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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2018
July
20
Friday
Kim Campbell
Education Editor

Could you find Finland, Russia, or Montenegro on a map?

Venkat Ranjan could. The 13-year-old from California won the 2018 National Geographic Bee in May. The final question: Lebanon has a population most similar to which South American country? His winning answer: Paraguay. 

Despite the impressive knowledge of Venkat and the other finalists, Americans are not known for their geography skills. During President Trump’s recent trip to Europe, the staff of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” asked people to locate one country – any country – on a map. Few could do it.

Identifying locations is just one aspect of geography, one that has interesting ramifications. A 2017 analysis by The New York Times showed that the ability (or lack thereof) to find North Korea influenced how people felt about what action the United States should take there.  

An Illinois geography teacher suggests that it's more important for people to become familiar with human geography than to memorize locations. He argues for an understanding of the relationships – the similarities – that exist between cultures.

“Geography matters today more than ever because our students are growing up in a globalized world,” he wrote last year. “They need to know that the other people they work with, whether in a cubicle down the hall or on a screen halfway around the world, all have ideas and value.”

“Geography matters,” he adds, “because we are all connected.”

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Here are our five stories for Friday. 

1. Why Trump advisers stay, even when he flouts their advice

Today is the 18-month mark of the Trump presidency. For those staff members in place from the start, it’s a natural time to think about leaving. But many stay on out of a sense of duty to the country.

Kim

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Why do senior Trump advisers stay, even when the president clearly flouts their advice? The Trump administration has broken records for turnover among senior advisers. But there are many who have stayed even after clearly being left out of the loop or ignored, including after this week’s controversial summit in Helsinki, Finland. History shows that presidents and advisers disagree on policy all the time; aides present their best advice, and presidents call the shots. But under President Trump, conflict with and among advisers has risen to an art form. Some advisers stay out of a sense of duty to country, even when the president doesn’t listen to them, says former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. But at what point does staying enable potentially unwise behavior and damage the personal reputation of those who serve the president? “That really is an issue that is up to each individual to decide,” says Mr. Panetta, who left the Obama administration in 2013 and criticized the president in his memoir. “Where is that line that should not be crossed regarding your service to the president?”

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Why Trump advisers stay, even when he flouts their advice

The look on Dan Coats’s face said it all. President Trump’s director of national intelligence had just been told on live television that the White House had invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to come to Washington this fall – clearly news to Mr. Coats.

“Say that again?” Coats replied, being interviewed on stage Thursday by NBC-TV’s Andrea Mitchell at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “Okaaay,” he continued, chuckling, after she repeated the news. “That’s gonna be special.” 

Once again, Mr. Trump had kept a top adviser out of the loop, announcing another major move in his controversially warm approach to Mr. Putin. Coats’s comments might not be good for his job security, especially given that he was speaking to the type of elite audience that Trump typically disdains. What’s more, the intelligence chief is not alone among the corps of key administration officials whose advice has been ignored or not solicited in the first place.

Before the Helsinki summit this week, Trump advisers had reportedly given him 100 pages of briefing materials proposing a tough approach to Putin, which he then mostly disregarded in their press conference. Most shocking was Trump’s apparent siding with Putin against the US intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia had meddled in the 2016 US election.

So why do senior Trump advisers stay, even when the president clearly flouts their advice? 

The short answer is that senior White House aides, Cabinet members, and agency heads typically see themselves as serving their country, as well as the president. That would be especially true for the heads of national security and law enforcement agencies, say former government officials. 

History shows that presidents and advisers disagree on policy all the time; aides present their best advice, and presidents call the shots. But under Trump, conflict with and among advisers has risen to an art form. In fact, it’s a management style he relishes. “I like conflict,” Trump said last March. “I like having two people with different points of view.”

Now, the stakes are especially high, as Russian cyberattacks on the US continue, ahead of the November midterm elections. “The warning lights are blinking red again,” Coats warned last week.

“The biggest problem I see with this president is that these are major differences on major issues,” says former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta in an interview. 

Some advisers stay out of a sense of duty to country, even when the president doesn’t listen to them, he says. But at what point does staying enable potentially unwise behavior and damage the personal reputation of those who serve the president? Mr. Panetta pauses.

“That really is an issue that is up to each individual to decide,” says Panetta, who served in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2013, and later criticized the president in his memoir. “Where is that line that should not be crossed regarding your service to the president?”

'Who would replace me?'

The Trump administration has broken records for turnover among senior advisers, according to the Brookings Institution. Then there are the top officials still in place but generating headlines that they may leave or be fired. FBI Director Christopher Wray, speaking Wednesday at the Aspen forum, didn’t deny that he had threatened to resign over Trump’s comments in Helsinki casting doubt on Russian meddling.

Chief of Staff John Kelly is regularly rumored to have one foot out the door, and has been caught on camera showing apparent exasperation with the president. In May, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen reportedly threatened to quit after being upbraided by Trump in a cabinet meeting; she later denied the reports.

Staff turnover, of course, is natural. The burnout factor is high. Today is the 18-month mark of the Trump presidency, and for those in place from the start, it’s a natural time to think about leaving.

But many will press on. Among the considerations, beyond a sense of duty, could be concern over who might succeed them.

“Some have a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience, and perhaps there’s concern that if they do stand down, someone with a belief system unlike their own could take their place,” says retired Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack, senior Russia-Eurasia Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington.

“I believe they’re all patriotic, loyal Americans, in a very, very difficult position,” he adds.

Trump-Putin summit blindsides aides

Trump’s handling of his meeting with Putin may be the biggest controversy of his presidency since last August, when he blamed both sides for the violence at a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va. That reportedly prompted Trump’s then-top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, to draft a resignation letter, though he stayed on until April.

So far, no one has resigned over Trump’s controversial press conference with Putin. But “I wouldn’t be surprised” if someone did, says Michael Kimmage, a historian on the cold war at Catholic University in Washington and a former State Department official.

By calling for the summit with Putin in March, seemingly out of the blue, Trump didn’t leave staff much time for aides to prepare. “That already undervalued the role that staff could play,” says Mr. Kimmage. “Then to have the president override the staff in such a dramatic fashion – not good news for American diplomacy.”

At least the White House has belatedly rejected Putin’s request to allow the Russian government to question former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and other Americans, an idea the State Department had rejected immediately.

But American officials say they still don’t know exactly what Trump and Putin said in their more than two-hour private meeting, where the only others present were interpreters, a set-up Coats says he would have advised against. So it’s impossible to assess whether Trump did in fact heed other aspects of staff guidance, such as sticking to the US position of not recognizing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

In the words of a former US government official, speaking privately, “You may fault me for what I didn’t get done, but you’ll never know all the terrible things I prevented from happening!”

The biggest mystery of all may be how Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – both Russia hawks – proceed. In 2016, Mr. Bolton publicly expressed alarm over Trump’s resistance to aiding NATO allies in the event of Russian aggression, calling it an “open invitation to Putin to attack.”

There has been no public hint that any of the key advisers associated with the Helsinki summit, including also US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman and the National Security Council’s top Russia expert, Fiona Hill, are considering resigning. As history has shown, presidential advisers learn to swallow hard and live with the boss’s decisions – except when they don’t.

“Exit strategies are tricky things,” says historian David Pietrusza. “A bit like dismounting a tiger.”

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2. How US West copes with heightened threat of wildfire

An early wildfire season in the American West comes at a time when more people are building near fire-prone wildlands. These new realities have forced communities to rethink the way they prepare for wildfire.

Kim
Pronghorns share a field with cattle at the northern end of a wildfire as it burns up a steep canyon in the background, Sunday, July 8, 2018, near La Veta, Colo.
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Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/AP

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Wildfires have long been an integral part of the Western landscape, but in recent years fires have gotten bigger, more intense, and more destructive. Already this summer, more than a dozen wildfires have occurred in Colorado. In California, some 220,000 acres have burned, and last week a firefighter lost his life battling a wildfire near Yosemite National Park. Communities are responding to this “new normal” with efforts to mitigate properties and lands to reduce the spread of wildfire and minimize damage. In Colorado, some towns have even unleashed goats into open space to help reduce leaves, sprouts, and stems – “ladder fuels” that can enable a fire to climb into the tree canopy and become more dangerous. Adaptation efforts have already been shown to make a difference. Ashley Downing, executive director of FireWise of Southwest Colorado, says fuel reduction efforts in Falls Creek Ranch helped to spare the neighborhood when the 416 fire lapped at its edge. “If that work hadn’t been done,” she says, “they might not have been able to save that community.”

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How US West copes with heightened threat of wildfire

As Einar Jensen examines a ranch house for fire risk, it isn’t the towering trees that catch his notice. Instead, he zeroes in on the small evergreen shrub under the deck.

“We call junipers little green gas cans,” he tells Jessica Kinkelaar, who owns the home and surrounding 35-acre horse ranch where Mr. Jensen is conducting a wildfire risk assessment. “They should be removed from within 30 feet of any house.”

Most people, he says, “think wildfire mitigation is clearcutting.” The reality, he tells them, has more to do with understanding how fuels burn and knowing which species act as a buffer and which as tinder.

Already this summer, wildfires in Colorado have burned more than 450,000 acres. More than 140 buildings have been lost in the Spring Creek Fire in southern Colorado, and the entire San Juan National Forest was closed for more than a week due to two fires. In California, nearly 250,000 acres have burned, and last week, a firefighter lost his life battling a wildfire near Yosemite National Park.

This follows on the heels of 2017, which set a record for the costliest wildfire season ever and was the third largest wildfire season by area burned in nearly 60 years.

The hot, dry conditions prevailing across the West this summer are ripe for wildfire, and have set in motion numerous fire bans, charcoal bans, and even canceled some Fourth of July fireworks.

But increasingly, communities are also giving attention to the many ways they can mitigate properties and lands to minimize the damage fire will do if it does occur.

“Is this our new normal? It is. Some people are calling it our new ‘abnormal.’ It’s where we’re at, and there’s no indication wildfires are going to become less of a problem,” says Tania Schoennagel, a fire ecologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “This is costing us billions of dollars, and lives, and homes. We need to be doing a lot more to actively protect our communities, creating communities that truly are adapted to wildfires.”

Einar Jensen, a risk reduction specialist with South Metro Fire Rescue in Colorado, conducts a wildfire risk assessment at the Little Raven Ranch in Littleton, Colo. He advises homeowners on ways to alter their property and landscaping, prepare emergency plans, and become better 'fire-adapted.' July 17, 2017.
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Amanda Paulson/The Christian Science Monitor

While wildfires have long been an integral part of the Western landscape, fires in recent years have gotten bigger, more intense, and more destructive. The federal government used to spend about $1 billion a year on wildfire suppression and management in the 1990s, and in recent years has been averaging around $3.7 billion a year. In the Western United States, the fire season is now nearly three months longer than it was in the 1970s.

Experts generally cite three primary reasons for the trends: Climate change has led to hotter, drier conditions and earlier snowmelt, a factor researchers believe accounts for about half the increase in area burned since 1985. A century of fire-suppression policy, in which natural fires haven’t been allowed to burn, has led to a build-up of fuels and denser forests, leading to more intense, more dangerous fires when they occur. Further increasing the stakes, more people are building in what is known as the “wildland-urban interface” or WUI – homes and communities in bucolic settings, surrounded by huge tracts of public and private forests and grasslands.

Some targeted forest management work is being done to thin forests near communities, reduce fuel, and conduct controlled burns. But it’s that latter issue that some wildfire experts believe offers the best opportunity to minimize damage.

“Fuel treatments are a great idea, but are very unlikely to have broad-scale impacts on fire severity,” says Dr. Schoennagel.

She recently co-authored a study that examined areas that had been treated – thinned or burned – for wildfire, and how many of those areas encountered subsequent wildfires. Of the areas treated between 2004 and 2013, about 10 percent later burned in a 10-year period, or about 1 percent a year, simply because the acreage involved is so huge.  

She says strategic management is still a good idea, but “it’s a vast area, it’s like throwing a bunch of darts out there for your treatments, and throwing a bunch of darts out for wildfires. The overlap of those darts is very low.”

Goats munch on low vegetation in the Pineridge neighborhood of Castle Pines, Colo. Part of the 'Ready Set Goat!' campaign, these goat herds are brought into participating communities to help with wildfire mitigation. By eating lower-hanging leaves, sprouts, and stems of plants – especially gambel oak – they make it harder for fire to climb up into the tree canopy. June 23, 2018.
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Tamara Harney

Fighting fire with … goats?

Despite extensive fire prevention efforts, the bulk of wildfires – about 84 percent – are caused by humans.

“We can’t stop it, we must adapt to it,” says Jensen, a risk reduction specialist at the South Metro Fire Rescue Authority, who works in communities south of Denver. “You have the right to live in a wildfire-prone ecosystem, but you also have a massive responsibility.”

Jensen’s organization is part of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, launched five years ago by The Nature Conservancy, The Watershed Center, and the US Forest Service, which now includes more than 80 affiliates and encourages members to create partnerships and share best practices.

Jensen regularly conducts the sort of wildfire risk assessments he’s doing today at the Little Raven Ranch. But he’s particularly proud of the “Ready Set Goat!” campaign he helped launch four years ago. A northern Colorado company brings a herd of several hundred goats down to participating communities – this year there were five – and set the goats loose on an acre at a time of open space areas surrounded by homes. The goats feed on all the leaves, sprouts, and stems from the ground level to six feet in the air – the “ladder fuels” that can enable a fire to climb into the tree canopy and get more dangerous.

“Three hundred goats eating 300 pounds of vegetation in a day – that’s 4.5 tons of biomass eliminated [per month],” says Jensen. As a side benefit, it encourages biodiversity – and neighbors who had been fed up with the noise and destruction of tractors brought into thin trees love the goats. “Now we have people excited about mitigation,” he says.

Goats, obviously, aren’t going to solve the West’s wildfire problem. But community efforts to adapt existing homes for wildfires and to do better land-use planning for areas where homes haven’t been built yet can make a huge difference, experts say, especially when such efforts are community-wide and accompanied by strong incentives or penalties.

Ashley Downing, executive director of FireWise of Southwest Colorado, another member of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, notes that when the large 416 Fire burned near Durango this year, the work some neighborhoods did paid off. Falls Creek Ranch, where residents had focused heavily in recent years on clearing brush and dead trees for fire mitigation, was completely spared, though the fire came to the edge of the subdivision.

“If that work hadn’t been done, they might not have been able to save that community,” says Ms. Downing.

Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group that has done copious work on wildfire issues, cites cities like San Diego and Flagstaff, Ariz., as examples of communities that have gotten serious about mandating fire adaptation.

In San Diego, Mr. Rasker says, each of the 43,000 homes deemed at risk from wildfire get inspected every two years, with mitigation actions required. In Flagstaff – where the whole city is at risk – a strict building code requires flame-retardant landscaping and building materials. The city also taxed itself to do fuel reduction on the land surrounding the community – a decision that paid off when a fire broke out a few years later, but ran out of fuel as it neared town.

A local-federal ‘disconnect’

In the West, nearly half of the population lives in the wildland-urban interface. But just 16 percent of that land is developed. The other 84 percent, where development could still occur, deserves a great deal more attention, says Rasker.

“There’s this disconnect,” he says. “Local land-use decisions are made by city and local governments … but it’s federal agencies firefighting.”

Local officials see the promise of increased taxes from new development, and planning departments are often overworked and know little about fire. It’s one reason that Headwaters Economics in 2015 helped start a community assistance program that helps cities and towns make better land-use planning decisions with respect to wildfire safety. Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire has worked with 23 communities across the West, helping them think through the policies and zoning that could have the biggest impacts.

“We know how to build homes that stand a high chance of surviving a fire, we know how to treat fuels to minimize the chance of embers hitting a home,” Rasker says. “What’s lacking is the political will on the part of local elected officials. And in some cases, what’s lacking is the skill set.”

Back in Littleton, Ms. Kinkelaar is pleased to learn that in general, her ranch – along with the 30 horses who live there – is in pretty good shape. “With all the fires, it’s just scary for us,” she says. Other than a few suggestions – mowing eight feet out from the side of the barn, asking her neighbors to mow some swaths of their longer grass along her fence, and changing her emergency plan to one where they shelter in place in case of fire ­– Jensen is pleased with how her property would fare.

“Most of the people who call me for a home ignition assessment don’t really need to,” he says. He looks over at a neighboring property with tall grass and lots of decrepit equipment and buildings. “They haven’t called, and that property probably would burn.”

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3. Does Nevada still want the death penalty? Outspoken inmate forces issue.

This case could push states that have retained the death penalty – but virtually stopped carrying it out – to address the question: Is there a humane way to carry out executions? 

Kim

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Is there a point at which executing inmates on death row is more merciful than leaving them there? The case of double-murderer Scott Dozier, who has urged Nevada to execute him, raises that question. Nevada is one of five death-penalty states that have virtually stopped carrying out capital punishment, in part because of opposition to the drugs used for lethal injections. Alvogen, a drugmaker, filed an 11th-hour lawsuit against Nevada barring their product from being used in Mr. Dozier’s execution. Dozier’s case could push Nevada and other death-penalty states to make a choice: Abolish capital punishment or find an acceptable means of carrying it out. Deborah Denno of Fordham University says the case will have reverberating effects across the United States. It also challenges the assumption that death would be the worst punishment. “Most people think these inmates are fighting for their lives and the way to really get back at them is to kill them,” says Professor Denno. “But here we have someone ... who is rubbing that in people’s faces and saying, ‘Do you want me to suffer? Then let me live.’ ”

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Does Nevada still want the death penalty? Outspoken inmate forces issue.

Scott Dozier would rather be executed than live on death row. So the double-murderer, imprisoned in Ely, Nev., is urging the state to kill him.

Mr. Dozier may be motivated, at least in part, by narcissism. Psychologists say he tends to portray his existence in mythical terms.

But he’s also calling the bluff of Nevada, which – like four other states with a death penalty – has virtually stopped carrying out capital punishment. Only those few inmates who “volunteer” to go forward with their punishment are actually executed. Nevada recently constructed a $1 million death chamber, but its last execution was in 2006. Such policies leave many inmates to spend years or even decades on death row.

“Life in prison isn’t a life,” Dozier told the Las Vegas Review-Journal recently.

Dozier came within hours of his death wish last week before a national uproar over botched lethal injections interceded, and a state judge issued an injunction to allow an 11th -hour lawsuit by drugmaker Alvogen.

“[Dozier] saw an opportunity to be the first execution in a dozen years, in the state’s new death chamber, and all these firsts could add to the myth,” says Vince Gonzales, a Dallas-based sentencing expert who studied Dozier, and at one point was hired by his defense team. “That came crashing down on him.”

The case could still have a profound influence, however, by forcing those states that have essentially held on to the death penalty in name only to make a choice: abolish the punishment, or find an acceptable means of carrying it out.

The case “is going to have reverberating effects across any death-penalty state using drugs or lethal injection,” says Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor and death penalty expert.

Partly because of his willingness to speak out, Dozier’s gambit has reinvigorated questions about volunteers: At what point does state-sponsored homicide become state-assisted suicide?

Equally important, the Alvogen lawsuit – one of the first in which a drugmaker is directly suing the state – has put a fresh spotlight on states’ decade-long scramble to procure effective compounds for lethal injections.

In that way, Dozier’s saga personifies what many Americans find to be ethical gaps in the death penalty.

Ethical debate over lethal injection

His case closely mirrors that of Gary Gilmore, who was likewise intelligent and artistic – and demanded that his death sentence be carried out quickly.

“This is my life and this is my death,” Gilmore said before facing a firing squad in 1977, making him the first to be executed after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. 

If Gilmore’s volunteerism defined the beginning of the modern death penalty era, Dozier’s may turn out to be the coda.

The number of executions across the United States fell to a 25-year low in 2017, and capital sentencing waned even in Texas, the nation’s leading execution state. That’s a reflection in part of growing bipartisan opposition not only to the death penalty, but also to the substances used to execute inmates.

That states are now turning to controversial drugs like fentanyl – a key driver of opioid overdoses – highlights the ethical dilemma.

“The legitimacy of capital punishment has for a long time been tied into the illusion that we would find a technologically advanced way to kill,” says Austin Sarat of Amherst College in Massachusetts who has studied the death penalty for more than four decades.

But in fact, former methods of execution are making a comeback.

In Tennessee, which is facing a challenge to its lethal concoction by 33 death-row inmates, the legislature has given the governor power to make the electric chair the primary rather than secondary method of execution.

The gas chamber, introduced in Nevada in the 1920s but since retired, could return in Oklahoma – which seeks to bypass the lethal injection crisis and use nitrogen gas.

“It was supposed to be more humane than the firing squad or hanging,” says Michael Greene, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Well, now we look at [the gas chamber] and ask again: Is that barbaric? We are deciding what we think is barbaric in our time.”

In support of the death penalty

Some death-penalty proponents say the gas chamber would be most effective and humane. But they are concerned that the debate is straying irresponsibly away from victims, their families, the law, and juries – and focusing instead on the wishes of the killers.

At Dozier’s trial, family members testified in support of giving him the death penalty.

“We lost our innocence, our ignorance, our calm, quiet lives,” said Kimarie Miller, whose brother, Jeremiah Miller, was killed and dismembered by Dozier.

Dozier’s death sentence “has been imposed and should be carried out, and right now we're allowing appeals [and legal challenges] to drag on much too long ... when there is no question of guilt,” says Kent Scheidegger, director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif.

But Dozier’s stance challenges the assumption that death would be the worst punishment, offering a paradoxical glimpse into a death-penalty system where a shrinking number of US counties are sending convicts to death row.

“Most people think these inmates are fighting for their lives and the way to really get back at them is to kill them,” says Fordham’s Prof. Denno. “But here we have someone ... who is rubbing that in people’s faces and saying, ‘Do you want me to suffer? Then let me live.’ ”

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4. Help wanted now! What full employment looks like in one Wisconsin city

Wausau, Wis., offers a glimpse into what cities across the country may be facing in the future.

Kim

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Wausau, Wis., seems a throwback to an older, small-town America. Steeples are prominent. Some streets remain brick instead of asphalt. It is also in many ways a microcosm of the US economy. What almost all businesses here share in common, whether in the Old Economy or New, is one simple problem: a shortage of workers. The rest of the United States could find itself in the same position if the US continues to add new jobs at its current pace. With a 2.7 percent unemployment rate here, companies are – as expected – raising wages and improving benefits. They’re also hiring and training people they wouldn’t have considered before: people convicted of crimes, homeless people, former drug users. Last summer, Jacob Abendroth was living in a tent on an island in the Wisconsin River. “I think it rained 55 of those days,” he says of his 60 days camping. The former construction worker checked into a shelter and saw a notice about the Joseph Project, which connects people in need of stability with employers in need of workers. Mr. Abendroth went through job-training boot camp and then visited Kolbe & Kolbe, a large manufacturer of windows and doors. In August, he will celebrate a year with the company. “I absolutely love what I do,” he says.

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Help wanted now! What full employment looks like in one Wisconsin city

On a Thursday evening in late May, the crew cleaned up the Wendy’s restaurant one last time and then defiantly walked out.

They left this hand-lettered sign in the window:

“Due to this corporation’s refusal to pay a living wage and deal with problems before it’s too late, the employees you would have dealt with today have all walked off the job. We wish you all the best.”

The move would have rattled management anywhere, but here in a suburb of Wausau, Wis., it was especially troubling. In a city with an unemployment rate below 3 percent and companies struggling to find someone – almost anyone – to keep their operations going, any threat of similar actions would reverberate ominously through executive suites. Would other workers lay down their restaurant spatulas and factory tools to protest long hours and low pay?

Not exactly. The assistant manager who led the revolt soon found another job – at Arby’s, per her Facebook page. (She declined to be interviewed for this story.) The restaurant owner, a Florida-based company that owns 180 Wendy’s in nine states, scrambled to open the restaurant the next day, apparently with employees pulled from other cities. Within six days, it was training a crew and operating close to normal hours. Instead of resorting to confrontation, Wausau is so far forging a more cooperative path as the worker shortage tips the balance of power away from management and toward labor. As expected, companies are quietly raising wages and improving benefits. But they’re also hiring and training people they wouldn’t have considered before: ex-convicts, homeless people, former drug users. The shift toward greater inclusion is occurring in the middle of another momentous change: the retirement of baby boomers and the rise of Millennials, who by 2020 will make up half of the US workforce. These forces are combining to force employers to rethink how they hire and retain workers, who now have a bevy of choices.

In a year or two, the rest of the United States could find itself in the same position if the nation continues to add new jobs at its current rapid pace. Earlier this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that for the first time since it began tracking job openings 18 years ago, there were more positions available than there were workers to fill them. In that way, Wausau offers a glimpse into what cities and towns across the country may be facing in the future.

***

Wausau itself seems a throwback to an older, small-town America. Steeples are prominent. Locally owned shops are active with virtually no vacancies. Some streets remain brick instead of asphalt.

There’s a friendliness here more famously connected with Minnesota than northern Wisconsin. Perhaps it’s Wausau’s relative isolation. With 39,000 people, it’s the biggest city in nearly 100 miles in any direction. A postman stops to talk with a neighbor; a construction worker waves to a stranger.

Though not as racially diverse as many American cities and more dependent on manufacturing, Wausau is in many ways a microcosm of the US economy. It combines small and midsize manufacturing plants with a broad mix of service firms, including insurance companies and banks, a mail-order athletic gear business, and a growing health-care provider. It has the usual big-box stores and small retail outlets. In 2016, researchers at Pew named Wausau the most egalitarian city in the US, with a bigger share of its population in the middle class than anywhere in the country.

What almost all businesses here share in common, whether in the Old Economy or New, is one simple problem: a shortage of workers. Walk into practically any business in this tidy city in north-central Wisconsin, in fact, and the refrain is the same: “Probably right about now I could use 40 to 45 [new workers],” says Keith Koenig, vice president of manufacturing at Kolbe & Kolbe, a large manufacturer of windows and doors. 

“If you are unemployed you can pretty much pick the business you want,” says Miranda Lezcano, district director at the state unemployment office, which these days is quieter than a library. In front of her, a “hot jobs” bulletin board is plastered with some two-dozen offerings from school bus drivers to restaurant workers. “If you want to work a factory job, they are fighting for good people,” she adds.

Wausau Coated, which makes labels for olive oil, wines, and squeezable mayonnaise bottles, hasn’t been fully staffed for three years. Owner Ben Reif raised the starting wage to $15 an hour 18 months ago, reduced the time it takes to earn paid vacation, and boosted the company’s match in the 401(k) retirement program. And he’s still 18 to 25 people short out of a workforce of 300.

It’s not that no one’s applying for work. But “the people who are walking in the door to work for us, they have got” – Mr. Reif pauses to find the right word – “issues. They don’t show up for work. They have had trouble with the law.”

Even after the best of the candidates have been trained, 10 to 15 percent don’t work out or move on to another job. Despite these setbacks, Reif doesn’t have much choice but to keep recruiting. He recalls one young hire who had problems with alcohol. He missed work for a number of days. “We had to let him go,” he says.

When the company learned the man had dealt with his problems, Reif, although apprehensive, rehired him. “Seven years ago, I don’t know I would have done that,” he says. But “we took a chance on this guy, and two years later he’s a line operator and he’s one of our best employees.”

Last summer, Jacob Abendroth was living in a tent on an island in the Wisconsin River that is connected to Wausau by a little footbridge. “I went through a bad divorce and alienated myself from my children,” he recalls. He had started drinking heavily, lost his construction job, sobered up and got it back again, only to return eventually to bad habits and get fired. He lost his apartment and camped on the island for 60 days.

“I think it rained 55 of those days,” he says, which dampened his enthusiasm for his chosen lifestyle. “I know I’m better than this,” he remembers thinking. “I’ll pack up in the morning and get out of here.” It helped that the local police had told him that evening he had to vacate the park.

He checked into a homeless shelter and saw a notice about the Joseph Project, a program started in Milwaukee that connects people in need of stability with employers in need of workers. Mr. Abendroth went through three days of job-training boot camp and then visited Kolbe & Kolbe. As a construction worker, he had plenty of experience hanging aluminum windows and doors. Now, he might make them. 

“I saw his application and background and said, ‘You are very qualified,’ ” says Ann Micholic, Kolbe’s vice president of human resources. “He began to tell me his story. From a community standpoint, there was no question that we would be pleased to have him join our team.”

In August, Abendroth will celebrate a year with the company. He’s a glazier working on the company’s curved windows, the most complicated in which to install glass. “I absolutely love what I do,” he says. “A lot of it is pretty cerebral.”

Kolbe continues to hire people through the Joseph Project, even though half don’t last. “The vast majority of them have been troubled by drugs and alcohol,” says Ms. Micholic. “Many people think these are violent criminals. They’re not! They are people seeking safety.”

Jacob Abendroth, who lived outdoors for two months on an island in the Wisconsin River, works on the factory floor at Kolbe & Kolbe in Wausau, Wis.
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Alfredo Sosa/Staff

***

Wausau’s economy hasn’t always been so vibrant. It has been subject to the vicissitudes of national and international business cycles as much as anyplace else.

Eight years ago, for example, the Great Recession had closed mills and factories that had been here for decades. With a fifth of its workforce in manufacturing, the city’s unemployment rate shot up to 14.6 percent. The following year, in a single week, a window-and-door manufacturer and a paper mill in the county announced plant closings that would throw 1,000 people out of work.

“That was awful,” recalls Robin Hegg, who at the time worked in human relations with a large local manufacturer that laid off 10 percent of its workers, many of them friends and neighbors. “We did whatever we could to help them with the transition.”

Then something dramatic happened. While the nation recovered slowly, Wausau’s economy gathered steam and now enjoys an unemployment rate of 2.7 percent – more than a percentage point below the national average. Only four other US cities with a population of at least 25,000 have moved so quickly from greater than 14 percent unemployment in 2010 to below 3 percent today. Santa Cruz and Seaside are coastal California cities where a local university and tourism play a big role. The turnaround of the recreational vehicle industry has fueled the recovery in Elkhart and Goshen, Ind.

Wausau’s rebound is more broad-based. The nearby Granite Peak ski resort brings in tens of thousands of tourists each winter. Adding to the strong turnaround of its traditional industries – including manufacturing, insurance, and mail-order sports gear – is the rapid expansion of a nonprofit health-care provider, Aspirus, which is now the largest employer in the county. 

The revival has happened fast enough that employers are still scrambling to adjust from a period of surplus labor to worker shortage. And that shortage, coupled with the transition of replacing retiring boomers with rising Millennials, is pushing Wausau into a new era. Unemployment is lower than it has ever been, according to federal statistics going back to 1990. State jobless numbers, dating to 1974, have never been lower, either.

The change is most visible at Northcentral Technical College, a two-year school that graduates about 1,670 students a year. In the past two years, the average age of students has dropped from 33 to 23, as the last of the older workers, who had enrolled to upgrade their skills, found new jobs and more Millennials registered to further their education. NTC boasts a new basketball court and other sports facilities, a restaurant, and a break room designed by the students, who asked for on-campus places to hang out with their friends. 

Employers, too, are trying to create spaces and new cultures that cater to Millennials. 

“There was no ‘aha’ moment,” says Mark Mudler, co-owner of Integra Tool & Manufacturing, who recalls his own apprenticeship in a tool-and-die shop where he was constantly in fear of losing his job. “They’re softer.... You have to be kinder and gentler.” 

Mr. Mudler’s new approach seems to be working. “I’m pretty happy with this place here,” says Dan Polak, a young press operator making $15.50 an hour and the newest employee in the nine-person shop.

New employee Jake Benson checks out a customer at the Downtown Grocery in Wausau, Wis. He likes working at the store in part because he can bike to work.
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Alfredo Sosa/Staff

Part of what employers are doing to appeal to a new generation of workers is to emphasize the uniqueness of their businesses. Down the street from the Back When Cafe and next to a candy store, the Downtown Grocery looks a little out of place. Its shelves of organic broccoli and locally grown greens, gluten-free baked goods, and exotic products from around the world might seem better suited for a bigger city with a university, like Green Bay, 100 miles to the east, or better yet, Madison. But here in blue-collar Wausau, where there’s no four-year college population, how does a high-end organic boutique survive?

“We don’t use words like that,” says co-owner Kevin Korpela. “We’re an old-fashioned grocery.... If you look at what our grandfathers and grandmoms did, they were doing the same thing. They just didn’t call it grass-fed or organic.” A little child on a tree swing is the company logo.

The branding seems to work for Jake Benson, one of the grocery’s newest employees, who changed jobs to work here in part because it’s closer to home and he can bike to the store. “I love all the people I’m working with,” he says. Although he makes only $9 an hour, he also gets a free lunch. “I am a vegan so I really appreciate all the food options that are here.” 

Many local employers are refashioning their image with Millennial workers in mind. “When they think of River Valley Bank, we want them to think of banking with a purpose,” says Ms. Hegg, who is now chief human resources officer with the local bank.

Even the local police are adopting a different approach. “This generation is looking for a cause. They want to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves,” says Todd Baeten, a patrol captain. “It definitely works in our favor when we talk about principle-based policing.”

The department is trying to fill three positions and anticipates two more openings when officers retire at the end of the year. (Crime has not gone down, he says, even though more people are working.) 

***

A couple plays with their dog at a riverfront park in Wausau, Wis., a community with an acute labor shortage that is trying to attract young people.
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Alfredo Sosa/Staff

For all of Wausau’s successes, uncertainties still hang over the city. One question is whether the economy is making it too easy for Millennials to skip from job to job before they build the skills to move up.

On a Wednesday evening at a packed Texas Roadhouse just out of town, Frank, a waiter and high school graduate with a ready smile, drops off the check. “Thanks for being a great table,” he says. Frank, who doesn’t want his real name used, says the restaurant is constantly hiring new people because workers don’t stick around. After two months on the job, he is cutting back his own hours so he can work as a lifeguard.

Earlier that day at 400 Block, a green space that’s become the heart of downtown, volunteers are hosting the annual Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics Wisconsin. Five police cars, with lights flashing and sirens going, glide past Erbert & Gerbert’s Sandwich Stop to lead a parade for a few blocks, and then about 60 racers, some on foot, others in wheelchairs, take off for a 5K run. Through it all, a half-dozen young men on bicycles, sporting police radios and T-shirts with CSO (Community Services Officer) in big letters, manage the traffic so everything starts on time. 

By giving young people a taste of what policing is like, the department hopes to entice more recruits. The pitch is working for Dave Juzwiak, a student in law enforcement at NTC. “I will be graduating this December, and I am optimistic I can go where I want,” he says.

But it’s not working for Ryan Lynch, who is switching to fire and ambulance work. “It’s probably a little bit easier [than police work],” he says. “You don’t have to have a two-year degree.”

Another troubling question: Why hasn’t the economic boom slashed the poverty rate? The local United Way, which tracks the working poor through its own measure called Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE), finds that just over half the county’s poor are in the labor force. In other words, many are working but not making a living wage.

“You’d think the ALICE population would narrow until it disappears,” says Jim Waldron, a board member of the local United Way and president of Wausau Window and Wall Systems, which has 30 to 50 open positions starting at $15 an hour. But “the ALICE population is not shrinking. I have no good answers for that.”

The other big question is what will happen when the boom ends. Typically in a recession the last hired are the first fired and the gains that the least qualified workers make during the good times are quickly erased. But the city is projecting that its worker shortage will last through at least 2028, because of impending boomer retirements and predicted job needs.

***

Wausau has a long history of business leadership, dating back to the late 19th century, when lumber barons diversified into papermaking and door-and-window manufacturing. The city became an insurance hub, too. Local industries reinvented themselves then, and now the business community is being forced to innovate again – this time in finding new ways to recruit workers.

In part, that means persuading current residents to stay. Concerned about the lack of welders and machinists, a group of local manufacturers sponsors a high school welding competition and worked to expand NTC’s welding program. The group also hosts the Heavy Metal Tour, in which every eighth-grader in Wausau and surrounding school districts sees firsthand what modern factories look like.

The students aren’t that impressed, but the teachers are fired up, says Mr. Waldron, whose Wausau Window is one of the sponsors. “They go back to the classroom and tell the students: ‘You can get $16 an hour!’ ”

Mayor Robert Mielke of Wausau, Wis., supports initiatives such as Live It Up, a program that helps outsiders put a down payment on a home. It’s intended to help the city attract more workers.
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Alfredo Sosa/Staff

The city is also trying to appeal to outsiders – not always easy for a place where the winters are cold and long. It’s transforming its riverfront with bike paths and new housing. It has helped a developer create the city’s first town houses, which are aimed at both Millennials and empty nesters.

“We would be pretty happy if we had 50 percent sold by Christmas,” says Phil Larkin, the project’s salesman, showing off a freshly painted three-bedroom unit at one end of the development while a piece of Tyvek flutters from an unfinished wood frame at the other end.

The city’s Live It Up program, now in its third year, has given out $467,000 to help 33 people from outside Wausau put a down payment on a home. All these programs have caused the city to spend heavily.

“I used to be on the city council and asked: ‘Why are we spending money on these businesses?’ ” says Mayor Robert Mielke. “I don’t believe that anymore.... If we don’t do that stuff, we will get left behind.” 

Historically, not all of Wausau’s initiatives have worked. The downtown enclosed mall, so innovative when it opened in 1983, is struggling, like many malls in America. Local control of corporations, which strengthened the civic bond between company owners and workers and helped fund local arts and culture, is slipping away. Liberty Mutual Group in Boston took over Wausau Insurance in 1998. Wausau Window and Wall Systems and Linetec, two big manufacturers in town, are run by Apogee Enterprises in Minneapolis. Will Wausau-based firms, such as health-care provider Aspirus, offer similar leadership going forward?

With $10,000 from the Live It Up program for their down payment, Andrew Wieland and his girlfriend, Melissa Barak, were able to buy a 1970s-era split-level home in town. That gave them extra money to replace some of the original blue carpeting with hardwood flooring and remove old wallpaper so they could paint several rooms. They kept the once-chic gold vein mirror tiles on the living room wall.  “We thought it looked neat,” Mr. Wieland says.

“I love my job,” adds Wieland, a personal banker at River Valley Bank. “I will get offers on LinkedIn every once in a while, but nothing that I even entertain. It’s hard to imagine myself leaving those people [at work]. There’s a lot of interconnection between the communities.”

“Community-driven is a big deal,” Ms. Barak says, holding their daughter. “That’s what she is going to grow up with.”

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5. How Canada helped make 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'

The children's program is experiencing a lively renaissance. But what viewers of a popular recent documentary may not realize is how Canada influenced Fred Rogers's career. 

Kim

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Fred Rogers was a staple of American television but his show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” didn’t have the same sort of cultural impact in nearby Canada. Yet many of its elements – and its ethos – were shaped there, when the Canadian Broadcasting Company signed Rogers to do a 15-minute show called “Misterogers” in the early 1960s. It was that experience that brought him out from behind the scenes, where he’d been working as a puppeteer. “Fred by his nature was a shy and reserved person, and humble, too. So the idea that he would be a host of a television show and speak right into the camera, that did not come to Fred Rogers naturally,” says Junlei Li, co-director of the Fred Rogers Center in Pennsylvania. “Without [his Canadian experience], he may have been a behind scenes producer, and musician, and writer. It is possible that we wouldn’t have had ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.’ ” Indeed, Rogers seems to reflect the ethos of Canada itself. Says Cathie LeFort, daughter of Ernie Coombs, a puppeteer co-worker and friend of Rogers, “Everybody was accepted.”

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How Canada helped make 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'

By now it’s well established that the new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is not just an entertaining portrait of the phenomenon that was Fred Rogers but an escape – back to a kinder, gentler time.

So it’s fitting that the roots of the beloved “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and its personification of the “good American” actually traces back to Canada – what many see today as the kinder, gentler country.

Most Canadians (and Americans) might not know that the show started as a 15-minute program in the early 1960s on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that, crucially, brought Rogers out from behind the scenes, where he’d been working in Pittsburgh as a puppeteer, and on camera.

His Canadian stint gets no mention in the documentary. But in watching it, Rogers seems to reflect the ethos of Canada itself. As Canadian children’s author Don Gillmor puts it in the National Post: “Watching the documentary about the late Fred Rogers, ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,’ he comes across as quintessentially Canadian, or at least the caricature we’re often saddled with: earnest, understated, well-meaning, a bit dull.”

That’s in fact Rogers’ life philosophy: In the documentary he explains that he didn’t feel he needed to put on a “funny hat or jump through the hoop” to relate to a child. The lifelong Republican also takes radically progressive stances. The driving message is simple: “Everybody was accepted,” says Cathie LeFort, the daughter of Ernie Coombs, the late puppeteer who accompanied Rogers from Pittsburgh to Toronto and stayed to start his own cultural following north of the border with the kids’ show “Mr. Dressup.”

“What is happening in all of the world is happening in Canada as well to some degree, but it’s definitely not as stark,” says Ms. LeFort, a Canadian-American who was the goddaughter of Rogers. “Canadians are viewed as the more open and kinder culture at the moment.”

Rogers was working on “The Children’s Corner” in Pittsburgh through the end of the 1950s when Fred Rainsberry, then head of youth programming at the CBC, invited him to do a show on Canadian television that they called “Misterogers.” It took a new direction from his work in the US: Rainsberry coaxed Rogers to interact with children directly on the screen.

“Fred by his nature was a shy and reserved person, and humble too. So the idea that he would be a host of a television show and speak right into the camera, that did not come to Fred Rogers naturally,” says Junlei Li, co-director of the Fred Rogers Center in Pennsylvania. The new template would then play a fundamental role in how he viewed his role moving forward, Mr. Li says.

“Without it, he may have been a behind scenes producer, and musician, and writer. It is possible that we wouldn’t have had ‘Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.’ ”

In that coaxing, Rainsberry also taught a lesson to Rogers that he would impart to countless children: “That sometimes we need someone else to see more in us than we are able to see in ourselves,” says Li.

Mr. Rogers is not a character that Canadians grew up with, as casual conversations reveal after a recent showing of the documentary in Toronto. But his values were imparted to them through his dear friend Coombs, whose “Mr. Dressup” ran on the CBC from 1967 to 1996.

“When I watched that documentary, I was able to see how much of a mentor Fred was to my dad. And how much of Fred was epitomized in the ‘Mr. Dressup’ show,” says LeFort, who is fighting to have her father included – and indirectly the values he shared with Mr. Rogers – on Canada’s “Walk of Fame.” “He really epitomizes what the Canadian ethos is, that Canadians are kind, Canadians are open,” she says.

This is a recurring theme in the Rogers documentary. After acid was thrown in a swimming pool to keep out African-American patrons, at the height of race tensions in America, Rogers shared a foot bath with Officer Clemmons, the local policeman portrayed by African-American actor François Clemmons. It was a direct – and radical – counter-message of openness.

That sense of tolerance is also celebrated about Canada today. When President Trump signed an executive order on immigration that became known by critics as the “Muslim ban,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent a counter-message, saying his country would accept 25,000 Syrian refugees. Toronto is celebrated as one of the most diverse cities in the world. “And I think most people see that as a good thing ultimately, that there is this diversity, that it has helped the city and it has helped the country,” says Mr. Gillmor, the author, in an interview.

Both have also been criticized for their limitations. With Canada’s “welcome” has come a more critical look at the harsher sides of national immigration policy and its hypocrisies. Rogers asked Mr. Clemmons, who is gay, not to come out because donors could pull their funding (though Rogers was also personally supportive of Clemmons, which was progressive for the era).

Ugly forces were whipping around during Rogers’ era just as they are now, and Li says the documentary’s success lies in the lesson it teaches about navigating that.

“He was someone who had such conviction and steely backbone, but yet at the same time embodied kindness and a sense of inclusiveness,” Li says. “In this time when it feels that strong convictions and kindness and inclusiveness don’t seem to go together, that strong convictions seem to split people … Fred somehow, his person and his story, exemplify that you can actually have deep convictions and be kind and welcoming and inclusive of your neighbors at the same time.”

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The Monitor's View

Wanted: mediator to end America’s longest war

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The war in Afghanistan is now one of the longest in history, born of its origins in the 9/11 attacks of 2001. In recent months, the war has seen no shortage of countries – from Indonesia to Turkmenistan – offering to mediate an end to it.  The latest suitor for peace: President Trump. Less than a year ago, the president beefed up American troop levels. “We will push onward to victory,” Mr. Trump declared. Now his officials are dropping hints of direct talks with the Taliban, with the topic of US troop withdrawal on the table. “We expect that these peace talks will include a discussion of the role of international actors and forces,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. If talks do take place, it may be necessary to have a third-party mediator, or someone with the skills to remain neutral, build trust, and find compromises and common ground. Negotiations to end any conflict often take more than a mere balancing of interests. They can entail a lifting of thought to the idea of peace as beneficial, even natural, for all, especially civilians. Twice before in its recent history, Afghanistan has relied on mediators from the United Nations to help bring peace. The first was to end Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the second to set up a post-Taliban government in 2001-02. The same skill set for conflict resolution might now be needed again, depending on which foreign player is best qualified to prepare a path to peace.

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Wanted: mediator to end America’s longest war

The war in Afghanistan is now one of the longest in history, born of its origins in the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Yet in recent months, the war against Taliban militants and other Islamic fighters has seen no shortage of countries – from Indonesia to Russia to Turkmenistan – offering to negotiate or mediate an end to it.

The latest suitor for peace: President Trump.

Less than a year ago, the president beefed up American troop levels and training of the Afghan military. “We will push onward to victory,” Mr. Trump declared last August.

Now his officials are dropping hints of direct talks with the Taliban – a goal the group has long sought – with the topic of US troop withdrawal on the table. “We expect that these peace talks will include a discussion of the role of international actors and forces,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on a trip to Kabul, Afghanistan, in early July.

If the talks do take place, it may be necessary to have a third-party mediator, or someone with the skills to remain neutral, remove misunderstandings, build trust, and find compromises and common ground – in short, help both sides see that peace, not violence, will achieve some or all of their aims.

Negotiations to end any conflict often take more than a mere balancing of interests. They can entail a lifting of thought to the idea of peace as beneficial, even natural, for all, especially civilians. Often, one side makes the first concession, hoping that such humility will be reflected back.

Last February, for example, the elected president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, offered unconditional talks to the Taliban. He also said he would amend the Constitution to accommodate some of their demands and would welcome the Taliban as a legitimate political group.

Then, in June, the Afghan people got a taste of peace. During a rare, three-day cease-fire, civilians, Taliban fighters, and Afghan forces enjoyed emotional celebrations. The temporary truce, which was not extended by the Taliban, was a result of peace efforts by many players.

China and Pakistan, for example, have become more active in facilitating contacts for talks. China sees itself as an “impartial mediator.” Russia, which wants to be seen as a global power broker and also seeks to suppress Islamic State operating in Afghanistan, has been involved in recent regional meetings aimed at ending the war.

In mid-July, Saudi Arabia sponsored a meeting of international Muslim clerics, who issued a statement on religious reasons for the Taliban to cease fighting. A similar meeting of Afghan and Pakistani clerics was held in April, sponsored by Indonesia, a Muslim country whose leader has also offered to mediate any peace talks.

Twice before in its recent history, Afghanistan has relied on mediators from the United Nations to help bring peace. The first was to end Soviet occupation of the country in the 1980s, the second to set up a post-Taliban government in 2001-02. The same skill set for conflict resolution might now be needed again, depending on which foreign player is best qualified to prepare a path to peace.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Growing in grace

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When today’s contributor realized she was feeling self-conscious and unworthy leading up to her sister’s wedding, her desire to feel and express genuine love and joy led to a meaningful lesson in God’s love for all.

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Growing in grace

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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I have often wondered about the word “grace.” It’s used in many ways – saying grace before a meal, grace notes in music, a grace period on a late bill – and there are so many variations that the meaning can get muddied.

But there’s no mistaking the way the word is used in this statement in one of my favorite books, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” by Christian Science discoverer Mary Baker Eddy: “What we most need is the prayer of fervent desire for growth in grace, expressed in patience, meekness, love, and good deeds” (p. 4).

That meaning of the word “grace” hadn’t really sunk in when some years ago I faced a tricky situation. My younger sister was getting married, which delighted me. But I was concerned about my role in the wedding as her maid of honor. I had gained weight and feared that the dress I had ordered to wear wouldn’t fit. In almost every way, I just felt downright unattractive.

At the time, I wasn’t dating anyone, and there seemed to be no prospects in the remote area where I was living. This added to my uneasy feelings. Also, I was concerned the wedding guests would assume I must be envious of my sister’s life. Experience had taught me that when I felt unworthy or rejected, I acted in a very negative way. It was a bad situation in the making for sure.

It was at that point I decided to take a different approach than simply worrying: I began to pray. I was not praying to lose weight or grow more beautiful or find a fiancé. Those events would have been welcome, but they were not uppermost in my thought. Mostly, I just wanted to be gracious at the wedding. I wanted to be calm, loving, supportive, and friendly.

I started with the Lord’s Prayer Christ Jesus gave us and the spiritual interpretation of it found in Science and Health. This section on page 17, which uses “Love” as a synonym for God, really stood out to me:

Give us this day our daily bread;
Give us grace for to-day; feed the famished affections;

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And Love is reflected in love;

I realized that in this situation it wasn’t as much about debts and debtors as about feeding my “famished affections” and reflecting God, Love, in my love for others. This would be a genuine desire for “growth in grace.” Gradually, I grew confident that I’d be able to express that grace in “patience, meekness, love, and good deeds.” Since God consistently sees us as His worthy and beautiful spiritual creation, I reasoned, maybe it wouldn’t be so hard for me to see myself that way.

During the months of preparation for the wedding, I kept praying along those lines, frequently and earnestly. My trust in God’s love for me deepened, and on the big day the wedding was lovely, the bride and groom beamed, and I was relaxed and self-confident. Family members and guests remarked about it. To be honest, I had the time of my life. That day and afterward I was never tempted to feel inferior or jealous of my sister’s happiness.

What had happened? Could it be that an important component of grace is the state of knowing that one is loved by God and therefore able to love others? As we grow in our understanding of divine Love’s perception of each of us as beautiful, complete, and at peace, our ability to see ourselves that way begins to emerge. Then we naturally express more patience. We worry less. We smile more, and others smile back. God’s love is reflected in our love, and reflected back to us again by others.

My own path did end up including marriage – nine years later.

One day my husband brought home a refrigerator magnet. He said it spoke to him and reminded him of the dog that had been part of our family for a decade. It pictures the happy face of a golden retriever, with the words, “May I be the kind of person my golden retriever thinks I am.” I laughed at first, but now I really like it. It’s been on the fridge for a long time.

Maybe I could get a new magnet that says: “May I be the kind of person God knows I am.”

Adapted from an article in the Jan. 28, 2013, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

Saved by the hairs of their chinny, chin, chins

Evangeline Garcia paddles a boatload of piglets to safety at a flooded village in Quezon City, northeast of Manila, Friday, July 20. Southwest monsoon rains brought about by a tropical storm continue to flood parts of the metropolitan area and provinces causing school and work suspensions.
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Aaron Favila/AP
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( July 23rd, 2018 )

Kim Campbell
Education Editor

Join us again on Monday, when we will have a profile of Republican Sen. Susan Collins, Maine's fiercely independent centrist.

Monitor Daily Podcast

July 20, 2018
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