Derby All-Around

Pioneer Valley Roller Derby puts the world’s fastest growing sport on the fast track to gender equality

The valley has long been a place where notions of women, gender and sexuality have come into question, so it’s only fitting that its very own Pioneer Valley Roller Derby (PVRD) was the first league in the country to host both women’s and men’s teams. In the spirit of acceptance, athleticism and fun, Pioneer Valley players of all genders get together to take part in the $60 million global industry gaining speed in communities around the world.

When roller derby was first popularized during the Depression of the 1930’s, both women and men enjoyed the sport. In fact, a man named Leo Seltzer is credited for the introduction. Derby remained in demand during the early days of television, yet its popularity ebbed during the 1970’s as viewers complained the bouts appeared “scripted” and “staged.” Now, says PVRD founding co-owner Sarah “Pink Panzer” Lang, derby couldn’t be any more genuine.

“You don’t have to have tattoos or piercings to play roller derby. It’s not a crazy time sport, it’s a real sport…so you get a little bit of everything,” says Lang.

Even during bouts, PVRD teams show unity by wearing the same color tops and bottoms, but are otherwise free to wear whatever they choose. That sense of individuality is important to the league—it was created to be a safe space within the community. Though derby’s most recent resurgence, which began in the early 2000’s, has taken hold more quickly with women, Lang and partner Jacob “Bazooka Joe” Fahy started the league in 2006 to bring the sport they fell in love with to everyone in the valley.

Players practice in their private space in Florence

Players practice in their private space in Florence

That inclusion, however, has made it difficult for the league on a national level. The men’s team, dubbed ‘The Dirty Dozen,’ was accepted into the Men’s Roller Derby Association (MRDA)—an organization that PVRD helped found, yet stringent rules in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) prevent the women’s A-team, ‘Western Mass Destruction,’ from being ranked with other women’s teams on a national scale. WFTDA rules stipulate participating teams must be 51 percent or more owned by women. Fahy and Lang remain fifty-fifty partners and stand by the precedent that sets for their league.

Men’s leagues have sprouted worldwide in recent years, yet the majority of roller derby leagues remain available only to women. Fahy and Lang explain that, in the interest of keeping equality at the forefront and interest on-the-rise, it has not been in the league’s best interest to turn anyone away, regardless of gender.

“Why would we tell people they couldn’t play,” Lang says.

Though PVRD players are obviously serious about their sport in all of its full-contact glory, a spirit of welcoming acceptance permeates the league. In their private practice space in Florence, senior derby players take the time to ensure newcomers learn every aspect of the game, even if they have never skated before (and many haven’t).

Rebecca “Chewbecca” Groveman has been in the league for over three years. Groveman says before joining PVRD, she was shy and less outgoing. Derby has changed that entirely—she now has a large circle of close-knit friends, increased self-confidence and quads like a champ.

Groveman tore her ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) during a bout in July, yet continues to attend every practice and anxiously awaits her return to skates.

“I have never once regretted getting involved, even after I got hurt,” says Groveman.

In roller derby, pain is part of the game—bruises, bumps and sprains are commonplace, as with any contact sport. Derby is all about having fun, supporting each other and toughening up.

“If you don’t fall, you’re not trying hard enough,” says Groveman.

PVRD’s season home closer is Sunday at the Mullins Center starting at 3:00: Western Mass Destruction versus Garden State RollerGirls’ Brick City Bruisers; Dirty Dozen versus New York Shock Exchange’s Dow Jones Average. General admission is $10, $8 for students, and discounted children’s tickets are available at the door. Doors open at 2:30. Spaces are still available for the league’s new 12-week Junior Roller Derby program, for youth ages 13-17, which starts this Wednesday.


Controversial video has Northampton taking sides

Iconically progressive Northampton, Massachusetts is reeling after an incident early Sunday morning in which city police made a provocative arrest outside of Tully O’Reilly’s, a downtown sports bar. As area residents are quickly choosing a side in the controversy, I thought it best to take a moment to reflect.

A five-minute video of the arrest was posted to youtube by an onlooker, who very clearly identifies herself as an attorney. The video, which shows a black man being maced and arrested for no easily identifiable reason, has been viewed nearly 65,000 times since its posting on Monday and has spurred hundreds of comments.

The footage is shaky, dark and difficult to decipher, but one thing is clear: it has struck a nerve.

The police were reportedly called to the scene to assist with the removal of Modesto Melendez, 22, of Holyoke—not the subject featured in the video. The individual arrested in the video-gone-viral was identified by the Gazette as Jonas Correia, 26, of Amherst. As shown in the footage, Correia was recording the police with his smartphone when instructed to stop by a member of the Tully’s staff.  Chief Russell Sienkiewicz offered a brief statement in which he defends Correia’s arrest. He claims that in the moments before the anonymous onlooker began recording, Correia had taken a “fighting stance” toward the staff person, at which point the officers intervened.

I feel as though this is an appropriate time to provide you all with a personal disclaimer. Firstly, my boyfriend of three years is mixed-race and has been overtly mistreated by the Tully’s staff, who are notoriously hostile, for his African-American descent. Secondly, I spent last winter going through the Citizen Police Academy with the Northampton Police Department and completed the course with a sense of confidence in the department’s good intentions.

While these life experiences perhaps taint my objectivity in this matter, I find it important to bring public attention to the Tully’s staff and their role in escalating the situation. After reading the comments posted to the video, I get the growing sense that many viewers are confusing the actions of the police with the actions of the Tully’s staff. And the confusion is completely valid. They are at least as vocal as the officers at the scene, if not more. Let us, please, question their authority. Why does one Tully’s staff member appear to follow Correia as he is walking away from the bar? Since when are city sidewalks mentioned in a doorman’s job description? Would you not take a “fighting stance” with someone who was following and shouting at you?

It is difficult to know what truly happened in the early hours of Sunday morning, but police officers are trained to react quickly and stop violence, regardless of who the instigator is. That very training is what sets them apart from the men wearing ‘staff’ t-shirts—a distinction that appears to be lacking from the ‘uniformed’ rapport.

Turning to social media in times of crisis

The immediateness of communication technology has become part of our day-to-day world, so much so that in situations of emergency, we can employ instantaneous communication as a way to spread important information rapidly.

As news coverage emerged of the Virginia Tech shooting on Thursday, much of it was a recreation of what had already been posted on Twitter. Both the university’s and the school newspaper’s websites were so overwhelmed with students and families logging on for information between 12:30 and 4:30 that the servers to the sites crashed. In desperation, Twitter and Facebook became a recourse for students trapped in locked-down classrooms to communicate with their families and tell the world what was happening to them.

The school newspaper, The Collegiate Times posted news of the death of  Va. Tech Officer Deriek Crouse on their Twitter page soon after the campus alert system notified students of the shootings. Editors Zach Crizer and Michelle Sutherland rushed to the scenes of the shootings and posted updates on Twitter before any outside reporters could arrive.

As the Virginia State Police rushed to lock down the campus, cell phone service apparently became difficult to find. Email had crashed along with the school site’s server. The Collegiate Times stuck with Twitter, one of their only means of communicating with the outside world, throughout the day. The newspaper’s twitter feed became an open conversation with all the students who were on lock-down. They used Twitter to contact potential sources and attempted to research, confirm or deny what people were talking about and report their findings.

By the end of the day on Thursday, the newspaper’s Twitter account had gained about 18,000 new followers and 800 Facebook likes, according to Poynter’s article.

If not for Twitter, The Collegiate Times and others students may have been trapped in their classrooms with no way of communicating their stories. However, Twitter also allowed false rumors to spread regarding the day’s events. There were erroneous posts about a suspect getting away in a red Mitsubishi, mysterious third shootings, and pictures posted from the infamous 2007 massacre with captions reading Thursday’s date.

And that’s when the journalists need to step in to sift through the information and validate the claims.

The benefits of instantaneous communication are not restricted to journalism, however. Campuses, like Virginia Tech, are using campus alert systems which incorporate email and texting to notify students of emergency situations.

Even as I sit down to polish up this blog post, the library is aflutter while students receive identical text messages and emails from the campus alert system informing us that a female student was accosted nearby. The alert included information about the suspect’s appearance and the anonymous tip line phone number, so anyone walking by the suspect on campus may recognize him and call the police.

When the October 30 snow storm walloped New England, leaving millions without power, many used their last minutes of  laptop battery power to go online and look for information. With power lines and trees down at every turn, it was hard to find places to get warm and our typical sources of comfort, our televisions and laptops, became unavailable to us. Many of us were without heat, electricity, and answers. Umass waited until the last minute to post any school closing information on their website, leaving us anxious over how to prepare for class, so we turned to the Umass Facebook page. We pleaded for information, for university officials to tell us whether we needed to brave dangerous conditions to do our homework and find ways to get to school. Many students made long, thoughtful appeals to the university through Facebook posts.

One such appeal was written by Facebook user “Steph Cheung.” She reminded university officials that it was getting late in the day, and that many students had driven distances over the weekend to find family, friends, and hotels with power, and would have to drive back to school at some point. She asked that Umass make a decision before they were driving back late in icy conditions, many heading to apartments still without power. Another Facebook user, Brad Ford, posted the comment: “relax.” The  Umass Amherst Facebook page “liked” Ford’s comment.

The topic was brought up in our journalism classes the next day. Someone was hired to oversee the Umass media, and they made a big mistake. There were plenty of outrageous posts that students put up that day, yet Cheung’s was a sincere, thoughtful request. For the Umass Amherst Facebook page to have “liked” such criticism of a mature appeal for the school to make a decision, showed a blatant disrespect for the students.

This is what constitutes an opportunity in social media; they should have written something informative and professional in response. Plenty of students wanted to know the status of classes for the next day, and plenty more still want to know how universities like Umass make such decisions. The university page should have been used to answer some of those questions, not dismiss them.

When the university finally posted that we would still hold class the Tuesday after the storm, students were outraged. Their anger started a new thread of posts and comments on Umass’s page. It is likely that the page saw the most traffic that it has ever seen during that three-day period.

People like to feel heard, which is one of the reasons social media has become so prominent. It is the most accessible, open, far-reaching forum that society has ever seen. The transmission and receipt of instantaneous communication seems like a good tool to have in the bag, yet we may have a few kinks to work out.

SEO: Unethical or Essential?

In a world where you answer most questions by typing them into google, search engine optimization (SEO) is crucial. A work’s title, key words, and tags are what connect it with an audience; successful SEO means making your work accessible.

But how far should we take it?

It’s a journalist’s job to get the word out there, so naturally it makes sense for us to consider SEO. The “Ground Zero Mosque” saga, however, is indicative of a modern ethical struggle in the journalism world. Where do we draw the line? Is it unethical to repeatedly use the phrase “ground zero mosque” because you know it will have a considerable impact on your online visibility?

Even though we have a story to tell to as many people as possible, we also have a responsibility to our audience to present them with factual, unbiased information. “Ground zero mosque,” is a false label. The establishment is an Islamic center, not a mosque. The center is two blocks away from ground zero. Even if we correct it in the context of the story, is it ok to promote the use of that term?

The AP says no, and they’ve held to their word. It’s admirable, but is it practical? If someone hears a friend say in passing, “it’s ironic like a mosque at ground zero is ironic,” and they want to know more about it, they are most likely to type “ground zero mosque” into the search engine. To refuse to use the phrase in the context of the article means that the right audience might not reach your information.

It’s a dilemma. It’s important to stay true to your morals, but you may be sitting on your high horse all by yourself because no one’s reading your work.

If we get technical about it, the use of quotation marks puts into question whether or not the words are yours. Any subsequent article on the topic is newsworthy because someone said the words “ground zero mosque.” It’s not perpetuating a falsehood to write a story about how the “ground zero mosque” does not exist. It is your duty as a journalist to relate the newsworthiness to your content; the reader should know why the information is relevant. To exclude the term is equal to not using a quote because you disagree with it.


“Supercommittee” not so super

America is in a state of financial crisis. Unemployment rates are hitting an all-time high. Meanwhile, prices are going up across the board and the national debt increases by the minute.

And our elected officials are unable to meet in the middle and come up with a viable solution to any one of these problems.

The issues are gigantic, so it is understandable that the answer is difficult to find. But to not come up with anything is indicative of a government that is failing, at least on some level.

Democrats and Republicans are pointing the blame at each other for unwillingness to compromise. Democrats hold tightly on to the simple notion of increasing taxes in order to cover the government deficits, that the government programs are too important to cut. Republicans argue that government spending needs to decrease dramatically and the revenue needs to come from somewhere else.

The debate is classic and the results are tragic. Big government versus small government. This decision could quite possibly be the most important financial decision of the decade, yet both sides of the argument are so ideologically stuck in their ways that they cannot reach a compromise.

Clearly the solution lies in the ways in which our government collects money from its citizens. Government officials need to strike a balance between taxing individual citizens, taxing what individual citizens buy, and taxing businesses. A tax increase to the individual citizen puts more of a burden on an already stressed situation for American citizens and a tax on business will only push more businesses ( and more jobs) overseas.

So that leaves sales tax. Why hasn’t this been part of the discussion?

A flat national sales tax has the potential to provide a great deal of revenue for the government while taking away the burden of the individual and the business. It does not exclude anyone; even illegal immigrants and government officials would pay a tax. And if you don’t have the money, you don’t make the purchase. Both businesses and the poor would get by unscathed.

So why has a national sales tax been voted down every time? Some say that there are serious flaws with such a system, that it would hurt spending and couldn’t raise enough money. Others say that legislators will not vote for a bill that would rid them of their tax exemption.

There doesn’t have to be one answer, but the officials we have elected should feel pressured put aside differences and do their jobs.The supercommittee was created because people on all sides of this debate can agree that the automatic tax increases that are coming may not necessarily be the best thing for a struggling economy. There simply isn’t room for biased opinions and party loyalties in this discussion.

If the tax cuts are allowed to expire in 2013, America could be facing another big blow. At the same time, the money needs to come from somewhere. The average American citizen has kicked into survival mode, perhaps it is time that government officials do the same. This is too important to push off until tomorrow.

A successful multimedia package: “Born and Raised”

“Born and Raised” is a story on that addresses the issue of illegal aliens who were brought to the United States as children and raised as Americans. It features an 18-year-old who was born in Guadelajara and brought to Arizona by his mother. The video package shows him being interviewed in Nogales, Sonora, as he was discovered and deported.

Jose Rivera has found himself enclosed in a culture he barely knows. He has only been to Mexico once and views America as his home, yet he is not allowed to remain with his mother and American-born sisters. He doesn’t know anyone in Mexico, does not have a Mexican past, and has nowhere to turn to.

This particular interview was a brilliant journalistic choice. Rivera’s story depicts the immigration issue on a personal level.

This multimedia package is successful because it allows the audience to become acquainted with a person deeply affected by a larger story. Immigration is an ongoing issue that is very often difficult for American-born citizens to relate to. It is very easy to think, “if you don’t want to get deported, then don’t come here illegally.” But it is a much more complicated issue than that, and this story shows why.

The story is mostly video-based, the key-component being an interview with the subject, Jose Rivera. The video itself is very successful because it does a brilliant job of capturing a moment. Rivera is being filmed on the porch of Grupo Beta, a government organization designed to help illegal immigrants. His facial expression reveals sadness. His tone of voice and his posture reflect a detachedness. The background, being the small building that houses the organization with the faces of displaced Mexicans sitting in front of it, conveys a bigger picture.

The video itself was very well shot. The cameraman successfully and tactfully zoomed and panned. When Rivera started nervously fidgeting with a wad of paper in his hand, the cameraman zoomed in so that the audience could only see his hands, while the audio of his interview could still be heard over the shot.

The editing was simple and smart. Instead of cutting the interview short, the editors ended with Rivera and others sitting in front of Grupo Beta turning to face the new group of deported Mexicans being brought to the organization.

The written story beneath the video is brief, yet succinct. It informs the audience about the bigger picture. It talks about DREAM: Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors. Without getting into all of the partisan debate surrounding immigration policy, the article gracefully touches upon the information itself, being the legislation in progress.

The package was timely. It was published in the Spring of 2008, as legislators poured over the issue. While they discussed, offered this insight into a world that is frequently unseen from government officials. The DREAM Act passed this Fall in California.