San Gabriel Mountains: Now a National Monument for “Social Justice”

IMG_1318Almost a year ago (to the day), I met the the ruins of the “White City” at the top of the San Garbiel Mountains. My companions and I took a path, at times narrow, and with soil like sand, and then, one sharp turn later, a path hard, wide, and true with overhanging trees, and sharp views of the ruddy-colored ravine. Sun blazed upon my shoulders. My camera strap burrowed into my skin, the camera weight unbearable, until I reached the top. The crisp, clean air welcoming me home. “Hello, helloooooooooooooo!” My voice kissed the mountains. My ears reverberated with the sound, not of my voice, by my echo. Humbled, I imagined people younger than I experiencing these sensations for years to come.

Now, as of this past Friday, due to a special order by President Obama, these San Gabriel Mountains are a National Monument. The order promotes access for all, according to Obama.

But Why?

When I told my college students the news, I received quizzical looks. First, many had not heard the news. Then, some wanted to know, “But why?” Earlier this semester our readings and research touched on climate change, and the California drought. We talked about the scarcity of water. The challenge of access to clean air. Somehow though, the conversation did not include access to the mountains for the purpose of recreation. Nor, for that matter, had we discussed the beach as a land formation accessible for the sake of recreation.

Manifest Destiny

When I asked how many of my students had hiked the San Gabriels, fewer than half raised their hand. But why? How could this be, I wondered. I was led to believe that part of California lore is the notion that one can seek adventure whenever and wherever, from the beaches to the mountains, often in the same day. “Manifest Destiny” is the cliched term often attached to this notion of elite adventure. Why elite? Because such presumption of access demands a lifestyle not in conformity to work hours. Manifest Destiny implies freedom. Yet, this phrase comes with the baggage of colonization.

In order to prepare for our discussion about the San Gabriel Mountains, my class and I read the essay, “My Indian Daughter,” by Lewis Sawaquat. In this essay, Sawaquat, a former U.S. government worker, tells the story of growing up in an American Indian community before joining the army. I also selected for this discussion, Dorothea Lange’s photo “Migrant Mother,” taken in 1935, the same year as Sawaquat’s birth. We concluded with “This Land is Your Land,” by Woody Guthrie, only rather than focusing on the music, we analyzed the song’s lyrics and found novel ways to replace words in the song with similar words, a move designed to enhance fluency.

From these in-class assignments, we learned about the fragility of American communities. We learned that some residents in towns such as Harbor Springs were treated differently than others based on their ethnicity to the extent that their appearance in public faced scrutiny. We learned that American citizens were displaced from their land due to environmental changes beyond their control. We learned that while most of us grew up singing that catchy tune about our nation’s pride, the land, we did not learn learn the parts of the song that refer to poverty.

Democracy cannot live without freedom, Aristotle teaches us. The announcement that part of the nation’s wilderness was now protected, came as surprise to us, but a surprise that came with the responsibility to learn more about the context for such an act. Students of English exercise their freedoms through decoding stories and images carrying messages about the past.

I Learn from My Students

My first Fall teaching English at a bustling community college just outside of the City of Los Angeles lends means, I too learn. I learn about a California struggling with the concept of identity. What does culture mean? For the majority of my students, who are kind, eager, and ready to help others, the Manifest Destiny lifestyle of beach-to-mountain adventure comes with the added challenge of negotiating jobs, family demands, and changes in lifestyle. Therefore, a five-mile, 1,500-ft. hike might not be at the top of the to-do list, for most of my students. However, in time and with added attention from the Federal Government, I hope that recreation for community college students will become a priority. This would include trips to the mountains. This would include the addition of courses in cultural studies, ecology, sustainability, health and wellness, and creative arts.

To bring the good life to the classroom means eliminating the ideological barriers to growth. It means practicing inclusion, but with the expectation that today’s students are tomorrow’s designers, and cultural leaders.

Journey to the Place of Low-Hanging Clouds

Dry air heading up the mountain combined with white-bright sunshine made the task seem unbearable. But after my first experience hiking the San Gabriels, my courage grew. My desire to access those challenging trails coincided with a desire to re-fashion my entire calendar. I wanted to re-make my life to coincide with experiencing the pure mountain air. Was this simply a desire to escape reality? I struggled to understand. One late, cloudy morning, I hit the trail yearning for nature’s air conditioning. About 20 minutes on the trail, I noticed a small group of laconic youth socializing off trail. I think they were as surprised to see me as I them. The mountain ravine served an alternate purpose, an interpretation of Manifest Destiny different, perhaps, from that of students whose lives are removed from the challenges of adding homework assignments and school projects to a calendar that is already jammed with responsibilities, familial, and work-related.

When does anyone have time to enjoy the splendor of their own back yard? I hope my students do have the time to enjoy the San Gabriels.

I sought to recreate the initial experience with a hike on a cloudy day, alone, enshrouded in low-hanging clouds. Here I am. My chest expands with cool clean air. A hike, 1,500 ft. high, on narrow trails bordered by valley and mountain taught me to appreciate this treasure. Life. The San Gabriel’s, are a respite from the smog-laden air of Los Angeles, where beauty surely exists. Yet, the San Gabriel Mountains, now monument, await me even when I have reached my limit. Step-by-step, I know I will make it to the top. I need to overcome aching feet and legs. Legs weak from dehydration and from sitting at the library, hours upon hours, reading about ordinary people who changed the world. I needed to reconnect with trees, wind, and fog. I tried hard to go all the way, and then, wind and freezing rain nudged me back down the path, down toward street parking. Exalting in my joy at going it alone, I performed some jumping jacks, smashing my iPhone on the craggy asphalt. A spider web faced me as “Wrong,” by Everything But the Girl blared in response to my shattered expression.

There, confronted by my arrogance, I remembered I was introduced to the majesty of California by someone special. There were times when I wanted to give up. Get back in the car. “Come on! Come on,” was the reply. Whenever my foot landed upon a spot in the trail that I thought might give way, my strength grew. My strength grew, even when my ankles felt weak. Survivors know that even when they feel like giving up, the next turn in the trail may reveal something new.

Social Justice

Fewer than half of my Saturday-morning writing students said that they have hiked the San Gabriel Mountains. As President Obama noted in his speech declaring the mountains a national monument, these mountains are within miles of many students’ homes, yet most of the students have not had the experience I have had, that of someone leading the way up the mountain, making sure that mountain air and mountain streams are as much a part of my vocabulary as the freeways. The awe of experiencing nature, unscripted, that is the joy of hiking the San Gabriels. Yet, my students’ own experience of Los Angeles is just as valid. Still, I am awed that our nation’s President has named these mountains a national monument. My students have the opportunity to expand their recreational options and lexicons.

Los Angeles rocks. Yet, the mountains demand stillness. Welcome!

Unoriginality: One Possible Outcome When Advertising and Consumer Expectation Clash

Portions of the blog post first appeared in my CMGT 541 blog post under the heading: “Ethical or Not,” in which we studied the ethical issues relevant to advertisements.

This summer, my Twitter feed was inundated with a video by a pop band called OK Go. After viewing the video featuring wacky stunts performed in an open-plan warehouse, I began to identify the catchy tune with creative, happy people doing cool creative things. I thought nothing more of it, that is until the release of the newest iPhone announced last week.

So, when I saw this new video from Apple, I watched it until the very end, feeling very happy about the creative vibe displayed. Happy I was, and something else. But I did not know what that else was until I did a search for unethical advertising and I came across this article in AdWeek about what appears to be a copycat ad. Apple’s advertisement seems similar to, you guessed it, the OK Go video that kept populating my Twitter feed (most likely due to the fact that I am a huge Apple fan).

No wonder why I had surrendered part of my time to intently watch the Apple Ad in total. After all, had I not already been manipulated into liking the commercial due to the resemblance to the OK Go music video? The Apple ad does seem similar to the music video that I had listened to earlier, and enjoyed. What are the unintended consequences of such occurences?

Questioning the wisdom

If Apple’s advertising continues to appear to closely to resemble the latest music video sensation, will the public simply tire and wonder why such an innovative company cannot produce unique advertisements? Aesthetically, will the advertisers and ad agencies suffer a creative slump by riding the coattails of Apple’s aesthetic success?

I agree with AdWeek writer David Gianatasio, author of the article, “Is Apple’s ‘Perspective’ Film a Bit Too Much Like OK Go’s Recent Viral Video? Band says it even pitched the company on the general idea.” Gianatasio asserts that Apple risks its cool-factor by adopting a style that appears to borrow from a pre-existing video.

Apple, do not let me down!

I cannot shake the feeling of disappointment at being manipulated by one of my favorite brands. I also do not want to see our world mediascape clouded by riffs off the Apple aesthetic, and vice versa. There are too many cool advertising agencies out there with diverse takes on communicating catchy ideas. There is no need to dive into the same well.

Apple, please do not get boring.

Reading list:

Young, A. (2010). Brand media strategy: Integrated communications planning in the digital era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Chapter 1.
Barry, P. (2012). The advertising concept book: A complete guide to creative ideas, strategies, and campaigns. New York: Thames & Hudson. Chapters 1, 12 & 15.

Spirizzi, M. Online advertising ethics. Questionable uses of online advertising.

Elliot, S. & Vega, T. (2013). Trying to be hip and edgy, ads become offensive. behip-and-edgy-ads-become-offensive.html?smid=pl-share

Severson, K. (2013) For Skittles, death brings both profit and risk.
New York Times. Retrieved from

Now is the Time for Advocacy

What is the proper response to insult or injury? When faced with the grim reality of human misbehavior, the desire to hide a misdeed from public scrutiny often outweighs the necessity to shine a light upon an egregious incident. Think of the Rices and the NFL. Think of a board meeting, or a school conference that got out of hand. Ask the question: Who was harmed? The world is rife with examples of leaders turning their backs on individuals in need of advocacy. A rich tradition of victim-advocacy exists, but will this NFL-player’s actions lead to bold, dramatic change in order to end the perpetuation of domestic violence? I hope so. Any leader of an organization, in this case, the organization is a national professional football team, must reflect, on how company culture helps or harms employees. What services do companies provide for employees and their families who may be in need of assistance? More could be done to advocate for the vulnerable.

The NFL incident involving the couple who are embroiled in a national debate about domestic violence demonstrates how difficult it can be for women’s lived experience to be taken seriously. Yet, because this situation involves a male-dominated sport, a tremendous opportunity exists for all sports fans, men and women, to seize the day by standing against violence.

Sadly, the powerless victim often is made to feel guilty for existing, or simply for expressing needs. “Needs,” “needy,” “neediness,” are code for less than. It is time for advocates to state the truth about those individuals in need of assistance. The truth is this: Often the needy are the most courageous.

It is those in need who are often the first to speak up. Pay attention.

Cultural Studies Association Releases Statement on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The following press release was sent to members of the Cultural Studies Association:

September 1, 2014

The Executive Committee of the Cultural Studies Association (CSA), the largest network of Cultural Studies scholars, educators and practitioners in the United States and North America, hereby expresses grave concern over the decision of University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise to revoke the offer of a tenured associate professorship position in American Indian Studies to Professor Steven Salaita. The process followed by Chancellor Wise marks a serious intrusion into the basic norms of shared faculty governance.

The Executive Committee is further concerned by the rationale for these actions set out in the August 22 2014 statement by Chancellor Wise. The statement clearly indicates that the primary cause for rescinding the employment offer was Dr. Salaita’s public expressions on his twitter feed. The stated rationale substantially erodes the already shrinking space for academic freedom. Further, it uses speech from the public sphere of social media as a substitute for actual teaching records in making assessments about professional competence while seeking to justify the violation of shared faculty governance and due process.

We therefore urge Chancellor Wise and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the strongest terms possible to reverse their course of action by immediately reinstating Professor Steven Salaita as a tenured associate professor of American Indian Studies at UIUC. We also urge them to adhere to and uphold the protocols of shared faculty governance and the principles of academic freedom in this case and in the future.