Thursday, April 22, 2021

Happy Earth Day! Melissa Checker's moving, super-important essay about her book The Sustainability Myth, exploring the relationship between environmental justice and climate change activism.


HAPPY EARTH DAY! To celebrate, an essay from Melissa Checker, Associate Professor

PhD Programs in Anthropology and Environmental Psychology, the CUNY Graduate Center

Department of Urban Studies, Queens College.

Thank you so much, Melissa!

Legacies of Struggle

With a click, my mother, presses the car door lock of our powder blue Doge four-door. She pokes her head over the backseat, where I'm settled in with a pillow and some books.  "You can knock if you need anything, but only if you REALLY need something, she warns. "I'll be back in about an our. I watch her walk up the driveway to a small house covered by a peaked, black roof that slopes all the way down to graze the first-floor windows. On either side of it, a row of identical, partially attached homes make a zig-zag pattern as far as I can see. I’m between the ages of six and eight, and I am fascinated by these homes, this neighborhood.

On our cul-de-sac, just a few miles away, all the homes are separated by driveways, wide strips of grass, hedges, fences or flowers. Most of the families on our street and throughout upper middle-class Potomac, Maryland, a suburb just north of the Capitol Beltway, are white. But in this tiny townhome neighborhood, known as Scotland, all of the residents are black.

A homebound instructor for Montgomery County Public Schools, my mother provides instruction to kids who are too ill or injured to attend school. She works with students throughout Potomac, but I only remember going with her to Scotland. Both of my parents are children of Russian Jewish immigrants, and they can barely afford to live in this fancy school district. My mother rushes home after her last homebound student to see private tutoring clients, and my father teaches SAT prep classes in the evenings and some weekends. When I am home from school -- with strep throat or, more often, with a case of not liking school – my mother has few childcare options. Working mothers are still shunned among Potomac’s wealthy families, but Scotland’s mothers seem to understand the situation.

Before long, I hear a knock on the car window. “Come on, honey,” says a woman about my mother’s age. Her hair is covered by a scarf and she has smooth, coffee-colored skin. “You can come on in the house.” I unlock the doors and follow the woman inside. My mother is sitting at the dining room table across from a teenage boy, his leg propped up on a pillow and covered in a hip to ankle cast.

“You can sit here,” says the woman pulling out a chair for me at the other end of the table. “Do you want some OJ?”

My mother looks up from the textbook spread before her on the table. “Try not to breathe on anyone.”

I receive a cup of juice, a stack of books, and some paper and crayons, but spend the rest of the hour staring at the glass bowls arranged on the dining room table, the photos and paintings hanging on the walls, the knick-knacks carefully arranged on credenzas, bookshelves and end tables. I am especially fascinated by two long, lace doilies that crisscross the dining room table in a T.

After the lesson, my mother spends another 20-30 minutes catching up Mrs. Young on her son’s progress. As we finally drive down the hill leading out of Scotland, a few of the men and women we pass wave to my mother. “That’s the father of L____,” she’ll say waving back. “He’s Mrs. Young’s first cousin.” Or, “That’s Mrs. Mason. She’s in charge around here.”

In the late 1800s, a farm that had fallen into tax arrears was subdivided into small, several-acre parcels and auctioned off to a few formerly enslaved men and their direct descendants. Within a couple decades, 50 households had settled in the area. Although Scotland residents owned property and paid taxes, the neighborhood did not have paved roads, running water, gas or sewer lines. During the post-World War II-era, agriculture gave way to development, work was harder and harder to come by, and the public school system remained separate-but-unequal. By the mid-1960s, many of Scotland’s cash-strapped landowners sold their properties to developers or to the County. Remaining homes had fallen into disrepair – in 1964, the County condemned 23 of the neighborhood’s 35 homes.

But this was also the Civil Rights era, and neighborhood leaders began to organize, forming a committee known as “Save Our Scotland.”. According to available reports, Potomac residents rallied in support, signing petitions, engaging in community cleanups and raising money for a community center and the hiring of a social worker. These efforts eventually led to the formation of Scotland Community Development, Inc. (SCD). Within a few years, the SCD pieced together enough federal and state funding to raze all of the neighborhood’s existing homes and break ground on 100 new townhouses. 75 of the units included rent subsidies, and 25 were sold back to Scotland residents for $15-18,000.

Despite access to affordable housing, Scotland residents did not fare well during the 1970s recession, or eight years of Reagan-ism. Reports of crime, drugs and arrests in the neighborhood increased and were fueled by Reagan’s expansion of the War on Drugs. Potomac’s progressive allies now focused their energies on distant causes. In junior high and high school, we campaigned to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a federal holiday and wrote letters to Nelson Mandela in prison. But we looked right past the struggles going on in our own zip code.

Although we socialized with Scotland students in school and at parties, the lunchroom remained an unfailingly segregated space. Kids from Scotland kids sat together, occupying two or three tables while the rest of us sat in typical high school formations – jocks, cheerleaders, geeks, theater nerds, honors students. Crossing the lunchroom divide seemed as unthinkable as driving into the neighborhood. In fact, mentioning my childhood visits to Scotland elicited such skeptical looks from my peers, that I stopped bringing it up.

My questions about Scotland lingered. What kinds of opportunities allowed my parents to purchase homes in Potomac, which they later mortgaged to send my sisters and me to private colleges? Why were these opportunities unavailable to Scotland’s families? Why wasn’t access to low-cost housing enough to eradicate poverty? What did self-avowed liberals choose to know – and not know – about the experiences of their low-income neighbors?

I decided to answer such questions from the vantage point of everyday experience, which led me to pursue a PhD in cultural anthropology. Initially, I intended to study residential segregation and racialized housing markets. But a few years into my program, I heard about a relatively new social movement, known as environmental justice. Combining racial and social justice with environmentalism, environmental justice opposes the uneven distribution of environmental benefits and burdens.

African Americans are exposed to 38% more air pollution than white people and are 75% more likely to live near toxic pollution than the rest of the U.S. population, according to a 2017 study. Although communities of color are far more likely to suffer from the effects of contamination and climate change than their white counterparts, reports  show that Blacks and Hispanics are exposed to 56% and 63% (respectively) more pollution than they produce. Such disparities are rooted in the same cumulative and overlapping racial inequalities --in education, employment, health care, criminal justice, banking, tax policies, home ownership, governance, etc. -- that circumscribed the lives of Scotland residents. 

Environmental exposures become a viscous cycle, compounding the obstacles facing communities of color. Respiratory illnesses (which require expensive medicines and inhalers) cause children to miss school and parents to miss work. Toxic chemicals in the air and the soil produce reproductive, cardiac, dermatological and other disorders, in addition to cancers. They also make outdoor activities like gardening, playing, and even walking, dangerous, leading to even more health problems. This past year, a study by Harvard’s School of Public Health linked air pollution to higher COVID-19 death rates.

Over the past two decades, I have spent countless hours sitting in the dining rooms of people affected by environmental racism, listening to their stories. Because participant observation is my primary mode of study, I have spent even more hours alongside local environmental justice activists as they pass out flyers, write grants, attend public meetings, strategize, become enraged, experience crushing disappointments – and every so often – celebrate a victory. It has been my honor to participate in these struggles and to get to know the people who tirelessly drive them forward.

My recent book, The Sustainability Myth, tackles the relationship between environmental justice and climate change activism. Specifically, I study the impact of sustainability policies and practices in New York City on formerly industrial, low-income communities of color. I link the greening of these neighborhoods was intricately linked to high-end real estate development and housing insecurity. More insidiously, I find that as some neighborhoods green, environmental burdens multiply in those not slated for redevelopment.

In a city renowned for its liberalism, many environmentally minded New Yorkers are surprisingly limited by the same far-sightedness I witnessed growing up. Certainly, we need to advocate for carbon emissions reductions, plastic straw bans, greener buildings, bike lanes and so many other things. But we also need to make sure, on a local level, that environmental reforms do not protect some more than others. As one environmental justice asked me (rhetorically), “Did these [liberal activists] ever come to our meetings? Do they even know what environmental justice is?”

It is time to think globally and to act locally, to ensure that stands against racism, climate change, environmental destruction – involve difficult, nitty gritty of everyday struggles for justice. Back in 1965, Scotland activist, Geneva Mason told the Montgomery County Planning Board, "You need people like us in the county as much as you need some of your white, rich people."

Her words echo those of Martin Luther King, Jr, who two years earlier wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Why is America so obsessed with breasts? Leslie Lehr offers up an excerpt from her new book BOOBS: HOW AMERICA'S OBSESSION SHAPED ME AND YOU. Read an excerpt right here!

When it came to having breasts, I was late to the party. While everyone in sixth grade was happily (don't ask me why) getting their bra straps snapped by boys, I was cringing in an undershirt. I didn't get my very first bra until I was in 8th grade and then it had the odious name of "training bra." Sometimes it was called a "Gro Bra," which seemed even worse. The one I bought was a size 32AAAA, a thin little piece of stretch fabric. And of course, I loved it. 

This is part of why I adored Leslie Lehr's new book A Boob's Life; How America's Obsession Shaped Me..and You.

From her prize-winning fiction to her viral New York Times Modern Love essay, exploring the challenges facing contemporary women has been Leslie Lehr's passion. In A Boob's Life: How America's Obsession Shaped Me... and You, Lehr's first project since breast cancer treatment, she continues this mission, taking readers on a wildly informative, deeply personal, and utterly relatable journey. With raves from Publisher's Weekly and KirkusPeople Magazine and Glamour introduced it in "Best New Books," Good Morning America has it their list of "Must-Reads," and ETOnline called Lehr a "trailblazing woman...changing the world." Salma Hayek is developing A Boob's Life as a TV comedy series for HBO Max.

A prize-winning writer, Leslie's books include What a Mother Knows, Wife Goes on, and 66 Laps, winner of the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Prize. Her nonfiction includes Welcome to Club Mom, Club Grandma, excerpted on and Wendy Bellissimo: Nesting, featured on Oprah. 

Leslie's is also the novel consultant for Truby Writers Studio.

And most importantly Leslie is my friend.

Read an excerpt from A BOOB'S LIFE RIGHT HERE! (And thank you Leslie.)

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

From the Nothing is Cancelled Virtual Book Tour: Paul Waters talks about Northern Ireland, writing, being from Belfast and his new novel, Blackwatertown



  The author's great uncle Mike (RUC District Inspector Michael Murphy) escorting Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth in Belfast city centre in the 1940s.

THE novel! Buy it now!

Portrait of the author in the real bBackwatertown


 Ah, yes, the Nothing is Cancelled Virtual Book Tour still exists! (Though most of my energy is now at A Mighty Blaze.) Here we are honored to host Paul Waters, author, journalist and broadcaster (check him out at talking about his new book Blackwatertown, about betrayal, family secrets and Northern Ireland. And it's wonderful. Thank you so much for being here, Paul! And for writing such a great essay here below!




What was haunting me as I wrote Blackwatertown, a crime thriller set on the 1950s Irish border, were the generations of secret policemen stretching back in my family history. They’re the inspiration for the book.

It’s not that they worked in espionage. They weren’t spies. It’s more that we never ever talked about it. It wasn’t safe. Growing up during the Northern Ireland “Troubles”, you learned to govern your tongue. And no wonder, when you consider what some in the family did: escorted royalty (that’s my sword-wielding great uncle Mike with the then Princess Elizabeth in Belfast), faked ambushes, arrested a Prime Minister, and covertly invaded the Republic of Ireland – though to be fair, that last one was an accident.

They were police before and after, north and south of the Irish border. But it was a forbidden topic of conversation - because loose lips can lead to a mercury tilt switch wired to explosives being hidden under your car overnight.

We were Catholics. And being Catholic in the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary added layers of complication. Catholics in general often felt alienated from what sometimes seemed to be an oppressive and discriminatory police force, especially when the political conflict turned violent. Meanwhile, Protestant officers sometimes felt suspicious of their few Catholic colleagues – a potential enemy within. Which made my own family members in the RUC very careful. Though the fraternity of being officers on the frontline together could outweigh the differences.

We kept a lot under wraps back then. School uniforms, for instance. My father would never start his car until every inch of uniform worn by his young passengers was covered up with long black coats. The regular route to school passed through a Protestant district of Belfast, where visible Catholicism might be spotted and noted, along with the car license plate.

Overall, we got off very lightly compared to others. When things did occur, as they did to many families, the trick was to never talk about it. Feign confusion. Be vague. Had it even happened at all? Occasionally the signs were as hard to miss as bomb damage.

Looking back now, I wonder how many were really fooled by our performance? But the “whatever you say, say nothing” lesson was firmly imprinted on me.

Which is one reason writing fiction did not come early or easily. As a BBC TV and radio reporter I’ve helped many other people tell their stories to the world. Not a problem – rather a privilege, a joy and sometimes a duty. But writing fiction reveals self. Opening up makes you vulnerable. And not just in the please-like-me/like-my-writing way.

That may be why I set my book Blackwatertown in the 1950s. It’s fiction, but draws upon real stories not recorded in the history books or reported in newspapers. Can anyone seriously still be angry or feel personally threatened by allusion to lawbreaking by the law enforcers so many years later? It turns out that the answers are yes, and yes. Maybe I should have tracked back another hundred years to be on the safe side?

The ‘50s feel like a forgotten time in Northern Ireland. BTV – Before TV. The 1950s were eclipsed by the assertiveness and noise and horror of the decades that followed. I’ve been gripped for years by the writing of Eoin McNamee and Maurice Leitch, who pick their way through the dreamworld before “the Troubles”. And I wanted to tell other tales from back then, that reflected the experiences of the family stories that haunted my imagination. They were too good to let be forgotten.

Inconvenient truths and misfits make good stories. Catholics in the RUC fit into both categories. Simultaneously not to be trusted in the most menial employment, (according to a Northern Ireland Prime Minister), while deemed to have the right stuff to escort a visiting king or princess. Or more relevantly, be shot at defending the state that deemed them inherently inferior.

My protagonist, Jolly Macken, is a Catholic police sergeant, demoted and banished to the sleepy border village of Blackwatertown after inadvertently surfing a long rock down a mountain into Northern Ireland’s loudest Lambeg drum and scattering an Orange march. RIP drum and exile for Macken. He’d rather be left alone to walk the Mourne mountains and fish for dollaghan. But over the course of a week in Blackwatertown he uncovers dark family secrets, falls in love, accidentally starts a war, and is hailed a hero and branded a traitor. There’s also the small matter of finding who killed his brother, even if that killer is a fellow officer. When Blackwatertown explodes into violence, who can Macken trust? And is betrayal the only way to survive?

It’s not all grim. Gallows humour is the funniest. Laughs can feel more liberating than the liberation struggle. Sicilian author Andrea Camilleri taught me that accidental nakedness perks up everyone.

But how did these stories, real and imagined, get their hooks into me as a child, when everyone around me was so secretive and close-lipped?

Somebody blabbed. Somebody always does.


Shout out another author:

I’m from Belfast. Thirty miles south is the small coastal town of Dundrum, home to author and guitarist Gerard Brennan. His latest book, Shot, is the start of a cool new contemporary crime fiction series set in Northern Ireland, featuring Detective Sergeant Shannon McNulty.


Shout out an indie bookstore:

If you’re ever in Belfast, you should visit the iconic and hospitable No Alibis Bookshop on Botanic Avenue. It’s Northern Ireland’s cultural hub and a magnet for writers from all over the world. The owner, David Torrans, was immortalised in Colin Bateman’s Mystery Man thriller. David claims he bears no resemblance to his fictional counterpart, but we know better. He also makes a decent cup of tea and has an online/mail order service for the latest in Irish crime, thrillers and mysteries.