2019 Sentinels Fellows

2019 Sentinels Fellows’ names and report titles are listed below.  To read the abstract of each report, please click on the “+” to expand the content areas.

  • According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, “in just over three years, the number of states that have or will soon have paid leave policies in place has tripled” (Ness). As of August 2019, states with some form of paid family and medical leave law (whether currently in effect, in the implementation phase, or recently passed) include California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, the District of Columbia, Washington, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Oregon (“State Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance Laws”). Nevertheless, in the vast majority of states, employer provision of PFL is voluntary. As of March 2016 only 13% of private industry employees had access to PFL through their employers (“Paid Family Leave in the United States”). The limited PFL available was more prevalent for “high-paying occupations, full-time workers, and workers in large companies” (Ibid). A report presented to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Children and Families of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions confirms this finding, reporting that of the workers in the bottom wage quartile––those earning an hourly wage equal to or less than $11.00––only 5% have paid family leave and just under half have access to any paid vacation time at all (“Paid Family Leave: The Benefits for Business and Working Families”). This means that about half of all low wage workers would have no source of pay from the job if they needed to take leave to, for example, care for a seriously ill family member (Ibid).

    However, expanding paid family leave programs––if done with the right considerations––can help to address these disparities. In the first section of this report, I present the current status of paid family leave policies and proposals––both state and federal––in the United States. Through their comparison, I identify and describe several key policy elements that state and federal  governments alike must consider in order to build an inclusive, comprehensive paid leave policy. Broadly, these elements include: accessible to all, inclusive in eligibility definitions, meaningful in duration, utilize a progressive wage replacement or credit, provide job protection, and set aside funding for outreach.

    In a second section of the report, I then move to consider how proposed and existing PFL programs fall short in one specific respect: they do not provide paid bereavement leave. While some statewide PFL programs and proposed federal programs enable workers to take time off to care for seriously ill family members, there is no federal law that requires employers to give workers (paid or unpaid) time off specifically to grieve the loss of such family members. This is not to say that employers do not provide workers with time off to grieve. Rather, this time off generally takes form in paid funeral leave which is “usually limited to a few days (for example, three paid days for immediate family members and one paid day for other relatives)” (Giezen). My focus in the second section of the report, then, is to highlight the necessity of offering paid bereavement leave to all by both demonstrating the inadequacy of current policies (or lack thereof) and the potential benefits of paid bereavement leave. From a sociological perspective, I also briefly consider how business practices such as highly specific and short bereavement leave policies attempt to influence cultural understandings of how “normal” grief should manifest.

    In a final section of the report, I present several possibilities for the future of bereavement leave policy based on current (in)action. Ultimately, I conclude that any prospective paid national leave policy should incorporate a meaningful consideration of bereavement leave as a qualifying circumstance for paid leave. Moreover, such a policy should strike a careful balance between consistency and flexibility.

  • The actual procedure of a surgical abortion lasts about three to five minutes. It is an extraordinarily simple procedure, medically speaking. Yet the policies surrounding abortion are anything but. State and federal legal restrictions, along with the costs, stigma, and logistical difficulties of seeking an abortion, provide a wealth of barriers. This paper will explore activist frameworks and strategies to change abortion policies, finding that court strategies are not the most effective method to spark social change. Instead, grassroots activism provides an opportunity for slow cultural change that can have a significant effect of public policy. Through investigating mediums for grassroots activism, I found examples of activist projects enacting a framework that focuses on the social benefits of abortion. This paper analyzes examples of this framework in action, both in short-form and long-form methods of communication, revealing the potential to change public opinion with personal abortion stories and with an emphasis on the needs of marginalized populations. In summary, I see potential for real change in public opinion, and, in turn, public policy using a grassroots activist framework that sees abortion for its positive effect on society.

  • Despite the large death tolls in the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, many doctors, researchers, and government officials refused to address, or even speak of, the crisis. My research asked: what political and cultural factors allowed for the rise of the epidemic to be met with such ignorance? And how—through what tactics and strategies—did the epidemic gain visibility within the public lexicon and attract the attention and concern it demanded? Early in my research, it became clear that where scientific discourse and public policy were sites of silence and ignorance, cultural activism and direct social action—through protests, organizing, and art—were important means of bringing attention to the epidemic. What strategies of action and activism, I ask, were particularly effective in doing so?

    My research sought to investigate these questions. I found, first, that conceptions of silence or ignorance around the epidemic can be taxonomized so as to become more specific to certain populations, discourses, and systems of oppression. Secondly, I found that while activism around the epidemic took a plurality of forms, these forms were all unified under the common goal of making the epidemic visible, by direct action, within the public sphere in which it demanded attention. Following Douglas Crimp, I use the term “demonstration” to mark all such action—including direct action, such as protests and organizing, as well as aesthetic representation and demonstration—and, furthermore, conclude that early AIDS activism absolutely collapses the apparent distinction between such categories. In tracking these trends in early policy and activism, and identifying the intersections thereof, I was concerned not only with analyzing the past, but doing so in light of the cultural and political present. Recent medical advancements—such as the discovery that someone who have an undetectable viral load cannot sexually transmit the virus, the recent London patient who was cured of the disease, and news that an experimental HIV vaccination is being developed—have shifted the discourse around the HIV/AIDS epidemic, placing more emphasis on an impending end in the form of a preventative measure or cure for the disease. As this shift occurs, it is important to consider the way rhetoric around the epidemic has both obscured its realities and manipulated policy in the direction either of action or inaction.

  • This project seeks to explore the uses of zines in public school classrooms. Specifically, it focuses on the potentials of zines as an alternative medium for sex education. The results of this investigation are based on engagement with over two hundred zines, visits to five different zine libraries in four different cities, conversations with zine makers and zine librarians, attendance of zine workshops, consideration of existing literature regarding zine use in classrooms, and the production of multiple zines. It outlines recommendations for use as well as important considerations and potential pitfalls.

  • In its rising popularity over the past few decades, spoken word poetry has become a platform by which its artists often share emotionally charged, personal experiences on stage through poetic form. The medium has attracted interest with matters of social inequity and injustice, where spoken word can uplift voices that have been historically been marginalized and silence and challenge systems that reinforce structural disparity. Because spoken word is both a creative pedagogical tool for teaching English in literacy-based curricula, and a powerful means by which its artists comment on today’s sociopolitical climate, I am interested in how it operates in the cross-section between art, activism, and youth development, particularly with youth of minoritized identities that have come from underserved communities. In this paper, I examine how restorative justice practices can be implemented into a model workshop of teaching spoken word poetry to youth and analyze the varying dimensions of young people’s relationships to justice and the formal education system. I ultimately arrive at a focus on the efficacy of teaching spoken word to build trust and form communities. This is then followed by a reporting on three spoken word organizations of differing scale and purposes in consideration of their social impacts.

  • Despite decades of reform, secondary education policy has continued to produce largely negative educational outcomes in New York State. Even more troubling, these educational outcomes are systematically segregated along lines of race, socioeconomic background, disability status, and English language learner status, leaving significant numbers of New York State students behind on the track to a meaningful education and a valuable post-secondary pathway. My research focused on New York State secondary education assessment policy, examining the ways in which the New York State Regents Examination regime has contributed to negative educational outcomes, and how best to adjust New York State assessment accordingly.

    My findings indicate that the Regents regime—as part of a broader national trend toward high-stakes, standardized exit exam regimes—contributes to negative educational outcomes in three dimensions: The first is in terms of curricular attenuation. In essence, exit exam regimes have forced schools to narrow their curricular offerings to those tested on their various exit exams, and have even forced schools to narrow the content delivered within tested subjects. Overall, this trend has had the effect of diluting classroom content. The second dimension is the demographic disparities in these negative outcomes, shaped by latent, systemic problems particular to New York State’s exit exam regime that have always prevented certain students with under-privileged backgrounds from being able to survive and thrive in the classroom. The third dimension is that of student engagement, which has lately become tied to a spike in instances of anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation among high school-age students who endure troubling levels of school-based stresses that have been shown to indiscriminately diminish educational outcomes. Based on these findings, the best apparent alternatives to New York State’s assessment regime involve performance assessment that can broaden and enrich curricular offerings; that can better protect and encourage disadvantaged students by minding the burdens that they shoulder outside the classroom; and that can decrease the inordinate stresses fueled by high-stakes exit exam regimes by dispersing the instant of assessment across a longer window. Already in New York State, the New York Performance Standards Consortium offers just such a system, and its remarkably positive educational outcomes for students of all backgrounds represent a ready model for the rest of the state.

  • Residents of the nation’s capital have no voting representation in the political body that closely oversees its fate – Congress. Because of this, Washington, D.C. and Congress have sparred over a variety of issues. My research focuses on the topic of marijuana legalization; specifically it explores how marijuana advocates in D.C. were able to successfully push for recreational marijuana legalization with little political power and under the watchful eye of Congress. Through a combination of interviews with elected officials, political staffers, and nonprofit advocates, I found that legalization in D.C. was successful because of four main factors: timing, polling, framing, and allies. Underlying all of these factors are shifts: shifts in legalization patterns, in conversations, in framework deployments, and in private sector interests. Although D.C. is in a unique position, the tactics deployed by legalization activists in the capital can be adopted by activists anywhere who are pushing for legalization, especially those in U.S. territories or in conservative states.

  • For my Sentinels Fellowship, I analyzed low-income rental affordability in Berkshire County. I approached this project from a few different directions. I began with some basic data collection, taken from the American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS produces comprehensive housing data at the level of the county, town, and block group, spanning housing stock, age of housing stock, vacancy rates, median rent, and percent of monthly income spent on rent. For many of these statistics, I created maps using ArcGIS that showed variation throughout the Berkshires. I also compared key markers to national and state levels to make conclusions about the nature and severity of housing affordability issues in the Berkshires.

    After creating a housing overview in this manner, I turned to the national landscape to perform a literature review of the housing crisis in the United States and Massachusetts. I focused primarily on two issues: first, what is the nature and extent of issues relating to housing affordability for low-income residents? Second, what is the responsibility of the government in meeting issues of housing demand in excess of housing supply, especially at low incomes? From this research, I chose a particular issue, called exclusionary zoning, that showed deep parallels in its applicability to housing affordability in the US, Massachusetts, and Berkshire County. Put simply, exclusionary zoning refers to regulations created at the level of municipalities that make low-income developments less feasible. Through exclusionary zoning, a few powerful resident voices can derail a project that has both funding and market demand. I focused my research on exclusionary zoning because Massachusetts has created two measures, one in 1969 and the other in 2004, to combat exclusionary zoning, called Massachusetts 40B and Massachusetts 40R, respectively. These relatively unique statutes fall under the umbrella of inclusionary zoning regulations because they provide conditions for developers to bypass municipal zoning laws if they meet specific criteria for affordable housing development. I researched the history, motivation, and implementation of both 40B and 40R. Finally, I looked at developments built under 40B and 40R in Berkshire County, as well as current debates within the county about further developments that would make use of the statutes.

    This work is intended to serve as the preliminary research for a thesis project that I will finish in January. The goal of the thesis is to take the descriptive analysis of current trends in housing affordability and overview of the impact of Massachusetts 40B and 40R and test the hypothesis that the proposals would be an effective solution to housing affordability problems specific to Berkshire County. Thus, this report’s primary purpose is not to make a single conclusion regarding housing policy at the level of the state or municipalities, but to present a case for a housing affordability problem, made worse by exclusionary zoning practices, and highlight two potential proposals from the state of Massachusetts to address the issue.

  • Mohammed MemfisMost district attorney's offices have broad discretion when prosecuting criminal cases. In virtually every county or municipality, racial, economic, and gendered characteristics most clearly explain criminal justice disparities. With the election of a new, progressive district attorney in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, I realized a policy window to train community volunteers to view district court proceedings and record qualitative and quantitative data from their experiences. The district attorney's office has already fulfilled its promise to decrease its reliance on cash bail. Now, we hope to record data that will catalyze the fulfillment of other reforms while also noting any continuing disparities.

    The district attorney's office does not record the most relevant demographic data as of 2019. With the support of the local district attorney's office, the Berkshire County NAACP, and members of local grassroot organizations, we launched a CourtWatch program. The program compiles information on defendants and their criminal cases as they appear across the three district courts in Berkshire County (Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington, Pittsfield, and Northern Berkshire in North Adams). We averaged around 20 citizens per training, and we conducted trainings between Williamstown and Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

    Immediately, the data taught us two lessons. The first is that substance abuse is prevalent in our County, and addiction poses an extenuating circumstance in many cases. Secondly, we noticed an uptick in dangerous hearing, which result in pre-trial detention for defendants. Black and Hispanic defendants were overrepresented relative to county demographics by approximately 3-fold and 4-fold, respectively. Slightly more than half of the cases were traffic offenses, of which defendants of different races were almost equally likely to be charged.

    Our analysis informs several observations. The first is the need for the Berkshire County District Attorney's Office to collect data on their criminal proceedings and the need to publicize the data. The second is the increase in dangerousness hearings, which have increased as the reliance on cash bail has declined. Lastly, we'd like to highlight the racial disproportionality of defendants appearing before district courts. We want to  bring attention to any related social problems contributing to such disproportionalities ranging from biases in policing to housing insecurities and substance addiction. With the Q-Side Institute's help, we have analyzed our preliminary data and made it available to both the Berkshire County District Attorney's Office and the general public. Criminal  justice issues are pervasive and relevant to rural communities. As a result, rural residents ought to be empowered to inspire change in their local criminal justice systems through mechanisms such as a citizens' CourtWatch Program.

    For the full report, related materials and media coverage of this project, please visit the Examples of Past Sentinels Proposals & Reports section.

  • Ricardo Torres-GarzonThe segment of Massachusetts State Route 2 and Massachusetts Avenue between Williamstown and North Adams has been the scene of encouraging projects, ranging from tourism and hospitality enterprises to the development of public goods for outdoor recreation such as bike paths. Public investment opportunities like MassWorks infrastructure grants may spur such development and magnify its effects on the local economy. Our investigation sought to evaluate the economic impacts and implications on the northern Berkshire area of a proposed MassWorks infrastructure grant for $4.4 million during the year 2020.

    We realized the evaluation in two steps: First, we evaluated the proposed MassWorks project, which would provide support for infrastructure investment in and around the target area. Secondly, we evaluated further planned investment, such as development in the hospitality and tourism industry, that would be made possible by the initial injection of MassWorks funding.

    Our findings indicate that the proposed MassWorks infrastructure development would increase the economy of northern Berkshire County by nearly $6 million and add 40 jobs to the local area in the first year. The proposed MassWorks grant could serve as a catalyst for other local investment focused on redeveloping shuttered mills and developing recreational trails and boardwalks. During each year of the anticipated two-year construction period, the local economy is expected to increase by $11.8 million and 75 jobs would be added to the local area. Following the completion of these investments, an ongoing expansion of local economic activity would be expected due to operations of new hotel facilities, expansion of existing hotels and resorts, the use of public resources, and attraction of new visitors to the area.