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Assignment: Radio "The Issues" (Oct 26, 2012)
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"Fighting Hunger in Oklahoma"
Trauvello Stevenson
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According to the 2010 US Census, 16.2% of Oklahomans are living below the poverty line, that’s more than 3 points above the national average. Assignment: Radio reporter Trauvello Stevenson discovers how families in the state are battling food insecurity, and speaks with those trying to help.

It’s eight forty-five in the morning and the volunteers at the Food and Shelter in Norman are scraping what is left of breakfast to serve to customers still waiting in line. Six days per week, hundreds of people come to the Food and Shelter in Norman to eat, wash their clothes, get warm and even to use the bathroom. When supplies allow, Food and Shelter also assists with food boxes for families who are unable to buy groceries themselves.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s “Statistical Supplement to Household Food Security” report done in 2011, the rates of food insecurity are substantially higher than the national average among households with incomes near or below the federal poverty line. Executive Director of the Food and Shelter in Norman, April Doshier says all types of people utilize their services because of economic troubles.

Doshier says there are two groups of people who use their services: the homeless who frequent the shelter regularly, as well as Oklahomans who may have homes but are on such a fixed income that they cannot provide food for their families. They may need assistance at least three or four times a week to bridge that gap.

“Certainly we see huge increases at the end of the month because people’s food stamps run out people’s limited money that they have run out. So, we are the supplement for people who may not eat otherwise.” Doshier explains.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, poverty in Oklahoma is at a ten year high. The U.S. Census Bureau uses a range of dollar amounts, which vary by family size and composition to determine who is in poverty. If a family's total income is less than the family's threshold, then that family and every individual in it is considered to be in poverty. For example, a family of four is considered in poverty if the household earned less than $22,500 that year. Doshier says sometimes that definition of family doesn’t help.

“A couple of weeks ago a grandmother brought her two young grandsons in and she came in and said (very tearfully) ‘We just haven’t had food, we don’t have any food, we don’t have ketchup, we don’t have mustard, we don’t have nothing and I don’t know what to do.’

They asked the anxious grandmother if she had applied for food stamps. She answered, “I don’t qualify for food stamps. I don’t really have custody of these kids. My daughter took off and left the kids with me and I’m just caring for them.”

Doshier says they gathered up as big of a box of food as well as some grocery vouchers. The woman broke down in tears and thanked them.  Doshier describes her reaction to when one of the woman’s young grandsons looked up and said, “Oh, I’m so glad we’re going to eat tonight.”

“That for me was just heartbreaking because the thought of children not eating. Really I don’t want to see grownups not eating but the thought of children not eating you know is just more than I can handle.” explains Doshier.

The USDA’s Food security report also indicates that persons under 18 are at the highest risk of being in poverty.  The number of children under five living in poverty increased by 3 percent from 2009 to 2010. Social Work senior and volunteer at a children’s shelter in Norman, Chelsey Henderson says poverty favors no one and is especially prevalent in more rural states like Oklahoma because of lack of transportation and awareness.

“The fact that its not seen as much gives people an excuse to ignore it and that doesn’t mean its not there…you just can’t see it. Its just more ignorable.” Henderson suggests.

Doshier agrees, saying it is easy to ignore and forget about people when they are far away. In addition to inadequate transportation, lack of funding also contributes to the high rates of poverty in Oklahoma.

“Well Oklahoma is a very rural state and it makes access to services and access to mainstream services like DHS and access to even community services like Food and Shelter very difficult for people in rural areas. So when you’re already poor and you don’t have good transportation and you’re hundreds of miles away from the closest food pantry there’s really not much you can do. The services our states provide compared to the amount of people in need are just very disparate so I think all of those things kind of play into something that seems to be getting out of control.”

"State Question 766"
Michael Rymer
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State Question 766 is one of a handful of issues Oklahoma voters will decide early next month. It concerns the ad valorem tax, or tax on personal property, and the taxation of intangible items, like patents, inventions, computer software, and trademarks. As Assignment: Radio’s Michael Rymer reports, the question calls for a change in the Oklahoma Constitution that currently allows the state to assess and calculate how much some intangible property is worth.

State Question 766 is one of a handful of issues Oklahoma voters will decide early next month. It concerns the ad valorem tax, or tax on personal property, and the taxation of intangible items, like patents, inventions, computer software, and trademarks. The question calls for a change in the Oklahoma Constitution that currently allows the state to assess and calculate how much some intangible property is worth.

Trey Bates is the Board Chairman of the Norman Chamber of Commerce. He says taxing intangible property is a problem because many businesses have locations across the state, beyond an individual city or county.

“So you may have an assessor in one jurisdiction who may have one process and one calculation of intangible property, and that may be significantly different than the assessor in an adjacent or in another district.” he argues.

Bates also says that if people vote “no” on the initiative, and further taxing on intangible property continues, there will be historical implications.

“So you’ve got what is potentially facing the state as one of the largest tax increases, if not the largest tax increase that we’ve ever encountered in a single issue. We are talking about a significant potential tax increase to all types of businesses around the state, both large and small.”

Opponents of the bill argue that passing the measure and taking away that revenue could mean a substantial loss in public funding for essential services. Norman Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Joseph Siano says voting for State Question 766 could cost Oklahoma public schools roughly $33 million, and Norman Public Schools around $650, 000.

Siano argues that if State Question 766 is passed in addition to another State Question designed to cap property taxes, the impact on Oklahoma state funds could be massive.

“These are all revenue streams that there has to be a replacement for!” emphasized Siano, “They will impact public education because either we find a revenue stream to replace these lost dollars, or we find reduced dollars to the public education. We’re operating today on about 198 million dollars less funding than we did in 2008.”

Public funding in recent years has allowed the Norman Public school system to expand and flourish. Tiffany Roland teaches fourth-grade at Reagan Elementary, and says the effects of public funding have a lot to do with teachers’ ability to do their job. She says the brand new school along 24th Avenue Southeast has greatly benefited from state funding from taxes like the ad valorem tax.

Roland argues, “Public funding is crucial because without it it’s nearly impossible to operate. We need that money and that help to get on par with everybody else, especially if we’re going to compete globally.”

Oklahoma voters decide the fate of State Question 766 during the November 6 general election. Voting against the measure would mean a $25 “business activity fee”, assessed in lieu of intangible property taxes on certain businesses, would continue for the foreseeable future.  If approved, taxing intangible personal property would be banned in Oklahoma starting with the tax year that begins on January 1, 2013.

"Human Trafficking"
Jessica Wilder
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The recent, brutal murder of Carina Saunders serves as a stark reminder that human trafficking is happening everywhere, including Oklahoma. Hear from a woman who barely escaped the world of modern slavery, and what is being done to combat this dehumanizing practice.

“I don’t know if was the next day, the next week or the next month but, I was laying totally naked on a mattress in a boarded up room. There was no door knob on the door but the door was locked on the outside. I had multiple bruises all over me and my body was very sore. I knew I had been on some sort of a drug and I drifted in and out of consciousness and I cannot tell you how many people came in and out and raped me and took advantage of me… I have no idea if anyone was being paid at that time I can greatly assure you that they were.” --Jeannetta McCrary

Jeannetta McCrary says she was sold into prostitution against her will at the age of 11. She was at a party with the older siblings of one of her friends when her life was changed forever. She describes how she felt at that moment, “How could you do this to me? What are people going to say? You’re a prostitute.  All I could think was my whole life was over… I lost my virginity my education… my chance to be anything I wanted to be.”

Jeannetta McCrary told her story during an interim study on September 27. The study, lead by State Representative Pam Peterson sought to assess the problem of human trafficking in Oklahoma.

Peterson explains, “Most people don’t realize it even exists.  We may be seeing people everyday that we come in contact with In restaurants or on the road and not be aware that that person may be a victim of sex trafficking.”

Peterson describes “human trafficking” as “modern-day slavery” and suggests that location might play a role in the prevalence of this practice.

“Many young girls as well as boys (but a majority of them are female) have been entrapped into this lifestyle and Oklahoma sits in the middle of the country.  Geographically we have seen many of these victims come through our state” she says.

Oklahoma’s location at the crossroads of three major interstate highways makes it a tempting spot for human traffickers. That factor, along with a 65.6 out of 100 on Shared Hope’s national poll on sex trafficking are part of why the state is being forced to take more aggressive preventative steps.

State Representative Sally Kern authored House Bill 25-18 during the 2012 legislative session. She says the amount of time the state has gone without appropriate action is unacceptable.

“I think it’s a national scourge upon America and it gives Oklahoma a black eye. We need to be protection the most vulnerable, our children.” Kern says.

The measure broadens the definition of human trafficking when it comes to minors and removes previous law that allowed consent of victims to be used against them. Now, human traffickers can still be prosecuted, even if the victim agrees to the act.

Representative Peterson explains that the bill ensures that when minors are arrested while engaged in prostitution, it will no longer be just assumed that they are simply trying to make some money.

“A great many of these minors they don’t even know what city they are in they are certainly not doing this because its what they want to be doing it. They’re doing it because they are slaves.” notes Peterson.

Peterson says she wants to stop the issue, beginning at its roots, where young victims are often the target, “Many times we mention prostitution we think of older adults but what we don’t realize is they were more than likely recruited as a young teen. Right now the ages that the market are targeting is between 12 and 14 years.”

Human Trafficking cases can be some of the most difficult to prosecute, Peterson explains, “These victims are often drawn in and totally manipulated  by their pimps that they are scared to leave or to testify against them for fear of reprisals for their own family… they don’t want to put other members of their family in jeopardy.”

State Representative Kern asserts that prostitution is the highest earning industry in the United States, second only to the illegal drug trafficking. She argues that in most cases these two underground markets go hand in hand.

Representative Peterson says she won’t let the state go on this way, not without a fight.

“I really want to stand up for these victims and see how we can stop this as best we can with our legislation as well as equipping our law enforcement and our DAs to really prosecute these people of these heinous crimes that are taking advantage of the vulnerable, especially the youth. It’s very very troubling.”

According to Sally Kern, legal changes aren’t the only way to fight human trafficking. She says Oklahoma citizens can help to, by educating themselves on the issue.

“I’ve spoken to a number of church groups and shared about sex trafficking and their jaws just drop open. ‘Really? Are you serious? This is happening here?’ Yes it is and you can’t do something about a problem if you are not aware of the problem.” says Kern.

Governor Mary Fallin signed Kern’s House Bill 25-18 in April and it goes into effect this thursday, November 1.

"There she is..."
Cosimo Vestito
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Pageants are a tradition in America. Their constant evolution has often mirrored changes in the Nation itself, revealing the best and worst of American culture. Assignment: Radio reporter Cosimo Vestito speaks with two women who have very different views on the merits of these competitions.

Beauty pageants in the U.S. have a long history that can be traced back to the second half of eighteen hundreds, when the first contest was held. Pageants can be organized on different levels: local, national or international. Even the University of Oklahoma has its own pageant.

Lauren Giddens is a graduate student who works for Miss OU. She explains, “Miss OU is a local pageant, we are part of the Miss America franchise, and so our winner goes on to compete for Miss Oklahoma, and then whoever wins Miss Oklahoma will go on and compete for Miss America. So, we’re part of that franchise.”


The girls competing in these pageants are usually called to go through different tests that judge beauty and attractiveness, and then they’re also judged for particular skills, interests and education. Lauren Giddens explains what would-be Miss OUs have to face.


“The girls compete for different areas: interview, swimwear, talent and evening wear and it’s broken down into percentages and the judges will score each section and whoever comes out with the most points will win the title.” Giddens describes.


Yet, there’s a number of Americans who think that beauty pageants may be harmful to women by devaluing all other measures of human achievement in order to promote an idealized and superficial idea of beauty. Roksana Alavi, professor of “Body Image vs. Reality” at the University of Oklahoma, explains her critical stance.


“The message actually seems like going backward...sending out to people is that women and girls’ best assets are their bodies. These women do good work do charity work but why do we need to be a beauty pageant in order to do that? It seems like they’re saying, ‘Well, we’re going to look at you body first, and we’ll see how intelligent you are and then how you can contribute in the society.”


According to Prof. Alavi, beauty pageants belittle the role of women in society, forcing them to rely principally on their bodies and physical appearance. But Lauren Giddens is strongly convinced these contests could help women to improve their own and other people’s lives by encouraging contestants to maintain a commitment to working in the community. Particularly, Giddens underlines the fact that many of these pageants give the girls the chance to win a scholarship useful to pursue their academic goals.


“Miss OU wins a 2000$ scholarship, but they also just help with confidence and stage presence and being able to articulate your ideas and your opinions about things.” explains Giddens. “I think it really just helps women being more confident about who they are.


In contrast, Prof. Alavi would prefer that a woman’s confidence was not increased through a contest rewarding their physical appearance. As a professor at Women’s and Gender Studies department she would like young girls to  be more satisfied with themselves and the others in a different way. She is skeptical that the confidence discovered through a competition like this is more than skin deep.


“I teach a Body Image course, “Body Image and Reality” and I hear from many young women in my class regardless of how accomplished, capable and intelligent they are; they suffer so much low self-esteem because they realize when they walk out in the society that there’s so much emphasis on how they look.” she says.

“People don’t listen to them unless they look in a certain way, people don’t take them seriously unless they look in a certain way, so I would be interested in what how is it when somebody who’s got apparently a perfect body that is going to help me to build confidence.” asserts Alavi.


There has been some amount of diversification in the pageant world. Professor Alavi believes things like plus-size competitions could be useful in freeing women from the emphasis on a singular view of what beauty looks like. She notes that standards of physical beauty have changed over the decades and even centuries.

A more controversial addition to the pageant world in recent years has been the rise of child beauty pageants. Alavi says this takes the issue too far, “I really have a serious problem with children’s pageants. I think, again it sends the same message that you have to look a certain way, that you have to wear makeup, do your hair and perform these particular (very gender specific) kinds of activities to make you attractive.”

“So if you look at all of this again what kind of message is just sent to these young girls and what are they going to end up as when they’re much older?” she says.

Lauren Giddens and Professor Roksana Alavi represent opposite sides on the role of beauty contests. The battle between outer and inner beauty has raged throughout the centuries, and usually ends with the old maxim that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

"The 2012 Drought"
Michael Fox
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This year has been the worst year for wildfires nationally since 2000, with nearly 8 million acres going up in flames. This is in part due to the widespread drought that the nation faced this summer. KGOU’s Michael Fox reports.

Norman Fire Department Deputy Chief Jim Bailey describes the events of August 3rd when Oklahoma faced its largest wildfire of the summer as the most exceptional fire he has seen in 30 years.

“The typical wildfires we can get ahead of them and extinguish them. With this one our main focus was to get ahead of the fire and evacuate people and get them out of their houses and let the fire do what it was going to do cause we could not stop it.” says Bailey.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the wildfires in early August destroyed 120 structures in Oklahoma and led to one fatality. Nationally, over 7 million acres burned due to wildfires this summer. Wildfire chances increase dramatically when drought conditions are present. And our state has been in drought for the last two years.
Climatologist Gary McManus explains why this year was worse than 2011 for fires, “The difference between that drought and this year’s drought however is that we really had pretty good rainfall from November all the way through march and into April so you know that allowed for a lot of growth of vegetation.”

“Now when we started to go back into really bad drought conditions in the summer and we started to lose rainfall all of that vegetation that had grown up went dormant or it died and that created fuel for wildfires. So we had a lot of fuel this summer for wildfires” says McManus.

As stated by NOAA there were more acres of land burned this year from wildfires than any year since 2000. In contrast, the actual number of wildfires this year was the second lowest over the same period. Meaning while fewer fires ignited, those that did, were larger and more devastating.
And, despite recent rainfall and cooler temperatures, Oklahoma is still technically experiencing a drought.

“You can have an inch of rain and within another week the high winds and dry conditions you are right back in the same spot. So it’s the sustained moisture coming in weekly that we certainly look for.” says Bailey.

Drought has far reaching effects. There are many businesses both agricultural and industrial that are hurt by drought. During the 2011 drought the wheat crop was affected, in this year’s drought the corn crop was hit especially hard.

In a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it was found that nationally 52% of the corn crop was deemed to be poor or very poor quality, and in an extreme case, in Missouri over 90% of the corn crops were rated poor.

This summer’s brutal drought has led to many comparisons to the conditions that contributed to the infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930s.  Gary McManus helps put such assertions into perspective.
“If you would take the two year drought period that we had now and extended out another 5 to 10 years then you could compare the droughts but just looking at the short term basis the drought we had last year was probably as bad as any we have had in the state history.” says McManus.

“We will probably have some sort of intensity of drought to some degree of drought as we get into next spring, and then we will just have to wait and see if the Norman spring rains arrive.” he says.

"Putting a Face on HIV AIDS in Oklahoma."

Paige Willett
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The first two AIDS cases in Oklahoma were diagnosed in 1982. At that time, such a diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence.  Now, 30 years later, treatment options have vastly improved both chances for survival and the quality of life for patients, yet stigma remains a major obstacle for sufferers and state health officials tasked with reducing rates of infection.  Assignment Radio’s Paige Willett explores the state of aids in Oklahoma, and a recent project one photographer has embarked upon to literally put a face on this illness.

Doug Carlton sits on a stool against a blank, white wall. His grey moustache is expertly curled on its ends, and he wears a bright red sweatshirt. He has been HIV positive for 19 years. Photographer and art gallery owner Ashley Griffith is taking his picture for her latest project, “A Portrait of HIV/AIDS in a ‘Red State.’” She hopes to photograph and document 1,000 of the nearly 8,500 Oklahomans living with HIV/AIDs for a large scale photographic display in a public space.

“We still have this disease that’s out there, and still present. I want it to be in a public venue where everyday people have to see it.” says Griffith. “These are Oklahomans in your state, in your district, that are still have this disease and that still deal with it every day, and the disease isn’t going anywhere.”

Griffith hopes her vision, when completed, will allow for a more open discussion about HIV and AIDS and perhaps lessen the stigma surrounding those who are living with the disease.  A glimpse at her fledgling display illustrates the challenge ahead, with some of her subjects still refusing to fully reveal themselves.

“I thought it would be interesting if the people that needed to remain anonymous would face backwards, and the people who would, who could be out about their status could face forward. So then, once they’re all mounted together, you kind of get this overwhelming sensation of how many people really have to be anonymous, or people who even in this day and age can be out about it.” explains Griffith.

The State Health Department faces a similar dilemma in its effort to simply get people tested and aware of their infection status. Oklahoma State Health Department HIV and AIDS Service Chief Jan Fox expresses her frustrations in what she says patients feel is still a taboo subject throughout the state.

“They don’t want to know, because they don’t want anyone else to know that they’re infected. And I think if we could break down those barriers, and let people understand that it’s okay to be tested, and in fact it’s a good idea to be tested. I think stigma is our biggest barrier that we face.” says Fox.

According to the latest State Health Department HIV and STD update from 2010, some 300 new cases were diagnosed.  This follows what the department suggests is a “stable” trend overall. Breaking that number down further reveals a decrease in AIDS cases, but an increase in HIV infections from the years 2006 to 2010. Jan Fox explains the disproportionate diagnosis.

“What we’re seeing with AIDS cases is fewer people move from HIV diagnosis to AIDS diagnosis because there are such effective treatments out there.” says Fox. “So, a person who has HIV who is receiving care for their disease can live a very, very long and healthy life and my never develop AIDS. Now if you look over time, our numbers of HIV, new cases of HIV, have been relatively stable.”

These advances in our understanding and treatment of the disease do have a downside, in that these improvements might lull patients and the general public into a false sense of security.
“I do think kind of what’s happened over time as we’ve gotten some good treatments that some of the urgency and passion surrounding the area of HIV has kind of been lost. But what I would say is that it is a lifelong and life altering infection.” says Fox. “So, it’s just as important now to address it as it was in the 80s, and we shouldn’t lose our focus, and we shouldn’t quit trying.”

That’s why Photographer Ashley Griffith wants to keep HIV/AIDS awareness in the public square.  Griffith’s passion is apparent as she describes her experiences in photographing subjects for her project. The trust she builds is a session is a major part of overcoming the invisible boundary of shame that often separates her and her subjects.

“A guy the other day, he was a young man, he came in and posed.” describes Griffith, “He said, ‘This is like my second coming out party. I came out that I was gay. Now I’m coming out again in a different way and it’s very emotional, and it’s very hard.’ You know, and he was trembling and it was a very touching moment. The fact that these people are trusting their deepest, darkest secret with me is incredible.”

Doug Carlton, the model described earlier, thinks that kind of trust creates a sense of community around HIV and AIDS awareness, and that openness can lead to understanding.

“Once people get over the fear of letting other people know that, ‘Yes, I’m living with HIV,’ then once they know someone who’s living with HIV, it gives them the courage to maybe go ahead and get tested the first time, or admit to someone else that they’re living with HIV.” says Carton. “I decided to treat it like any other disease that anyone can get, and my parents did the same, I think I enlightened a lot of people in my family that would not have known anything about it.

Ashley Griffith has photographed approximately 50 people for “A Portrait of HIV/AIDS in a ‘Red State’” and hopes to photograph many more.

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