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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

May
26
Friday
Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

There were plenty of theatrics again in this week’s news.

The buzz fodder ran from first-spousal hand swats to congressional race “body slams” to an intense analysis of the US president appearing to push aside the Montenegrin prime minister (who called the move “inoffensive”). Concerns about Russia kept rippling.

Other matters of justice – ones of real concern to people for whom mobility could mean a better life, as well as those concerned about security – tiptoed through the news crawl. Once again, a federal appeals court blocked the implementation of President Trump’s travel ban, which now appears headed for the Supreme Court.

Also, in an act of discretion Thursday related to immigration, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe pardoned Liliana Cruz Mendez on a 2014 conviction for driving without a license. The 10-year resident and mother of two, pulled over for a broken headlight, had no other criminal convictions. Her husband has work authorization in the US; her in-laws are legal permanent residents. A “stay of removal request” may delay her deportation. Still, for some, it’s a simple matter of legality.

Now to our five stories of the day, including a cleareyed, four-part graphic on immigration and public perceptions.

1. For NATO, terrorism becomes a test of central role

The Manchester attack nudged counterterrorism up the agenda at NATO’s meeting in Brussels this week. But pressure remains for the alliance to do what it was built to do: Keep a check on the challenges that Russia’s actions pose to Western democracies. 

 

The 30 Sec. ReadIn President Trump’s brief speech at NATO headquarters Thursday, Russia got only one mention. It fell behind “terrorism and immigration” on Mr. Trump’s list of challenges the alliance must address in coming years. Before the NATO meeting, Russia had been foremost in leaders’ minds. But the horrendous terrorist attack days before in Manchester, England, created a tragic diversion. And that diversion, some security experts say, represents a failure to recognize that Vladimir Putin’s Russia and groups like the Islamic State are both adversaries of the Western liberal order – two peas in the same anti-Western pod, so to speak. The downplaying of Russian mischief may have been music to Mr. Putin’s ears, but it was disquieting first and foremost to NATO’s eastern members, including the Baltic States – some of whom noted their concerns after the meeting. It was troubling as well to other European leaders who worry about Russian efforts to undermine the West’s democratic institutions. And it left unanswered lingering questions about Trump’s approach to Russia and how firmly he intends to confront Russian aggressions, both covert and blatant.

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1. For NATO, terrorism becomes a test of central role

The horrendous terrorist attack in Manchester this week gave a tragic assist to President Trump’s hopes of escaping, with a nine-day overseas trip, Washington’s focus on all things Russian.

But at a deeper level, some longtime experts on Western security say, allowing Mr. Trump to downplay the Russian challenge and instead divert the focus at the NATO meeting to hard power for battling Islamist extremism underscored a broader Western weakness.

In these experts’ view, the diversion represents a failure to recognize that Vladimir Putin’s Russia and groups like the Islamic State are both adversaries of the Western liberal order – two peas in the same anti-Western pod, so to speak.

And in that vein, they say, it dangerously puts off the day when the US and Europe realize they must fight an information war and deploy the same type of 21st-century warfare that their “illiberal” adversaries employ.

In a brief speech to America’s European allies assembled at NATO headquarters Thursday, Trump called for a moment of silence for the Manchester victims and cited the attack as a display of the “evil” the 28-nation transatlantic Alliance must do more to confront through a stepped-up counterterrorism effort.

He then issued a stern rebuke to his stone-faced colleagues for not paying their “fair share” and relying on US taxpayers to provide their defense – thus segueing abruptly from Manchester to his preferred dual themes for his NATO debut: counterterrorism and burden-sharing.

Russia, on the other hand, got only one mention, falling behind “terrorism and immigration” on Trump’s list of the defense challenges the Alliance must give “great focus” in coming years.

Trump’s scolding of America’s European allies over insufficient defense spending may have been what grabbed quick headlines, both in Europe and the US. But in the end it may be the near-absence of Russia from Trump’s contribution to the NATO leaders’ meeting that more deeply marks US-Europe relations in the future.

The downplaying of Russian mischief may have been music to Mr. Putin’s ears, but it was disquieting first and foremost to NATO’s eastern members, including the Baltic states – some of whom noted their concerns, albeit in diplomatic terms, after the meeting.

It was troubling as well to other European leaders who worry about Russian efforts to undermine the West’s democratic institutions and keep a roiled West distracted.

Questions left unanswered

And it left unanswered lingering questions in Europe about Trump’s approach to Russia and how firmly he intends to confront Russian aggressions, both covert and blatant, as in eastern Ukraine.

European leaders came into their meeting with Trump Thursday “wanting to know how much will this administration be distracted by domestic issues at home,” including probes into Russian influence in the US election, says Julianne Smith, director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

They wanted to know not just how much Trump resents weak European defense budgets – a complaint Europeans have heard from a long line of US administrations (President Obama called them “free-riders”) – but “when is [Trump] going to start his engine and get to work” on the issues on the transatlantic agenda, Ms. Smith says.

The Europeans had “tremendous insecurity and doubt” about American leadership and commitment to the partnership going into Trump’s European trip, she says. But she adds that the doubts were only likely to deepen at Friday’s G7 meeting in Sicily, where US partners will be kept guessing about US policy on issues ranging from climate change and trade to international sanctions on Russia – all issues that senior administration officials say the president will deliberate after his trip.

For some in Europe, the awakening to the challenges posed by Russia has been slow – but has accelerated recently as Russia appears to have shifted its focus from expanding its influence in its near-neighborhood to undermining Western political institutions.

“Just a few years ago Russia characterized its activism as primarily focused on safeguarding Russian-speakers in its surrounding areas, and that gave many Europeans the sense that they were off the hook,” says Alexander Mattelaer, director of the European Affairs program at the Egmont Royal Institute in Brussels. “But its more recent aggressive actions and especially the way it seemingly acted to influence the domestic political outcome in the United States has completely changed that.”

Restoring alliance's relevance

The unintended consequence of Russia’s actions is that it may have done more than anyone else to give NATO new relevance across Europe.

“In many ways, Russia through its various actions has contributed to the revival and reinvigoration of the Alliance,” Dr. Mattelaer says. “No one asks anymore, ‘What is NATO’s purpose in a post-cold-war Europe?’ ” he adds.

Indeed, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg underscored to journalists Thursday that NATO’s European members have halted a long-term slide in military spending and registered an overall increase in defense budgets last year.

Renewed Russian aggression has had a significant impact among NATO’s easternmost members in particular – former Soviet states that share a border with Russia – motivating them to bolster military budgets. Some have reached, or next year will reach, the NATO target of spending 2 percent of GDP on the military that Trump made his mantra in NATO discussions.

“If you go to the Eastern European countries, it’s the threat posed by Russia that is at the top of the agenda,” Mattelaer says. But he adds that Russia’s aggression in its various forms has also managed to take the wind out of the sails of Europeans who long assailed the North Atlantic Alliance as a tool of American hegemony and militarism.

Indeed, some say Russia in its new Putin-driven form is the impetus behind just about everything the Alliance does, including in its defense of open and democratic societies.

“The defense issues, the discussions of how different kinds of contributions count, and the burden-sharing debate, it’s really all about Russia,” says Ian Lesser, executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Center in Brussels. “The question about spending more on hardware – again, it’s ultimately all about Russia.”

Some leaders may have been put off by Trump’s foot-stomping on European defense spending – what Mr. Stoltenberg diplomatically referred to as the US president’s “clear blunt message” – but it may be that kind of stark plain-speaking that ultimately pushes NATO to develop stronger responses to challenges, including Russia, Dr. Lesser says.

“You could argue that the rhetorical style of the new president is not the most agreeable for European ears,” he says. “But Trump’s style has placed the issues of burden-sharing and counterterrorism at the top of NATO’s agenda in a way that is different and maybe more compelling.”

Analog defense in a digital age

The problem some experts see is that while higher military spending, new hardware, and additional troops for NATO missions are all well and good, they may be false reassurances in an age of cyber-threats and internet manipulation.

“We’re still stuck with an analog concept of defense in a highly digital age,” says Julian Lindley-French, a senior fellow at the Institute for Statecraft and vice president of the Atlantic Treaty Association in Brussels.

The Europeans may have only recently awakened from decades of sleepy dependence on the US military, but Dr. Lindley-French says NATO – the West’s defense alliance – has to awaken to the fact that it is losing battles on the 21st-century battlefield.

“This is an issue that is relevant to both Manchester – the terrorist threat – and to Russia and the threats it poses,” he says.

Describing ISIS and Russia as “illiberal actors” that view Western liberal societies as their adversary, Lindley-French says both have become expert at an “artificial form of soft power” – use of social media, propaganda, false information, and manipulation of information – that will become increasingly influential.

Citing evidence of Russia’s “success” at “keeping us off balance at a low cost to them,” Lindley-French says the US and Europe would do well to settle the differences causing friction within the Alliance so they can unite to confront the new-era challenges already rattling their societies.

“We are now in a kind of continuous warfare,” he says, warning that Russia is “fast mastering the escalation of this new warfare.”

By Howard LaFranchi
Staff writer
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2. Signs of a new Russian tack on Chechnya?

Here’s a piece about the prospect, at least, of an unexpected kind of intervention. Russia – which has long allowed Chechen leaders to rule with a heavy hand in exchange for keeping a lid on separatists there – has sent investigators to Chechnya to investigate reports of the torture and murder of gay men. 

Activists in Moscow are blocked by police as they carry petitions in protest of the arbitrary detentions and torture of gay people in Chechnya to the prosecutor general’s office May 11.
Arden Arkman/AP
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The 30 Sec. ReadWhen reports came out a few months ago alleging an anti-gay pogrom in Chechnya, where dozens of men were rounded up, tortured, and some even murdered over their sexual orientation, much of the world was appalled. Yet the Kremlin initially stonewalled the allegations, apparently preferring to continue its policy of ignoring violations of Russian law in the Russian republic ruled by strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. But now, that seems to be changing. A team of Russian investigators arrived in the region this week to uncover what happened. Mr. Kadyrov has run Chechnya like his own private fiefdom, with tacit approval from Russian President Vladimir Putin. But Mr. Putin greenlit the process that sent the investigators to the region – a sign that he may have had enough of Chechnya’s oppressive atmosphere. “The basic question here, to be decided,” says Igor Kochetkov, chair of the Russian Movement for Rights of Sexual and Gender Minorities, “is whether Chechnya is part of the legal entity called the Russian Federation, or is it not?”

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2. Signs of a new Russian tack on Chechnya?

By all accounts, Chechnya is a legal black hole.

In the former rebel Russian republic, human rights monitors are murdered, women are terrorized for rejecting Islamic dress codes, and Kremlin-backed local strongman Ramzan Kadyrov acts out his personal fantasies as if it were his private stage.

And then, over the past two months, news seeped out of the closed and locked-down region of a mass pogrom against gay men, including torture, incarceration, and family “honor killings.”

Even for the Kremlin, that may have been too much.

This week an investigation team, headed by well-regarded detective Igor Sobol, arrived in Chechnya to examine the allegations of the anti-gay campaign. Should the investigation, which is still in its preliminary phase, move ahead, it could be a sign that Russian authorities are finally going to enforce Russian law in Mr. Kadyrov’s fiefdom, a nominally Russian but de facto independent territory.

Pressure on the Kremlin

It’s a horrifying story, first brought to light by the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta and stonewalled by the Kremlin. Up to 100 Chechen men were rounded up on suspicion of being gay. The prisoners were incarcerated, beaten, and according to Novaya Gazeta, up to 26 of them killed – in some cases by their own family members. Human Rights Watch today released a report corroborating the Novaya Gazeta scoop.

Russian authorities have grown accustomed to turning a deaf ear to awful tales of life in the rebellious republic, which it turned over to Kadyrov in 2009 in exchange for the outward appearance of pacification.

But the tide appears to have turned two weeks ago, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally raised the issue in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Shortly thereafter, the Kremlin authorized its human rights ombudswoman, Tatiana Moskalkova, to set up a “preliminary investigation” team to look into the allegations.

“The authorities are now checking the facts about this, though I’m sure the people doing it face all kinds of difficulties,” says Dmitry Muratov, editor of Novaya Gazeta. “I think this is a good example of how a process gets started through reporting. We published about this, which prodded the rights ombudswoman to go to Mr. Putin with the information, and then it was reported on TV channels. We will only feel satisfied when the people we wrote about are all safe.”

This week the Russian investigation team reportedly found only a destroyed building, covered over with debris, at the site of the camp where victims said they’d been held and tormented.

Though Kadyrov has publicly pledged to cooperate with the probe, he has also insisted the allegations are fake because there are no gay people in Chechnya. “Chechen society does not have this phenomenon called non-traditional sexual orientation. For thousands of years the people have lived by other rules, prescribed by God,” he told Russian journalists.

‘The price we paid for unity’

Kadyrov may have been the source of one too many embarrassing distractions for Putin as he tries to revive Russia’s image on the world stage. Even strong Kremlin supporters are cynical about the deal Moscow made to bring peace to Chechnya after nearly two decades of war, which may have stabilized and rebuilt the ravaged republic, but left it outside the sway of Russian law.

“The price we paid for unity of the country is a compromise, Chechnya’s special form of existence, in which the Russian Constitution does not fully function,” says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States. “Chechnya has been living at some distance from the Constitution, and still does.”

According to Russia’s LGBT Network, a non-governmental rights group, about 40 of the persecuted Chechens have fled to the relative safety of Russia, where they are being carefully protected by the LGBT Network and other supportive civil society groups. Efforts to obtain refugee status for the men have reportedly run into bureaucratic roadblocks in Western countries, particularly the US.

Russia has had its own anti-gay campaign, mainly directed against public displays of “non-traditional” sexual orientations. That has made life harder for the LGBT community, led to a rise in hate crimes, and invited condemnation from the West. But what is allegedly happening in Chechnya is so far outside the frame of Russian law and custom that it has shocked even some Russian social conservatives, and could prompt the Kremlin to finally act.

“The outcome of this investigation depends totally on the political will of the Russian authorities,” says Igor Kochetkov, chair of the Russian Movement for Rights of Sexual and Gender Minorities. “Right now they are checking the facts [preliminary investigation] before a formal investigation begins, and it’s clear that Chechen authorities are resisting all their efforts. The basic question here, to be decided, is whether Chechnya is part of the legal entity called the Russian Federation, or is it not?”

By Fred Weir
Correspondent
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The Redirect

Change the conversation

3. The immigration story, in four charts

Immigration arrests during President Trump’s first 100 days were up about 40 percent over the same period last year, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But from raw numbers to countries of origin to US public attitudes, the story might not be exactly what you think.

SOURCE: US Census Bureau, Pew Research Center
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Karen Norris
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4. For artists, too, a hard road back from tragedy

Sifting the less-discussed consequences of Monday’s attack got writer Mike Farrell thinking about how artists – from Ariana Grande to the creator of Pepe, a cartoon frog that has become a symbol of the "alt-right" movement – can respond to their inadvertent association with a tragedy or movement and help others heal in the process. 

Ariana Grande performed in Carson, Calif., last year. After the attack Monday at her concert in Manchester, England, killed 22 attendees and injured 120, she announced plans to stage a benefit concert for victims and their families.
Rich Fury/Invision/AP/File
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The 30 Sec. ReadRegardless of what may have motivated Monday’s suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, it was an assault on contemporary culture and public participation in the arts. For some, it was their first pop concert, a right of passage for many teens. There’s no set path for performers to return from tragedies like the one in Manchester, but artists often have a unique capacity – and enormous platforms – to help communities grieve and recover from violence. On Friday, Ms. Grande announced plans for a benefit concert for victims and their families. Art already was helping Manchester to heal: Poet Tony Walsh delivered an impassioned reading of “This Is The Place,” his 2015 ode to the English city. “One of the best ways for people to recover from trauma is to create art about it,” says Cynthia Cohen, director of the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts at Brandeis University. “In many cases, it’s what artists have to offer.” For many, says Ms. Cohen, violent attacks can leave them feeling hopeless and helpless. “In the aftermath of something like this, the world seems like a place without sense. Having the reminders of sense and beauty are really important.”

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4. For artists, too, a hard road back from tragedy

The American rock band Eagles of Death Metal was performing on stage at the Bataclan, a Paris club, when gunmen opened fire. In the end, the siege left 89 people dead – the deadliest assault of the November 2015 attacks.

It was a harrowing and traumatic experience for fans and musicians alike. But three months later, Eagles of Death Metal traveled back to Paris to retake the stage, playing in front of a packed audience that included Bataclan survivors.

“Music is important … It’s a talisman for helping those people heal, ” said Josh Homme, the band’s drummer, in a recent HBO documentary about their return to Paris. “There’s a very idealistic moment there that can galvanize everyone together. That’s wonderful and hopeful and possible.”

The documentary, “Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends),” captures an emotional journey after the attacks for the band and fans. But it also underscores the value of artistic expression and how an assault on cherished cultural institutions – whether at rock concerts in Europe or against theater groups in the Middle East and across Asia – often inspires communities to reaffirm their commitment to the arts, even in the face of deadly violence from jihadist groups such as the Islamic State or oppressive governments.

In many ways, the return of Eagles of Death Metal “planted a flag in the ground that said these people aren’t going to stop us,” says Sean Stuart, the film’s producer, in a phone interview. “They attacked all the things we cherish and the culture we hold dear.”

Regardless of what may have motivated Monday’s suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, it was an assault on contemporary culture and public participation in the arts. The bomber killed 22 people, including fans as young as 8 years old. For some it was their first pop concert, a right of passage for many teens and their parents. The event is likely to leave an indelible mark both on Ms. Grande and her legions of loyal listeners, many of whom have flocked to social media to post sorrowful notes for the victims as well as for the pop idol herself.

On Friday, Grande, who had suspended her worldwide tour, responded to the attack with a letter posted on Twitter. “Our response to this violence must be to come closer together, to help each other, to love more, to sing louder and to live more kindly and generously than we did before,” the singer wrote, saying she would return to the “incredibly brave city of Manchester” to put on a benefit concert for the victims and their families. “Music is something that everyone on Earth can share. Music is meant to heal us, to bring us together, to make us happy. So that is what it will continue to do for us.”

Clearly, there’s no set path for performers to return from tragedies like the ones that took place at the Bataclan or in Manchester, but artists often have a unique capacity – and enormous platforms – to help communities grieve and recover from violence. “One of the best ways for people to recover from trauma is to create art about it,” says Cynthia Cohen, director of the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. “In many cases, it’s what artists have to offer.”

That’s especially the case for young people who have experienced violence, she says. “One of the most important roles for artists is to create contexts where young people from different communities around the world can be engaged in expressing themselves creatively in powerful ways,” says Dr. Cohen. “Artists themselves can imagine a better world even in the aftermath of terrorism.”

Eagles of Death Metal singer Jesse Hughes, shown at Debaser Medis in Stockholm Feb. 13, 2016. After gunmen opened fire at the band's concert at the Bataclan in Paris in November 2015, killing 89, the musicians returned to the city to stage a benefit concert.Eagles of Death Metal singer Jesse Hughes is pictured at the concert at Debaser Medis in Stockholm, Sweden, February 13, 2016. The concert in Stockholm is the band’s first after the Bataclan terror attack in Paris in November.
Vilhelm Stokstad/TT News Agency/Reuters
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Reminders of sense and beauty

Art has already helped Manchester heal. At a vigil earlier this week for victims of the bombing, poet Tony Walsh delivered an impassioned reading of “This Is The Place,” his 2015 ode to the post-industrial northern English city written to mark the 20th birthday of the Manchester Arena, where Monday’s suicide bombing occurred. “Because this is a place that has been through some hard times,” read Mr. Walsh. “Oppressions, recessions, depressions and dark times / But we keep fighting back with Greater Manchester spirit.”

For many people, says Cohen, the violent attacks carried out by groups such as the so-called Islamic State or other extremist jihadists can leave them feeling hopeless and helpless. “In the aftermath of something like this, the world seems like a place without sense. Having the reminders of sense and beauty are really important.”

In Pakistan earlier this year, for instance, just days after a suicide bomber attacked a religious site during a Sufi ritual, reportedly killing 85 people, a dancer named Sheema Kermani returned to the site to perform. According to local press reports at the time, she said, “The message is basically of love and peace. I feel that to counter hatred and death, dance and music and other related arts work as therapy and as a bridge.”

Part of a global pattern

While Europe and the West have seen an increase in significant terrorist attacks on cultural institutions, parts of the Middle East and Asia have long dealt with Islamist extremists targeting arts organizations, says Karima Bennoune, special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights for the United Nations. “What we’re seeing now is that what’s happened in certain countries for years has transposed to the international level.”

Like the attacks in Paris, the Manchester bombing was “a crime against humanity, a crime against people, and a crime against culture,” says Ms. Bennoune. “It’s part of a global pattern of attacks.”

In her book, “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism,” Bennoune documents the experiences of many groups in parts of the Muslim world that have long fought back against attacks on the arts. In one case, a Pakistani theater director named Faizan Peerzada defiantly staged a performing arts festival two years after a previous event was targeted in a violent attack.

“It’s absolutely critical to continue cultural life and not to back off on concerts and public enjoyment of cultural life,” she says. “Just as culture and artists have been among the prime targets of extremists so, too, are culture and artists among the primary vehicles that we can use to defy these extremists.”

But that’s no easy task for the artist or performer, especially those who have experienced personal attacks and threats related to their work. After an attack such as the one in Manchester or at the Bataclan, artists can often feel guilty or somehow responsible for the violence inflicted on their fans.

In the Eagles of Death Metal documentary, for instance, it’s clear that the band’s singer Jesse Hughes struggled with how to return to the stage following the horrific events in Paris. “I don’t think there will ever be a day in Jesse’s life that he doesn’t think about what happened,” says Mr. Stuart, the producer. “He feels incredibly responsible and that’s a huge amount of baggage to carry.”

But performance can be as cathartic for the fan as much as it is for the artist. At one point in the film, Mr. Hughes says he’s terrified the attacker may have robbed him of something he can’t get back when he takes the stage again in Paris.

“I’m terrified of getting back and it not being the same,” he says. “I want it to fix me, too.”

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5. In Boston, plan to curb gang violence runs through college

Nationally, gang violence has been an outlier – growing where other forms of violence have waned. Josh Kenworthy reports on the latest example of a shift in thought that promotes the power (and the relative economic efficiency) of education over incarceration.

 

The 30 Sec. ReadHow could you persuade deeply entrenched gang members to give up their way of life and try college instead? Well, you could pay them. That’s the approach of Boston Uncornered, a new program just launched in Boston by nonprofit group College Bound Dorchester. CBD plans to recruit gang members and pay them $400 a week to renounce gang life and go back to school. It’s a unique and potentially controversial approach, to be sure. But CBD, which has been building the concept over the past four years, says a pilot program with 40 students has shown enough promise to expand. The program will be funded mostly by private philanthropy and CBD argues that it’s a potential money saver. Incarcerating a gang member costs Massachusetts about $53,000 per year, says CBD, while the price tag for paying that same gang member to attend school for a year is only $30,000.

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5. In Boston, plan to curb gang violence runs through college

Tony Franklin was fresh off a 10-year prison sentence for assaulting a police officer. As he walked into court to see his probation officer he was “down and out,” he says.

As a former gang member from Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, Mr. Franklin was standing at what experts identify as a crossroads: He could resort to his former means of making money on the streets, or he could walk in a new direction.

With a son on the way and bills to pay, Franklin says there were times he would break down, not knowing what to do. But prison had been an “eye-opener” for Franklin, he says, and he wanted to “do good.” He needed a circuit breaker.

It came in the form of Ismail Abdurrashid, a charismatic community figure and teacher at College Bound Dorchester (CBD), an organization designed to give at-risk youth the wraparound supports and education needed to go to college.   

“He just came out of nowhere like, ‘oh, excuse me, this college program is willing to help you with everything you need right now,’ ” Franklin says.

Specifically, that program was CBD’s flagship, Boston Uncornered, which, after a brief pilot, recently had its hard launch. Over the next three years, it aims to serve 600 of Boston’s 2,600 gang members and to have 250 enroll in college. The program recruits the most influential gang members, gives them a $400 per week stipend to renounce gang life and focus exclusively on their education, and then mentors and assists them, guiding them through the maze of financial aid applications, and teaching them life lessons like how to shop and pay their bills – whatever it takes to get them into and through college.

Given the long-running debate in the United States over the merits of prison education, Boston Uncornered’s approach is potentially controversial. CBD's chief executive officer Mark Culliton says it's a first-in-the-nation program because it demands a major shift in thinking: moving from seeing the most disruptive gang members – “core influencers” – as the central problem, to seeing them as part of the solution. 

The idea of gang members as a force for good isn’t entirely new, say some gang experts and researchers, but Boston Uncornered’s high expectations, including college access for this demographic, represent a unique approach.

“The Boston Uncornered Program is cutting edge; a fresh, welcomed approach to resolving the issue of gangs, poverty, crime, and hopelessness,” says Lisa Taylor-Austin, a national and international gang expert at the Taylor-Austin Group, which specializes in counseling members of criminal street gangs. 

Ms. Taylor-Austin says that of the myriad different intervention and suppression programs, she has not seen a program as comprehensive as Boston Uncornered since the founding of Homeboy Industries in the 1980s. Homeboy offers mentoring, pays participants a stipend or hourly rate, and includes apprentice programs in silk screening, baking, and solar panel installation. But she says Uncornered is unique because it gets students to a college-level education, which allows them to build careers, not just get jobs. This, she says, should have a ripple effect as successful former gang members reach out to their communities, especially gang involved and at-risk youth.

Alex Diaz (l.), Cisco Depina (c.), and Tony Franklin (r.) stand outside the headquarters of non-profit College Bound Dorchester (CBD) in Dorchester, Mass., Tuesday, May 16, 2017. After a promising pilot, CBD recently launched a program recruit influential gang members, paying them a weekly stipend to prepare them for college attend college.
Josh Kenworthy/The Christian Science Monitor
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Statistics on shootings and homicides in Boston emphasize the need for such a solution. According to CBD, one percent of the city’s gang-involved youth have been responsible for more than half of all homicides in the last five years. Nationally, gang-related violence continues to rise across the nation, even as overall violence declines.

CBD has been building the concept over the last four years. A pilot program with 40 students, says CBD, has shown enough promise over the last six months for the organization to believe it's worth expanding. Of the 40 students in the program, 85 percent have not been reincarcerated for a criminal sentence, 78 percent have persisted in the program, and 21 students – more than half – are currently enrolled in college. Students come into the program at different stages. Some already have their GEDs, while others are working towards their high school equivalency or taking some remedial classes.

The vital ingredient in the success of this program, Taylor-Austin and others say, is a gang member's desire to change.

"In my work with gang involved youth I never met a gang member who didn’t want a job, a paycheck and legitimate career," Taylor-Austin says. "This program is unique in that it offers all of these options.” In Franklin’s case, at 31 years old, he says, he was raring to go. He says he had reached the point where he was no longer blaming all his bad actions on his childhood with his caring, but often neglectful, drug-addicted mother and grandmother.

During his decade in prison he completed his GED, read books, and wrote poetry. If he can pass one remedial math class, he will be ready to begin studies in sociology at Bunker Hill Community College in the fall. Eventually, he says, he’d like to work as a motivational speaker for kids.

“We're not supposed to make it, we're going against all odds, but a lot of us, given the right opportunity we'll grow,” he says, likening himself and his colleagues to Tupac Shakur's song about the rose that grew from the concrete. 

One of Franklin’s peers, Alex Diaz, also seems to be seizing the opportunity with both hands. At 30, Mr. Diaz has already tried it the hard way. Deeply frustrated in high school, he says, he dropped out in ninth grade and started running the streets with a crew committing felonies, including armed robbery and kidnapping. Eventually, he was incarcerated in an upstate prison at age 17. 

It was Cisco Depina who was key in recruiting Diaz to the Boston Uncornered program. Mr. Depina, who grew up on the streets with Diaz and used to sell drugs before enrolling at CBD in 2006, now works for CBD, recruiting, mentoring, and supporting students. Depina got to Diaz in that crucial window following his release, offering to drive him to school, take him shopping – anything to keep him on track.

“What we’ve learned is one, that you can find [core influencers], and two they’ll come and work with you if you hire the right people,” Culliton says. “You hire former gang members, folks with a shared experience, and you train them in trauma informed conversations.... If you set high expectations, if you help them through the process, their trajectory changes, they move from the corner to college to graduation.”

Alex Diaz (r.) gives his speech at the College Bound Dorchester annual gala with his daughter (l.) by his side, Thursday, May 18, 2017. Mr. Diaz plans to attend Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology to study automotive technology in the fall.
Josh Kenworthy/The Christian Science Monitor
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Yet Culliton admits that working with this demographic is not easy. He recalls how during an earlier pilot involving seven influential gang members who already had their GEDs, the student deemed most likely to succeed took the money and ran. And Taylor-Austin says it will be key that the program closely monitors students to ensure that only those who stick to the tenets of the program keep getting paid.

But while the $12-$15 an hour these former gang members are getting paid might sound steep, the economic rationale stacks up, according to Culliton. CBD figures suggest a “core influencer” costs Massachusetts around $53,000 per year, (the national average is $100,000 per year) for things like incarceration and probation, compared to roughly $30,000 a year for the program. CBD estimates the program will cost $18 million over three years, funded mostly by private philanthropy plus about $1.4 million in public grants. So far program officials have raised about $4.8 million.

Calculating costs can be “tricky,” according to Ben Struhl, a policy analyst from MIT’s Poverty Action Lab, which, along with a team from Northeastern University, will gather and analyze data to measure the effectiveness of the program. But Mr. Struhl says he's excited because the research could be essential in proving the approach works.

“We know in general things like these ... can work, but we don’t have a great sort of mapping of what specific types of programs ... are most impactful, and which ones are the most cost effective,” Struhl says. “If we can do that better, by looking at programs like College Bound Dorchester, we might actually be able to really establish a better way forward with some of these criminal justice debates.”

If Diaz’s trajectory is anything to go by, the Boston Uncornered model is promising. He’s on track to begin studying automotive technology at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in the fall. He wants to start an auto mechanic's franchise. He hopes his example will speak to others.

“I've been shot twice, I've been stabbed once, it's a tough thing,” Diaz says. “I've seen people ... glorify it, but as you get older, it's like, that was the dumbest thing I ever thought about in my life, so that’s why if I can help one person ... in some way, that makes me feel good.”

( 1553 words )
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The Monitor's View

A day for Africans to rise

 

The 30 Sec. ReadAfrica Day is an event first marked in 1963 to honor the continent’s liberation from colonial powers. This year, it was marked by a new movement that seeks to define liberation as starting within each African. Its name, “Africans Rising,” hints at both its optimism and its grass-roots nature. It recognizes a change: Africans are now digitally connected and more literate. The continent’s population is the youngest in the world, with a rising political consciousness. This mental shift is reflected in different ways: African nations are the most generous hosts of refugees from other countries. They provide a majority of UN peacekeepers. The continent is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Yet the shift in “consciousness” may be best represented by the number of protests, which have occurred in countries from Tunisia to South Africa. An Africa trying to liberate itself from much more than colonialism – to celebrate Africans rising.

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A day for Africans to rise

Across Africa on May 25, thousands of people celebrated Africa Day, an event first marked in 1963 to honor the continent’s liberation from colonial powers. This year, however, the day took on a new meaning of liberation. Many people used it for the first time, either in group forums or on the internet, to “liberate their minds and bring about self-governance,” as one organizer put it.

The day was dubbed “Africans Rising,” which hints at both its optimism and its grass-roots nature. “Let this be the day that Africa starts having conversations of change with itself,” said Mildred Ngesa of Peace pen Communications in Kenya.

Last year, a few hundred activists from 44 countries decided to use Africa Day 2017 to advocate a “decentralized, citizen-owned future” for Africans. Over the decades, there have been many such Pan-African movements. This one may be different for a number of reasons.

For one, Africans are now digitally connected and more literate. The population is the youngest in the world, with more than 3 out of 5 under age 35. Most of all, according to former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, a political consciousness “associated with demands for good governance [is] increasing across Africa.”

This mental shift is reflected outwardly in different ways. African nations are the most generous hosts of refugees from other countries. They provide a majority of United Nations peacekeepers. The continent is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. 

Yet the shift in “consciousness” may be best represented by the number of protests, which rose 5 percent last year and occurred in countries from Tunisia to South Africa. “Street protests have become a metaphor for popular expressions of powerlessness,” says Mr. Obasanjo. They are a new way of asserting citizens power, shifting power from entrenched regimes to the people.

One good example: The legal constraints on the powers of the African president “are greater than at any time in the last 50 years,” writes Nic Cheeseman, democracy expert at the University of Birmingham in England.

Since the first Africa Day more than half a century ago, the continent has tried to liberate itself from much more than colonialism. It still struggles with dictators, foreign companies extracting natural resources, violent militant groups, and the oppression of women and minorities. Yet, says Obasanjo, “Africa must prepare itself to handle and solve most of its problems by itself....” For many, that means a day – or more – to celebrate Africans rising.

By The Monitor's Editorial Board
( 402 words )
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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

A higher sense of human rights

 

In the development of the recognition of human rights, the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stands out as a significant moment. But a survey of human rights in history might reference Hammurabi’s Code, Magna Carta, and various national versions of a bill of rights in countries around the world. The author of today’s article, Lyle Young, notes that for the Monitor’s founder, human rights were learned through a spiritual understanding of the Bible and Jesus’ teachings. Beyond a view of God as distant, judgmental, and unpredictable, and beyond a view of religion as denominational and limiting, Mary Baker Eddy found in the Bible moral direction, health, freedom, and equality for all. It is actually God’s will that His/Her children be selfless, pure, holy, and well. In fact, it is our divine right, because what makes every person totally individual and worthy of respect is that each shines as a unique expression of the Divine. 

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A higher sense of human rights

It’s been three years since the inauguration of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, a museum devoted to helping people understand human rights and to promoting respect and dialogue. Since September 2014, some 860,000 people have participated in its exhibits and programs.

In the development of the recognition of human rights, the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stands out as a significant moment. But a survey of human rights in history might reference Hammurabi’s Code, Magna Carta, and various national versions of a bill of rights in countries around the world.

The founder of The Christian Science Monitor, Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910), had a great interest in human rights. Raised in a Congregationalist home in New England, she turned not to history but to the Bible and to Jesus for a sense of human rights, grounded in what she understood spiritually. Beyond a view of God as distant, judgmental, and unpredictable, and beyond a view of religion as denominational and limiting, she found in the Bible moral direction, health, freedom, and equality for all.

Through decades of Bible study and by overcoming adverse experiences, she came to understand that it’s actually God’s will that His/Her children be selfless, pure, holy, and well. In fact, it is our divine right. Beyond theory, Mrs. Eddy was able to prove and teach this concept through a morality that wasn’t moralistic and a spiritual sense of peace and health that goes higher than the absence of conflict and disease. She saw that what makes every person totally individual and worthy of respect is that each shines as a unique spiritual expression of the Divine.

She understood Christ to be the true idea of God as infinite, unopposed Love, a model that everyone can progress toward – in line with what the Apostle Paul had written in the Bible: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Indicating the scope of what the true sense of God can do for human rights and society, Eddy wrote: “One infinite God, good, unifies men and nations; constitutes the brotherhood of man; ends wars; fulfils the Scripture, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself;’ annihilates pagan and Christian idolatry, – whatever is wrong in social, civil, criminal, political, and religious codes; equalizes the sexes; annuls the curse on man, and leaves nothing that can sin, suffer, be punished or destroyed” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 340).

By Lyle Young
( 428 words )
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Viewfinder

A bright new morning

Children pause to pose as they line up for school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Monitor photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman is traveling now in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Madagascar. Her central assignment: famine. But there is always the assignment behind the assignment. 'For Monitor photographers, any assignment is an opportunity to look beyond the main task,' says Alfredo Sosa, the Monitor’s director of photography. 'We are working full time to document as much of local life as possible – and these little “side finds” are often among our best images.'
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
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In Our Next Issue

( May 23rd, 2017 )

 

Thanks for reading today. We’ll be back Tuesday, after the Monday Memorial Day holiday in the US. Here’s a bonus story – a little hammock reading for the long weekend – from the Monitor family: Our writers and correspondents describe the destinations that moved them most.

And here’s a story we’ll be covering next week: In Canada, lawmakers and unions are weighing offering paid time off to victims of domestic abuse. The benefit, experts say, could help victims maintain stability – and keep their jobs – while escaping their situations.

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