The Keystroke Dispersal

 

 

 

 

 

Those of a more conservative bent had been warning of the devastation that would be wrought by the continued centralizing of government functions. A few communitarians chimed in over the loss of local control. I understood that (though I never understood the conservatives who were quite happy with central government control of surveillance against certain undesirable groups–but I digress).

Well, they got what they wanted, because when Keystroke hit, it hit hard and scattered all “authority,” all decision making down to the lowest level: neighborhoods, and townships, and even streets. We all became localists then because it was the only way to survive.

Of course, we also got local forms of fascism and authoritarianism that had previously been concentrated in that one guy at the top. At least we felt we could control him. But when that shit goes local, you have a real fight on your hands.

We did.

And if it had not been for the infighting among all those local warlords–mostly drawn from the ranks of former military, or cops, or judges, or even a few ministers, more might have died. Too many did anyway.

But I have to step back to how it all started.

Q-Anon was the world’s first alternate reality multi-player game that spilled off the web into the real world, and the conspiracies it spawned were no joke. They were deadly.

It seemed there was no way to reign it in until Keystroke. Like Q-Anon themselves (itself, himself, herself?), no one knew who Keystroke was. But we knew what they wanted.

Their manifesto jumped to every chyron on every channel and swamped social media. It was not long, and it was crystal clear: Keystroke existed to bring Q-Anon down.

Those of us of a liberal bent were on board immediately, though it was not immediately clear how they would do it. But then Keystroke started issuing releases and challenges–competitions if you will. It began to mimic Q-Anon itself and turned itself into a righteous alternate reality multi-player game, except that its reality was going after Q-Anon.

In the beginning, it rewarded anyone who would debunk thoroughly and convincingly, any posting by Q-Anon itself. And the results were amazing. Part of it was the rewards; they were high quality and frequent. Part of it was that people got stoked doing the research necessary to debunk those fools. The competitions were egalitarian, and everyone laughed a lot at the expense of the Q-Anons.

And they doubled down. And every time they did, more Keystroke devotees jumped in to debunk. It was a war, and more and more people were involved.

Phase two (though no one ever called it that), had Keystroke asking people to write their conspiracy theories to match and confront each Q-Anon one coming out. The idea was, you had to write a conspiracy similar to the latest Q-Anon drek and create an entire historical backstory to back it up.

That was when things took off. Some of the best alternate history sci-fi short form stuff ever written appeared in those days. And everyone clamored to get in. Keystroke started helping people write. That’s right, they supported people by helping edit their documents, make more persuasive arguments–basically be better writers. I assumed it was all AI because you can’t mobilize that many people and still hold cover. We will never know.

Schools jumped in. Teachers started assigning Keystroke for their writing assignments, and the prizes kept coming. Keystroke also started teaching coding so that students could search more profoundly and scrape the web more efficiently for fodder. The coding courses were the best around and, again, teachers, and even some university professors used Keystroke for coding classes.

I don’t know much about any of that myself, but it was awesome to watch. I have often thought since that Keystroke could not have worked without the virus. I mean, the real one circulating in the world (and has not gone away even now). Kids couldn’t go to school, schools had to get hotspots for everyone, Keystroke took kids “away” for hours (something parents wanted), and they were writing like never before. Parents took short breaks from their Zoom meetings to join in the fun on the company devices. There were multiple Keystrok apps to aid in searches and writing. It was a moment in time.

The coding got more sophisticated, the writing more comprehensive, and Keystroke put out the word in mid-July that they were going after Q-Anon once and for all. The second “manifesto” was even shorter and said: “We will reveal who Q-Anon is on August 11. And we will destroy them. Get your Keystrokes ready.”

There was a buzz, and not all of it was positive. IT experts started worrying where this was all going. Virus checks expanded, and warnings went out from a few that Keystroke, while very cool, might present some security risks. Nothing was found, and the naysayers were accused of being closet Q-Anons.

In the lead up to August 11, the estimates came in saying over 750 million people worldwide were active in Keystroke, and over 1.5 billion had dabbled in it at least once.

Keystroke sent out their last message on August 10 at 8:00 am Australia time (what?–was that a clue?): On August 11, every devotee was to be at their computer to code one last bit. This one would add their names (nom de guerre, nom de plume, or real name) to a compiled list–to be made available online–of every person who helped bring Q-Anon down.

And that’s what happened.

And then nothing happened.

For 10 hours.

Then at 6:00 pm Australia time (?) Keystroke sent out one last message–the last one it ever sent. It said, cryptically:

“There is no Q-Anon. Q-Anon will not harm us any longer.”

And then a list of names of every person who had helped bring Q-Anon down started scrolling across every screen everywhere.

I wish that had been the end. A cool game that wound its way down. Kids learning to write, and, hopefully, Q-Anon gone for good.

It all came apart just six hours later when every networked system in Australia crashed. The crashes followed the morning across every nation, and every continent as the day went on. Nothing worked–think electricity grids, wastewater treatment, and your computer, phone, and networked fridge.

Everyone expected a ransom request from Keystroke–knowing now we had been had. But none ever came.

And by the time the crashes hit the West Coast of the US, no one–I mean no one had a clue where this was going. We sheltered in place for two days. No electricity, no water. The weakest died quickly, and the lucky ones were those who lived by a water source.

Nothing came back online. Was it the coding–somehow complied in that last Keystroke of August 11? I have no idea. Not sure anyone does.

All of us realized just how networked we all were in the time of the virus. From what we heard, each time a “restart” was tried or new hardware added to the old, the infection just kept spreading. I don’t know how. It is almost as if Keystroke lived within the fiber optic cables themselves, in the satellite feeds, in the coaxial cables that fed our homes. Nothing would come back.

That was almost two years ago. The dispersal, as I think of it, was swift and comprehensive. We banded together the best we could, and bad people swept in to claim power in every place where life-giving resources existed. The first year was the worst–at least here. I don’t know about anywhere else–the rest of the world has disappeared.

Like everyone, I lost friends and family, and I will never touch a computer or a networked fridge, or cell phone, or whatever again. We are all Luddites now, I guess, though we have no idea when any of those things will ever come back.

And Keystroke? Who knows. They set out to destroy Q-Anon, and they did. But they did not bring down Q-Anon; they just wiped out the ecosystem in which thrived.

Hospitality: Lessons from Mauritania (II)

 

 

 

 

The second in a series of lessons learned from my time in Mauritania in the late 1980s and early 1990s (the first one is here), this post represents the lesson that has had the most long-lasting effect on my life.

Has the story reached you of the honored guests of Abraham? Behold, they entered his presence and said: “Peace!” He said: “Peace!” (and thought: “They seem) unusual people.” Then he turned quickly to his household, brought out a roasted fattened calf, and placed it before them. He said: “Will you not eat?” [Surat adh-Dhariyat: 24-27, the Qur’an]

I did not learn this lesson one time, but hundreds of times in big and small ways while traveling the length and breadth of this desert land. I discussed the “why” of it with colleagues late into the night and experienced it in small acts of kindness and protection that were part of daily life.

  • A cup of tea given as the first gesture to revive the dusty traveler.
  • A bowl of zrig (curdled milk) offered in a large calabash even when we were only passing through.
  • Choice bits of meat subtly pushed my way in a shared platter of food. 
  • A mattress sacrificed.
  • A refuge from the heat under the scant shade of a tree provided.
  • A bucket of water hand lifted from a 40 meter well for a shower.

These were the daily acts repeated over and over. But there were also the narratives that acted as a reminder of the fundamental truth:

If your enemy approaches your tent and merely touches the rope that holds it, you must welcome him.

There was a place to fight your enemy, but an enemy in need of water required a welcome without rancor. You had to meet his needs. 

I experienced hospitality in an isolated village when we arrived at dusk, and the residents spent an hour chasing one of their few remaining chickens, despite our protestations so that we could have dinner.  

I experienced hospitality when I wandered lost in a sandstorm and stumbled across a lone nomadic family’s tent, and they gave us water and made sure we found our way to our destination–more than an hour’s walk.

But I think I came to understand it best during the Islamic holidays–the eids–that brought a moment of respite, and joy, and family homecoming to a tired, hungry, and overworked people.

I never celebrated eid alone, and I never celebrated eid with a wealthy family. Despite that, they are the times when I experienced true religion in the simple act of rest, food, and conversation.

Of course, there was food, and what lacked in variety was made up in quantity and taste. There was always a single simple treat that had cost the host too much, but made everyone know this was special.

All of this is nearly “pro forma” as hospitality goes, but what I really found during these feast days was home. I was not invited to merely take a meal, but to be part of a family. I was not asked to pass the time but to rest. I was not welcomed into a house but into people’s hearts.

It is hard to explain all of this, but imagine a place where you are physically comfortable. Imagine there is food served at a pace that invites savoring every bite. Imagine that you can speak if you like, listen if you prefer, and remain, collectively in silence, if that is what you all decide. Imagine having no obligations but to be in communion with friends. Imagine a peaceful time that you want it to stretch on into tomorrow (and sometimes it does).

And then add in the children, and the jokes, and the remembrances from the road.  

I learned that hospitality is creating a space for a guest, providing them with what they need, at that moment, in that time. Think of the thought and preparation that goes into creating that space. Think of how discerning you must be and how attuned to your visitor’s needs–the focus, not on the spectacle but on the other.  

To create such spaces is an act of worship, a liturgy, a sacred practice that forms us to be people of peace. 

I learned that in Mauritania. May I practice it in my life here. 

Culture and Cultural Dimensions–An Introduction

 

 

 

 

What follows is a short reflection on culture and cultural domains. The hope is that the concepts I present here will be tools that you can use for personal reflection and dialogue as you move through inter-cultural spaces.

When we approach the concept of culture, the first question is, what is culture? And maybe you want to pause for a moment and ask yourself when you hear the word culture, what do you think of? What are the words or images that come to your mind?

Well, here’s a definition from “Global People” that has some useful components.

 

There are a few crucial points in this definition. Culture is a set of values, assumptions, and orientations. So it’s more than just the way a person dresses or the food they eat.

Culture is a set of fundamental values that shape how we make meaning in the world. A group shares these values, be it an academic department, a nation, a subgroup within a country, or a business.

Culture influences our behavior, but we are not automatons. Saying the values we share helps us make sense of the world does not mean that we will act in a certain way simply because we’re in a cultural group. This idea is vital for avoiding the problem of stereotyping.

To sum up, culture will influence our behavior. It helps us make meaning but is not deterministic.

There are some useful analogies for thinking about culture. And you’ve probably seen some of these.

Culture is like a pair of glasses. It’s the lenses through which we view the world. We don’t always even analyze the power of the lenses, but they do influence our view. If we take those glasses off and try to put on other ones, we won’t see as well (make meaning).

Cultures like the water in which we swim. It’s so familiar to us that we don’t even analyze it or think about it or give it much thought. And yet it’s so influential in the way we approach the world.

Cultures like an onion, there are layers to it. There are superficial things that indicate certain things about cultures. And then there are deeper layers that we must peel it off and delve into if we want to understand a culture, including our own.

And then culture is like an iceberg similar concept. Some things are apparent about culture, and some things lie below the surface of observation or consciousness. So here is that iceberg.

Some things that come to mind when we think about culture are those external things: food, literature, language, art. Those are the things that are the visual manifestations of cultures, but the things that help us understand how culture influences our behavior and how we make meaning are the things that lie below the surface.

These include our views on beauty, the relationships in a family, power, who has it, how we make decisions, and our approach to time, which is very important in the work that we do. These are all things that we don’t analyze, but that influence us.

There are two ways of thinking about learning about cultural differences. When we’re sending students abroad or when we’re going abroad ourselves or into new cultural settings in the US, we often approach cultural learning in culture-specific ways. I’m going to country X. How do you greet people there? How do I act there? What should I avoid? What do I need to do? What do I need to do to avoid offending someone?

These are culture-specific pieces of knowledge, and they have value. We want to make sure that we’re honoring people in their places, but culture-specific approaches to learning about cultures do not get us very far.

If we want approaches that give us tools for thinking about culture more generally and moving within a variety of cultures at once, we need culture-general approaches. Culture-general knowledge uses models or frameworks to help us think about culture more broadly and, more generally, and compare our cultural understandings and values to others along using broad categories of comparison.

Two books that can help us delve into this general culture approach to thinking about culture are these two.

Culture and Organizations: Software of the Mind and The Culture Map. Both layout ways of thinking about dimensions or framework for thinking about where cultures differ. I recommend both of them, but the Hofstede and Hofstede book provides more details on the research behind cultural dimensions.

Here are some of these dimensions that they bring up laid out as different ends of continuums. Here is a brief summary of each pair:

Individualism versus Collectivism 

Individualism is a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected only to take care of themselves and their immediate families.

Its opposite, collectivism, represents a preference for a tightly-knit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular in-group to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. A society’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we.”

Power Distance: High and Low

This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. The fundamental issue here is how a society handles inequalities among people.

People in societies exhibiting a significant degree of power distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place that needs no further justification. In societies with low power distance, people strive to equalize the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power.

Uncertainty Avoidance: Strong and Weak 

The uncertainty avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen?

Cultural groups exhibiting strong uncertainty avoidance maintain rigid codes of belief and behavior and are intolerant of unorthodox behavior and ideas. Weak uncertainty avoidance societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles.

Time Orientation: Linear and Flexible

In a linear time-oriented culture, project steps (for example) are approached sequentially, completing one task before beginning the next—one thing at a time. No interruptions. The focus is on the deadline and sticking to the schedule. Emphasis is on promptness and good organization over flexibility.

Those with a flexible time orientation might approach project steps more fluidly, changing tasks as opportunities arise. Many things are dealt with at once, and interruptions accepted.

The focus is on adaptability and flexibility is valued over organization.

Communication: Low Context and High Context

In a low context setting, good communication is precise and clear. Messages are expressed and understood at face value.

In a high context setting, good communication is sophisticated, nuanced, and layered. Messages are spoken and read between the lines, and body language and silence matter as much as the spoken word.

Decision Making: Consensual and Top-Down

In a consensual cultural setting, decisions are made in groups through unanimous agreement. In a top-down decision-making setting, decisions are made by individuals (usually an authority figure or figures)

Dealing with Disagreement: Confrontational and Non-Confrontational

In confrontational cultures, disagreement and debate is positive for the team or organization. Open confrontation is appropriate and will not negatively impact the relationship.

In a culture that avoids confrontation, disagreement and debate are seen as unfavorable for the team or organization. Open confrontation is inappropriate and will break group harmony or negatively impact the relationship.

Achievement and Nurturance

This dimension’s achievement side represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive.

Its opposite, nurturance, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak, and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented.

People within a culture are distributed along the continuum–we’re not sitting at one pole or the other. That returns us to the point made earlier: culture influences but does not determine behavior.

If you consider a distribution, one cultural group may be more densely distributed to one end, and another distributed to another end of a given continuum. An individual in a given cultural group could just as easily be more like the other group than their own in terms of their proclivities, actions, and how they make meaning.

Adapted from Tara Harvey of True North Intercultural

We are thinking about culture because we want to develop our intercultural learning abilities. We want to advance in our ability to respond appropriately in different cultural spaces. This four-phase approach helps us think about our learning process.

First, we want to approach cultural learning first and foremost, to learn about ourselves. How do we make meaning? Can we define that? Or are we blind to it? Are we unable to see it because it is the water we swim in? And so we want to start cultural analysis by looking at ourselves how we make meaning.

Then we can use the same cultural-general tools to understand how others make meaning and how that may differ from our way.

A third important step in our learning processes is to begin engaging mindfully in contexts that disorient us. Culture, cultural difference, intercultural engagement in a lab, department, or a project can be disorienting. People may say or do things that we don’t understand. And so we want to use our understanding of ourselves and others, and how we may approach things differently to help us step back, if you will, and ask what is going on without prejudging the situation.

The fourth step is then obviously actually bridging cultural gaps, understanding ways that we can bridge differences so that we can meaningfully advance the goals of an organization or a project. Step four moves beyond being able not just to understand what’s going on, but also to take steps to acknowledge and work to move things forward despite differences. Step four does not mean I stop doing things that are the way I think are appropriate culturally. The “bridging” activity may start as being able to call it out and acknowledge the differences that exist.

This is a four-phase approach, and critical to applying it is developing some practices to prepare ourselves to experience and analyze difference.

A simple approach uses three steps: describe, interpret, evaluate. We can use it in everyday life. The idea is that when you come up against a situation that disorients or confuses you, you begin by looking at it without judging it. What do I see objectively? How many people are here? What do I see them doing? What can I describe in the simplest terms?

Next, what do I interpret them to be doing, or what do I believe they’re doing? This step involves considering multiple options, not just one. This step of interpretation pushes us to think about alternative explanations to what we see.

Once we’ve done those two, we can think about our emotional responses to what we are experiencing and whether those emotional responses are useful.

This is a brief introduction to some general concepts about culture and cultural dimensions. I would very much value the opportunity to discuss these ideas more if you are interested.

Restorative Justice: A Thought Experiment

 

 

 

 

Note: The following are a handful of initial jottings about restorative justice to our discussions about the future of policing and our legal system.  

Enlarging the Discussion

Observing the early evolution of discussions around defunding the police–and after having read The End of Policing by Alex Vitale–it is clear that the real debate is around reprioritizing community health and safety, rather than simply abolishing the police.

I understand that some people are calling for abolition, but I do not sense that this is what most people mean when they speak about ending policing or defunding the police.

Since the start of this national debate, I have felt that a broader conversation about defunding the current criminal “justice” system is in order. The police are merely the first step–the gateway if you will–in a highly developed punitive system that does not lead to justice in any meaningful sense.  

Defunding the police, that is, stepping back and revisioning public health and safety is a useful exercise. Still, without taking on the entire logic of the penal system, this reprioritizing will be self-limiting.

Our Penal System

Our current system defines crime as an act committed against a disembodied state that requires those convicted to “pay.” That payment is only rarely rendered to the direct victims of crime, and the system contains many crimes that do not directly affect any identifiable victims at all.  

Instead, especially in most incarceration cases, the “payment” is made to society in an abstract. We still use concepts like “paying a debt to society” as the reason for incarceration. However, we have come to prefer the idea that imprisonment is really about removing “dangerous” people from society. This framing allows us to feel comfortable with the over-incarceration of people that has come to characterize our nation.

District attorneys and judges, along with a supporting role from the police, represent the state and provide the ritualistic practices that remove the dangerous ones from our midst. 

In this system, victims, if they exist, are wholly owned by the prosecution and regularly used as proof that punishment is needed to expiate the sins committed against “these poor people.” 

This entire system is so deeply embedded within our culture and our cultural understanding about what to do about wrongdoing, that we cannot imagine any reasonable alternative.

Restorative Justice within the Punitive System

Somewhat recently, restorative justice has evolved within the punitive system as an alternative in some instances or particular demographics. It is generally used as a diversion program when the penal system’s worst effects have failed in undeniable ways.

So, we offer restorative justice to low-level youth crimes when it becomes clear that the incarceration of young people leads to increased criminality and violence rather than reducing it. Or, we offer some form of restorative-like diversion programs for people with severe mental illnesses when we realize that frequent arrests, fines, or incarceration change nothing and make no difference in the lives of individuals involved. 

More recently, some prosecutors are experimenting with expansions of restorative practice due to an overburdened legal system, choosing to shunt low-level victimless crimes into alternative approaches that provide options to perpetrators that keep their records clean.

Restorative Justice as an Alternative System

While many people have welcomed these incursions of restorative justice into the penal system, the truth is they do not fit. They do not because restorative justice is not merely an option within the penal system but a completely different theory of what crime and justice are.

Restorative justice defines crime as an act that causes harm to people and communities. It understands harms as damaging to human relationships and well-being. It seeks processes that lead those responsible for these harms to know what they are, face those they have harmed, and work out what actions are necessary to make the harms as right as possible. 

Note that the depersonalized state is not at the table as an aggrieved actor seeking recompense. The state’s presence in a restorative system is to provide the support necessary to move towards naming harms and making them right.

Victims are involved directly or via proxies depending on their needs for safety. Because the focus is on harms, victims speak about those harms and define what making them right might entail.

Those causing the harms listen, understand the impact of their actions, and take responsibility for making the wrongs right. There is space within restorative justice for the needs of those causing the harms to enter the discussions as well.  

An important, often unstated, part of restorative justice is the question of victimless crimes. Restorative justice asks whether a crime is genuinely a crime if there are no identifiable harms. This becomes a critical question in a society that criminalizes possession of small amounts of drugs (as just one example). There may be harms involved in possession, and it may be essential to ask whether the person charged with possession has substance use problems for which they need help. The point is, restorative justice demands a look at what we name as a crime.  

A New System: Questions for Reflection

If we were to dispense with our punitive system and replace it with a restorative system, what would it mean for judges, for district attorneys, for the police?  

What if we started our discussion of policing by looking at the system for which they are the entry point?

What would happen to district attorneys if rather than representing the abstract state, they served the needs of real victims, not to advocate for punishment, but to seek answers to what victims need?

What would happen if we examined laws regarding the harms they address (or whether they address any harms at all)?

What role might judges play in this system, and how might this affect how we choose them? Would they become mediators or impartial arbiters when things get stuck? Would they play a role in discerning the needs of those who cause harms?

What would success look like in this system? How does that compare to our current system, which arguably has no metric of success? 

Beyond Naivete

Are there dangerous people in the world who need to be removed from contact with others? I believe there are. But a restorative system is not afraid to ask why they exist, where they come from, and whether or not they are beyond “redemption.”  

Because it seeks to restore victims AND offenders to the community and create healing, restorative justice permits us to explore the underlying causes of violence–including the role of trauma.  

In this sense, restorative justice is a genuinely public health approach to criminality–seeking the underlying causes of actions that cause harm. And just as public health practice does not exonerate individuals of personal responsibility, it is also willing to investigate the social and economic determinants of harmful behavior. 

A final word about victims: criticisms of restorative justice invariably return to victims of violence and the seeming willingness to require their participation in a restorative process or their continued exposure to those who caused them harm. There is nothing inherent within restorative justice that requires these. There are often good reasons to provide physical protection to victims by constraining the movement of those who have harmed them. There is also nothing inherent in restorative justice that requires victims to “confront” their offenders.

What restorative justice does offer to victims is an opportunity to describe their needs. Evidence shows that victims often have fundamental questions that revolve first around needing to regain a sense of personal safety. Often they want to know “why.” Only secondarily are they concerned with restitution. 

It is beyond time to defund our punitive legal system by moving purposefully towards a different understanding of the meaning of crime, against whom it is committed, and what is needed to achieve outcomes that will build community.

The Gift of Community. A Community of Gifts

 

 

 

 

 

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them… Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.  St Paul, in a letter to the church in the city of Corinth.

A friend called the other day to talk about how they could get engaged in all the fantastic change happening around us in light of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and reform of the police and legal systems. I sensed their urgency to be involved in helpful and relevant ways, but I also sensed frustration about how to actually do it.

Two thoughts came to mind as we talked. The first was that efforts to work on the kinds of change they desire require community. The second was that they require a diversity of community gifts.

One of the greatest American sociologists of our era, James Coleman, defined and developed the concept of social capital. Drawing on theory related to physical and human capital, Coleman described social capital as a productive good that could improve people’s lives. Specifically, Coleman defined social capital as the variety of relationships existing in a community that allow actions that would be difficult or impossible in their absence. 

These relationships are not mere transactions worked out to achieve a community-wide benefit—I do this, so you do that. Instead, this ability to do things that benefit people comes through the formation and maintenance of social relationships. It is organic, not transactional.

In social capital terms, community is a gift we give one another to do things we could never hope to do alone. 

My friend had already discovered the power of community in the initiatives in which they are engaging. They had, in other words, found the gift of community. 

But they still struggled with their particular place within that community. What should they do? Where should they place their efforts? Could they make any difference?

Many people ask me similar questions in these days. Most have already discovered a powerful affinity group that is advancing essential activities. Still, those same people struggle to know what they should do within those groups to help make a difference.  

In reflecting with my friend, and many others, I urge them to consider the other part of community: that each person in it brings their unique gifts to the service of the whole. 

In the Christian tradition, there is a lengthy passage in a letter written by Paul that describes how God gives gifts to a community for the common good. Paul likens the community to a body—not everyone is an arm, or a mouth, or the head. A physical body could not function that way. In the same way, what would it benefit a community if all the gifts were the same? It is a useful image that explains how social capital works out in practice: each person bringing that unique thing they can contribute to the group to help solve a particular challenge.   

Like a body, in bringing all our gifts together, we find a complete organism. Paul goes further and suggests that some of the less “seemly” or weaker bodily functions deserve special honor and that no part dare show disdain for another simply because it is not like itself. 

Recently, I have been amazed to see and benefit from the diversity of gifts in my community. The organizers, the communicators, the facilitators, the “discerners,” the note takers and distributors, the ralliers, the truth-tellers, the questionners, and the list of gifts goes on. We genuinely do have a fantastic array of gifted people here.

I encouraged my friend to think of their gifts and consider how they could offer them to the groups they are a part of.  

It always surprises me how people often do not think of the gifts they have and how they might bring them to a new endeavor. Maybe that is because our gifts are things that are so natural to us that we do not perceive them as unique and needed at all–almost like we assume that anyone can do them. After all, they are so easy for us.  

But they are unique, and our community, which itself is a gift, needs our gifts. 

A “Homecalling”

 

 

 

 

Paris, January 1986

The damp and wind of February always made Diallo feel furthest from home. Back there, the sun was warming the earth as the first plantings pushed through the sandy soil. Here it was dark before 9:00 and after 4:00, and the sun might appear, but usually did not.

He was selling “a la sauvette”–selling “ready to run”–from a meter and a half square tarp upon which he arranged his trinkets and cheap plastic wind-up toys. A la sauvette because when the cops swooped in, you gathered up the four corners and ran. They never chased. Couldn’t be bothered. But if someone were too slow, they would snatch up the goods and, laughing, pass them out to the tourists wandering by.

Three years. He never lost his goods though he got grabbed by two of them one time and hauled off to a station. His “papers,” purchased from a “specialist” back home, were clearly fake. And that day he thought his time was up–to a cell, then a plane–expelled. But there had been a robbery somewhere, the police had left, and after a while he had just walked out. No-one stopped him. Why bother?

He had learned early. In making his way from the boat in Marseille to Paris, after he hooked up with a “cousin” who was going to set him up in the business. The cops did not care. The smallest bribe was sufficient to move the human traffic forward to its inevitable place on the streets.

Three years.

He had left with hope: hope of success and a quick return. Though the “grande secheresse”–the big dryness–was officially over, there was nothing there. Nothing. He had offered to go, and with the word from his “cousin” that opportunities were abundant in the new regime socialist, they all, his mom included, decided he had nothing to lose.

Now he slept in an HLM in Romainville with ten others from “home.” Moving frequently into newly abandoned units until they turned off the water or electricity. Lately, they seemed to have forgotten, and so the ten had been at peace for almost three months.

At first mom had written–the handwriting not hers, she was illiterate. Spending her money to pay the shiftless schoolteacher in the village grated on him.

“We have nothing; we are hungry; the roof has a leak…”

He wrote two letters back, full of hope, empty of truth. But he moved so much that the letters soon lost their way. That was two years ago.

Khadija had written only one, but he kept it in a small plastic bag in the bottom of the backpack that never left his back (he tied a rope to it and his arm when he showered). In it, she addressed him as cousin, but the truth of it was contained in the final sentence: “I miss you.”

The wind increased outside the metro at Pigalle. In summer he fought for the best spots at Trocadero or Concorde, but in the winter, with the tourists mostly gone, he came to the strip club and peep show streets where a few tourists still sauntered and where even Parisian regulars might buy a few things for their kids to assuage their guilt.

Diallo worked, as did the ten, for Brahim. He sold them the goods, and they kept whatever they could earn–a handful of francs each day. Brahim, in turn, got his junk from up the ladder, and so on. Diallo did not know how high it went, but some of the ten got pulled into extra activities that Brahim arranged. These sometimes left them bloody and crying. They paid better. Diallo never joined

He was lucky. Even back home, he could fix anything–anything. And so he added to his pay by repairing boomboxes and electric appliances of any type. He was also known as the “cassette doctor,” able to rescue any torn, or stretched, or mangled cherished music for a modest price.

But, now, three years in, he still had less than 3,000 francs–a lot of money if he had been sitting on a mattress in his mom’s house, but nothing here.

Two in the afternoon and already getting dark. Inshallah, he would get a break and find a real repair job in a real shop.

God willing, but he did not really believe that about God. From a long time ago, when the worst of the drought years were killing everything, and the only food was “Kennedy” rice from far away, he had assumed that God had abandoned the Sahel for Europe, or America, or the Gulf. God was not present along the Senegal River.

And his supposed intermediaries–the “petit marabouts” who represented his beneficence and mercy–were useless grifters, who reported up their own ladder.

The grigris–little leather pouches with obscure verses from the blessed Qur’an sown inside–that they sold to people who buried them in the corners of their fields to ward off pests and roving camels and cows were fucking useless.

The amulets they sold to desperate moms–like his own–made no difference at all. He had taken note. Two cousins, one nephew, and his own little brother Hamidou–so weighted down by the grigris his mom had bought and hung around his neck that he could’nt even lift his head. Two weeks of ever-mounting numbers of this trash did not save him from the diarrhea that drained his life away.

And even the “grand marabout”–Djibril, who lived hard against the river inside 3-meter high concrete (concrete!) walls–walls that could not hide his three-story home or the sound of his generator that gave the only electricity within 50 kilometers–even Djibril was a fraud.

They said he was a shapeshifter. Turning into a wolf–that is how he got his meat. Turning into a fly–that is how he gathered his information (the man knew everything about everyone and trafficked in that knowledge).

Impotent men swore he could turn their flaccid members to “bars of steel” for hours. Diallo believed non of it. Hopeless people seeking to control a world that was out of their control.

Djibril’s biggest “money maker” was his purported ability to bring people home. The droughts had led men (mostly) everywhere to abandon their dead fields and flocks and head to the cities. Dakar, Nouakchott, Abidjan, maybe the Gulf, rarely Paris. And when they left, many never returned. Angry wives told stories of how they had moved on, started new families in those new places, and left them for dead. But Diallo now suspected that most just got lost, never made anything of anything, and were simply too ashamed to come back.

Empathy born out of his own shame.

But all it took was for one person from two or three villages over to come back, and all the talk was “Djibril did that.” And Djibril grew fat. And whether Diallo liked it or not, Djibril was a “tres grand marabout” indeed.

All bullshit.

But the dreams had started about six months after Khadija’s first and last letter. They were always the same. He stands at the entry to his village, coming from the north. It is late in the day, the home sounds of women preparing meals. He knows he has unfinished business, and someone always meets him.

His aunt needing help with a broken door. His mom needing that roof fixed. His uncle seeking help with a tape player that eats up batteries too fast. The widow next door asking him to mend the fence where the goats got in and ate her garden–no carrots this year, no lettuce this year.

At first, they came sparsely–the dreams. One every so often. Then, each month. So vivid. He remembered each one, unlike the other jumbled mass of confusion that passed through his head each night.

And then every week. Always the same. Unfinished business. Going home to finish it.

And then every week. Always someone new needing him to finish something.

And then every night.

But never Khadija.

Until last night. She was there, and she said dinner was waiting.

He awoke in the dark. His mouth filled with the residue of fat from the goat–a morsel still in between two teeth. His unwashed hands held to his face with the grains of couscous still clinging. His shirt smelling of the charcoal fire. His shoes filled with sand.

He had nothing to return with, and all his money would be needed to get there. But he knew. He knew. And he was ready to run.

She had called him home.

Community Health Workers: What They Could be Doing Now

 

 

 

 

 

This article is the second of three reflections on community health workers. The first post is here, and it introduced the general concept of what health workers can do. It generally drew on  The WHO guideline on health policy and system support to optimize community health worker programs.

This post imagines what might be happening in our community today, if we had community health workers already in place to work with individuals who have been living without housing.

The following diagram from the WHO guidelines lays out the variety of primary healthcare services for which there is some evidence of community health worker effectiveness.

 

Note how varied they are. They include mental health–something that afflicts 50% or more of chronically homeless individuals. They also include communicable diseases and the idea of acting as “cultural brokers” to facilitate care for underserved groups. Finally, they include behavior change efforts to encourage people to adopt healthier behaviors.

Now imagine we had already put into place, before the current COVID-19 crisis, a system of community health workers, let’s call them community navigators, whose job was to build relationships with homeless individuals, help them connect to legal, and social services, and become people of trust with them.

Such workers would already be a vital connecting point to encourage people struggling to find housing to enter our local temporary voucher program until they could find permanent housing. They would assure that homeless individuals with chronic illnesses would have access to and use medications. They could ensure they kept appointments for legal or other issues. The navigators could be general “connectors” to help bring homeless people back into the community. These individuals would be trusted people.

In such a situation, when COVID-19 strikes, these people would provide rapid feedback on the needs and likely risk factors of the people with whom they have been working.

In the case of California and Yolo County, which have implemented temporary emergency housing for at-risk homeless people in hotels, they could help determine which of their contacts met risk criteria and rapidly connect them to the program. Further, they could visit (by phone or at a safe distance), these people every day or so and encourage them to protect themselves, provide needed medication, and be friends in a lonely time.

If one of their contacts contracted, or was a contact of a person who contracted the virus, they could reach out to them, help them move into isolation or quarantine, and then support them to maintain that status until it was safe to leave.

I raise this example because we have talked about implementing a “navigator” program in Davis. We believe that we have the volunteers who would participate, and we have discussed a recruitment and training strategy.

The point is that once we invest in community health workers for particular purposes, we can mobilize them in times of crisis, or for other related needs in the community. They become a permanent community asset–not just essential components of our social capital, but also critical rapid action resources within our healthcare infrastructure.

In the next and final installment on community health workers, I will examine their role in the movement to “defund the police.”

The “Why” of Yolo

 

 

 

 

Yesterday I critiqued a conservative piece that, among other things, decried a loss of “the why of America.” The writer argued that we had lost a sense of the ends to which we are, collectively, committed.

I criticized them for not offering any sense of what the “why of America” should be but also because they appeared to be describing an American response to COVID-19 that is petty, laden with public shaming, and unconcerned about the well-being of neighbors.

I noted that public shaming does happen but asked, “Do they characterize how we collectively and overwhelmingly deal with this crisis in real communities where most of us live? Not at all.”

I said that because of my experience in Yolo, my home county, at the outbreak of the epidemic. My story is an important one and indicates that there is a shared “why of Yolo” in these challenging times.

At the same time that our governor was issuing shelter in place orders, the Yolo Food Bank undertook to deliver food to the doorsteps of vulnerable people: those over age 65 or with a medical condition that increased their risk of adverse outcomes should they contract the virus.

I helped organize volunteers for this effort and, if you forget everything else, remember this statistic: 1 for every 4. As people began to sign up to have food delivered to their door, we simultaneously accepted sign-ups for volunteers who would deliver it.

Over the six weeks I was involved (the program ran for more than two months), we also had approximately one volunteer for every four people that signed up for the service. Over 900 signed up to deliver food to just over 3,000 total households (over 6,000 people).

Volunteers for the Yolo Food Bank in the parking lot of Davis High School (photos thanks to Karin Higgins, UC Davis).

Pause to consider the statement of the “why of Yolo” that these numbers represent.

And the volunteers did not merely deliver food. Dozens helped to correct data that recipients incorrectly entered into a GIS-based database. This enabled those doing the deliveries to be much more efficient in their work.

One Saturday afternoon, I realized we needed Spanish, Russian, and possibly other language translations. Within an hour of requesting help via social media, I had translation support for each and a UC Davis student group’s commitment to identify translations for a dozen more languages as needed.

These translators worked in real-time when drivers were out making deliveries, contacting people while drivers waited to identify the precise location for deliveries.

Other volunteers made daily phone calls to people to respond to needs, collect corrected information, and assure that volunteers had what they needed to do their work.

A church, a small business, and various community service groups offered larger trucks and vans to deliver to sizeable senior apartment complexes. Community leaders in one town adopted a senior complex in their town and did all deliveries in that location.

Others packed boxes, and one company helped transport boxes to a distribution site so that volunteers could deliver them from that site.

Volunteers did address troubleshooting on the spot and found out of the way addresses to assure deliveries.

Many of those doing deliveries begged to keep the same recipients week to week because they were building relationships of trust with the recipients and wanted to make sure that all their needs were met.

When recipients requested additional support, local church groups stepped in to provide it.

A local produce company offered its drivers to make 150 deliveries every week.

At each delivery site, other volunteers ensured that drivers maintained safe distancing and got answers to questions.

And this went on day after day, week after week, for three months.

Maybe America has lost its “why”–its raison d’etre, its sense of shared purpose. But during six weeks starting in March 2020, I was privileged to see firsthand the “why of Yolo”:

  • reducing the spread of a deadly disease
  • protecting the most vulnerable in our community
  • meeting the basic needs of neighbors.

These are the “whys of Yolo.

COVID-19 and the Unveiling of American “Conservatism”

 

 

 

 

I try to read insights from conservative perspectives on several issues: policing, war, and so-called cultural conflicts. I do not consult sites that are mere propaganda machines for the Trump administration. Still, I check out The American ConservativeThe Wall Street Journal opinion pages, and The National Review. And I used to read First Things also, but in the Post-9/11 period, I became so enraged with their war-mongering that I stopped.

There are times I find the opinion and commentary enlightening, and on some occasions, like this recent piece on policing in The American Conservative, I agree with the writers.

Over the months of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have seen a framing of the issues around the US response that has bothered me, and today I found a prime example in this piece by Tony Woodlief entitled “A Masked Consensus,” so I thought I would jot some notes about it.

I have been struck, increasingly in recent years, by what masquerades as “conservatism” but is, in fact, libertarianism and, in the worst cases, a crude objectivism a la Ayn Rand.

Patrick Deneen has done a much better job teasing out the historical meanings of liberalism, libertarianism, and conservatism than I ever could, but if conservatism is anything, it is about place, community, the value of traditions, and the need to learn from history. Also, a more Burkean understanding of conservatism would include a suspicion about building public actions around abstract ideas (Burke critiqued the French Revolution on these grounds).

In much of what I am reading these days from conservatives, I see few appeals to these ideals. Instead, I see straw-man arguments, and a dishonest framing of issues that makes, in the case of COVID-19, public health practitioners out as bent on social control, and “conservatives” as the guarantors of the sincere commitments of the Republic.

Woodlief claims his piece is about ultimate ends and the lack of attention to them that characterizes Americans at this point in our history. This is a critique I have made in this blog, and so, on the face of it, I would agree with Woodlief.

However, Woodlief provides no real evidence that people are unconcerned about ends. Instead, he seems to scour social media and what passes as the news for outrageous stories of people abused for not wearing masks or outed for inappropriately visiting elderly relatives in nursing homes. Do these things happen? Yes. Do they characterize how we collectively and overwhelmingly deal with this crisis in real communities where most of us live? Not at all.

The first problem with Woodlief’s piece is that, while decrying the loss of the “why”–the American “why”–he never once proposes a meaningful end of his own. One can infer it in his call for a return to liturgies and acknowledgments of things more significant than ourselves. I assume that Woodlief is referring to the need to return to faith traditions of a particular kind. And while I value the contribution that people of faith make to solving the real challenges in my community, I am not naive enough to believe that a return to an imagined past of shared faith values will ever come to define the “why” of America; simply because it never did.

This is common in what I am reading in “conservative” publications these days: lots of decrying what others are doing wrong and very little proposing about how to make it right.

And then there are the “straw-men,” or perhaps I should say “straw-man” because, on the right, there is only one “man” one bogeyman–Tony Fauci. Woodlief lumps him in with “overweening governors… and the various other busybody puritans” who make everybody feel bad about not wearing a mask.

But the straw-man is even worse than that.  Woodlief decries an imagined “technocratic sleight of hand whereby our nation’s chief epidemiologist has become our chief ethicist.”

Wrong and wrong. Dr. Tony Fauci presents evidence, makes recommendations, and prepares us for what will happen if we don’t follow them. His power is in his ability to articulate an end we can, together, achieve (sounds like a conservative), and point the way to get there.

He neither collects and disseminates spicy takedowns of those nasty eschewers of facemasks, nor scolds the American people for not following his recommendations.

And finally, there is the dishonest framing of what Fauci, and public health officials, and the whole liberal project (I suppose) are all about. I have seen this framing before–the claim that those who want to take vigorous actions to stem the spread of a novel coronavirus 6-10 times more deadly than flu are merely “worshippers of the body,” obsessed with preserving the lives of those who are near death, or as Woodlief puts it: “extending man’s years and pleasure.”

How about this: the end that those of us who recommend and support actions such as physical distancing, wearing masks, and well-run programs to test, trace and isolate sick people seek is to avoid unnecessary suffering and death.  Sounds like a great end.  Sounds pro-life, actually. Sounds conservative.

It is time for the “conservatives” following this script to step up and be honest about their project. They are not conservative; they are Randist. They do not want ends; they want to be left alone. They want what Joan Didion referred to as the “dream we won’t admit”–autonomy.

They do not want well-reasoned plans built upon proven historical strategies to solve an actual (not an abstract) problem: COVID-19. They want to go about their lives without anyone telling them what to do. They don’t care about the community; they care about themselves.

Here is the “why of America” they pursue: personal autonomy. And they are willing to shorten life unnecessarily to achieve it.

Preface to “Local Governance when all Politics is National and Global”

 

 

 

 

I may regret this but… I have been trying (on and off, mostly off) to write a short book about my experiences on the City Council in Davis, CA.  It is meant to be a reflection on a number of the things I experienced while in office that I never expected.  It is also about the ways that “the local” is connected to the “global.”  What follows is a re-write of the preface I wrote several months ago.  Still not happy with it but it will stand for now.  Chapters in this book will include (at this point):

  1. Introduction: Confessions of a Globe-Trotting Cosmopolite
  2. Sustainability: Environmental, Fiscal, and Social
  3. Privilege Means Never Having to Accept “No”
  4. Housing I: Our University Town Would be Great if it weren’t for the Students
  5. Housing II: “Your Job is to Make Our City as Inhospitable as Possible for Homeless People”
  6. Welcome to Davis Mr. Gandhi
  7. When Hate is Local
  8. Justice that Restores: We all Want it Until we Don’t
  9. Sanctuary During the Return of the Nativist
  10. Our Police, Ourselves: Oversight of the Police we Have Demanded and Militarized
  11. A Localist Vision: Identifying Giftedness and Giving Thanks

Preface

Her voice shook with anger (fear?) as she addressed us:

“You… you will be responsible. You have GOT to do something. Now. You have got to do something before someone else gets killed.”

She was one of a dozen who spoke during public comment about a police use-of-force incident in our town. They had been coming to Council chambers for weeks—and would return for many weeks more. Their anger palpable, their accusations of wrongdoing surprisingly personal, their demands clear: we needed to fire the police chief, the City Manager, and anyone else who stood in the way of justice for the young people involved in the incident.

But no one had died. The incident in question (which led to the creation of a new police oversight system and a public accounting of the inappropriate actions by the police) had left officers with a few cuts and bruises and the young people with whom they had the altercation, with no known injuries. The young people were charged with felony assaults and resisting arrest–charges that were later dropped. But no one had died, at least not in our city.

I cast a sidelong glance at my colleagues after her statement, and it was clear that we were all wondering what she meant by “before someone else gets killed.” People had died at the hands of the police, of course—in Ferguson, New York, North Carolina, and elsewhere. But not here.

That is when the message came home to me. What happens “out there” is felt profoundly “here.” People’s sense of connection to broader national and global issues conditioned their reactions to what was happening in their city. It was a profound realization and explained a great deal of what I had experienced as the Mayor of this small city of 70,000.

By the time I decided to run for local office (City Council, Davis, California), I had a pretty good sense of the significant challenges ahead if I were to be elected. Our city’s fiscal situation, like most cities in California, faced significant challenges related to years of inattention to necessary infrastructure, lack of affordable housing, budgetary instability caused by underfunded pensions, and a variety of so-called “social” challenges—led by homelessness (a syndrome with widely misunderstood causes).

I knew that I would be dealing with these and all their attendant issues—painful budget cuts and priority setting, contentious land-use decisions, employee negotiations, tax proposals, social services planning, etc. I spoke about my understanding of and proposed approach to dealing with each of them in my campaign literature, small group meetings, and public debates and forums. I prepared carefully to address them in all their complexity. I expected them to take up most of my time.

I was not wrong to have so prepared, and collectively, they took up most of my time. Local government is very pedestrian, and its focus will always be on creating a sustainable, safe, and livable community by looking after the essential mundane.  

This book is not (primarily) about any of these things. They indeed form the backdrop of what I share here, but this book is about things I never expected, never consciously prepared for, and never anticipated spending time on. In the end, these other things consumed hours, days, and whole weeks of my life, and at times felt all-consuming.  

That I did not anticipate them does not imply that they are not vital. In their way, each of them is as critical to creating a thriving community as budgets, water and sanitation, and firefighting. As I hope to demonstrate, responding to them and walking with the community through them constituted some of the most important work I did over my four-year term.

The aphorism “all politics is local” is undoubtedly true. I would say that all politics is hyper-local. People rarely write about “community” concerns or “city” concerns. Instead, they want help with their park, their neighborhood, their street, their tree.

But in another sense, all politics is linked to broader social, political, and economic forces. All politics is regional, all politics is national, and all politics is, in certain ways, global. I mean this in a precise way—how we react locally to the world beyond our city’s borders. One feature of our networked world is that what happens “out there” elicits reactions here. Only that could explain the comments of the woman who addressed us, and it pushed me to believe that, potentially, every national and global issue of concern would find its way into our Council meetings on Tuesday nights. Many did.

Global terror showed up in the form of local imam’s sermon. Police brutality and militarization in a “mine-resistant armored protected” vehicle and the use of force incident. The consolidation of economic power and income inequality in calls to disinvest from Wells Fargo. Global retrenchment and xenophobia in hate crimes and calls to stand against white supremacy and create sanctuary. And the list goes on. From global climate change to Indian politics (yes, even that), from criminal justice reform to white flight in the form of “NIMBYism,” issues playing out around the world played out in my hometown.

What follows is simply about how I, as one city council member and, for a time, Mayor, perceived these global/local issues and how I tried to respond. The response is what still matters to me most.  

I entered office (and left it!) as a localist. What I mean is that I believed then and believe now that we can face many of the most challenging issues of our time effectively ONLY at the local level. Despite the constraints imposed by state or federal statute or limited resources, I still believe that local communities are where resilience starts and where we find human solutions to our challenges. Because of this, I thought it was my job to help create a more resilient community—one able to face the inevitable shock related to climate change, recessions, disasters, and changing legal requirements. And so, I viewed my response to these global/local issues as critical to strengthening my community. 

 

I felt (and feel) that they were not merely issues to be “managed” but rather opportunities to help build the social infrastructure to make us better able to withstand the challenges each community must face. This book reflects how I tried to respond to a variety of these global/local issues. I will leave it to others to decide whether these efforts accomplish the hoped-for goal of greater resilience.

I want to thank the four other members of the City Council who served with me during those four years: four members but five committed and thoughtful community members who gave up large chunks of their lives for the often thankless job of trying to lead our city—our home. 

I want to thank the dedicated but too-often-maligned City staff who does the day to day work of running this town. 

I would like to thank the dozens and dozens of community members who faithfully served on a variety of city commissions, task forces, and working groups. These groups provide input, act as sounding boards, and do a high-level technical review of thousands of pages of reports and other documents. Their dedication adds a layer of transparency to our public processes that should be the envy of every city. 

I will avoid using any of these people’s names (or any names for that matter) throughout this book. Their identities may not be hard to figure out in some cases, but this story is not about holding them to account or holding up their failings for public review. They will go unnamed. Finally, I want to thank my wife, who agreed to let me run and serve but told me I “better never bring any of that stuff home.” I honored her command (for the most part).