great first video for the clarity project

September 11, 2011

Most of the footage comes from our May trip to the schools and mines in Kono, Sierra Leone. Our friends Amber and Paul helped with the necklace shot. And the music is from Shaddy Baby, straight out of Freetown!

benefit corporation legislation

August 16, 2011

My article in California Lawyer is up (albeit a shortened version):

GOOD BUSINESS

August 2011
by Jesse Finfrock

California is poised to lead the nation in putting social and environmental good on an equal footing with a business’s profits. Two bills wending their way through Sacramento this summer would allow companies to become a benefit corporation (AB 361) or a flexible purpose corporation (SB 201), fundamentally changing California’s Corporations Code.

Currently if a company wants to undertake a mission other than earning profits, it faces substantial limitations, some say, especially during a merger or acquisition. To get around this, directors rely on the so-called business judgment rule, which permits them to do what they believe is best for shareholders’ long-term interest even at the expense of short-term profits. Yet when a company decides to sell, directors are obligated to take reasonable steps to maximize shareholders’ investment and accept the highest offer, which could put a company’s social benefits practices at risk.

But a new generation of consumers, entrepreneurs, and investors are demanding change. Nationwide, they are pushing legislation that allows for-profit businesses to formally incorporate social and environmental responsibility into their missions. Bills similar to California’s AB 361, have already been passed in Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, Vermont, and Virginia, and introduced in five additional states.

The benefit and flexible purpose corporation bills share some basic components, such as ensuring the dissenting rights of shareholders and protecting directors from liability. This has spawned a debate over whether the bills would compliment or compete with each other. “Each of the bills responds to a totally different need,” argues Jonathan S. Storper, a partner at Hanson Bridgett and a drafter of AB 361.

The bill requires a benefit corporation to meet independent, third-party standards of social and environmental responsibility and transparency; a company could lose its benefit corporation status if the requirements are not satisfied. But according to Susan Mac Cormac, cochair of Morrison & Foerster’s Business Department, SB 201 requires a flexible purpose corporation to detail its social purpose and provide shareholders with a progress report (permissibly its own). “There is nothing companies can do through AB 361 that they cannot do through SB 201,” Mac Cormac says.

“There may be issues with each of the bills, and they will be sorted out in the courts over time,” says professor Eric Talley at UC Berkeley School of Law. “We cannot know what forms do and do not work unless we try them.”

photoessay: mining in kono, sierra leone

July 16, 2011

Sierra Leone is a country at a crossroads. Decades of resource exploitation and a brutal ten-year war have taken a deep toll on the environment and the people, which are among the poorest and most uneducated in the world. Yet as the country celebrates its 50th year, Saloneans are appropriately proud of their success with post-war reunification and reconstruction. Children are learning, infrastructure is expanding, and healthcare is improving.

In Kono, the diamond-rich and war-ravaged district along the country’s eastern boarder, mining is a way of life for many people. During the dry season, when it is possible to dig down to the diamond-laden gravel, many young men head to the diamond fields. Some strike out on their own while others are hired by mining companies as short-term laborers, often for less than a dollar a day. With little alternative employment opportunities, most men don’t have a choice but to work in the mines for part of their lives, and many are forced to give up school to do so.

At this critical moment, it is imperative that Sierra Leone attracts the right kind of investors and NGO partners; along with diamonds and gold, the country recently made public discoveries of large deposits of iron and oil. Fortunately Saloneans, all of whom have been affected by the war, are strongly motivated to break free from the resource curse and craft their future to ensure that the value of their precious resources remains within their country and communities.

In May 2011, The Clarity Project, a member of Fair Jewelry Action, joined local miners and officials from Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Minerals to visit diamond and gold mining operations throughout the Kono District. The following photographs, taken during this trip, show artisanal, small-scale, and large-scale diamond mining techniques, conditions, and environmental consequences.

The Clarity Project works directly with miners and their communities to build a more fair and responsible alternative to the conventional diamond industry. We sell high-quality jewelry with only the fairest diamonds and invest all of our profits to build schools and rehabilitate land in mining communities. To learn more, please visit our website (www.clarityproject.com), or view more photos and get engaged at our Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/TheClarityProject).

[Fair Jewelry Action members are invited to use these photos for their work with proper citation (“Photo by The Clarity Project”). Non-FJA members that would like to use a photo should first contact us to receive permission.]

20 little lessons from sierra leone

June 25, 2011

1. The smell of burning trash can be nostalgic.

2. Goat kebab isn’t all bad.

3. There is no limit to how many times you can replay a hit song.

4. It can always rain harder.

5. Soccer, er football, is not a game.

6. Guys can hold hands too.

7. Rambo Stalone is cool; Nigerian Lion King is painful.

8. Ayn Rand is full of shit.

9. Always shake the hand of the man with the machine gun.

10. It’s probably easier to carry it on your head.

11. Obama matters.

12. Shoes and pants, or being white, indicates your status.

13. Shave it off, because hairdos are for women and celebrities.

14. You can’t always trust your textbook.

15. Everyone has a rash somewhere.

16. There is never too much Autotune.

17. When in doubt, laugh.

18. No one should care about breasts.

19. Dance it off.

20. Hope truly springs eternal — small; small.

 

media, destiny, and revolution in egypt and iran

January 29, 2011

As the protests unfold in Egypt, Stephen Walt highlights the role of media technology and notes the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Now consider what we’re seeing in the Middle East. Whatever the ultimate outcome of events in the Arab world, the speed with which large numbers of people have responded to events far away is remarkable. Just as audiocassettes of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s sermons served as a medium of transmission in Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979, here a combination of modern mass media (Al Jazeera, the Internet, email, Twitter, etc.) has clearly played a major role in driving the pace of events.

In Iran’s revolution, media technology clearly played a critical role in Khomeini’s success. While the Shah controlled the state-run mass media (which eventually went on strike), Khomeini’s sermons were distributed through smuggled cassettes and pamphlets and broadcast over mosque loudspeakers. His speeches were transformed into slogans, idioms, and popular sayings that then appeared on posters, graffiti, murals, and even bubble gum wrappers.

Yet the key to understanding how Khomeini, through “small” media, was able to mobilize millions of Iranians is the recognition that Iran’s revolution was not just a political event; it was the reawakening of the Shi’a faith as a solution to the world’s problems—the process of Iranians reclaiming a religious identity and a place in history. By uniting Shi’ism and Iranian nationalism, Khomeini tapped into deep wells in the Iranian psyche thereby reigniting the mythology of martyrdom, stirring millenarian tendencies, and fueling the feeling of resistance and change.

In Egypt today, the importance of subversively democratic and social (“small”) media technologies in fueling revolution is manifest. However, the outcome of Egypt’s uprising hinges on an even more fundamental question: What is the nature of Egyptians’ sense of identity and destiny?

public commendations are fun to find

January 3, 2011

Out of curiosity, I just searched for my name in Google Books, and was reminded of this bit of public commendation:

That was nice to rediscover, from Heather Rogers’s 2010 investigative book Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution.

Which reminded me of another public commendation:

But this month, Jesse Finfrock offers us a compelling counterpoint to all of that grim job-market news (“Finding Their Way”) by letting his hopeful subjects speak for themselves. Two are recent law school graduates; another is still in school.

Life isn’t a cakewalk for these aspiring lawyers; they are, after all, facing both job uncertainty and massive debt. But after talking with these people for a while, Finfrock came away not only impressed but also reassured, since he himself plans to attend law school next year.

Where did Finfrock, 28, get such a crazy idea? I’m afraid I’m at least partly to blame. Last year, I hired him as a research editor for this magazine. A few months later he sat in on one of our editorial advisory board meetings, with the likes of California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Santa Clara University law professor Gerald F. Uelmen, as we brainstormed about article ideas. Finfrock also struck up a correspondence with Anthony Romero, the national executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, after fact-checking our April profile of him. And in July, Finfrock literally had a front-row seat at the federal trial that overturned Proposition 8, California’s voter-approved ballot initiative banning same-sex marriages. “These were pretty inspiring experiences,” he reflects. “And they pushed me over the edge in terms of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”

If all goes according to plan, Finfrock will be out of law school sometime in 2014, at which point he’ll be looking for a job. Note to prospective employers: This guy’s a keeper.

This is straight (no added emphasis) from the Editor’s Note in November’s California Lawyer magazine.*

*Which is the Daily Journal Corporation, which is Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, which appears to have rebranded itself as MTO, which reminds me that MoFo is a pretty edgy moniker for a law firm…

musician without borders

December 18, 2010

I rediscovered this photo from 2006. :)

At the time, I was a researcher for a small nonprofit in South India called Touchwood, and I was living and working in remote indigenous communities in the Mudumalai region of Tamil Nadu. This photo was taken in the Village of Semmanatham. To view photos from our census work in the village, see this photo essay I published in Mother Jones.

prop 8 litigation fee structure

December 14, 2010

An interesting tidbit on the fee structure of the Prop 8 litigation (Perry v. Schwarzenegger) from this California Lawyer story I fact-checked:

According to [Ted] Boutrous, by April the legal team had examined the issues from all angles and concluded it could win a majority ruling at the U.S. Supreme Court. “I think there’s a degree of stereotyping that goes on concerning the justices,” Boutrous says. “Everyone thinks they know exactly how they’re going to vote, based on who appointed them. We reject that kind of rigid analysis.

The litigation sponsors decided to proceed if they could get the necessary elements in place—including enough money to support the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Boutrous describes Gibson Dunn’s fee arrangement with AFER as a “hybrid.” “We agreed to make a pro bono contribution of the first $100,000 of our services and then flat fees for the various phases, to be augmented and adjusted in our collective discretion,” he said.

Millions of dollars in fees and expenses would be required. To raise it, [Chad] Griffin gathered people from the business and entertainment industry for a series of private meetings in Los Angeles and New York. [Ted] Olson attended nearly every fundraiser, and Boutrous all the Los Angeles events. The foundation met its goals, though Griffin won’t identify the donors, saying he’ll reveal them only when the Prop. 8 proponents disclose their supporters. [Emphasis added.]

Ted Olson may well go down in history as one of our greatest attorneys.

The article begins:

Challenging Prop. 8: The Hidden Story

How Hollywood activists seized control of the fight for gay marriage

It was nearly 3:25 P.M. on May 22, 2009—the Friday before Memorial Day weekend—when Enrique Monagas approached the counter at the court clerk’s office in San Francisco’s Federal Building to file a complaint. Although Monagas tried to appear nonchalant, his heart was pounding.

The Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher associate had been told by his firm that secrecy was absolutely critical. Monagas hadn’t revealed to anyone—not even his secretary or family—anything about the case. Secrecy was the reason he was filing in person rather than using Gibson Dunn’s regular service. His instructions were to wait until the last possible moment, and the deadline for presenting new matters was 3:30 p.m. Dressed in his usual casual Friday clothes, Monagas nervously handed over the short stack of papers.

“This must be an important filing,” the clerk said.

“I haven’t even read it,” Monagas quickly replied.

After all the copies were stamped, the clerk entered the filing information into the computer, which assigned a case number and randomly selected a judge. Monagas saw the initials “VRW” and realized that the case—Perry v. Schwarzenegger, 09-2292—had been assigned to Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker. Monagas walked out of the building hoping that no reporter would pick up the story over the long weekend. No one did.

For months, the people backing the Perry suit had worked in the shadows. They wanted the complaint to be the challenge to the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the November 2008 statewide ballot initiative that declared, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” (Cal. Const., Art. I, § 7.5.) That measure effectively repealed the right of same-sex couples to marry, which California’s Supreme Court had recognized under the state constitution’s privacy clause in June 2008 (In re Marriage Cases, 43 Cal. 4th 757 (2008)).

“We didn’t want there to be an explosion of lawsuits around the country,” says Theodore Boutrous Jr., a partner in Gibson Dunn’s Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., offices who helped draft the complaint. The litigation group was mindful, however, that many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) advocacy groups were pursuing a different strategy to legalize same-sex marriage, taking a state-by-state approach and avoiding a federal challenge. “We did not want to have a big debate about what we felt was the right strategy,” Boutrous explains. “We did not want that debate to break out before we launched our suit.”

Anticipating an adverse ruling by the state Supreme Court in a case challenging the validity of Prop. 8, the Gibson Dunn team had planned to file its complaint just before the scheduled announcement of the court’s decision on May 26, and to reveal its star litigators—former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson and celebrated trial lawyer Davis Boies—at a press conference the following day.

The plan worked perfectly. On May 26 the court upheld Prop. 8, though it declared valid the 18,000 same-sex marriages performed from June to November 2008 (Strauss v. Horton, 46 Cal. 4th 364 (2009)). The next day, leaders of a freshly minted organization called the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER) stood before the national press at a hotel in downtown Los Angeles to announce its lawsuit and reveal that Olson and Boies—opposing counsel before the U.S. Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore—would be leading the trial team. “We’re taking this fight to the federal courts in order to protect the equal rights guaranteed to every American by the United States Constitution,” declared Chad Griffin, AFER’s board president.

The announcement produced the national headlines AFER had hoped to generate. But it caught many LGBT advocacy groups by surprise. “It was a very high-stakes move,” said attorney Kate Kendell, executive director of the San Francisco–based National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). Kendell’s group had worked closely with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Los Angeles office of Lambda Legal, the nation’s oldest and largest LGBT legal organization, in litigating both In re Marriage Cases and Strauss. “This federal case has the potential to be a total game changer,” she added. “But it also has the potential to have devastating consequences. You hope that it will be the former.”

Nan Hunter, founder of the ACLU’s LGBT Project, shared Kendell’s concerns. She called the lawsuit “reckless” because “there is a significant chance of failure if the case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court.” Hunter, now a professor at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., also noted that LGBT legal groups had been following a “very careful and deliberate, collaborative” strategy for many years, only to have it “thrown off by an organization with a small number of people who are wealthy enough to pay for a major litigation effort.”

Of course, advocating social change is as much a political issue as a legal one. So it’s not surprising that measures to advance gay civil rights in the courts, in state legislatures, or at the ballot box can provoke strong disagreements. But in this case, the moving party operated with an astonishing degree of independence from the LGBT groups that had litigated the issues for decades.

The dozens of individuals interviewed for this story share a belief that Prop. 8 is discriminatory, that it violates the U.S. Constitution, and that same-sex couples should have the right to wed. They have publicly united in support of the federal suit. But after some tense weeks of discord, they remain divided about the suit’s wisdom and timing.

This is the story behind the filing of Perry v. Schwarzenegger.

Continue Reading at California Lawyer

on becoming a lawyer, today

December 7, 2010

Here is my November feature article at California Lawyer (where I once worked as the Research Editor), in which I interview law students and young lawyers and write first-person essays based on those interviews… an interesting experience, probably not something I’ll do again soon:

Finding Their Way: Young attorneys discover new skills to help them land work after law school

Read the rest of this entry »

the role of the fact-checker

September 29, 2010

Matt Yglesias points to the limits of fact-checking. Highlighting Heather MacDonald’s post on Dinesh D’Souza’s disgraceful Forbes article, “How Obama Thinks” (which the magazine asserts has now been “fact-checked” … post publishing, I might add), Matt writes:

The whole piece is worth reading, but I wanted to dwell on the aside about fact-checking simply because this is something people periodically get a bit confused about. The genius and the horror of something like D’Souza’s argument is that it’s perfectly possible to put together something utterly loopy that makes no factual errors whatsoever. Indeed, in some ways punctiliousness about the facts is the signature of the conspiracy theorist. Glenn Beck’s TV show is, in its way, the most fact-filled program on cable. It’s just that you can string together a lot of data points in a nutty way if you want to.

This is not a bad point altogether. However I will push back a bit. Having worked as a fact-checker for several years, both at an investigative journalism magazine and a legal publication, I offer that the mandate of the fact-checker encompasses quite a bit more than Matt suggests.

The role of the fact-checker is not only to confirm that the hard facts in a story are accurate. It is also to ensure that the arguments are logically reasonable — that the conclusions follow from the premises and evidence presented, that there is not critical evidence omitted that would call into question the premises or conclusions, and that any assumptions (if made at all) are realistic and practicable.

By this measure, neither Beck’s nor D’Souza’s work passes muster.


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