GOP TOP SECRET: The House Freedom Caucus


When Raúl Labrador looks at his fellow House Republicans, he sees a lot of people who are in Washington for the wrong reasons. “They think that being a member of Congress is just so dang cool, and that there’s nothing greater than this,” the Idaho Republican said in June.

In Labrador’s view, he and his allies in the House Freedom Caucus are different. They’re in Washington to make big changes to how the federal government operates. They’re not necessarily more conservative than other Republicans in the House, but they see their role as a sort of conscience to leadership, forcing them to stay true to their beliefs in the face of opposition from President Obama. And they’re more comfortable using extreme tactics — like risking a government shutdown — to defend those beliefs.

The group is relatively new — it was only founded in January — and it keeps its membership rolls secret. But it’s been waging an increasingly open rebellion against Boehner and his leadership team. One of their members, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), launched an effort to unseat Boehner that ultimately led to a surprise resignation announcement last month. And the HFC’s threat to withhold votes from Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the frontrunner to replace Boehner, contributed to McCarthy’s decision to drop out of the race this week.

With only around 40 members, the HFC isn’t close to representing a majority of House Republicans. But the group is big enough to deny the leadership a governing majority. And they’ve used that leverage to the hilt.

The problem is that these confrontational tactics might backfire. The group’s tactics have been systematically weakening the party discipline that allows the leadership to get things done. Their hope is that this will push the House further to the right, but it could easily wind up giving more influence to House Democrats instead.

The House Freedom Caucus is so secretive we don’t know who’s in it

Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) has refused to confirm or deny his membership in the secretive group. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) has refused to confirm or deny his membership in the secretive group. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

For more than a decade, the most conservative members of the House have organized themselves into a group called the Republican Study Committee. The group would develop conservative policy proposals that it would then urge other Republicans to adopt.

As House Republicans have gotten more conservative, the RSC has grown to more than 170 members, and it has begun to work more closely with Republican leaders. Steve Scalise (R-LA), the No. 3 man in the GOP leadership hierarchy, is a former chair of the RSC, and the current chair, Bill Flores (R-TX), has vowed to work closely with the leadership.

So in January of this year, a group of nine hardcore conservatives launched a new group called the Republican Freedom Caucus. Over the course of the year, the group grew to about approximately 40 members.

I say “approximately” because the group treats its membership rolls as a closely guarded secret. We know approximately how many members the HFC has, and most of the group’s members have acknowledged being part of it. But some suspected members of the group have been weirdly cagey about whether they’re part of it. “It’s nobody’s business but our own,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) told a CQ Roll Call reporterabout the group’s membership list in July.

The HFC and the GOP leadership have been at war all year

Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), is a member of the House Freedom Caucus (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), is a member of the House Freedom Caucus who was booted from House leadership. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

One possible reason for the group’s secrecy is concerns about reprisals from leadership. The group’s size of around 40 members is significant because there are a total of 247 Republicans in the House. Subtract the 40 HFC members, and you’re left with around 207 votes, short of the 218-vote majority needed to pass legislation in the 435-member body.

That means that if the HFC’s members vote as a block, they can deny the Republican leadership the votes they need to pass legislation without Democratic help. And that potentially gives the group a lot of leverage to push the Republican Party’s legislative agenda to the right. In February, RFC members pushed the Republican majority close to a partial government shutdown over President Obama’s controversial executive order on immigration.

The other 200-some members of the Republican majority don’t necessarily appreciate having their legislative agenda driven by the most extreme 40 members in the conference.

“They’re not legislators, they’re just assholes,” a senior GOP aide told CQ Roll Callduring the February budget fight. “These guys have such a minority mindset that the prospect of getting something done just scares them away, or pisses them off.”

To avoid giving stubborn minorities disproportionate power, the Republican Conference (like majorities in legislatures everywhere) has strong norms requiring members to vote with the leadership on certain types of procedural votes. But in June, a block of 34 conservatives, including several HFC members, defied the leadership on a procedural vote that would set up the rules for debating Trade Promotion Authority — legislation that would help Obama negotiate international trade deals.

Republican leaders viewed this as beyond the pale, and they struck back at the rebels. Three members of the HFC were booted from the whip team, which is in charge of rounding up votes for legislation supported by the leadership. Another rebel, Mark Meadows (R-NC), was stripped of his chairmanship of the Government Operations Subcommittee.

The GOP’s civil war escalated from there. The rebels eventually forced the leadership to reinstate Meadows, leaving everyone angry. A month later, Meadows filed a motion to vacate the chair, a little-used tactic to force Boehner out. The vote was never held because Boehner announced his resignation before the motion could be voted on.

The Freedom Caucus is interested in everything from fiscal policy to Iran

The Freedom Caucus has set its agenda one issue at a time. It takes support from 80 percent of the membership for the caucus to take an official position. Here’s a partial list of positions the group has taken:

  • In April, the Freedom Caucus endorsed blocking a DC law to prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on their use of contraception and abortion services.
  • In May, the group called for the abolition of the Export-Import Bank, which provides credit for overseas customers of American companies. The HFC regard the group as a form of corporate welfare.
  • In July, the group endorsed legislation to prohibit the federal government from punishing churches or charities based on their opposition to same-sex marriage.
  • In September, the caucus called to delay a vote on Barack Obama’s Iran deal until the president released the text of a “secret side deal” Iran made with the International Atomic Energy Agency (as Vox’s Max Fisher put it “it is not a ‘side deal,’ nor is its existence secret”).
  • In September, the group called for defunding Planned Parenthood.

Obviously, these are all conservative positions, but beyond that there’s no particular theme tying them together. Rather, the HFC seems to take stands on issues — same-sex marriage, abortion, and the Iran deal — that have generated a lot of excitement among grassroots Republican activists.

The GOP rift is about tactics more than ideology

Conservative stalwart Tom McClintock (R-CA) quit the RFC in September due to concerns about their tactics. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

Conservative stalwart Tom McClintock (R-CA) quit the HFC in September due to concerns about their tactics. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

It’s worth noting that more mainstream Republicans agree with the Freedom Caucus on most of these issues. The Iran deal is widely disliked by congressional Republicans. Most Republicans in Congress are strongly pro-life, and few would object to protecting churches’ religious liberty.

The big disagreement is about how hard the Republican majority in Congress should push for more conservative policies in the face of stubborn resistance from President Obama. The intra-Republican argument on this issue tends to revolve around the 2013 government shutdown. Boehner believes the two-week shutdown was a tactical disaster for Republicans; it created a lot of bad press for congressional Republicans and ultimately didn’t produce much in the way of conservative policy changes.

But in the view of the Freedom Caucus, the problem is that Republicans weren’t serious about winning their showdown with President Obama. They point out that the Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the power of the purse. Suppose Congress passes legislation funding all of the government except for Planned Parenthood, and Obama vetoes it. Obama would describe that as shutting down the government to defund Planned Parenthood. But conservatives say it would be just as accurate to say that Obama shut down the government in defense of Planned Parenthood.

Members of the HFC believe that with more disciplined and effective leaders, the next shutdown can turn out better than the last one did.

But even some conservative stalwarts think the HFC approach is foolish. One is Tom McClintock, a California Republican who has long been a hero of fiscal conservatives. He quit the House Freedom Caucus in September, arguing that it had proven counterproductive.

“When the House Freedom Caucus formed in January, I fervently hoped that it would provide responsible and effective leadership to advance conservative principles,” he wrote. “I believe the tactics the HFC has employed have repeatedly undermined the House’s ability to advance them.”

The HFC’s conservative opponents believe that it’s simply not possible to get more conservative policies enacted so long as Barack Obama is in the White House. They prefer to settle for more modest conservative gains over the next 18 months while laying the groundwork for a Republican to win the White House in 2016. And they believe that constant headlines about infighting among Republicans don’t advance that goal.

The Freedom Caucus’s tactics could prove counterproductive

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) will stay in power until Republicans are able to choose a successor. And he's not happy about it. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) will stay in power until Republicans are able to choose a successor. And he’s not happy about it. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Freedom Caucus’s most significant accomplishment so far has been to first pressure John Boehner into resigning and then pressure Kevin McCarthy to give up his bid for the speaker’s chair. The problem is that it’s not clear if anyone can win the support of both the Freedom Caucus and the GOP’s more mainstream members.

The Freedom Caucus has endorsed Daniel Webster for speaker, but he doesn’t seem to have much support beyond the House’s conservative firebrands. One of the few people who might be able to unite House Republicans, Paul Ryan, says he doesn’t want the job. And no other strong candidates have emerged.

Ironically, an ongoing leadership vacuum could push the House to the left instead of the right. John Boehner has said he will continue serving as speaker until his successor is chosen. And, freed of concerns about a conservative mutiny, Boehner will feel more comfortable cutting deals with Democrats if the most conservative members of his caucus won’t cooperate.

Indeed, this is the larger danger of the Freedom Caucus’s tactics. The group has spent the past nine months systematically attacking the mechanisms that promote party discipline and allow the GOP majority to act as a single, unified group. But it’s far from obvious that the breakdown of party discipline would lead to more conservative governance. There are a lot more Democrats in the House of Representatives than there are Freedom Caucus members. If the House agenda becomes a free-for-all, the result could easily be less conservative legislation rather than more.

For example, one of the HFC’s signature accomplishments was defunding the Export-Import Bank. Restoring the bank’s funding appears to enjoy a support from a majority of the House — most Democrats and a minority of Republicans — but it’s being blocked by the House leadership because a majority of Republicans — including Financial Services Committee Chair Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) — oppose it.

But as the HFC erodes respect for party discipline, moderate Republicans are becoming more willing to defy their leadership too. A group of 40 moderate Republicans have signed on to a “discharge petition” to force a vote on restoring the Export-Import Bank’s funding. If the petition gets a majority of the House — which it very well could if the chamber’s 188 Democrats sign on — the Republican leadership won’t be able to block it from being considered.


The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?

the-prizeIn America, education was long seen as the great equalizer, but that has become mostly myth. So, over the past decade, there has been a vigorous effort to fortify and rebuild our schools, and in this there is a recognition that we have failed our children, especially those living in poverty, those for whom education could — and should — be transformational. From Chicago to New Orleans, school reform has been engineered by the well heeled and well connected — from hedge fund managers to corporate heads to directors of foundations — who believe that with the right kind of teachers and pedagogy, and with a ­business-like administration, schooling can trump the daily burdens and indignities of growing up poor. “No excuses” has become the rallying cry of the reformers.

Along comes Dale Russakoff’s “The Prize,” a brilliantly reported behind-the-scenes account of one city’s attempt to right its failing public schools. When Russakoff began reporting this book in 2010, fewer than 40 percent of the students in the third through eighth grades in Newark, N.J., were reading or doing math at grade level — and nearly half of the system’s students dropped out before graduating. The schools were so broken that the state had taken them over. Something needed to be done. From this rubble emerged an exciting if not unusual partnership between three individuals who couldn’t have been more different from one another. The city’s black Democratic mayor, the charismatic and ambitious Cory Booker, joined hands with the state’s blustery and ambitious white Republican governor, Chris Christie, to reimagine Newark’s schools. Together, they enlisted Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who pledged a whopping $100 million — to be matched by another $100 million, which the city raised, mostly from foundations and private individuals. It was such an extraordinary gift that Zuckerberg, with Booker and Christie by his side, announced it on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” As Russakoff writes: “Their stated goal was not to repair education in Newark but to develop a model for saving it in all of urban America.” This is what makes “The Prize” essential reading. Newark was to be our compass for school reform.

Russakoff, a longtime Washington Post reporter, had the good sense to recognize the potential power and import of this story early on, and so embedded herself in Newark, winning access not only to the key players — Booker, Christie and Zuckerberg — but also to some remarkable teachers and students whose stories serve as a reality check to the maneuverings of those commanding the reform efforts. A lesser reporter might have succumbed to the seduction of such intimate access to the rich and powerful, but Russakoff maintains a cleareyed distance, her observations penetratingly honest and incisive to what she sees and what she hears. I suspect some may have regretted letting Russakoff in. We couldn’t have asked for a better guide.

When Zuckerberg declared his grant, the agenda was pretty clear: Turn the Newark schools around in five years and make it a national model. But from the get-go, there seemed little agreement as to how best to proceed. More than anything, Christie wanted to break the hold of the entrenched teachers’ unions. Booker wanted more charter schools. Zuckerberg wanted to raise the status of teachers and to reward teaching that improved students’ performance.

Their five-year plan gets off to a rocky start. Initial funds go to a bevy of consultants, most of them white, most of them well connected, some of whom are getting paid $1,000 a day. One educator labels them the “school failure industry.” Moreover, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a top-down effort, with politicians and the well-to-do setting the agenda. When Booker sets up a local foundation to handle Zuckerberg’s gift, the seats on the board go only to donors of at least $5 million. You can begin to see where this story’s headed. Booker shows more interest in his own political career than he does in running his city. Christie hires an ideologue as his point person on the Newark schools. And Zuckerberg, a newcomer to philanthropy, seems frustrated by the inability to negotiate a union contract that would quickly raise the salaries of promising young teachers and pay substantial merit bonuses for high performers.

Moreover, they bring in a superintendent, Cami Anderson, from the New York City schools, whose unbending management style only affirms teachers’ and parents’ worst fears. To be fair, she’s a complicated figure. She doesn’t simply line up behind Booker, Christie and their moneyed backers in their ideological furor to create more charter schools, which as we’ve seen in city after city leaves behind an eviscerated public school system. Anderson, Russakoff writes, “called this ‘the lifeboat theory of education reform,’ arguing that it could leave a majority of children to sink on the big ship.” But Anderson, like the other main characters in this effort, seems tone-deaf to the demands of the community to be involved in the process. It’s the irony of ironies. Public education is the bedrock of democracy — and yet when it comes to repairing our schools the democratic process is too often ignored. What ultimately derails this grand experiment is the unwillingness of the reformers to include parents and teachers in shaping the reforms.

“The Prize” is paradoxically a sobering yet exhilarating tale. For alongside the stories of those calling the shots, Russakoff tells the stories of those most profoundly affected by their decisions: teachers, students and their parents. It’s here where rhetoric, politics and grand plans meet reality. I repeatedly found myself writing in the margins, “Wow,” either because of the heroic efforts by teachers and staffers or because of the obstacles facing their students. Russakoff writes of three siblings whose mother is badly beaten by her boyfriend. The principal goes to court with the mother and helps her file charges while other staff members create a car-pooling schedule to get the kids to and from school each day. Another student, Alif Beyah, continually disrupts his classroom. With unusual self-awareness for a sixth grader, he tells a teacher, “If I get thrown out of class, nobody finds out I can’t read.” So the school assigns a teacher to meet with him in one-on-one sessions, and over the course of the year he jumps three grades in his reading levels. In a school that had one social worker for 612 students, teachers create a special class for children suffering from trauma, offering tai chi, yoga and breathing techniques. But what becomes clear is that these are exceptions rather than the rule. In fact, when Beyah enters high school, most of his support disappears.

“The Prize” may well be one of the most important books on education to come along in years. It serves as a kind of corrective to the dominant narrative of school reformers across the country. I’m not giving anything away by telling you that this bold effort in Newark falls far short of success. Most everyone moves on. Booker is elected to the Senate — and his nemesis, a high school principal deeply critical of his school reform efforts, becomes the city’s next elected mayor. Christie gets caught up in the bridge-lane-closure scandal, and of course is now running for president. Anderson recently announced her resignation as superintendent. The one individual who appears changed by the experience is, somewhat surprisingly, Zuckerberg. Last year, along with his wife, Priscilla Chan, who as a pediatric intern cared for underserved children around San Francisco, Zuckerberg announced a gift of $120 million in grants to high-poverty schools in the Bay Area. This time, though, they declared their intent to include parents and teachers in the planning process. But more to the point, a key component to their grants includes building “a web of support for students,” everything from medical to mental health care. Zuckerberg came to recognize that school reform alone isn’t enough, that if we’re going to make a difference in the classroom, we also need to make a difference in the lives of these children, many of whom struggle against the debilitating effects of poverty and trauma. Here is where this story ends — but also where the next story begins.


How I Conquered My Fear of God and Got an HIV Test

There I sat in a Whitman-Walker Clinic testing room in Washington, D.C., holding back tears of fear and regret. A counselor consoled me as I rocked back and forth, tapped my foot, and nervously counted down the 20-minute wait for the results of my first rapid HIV test.

I was only 20 years old and just getting my first taste of the gay nightlife. To my best friends, I was a late bloomer to all the clubs, parties, and “sexing.” They’d lost their virginity and were sneaking into bars by the time they were 14.

howI, on the other hand, was sheltered by a strict Southern upbringing and had a 7:30 p.m. curfew. I remember being out with them early Saturday evenings, constantly checking my watch for 6:30 p.m., which is when I’d scramble off to make it back home on time. Part of me wanted to buck my mother’s — and “the Lord’s,” for that matter — authority, but the guilt of possibly disappointing my mother and the anxiety brought on by hearing our pastors speak of God’s punishment (which included AIDS for those who indulged in “the homosexual lifestyle”) kept me in check.

It was my best friend who one night, tired of me running off and being afraid to experience life on my own terms, demanded an explanation. When I finally explained it to him, he laughed in my face.

“Indulge. Really? What is being gay? High in calories or something?” he said.

He took my cell phone and turned it off, and then snatched the watch off my wrist so I couldn’t constantly check the time. The sounds of some mega diva dance mix came blasting out of the bar.

“You hear that? That’s God telling you to get a life!” he exclaimed.

That night, we stayed out until 5 a.m., and I experienced everything I’d been missing. It was fabulous. My mother, realizing that I was grown, decided to, at the church’s advice, “Turn me over to God,” and let me stay out. However, it still wasn’t that simple. Before I’d go out, I’d get prayed over and have anointed oil slapped on my head, and each Sunday I’d be warned that God was going to deal with me: “Woe unto those who buck his almighty rule.” While the back of my mind was cautious of the warning, I was happy to finally have freedom.

This freedom allowed me to dance without inhibitions till the wee hours of the morning and finally see and flirt with the boys. I remember being approached by a dude on the dance floor of the Edge, a very fondly remembered dance club that once stood in D.C. Men, all kinds, shirtless, gyrating, grinding on each other, filled the place with exciting and highly sexual energy. I was by the front stage, where he joined me in my dance. Once I turned around, our bodies moved in a joint rhythm. This eventually led to a light yet tantalizing conversation, and him inviting me to his house the next day.

I couldn’t have been more ecstatic. My first “date,” and I’d finally get to share my own scandalous story with my friends. Afterward, I floated on a cloud for about a week, feeling sexy and looking forward to more opportunities to “play catch-up.”

That is, until I woke up one morning with a horrible cold. Me, being the ultimate hypochondriac, did the worst thing that anyone could do to evaluate a health concern. I Googled my symptoms. I eventually stumbled across what the symptoms could be pointing to: an HIV infection. I was terrified and immediately heard every sermon that I had been preached to about God punishing gays. I battled guilt and nervousness and went to find testing sites in my area. The nearest one was three miles away and accepted walk-ins. Afraid, I took the trip, and there I was, being greeted by the receptionist, who handed me a clipboard with two forms to fill out. Nervously, I completed and returned them.

After a few minutes, my testing counselor, a tall, relaxed-looking woman, walked toward me with a smile that immediately put me at ease. We walked into her office, where she introduced herself. Her name was Saadika, and she explained to me that I should be proud for coming to take the test. Then, she asked me a few questions about what brought me into her office. I told her about everything, from my recent hookup to my paranoia, which she listened to, all without judgment. I guess she sensed a deeper reason for my paranoia, which she finally got me to explain, “This was how God punished gay people.” Her eyes were empathic, and she took my hand.

“I can assure you, it’s not,” she said. “I could give you plenty of examples, but I prefer to keep loving energy flowing through my office. Let’s just say HIV isn’t a punishment and neither are cancer, diabetes, sickle cell, or anything else. I’ll start your test, and we will talk.” After she went through all the steps, she set the timer to the longest 20-minute wait of my life. My fear began to reduce me to tears.

Saadika began to console me, and she said something so outrageous, that I couldn’t help but abandon my emotions and look at her like she was crazy.

“God made sex for people to have, gay, straight and otherwise, and sex is good,” she said.

I thought, This bitch has lost her mind. She proceeded, “You’re almost 21, and you’re so uptight. Getting laid more might be good for you. Do you know why I’m so calm, so happy right now? Because I had an orgasm last night. Am I encouraging you to be reckless? No. Use condoms, get tested regularly, have fun, don’t be afraid to explore your sexuality. It’s perfectly OK, and I promise God won’t punish you for it. Once you get out and live, you’ll understand how sex and divinity can go hand in hand.”

I asked how. She shrugged, “God works in mysterious ways, and no matter what your result is today, you’ll do what you need to do to keep moving forward. You’re gonna be fine.” At this point, her phone rang. She excused herself from the office to walk into the waiting room to prepare her next client.

She walked back in just as the timer went off. She silenced it, sat in her chair, and reassured me again. After that, she gave me my result, smirking at me for a second. “Will you make sure you penetrate somebody or get penetrated next time, and then come back to see me? All these nerves are unnecessary for just a session where you spent an afternoon kissing, jerking off, and dry humping,” she said.

I looked at her and laughed, “Well, when you were asking me earlier and that’s what I told you I’ve been doing, why didn’t you say so?” She smiled that warm smile again, “It’s my job to test you, no matter what you come in here and tell me, silly. But I figured you needed this moment.”

With that, she gave me a business card and a hug, and walked me to the door, where I came face to face with her next client, one of the pastors from my church who’d spent so many Sundays rebuking “sex demons” from around me and besieging me to repent of homosexuality, and telling me what the repercussions would be if I didn’t. He was there to get tested himself.

We exchanged a long glance, one that made Saadika raise an inquisitive eyebrow as she escorted him into her office. I couldn’t believe it. All of those Sundays I had spent in guilt because he had led me to believe that sex was bad, and I’d be punished simply for being a human with desires. He let me believe I’d punished for just being me, as I prayed for clarity, for answers, and for the belief that I wasn’t doing anything wrong, and that nothing was wrong with me. Saadika was right — I needed that moment to learn that sex is good, and God doesn’t punish people with HIV or any other ailment. And sometimes, to quell your fears, he works in mysterious ways.

SAMPSON MCCORMICK is a stand-up comedian, writer, and activist. Watch his “pray away the gay” routine below, and catch him live as he tours nationally. Learn more at


Millennial Change Agents: A Profile of Kathy Martinez


Brighton, MA, native Kathy Martinez sees herself as an “institutional change agent”.

Since 2013, 30-year old Martinez has served as Director of the Center for Inclusive Excellence at Framingham State University (FSU). The Center was developed in response to a campus-wide student survey that revealed a need for a diverse, more inclusive campus.

In addition to working with university leadership, Martinez attempts to build self-advocacy and empowerment by involving students in the creation of programs and initiatives.

“If students don’t organize or make their needs known, organizations will continue to do what they’re doing,” Martinez stated. “What do you want? What do you need? Talk to us!”

Given the needs of changing demographics in our universities, “there is no shortage of issues,” Martinez declared. “We can’t do it alone. Diversity is everyone’s work.”

In 2014, FSU received the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award, the only national recognition honoring colleges and universities that exhibit outstanding efforts and success in the area of diversity and inclusion throughout their campuses.

“Diversity hits me personally,” shares Martinez, who identifies as a queer, Afro-Latina activist.

Born in the United States, Martinez saw racial differences among her Ecuadorean immigrants. With an indigenous mother and “visibly Black” father, she witnessed colorism in the Latino community, “but it was never explicitly defined.”

Then last summer, at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education, Martinez heard the keynote speech by Rosa Clemente, a Hip Hop activist, community organizer, freelance journalist, and 2008 Green Party vice presidential candidate. “It may have been Rosa actually who ‘woke’ me to what ‘Afro-Latino’ is.”

Similarly, growing up with “terribly rigid gender roles in a Latino frame of reference,” Martinez always felt that in terms of sexuality and gender expression, she was the “other”: “I felt all these things, but I don’t know what it was called.”

Though she used to identify as lesbian, “I’ve also recently come to embrace the word ‘queer’, mostly because of my college students.”

This umbrella term critically recognizes the diverse identities and politics of sexual and gender minorities. To Martinez, identifying as queer meant, “I’m a part of that fight, too.”

But these decisions raised serious questions. “Does this [labeling] make problems worse?” She wondered. Yet “these words are important because you’re hungry to find community.”

And community building is at the core of Martinez’s professional career.

Leading the education initiative of the Black Lives Matter Cambridge chapter, Martinez and Black Lives Matter leadership are collaborating with the “Somerville 18”, the diverse activists—Pan-Asians, Latinos, and white activists, some of whom are queer and transgender—who blocked the I-93 highway in Medford and Milton in January 2015 in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Holding regular standing meetings with the Somerville mayor’s office, these collaborations have helped rally the mayor to recently publicly challenge the charges against the “Somerville 18”.

Martinez is also working within the Cambridge school system to “place racial justice issues at the center their superintendent search because of the disproportionate impact of policies on Black students in Cambridge.” Poised for wider impact, Martinez has been recently appointed to the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s Task Force on Race.

Yet fights for social justice coexist with critical reflexivity.

When Martinez first approached the Black Lives Matter Cambridge chapter, she considered her racial and ethnic positions. To her, the prefix ‘Afro’ before ‘Latina’ in “Afro-Latina” acknowledged African heritage in her mixed background.

But, still, she wondered, “As an Afro-Latina, is this my place?”

Martinez interrogated semantics and politics of color. “Does ‘Black’ also include us? Do Black Latinos have a place here? Am I Black enough?”

Critically reflecting on potential biases in her own questions, Martinez pondered, “Are these issues of colorism at work here?”

The intersection of Afro-Latino self-identity and the Black Lives Matter movement still remains an issue, as discussed by Rosa Clemente in her keynote address at the Raising Our Voices conference hosted by Encuentro Diaspora Afroat the University of Massachusetts Boston on Sept 18, 2015. “It is about black as a politic, not just a phenotype,” Clemente asserted.

With police brutality and national conversations that have “sparked a new wave of activism” among people of color and other minorities, solidarity and social justice require critical consciousness and mapping our personal positions to structural systems.

Martinez sees her activism as an opportunity to meet like-minded people, build community, and pressure elected officials to serve their communities.

But in the face of systemic struggles and daily trauma, activism also provides “outlets and open healing spaces for people of color given the racial injustice we see everyday.” She fights not only for others, but also for her own sanity and healing.

To Martinez, these struggles have “changed me as a person because the world is changing.”

“Millennial Change Agents” is a series of interviews that profile young, Boston-area Latin@ professionals who are leading change in their communities.



ykjusqvdvokwuft7ywubTariana V. Little is a researcher, writer, artist, and co-founder of EmVision Productions, a story-driven media production start-up in Boston, MA. Tariana’s work embodies what she calls “intentional creativity for social change.”

10 Strategies for Thriving in College



As a first-generation college student, I had no generational wisdom guiding my path. Typical experiences, like navigating my degree, felt like real-world crash courses. Because of limited support systems, I developed my own system along the way.
While grades and graduation are outcomes, undergraduate study is a purposeful journey with many faces of success.

I hope that my strategies help students thrive along their path, especially those facing disadvantages.


Analyze and outline your degree plan by your target graduation date, semester by semester. Personalize semesters according to your interests, abilities, and timeline; mix courses by type (prerequisite, mandatory, elective) and level (introductory, intermediate, advanced). Plan accordingly, as courses are offered more frequently than others.

Degrees entail a certain minimum number of credits, and with creativity, you can save time and money as you fulfill credits.

If possible, take a course that fulfills two or more requirements (“double dipping”). A “Multicultural Psychology” course could count for a diversity course and your psych major.

Armed with a semester outline, register early. Early registration prevents late fees and helps you follow your degree plan on time.


Professors can impact your college experience. Research professor profiles; what is their training and expertise? What other courses do they teach? Do they seem passionate about teaching and/or mentoring?

What do other students say? Ask or search opinions online. What do they say about teaching style, personality, attendance policy, testing, grading?

Is feedback consistent across different students and years?

Consider mentorship potential, specifically relationship, respect, and relevance.

Faculty mentorship has many benefits: academic supervision, thesis guidance, recommendation letters, and wisdom on school (and life) decisions.


Raise your hand. Ask questions. Identify inconsistencies. Make connections, especially with examples from your life. Email professors and visit their office if you can.

Take notes, even if material is emailed or online. Mark key information as well as thoughts, reactions, and questions. Use notes for discussion, studying or research (“Does ‘cognitive dissonance’ vary by culture?”).

In online classes, be active because metrics track your attendance and participation.

Meaningful engagement immerses you in the course material, thereby improving how you learn, enhancing memory, and simplifying your studying technique.


Sitting up front has at least three powerful effects.

First, it forces you to pay attention (no texting!). Second, it pressures you to attend class because your absence will be obvious. Third, it makes you visible to professors and classmates.

Upon grading or writing a recommendation letter, whom will professors remember better, you or what’s-his-face in the back? While online classes lack a physical “front row”, you can create a “front row” in minds of classmates and professors through meaningful engagement.


Self-advocacy is taking responsibility for your welfare. Waitlisted? Email the professor and express your interest in the course. State your status (e.g., junior in ABC major) and wait-list number.

Seek credit for work you do or skills you have. Is your volunteer work relevant to your major? Talk to your advisor about making it an independent study (and be prepared to do extra work and find a course mentor). If you speak Spanish or French, ask about placement tests to waive intro classes and/or get language credits.

If you struggle academically, emotionally, or physically, reach out to others to get the help you need. College is a paid service, entitling you to resources and benefits, from tutoring and health to career counseling. Some services are legally mandated. Seek help early to take advantage of support.

If services are subpar or non-existent, contact your professor. If that does not resolve the issue, speak to the Dean or other leaders.

In all cases, be professional and factual, and use email for documentation. In my experience, professors and advisors like to help proactive students.


Your paper will be late, so what now? Email the professor before you miss the deadline. Do not explain why the paper is late. Be responsible and respect the professor’s time and syllabus.

Here is a basic sample text (tailor to your experience):

Facts: “Hi Professor, I am writing to inform you I will not be able to submit my paper by ABC deadline.
Consequences: I understand that this lateness may reduce my grade.
Deadline: I am working to submit my paper by XYZ.
Appreciation: Thank you for your understanding.”

Submit the paper as soon as you can. The professor may penalize you, evaluate you to a higher standard, or forgive the offense.


Coursework can be maximized through repurposing. This does not mean using the same work across classes, but applying them towards multiple purposes.

Your original paper (“The Growth of Online Degrees in the US”) could be applied to another course wherein you must consider, say, the economics of any topic.

With a new framework and new research (“The Economics of Online Degrees in the US: A Worthy Investment?”), you maximized your paper.

Repurposing saves time, challenges you to re-think previous work, and deepens your knowledge.


Opportunities are everywhere: on-campus jobs; scholarships (FREE money); internships; volunteering positions; funding for studying abroad or conferences.

To find opportunities, search the school website, research online, sign up for organizational newsletters, and join associations.

Invest your time and talent in pursuits that interest you, build skills, and increase networks in your chosen field.

Enlarge and diversify your network to access more information.

When I see an opportunity for the future, I add it to an online file. I list opportunity names, site links, contact persons, deadlines, and how I learned about them. This helps for future reference.

During undergrad I applied to numerous academic and leadership opportunities on campus and internationally —and got them! My mantra was: “100% rejection until you apply for selection”.

That is, by not applying, you completely reject yourself. By applying, there is a chance to be selected.

Unsure about scholarship eligibility? Email relevant personnel to clarify. Eligible? Apply!


Regardless if you already have a résumé, take advantage of online resources or the school career counselor. College is a résumé-building journey.

Consider and note your achievements, skills, and professional experiences. List your academic honors, languages, technical skills, and leadership and volunteer experiences.

Evaluate your résumé often. Seek feedback from others. Edit and expand as you learn and grow.


Who are you? How did you get to this point? What are your passions? Where do see your future self? Each of us has a story. A personal narrative is your life story.

Developing your personal narrative involves writing and reflection, which help you be aware of and make sense of experiences.

Cultivating my personal narrative has been helpful to clarifying goals and making big decisions like going to graduate school.

Personal narratives are also important in speeches and essays for scholarships. Personal narratives can influence others or give them insight into your life. Why? Personal narratives are humanizing.

As you grow, reflect on and note your journey.

This post by Tariana V. Little was originally published in Boston Latino Magazine.

About the Author

ykjusqvdvokwuft7ywubTariana V. Little is a researcher, writer, and artist. She holds an MS in Clinical Investigation and a BA in Psychology. Tariana is co-founder of EmVision Productions LLC, a digital media production and consulting start-up in Boston, MA. Driven by science, storytelling, and social justice, Tariana’s work embodies what she calls “intentional creativity for social change.”


Sewing for Pope Francis


In the twelve years Ignacia Gonzalez has toiled in the United States she has had no experience like the one she is having now, she says, not even close.  This Mexican immigrant, impoverished and belittled as an “illegal,” is now doing something she never thought possible, sewing linen for a papal mass.

“All we want is an opportunity like this to demonstrate we want to work, that we want to give our children a better life,” she says, holding a bolt of white linen steady as she guides it under the thumping foot of a Brother sewing machine.  “It is a beautiful dream to make a tablecloth for the pope.”

Ms. Gonzalez and her husband came to New York intending to stay just long enough for her husband to earn money to finance his college degree back in Mexico.  Instead, her husband, once the top student in his class, now waits each day on a street corner, hoping to be chosen for construction work.  She, in turn, raises their three children while selling shoes door-to-door, earning  $5 per pair of shoes sold, $10 for boots, adding $50 to the family’s coffers on a good week.

Ms. Gonzalez’ seamstress skills come thanks to her participation in a women’s group served by Catholic Charities.  The group began meeting three years ago in the basement of St. Peter’s Church in Yonkers, a female version of Obreros Unidos, an organization Catholic Charities supports to help undocumented day laborers avoid exploitation.  At the women’s group,  Ms. Gonzalez and others grab a rare chance to speak with others who understand their challenges.  They also receive training in skills such as sewing to increase their chance of finding better paying jobs.

When Pope Francis asked to meet immigrants during his upcoming visit to New York City, Catholic Charities realized an opportunity to shine a light on these women’s trials and talents.   So Ms. Gonzalez and 17 fellow women’s group members are converting a bolt of linen into the alter cloth Pope Francis will use when he says mass at Madison Square Garden.  They are also transforming piles of cotton into tablecloths for his visit with her and fellow immigrants at a Catholic school in East Harlem on September 25. 

Thanks to this experience, Ms. Gonzalez sees a way out.  Already relatives pay her $5 to hem a dress or repair a pair of pants.  She hopes to take these skills and land a job as a seamstress at her local dry cleaners.

But for now, making the tablecloth for Papa Francisco is enough.

“He loves immigrants and he is trying to intervene for us,” she says, her daughters in their pressed polka-dot and aqua dresses coming over for a hug.  “I hope people will listen to him.” 


CHART: Puerto Rican population by state

1238826_423109164465137_271021896_nPuerto Rican population by state, showing the percentage of Puerto Rican residents in each state relative to the Puerto Rican population in the United States as a whole.


Stateside Puerto Ricans or Puerto Rican Americans (Spanish: Puertorriqueño estadounidense) are American citizens born in Puerto Rico, or in one of the states of the United States, to parents of Puerto Rican origin, and who have notably lived a significant part of their lives in one of the states of the United States or the District of Columbia.

Since 1898, Puerto Rico has been an unincorporated territory of the United States and is officially named the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico since 1952, when its constitution was adopted. The residents of the islands were given U.S. citizenship in 1917 through the Jones-Shafroth Act.

Most Puerto Ricans descend from a combination of White Europeans (especially Spanish), the indigenous Taino peoples, and Africans, with later smaller waves of immigrants from Latin America, a small number of Asians (mostly Chinese), and non-Hispanic people from the United States.

At 9% of the Latino population in the United States, Puerto Ricans are the second largest Hispanic group nationwide, and comprise 1.5% of the entire population of the United States. Although, the 2010 Census puts the number of Puerto Ricans living in the United States at 4.6 million, recent estimates show the Puerto Rican population is now over 5 million, as of 2012.

Despite new demographic trends, New York City continues to be home to the largest Puerto Rican community in the United States, with Philadelphia having the second largest Puerto Rican community. The portmanteau “Nuyorican” refers to Puerto Ricans and their descendants in and around New York. A large portion of the Puerto Rican population in the United States reside in the Northeastern states and Florida, though there are significant Puerto Rican populations in the Chicago metropolitan area and other areas in Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, Texas, and California, among others.



A Little History of Coffee and Agriculture in Puerto Rico

1186761_420029554773098_603398207_nCoffee plants came to Puerto Rico in 1736 with Spanish immigrants but did not become a principal crop at that time. Sugar was a more important crop.

In 1765 the King of Spain commissioned Don Alejandro O’Reilly to visit the colony and report his observations. “In his report to the Crown, O’Reilly recommended that skilled artisans and farmers be sent to the Island; a government-owned sugar mill be installed; uncultivated lands belonging to neglected grants be confiscated by the Crown and divided among the new farmers. .

. . . . One of the chief obstacles to the development of agriculture at that time was the lack of laborers, as the only people allowed to settle in Puerto Rico were Spaniards. In 1778, however, agriculture was greatly stimulated as the result of a Royal Decree issued by the King of Spain, allowing foreign Catholic laborers to emigrate to the Island, with the promise of lands being given to them.

In 1815 another Royal Decree ( ‘Cedula de Gracia’) was issued inviting foreigners to emigrate to Puerto Rico and be given land. For the first time in their colonial history the Islanders were allowed to trade with other nations.

During the early 1800’s there was a migration to Puerto Rico of residents from the French Mediterranean island of Corsica. The Corsicans ended up settling around a town called Yauco. By the 1860s they dominated the coffee industry on the island. Puerto Rican coffee, (particularly from the Yauco region), sold at a premium price all over Europe.

Two devastating hurricanes hit Puerto Rico in 1898. The hurricanes destroyed the coffee industry. The United States became interested in Puerto Rico’s sugar production (not heavy coffee drinkers at that time) they were buying the bulk of their coffee from Brazil. European nations no longer allowed Puerto Rican coffee to come in as a colonial product. Market opportunities for Puerto Rican coffee were quickly drying up and sugar became the biggest crop.

The era of ‘one crop’ sugar plantations ( the plantation owners were rich and everyone else was poor) in Puerto Rico lasted until the late 1930’s when the Federal Department of Agriculture ended the sugar subsidy. United Fruit established sugar plantations in Central America, Puerto Rico could not compete and most of the sugar plantations in Puerto Rico became bankrupt. Puerto Rico was guided into an industrialized economy and agriculture has never regained an economic majority in Puerto Rico again. If all the arable land on the Island were planted with food crops for domestic consumption rather than cash crops for export, it could not even begin to support the total population. Today 90% of the food consumed in Puerto Rico is imported.

Yauco Selecto’s ( a premium brand of coffee today) present owners trace their origin back to the early migration of the Corsicans to Yauco. Growing coffee in Puerto Rico is now a high cost operation, as Puerto Rico’s labor cost reflect U.S. Government standards. “Yauco Selecto is proud to offer the top living conditions available in the coffee industry.” – Excerpted from the Yauco Selecto literature.

The young people of today have no knowledge, no memories of living conditions 60-70 years ago. Today, Puerto Rico is no longer a third world country and presently enjoys most of the benefits of the modern world, including an economic recession and high taxes. Today’s cement houses stand up to hurricane force winds. There are no houses like the one below in the mountains of today.
A rural house in the mountains of Puerto Rico 1940′ s Photo: F. Wadsworth

Houses like this one were not uncommon before the 1950’s. Puerto Rico’s’ first elected governor, Luis Munoz Marin, was a humanitarian, who created ( with the help of the last appointed governor, Tugwell) an economic and political plan called ‘Operation Bootstrap’. The idea being to industrialize Puerto Rico by allowing US factories to operate in Puerto Rico with very advantageous tax incentives. The factories were spread evenly throughout Puerto Rico and provided jobs which helped to end the poverty in Puerto Rico.

The greatest hesitation today in Puerto Rican politics, is that should Puerto Rico become an Independent Nation, it could revert to poverty for the no longer poor, a realistic concern.
A little History of other crops:

Important food plants, such as tomatoes, rice, mangos, avocados, maize, coffee, and green cover crops have been introduced into Puerto Rico.

Ginger, of Asiatic origin, became an important crop in the seventeenth century, taking first place among export products in the year 1644, but today it is grown only in small quantities in the interior where the climate is cooler.

Cacao, from which cocoa is obtained, was important in the early days of the Island. Plantations growing cacao suffered severely from the hurricanes, and this factor, to-together with the competition of other countries, has practically eliminated its production.

Coffee is once again an important crop in the mountains of Puerto Rico.


VIDEO: I LOVE MY GUN: A brief history of the USA

An astonishingly funny animation piece called “A Brief History of the United States of America.” Written by Moore and produced by Harold Moss for the film, it looks very much like a South Park piece (in fact, Matt Stone, South Park‘s co-creator, and a Columbine alum, is interviewed in the film). Here Moore’s stance is clear; he argues that The United States of America is founded and based on fear of people not like us (Caucasians). Yes, his main argument is about racism.


by James Snapko

What happened to us? What have we become? Why is there such a high level of violence in our culture? These are some of the questions Michael Moore asks in his new film Bowling For Columbine, the cinematic equivalent of a dissertation on pop culture and American Studies; it’s a film that asks a host of difficult questions regarding violence and fear in the United States, and offers a multitude of startling explanations. 
As the title suggests, the April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton Colorado is Moore’s glaring example that things have gone overboard. But this film isn’t just about why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 13 people at their high school; it explores the underpinnings of violence and fear in the media, in politics, in corporate America, and in the history of the United States. Moore claims Columbine is the result of a greater and more pernicious set of systemic social diseases related to America’s inordinate level of murders and violent acts as a result of guns.
To distill Moore’s thesis is not easy. He’s bringing a lot to the table, and in a similar way as in his 1989 film Roger & Me.His “shotgun” approach to his subject practically overwhelms the audience with the amount of material he has to justify his claims. One section of this film probably comes the closest to summing up his angle on all of this: an astonishingly funny animation piece called “A Brief History of the United States of America.” Written by Moore and produced by Harold Moss for the film, it looks very much like a South Park piece (in fact, Matt Stone, South Park‘s co-creator, and a Columbine alum, is interviewed in the film). Here Moore’s stance is clear; he argues that The United States of America is founded and based on fear of people not like us (Caucasians). Yes, his main argument is about racism. The U.S. began with the genocide of the indigenous people (Native Americans) caused by the “fear of the other” syndrome, a syndrome that lasts to this day. Spanning 500 years, the animation chronicles this fear and loathing through the Revolutionary War, the Salem witch hunts, the Civil War, slavery, the KKK, the founding of the NRA, The Civil Rights movement, and the “white flight” to the suburbs. All of this is covered in a 3-minute segment that has to be seen to be believed. 
So, how is racism perpetuated and sustained over time? One of Moore’s main targets is the media – specifically TV news and prime time programming. He claims the American public is being spoon-fed a constant barrage of racist attitudes in the form of “credible” journalism. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is the nonsensical mantra that is used to describe news stations’ attitude toward television programming. And the advertisers pay big money to promote themselves during these shows. In a poignant interview, shock rocker Marilyn Manson offers some of the most valid criticisms of advertising and corporate capitalism in the film. Advertising engenders fear in the viewer (if you don’t buy this car you won’t be considered important, etc.), and we are thereby urged, both consciously and subconsciously to be good little consumers. In addition, Moore interviews the executive producer of the schlocky reality TV series Cops, and in that interview, it all comes down to one disturbing fact: fear sells. Moore is suggesting an overarching influence of corporate hegemony: corporations control the news; these shows are in existence to make money; therefore the programming is reduced to a collage of violent, fear-inducing images and stories, padded with high-octane fear-inducing advertisements for the purpose of making more money. 
It is this mélange of elements, claims Bowling for Columbine, that drives people, particularly white people, to buy a quarter of a billion guns in this country. He offers alarming statistics on the ratio of murders as a result of guns in America, contrasting the high U.S. average (11,127 per year) to other “First World” countries such as Germany (381), France (255), Canada (165), the UK (68), and Japan (only 39 gun murders, with a population of 120 million people). His point is not that we have more guns per capita, but that we use them at a much higher rate than any other country. 
Moore’s editing strategies are the strongest cinematic element in the film. He alternates between interviews (James Nichols, the brother of Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols, Marilyn Manson, Dick Clark, the staff at K-Mart headquarters, Charlton Heston) and montages. Early on, he interviews a manager at the Lockheed Martin missile-making plant near Columbine High School, asking him if he sees any connection between what happened at the school and what the impact and symbolic meaning the missile plant may have on people. Of course the man’s politic answer is that he sees “no connection.” Immediately following the man’s response we are presented with a disheartening montage chronicling American imperialism from the Cold War up to the September 11th attacks, clearly implicating the U.S. in the encouragement and exacerbation of war, heavy-casualty violence, and tyranny around the globe, from the CIA assassinations of foreign leaders to the training of al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan. Another montage condenses the Y2K scare into a few minutes, amplifying the public’s tendency to buy into irrational fears. Yet another montage hammers on the racism angle, Moore compiling images from disparate news programs around the country, all pointing to the systemic racist representations and to the stereotyping of black men as troublemakers. 
Then, of course, there is the Michael Moore shtick. Part of what turns people on or off to his films is his on-camera persona. His approach to the interviews allows him access to people and places I’d never be able to talk my way into. Surely he’s built a celebrity status at some level, but it’s his easygoing demeanor and passive image that gets people to talk to him. He’s kind of like everybody’s uncle: big, wooly, and soft around the edges. I find it amusing that some people try to blow him off. Dick Clark’s interview in this film makes the ageless star seem like an intransigent little weasel – running away at the sight of someone who may ask a tough question or two. He would have been better off just answering the questions. The same can’t be said for poor Charlton Heston. He allows Moore to interview him in his palatial estate, and fails miserably to defend his position with the NRA. Of course, Heston and the NRA seem to be an easy target, but I don’t feel bad for them. As Moore points out, the NRA and Heston were rallying in nearby Denver just days after the Columbine incident, and in Detroit, just a short distance from the killing of a six-year girl by another six year old in a downtrodden Flint elementary school.
If you look under the surface of most of these elements in the film, you can see Moore’s class-conflict angle percolating. As in his previous films, he clearly sees the issue of class struggle as one of the main reasons for oppression in this country. He’s become a champion of unions, and the “little guy,” as far as standing up to corporations and the bullying tactics of the politicians and the rich. At one point in the film he goes to the K-mart headquarters with two of the disabled survivors of Columbine, who still have bullets (bought at K-Mart) lodged in their bodies, to demand that the store stop selling ammunition. To Moore’s surprise, the stunt works: K-Mart decides to phases out the sale of bullets in all of their stores. 
Moore has an opinion and there is no misunderstanding where he’s coming from – I count that as a virtue. Although this film won a special 55th Anniversary Award at the Cannes Film Festival last May, I highly doubt it will receive any Oscar recognition. It’s just too anti-establishment and anti-corporate for the Hollywood culture. Moore is taking on big business, the NRA and its supporters, and conservative politicians, while challenging the rest of us to look at ourselves. The irony is that it’s the best movie of the year, but not enough people will see it, I’m afraid, to make much of a difference. 
So do yourself a favor – see this film, but leave your gun at home! 

Is Bilingualism Really an Advantage?: “This Is A Country Where We Speak English, Not Spanish,” Donald Trump

This Is A Country Where We Speak English, Not Spanish.

– Donald Trump to Jeb Bush during the GOP debate


spanishlanguageIn 1922, in “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” The words that we have at our disposal affect what we see—and the more words there are, the better our perception. When we learn to speak a different language, we learn to see a bigger world.
Many modern language researchers agree with that premise. Not only does speaking multiple languages help us to communicate but bilingualism (or multilingualism) may actually confer distinct advantages to the developing brain. Because a bilingual child switches between languages, the theory goes, she develops enhanced executive control, or the ability to effectively manage what are called higher cognitive processes, such as problem-solving, memory, and thought. She becomes better able to inhibit some responses, promote others, and generally emerges with a more flexible and agile mind. It’s a phenomenon that researchers call the bilingual advantage.
For the first half of the twentieth century, researchers actually thought that bilingualism put a child at a disadvantage, something that hurt her I.Q. and verbal development. But, in recent years, the notion of a bilingual advantage has emerged from research to the contrary, research that has seemed both far-reaching and compelling, much of it coming from the careful work of the psychologist Ellen Bialystok. For many tasks, including ones that involve working memory, bilingual speakers seem to have an edge. In a 2012 review of the evidence, Bialystok showed that bilinguals did indeed show enhanced executive control, a quality that has been linked, among other things, to better academic performance. And when it comes to qualities like sustained attention and switching between tasks effectively, bilinguals often come out ahead. It seems fairly evident then that, given a choice, you should raise your child to speak more than one language. Indeed, papers touting “Creativity and Bilingualism,” “Cognitive Advantages of Bilingual Five-Year-Olds,” “A Bilingual Advantage in Task-Switching,” “Bilingualism Reduces Native-Language Interference During Novel-Word Learning,” and “Good Language-Switchers Are Good Task-Switchers”—and the resulting books with provocative titles such as “The Bilingual Edge” and “Bilingual Is Better”—suggest that raising a bilingual child is, in large part, a recipe for raising a successful child.
From the age of eleven, Angela de Bruin spoke two languages. Born in the nineteen-eighties in Nijmegen, a small town in the Netherlands, de Bruin spoke Dutch at home, and, in school, immersed herself in English. She became fascinated by bilinguals, and read avidly about the cognitive advantages that being fluent in more than one language was supposed to provide. In college, she took up linguistics and neuroscience. And, in 2012, de Bruin enrolled in the psychology graduate program at the University of Edinburgh to further pursue the link between bilingualism and cognition.
She came to the program fully expecting to study the extent to which her bilingual brain was adapted to succeed. “I had the impression that there’s a really strong effect of bilingualism on executive function,” de Bruin told me recently. Then, she carried out her first study. Normally, to test for an edge in executive function, you give a version of a task where people have to ignore certain stimuli while selectively focussing on others. For instance, in the commonly used Simon task, you are shown pictures (often arrows) on either the left or right side of a screen. If you see a right-pointing arrow, you press the right key. It doesn’t matter on which side of the screen the arrow appears; the only thing that matters is the direction in which it points. Typically, people have faster reaction times on congruent trials—when the right-pointing arrow actually appears on the right, and vice-versa. Bilinguals are supposed to have an advantage in the incongruent trials: when the left arrow appears on the right, and the right arrow appears on the left.
When de Bruin looked at the data, though, in three of the four tasks testing inhibitory control, including the Simon task, the advantage wasn’t there. Monolinguals and bilinguals had performed identically. “We thought, Maybe the existing literature is not a full, reliable picture of this field,” she said. So, she decided to test it further.
Systematically, de Bruin combed through conference abstracts from a hundred and sixty-nine conferences, between 1999 and 2012, that had to do with bilingualism and executive control. The rationale was straightforward: conferences are places where people present in-progress research. They report on studies that they are running, initial results, initial thoughts. If there were a systematic bias in the field against reporting negative results—that is, results that show no effects of bilingualism—then there should be many more findings of that sort presented at conferences than actually become published.
That’s precisely what de Bruin found. At conferences, about half the presented results provided either complete or partial support for the bilingual advantage on certain tasks, while half provided partial or complete refutation. When it came to the publications that appeared after the preliminary presentation, though, the split was decidedly different. Sixty-eight per cent of the studies that demonstrated a bilingual advantage found a home in a scientific journal, compared to just twenty-nine per cent of those that found either no difference or a monolingual edge. “Our overview,” de Bruin concluded, “shows that there is a distorted image of the actual study outcomes on bilingualism, with researchers (and media) believing that the positive effect of bilingualism on nonlinguistic cognitive processes is strong and unchallenged.”
De Bruin isn’t refuting the notion that there are advantages to being bilingual: some studies that she reviewed really did show an edge. But the advantage is neither global nor pervasive, as often reported. After her meta-analysis was complete, de Bruin and her adviser ran an additional series of studies, which they have just submitted for publication, hoping to find where the limits of bilingual advantage lie, and what the real advantage may actually look like. To test for a possible boost, they examined three different groups (English monolinguals, active English-Gaelic bilinguals who spoke Gaelic at home, and passive English-Gaelic bilinguals who no longer used Gaelic regularly). They had each group take part in four tasks—the Simon task, a task of everyday attention (you hear different tones and must count the number of low ones while filtering out the high ones), the Tower of London (you solve a problem by moving discs around on a series of sticks to match a picture of what the final tower looks like), and a simple task-switching paradigm (you see circles and squares that are either red or blue, and must pay attention to either one color or one shape, depending on the part of the trial).
In the first three tasks, they found no difference between the groups. On the last, they thought they’d finally detected an advantage: on the switch trials—the trials immediately after a change from shape to color or color to shape—the bilinguals, both active and passive, seemed to be quicker. But when the researchers dug deeper, they found that it wasn’t so much a case of switching faster as it was being slower at the non-switch trials, where shape followed shape and color followed color.
So does that mean that there’s no such thing as a bilingual advantage? No. It’s just one study. But it adds further evidence to the argument that the bilingual advantage is sometimes overstated. “I’m definitely not saying there’s no bilingual advantage,” de Bruin says. But the advantage may be different from the way many researchers have described it: as a phenomenon that helps children to develop their ability to switch between tasks and, more broadly, enhances their executive-control functions. The true edge, de Bruin believes, may come far later, and in a form that has little to do with task-switching and executive control; it may, she says, be the result of simple learning.
One of the areas where the bilingual advantage appears to be most persistent isn’t related to a particular skill or task: it’s a general benefit that seems to help the aging brain. Adults who speak multiple languages seem to resist the effects of dementia far better than monolinguals do. When Bialystok examined the records for a group of older adults who had been referred to a clinic in Toronto with memory or other cognitive complaints, she found that, of those who eventually developed dementia, the lifelong bilinguals showed symptoms more than four years later than the monolinguals. In a follow-up study, this time with a different set of patients who had developed Alzheimer’s, she and her colleagues found that, regardless of cognitive level, prior occupation, or education, bilinguals had been diagnosed 4.3 years later than monolinguals had. Bilingualism, in other words, seems to have a protective effect on cognitive decline. That would be consistent with a story of learning: we know that keeping cognitively nimble into old age is one of the best ways to protect yourself against dementia. (Hence the rise of the crossword puzzle.) When the brain keeps learning, as it seems to do for people who retain more than one language, it has more capacity to keep functioning at a higher level.
That, in and of itself, is reason enough to learn a second, third, fourth, or fifth language—and to keep learning them as long as you’re able. The bilingual advantage may not appear in the exact guise researchers think of it today. But, on a fundamental level, bilingualism’s real benefits could be far more important.