2021
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Monitor Daily Podcast

May 27, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

A shepherd's courage

This morning had that late spring mix of moist air and sunlight, which made me push a little: three miles, farther than I had run in months. 

So later, reading a clip about China’s ultramarathon disaster this past weekend, I felt a certain twinge: 21 ultramarathoners died after being exposed to rain, hail, and high winds. 

Whenever athletes die in extreme sports, many wonder why they do it in the first place. When researchers in Poland queried more than 1,500 runners in 2018, they found many motivations: self-esteem, competition, health, weight-loss concerns, and so forth. But the ultramarathoners were different, talking about qualitative goals such as finding a life-meaning and connecting with running friends. 

Saturday’s toll could have been worse, according to news reports, except for the presence of Zhu Keming, who was tending his sheep and took refuge in a cave. That’s when he spotted one of the distressed ultramarathoners and brought him inside, massaging his feet and hands and lighting a fire to dry his clothes. Four more runners straggled in. Mr. Zhu ventured out and brought back yet another runner.

That may be the most important question: Why did those runners stop? Exhaustion? Common sense? What caused them to stop pursuing the extreme and seek shelter and a warm fire with a shepherd?

In some of my recent runs, I’ve walked for stretches – something that would have seemed shameful a couple of years ago. As I start my fifth(!) decade of adult running, I realize I run not for the distance or even the running itself, but for the sense of movement and the peace of the trees and the birds and the inspiration that comes.   

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Chinese put premium on owning homes. Now Beijing wants to tax them.

China’s government bases its legitimacy on bread-and-butter issues, but economic growth has come at the cost of massive debt. Trying to tamp it could test the party’s willingness to push an unpopular policy.

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In China, homeownership carries far more meaning than a roof over one’s head. For millions of single men, who today greatly outnumber single women, it is a near requirement for marriage. Whole families often scrape together resources to give their sons a leg up in courtship by securing an apartment or house.

“In most of China, it would be a huge loss of face for a man to move into his wife’s home,” says Mr. Zhang, a retired homeowner who asked to withhold his first name for privacy.

That’s only one reason that China’s latest push to impose the first nationwide property tax on homeowners is politically touchy. Yet Beijing is gingerly advancing the plan to confront its debt crisis, after decades of debt-fueled growth. State media calls the problem a “gray rhino.” It’s huge, and everyone sees it coming. The issue may test the Communist Party’s willingness to push forward a controversial policy, knowing it could stir unrest.

Mr. Zhang says he can’t conceive of the government imposing such a tax. “The government can’t do that,” he says, because it would run counter to the party’s consideration of people’s basic needs. “It’s not possible that they will force this on people.”

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Chinese put premium on owning homes. Now Beijing wants to tax them.

Aly Song/Reuters/File
A view of buildings in Shanghai on Oct. 9, 2020. Steep housing prices mean that many families scrape together resources to help their children afford an apartment or home.

For mechanical engineer Fan Hongliang, each penny saved moves him closer to his distant dream of buying a home – a must-have before finding a wife. 

“I will get a house first, and later if I meet someone I want to marry, I can,” says the 29-year-old, who currently rents a room in Shanghai. “Shanghai houses are very expensive,” he says, estimating it will take another five to seven years before he and his parents, retired coal mine workers, can afford a house in the city outskirts costing around $315,000.

In China, homeownership carries far more meaning than a roof over one’s head. For millions of single men, who today greatly outnumber single women, it is a near requirement for marriage. China has nearly 18 million more men than women between the ages of 20 and 40, according to the 2020 census data. Whole families often scrape together resources to give their sons a leg up in courtship by securing an apartment or house – assets scrutinized by potential brides and their parents.

“It’s a tradition for Chinese people – if a man wants to marry, he must first have his own home,” says Mr. Zhang, a Shanghai homeowner and retired entrepreneur who asked to withhold his first name for privacy. “In most of China, it would be a huge loss of face for a man to move into his wife’s home.”

Adam Yao Liu, a China native and assistant professor of public policy at the National University of Singapore, agrees. “It’s pretty safe to say that a house is a sine qua non for marriage for most Chinese today.”

The marriage imperative is only one reason China’s latest push to impose the first nationwide property tax on homeowners is politically touchy. Taxes are unpopular in any country, but in China, a property tax could be seen as challenging the cornerstones of middle-class well-being – family prosperity and continuity. Opponents also question the legitimacy of a property tax, since in China the government already owns the land.

Yet Beijing is gingerly advancing the property-tax plan to try and confront a “gray rhino,” as state media call China’s debt crisis (it’s huge, and everyone sees it coming). After decades of debt-fueled growth, the country’s debt burden totals about 280% of annual gross domestic product. That sum reflects deep institutional flaws in the financial system. It also reflects a political dilemma of the ruling Communist Party, which has based its legitimacy primarily on bread-and-butter issues such as steady economic growth.

“The accumulation of debt is still seen as a short-term way to boost the economy, which is seen as essential for keeping the party in power,” says Bruce Dickson, a political scientist at George Washington University and author of “The Party and the People: Chinese Politics in the 21st Century.”

Yet while the party has favored short-term tweaks and workarounds, it has postponed politically difficult, systemic reforms that are necessary to sustain economic productivity and growth in the long run. The property tax issue represents one test of the party’s willingness and ability to push forward a controversial policy – knowing it could stir unrest.

Property tax “is going to be a tough sell,” says Jean Oi, a professor of Chinese politics at Stanford University and co-editor of “Fateful Decisions: Choices That Will Shape China’s Future.” “Taxing the middle class is something officials are not sure they are able to do. You don’t want local people out there demonstrating,” she says. “It’s a question of political stability.”

“The public has already shown it is prone to mobilize on key issues when it feels they are being challenged,” says Professor Dickson, referring to grassroots protests on everything from environmental hazards to workers’ rights.

Aly Song/Reuters
Duan Ling and her husband, Fang Yushun, install a picture at their new apartment in Wuhan, China, Dec. 16, 2020.

Local-level challenge

Ideas for imposing property tax have been tentatively discussed for years – driven, in part, by local governments’ chronic shortage of steady revenue streams. This spring, officials have again floated proposals for tax reform. The national government will “actively and steadily promote property tax legislation and reform,” Finance Minister Liu Kun said in an article published this month, as officials discussed expanding pilot programs for the tax.

The bottom line, experts say, is a growing bill that – sooner or later – Chinese taxpayers will have to foot. “I don’t think a conventional explosive debt crisis is in the cards,” says Eswar Prasad, professor of trade policy at Cornell University and the former head of the International Monetary Fund’s China division. “A better way of looking at it is … somebody has to pay for all this, and who’s going to pay for it? Ultimately, it is going to be the taxpayer.”

China’s debt problem is composed of corporate, household, and government debt – with the local government debt posing one of the trickiest challenges.

When China’s economy took off in the 1980s, local governments enjoyed a surge of revenues that greatly outpaced those of the central government in Beijing. Those revenues translated into bonuses for local cadres and a big incentive for growth. But that changed after 1994, when Beijing negotiated a new tax-sharing arrangement that shifted the majority of revenues back to the center. This political deal created a gaping shortfall in local government funding that continues today, but it also gave local governments the tools and autonomy to open up new, opaque channels to earn revenue outside the tax system.

“This whole grand bargain is basically just backdoor financing,” says Professor Oi.

Local governments were prohibited from borrowing from banks. In a workaround, they set up entities akin to shell companies called “local government financing vehicles” (LGFV) that acted as middlemen, borrowing vast sums without discipline by arm-twisting local banks, analysts say.

“Local debt is a significant financial risk that is looming because the ownership of this debt is not clear and a lot of this debt has gone to finance projects that are not that productive – so this is something of a hidden problem,” says Professor Prasad.

Beijing has since indicated these local vehicles will be allowed to go bankrupt – and some analysts predict the first default will happen soon. This year Beijing will “probably allow some defaults to happen” to signal the risk, according to Larry Hu, chief China economist at Macquarie Capital in Hong Kong.

A property tax would produce steady fiscal streams for local governments, says Professor Liu, and could dampen widespread housing market speculation. But important policy questions remain, such as whether current owners should be taxed and whether the taxes should vary from place to place. Moreover, he adds, the impact of the tax on China’s heated real estate market is uncertain.

“Crying wolf”?

Still, more than 10 years after Beijing first floated the property tax idea, some experts doubt the political will exists to impose the levy – saying officials themselves may worry lest a tax force disclosure of expensive properties they own.

“For more than a decade, property tax has been the equivalent of crying wolf in China,” commented the official China Daily newspaper earlier this year.

As for Mr. Zhang, the Shanghai homeowner, he says he can’t conceive of the government imposing taxes on people for the houses they live in. “The government can’t do that,” he says, explaining that it would run counter to the party’s consideration of people’s basic needs. “It’s not possible that they will force this on people.”

A property tax might not bother wealthy people, says Mr. Fan, but he worries it could further delay his quest for homeownership and marriage. “For someone like me,” he says, “the policy is not good.”

As cease-fire holds in Gaza, a painful reckoning with war’s physical toll

The human toll from Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes in Gaza is palpable on the ground. Many residents worry that it won’t be the last war in their territory. 

Mohammed Salem/Reuters
Palestinians from the Zawaraa family hold candles as they sit in a makeshift tent amid the rubble of their houses, which were destroyed by Israeli airstrikes during the Israeli-Palestinian fighting in Gaza, May 25, 2021.

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A week after Israel and Hamas agreed to a cease-fire, Palestinians in Gaza are still digging through the rubble. The scale of destruction from Israeli airstrikes is staggering: 450 buildings destroyed and six hospitals demolished. So too is the human toll of death, suffering, and displacement. 

Families are now reuniting after dividing their children among friends and relatives, so that should their own home be hit by a missile, at least one of their children would survive. It is a familiar dilemma: Israel previously waged wars against Hamas, the militant organization that runs Gaza, in 2009, 2012, and 2014. 

In addition to the destruction of homes, the war pummeled Gaza’s public infrastructure. The United Nations is due to seek international donations for rebuilding, but there is also wariness of another conflict. 

Some Gazans are joining volunteer groups to help shift debris from the streets. “Removing the rubble is a way to challenge the reality of 11 days of shelling,” says Ghada Abu Samra, a university student who joined an apolitical youth-led campaign. She wants to show the world that “Gaza has and can stand up again.”

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As cease-fire holds in Gaza, a painful reckoning with war’s physical toll

Ali Abu Hada searches through the rubble that was once his men’s clothing store in Gaza City.

He is not salvaging merchandise or clearing the concrete and twisted metal to rebuild his store. He is simply searching for a souvenir so he can remember his “dream business.”

“I am not sure how long or how much money it will take for me to restart my business. We have to start from the very beginning,” Mr. Abu Hada says.

“But what I am sure is ... regardless of the destruction, the blockade and the Israeli bombings, we will always keep our spirits high.”

The destruction wrought here by Israeli bombings in the 11-day war with Hamas is staggering, according to United Nations-appointed human rights experts: 450 buildings destroyed, six hospitals demolished, 74,000 Gazans displaced, and 253 people killed, including 66 children. 

In Israel, 12 civilians were killed over the same period by rockets fired by Hamas, which rules Gaza, a besieged coastal enclave of 2 million that is among the world’s most densely populated. 

But the numbers in Gaza fail to capture the personal impact for residents who have lost everything – from homes to businesses to loved ones – for the second time in a few years.

Short of cash to rebuild and wary of another escalation that leads to more Israeli missiles, most Gazans say they are left without much hope and simply clinging to their will to endure.  

Courtesy of Ahmad Murtaja
Young volunteers clear rubble-strewn streets in Gaza City as part of the "We will rebuild' campaign on May 24, 2021.

Fourth time around

Since last Friday’s cease-fire, Gazans have been visiting relatives and friends who survived the onslaught in an atmosphere that is both sorrowful and triumphant. 

Families are reuniting after splitting up their children among friends and relatives, so that should their own home be hit by a missile, at least one of their children – and their lineage – would live on.

After an Eid al-Fitr holiday spent hiding from airstrikes, parents and relatives are baking date cookies in an attempt to cheer up children who missed out on the traditional celebration at the end of Ramadan. 

Since Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, it has waged wars against Hamas in 2009, 2012, 2014, and now this month’s fighting. Some Gazans, who aren’t allowed to leave the coastal strip, have begun to mark time in conflicts, using terms such as “four wars old,” for a child of 12. 

Sports journalist Alaa Shamali is picking up the pieces after losing his home for the second time in seven years.

After fighting between Israel and Hamas in 2014 destroyed Mr. Shamali’s home in the Shujaiyya neighborhood, he decided to buy an apartment in central Gaza City, a tightly packed commercial area that also has residential tower blocks. In the past, Israel’s military had spared the district because of its dense population and lack of strategic value, so he figured it was a safer place to live and work.   

When an Israeli missile strike destroyed his high-rise apartment building last week – one of nine similar buildings in the city destroyed in the war – he was still paying loan installments on the $65,000 unit.

Now Mr. Shamali and his family of seven are back in Shujaiyya, living out of the few bags they could carry to his parents’ two-room home. “The toughest is when you feel lost with no sense of ease or even privacy,” he says. “We have lost a lot, but this loss never seems to be enough.”

And not only has he lost his home, but Israeli missiles also destroyed the offices of his employer, the Felesteen Newspaper. The newspaper is still publishing online, but his job is far from secure. 

Mr. Shamali is trying to find ways to make his five children forget the conflict, since “what they have seen so far is just destruction and loss,” he says. He is focusing on finding a new home for his family – this time for rent.

“All I want is to help my children to live in peace and pave the way for them to pursue their dreams in a safe environment,” Mr. Shamali says.

Many reunions in Gaza are taking place beside hospital beds. At al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, Ahmed el-Dremli stands by the side of his 10-year-old son Wadea, who is recovering from a shrapnel injury after a missile hit a neighbor’s house in their village of Beit Lahai. 

“I promised my children to take them to the playground, to buy chocolates and sweets for them during Eid after fasting for Ramadan,” Mr. el-Dremli says. “I did not expect our Eid would be spent in hospital and surgery rooms.”

After undergoing surgery to remove shrapnel from his body, Wadea has a three-week recovery period before he can play again. “I can’t wait to recover to see my friends and family,” he says, caressing the white bandages covering his left arm, “but I am still afraid.”

Courtesy of Abdalla Alnaami
Ten-year-old Wadea el-Dremli, recovering from shrapnel wounds, anxiously awaits his return home from the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza on May 23, 2021.

“We will rebuild”

In addition to the destruction of homes, the war pummeled Gaza’s public infrastructure. This includes a water desalination plant that supplied 250,000 Palestinians with clean drinking water, and Gaza’s only COVID-19 testing center. Fuel and drinking water are also in short supply.

The United Nations Relief Agency and Works Agency, UNRWA, warned on Friday that there “was no going back to normal” in the enclave after a war that was “worse in intensity and terror than 2014.”

The U.N. is still assessing the cost of reconstruction before it seeks international aid pledges. On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States will provide $110 million in additional aid to Palestinians, including $5.5 million in immediate assistance to Gaza.

But Gazans are taking matters into their own hands.

Youth volunteers are working to clear the debris on their own as part of a youth-led campaign called “We will rebuild.”

The independent, apolitical initiative began in the Al Rimal district in Gaza City, where several tower blocks were struck. It then spread to other neighborhoods where volunteers worked together to remove rubble and clear blocked roads. 

“Removing the rubble is a way to challenge the reality of 11 days of shelling,” says Ghada Abu Samra, a university student volunteering in the campaign.

Ms. Abu Samra said that she wants to show the world that “Gaza has and can stand up again.”

“I lived through four wars so far. I’ve never felt or seen people coming down to the streets and taking initiative with their own hands like this,” says Ahmad Murtaja, a psychologist and independent activist who founded the initiative.

“This time we are not waiting for international support. This is an effort to say that we’re grateful for this place, that we love Gaza. We are clearing the pathway for a new reality.”

Yet until the root causes of the conflict are addressed, Gazans say they are aware that the next round of violence is “only a matter of time.”

Mr. Abu Hada, the clothing shop owner, called on the international community to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and hold Israel accountable for what he called “war crimes.”

Correspondent Fatima Abdulkarim contributed to this report from Ramallah, West Bank.

Why are parents so mad in one of America’s best school districts?

Parents have long been a coveted political demographic. But the upheaval of the past year has turned many into passionate local activists, who say they will keep advocating long after the pandemic subsides.

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After an academic year like no other, school boards across the country have become lightning rods for political debate. As Zoom classes dragged on – and with many public schools even now not fully open – heated battles have erupted over how to balance the safety of teachers and students against other concerns such as learning loss and mental health.

Increasingly intense debates have also opened up over educational content – particularly the anti-racist curricula that many schools implemented in the wake of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Some conservative states are banning the teaching of “critical race theory.” Others, like Virginia, are reevaluating gifted and talented programs and accelerated math tracks.

History suggests the political impact could extend well beyond school boards. Grassroots activism – particularly when driven by strong emotion, as in the case of parents who feel their children are being negatively impacted – often leads to broader, and more permanent, movements.

“This is not the first time we have seen issues around public schools be flash points for controversy,” says David Campbell, an expert on civic engagement at Notre Dame University. “You can think of school board politics as the gateway drug to greater involvement across the board.”

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Why are parents so mad in one of America’s best school districts?

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Hundreds of protesters arrive more than an hour before the Fairfax County School Board was set to meet at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church, Virginia. Some were protesting curriculum changes around the issue of race. Others were there to support an embattled board member criticized for sending pro-Palestinian tweets from her official account.

If you’d asked Bonnie Myshrall a year ago who her school board representative was, she probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you. In the voting booth, she never thought twice about board candidates – she’d just follow her party’s sample ballot. 

“Yet here I am, firing off emails and starting a Facebook group,” says Ms. Myshrall, a lawyer with a middle-school daughter enrolled in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), a district in northern Virginia. 

Last summer, as it became apparent that her daughter’s school would remain online-only due to the pandemic, Ms. Myshrall founded the “OpenFCPS” group to lobby for a return to in-person learning. While she and other parents agreed virtual learning made sense at first, they grew increasingly frustrated by what they saw as the district’s lack of urgency around getting kids back into classrooms, with board meetings often focused on things like renaming schools or implementing an electric school bus fleet. 

“The Titanic is sinking, and they are rearranging the deck chairs,” says Ms. Myshrall. The group is now gathering signatures to recall three board members. None of the three members responded to requests to be interviewed by the Monitor.

After the upheaval of the academic year, it’s perhaps not surprising that school boards across the country have become lightning rods for political debate. As Zoom classes dragged on through the fall and winter – and with many public schools, including those in Fairfax, even now not fully open – heated battles erupted over how to balance the safety of teachers and students against other concerns such as learning loss and mental health.

The clashes haven’t been confined to questions of reopening, either. Increasingly intense debates have opened up over educational content – particularly the anti-racist curricula that many schools implemented in the wake of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, emphasizing systemic racism and white privilege. A number of conservative states are passing measures banning the teaching of “critical race theory.” Other states, like Virginia, are embroiled in fights over achievement and equity, including reevaluating gifted and talented programs and accelerated math tracks.

“The priorities are messed up,” says Bethany Wagner, another Fairfax parent. “When your kids are learning from home, and you’re seeing issues and trying to reach out to the superintendent and school board members – and you’re not getting feedback, or the feedback is shallow – it makes you want to pay attention.”

And while it may be school boards in the crossfire now, history suggests the political impact could extend well beyond. Events that give rise to grassroots activism – particularly when driven by strong emotion, as in the case of parents who feel their children are being negatively impacted – often generate broader, and more permanent, movements.

“If [people] get involved in one form of politics, it often spills over and they will be engaged in other forms of political activity,” says David Campbell, an expert on civic engagement at Notre Dame University. The debate surrounding school segregation in the 1950s, he notes, primed many Americans for broader activism in the 1960s. 

“This is not the first time we have seen issues around public schools be flash points for controversy,” says Professor Campbell. “You can think of school board politics as the gateway drug to greater involvement across the board.”

At Luther Jackson Middle School

At last week’s bi-monthly school board meeting at Fairfax’s Luther Jackson Middle School, hundreds of people showed up hours early with handmade signs concerning various issues. Some were demanding a full reopening of schools. Others were focused on the Biden administration’s American History and Civics Education proposal, which has become caught up in a controversy over schools’ use of The New York Times’s 1619 Project. Still others were upset about a controversial tweet made by one of the Fairfax board members, a young Muslim woman, about Israel’s “colonization” of the Holy Land.  

Ironically, many Fairfax parents say they moved to the area because of the schools. Fairfax, the 11th largest school district in the country, is considered one of the best

“My husband was military, and at the end of our service we could have lived anywhere,” says Saundra Davis, who has two sons in Fairfax schools. “I live in a smaller house than we could have elsewhere so my kids can go to school in this district.”

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Saundra Davis, who has two sons in the Fairfax County school system, voiced her frustration with the county's slow transition back to in-person instruction at a school board meeting. "You have triggered a bipartisan tidal wave of parental pushback,” Ms. Davis told the board.

That made it particularly upsetting for many parents to watch their children struggle this year with online learning.

“He was an early reader; he loves reading about history and science. But I see now that his writing has suffered,” says Ashley, whose son is enrolled in a Fairfax district school, and who requested her last name not be used for fear of retribution from teachers. “Sitting in his room all day disconnected was just so hard. ... His behavior has changed.” 

Fairfax was also slower than other districts to reopen. Not until late April did the district begin offering four days of in-person learning a week, and for select students only. The move, parents noted, came months after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had concluded that in-person schooling did not cause increased transmission.

FCPS has promised a return to five-day in-person instruction in the fall, and Megan McLaughlin, one of the school board’s longest-serving members, says she feels confident things will return to normal.

Still, she says she’s never seen anything like the level of parental involvement over the past few months. During her decade-plus of service, the board has wrestled with other hot-button issues, such as how to teach sex education. But never before has the debate at hand involved such a broad swath of parents or directly affected school employees.

“This was universal,” says Ms. McLaughlin, who is not one of the members being targeted by the recall effort. “Decisions at school board level suddenly become a key focal point of what’s going to happen with your child’s day to day [life].”

The impact is already showing up in more competitive school board elections. According to Ballotpedia’s analysis of the country’s 1,000 largest school districts in 2016, more than one-third of school board seats went unopposed, with an average of 1.9 candidates per seat. This year, almost two dozen of the country’s largest school districts in five states have already had school board elections, and according to a Monitor analysis, these elections had an average of 2.9 candidates per seat. No seat went unopposed. 

Additionally, there have been 24 school board recall efforts against 64 board members thus far in 2021 – including the current effort in Fairfax.

That kind of engagement may very well make its way up the political food chain, says Professor Campbell. 

“Because school board elections are low-profile races with low turnout, and the number of voters compared to a congressional district is small, it means a small group of dedicated activists can make a big difference – and that’s part of the appeal,” he says. “It’s not uncommon for people running for Congress to describe how they first got involved in school board politics.” 

Miranda Turner, a Democratic lawyer with young children, says she never would have considered running for the Arlington School Board in Virginia before this past year. But frustration over how her area prioritized opening businesses like shops and restaurants before schools led her to throw her hat into the ring.

“We are right outside D.C., and everyone here is so focused on national politics – but it’s the local elections that really have a much bigger impact on your daily life,” she says.

Ms. Turner ended her bid this week after losing her party’s online caucus, but she has vowed to stay active, tweeting: “My advocacy work doesn’t stop here.”

Fairfax County Parents Association

While education wars often play out along partisan lines at the national level, many at the local level insist they don’t see the issues as partisan at all.

The OpenFCPS group is officially nonpartisan and is chaired by one Republican and one Democrat. Along with the satisfaction that comes from feeling like they are advocating for their children, many members say the most rewarding part of their involvement has been working toward the same goal with parents who have different political beliefs. 

“What I like about this group is that people share their thoughts, and I don’t agree with all of them, but I don’t feel pressure to ‘cancel’ anyone,” says Ms. Wagner. “I like that we have a shared purpose.”

Many parents, such as Ms. Wagner and Ms. Davis, say they agree that racism is a problem in America, but they believe there is room for debate over how the issue should be taught, and what approaches are developmentally appropriate for young children. More to the point, they say public education faces more immediate problems – such as still-empty classrooms.

Ms. Myshrall says the OpenFCPS group “plans on staying around,” at least until the board is up for reelection in 2023. They plan to rename themselves the Fairfax County Parents Association.

Anna LaNave is a mother of four, with two Fairfax County graduates and two still enrolled in the district, who describes herself as a pro-teacher, pro-union Democrat. She’s going to vote a “straight education ticket” this year.

“People are realizing that we haven’t been paying attention and it’s coming back to bite us,” says Ms. LaNave. “I think this will affect how people vote in local elections for years to come.” 

By women, for women: African ride-hailing apps attempt to put safety first

Reports of assault have made many women wary of ride-hailing companies. Women-only services may be part of the answer.

Courtesy of Ubiz Cabs
With a $300 salary and a policy that sees them promoted in the company from driver to administrative staff, Ubiz Cabs drivers are not only empowered, but also upwardly mobile, says founder Patricia Nzolantima.

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It’s hard to miss Ubiz Cabs in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The hot-pink cabs swoosh up and down the busy streets, and the women behind the wheel wear matching pink and grey uniforms. This is Kinshasa’s first ride-hailing service – and it’s by women, for women.

In Africa, as is true around the world, reports of harassment or assault have left many women wary of ride-hailing apps. But while many companies promise more stringent regulations, some are pioneering women-first options: all-female driver fleets, for example, or services that allow female riders to select female drivers.

Ubiz, for example, is the brainchild of entrepreneur Patricia Nzolantima, who says part of her vision is empowering women. Applying for a job with the company was not an easy decision, says recent graduate Ruth Nsendula; being a female driver is not the norm here. But the salary and safety protocols convinced her.

“When customers find out it’s a woman behind the wheel, they feel confident and safe,” she says.

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By women, for women: African ride-hailing apps attempt to put safety first

Ore Sofola knows the rules of ride-hailing by heart: Don’t go out too late. Don’t get dropped off at your real address, so the driver can’t locate your house. Check the trunk before you start the trip.

“I only get in after confirming the plate numbers and I never sit in the front seat in case of molestation,” says Ms. Sofola, an entrepreneur in Lagos, adding that she stays alert and doesn’t get carried away on her mobile. “I don’t press my phone idly and always make sure to share my trip with someone.”

The ride-hailing industry is booming in Africa, fueled by both global giants like Uber and homegrown newcomers like Pickmeup. But like many women around the world, Ms. Sofola is all too aware of reports of trips gone wrong, from robbery to sexual harassment to assault – and in many cases, she says, there seems to be no punishment for drivers. But while major e-hailing companies promise more stringent crackdowns, some women are pioneering another possible solution to ensure female riders’ safety: ride-hailing for women, by women.

Ubiz Cabs, for example, is the first on-demand car service in Kinshasa – and it’s hard to miss them. The hot-pink cabs swoosh up and down the busy streets of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, the largest city in central Africa. Behind the wheels are young women, dressed in matching pink and grey uniforms and attending to all sorts of clients: driving women to work, picking up and dropping off schoolchildren, and sometimes, delivering parcels.

The women-first platform is the brainchild of Patricia Nzolantima, who says she’s driven to craft a new narrative for the DRC, away from its conflict-ridden reputation – in part, by uplifting women. She previously set up Working Ladies WIA Hub, an incubator network for female-owned businesses. For its young founder, Ubiz Cabs is a response to several problems: It’s providing women with a stable job in a male-dominated industry, and keeping them safe while at it.

Although there are no official numbers regarding assaults related to ride-hailing recorded in African countries, South Africa alone recorded more than 42,000 cases of rape in 2019-2020. Across the continent in Nigeria, reports of assault have risen during the pandemic. Women-only rides may be part of the answer, though they don’t address all deeper causes. Does a woman rider plus a woman driver equal safety?

Courtesy of Ubiz Cabs
Ubiz Cabs is the first on-demand ride-hailing service in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Its drivers, mostly young female graduates, say they feel safer due to precautions like an emergency button and GPS tracking.

Shrinking the gender gap

Ms. Nzolantima noticed that at airports in Johannesburg, South Africa, or Nairobi, Kenya, passengers could book taxis and get home quickly. But when she got home to Kinshasa, the sight that greeted her was foreigners looking for places to sleep on the floor, because there were no trusted taxis available at the airport.

“The roads were unsafe, especially for women,” Ms. Nzolantima recalls. “So I thought, what can I do? And how can I solve the problem of a lack of women in the transport industry?”

Three years later, Ubiz Cabs is training more than 100 new hires, many of them young graduates. The cars are fitted with panic buttons and GPS devices that help a partner security firm track all drivers in case of an emergency, similar to safety procedures that Bolt and Uber have in place. Female drivers end their shift in the evening and male drivers take their place behind the wheel – an added precaution for employees’ safety, though it means late-night clients cannot have a female driver.

Ruth Nsendula, a recent graduate, applied two years ago after seeing a Facebook post about Ubiz Cabs and has since moved up in the company; she now both drives and has administrative duties. When she drives, her routine is simple: At 7 a.m., she starts picking up regular customers and some new faces. At 5 p.m., she hands over to a male colleague and heads home.

Applying for the job was not an easy decision, Ms. Nsendula says; being a female driver is not the norm in the DRC. However, the $300 monthly salary and safety protocols convinced her.

“I feel very comfortable with my profession as a driver although it is generally a profession exercised by men in this country,” Ms. Nsendula says. “When customers find out it’s a woman behind the wheel, they feel confident and safe. I also feel more secure with the GPS installed in all cars: In case of a problem, they can easily locate me.”

It’s a pink revolution in Kenya, too. In 2016, cab-hailing company Little launched Lady Bug, with an all-female fleet of drivers that only accept female customers during late-night rides.

An Nisa, a similar service in Kenya, carries women and children only.

“I always felt uncomfortable being in a car with someone I didn’t know, and I felt safe being with a fellow lady. A lot of women around me had similar fears and so did our drivers,” An Nisa founder Mehnaz Sarwar says via a WhatsApp chat. “Women have to watch over their backs to make sure they reach their destination safely. We hope to end all this and have women get from point A to B safely and with peace of mind.”

Enough drivers?

Things are also turning around, albeit slowly, in South Africa. Bolt launched a service in several cities late last year that allows female riders to select female drivers (though currently, there are far more male e-hailing drivers across Africa).

Not all riders know about such services, though. Except in the DRC, where Ubiz Cabs is the only e-hailing option, all-women rides are much less known. In South Africa, “people say they didn’t even know it was a thing,” journalist Fatima Moosa says of Bolt’s program. 

In an email to the Monitor, Bolt’s southern Africa manager Gareth Taylor says its women-only service is growing, with “a significant increase in the number of women applying to join the platform as drivers.” He adds that the company is not aware of any cases of violence against its female drivers in South Africa in the six months since the service launched. Apart from SOS buttons and trackers, female drivers can cancel a trip if they are expecting to collect a female passenger and a male passenger shows up. Uber, the other market leader in the region, has launched an option for female drivers in South Africa to indicate they prefer female passengers.

Back in Kinshasa, Ubiz Cabs continue to swoosh up and down in their bright colors, and Ms. Nsendula must soon get back on the road. She hopes more change is ahead: that people will accept female drivers as a new norm, and even more importantly, give them a safer environment. “I think that a woman driver in DRC is capable of doing a lot of things, and she has the power to become what she wants,” Ms. Nsendula adds.

In Pictures

Tradition on the half shell: Picking oysters in post-Brexit Britain

Brexit was defined in part by ideologies of nationalism, pride, and independence. But for others, like the oyster harvester featured in this photo essay, it’s the practical effects of leaving the European Union that are on their mind.

Jonathan Browning
Oyster catcher Tom Haward (front) brings a dredging cage filled with oysters on Mersea Island, England. The Haward family has harvested oysters for generations.
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Tradition on the half shell: Picking oysters in post-Brexit Britain

For eight generations, going back to the 1700s, Tom Haward’s family has been harvesting succulent oysters from the mud flats of Mersea Island. Located 75 miles northeast of London, the estuary island is known for its shellfish.

The Hawards, who run an oyster bar in London and a small market on the island, also exported their mollusks to Europe – that is, until Brexit wreaked havoc on the industry. The European Union placed a ban on live shellfish from the United Kingdom, and since then, the shellfish trade has ground to a halt. 

The British fishing fleet was one of the loudest voices in the pro-Brexit camp. But not Mr. Haward, who opposed leaving the EU. “Brexit’s negative impact is going to reverberate through the shellfish industry for many years,” he says. 

Stewardship of the estuaries is important to the Haward family, which owns 14 acres of mud banks. The beds are rich in nutrients for the spawn to settle into and become oysters. The Hawards pick them up by hand or use a dredger if they are deep and out of reach, and return any that are not fully developed. Mr. Haward likes the fact that he’s doing the same work as his ancestors.

“The world has changed so much, and yet what we do has barely altered. I find that incredibly humbling,” he says. 

Jonathan Browning
Bram Haward steers the boat as the oyster beds are dredged. The shallow creeks of Mersea Island in England provide good growing conditions for the mollusks.
Jonathan Browning
Tom Haward, an eighth- generation oystercatcher, hand-picks oysters off the mud beds. His fifth great- grandfather in the 1700s did the same work.
Jonathan Browning
These mud flats are only available to hand-pick during low tide. The tall sticks mark the boundaries between different beds.
Jonathan Browning
Oysters often need to be separated with a metal tool and thrown back into the nutrient-rich mud to grow further.
Jonathan Browning
Tom Haward shucks and eats a fresh oyster at the bow of his boat. The Hawards own an oyster bar in the famous Borough Market in London and also supply the top restaurants in the city

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Tapping into Arab youth aspirations

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A Monitor story on the aftermath of the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas has found a phenomenon in Gaza that fits a trend across much of the Arab world – high distrust of government. Young Palestinians in the war-battered strip of land are volunteering for an independent campaign called “We will rebuild.” Its initial focus is removal of debris from bombed-out buildings. With that first step, said one activist, “We are clearing the pathway for a new reality.”

Young Gazans may be just the people that the United States and other foreign powers want to reach after the fourth Israel-Hamas war. These big donors plan to bypass Hamas and channel massive financial aid “in a manner that does its best to go to the people of Gaza,” said one U.S. official. The attempt to directly assist young Gazans reflects a regionwide trend by many leaders to stay in tune with the two-thirds of the Arab population that is under the age of 30.

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Tapping into Arab youth aspirations

AP
Bakery workers , in Gaza City smile as they produce flatbreads near a building destroyed by an airstrike during an 11-day war between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel.

A Monitor story on the aftermath of the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas has found a phenomenon in Gaza that fits a trend across much of the Arab world – high distrust of government. Young Palestinians in the war-battered strip of land are volunteering for an independent campaign called “We will rebuild.” Its initial focus is removal of debris from bombed-out buildings. With that first step, said one activist, “We are clearing the pathway for a new reality.”

Young Gazans may be just the people that the United States, the European Union, and other foreign powers want to reach after the fourth Israel-Hamas war. These big donors plan to bypass Hamas and channel massive financial aid “in a manner that does its best to go to the people of Gaza,” said one U.S. official.

The main reason for giving aid at the grassroots level is to prevent Hamas from rebuilding its military arsenal for another attack on Israel. According to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, however, the aid is also to give hope and opportunity to Gaza’s Palestinians. Hamas, he says, thrives “on desperation, on a lack of opportunity.” Build up Gaza, he adds, and “Hamas’ foothold in Gaza will slip.”

Yet the attempt to directly assist young Gazans reflects a regionwide trend by many leaders to stay in tune with the two-thirds of the Arab population that is under the age of 30.

“Young people in the region have changed,” Mohammed Alyahya, editor of Al Arabiya’s English edition, tells the Mosaic opinion website; they are much more in touch with the rest of the world and reject the past decades of pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism.

“What they reject is this antiquated, archaic, theocratic ideology that they’re spoon-fed, controlled by groups like [Iran’s] Revolutionary Guards. It doesn’t work,” he said. A 2019 survey by the Arab Barometer found less than a quarter of all Arabs now define themselves as religious.

The 200 million young Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa have the highest number of social media accounts – 8.4 – in the world. Nearly 80% get their news from social media, according to a PwC survey.

Governments in the region are scrambling to keep with these changes. One reason: Nearly half of young Arabs have considered leaving their country. Another is a strong demand by youth for leaders to tackle government corruption, according to the 2020 Arab Youth Survey. In addition, three-quarters of young Arab women say they have the same or more rights as men in their country. Such sentiments help explain recent youth-led mass protests from Iraq to Tunisia.

The “We will rebuild” campaign in Gaza reflects another trend – entrepreneurship. A rising number of young Arabs are not looking for work in government or private companies but plan to work for themselves or their families. About 40% plan to set up a business within the next five years.

The conflicts of the Mideast may seem ancient, complex, and almost unsolvable. Young Arabs, however, may be ready for more change than outsiders expect. Directing foreign aid to the people of Gaza – not Hamas – may be a sign of the times.

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.

Seeing and being seen – spiritually

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Sometimes it can seem that masks can hamper our ability to have meaningful interactions with one another. But we all have a God-given ability to connect with, love, and help others – even when our faces are covered.

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Seeing and being seen – spiritually

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

I was beginning to feel weary every time I went out in public and had to put on a mask because of the pandemic. While willing to comply with the rules, I love people’s faces; their expressions make it easy to “read” them before a single word is even spoken. And I was missing that.

Then I started thinking about how Jesus interacted with and healed others. His ability to read people’s needs did not depend on even one iota of physical awareness. For example, once Jesus and his disciples were passing through a large crowd that included a very ill woman, who thought, “If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole” (Matthew 9:21, King James 2000). Jesus discerned her need for healing without physically seeing her amid the throngs of people, asking, “Who touched me?” (Luke 8:45, KJ 2000).

Jesus’ ability to heal was independent of matter. He didn’t have to sit with the woman and have a long conversation, or administer drugs, or touch her. Through spiritual sense, he felt her presence and discerned both her need and her faith, and his understanding of her true status as a loved child of God healed her.

Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, writes, “What is termed material sense can report only a mortal temporary sense of things, whereas spiritual sense can bear witness only to Truth....

“Spiritual sense, contradicting the material senses, involves intuition, hope, faith, understanding, fruition, reality” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 298).

So, is it important to be able to see behind a physical mask to be able to connect with and love another human being? To be sure, seeing the beauty of each individual face is always pleasant. However, to really connect with someone, we can rely on spiritual intuition. We can listen for the angel messages, God’s thoughts, that tell us what we need to know about someone to be able to feel a connection with them, and especially to help and comfort them if needed.

Science and Health explains angels this way: “Angels are not etherealized human beings, evolving animal qualities in their wings; but they are celestial visitants, flying on spiritual, not material, pinions. Angels are pure thoughts from God, winged with Truth and Love, no matter what their individualism may be” (p. 298). We can connect with others spiritually by letting God’s angel thoughts guide us.

One day I was leaving the grocery store, thinking about how God, good, is naturally expressed and felt by everyone, including those we meet. I felt peaceful. As I passed a woman entering the store, I looked at her from behind my mask and said, “I’m smiling under here.” She responded, “I know. I can feel it!” I just loved that. I felt such joy that divine Love can permeate any seeming barrier in all situations.

What is required of us for this to occur? We need to really open our heart and thought to the fact that each individual is a direct reflection and manifestation of God. We must express grace, kindness, and – above all – compassion to be truly open to another’s needs. We have to see others as expressions of the one good, all-loving God. We can do this by quieting matter-based thinking to hear those angel messages that are revealing the true, spiritual identity of each individual we meet.

In South Africa, there is a common greeting of “Sawabona,” which translates to “I see you.” The response is “Sikhona,” meaning “I am here.” What a beautiful way of recognizing and validating each other! Whether or not masks are covering our faces, we are visible to God and each other spiritually. The goodness of God’s grace and love, and our reflection of these qualities as God’s offspring, simply cannot be masked or hidden.

Now when I go out, I know I can look beyond the mask to the child of God that is always discernible. I can meet people very deeply this way, and it doesn’t require full visibility of their face or mine. So when wearing a mask, I continue to smile whenever I meet someone, and I know they can feel it even if they can’t see it.

God is ever present, eternal, infinite, and all-power. Each day we can pray to see others and to be seen as God knows each of us. Let’s all wear – on our faces and in our hearts – kindness, gentleness, and pure motives. Then nothing will be able to block the spiritual radiance shining from each of us in every moment.

Viewfinder

Taking in history, drive-in style

John Locher/AP
Kene Daniels (right) and Amman Raheem watch the documentary "Rebuilding Black Wall Street" at a drive-in screening of documentaries during centennial commemorations of the Tulsa race massacre, May 26, 2021, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On Monday, the Monitor will offer a special feature on the centennial.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

That’s a wrap for today. Join us tomorrow when we look at the results of California’s strict gun controls.

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