Holly Beck

The Best of Affordable Eco-Vacations

The iconic coming-of-age vacation for young Americans of the twentieth century involved a few friends, a gas-guzzling car on the open road, the throwing of caution to the proverbial wind, and the occasional insult to local culture. Today, many young adults are increasingly aware that all of our actions have ripple effects on the environment, our communities and the economy. We think carefully about what we take in, from consumer goods to energy, and we also watch what we mete out.

But what about the way we travel? Because young adults generally have fewer commitments and responsibilities, we're an especially mobile demographic group. But traditional tourism, with its exotification and exploitation of the foreign, its strain on delicate ecosystems, and its tendency to exacerbate wealth and power disparities, requires a suspension of social consciousness that more and more people are unwilling to make.

In recent years, eco-tourism became the hot guilt-free alternative, growing rapidly as an industry by offering tourists a chance to see wildlife and habitats up close while minimizing the environmental impact. Predictably, it wasn't long before preeminent wildlife protection groups declared that all this eco-touring was having an adverse impact on some ecosystems after all - partly due to irresponsibility on the part of some for-profit ventures, and partly because of the sheer volume of travelers in popular areas - and the enthusiastic champions of eco-tourism went back to the drawing board to standardize certification requirements for green travel outfits. It turns out even eco-tourism can be unsustainable when practiced recklessly.

Ethical challenges aside, however, the tourism industry is still one of the largest in the world, providing jobs for an estimated 200 million people. Traveling is also a powerful force for education, cultural exchange, grassroots network building, and personal growth. Acknowledging tourism's potential benefits, a number of progressive organizations have made it their mission to promote the kind of travel that enriches local economies, builds human connections across distances, and preserves and protects the environment.

DIY

If you're concerned about how your travels will affect the environment and local economies, there's no better way to control the impacts of your trip than planning the trip personally. Search a directory of global destinations at Planeta.com, or, if you already know where you want to go, find a hotel that meets the standards of the Green Hotels Association.

If you're traveling by plane, car or bus and you're not completely broke by the time you get home, be responsible and offset your travel emissions. By making a donation to renewable energy initiatives, you can counterbalance some of the effects of greenhouse gases that were released during your trip. Web sites like American Forests and Climate Care have "calculators" that will determine your atmospheric footprint and how you can offset it.

Jump on the bandwagon

Pre-organized trips might be more attractive if you don't have lots of time to plan, or if you're not comfortable relying on your own limited knowledge of a region to plan the trip alone. Protective parents and partners might also be satiated if they believe that their loved ones are in the hands of competent professionals. Some package-deal groups recognize this and play up their safety precautions on their web sites.

Organized trips can also offer access to places and people that globetrotting individuals might have a harder time finding on their own. Global Exchange Reality Tours are designed to provide participants with "experiential education" in 35 countries, including a cross-country bicycle tour in the U.S. and tours in California and the U.S.-Mexico border. The trips range from $850 to $3000, so they may not be optimal impulse spring-break purchases. To sweeten the deal, Global Exchange will help college students obtain course credit for their travels, which involve meetings with landless workers' movements in Bolivia, Sinn Fein and Unionist/Loyalist party members in Ireland, social justice groups in South Africa, and more.

One viable strategy for more ambitious travelers is fundraising before you get on the road. The global volunteer-vacation group i-to-i claims that almost two-thirds of all their trip participants do some sort of fundraising, from hosting an event to pitching local businesses. I-to-i even offers free fundraising advice to visitors on its web site. Here's the catch -- you have to first register for a trip and pay a hefty chunk of the total price tag, and only then will i-to-i supply you with the letter of support that will validate your fundraising efforts. If you don't actually have the money to pay for the whole trip, it's a little risky to register for a trip and then pray that fundraising will cover your costs.

There are dozens of similar organizations that run eco-minded package trips, all for a range of prices and with a variety of projects and destinations. Since most of these groups have a strong web presence, researching them is easy. Some examples -- Ecovolunteer, Coral Cay Conservation Expeditions, and Altruistic Adventures.

When you can't buy … barter

If most vacation packages seem hopelessly out of your price range, despair not; it's possible to travel on a shoestring if you're willing to roll up your sleeves and get a little dirty. While you may not be able to offer much in the way of money, you might be interested in trading, say, a few hours of work each day in exchange for your accommodations. The truth is, for every pricey, luxurious eco-trip out there, there is an equally exciting service vacation that is far more affordable.

To some, these options may sound less like vacations and more like the kind of thing you take a vacation to escape from. But they are a sustainable, affordable way to enjoy some time in unsullied parks and wilderness, and their adherents swear by the gratifying and therapeutic nature of the work itself.

Sierra Club's Outings program organizes a slew of trips each year, from the affordable activist and volunteer trips around the U.S., which start around $400, all the way up to $5,000-plus safaris in Botswana and naturalist boat tours of Antarctica. Young adults between 18 and 25 who want to go on national service trips may be eligible for assistance from the Sierra Club's Sharon Churchwell Fund, which was established to help young people afford the costs of volunteer outings. Similarly, Sierra Club's Morley Fund sponsor's outings for teachers and educators who might not otherwise be able to afford them.

Perhaps the best deal of the lot, World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a network of organic farms around the world that welcome travelers in exchange for help on the farm. In the U.S., WWOOF-USA issues a quarterly directory of participating farms in every corner of the country. WWOOFs in other countries serve the same function -- to link interested travelers with interested farms, and let the parties do all the arranging. The costs? A registration fee between $20 and $50 U.S. and the cost of transportation to the farm. I recently watched several of my closest friends flit off to harvest organic grapes in Italian wine country for several weeks on end, and all of them returned declaring themselves "WWOOFers for life."

The American Hiking Society's volunteer vacation program is a close second in terms of affordability; its week-long trips run $130 a pop. It's entirely up to you to decide how strenuous you want your trip to be, as well as whether you want to keep travel costs low and pick a site near you, or throw down for the transportation to a site in Puerto Rico or Hawaii. What isn't negotiable is the labor you'll have to put in to earn your spot at the campfire: a few hours each morning restoring trails, plus your fair share of campsite chores.

For more information on planning a sustainable vacation, see New American Dream and Responsible Travel.

31 Holiday Gift Ideas for the Socially Conscious

1. Alternative Outfitters' vegan watches are strictly non-leather and cruelty-free.

2. Find a sapling at Jonsteen Trees and send it to a green-thumbed friend, complete with protective peat pot and instructions for the entire life of the tree.

3. The Syracuse Cultural Worker's thirteenth annual Women Artist Daybook features a day planner, women's resource lists, the holidays of numerous faiths, and a women's calendar. It's printed on post-consumer, chlorine and dioxin-free paper, and, of course, has lots of art by women.

4. One-of-a-kind album-cover sketchbooks are filled with paper made from 100% recycled blue jeans.

5. Find picture frames of all sizes, made from bicycle chains and car gears.

6. A truly wonderful book to give to anyone interested in sustainability is Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, written by two people who make their living designing buildings and products that "nourish" people and our natural environments. The book itself is made from a clean, infinitely recyclable synthetic paper. Find an independent bookseller near you who carries it.

7. What do laughter and mints have in common? They're both refreshing! Indictmints come in a tin decorated with jailbirds Libby, Rove, Cheney and DeLay. Also available: National Embarrassmints.

8. Global Exchange sells a tea infuser mug and a coffee press mug, both made by craft producers earning fair wages.

9. Treat a friend in wintry climes to a Necknoosh, a button-up neck warmer made in Brooklyn with soft-dyed organic cotton.

10. These flags are for a different kind of flag-waving American.

11. Literati lip balm is all vegan and comes in four flavors: PoeMegranate, Alcott Apricot, Bronte Berry and ShakeSpearmint.

12. The 2006 "Cycle and Recycle" calendar, produced by and benefiting the International Bicycle Fund and a dozen other bicycle advocacy groups, celebrates the bicycle as an everyday transportation mode. According to the IBF web site, you can even use it again in 2017 and 2023 when the calendar year "recycles." A great gift if you can deal with their holiday shipping schedule.

13. Minneapolis-based feminist sex shop Smitten Kitten sells a whole host of safe, healthy, sex-positive goodies. Among their tamer items is InterCourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook.

14. It's true that candles and incense aren't the best things for health and air quality…. But if your friends insist, they can at least light them (during the day) with a solar-powered lighter.

15. This dried-flower picture frame is handmade (at fair wages) by artists in the Philippines, using all natural fibers, including a weed that interferes with local agriculture.

16. Inventive crafting company Motherboard says it uses 25,000 to 30,000 pounds of circuit boards each year, which would otherwise go into landfills, to make fun things like money clips sold by Eco Artware.

17. He's best known for writing The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but Douglas Adams is said to have preferred his book on endangered species, Last Chance to See, co-authored with zoologist Mark Carwardine. It's a beautifully written, highly informative and witty account of their travels to the habitats of some of the last remaining members of several of the world's most endangered species. Find a local bookseller who carries it.

18. Also from Eco Artware: recycled paper-bead bracelets, crafted by (and benefiting) women in Northern Uganda who are living with HIV/AIDS or have been displaced by violent conflict.

19. Organic window boxes come with organic seed packets and soil. You can choose from herbal teas, basils, spices, mixed herbs, cat grass, dwarf sunflowers, and edible pansies.

20. Swaddle our commander-in-chief in Napoleonic garb with Bush Dress-Up Magnets.

21. Old tennis racket covers are born again as card/key/money holders.

22. Canadian camping outfitters Mountain Equipment Co-op not only sell terrific gear, they're also a highly successful co-operative operation that prioritizes fair labor and environmental stewardship. If you can handle the international shipping charge and the tight holiday shipping schedule, treat a friend to an energy-efficient ultra-light head lamp.

23. Give someone a credit-card necklace and remind them what the holiday season is really all about.

24. Green Glass turns old wine and beer bottles into goblets, tumblers, vases and candle holders. All of their glass comes from waste streams and is never bought new. Also, they frost their glasses by sandblasting them (as opposed to using more hazardous chemical processes) and employ union labor.

25. Pick a bookmark with a message about social change, organic living, human rights, or any other issue. Then order a dozen (75 cents each) and include one with all your presents. There's no easier way to indoctrinate your friends and family.

Gifts that keep on giving

26. Donate a pair of No Sweat sweatshop-free sneakers in someone's name to a survivor of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana or Mississippi.

27. It's the best kind of gift certificate there is. By giving a Good Gifts voucher, you can give someone the pleasure of selecting a worthy cause to support (with your money, of course). Recipients range from elderly dog retirement homes to programs that supply decommissioned weapons to blacksmiths in need of metal in Sierra Leone.

28. If you have any climate-conscious friends who just hopped a jet across the country and are feeling a little guilty about it, they may be tickled to receive CO2 offsets (literally, to offset the emissions from their flight).

29. Included in the cost of a Child Health Site glass wall vase are resources to provide much-needed child health services.

30. Feed some birds and some people by giving a loved one a birdhouse made from mature bamboo. For every one sold, The Hunger Site will fund food relief.

31. Ecoist handbags are handmade using recycled commercial packaging. For every bag sold, they plant a tree in an area rendered environmentally sensitive by either natural or industrial changes.

Young and Uninsured

Think about your plans for the next four years. Do they include going without health insurance?

Perhaps they should. A study published by the Commonwealth Fund [PDF] projects that if past patterns continue, two-thirds of all Americans between the ages of 19 and 29 will lack health insurance at some point in the next four years. In 2003, the most recent year for which data is available, over 30 per cent of 19- to 29-year-olds didn’t have health coverage, almost double the rate of 30-64-year-olds who lacked coverage in the same year.

This makes 20-somethings the age group with the lowest rates of health insurance coverage in the country. While children’s health and retirees’ prescription benefits are often prominently featured in public policy discussions, these groups are in fact covered at far higher rates than young adults. This is often because children and the elderly are eligible for Medicaid and Medicare; young people, considered among the healthiest segments of the population, are more often ineligible for public programs.

They are also the most unstable, a factor that contributes greatly to their difficulty in obtaining insurance coverage. Nationwide, over half of all employers who offer health coverage for employees and their dependents will not cover dependents who are over 18 or 19 and do not go on to post-secondary education. Young people who received public health coverage as children are also likely to age out of the system at 19. Young adults who are able to maintain health coverage through college are often only delaying the loss of coverage until graduation.

Sara Collins, senior program officer at the Commonwealth Fund, points out that within this age group, issues of income and poverty are also very much at play. “This is a relatively low-income group of people that doesn’t have access to health insurance,” she said. “Seventy-two per cent of uninsured young adults are under 200 per cent of the poverty line.” What this means is that even those uninsured young adults who are not below the poverty line are still close enough to poverty to be considered highly vulnerable.

When a young person does not attend college and enters the labor market, the types of jobs they are qualified for tend to not offer benefits. Even young adults who do graduate from college are likely to work temporary or part-time jobs, work for smaller firms, and change jobs more frequently -- all of which lessen their chances of being offered health insurance through work.

Collins says that it is largely due to these factors -- income and employment status -- that young adults find themselves with or without health insurance. A competing theory, which argues that young people view themselves as invincible and don’t see coverage as an important issue, is largely unfounded, says Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California.

“There’s a myth of the ‘young immortals,’ people in this age group who believe they’ll live forever so they don’t need coverage,” Wright said. In fact, available statistics counter the presumption that young adults don’t value health insurance. When adults ages 19-29 are offered coverage, they generally accept it at the same rates as people in older age groups.

“If you actually control for income and type of jobs, young people take up coverage as much as any other age group. So if they turn down health coverage, they do it because they can’t afford it,” Wright said.

A Commonwealth Fund survey also found that 70 percent of young workers say that health insurance is an important factor for them when they choose a job, a figure comparable to other age groups. So does the ‘young immortal’ theory carry any weight? Wright believes that while there is some truth to it, it pins the responsibility on individuals, rather than on the system that excludes them. “I’m not saying you can’t find individual people who have this [young immortal] world-view,” he said. “But that’s not the problem with our health system.”

Risky Business

If health insurance is unavailable or too expensive, young people may end up going without coverage while fully aware of the risks involved. But in the event that they require medical attention and don’t have the insurance to cover the expense, they could be faced with an extremely difficult choice between personal health and financial solvency.

“Obviously, health care services are very expensive, and they can mount up,” said Marian Mulkey, senior program officer at the California HealthCare Foundation.

She says that while most young people are healthy, there are always going to be some who will require medical attention. “The odds are low, but they’re not zero,” she said. “We know that a small number of young people will develop those needs and it will be expensive. If they have to pay out of pocket, they may end up making difficult decisions about the care they receive.”

According to a 2003 Commonwealth Fund health survey of young adults ages 19-29 who were uninsured for all or even for part of the year, over half went without medical care, including doctor’s appointments, tests and prescriptions, and had significant trouble paying their medical bills.

Another risk of going without health insurance, even for a short time, is the possibility of being unable to resume coverage.

“Insurance providers can’t turn a company down for coverage, even if the company has sick employees,” Mulkey explained. “With individuals, that’s not the case. If individuals are sick, or even have conditions that aren’t that serious, they could be turned down or charged a higher premium. That’s something most people don’t think about, but it can have long-term repercussions. People may think, ‘I’ll bear the risk for a year, and regain coverage when I find a new job or I’m better off financially.’ But they may be bearing the risks for longer than that.”

The Rugged Individual

Peden Young, 28, spent the first few years after college paying for what he calls “catastrophe insurance.” For just under $100 a month, Young was covered by a high-deductible individual plan that didn’t cover doctors’ visits or prescriptions, but would cover a trip to the emergency room. “It really sucked. I couldn’t go see a doctor unless I paid for it,” he said.

To boot, the policies almost always had a shelf life and limits on renewal. “Every year or so I'd have to look around, get a new temporary policy and pay $75 to $100 a month for no real insurance.”

Real insurance is what the makers of Tonik, a new and growing individual plan geared toward young adults, say they are providing. A product of Blue Cross, Tonik offers coverage in the form of three individual plans: “calculated risk-taker,” “part-time daredevil,” and “thrill-seeker.” Monthly fees, copay, and deductibles vary with each plan. For instance, the “thrill-seeker” plan has the lowest monthly fees and copay, but it also has the highest deductible. Tonik’s web site is a mélange of hipster graphics, bold colors, and Gen-Y slang. The coverage is marketed as “health insurance, straight up.”

Steve Synott, general manager for individual plans at Blue Cross of California, says Tonik is his most successful product launch ever. Currently available in California and Colorado, Blue Cross has plans to expand Tonik into Nevada and other states. The reason for Tonik’s success? Synott says it’s all the research they did on the 19- to 29-year-old demographic before designing the actual health plans. In that research, Synott says it came through loud and clear that young adults want preventive care, dental coverage, and coverage for doctors’ office and emergency room visits.

“Our first tag name for them was ‘young invincibles,” Synott said. “But when we got to know them better, we changed that name to ‘mature mavericks,’ because they did seem to know they should be insured.”

One positive outcome of Tonik’s launch is the extension of health coverage to many who previously lacked any coverage at all. “Seventy per cent of people signing up for Tonik were previously uninsured,” Synott said. “More important than the fact that it’s selling is the fact that it’s selling to people who previously were not covered.”

Synott said the biggest surprise to most young adults is learning the sheer expense of most medical procedures. Tonik’s web site is sprinkled with some of these quotes: $6,797 for an average day in a hospital, $48,302 for knee surgery, and so on. Compared to these scary figures, the Tonik deductibles might not seem so bad.

“Yes, $1,500 is a lot of money to shell out for a deductible,” Synott acknowledged. “But if your appendix bursts and you need surgery, $1,500 is a lot better than the full $48,000 that it would cost to have the surgery.”

Then again, that $1,500 deductible is only for the Tonik plan with the highest copay and monthly fees. Tonik’s other plans carry deductibles of up to $5,000 – a figure that would make many a 20-something’s stomach lurch.

Reactions to Tonik and other options like it have been varied among health care advocates and policy analysts. Some are quick to point out that behind Tonik’s funky, fun-loving lingo and imagery is the same kind of individual coverage that’s been available to young adults for years. “While I think that marketing directly to this population, experimenting with different products, and making people aware of the risks of not having coverage is a really good thing, I think there’s a limit to how far it will go, especially for people in this age segment with really low incomes,” Mulkey said.

Wright points out that Tonik does not cover maternity care, an expensive but necessary form of care for many young women in the 19-29 age group. Synott defended Tonik’s stance, saying that young people consulted during the planning of the benefits structure overwhelmingly said they didn’t want maternity care included. “People said, ‘I don’t want to pay for that.’ If they had, we would have added it to the plan and priced for it.”

Collins said she is skeptical of any new product’s ability to work for the majority of young adults lacking health insurance. The financial burden, she says, is just too high for most uninsured people to bear. “Individual coverage has always been available to this age group, but it’s high cost,” she said. “I’m sure individual coverage works for some families, but for the majority of young adults who are uninsured, it’s not going to work.”

When speaking to experts and analysts for this story, I asked what advice they might give to a young adult hoping to get decent coverage without bankrupting themselves. The fact that I came up short indicates that the options available to this age group are limited indeed. “Find a job that offers health coverage,” one offered. Most seemed to think that the solution must involve a reshaping of public policy, not just placing the burden on young people to individually seek out creative ways to secure insurance.

Looking Ahead

There are a number of policy changes that would expand health coverage to more young adults. Utah already has laws in place that require insurance policies covering dependents to offer coverage for unmarried dependents up to age 26. Last year, California voters were presented with Proposition 72, a referendum that would have expanded employee health coverage throughout the state. “It would have required large employers like McDonald’s or Wal-Mart to offer coverage to their workers,” Wright said.

Proposition 72 was defeated, with 49.2 percent of voters supporting it and 50.8 percent voting against it. Wright says the only reason the measure came so close to passing was the overwhelming support from voters in their twenties. “We lost every other age group by a small amount, and then two-thirds of young people voted for it, which made it nearly a 50-50 split.”

Collins believes that employers who extend health benefits to temporary and part-time workers, and thus to a disproportionate number of young adults, could actually reap benefits for everyone on the group policy. “This is a relatively inexpensive age group to cover,” she said. “Their health costs are lower than other age groups, so pulling this group into an employer group pool could have the effect of lowering premiums for everyone.”

Put on a Hippy Face

If this summer's fashion trends can tell us anything, it's that the world is definitely getting smaller. Standing on Broadway in fashion-crazy lower Manhattan, the scene on the street is more Global Village than Greenwich Village: women running in and out of stores in saris and Native-American-inspired footwear, vendors selling African-style wooden beaded jewelry, and paisley-clad hipsters each trying to look more citizen-of-the-world than the next.

The sights on Broadway in Manhattan are the same as in malls and downtowns across the country. Everywhere, young women are donning batik skirts and beaded slippers as encouraged by the high-fashion architects of this summer's big trend: bohemian chic. Flip through a trendy young women's catalogue, and you'll see gauzy, embroidered, multi-colored garments accompanied by these taglines: "ethnic-inspired" (Delia's), "boho" and "vintage" (Alloy), "eastern paisley" and "seriously loose and super-flowy" (Urban Outfitters).

The only problem is that the ethnic patchwork is contrived. Young women who have never traveled out of their zip code are dressing like they just came back from a whirlwind tour of Nairobi, Prague and the Khyber Pass. While some girls really did get that embroidered blouse in the former Soviet bloc, most of them have patched together their summer wardrobes at the Gap, Urban Outfitters, or United Colors of Benneton. And most of them have done so in blissful -- or willful -- ignorance of where their clothing actually came from.

Most people are at least vaguely aware that much of our clothing is produced in conditions antithetical to the values of "one world" bohemianism. Aside from the "Made In ___" tag that identifies its country of origin, it's impossible to tell just by looking at a piece of clothing whether it was manufactured by sweatshop workers. But odds are that it was.

According to a report [pdf] by Behind the Label, an initiative of the union UNITE HERE, roughly 80 percent of garment workers making clothes for U.S. retailers are working in conditions that violate our own domestic labor laws, as set forth by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). That's over two million people worldwide, disproportionately women and young people under 18.

When people hear the word "sweatshop," they often think of child labor, long hours, and insufficient pay. They may also be aware that sweatshops are often overcrowded, poorly ventilated, and difficult to escape from in the event of a fire. In many sweatshops, managers force female workers to have pregnancy tests and fire employees who try to organize unions. In extreme cases, workers are forced to sign contracts pledging to never marry, have children, ask for a raise, or participate in religious or political activities.

Free-market economists and spokespeople for big business do their best to portray sweatshop workers as grateful for any work at all, and applaud themselves and each other for their humanitarianism. Urban Outfitters founder and President Richard Hayne, who acknowledges that the company and its affiliates -- Anthropologie and Free People -- use non-union overseas sewing shops to make their ueber-trendy clothing lines, has argued that some of the women sewing clothes for him in India had no other potential source of income aside from "selling their bodies." When asked why workers can't be paid more for their labor, the response is always that higher wages would necessarily lead to layoffs and skyrocketing consumer prices.

But the executives overseeing the abuses take home salaries amounting to thousands of times more than the wages paid to the factory workers. Sweatshop Watch reported recently that workers making Levi's jeans in Saipan (a U.S. territory in the Pacific) earned $3.05 per hour, while Levi's CEO Philip Marineau was compensated to the tune of $11,971 per hour -- almost 15 times what he was paid in 2001. Even by simply freezing Marineau's salary at its 2001 levels, Levi's could have given each of the 7,500 workers in Saipan earning minimum wage a 50 per cent raise.

This tremendous imbalance is not uncommon. A BBC special report on Gap found that 12-year-olds making Gap clothes in Cambodia worked seven days a week and earned 12 cents an hour. Meanwhile, Gap CEO Millard Drexler was paid $8 million a year, as well as $12 million in stock options. Abercrombie & Fitch garment workers in Saipan earned $3.05 in 1999, while CEO Michael Jeffries was paid a salary of $4 million. In that same year the company was slapped with a lawsuit alleging responsibility for sweatshop conditions, including locked fire exits, rat-infested barracks, contaminated water, and hundreds of other violations of OSHA's labor regulations. These findings and more are outlined in the Behind the Label report [pdf].

Made in the U.S.A.

Even in the land of opportunity, workers are also vulnerable to human rights abuses. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, roughly two-thirds of clothing factories in both Los Angeles and New York systematically violate minimum wage and overtime laws. Unregistered sweatshops in Los Angeles and San Francisco have produced clothing sold by J. Crew, bebe, Montgomery Ward's, and a host of other retailers. Even American Apparel, a company that aggressively markets a sweat-free, worker-friendly image, has been accused of skimping on employee benefits and making it difficult for workers to unionize.

But the teenagers who frequent America's shopping malls are more likely to hear Lindsay Lohan's thoughts on human rights abuses than those of their own government. In June, a starry-eyed Lohan was among the celebrities at the controversial opening of a new De Beers store in New York, gushing to the press that she would love to wear one of the company's famous diamonds. Members of the group Survival International and feminist icon Gloria Steinem temporarily overshadowed the glitterati with their allegations that De Beers is causing "cultural genocide" in Botswana by forcing the Gana and Gwi bushmen off of their diamond-rich lands. When a reporter asked Lohan for her opinion on the matter, she replied: "I don't get involved in any drama."

Lohan's answer is indicative of a dangerous attitude toward labor abuse: It's there, but it's not my business. The problem is not that people are buying into the boho chic trend; after all, nearly everything we buy is a potential sweatshop product. The problem is that they are constantly encouraged by corporate America to do so without any sense of irony, obligation, or even concern.

Fortunately, most Americans recognize the problem and are willing to use their purchasing power to fix it. In a poll conducted by Marymount University, 85 percent of respondents said they would pay more for a piece of clothing if they could be sure it wasn't made in a sweatshop. A number of organizations provide lists of sweat-free retailers that are union-run or worker collectives.

However, there is no universal sweat-free seal of approval that companies can earn, and due to the near complete saturation of our consumer culture in sweatshop goods, a general boycott is nearly impossible. A boycott could also end up hurting workers who don't have the power to collectively demand fair wages and conditions. Such has been the case both in U.S. sweatshops and abroad, where lawsuits and increased public scrutiny have, in the past, caused major companies to simply abandon their factories rather than improve conditions there.

One of the most successful examples of domestic anti-sweatshop action is the student movement in the United States, represented by the group United Students Against Sweatshops. At schools across the country, student activists have forced their school administrations -- major consumers who purchase everything from sports uniforms to vending machines -- to revisit their investment and purchasing policies and adopt fair labor and transparency standards.

The British anti-sweatshop group No Sweat and other organizations fighting for workplace justice encourage people to help workers lead their own fight for better wages and standards. They recommend supporting unions and other organizations helping workers organize, contacting a local or major retailer and letting them know you're looking into their labor practices, or finding some other concerned individuals and putting your heads together. Then you can feel like a global citizen no matter what you're wearing.

Yale and Columbia Grad Teachers Strike for Union Rights

Over 1,500 graduate teachers and union workers from New York, Connecticut and New Jersey left their posts in labs and lecture halls and rallied in New York Wednesday as part of a week-long strike for union recognition at the two campuses.

The group marched down Broadway in Manhattan, in an attempt to pressure the administrations of Yale and Columbia to recognize graduate teacher unions at the two schools. The strike by graduate teachers, TAs and research assistants is the first such multi-campus labor action in the history of the Ivy League.

The two unions – Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) at Yale and Graduate Student Employees United (GSEU) at Columbia – are fighting for collective bargaining power as legitimate employees of the elite universities. For years, the schools have refused to recognize the unions, saying that graduate teachers are not employees.

The graduate students have received endorsements from 43 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, seven members of the U.S. Senate, the American Association of University Professors, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Cornel West, as well as labor leaders nationwide. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney spoke at Wednesday’s rally, expressing the support of the national labor movement for the graduate teachers’ fight for recognition.

“All of us will be standing with you until we bring these two institutions -- which have gone from elite to elitist -- to their senses,” Sweeney told the crowd.

On Thursday, a rally was also held at New York University in support of the graduate union there, which is set to lose its contract with the school when it expires in August of this year.

Among the strikers are also several undergraduate students who say their education has been adversely impacted by what is known as the “casualization” of higher education.

“More and more classes are being taught by adjunct and temporary faculty,” said 21-year-old Yale undergraduate Lauren Burke. “In my senior year, I had to fight to get an advisor because the professors I’d worked with in previous years had all left the university.”

For grad teachers, a union contract would guarantee a fair stipend, decent health insurance, child care, and clear avenues through which they can address any issues they may have with the institution. A study done at Yale in 2003 found that one third of all undergraduate classes are taught by graduate teachers, roughly the same number that are taught by regular tenure-track faculty. Jay Driskell, a 32-year-old teaching assistant at Yale, teaches modern African history and is on strike for a fair contract and a living wage. “It takes six years of postsecondary education to be a TA,” he says, “and Yale could not educate its undergraduates without TAs.” This year, Driskell says, he will be paid only $16,000 to live on.

Like much of the temporary work force, grad student teachers are rarely given decent wages or adequate healthcare coverage, because they are “learning on the job. ”The graduate teacher unions suffered a major setback in July 2004, when the Republican-dominated National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate teachers are not official employees of the universities for this reason.

Kirsten Weld, a 23-year-old first-year graduate student at Yale, said the NLRB decision looks bad for all kinds of workers. “It sets a dangerous precedent,” she said. “There are so many other jobs where one could be said to be learning first and working second – apprenticeships, residences – basically any job that is also a learning experience could be affected down the road by this decision.”

Among the rallying graduate teachers were a number of international students, who are not permitted to work off-campus and are therefore fully dependent on their teaching stipends. Nadia, a 26-year-old Columbia research assistant from Pakistan, says she doesn’t qualify for most of the federal work-study jobs on campus. She says she is striking not only for a living wage, but also for decent health care. Describing her current coverage, she says, “Basically, if you have more than one prescription a year, your coverage runs out.”

The issue of health insurance is even more central for those graduate teachers supporting families. A strike organizer at Columbia said that in the past two years, Columbia has made it nearly twice as expensive for graduate teachers to insure dependents. And without a contract, nothing prevents the administration from cutting grad teachers’ benefits from year to year. “It affects a relatively small segment of the population, but for that population, the effect is calamitous,” said Dave Spiegal, a 27-year-old grad researcher in astronomy at Columbia. “People with families have a really hard time insuring them.”

Thomas Frampton, 21, is an undergraduate student in Jay Driskell’s Modern African History class at Yale. “This fight affects me and my learning environment,” he said. “I think it’s unconscionable that Yale has a $12.7 billion endowment and its TAs’ kids are going on state welfare.”

Graduate teachers have attempted to secure union contracts at Yale and Columbia before, with no success. The universities have maintained over the years that the work done by the graduate teachers is not the work of statutory employees, despite the fact that a majority of Columbia’s core curriculum is taught by graduate students and undergraduates at Yale have as much face time with graduate teachers as with tenure-track professors. While some strikers at the rally seemed hopeful that the universities would “do the right thing” and grant collective bargaining rights to the graduate unions, the majority seemed to feel that their only recourse was to attack the one thing Yale and Columbia hold dear: their public image.

"It's bad publicity, basically. The one thing we can do is leverage outside pressure, pressure from political allies and from Yale's investors," said Weld. "It makes President Levin's promise to keep labor peace on this campus seem pretty hollow when the members of the Yale Corporation have to walk through a crowd of hundreds of strikers just to get out of a meeting, as they did on Thursday. It doesn't look good for Yale when Jesse Jackson comes and publicly calls the university on abusing the rights of its employees. It all just makes Yale look bad, and eventually it will be too much trouble for them not to sit down and bargain with us.”

Free-Cyclin

‘If it’s not tied down, take it.’ With those words, a store operating under the radar in Brooklyn is changing the way people look at commerce, ownership, and interpersonal exchange. On the internet, a grassroots network called Freecycle is making it easier than ever for people to give things away, no strings attached. Is an emerging ‘free’ market carving out its own niche beside mainstream consumer culture? Are young people helping to lead the way?

Located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the Free Store is a colorful spot in an already vibrant neighborhood. The storefront has been artfully stenciled with bright colors, bidding visitors welcome, while a disclaimer posted on the door informs patrons that they enter this peculiar marketplace at their own risk.

Just inside, a bulletin board announces opportunity for communal gatherings of all sorts: bike repair workshops, food co-ops, music circles, startup communes. In the entrance to the space, a boldly lettered sign lays down the first rule to the Free Store: “If it’s not tied down, take it! If it is tied down, don’t take it!”

The space is filled with free goods that have been dropped off by locals. Chairs, couches, and bookshelves filled with books and kitchenware line the walls. Bins overflow with free clothes, and I notice two computer printers (circa 1998) sitting by the window. I look around for what’s tied down – an old cassette player in one corner of the space, an acoustic guitar in the opposite corner, and two worn guestbooks by the door that visitors have filled with scribbles.

‘The only person crazy enough to do it’

Jessica Baldwin is the facilitator of the Free Store. A 31-year-old artist, self-described “amateur social scientist,” and mother of one, she is an unlikely proprietor. “I’m an artist, but I’m not a very good salesperson,” she says. Baldwin spent four and a half years renting and living in the storefront on Grand Street, but the space offered no privacy, and by 2001 she was searching for another use for the space. It was then that a friend planted the idea in her head. “He said, ‘why don’t you open a free store, ha ha!’” Baldwin adds. “But he knew he was saying it to the only person crazy enough to do it. As soon as he said it, I knew that’s what I was going to do.” She now sublets part of the space to artists and that pays for the rent on the store.

In early fall 2001, the Free Store opened its doors. Anyone was welcome to drop things off or pick things up, and since the store was meant to be free in every sense of the word, it was often left unattended. “It really fit right in with my Sagittarian curiosity about how people function,” Baldwin says. “It’s an open offer for people, and they can use it either to their own advantage or in ways they think will help the store.”

When the Free Store reopened most recently in October 2004, Baldwin was approached by a group of local youth between 18 and 23 who offered to share some of the responsibilities. They redecorated the interior and put up literature in the store, and now they too open and close the store and keep it stocked with snacks. Baldwin says the “new kids on the block” have radically altered the Free Store for the better. “None of it’s pre-arranged. They’ve been great, they’ve been cleaning it a lot, and having events there,” she says. “Nobody told them to do it, they just did it.”

Now more than ever, Baldwin says, the Free Store is able to serve as an autonomous zone for free human interaction. “We live in a world of insurance liability, of almost degrading instructions on how to live our lives,” she says. “I wanted to create a space where people actually think before they act. That has always been its real intention.”

Reduce, reuse, Freecycle

A similar belief is the driving force behind the internet-based Freecycle Network, which was initially launched by a junk collector in Tucson, Ariz. in May 2003 as a way to reduce waste. In less than two years, Freecycle has exploded into an international network with 2,463 groups and 988,676 members exchanging goods that might otherwise be headed for the landfill.

Each local, autonomous Freecycle group operates through Yahoo Groups, which allows members to post offers and requests for free goods to other members in their area. Membership ranges from under ten people in some communities to over 14,000 members in the Dallas-Fort Worth group. The grassroots network is bound by a single rule: everything posted must be legal, appropriate for all ages, and completely free – no strings attached. As a new member in New York, my own first offer to the Freecycle community was an office chair I couldn’t use anymore. Within 24 hours, the chair had a new home with someone who was thrilled to have it, and Freecycle had a new devotee.

Freecycle's founder, Deron Beal, estimates that the worldwide Freecycle movement keeps roughly 40 tons of waste out of landfills every day, with each item averaging one pound. For a frame of reference, the world produced 12.6 billion tons of waste in 2000, which is an average of roughly 34.5 million tons per day. It’s still a small really tiny dent in total global waste, but not an insignificant one.

Members are free to post as often or as rarely as they like, and different people have different reasons for using the network.

Javier Enriquez, 24, says he uses Freecycle for a variety of reasons, including the environmental and anticorporate impacts, the potential to save money, and the opportunity to help others in need. He is currently using Freecycle to locate free books for his organization, the Associated Indigenous Movement (http://movindas.tripod.com/). He's gotten several offers, as well as a new potential member.

Raj Nath, 26, is too busy traveling for his job as a consultant to get much free stuff from Freecycle. But he does use it to give things away he picks up on the road. “Through my travel I have accumulated a mountain of hotel toiletries,” he posted recently, “and would like to donate them to a homeless shelter that could use them. Please advise.”

Nath says he received several e-mails – one recommending a church group, another pointing him to the Salvation Army, and a third from a woman sending care packages to kids in Iraq. But none of them panned out. “I haven’t given the things away yet, because no one’s written me back,” Nath said. “There’s a halfway house a couple of blocks down the street. I think I’m just going to drop it off on Friday.”

Even the most avid Freecyclers acknowledge that it can be difficult to make successful connections, both because of the intense demand for free stuff and the potential for a no-show.

“Sometimes people just blow off without telling you, which gets frustrating, and is why I don’t post offers as often as I would like to,” said Kevin Vasconellos, a 30-year-old master’s student at Parsons School of Design in New York. But Vasconellos says he has also enjoyed quite a few successes: in the six months or so since he joined Freecycle, he’s given away books, audio tapes and CDs, computer equipment, software, an air conditioner, and a snowboard, and he’s received an espresso machine, air conditioner, minidisc eight-track recorder, light box, sewing machine, books, and art supplies. “There are frequently things I need but don’t have enough money to get,” Vasconellos said, “and someone always seems to be getting rid of it somewhere.”

Katie Carman, a 24-year-old Brooklyn artist, says she manages to avoid a lot of the pandemonium by staying in touch with Freecyclers she’s met. “We keep an eye out for items we know each other are looking for,” she said. “I think what's even better than getting and receiving free stuff is that Freecycle is bringing people together in a really positive way.”

Recently, an announcement was posted on New York City’s Freecycle site informing members about the Free Store, and some members have referred to it as ‘the Freecycle Store.’ But Baldwin, who doesn’t own a computer and has only heard of Freecycle from others, doesn’t mind the confusion. “There’s no connection between Freecycle and the Free Store, but the notion of the Free Store can become as broad as people want,” she says. “People will link it to Freecycle and that’s fine. I think it’s cool that it can be expansive in that way.”

The Free Store is located at 131 Grand Street, between Bedford and Berry, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Take Me Out of the Ball Game

Sarah Mae Martin is frustrated. The high school freshman is part Choctaw and part Lakota and although she hasn’t been in very many teepees, she knows that they are very sacred places. “They're for being quiet and praying and opening your mind,” says Martin.

It makes sense, then, that the 14-year-old resident of Broken Arrow, a town outside Tulsa, Okla., hates going to football games at the nearby Union High School, home of the Redskins. Not only is the Union mascot a Native American boy in a headdress, but at the pre-game shows Martin has been to, she says it’s not uncommon for students to erect a fake teepee as a prop and climb the so-called teepee polls in a plume of fake, machine generated smoke.

“It feels like my race is being used as a prop,” says Martin, who has spoken in front of the Union school board on several occasions. When she does so, it’s been as a representative of the Tulsa Indian Coalition Against Racism, a group that has recently gotten fed up with arguing with school boards and is now working to pass a Senate bill in Oklahoma called the Native Mascot Act. The act is focused on eliminating the mascot names "savages" and "redskins" from all public schools, in an effort to “protect Oklahoma’s children from the consequences of racism.”

Forty years after the civil rights battles of the 1960s, Native Americans and civil rights advocates are still fighting a decades-old battle to end the depiction of American Indians on football helmets, basketball courts and team jerseys. They say such images foster a shallow and inaccurate understanding of Native American cultures, reinforce stereotypes of the noble savage or red-faced warrior, and encourage racist behavior among sports fans.

Oklahoma is not the only state where this battle is being fought. This January, California Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg re-introduced a similar mascot bill for the third time. She too is focused on banning “redskin” from Golden State schools, as it refers to the way Native people were scalped, beginning in the 1600s, by white settlers who were paid by the government for killing Indians.

Despite these and other important gains in the past 40 years, there remain nearly 2,000 schools in the United States with Native American sports mascots. In a country increasingly aware of racial tension and stereotypes, many seem to have forgotten about the original victims of American racism: the original Americans.

Respect or Caricature?

Why haven’t Native Americans benefited from the larger move towards civil rights in this country? Opponents of these mascots point out that comparable depictions of other ethnic or religious groups in sports would never be embraced in our culture.

“Can you imagine a team named the Blackskins? That would never be allowed. These mascots are one of the last vestiges of racism allowed in the U.S.,” said Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the national Indian rights organization Morning Star Institute.

Many sports fans profess as much devotion to their teams’ racially-charged Indian mascots as to the players themselves, insisting that the mascot is a tribute to this country’s native peoples. Supporters point out that there are many Native Americans who say they are not bothered by their likeness on a jersey or football helmet. Perhaps the most famous group to have willingly lent its name to a sports team is the Seminole tribe in Florida, immortalized by Florida State University’s Florida Seminoles.

But critics of the Florida Seminoles point out that while the team logo and mascot uniform are sanctioned by the Seminole tribe, the behavior of sports fans at home games is not. The school’s respectful tribute to the Seminole nation, crafted so carefully in collaboration with the tribe, crumbles quickly when keyed-up sports fans start hollering ‘war chants’ and doing the ‘tomahawk chop’ at halftime. Advocates for change also argue that the consent of some Native Americans does not lessen the hurt and embarrassment felt by others, all so that sports fans can have an image to rally around.

“There are happy campers on every plantation,” said Harjo, an American of Cheyenne and Muscogee descent. She is certain that the majority of Native Americans oppose the use of their identity in team names and mascots, and that the evidence lies in Morning Star Institute’s long court battle with the Washington Redskins over its name and noble-savage mascot. “Every major national Native American organization supports our position, and in our years of litigation against the Washington Redskins, they have not been able to produce one Native person in court to support them.”

Part of the problem, says Jacqueline Johnson, of the National Congress of American Indians, is the complete inaccuracy of most representations by sports teams. “You’ll see icons or pictures that are not reflective of the people or cultures,” she says. “They become caricatures, and that’s offensive in itself, as it would be to any other race if they were caricatured.”

Strange bedfellows

In recent years, the coalition of groups working nationwide to eliminate Native American stereotypes in sports has expanded to include the National Education Association, the National Organization for Women (NOW), the American Jewish Committee, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and a slew of other civic and religious groups.

National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy said the issue falls well within the scope of NOW’s mission. “NOW got involved with the Native American mascot dispute because one of our six key issues is to eliminate racism,” Gandy said. “We wanted to lend support to our allies in the Native American community.”

Opponents of Native imagery in sports won an important ally in 2001, when the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights weighed in on the debate. In a statement issued on the subject, the Commission concluded that the stereotyping of Native Americans in sports is a regrettable reminder of one of the more embarrassing chapters in American history. “These references, whether mascots and their performances, logos, or names, are disrespectful and offensive to American Indians and others who are offended by such stereotyping,” the Commission stated. “They are particularly inappropriate and insensitive in light of the long history of forced assimilation that American Indian people have endured in this country.”


Changing hearts and mascots

In the decades-long effort to eliminate racial stereotyping in school sports, students have always figured front and center. In the late 1960s, Native American students at a large Midwestern university mounted the country’s first successful campaign to discard an offensive school mascot. The school was the University of Oklahoma, nicknamed Big Red, and its mascot was a whooping Native caricature by the name of Little Red. Sports fans and the university administration countered that the mascot was not offensive, but in 1969 the Native American students and their allies stepped up the pressure, organizing a petition and a sit-in in the university president’s office. By 1970, Little Red was no more.

In the 35 years since Little Red, nearly 1,000 of the roughly 3,000 Native references in American sports – from middle schools to the major leagues – have been eliminated. Among the long list of schools that have abandoned racial stereotypes of Native Americans are some of the biggest names in the country: Stanford, Dartmouth, St. John’s, Syracuse, Miami of Ohio and the public school systems in both Los Angeles and Dallas.

At colleges and universities across the country where sports reign supreme, the people most resistant to change are often the alumni. In North Dakota, the State Board of Higher Education scrapped plans to formally review the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux mascot after an alum threatened to withhold a $100 million donation from the school.

Harjo believes alumni who side with the Native references are often fighting to hold onto their own beloved college experiences as much as the mascots they so vehemently defend. “Many of the alumni and the older people have this romanticized idea of how great school was and everything associated with it,” she said. “It’s kind of weird, but their identity is shaped by these things, and they grew up in a time when racism was more permissible and less apparent – unless you were on the receiving end.”

For the same reason, Harjo says, students are essential to the process of reflecting and starting anew. “Students are pivotal because they’re not clinging to the past,” she said.

It is this fresh perspective and candid humor that has brought a group of Native and non-Native students at the University of Northern Colorado so much attention. In 2002, they formed an intramural basketball team called the Fighting Whites and set out to raise awareness of racial stereotyping in sports through a new mechanism: satire.

The novel approach worked. Within weeks, the name Fighting Whites was being dropped in the Washington Times, CNN, Fox News, and Jay Leno’s opening monologue on the Tonight Show, breathing new life into the decades-old national debate over racism in sports.

Today, one of the biggest scholastic umbrella groups in the country – the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA – is in the process of drafting a report on Native names and images in college sports. The report will be based on self-evaluations completed by NCAA member schools with Native American mascots. While the NCAA has stopped short of banning such representations of Native Americans, it has, in the past, urged member schools to discontinue their stereotyping in team names, logos and mascots. And Robert Vowels, chair of the NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee, says the position of the NCAA on the issue is crystal clear.

“Cultural diversity, integrity of education, civility, honesty and responsibility – all these things are addressed in the NCAA constitution. So even though the NCAA might not be writing new legislation [regarding Native mascots], there’s legislation on the books that we feel addresses these issues of color, creed, and national origin,” Vowels said. He expressed confidence that the upcoming establishment of a new national-level Office for Diversity and Inclusion will “ensure attention to issues like the mascot.”

Johnson, who has experience working for change along these lines, believes it’s important to incorporate authentic tribal education into any plan to change a mascot.
She stresses “making sure tribal leaders are invited to school events and presented in a way that’s respectful,” adding: “For example, when my son was going to school and they played lacrosse, we made sure the school had an educational component that explained where the game came from and where it is today. It’s harder to do those derogatory chants when you realize that those people are your friends and neighbors and they’re sitting there beside you.

Johnson also believes that students wanting to initiate a review of Native mascots at their schools need to be in an environment with the right information. It’s about, “not just talking amongst themselves, but sitting down with the Indian students and having candid conversations,” she says. “Far too many schools don’t include regular Native American educational curriculum about the heritage. Too many of our students grow up with the romanticized version of tribes from the past without knowing about what’s happening today.”


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