getting us through high school was the goal, but with no home involvement. I can't remember ever bringing home a report card, nor of having my parents attend a school event, nor a conference with a teacher. We were pretty and as it was with being Creole, that was enough. Marriage was the only way girls could leave home. Marjorie and I each married at 19, Lottie at 17, I believe, and all to men approved of by our parents (light-skinned and handsome). Mother used to look at our less attractive girl friends and say, "...they better educate that girl, she'll never get a husband!" Evidence of another wrong conversation.

I'll never forget the evening when (as a sought-after late teen) I was dressed for an "after the game" dance at the International House on the U.C. Berkeley campus. It was the annual U.C.L.A/Cal game, a big one in our social set. My escort was a gridiron hero. When he arrived in his tuxedo with gardenia corsage in hand -- when I opened the door to greet him, my dad came out from the kitchen (he'd been peeking to see). The look of horror on his face was enough to ruin my evening, but I braved it out. My date was the renowned but very dark-skinned Jackie Robinson, one of the nicest men I'd met. There was no relationship. He was engaged to the woman he later married, Rachel, but was in town only for the game. But this was the beginning of my rebellion around the questions of race, and the cause of alienation from my parents -- until I married Mel, which pleased them immensely.

But before this there was the trip back to New Orleans as a 15 year-old -- the disillusionment -- and a growing list of teacher influences that deepened the separation from my homelife and increased my loneliness ...

But now I'm off to the County Arts Commission to make presentations of Certificates of Recognition to five artists. This is one of those forays back into Walnut Creek. This time in a far different role -- but still unsure of who I am in that context ... and still aware of residual pain.

Photo: Dorson Louis Charbonnet (1894-1989).