Signs of Life: Summer 2011

Small stories about big change.
58 signs of life map






Farming Careers for Young Veterans

Soldiers returning to a bleak job market grow a new set of skills.

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American soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan often find that employment prospects are scarce. But veterans who want to transition into careers as farmers are getting help from a growing number of projects around the country.

58 Signs of Life photo by FVC photos

FVC founder Michael O'Gorman addresses a group of veterans in an organic tomato-growing operation during a training session in Ensenada, Mexico.

Photo courtesy of FVC Photos.

Michael O’Gorman, a successful organic farmer with 40 years’ experience, formed the Farmer-Veteran Coalition (FVC) to connect veterans to the resources they need to start their farming careers. Earlier this year the FVC established the Farmer-Veteran Fellowship Fund. The fund will provide individual grants of up to $10,000 for education, supplies and equipment.

Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots at the University of Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture offers training to would-be veteran-farmers. And Archi’s Acres, a bio-hydroponic farm started by former Marine Colin Archipley and his wife Karen, is one of an increasing number of veteran-owned farms training aspiring veteran-farmers.

Military enlistment is greater in rural parts of the country where traditional jobs are in decline. At the same time, the average American farmer is nearing retirement age, and U.S. agriculture needs a new generation of farmers.

A study by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire found that soldiers from rural areas accounted for 27 percent of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared with a national rural population of only 19 percent.

O’Gorman reflects that farming offers a personal transition away from combat. There is an “environmental peace,” he says, that comes from working outside with living things. Equally important, farming provides a mission to fulfill the needs of a community. Many of the farmer-veterans have found that their new careers heal the wounds of war in a way that no medication or counseling ever could—with new opportunities for life.

 —Robert Mellinger is an editorial intern at YES!
Signs of Life photo by FVC photos

Adam Burke was injured twice in Iraq. Now, with his wife Michelle, he has started a 5-acre blueberry farm designed so that veterans in wheelchairs can help take care of the plants.

Photo courtesy of FVC Photos.

Signs of Life photo by FVC photos

Army veteran and farmer Sufyan Bunch is FVC's Veteran Outreach Coordinator.

Photo courtesy of FVC Photos.

Closing Down Coal Plants

Why shutting down 20 boilers nationwide could herald big changes for our energy future.

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In April, states on both sides of the country made progress toward a coal-free future, with plans to close down more than 20 coal-fired boilers in the United States by 2025. These measures to reduce greenhouse gases may signal big changes for the nation’s energy future.

Coal train photo by Doug Wertman

American coal train.

Photo by Doug Wertman.

In the Pacific Northwest, the closures highlight concern for limiting air pollutants produced by coal-powered electrical plants—both Oregon and Washington have committed to going coal-free. Groups like the Sierra Club and Climate Solutions helped to spearhead the anti-coal campaign, and worked closely with Governor Christine Gregoire, the power company TransAlta, and labor unions to negotiate a transition that was fair and sustainable.

The resulting Washington State Senate Bill 5769 requires the phase-out of the TransAlta energy plant, the only coal-powered operator in the state. Additionally, the bill requires that TransAlta provide $55 million for pollution control, energy efficiency and local job creation. Oregon’s only coal-fired power plant, run by Portland General Electric Co., is scheduled to close by 2020.

With the proposal of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards under The Clean Air Act, the EPA will be able to regulate coal-fired power plants on a national level. The D.C. Court of Appeals ordered that these regulations, which will require many plants to install new pollution-curbing technology, be finalized by November.

According to the EPA, these measures will dramatically cut emissions of mercury, arsenic, and other toxins, preventing as many as 17,000 premature deaths a year. K.C. Golden, policy director at Climate Solutions, said that the agreements made in Washington state wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the regulation, due to the low market price of coal.

“It’s not until you start to properly and fairly account for and internalize these mining, air, and climate costs that coal becomes uncompetitive,” Golden said. “The EPA’s role in administering the Clean Air Act and cleaning up these plants is absolutely vital.”

In the Southeast, the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority came to an agreement with the EPA in April to shut down 18 of its oldest coal-fired boilers in Tennessee and Alabama. The deal also requires TVA to provide $350 million for clean energy projects, a majority of which must be energy efficiency initiatives.

Golden said that the recent successes are not only real achievements for environmental advocates, but also for local businesses, investors, and labor groups—who are on the ground, making the alternatives work.

“Most folks get that fossil fuel dependence is a really bad idea in the long run,” Golden said. “What we’re still working to prove is that we can do without it, and that we can power strong, sustainable economies with cleaner fuels. And there are a whole lot of partners in the campaign to make that true, well beyond just the environmental community.”

—Sarah Kuck is a graduate student at The New School. She is a freelance writer and a former YES! intern.

ALSO ...

Activists in the port towns of Bellingham and Longview, Wash., are working to block the construction of proposed export terminals for shipping coal to Asia. With coal demand set to drop in Washington and Oregon, U.S. coal producers are looking to send their supply where the demand is highest: China.


Oakland, Calif., has drafted one of the nation’s most ambitious plans to address climate change. It aims to reduce Oakland’s emissions to 36 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, a goal based on targets defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading body of climate scientists. A coalition of community organizers pushed the city to include broad issues in the plan like affordable housing, energy efficiency, and access to healthy food. On March 1, the city council approved the plan for review under state environmental laws. Oakland is already implementing several components of the plan.

Communities Push Back on Fracking

Gaining ground in the fight against controversial natural gas extraction.

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  Communities have been gaining ground in the battle over “fracking,” a controversial method of extracting natural gas that involves breaking up subterranean stone with a pressurized mixture of water, sand, and chemicals.

Fracking New York Protest photo by Bennett V. Campbell

Albany, N.Y., residents gather April 11 for an anti-hydrofracking rally organized by Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

Photo by Bennett V. Campbell.

Industry spokespeople insist that fracking is safe. But affected residents have long complained about its impact on the environment, and two new reports back up their claims. The first, from Democratic members of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, looks at the chemical composition of the fluids used in the process. It found that fracking liquids contained 650 different compounds identified either as carcinogens, drinking water hazards, or air pollutants.

A second study from Cornell University threw cold water on the theory that shale gas can help solve global warming. Natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, but fracking facilities leak lots of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The study found that the full climate impact of shale gas is so large, when measured over 20 years, that even coal would be cleaner.
Better valves and pipes would help, acknowledged Robert Howarth, the study’s lead author, but even with the best technology, “the total greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas would still be comparable to that of surface-mined coal.”

Mari Margil of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) said the studies add credibility to what people already know. CELDF has helped more than 110 communities in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine, and Virginia to draft legislation that bans fracking, and the idea is quietly gaining momentum. In early 2011, Mountain Lake Park, Md., and Wales, N.Y., became the first towns in their states to pass anti-fracking ordinances. Activists are pushing for similar legislation in New Mexico and Ohio. —James Trimarco

Preventing Sexual Assault

Freedom from harassment is part of students' right to an equal education.

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On April 4, Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited the University of New Hampshire, where they announced new guidance to colleges on sexual assault.

Girl on campus photo by Jeff Capeshop

Photo by Jeff Capeshop.

The guidance, in the form of a  “Dear Colleague” letter from the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, reminds high schools and federally funded colleges of their obligations under Title IX, the Equal Opportunity in Education Act. The message is that schools must take responsibility for preventing and punishing acts of sexual harassment, intimidation, and assault, in order  to protect the rights of students to equal education.

A study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice found that 20 to 25 percent of women will be victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault while at college. Most colleges and universities don’t respond adequately to this crisis, according to a detailed investigation published by the Center for Public Integrity in 2010. A companion series on NPR depicted a scenario repeated across the country: Female students who brought sexual assault complaints reported being further traumatized by the process, and outcome, of college investigations.

The government’s announcement comes at a time of increasingly high-profile student activism on the issue. In March, Dickinson College in Pennsylvania made changes to its sexual assault policy after protesting students occupied an administration building for four days. Yale students and alumni lodged a detailed complaint with the U.S. Education Department that prompted an investigation of the college’s sexual assault policy.

Strengthened legislation could make the new guidelines more enforceable. A bill sponsored by Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Campus SaVE (Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act), would update the Clery Act to include new provisions to prevent and respond to sexual violence on campus.

—Selena Shen is on the board of directors of Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER), an endorser of the Campus SaVE Act.

Tim DeChristopher“Let this be the last time that we come together just to make statements. From now on, our movement needs to take a stand."

-Tim DeChristopher, addressing youth climate activists at the Power Shift conference. DeChristopher will be sentenced in June for disrupting an auction of federal land for oil and gas drilling.

Census Data Shows More Multiracial Americans

With nine million multiracial Americans, the nation has come a long way.

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2010 census data indicates an increase in interracial marriage. The census results also show growth in multiracial populations between 2000 and 2010, most notably in the South and the Midwest.

Loving Day photo by Willie Davis

A family attends last year's New York City celebration of Loving Day, June 12, which is the day the Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage.

Photo by Willie Davis/Loving Day Project.

The Census Bureau changed the way it counts race and ethnicity in 2000, allowing people to check multiple race boxes for the first time. Nine million Americans, about 3 percent of the total population, identified themselves as multiracial in the 2010 census.

Multiracial Americans seem to be increasingly comfortable identifying as more than one race, says Marvin King, a political science professor at the University of Mississippi. King is African American and married to a white woman. They have a two-year-old daughter. “Children are conscientiously raised as both black and white at the same time. They don’t have to hide it like in the old days,” King said.

Young people marry partners of another race more frequently than older people. According to a 2008 study by the Pew Research Center, 8 percent of all existing marriages in the United States were interracial, while 14.6 percent of all new marriages were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity.

When it comes to interracial marriage, America has come a long way. When Barack Obama was born, his parents’ marriage would have been illegal in more than 25 states. According to King, “We are getting closer to fulfilling some of the promises of the civil rights movement.” 

—Oliver Lazenby is an editorial intern at YES!

Community Radio Powers Up

A long-fought-for bill will add diversity to the dial and win back broadcast access for communities.

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Choice on American radio dials has shrunk in recent years. A handful of companies have bought out or consolidated stations, pushing local programming off the airwaves. But this January, activists and media groups worked with politicians on both ends of the political spectrum to pass the Local Community Radio Act, which gives broadcast access back to communities.

Radio photo by Three Sixteen

Photo by Three Sixteen.

The bill frees up more of the dial by allowing low-power stations to operate on every third frequency rather than every fourth, which was formerly the rule. The change will allow the Federal Communications Commission to issue hundreds or even thousands of new low-power radio permits. The stations are allowed up to 100-watt signals, which reach 10 to 15 miles.

Grassroots organizers, including faith groups and media democracy and social justice activists, worked for more than 10 years on this bill, after the Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000 restricted the number of frequencies open to low-power stations. Larger stations raised objections on the grounds of signal interference, although a 100-watt station can’t overpower a 10,000-watt station. A congressionally mandated study in 2003 found the complaints of interference were baseless.

Low-power stations meet specific community needs all over the country. In Woodburn, Ore., the local farmworker’s union station, KPCN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste) broadcasts to thousands in Spanish and indigenous dialects. In New Orleans, KOCZ keeps traditional zydeco accordion music on the air.

It doesn’t take much to add diversity to the dial. Media think tank Free Press found that the average radio market has 16 white-male-owned stations for every female-owned one and every two minority-owned stations. Because the Community Radio Act was passed to combat radio conglomeration, only noncommercial entities like ­nonprofits, religious organizations, and public institutions can qualify for permits. —Oliver Lazenby

Vandana Shiva"What we really need is a coal-free and nuclear-free future, because the sun's energy is so abundant, and we've not even started to tap it in sensible ways."


-Vandana Shiva, on Earth Day 2011. Shiva is an author and activist on the environment and alternatives to globalization. She is a contributing editor at YES!

Signs of Life: Summer 2011 is part of , the Summer 2011 issue of YES! Magazine.
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