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U.S. President announces national HIV/AIDS strategy

By Antoine Craigwell

(Tuesday, July 13, 2010) – Finally, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS) as a way of addressing the rising numbers of people in the U.S. who are HIV positive and living with AIDS.

President Obama meets with Jeffery Crowley, ONAP director.

Announcing the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, coordinated by the Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP), the president said in a letter, “Thirty years ago, the first cases of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) garnered the world’s attention. Since then, over 575,000 Americans have lost their lives to AIDS and more than 56,000 people in the United States become infected with HIV each year. Currently, there are more than 1.1 million Americans living with HIV. Moreover, almost half of all Americans know someone living with HIV.”

The country is at a crossroads with HIV as a domestic epidemic demanding a renewed commitment, increased public attention, and leadership, the president said. He said he challenged the Office of National AIDS Policy at the start of his administration to develop a national strategy with three goals: reducing the number of people who become infected with HIV; increasing access to care and improving health outcomes for people living with HIV; and, reducing HIV-related health disparities.

“To accomplish these goals, we must undertake a more coordinated national response to the epidemic. The Federal government can’t do this alone, nor should it. Success will require the commitment of governments at all levels, businesses, faith communities, philanthropy, the scientific and medical communities, educational institutions, people living with HIV, and others,” Obama said.

ONAP in its vision statement said: “The United States will become a place where new HIV infections are rare and when they do occur, every person, regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or socio-economic circumstance, will have unfettered access to high quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination.”

But leaders at the forefront in the fight against AIDS, especially in the Black community, suggest that the Strategy does not go far enough.

Phill Wilson, president and CEO. Black AIDS InstituteIn a press release, Phill Wilson, president and chief executive officer of the Black AIDS Institute, on his organization’s Website  said that the National AIDS Strategy represents a new day in the country’s nearly three-decade-long struggle against AIDS.

“For the first time, we finally have a national plan in place to guide our fight against the epidemic and to hold decision-makers accountable for results,” said Wilson.

Wilson pointed to the hypocrisy in the U.S.  AIDS policy toward other countries, which imposed as a condition to  receive AIDS assistance that they were required to have a national AIDS strategy, but America never had one.

“With no plan in place to mandate coordination between different government agencies or to ensure accountability, it is hardly surprising that we have an HIV/AIDS epidemic 40% worse than previously believed, with 1 in 5 Americans infected with HIV don’t know they have the disease, half or more of people diagnosed with HIV are not receiving regular medical care, and HIV rates in some communities worst than those found in some of the poorest countries on the planet,” Wilson said.

The new strategy provides a promising opportunity for Americans to get real about the shortcomings in its national response to the epidemic, he said. At a time when AIDS deaths are largely preventable, the government has provided only minimal leadership in making knowledge of HIV serostatus an essential social norm in the most heavily affected communities. And even though the face of AIDS in America is typically Black or brown, most people with HIV are forced to seek medical care from health providers who neither look like them nor understand the challenges they face. The new strategy provides a blueprint for changing some of these realities, and it is an opportunity we must energetically grasp, Wilson said in the release.

But, he said that while he praises the president for placing Black America front and center in his national HIV/AIDS strategy, AIDS in America today is a Black disease, which accounts for about 13% of the national population, with Black people making up half of all new HIV diagnoses. The AIDS death rate among Black males is eight times higher than for white males, while Black women are 19 times as likely to die as whites, he said.

Pointing to the limitations of the AIDS Stratefy, Wilson said, “If the new AIDS strategy is to succeed, it has to work for Black people. In reporting results, the Obama administration needs specifically to report outcomes for Black people. Only if prevention and treatment programs work for Black America will we win our national fight against AIDS. Unfortunately, the new strategy does not sufficiently address the issue of resources. Already, we are seeing many AIDS drug assistance programs impose caps or waiting lists for life-saving drugs. There are over 3000 people on ADAP waiting lists. This month, the President authorized a one-time funding increase for ADAP of $25 million, but this amount, while welcome, represents only about 7% of amounts needed this year alone to ensure the program’s continued solvency.

“At a time when we are largely losing the fight to prevent new infections, prevention programs currently account for only 3% of federal AIDS spending. To put available prevention weapons to effective use, experts estimate that annual prevention spending needs to increase from $750 million to $1.3 billion for at least each of the next five years. This new strategy offers a sound, evidence-based approach to better results, but it will be worth little more than the paper it is written on if we don’t follow through with essential resources.

“In difficult economic times, it is often necessary to make painful choices. As a country, though, we need to transition from AIDS “spending” to AIDS “investments.” By investing in cost-effective AIDS programs, we are investing in America’s families and helping young people remain productive contributors to society for future decades.”

Paul Kawata, executive director of the Washington-DC based National Minority AIDS Council (NMAC), in a statement said, “This is a historic time on many fronts. On the one hand, President Obama has made history today by being the first President ever to create a truly national strategy to deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The ideas contained in this plan are aggressive and would certainly go a long way toward combating what continues to be one of our nation’s most troubling public health emergencies.”

Kawata said he purposefully used the word ‘plan’ to demonstrate that without the funds to carry out the president’s ambitious agenda, it significantly short of a strategy.

“The blueprint is most certainly there,” he said. “But now our collective attention must shift to resources.”

He said that while the president can rightly lay claim to a historic and much-needed moment in the HIV/AIDS movement, history continues to be made each day as more people living with HIV/AIDS continue to join the ranks of those waiting to receive life-saving medicines. Tragically, this has become an issue of resources as well—an issue that has become an all-too familiar refrain in the battle against this disease, he added.

“We must look at this plan as a solid first step in achieving our ultimate goal: eradicating HIV/AIDS. Now the conversation must turn to implementation—and how we fund such an audacious goal. To ignore the difficult topic of HIV/AIDS funding would be tantamount to placing the president’s strategy in a shredder,” said Kawata.

But, Jeffery Crowley, ONAP director, in a statement posted on the ONAP Website said, “Today, Secretary Sebelius also announced that $30 million of the Affordable Care Act’s Prevention Fund will be dedicated to the implementation of the NHAS. This funding will support the development of combination prevention interventions. It will also support improved surveillance, expanded, and targeted testing, and other activities.”

Among the many items the Strategy calls for is a three-step process of reducing HIV-related disparities and health inequities, which include reducing HIV-related mortality in communities at high risk for HIV infection, adopting community-level approach to reduce HIV infection in high-risk communities, and reducing stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV.

The Strategy said that regarding the third step of this process, in the earliest days of the HIV epidemic, fear, ignorance, and denial led to harsh, ugly treatment of people living with the disease, and some Americans even called for forced quarantine of all people living with HIV. Although such extreme measures never occurred, the stigma and discrimination faced by people living with HIV was often extremely high. Even today, some people living with HIV still face discrimina­tion in many areas of life including employment, housing, provision of health care services, and access to public accommodations. This undermines efforts to encourage all people to learn their HIV status, and it makes it harder for people to disclose their HIV status to their medical providers, their sex partners, and even clergy, and others from whom they may seek understanding and support.

Time and again, an essential element of what has caused social attitudes to change has been when the public sees and interacts with people who are openly living with HIV. For decades, community organizations have operated speaker’s bureaus where people with HIV go into schools, businesses, and churches to talk about living with HIV. In the 1990s, both major political parties had memorable keynote speakers at their presidential nominating conventions that were living with HIV.

With Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and other civil rights laws commemorating their 20th anniversary this year, these laws have proven to be vital for the protection of people with disabilities including HIV. The Strategy calls for a greater commitment to civil rights enforcement and that to be free of discrimination based on HIV status is both a human and a civil right, “We know that many people feel shame and embarrassment when they learn their HIV status. And, there is too much social stigma that seeks to assign blame to people who acquire HIV. Encouraging more individuals to disclose their HIV status directly lessens the stigma associated with HIV. As we promote disclosure, however, we must also ensure that we are protecting people who are openly living with HIV.”

Working to end the stigma and discrimination experienced by people living with HIV is a critical compo­nent of curtailing the epidemic, said the Strategy document. People at high risk for HIV cannot be expected to, nor will they seek testing or treatment services if they fear that it would result in adverse consequences of discrimination. HIV stigma has been shown to be a barrier to HIV testing and people living with HIV who experience more stigma have poorer physical and mental health and are more likely to miss doses of their medication. An important step is to ensure that laws and policies support current understanding of best public health practices for preventing and treating HIV.

“While we understand the intent behind such laws, they may not have the desired effect and they may make people less willing to disclose their status by making people feel at even greater risk of discrimination. In some cases, it may be appropriate for legislators to reconsider whether existing laws continue to further the public interest and public health. In many instances, the continued existence and enforcement of these types of laws run counter to scientific evidence about routes of HIV transmission and may undermine the public health goals of promoting HIV screening and treatment,” the Strategy document said.

To reduce stigma and discrimination experienced by people living with HIV, the Strategy document recommends that communities be engaged to affirm support for people living with HIV: Faith communities, businesses, schools, community-based organizations, social gathering sites, and all types of media outlets should take responsibility for affirming nonjudgmental support for people living with HIV and high-risk communities. The promotion of public leadership of people living with HIV: Governments and other institutions (including HIV prevention community planning groups and Ryan White planning councils and consortia) should work with people with AIDS coalitions, HIV services organizations, and other institutions to actively promote public leadership by people living with HIV. The promotion of public health approaches to HIV prevention and care: State legislatures should consider reviewing HIV-specific criminal statutes to ensure that they are consistent with cur­rent knowledge of HIV transmission and support public health approaches to preventing and treating HIV. And, strengthening of enforcement of civil rights laws: The Department of Justice and federal agen­cies must enhance cooperation to facilitate enforcement of federal antidiscrimination laws.

July 13, 2010 Posted by | African-American News, Black Gay Men, Black Gay Men Health, Black Men, Black Men Health, Caribbean, Caribbean Community, community, death, depression, Economy, Elderly LGBT, Health, HIV, HIV Status, LGBT community, LGBT Immigrant rights, LGBT Rights, LGBT Seniors, Male Health, Mental Health, mental illness, Obama, Politics, Public Health | Leave a comment

U.S. HEALTH CARE REFORM of 2010

President signs Health Care Reform Bill into law

Key Improvements for People Living with HIV and AIDS in

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010

Health Care

On March 23, 2010, President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (“PPACA”) into law. Shortly thereafter the House and Senate amended the statute through the reconciliation process and we now have a final health care reform bill.  PPACA is the most comprehensive reform to the United States’ health care system since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. While PPACA does not offer everything the HIV community had hoped for in health care reform, it does create tremendous opportunities for improving access to care and treatment for many people living with HIV and AIDS. The most important new health care access opportunities for people with HIV and AIDS are as follows:

Medical symbol

Public health insurance (Medicaid/Medicare) improvements

  • Eliminates the Medicaid disability requirement and provides access to Medicaid to individuals and families with income below 133% of FPL in 2014 (currently income below $14,403 for an individual and $29,326 for a family of four)
  • Eliminates the Medicare Part D “donut hole” by 2020, provides a $250 rebate for donut hole costs in 2010, and requires pharmaceutical companies to provide a 50% discount on brand-name drugs in the donut hole beginning in 2011
  • Counts ADAP contributions toward the Medicare Part D’s True Out of Pocket Spending Limit (“TrOOP”) starting in 2011

Health Care

Private health insurance improvements

  • Increases access to private health insurance by reducing discrimination based on health status or gender – prohibits pre-existing condition exclusions and lifetime limits on coverage in 2010, and charging higher premiums based on gender or health status in 2014
  • Increases scope of coverage through a new mandatory benefits package that among other benefits includes prescription drugs, mental health and substance abuse treatment, preventive care and chronic disease management in 2014.
  • Increases affordability through subsidies for people with incomes up to 400% of the federal poverty line (“FPL”) (income up to $43,320 for an individual and $88,200 for a family of four)
  • Creates an individual mandate requiring uninsured individuals to purchase insurance beginning in 2014Health Care - Doctor and infant

Other key reforms

  • Invests in prevention, wellness and public health activities
  • Invests in efforts to reduce health disparities
    • Supports the clinical workforce with an emphasis on the needs of underserved communities

Health Care advocate protesting

Moving Forward with Future Reform Efforts

Despite the impressive progress that PPACA will make toward improving health care for people living with HIV and AIDS, the future is certain to bring continued challenges in health care access, quality, and cost.  Many of PPACA’s most important reforms, including the Medicaid expansion, will not occur until 2014. Thus, advocacy will be necessary both to encourage new reforms, and to provide health care access for those who are uninsured or underinsured during the transitional period before the reforms fully take effect.  PPACA will provide unprecedented opportunities to improve health care access, affordability, and quality for the HIV/AIDS community.  It is crucial that we fully take advantage of PPACA and continue to work toward a future of high quality, equitable, and sustainable health care for everyone in the United States.

President Obama listening to medical professionals

Prepared by staff of the Health Law and Policy Clinic of Harvard Law School and the Treatment Access Expansion Project. For more information contact Robert Greenwald at.rgreenwald@taepusa.org

March 31, 2010 Posted by | African-American News, Black Gay Men, Black Gay Men Health, Black Men, Black Men Health, community, Economy, Health, HIV, HIV Status, LGBT community, Male Health, Obama, Politics, Public Health | Leave a comment

Bank stoops low: sneaky stealing

Okay, let me explain, because while some may agree with the headline above, others may see it as inflammatory. So, for those who disagree, I leave you to arrive at your own conclusion.

On Friday, Mar 6, I received a check drawn on an out of state bank account for $300. With only $1.35 in my Chase Manhattan Bank account and knowing that my Time Warner Cable would be suspended for non-payment, I was eager for the check to clear. After depositing it, I left the teller’s window and looked at the deposit receipt, which did not indicate when the entire amount would be available. I was later informed that, even though tellers are supposed to notify customers and have it printed on the receipt when their funds would be completely available, if the deposit is $300 or more, the customers are also, according to Chase, expected to ask when the funds would be available.

The next day, in keeping with a banking regulation was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives back in 2005, $100 was available. From conversations I’ve had with “back office” Chase employees, including those who have worked at the institution for many years, when a customer deposits a check, usually, the entire amount, because of our electronic age, is available to the bank but held by them and turned over – that is, sold, loaned and “interest-ed,” earned interest for the bank. Banks claim holds and other dubious circumstances to delay making the funds available to customer who are told that their funds would not be available, especially for an out of state check, for four to five business days. For an instate check, funds could be available in two to three business days. Business days do not include Saturday, Sunday or holidays; these are working days, Monday to Friday.

Short on food, I went out the next day $100 empowered and spent $48. Then just as I expected, Time Warner suspended my service. That night, I called in a check payment for $106 to the cable company and my service was restored. Having done this type of payment before, I had an idea or a rough guess of how long the Time Warner check payment would take to clear and I figured that by that time, the out of state check, the $200 balance would also clear and keep me solvent. That didn’t happen and is still in dispute as to when – it came down to a time determination- did the balance clear and the cable check hit my account. Nonetheless, I noticed that Chase hit me with a $25 insufficient funds fee, also called an NSF fee. Still thinking I had funds in my bank account, I treated myself to a $6 McDonald’s breakfast.

That is when it all went down hill. My account was overdrawn and I was in the red for 23 cents. Hurrying to the Chase branch at the corner of Broadway and 165th Street, I spoke with the branch manager, asking her about the $25 fee. Not wanting to have a negative balance, I scrounged up $3 for a deposit, and as I was standing in the line waiting to be restored to good standing, I asked the manager about being charged another $25 because my account was over by .23 cents. She assured me that when the charge hit, she would remove it, because she had the authority to remove NSF fee charges on negative balances less than $3. But then, accepting that I miscalculated, an automatic payment of $19.99 to Verizon also hit my account, which forced my account into a further negative balance of $17. The next day, I deposited $504 and saw my balance reduced to $486, and the next day I deposited another check for $880. This time, when I made the two latter deposits I enquired when they would be available and was told the next day. Confident in my new found wealth, I went shopping for necessities. But on Thursday, when I looked at my statement online, I noticed that there was a $64 NSF fee charged to my account. I hastened once again to the bank and enquired from the manager. She explained that the bank’s policy was that more than an initial NSF charge, $25, was charged at $32, and the $64 charge consisted of $32 for the .23cents and for the negative $17. I proceeded to remind her of the discussion and the assurance she made the previous Friday. After much wrangling and derogatory comments and saying she would have to take the loss at her branch because she made the promise to refund the NSF fee, she reluctantly reversed the charge.

But, what struck me was that without knowing, Chase had not only charged me $32 for a negative .23cents, but that the charge had been automatically increased from $25. The manager, referring me to a thick booklet containing Chase’s policies and procedures in 8-point print, stated that any amounts that go into a negative balance, regardless of how much, even if one cent is charged $25 or $32. When I pointed out that people designed the system which automatically charged customer, she found it difficult to accept that concept, which enabled Chase, under the guise of legality, to gouge its customers. Now, I wonder how many customers, who do not carefully monitor their bank balances or statements, does Chase fleece in such a flagrant manner. There are those who say that what Chase is doing is the fundamental of capitalism, that it is, a bank is in the business of making money. But, isn’t that same philosophy that has caused the financial sector to be in so low, corporate greed?

March 20, 2009 Posted by | Blogroll, community, Economy, Washington Heights Community | , , , | Leave a comment

Reflections: Mr. President Obama

Could this be true? America has a Black president

There is an emotional catch in my throat as I look and listen to all the commentaries and analyses, historical comparisons to Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, who was spot on when he said the U.S. would have an African-American president in 40 years; and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who suggested a Black president in about 25 years, and contemporary parallels: the economic crises with Bank of America needing money to help them stay afloat; the three automotive industry giants needing money to keep more than half a million employees and subsidiary concerns, two of them forecasting being unable to stay in business come March; the second half of the promised $750 billion appropriated as a financial bailout of the finance sector: people are asking where has the first half gone, has it evaporated?There is no evidence financial institutions have resumed inter-bank lending, that businesses have been getting the advance credit they need to operate and produce, and an average 500,000 homes per month are going into foreclosure, there has been no mortgage renegotiation.

In recent days, there has been no mention of the issue of immigration. It was touching indeed to see his paternal grandmother who traveled from Kenya sharing the dais. Obama himself knew that without the strong support of the Hispanic community, who had grown to despise the Bush administration for the draconian immigration policies and renditions, the Berlin-like wall along the border between Mexico and the U.S.; that he would not have won.

Looking at television close up shots of the faces of people who had gathered on the National Mall, many men and women whose eyes welled with tears, many women their mascara running – haven’t they heard of waterproof mascara, or for many for whom the tears brim over their eye lids, like the waters of Lake Pontchartrain cresting the banks of the levees and inundating the basin below – sliding down their cheeks? Tears which hold not just the salt from their bodies, but the expectations commingled with longing, for all those who are Black in America, who struggled and endured ignominies and humiliations of every kind, yet did not live to see this day, when a Black man is president. The tears flow as many think of those Blacks who still endure slave like conditions, whose lives are inextricably bound to their white counterparts, and who dare not murmur a word or breathe a sigh of discontent or disagreement for fear of a disengagement or termination, which would reduce them to penury.

In a commentary on the eve of the Inauguration on BBC America’s Notes to Obama, national poet Maya Angelou said that she was not presenting a poem, she was presenting ruminations or reflections of what an Obama presidency means to and for her. She said that while the nation needs him, it is he who needs us more.

“We need him, the race needs him, the banks need him, and the economy needs him. He brought to us something we cannot live without, hope. He offers us the chance to have a great president, with whom we can identify, not as a Black president, but a president who would speak for the voiceless, for the poor black, poor white and for the disadvantaged Hispanic person.

I believe he needs us more than we need him. I believe that each of us has to do something more. I believe that we Americans deserve the most we can get. I will work alongside being of use and I will look for you working alongside, being of use,” she said.

During the Inauguration, when Obama took the oat of office, was there a hint of petty vindictiveness and partisanship, even subtle racism? Could it be that because Obama opposed John Roberts’ confirmation as Chief Justice, that Roberts felt to get back at Obama, to fumbled the words of the oat of office while the world looked on, as if to remind the President that he is still subject to the White establishment? Roberts’ subsequent apologies to the President, even re-administering the oat of office, have only highlighted the shadow of incompetence of the Bush administration, but which with tiny wisps and tendrils are trying to reach out to contaminate the new administration. What a mark on an historic and memorable day. Did anyone see the television close up of Obama’s expression during the fumbling? No doubt if it hadn’t been re-administered, constitutional lawyers would have had a field day on the legitimacy of the President.

As he promised, Obama has issued executive orders closing Guantanamo Bay within a year, which while keeping a campaign promise to the American people and assuaging the Islamic world, opens up other problems: reports suggest that some of the detainees would be brought at imprisoned at Levanworth prisons, which is on U.S. soil and places the detainees under the dictates of the Constitution: is there justification to holding them, how are the rules of evidence applied and exercised, what proof is there of involvement or collusion, except for some of the 250 detainees, who were held on hearsay or suspicion, and what about the Patriot’s Act? He has also ordered troops home within 16 months, and outlawed torture.

January 22, 2009 Posted by | African-American News, Black Men, Blogroll, community, Economy, Obama, Politics | 1 Comment

Reflections: Obama – A President

Election: hope and change mantra

As the celebrations from the night, when it was announced that Sen. Barack Obama, by majority of the electoral college and later confirmed by pronouncement by the combined houses of the legislature, had won the elections and was named President-elect, had given way to the stark reality of daylight, in Washington Heights trees lining the streets were festooned with toilet paper hanging from branches as if it was the morning after a festival, presenting a surreal image as if New Years had arrived early on November 5.

In a country steeped in racism, both subtle and overt, what really does an Obama win actually mean for Americans: Native Americans, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Whites? What did his win against a weakened religious conservative political right mean for immigrants, those from Central and South America, from the Caribbean, from Africa, from Asia, minor and major?

Did the White majority in the country say that by electing a Black man as president that they have moved pass the bigotry for which they are known, that they now recognize that Black people are capable of thinking, of governing, of being responsible and are not lazy, lay-abouts, welfare dependents? Is the White establishment now saying that they are willing to take orders from a Black man, consoling themselves by the fact that the president is half Black and half White, and that they had in fact voted for his White half?

As a friend, Clarence Reynolds, a book editor and an English professor at Brooklyn College in Brooklyn said while watching the results come in from across the country that he felt overwhelmed by the experience that here is a Black man becoming president of the United States.

“I’m excited that this will change the psyche, the way people think, the way they see themselves and the way they are perceived. For Black people, this would give them an opportunity to rethink their attitude and a newness of pride in themselves, to at least pull their pants up,” he said.

Since bursting on the national stage at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, his star has continued its meteoric rise. Large crowds have followed him since he declared, speaking to both whites and Blacks, in a statement that single handedly removed the stigma attached to educated Blacks and challenged the perception that only whites are educated – that a Black child reading is not acting white. Obama’s charisma has drawn crowds, from the time of his announcement that he was putting himself forward as a candidate for the presidency in Springfield, IL, to his acceptance speech in Denver, CO and to his gracious victory speech in Grant Park, Chicago, IL on the night of November 4.

Everyone agrees that not only is the country eager and desperate for a change, but a startling phenomena is the perceptible shift in the American attention span: more than 83 million people watched his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention at the Mile High Stadium in Denver, CO, millions watched on their televisions and an estimated 125,000 people crammed into Grant Park to hear his victory speech, which was not as gloating as one would have expected from a contest that celebrated negativity, divisiveness, and attacks ad hominim; but was magnanimous and conciliatory, saying that those who did not vote or support him should know that change has come to America. And, for Americans known for their sensationalist mentality, Obama has not faded into the background of politics as usual. Rather, on Sunday, November 16 an estimated 24 million viewers looked on as he was interviewed by Steve Croft on the CBS Sunday magazine, 60 Minutes. Surprising too, as Gwen Ifill commented in the Newshour on PBS on the following Monday evening, that contrary to the politics as usual where politicians are known to shift or change their messages in the interregnum, after they are elected and sworn in, that Obama has remained true to his campaign messages and reinforced them in intended executive orders: an uncompromising stance on closing the U.S. military base at Guantanamo in Cuba, forbidding torture as a U.S. military practice so as to restore America’s morality on the global stage, and his withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Puzzling, however, is why he chose not to attend the global leadership summit held in Washington, D.C. over the weekend of November 14 – 16? As usual there would be speculations, but interestingly enough, none of the main news outlets have ventured to comment on his absence except for brief mentions that he would not be attending. Is it that he wanted to ensure that when he contacts those heads of state that his interaction is free of the blight and the dross of the incumbent, soon to be former president? Was the meeting just simply window dressing, since even in the communiqué produced by the 20 heads of state, no decisions were made until when they meet again in April and by which time Obama would be present? By not attending the G-20 summit, did Obama miss out on an opportunity to meet his major global counterparts, or did he prefer not to seen in George Bush’s embarrassing shadow?

According to Neil Ferguson being interviewed by Matt Frei on BBC World News-America on Monday, November 17, alluding to Obama’s absence from the G-20 summit not being particularly helpful, he said that with the global economy in crisis and with a protracted American transition period, the world needs immediate action and intervention, and everyone was looking to Obama to pick up the reigns of leadership. Ferguson said that Bush’s comments at a speech on Wall Street in New York on Friday, November 14, where he spoke of support for a “free market system” literally sounded a death knell for that system, and suggested that anything Bush touched turns to ashes.

If this was truly a more global village, how many people from around the world would have joined lines, like Americans did on Election Day, to exercise their vote, their democratic right, and perhaps, the fact that they want to vote is a cry from the hearts of those many who long for the winds of democracy to blow in and through their respective countries? But what responsibilities does Obama have to the rest of the world?

No doubt Obama knows that is he bound by the shackles of his race, his paternal ancestry in Kenya, who are looking to him to make changes, as if he is the American representative of Africa in America, of those who in America claim association with him because of his skin color to lift them up not so much with a wave of his hand, but more of doing what he promised, after he himself has witnessed and experienced the suffering, downtrodden state, and systematic disenfranchisement of those like him in America; he has the sword of Damocles hanging over his head, a sword of extraordinary expectations from a nation and a world tired of duplicity and forked-tongue speaking, where promises are made with ulterior motives, brazen as they are revealing that they weren’t made in the best interest of those to whom they were made, and though he has good intentions, he would be beset by a machinery that has been grinding inexorably for more than 20 years, producing in the nation’s capital corruption, deceit, and secrecy. Really, rot at the core. And, as he assumes office, he himself would be stepping into this mire. The hope, a word which he has been trumpeting throughout his campaign, is that he would not be sucked into and be consumed by the god-like or quasi-monarchial status conferred on a president, but rise above it, perhaps hovering over the muck, to effect change, another word in his campaign mantra.

January 20, 2009 Posted by | African-American News, Black Men, community, Economy, Obama, Politics, Washington Heights Community | Leave a comment

Experiencing a Food Pantry, is it for me?

I stood on the uptown platform on Christmas Eve afternoon with two food-laden blue plastic bags waiting for the #1 train to arrive. Two women I recognized as being where I had just left, came toward me, heads bent and with bags hanging from each of their hands, their blue bags encased in upscale shopping bags, hiding the fact that they had just come from one of the city’s food pantries on the Upper West Side, where they were able to get raw packaged and canned food supplies to take home to their families. A thought flashed through my mind, in these days, what is it to be ashamed of if a person has to go to a food pantry for assistance and to augment their food stocks? It is necessary to get food where ever one can, with out too much hassle or cost.

This experience may seem mundane or ordinary to some, and to others, unusual, as it undoubtedly was for me. But when I considered the recent announcement by New York Governor David Patterson that he would make available $1 million to assist food pantries in the state, then the idea of going to a food pantry didn’t seem all together too much of a issue, except it would if I put pride before my stomach.

With economic constraints around the city hitting non-profit organizations, the governor’s announcement may be welcome news to those non-profit organizations with food pantries who have seen a significant drop in donations from individuals, other organizations and corporations; some may complain it’s not enough to provide for the burgeoning number of unemployed or under paid people seeking help with basic food, and some may not be able to accept it, because they no longer have pantries. But I wonder, with hundreds of food pantries in existence and many more organizations starting them as a social response, akin to the era of soup kitchens, but with less overhead and operational commitment; how much out of the $1million would any food pantry statewide receive to effectively stave off people clamoring for help and facing empty shelves? In this experience, I realized, that whether or not a person was employed, accessing the services of a food pantry is not restricted to the unemployed, but is equally available to those whose income makes it necessary for them to find other means of supplementing their food; putting pride or social status aside in the interest of obtaining food, especially if its free.

Rewinding to about an hour and a half before I stood on the uptown subway platform, at about 12:30 pm, I had followed a suggestion from one of my friends and headed downtown to the food pantry to see if I could get help with food. Taking the #1 train from my stop at 168th Street, I disembarked from the downtown #1 train at the 86th Street and Broadway stop, walked west to the corner of West End Avenue to the church of St. Paul and St. Andrew.

I walked resolutely through the misty rain, tiny drops of water falling from an overcast sky, remnants of ice and snow littered the sidewalk. I approached the wrought iron green-painted box like enclosure with steel steps leading down to a basement under the massive concrete structure of the church where a young Latina woman was closing the gate after escorting another woman out. When I enquired about the food pantry, she replied that the pantry was closed for lunch, from noon to 1:00pm and suggested that if I wanted pantry services, I could wait inside the church. A sign connected to the wire meshing detailed the pantry’s hours of operation, Monday to Friday, 8:30 am to 12:00, and 1:00pm to 3:00pm.

As I had no umbrella, and my only protection against the December cold and rain was a wool hat and a pea coat, I took the young lady’s advice and sought shelter in the church. When I entered the building through a side door, I felt as if I was suddenly transported to another place: inside the shadows seemed darker and deeper, and the silence noticeable. Where was anyone, I asked myself? Wandering around unhindered, I found myself in the church, proper; I had in fact entered into a vestibule cum office or reception area. The church seemed cavernous, its pews were aligned at a slight angle, not the traditional straight forward looking to the front set-up, but a semblance of a semi-circle, as if embracing the vacant sanctuary ahead. Above in the darker gloom of the church’s barrel vaulted ceiling, the occasional patches of white revealed where the darkened, sooth stained paint had peeled, and over the sanctuary was a large gray banner with black letters speaking to harmony existing between brothers and sisters. The yellow or gold stained glass windows that lined the walls, in three rows at differing heights, all bore similar generic patterns at each level, but which in themselves were devoid of character, except one, which showed a man kneeling before another who was seated throne like, and carried a plate below crediting the family who donated it to the church.

When the time arrived, I ventured out of the church’s warmth and protective gloom into the rain, and walked to the green painted steel steps, descended and through a door, entered into a vast hall. Pausing mid stride, I looked around, oriented myself, my senses attuned, observing, analyzing and processing this new experience. At a table in front of an opening which led to an office, a woman stood there as if guarding the objects on the table, which were a sheet that clients sign and a stack of clip boards with application forms with bank styled chain-attached pens affixed to the metallic clasp. I asked the woman, who struggled to speak and be understood in English, what to do as a first timer to the pantry. She pointed to a sheet of paper, said I had to sign in and then handed me an application on a clip board. The application itself asked questions which included, race, social security number, date of birth, income, employment status, and so on. I thought, the only thing missing from this application is a box to tick off that I was willing to provide a specimen for DNA and that with the social security number and date of birth, as well as name, address and phone number, I may as well be giving away my identity for the sake of food.

After I’d completed the application, writing on the social security line a bold N/A, not applicable, I waited for a short moment and was invited by another Latina woman to sit in a chair in front of a desk, where she proceeded to conduct an interview. Before she began, I was asked to sign my name on another sheet of paper, which she explained was to log the clients seen by a counselor. I never knew what was the purpose of signing my name on the first sheet of paper, perhaps that was also a log to count the number of people who had entered the pantry, and perhaps the two log signings was to see if there were any discrepancies, between the clients who had come to the pantry and those who had actually entered the pantry.

The counselor mentioned that the information on the application was not shared with anyone, but was used by the organization for statistical purposes, to determine the number of clients, and to assist with coordinating the food supply. What became apparent by the end of the interview, was that the counselor simply wanted to verify that the person sitting before her was the same person who filled out the application for assistance. Not once during the interview did she look at the form, but asked questions that were already asked and answered on the form, boxes ticked off and lines written on, such as what was my apartment number, my date of birth and if I had completed college and possessed a four-year degree. Then she asked if I had medical insurance and if not, would I be interested in a hospital offering low rates, at which suggestion I added that I didn’t want another bill. But thought to myself, who was she kidding? A low cost hospital in New York City? I wondered what this organization was getting in return for the hospital referrals.

When she was finished with the interview, she reached over to a side of her desk and selected a plastic badge holder with a blue sheet of paper on which was printed a shopping list, of sorts, where instead of prices, there were points alongside the items. As briefly as possible, the Latina counselor explained what little she knew of the pantry’s food points system, as in what form are the vegetables, canned or loose, and what quantity constitutes how many points, questions she couldn’t answer, but referred me to one of the attendants in the pantry, and told me that I was only able access the pantry’s services once a month. It also occurred to me that there were different color lists for families of different sizes; one woman had a yellow paper list, which allowed her to collect food for her and her family of three, and another had a green papered badge, which allowed her different food allotments.

The actual pantry was a study in independence. This was a pantry unlike others with which I was familiar, where you are handed a plastic shopping bag with food the distributing organization thinks you should have. Here, clients entered a large room containing metallic shelves laden with packaged and canned food, a loose vegetable area, and two large upright glass sliding door cooler, one containing dairy products and the other with various types of meat. On one side of the pantry were glass panels, where anyone in the pantry area could clearly be seen and monitored by the staff from the outside. Based on the plastic badge colored paper shopping list, a client selected what he or she wanted from the shelves.

Being a novice to this experience, one of the pantry’s attendants accompanied and assisted me in choosing items from the list that were on the shelves. When he saw I had understood the system, he left me to continue selecting, but hovered behind me to ensure I had really got the hang of the pantry. Because I was a single man, my shopping list was blue, only allowing food for one person. According to the list, I could only get three cans or three pounds vegetables worth three points; two one pint bags of rice and a box or oats, worth three points; dairy, meat, and fruit, one point each. I was allowed to have pasta, but on a shelf was a single box of spaghetti, which I reached for, but quickly retracted my hand. The box had been opened. The attendant assured me that it was okay, but when he saw my hesitation, he said I didn’t have to take it and that the staff would put the box of opened spaghetti in a plastic bag, tie the top, and place it back on the shelf where someone else would take it. I looked at him in horror, thanked him for his help and turned away.

While I was selecting food items from the shelves, I checked the ingredients of many of the canned foods for mono sodium glutamate, MSG, or other types of preservatives. I was determined to scrutinize each can to ensure that, not because I was getting free food, I had to have unhealthy food. I looked at one can of tomato sauce and noticed that there was a supermarket price label on it. It occurred to me that for many food pantries around the city, when they have reached below their established threshold level of food, donated, they actually go out and buy food from supermarkets to augment their stocks.

When I had completed my selections, I arrived at a long aluminum covered table where two women, dressed in aprons, performed a simulated supermarket check-out, except there was no cash register, moving conveyer belt or card scanner. The older woman who had given me the application at the beginning was there to check me out, looking through my blue bag to ensure that I had taken my blue shopping list allotment, nothing more or less. Noticing that I was new and unfamiliar to the pantry and since it was Christmas Eve, she offered me two additional cans of Campbell’s Tomato Soup and a box of assorted herbal teas. My foray into the world of food pantries and donated food complete, I left the pantry, climbed the green metal stairs to the street and headed across Broadway to the subway entrance and to wait for the train on the uptown platform.

January 5, 2009 Posted by | African-American News, Black Men, Blogroll, community, Economy, Food Pantry, Free Food, Washington Heights Community | , , | Leave a comment