DC mayor vetoes living wage ordinance

Today, Washington, DC Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed the controversial Large Retailer Accountability Act. The bill would have required retail stores with more than 75,000 square feet and whose parent company makes more than $1 billion annually, to pay workers a minimum wage of $12.50 an hour. FSRN’s Noelle Galos reports.

Wal-Mart workers protesting in North CarolinaCiting the negative impact on DC’s economy, including an alleged 4,000 lost jobs if Wal-Mart carried through on threats to halt construction of three stores, Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed the LRAA. Gray said it was “not a true living-wage bill, because it would raise the minimum wage only for a small fraction of the District’s workforce.” But living wage advocates argue large corporations like Wal-Mart are best able to afford the payroll increase. Cindy Murray, a 13-year Wal-Mart employee, spoke out in favor of the proposed law at a town hall last month.

“If you look at the wages today, $12.50 is nothing. They could do that without passing it onto the consumers, and I want them to stop saying they need to pass it onto the consumer. What is wrong with taking it out of their profit? Because they can still make billions, even after paying us a decent wage.”

Next Tuesday, the City Council has scheduled an override vote with the hopes that they can sway one more council member to get to a veto-proof majority. Wal-Mart said today it would resume construction on the three stores only if the bill fails.  Similar measures in Chicago and New York in years past were not able to successfully override Mayoral vetoes. Noelle Galos, FSRN, Washington, DC.

Listen or download audio here.

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Continuing the i-word debate: “illegals” vs. economic refugees

As a grad student and media worker, many nights I find myself motionless for hours at a time.  I’ll read a chapter for class, eventually get distracted by Twitter, Facebook or blogging, go back to reading, and repeat.  Suffice it to say that there’s a lot of garbage out there and you don’t always find substantive, meaningful dialogue on important social issues.  Well, not this time. This one deserves its own blog post:

Having studied migration from the perspective of anthropology and linguistics, and the language used to talk about immigrants (language ideologies, narrative, metaphor, etc) in public discourse, this reminds me of the way linguists stood behind and advocated for California students in the so-called “Ebonics” debate in the 90s.  A proponent of what the late Dr. Ron Scollon called activist sociolinguistics, I wondered what this decade’s parallel academic intervention might look like.

I think we may have found it. Below are a few helpful links to navigate this conversation:

1) For more information on the Drop the I-Word Campaign spearheaded by Colorlines Magazine and the Applied Research Center, a Bay area social justice think tank.

2) The official statement from 24 linguists who call for an end to the I-word in journalism, endorsed by the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) Committee for Human Rights.

3) A great 4-part MSNBC video from Up with Chris Hayes which featured an excellent conversation about the i-word debate. Guests included John McWhorter, professor of linguistics and American studies at Columbia University, Maria Hinojosa, journalist, anchor and executive producer of NPR’s “Latino USA,” Brooke Gladstone, co-host and managing editor of WNYC’s “On the Media,” and Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and founder of Define American.

4) Great update on the i-word debate in Colleen Cotter’s op-ed to the AAA blog, “Challenging terms of reference” (10/10/2012)

5) “Illegal versus undocumented: Semantics or more?” HuffPo video on panel discussion, proposing the term economic refugee to replace illegal immigrant.

This is only a partial list — part of the ongoing public conversation being had by linguists, journalists, and others about the appropriateness of using the term “illegal” as a personal descriptor.  I’ll be following eagerly to see how this develops and hope to one day read more accurate language across news organizations, not just those with a Latino focus (ABC/Univision, Fox Latino, but not Fox News in general) as many others have noted. I also applaud all the linguists that are taking a stand for justice — you are my heroes!

Building a Broader Language Access Movement

Last Friday at “La Casa” in Mt. Pleasant, Many Languages / One Voice (MLOV) advocates gathered for a powerful (and long overdue) teach-in, co-hosted with the organization BeHEARDDC — a true testament to the power of grassroots coalition building.  The event was meant to highlight some of the overlapping challenges faced by deaf and LEP communities,
especially the barriers in equal access to government services.   Here’s a quick rundown of what I took away from the event:

1) Language access doesn’t have to be an immigrant rights or differently-abled issue, but a social justice issue for all.  When I think of “language access” beneficiaries, I’m picturing limited- or non-English proficient individuals in the immigrant community.   But Talila Lewis, the founder of HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf) said it doesn’t have to be that way.  Why?  Because…

2) Wrongful incarceration is an issue that impacts the immigrant AND deaf community alike, oftentimes as a result of poor language access implementation and compliance.  MLOV board member Nadia Firozvi shared a story about her and DC’s first language access complainant, a Korean man who spent 4 days in jail without interpretation… only to find out he was the wrong Mr. Lee.  As a consequence, DC was found in noncompliance with the Act and the city took major steps in retraining all of their personnel.  They now have “Liaison Units” for the Latino, API and LGBT communities.  Nevertheless, LA implementation has a long way to go, according to a recent report released by the DC Language Access Coalition and the AU-Washington College of Law.

3) Toward a broader language access movement?  Technically, the DCLAA only covers LEP/NEP individuals, not the deaf.  They are backed by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).  However, the advocates on both sides agreed that ADA and the DCLAA are not enough on their own.  Talila suggested we think about both groups as linguistic minorities, which would include spoken and visual communication.  If these groups continue mobilizing under the broader umbrella of government accessibility, I can only see a stronger movement in the future and the legislative reform that is so sorely needed.  A most inspiring event!

Where visual semiotics and advocacy intersect: The infographic

In much of his work, linguist and social semiotician van Leewen (2004) speaks to the importance of visual literacy as the new literacy society (and individuals) will need to address in the professional context.  He says “visual communication is coming to be less and less the domain of specialists, and more and more crucial in the domains of public communication.”  Unfortunately, he argues the current education system does little to improve this.  [Compare the amount of drawing you did in 1st grade vs. 12th… get it?] He goes so far as to say that “not being ‘visually literate’ will begin to attract social sanctions… will begin to be a matter of survival, especially in the workplace” (3).

Luckily, some advocacy and social justice organizations are ahead of the curve by keeping their graphics as stimulating as the text in their research publications.

One of the benefits of using visual representations is that the message is received in such an instantaneous way.  [For the sociolinguists reading right now, van Leeuwen calls them image acts: speech acts + images that are realized as a single syntagmatic unit].  For many social justice organizations (and non-profits in general) resources are low.  Investing in good graphics can mean the difference between reaching 0 and 1000 people.  Or more!
A local DC group called Save Our Safety Net is great when it comes to using visuals and props in their organizing, with some clear influence of the practices behind radical puppet theater.  Anyway, you can click here for a taste, around minute 1:25, if you wonder what that looks like inside the chambers of DC City Council during budget season.
They also happen to have made huge gains this year in advocating for the restoration of the social service budget that was about to be hacked away.   Coincidence?  I think a lot of the success they’ve had in building grassroots support stems from (at least partially) their ability to make speaking truth to power a fun, creative, and ultimately engaging endeavor as well.
[UPDATE: After a little more research I’ve learned that they have a name: Infographics.  Check out this article here by the New Organizing Institute to find out more about how to make infographics work for your cause.  In it they recommend Visual.ly, a community platform for making data visualizations and infographics based on data from Twitter and Facebook.  Free and new, user-friendly way to represent data?  I like it.]

On (Re)Constructed Discourse, KONY2012 and DC as Activist Playground

A week or so ago, my 13 year old cousin posted a bizarre looking link on my Facebook wall.  At the time I had no idea what “KONY2012” referred to and I shrugged it off as spam or a pesky virus.  A day or so later, I realized my ignorance: This Kony business was everywhere.  But in no time at all, commentary on my wall went from guilt-inducing command (“you must watch this!”) to more critical extrospection (“should we watch this?”).

From a sociolinguistic POV, much of the debate centers around issues of voice, authorship, and representation, showing that it’s not about what is being communicated, but who is doing the communicating in the first place.  Invisible Children, the organization behind the 30-minute documentary, gave instructions for viewers to support the cause by spreading the video and donating to the organization.  This strategy is by no means groundbreaking:  advocacy organizations and campaigns have quickly tapped into the affordances of a web3.0 world with virtual engagement strategies (like us, retweet this, sign on if you support… the list goes on. But the explosiveness of the Kony2012 campaign raised concerns about the limitations of mere awareness, and more importantly, the fallacious thinking behind slogans like “speaking for the voiceless.”

Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist and longtime activist uploaded Youtube video with a powerful message, saying: “If you’re showing me as voiceless, as hopeless, you have no space telling my story, you shouldn’t be telling my story.”

In one of her many best-selling books, Professor Deborah Tannen argued that what linguists had long termed reported speech was a misnomer, replacing it with the idea of constructed dialogue.  Why constructed dialogue?  She argued (quite successfully, I might add) that when we repeat someone else’s speech, it can never be quite as it was and will be shaped by the lens of our own experience.  Something like Geertz’s issues with the practice of using manuscripts to report the happenings of another place, the copy of a copy of a copy erodes the original.

Onion Parody of the White Savior Complex

Ms. Kagumire goes on to say that the video campaign simplifies the narrative of Africa and waters down the complex socio-political situation in Uganda for Western consumption.  Journalist Teju Cole doubles down, saying that tactics like those of KONY2012 and other activism are fueled by the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”  Because it is motivated by white guilt (as a consequence of privilege), he says that activism (especially on the African continent) tends to serve activists’ emotional needs  themselves more than the cause(s) they support.

I haven’t been to Uganda, or anywhere in Africa for that matter, and this post isn’t meant to be a history lesson.  My interest lies in the discourse surrounding KONY2012 and its implications.  Even here in DC.  Much in the way that “Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism” where any person can become a “savior,” DC is treated as a loca-national activist playground, according to the Washington Peace Center.  In their “Principles of Organizing in DC” they make the case that transient national groups use the symbol of DC as a soapbox for issues that are oftentimes already being advocated on a local DC level.  Thus the Principles document is meant to serve a guide for out-of-town activist groups, a blueprint for how to “support important and inspirational national protests while also empowering DC communities in order to strengthen and unify our movement as a whole.”

So what does this have to do with constructed dialogue?  In my mind, Tannen’s concept could be expanded to more than reported speech, perhaps to (re)constructed discourse.  The KONY2012 video is as much a (re)constructed discourse about the plight of Uganda, watering down it’s complexity for the consumption of White Western eyes.  The appropriation of DC as a sociopolitical playground serves as an analogous example. In these cases, local struggles are reformed into national or international issues, thereby downplaying local efforts to organize around issues resulting from colonization and globalization. This happens through the reconstruction of narrative discourse, either through online media campaigns (such as the KONY2012 video), or the spectacle of protest in the Nation’s Capital.  The language used to tell these stories reconstructs the discourses of others for a new audience, to the benefit of (inter)national organizers.  Thus, we might speak of (re)constructed narrative or (re)constructed discourse as necessary vocabulary for linguists in the postcolonial milieu.