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2018
February
28
Wednesday

After the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, Dick’s Sporting Goods checked its sales records and found that Nikolas Cruz had purchased a gun from one of its stores in November. It wasn’t the gun he used in the attack. But that connection was enough.

“It came to us that we could have been part of this story,” said CEO Edward Stack, a gun owner himself. “It got to us.”

And it drove the announcement today that Dick’s, one of the largest sports retailers in the United States, will no longer sell assault-style rifles or high-capacity magazines. Nor will it sell firearms to customers under age 21.

The connection came differently for Dennis Magnasco, who belongs to #VetsForGunReform and served in Afghanistan. When he heard audio of the Las Vegas attack last October, he said, “it shook me to my core because it sounded like combat.” He doesn’t want that sound in high schools.

Then there’s Rep. Brian Mast (R) of Florida, a gun rights supporter and an Afghanistan veteran who lost his legs to a roadside bomb. He wrote in a recent op-ed, “I cannot support the primary weapon I used to defend our people being used to kill children I swore to defend.”

Their prescriptions for action differ. But the three are modeling a shift in thinking: a recognition that staying in our corners, unwilling to connect with those with whom we disagree, will not yield the conversations – the openness of thought – that will drive progress.

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Here are our five stories today, which connect you more deeply to stories making headlines around the world.

1. Outcry, but no intervention, as Syria pounds a rebel enclave

The relentlessly dire news out of Syria has prompted many to tune out, whether because of compassion fatigue or a sense of helplessness. The Monitor talked to residents of the embattled district of eastern Ghouta, who are raising their voices to implore the world: "Don't forget us."

Amelia
Bassam Khabieh/Reuters
A man walked through the besieged and decimated town of Douma, in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria, Feb. 25.

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The global outcry in response to the latest atrocity in Syria has been emphatic. “Eastern Ghouta cannot wait,” the United Nations secretary-general declared Monday. “It’s high time to stop this hell on earth.” In one of the most deadly episodes of Syria’s seven-year war, some 560 people have been killed in 10 days of a relentless bombing campaign to capture the last rebel-held enclave outside Damascus. A UN Security Council resolution has demanded a 30-day cease-fire. But the verbal furor has made little apparent difference to President Bashar al-Assad’s playbook. Even after the resolution, reports surfaced of another chlorine gas attack. “The area needs to be taught a lesson as far as the regime is concerned,” says a Beirut-based analyst, “so you bomb its people into submission.” For one woman reached on a fading cellphone in her basement in eastern Ghouta, this has been “the worst phase.” “I try to stay calm, but I’ve never felt this level of fear,” says Noor, who is sheltering with her toddler and 40 other women and children. “Let's be clear,” she adds. “The regime is bombing civilians in their homes, not the fighters on the front. There is no way towards reconciliation or peace.”

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1. Outcry, but no intervention, as Syria pounds a rebel enclave

Hiding underground in the concrete confines of her building’s basement, with her small son and 44 other women and children, Noor feels at every moment the meaninglessness of the words “cease-fire” or “truce” in Syria.

Above ground, the slaughter continues, with Syrian regime forces and Russian planes targeting Noor’s town of Douma, in eastern Ghouta, in their bid to crush the last remaining rebel enclave near Damascus. The onslaught has inflicted some 560 casualties in 10 days, in one of the most deadly episodes of Syria’s seven-year war.

“This has been the worst phase. I feel so stressed out … like the end is near,” says Noor, who requested her full name not be used. She speaks via a mobile phone, its battery fading because she is unable to safely recharge outside with solar power.

“People worry they will die in a chemical attack, because there was one in [the area of] Shayfuniya,” she says. Noor's toddler Hamza is agitated by the lack of food and fresh air, like the other children who can be heard crying in the background. They are even running out of the rainwater they’ve collected to drink.

“I try to stay calm, but I’ve never felt this level of fear,” says Noor. Her eastern Ghouta district, just 12 miles from the center of Damascus, has been controlled by anti-regime rebels since 2012, and besieged by the government since 2013.

“We know that going back means death. It will be a massacre. We will all be buried,” adds Noor. “Let’s be clear: The regime is bombing civilians in their homes, not the fighters on the front. There is no way towards reconciliation or peace.”

The horror of her assessment seems widely, if not universally, shared. Of all those interviewed for this story – civilians, officials, and analysts – no one offered a practical solution to the crisis. One person wondered whether civilians could be evacuated to Idlib province in the north, though some observers have said that region could be the next to face President Bashar al-Assad’s triumphant wrath. Another suggested that all parties on all sides just be disarmed, and that a no-fly zone be imposed, a notion that seems less possible with every passing hour.

The global outcry has been emphatic, with UN Secretary-General António Guterres declaring Monday: “Eastern Ghouta cannot wait. It’s high time to stop this hell on Earth.”

Little impact from cease-fire

But so far the verbal furor has made little apparent difference to Mr. Assad’s playbook, which is using a relentless bombing campaign to capture the last remaining stronghold of what it considers “terrorists” near the capital.

A UN Security Council resolution demanding a 30-day cease-fire, adopted unanimously over the weekend, has not eased the air strikes or barrel bombs, and was met with reports of another chlorine gas attack.

And the order by Russian President Vladimir Putin of a daily 5-hour truce starting Tuesday, ostensibly to create humanitarian corridors and allow some of the 400,000 residents to flee, is seen by many in eastern Ghouta as just another mind game to help gain victory for the regime.

All told, from Feb. 19 through Feb. 27, some 560 people have been killed in eastern Ghouta, 107 of them children and 76 of them women, with more than 2,000 wounded, according to figures provided to the Monitor by the Civil Defense Unit officials known as “White Helmets.”

The Civil Defense Unit says dozens of people have been killed by air and missile strikes since the start of the daily truces, while Syrian state media, in their turn, Wednesday accused “terrorists” of targeting the safe corridor for the exit of civilians “for the second day in a row.”

For Syrian civilians like Noor, the agony has been years in the making: victimized first by forces loyal to Assad and their Russian and Iranian allies, and second by the host of rebel forces fighting them – in Ghouta most of them Islamists, and some linked to Al Qaeda. The result today, as the death toll rises, is a sense of hopeless abandonment.

Any hope or expectation that Europe or the US might intervene to stop the carnage, or even to give Assad and his allies reason to pause, disappeared from Syria’s front lines years ago, analysts say.

“Eastern Ghouta has resisted the siege, the bombing, all [that has] happened around it the past three years – it is literally the last area standing without some international support,” says Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Price of resistance

“The area needs to be taught a lesson, as far as the regime is concerned, so you bomb its people into submission, and you show the price of standing up to the regime – so there’s a big message there,” Ms. Yahya says.

That stark calculation appears to have been made public by Syrian government commanders themselves.

“I promise, I will teach them a lesson, in combat and in fire,” Brig. Gen. Suheil al-Hassan, head of the Tiger Force, said in a video posted to pro-government social media accounts last week and cited by the New York Times. “You won’t find a rescuer.”

Eastern Ghouta is also an “orphan” rebel enclave of the Syrian war that has little outside support, Yahya notes; the rebel Jaish al-Islam militia, the largest in the district, was a proxy of Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis “seem to have lost interest.”

But reclaiming control of eastern Ghouta is also of strategic import for the government, because continuing insecurity – including rebel shelling on Damascus, which has persisted despite the UN cease-fire – stymies its efforts to lure the international community back to the capital.

“The Assad regime has not cared about the civilian toll for seven years now, so why should it start caring now?” asks Yahya, noting that the estimated overall death toll of half a million does not include deaths in prison or disappearances.

“With each red line that they cross – each red line put forward first by [President Barack] Obama, and then by the international community – they’re emboldened even further,” adds Yahya.

“No one is standing up to them, no one is pushing back and saying, ‘You can’t do this,’ ” she says. “When you can use chlorine and chemical weapons on civilian populations … you’re not too accountable.”

In the early stages of the bombardment, Syria’s state news agency, SANA, denied any surge in fighting and dismissed such reports as the “lies, deceptions and fabrications” of “terrorists.”

Hundreds wounded daily

The impact is felt on the ground, where the first week of “relentless bombing and shelling” put health-care capacity “in its final throes,” according to the charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF). In the same period, 13 medical facilities fully or partially supported by MSF were struck by bombs.

Repeated calls by MSF and other humanitarian actors “have demonstrably fallen on deaf ears,” the charity said in a Feb. 24 statement.

“Words cannot describe the situation in hospitals,” says Dr. Mohammed Salem, a surgeon in Douma contacted by phone Tuesday.

“Hundreds are injured daily. All civilians. I have not encountered a single fighter for the past 10 days,” says Dr. Salem. “The injuries, their types, I cannot describe the horror.… We have issued thousands of humanitarian appeals, but no one listens.”

During the hours of the Russia-ordered truce, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. local time, says Salem, “we no longer know, is the airport on the ground or the sky, because of the multitude of aircraft in the sky.”

Mr. Putin’s announcement of the daily 5-hour truce “speaks volumes as to the pro-regime’s alliance’s intentions – for them, this is not about humanitarian concern; it is psychological warfare aimed at achieving surrender,” writes Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, in an analysis this week.

The reported deployment of chemical munitions in Shayfuniya, soon after the Security Council’s cease-fire vote, was the fourth chemical attack in eastern Ghouta in 2018, and the seventh such attack in Syria this year, notes Mr. Lister.

“Russia, Iran and the Assad regime know full-well that the international community will not stop their brutal military campaign, so one should expect violence and death to continue,” wrote Lister. “Diplomatic statements of ‘concern,’ labeling eastern Ghouta as ‘hell on earth,’ or issuing of blank statements by UNICEF … do not influence actors unperturbed by the constraints of international law.”

That scenario has played itself out time and time again, as government forces began making territorial gains, especially after Russian intervention on their side in September 2015. The latest example was the fierce bombardment of rebel enclaves in Aleppo, which saw the evacuation of surviving militants and a high cost in civilian casualties.

'No one keeps their word'

Now that bite is being felt in eastern Ghouta, where Siraj Mahmoud – a worker since 2014 with the White Helmets, who rescue those trapped by bomb attacks – says he has never seen it so bad.

“It is a disappointment that the international community just watches women and children trapped under rubble, praying to stay alive, covered in blood, limbs missing,” says Mr. Mahmoud, contacted by phone. “Yet, nobody cares.… This is clear evidence the Syrian regime has been given the green light to continue its genocide against civilians.”

That is also what it feels like for Nemaat Mohsen, a former Damascus University student who lives in the Sabqa neighborhood of eastern Ghouta. She says people were caught by surprise by the intensity of the latest bombing campaign, and forced into shelters with few mattresses, blankets, or even toilet paper during a period of freezing temperatures.

“Inside, everyone is on edge because the weapons used have been hugely destructive, targeting civilian areas so heavily that it made the front lines look safe,” says Ms. Mohsen, contacted by phone.

Meanwhile, in Noor’s crowded basement shelter, the 30-year-old mother is adept at interpreting the sounds of conflict. She knows the hammering thud of mortars, compared to the screech of incoming rockets – 150 of them last Monday alone, she says. There are helicopters with their deep-thudded barrel bombs, jet fighters and buzzing drones, all of them producing a daily concert that continues well into the night.

“I usually try to lift the spirits of others, but today I can’t even get my own up,” says Noor.

“I have realized that we keep being promised things, but everybody breaks their covenants. No one keeps their word. I only have God to lean and rely on.”

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2. Xi for life? China may turn its back on collective leadership.

Many news outlets have reported on Xi Jinping's authoritarian tack as he solidifies his one-man rule. But less scrutinized has been China's decision to turn its back on political reforms that were instituted in response to an earlier era of strongman rule.

Amelia

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After the violence and chaos of the Mao era, many Chinese leaders seemed to think they’d learned a lesson: One-man rule was something to avoid. For decades Beijing has embraced collective leadership and norms of succession. The rules weren’t perfect. Former President Jiang Zemin, for example, lingered in power for an additional year as chairman of the military. But they did help solve one of the biggest challenges faced by authoritarian governments the world over – the peaceful transfer of power. For several years, however, President Xi Jinping has been concentrating power, putting himself in charge of a number of important policy-setting committees, for example, and launching a sweeping anti-corruption campaign. And now the Chinese government is poised to abolish presidential term limits, which could allow him to remain in power indefinitely. The consequences would be substantial, from the stronger repression of critical views to diminished checks and balances. “We're seeing the death of collective leadership,” says one analyst. “Xi Jinping has become a sort of emperor for life.”

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Xi for life? China may turn its back on collective leadership.

In late January, as leaders of the Chinese Communist Party met behind closed doors to discuss changes to China’s Constitution, Yu Wensheng, a prominent human rights lawyer, decided to offer some suggestions. In a letter published online on Jan. 18, he called for a series of reforms that included open presidential elections.

Mr. Yu was taken into custody the next day. Police detained him as he left his Beijing apartment building to walk his 13-year-old son to school. Two weeks later, he was charged “inciting subversion of state power,” an offense that carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. He’s almost certain to be convicted, given that China has one of the highest conviction rates in the world.

As Yu awaits his trial in an unknown location – his wife says she thinks he’s in a detention center in the eastern city of Xuzhou – the Communist Party on Sunday proposed its own constitutional reforms. They include the abolishment of presidential term limits, a change that would allow President Xi Jinping to remain in power indefinitely. Election reform will have to wait.

The amendment – whose ratification by the party-controlled legislature next week is as certain as Yu’s conviction – upends three decades of efforts in China to restrict how long top leaders can hold office. Mr. Xi already serves as the party’s general secretary and the military chief, positions with no term limits, making the Constitution the only institutional obstacle that stands in the way of him staying in power past 2023.

Andy Wong/AP/File
Prominent legal activist Yu Wensheng pauses during an interview at his office in Beijing on Feb. 24, 2017. Yu has been charged with inciting subversion of state power after writing a letter calling for democratic reforms, his lawyer said on Jan. 29, 2018.

The bold move reinforces Xi’s position as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. It also signals the end of a period of collective leadership that has dominated elite politics in China for much of the past three decades – a period that many Western observers predicted would inevitably lead to democracy and rule of law. Instead, Xi appears determined to impose one-man rule as he seeks to restore China to what he considers its rightful place on the international stage.

“We're seeing the death of collective leadership,” says Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the author of a 2015 book about Xi. “Xi Jinping has become a sort of emperor for life.”

Xi’s concentration of power has been years in the making. After becoming chairman of the Communist Party in 2012, he quickly got to work establishing himself as the chairman of everything. One of his first moves was to put himself in charge of a number of important policy-setting committees, known as “leading small groups,” that weigh in on issues ranging from cybersecurity to relations with Taiwan.

The opaque committees have supplanted large sections of the government bureaucracy. Most notably, they have allowed Xi to assume much of the responsibility for China’s economy, traditionally held by the premier, the country’s highest administrative position. And with the help of a sweeping anticorruption campaign launched shortly after he came to power, Xi has been able to sideline potential rivals.

Until this week, the most obvious sign of Xi’s intent to stay in office past two five-year terms came during the Communist Party Congress in October, when he broke with precedent by choosing not to designate an obvious successor. He instead used the Congress to enshrine his official doctrine, “Xi Jinping Thought,” into the party constitution, a move that made clear his belief that he is uniquely capable of leading China into a new era. That narrative has been reiterated by state propaganda, which has started to call Xi lingxiu, a reverential term for a leader that was also used for Mao.

Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, is careful to point out that he doesn’t think Xi will become another Mao, whose cult of personality remains fresh in the minds of many Chinese. But he does warn that Xi’s power grab harks back to a darker time, when the fate of China was largely in the hands of a single man.

“That doesn't mean that Xi Jinping doesn't have his own group of handpicked officials whom he trusts,” says Mr. McGregor, who wrote a book about elite Chinese politics published in 2010. “Many of those people are likely exceptionally skilled bureaucrats and policymakers, but the circle of trust seems to be much narrower.”

Political scientists say that the consequences of such an approach to decision making are substantial: from the repression of critical views to diminished checks and balances. “This is a dangerous proposition for running such a complex country as China,” Dr. Lam says. “Even Xi Jinping’s most trusted advisers will only tell him what he wants to hear.”

The Mao era, with all its violence and chaos, is an extreme example of what that kind of political environment can lead to. Preventing the rise of another Mao-like figure and the power struggle that followed his death are why Chinese leaders embraced collective leadership and norms of succession in the first place.

Those changes started with Deng Xiaoping, who asserted himself as China's “paramount leader” in the late 1970s but encouraged the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s top leadership, to rule by consensus throughout the 1980s. Mr. Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, continued the practice by establishing himself as “first among equals.” He also became the first leader to step down after serving two terms as president. Hu Jintao, who came next, kept the traditions going. He handed over the party chair to Xi in 2012 and the presidency in 2013. 

China’s term limits and collective leadership weren’t perfect – Mr. Jiang, for example, lingered in power for an additional year by retaining control of the Central Military Commission – but they did help help solve one of the biggest puzzles faced by authoritarian governments the world over: the peaceful transfer of power. Now that Xi has decided to make his own rules, it’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen when he finally does step down.

“It’s dangerous when there aren’t any rules left that give other people a shot at power or that tell you when to end your own time in power,” says Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University who focuses on China. “It potentially destabilizes the system, not only for the succession after Xi Jinping, but down the road even after that.”

Despite the risks, Dr. Nathan says, a succession crisis is likely years away. Xi, who is 64 years old, isn’t going to give up power anytime soon. And now that term limits are a thing of the past, he could even be in power still when Yu is freed.

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3. Behind Kremlin’s publishing of uncensored Western news in Russian

So-called fake news can do a lot of damage by making fiction appear to be fact. But even real news can be harmful when it’s rendered without the cultural context that fosters understanding.

Amelia

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In the former Soviet Union, the government did everything possible to block regular citizens’ access to unfiltered Western reporting about their country. Today, the Kremlin isn’t just not blocking access to Western reporting, it’s enabling it. InoSMI is a state-sponsored website that translates some of the West’s most critical reportage and analysis about Vladimir Putin’s Russia for a domestic audience. And it is popular: Almost 300,000 readers visit the site daily. But in large part, they do so to complain about the West’s coverage. Russian readers commenting on the site find the analysis of Western journalists – portraying Russia as a one-man dictatorship where media is totally state-controlled, dissent is suppressed, and elections are rigged – selective and simplistic. If Americans want a sense of what enrages some Russians, they might tune in to Kremlin-backed English-language broadcaster RT. The station carries a relentlessly unsympathetic narrative about the United States that focuses on racism, police brutality, economic inequality, and imperialism abroad. Many Russians uncritically believe this, even as they rail against the one-sidedness of Western journalists covering Russia.

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Behind Kremlin’s publishing of uncensored Western news in Russian

One of Russia's most popular internet news sites is one that many Russians believe to be a dedicated purveyor of “fake news.”

Yet it enjoys almost 300,000 daily readers, is consulted by editors around the country as they prepare their own news coverage, and is also reported to be heavily used by the Kremlin staff who compile Vladimir Putin's morning press summary.

The site is InoSMI (a Russian contraction meaning “foreign mass media”), which publishes a wide variety of full articles from global media translated into Russian, with a special emphasis on stories about Russia. The site routinely runs some of most critical reportage and analysis about Mr. Putin's Russia that can be found in US outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post and, indeed, The Christian Science Monitor. In their Russian-language versions, those pieces often enjoy huge online readerships.

Remarkably, it's the Russian government that funds InoSMI, which was originally started in 2001 with the specific purpose of illustrating the relentless hostility and and anti-Russian bias with which Western reporters cover Russia, according to former InoSMI editor Alexey Kovalev. That still seems to be a major focus, and Russian commenters vent their displeasure on the site over the bias they see in the foreign coverage of their country.

But the criticism – which mirrors American criticism of Russia's coverage of the US in Kremlin-funded news station RT – also illustrates the limits of news translation's value without understanding the context in which the articles is published.

“There are an immense number of misunderstandings between our countries,” says Larisa Mikhaylova, a senior researcher in the journalism department of Moscow State University and secretary of the Russian Society of American Culture Studies, “and just translating articles from the Western press can be a double-edged method.”

A window on the world

The Kremlin's sponsorship of InoSMI highlights a critically important distinction between the public mood and political savvy in today's Russia and that in the former Soviet Union – which did everything possible to block regular Soviet citizens' access to unfiltered Western reporting about their country.

“The main idea behind InoSMI is to provide the Russian-speaking audience with the widest range of information, opinion, and assessments by foreign media outlets, both Western and Eastern, concerning developments in Russia,” as well as international political, economic, scientific, social, and cultural news from around the world, says the site's current head, Alexey Dubosarsky.

This week, for example, one day's front page on InoSMI featured political articles from the Financial Times, Die Welt, the National Interest, Bloomberg, and Politico, as well as newspapers from Iran, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Turkey, and Poland.

“Statistically, our readers are most interested in articles about Russia, and these are what we primarily choose,” Mr. Dubosarsky says. The site's audience is mainly well-educated Russian men aged 25 to 45, people who are “successful in their life, decision-makers.” About 80 percent live in Russia, 8 percent in Ukraine, 7 percent in Europe, and 2 percent in America, he adds.

But although he works with the daily output of foreign correspondents in Russia, he thinks poorly of its quality and objectivity.

“Perceptions of Russia in the West are based on a variety of cliches and stereotypes, and a list of rather inappropriate assessments,” he says. “Western journalists are not apart from this. At least 80 percent of mainstream media articles are now hostile to Russia. Their analysis proves mostly shallow, with judgments that are simplistic and tendentious.”

Simplistic coverage?

Judging by comments on InoSMI, Russian readers find the analysis of Western journalists selective and simplistic, portraying Russia as a one-man dictatorship where media is totally state-controlled, dissent is suppressed, elections rigged, and which meddles aggressively in other peoples' affairs and threatens its neighbors.

If Americans want a sense of what enrages some Russian readers of InoSMI, they might comparatively tune in to RT, the Russian English-language satellite broadcaster that the US Department of Justice recently forced to register as a “foreign agent” in the US.

RT is calculated for foreign audiences, and many of its presenters are native English-speakers. But the station does carry a relentlessly unsympathetic narrative about the US: one that focuses on racism, police brutality, economic inequality, and imperialism abroad. Many Russians uncritically believe this, even as they rail in InoSMI's comments section against the one-sidedness and incomprehension of Western journalists covering Russia.

The problem may be that simply publishing articles taken straight from the Western media is not necessarily as helpful as it seems it should be because context is missing, says Ms. Mikhailova.

“If a person's knowledge of another culture is sketchy, then stereotypes are easily reinforced,” she says. “People see the tone as 'hostile' and they react against that view. It would be more scientific if these articles were accompanied by analyses that try to explain the cultural background the reporter is coming from, what he or she is trying to say, and how it might be misperceived.”

‘More like people in the West than ever’

Russians have always exhibited deep curiosity about the world beyond their country, with a special interest in how it perceives Russia. Soviet authorities tried to meet this demand with a mega-circulation weekly newspaper called Za Rubezhom (Abroad), which printed selected articles from foreign media about life and culture, as well as political and foreign policy analyses from Communist and USSR-friendly publications in other countries.

Mikhailova says she got her start translating articles by Canadian author Farley Mowat about nature, environment, and the lives of Inuit people in the Canadian north for Za Rubezhom – stories that resonated with Soviet readers. “It was something people hungered for, a connection with other parts of the world, things that were similar to our lives. It provided a window and fresh information about what was happening in other countries,” she says.

Mikhail Chernysh, deputy director of the official Center of Theoretical and Applied Sociology in Moscow, says that despite the fact that Russians are now more sophisticated, well-traveled, and able to surf the internet freely, they still hanker for connections with the wider world – a mood that has probably intensified with the geopolitical crisis between Russia and the West over the past five years.

“Of course InoSMI is a selection that suits authorities, because it demonstrates how narrow-minded and unfair Western journalists can be toward Russia.” he says. “But it's not Soviet times anymore. The fact is that we are much more like [people in the West] today than we ever were.”

Indeed, Mr. Kovalev, who was editor of InoSMI for two years from 2012, notes that Russians responded positively when it expanded beyond solely reports on Western views of Russia. “I decided it would no longer be a website that only translated coverage of Russia, because there is so much interesting journalism in the world,” he says. “Our core audience wanted that, the stuff with Russia and Putin keywords, and we continued to give it to them. But after that, I was free to experiment with more diverse subjects, and our circulation grew rapidly as a result.”

There is no US equivalent to InoSMI, but Mr. Dubosarsky points out that there are some smaller-scale attempts to provide a similar service to interested Americans, including Watching America and Worldcrunch.

“Americans are primarily focused on their own domestic affairs,” he says. “But it would be of great use for Americans and everyone else if they could see themselves through other eyes. It would only improve mutual understanding.”

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Reaching for equity

A global series on gender and power

4. A role for world’s schools in ending sexual harassment and abuse

In many countries, schools are where children can freely ask the question, "Why?" That's the reason many see the classroom as a powerful forum in which to challenge entrenched behaviors and assumptions.

Amelia

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In their gender-segregated classroom at the Laufásborg preschool in Reykjavik, the girls strike warrior poses as part of their morning ritual in girl power that begins every school day here. “I am strong,” they yell. “I am strong!” Next door, the boys are forming their own morning circle. They are taught to look one another in the eye, but they forgo a handshake for a hug – an emphasis on caring and nurturing. Welcome to preschool in Iceland. It is part of a patchwork of efforts around the world, both big and small, to root out sexism, which schools increasingly see as their domain, before it takes hold and expresses itself in workplace abuse or domestic violence. There are many countries where such efforts would be culturally inappropriate – even illegal. Most experts say the role of the school is also limited so long as societies hold onto traditional stereotypes. Yet there is increasing evidence that the kinds of formal lessons that schools can offer, in which teachers are trained to counteract old patterns of thinking, can help change how a new generation of young people treat each other.

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A role for world’s schools in ending sexual harassment and abuse

A little girl named Moey, age 5, makes her way around a circle of classmates, shaking each tiny hand with a firm grip. “Good morning, my dear friend,” she says to the first student in the group, who echoes the greeting and then adds a compliment.

“You are strong,” she tells Moey.

“Your heart shows courage,” the next little girl says to Moey.

Their teacher in this preschool in Iceland’s capital gently reminds them to look each other in the eye when they speak.

After Moey has made her way around the circle, all the girls stand up in their gender-segregated classroom at the Laufásborg preschool, pretending to hold bows and arrows that they fire off into an imaginary forest. They strike warrior poses, and then raise their hands in the air to complete their morning ritual in girl power that begins every school day here. “I am strong,” they yell. “I am strong,” they yell louder. Then finally in a full-throated roar: “I am strong!”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Boys at the school clasp hands and give each other compliments as part of a gender-based curriculum.

Next door, the boys are forming their own morning circle. They are also taught to look one another in the eye, but they forgo a handshake for a hug. And there is no need to shout about their strength or courage or play warriors, the leaders of this school argue, because society reinforces that for them daily. Instead the emphasis for the boys is on caring and nurturing. “Girls need that extra, ‘I’m a winner.’ Boys need to practice, ‘I’m a good friend,’ ” says Jensina Hermannsdottir, a head teacher at the Laufásborg school. “This #MeToo thing that everyone is talking about – we are doing this every day.”

Welcome to preschool in Iceland, often called the most gender equal country in the world. Iceland has already had a female president and prime minister. It has a new law that requires companies to prove that they offer equal pay to men and women, and another that mandates 40 percent of the seats on corporate boards go to women. Yet Iceland is also trying to educate the next generation, before they become adults, in preschools like this one, where the kids wear red-and-blue uniforms and do creative activities such as paint with their bare feet.

Nor is it alone. Iceland is part of a patchwork of efforts around the world, both big and small, to root out sexism, which schools increasingly see as their domain, before it takes hold and expresses itself in workplace abuse or domestic violence.

There are many countries, to be sure, where such efforts would be culturally inappropriate – even illegal – and some of the gender-education work in even the most progressive parts of the world still riles parents who worry about liberal agendas creeping into classrooms. Most experts say the role of the school is also limited so long as families and societies hold onto traditional stereotypes. Yet there is increasing evidence that the kinds of formal lessons that schools can offer, in which teachers are trained to recognize and counteract old patterns of thinking, can help change how a new generation of young people treat each other.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
‘LIFE FOR A SMALL CHILD IS CHAOS, AND FOR THEM TO UNDERSTAND IT, ONE OF THE FIRST VARIABLES THEY WILL USE IS THE GENDER VARIABLE.’ – Margrét Pála Ólafsdóttir, founder of sex-segregated preschools in Iceland

“These kids are growing up with an awareness that there is an imbalance of power in our society, and they’re being challenged to unpack that and break it down,” says Joshua Forehand, principal at Nuestro Mundo Community School, an elementary school in Wisconsin that has introduced discussions on gender and identity into the school plan.

Margrét Pála Ólafsdóttir, founder of the sex-segregated private preschools in Iceland, argues such lessons should start as early as possible because kids develop a gender perspective by age 2. “Life for a small child is chaos, and for them to understand it, one of the first variables they will use is the gender variable,” she says.

At her school, the pre-K set is not only taught to think beyond their prescribed roles – which they do by spending most of the day separated so that they are not limited or pigeonholed by societal norms – but trained in socially appropriate behavior. When the boys stand in line, for example, they are taught to hold their hands behind their backs. Ms. Ólafsdóttir calls it a very early lesson in keeping their hands to themselves.

Variations of these lessons are being taught in schools from Israel to Mexico. The question is: Can they really help rid the world of harassers and abusers?

‘Raising boys who see girls as equals’

On a cryogenic morning in Madison, Wis. – the temperature is below zero and frost edges the windows – Erin Vogel reads aloud to her second-grade class at Crestwood Elementary School.

The story is about Red, a confused crayon whose name doesn’t match his real color: Everything he draws comes out blue. “ ‘He was red,’ ” Ms. Vogel reads, “but he wasn’t very good at it.’ ” She turns to her students, sprawled on colorful mats on the classroom floor, and asks what they think the story is about.

“It’s about, it doesn’t matter who you are on the outside,” one student, Kate, volunteers. “If they see he’s red, and he actually comes out blue, then they just gotta say, ‘It’s OK, he’s different.’ ”

It’s a standard exchange here, part of a broader push by the Madison Metropolitan School District to combat bullying and harassment by fostering empathy and inclusion. The program mirrors what’s going on nationally in the United States: As in Iceland, schools are increasingly incorporating their gender-equality teaching in early years, often at the elementary school level, when more formal lessons begin. The idea is to give students the chance to think about inclusion and diversity as they’re learning to read, write, and solve math problems.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Welcoming Schools lead Jennifer Herdina watches students at Crestwood Elementary School in Madison, Wis., as they engage in an art project. The activity centers on ‘Red: A Crayon’s Story,' a book that offers a lesson in diversity and tolerance.

Central to Madison school district’s work is Welcoming Schools, a program of the nonprofit Human Rights Campaign Foundation. It began as a response to the needs of transgender and non-binary students (those who don’t identify as exclusively either male or female) in school districts nationwide, and now aims to address broader themes, such as equality and tolerance across genders.

It is one of a number of programs across the US that has sprung up since the early 2000s as a response to gender-based harassment and bullying among children and adolescents.

Some programs, such as Expect Respect, a program of the SAFE Alliance in Austin, Texas, started as support groups for students who experienced either violence at home or abusive dating and peer relationships. Others – including Coaching Boys Into Men, which began in California’s Bay Area, and MERGE for Equality in Florence, Mass. – focus on raising compassionate boys and redefining masculinity. [Editor's note: The story was updated to include the name of the program offered by the SAFE Alliance in Austin, Texas.]

Educators say the programs are having an effect. “We are raising a generation of boys who see girls as equals,” Vogel says. “And we’re hoping they’ll grow into men who understand that women have the same rights and deserve the same respect they do.”

Evidence of their success goes beyond the anecdotal. The bedrock of programs such as Welcoming Schools is research that ties bullying at an early age – and especially gender-based bullying – to sexual harassment in adolescence and adulthood. In 2003, an evaluation of the Expect Respect Elementary School project, which sought to address bullying in fourth and fifth grades through role playing, class discussions, and other activities, found that participating students could identify more accurately than their peers what sexual harassment looked like. Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the program also raised awareness and – more important – changed expectations about responses to bullying and harassment. [Editor's note: The story was updated to clarify what project was evaluated in 2003.]

Role models for teens

The teen years are often another fraught time for young people, which is one reason some schools in Israel target students of that age. At the Kehila Democratic School, a K-12 institution in Tel Aviv, teachers have incorporated specific classes on gender into their curricula for their high school and middle school students over the past decade.

There is a popular perception that Israeli women are especially strong and independent (see Israeli actress Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman) compared with women in other countries in the Middle East. This is in part because they are drafted at age 18 to serve in the Army alongside their male counterparts. But it is precisely because of the centrality of the military in Israeli life that issues of gender are magnified. Preparation for Army service begins already in high school where a focus is put on boys getting in physical shape for combat roles. The traits of a combat soldier of being strong and aggressive are part of the country’s expectation for what a man should be.

That’s one reason teacher Omer Naor is challenging a group of sixth- and seventh-graders at Kehila to identify strong women figures in history. The students pipe up with a few names – Golda Meir, the first and so far only Israeli woman prime minister; Marie Curie, Yael, a biblical figure. The group then goes silent.

Finally someone offers up another biblical character, Eve.

“Eve is [a] symbol of things that go wrong,” Mr. Naor says. “What other examples, including from myth­ology, do we have that we see the message is all of the bad things in the world can be blamed on a woman?”

One of the students shouts out: “Pandora!”

“In both [the] stories of Eve and Pandora there is a woman who wants, out of curiosity, to know things, and terrible things follow. Why were these stories written this way?” Naor asks.

“Because they are chauvinistic stories, written by men and for men,” says a girl with long light brown hair. Another girl nearby answers, “Because some cultures think girls are weaker.”

After class, Naor says such lessons equip teens for their transition to adulthood. “They are at the age where they are looking out at the world, seeking out role models and having to choose what kind of person they are going to be. All this at a time when they are so exposed to messages in the media,” including #MeToo, he says. “And even if the message of the school resonates with what they are hearing at home, at school we still need to promote and reinforce these ideas of gender equality.”

Whitney Eulich
Carmen Guzmán Orozco teaches a course on gender violence, respect, and human rights in rural Guanajuato, Mexico. Here, she shows seniors a photo of a woman walking down the street and asks them to describe what’s happening.

Changing the ‘normal’

Sometimes the message they are hearing at school specifically counteracts what they are hearing at home. Deep in one of Mexico’s most important agricultural belts, called El Bajio, in the rural state of Guanajuato, traditional gender roles are deeply ingrained.

It is not uncommon for agricultural workers traveling around Mexico with the seasons to leave daughters in charge of domestic roles. Parental hopes for their daughters are still pinned on their getting married. Such expectations allow a traditional macho culture to flourish.

Mexico has one of the highest female homicide victim rates in the world. According to a 2017 report by Mexico’s National Institute for Women, the Interior Ministry, and the United Nations, men kill at least seven women every day in the country. And the “femicide” rate has skyrocketed with the increase in drug violence: The number of women killed annually in Mexico has more than doubled since 2007, when roughly 1,089 women were murdered. In 2016, the tally was 2,746.

But machismo starts with something much more innocuous – and that’s where Carmen Guzmán Orozco is trying to make a difference. When the teaching fellow first arrived in 2016 at the Telebachillerato Comunitario San Andrés de Baraña, a high school of 140 students outside the town of Silao, she was stunned. “I’d walk by the classrooms and boys would openly whistle at me,” says Ms. Guzmán, who works with Enseña por Mexico, a program modeled after Teach for America that places high-achieving college graduates in public schools for two years.

She found the whistling off-putting, but it was symbolic of deeper, and more worrisome, problems. “Any kind of violence, it’s all considered natural,” she says. “It’s ‘normal’ that an argument ends in death. It’s ‘normal’ for boys and girls in school to hit each other.”

Part of her fellowship includes identifying a problem in her school community and coming up with a project to address it. She chose to launch a class on gender violence, respect, and human rights, which is under way on a recent afternoon as some 30 seniors sit in a circle, examining a black-and-white photo. The woman in the picture is walking down the sidewalk, and a group of men in the background appears to be calling out to her, laughing.

Guzmán asks the students to describe what they see and imagine what might have been taking place when the photo was snapped. “I imagine her getting dressed that morning and feeling very confident,” says one female student, Karla. “But once she gets on the street, these men are interpreting her clothes as something for them.”

“The men think she’s beautiful, but they’re expressing it poorly,” adds a young man named Oscar. “It’s making her uncomfortable.”

The conversation moves to the students’ personal lives: Has anyone ever experienced this behavior? “Yes.” Has anyone participated in it? Hands shoot up again. “Yes.”

It’s rare to find a course like this in Mexico’s public schools, says Daniel Hernández Rosete Martínez, a professor who researches masculinity and violence in education at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies at the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City. The country’s conservative, Roman Catholic roots mean that few teachers want to broach issues about gender, machismo, or the human body in the classroom. These are topics many feel are meant to be talked about at home.

Gender education and culture wars

Attempts to wade into gender education have stirred up even more controversy elsewhere, inflaming culture wars. In South Korea, which scores 118th out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s gender equality index (compared with Iceland’s first place), the backlash was swift when one elementary school teacher in Seoul suggested that the school needed to do more in the area of gender education.

The woman, Choi Hyeon-hui, and other teachers at the school had, among other things, formed a “feminism book club” as a way to discuss how to teach about gender inequality and discrimination.

Ann Hermes/Staff/File
Kang Woo-jin sits for lunch in the cafeteria at Seoul Global High School in South Korea. Some parents in South Korea have opposed gender education in schools.

“Schools simply teach students abstract propositions such as ‘men and women are equal’ ... but they fail to mention how such equality is violated in real life,” Ms. Choi told the South Korean daily The Kyunghyang Shinmun last fall. “If children grow up repeatedly experiencing the contradiction in the gap between universal propositions and actual life, they become adults who fail to recognize the sexual discrimination or infringement of human rights that occur daily right before their eyes.”

Conservative parents’ groups complained repeatedly to school authorities about Choi, including accusing her of child abuse because of some things she taught in the classroom. She requested sick leave, and the teachers voluntarily disbanded the feminist book club.

While such controversies may not seem unusual in a country with established traditions, the US is hardly immune to them. Many diversity and tolerance programs, including Welcoming Schools, have run into resistance – particularly over topics such as same-sex parents.

In October, an Atlanta middle school faced heavy backlash after parents learned that sixth-graders had been quizzed on sexual identity. A high school teacher in Cambridge, N.Y., was suspended in November for distributing handouts about sexuality and gender. And the conservative parent group One Million Moms in January called for a boycott of Scholastic Inc., accusing the publishing company of marketing “morally toxic” books to children.

“Some parents don’t want their first- and second-graders coming home saying that people can have different family structures,” says Dorothy Espelage, a psychology professor at the University of Florida. Still, she says educators should reach students as young as possible, always in a climate of respect. “You want to start this conversation in kindergarten,” she says. “But it has to be developmentally sensitive.”

A study she co-wrote in 2014 looked at the importance of addressing the gender component in bullying, especially before children hit puberty, when individual differences start to sharpen.

The real change factor

Regardless of when they start the lessons, educators believe they’re getting results. In Mexico, students credit Guzmán’s class on gender violence with helping them recognize problems and patterns in their daily lives that they were unaware of, either as victims or harassers. This includes everything from the tendency to shove siblings to finding the right vocabulary to talk to their parents about wearing skirts and tank tops.

Senior Abernece Valdez, for instance, says her 30-minute walk to school each day has always come with catcalls. “I knew I didn’t like how I felt [when I was getting catcalled] but I didn’t know it was violent,” she says.

Nor did she recognize abuse in her own relationship. “My boyfriend would yell at me. He grabbed me. When we started the workshop, I learned that wasn’t normal,” she says. “Before, I thought it was just what happened, or that I provoked it. In the workshop, I learned that there’s no point where it’s OK to get violent.”

She dumped him.

Her classmate Juan Martin Santibañez had a similar revelation. “When the workshop started, I didn’t think women really suffered that much violence in Mexico,” he says, adding that he is gay and has always considered himself an ally to his female friends. “But then I realized, I had been violent toward my female friends on various occasions, making people uncomfortable without really realizing it. Pinching them or insulting them [based on their gender]. We’re all thinking a lot more about our behavior.”

And that’s important, proponents say, as students’ formal education comes to a close, and they head out into the world, without the protection of school walls around them.

Barri Rosenbluth, a social worker who carried out the CDC study of harassment prevention, says that violence expresses itself differently as children mature. Bullying, which can peak in middle school, often turns into dating violence and sexual assault in high school. Later it’s the kind of harassment that has engulfed the world with #MeToo.

Ultimately, teaching prevention, Ms. Rosenbluth says, is not about protecting a victim or punishing a perpetrator, but empowering society to recognize the flaw. “Students in intervention groups felt more empowered to do something about sexual harassment,” she says. “That’s the real change factor: courageous bystanders.”

• Contributing to this report were Whitney Eulich in San Andres de la Baraña, Mexico; Jessica Mendoza in Madison, Wis.; Dina Kraft in Tel Aviv; and Michael Holtz in Beijing.

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Difference-maker

Drivers of change

5. To keep the Dakota language alive, a young woman looks to preschoolers

In Minnesota, another educational effort with potentially profound outcomes is all about starting small – with one school and young children. That may be the key to restoring an important cultural touchstone: a long-stifled Native American language. 

Amelia

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Without words, culture is easily lost. In recognition of that, an effort is under way on the bluffs looking over the Minnesota River to revive the indigenous Dakota language – today a first language for only five people in the state. Lower Sioux Head Start, an immersion program in Morton, Minn., works within existing Head Start and preschool programs for now. It will be a school enrolling as many as 74 children once construction is completed in mid-June. While experts point out that the education children receive in schools can’t replace the instruction they get at home from their parents, the current generation of Native parents is almost entirely composed of monolingual English-speakers. Nearly a century of government efforts to stifle Native languages has left generations unable or unwilling to teach their children how to speak them. “We feel [the program is] a great vehicle to raise the next generation of Dakota-speakers,” says Vanessa Goodthunder, who is driving the effort, “and simultaneously help heal historical trauma.” She knows that reviving a language is a project that lasts decades, if not generations. “We have to begin somewhere,” Ms. Goodthunder says, “to start raising the next generation of speakers.”

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To keep the Dakota language alive, a young woman looks to preschoolers

As night falls on a brisk Valentine’s Day in rural Minnesota, clamoring children emblazon canvas cards with words from the indigenous Dakota language: Ina (mother). Ate (father). Canteciye (l love you). Iyotancida (I hold you very highly). 

In the midst of the moving scrum, Vanessa Goodthunder quiets the room and leads the children in a Dakota song of thanks. The scene, involving children of a variety of ages at a community center at the Lower Sioux Indian Community, is a preview of efforts Ms. Goodthunder believes will revitalize the Dakota language.

Goodthunder, who recently graduated with a master's degree in education, started an immersion school for Early Head Start and preschool students (ages birth to 5). There, teachers will speak only in Dakota, which is the first language of only five people in the state.

Lower Sioux Head Start – or as it is called in Dakota, Cansayapi Wakamyeza Owayawa Ti (Lower Sioux children are sacred) – received a $1.9 million grant from the federal Office of Head Start in September, plus another $90,000 grant in December. It will enroll up to 74 children, and is slated to open after construction of offices in mid-June.

The nascent immersion program here on the bluffs looking over the Minnesota River has roots in similar efforts to revive indigenous languages across the country. Teachers like Goodthunder hope to turn the tide of history by immersing young children in indigenous language and culture first, with English as their second language.

The current generation may be fertile ground for the replanting of the Dakota language, she says.

“Now we’re in this point where people are seeing the value of the language and don’t have fear speaking it,” Goodthunder says. “We’re seeing that sovereignty equals language, and language is a part of us, and without it we’re not whole. We need to make this effort and be intentional about it.”

A decades-long project

Reviving a language is a project that lasts decades, if not generations. These programs often face immense challenges in staffing and retention, according to teachers, administrators, and researchers involved in these efforts. Nearly a century of government efforts to stifle Native languages has left generations unable or unwilling to teach their children to speak. 

“We feel it’s a great vehicle to raise the next generation of Dakota speakers,” Goodthunder says, “and simultaneously help heal historical trauma.”

Many immersion schools model themselves after efforts by the Maori and Hawaiians in the 1980s, explains Teresa McCarty, a professor of education and anthropology at UCLA. Children attend all-Maori or all-Hawaiian classes, and in later grades learn English as a second language. Communities in New York, Arizona, and Washington teaching indigenous languages have followed this model.

The schools cannot replace the natural learning that takes place between parents and children, Professor McCarty says, but the current generation of Native parents are almost entirely monolingual English speakers. Learning that once took place at home must now take place in school.

In Hawaii, children who have gone through immersion programs are now raising children as first-language Hawaiian speakers. After nearly 40 years of effort, a language once spoken by fewer than 50 people under the age of 18 is now spoken by 18,000. “It’s a multi-generational effort and it must be evaluated that way,” McCarty explains.

More people are interested in preserving the Dakota language, Goodthunder says, and fewer are scared to speak it and participate in ceremonies since restrictive laws were lifted decades ago. But there are not enough parents now who can teach Dakota to their children. Roland Columbus, the last fluent Dakota speaker at Cansayapi, died last fall.

Goodthunder’s own family's loss of the language started generations ago. Her great-grandparents endured the infamous boarding school system, she explains. Beginning in the 1870s and lasting until the 1950s, the federal government took thousands of Native children away from their families to attend schools that forbade students to speak in their Native languages, sometimes washing out the mouths of those who did so with soap.

Her great-grandmother did not teach the language or traditional ways to Carole, her daughter, in the belief it would protect her from mistreatment. Carole in turn wanted nothing to do with Dakota and did not teach the language to her son Troy, Goodthunder’s father. Troy and others, Goodthunder says, lived in fear of punishment for speaking Dakota or performing ceremonies. Her father was receptive to Dakota but never learned it beyond some ceremonial songs. 

Goodthunder says that at age 18, she dedicated herself to the Dakota language. She studied it as an undergrad at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. After graduating with her education master’s degree last May, she worked for the state’s governor, Mark Dayton, as an advisor on tribal issues. She even had a day declared in her honor – Dec. 8, 2017  – for her efforts to educate people on Native culture.  

Lessons from others

Her immersion school draws lessons from those who have tried before her. At the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Peter Hill’s Lakota Language Childcare faced challenges representative of many programs. Lakota, like its sister dialect Dakota, teeters near extinction, with 2,000 or so speakers. Students attended the first classes at Mr. Hill’s house in 2012. To fund the first six months of the program, Hill turned to crowdfunding online.

“Teaching in immersion is one of the hardest situations in all of education,” Hill says. In his school’s case, it meant creating new textbooks and curriculum for its pre-Kindergarten students. It also meant finding those rare people who both knew Lakota and were willing to teach it. Some teachers, Hill says, learned to speak the language as they taught. 

Now six years old, Hill’s school is fully funded and he is helping other language programs. For Goodthunder’s school, language instructor Ryan Dixon has translated Hill’s curriculum from the Lakota dialect into Dakota and is teaching daily language lessons to staff. Like Goodthunder, he also learned Dakota as an adult.

Twice a week, he also teaches one of the few high school Dakota classes for credit in the state. He teaches noncredit classes for younger students, such as his daughters Aubriella, 11, and Lilyana, 8. “The language is part of who I am,” says Aubriella, echoing the words of many students in indigenous language programs.

The most important aspect of an immersion school is teaching students to value their Native identity, according to Audra Platero, who has been both a teacher and an administrator at Navajo immersion schools.

Students in immersion programs are often learning words their parents cannot understand, that many of their friends do not speak. Their parents are seldom hostile to the language, but they often cannot help, Ms. Platero says. The students grow up pulled between their Native tongue and a world in which everything on their phones, televisions, and streets signs is in English.

If students do not see language as a gateway to their identity, then they begin to abandon it, often around fifth or sixth grade. “They just become words,” Platero says. “If it’s just words, then there’s no roots or foundation.”

“When the Dakota people start speaking the language,” Goodthunder says, “then they’re going to start understanding who they are.”

No speaker who learned Dakota as a second language can ever be as fluent as someone who learned it from birth, she explains. But if her school can teach a group of children Dakota now, perhaps their children will have an easier time learning the language after that.

“We have to begin somewhere,” she says, “to start raising the next generation of speakers.” 

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect changes to the Dakota name for the school and to the amount of the grant the school received in December.

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The Monitor's View

A light for Afghanistan's long, dark war

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The prospects of peace in Afghanistan can seem slim. Yet details of a new peace feeler extended to the Taliban by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani provide a glimpse into possible shifts among Taliban fighters – ones that hint that they may want to achieve their aims by means other than violence. The unusual part of Mr. Ghani’s proposal: an offer to change the Constitution to allow the Taliban to operate as a legitimate political group. The notion of normalizing the reviled militants as everyday politicians requires not only a position of strength by the Afghan government but also a great deal of magnanimity. Ghani’s offer is an echo of the beginning of the peace process in Colombia that ended that country’s half-century of war in 2016. To achieve peace there, both sides had to admit the suffering that each had caused. Is Afghanistan now at a similar moment, with both sides sharing a common desire to spare innocent lives? Ghani’s offer of a “good act” – letting the Taliban run for office – might be the first step to ending the “evil” of a long war.

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A light for Afghanistan's long, dark war

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani put out an interesting peace feeler to the Taliban on Feb. 28. The offer might seem hopeless in a country that has endured armed conflict for 40 years. For Americans, too, the prospects of peace in Afghanistan can seem slim after their longest war; it’s been 16 years since the post-9/11 invasion to oust Al Qaeda.

Yet details of the offer provide a glimpse into possible shifts among Taliban fighters that hint they may want to achieve their aims by means other than violence.

Mr. Ghani, as expected, offered direct negotiations with no conditions as well as a cease-fire and an exchange of prisoners. The unusual part was an offer to change the Constitution to allow the Taliban to operate as a legitimate political group within Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy.

The notion of normalizing the reviled militants as everyday politicians requires not only a position of strength by the Afghan government but a great deal of magnanimity.

The president explained his motives this way: “What should be our reply to the opponents who kill us? Peace or war? A verse in the Holy Quran says that an evil move should be responded to with a good act. Peace has got priority over war.”

The Taliban are still far from relying on ballots rather than bullets to reestablish their strict Islamic “emirate.” They control about a third of the population that lives in rural areas and are supported by Pakistan as well as tax revenues from the opium trade. Their suicide bombers still wreak havoc in Afghan cities.

Yet they also show a heightened sensitivity to what they call the “social issue of civilian casualties.” In a new report, the United Nations blames the Taliban for 42 percent of the war’s civilian casualties last year – much higher than the amount attributed to other militant groups or the government’s 16 percent. The Taliban objected to the report, which suggests it may be on a campaign to win hearts and minds.

The group already fares very low in opinion polls because of its brutal tactics and radical ideology, especially toward women. (Girls now account for about 40 percent of students in public schools.) In his peace offer, Ghani said he wants to find out if the Taliban “understand people’s feelings [about the ongoing conflict] or not.”

And in anticipation of peace, the International Criminal Court has set up shop in Afghanistan and begun taking complaints on behalf of 1.17 million victims of the war for future prosecution. The ICC’s presence shows that Afghans seek rule of law over law of the gun.

The Taliban also face a new military offensive by the United States and Afghan forces that began last year. The militant group’s drug labs, training grounds, and commanders are now better targeted by the US-Afghan forces than in the past, perhaps pushing the group to accept the possibility of a stalemate in the war rather than a victory.

Ghani’s offer is an echo of the beginning of the peace process in Colombia that ended that country’s half-century of war in 2016.

After a strong military offensive by the government, Colombia’s Marxist rebels agreed to talks and an offer to lay down their arms and run for political office. The talks began in 2012 with an admission by the rebel commander, Timoleon Jimenez, that a continuation of the conflict “will involve more death and destruction, more grief and tears” for civilians. To achieve peace, both sides in Colombia had to admit the suffering that each had caused.

Is Afghanistan now at a similar moment, with both sides sharing a common desire to spare innocent lives? Ghani’s offer of a “good act” – letting the Taliban run for office – might be the first step to ending the “evil” of a long war.

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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.

School shootings: What can we do?

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Today’s contributor takes a hard look at the value of persistence and prayer in the search for answers and progress when it comes to the safety of students.

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School shootings: What can we do?

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As a group of teens and I talked about the most recent school shooting, at a high school in Florida, two of them were crying. Many in the group said they’d prayed when they saw the news alert on their phone, but still felt helpless, discouraged, and sad.

“What are we supposed to do?” one wondered. I’ve had her voice echoing in my head ever since.

There’s been plenty of criticism of the “thoughts and prayers” approach to dealing with this incredibly pressing issue of school shootings. And I agree that just repeating those words, even if they come from a well-meaning place, or on the other hand, using those words as a way to excuse inaction, isn’t helping. I’ve seen, though, that dedicated prayer that reaches out to understand God better, and thought that is willing to be changed by that understanding, does have an impact and can lead to concrete change.

It can be tempting to think that our prayers must not be “doing anything” because these shootings continue to occur and we aren’t seeing the outward signs of progress or change we’re hoping for. That’s hard. But in many areas of our lives, we go after progress with tenacity – we stick with our efforts – even if we don’t see immediate effects. I’ve seen this drive in myself when it comes to learning a new piece of music. Whether I have to play something 10 or 50 or 100 times to get the outcome I want, I refuse to give up. And my guess is that there’s at least one area of your life where you do the same.

Where does this capacity to persist come from? I’ve found it encouraging to think about persistence as more than a personal characteristic, but as a spiritual quality, with God as its inspiring source. Since we have it to exercise in one part of our lives, we have it to sustain us in all areas of our lives. And because God is infinite, this divinely impelled persistence is inexhaustible. It’s not something we have to muster up. It actually spurs us on as we yield to God and let Him inspire our prayers and efforts, no matter how long the journey seems to take.

But how do we know whether our prayers are actually making a difference? Can we be sure there will be a healing solution?

Recently, a friend shared with me the idea that approaching a problem with a mentality of “if it can be solved” results in a very different set of actions, and often a very different outcome, than doing so with a mentality of “how can this be solved?” And what I find so comforting about the approach to prayer I’ve learned in my study and practice of Christian Science is that it’s all about the “how.”

It would be daunting if we were trying to influence God to fix something very, very wrong with His creation. But when we start with the idea that we are spiritual, safe, and loved because we are the creation of a completely good God, we see a very different picture. In my own prayers about the school shootings, I’ve been striving to understand more clearly that each individual’s true identity is God-created – meaning it’s designed by divine Love, governed by Love, and maintained by Love at all times.

I’ve seen how powerful this kind of prayer can be. It’s about actually becoming conscious of and persisting with the spiritual facts about God and His creation – including all of us – until God’s ever-present goodness comes to light as reality to us. The “change” we end up seeing, which we call progress or healing, is really the truth of God and each of us made apparent in our lives.

I’ll be honest that, at times, I’ve faltered in my own prayers on the issue of school shootings, because I’ve gotten caught up in feeling discouraged and numb. But thanks to that group of teens I talked with – and their prayers, questions, and desire for change – I’m taking a hard look at what would cause me to respond unproductively; and I’m facing it down.

Whatever the answer looks like for American schools – and for our loved students in those schools – I’m committed to sticking with my prayers until that answer emerges. Why shouldn’t we expect that to happen sooner rather than later? The impact of our sincere prayers to trust and prove God’s power can’t be underestimated.

​Adapted from an article published in the Christian Science Sentinel’s online TeenConnect section, Feb. 23, 2018.

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Viewfinder

In Parkland, beginning again

Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/AP
Students were greeted by supporters, signs, and flowers as they returned to class at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 28. With a heavy police presence, classes resumed for the first time since the deadly Feb. 14 attack on students and teachers there by a former student.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( March 1st, 2018 )

Thanks for spending time with us today. Tomorrow, we'll pivot to India. That's where the Monitor's Howard LaFranchi traveled recently, and where he found many students who are reconsidering plans to study in the United States. Some of that has to do with dynamics in the US. But it also reflects a growth in new opportunities at home.

Monitor Daily Podcast

February 28, 2018
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