Archive for February, 2013

Vincent Makes the News

Will Work for Change: Activists say their work might not be lucrative, but it’s fulfilling

“It sounds noble but in reality, I’m broke.”


Mel Packer with Marcellus ProtestPhoto courtesy of Mel Packer

Mel Packer with Marcellus Protest

Someone has been shouting “get a job!” at Vincent Eirene since he was a little boy.

The thing is, he does have a job. Eirene is a lifelong activist, plying his trade at protests, speeches and actions, and running a house for the homeless supported from his own pocket and community donations. But, like many protest pros around Pittsburgh will tell you, his calling comes with a price, financial and otherwise.

“It’s like the Catholics: We take a vow of poverty,” says Eirene, 60. “It sounds noble but in reality, I’m broke.”

Supporting oneself by supporting a cause is rarely a lucrative career move. One year, for example, Eirene said he was “lucky” if he pulled in $8,000.  Helen Gerhardt, an organizer for Pittsburghers for Public Transit, gave up her apartment to live at Occupy Pittsburgh’s Downtown encampment last year, and has lived in her car between organizing jobs. Joyce Wagner, former board chair of the national Iraq Veterans Against the War, has found herself facing foreclosure.

Others, like peace and social-justice activist Celeste Taylor, do their own fundraising and compete for paying jobs in the organizing field, while working other gigs: Taylor’s work history includes stints as a floral designer and administrator of the Friends Meeting House.

And while there is little financial security for those whose work-day tools include a protest sign, few can imagine pursuing any other way of life.

“I always thought it was honorable work and you should be good at it,” says Taylor, who most recently served as the regional coordinator for the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition. “It’s not a place to plunk yourself down and make money.”

Jodi Hirsh, sole founder of JustAction LLC — an Edgewood-based consulting agency whose work includes advocacy and grassroots campaigns — agrees. “I’d be miserable doing anything else,” she says.

Hirsh has faced financial uncertainty, the anxiety of not knowing when her next paycheck would arrive. “As an independent contractor, you never know what’s coming,” she says. “I spent all of November and December nervously biting my fingernails.”

Contracts eventually came, enough to stay afloat with the help of her partner’s full-time job and health benefits, which also help cope with the responsibility of raising two children under the age of 4.

Having young kids can complicate advocacy work in other ways, since meetings and actions often take place on evenings and weekends. “People will say something is kid-friendly, but there’s nothing for kids to do,” says Wagner, who has a 3-year-old son. “You often find meetings start at times when children need to sleep or eat.”

When Wagner was single, “I could scrape by with less,” says the North Side resident. “Now I have a lot more responsibility to feed, clothe and shelter another person.”

Wagner has taken some time off from activism, which allows her to work as an ironworker apprentice, and to spend time with her son. As an activist, burn-out is an occupational hazard, she says: “You’re ineffective unless you’re taking care of yourself and your basic needs are met.”

Taylor agrees that there are times activists get overwhelmed, and that balancing family considerations can be difficult. “Sometimes I wonder if I should have made different choices so I could have done different things with my children.”

“A lot of activists’ families probably feel rejected and not given the same kind of weight or importance that political causes are,” says Gerhardt, of Wilkinsburg. Gerhardt has held a handful of organizing jobs since serving in Iraq with the Army National Guard; her work week sometimes eclipses the 60- or 70-hour marks.

Her current contract with Pittsburghers for Public Transit, paid for by the Amalgamated Transit Union, is only temporary. And she admits, “I often think about getting a stable, professional job and just doing this part time,” adding she plans to re-evaluate within the next year.

Even so, Gerhardt says, activism “is a tight-knit community,” offering work that is “incredibly interesting and satisfying.”

Activists believe that kids with activist parents  enjoy some benefits, too — like being exposed to different ideas and people. Mel Packer, a Point Breeze veteran protester who just retired as a physician’s assistant, worked part time to help take care of his family. Taylor, a mother of four, recalls taking her twins to a rally in Topeka, Kan., on the anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education.

Activism has also brought families together. Packer, for example, met his wife, Emily De Ferrari, through political organizing.

Such personal rewards, activists say, transcend having elaborate lifestyles. Eirene, for one, says he deliberately lives simply. For 35 years, he supported himself through his light-hauling business, which he started in 1977 and stopped two years ago when he got on disability for injuries sustained after getting struck by a vehicle.

Eirene protested on behalf of various causes in college in the 1970s: the United Farm Workers, rebuilding Bach Mai Hospital in Vietnam, and racial equality. And while the cost of living was cheaper with a $75 apartment rent split three ways, he says, even then “it seems like it was always a struggle” to get by.

In 1977, he started a house to take in homeless people in the community, which he financed with personal funds and contributions for the next 35 years. While limited income was due in part to Eirene’s activism, it was also partly by design.

“I thought that my activism would be more effective and unlimited, if I wasn’t being paid by someone telling me what to do. Nobody can tell you what to do when you’re hauling garbage.”

Coupled with more than 70 arrests for civil disobedience, and having spent more than two-and-a-half-years in jail all told, Eirene’s finances are complicated, to say the least. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It just didn’t add up, yet everything was fine,” Eirene says. “You have more money in your account if you don’t check it.”


10 Pro-Gun Myths, Shot Down

10 Pro-Gun Myths, Shot Down

Fact-checking some of the gun lobby’s favorite arguments shows they’re full of holes.


| Thu Jan. 31, 2013 3:01 AM PST

By cutting off federal funding for research and stymieing data collection and sharing, the National Rifle Association has tried to do to the study of gun violence what climate deniers have done to the science of global warming. No wonder: When it comes to hard numbers, some of the gun lobby’s favorite arguments are full of holes.

Myth #1: They’re coming for your guns.
Fact-check: No one knows the exact number of guns in America, but it’s clear there’s no practical way to round them all up (never mind that no one in Washington is proposing this). Yet if you fantasize about rifle-toting citizens facing down the government, you’ll rest easy knowing that America’s roughly 80 million gun owners already have the feds and cops outgunned by a factor of around 79 to 1.

gun ownership

Sources: Congressional Research Service (PDF), Small Arms Survey

Myth #2: Guns don’t kill people—people kill people.
Fact-check: People with more guns tend to kill more people—with guns. The states with the highest gun ownership rates have a gun murder rate 114% higher than those with the lowest gun ownership rates. Also, gun death rates tend to be higher in states with higher rates of gun ownership. Gun death rates are generally lower in states with restrictions such as assault-weapons bans or safe-storage requirements.

ownership vs gun death

Sources: Pediatrics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Myth #3: An armed society is a polite society.
Fact-check: Drivers who carry guns are 44% more likely than unarmed drivers to make obscene gestures at other motorists, and 77% more likely to follow them aggressively.
• Among Texans convicted of serious crimes, those with concealed-handgun licenses were sentenced for threatening someone with a firearm 4.8 times more than those without.
• In states with Stand Your Ground and other laws making it easier to shoot in self-defense, those policies have been linked to a 7 to 10% increase in homicides.

Myth #4: More good guys with guns can stop rampaging bad guys.
Fact-check: Mass shootings stopped by armed civilians in the past 30 years: 0
• Chances that a shooting at an ER involves guns taken from guards: 1 in 5

Myth #5: Keeping a gun at home makes you safer.
Fact-check: Owning a gun has been linked to higher risks of homicide, suicide, and accidental death by gun.
• For every time a gun is used in self-defense in the home, there are 7 assaults or murders, 11 suicide attempts, and 4 accidents involving guns in or around a home.
43% of homes with guns and kids have at least one unlocked firearm.
• In one experiment, one third of 8-to-12-year-old boys who found a handgun pulled the trigger.

Myth #6: Carrying a gun for self-defense makes you safer.
Fact-check: In 2011, nearly 10 times more people were shot and killed in arguments than by civilians trying to stop a crime.
• In one survey, nearly 1% of Americans reported using guns to defend themselves or their property. However, a closer look at their claims found that more than 50% involved using guns in an aggressive manner, such as escalating an argument.
• A Philadelphia study found that the odds of an assault victim being shot were 4.5 times greater if he carried a gun. His odds of being killed were 4.2 times greater.

Myth #7: Guns make women safer.
Fact-check: In 2010, nearly 6 times more women were shot by husbands, boyfriends, and ex-partners than murdered by male strangers.
• A woman’s chances of being killed by her abuser increase more than 7 times if he has access to a gun.
• One study found that women in states with higher gun ownership rates were 4.9 times more likely to be murdered by a gun that women in states with lower gun ownership rates.

Myth #8: “Vicious, violent video games” deserve more blame than guns.
Fact-check: So said NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre after Newtown. So what’s up with Japan?

United States Japan
Per capita spending
on video games
$44 $55
Civilian firearms
per 100 people
88 0.6
Gun homicides
in 2008
11,030 11

Sources: PricewaterhouseCoopers, Small Arms Survey (PDF), UN Office on Drugs and Crime

Myth #9: More and more Americans are becoming gun owners.
Fact-check: More guns are being sold, but they’re owned by a shrinking portion of the population.
About 50% of Americans said they had a gun in their homes in 1973. Today, about 45% say they do. Overall, 35% of Americans personally own a gun.
• Around 80% of gun owners are men. On average they own 7.9 guns each.

Myth #10: We don’t need more gun laws—we just need to enforce the ones we have.
Weak laws and loopholes backed by the gun lobby make it easier to get guns illegally.
Around 40% of all legal gun sales involve private sellers and don’t require background checks. 40% of prison inmates who used guns in their crimes got them this way.
• An investigation found 62% of online gun sellers were willing to sell to buyers who said they couldn’t pass a background check.
20% of licensed California gun dealers agreed to sell handguns to researchers posing as illegal “straw” buyers.
• The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has not had a permanent director for 6 years, due to an NRA-backed requirement that the Senate approve nominees.

This article has been updated.

Icons in gun ownership chart: Handgun designed by Simon Child, rifle designed by Nadav Barkan, shotgun designed by Ammar Ceker, all from the Noun Project

Front page image by konstantynov/Shutterstock