Transcript

350:

Human Resources
Transcript

Originally aired 02.29.2008

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/350

Prologue.

Ira Glass

So how many years were you an executioner in your job?

Chris

That period lasted for maybe five or six years.

Ira Glass

That's a really long time.

Chris

Oh it was a very long time. It was very, very depressing.

Ira Glass

Chris is a mild-mannered, decent guy who was an executioner in the sense that he fired over 1,500 people. He was working for a financial services firm. And the internet boom went bust, 9/11 happened, the economy was bad, business was terrible. And as a result, call centers with hundreds of people were barely getting any calls. And when the company downsized, he had to see that all of these people, hundreds of them, were dismissed. And then at the end of the process, he was fired.

Chris

The whole unit I was in at that time, the organization decided that they were going to fold that unit and not be in that business directly.

Ira Glass

So did you have to fire yourself? Was it like a samurai movie, where they gave you an order saying you will execute all these people and then you will execute yourself?

Chris

No, it wasn't that way. Pretty much all of us took a turn. We were all in the wrong seat eventually. I'd say 90% of us, anyway.

Ira Glass

You might notice that in my conversation with Chris, I use the word executioner, but he never does. He is such an old school human resources guy. So old school that decades ago, he was actually part of a group that helped popularize the phrase human resources department, replacing the term personnel department, which means that he is much too smooth, and experienced, and truly empathetic to ever use the word executioner. Or the word fired for that matter.

Chris

I would never use it. I think that's something that-- I think that's an unhelpful and kind of a dated concept. If you've done it skillfully, they're going to feel that there was a parting of the ways, there was an exit of the unit, or whatever the factors are. I know when I received a package, I came through the door and said, "Hey, I've been exited. I got a package. They're closing down the unit." And I hadn't actually thought of myself as being fired for a second.

Ira Glass

This is a very positive, glass half full kind of man. So it was sort of miserable for him during those five or six years, flying around the country, checking into hotels and then planning what he was going to say to certain people. Preparing himself to go into these big call centers to arrange for hundreds of people to be fired at one time.

Chris

Well it feels bad, obviously. And it's a painful thing. Many people had grown up there for years. And this was their life as well as their role and their job. And before you get there, they know. I mean the jungle drums are out there. And you walk into a call center, there isn't a receptionist. You walk down the halls and past the desks, and people will kind of look at you.

Ira Glass

Did you ever actually hear people say, as you walked by, here they come?

Chris

That's happened, yes. I've had people say, is this the executioner? It's not-- you know they're wondering, is it going to be me? How's it going to impact my life?

Ira Glass

So just to be clear, so you've personally fired dozens of people and then overseen the firing of hundreds of people, right?

Chris

Yes.

Ira Glass

OK, can I ask you to just fire me right now?

Chris

OK, OK. Hi, Ira. How are you?

Ira Glass

I'm doing OK.

Chris

Good, good. Ira, this is going to be a difficult conversation. I want to let you know that up front. You know we've been going through serious changes in the market environment over the last 12, 18 months. And so the organization, I think as you know, is making some decisions to downsize. And I have the bad news for you, which is that you're part of that downsizing. So you know your role--

Ira Glass

As Chris did this, from the moment that he said this is going to be a difficult conversation, I feel like he got the message across. I was going to be fired. And then even though I knew this was made up, my mind went blank. His language was so abstract and businessy that it just let my mind kind of wander and think, "Oh, I've been fired. I've been fired. What am I going to do now?" And then next thing I knew, he was talking about my severance package.

Chris

And I'd like to tell you a little bit about the support that we're going to provide for you in terms of salary continuation, and medical coverage, and things like that.

Ira Glass

So when Chris was done firing me, I asked him about how clinical his language had been, if that was a technique of some sort, to lull me into accepting my firing.

Chris

It just comes out that way because you start with the facts. And you also need to be careful about what you say. So you don't want to enrage the person on a personal level. So you really want to keep it calm and talk much more about their exit package.

Ira Glass

Now, did you get nervous as you were doing that?

Chris

Sure.

Ira Glass

You sounded a little nervous. And also I have to say, I am sitting here at a mixing console, so I'm controlling the volume of your voice. The volume of your voice cut in half. I've been pushing up the volume of your voice steadily the entire time.

Chris

It's not a comfortable thing. It's not a comfortable thing.

Ira Glass

Even for you.

Chris

No. It's never comfortable. It's something, I don't think-- you can do it 100 times and it still feels bad. And I think it's because at the end of the day, people have much less control than organizations do in the world of work. The actual job finding processes are still pretty antiquated for individuals, whereas organizations can have recruiters and search firms, and advertise, and et cetera, et cetera. An individual, they're kind of like a little boat in a big sea. And they're going to bob around there. And they're going to have to scratch together a living again.

Ira Glass

The company always has more power than we do. And if we're lucky, they manage us well, they're fair, they keep us busy enough but not too busy. But we are not always lucky. Today on our show we have stories about how our lives get run by these institutions. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Our program today, Human Resources, in three acts. Act One, The Rubber Room. In that act, hundreds of public school teachers who are not in the classroom but who get paid full salaries to do nothing. Act Two, The Plan. The secret cabal who may or may not run real estate markets all over the country. Act Three, Almost Human Resources. Human management of animals has gotten to the point where even the federal government has started to build animals retirement homes. No kidding. Stay with us.

Act One. Rubber Room.

Ira Glass

Act One, Rubber Room. A former schoolteacher named Jeremy Garrett decided to make a movie about one of the things the school system puts his colleagues through, something that seemed like terrible mismanagement to him in the New York City public schools where he worked. Jeremy had heard about teachers who were removed from their classrooms and sent to a place that everybody calls the rubber room. Like for example this teacher that he interviewed, who did not want his name used. He was having personality conflicts with the principal. And the principal suggested that he could be reassigned elsewhere. It sounded great to the teacher. And then for the next few days, instead of going to school, he went to this room in a Department of Education building.

Anonymous Teacher

It's kind of embarrassing. The first two days as I'm sitting down there, I was naive enough to say to the secretary, about what time do you think I'll be meeting with somebody? And she's like, well, you're just going to sit there until you do meet with somebody. And then at the end of the second day, I'm like, this is crazy. I mean, I have an after school Regents Prep program to help the kids with the Regents Exam. I'm like, this is nuts. These kids have to take a Regents Exam. They're like a week away. And then eventually the light goes on over your head as you start meeting other people that are sitting there too. And you realize, all right, this is going to be a long term kind of thing.

Ira Glass

This is the rubber room. Some teachers are put there because they are accused of something like putting their hands on a kid, where the school would want them out of the classroom while it investigates and determines guilt or innocence. But many of the teachers are just there for things like insubordination, unsatisfactory performance. And some teachers don't know why they're there. And instead of finding them guilty and firing them, or finding them innocent and returning them to the classroom, the New York schools just hold them, sometimes for years, doing nothing-- nothing. All day long, nothing-- in these big rooms.

Anonymous Teacher

The environment has a culture all its own. And when you're there long enough-- like I was there for a year. When you're there long enough, you see the stages of the culture. New people sit there, and are very quiet, and say nothing to anybody under any circumstances. And then a couple weeks go by, they realize OK, I guess I'm going to be here for a while. I might as well start getting relaxed. A lot of people come in with suit and tie because they figure they're going to meet with somebody immediately, and then get back into the classroom, because they think this whole thing is a joke. What am I here for in the first place?

So once it dawns on them that you're going to be here for a while, then they start to loosen up. They don't dress as nice. They realize, I've got to be comfortable because I'm going to be sitting down in a room for six hours. Then on stage three, you start opening up, you start talking to people, you start interacting. What you like? Oh, I like doing crossword puzzles. You start building bonds with people.

Ira Glass

This guy spent a full year in the rubber room. And then he was fired without any formal charges. At any given time there are as many as a dozen or so rubber rooms around the city of New York, in all five boroughs, holding as many as 700 or 800 teachers. Teachers show up every day, all day. And they're paid their full salaries, meaning taxpayers are putting out tens of millions of dollars for this every year.

Well, this teacher's film about the rubber room made us wonder more about what life is like inside the rubber room. And with the filmmaker's permission, we asked the team at Radio Diaries-- Joe Richman, Samara Freemark, and Anayansi Diaz Cortes-- to go out and do a radio version of the story. Here it is.

My ?] name is [? Iago Kier ?]. I'm 32 years old. I was an English teacher in the Bronx for three years.

Grace Colon

My name is Grace Colon. I've been a teacher in New York City for 16 years. I'm starting my second year in the rubber room.

Jonathan

My name is Jonathan. I was a teacher in the New York City public school system for one month and in the rubber room for four months. Yeah. I spent much longer in the rubber room than I did in the classroom.

I ?] was under a lot of stress at work. I was three months into teaching. And I rolled into work that day, it was two days after my 29th birthday. And I was going from group to group, helping them out if they had answers with the prompts, things like that. I'm sitting down with one particular group, and they're all speaking really loudly and I'd not paid attention. And the classroom and turned into a chaos. The next thing I know, I'm screaming, I'm cursing, I am basically unhinged. And I picked up a chair. And I threw it at a blackboard. And I didn't really get a lot of torque on it. I didn't really release it like I wish I could have. And it bounced off a wall and on the way down nicked a student. I then left the classroom. I just couldn't believe what I had done. I went and splashed cold water on my neck. And I just tried to assess just what I had done, you know. I remember going back into the classroom. And to them it was-- well I mean, looking at it objectively, to them, it must have been-- not fun per se-- but hugely entertaining to see an adult, someone in a position of power, completely lose their [BLEEP]. And then the next day, I'm taken out of the classroom and reassigned.

Grace Colon

My principal called me into the office just before Christmas, 2006. She had a paper. And she told me that I am being reassigned to a reassignment center. And I'm asking, what does this mean? What does reassignment center mean? Somebody looked at me and said, well, you're in the rubber room.

Jonathan

I said the word [BLEEP] in the hallway at my school in a conversation with another teacher. And unbeknownst to me, there was an open door nearby, and a classroom of eighth graders heard me. I knew that I was going to be in trouble. The principal pulled me aside on my way to my classroom and charged me with verbal abuse of a child. It's child abuse, verbal abuse. So she literally accused me of abusing a child by accidentally using a single four letter word. And I had no idea at that moment I would never see my students again. I had no idea.

Grace Colon

When I did go to the so-called reassignment center, you walk into a typical city office, almost like either welfare office, food stamp office. People walking around, trying to look busy, not making eye contact. You start thinking, where are you?

And ?] there are about eight to 10 rooms. In every room there are about 10 people. And space is at a premium.

Grace Colon

I mean, you had the black corner, you had the Hispanic corner, you had the few white people that were scared to death. And so you have to make a quick decision, because everybody else is sort of looking you, sizing you up. Where do I go?

Jonathan

My first day there, I went in and I reported to the supervisor in charge. She said, well go find yourself a chair, but be careful because people are territorial, and, in fact, fights have broken out over chairs. And I thought to myself, what are you talking about? Fights-- people-- fights breaking out among teachers over chairs? And I went and I saw-- the first open seat I saw, I went and I sat down in it. And I opened up my book. And the person next to me said, you can't sit there. That's blah-blah-blah's seat. And I said, well where's blah-blah-blah? He said, well, he didn't come in, because it's Friday and he wanted the three day weekend. And I said, well, when he comes in, we could talk about it then. So she got up and left the room. And a minute later she came back and she said, I found you a seat. I got you a seat. You'll like it better there, I can see you like to read. It's a quieter room. So I thought that's a friendly thing to do. And she went and took me in the other room and she asked my name. And she said, everybody this is Jonathan. And she went around the room. And she introduced me to everyone in the room. And she said, here's your chair. And sure enough, there was an empty chair. And then she left. And I went and I sat down. And the woman a couple of chairs away said, you can't sit there. That's blah-blah-blah's seat.

And I want to emphasize, I was not in a good mood. I was not happy to be there. I didn't know what was going on with me. I was I was feeling hostile. And well, I'm kind of a big guy. And this is a rather petite woman some years older than me. And I leaned right over and I got in her face. I said, now you listen to me. I'm going to sit in that chair. And if anybody doesn't like it, if anybody's got a problem about it, you send them right to me and we'll talk about it. And I sat right down, and I opened my book. And she gave me a dirty look and didn't say anything. So I sat in that very same chair every day. And that was my chair. And sometimes I could get an empty chair and put it in front of me and turn it around and use it as a table. And that was nice.

My ?] name is [? Gail Friedman. ?] I am now in the rubber room. And I've been in there since February of 2007. The children don't know what happened to me. They might have thought maybe I moved away or I went to another school. You're just not there anymore.

Pete Sinclair

You're in this forgotten little place. My name is Pete Sinclair, but that's really not my name. And I have been in the rubber room for about a year and a half. It's that feeling of lack of momentum, of anything moving. It's like purgatory. And time just goes by. And everyone is just sort of playing cards.

Gail Friedman

It's just like you sit and wait. As if you'd be in a waiting room, except that you're waiting for months. Sometimes people wait for years. You just wait.

Grace Colon

When I first come in to the rubber room in the mornings, I look at the papers. Then I look through my bag, I usually stick bills and stuff, my checkbook.

Iago Kier

You just kind of go there, you sign in, you sit down, you stare at the wall. You get into a conversation with somebody. You make a phone call. You check your stocks if you want.

Grace Colon

Some people play cards. Some people gossip. Some people have portable VCRs. They look at movies.

Jonathan

And then there were little classes that were held. I took Spanish classes from a Spanish teacher. There were drawing classes. There was a book club, very popular. And they would meet twice a week for 90 minutes. And you would have 20 people in this little room that housed the refrigerator and the microwave. And they'd be talking about the novel or what have you. But you know, that might be three or four hours a week. Even if you did all the activities, it's just a few hours a week.

Iago Kier

And there are a lot of people who would just bring in pillows and would sleep all day.

Pete Sinclair

No lesson plans, no homework, no papers to grade, no dealing with parents, no dealing with screaming kids.

Iago Kier

And indeed there are teachers and reverence for years collecting the salary for a job that they're not doing.

Jonathan

And for some people that's not so bad. If you really hated teaching, and you really liked playing cards, the money's the same.

So yeah, the noise for me might have been the worst part of actually being there. And the sound of it was really the most distinctive thing of it. I wanted to get a souvenir. I brought in a little digital voice recorder. So I just laid the recorder down on the table. I'll play it for you.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

It's very crowded, the acoustics are terrible, very echoey. And teachers like to talk.

Woman

I agree. We're off from what society condones as the norm.

Jonathan

Like at a loud party, where you're talking to somebody and after a while you realize that you're both shouting. And then you realize that everybody in the room is shouting.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Pete Sinclair

It's really difficult to sit there and try to read or get anything done when people are yelling, or fighting, or screaming over a missing bottle of jelly in the refrigerator.

Grace Colon

You have people that are in denial. You have people that are angry. You have people that have shut down. You have people that have introverted into not even speaking. They just come in and exist.

Jonathan

I mean there are some really nutty people in there.

Grace Colon

You don't want to make eye contact. There have been a lot of fights. The dumbest stuff. Someone went into the refrigerator and stole someone's butter. There have been arguments over paper, over someone stealing someone's pen.

Jonathan

Some of the people in the room like the lights off because it's more restful and maybe they even want to sleep. And the rest of the people want the lights on, because they want to read or play cards. So somebody will get up and turn the lights off. And somebody else will get up and turn the lights back on. It's a conflict of wills.

There were fights, a couple of fights. I heard them because they'd be going on, say, in the room next door in the hallway, and then everybody would spill out into the hallway to go watch.

Grace Colon

It's a prison type of culture. If you go out of your comfort zone then people will mess with you. Let's say if I were to go to the white area and decide I want their chair and stuff. The people there are going to look out for their chairs. And so there will be a confrontation. You want to be very careful not to step on anybody's space, because space seems to be the last control. That's the last thing they have control over.

Jonathan

People fight over the few things that there are to fight over, such as territory. It's this amazing thing because one of the more popular members of the group went back to her school. She got sent back. And there were literally tearful farewells. There were flowers. There was cake. Goodbye, goodbye. And before the end of the day, somebody had claimed her seat. And everybody had kind of moved up in the pecking order, territorially. It's not so much the chair as it is the real estate it sits upon. So what you want is a nice spot. It's nice to sit near a window. It makes a difference whether there's some shrieking banshee four feet away from your ear. It makes a difference whether the light fixture flickers. I mean, you're going to be there for seven hours a day, five days a week. You wouldn't think it would make so much of a difference. But you're there for a long time, so it does.

The ?] strangest feeling is getting up in the morning with a purpose-- taking a shower, brushing your teeth, having that first cigarette, getting on the train, dealing with all these commuters-- to show up to work to do nothing. And I think I think it's made that way. I think that's kind of the point. They punish you with boredom.

Jonathan

It's kind of an indelicate question to ask somebody how long they've been there. It's a little bit like asking somebody what they're in for. It's embarrassing. It's humiliating.

After ?] about a week of going there and reading all day, you begin to realize that there is no cavalry. There is no one coming in your defense. There's no one beating down the door, saying, give us back our teacher. There's no one making phone calls to clear your name. And that's when it hits you. That's when you realize, holy crap, I could be here indefinitely.

Grace Colon

When you first start out, you're in denial. And you're sort of frozen. You have no emotion. I think that went on for me for maybe two to three months. And then after six months, at that point we had our summer vacation. You come back, and then you get angry all over again. Here you are, starting again, yet a new school semester, in this limbo.

Iago Kier

The thing with the Department of Education, it's such a large system. A million kids, a million students. If you begin to think about it, it's staggering.

Jonathan

There are 70,000 teachers. So even if 700 have these Kafka-esque things happening to them, that's still only one in 100. Wait, that is a lot. 1%.

Iago Kier

I feel that the Department of Education, in many ways, is hiding a secret. The rubber room.

Dan Weisberg

I certainly hear the term rubber room thrown around. I use the phrase reassignment center. Temporary reassignment center. My name is Dan Weisberg. I'm the chief executive labor policy for the New York City Department of Education. I don't doubt that there are teachers in the reassignment centers who believe, A, they didn't do anything wrong, or there are teachers there who think that what they did really doesn't warrant the punishment, as they see it, of being reassigned. In some cases those are difficult decisions. But we are entrusted with the safety of over a million kids, including, by the way, mine. The benefit of the doubt has to go to the kids. We're not an auto company. We're not an accounting firm. We're dealing with something unique, and that is the well being of children.

Sam Freedman

My sense is that there's been a more aggressive policy about trying to bring teachers up on charges, and as a result the numbers of people going into the rubber room have increased a lot lately. I'm Sam Freedman and I write the On Education column for the New York Times. And I've been covering education on and off for about 30 years. There are many incompetent, and some abusive and exploitative teachers who are totally deserving of having their licenses taken away, and who should be never allowed to be in the presence of children.

That said, this is still not the humane way to deal with them. And it has also, in my view, not been an effective way of separating out who's facing legitimate accusations and who's there because of a grudge with a principal and is otherwise an entirely capable educator. There isn't a whole lot they can do about it, except to have their day in court, or more exactly, have their date with a hearing officer.

Grace Colon

I'm starting my second year in the rubber room. I'm waiting to have my hearing.

Iago Kier

My case was very, very different. In my case, I had a principal who was willing to go to bat for me. After two weeks I was reinstated and allowed to come back and teach.

Jonathan

Well, I fully expect to be fired. And I've got another job. By most measures it's a better job. I'll make a little more money. I have a little more responsibility. There's more room for advancement. But it's not what I chose. I chose to teach in the public schools. And I don't think I'm going to make the kind of difference in people's lives, doing what I'm going to be doing, that I could have made teaching.

Ira Glass

Our story on the rubber room was produced by Joe Richman, Samara Freemark, and Anayansi Diaz Cortes of Radio Diaries. Their website, where you can hear their stories for absolutely free, radiodiaries.org. The movie about rubber rooms that inspired us to do this story is at rubberroommovie.com.

[MUSIC - "WAITING ROOM" BY FUGAZI]

Coming up, in managing the lives of apes for medical research, we have accidentally given them a taste for one TV show, in particular. What that show is in a minute. From Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. The Plan.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Human Resources. Stories of the ways that our lives are controlled by managers, bosses, institutions, central offices, home offices, all far away from us. And we've arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, The Plan. American cities have gone through a massive wave of gentrification in the last few decades. But to a lot of people, that process does not represent the natural ebb and flow of the real estate market, but something more sinister, more orchestrated. It's a plot, and they are its targets. One of our producers, Jon Jeter, headed to the changing neighborhoods of Washington, DC, to try to get a picture of how people see this particular plot.

Jon Jeter

John Burroughs Elementary is one of those public schools that parents feel lucky to have in their neighborhood. Maria Jones lives right across the street from the school in the northeast corridor of Washington, DC. And her daughter is in kindergarten here.

Maria Jones

We have a great principal, wonderful teachers, everybody knows one another. The parents work well, an active PTA body. We love this school.

Jon Jeter

But a few months ago, Maria and other parents were at the school for career day when they heard the news. The mayor was going to close 23 public schools, including theirs. And what was shocking were the reasons the mayor gave: falling enrollment and poor performance. Enrollment isn't falling at Burroughs, Maria says.

Maria Jones

Our enrollment has been building. And then the other thing, failing test scores. We are not failing at all. We are 15th in reading out of 81 District of Columbia public elementary schools. We are in the top 20 percentile in math out of all 81 elementary schools.

Jon Jeter

And so the question is, why would they want to close the school, which the neighborhood seems to enjoy, which is sort of an anchor?

Maria Jones

It's an anchor. Isn't it beautiful?

Jon Jeter

It's a beautiful school from what I can see.

Maria Jones

What the community is saying is that it must be a land grab. Because if you look all the way down into 20th Street and all the way down to 18th, this is one beautiful long block. And then we have this great green field that's just there for kids to play on. And everybody knows that the developers have converged upon DC and are just going after the property that they want. So this has got to be one of those scenarios. What else can it be? We're not failing. We're a model school.

Jon Jeter

In Washington DC, it's not difficult to find people who believe in something called the plan. The Plan. It is essentially a conspiracy theory, dating back at least 40 years to the '68 riots, when whites fled the city in droves, leaving behind a black majority. Some people, white and black, have for years written off the plan as paranoia. But residents like Maria look around and see new homes and new shops, and new neighbors, and-- this seems to be the litmus test for whether your neighborhood is gentrifying-- white couples walking their dogs. They never saw that before.

Maria Jones

It doesn't seem like a conspiracy, some hidden conspiracy. It seems like an out and out plan for displacement. Especially when you have other buildings-- like the Pierce School, Lovejoy, and some of the other buildings-- that have been turned into condos, that have clearly been closed as schools and opened up with the same structure as million dollar condos that people are living in now.

Jon Jeter

You don't just hear this kind of talk in DC. In fact, all across the country, if you're black and older than, say, 20, chances are you've heard of some shadowy scheme in your city to move blacks out of certain neighborhoods and whites in.

Valerie Leonard

My dad has been telling me this for years. I am 44 years old. I can remember when I was growing up my dad would always say, well you know, Valerie, there's a plan. There's a plan.

Jon Jeter

Valerie Leonard grew up on Chicago's south side, in a neighborhood called Lawndale, where she still lives and fights against gentrification.

Valerie Leonard

He was saying this in the '60s and the '70s. You know, this may be a black neighborhood now. But there's a plan on the books that they're going to displace black people and push enough people out so that it's only 25% black. And I said, mm-hmm. You wouldn't believe him, because my dad was one of those conspiracy theorists. And lo and behold, I'm an adult now, and everything that he said is coming to fruition.

Jon Jeter

Did your father ever have or share with you any specific details of what he thought was the strategies that the city leaders would adopt to take back this land?

Valerie Leonard

I think one of them was planned neglect, that they would just let it run down to nothing, which was true, and let it be overcome with crime. And then once the community runs down, they'll come back and grab the land at a much cheaper price and rebuild it for their own people.

Jon Jeter

In New Orleans, Edmond Louis remembers talk of a conspiracy back in the '70s, when he was in elementary school, shortly after the city elected its first black mayor.

Edmond Louis

Yeah, there were community activists who were invited into the school. I remember some of the Black Panthers in New Orleans visiting the school. And yeah, they talked about how whites definitely wanted the city back, they wanted control. I remember Reverend Avery C. Alexander, one of the pioneers of the civil rights movement in New Orleans and an activist minister who-- he came to the school. And he said there are some beautiful homes in the neighborhood where the school is, and basically that they want to move young white professionals into this neighborhood and move black people out.

Jon Jeter

Marcel Diallo was born in 1972 in the Bay Area and remembers rumors of a white takeover of Oakland.

Marcel Diallo

And some of the things that I was hearing as early as the '80s, back in the crack era, was that-- all the elders in my family would always say, oh, you think they're paving that road for us? You think they're fixing that park for us? The white people got their eye on this place. And they're coming back. That was like urban lore. That was the folklore growing up, that white people one day were going to return and try to kick us out.

Jon Jeter

On a bitterly cold Saturday morning in January, about 60 protesters marched to the home of Washington, DC City Council member, Carol Schwartz, who hasn't been helping them slow gentrification in the city. In the crowd I meet Jabari Zakiya who believes-- has always believed, truth be told-- that DC's mayor and elected officials receive their marching orders from congressional and business leaders in the city.

Jabari Zakiya

I almost really believe, literally, that when these city council people get close to being elected-- because DC is basically a democratic town. If you win the primary, you're going to win, right? So they see who's going to win the primary. And they get that little call at night, saying look, we want to see you. And they take you to that little room and sit you down, say look, this is the deal.

Jon Jeter

Over the past decade, cities like DC, Chicago, Oakland and New Orleans have embarked on what is essentially a fire sale. Schools, libraries, public housing, all of which have been auctioned off and converted into condos, lofts, charter schools, sushi bars, and sports stadiums. Washington, DC's changing demographics have ushered in the first white majority on the city council since Congress approved home rule for Washington more than 30 years ago. But even someone like Jabari, who firmly believes in the plan, doesn't see it as simply a matter of white versus black.

Jabari Zakiya

To me, the black members aren't any much different than the white members. In fact, many of the white ones seem to be more progressive than the black ones. I mean look, we've never had a white mayor.

Marjorie Rhode

I think it's the plan of any of those people who want to make money.

Jon Jeter

This is [? Marjorie Rhode, ?] another protester.

?] Let us move out the people who are not going to give us profit. And that begins to break right along racial lines. So whether the plan is to move black people out, it doesn't matter. That's the net effect.

Jon Jeter

Marjorie is an art professor at the University of the District of Columbia. She has taught there for nearly 30 years and can remember when the enrollment was more than 15,000, triple what it is now. As the enrollment shrinks, the campus shrinks.

?] That is such a mouth-watering piece of land. So it's hard not to believe that behind closed doors, somebody's really looking at that land. My somewhat paranoid theory, perhaps, is that they're letting the buildings deteriorate. And they're not doing much to support its enrollment. We're not up to date in terms of a lot of our technology and so forth. And then they can say, well, see.

Jon Jeter

Benign neglect, benign neglect.

Marjorie Rhode

No neglect is benign. It's always malignant. And one of the buildings they took was where we had the art department, the music and so forth. Wonderful building, wonderful building. They took us out of it supposedly to renovate it. It is now lofts, condos. OK?

Jon Jeter

DC residents point to a group of businessmen called the Federal City Council who have been around since the '50s and who the current mayor says he consults with frequently. Similar business groups exist in other cities. Which seems benign, if you have a certain frame of mind and sinister if you think there's a plan. This much is clear. DC is much different from just a decade ago, when blacks were 64% of the population. Now they're 57%, a huge drop. And everyone believes it won't be long before the city is no longer majority black. People like Charles Brown, a limo driver here, say they believe it's a plot. And he knows that lots of people would think that's crazy. But at this point he says the evidence lines up very much in his favor.

Charles Brown

Just look around. You don't have to believe anything I say. Just look around. That's all you have to do. Just take a look. If you're in Harlem, if you're in Chicago, if you're in New Orleans, if you're in Washington, if you're in LA, I don't care where you are. The plan has worked.

Ira Glass

Jon Jeter. He's the author of the forthcoming book Flat Broke in the Free Market, about people whose lives are made worse by globalization.

[MUSIC - "DON'T WORRY ABOUT THE GOVERNMENT" BY TALKING HEADS]

Act Three. Almost Human Resources.

Charles Siebert

We need them because, first of all, there are over 3,000 chimps in the United States. Now, among those would be pets, entertainers, and former research lab chimpanzees. We have, actually, a surplus of research lab chimps in the United States. And the reason for that is when AIDS was-- the first big outbreak, it was sort of logically assumed that chimps would offer us a possible cure because they share so much of our DNA. That turned out to be bogus. Chimps can't get human AIDS.

So anyway, we ended up with all these excess breeded chimps that could not be used for AIDS research and for no other research. And so there was this surplus. And the government-- this was near the end of Clinton's administration-- was actually faced with this, I guess, moral, ethical dilemma. What do you do with all these near humans? We can't just euthanize them. And so one of the last acts of the Clinton administration was the Chimp Act. And they actually came up with the idea to build a government-funded retirement home outside of Shreveport, Louisiana. I went to this place. When I first saw it, I thought this is sort of the Jurassic Park of chip retirement. This is the pinnacle of retirement homes for chimps.

Ira Glass

OK, more on that place-- it's called Chimp Haven-- in just a minute. Charles Siebert says that it's not just research chimps who are getting this treatment. At this point, we know so much more than we used to about how similar chimps brains are to ours-- what they feel, and what they know, and how much like us they really are-- that they have become an animal that we usually do not ever euthanize. Which, when you think about how nearly every other animal of the animal kingdom that we have contact with, we feel utterly free to kill at whim, en masse, is very unusual. But then, of course, we get into this problem. If we're not going to kill the chimps after they cease to be useful to us, where should we keep them? Under what conditions? Consider the problem of chimpanzees who work in the entertainment business, who perform in the circus, or appear on TV commercials, or in movies. Here is something that most of us do not know about chimp entertainers.

Charles Siebert

These chimps have about a 4 to 5 year period of viability as actors. And then they just get too strong, too willful, too out of control.

Ira Glass

And is that because 4 or 5 is when they hit adolescence or something? Like, that's when they become adult, and before that they're just little kids, basically?

Charles Siebert

Precisely. A chimpanzee, a full grown adult chimpanzee, is five times as strong as a human man. And especially male chimps are very, very volatile, and competitive, and aggressive. So for that one or two yuks that we get on television, they then spend another 40 to 50 years locked up somewhere because they're no longer usable.

Ira Glass

So these are chimps, basically, who've been working in the human working world. And when they retire, I know there's a discussion about how much we should try to re-chimp them.

Charles Siebert

Yes.

Ira Glass

And can you just talk about the range of solutions that people have come up with to that problem? The different ways people think about that, the different ways these different retirement homes are set up. What's the range of things that you've seen?

Charles Siebert

These are chimps that, the official word used is they've been inculturated. A lot of them have been eating off of caterers' tables, been only around humans. And they like us. They're very social animals and, especially if we're imprinted on them very early, they form very tight bonds. So the gradations would be-- I guess, the one extreme would be Cheeta's life. That would seem sort of like the human paradigm, a retirement home in Palm Springs, riding around in golf carts.

Ira Glass

You mean Cheeta from the Tarzan films?

Charles Siebert

Yes, who is 75 now, although there is some dispute about whether he is actually that old. He's at a retirement home in Palm Springs. He was walking around the house. We sat out back by the swimming pool at a picnic table. He was eating Doritos and drinking diet iced tea. He's a diabetic. He goes into the living room, sits at the piano, bangs on the keys. There's a selection of his movies on the living room coffee table. And he has been given to watching his old movies on TV. He recognizes scenes. He gets up and he claps. He remembers.

Ira Glass

He's basically living like the aging Bob Hope.

Charles Siebert

Exactly. There's the one extreme. The humanoid version of chimp retirement. The opposite extreme would be the Center for Great Apes in Florida, where all the retired ape actors are. Or ape entertainers. Circus, TV, movies, and some pets. You have, basically, caged farce. You have these geodesic dome-like structures-- very tall and elaborate, and spacious-- where the chimps are nearly swinging through the trees. The whole ethos of that place, I suppose, would be that they're trying to get them as close back to a state of wild chimpdom as is possible.

Ira Glass

OK, so you have the caged farce like that on the one hand, and the nearly Bob Hope style retirement at the other extreme. And then there's this third approach to chimp retirement, the approach that they take at the multimillion dollar facility the government built for research chimps, mostly, outside of Shreveport, Louisiana, Chimp Haven. There chimps live a hybrid sort of retirement, part chimp, part human.

Charles Siebert

It has bedrooms with swinging cots and patios. And they have in their rooms television, VCRs, CDs. And access through these little walkways to little moated forests. It's the most strange blend of the urban and the wild.

And you asked earlier about gradations of repatriation of chimps. Some of these chimps were born in captivity. Some were taken from the wild. And at Chimp Haven, what they try to do is get the remaining wild ones together with the totally captive born ones, so that the wild ones can teach the captive ones how to be chimps again. Some of the captive ones don't even know what a tree is. Some of the research ones have not even been around ground. They've been in cement cells all their lives, getting shots of different diseases. So they get released and they-- there's this one video I saw of a chimp who had never been on the earth before. And he wouldn't get out of his crate. He was touching down on the earth as though it were the moon. It was the most bizarre thing to see.

Ira Glass

So what kind of success do they end up having, in getting those chimps to do those things, to climb trees and to acclimate to those chimp-like behaviors?

Charles Siebert

Tremendous success, actually. Over time, these chimps do very well. Have these days oddly bifurcated by chimp activities and human activities, and they live out a life of that kind of to and fro, between the two.

Ira Glass

So going from what sort of thing to what sort of thing?

Charles Siebert

Well they have access to their little pie-shaped five acre wedges of forest. So they're out there swinging in the trees, and socializing with one another, and even doing a little crude form of food gathering.

Ira Glass

They're food gathering, you mean the staff hides food out in the middle of the fake forest?

Charles Siebert

They try to grow certain things in the forest that's conducive to things chimps would-- you know, fruits and berries, that kind of thing. But not really enough to sustain them, so they come back in for dinner. And meals, I mean they come for their three squares, which they have been used to getting. So that, to me, is a two-tiered kind of a day. Where you're playing chimp in the jungle, but you're coming back for dinner and watching some television. And these chimps are all inculturated. They've been around medical labs. They've been around doctors and researchers in white coats. So guess what their favorite television show is. General Hospital. So yes, they have access to the woods where they can go be chimps. But they like coming back to their room and watching television and being around people. So they're having this balance. And at one point, I said, so in a way, what you're saying to me is, it would be just as cruel to now fully excerpt them from human contact, given their history. And they said, yeah. They still need access to what they knew as they were reared.

Ira Glass

When you describe it this way, it sounds actually kind of like a nice life. They get to do some chimp things, they get to do some human things. Is that OK, or do you feel like somehow we've denatured them, or there's something wrong with this?

Charles Siebert

Well, I've come to feel that it's the best we can do for them, given the circumstances. But in the best of worlds it should have never happened, that they just shouldn't be kidnapped from their lives for these purposes. And they live longer lives in captivity, but they're wild animals and they have their life. And in the course of doing this book and other articles, I've been in the wild and had a chance to see them in the wild.

Ira Glass

Yeah, and when you see that, what do you see?

Charles Siebert

I don't know. You feel a very deep stirring. I was running for hours through the woods and just hearing rampant chimp screams. Pods moving, they move with unbelievable felicity through the jungle, really fast. So I began to despair of ever catching up to them. And then suddenly, my guide put this quiet gesture in front of his mouth and pointed up. And there was a mother and a baby about 50 feet up high in a tree, and the baby is staring down at me. And I don't know. I just got chills. It just took my breath away. And I thought about it a lot afterwards, what that kind of meant. It really was very moving.

Ira Glass

Charles Siebert. The book he's writing about the weeks that moved into a chimp retirement community is called The Wauchula Woods Accord.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by our senior producer Julie Snyder and myself, with Alex Blumberg Jane Feltes, Jon Jeter, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Our production manager is Seth Lind. Production help today from Emily Youssef and Andy Dixon. Musical help from Jessica Hopper.

Thanks today to Jeremy Garrett and Justin Cegnar of Five Boroughs Productions. Thanks to George Saunders, and Sean McDonald, and [? Anahi Delany, ?] to [? Zane El Amin ?], and Parisa Norouzi, and Professor Eddie Glaude, Jr., to Empower DC, who helped us with our story about the plan. Their website, empowerdc.org.

Our website, where tickets have just gone on sale for our next live show. This is going to be broadcast from a stage in New York to movie theaters all over the country, so you can see it in your town. That is going to happen on April 23. Tickets just went on sale. Go to our website, www.thisamericanlife.org to get your tickets.

This American life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who-- I've never understood this. He calls me into the office every single episode of the show that we do. And he always begins the same way.

Chris

Ira, this is going to be a difficult conversation. I want to let you know that up front.

Ira Glass

I don't know what he's driving at. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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