Monday, May 18, 2009

Revive the Civilian Conservation Corps

Faced with millions of Americans out of work, including an army of roughly 154,000 homeless military veterans seeking shelter every night, President Obama and Congress should quickly revive one of the most successful government actions during the Great Depression. That action was creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which the Roosevelt administration convinced Congress to support within weeks of FDR taking office in 1933. Over the next several years, the CCC hired more than three million young men to plant three billion trees in over-logged forests, repair 40 million acres of soil-eroded farmlands and create 800 state parks, according to the US Forest Service web site.

While billions of dollars are being promised to bail out banks and Wall Street firms nearly sunk by reckless investments, the Obama administration should make better use of lessons to be learned from studying how America climbed out of the last big fiscal collapse that sank the national economy. “Today, we drive on roads laid out by the Works Progress Administration, drop off our children and pick up books at schools and libraries built by the Public Works Administration, and even drink water flowing from reservoirs constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority,” among other public services provided by workers funded by the federal government in the 1930s, notes author Neil M. Maher in Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement.

Indeed, he argues, the CCC was the pioneer project in lifting a bankrupt, dispirited America by its bootstraps. “The immediate popularity of the CCC … helped the new president [Roosevelt] to jump-start the New Deal,” writes Maher, a history professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology-Rutgers University. “During the Great Depression, the CCC continually linked the outdoor labor performed on its conservation projects to an increased sense of national pride.” Another legacy was that many CCC participants got hooked on environmental causes, “thousands of whom took jobs with conservation agencies and became actively involved in a host of environmental groups across the country.”

Modeled on a conservation program Roosevelt had championed as governor of New York, the CCC tackled big issues, from reclaiming Dust Bowl farmlands and fighting forest fires to providing a new start for jobless veterans.

“Several thousand World War I veterans had taken part in the ‘Bonus Army’ marches on Washington in 1932 and 1933. The earlier march in Hoover’s administration was dispersed by the U.S. Army, while the latter march was dispersed by FDR by offering to allow them to enroll in the CCC,” the Forest Service notes. Nearly 250,000 veterans enrolled alongside more than 2 million younger men, aged 17 to 28, who were guided by military officers and woodsmen recruited from the surrounding area of the hundreds of CCC work camps, located in every state. About 8,500 women were also enrolled in the program.

Vital work that a revived CCC could do includes: clean up abandoned industrial waste areas, many of which are in public parklands and at former and current military bases; restore and reforest blighted mountaintop mining areas; retrofit government buildings, including schools, with solar panels and windmills to generate electricity; create a network of marked bicycle paths along city streets, rural roads, greenways and unused railroad corridors; restore or create greenway wildlife corridors along streams and rivers; clean up polluted streams and rivers and coastal areas.

Experience in working on such vital projects would provide a trained workforce for the green economy that President Obama and others are promoting.

A current program that can provide additional ideas is the California Conservation Corps, created in 1976 along the lines of the original CCC. It hires 3,300 young men and women annually at the minimum wage. The state agency does projects “for more than 250 local, state and federal agencies each year,” the California CCC web site states. Its members are trained as emergency responders and clean up crews at forest fires, floods, earthquakes, oil spills. They also maintain hiking trails and a nursery that has produced more than 3 million trees for reforestation and stream bank restoration. “Many recruits start out as unemployed high school dropouts and end up moving on to jobs in the California Department of Fish and Game, state and national parks, and forestry and fire departments,” the San Francisco Chronicle noted in a recent article.

Gov. Schwarzenegger’s proposal early this year to close the agency to save $17 million as he faced a $40 billion state deficit stirred a wave of public protest; the funding was restored by the state legislature. "Not only did we get restored, but with all the [federal] stimulus money, I see us expanding," Jimmy Camp, communications director for the Conservation Corps, told the Chronicle. "They are coming to us and really looking to put some of that stimulus money into projects for us.”

Many in California saw a ready-made opportunity for the federal stimulus fund to invest in conservation projects. “Indeed, far from being cut, the corps should be a model for other states,” the Redding (CA) Record Searchlight stated in an editorial.

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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Home for Veterans

Coming home for some war veterans means slipping off the track of chasing a fading American dream. Despite the yellow ribbons of support for the troops festooning patriotic front yards and backs of cars, there’s an army of homeless former soldiers seeking shelter in cities and towns across this country. Compounding the shock of becoming homeless can be another bitter discovery: Few communities provide programs to help veterans who hit a rough patch get back on their feet. Consequently, an estimated 154,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

Why are so many once-able military troops living a hobo life straight out of bleak stories from the Great Depression? Besides the “factors affecting all homelessness -- extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income, and access to health care -- a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and substance abuse, compounded by a lack of family and social support networks,” says the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans web site. While the VA assists about one-third of the homeless vets, the majority have to look for state and local programs.

“The most effective programs for homeless and at-risk veterans are community-based, nonprofit, ‘veterans helping veterans’ groups,” says the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “Programs that seem to work best feature transitional housing with the camaraderie of living in structured, substance-free environments with fellow veterans who are succeeding at bettering themselves. … There are about 250 community-based veteran organizations across the country that have demonstrated impressive success reaching homeless veterans. These groups are most successful when they work in collaboration with federal, state and local government agencies, other homeless providers, and veteran service organizations.”

When an empathetic religious group in a suburban New Jersey town proposed turning an empty church into apartments for homeless veterans, however, neighbors turned out to vehemently oppose the plan. What happened next showed the other side of America. When the proposal came up for a vote by the Highland Park Board of Adjustment recently, the room was packed by a crowd of veterans wearing military caps, peace activists in protest T-shirts, church members and residents of the central New Jersey area appalled by the neighbors’ complaints.

“Joe Vanliew broke down as he uttered his first words to the Highland Park zoning board, one of dozens of people who spoke Monday at a tense, four-hour meeting at which the board ultimately agreed to allow a shuttered church to be converted into an 11-unit housing complex for homeless veterans,” The Star-Ledger correspondent reported. "’I hope the sacrifices of every veteran are remembered tonight,’ the white-haired man said, his voice cracking. ‘They were in the thick of things, and I can't believe that anybody in Highland Park or anywhere else wouldn't support the veterans.’"

The objecting neighbors, who included a veteran or two, maintained that the conversion would add traffic to a busy street, ruin an historic building and put veterans in substandard basement-level apartments that, paradoxically, would cost much more in government grants than would be needed to buy houses on the market.

During the hearing, testimony was provided that the housing plan had the approval of federal agencies seeking to address the fact that “New Jersey has more than 3,500 homeless veterans, according to Victor Carlson, a psychologist and chief of homeless services for the Department of Veterans Affairs New Jersey Health Care System,” The Star-Ledger reported.

The veterans’ home project was launched by Highland Park Reformed Church pastor Seth Kaper-Dale, who told the newspaper that “the project stemmed from years of preaching about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members of his congregation would ask him to pray for nieces and nephews going to war, then they asked him once again to join them in prayer when the veterans returned, he said. ‘They were praying for their nephew who came back and was sleeping on someone's couch.’"

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Monday, May 4, 2009

Peacemaking Adventures Abroad

There are two very different sorts of Americans who venture abroad, as more than tourists or journalists, to so-called trouble spots. There are military people and “gold-mining” adventurers. And there are diplomats and teachers. In Vietnam, for instance, the US sent waves upon waves of troops and contractors to wage war for more than a decade in a military adventure that ended badly. A comparative trickle of Americans has gone to Vietnam since the war, often on their own initiative, to try to help undo the damage.

Among the first peacemaking missions were small groups of US war veterans who returned to build medical clinics and land mine-clearing operations. One of the most recent civilian missions is operated by Teachers for Vietnam. A New York-based nonprofit group, it was founded in 2006 by veterans and friends with a peaceable agenda “to help meet the growing need for Vietnamese students to attain proficiency in the English language,” its web site notes. With a handful of volunteer teachers, most just out of college, the group is venturing into a region where US military operations bogged down in brutal battles and the Peace Corps is conspicuously absent.

Nearly 35 years after the war, the Vietnamese are more interested in global trade than in refighting old battles. Americans, by all accounts, are welcomed by the communist government and its roughly 80 million citizens—as long as visitors bring useful peacetime skills. In this war-churned nation, whose hardy, rice-paddy culture rebuffed Chinese, Japanese and French invasions, not to mention fought off the US military, a surprisingly popular new skill is speaking American lingo and mastering the British mother tongue.

“Currently, there are few native speakers of English teaching in Vietnamese universities,” the Teachers for Vietnam web site states. “Students aspiring to careers in business, trade, communications, government service, tourism, and other fields require a command of oral and written English. … By sending American teachers to Vietnam, Teachers for Vietnam is also increasing understanding and strengthening ties between the United States and Vietnam.”

Not only Americans have taken up this cultural challenge. Australians, Canadians and Brits, many recruited by the British Council, a citizen diplomacy agency, also provide English classes in Vietnamese schools.

I admire people who travel into potentially dangerous places armed only with a smile. Given the horrendous killing that took place during the war, you’d think Americans would be targets of revenge in this part of the world, which an Air Force general once threatened to bomb “back into the Stone Age.” But what a damper on war fever is dropped when we offer the best in our society—such as young people willing to live in a very different land and share languages and culture.

In contrast to bitter memories of many American war veterans, consider some recent comments by a young woman from Boston on her tour of teaching in Vietnam.

“I am a very different person than I was six months ago. I'm a lot of the same person, but I am a stronger, more interesting version of myself. I feel completely comfortable and at home in a foreign country, and I'm incredibly happy these days. Moving to Vietnam was the best (so far) decision I have ever made, and if you are wondering if you should go abroad for a year, or any period of time, and do something similar (and a lot of you have mentioned this to me) my advice is yes, absolutely, go,” Samantha Thornley, a 2008 graduate of Northeastern University, wrote on her blog in February.

“I have been very busy spending extra time with my students outside of class,” she wrote in another entry. “This semester I am teaching a lot more first year students, where as last semester I was with mostly last year students. They have even more of an innocence to them, and are so eager to learn. My students have the ability to make me feel really great about myself, with daily comments like ‘You look so lovely today!’ but they also make me feel so insignificant sometimes. Not on purpose, but I just admire them so much. A question I often get asked is ‘What do you think of Vietnamese students compared to American students?’ My answer is usually that Vietnamese students are much more dedicated, are such hard workers, and I admire them very much. That is the simplest way to put it so they understand me, but it is so true. They had to work really, really hard to get into University, and they work so hard while they are there. Not to mention that they are having a full conversation with an American - which just embarrasses me. I've LIVED in their country to six months and I can't hold a conversation (although, I have been having great exchanges in Vietnamese, which always makes me proud...) but I still feel inadequate that I don't speak another language.”

By April, as the school term began to wind down, she was homesick for her friends and family back home. Yet despite the tropic heat, hordes of mosquitoes and being stuffed with strange food when visiting students’ homes in the Mekong Delta (sometimes an arduous trip to places far from the University of Can Tho), Samantha wrote that she enjoyed living in Vietnam.

“All of the hardest days in the world can't compare to how amazing Vietnam is,” she noted. “Last weekend I had a small vacation, and Kristen and I went to Da Lat. Da Lat is in Central Vietnam (about 11 hours north of Can Tho) and we went to represent Teachers for Vietnam and meet with the University there and see if we could open a post for next year. I had an amazing time. I wasn't expecting anything, I didn't know anything about the city or the school, and as usual, I was blown away. The city is beautiful. It's in the mountains, there is cool, fresh air, and everyone we met was incredibly nice, spoke English really, really well and spoke highly of the University. The campus was beautiful, the people we met with were incredibly nice guys and I had no trouble at all picturing myself there.”

During the war, a division of troops with gunships and artillery could not have traveled the routes she writes about without battling through hostile places and taking severe casualties, while destroying villages and towns along the way. Now Americans are being invited back, as guest teachers in Vietnamese classrooms.

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