2017
August
24
Thursday

Monitor Daily Podcast

August 24, 2017
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TODAY’S INTRO

Monitor Daily Intro for August 24, 2017

Marjorie Kehe
Deputy Weekly Editor

How would you spend the summer if you were a charismatic Italian considered by many to be the world’s No. 1 chef? On the beach in Viareggio? Starring in a reality TV show?

How about battling food waste and hunger around the world?

Earlier this summer, Massimo Bottura, celebrated owner of three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, opened his third high-end global soup kitchen. That may sound funny, but it’s hard to know how else to describe Mr. Bottura’s “Refettorio” concept.

Now up and running in London, Rio de Janeiro, and Milan, Italy, the Refettorios are designed to turn food that would otherwise have been thrown away into high-end restaurant-quality meals for the hungry.

And the beauty of the concept extends all the way to the décor. Bottura uses his clout to bring in top-notch designers to decorate the buildings. His aim is to allow the hungry and the homeless to “enjoy the pleasure of a beautiful meal in a beautiful place.”

Bottura says he’s looking forward to extending his concept to the United States – a country that annually wastes 40 percent of its food supply – and plans to open the first American Refettorio in the New York borough of the Bronx later this year.

Now, on to our news stories.

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How a Saudi shift could help Iraq’s Sunnis … and Shiites

Why would Saudi Arabia – a nation overwhelmingly populated with and governed by Sunni Muslims – reverse itself and align with Shiite-dominated Iraq? The Saudis' motives may be self-interested, but their actions could have a stabilizing influence in Iraq.

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In the midst of a summer charm offensive, Saudi Arabia hosted a series of senior Iraqi officials in Riyadh. It marked a dramatic about-face for the Sunni kingdom, which cut ties to Baghdad after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and for more than a decade had written off Iraq as hopelessly under the influence of Shiite Iran. Even Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric and fervent Iraqi nationalist, paid a groundbreaking visit. The Saudis followed up with measures and plans that would ease travel and promote trade. To be sure, the diplomatic overture could serve the purpose of lessening archrival Iran’s influence in Iraq. But it also holds open the promise of encouraging disenfranchised Iraqi Sunnis to reconnect with the political process. And that could revitalize hopes for a settlement to end Iraq’s sectarian violence. Kenneth Pollack of the American Enterprise Institute stressed the importance of making Sunnis feel as if they are given “political power and economic influence in proportion to their demographics,” saying, “This would allow Iraqis to address decentralization, executive power, and the role of security services and other enormous issues.”

How a Saudi shift could help Iraq’s Sunnis … and Shiites

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Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Reuters
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 30, 2017.

With the so-called Islamic State on the brink of defeat in northern Iraq, the government in Baghdad is set to mark another victory: reconciliation with regional hegemon Saudi Arabia.

The oil-rich kingdom and dominant Sunni power has effectively been absent from Iraq since Riyadh cut ties with Baghdad after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the Saudis distanced themselves from their neighbor further, writing Iraq off as a “lost cause” that was hopelessly under the influence of archrival Iran, and working to effectively freeze Baghdad out of Arab regional politics.

Experts say a rapprochement now with Saudi Arabia could have a profound impact on Iraq by encouraging disenfranchised Sunnis to reconnect with the political process, curbing Iran’s broad influence over Iraqi affairs, and revitalizing hopes for a political settlement to end the sectarian violence that has wracked the country for more than a decade.

Diplomatic turnaround

The Saudi move isolating Iraq was a self-fulfilling prophecy, experts say. Without Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Gulf allies to keep Iraq in the Arab fold, the country and its leaders were forced to increase their reliance on Shiite Iran for security, stability, and economic sustainability.

Now, with the new leadership in Riyadh confronting both a decline in oil revenue and its own limitations in militarily checking Iranian influence in its disastrous war in neighboring Yemen, Saudi Arabia is adopting a new strategy to boost its influence in Iraq (and not just incidentally tweak Iran): diplomacy.

In a flurry of high-profile visits to Riyadh in late July, Saudi Arabia hosted a series of senior Iraqi officials, including the country’s interior and oil ministers. But the most groundbreaking, and surprising, visit was that of Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric and fervent nationalist who holds deep sway among Iraq’s Shiites.

The visits were followed by a host of goodwill gestures from Saudi Arabia this month, starting with the reopening of the Arar border crossing for the first time in 27 years. Saudi Prince Faisal bin Khalid bin Sultan, governor of the northern border region, was present to personally welcome and greet the first batch of Iraqi pilgrims to enter the crossing.  

Critically, Saudi Arabia announced that it plans to open consulates in Najaf and Basra, major Shiite cities in Iraq with religious and economic importance, and build air and land links with the cities. According to Iraqi officials, the Saudi cabinet also announced the formation of a joint trade council and a committee to oversee a series of projects such as hospitals in Baghdad and Basra and the opening of free trade zones.

It is a deployment of soft power with a personal touch that Riyadh hopes will convince Baghdad, and Iraqis, that their years of isolation in the Arab world are over – and that after a long absence, they can rely once again on Saudi Arabia.

Political settlement

The immediate impact of Saudi Arabia’s reengagement with Iraq is the bolstering of the country’s beleaguered Sunni minority.

Since the 2003 invasion, many of Iraq’s Sunni leaders have refused to come to the negotiating table to hash out a new political agreement with the country’s Shiites and Kurds.

Sunnis have long believed that Iraq’s Shiites, thanks to their backing by Iran, hold the upper hand and can dictate their demands on a leaderless and exposed Sunni community.  Trust between Sunnis and the Shiite-majority government deteriorated further after the perceived targeting of Sunni communities and leaders by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

With Saudi Arabia growing its political and economic influence in the country, experts say Iraq’s Sunnis may now feel more confident in granting concessions to Shiites and Kurds, and in their ability to gain concessions of their own.

Such a development would be critical in efforts to reach a fairer power-sharing agreement that would bring Sunnis into the Iraqi state and quell political and sectarian violence.

“In the near-term, this could pave way for a new power-sharing agreement between Sunnis and Shiites where Sunnis feel like they are given political power and economic influence in proportion to their demographics,” says Kenneth Pollack, an Iraq expert and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

“This would allow Iraqis to address decentralization, executive power, and the role of security services and other enormous issues in Iraq stemming from gaps and vagueness in parts of the constitution that has led to different interpretations.”

Sunni tribal leaders, in interviews with the Monitor, stress that although they welcome Saudi Arabia’s increased role in Iraq as a long overdue “return” to the Arab fold, they need to see the Iraqi government make a goodwill gesture to allow for negotiations, namely disarming and demobilizing Shiite militias.

“An increased role by Saudi Arabia is positive,” says Abdalrazzaq Suleiman, a leader of an Anbar tribe.

“But before we can talk about the future of Iraq, we have to see that this government is willing and able to stop these militias from acting outside the law.”

Another Anbar tribal leader says, however, that Riyadh may lead the realignment many Sunnis have been waiting for.

“The government in Baghdad has tied us to Iran and pitted us against the rest of the world. We want Saudi Arabia to help us rejoin the Arab world, where we belong,” says the leader, who requested not to be named. 

Coalition-building

The Saudi outreach comes as a shrewd recognition by Riyadh that not only Sunnis, but Iraq’s moderate and nationalist Shiites, such as Mr. Sadr and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, are growing weary of Iran’s dominance in Iraqi internal affairs, analysts say.

By building economic, transport, and diplomatic ties with key Shiite cities and leaders, Riyadh is emboldening moderate Shiite leaders such as Mr. Abadi and Ayad Allawi, a vice president and former prime minister, who would like to engage and partner with Sunnis. That is an engagement that Iran and its hardline allies within Iraq have discouraged – and at times torpedoed – over the last decade.

With an alternative power such as Riyadh, emboldened Shiite political forces may consider moves unpopular in Tehran such as the demobilization of the Popular Mobilization Units and other Shiite militias influenced by Iran that have sparked a backlash from the Sunni community.

“Abadi is not 100 percent supportive of Saudi Arabia’s policy in the region. But this is an opportunity to chart a new course that is not dependent on Iran and that puts Iraq’s national interests first,” says Raed Mansour, a fellow at Chatham House.

The timing for such a push is not a coincidence. The 2018 parliamentary elections in Iraq are several months away.

By encouraging Sunni participation in the polls and offering an olive branch to the Shiite community, Riyadh and its allies could help further foster the cross-sectarian, Shiite-Sunni coalition building that is vital to Iraq’s political and physical stability.

“It would not be unrealistic to see a reemergence of a coalition that includes moderate Sunnis and Shia that can bring stability to Iraq. This is certainly on the minds of Saudi policy-makers,” says Firas Maksad, director at The Arabia Foundation in Washington.  

Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Iraq can also have an immediate impact on the reconstruction of towns and cities hit by the war against ISIS.

News reports, and Saudi insiders, say Riyadh and Baghdad are negotiating a role for Saudi Arabia in rebuilding Iraq’s war-torn cities, namely the predominately Sunni cities of Mosul, Tikrit, Falluja, and Ramadi.

The Iraqi government estimates it will cost $100 billion to rebuild the mainly Sunni areas hit by ISIS and coalition airstrikes, while the UN has called for $985 million in humanitarian relief alone.

“The post-ISIS reconstruction has provided an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to influence Iraq as well as an opportunity for Iraq, which is desperately looking for investors,” says Mr. Mansour.

But initial signs say Riyadh is not ready to write a blank check to Baghdad just yet.

Push-back from Iran

Saudi Arabia has been burned by the limited influence it gained from funneling billions of dollars to Egypt, while a drop in oil prices has forced the kingdom to cut back on public spending and embark on its own ambitious economic transformation plan.

Rather than throwing money at Iraq, Saudi Arabia is likely to select a few, small-scale projects to build the confidence of both the Iraqi government and public, such as the rehabilitation of a strategic oil export pipeline running from Iraq through Saudi Arabia to the Red Sea, and the rehabilitation of the road connecting Baghdad with Amman.

The question remains whether Saudi Arabia has the patience to play the long game. In Iraq there will undoubtedly be setbacks and elements loyal to Iran who will push back, and perhaps even attempt to sabotage their reconciliation with Baghdad, observers say.

 “The question is: when they meet Iranian resistance, how will they respond?” says Mr. Pollack.

“Will they give up and throw their hands up, or will they double down and try harder?”

Iran has trained, equipped, and directs several Shiite militias, has the presence of its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and can use its offer of military and security support – expertise and power Saudi Arabia lacks – to sway Iraq’s politicians, clerics, and decision-makers.

“Iran is going to be a very significant and perhaps the dominant player in Iraq for quite some time,” says Mr. Maksad.

“But the reengagement of Iraq by Gulf states opens opportunities to check some of Iran’s unwanted influence and that is important in and of itself.”

Overlooked

Stories you may have missed

Soviet-era war informs Russians’ take on the US Afghan track

Talk to Russians, and you'll find few who regret their country's decision to pull its troops out of Afghanistan back in 1989. And based on their experiences fighting there, Afghan war vets see little cause in President Trump’s new plan to expect a better result.

Allauddin Khan/AP
Afghan boys play on the remains of an old Soviet tank on the outskirts of Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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For Russians, President Trump’s decision to commit more US forces to the war in Afghanistan was all too familiar. “Everything's been tried and there is nothing new in [Mr. Trump's plan]," says Gen. Makhmut Gareev, a veteran of the Afghan war who is currently president of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences. “They need to either launch a major war, come in with massive forces, or just leave it as it is.” Russian experts point out that the Soviets tried, and failed, to do most of the things that Western forces have also attempted over the past decade and a half: install secular government, build infrastructure, promote women’s rights, and destroy poppy production. A better example for what to do in Afghanistan might actually be that provided by Mikhail Gorbachev, who in 1989 pulled Soviet forces out of the country, ending a nine-year war that drained the Soviet economy, killed 15,000 troops, and stirred antiwar unrest around the USSR. Opinion polls show that few Russians today regret leaving Afghanistan.

Soviet-era war informs Russians’ take on the US Afghan track

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When President Trump announced earlier this week that on the advice of his generals, he was expanding operations in Afghanistan despite his repeated promises to end US involvement in the 16-year-old conflict, some Russians couldn't help but think back to February 1989, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev did just the opposite.

On a blustery day back then, the last of over 100,000 Soviet troops rolled across the unhappily-named "Friendship Bridge" into then-Soviet Uzbekistan, bringing an end to the futile nine-year war to keep Afghanistan in the USSR's orbit. Their return home prompted an explosion of public joy across the Soviet Union, and the withdrawal even spawned a popular song, "We're Leaving!", which briefly dominated the Soviet airwaves.

Though some of his generals and intelligence chiefs counseled him against the decision, Mr. Gorbachev was convinced that the war was unwinnable. The conflict had drained the Soviet economy, killed 15,000 troops, and stirred deep currents of anti-war unrest around the country.

"Gorbachev thought the war was a mistake, it was not going well, and couldn't be won," says Pavel Palazhchenko, the former Soviet leader's long-time personal translator, who was with him through those years. "He believed that with some assistance there was a chance for [former Afghan President Mohammad] Najibullah to build some kind of government of national reconciliation and avoid defeat.... But after 1992, both Russia and the US neglected what was going on in Afghanistan. It became a hotbed of terrorism, and that's one of the reasons 9/11 happened."

Today, the US war in Afghanistan – and Mr. Trump's decision to continue it – looks to Russian eyes to be destined to the same fate as the Soviets'. Despite trying to bring modernization, instill women's rights, and purge opium production from Afghanistan, the Soviets ultimately found leaving the best option – and Mr. Trump's plan looks unlikely to do better.

"Everything's been tried and there is nothing new in [Trump's plan]," says Gen. Makhmut Gareev, a veteran of the Afghan war who is currently president of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences.

AP/File
Russian soldier on patrol passes Afghan villager and his donkey on lonely mountain road near Kabul on Jan. 8, 1980.

Afghanistan, which had been a peaceful, secular, and heavily Moscow-influenced backwater best known to Westerners as an exotic stop on the "hippie trail" to India in the 1970s, was thoroughly destabilized and brutalized by the decade-long Soviet intervention. Much of the wider region has since been plunged into chaos by outside forces seeking to "set things right," a fact not lost on Russian veterans of the Afghan war and Central Asia experts.

Opinion polls show that few Russians today regret leaving Afghanistan back in 1989. But many do, paradoxically, worry about what might happen if the US were to suddenly withdraw as the Soviet army did. Five years ago Russian leaders actually urged NATO forces to remain and "finish the job" after President Obama announced that the mission would end in 2014.

"I was a young army officer when we entered Afghanistan," says Frants Klintsevich, who is today deputy chair of the defense committee of Russia's upper house of parliament. "I was amazed at the secular character of the society. People in Kabul were well-educated; young women wore short skirts and some went to Paris to get their hair done." He says everyone thought it would be a limited military mission at the time, just to help defend the populations of big cities against foreign-backed insurgents aiming to overthrow the pro-Soviet regime.

But Soviet forces were gradually drawn deeper and deeper into the quagmire, he says. "Neither us nor the Americans paid any attention to Alexander the Great's observation that you can't conquer that place. It's best to just pass through it," he says. "The Afghan mentality is that the longer foreigners stay on their soil, they more they will oppose them."

Russian experts point out that the Soviets tried, and failed, to do most of the things that Western forces have also attempted over the past decade and a half.

"There is some idea among Westerners that we sought to impose godless communism on Afghanistan, while they are bringing democracy," says Vladimir Sotnikov, an expert at the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "Actually, we tried to support the same kind of political solution that the US later did, by backing secular government, building infrastructure, promoting women's rights, and so on. We built schools, hospitals, and roads. We brought in doctors, teachers, and engineers to aid a process of modernization. The problem was that we were outsiders, just as the Americans are."

Rodrigo Abd/AP/File
US soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 87th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, secure the area after exiting a Chinook helicopter, Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan, in 2006.

Oleg Tikhonov, head of an association for wounded Afghan war veterans in the Urals region of Sverdlovsk, says the Soviets also cracked down hard on drug production.

"When we were there, we destroyed poppy fields wherever we found them," he says. "After we left, drug production skyrocketed. Now the whole world is threatened by the flood of narcotics from Afghanistan."

Russia has been bracing for a possible explosion of Islamist militancy that could penetrate into the weak, mainly Muslim Soviet successor states of Central Asia after Western forces finally depart Afghanistan. Mr. Trump's decision this week doesn't seem to inspire Russian security experts with much confidence.

"The way the Americans are doing this doesn't hold out much hope that they can accomplish anything in Afghanistan," says General Gareev. "They need to either launch a major war, come in with massive forces, or just leave it as it is."

The city that put learning centers where people live

A learning center at the heart of a cluster of Section 8 apartments in Madison, Wis., offers students something that helps them even more than a laptop computer – a sense of caring.

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After moving to a Section 8 housing development in Madison, Wis., his sophomore year of high school, Kebba Bojang, a native of Gambia, began frequenting an on-site learning center – staffed primarily by residents – to study and get tutoring help. Besides resources, Mr. Bojang says he also found something less tangible at the Northport Apartments learning center: high expectations. “When I have this feeling that someone is expecting me to be somewhere, it kind of pushes me to go there so I don’t disappoint the person. My fear of disappointment takes over my procrastination issues.” This kind of motivation, driven by interpersonal relationships and a strong sense of community, is a primary goal of the on-site centers at Northport, the neighboring Packer Townhouses, and two similar low-income housing facilities in Milwaukee, all of which are managed by the nonprofit group Housing Ministries of American Baptists in Wisconsin. Over their 20-plus years of existence, the Northport and Packer apartments have come to be regarded as a model for community-based learning in the Madison area, according to Madison Mayor Paul Soglin. 

The city that put learning centers where people live

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Gretel Kauffman/The Christian Science Monitor
Pat Wongkit, program director at Northport Apartments, works on a computer in the facility's community learning center.

When it came to getting homework done, the odds weren’t in Kebba Bojang’s favor. Like many teenagers, he admits, he had a tendency to procrastinate. And with no computer at home and the nearest library a long walk away, assignments often ranged from difficult to impossible. 

Unlike most other high school students in similar predicaments, however, Mr. Bojang was able to find a solution in – quite literally – his own backyard. 

Bojang, now 24 and entering his second year of pharmacy school at the University of Iowa, is representative of a range of success stories to have come out of Northport Apartments, a Section 8 housing development on Madison’s East Side. At the heart of the 140-unit apartment complex, both physically and metaphorically, is a humble brick building that holds a roomful of computers, a few quiet meeting rooms, and a team of residents-turned-staff eager to help their neighbors succeed. 

After moving to Northport his sophomore year of high school, Bojang, a native of The Gambia, began frequenting the on-site learning center to study on his own, later taking advantage of a math tutoring program offered there by visiting students from the University of Wisconsin. When graduation rolled around, the center offered him a scholarship to help pay for his undergraduate education at the University of Dubuque in Iowa.

A quiet workspace – and high expectations

Access to a quiet workspace, up-to-date technology, knowledgeable tutors, and scholarship money was all very helpful, Bojang says. But he also found something less tangible at the learning center: high expectations. As one of the older students at the center at the time, he recalls, one of the employees there would hold him up as an example for the younger children. She always seemed happy to see him, he adds, and would notice when he wasn’t there. 

“She was kind of pushing me,” he says. “When I have this feeling that someone is expecting me to be somewhere, it kind of pushes me to go there so I don’t disappoint the person. My fear of disappointment takes over my procrastination issues.” 

This kind of motivation, driven by interpersonal relationships and a strong sense of community, is a primary goal of the on-site community learning centers at Northport, the neighboring Packer Townhouses, and two similar low-income housing facilities in Milwaukee, all of which are managed by the nonprofit group Housing Ministries of American Baptists in Wisconsin (HMABW). On a practical level, the resident-designed and -staffed learning centers create jobs for those who live there and make it easier for learners young and old to access the educational resources they need. But beyond their convenience, Northport and Packer residents say, the centers have nurtured a sense of community and ownership, empowering students to take on leadership roles in other aspects of their life. 

“The kids are seeing that it’s not only having access to technology or getting homework done,” says Sainey Nyassi, a longtime resident and current manager assistant at Northport Apartments. ”They’re seeing the human aspect.”

‘Asset-rich and access-poor’ 

The facilities in Madison and Milwaukee offer services to residents of all ages, spanning from pre-school children to older adults. Offerings include Head Start programming, after-school homework help, one-on-one tutoring for adults, a summer program with field trips, and English classes for the facilities’ large Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern immigrant populations. For recent graduates and older adults hoping to attend college, scholarships are available. Both services and scholarships are funded through a portion of rent profits. 

Over their twenty-plus years of existence, the Northport and Packer apartments have come to be regarded as a model for community-based learning in the Madison area, according to Madison Mayor Paul Soglin. 

“It’s more than, pay the rent and you’ve got an apartment with running water and heat,” says Mayor Soglin, who in January publicly recognized the Rev. Dr. Carmen Porco, CEO and executive director of HMABW, as the recipient of a joint city-county humanitarian award that honors those who “reflect the values of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” “It’s a more holistic approach in regards to the entire family, ranging from the needs of toddlers and infants to the future of the parents.” 

The numbers suggest an effective model for improving academic performance. High school graduation rates among students residing in the Madison facilities have fluctuated between roughly 90 and 100 percent in recent years, rates significantly higher than Madison public schools’ four-year graduation rate of 78 percent. More than 70 percent of high school graduates from the HMABW facilities go on to attend college.

Some of the Madison centers’ success may be due to the convenience they offer in a city that Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education, describes as ”asset-rich and access-poor.” 

“We have everything in this town that you would want in a high-quality community,” she says, “but the access to it is very, very poor for some people.”

One common challenge for low-income families, Professor Ladson-Billings notes, is transportation. Others may lack the financial means to enroll their children in expensive educational programs.

“Having those centers right there on site means that’s one less barrier that people have to try to get over,” she says.  

Seeing the human aspect

For young people growing up in low-income communities, exposure to people from similar backgrounds in leadership roles can be life-changing, observers say. Oftentimes, schools serving low-income students will bring in people from outside the community when career day rolls around, Ladson-Billings notes, sending a “subtle message” that “what people do in this community isn’t that valuable.”

By staffing the learning centers with residents, Dr. Porco and his team aim to send the opposite message.  

“People see that people like them are running the show,” he says. “For once, they own the institutional base. And that makes a difference.” 

There is some evidence, through anecdotes, that the strategy is working, as young people living in the housing facilities take on leadership roles at school in student government, sports, and other clubs. Sandra Willis-Smith, resident and manager at Packer Townhouses, proudly tells of her middle school-age son’s job helping social workers by talking with classmates who have behavioral problems, an accomplishment she attributes “one hundred percent” to his experiences at the learning center. 

The neighborly bond between residents enables some degree of flexibility when it comes to running the centers, says Pat Wongkit, program director at Northport, where she has lived for 33 years and worked for 22. Sometimes, she’ll let young people stay and do their work after hours to accommodate for busy schedules and family demands. 

“I trust them,” she explains, “and they trust me.” 

These relationships between employees and their fellow residents, cultivated through facility-wide picnics and holiday celebrations, are one of the centers’ greatest strengths, those who live there say.

Ms. Willis-Smith, a resident for more than two decades, recalls participating in meetings to design the learning centers upon first moving from Joliet, Ill., and then in the groundbreaking ceremony in ‘93. In the years that followed, she climbed her way up from receptionist to manager. Being a part of the community, Willis-Smith believes, has allowed her to build stronger relationships with the residents she serves. 

“They feel more comfortable with me because they know I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I’ve seen that,” she says. “So I’m able to help them out more.”

At a Colorado county fair, an exhibition of values

How different are kids who grow up in America's rural towns from their peers in urban areas? A visit to a Colorado country fair offers some clues.

Doug Struck
Katie Jo Knez (r.) and her friend McKenzie Schneider work late at night at the Moffat County (Colo.) Fair to make sure Katie Jo's pigs are fed. Folks in this rural county of 12,000 say they feel little connection with the great urban beehives.

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Editorials and politicians struggle to explain the polarization of this country. On the East and West fringes of America, and the scattered blazes of urban areas in between, each news flash from the White House is parsed and plumbed for meaning. Better, perhaps, to stop to watch at a small country fair tucked in the northwest corner of Colorado. This is Trump country. And coal country. It’s a place where ranchers and miners and wheat farmers with hard hands keep to harder politics. None of that’s on the agenda of the two-week Moffat County Fair, a homey event with no carnival rides, but a rodeo on Friday night and three metal barns for exhibits. Folks in the sagebrush hills of this rural county of 12,000 say they feel little connection with the great urban beehives. Their evidence for that is at the fair, in scenes that have nothing to do with politics. “We are different,” says Katrina Springer, the president of the fair, after recording the winners of the best salsa sauce competition. “This is our way of life.”

At a Colorado county fair, an exhibition of values

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Everybody gets a ribbon at the Moffat County Fair. That is fitting: The cows and sheep have been groomed to a lustrous shine, the pigs trained to follow commands, the quilts meticulously assembled, and the apple pies taste-tested to perfection.

But it is America’s Divide that is on quiet display.

“We are different,” says Katrina Springer, the president of the fair, after recording the winners of the best salsa sauce competition. “This is our way of life.”

Editorials and politicians struggle to explain the polarization of this country. On the East and West fringes of America, and the scattered blazes of urban areas in between, each news flash from the White House is parsed and plumbed for meaning.

Better, perhaps, to stop to watch at this small country fair tucked in the northwest corner of Colorado. This is Trump country. And coal country. It’s a place where ranchers and miners and wheat farmers with hard hands keep to harder politics.

None of that’s on the agenda of the two-week fair, a homey event with no carnival rides, but a rodeo on Friday night and three metal barns for exhibits. Folks in the sagebrush hills of this rural county of 12,000 say they feel little connection with the great urban beehives. Their evidence for that is at the fair, in scenes that have nothing to do with politics.

A duck? No, ‘a project’

Cheyenne Gensler, 15, waits quietly, with her duck tucked under her arm, for the small animal judging to begin. Soon a rooster arrives, then a chicken. Two rabbits, three dogs. With number 107 pinned to the back of her shirt, Cheyenne strokes the duck as the judge asks her stern questions.

“They give you 10 minutes to talk about your project. They want to see how much you know and they want to see how you move with the animals,” she explains afterward. A project? “Well, it’s simpler to call it a project rather than a duck, so you don’t get too attached. Because sometimes they do have to go in the end.”

The tall girl with wavy blonde hair talks to a stranger directly, confidently. Her mother watches, but does not answer for her. The parents here would never say their kids are better than others. But they will say that their children are raised with different … well, expectations, that they are suspicious other kids don’t get.

“Showing an animal teaches them to have responsibility,” Kia Fedinec, Cheyenne’s mother, says earlier, sitting on aluminum bleachers to watch her daughter compete. “City kids that have no responsibility for doing something like that don’t have the opportunity of these country kids.”

Responsibility is a word used a lot here. As many as 400 4-H, Future Farmers of America, and other students entered the fair. Many of them brought livestock – ranging from tiny rabbits to huge steers – that would be sold on the last day of the fair. They had spent months caring for the animals, feeding, bedding, bathing, grooming them morning and night. They had carefully recorded the debts incurred for feed and care. They were in debt at their young age, and at the end, they hoped to make a profit from the sale.

“It’s not always about the blue ribbon,” says Ms. Springer, running the 99th year of the fair. “Sometime things don’t work out. Animals die. They learn about the cycle of life.

“Look at these kids,” she adds. “They learn when someone is talking to them, they look at the person. They shake his hand. They say ‘yes ma’am’ or ‘no sir.’ I’m not saying kids in the East don’t have these things. I’m just saying there’s a lot of opportunity here to learn family values.”

Tough questions ... about a rabbit

Over in the small animal barn, Joel Ross, a high school senior, says the judges asked tough questions about his rabbit, called a Californian breed. What color eye should most Californians have? (brown) What color fur does a rabbit with blue eyes have? (white).

What is it bred for? (meat. “It’s my favorite after elk meat.”) 

After seven years of competing with rabbits, poultry, and lambs, Joel is at the top of his game. His rabbit won best in show. He says he does it for fun. “It gives you something to work toward all year.”

After college, will he return to this rural area? Joel is not sure. “I really want to work in the church. That’s where my happy place is,” he says. But even if that takes him to a city, he says, “always in my heart I’ll love Craig.”

Rodeo flair 

The fair has brought in a professional rodeo, ramping up for a really big show at next year’s centennial. Miss Rodeo America and Miss Rodeo Wyoming are all spangled up in red-white-and-blue. The announcer calls them “these pretty ladies,” but the two women lean forward to race their steeds at breakneck speed around the arena, and then help corral steers during the competition. Like the others running the rodeo, they are completely in charge in the saddle.

Throughout the calf-roping, bronco-riding and steer wrestling, Doug Mathis, the rodeo public address announcer, keeps it light and folksy. When the VFW color guard marches into the arena, he switches gears. He launches his dramatic voice to read stories of two soldiers killed in World War II and a pilot killed in Vietnam, as the patriotic music swells theatrically behind him.

For 15 minutes, the crowd in the bleachers stands, many with their hats on their hearts. Even the kids stop playing to stand still. Nobody seems to think the interruption is hokey or contrived. Nobody ignores it.

Swathed in the flag

After the rodeo Friday evening comes Jake Gill, a country singer. His themes too, are swathed in the flag. “We got guts, guns and Jesus,” he croons. “Thank the Lord Almighty you’re in the USA.”

Children, some in diapers and cowboy hats, dance in the dusty arena track before him, as he sings about booze and heartbreak and how wonderful the country is.

“Nobody watches their kids too closely,” confides one mother, “because everybody here watches them.”

Tyler Erickson, a rope-slim young man under a white cowboy hat, came from Wheatland, Wyo., to compete in the bareback bronco riding championship. He stayed on his whipping horse for the required eight seconds, winning third place and a few hundred dollars, enough to repay his $61 entrance fee with some left over.

He travels around the country, doing five or six rodeos a week. “It’s the last nomadic lifestyle in the world,” says Mr. Erickson, who sleeps in the back of his car while on the road. “Every morning I get down on one knee and thank the Lord for being able to do this, and thank the Lord for being able to live in this country.”

Cheerful chores

It’s late Friday night, but the barns still are busy with kids ignoring the rodeo and the concert. Katie Jo Knez, an 11-year-old, is hauling a very full pail of hog feed. She clambers up on the fence and pours the feed down a tube for Charlotte, at 222 pounds, and Tiny, at 188 pounds – her pigs.

There’s no adult in sight. Nothing unusual about that; there’s nothing unusual about Katie’s evening chores, although this evening a friend, McKenzie Schneider, is keeping her company. Katie does it twice a day, every day.

Wouldn’t she rather be doing something else? “It’s actually really fun,” Katie says of her chores, shrugging.

Fair lessons

Saturday is the last of the fair, when businesses chip in to bid up the prices of the animals. As the auction nears Saturday night, Payton Voloshin, 16, is vacuuming Yankee. Her 1,341-pound steer must look perfect. “We spend more for hair products for the cattle than for our family,” says a bemused Sue Voloshin, her mother.

Yankee had earned the grand champion award of the fair, and will bring top dollar. Payton’s older sister Katia, a sophomore studying agricultural business in college, helps push and tug the animal into the straw show ring, with the auctioneer perched on a dais above. The man begins his high-speed spiel, pushing bids up and up. Payton stands stoically with her steer as the numbers roll by.

The auctioneer’s hammer slams down at $8 a pound. That will – after Payton pays feed and expenses – be a nice chunk for her college fund, says her mother. But parting with her steer will be difficult, Mrs. Voloshin acknowledges. 

“They really get attached. They spend every night together and Payton has shown Yankee in Arizona, Denver, and Utah. But these are ranch kids. That’s what we do for a living. They understand what it’s about.”

“There will be a lot of tears shed tonight,” by youngsters parted with their animals, agrees Charlynne Wondra, who helped organize the event, and grew up in Craig. But it is part of the learning process that is fundamental to fairs like this, she says. 

“These kids are not going to be the ones who feel entitled. They are working their butts off. They make their money just as I do. They will be our next leaders.”

Culture crossings

Unexpectedly cleansed

When Amy Henrickson saw an ad for a Turkish bath at her hotel, she was sold, envisioning a luxurious tub, exotic oils, and thick towels. Then she was led to a room with a doorway but no door, and a large marble slab. “This,” she writes, “was not the spa I’d expected.” Where the experience took her was quite unexpected as well. 

Unexpectedly cleansed

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Linda Bleck

I love a bath: a good, steamy, bath-salts soaker. So when I was in Istanbul and saw an ad for a Turkish bath at our hotel, I was sold. I envisioned a luxurious bathtub with exotic oils and thick Turkish towels.

Late one afternoon, I took the elevator to the lowest level of the hotel and arrived at the spa, planning to be fresh and relaxed for dinner that evening. The smiling young woman at the reception desk checked off my name and pointed to the woman standing next to her. The middle-aged woman with thick dark hair, dressed in green hospital scrubs, would be my bath attendant. She looked sturdy, capable, and a bit no-nonsense. I glanced at her name badge: Anne. 

Anne motioned for me to follow her to a small locker room. She pantomimed taking clothes off, pointed at me, and then pointed at an empty locker. I gestured up and down and asked, “All?”

She nodded. “All.” I glanced around the spartan little room for a towel or robe. There was none. I motioned around myself, as if putting on and tucking in a towel. She nodded again and returned with two thin dishtowels. Backing out the door, she motioned with her hand as if to say, “Get on with it,” and closed the door. Getting undressed didn’t take long, but trying to figure out how to cover myself with the two little towels was a conundrum. Finally I decided that the bottom half was more important than the top and tied the towels together to make the journey around my middle. As I opened the door and peeked out, I whispered, “I don’t know these people,” and “I’ll never see them again.”

Anne was waiting in the hallway with a large fluffy white towel over her arm. She took no notice of my bare top half, so I guess that’s why she carried the towel down the hall and didn’t offer it to me. “It’s an adventure,” I said to myself as I followed.

Linda Bleck

She led me to a room with a doorway but no door. No hope of privacy here. A small filmy window near the ceiling provided dim light. The walls and floor were gray stone and there was a large marble slab in the center. I looked for the luxurious bathtub with exotic oils. This was not the spa I’d expected. 

Anne turned on a faucet at a nearby sink and motioned for me to take off my towels and lie down on the slab. With Anne facing the sink, I gingerly removed the towels and reclined on the cold hard stone: the perfect venue for an autopsy. Anne raised my head and put a small upended red plastic bowl underneath. A pillow. Kind of. She returned to the sink. With my head slightly elevated, I saw that I was pointed feet-first toward the doorless doorway, completely naked for anyone in the hall to see. I repeated to myself, “I don’t know these people,” and “I’ll never see them again.”

Anne suddenly turned with a large plastic bucket and sloshed me thoroughly with hot water. When I say “hot water,” I mean “pretty close to scalding.” I gasped. Anne smiled. She then began to refill the bucket as she gathered up a cheesecloth filled with soapy water and held it above me. She milked the bag and covered me with thick white suds the consistency of whipped cream. The only noise was the sound of the water filling the bucket until Anne took a wash mitt to me. The mitt felt like a scouring pad and sounded like sandpaper on rough wood. Did I mention what a capable gal Anne was? She scrubbed every inch of my front until I was sure there was no skin left.

She sloshed me again, top to bottom, with the bucket of hot water and motioned for me to turn over. The process was repeated on my back. I heard people passing in the hall, but now I felt strangely unflustered. And though the scrubbing could be called mildly painful, I didn’t mind it.

I’d never been so scrubbed in my life – every inch, every finger and toe. Once my back was done, Anne motioned for me to sit up. Here came the bucket again, right over my head! I didn’t have time to hold my breath. I sputtered. Undeterred, Anne sudsed my head, my face, my ears, and – whoosh! Again with the bucket.

She motioned for me to stand up and held out the big white fluffy towel for me. She gently put it around my shoulders, pulled up the corners to tousle my hair, and rubbed my arms. Then she took the two sides of the towel and tucked me in like a papoose. She cradled my face in her capable hands and smiled. 

What happened next surprised me: I cried.

Big hot tears ran down my cheeks. Never had I been so mothered. I felt like a newborn baby. What I’d thought would be a pampering experience was that and so much more. I was made new. At dinner that night, people in our tour group wanted to know what it was like. Had I enjoyed it?

What could I say? It was unforgettable.

Later in the trip, our tour guide taught us some basic Turkish words. “Anne,” he said, “means ‘mother.’ ”

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The promise of a new school year

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At the start of the school year, parental attention turns to ensuring that schools operate in the best interests of their children. That can mean challenging teachers and administrators. But some of the greatest victories for the rights of students to achieve have come by challenging directly the modes of thought that limit students. In that fight, there have been notable and enduring victories, such as the 1972 passage of Title IX. And there have been more subtle ones, such as the fight against the presumption that a slowing of brain development in middle school years meant there was a danger in pushing students at that level to succeed academically. Perhaps the most significant change in thinking in education since then has been to widely debunk the notion that intelligence can be measured by a standardized test. As schools reopen for the year, these victories over limitations are worth remembering. 

The promise of a new school year

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Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star/AP
Isabella Belford (l.) and her sister, Violet, catch the bus for their first day of school near Stephens City, Va., on Aug. 16.

The start of a new school year can be a time of new possibilities: new classes, new teachers, new friends, a fresh start.

Actual classroom experience can sometimes convey a less promising message: teachers that just don’t seem all that convinced that all children – especially you or yours – can succeed. Disappointing grades, unambitious curriculum, and grim comparisons with students in other countries signal diminished prospects and not-so-great expectations.

Many parents fight for their children by confronting teachers and administrators directly when things aren’t going well – or by changing schools, hiring tutors, or moving into a better school district. 

But some of the greatest gains have come by challenging directly the modes of thought that limit students’ capacity to achieve. In that fight, there have been notable and enduring victories.

Here’s one. When Henry Fowle Durant founded Wellesley College (for women) in 1875, he included an element considered risky at the time: athletics for women. The prevailing view was that too much exertion would threaten a woman’s capacity to reproduce. By 1908, organized sports at Wellesley included baseball, basketball, field hockey, tennis, rowing, archery, and running. In 1972, Congress passed a law (Title IX) that requires that women and men be provided equitable opportunities to participate in sports.

Some of the limiting modes of thought for children are as subtle as a line slipped into a report. At the turn of the 20th century, only about 1 in 10 students in the US made it from eighth grade to high school. The middle school movement aimed to change teaching methods to help bridge that gap. But as late as 1982, the influential founding document of the Ohio-based National Middle School Association argued that there is danger in pushing students to succeed academically, arguing that brain development slowed down in middle school years. This “brain plateau” meant it was risky to introduce algebra or advanced math into a middle school classroom – an assumption that wasn’t widely challenged until the end of the century.

Perhaps the most significant change in thinking in education since then has been to widely debunk the notion that intelligence can be measured by a standardized test. In 1925, the College Board created the Scholastic Aptitude Test, designed to measure a student’s capacity to learn – that is, “to understand the relations of discrete facts to one another and to apply them to new and unexpected situations.” As SAT scores morphed into gatekeepers for college admissions, a cottage industry of private test prep courses grew up around it. What the courses proved was that students could significantly improve scores by paying to practice test-taking skills (at today’s rates, $600 to $1,000).

During their day, expert opinions that limited students always seemed ironclad. Now, many are debunked. We invite our readers to send in more examples they see. These victories over limitations are worth remembering, especially at the start of a new school year. 

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.

Prayer for righteous government

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When Mary Baker Eddy, Discoverer of Christian Science, was asked, “What are your politics?,” she answered, “I have none, in reality, other than to help support a righteous government; to love God supremely, and my neighbor as myself” (“The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany,” p. 276). In my own prayers to support righteous government, I have found great inspiration and empowerment from the Bible: “Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth” (Revelation 19:6). To reign is to govern. I love the first word, Alleluia. It grounds that statement in gratitude, joy, and expectation, by acknowledging the impact of an all-powerful, divine government. Despite any human picture that appears discouraging or fearful, we can eagerly make space in our day to pray for righteous government. We are a great force for good in a world in great need.

Prayer for righteous government

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In response to the question, “What are your politics?,” Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, answered: “I have none, in reality, other than to help support a righteous government; to love God supremely, and my neighbor as myself” (“The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany,” p. 276).

In my own prayers to support righteous government, I have found great inspiration and empowerment from a passage in the Bible, from the book of Revelation: “Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth” (19:6).

To reign is to govern. I love the first word, Alleluia. It grounds that statement in gratitude, joy, and expectation, by acknowledging the impact of an all-powerful, divine government. It has the power to cut through any governing that does not appear to be just, wise, or compassionate, with the assurance that the all-knowing God, divine Mind, supersedes the human picture. God’s harmonious universe – the only true universe – includes all of us, God’s spiritual creation.

Using Truth as a synonym for God, Mrs. Eddy writes in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures”: “The ‘still, small voice’ of scientific thought reaches over continent and ocean to the globe’s remotest bound. The inaudible voice of Truth is, to the human mind, ‘as when a lion roareth.’ It is heard in the desert and in dark places of fear” (p. 559). Prayer based upon the conviction and understanding of God’s power at work is so much more than wishing, outlining, or willpower. It is an affirmation of our divine right to bear witness to the supremacy of God, good.

Despite any picture that appears discouraging or fearful, we can eagerly make space in our day to pray for righteous government. By joining this army of prayer warriors, we are a great force for good in a world in great need.

A version of this article aired on the Aug. 10, 2017, Christian Science Daily Lift podcast.

Viewfinder

Worth preserving?

Brian Witte/AP/File
A hiker walks on a rock formation known as The Wave in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said today that he’s recommending that none of the 27 national monuments carved from wilderness and ocean and under review by the Trump administration be eliminated, including Vermilion Cliffs. The redrawing of some boundaries is being considered, however.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Marjorie Kehe
Deputy Weekly Editor

Thanks for reading today. Come back tomorrow. We’ll look at Madrid’s offer of support to Catalonia after Spain's worst terror attack in years. How is the independence-minded region responding? 

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