2019
April
18
Thursday

How freely should we innovate when we are restoring historic buildings?

More precisely, should the future Notre Dame Cathedral, when it has been restored after this week’s fire, look exactly like the old one?

That is the debate French Premier Édouard Philippe launched on Wednesday when he announced an international competition to design a new skyline for the now roofless cathedral.

The contest “will allow us to ask the question whether we should even re-create the spire as it was conceived” by Eugène Viollet le Duc, the 19th-century architect who designed and built the über-iconic steeple that collapsed in flames on Monday, Mr. Philippe said.

Or should a new one contribute something novel, and extend the cathedral’s 850-year history of continuous evolution?

Paris is no stranger to such debates. When the Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei dared to build a glass pyramid in the stately courtyard of the Louvre, many Parisians were scandalized. Today, 30 years later, that pyramid is one of the city’s favorite and most famous landmarks.

Notre Dame’s slender Gothic Revival spire, whose 300-foot reach for the sky lightened the cathedral’s massive bulk, may not rise again in its old form. But it has left one trace. On Wednesday, somebody found the copper rooster that used to sit at the spire’s very tip – battered but apparently restorable.

Perhaps Mr. Viollet le Duc still has something to contribute to this debate.

Now onto our five stories for today.

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1. What the Mueller report is and isn't: The fog begins to lift

For two years, the Mueller investigation has been a source of speculation. With the report’s release, the American public and our writers now have the chance to read between the lines for themselves.

Peter

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The Mueller report is an almost pointillistic portrait of a sweeping array of contacts between President Donald Trump and his associates and various Russian contacts, from President Vladimir Putin on down. Take the night candidate Donald Trump was elected – at 3 A.M. his communications director Hope Hicks picked up her phone and heard, in a thick Russian accent, a request for “Putin call” (it happened a few days later).

The Mueller report also documents President Trump’s increasingly activist defense against the special counsel’s investigation of these contacts. Notable here is his attempt to flat out fire Robert Mueller, an attempt blocked by White House counsel Don McGahn. Mr. Mueller did not find enough evidence of illegal conspiracy with Russia to bring charges, or to make a prosecutorial decision about possible obstruction of justice.

But what the Mueller report isn’t, says Bennett Gershman, a professor of law at Pace Law School in New York and a former prosecutor, is irresponsible, a hoax, or a witch hunt. “It’s clearly as responsible, careful, and professional a report as can be,” Professor Gershman says.

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2. What the Mueller report is and isn't: The fog begins to lift

President Donald Trump cursing and declaring “this is the end my presidency!” when he heard of special counsel Robert Mueller’s appointment.

Trump campaign press secretary Hope Hicks sleepily picking up her personal phone at 3 a.m. of election night in 2016, and clearly hearing only two words: “Putin call.”

Trump campaign adviser Erik Prince traveling to the Seychelles Islands to perhaps build a communications backchannel with Russian officials.

Trump telling White House counsel Don McGahn to deny that he’d tried to fire special counsel Mueller – and Mr. McGahn refusing, because he had.

The report of special counsel Robert Mueller, released Thursday, is an almost pointillistic rendition of the sweeping historical canvas encompassing Mr. Trump and the Russia investigation, careful and detailed enough to influence the national conversation about the issue for months, perhaps years to come.

It’s far from the final word, of course. Mr. Trump has vehemently insisted that the bottom line is all that needs to be said: Mr. Mueller found no grounds to charge top Trump officials or Mr. Trump personally with criminal conspiracy in the matter. Mr. Mueller also struggled to decide whether Mr. Trump had criminally obstructed justice in the inquiry, and ultimately decided to not bring charges, without exonerating the president.

But if nothing else, the Mueller report may serve as a narrative defense against the administration’s attacks on the special counsel’s character and motivation in particular, and on federal law enforcement in general. The report is careful, in-depth, and reflects a responsible approach, says Bennett Gershman, professor of law at Pace Law School in New York and a former prosecutor.

“So right away as I read it, it struck me that it’s just nonsensical to characterize this investigation and the findings – the factual findings – as a hoax, a witch hunt, irresponsible,” says Professor Gershman.

The release of the redacted Mueller report has been one of the most anticipated moments of the Trump presidency.

Attorney General William Barr held a press conference prior to the report being made public. He said Mr. Trump’s actions as described in its pages should be put in the context of a U.S. chief executive who fully believed he was innocent and was responding emotionally to what he thought was an unnecessary and political intrusion into his presidency.

Mr. Barr said Mr. Trump “took no act that in fact deprived the special counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation,” and that Mr. Trump had “non-corrupt motives” for his actions.

Russia’s clear influence

The redacted report as delivered came in two roughly equal sections, the first dealing with Russian interference in the 2016 election and connections between Trump associates and Russia, and the second with obstruction of justice questions.

The first volume states unequivocally that Russia attempted to influence U.S. vote in favor of its preferred candidate, Mr. Trump. It traced numerous contacts between Trump officials and Russians, many who were themselves representatives of the Russian government. But it did not establish evidence that those contacts added up to criminal conspiracy.

Mr. Mueller did establish that the Trump campaign tried to obtain Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails. This occurred publicly when Mr. Trump asked at a campaign rally, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’ll be able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” The report indicated it also occurred privately: Trump “repeatedly” asked aides to look for the emails, the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, told the special counsel.

As to the infamous June 9 Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and other campaign officials and a Russian lawyer supposedly offering “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Mueller ultimately decided not to charge Mr. Trump and others with a campaign finance violation. The Trump people were unaware that they were operating in a potentially illegal manner in a highly sensitive area, according to the report.

The questionable meetings continued. In August 2016, for instance, campaign manager Paul Manafort met with Konstantin Kilimnik, a former associate and Russian government asset, to discuss a proposed “peace deal” for Ukraine that reflected Russian interests.

No conspiracy

But the meetings just did not involve mutual interaction on possible crimes, the special counsel concluded.

“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” the Mueller report concludes.

As for obstruction of justice, the Mueller report divides the president’s activities into two sections. In the first, Mr. Trump tried to get a public statement from then FBI Director James Comey, or another top law enforcement official, to the effect that he was not a personal target of the Russia inquiry. Mr. Comey’s refusal to go along with this was apparently one reason Mr. Trump fired him.

The second phase began after Mr. Trump realized that the new special counsel, appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein following Mr. Comey’s dismissal, had opened an obstruction of justice inquiry into Mr. Trump. This launched Mr. Trump’s more active denigration of federal law enforcement in general and the Mueller probe and its “angry Democrats” in particular, the report said.

In June 2017, Mr. Trump flatly ordered his White House counsel to fire Mr. Mueller due to perceived “conflicts of interest,” according to the report. Mr. McGahn did not take this action. After this story was leaked to the news media, Mr. Trump directed Mr. McGahn to create a record saying he had not been ordered to fire Mr. Mueller, disputing the story. Mr. McGahn refused, even when Mr. Trump in an Oval Office meeting directed him again to take this action.

“McGahn refused to back away from what he remembered happening and perceived the President to be testing his mettle,” the report states.

No decision on obstruction

Mr. Mueller pointedly did not clear the president on the obstruction of justice issue. The special counsel simply decided it would be inappropriate to make a decision as to whether to charge Mr. Trump at this time, given that it is Justice Department policy to refrain from indicting a sitting president.

“Our investigation found multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian-interference and obstruction investigations,” the report concluded.

In essence, Mr. Mueller is saying that if he could have exonerated the president here, he would have, says Ken Hughes, a research specialist and expert on presidential abuse of power at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center who has spent two decades mining President Richard Nixon’s tapes. But Mr. Mueller was unable to reach that judgment.

“Really, the special counsel’s office is saying, they couldn’t charge him because he’s president. That’s the overarching theme,” says Mr. Hughes.

As for Congress, the obstruction section of the Mueller report definitely calls for oversight investigation, says a Democratic aide.

Overall, this source sees the report as definitely kicking the issue to Congress. As to a possible impeachment inquiry, the Democratic House leadership is taking it one step at a time. The next big fight will be over congressional access to Mr. Mueller’s underlying documents – and access, in a hearing, to Mr. Mueller himself.

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2. Is populism waning in Germany? The steady rise of The Greens party

It’s not just the far right that’s on the political rise in Germany. The once marginal Greens are gaining ground among voters looking for a counterweight to right-wing populism.

Peter

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In Germany, the rise of the hard right hasn’t gone unanswered. It has proven a galvanizing force for The Greens party, which has become the country’s second largest according to recent polls. Environmentalist at its core, the party has taken on the role of countering Germany’s extreme right-wing populists.

“The Greens have come to be seen as the most clearly articulated opposite of the populist right,” says Michael Wohlgemuth, director of the Berlin arm of the think tank Open Europe. “And they represent the young, metropolitan, open society, and pro-European middle class.” The mainstreaming of environmental issues in Germany and increasing unity and focus within the party has helped put The Greens in a position of influence. It is gaining ground even in traditionally conservative states, and is now the strongest party of the center-left in southern Germany.

It has done so by siphoning support from both major parties. Around 42 percent of “new” Greens voters have previously backed Social Democrats, while a quarter were Christian Democrats. As a former Greens leader says, “We are capable of attracting the youth vote and a clear stance in favor of our core values has helped tremendously. Other parties have wavered.” 

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Is populism waning in Germany? The steady rise of The Greens party

As is the case in many countries across Europe, the past few years have seen significant growth in the political far right in Germany. Even as the country’s immigration crisis has ebbed, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a far-right German political party, has surged in the polls, disrupting the country’s usually centrist, consensus-focused politics.

But the rise of the hard right hasn’t gone unanswered. It has proven a galvanizing force for Germany’s Greens party, which has become the country’s second largest according to recent polls.

While sticking to its environmentalist ideas, The Greens have added an iron core of pragmatism that has made the party a formidable power broker in a rapidly morphing political landscape. And in particular, it has focused on the challenge of keeping extreme right-wing populists out.

“We are the driving force for a modernization of our society on many fronts and the AfD is a reaction to that,” says Reinhard Bütikofer, who co-led The Greens from 2002 to 2008 and now represents the party in the European Parliament, where he is also co-chair of the European Green Party. “They are anti-climate policy, anti-being open to the world, anti-liberal, anti-gender. ... We Greens personify everything they hate.”

Ragtag roots

Distinguished by its smiling “Nuclear Power No Thanks” buttons and its Volkswagen buses, The Greens’ story in Germany begins in 1980 with a ragtag alliance of hippies, environmental activists, and left-wing radicals.

Opposed to nuclear power and the stationing of U.S. warheads in West Germany, The Greens soon became a player on the political scene, but were overshadowed by the established Christian Democrat conservatives and center-left Social Democrats.

Today, though, The Greens’ environmental focus resonates with a German middle class that has embraced green mainstays such as organic farming, bicycling, and recycling. Moreover, it is the only German party whose pro-European, refugee-friendly, liberal-democratic credentials are undisputed.

Some 55% of Greens voters in Germany are women, according to Mr. Bütikofer. The party does well among first-time voters and with educated mothers with two children, a key demographic.

“The Greens have come to be seen as the most clearly articulated opposite of the populist right,” says Michael Wohlgemuth, director of the Berlin arm of the think tank Open Europe. “And they represent the young, metropolitan, open society, and pro-European middle class.”

Business traditionally mistrusts environmentalist parties, but with the mainstreaming of sustainable production and clean energy, The Greens have even succeeded in winning over support among the Mittelstand, the small and medium-sized companies that are the backbone of the German economy.

“The Greens have mostly abandoned their neo-Marxist rhetoric and are now more inclined to accept a model of a social-market economy with the opportunity to create jobs by investing in green technologies,” says Dr. Wohlgemuth.

A rising party

The mainstreaming of green issues can be seen in the way thousands of German schoolchildren skip school and go on strike for the “Fridays for Future” protests to force action on climate change. Some 25,000 youths joined the Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg when she came to take part in a March 29 demonstration in Berlin.

Climate change and opposing right-wing populism are core issues. Increasingly the electorate believes The Greens would better cope with these challenges than the coalition of the Social Democrats and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU, the center-right Christian democratic political alliance. 

And the party has been revitalized under the joint leadership of Annalena Baerbock, an experienced Greens operative, and Robert Habeck, an intellectual and novelist-turned-politician. In a country where the higher ranks of power are often criticized for remoteness and a lack of empathy, Ms. Baerbock and Mr. Habeck have humanized the political process.

In February, Ms. Baerbock wept in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, when historian Saul Friedländer told of being separated from his parents as a child during the Holocaust. Ms. Baerbock said she couldn’t help but think of her own two children.

“Life would have been easier without politics. I had a comfortable situation, had many children around me, I was writing books,” Mr. Habeck writes in his personal website. “But I had shut myself off, and I started to attack the stupid politicians. So I got up, went to a party meeting and came back as a regional chairperson.” 

The Greens are learning a tough side too, taking stances on hot-button issues.

At a demonstration in the capital this month, where rents have doubled in the last decade, tens of thousands of Berliners called for an end to “rental insanity” by expropriating private housing and forcing megafirms that own more than 3,000 properties to sell them to the city.

“Politicians should play a role in limiting the return on investment, for example through regional rent ceilings and an increase in the stock of public housing stock,” Mr. Habeck says.

The Greens have also shed a habit of damaging internal bickering about policy minutiae to focus on heading off the far right. “Three or four years ago, there were lots of internal fights between the factions about policy details. With the rise of the populists, these debates are over in The Greens. They maintain their integrity and stick to their program,” says Arne Jungjohann, a political analyst at The Greens party-affiliated Heinrich Böll Foundation.

‘A potent force with national ambitions’ 

That has put the party in a position of influence. Late last year, The Greens scored electoral wins in traditionally conservative Catholic Bavaria, doubling its share of the vote compared to 2013. It is also leading the government coalition in the neighboring state of Baden-Württemberg, making it now the strongest party of the center-left in southern Germany.

What makes The Greens so electable is that the party is seen as a legitimate partner for established political parties. Today Greens govern in nine coalitions out of 16 German states.

Some of that is due to history. From 1998 to 2005, Greens were the coalition partners of the Social Democrats in the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. But its long absence from power may have helped: The party has not held a role in central government since then, avoiding divisive issues such as the eurocrisis, migration, and foreign policy.

The Greens have been taking support from both major parties. Around 42 percent of “new” Greens voters have previously backed Social Democrats, while a quarter were Christian Democrats. And it is actively wooing the bases of its rivals, such as the trade union movement, long a bastion of Social Democrat support.

A real test for The Greens will be three state elections coming up in September, two of them in states in the former East Germany, where The Greens have often struggled. “It will be much more difficult for the party at the local elections to be held in eastern German states this year. Here, The Greens’ political, social, and organizational base is quite weak and so is the potential to make much progress against populist parties both on the left and the right,” says Open Europe’s Dr. Wohlgemuth.

Despite the challenges, The Greens will go into these elections as a more confident party and a more potent force with national ambitions.

“We are capable of attracting the youth vote and a clear stance in favor of our core values has helped tremendously. Other parties have wavered,” says former Greens leader Mr. Bütikofer.

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A deeper look

3. Tulsa experiment tests how tightly woven a safety net has to be

For the past year the Monitor has been following families taking part in an experimental anti-poverty campaign funded by the philanthropist George Kaiser. Real change takes more than a quick fix. But the positive signs in Tulsa could point to long-term potential. 

Peter
Ann Hermes/Staff
Hayzetta Nichols drops off her daughter, Myracle, and son, Lijah, at Educare on April 5, 2018, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Educare is a year-round early learning center that is a flagship project for philanthropist George Kaiser.

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After dropping off her three kids at Educare, an early education center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Hayzetta Nichols is the first to arrive at her sociology class. She has dreamed of becoming a social worker but had to put that ambition on hold while starting a family.

In recent years she’s had to juggle work, parenting, and the stresses and indignities of low-income living, from food stamp cutoffs to car breakdowns.

Hers is one of many families being helped by Tulsa’s anti-poverty initiatives, influenced by billionaire George Kaiser. His child-centered philanthropy could provide a beacon of hope for other cities grappling with deep inequities. It’s not enough to patch a broken social safety net, Mr. Kaiser argues. To give kids a realistic shot at breaking a cycle of poverty they need all the infant stimulation and learning that upper-class children get at home.

Ms. Nichols sought out Mr. Kaiser recently to thank him for what he’s done for her community. She envisions the steps her family is taking now as building toward their future. “Everyone has trials and tribulations,” she says. “As long as I keep moving forward everything is going to work out in time.”

This is the final installment in a four-part series.

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Tulsa experiment tests how tightly woven a safety net has to be

Three kids, three classrooms, one mom in a hurry.

It’s a familiar scene in Educare, an early education center in Tulsa, a city of 400,000 that has become a test of whether investing early in disadvantaged kids holds the key to decoupling childhood poverty from adult failure. Children start at Educare as young as 6 weeks and the bill – $24,000 a year per child – is underwritten by private donors.

On this icy Monday morning, Hayzetta Nichols is the mom in a hurry. She drops off Myracle, age 3 – “Bye, princess!” – and Lijah, her 2-year-old son, then finally Loyal, who turned 1 in March. She’s out the door in 10 minutes.

As Lavelle, her husband, heads home, I drive Ms. Nichols and her black wheelie bag stuffed with books and folders to Tulsa Community College. She is attending her final classes before midterm exams, her first since she went back to school in January to pursue her dream of becoming a social worker, a dream put on hold while starting her family.

“Two classes I’m passing. Two classes I’m failing,” she says. (She went on to pass all four.) 

Ms. Nichols’ is one of three families that the Monitor has followed for the past year to see the promise of Tulsa’s social experiment. (One family profiled previously chose not to participate this time.) Each has been touched by the generosity of George Kaiser, who is tapping his $10 billion oil-and-banking fortune to assist Tulsa’s most deprived children. His family foundation pays for home-nurse visits and prison-diversion programs, family planning and literacy clubs; he also funds progressive political causes in Republican-run Oklahoma.

For those concerned with widening inequality in the United States, Tulsa’s anti-poverty initiatives offer clues to what works, particularly where public dollars are scarce. Mr. Kaiser’s child-centered philanthropy could provide a beacon of hope for other cities grappling with deep inequities.

It’s not enough to patch a broken social safety net, argues Mr. Kaiser. To give kids a realistic shot at breaking a cycle of poverty they need all the infant stimulation and learning that upper-class children get at home. “The offense is in the adult-child interactions,” he says.

Mr. Kaiser’s metrics for success go far beyond preschool. Will disadvantaged kids become teen moms or incarcerated youth? At school will they be tracked for special ed? As adults, will they be financially secure and in good health?

Researchers at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa began following 650 preschoolers in Tulsa in 2016, of which about one-third were enrolled at Educare. The project has federal funding to track the cohorts through fourth grade, making it one of the largest longitudinal studies of the effects of public preschool on elementary school kids.  

Last year teachers in Oklahoma walked out to protest low wages and spending cutbacks. The strike yielded a salary bump, but Oklahoma remains near the bottom of the table for education spending, which means that Mr. Kaiser’s investments in early education in Tulsa run up against the realities of an urban school system that currently fails many deprived students.

In the 2017-2018 school year, only 4% of low-income black students in Tulsa passed eighth-grade math, compared with a 21 percent average. Third-grade reading proficiency fell from 36% to 30%, with significant gaps by race and income. (The drop, not the gaps, is likely due to the walkout.)

Early education experts point out that students who enter kindergarten ready to learn are far more likely to succeed; the reverse is also true, as pre-kindergarten achievement gaps persist into higher grades. Last year 4 in 10 kindergartners in Tulsa were assessed as ready to learn.

Mr. Kaiser’s dream is for all disadvantaged children to hit this mark – and to keep going.

***

Across town, Alexis Stephens pulls up outside another Educare (Tulsa has three; a fourth is under construction). She’s on lunch break from her marketing job for a regular check-in with the teacher of Addison, her 2-year-old daughter.

When Addison was born Ms. Stephens was in jail, before she entered a Kaiser-funded diversion program for incarcerated mothers where she got clean and eventually was granted custody of Addison and her son, Carson, who is now 10.

A year ago, Ms. Stephens wasn’t driving at all: Her license had been revoked. Now she has a car with a mandatory device to test her blood alcohol level. Back then she lived in a women’s shelter. Now she lives with her boyfriend, Bryan, in his rented house and her credit score should soon allow them to buy.

And Addison, whom Ms. Stephens carried while living on the streets as a drug addict, is thriving at Educare. She’s curled on a mat inside the hushed classroom where Ms. Stephens greets Debbie, her teacher, who assures her that Addison is meeting all her development targets. She can count to 18, use her words to say what she needs, and loves role-playing.

“She still has meltdowns now and then, but she knows she has to calm down,” Debbie says.

Ms. Stephens looks over at Addison, who lies on her side, oblivious to the talking adults.

Women In Recovery, the prison-diversion program, is one of Mr. Kaiser’s more intensive efforts to break a cycle of despair. Oklahoma leads the nation in locking up women. Many imprisoned mothers are addicts who had suffered child abuse; their incarceration, in turn, puts their own kids at risk of mistreatment and criminality.

For Ms. Stephens the program was a dramatic do-over. But not every intervention succeeds.

Two days earlier she attended the funeral for Aubry, a mother who completed the program but later relapsed and died of a drug overdose. The funeral took place at a church near Ms. Stephens’ grandmother’s house, near a ravine where she sledded as a kid. She went to honor her friend and, she says, to remind herself of “how easy it is to fall back in that hole.”

Bryan came too. “It’s really nice to know that he’s there to support me, to go to the funeral of someone he’s never met,” she says.

It was their second funeral in two months. A week before Christmas, Carson’s half-sister Jaylla, age 19, died after losing control of her car on a highway. “He cried when he found out, and he cried at the funeral,” she says.

Ms. Stephens also fell into a depression and spent days in bed. Before she would have dulled the pain with drugs. Not this time. “It’s not worth losing everything I’ve worked for,” she says.

Carson’s father – Ms. Stephens’ ex-boyfriend – is serving time in prison. Carson has bonded with Bryan since they moved in together last summer, and Ms. Stephens says her son has benefited from having discipline and routine, something she regrets not providing in his younger years.

Carson also never had the hands-on early education afforded to Addison, which makes him a control of sorts for Tulsa’s social experiment. Can a chaotic start in life be overcome?

Like many parents, Ms. Stephens sees her little boy growing up fast and feels an anxious twinge. “I’m running out of time. I have so much to teach him,” she says.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Alexis Stephens attends a Women In Recovery alumni indoor movie with her son, Carson, and daughter, Addison, on June 16, 2018, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Stephens is a graduate of the Women In Recovery program, a prison-diversion program that helps women overcome addiction.

***

Ms. Nichols is the first to arrive at her sociology class. She sits at the back and pulls out a well-thumbed textbook. Only four students show up for class; Tulsa has issued a winter advisory and shut its schools. (Educare stayed open.)

The professor, Tommy Chesbro, reviews the upcoming midterm, which includes theories of socialization across gender and race. Ms. Nichols, who wears a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt and jeans, takes notes and asks about the exam; sociology is one of her better classes.

A rebellious teen who nonetheless graduated high school with honors, she shakes her head when Mr. Chesbro cites research on how girls are socialized at school to defer to boys. “Not everyone,” she says, laughing.

The topic turns to moral development and changing values. When abortion is mentioned, Ms. Nichols interjects that she hasn’t changed her mind: It’s a sin. “If you lay there and open your legs you should take care of your child,” she says.

Ms. Nichols had nine miscarriages before Myracle, aptly named, was born in 2015. Since then she has had to juggle work and parenting and the stresses and indignities of low-income living, from food stamp cutoffs to car breakdowns, while trying to make her marriage work so that her children can have the stable family life that she never had in a string of foster homes.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Hayzetta Nichols holds her children, Myracle, Loyal, and Lijah, in their home on April 6, 2018, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

A year ago, Ms. Nichols was pregnant with Loyal and working at an AT&T call center. Lavelle, who was convicted in 2011 of an assault felony and whom Ms. Nichols first met on a jail visit, was looking for work. He recently was hired as a lawn care worker, his first job in a long time. Ms. Nichols stopped working last fall to study full time, so to make ends meet, the couple have been selling blood plasma.

Lavelle, who is still on probation since his release from prison, says most hiring managers balk at his criminal record. “It is what it is,” he says.

Ms. Nichols sees another barrier: racism. When I visit the family at home, she mentions a white Educare employee whose brother also has a violent felony conviction but managed to find work. “It’s color. At the end of day it’s always going to be color,” she says.

Racial prejudice also sharpens her concerns about Lijah, who has trouble speaking and can erupt into uncontrollable tantrums in class that end up in Ms. Nichols being called in. She’s wary of her son being typecast as a troubled black boy when he goes to school.

Lavelle, referring to his prison time, says that black males are born “with a number on them.” Ms. Nichols nods. “I believe that.”

Still, she also recognizes that girls usually develop faster than boys: Myracle spoke clearly at the same age and shows every sign of being ready to start public preschool in September. (Ms. Nichols shares custody with the biological father; Lijah and Loyal are Lavelle’s.)

Lijah is now seeing a speech pathologist and Ms. Nichols hopes that by expressing himself he can head off his angry spells. Like all toddlers there’s a good chance that he’ll grow out of it.

Ms. Nichols is grateful to Educare – “they feel like family” – and to Mr. Kaiser for Educare and also the Gathering Place, the riverside park that he opened last September as a gift to the city. “I appreciate what he’s done for our community,” she says. 

He recently held a meeting at the preschool, and when she found out, she wanted to meet him, not simply to thank him, but to show him her class project, an idea for a nonprofit to help young families. Who knows, maybe he’d want to fund it.

But first she has to qualify as a social worker, which could take years. By then, her young kids will be in school and, she hopes, ready to succeed. “Everyone has trials and tribulations,” she says. “As long as I keep moving forward everything is going to work out in time.”

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4. Aw shucks! Can oysters clean up New York’s harbor?

When people are accustomed to pollution, it can be difficult to get them to do anything about it. Most New Yorkers have a hard time imagining a clean harbor. This project aims to change that.

Peter

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One potential solution to cleaning up New York Harbor involves a filtering device that fits in the palm of your hand, costs only a few dollars, and can purify up to 50 gallons of water a day.

The device is no human invention, but a humble bivalve mollusk. The Billion Oyster Project aims to deposit 1 billion oysters into the harbor by 2035, where their reefs can break storm surges, provide an ecosystem for a variety of aquatic species, and clean the water. 

“You don’t lose having oysters,” says Gulnihal Ozbay, a researcher at Delaware State University who specializes in marine habitat restoration. “You always gain.”

The project uses oyster shells gathered from New York restaurants to create a foundation for the reefs. Students from the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School on Governors Island breed the oysters and plant chunks of them grown together in the harbor.

“The major benefit,” says John Waldman, a biologist at Queens College, “is the involvement of the students in creating a cadre of people who care about the harbor and are going to want to protect it.”

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Aw shucks! Can oysters clean up New York’s harbor?

Most New Yorkers wouldn’t dream of eating a fish from New York Harbor. But it hasn’t always been that way.

When Europeans first colonized the area, the water was clear and seafood was so abundant, legend has it, that it could be harvested by the basketful. Most abundant of all were the oysters.

Indeed, oysters were so plentiful that they were sold on street corners like hot dogs are today. But all that changed due to overharvesting, dredging, and a flood of pollution in the water. The oyster reefs disappeared, and the harbor became etched in New Yorkers’ minds as a no-go zone.

But today a team of high school students, scientists, and volunteers are working to change that. 

“Through the work of restoring a billion oysters, we hope to reinsert the harbor into the consciousness of New Yorkers,” says Pete Malinowski, executive director of the Billion Oyster Project, which aims to reestablish oyster reefs in the harbor.

Courtesy of Billion Oyster Project
New York Harbor School students load cages full of oyster shells onto a barge for deployment in the Hudson River. The Billion Oyster Project is reestablishing oyster reefs in the New York Harbor with the goal of revitalizing the waters.

Oysters are more than just a popular appetizer. Their reefs provide habitat for a variety of aquatic species, and they break storm surges that could otherwise devastate the coastline. Oysters also help clean the water.

“You don’t lose having oysters. You always gain,” says Gulnihal Ozbay, a researcher at Delaware State University who specializes in marine habitat restoration.

Much of the pollution afflicting the harbor today comes from sewage overflows, which occur when heavy rains overwhelm the city’s combined sewage overflow system, spilling wastewater into the harbor.

Sewage contains a lot of nitrogen, an essential nutrient for plants and animals. But too much nitrogen triggers algae blooms, which suck oxygen out of the water to create so-called dead zones.

The antidote? Oysters, say Mr. Malinowski, Dr. Ozbay, and others. As efficient filter-feeders, oysters remove nitrogen and incorporate it into their shells and tissue. Near oyster reefs, the water is often clearer.

Oysters weren’t completely gone when the Billion Oyster Project began in 2014. But the ones that remained were few and far between and aren’t thought to have been in many reefs.

That’s important because oysters are broadcast spawners, which means they release eggs and sperm into the water column where they form larvae. Those baby oysters have to find something to latch onto – and they prefer shells of adult oysters.

In the Billion Oyster Project, those older shells come from restaurants in the city. Students at the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School on Governors Island breed oysters and usher them through their development before planting entire chunks of oysters grown together into the harbor.

The goal of the project is to have placed 1 billion oysters into the harbor by 2035. They still probably won’t be safe to eat, with the project focusing on long-term restoration. And, Mr. Malinowski says, a billion oysters probably won’t make a huge dent in the harbor’s pollution, largely because water whips through the region. If the harbor water was standing still, he explains, 1 billion oysters could filter it roughly every three days.

Instead, the Billion Oyster Project is using this effort to educate the next generation of New Yorkers about the harbor and to stimulate interest in restoring and protecting it.

Eva Botkin-Kowacki
Kaya Aras, a senior at the New York Harbor School, holds algae that he and other students feed to spawning and juvenile oysters in a laboratory on March 13. They are raising the oysters to put into the New York Harbor in an effort to revitalize the waters as part of the Billion Oyster Project.

“The major benefit, I think, is the involvement of the students in creating a cadre of people who care about the harbor and are going to want to protect it,” says John Waldman, a biologist at Queens College and author of “Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor.”  

“The spirit of the kids and the teachers is palpable,” says Dr. Waldman, who is not part of the project. ”They are just so into this. It’s marvelous to see.”

To Kaya Aras, a senior at the Harbor School, the harbor had long been a place to avoid. But after working on the project, he sees it in a different light. “Having seen firsthand what the oysters do, I’m hopeful that one day the harbor will come back to what it was during the colonial era,” he says.

The harbor is already cleaner and more vibrant than some might think, says Dr. Waldman. Just a few miles from downtown Manhattan, whales have reappeared in recent years. Sonar readings of the Hudson River last summer revealed a 14-foot-long sturgeon swimming in its depths.

“[People] just haven’t been exposed to what’s going on there,” Dr. Waldman says. “There is a real lag in terms of the perceptions of the current state of the harbor.” But, he says, with projects like this, “that tide is turning.” 

This story was produced in conjunction with Earth Beats, a Sparknews collaboration highlighting environmental solutions for Earth Day.

This story has been updated to include the full name of the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School.

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Q&A

5. Why Wendell Berry is still not going to buy a computer

The digital revolution has certainly been a catalyst for progress. But that comes at a cost. In an exclusive interview, digital resister Wendell Berry cautions against putting blind faith in computers.

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John Flavell/The Independent/AP/File
Kentucky author and poet Wendell Berry reads the local paper Feb. 14, 2011, while occupying the governor’s offices to protest mountaintop removal mining in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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In today’s hyperconnected world, it’s hard to imagine life without a computer. In 1988, essayist and cultural critic Wendell Berry shocked Americans by declaring that he was not going to buy a computer. Still computerless three decades later, Mr. Berry is in a unique position to observe the effects of digital life on society. 

“It seemed to me that everybody was jumping into this as if it would save the world,” he tells the Monitor during an interview at his home in Port Royal, Kentucky. “And so, I made a little dissent.”

From behind his typewriter, he has watched as the internet has placed a library of information in the hands of the world. The ability to call up information instantaneously may satisfy an immediate curiosity, Mr. Berry says, but it “doesn’t contribute to the formation of a mind.”

His abstention from the digital world has been “a part of my strategy to try to keep myself whole as a human being,” he says. “I don’t want my life to be lived for me by a machine.”

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Why Wendell Berry is still not going to buy a computer

While much of the world salivated at the promise of the desktop computer, essayist and cultural critic Wendell Berry was unimpressed.

Three decades after publishing his controversial 1988 essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” in Harper’s Magazine, Mr. Berry still doesn’t own one. He doesn’t have a smartphone either.

That perspective has lent the octogenarian a unique view of the role of technology in this increasingly digitized world. From behind his typewriter, he has remained skeptical about what he sees as “a technological fundamentalism,” or blind faith in computers to liberate humanity.

Mr. Berry recently sat down with the Monitor at his home in Port Royal, Kentucky. The following discussion has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What made you want to publicly declare your intention to abstain from the computer bandwagon?

It seemed to me that everybody was jumping into this as if it would save the world. And that was really the way it was being advertised. “This is the solution to all our problems. This is going to speed things up.” And so, I made a little dissent. It’s really a tiny little no that I said.

While you were staging that “little dissent” President Ronald Reagan declared the computer revolution “the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”

The idea that you’re free if you buy everything that’s marketed to you is absurd. You’ve become free only when you begin to choose. Take it – or leave it. That’s our freedom, that’s real freedom.

The way the human race practically bought into this computer sales talk was just contemptible. You come on the market with this thing. It’s exactly the way they marketed television. “This is the answer. Everybody’s going to be smarter now. Everybody’s going to be in touch.” Same line. And they don’t anticipate any negative result. Never.

Three decades later, conversations have turned to controlling those unforeseen negative results. The shooter who recently killed 50 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand, is reported to have found inspiration for his belief system on the internet.

The education industry argument always is that better education will do the trick. And it’s up to us; we’re the last hope of mankind. They never think, much less admit, that to educate a born crook is to make a worse crook than he would have been without an education.

One of the appeals of computers is up-to-the-minute access to information. It’s almost as if computers have transformed people, giving them their own isolated command centers.

They got whole libraries now in these things. And if you want to know something, you could just ask your computer and it’ll tell you. But this doesn’t contribute to the formation of a mind.

Information refers to something with the power to inform. It’s formal. And it’s organic. Your mind is made from within, to a certain extent, by information. Made from without, too, because it responds to its social situation, and its geographic situation, its cultural situation. This is really complex and really interesting.

Nobody could be bored who is really searching the world for knowledge to inform the mind. So why stick a keyboard and a screen between the mind and the world? I’m not without information. I study the fields, the woods, and the river. I read, and I hear, and I remember.

In Martin Ford’s “Rise of the Robots,” he predicts that lawyers, teachers, fast-food workers, radiologists, even journalists, all could be mostly automated in the future.

There is such a thing as human relations. And there is such a thing as getting a lot of satisfaction, joy, fun from human relations. And I don’t understand why people are willing to give up on that. When you write an article for a magazine, you’re offering half – you’re part of a conversation. The reader is invited to complete it, perhaps by disagreeing. This is a relationship.

The only motive that’s worth anything is love. If you don’t do the work that you love, and if you don’t do it for love, your artistry is not informed by love. It can’t be any good. So there’s the argument, as far as I’m concerned, against robots.

You can’t make a robot that will work from love. It doesn’t work from anything; it doesn’t have any motives. Or its motive is electricity, you could say.

So my little essay about the computer, why I’m not going to buy a computer, was just a part of my strategy to try to keep myself whole as a human being. I don’t want my life to be lived for me by a machine.

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The Monitor's View

For America’s poorest communities, opportunity knocks

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This week, the Treasury Department issued key regulations under a 2017 tax law aimed at using long-term tax breaks to attract private investment into America’s poorest areas. The main idea: Build up each place with new businesses to reinforce the inclusive ties that already define these communities and to allow residents to stay put. The proposed regulations tell potential investors what kind of businesses or real estate developments will be allowed in so-called opportunity zones.

So far, at least 8,700 communities have been selected as opportunity zones with as much as $6.1 trillion that might be invested in everything from tech startups to mom-and-pop bakeries. The idea of using tax breaks to draw investment in poor neighborhoods is not new, but the program’s real strength lies in its requirement for patient long-term capital and its goal of reducing geographic inequality across the U.S.

For struggling communities in need of jobs, the tax breaks for opportunity zones will probably be hard to miss. With regulations in place, investors are eager to build up what has been left behind.

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For America’s poorest communities, opportunity knocks

Across the United States, at least 1 in 10 people live in low-income, distressed communities. Most have been hit by shifts in global trade, technology, or government priorities. Despite a decade of economic growth since the Great Recession, these places have been left behind, forcing many residents to commute long distances to earn a decent wage.

This week, however, the Treasury Department issued key regulations under a 2017 tax law aimed at using long-term tax breaks to attract private investment into neglected areas. The main idea: Build up each place with new businesses to reinforce the inclusive ties that already define these communities and to allow residents to stay put.

The proposed regulations tell potential investors what kind of businesses or real estate developments will be allowed in so-called opportunity zones to qualify for generous tax benefits. A business can qualify if more than half of their employee wages are paid in the zone or if half of their revenue is earned there. The big catch to qualify: An investment must last for 10 years to get the tax breaks.

So far, at least 8,700 communities, both urban and rural, have been selected as federal opportunity zones. The program has strong bipartisan support as well as intense interest in most states. The nonprofit Economic Innovation Group, which put forth this novel idea to Congress, estimates that as much as $6.1 trillion could be invested by individuals and corporations in everything from tech startups to mom-and-pop bakeries to luxury hotels and condos.

The idea of using tax breaks to draw investment in poor neighborhoods is not new, but the program’s real strength lies in its requirement for long-term patient capital and its goal of reducing geographic inequality across the U.S. In a new book, “The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave the Community Behind,” economist Raghuram Rajan argues that communities have as much value as free markets and government policy. They are the “third pillar” and notably for the “warmth” of their relationships and the noncontractual support and inspiration that individuals provide each other. By their nature, communities are inclusive. It is both government and markets that must tap into that moral network, starting with the poorest communities.

Many Americans hardly noticed the individual tax breaks in the 2017 tax overhaul. For struggling communities in need of jobs, however, the tax breaks for opportunity zones will probably be hard to miss. With regulations in place, investors are eager to build up what has been left behind.

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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.

Easter’s promise – a lift out of loneliness

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Today’s contributor explores how “the ever-dawning promise of Easter can resurrect our thought from darkness and despair to light and peace.”

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Easter’s promise – a lift out of loneliness

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The radio station I listen to chooses a theme each morning, and callers request songs that go with that theme. Recently the theme was loneliness, and for the 20 minutes or so that I was in my car, I heard not only songs about loneliness, but also callers’ brief comments on feeling lonely. Lighthearted as the segment was meant to be, my heart did go out to them.

Loneliness goes much deeper than a theme of popular music. In fact, not long ago, loneliness was declared an epidemic in the United States, where Sen. Ben Sasse called loneliness the nation’s “number one health crisis.” In the United Kingdom, the seriousness of the issue prompted the appointment of a loneliness minister.

In thinking about loneliness, both on an individual and global level, I’ve recently found new inspiration in the Easter story.

It doesn’t start very happily. In the book of Matthew, we read that prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, his disciples fell asleep when he asked them to pray with him. Then one disciple betrayed him and another denied knowing him. Jesus went on to be crucified, hung on a cross to die between two thieves. His garments were given away, and his body was placed in a tomb sealed by a heavy rock. No doubt this was an extremely lonely series of events.

However, it recently struck me that this time in the tomb was a sacred time for Jesus – a time for him to commune with his heavenly Father, God. He rose from the dead, and as Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy writes in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures”: “The lonely precincts of the tomb gave Jesus a refuge from his foes, a place in which to solve the great problem of being.... He proved Life to be deathless and Love to be the master of hate” (p. 44).

Jesus went through this inconceivably challenging experience alone, without any human help. However, in his “aloneness” with God, he had such a clear sense of God’s nature as endless Life and Love that it enabled him to rise above the world’s hatred of what he represented and to triumph over death. He fulfilled his God-appointed mission, proving for everyone, for all time to come, the absolute power of God and the promise of the capacity of divine goodness to overcome all evil.

Certainly we aren’t likely to experience anything close to these circumstances. But even on a much smaller scale, rejection, disagreement, or loss may make us feel isolated and lonely. Science and Health says, “Would existence without personal friends be to you a blank? Then the time will come when you will be solitary, left without sympathy; but this seeming vacuum is already filled with divine Love” (p. 266).

As Jesus’ days in the tomb were filled with the presence of God’s love, our days are already filled with that same love too. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). To me, the word “kingdom” implies fullness of life and activity. No one is forgotten or left out of God’s kingdom, and we reach this kingdom right within ourselves, through our individual prayers – our communication with God.

Of course, Jesus did not remain in the tomb, and no one is destined to remain in loneliness. Through a growing reliance on God, divine Love, we will be led naturally into new opportunities and fulfilling friendships.

Obviously, the focus of the Easter story isn’t about overcoming loneliness; it’s about Jesus proving the supremacy of God’s power over every argument that says our life is separated from God, including death itself. But I am struck by the fact that this perspective on the Easter story gave me inspiration and healing at a time when I was feeling particularly lonely. My family had gone through some significant changes, and I felt alone and scared. However, I began to see this as a time to get to know God better and to know myself more as God’s child, the spiritual expression of His infinite love, already having all that I needed for fulfillment and happiness. It wasn’t long before new opportunities for abundant activity arose, which included fun and meaningful interactions with others.

Whether we are praying to be lifted out of loneliness ourselves or we want to help lift this problem from the world, the ever-dawning promise of Easter can resurrect our thought from darkness and despair to light and peace. Then our theme will be that of fullness and joy as we sing praises to God.

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Morning has broken

Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
Priests pray next to portraits of the victims of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 plane crash in Gara Boka village, southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, April 18. Thursday marked the final day of 40 days of mourning prescribed by Ethiopian Orthodox tradition.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( April 19th, 2019 )

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow when we’ll have Fred Weir’s third and final dispatch from Ukraine, where a comedian appears poised to unseat the sitting president in Sunday’s election.

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April 18, 2019
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