Inspired and ReWIRED: How a TV star is becoming a change agent

Many months ago I blogged about my affinity for the HBO series The Wire, which portrays gritty urban life on the streets of Baltimore, with an ongoing focus on the city’s drug wars.  The series has won deserved critical acclaim, and now it appears to be sparking positive social change.

The Boston Globe reports that Sonja Sohn, the actress who played Detective Shakima Greggs on the series, has founded a non-profit organization, ReWIRED for Change, that “tries to help youths in underserved communities.”  Sohn is working with a local activist to create a school curriculum that uses episodes of The Wire:

For almost a year, one of the show’s stars has been working with a Boston community activist to create a curriculum based on “The Wire’’. The program would gather a group of young people already involved in the criminal system or at risk of being drawn in, and for at least five hours a week for at least six weeks, show them episodes.

In an interview with the Globe, Sohn talks about how her own background has fueled her desire to take this path:

I think my own experiences inform me more than anything … My family loved me and if you have love that’s the difference between someone becoming a sociopath and someone having a shot at the end of the day. I was loved, but there were bases that weren’t covered. There was a certain amount of emotional neglect outside of the home, there were abuses which led me to [experiment] with the drug life. When the idea for this organization came up and when the idea for the program came up and when I started to facilitate the program every step of the way it became more and more obvious that I was basically born to do this … This was one of the most profound purposes of my existence.

People discover their missions in life through a variety of circumstances.  Here, an individual’s own life experiences and her dramatic portrayal of a Baltimore detective combined to inspire a brand of grassroots social entrepreneurship that addresses the very despair and hopelessness reflected in some of the most gut-wrenching episodes of the TV series.

Maria Cramer’s article in the Globe about ReWIRED: http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2009/10/29/the_wire_sparks_a_connection/

Globe’s interview with Sohn: http://www.boston.com/news/local/breaking_news/2009/10/qa_actor_see_th.html

A Flu Tale of Intellectual Bullying?

One form of bullying, shunning, and isolation that doesn’t get enough attention is what happens to folks in academic and research positions who take a position that happens to collide or conflict with the conventional wisdom.  In the hard sciences especially, but in the social sciences and humanities as well, history shows us that life can get mighty uncomfortable for those who question the prevailing views within their disciplines.

Such appears to be the case in the debate over flu vaccinations.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not someone who swears off all vaccinations.  Many years, I’ve taken the seasonal flu shot, and I believe I’m up to date on whatever other shots I’m supposed to have.  Furthermore, as I explain in more detail below, I’m petrified of a deadly flu pandemic.  However, I’ve experienced some flu-like days after taking the flu shot. More generally, I also have concerns over the mounting number of obligatory and semi-obligatory vaccinations, as well as the pharmaceutical industry’s role in generating demand for their products.

They dared to question

It was with that attitude that I approached a lengthy article in the November issue of The Atlantic, “Does the Vaccine Matter?,” highlighting research that questions the efficacy of flu shots and claims made by drug manufacturers about their effectiveness.  Health writers Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer describe some of the medical establishment’s reactions to researchers who are challenging the dominant orthodoxy.  This article does not adopt the worldview of the hard-core anti-vaccine faction; it simply questions whether flu vaccines do what they claim to do.

For example, it cites the work of physician and researcher Lisa Jackson, who led a 2004 study concluding that the flu vaccine may not have any effect in reducing mortality levels.  One authority on influenza and vaccines is quoted as labeling her research “beautiful” and “classic studies in epidemiology.”  And yet she was warned by others that “no good” could come of her research.  Top-ranked medical journals would not publish her work.

The article also references the work of physician and researcher Tom Jefferson, who has challenged claims that a flu vaccine can reduce all deaths by 50-90 percent.  In his view, it would be a “miracle,” not a vaccine, for something to produce such a result.  Jefferson has been shunned by other colleagues at professional gatherings due to the positions he has taken.

Fallout

In the blogosphere, some of the reactions to the piece have been sharply critical, especially concerning references to Tom Jefferson.  Effect Measure states as part of a long response:

Unfortunately by taking as their main example flu vaccine during a pandemic, they have not only picked the wrong example but created more confusion at a time when there’s already too much.

…I understand the rhetorical value of having a martyr-hero [Dr. Jefferson] when pitching a story, but this was a particularly irresponsible time to pull this stunt.

And here’s a snippet from another long commentary, this one in Respectful Insolence:

At or near the top of the list has to be a biased and poorly framed article that appeared in The Atlantic this month. I tell ya, I’ve been a subscriber to The Atlantic for at least 25 years, and for the first time ever I’m seriously tempted to let my subscription lapse when it expires early next year. In the 25 years I’ve been a subscriber, I’ve never seen such a credulous, irresponsible piece of “journalism” appear in The Atlantic.

(Comment 18 is a lengthy response from Brownlee and Lenzer.)

Inconvenient conclusions

I am hardly qualified to use any public medium to preach a hard position on the flu vaccine question, but as an academician I do understand how research and scholarly communities might attempt to bully, shun, or ignore those whose work leads to unpopular or inconvenient conclusions.  The “go along, get along” attitude all too often prevails in the world of ideas, and those who confront conventional wisdom  — even when backed by research and analysis — may well find themselves marginalized by the dominant group.

The process is understandable, if not defensible: In the realm of research and scholarship, one may build an entire career around staking a claim to certain bodies of knowledge and scientific conclusions.  Especially in fields related to science and health, there may be a lot of money at stake as well.  Those who make wild claims from the “fringes” can be easily ignored, but when others come along and back their challenges with research studies, that’s when invested Powers that Be may start resisting and even lashing out.

Both ways, at times

Of course, some who oppose vaccination can get awfully strident as well.  Though I question some of the motivations of Big Pharma and researchers who shill for them, I’m alarmed at wholesale criticisms of a form of preventive care that has saved lives (smallpox or polio, anyone?) and with harsh attacks directed at legitimate researchers whose work happens to come out on the side of vaccination.  (“An Epidemic of Fear” by Amy Wallace in the November issue of Wired magazine aptly raises those concerns and makes a case for getting the flu shots.)

Still and all, genuine bullying requires a power imbalance, and in health and medicine, that balance tips strongly in favor of the medical establishment.  Many conventional wisdoms defended by that community have fallen by the wayside over the years, so perhaps we should not be so quick to dismiss those who question long-held beliefs about the effectiveness and safety of various prevention, treatment, and care options.  (Remember a time not so long ago when antibiotics were being dispensed willy-nilly?)  Those who question the efficacy of flu vaccines may turn out to be wrong, but they appear to have raised credible concerns.  Maybe that very credibility has triggered such an aggressive response.

Sidebar:  Lest readers think I’m taking the flu question too lightly because I’m acknowledging criticisms of flu vaccines, I assure you that for years the possibility of a flu pandemic has scared the daylights out of me.  In fact, the commentary that really shook me up over the weekend was Robin Cook’s piece in Foreign Policy, in which the good doctor and thriller writer posed the scenario of the swine flu and bird flu mixing together to create an influenza pandemic that would rival the 1918 outbreak or even plagues of centuries past.

Of course, online comments to that piece have dismissed Cook by saying he’s simply trying to sell books.  I don’t think he needs the money, but it’s easier to believe that than to imagine the possibility he wrote about.

Work on TV: Glee-ful portrayals of bullying at school and work

Glee, Fox TV’s musical comedy-drama about a high school glee club in Ohio, has been tagged the new “feel good” hit of the Fall season.  With an ensemble cast recruited largely from the Broadway stage, it mixes sharp humor, the pathos of high school life, and plenty of song & dance numbers.

Glee also gives us a big helping of school and workplace bullying.  The glee club members are bullied mercilessly by some of the “in” kids at school.  Members of the football team routinely give “slushie facials” (dumping or tossing Big Gulp-ish frozen drinks) to glee club kids, including to teammates who joined the club because they happen to like both football and singing.

There’s more bullying at the faculty level, where a messed up cheerleading coach obsessively plots the demise of the glee club and their director.  Just like many real workplace bullies, the coach’s destructive activities at work are fueled by dysfunctional aspects of her life in general.

Mainly through humor (some of it hilariously over the top), Glee gently tackles topics such as peer pressure, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and disability.  And because the glee kids happen to be pretty talented, they ultimately become the stars, performing with enthusiasm, skill, and heart.

On occasion Glee takes a time out to make a point.  In the most recent episode, the football team’s quarterback, who also is in the glee club, has been given an ultimatum by his coach:  It’s either football or glee, but you can’t do both.  The young man approaches his coach and says:

I see a future where it’s cool to be in glee club.  Where you can play football and sing & dance and no one gets down on you for it.  Where the more different you are, the better.

It’s a nice scene, delivered in an understated way.  If you’re long past high school but remember what it was like, it may make you wince to think how many kids have been pressured into making choices that ultimately denied them a chance to explore all of their intellectual, artistic, and athletic interests.

In the real world, life is not a musical; bullying at school and at work cannot be brushed off with a rousing closing number.  But that’s no reason to dismiss the feel-good messages of Glee, including the importance of pursuing one’s passion even if others aren’t into it.  Now there’s a lesson for kids and adults alike.

(Perhaps art does indeed reflect life: New episodes of Glee will return following the World Series on Fox.  Go Yankees!)

Worker health on the decline, study indicates

Boston Globe correspondent Maggie Jackson reports on a study indicating that worker health is on the decline, and that worker morale and engagement are likely to be among the casualties.

As the national health care debate heats up, a timely report from the nonprofit Families and Work Institute details the worrying effect of a stressed-out, time-strapped, overworked era. Too many of us are fat, sick, sleepless, and inactive. Just 28 percent of US workers say their health is excellent, down from 34 percent six years ago. And businesses are suffering as a result, not simply from rising costs for health care. Workers in poor health are less likely to be loyal, engaged, and satisfied with their jobs, the findings show.

Of course, the recession is a significant aggravating factor.  New York Times reporter Louis Uchitelle, whose coverage of the human consequences of the recession is worthy of praise, recently wrote about the personal and economic impact of a 50 percent pay cut experienced by an airline captain:

The dark blue captain’s hat, with its golden oak-leaf clusters, sits atop a bookcase in Bryan Lawlor’s home, out of reach of the children. . . . He is now in the co-pilot’s seat in the 50-seat commuter jets he flies, not for any failure in skill. He wears his captain’s stripes, he explains, to make that point. But with air travel down, his employer cut costs by downgrading 130 captains, those with the lowest seniority, to first officers, automatically cutting the wage of each by roughly 50 percent — to $34,000 in Mr. Lawlor’s case.

Jackson’s Boston Globe article, “Sick, on the Job”: http://www.boston.com/business/articles/2009/10/18/workers_health_suffers_as_trying_economic_times_ratchet_up_job_stress/

Uchitelle’s New York Times article, “Still on the Job, but at Half the Pay”: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/14/business/economy/14income.html

“What makes a great job?”

I Googled this question and here are three of the hits:

1.  From Fast Company magazine (2007), five questions:

Does the job reflect your passion?
Will you have a great mentor?
Will you have opportunities to learn a lot, fast?
Does the job encourage rapid change?
Is the company either an EOC or an FPW? (You’ll have to read the full article to learn what they mean!)

For the full article, go here.

2.  From the Movin’ On Up blog (2007), a poll with 280 respondents to the question, “What’s Most Important When You’re Looking For a Job?”

Compensation level 14%
Location 5%
Job description 10%
Work environment 40%
Scheduling – getting the hours you need 12%
Benefits 11%
Company reputation 6%

For the full post, go here.

3.  From Today’s Workplace Blog (2007), an amalgam of observations and links, but featuring the work environment at Google, winner of that year’s Fortune 100 best places to work survey:

The very best company selected, Google, didn’t even exist a decade ago, but has quickly developed a reputation as a great place to work — so much so that they receive 1300 resumes a day. It’s partially the perks: free meals with 150 feet of every desk, swimming spa, and free doctors onsite. And those are just the most noteworthy. But those who work there also say it’s the culture: “Life for Google employees at the Mountain View campus is like college. It feels like the brainiest university imaginable – one in which every kid can afford a sports car (though geeky hybrids are cooler here than hot rods).”

For the full post, go here.

Curious about why these pieces ran in 2007?  Consider what happened the next year…

HR Survey Says: Majority of U.S. Workers think their Bosses are Dishonest

“A majority of U.S. workers do not think their bosses are honest, said a survey released on Tuesday, and one in four would fire their boss if they could,” reports Ellen Wulfhorst, writing for Reuters.  The survey found that “53 percent of workers do not think their boss is honest, a similar number do not think their boss is fair or patient and two-thirds do not think their boss is loyal.”

The survey was done not by some labor union looking for ways to organize new members, but rather by the Adecco Group, a human resources and recruiting firm.

Even keeping in mind that a public opinion survey is a group snapshot subject to a margin of error, this is cannot be seen as a healthy assessment on the state of American employment relations.

Full article (via Yahoo!): http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20091013/lf_nm_life/us_workplace_survey

Now online and taking members: International Association on Workplace Bullying and Harassment

Great news!  The International Association on Workplace Bullying & Harassment (IAWBH), founded in 2008 at the 6th International Conference on Bullying and Harassment at Work held in Montreal, has launched its website and is accepting membership applications.  The IAWBH describes itself this way:

We are a group who seek to stimulate, generate, integrate and disseminate research and evidence-based practice in the field of workplace bullying and harassment. Through this effort we seek to promote fairness, justice and dignity at work for all.

IAWBH’s founding board includes:
Charlotte Rayner (president)
Michael Sheehan (secretary)
Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik (treasurer)
Helge Hoel(conferences and events)
Premilla D’Cruz (special interest groups)
Annie Høgh (web and newsletters)
Ståle Einarsen

IAWBH Website: http://www.iawbh.org/

In an early blog post, I reprinted an essay that I wrote about the 6th International Conference that culminated in the founding of the Association: https://newworkplace.wordpress.com/2009/01/01/immersion-in-the-twisted-world-of-abuse-at-work/

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