2021
February
08
Monday

Monitor Daily Podcast

February 08, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

A song for Earth and the universe

Can the SETI Institute, in a bid to send a message to the universe, send one to Earth’s residents as well?

That’s the hope of the Earthling Project, a collaboration of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute artist-in-residence Felipe Pérez Santiago, and the Arch Mission Foundation. At a moment when earthlings often raise their voices in divisive ways, the project invites “all humanity” to tell the universe who they are by raising their voices in a common language: song. 

It works like this: Everyone who calls the Blue Marble home can record themselves crooning up to three 30-second tunes via the Earthling Project app. Mr. Santiago, a musician and composer, will meld those voices together, and the resulting composition will be launched into space and distributed on Earth later this year. 

It’s reminiscent of the Golden Record, a project led by astrophysicist Carl Sagan and placed aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. Then, the focus was the diversity of Earth, presented in a disc of images, natural sounds, and greetings in 55 languages. Sagan said “the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

So too in 2021, as the Earthling Project’s scientists and artists invite people to join in musical tributes to their shared earthly address and humanity. “We face challenges that have to be solved by cooperating across the globe,” SETI co-founder Jill Tarter told The Economist.

“If we can send this unified message,” Mr. Santiago said, “our mission is accomplished.”

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Why questions of free speech – and its limits – roil US politics

A common thread emerges in many recent political headlines: questions over whether the right to free speech is being abused in dangerous ways – or, alternatively, whether it’s being unfairly stifled.

Amelia

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From former President Donald Trump’s upcoming impeachment trial, to the controversy over Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s inflammatory opinions, to conservative uproar over “cancellation” by social media giants, the core issue of many of today’s most consequential political struggles is speech: its power, its truth, its acceptability, and its consequences.

Speech and words matter. They move people to action. They define the parameters of democracy. Their free flow is a bulwark of the U.S. constitutional system.

But this may be a dangerous time for the country, some experts say, in that today’s controversies could end up setting new guardrails for speech. Is it OK for the nation’s political leaders to sow doubts about the security of elections, despite lack of evidence? Is it OK for elected officials to use violent imagery in reference to their opponents? Is social media the new town square, to which even potentially dangerous extremists should have access?

“This is a super important moment,” says Mary Stuckey, an expert on political rhetoric at Pennsylvania State University. “We’re actually determining the limits and the definitions of what does it mean to be a democracy, and whether we can hold on to that.” 

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Why questions of free speech – and its limits – roil US politics

Evan Vucci/AP
Then-President Donald Trump speaks during a rally protesting the Electoral College certification of Joe Biden as the presidential election winner in Washington, on Jan. 6, 2021. Arguments begin Feb. 9 in the impeachment trial of Mr. Trump on allegations that he incited the violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

From former President Donald Trump’s upcoming impeachment trial, to the controversy over Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s inflammatory opinions, to conservative uproar over “cancellation” by the tech giants of social media, the core issue of many of today’s most consequential political struggles is speech: its power, its truth, its acceptability, and its consequences.

Speech and words matter. They move people to action. They define the parameters of democracy. Their free flow is one of the central purposes of the First Amendment, a bulwark of the U.S. constitutional system.

But this may be a dangerous time for the country, say some experts, in that today’s controversies could end up setting new guardrails for speech. Is it OK for the nation’s political leaders to sow doubts about the security of elections, despite lack of actual evidence? Is it OK for elected officials to use violent language or imagery in reference to their opponents? Is social media the new town square, to which all, even potentially dangerous extremists, should have access?

In America, what is it OK to say?

“This is a super important moment, I would argue, because we’re actually determining the limits and the definitions of what does it mean to be a democracy, and whether we can hold on to that,” says Mary Stuckey, an expert on political rhetoric at Pennsylvania State University.

Competing views of impeachment trial

At former President Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, which begins Tuesday, the question of what motivated a mob to take concrete action and storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 will be a central question. In particular, House impeachment managers will argue that rioters believed Mr. Trump’s speech had indicated the assault was something he wanted them to do. 

Mr. Trump had begun to set the stage months earlier with his false insistence that he had actually won the November election and Democrats had stolen the White House via massive voting fraud. Then, while still president on Jan. 6, Mr. Trump appeared onstage at a rally at the Ellipse and “whipped” the crowd “into a frenzy,” according to the House impeachment trial brief.

Sarah Silbiger/Reuters
Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia walks to the U.S. Capitol following a news conference in Washington, on Feb. 5, 2021. Eleven House Republicans joined with Democrats on Feb. 4 in voting to strip Ms. Greene of her committee assignments as a result of her controversial statements and recent support for conspiracy theories.

He exhorted followers to “fight like hell [or] you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Then he aimed them straight at the Capitol, according to the House brief, and said, “You’ll never take back our country with weakness.”

“Incited by President Trump, his mob attacked the Capitol,” the House brief concluded.

In response, attorneys for Mr. Trump in a defense brief released Monday argue that his speech “did not direct anyone to commit unlawful actions” and that he should not be blamed that a small group of “criminals” stormed the Capitol after his rally appearance. In addition, Mr. Trump’s defense claims that the articles of impeachment violate his First Amendment rights to free speech.

However, free speech is not an absolute right, note First Amendment experts. Mr. Trump’s words would not be protected if a court case determined they led to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Prosecution of incitement is not easy, however. Ken White, a First Amendment litigator and criminal defense attorney at Brown, White & Osborn LLP, says that in court the former president would be held to the same standard as all Americans: the Brandenburg test.

Under Brandenburg the government may prohibit advocating the use of force or crime if the speech meets both elements of a two-part test: The speech is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” and the speech is “likely to incite or produce such action.”

Did Mr. Trump’s words meet both those criteria, and cause the riot? His lawyers argue that they did not, because they did not “specifically advocate” for unlawful action.

Viewed in the full context of Mr. Trump’s months of disinformation about the election and damaging rhetorical attacks on democracy prior to Jan. 6, among other things, his speech did meet Brandenburg criteria for illegality, says Mark Kende, director of Drake University’s Constitutional Law Center and an expert on the First Amendment.

“We know what the results were and those results were not accidental,” says Mr. Kende.

But Mr. Trump is not being tried in a courtroom. He is being tried in the U.S. Senate. The distinction is a crucial one, as impeachment, under the Constitution, is a political question, not a legal one, strictly speaking.

“History makes it fairly clear that high crimes and misdemeanors, for which you can be impeached, is broad and it’s more or less what the House and Senate want it to be,” says Mr. White of Brown, White & Osborn.

Provocations and responses

There is precedent for citing speech in impeachment proceedings. One of the articles of impeachment issued against President Andrew Johnson in 1868 focused on his incendiary speeches.

There are free speech norms, in addition to free speech laws, and it’s the former that the Senate will be looking at in the upcoming trial of Mr. Trump, says Mr. White. While voters might like to believe that its calculations will be based on nuanced application of historical and legal precedents, that’s unlikely to be the case. 

“I think it’s mostly a straight-up crass partisan calculation,” says Mr. White.

The only real limit to political speech is what your voters let you say before turning against you, and in the case of Mr. Trump, his supporters give him plenty of leeway. The same is true for a new generation of politicians who are following in Mr. Trump’s footsteps, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia.

Representative Greene is a first-term member of Congress with an affinity for conspiracy theories. Prior to election last November, she promoted wild social media claims that mass shootings in Las Vegas and Florida were “false flag” operations staged by gun control supporters. She’s endorsed posts calling for the assassination of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Ms. Greene has been implicitly rebuked by top establishment Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who recently condemned her “loony lies.” But many House colleagues have continued to support her, and last week the House GOP caucus declined to punish her by stripping her of committee assignments.

The Democratic majority in the House, with a smattering of Republican support, then voted to do just that. It was an unprecedented rebuke, given that committee slots are traditionally set by a member’s own party, not the full chamber.

Ms. Greene last week responded that she was “sorry” for some of her past conspiratorial statements, but also said she was happy to be booted off her committee work, because as a member of the conservative minority she’d have been “wasting my time” on the panels and now she’d have more hours to talk and build support around the country.

This may be an example of a cycle of stimulus and response that is increasingly sparked by politicians who have followed Mr. Trump’s lead and harnessed the power, and divisiveness, of words.

They say something their followers love, but that alienates much of the rest of the public. Their followers dig in while the opposition does too. The more outrageous the statement, the more entrenched the response.

Then this equilibrium leads to a more radicalized country, says Mr. White.

The debate over “cancel culture”

Conservatives have their own complaints about the perceived damages of a new equilibrium. In their words, the danger is “cancel culture,” a loosely defined phenomenon in which jobs are lost or reputations trashed or books and speech dates withdrawn over remarks or writings that liberals deem beyond the pale. 

“I think that [cancel culture] is probably the most dangerous thing to our political process, because it’s almost this mob mentality,” Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, a freshman elected in 2020 as a Trump supporter, told the Monitor’s Story Hinckley late last year.

Since then, speech fallout from the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has included the deplatforming of then-President Trump from Twitter, Facebook, and other social media; the mass banning of QAnon and Capitol-assault-related accounts from many sites; and the collapse of Parler, which had shown promise of becoming a right-wing-dominated Twitter clone.

This is not cancel culture so much as simply culture, say some experts. The rise of the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter protests, and other longer-range societal changes such as the acceptance of gay marriage, have changed, among other things, the parameters of acceptable speech.

“We are seeing a world in which people are more aware of the potential harms that speech can cause that are beyond just violence,” says Mr. Kende of Drake University.

The country still has work to do in terms of deciding where, exactly, to draw lines. This has not been helped by the explosion of social media, a forum that allows people, indeed encourages them in some ways, to engage in increasingly provocative speech.

It “has contributed to an environment in which there are more outrageous statements that are being allowed,” Mr. Kende says.

Essay

A killing in Kabul – and a face I knew

Almost inevitably, reporters make human connections, which contribute perspective. For the Monitor’s Scott Peterson, that connection took a “statistic” from a tragic Kabul story and gave it a sense of personal loss.

Amelia

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Two female judges from Afghanistan’s Supreme Court were gunned down in a Kabul street. At first I filed the grim news away as simply the latest in a long string of recent Taliban assassinations now gripping that country.

But then I saw a tragic image posted by a friend in Kabul, mourning the death of his mother. Suddenly, the killing had a face that I knew, connected to a broken heart that revealed the personal impact of jihadist violence that continues unabated across Afghanistan.

“I don’t really understand what is going on in this country,” Wali Yasini texted me, after I sent condolences. I called Kabul.

“I learned a lot from her; the things that she told me in my life really changed it,” Wali told me, his voice quivering with emotion. Among the lessons: an ability to overcome negative thinking so common in Afghanistan.

“In our family, we are always positive – especially my mother, she always said the world is beautiful. Every single person is beautiful,” he says.

“It’s up to you: If you see the world ugly, it’s ugly. But if you see the world as beautiful, it turns beautiful. This is a positivity, and it is really something different in this country.”

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A killing in Kabul – and a face I knew

Rahmat Gul/AP
Afghan women cry at the site in northern Kabul where gunmen fired on a car, killing two women judges who worked for Afghanistan's Supreme Court, Jan. 17, 2021. It was the latest attack in the capital during talks between Taliban and Afghan government officials in Qatar.

At first I filed the grim news away as simply the latest in a long string of recent Taliban assassinations now gripping Afghanistan: two women, judges from the Supreme Court, gunned down in a Kabul street.

But then I saw a tragic image posted by a friend in Kabul, mourning the death of his mother, Judge Qadria Yasini.

“My mother’s handbag, which she tried to protect herself from the terrorists with,” the caption read. The photograph showed Judge Yasini’s bullet-riddled black leather handbag and the everyday items in it – including a Mother’s Day note from her two sons, thanking her for “self-sacrificing for us … from the first time that we opened our eyes to this world.”

Two bullets had pierced the note.

Suddenly, a killing in Kabul had a face that I knew, connected to a broken heart that revealed the personal impact of jihadist violence that continues unabated across Afghanistan. It was a powerful reminder of the innate humanity behind every death, in a country where such loss is so common that it too often distills to an abstract, impersonal concept.

As peace talks stall, and as President Joe Biden decides how to end America’s longest-ever war – possibly by withdrawing the 2,500 remaining U.S. troops by May 1 – an influential woman who inspired her sons and personified hope for the future of women in Afghanistan has been silenced.

“When will we be able to sleep comfortably in our homes and feel safe about ourselves?” Wali Yasini texted me, after I sent condolences. “I lost my mother [who] was my closest friend in life just because she was a successful judge. I don’t really understand what is going on in this country.”

On paper, Judge Yasini’s death may be just one more statistic. But for Wali, she was the fount of mother’s love and understanding. I called Kabul.

“I learned a lot from her; the things that she told me in my life really changed it,” Wali told me, his voice at times quivering with emotion. “I still feel her. I can’t really believe that I’ve lost her. Because if I imagine myself without her, it’s as if I have no soul.”

Courtesy of the Yasini Family
Wali Yasini, his face blurred for his security, takes a selfie with his mother, Judge Qadria Yasini, who worked with the Afghan Supreme Court and was killed by gunmen with her colleague, Judge Zakia Herawi, on Jan. 17 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Mr. Yasini says he was inspired by his mother's humanity and positive outlook, despite decades of war in Afghanistan.

At 17, Wali is a gifted artist with a passion for languages. We met by chance in 2019 when I visited his one-building school in north Kabul. He was eager to try out his self-taught English, and that night regaled his mother with the story of his first conversation with a foreigner.

For security reasons, Judge Yasini, the author of several books on law, kept secret her work confirming the legality of rulings at the Supreme Court. She also refused TV interview requests, aware that a public profile could make her a target.

Unlike many Afghans targeted by the Taliban, she never received threats or warnings to quit her job. So she refused, a few weeks before her murder, a government offer of a pistol for protection, as the nationwide campaign of assassinations grew.

“My mother had no trouble with anyone,” says Wali. “And you know what? She was so happy, because she said, ‘I haven’t hurt anyone, so no one will hurt me.’ She always said this. Why would anyone want to hurt such a person?”

Wali’s older brother, Abdulwahab, survived the Islamic State attack on Kabul University last November that took some 35 lives. Their father left years ago; now the brothers are alone.

Wali’s mother left for work early that morning on Jan. 17. After the office van collected her colleague, Zakia Herawi, the attack began. CCTV footage showed three gunmen escaping on motorcycles, shouting the words Allahu akbar, God is great.

Wali says he was shocked to see that the assassins were teenagers, like him. They killed the two judges, not the driver or the third passenger, in an attack that required hard-to-acquire details about the two targets and their schedules.

“This is completely clear for everyone, that behind all of these things is Taliban and those being trained by the Taliban,” says Wali. “These teenagers, they are just part of the group – they are the Taliban.”

Such violence raises questions for Wali – as they do for many other Afghans – about whether ongoing intra-Afghan peace talks created by a U.S.-Taliban withdrawal deal signed a year ago can lead to real peace.

“We think that these talks are not going to work, because those people think that we should be killed, no matter what,” says Wali, referring to a widespread belief among Taliban rank-and-file that Kabul, especially, is a city of infidels. “It’s like a religious command on them.”

That pessimism, bred from bloodshed, is a far cry from the optimism that prevailed after U.S. troops toppled the Taliban and ended their puritanical rule in 2001. Wali says his mother often told him the story about how, when he was a newborn, an American saw him and gave a small amount of cash.

“This boy is a wonderful boy, because he has come with us to change this country,” the soldier supposedly told Wali’s mother. “He said, ‘We see a beautiful future in him,’” Wali recounts. “That was the moment she felt that, ‘These people are so kind.’

“Usually people think, ‘These [Americans] are infidels, they are unreligious,’” says Wali. “But she told me that, ‘No, it is not such a thing.’ Maybe because of these thoughts, this is the reason she was targeted.”

Wali’s mother imparted something else, too, he says: an ability to overcome negative thinking so common in Afghanistan.

“In our family, we are always positive – especially my mother, she always said the world is beautiful. Every single person is beautiful.

“It’s up to you: If you see the world ugly, it’s ugly. But if you see the world as beautiful, it turns beautiful. This is a positivity, and it is really something different in this country.”

‘A giving spirit’: Getting children in foster care through the pandemic

The pandemic has sharply exacerbated long-standing difficulties in the foster care system. But it has also tapped into reservoirs of capability and compassion in children and adults alike.

Amelia
Courtesy of Jimmy's foster parent
A young boy we're calling Jimmy reads with his foster parent at her home in Illinois. The pandemic has put extra pressure on the foster care system, delaying court hearings and family reunifications.

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Erica Schultz, a foster care licensing specialist in Arlington Heights, Illinois, says the number of licensed foster homes in her agency has grown during the pandemic, from 37 last spring to 44 now.

Overall, though, “the whole system has become more sluggish,” says Jill Duerr Berrick, a child welfare researcher and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s made it more difficult to provide services to families ... [and] to get kids in regular contact with their families.”

Professionals also worry that, with many schools closed, maltreatment may be going undetected, because children are having less contact with professionals like teachers, who are mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect. 

But the pandemic has also sparked creative workarounds within the foster care system. In-person support programs have gone virtual, online forums to connect foster youth with each other are meeting needs, and one program secured grant funding to pay for virtual therapeutic and wellness coaching.

Community members are stepping up too. “I think people are in a giving spirit,” Ms. Schultz says. “They want to help in any way that they can and see this as an opportunity to help those in need during this really tough time during the pandemic.”

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‘A giving spirit’: Getting children in foster care through the pandemic

“You don’t want me.”  

The words spilled out of 4-year-old Jimmy as he sat crying in an unfamiliar bedroom, his third foster home in two weeks. Earlier that week, in another house, he’d run from window to window watching his caseworker depart and shouting, “Don’t leave me!” 

The first two families couldn’t keep him because the parents worked full-time and no in-person preschool was available due to pandemic-related school closures – closures the agency hadn’t heard about.

Since that time four months ago, Jimmy, whose real name isn't being used to protect his privacy, has stayed in the same foster home. His foster parent says he now jokes and plays at bedtime. Caring for him can be difficult, though. He struggles with health problems and trauma, and finding services is tough. But he also gives hugs and shares his drawings freely. 

“He still has the ability to love and bond, and that’s what brings me to tears,” says his foster mother, who lives in Chicago and asked to remain anonymous to protect Jimmy. 

Youth in foster care face heightened challenges during the pandemic, which poses severe tests even while revealing resilience among children and those working with them – and prompting new efforts to help. These glimmers of hope are occurring amid the backdrop of a public health crisis that is disrupting foster care placements, delaying reunification with parents, and adding health and economic stress for biological parents, foster parents, and children who are left without support systems like in-person school or therapy.

“The whole system has become more sluggish,” says Jill Duerr Berrick, a child welfare researcher and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s made it more difficult to provide services to families ... and more difficult to get kids in regular contact with their families.”

Courtesy of Alicia Wehby
This past fall, Second Bridge provided children in foster care in the Crystal Lake, Illinois, area with back-to-school backpacks filled with supplies. The nonprofit, founded in 2019 by Alicia and Matt Wehby, links foster families with community support.

Slowdowns and upticks 

A study from Chapin Hall, an independent policy research center at the University of Chicago, estimates child maltreatment reports decreased nationwide 40%-60% in 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019. Experts don’t think that’s because abuse fell. Rather, they suspect the shift to remote learning prevented professionals like teachers, who are mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect, from detecting maltreatment.

For children already within foster care, national trends point to delays in court hearings and family reunifications. In California, almost 4,300 fewer children left foster care between October 2019 and September 2020 compared with the same time frame a year earlier, according to the California Child Welfare Indicators Project. 

Yet individuals within the foster care system point to reasons for hope. Erica Schultz, a foster care licensing specialist at Shelter Inc. in Arlington Heights, Illinois, says the number of licensed foster homes in her agency has grown during the pandemic, from 37 last spring to 44 now. 

“I think people are in a giving spirit. They want to help in any way that they can and see this as an opportunity to help those in need during this really tough time during the pandemic,” she says. 

Courtesy of Justin Hayden
Justin Hayden, a college junior at Purdue University Northwest in Hammond, Indiana, is encouraged by what young people in foster care share with each other during the virtual forums organized by FosterClub and Foster Success, where he volunteers.

In addition, the COVID-19 relief bill passed at the end of 2020 included $400 million to support older youth as they transition out of foster care. It also placed a moratorium on foster youth aging out of support services during the pandemic.

Justin Hayden, a junior at Purdue University Northwest in Hammond, Indiana, even found a benefit in the pandemic. He says the lockdowns gave him time to reflect and heal from hardships, including entering foster care after he and his mother became homeless. He’s encouraged by groups he volunteers with like FosterClub and Foster Success, which organize virtual forums for foster youth to support each other. “They give each other such great advice,” he says. 

Abolish or reform the system?

In the wake of George Floyd’s death last year and racial justice protests across the country, the foster system has come under increased scrutiny. Before the pandemic, about 424,000 children were in foster care in 2019, according to the U.S. Children’s Bureau, with Black and Indigeneous children overrepresented.

In June, Black Families Matter protesters in New York called to abolish the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, charging that the department systematically uses racist policies that are overly punitive for Black people. 

But Naomi Schaefer Riley, a resident fellow focused on child welfare and foster care at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, is concerned that protests against foster care will result in less-qualified professionals entering the field, fewer people wanting to be foster parents, and less attention paid to drug abuse and mental health problems in biological families. 

“If you feel like you’re joining a system that’s terrible and systemically racist, I don’t think a lot of people will jump at that chance,” she says.

In the case of Ángela Quijada-Banks, a 24-year-old living in San Diego, California, the pandemic and social justice protests motivated her to help by writing her first book, “The Black Foster Youth Handbook,” which she self-published last fall. It offers lessons for foster youth and the adults working with them.

Courtesy of Angela Quijada-Banks
Ángela Quijada-Banks, pictured at her home in Los Angeles, says the pandemic and social justice protests of 2020 inspired her to write "The Black Foster Youth Handbook," which includes information she wishes she'd known when she was in foster care as a teenager.

For Ms. Quijada-Banks, entering foster care at 16 meant splitting up from her tightknit siblings, which left her mourning the loss of her big-sister role. She came close to finishing college but dropped out to help her biological father when his health failed. Ms. Quijada-Banks hopes to finish college, though she knows the odds are against her. Recent data is sparse, but earlier studies estimate that between 2% and 9% of foster youth who graduate from high school earn a bachelor’s degree. 

Now married and an entrepreneur, Ms. Quijada-Banks supports reforms to the foster care system that connect children to their extended families. She says individuals like her grandmother who showed her “unconditional love,” as well as her therapist and some school teachers, helped her get through tough years in foster care. They “believed in me and spoke life into me when I didn’t feel very much alive,” she says.

Charting new paths through the pandemic 

Foster youth and individuals working with them have gotten creative during the pandemic. 

Marcía Hopkins oversees a foster youth advocacy program at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. Normally, teenagers in the program gather in person to bond with each other, learn about the foster care system, and work on a group advocacy project. Last year, the program went virtual, but many of the teenagers didn’t have reliable internet or devices. 

Ms. Hopkins and other staff worked to get laptops to the foster youth who needed them and received grant funding to pay for virtual therapeutic and wellness coaching. Managing emotional wellness “was a big thing that our young people identified and brought up,” she says. 

Courtesy of Alicia Wehby
Alicia Wehby, a foster parent from Crystal Lake, Illinois, and her husband Matt Wehby founded the nonprofit Second Bridge in 2019. Last year, they organized a donation drive that provided holiday presents to more than 400 foster youth.

Alicia Wehby, a foster parent from Crystal Lake, Illinois, organized a donation drive that provided holiday presents to more than 400 foster youth, up from 100 children the year before. The group provided contactless deliveries and used social media to coordinate requests and donations. 

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and yet I think our support has actually gone up,” says Ms. Wehby, who, along with her husband, founded the nonprofit Second Bridge in 2019 to link foster families with community support. “I’m hopeful the momentum will keep going and ... the idea of being a foster child or having foster children in your home will not be hush, hush, but just something we have to do to help out the kids.” 

Back in Chicago, Jimmy’s foster parent says she was overwhelmed by the support she received from friends and family who dropped off clothes and toys on her porch and sent food when she and her partner were diagnosed with COVID-19. Above all, she’s humbled by her foster son’s strength. 

“Here I am feeling sorry for myself – we have COVID, we can’t see our parents – and here is this little boy who can still love,” after all he’s been through, she says. “He’s absolutely, hands down, the most resilient, not just kid, but person I’ve ever met.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Ángela Quijada-Banks' location. She lives in San Diego, California.

Papers rethink past crime reporting: Fresh start or a cover-up?

What are the ethics for news publications around updating or hiding old stories that dog people online? More outlets are looking empathetically at individuals’ requests – and weighing standards for how to treat them.

Amelia
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The nameplate for The Boston Globe hangs outside the paper's headquarters in downtown Boston, Feb. 3, 2021. The Globe is joining a small but growing number of news outlets that are considering requests from people to update or remove identifying details from stories that deal with lesser crimes or misdemeanors.

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“A minor mistake long in the past should not define someone for the rest of time,” says Jason Tuohey, managing editor of The Boston Globe’s digital operations.

To help prevent that from happening, The Boston Globe is among a growing group of news outlets implementing procedures for updating past crime articles that resulted in dropped charges or acquittals, deleting the names of those convicted, or even hiding reports from search engines. The practice, known as unpublishing, is raising difficult questions about journalism ethics. But public calls for digital privacy and criminal justice reform are compelling a reexamination of the long-term effects of papers’ sometimes sensationalized and often-biased crime reporting.

Cleveland.com, which includes work from The Plain Dealer, announced its Right to be Forgotten initiative in 2018. The site won’t act on requests related to stories about violence, felony sex crimes, or corruption. But it has removed names of individuals in stories about defacing a military monument, pilfering scrap metal, and stealing drugs from a health care employer.

“At some point, we have to understand that just because we have information about a person’s past does not mean that we have to use that information to judge them today,” says Deborah Dwyer, a fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism. “We can be more forgiving.”

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Papers rethink past crime reporting: Fresh start or a cover-up?

During the last week of January, 15 people contacted The Boston Globe with a common plea: They wished to be forgiven. And then forgotten. 

The requests were in response to the Globe’s new initiative called Fresh Start. Individuals can now ask the newspaper to consider updating old articles about lesser crimes and misdemeanors or hiding them from internet search engines. Years after an incident, the digital shadow of a news report can impede attempts to find employment or start new relationships. That impact is keenly felt by people of color.

“In the midst of a national reckoning on race and structural racism following the killing of George Floyd, the Globe, like many companies, took an inward look at our practices and procedures,” writes Jason Tuohey, managing editor of The Boston Globe’s digital operations, in an email. “A minor mistake long in the past should not define someone for the rest of time.” 

The Boston Globe is among a growing group of papers implementing such procedures. A 2019 survey of news outlets in the United States found that 80% of them have similar unpublishing policies. Most of those efforts, however, aren’t formally codified and haven’t been publicly announced. The practice is raising difficult questions about journalism ethics. But public calls for digital privacy and criminal justice reform are compelling the news industry to reexamine the long-term effects of its sometimes sensationalized crime reporting. By issuing what amounts to a digital pardon for small transgressions, newspapers are rethinking their responsibilities to communities beyond their core readership.

“Part of it is a collective societal shift to be more empathetic,” says Deborah Dwyer, a fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism who studies the unpublishing trend. “At some point, we have to understand that just because we have information about a person’s past does not mean that we have to use that information to judge them today. We can be more forgiving.” 

Newspapers often record the first draft of history. But resource-strapped news outlets have a “bad habit” of not writing follow-up stories with fresh information about crimes, says Rick Edmonds, an analyst for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida. Sometimes charges against individuals have been dropped. Others are acquitted by juries in court or have had their records sealed by judges. Yet the original articles about the inciting incidents remain online without additional context or updates.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The Boston Globe’s Fresh Start initiative arrives after months of journalists deliberating with Boston Globe Media’s Inclusion Council and consulting with groups that work in criminal justice, victims’ rights, and recidivism.

“Black and brown communities have been trying to have these types of conversations with newsrooms and news outlets,” says Tauhid Chappell, a News Voices project manager at Free Press, a nonprofit organization that advocates for racial justice in the media. “So many media institutions do not allocate enough resources for community outreach, community listening, and community engagement.”

In Boston, the Globe’s Fresh Start initiative arrives after months of journalists deliberating with Boston Globe Media’s Inclusion Council and with consulting groups that work in criminal justice, victims’ rights, and recidivism. The paper also consulted news organizations that have pursued similar initiatives.

One predecessor is Cleveland.com, which includes content from print publication The Plain Dealer. The site announced its Right to be Forgotten initiative in 2018 and receives about 10 to 15 requests per month. It won’t act on requests related to stories about violence, felony sex crimes, or corruption. But it has removed names of individuals in stories about crimes such as defacing a military monument, pilfering scrap metal, and stealing drugs from a health care employer. One successful applicant to have a name removed had injured someone in a car accident a decade previously when she was a teenager high on drugs.

“Sometimes they’ll write a fairly lengthy note saying, ‘Look, I made a mistake in my younger years, and I’ve really turned my life around ... and yet any time somebody looks up my name, they get that awful picture of me and my story. I’d be so grateful if this could go away because it’s not who I am anymore,’” says Chris Quinn, editor of Cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer.

Now, that initiative will go even further thanks to a $200,000 grant from Google. The goal is to develop tools that will root out old mug shots. The news outlet worries that publishing mug shots – supplied by police and predominantly featuring people of color – could perpetuate racial stereotypes among readers. The digital tool will also search the archives to proactively identify old stories that deserve reappraisal.

As more newspapers begin to digitize their archives as a way to make money, requests for anonymity are expected to increase. With little consistency across news organizations for handling these issues, Ms. Dwyer, from the Missouri School of Journalism, is utilizing the university’s Reynolds Journalism Institute fellowship to develop common guidelines and processes for unpublishing requests and processes across the industry.

“Without standards on what we arbitrarily, to some extent, delete from our archives – and especially how much we do that under no transparency or accountability to the public – the more trouble we can get in,” she says.

Mike Fannin, editor of The Kansas City Star and overseer of five other Midwest newsrooms owned by McClatchy publishing, says the parent company is “having conversations” about initiatives such as The Boston Globe’s Fresh Start. Individual McClatchy newspapers have received requests for anonymity in the past. 

News outlets are also considering how best to make sure all community members are aware of the initiatives. And some, including Mr. Fannin’s, are working to be more inclusive of their communities in other ways as well. Last year, he wrote a public letter on behalf of The Kansas City Star apologizing for the newspaper’s historically racially biased coverage. The Star is developing efforts to build the trust it’s been missing within the Black community. 

Mr. Chappell, with Free Press, says he would like to see newsrooms become more proactive, rather than reactive, and consider reallocating resources to reach underserved communities. Still, he’s grateful to see progress.

“Even when I worked in my first [newsroom] job in Arizona in 2012, we had people reach out to us to talk about their mugshot or to talk about their story that happened in the past. And even then, in 2012, we routinely rejected those requests,” says Mr. Chappell. “Finally, we have this racial reckoning, and it’s all of a sudden catalyzed these efforts now. I’m happy that they’re happening.”  

Film

Why few Nigerians have seen their country’s Oscar submission

Art expresses the things we care about most as individuals, but also as societies. So the debate about what art should be “allowed” is similarly telling: What topics are so urgent, so sensitive, that censors feel a need to clamp down?

Amelia
Courtesy of Desmond Ovbiagele
Two actresses in the Nigerian film "The Milkmaid" portray young women on the night they are forcefully wedded to militants. The movie highlights the experiences of kidnapped women and girls.

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Nigeria’s new film “The Milkmaid” takes viewers on an intimate journey into lives they rarely see: two women kidnapped by terrorists. It’s a story that hits close to home in Nigeria, which has struggled with a brutal insurgency for over a decade. And yet, even as foreign interest in the movie builds, few Nigerians have seen it – at least, the full version.

Nigeria’s Censors Board did not respond to request for comment. But according to director Desmond Ovbiagele, authorities said the movie is too provocative, and accused it of misrepresenting Islam. In the end, he shaved some 30 minutes from the film.

It wasn’t a first. Many film fans and creators complain that the board imposes heavily moralized, arbitrary limits on art, threatening homegrown creativity. But Africa’s most populous country has long wrestled with tensions over religion, ethnicity, and social mores, and censors sometimes cite the risk of violence.

“The way the Censors Board works is, ‘see no evil’ means there’s no evil: If no one can see it, that means it doesn’t exist,” says Nigerian film critic Oris Aigbokhaevbolo. The consequence, he warns, is the stagnation of art and the “shrinking of spaces for movies that will promote intellectual and cultural conversations.”

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Why few Nigerians have seen their country’s Oscar submission

Painted faces, big smiles, and a frenzied air announce a marriage in a rural West African village. Women doll the bride up in white cloth embroidered in greens and reds, the traditional wear of the Fulani, a large nomadic group that’s spread across the region. Over the bride’s face, a pink veil falls demurely. As she makes her way to the wedding ground, a crowd surrounds her, dancing to the beat of hand-held drums while women ululate.

But the joyous celebration soon morphs into a slaughter as terrorists attack. Women fall from bullets and men are hacked. Over her mother’s corpse, a baby cries, looking into the camera as it pans away: Hers is one small story in a sea of tragedies. The bride and other women are carted away, and their life as slaves and fighters’ brides begins.

Nigeria’s new film “The Milkmaid” takes viewers on an intimate journey into lives they rarely see: people who are at the receiving end of a brutal Islamist insurgency that has gripped northeast Nigeria for over a decade, and spread to several countries in the Sahel region.

Newspaper headlines announcing casualties have become so frequent that reactions have turned lukewarm. Outside the northeast, where Boko Haram seeks to carve out a caliphate, it’s easy to forget that behind those numbers are real lives. But “The Milkmaid” reminds, and it is a mind-clawing, well-shot reminder – for those who can see it, that is.

Courtesy of Desmond Obviagele
In this still image from "The Milkmaid," fiery protagonist Aisha, portrayed by actress Anthonieta Kalunta, confronts a militant who hit her after forcing her and other kidnapped women to work long hours in a field.

“The Milkmaid” won the heart of Nigeria’s independent Oscars selection committee, and is the country’s official submission for the international film category this year. (Nigeria submitted its first-ever Academy Awards candidate last year, but the film was controversially disqualified for having too much English dialogue.) But relatively few people have seen “The Milkmaid” in Nigeria, or even know it exists, thanks to government censorship.

Authorities said the movie is too provocative, according to director Desmond Ovbiagele, and accused it of misrepresenting Islam. He was forced to strip several scenes, including one that shows a terrorist as painfully ordinary, fighting sexual urges as he recites his prayers and reads the Quran. A scene where extremists plan to attack a school – mirroring real-life attacks by Boko Haram as recently as December – was also cut. In the end, Mr. Ovbiagele shaved some 30 minutes from the film.

It wasn’t a first. Many film fans and creators, like Mr. Ovbiagele, complain that Nigerian’s film board imposes heavily moralized, arbitrary limits on art, threatening homegrown creativity. But Africa’s most populous country has long wrestled with tensions over religion, ethnicity, and social mores – particularly between its largely Muslim north and Christian south – and censors sometimes cite the risk of violence.

Mr. Ovbiagele, a longtime banker who left finance for film about a decade ago, says he would rather not show the cut in Nigeria. He has turned to other African markets, like Zimbabwe and Cameroon.

“What’s out there is not authentic. It’s not my vision; it’s the board’s vision,” he says. “I am saddened on behalf of ourselves and for the people whose lives we are trying to portray, because what [censors] want us to show does not represent their situation, and the whole point was to show them as human beings – both the perpetrators and especially the victims.” 

Nollywood: Image-making machine?

Set in an unnamed part of West Africa, “The Milkmaid” follows fiery Aisha and her sister Zainab, whose cowherding life comes to an end when terrorists kidnap and force them into marriage. The sisters are separated, but Aisha continues to search for Zainab – only to find that she has fully joined the sect as a commander.

Terrorism is rarely examined in Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry known for producing more films than Hollywood. Nollywood has bloomed in the past decade, but favors slapstick comedies and glamorous movies that showcase the lives of Nigeria’s rich – big homes, big parties, flashy cars – over gritty, hard-hitting narratives that poke holes in that image.

The National Film and Video Censors Board is charged with classifying and regulating films. But critics accuse the government agency of employing a stricter approach to local films than to imported ones, and say nonconforming filmmakers must look elsewhere to launch.

“I know filmmakers who are working on the fringes of Nollywood and are making films that will never show in Nigeria,” says Nigerian film critic Oris Aigbokhaevbolo. By favoring films that make Nigeria look good, the board operates as an “incredibly highhanded” image-making organization, he adds.

Art about terrorism, which the government has struggled to contain, won’t fly. Neither do many projects attempting to push conversation around challenging social topics, from conflict and sexuality to poverty. For months, the film board delayed the release of the 2013 movie “Half of a Yellow Sun” about Nigeria’s Biafran War, which killed an estimated 2 million from the Igbo tribe. And in 2020 the makers of “Ìfé,” a film about female lovers, were forced to premiere the film online, as homosexuality can bring a 14-year prison sentence.

“The way the Censors Board works is, ‘see no evil’ means there’s no evil: If no one can see it, that means it doesn’t exist,” Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo says. The consequence, he warns, is the stagnation of art and the “shrinking of spaces for movies that will promote intellectual and cultural conversations.”

A balancing act

The Censors Board did not respond to request for comment on “The Milkmaid.” In past cases, however, it has defended its decisions by citing the need to avoid a crisis in a deeply religious and divided country where art has incited violence.

In 2002, riots broke out after a journalist’s lighthearted jab at some Muslims’ opposition to hosting the 2002 Miss World Pageant was taken as blasphemous. Two hundred people died. Sixteen people died in 2006 riots over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published thousands of miles away, in Denmark. More recently, Nigerians have protested against similar cartoons in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

“Anything that can cause an uproar should not be ventured into because we know where we are as a society,” Alonge Oyadiran, the board’s director of film censorship and classification, said in a 2020 interview with Nigerian filmmaker Niyi Akinmolayan. “We have a culture, we have our norms, and there are certain values we have to follow. I wouldn’t say because I want my film to sell, I will make a film where people are kissing on the street. This doesn’t happen in Nigeria.”

A middle ground has to be found, filmmakers and critics say, calling for the board to take a more collaborative approach. One thing Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo suggests is “a sophisticated rating system that has [expanded] categories. What it would look like is the board saying this film can be shown, but this is what you are seeing”: material that may be seen as blasphemous, for example. The seven classifications in use today are based on viewers’ age.

As for Mr. Ovbiagele, he hopes the board will rethink its decision on “The Milkmaid.”

“Right now, they [victims] are sort of detached from what we are experiencing as a country. We are going about our daily lives and they are just there sitting in some camp, doing nothing. It’ll be a shame if Nigerians can’t see the film and be able to respond to it.”

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The sum of many mediators in Yemen’s war

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In recent days, one of the world’s worst conflicts – the six-year war in Yemen – has taken a turn for the better with a flurry of diplomacy. President Joe Biden appointed the first special U.S. envoy for Yemen, saying the conflict has created a humanitarian “catastrophe.” A delegation from the European Union arrived in the country Saturday. And the United Nations special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is on his first visit to Iran for talks about its role in the war.

With such high-powered mediators at work, can peace finally come to this corner of the Arabian Peninsula and end near-famine conditions for many in Yemen?

One reason for optimism is that the military side of the war is at a stalemate. Now the two main factions inside Yemen “need nudging,” said Mr. Griffiths in a recent speech. “They need to be supported. They need to be advised, let us be honest.”

One role for mediators in Yemen is to persuade each side that peace talks need not be a zero-sum game. If the level of diplomacy is any sign, that point is starting to add up.

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The sum of many mediators in Yemen’s war

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Yemeni prisoners chant slogans after being released in October by the Saudi-led coalition in Sanaa, Yemen.

In recent days, one of the world’s worst conflicts – the six-year war in Yemen – has taken a turn for the better with a flurry of diplomacy. President Joe Biden appointed the first special U.S. envoy for Yemen, saying the conflict has created a humanitarian “catastrophe.” A high-level delegation from the European Union arrived in the country Saturday. And the United Nations special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is on his first visit to Iran for talks about its role in the war.

With such high-powered mediators at work, can peace finally come to this corner of the Arabian Peninsula and end near-famine conditions for many in Yemen?

One reason for optimism is that the military side of the war is at a stalemate. The United States has cut off military support for the Saudi forces involved in the conflict. And Iran, which could be seeking better ties with the U.S., may be willing to end its support of the Houthi rebels who control most of the country. The tools of mediation are the only way to end this war.

The two main factions inside Yemen “need nudging,” said Mr. Griffiths in a recent speech. “They need to be supported. They need to be advised, let us be honest.”

He was able to get both sides to meet last year and agree to an exchange of prisoners, a huge step toward trust-building. More than a thousand prisoners are now back with their loved ones. The sense of each life being important was clearly demonstrated in the agreement, Mr. Griffiths said, giving some hope for further agreements.

Globe-trotting interlocutors like him have a knack for getting both sides to develop an appreciation for the needs and fears of each other. They bring humble listening for shared concerns and then use moral persuasion to convince each side to examine its own actions and attitudes.

The immediate needs are for a nationwide cease-fire and access for urgent humanitarian measures. A next step is for the Houthi movement to be turned into a political party that seeks its interests through peaceful means. Saudi Arabia and Iran also need to cease using Yemen as a proxy battleground for their competing visions for the Middle East.

Both of those countries are facing the same trends among their young people. “For too long, the image of the Middle East has been a negative one of violence, radicalism, fanaticism, and wars combined with the extremes of excessive wealth and abject poverty, corruption and dictatorships. This has been changing in the last decade with the rise of a globalized new generation that is protesting against that reality and the influence of Iranian-sponsored militias,” writes Nadim Shehadi of Lebanese American University in Eurasia Review.

One role for mediators in Yemen is to persuade each side that peace talks need not be a zero-sum game. If the level of diplomacy is any sign, that point is starting to add up.

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.

When we need to improve

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Sometimes self-improvement can seem a daunting goal. But considering our nature as children of God is an empowering starting point for character growth and progress.

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When we need to improve

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

When I was in grade school, I brought home a report card with a very low mark for sportsmanship. I didn’t like that (and, I might add, neither did my parents), so I decided I needed to stop being a sore loser. I never got a low mark in sportsmanship again.

As small as that example was, I still remember it so clearly because that improvement not only made me happier, but it made things more pleasant for others, too.

Some calls for improvement may seem harder to reach than others. However, we can learn to see progress as natural for everyone, whether it is a needed character correction or even a change from sickness to health.

In that regard, it’s been helpful to me over the years to look to the spiritual model of existence that Christian Science puts forth. It starts with a perfect, good God, whose creation (which includes each of us) is wholly spiritual, perfect, and good. Cultivating and loving this idea as the rudimental spiritual reality has been a helpful basis for not only living my life, but also elevating it.

Here’s an analogy. When I was in art school, I drew many hours from a live model. It soon became evident to me that drawing repeatedly from a model as a reference point helped to perfect my technical and creative skills. Taking it a step further, living our lives from a correct model can refine our lives.

Christian Science, based on the authority of the Bible, makes plain the nature of the correct model we are to look to in order to revamp and revise – yes, and heal – needed areas in our lives. For example, in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, wrote: “In Science, all being is eternal, spiritual, perfect, harmonious in every action. Let the perfect model be present in your thoughts instead of its demoralized opposite. This spiritualization of thought lets in the light, and brings the divine Mind, Life not death, into your consciousness” (p. 407).

I have found this idea of mentally maintaining a “perfect model” – the spiritual reality of God’s goodness expressed throughout creation – very illuminating on many occasions in my life. Many years ago, when I began my study of Christian Science, my tendency was to compare myself to others in terms of popularity, appearance, and abilities. Most of the time I never felt I measured up.

These demoralizing comparisons provoked jealousy in me that instantly buried charitableness. At other times, I looked for opportunities to feel superior, which was the other end of the same unhelpful mindset. But deep down I sincerely wanted to do better, and Christian Science was monumental in helping me realize that looking to other people to define my life and happiness was a futile model to follow.

As I increasingly looked to God, divine Love, as the source of all goodness – bestowing it impartially and without measure – I began to have a different experience. More and more I began to see the spiritual logic of God as our divine Parent, who liberally gives to all of His precious, cared-for children spiritual qualities such as intelligence, harmony, and peace.

With this before my thought, it was so much easier to see that we are created to love and enjoy these qualities in ourselves and others. Just like musical notes that are distinct but operate under one principle of harmony in music, each one of us is a distinct and unique expression of God’s infinite goodness.

Under this line of spiritual reasoning, jealousy began to lose whatever pull it had on me. It became more normal for me to honor others’ abilities and qualities, even those I felt I lacked.

The Christ – the light of divine Love, God, that purifies and regenerates – was expressed limitlessly by Jesus in his healing and bettering of lives. He proved the power of Christ to turn thought away from limiting, material concepts to the truth of spiritual existence that results in healing and reformation. He showed us we could do the same.

We may not always go bounding to those areas of our life that need some work. But the path to being and doing better will feel more inviting when we open our thoughts to God’s outpouring of goodness for us and everyone. Then improvement is certain.

Some more great ideas! To hear a podcast discussion about the effect of feeling God’s love, please click through to the latest edition of Sentinel Watch on www.JSH-Online.com titled “Feel and know God’s love.” There is no paywall for this podcast.

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Snow-mentum

Francisco Seco/AP
Young people pile on for a sled run after a snowfall at the Woluwe park in Brussels on Feb. 8, 2021. Freezing temperatures and snow have swept across much of Europe.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Thanks for starting your week with us. Tomorrow, join us as correspondent Jeffrey MacDonald looks at what’s happened as church services have had to go online. Turns out, practicing religion in cyberspace works. 

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