Monthly Archives: November 2013


Hi Friends,
I’m signing offline until December. I wish you all a lovely Thanksgiving, Chanukah, or week.

Sorry to leave you in suspense on Fiction Friday, but I’ll be back to posting in no time.


The Welcome Project

Last night I had the privileged of joining the board of The Welcome Project.

I’ve been lucky to work with The Welcome Project, serving for the past two years as the chair of the event committee for YUM: A Taste of Immigrant City. (Save the date: April 10, 2014!).

I’m excited to become more involved with this tremendous organization and see them continue to grow.
This nonprofit “builds the collective power of Somerville immigrants to participate in and shape community decisions.”

They offer a powerful mix of service and advocacy, equipping residents with important skills and knowledge while working to close participation gaps.

Many immigrants are shut out of civic life.

It’s not at all helpful to say, “if you want to change the system, vote!” to someone who isn’t eligible to register.

It’s not at all helpful to say, “if you want to know what’s happening in your community, attend a community meeting!” to someone who doesn’t speak, or isn’t fluent in, the language the community meeting is held in.

It’s not at all helpful to say, “if you care about your child’s education, get involved in their school!” to someone who is working multiple jobs, doesn’t speak the same language as the teacher, or who is unfamiliar with the educational system and process.

Obviously not every immigrant faces all of the challenges illustrated above.

But enough of them do that important voices are missing from our community.

And that’s bad for all of us.

So The Welcome Project offers ESOL classes, including special topics course like “English for Helping Your Child in School,” and – in partnership with the Somerville Community Corporation – “English for Helping Our Communities.”

They run an amazing Liaison Interpreter Program of Somerville (LIPS), which trains bilingual teens to interpret at community events and meetings.  They organize a First Generation to College Program a Summer Camp/Digital Storytelling Program and the Mystic Wizards Homework Help Club.

Service and empowerment.

A powerful combination.

School Choice and Educational Mobility: Lessons from Secondary School Applications in Ghana

Does attending a lower performing school result in applying to lower performing schools?

Conventional wisdom says yes. Certainly in the U.S. context, I’d venture a guess that kids who go to lower performing high schools, on average, attend lower performing colleges. That is, if they attend college at all, which 42 percent of young Americans do not.

A new study by Kehinde Ajayi, Assistant Professor of Economics at Boston University, provides interesting insight into this question.

Her work looks at process of applying to secondary schools in Ghana. That country has a national, centralized process which uses a standardized test to have 150,000 elementary school students annually apply to 650 high schools.

Students may apply to up to six schools, ranking their preferences. After applying, they take a standardized test, the BECE, which determines their qualifications. Test scores are sent to their top choice school.

The school will look at all the students who applied and take the top performing students based on how many slots they have. Test scores of rejected students are then sent on to their second choice school.

Schools then compare new candidates to their existing pool – again taking the students with the highest test scores. Etc.

If you break students into two groups of “high performing” and “low performing” schools – again, based on test scores – and look at what high schools people go to, you get a graph like this:

So if Student A and Student B have the same score on the BECE, and Student A is from a low performing school while Student B is from a high performing school — Student B will generally go to a higher performing high school than Student A.
That’s for students with the same test score.
Ajayi emphasized that if anything the gap is underestimated in the above. Students from lower performing school tend to have few resources and less “test prep” access – so Student A, from the low performing school, probably has a higher innate ability than Student B who got the same score while attending a higher performing school.
Ajayi found a number of reasons for this gap.
For one thing, students from lower performing schools tend to be less saavy about their application choices. While the “selectivity” of schools is not fully public, students from higher performing schools seem to have a better sense of which schools are more competitive and tend to have a better developed strategy of the order to apply in.
Students from higher performing schools are also more willing to travel – about 40 percent of schools have options for boarding.
Perhaps most interesting, Ajayi examined the effect of policy changes on the gap.
In 2008, Ghana changed the increased the number of schools students could apply to from 4 to 6.
This widened the gap, as saavy students from high performing schools were more likely to get into a school of their choice. Students who exhaust their choices are administratively assigned to unsubscribed schools – which had previously resulted in more students from higher performing schools being randomly assigned.
In 2009, Ghana made additional policy changes.
They assigned each school to one of four ranked categories and implemented standards for how many schools from each category a student could apply to.
This helped narrow the gap as students from lower performing schools now had better information about the selectivity of the schools they were looking at.
Reflecting on these findings, Ajayi warns of the unintended impacts system-wide reform can have, saying instead that targeted interventions – like increasing information, financial aid, and student counseling – may ultimately be more successful.

A Patriot

A few days ago, I saw a tattered American flag getting run over in the road. If it hadn’t been rush hour, I would have stepped into the the street to save it. But as it was, cars were whizzing by with no sign of stopping.

So instead of doing anything, I just walked on by. I felt badly about that.

It was a small flag. Probably came off somebody’s car as they flaunted their patriotism to the world. I wonder how they felt when it touched the ground.

Then today I saw this:

Yes. That is a cement truck painted in red, white and blue.
This annoys me.
I respect people’s right to not respect the flag. It is a matter of free speech, and I’m totally down with that.
But here’s what drives me crazy: when people disrespect the flag while wrapping themselves in patriotism.
There is a U.S. Flag Code and corresponding standards of respect. For example:

  • The flag should not be used as “wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery”, or for covering a speaker’s desk, draping a platform, or for any decoration in general (exception for coffins).
  • The flag should never be used for any advertising purpose. It should not be embroidered, printed, or otherwise impressed on such articles as cushions.
  • When a flag is so tattered that it no longer fits to serve as a symbol of the United States, it should be destroyed in a dignified manner, preferably by burning.

So when I see cars go by, tattered flags taped to their antenna, it makes me wonder what the driver is trying to say.

The message I get is that they think they’re a big ol’ patriot who’s proud to be an American. The message I get is that they think I’m unpatriotic for not wearing my star-spangled jacket while jaunting down the street.

But when I see the flag in tatters, when I see it not taken in or illuminated at night, when I see the flag re-purposed for clothing and napkins…I see disrespect.

I am a patriot. That’s not a word commonly associated with liberals these days, but it’s true.

I am a patriot, and I show my respect for the flag by not displaying it. By not letting it become tattered, dirty, or darkened in my care.

I am a patriot. And no amount of flags flaunted by others will change that.

Power is Knowledge

While you’re probably familiar with the adage that knowledge is power, it’s important to remember the inverse is true as well.

As Danish urban planner Bent Flyvbjerg writes, “Power is knowledge…Power defines what counts as knowledge and rationality, and ultimately…what counts as reality.”

In his work, Flyvberg documents how power directly and indirectly influences outcomes.

In the Danish town of Aalborg, for example, decisions about a major transportation project are significantly influenced by those in power. Key elected officials make their opinions known and technical workers seek solutions that implement those official’s visions.

They decide what questions to pursue and what findings to present based off what those in power hope to accomplish.Then their proposed designed, shaped at it’s core by politics, is presented as a purely technical document. As unbiased research. As simply the facts.

I love Flyvberg because his reflections of how power shapes knowledge and defines reality rings true beyond Aalborg. I’ve seen power shape knowledge. I’ve seen power define reality. And I’m willing to bet most of you have too.

And while many of us may find this new adage useful as we stand up to power and try to empower others, it’s also important to remember that…power is knowledge may apply to us as well.

I didn’t grow up in a position of power, but I’m certainly in one now. There are many more powerful than I, of course, but there are those with less power as well.

“Power is knowledge” is not a story of villains. It’s a story of people who pursue what they think is best and use their power in pursuing that vision.

Maybe those in power are right. Maybe they do know what is best and maybe the outcomes they devise really are ideal.

But that’s not really the point.

The point is that by leveraging their own power, they disempower others. They take certain data, questions, or whole topics off the table and in doing so diminish the agency of others.

I’ve said before that I believe the best outcomes come from the most voices. That’s a truly hard goal to pursue, but, I believe, it’s a worthy goal.

Should I find myself in a position of power – however little that power may be – I aim to always remember that goal. And I hope you will too.

If we’re fighting for what we know is right – for justice, equality, and fair treatment. If we’re fighting for the good by using our power to shape reality, to suppress knowledge that doesn’t conform with our views. If we’re using our power to disempower others…then just what are we fighting for?

Fiction Friday – Dialogue

Fiction Friday continues below. I’d almost thought of abandoning this particular pastime, but after hearing a some of you express interest in what happens next, I decided to continue on for awhile.

To be clear, I wouldn’t exactly qualify this story as a mystery. We do, after all, already know who committed the crime. (Or so it seems?) But, I would say, the story is an exploration. An exploration of a utopia of sorts. A world where people are flawed and imperfect, but where they work together as best they can.


A hard rain battered the windows. The wind gusted. Trees shook. It was a dreadful night to be outside.

Yet many had braved the storm. Pushed through the wind, huddled tightly in their jackets. Inside-out umbrellas flapping at their side.

Despite the cold storm raging outside, the community room was warm and cheery inside. The youngest kids played off in the corner, under the watchful eye of all nearby. Older kids crowded in with their parents, taking extra servings of dinner and stuffing their pockets with cookies while engaging intently with the discussion.

Three weeks had gone by since the brutal murder of a young man. A friend and neighbor. Known well by some, though unknown by others.

It felt as though the whole city had shown up at this meeting – the second in a series of dialogues to collectively process what had happened. How it happened. What it meant.

As the final stragglers dragged themselves in, neighbors greeted each other warmly. Strangers met and became friends. Soon the buzz of conversation died down as folks settled in their seats and the discussion formally got underway.

Nadia Hakim sat a table of ten, her two children on either side. Her wife, unfortunately, was still at work. Buried in the details of this very case.

She listened politely as Greg McManners went on about the value of security cameras. 

While neighbors were generally very alert to their surroundings, this crime had taken place in the middle of the night. Neighbors had been asleep. By the time they awoke to investigate, the perpetrator had already fled the scene. If there had been security cameras on the street, he argued, the perpetrator would almost certainly have been caught – if not entirely dissuaded in the first place.

Nadia had known Greg for years. He was always eager to cede his privacy in the name of protection. From his experience, she knew, it seemed like the best solution. She disagreed.

She waited as Greg finished his comment and let the interpreter finish his last few words. She looked around the table to see who was most eager to speak next.

“You raise some really good points,” her teenage son spoke up. “But, from my experience…it may be necessary to have some authority, but I find…it’s better to have as little as possible. I understand your concerns, but I’m concerned that if we put security cameras in our streets, if we hope that authority will deter people from doing things like this…well, I’m concerned that will just raise a different set of issues.”

The listeners nodded thoughtfully.

The conversation went on more than another hour. People shared their thoughts. Their reactions. Their ideas. Solutions were still a long way off, but even in the discussion, some progress was being made.

When social marketing goes wrong and feminist fairytales

I always love a good advertising story, and there have been a number of good ones lately.First, Kellogg’s UK branch recently apologized after tweeting, “1 RT = 1 breakfast for a vulnerable child.”

The Twittersphere quickly responded with comments like, “Kellogg’s if you have the ability to feed children in need then DO IT.” And, “Promote our brand or the kids stay hungry. Stay classy Kellogg’s.” I love this.

Frankly, I’m not too surprised by the original tweet. It’s common for companies to have “vote for your favorite non-profit” competitions, or to do similar “matching gift” type campaigns. I wouldn’t be surprised to have a tweet like this receive no negative response.
So, I love the fact that it did.
Social marketing can be a powerful tool for companies and can be great for our communities. There are, I believe, many businesses who genuinely want to make the world better and synergy between these companies and their cause can be powerful.
But there are also plenty of companies who only use social marketing a tool to support their bottom line. So it’s good to stay skeptical. Just feed the kids, Kellogg’s.
Also this week, an all-female Catholic college-prep academy in Kentucky launched a brilliant new ad campaign.
The fairytale inspired campaign has ads like, “You’re not a princess, but you can still rule the world.” “Don’t wait for a prince, be able to rescue yourself.” And “Mirror, mirror on the wall, be more than just the fairest of them all.”
I find there is often a tension between the concepts of “feminist” and “princess.”
I hear this a lot from parents of girls. How do you support a young girl’s obsession with all things “princess” while raising her to be strong and independent? How do you let her explore her interests without having those interests be entirely dictated by gender norms? How do you not accidentally send the message that “princess” is bad?
For me, these ads manage to embrace both concepts. The fairytale inspired imagery is very princess-y. But the images and the words show strength and intelligence.
Be a princess if that’s what you’re into. Or don’t be if that’s not what you’re into. But either way, be smart, tough, and capable of totally ruling the world.

Work and community

At a meeting last night, a community colleague commented – and I paraphrase – “there are so many talented people in our community and too many of them are unable to put their talents to work within our community.”

It was a meeting of Jobs for Somerville, a group of the Somerville Community Corporation that pushes for policies which support local workers – connecting them with good jobs and job training.

When I talk about why this work is important, I often focus on the benefit to the individual.

In a rapidly gentrifying community, affordable housing will only go so far. People need good jobs if they’re going to be able to remain in their community. In a capitalist economy, the personal benefits of a good job are self-evident: you need a job to pay your rent, buy your food, and to keep the heat on. Having a job which is local can also provide personal benefits: less time spent commuting means more time with your family. Or perhaps for many people, more hours at your second job.

Sometimes I also think about the benefits to others in the community.

I like living in a diverse community with people of different ethnic backgrounds and different socioeconomic status. For some families, a good job can mean the difference between being able to stay in a community and being forced to leave. If good jobs allow more working class and lower income folks to stay in the community, if access to good jobs allows my community to remain diverse, then there is indeed a personal benefit to me. There is a benefit to the community.

Additionally, less time spent commuting can also mean more time to engage with the community. More time to attend community meetings and public hearings, for example. Since I believe the best solutions come from the most voices – having more people at community meetings also provides a clear community benefit.

But none of those are the benefit my colleague commented on last night.

Her comment gets at the idea of public work. The Center for Democracy and Citizenship defines public work as a “sustained, visible effort by a mix of people that creates things – material or cultural – of lasting civic impact, while developing civic learning and capacity in the process.”

Construction workers provide a tangible example of public work as they literally build the world around us. Their work is inherently civic, yet rarely seen as such.

In a society increasingly focused on “professionalization,” the concept of public work recognizes that we are all citizens and we are all professionals.

Think of a public meeting around, say, the design of a new train station.

One model of how to run this meeting is to have professional city planners in charge of the project explain the design to the lay people.

Another model is to say that the “lay people” have expertise as well – they are the ones who will be using the station. Therefore, professional city planners may run the meeting, but their goal will be to draw out the expertise of the community members.

The framework of public work is slightly different.

It’s still true that the “community” has expertise on how they will use the station. But the individual people in the room also have professional expertise.

Community members are also professionals who could design a train station. They are professionals who could build a train station. The citizens themselves might know about zoning laws or electrical requirements. The citizens are professionals.

And conversely, the “professionals” leading the meeting may live in the area. They may have thoughts and feelings about how the station will impact them and may plan to use the station as well. The professionals are citizens.

In some ways, the idea of public work – of bringing together your professional and civic identity – is so far removed from how I’m used to looking at the world that I have a hard time wrapping my mind around it. But it’s a good thing to think about.

What would that meeting look like if you accept all attendees as both professionals and citizens? What would your day to day work look like if you approached it both as a citizen and a professional? What would our communities look like if all of us brought these identities closer together?

Pro patria mori

Yesterday was Veterans’ Day, and as my Facebook newsfeed filled up with thanks to veterans and tributes to family members in uniform, I thought about my own friends and family who have served.

My grandfather fought in World War II. He didn’t like to talk about it.

My father, who turned 18 in 1960, did not serve in Vietnam, but had friends who did. He didn’t like to talk about it.

My cousin, who served in the first gulf war, has got…some issues. We don’t really talk about it.

I could go on.

I am deeply thankful to all the men and women who have served this country, who have fought to keep us safe and who have sacrificed their lives, bodies and minds.

But even as I am thankful, I feel that we must do better.

We must do better to support all those who have served and we must do better to minimize the numbers who need to serve in the future.

I believe that we can do both. We can love our military brothers and sisters and work to protect them just as they work to protect us.

Honestly, I don’t know whether or not war can ever solve anything, but I do know that war is never glorious. It’s never pretty. It’s ugly. And tough. And if indeed we need good men and women to make the sacrifice of military service, the least we can do is recognize that it is, deeply, a sacrifice.

And we can do better.

So on Veterans’ Day, I am thankful. I am grateful. But also I am thoughtful. And I remember the words of Wilfred Owen:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

(Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori is Latin, meaning, “it is sweet and right to die for your country”)

Fiction Friday – the strain

A continuation of Fiction Friday.

It’d been a rough day.

Detective Jones felt completely drained.

She’d thought notifying the family would be the worst part. It usually was. Trying to remain calm and project comfort. Remaining compassionate without losing herself. That was always exhausting. She’d been expecting the strain. She’d prepared for it.

But she hadn’t prepared for the ongoing, day-to-day pressure of the case.

Nothing like this had happened in years. The public was in an uproar, eager for details of the case, for assurance they were safe. The department had been flooded with press inquires, as media clamored for the latest.

And through it all, Detective Jones battled her own demons.

No matter how many times she went over the case in her mind, she could still barely believe it had happened.

Usually, she was able to analyze cases with a professional detachment. Caring about those involved but able to marry that with a calculated understanding of the facts.

But not this time.

Every time she tried to step back, tried to take in the big picture, tried to see the nearly indiscernible pattern she’d always excelled at finding…the gruesome details of the case would snap her back down.

How could she hope to solve a case she could barely even accept?