Recipes for a New Kind of Thanksgiving

Leave a comment
Art and Culture / Food / Immigrants
Photo: Clockwise left to right: Kian Lam Kho, Flickr/SliceOfChic, Flickr/Back to the Cutting Board, Ana Sofia Palaez

Photo: Clockwise left to right: Kian Lam Kho, Flickr/SliceOfChic, Flickr/Back to the Cutting Board, Ana Sofia Palaez

Originally published on Colorlines on November 22, 2013.

Despite the political tensions surrounding Thanksgiving, it’s a holiday many use to unite with family and friends. And what ends up on the table is often a tweaked version of the usual fare that better matches the heritage and politics of the celebrants. For some that means looking to food history to incorporate forgotten ingredients that were essential to their ancestors or focusing on local, sustainable ingredients. For others, it’s about augmenting a holiday favorite. We’re sharing a few such recipes for you to consider if you celebrate Thanksgiving. Please share recipes you love in the comments section!

Soul Sorghum Turkey Brine by Food Historian Michael Twitty

“This is a recipe that speaks to an old Southern tradition of making sorghum in the fall. Sorghum is an African cultigen that has been grown for thousands of years. It produces a gluten free grain and has a sweet form that was chewed like sugarcane and processed into a molasses-like syrup with a very unique rich flavor,” says Twitty. “Try this Soul Sorghum Turkey Brine on a large turkey breast or a small whole turkey.”


  • 1/2 gallon of low sodium chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup of kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup of light or medium sorghum syrup
  • 1 tablespoon of pink peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon of black peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon of crushed red pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of allspice berries
  • 2 crumbled Turkish bay leaves
  • 1/2 gallon of ice water


    1. Bring the stock to a boil in a large pot and add other ingredients up to the crumbled bay leaves.
    2. Dissolve syrup and kosher salt and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and let it come to room temperature.
    3. Add the 1/2 gallon of ice water. Using a very large resealable bag submerge washed turkey breast.
    4. Brine for 6 to 8 hours. Rinse meat off and roast or grill accordingly.

Sesame Coated Pumpkin Pancakes by Chef Kian Lam Kho

Kho, who hails from Singapore, sends this recipe from China where he is researching for an upcoming cookbook. “I offer this pumpkin recipe that I think would be interesting as a side dish for an Asian Thanksgiving dinner.”


  • 8 ounces of pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cut into 2-inch cubes.
  • 2 cups of glutinous rice flour (mochi flour)
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 1/2 cup of sesame seeds (white, black or combination of both)
  • Vegetable oil for frying


    1. Place the pumpkin on a plate and steam over boiling water for 20 minutes or until it is completely soft.
    2. Remove from the stove and drain any excess water from the plate.
    3. Place the pumpkin in a medium mixing bowl and add the glutinous rice flour and sugar while it’s still hot.
    4. Mix the ingredients together well until a smooth dough is formed.
    5. Divide the dough into 16 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball and press down to form a disk of about three inches in diameter and about 1/4 inch thick.
    6. In a shallow bowl spread the sesame seeds. Coat the pumpkin pancakes completely with sesame seeds by patting the dough down onto the seeds.
    7. Heat about 1/4 inch of vegetable oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat.
    8. When the oil reaches about 300 F place eight of the pancakes into the frying pan and fry for three to four minutes or until the side is golden brown. Flip each pancake and brown the other side for three or four minutes. Remove the pancakes from the pan and place them on a paper towel to absorb excess oil.
    9. Repeat the frying with the rest of the pancakes. Serve the pancakes while they are still hot.


Apple-Cranberry Sauce by Chef Bryant Terry

“Although this is an old recipe, I have been exploring the interconnection, change, and growth of Afro-diasporic food in most of my work,” says Terry, a food justice advocate and author. “My new book [Afro Vegan] focuses squarely on that subject. This recipe is a nod to the from-scratch cooking traditions of the African Diaspora, and uses fresh cranberries, apples—local preferred—and tangerine juice. It’s so naturally sweet and yummy you could even eat it as dessert.”


  • 1 cup of fresh cranberries, rinsed
  • 1 cup of peeled and diced sweet-tart apples such as Braeburn, Early Crisp or Gala
  • 1/2 cup of freshly squeezed tangerine juice (or fresh orange juice)
  • 2 tablespoons of raw cane sugar
  • Pinch of fine sea salt
  • Pinch of ground ginger
  • Pinch of ground cinnamon


    1. In a medium saucepan, combine all ingredients and bring to a boil.
    2. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, until soft with some chunks remaining, stirring every two minutes.
    3. Remove from the heat, cool to room temperature and refrigerate. Serve cool.


Huevos al Nido (Eggs in a Nest) by Chef Ana Sofia Palaez

Palaez is a Cuban chef and food writer who explores and blends Latin-American ingredients and flavors from across the region. Palaez adapted this recipe by Puerto Rican chef Carmen Aboy Valldejuli, tweaking a Thanksgiving staple—mashed potatoes.”With everyone flying home for the Thanksgiving holiday, I thought Valldejuli’s huevos al nido, a combination of baked eggs layered with mashed potatoes, was a fitting recipe,” she says.


  • 1 pound of potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons of butter
  • 1/2 cup of lukewarm milk
  • 2 tablespoons of kosher salt
  • 6 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons of freshly grated Parmesan or Gruyere cheese
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper


    1. In a heavy pot, bring potatoes to a boil in salted water. Cover and simmer until tender, about 20 to 30 minutes.
    2. Drain the potatoes and set aside until just cool enough to handle. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
    3. Peel potatoes and pass through a food mill or ricer. Add butter, milk and salt. Grease ramekins.
    4. Fill half of each ramekin with layer of mashed potatoes. Carefully break an egg over potatoes and sprinkle with teaspoon of cheese and salt and pepper to taste.  Cover with final layer of mashed potatoes and sprinkle with more cheese.
    5. Bake until eggs are set to taste,about 20 to 30 minutes.


Bourbon Pecan Pie by Chef  Therese Nelson

For some chefs, it’s the not so much the ingredients or the process, but the intention behind the dish. Therese Nelson takes one of the most classic holiday staples, but adds context and layers of history to reclaim pecan pie: “I came to my professional life in food certainly from my grandmother, who was a great cook but, more germanely, from my discovery at 17 of Edna Lewis. Miss Edna was a self-taught cook whose family dated back to the settlement of Freetown, Va. Being born into this community of freed slaves, Chef Lewis inherited a dignity and a sense of self that came from the ideals born out of this self-contained, self-sufficient, all-black community. I cook today in the footsteps of slaves whose stations were elevated because they could cook, of Caribbean expats who came to America and set the tone for the American gourmet palate, of women who fed the civil rights movement, and of Chef Edna Lewis, who commanded respect and was unabashedly proud of her blackness and our foodways.”


The crust:

  • 1 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 stick of cold unsalted butter, cut in pieces
  • 3 tablespoons of ice water

The filling:

  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1 cup of light corn syrup
  • 1/4 cup of molasses
  • 1/3 cup of melted unsalted butter
  • 2 ounces of bourbon
  • 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup chopped pecans


The crust:

    1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
    2. Place flour, sugar and salt in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse to combine.
    3. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal.
    4. With the machine running, slowly pour in water. Process just until the mixture begins to come together.
    5. Gently press dough into a ball. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
    6. On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough to fit a 9-inch pie plate.
    7. Place dough in pie plate. Trim and crimp edges and refrigerate until you are ready to fill and bake.

The filling:

    8. Whisk together the eggs, sugar, corn syrup, molasses, butter, bourbon, vanilla and salt.
    9. Place the pecans in the bottom of the prepared crust and pour the filling over the pecans.
    10. Bake until set, about 35 to 40 minutes.
    11. Let the pie rest for about an hour before attempting to cut it.

Why ENDA is an Urgent Issue for People of Color

Leave a comment
Gender and Sexuality / LGBT / Women

Originally published on Colorlines on November 20, 2013.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) narrowly passed in the Senate two weeks ago for the first time since a version was introduced in 1974. It was even more significant because it now includes transgender people. But House Speaker John Boehner insisted the act won’t come to a vote in the House, leaving those LGBT people living in the 34 states [PDF] without anti-discrimination laws at a stark disadvantage. And because people of color are more likely to facehigh unemployment and poverty, and have a harder time getting good, steady jobs, they are even more vulnerable.

Preston Mitchum, a Center for American Progress (CAP) policy analyst who leads CAP’s Workplace Discrimination Series says that in addition to high levels of poverty and unemployment, states without laws protecting LGBT people in the workplace are particularly concentrated in the South—an area with a high density of black and brown people. And he says the discrimination often goes beyond just a supervisor.

“Supervisors will often bring other people in the workplace on board [to harass LGBT employees]. They will bring other colleagues in, which increases a hostile work environment,” he says.

ENDA likely won’t come to a vote any time soon, and so it’s that much more important to hear from those who have been discriminated against on the job. Here are five stories:

Ashland Johnson

At 23, Ashland Johnson was closeted at her job as a registrar’s assistant at a college in Georgia. Having heard other colleagues in her predominantly black workplace making disparaging comments towards LGBT people, Johnson, who is black, felt it wasn’t safe to disclose that she is a lesbian.

In the end she didn’t have to tell anyone because her supervisor happened to see emails and photographs that revealed Johnson’s lesbian identity. Johnson says her supervisor demanded she resign because she was “no longer a good fit for the office.” Johnson refused, citing the school’s non-discrimination policy, but over the next month she says she was repeatedly locked out of the office and excluded from meetings. Soon after Johnson was hospitalized for a life-threatening blood clot in her lungs, during which time she received a FedEx envelope. She expected it to be a get well card. It was a termination letter.

Johnson took her case to Lambda Legal where she learned that there were no state or federal laws she could use in her defense. In Georgia it’s entirely legal for an employer to fire you based solely on your sexual orientation or gender identity.

“It was very hurtful, because I was in a community of color.To be rejected by that community because of my sexual orientation was part of the anger and pain that I experienced,” Johnson says. “I know we need more people to be out. But a lot of times people don’t realize there may be more at risk for people of color in also losing their community.”

Johnson now works as an attorney with the National Center for Lesbian Rights.


Tammy, 49, drives a viper red Peterbilt 18-wheeler truck 70 hours per week, zig-zagging across the country at a job she’s done and loved for the past 26 years.

Tammy, a transgender woman of Oglala Lakota descent, describes herself as “not passable,” meaning she continues to have a masculine appearance. In 1994, while driving through El Paso, Tex., she was accosted by a man she describes as a right wing nut job and the altercation turned physical. Tammy told her employer what happened and she was promptly fired.

“Most trucking companies at that time—if you were gay or lesbian, no big deal. Trans folks, not so much,” says Tammy, who did not want to use her last name.

After that incident, she says she felt unsafe outwardly expressing her gender identity. So Tammy wears masculine clothes and goes by her birth name on the job. She was also directly instructed by her current employer not to play up her feminine attributes. Tammy has been searching for a new job with little luck. “If you have an excellent driving record, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to land a job, but I’ve been denied a couple because they just didn’t like how I looked,” she says.

This coming year, Tammy is “hanging it up” as she says, leaving the only job she’s had since leaving the Marine Corps more than two decades ago. She’s not sure where she’ll be able to find employment but to her, it’s worth it. “I’m tired of living a double life. Tired of living a lie,” she says.

Kylar Broadus

Seventeen years ago, Kylar Broadus left his job as a claims manager at a Missouri insurance company. He’d been there for eight years and had a strong track record and positive reviews, but a supervisor who was hostile to his transgender identity made working there unbearable.

Broadus, who is black, wore masculine attire and says he “passed as male” most of the time. But when he cut his hair shorter than his usual below-the-ears length, his supervisor demanded he get haircuts approved in the future.

“He would call me every hour on the hour to harass me. He’d ask me, ‘Where are you? What are you doing?’ It was impossible to get any work done. He would call me at seven or eight o’clock at night, giving me assignments every night that needed to be completed by nine the next morning,” he says.

Broadus was later falsely accused of having a sexual relationship with a colleague, who happened to be white woman with blonde hair, and Broadus believes this added a racial dimension to the harassment he experienced.

“All they saw was that I was chasing this white woman,” he says. “It was all painted with racism, as well as me being some kind of sexual, perverted creature to them.”

In addition to his hair, he was prevented from using his chosen name, and his masculine clothing choices were called into question. After leaving his job in 1996, Broadus wanted to sue the company, which is when he discovered that Missouri had no laws protecting transgender people from workplace discrimination. And even though the harassment took place nearly two decades ago, Broadus says he continues to struggle from post traumatic stress disorder. He also hasn’t recovered financially from being unemployed.

Broadus, 50, is now an attorney and activist for transgender rights. He currently works for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and last year made history as the first openly transgender person to testify in front of the U.S. Senate.

Jennifer Chavez

Jennifer Chavez is a 59-year-old Latina woman originally from El Paso, Tex. She built a career as a certified master automotive technician before undergoing gender transition four years ago. At the time, she was working for a private car dealership in Paulding County, Ga., and had nearly 40 years experience in her craft. She notified her employers that she was going to begin her gender transition, and had what she believed to be the full support of her supervisors and the owner of the business. But things quickly changed.

“A month after informing them, the owner came to the facility to have a private meeting with me. And he said he didn’t like it, that it would negatively impact business,” she says. “I left feeling they were going to look for reason to terminate me.”

And they did. Chavez was fired for dozing off on the job. Because it was a first-time minor offense,  the Georgia Department of Labor (DOL) granted Chavez unemployment benefits. But her former employer appealed and the DOL  overturned their decision four months later, forcing her to repay the $5,800 she’d been granted in unemployment support.

Chavez has filed a federal lawsuit against the owners of the car dealership that fired her. But more than this lawsuit, and the more than $3,000 she still owes the DOL, she hasn’t been able to land a steady job in her field since she was fired.

“I was known in the automotive industry, I was very active in classic cars and racing and show cars. But word spread like wildfire and it has been extremely difficult for me to stay employed,” she says. “I’m blackballed even though I’m a highly certified technician. I can’t find a good company to work for because they won’t hire me when they find out about the lawsuit or that I’m trans.”

Faith Chelthenham

Faith Chelthenham is a 33-year-old black woman originally from St. Louis Obispo, Calif. She identifies as bisexual, and says the experiences like hers are often overlooked, particularly in conversations about workplace discrimination.

Chelthenham says she’s been repeatedly put into uncomfortable situations at work because she disclosed her sexual identity. She works in the technology sector, a field notoriously white and male with very few women of color, and even fewer who identify as LGBT.

“Bisexual people in the workplace are seen as un-promotable or flakey, as transient instead of permanent,” says Chelthenham, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and one-year-old son.

“People will ask things like, ‘I want to know about threesomes are like,’” she says. “And they are more likely to be gossiped about, more likely to have their sexual partners or relationship under the microscope, or having people judge that. It’s difficult. You go to work to work, not to talk about who you sleep with.”

Homeless Youth in Focus

Leave a comment
Gender and Sexuality / LGBT / Race / Youth
Photo: Marin Watts

Photo: Marin Watts

Originally published on Colorlines on November 11, 2013.

It’s 10 p.m. on Tuesday night at the Streetwork Project overnight shelter in New York City, and many of the young residents are just settling in. The shelter, a renovated brownstone with brightly painted walls, houses 24 homeless youth aged 16 to 20, a fraction of the estimated 3,800 who are homeless in the city on any given night.

Nineteen-year-old Brie walks in from a smoke break and launches into a story about taking a bus to see a taping of “The Steve Wikos Show” that gets everyone laughing. But a short while later, in a more intimate setting, the heavily tattooed young woman tells me how she ended up here.

“My mom had me when she was really young. My dad was a kid too,” she says. “I ended up running away from my dad’s house because one day my stepmother punched me in the face, and then my dad said he wished I’d never been born.”

Neglected by her parents, Brie grew up in residential homes and foster care in Bridgeport, Conn. Eventually she went to live with her grandmother at age 17 but she became homeless again after her grandmother lost her apartment. For the past two years she’s been in limbo, trying to go to college, find a job and a place to live and, on some days, to just be a regular teen.

“This is just a stepping stone,” Brie says. “I can be [at Streetwork] and not worry about where I’m going to sleep at night, if I’m going to be sleeping on the subway or have to beg one of my friends or sneak into someone’s house. Now I can come here.”

Brie is one of a growing number of young people facing homelessness after the great recession. In October, the National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) released an annual survey that found that since 2007, the beginning of the global recession, the number of homeless youth enrolled in K to 12 public schools has increased by a whopping 72 percent.

Between 2010 and 2011 alone the number increased by 10 percent. The largest concentration of homeless youth in school are in California, which has about 35 percent of the national homeless youth population, followed by Florida, Texas and New York.

This study provides one of the most accurate counts available of the increasing number of homeless youth, but advocates say it only represents a fraction of the population. Youth become homeless from a variety of circumstances, and can be difficult to find because they try hard to blend in and often don’t return to school. And because many homeless youth are fleeing the foster care system, or are scared to become a part of it if they haven’t been involved before, they often try hard to stay off the grid, spending time living on the street or using other survival strategies.

LGBT Youth and Homelessness

Studies show that LGBT youth are at particular risk of becoming homeless. In 2010 it was estimated that, although only five to seven percent of youth overall in the U.S. identify as LGBT, between nine and 40 percent of homeless youth identified as such. According to a new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP), that number is now as high as 45 percent.

Carl Siciliano, executive director of the Ali Fornay Center for LGBT homeless youth, says the need for shelter far outweighs the resources. A conservative estimate is that there are 200,000 LGBT youth currently suffering homelessness in the U.S. According to Siciliano, there are approximately 350 beds dedicated to their care in about 10 programs across the nation.

Brie, the young homeless woman currently living at Streetworks, identifies as a lesbian. During her childhood, poverty and family instability were key factors in her becoming homeless. But she says her sexuality compounded these already tough issues.

“For a long time I spent my life being angry. Mad at the world. I’d ask why. Why did I have to have terrible parents? Why did I have to be gay on top of it? I didn’t ask for all this stuff, it was just put there,” she says. “But what keeps me going is knowing that one day I’ll be able to help at least one person. Because what I went through, someone else will go through.”

Many LGBT youth report having particularly violent situations at home, like Beau Lackey, a 19-year-old from Northern Georgia. He talked to me by phone from the Lost-N-Found LGBT youth shelter in Atlanta, his voice hoarse from spending a few weeks on the streets without his asthma medication.

Beau’s mother kicked him out a year ago for being gay, but that was only the most recent incident in a lifetime of physical, verbal and emotional abuse from his father, who tried to “beat the gay” out of him. At one point, Beau was so badly injured from one of his father’s attacks he had to have reconstructive surgery on his face. After moving to Connecticut, where he struggled with alcoholism, he came back to Atlanta where he bounced from shelter to shelter.

“The worst part was the struggle of just feeling that there wasn’t anyone who cared enough to help me. I was basically laying my head down on a park bench every night, in the cold, alone,” he says.

Lost-N-Found, which is the only LGBT youth shelter in the Atlanta area, has only six shelter beds for the estimated 750 LGBT youth who are homeless each night in that city. Shelter founder and manager Allen Peebles is fundraising for a larger space. He says they receive calls from youth across the country seeking services.

“I think homeless youth period need to be brought attention to, but gay kids are the disposable kids. Straight kids have a better chance of survival. Homelessness [has increased] for so many reasons, and, again, these are the invisible kids,” he says.

Race and Youth Homelessness

Racial inequity has defined who is most affected by employment and housing challenges during the great recession, and is also represented in the homeless youth population. According to the Congressional Research Center, 32 percent of homeless youth are black, more than double the proportion of black youth in the total population. Fifty one percent of homeless youth are white; two percent are American Indian or Alaska Native; two percent are Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander; and 4 percent are multiracial. (The study does not disaggregate data on Latino youth.)

Much of the research about race and homeless youth is contradictory. Some studies indicate that homeless youth reflect the racial makeup of their surrounding area, others indicate people of color are disproportionately affected. One recent study of youth in San Francisco sheds some light on the different experiences youth of color might have as homeless people and their trajectories into homelessness.

In a survey of 54 homeless young people, the California Homeless Youth Project found that black youth are much more likely to be in the foster care system than white youth (61 and 23 percent respectively). Black young people, the survey found, were more likely to be homeless because of poverty-related housing instability and inadequate social services than white youth who more frequently said they independently left home because of family problems. Black homeless youth also reported being involved in sex work, or engaging in survival sex as a strategy more often than white youth.

“One of the challenges that researchers have had, is that a lot of times, even if youth of color are identifying as homeless they aren’t presenting as homeless,” says Shahera Hyatt, project director for the California Homeless Youth Project. “That might be why the numbers aren’t catching them. They’re presenting like other young teenagers, but I think people are expecting traveler kid with a backpack and dreadlocks.”

With a short goatee, trendy gray sweatsuit and flip-flops, Julian certainly blends in. You would never know that The Bronx, New York, native who stays at the Streetwork shelter, is homeless.

But the 19-year-old has spent the last year living on the street after his father put him out of the house following a disagreement. Julian has a severe learning disability, and he’s spent the last year going from shelter to shelter, working on applications for public housing and applying for SSI healthcare benefits. He says it’s a very long process. In the meantime, he will continue traveling between shelters until there is a better solution.

“Shelters are not good, but at least I’m somewhere, rather than being in the streets,” Julian says. “Without shelter, you won’t shower, you won’t wash your clothes, you’re going to stink. You won’t have money for food. You can’t sleep nowhere. You might be waking up, you won’t sleep right. You need something smooth to sleep on.”

A Bleak Year for Reproductive Justice

Leave a comment
Gender and Sexuality / Health / Women
(Photo: Flickr/isabisa)

(Photo: Flickr/isabisa)

Originally published on Colorlines on December 31, 2013.

It’s been a tough year for reproductive justice in the U.S., with 24 states approving policies and legislation that limit women’s access to reproductive health care. The passage of Texas’ HB 2, which is still being appealed, has already shut down one third of the abortion clinics in a state that has long been limiting access particularly for women with limited resources including low-income women of color and immigrants living in border regions. Many fear the Texas laws will encourage other states to consider similar legislation.

The onslaught of abortion-restriction laws, particularly in the form of so-called Targeted Restriction to Abortion Providers (TRAP) and Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA) laws, ramped up in 2013, and the strategies for limiting access to reproductive health services seem to be expanding each year. According to a Bloomberg report, 73 abortion clinics have closed nationwide in the last two years.

It hasn’t been all bad this year. California passed AB154, which expanded access to abortion in the state and allows for a wider pool of trained providers. A ban on medical abortions was narrowly avoided in Oklahoma, and advocates in Albuquerque successfully blocked what could have been the first ever municipal ban on abortion in the U.S.

But between the high-profile drama in Texas, and states like Mississippi, Kansas, North Dakota and Wisconsin, growing trends are worrisome to some advocates.

Elizabeth Nash, the state issues manager at the Gutmacher Institute, says that she expects to see more laws requiring abortion providers to meet ambulatory medical center standards or to have hospital admitting privileges, which come with various structural requirements that experts say are medically unnecessary, as well as attempts to limit medication abortions such as what we saw in Oklahoma.

“They’ve been so successful with standards for clinics and hospital privileges, it just makes sense that we would see it in 2014. I’m also expecting to see more restrictions around medication abortion provisions. There are laws in effect in 14 states restricting medical abortion, and I think we’ll see that number grow,” she says.

Women of color obtain a disproportionate number of abortions. For instance, black people make up 13.1 percent of the population but black women obtain 30 percent of abortions. Latinos make up 16.9 percent but account for 25 percent of abortions. Asian, Pacific Islander and Hawaiian natives comprise 5.3 percent of the population but according to the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, 35 percent of pregnancies end in abortion for Asian American and Pacific Islander women. And women of color are more likely to have an unwanted pregnancy, which experts say is directly connected to their access to reproductive healthcare, education, and contraceptives. Because the Hyde Amendment restricts federal funding for abortion services in most cases, low-income women who rely on Medicaid have an undue financial burden.

Organizations such as the Guttmacher Institute and the National Center for Reproductive Justice provide tons of state-specific data on abortion and contraception access, but here are a few states to look out for next year, and some of this year’s wins and losses for reproductive rights.

The South


What’s going on: This spring the Arkansas legislature passed two abortion restriction laws–one that prohibits abortions after 12 weeks after a woman’s last period, and another that bans the procedure 22 weeks after fertilization. Under Roe v. Wade, a fetus is considered “viable” outside of the womb at 24 weeks. Both of these laws aim to bump up that timeframe in a way that directly conflicts with the Supreme Court’s existing ruling on abortion rights. The 12-week ban is particularly controversial because much like six-week bans considered in states such as Ohio and North Dakota, it is connected to detecting a heartbeat.

Upcoming in 2014: Both of these laws have been appealed, and will remain unenforced until the courts decide.

Who needs access: The Guttmacher Institute estimates that of the 317,720 women in Arkansas who need access to contraceptive services and supplies, 18 percent are black, 7 percent are Latina and 69 percent are white. Nineteen percent live below the federal poverty level.


What’s going on: This spring the Florida House passed a measure that is version of PRENDA, which requires physicians to report abortions they suspect are are based on a fetus’ gender.  

Upcoming in 2014: This measure is expected to come to a Senate vote in 2014. Similar PRENDA laws have popped up in other states across the country.

Who needs access: The Guttmacher Institute estimates that of the 2,061,580 women in Florida who need access to contraceptive services and supplies, 19 percent are black, 26 percent are Latina and 49 percent are white. Fifteen percent live below the federal poverty level.


What’s going on: This spring the Georgia legislature joined states such as South Carolina and Michigan in limiting the use of state health insurance plans for abortion coverage, except in cases where the mother’s life is at risk. This eliminated coverage for abortions sought as a result of sexual assault or incest. Forty two percent of all state employees are people of color, and 48 percent are women.

Upcoming in 2014: The new healthcare plan requirements will go into effect in January 2014.

Who needs access: The Guttmacher Institute estimates that of the 1,189,220 women in Georgia who need access to contraceptive services and supplies, 35 percent are black, 9 percent are Latina and 49 percent are white. Sixteen percent live below the federal poverty level.


What’s going on: Mississippi has only one functioning abortion clinic, and this year the state legislature increased restrictions on this last provider. The new law requires providers to report all medication abortions to the state’s department of health and the FDA, and also prohibits the use of telemedicine for prescribing medical abortions–a new strategy developed to address the needs of rural women. The legislature also introduced a law similar to that passed in Texas that requires abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges, which was temporarily blocked by a U.S. district court.

Upcoming in 2014: The medication abortion law goes into effect in July. The move to require hospital admitting privileges has not been completely struck down.

Who needs access: The Guttmacher Institute estimates that of the 335,430 women in Mississippi who need access to contraceptive services and supplies, 42 percent are black, 3 percent are Latina and 52 percent are white. Twenty one percent live below the poverty level.

South Carolina

What’s going on: This year Gov. Nikki Haley (R) passed a budget that continues to prevent state employees from receiving abortion benefits under the state healthcare system and did not increase funding for family planning providers, such as Planned Parenthood.

Upcoming in 2014: Advocates are keeping a close eye on South Carolina because of its proximity to North Carolina, which passed an omnibus abortion-restriction law that, requires abortion clinics to meet ambulatory surgical standards, limits abortion coverage to state employees, and includes PRENDA provisions.

Who needs access: The Guttmacher Institute estimates that of the 530,550 women in South Carolina who need of access to contraceptive services and supplies, 31 percent are black, 5 percent are Latina and 60 percent are white. Eighteen percent live below the poverty level.

The Southwest and Texas


What’s going on: Earlier this year a federal appeals court struck down two abortion restriction laws: one limiting access to family planning services for Medicaid patients, and another banning abortions after 18 weeks. In November the state asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the law. But the state also successfully blocked an attempt at a PRENDA law that would ban abortion based on sex selection.

Upcoming in 2014: The Supreme Court has not yet confirmed that they’ll hear the state’s case on the 18-week abortion ban. Because of the growing popularity of this particular type of abortion restriction legislation–it’s been adopted in nine states–the Supreme Court’s decision on whether to move forward is significant. Policy experts are expecting a vote as soon as January 2014.

Who needs access: The Guttmacher Institute estimates that of the 788,050 women in Arizona who need  access to contraceptive services and supplies, 4 percent are black, 34 percent are Latina, and 51 percent are white. Sixteen percent live below the poverty level.

New Mexico

What’s going on: Residents of Albuquerque, N.M. rejected a proposed 20-week ban on abortions this fall despite polling that suggested most residents would support it.

Upcoming in 2014: No new legislation has been proposed for 2014, but the well-known anti-abortion group Operation Rescue has been active in the state and was involved in the recently proposed legislation.

Who needs access: The Guttmacher Institute estimates that of the 240,530 women in New Mexico who need access to contraceptive services and supplies, 2 percent are black, 51 percent are Latina, and 34 percent are white. Eighteen percent live below the poverty level.


What’s going on: The 2013 Texas abortion law saga ended in November as the Supreme Court refused to block HB 2. Already, an estimated one third of clinics have stopped providing services. In, El Paso one clinic halted abortion services because none of its doctors have hospital admitting privileges, one of the provisions of the law.  Should all of El Paso’s clinics stop providing services, those seeking abortions would have to travel 550 miles away to San Antonio for services. Such long distances put an additional strain on low-income women who bear the brunt of increased travel and lodging expenses, as well as potentially finding childcare and taking time off work.

Upcoming in 2014: Planned Parenthood of Texas and reproductive rights advocates plan to continuing appealing HB2. The ambulatory surgical standards requirement is expected to go into effect in September 2014.

Who needs access: The Guttmacher Institute estimates that of the more than three million women in Texas who need access to contraceptive services and supplies, 13 percent are black, 39 percent are Latina, and 40 percent are white. Seventeen percent live below the poverty level.

The Midwest


What’s going on: The Kansas legislature passed an expansive abortion restriction bill this year that decreases access on multiple levels. Counseling regulations will requie providers to counsel women seeking abortions on a scientifically unproven link between the procedure and  breast cancer. In addition, the bill increased penalties for those who knowingly assist a minor in obtaining an abortion; enacted a 20-week ban; included a PRENDA provision; denied abortion benefits to women with state health insurance plans; and denied state funding to organizations providing abortion services.

Upcoming in 2014: This law is expected to go into effect in July 2014.

Who needs access: The Guttmacher Institute reports that of the more than 322,990 in Kansas who are of age and in need of access to contraceptive services and supplies, 6 percent are black, 12 percent are Latina and 74 percent are white. Sixteen percent live below the poverty level.


What’s going on: In December the Michigan legislature joined Texas, North Carolina and Ohio in restricting funding for abortion in private and public health insurance plans by requiring women who want abortion coverage to pay additional fees. The legislature also voted to increase budget allocations for adoption and anti-choice family planning services.

Upcoming in 2014: The bill has been openly opposed by more than one state senator, among them Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D) who disclosed having been raped during the Senate hearing. Legislators and reproductive justice advocates are considering a ballot drive in 2014 to override the law.

Who needs access: The Guttmacher Institute estimates that of the 1,113,390 women in Michigan who need of access to contraceptive services and supplies, 17 percent are black, 5 percent are Latina and 71 percent are white. Sixteen percent live below the poverty level.


What’s going on: This year Wisconsin ended its legislative session without a final vote on a series of abortion restriction bills, some of which bar access to services and others that increase funding for anti-choice causes. Among them is the introduction of a “Choose Life,” license plate for an additional fee, a PRENDA provision, and a move to restrict abortion services for state employees.

Upcoming in 2014: These and other provisions will be up for consideration when the state legislature goes back in session in January 2014.

Who needs access: The Guttmacher Institute reports that of the more than 636,030 in Wisconsin who are of age and in need of access to contraceptive services and supplies, 8 percent are black, 7 percent are Latina, and 79 percent are white. Fourteen percent live below the poverty level.

North Dakota

What’s going on: The governor of North Dakota approved one of the most rigid time-limit bans on abortion this year. The so-called “heartbeat ban” is similar to that unsuccessfully introduced in Ohio earlier this year (and expected to be considered in Kansas) and restricts abortions based on when there is a detectable heartbeat.

Upcoming in 2014: This legislation was blocked by a federal appeals court in July, but the courts are still figuring out their next move and the law will be up for consideration again in the 2014. A final decision in North Dakota could pave the way for other states.

Who needs access: The Guttmacher Institute estimates that of the 75,590 women in North Dakota who need access to contraceptive services and supplies, 1 percent is black, 2 percent is Latina, and 86 percent is white. Fifteen percent live below the poverty level.

Dangerous Sexism

Leave a comment
Art and Culture / Gender and Sexuality / Women
Photos from “On Equal Terms.” Photo: Von Diaz

Photos from “On Equal Terms.” Photo: Von Diaz

Originally published on Colorlines on October 30, 2013.

Click here to view slideshow of images from the exhbitionb “On Equal Terms.” 

In the 35 years since affirmative action passed, there’s been growth in nearly every field dominated by men but the construction industry isn’t one of them.  According to the National Women’s Law Center, the number of women in construction trades and related work has remained steady at 2.6 percent from 1983 to 2010. In contrast, the percentages of women in other occupations where women have been traditionally underrepresented, such as police work, firefighting, butchering and engineering, have increased substantially.

An exhibition by artist Susan Eisenberg points to some of the reasons why the construction sector continues to have low numbers of women employees. The traveling exhibition, titled “On Equal Terms,” was first installed at Brandeis University in 2008, and has since traveled to the Michigan State University Museum, and landed at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

The exhibition is made up of a multifaceted melange of objects that symbolize both the camaraderie among women workers and the harassment, threats, and sexual violence many experience on the job. The space is layered with glitter and ribbons, splashed with neons and pastels, then juxtaposed with raw industrial materials such as plywood and power tools. It’s a busy space, peppered with poetry and quotes from public hearings, but made harmonious by a reflective, somber space to commemorate women who’ve passed away.

There are multiple jarring moments in the relatively small renovated classroom gallery at Clemente Soto Vélez, among them a life-sized model of a construction site bathroom, scrawled with vulgar drawings of genitalia and phrases such as “fucking lesbian electrician bitch.”

And in the center of the gallery space is “Stella,” a sculpture of a tradeswomen with fabric dreadlocks, a diamond hardhat, and Eisenberg’s own Carhartt coveralls from her days as an electrician. “Stella” stands at the top of a ladder holding up electrical chords, adorned with dozens of small white gift tags that have words or phrases women have heard on the job, including “job stealer,” “incompetent” and “nice buns.” Eisenberg says Stella is meant to represent every woman, but that women of color have particularly had it rough.

“There has always been more violence for women of color than white women,” Eisenberg says.

Women of color are prominently featured throughout the exhibition in photographs and written pieces, and she says she hopes her exhibition will give voice to those who can’t or won’t speak up about abuse or harassment for fear of repercussions. “It is about reflecting on that systemic failure to have a workplace that’s welcoming to everyone.”

>The New York edition of this exhibition brought together tradeswomen from across city, and I got a tour of from two women construction workers who connected their personal experiences with the works on view.

Melinda Hernandez was born and raised in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents in 1956, and says she began working with her hands while helping her father fix cars as a kid.  After graduating high school, she attended Bronx Community College but was dissatisfied with the experience and left after one year later to enroll in a program called “All Craft,” which taught the basics of various construction trades.

In August of 1978, after the affirmative action ruling opened doors for women to work in male-dominated professions, Hernandez decided to join the more than 1,200 people camping outside of a union office for three nights in order to receive an apprenticeship application. There she got a real sense of the gender-based discrimination she’d be up against. Of those camping out, there were only 12 women and only five were accepted. Hernandez says one women was forced to refuse the opportunity after being physically assaulted by her husband.

“It wasn’t like they had a parade waiting for us. All the men on the job were bent on discouraging us every way they could” she says.

Throughout her almost 20-year career as an electrician, co-workers continuously sexually harassed her.  She says instructors also purposefully kept women apprentices from advancing in their trades, sometimes sending women out for materials while they looked at blueprints to developed plans for a job.

Hernandez says that women rarely have their own bathroom on construction sites, and often the shared bathrooms would be covered with vulgar language and images, similar to those shown in the exhibition. “There were things written on the walls about you. One time a pornographic picture from a magazine, with semen on it, was slid under the door of a wooden shack I was given to change my clothes in. Things like that,” she says.

She was also once threatened with a physical attack by a colleague, who was consistently propositioning her, while working with him alone to install temporary lighting in a subbasement–a pitch black space three levels down from where anyone could hear her.

She was forced to leave the industry due to a permanent lung condition in 1992, and afterwards became an advocate for other women working in construction jobs. While we talk she stands in front of an installation titled “Wallpaper,” representing a series of 14 hearings for the NYC Human Rights Commission under former Mayor David Dinkins–the transcripts of which peek out from behind ripped wallpaper. The recommendations that came from those hearings were never implemented.

Another construction worker, Lisa Narducci, was born in South Brooklyn to Puerto Rican and Italian parents, and was recruited into becoming a tradeswoman in the 1981. She began her career as a carpenter in California, and then decided to move back to New York.

“I was not welcome,” she said, recalling her first days as a carpenter in New York at age 25.

“Things would go missing from my toolbox,” she says. “And people would say things that were truly inappropriate.”One partner on a job site threatened her with violence. “He tried one day to either hurt me or kill me. He pushed a panel onto me and we were 50 to 60 feet up the air. All I had behind me was a thin wooden rail. Would he have done that somebody bigger, somebody heavier? No,” she says.

Narducci also says she experienced the way women of color were particularly discriminated against, and that male supervisors often created a racist, hierarchical culture.

“The saddest thing is that black and white women were pitted against one another because of the way they were treated,” she says. “I think it was the a scenario that the men created because they didn’t know what to do with us. Traditional households have their hierarchies, and I think that’s what they set up on the job. We were subordinates as employees, but also subordinates as women in that particular kind of family.”

The field continues to be an unsafe, and unfriendly environment for women despite advancements in so many other traditional male careers, the military among them. Both Narducci and Hernandez say they’ve felt solidarity from other women construction workers, but not as much from those outside the field. They both express feeling alone, and invisible as women construction workers, and say that younger generations have expressed similar sentiments.

“On Equal Terms” is on view at through November 1. The exhibition closes with a poetry workshop for women in the trades, followed by a public poetry reading by artist Eisenberg.

Mapping Food Justice

Leave a comment
Food Justice / Immigrants
Map: Natasha Bowens/The Color of Food.

Map: Natasha Bowens/The Color of Food. Photos: Courtesy of Organizations Profiles

Originally published on Colorlines on October 24, 2013.

Check out The Color of Food interactive map on Brown Girl Farming.

Natasha Bowens describes herself as a “young, brown female who likes to farm.” And while she didn’t grow up doing it, she’s now dedicated her career to creating a network of other people of color in farming and food justice.

Like many people Bowens became an activist in college, and focused her early career working on the 2008 elections, and on health policy for the Center for American Progress. Along this path she began connecting the dots between politics, social justice, the environment, health and food and was inspired to start farming. But the more she got involved, the more she began to notice a lack of people of color heading farming or food justice initiatives.

“I saw this disparity. I thought food justice movements were being led by communities of color. They were leading movements on the ground but they were then being taken over,” she says. “There are organizations that are supposedly supporting communities of color, but their funding is not going to communities of color.”

In 2010 she  began a blog titled Brown.Girl.Farming, and soon after started working on The Color of Food, a multimedia project that gathers stories of people of color leading farming and food justice initiatives in their hometowns. Bowens traveled across the country, doing interviews and taking photographs, and is set to publish a book in the spring. Based on what she learned in her travels she also developed the Color of Food map–which charts farms and food justice initiatives owned or operated by people of color. Anyone in the world can add to the map. There are already 272 organizations featured on this list. Below is a sampling of organizations Bowen has mapped:

Sow_Much_Good_SQ.jpgSow Much Good Located in: Charlotte, N.C. Founded in: 2008 What they do: Sow Much Good  addresses the health, racial and socioeconomic disparities that result from lack of access to healthy food. Mecklenberg* County in the Charlotte, N.C. area has at least 73,000 residents living in areas without adequate access to grocery stores. Sow Much Good aims to have an impact on high levels of diet-related health problems in low-income communities of color by increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables and engaging the local community through programs and workshops. Robin Emmons, the organization’s founder and executive director, was just named one of CNN’s Top 10 Heroes. She says racial justice is a foundational tenet of their organization. “I choose food as my platform to promote social justice as it a microcosm for many disparities that systemically exist among every underserved, marginalized or fragile group in our society,” she says.


Real Food Challenge Located in: Cambridge, Mass. Founded in: 2008 What they do: Real Food Challenge aims to activate youth to become key stakeholders in creating a more green and just food system in the U.S.  Based in Massachusetts, Real Food is a national organization with regional chapters across the country. Using a social justice model that encourages participation between youth, educators, business leaders, and government officials, the Real Food Challenge works with youth and college students to advocate for policy changes that would shift money away from industrial food systems and toward community-based food initiatives. “We hope that through developing young leaders who understand the food system and issues of power, privilege and oppression, we foster a larger and longer-lasting racial and economic justice movement,” says David Schwartz, campaign director for Real Food.


Huerto de la Familia (The Family Garden) Located in: Eugene, Ore. Founded in: 1999 What they do: Huerto de La Familia aims to create a space where Latinos can connect with their cultural roots and develop employable skills through farming. According to the American Community Survey, the Latino population in Eugene has grown by 85 percent since 2000. Huerto de La Familia aims to increase healthy food access to this growing community, which continues to be low-income. The organization operates a farm, garden and food justice project that works with these local Latino families. Sarah Cantril, Huerto’s executive director, says racial and economic justice principles guide their work. “The political environment in Latin America drives many Latinos to come to the U.S., and once here they become part of one of the most food insecure communities in the country. We aim to acknowledge their backgrounds in agriculture and use it to create a space where Latinos can produce healthy food and also further their economic wellbeing.”

Hattie_Carthan_SQ.jpgHattie Cartham Community Garden Located in: Brooklyn, N.Y. Founded in: 1970 What they do: The Hattie Cartham Garden reclaims spaces in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to create urban gardens and use these spaces to educate the community on healthy eating. The project is said to be one of the oldest community-led agricultural initiatives in the country and is named for Bed-Stuy native and activist Hattie Cartham. In addition to fruits and vegetables, the garden also produces medicinal herbs for local residents. Organizers run a nearby farmers market with produce from larger state farms.  In a recent interview, garden vice president Yonette Flemming said, “The most unique aspect about us is that we are African-American run and African-American directed, and we intend to go in that direction for as long as we can.” In addition to teaching community members about food justice and agriculture, they also run entrepreneurship programs for youth and other local community members.

ReVision_SQ.jpgReVision Urban Farm Located in: Dorchester, Mass. Founded in: 1995 What they do: ReVision Urban Farm provides food and shelter for homeless people and residents of the surrounding community. The project began when ReVision House, a women’s homeless shelter, created a small farm adjacent to the shelter, which then merged with Victory Programs eight years ago to become ReVision Urban Farms. Now, the farm actively provides food for shelter residents, and community-sourced agriculture for city dwellers and farmers markets. The organization also provides job training opportunities for women in the shelter. “Good nutrition is one of the most basic needs people have,” ReVision manager Shani Fletcher says. “The community in which we are located is a poor and working-class neighborhood populated primarily by African-Americans and West Indian immigrant families. We work to provide these communities with ready access to affordable, healthy, fresh and culturally appropriate food.”


People’s Grocery Located in: Oakland, Calif. Founded in: 2003 What they do: People’s Grocery improves West Oakland’s economy and the health of its residents by creating a vital local food system. The organization operates the California Hotel Garden and Greenhouse, run out of the California Hotel public housing development in West Oakland, as well as an education institute on food justice. In addition they have an internship program, which they call an “allyship,” where participants run workshops and trainings that the organization hopes will foster “the development of equal relationships (everyone is a peer) and equal participation (everyone has agency) for working cross-racially and cross-culturally in food systems change.” At a recent talk at the Commonwealth Club, executive director Nikki Henderson talked about her personal experiences with the intersection of food justice, racism and health. “Part of what I want people to latch onto, and feel in their guts around food and health, and African-American communities, is that the things that we experience every day, the survival mode, the rat race that is experienced by so [many] of us every day is not divorced from these other issues we deal with. Housing and health, and education and policy all live close to the surface,” she said.

*Post has been updated to reflect the proper spelling of Mecklenburg County.

How Tech Stays White

Leave a comment
Economy / Media / Race

Hank Williams, Ali Abdullah, and Mike Street presenting on technology innovation at the Harlem Business Alliance Summit on September 23, 2013. Photo: Von Diaz

Hank Williams, Ali Abdullah, and Mike Street presenting on technology innovation at the Harlem Business Alliance Summit on September 23, 2013. Photo: Von Diaz

Originally published on Colorlines on October 22, 2013. Co-written with Jamilah King.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Roots co-founder Questlove can agree on one thing: The Big Apple has the potential to become the next Silicon Valley. That much was made clear when the two appeared in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood on October 1 for the opening of the “Made in NY”  center, which is being touted as a cross-industry hub of creative innovation. “Collaboration between the sectors is crucial if we’re going to be the global media capital of the digital age,” Bloomberg said during the press conference. “Our administration is working hard to make sure that’s the case.”

Added Questlove, who will serve as the center’s first artist-in-residence: “In recent years, technology has really played a game-changing role in how we create and how we consume art. Who knows–maybe I’ll create the new ‘Tonight Show’ theme with someone here at the center.”

The upbeat event was the latest in Bloomberg’s effort to bring the economic prosperity of a Silicon Valley to the Big Apple. There are already 262,000 local jobs in the technology sector, eight percent of the city’s total workforce. Tech industry professionals make a combined $30 billion in wages each year, which is roughly 11 percent of the non-public sector income in the city, according to a report released this year by the Bloomberg Technology Summit.

Nowhere in the United States has the drive to emulate Silicon Valley been as deliberate as in New York City. In 2011, the Bloomberg administration introduced a roadmap for what it calls Silicon Alley that outlined plans to make New York “the world’s premier digital city.” The plan tackles five issues: internet access, education, open government, New Yorkers’ engagement with the city’s digital experiences, and the tech-based businesses that they then create. 

Diversity is part of that plan. Specifically, the administration hopes to expand its workforce development programs with tech-based curricula at New York City high schools and offering young people of color jobs in the sector. But according to some experts, what’s missing is a focus on racial equity.

People of color are the fastest growing users of everything from smartphones to social media, and according to researchers, people of color are more likely than whites to use that technology to keep up with what’s happening in their neighborhoods. But not only do they not have a seat at the table when those products are being developed, the table is in a different room entirely. At the heart of the question is how to develop tech communities of people who don’t just consume media, but who create it and can then use it to solve problems in their communities. In a place that’s as racially diverse as New York City, how municipal leaders engage communities of color could be a roadmap for the rest of the country.

There hasn’t yet been a study on race in the New York’s burgeoning Silicon Alley, but numbers out of Silicon Valley provide some clues about what New York City could look like. In 2011, CNN Money asked 20 Silicon Valley companies to release data from their annual reports to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), but only three replied: Dell, Ingram Micro, and Intel. Out of those companies’ self-reported numbers 68 percent of the 44,000 workers were white, and only 33 percent were women.

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also tell a dismal story. Out of more than 600,000 people employed as computer and information systems managers, 27 percent are women, slightly more than five percent are black and five percent are Latino. And a 2012 AFL-CIO report found that although 15 percent of the general labor force is Latino and 11 percent is black, only six percent of Latinos and seven percent of black workers are involved in computer and mathematics occupations.

College degrees in computer science also reflect a paucity of blacks and Latinos. Enrollment in computer science programs has grown by 10 percent since the 2007 dot-com crash, according to the Computing Research Association, but racial diversity was static among those getting masters and bachelors degrees in the field. Among BA recipients in computer science fields, only four percent were black, and a little more than five percent were Hispanic. Two percent of both black and Latino students were among those receiving MAs.

While it’s clear that the numbers of people of color in Silicon Valley are low, it’s much harder to surface the reasons for those dismal demographics. After some digging, what’s become clear is that there are two kinds of overlapping barriers for people of color seeking a more meaningful involvement in the sector. First, there’s the lack of access to technology, computer science education and venture capital in communities of color. And because of that lack of access, there’s lack of social capital necessary for entrepreneurs of color to get deals done. 

Show me the money

Five years ago, influential venture capitalist John Doerr famously said that he saw a correlation between being a white, male nerd who drops out of Harvard or Stanford and being successful. That attitude appears to have gone largely unchecked in what is often described as “pattern recognition” or “pattern matching” in the venture capital world.

Pattern matching is something Vivek Wadhwa, an Indian-American entrepreneur and scholar who’s written extensively about race and gender gaps in entrepreneurship and innovation, says is “code for racism and sexism” at the core of racial inequality in the field.

“In general, investment banking is a sexist, disgusting culture. I’ve worked there. I know how women and minorities are treated there,” Wadhwa says. “It’s all about networking and mentorship, which are the most important ingredients in entrepreneurial success. And people of color are missing that ingredient. It’s much harder for them to succeed. They have to reinvent the wheel because [technology] hasn’t changed.”

New York City-based web developer Eric Hamilton says he’s had firsthand experience with pattern-matching. He says he once pitched a project to a room of 45 investors, some of whom were black, and watched as they ignored him but were captivated moments later by a disheveled young white man who was considering dropping out of college.

“He commanded the room, because of what he represented. It was that, along with the fact that I’m too old, that I’m the right gender but the wrong complexion, and that I actually finished my degree. It was the pattern-matching piece of it,” Hamilton says.

And those most often identified by pattern-matching come from just a handful of schools. A recent study by Reuters pinpoints how white males who have attended Harvard, Stanford, or MIT are among the most frequently funded by venture capitalists. A quick glance at enrollment data from these top schools shows what you might expect–that there are very few people of color attending them. Undergraduate and graduate admissions across these schools averaged six percent African-American, nine percent Hispanic, 18 percent Asian American/Pacific Islander, and one percent American Indian/Alaskan Native. 

And it’s been that way for years.

“It is much harder for people of color who are not tapped into the network, that don’t have the social capital, don’t know how to do the right dance, who don’t know the right mentors,” says Hank Williams, a black tech entrepreneur who founded the data management software company Kloudco and, a nonprofit that aims to increase minority participation in technology. “It’s much harder to raise capital. We’re just not in the right circles.”

Get in where you fit in

To address questions of diversity on Silicon Alley, New York City’s chief digital officer Rachel Haot says that the city is reaching out to communities of color.

“Diversity in the technology sector is not only critical to New York City’s economic future and opportunities for all residents, it is critical to the sector itself, Haot says via email.”The importance of diversity in the tech sector has driven the creation of a range of programs, including several employment programs that provided 300 young people of color with paid technology-sector internships and training this summer. In addition, we have hosted professional development seminars and launched We Are Made in NY, an economic development initiative that offers more than 50 programs for getting involved in the tech sector, and highlights diverse teams of local technology firms.  Finally, our recent series of listening sessions across the five boroughs generated powerful new suggestions on how best to engage and encourage diverse communities in the new tech ecosystem.”

But some people already working to bridge the racial gap in New York’s tech spaces say the sector’s problems with diversity are very deeply entrenched.

“I do think it’s a much larger structural issue of the options of people who have experience and go to school for computer science,” says Georgia Bullen, a researcher with a Washington, DC-based group called the Open Technology Institute who lives in New York City. She notes that even when a qualified black or Latino candidate does apply for a tech job, they may not be considered as strongly as a white male candidate because they aren’t in the same social networks. Bullen, a white woman, recounted studying computer science at Carnegie Mellon in the early 2000s and being struck by the school’s lack of racial diversity. “It’s not that the organizations aren’t willing to talk about what diversity they have [because] they know it’s not anywhere where they want it to be. But it’s a much longer term problem to fix.”

The Bloomberg administration’s focus on education in its digital roadmap is meant to address some of these structural inequities. But some scholars have spoken out against what they call “technology-focused ethnocentrism,” or the idea that simply offering access to gadgets and tools will meaningfully increase the numbers of people of color who grow up wanting to build and design new technologies. In one article professor Christo Sims describes a technology-focused high school that opened in Manhattan in 2009. Within a few years, he wrote, many of its students of color left because the school, its curriculum, and its after-school activities were not connected well enough to surrounding communities of color.

Kimberly Bryant, the founder of a Bay Area-based organization called Black Girls Code, says that the structural issues aren’t isolated to any one city, but is an industry-wide problem. “It becomes a chicken-or-egg situation,” Bryant says. “There aren’t many people of color graduating with degrees in computer science, which means there are fewer people of color getting jobs at tech companies, which means there are even fewer entrepreneurs of color in the technology field in general.”

Techies currently working in New York say there are also cultural issues at play, such as an aversion to geekdom in communities of color. Mary Pryor is a social media consultant and writer from Detroit who coordinates the meet-up group Blacks in Technology (BIT). She says lack of access to technology careers starts with not knowing those careers exist because they aren’t introduced to young people in schools.

“If it wasn’t for a friend of my grandmother’s from her church group talking about, ‘Oh, your granddaughter is good with math, she should try this program in automotive engineering,’ there is no way I would have stumbled upon the idea that a digital career was anywhere near viable,” Pryor says.

She also said her peers made it very clear that being a geek was not okay. She had to play up other attributes, like being a good dancer, and being into music and DJ’ing, in order to mask what she calls her “geektivity.”

“There’s no real celebration if you grow up in the ‘hood-hood,’ which is where I grew up, to be a geek,” she says. “It sucks, but if you’re seen as someone who spends all their time in the books, there’s a kind of a backlash you deal with, on top of just trying to hide your love of being in front of a computer screen all day.”

Kyle Wanamaker is a software engineer from Philadelphia currently working at Tumblr, and also felt he had to hide his inner geek.

“I played varsity basketball, I was all-league in basketball and track. Basically all that made it passable that I would go and mess around on the computer,” he says.

And both pointed out that young people of color don’t have tech entrepreneurs to look up to in the same way they do celebrities, professional athletes, and musicians. As New York City developer Hamilton puts it, there needs to be an entrepreneur who is like a Mark Zuckerberg mixed with a P. Diddy in order for black and brown people to take notice of the tech industry as a viable option.

Mixing it up

The absence of black and Latino people hasn’t gone unnoticed, particularly among those who’ve been part of the tech sector in New York since before the boom.

Mike Street is a social media strategist and consultant who has worked on brands such as, collaborated with SXSW, and is the founder of the Blacks in Technology meet-up group that Pryor coordinates. He’s personally felt the sting of an absence of black and brown people in the technology sector.

“I’ve been on interviews at Tumblr, Foursquare, and I would look to see what their makeup is,” he says. “Unfortunately, I still see a room full of white guys, some cool white girls, and you may see one or two black guys in the corner. I have friends working at other companies, who say they can count the diversity on one hand. It’s important because, if you’re going to come into these companies, you have to have someone who can vouch for you and bring you in.”

But Street, like Kloudco founder Hank Williams, have hope that things are changing. “Championing minorities in the tech industry is the new civil rights movement,” he says. “This is our new economy, and we have to be active participants.” 

Bruce Lincoln is a black entrepreneur who’s been in the tech industry since the 1980s and watched New York blossom over the last decade. He launched Silicon Harlem in February with co-founder Clayton Banks with the hopes of transforming the still predominantly black and Latino neighborhood of Harlem into a center for technology innovation. 

And Silicon Harlem, as well as initiatives like Williams’ initiative are part of a series of interventions that could make an impact. 

“It’s not simply about making sure everyone has opportunities when it comes to developing companies,” he says. “But, also, how that development creates jobs for those people who are not going to be the technology company developer.” 

He says black and Latino entrepreneurs working within communities of color have an opportunity to create new networks, which many have signaled are sorely needed, and that these networks could have much broader effects on the future of the field and equitable access for people of color. 

“[Technology growth] insularly develops the growth of science, technology, engineering and math, and young people learning coding. It’s an ecosystem that’s developing,” he says.

Do Women Have More to Lose If Immigration Reform Dies?

Leave a comment
Immigration News / Women
Katherine Figueroa was subject to an immigration sweep and raid in Maricopa County, Ariz. in 2009. (Photo: Valeria Fernández)

Katherine Figueroa was subject to an immigration sweep and raid in Maricopa County, Ariz. in 2009. (Photo: Valeria Fernández)

Originally published on Colorlines on October 14, 2013.

For 10 years Juanita Flores struggled to find her way out of an abusive marriage. She was undocumented, had two small children, no opportunities for legal employment, and lived in constant fear of her husband’s physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Five years ago, the last time she saw him, he put her in the hospital with a skull fracture. The next day she left Dallas. But it was only this year that she was able to get a special visa that could help her remain in the U.S.

Flores, who declined to give her real name for fear her husband would continue to threaten her family, is one of thousands of immigrant women who live in the U.S. in dangerous situations because of a lack of protections that address violence against women.

The Senate-backed immigration bill currently being considered by Congress and the newly introduced bill both include provisions that address the unique needs of women and families.

Studies show that immigrant women experience higher rates of gender-based violence than those born in the U.S. Statistics are hard to come by because undocumented women often live in the shadows. According to the advocacy organization Breakthrough, immigrant women are three to six times more likely to experience domestic violence than U.S.-born women. Between 34 to 49 percent of non-citizen women experience domestic violence in their lives, which increases to 60 percent for those who are married and to 77 percent for those who are dependent on spouses for immigration status.

Pramila Jayapal, is the co-chair of the We Belong Together campaign, which recently organized a Washington D.C. demonstration where more than 100 women were arrested. She has been critical of immigration reform efforts in the past because she says they don’t adequately address the needs of women.

Fifty one percent of immigrants to the U.S. are women, and three quarters are women and children,” she says. “And the immigration debate for so long has not been defined as an issue of women and children. You see a lot of mainstream images of immigrants as men scaling a border wall, which is such a tiny percent of how people actually get here. We want to make sure people know what this debate is really about.”

Although she sees the immigration debate as male-centered, Jayapal also sees many of the provisions included as major steps towards creating pathways to citizenship for women who are vulnerable to domestic and sexual violence, workplace abuses, human trafficking and separation from their families. And despite the slim chances of immigration reform passing in the midst of a government shutdown and explicit resistance from Republican members of Congress, she remains optimistic.

“This isn’t the time to sit back and wring our hands and say we can’t get this done. We owe it to the millions of people who are going to continue to be manipulated, abused, exploited, living in the shadows, who are not part of our democracy and not part of our society,” she says.

Maria Hernández is one of those people who was once living in the shadows. She was among the women arrested at the We Belong Together demonstration, and is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico and survivor of domestic violence. She came to the U.S. from Mexico City by crossing the border when she was 17 years old looking for work and a better life. She came with a cousin who was around her same age and soon after met her husband. The trouble began after she got pregnant.

“He forced me to have an abortion,” she says in Spanish. “It was even worse for me because I grew up Catholic and knew I had committed one of the worst sins. It was terrible. I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it.”

Hernández endured 15 years with her husband, during which time he continued to be abusive, often in front of their children.

She says she knew she was risking deportation by participating in the demonstration, and had prepared her three daughters in San Francisco for the possibility she might not be coming home. But she said she felt compelled to take the risk in honor of women like her who struggled to escape their abusive spouses because of their immigration status.

“It’s my passion,” she says. “It’s important that women immigrants are seen and heard. We are a huge part of this country, and we support this country.”

The Senate-backed comprehensive immigration reform bill includes certain provisions to address situations like the ones Hernández and Flores faced. Among them is an increase in the number of U visas granted each year, which are visas reserved for those who have been victims of crimes in the U.S. and are willing to cooperate with law enforcement. Nearly all of the qualifying crimes for U visas go fall under the categories of domestic and sexual violence and abduction. Each fiscal year, the government issues 10,000 U visas.

Lisa Koop, Associate Director of Legal Services for the National Immigrant Justice Center, says the government has reached the cap on U Visas for three consecutive years, and she believes these visas only reach a fraction of abused immigrant women. “We haven’t seen any reduction in the numbers of survivors of domestic violence,” Koop says. “We can’t accept or place every case. There’s a huge need, and it’s something that I don’t think is going away any time soon.”

She also says a number of factors lead to non-citizen women being particularly at risk for domestic violence. Abusive partners often threaten to withdraw their sponsorship petition or claim their marriage is a fraud, or to call the police and have the woman deported.

“Undocumented women are often terrified of law enforcement, and usually very reluctant to call police or report domestic violence. And if they have children they are particularly afraid of getting deported,” she says.

And Koop says there are cultural factors at play, and many women come to the U.S. from countries that tolerate or outright condone violence against women. Combined with being unable to find stable employment, all of these factors limit the amount of control immigrant women can have over their circumstances.

Should the immigration reform pass this year, the number of U visas would double to 20,000, potentially offering twice as many women the opportunity to leave an abusive situation. The qualifications for receiving a U visa would also be expanded to those who’ve experienced workplace abuses.

Juanita Flores was granted a U visa in January, and thanks to that visa she can now receive work authorization, and she has a path to citizenship that will prevent her from being deported and separated from her three children, all of whom are U.S. citizens.

“My [U visa] was a blessing. If I would have been sent back to Mexico I would probably be dead. My ex-husband is there now.”

But U visas can’t be the only solution, particularly since they require immigrant women to work directly with law enforcement, which some are reluctant to do. And Koop says some police officers have refused to sign an official U visa certification and have given only limp excuses for not cooperating.

Other provisions in the Senate-backed immigration reform bill would give women the opportunity to gain some financially stability by providing a work visa for those who qualify under VAWA or for a U or T visa, and would make immigrant women eligible for certain assisted and public housing, both of which could make it easier for women to escape abusive spouses.

U visas, employment authorization, and public housing provisions in immigration reform would benefit more than just undocumented immigrant women. Seventy percent of women who enter the U.S. with legal status come through family sponsorship, and some come as a spouse to a legal permanent resident or person with a non-immigrant visa, such as an education visa. And during the long wait for official status to come through they are bound to their sponsor, and in many cases either ineligible or required to wait several years for work authorization, thereby making them subject to the same vulnerabilities as undocumented immigrants.

Grace Huang, the Public Policy Director for the Washington State Coalition Against Violence, agrees that the bill has some exciting things in it, but that immigration isn’t the only way to create systems to help women who’ve experienced domestic violence.

“We have multiple strategies happening simultaneously, including extensive administrative advocacy,” she says. “We are trying to include these pieces in the comprehensive bill, but if it doesn’t pass, we will try via other vehicles.”

But, she added that with so much effort going into pushing for provisions in the Senate-backed immigration bill, it would be the most effective way to make things happen. “There are some things that have to be done in legislation,” she says.

Out Of The Dark: One Gay Latino Couple’s Battle Through One Of The Worst Immigration Eras

Leave a comment
Immigration News / LGBT
Santiago Ortiz and Pablo Garcia Gamez (Photo: Marin Watts)

Santiago Ortiz and Pablo Garcia Gamez (Photo: Marin Watts)

Originally published on BuzzFeed Longreads on September 29, 2013.

In May, the Repertorio Español on Manhattan’s Upper East Side hosted a reading of Pablo García Gámez’s play Oscuro, de Noche. Set in Caracas, Venezuela, the play chronicles the circumstances surrounding the death of Kenny, a young man gunned down while riding his motorcycle. I’m seated next to García’s husband, Santiago Ortiz. Before the lights come down, 52-year-old García walks over from his director’s box to greet us. He’s in a long-sleeved black button-up shirt and jeans and wears wire-rimmed glasses, his graying light-brown hair neatly trimmed. Ortiz, 58 years old, tall, barrel-chested, and wearing a yellow collared shirt, looks longingly at García. As Ortiz watches him walk away he sighs, “Ay, mi papi.”

García welcomes the audience of 100 or so people, beaming with pride. An hour or so later, the misty-eyed crowd gives a standing ovation. The performances are gripping and transport you to a fateful night, exploring complex themes of police corruption, journalistic integrity, love, family, and things that happen under the cover of darkness. In the subsequent Q&A, García tells the audience the play is based on the true story of a young man in Puerto Rico.

But that isn’t exactly true. The story is based on a real young man — Kenny, García’s nephew — but he lived in Venezuela, and García never met him. For the last 20 years, in fact, he’s been unable to leave the United States due to his immigration status. Oscuro, de Noche, “dark, at night,” has been García’s reality for more than two decades. The play seems to be his attempt to recreate an experience he could not be a part of, the actors portraying emotions he can only guess at because he’s been away for so long.

García and Ortiz celebrated when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act on June 26. After living in the U.S. for 20 years, García did not have a green card and had no means of legal employment; and despite their legal marriage in Connecticut, the couple had lived in constant fear of Pablo being deported to his native Venezuela. Like tens of thousands of same-sex binational couples across the country, they saw the court’s decision as the answer to their prayers for equality with heterosexual immigrant couples.

García didn’t jump a fence to enter the U.S. He didn’t come here looking for a better job or fleeing political persecution. Like many other immigrants to the U.S., gay and heterosexual alike, he fell in love and has risked family and career in order to remain in the U.S. with Ortiz, forced to choose between his love and his life. And even now, their struggle continues.

The couple at Niagra Falls in 1993. Photograph courtesy of Pablo García Gámez and Santiago Ortiz.

On a hot August night 22 years ago, Santiago Ortiz was living half-time in Puerto Rico with his parents and half-time in Venezuela, on medical leave from his job as a psychologist at New York City’s Rikers Island prison. He went to Bar La Cotorra, one of the oldest gay bars in Caracas, to meet up with a man he had met earlier that day — who never showed. Ortiz, dressed in a yellow shirt and khaki pants, with a daring hoop earring in his left ear, spotted García.

García was a regular at La Cotorra, which was near his job at advertising firm Leo Burnett, and was chatting with a friend the night that Ortiz caught his eye from across the bar. “He was very nice looking. Mustache, big eyes, black,” García says.

Ortiz bought García a Cuba Libre and showed off a business card from his New York City job as a bilingual school psychologist. García responded by opening a local newspaper to show him an art review he’d just published. Ortiz was impressed.

They spent the next day hiking in the mountains of El Ávila and talked about their lives and the homophobia they’d both experienced as gay Latinos. Soon they started dating and, despite the less-than-tolerant climate then for gays and lesbians, both introduced one another to their families, García traveling to Puerto Rico to meet Ortiz’s parents. After Christmas that year, Ortiz returned to his home in Elmhurst, Queens, to resume his job at Rikers. But he couldn’t stop thinking about García. Four months later, after dozens of letters and almost daily phone calls, he asked García to move to New York — and he did.

Today, they live in that same one-bedroom apartment in Queens. On the day I meet them, I’m greeted enthusiastically at the door by a snarfling pug named Benito and the smiling couple, who immediately take my coat and bag and ask if I’m hungry.

Like most New Yorkers, they make up for the lack of space with creative furniture arrangements and decorations. Their walls are alternately painted bright orange, salmon, and mango and sparsely decorated with a few framed paintings. Most of their living-room space is taken up by tall bookshelves filled with hundreds of books, one topped with a Thai Buddhist sculpture. Ortiz describes the décor as their “minimalist phase.”

Ten minutes after arriving, I’m sitting in the living room with a slice of roscón de guayaba, a Colombian pastry filled with cream cheese and guava, and a steaming cup of café con leche. Benito is at my feet, anxious to see if I might give him a bite, and the two begin recounting the past two decades. After García came to New York, the couple were initially optimistic that things would work out, even though gay marriage was a pipe dream.

“This was pre-9/11, and all through my upbringing I had the idea that it wasn’t that hard to become a U.S. citizen,” García explains. “My father would always say, if you come to this country, if you’re a decent working person, you don’t get into trouble, this country is open for you.”

When García arrived in 1992, he didn’t speak English, but his experience in Spanish-language writing, reporting, and advertising enabled him to get work as a freelance writer, which he supplemented with catering, painting, and coat-check jobs. He decided to overstay his temporary visa in 1995. Now an accomplished playwright and Spanish teacher, García speaks heavily accented fluent English and has a master’s degree and pending Ph.D. from the City University of New York (CUNY).

In the last 12 years, though, the climate has become increasingly hostile to immigrants. Having watched the number of deportations increase to record highs, García and Ortiz were anxious to find a permanent solution. For heterosexual binational couples, marriage is often the easiest way for noncitizens to remain in the U.S. legally. There are approximately 24,700 same-sex couples in the country consisting of a U.S. citizen and an undocumented immigrant, many of whom are legally married in one of 13 states where same-sex marriage is legal. But because DOMA prevented Ortiz and García from using the marriage route for a permanent immigration solution, they were forced to try other strategies.

One approach is their participation in the lawsuit Blesch v. Holder, one of more than a dozen immigration-related cases that aimed to prove DOMA unconstitutional. The advocacy group Immigration Equality filed the lawsuit on April 2, 2012, on behalf of five lesbian and gay couples with immigrant partners from countries including Japan, South Africa, Spain, Venezuela, and the United Kingdom. Their co-plaintiffs have each suffered greatly. Frances Herbert and Takako Ueda met in Michigan as college students, for example, and, because of immigration issues and societal pressure, were separated for 16 years before being reunited and legally married in the United States. Kelli Ryan and Lucy Truman met in medical school in Scotland and were married in 2010, but Truman has had to remain in the U.K.

Ortiz brings out three expandable brown file folders. From them he withdraws several bound stacks of white paper and puts them on the couch next to him.

“This is our lawsuit,” he says, almost tenderly.

While he sifts through thousands of pages of legal documents, García sits at his computer, browsing photographs from their simple wedding in Connecticut two years ago. In the photos, he wears a bright red long-sleeved cotton shirt, Ortiz is in a nearly identical orange cotton sweater, and both wear khakis. They were married by a justice of the peace on a sunny day.

“It was just the two of us,” Ortiz says.

That Connecticut wedding seemed impossible to Ortiz 20 years ago, in part because he didn’t believe he’d still be alive.

Four years before meeting García, in 1987, Ortiz was diagnosed as HIV positive. He’d planned his trip to Venezuela, in fact, after a friend in Puerto Rico suggested he explore alternative, holistic medicine there. At the time, HIV/AIDS treatments were still in the early stages of development, and Ortiz was scared. “All my friends were dying,” he says.

He waited for three months after they met to tell García he was HIV positive, and eventually decided to do so in a letter (he was still in Puerto Rico). García’s response didn’t arrive for several weeks, and Ortiz was convinced he had been dumped. But García responded favorably, saying he still cared for him, and wanted to continue their relationship.

“I think the best medicine I found in Venezuela was Pablo. Because he made me feel happy, he made me forget about AIDS,” he says.

Being the partner of a person living with AIDS has not been easy for García. He remains HIV negative, taking precautions and treatments like many other serodiscordant couples do. He says he was shocked when he first arrived in the U.S. and learned about the challenges he would face at a meeting at the Hispanic AIDS Forum. Alerted to the risk to his own health and the possibility of watching his partner die, he went home and downed a bottle of rum.

But throughout, he’s been a daily support for Ortiz, vigilant to the ebbs and flows of treatments, responding accordingly as medications make him weak or lose his appetite. Seven years ago Ortiz was diagnosed with cancer, and García remained at his side as he underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments. They’ve also both struggled with depression, overwhelmed by the all they’ve faced together and the uncertainty of what lies ahead for García.

Though they would have never met if not for Ortiz’s diagnosis, fear of separation has been intensified by his looming mortality. Had anything happened to him, García would have had to leave immediately with no legal rights to the life they’ve built together. And, most importantly, Ortiz would have lost his primary caregiver were García deported.

García browsing through wedding photos. Photograph by Marin Watts.

In addition to participating in Blesch v. Holder, García had applied for deferred action, a program introduced last year by the Obama administration that offers temporary protection from deportation. Deferred action, which is called a “band-aid” approach by immigrant advocates from the New York State Youth Leadership Council, is typically limited to undocumented youth who arrived in the U.S. before age 16. But sometimes the Department of Homeland Security will extend deferred action to immigrants like García who are “vulnerable to separation,” according to Steve Ralls at Immigration Equality. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) granted Pablo two years of deferred action on March 21, and since then he has applied for and received a work permit and temporary Social Security number. It is very likely his green card application will be reviewed and accepted — and yet they’ll believe it when they see it.

Despite these decades of unbelievable stress, the times I’ve met the couple, they are mostly upbeat, supportive, and loving. Ortiz refuses to dwell on his health problems, saying how fortunate he feels to be alive. And García is entirely focused on his career. Just a week after receiving his work permit, possible now because of his deferred action, he secured positions teaching Spanish at Brooklyn College and the City College of New York, which he began in August.

In their living room, they tell me what they love most about one another.

“My favorite thing about Pablo is that he loves me. That’s it, that he cares about me — and I never thought anyone would love me. Period,” Ortiz says, tearfully.

“His smell,” García says in a thick accent, each syllable deliberate and staccato. He looks down bashfully. “How his skin smells. It’s like a kind of perfume that makes me feel sure.”

Of everything they’ve been through, perhaps the most difficult part has been García’s protracted separation from his family. As Ortiz flips through the pages of their lawsuit, he stops at a copied photograph of his late mother Esther with Pablo’s mother Graciela, which was taken on a family vacation to Puerto Rico before García was barred from leaving the U.S.

Trying to maintain García’s connection with his family, Ortiz traveled to Caracas twice on his partner’s behalf. He would stay at a hotel and visit with Ortiz’s mother and father, as well as with his three younger sisters and close friends. But he stopped visiting because it became painfully clear that the person they all really wanted to see was García.

After the DOMA ruling, García and Ortiz attended a barbecue hosted by another couple who previously faced imminent deportation, and they marched in the annual NYC Pride Parade. But on that very day, they received news that brought their celebration to a halt, and further highlighted the insecurity of their situation.

In December, García’s mother in Venezuela began having serious health problems. She was diagnosed with “dropped head syndrome,” a rare neuromuscular condition that disabled her and caused extreme pain.

That Pride Sunday, García learned from his sister in Venezuela that their mother had taken a turn for the worse, and he decided that despite fighting for the last 20 years to remain in the U.S., he would return to Venezuela knowing he would be denied reentry and be separated from his husband. Immigrants who remain in the U.S. without proper authorization for more than 180 days are subject to a three- to 10-year bar from reentering the country, and because his temporary visa expired 18 years ago, he would likely receive the maximum. He was determined to leave nonetheless.

The Supreme Court’s historic decision to repeal DOMA went into effect immediately, leading same-sex binational couples across the country to begin applying for green cards. Because García and Ortiz had previously applied, paying $1,490 for an application that was ultimately denied, they decided to wait for their petition to be reconsidered instead of refiling. At least another 70 couples in the U.S. are in a similar holding pattern, waiting for prior applications to be reviewed. The Department of Homeland Security has not yet issued a clear timeline for reprocessing applications submitted by same-sex couples.

In the end García did not have to leave; his mother, Graciela García Gámez, died before he could. He could not secure the emergency travel authorization needed in time to go visit her before she died. He also missed her funeral, which was held at El Cementerio del Este in Caracas, just as he had missed his father’s funeral 16 years ago.

The day after, Ortiz explains why things happened this way, demonstrating how their battle for equality has consumed their lives: “We think she understated her condition so Pablo did not do something rash. She did not want to interfere with his immigration struggle.”

Putting a Human Face on Food Stamps

Leave a comment
Economic Justice / Food
Photo: Flickr/Bread for the World

Photo: Flickr/Bread for the World

Originally published on Colorlines on September 25, 2013.

Last week, when the Republican-dominated House voted to cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) over 10 years, it put the nation’s high poverty rates in focus. With the U.S. Census confirming that poverty rates remain at recession level, and the most recent jobs report showing that unemployment is still at 7.4 percent, the possibility of cutting one of the most widely used safety net programs in the country alarmed advocates, politicians who oppose the cuts, and food stamp recipients alike.

“This will bring [more] poverty, not only for my district, but nationwide,” says Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), who represents the 15th congressional district in the Bronx. The 15th is the poorest district in the nation with nearly half of its residents currently on food stamps. “It will also bring hunger to people. That doesn’t even sound right to say in this country. There are people now who go to bed [without] having enough to eat.”

The House pointed to multiple factors when making cuts, among them fraud (which is currently at 1 percent), and ballooning costs for the program, which has more than doubled in the last four years from $38 billion to $78 billion.

Debbie Weinstein, executive director of the national Coalition on Human Needs, says increased program efficiency and the ease of EBT cards has increased participation in SNAP over the past several years, which subsequently led to growing costs. The House cuts, she says, would “take food out of mouths of poor people, and it’s likely children will be especially hit.”

President Obama has vowed to veto the House cuts but some states have already begun to make them, reports USA Today.

So, who currently relies on food stamps? According to Forbes, nearly 49 percent of SNAP recipients are children, 8 percent are elderly, and nearly 20 percent are disabled.

The Pew Center reports that 18 percent of U.S. adults have received SNAP benefits in their lifetime, the majority of which are people of color. That total number becomes more illustrative when broken down in terms of race and gender: The Pew data show that nearly 40 percent of black women and 30 percent of Hispanic women have used food stamps at some time in their lives, compared to nearly 20 percent of white women. On the whole, women are twice as likely to use food stamps than men. According to the Center for Budget Priorities, the average amount of SNAP benefits for a family of four is $668.

Ivonne Canizal is 27 years old and lives in San Francisco’s Excelsior neighborhood. She has two children, ages 10 and 5 and she receives SNAP benefits. She first applied for the program because she could only get part-time work doing odd jobs.

Today she works 25 to 35 hours per week as a desk clerk but says she still doesn’t earn enough to make ends meet. Canizal gets $367 in food stamps each month, which she says is barely enough to provide healthy food for her children and still make rent.

“There are no words to describe it for me,” Canizal says of the possibility of losing her SNAP benefits. “For me, it’ll be bad. It’ll put me in a bad situation.”

Sonia Suarez, a 42-year-old single mother living in New York City, faces a similar dilemma. She says she started using SNAP benefits in August because she lost her job at a restaurant and had to choose between paying her rent and utilities and feeding herself and her daughter. She currently works part-time cleaning houses but she still isn’t able to make enough to pay all of her bills. Losing food stamps would be catastrophic.

“I think I’d lose my apartment,” Suarez says.

Also among SNAP recipients are disabled and elderly people like Dave Subran. He is 65 years old and currently homeless, living in a transitional facility in New York City. SNAP benefits provide him with the extra food he needs to make it through the day.

“Oh, holy hell, if [food stamps] were cut it would mean my stomach would have to get acclimated to the days where I would only eat lunch every two days,” he says.

SNAP recipients often apply for benefits because they are experiencing temporary hardship, and the food stamps they receive help to lessen extreme poverty and weather the effects of temporary unemployment.

Astrid Andujar and her family used food stamps after they moved to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in 2007. Her parents struggled to support their five-person household and began receiving SNAP benefits in 2008. “There were a few times when the pantry was pretty empty,” the 23-year-old recalls. “We kept eating the same things like rice with corn and tuna. Those were the three ingredients we seemed to have.”

The family was able to leave the SNAP program last year when her mother started a successful business making cakes. Andujar now works full time as a graphic designer.

“[Food stamps] provide stability for my family to move forward,” she says. “It was a gigantic step for us.”

Nancy Biberman, director of the Bronx-based Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, points to what she describes as a snowball effect that cuts to SNAP benefits could have on the families who lose them.

“Healthy food prevents lifelong bad consequences,” she says. “It’s perverse and cruel to do what they’re proposing to do in Congress.”