AMRDI: #CoffeeLives in Nicaragua

So for about 6 days I was in Nicaragua working alongside AMRDI, a Colorado-based nonprofit that focuses on development in mountain and arctic communities, places disproportionately impacted by climate change. I was there capturing media, writing blog posts and putting together materials for an online media campaign.

What came out of it was this:

In addition to this video, which sums up AMRDI’s #CoffeeLives project, I also did a day-to-day accounting of our adventures, which you can read here.

It’s always awesome to get to be part of a mission-driven project. Keep looking for more from AMRDI, like information on ski area economies and how in the era of climate change workers are struggling to hold together a livelihood. This roots right back to the writing I do in New Hampshire on issues of travel, tourism and outdoor economy and how they interact with climate change. It’s cool to hear someone else talking about it, someone putting numbers next to their notes.

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CDS Column: Lift the Lamp

In January I began volunteering for a nonprofit that works with high school students to help improve their writing. As I writer I love talking about writing, and this was a way to give back.

I got paired with a 18-year-old Muslim of Somali descent named Abass.

Abass was born in Ethiopia where his parents were refugees, then moved to South Africa before his family made it to the United States. They lived first in Lowell, Mass., and then they moved to Maine. Because of his time in South Africa Abass spoke English well, so he was in good position when started school. He will graduate this year, and he hopes to study dentistry at college in the fall.

Abass smiles a lot. His face moves quickly from into a grin, and then just as quickly back to normal. He is warm, engaging, makes jokes when he’s nervous and is exceedingly friendly. He teases the girls in his class, the boys in his class, everyone, and they tease him back. He’s playful, a bit of a class clown. He is well-liked.

Abass speaks three languages. His parents, however, don’t speak English, so when it comes to filling out any sort of documentation or legal paperwork (taxes, signing a lease, college applications) he winds up serving as translator, explaining things to them instead of the adults explaining things to him. That has forced Abass to grow up fast, but he hasn’t lost his joyfulness. Even 7,000 miles from the country of his people, he carries hope.

Abass is a Muslim and a Somali. If he were applying for a visa today, he would have to contend with the executive order signed on Friday.

It’s been a long two weeks.

In fact, it hasn’t even been two weeks. Inauguration Day was less than that ago, and the executive orders didn’t really begin unfolding until the following Monday. That means it’s been only nine days. But a lot can happen in nine American days.

It doesn’t seem so in the Mount Washington Valley sometimes. There’s no airport with incoming international flights, no mosques, few Hispanics or other people of color. Here, in the northern reaches of one of the whitest states in the country, feels detached from the conversations igniting our country right now. Building a wall with Mexico might push up food prices, but it won’t change the complexion of our streets. Restricting refugee visas won’t break up local families. These are almost academic arguments here, not something poised to come home to roost in our community right away.

But then I sit down with Abass, and I realize how much these conversations matter.

It is striking how divergent American views can be. We read the same sacred national texts, revere the same icons, and yet come away with strikingly opposing views. America is our religion, and we can become unitarians universalists to the Westboro Baptists. The Westboro Baptists are gathering loud of late.

Our creed, captured so eloquently beneath the feet of the Statue of Liberty, is simple: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

America’s promise is a promise we ourselves were granted. It may have been generations ago, but at one time it was our grandparents, or great-grandparents, or great-great-great grandparents, who wanted to be dentists. It was they who spoke three languages and translated their new homes to their immigrant parents. We are the offspring of refugees and asylum-seekers. We spilled onto these shores, scores of English, German, Irish, Norwegian, Polish, Lebanese, South African, Chinese, Sudanese, people from every country and continent, and slowly we made ourselves American. We made America. We grew in size and in strength, emboldened because of our diversity and our courage and our hope. It was not without challenges and disgrace—the slaughtering of Native Americans, the slavery of Africans and their descendents—but still ever striving upwards towards the promise of Thomas Jefferson: “All men are created equal.”

I see that now, in a young man who has dreams of being a dentist. A young Muslim, from a country on a list, who wants the freedom to strive and flourish.

We live a long way from this fight. It is a more than an hour drive to the room where once a week I sit with Abass and we work to improve his writing. But if he is willing to show up, I will too.

These are our fights. This is our country. There are so many days where I wish I could forget it, where I would prefer to grab my climbing gear, strap into my skis, and forget about the chaos unfolding right now, the sweeping American changes emanating from Washington. But I choose not to. I choose to sit with Abass, to talk to him about verb tense and character development and setting, to ask him about his family and his story and what he would like to write about.

And in those conversations I am met by a smart young man, a man with dreams, a man with hope and passion and drive. We would be lucky to call him an American. We would be lucky to have him as part of our country.

I will not close the door, and I will not sit quietly by as others do. Donald Trump is right, this is the time for patriotism. In my country, “all men are created equal.” I will not remain silent.

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Welcome.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: Live, Vote or Drive

How do we keep having these arguments?

Massachusetts voters streaming into New Hampshire and swaying our elections. That could happen, hypothetically. Despite voter ID laws and town clerks who know residents and a robust, tried-and-true electoral process, Massachusetts could be deciding New Hampshire’s votes.

But they’re not. There is no evidence of such fraud. There is supposition, a rumor, something the White House is talking about, but it’s just “alternative facts.”

And yet we keep having these arguments.

Rumors and innuendo are not a basis for policy. New Hampshire knows that. Ours is a state of no-nonsense people. New Hampshire voters are sophisticated. They are accustomed to the political milieu, seasoned from serving on the front line of the presidential vetting process. We Granite Staters are no electoral novices. The Live Free or Die ethos means we belong to fire districts, water precincts and lighting districts in addition to a town, a county, the state and the federal government. Every one of these entities is an exercise in democracy. Each puts out its own annual report, has a board, holds public hearings and requires a vote. If we choose, we might spend half our non-working waking hours ensconced in elections. Not only does the nation trust us to make early judgments on the character and capabilities of those who one day hope to run the country, but we see fit to practice democracy at almost every level and in every corner. Voting is our lifeblood, something rooted in New Hampshire history more deeply than in any other state.

And now our votes have found their way into the national discourse: A flood of Massachusetts carpetbaggers allegedly made their way north to strip Kelly Ayotte of her senatorship and President Donald Trump of a rightful victory. This is the word out of the White House, beginning with the president and repeated by his advisers.

Let’s be clear: The president and his team have brought no evidence to support this claim. None. The White House has a hunch, but offers nothing to back it up beyond words. As with other accusations of voter fraud, it’s an opinion, nothing else.

But this time it isn’t about about California. This time it is about us. It’s about our little state. And this claim hits at our heart — our political process, a sacred part of the Granite State.

Our political apparatus is ingrained into our state identity. When it comes to presidential elections, we have home field advantage. Every great election begins with us. Tryouts here commence a year before the rest of the country. New Hampshire does not play politics, we live it, from the federal level right down to the North Conway Water Precinct and the Redstone Fire District.

As a result, despite our small population and rural character, New Hampshire is no political backwater. Our residents and institutions carry the sophistication needed to govern thousands of scattered municipal districts, as well as the chops required of a state trusted to cast the first vote. We have seen scandal before, and political fraud. Small but well-schooled, we are not naive. This is our game, and we know how to play.

And yet we are left listening to accusations out of Washington that our political apparatus is full holes. Accusations floated without evidence by the president of the United States that Massachusetts political operatives pulled the wool over Granite State eyes.

To sling unfounded accusations at the New Hampshire electoral process is to undermine our electoral heritage. Such slander casts dispersions on our “First in the Nation” position, a role we have carried with dignity for decades. If there is voter fraud, quit teasing and expose it. New Hampshire Republicans and New Democrats alike would stand side-by-side to uproot such perversion. Our coveted electoral position demands it — we all have too much to lose to sit by and let such mischief continue unchecked.

But these claims are baseless. There is nothing behind them. They are all bluster, no truth.

But baseless claims are hard to fight. There is no arguing a shapeless provocation, empty of evidence. How do you prove fraud when all fraud is supposed, not exposed?

The White House casts suspicion on the sanctity of our political heart, on the laser-cut accuracy of our selection process. This dispersion sullies not only the electoral count, but also our presidential primaries, every federal ballot cast, the state election, every local election, each precinct and district. In a word, the president has put the Granite State on notice — without evidence — that our democratic processes do not hold water. We are not a cup, he says, but a sieve.

But it is these claims that are the true sieve. We in New Hampshire wear democracy close to our skin. We live it, know the taste of it, the feel of it. It’s a dance we’ve practiced before. And we also know the smell of something rotten. These accusations are rotten. Without evidence they can only be called lies. And New Hampshire has no room for lies, nor “alternative facts.”

Cast dispersions on New York elections if you wish, Donald Trump, or on California or Texas. Pick any of 49 other states, but leave our Granite process alone. We know politics. We know elections. Step forward with evidence, or be silent.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

#CoffeeLives

If you are into coffee, you might want to check this out:

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AMRDI is a Colorado-based NGO working on rural development issues in the mountainous landscapes and polar regions most affected by climate change. Their focus is on data-driven development solutions. They work on the ground to research issues of poverty, health and well-being in communities often far removed from policymakers and government services.

I am with them in Nicaragua now, where they are collecting survey data on local coffee growers. Coffee is a product targeted by terms like “Fair Trade” and “sustainable,” but there is very little oversight or on-the-ground research into just how much impact a $5 latte has on the people who grow the beans. AMRDI is in Nicaragua talking to coffee producers and pickers to understand those issues better.

IMG_1473.JPGI’m along to shoot video and document their efforts, working with them on their research and writing blogposts along the way. The conversations we are having are enlightening, and the living conditions of families who sell some of the highest quality coffee in the world are astonishing.

All of this work will eventually find its way into hard print, the sort of data that can help implement lasting change. But for now this is the early stages.

The trip is winding to a close, but if you want a look at what the short story check out the AMRDI blog. I’ve posted a handful of reports (day one, day two, day three and day four) on what it’s like tromping around the Central American mountains talking to people who grow the drink many of us consume every day.

And if you’re concerned about climate change and its impact on communities at the fringes in the high and polar places most affected, get to know AMRDI. Data-driven development work. Cool stuff.

From the Backseat: Deaths of Despair

Did you see the news? Last week, in the town of Sherman, police arrested three people in connection with a meth lab. It was the 123rd incident of its kind in Maine in 2016. That’s more than double the number last year; in 2015 Maine had 56 meth lab-related incidents.

And then on Friday a Hebron man killed his 27-year-old daughter before taking his own life. Did you see that too?

This is the news today, constant radar blips of “the way life should be.” They are markers an assistant professor at Penn State told me about recently: she calls them “deaths of despair.” And Maine is full of them.

Shannon Monnat is a rural demographer. About a month ago I interviewed her for a story about the heroin epidemic. I came across her research on addiction rates and how they relate to a community’s economic prospects. “Deaths of despair” is the phrase she’s coined for spiking addiction, alcoholism and suicide rates across America.

But rates don’t spike equally. Urban centers are largely spared this crisis. Drug addiction today is a rural problem, and the impact is felt heaviest in the rural communities and small cities that have struggled in the global economy.

Small cities. Rural places. Hmm. Sounds like Maine. Go on…

“These small cities and rural towns have borne the brunt of declines in manufacturing, mining, and related industries and are now struggling with the opiate scourge,” said Monnat. “In these places, good jobs and the dignity of work have been replaced by suffering, hopelessness and despair, the feeling that America isn’t so great anymore, and the belief that people in power don’t care about them or their communities. Here, downward mobility is the new normal.”

Suffering. Hopelessness. Despair. The new normal. 123 meth labs in a year. Murder-suicides. We are watching the effects unfold daily, on the news and in our communities. Each event acts as a radar blip. Misery is a tough pill to swallow, and as a meal to eat every day, it’s poison. But when job prospects seem hopeless it’s easy to sink into despair.

Monnat’s analysis doesn’t end there. Her most recent research looks at the 2016 presidential race, comparing election data with addiction data. And what she found is striking: counties awash in misery, those rural communities and smaller cities plagued by higher addiction rates, came out for Donald Trump.

“Clearly there is an association between drug, alcohol and suicide mortality and Trump’s election performance,” said Monnat, though she cautioned the relationship is a complex one. “What these analyses demonstrate is that community-level well-being played an important role in the 2016 election, particularly in the parts of America far-removed from the world of urban elites, media and foundations.”

“Ultimately, at the core of increasingly common ‘deaths of despair’ is a desire to escape,” she continued, “escape pain, stress, anxiety, shame, and hopelessness. These deaths represent only a tiny fraction of those suffering from substance abuse… Drug and alcohol disorders and suicides are occurring within a larger context of people and places desperate for change. Trump promised change.”

Despair, it seems, has political implications in addition to societal.

This almost shouldn’t be news. Every day we get signals about this despair. Some are small—another drug death, another mill shutdown, another suicide—while others are large, the 2016 election outcome being the most prominent. Sitting in quasi-urban Portland, a small city somehow buoyed by its quaint appeal and its status as a haven for NYC exiles, it might be easy to forget we sit surrounded by misery. But we do. We are a rural and small city state. There is so much misery here that drugs, alcohol, suicide and Donald Trump have become rational choices, the result of living in communities where no other path seems open.

Monnat’s research states America’s problem, and Maine’s problem, succinctly: in “many forgotten parts of the U.S. (often referred to as ‘fly-over’ country by those living on the coasts),” she said, “downward mobility is the new normal.”

Despite our coastline, Maine is one big fly-over state. The evidence to that fact fills our newsfeed.

Maybe it will make tomorrow’s headlines.


This column appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

Portland Phoenix: Art Walk

The best part about art shopping is the wandering it requires. It’s not like buying a blender or one of those abominable Hatchimals, things you can just order off the internet or walk into a store, point and go home—quick, painless, boring.

Art is different. There is no MSRP, no UPC, and to find something you like takes time. It takes perusing galleries, developing a taste, seeing a lot of crap or plain work before you strike on something unique.

And my unique is different than your unique. A stroll through the Greenhut Galleries on Old Port’s Middle Street last week pulled me to a painting by Jeff Bye, Portland Harbor in oil marked by strong lines and colors that bled into one another. On the reverse wall another Bye piece, this one a painting of New York City’s Canal Street from the air, measured almost four feet by four feet. It puts the feeling of skydiving into traffic while wearing goggles smeared with Vaseline onto canvas, and it stopped me in my tracks. So did its $12,000 price tag. My gift giving is by necessity far less generous, but when else are you overwhelmed by arresting beauty while holiday shopping? At Target? At the Apple Store? No. Art shopping is its own gift, as much as for you as for those you’re shopping for.

And opposite Bye’s opus were four tiny masterpieces by Kathi Smith, six inch by six-inch landscapes bursting with color. Even upscale galleries have something for everyone—Smith’s wild rendition of Black Head on Monhegan Island, a fraction of the size and price of Bye’s work, fell much closer to my price range.

Portland is full of such gems: a few doors down the Portland Art Gallery had Bill Crosby’s seascapes, smartly smeared sand dunes and angular beaches. At the Roux & Cyr Gallery on Free Street, it was Sally Ladd Cole’s crashing waves and Dan Graziano’s restaurant scenes that stopped me. Shopping became a midweek art walk, the discoveries of an afternoon meander.

But maybe you’re more excited by the creative process itself than the clean quiet halls of city center galleries. Luckily Portland carries broad tastes. If you missed the First Friday’s street fair and MECA’s holiday sale there is always Running With Scissors, a studio tucked in East Bayside. Their print shop, ceramics studio and woodshop houses painters, potters, jewelers, furniture makers. Walking their halls is like roaming Santa’s workshop, with human-sized elves everywhere making, making, making.

And on Dec. 10 Scissors is opening its doors, holding a holiday pop-up sale that mixes art, food, beer, woodblock printing, painting and shopping. Artists creating in their spaces are also selling. It’s a chance to get drawn in, to become part of the process, as well as chance to take something home.

And with art isn’t that the point? To make, create, experiment, mess up and start over? Running With Scissors is a chance to buy prints, mugs, handmade maps and paintings, but it’s also a chance to watch the creative process in action, to shake hands with the hands that sculpt the art.

But there are also opportunities to become the sculptor. Here the wandering steps deeper, beyond the galleries and even the gallery/studios to the maker spaces, places never intended for public consumption. A walk back into town ends at the Continuing Studies department of the Maine College of Art, where anyone can sign up for—or gift—courses in drawing, ceramics, sewing, photography, glassblowing. For the cost of a handful of handmade mugs (or a fraction of the cost of an Elizabeth Hoy painting) you can give instruction and dirty hands. Art doesn’t just sit on the wall here. It’s blue collar work built on apprenticeship and years of training.

But it doesn’t take years to draw a portrait. It takes sitting still and looking deeply. These are rare gifts today. A weekend workshop transforms art from a noun into a verb.

Lastly, before we close we must make two more holiday art walk stops: Art Mart on Congress Street and Artist & Craftsman Supply on Deering. Whether you’ve signed someone up for a class or know a friend who spends nights drawing random scenes while bar-hopping, these stores carry paper, paints, pastels and glue, ink, xacto knives and easels, holiday gifts for anyone with a creative spirit. It’s hard to walk these aisles and not imagine the showpiece that might spring from your own hands.

One more wandering holiday step. And still not a blender in sight.


This piece appeared as part of the Portland Phoenix Holiday Gift Guide.