Apple Watch

I love my Apple Watch.  Sure, it tells the time, but it is also a mini-information center on my wrist.  If you don’t have one, I am not here to try to sell you one, and I will not write a fawning fanboy review.  

I am just saying, it is a tool that I use every day.  It shows me the temp, wind speed (important when deciding on a ride), runs my workout apps, and shows frivolous but fun things like the phase of the moon.

But it also helps me monitor my health, and since I have passed 60 and there is a history of high blood pressure, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions in my family, I watch my health indicators closely.  The watch doesn’t monitor everything, but if you synch it with a phone and a blood pressure monitor, it provides a dashboard to monitor changes in conditions.  Health monitoring is all about trends, so even if none of my devices measure perfectly, they help me spot changes over time, which is essential.

The watch does monitor heart rate, and that is important to make sure I do not over-train (risking injury), but it is also pretty good at telling me when I have a low-grade virus brewing in the background.  I check the rate regularly, and while I sleep, my watch just keeps on checking.  My sleeping heart rate can plunge into the mid-forties but never goes much above 65.

I guess I should not say “never” because it did, and it has, and that has led to lots of questions. Questions for which I do not yet have answers.

It started some months ago when I checked into my sleeping heart rate and saw that for about an hour the night before, it had shot up to 175—and stayed there for about an hour.  For someone my age, a sustained heart rate like that only happens when one is doing very strenuous exercise—like a hard run.  For runners, we know that a rate at that level is in the “anaerobic” zone—a place you can stay for a few minutes but not an hour.  I assumed some data anomaly and, because it did not repeat itself the following night, I let it go.  I felt a bit tired that day, and my morning run was a bit sluggish, but that happens, no big deal.  

But, I did wonder because of something that had happened about three months before that day.  So, I should go back…

The good news is they found the “pup”—I learned that is what they call a baby coyote.  That was important.  I was out for a bike ride in the wetlands north of town.  I run into coyotes a lot out there but always at a distance.  This time I came around a corner, and there was a mom (I assumed) with two little ones in tow, and I scared them.  They terrified me.  

One of the little ones almost got caught under my tire, and when I swerved by it, it stuck its head up and bit me in the ankle.  It barely broke the skin, but it leaked the whole way home.  I was shaken and immediately thought, “rabies.”  The weird and fortunate thing was, that pup was jet black.  It turns out that black coyotes do exist, but they are very rare.  So, in addition to calling my doc (antibiotics and possible rabies shots), I called County animal control.  They take stuff like that pretty seriously and sent out a wildlife specialist. He tracked the family down, trapped the lot, and checked them for rabies.  The hunt and testing all took about three weeks, and I was beyond anxious until the report came back: clean for rabies.  My piece of mind would not have been possible had that pup not been black.  

After I finished the antibiotic course, I had no further problems.  I have been bitten by dogs on runs several times (don’t get me started about leashing pets) and had never had any issues, though I hate what antibiotics do to my gut.

But, you know, when I had the spike in heart rate, it crossed my mind.  Was I having some infection that had escaped the antibiotics?  It entered and left my mind pretty quickly.

Until it happened again, about a month later.  This time my rate went to 175 and stayed for about two hours!  I started checking online to see about Apple Watch heart rate reading anomalies and, while it happens, I couldn’t find anything specific to what I had experienced.  Anomalies were never about spikes, just erroneous readings.

I was tired the entire day and considered calling my doc, but I demurred.  Again, that was the only spike, and it went away.  All my other Apple Watch indicators looked fantastic—all trending nicely, so I let it go.

And then about a month later, same thing but about three hours of the spike.  And THAT time, I woke up with a headache and deep aches in my shoulders and hips.  So now I’m thinking, “okay, what is going in here?  COVID-19 or do I have some crazy infection from that bite?”

I go for a COVID saliva test (thank you, Healthy Davis Together!), and the results come back within 18 hours: no indication of the virus that causes COVID-19.

So then, I am on a telehealth call with my doc and asking if she can order a blood panel.  She agrees though she is skeptical about any infection, and I schedule it for the next day.  When I get up, I feel good—excellent actually!  No lingering effects, and my heart rate is normal all night long.

I had a chronic infection some years ago, so I knew to keep an eye out for the white blood cell panel. The results were ready in about 8 hours and… nothing.  In fact, everything looked really good—I mean better than what I had seen in years.  So… no infection.

But, I was still anxious.  I mean, anomalous heart rate reading is one thing but the pain?  Something was definitely going on.

Then nothing for about a month.  And then “bam.”  I wake up with a splitting headache, deep muscle aches in my legs, hips, shoulders, and back.  The balls of my feet feel bruised, and my hands—my hands!—feel like I landed on them after a fall. And I have that metallic taste you get from blood in your mouth.  You know the one.  But nothing was bleeding. I felt awful.  So… I cycled back through all the tests.  And again, COVID, clean, blood test GREAT!  This time even my red blood count was way better than it had been in a long time (I suffer from borderline anemia). 

So, I screw up my courage and ask my doc if she can get me a COVID antibody test.  Because now I am thinking, this might be “long COVID.”  Maybe I had it, and all these heart rate spikes and pain issues are the result of the as-yet poorly understood phenomenon known as “long COVID.”  A series of searches online indicate a bevy of symptoms for long COVID, but joint and muscle aches are among them, and there is some evidence that these symptoms can come and go.  

She agrees to the test (she is a very responsive and helpful doc!), and within a day, I get the results: no antibodies.  In other words, no indication of COVID-19—ever.

Meanwhile, except for the “spike and pain” days, I am feeling great.  My speedwork day has me finally believing that I can crack 20 minutes in a 5K (something I have wanted to do for years), and I am barely fatigued after a 60-mile ride with 3000 feet of climbing.  In other words, I am in peak condition for a guy my age.

Well, that was about two months back… and then about a month ago… Hang on because this will get a little weird.  But I am just trying to tell it like I am living it.  I wake up with the (now) familiar effects.  Hands aching; feet aching; the taste of blood in my mouth; shoulders aching; hips aching; legs sore—and my heart rate?  Topping 180 for a full five hours.  I felt awful.  

But there’s more.  There is blood, but not in my mouth.  It’s under my nails, and it’s dry. 

And, okay I am not sure how to say this in a way that will not make you think I am nuts but, when I go downstairs, there is a track of mud—slight but visible—by the door and a little tiny collar, like for a cat, dropped right in the middle of the floor.  It’s got a name (not going to put it here!) and an address and phone number of an owner—they live over next to the arboretum.  

And, yeah, the pain goes away the next day, and I feel great.  I do not go for a COVID test; I do not ask for more blood work.  Why should I?  I am fine.

But I look at that collar (yes, I still have it), and I wonder.  Should I call these people to see if their cat is safe?  I haven’t decided…

As for my Apple Watch… I still ask myself if I should have a chat with a technician. They are surprisingly helpful, and I bet if I made a fuss about it and showed them my data, they would replace it.  Trust me, I have reset the thing dozens of times.  I have updated the OS.  I have tracked my heart rate religiously. This thing only malfunctions once a month?  How am I going to explain THAT to a technician?

I am looking at my watch now: 93 degrees, South wind at 3 (hope that picks up later), an unread message, killing it on my rings today!  Oh, and I would have forgotten, but my Apple Watch reminds me: tonight is a full moon!

Towards a Director of Public Health and Safety in Davis: Blueprint and First Steps

On Tuesday, June 1, 2021, the Davis City Council created a budgetary “placeholder” to fund a new position to oversee social services.  This article argues that the position should focus on public health and safety and be a director-level position.  


While police departments have taken on many public health-type functions in cities across the US, they are not designed to address public health challenges effectively. Davis already has various public health programs related to homelessness, youth diversion, and mental health crisis interventions. A public-health-trained Director of Public Health and Safety can lead a small department to focus on greater coordination of current efforts, help the City Council set clearer programmatic priorities, leverage County resources, and create synergies with UC Davis, DJUSD, and non-profit organizations in the City. To advance public health efforts, the City Council should create and fund a new director position that reports to the City Manager.


Cities across the US are (re)examining their police departments’ purpose, function, and role. Beyond the rhetoric of “defunding,” the police are essential questions about the militarization of local police forces, protections afforded to police officers—so-called “qualified immunity,” systemic racial bias in policing, the appropriate role of police in mental health crisis response, and the role of armed officers in routine code enforcement.

There is little argument that the police in many cities have become the de facto public health response unit for diverse challenges like domestic violence, substance abuse, school violence, general welfare checks, homelessness, and mental health crises. Some of these responses may even be built into laws and policies.

And yet, police forces are not public health agencies.  They are not structured or trained to analyze the root causes of public health challenges. Moreover, they do not evaluate outcomes based on an understanding of the social determinants of health. As a result, when they respond to a crisis, it is long past the time to consider primary or secondary prevention strategies. 

By the time police departments are called to “deal” with these issues, they are already at a very late stage in which only drastic “health interventions” or “palliative” care can provide a reasonable response.  And yet, we continue to call upon the police to “solve” these complex public health challenges because we have created too few alternatives.

Our public health approaches are fragmented—held hostage to short-term funding cycles, changing priorities, and too little focus on creating durable local partnerships to engage in primary and secondary prevention programs. They do not adequately leverage local resources, expertise, or community support to develop relational approaches to confront our significant public health challenges proactively. Instead, we too often use the only tool at hand—the police—to staunch the bleeding. 

It is legitimate to ask: “What are the things that police are uniquely qualified to do?” What follows will not attempt to answer that broader question, but it takes as a given that the police are not well-positioned to lead the response to local public health challenges, nor are they the keystone of public safety. 

Without clarity about what is required to improve health and safety in our community, we will continue to revert to the police as the “answer” to public health challenges. Without envisioning a system—including staffing and funding priorities—that achieves our ends, without a clear set of ideas of how change happens—we are left with the police as the “essential” organization in the City government to respond to adverse public health outcomes.

Our Current Public Health Challenges

While city-specific data on public health challenges are rare, we can look at County-level data and the limited studies we have to outline the critical public health challenges in our City.  In addition, COVID-19 has revealed that sub-populations within Davis are more likely to suffer from broader systems failures common in communities across the US. Finally, we can also look at the programs Davis already provides via County contracts and its funds to enumerate the challenges.

They include the complex syndrome that we refer to (too simplistically) as homelessness.  It hides various challenges, including untreated mental illness and substance use disorders and the still poorly addressed challenge of untreated childhood and lifetime trauma.

They also include substance use disorders and, again, untreated mental health conditions among young people.  Among the same group, there is also the challenge of obesity linked to poor nutrition (which in turn is related to too-high levels of food insecurity and poverty[1]), which are precursors for lifelong health problems, including Type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic and the changing demographics of Davis have revealed how vulnerable low-income seniors are, given poor nutrition and isolation.

This is not an exhaustive list, but data from various sources—provider and County- and School District-sponsored studies suggest that they are priorities. Indeed, programs that the City and the School District have developed indicate they are priorities.

A Director and Department of Public Health and Safety for Davis—Function and Structure

A Director and Department of Public Health and Safety will 

  • focus on greater coordination of current public health efforts, 
  • help the City Council set clearer programmatic priorities, 
  • leverage County resources, and 
  • create synergies with UC Davis, DJUSD, and non-profit organizations in the City. 

The key to the Department is to have a qualified Director who can coordinate local efforts and provide critical data analysis for decision making.  The Departmental staffing is limited by design and buttresses County efforts, in no way replacing or duplicating them, but rather leveraging them for more significant impact.

Launching it would allow all current public health and safety activities to come together into one department with limited additional staff needed.  The Department would also produce an annual report on public health and safety for the Council and be a clearinghouse for data from all City activities connected to health, safety, and wellbeing.

There are several historical and practical challenges to developing a separate Department of Public Health and Safety to address these priorities. Still, the cost of not managing them proactively and comprehensively indicates the need for a City Department to coordinate efforts related to them.

In fact, in recent years, the City has created new positions and used consultant services to formulate successful programming to address homelessness (as one example). The consultant has helped build accountability structures around these programs and brought in resources for the Bridge to Housing and Employment and emergency shelter programs and significant funding for Paul’s place. Imagine what a full-time staff person tasked with developing community health and safety programming could do to increase funding and build programming accountability.  

The two figures show a Public Health and Safety Department’s place within the current City structure and how it could be structured internally to coordinate programming and launch new initiatives.

First, note that the new department would combine with Fire and Police to form a public health and safety coordinating body.  The purpose of this body is to analyze public safety across departments, share and discuss data, develop the template for an annual “public health and safety report,” and look for ways to streamline public safety services in the City to avoid duplication and assure efficient use of resources. The Department of Public Health and Safety is headed by a Director who reports to the City Manager.  The position overseas current programs and develops new ones in priority areas.  

The second figure[2] illustrates the key divisions within the Department and demonstrates that solid data analysis, program evaluation, and interagency collaboration are central to its mandate.  It also calls out this department’s potential to coordinate reporting on public safety-related code enforcement in the City.  Not all code enforcement is safety-related (think parking enforcement), but much of it is.  The Fire Department, the Planning Department, and the Police Department carry out most code enforcement actions.  Creating a new Department will enable the City to “step back” and ask about the best ways to carry out, coordinate, and, most importantly, report to the City Council and community about code enforcement actions and results.  Having a coordinating body will enable the community to understand better the role of code and code enforcement in keeping citizens safe. It will also permit a re-evaluation of the best ways to carry out enforcement. 

The ideal candidate for the Director role is public-health-trained with a solid epidemiological background and community-based programming experience.  The department’s staff can be lean with the Director heading all current initiatives until funding for new initiatives supports division heads.  

It is essential to point out that City staff do not implement programs for the most part. Instead, high-quality local non-profits, like Communicare, HEART of Davis, and YCRC, receive contracts to implement programs. This is consistent with current practice in programs such as the Davis Emergency Shelter Program, the Respite Center Program, the Youth Restorative Justice Program, and Project Roomkey (all existing projects).  These programs receive funding from County and State grants and general fund dollars designated for community priorities. 

A key in this model is Community Health Workers—called “Navigators” here—to extend services and build truly relational programming.[3]  Navigators are a critical part of the Department’s service delivery and are a feature for which Davis has unique opportunities.  Given the University and many healthy and knowledgeable retirees, recruitment of high-quality navigators who speak a variety of languages will enable a deepening of services in any of the programmatic divisions.  

Perhaps most importantly, the Department will be a hub of activity that links the City with the University and School District on programming and draws from University research and expertise to test new programs and provide students with learning opportunities.  Healthy Davis Together (HDT) has forever changed how the City, School District, and University view collaboration to solve real-world problems.  HDT has shown that the three agencies can face a significant challenge and coordinate activities with County health officials to achieve impactful outcomes.  

Having a Department that builds upon and enhances these new and still evolving partnerships will extend health and harm reduction programming developed for UC Davis students and staff into the community. It will create a city/university learning environment in which new programs can be tested, evaluated, and improved.  It will create synergies that will extend dollars from each entity’s budget to improve the wellbeing of the Davis community.

Having a Director of Public Health and Safety will strengthen the City’s voice at the Yolo County Homeless and Poverty Action Coalition (HPAC).  It will help the City to place and coordinate resources flowing from the County more effectively. And it will enable greater accountability towards the Citizens of Davis. 

Paying for it

An obvious question is how the City pays for this new full-time senior position to staff.  The first answer is that budget decisions are about the relative City priorities, and my experience on the City Council indicates what we value we will fund.  

Citizens in Davis pay additional annual taxes to fund the purchase and maintenance of open space and pay for parks and our library.  In addition, we tax ourselves to provide maximum programmatic choice for students in our schools.  These are our choices, and we staff programs based on these choices.  

We, that is, our City Council, can decide to move general funds to hire a Director of Public Health and Safety. This is a choice.

It appears from Tuesday’s decision that the City Council is prepared to find the funding from a combination of sources—including American Rescue Plan funds and by moving funds from other City programs.  This demonstrates that there is the political will to make this change. This is the first and most crucial step. 

The decision is about priorities.  We have already decided that we must more actively address homelessness, mental health crises, and youth challenges in Davis.  Funding a new position takes the next step to assure that the benefits and reach of such programs are maximized by having staff devoted to overseeing their implementation and impact. 

Power Dynamics and Institutional Change

To close, I return to a consideration of the role of the police in this and any city.  Police and Fire are the two premier public safety institutions in any city (while programs like wastewater, solid waste disposal, and water are essential broad-based public health services).  

Whenever public health and safety are a topic of City concern, the Davis Police and Fire Departments are “at the table,” both figuratively and literally.  The City Manager and the City Council thus hear, consider, and give weight to their perspectives.  They “frame” issues according to their view of how the City should solve its public health and safety problems.

This framing gives these departments significant power to determine the public health and safety programs the City will carry out and recommend budgets to carry them out.  And yet, while both departments play a role in public health and safety programming, neither views problem solving from a public health perspective.  With limited exceptions (inspections and pro-active code enforcement), both departments are “responders.” They respond when situations get out of control—when public health and safety are under threat.  They are not primarily concerned with primary or secondary prevention. 

A Director of Public Health and Safety position creates a new voice—a new framing of solutions—within the City.  It is a “power center” with a unique perspective about the role of prevention.  Given the nature of public health practice, it is also a center that seeks cross-sectoral collaboration and multi-disciplinary problem-solving.  This is the unique contribution that a Department of Public Health and Safety brings to the City of Davis, and I believe it is past time to create it by hiring a Director of Public Health and Safety as a first step.

[1] Space does not permit a full development of the social determinants of these health challenges but poverty, poor access to care, and racial and linguistic exclusion from information and resources are critical to many of them.

[2] Items highlighted in green are existing programs and activities.  The red dotted line illustrates staffing that is not City employed but is privately contracted via non-profits or other organizations or is volunteer. One exception is the extensive senior-focused programming that the City already has.  Those programs would be moved under the Director of Public Health and Safety in this model.

[3] For more on Community Health Workers (CHW) see herehere, and here.

Hesitant: Vignettes from the Front Lines of Vaccine Promotion

By now, most of us know that the reasons that people are “opting out” of getting vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19 are varied. We might even admit that they are complex.  

But we still use the shorthand moniker of “vaccine-hesitant” to summarize the statistics that show—despite vaccines being free, widely available, not requiring an appointment, and despite gift cards and lotteries—about half of our neighbors across the US are not getting the vaccine.

They are vaccine-hesitant.

Over the past five weeks or so, I have been part of an effort, supported by our County, to mobilize community-based organizations to do outreach to promote vaccine uptake.

I work for a food bank, so our approach has been to meet people while they wait to pick up food (we are still doing large-group distributions due to COVID). In that time, I and a handful of dedicated volunteers have gone car to car or person to person to offer information on vaccine clinics nearby, answer questions, and generally encourage people to get vaccinated.

Over time I have evolved from basically handing out brochures to pausing to engage with those who have not yet gotten the vaccine. The conversations have been unexpectedly personal and, often, quite emotive. 

“Have you been able to get the vaccine yet?” is how I start every conversation. I like this formulation—less direct than “Are you vaccinated?” but more probing than “Can I give you some information about vaccine clinics?”

What follows are four vignettes that get at the meaning of “hesitancy,” as I have experienced it in those with whom I have spoken.

1. “This is NOT a conspiracy theory!”

“Have you been able to get the vaccine yet?”  

“Yes, I got it.”

“Did you know that anyone over twelve can get it now?” A pause and then…

“Any parent that lets their kid get that should be arrested…” and off we went.

It turns out he had lied about getting the vaccine and explained in some detail why the whole thing was fake and that there was not a thing called COVID-19. He explained that this will all be coming out in about a week (that was three weeks ago) and that everyone would be brought down with the lies. He predicted chaos on a global scale. A message would be broadcast soon…

I agreed to read his “evidence” (“This is not a conspiracy theory, you know. It’s not. It’s real”), and he has continued to send me web links that have very little to do with COVID-19 and lots to do with the “truth” that Donald Trump is still president. 

He is not vaccine-hesitant. He is not hesitating about anything. He is fully active. He is fully engaged.

2. “I’m scared”

“Have you been able to get the vaccine yet?”

“Well, everyone in my family but me… I am so scared.”

And then I paused. Where should I take this? And in the silence, she sighed and said that it had all happened so fast, and everything seemed so uncertain, so new, so confusing. 

She was thankful that her mom (sitting in the back seat) had gotten it, and she was relieved that her children and sisters had too. She was the lone holdout and could not explain why.

“When I think about it, I just get afraid. I just don’t know why. I know I need to, and I know I will, but I am not ready yet, and I just get so nervous when I think about it.”

Needle fear? Apparently not.  

Fear of side effects? Maybe a bit.

“It’s just so new… so fast.”

She is not vaccine-hesitant. She is grappling with a fear she cannot describe. It has something to do with the fact that the disease came out of nowhere and that the vaccines did the same. Like time has been compressed, and she just needs a moment to step back and take time to think. I have had students like her in courses I taught: “Just give me a few minutes to think about what you just said—don’t ask me to DO anything. I just need to think, dammit!”

(A bit of a post-script: I saw her again this week, and she said she was still scared. But she said she wanted the information about local clinics because she was going to do it soon. As I left her car, she said: “Next week I will surprise you. I really want to.”)

3. “I have too many people who need me.”

“Have you been able to get the vaccine yet?”

“No, I am not sure I will—it is only for emergency use, you know. Maybe when it is approved.”

Her story was far more complex in some ways. She was highly knowledgeable about the vaccines. She did not believe it was all made up. She was not a victim of misinformation. But she had concerns.

“They say the side effects don’t last, but I have a friend who still gets chills two weeks later.” (No idea how to respond). “I know you can still get the virus even if you are vaccinated, and I have to care for my mom, and I have a two-year-old, and I care for about five other older people, and I cannot take a chance.”

Okay, I have a choice here. I can rehearse the responses: the probability of transmission very low, the chance of getting a severe case much higher without the vaccine, EUA is based on solid evidence… I have a feeling she knows all of that, and she does.  

She says they are all locked down and that that has kept them safe, and she just wants to do that as long as she can. “I know I can’t do it forever.”

So, I tell her about my daughter. I mention her age, and she says she is the same age. I tell her about her job in child protective services and that she has little children too. The connection to my daughter moves her (a little). It almost seems that my daughter’s experience matters to her as just one more example of why it might be okay. I can see her thinking through all the evidence and the doubts.

I suggest that it can’t be easy to have the burden of caring for an elderly parent and refer to my own family’s experience with Alzheimer’s. I talk to her about “sandwich women” (always women) called upon to care for people at the generational extremes. She says, “that’s me.”

She is not vaccine-hesitant. I mean, she would probably be classified that way if she were surveyed, but her story cannot fit that quickly into the category. The bottom line is that she has found a way to survive this thing, and it is working for her. Any deviation from the tried and true holds risks that, however minimal, feel too big to bear. She has people—lots of people—who depend on her.  

She did not come across as a martyr, merely as a woman whose life had brought her here, and she was going to BE ABSOLUTELY SURE before she deviated from the proven path.

4. They mistrust the government

I have not talked to this last person—this last group of people actually—but they have the lowest vaccination rates in the County as a group. They will not show up on any demographic profile because we do not capture data on ethnicity that way. They are refugees. More specifically, they are refugees from a world that no longer exists—the USSR.

I have not been able to talk to them at all over these weeks because they do not speak English, and I do not speak Russian. And so they take my papers or say no, and I smile and walk to the next car. I HAVE TRIED to get a Russian speaker out for weeks, and finally, I got lucky.

She asked me to walk with her for a while, and so I did and what I saw was an opening of the eyes and the face and smiles that only come when someone who does not expect to understand what you are saying realizes that they do!

She spoke to nearly 30 people, listening to them respectfully and offering them information. Most did not take it. Of the 30, only three had been vaccinated (we need to go back and better understand these “positive deviants”).

As a first-generation US citizen with refugee parents, her insight is that the Russian-speaking population is not merely “mistrustful” of the government. Instead, due to their experience in the USSR, she believes they are living with deep trauma that has never been dealt with.  

They are mostly Baptist Christians which means that in Soviet times they were actively persecuted and made to choose between making a living or holding to their faith. The distrust of government flows from a deep fear that the government will force them to give up their faith—force them to lose that precious thing upon which life itself hangs. 

It is almost as if… “If we can just disappear. If we can just become invisible. If we can just keep our heads down, practice our faith, stay out of government engagement, keep to ourselves… If we can just disappear…. Then we will be safe.”

Trauma is a thing that conditions us to expect disaster when none is imminent. It tells us to fly when there is no reason to run. It instructs us to fight when there is no enemy. This much we know.  

And what do we do when we have people who have lived half or more of their lives, never having had the chance to heal. Will our vaccines save them?

They are not vaccine-hesitant, and this is not about a vaccine. This is about surviving in a world that has already proven that it will take everything from you and then send you to the gulag because you have nothing. 

I do not have a solution, but I wonder if we need to start with healing of a different kind first.

Vaccine hesitancy, whatever it is, is not a single thing. It is a syndrome that we barely understand. There will be no magic key that unlocks the door that leads to “the hesitant” receiving the vaccine.  

But there is a path. It is the path of listening, being present, engaging the doubts, and the fear, trauma, and questions. At the end of the path is the fork, and some will say yes and others no.  

I am at the place where I believe that our job right now is to walk that path with those who must decide—to walk it with the “hesitant.”

A Letter from California

March, 2021

Dear American Conservatives, 

It has been a long time.  What, with all the social sorting going on over the last generation, we have seen very little of each other.  I am writing from California. But not just California—Northern California.  And to be more precise, I am writing from that Route 80 corridor that links Sacramento to Berkeley and San Francisco. One of the most reliably liberal places in the US.  

And I am not going to sugar coat it; I am writing as a liberal from this place—or maybe I am a progressive.  I am not sure anymore.  Titles hide more than they reveal.  But, quite honestly, if we take any of the “big” issues—climate change, immigration, government role, general “wokeness,” etc.—I am certainly left of center.

Oh, I also live in a university town with a top-tier public school, and I work there too, teaching students about intercultural engagement.  Are you sadly shaking your head at my lostness yet?  

In any case, I thought I would check in, let you know how things are going, and make sure everything is okay.

I read The American Conservative online daily, and I have some concerns. Don’t get me wrong, Bacevich is my lifeblood, and Larison is impressive, but the rest?

I bought the special issue about “What is American Conservatism?”. I made it through Bacevich and Deneen (who helped me leave my globe-trotting cosmopolitan ways to focus on the local). But after that?  A collection of grievances, end-of-times prophetic ravings, and simply poorly crafted blather with a lot of anger and no real ideas that I could discern.  

I tossed it.  It all felt like people saying mean things about you while you’re standing right there, without any curiosity to learn who you are.

So, let’s talk… issues.

Now I know you think we are way overboard on our rhetoric about climate change.  You may see it as just another plot to broaden government control or as some kind of Gaia-inspired pantheism.  

But the truth is, we are living the impacts of global climate change up close out here.  Talk to even the most Republican farmer here in the valley, and they will tell you.  Our fire season stretches from April to just about April.  We have red flag warnings in January when we used to have rain.

Last summer, there were so many fires for so long that no matter which way the wind blew, we had a thick pall of smoke that hovered down to the ground.  It felt like we had entered Mordor (I thought I saw an Orc, but it turned out to be Kevin McCarthy… okay, that’s a joke—he seems like a nice guy who just likes to read kids’ books to his, uhh, Twitter followers?).

The point is, we are living this up close and personal, and when Paradise burned two years ago, it touched all of us in profound ways.  Our first responders still live with the trauma of that particular destruction.  

Our trees are stressed, our snowpack a crapshoot.  

We talk less and less about stopping the change and more and more about adapting to it.  So maybe you will forgive us if we seem a bit “preoccupied” by the issue.  We can’t understand all the denial when we find ourselves living with climate change impacts every day.

How about immigration?  Same story.  It is not a policy debate for us. It is a fact of life.  Again, this is a bipartisan issue out here.  At our towns’ edges are fields overflowing with the most incredible bounty known to humanity, and we see who is planting, caring for, harvesting, transporting, and processing all that bounty: immigrants. 

Some of them are documented, and some are undocumented, but they all provide for us in ways that are daily evident to us.  And even more than that, they are our neighbors.  They are part of us.

So, when I read in TAC about how “unbridled” immigration will destroy America, I just scratch my head. 

Immigration is a pretty complex thing.  I have a farmer friend (a good Christian man) who hires quite a few immigrants (status mixed).  He tells me that in recent years if they try to head home after the harvest for a few months, the only way some can get back in is to act as drug mules.  At this point, you are saying: “SEE!!!, just like Trump said—criminals!” Right, but here’s the thing a) what kind of poverty pushes people to risk doing THAT to come here and work? b) what type of labor market do we have that draws so many people?  Again, talk to any Republican grower and ask if they can bring in the crop with domestic labor (they will say “no”); and c) you realize that many immigrants do not want to stay, right?  

Out here, we see a whole bunch of hypocrisy from folks who decry immigration but blithely consume their ALMOND lattes (sorry, that’s us liberals, you just like to munch almonds); their spaghetti sauces, their raisins, peaches, strawberries, lettuce, rice, walnuts and everything else that flows from immigrant labor.  

Tell you what, next time you dine out, take a peek into the kitchen.  Next time you eat your beef or chicken, ask yourself who rendered, packed, and shipped it.  Next time you stay in a hotel, check out who is pushing the cleaning cart down the hall.

Hypocrisy is not a strong enough word from where we sit.

Okay, I am getting a little harsh, and I am about to lose you, so let me step back and say we have our hypocrisy too.  I was the Mayor of our oh-so-liberal town, and I saw hypocrisy up close.

I saw the attempted pogroms against homeless people, the liberal white flight from schools, and the poverty-driven by high housing costs because those with $800K homes restricted the construction of new multi-family residences in their town because… traffic? noise? declining home values?  NIMBYism.

So, yeah, I know hypocrisy.  We all need to own it.  But your fear of the immigrant just doesn’t make sense to us.

And then COVID-19, and masks, and all that… Can we talk about that?

When COVID-19 hit, I helped organize our county food bank program to deliver food boxes to every elderly or sick person’s doorstep.  From zero, we ended up with 2500 doorstep deliveries every week. When I put out a call for volunteers, I soon had close to 1000!  The National Guard called and asked if we needed help in getting all that food out, and we said, “no, we got this,” and we did.

Our local COVID-19 Facebook group is a clearinghouse that connects people to services from free tutoring for kids to the best places to get quick take out.  Our university is making it possible to rapidly test every resident of our City (and beyond) weekly.  

Last week, I was in a meeting with a dozen of the most committed community leaders you could find anywhere about how to extend that testing to our farmworkers.

We did not wait for the government to come in and make these things happen.  We just started helping our neighbors.  

And we all wear masks, pretty much any time we are outside our homes.  No one seems to complain about it.  We all remind each other that it is just for a while and that we need to do it for our neighbors and friends.  

When you frame mask-wearing as a question of “liberty,” what we hear is “autonomy,” and we know that leads to anomie (Joan Didion taught us that).

I guess I wanted to write and talk about these things because I grew up in a conservative family back east and what I have seen out here in the last year embodies the conservative values that I learned at my mother’s knee: you care for your neighbor; you take responsibility not to harm others; you make sacrifices for the good of the community; you keep your “home place” clean; you look after the weakest first; you remember that God created the world and it is your job to care for it…

You may think we spend our time out here scheming about the next thing we will cancel.  You may believe that our students pass their time debating which books to ban next.  You may feel we view race as about some set of performative actions we take to shame you.  You may think and believe a lot of things about how we spend our time.  But you would be wrong.

I write today to let you know that we are busy, and we are tired.  We are trying to save our state from catastrophe and our communities from despair. I’d like to think we are doing what every other community in this nation is doing in these trying times.

We would love to see you when things start getting back to normal.

Robb Davis

30 for 30





Humans tell stories.

Sometimes they are in the form of a scientific paper that describes the results of a carefully designed study. Sometimes they are in a legal document that lays out the justification for actions taken. Sometimes they are made up to entertain us.

Some are lies.  

Some are Tweets.  

Some are lies within Tweets.

Some stories trace the arc of a thousand years–on an imaginary distant planet or our own. Others describe a particle that decayed in microseconds. 

The last 30 days have allowed me to tell stories. They are mine, and, as my spouse reminded me, written for me. The last time I did this several years ago (20 for 20 back then), I concluded it all by saying I had some things to write about my mom, and though not all or even most were about her, she was in most of them.

She is still in some of these since I am convinced that her life had a big part in forming mine. But, these are not about her in the same way.  

We live in an in-between time, and any story told now is a placeholder for thoughts we hope will be more fully formed in the course of “normal time.” But maybe that will not come back, and perhaps this “post-everything” age will always feel “in-between”–a period of waiting for a suitable denouement that will bring catharsis. 

Given my age, I fully expect to live in-between for the duration. That makes all my stories subject to revision. But since they are mine and written for me, that feels just okay.

I wish I could say there was a revelation, an insight, an awakening, in the writing of these days. There was not. But again, age…

What there was, however, was a sense of daily appreciation. Appreciation that I can still think; that writing can help me sort out the mental chatter that consumes my waking hours. Thankfulness that I can still name the people and things I love; that I can get on my bike and ride and then write about it–that I have locomotion and the faculty for reflection when I come to rest.

And appreciation that these narratives can and do form the basis for further thinking and reflection on things I care about. The end of these 30 days is just a beginning. I am glad about that. 

On Liturgies





Like many people, I have been reflecting on what to “do.” Whether confronting the challenges of COVID-19, racism, homelessness, or our punitive justice system, I am always concerned that I will be content to merely articulate positions and never dig into the necessary actions to support change.

What comes first–right-thinking (and speaking), what we might call orthodoxy, or right acting, what might we call orthopraxy?

Clearly, it is not one or the other, but which leads to the most profound change and which one matters most?

Ibram Kendi, in his book Stamped from the Beginning, makes a bold assertion: people don’t start with racist ideas (beliefs) and then engage in behavior driven by those beliefs. Instead, people begin with racist acts and then find beliefs and ideas that justify or match those acts.

Christian theologian James K.A. Smith develops an entire book–Desiring the Kingdom–around a similar notion. For Smith, humans do not begin with a “worldview”–a set of guiding principles that they use to structure their lives. Instead, people engage in acts that form them to be certain kinds of people.

Smith’s is a broad philosophical review of what makes us human. He concludes that we are not primarily “thinking” beings but beings who “love”–who desire. Our love and desire point to what we believe human thriving requires, but we do not start with the idea of what thriving is. Instead, we live into that understanding. Our actions form us to be certain kinds of people–they form us to love and desire. We do not “think” our way into our values; we “act” our way into them.

This argument is at odds with how we typically conceive ourselves in our rationalistic western traditions, but Smith makes a compelling case that we do not start with thoughts but with acts.

He discusses our identities as formed by rituals, many of which have lost meaning, but some of which are critical to understanding who we are. The latter, a subset of cultural rituals or practices he refers to as “liturgies.” A liturgy is a “formative practice”–a repeated act that forms us into certain kinds of people. While liturgy is a religious term, Smith describes secular liturgies that shape us in specific ways:

  • The liturgy of the mall (or, if he were writing today “Amazon), forms us to love instant gratification of our every desire–a kind of healing for our yearning for meaning;
  • The liturgy of the military-entertainment complex forms us to a deep allegiance to the nation as protector and savior; and
  • The liturgy of the university forms us to be productive consumers who will lead society to be faithful consumers.

What all this has to do with the challenges of our day may not be clear, but what Smith and Kendi suggest to me is that I should look to how I spend my life–what I do.

What are my practices, and what are the forming me to love?

As I work with students about intercultural learning, to use just one example, I want them to develop the practice of self-reflection. I want them to adopt a liturgy of praxis–acting, reflecting, and stepping back from experience to analyze it. Why? Because I want them to desire wisdom. I want them to love more than knowledge. I want their acts of reflection to form them to be people who are patient, observant, self-critical, and open to difference.

I want to analyze my liturgies–the liturgy of running, and biking, and meditating, and listening, and conspiring with others–to learn what kind of person they are forming me to be–the loves and desires to which they are pointing me. I do this so I can learn what I desire.

Always holding out hope that I will jettison certain formative practices that orient me to desires I do not want to have, and embrace new liturgies that will form me to be a person who desires rightly.

Heroes Run Marathons





he·ro /ˈhirō/ noun: a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.

Advice on marathoning:

“A marathon is hundreds of miles. The finish is the last 26.2.” (Unknown)

Since 9/11, the question of “what is a hero?” has come to mind again and again. That event elevated all first responders to hero status, apparently for the duration. The endless wars that followed raised all service people to the same.

But nearly 20 years on, and after Abu Ghraib (remember that?), extra-judicial killings in Iraq and Afghanistan, the drone wars, and the long and growing list of black people killed by police in this country, we know that conferring hero status because of a badge or uniform is mere propaganda.

The thriving Marvel Comic-to-film industry has provided another, culturally appropriate, answer to the “what is a hero?” question. But they are not real, their stories and endless reformulation of the myth of redemptive violence too coarse, and their “collateraless” precision killing too neat for us ever to think a hero could be in any way like them.

But we dream of heroes.

We need them.

I have run one marathon. I barely remember the race, but I will never forget the preparation. The preparation is the marathon in a real sense. It is long and painful.

To say that heroes run marathons is to say that they go through adversity, training, and preparation to become our heroes. They may not yet be nearing the end of the 26.2, but they are out there running it every day. Heroes aren’t heroes unless they are heroing over the long haul–the slog of early mornings and late nights, subject to the elements, with aching muscles and tired feet (some of these literally).

My heroes are people who have been through adversity or are living it every day and, like those running a marathon, move through it to achieve a goal. They are running towards that goal with daily persistence.

Here are three of them:

Kelly Stachowicz is the Assistant City Manager in Davis. I don’t know Kelly’s history, but I know that she has committed to the goal of being the glue for our City every day for more years than I remember. She is the person who takes in the complaints, the anger, the accusations, and the vitriol of the privileged citizens of our town, and returns grace, patience, and kindness.

She has not grown cynical over the years. The adversity she faces–the race she is running–is about making sure everyone is heard no matter how much anger they send her way.

I don’t know what this City will do when the glue leaves. She holds a lot of pieces together. She is my hero.

Gloria Partida is our current Mayor, and her race is better known. A son beaten nearly to death in a homophobic hate crime. Rather than nurse her anger and demand for retribution, she started running. Her marathon is to name the sources of hate in bullying and exclusion that begins at a young age and support processes that address them preventively.

She could have taken off her shoes and used her anger to punish. Instead, she laced them up and looked far down the road to a time when the kind of exclusion that almost killed her child will be done.

I don’t know how you find space to think of preventing future violence in the immediate aftermath of your own violence-induced trauma, but she has. And our community is stronger for it. She is my hero.

Kara Davis is my daughter. When two of her high school friends sat my wife and me down those years ago and told us there was “something wrong with Kara, we suspected that we might be in for an extended period of pain. We were, and she was. Her race was against the demons of anxiety and depression, and there were times when we feared it would end her.

But she faced it with courage, took her stubborn path, ran into some unknown places, and kept going. She had a son, loved a man far from his home, and made a home for him and others. She used her music and her creativity to keep her legs churning. Now she builds a homestead, schools her kids, and carries the burden of children who have been cast out by family, and society, and who have no hope but that which she offers.

I don’t know how you keep moving from a hospital bed, curled in a ball, fearful of everything, to being an agent of healing for the outcast of our world, but she has. She is my hero.

Heroes run marathons, and they know that they have not yet finished the last 26.2 miles.

I’m curious who your marathon heroes are.

Privilege: Analogies and Outcomes

I find analogies helpful in understanding complex concepts, and I have sought one that fits for the idea of privilege. No analogy is perfect, and all have their limits. Analogies always break down. But, they have the power to help explain concepts so we can more easily analyze and discuss them.

Privilege is a straightforward idea, but like so many things, it has become a charged term that some people argue does not even exist. I believe it does and that it confers advantages on those who have it. In the future, I plan to write more about it concerning my city and what privilege means locally. So this is just a start.

Given the contested nature of the term, I think an analogy can help create a basis for dialogue. First, a definition and description:

Privilege is a set of given or acquired characteristics an individual possesses that confers ongoing benefits to them. While the characteristics are identifiable, people can go through their entire lives without connecting them to the benefits they have obtained. In this sense, privilege is like culture–it is often “invisible” to us. Recently we have come to understand privilege as others have helped us see what it means to move through the world without it.  

The best analogy I can provide for privilege is that it is like a rock formation composed of level upon level of strata that are laid down and form the base of everything that comes after. Like a many-strata formation, privilege lifts people above the surrounding plain and how high it lifts them depends on the cumulative set of characteristics they have. And like rock, privilege is virtually immutable. It exists, and once acquired, sticks around.

Privilege is not a neutral set of traits. Instead, building on a concept that Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen articulated, privilege confers entitlements on individuals who have it. Sen defines the entitlement of a person as 

“The set of alternative commodity bundles that can be acquired through the use of the various legal channels of acquirement open to that person.”

(see: Sen, Amartya (1981) Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation (Oxford University Press)).

The idea of “commodity bundles” may seem odd, but what I like about this definition is that it allows us to see privilege as enabling people to use legal means to obtain advantages that others may not have. These legal means include many things we never think about–not necessarily something we use an actual legal process to get. It merely means we do not have to seize them by force.

The outcome of privilege is entitlements. In Sen’s writing, about famine, entitlements allow for survival. Without access to entitlements, people will die. Outside famine, entitlements act like any commodity–they are stocks people can use to purchase goods and services, or perhaps higher quality goods and services. 

Arguably, these goods and services could add layers to the “privilege rock formation” a person has.

These are some initial thoughts on privilege and its outcomes. Of course, the real challenge comes in defining the layers themselves. I will keep that analysis for a later time.

Some future discussion points:

  1. What are some of the layers that make up privilege (cumulatively)?
  2. Beyond entitlements generally, what does privilege mean to those who have it and those who do not?
  3. Is privilege self-reinforcing (self-building), and, if so, how do people use “legal means” to accumulate more?
  4. What does it mean to move in the world without privilege (or with minimal privilege–few strata)?
  5. Is privilege a net negative, or can it be used for good?

Insurance: Lessons from Mauritania (III et fin)





The third and final installation in a series of lessons learned from my time in Mauritania in the late 1980s and early 1990s (the first one is here, the second one is here), this post represents the lesson that changed my understanding of how people survive in an uncertain world.

Most people may not realize that the original insurance companies were more like “mutual aid” organizations, many of them structured as cooperatives or “mutuals” run by owner-members. In other words, people got together to pool resources to support one another in crisis. Today, these mutuals have grown into large, globe-straddling corporations who employ large numbers of people to quantify risk and underwrite policies based on clear profit goals.

We all own insurance–auto, home, crop, life, burial–and others more specific to our needs. We can hardly imagine a world where we can’t purchase a policy in the market and shop for the best rates for the product we want.

But most people in the world do not have access to those markets. A combination of poverty, broadly co-varying risks, and lack of regulations to keep predatory behavior at bay mean that most people must race losses in other ways.

I would have never understood this had I not analyzed migration in Mauritania. My Ph.D. was in Population Dynamics within a school of public health, and so most people were studying fertility–its determinants and ways that people seek to control it. But early on, I was drawn to population movements–what makes people leave home and family to venture into the unknown. I have written about that elsewhere, and I was fascinated by theories that explained the “why” of migration.

By the time I did my Ph.D. I had already lived in Mauritania and seen how migration had devastated villages–leaving entire areas with mostly women, children, and a few older men. I wanted to return to understand what it was all about.

I did not expect my search to lead me the question of insurance, but my approach to learning about migration started with going to small rural communities–the source of all that out-migration–and spending time learning from people about their lives. And that broad learning agenda revealed how insurance worked in that setting.

We would arrange to spend a week to ten days in a location, walk with people through their daily lives, and structure participatory learning activities to encourage them to talk about everything from tenure arrangements to seasonal work organization. In the process, we started to learn about gift-giving. I don’t remember when exactly we started paying attention to it, but I do recall it came about when we did “social mapping” with communities.  

Rendering of a social map drawn on the ground in Bougadoum, Mauritania.

Social mapping is a simple activity that generates lots of rich information. We would start by asking a group of people to talk about all the people or groups that were important inside the community, and then we would ask the same about people and groups outside the community.

When people would describe the external relationships, they would often refer to terms that, upon further discussion, revealed a variety of related concepts about giving gifts: grain, contributing small amounts of money to a community pot, in-kind donations like labor to fix a roof or search for lost cattle, or other things like loaning a goat to someone who would care for it and use its milk.

The gifts were varied and used by individuals and larger groups. Initially, when we asked why people gave these gifts, they would say it was because they were of the same tribe, or wanted to help others, or because of religious duty. However, when we probed more, they would talk about how if they ever needed anything, they could go to the person to whom they had given a gift, and that person would, naturally, help them.

And when we started delving into those relationships, the entire web of connectedness started coming together into a narrative in which people gave very targetted gifts to obtain, as needed, very precious favors in return.

For example, someone would give grain to a person with access to a car, knowing that if they ever needed to drive to a hospital, they could get help. Or, they would offer to fix someone’s roof, and then if they ever needed help with a legal entanglement, that person would come to their aid.

Many people described gifts for which the hoped-for (expected) return related to health care, medicine (traditional or modern), or even spells to drive away evil causes the sickness. 

In one fascinating case, a community of former slaves talked about how they had cultivated a relationship with a nearby wealthy community for years–offering to fix their houses, search out camels that had gone astray, and other menial tasks. They did this with a long-term view to obtain two things. First, they wanted to be able to turn to these people for help if they were injured or bitten by snakes. Second, they wanted to plant a date palm grove and needed the technical expertise the community had. The offered “free” service to this community for years before asking for anything and, when they did, the other community readily agreed to help them.

I was struck by both the foresight with which people gave gifts and the number and variety that people used. In the end, I used a different, quantitative approach to examine how migration–what I called “effective migration”–might influence the giving of gifts. My research showed that if a family had a migrant who sent them goods or money, they were very likely to invest it in gift-giving. They would increase the number of grain and other gifts to neighbors and go further afield to offer gifts outside their communities (thereby spacially spreading their risks).

I realized that most people in the world do not seek to “maximize” profits or utility (as I had been taught in my econ courses). Instead, in these extremely marginal environments (deserts edge, deep poverty, lack of food), people had evolved ways to minimize their risk of loss. 

Maybe this is not a novel discovery. But for me, seeing the variety of exchange mechanisms (the ways people create obligations towards themselves), and seeing how they used extra resources from migration to expand their gift-giving, changed my understanding of what people will do to reduce the uncertainty of life.

Confessions of a Globetrotting Cosmpolite






An earlier post in this series was the Preface to a book I am writing about my experiences on the City Council in Davis, CA. A preface deals with the genesis and purpose of the book. An introduction deals more with the point of view of the author hopes the reader will adopt. What follows is the introduction to my book, and it provides a focus–the importance of commitment to the “local” that I hope readers will adopt when they read it. To get there, I needed to offer a “confession.”



Long before I ever read Patrick Deneen, Ivan Illich, Wendell Berry, or Rob Thayer, with their focus on living with “limits” and committing to living locally, burrowing deep and investing in one’s home place… Long before any of that, I had doubts about the work I was doing dispensing health “best practices” in extremely poor (economically at least) communities around the world.

I was a globetrotting cosmopolite. My advanced degrees opened doors for me to travel widely and advise on various community-based health projects. I was a child health specialist with tools to help reduce child mortality in resource-poor environments. I applied my learning faithfully and (however imperfectly) always in partnership with local communities and local organizations.

And yet, the longer I worked, the more I realized that I did not understand the power dynamics of the communities in which I worked. Sure, I had interviewed enough women to know that they systematically faced exclusion and suffered the harm of decision over which they had no control. I had learned from them that they sometimes faced abuse, and more often, were simply neglected as they bore the burden of endless pregnancies, absent spouses, and sick children.

And I had also interviewed former slaves (yes, they still exist as do actual slaves), and knew of the structures, social and political, that kept them bound. I had a cursory understanding of tribal structures in one nation and realized that tribes and the patron and client “ladders” in them restricted people’s choices and kept many destitute and in dire need.

And yet, knowing all of that, I never directly worked to “take on” those structures, to challenge them, or advocate for change. Why? When I finally got down to being honest with myself, I knew that to challenge them in any direct (or even indirect) way would likely mean I would not be invited to return and work in the communities to which I brought aid.

And for a long time, I lived with that realization but told myself that the good I brought was better than nothing and that if I could not be there (not “me” but the programs I brought), things would undoubtedly be worse.

But I also knew I could leave if things ever got “bad” due to violence or natural disaster. These places were never going to be my home. I was only ever merely passing through—a stranger dispensing knowledge and cures, if not healing and real change.

Over time the contradictions of wanting to bring change but being too cowardly to work towards it became too much. For a while, I channeled my growing dis-ease into challenging my international health and development colleagues to consider the role of public policy and human rights advocacy. I taught on it and found plenty of examples of how people used it to fundamentally challenge the “structures”—be they local or global. I taught some classes on this and did some writing. It was a way I assuaged my guilt.

In all that time, I never gave much thought to what all this might mean in my own country, my state, my local community. My entire identity was being a “world citizen.” I was proud of that and saw no reason to change.

But then it all changed kind of quickly.

Maybe it was the post 9/11 environment in which travel and getting to all those places became harder—exhausting and, frankly, scary. I had visas in my passport from countries with “Islamic Republic” in their name (there are not many of them, and I think I had them all). I used to show up at the airport in some far-flung place and be told (typically by private security firms hired by the airlines), things like “Mr. Davis, I don’t think there is any way we are going to allow you onto the plane tonight…”. I would then turn on my computer, show them my training materials, answer dozens of questions, and talk my way onto the plane. It got so bad (and things in the world felt so uncertain), that I wrote a poem at one point entitled: “Will I get home before the end of the world?”

Or maybe it was because I started paying attention to my hometown of Davis, CA. I rarely “lived” there after I moved there in 1999, but it was home, and, gradually, I began to be aware of its pathologies. Mind you that is not easy in a place like Davis (as we shall see). By any estimation, it is a wealthy, highly educated, and privileged community. Its problems are not evident at first glance; hidden behind the carefully trimmed lawns, the outstanding world-class university, the high-performing schools, the endless green belts and parks.

Maybe it was because I came across Deneen and, through him, Berry and their disdain for people like me who acted like they lived without limits and had no concern for their “nearby.” Why I chose to listen to them, I don’t know.

Maybe the realization of years before finally took hold.

Maybe it’s when I went to see “Hotel Rwanda” and could not stop crying during the scene when all the Europeans left during the genocide and all the Rwandans had to stay. Maybe the guilt finally found its home.

Guilt is not bad—if it gets channeled into something else, something good.

But I think what lit the fuse and blew up my international career was the night at City Council in Davis, CA (I was not there) when scores of people showed up to protest a City Council action on “the homeless.”

Months before the various congregations in Davis had gotten together to develop the “Interfaith Rotating Winter Shelter” (IRWS) to provide shelter during the cold and rainy months in our region. They intended it to rotate from congregation to congregation every week, but neighbors of a downtown church complained almost immediately.

This led to a City Council action to limit the number of “guests” that a given location could host (I seem to recall the limit was 25). The decision passed with little notice until, a few weeks later, temperatures dropped into the 20s (very cold for Davis), and more than 25 showed up for shelter. The law-abiding citizens running the shelter that week dutifully turned the excess away.

And then, large numbers of community members found out what had happened. At the next Council meeting, scores of citizens showed up expressing a firm conviction that “this is not who we are.” They were joined at the mic by a former justice on the California Supreme Court who had just moved to Davis and publicly wondered whether he had made a mistake.

The Council quickly changed the ordinance.

The whole event solidified a few things in my mind. First, I realized that there were critical public health and social needs in our community, and clear forces arrayed against the community playing an active role in meeting those needs.

The former was not news to me—but having been involved in work with homeless individuals showed me how difficult the challenges were. The latter surprised me because I thought there was a consensus in our oh-so-liberal college town that homeless individuals’ needs should be a community priority. I was wrong (and later experiences on the City Council confirmed this).

Second, I started paying attention to the City Council and policymaking in ways I never had before. I saw the critical role it played policy making that affected people’s lives—and how community members, if they had the will, could influence it.

Third, I also started paying attention to things like poverty, exclusion, addiction, racism, and other public health challenges close to home. While they were qualitatively different from the public health challenges in Africa, the poverty and lack of comprehensive health services—including mental health and substance use disorder treatment—excluded significant numbers of citizens from the ability to thrive in our wealthy city.

Finally, I realized that I could apply the tools I had developed throughout my public health career to help solve challenges in my hometown. What’s more, because I was living inside my own “culture,” I could better grasp and learn, in a meaningful way, about the power dynamics that created and maintained unjust structures.

I felt that I could work not only toward “cures” for my community but also for its health.

And so, sometime after that winter, I decided to walk away from my international public health career and figure out how to work towards public health improvements in my “nearby.”

It was a decision that changed many things for me, not all of them happily and positively.

In reality, this decision was not JUST about recognizing local needs and trying to figure out a way to address them more holistically. I was also struggling with my own “acquisitiveness” and my overconsumption of natural resources, and how they were related to what Deneen and Berry called living without “limits.”

Making this switch away from my proudly globalist identity to a confirmed “localist” was painful, and I often regretted it. But as the years unfolded, I increasingly understood that it was the right choice.

The more I dug into my community, the more I was invited to “pick up a shovel.” After a while, I was the one sitting around the table discussing local policy, local power structures, and local means to address the many health and social problems of my hometown.


This is my confession.


Since then, Berry has continued to write about place, what it means to be anchored in it, and what it means to create a truly sustainable world. Deneen has gone on to summarize his entire critique of life without limits by calling into question the whole liberal economic order that enables it. Both they, and others like my Davis friend Rob Thayer, have caused me to think more about what sustainability means. With my globetrotting days over, I was forced to consider it concerning what Thayer refers to as my “bio-region,” my “life place.”

In what follows, I share a part of the path I trod after I made these decisions. Specifically, what they ended up meaning for me as a policymaker. What is, perhaps, ironic, is how even as I tried to focus on the “local” the “nearby,” the national and the global consistently played a role in the debates.

Even our nearby is infused with the global. As localists, we act within that reality.

I will share some of what I learned about sustainability—especially what I think of as social sustainability. I will talk about what I learned of a statewide challenge and how it played out in our California town: housing. I will reflect on how international politics can and do play out locally—be they in the form of hate crimes, immigration, the militarization of the police, or statues of Gandhi. And, in the end, I will try to explain what it all taught me about the power of the local, the importance of the giftedness in our “body politic,” and what it means to be a “localist local” leader in an irreversibly global world.