Wednesday, October 15, 2014

LGBT History Month: A look at behind-the-scenes groundwork that leads to the headline-grabbing victories.


In October 1994, a group of U.S. activists led by Rodney Wilson, a teacher in Missouri, created LGBT History Month. Adopting a strategy pioneered with Black History Month in the 1970s and Women’s History Month in the 1980s, the activists launched the project as a way to ensure the varied and often unacknowledged contributions of queer people would be collectively recognized and remembered.

Now in its twentieth year, LGBT History Month is annually observed in schools, on campuses, and in the media, and is widely used as a tool for public education. Within queer communities, too, the project has prompted lively, productive debates about reclaiming figures who would not necessarily identify as LGBT, fully representing the rich diversity of the LGBT spectrum, and deciding who or what is iconic enough to include in a growing canon.

One of the things LGBT History Month tends to obscure, however, are the more gradual trends that can’t be crystallized into a single moment or personified by a lone trailblazer. Movements like the push for LGBT rights are animated by committed advocates working in tandem, often with little recognition or acclaim, and typically over long periods of time. As the critical response to Jo Becker’s recent history of the same-sex marriage movement suggests, LGBT histories do not always recognize the activists who labor behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for headline-grabbing victories.

The burgeoning recognition of LGBT rights in global human rights forums offers a good example of a phenomenon that is much bigger than any single activist, victory, or setback might suggest. Last month, the UN Human Rights Council adopted an unprecedented resolution affirming the rights of LGBT people as human rights. Although the resolution was heralded as a significant breakthrough by activists and journalists around the globe, that vote, like other recent developments, was only possible because of the tireless work sexual rights advocates have undertaken over the past twenty-five years.

LGBT history is far richer when it is not concerned with milestones alone, but encourages a deeper understanding of gradual transformations and the day-to-day work of activists who make landmark advances possible. In my upcoming book, Transnational LGBT Activism: Working for Sexual Rights Worldwide, I explore the politics of global LGBT human rights advocacy through an ethnographic study of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). IGLHRC, founded in 1990, was among the first organizations to promote the concept of LGBT rights as human rights, and remains on the forefront of advocacy efforts almost twenty-five years later. One of the arguments underpinning the book is that the growing recognition of sexual rights, like other human rights, is the product of persistent advocacy by committed groups of activists, at IGLHRC and elsewhere. Although they carry legal and philosophical weight, human rights are not static concepts, but are constructed, promoted, and institutionalized by individuals who give them meaning.

And paying attention to activist practice illustrates that the milestones we commemorate in our LGBT histories are seldom, if ever, the product of one brave, just, or visionary individual acting alone. Activists have mentors who guide them, colleagues who challenge and sustain them, and constituencies who inspire them. Even in transnational advocacy—a field where geography and distinctive political systems can create formidable obstacles for collaborative organizing—activists develop ways to share knowledge, strategies, and support in the pursuit of shared goals.

Understanding that movements are bigger than any single milestone or person counsels a much more expansive understanding of LGBT history. In the United States, celebrations of LGBT history often tend to be extremely U.S.-centric, with perfunctory nods in the direction of Alan Turing or the ancient Greeks. It is far rarer to see recognition of figures like Simon Nkoli and Bev Ditsie, who were groundbreaking voices for LGBT people in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement; Karen Atala, who fought a tireless battle to win custody rights for lesbian mothers in Chile; or Victor Mukasa, who won a judgment recognizing that LGBT people had rights under the Ugandan Constitution. Figures like these continue to make pathbreaking advances around the globe—just this month, for example, the trans activist Audrey Mbugua won a judgment from the High Court of Kenya granting her gender-affirming documentation. They also challenge the notion that there is one way that LGBT history might unfold, and vividly illustrate a broader range of goals and strategies.

Individuals around the globe are forging LGBT histories that will be remembered and celebrated, and doing so in very different contexts. Alongside each of them are communities that are reshaping conversations about sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and bodily autonomy, and creating the kind of slow, steady, and sometimes imperceptible change that makes the most historically notable victories possible. And by broadening our understanding of LGBT history – beyond the United States, and beyond any single riot or parade, TV episode or book, vote or judicial ruling – the lessons we can take from that history become infinitely richer.


Ryan R. Thoreson is author of Transnational LGBT Activism: Working for Sexual Rights Worldwide. Thoreson has a JD from the Yale Law School and a DPhil in anthropology from Oxford University.


Friday, October 10, 2014

Students on Isherwood: "You Can't Help Smiling," on Cabaret and Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin

Christopher Freeman and James J. Berg, editors of the forthcoming volume The American Isherwood (December 2014), have compiled exemplary essays about writer Christopher Isherwood's craft from their students to share on the Press blog leading up to the publication of their book. This Monday, the authors will be reading at an event hosted by the University of Minnesota English department.

This essay is printed with permission from the author. It has been edited from the original version.

Student, University of Southern California

In the first “Berlin Diary” of Goodbye To Berlin, Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical narrator, “Christopher Isherwood,” famously writes: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking . . . Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed” (1). But which day was that? Adapted into the play I Am A Camera, then filmed, then adapted again into the musical Cabaret, and then into Bob Fosse’s 1972 film by the same name, Isherwood’s Berlin Stories have been “developed” several times but never quite “fixed.” This might be why his stories transitioned so well onto film: they were always moving pictures. Fosse’s Cabaret is a sophisticated and artful attempt at bringing Isherwood’s stories to life. Though it does not necessarily arrive at a grand realization or moment of reckoning for its unpalatable set of central characters, the film’s self-reflexivity and acknowledgement of the surreal quality of its history demonstrates fidelity to the source material. With a more overt directing style than Isherwood’s light authorial touch, Fosse’s stylish film conveys the doom and gloom of Goodbye To Berlin and has fundamentally changed our perception of the power and purpose of the Hollywood movie musical.

Cabaret the film opens and closes on stage. Audiences can see themselves reflected by a funhouse mirror as a cabaret audience at the decline of the Weimar Republic. The use of a large mirror as a set piece is taken from Harold’s Prince’s original Broadway staging, and gives an appropriate Brechtian tone to the proceedings. The Emcee (Joel Grey) appears in the mirror, smiling, then turns to face the camera (he is the only character to do so) to welcome audiences im/au/to Cabaret (“Wilkommen”). We cut to Brian arriving by train to Berlin, filmed through a window—another reflective lens—that he opens. Back in the Kit Kat Club where there are “no troubles,” the Emcee insists “In here life is beautiful/ The girls are beautiful,” as the film cuts to a man putting on a blonde wig and makeup backstage. The mirror then moves to the ceiling to reflect ze Cabaret Girls themselves, with their hairy armpits, grotesque make-up, and sloppy missteps. At the end of the opening number the whole group poses in a dim tableaux, as if taking a photograph, within a frame of flash bulbs. Freely extrapolated from Isherwood’s hints and historical accounts of 1930s Berlin cabaret clubs, Fosse’s Kit Kat Club is black, red, and disorienting. The Emcee’s mocking grin is a sinister dare: enjoy me, trust me, though I am not to be trusted. Barely introducing the film and the book’s two main characters—Brian Roberts (Michael York) and Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli)—the opening number serves as an opening paragraph for what critic Roger Greenspun (respectfully) called Fosse’s “essay in significant crosscutting” (NYT). Before they can be fully welcomed to Berlin, Fosse’s direction makes it clear that, as Chris observes in “The Landauers,” “All these people are ultimately doomed” (Isherwood 177).

The Kit Kat Club is less a conflation of the various nightclubs in Goodbye To Berlin and more an abstracted version. It serves as a microcosm, a crucible where audiences can plainly watch the insidious rise of Nazism in Berlin and the careless, decadent lifestyle that ignored and eventually accommodated its influence.

Neither the Sally of the film nor the Sally of the book is at all concerned with reality. “Everybody’s broke,” she tells Brian upon his arrival to Berlin, laughing off the economic conditions that provided a foundation for the Nazis to blame Jewish bankers and exploit workers’ anxieties to create a nationalistic, racist political party. “Let’s go to the cinema/the Troika/have a drink,” Sally always suggests in “Sally Bowles,” to avoid facing facts (Isherwood 42, 45, 43). She stays in Berlin at the end of Cabaret, and delivers her specious thesis in the title song: “Life is a Cabaret, old chum/ It’s only a cabaret”. She clings to her status as a performer in Berlin, even as Brian departs, even as the Emcee himself bids us “auf wiedersehen.” Liza’s Sally does not seem to speak of the future as she does in the book—but this lack of discussion of the future contributes to the feeling that the future is “unreal” for her (Isherwood 17). As the Club itself becomes infiltrated by “troubles” meant to be left “outside,” the film’s audience understands that the cabaret ignores the grim reality of the moment. 

The film seems only to fail in its forced romance. “Fresh alterations in the book and score notwithstanding, ‘Cabaret’ still follows the double-romance formula of Broadway confections long past,” writes Frank Rich for the New York Times. The movie recasts the “double,” though, joining Fritz and Natalia Landauer together as the star-crossed Jewish lovers, and cutting out Frau Schneider’s relationship with Herr Schultz. The film suffers from its attempt to centralize Sally’s romantic relationship with Brian. The film is truer to the book by making Brian openly bisexual, but trivializes his homosexuality without addressing it, except as a device to break up the unlikely pair. In the book, Sally and Brian fight over work (or lack thereof) and money; in the film, they fight over love and sex. 

Chris first finds Berlin very familiar, nostalgic, “like a very good photograph,” but then interrupts that thought: “No. Even now I can’t altogether believe that any of this has really happened . . .” That ellipsis, like Cabaret’s final drum roll, is not a “fixed” ending but an acknowledgement of the surreal and incomprehensible nature of our grimmest realities. As readers and as audiences, we are indicted as witnesses of a gross spectacle: will we smile? Isherwood and Fosse have their shutters open, but it is the audience that develops the picture as the cymbal and the symbol finally land.


Works cited in the original essay:

Greenspun, Roger. "Movie Review: Cabaret." New York Times. N.p., 14 Feb. 1972. Web.
Grubb, Kevin B. "Cabaret." Razzle Dazzle: The Life and Work of Bob Fosse. 1st ed. New York, NY: St. Martin's, 1989. 141-58. Print.
Isherwood, Christopher. Goodbye To Berlin. The Berlin Stories. New York, NY: New Directions, 2008. N. pag. Print.
Kander, John, and Fred Ebb. Colored Lights: Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration, and All That Jazz. Comp. Greg Lawrence. New York: Faber and Faber, 2003. Print.
Rich, Frank. "'Cabaret' and Joel Grey Return." New York Times. N.p., 23 Oct. 1987. Web.
Tropiano, Stephen. Cabaret. Milwaukee, WI: Limelight Editions, 2011. Print. Music On Film.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The making of the book: Behind Twin Ports by Trolley

The bustling corner of Superior Street at 5th Avenue West.
Images: Minnesota Streetcar Museum/Aaron Isaacs.

Author and editor of Tourist Railroads and Railway Museums magazine

Initially, I wasn’t intending to give Duluth-Superior the same treatment as the Twin Cities in Twin Cities by Trolley. That all changed in 2009 during a trip to Duluth to give a streetcar history talk to the National Railway Historical Society’s annual convention. Driving over the old streetcar routes and discovering the tracks still poking through the pavement (in some places) was enough to get me going.

Fortunately, though they disappeared in 1939, there’s a tremendous amount of archival material available on Duluth-Superior streetcars. Thanks to a couple of dedicated Duluth trolley fans and the North East Minnesota History Center, the entire corporate files were saved, along with hundreds of vintage photos, paperwork, and other artifacts. I also had the benefit of years of research by Russell Olson, the dean of Minnesota streetcar historians, and a fellow member of the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. His 1976 Electric Railways of Minnesota is a go-to source.

Along with Russ, the late Wayne C. Olsen, one of the founders of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, put together a huge personal collection of photos. After his death, these were donated to NEMHC and the Douglas County Historical Society in Superior. NEMHC also has all the Duluth Street Railway Company files.

I’m the archivist for the Minnesota Streetcar Museum, and over the last 20 years, have greatly expanded the photo collection.

Two trainmen pose inside a streetcar.

Then came the windfall that filled in all the blanks. James Kreuzberger, who grew up on Park Point but established his career in Kansas City, was also a longtime member of the streetcar museum. He mentioned that he had been researching the Twin Ports streetcars and intended to write a book some day. I told him I was doing the same and he immediately mailed me a 3-ring binder of his working notes, including a partial draft manuscript. I was floored at how thoroughly he delved into every aspect of the company’s history.

That was in 2009. A year later, Jim died at age 95. His widow contacted the Lake Superior Railroad Museum to donate Jim’s collection. LSRM curator Tim Schandel felt that it would be a better fit for the Streetcar Museum, so he alerted me.

After some discussions with the family, fellow museum member Jim Vaitkunas and I headed for Kansas City to rent a trailer and load it up. Outside Columbia, Missouri, five deer bounded across the freeway and one of them smashed into us. Jim’s SUV sustained $5,000 of damage and that nixed the pickup.

We regrouped and tried again a few months later. Kreuzberger’s collection was amazing in its scope. He had more than 500 photos, many of which I hadn’t seen before. The previously mentioned 3-ring binder turned out to have been only a small part of his notes and manuscript. There were several boxes more that covered chapters missing from the binder.

These portable prefabricated switches were used to detour the streetcars.

After a few months spent cataloguing all of it, I was finally ready to proceed. In this case the challenge was to reduce the huge amount of historic material into something that was accurate, complete, yet not a numbing parade of obscure facts. Most streetcar histories—and there are hundreds of them—are written by trolley fans for trolley fans. They tend to concentrate on the technical end of things, with long chapters on carbarns, equipment rosters, power generation and operations. Twin Cities by Trolley was written for the lay person with a general interest in local history. It had plenty of material to please the trolley fans, but it was full of photos of local landmarks and the human side of things. That crossover appeal worked, so Twin Ports by Trolley follows the same plan. Thanks to the rich trove of company memos and newspaper stories that was available, there is plenty of human interest material to accompany the technical data.

Hope you enjoy the book.


Aaron Isaacs
is the author of Twin Ports by Trolley, which will be available later this month from University of Minnesota Press. He is coauthor of Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul (Minnesota, 2007). He edits Tourist Railroads and Railway Museums magazine and is also the author of Trackside around the Twin Cities andThe Como–Harriet Streetcar Line.

The Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth will host a launch event for the book at 11 a.m. on Oct. 18th. Isaacs will also be giving a reading at Douglas County Historical Society in Superior, Wisconsin, at 3 p.m. on Oct. 18th.

"A wonderful narrative . . . I love reading about Duluth's history, and this book is a real treat."
—Don Ness, Mayor of Duluth

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Extras: Best to Laugh excerpt, trailer series, and discussion guide

In the opening prologue to her latest novel, Best to Laugh, Lorna Landvik writes:

A black cocktail dress, decorated with a smattering of sequins across the neckline, hangs like an art piece on my bedroom wall. Although the integrity of the seams might be compromised, I could probably still squeeze into it, but for me the greater pleasure is looking at it every day and remembering its lessons.

For that same reason, I have two pictures of Hollywood Boulevard in my bathroom, right above the towel rack. One is black and white, circa the 1940s, and in it bulbous limousines are lined up in front of the Roosevelt Hotel. A party has spilled onto the sidewalk and its celebrants are women draped in fur and men in top hats and tails. Some raise champagne flutes and one man holds a lighter, its flame a dot of fuzz. A swirl-haired woman leans into him, her cigarette held in a gloved hand.

The other photograph is in color and shows a blurred wrecking ball about to smash into the side of a white stuccoed building, much of which has already been knocked down. A jagged plaster and wood border frames all that remains of the second floor apartment: a wall decorated with deftly drawn caricatures, hulking silhouettes, and the odd coffee stain.

I keep the pictures and the dress on display because they remind me of the vagaries of life: what’s up can take a tumble, what’s down can bob up, and sometimes what glitters is gold.

When I lived on Hollywood Boulevard, its heyday had long passed and a tired seediness had settled in—the tuxedos threadbare, the fur stoles gone to mange, and the champagne bubbles long since popped. Buses belched smoke where limousines once idled, and a tourist was more likely to have a personal encounter with a pickpocket than a movie star.

Still, the lure was the Boulevard’s reputation and not its reality, and people came from all over the world to study the cement prints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, comparing the delicacy of their fingers to Marilyn Monroe’s or their shoe size to Gary Cooper’s; to photograph the names on the pink, black, and gold stars on the Walk of Fame; to rifle through the revolving rack of postcards at Highland Drug and sit at the counter, sipping cherry sodas as they wrote their “Wish you were here’s” in dozens of languages.

And there I was, watching movies and eating popcorn at Grauman’s, roller-skating down the Walk of Fame on my way to work, and buying my toothpaste and tampons at Highland Drug. Wonder of wonders, this international Mecca was my neighborhood.


In Best to Laugh, Lorna Landvik unleashes a host of admirable characters encountered by Candy Pekkala, a young, aspiring stand-up comic performer who moves on a whim from Minnesota to Hollywood in the late 1970s. In our just-released Best to Laugh trailer series, featuring (of course!) Lorna Landvik, we get a glimpse of what's to come in the book—and meet a central character, Madame Pepper, Fortune Teller to the Stars, as she offers solid reading advice to an array of clients. Check out the series on our YouTube channel.


Read the book and itching to talk about it? Lorna Landvik has created a discussion guide for book groups and other readers looking to probe some of the novel's central themes.


Lorna Landvik is the best-selling author of many novels, including Patty Jane’s House of Curl, Angry Housewives Eating Bon-Bons, Oh My Stars, and Mayor of the Universe (Minnesota, 2014). She has performed stand-up and improvisational comedy around the country and is also a public speaker, playwright, and actor, most recently seen in an all-improvised, one-woman show Party in the Rec Room.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Teenage rebellion by music? Not so prevalent anymore.

Professor of English, environmental studies, and American studies at St. Olaf College in Minnesota

Teenage rebellion takes many forms, but teens rejecting their parents’ music is a less likely expression of that rebellion than it once was. When I was growing up, my mom and dad listened to opera, to their scratchy old 33 rpm records as well as the weekly Saturday broadcast from the Met. They also loved musicals, and I remember them taking me and my brother and sisters to a Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy film. The two actors sang, of course, though all I recall are images, particularly the incongruous sight of MacDonald in a blowsy white dress tramping through the woods with pirates. As an adult now, I remember the act of going to that movie as something comical, interesting only as sport of some strange past.

When I was a teenager in the '70s, I never listened to my parents' old records. But my daughter, Betsy, is just as likely as I am to pop in a Simon and Garfunkel or Joni Mitchell CD, and my son, Nat, surprises me routinely by listening to Neil Young or Bob Dylan. We also can watch the same music movies. Film of Woodstock retains its hold on the teenage imagination – perhaps in part because of the excesses of '60s culture, but also because of the transcendent performances by Jimi Hendrix or Crosby, Stills & Nash. And when U2 sings about the troubles in Ireland in the concert documentary Rattle and Hum, the song “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” seems as relevant to the world of 2014 as it did to the early '80s.

Betsy and Nat have compact discs of bands that I’ve never heard of, but they also own the Beatles, Johnny Cash, and Carole King. They view popular music of quality from any decade as part of their inheritance. When I tell them about my teenage concert experiences—when I saw The Atlanta Rhythm Section, Heart, the Steve Miller Band, and The Eagles on one gorgeous day in 1977 in the Oakland Coliseum—they’re actually impressed.

I think.

If it’s been fun to have my children listen to “my” music, it’s been equally satisfying to reverse the usual parent-child roles and have them teach me about that music. I listened often to Joni Mitchell records when I was in college and for years after, but then Betsy discovered her and began listening to the records that came a bit later, such as Blue, and now that record has become one of my favorites. Nat reintroduced me to Led Zeppelin when he began playing them at the age of 13. I had disliked the band since my first year in college, when I was across the hall from two guys who had a very loud stereo and only two records. When they drank a lot, which was often, they blasted Led Zeppelin loud enough to make my door shake, and then, when they were hungover or tired, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were replaced by the rather different sound of Olivia Newton John’s "Have You Never Been Mellow." For 25 years I had been unable to listen to either Newton John or Led Zeppelin until I found myself sitting down with Nat, talking about the group, hearing songs I had only heard as background noise on the radio. And I appreciated the band more in my middle age than I had when I was 18.

It’s not only old music that my children have helped me hear. Through them I’ve been introduced to new singers and bands. I first heard Neutral Milk Hotel and Iron and Wine on a mixed CD that Betsy made me for Christmas one year, and now they are two of my favorites. Nat introduced me to Ryan Adams, Modest Mouse, and The Decemberists, and I don’t know how many albums of each are in my music collection. And, occasionally, I’ve introduced them to something new, singers such as Laura Marling and bands like Lost in the Trees.

So, parents out there, here’s what I propose for a family activity. Pull out the old records or CDs – your favorites and your best – and sing along, and tell your kids why you love those songs, and have them put their favorite CDs on, and invite them to tell you why they love the music they do. I’m guessing that the sound and the themes will not be all that different, that together you can listen to Of Monsters and Men and Bruce Springsteen. And if times get tougher in the parent-child relationships down the road, perhaps you’ll be able to go to a concert together, a concert by some band yet to be formed, but one you’ll both love and that will help you remember that you also love each other.


Mark Allister is author of Chasing the Light: The Cloud Cult Story (which includes a foreword by The Current's Mark Wheat). He teaches English, American studies, and environmental studies at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. He hosts a weekly radio show, Prof Rock with Mark Allister.

"Listening to Cloud Cult continues to inspire me: the band has set a tone for the kind of art I wish to create. They’re a carbon-neutral band in a carbon-saturated world, and a heart-centered band in a heartbroken world. I love them dearly and I’m intensely grateful that Cloud Cult exists."
—Josh Radnor, actor and filmmaker

"As a long-time fan of Cloud Cult, I enjoyed this book and am grateful to know the band's emotional story. I have always respected their music and lyrics, and I now understand my connection to Cloud Cult's art and agenda. Their story breaks my heart but also deeply inspires me. We are all connected to the world through pain and love."
—MC Sean "Slug" Daley, Atmosphere

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Despite that white students are no longer the numerical majority in U.S. schools, racial inequality persists.

Professor of sociology and Chicana/o-Latina/o studies at Pomona College

Recently, much has been made about census reports that highlight how white students are no longer the numeric majority in U.S. public schools. 

Awareness of these changes is important, but statistics on students’ racial demographics tell only part of the story.

These demographic changes are not reflected in our schools. According to a 2012 report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project, black and Latina/o segregation has increased over the past two decades, and although there are more youth of color in the U.S., the typical white student attends school where 75% of students are white. It’s been sixty years since Brown vs. the Board of Education struck down de jure segregation, but our schools remain heavily segregated. They are what Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project refers to as hypersegregated by race and class. Blacks and Latinas/os are more likely to attend poor and working-class schools with fewer resources than their white counterparts, who are often secluded in middle-class schools.

Even within diverse schools, racial divisions and unequal access to resources persist. Walk onto most schools and it’s hard not to notice groups of students clustered together by race. They gather in distinct parts of campus—under trees, on benches, in hallways, and behind buildings. These divisions are not natural; they are fueled by racist stereotypes and school practices such as curriculum tracking. Just peer into students’ classrooms where they are often tracked into different courses, and the racial separation is glaring. For classes marked as advanced placement, honors, college prep or regular, and vocational, middle- and upper-middle-class, white, and Asian American students predominate in the most prestigious courses, while their poor, working-class, Latina/o, and African American schoolmates are largely absent. The origins of tracking are based on racist beliefs that groups of color and Southern and Eastern Europeans lacked the mental capabilities to excel academically, so schools historically sorted and selected students into unequal classes and life trajectories. As in the past, different groups of students are steered toward college and receive access to critical thinking classes and more counselor support. Such de facto segregation reinforces divisions and inequality. Regardless of its racist origins and unequal outcomes, this system of course placement endures in our schools.

Despite changing demographics, those running our schools—superintendents, school board members, administrators, and teachers—remain predominately white. More than 80% of teachers are white, and according to a 2004 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, there was not a single teacher of color in nearly 40% of U.S. public schools. As of 2012, more than 65% of California’s K-12 public school teachers are white. At just 18%, Latinas/os are the next highest percentage of teachers. In contrast, 26% of California students are white and 52% are Latina/o. These racial disparities are a reflection of some of the educational barriers students encounter, and they hinder students’ access to racially diverse role models and perspectives. As the number of students of color increases at rates faster than teachers of color, these gaps are expected to grow.

Course curriculum has also not kept pace with the changing student population. The histories, experiences, and perspectives of groups of color are absent in many textbooks and classroom lessons, providing students with incomplete and inaccurate information. It has been nearly fifty years since students and community members organized for the teaching of relevant materials such as ethnic studies. The struggle for such courses remains, epitomized most blatantly in the banning of books and elimination of a renowned Mexican American Studies program in the Tucson Unified School District.

These enduring disparities receive too little attention. They are normalized and taken as "business as usual," ensuring their persistence. Instead, reports that white students are no longer the numeric majority make headlines. These reports fuel fears about the growth of students of color, and they do little to focus on the pressing issues of our time such as when will our schools finally serve all students. In Academic Profiling, I center students’ experiences to understand the stories behind the numbers and the multiple practices perpetuating inequality.


Gilda L. Ochoa is professor of sociology and Chicana/o-Latina/o studies at Pomona College. She is author of Academic Profiling: Latinos, Asian Americans, and the Achievement Gap (Minnesota, 2013), Becoming Neighbors in a Mexican American Community, and Learning from Latino Teachers.

Ochoa wrote for the University of Minnesota Press blog previously about the significance of listening to schools' most marginalized students.

"Remarkably provocative and perceptive, Academic Profiling is a meticulously researched and masterfully argued comparative study of how the system of schooling, contrary to the rhetoric of equal opportunities, re-enforces the achievement gap and reproduces disparities. With ethnographic insight and analytical precision, Gilda L. Ochoa details how immigration, racialization, class, and gender differentially impacts the educational trajectories for Asian and Latino students, and presents compelling lessons for transforming the context, culture, and process of learning."—Linda Vo, University of California, Irvine

Monday, September 8, 2014

Lorna Landvik: Life lessons from Joan Rivers.

Stand-up and improvisational comedian, public speaker, and best-selling author

This is the fourth post in a weekly series by Lorna Landvik.
#1: On destiny.
#2: Why I wrote Best to Laugh, Part 1.
#3: Why I wrote Best to Laugh, Part 2.

Far more than her list of favorite designers, I’d love to read a list of Joan Rivers’ favorite writers. I know she had to be a big reader because she was a big writer. I heard she wrote jokes every night, and good jokes demand the precision of a watchmaker and the imagination of a poet. Her writing beyond the jokes included twelve books, a teleplay, and a screenplay. The woman wrote.

I have a fantasy that every single woman comic in the world will read my latest book. My biggest fantasy was that it would fall into the bejeweled and manicured hands of Joan Rivers herself, who was one of the comics Candy (Best to Laugh's heroine) would impersonate for her grandmother while the twosome watched The Tonight Show. Candy’s ultimate Hollywood dream was to be on the show with Johnny Carson as well as having a career like his.

Candy’s dream was a lot like Joan Rivers’, who happened to live it. One of the many lessons a woman like Rivers can teach us is that dreams aren’t misty or water-colored (oh wait, that’s memories). Dreams, if you want to actualize them, take hard slogging work, and the ability to get up when you’re knocked down and then get up again the next day, when you’re knocked down again. Rinse. Repeat. Rinse again.

Sometimes Hollywood luck is fickle and will land on a beauteous bartender who shook a martini for a big producer or a handsome hairdresser who set and curled the coiffure of big agent. But most of the time, luck is attracted to those who keep showing up, who stubbornly refuse to accept all the no, no, nos that are lobbed at them like rotten tomatoes. Joan Rivers dodged lots of tomatoes, got splattered by some, and was probably dazed by the force at which some of them were thrown. Still, she got up, brushed the seeds and pulp off, and continued doing what she loved doing: making people laugh.

I love making people laugh (who doesn’t?), but in my stand-up career, I didn’t have a consuming drive. Unlike Joan, who would cart a big tape recorder to record her early club dates, I couldn’t be bothered to listen to my act over and over, fine-tuning it. It was a criticism I got back then – you’ve got to hone your act! – and a criticism Candy also faces. I cherish the fun I had in my twenties doing stand-up and improv, but it was only when I moved back to Minneapolis and started writing my first novel that I discovered what being driven was all about.

The writing . . . that’s what mattered first to me as a kid, and as I rediscovered, that’s what still mattered most. I’ll never stop wanting to make people laugh, but to tell a whole story, to make up characters and their world and invite people to come and settle in with them . . . that’s worth doing the hard daily slog for and I have learned to wear rain gear that rotten tomatoes get little traction on.

(And yes, I know I ended a sentence with a preposition, but like ‘no white after Labor Day,’ that’s a rule that needs to be consigned to the ‘Whoever Thought of that Dumb Idea?’ bin.)


Lorna Landvik is the best-selling author of many novels, including Patty Jane’s House of Curl, Angry Housewives Eating Bon-Bons, Oh My Stars, and Mayor of the Universe (Minnesota, 2014). Her most recent novel, Best to Laugh, is now available from University of Minnesota Press.

Lorna Landvik will speak at this Wednesday's Talk of the Stacks at 7PM at the Minneapolis Central Library.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Explore the frightening landscape where water and thirst are political, and drought is a business opportunity.

Click here to download the graphic version of this article.

This week is World Water Week in Stockholm, where more than 200 organizations are convening to discuss global water and development issues. In light of this event, we wanted to take the opportunity to feature a new book that responds to these same issues and digs into the issue of water privatization.

Imagine a world in which water is only for those who can afford it.

We're already there.

Professor of postcolonial studies in English and adjunct professor in geography at the University of Missouri

What is the connection between water availability and jihadist movements? 

Is marketing water a sustainable solution for the global water crisis? 

How is climate change shifting the way we think about water?  

These are some of the questions addressed in The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos—which argues that water inequality is creating social unrest around the world. The Price of Thirst ominously predicted what occurred within weeks of its release, including the ISIS invasion of Iraq, California’s emergency drought conditions, and Egypt’s military rule. But the book also provides solutions for on-going global social crises, ultimately claiming they are inseparable from the global water crises. 


California is one of the most at-risk regions in the world for catastrophic drought. The state has implemented a system of “water banking” that has only led to greater water inequity. Allocating more water rights than it can supply, the State of California has inadvertently created a new category: “water debt,”  which might in fact bankrupt the state.  The Price of Thirst examines how and why massive amounts of water have been granted to the wealthiest people in the state, while the rest of its population goes dry.  


Chile was the first country to privatize 100% of its water supplies. One company with close connections to president Augusto Pinchot was gifted monopoly control over Chile’s water supplies in what is now called “the theft of the century.” The Price of Thirst explores the impact this monopoly has had on Northern Patagonia, following a growing international protest movement against large dams and monopoly water control in this region. 


South Africa became a tinderbox when foreign private water companies introduced water payment meters in the country’s black townships and informal areas, cutting off water for thousands of people who could not pay. The Price of Thirst looks at how the anti-Apartheid movement morphed into an anti-privatization movement fighting against the racist distribution of water. It also reveals how the IMF and World Bank ignored the history of racism in creating a nationwide economic model for the
country, and how this process backfired. 


India is plagued with deforestation, landslides, and flooding on the one hand, and growing drought on the other. Farmers have been committing suicide at an epidemic rate due to drought, while thousands of people are killed by floods every year. Its solution has been to link all the rivers in the country through the River Interlinking Project, moving water around the country like chess pieces. The Price of Thirst reveals how this project will not only create an environmental refugee crisis, but also contribute to the already devastating health and water crises in India’s urban areas.  


ISIS’s invasion in Iraq raises questions about the vulnerability of Iraq’s water systems.  What will happen if Iraq’s dams are taken over by jihadists? The very rise of ISIS can be linked to the reduced flow of water into Syria and Iraq caused by Turkey’s Greater Anatolia Project. The Price of Thirst looks at the events leading up to the ISIS invasion in Iraq, including problems with water availability in both Iraq and Syria. During the coalition-led Gulf War of 1991, water facilities were attacked in Iraq and to this day have not been repaired, causing a humanitarian crisis in the country. The Price of Thirst examines the long history of fraud and corruption in the U.S.-led reconstruction, as well as Turkey’s intransigent position on water, which have both led to the current situation.


The continuing state of unrest in Egypt is predicated upon unequal water access. In the wealthy suburbs, water is considered a sign of opulence, but in informal areas, drinking dirty water is often the only solution. In 2011, the country exploded into revolution due to this inequality. Yet today, water continues to flow to luxury, golf course-themed, gated communities in the suburbs after being gifted to property developers by a corrupt regime. Meanwhile, downtown Cairo has declared “a revolution of the thirsty.” Until water is distributed more equitably in the country, unrest will continue, making governance unsustainable and necessitating military rule.  


Karen Piper is the author of The Price of Thirst (now available from University of Minnesota Press), Cartographic Fictions and Left in the Dust, which the Los Angeles Times has called an “eco-thriller” that every “tap-turning American” should read. A regular contributor to Places magazine, Piper is also a winner of Sierra’s Nature Writing Award and has published in numerous academic journals. She is professor of postcolonial studies in English and adjunct professor in geography at the University of Missouri. 

"A wonderful book—full of commitment, deeply moving, with stories of real people affected by corporate water grabs. I highly recommend The Price of Thirst." —Maude Barlow, chair of the board of Food & Water Watch

"Will conflicts over water define the 21st century as the battle to control oil did the 20th? Karen Piper gives us a vivid, inside view of the bizarre world of the water privatizers and their friends in the World Bank. She also offers inspiring account of their opponents: the emerging global movement to make clean water a universal human right." —Mike Davis, author of
Planet of Slums

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Lorna Landvik: Why I wrote Best to Laugh, Part 2.

Stand-up and improvisational comedian, public speaker, and best-selling author

This is the third post in a weekly series by Lorna Landvik.
#1: On destiny.

Several years ago on a visit to Los Angeles, I took a long, leisurely stroll down my old stomping grounds: Hollywood Boulevard. Most of my favorite landmarks and hang-outs were gone. There was no Highland Drug, at whose soda foundation I would sit, drinking coffee and paging through Variety; no Beef Bowl, where a lunch of teriyaki vegetables and rice costed less than three dollars; no JJ Newberry’s, the deliciously cluttered dime-store; no Broadway Department Store; no Brown Derby; no B. Dalton (formerly Pickwick’s) Bookstore; no C.C. Brown’s Ice Cream Parlor . . . 

So many ‘no mores.’

Maybe something was sparked in my writer’s subconscious then; a need to write about a place that had had such a strong physical and metaphorical presence in my life.

A phone store replaced the little boutique where I once bought a snazzy (I thought) blazer, which I wore to an audition in Studio City. The bus stopped close to the casting office, but still, I had to run a half block through a rare rain shower. My snazzy (I thought) blazer got wet enough that its red dye begin running in streaks down the cuffs and onto my hands. I looked like a soggy stigmatic; and, surprise, I didn’t get the part.

Hollywood Boulevard is more Vegas-ified now. Grauman’s is no longer the name of the Chinese Theatre, but it still exists, in the shadow of a huge shopping/entertainment complex built around it. There are more chain restaurants and fewer Beef Bowls; more chain stores and fewer boutiques that sell poorly dyed clothing. So there is progress, I guess.

Crossing LaBrea, I headed west toward the big old ugly high-rise that looms on the acreage where Peyton Hall once graciously nestled. When my fella and I used to skate the Boulevard, he often would get behind me and push me up the slight incline of the last long block. (One of the many reasons he became my husband.)

Robin Williams had a pied-à-terre there, and the magazine Apartment Life did a pictorial on his place. We shared garbage bins with several other tenants, including McLean Stevenson, who left his Christmas tree up all year, lights twinkling. Once he threw out a bunch of stuff, including a framed water-colored painting by his young daughter. We helped ourselves to it—we liked it—and it hangs on our bedroom wall now, next to the Picasso and the Manet. (Okay, next to the action shots of our daughters playing hockey.)

Our fellow tenants were old directors, young actors, screenwriters, guitarists, music critics, a fashion designer, restaurateurs, and a nurse who worked at the Screen Actors Guild Retirement Home. There were people whose show-biz careers were over or had never started, and people whose careers were just taking off. Dreams were a real currency to be spent, not to be hidden away in vest pockets. You could have a conversation by the pool with someone who seemed pickled in bitterness one minute and the next they were beaming with hope and excitement.

Ultimately, that’s why I chose to write about that time in my life of dreams and big dreamers, when possibility was like a county fair carney, urging all comers to "Come on in, step right up. Try your luck, don’t be afraid.”


Lorna Landvik is the best-selling author of many novels, including Patty Jane’s House of CurlAngry Housewives Eating Bon-BonsOh My Stars, and Mayor of the Universe (Minnesota, 2014). Her most recent novel, Best to Laugh, is now available from University of Minnesota Press.

"Filled with historical lore about Hollywood’s glory days, inside observations about the chauvinism that pervades the comedy boys’ club, and a bevy of secondary characters straight out of central casting, Landvik’s homage to funny ladies everywhere is a joyful, breezy trip down memory lane." Booklist