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March 02, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

Yemen’s blind, 9-year-old schoolteacher

Ahmed doesn’t ask for much. Maybe some walls for his bombed-out school in Yemen. Windows would be nice, too, so he doesn’t get wet when it rains, he smiles. But 9-year-old Ahmed doesn’t complain. Even though he is blind, he’s too busy teaching the younger kids when the adults on staff (who are not paid) can’t show up. He likes the Quran and science, he tells the BBC

Every day in Yemen, kids like Ahmed are starving. A civil war has spiraled out of control as Saudi Arabia and Iran use Yemen to wage a battle for regional influence. The children of Yemen are the greatest losers as the combatants weaponize hunger and misery. Yet those children still go to school. Yet Ahmed still teaches amid the wreckage. Still, they hope. 

The lack of global help is a “failure of humanity,” says Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council. But how can we help Ahmed? Aid is one way, certainly. The Biden administration has also stopped supporting Saudi military operations in Yemen. That’s a “good thing,” Mr. Egeland adds.

But just as vital, he says, is to help those involved see the needless brutality of a senseless war. There can be a human impulse for all “these grown men with arms and power [to] sit down before they kill all the children.” That will take energy and leadership, Mr. Egeland says. Thankfully, a blind child in a destroyed schoolhouse is offering a glimpse of what that looks like.    

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Florida put seniors first. How that changed its pandemic response.

State vaccination programs reflect political and cultural values. Florida has found early success by rooting its COVID-19 vaccine rollout in simplicity.

Mark

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Florida’s strategy for vaccinating its population against COVID-19 is notable for its simplicity. While other states have tried to apply complex ethical calculations to deciding in which order to vaccinate different groups, often with confusing results for their residents, Florida has focused squarely on its over-65 population, along with frontline health and nursing-home workers. 

This simple approach to eligibility has led to a more rapid rollout in Florida than in other similar states. More than 3 million residents have received at least one dose. This week it expanded its rollout to police, firefighters, and teachers ages 50 and up. 

Another success story is West Virginia, which took its own streamlined path. It emphasized service and duty among frontline workers who chose to forgo their shots so the state’s oldest residents could go first. In both cases, state programs were shaped as much by common values as medical science. 

“Einstein said genius is taking the complex and making it simple, which also makes it easy to make the simple complex,” says Dr. Clay Marsh, West Virginia’s COVID-19 czar. “For us, it wasn’t about a thousand things. It was about one thing: saving lives.”

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Florida put seniors first. How that changed its pandemic response.

Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/AP
People line up for COVID-19 vaccines at the newly opened drive-up site at a Walmart in Lauderdale Lakes, Florida, Feb. 25, 2021. More than 3 million Floridians have had at least one dose, a higher rate than in other populous states.

California has an online system of access codes to make sure that shots are distributed equally across different demographics. In Massachusetts, a multitiered priority list and inconsistent guidance has sown confusion and a political backlash. In Tennessee, the county that encompasses Memphis recently ruined thousands of shots after changing state protocols to favor local teachers.

In many states, the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has faced multiple head winds in terms of supply and demand. Some blame political and social agendas that dictate who should go first.   

Here in Florida, the message is simpler: If you’re 65 or older, step right up.

In church basements, pop-up clinics, and grocery stores, state programs are prioritizing a vulnerable age group that, not coincidentally, is overrepresented in the Sunshine State, a political battleground. Frontline health workers and nursing home staff were also eligible in the first phase.  

Florida is one of only two states – the other is West Virginia – that chose not to give its first shots to teachers, police, and firefighters. It’s a throw-it-to-the-wind response that seems to be working, compared with other similar large states: Florida ranks in the middle of the pack in per capita vaccinations. More than 3 million residents here have received at least one dose. 

Its vaccination strategy, coupled with its drive to reopen for business and education, could yet be undone by various unknowns. And political leaders also face accusations of steering more vaccines to wealthier white communities than to minority residents; a recent pop-up vaccination hub in wealthy Manatee County, near Sarasota, was lambasted as a favor to political donors. 

Yet Florida’s less-prescriptive approach to distribution appears to have had some success. At a time when states are all trying to apply their values, complex distribution schemes such as those in California and Massachusetts speak to a desire to act ethically. But Florida is showing that simpler can sometimes be better – or at least faster.

In West Virginia, health officials made it a matter of service and duty for many frontline workers to forgo their shots so the state’s oldest residents could go first, particularly when doses were limited. 

“Einstein said genius is taking the complex and making it simple, which also makes it easy to make the simple complex,” says Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s COVID-19 czar. “For us, it wasn’t about a thousand things. It was about one thing: saving lives.”

At times, West Virginia’s vaccination rate has led the nation. Lately it has also seen a sharp drop in COVID-19 caseloads, something which Dr. Marsh, vice president for health sciences at West Virginia University, credits to the vaccine rollout. 

“I understand that each state has a unique strategy,” says Dr. Marsh. “But our strategy – to call on our better angels and a sense of service to prioritize this group of highly vulnerable people over themselves – has given us a special sense of pride.”

Move fast, keep it simple

Overall, states with smaller rural populations have vaccinated residents relatively quickly. One state that recently surpassed West Virginia in per capita vaccinations is Alaska, where dog sleds have helped cover a vast territory. Another factor appears to be that states with effective vaccination programs set simple rules and adjusted them as they went along. “States are trying to be agile, flexible, and learn and not be afraid to implement and measure rapidly. We are learning to fail fast and fail forward,” says Dr. Marsh. 

Florida’s pandemic response has not always gotten good press. Indeed, its lax approach to vacationers was blamed last spring for seeding COVID-19 outbreaks across the country during the first wave. 

Chris O'Meara/AP
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the media at a coronavirus vaccination site at Lakewood Ranch, Feb. 17, 2021, in Bradenton, Florida. Governor DeSantis has taken credit for the state's relatively rapid vaccine rollout.

Decisions to reopen beaches this year and host spectators at the Super Bowl in Tampa were also criticized, but were framed here by many as counterintuitive successes, built on an understanding that government works best when it reflects communal touchstones. 

“This is a free state,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said recently, after launching a critique of “lockdowner” states. He has also hailed his decision to keep schools open, pointing to low infection rates among students in Florida compared with other states. Those comparisons appear to be flawed: Governor DeSantis, a Republican and staunch ally of former President Donald Trump, reportedly omitted data on students ages 15-18, unlike other states, making Florida look better than it is. 

That said, spread-out housing and living arrangements and a warm climate are all X factors that may have contributed to Florida’s ability to weather the pandemic while keeping its economy more or less on track. 

“Florida is its own special mess,” says Diane Roberts, a professor of English at Florida State University and longtime observer of its politics. “But it’s real interesting. DeSantis is carrying on as if this [relative success] is his doing, and some of it might well be.” 

“What’s political about that?”

As he readies to make his annual pilgrimage back home to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, snowbird retiree Larry Smith is concerned that politics has played into Florida’s vaccine strategy. He had hoped to get vaccinated here, but complaints about “vaccine tourism” led to a tightening of rules to exclude nonresidents. 

Now Mr. Smith has to wait until at least April, when he returns to Michigan, a delay that he sees as another example of politics hampering the effort. 

If the goal is saving people’s lives, he says, “What’s political about that?”

For Mr. DeSantis, the relative success of Florida’s vaccine rollout certainly packs a political punch, and he is not shy about calling out critics or feeding red meat to his conservative base. In doing so, the governor has tapped into what makes Florida, well, Florida, says veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who has worked with Mr. DeSantis on COVID-19 messaging.

“Every good governor tries to lift up the values of their state,” says Mr. Ayres. “And in fact, the ones who have been most successful [addressing COVID-19] seem to be the ones doing so within the values that dominate their state.”

In the case of West Virginia, the state opted not to work with national pharmacy chains, instead going direct to independent pharmacies whose local networks were able to find and vaccinate the most vulnerable residents. It also staffed its own telephone hotline and chose not to outsource online booking of appointments. 

To West Virginians like Dr. Marsh, this approach reflects a culture of self-reliance, service orientation, and being “scrappy.”

Police and teachers get their turn

Until this week Florida was one of only four states that, after deciding who goes first, hadn’t begun vaccinating other designated groups, such as teachers and police officers. 

“It would be nice to have some idea of who the priority populations are going to be ... because people want to know where they stand, where they are in line,” says University of Florida epidemiologist Cindy Prins, who has volunteered at several smaller sites.

She points out that while vaccinating older Florida residents is effective in saving lives, infection rates are generally much higher among younger people who are lowest on the priority list. As a result, “we may not see a full effect [on community immunity] until we can get into 20-somethings and even teenagers and get those people vaccinated,” she says. 

The federal government is opening four mass vaccination sites in Florida, including one here at Gateway Mall, a past-its-prime retail plaza on Jacksonville’s primarily Black north side. And starting on Wednesday, police, firefighters, and teachers ages 50 and up will be eligible for appointments at the mass sites. 

For Danny Gooden, a Jacksonville retiree who just got vaccinated, culture and values are fine, but what he sees lacking is better communication to Black residents about the efficacy and necessity of the shot. Given past testing of controversial therapies on Black people, many are wary of vaccination. Vaccine hesitancy is highest among Black Americans under 40, according to national survey data

“This shouldn’t be about individuals, or who is who,” says Mr. Gooden. “It should be about all of us.”

For this community, trees bring more than shade. They represent justice.

Trees offer urban benefits from beauty and cleaner air to coolness in shade. Cities are starting to grapple with the vast disparities, along lines of race and income, in how they are distributed. 

Mark
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Yvonne Lalyre poses by trees along Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston, on Oct. 14, 2020. Ms. Lalyre is fighting to save the 40-year-old trees with a group called Friends of Melnea Cass Blvd. She added the ribbons to show which trees were threatened by city road work plans.

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The trees lining Melnea Cass Boulevard are a splotch of green amidst a sea of cement and asphalt in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. Those trees along a four-lane commuter artery serve as a shield for the people who live there, offering them a buffer from the noise, air pollution, and prying eyes of those passing through. 

Trees also help to cool the urban heat islands created by the concentration of buildings and pavement. Yet it is low-income communities like this one, populated mostly by people of color, that tend to have the fewest trees.

A planned overhaul of Melnea Cass Boulevard initially had blueprints to remove 124 of its trees and to cut the roots of at least 200 more. Residents fought back, and earlier this year Boston decided to scrap the plans and start fresh, but not before the project ignited interest in tree canopy as an equity issue. The residents themselves will have a role in the rethink. 

“Fresh air is not something we should have to fight for,” says Aziza Robinson, whose grandfather’s land here was taken by eminent domain for roadway development decades ago.

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For this community, trees bring more than shade. They represent justice.

The grumble of car engines whizzing by seems to fade when Yvonne Lalyre talks about the trees. Her eyes sparkle above her mask as she walks the row of natural sentinels between her neighborhood, Roxbury, and the asphalt urban artery that is Melnea Cass Boulevard.

“They’re like lungs,” Ms. Lalyre says, looking up in reverence at the canopy of green. “Without the trees, we would just ...”

Her eyes dim as she trails off with a sigh. “I don’t know. It would be so much worse.”

The trees that line the boulevard have been at the center of tensions between Roxbury residents and the city of Boston for the past year. City plans to overhaul the boulevard included cutting many of those trees, thus removing a large portion of the tree canopy in the low-income and largely Black and brown neighborhood.

In cities across the United States, research has found that tree canopy typically inversely correlates with income – and that the lack of greenery is making those neighborhoods hotter and more polluted, among other detrimental effects.

But in Boston and other cities, there appears to be a shift in thought. As more communities start to map their trees, more residents are getting involved in the conversation.

“Caring for the trees is a way to look at caring for our people,” says Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne, director of the Spatial Analysis Laboratory in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont.

Heightened attention to green space is a hopeful sign, he says. Quantifying the urban forest opens the door to conversing about it in the same terms as anything else in the built urban environment.

Repeating the past?

For Carmen Storms, the idea that construction workers would raze the trees along Melnea Cass Boulevard echoes the traumas of Boston’s urban renewal boom in the 1950s and 1960s. Her family was twice driven from their home when the city used eminent domain to take homes and businesses in largely Black neighborhoods. The boulevard was created in the wake of that.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Yvonne Lalyre holds blueprints with plans that show trees bordering Melnea Cass Boulevard that were scheduled to be either cut down or have their roots cut – as indicated by the red X's – so the road can be widened and bike paths added.

In Roxbury, Boston had planned to build an inner beltway highway. The city took and subsequently bulldozed property for that purpose. But when the road project was scrapped, Boston turned that swath of land into the boulevard, and named it after local civil rights hero Melnea Cass. That project included planting 600 trees. 

Ms. Storms has grown up with those trees, and she now enjoys looking out at the canopy from her eighth-floor apartment window.

“If they take these trees, we’ll be like a no-man’s land,” she says. 

Today, Melnea Cass Boulevard connects Interstate 93 to many of the Boston neighborhoods southwest of downtown. It’s a main thoroughfare for commuters, too. The row of trees that lines the four-lane road forms a sort of shield for the surrounding neighborhood. And such splotches of green amid the cement and asphalt may prove crucial to helping urban communities weather global temperature rise.

But the city plans to overhaul the boulevard in an effort to make it safer and more pedestrian-friendly. The blueprints, up until late January, included removing 124 of those trees and cutting the roots of at least 200 more, which Ms. Lalyre calls “a death sentence.”

Mr. O’Neil-Dunne says, “Trees and construction don’t mix.” Trees need space for their roots to expand. They also can take decades to mature and provide any benefits, so replacing mature trees with saplings – as the original plan outlined – would be a loss for years.

“Heat islands” and relief

Roxbury is already one of Boston’s “heat islands,” a neighborhood that experiences higher temperatures than the rest of the city because of how much asphalt and how little green space make up the landscape. And it’s only going to get dangerously hotter, according to the city’s projections. Furthermore, scientists say greenery is essential to combat air pollution and keep an environment healthy for humans.

“Fresh air is not something we should have to fight for,” says Aziza Robinson, whose grandfather’s land in Roxbury was also taken by eminent domain before the boulevard was built.

That follows patterns seen in cities across the United States. Heat islands (and less tree cover) tend to be in communities of color or low-income areas. And that is often tied to the historical practice of redlining in which Black Americans were systematically denied services and financial assistance. 

Those same communities, says Vivek Shandas, research director for the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University in Oregon, were also where cities often focused their infrastructure projects following World War II. “Those low-rent neighborhoods would be the places where the big factories went in, the big roads would go in, the massive concrete, asphalt … the things that just seal up the ground,” he says. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Trees bordering Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston wear ribbons to indicate that they are scheduled to be either cut down or have their roots cut so the road can be widened and bike paths added, on Oct. 14, 2020. The effort to rally opposition to the plan paid off in January as the city pledged to start the planning process over, with residents involved.

Concerned about what would happen to their neighborhood greenery, Ms. Lalyre, Ms. Robinson, and some other neighbors have built an organization called “Friends of Melnea Cass” to petition the city for a revision of the plans. There were meetings and protests, letters to city councilors, a social media hashtag, and a 13,000-signature petition. After seeing how many trees were set to be cut in blueprints last summer, Ms. Lalyre decided to make their plight more visible. She scavenged old bed sheets and ribbon from neighbors to cut into strips to tie around the trees that were to meet an ill fate during the planned construction.

Their efforts paid off. In late January, Boston city officials announced they would scrap the plans and start anew – this time with residents involved in the planning from the beginning. 

“We’ve hit the reset button,” says Vineet Gupta, director of policy and planning for the Boston Transportation Department. “It’s not the end of the project, but really a new beginning.”

“We’re elated,” Ms. Lalyre says. “We were just thinking that nothing could be done, that it was a done thing.”

Building cities with inclusive values

That outcome may be a glimmer of hope that tree canopy is rising in importance as cities design the urban landscapes of the future. 

“It’s not that we don’t value trees or green space, it’s that we’re not articulating, we’re not surfacing that value,” Dr. Shandas says. His research surveys are “unequivocal,” he says. “People really love trees,” whoever they are.

Researchers like Mr. O’Neil-Dunne and nonprofit organizations like American Forests are working to build the tools to turn that value into action. The first step, they say, is to map tree canopy so that decision-makers and other leaders can quantify the issue and compare the distribution of the urban forest to other data, like income inequality or air pollution. And, Mr. O’Neil-Dunne says, more cities – including Boston – are commissioning those studies. Boston, in fact, is developing an “urban forest” plan to establish and achieve citywide goals for tree canopy.

American Forests is taking it a step further and creating a “tree equity score” for urban areas across the nation to measure whether a neighborhood has enough trees so that all its residents experience the health, economic, and other benefits that trees provide. 

“If we think that everyone deserves a right to clean air and clean water – these are bedrocks of our federal environmental movement – trees are a massive part of that,” says Chris David, vice president of data science at American Forests. 

But city officials going into neighborhoods and planting trees all over the place won’t necessarily be healing, says Mayra Rodriguez-Gonzalez, a Ph.D. candidate in urban and social ecology in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue University. The process needs to start with leaders listening to community members to understand what their needs are. Do they need trees for shade? Or community gardens for fresh food? Or perhaps a green gathering space? Where should those trees go?

Furthermore, Ms. Rodriguez-Gonzalez says, these communities may associate green spaces with gentrification and fear that it is an effort to improve the neighborhood by someone else’s standards and push them out. So including the community members in those discussions could allay those fears.

“So many good ideas”

“There’s a lot of distrust with municipalities coming in with a program or a project without active engagement in the community,” says Dr. Shandas. 

“Communities have been so impacted by decisions that have been made in city hall for generations,” he says. “As virtuous as putting green things into a neighborhood might sound, it still has echoes of the same concern that we are being done to rather than engaged with.”

With Boston officials committing to including the Roxbury community in the planning for the revision of the Melnea Cass Boulevard project, Ms. Lalyre and the rest of the Friends of Melnea Cass have turned their attention to generating their own concepts for the project.

“It’s amazing when you start talking to people how you can get so many good ideas,” she says. Now the group is working on their vision of the boulevard as a greenway. 

“We have a big job ahead.” Ms. Lalyre says. She sings a snippet of a song by the Carpenters; “We’ve only just begun.” 

Vermont has put women at legislative helm. Where will they steer?

With women holding top posts in the Vermont legislature, they’re in a position to take on the problem that has prevented others from reaching such political heights: balancing a job and family.

Mark
Samantha Sheehan/Courtesy of Molly Gray
Women were elected to many top jobs for the 2021 legislative session. From left, Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, State Treasurer Beth Pearce, Speaker of the House Jill Krowinski, and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray stand on the steps of the Vermont State House in Montpelier on Jan. 7, 2021.

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In most states in America, an elected lawmaker doesn’t do a full-time job and isn’t paid for it, either. That fact can be a barrier to seeking office. But in Vermont, for the first time, women hold the four top posts in its legislature. Some of their proposals would help both would-be politicians and ordinary caregivers of children and older adults.

“We need more flexibility in the workplace and more recognition that women often have two jobs: taking care of the family and being at work,” says former Gov. Madeleine Kunin. She acknowledges that some things haven’t changed since she became Vermont’s first (and so far only) female governor in 1985. For example, Vermont is the only state that has never sent a woman to Congress.

Yet Vermont may also stand out when it comes to working across the partisan divide. It’s often said Vermont is like a small town: Everyone’s a friend of a friend.

House Minority Leader Pattie McCoy and Majority Leader Emily Long both started their first terms in January 2015. Disagreements happen, but they’ve enjoyed a strong working relationship. 

“We don’t get anything done without supporting each other in this work,” Ms. Long says. “And we’re going to continue to do that.”

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Vermont has put women at legislative helm. Where will they steer?

When Jill Krowinski brought groups of Girl Scouts into Vermont’s historic State House chamber pre-COVID-19, they often hesitated at her invitation to stand at the speaker’s podium. 

But then she would let them pause there, take in the view and, just maybe, get a sense of what it’s like to lead.  

“Every time, they get this big smile on their face,” Speaker Krowinski says, recalling some of her favorite moments as an elected representative. “It just says, ‘This can be yours, too.’”

That potential to inspire young Vermonters increased this year: For the first time, the four top posts in Vermont’s General Assembly are held by women. 

Speaker Krowinski joins House Majority Leader Emily Long in the House, and the Senate is led by Majority Leader Alison Clarkson and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, who is the first woman and the first openly gay Vermonter in that post.

Yet Vermont’s progressive reputation may not completely square with reality. It is the only state that hasn’t sent a woman to Congress. Madeleine Kunin, Vermont’s first female governor, says some factors haven’t changed since she served three terms, from 1985 to 1991.      

“The big challenge is still the whole question of who takes care of the children,” Ms. Kunin says.

“We need more good child care, we need more flexibility in the workplace and more recognition that women often have two jobs: taking care of the family and being at work.” But, she adds, “I think the more women you see in elected and leadership positions, even in the private sector, the more you’ll get.” 

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur/Courtesy of Molly Gray
Lt. Gov. Molly Gray sits in the Vermont Senate Chamber in Montepelier after she was sworn in on Jan. 7, 2021. “Here in Vermont, we know that women ... are deeply impacted when the cost of child care, or the availability of paid family leave, force them to leave the workforce,” Ms. Gray says.

Networking results

One group determined to see that trend continue is Emerge, a nationwide organization that recruits, trains, and provides a supportive network for Democratic women to run for public office. Its Vermont chapter began seven years ago. Speaker Krowinski and Ms. Balint are both Emerge alums, and in November, Molly Gray became the first Emerge candidate to win statewide office with her election as lieutenant governor. 

Ms. Gray says issues affecting women were a key part of why she ran for office, and she notes a prior experience as an example of this.

“My mother had been hospitalized,” Ms. Gray says. “I had used up all my vacation and sick days to care for her, and I was going to be in the tough place of choosing between caring for her or paying the bills, if I was to take unpaid leave.”

The issue has been a glaring one during the pandemic, Ms. Gray emphasized. In January, 73% of Vermonters receiving regular unemployment insurance benefits were women, according to the Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office. 

“Here in Vermont, we know that women often are providing child care, caring for older Vermonters and family members, and are deeply impacted when the cost of child care, or the availability of paid family leave, force them to leave the workforce,” Ms. Gray says. 

For Ms. Balint, the struggle between parental duties and holding public office is familiar. When she started in Vermont’s General Assembly in her 40s, her children were in preschool and kindergarten. 

“Those first few years were rough,” she recalls. 

For those considering legislative office in Vermont, affordability is an obstacle, Senate Majority Leader Clarkson says. The Legislature is in session from January to mid-May, and the pay is $742.92 per week. 

“When we’re trying to recruit people, it’s a major barrier,” Ms. Clarkson says.

Last year, before COVID-19 hit Vermont, a paid family leave proposal last year failed when a veto override came up short by one vote. This year, paid family leave bills have been introduced in the Vermont House and Senate. The Biden administration has proposed universal paid sick days and 12 days of paid family and medical leave.

With the Legislature working remotely, crafting complex legislation like paid family leave can take longer than usual, according to House Majority Leader Long. “I’m hoping that the federal government is going to step up and prioritize this,” she says. 

Speaker Krowinski, the outgoing executive director of Emerge in Vermont, says women approached about running for office often ask about the work-life balancing act. To help, Speaker Krowinski says the state is looking at changing rules to allow candidates to use fundraising dollars to pay for child care during campaign events, many of which happen in the evening. 

Changes like that may help pave the way for more women to join the 150-member House and the 30-member Senate. Along with gender balance, Ms. Balint is also concerned about the age gap. 

“Just look at my chamber,” the Senate president says. “One-third of the seats are taken up by women, and the vast majority of people are in their 60s or 70s. It’s not representative of Vermont as a whole.” 

According to 2019 federal government data, the state is 50.6% female and 20% of the population is 65 or older. In 2020, 40% of Vermont legislators were women, in a year when that percentage saw a slight increase nationally, reaching just over 29%, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

There are a number of bills in the Legislature this year intended to address racial equity issues. Also, in recognition of the need to address systemic racism in state government, a Cabinet-level position and racial equity advisory panel were created in 2019. 

Thinking local, too

Yet while legislative posts are important, so is local politics. Ms. Clarkson also encourages women to seek public office in their communities.

“I can think of far too many select boards in Windsor County that are all male, and that is not representative of the populations in those towns,” Ms. Clarkson says, referring to her home county. 

In fact, a number of legislative leaders credit local experience with preparing them for higher office. That’s true for House Minority Leader Pattie McCoy, who was town clerk and treasurer in Poultney for 26 years before being elected in 2014. Now in her fourth term, Ms. McCoy became assistant minority leader on her way to her party’s top job in the House. 

“I was mentored by my male colleagues in actually taking over as House minority leader two years ago,” she says. “I was never discouraged from doing it, just the opposite. They asked me.”

Ms. McCoy acknowledged Emerge has done well for the Democratic side, and adds that 3 out of 8 new Republican members are women.  

Less partisanship 

Vermont’s leadership milestone also reflects what’s happening on a national level. And as that glass ceiling continues to break, Vermont may also stand out when it comes to working across the partisan divide. It’s often said Vermont is like a small town: Everyone’s a friend of a friend. People disagree, but they have the debate, and usually friendships can remain intact afterward.

Legislative leaders are optimistic about the session and their ability to work with Republican Gov. Phil Scott to get Vermont through a challenging 2021. Rife partisanship is more of an issue nationally, Ms. McCoy says. 

“I don’t think you see a contentiousness between parties as you do at the national level,” Ms. McCoy notes.

Ms. McCoy and Ms. Long, while on different sides of the aisle, both started their first terms in January 2015 and, though disagreements happen, they’ve enjoyed a strong working relationship. 

“We don’t get anything done without supporting each other in this work,” Ms. Long says. “And we’re going to continue to do that.”

Points of Progress

What's going right

Why UK’s high court is letting Nigerians sue Shell

The Monitor’s roundup of global progress this week includes changing views of community, from a neighborhood in Atlanta to the voice of Nigerians in the U.K. to refugees in Colombia.

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Why UK’s high court is letting Nigerians sue Shell

Staff
Places where the world saw progress, for the March 8, 2021 Monitor Weekly.

1. United States

A new community-owned real estate model that targets both residential and commercial gentrification has launched in southwest Atlanta. The Guild, a co-living organization, has purchased a building on Dill Avenue in Capital View, a historically Black neighborhood. During the Great Recession, residents say that investors bought up much of the commercial real estate but have done little to promote growth. The Guild is hoping to set a precedent that will give residents agency in their own neighborhoods. It plans to redevelop the Dill Avenue property with retail on the ground level – including a grocery store, which the neighborhood requested – and 15 to 17 housing units on the upper floors. Anyone in the property’s ZIP code can contribute up to $100 a month toward shares in the community real estate trust. Resident investors get a return based on an annual dividend and the current share price, which will reflect property values in the neighborhood. Coordinators anticipate gaining 250 to 350 investors, many from low- or middle-income families, over the next decade. (Next City)

2. Nigeria

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom will allow tens of thousands of Nigerians to sue Royal Dutch Shell in English courts for repeated oil spills that contaminated land and groundwater in the Niger Delta, representing a watershed moment for those seeking greater accountability for multinational companies. The court found that the parent company is arguably responsible for the actions of its overseas subsidiaries. Locals are saying that years of oil spills, which Shell claims were caused by sabotage, have never been adequately addressed, and Royal Dutch Shell owed them a duty of care as the global corporation had significant control over its Nigerian subsidiary.

Ron Bousso/Reuters/File
Nigerians hope to hold Royal Dutch Shell accountable for a series of oil spills in the Niger Delta, pictured on Aug. 1, 2018.

“Increasingly impoverished communities are seeking to hold powerful corporate actors to account and this judgment will significantly increase their ability to do so,” said a partner at the law firm representing 42,500 Nigerian farmers and fishermen affected by the spills. “U.K. common law is also used in countries like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand so this is a very helpful precedent.” (Reuters)

3. China

Emissions of CFC-11 have declined after a precipitous spike, suggesting Chinese authorities have followed through on promises to crack down on its use. Once a popular coolant in air conditioners and in the manufacture of insulating foams, CFC-11 is considered a Class 1 ozone-depleting substance and is banned under the Montreal Protocol. In 2018, researchers documented five years of an unsettling increase in East Asian emissions of the outlawed industrial chemical, and further investigations pinpointed Shandong, China, as a primary source. Even as China denied the severity of the problem, it enacted policy changes and prosecutions targeting the CFC-11 trade. “[It’s] exciting to see atmospheric studies confirming that on-the-ground intelligence and subsequent enforcement have culminated in a spectacular climate win,” said Avipsa Mahapatra, a climate campaign lead for the Environmental Investigation Agency. (Nature, The New York Times)

4. Colombia

Colombia will grant temporary legal status to Venezuelan migrants, President Iván Duque announced – a move praised by refugee advocates around the world. At least 5 million Venezuelans have fled their country since 2015, according to the United Nations. Of the 1.7 million in Colombia, almost half do not have legal status. The new protections will last 10 years, making it easier for migrants to work, apply for permanent residency, and access public services. The change comes after Mr. Duque reversed a policy stating Venezuelans without legal status would be barred from Colombia’s COVID-19 vaccination drive.

Fernando Vergara/AP
Venezuelan migrant Katerine Valero and her children rest by a strip mall in Bogotá, Colombia, Feb. 9, 2021. Many of the estimated 1.7 million Venezuelans living in Colombia lack documentation.

The new protections could create more tension between migrants and their hosts. Still, global commentators are hailing the move as both pragmatic and humane. Following the announcement, there was a sense of relief among Venezuelans throughout the country. Andrea Guerra, a migrant who arrived in Colombia as a teenager three years ago, told The Guardian, “Now I can apply for real jobs, and I can think about building a real life here.” (BBC, The Guardian)

5. United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates’ Mars probe has reached the red planet, a first for the country and a victory for the mission’s majority-women science team. The Hope probe entered the planet’s orbit in early February and has begun sending photographs back to Earth, which will allow researchers to gather new data about the Martian climate and atmosphere. The UAE is the first Arab nation to complete an interplanetary mission.

Christopher Pike/Reuters
Sarah Al Amiri speaks about the Hope probe in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Feb. 9, 2021.

The successful mission also marks women’s place at the forefront of the UAE’s space exploration program as the country works to expand its scientific capabilities and reduce its dependence on oil. Women make up 34% of the Hope mission – compared with 28% of the overall Emirati workforce – and 80% of its science team. “They are there based on merit and based on what they contribute towards the design and development of the mission,” Sarah Al Amiri, chair of the UAE Space Agency, told Deutsche Welle. (Deutsche Welle, BBC)

6. Maldives

The Maldives has outlined the first phase of an ambitious plan to rid the island nation of single-use plastics by 2023. Starting in June 2021, the import of various items including straws, plastic foam lunch boxes, cotton swabs, and small toiletry bottles will be banned. The next phase will prohibit the sale of thin carrier bags, 50- to 200-milliliter toiletry bottles, and PET beverage bottles up to 1 liter in size. Residents and tourists together produce more than 600 million pounds of trash every year, much of it plastic. When that trash gets collected by a barge and moved to a garbage island, government officials estimate 25% falls overboard into the ocean. Early efforts at eliminating plastic bottles by one resort have shown a reduction of daily waste from 6 pounds to ½ pound per person. The phases are determined by a committee that includes civil society representatives and policymakers who have consulted with the public. “Us doing it is not going to save the planet,” said former President Mohamed Nasheed, who helped draft the legislation to eliminate single-use plastics. “We can only be an example.” (Raajje, NBC)

A letter from

Austin, Texas

After a year without museums, a reporter steps into a gallery

When viewing paintings in person nourishes your joy, what happens when you have to do without? For our Los Angeles-based writer, the city’s gradual reopening means a return to art. 

Mark
Mark Sheehan
Reporter Francine Kiefer enjoys German painter Gerhard Richter’s Cage paintings (2006), inspired by LA native and avant-garde composer John Cage, at Gagosian gallery in Beverly Hills, California, on Feb. 23, 2021. Three of the six paintings from left to right are “Cage 4,” “Cage 2,” “Cage 3."

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Museums the world over are struggling during the pandemic. But it’s particularly acute in Los Angeles, a global center for contemporary art where the pandemic has kept doors closed for a year. 

Which is why I jumped to make an appointment to see the paintings of German artist Gerhard Richter after I read a review about them. The exhibit is at the Gagosian gallery in Beverly Hills. Galleries, it turns out, are an exception to the museum pandemic restriction because they are commercial entities. No matter that I knew very little about Mr. Richter, one of the world’s greatest living painters. No matter that the predominant color of the massive paintings was described as gray. It would match the pallor of my soul, which has been starved for art.

The series of six “Cage” paintings was such a surprise. In the review, one of the exhibit’s more colorful pieces appeared dull and flat, while in person it’s brushed with lime green. “I love these. I just love these!” I announced aloud to no one else in the gallery but my husband.

As a gallery spokesperson wrote to me in an email: “Art is always a balm in eras of crisis, and now is no different.”

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After a year without museums, a reporter steps into a gallery

California became the first state to institute a lockdown last March, and for nearly a year, museums in Los Angeles have been closed. Unlike every other large city in the United States, this cultural capital has not opened museum doors since the pandemic restrictions began. Not even temporarily. Not even to a limited number of visitors, though the outdoor spaces are allowed to open. 

Which is why I jumped to make an appointment to see the paintings of German artist Gerhard Richter after I read a review about them. The exhibit is at the Gagosian gallery in Beverly Hills. Galleries, it turns out, are an exception to the museum pandemic restriction because they are commercial entities. No matter that I knew very little about Mr. Richter, one of the world’s greatest living painters. No matter that the predominant color of the massive paintings was described as gray. It would match the pallor of my soul, which has been starved for art.

Museums the world over are struggling during the pandemic. But it’s particularly acute in LA, a global center for contemporary art hit hard by the pandemic. Its scene of artists, galleries, and museums is exploding with new activity – or was in early 2020. Museum directors are especially frustrated because other indoor spaces, such as shopping malls, are open. The California Association of Museums has appealed to the state to allow reopening with safety measures and limited capacity, and many in the field describe museums as an oasis of inspiration and healing. 

“Visitors have been ecstatic not only to see art in person, but specifically to see these masterpieces by Gerhard Richter,” writes a Gagosian spokesperson in an email. The paintings were part of a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that was cut short due to the pandemic. “Art is always a balm in eras of crisis,” adds the spokesperson, “and now is no different.”

I can attest to that.

Apart from the standard art history class in college, I never studied art. But I grew up on museums in Washington, D.C., and gallery-going is an integral part of my life. I travel for art – a family reunion at a Van Gogh show in New York as a young adult; another trip to New York, decades later, to walk beneath Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s saffron “Gates” in Central Park; an unforgettable few days in San Francisco with my husband to see “A Bigger Exhibition” by David Hockney – my all-time favorite contemporary artist.

To make up for the pandemic art deficit, my husband and I have visited outdoor sculpture gardens. A friend has a colorful piece in a public space overlooking the ocean in Newport Beach. And UCLA is known for its comprehensive sculpture garden by 20th-century greats. On a Sunday afternoon last summer, picnickers among the works created their own lazy scene like the famous one by 19th-century French pointillist Georges Seurat at the Art Institute of Chicago.

I even watched a webinar about Michelangelo’s women in the Sistine Chapel. But nothing beats coming face-to-face with six giant abstract canvases, as I did at the Gagosian on Feb. 23.

The space alone lifted my spirits – a large white room the size of a barn, with a soaring ceiling of open rafters, and one long wall of frosted windows admitting a gentle light.

Mark Sheehan
An entryway at Gagosian opens to the exhibit hall displaying "Cage 1" (2006), one of the six large abstract canvases by German painter Gerhard Richter.

And the paintings themselves were such a surprise. Printed in the Los Angeles Times review, one of the exhibit’s more colorful pieces appeared dull and flat, while in person it’s brushed with lime green. Even the high-quality presentation on the gallery’s website could not do justice to the rich colors, topography of layered paints and grooves, and reflective surfaces that a viewer could only realize in the room itself. These paintings actually surged with action – wide swaths and narrow lines moved up, down, and across an inexact grid.

Mr. Richter based this series, the “Cage” paintings (2006), on John Cage, born in Los Angeles and an influential, avant-garde composer and philosopher of the 20th century. But for the viewer, art is subjective. I love to hike, and what I saw and felt was nature everywhere. Each painting was like going for a walk, or flying over or through a landscape. The predominant green of “Cage 1” appeared to me like a bed of beautiful, soft moss. I wanted to jump into the canvas and lie down in it. Fiery red exploded like a volcano in “Cage 4,” and a silvery section in “Cage 3” beckoned me to swim, as I would in a freshwater lake.

Part of the wonder of going to an art exhibition is also learning about the artist. It was the headline on the review that made me realize I knew some of Mr. Richter’s work, even if I could not recall his name on my own. He is “the squeegee” artist (and much more than that).

Wanting to learn more, I emailed a cousin in London who has worked professionally in the art world for years. He shared a story of visiting Mr. Richter once in his art studio near Cologne, Germany. The artist showed how he created his largest abstract works, often starting with a farbfeld – one of his grids of different colors – which he then scrapes with an enormous, window-scraper type of tool. My cousin described Mr. Richter, who is nearing 90, as profoundly skilled, authoritative yet kind, with very little ego.

I responded to all of this at the exhibition, announcing aloud several times, “I love these. I just love these!” to no one else but my husband. We were all alone in this glorious space. During the pandemic, the gallery has followed county capacity limits by setting up an appointment system, which allows private viewings – initially to a selective group. It’s been averaging about 30 visitors a day. 

On March 2, Gagosian opens to the public, still by appointment, so more people can experience the release from all things pandemic, politics, or whatever else may be weighing them down. May the museums soon follow.

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Biden’s first use of force overseas

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In one of his first concrete actions as U.S. president, Joe Biden ordered his first use of lethal military force on Feb. 25. He sent two war jets to Syria where they bombed facilities used by Iran-supported militias. President Biden is now the seventh consecutive U.S. president to order strikes in the Middle East.

Two days later, he explained to Congress that the bombings were necessary as a reprisal against those militias for a Feb. 15 rocket attack in Iraq that injured an American service member. It was also meant as deterrence.

What these actions indicate are the qualities of leadership that Mr. Biden might use as chief executive and commander in chief over the next four years. In asserting a responsibility on an issue of war, was he transparent to Americans about his goals? Did he deliberate enough with top members of Congress to form a consensus on the use of force? Was he disciplined enough to stay within the law and not escalate a conflict?

By being forthright in his justifications, Mr. Biden has earned enough trust with Congress for the two branches to define the proper thresholds and responsibilities for the use of force overseas.

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Biden’s first use of force overseas

Satellite image (copyright) 2021 Maxar Technologies/ via REUTERS
A satellite view shows destroyed buildings at the Iraq-Syria border after U.S. airstrikes Feb. 25.

In one of his first concrete actions as U.S. president, Joe Biden ordered his first use of lethal military force on Feb. 25. He sent two war jets to Syria where they dropped seven bombs on facilities used by Iran-supported militias. An estimated 17 people were killed. President Biden, who has warned of a heavy reliance on American military intervention, is now the seventh consecutive U.S. president to order strikes in the Middle East.

Two days later, he explained to Congress that the bombings were necessary as a reprisal against those militias for a Feb. 15 rocket attack in Iraq that injured an American service member and killed a U.S. contractor. It was also meant as deterrence. “You can’t act with impunity. Be careful,” he said in comments to reporters, sending a message to Iran and its armed proxies.

What these actions indicate are the qualities of leadership that Mr. Biden might use as chief executive and commander in chief over the next four years. In asserting a responsibility on an issue of war, was he transparent to Americans about his goals? Did he deliberate enough with top members of Congress to form a consensus on the use of force? Was he disciplined enough to stay within the law and not escalate a conflict?

That last question may be of most interest to lawmakers as the administration provides more details to Congress about the airstrikes during classified briefings this week. Democrats have been more critical than Republicans, especially as they want the president to focus on domestic needs. Some claim the strikes were offensive, not defensive. Others cite insufficient notice before the attack. Given how much Congress has walked away from its war-making powers and allowed presidents since the 1940s to act unilaterally with military actions, both parties are curious about Mr. Biden’s legal justifications.

One of his justifications, not used since Bill Clinton was president, was to claim an inherent right of self-defense for U.S. soldiers and their partners under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. Mr. Biden did not justify the attacks by citing a 2001 law authorizing force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks or 2003 law relating to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Yet his most novel reason was that Syria was “unwilling or unable” to prevent the use of its territory by the militia groups held responsible for the attacks on Americans in Iraq, where there are about 2,500 U.S. troops.

Congress has not explicitly authorized U.S. military action in Syria. And a discussion of this issue may be a starting point for Mr. Biden to show a different kind of leadership by working with Congress to refine the legal underpinnings for future military action.

By being forthright in his justifications, Mr. Biden has earned enough trust with Congress for the two branches to define the proper thresholds and responsibilities for the use of force overseas. Qualities of leadership do matter on issues of war. With shared reason and wisdom, the separate powers of government can unite in deciding how military action can best achieve peace.

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.

Walk through the mirage

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Letting God, good, inform how we see ourselves and others empowers us to overcome seeming roadblocks in our lives.

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Walk through the mirage

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

You are going along the highway on a bright sunny day, and you see what looks like a lake right in the path of the road. Because you understand the nature of a mirage, you drive right through it undeterred, knowing it isn’t real and never was.

There is a lesson in this that can help us overcome all kinds of apparent roadblocks in our lives, such as discord or sickness. Christian Science explains that we all inherently have a spiritual sense – a capacity to understand and acknowledge God – which helps us discern what is always true and real, even when circumstances are deceiving.

This spiritual reality includes the supremacy of God, good, and our true nature as God’s spiritual creation. Referring to the capacity of each of us to discern this reality, Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, wrote, “No evidence before the material senses can close my eyes to the scientific proof that God, good, is supreme” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 277).

This doesn’t always appear to be the case. We may feel afraid, overwhelmed by chaos and uncertainty, prideful, or self-centered. Ruminating on such feelings, however, creates more division, fear, and isolation. This is a wake-up call to reconsider what is God’s truth and what is mirage.

The truth is that all God’s children are spiritual, and not buried in hopelessness, anger, and frustration. God, good, is supreme, and all God’s children are designed to glorify God. Anything counter to this divine goodness is not legitimate. Understanding this in some measure, we gain the wisdom and courage to walk right through this mirage.

This was the experience of a friend of mine who was very unhappy about a situation in her family. She began seeing a particular family member as an enemy, which led her to unconsciously create even more reasons to steer clear of this person. This narrative started spiraling in its own negativity.

But was this akin to falling for a mirage? Christian Science explains that God is the one legitimate Mind of us all. Thoughts that are unlike God, good, come from the counterfeit of this divine Mind, which Christian Science calls “mortal mind.” Mrs. Eddy’s primary text on Christian Science, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” states: “Mortal mind sees what it believes as certainly as it believes what it sees” (p. 86). Everything that mortal mind presents is a mirage, not the spiritual reality.

By recognizing this, my friend was able to see that the way she was thinking about her family member had no real basis in spiritual truth. Her capacity to love herself and others as God loved grew. Soon after these realizations, the relationship with the family member also harmonized.

Truth and Love are both synonyms for God, and are reflected in actions both gentle and powerful. Love annuls corrosive arguments and neutralizes emotionalism, replacing it with the harmonious fact that each of us is loved and cherished as God’s reflection. You can tell when Truth and Love are leading, as Truth reveals what is spiritual, permanent, harmonious, and true about one another, which unites – it does not divide.

Knowing the supremacy of Truth and Love, we can claim God’s ever-presence for all time – for the past, for now and always. We can walk right through the self-deceived mirage that claims clashing personalities and discord are inevitable, and realize everyone’s untouched, unchanged spiritual identity, which brings progress and peace.

Viewfinder

Reflecting on a craft

Sanna Irshad Mattoo/Reuters
A Kashmiri artisan is reflected in a mirror as he heats up a copper plate during its galvanizing process inside a workshop in downtown Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, on March 1, 2021.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us today. Might a 9/11-style commission be a way to look into the events of the Capitol insurrection calmly and constructively? Tomorrow, our Christa Case Bryant will examine the idea – and why it might be hard in the current climate.

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