50 slaves work for me — how about you?



The film 12 Years a Slave —  based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a New York State-born free African American man kidnapped in Washington, D.C. and sold into slavery in 1841 — received even more critical acclaim after winning three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But slavery is far from being history, and is in fact incredibly prevalent around the world.

Recently I was enlightened to just how much modern-day slavery drives my lifestyle. offers a free survey-style quiz to determine, based on different areas of consumption: food, clothing, electronics, etc. — approximately how many slaves ‘work’ for you.

My result was 50. I do not know their names, or faces. And neither does most of the international community. Conservative figures estimate that there are 27 million slaves worldwide (roughly equal to the entire combined population of Australia and New Zealand). The abolition of slavery unfortunately did not mean the end of the slave trade — only its visibility.

It is rather disturbing to visit the website and do this activity, with all its bright colors and aesthetically pleasing graphics — until you realize just what it is you’re unveiling. The quiz ends by asking if you would like to send notes to the various companies that have ties to slave labor, given that so many of the so-called ‘licit’ or legal trades we engage in on a daily basis are linked to this cheap, profitable and ‘illicit’ trade.

Try taking it for yourself. How high is your number, and what areas caused it to spike? Respond in the comments below, and please share any efforts you’ve heard or taken part in to expose and prevent slavery.

Ithaca City Hall helps same-sex couples collect newfound tax refunds


Image courtesy

The City of Ithaca vowed Tuesday to help employees in same-sex marriages receive refunds for federal taxes paid on spouses’ medical insurance, the Ithaca Journal reported.

Ari Levine, the City Attorney, announced that Ithaca can request the IRS to refund the taxes and will file amended W-2 forms on behalf of the employees. The assistance is good news for local same-sex couples as many others across the country are finding it difficult to navigate new tax benefits, as well as penalties associated with marriage.

Couples can retroactively claim refunds according to the new law for the previous three tax years. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), specifically ruling in the Windsor v. United States case that the IRS cannot deny marriage tax benefits to people in states that recognize same-sex marriage. New York became the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2011.

The Huffington Post outlined key benefits the new law affords:

  • Deductions and Credits for Dependents — If you file married filing jointly, you will be able to take tax deductions and credits for your children, other dependents, or your spouse.
  • Dependency Exemption — The dependency deduction may mean an additional tax deduction of $3,900 per dependent and an additional $3,900 exemption for your spouse.
  • Earned Income Tax Credit — When you file as a married couple you may be eligible for an Earned Income Tax Credit worth up to $6,044 for 2013.
  • Education Credits and Deductions — Education is expensive, you may be able to claim a tax deduction on your taxes of up to $4,000 for your dependent or spouse’s education.
  • Lower Tax Rates When Filing as a Married Couple
  • Easier Tax Preparation and Savings on Costs
  • Savings for Families

However, it’s not all good news. Some couples may find that it is not worth it to re-file, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported. Those couples with combined six-figure incomes could find themselves placed into higher tax brackets and losing tax credits they previously qualified for. Still, it pays for couples to investigate and see how they are affected.

Lavine also told the Ithaca Journal the city is willing to work with other big employers’ in the area who are considering similar action.

The watch tower at the Auburn Correctional Facility is a far cry from Cornell's clock tower, but the two institutions have built a working relationship through CPEP.

Education during incarceration: local efforts echo Gov. Cuomo’s vision

By the time Raymond Roe was released from prison in 2008, he had been behind bars for more time than he had even been alive before being sentenced. With mounting bills, a new baby at home, and a troubled past, he committed three robberies that he would immediately come to regret. Several months later, he found out he would serve 15-41 years at the Auburn Correctional Facility.

Now, 24 years later, Roe is working as Mobile Unit Assistant for the American Red Cross. He was able to take college courses while still in prison as part of the Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP), and now serves on its Board of Directors. The program teaches about 100 inmates each year at the Auburn and Cayuga Correctional Facilities.

Last month Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an initiative to fund college programs throughout New York State prisons. Rob Scott, the Executive Director of CPEP, applauded the plan.

“This is a game-changing initiative,” Scott said. “After two decades of depriving incarcerated adults of the opportunity to pursue post-secondary education, New York is prepared to lead by example in putting its prison classrooms back to use.”

Financing the Guilty?

However, the plan’s announcement did not come without criticism.

Lawmakers opposing the initiative point to hard-working and law-abiding citizens who are struggling to make enough money for school. In effect they are asking, why should inmates get a free education while those who have not committed a crime cannot afford it?

Currently it costs an average of $60,000 to house an inmate. Adding college education programs would cost up to an additional $5,000, which taxpayers would fund.

Governor Cuomo has argued the overall cost of housing inmates would go down in the long-term with reduced recidivism rates that the education measure would bring.

“These people need jobs when they come back to their families,” Christine Bonilha, a former volunteer of CPEP, said. She agrees the benefits of programs like CPEP also apply to the greater community.

“There’s also a lot of gang violence within prisons, but with this program inmates need to have perfect discipline to be enrolled as students, which sets them as role models while in prison, and when they return to the community,” Bonilha said.

Changing the Prisoner Perception

Cornell is not the only higher education institution getting involved with the effort. Over on South Hill, several students at Ithaca College set out to film Beyond the Wall, a short piece profiling the success of Ray Roe with CPEP.

“I really hope it can be used as a point of critical thought, and actually get people to think and talk about these issues that are really uncomfortable,” Caroline Podraza, one of the producers, said.

Across the U.S., 2.3 million people are imprisoned – more than 90 percent of them will be released sometime in the future.

“Cornell University…has seen first-hand the wider benefits to our students, their families who benefit from their academic accomplishments, and the neighborhoods that will be better, not worse, for their return,” Scott said.

What do you think? Should a statewide prison education program be implemented? Sound off in the comments section below.

As Valentine’s Day blood donations fall short, FDA ban still thorny for gays

It was more white than red that dominated Valentine’s Day this year as severe winter weather blanketed much of the U.S. with traffic-snarling snow and ice. Along with floral delivery trucks that struggled to make their rounds with red roses, the American Red Cross felt the storm’s impact too: more than 750 blood drives were cancelled, leaving at least 25,000 blood and platelet donations uncollected.

The setback is the latest in a string of blood supply shortages in recent years – with the summer of 2012 seeing the lowest level in more than a decade – further prompting LGBT advocates to ask why would-be male donors who have had gay sex are banned from donating.

Last summer, the organization Second Class Citizens hosted a “National Gay Blood Drive” event in major cities across the U.S. to draw attention to the issue.  Another drive is scheduled for July 11.

The Food and Drug Administration’s lifetime ban first went into effect in 1977 after an HIV/AIDS pandemic was first linked to gay communities. The FDA has stated that the ban would be eased “only if supported by scientific data showing that a change in policy would not present a significant and preventable risk to blood recipients.”

According to the Red Cross website, every unit of donated blood is tested for infectious disease markers, including HIV. With the current exclusion of gay males, it estimates 38 percent of the U.S. population is eligible to donate, although less than 10 percent actually do each year.

The American Medical Association voted in opposition of the ban policy in June. One of its members, William Kobler, said it was “discriminatory and not based on sound science.”

In September, at least 80 members of Congress wrote to the Department of Health and Human Services denouncing the ban as outdated and unfair to gay men who practice safe sex.

What do you think? Should the ban remain in place? Reply with your comments below; find contact information for your Congressional representatives here.

Protests during past Olympics may offer insight to Sochi’s LGBT strain

Credit: AP - In this Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014 file photo a Russian gay rights activist walks along a police line during a rally at a Moscow boulevard. When the Sochi Winter Olympics begin on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, many will be watching to see whether Russia will enforce its law banning gay “propaganda” among minors if athletes, fans or activists wave rainbow flags or speak out in protest. The message so far has been confusing. (AP Photo/ Alexander Zemlianichenko, file)

Credit: AP – In this Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014 file photo a Russian gay rights activist walks along a police line during a rally at a Moscow boulevard. When the Sochi Winter Olympics begin on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, many will be watching to see whether Russia will enforce its law banning gay “propaganda” among minors if athletes, fans or activists wave rainbow flags or speak out in protest. The message so far has been confusing. (AP Photo/ Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Yesterday marked the official start of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and already four gay activists have been arrested after unfurling a banner quoting the Olympic Charter’s ban on discrimination. Earlier this week, the Human Rights Campaign sent an email urging supporters to petition NBC to “devote significant primetime Olympics coverage to the LGBT crisis in Russia.”

The network will air more than 1,500 hours of coverage over the course of the Games, and while the anti-LGBT propaganda law has been getting a lot of attention in the weeks leading up to them, will the official U.S. coverage hone in on the tension? Protests are by no means unprecedented for the Olympic Games. Here’s a look at previous coverage of controversies surrounding the Games in recent years:

2008 Beijing Summer Olympics: Months before the Games even began, when the Olympic torch arrived April 9 in San Francisco, networks aired considerable coverage of protests pointing to human rights abuses by the Chinese government. The organization Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting ( noted that CNN gave related coverage 40,000+ words that day alone.

2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics: With the United States’ neighbor, Canada, as the host country this time around, U.S. media coverage of protestors was comparatively marginal. Only nine articles appeared in the New York TimesWashington Post, and USA Today between the two weeks prior to the Opening Ceremony and the day after the Closing Ceremony. Canadian press, on the other hand, published more than eight times the number of U.S. articles, covering everything from sustainability to the presence of poverty in the shadow of millions spent on Olympics construction and security.

2012 London Summer Olympics: These Games, as with Vancouver 2010, also shared a close cultural proximity with the United States. Unlike the previous Summer Olympics in Beijing, the controversy-based coverage was relatively mild. Pre-Games coverage once again emerged, with articles like this one from the GlobalPost touting five activist groups that were likely to be ‘heard from’.

That brings us to Sochi, which, like Beijing, resides in a country that has proved politically problematic for the U.S. in the past with its Communist undertow. The world will soon see how the new LGBT narrative will play out in mainstream media; but if its anything resembling previously documented protest coverage, viewers and readers may witness the three-stage phenomenon laid out for the last Winter Olympics by writers Jules Boykoff and Casey Nishimura: 1) pre-Olympic stories that allow space for dissent (which has been confirmed with the plethora of LGBT segments), 2) articles appearing once the Olympics begin where media slip into the well-worn ruts of activist denunciation (i.e. traditional narratives of protesters as ‘trouble-makers’), and 3)  articles appearing toward the end of the Games that praise the police and champion the Olympics as a success. This is by no means a be-all and end-all formula, but perhaps may be used as a tool to evaluate coverage of this year’s Olympics, and subsequently validated or contradicted.

Meanwhile, a designated protest area has been set up in a village approximately seven miles from the main Olympic Park in Sochi.

More updates on protest coverage and a follow-up analysis of the Games will be posted to this blog in the upcoming weeks.

Sideshow performer sets up solo act in food truck industry

By John Vogan & Alexandra Leslie

Previously published on Premiere, Ithaca’s Art and Entertainment Publication. 

On the chilly morning of Dec. 3, steam pours from the open hatch of the Circus Truck as J.P. Vico prepares breakfast burritos for two of his regular customers. Vico’s is just one of eight food trucks in Ithaca currently dishing up mouthwatering cuisine from their mobile kitchens.

Click here to see what's cooking in Ithaca!

Click here to see what’s cooking in Ithaca!

Crepe Photo Courtesy Mark Anbinder

As the name suggests, the truck is a symbol of not only his passion for cooking, but also sideshow performing, Vico said. When it gets dark enough, he projects old black and white films showcasing circus performances for customers to enjoy while they chow down on alla vodka pasta — a ‘velvety homemade tomato cream sauce accented with vodka’ — or a seitan (gluten wheat) reuben sandwich.

Vico is left with a bad taste in his mouth, however, due to the city’s lack of a mobile vending permit policy hindering his operation. He and other truck owners have been left to negotiate with private property owners for places to set up shop. When a new building development forced him out of his original location on the corner of Seneca Street and State Route 13, he moved to the parking lot outside the Finger Lakes Beverage Center on West Green Street.

“The only reason this truck has even survived here a couple months is because the people who already knew about it from before [keep coming back],” Vico said.

Though Vico sits alone in the West Green Street parking lot, others are also caught in the food truck dilemma.

Amanda Beem-Miller, co-owner of The Good Truck, offering a Mexican-inspired menu that features seasonal and local ingredients, is one of the founding members of the Ithaca Food Truck Association, which began a year ago on Dec. 15.

“My business partner and I had spent years cooking for other people, and we really wanted to do our own thing,” she said. “This was the most economically viable way to have our own business.”

Without a permit in place, mobile vendors are barred from operating on city streets and property, with the exception of a special permitting process for The Commons.

In the meantime, The Good Truck owners, along with other food truck proprietors, worked with the city to create a pilot program that allows for vendors to operate at specific times on public property. This led to the weekly Food Truck Round Up at Thompson Park on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings.

“There’s a philosophy in business, especially in food, that the more choices there are, the more people we can get to come,” Beem-Miller said.

Mark Anbinder, a food writer and editor of 14850 Dining, agreed. He said he understands the brick and mortar restaurants’ concerns of increased competition, but thinks there is a benefit to be gained by boosting an area’s attractiveness with more variety.

“It’s also true, maybe especially in Ithaca’s neighborhoods, that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’ When there are attractive eateries in an area, people get used to going there for food, so for example I don’t see the Circus Truck taking away from Maxie’s and On the Street, even though they’re in the same area. I see it as one more option that makes people think of heading to the West End for food,” Anbinder said.

A vote on the pending permit proposal is planned for the Board of Public Works meeting on Dec. 9.

Hanging art: How artists get featured in Ithaca

Alice Combs “Fierce Shapes” in Waffle Frolic in Ithaca, New York.

Alice Combs “Fierce Shapes” in Waffle Frolic in Ithaca, New York.

By John Vogan & Alexandra Leslie

Previously published on Premiere, Ithaca’s Art and Entertainment Publication. 

Allison DeDominick sits down with her newly adopted black kitten, Giacomo Puccini, as Italian opera plays softly in the background. Her living room hosts an array of artwork from around the world; Italy, France and the United States. Her personal work is in the process of getting framed. After traveling to Italy, DeDominick returned to Ithaca to help other artists, like herself, blossom in a city already known for its natural beauty.

DeDominick owns her own business, ARTe, that works with non-traditional venues like cafes, restaurants, wineries and public spaces to curate art exhibits on a monthly or bi-monthly basis.

When DeDominick saw local artist Alice Combs’s work at Gimme! Coffee in October 2012, she contacted her right away.

“She’s somebody who maybe doesn’t see themselves as an artist first, but I think she should,” DeDominick said.

Combs never originally saw herself pursuing a career in art. She graduated from Cornell University in 2008 with a degree in Biology.

“I was always interested in art, I just never took it seriously,” Combs said.

The Community Arts Partnership in Ithaca is an outlet for local artists like Combs. CAP provides different services, assistance and grant opportunities to artists or art organizations, in addition to public programs supporting art in Tompkins County.

Since 1992, CAP has helped to distribute more than $2.7 million in grants and fellowships to artists, arts organizations and community projects. In 2013, CAP awarded $226,128 in arts grants. Their artist registry features 121 local and regional artists to date.

“Sometimes the artist walking through our door has years of experience but is new to town. Other times the artist is fresh out of school and exploring ways to spread his/her wings artistically,” said John Spence, Executive Director of the Community Arts Partnership. “Robin Schwartz, [CAP Program Director] can help make connections and introductions to like-minded artists.”

CAP hosts the Ithaca Art trail two weekends in October, in which local artists opened their studios to visitors and buyers. The organization also hosts two artist markets. The Ithaca Artists Market was held this summer at the Ithaca Farmers Market, and the Winter Fine Art Market takes place December 14 at the Holiday Inn on South Cayuga Street.

Additionally, the Awesome Indie Art Market took place in Downtown Ithaca December 6-8, which showcased more than 40 different artists.

“In a nutshell, we tried to bridge the gap of artists that you do not always get a chance to see and combine it with music, food and other art ideas; just a space and a chance to be creative,” said Alice Muhlback, one of the Awesome Indie Art Market’s coordinators.

Combs now attends the San Francisco Art Institute pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts degree in Painting. Combs made the decision to actively pursue art after taking two painting courses. DeDominick was instrumental in getting her series, “Fierce Shapes,” featured in Waffle Frolic until the end of the December. The piece is inspired by the way letters can occupy negative and positive spaces, made with black and red acrylic ink at a 45 degree angle.

While she was always interested in art from a young age, living in Ithaca made for making art an interest into a career, Combs noted.

“There are a lot of opportunities for showing your work in shops or galleries. It’s a pretty vibrant community for such a small town,” Combs said.