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There’s a story that has become somewhat legendary at the Monitor. Decades ago, when one of our foreign correspondents was having lunch with several colleagues in the foreign press, a bomb went off. The journalists quite literally leaped into action, eager to be the first to file. But not the Monitor correspondent.
Back then, there weren’t really “hot takes” and there was certainly no social media to carry every conceivable viewpoint (some rather badly undercooked) to every corner of the globe in seconds. But even then, there was a value to journalistic patience – to getting to work but not with a haste that confused speed with understanding and insight.
Today, the United States is trying to understand the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s decision to let stand a law that curtails legal abortion to an unprecedented degree in Texas. And the nation is looking at the aftermath of Hurricane Ida with no small amount of despair.
But just as the Monitor sought to bring calm, cleareyed understanding to the fall of Afghanistan, we’re aiming to do that today, too, starting with an explainer on how the Texas decision fits a pattern, and how Louisiana is aiming to address the enormous task in front of it. We’ll continue to follow both stories in the days and weeks ahead. As always, our goal will be to give you the clearest picture, not the most rushed.
A major abortion decision with no oral arguments, lower court rulings, or even a judge’s signature: That’s what happened Wednesday night. It’s a taste of how the Supreme Court is using its “shadow docket” with potentially far-reaching implications.
It sounds dramatic. It sounds nefarious. But the U.S. Supreme Court’s “shadow docket” is not new. What is new, however, is how the court has been using it. Witness three unsigned yet seismic decisions from the past week.
Last week, in a one-paragraph order, the court blocked the Biden administration from reversing a Trump-era border policy. Two days later, it ended the pandemic-related moratorium on evictions. And Wednesday night, the court denied an emergency application to block a strict Texas abortion law from going into effect – a decision the chief justice himself called “unprecedented.”
The orders all illustrate the Supreme Court’s increased willingness, experts say, to use the shadow docket to decide major policy issues affecting large numbers of people in a perfunctory and opaque manner.
That shift is breeding confusion among plaintiffs and lower courts, and potentially damaging the legitimacy of the high court itself, court watchers argue. The Texas decision, in particular, has the potential to clog the courts.
The legitimacy of the judicial system “depends on judges offering principled, legal opinions that support the outcomes they reach,” says Amir Ali of the MacArthur Justice Center. “Deciding major issues and disputes through unsigned orders is not what anyone should want for our judicial system.”
It sounds dramatic. It sounds nefarious. But the United States Supreme Court’s “shadow docket” is not new. What is new, however, is how the court has been using it.
In the space of 10 days, the justices have put the shadow docket – every decision the court makes not on the merits docket – in the headlines with a trio of brief but seismic opinions.
Last week, in a one-paragraph, unsigned order, the court prevented the Biden administration from reversing a Trump-era border policy. Two days later, in an unsigned eight-page order, it ended the federal government’s pandemic-related moratorium on evictions. And late Wednesday night, the court denied an emergency application to block a strict Texas abortion law from going into effect – a decision the chief justice himself said was without precedent. The order offers anti-abortion activists their biggest win in 48 years.
The orders all came with objections from the court’s three liberal justices – with the Texas abortion order also registering a dissent from Chief Justice John Roberts. And they all illustrate the Supreme Court’s increased willingness in recent years, experts say, to use the shadow docket to decide major policy issues affecting large numbers of people in a perfunctory and opaque manner.
“The statutory scheme before the Court is not only unusual, but unprecedented,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote of the Texas law, which, rather than have the government enforce the law, creates a legal bounty system whereby any person can sue those involved in helping a woman obtain an abortion in the state after six weeks. “The legislature has imposed a prohibition on abortions after roughly six weeks, and then essentially delegated enforcement of that prohibition to the populace at large.”
That shift of controversial decisions from the court’s main docket to the shadow docket is breeding confusion among plaintiffs and lower courts, and potentially damaging the legitimacy of the high court itself, court watchers argue.
Last night’s Texas decision, in particular, has the potential to clog the courts.
So what is the shadow docket exactly?
The docket is, in essence, everything the Supreme Court does outside of its merits docket (the cases where it receives full briefing and arguments before ruling). Its use can be traced back to the court’s very first day, Feb. 1, 1790, when its clerk, John Tucker, recorded that the justices had failed to meet quorum.
Indeed, the orders that make up the shadow docket fit broadly into two types: routine, procedural (read: boring) matters, such as recording attendance or allowing a party extra time to file a brief; and emergency petitions the court is asked to act on before the full appeals process can unfold because the party claims it will suffer “irreparable harm” without it.
A common example of the latter are death penalty cases, but most of the roughly 6,000 shadow docket orders each term have minimal ramifications. Because they are made without a full lower court record, detailed briefs, or oral arguments, shadow docket orders are typically short, light on reasoning, and often unsigned.
“The overwhelming majority of the Supreme Court’s work is unsigned orders,” said Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law and a leading expert on the shadow docket, on the SCOTUSblog podcast in July.
“Most of those are anodyne,” he added.
Has something changed?
In short, yes.
The Supreme Court “is doing more and more stuff that is not anodyne on the shadow docket,” Professor Vladeck said. “More and more of these orders are actually having pretty significant effects well beyond individual cases.”
And this shift is evident both anecdotally and statistically.
Over the 16 years that spanned the George W. Bush and Barack Obama White Houses, those administrations asked the high court to stay a lower court ruling on eight occasions, and were successful four times. In four years, according to Professor Vladeck, the Trump administration filed 41 stay applications. The court granted 28 in part or in full.
“Traditionally the Supreme Court exercised restraint, intervening through the shadow docket only after identifying extraordinary circumstances and irreparable harm that would result” from inaction, writes Amir Ali, deputy director of the Supreme Court & Appellate Program at the MacArthur Justice Center, in an email.
“The practice has changed because the Supreme Court has allowed it to change,” he adds. “Once the Supreme Court signaled that it would be willing to use the shadow docket in this way, parties who felt the Supreme Court would be sympathetic to their causes took notice.”
Is there an ideological aspect to this shift?
The Supreme Court has had a conservative majority for decades – and has grown more conservative in recent years. The Trump administration repeatedly leapfrogged lower courts to appeal directly to the justices, and was often rewarded.
In its first year, the Biden administration has made fewer direct appeals to the high court, and it’s had little success. So far, the court has also provided some explanations for ruling against the federal government.
Despite COVID-19 cases again climbing around the country, the court echoed concerns from earlier cases on the eviction moratorium in finally ordering an end to it. In the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy case, the court cited its ruling last year that the Trump administration had not followed proper processes when ending an Obama-era policy. In seeking to end the Trump policy, the court ruled, the Biden administration had made the same mistake.
But in an April shadow docket order, after a 5-4 vote, the court granted an emergency request to block a California regulation limiting gatherings within houses of worship because of the pandemic. And last night, with the same 5-4 alignment, the court denied a similar emergency request concerning the Texas abortion regulation.
Particularly with controversial cases like those, it can be difficult for lower courts and plaintiffs to predict how the court will act, or interpret how it acts. The often sparse (at best) reasonings in shadow docket orders leave “a fog of uncertainty as to exactly what the standards are in different categories of cases,” Professor Vladeck wrote in a 2019 law review article.
With those two 5-4 rulings at least, the court is sending mixed signals. You see “a court untroubled by procedure [that] went out of its way to expand religious liberty, but hid behind procedural [questions] to refuse to enforce a right [to abortion] already on the books,” Professor Vladeck tweeted Thursday morning.
What does this mean for the court’s legitimacy?
Congress has voiced concerns about the shadow docket, which is notable in and of itself – even more so given those concerns have come from members of both parties.
In a House Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this year, Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas criticized the court’s unsigned orders. “I am a fan of judges and justices making clear who is making decisions,” he said.
The lack of transparency is a concern, but another key point is how little information the Supreme Court makes decisions with in the shadow docket, compared with the merits docket. There is a limited lower court record and no briefings or oral arguments. Traditionally that has been offset by the court itself being selective in how and when it uses it, but as explained above, the court has been getting less selective.
What’s driving the shift? “It’s some combination of a Court that is eager to put its stamp on these issues,” writes Steven Schwinn, a professor at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law, in an email, “and litigants who seek more aggressive Court intervention at early stages in hot-button cases.”
Justice Stephen Breyer raised this point in his dissent to the court’s eviction moratorium ruling.
“These questions call for considered decisionmaking, informed by full briefing and argument,” he wrote. “Their answers impact the health of millions. We should not set aside the ... eviction moratorium in this summary proceeding.”
And in an interview with The New York Times, he said that the court should be deciding fewer emergency applications.
“I can’t say never decide a shadow-docket thing,” he told the Times. “Not never. But be careful.”
For Mr. Ali, the legitimacy of the U.S. judicial system “depends on judges offering principled, legal opinions that support the outcomes they reach,” he says. “Deciding major issues and disputes through unsigned orders is not what anyone should want for our judicial system.”
What lies behind the growing support for unions in the U.S.? A defining characteristic of Generation Z – the push for social justice – may be part of the answer.
Last week, more than 50 Starbucks employees in Buffalo, New York, announced a plan to form a union – the first, if successful, for the nearly 9,000 company-owned Starbucks locations in the United States. Three days after their initial meeting, a majority of the stores’ eligible employees had signed cards in favor of unionizing.
Public support for unions is at a 17-year high, according to a Gallup Poll last September. Some of it is generational: Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 are more likely to approve of unions than their older peers.
Experts say there’s also a larger shift toward worker empowerment right now, fueled by a pandemic economy that has blended strong consumer demand with a shortage of workers for many service-sector jobs.
Whether it’s pandemic parenting challenges, increased unemployment benefits, or heightened concerns over safety that are keeping workers away, help is wanted. And that means those still working have leverage to demand higher pay and better conditions.
“Starbucks has been saying we are the heroes on the front line. We got vaccines earlier because we are ‘essential workers,’” says Jaz Brisack, a barista at Buffalo’s Elmwood Avenue branch. “But if we are essential, then it should also be essential to give us a voice in making these decisions that affect us.”
Richard Bensinger, an organizer with Workers United, has been helping workers form unions for four decades. But he says he’s never worked with a group as passionate as the Starbucks baristas in Buffalo, New York.
With Starbucks’ quarterly revenue hitting an all-time high earlier this year, employees across three Buffalo stores say they have been asked to do more work for the same pay despite health risks. Meanwhile, they saw their unionized colleagues at another Buffalo coffee chain, Spot Coffee, vote to temporarily close their stores when pandemic caseloads were high.
So last week, more than 50 Buffalo employees announced a plan to form their own union, called Starbucks Workers United. If successful, it would be the first for the nearly 9,000 company-owned Starbucks locations in the United States. Three days after their initial meeting, a majority of the stores’ eligible employees had signed cards in favor of unionizing.
“It was pretty old-fashioned,” recalls barista Jaz Brisack, describing how she and her colleagues signed pieces of paper on the drink counter.
Not only are the Buffalo baristas incredibly motivated, says Mr. Bensinger; they’re incredibly young. And while they may not look like stereotypical union workers of America’s past, they are a central force behind today’s rising pro-union sentiment. According to a Gallup Poll last September, public support for unions is at a 17-year high, with Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 more likely to approve of unions than their older peers.
But it’s not just young people’s left-leaning politics that’s causing a “tectonic shift in workplace power relations,” as Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, puts it.
The uptick in union support is part of a larger national shift toward worker empowerment, say experts, fueled by a pandemic economy that has blended strong consumer demand with a shortage of workers for many public-facing service sector jobs. In 2021, quit rates are the highest they have been since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started keeping track in 2000.
Whether it’s pandemic parenting challenges, increased unemployment benefits, or heightened concerns over workplace safety that are keeping workers away, help is wanted. And that means those still working have more leverage to demand higher pay, improved conditions, and better work-life balance.
“You hear about all these businesses who are struggling to keep people hired, and that has played a part [in our decision to unionize] because it shows that it is harder for them to replace us,” says Michael Sanabria, a Buffalo barista who has worked for Starbucks for almost four years. “So please, really listen to our voice, because we don’t want to go work elsewhere.”
Almost 6 million restaurant workers lost their jobs during the first few months of COVID-19 lockdowns, says Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Of those, 63% were unable to qualify for unemployment benefits because their pre-tip wages were too low.
“That was kind of a lightbulb moment for a lot of these workers,” says Ms. Jayaraman. “This is the first time in 150 years that you’re seeing this level of rejection by workers of a subminimum wage.” She adds, “That is new, and that is powerful.”
Still, it remains to be seen whether workers will capitalize on the current climate in a way that cements long-term change. Many may accept one-time bonuses and other short-term incentives instead of pushing for broader and more permanent gains, such as by organizing unions or campaigning for higher minimum wage laws.
That’s something Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, which represents more than 12 million workers, warned against at a Monitor Breakfast earlier this week. She referenced a 2018 protest at Google, when 20,000 workers walked off the job in response to how the company had handled sexual assault allegations. The protesters sent Google a list of demands, but not all of them were met.
“Things have just gone back to the status quo [at Google] because they didn’t have an organized way, with the enforcement of the law behind them, to sustain it,” says Ms. Shuler. “Folks are starting to connect the dots, especially in industries that traditionally haven’t had unions. ... We must meet this moment by building a modern labor movement.”
That also means taking advantage of the moment politically, adds Ms. Shuler, especially when Washington has “the most pro-worker administration in history” under President Joe Biden. The AFL-CIO has campaigned for the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would nullify right-to-work laws in place in several states and prohibit employer interference in union elections.
Although the PRO Act passed the House in March, it stands little chance of passing the closely divided Senate. Still, the pandemic has done much to further pro-union sentiment outside Washington, where many of the country’s “essential workers” have felt underappreciated.
“Starbucks has been saying we are the heroes on the front line. We got vaccines earlier because we are ‘essential workers,’” says Ms. Brisack, the barista at Buffalo’s Elmwood Avenue branch. “But if we are essential, then it should also be essential to give us a voice in making these decisions that affect us.”
A 2020 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found sales and food-serving occupations have some of the lowest unionization rates of any occupational group. Simultaneously, these workers have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic over the past year and a half, creating what one Buffalo barista calls “a perfect storm.”
At the eye of this storm are young workers, who are more likely to be employed in these nonunionized, at-risk occupations. Last year, unemployment rates for Generation Z, or those under the age of 24, rose to almost 25%.
“My generation, I think we screwed everything up,” says Mr. Bensinger, a baby boomer. “Gen Z is smart, underappreciated, and underpaid.”
Although he admits to not always understanding the memes circulating around the office, Mr. Bensinger says young people are “leading an incredible resurgence for the labor movement” by including labor rights as another social justice cause worth fighting for.
“We work for a company that touts itself as a leader in supporting [Black Lives Matter] and LGBTQ rights – but they union-bust,” says Ms. Brisack of Starbucks. “There is even less acceptance for that [now] than there has been.”
Still, not all young workers taking advantage of the current economy to demand better conditions say a union is the answer.
Raven Harper, for example, a millennial tech worker in Nashville, Tennessee, hadn’t been searching for a new job for long when she received three offers all at once. So she decided to be clear with the company she was most interested in about her wants in terms of salary, health benefits for her children and her husband, and paid time off.
She says she got her new employer to agree to it all, without the help of a union.
Ms. Harper previously worked for a company with a union, and while she appreciated it sometimes, she doesn’t think she would join one again if she had the choice. She says much of the current shift toward workers’ rights is thanks to her generation’s attitude toward work and unwillingness to settle.
“The generation that I’m a part of, we’re movers and shakers,” says Ms. Harper. “We don’t accept the bare minimum, or we’re trying not to. We’re trying to do better and see better for ourselves.”
Back in Buffalo, Ms. Brisack and Mr. Sanabria also credit their generation’s values for helping their fledgling unionization campaign, which they say has been marked by a strong camaraderie.
“We are all working together for one cause,” says Mr. Sanabria, “and that cause is us.”
Staff writer Erika Page contributed to this report.
In shades of Hurricane Katrina, little outside help is showing up after Hurricane Ida, residents say. It’s a reminder that communities are the ones best positioned to help themselves.
The day before Ida made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, President Joe Biden approved Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ request for an emergency disaster declaration. From the view of New Orleans residents in the days after the storm, we couldn’t tell. Emergency personnel weren’t yet roaming our neighborhood, minus a few local police officers. Our neighbors had become our only lifelines.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been mobilizing aid to the region – but far from everywhere needed. And electric power so far is being restored only slowly to the roughly 1 million customers who lost it.
In an echo of Hurricane Katrina here in 2005, many residents are awaiting help and relying on one another or on nonprofits.
“This has just been a really incredible example of how effective mutual aid is. … People are helping each other, like distributing food and water and sharing generator access,” says Delaney Nolan of Southern Solidarity, a volunteer group that supports unsheltered people in New Orleans.
But “I have a lot of unhoused neighbors who have been coming up and asking if I know where to get them food and if I have water,” Ms. Nolan says. “No one is doing it. That’s absurd to me.”
The day before Ida made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, President Joe Biden approved Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ request for an emergency disaster declaration. From the perspective of New Orleans residents in the days after the storm, we couldn’t tell. Emergency personnel weren’t yet roaming our neighborhood, minus a few local police officers. Our neighbors had become our only lifelines.
Many nonprofit organizers across New Orleans have begun to wonder when help might finally come as days are beginning to bleed into an entire week since the storm hit the Crescent City.
Hurricane Ida knocked out the power for more than 1 million customers across the Gulf Coast, primarily in Louisiana. On Monday, Entergy, the Bayou State’s largest utility company, said it could be weeks before power is restored after the storm took out all eight transmission lines running energy into Greater New Orleans. Two have so far been restored, Entergy announced earlier today.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been working alongside state officials and the National Guard to distribute food, water, and tarps and to assist with post-storm rescues. Regarding the widespread power outages, FEMA officials have described progress in getting emergency generators in place for critical infrastructure like water treatment plants.
Yet despite such efforts, many people in New Orleans and throughout the region are mostly fending for themselves, nonprofit organizers say. Complicating matters is that residents are being left to do so as the temperature hits a sweltering 100 degrees with humidity. A heat advisory has been put in place. Local officials have set up services such as phone-charging and cooling stations, feeding sites and meal distribution, and transportation to shelters for those who are unhoused.
But local and state resources are limited, leaving local residents to leap into action, as well as community nonprofits that have become adept at responding to these types of crises in the city.
“I think in general, this has just been a really incredible example of how effective mutual aid is. ... People are helping each other, like distributing food and water and sharing generator access,” says Delaney Nolan, an organizer with Southern Solidarity, a volunteer group that supports unsheltered people in New Orleans. “What I’ve not seen is even a single member of the National Guard, or police, or state people, give out even a single bottle of water.”
Gaps in government support mean that many here feel desperate for more federal assistance, even as some are resigned to the big role that self-help is playing.
“No one can take care of New Orleans like New Orleans can,” says Erica Chomsky-Adelson, executive director of Culture Aid NOLA, the city’s only no-barrier food distribution group. The organization has supplied 1.5 million pounds of food to residents since the COVID-19 pandemic began last year. “We are the first responders. We have to be our own saviors. No one else can do that for us.”
As a reporter who lives in the city, I saw the community response firsthand.
Only a few in my neighborhood decided to stick out the storm. But by midday Monday, after Ida had left Louisiana in its destructive path – amounting to one of the strongest hurricanes in U.S. history, with more than 8 inches of rainfall and winds up to 150 mph in some parts of the state – our block understood that the clock was ticking for us to do something with the food that was gradually defrosting and spoiling in our freezers and refrigerators.
So, for a moment that day, we ate barbecued chicken and fresh grouper from the Gulf of Mexico together. As community members, we were already there for each other.
Y’all have enough water over there? ... We have some charcoal and lighter fluid to spare if you need it. ... Here, take a few dollars ... Is there anything we can help with? ... Come back later for some food, y’all.
New Orleans was not alone in taking Hurricane Ida’s brunt force over the weekend. In places like the town of LaPlace in St. John the Baptist Parish, the roofs blew off some homes, and on social media, desperate families began posting their addresses and the number of adults and children in the homes, begging for help to arrive.
Governor Edwards, who viewed the damage by helicopter Tuesday morning, said roughly 800 St. John the Baptist Parish residents were rescued – some by law enforcement and some by a ragtag group of volunteers who call themselves the Cajun Navy.
On Thursday, as people from New Orleans to more rural areas struggle to regroup, President Biden himself joined voices saying more help is urgently needed.
“We know that there is much to be done in this response on our part,” Mr. Biden said at the White House earlier today. “We need to get power restored. We need to get more food, fuel, and water deployed.”
Prior to Ida’s landfall, cable TV news hosts breathlessly noted how the storm would hit New Orleans on the 16th anniversary of Katrina’s havoc, when the levees broke, flooding the city. More than 1,800 people across the region lost their lives during Katrina.
Ida proved far less damaging than Katrina in lives lost – of about 25 so far, most have been due to flooding far inland and north of Louisiana. But many see parallels as well.
Bethany Bultman, the co-founding director and chair of the New Orleans Musician Clinic and Assistance Foundation, recalls how after Katrina, the foundation flew her to New York City so she could work the phones, raise money, and help rebuild their coalition and clinic, while others stayed on the ground to help those in need. Now, years later, she’s back in the “same dingy” New York City hotel, as she once again works to coordinate local ground efforts. They drove her into Gulfport, Mississippi, the day after Ida to catch her flight.
“It’s just dystopian,” Ms. Bultman says. “I am now at a place after Katrina of saying, this is the second time that the system failed the people of New Orleans, and they should be held accountable. The not-for-profits shouldn’t be out there. ... I am just at my wits’ end with this.”
For many, the worry now isn’t about their city’s long-term future – it takes more than a storm to knock out New Orleanians’ will, they say – but about those who are once again enduring the hardships that came with Katrina.
“It’s traumatic, especially for us, especially here, especially at the end of August,” Ms. Chomsky-Adelson says. “Even if we get some food and water and ice and eventually electricity, I think a lot of people are not going to be OK after this one, no matter what we do.”
Ms. Nolan of Southern Solidarity questions the city’s preparations prior to the storm. A voluntary evacuation order was handed down for New Orleans. Thousands of people fled the city, backing up Interstate 10 in both directions, bumper to bumper, for miles upon miles. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell cited a lack of time to order a mandatory evacuation.
However, organizers say they are unclear on why the city was not doing more to prepare assistance during the lead-up to Ida’s landfall. Ms. Nolan says some of the direct relief to residents should have included water distribution at every major intersection throughout the city, as well as charging stations that would have been operational as soon as the storm passed over New Orleans in the early hours of Monday.
The city sent a message Thursday asking those who are still in New Orleans to respond to an online poll about possible transportation to state-run shelters in northern Louisiana.
Ms. Nolan sees government failures to launch a stronger response by now as having a tinge of Hurricane Katrina déjà vu.
“The idea of resiliency, I think, is really repeated in a way to kind of uplift everybody. ... What it really means is there is no social safety net; the government services have totally failed us,” Ms. Nolan says. “I have a lot of unhoused neighbors who have been coming up and asking if I know where to get them food and if I have water.”
How can a book reclaim a life? “The Burning Blue” broadens the legacy of Christa McAuliffe, who died in the Challenger disaster, by highlighting her roles as educator, advocate, mom, and feminist.
Christa McAuliffe. For those who remember the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster, her name is often unforgettable. But who was she really? As a human? As a teacher?
In the book “The Burning Blue: The Untold Story of Christa McAuliffe and NASA’s Challenger Disaster,” author Kevin Cook tells of McAuliffe’s earthly feats, including her passion for education, her outspoken activism, and her seemingly unending compassion.
She joined the Challenger crew “because she wanted to promote the cause of schoolteachers,” Mr. Cook says. “She felt they were underpaid and overworked, and she wanted to let people know that teachers were really important. That’s what made her give up a year with her family.”
From NASA’s perspective, he adds, “They wanted someone who could make the public care about space again, and she was very good at that.”
Christa McAuliffe may be the best-known teacher in America, but few people know much about her except that she died along with six other crew members in the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster. As author Kevin Cook discovered, the New Hampshire educator was an extraordinary woman bursting with warmth and determination. He explores McAuliffe’s role in “The Burning Blue: The Untold Story of Christa McAuliffe and NASA’s Challenger Disaster.” Mr. Cook spoke with Monitor recently.
What sparked the idea for the book?
I saw a clip of the Challenger explosion online, and I remembered the name of Christa McAuliffe. All I could tell you was that it was a national disaster, and this teacher was on the flight. I couldn’t name anyone else in the crew. It just seemed like there must be a lot of interesting aspects to that story. She turned out to be this tremendously appealing person, and I was able to tell six life stories about the other remarkable members of the crew.
What kind of person was McAuliffe?
She was a fabulous schoolteacher, just totally dedicated. I was so glad that [her husband] Steve McAuliffe broke his silence [in the book] to answer questions about her and talk about just how devoted she was to her profession. And she was an unapologetic feminist in the early 1980s, when that wasn’t the easiest way to get along in a medium-sized city in New Hampshire.
You write about the night before she went to Washington for NASA’S naming of the teacher in space. What happened?
A student shows up on her front porch who’s not in any of McAuliffe’s classes and says she’s suicidal. McAuliffe immediately says “Come on in,” even though Steve, a lawyer, says this may not be a very good idea in terms of liability. She holds the girl’s hand and talks to her until the wee hours of the morning.
Once the girl has calmed down, she puts her in a bunk bed below her own sleeping son. She gets a couple of hours sleep and goes to Washington to become the teacher in space. This is McAuliffe in a nutshell. Sincere and indomitable.
What sort of challenges did she face in the public spotlight?
She handled the torrent of media attention with grace, and she was nobody’s pawn. She refused to do some things NASA wanted her to do, like promote a teacher’s guide that she had nothing to do with.
Why did a Republican White House pick an outspoken liberal for this role?
It wasn’t all about politics. It was about what can you bring to the Teacher in Space program. She was very daunted by the fact that some of the other finalists were brilliant in science and super accomplished. But NASA had enough science. They wanted someone who could make the public care about space again, and she was very good at that. She came across as energetic and enthusiastic.
Did she understand she was being used as a public relations tool?
I think she did. NASA wanted to promote the space program, and there’s nothing wrong with that. She wanted to promote the space program, too. But what stands out to me is that she had her own cause. It wasn’t her dream to fly or get famous. She did this because she wanted to promote the cause of schoolteachers. She felt they were underpaid and overworked, and she wanted to let people know that teachers were really important. That’s what made her give up a year with her family.
How did McAuliffe come across in public?
A New Hampshire newspaper editor who knew her said she had the gift of being herself on screen. She used to grade papers, late at night, with Johnny Carson’s show in the background. Next thing she knows, she’s on “The Tonight Show” talking with Johnny Carson, and doing it so smoothly that he led a round of applause for her.
Did she realize the danger she faced in the shuttle?
She was constantly asked about whether she was scared. She would always say, “Well, I probably will be when those rockets are going off. Maybe I will be. But you know, right now I’m excited.” She knew there were risks, as they all did. But space shuttle travel was seen as routine. It was often said that they were as safe as flying in a passenger jet, which was absolutely false. But I don’t think it was possible for anyone to understand the degree of the risk until the disaster we all saw on TV.
What should we be thinking as billionaires begin to fly to space?
I am not sure that space tourism is a good idea. They’re using spacecraft that are still experimental vehicles, just as the shuttle was. So there are dangers there. At the same time, people are excited and fired up about space exploration again. One hopes they’ll heed the message of Mike Ciannilli, who runs the Apollo, Challenger, Columbia Lessons Learned Program. He says that as magnificent as the triumphs of the American space program were, there were mistakes. We need to learn from them and not let scheduling and competitive pressures force us to make the wrong decisions.
What are the legacies of the Challenger disaster?
One legacy is how the families of the crew banded together to back the space program – even after their hearts were broken – and built the network of national and international Challenger Centers where kids learn STEM skills in a fun way through virtual space flight. Another legacy is the idea that caution ought to be an important part of our next steps into space exploration. And I hope a third legacy is that teachers ought to be celebrated and compensated better than they are.
Increasingly, societies are trying to address wrongs by stopping bad practices and giving back what was taken. In the U.S., more communities are memorializing Black burial sites. And two museum collections have returned artifacts to Iraq.
Our progress roundup highlights American endeavors to address past injustices, by harnessing the power of both local voices and highly visible institutions.
Efforts to preserve African American burial sites are gaining momentum across the country. Missing deeds, weak preservation laws, and general lack of awareness have made lost African American cemeteries uniquely vulnerable. More and more, communities are leading efforts to memorialize developed burial grounds, as well as identify and preserve these sites before they are slated for development.
Virginia’s Prince William County recently voted to fund archaeological surveys to improve cemetery mapping. Officials are also considering additional oversight for development projects in the community of Thoroughfare, where a new activist group has formed in response to the erasure of historic Black and Native American gravesites.
In Florida, where legislators estimate there may be as many as 3,000 developed or abandoned burial grounds, the governor signed off on a six-month task force dedicated to studying this issue. Nationally, historical preservation advocates have been pushing congressional bills that would establish a database of African American cemeteries throughout the United States, and to support educational programs. “People are absolutely starting to realize that these kinds of historical injustices need to be addressed now,” said Kelley Fanto Deetz, co-CEO of the History, Arts, and Science Action Network. “So there is a change coming.”
Thomson Reuters Foundation, Black Cemetery Network
“Green corridors” offer residents of Medellín, Colombia, refuge from rising temperatures. Since 2017, the city has installed tens of thousands of native trees, palms, and other plants to create 30 interconnected corridors through many of Medellín’s “heat islands.” These urban areas have high concentrations of heat-absorbing paved roads and concrete, making the neighborhoods hotter in the day and slower to cool down at night. With more than 12 shaded miles, the green corridors offer residents routes to travel, work, and rest, and have decreased the heat island effect by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, according to city officials. The added vegetation also helps combat air pollution and absorb carbon emissions.
Despite initial concerns over the cost of creating and maintaining the corridors, city gardeners say community members have come to appreciate the green spaces. Their work has also received international praise. The initiative won a 2019 Cooling by Nature Award from Ashden, a United Kingdom-based charity supporting climate change solutions around the world, and the head of the United Nations Environment Program in Colombia, Juan Bello, said, “The Green Corridor project is an excellent example of how city planners and governments can use nature for smart urban design.”
Thomson Reuters Foundation, U.N. Environment Program
The Iraqi Ministry of Culture reclaimed 17,000 looted artifacts in the country’s largest repatriation. Decades of unrest, especially during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, have allowed for extensive looting of Iraqi antiquities, which often appear on the black market with vague or falsified letters of provenance. The recent return results from years of effort and includes thousands of cuneiform tablets, ancient seals, and other items. Around 12,000 artifacts come from the Museum of the Bible, founded and chaired by Hobby Lobby President Steve Green. The company launched an internal review of museum collections after the U.S. Department of Justice levied $3 million in fines in 2017 for dubious acquisitions. Another 5,000 were donations to Cornell University’s collection.
“This is not just about thousands of tablets coming back to Iraq again – it is about the Iraqi people,” said Hassan Nadhem, the minister of culture, tourism, and antiquities, about the historic shipment. “It restores not just the tablets, but the confidence of the Iraqi people by enhancing and supporting the Iraqi identity in these difficult times.”
The New York Times, Al Jazeera
Malawian teens are tackling sensitive subjects on air. A survey showed that 54% of young people in Africa rely on radio as their primary news source, and according to the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, 81% find local programming more trustworthy than international programs. The U.S.-based nonprofit Developing Radio Partners is helping local radio stations build on that trust by mentoring young people to be role models for their community, and address critical social issues. So far, DRP has worked with nine stations to train about 400 youth reporters in Malawi. The teens go on to host and research radio shows covering cultural taboos, such as gender violence and HIV.
One program, called “Let’s Shine,” is estimated to have reached 3 million youths since hitting airwaves in 2017. One listener, Doreen Sakala, is a young mother who says the show’s candid conversations about teen pregnancy inspired her to return to school. Organizers say child marriage – which is illegal but remains common in Malawi – has declined in areas where radio stations have partnered with DRP. Near the Zambian border, Nzenje village chief Lawrence Lungu says the youth-led radio shows have helped dissolve at least six child marriages by “[bringing] light to us when we were in the dark.”
Thomson Reuters Foundation
Since its founding in 1630, Boston has often been “a city upon a hill,” as John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, warned. “The eyes of all people are upon us,” he said. Now, in a mayoral election this fall, Boston will again be eyed for an important demographic transition. After being led by white men for centuries, Boston will elect a mayor from an ethnic minority, most likely a woman.
This contest burst wide open earlier this year when Mayor Marty Walsh stepped down to become U.S. secretary of labor. He was succeeded by City Council President Kim Janey, a Black woman. Now she’s running alongside three other women and a Black man in a city teetering on becoming “majority minority” racially. With racial and gender diversity well represented, the contest has had an opportunity to center on issues beyond identity politics.
The Boston torn apart in the 1970s over whether to allow busing to achieve racial integration in schools seems like a foggy memory. Now it is setting an example for diversity in action. America’s “city upon a hill” has burst with new candidates and new ideas suited to the 21st century.
Since its founding in 1630, Boston has often been “a city upon a hill,” as John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, warned. “The eyes of all people are upon us,” he said. Now, in a mayoral election this fall, Boston will again be eyed for an important demographic transition. After being led by white men for centuries, Boston will elect a mayor from an ethnic minority, most likely a woman.
This year’s contest burst wide open earlier this year when Mayor Marty Walsh stepped down to become U.S. secretary of labor. He was succeeded by City Council President Kim Janey, a Black woman. Now she’s running alongside three other women and a Black man in a city teetering on becoming “majority minority” racially.
The wider choice has upended the usual Boston politics. Voters, for example, have a choice of two other Black candidates besides Ms. Janey. City Councilor Andrea Campbell has a compelling up-from-poverty story. And John Barros is Boston’s former economic development chief.
Mr. Barros, a lifelong Boston resident with roots in Cape Verde, told The Boston Globe that Black voters no longer need to settle on a single candidate to ensure their voices are heard. “The Black community’s not a monolith – it’s a very diverse community, particularly here in Boston,” he said. “There are going to be multiple candidates who get Black votes.”
Rounding out the field in the Sept. 14 nonpartisan primary are Annissa Essaibi George, with Arab heritage, and Michelle Wu, an Asian American. The top two vote getters will face off in the Nov. 2 general election.
With racial and gender diversity well represented among the candidates, the contest has had an opportunity to center on issues beyond identity politics. Affordable housing and education are high priorities. Voters also want answers to the city’s opioid epidemic. Police reform has garnered less interest.
On climate change, Ms. Wu has suggested a “Green New Deal” in which thousands of trees would be planted to provide shade in low-income neighborhoods. Also under her proposals, developers’ net-zero emissions projects would be expedited, as would projects that set aside a substantial number of residences as affordable housing units.
This precedent-busting election may also energize the city’s minority communities and increase overall voter turnout to levels not seen in many years. The slate of candidates reflects gradual but substantial progress over recent years as women and minorities have moved into positions of responsibility that now make them highly qualified candidates.
The Boston torn apart in the 1970s over whether to allow busing to achieve racial integration in schools now seems like a foggy memory. Now it is setting an example for diversity in action. America’s “city upon a hill” has burst with new candidates, new vitality, and new ideas suited to the 21st century.
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.
Recognizing our nature as God’s children empowers us to promote loving communication, long-lasting relationships, and healing – as a woman suffering from recurring anxiety and difficult relationships experienced.
When I was in college, it felt as though some of my relationships could be improved. Also, conversations with family members often didn’t feel as happy or productive as they could be. Thinking it would help, I tried to defend myself by explaining some personal struggles I’d faced. In retrospect, I can see that this came across as blaming others, which actually seemed to be perpetuating the disturbance. But at the time, I wondered why I kept hitting a wall in my communications with family and friends.
One day I was reading “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Christian Science discoverer Mary Baker Eddy, and the term “self-justification” hit me like a ton of bricks. In one instance, Science and Health says, “In patient obedience to a patient God, let us labor to dissolve with the universal solvent of Love the adamant of error, – self-will, self-justification, and self-love, – which wars against spirituality and is the law of sin and death” (p. 242).
I was shocked. Why is self-justification wrong? Don’t we need to defend or explain ourselves from time to time?
In praying about this, I came to realize that trying to defend a wrong or selfish action – even in something as minor as being late for a meeting – is actually accepting that something unlike God, good, can exist and have an identity. It serves self, not God – the only true Ego – and denies our true identity as God’s reflection or image, as the Bible says we are.
As we instead see ourselves in prayer as the flawless creation of divine Love, we realize that there is no need to attempt to justify error (that which is not caused or created by God). The fear of being an erring human being separated from God – or losing face – falls away, and we are more loving because of it.
Beginning when I was young, certain words or actions that recalled painful memories would trigger extreme anxiety in me – what today might be called a panic attack. And without realizing it, I sometimes took my suffering out on people close to me. The self-justification made others feel wrong, blamed, or helpless to remedy the situation.
But through this new understanding of the false basis of self-justification, I came to see that instead of rationalizing and excusing this action, I could pray to gain a better understanding of what I truly am as God’s expression.
It takes humility and prayer to realize that the real issue we face is always the need to better understand our relation to God, not what others do or say. Nor can we be negatively affected by anyone else if we understand and accept that God governs us. Realizing that there’s no excuse for not speaking with absolute love, I prayed to know how God, Love, sees us. Love doesn’t know anything unlike goodness.
This shift in my thinking not only improved my relationships greatly but also led to a full and complete healing of the crippling anxiety and panic. It has been several years since this healing. Who knew that removing self-justification from my thought would have such a huge impact?
Recognizing that we are God’s loved, spiritual children, created in God’s likeness, we more consistently speak with honesty, meekness, grace, and selflessness.
Divine Love dissolves any pattern or habit of error and shows us our true nature. It’s natural for us as God’s children to communicate with others as lovingly as God communicates with us. Letting go of self-justification – a false representation of our identity – opens the way for healing and promotes loving communication and long-lasting, healthy relationships.
Adapted from an article published in the Aug. 9, 2021, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.
Thank you for joining us today. Please come back tomorrow when we take a closer look at the chessboard in Afghanistan. Which insurgent groups are operating there now, and what are their goals?