More NPR Stories
The following are summaries, excerpts, transcripts and audio of other stories I did for NPR:
(For more stories and series that won awards click here).
Poverty, Racism, Environmental Racism, Educational Equity:
Welfare Reform Hits Home in Vermont
I first became interested in poverty and social welfare as a reporter in 1977 when fresh out of my teens I was working for the Vermont Council on the Arts and stumbled upon the last working poor farm in the US, which had only been closed down ten years earlier. Up until the omnibus Social Welfare Act of 1967, the poor and indigent in Vermont were taken care of by each town's Overseer of the Poor and the managers of the local poor farm, where poor people worked for room and board. I interviewed a number of Overseers and former inmates and published a story in Vermont Life about the remarkable Sheldon Poorhouse a few years later.
The welfare reform act of 1997 was Congress' most meaningful effort to radically scale back the reforms of 30 years before that, amongst other things, outlawed poor farms. The new law, signed by President Bill Clinton, imposed time limits on how long a welfare recipient could receive benefits without working, the point being, as Clinton put it, "to end welfare as we know." That year, I began a series of stories for VPR to discover how welfare reform was affecting Vermonters on welfare. This series inspired the first of a number of lectures given to me by then VPR CEO Mark Vogelzang requesting that I report on other things besides difficult issues that most public radio listeners would rather not hear about. He even quoted Jesus as saying "We will always have the poor among us" so therefore, presumably, we might as well ignore their plight. Today Vogelzang is president of Maine Public Broadcasting, thus bringing his "good news" crusade two states over to the east.
It doesn't take long in reporting on welfare to learn that the vast majority of welfare recipients are single women with children. It remains virtually impossible for a male of working age who is not disabled to receive federal welfare benefits. So with one exception, the stories I reported on were of females with young children. NPR was interested in the series and we agreed that I would tell the story of one welfare recipient and follow up with her a year later, once she was off welfare. These stories were edited by the legendary Peggy Girshman who shortly after the series aired, moved on to ABC News
The transcript of this first story, written by me edited by Peggy Girshman. is right here.
Good News Garage
I was perhaps unconsciously affected by my boss's dislike of my interest in "bad news" stories and jumped upon this story about an operation in Burlington, Vermont sponsored by the Lutheran Church that took in donated cars and gave them away to people needing a car for work - the Good News Garage. No story of mine for NPR got more response from listeners across the country than this one (the original version of which was awarded an Edward R. Murrow award). For a while it seemed that similar car giveaway projects would sweep the nation. But for some reason not many have actually opened. Burlington's original garage is still going strong.
ATC Host Intro: The difference between someone with a job and someone without a job often boils down to transportation. The Good News Garage in Burlington, Vermont fixes up junk cars...and gives them away to people who have the promise of a job, but no way to get there. Vermont Public Radio's Steve Young reports.
Racism in Public Schools
An advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report late last week saying racism is pervasive in schools in the state of Vermont and that state and school officials aren't doing enough to stop it. Vermont Public Radio's Steve Young reports.
This story hit home for me as it turned out that part of my reporting concerned my daughter's elementary school. Like in most Vermont schools (and the Vermont schools I attended as a kid) minority kids are few and far between. Like me, my daughter was the only Asian-American in her class. There were reports that the one Hispanic boy in her class had been the object of bullying and slurs. I attended the public meeting when these charges were first aired. It was a deeply emotional and disturbing meeting as the parents and teachers - all white - were appalled and mortified by the charges and most had nothing to say. I doubt there were many actual racists in the room but I did interpret their muteness as an utter inability to speak openly or honestly about race. There was real fear about even acknowledging the possibility of racial animosity in their midst.
Every weekday at noon, a train rolls into the desert town of Sierra Blanca in southwest Texas and dumps many tons of dried human waste into a gigantic pit at the edge of town. The waste all originates in the Northeast US and the dumpings have been going on for decades. Sierra Blanca is an extremely poor town - 90% Hispanic - that relies upon the income it receives from the northern states and the daily arrival of the train locals call the "Pooh-pooh Choo Choo.". So it was not at all a surprise that the town was selected to be the location for the nation's newest - and largest - low-level radiation disposal site with the majority of the waste again coming from the northeast, including the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. But there was word that an organized opposition to the site plan had started up in the area. I made an arrangement with NPR that if they paid for my travel expenses to Sierra Blanca, I would file a story for both them and VPR. I took a plane to El Paso and then drove a rental car 200 miles south to Sierra Blanca. I stayed three days. What merged was a two-part report which much to my chagrin appears to be at least temporarily lost. NPR has its story listed on its site but says the audio is missing. I've since asked them to try to track the story down and they are making efforts to. The series won an Edward R Murrow award.
It soon became clear after my arrival in town that the supporters of the nuclear waste site were far more organized and well-financed that the opponents. In fact the only opponent I'd managed to talk to after two days in town was the lead organizer of the opposition. I has asked him before my arrival to try to line up some local citizens who were against the project. But he failed in this and I was faced with the prospect of driving back to El Paso having the lone organizer on tape - who was Anglo and not originally from the area - and no local opponents. Out of desperation I began knocking on doors at random in what appeared to be the only real residential neighborhood: a few blocks of falling down shacks and sheds stretching for about a mile. What I found inside those shacks was a revelation. Not only were these folks dead set against the project, they were extremely well-informed about it. And extremely well-informed about my home state of Vermont and the Vermonter they considered to be their most intransigent opponent: none other than US Congressman Bernie Sanders, the country's most leftist member of Congress and an avowed Socialist. Sanders, it tuned out, was a leading advocate for the disposal site.
Despite my coverage, it appeared unlikely that the project would be stopped. The feds had already given Sierra Blanca a million dollars as a down payment and the town had already spent it on school and health clinic improvements. Then in 2000, seemingly out of the blue then Texas Governor George W. Bush shocked the nuclear industry by vetoing the Sierra Blanca site and the project was permanently shelved.
Steve Young of Vermont Public Radio reports on the controversy surrounding a proposal to ship Vermont's nuclear waste to a poor west Texas town. Some residents of the overwhelmingly Hispanic town of Sierra Blanca accuse Vermonters of environmental racism. Others are hoping the project will revive Sierra Blanca's economy. (6:30) (NO AUDIO)
I joked with my editor at NPR, Libby Lewis, that I had yet another story for her about Vermont sending its unwanted waste to Texas - along with human and radioactive waste. Mute swans are pretty universally considered the assholes of the bird world. The alternative to killing them wherever discovered is to ship them off to be rendered in Texas. All I really remember about this story was getting up two hours before dawn to travel many miles to the lake where the sound of birds waking up accompanied the sunrise. The great audio was worth it.
Steve Young of Vermont Public Radio reports that state wildlife officials killed five mute swans, prompting a row with local residents. These birds, brought over from Europe in the 19th century, now are a threat to the region's eco-system. Listen here:
Steve Young of Vermont Public Radio reports on ACT 60, the state's effort to redistribute education funds. In ACT 60's first year Vermont imposed a statewide property tax. Some schools have benefited. One town has built a new school, another brought back its art programs. But some people feel the ACT goes too far and that districts aren't doing enough with the extra money to improve their schools. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1023641
Civil Unions - Passes Legislature
n Vermont, the legislature gave final approval today to a civil unions bill, granting same-sex couples virtually all the benefits of marriage. Both critics and supporters consider the bill the most sweeping gay rights legislation ever passed. Governor Howard Dean has vowed to sign it into law, perhaps as early as this Friday. But as Vermont Public Radio’s Steve Young reports, many gay and lesbian couples in Vermont have mixed emotions about this landmark legislation. Story transcript.
Civil Unions - Goes into Law
Vermont Public Radio's Steve Young reports on Vermont's new groundbreaking state law which gives gay and lesbian couples almost all the rights and benefits of marriage. This morning, Young attended the civil union of two lesbians in Bennington, Vermont who were the first couple to take advantage of the law. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1076110
Steve Young of Vermont Public Radio reports on the controversy over who should provide the city of Burlington, Vermont with its only grocery store. The city has been without a grocery store for almost one year. The city has been losing its essential food services to out of town malls. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1070244
HOSTINTRO: Burlington, Vermont is in the midst of a political fight over who should provide the city with it’s only downtown grocery store: a membership-owned food co-op or a more traditional supermarket chain store. The state’s largest city has been without a grocery store for almost a year. Burlington residents who don’t drive, mostly the poor and elderly, must take a bus to buy groceries at a nearby mall. As Vermont Public Radio’s Steve Young reports, the co-op appears to have won the supermarket sweepstakes but not everybody’s happy about it:
The Onion River Food Co-op is located on the edge of Burlington’s poorest neighborhood, known as the Old North End. For years the area has been fertile political ground for the Sanderistas, followers of former Socialist Mayor Bernie Sanders, who’s now Vermont’s lone congressman. As if in tribute to Sanders, the wall outside the Co-op sports the slogan: “Food for People, not for profits.” set above a colorful homespun mural of co-op members toiling in the field.
SOUND: Cash register transaction “Is this organic?
Inside, the Co-op retains the funky, slightly cramped atmosphere of its roots as a community-owned, organic food store. Bulk bins of rice and pasta compete for space with high quality, high-priced organic vegetables, freshly baked bread, vitamins and supplements. But manager Ned Flinn insists that this atmosphere will change once the Co-op moves to larger quarters and becomes Burlington’s only downtown grocer:
Flinn: 4:48: I think we’ll sell whatever people want. 5:10 You know, we’re already carrying a fair amount of conventional foods in this store. White bread for example, Crisco, Karo syrup. And they’re all selling pretty well.
Flinn says he’s even willing to sell cigarettes, lottery tickets, an array of pre-packaged convenience foods and other modern supermarket staples if the public demands it. The city council, which looked at a short list of four other stores, ultimately bought Flinn’s argument and voted to accept the Co-op 12-2. Mayor Peter Clavelle, Sanders successor and a member of the Progressive Party founded by Sanders, says the Co-op had the best plan to meet the city’s needs:
Clavelle: 10:51 It will not be a quote organic food coop. It will be a full service supermarket. And that’s the misperception that exists concerning this whole debate and this whole issue. What you see with the existing coop in Burlington is not what you’ll get in the cooperatively owned supermarket.
But critics of the Co-op say otherwise. Eric Brenner is a member of a citizen’s group that’s lobbied hard for a Shaw’s Supermarket, a large chain with stores throughout New England.
10:50 BRENNER I think what it all boils down to basically is that our local govt has completely lost touch with the basic needs of this community. People want to buy…common, everyday grocery items in an established grocery store. That’s what they want. And they’ve said it clearly.
Brenner is referring to a recent bond vote that, if passed, would have allocated $800,000 to help entice Shaw’s to town. The bond got 62% of the vote but fell short of the two-thirds majority needed. By contrast, the Co-op requested no incentive money from the city. Brenner says the 62% vote should have sent a clear message to city officials:
Brenner: A city council is here to serve its constituency not to tell them what type of food to eat, what type of grocery store you know. Building a grocery store should not be a political campaign, it should be a common sense approach to the basic needs of people living in our neighborhood. (ends 12:11)
Clavelle and other Co-op supporters point out that Republicans and Democrats on the Council – not just Progressives -- voted for the Co-op. And he says that Shaw’s supporters conducted a well-financed campaign to sway city residents in the bond vote, a charge Shaw officials don’t deny. Still, the new store will require the Co-op to quadruple in size. For now, downtown residents will still have to commute to buy their groceries. The new store won’t be completed for at least another eighteen months. For NPR News, I’m SY.
HOST INTRO: Last August a twenty-one year-old Vermont man pled guilty to second degree murder and was sentenced to 8-15 years in prison. Three months later, he was released from jail and placed on what’s called residential furlough. As Vermont Public Radio’s Steve Young reports, such alternative sentencing is becoming more common in the state and raises some troubling questions.
Matthew Wright was two weeks shy of his sixteenth birthday when,. in February 1992, he shot his adopted father three times outside their mobile home in Grafton, Vermont, dragged the body into a tool shed, wrote a fake kidnap note, changed into camouflaged fatigues and fled into the woods. An hour later, he showed up at his grandmother’s house nearby and asked her to call the police. While waiting to be arrested, he went upstairs to the bathroom and threw up.
(SOUND: cows, voices from Spring Lake)
Today, Matthew Wright resides at the Spring Lake Ranch in Cuttingsville, Vermont, a working farm and treatment facility for patients suffering from depression and other relatively mild mental disorders. Spring Lake has no fences or guards or trained security personnel. Most residents pay up to $135 a day to stay here but Matthew Wright’s room and board is paid for by a Ranch scholarship. As with other patients, Wright considers farmwork a form of therapy.
Wright: “I’ve been withdrawn into myself, what with depression and all and yeah, it’s been nice to come to a place like this and a beautiful atmosphere, great people. It really does help a lot of people pull out of their shell. You have to work with other people and it becomes like a second family.”
This is Wright’s second stay at Spring Lake. He’s been in custody since his arrest five years ago but has only spent a total of ten months in prison, mostly at a jail in Woodstock. Early on, the state made three crucial decisions about his fate. First, despite his age, he was treated as an adult, not a juvenile. Second, because of strong evidence that the killing was planned and carried out in a cold-blooded manner, he was charged with first-degree murder. Third, because of his poor adjustment in the Woodstock jail, he was diagnosed as suffering from depression. Tom Powell, is theDirector of Central Services at the Vermont Department of Corrections:
Powell 1: “It was the feeling of our staff at Woodstock that this was a kid who was pretty vulnerable in our population and that he had some needs that exceeded our ability to respond in terms of psychiatric, psychological and psycho-social support.”
Wright was placed at a psychiatric facility called the Brattleboro Retreat, where he remained for the next two years. Meanwhile, Anna Saxman, Wright’s lawyer, prepared an insanity defense based on evidence that his father was extremely abusive and had provoked his son. Saxman declined to speak on tape but in a phone interview, compared Wright to a battered wife, although there’s little evidence that Wright’s father physically abused him. Saxman argues that the verbal abuse was prolonged and severe, and the trauma of it put Wright was in a disassociative state when he pulled the trigger and therefore mentally ill. But prosecutor Christopher Moll disagrees..
Moll 1: We argued that the mental state was one adopted by the defendant to ameliorate the incredible guilt and pain he felt as a result of the act.”
Wright may feel remorse now, Moll says, but he was sane at the time of the murder. Moll points to evidence that in the weeks prior to the killing, Wright had discussed the murder with other kids on his school bus. His schoolmates describe him flipping a coin to decide which parent he would kill. The crime itself had some earmarks of, in Moll’s words, a planned assassination: three shots at close range, an alibi note, the camouflage fatigues. But Corrections official Tom Powell points out that Wright had no previous history of violence and has demonstrated none since.
Powell 2: “Our judgement was that his risk was actually quite low in terms of re-offense or any other subsequent problem based on the situational nature of his offense as opposed to the global nature of his history.”
Last August, a judge held a sentence hearing following Wright’s second-degree murder plea. Judge Grussing sentenced Wright to ten years to life but suspended all but 8-15 years. He acknowledged that Wright had made progress in treatment and posed little risk to society but he also insisted that Wright serve at least some time in jail. He argued that jail time would serve as a deterrent to others. But he also recommended that Wright be furloughed back to Spring Lake at the earliest possible time. Three months after sentencing, Wright was back on the farm. Prosecutor Moll thinks this violates the spirit of Grussing’s ruling on jail time:
Moll 1: “I think the Department of Corrections policy focuses in terms of high risk on those who are violent offenders. However, I think that incarceration is a punishment that needs to be utilized and we attempt to get what is just in a circumstance.”
Tom Powell acknowledges that justice has merited scant consideration in Wright’s treatment so far. The system has focused on Wright’s depression and whether he poses a risk to society, not on retribution for his crime:
Powell 3: “Accountability is a very important aspect of sentencing and we take it seriously. And in this case we have essentially deferred our insistence that he be accountable in terms of dealing with the elements of the offense.”
But Moll believes there’s another reason why Wright is not in jail today, which has nothing to do with rehabilitation.
Moll 3: “The Department of Corrections has limited bed space and has to make, as I see it, unfortunate decisions.”
Vermont prisons, per capita, are some of the most over-crowded in the country. Last year, the ACLU successfully sued the state over the issue. Since then, prison furloughs have nearly doubled. Recently, there have been a series of highly-publicized cases of DWI offenders and those convicted of white-collar crimes receiving early release. Two weeks ago, a child molester in Rutland who admitted to multiple offenses, was sentenced to 45 years probation or no jail time at all. Rutlandresidents were outraged. Patrick McKee, director of Spring Lake Ranch, fears a similar reaction if Wright’s return to the farm is made public, which it hasn’t been so far. For this reason, McKee was reluctant to talk about the case:
McKee 2: “ The judge recommended that he be furloughed and receive treatment. He has been furloughed and he is receiving treatment.”
Last year, prior to his sentencing, Wright’s presence at Spring Lake became an issue with some residents of the nearby town of Shrewsbury. The town select board called a special meeting at which McKee testified. Angry words were aired and made headlines in the local paper but in the end, the select board decided to trust McKee’s judgement. Today, McKee insists that he has no problem with the local town:
McKee Sequence: “I don’t know if everybody in Shrewsbury knows. We haven’t kept it a secret that he’s here.” “Did you specifically tell them?” “I don’t call a special meeting to announce whether we’re accepting someone or not.” “But did you call the select board?” “I have never called the select board to say that someone is going to be admitted here.”
Corrections official Tom Powell concedes that there was a dispute within his agency whether Wright should be released so soon after sentencing. Some in his office felt that Wright should be, as Powell put it, buried. But for now, at least, Wright will be kept in this pastoral setting with the hope that someday he’ll figure out why he did what he did and how to live with it. For National Public Radio, I’m Steve Young.
The massive ice storm that darkened a million homes and businesses in the northeast hit dairy farmers especially hard. Vermont Public Radio's Steve Young visited two farms in upstate New York to take stock of the damage. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1036505
Vermont Egg Farm
Steve Young of Vermont Public Radio reports on the Vermont Egg Farm of Highgate, Vermont - the first large chicken farm in the state. It houses 100-thousand chickens. (NO AUDIO)
From Vermont Public Radio, Steve Young reports on the state's new sophisticated 911 service. Vermont was the last state to be wired for 911 because it lacked standard street names and addresses. Vermont unveiled the emergency service last month. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1023782
Ben and Jerry's Sold
Longtime icon of Vermont counterculture and New Age marketing gets sold to an international conglomerate. NPR story right here.
(For more stories and series that won awards click here).