Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

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


Five-thirty this morning in Washington, D.C., found one Monitor reader in the Rotunda of the Capitol, paying his respects to a man he knew and respected.

For the world, today was the day for the state funeral of George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States. For Torkel Patterson, who worked under Mr. Bush on the National Security Council and knew him as a man of “decency and genuine caring for all,” today was something more intimate.

As editor, I’ve come to know Torkel through email conversations. But his note this morning particularly touched me. He said he’d gone to the Capitol at 11 p.m. the night before but the line was three hours long. Early this morning, “there was no wait. It was clear and cold and still.” And in that stillness, he was struck by a singular feeling: gratitude. It came in waves, he wrote. Gratitude for the framers of the Constitution, gratitude that “these great institutions of government still stand in the strength of their granite, literally and figuratively.” Gratitude for the honor guard present.

“Respect for the institutions of government,” he wrote, “enshrined in these great buildings and in the Constitution, overwhelmed me.” For a president whose life was defined by service to the country he loved, it was such a fitting tribute – a “last salute, and my silent prayer for fair winds and following seas.”


Now to our five stories for today. We offer a different perspective on China’s ambitions, a look at a major impediment to economic growth in the US, and a glimpse of how tolerance grows.

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1. How a refugee turned mayor seeks to transcend politics of divisiveness

As the world celebrates the life and work of a US president from a storied political family, we offer this read on a Montana mayor with a surprising backstory. It’s the story of an America constantly renewing and refreshing itself.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mayor Wilmot Collins stands in front of his office building in Helena, Mont. He fled violence in Liberia 28 years ago.

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How hard is it to become the first black mayor in America’s least black state? Not nearly as hard as surviving a civil war. Just ask Wilmot Collins, who was subsisting on toothpaste and mayonnaise laced with sugar in Liberia, before a run-in with an armed rebel prompted him and his fiancée to flee in 1990. They eventually landed in Helena, Mont., where last year Mr. Collins won the mayoral election by 344 votes. To backers of more liberal immigration policies, Collins’s dramatic story speaks to the potential for newcomers to give back to their new country, tapping into the fortitude forged in tribulation and channeling it into educational pursuits, community work, or even public service. He has helped reopen Montana to refugee resettlement, despite pushback from critics concerned about national security and the potential drain on the welfare system. Jen Barile, resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee in Missoula, Mont., says, “It’s just super inspiring to the refugees here that we can say, ‘Did you know that Wilmot Collins is a refugee from Liberia and now he’s mayor?’ ”


How a refugee turned mayor seeks to transcend politics of divisiveness

“You!” the rebel fighter pointed at Maddie Saab. “Come here!”

She and her fiancé, Wilmot Collins, knew it was dangerous to venture into the streets of Monrovia, the Liberian capital, in search of food.

But as the front lines of the civil war pushed further into the city, they had little choice. Their relatives’ home had been raided, and they were starving, eating toothpaste and licking mayonnaise laced with sugar off the palms of their hands for sustenance.

Now Ms. Saab stood in front of a man whose fellow comrades had killed and dismembered the president of Liberia just weeks before.

“You’re the president’s girlfriend,” she recalls the rebel saying to her. An AK-47 rested between his legs.

“No, sir,” Saab said, avoiding eye contact and motioning with her other hand to Mr. Collins to stay silent. “You’ve got me mixed up with someone else.” Finally, the rebel relented.

“You guys can go,” he said. “I’m tired of killing.”

They decided to leave the country two days later, on a Friday in October 1990. Collins’s mother handed them each $5 and said, “Go, and God be with you.” They headed to the port and waited in line for three days without food or water. On Sunday night a soldier tapped Saab: You, you’re going. Collins insisted on joining her on board, and the soldier finally relented in letting him leave, too.

They had no idea where the ship was headed.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Helena (pop. 31,000) sprawls toward the foothills.

Today, 28 years later, Collins spends his days with less-harrowing concerns. As the mayor of Helena, Mont. – one of few former refugees to become the chief executive of an American city – he finds his time taken up with replacing sewer pipes, debating outdoor smoking regulations, and ensuring that firetrucks can get through the city’s snowy streets. 

Now nearly one year in office, the novice politician with a rich baritone voice and hearty laugh approaches his job with the enthusiasm of someone who has overcome a tumultuous past and is trying to make the most of his future in an adopted land. 

A quarter century ago, Collins and Saab could not possibly have fathomed that he would one day become the mayor of the capital city of the least black state in America. Or that he would help Montana reopen a refugee resettlement program just months before Donald Trump, touting the need for “extreme vetting” of refugees, would win the presidential vote in the state by a 20-point margin.

But his very rise and visibility puts him at the nexus of a deepening debate over the role of refugees in America and a heated conversation over immigration – intensified by the caravan of Latin American asylum-seekers. To backers of more liberal immigration policies, Collins’s dramatic story speaks to the potential for newcomers to give back to their new country, tapping into the fortitude forged in tribulation and channeling it into educational pursuits, community work, and, in his case, even public service.

But critics are unmoved. In an age of Islamist terrorism, they see refugees as a threat to US security and a potential drain on the economy and welfare system. They are unimpressed by one man’s story, no matter how inspiring. Some locals even see him as part of a broader internationalist movement to supplant America’s founding ideals.  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mayor Wilmot Collins walks through downtown Helena during his lunch break.

The rancor over refugees comes as the Trump administration tightens restrictions on those trying to enter the United States. Fewer than 22,500 refugees were admitted to the country in fiscal year 2018, the lowest annual total since Congress passed the Refugee Act in 1980. That represents just half of the 45,000 refugee limit President Trump set for the year. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced this fall that the administration intended to lower the ceiling to 30,000 in 2019.

Administration officials describe the policy changes as necessary to more thoroughly screen refugees to protect national security and free up resources to deal with an unprecedented surge in asylum-seekers already in the US.

As Collins goes about his duties as a small-city mayor, while still doing his day job as a child protection specialist with the state, one thing seems certain: If he and his wife were standing in line to flee war today, they might well not make it to America. 


On the first morning after Collins and Saab pulled out of Monrovia’s port, the sounds of wailing and splashing echoed off the ocean as some passengers, realizing their relatives had died overnight, cast the bodies of loved ones overboard.

Saab was a mere 88 pounds. Collins, thin himself, was worried about the woman he had loved from that first day he saw her at a university in Liberia.

The ship docked in Ghana three days later. Collins used his $5 to get a taxi to the local branch of his employer, Save the Children, and Saab made a collect call to the only people she knew who might be able to help.

It was the middle of the night in Helena when the ringing phone jolted Joyce Nachtsheim awake. She and her husband, Bruce, had been waiting for this call for weeks. Saab, who lived with them as a high school exchange student in 1984, was like a daughter to them, and they had been worried ever since they saw news of war breaking out in Liberia.

“We’re safe; we’re out,” Saab told Ms. Nachtsheim. “But can you help us with money?”

“Oh, I want to help you with more than that,” her American mother replied. “I want to help you with your future.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mayor Wilmot Collins and his wife, Maddie (c.), enjoy a moment with Bruce and Joyce Nachtsheim of Helena, Mont. Maddie spent a year living with the Nachtsheims as a foreign exchange student in high school.

With help from the Nachtsheims’ representatives in Congress, they were able to secure Saab a student visa and a full-ride scholarship to a nursing program in Helena. She and Collins got married in the hope that he would be able to come with her, but the American embassy said no. On the eve of her departure in August 1991, the couple learned they were expecting a baby girl.

Collins told his wife to go anyway.

He ended up homeless on the streets of Ivory Coast, and they lost touch. Then, in an extraordinary turn, someone recognized Collins on the street. It was Bliss, his best friend from Catholic high school in Monrovia, whose family took him in.

Collins called his wife for the first time in months. “Hey, I’m alive,” he told her.

Then he started the screening process to come to America: first the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), then the State Department, then the Immigration and Naturalization Service, then the FBI. His wife had to submit phone bills and their personal letters, and the INS wanted to “talk” to baby Jaymie by phone, even if it was just a squawk – all to verify Collins’s family ties in America. 

“Don’t let anybody fool you and say refugees aren’t vetted,” he says.

When Collins finally arrived in Helena in February 1994, he plunged into his new life. He strode into the governor’s office – which people can do in a small capital city like this – and introduced himself. He found a job within weeks. At the local theater, he starred as the slave in a production of “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

But not all was friendly. Some people resented the presence of the refugees from Africa. Soon after he arrived, someone painted KKK on the family’s rented garage, though the neighbors had already started cleaning it off by the time Collins finished calling the police. His church also sent a $5,000 anonymous donation so the couple could buy their own home. On another occasion, someone left a fake plane ticket in their mailbox with a monkey attached, saying “Go back to Africa.”

Collins just laughed. “They have no idea what it took for me to come to this country,” he says. “This is not going to scare me away.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Maddie and Wilmot Collins eat dinner at home in Helena, Mont., after a long day at work.

It was harder when people targeted his teenage son, Bliss, the couple’s second child, whom they named after Collins’s high school friend. While working as a bank teller, Bliss had one customer tell him, “I don’t want you touching my money.”

Recalling that incident now brings tears to Collins’s eyes, but such racism never stopped him. He took up leadership positions in the community – coaching soccer, singing in his Methodist church choir, serving on the board of the United Way, joining the National Guard. He also started thinking seriously about running for mayor, a job he’d gotten to do for a day after putting down $75 at a silent auction. 

But it took some encouragement from his son to enter the 2017 race as an African-American in a state that has never had a black mayor (though it did have one before it officially became a state). Plus, the incumbent had now been in the job 16 years.

“That mayor is not better than you,” he recalls Bliss telling him. “Go in there and shine.”

Collins won by 344 votes.


When Mayor Collins comes back from lunch on a recent Wednesday, a young couple from Tennessee is waiting. Halfway across the country in Nashville, they’ve heard about this Liberian refugee-turned-mayor. They’re intrigued – so much so that they’re thinking of moving here. “I was so shocked you responded to my email,” says the husband, who didn’t want his name used so as not to tip off his current employer about the potential move.

Collins, impeccably dressed in a gray suit, crisp white shirt, and polished wingtips, seems eager to woo them to this wide Montana plain surrounded by folding hills and mountains. There have been only two murders since he moved here a quarter century ago, he tells them. In the winter, people leave cars running with the heat on while they go in to shop. And everybody knows everybody, just like back on the rubber plantation where he grew up in Liberia.

It’s also the kind of place where knocking on doors can make a difference. After 22 years of the city not expanding its firefighting force, Collins teamed up with the fire department to campaign for a $1 million public safety levy. The measure passed with 70 percent of the votes, and they were able to add six firefighters. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
'The Bullwhacker' statue in downtown Helena is a reminder of the town's gold rush days when traders were supplied by freight wagons pulled by oxen.

He is also working with the United Way and the Department of Veterans Affairs to address teenage and veteran homelessness, and the city has 80 new affordable housing units going in. “So that’s pretty decent for one year,” he says to the couple.

Former mayor Jim Smith says his successor seems to be off to a good start. “As near as I can tell, the garbage is being picked up, the streets are being plowed, I don’t think our rates for services have gone up too much,” he says.

Despite all the excitement around Collins, his managerial tasks can be rather prosaic. On this day, he politely tells the city manager to deny a request for free parking passes; reviews his schedule – whoops, he has double-booked the Cub Scouts on the same day as the Montana Nonprofit Association; and welcomes a new executive at the local Boeing plant, a first-generation American like himself. Collins braces her for the winter weather.

“My first job, I didn’t know people worked when it snowed,” he says, laughing.

Snow is a top concern at the afternoon administrative meeting attended by city councilors, officials, and members of the public, including someone’s granddaughter who wrote to him requesting permission to attend. A libertarian, a tavern owner, and a vaping advocate air their views on whether to allow smoking within 30 feet of businesses, sparring with young activists. As dusk falls, the conversation turns to projected costs to put in new sidewalks.

It’s 6:06 p.m. before they get to the snow plan, but Collins is determined. Before he had even taken the oath of office in January, his email inbox was stuffed with complaints about poor snow removal and slick roads. He got on it right away. “He doesn’t know what the hell snow is, but here he is fixing the problem,” says Gary Long, a high school classmate of Maddie’s.

At today’s meeting, Collins listens to proposals for a more proactive approach: moving from eight to 12 hour shifts, designating emergency snow routes, crafting new towing rules.

“I don’t care what we do; we’re not leaving it the way we had it,” he says. “But whatever we do, we must inform the public.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mayor Wilmot Collins (front, r.) holds his weekly open town meeting with local officials in Helena, Mont.


With his dramatic back story, Collins has developed a profile that extends well beyond Helena, which means he is both canonized for his triumph over adversity and a target for critics. In 2013, Angelina Jolie was slated to speak at the State Department on World Refugee Day but couldn’t make it. So organizers asked Collins to fill in. 

He scribbled out a speech en route to Washington, D.C., and was ushered into the Monroe Room at Foggy Bottom while waiting for the event to start. The setting couldn’t have been more apropos for a refugee from Monrovia, a city named after President James Monroe. Secretary of State John Kerry introduced him, and he spoke to a crowd of about 100 people.

Even before that appearance, Collins had become something of an unofficial ambassador for refugees, representing Montana in the UNHCR’s Refugee Congress.

But immigration remains a controversial topic in Montana. As recently as February 2016, some opponents of the US taking in more refugees held an “American security rally” in Missoula. Trump’s campaign was gathering momentum, and supporters were becoming increasingly outspoken about the security ramifications of President Barack Obama’s embrace of Middle Eastern refugees, mainly Syrians. 

The organizer of the event was Jim Buterbaugh of Whitehall, Mont. He drove his ’94 Ford truck hours through relentless snow to join more than 100 protesters, who held signs with mottoes like “Look at Germany.” Mr. Buterbaugh says his thinking back then, as well as today, is that the Middle East and other regions should take care of their own refugees. 

“Separating them from their country, separating them from their way of life, when you’ve got all these oil-rich countries ...  if they want to teach them to live off of welfare, they can teach them how to do it over there,” says Buterbaugh. He also feels it is too easy for refugees to create a false narrative about their lives to justify entry into the US. “They’re coming from a war, and they’re saying I’m so-and-so,” he says.

Buterbaugh appeared at a business luncheon a month after the protest along with Collins to present two different views on refugees. The event was organized by Mary Poole, a resident of Missoula, who has been trying to get the state to create a refugee resettlement program. 

“Refugees all over the country are doctors, nurses, and engineers that have contributed to this economy and this country,” Collins told the crowd, noting that the only “free” thing he had received as a refugee was a plane ticket, and he’d paid that back within six months.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Maddie Collins, who is getting her doctorate to become a nurse practitioner, examines a patient at a clinic in Helena, Mont.

Collins is the target of criticism not just over refugees, but over his whole worldview. His most prominent detractor in Helena is Gina Satterfield, who owns a hair salon and has repeatedly railed against the mayor on Facebook, when her account is not suspended. An unabashed critic of Islam, she refers to the mayor as a “gateway” through which the US Constitution will be supplanted by a United Nations approach to governing, which she describes as heavily influenced by Muslim countries. She calls Collins a poster child for a broader social justice movement sharing similar ideals. “It’s not just him; he couldn’t do it by himself,” she says.

But Ms. Poole says it’s not just Islam people have a problem with, and she carries around a note to prove it. It was sent to her nonprofit, Soft Landing Missoula, and reveals overt racism. It says “Shame on you for bringing the dirty, illiterate refuse from foreign lands to our shores. It was the white man from Europe that built this once great nation.”

In such a climate, some were concerned for Collins’s safety when he ran for mayor, says Rachel Carroll Rivas, a volunteer who helped run the campaign. She was aware of anti-immigrant activity through her job with the Montana Human Rights Network but says retreating is never the answer.

“One of the most awesome things I’ve learned,” she says, “is that safety comes by being in the light ... and the safety comes not only for you but for all of those folks like you.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Congolese refugees Charles Lubeley and his wife, Nduba Kyabu, sort through donations with their daughter Patricia at Soft Landing Missoula, a nonprofit that helps refugees settle in Montana.


Montana also has many who support refugees. Hundreds of volunteers have approached Soft Landing to offer to work with new arrivals.  

Likewise, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which reopened an office in Montana after hearing from Poole and others in the community, has more than 200 family mentor volunteers. 

Since opening in July 2016, they have settled some 243 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Congo, and Eritrea. Most have found jobs within a few months, with employers ranging from the Holiday Inn to a construction firm that hired a female Iraqi engineer.

And they have a great role model in Helena, says Jen Barile, resettlement director for IRC Missoula. “It’s just super inspiring to the refugees here that we can say, ‘Did you know that Wilmot Collins is a refugee from Liberia and now he’s mayor?’ ”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Volunteer Charlie Devoe uses his own car to teach Eritrean refugee Yodit Aregawi how to drive in Missoula, Mont. The driver’s education lessons are one of the services offered by Soft Landing Missoula to help newcomers to the area.

Collins will be the first to say he didn’t accomplish this alone. On special occasions, his soulful voice resonates through his church as he embraces the congregation in a gospel song that encapsulates his journey:

Why should my heart be lonely and long for heaven and home, when Jesus is my portion, my constant friend is he ... I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, His eye is on the sparrow, Praise God, I know that He cares for me.

“I cry every time,” says Sharon Wolfe, a fellow congregant. “It’s really a testament to what a grateful spirit he has.”


2. In Taiwan’s upset election, a complicated message for Beijing

For a unique portrait of China’s growing influence, look at Taiwan. The island’s recent elections paint a picture of opposites – a country embracing a pro-China party even as it moves closer to Washington.


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When officials from Taiwan’s China-friendly Kuomintang party are sworn in on Dec. 25, they will dominate Taiwan's political landscape and administer local government for 80 percent of its population. It's a stunning rebuke to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which seeks to distance itself from China, and good news for Beijing, which expects the election upset to boost its reach in Taiwan's domestic affairs. But with presidential polls looming in a year, the outcome has rattled some observers. They see Taiwan as easy prey to Chinese influence. While Taiwan is a vibrant democracy, it may also be vulnerable. Taiwan and US officials warn of Beijing’s support for pro-China forces through economic incentives, and its more subtle interference in spreading false reports and stirring dissent online. Others argue, however, that the results spoke mainly to a lack of confidence in President Tsai Ing-wen and her deeply unpopular administration. And one analyst notes that Taiwan has been included in Washington's new Asia strategy of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” That's an explicit recognition, she says, of Taiwan's strategic value in protecting open societies, and presents new opportunities for it to work with like-minded democracies. 


In Taiwan’s upset election, a complicated message for Beijing

When Han Kuo-yu is sworn in later this month as the new mayor of Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second-largest city, he will be the first politician from the China-friendly Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) to govern the municipality in 20 years. His victory was the single biggest upset in last week’s midterm elections on the island, sending a message to Beijing and beyond that Taiwan may have lurched closer to China.

As the historic cradle of “green” politics that champions Taiwan's independence, Kaohsiung was considered “deep green,” a prize many assumed the KMT could not win back. The sprawling industrial metropolis of 3 million people lies less than 200 miles from the Chinese mainland and had been ruled by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The city was believed to be safe from poaching since its population is known for pride in their native Taiwanese identity and contempt for Chinese military coercion.

But Kaohsiung turned on the DPP. Island-wide, DPP control over the nation's 22 local government posts dropped from 13 to only six, a devastating defeat for the governing party. When officials from the KMT are sworn in on Dec. 25, they will dominate Taiwan's domestic political landscape and administer local government for 80 percent of its population. Beijing expects this will boost its reach into Taiwan's domestic affairs and frustrate the central government, which seeks to distance itself from China and reduce economic dependence on the mainland.

The poll results leave some observers rattled. They see Taiwan as easy prey to Chinese influence. Others point out, however, that China was not on the agenda in these local contests, which were mainly a vote of no-confidence in the DPP's President Tsai Ying-wen and her deeply unpopular administration. With 14 months to go before the presidential election, relations with the United States are strong and the government has some time to address popular frustration with its aloof and technocratic leadership style.  

Vibrant but vulnerable      

Yet while Taiwan is East Asia's most vibrant democracy, it may also be its most vulnerable. Beijing is determined to compel Taiwan to accept its claim over the island and its 24 million people. In relentless efforts to win hearts and minds, analysts say Beijing exercises a combination of “hard power” in the form of military intimidation and economic pressures and, most recently, “sharp power” consisting of disinformation campaigns and the manipulation of corporate interests, civil society, and the news media in cyber space and beyond.

All those tactics were at play in the November elections, say observers, and are likely to emerge more decisively in the presidential campaign next year. As an example for other contenders, what set Han's campaign apart were his populist appeals to revive a city seen to be in decline and his enthusiasm for more trade and investment from across the Taiwan Strait. Indeed, the day after his election victory, he announced support for the notion of  “one China” that includes Taiwan, promptly winning praise from Chinese officials in Beijing and almost certainly triggering a surge of Chinese tourists and trade to boost the local economy.

As they look ahead to the January 2020 polls, Taiwan and US government officials warn that Beijing is engaged in a comprehensive campaign of disinformation and meddling in news and social media. Direct support for pro-China forces in the form of economic incentives and more subtle interference in spreading false reports and stirring dissent through digital means are a lethal combination for Taiwan, says Lai I-chung at Taiwan Thinktank, an independent policy research group in Taipei. “These arguably present the most serious challenge facing us,” Mr. Lai told a meeting of experts seeking greater collaboration between Taiwan and the US on countering China information warfare operations.  

Taiwan is on the front line of urging more active measures to protect democratic institutions and public discourse across East Asia. “It's difficult to wage a fight between an open society committed to free speech and a state-run disinformation campaign with vast resources,” Shihoko Goto of the Woodrow Wilson Center told the meeting, which was co-sponsored by the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington.

As the island prepares for the pivotal presidential and legislative contest, relations with its only true ally, the US, have rarely been more promising. The Taipei government enjoys trust in Washington for its firm but low-key rhetoric on China and for readiness to partner in security dialogues and other initiatives. This has opened the door to broader range of strategic cooperation than was imaginable a few years ago.

For the first time since the US broke diplomatic relations in 1979, Taiwan has been included in Washington's new Asia strategy of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” This is a major breakthrough from the Trump administration, says Shirley Kan, former Asian security specialist at the Congressional Research Service.  With the backing of senior US cabinet officials and strong bipartisan support in the US Congress, she said the explicit recognition of Taiwan's strategic value in countering China's behavior and protecting open societies and free markets in the region presents new opportunities for working together with like-minded democracies, including Japan.

So the picture for Beijing may be mixed.

“This election gave Beijing confidence,” says Li Fan of the World and China Institute in Beijing, who observed the polls in late November. “They believe their policies are working.” 

But others say not so fast. Taiwan's voters are quick to assert control over government when they are unhappy with its direction. “We are fearless,” says Kuo Yujen of National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung. “We put everything on the table every time we go to the polls.”


3. Behind new efforts to bring internet access to students who need it

The internet is no longer an amenity, it’s essential to thrive in the 21st-century economy. But too many Americans still don’t have access. Here’s a look at where progress is most needed.


It can’t be touched or seen or heard but it’s at the center of debate among federal education officials. The internet is a crucial resource for students – a White House report on STEM education released Monday listed building computational and digital literacy as one of its “Pathways to Success” – but not everyone has equal access. In 2016, about 90 percent of high school students said their homework required going online at least a few times a month. But about 15 percent of United States households with school-age children still lack a high-speed internet connection. This disparity is known as the “homework gap,” and it disproportionately affects low-income, black, Latino, and geographically remote students. Vikki Katz, associate professor of communication at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., says she’s seen students try to write research papers on smartphones. “It's important to try to think about just how ... frustrating and time consuming of an experience that would be,” she says. To close the gap, some communities have tried unconventional methods. A district in Coachella Valley, Calif., attached hotspots to buses and drove them to local homes. Now, the Federal Communications Commission is weighing plans that would give remote districts free licenses to existing spectrum, known as educational broadband service. A final decision from the FCC was expected by the end of the year, but has now been postponed. – Noble Ingram

Noble Ingram, Karen Norris/Staff

4. For rural LGBT people in Uganda, there’s safety in family

Tolerance can grow from the inside out. In Africa, traditional families may at first feel shame in their LGBT members, but their strong values may also hold the group together.

Jake Naughton
An outreach event draws participants in Mbale, Uganda. LGBT-oriented organizations TASO and Triumph Uganda use voluntary counseling to identify LGBT people in need of support. The events, largely staffed by LGBT people, also sensitize the wider community to the LGBT community.

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A small town in Uganda – a country with a reputation for being one of the world’s most dangerous places to be gay or transgender – might be the last place you’d expect to see LGBT acceptance. Big cities are often assumed to be more tolerant. But across Africa, “there is really a big gap between the urban and rural” LGBT experience, says Kapya Kaoma, a theology scholar and pastor from Zambia. Rural families “could become ashamed for having [an] LGBT child. So the family tries to find ways to hide that from the public,” says Dr. Kaoma. In doing so, “the family becomes the protecting group.” To be sure, many LGBT rural East Africans still face discrimination, blackmail, arrest, and even violence. But many are forging paths toward acceptance. Raymond felt abandoned by his relatives, but faced it without resentment. “In the rural areas, we respect so much our families. We don’t want [them] to be ashamed,” he says. “I worked hard, saved money, and kept sending gifts and money” home, Raymond explains. Then “they started believing me – that I can do great things for myself and my family.”


For rural LGBT people in Uganda, there’s safety in family

On a small farm in eastern Uganda, a baby boy named JoJo was born. Skinny with thin lips and cute ears, JoJo grew up hanging out only with the girls, singing and braiding hair. “People used to call me names, and I hated it,” says JoJo. But at home, that wasn’t a problem. “Most the time I did housecleaning, cooking, taking care of young ones,” JoJo says – traditionally girls’ work.

There’s no word for transgender in the local Lumasaaba language. But JoJo’s mom, “she knew,” says JoJo, who identifies today as a woman.

“What can I do?” JoJo remembers her saying. “It is my child.”

At age 22, JoJo, a committed church member, confessed to her pastor that she had feelings for boys. To her relief, he didn’t rebuke her. He said he would pray for her, to help her become “normal.” But when the pastor’s wife got wind, she outed JoJo in front of the congregation. She said “I am demonic – possessed,” recalls JoJo, who ran from the pews.

Since 2009, Uganda has made international headlines as one of the world’s most dangerous places to be gay or transgender. That year legislators and religious leaders first championed an anti-homosexuality bill to criminalize gay sex and marriages, even if they take place abroad, and obligate Ugandans to report them. “Aggravated homosexuality,” including repeated offenses, was to be punished with death – later amended to life in prison.

As the bill progressed, one prominent gay activist was bludgeoned to death, and many dozens of LGBT Ugandans attacked or arrested when newspapers began printing photos of “suspected homosexuals” under inflammatory headlines like “Hang Them.” After the bill was signed into law in 2014, hundreds of people fled across the border to Kenya as refugees.

Courts overturned the law a few months later. But Uganda’s penal codes still prescribe seven years in prison for anyone who attempts to or commits “unnatural offenses.” Successful prosecutions are rare, but LGBT Ugandans still risk arrest or blackmail by police, as well as rejection by their families.

But in small communities like Mbale, where neighbors all know one another, to cast out a relative is to draw unwanted attention, gossip, questions. So although several of JoJo’s relatives found her “secret” intolerable, the entire family still left the church in protest, signaling tacit support.

Jojo is one of many rural LGBT Ugandans who are finding ways to fit into traditional family and community structures – and without always having to entirely hide their identities, either. Rural Ugandan towns might be the last place you’d expect to see LGBT acceptance. Cities are often assumed to be more tolerant, where strength in numbers allows people to advocate together. But in Mbale, prejudice is often no match for personal relationships. By adapting to, rather than rebuking, traditions and societal norms, some rural LGBT Africans are achieving a level of tolerance that just a few years ago seemed unthinkable.

All across Africa, "there is really a big gap between the urban and rural” LGBT experience, says Kapya Kaoma, a theology scholar and pastor from Zambia who has spent more than a decade researching LGBT acceptance throughout the continent. In rural areas, families “could become ashamed for having [an] LGBT child. So the family tries to find ways to hide that from the public,” says Dr. Kaoma. In doing so, “the family becomes the protecting group,” says Kaoma. In contrast, in many cities, relationships “are not built around the traditional lifestyle. There isn’t the same kind of unity,” says Kaoma.

Give respect, get respect 

To be sure, many LGBT rural East Africans still face discrimination, blackmail, arrest, and even violence. But whether it’s by outing themselves to community leaders, or providing for their families, many are forging paths toward acceptance and stability. In working-class communities that value service, “Our character tells it all,” says Patra, a lesbian activist. She organizes LGBT volunteers to help out around town, sweeping out hospital wards and cleaning out vegetable markets.

Jake Naughton
Despite occasional harassment, JoJo, a transgender woman, says she feels far more accepted in small-town Mbale than she does during visits to Kampala, Uganda, the capital.

Hard work is how JoJo, now 27, has won a measure of protection, too. A few years back, a woman hired her as a hairdresser at a small salon on the outskirts of town. “The majority of the customers, they liked me,” says JoJo. But soon it became apparent that to the owner, “That was the issue. She was jealous.”

One day, the tension boiled over. “This guy is a gay,” the owner told customers about JoJo. When JoJo didn’t respond, the salon owner called the police, who held JoJo until her mother arrived to pay a bribe.

But in a matter of days, former clients began passing by JoJo’s house, asking if she could do their hair there. Despite occasional harassment, JoJo says she feels far more accepted in small-town Mbale than she did during visits to the capital, Kampala, where she was arrested at a gay pride event.

“Here, I think we have more trans men who are out,” JoJo says. “They are living their life.”

“If you’re out and working positively, they look at you in a different perspective,” Patra says of Ugandans’ attitudes.

Patra has devised other ways to fit in, too. Her parents are both devout Catholics who brought her to services as a child. Today, Patra isn’t religious – quite the opposite. Yet most weeks she still attends church – such a fundamental part of community life that not to be seen at services might taint her reputation. “I have to respect the culture,” she says.

And in exchange, she has come to expect respect – or at least tolerance. Growing up at an all-girls secondary school, Patra was once caught kissing another girl. The headmaster called her dad, threatening to expel her. But when her dad arrived, he defended her.

“Show me a gay school,” she remembers him saying. “I’ll take my daughter there.”

“But of course they couldn’t show him a gay school,” says Patra. So her dad told the headmaster, “We have courts of law. Kids have the right to go to school.” The headmaster relented, and Patra remained.

“Unfortunately, other parents, they didn’t defend their kids,” Patra cautioned, recalling a time another girl was caught and flogged in front of the class. But Patra’s dad’s threat that day hints at another mechanism that many LGBT Ugandans are using to their advantage: the law.

Laws that can protect 

Today, at least 33 of Africa’s 54 countries still outlaw homosexuality. Many of those laws are relics of the British Empire, which introduced penal codes in its colonies to criminalize same-sex relations. In major cities like Kampala, rights groups provide advice and sometimes legal representation to LGBT people who are accused of violating these laws, or, more commonly, who are blackmailed or extorted. But in small towns like Mbale, such resources rarely exist – until someone decides to change that.

Sean Awali realized he was gay at an early age – and so did his neighbors in the small village of Bumboi, in eastern Uganda. At his neighborhood mosque, “there was a lot of finger-pointing,” Awali says. The imam said homosexuality was one of the greatest sins – and that the punishment was death.

“I decided I should change religion,” says Awali. Many Christians were opposed to homosexuality too, he knew, “But there are no particular [edicts] for killing people – I thought.”

But Awali soon discovered that the church felt no safer. So he decided to turn to a third institution altogether. “It came to my mind that this is all about the law.… if this is what the law said, they would think twice. They would fear doing violence.”

One law degree and several years later, Awali started the advocacy group Triumph Uganda, and soon he found himself defending two gay Mbale men who had been arrested by police while picking up condoms from a local NGO. Awali claims the police demanded 1 million shillings ($266) for their release. They refused to pay, and on the date of the men’s court hearing, the prosecutor – presumably unable to gather enough evidence to charge the men with “unnatural acts” – didn’t show up. The case was dismissed.

Now, whenever police arrest people accused of violating Uganda’s laws against homosexual acts, Awali defends them in court. And it works: “After some time, police stopped charging people with ‘promoting homosexuality,’ because they couldn’t prove it,” he says.

“Fear of the law” says Awali, increasingly preempts violence against LGBT people. When an attack does occur, Awali sometimes calls the police himself. “Now they go arrest the people who are doing the violence.”

Last year when Mbale LGBT activists received funding to host a daylong training about human rights, they invited police officers to attend. “We told them violence is criminal to everyone,” Awali recalls. To arrest someone, “It’s not enough simply that they are gay.”

Across rural and small-town East Africa, similar workshops are taking place for dozens of leaders – and not just for police, but for priests and imams, too.

This year, when two transgender men were attacked in the street one night, police charged the suspects with assault. The news spread around town, and it sent a strong signal to the community, says Awali: “Those who do violence are going to be arrested whether they are doing it upon LGBT or not.”

Medi, a bisexual man in Mbale, remembers the imam of the mosque up his street calling for the death of LGBT people. One day, after a workshop with LGBT activists, the imam approached Medi and asked him outright: Was he gay?

Medi told him the truth. To his surprise, the imam told him to be himself – “but quietly.”

“He said, ‘This world has changed,’ ” Medi recalls.

Working for acceptance

But there are limits to change. Some rural gay and bisexual men like Medi wind up entering into straight marriages for the public eye. But even that is not always an option. To be LGBT in rural East Africa may be hardest for those who have no family at all – those unable to integrate into the rhythms of rural life.

“I’ve seen many of my relatives abandon [me],” says Raymond, a gay man who lives in southwest Uganda. “My family couldn’t accept me anymore because of who I was.”

Yet he doesn’t resent them.

“In the rural areas, we respect so much our families. We don’t want our families to be ashamed,” he says. After being kicked out, he moved to Kampala, where he eventually graduated from university and found a job.

“I worked hard, saved money and kept sending gifts and money” home, Raymond explains. Then “they started believing me – that I can do great things for myself and my family.”

The last time he returned home, Raymond says his relatives promised never to bring up his sexuality again. “Let us not talk about it,” he says, describing their attitude. “But let us be reunited again.”



5. The ‘Marvelous’ costumes that bring to life ’50s New York

Can there be beauty in an Amazon sitcom? The costume designer for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” likens her job to “painting with fabric,” and the results bring a sumptuous palette to life.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Rachel Brosnahan stars as Miriam 'Midge' Maisel in 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,' an Emmy-winning TV show from Amazon. The second season debuts Dec. 5 and features costume design from Donna Zakowska, who uses color to convey 1950s New York to viewers.

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When Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” returns for its second season Dec. 5, fans will be watching for the titular character’s sartorial choices almost as much as for what happens next in her life as a 1950s housewife-turned-comedian. Behind the show’s popular costumes is a designer who is unafraid to use color to convey the emotional journey of the characters she’s charged with dressing. “I have very, very strong feelings and reactions to color,” says Donna Zakowska, whose previous work with period dress won her an Emmy. Unlike the Revolutionary War costumes she’s dealt with in the past, the “Maisel” looks are garnering interest because people can imagine themselves wearing them, she notes. On the show, her collaborators include series creator and director Amy Sherman-Palladino, who also created “Gilmore Girls,” and a team of about 20 people. For Ms. Zakowska, the ultimate consideration for all the clothing is the scene and what’s happening with the character. “You’re telling a story,” she says. “Clothes tell a story.”


The ‘Marvelous’ costumes that bring to life ’50s New York

Before she designed costumes for the TV show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Donna Zakowska studied painting. And that’s what she feels, in a way, she’s still doing today.

“It’s really like painting with fabric,” Ms. Zakowska says. “That’s the way I see it, basically.”

Zakowska is the force behind the big-skirted dresses, natty hats, and beatnik styles of the Emmy-winning “Maisel” from Amazon Studios, which returns for its second season on Wednesday. She puts her mark on the comedy-drama, set in 1950s New York, through the uninhibited use of color and the places from which she draws inspiration – including photographs from the era. 

“It’s one of the most beautiful shows I’ve ever seen on television in terms of costume,” says Ellen McCartney, director of design and production and head of costume design at the California Institute of the Arts in Santa Clarita. “It’s [Donna’s] point of view and it’s beautiful. It helps you see the period in a way that you might not just looking at research on your own.”

Chief among Zakowska’s responsibilities is outfitting Rachel Brosnahan, who stars as Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a housewife who turns to stand-up comedy after her husband leaves her. Beyond Midge’s wardrobe (which fans are eager to copy), dapper apparel is also needed for the men in her life, like her father Abe Weissman, played by Emmy winner Tony Shalhoub of “Monk” fame. But before Zakowska and her team of about 20 people pick up needle and thread, she does plenty of research – something she’s experienced at after working on Revolutionary War-era shows such as HBO’s “John Adams,” for which she won an Emmy, and AMC’s “TURN: Washington’s Spies.” 

As with many artists, Zakowska’s decisions are often driven by color, she explains in a phone interview. “My whole life was really about painting and color,” she says of her studies before costume design, which included time at Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts and Barnard College in New York. “And then I went to Yale [School of Drama] and got into design. But it’s really a little bit about instinct. I have very, very strong feelings and reactions to color. So it just either feels right or it doesn’t.”

She is not very fond of pink, for example. But that hasn’t stopped her from outfitting Midge in it – or sorting through hundreds of swatches to find just the right shade. The color, Zakowska says, reflects both the time period in which Midge is living and how Midge starts the series – in “rose-colored glasses” – complacent and seemingly leading a perfect life as a wife and mother. Until, that is, her husband tells her he’s having an affair and is leaving her.

“I never really chose pink to do things because sometimes it denoted a sort of female image that I didn’t really like,” she explains. “Then it became the iconic color for her and I’ve really come to appreciate pink.”

Ms. McCartney, who once worked with Zakowska years ago for a couple of days, notes that people respond emotionally to color. Costume designers, “compose a visual image that can be read whether there’s language or not,” she says.

Zakowska collaborates with series creator and director Amy Sherman-Palladino, who also created “Gilmore Girls,” and Ms. Brosnahan. She consulted with Ms. Sherman-Palladino when she chose a red dress for the scene when Midge’s husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), tries to persuade Midge to make their marriage work. “I wanted, when he came back, for her to be stronger than strong, you know what I mean?” she says. “And that’s the sort of thing where I talk to Amy about it and then it will appear in the script.”

When it comes to creating other looks for Midge and the people in her world, inspiration can sometimes come from an accessory. “I might pull a color out of the shoe and say, well, let’s do that,” Zakowska says. She cites New York photographer Saul Leiter, whose first exhibition of color photography was in the 1950s, as an influence. “One photograph … could really trigger a whole outfit,” she says of his work.

Zakowska, who often creates the costumes from scratch, thinks these period looks are garnering interest because they are wearable. “I mean, I loved ‘John Adams’ … and I got an Emmy for that and everything, but no one really imagined themselves in the clothes in the same way.”

“Maisel,” rated TV-MA for profanity and nudity, won multiple Emmys this fall, including for best comedy series and for lead actress in a comedy series. The team of Zakowska, Marina Reti, Ginnie Patton, and Sheila Grover was nominated for best period costumes.

For Zakowska, the ultimate consideration for all the clothing is the scene and what’s happening with the character.

 “You’re telling a story,” she says. “Clothes tell a story.”


The Monitor's View

In France, political climate change

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Here’s one lesson from the protests in France over taxes on diesel and gasoline: As much as people accept dire predictions about global warming, they also want equitable allocation of the costs in curbing carbon pollution. Will there be mutual sacrifice in reducing coal and oil usage? Will money from carbon taxes go to help the poor cope with higher costs? Will the revenue also help develop zero-carbon solutions? France is not alone in trying to balance climate activism and political fairness. Last month, voters in Washington state voted down a $15-per-ton carbon “fee.” In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces pushback against a plan to impose a carbon tax. Leaders need to deal with the mental atmosphere of average citizens as much as Earth’s atmosphere. Popular support of green taxes requires dealing with non-climate issues, such as economic stagnation or social inequities. “I hear the people’s discontent,” said French President Emmanuel Macron. “I will not allow our energy transition plan to deepen … inequalities.” Harmony in the sky begins with harmony at home.


In France, political climate change

Last Saturday, the streets of Paris were much like today’s global weather: chaotic. Protesters were angry over hikes in fuel prices imposed by a government they deemed out of touch with the high cost of driving and other living expenses. The riots forced President Emmanuel Macron to suspend taxes on diesel and gasoline due to start in January. His plan to turn France into a world leader on climate change is now on hold.

One lesson from the protests is this: Achieving a level of climate harmony through government intervention will require social harmony as well. As much as people accept dire predictions about global warming, they also want equitable allocation of the costs in curbing carbon pollution. Will there be mutual sacrifice in reducing coal and oil usage? Will money from carbon taxes go to help the poor cope with the higher costs? Will the revenue also help develop zero-carbon solutions?

Mr. Macron’s big mistake was designating the new carbon-tax revenue toward relieving the national debt. For people like Jacline Mouraud, the working mother whose four-minute Facebook video about diesel prices helped launch the protests, such a move showed a political insensitivity toward her life in rural France. She earns less than $1,100 a month while paying about $110 just to fill up the tank of her car. Her distrust of France’s political elite crowds out any concern for the world or for future generations.

France is not alone is trying to balance climate activism and political fairness. Last month, voters in Washington State voted down a $15-per-ton carbon “fee.” In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces pushback against a plan to impose a carbon tax next year. Many Canadians doubt whether the government will fulfill a promise to send back the tax revenue as a rebate.

Of all emissions of greenhouse gases, only 12 percent are subject to some sort of punitive pricing, such as a tax or a cap, according to the International Monetary Fund. The slow pace in reducing carbon use was highlighted this week at the latest global climate summit taking place in Poland. Experts conclude governments are not meeting their voluntary commitments to help slow the rise in global temperatures.

One reason may be the need for leaders to deal with the mental atmosphere of average citizens as much as Earth’s atmosphere. Popular support of green taxes requires dealing with non-climate issues, such as economic stagnation or social inequities.

For the French president, that lesson was a hard one. “I hear the people’s discontent,” Macron said this week. “I will not allow our energy transition plan to deepen the inequalities between regions and make the lives of citizens in rural areas and peri-urban areas even more difficult.” Harmony in the sky begins with harmony at home.


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.


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In 1988, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush referred to volunteer organizations as “a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.” Today's contributor prays, “Help me to serve, dear Lord,” in her poem, which speaks to the spirit of sincerity and love for God that equips us to humbly, capably, and selflessly help others.



Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Give me to serve, dear Lord;
Though humble be the task,
If it but serveth Thee,
’Tis all I ask.

Teach me to serve, dear Lord;
In Thy way let it be,
Lest my will creeping in
I serve not Thee.

Help me to serve, dear Lord;
Lead Thou my willing feet
Among Thy needy ones
In service sweet.

So give me service, Lord;
How small soe’er it be
It matters not if it
But serveth Thee.

Originally published in the June 21, 1924, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.



Celebrating a president’s life

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
US Vice President George H.W. Bush gave the crowd a thumbs up after being greeted by his son George W. Bush (c.), then a campaign adviser, upon arriving in Houston Nov. 7, 1988. He would vote the next day in a presidential election in which he defeated Democratic Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. (For more images from the life and political career of the first President Bush, please click on the blue button below.)
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )

In Our Next Issue

( December 6th, 2018 )

Thank you for joining us. Please come back tomorrow. Our Whitney Eulich has been spending time in Tijuana, Mexico, to get a firsthand look at the immigration picture there. Tomorrow, she’ll examine what the calls to shut down the border mean to a border town.

Monitor Daily Podcast

December 05, 2018
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