Sarah Morrison

Choosing fear over kids


As a global treaty designed to protect children around the world celebrated its 20th anniversary last month, the United States found itself in the sole company of Somalia as one of just two countries that still has not implemented the most widely ratified human rights treaty in recorded history.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), available for adoption since 1989, has now been ratified by 193 nations around the world and is seen as a universal guide to helping governments ensure that the basic needs of children are met. Although the Reagan administration played a major role in drafting the convention, experts say it has now been “intentionally misinterpreted” by conservative groups, which claim implementation would threaten American sovereignty and diminish family values.

The convention is set out in 54 Articles and two Optional Protocols and covers four main objectives: nondiscrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child. During last year’s presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to review the treaty, saying: “It is embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land. It is important that the U.S. return to its position as a respected global leader and promoter of human rights.”

Yet since Obama has been in office, there has been little movement toward ratifying the convention, which sets international standards in the provision of children’s health care, education, and legal, civil, and social services. For children’s rights advocates, this failure of the U.S. to legitimize the rights of the child has resulted in the country’s loss of credibility in the international community.

“It just undermines us internationally as a leader of children’s issues,” said Jo Becker, Advocacy Director for the Children’s Rights division at Human Rights Watch, one of more than 200 organizations partnered to the volunteer-run Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the CRC. “The U.S. is a country that claims to care a lot about children, both nationally and internationally, but it hasn’t ratified a treaty endorsed by virtually every government in the world. It doesn’t make any sense at all.”

But while Meg Gardiner, current chair of the Campaign for U.S. Ratification, acknowledged that the U.S. customarily takes a long time to consider and ratify a treaty of any sort, she noted that implementing the convention is also being delayed by frequently misdirected and misguided concerns from various individuals and organizations.

The CRC is a legally binding treaty, and once the U.S. ratifies the agreement — by getting two-thirds of the Senate to approve it — it is committed to undertake actions and policies to reach the standards it advises. The government must submit a detailed report to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, which is made up of 18 members from different countries and legal systems, within two years of ratification and every five years thereafter.

The committee reviews the progress of each country’s government, then sends recommendations back to the country in question. Although U.N. officials claim that this is a collaborative process, not one that is antagonistic in form, opposition groups view this as a risk to U.S. self-governance.

“A forum for dialogue is fine, but we absolutely do not support the notion of world government,” John Schlafly, a lawyer at Eagle Forum, a conservative interest group that is campaigning against U.S ratification of the CRC, told the Guardian. “We think America is a self-governing country and that we should make our own laws. Our courts and officials should not be subject to decisions and viewpoints of those in other countries, but remember that our Constitution is our supreme law.”

Quoting Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution — which says that all treaties made under the authority of the United States shall be “the supreme law of the land” — Schlafly said if the CRC is ratified then the U.S will sign away any authority it has over children’s rights, with federal laws being changed to meet the criteria in the CRC.

But Jonathan Todres, an associate professor of law at Georgia State University and coeditor of a book on the CRC and the possible implications of its ratification, told us that’s a “misunderstanding” of the process involved. He said the CRC would almost certainly be ratified as a “non-self-executing treaty.” That means that although the U.S will have to comply with international law, it would not take effect domestically until the U.S. adopts legislation to fulfill treaty obligations.

He added that the United States also has the right to add reservations to the treaty if there are any articles that might conflict with U.S. law. For example, Article 37 of the CRC indicates that no “life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offenses committed by persons below 18 years of age,” something that certain states in the U.S still impose.

Despite supporters’ desire for a “magic bullet” that will improve the lives of children in the U.S., they said the treaty will operate as a template for the government to assess how well U.S. law protects children. While Article 24 decrees that “states parties shall strive to ensure that no child is deprived of his or her right of access to … health care services,” ratification will not mean an immediate implementation of universal health care for the 8 million to 9 million children who do not have access to it, campaigners say.

“It in itself can’t change law. It is a road map that informs a dialogue around the way we treat children,” said Vienna Colucci, managing director and senior advisor for policy for Amnesty International. “It is a set of principles for the well-being of children, to help inform national discussions about what they really need to thrive. But any implementation of laws go through the same process any bill would.”

The U.S already has ratified the two Optional Protocols of the Children’s Convention, including the protocol on the sexual exploitation of children and enlisting children as soldiers, strengthening the exploitation protocol by adopting the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Todres said this should be used as an example of what ratifying the entire CRC could do.

Many who oppose the CRC fear it will diminish the rights of the parent, such as when it comes to disciplining children. Article 9, which says children can be separated from their parents against their will when “competent authorities subject to judicial review” determine it is in their best interest, is often cited as a loss of parental freedom.

In March of this year Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) put forward a brief Parental Rights Amendment to the CRC, asserting that “the liberty of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children is a fundamental right,” and deauthorizing the ratification of a treaty that would infringe on such rights.

According to Michael Ramey, spokesman at — an organization that claims to “protect children by empowering parents” and an affiliate of the Home School Legal Defense Association — the amendment currently only has six cosponsors in the Senate, a far cry from the two-thirds majority it would need to pass.

“This really is not a question of whether the CRC is all that bad or kind of bad. It is whether it is an improvement for us on what we have now,” he told us. “We already have laws in place against child abuse and neglect in all 50 states and we don’t gain anything by ratifying. None of the good parts of the convention are missing from U.S law.”

However, Todres said the U.S still has child laborers, citing a current bill in Congress that is seeking to strengthen child labor provision related to the agriculture sector. He also reminded opponents that the U.S has a relatively large high school dropout rate, with some U.S children going hungry and hundreds of thousands at risk of sexual exploitation each year.

“Ultimately if one is concerned about the loss of parental authority, then one should look at the text of the CRC itself,” he said, highlighting 19 provisions in the text that stress the role of the parent in the child’s life. “Drafters understood, when ensuring the rights of children, they would be most successful when ensuring the rights of the family too.”

Although there are other articles in the convention that conflict with American law — it prohibits corporal punishment, for example — Linda Elrod, a law professor at Washburn University and supporter of the Campaign for Ratification, said she had not experienced countries receiving “report cards” from the U.N. Committee in the 20 years it had been operating.

“My reason for supporting it is that it is basically a bill of rights for children that says they are people,” she said, stressing how Article 12 in particular gives the child a voice and a way to express it. “We helped draft the U.N. convention and got the rest of the world to adopt that standard. Yes, it gives children rights, but I don’t think this takes away from anyone else’s rights. It just adds a balance.”

Shades of green


Can "green" consumerism help "green" the planet? In other words, can we spend our way to a better future? Or is the demand for more environmentally benign products and services just a way of making people feel better while delaying capitalism’s inevitable day of reckoning?

To explore these questions, consider the San Francisco Green Festival, the second-most attended green festival in the world and what organizers say is the country’s largest sustainability event. More than 40,000 people and 350 companies visited the eighth annual festival, held last month at the San Francisco Concourse Exhibition Center.

The emphasis of the event was on the power of purchasing. Just about everything was for sale, from fair-trade chocolate and hemp sweaters to paper journals made from Sri Lankan elephant dung. Certified "green" companies were happy to spend from $5,000 to $100,000 for their stalls and passersby shopped for guilt-free gifts. But critics of the trend question whether green consumption is ever better than no consumption at all.

"I believe we are getting to the point of urgency. We are beyond incremental reform and need significant structural change," said Brahm Ahmadi, cofounder and executive director of People’s Grocery. "What we really need to do is fundamentally shift the level of consumerism — not just shift into the consumption of more sustainable things — but realize that we need to consume less as a society."

The 2008 Living Planet Report, produced by the World Wildlife Fund, indicates that our global footprint now exceeds the world capacity to regenerate by about 30 percent. The report notes that if demands on the planet continue at the same rate, by the mid-2030s, we will need to the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles.

Ahmadi said trade-show events like the Green Festival can function as a good point of entry for people interested in reducing their own ecological footprint, but added that they don’t go nearly far enough in addressing the problem. They may even hinder people’s understanding of what needs to be done.

"The problem is that the words "green," "local," and "sustainable" can be used interchangeably now. They have become another sort of brand element in marketing," he said. "If this festival is the first step in a multistep strategy on how to change the planet, then that is great. But impressions aren’t set up in a way that puts the consumer on the path to a longer-term perspective."

For example, the Green Festival isn’t local. Although festival organizers say it promotes local companies that make green products, a spokeswoman admitted that about 40 percent of the exhibitors reside more than 150 miles from the site — the criteria one must meet to be deemed local by the festival.

Kevin Danaher, founder of Green Festivals and the cofounder of Global Exchange, told the Guardian that the festival costs almost $1 million to put on and makes $10,000–$30,000 in profit each year. He stressed that the aim of the event is to accelerate the transition to a green economy, an economy he says "will make better profits by saving nature rather than destroying it.

"We are trying to take enterprise away from big corporations and redefine it," Danaher continued. "For us, free enterprise should mean the freedom for everybody to be enterprising, the realization that alternative business models can make better profits than traditional ones."

Although Danaher claims the festival is an "enterprise-based event that encourages people to consume less," he believes it’s better to meet consumer demand with a green-mind business than leave it to be filled by a multinational corporation. "We know that people buy socks, toilet paper, and cat litter, and they can either buy the crappy corporate stuff or the good, green, socially-responsible stuff. That’s the choice," he said.

But Ahmadi sees a flaw in this premise. As long as progress is measured and defined by economic growth — the neverending requirement of the capitalist system — society will continue to fall short of sustainability targets, no matter what kind of products people buy, he said.

"At some point there is a threshold, even for green products, when the net benefits of producing the product will be surpassed," he said. "We need to go back to the framework that the economy is currently based on. At the moment, perpetual growth is the only way to assign value. But this linear way of thinking is dangerous to the sustainability of the planet. We must define value differently."

More than 125 speakers attended the event, including Democracy Now! founder Amy Goodman, nutrition expert Marion Nestle, and Mayor Gavin Newsom. Some even emphasized the tension inherent in staging the festival.

"It’s a good thing and a bad thing. People leave more conscious and aware, but they also leave a tremendous footprint getting here and leaving," said CEO of Gather restaurant Ari Derfel, who spoke on the main stage in front of a piece of art made from a year’s worth of his own trash. "People do engage in gross consumerist behavior. But they also get engaged with some companies that are doing incredible things."

Although he added that a green future must go beyond that represented at the Green Festival, he acknowledged that it represents the period of transition we now live in. "We can’t go from A to Z without touching on all the letters in between. And we are still in a consumer-based, material goods economy. We couldn’t make one wholesale swoop in one day."

Yet for Derrick Jensen, environmental activist and author of Endgame — a book that questions the inherently unsustainable nature of modern civilization — events like the Green Festival don’t really address the real problems at the center of the sustainability movement.

"I don’t see it as a transition," said Jensen, who made a speech at the event a few years ago. "It is not nearly sufficient. Now there is an attempt to add the word "green" before something and pretend that we’re actually going to make a significant difference. But this is problematic."

The problem, as he sees it, is that attendees simply learn to accept the existing economic system — and even believe it can become sustainable. They come to think that buying the right socks or toilet paper is helping to save the planet.

"Where is the overtly revolutionary material?" Jensen asked. "Where is the acknowledgement that capitalism needs to come down, or the discussion of the psychopathology of those in power? They talk only of alternative economies, but look what happened to every alternative economy — they get taken over and consumed by mainstream culture."

Jensen added that the notion of basing a revolution on changes to personal consumption is not only inherently flawed but dangerously misinformed. "This sort of festival is based on the mistaken notion that personal consumption represents a significant portion of the economy," he said. "In reality, 1,600 pounds of trash are produced per capita. If I reduce that to zero, it’s great. But per capita waste production by industries is on average 26 tons. That is 97 percent of all waste.

"This festival can make you feel good for one day, but then you just go back to normal life," he added. "And in some ways, it’s a real distraction. It makes people identify as consumers rather than citizens who have a whole range of resistance methods rather than just to buy or not buy."

Although Danaher stressed that each company at the festival went through Green America’s screening process — where they are subject to almost 250 questions analyzing their true social and environmental impact — Jensen said even "green" products often rely on the wasteful industrial system to be manufactured and transported.

"It is not difficult to see. You just can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. The hyper-exploitation of even renewable resources won’t last, by definition. For any economic system to be sustainable, it has to benefit the land base it is based on."

Many of the companies at the event had obtained Green America’s sought-after Seal of Approval, which takes into account issues including the company’s manufacturing and marketing of products, as well as treatment of employees and effects on surrounding communities. At the same time, certain corporations that didn’t meet those criteria, like eBay, were invited anyway and labeled "corporate innovators."

Hamler said these are corporations that are moving toward social and environment responsibility, and they are still subject to a very strict review. Noting that only 60 out of every 300 corporations make the cut, she emphasized the changing nature of markets and the place for corporations within them.

Yet for Ahmadi, the very idea that large corporations can be a part of this change is misleading. "Even if a majority of their product line is green, the global ecological footprint of a corporation will almost always be beyond measure," he said. "The notion of consolidated corporations is counter to the diversity we need to create an equitable and sustainable economy."

While the Green Festival offsets the carbon emissions of its organizers and hosts carbon-offsetting companies, it doesn’t pretend to be a carbon-neutral event that covers anywhere near all its vendors and attendees. Indeed, environmental activist Josh Hart said that the system of carbon offsets — whereby people, companies, and states can claim to reduce their carbon emissions by investing in carbon-friendly projects elsewhere — represents yet another move in the wrong direction.

Hart went to festival as a representative of Cheatneutral, a satirical company that claims to offset romantic infidelity by paying someone else to be faithful. He said he wanted to expose the "pink elephant in the room" that no one else seemed to discuss at the festival.

"Offsetting is just another way of using the psychological technique of denial. It says you can carry on as normal but pay someone else to be green. This is the wrong approach and it is a fiction, not a reality," he told us. "The festival is putting itself forward as green, but people are doing this really unsustainable thing: flying out to the conference from all around the country for a few days and then leaving. This acts as a greater disservice to what we really need to be doing."

Although Lee did not yet know the carbon emissions total from this year’s festival, she said the five green festivals from last year produced about 900 tons of carbon –- the equivalent of roughly 355 roundtrip cross-continental flights — not including electricity, product consumption, or local travel.

But for Hart, this number represents a "massive underestimate" of the true carbon footprint, considering the number of people who attended the San Francisco event alone. He said the festival should take into account all the people who flew to the event, including company representatives and ticket-buyers, not just festival staff.

"The CO2 from a roundtrip flight from New York to San Francisco is around 2,280 kg, the equivalent of running a refrigerator for more than 22 years. It’s more than running a car all year," he said. "It’s staggering, really, how much carbon flying emits, and how incompatible aviation is with anything purporting to be green."

He added: "I think this issue goes straight to the battle over the heart of the green movement. Are we going to tell people that going green is easy and gloss over the difficult realities? Or are we going to be honest about the science that tells us that dramatic changes in lifestyles are required, in particular how we get around and what we consume?"

Yet for activists like Jenson, the extent to which the festival is carbon neutral is insignificant compared to the role the festival could play as a catalyst for future action.

"It is not the role of the activist to navigate systems of oppressive power, but instead to confront and take down those systems," Jensen said. "The point is, as far as an event like the Green Festival explicitly puts itself up as part of a larger culture of resistance, then I don’t have a problem with it. But if it suggests that in any way it is remotely sufficient to what we’re facing, then we have a problem."

Listen to the community


The HIV/AIDS support community celebrated when President Barack Obama recently lifted the 22-year long U.S. travel ban against people infected with HIV. But officials say the federal government is still deaf to local needs and not making the best use of scarce resources.

The U.S. Conference on AIDS, held Oct. 29-31 at the Hilton San Francisco Hotel, attracted more than 3,000 AIDS treatment and prevention professionals and emphasized the unmet needs of the most at-risk communities.

"By extending the Ryan White Care Program and by lifting the ban, Obama has made a lot of people very happy," said Ravinia Hayes-Cozier, director of government relations and public policy for the National Minority AIDS Council, which sponsored the conference. "But we have to continue to do things differently here, to do things better, and to let the rest of the country know about the epidemic that is in all of our communities."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 56,000 Americans become infected with HIV each year — one every nine-and-a-half minutes — and more than 1 million people living with HIV in the U.S.

Despite these figures, community workers said little movement has been seen on the domestic side in the last eight years and that federal funding often fails to fund the full range of services people need.

"The CDC wants to see deliverable results in the fight against AIDS, which is understandable," said Alfred Forbes, a holistic consultant who led a workshop at the conference on how support and quality of life services have been neglected. "But I believe it has come to the point where we have missed our missions. A lot of organizations are more in touch with the federal funding in their pockets than their own communities."

While Obama’s 2010 budget request includes an estimated $25.8 billion for HIV/AIDS activities, only 4 percent of that is allocated toward domestic HIV prevention, thanks to the emphasis on more traditional care services.

"In the early days of epidemic, most of the work was done by the community, and we would try everything," said Karl Knapper, a program manager at the SF-based nonprofit Shanti. "But while it’s easy to look at results for providing care for people with HIV and AIDS, preventing it is very hard to prove — it’s like trying to prove a negative."

An organization that understands this problem well is the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, an agency that offers one of the oldest syringe exchange services in the country, a program banned from receiving federal funds.

"There is proof this program is saving lives. Before these services were available, 16 to 19 percent of new HIV-infections were caused by sharing syringes. But now in San Francisco, less than 1 percent of new infections are caused this way," said interim vice president of programs and services Keith Hocking.

Of the 28,114 cumulative AIDS cases in San Francisco at the end of 2008, 94 percent were male, 4 percent were female, and 1 percent were transgender persons. Seventy percent of male AIDS cases were among men who have sex with men.

Yet when a San Francisco group working to prevent HIV transmission among all gay and bisexual men created what it thought was a powerful publicity campaign five years ago, it got vilified in Congress and lost its federal funding. "We produced materials that we thought were appropriate for our constituents, and it was a disaster," said Kyriell Noon, executive director of the STOP AIDS Project. "They called it pornography and indecent. But to be perfectly honest, community norms when talking about sex are different in gay and bisexual communities.

"We have to meet the community if we are going to have any effect on the epidemic," Noon continued. "But there is a real disconnect between what we know is effective and what the government wants to fund."

The federally funded Ryan White Program, which covers underinsured individuals living with HIV/AIDS, got $2.3 billion this fiscal year, a $54 million increase over last year. While the CDC has increased funds for HIV prevention by the same amount, many community-based organizations must rely on the San Francisco Department of Public Health to fund less traditional services.

In July of this year, SFDPH allocated $11.5 million for HIV prevention, with $5 million coming from city and state funds. Dr. Grant Colfax, director of HIV Prevention and Research at SFPDH, said community partnership is crucial when tackling the disease.

"We work closely with the community planning council and base our priorities on what communities want and need," he said. "But I really do think it’s progressive to be able to hold ourselves accountable for the preventive methods we use. We do have to show it works."

"There are lots of different opportunities for funding, but we can’t afford to fund everyone," said CDC spokesperson Nikki Kay. "Community-based organizations must apply competitively."

Marching on Chevron


GREEN CITY Although the 250-seat Roxie Theater auditorium was filled to capacity for the Nov. 1 screening of the controversial film “The Yes Men Fix the World,” the real action took place on the city’s streets when audience members took the film’s anticorporate message directly to an oil giant’s door.

Activists from Global Exchange co-organized the San Francisco film premiere to protest alleged human rights abuses and environmental devastation by Chevron Corporation, California’s largest corporation and the fifth largest in the world. The theatrical protest followed the film and ran from 16th Street to a Chevron station at Market and Castro streets.

Antonia Juhasz, director of Global Exchange’s Chevron Program, introduced the film, riling up the crowd when she said, “After viewing this film, we will be so inspired we won’t know what to do with ourselves. But we need to take this energy and direct it toward affecting change.”

The film chronicles the exploits of “Yes Men” Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, following the pair as they perform various publicity stunts in an attempt to illustrate the greed and corruption of the free-market system and draw attention to their progressive causes.

Currently being sued by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for recently staging a fake press conference on global warming, the duo have been called world-renowned troublemakers because of antics like announcing live on BBC that the Dow Chemical Company would finally clean up the site of the Bhopal, India, gas leak and compensate the victims.

Although the film does not directly reference Chevron, it aspires to hold corporations accountable for impacts to the communities they operate in. Juhasz said that although Chevron spends billions of dollars on advertising campaigns, it operates with blatant disregard for the environment.

Chevron spends less than 3 percent of its expenditures on alternative energy, operates a coal company, and is among the world’s largest corporate contributors to global warming, she said.

“We want to link communities in the struggle against this corporation, demanding policy changes and building pressure where Chevron operates,” Juhasz said. “By targeting one company, the whole industry is affected and eventually energy policies can be changed.”

The procession was led by protestors dressed as Chevron officials, cleaners, and absurd imaginary products. “Today we are demonstrating what Chevron is actually doing,” said Rae Abileah, grassroots coordinator for CodePink, the antiwar group that participated in the event. “We are just showing what a mockery this all is and that we can rise up as people to transform our world.”

As “I Will Survive” blared from speakers, the procession had a party-like atmosphere that attracted bystanders. Larry Bogad, an associate professor at UC Davis, came up with the concept and told us that “by using surprise, humor, imagination, and protest to engage people, we can stimulate thought and draw a deeper and wider attention to the issue.”

For David Solnit, organizer with the Mobilization for Climate Justice, the unusual nature of the event was exactly what made it so effective. “We are taking a popular film that deals with corporate power and trying to break down the barrier between consuming media and taking action,” he said.

Bichlbaum, one of the film’s stars, attended the protest and spoke about the importance of the grassroots movement. “If I can do it, anyone can … You need your feet and a bunch of friends. That is much more important than a business card.”

Juhasz said the destination for the procession was a symbolic choice. “This is an independently-owned Chevron station. The target is not the station, but a theatrical event to draw attention to the issue in the spirit of theater and fun.”

Although he didn’t attend the event, the station’s owner, David Sahagun, told the Guardian: “Employees told me that the crowd was well behaved and did a good job making their point.” As former president of the San Francisco Small Business Network, he stressed the struggles of locally-owned businesses in the face of large corporations and said he was “trying to be a community partner”

Chevron officials did not return calls seeking comment.

Poor turnout


The Guinness World Record for the largest mobilization of human beings was recently broken when 173 million people demanded that their governments eradicate extreme poverty around the world. But U.S. media barely noted the call and San Francisco’s event had low attendance, suggesting an uphill struggle for the cause in the world’s richest nation.

Millions gathered at more than 3,000 Stand Up, Take Action events in 120 countries Oct. 16-18 in an attempt to put pressure on governments to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, but less than 30 people gathered on the steps of San Francisco City Hall to support the movement.

Sup. John Avalos was one of the speakers at the event, organized by a coalition of local activist groups and student volunteers. Admitting that he was "expecting it to be a little bigger," Avalos said the event was just the start of what needed to be a much larger movement by the American people.

"There is a strange phenomenon occurring at the moment. It’s as if people are a little bit asleep about the need to be active," Avalos told the Guardian. "Because we have an administration they view as being more supportive of human rights and economic and social justice, people are being lulled into thinking things will just get better."

Standing just a short walk away from the birth place of the United Nations, Avalos bought attention in his speech to the rich history San Francisco has in mobilizing social change. "We do the best to live up to it, but we have a long way to go. Around the world this is the time to uproot poverty — we try to provide a safety net, but it could be stronger."

The Stand Up, Take Action, End Poverty Now! campaign is in its fourth year and is organized by the UN Millennium Campaign in an attempt to raise awareness of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a series of benchmarks designed to eradicate global poverty.

At the United Nations Millennium Development Summit in 2000, 189 world leaders promised to "end poverty by 2015." The eight goals include eliminating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) has authored or coauthored every major piece of legislation dealing with global HIV/AIDS issues since she was elected to Congress. She told the Guardian that MDGs must be placed in context with poverty in America. "Sometimes people argue that we must look after our own first, but my position is that if you look at the eight Millennium goals, they all apply to our own country too," Lee said. "Look at the plight of people who are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS in our country — especially in African American and Latino communities.

"With the economic downturn, poverty rates in America are soaring, putting more people into circumstances the MDGs focus on outside of America," she continued. "I think it really is important to make those connections."

Lee compared the foreclosure crisis and lack of regulation in the financial markets over the last eight to 10 years to the "wild West" and calls America’s 47 million uninsured a "moral disgrace."

"It is about priorities and political will, and this will be determined by the voices of people saying it must be done," she said. "People have to push for these changes and remember that it didn’t just stop with the election. We have to raise awareness while at the same time working on changing policy. Otherwise we can get stuck debating issues and not doing the work that has to be done to change these very deplorable conditions."

Sup. David Campos was the only other supervisor to speak at the Civic Center event. He said he is committed to the fight against global poverty and wants to see the government represent the values San Francisco was founded on.

"We need to shed light and bring attention to one of the largest issues facing the world today — severe poverty," Campos said. "I really believe that as a city, as a state, and as a country, we not only need to make sure we push the U.S. to follow the lead of other countries, but actually become a leader in making these Millennium goals a reality."

After the event, Campos told the Guardian: "It doesn’t surprise me that more people didn’t show up to the event. But part of the task is to spread the word. San Francisco has been a leader in a number of these issues in the past, and I think we should play a key role in this one."

Campos said that one solution might be to put forward a resolution before the Board of Supervisors to support MDGs and have the city take a formal position on it.

"It is definitely something we are talking about to demonstrate San Francisco’s commitment to the issue," he said. "A lot of people don’t know about the goals, or the fact that the U.S. hasn’t really made them a priority. We need to spread the word and let people know this kind of a movement is only going to be a success if people take it upon themselves to play a leadership role."

Brian Webster, a volunteer who organized the SF event, drew attention to the large number of supporters for the MDGs in California. More than 250,000 people have signed up for the One Campaign, a global NGO that partnered with the U.N. Millennium Campaign in the events.

"For campaigners, it is now a matter of trying to join together and identify vast strategies to communicate what needs to be done," Webster said. "We will continue to educate communities, politicians, and civic leaders in what can be done this month, in the next six months, and ultimately, in the next six years."

While the Bush administration rarely mentioned MDGs while in office, many activists believe President Barack Obama’s public recognition of the goals at a recent U.N. summit demonstrates a change in American policy.

"In other countries, there has been more education and awareness about the goals. But here in America, it is almost like we are starting eight years late," said Anita Sharma, the North American director for the U.N. Millennium Campaign. "President Obama has said that the MDGs are American goals and has even talked about his plans for achieving them."

Also, despite the low numbers at the San Francisco event, Sharma says more than 190,000 people from North America participated in last weekend’s campaign, an increase of more than 70,000 from last year’s attempt.

"It’s not like Americans don’t care about global poverty — in fact we give more in charitable contributions than any other country in the world," she said. "It just takes quite a lot to get Americans into the streets and mobilized. There needs to be more education out there, that’s all."

Ananya Roy, a UC Berkeley professor of city and regional planning and education director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies, says she doesn’t think MDGs can be achieved worldwide by 2015. Even so, she stressed the important role they played in the framework of development.

Speaking at UC Berkeley’s Stand Up and Take Action Event, she said: "The goals are important because they are seen as a new global social contract that makes issues of poverty and inequality quite urgent. They also come with measurements and targets, which is meant to create accountability."

Roy placed particular emphasis on the eighth goal: building a global partnership for development. She noted that that increased awareness can change the ways the U.S. and European governments operate in terms of aid and trade.

"This multilateral contract requires more than simply the action and leadership of the U.S. and Western Europe," she said. "We need to think about poverty and inequality that is immediately around us, understand how we are involved in the production of depravity, and then we must act in solidarity.

"We need to be thinking about poverty as it exits here in the U.S. and not just as an abstract problem that belongs to someplace else," she added. "It is also our problem."

According to a 2009 U.N. report, progress toward achieving the MDGs has been slow in some cases and certain achievements have been reversed by the economic downturn. The report estimates that there will be 55 million to 90 million more people living in extreme poverty than anticipated before the crisis.

For Chandler Smith, media coordinator for the One Campaign — which campaigns for better development policies and more effective aid and trade reform — the Guinness certification marks progress toward achieving the MDGs. "That this year is breaking another world record speaks to the power of people to organize around the world, shows that we are a global community, and that there is a sustainability in the movement," he said.

"As for the North American aspect, we are always trying to educate people more about these issues. Our results show that a lot of our work has been done — but that we also have more work to do."

H1N1, round two


The H1N1 virus has already taken a deadly toll in San Francisco, and is expected to hit young people harder than any other group this fall, San Francisco public health officials warned.

Although the virus, also known as swine flu, is reportedly no more serious than conventional strains of flu, health officials told the Guardian that the number of young patients contracting the illness could be significantly higher due to a lack of partial immunity against the strain.

"In terms of the severity of the illness, we are not seeing a difference at all between normal and H1N1 swine flu," said Susan Fernyak, director of communicable disease control and prevention at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. "Yet while a lot of people have partial immunity to seasonal influenza, most people have no immunity from this virus.

"It might not have a higher transmission rate or be any more severe, but we are predicting more illness in the community," she added.

According to Fernyak, vaccinations will soon become available for "high-risk individuals." These include pregnant women, health care workers, people between 25 and 64 with underlying chronic health disorders, and everyone between the ages of 6 months and 24 years.

In late August, the Castro District community was left in shock when 41-year-old Doug Murphy, co-owner of Moby Dick and the recently opened Blackbird bars, died after contracting the H1N1 virus.

Blackbird co-owner Shawn Vergara spent most of his working life with Murphy and shared the same birthday (Aug. 3) with his friend. He said the community was left speechless at the loss of such a prominent and important member.

"It is a tragic loss for us here at Blackbird, and we are suffering terribly from the death of our friend," Vergara said. "We thought he had a cold and had absolutely no idea how serious it was. People should be careful and just use good common sense when taking precautions from this virus."

Although people over 65 are usually the ones who require hospitalization or die from conventional strains of flu, younger people have been most affected by the H1N1 virus, local doctors said. "The difference with this virus is that people who are over 65 are underrepresented in the number of people getting sick, going to hospital, and dying," said Dr. Lisa Winston, an epidemiologist at San Francisco General Hospital.

Experts believe there might be some preexisting immunity among the older age groups, she added. Although initial data from Australia suggests people will be immune from the virus within 10 days of taking the vaccine, Winston is still concerned about the impact H1N1 will have within the community.

"Hopefully we can make the impact less if we get a lot of the vaccine and distribute it properly," Winston said. "But it could still impact a lot of areas, from schools to employment, and place a severe burden on the healthcare system.

"We are still concerned that even if we only have a small number of people having bad outcomes from the virus, there could still be a substantial number in hospitals," she said. "We know there is still some H1N1 circuutf8g and expect a peak, but we are not sure when it’s going to be. There is anxiety around it, and a lot of that is appropriate."

According to Winston, two-thirds of the people who have been hospitalized and died from H1N1 have had underlying medical conditions. Unlike with seasonal flu, those who are morbidly obese also have been highlighted as being possible high-risk patients.