Liturgies of the Bench: Compassion and Lament

Compassion Bench, Davis, CA

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

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

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

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

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

The Compassion Bench in Davis, CA is a place of liturgies—over time and in recent days, it is a place where we have engaged in practices that have formed us to be certain kinds of people.

At the bench we have engaged in a liturgy of compassion—a practice that has formed us to be people of compassion. At the bench (and elsewhere) we have engaged in a liturgy of lament—a practice that has formed us to be people who mourn the brokenness in the world, and express a yearning for healing.

Liturgy of Compassion

David Breaux led us in a liturgy. He did not ask us to think about compassion. Rather, he asked us to write about it, and in the writing to own our ideas in a different way. He fully expected that the act of writing would lead to acts of compassion—and, in fact, for David, compassion meant action.

But beyond the act of writing, in which many of us participated over the years, David sitting at the bench created a daily liturgy. Every time we passed by the bench, we were required to think about our commitments to compassion.

His very presence prompted us to engage in an ongoing formative practice: Have I loved as I should? Have I forgiven? Have I sought forgiveness? Have I been reconciled? Have I pursued reconciliation?

His question “how do you define compassion?” and his presence formed us to be people of compassion.

Liturgy of Lament

David’s death brought many of us back to the bench to engage in another formative practice—another liturgy—that we, as a community, have practiced far too many times in recent years.

This is the liturgy of lament.

As our community has faced devastating events—either directly or in solidarity with others—we have engaged in the formative practice of coming together to express our pain, support one another, and commit to action in the face of our sense of loss.

Whether the event was a murder, a mass killing, a hate crime, or the coming to power of people who dehumanize and destroy, we have come together to lament. We have gathered again, and again, and again to participate in a liturgy of mourning. But our mourning has always been accompanied by a commitment to stand against the hate that we lament.

We have come together to seek and offer solidarity: a hug, a smile of recognition, a communal song, a shared promise, a commitment. This formative practice has had a profound effect on all of us who join in the liturgy of lament. We have left our shared time prepared to not just “carry on,” but to live lives characterized by love and support of our neighbors.

The compassion bench is a place where our community has and will engage in liturgies—formative practices: practices that form us to be people who will face the challenges of our time with grace, compassion, and a will to seek change.

Two Davids

In the space of just a few months, two dear friends, both unhoused, both named David, died in my hometown. My relationship with each one was complex. But I loved them both, and both of them taught me lessons I could not have learned anywhere else.

Because both were named David, if you search online you can find them. I sit here tonight sad that I was not a better friend to David—both Davids.

Two Davids

Two Davids taken this year

One by train

The other by knife.

Bodies riven. Life

Driven from them

(We cannot pause too long, to consider the violence that renders flesh inert)

Oh David

Oh David

Two Davids

There was no place for them, for

We made no place for them.

They slept in “locations not meant for human habitation”

A definition.

And we allowed that because

They might inconvenience us, or

They made choices, or

We lack the fiscal resources, or

It’s not our problem, or

I just don’t have any fucking time for this right now.

Two Davids

David behind a jailhouse glass, stable

We speak of Ellul, and Keizer, and Help and what it takes to succeed in the world—what would it take?

David on the corner, purpose-driven

We speak of sympathy, empathy, compassion and the potential to heal all of mankind—what would it take?

Two Davids

I see David on the curb between two cops—they will beat him

I see David on the bench—they will confide in him (and reveal their lostness)

I see David, sitting in a circle with a homeless crowd too impaired to speak—he shares pizza with them and binds up their many wounds. Oh, they are wanderers on the planet and they will never find peace, but David feeds them.

I see David, standing on the corner with a housed crowd too privileged to identify the source of their angst—he shares a space with them and binds up all their many wounds. Oh, they are wanderers on the planet and they refuse to find peace, but David feeds them.

Two Davids

Oh, god. They left too soon.

They were the best of us—without portfolio

We simply could not see.

In other times or places, maybe

Maybe we would have made a place for them

A space for them

But we are not in that space/time—that universe

Out here and now in this place—in this space

We are poorer

They are gone.

Two Davids

If there were fairness

If there were just a tiny space for justice that restores

If there were an economy that valued peacemaking, truth telling, and love offering.

If there were a world in which gifts of healing were honored

If there were a place for two Davids

Two Davids

Vignettes from the Domino Years

Robert Richards: Mr. President, would you mind commenting on the strategic importance of Indochina to the free world? I think there has been across the country some lack of understanding on just what it means to us. 

Eisenhower: You have the possibility that many human beings pass under a dictatorship that is inimical to the free world. You have broader considerations that might follow, of what you would call the falling domino principle. You have a row of dominoes set up. You knock over the first one and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. You could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.

(From an April 1954 United States president Dwight Eisenhower press conference where he was asked, among other things, about the communist victory in Indochina.)

Soviet Russia is expansively stabbing westward, knifing into nations left empty by war. Already, an iron curtain had dropped around Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria.

(Allegedly from a 1950’s newscast)

You cannot save me
You can’t even save yourself
I cannot save you
I can’t even save myself
Save yourself
So just save yourself

Lyrics from “Save Yourself” by the industrial rock band “Stabbing Westward”

The Domino Years


Chin in hands, I kneel by the hide-a-bed in the front room (where I am never allowed to play) and watch her, sleeping. I am four years old. I turn and there is my sister in the doorway.

“Is mommy going to die?”

“Come away and leave her alone now, she’s tired.”

I know what “die” means. Not too many months before, I sit on the lap of first this, then that, sister, aunt, or cousin while they take turns filing past his coffin. I am not allowed to go see, but I catch a glimpse of my grandpa (a scary man with a severe grin who is dead of a tumor, allegedly brought on by too many head beatings by cops who caught him stumbling drunk). His lips are pressed, his skin ashen. They all say “He’s not here, Robbie. He’s gone to heaven.” They hope.  

But I see them put him in the ground and I know I will never see him again. So, when I ask “Is mommy going to die?” What I mean is “Is mommy going to go away and never come back?” And they don’t know.

I am shunted here and there and eventually she leaves that bed… but changed. She can’t sing. She can’t use her right side. She can’t stand crowds—ever again. But she does not go away forever. Not yet.


The phone rings and Cheryl answers. Mom’s at the top of the steps. Cheryl announces, upon hanging up: “Uncle Vernon died.” And mom sits down on the steps and cries and cries and cries. Her “retarded” brother (as we said back then), who was always fragile and whom she always protected. Gone now too, before things really got going.

And they hustle me off to school and her eyes are red when I get home at lunch. I don’t like to see her cry. It devastates her visage—her face just breaks apart. I am sad for a long time. 


They stand in the kitchen—all of them are smoking as they always do—Rod, Larry, Darryl, Dave. And they decide not to wait. They aren’t going to be forced to do anything they don’t really want to do. If Uncle Sam might come for them, then they are going to go on their terms.  

So, they decide to go together to enlist. I am not sure exactly what it means, but I know it means they are all going away—a brother, two cousins, and a “near cousin.” This is before the pictures and numbers show up every night on the TV. I think my dad is proud. I know he went to the big war (the good war), and I know it defines him in some way he never talks about. 

My brother Rod goes Air Force, Dave and Daryl to the Army, and Larry (the smartest of the bunch) goes to the Marines. And soon they are gone. I don’t know when they will be home. I will miss them.


Coletti answers the phone—it’s snowing, and school is delayed. She goes pale and turns the phone over to mom. It’s Terry—smarter than even Larry—with his long hair and “hippy” clothes. He’s gone. He took off for the border. He’s not going to let Uncle Sam come for him.  

I hear the shame in my mother’s voice—I will hear it years later, after the domino years—when my sister reveals that she is pregnant “out of wedlock.” These are things we do not talk about. These are our family’s shames.

For my dad, Terry is a traitor. No discussion.


Sitting on the floor by the TV—evening news. Dad watches and the images of planes and bombs and jungle places mix to form a confusing story of something bad happening far away. And every evening, the numbers. Hard to imagine what they mean, but what they represent are dead people. People who “fight for us” far away.  

I can see dad is angry—every day he watches, and he blames Johnson. I know he hates him, but I don’t know why. And later the Smothers Brothers are on, and they make fun of Johnson and everyone laughs. Everyone knows “it” is all his fault. Coming out of the kitchen, mom dries her hands on the dish towel and says that they should not be so disrespectful to the President.  Dad says he’s a scoundrel.


More bodies on TV and it finally hits me that one of them could be Larry, or Rod, or Daryl, or Dave. I don’t know where they are, but I know they are “over there” and now I know they might never come home. It seems so strange to hold that thought. Just like grandpa. Just like mom. They might go away, and I will never see them again. Except now I know that death is a thing that happens to everyone. It could happen to them. They could be a number on TV.


It’s Monday night and Bob Gibson is pitching. I know I can’t stay up to watch the whole thing but watch I will until I am forced to bed. His wind-up is merely the preliminary indication that a pitch will explode out of his hand and it is all controlled rage and he flings it home and they never seem to hit it—but he hits them sometimes.  

And… I. Love. Bob. Gibson.  

I ache when I think about him. And he and Lou Brock (his teammate) are the only black people I “know.”  


I am a lefty (Bob’s a righty), but I take the “mound” out by the barn door, and I hold that ball just like Bob. I wind up just like Bob. Every day is the 7th game of the World Series, and it’s always the bottom of the 9th, and there are always three batters who I (Bob) strike out every time. I sleep with my glove and more than anything else I want to be—I mean I want to really BE—Bob Gibson.


And now he IS coming home. Rod, my brother. Dar and I are in Diane’s room and we want to speak some words in another language. We don’t know much, but we know Rod is coming from a place where they do not speak English. We don’t know what they speak, but all of a sudden, I know that there are places where people speak words that I cannot understand. Diane knows a bit of Spanish, so we try that out and then Dad adds some German and we are in heaven.

He’s coming home! It has been a while.

And dad pulls out a chewing tobacco pouch (where did he get THAT? It turns out he has lots of “hidden things” from his war, but we only ever see bits and pieces) and pulls out some money from other places. There is so much and it looks so strange.  

Rod is coming home tonight! And we have new words and new money to welcome him home from a place we cannot imagine. Mom says it is only “leave” and it won’t last long. But at least he is coming home.

And it’s about 2:00 am and Cheryl wakes me up and says “he’s here!” I head to the kitchen and mom is there, and Diane is there, and Coletti is there, and Dar and I are there and there he is in UNIFORM! And he looks fine. And mom is hugging and crying (but not the bad kind).  

But it’s 2:00 am and Rod has on sunglasses…

His body is here but he isn’t. He hugs me but says little. So many questions. So few answers.

He stays for about five days. He talks about how green it is here (yeah, so what?), he talks about the food (oh my, THIS is home), but he doesn’t talk about where he’s been and what he’s seen. He doesn’t speak foreign words.  

Most of the time he sits outside and smokes. And then he’s gone.

And he never once takes off those sunglasses.  


I read the book over and over and over. “My Life” (as I recall), by Bob Gibson. It’s a “Scholastic Book” that I beg my mom to buy from the school book sale and I can hardly believe my luck. Bob Gibson! A whole book.

And I read it again.

Shock. Born in Omaha, Bob was sick with asthma. I ask mom what that means and am surprised that he overcame it to be the man he is.  

But the shock comes from elsewhere. Bob Gibson, my hero and one of the greatest men to walk the planet was not allowed to stay in the same hotel as his teammates when he was in the minors. 


Because he was black.

I ask my mom. And I ask my dad. And I ask my teacher. How is that possible? And they all answer that this is how it was (and my teacher wonders absently if it still is). And the reality explodes in my mind and for the first time ever I wonder at what justice means (though I do not have that word yet—I think of “fair”). If Bob Gibson could be treated this way, then truly awful things are possible.  

And I see the picture of the naked girl running far away (and I see her in my nightmares) and wonder if she is like Bob Gibson. 


He comes for the weekend. We don’t know him, but my sister Diane says he is far from home, so she offered to have him stay with a family as part of his “leave.” It is some special thing they do to provide a home for those who can’t make it all the way home.

I like him. Like Larry, he is a Marine. He catches me while I pitch in the back yard. I tell him about Bob Gibson. He’s nice. His eyes always look towards the fields. 

On Sunday we go to church, and I wonder. Is he a Christian? Is he saved? My mom asks him afterward and he smiles. She presses on. I feel embarrassed. And he says that he is okay.

We sit in the backyard after “dinner” (noon meal on Sunday), and he smokes. I think my sister likes him and wonder if he might stay and then marry her. I like him.

He says he needs to go for a drive. He leaves, and never returns. I feel a little sick. I cry.

I wonder if it was church that scared him away. Or didn’t he like my sister? Or didn’t he like me? Or was there something about being in a normal family doing normal things that was just too hard to bear. I don’t know. But for the first time I hate my church. I hate it for how it sends people to hell. These are nice people. Why do they have to go to hell.

I wish there was something I could do to make him come back and play with me. Later, I wonder if he will be a number on the news. 


Bobby gets shot and all my sisters cry. 

Martin gets shot and my dad says “good.”


And then they are all coming home. For good. And they stand in the kitchen and smoke. Then they head to the basement, and they fight. They wrestle and then Dave and Daryl box. No gloves. And they laugh a laugh of crazy men and there is blood, and it smells funny and I get scared, so I leave and go upstairs to watch Mod Squad.  

Mom yells down the steps saying, “You boys need to stop it.” But they just laugh and they sound crazy and I am still scared. A tooth comes out and there are deep cuts. They just laugh until they are rolling on the ground crying.

We all support Lt Calley—we even have signs “Justice for Lt. Calley” in our front yard. But I am confused, because it seems clear that lots of women and children WERE killed over there. Maybe that is just the way war is, but this time it seems like it was on purpose. But we stand by the country and the military because they keep us safe from communism. If we don’t support him they will know we are weak.


I am in the backseat of a Cobra Mustang. Dave is there and people I don’t know. We are taking a drive out north of Bowmansville and I feel lucky to be along with these big guys. And on that straight stretch just before we leave Lancaster and head into Berks on 625, they press the pedal to the floor and for the first time (but not the last) I am in a car on a back road going 100 miles per hour. And they laugh the same laugh as in the basement when they fought, and I get scared, again.

They don’t have to tell me not to tell my mom, but I know I can’t, and I won’t. But I never go with them again.

Afterward they stand outside and smoke and they drive away into the night. And later they crash that car (or another) and run away. No one gets hurt (how?) but the cops nab them, and Dave spends a little time in jail.

But they keep getting fast cars and they drive fast. Somehow I know they need speed like some people need a drug. 

And now when Dave, and Daryl, and Larry come around, I just stay away. They are all home, but they are not the people who left. And they never will be. Blood and speed and fighting and violence mark their days. Maybe until they die.

Rod is in California by now, and I know he may never come back.

No one talks about what happened over there.


I run as fast as I can from the house along the garden towards the end of the yard where the fields start, singing “California Here I Come.” I don’t know most of the lyrics, but if I could fly I would go to that place that may or may not exist—but it must, because Rod is there. And the idea of the place fills me with a yearning that I sometimes feel when I think about Bob Gibson.


I am in my bed, and it’s late. I beg Jesus to save me, to not let me go to hell; to let me be taken when all the other Christians (like my mom) are taken. I hear the radio preacher: “the goal of the Soviet Union is to plant the Soviet flag on Independence Square in Philadelphia by July 4, 1976.” And neither Philadelphia nor 1976 are that far away.  

The end of the world is coming, and I cry into my blanket begging Jesus to forgive my sins—of which there are so many, all of them secret. Like how I say bad words when no one is around, or how I think about drinking “liquor” and wonder what that would be like. No doubt, I will be left behind and then what? I don’t know.

All I know is that what is happening over there—and things are not going well—is the beginning of this end. It’s all going to fall down.


Then the Smothers Brothers sign off—apologizing to Johnson on the way out.

Then Rod comes home for a bit and argues with dad about Nixon. He laughs in dad’s face and says the man is a criminal while dad calls the Democrats communists. And Rod says the whole thing—the war—is just a joke. And when he leaves, I know he won’t come back this time. I wonder if dad and Rod hate each other because dad’s war was good and Rod’s war was bad.

Then the violence is everywhere—cities, campuses (they killed some people in Ohio), and in places I do not know—and I am afraid of black people (except Bob Gibson and Lou Brock) and hippies (except the Jesus People), and Dar says the fires in California are a sign of the end. I pray every night to be saved. Most nights I cry.

Then, mom and dad are going off to a reunion of all the sailors that were on dad’s ship. He comes home talking non-stop about all they did in the war. It’s like a flood gate has opened and now we know it was a good war. And we know that, unlike this one, everyone knew it was just and right and noble. Mom says the reunion involved a lot of drinking and lot of storytelling that she couldn’t follow. But she is glad dad went. He didn’t drink—and for some reason it is then that she tells me he used to. Drink that is. A lot. And she tells me that she told him, long before I was born, that he had to stop, or she would leave. And he did. And apparently Jesus and the Bible Fellowship Church helped.

Then mom sits me down after I do not get into a special program that allows 6th graders to go to the high school for special programs once per week. Ross and Bill got to go. I didn’t—though I took some tests to see if I should. And she tells me that “people like us” don’t get to do those things because they are for “well off” people. And we are not that. And she warns me, as she holds me by the shoulders that the world is not fair and that people like us—people like me—will have to work extra hard because the world is set up to benefit the “well off.” But, in my heart, I know Ross and Bill are just smarter than me (though I am not dumb).

And then they are all coming home, and I watch on TV as they arrive in California, at an air base. And everyone seems angry about the whole thing.

And we can’t save them and that they can’t save themselves. And they wander the streets for years, or they end up beating their wives (like Dave) or failing at marriage (like Rod and Larry). Or they drink themselves back to the hills from where my mom and dad migrated because, as my Uncle Ronnie says (some years later), the womenfolk had to get their men out of there or they would “die of drink.” 


The dominos never fall—but someone pounds the table and the dominos scatter all over the world. And every place they land there is devastation. Not always the devastation of a hot war, but myriad proxies that ALWAYS lay waste to villages where women and children die first.  

Dominos land first in South America, then spread to Africa—places like the Horn, Angola, Zaire. Then they circle back to Central America. And in every single place they land people die because that’s what happens with the dominos. They never “fall” one way or the other, they just get scattered around and the weak people die first, in large numbers. And all I see are dead children and their moms. And I wonder who does all the killing and maiming, and how they get the weapons to carry out those massacres. 

Epilogue: After the Domino Years


In a Land Rover traveling the 600 km between Kiffa and Nouakchott, along the “Road of Hope” (such a cruel name). It is just us two. Carla and me—”aid workers” dealing with malnutrition, high infant and child mortality rates, anemic moms, and lack of food and water in a place where the desert never ceases to advance.

We are children of the domino years and so we spend a long portion of that trek across the dunes asking ourselves: “How did those years affect us? What does it all mean to who we have become?” She has her father, I have my cousins and brothers, so it was all pretty close at hand.

Try as we might, we cannot put our finger on what those years did to us, what they made us become. In the end, we wonder if the guilt of it all is what has driven us to this place. We fight the urge to be saviors, but we wonder why we feel a burden to be just that.  

In the end, we just grow quiet as the brown haze dims the landscape of one more place the domino years touched in complex—if not direct—ways.


I push him through the halls of the Vets Hospital in Lebanon. It’s Saturday and we are literally (literally!) all alone in the corridors and the walkways outdoors. Dad is in hospice. I come from California to be with him in these final days.

I arrive on Thursday to a nascent spring in late May and drive out from Philly to see him. He is upright and lucid, and we talk about where he is, but not why.  

On Friday he is on his back, breathing difficult, clearly in discomfort. The doc comes in (a Colonel?) and I try to find a way to ask if they practice any form of euthanasia, because dad is going to die, and he is in so much pain now. And, of course, the doc will not answer that question. Oh, I don’t ask him straight out, but we all know what we are talking about here. He takes me aside and asks: 

“When are you going back to California?”  

And I say, “I have to leave Monday, early” (the election in which I will win a seat on the City Council in my hometown is next week). 

He says: “Your dad is not going to make it to Monday. We will make him comfortable.” 

And that is all I need to know.

On Saturday he seems a bit better, and they let me wrap him up on a white sheet (like a death shroud), and wheel him around the hospital grounds and hallways. We spend most of the afternoon—just us two—we have never done this, ever. He drifts in and out. Not much to say.

I reminisce about Bowmansville—not too far from where we are now. The people we knew. The place it was—the foundation of all those years. I mention Roy Wise, dad’s former boss, and wonder what happened to him. Suddenly dad is talking—a lot. Roy died just weeks ago; he tells me. I doubt this, figuring that dad is confused (I later learn it is true). And then he is off talking about random bits from life in those years.

And then he says, without reference to anything I can discern: “They all lied to us, you know.”

“They lied to us?” I prompt.

“Vietnam and all the rest. It was a lie, always lies. I hated that war so much. That is the way it always was.”

And that’s it. He stops as abruptly as he began. I push him around and then head back to his room without much more to say. He’s done talking.

Sunday I am with him mid-morning. He never wakes up. Rod came east and we are meeting at Dar’s house for one final gathering before we fly home. I leave the hospital and drive thirty minutes to Dar’s. I walk in and Dar puts a hand on my arm. “Dad just passed away.” And all I think is “The doctor really nailed it.” 

“They lied to us…” goes home to California with me.


Chin in hands, I sit on the end of her bed. A nursing home where she can rest. Decades have passed since she lost her singing voice, the use of her right side, and the ability to be in even small crowds. Now, over these past five years, she has lost everything else. Alzheimer’s. The end is near.

Except for not quite everything. Some memories stored in a part of her brain that Alzheimer’s has not touched remain. And they are vivid and detailed—and, at times, shocking. 

(Yes, she was “molested” by an uncle where she was sent to live in the depths of the Depression years. Yes, she was propositioned by the fundamentalist pastor who held so much sway over our lives—”just a little kiss” he begged.)

I sit there, minutes from leaving to head back to California, and I know she is going away and not coming back. She is not sure who I am or why I am there, but her memories wander to my birth—the birth of her “baby” Robbie—the last of her six. She describes a glorious spring day and the exhilaration of knowing this is her last child. The beauty of that moment when they gave me to her.

I say, “Mom, that’s me. I’m Robbie.”

She gives me that conspiratorial grin I have seen from time to time throughout my life. Her way of winking, though she is unable to wink. She is in on the joke.

“No, you’re not”, she chuckles. “He’s just a baby.”

Just a baby. Always a baby. Always her baby, born into a world that would change everything for everyone in such a short time.

At the very beginning of the domino years. 

Literacy encourages a culture to place more value on documentation and less on subjective experience… (T)he details we choose to remember are a reflection of our personalities.

Ted Chiang in Exhalation

Quick Thoughts: Mission and Brand


These concepts are distinct though connected, but they may be confused in some people’s minds. More specifically, many people use logo and brand interchangeably. The two are linked, but a brand is an attribute that organizations nurture, while a logo is a mere visual representation used to evoke the brand rapidly.

And even though a mission is, ostensibly, what they should place at the center of their work, many organizations spend significant time and money constructing, promoting, and protecting their brand.

Brands can be largely divorced from the mission or only nominally connected to it. Though most organizations would say they are focused on their mission, many are more focused on their brand. So it is essential to understand what brands are.

Brands are about allegiance. 

Missions are about ends. Organizations can use missions to construct brands, but brands are not necessarily connected to the actual accomplishment of an organization’s mission. 

See this page for some interesting thoughts on brands:

“(B)rands live in the mind. They live in the minds of everyone who experiences them: employees, investors, the media, and, perhaps most importantly, customers.

Simply put, brands are perceptions.”

Brands are not logos, products, goods, or services. Organizations design and nurture brands to encourage people to feel a certain way about the organization; perceive it in a certain way; to grow attached to it as an extension of an individual’s identity. A good brand will add itself to a person’s identity (“I am an Apple user,” “Patagonia is my kind of company,” “The ACLU represents what I stand for”).

Two additional thoughts on brands:

1. Marketing and communications departments focus much of their attention on brand mobilization, promotion, and protection. Communication is rarely merely neutral “fact provision.” Instead, communication strategies use facts (hopefully) and narratives about those facts to support and promote the brand. The facts are subservient to the story, which in turn supports brand identification, leading to allegiance to the brand and organization. 

2. CEOs or Executive Directors are melded with the brand and may function as a kind of logo of their own. The careful curation of a leader’s image can be an essential additive element of an organizational brand. So, a university may promote its president/chancellor as a scientist with appropriate gravitas AND endearing father-like qualities. A non-profit might portray its leader as driven to achieve results with many images of them “in the field” with those the organization seeks to serve. 

These two things result in organizations spending significant resources “telling their story” in the most compelling and favorable light possible. Descriptions of the challenges to achieving the mission, the limits of an organization’s effectiveness, or the complexity of the issues give way to stories of success and changed lives. Images of or meaningful quotes from the leader–whose depth of understanding of the issues and challenges–accompany the stories and prove the seriousness of the organization’s attention to achieving its mission.

There is nothing inherently wrong with these efforts. Still, they can and do lead away from an attention to the actual work of achieving the mission and consume significant staff and financial resources. In addition, when the proper “ends” of the organization become the creation of allegiance to the organization, the organization can go astray. It can dissemble, fail to assess progress towards its mission (especially if evidence of impact is difficult to obtain or evidence of change is lacking), promote the leader rather than the organization’s ends, and end up misleading its supporters about what it is doing.

Privilege Means Never Having To Accept “No”

(Note: This is another “chapter” in a book I am (slowly) writing about my experience as a member of the City Council in my small city. This is a “foundational” part of the book)

Those least likely to want to talk about privilege, let alone acknowledge they benefit from it, are those who have the most of it.  Privilege does not derive from one thing but is a multi-layered reality, with some having many layers and others none at all.  

As a white, educated male, in the US, in 2022, the layers of my privilege are apparent.  These “ layers “ provide me with various advantages and life options that others do not have.  And I am not merely thinking in abstract, “macro-level” terms. For example, on a day-to-day basis, I see how my voice is privileged in certain situations simply because I am a man who also happens to be a former mayor.  I have many layers of privilege. 

And, I have met people without a single layer—a former slave woman in a West African nation who lives without choices, swept along by the choices of others who determine everything—down to the daily routine of her life—for her.  Think of a decision you are able (privileged) to make.  There are people in this world without the right to make that or any decision.  Yes, they exist.

Therefore, that we have choices, that we can say “yes” or “no” in a given situation, is a sign of at least some privilege.  For many, the ability to say “yes”—or, as the title of this chapter suggests, never having to accept “no”—extends to many aspects of life.  

The domains over which we exercise control are, in this analogy, the layers of our privilege.  And you can take this analogy pretty far.  Just as layers of clothing or armament protect us against the elements of the world and its conflicts, so too, privilege protects and coddles us, keeping us separated from the harshness of our world. 

But like our skin or the clothes we slide into each day, we barely give our privilege much thought. The layers of clothes serve a function, and we do not consider that function to be anything special.  The layers are a “given” of our lives.  Of course, we have them.  Of course, we need them.  Of course.

And so, when someone points out one or more of the “privilege-layers,” we are likely to grow indignant.  Indignant because they seem so inevitable to us—so natural, so rightfully ours. 

We might also grow indignant because of confusion over another term that, while related to privilege, is quite distinct from it. That word is “merit.” How often have you seen (or experienced yourself) the sentiment like this: “Well, I am not sure if it is privilege; I mean, I worked for what I have.  Nothing has been handed to me. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth.”

There are two things wrong with this.  The first is simple: the privilege you have may have developed because of your hard work—no debate there.  But that does not mean it is not privilege.  You still have that “layer.”  No matter how you came by it. But, second, most of us, including you if you are reading this, probably did not derive all our privilege (all those layers) simply because we worked hard. 

A friend reminded me recently: what matters most in life is where you were born, when you were born, and who your parents were.  All of that predates your hard work and is arguably true.

Suppose you grew up in the US, in the post-war years of rapid economic growth, with parents who did not abuse you. In that case, those realities provide you with privileges that the vast majority of humans who have ever lived—including many alive today—could never have dreamed of.  Those three realities position you to have things, do things, make choices, and have personal autonomy and security that most people will never know. 

When people of privilege surround one, privilege itself becomes the water in which one swims and, like culture, it becomes invisible. Easy to ignore, easy to deny. 

And that describes the city in which I served.  The denial (or minimization) of privilege was the source of much of the frustration that people expressed to me.  It was the cause of endless arguments that led to no meaningful outcome.  It was the underlying cause of our inability to celebrate anything we had accomplished together. 

Because, after all, privilege means never having to accept “no.”  So even when there is a “yes,” it probably is not the exact “yes” I had in mind.  And my experiences suggest that privilege means not only never having to accept “no,” but also never having to compromise at all.

So what does this look like locally?  Why does privilege have such a privileged place in this work? In each of the chapters that follow, we will return to the question of privilege because, in one sense, it is part of every decision in a town where so many have so many layers of privilege.  But here are a few examples.  If you live in California, none of the following will strike you as unique or odd.  But my point is that they illustrate how I experienced privilege in the day-to-day and week-to-week work I did as a Council member and Mayor.

A street redesign to make it safer for bicyclists (especially kids) and pedestrians (children and elderly) to safely use a busy street segment faces loud opposition from over 200 residents at a public meeting.  They point to the change (wrongly) as the cause of traffic back-ups.  They demand the street be returned to its initial design, which is safe for neither of the other user groups but autos only.  They threaten elected officials and demean and accuse staff of wrongdoing.  They are angry, and they fully expect to be heard. They succeed in convincing the Council to spend 4.5 million dollars on adding an automobile lane that will not solve the traffic backup problem. 

A neighborhood opposes a new housing project as too dense and too high.  They mobilize their neighbors (though some quietly come forward to support the project but admit they cannot do so publicly for fear of backlash from their neighbors).  At issue is the number of stories.  The community demands no more than three; the project calls for four.  But, the community does not realize that three stories could mean 15 feet each, and four stories could mean 10 feet each.  You do the math.  When local government approves the project, the well-financed project “neighbors” sue.  The project is on a bus line and a two-minute walk from regional rail.

(Note: lawsuits related to land-use issues are ubiquitous across the state.  Many of them rely on the California Environmental Quality Act or CEQA, a 1970s law that requires an analysis of the environmental impact of many housing, commercial, and transportation projects. While CEQA has utility in protecting fragile ecosystems and preventing sprawl, it is increasingly mobilized to push housing development away from denser urban settings, requiring residents in those areas to commute longer distances and emit more carbon.  CEQA lawsuits are also used increasingly to strangle transit and even biking infrastructure improvements)

The City proposes a “bike park” (dirt track with small hills and bumps to build biking skills and have fun!) for children.  Three sites are examined.  Homeowners near one park demand that “their park” be removed from consideration.  After all, they bought their homes near the park with the clear understanding that it would be green space and “quiet” (it is a public park).  A bike park would disturb their calm and reduce the value of their houses.  They accuse the city of disregarding commitments they claimed it made to them when they purchased their homes that the park would remain as it is (I have seen this kind of argument a LOT, but could never identify any covenants or commitments promising this kind of thing—trust me, I looked).

A narrow commercial strip between the freeway and homes is proposed to be developed into a high-end hotel.  Neighbors object, claiming that it would disrupt their privacy, that patrons would be a danger to their children (as in “hotel guests would engage in sexual predation”—I am completely serious), and that traffic would increase on arterials and destroy the calm of their neighborhood. Despite significant outreach by the developer, the community demanded that the project be scrapped.  They claimed that the city was “dumping” risky projects in their neighborhood.

And, I could go on.  People would acknowledge that more dense housing is needed but ask it be placed “somewhere else.”  When asked where they would indicate that that was my responsibility.  Others flooded my inbox with staunch opposition to paid parking downtown, for which ample evidence exists that it helps manage scarce spaces.  The same people would complain bitterly about the lack of open parking spaces downtown. And rather than accept a senior affordable housing project on a vacant city lot, “open space” advocates convinced Council to turn it into an empty lot with a few trees and walking paths. 

Over time, I saw that privilege suffused most critical decisions I was called upon to make.  My observation is that privilege is related to what Joan Didion called “the dream we no longer admit.”  That dream, which comes from our secret admiration for a Howard Hughes life, is a dream of complete autonomy, the ability to live our lives as we want without needing to engage the other. When I saw privilege, I saw people telling me: just leave me alone, as I am RIGHT NOW to live my life free of change, free of inconvenience, free of needing to alter anything in my life.

In this sense, the ultimate “end” of privilege is “freedom from”—the ability to never have to accept “no.”


A trope is a rhetorical device that “establishes a predictable or stereotypical representation of a character[1].” A dog whistle is, perhaps, a particular type of trope intended for specific audiences who understand its meaning and significance. In a literary sense, “tropes become popular because they work. Tropes get used again and again because they speak to us on some deep level and connect with our experiences, fears, and hopes[2].”

Tropes may be grounded in a historical stereotype that becomes a shorthand for a group characteristic that demonstrates their inferiority or danger. Stereotypes that evolve into tropes, and in some cases, dog whistles, can be long-lasting and represent durable representations of entire groups. 

They can be used and mobilized to categorize and create us/them distinctions.  Indeed, given their presumably occult content, dog whistles specifically appeal to an in-group to build solidarity among members.  Dog whistles draw on terms that speak at a deep level and connect to fears. 

Anti-Semitic and anti-black tropes are so common that extensive lists have been compiled to alert people to their use. See, for example, the American Jewish Committee’s Glossary of antisemitic terms, phrases, conspiracies, cartoons, themes, and memes. And though the focus here is on rhetorical tropes, visual tropes are used in media that elicit specific expected responses or behaviors.  See familiar racialized TV tropes here.

Typical contemporary anti-Semitic tropes include accusations of receiving “Soros’ money” (in my childhood, it was Rothchild’s money) or belonging to a cosmopolitan elite—a concept that Stalin utilized and was used recently by Putin concerning oligarchs. In Putin’s case, he is NOT saying they are Jews; he merely says they are dangerous like the “rootless cosmopolitans” of the Stalinist era.

There are tropes related to unhoused individuals, the most common and enduring being the use of “transient” to describe them.  This indicates that unhoused individuals are not from “here”; they are not one of us; they are aliens. 

And, of course, Lee Atwater’s entire Southern Strategy was a series of tropes that evolved as the N-word became unutterable in public.  As Atwater made clear, that led to using other words that meant the same thing. Terms like busing, state’s rights (making a comeback in recent weeks), and later, economic issues related to welfare and the lazy poor.

Lately, a trope of seemingly recent origin has shown up nationally and locally in the news.  This trope combines some elements of being soft on pedophiles, accepting child pornography, or, more insidiously, engaging in “grooming” children to be sexually abused by gay people.

I say seemingly recent origin because most of us relate these tropes to the rise of Q-Anon and the accusation that Democratic Party leaders and members are engaged in a global conspiracy to enslave and sexually abuse children. 

While laughable in one sense, the Q-Anon conspiracy led to potentially serious consequences when a Q-Anon believer showed up armed at a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC. It is interesting how far into the mainstream this conspiracy has, since then, come in the form of a trope or several related tropes. 

But this trope is not new.  In an excellent Mother Jones article: Why Are Right-Wing Conspiracies so Obsessed With Pedophilia? Ali Breland traces the historical durability of not just the conspiracy but the tropes that have flowed from it.  Indeed, this particular trope is one of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes—the trope of the blood libel.  It has been around since the Middle Ages and accuses Jews of using children in human sacrifice.

The trope mobilizes our fear about protecting the most vulnerable members of our families and communities. It is bound up in our evolution and is always visceral—leaving a feeling of revulsion. 

Perhaps, therefore, we should not have been surprised to see this trope rolled out during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson.  Notice that no one had to say she had cozied up to pedophiles; they merely had to question her sentencing record.  Once the trope was unleashed, it mattered little that the record shows that she has dealt with this category of crime in ways that are the norm.  The doubt is sown; the trope has established Judge Jackson as a certain kind of character.  In her case, this character is someone who will, if given a chance, endanger our children.  She is a danger.

When District Attorney Jeff Reisig used a similar trope in a campaign advertisement (alert?) attacking Cynthia Rodriguez, he did the same thing.  The trope is designed to place Ms. Rodriguez beyond the pale—not just someone who is likely to coddle criminals, but the worst kind of predators.  She is a danger.

I will also note that the image in the Reisig ad also added a half-page of money images, which raises the question of whether statements about Soros’ support for so-called progressive DA candidates might be on the horizon.  Reisig supporters in the last campaign used that trope. 

(I must address the “accusation” briefly in the Reisig ad.  The Rodriguez campaign received donations from two people associated with individuals convicted of sex crimes—sex with underage people.  This is not under dispute.  But the rapid move to unleash the “support for pedophiles” trope obscures the question of why those donations were made and, more importantly, whether they say anything about how Rodriguez will handle accusations of criminal behavior related to sex with children or child pornography that might come before her as DA. First, we know about these donations because the donors (or family members of the donors, more correctly) had committed and been convicted in very public ways.  They are known offenders.  Second, there is no legal reason they cannot contribute to a campaign, whatever their crimes.  And third, perhaps their contributions say more about their treatment by the DA’s office than their support for the DA’s opponent.)

The ubiquity of media—social and informational—has multiplied appeals to stereotypes, led to the rapid proliferation of memes, and led to the recycling and repurposing of even ancient tropes.  It is incumbent upon us, the consumers of these media, to recognize the way terms, concepts, and images are used to connect, especially in these times, to our fears.

We claim to want elections and governmental processes to be about “the issues,” but we too often allow tropes and other rhetorical mechanisms to fashion and dictate our engagement. 

We do not need tropes in this race; we need substantive discussions and debate about such issues as AB 1928, the purpose of bail, appropriate and inappropriate uses of restorative justice, charging philosophies and plea bargaining, and mental health and criminality.  



Apple Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Current Public Health Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Director and Department of Public Health and Safety will 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paying for it

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

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

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

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

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

Power Dynamics and Institutional Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hesitant: Vignettes from the Front Lines of Vaccine Promotion

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

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

They are vaccine-hesitant.

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

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

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

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

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

1. “This is NOT a conspiracy theory!”

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

“Yes, I got it.”

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

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

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

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

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

2. “I’m scared”

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

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

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

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

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

Needle fear? Apparently not.  

Fear of side effects? Maybe a bit.

“It’s just so new… so fast.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. They mistrust the government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Letter from California

March, 2021

Dear American Conservatives, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, let’s talk… issues.

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

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

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

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

Our trees are stressed, our snowpack a crapshoot.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robb Davis