2019
August
20
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

In today’s edition, we’re exploring self-government (New York City socialists), freedom (global digital surveillance), integrity (U.S. college admissions), stewardship (a French eco-village), and equality (Uganda’s women birders).

But first, heroes don’t usually wear capes. And sometimes, they don’t wear pants.

Tow truck driver Michael Venettozzi stripped to his boxers to rescue three people during flooding in Utica, New York. But his efforts cost him his job. 

Mr. Venettozzi was called to a BJ's Wholesale Club parking lot Saturday where a car was stuck in waist-deep water. To hook up the tow, he had to crawl under the car, so he left his pants in the truck. He helped two more drivers caught in the flooding. His rescue efforts were photographed by bystanders and posted on Facebook. That’s when the Captain Underpants jokes spread. 

His boss was not amused. He fired Mr. Venettozzi for wearing unprofessional garb and recklessly endangering the truck. Mr. Venettozzi understands the decision. But he also wrote on Facebook:  “I don’t regret the choice i made... a human life will always trump a piece of equipment to me!!”

Mr. Venettozzi say he’s not a hero. “We have men and women overseas. They are the real heroes," he told a local radio station. “I’m just doing my job and looking out for the community.”

As is often the case when a light is shined on injustice, it’s rectified. A friend set up a GoFundMe page that’s already collected $2,400 in 24 hours. And Mr. Venettozzi got three job offers on Monday. Apparently, those companies are eager to employ Captain Underpants.

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1. For these young socialists, it’s all about local control

Can you be for socialism and against big government? Our reporter found that young New York devotees may share more common ground with other points along the political spectrum.

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Ann Hermes/Staff
Wesley Higgins (center) and Amber Rather (center right), organizing committee members of the NYC Democratic Socialists of America, hold a brainstorm session with members at an ecosocialist planning meeting Aug. 6, 2019, in New York.

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A soft-spoken Yale grad, Gustavo Gordillo always considered himself a socialist in a vague sort of way. But he says the shock of seeing Donald Trump elected president spurred him to become more politically active. He joined the Democratic Socialists of America about a year ago and now pursues community organizing full time in New York. 

After the surprise November victory of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the DSA member and Queens Democrat who’s become both a lightning rod and face of the movement, many estimate the organization’s membership has jumped to nearly 55,000. 

At a DSA meeting in New York this month, the vision expressed by many nascent socialists in their 20s and early 30s doesn’t fit easily into past definitions. Instead of a centralized government authority controlling the nation’s means of production, they talk about local control and self-sustaining communities. Their ideal is an economy where citizens and workers, rather than global corporations and government bureaucrats, can shape their own destinies. 

“Socialism means expanding democratic control over the economy and radically redefining workplaces so that workers are in control, not bosses,” says Mr. Gordillo.

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For these young socialists, it’s all about local control

Gustavo Gordillo is standing in a circle of democratic socialists at the Sixth Street Community Center in Manhattan’s East Village, preparing to take on ConEd. The electric utility giant has proposed a rate hike, and Mr. Gordillo is outlining a plan to canvas neighborhoods in Queens and urge residents to register their opposition.

ConEd’s CEO makes more than $8 million a year, he tells the group, and last year the company reported a net income of nearly $1.4 billion. A monopolistic corporation whose ostensible purpose is to provide power and heat to every home and business in New York City, it functions more like a tap on captive customers, he says, drawing out profits for shareholders.

He’s relatively new at this. A soft-spoken Yale grad, Mr. Gordillo always considered himself a socialist in a vague sort of way, but never thought it was a realistic path. But the shock of seeing Donald Trump elected president spurred him to become more politically active. He joined the Democratic Socialists of America about a year ago, and recently left his job at a downtown art gallery to pursue community organizing full time. More and more, he’s realizing this is what he wants to do.

“A lot of the Democratic candidates at the most recent presidential debates were talking about how we have capitalism gone wrong, or unfettered capitalism,” he says. “But actually, I believe the system is working just as it’s intended to. Capitalism is what we’re living in. It’s not a perversion of capitalism, it’s actually a perfection of capitalism – and that’s why I’m a socialist.” 

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Gustavo Gordillo, an organizing member of the NYC Democratic Socialists of America, addresses members at a meeting August 6, 2019, in New York, New York. President Donald Trump's win in 2016 spurred him to become more politically engaged.

Despite the muggy August weather, about 50 people – most in their 20s and early 30s – have joined Mr. Gordillo in the community center’s back room. Nine raise their hands to indicate they’ve come for the first time.

They’re part of the explosive growth of the nation’s longest-standing socialist organization, which saw its numbers swell from some 6,000 members at the start of 2016 to nearly 45,000 nationwide in 2018. After the surprise November victory of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the DSA member and Queens Democrat who’s become both a lightning rod and face of the movement, many estimate its membership has jumped to nearly 55,000.

As the Monitor reported last month, socialism has become a hot topic in presidential politics. While more Americans have begun to warm to the idea in the past few years, President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders have been actively seeking to exploit the nation’s longstanding antipathy towards socialism, tagging Democrats with the label at every opportunity. Many moderates and independents, especially in swing states, are starting to worry about the influence socialism-embracing young people are having on the Democratic Party.

But here at the Sixth Street Community Center, the vision expressed by many nascent socialists doesn’t fit easily into past definitions.

Instead of a centralized government authority controlling the nation’s means of production, Mr. Gordillo and others – some alums of the Occupy Wall Street movement – talk about local control and self-sustaining communities. Their ideal is an economy where citizens and workers, rather than global corporations and government bureaucrats, can shape their own destinies.

“Socialism means expanding democratic control over the economy and radically redefining workplaces so that workers are in control, not bosses,” says Mr. Gordillo.

Indeed, many observers have pointed out similarities between supporters of President Trump and those of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent democratic socialist from Vermont, who’s running for president as a Democrat. Both often agree on the need to protect American workers from globalism and cheap labor, criticizing “soulless corporations” that hurt small businesses, and send jobs overseas.

“I think this is the legacy of the economic downturn of 2008 – and more importantly, the recovery from it, in which the vast majority of the American population has not shared to any meaningful extent,” says Toby Reiner, a professor of political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. 

“Median incomes have not grown since the 1970s,” he continues. “The result has been widespread dissatisfaction with centrist liberalism, which has opened up space on the American left for some movement toward socialism – and on the right for Trump, and before him, the Tea Party.”

Consensus-based democracy

For many at the Sixth Street Community Center, President Trump’s election served as an unpleasant wake-up call. But it was Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory that made them believe they could bring about radical change.

“She just showed us what’s possible,” says Christopher Clark, a Los Angeles native and recent graduate of Vassar College, who currently works as a communications specialist for a business improvement alliance in Manhattan.

The same was true for Mr. Gordillo, who had volunteered for Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign. “I was there for her victory party in the Bronx, and after that, well, after seeing a win like that, it really solidified my commitment,” he says.

Yet they emphasize that their movement is decidedly not about personalities or charismatic leaders. Indeed, the group consciously rejects any top-down forms of decision-making or hierarchical leadership.

DSA members try to model the kind of consensus-based democracy they are advocating – some of which can seem tailor-made for presidential mockery.

They begin with a ritual acknowledging the indigenous Lenape people, who used to live on the island of Manhattan, and on whose “stolen land” they are standing. When introducing themselves, most include their preferred pronouns.

Before the meeting starts, one member reminds the group about their guidelines for “respectful discussion,” which include not interrupting, and prioritizing individuals from “disadvantaged or historically silenced groups” when determining speaking order.

“Always assume the best intentions when people speak,” one of the leaders tells the group.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Amber Rather, organizing committee member of the NYC Democratic Socialists of America, writes down ideas for the coming year at a planning meeting August 6, 2019, in New York, New York.

To some conservative analysts, socialism’s rise can be traced directly to an increasingly liberal American education system, which they say has warped many young people’s understanding of free markets and competition – especially in the wake of the 2008 economic implosion.

“They’ve been told, because of the difficulty that we’ve faced over the last decade economically, that socialism is the answer,” says Charlie Copeland, president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in Wilmington, Delaware, which fosters free-market principles on college campuses. “They’re being told that democratic socialism is a good thing, and look at how wonderful it is in Sweden and Switzerland and in Norway.”

Many DSA members like Mr. Gordillo and Mr. Clark have elite educations from Ivy League and other top-ranked universities. And they recount how much their college educations shaped their views of economics and politics.

Mr. Clark says he actually became more moderate during his undergraduate years, especially after studying the foundational economist Friedrich Hayek, revered by many conservatives. He notes, however, that even Hayek, the guru of libertarian economics, promoted a “universal basic income” for all citizens.

And when he studied abroad in Germany, he noticed how the concepts of “rugged individualism” and the veneration of private property just didn’t hold much sway.

“It was looking at the global stage where I started to see capitalism as something that invariably triggers exploitation,” he says.

“I think there should be some control”

Yet in other parts of New York, the idea of socialism is still viewed with deep suspicion – including by many Latino residents, some of whom escaped socialist regimes in order to come to America.  

Sitting in the office of his self-owned insurance affiliate in Astoria, Miguel Rodriguez-Vargas, a MAGA hat-wearing Trump supporter in the heart of Queens, is no fan of his congressional district’s new representative, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez.

And as a small business owner, he’s downright angry at the role she and her followers played in the recent collapse of a deal to bring Amazon’s headquarters to Long Island City, a neighborhood just a few blocks away. 

“There were some Democrats with very loud voices, like AOC, that took the deal off the table,” says Mr. Rodriguez-Vargas, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic with his family in the early 1980s.  

“The [Amazon] deal was going to help everybody in the neighborhood,” he continues. “They would be helping the local grocery store, the local tailor, they would be helping the local dry cleaner shops.”

Eduardo Giraldo is also a small business owner in Queens, the president of Abetx International Brokers in Jackson Heights, and a Democrat active in local politics. A leader in the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, he says he was impressed with Ms. Ocasio-Cortez when she spoke at a local Democratic club during the primary last year. Still, he did not vote for her – instead casting his ballot for longtime Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley. He’s concerned about the enthusiasm many young Democrats seem to have for socialist ideas. 

“A lot of the beliefs of socialism, people don’t really understand what it’s all about,” says Mr. Giraldo, an immigrant from Colombia who first came to the country as a high school exchange student in the early 1980s, when he lived with a family in Wisconsin. “Socialism gives too much power to the government,” he says. “And then, with no incentives to accomplish anything, the government can manipulate that, like societies have done in different countries.”

Yet both the Democratic Mr. Giraldo and the Republican Mr. Rodriguez-Vargas at times sound not unlike the young members of the DSA – especially when they discuss the impact of global capitalism.

“There should be some type of protectionism of our people, the people that live here,” says Mr. Rodriguez-Vargas. “You can’t just go all the way gung-ho with full-blown capitalism. Yeah, let’s just let China produce everything for nothing? No, I think there should be some control.”

Mr. Giraldo says much the same. “You look at big corporations, you know, and it’s the corporate greed, it’s about making the money for the CEOs and all their perks, and the shareholder profits. But they’re not giving anything back to the people.” 

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Patterns

Tracing global connections

2. Protest and authoritarianism in the internet age

Our London columnist surveys the worldwide, high-stakes digital battle underway between free speech and censorship, individual privacy and government surveillance.

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Hong Kong protests have focused attention on a new stage in the battle for the internet age: the use of increasingly advanced technical tools to quash dissent.

The situation in Hong Kong stands in stark contrast to recent protests in Sudan and Kashmir. In those cases, authorities used blunt instruments, cutting off internet access and mobile communication. Hong Kong turned to higher-tech tools at its disposal: facial-recognition cameras and stores of personal data available through ID documents and payment cards. Mainland China has even more advanced tools.

China has been accused of deploying those tools against Uyghur Muslim residents in Xinjiang. And at least two other authoritarian states, Russia and Iran, are building up domestic internet architectures to bring usage under central control.

For rights groups, a key concern centers on ethical issues. Last week, a mathematics researcher of University College London urged instituting a “Hippocratic oath” for tech developers. Hannah Fry pointed to companies “filled with very young, very inexperienced” tech whizzes building systems to cull and market personal data. “They have never been asked to think about ethics. ... These are the people who are designing the future for all of us.”

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Protest and authoritarianism in the internet age

It’s a battle for the internet age, with authoritarian governments across the globe moving to tighten control of web content and digital communications in order to stymie and ultimately defeat critics and protest movements.

Yet the continuing protests in Hong Kong have focused attention on a new stage in that campaign, raising political and potentially ethical questions about the use of increasingly advanced technical tools to quash dissent or target individuals and groups deemed to be a threat. One leading British academic has gone so far as to suggest the need for young math-and-technology students to take a “Hippocratic oath” to ensure they’re aware of the wider implications of their work.

The situation in Hong Kong, the former British colony handed back to China in 1997, stands in stark contrast to the Sudanese army’s crackdown on protesters earlier this year, or India’s move this month to end decades of political autonomy in Muslim-majority Kashmir. In those cases, the authorities also moved on the digital front. But they relied on a fairly low-tech approach. They in effect flicked a switch, cutting off all internet access and mobile communication.

For Hong Kong, removing internet and mobile-phone access for the more than 7 million inhabitants of a major international business and finance hub was never going to be a viable option.

But authorities’ efforts to identify, isolate, and arrest protest organizers have drawn attention to the higher-tech tools at their disposal: facial recognition cameras, the enormous store of personal data available through Hong Kong’s ID documents, and the information captured by the contactless payment cards used for a range of commercial transactions, including public transport. Some protesters are also concerned by the arrest of the coordinator of a group communicating via Telegram, an encrypted messaging program, although it remains unclear whether that was due to electronic infiltration or a spy working from the inside.

The fear of technological targeting may help explain the original catalyst for the Hong Kong protests: an extradition bill that would have allowed residents to be handed over to mainland China, which has a far more extensive network of facial recognition cameras and other electronic data, and a range of advanced tools to make use of the information.

China has been accused of deploying those tools during its “reeducation” campaign in Xinjiang, which has seen as many as a million Uyghur Muslim residents interned in special camps. The Chinese authorities have also reportedly been installing an application on some local mobile phones and on those of some visitors to Xinjiang that combs the devices for what they deem to be suspicious content.

And at least two other authoritarian states – Russia and Iran – are building up their own domestic internet architectures in a broader move that could bring their citizens’ internet usage under central control.

Discourage, restrict, block

Like the Chinese with their Great Firewall, Russia and particularly Iran already regulate the internet by discouraging, restricting, or blocking access to a range of foreign websites. Their security services also use “deep-packet” technology to identify and frustrate a widespread way of avoiding such censorship: VPNs, or virtual private networks, that allow users to mask the identity and location of their computers.

But Russia’s move in recent days to pressure Google over the livestreaming of large-scale street demonstrations in Moscow leaves little doubt about the Kremlin’s desire to deny political protesters access to internet outlets. The Russians have also had decidedly mixed success with a formal ban last year on Telegram: Large numbers still use it, often with the help of VPNs.

That helps underscore the potential significance of a law passed in Russia earlier this year that combined expanded central control of VPN searches and other online data with a drive to set up its own national internet.

Iran, meanwhile, has claimed its equivalent is about 80% complete. Once such domestic systems are operational, they could provide a far more radical option for monitoring and controlling access and content: hiving off these networks altogether from the wider world network.

An ethics oath?

The more immediate fear for media-freedom and human rights groups remains precisely what is unsettling demonstrators in Hong Kong: the potential combination of large amounts of personal data, sophisticated artificial intelligence applications, and security services determined to track, identify, and move against those they define as a threat.

Last week, one of Britain’s top mathematics researchers, University College London’s Hannah Fry, sounded a warning.

Pointing out that in democratic countries as well, internet users are ceding enormous amounts of personal data, she cited the example of a genetic testing firm. “We literally hand over our most private data, our DNA,” she told The Guardian newspaper, “but we’re not just consenting for ourselves. We are consenting for our children, and our children’s children.” Her worst-case scenario: governments that, decades from now, might embark on policies of genetic discrimination. “And we are paying to add our DNA to that dataset.”

She pointed to the proliferation of technology companies – “filled with very young, very inexperienced” math and computer-science whizzes – that are constructing systems to cull and market personal data. As one immediate step, she urged a shift in mathematics, technology, and computer education to institute a “Hippocratic oath” like that impressed on medical students. “They have never been asked to think about ethics. ... And ultimately, these are the people who are designing the future for all of us.”

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3. College admissions: After scandal, what role should privilege play?

Should U.S. colleges make admission more fair and equitable for all? We look at how some schools, students, and lawmakers are challenging a system often warped by wealth.

David
Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Marisa O'Connor (left), senior college access adviser, works with high school student Hamza during a counseling session at Bottom Line on Aug. 15, 2019, in Boston. The organization helps low-income and first-generation students navigate college and success.

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As a new college application season gets underway, leaders of selective colleges maintain that their admissions policies are sound and backed by integrity. Many spent the summer patching weak spots exposed in the spring by “Operation Varsity Blues,” a set of criminal cases involving parents and a consultant who bribed coaches and manipulated test scores to help students gain admission to top schools. 

Among concerns in the aftermath is an ever-growing sense that entrance into elite institutions, even public ones, is stacked in favor of the wealthy. The pressure is on to consider deeper changes to make admissions more equitable – putting less weight on “legacy,” for instance, and more on legwork, like a teen’s part-time job to put food on the table.  

What colleges do next, says Jim Jump – a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and author of an ethics blog – may determine whether the process “inspires public trust … or makes people feel like it’s not a meritocracy, it’s a privilege-ocracy, if you will.”

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College admissions: After scandal, what role should privilege play?

Last year’s college application season was marred by headlines about wealthy parents behaving badly.

Over the summer, college officials, athletic departments, and testing companies have been working to patch weak spots exposed by “Operation Varsity Blues,” a set of criminal cases involving parents and a consultant who bribed coaches and manipulated test scores to help students gain admission to top schools. 

At the University of California, for instance, the first of three planned audits did not uncover any widespread fraud, but the public university system announced it would improve the documentation trail for admissions, strengthen verification of applicants let in for a “special talent” such as athletic ability, and address potential conflicts of interest.

With the new college application season underway, leaders of selective colleges maintain that their admissions policies are sound and backed by integrity. But a bigger concern could be the ever-growing sense that entrance into elite institutions, even public ones, is stacked in favor of the wealthy. The pressure is on to consider deeper changes to make admissions more equitable – putting less weight on “legacy,” for instance, and more on legwork, like a teen’s part-time job to put food on the table.  

“We all know that in the world at large, those who are wealthy have advantages. The question for college admission is, do we want that institutionalized, or do we want to actually be the exception to that?” says Jim Jump, a dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s, an independent prep school in Richmond, Virginia.

What colleges do next may determine whether the process “inspires public trust … or makes people feel like it’s not a meritocracy, it’s a privilege-ocracy, if you will,” says Mr. Jump, a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and author of an ethics blog. 

But it’s also important that this narrative of privilege not become too dominant, he and others caution, because that could prompt less-privileged students to believe there’s no point in even trying to get into top schools, where scholarships and other benefits might have been awaiting them.

Hamza, a student from Malden High School just outside Boston who asked that only his first name be used, sees some of that discouragement among fellow students. They were frustrated to hear about families buying their way to better SAT scores and easy acceptances.

“I’ve seen kids that are smarter than me [who] do not have the motivation to apply to any of those [elite] schools,” because they think they can’t get in or they can’t afford it, he says.

But Hamza craves a competitive environment, and he plans to apply to the University of Pennsylvania and several other “reach” schools. “I’d rather just take my chance and get rejected than just always think about ‘Oh what if I applied?’” he says. “Maybe it could happen.”

Tempering the prestige myth

Since only a tiny percentage of students are accepted at the most popular schools, it’s also important not to fall into what Mr. Jump calls the “myth of prestige,” the idea that “if I don’t go to an elite college I can’t be successful.” At the average four-year college, two-thirds of applicants are accepted, NACAC reports. 

Some applicants may indeed be giving lesser-known schools a stronger look if they are turned off by the picture of privilege at the elites.

One California student who toured the University of Southern California last winter was eager to apply there. But after hearing about Varsity Blues a few days later, he crossed off his list that and any other schools affected, one of his parents noted on the College Confidential website, in response to a query from the Monitor. Now the student is considering other California campuses and giving out-of-state options a closer look: Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University in Jupiter might be able to entice him with a scholarship.

Ben Margot/AP
Students walk on the Stanford University campus March 14, 2019, in California. Stanford is among those schools involved in the Varsity Blues investigation, which has prompted class-action lawsuits.

Although they likely won’t be hurting for applicants, many schools with more competitive admissions have audits underway in response to Varsity Blues, and several have announced changes.

In addition to a review of athletic admissions, Yale will examine the role of commercial admissions consultants, create a new code of conduct and ethics training for athletic recruitment, and give more scrutiny to recruited athletes who fail to make it onto a team, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports

Other Ivy Leagues, such as the University of Pennsylvania, have announced similar bolstering of ethics policies.

A closer look at the system

Still, a type of honors system prevails. Most of the 40 top colleges contacted by The Wall Street Journal recently do not have a policy of randomly verifying what’s reported by students in their applications. 

Admissions officials themselves have not been implicated in Varsity Blues, but the admission counseling group has treated it as a “teachable moment,” says NACAC president Stefanie Niles, who oversees enrollment at Ohio Wesleyan University. Early this fall, NACAC will release an online ethics course for staff from development, athletics, alumni, and other departments involved in admissions.

In response to public outrage, some lawmakers have been trying to make sure taxpayers aren’t subsidizing wealthy families who manipulate the system. A bill proposed in California would retroactively remove charitable tax deductions for any money that families convicted in Varsity Blues cases donated to colleges or foundations as a cover for bribery.

Illinois lawmakers and the U.S. Department of Education are also looking for ways to close legal loopholes that dozens of wealthy families reportedly used to transfer legal guardianship of their teens in order to get financial aid designed for independent students. 

But the extremes of criminal and unethical behavior make up just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the influence of wealth, advocates for greater access and diversity say.

The student body presidents of USC, UCLA, Stanford, and Yale penned a column recently about “the many ways in which we have personally benefited from this system of privilege.” 

Such inequities start early in unfair funding for K-12 schools, they wrote, but they urged their universities to take steps within their control – such as following the example of the University of Chicago in making the SAT/ACT optional.

This is not a new conversation in higher education, and some campuses have already been making changes. Over the past decade, Johns Hopkins has put less weight on legacy status and more on access and diversity. For the class that started in 2018, 3.3% of students there had a legacy or family connection, while 15.4% came from families eligible for Pell grants, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. When it comes to students who receive Pell, some top-ranked universities are as low as 10% while several others go above 20%. Critics say the rates should be higher.

Hamza, who works at Target, says he’ll definitely need financial aid. He’s had two meetings with an adviser at the nonprofit Bottom Line, in Boston, which helps low-income and first-generation students navigate college access and success. The Houston native already has an idea for his college essay topic: the time he spent as a student in Morocco, his father’s home country, and why he hopes to help its development after he earns his degree.

He still has a long way to go in the admissions process, but leaning back in his chair at the Bottom Line office, Hamza seems unflappable: “If I fit into what they want, I’ll get accepted; if I don’t, I won’t.” Even if he ends up at one of his “safety” schools, he says, “I would definitely be happy.”

Hands-on with college applications? Why this mom now says ‘yes.’

Robin Benson Barnes’ son was waiting to hear back from several colleges last March when news about the Varsity Blues scandal broke. She had also been peeking into the world of elite admissions practices by following the federal discrimination trial in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, in which a judge’s decision is pending.  

The snowballing effect left her feeling somewhat “jaded” about the role of wealth, she says. “The fact that legacies are still getting a tip, and that athletes are still getting a tip, and that the children of influential people are still getting a tip – and then on top of it … you’re also going to cheat?”

When college counselors at their magnet high school in Austin, Texas, encouraged parents to let students take the lead last fall, she and her husband felt relaxed about it, though they knew some parents would micromanage.

Their son ended up at his first choice, a strong private university out of state, with a scholarship that made tuition similar to the in-state public rate – and they were all happy with the result, she says. But in retrospect, she thinks she could have helped more. 

They didn’t know, for instance, that some engineering programs have separate deadlines, so they were scrambling in October. On the other hand, he didn’t apply early action to any of his “reach” schools, but if he had done that, and if he had taken an SAT subject test, he may have been better positioned for more options, she says.

For child No. 2, Ms. Barnes plans to be less hands-off. Her daughter, currently a high school sophomore, will still make the key decisions, she says, but “I feel more comfortable taking more of a lead on the deadlines and logistics. ... The process is quite complicated, and it’s quite a bit for a 16- or 17-year-old to manage on their own.”

With many students from their high school applying to competitive colleges, “it is hard not to get caught up in the elite school thing,” Ms. Barnes says. But she also sees students turning down top brand names in favor of lesser-known schools that offer better financial aid. 

She thinks more now about systemic inequities. “Kids without organized middle-class parents at least slightly familiar with the process are at an extreme disadvantage,” she says.

Plenty of her peers paid an outside adviser to help their student go through the application process. Some did it mainly to keep the peace by not having to be the ones nagging about deadlines, she says.

“I’m still not planning on paying anybody to do it, although I don’t begrudge people who decide to do that. At first to me that seemed kind of silly, and I don’t think it’s as silly anymore.”

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4. A school bus with hoofs: How one town embraces sustainability

In this story, we find pragmatic lessons from a French village that’s been reducing its environmental footprint while boosting its economic autonomy.

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Since 2005 greenhouse gas emissions in Ungersheim, a town of 2,200, have gone down by 600 tons per year. The use of pesticides is banned here, and the food in the school cafeteria is 100% organic.

It’s all part of Ungersheim’s “eco-transition.” And it’s become a model that other communities can follow.

The key person behind the environmentally friendly initiatives is Jean-Claude Mensch, who became Ungersheim’s mayor in 1989. “We don’t claim to try to change the world, but we’re hoping to do our part,” he says.

Local leaders across France and the rest of Europe are increasingly getting in touch with Mr. Mensch to find out how to roll out their own sustainable initiatives.

“Towns are thinking more about this topic now, and there is a willingness from local citizens for a better quality of life,” says Antoine Guillou, energy and climate change coordinator at the Paris-based think tank Terra Nova.

Laetitia Scherding, a newer resident of Ungersheim, supports the town’s approach. “We used to live in a bigger city. But we decided to move here for all of the environmental actions the town has taken,” she says.

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A school bus with hoofs: How one town embraces sustainability

A blazing sun beats down on Richelieu’s back as 9-year-old Enola pets his mane in the school parking lot. Her brother Nathan jumps behind onto the carriage, the vinyl seats sticky in the 95-degree heat. When around a dozen children are squeezed together, driver Sébastien Bruntz picks up the reins and calls out “Allez, trot!” The rhythmic clacking of hoofs picks up across the pavement.

Richelieu is one of three horses that alternates throughout the week taking children to and from school in Ungersheim. In this town of 2,200 in the Alsace region of France, most kids walk to school. But for those living the farthest out, the horse and carriage is one fewer trip for parents.

“This doesn’t use any gas so there’s no pollution,” says 11-year-old Arthur, who’s taking the horse and carriage home for lunch today. “Plus, it’s just really nice. We all talk together. Honestly, I love it.”

The horse and carriage-cum-school bus got a few laughs – and grumbles from drivers pressed for time – when the idea was launched a decade ago, says Mr. Bruntz, but it’s normal now. It’s just one of dozens of measures that Jean-Claude Mensch has worked to implement since he became mayor of Ungersheim in 1989.

The food in the Ungersheim school cafeteria is 100% organic, and solar panels crisscross the rooftop of the local swimming pool. A massive wood-burning heater serves seven local buildings, and the use of pesticides is banned here. On the edge of town, nine families live in an eco-hamlet dedicated to zero waste and zero carbon emissions.

It’s all part of Ungersheim’s steady evolution toward sustainability and economic autonomy. Since 2005, Ungersheim has reduced the town’s greenhouse gas emissions by 600 tons per year and saved more than €150,000 ($167,000) – all without raising taxes.

“The ecological transition is a desire to change things in order to respect the ecological balance, meaning we’re not above nature – we’re part of nature,” says Mr. Mensch. “We don’t claim to try to change the world, but we’re hoping to do our part.”

While Mr. Mensch’s dedication to environmentally friendly initiatives borders on obsession, other local leaders in Europe are looking to Ungersheim as a potential model to follow. As heat waves like the ones that have recently hit Europe extend across the globe more frequently, individual communities are feeling a renewed sense of urgency to take climate action.

“Tackling climate change at the local level is a mindset,” says Antoine Guillou, energy and climate change coordinator at the Paris-based think tank Terra Nova. “It has to be integrated into every big decision.”

“We decided to move here”

Ungersheim’s solar farm sits in a low valley on the edge of town, sandwiched between the lush Vosges Mountains and the mirage-like dense green of Germany’s Black Forest. Just a few miles away is Fessenheim, the oldest and most controversial nuclear power plant in France.

Colette Davidson
In the three decades since Jean-Claude Mensch became mayor of Ungersheim, his town has attracted interest from other communities interested in their own independent sustainability initiatives, such as the town's 5.3 megawatt-capacity solar farm.

Mr. Mensch has been vocal in his opposition to Fessenheim – which French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to close by 2020 – as well as France’s reliance on nuclear energy, which makes up over 70% of its total electricity production.

By contrast, Ungersheim’s eco-transition has hinged on renewable energy. In addition to the solar farm – the largest in the Alsace region with a capacity of 5.3 megawatts – the town has built solar panels over practically every public building. Many residents have followed suit, rebuilding their rooftops to become more eco-friendly. 

“We used to live in a bigger city. But we decided to move here for all of the environmental actions the town has taken,” says resident Laetitia Scherding, as she accompanies her son home on the horse and carriage.

Many businesses in the area accept “radis,” the local currency, as a way for the economy to become more self-sufficient. And the town is in the process of completing a sustainable farm, which will include a craft brewery, fruit juice press, vegetable market, and nature center – with the idea that the money earned will be pumped back into the local economy. Like most initiatives here, the farm is another way for Ungersheim to not only reduce its environmental footprint, but its dependence on outside financial support.

“National governments have a very strong role in setting objectives ... but some sectors have a local aspect, in which case it’s up to local governments to define the most effective solutions [to a given problem],” says Mr. Guillou of Terra Nova. “But historically in France, local governments are limited and are very dependent on the national government for financial means.”

“Somewhere between old and new”

Despite appearances, Ungersheim has no intention of shunning modernity or moving backward in time. Mr. Mensch says he is not a hard-liner and makes concessions when need be. For instance, while horses are employed for a portion of the agricultural production, tractors are used as well.

“We take a hybrid approach, somewhere between old and new,” says Kenji Sakai, the supervisor of Ungersheim’s agricultural management. “You can combine low- and high-tech. One shouldn’t exclude the other.”

Although a horse and buggy may not be realistic for big cities, local leaders across France and the rest of Europe are increasingly getting in touch with Mr. Mensch to find out how to roll out their own sustainable initiatives, especially after the 2016 film “Qu’est-ce qu’on attend?” (What are we waiting for?”) featured the town’s eco-transition.

Independently of this small Alsatian town, sustainability initiatives are gaining ground across the country. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has committed much of her mandate to going green, working to ban diesel-powered vehicles by 2024 and reducing traffic across the city. In 2016 legislators passed a law to stop food waste, and next year the largest urban farm in the world – at 150,000 square feet – will open just outside the French capital.

“There is a desire to go local, to return to the past, especially in terms of food consumption,” says Sébastien Abis, an associate research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs. “We’re progressing in France when it comes to sustainable development, but it will be even better in the future.”

While Mr. Mensch’s ideas for Ungersheim’s future seem positively unlimited, his transition mission has not come without some small trade-offs. The town’s flower boxes could use sprucing up and the roads and sidewalks are in need of a repaving – both things that are important to the French small-town aesthetic.

“Some things have fallen a little to the wayside, but we have priorities,” says Mr. Mensch, as a drive along the main road reveals a blur of unkempt purple flowers. “For example, when we redo the roads, we don’t earn anything ... but when we invest in the ecological domain, we win. ... People are slowly coming around to the idea.”

This story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.

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5. With patience and binoculars, Ugandan women build jobs as birders

For women in Uganda, birding opens up a pathway to independence and equity. Our reporter ventures into the forest to see for himself.

David
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Birding guide Abia Atukwatse (left) takes Swedish ecotourist Annika Lindqvist through the Mabira Forest in Uganda on Aug. 11, 2019. Ms. Atukwatse says she knows about 800 birds and is still learning more.

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A slight figure stepping lightly through the rainforest, Abia Atukwatse chirrups and cheeps. Sometimes she hoots and coos. Then she stops and keeps her eyes peeled.

Ms. Atukwatse is a birder who belongs to the all-female Uganda Women Birders group. And in Mabira Forest’s world-renowned birders’ paradise, she says, women do bird guiding differently. She gives me my first lesson as I stroll ahead of her through the cool aqueous green.

“Your speed is not for birders,” she admonishes me. I slow down.

Uganda Women Birders is the brainchild of Judith Mirembe, a professional birding guide frustrated that the field of ornithology – like Ugandan society as a whole – is so male-dominated.

“Tourism is a growing sector and it could give women a way to earn a livelihood and support their families” in a country where the unemployment rate is twice as high for women as it is for men. “Also we encourage women to be independent,” Ms. Mirembe adds.

The guide directs me to two extraordinary birds high in the forest canopy with massive box-shaped beaks. Black-and-white-casqued hornbills, she tells me. (It’s worth Googling them.) I stare at them through my binoculars, astonished, for as long as I can tilt my head back.

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With patience and binoculars, Ugandan women build jobs as birders

A slight figure stepping lightly through the rainforest, Abia Atukwatse chirrups and cheeps. Sometimes she hoots and coos. Or she whoops and whistles. Then she stops and keeps her eyes peeled.

Ms. Atukwatse is a birder. But not just any kind of birder. She belongs to the all-female Uganda Women Birders group. And in Mabira Forest’s world-renowned birders’ paradise, she says, women do bird guiding differently.

“Ladies naturally pay more attention than men,” says Ms. Atukwatse. “I’m cautious and I feel I see more things.”

Her client today, a Swedish ecotourist called Annika Lindqvist, seems to agree. 

“She has good eyes,” Ms. Lindqvist says, but there is more to it than that. 

“Male guides have shown me good birds, but that’s it,” she explains. “They have a tendency to just check off the birds. Here we discuss the birds, their colors, and their behavior. I learn more.”

And there is a lot to learn. Ms. Atukwatse gives me my first lesson as I stroll ahead of her through the cool aqueous green of the forest. “Your speed is not for birders,” she admonishes me. I slow down.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Birding guide Abia Atukwatse (right) is a member of Uganda Women Birders, which formed to increase the number of women participating in nature guiding, a field typically dominated by men.

Ms. Lindqvist is an avid student with a broad taste in wildlife who stops to photograph anything that moves. 

“I do anything that comes my way,” she says, stooping to snap a tiny spider and then spotting an iridescent wasp on a nearby leaf. “Look, it’s really cool; it’s got spikes on it.”

Uganda Women Birders is the brainchild of Judith Mirembe, a professional birding guide frustrated that the field of ornithology – like Ugandan society as a whole – is so male-dominated.

She founded the group six years ago “to increase the number of women in nature guiding,” she explains.  

“Tourism is a growing sector and it could give women a way to earn a livelihood and support their families” in a country where the unemployment rate is twice as high for women as it is for men. “Also we encourage women to be independent,” Ms. Mirembe adds.

But she recognized that birding is an expensive occupation requiring binoculars, laser pointers (to direct clients’ attention to the right bit of the right tree), and field guides. As a group, members could share equipment and experienced birders could teach new ones. Uganda Women Birders now comprises 60 members, including 30 active guides earning their living from the business.

Ms. Atukwatse was an intern at a Ugandan gorilla park when she “saw some other ladies birding around and they introduced me to the activity.” She was intrigued by the group’s approach. 

“I felt as if I was easily understood because we see things from the same perspective as females – for example the need to make our own living,” she recalls.

Plus, she adds, “most ladies love color. I ended up loving birds because they are colorful.” Ms. Atukwatse herself sports an eye-catching turquoise watch cap. 

The birder says she can now recognize 800 of the 1,061 bird species found in Uganda and mimic the calls of nearly 400 – “and I’m still learning.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Birding guide Abia Atukwatse whistles to locate a bird.

Ms. Lindqvist came across her guide on the World Girl Birders Facebook group. “I thought it would be a nice change to have a female guide and a good way to support women who are not really in the workplace in Uganda,” she says.

With Ms. Atukwatse’s help, Ms. Lindqvist spots lots of birds, and notes them all down like a competitive birder. I have less luck as an absolute novice, focusing my binoculars repeatedly on leaves fluttering in the wake of a bird’s departure.

And then Ms. Atukwatse directs me to two extraordinary birds high in the forest canopy with massive box-shaped beaks. They are a beginner birder’s ideal target, so enormous as to be unmissable, sitting absolutely motionless, superbly indifferent to my presence. 

Black-and-white-casqued hornbills, she tells me. (It’s worth Googling them.) I stare at them through my binoculars, astonished, for as long as I can tilt my head back.

Eventually I lower my field glasses and bring my head down, sighing as I relieve the crick in my neck. 

“He has warbler’s neck!” laughs Ms. Atukwatse. Clearly this is an occupational hazard.

“Birdwatching is not for the weak,” adds Ms. Lindqvist.

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The Monitor's View

Sunshine on a shakedown culture

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Long one of the world’s most corrupt countries, Ukraine received startling news last week. The economy grew 4.6% last quarter. One possible reason is a type of reform changing a corrupt culture from the bottom up, one individual at a time, by shining a light in the dark corners where corruption hides.

The Business Ombudsman Council helps protect companies when officials try to extract money either through groundless delays, tax searches, or outright demands for a bribe. The Ukrainian Network of Integrity and Compliance is a group of more than 50 large and civic-minded companies that share their experiences in promoting an ethical business climate.

Before these reforms began, more than a quarter of Ukraine firms said they had to bribe officials “to get things done.” Last year, more than half said it is possible to do business without being involved in corrupt practices.

Light is the most efficient policeman, said the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. In Ukraine, it is also an efficient way to boost the economy, one individual conscience at a time.

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Sunshine on a shakedown culture

Long one of the world’s most corrupt countries, Ukraine received startling news last week. The economy grew 4.6% last quarter. It was the second-fastest rate in Europe. One possible reason for the growth spurt is that many reforms begun after a 2014 pro-democracy revolution are kicking in.

In addition, an election in April saw an anti-corruption crusader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, become president. His party also took over parliament in a July election. He vows radical change from the top, focused on an overhaul of courts, law enforcement, and Ukraine’s spy agency to prevent them from frequent shakedowns of businesses.

Yet one type of reform stands out in its ability to improve Ukraine’s investment climate. It is the creation of two bodies that are changing a corrupt culture from the bottom up, one individual at a time, by shining a bright light in the dark corners where corruption hides while also promoting accountability in lower-level public officials.

The Business Ombudsman Council, created in 2015 with foreign assistance, helps protect companies when officials try to extract money either through groundless delays, tax searches, or outright demands for a bribe. It directly confronts such officials to correct their practices, either by shame or persuasion. Over the past four years, it has also collected more than $450 million in illegally charged taxes, fines, and other payments.

“We hear from hundreds of entrepreneurs each year. Many are frustrated with the actions of ‘uncaring’ officials,” says the council’s head, Algirdas Šemeta.

The Ukrainian Network of Integrity and Compliance is a group of more than 50 large and civic-minded companies that share their experiences in promoting an ethical business climate and in raising public scrutiny of corruption. The resulting peer pressure has helped Ukraine rise up several places in the World Bank’s latest “ease of doing business” index.

Before these reforms began, more than a quarter of Ukraine firms said they had to bribe officials “to get things done,” according to a poll. Last year, more than half said it is possible to do business without being involved in corrupt practices. Such results have inspired other post-Soviet states, such as Kyrgyzstan, to learn from Ukraine even though that country still has a long way to end a corrupt and oligarchic system.

Light is the most efficient policeman, said the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. In Ukraine, it is also an efficient way to boost the economy, one individual conscience at a time.

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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.

Skin condition gone

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Each of us can humbly turn to God for inspiration that lifts fear and brings healing.

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Skin condition gone

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Some time ago I had a skin condition that was all over my body. I don’t know what it would be called, but it was very obvious, and people were noticing it and expressing concern for me. Though I was embarrassed about the condition, I’d been learning about Christian Science and felt convinced the problem could be healed. In fact, I was really interested to see how this healing would come about.

So I dug into prayer and study of the Bible and the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science. At first I was looking for one idea that would sort of “zap” the problem. It was a really purifying time, during which fears about so many things in my life were exposed and dissolved.

I spent long periods in deep study, just being alone with God and filled with inspiration. Gradually, my thoughts stopped orbiting around the physical problem and how to heal it. Instead, my whole consciousness was being drawn toward God and away from self-rumination. Many mornings, I would wake up feeling enveloped in the presence of God, divine Love and Mind, feeling the “peace of God, which passeth all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

In retrospect, I see that this was illustrating this statement in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy: “the divine Mind makes perfect, acts upon the so-called human mind through truth, leads the human mind to relinquish all error, to find the divine Mind to be the only Mind, and the healer of sin, disease, death” (p. 251).

One day, I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Another mark was appearing. Ugh! But I wasn’t alarmed. What came out of my mouth, almost as if someone else was saying it, was one word: a soft, gentle, absolutely final “no.” I will never forget the feeling that followed. It was as if someone had just left the room and closed the door softly behind them.

At that moment, in the stillness and silence, I had a sudden and complete awareness that this problem was over. I absolutely knew that it was over. And sure enough, during the next three days, all evidence of the skin condition vanished, much as shadows get shorter and then disappear as the sun rises overhead.

I learned a lot that day about spiritual healing. I learned that there’s no spiritual “silver bullet.” Truth, another name for God, is like the light, and just as light shines through the darkness and dispels it, divine Truth shines through and dispels fear in human consciousness, bringing healing.

As we turn humbly to God’s love and care, and let fear be gently uncovered and removed, we find that God guides us to whatever healing inspiration we need at the moment.

Adapted from a testimony published in the June 17, 2013, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

Making music

Fayaz Aziz/Reuters
A rabab craftsman arranges a series of unfinished instruments at a workshop in Peshawar, Pakistan, Aug. 20, 2019. The rabab, also known as the Arab fiddle, is one of the earliest known bowed instruments.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( August 21st, 2019 )

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re working on a story about the direction of the Italian government after the resignation of the prime minister.

Please accept our apologies if you tried to watch yesterday’s video about Islamic marriage contracts. The link was broken. If you missed it, check out One woman’s quest: Use art to bring focus to marriage

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August 20, 2019
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