2021
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Monitor Daily Podcast

May 06, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

How a Missouri scholarship winner pays it forward

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Joshua Nelson worked hard to get into college.

The senior at St. Charles West High School has excellent grades and is a three-year varsity basketball player, a huddle leader for Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a member of the National Society of Black Engineers, president of his school’s Multicultural Achievement Committee, and a tutor at the Boys & Girls Clubs of St. Charles County.

So, it’s not too surprising that last week he was awarded a full ride to Southeast Missouri State University on a president’s scholarship.

But as impressive as that may be, it’s the 18-year-old’s response to getting the scholarship that’s turning heads. He’s now giving away the $1,000 he’d saved for college. Mr. Nelson is setting up a scholarship for one of his classmates. And he’s inviting others to match his gift.

Talk about acing the character test. At his age, I could always find a way to spend $1,000 – on my car, my girlfriend, a ski trip, etc. Not Mr. Nelson. He’s the student who teaches by example. A young man who already understands that you gain the most by giving. 

“Honestly, it makes me feel on top of the world,” he told KSDK-TV in St. Louis. “The fact that I can just help somebody a little bit makes me feel great, and I really want to see other people succeed.”

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The ‘big lie,’ Liz Cheney, and the future of the Republican Party

The Trump loyalty test continues to play a key role in the Republican Party, and that allegiance appears to be based on a foundation of falsehoods. 

David

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The GOP’s move to oust Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming from its leadership ranks for rejecting the false belief that the 2020 election was fraudulent appears all but certain. It is also just the latest example of the “big lie’s” spread. In Arizona, a recount sponsored by state Republicans is apparently looking at bizarre conspiracy theories of votes shipped in from Asia. State voting bills, such as the one passed recently in Georgia, would allow more direct partisan legislative control of election machinery.

In statements and public appearances, former President Donald Trump continues to insist, without evidence, that the election was stolen from him. As he solidifies his hold over the GOP and pushes aside such discordant voices as Representative Cheney he appears to be setting up a situation where in future elections one party may question the legitimacy of any vote it loses.

“In a macro sense, a country in which election results remain controversial months after it’s over, that’s a country that’s in trouble,” says David Karol, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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The ‘big lie,’ Liz Cheney, and the future of the Republican Party

Melina Mara/The Washington Post/AP
Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming arrives for President Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress, April 28, 2021. Ms. Cheney, who voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump, is expected to be ousted from her GOP leadership position.

The U.S. political system made it through a presidential election held amid a pandemic and the loser’s attempts to subvert the counting of votes. But threats to American democracy haven’t faded away. If anything, some may be more entrenched than ever.

In particular, the “big lie” pushed by former President Donald Trump and his allies – falsely holding that the 2020 vote was fraudulent – continues to grow and infiltrate the Republican Party, long after it inspired insurrectionists to mob the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. 

The GOP’s move to oust Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming from its leadership ranks for rejecting these false beliefs is just the latest example of the Big Lie’s spread. In Arizona, a recount sponsored by state Republicans is apparently looking at bizarre conspiracy theories of votes shipped in from Asia. State voting bills, such as the one passed recently in Georgia, would allow more direct partisan legislative control of election machinery.

In statements and public appearances, Mr. Trump continues to insist, without evidence, that the election was stolen from him. As he solidifies his hold over the GOP and pushes aside such discordant voices as Representative Cheney he appears to be setting up a situation where in future elections one party may question the legitimacy of any vote it loses.

“In a macro sense, a country in which election results remain controversial months after it’s over, that’s a country that’s in trouble,” says David Karol, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Ross D. Franklin/AP
Former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett talks about overseeing a 2020 election ballot audit ordered by the Republican-led Arizona Senate. Current Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs expressed grave concerns about what she says were irregularities, including computers and ballots left unattended and untrained workers using different methods of counting.

“Reverence for the rule of law”

Representative Cheney’s ouster from the position of chair of the House Republican Conference, the third-ranking party post in the chamber, now seems all but inevitable. Second-ranking leadership member Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana has called for her removal and she has clearly lost the support of Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, who defended her in February after she voted to impeach Mr. Trump on charges he helped instigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

During impeachment proceedings Representative McCarthy himself said that Mr. Trump should “accept his share of responsibility” for the attack. But like some other Republicans who criticized Mr. Trump at the time, such as former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, Representative McCarthy quickly downplayed that position in the face of Mr. Trump’s continued popularity with Republican voters and his anger with party figures who question his false election statements.

House Republicans have a real chance of retaking the majority in 2022 midterms. With that in mind, many in the caucus say they have grown frustrated that Representative Cheney continues to speak out against Mr. Trump in interviews and criticize fellow Republicans for implicitly accepting the former president’s falsehoods.

Representative Cheney herself maintains that remaining silent about an attack she and her colleagues witnessed will do profound, long-term damage to both the Republican Party and the country.

“I am a conservative Republican, and the most conservative of conservative values is reverence for the rule of law,” wrote Representative Cheney in a blunt opinion piece Wednesday in The Washington Post.

In an electoral sense the uproar over Representative Cheney is unlikely to matter, notes Professor Karol, who studies American parties, interest groups, and political development. Despite her lineage she is not a well-known figure among the electorate at large. The status of party House leadership is not a big issue per se. The next election is a year and a half away, plenty of time for even high-information voters to forget her ouster.

But the affair does demonstrate that remaining critical of Mr. Trump for long is dangerous for ambitious Republicans. If there was ever a civil war within the GOP between establishment figures and Trump supporters, then the Trump supporters have won.

“The fact now is that there won’t be anyone prominent in House leadership who won’t stand up and defend Trump. That’s important,” says Professor Karol.

It also shows the apparent declining importance of ideology within the party. Representative Cheney is a model conservative; in her opinion piece Wednesday she decried the “ridiculous wokeness” of Democrats. She voted in line with Mr. Trump’s policy positions 93% of the time, according to a FiveThirtyEight data analysis

The front-runner to replace her, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, began her congressional career in 2015 as a moderate. She voted with Mr. Trump’s policy positions only 78% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Where Representative Stefanik has surpassed Representative Cheney is in fealty to the former president’s election claims. Prior to the Jan. 6 riot, she released a statement explaining why she would vote against certification of the Electoral College votes. It contained numerous errors, and claimed falsely that 140,000 votes came from underage, dead, or otherwise ineligible voters in one Georgia county alone. The spokesperson for Georgia’s Republican secretary of state told The Washington Post’s fact-checker her claims were “ludicrous.” 

Cyber Ninjas and Maricopa County

During an appearance on Steve Bannon’s radio show this week Representative Stefanik also noted that she fully supports “the audit in Arizona.” 

Republicans in the Arizona state Senate are behind this controversial recount and audit. They subpoenaed 2.1 million ballots from Maricopa County and turned them over to a small cybersecurity firm, Cyber Ninjas, that critics say is not up to the job, and which has been linked to social media posts embracing Mr. Trump’s election falsehoods. 

That recount is running far behind initial time estimates. Justice Department officials have expressed concerns that it may violate federal laws

It is also using a special camera to try to detect whether there are particles of bamboo in ballot paper, according to John Brakey, an official helping oversee the audit. The point is to check a charge made without evidence that some 40,000 ballots were smuggled into Arizona from Asia.

Arizona’s Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs on Wednesday produced a six-page letter of problems she said observers had noted at the audit, including unattended and unsecured laptops, and untrained workers using different procedures for counting.

“There doesn’t appear to be any plan or consistency in the audit procedures,” she wrote to former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, a Republican who is acting as an audit spokesperson. 

Meanwhile, some of the Republican-initiated voting bills enacted or under consideration in states across the country would increase the ability of state legislatures to control or affect election procedures.

The recently passed Georgia bill, for instance, removes the secretary of state from control of the State Election Board, replacing him or her with a chairman appointed by the Georgia House and Senate. It also empowers the legislature, currently controlled by Republicans, to suspend county or municipal election superintendents and appoint temporary replacements, though the bar for such actions is set high.

Self-reinforcing loop

Added up, where are these things taking the Republican Party, and by extension American democracy as a whole?

“I’m not optimistic in the short to medium term,” says Brian Klaas, an associate professor in global politics at University College London, in an email.

The political dynamics in the Republican Party have created a self-reinforcing authoritarian loop, he says. Telling the truth about the 2020 election is a surefire path to pariah status for GOP officials. Repeating Mr. Trump’s falsehoods about the vote is not just required, but encouraged, in the sense that it can lead to advancement in the party and stardom in conservative media.

Institutional reforms within the party or the American election system could break the link between “authoritarian lunacy” and personal advancement.

“But for now, those reforms seem highly unlikely and I am worried that the Republican trajectory will continue to worsen,” says Professor Klaas. 

Innovations in college aid: The FAFSA maze now includes drive-thru

Do you want fries with that FAFSA form? Our reporter finds colleges are battling inequality by trying new, creative ways to encourage parents and students to apply for financial aid.

David
Courtesy of Get2College
A Get2College drive-thru at Meridian Community College in Meridian, Mississippi, helps students and their families file federal financial aid applications, in February 2021. "We've been pushing hard ... to say we cannot let the class of 2021 get left behind," says program director Ann Hendrick.

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Hoping to avoid more undergraduate enrollment dips, college counselors have hustled students through application cycles, cuing new urgency in completing forms for financial aid. 

College-access groups are offering innovative ways to tackle the complex Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) that most American students must complete to finance their college education. Approaches to overcoming barriers include drive-thru help, virtual guidance, hotlines, and incentives like gift cards and free meals.

Less than half of the high school class of 2021 completed the FAFSA by April 23, a 6.1% drop compared with this time last year, according to the National College Attainment Network. Low-income and high-minority schools show larger declines in completion than other schools. Still, the gap is narrowing incrementally.

For federal aid consideration for the 2021-22 academic year, students must file the FAFSA by June 30, 2022. Though students should complete paperwork as early as possible, it’s never too late, says Rachel Gentry, assistant director of federal relations for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators: “[We] want to ensure that students are able to access every dollar, every ounce of financial aid that they’re eligible for.”

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Innovations in college aid: The FAFSA maze now includes drive-thru

A drive-thru is simple: Pull up in a car, roll down the window, and leave with what you need. Filing for college financial aid is anything but simple.

Combining the two might sound like doing your taxes at a fast food service counter – but college advisers nationwide are breaking barriers with innovations like this to assist in the complex paperwork a large majority of American students must complete to finance their college educations.

Hoping to avoid more undergraduate enrollment dips next fall, college counselors have hustled students through application cycles, cuing new urgency in completing forms for financial aid. College-access groups have offered drive-thrus, virtual guidance, hotlines, and incentives like gift cards and free meals.

Unlike previous years, more of their targeted efforts have lasted into the spring to ensure more students, especially those in greatest need, find the aid that could sweeten the appeal of higher ed.

“We’ve been pushing hard ... to say we cannot let the class of 2021 get left behind,” says Ann Hendrick, Get2College program director at the Woodward Hines Education Foundation. Her organization reimagined the drive-thru model to guide families through financial aid filing in locations around Mississippi.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opens doors to financial aid at the federal, state, and institutional levels. That can take the form of loans, grants, work-study, or scholarships.

FAFSA completion is strongly associated with postsecondary enrollment following high school graduation, reports the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), which promotes access to higher ed for underrepresented students. Students in the lowest income brackets who complete the form are considered more likely to enroll in higher ed than their peers who don’t file – more than twice as likely, shows the latest available federal data gathered in fall 2013. 

Yet less than half (47.8%) of the high school class of 2021 had completed a FAFSA as of April 23, a 6.1% drop compared with this time last year, according to NCAN’s tracker. Low-income and high-minority schools show larger declines in completion rates than other schools. 

Still, the gap is narrowing incrementally – a reversal of the “downward trend” after the pandemic hit last year, says MorraLee Keller, NCAN director of technical assistance.

“Supports this spring and even over the summer are going to be really necessary as students make their definitive post-high school plans,” she says, because students have delayed college-going steps this year.

Family finances may have changed since 2019 – the tax return year required for the current FAFSA – due to pandemic setbacks like job loss. But applicants can alert financial aid offices of such changes for potential adjustments to award offers. A fall survey of National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) member institutions found that over half of respondents reported increases in these professional judgment requests since the pandemic began. 

Though students should complete the FAFSA as early as possible, it’s never too late, says Rachel Gentry, NASFAA assistant director of federal relations: “[We] want to ensure that students are able to access every dollar, every ounce of financial aid that they’re eligible for.”

The FAFSA opened in October, but state and institution deadlines vary. For federal aid consideration this upcoming academic year, students must file by June 30, 2022.

A range of reasons could explain completion delays this year, say experts. Some parents may be reconciling finances that took a hit during the outbreak. And students may be reconsidering the value of higher ed if fall classes remain remote. A recent survey from an education consulting firm found almost 30% of low-income students who planned to skip the FAFSA didn’t think they’d qualify for aid. 

Courtesy of Ask Benji
Students and their families get help in filing for federal financial aid at Mesa Convention Center in Mesa, Arizona, in January 2021. The drive-thru was one of a dozen co-organized by College Success Arizona to offer one-on-one assistance in English and Spanish.

Getting peace of mind

The drive-thrus may not be perfect, but they’re fun, says Ms. Hendrick, whose program Get2College served 122 families in nine drive-thru FAFSA events in Mississippi; 13 more are planned. During the pandemic, the organization expanded remote services, assisting more than 2,000 students and families over the past year through virtual one-on-one FAFSA appointments.     

In the drive-thru program, drivers pull up to computer monitors with WiFi access to log into the online form – a particular help for rural families who lack reliable service at home, says Ms. Hendrick. During roughly 45-minute sessions, the screens are shared with masked staff, who advise while socially distanced on separate devices.  

Ereca Randle, mother of a high school senior in Meridian, Mississippi, says she hopes that, for affordability, her daughter will start her collegiate career at a community college. Still, Ms. Randle recognizes that submitting the FAFSA expands her daughter’s options. 

Ms. Randle sought FAFSA help at an April Get2College drive-thru event at a local community college that had to move indoors due to weather. The “amazing” helper, she says, reviewed her parent portion of the form and followed up directly with her daughter, who couldn’t attend. 

In less than 10 minutes, the assistance offered “peace of mind … just to make sure that we did it correctly,” says Ms. Randle, who left with a Chik-fil-A meal giveaway.

The drive-thrus also offer an opportunity for counseling, says Ms. Hendrick, especially for students who haven’t yet decided on fall plans. Rather than just a “pat on the back” for completing the FAFSA, she says: “It’s more of, ‘Let’s build a relationship … here’s our card, call us.’”

The group inspired a similar effort in Arizona: a dozen drive-thrus hosted in English and Spanish, says Heidi Doxey, program manager for community initiatives at College Success Arizona, which co-organized with Arizona State University and Be A Leader Foundation.

The events served around 800 students and parents, and included printer access for families who lacked one at home. If parents don’t have a social security number – for instance due to immigration status – they must sign and mail a physical copy of the FAFSA instead of filing virtually. 

Exit surveys showed “overwhelming” gratitude for “having a human here to help,” says Ms. Doxey.

Rewarding a finished form

Other programs incentivize submitting the form. North Carolina high schools compete for a $500 grant through an inaugural FAFSA challenge. Michigan students who check off the task get a $10 grocery store gift card.

Michigan College Access Network, which sponsored that incentive, hopes it promotes “excitement and conversation within schools and communities” for filling out the form, says executive director Ryan Fewins-Bliss. 

This year especially, he says, “Everyone is so committed to helping these students access college, and ultimately helping Michigan’s economy post-pandemic.”

Patterns

Tracing global connections

Can US imbue foreign policy realism with moral values?

The Biden administration promises a foreign policy based on morals – protecting human rights and political freedoms, for example. But as our columnist observes, North Korea and Afghanistan suggest the limits of that approach.

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As President Joe Biden takes on a pair of foreign policy challenges that have bedeviled the United States for two decades – Afghanistan and North Korea – he is adopting a policy with a long history: realpolitik.

Not the 19th-century German version, which came to imply hard-nosed pursuit of national interests regardless of moral concerns. But a new iteration, being realistic about the limits to Washington’s unilateral power in today’s world.

The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, and efforts to denuclearize North Korea, have not had their intended effects. So Mr. Biden is trying more modest, measured, and longer-term moves involving U.S. allies.

But his main international preoccupation is a reinvigoration of democratic governance in the face of increasingly assertive autocratic regimes such as China. He is gathering support for such an initiative among U.S. friends around the world.

The intended message of this new brand of realpolitik is that America is trying to defend democracy, not that it is abandoning its values. But the question remains: Where does that policy leave such values in places like Afghanistan?

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Can US imbue foreign policy realism with moral values?

Afghan Ministry of Defense Press Office/AP
A U.S. flag is lowered as American and Afghan soldiers attend a handover ceremony in Helmand province. President Joe Biden has said all U.S. troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021.

Realpolitik, version 2021.

That may best describe the new direction President Joe Biden is taking on a pair of Asian policy challenges that have bedeviled U.S. administrations for the past two decades: Afghanistan and North Korea.

In Afghanistan, Washington is winding down its 20-year military involvement with the intention of pulling out all its troops over the next four months. The new tack on North Korea will focus on seeking a gradual rollback of its nuclear weapons program as part of an eventual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

What they have in common – where the new realpolitik comes into play – is a recognition of the limits to unilateral U.S. power in today’s world, while using Washington’s still superpower-sized resources to build more effective alliances with other democracies.

Old-style realpolitik conveyed something slightly different. The term, literally the “politics of realism,” has its origins in 19th-century Germany and came to imply the hard-nosed pursuit of national interests, regardless of moral concerns such as human rights and political freedoms.

But President Biden – in stark contrast to his predecessor, Donald Trump – has explicitly prioritized such issues in his foreign policy. He has defined the competition between democracies and autocracies as the key struggle of the modern world. Arguing that we’re now at a make-or-break point, he has committed the United States to working with allies to ensure that democratic values and institutions prevail.

Yet the “politics of realism” in Afghanistan – concluding there is no more that American troops can do there, and withdrawing them – does carry serious human rights risks.

The Islamist Taliban have already regained control of about half of the country. They seem, at a minimum, poised to regain a share of national power once U.S. and NATO troops go, potentially threatening freedom of expression, independent political and social organization, and, most dramatically, the rights of women – all of which have taken firmer root since American and allied forces ousted the Taliban regime in 2001.

In North Korea, the human rights picture is even bleaker. That’s not going to change as long as dictator Kim Jong Un remains in place. Amid a deepening economic crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, Mr. Kim clearly views his nuclear arsenal as a key safeguard for political survival.

So why is Washington stepping out of Afghanistan, and stepping back from any immediate push for North Korean nuclear disarmament?

The realpolitik v2021 calculation that Mr. Biden seems to have made is that existing U.S. policies are no longer fit for the purpose, and are not going to deliver either a stable, democratic government in Afghanistan or a non-nuclear North Korea.

So the emphasis is shifting toward a combination of more modest, measured, and longer-term moves.

The administration is still trying to enlist a range of interested external parties in a diplomatic attempt at a power-sharing agreement for Afghanistan. But there’s no sign yet of success.

Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters/File
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un. The Biden administration has chosen to keep diplomatic channels open with North Korea, so as to pursue its policy of gradual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Nor on North Korea. There, Mr. Biden is in effect splitting the difference between his two predecessors. Barack Obama resisted substantive diplomatic engagement, demanding that Pyongyang first demonstrate a serious commitment to abandoning its bid for nuclear weapons. Mr. Trump opted for high-stakes summitry with Mr. Kim, aiming to trade an end to all American economic sanctions for an end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Kim said no to both U.S. leaders.

The Biden administration intends to keep all diplomatic channels to Pyongyang open. But no early breakthrough is either promised or expected. The hope is to chart a more gradual path toward the Trump administration’s goal of full denuclearization.

Mr. Biden’s major policy thrust, meanwhile, is on the longer-term priority he sees as an essential foundation for a whole range of U.S. interests, from economics and security to human rights: leading a resurgence and reinvigoration of democratic governance in the face of increasingly assertive autocratic regimes on the world stage.

The symbolic centerpiece will be a Summit for Democracy he’s planning for later this year. But the day-to-day spadework is already underway.

The president, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and other foreign policy officials have repeatedly raised political and human rights concerns in their dealings with China, Russia, and other autocratic or populist governments.

They’ve also been working to create an explicitly pro-democracy Asian counterweight to China, by strengthening coordination with Japan, South Korea, and India.

Each of those countries was represented in London this week as Mr. Blinken joined a foreign ministers’ conference to prepare for this summer’s summit of Group of Seven economic powers in the United Kingdom. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab echoed Mr. Biden’s own calls for a “cluster of countries” to defend democratic values. Britain has also expressed interest in joining the U.S. in closer political and security coordination with China’s democratic neighbors.

The intended message of this new brand of realpolitik is that America is addressing the longer-term challenge of ensuring a strong, international defense of democracy, not that it is abandoning its political values.

Still, amid what the administration’s own national security review termed “multiple, intersecting crises” around the world, the question remains: Where does realpolitik v2021 leave those values in specific crisis areas like Afghanistan?

Radical stitches: Embroidery gives voice to Latin American activists

Our reporter talks to women who counter expectations about their graceful and delicate needlecraft. Yes, it’s still beautiful, but in their stitches are words of defiance, protests against violence, and demands for progress.

David
Photos courtesy of Des-bordando Feminismos
In late February 2021, a network for feminist embroiderers put out a call on its Instagram account @desbordandofeminismos, inviting followers to send in photos of their embroidery showing the challenges women confront across Latin America, and the rallying cries they wanted the world to see on International Women's Day. Clockwise from upper left: "I'm screaming" (Uruguay), "My voice exists" (Peru), "Let them say your name" (Chile), "We are no longer alone" (Argentina), "I exist because I resist" (Mexico), and "I will resist" (Chile).

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Embroidery has a long history in the Americas – a profession once reserved for men, later foisted onto women as a symbol of domesticity. But in recent decades, women have reclaimed the craft as a tool for peaceful, powerful protest, even amid the pandemic.

Just this week, after Mexico City metro cars crashed when an overpass collapsed, embroidery in honor of victims appeared online. Punctuated by orange and green lines, the same colors as the metro, it read, “corruption kills.” Other artists use needlework to call attention to femicide, the ongoing legacy of colonization, or to encourage others to reclaim their history.

There’s irony, some artists say, in using something so often associated with meekness to send messages of anger and empowerment. 

María Belén Tapia de la Fuente, a Chilean living in Madrid, joined a group of women she met online during the pandemic to talk about the power of embroidery as a political tool.

“When you embroider, you often have to undo earlier stitches,” she explains. “We are undoing the stitches” that society has sewn to create the current world – full of violence and inequality – “and stitching our own stories instead.”

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Radical stitches: Embroidery gives voice to Latin American activists

Before the pandemic, Lala Abichain Balberde loved to spend free time embroidering with friends in public squares in her city of Córdoba, Argentina. The craft could be meditative, but the highlight was when strangers approached to see what she was working on.

“[I] always adorn things with colors and flowers and it’s really gorgeous, and people approach and say, ‘How beautiful is this!’” she says. “Then they read the text. And it’s so often just horrible, hideous.”

Ms. Abichain Balberde’s art is an act of protest, raising awareness about Latin America’s high rates of violence and femicides. It isn’t what passersby expect – and that’s exactly why “it opens up a conversation,” she says.

Embroidery has a long history in the Americas – a profession once reserved for men, later foisted onto women as a symbol of domesticity. But in recent decades, women have reclaimed the craft as a tool for peaceful, powerful protest, even amid the pandemic.

“Virtual protests” on International Women’s Day on March 8 invited followers to embroider messages “for and by” women, while groups on Instagram stitched masks with words or emotions they often feel muted from expressing, like “fury” or “not quietly, no.” There are online embroidery conventions, where participants embroider the life stories of victims of violence – an act of resistance and memory. Others post embroidered art online about colonization’s ongoing legacy, in hopes of helping others reclaim their culture and history.

There’s irony, some artists say, in using something so often associated with domesticity to send messages full of anger and frustration – and empowerment.

“An innocent practice can convert itself into a weapon that won’t kill anyone but will teach many,” says Ms. Abichain Balberde. She belongs to an Instagram collective called Des-Bordando Feminismos, made up of women stretching from Chile and Argentina to Mexico.

Courtesy of @Quiriquitana
On March 2, 2021, the "textile activism" Instagram account @Quiriquitana posted this embroidery, which reads, "Justice for Berta," referring to Indigenous land rights activist Berta Cáceres, who was killed in Honduras in 2016.

Powerful stitches

“Raquel Padilla Ramos. A woman who loves, believes, and hopes. Victim of femicide on November 7, 2019,” reads a message embroidered in slanting, fuchsia letters on a white handkerchief, made by a member of the Mexican feminist embroidery collective Fuentes Rojas last year.

A black-lettered embroidery punctuated by orange and green lines – the same colors of the Mexico City Line 12 metro cars that crashed after an overpass collapsed May 3 – appeared online the morning after the deadly accident, stating simply, “corruption kills.”

“In the face of government abandonment, popular organizing,” says a small sampler embroidered with a boat and floodwaters. Lara Bohórquez, of the Instagram account Quiriquitana, created the piece in the aftermath of two deadly hurricanes that hit Honduras late last year, amid a sluggish government response.

Since the late 1990s, women in Latin America have increasingly used embroidery to draw attention to acts of violence – against women, migrants, and citizens caught in the crosshairs of drug trafficking or forgotten by elected officials. Often their work is hung clothesline-style in public squares, or near political marches. Other groups have taken to embroidering political messages while riding public transportation, often sparking conversations with other commuters. But their activism has perhaps become even more visible over the course of the pandemic, as life was pushed indoors – and online.

María Belén Tapia de la Fuente, a Chilean living in Madrid, joined a group of women she met online during the pandemic to talk about the power of embroidery as a political tool.

“The intention isn’t to embroider for beauty but for political change,” she says of Des-Bordando Feminismos, made up of roughly 20 women and growing. “What we want to share is the process, the reflection that goes hand in hand with the craft,” she says.

“The decision to use embroidery is significant because it comes from this ‘femininized’ side of things. It’s not traditionally associated with power,” says Alejandra Mayela Flores Enriquez, who teaches art history at the Iberoamericana University in Mexico City and is completing her doctorate thesis on the history of embroidery and feminism.

“On the other hand, you put your body into the act of embroidery, your time, your concentration. It carries pain; sometimes it carries literal blood because you get pricked in the process,” she says.

Ms. Tapia de la Fuente sees other elements of power, too. “When you embroider, you often have to undo earlier stitches,” she explains. “We are undoing the stitches” that society has sewn to create the current world – full of violence and inequality – “and stitching our own stories instead.”

Courtesy of @Quiriquitana
The "textile activism" Instagram account @Quiriquitana posts embroidery about social resistance and the legacy of colonialism in Honduras. Clockwise from upper left, the works read: "heal your soul," "existence," "solidarity," "respect," "be kind," and "fight."

Women’s work?

Embroidery is often associated with women. But for hundreds of years it was considered “men’s work,” says Ms. Flores.

One of the first professional guilds in Mexico established during Spanish colonization was for embroidery, she says. Its central rule? No girls allowed. But that didn’t mean women weren’t creating on their own. Later, the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme, where embroidery became part of what defined a “good” girl. It was central to women’s education, and being a talented embroiderer was linked with being pious, virginal, and a promising mother and wife.

Yet embroidery also gave women a platform, says Ms. Flores, who runs an Instagram account that posts historical examples of embroidery. There’s evidence embroidery was used to make women’s voices heard, long before they were viewed as political actors. When Benito Juárez was president of Mexico in the late 1800s, for example, he took steps to diminish the Roman Catholic Church’s power within government. Many women sent him messages of support – embroidered onto handkerchiefs.

During the so-called Dirty Wars that ravaged Argentina and Chile in the 1970s and ’80s, activism and embroidery became even more overtly linked. The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina wore handkerchiefs embroidered with information about their missing children and grandchildren. In Chile, where most voices of protest were silenced by intimidation or death, groups of women created arpilleras – intricately embroidered burlap sacks – depicting the atrocities taking place during Augusto Pinochet’s rule. They were exported around the world. 

“They played a really important role because they let people outside of Chile know about the situation,” says Katia Olalde Rico, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Morelia who focuses on the intersection of embroidery and protest. “It showed how so many didn’t take textiles seriously, so they weren’t an object of censorship. At least at first.”

“A moment for ourselves”

Ms. Bohórquez, who stitched the hurricane sampler, turned to embroidery at a time of personal crisis. She was studying toward her bachelor’s degree, but “I didn’t feel productive. I didn’t feel like I was serving society,” says Ms. Bohórquez, based in Tegucigalpa, the mountainous capital of Honduras. “So I started embroidering.” She found stitching her thoughts and frustrations therapeutic, touching on themes of capitalism, politics, and violence against women. When the pandemic hit she decided to launch Quiriquitana, where she tells the story of Honduras through embroidery: hurricanes, political corruption, violence, lost traditions, Indigenous history.

“Embroidery can give us tools to think about our lives in a new way. We are putting ourselves out there all the time, but we don’t give ourselves a moment to evaluate how we feel, what we think, what we are doing,” she says. It’s easy to get consumed by frustration and anger over the government, or sexism, she adds, but “embroidery can give us a moment for ourselves.” 

Both embroidery and Latin American women “are undervalued, made invisible,” she says. “There’s power in reclaiming that.”

In Pictures

This Japanese artist wants you to see plants differently

Art can give us a different perspective on nature and ourselves. In this photo essay, we see whimsy, joy, and vibrancy in the works of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.

David
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“Dancing Pumpkin” is part of the exhibition “Kusama: Cosmic Nature,” which celebrates the work of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, at the New York Botanical Garden.
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This Japanese artist wants you to see plants differently

A giant yellow-and-black pumpkin cuts a striking contrast with the white Victorian greenhouse at the New York Botanical Garden. A mother carries her child on her back, playing peekaboo with the reflective surface as her daughter squeals in delight. 

That sense of childlike joy pervades “Kusama: Cosmic Nature,” an exhibition by Yayoi Kusama. The Japanese contemporary artist, who spent her childhood among the fields of her family’s seed nursery in Japan, comes full circle in this introspection on nature. Ms. Kusama, whose artistic journey began in her early teens, went on to become famous for her immersive, infinity-mirror installations around the world. 

In “Cosmic Nature,” polka-dotted trees, silvery orbs, and anthropomorphic sculptures delight visitors. Sketches and paintings displayed in an indoor gallery reveal her fascination with the natural world. 

Against the lush backdrop of the garden, her sculpture takes on a new dimension and invites us to see the world anew.

The exhibition, which is ticketed, runs through Oct. 31, 2021. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Detail of a watering can in Yayoi Kusama’s “Flower Obsession” installation. Visitors are given flower stickers to apply, which the artist expects to eventually obliterate the objects on display.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
On a blustery early spring day, visitors walk across the lawn with “Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees” in the background. The art exhibition is spread across the botanical garden’s 250-acre landscape.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A close-up shows some of the 1,400 steel spheres in “Narcissus Garden,” installed in the 230-foot-long water feature of the native plant garden.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“I Want to Fly to the Universe” greets guests from the visitor center reflecting pool.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
In a darkened space, visitors can experience “Pumpkins Screaming About Love Beyond Infinity.”
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“Hymn of Life – Tulips” rises from the Hardy Pool outside the Haupt Conservatory. The exhibition includes not only outdoor sculptures but also an indoor display of drawings and paintings.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Detail of "Starry Pumpkin," which sits amid flowers and foliage in the Haupt Conservatory galleries.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A woman in red walks through "Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees."

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Iraq’s aid for wartime rape survivors

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  • Deep Read ( 2 Min. )

Over four decades, the people of Iraq have experienced four wars. The last one was against the Islamic State group (ISIS) between 2014 and 2019. Now a struggling democracy, Iraq recently became a world leader in trying a new concept in ensuring peace. It is restoring the dignity of thousands of survivors of sexual violence.

In March, Iraqi lawmakers voted to compensate women and girls, mainly from the Yazidi religious minority, who were enslaved, raped, and sold by ISIS. These survivors will soon start to receive a plot of land, housing, education, and a quota for jobs in government. The reparations are designed to heal individual trauma, reintegrate the survivors into society, and address any social stigma from their experience.

The peace part of the Yazidi Survivors Law lies in turning disgrace into grace. It assists survivors in trading an impression of victimhood for a renewal of their lives – fostering a message that wartime rape does not change someone’s inherent value. The compensation, said Iraqi President Barham Salih, “helps them to achieve the social and economic life that befits them.”

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Iraq’s aid for wartime rape survivors

Reuters
Yazidi women weave wool at a carpet factory in Dohuk, Iraq.

Over four decades, the people of Iraq have experienced four wars. The last one was against the Islamic State group (ISIS) between 2014 and 2019. Now a struggling democracy, Iraq recently became a world leader in trying a new concept in ensuring peace. It is restoring the dignity of thousands of survivors of sexual violence.

In March, Iraqi lawmakers voted to compensate women and girls, mainly from the Yazidi religious minority, who were enslaved, raped, and sold by ISIS. These survivors will soon start to receive a plot of land, housing, education, and a quota for jobs in government. The legal status of children born of rape will also be addressed. The reparations are designed to heal individual trauma, reintegrate the survivors into society, and address any social stigma from their experience.

The peace part of the Yazidi Survivors Law lies in turning disgrace into grace. It assists survivors in trading an impression of victimhood for a renewal of their lives – fostering a message that wartime rape does not change someone’s inherent value. The compensation, said Iraqi President Barham Salih, “helps them to achieve the social and economic life that befits them.”

Most gender-based violence during a conflict is aimed at stigmatizing an entire people. Examples are happening now with reports of mass rape in Ethiopia’s attack on Tigray province, Boko Haram’s frequent kidnappings of Nigerian girls, and China’s repression of the Uyghurs. In its attempt to establish a religious caliphate, ISIS tried to either kill or enslave the Yazidi people in northern Iraq along with Christian, Turkmen, and Shabak minorities.

Remove the stigma of sexual violence and it may become less a weapon of war. That idea has steadily grown in international campaigns against wartime rape. The world’s attention on sexual violence in conflicts really began in the 1990s after the Rwanda and Bosnian wars. In 2000, the United Nations acknowledged rape had become a tool of warfare. International courts began to prosecute such crimes. 

By 2008, the U.N. began to focus on preventing rape. In 2018, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two campaigners against sexual violence in conflicts. One of them, Nadia Murad, is a former captive of ISIS.

Two years ago, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that places the rights and needs of survivors first. Iraq’s new law shows how much global thinking has shifted, not only away from the notion that wartime rape is inevitable, but also toward a respect for the dignity of survivors, who can help lead the way on the path of lasting 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.

The safety of women

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At times, safety can seem precarious. But in God there’s a powerful basis for protection, as a woman experienced when two young men began to assault her in a remote area.

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The safety of women

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

The recent disappearance and killing of a woman walking home in London has galvanized people around the world to press for greater safety for women. A woman who participated in a gathering of protesters in London stated, “The main point that everyone was trying to get across … is that women don’t feel safe; they don’t feel safe walking down a street and that’s the bare minimum we should feel the freedom to do.”

Can the safety of women be placed on a surer foundation?

I had an experience of protection against violence that showed me there is a truly unassailable basis for safety, one that applies to women and men alike. I was studying abroad during college. One evening I missed the bus, and two young men I did not know offered to drive me home (about 20 minutes from the university). Unwisely, feeling I had no other options, I accepted their offer.

It was dark, and I was unfamiliar with the route the young men were taking. Before I knew it, we had crossed over a border into a neighboring country and were in thick woods with no lights or homes or people nearby. The young men stopped the car and started to physically and sexually assault me. They said if I resisted they would kill me.

I had been accustomed to turning to God in prayer when I was in trouble or needed protection or help. I had experienced wonderful healings in Christian Science and knew from my own experience that, as the Scriptures teach, God is “a very present help in trouble” (Psalms 46:1).

Psalm 91 assures us that when we abide in the Lord we are protected: “Because you have made the Lord, who is my refuge, even the Most High, your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, ... for He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways” (verses 9-11, New King James Version).

“Abiding” in the Lord to me means abiding in my knowledge of God’s presence and power and love for His spiritual creation, which includes each of us, wherever we may be. This brings deliverance, as so many stories in the Bible illustrate. God’s thoughts, or angel messages, lift us up and keep us safe.

Remarkable as it might seem, as I reached out to feel God’s presence and love for me that evening, I was not afraid. I knew God was right there with me. I affirmed and acknowledged this presence in prayer, and I listened for His voice. A surprising thought came to me: These two young men were innocent.

How could that be?

The Bible makes a distinction between God’s children, made in the spiritual image of the Divine (as the first chapter of Genesis teaches), and the children of men (the second chapter of Genesis). Paul teaches, “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:22).

I could see that the spiritual nature of these two young men was protected by God. While their actions in that moment certainly did not reflect that spiritual nature, innocence and receptivity to good were their inheritance as God’s sons. And I knew that these spiritual truths, held to in my own prayers, would bring healing and protection in some way.

It came to me to quietly speak to the young men of their spiritual nature as God’s sons. I said that what they were doing was not in keeping with who they really were. I talked about God’s love for them and how true happiness comes from being true to our higher nature as children of God.

They listened to what I was saying, and the tense atmosphere broke. And then they simply stopped what they were doing. They apologized and drove me home. I arrived safely. And while I did struggle for a period with memories of what had happened, I was healed of that mental baggage through Christian Science. In the ensuing years, I’ve been completely free from any aftereffects that might be associated with such an experience.

The Bible promises: “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise ... not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9).

God’s healing and saving power and grace can redeem and save both victims and victimizers. We are all capable of experiencing the protection and purity that are ours as God’s beloved sons and daughters. This healing divine presence is here today and always as a higher and unassailable foundation for the safety of women as well as men.

Viewfinder

Jersey rules

Oliver Pinel/AP
Fishing vessels gather off the English Channel island of Jersey, May 6, 2021. French fishermen have been protesting off Jersey after authorities imposed new requirements to fish in island waters. The dispute has drawn in Britain, France, and the European Union, as fishing rights have been a touchy subject around Brexit.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story about the U.S. waiving the intellectual property rights of vaccine makers, a change that may allow more production of COVID-19 vaccines.

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2021
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