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.”

 

Introduction

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.

Ride and Write

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I have already shared some bike routes in Northern CA, but this ride is a bit different. For reasons I have not fully discovered, it is a route I have ridden more than any other.

Part of it certainly is that it ends at a train stop, which makes for a great, longish ride without the need to worry about how to get home. It is a bit more complicated in these COVID-19 times, but when I started riding it, that was one reason.Image 8-9-20 at 2.48 PM

It is also a ride that maximizes diversity–going from the Central Valley floor, skirting the coastal mountains, and ending with great views of the Bay–and on clear days, views of San Francisco.  

Anyone who rides significant distances will tell you that riding 50 miles on a perfectly flat terrain–like we have here in the Central Valley/Northern Delta–is more fatiguing than the up and down of a ride like this one. Just under 3000 feet of climbing and some rolling hills get you out of the saddle and make for a more enjoyable and less tiring ride.

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It is the tomato harvest in Yolo!

And for a nearly 70-mile ride, this is a very low-stress ride. I got out early (just after 7:00), and had it not been for some car club group (10 cars zooming by), no more than 15 vehicles would have passed me the entire ride. The last 10 miles are mostly on a mixed-use (no cars) paved trail, and that is always an excellent way to finish up.

I recommend this ride with the north wind blows in the Central Valley. It will push you to Martinez. If the south wind is up in the Valley, be ready for a challenging ride from the north side of Fairfield to the Carquinez Bridge. You will be tired.

This is an all-season ride here in Northern California. If the north wind is blowing, you will likely get the clearest skies and the best opportunities for pictures.

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Choices: Cantelow  and Winters to the Right, Steiger Hill and Martinez to the left

Today I had little wind until I hit the south/west side of Fairfield, and then it was pretty consistent and strong. The sky was the profound blue we take for granted here, but there was a haze to the Bay.

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McGary Road and a 4-mile climb to the views.  Beware the southwest wind.

My favorite parts of the ride are an 8-mile section starting at the junction of Pleasants Valley Road and continuing to Lyons Road until it ends in Fairfield. This section has the kind of rolling hills I grew up with in PA, and it feels effortless (and fast!).

There is an optical illusion when you join Pleasants Valley Road. It looks like you are going up, but when you get on the road, you feel like it is downhill. I have not figured it out yet. Skimming along the freeway on Lyons is the fastest portion.

Another favorite part is the section I noted from Crockett to Martinez–the last 10 miles.

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From the Carquinez Bridge. Mt Tam in the background.

The Carquinez Bridge views are beautiful–Mt Tam dominating the distance with a reminder that you are near the coast, and the breeze confirms it.

Then you get to enjoy, mostly without cars, the twisty up and downs across the Bay from Benecia. Here you understand how California gained the moniker of “the Golden State.” I don’t think it was about 1849. I think it was the color of the hills from April through November. 

Image 8-9-20 at 2.54 PM
Carquinez to Martinez

Seventy miles alone gives you a lot of time to think. Today I thought about

  • Writing
  • Photographs I would like to take
  • My mom
  • A New York Times article that has been bothering me
  • Contact tracing
  • Courses I need to develop
  • How much I love biking
  • How thankful I am for the bike I have
  • How I will miss Northern CA if/when I have to leave

Here is a cool video of the ride. Thanks for coming along on what I christened today as the Valley to Views Ride. 

 

 

 

“World in Motion”: Review of a 31 Year Old Album

 

 

 

 

This review is either very late or just in time. You can decide.

Jackson Browne is my favorite musical artist and has been for many years. I have “flings” with a few others.

(I thought U2 was going to be a lasting love, but they left me sometime between Zooropa and Pop–though we tried again for a while after All that You Can’t Leave Behind.  Nick Cave seemed promising, but was way too dark. We didn’t last. All the rest were harmless flirtations–though, Au4 still makes my heart go aflutter).

But Browne has been a constant for many years, and his 1989 World in Motion album was, to me, his best, least appreciated effort. Coming at the tail end of the Reagan era with the Cold War still raging, it was an album that offered a pretty systematic critique of what America had become in those years.

Remember Reagan’s “Morning in America?” Well, the title track (and first song) gets right to it:

Sun going down in the USA

Down on main, there’s a family sleeping in a doorway

Around the corner you can hear the sound

People dancing around the golden calf

Those who have not those who have

On the billboards and the t.v. screens

They got food and cars and toys and trucks and jeans

Like a homeless child’s fitful dreams

Smiling faces free from wanting

Life’s abundances beyond counting.

And we are off… Packed into that intro is a pretty apt description of what “morning in America” really meant. Is that 31 years ago? Is that today? Reminds of the title of that old Homer Price story: Eversomuchmoreso.

Keep in mind that the proxy wars that characterized the Cold War era but about which most Americans had and have not a clue were mostly focused in Central America at that time. It was a time when America dealt surreptitiously with sworn enemy Iran to arm contras in Nicaragua.

It was illegal and led Browne to write in The Word Justice:

A man stands up before God and country

Raises his right hand and takes an oath

Swears he has acted in the line of duty

And he more than anyone wants to tell the truth

But there is a need to keep some things a secret

Some weapons shipments–some private wars

In the future democracy will be defended

Behind closed doors

Later in the same song, he adds:

And there is a need to keep some things a secret

The names of some countries–the terms of some deals

And above all the sound of the screams of the innocent

Beneath our wheels

And flash forward. Is he talking about Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen? Yeah, people still getting crushed beneath those wheels and illegal arms deals are de rigueur under the current administration too. Plus ca change…

But Browne is not taking down just the powerful. He is asking all of us some pretty hard questions. And though BLM, and SNAP reductions, and sending kids to school amid a raging pandemic could not have been on his mind, he still asks all of us (in How Long)

When you look into a child’s face

And you’re seeing the human race

And the endless possibilities there

Where so much can come true

And you think of the beautiful things

A child can do

How long would the child survive

How long if it was up to you?

Are we going to answer that question? Because the next stanza drives home the challenge.

When you think about the money spent

On defense by a government

And the weapons of destruction we’ve built

We’re so sure that we need

And you think of the millions and millions

That money could feed

And that particular challenge is staring us in the face as we remind ourselves that just two weeks ago both the House and the Senate dutifully passed their versions of the National Defense Authorization Act.

$740 billion (with a “b”).

Reminder: $600 per week benefits for families devastated by COVID-19 have expired, and states and cities devasted by the crisis are set to receive nothing in the Senate version of the bill. And while the House passed a comprehensive bill, the Senate seems to content to do nothing while going all-in on “defense.”

Browne, writing today, might add: “And you think of the millions and millions of tests that money could buy.”

Are we taking a long look in the mirror yet, or is Browne’s How Long question merely a dated remnant of the last endless war? Perhaps we should remind ourselves that budgets will always be moral documents, and each one requires our full attention.

And if you are angry after all of this, and want to strike out (as I do), Browne has some thoughts on that too. Returning to Central America, and a song adapted from a poem by a combattant in those conflicts, Browne channels a way forward in My Personal Revenge.  Living in what I hope is the twilight of the current destructive regime, I want to take it to heart:

My personal revenge will be the right

Of our children in the schools and in the gardens

My personal revenge will be to give you

This song which has flourished without panic…

My personal revenge will be to tell you “good morning”

On a street without beggars or homeless

When instead of jailing you I suggest

You shake away the sadness there that blinds you.

This is what we are fighting for: the right of our children to live in security.

Finally, if your cynicism has led you down the path of hopelessness that this kind of change can ever come, Browne wrote about hope for change–before that change finally came. Let’s remember…

And I come here to praise Mandela

And to bring this message to his jailer

Your walls may hold the man inside

But they’ll never ever hold back the tide

‘Cause in the years you’ve shut him away

A generation has grown where he stood

They’re gonna see the day

When the walls have begun to crumble

When the laws have begun to burn

When the wind is singing freedom

When the stone begins to turn

(When the Stone Begins to Turn)

I listened to World in Motion again as I wrote this, and the current relevance of the injustice Browne called out then made me realize that he stands as a prophet for our time.

Maybe it’s time to pull out some other old albums.

A Time of Sadness

 

 

 

 

Random thoughts on our time.

Compared to many people (millions), my wife and I are privileged to have jobs–jobs that pay well and allow us to work from home.

But change is coming. We will separate in two weeks so my spouse can head east to provide support for our grandchildren. Their schools are “re-opening,” but their mother (our daughter) is opting to keep them home. We support this because community spread in their PA county is high. It is easy to re-open. It is harder to stay open.

My daughter and I talked and concluded that people do not understand this virus.

As we made our plans–I stay here to help launch a more comprehensive response to COVID-19 in our University town (hopefully)–we discussed our feelings. They were feelings of sadness.

Sadness that the worst might happen, and she may never come back to the place she loves. We are not usually worst-case-scenario people, but this virus has taught us that everything can change (a lesson we needed to learn). 

But also sadness that our grandchildren cannot learn with other children.  

Sad that many people there refuse masks and actively call for the recall of a governor who has tried to use evidence-based approaches to dealing with the virus. 

I repeat it, we are the privileged ones, and so it is reasonable to scoff at our sadness.

These have been years of sadness for too many. The president of the United States is a terrible person who has plunged this country into chaos, and still, 30% of Americans support him. I could get angry. But I am just sad.  

He has used race and xenophobia and personal attacks and lies to divide, and he has had no plan except to do more of the same. Sure, that could make us angry, but I think almost four years on most of us have exhausted the anger and merely live in sorrow.

White folks like me have started to come to grips with racism and our long commitment to it, and complicity in it. It feels like the way we have allowed it to worm its way into our society’s interstices is so complete that we can never root it out. In the end, will we even try?

And we are so distracted by the layers of injustice that seem to be laid down every day that we have forgotten that thousands at our southern border live lives of indignity and fear. 

We are harried, and scattered, and troubled, and anxious, and left wondering and wandering.

And even those finding solutions to our national malaise are harassed and threatened and driven out by a punitive fringe who demands that the pain go on so it can cling to power.

I could go on.  

I name the sadness to lament: to structure and give form to my grief.  

To wear it as tattered cloth.  

To adorn my head with it as ashes of a fire that cannot be quenched.  

To cover myself with it as I lay tired and thirsty on the bare earth.

There is a season for lament and mourning.  

Things and people and hopes do pass away.  

It is the way of the world.  

She will pack her bags in two weeks and leave, and we do not know what will happen next. We make these decisions to try to insert some hope in the places where we go–or stay.  

If there is to be an end to our sadness, and there will be, this is how we will practice our lament and walk towards tomorrow.

Community Health Workers: A Key to Contact Tracing for COVID-19

 

 

 

 

This article is the third of three reflections on community health workers (CHWs). The first post is here, and it introduces the general concept of what health workers can do. The second is here, and discusses what community health workers could be doing in homeless populations during the COVID-19 pandemic. These posts have drawn on The WHO guideline on health policy and system support to optimize community health worker programs.

Those guidelines provide recommendations on selecting, managing and supervising, and assuring that CHWs fit well within the communities they serve and have the support they need to succeed. 

To bring the rate of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 down requires essential changes to personal behavior, but also the ability to identify cases rapidly. The latter involves a process known as contact tracing. It has four elements:

  1. Identify cases and reach out to them to discuss their positive status.
  2. Encourage those cases to isolate themselves until their symptoms have passed.
  3. Patiently work with them to identify people with whom they had contact (which is carefully defined).
  4. Reach out to all contacts to ask them to quarantine for a specified period.

CHWs may or not play the role of contact tracers, but we can train them to perform essential functions in interacting with cases and their contacts.

Asking people to isolate or quarantine is straightforward. Helping them to maintain that isolation and quarantine for days is not. Depending on their circumstances, they may face one or more of the following challenges:

  1. Loss of income due to lack of vacation days.
  2. Inability to obtain basic needs due to lack of income or need to stay home.
  3. Loneliness.
  4. Lack of connection to health services if their condition worsens.
  5. Boredom.
  6. Support for other needs, such as caring for relatives who do not live with them.

If we do not address these issues, recommendations to isolate or quarantine will go unheeded, and the risk of viral spread will increase. 

If we can select CHWs who can listen and ask probing questions, if we can support them to problem-solve issues that arrive, and if we can make sure they have access to critical services to which they can connect people, then they can be paired with contact tracers to increase the odds of compliance.

Imagine a CHW connecting immediately with a case or a contact–on the same call during which they receive recommendations for isolation or quarantine. If a CHW could walk through a checklist of potential needs, probe deeper to understand individual fears and constraints, and offer precise support services, they would begin to build a relationship with the individual that will make a huge difference.

Community health workers would then build on that initial contact to do daily or twice per day check-ins with those in isolation or quarantine to ensure they continue to receive the help they need. They would also help do daily symptom assessments and connect their clients to services required in case of emerging or worsening illness. 

The role that they play will free contact tracers to reach out to more cases in a shorter period–a critical need to reduce spread.

It is time to develop position descriptions, training materials, and recruitment guidelines to bring on CHWs to play this role. 

Important Revision

 

 

 

 

In an earlier 30 for 30 post, I shared the Preface to a book I am writing about my time on the City Council in Davis. After I published it, I received feedback about the opening anecdote I shared.

I offered the anecdote to explain how it had opened my eyes to a reality that I had not realized before. As I wrote:

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.

While it is true that the event described in the anecdote was my personal “a-ha” moment, it was not the first time that I experienced this sense of “connectedness” of our City to the world “out there.”

The feedback I received about the anecdote was that it appeared to denigrate the genuine concerns of a citizen who spoke during public comment at a City Council meeting on an important concept. Even though that was not my intent, in re-reading the section in question, I fully understand that critique and accept it.

As I said, this experience was not the first time I had experienced this connectedness, but it was the first time I realized what was happening. The very first time was my third City Council meeting. So, I have re-written the opening anecdote to reflect that experience.

I sincerely appreciate the feedback several people provided, and I believe it will make for a better opening to this book. Here is the post in full. I have highlighted the new section and left the rest as it was.

Preface

In the weeks before my third meeting on the Davis City Council, as “Mayor Pro-Tempore,” during the annual Council summer break, the Davis Police Department took delivery of a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) from the US Department of Defense as part of its “1033 Program” of distributing surplus military equipment to local police departments. 

I had only vaguely heard of the 1033 Program. The MRAP acquisition was, apparently, so non-controversial that the Police Department never informed the City Council of its request. 

The MRAP that arrived in Davis was designed to safely transport soldiers on mission in Iraq down stretches of road mined with improvised explosive devices (IED) laid down by opponents of the US invasion of their country. IEDs had been particularly deadly, and the MRAP’s design allowed it to withstand the explosion and protect those inside.

The first MRAP used in Iraq arrived in 2007, and nearly 12,000 were used throughout the conflict. And then the fighting subsided, and there was no place to go with the equipment. So it came home, and the 1033 Program sent MRAPs out across the land to police departments that merely asked for one.

I will delve more into what happened after it arrived in Chapter X. What is essential here is that the arrival of the MRAP in Davis created an odd connection between our City and a war on the other side of the planet, the people affected by that war, US soldiers who fought that war, and the entire military-industrial complex that could pay to create, ship-out, use, reship-in, store, and then distribute (for free) this particular piece of materiel.  

While most people did not dwell on that connection, I thought about it a great deal and realized that our City that some said lived in a bubble was deeply connected to issues far beyond its borders.

This issue was the first time I experienced the reality that things that happen outside the City, in the world, can and will impact life in the City. It was only later, through other similar experiences, that I was able to name what was happening. What happens “out there” can profoundly affect us “here.” Our connection to these national and global issues should not have surprised me. We live in a globally interconnected world, and Davis, despite its size, is an international City. It was the beginning of my apprenticeship as a localist mayor in a globally-connected world.

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).

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.