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Human actions toward solutions can be such persistent little shoots.
Most of the news from the southern U.S. border is about hard barriers and punitive politics – including proposed tariffs that could hike the cost of everything from tomatoes to TVs. It’s hard to imagine that contentious zone as a place of cooperation on a fundamentally important issue.
But in a year when unrelenting wetness is affecting U.S. farmers’ ability to plant crops, a history of communitarian thinking about food offers hope.
During the Mexican winter growing season, just now ending, fresh produce flows north into the U.S. market through Nogales, Arizona. About 60 million pounds of it a year, though, ends up dumped for reasons including blemishes that make it “unsellable.”
“It’s a tiny percentage [of the total imports] but a huge number,” a trade association official tells New Food Economy. “It’s a shared problem, but also a shared opportunity.”
Nogales and its sister city in Mexico, also called Nogales, have long been interdependent, as are many border-straddling communities. The organization Borderlands Produce Rescue works both sides of the border, persuading big produce houses to redirect food bound for landfills to the hungry – 33 million to 40 million pounds of it per year, by its own account.
It shows produce firms how good regional citizenship can be good economics too.
The tense political climate adds challenges. But BPR, which has been evolving for years, won’t accept a bottleneck. In fact, it’s growing its network. Says the trade association official: “[W]e think in the end these are things that will not only transform [that] community, but will give an example to other communities to transform themselves.”
Now to our five stories for your Monday, including (get your headphones) some spoken-word reflections on Tiananmen Square and a look at how migrants are using music to connect with their Moroccan hosts.
Our first story is another look at local action on a global issue. We sent a reporting team to Alaska to look at what course a city might take when the state in which it sits leans another way.
Residents of Anchorage know better than most Americans what’s at stake in the face of climate change. The effects of a warming world are being felt in Alaska more acutely than in any other U.S. state. So the city isn’t waiting around for federal or even state support to take action.
On May 21, the Anchorage Assembly adopted a plan that aims to cut carbon emissions by 80% over the next three decades. “If cities don’t act, who will?” asks Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.
More than half of Alaska’s population of 736,000 lives in Anchorage and adjacent districts, so the choices they make matter. That sets up a test in Alaska for the potential for cities to lead the way on a global crisis that knows no territorial borders while managing the thorny politics of economic and social adaptation.
“They’re not going to wait for the state to solve the municipality’s problems,” says Fran Ulmer, who chairs the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. “They’re willing to get out there.”
Bacon is sizzling on an open grill as Ethan Berkowitz props his road bike on a post. Shucking off his helmet, he slips into a throng of young bicyclists and food-stand volunteers gathered in a field beside a wooded bike trail.
“Hey, mayor,” goes up the cry. Another selfie. Another gulp of coffee.
Then it’s back on his bike and onward to downtown.
As mayor of Alaska’s largest city, Mr. Berkowitz is the face of its annual Bike to Work Day. Today he’s riding with several staffers and two cops, and unlike last year the spring rain has held off; thousands of bikers were expected to respond to the siren calls of a vigorous commute and free bacon.
Anchorage is not exactly a bicyclists’ paradise. The city trails are great but the roads are owned by gas-guzzling pickups, and winter rides can be frigid at best. But the mayor has big plans for his sprawling municipality to rethink transportation and other policies as it grapples with a warming planet that is being felt more acutely here than in any other U.S. state.
Anchorage needs to go green – and the sooner the better, he says.
“If cities don’t act, who will?” asks Mr. Berkowitz. “Fundamentally, cities are more nimble than states or countries. Cities have the ability to move quickly and change direction.”
Indeed, dozens of U.S. cities, along with many states, tribes, and businesses, have pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions following the Trump administration’s repudiation of the 2015 Paris agreement on climate action. Proponents say local governments can both offset federal inaction and serve as test beds for climate mitigation and adaptation policies.
Under Mr. Berkowitz, a Democratic former state legislator, Anchorage has drawn up a climate action plan that aims to cut carbon emissions by 80% over the next three decades, which the Anchorage Assembly voted 8-2 to adopt on May 21. It’s an approach that was echoed last year by a statewide climate task force. Its findings were presented last September to then-Gov. Bill Walker, an independent who had urged Alaskans to face up to climate change. Two months later Mr. Walker lost reelection to Mike Dunleavy, a Republican state senator, who promptly disbanded the task force and buried its recommendations.
As a result, Anchorage is now going it alone. “It’s always easier to do things with a partner than to do things by yourself. But you shouldn’t wait for someone else to show up if you know what it is you need to do,” says Mr. Berkowitz.
More than half of Alaska’s population of 736,000 lives in Anchorage and adjacent districts, so the choices they make matter. That sets up a test in Alaska for the potential for cities to lead the way on a global crisis that knows no territorial borders while managing the thorny politics of economic and social adaptation.
“They’re not going to wait for the state to solve the municipality’s problems. They’re willing to get out there,” says Fran Ulmer, who chairs the United States Arctic Research Commission.
To cut emissions, Mr. Berkowitz needs more renewable energy and more efficient use of that energy by residents and businesses. Gas-fired power stations produce 86% of Anchorage’s electricity, and three new plants have opened in the past five years. The action plan outlines measures to consolidate utilities and feed solar power into the grid, while promoting electric and hybrid vehicles and less urban sprawl in a municipality as big as Delaware.
Other items on the must-do list: reducing solid waste and capturing methane emissions, building resilience for climate-related emergencies, and improving forest management and wildfire prevention.
A broader approach is also part of the mix: Anchorage last year won a $1 million award from Bloomberg Philanthropies to open a downtown cultural center where artists, engineers, and other residents can collaborate on climate change solutions and prototype their projects.
The municipality has already saved money by switching to LED street lighting and its police department recently ordered a fleet of electric vehicles, says Mr. Berkowitz. But making a dent in emissions – and hitting an interim target of a 40% reduction by 2030 – requires investments in buildings, which generate nearly half of the city’s emissions, in part due to its harsh winters.
One challenge for Anchorage is to find innovative ways to finance energy efficiency, which is a barrier for homeowners and businesses even when the future payoff is clear, says Chris Rose, executive director of Renewable Energy Alaska Project, a nonprofit. More of the city’s dilapidated housing stock needs to be retrofitted so that less heating is wasted, while new buildings should be designed to higher efficiency standards.
“You can have all the best technology in the world and policies that promote it, but if you don’t have the financing it’s difficult to move forward,” he says.
Mr. Berkowitz says he’s keen to find ways to finance energy efficiency, noting that about 1 in 5 households in Anchorage participated in a statewide program that helped cut energy bills but was phased out in 2016. Such policies dovetail with his political message that efficiency is a conservative value, as is the generation of power from renewable resources.
“I fundamentally believe that you have to be able to take care of yourself, and when you produce energy locally that helps you to be self-sufficient,” he says.
Mr. Rose served on Mr. Walker’s disbanded task force, the Climate Action for Alaska Leadership Team. In 2007, he served on a similar panel, the Mitigation Advisory Panel under then-Gov. Sarah Palin, which spent two years to produce its report. Ms. Palin committed Alaska to 50% renewable-power output by 2025, an ambitious goal at the time. (Five U.S. states or territories have since pledged to get to 100% clean electricity.)
A year later, Ms. Palin became the running mate of Republican presidential candidate John McCain, and her stance on humanity’s role in climate change swung hard to the skeptical camp. In 2009, she resigned as Alaska’s governor. Her successor, Sean Parnell, a former oil executive, then shelved the climate panel’s recommendations.
So when Mr. Rose was invited to advise Mr. Walker, he steeled himself for setbacks. “You have to approach it with a sanguine attitude,” he says.
Ms. Ulmer, a former lieutenant governor, also served on both panels, which included oil-industry and utility executives as well as environmentalists, academics, and politicians. She notes that the second group incorporated some of the research and policy ideas of the first, only to see its report scrubbed from the state’s website after Governor Dunleavy took power in February.
“It’s really discouraging because we’re running out of time,” she says.
This pendulum swing – from action to inaction – reflects long-standing tensions over what value to put on conservation in Alaska, a state that contains one-sixth of the U.S. land mass but less than 1% of its population.
In the 1970s, after the discovery of the nation’s largest oil field, the political battle was over the safeguarding of resources and the economics of extraction, or as John McPhee wrote, “of stasis versus economic productivity, of wilderness versus the drill and the bulldozer.”
Today, the threat of climate change has redrawn those battle lines; the fight to block offshore drilling in federal waters is as much about the carbon output as the risk to fragile ecosystems.
But the triumph of the drill is hard to ignore: Some 85% of Alaska’s annual revenues come from the oil industry. Every year each Alaskan gets a royalty check in the mail. Such largesse tends to stay the hand of politicians who might curb the ability of oil-and-gas companies to extract the fossil fuels that are heating the planet, including Alaska’s shrinking glaciers and rising seas.
“It’s really difficult at a political level for the state to really step up and admit that we have a huge carbon footprint and talk constructively about ways to change that because we’re so wedded to the oil and gas industry,” says Nancy Fresco, a researcher on climate change at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Mr. Dunleavy campaigned hard on a pledge to distribute more of Alaska’s oil savings fund to residents, while cutting back state government. When asked about climate change, Mr. Dunleavy said he favored technologies to reduce emissions but was more focused on economic growth. “Alaska is not really a smokestack state. Our contribution to climate change is probably minimal,” he said in a televised debate.
In absolute terms, this is accurate. But Alaska’s per capita emissions rank third highest of all U.S. states, partly as a result of oil extraction in the Arctic that emits methane and gas. Transportation is another factor, as many communities are accessible only by river or air. “There are a lot of people who are not even on a road system,” says Ms. Fresco.
And that sizzling bacon on the Anchorage bike trail? Of the $2 billion in food sold annually in Alaska, about 95% arrives by sea or air, adding to the state’s carbon footprint.
Most of Alaska’s imports move through Anchorage’s municipal port. Climate change is adding to the strain on the port’s aging infrastructure, says Jim Jager, the port’s director of external affairs. As glaciers melt and carry more silt along rivers into the bay, dockside pilings are corroding faster.
On a recent afternoon, as F-22 fighter jets swooped to land at an adjacent U.S. military base, Mr. Jager pointed out customized metal jackets on corroded pilings. Some pilings had already toppled over. As part of a port modernization program, future pilings will be raised by 8 feet to prepare for rising sea levels over the next 50 years.
Not all the change is bad: Reduced winter sea ice means an earlier breakup that allows dredging ships to extend their summer activities by about four weeks, according to Mr. Jager. “We are the most dredged port in North America,” he says.
Should Anchorage’s port ever become inaccessible, the effects would quickly ripple outward. The state could run out of fresh food within a week or so, and fuel shortages would follow.
Alaska may be an oil state, but its residents pay the highest prices for refined petroleum. This in turn raises the cost of food and durable goods and is another reason renewable energy has broad appeal, says Mr. Berkowitz.
As for the knock against climate mitigation policies as job killers, this doesn’t compute for clean energy projects, he says. “You can't outsource the installation of solar panels. You can't outsource geothermal heat pumps. These are things you have to do locally,” he says.
How far Anchorage can advance such policies in the absence of state or federal support is debatable. The municipality’s action plan is nonbinding; Mr. Berkowitz has a small staff and a slew of other priorities as mayor of a midsize city. His current term ends in 2021.
Still, Mr. Rose sees hope in Anchorage becoming a pioneer for clean energy in a cold climate, one that could attract outside investment and plug the city into the global market for solutions.
“If the city leads by example, it shows people outside the city that things can be done without having adverse impacts on the economy,” he says.
Should the state government change tack, it may yet revive some of the policies in its mothballed climate report, such as clean-energy financing and stricter building codes, says Ms. Ulmer. “These are not difficult politically, if people had any interest in moving in that direction.”
For now, Mr. Berkowitz is betting as much on a reframing of climate policy as a social and economic opportunity, one that can be equitable, as he is on a top-down reworking of a city powered, like so many, by fossil fuels.
“So much of politics and so much of change is about physics. You have to create momentum. Otherwise you have inertia. We want to have change,” he says.
This story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.
What you know about history has a lot to do with the power of history’s gatekeepers where you live when it’s unfolding. Listen to some Monitor staffers who are positioned to reflect very personally on Tiananmen Square.
In the spring of 1989, thousands of Chinese marched for democracy in Beijing. At the height, as many as 1 million people rallied in Tiananmen Square – the city’s symbolic center of power. It was an unprecedented popular appeal to the ruling Communist Party for greater freedom.
But then top party leaders ordered troops and tanks into Beijing to crush the movement, in what became the bloody crackdown of June 3-4. Thousands of demonstrators were killed or wounded, and information about their movement and its violent end has been suppressed by the party ever since.
At the time, the Monitor’s Beijing bureau chief Ann Scott Tyson was a young reporter based in Beijing. Thirty years later, with the anniversary approaching, she wondered how that crucial turning point in Chinese history reverberates today – and found the perfect people to ask right in the newsroom. Listen as she talks with our multimedia producer Jingnan Peng, who grew up in Beijing, and Clarence Leong, a Monitor intern from Hong Kong, about what Tiananmen means to their generation today.
This next story is about perspectives too – and about a culture’s openness to new expressions of dissent. In Cuba, those are coming from some surprising quarters.
Shortly after seizing power, Fidel Castro declared Cuba an atheist state. He canceled Christmas and shipped boats of priests overseas. But for several decades, restrictions on religion have been loosening, and pews are filling up – and not just in Roman Catholic churches. Santería is practiced more openly, and Jewish and Muslim communities are gaining strength.
“All the people in Cuba had received an education not to believe,” says the Rev. Enoel Gutierrez, rector of a Methodist seminary in Havana. “But the people need hope; they need to see a different future for their life. They see a different way to be saved.”
Evangelical churches are flourishing, in particular, and testing the waters of dissent in a country that’s traditionally tolerated next to none. In communities with tight media controls, religious leaders are uniquely positioned to shape opposition, analysts say.
So far, however, their increasing sway has largely focused on one issue: same-sex marriage. Originally, the country’s new constitution looked poised to legalize LGBTQ marriage. But church leaders pushed back, and today’s constitution – approved in a February referendum – is silent on the issue.
LGBTQ advocates still hope legalization is around the corner. But it is still uncertain – as is the state’s tolerance for protest and public advocacy of any kind.
John Wesley rides his horse through the Cuban countryside, beneath tall palm trees and mountains so green they look purple. He holds his reins in one hand and his Bible in the other.
But the painted portrait hanging in the Rev. Enoel Gutierrez’s office depicts a scene that never happened. There is no record that Wesley, the 18th century Methodist leader, ever came to Cuba, or anywhere else in the Caribbean – though he traveled so much to preach that it’s said he could have circled the Earth 10 times.
Still, Mr. Gutierrez is determined to bring Wesley to his island nation. To bring the painting he commissioned from his imagination to life.
Religious diversity and participation have flourished in Cuba since the country loosened restrictions over the past three decades, particularly among evangelical churches. But it’s more than sermons. Conservative Christianity has become a political force to be reckoned with, in a country whose ruling Communist Party has traditionally allowed next to no dissent. In communities with tight media controls and limited internet access, religious leaders are uniquely positioned to shape opposition in ways the government hasn’t seen in decades, analysts say.
“As a Christian, we are responsible for the whole education of the person,” says Mr. Gutierrez, sitting on a couch beneath the Wesley painting in his office at the Methodist seminary in central Havana. “We need to go to the people and help the people see the reality of the country, the reality of the politics, because many people don’t have access to that information.”
Beyond Roman Catholicism, which has dominated religious life here for centuries, other faiths’ numbers are small but quickly growing. And Evangelicals’ outsize influence was on prominent display last year, ahead of a referendum on Cuba’s new constitution, as they targeted an article legalizing same-sex marriage.
In September, for example, dozens of evangelical leaders published a letter of opposition. One week before the vote, more than 100 heterosexual couples wearing their wedding clothes gathered in protest on the Malecón, a central roadway along the Havana coast.
The referendum passed by a wide margin on Feb. 24, ushering in changes such as expanded private property rights and presidential term limits while maintaining the one-party system and centrally planned economy. But the article proposing to redefine marriage as a union “between two people” was nixed before the vote. The new constitution does, however, ban discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
Members of Cuba’s LGBTQ community, who have seen acceptance grow significantly in the past few decades, saw their hopes for marriage postponed. Evangelicals managed to tap into a larger anti-same-sex marriage sentiment that pervades much of Latin America, say experts, while testing how much space there is for public dissent.
“It is not an exception; homophobia is present in the Latin culture, as well as the patriarchal culture of Cuba. Patriarchal culture has always favored heterosexuality as the positive norm. ... Before English and Spanish colonialism in the Americas, native peoples recognized that a person could have ‘two spirits,’ meaning that they possessed masculine and feminine attributes, and that was not a problem,” says Teresa de Jesús, coordinator at the National Center for Sexual Education. Patriarchal ideas are passed from one generation to another within families, she adds, and one can’t change culture from one day to the next.
Weeks after the vote, churches across Havana still kept posters taped to their doors of four stick figures holding hands (a man and a woman with their two children) and the phrase “I am in favor of the original design.”
“John Wesley said without social holiness, we have no personal holiness,” says Mr. Gutierrez. “Holiness cannot be [just] inside these walls.”
Hundreds of congregants raise their hands in the air at a Saturday morning service at Iglesia Metodista de Marianao in southwest Havana, shaking with enthusiasm as Pastor Leidy Guerra speaks in a rhythmic chant. Don’t just read the Bible, says Ms. Guerra, but really live it. Even when the odds seem too great to overcome.
When the service ends, the church erupts in kisses. Cubans greet each other with an audible kiss on one cheek – and the more kisses, the more meaningful the greeting. Kisses for Ms. Guerra and Danielle Byerly, a visiting missionary from Asheboro, North Carolina, who worked with the church in 2017 and 2018, echo throughout the church.
During Ms. Guerra’s four years as a pastor, the congregation has grown by several hundred to about 3,000 today. Many of the new members have been women and about 40% are under 30. They are exhausted, she says, from daily struggles such as feeding their families.
“Cuba is not the same as it was 20 years ago,” says Ms. Guerra. “People are now more thirsty. They need a solution.”
But this desperation has fostered a distinct religious passion in Cuba, says Ms. Byerly, whose church in North Carolina is one of many United States congregations that have partnered with Cuban counterparts over the past few years.
“In the U.S., if you want something you can go work for it,” says Ms. Byerly. “You can’t do that here, so here you need that hope in God.”
Part of congregations’ popularity is practical: They have spread their reach into communities through benefits that are common elsewhere – such as cooking meals for older people or tutoring the young – but new to Cubans.
“Now [the church] is not just a place for praying,” says Arturo Lopez-Levy, a political scientist at New York University. “It’s a place for community.”
When a deadly tornado ripped through Cuba in January, for example, churches responded immediately. Alain Gonzalez, 18, who joined University Methodist Church in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood a few years ago, says congregants stayed after services to fill trash bags with clothes and food for tornado victims.
Mr. Gonzalez, idling on the steps of his church waiting for an evening service to begin, pulls his cellphone from his pocket and thumbs through photographs. He stops on one of a mound of trash bags that seems taller than he is.
“Look at what we did,” he says. “And that’s only from the collection at one service.”
This kind of public activity was long forbidden to Cuba’s churches. Shortly after seizing power in 1959, Fidel Castro declared Cuba an atheist state. He canceled Christmas and shipped boats of priests overseas. But after the fall of the Soviet Union set off an economic crisis, as many Cubans struggled for basic necessities, Castro softened his ban on religion and permitted believers to join the Communist Party.
When Raúl Castro took over the presidency from his brother in 2008, religion took another leap forward on the island. Pews began to fill up. In 2015, Mr. Castro himself talked about returning to the Catholic Church, and Pope Francis played a mediator role in talks between Cuba and the Obama administration. Religious practice is still tightly controlled, however, with government signoff required for new churches and public gatherings.
The revival has had noticeable breadth. Santería, a tradition that first developed among African slaves brought to Cuba, is now practiced more openly. The Jewish community, which almost completely emigrated during the Castro years, is gaining strength; the island’s Muslim community has increased from 500 members to 7,000.
And while a 2015 survey by Univision and Fusion found that only 7 percent of the country identified as evangelical or Protestant, totaling about 800,000 people, the pace of growth is notable. About 20 Methodist churches open annually, says Mr. Gutierrez, and he hopes to soon have at least one in every Cuban city. Established congregations are growing, too.
“All the people in Cuba had received an education not to believe,” says Mr. Gutierrez. “But the people need hope; they need to see a different future for their life. They see a different way to be saved.”
Evangelical churches are not the only ones testing the waters of dissent. Take the Rev. José Conrado Rodríguez, one of Cuba’s most outspoken priests, who has published open letters of opposition to both Castros. Not so coincidentally, the local government’s band practices loudly next door to Mr. Conrado’s service, says his friend Silvia Pedraza, a sociology professor and Cuba expert at the University of Michigan.
“Some priests and ministers have taken huge risks for a long time with their criticisms,” says Professor Pedraza. “There are plenty [of priests] who say, ‘Our religious life has to play into how we live, and how we live is politics.’”
“The church has a different vision of life and human rights than the government does,” she adds.
The government’s vision may be changing. In 2018, Miguel Díaz-Canel became the country’s first non-Castro president in more than 40 years. Three months later, the government approved a new constitution to replace the 1976 version. And then, it again did something surprising: It convened “popular consultations” across the country to allow citizen input, which produced tens of thousands of suggestions.
Mr. Díaz-Canel has made a responsive government his signature policy issue because he understands that he needs to build support, especially as the economy stalls, says William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University in Washington.
“Díaz-Canel’s strategy is to build legitimacy by showing that his government is open to hearing what people think and what people need,” says Professor LeoGrande. “The constitutional process itself gave people a publicly approved venue or platform to articulate their views, and the church really took advantage of that.”
It’s not a dramatic turn toward democracy. More than 2,000 journalists, human rights defenders, and general dissidents were arrested during the first half of 2018, according to Human Rights Watch. Even in the privacy of their own homes, many Cubans avoid talking politics – making opposition to the proposed constitution even more notable. During the “public consultations” period, the marriage section was the most discussed issue, the National Assembly tweeted in December, with most comments against amending the section.
“We need to say something is right or wrong according to the Bible,” says Leslie Quesada, the pastor at Primera Iglesia Evangélica Los Pinos Nuevos in central Havana, one of the religious leaders who signed the September protest letter. “If we want to start helping our country, we need to start thinking in a biblical way.”
But if Evangelicals are finding their voice, so is Cuba’s LGBTQ community. During the early years of the revolution, many gay Cubans were fired from their jobs or sent to labor camps, and homosexuality was illegal until 1979. More recent progress is often credited to Mariela Castro, daughter of Raúl. She established – and now directs – the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) and has led an annual march against homophobia and transphobia for more than a decade. (In May, the government suddenly canceled the 2019 march, though about 100 marchers defied the ban, without CENESEX support.)
But in December, Cuba’s National Assembly announced on Twitter that the new constitution would exclude the explicit provision for same-sex marriage. Neither the 1976 definition of “between one man and one woman” was included, nor the floated definition of a union “between two people.”
Even so, when it came time for the referendum, almost 14% of voters opposed ratification or left the ballot blank, and 15% of Cubans stayed home from the polls. When the 1976 constitution was ratified, by contrast, only 2% opposed or left the ballot blank, and just 1% stayed home.
The government has announced plans to explicitly define marriage in the next two years, when it revises a national law covering marriage, divorce, and child care via another referendum.
“They kicked the can down the road to not put the referendum at risk,” says Professor LeoGrande. “Maybe they can come up with some language to make everyone happy, but I don’t think so. ... It will be a really interesting test of how far this new [political] tolerance is going to reach.”
To Ms. de Jesús, the new constitution represents more than the government’s tolerance for political opposition.
Even in its revised version, the new constitution signals a tolerance of LGBTQ people that she has worked toward for decades. Today, she is a coordinator at CENESEX, founded by Ms. Castro. It’s still a victory, says Ms. de Jesús, who notes that as a lesbian she has faced discrimination all her life – discrimination now outlawed under the new constitution.
“I am 58 years old, and now is the first time in all my life that I might have all my rights,” she says, quickly wiping away tears. “I’m very proud that in my country they’re making something like this.”
The biggest difference, she says as her eyes light up with a sneaky twinkle, is Chapter 3 of the constitution. In the 1976 version, it is titled “Familia.” In this year’s constitution, it is “Las Familias,” which some interpret to mean there are many types of “legitimate“ families. Advocates say they are confident the upcoming family-code revision will solidify same-sex couples’ right to marry.
On the back porch of her apartment, as her two cats jump between a forest of potted plants, she looks at her girlfriend of 36 years in the room next door.
It’s taken only a few letters for them to start planning their wedding. Las familias.
When youths have a say in their learning, they tend to be more successful. One city’s educators are trying an approach that speaks directly to students’ lives. Can they also change how the city is viewed?
In Baltimore, students understand what others think about their city. They aren’t blind to its crime, but they also think it’s time to change the narrative.
A new curriculum called BMore Me, piloted this spring in Baltimore City Public Schools, provides channels for them to express their perspectives. While it taps into the local community, it is built on a foundation rich in history, geography, and civics. For BCPS chief executive Sonja Santelises, it’s a moral imperative to offer students both mirrors and windows – reflections of their own lives, and opportunities to learn about new topics that could lead to previously unimagined futures.
The 15-week units revolve around a key question at each grade level. Eighth-graders, for example, consider “What is Baltimore’s story,” contrasting dominant narratives and alternative points of view. U.S. history students in high school dive into the history of redlining and community interviews to inform projects addressing “How can we build a better Baltimore?”
Kyja Wilson, an eighth-grader, says she likes BMore Me because “you get to express yourself using things other than negativity.”
Ma’kayla Hill rocks on her pink and white sneakers as she presents her poster. On one side, her stick-figure cartoons depict the way people often see Baltimore: A man shoots a boy who owes him money; the victim’s sister runs to get their mother; her speech bubble reads, “OMG My Son.”
“But my perspective of Baltimore City is everyone having fun … at our friend’s house or at a playground,” the eighth-grader says, pointing to the other side, with drawings of kids on swings. “Baltimore can be a wonderful place once we all come together.”
Her poster’s contrasts are echoed in the dichotomies of daily life for many students here at Booker T. Washington Middle School for the Arts: Fear and hope, struggle and success, school lockdowns and an insistence that their voices be heard.
Providing channels for students to express their perspectives is one goal of BMore Me, a new curriculum launched this spring with sixth-, eighth-, and ninth-graders in Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS). While it taps into the local community, it is built on a foundation rich in history, geography, and civics.
Many educators have long felt that curriculum is an either-or proposition: Present it as is, and risk losing students’ interest, or modify and supplement it to keep them engaged but risk watering down required content. Increasingly, district leaders are determined to forge a third way: Offer high-quality curriculum that actually inspires students – and equip teachers to implement it faithfully.
For BCPS chief executive Sonja Santelises, it’s a moral imperative to offer students both mirrors and windows – reflections of their own lives, and opportunities to learn about new topics that could lead to previously unimagined futures. To do any less, especially for the most disadvantaged students, amounts to “professional malpractice,” Dr. Santelises says.
“We felt an urgency around [students’] need to be able to understand the fuller context and history of their city, beyond just what was playing in media clips of folks out in the streets in Baltimore or the latest murder rate or the latest scandal,” she adds.
The 15-week units revolve around a key question at each grade level. Sixth-graders explore “Who deserves a monument?” by looking at heroes in history and mythology and discussing who is honored locally. Eighth-graders consider “What is Baltimore’s story,” contrasting dominant narratives and alternative points of view. U.S. history students in high school dive into maps, the history of redlining, and community interviews to inform projects addressing “How can we build a better Baltimore?”
Nationally, more than half the states, including Maryland, have shifted in recent years to encourage this type of inquiry approach to social studies teaching, says Lawrence Paska, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies. Because such inquiries often lead to doing something with the knowledge they gain, whether a classroom presentation or community project, he says, it’s a “game changer” for students.
About 80% of students in BCPS are black, and they already had more content centered around African Americans than many school districts offer, but much of it focused narrowly on slavery or the 1960s.
“The narrative we were creating for a lot of our young people in Baltimore was that African American history was just a sad, depressing, beat down, violent experience,” Dr. Santelises says. “We missed components like the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Migration, Tuskegee Airmen, … all of this rich history that actually pointed to strength.”
Social studies isn’t the only subject that’s changing. When BCPS asked experts at Johns Hopkins University to analyze their English Language Arts content, the results shocked Dr. Santelises.
“There were whole sections of knowledge that young people did not have access to,” she says. “Kids in Baltimore City should learn about Chaucer – and we have seventh-graders that are now reading excerpts of ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ ... But they also have [local] authors, like D. Watkins, coming in the classrooms saying, ‘These are texts that represent your lives,’” she says.
Even so, the broader equity concerns are stark. “Four out of 10 classrooms with a majority of students of color never teach a single grade-level assignment,” says David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. “Much of this is about teacher belief. We have to persuade teachers that students can do it.”
Adopting a strong curriculum districtwide is not a silver bullet, but studies suggest it can produce learning gains equivalent to several additional months of instruction, notes a report from Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit group of state and city school leaders, including Dr. Santelises.
That can require a paradigm shift. American teachers have long been accustomed to crafting much of their own curriculum – often searching Google or Pinterest for support, surveys have found.
One way district leaders sought buy-in for curriculum shifts in Baltimore was by assuring teachers that longstanding efforts to make lessons culturally relevant would be maintained. To create BMore Me, which will expand into all middle school grades and three years of high school in the fall, teachers collaborated with curriculum experts and local cultural and civic representatives.
Culturally relevant curriculum can increase motivation and engagement, says Thomas Dee, a Stanford education professor. When San Francisco piloted a ninth-grade ethnic-studies course, students had better attendance, scored 1.4 points higher in their GPAs, and went on to earn 23 more credits in high school than a comparison group of academically similar students who took traditional social studies, Professor Dee and Emily Penner of the University of California, Irvine, found in a study. California is now considering taking the ethnic studies class statewide.
In Baltimore, “the key feature for them is telling their story,” says Robin Lewis, the teacher whose eighth-grade students are rotating around the classroom, abuzz with rapid-fire presentations and questions about the posters.
Kyja Wilson, whose smile seems to last the entire 90-minute class, says she likes BMore Me because “you get to express yourself using things other than negativity.” That’s important, she says, because “some kids actually feel hopeless and feel like they can’t help our city.”
Vanessa Mackin, who often worries something bad will happen to her when she’s riding the bus to get home, says she wants to become a police officer and reduce what she sees as the force’s aggressive behavior. “I just want to change this city,” she says.
Walk through Jemaa El-Fnaa, a historic square in Marrakech, and you can hear the spiritual, strings-heavy Gnawa music, a folklorish genre with African roots, snaking out of stalls selling everything from dates and chebakia, syrup-soaked deep-fried pastries, to kilim rugs and traditional arts and crafts made by migrants. Thanks to decades of migration, today you can see, and hear, the imprint of migrants across parts of Morocco.
More than 30,000 sub-Saharan African migrants now live in Morocco. But the Moroccan example is a paradoxical one, simultaneously embracing and repelling African migrants. Politically, Morocco has pivoted toward sub-Saharan Africa, but the state has come under fire for its racist treatment of sub-Saharan African migrants, detailed in multiple reports by nongovernmental organizations that describe violence, exploitation, and abuse.
For many migrants, like Ghanaian transplant Reuben Yemoh Odoi, the arts have emerged as a way of finding common ground with Moroccans. In 2009, he started his band, The Minority Globe, writing protest songs about migrants and migration. The band has since become a pioneering example of migrants succeeding in Morocco. As Mr. Odoi says, “When it comes to arts, the music, it breaks all the walls, it is a common language.”
Until 2004 Reuben Yemoh Odoi was living a content life in Dakar: socializing with the president’s children, working and winning fights at a local boxing gym, and making music about the aftermath of wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
But it was not enough.
A Ghanaian-born artist from a family of creatives, he had always wanted to do more with his music. Opportunities to express himself and find success were in short supply in Senegal, where he had moved seven years earlier. In Dakar, he had met many people who had fled conflicts in their countries to settle there, and he was inspired by their struggle.
“I had been hearing of migrants traveling through the desert to North Africa. I decided to experience it for myself,” says Mr. Odoi. “I was trying to find truth in my music and art by becoming an undocumented migrant.”
In July 2004, he began a dangerous year-and-a-half-long journey through the Sahara desert, passing through Bamako, Niamey, Agadez, and Tamanrasset before reaching Casablanca. Midway through his journey, he was left to die by migrant smugglers.
“Being afraid of dying was what made me keep moving forward,” he says.
Another force that propelled him were the “desert blues,” a strings-heavy style of music, including Mauritanian Hassānīya and Moroccan Gnawa traditions, which he heard in buses and shops throughout his journey.
That music stuck with him and a decade and a half after his arduous journey, Mr. Odoi has made a name for himself in Casablanca by fusing Mauritanian, Moroccan, Ghanaian, and contemporary hiplife and Afrobeat music into an instrument-forward style of music.
In his music, lyrics are spoken, not sung, which has the effect of listening to a story. In one song, “Stranger,” he talks about a migrant’s struggle to become documented. Over a strumming guitar and the light beat of drums, Mr. Odoi asks, “Tell me stranger why you are still here when they refuse to register your rights? Where are you going to run when they come for you?”
His is a rare success story in the Maghreb. More than 30,000 sub-Saharan African migrants now live in Morocco, according to Human Rights Watch. But the Moroccan example is a paradoxical one, simultaneously embracing and repelling African migrants. Politically, Morocco has pivoted toward sub-Saharan Africa: In 2017, it rejoined the African Union after a 33-year absence, and its investment in the rest of the continent has increased an average of 13% annually since 2004, a sharp turn from a posture that once focused on Europe.
But the state has come under fire for its racist treatment of sub-Saharan African migrants, detailed in multiple reports by nongovernmental organizations that describe violence, exploitation, and abuse.
“Africa is in fashion, though Africans are not, and we had rather see them there than here,” says Moroccan scholar and critic Omar Berrada.
For many migrants, the arts have emerged as a way of finding common ground with Moroccans. The country has become a destination for pan-African artistic initiatives, including museums and exhibitions. Music festivals are also increasingly opened to talent from sub-Saharan Africa. Migrants have embraced the trend, using the arts as a means of survival and to integrate into a society that sees them as “the other.”
“Culture is a good avenue to give migrants opportunities,” says Cécile Michiardi, a program manager with the Global Diversity Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving livelihood opportunities for migrants. “Migrants are currently facing a lot of racism. We need to show Moroccans there is a lot they share with cultures from sub-Saharan countries.”
Mr. Odoi has seen this firsthand: the arts were his entry into Moroccan society. Three weeks after arriving in Casablanca, he got his big break: playing a migrant on a popular TV series. Soon after, he joined a band of Moroccans as lead singer. In 2009, he started his own band, The Minority Globe, with other migrants, writing protest songs about the state of migration in Morocco. The band has since become a pioneering example of migrants succeeding in Morocco. It offers performance opportunities to migrants and inspires them to go into music, visual arts, and theater.
“When it comes to arts, the music, it breaks all the walls, it is a common language,” says Mr. Odoi.
Today you can see, and hear, the imprint of migrants across parts of Morocco. Walking through Jemaa El-Fnaa, a historic square in Marrakech, one can hear the traditional Moroccan spiritual Gnawa music snaking out of the shops, but the taxis that bring you there play music from across West Africa. The maze of stalls sells everything from dates and crispy rounds of ma’qooda and chebakia, deep-fried street cart snacks, to kilim rugs and traditional arts and crafts, many of which are made by migrants.
“Migrants have influenced the Moroccan art scene a lot – in photography, music, plastic arts ...” says Mr. Odoi. “Today, when I take taxis I hear Nigerian, Ghanaian, Afrobeat, hiplife music. This is new in the country.”
In addition to using his music to raise awareness of migrant issues, Mr. Odoi works with Doctors Without Borders to develop cultural integration programs and connect undocumented migrants with social and medical aid. A portion of the returns from his music helps fund health, sanitation, and education campaigns for migrants.
Museums and cultural institutions have also become more open to pan-African initiatives, inadvertently raising the profile of migrant communities. The Museum of Contemporary African Art Al Maaden and the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, both in Marrakech, showcase visual art from across the continent.
In Rabat, the African Cultural Center offers a platform to showcase African traditions and cultures. The exterior of the center, a repurposed house, is dotted with sinuous sculptures by Jackie Zappa, an artist who migrated from the Ivory Coast. The center hosts performances in dance, sculpture, plastic arts, theater, and visual art with the goal of helping Moroccans learn about their neighbors and understand and appreciate different cultures.
For his part, Mr. Odoi is optimistic that the arts can connect communities. His band, The Minority Globe, is leading a cultural and educational workshop with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help nongovernmental organizations working with migrants to improve their services.
“There are many similarities between North Africans and the rest of the continent, the way we dress, there is a trace of history,” says Mr. Odoi. “We have been divided by borders. In music there are no borders.”
Thirty years after the ruling Communist Party ordered the army to open fire on pro-democracy protesters, many Chinese continue to be restless in ways the party cannot always control. At least 1,700 labor disputes, for example, were recorded in 2018, up from about 1,200 in the year before. Feminists have found ingenious ways to get past internet censors and share their #MeToo stories. Military veterans have protested to demand better job prospects and benefits.
The party has concentrated power out of fear of losing power, refusing to hold an honest dialogue with China’s citizens. Among the Chinese born after 1989, the June 4 anniversary may mean little. Yet the more the party cracks down on dissent, the more the spirit of June 4 continues to show up in small but revealing ways.
Popular calls for dialogue and accountability will find their release. Truth cannot be arrested or exterminated. It must and will endure.
In 2016, Chinese police arrested four people in connection with the sale of liquor bottles labeled “64” and later charged them with “inciting subversion of state power.” In late May this year, a Chinese filmmaker tweeted a photo of the bottles. A half hour later, he received a phone call from police.
The 64 label had little to do with liquor. It refers to June 4, or the day 30 years ago that the ruling Communist Party ordered the People’s Liberation Army to open fire on civilians in Beijing who were peacefully demanding democracy. Thousands were killed.
Ever since, the government has also tried to kill any commemoration in China of this violent suppression of a cry for freedom and accountability. The internet, for example, is carefully scrubbed of references to June 4.
The party’s fear of losing power prevents it from holding an open and honest dialogue with its own citizens. “If the 1989 democracy movement had succeeded, it would have created a model for the dialogue between state and the society which is so important,” said Wang Dan, a prominent student leader at the time, at a recent Harvard University panel. A dialogue is a “fundamental safeguard for social stability. Only then can two sides make [an] effort to ensure smooth and steady transformation.”
The party contends stability in China comes only from the absolute power of its leaders, or rather leader. President Xi Jinping has removed term limits for the presidency. To prevent dissent from minority Muslims known as Uyghurs, China has thrown more than 1 million of them into internment camps. Human rights activists – and their lawyers – are routinely jailed. Outspoken scholars like Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun are suppressed.
Yet beneath the veneer of stability, society continues to be restless in ways the party cannot always control. At least 1,700 labor disputes were recorded in 2018 by the China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labor advocacy group, up from about 1,200 in the year before. Feminists have found ingenious ways to get past internet censors and share their #MeToo stories. Young Marxists in elite universities are campaigning for workers’ rights. Even military veterans have protested to demand better job prospects and benefits.
Together, these demands form the vision of a country different than the one set by the party. Many of them speak to individual rights, free expression, and equality before the kind of law derived from democratic rule. It is far different from Mr. Xi’s professed “Chinese dream” that is centered on the party’s role in “rejuvenating” the nation.
“The subject of the ‘Chinese Dream’ is one hundred percent about the party,” wrote Bao Tong, who once served as secretary to Zhao Ziyang, a reform-minded head of the party during the Tiananmen Square protests. “It certainly isn’t the Chinese people, who are the main body of China.”
Among Chinese born after 1989, the June 4 anniversary may mean little. Yet the more the party cracks down on dissent, the more the spirit of June 4 continues to show up in small but just as revealing ways.
The popular calls for dialogue and accountability, or what Mr. Wang calls the people and government “being of one heart and mind,” will find their release. Truth cannot be arrested or exterminated. It must and will endure.
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.
Each year The First Church of Christ, Scientist, has an Annual Meeting attended by members from around the world, in person and via video. This year, the meeting’s theme was “that we may be able,” which prompted today’s contributor to share this experience of healing.
Sometimes freedom – from illness, or antagonism, or grief, or something else – seems beyond our grasp, making us think, “There’s nothing I can do but let this thing play out.”
But what if there’s an alternative approach to this line of thinking – one that involves spiritual inspiration and reliably does bring freedom?
It’s a radical thought, but I’ve seen in my study and practice of Christian Science that it isn’t far-fetched. There’s a spiritual perspective that enables us to see that we are never truly helpless, and that health and harmony are always within reach.
Take this poetic message in the Bible, for instance: “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God” (II Corinthians 1:3, 4, emphasis added).
Here lies an encouraging and timeless promise. Even when things are going poorly, God is here for us. And not only do we have the ability to feel His care, but He empowers us to care for others in need, too.
God being God – the supremely powerful, infinitely loving divine Principle of all that is good and true – the comfort He brings is more than a “There, there, take a deep breath.” It’s the surest, purest comfort there is: healing.
But are we willing to receive that comfort? Are we receptive to divine inspiration, which brings new views of God as good and reveals our true nature as the spiritual expression of God’s wholeness and harmony? Are we humble enough to mentally yield to God’s healing love – and to reflect that love outwardly toward others?
To the degree that we can honestly answer “yes” to such questions, we’ll find that we are indeed able to help and be helped in healing, tangible ways.
One afternoon at work I was in such internal physical discomfort that I simply couldn’t remain at the office. At the time, my commute home was nearly 1 ½ hours by foot, subway, and train. The trip felt especially daunting that day, and as I journeyed I turned wholeheartedly to God, earnestly praying for comfort and peace.
Then this snippet of a longer sentence came to thought: “man’s God-given ability to demonstrate Mind’s sacred power.” It’s from “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science (p. 182). “Mind” is capitalized because it refers to God, the divine Mind, and the phrase relates to an ability that’s innate in everyone.
This brought me so much hope! It propelled me out of a pained-mortal-alone-and-helpless-on-a-train view of myself. That’s not at all how God made any of us! Each of us as God’s child is inseparable from our divine source and naturally reflects the strength of divine Spirit. Nothing can take away our God-given ability to discern and experience this spiritual reality.
I no longer wondered how I would endure the rest of the commute. I felt able – able not just to cope but to thrive. Not through sheer force of human will, but because flourishing is God’s will for His entire creation.
By the time the train arrived at my destination, the pain was gone, and I felt rejuvenated, too. To top it off, I enthusiastically (and successfully) helped a fellow passenger lift her heavy suitcase up a flight of stairs at the station, whereas when I’d left the office, just carrying my small purse had seemed barely manageable.
It’s a modest example in the grand scheme of things. But to me it was a meaningful glimpse of the magnitude of the divine promise of being “able.”
Today and every day, in ways big and small, each of us can welcome into our hearts and strive to live our God-given ability to radiate health, purity, joy, and harmony.
Come back tomorrow. Fred Weir will report from Moscow on the pushback to a building spree by the Russian Orthodox Church – development that has crept into green public spaces.