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Arnez Merriweather is the kind of neighbor you hope lives nearby.
When a fire started Monday in the St. Louis apartment building next door, Mr. Merriweather ran to help. A family was trapped on the second floor. He encouraged the mother to drop her 3-year-old out the window, and he caught the girl. Then, Mr. Merriweather and another neighbor caught the mom and grandmother before firefighters arrived. “I’m just glad everybody is okay,” he told KTVI Fox 2.
How often do such brave and selfless acts occur? A quick internet search reveals two more recent examples of neighborly heroism.
In Waverly, Ohio, Matt Mitchell was driving home after work when a woman flagged him down. A house was on fire – a place where he’d seen children’s toys in the yard when he’d driven by. “I immediately thought ... if my kids were in that house, what would I do or want someone to do?” Mr. Mitchell told the Chillicothe Gazette. “Instincts took over and I just took off running inside the house.” He rescued all three children and their mother.
On Chicago’s Southwest Side, Renaldo Vera was awakened by his dog barking early Monday. He rushed next door and pulled a 7-year-old boy and his mother from the burning building. “Anyone else would’ve done the same,” Mr. Vera told the Chicago Sun-Times.
He’s probably being modest. Most of us would consider any of these remarkable acts a rarity in an era when a me-first ethos prevails. Or does it? What if Mr. Vera is right? Perhaps, empathy and courage in a crisis are the new neighborly norm.
The integrity of the democratic process depends on local officials – from school board members to health officials. Our reporter looks at how they’re coping amid unprecedented abuse and even death threats.
Wesley Wilcox knows every election leaves some voters unhappy. But the discontent these days is off the charts. The president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections has received calls from people demanding he put an end to “socialism” and saying he’s “been warned” before hanging up. Colleagues who try to reassure voters about the integrity of the electoral process are receiving death threats.
“I’ve been doing this now for 31 years and I don’t remember anything like this,” says Mr. Wilcox.
Across the country, local officials are contending with a groundswell of hostility. School board meetings are attracting angry, even violent protests. Public health departments are fielding menacing emails and phone calls about doing too much to stop COVID-19, or not enough. Some have had to hire security details.
The local level has always been where government connects most directly with communities. Officials – many of whom serve for little or no pay – aren’t just political actors, they’re neighbors and friends.
But in such a polarized and toxic climate, that proximity can become problematic. Many are wondering if public service is worth the hassle, and say the harassment is having a chilling effect on their ability to do their job.
“It’s calling into question our integrity, our competency,” says Mr. Wilcox.
When Amy Milsten volunteered to run for school board, she expected to spend five hours campaigning each week. She ended up spending five hours each day.
Her race, in Pennsylvania’s Central York School District, got national attention after the sitting board effectively banned a list of resources on race. As a Democrat running in a Republican district, Ms. Milsten personally knocked on some 1,500 doors – and had some uncomfortable encounters. Some people would listen, but most weren’t interested, she says. Some slammed the door in her face.
While she won the election, the atmosphere hasn’t gotten any better, with controversies over everything from pandemic restrictions to instruction on race and identity still roiling the district.
“I’m a little afraid for my safety,” Ms. Milsten confesses, as she prepares to take her seat.
Across the country, local officials like Ms. Milsten are contending with a notable groundswell of hostility. School board meetings are attracting angry, even violent protests. Election officials are refuting heated accusations of fraud and misconduct. Public health departments are fielding menacing emails and phone calls about doing too much to stop COVID-19, or not enough. Many have received threats against their families, livelihoods, or life.
The local level has always been where government connects most directly with communities. Local officials – many of whom serve for little or no pay – aren’t just political actors, they’re neighbors and friends, sitting in the next church pew or standing on the sidelines at a soccer game.
But in such a polarized and toxic climate, that proximity can become problematic – making confrontation more commonplace. Many officials are wondering if public service is worth the hassle, and say the harassment is having a chilling effect on their ability to do their job.
“I feel like if I do open my mouth at one of these meetings and say something that a segment of the population doesn’t agree with, that I could receive veiled threats or actual threats,” says Ms. Milsten.
Contentious politics at the local level is nothing new. School boards have long been on the front lines of the culture wars, tussling over everything from sexual education to evolution. Nor is it unusual for, say, city council meetings to grow heated over issues like zoning.
But what seems different today, experts say, is the aggressiveness of voters. Direct threats of violence against school board members led the Department of Justice in October to issue a memo directing the FBI to address the matter. Critics contend the department was wrongly targeting concerned parents.
Over the summer, a report from the Brennan Center for Justice recorded one in three election officials feeling “unsafe because of their job” and one in five citing “threats to their lives as a job-related concern.” Around the same time, the Centers for Disease Control found that almost 12% of surveyed public health workers had received “job-related threats because of work” and another 23% had felt “bullied, threatened or harassed because of work.” Many electoral and public health officials have had to hire security details.
In a September Gallup survey, respondents still expressed higher levels of trust in local and state governments than the federal government. But those numbers have fallen to the lowest point in over a decade.
“The degree to which people trust the same institutions has been kind of cratering,” says Lara Putnam, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh.
The pandemic seems to have compounded the problem. The approach many states and localities have taken toward COVID-19 has often reflected partisan politics, even though many of those offices are technically nonpartisan. Officials tasked with determining health policies have frequently faced what seem like binary choices, destined to infuriate one group of voters or the other: Should schools be open or closed? Make masks mandatory, or ban mask mandates? Make voting procedures less cumbersome or more so?
“The divisions that you see in Washington, D.C., or at the national level are reproduced in state and local politics,” says Daniel Hopkins, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.
Local officials feel it.
“I’ve been doing this now for 31 years and I don’t remember anything like this,” says Wesley Wilcox, president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections.
Mr. Wilcox knows every election leaves some voters unhappy, and he always expects some frustration in November. But this is new. People have called demanding he put an end to “socialism,” swearing, and saying he’s “been warned” before hanging up. Colleagues who’ve tried to reassure voters about the integrity of the electoral process are being targeted for primary challenges and receiving death threats from constituents.
“This is different, in that it’s calling into question our integrity, our competency,” he says.
This October, Mr. Wilcox and his colleagues issued two memos – one to candidates and another to voters – calling for an end to attacks on election officials. There are 67 election officials in Florida, and about 20% retired in the 2020 cycle. Mr. Wilcox expects more to follow in 2024. Just this summer, a colleague went from celebrating his 20th year on the job to abruptly retiring two months later. The climate, he said, was too difficult.
It’s important to remember that it’s a small share of voters creating that climate, says Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, public information officer for the Washtenaw County Health Department in Michigan. But those voters can have a big impact. Most public health departments are overworked, understaffed, and underfunded, and morale is already low, says Ms. Ringler-Cerniglia. The personal attacks and security concerns are making a difficult situation far worse.
“It hurts,” says Ms. Ringler-Cerniglia. “It’s hard to be accused of those things when it’s like, seriously, my life is in shambles right now.”
It also makes her job more difficult. The Washtenaw department has had to end disrespectful phone calls and disable comments on social media. Interacting with the public has always been a key component of their work, says Ms. Ringer-Cerniglia, but they’ve had to set boundaries.
“We can’t have our staff sitting there literally for hours reading abusive messages, trying to respond to them, [and] having that be completely unproductive,” she says.
Of course, most interactions with the public don’t go that way.
In Columbus, Ohio, public health commissioner Mysheika Roberts says people in her area sometimes gripe about masking or school policies, but that’s all. It’s been a difficult year and a half for her department, she says, and community support has been crucial.
Still, Dr. Roberts knows colleagues have had it differently. Last year in Columbus, the state health director needed a security detail after people threatened her and protested outside her home with guns. She later resigned.
“I definitely think it impacts the morale,” says Dr. Roberts “Even to me as a leader, it hurts.”
Stories like that hurt everyone, says Mary Kate Anderson Brown, a mother of three elementary school students in Tennessee’s Williamson County.
For the past year, Ms. Brown has organized parents in her area against school closures, mask mandates, and curriculum changes – an unplanned foray into activism that started when she criticized virtual learning on Facebook and her post blew up.
In October, a seat opened on the local school board, and Ms. Brown’s husband was appointed to fill it. They soon gained a personal perspective into what it feels like to be the target of criticism. People started spreading rumors that her family had a hidden vaccine agenda, she says, and they grew concerned for their safety.
“We questioned whether or not it was worth going through, but it comes down to two things: your kids and your community,” says Ms. Brown. “Those two things are about as important to parents as anything in the world. To us, it was worth it.”
To Ms. Milsten, the incoming Central York School Board member, it’s worth it too.
The board’s relationship to families, teachers, and administrators is broken right now, she says, and she wants to help fix it. Sitting members offered her and the other newly elected officials a kind welcome after the race. She hopes there will be room for compromise.
She also hopes people in the county at some point won’t have to think so much about the school board. Local officials aren’t used to this kind of attention, she says. Maybe it would be better if things quieted down.
“I would love at the end of my term, or terms, for someone to look back on the four years or however long on the board and say, ‘Oh wow, I kind of really wasn’t even aware of what was going on,’” says Ms. Milsten. “Things just worked.”
For American soldiers protecting their country, feeding their families at home shouldn’t be a concern. But for some, it is. Our reporter looks at U.S. efforts to address the stigma, and forced resilience, of families facing poverty.
When Erika Tebbens moved to the Seattle area as a Navy wife, she found her family struggling to make ends meet. Even with a part-time job, the new mother found herself qualifying for the federal Women, Infants, and Children program. “I was honestly shocked that any military family in our country would be eligible for this type of government assistance – or need it,” Ms. Tebbens says.
She also didn’t discuss her plight widely. “I didn’t realize how common it was until years later,” she says.
The official response to such food insecurity among military households has long been muted. But that is becoming less tenable. Before the pandemic, 1 in 8 military families was struggling to put food on the table. Today, that figure is 1 in 5.
Concern is amplified, too, by a surge of inflation affecting not just grocery bills but also other everyday expenses. The week prior to Thanksgiving, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin pledged new responses in coming months. And Congress, with support from the Biden administration, is weighing its own action on the problem.
“It’s not just food – it’s other basic needs,” says researcher Nipa Kamdar at Baylor College in Texas. “We can’t treat one without treating the other.”
When her husband was a Marine Corps sergeant, Bianca Strzalkowski struggled with what, to the couple, felt like a shameful secret: Even on their active-duty military salary, which included a housing allowance, they could not afford enough food and diapers for their young family.
They quietly visited food banks to pick up boxes of recently expired groceries. By the time she was pregnant with her second son, the Strzalkowskis were relying on military MREs, or meals ready to eat – distributed to soldiers in the field – for family dinners.
“There is nothing more stressful than having your husband fighting in combat in Afghanistan and having to lean on your extended family members, or payday loans, to feed your children,” she says.
The official response to the plight of military families suffering food insecurity has long been muted. “There’s a culture of resilience among military families, and there are pros and cons with that. Part of it is that families are expected – said or unsaid – to suck it up, because there’s always someone worse off than you,” says Shannon Razsadin, president of the Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN).
But within the halls of the Pentagon, that stoic definition of resilience is becoming less tenable as the problem continues to grow. Before the coronavirus pandemic, 1 in 8 military families was struggling to put food on the table, according to MFAN research. Today, that figure is 1 in 5. A congressional report released this summer called the situation “alarming.”
Concern is amplified, too, by a surge of inflation affecting not just grocery bills but also other everyday expenses. The U.S. consumer price index has jumped 6.2% in 12 months, led by categories like energy and used cars. Food prices, up 5.3%, haven’t risen at a faster pace since 2008.
Among military children, roughly one-third of those who attend schools run by the Department of Defense on U.S. military bases qualify for free and reduced lunches.
These realities have prompted what advocates say are promising policy changes both within the Defense Department and on Capitol Hill. They are aimed at helping troops get food on the table – and at tackling a historic tendency to cringe at what they see as the undesirable optics of military families in need of food assistance.
The week prior to Thanksgiving, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin acknowledged that economic burdens wrought by the pandemic and tight housing markets have “made financial struggles even tougher.” He added that “making sure our people have enough to eat” is “certainly top of the mind” for him.
Secretary Austin directed Pentagon officials to develop a strategy “to strengthen food security across the force” by early next year, as well as provide a “toolkit” of resources that troops can use in the meantime. “Our men and women in uniform and their families have enough to worry about,” he said. “Basic necessities like food and housing shouldn’t be among them.”
But while the Pentagon announcement marked a long-awaited acknowledgment of the problem, it was “underwhelming” in its scope, says Josh Protas, vice president of public policy at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a group that has long been pushing to address food insecurity among military families. “A 90-day review? A toolkit? We’ve known about this issue for years.”
The DOD toolkit in some cases involves providing resources like lists of food programs, but what’s needed, Mr. Protas adds, are policy changes that pay particular attention to the complexities that strain the system.
Secretary Austin directed a 10% increase in basic housing allowance toward places that had a 10% or more increase in rental costs, for example – promising on its face. But this temporary increase in the housing allowance may actually bump some military families over the qualifying income limit for federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps.
More encouraging, he says, is what’s going on across town, on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have been working on their own solutions to military food insecurity. This year’s defense budget bill, currently making its way through Congress, includes a provision that would give a “basic needs allowance” to troops with a household income of less than 130% of the federal poverty line.
In the House version of the bill, the military housing allowance for its troops would be excluded from the household income calculation for military families – but not in the Senate version. “We’re very hopeful that the House version will prevail,” says Mr. Protas.
Such policy changes are critical, says Erika Tebbens, a Navy wife who struggled to make ends meet when her family was stationed outside Seattle, one of the nation’s pricier cities. She is college educated, but with the frequent moves that military families are known to make, she was unable to find full-time work in the city, though she landed a job as a part-time bank teller.
After Ms. Tebbens’ baby was born, a civilian co-worker told her she should apply for the federal Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. “I said, ‘I’m pretty sure we’re not going to qualify.’ But we did. I was honestly shocked that any military family in our country would be eligible for this type of government assistance – or need it.”
What she didn’t qualify for was SNAP, after the great expense of child care forced her to reduce her part-time hours to one day per week. “We tried, but those benefits we couldn’t get, because with WIC they don’t include the military housing allowance as part of your income, but with SNAP they do.”
She also didn’t discuss her plight widely. “I didn’t realize how common it was until years later,” she says. More than 23,000 active-duty troops used SNAP in 2013, according to a 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office.
“There was a very real fear about what could happen to your husband or wife’s career if you seek help,” Ms. Strzalkowski says.
The stigma stems in large part from the expectation of strong self-reliance in the military, and the historic way in which commanders have implied that an inability to afford groceries could be tied to financial mismanagement.
Just last month, the top enlisted leader in the U.S. Army, Sgt. Maj. Michael Grinston, when asked about food insecurity in the military, questioned whether the military pays enlisted service members enough to support their families but also raised the possibility of financial mismanagement.
“Did you get a really nice car, really nice boat, a motorcycle, and can’t feed [the] family?” He added, “I’m not saying that’s what’s going on, absolutely not, but we have to manage the money we have.” He then spoke about financial readiness classes.
Yet such an emphasis on financial literacy is “insulting and condescending” given the unrelenting fiscal realities many military – indeed many American – families face, Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska, co-sponsor of the House legislation, said in a statement. “If anything, their response has helped exacerbate this problem by keeping the barriers of shame and stigma to assistance intact.”
The stigma has long made food assistance a sticking point among some U.S. officials (inside and outside the Pentagon) who are wary of the optics of American troops qualifying for such aid – particularly in a culture that has long preached projections of strength and quiet forbearance when it comes to personal problems.
The late Sen. John McCain championed a similar basic needs allowance supplement for troops, long since expired, that required service members who used it to seek permission within their chains of command. This in turn made some troops reluctant to avail themselves of it, particularly given that financial struggles are the number one reason people in government lose their security clearances.
Today, most major military bases across the United States have an active network of food banks just outside the installation gates, often with easy-to-access drive-thru windows, which may encourage soldiers sheepish about accepting such charity.
For December meal distributions, the Military Family Advisory Network is already at waitlist capacity. This has come in part from the growing buy-in among commanders. “There was initially some pushback, but now we’re seeing the support,” says Ms. Razsadin, who notes that the commanding general of the U.S. Army Reserve, Lt. Gen. Jody Daniels, recently attended an event to help hand out meals.
The willingness to discuss military food insecurity by President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden has helped to destigmatize the topic among top military leadership, experts say. The White House has reiterated its support for the basic needs allowance legislation, as well as its focus on providing more sources of affordable child care – base day care centers are often oversubscribed – and lowering the unemployment rate for military spouses, which was nearly seven times greater than the national unemployment rate even pre-pandemic.
The two are interconnected, since the lack of affordable child care “continues to be a major contributor to military spouse unemployment,” Denise Hollywood, chief community and programs officer for Blue Star Families, noted in House testimony on Nov. 10. Indeed, 34% of active-duty spouses who were looking for work cite child care as a barrier to their employment.
“It’s not just food – it’s other basic needs. We can’t treat one without treating the other,” says Nipa Kamdar, a researcher on the faculty of Baylor College in Texas who studies hunger in the veteran community. This is particularly true given the constant restart that happens when military families move every three years on average, often to new homes where they have no family or support network.
Ms. Strzalkowski, for her part, notes that it was when they got new duty orders to Yuma, Arizona, that their family’s financial situation took a downhill turn. Before the move, “I had a management position, and we built our lives off of these two incomes. Then we moved, and I couldn’t find employment.
“People have this misconception externally that we have a high income, we have all these benefits thrown at us, that our housing and medical is free,” she adds. “We weren’t thinking of the cost-of-living allowance difference, that our electricity bill is going to skyrocket – it didn’t even occur to me that I’d have trouble finding a job.”
By 2011, Ms. Strzalkowski had won a national military spouse award and was traveling the country as the public face of military family members, working with then-first lady Michelle Obama. “This came with some awesome experiences, but behind closed doors we were struggling.” Her relationship with her husband was strained, and their precarious financial position “definitely affected how I felt about him continuing a military career.”
This points to the larger societal costs – and national security implications – of food insecurity within the military, says Mr. Protas. “When service members are struggling and look to leave the military to better support their families, then we risk losing good talent,” he says. What’s more, service members of color are disproportionately affected, since they are disproportionately represented in the junior enlisted ranks, which are most likely to grapple with food insecurity.
Ms. Strzalkowski’s husband retired from the Marine Corps in 2018, and the family is back on firm financial footing. “I feel like I can breathe now. It feels like somebody else’s life, when we were a young enlisted family.”
Ms. Tebbens was able to leave the WIC program after she went back to work full time. By the time her son was 18 months old, “we didn’t need the benefits anymore, and that was that,” she says. “We can now afford to give generously to various charities and donate to our local food pantries.”
In the years since, “Every time I talk about it, and it’s very bipartisan, I’ve never met anyone who isn’t totally appalled or confused and tells me it’s the first time they’ve heard that anyone in the military qualifies for food assistance.”
The key, advocates say, is making it clear that this is a policy problem that needs to be fixed. “Once families are able to get to a threshold, their resiliency kicks in,” Dr. Kamdar says. “They don’t want to be constantly in need of charity. They want to be able to thrive on their own.”
Editor's note: One sentence in this article has been updated to give the complete name of the group MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.
Our reporter takes us to the streets of Gambia for a preview of the upcoming presidential election during a critical moment of transition for this emerging democracy.
In July of 1994, Yahya Jammeh, a young army officer, took control of Gambia in a coup. He would go on to rule for 22 years, brutally quelling any opponents who got in his way.
This Saturday Gambians head to the polls, and many will cast their first votes in an election without Mr. Jammeh on the ballot. The contest is a stunning turnaround for the small West African country of 2.4 million people.
But Gambia’s path from dictatorship has not been straightforward. Turning an authoritarian country into one with a truly representative system is an arduous process, and many risks lie ahead for the fragile democracy.
“The stakes are incredibly high for this election. It is one that really sets up … how the country’s transition from an authoritarian regime to a democratic [system] is going,” says Dr. Satang Nabaneh, a Gambian legal scholar at the University of Dayton’s Human Rights Center. While the progress made so far is laudable, she says, improving human rights and democracy will require constant effort and activism moving forward.
It was dark, and there was a curfew – and confusion. A teenager at the time, Lamin Marong was at his friend’s house. When he peeked outside, all he could see were soldiers, crisscrossing in every direction.
It turned out he was bearing witness to the start of one of the most brutal periods in Gambia’s history. It was July 22, 1994, and Yahya Jammeh, a young army officer, was taking control of Gambia in a coup. He would go on to rule for 22 years, brutally quelling any opponents who got in his way.
Today, Mr. Marong is looking at another pivotal moment for his country. This Saturday he will cast his first vote in an election without Mr. Jammeh on the ballot. The contest is a stunning turnaround for the small West African country of 2.4 million people.
“This one is going to be a different one,” says Mr. Marong, today a cellphone store owner in Serekunda, Gambia’s largest city, just outside the capital, Banjul. “This one is a democratic election – no fear, no threats. We feel free.”
But Gambia’s path from dictatorship has not been straightforward. Even though Mr. Jammeh lost a 2016 race and is off the ballot for the first time in a quarter century, turning an authoritarian country into one with a truly representative system is an arduous process, and many risks lie ahead for the fragile democracy.
“The stakes are incredibly high for this election. It is one that really sets up … how the country’s transition from an authoritarian regime to a democratic [system] is going,” says Dr. Satang Nabaneh, a Gambian legal scholar at the University of Dayton’s Human Rights Center. While the progress made so far is laudable, she says, improving human rights and democracy requires constant effort and activism. “We took out Jammeh from power, but [the 2016 election] didn’t necessarily set up systemic change,” Dr. Nabaneh cautions.
Dictators are not supposed to be ousted at the ballot box. And yet, that’s exactly what happened in 2016. Mr. Jammeh was unexpectedly defeated during presidential elections, which he had previously held and won through intimidation, when the fractured opposition united behind presidential candidate Adama Barrow, and won. Mr. Jammeh initially conceded, then reversed that concession. Gambia’s West African neighbors sent a military coalition into the country, and Mr. Jammeh fled into exile in Equatorial Guinea, where he remains.
Since then, new political parties have formed, as have civil society organizations – especially those centered around victims of Mr. Jammeh’s political repression, which included murder, forced disappearances, and torture. The Truth, Reparations, and Reconciliation Commission (TRRC) has concluded proceedings on the era and will set a reform agenda when it is made public. Independent media, once heavily restricted, have flourished. A government monopoly on broadcast news has been broken by 33 radio stations and six TV channels.
At the same time, says Sait Matty Jaw, executive director of the Center for Research and Policy Development, a nonpartisan Gambian research group, there have been worrying shortfalls. Mr. Barrow, who initially promised to stay for three years as a transitional leader, stayed on for a full five-year term. Now that he’s running for reelection, many Gambians doubt his democratic intentions. In September, he formed an alliance with Mr. Jammeh’s old political party, which still holds seats in the legislature. Mr. Jammeh is now campaigning from exile for another party’s candidate.
The Gambian presidency also remains too powerful. The adoption of a new, post-dictatorship constitution – which would have reined in executive control – was scuttled by parliament last year, and the security sector, judiciary, and election laws remain largely unreformed, critics say.
“Political will is important. What if [elected leaders] don’t have the political will? That’s why I’ve started coining a new phrase, ‘political demand,’” Emmanuel Joof, chair of the National Human Rights Commission, told the audience at a democracy conference in November. He was referring to civil society, which he said must continue pressuring the government to implement the anticipated policy recommendations in the TRRC’s final report.
“For me, and for many Gambians,” says Mr. Jaw, “this election is about the extent to which we have progressed since the departure of Jammeh.”
On a recent day in Serekunda’s sprawling open-air market, amid fishmongers, street food stalls, barbershops, and dry goods stores, Gambians winding their way through narrow alleys and wider boulevards offered an array of opinions on the upcoming race.
While some worry that Mr. Barrow’s attempt to stay in office is reminiscent of Mr. Jammeh’s, others are happy to vote to reelect the president. “Adama Barrow and Yahya Jammeh are not the same,” says Lamin Trawally, a coffee shop owner who was surprised his vote in 2016 for Mr. Barrow resulted in actual change and would like to see the president take on another term.
Other voters are celebrating the return of democracy, even if they’re lukewarm on Mr. Barrow himself. “If he wins it’s fine; if he loses it’s fine,” says Palma Conteh, patronizing a corner store in the market. “Ku win, baax na” – whoever wins, it’s good – he says in the local Wolof language.
But polarization has increased in this cycle – marked by fake news and derogatory remarks across ethnic lines by political candidates – and many Gambians continue to support Mr. Jammeh.
A high school student strolling by is excited by the election. As the conversation turns to Mr. Jammeh, he’s interrupted by a man who derails the interview, insisting the student has no right to talk poorly about the former dictator. “You don’t know nothing about the Gambia!” he yells. “You talk about Yahya Jammeh. ... You know nothing about him!”
Under Mr. Jammeh, whose face continues to grace old bank notes still in circulation, the country got its first television station in 1995. Some Gambians, Mr. Jaw included, are uncomfortable about how much of their success and education they owe to the dictator, he says. “He’s accused of human rights violations. Others celebrate him because he uplifted them from poverty, or even provided opportunity for their kids to study.”
“That’s part of his legacy,” says Mr. Jaw – and something Gambians will have to wrestle with as they move their country forward.
Outside of politics, many Gambians are consumed by hard economic realities. While Musukuta Fatty is happy Mr. Jammeh is gone, she’s also waiting for democracy’s benefits to trickle down to her wallet. She runs a modest vegetable stand in a country where gross domestic product per person hovers below $800. “We’re suffering,” she says. But at least, she says, she can voice her frustration at the ballot box – voting for one of Mr. Barrow’s half-dozen opponents.
Many people – Barrow supporters and detractors alike – are grateful to be having serious political discussions and debates out in the open, without worrying about being detained for critiquing the president.
“Before, you cannot even sit and talk about Yahya Jammeh. When you talk about Yahya Jammeh, you must watch your back,” says Mr. Marong, the owner of a cellphone store, who then mimes looking over his shoulder. You never knew who might secretly report you for criticizing the president, he says, even if your “crime” was as simple as hanging an opposition poster. “But [with] Adama Barrow, you can speak your mind. You can say anything you feel like,” he adds. “There is no more harassing people, no torturing, no arresting people at night.”
“Just the fact that we are able to have an election that doesn’t include Jammeh I think is a celebration by itself,” says the University of Dayton’s Dr. Nabaneh. “And a win for democracy.”
In this Q&A piece, our correspondent talks to an author and scholar about the societal revulsion and attraction to Blackness, Dave Chappelle’s comedy, and how Black identity is inseparable from the American identity.
Vanderbilt University professor Michael Eric Dyson is ready to talk about race.
His latest book, “Entertaining Race: Performing Blackness in America,” discusses not only the rich history of a marginalized group but also the societal expectations placed on Black people. From being brought to America on slave ships against their will to having their culture usurped on a national stage, Black people have been fighting for their livelihoods for centuries.
“From the very beginning of our sojourn on this soil, we have constantly helped to redefine what it means to be an American,” Dr. Dyson says in an interview. “Not just what it means to be Black, but what it means to be human, what it means to be a citizen of this nation.”
Dr. Dyson, who has written about Black America for decades, is fascinated by the way Blackness manifests in society. With his book, he says he is attempting to “break down boundaries and borders and obstacles and impediments that prevent us from raising tough questions about sensitive subjects that have real consequences in the world. That’s what I try to pursue in most of my work.”
Scholar, author, and ordained Baptist minister Michael Eric Dyson has spent the past three decades penning political and social commentary centering on Black America. In his latest offering, “Entertaining Race: Performing Blackness in America,” the Vanderbilt University professor discusses not only the rich history of a marginalized group but also the societal expectations placed on Black people. From being brought to America on slave ships against their will to having their culture usurped on a national stage, Black people have been fighting for their livelihoods for centuries. Dr. Dyson spoke with Monitor correspondent Candace McDuffie about his latest project and why everyone should be invested in having conversations about these subjects.
Q: At this point in your career – 24 books in – you’ve written about everything from why you love Black women to the legacy of Jay-Z. Is it easy for you to find different ways to explore Blackness in your works?
Blackness itself is endlessly fascinating. It has multitudes of dimensions – the magnitude of which can never be exhausted by a singular approach. I’m always astonished by new and valuable lessons that one can learn from studying Blackness, so I’ve always held out the possibility that something fresh will crease the horizon and capture your attention. I’m curious about the evolution of Blackness, the anatomy of Blackness, the structures and the spirit of Blackness, and how it continues to goad us on to think more sharply and critically about the different ways in which it manifests itself in our culture.
Q: Why do you think America has this undying obsession with Blackness and, as the title of your book states, performing it? It’s like Americans want to punish it but at the same time they want to emulate it.
That’s a great point. You know, there’s both a revulsion and a repulsion to Blackness and an attraction to the appeal of Blackness because it has been central to the definition of what America means. From the very beginning of our sojourn on this soil, we have constantly helped to redefine what it means to be an American. Not just what it means to be Black, but what it means to be human, what it means to be a citizen of this nation. From Crispus Attucks to Louis Armstrong, from Toni Morrison to Beyoncé, the wide range and circumference of American identity expands along the borders of a questing African American identity, a questing Black identity. So for good reason, Americans are obsessed with Blackness: obsessed with containing it, controlling it, defining it, absorbing it, emulating it, and trying to put it in a box.
Q: One of the things you touch on in the book is the complex nature of colorism. How has it affected you personally and shaped the Black experience overall?
Colorism is a deep plague in our community – a profound plague in America itself – but certainly in our own communities. My father was blue Black and from Albany, Georgia. I saw the way he was mistreated. I saw the way people looked at him as a simian – as an animal – and that was from Black people, not just the larger white society, because we’ve internalized some of these vicious misrepresentations of Blackness in our own community.
And as a result of that, we have had to learn to appreciate and to embrace the beauty of our Blackness. To remind ourselves that Black is beautiful. The reason that slogan became necessary and popular is because we were living in a culture that discouraged us from embracing our inherent beauty. To contradict the assertion that Blackness, no matter how uplifting, no matter how positive, still has these elements that might potentially undercut us and undermine us.
When it comes to colorism, I think it’s important for us to constantly remind ourselves that we too have to be open-minded about the definition of Blackness.
Q: When race is discussed in America, a big concept to grasp that’s vital to the conversation is critical race theory. You spelled out the meaning of it in “Entertaining Race,” but can you talk about it in simpler terms for those who misunderstand it?
Look, when you think about critical race theory, think institution, not individual. Think system and structure not sentiment and passion. Racism involves all that other stuff, but the lesson of critical race theory is that there are systemic and social barriers that prevent the flourishing of Black people in this country. The right wing ingeniously turned critical race theory against its owners and the people that they all sensibly claim to represent.
But critical race theory has done an exceptional job of having the identities of those who do such heinous things exposed and for us to think seriously about grappling with issues of inequity and going beyond what a person thinks or believes is allyship: “I didn’t say the N-word. I didn’t say anything horrible.” There are many more factors involved in being a progressive ally of Black people and understanding the tremendous tragedies and traumas we have endured.
Q: Something that struck me about this book is how you discuss the way Black comedians, like Richard Pryor, Martin Lawrence, and Mo’Nique, use their comedy to make sense of the world. As an advocate for the LGBTQ community, how do you contextualize Dave Chappelle’s latest performance in “The Closer” and the backlash he got for being perceived as transphobic?
I spoke out against homophobia before it was a thing. I’ve been challenging the Black church on transphobia and homophobia from the very beginning, so I have deep appreciation for and sensitivity about queer identities and especially trans identities. Trans identities challenge those of us who want to remain snookered by binaries in this country.
However, I also think it’s extremely important not to censor or cancel people. If you listened to Dave Chappelle’s entire comedy routine, it’s far different than what people portrayed it as. He is in this comedic space yet he’s raising profound questions.
When I went to see Dave Chappelle in Nashville nearly a couple of weeks ago, he asked: “What do you call a trans person who’s Black? The N-word,” is what he said. It echoed what Malcolm [X] said: “What do you call a Black man with a Ph.D.? The N-word.” Dave Chappelle, also on that special, suggested that white trans people could identify more readily with their whiteness as opposed to their trans identity. I think we have to take that into consideration.
Even if we disagree, we’ve got to provide a space for people to engage – not punching down, not beating up – but to at least engage in an edifying and illuminating manner that allows real dialogue to take place.
Q: This is one of the quotes about the complexity of art that sticks with me from “Entertaining Race”: “Emotional Black performance frees Black folk from a culture that harshly judges Black feeling and perception.” Do you think that Black people will ever be free from the stereotypes that have haunted them since the inception of slavery?
It’s rough. I mean, we grab for a space and agency within these complicated configurations of choices we confront. So on one hand, we have to create the means of our own freedom, the liberation that we seek, the emancipation we desire. However, the total quality of our freedom, the ability to move without encumbrance or a hindrance is a far piece off still. So far as being totally free from them, no, but in terms of having progressive freedom and the realization of our freedom within some of these brutal barriers, I think, yes. This book is attempting to break barriers ... break down boundaries and borders and obstacles and impediments that prevent us from raising tough questions about sensitive subjects that have real consequences in the world. That’s what I try to pursue in most of my work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Our reviewer (a buyer for independent bookstores) offers a selection of children’s picture books, including windows into different cultures, a path to overcoming the fear of sleeping in a strange house, and the power of alone time to fuel creativity.
Close your eyes and think of your favorite picture books when you were young. They were most likely the perfect blend of colorful images and evocative words – and they created entire worlds for you to enter. They featured people and animals that ran, jumped, climbed, and soared.
This fall, we offer five titles that include a joyous range of peoples and cultures and a generous share of universal experiences. The children in these books overcome fears, experience the delight of the natural world, celebrate alone time, and learn about a chicken who may or may not have special powers.
With illustrated books, the connection between reader and listener – as well as the interplay of text and image – can create powerful memories. These books are enriched by the experience of sharing them, with read-aloud time spurring a child’s curiosity and igniting discussions.
Room for Everyone (ages 4-8)
Written by Naaz Khan, illustrated by Mercè López
Hop on the daladala (a kind of minibus taxi) on the way to the blue crystal waters of Zanzibar! The vibrant illustrations play with color, perspective, and texture. Rhythmic language dances across the pages as more and more people and their belongings pile into the vehicle on the way to the beach. It seems there can’t possibly be room, but “after some wiggles and giggles and fun, they made enough room for everyone.” Even the typeface becomes flexible, with words such as “shuffle,” “squirm,” and “squeeze” taking up extra space on the page.
The bus fills up and the illustrations keep expanding until a truly spectacular cross section of the overloaded daladala is followed by the cathartic release. Ahhhhh. After the characters climb out to enjoy the beautiful beach, readers should stay on board for a glossary of Arabic and Swahili words as well as a page about Zanzibar and its culture. This is a book you will be happy to read again and again because it’s so full of sunlight and energy.
Gladys the Magic Chicken (ages 4-9)
Written by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Adam Rex
The author of “Dragons Love Tacos” pairs with the illustrator of “On Account of the Gum” in this hilarious tale. It’s a big, sweeping story that’s just right for sharing a belly laugh with the whole family.
Set in ancient times, the story centers around a bug-eyed, much-celebrated chicken named Gladys. At 48 pages, this is longer than the standard picture book, which helps give it an epic feeling. Characters such as Shepherd Boy, Brave Swordsman, Purple Pooh-bah, and Learned Princess, who writes a catchy little ditty that ends in “Abra-cock-a-doodle-dee-doo!,” make “Gladys the Magic Chicken” laugh-out-loud memorable.
But what I truly love about this is that it can prompt your own Socratic dialogue: Does Gladys have special powers? Why not read it together again and discuss?
Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey
Written and illustrated by Erin Entrada Kelly
Readers might know Erin Entrada Kelly from her Newbery Medal-winning chapter book, “Hello, Universe,” or her Newbery Honor book, “We Dream of Space.” In this start of a series aimed at younger readers, Kelly again creates rich characters, but this time with short chapters and endearing line drawings that work perfectly for a multilevel read-aloud as well as for early independent chapter-book reading.
Eight-year-old Marisol is quirky: She loves silent movies and has four plush cats named after her favorite foods: Nacho, Lumpia, Banana Split, and Pot Roast. Her charm shines through the prose and the pictures. In this book, Marisol works up her courage to climb the tree in her backyard (which she names Peppina) – maybe. The unique details about Marisol’s life go perfectly with the universal emotions depicted, making this a wonderful conversation starter plus a satisfying reread. Watch for a second book in the series in 2022.
A Boy Named Isamu (ages 3-7)
Written and illustrated by James Yang
One of the unexpected charms of this book is that it is told in the second person. The lines between audience and character, observer and artist, and reader and listener soften to allow us to explore sensation, isolation, and creativity along with the protagonist.
Isamu seeks quiet so he can listen to his own curiosity. “What kind of wood is this? How does fruit get its color? Why does cloth feel so soft? Who made the path with stone?” Readers can ponder how they might answer these questions in the text, and they might come up with questions of their own. They are invited to explore the wonder in the sound of a stick in the sand, the look of welcoming light, and the perception of the weight of stone.
The main character is inspired by the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The author’s note at the end of the book provides further information, including a photograph of young Isamu and one of his sculptures. It also explicitly celebrates alone time and the creativity that comes from it.
This gorgeous book might help everyone understand how one might be “alone but not lonely.”
We All Play (ages 3-7)
Written and illustrated by Julie Flett
Stunning illustrations, fun alliteration, a fantastic vocabulary, and shout-it-out repetition make this a favorite. Each spread in the book shows a sequence of alliterative verbs matched with animals, followed by the chorus of “We play too! / kimêtawânaw mîna” and a playful assortment of kids in different seasonal settings. The images are soft, warm, and full of exuberant movement. Toward the end, the wolf cubs “yip / and yawn / And slowly, side by side / animals fall asleep.” Finally, after one last frolic in a pile of autumn leaves, “We do, too. nîstanân mîda .../ zzzz.” The children in the book, as well as those listening, reach a calm conclusion.
Images and text are spare enough to allow ample time for readers to talk about the vocabulary and act out the motions. The first-person plural narration emphasizes universality and a connection to the natural world, something also addressed at the end of the book as the author-illustrator shares a bit about her Cree-Métis culture. A glossary with Cree words is included, and readers can find an audio guide online for the pronunciation.
Time for Bed, Old House (ages 3-7)
Written by Janet Costa Bates, illustrated by A.G. Ford
This multigenerational story is sweet, soothing, and empowering.
Young Isaac is excited to visit his grandfather, but he is also anxious about sleeping away from home. Grandpop guides Isaac on a bedtime ritual through the house, acknowledging the noises that unfamiliar old houses make and subtly addressing Isaac’s fears. They finish with preliterate Isaac “reading the pictures” aloud to Grandpop. Adults and children might recognize the story Isaac reads as “The Snowy Day” – a nod to a beloved children’s classic. The illustration for this scene is especially comforting, with Grandpop, Isaac, and Isaac’s bear snuggled together in an armchair with the book. The scene emphasizes the power of connection through books, conveying warmth and love through text and image.
By the final pages, Grandpop is asleep, and Isaac takes responsibility for putting himself to bed. Like Isaac, readers and listeners can look forward to a good night’s sleep and another day of fun to come tomorrow.
When President Joe Biden convenes a virtual summit of democracies next week, more than two-thirds of the world’s population will not be represented. Those billions of people live in unfree countries. Yet if government censors allow them, that mass of humanity may be able to witness one of democracy’s greatest strengths: its capacity for self-correction.
The summit’s focus is more on the renewal of democracy from within than on confronting threats from without. It is expected to end with commitments by each country for internal reform. “What sets us apart from authoritarian nations is that we deal with our struggles transparently,” says Uzra Zeya, a top U.S. State Department official.
Mr. Biden’s reform-minded gathering comes nearly two years into a pandemic, which, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Sweden, has “evinced democracy’s resilience in key ways.”
Mr. Biden’s summit is timely for a renewal of both weak and strong democracies. What binds these countries are their shared ideals, more than their shared national interests. Most of all, it is their ability to fix their governance that has the rest of the world fixated on next week’s summit.
When President Joe Biden convenes a virtual summit of democracies next week, more than two-thirds of the world’s population will not be represented. Those billions of people live in unfree countries. Yet if government censors allow them, that mass of humanity may be able to witness one of democracy’s greatest strengths: its capacity for self-correction.
The summit’s focus is more on the renewal of democracy from within – especially after nearly two years of a pandemic – than on confronting threats from without, such as Russia’s meddling in Ukraine or China’s threats against Taiwan. The summit is expected to end with commitments by each country for internal reform. A follow-up summit next year will then hold them accountable.
“What sets us apart from authoritarian nations is that we deal with our struggles transparently. We don’t ignore our shortcomings or try to sweep them under the rug,” says Uzra Zeya, a top U.S. State Department official. A democracy’s unique ability at self-righting relies on the rights-based equality between citizens and a popular control over government decision-making.
Not all authoritarian regimes are immune from being held accountable. Russia and some of its autocratic allies will be at the annual meeting of the world’s largest regional security group on Dec. 2-3. Ever since the Cold War, the 57 nations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – ranging from Canada to Russia – have agreed to observe the state of universal rights and security problems in each other’s territory.
The OSCE is best at election monitoring. After the debacle of the 2000 presidential election in the United States, for example, OSCE observers have been welcomed to pass judgment on the U.S. voting process. Yet it is Russia that continues to be a prime focus of the OSCE’s work in upholding fundamental freedoms within member states.
Mr. Biden’s reform-minded summit comes nearly two years into a pandemic, which, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) in Sweden, has “evinced democracy’s resilience in key ways.”
In 31 democracies, voter turnout has gone up during the pandemic, finds IDEA’s latest report, The Global State of Democracy 2021. The pandemic has fueled pro-democracy movements from Belarus to Myanmar. More than 82% of countries have experienced protests during the pandemic.
“The pandemic has preyed more on weaker democracies and fragile states while political systems with strong rule of law and separation of powers have proved more resilient,” states the report.
Mr. Biden’s summit is timely for a renewal of both weak and strong democracies. What binds these countries are their shared ideals, more than their shared national interests. They run their affairs by consensus more than by coercion, by rules more than by rulers. Most of all, it is their ability to fix their governance that has the rest of the world fixated on next week’s summit.
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.
It’s never fun to feel like a victim of unwarranted blame. But as a woman experienced as she prayed about problematic interactions with two people she was close to, recognizing everyone’s God-given ability to express integrity and purity brings healing light to such situations.
I recall an incident in my kid years when my parents made me call the neighbors to apologize for speaking rudely to an elderly member of their family. When I did, a weight dropped off me. Freedom and strength came with being accountable for what I did.
Of course, that was not the last time I had to shoulder my own blame (so to speak) for something I shouldn’t have said or done. But what happens if we’re singled out to bear the brunt of blame for someone else’s incorrect thinking or actions?
This concept is sometimes referred to as “scapegoating.” It comes from a ritual in biblical times when a goat would be sent out into the wilderness with all the sins and impurities of the community upon its head, symbolically speaking. Although this practice sounds strange today, shifting accountability for one’s own misguided actions onto others still happens.
I’ve found the Bible to be a guiding light to discovering that we are not helpless if we find ourselves burdened with unfounded blame. The life and teachings of Christ Jesus illustrate that God, who is divine Spirit and Love, is completely good. Because we are the children of God, our true heritage is spiritual – one of peace, loveliness, and harmony. God knows each of us as the unique expression of Himself: spiritually innocent and free from evil and wrong.
Mary Baker Eddy, a follower of Jesus and the founder of this news organization, wrote in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” “Remember that man’s perfection is real and unimpeachable, whereas imperfection is blameworthy, unreal, and is not brought about by divine Love” (p. 414). True innocence is spiritual, with the power of God behind it – a strength, not a weakness. The more we strive to keep our own thoughts and actions in conformity with our true spiritual nature as blameless before God, the more equipped we are to respond to undue blame in ways that foster healing.
Some years ago, I experienced something of this. When issues would come up between two people I was close to, one of them would explode in anger. The anger always seemed to shift to me, as though the explosion would never have happened if I hadn’t been there. At these moments, there was never anything to point to any wrongful action on my part, so I felt as helpless as a goat sent to the wilderness.
But feeling powerless was not in line with something I’d come to realize through my practice of Christian Science over the years: that prayer reveals the possibilities of God’s infinite goodness, which heals all kinds of situations.
I saw that just knowing that I had done nothing to deserve blame wasn’t enough. When I left it at that, self-justification turned into blaming another for blaming me! I knew that growing in my understanding of everyone’s inherent innocence before God could open the way to healing.
Holding to powerful spiritual facts during these challenging moments helped me to cast out self-justification and condemnation – thinking that doesn’t originate from God, good. I began to accept the purity of all of us as one with divine Love.
And the situation began to improve. It was no small thing to me when the incidents ultimately subsided, but what I learned about everyone’s inherent spiritual innocence was immeasurable.
We all have what it takes to respond to unwarranted blame with the honest recognition and honoring of everyone’s pure innocence and goodness as the reflection of God’s pure love. This brings healing solutions that bless all involved.
Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story about the best music of 2021 by artists who yearn to reconnect with hope for a better future.