2019
August
21
Wednesday

Welcome to the Daily. Today’s five handpicked stories touch on the independent spirit of a true American political swing district, the tactics of the far-right in Italy, seeking emotional resilience amid changing environments, how one woman is spreading racial reconciliation in her community, and an effort to share one of Afghanistan’s greatest treasures.    

But first, a look at who will actually have to “win” the Afghan war.

If reports are right, some sort of peace deal between the United States and the Taliban might be drawing near. Ending the 18-year war in Afghanistan is a priority for the Trump administration.

It is a time for considering how much the Taliban has changed since 2001. The Monitor’s Scott Peterson has already shared reasons to be wary of the Taliban’s promises.

But it is also important to consider how much Afghanistan has changed. The list is long and substantial. Women’s rights have dramatically improved, particularly in cities. Legitimate national security forces exist. The president and parliament are democratically elected.

Cultural changes have taken hold, too. “Young Afghans have embraced new clothing styles and haircuts with a vengeance,” writes Javid Ahmad in The Washington Post. “Several media channels broadcast 24 hours a day, producing everything from news to the Afghan versions of American Idol, mixed martial arts and Sesame Street.”

“We won’t let the Taliban force their ideas on us again,” said Zekeria, a high school graduate, to Radio Free Europe. Like Zekeria, half the country was born since 2001. Ultimately, the question of how much Afghanistan has changed will be theirs to answer.

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1. Trump 2020 warning signs in famous swing county

American voters are so baked in to their political preferences these days that true swing voters are a rare breed. That’s what makes visiting Macomb, Michigan, fascinating.

Mark

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If President Donald Trump loses Macomb County, Michigan, next November, he probably won’t be able to win reelection. That’s because it’s a key swing county in a key Rust Belt swing state. In 2016, President Trump carried Macomb by 11 points – and became the first Republican presidential candidate to win Michigan since 1988.

Macomb County voters aren’t yet focused on the coming political storm. But a reporting swing through the area digs up indications that President Trump is far from a sure thing to repeat his victorious 2016 performance.

Many Macomb voters still like him – but others no longer think the president reflects their “Midwestern nice” values. 

“The bashing of everyone and everything, is that necessary?” says Debbie Dymek, an estate sale manager who voted for President Trump last time around.

Asked about possible Democrats, more voters mention Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren than a moderate like former Vice President Joe Biden. One thing is clear: the candidate that wins Macomb in the 2020 presidential election will need to actually campaign here.

“You have to work to get the support of this county,” says Andrea LaFontaine, a former Republican state representative in Macomb.

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Trump 2020 warning signs in famous swing county

As Lake St. Clair laps against the park shoreline, families and friends listen to live music and eat hot dogs. Parents sit in lawn chairs as kids scramble to catch prizes from the T-shirt launcher. At Veterans Memorial Park in the Michigan suburb of St. Clair Shores on this summer evening, the drama of the presidential race seems very far away.

But while the hundreds of concertgoers may be presently uninterested in 2020, 2020 is very interested in them. That’s because St. Clair Shores is one of three swing towns in a notorious swing county in a Midwest swing state. If President Donald Trump can’t win here next November, it will be very hard for him to win reelection.

Several days spent talking to voters here revealed some common, if sometimes contradictory, themes. Assumptions that President Trump will handily win a second term, or that a moderate Democrat has the best chance of winning back white working class voters are not necessarily true. Some county voters say they are happy with the president and plan to vote for him again. But many others who spoke with the Monitor – particularly female voters – are not so sure.

Many feel it’s important that candidates be direct about what they want to accomplish and work hard to do it – just as they do. But at the same time, Macomb County voters don’t want their president to abandon “Midwestern nice” values.

“I voted for Trump in 2016 because I thought he was saying what everyone was thinking. But I’m disappointed,” says Debbie Dymek, an estate sale manager, as she pushes her cart through the aisles of a Meijer grocery store in Sterling Heights. “The bashing of everything and everyone, is that necessary? I’m an outspoken person, so when he says things that bother me, I know it must bother others.” 

Over the past year, Ms. Dymek has felt embarrassed about her vote. She’s not sure if she’ll vote for President Trump again in 2020. When asked if she has a favorite 2020 Democratic candidate, she admits with a guilty whisper that she really hasn’t started paying attention. She tries to remember the name of one candidate in particular that she’s seen on TV. 

“Warren?” she says, confirming that she named the Massachusetts senator correctly. “I like her because she’s forceful in a good way. I think she believes what she says.” 

A swing city, in a swing county, in a swing state

Michigan is one of three Rust Belt states – along with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – that surprised Democrats and helped give the presidency to Donald Trump. Of all 50 states, Michigan’s race had the closest margin of victory: President Trump won by just 0.23 percentage points, or less than 11,000 votes. He won Macomb, the third largest county in Michigan and home to about 9% of the state’s population, by just over 48,000 votes. 

To the south, Wayne County, which includes Detroit, is solidly Democratic. Up north are less-populated counties that are deeply Republican. In close contests, like the 2016 presidential election, it often comes down to Macomb and its large contingent of socially conservative working-class whites – dubbed “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s.

In all but three of the last 20 elections for governor or president, Macomb has sided with the winner.

“A Republican can’t win the state without winning Macomb County,” says Republican strategist Jamie Roe from his kitchen table in Macomb.

Macomb’s demographic distribution mirrors the state’s. The county’s southern towns typically vote Democratic, while the county’s northern towns typically vote Republican. It’s the middle – parts of Warren, Sterling Heights, and St. Clair Shores – that swings.

What sort of politician does the swing portion of the swing county in a swing state tend to like? Voters and local analysts describe a commonality to most winners here: bold personalities, unapologetic messaging, and apparently honest intentions.

In 2018, for example, the first election after President Trump’s victory, Macomb voted for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Part of her success in Macomb and across Michigan can be attributed to a quote that soon became her punch line: “Fix the damn roads.” Her future support, say voters, will hinge on whether she does, in fact, fix Michigan’s notoriously potholed roads.

Local analysts and voters say President Trump’s similarly direct four-word catchphrase went over well with Macomb County voters two years earlier. And many Trump supporters, particularly white men, are happy with the president’s first term, despite the fact that his promises to bring back Midwest manufacturing haven’t been realized here. The General Motors and Chrysler factories lining Van Dyke Avenue through Warren and Sterling Heights aren’t booming. GM’s Warren transmission plant closed last week, leaving at least 100 workers without a job.

Voters in Warren don’t immediately bring up the cuts, however, because they are happening within a greater economic boom. Since President Trump’s election, employment has only grown in Michigan. “Help needed” signs are posted throughout these towns. One diner in Sterling Heights has a “hiring” sign posted on its door advertising five open positions.

But just because there are jobs to be had, it doesn’t mean they are satisfying local workers’ economic needs. As the Federal Reserve’s late July interest rate cuts signal, the Trump administration’s booming economy isn’t working for everyone. 

“I had a little more faith in him,” says Kim Orosz from her lawn chair in Veterans Memorial Park, her friend nodding in agreement. “Unemployment is down, sure, but people make so little money that they work more than one job.”

Ms. Orosz, an occupational therapist at a nearby public school, is speaking from experience. She has a master’s degree but still works two jobs to make ends meet. She wanted President Trump to draw a hard line on immigration, but the “inhumane” situation at the border is too much. She wanted him to rein in social programs, but she still sees people working the system for their own benefit. 

“I don’t even know who the Democratic candidates are yet,” says Ms. Orosz. “But I’m not sure I’ll vote for Trump again.” 

Trump in trouble?

Macomb voters who are dissatisfied with President Trump, such as Ms. Dymek or Ms. Orosz, aren’t gushing over a particular Democratic presidential hopeful. In fact, many have a hard time naming one candidate. Like most Americans, they have yet to tune into the 2020 race.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Debbie Dymek, an estate sale manager, pushes her cart through the aisles of a Meijer grocery store in Sterling Heights, Mich. Ms. Dymek is one of many voters in Macomb County who voted for President Trump in 2016 but are considering Democratic candidates for 2020.

Some voters here, however, do have positive things to say about Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the ideological left of the current Democratic field. That might seem surprising in a 2016 Trump county. But Macomb voted for President Barack Obama – twice – before going for President Trump. And both Senator Warren and Senator Sanders display some of the bold messaging and confidence that played well in the county for President Trump and Governor Whitmer.

Still, many voters in Warren, Sterling Heights, and St. Clair Shores are happy with President Trump. At the Lowe’s in Warren, one man shopping for light bulbs says with a smile, “I’m a Republican, so I’m not too upset about what’s happening now.”

Three men having lunch at a bar in Warren say they love President Trump just as much as they did on Nov. 8, 2016. One man loading groceries into his car says he plans to vote for President Trump again in 2020, but his wife, who also voted for President Trump, plans to vote for the Democratic candidate. 

Mr. Roe, the GOP strategist, says President Trump is still “wildly popular” in Macomb County. His political consulting firm recently did polling in the 10th congressional district, and he says that support for President Trump is stronger in the area now than in October 2016.

But other early snapshot polls show President Trump in trouble in Michigan. The RealClearPolitics rolling average of state surveys has him more than 10 points behind former Vice President Joe Biden. A June poll from EPIC-MRA of Lansing put him more than 25 points behind in Detroit’s outer suburbs, an area that contains some of Macomb.

One thing is clear: to win Macomb County in the 2020 presidential election, candidates will need to show up, as in visit the place.

“You have to work to get the support of this county,” says Andrea LaFontaine, a former Republican state representative in Macomb. “They want you to check in and say ‘I know you supported me before, but I want you to vote for me again.’”

Voters here are quick to remember that Hillary Clinton visited Macomb County just once during her campaign, says Mr. Roe. President Trump, on the other hand, visited Macomb County at least five times, including a rally in Sterling Heights two days before the election. Mr. Roe says one rally, after being announced 24 hours in advance, drew about 25,000 people.

Democrats seem to have learned the “show up in the Midwest” lesson from 2016. They made Detroit the location of the second televised Democratic debate. They picked Milwaukee to host the Democratic convention.

“Michigan is back on the map,” says Ms. LaFontaine. “The world now knows about Macomb County.”

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The Explainer

2. Political turmoil in Italy as far-right reaches for the reins

Italy is a unique laboratory for right-wing politics. A new political crisis could be a bid by the leading far-right politician to gain more clout.

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Italy is in political disarray after Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday, effectively putting an end to its 14-month-old ruling coalition of right-wing and left-wing populists. But the more significant effect of Mr. Conte’s move might have been to prevent – or at least forestall – the election of the most right-wing government in Italy since that of Benito Mussolini.

The political crisis is primarily thanks to Matteo Salvini, the highly popular, ambitious far-right interior minister and leader of the right-wing League party, who calculated that triggering snap elections would play out in his favor. The League is one of the brightest stars in the constellation of far-right nationalist parties that are gaining momentum in Europe.

But while Mr. Salvini’s League is popular among the public, it holds just 17% of seats in Italy’s Parliament. Fear of performing poorly in near-term elections could be strong enough incentive for the larger parties to set aside their differences and form an alternate government. This could spur an alliance between the League’s now former coalition partner, the leftist populist Five Star Movement, and the opposition center-left Democratic Party.

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Political turmoil in Italy as far-right reaches for the reins

Italy is in political disarray after Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday, effectively putting an end to its 14-month-old ruling coalition of right-wing and left-wing populists.

But the more significant effect of Mr. Conte’s move might have been to prevent – or at least forestall – the election of the most right-wing government in Italy since that of Benito Mussolini.

Now Italian President Sergio Mattarella is exploring the options for a new coalition. If he is successful, it could leave Matteo Salvini, the highly popular, ambitious far-right interior minister and leader of the right-wing League party, out in the cold.

What triggered the current political crisis? Why now?

The current political crisis is the culmination of long-simmering tensions between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), currently the largest faction in Parliament, and Mr. Salvini’s League, which went from 6.2% in the 2014 European ballot to Italy’s largest party in 2019.

The two euroskeptic parties banded together in a governing coalition in June 2018 but were never natural allies. They were united in their promise to lift Italians out of poverty and their reticence to embrace even the most basic of European Union austerity measures. In power, they squabbled over purse strings and pet issues, giving Brussels a headache.

The League is one of the brightest stars in the constellation of far-right nationalist parties that are gaining momentum in Europe. Mr. Salvini is particularly popular in northern Italy and has become the poster boy of European populists. He is pro-family, anti-immigrant, and euroskeptic.

The political crisis is primarily the outcome of Mr. Salvini’s calculus that triggering snap elections would play out in his favor. He shocked the nation by calling for a no-confidence vote on Aug. 9 when much of Italy was still at the beach; his summer appearances along the Italian coast suggested a man in campaign mode.

“Mr. Salvini is trying to force a snap election in order to capitalize on the League’s surge in electoral support since the 2018 general election,” notes Agnese Ortolani, Europe research analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit. “A right-wing coalition led by Mr. Salvini could secure up to two-thirds of the seats in parliament ... the biggest parliamentary majority in the history of the Italian Republic and one that would allow him to change the constitution.”

What happens next?

Wednesday opened what promises to be a volatile period rife with dealmaking and volte-face. “We are in a 50-50 situation,” says Lorenzo Castellani, a politics professor at Rome’s Luiss University. “Fifty percent, we could have snap elections, or we could have a new majority.”

The first scenario entails holding fresh elections in late October – Mr. Salvini’s wish. Opinion polls suggest that the League would win by a wide margin. This could mean solo rule by the nationalist party or a dominant position in a right-wing governing coalition including Forza Italia – the party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi – and the ultranationalist Brothers of Italy party.

Another scenario is that an alternative government is found. While Mr. Salvini’s League is popular among the public, the distribution of power in Italy’s legislature is not a mirror of Italian society at this moment. In the legislature, the League holds just 17% of the seats. Fear of performing poorly in near-term elections could be strong enough incentive for the larger parties in Parliament to set aside their differences and dial back the crisis.

This could spur an alliance between M5S and the opposition, center-left Democratic Party. Less likely, but not impossible, is that the existing M5S-League coalition is salvaged. Yet another possibility – though only likely in the case of an impasse – is that the president decides to form a technocratic government to deal with the 2020 budget and push forward key policy decisions.

What are Mr. Salvini’s chances of coming to power?

The capacity of M5S and Democrats to work together was evidenced when they blocked Mr. Salvini’s calls for an immediate no-confidence vote. That may be sufficient to keep him from higher office, as his alternatives are limited.

“The League only has one option basically, which is snap elections as soon as possible. In the other case, it is very difficult that another majority which includes the League will come up,” says Professor Castellani. “Salvini has made a sort of ‘all in’ on his political career calling for snap elections.”

If snap elections aren’t held, the League would be relegated to opposition status. There is also a long-shot possibility that Mr. Salvini could pull together a League-led right-wing coalition within the current Parliament.

What does the political crisis mean for Italy and Europe?

The timing couldn’t be worse for Italy, where the legislature is scheduled to be formulating the 2020 budget rather than putting out political fires. Snap elections would force the Italian legislature to hammer out next year’s budget on an accelerated timeline – within a few weeks rather than over a couple of months.

Under pressure from the European Commission and confronted with the growing risk of a 2020 recession, Italy has committed to a major increase in the value-added tax if it cannot bring its budget deficit under control through other means.

But were the League to win snap elections and Mr. Salvini to become prime minister, that would undoubtedly put Europe and Italy on a collision course. Mr. Salvini has promised voters sweeping tax cuts, and he has been at loggerheads with Brussels after he banned the disembarkation of migrants rescued at sea in Italian ports.

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3. Grieving for the environment, without saying ‘climate change’

When environments change, people can feel they’ve lost something familiar and dear. In an era of climate change, there’s new thinking about how to cope.

Mark
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Susan Heather, a farmer and agronomist, stands on a hill overlooking her family farm and the Little Bow River, which flooded in 2013, on July 9, 2019, in Vulcan, Alberta. Ms. Heather helps other farmers deal with the stress caused by the vagaries of Mother Nature.

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Agnieszka Wolska, a therapist in Calgary, joined an “Eco-Grief Support Circle” that meets twice a month after losing faith, she says, that nature could rebalance itself. She compares the circles to being at a wake, but it’s also where she finds hope. “Together we have less individual despair. We can just have connection instead of fear or just sadness,” she says.

Academics have begun to attach neologisms to feelings like Ms. Wolska’s: “solastalgia,” coined by an Australian philosopher in 2005, describes a form of distress caused by environmental change, or “ecological grief.” Those feelings of loss surrounding a place are becoming increasingly common, as wilder weather patterns and natural disasters are, many scientists say, becoming more commonplace.

In the capital of Canada’s oil industry, where everyone knows someone employed by it, that can lead to mixed feelings. Just 52% of Albertans believe they’ve seen conclusive or solid evidence of climate change, the lowest percentage in Canada. But people here describe a feeling akin to mourning over the loss of natural landscapes.

“When you lose your special place, it’s a deep feeling,” says Albertan agronomist Susan Heather.

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Grieving for the environment, without saying ‘climate change’

After water submerged her family’s farm in June 2013, in one of the worst floods in recent Canadian history, Susan Heather took a pragmatic, can-do approach to the challenges – both physical and financial – ahead. 

But when she learned that the mountain trails in the foothills of the Rockies where she long sought solace were wiped out, and that beloved High River, the closest sizable town to her farm in southern Alberta, was devastated, a deep sadness that she compares to mourning rose up in her. 

“I remember after the flood thinking, nothing is the same anymore,” she says over coffee in her farmhouse on a recent day. “All my favorite places are destroyed.”

That refrain is becoming increasingly common, as weather patterns and natural disasters are becoming more intense. Academics have even begun to attach neologisms to the feelings: “solastalgia,” coined by an Australian philosopher in 2005, describes a form of distress caused by environmental change, or “ecological grief.”

People have long grappled with loss from wildfires, tornadoes, and environmental changes, of course. Observers say what’s different now (aside from having a name to go with the feeling) is the sense that people might need mental health supports to deal with that sense of lost place.

Like most things related to weather and climate, though, the terminology can be polarizing; increasing warnings from scientists, such as this month’s United Nations Climate Report about the consequences of a warming planet, serve to stir some while alienating others. 

Yet those in the middle like Ms. Heather, who believes warming is a natural progression but agrees humans have accelerated it, say they still experience the stresses of change and unpredictability, and their mental health needs shouldn’t be overlooked.

“There are many people who might deny climate change, for example, but still have really fundamentally strong relationships to their land and to nature, and that’s something we need to tap into,” says Katie Hayes, who is working on her doctorate at the University of Toronto on the psychological and social consequences of climate change, using the 2013 Alberta floods as a case study. “People can have anxiety about what’s happening to them and maybe not see that climate change is a problem that is exacerbating that ecological degradation.”

Where fossil fuels pay the bills

That’s perhaps not truer anywhere than in Alberta, the Canadian province at the heart of the country’s resource economy. Albertans also happen to be the Canadians least likely to believe that climate change is happening, with only 52% saying they see conclusive or solid evidence, according to a 2018 poll conducted for the Ecofiscal Commission, compared to 61% nationwide. Of those who believe Earth is warming, 54% of Albertans say they believe warming is caused by human behavior, compared with 70% of Canadians overall.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Tourists hike up to Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefield on July 6, 2019, in Jasper National Park. Alberta is home to two of Canada’s most famous national parks, Banff and Jasper. But a warming planet is having an effect on one of its biggest draws: the glaciers, which are shrinking.

The climate-energy debate has become increasingly divisive. The province’s conservative premier, Jason Kenney, has railed against foreign environmental groups who he claims are seeking to undermine the oil and gas industry.  

At the same time, Alberta has been on the front lines of disasters in recent years, including the devastating floods in 2013 and a raging wildfire in 2016 in Fort McMurray, the gateway to Alberta’s oil sands. All of this has created mental distress in the province, says University of Alberta professor Vincent Agyapong, who is studying patients with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder in Fort McMurray. He says that the climate doesn’t come to the fore when he talks with his patients, who tend to see it as more of a scientific or political question. And yet with changing weather patterns, anxiety “is definitely something that’s become an increasing phenomenon,” he says.

Finding hope in community

It doesn’t take being a victim of disaster to produce “ecological grief.”

Amy Spark trained as an environmental scientist and co-founded the Calgary-based Refugia Retreats in 2016. They run workshops focused on the intersection between ecological change and mental health. Sometimes those meetings take the form of informational sessions at universities or community centers, where she and her colleague provide an overview of the growing body of research on ecological grief. Sometimes they are spiritual retreats that help participants process their feelings about the loss of cherished spaces – a destroyed landscape or even a single tree.

The anxiety they see is often not about the changes in the present but fears about what is coming or doubts that individual action – say, eschewing plastics – will make a difference. Much distress comes from disorientation – a sense that rhythms of the seasons aren’t reliable, that birds are chirping at unfamiliar times of year, or that wildfire smoke is coming earlier.

Many people are seeking out such support groups. Agnieszka Wolska, a therapist in Calgary, joined the “Eco-Grief Support Circle” that meets twice a month after losing faith, she says, that nature could rebalance itself. She compares the circles to being at a wake, she says, but it’s also where she finds some hope. “Together we have less individual despair. We can just have connection instead of fear or just sadness,” she says. They sit together over tea and discuss what’s around them, whether that’s wildfire smoke in their midst, memories of the 2013 flood, or far-off news of a natural disaster. 

“There is an honesty and there’s a courage and there is a sense of community,” she says.

Yet over herbal tea in a vibrant neighborhood of Calgary, Ms. Spark explains that her retreats, in the capital of Canada’s oil industry where everyone knows someone employed by it, often surface mixed feelings.

“I think there’s a lot of fear around using these terms because there’s a sense you might be judged,” she says. “Because if I say I’m experiencing eco-grief, what [people assume] I’m really saying is that I am not supportive of the industries that gave me my high quality-of-life. So I think there are these kinds of entanglements of grief and guilt and hypocrisy and fear of judgment that get wrapped up in the context of Alberta.”

Ms. Spark says their intent is not to present a zero-sum scenario. “Even if you work in an extraction industry, you’re also allowed to grieve what’s happening,” she says. “Eco-grief should be something that builds compassion rather than builds barriers between people.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Susan Heather, with her daughter Faron Messerli, sits at the table in her home. Ms. Heather helps other farmers find ways to build resilience around changing landscapes.

Another initiative, the Alberta Narratives Project, attempted to do just that. The organizers held more than 50 workshops with almost 500 participants last year to try and build more constructive conversations around the province’s energy-climate dichotomy, and published recommendations about how to emphasize all Albertans’ shared identities. One finding is that shrill language – that climate change is the “most important” issue we face and is an “immediate threat” – breeds distrust. Instead participants preferred to talk about it as an emerging concern among other challenges.

Ms. Hayes avoids the term “ecological grief” altogether in her fieldwork in High River. In part that’s because many in the area don’t buy into the notion. “When we talked about their experiences with the flood, the big challenge that they had is that they haven’t wanted to experience a flood like that again. So putting the flood in the broader context of climate change is really scary, because it made people think that this could happen again.”

That flood remains so vivid in these parts that when Ms. Heather attended a rural Mental Health First-Aid course organized by the High River District Health Care Foundation, and it rained the day it was held (coincidentally during the sixth anniversary of the flood), those memories came to the fore. Ecological grief wasn’t introduced as a term, she says; no one even mentioned the words “climate change.” Instead they focused on their shared anxieties and how to help build capacity in the Albertan agricultural community to better respond. Ms. Heather says it gave her confidence that she can help, in her work as an agronomist, other farmers facing mental health challenges.

For farmers here, a lot of the stresses are financial, especially as this patch of Alberta has seen three years of drought. The more intangible loss is often the harder to cope with – or explain. “When you lose your special place, it’s a deep feeling. A lot of emotion is attached to places, especially natural places,” says Ms. Heather. “It’s not necessarily a house, but a rock or a tree or a valley that somehow you’re connected to.”

On this day she’s just returned from a fundraiser for her parents, who lost their grassland and fencing after a bushfire. Ms. Heather says she was devastated – this is where she grew up playing – “but it’s already starting to regrow, and it’s beautiful.” And all that was lost in the flood has since been restored – even if not exactly to its original state.  

“High River is beautiful, and the mountains are the same,” she says. “And the river. It’s different, but the same.”

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Conversations on hope

4. How one African American mom tackles racism head-on

Reconciliation and grace are hard in divisive times. But by committing to them, Tiffany Robertson is changing her community. This is Part 6 in a summer series on people who are facing – and successfully navigating – America’s most intractable challenges.

Mark
Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Tiffany Robertson (center), founder of Touchy Topics Tuesday, talks with Sarah Booth Riss (left) and Kathleen Martin (right). The group, which Ms. Robertson started in the wake of a police shooting in her neighborhood, provides a weekly forum for people of diverse backgrounds to address tough questions about race.

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When St. Louis shut down in November 2014 to hear the jury’s verdict on the white officer who shot African American teenager Michael Brown, Tiffany Robertson’s teenage daughter went up to her room with popcorn to watch the broadcast, ready to celebrate.

When the news came that the jury had decided not to indict the officer, she came downstairs, sobbing. 

“There was no comfort we could give her,” says Ms. Robertson.

Another African American teen, Vonderrit Myers Jr., had been killed by a white off-duty police officer right in their neighborhood the month before. Amid these tensions, Ms. Robertson reached out in prayer – and was inspired to establish a frank discussion group about race, Touchy Topics Tuesday (TTT). At first, she was the only African American, single-handedly fielding the white participants’ hard and sometimes offensive questions. But with patience and grace, she saw outlooks transform. Gradually, the group became more diverse.

Now there are three TTT groups, plus a podcast and a special group just for city police officers, which Ms. Robertson co-runs with an African American police captain.

“What I’ve gleaned the most from TTT is, if this attitude of reconciliation doesn’t become intentional, then we just keep moving in the same circles,” she says.

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How one African American mom tackles racism head-on

It felt like the crackling before a thunderstorm, and Tiffany Robertson was bracing herself.

St. Louis had shut down early on Nov. 24, 2014, tensely awaiting the verdict on the white police officer who had shot 18-year-old African American Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, three months earlier.

Her teenage daughter was convinced that justice would be served – that the grand jury would indict the officer. She headed up to her room with popcorn and got ready to celebrate, while Ms. Robertson and her husband sat in the living room and turned on the TV.

When the news broke that the jury had declined to charge Officer Darren Wilson, they heard a guttural scream emanate from their daughter’s bedroom. Their older daughter, who seldom cries about anything.

She came downstairs and sat between them, the house silent except for her sobs.

“There was no comfort we could give her,” says Ms. Robertson. “We were not going to say, ‘It’s going to be OK.’”

Another African American teen, Vonderrit Myers Jr., had been killed by a white off-duty police officer right in their neighborhood the month before. Amid these tensions, she reached out in prayer for guidance. Lord, I am so sorry that this is happening and I feel too small to do anything, she recalls praying. But however you tell me to respond, I am willing. However you tell me, however you govern me to respond, I am willing.

Out of that moment of humility was born Touchy Topics Tuesday (TTT), a weekly forum for frank conversations about race in America. What began as Ms. Robertson fielding questions alone from white attendees has expanded into three groups meeting across the metro area, with participants who reflect the city’s diversity. They are committed to deepening each other’s understanding and advancing racial reconciliation.

“Through critical analysis of our biases within the TTT space, we intentionally equip ourselves to recognize them in other spaces and re-adjust accordingly,” she says.

“This fundamental strategy empowers us to be accountable to one another and build community relationally through truth and transparency.”

Easier said than done.

The power of relationships

At the first meeting, back in November 2014, she was the only African American.

“I was petrified. I felt like I was in quicksand,” she recalls.

Those early days were hard, the conversations raw. There were people she found hard to deal with, but she strove to “extend them grace,” as she puts it. Over the years, the group has evolved and the discussions, though still frank and at times hard, are less acrimonious.

Participant Don Morgan had had a lot of anti-racism training as a clinical psychologist and professor at Rutgers University for three decades, but he says TTT has been transformational.

“All of those trainings, all of that study, does not compare – it’s like apples and oranges – to sitting with people who are going to be honest with you about their experience with white people, and their experience of what it’s like to live as people of color,” says Dr. Morgan. He moved to St. Louis just before Mr. Brown’s killing embittered relations between the area’s already highly segregated white and black residents. “I’m thankful for all the apples I got, but this is an orange that’s definitely a different level.”

The missing piece that has made TTT more powerful, he says, is participants’ commitment to building relationships with one another. It’s one thing to read about educational disparities; it’s another to be sitting next to fellow participants sharing their stories of being bused as kids or being raised by illiterate sharecroppers who couldn’t provide much guidance or support when it came to education.  

There’s an understanding, says Dr. Morgan, that “we’re going to be allowed to say horrible things to each other … and come back next week and hear them again and not run away from this. In so doing, there’s a lot of affection and bonding and friendship.”

An expansive vision

In addition to three TTT groups, there’s now a podcast and a special group just for city police officers, which Ms. Robertson co-runs with an African American police captain. 

“What I’ve gleaned the most from TTT is, if this attitude of reconciliation doesn’t become intentional, then we just keep moving in the same circles,” she says. “I think there needs to be a national and very transparent, open, honest dialogue and reconciliation of our past around racism.”

So is she hoping to take this model national?

“Global,” she says emphatically. “Global.”

Read the rest of the series here:

Part 1: Overcoming despair: How a wounded Green Beret came back stronger
Part 2: With compassion and faith, a mayor leads his city through the opioid crisis
Part 3: Amid tariffs and floods, a farmer finds hope in the next crop of Kansans
Part 4: Why America remains a beacon of hope for Liberian refugee
Part 5: Searching for common ground? Start with the Constitution. 
Part 6: How one African American mom tackles racism head-on
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5. In Afghanistan, weaving ancient industry back into global market

In Afghanistan, carpets are woven deeply into the nation’s sense of identity. Getting them out into the world is one group’s way of sharing that spirit.

Mark
Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
A man trims the edge of a carpet at the Zinnat Rug Factory, one of 15 producers working with the British developmental organization Turquoise Mountain to rejuvenate the Afghan carpet industry, on May 19, 2019, in western Kabul, Afghanistan.

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Some 1.6 million Afghans are in the carpet business, most working from home, but during 40 years of conflict, some 90% of Afghan carpets were sent to neighboring Pakistan for eventual export. There the final touches were added, and Afghan carpets were often tagged with a “Made in Pakistan” label.

But the British development organization Turquoise Mountain aims to herald a renaissance in Afghan carpet weaving by serving as a bridge for Afghan carpets to foreign buyers while bringing every step of the process back to Afghanistan. That will help ensure both quality and working conditions. “Carpets have been produced in this region for millennia. ... And when people speak about Afghan rugs, it resonates,” says Nathalie Paarlberg of Turquoise Mountain in Kabul.

For years, Turquoise Mountain has specialized in urban reclamation and training projects in Kabul, and in bringing Afghan art to a global audience. Carpet dealers “look at an Afghan carpet and they get excited, they keep using the word ‘soul,’ to be honest,” says Nathan Stroupe, Afghanistan country director for Turquoise Mountain. “There’s still that sort of magical quality in the carpets, and I think the mythos of the story.”

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In Afghanistan, weaving ancient industry back into global market

The scene has barely changed for centuries: Afghan women sit at looms strung tight with twine, working slowly and meticulously to turn bundles of brightly colored wool thread into fine carpets.

What has changed is that this carpet weaving center, perched on the western edge of Kabul, is part of a broader project to help transform Afghanistan’s carpet industry.

Among its goals: to break the isolation imposed by four decades of war and sell high-end, custom-made Afghan carpets directly to the international market.

Along the way, the British development organization Turquoise Mountain aims to herald a renaissance in Afghan carpet weaving. For years, Turquoise Mountain has specialized in urban reclamation, job creation, and training projects in Kabul, and in bringing Afghan jewelry, ceramics, and wood-working handicrafts to a global audience.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Men roll out carpets in a showroom at the Zinnat Rug Factory in western Kabul, one of 15 Afghan producers working with the British developmental organization Turquoise Mountain to sell high-end, custom-made Afghan carpets directly to the international market.

With 1.6 million Afghans in the carpet business, most of them weavers working from home, there is no shortage of carpet-making expertise.

But during 40 years of conflict, some 90% of Afghan carpets were sent to neighboring Pakistan for eventual export. There the final touches – washing and “finishing” of carpets, including shearing them and binding the edges – were added, and Afghan carpets were often tagged with a “Made in Pakistan” label.

Working under a U.S. Agency for International Development contract, Turquoise Mountain aims to serve as a bridge for Afghan carpets to foreign buyers while bringing every step of the process back to Afghanistan. That will increase earnings for Afghans while also ensuring consistent quality and better working conditions.

“Carpets have been produced in this region for millennia – not even hundreds of years, but thousands of years. And when people speak about Afghan rugs, it resonates. ... An ‘Afghan carpet’ is a thing,” says Nathalie Paarlberg, the Afghanistan deputy country director of Turquoise Mountain in Kabul.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Women weave at looms at the Zinnat Rug Factory, May 19, 2019, in western Kabul.

“But what you’ve seen is that we are now in our fourth decade of isolation,” she says. “The market has been entirely cut off from international buyers. … Why would you travel here if you could travel to India or Nepal, or even to Pakistan?”

Changing that equation for buyers is one aim of the project, along with creating 4,750 jobs and, over four years, selling $19 million worth of consistently high-quality Afghan carpets from the 15 producers they work with. The project also hopes in time to make the producers, who together represent several thousand Afghan families, and sales self-sufficient.

Despite being out of the global market for a generation, Afghanistan still holds a grip on the imagination.

“Speaking to these [carpet dealers], they look at an Afghan carpet and they get excited, they keep using the word ‘soul,’ to be honest,” says Nathan Stroupe, the Afghanistan country director for Turquoise Mountain. “There’s still that sort of magical quality in the carpets, and I think the mythos of the story.”

That story begins at looms like these in the western Kabul district of Dast-e Barchi, where the Zinnat Rug Factory produces some 700 square meters – about 7,500 square feet – of carpet each year, much of that as part of the Turquoise Mountain project. It has been established for 30 years, using 100 looms – most of them in family homes.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Men wash carpets with water and scrapers at the Zinnat Rug Factory, May 19, 2019, in western Kabul, Afghanistan.

Women traditionally do the weaving work in Afghanistan, and in this well-lit weaving space, one or two sit in front of each loom, slowly adding to the carpets one thread at a time. Most weavers produce 1 square meter per month. Typical pay is $1 each day.

Next door in the showroom, men roll out onto the floor one carpet after another. Some have traditional Afghan designs, while others are more modern, such as a large replica of a Picasso painting, or stylized American flags.

But this factory is a rarity in Afghanistan, because work is done here that, for decades, had been done in Pakistan. They wash carpets, using hoses and brushes, and also finish them, using electric shears to cut and smooth the pile of each carpet. The average price per square meter of unfinished carpets is $50, and for finished carpets, $90 to $100.

Weaving producers can easily employ 2,000 families each. But this project aims to expand the facilities of weaving centers like this one so that every step of production happens in one place. That way it is easier to monitor the quality of the work and working conditions, to earn ethical certification.

For example, at weaving centers in the northern highlands, not far from where the Taliban infamously destroyed towering Buddha statues in 2001, weavers must agree to send their children to school, ensuring they are not used for child labor.

About 10 weaving centers working with Turquoise Mountain in a handful of cities, several already well established, will have day care centers and provide one full meal a day for workers.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
A man shaves excess pile from a carpet at the Zinnat Rug Factory in Kabul, May 19, 2019.

But there is another critical function that has been missing from most carpet-regeneration projects in Afghanistan since the U.S. military orchestrated the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Few such programs ever sought to also find a market for Afghan carpets abroad.

“We have to be realistic here,” says Turquoise Mountain’s Ms. Paarlberg. Afghan manufacturers are “incredibly skilled at what they do,” but have not communicated with the international market for decades and usually don’t speak English.

“If you have to wait three weeks for a reply to your e-mail, or your bank transfer gets bounced back because your bank thinks you’re funding terrorism ... there’s just no reason why you would do business here,” she says.

“So what we do is sit in the middle, and we are the trusted partner for international buyers to do business in Afghanistan,” says Ms. Paarlberg. “We oversee production. We make sure the design is interpreted and graphed correctly. ... We take care of all shipping and logistics. People transfer money into our UK account, and we transfer it into Afghanistan.”

“A middleman is often a dirty word in development terms, because they think it takes away from the producers,” says Ms. Paarlberg. “But trusted partners [are necessary] who facilitate trade between two radically different cultures and markets.”

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The Monitor's View

Colombia’s compassion is vital to Venezuela’s future

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If there were an annual award for mass generosity, surely Colombia would win it. By the end of this year, the South American nation of 49 million is expected to have taken in more than 2 million refugees from Venezuela, whose economy is teetering on collapse, largely from a dictator’s mismanagement. In contrast, Colombia is a model of the freedoms that can engender mass charity.

Largely on its own peso, Colombia has integrated many refugees into schools and the economy. Colombians also have a stronger-than-usual empathy toward the dispossessed. They endured a half-century of civil war until a peace deal in 2016.

Yet Colombia is in need of foreign assistance. The United Nations has asked the international community for $738 million to aid Colombia and other regional nations coping with the refugee flow. Only about a quarter of the request has been filled.

Helping Colombia is a way to reinforce its bigheartedness and its counterexample to the tragedy of governance in Venezuela. Assisting Colombia’s generosity is a big assist for a peaceful, democratic Venezuela.

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Colombia’s compassion is vital to Venezuela’s future

If there were an annual award for mass generosity – beyond mere money – surely Colombia would win it. By the end of this year, the South American nation of 49 million is expected to have taken in more than 2 million refugees from Venezuela, whose economy is teetering on collapse, largely from a dictator’s mismanagement.

In contrast, Colombia is a model of the freedoms that can engender mass charity – even as it struggles with a per capita income of less than $8,000 and high unemployment.

The latest example of Colombia’s kindness: President Iván Duque gave citizenship to 24,000 Colombian-born babies of Venezuelan parents as well as to those born over the next two years. He also used the moment to warn against rising concerns by some politicians about the refugee influx.

“For those who want to make from xenophobia a political path, we adopt the path of brotherhood,” Mr. Duque said in a televised address. “For those who want to outcast or discriminate against migrants, we stand up today ... to say that we are going to take them in and we are going to support them during difficult times.”

Largely on its own peso, Colombia has integrated many refugees into schools and the economy. Sharing the same language helps as does some foreign aid, mainly from the United States. Yet Colombians also have a stronger-than-usual empathy toward the dispossessed. They endured a half-century of civil war until a peace deal in 2016. At many times during the war Venezuela took in fleeing Colombians. Compassion now begets compassion.

That is, at least between those two nations. Colombia is in need of far more foreign assistance. The United Nations has asked the international community for $738 million to aid Colombia and other regional nations coping with the refugee flow. Only about a quarter of the request has been filled. Currently, foreign assistance for Venezuelan refugees is about 13% of that provided to Syrian refugees.

Helping Colombia is a way to reinforce its bigheartedness and its counterexample to the tragedy of governance in Venezuela under ruler Nicolás Maduro. As his regime steadily collapses under the weight of its own mistakes, the rest of the world can also prepare to rebuild Venezuela, which would allow its refugees to return home. This aid planning will give hope to Venezuelans still in the country, as well as a reason for them to resist the regime. Assisting Colombia’s generosity is a big assist for a peaceful, democratic Venezuela.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Improving racial harmony by truly loving our neighbor

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Ashamed by the way she racially profiled two young men after a theft on her property, one woman took a deep dive into what it means to truly love one’s neighbor.

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Improving racial harmony by truly loving our neighbor

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Many years ago, I had an experience that taught me a lot about racism. It showed me that improving racial harmony in society begins on the individual level.

Since girlhood I’ve loved and tried to live by the idea of loving my neighbor as myself. I’d been taught to take to heart this biblical injunction, which appears in many religious traditions in various forms. When I was a young adult, however, I had an experience in which I badly missed the mark and let in an unloving, prejudiced reaction that really hurt someone – and deeply disturbed me.

One morning as I was leaving for work, I discovered my car (which had been in the driveway) had been broken into and an expensive built-in radio had been dismantled and stolen. I immediately called the police. When asked by the officer if I had seen anyone at the car, I said no, but my mind immediately went to two young black men who had been in my yard the day before, checking out a small yard sale I was having, so I mentioned them.

They lived not far from my apartment, so the officer paid a visit. Their mother was visibly upset when she walked over to confront me afterward. I could not summon the courage to speak with her, because I felt so ashamed by how I had rushed to judgment without any basis for doing so.

I began some serious soul-searching. Why had I concluded that these young men were responsible for the theft? Was it simply on the basis of their race? I had to admit that my immediate blaming of them had been racial profiling and was totally unjust. I could see that I had no valid reason to assume they had stolen the radio, and every reason to assume they hadn’t.

Racial profiling, or profiling on any similar basis, is always wrong, but I realized I had also gone against the spiritual standpoint I value. My study of Christian Science has helped me see that the starting point for rightly judging others is to see that every individual is actually a child of God, made in God’s image, spiritual and good.

One aspect of this that I have always loved is the idea that physical appearance does not make up our identity. In fact, the opposite is true. God’s creation is totally spiritual, expressing all the qualities of goodness, beauty, grace, and love that our divine creator includes. As divine Love itself (see I John 4:8), God is infinitely good. So the divine creation must be also.

However, this grand spiritual fact must be understood and lived, not simply professed. I realized I had slipped into thinking of my neighbors as merely physical, defined by their skin color, and had allowed a distorted, uncharitable suspicion to associate itself with that outer form in my thought.

In an essay titled “Love your enemies,” the discoverer of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, makes plain that even in a case where someone has done something wrong, we have to choose our thoughts carefully, based on the higher, spiritual understanding of God’s creation. She writes: “Who is thine enemy that thou shouldst love him? Is it a creature or a thing outside thine own creation?

“Can you see an enemy, except you first formulate this enemy and then look upon the object of your own conception?” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 8).

I thought deeply about how in this case I had formulated an enemy in thought without cause, and how Christ Jesus gave us the opposite example. He loved everyone, regardless of their background. In fact, as the Son of God, he came into the world to correct distorted, material views of manhood and womanhood. He saw each individual for what they really were: God’s perfect, spiritual reflection.

This compassionate view, flowing from the heavenly Father, enabled him to heal the sick and redeem the sinning, and by lovingly interacting with individuals from marginalized groups like the Samaritans, he gave clear proof that he saw everyone in their true, spiritual nature, as genuinely holy and pure.

Inspired by these ideas, I saw my need to recognize that we are all absolutely equal in the sight of divine Love, our Father-Mother, and I prayed to become truly conscious of this. This Christlike view lifts the deceptive shade of ignorance, pride, and suspicious distrust of others based on race, cultural background, or other stereotyping. As I prayed, the spiritually correct picture of myself and those young men became clearer to me. We were brothers and sister.

Soon after, an opportunity arose to visit the family and to offer a heartfelt apology and also a gift. They seemed to appreciate this.

I couldn’t leave it there, though. I resolved to pay more attention to my thoughts daily and to be more alert to racial and cultural stereotyping, and to take a stand against it in my prayers and actions. This has also led to more meaningful relationships with others, such as the wonderfully diverse group of people I’ve gotten to know through monthly volunteer work. It truly feels like family when we are together.

Each of us can let God, Love, shape our outlook and lift us to a higher, more loving standpoint of ourselves and everyone we meet as God’s blessed creation – spiritual, beautiful, and pure. This dissolves the clouds of fear, racism, and undue suspicion that block harmony and progress.

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Viewfinder

Catch!

Hannah McKay/Reuters
A pelican catches a fish during feeding time in St. James' Park in London Aug. 21, 2019. The park is home to numerous species of birds that might seem out of place in urban England, including Egyptian geese and ring-necked parakeets.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( August 22nd, 2019 )

Thank you for joining us. Please come back tomorrow when we explore how the disaster of the Yemen war – and Saudi Arabia’s heavy-handedness – have begun to fracture one of the Middle East’s most important alliances.

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