A Letter from California

March, 2021

Dear American Conservatives, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, let’s talk… issues.

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

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

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

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

Our trees are stressed, our snowpack a crapshoot.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robb Davis

30 for 30





Humans tell stories.

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

Some are lies.  

Some are Tweets.  

Some are lies within Tweets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Liturgies





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heroes Run Marathons





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

Advice on marathoning:

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

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

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

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

But we dream of heroes.

We need them.

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

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

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

Here are three of them:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m curious who your marathon heroes are.

Privilege: Analogies and Outcomes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some future discussion points:

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

Insurance: Lessons from Mauritania (III et fin)





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confessions of a Globetrotting Cosmpolite






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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then it all changed kind of quickly.

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

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

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

Maybe the realization of years before finally took hold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Council quickly changed the ordinance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This is my confession.


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

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

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

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

Ride and Write


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

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

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

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

It is the tomato harvest in Yolo!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Carquinez Bridge. Mt Tam in the background.

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

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

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

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

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

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




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





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

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

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

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

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

Sun going down in the USA

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

Around the corner you can hear the sound

People dancing around the golden calf

Those who have not those who have

On the billboards and the t.v. screens

They got food and cars and toys and trucks and jeans

Like a homeless child’s fitful dreams

Smiling faces free from wanting

Life’s abundances beyond counting.

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

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

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

A man stands up before God and country

Raises his right hand and takes an oath

Swears he has acted in the line of duty

And he more than anyone wants to tell the truth

But there is a need to keep some things a secret

Some weapons shipments–some private wars

In the future democracy will be defended

Behind closed doors

Later in the same song, he adds:

And there is a need to keep some things a secret

The names of some countries–the terms of some deals

And above all the sound of the screams of the innocent

Beneath our wheels

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

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

When you look into a child’s face

And you’re seeing the human race

And the endless possibilities there

Where so much can come true

And you think of the beautiful things

A child can do

How long would the child survive

How long if it was up to you?

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

When you think about the money spent

On defense by a government

And the weapons of destruction we’ve built

We’re so sure that we need

And you think of the millions and millions

That money could feed

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

$740 billion (with a “b”).

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

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

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

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

My personal revenge will be the right

Of our children in the schools and in the gardens

My personal revenge will be to give you

This song which has flourished without panic…

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

On a street without beggars or homeless

When instead of jailing you I suggest

You shake away the sadness there that blinds you.

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

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

And I come here to praise Mandela

And to bring this message to his jailer

Your walls may hold the man inside

But they’ll never ever hold back the tide

‘Cause in the years you’ve shut him away

A generation has grown where he stood

They’re gonna see the day

When the walls have begun to crumble

When the laws have begun to burn

When the wind is singing freedom

When the stone begins to turn

(When the Stone Begins to Turn)

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

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

A Time of Sadness





Random thoughts on our time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could go on.  

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

To wear it as tattered cloth.  

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

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

There is a season for lament and mourning.  

Things and people and hopes do pass away.  

It is the way of the world.  

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

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