Friday, April 7, 2017

Social Capital, a Key to Our Future

There were a couple of interesting articles on finance that I have seen in the past week.  They speak of a challenging environment for us, and point out that many of the circumstances we face are not unique.  On a national level, Governing magazine pointed out a shift occurring in state finances that impact their ability to meet current and future demands.  The following two articles highlight this issue:

A separate article that I read in the Des Moines Register this past weekend points out the unique challenges faced by mid-sized (10,000-50,000 population) communities in Iowa.  We face issues that make maintain a solid community difficult; not that they cannot be overcome, but we have challenges that both smaller and larger communities to not face.  The article focused on Clinton, but did so as much to point out the issues that all communities our size face in Iowa.  The article can be read here:

These articles help to illuminate the fact that we cannot think that we can continue to offer the same services that we have in the past; the funding environment won’t sustain it.  They also speak of the need to have focused, sustained efforts on a community level to address the issues raised.  One such effort in our community is the Bridges Out of Poverty Initiative.  We have had two classes graduate from the “Getting Ahead” training, with another scheduled to graduate in June.  Part of the goal is to build relationships, a network that can provide social capital, to the participants.  What is social capital?  I saw a definition of it that went as follows:  “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.” Bridges is focused on building those networks beginning at the level of the individual, the people who get involved in the program as participants and/or partners in the journey.  Bridges recognizes that the Getting Ahead training is only a beginning.  The social ties that are necessary take time.  Bridges has a second program for its Getting Ahead graduates entitled Staying Ahead.  These networks cannot work without a network of partners to build into.  We need people to get involved in this initiative as well.  Anyone who wants to see our community succeed is encouraged to begin by attending a Staying Ahead Teammate training to be held on Monday, April 17th at 6:00 p.m. at The Loft.  Bridges has a goal of getting 50 people to attend this training, and then take the pivotal role of building into other’s (and their own) lives through the Staying Ahead program.

How important is this?  The stats highlighted in the Des Moines Register article are alarming enough, but I would also encourage you to look at the work of sociologist Robert Putnam.  Putnam published the book Bowling Alone in 2001, a book which highlighted the damage that has been caused to our social networks through the increasing disconnectedness, the loss of civic engagement, that is occurring in society.  People are less likely to be involved in groups such as the PTA, Kiwanis, or bowling leagues.  The end result of this civic engagement is that the community as a whole has less social capital.  Putnam has carried his research further, though, in his most recent book, Our Kids:  The American Dream in Crisis.  In this book, Putnam discusses the impact of the loss of social capital he highlighted in Bowling Alone, particularly in terms of how this is increasing the inequality gap between those with the potential for upward mobility and those who do not.  In Our Kids, Putnam documents that one of the major things that separates children from families in the top 25 percent of households measured by income and education from their counterparts in the bottom 25 percent is social capital; their well-off parents were engaged and enmeshed in far-reaching networks that made life better for their kids. 

We simply cannot solve the problems we face as a community without working to overcome this gap.  That is what the Bridges program is all about.  I strongly encourage you to find a way to be involved.  Vern Reed has been the champion of this program; if you do not know how to be involved, he will certainly find an avenue for you.  Vern is a teacher in the West Burlington school system, and I am sure would be more than willing to connect you with a place in Bridges.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Digital Defenders from Thorn, Starring Ashton Kutcher

No, this is not a new movie Mr. Kutcher is starring in, but it may be the biggest role I have seen him in. Thorn was cofounded by Ashton Kutcher in 2009, an organization whose goal is to drive tech innovation to fight child sexual Exploitation; they are the Digital Defenders of Children.   Ashton gave a passionate testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 15, 2017, which can be viewed here.

Some sobering facts were raised by Mr. Kutcher.  He provided an example of how our foster care system plays a role in our sex trafficking problem.  He stated that there are currently approximately 500,000 children in our foster care system.  Their future is bleak; 70% of the prison population are a product of the foster care system; 50% will not get a high school diploma; and children in the foster care system are 4 times as likely to be sexually abused.  Mr. Kutcher talked about how this process is an incubator, and breeding ground for becoming involved in sex trafficking.  He also noted that this same incubator process occurs on an international basis through the refugee crisis that is present in countries all around the globe. 

His overall talk was very emotional and powerful.  It highlighted action that is currently underway as well as additional steps that need to be taken on several levels.  Their company, Thorn ( is involved in actively developing software that helps victims reach out for help ( by text.  They have also develop tools such as Spotlight that enable law enforcement to investigate trafficking more quickly and successfully.  I have encouraged our law enforcement personnel to take full advantage of these tools as part of their arsenal to combat this evil in our midst.

This also takes a change of perspective on our part, to look at how we should live and be willing to be part of the solution.  As Ashton Kutcher addressed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and spoke about international refugee problems, he was addressing our moral responsibility to not turn a blind eye to the millions who have been displaced from their homes through conflicts and atrocities. He was speaking to our moral responsibility as a nation and as individuals.  That is an easy topic, nor easy to understand how to work through our political system.

 I have been a fan of Ashton Kutcher since he was in Cheaper by the Dozen.   In fact, I think his role in that film has always been my favorite (probably the family size).  I became a real fan, though, when I saw a speech he gave at the Teen Choice Awards in 2013, where he shared lessons he has learned in life.  He spoke about the need for hard work, the need to be smart, thoughtful, and generous, and the need to aggressively take advantage of the opportunities that life provides.  I posted a blog about that speech several years ago.

Today I am even more inspired by Ashton.  He has taken advantage of the opportunities he has been provided through his career success to have an impact on our world.  His testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee demonstrated a level of respect for those involved in that meeting I find refreshing as well.  There needs to be more communication on Capitol Hill showing that level of respect for others.  I encourage you to take the time to watch his testimony and to peruse the work being done by Thorn on their website.  Both the website and the testimony he gave are linked above.  I encourage you all to be involved in developing a solution to some portion of the problems raised by Mr. Kutcher.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Who Do You Trust?

There are times where I feel blessed to be a Notre Dame graduate.  This past football season, as I have previously mentioned, certainly did not inspire this feeling, though.  The most recent issue of the Notre Dame Magazine  (Winter edition, 2016-2017) certainly made up for that.  There were several articles within the magazine that caused me to reflect on the current state of our country.  The most heartbreaking, for me, was to read the article entitled The Talk (readable at the following link:  The Talk).  This, for me, is almost a completely foreign topic; the need to teach your child how to communicate with police officers to avoid being shot.  The article, written by sisters who graduated from Notre Dame in the early 2000’s, presents the story of several Notre Dame graduates.  They reflected on their own upbringing as well as how they have addressed the topic with their own children.  None of the people in the story were classmates of mine; some attended before me, and some after.  All painted a clear picture of the struggle to maintain a sense of dignity in these interactions.

The only experience I can recall that comes even close to comprehending this experience goes back to my high school days.  I can remember a weekend where one of my classmates, the only African-American in our school, was taken into the country, stripped, and left to make his way back home in the middle of the night.  The incident was a shock to me, but even more so was the response of some of my classmates (not a lot, but enough to be noticeable), who thought the incident was worthy to laugh at.  I had no understanding of the presence of this kind of hatred and belittlement of African-Americans in our community.  

The Talk mentioned some of the experiences of Notre Dame graduates, including one (Jim Stone, who graduated in 1981) remembering a time when he took a date to prom, with both of them dressed up.  On the way, an officer pulled them over; he asked the girl if she was with him of her own free will.  During the interaction, Jim was "roughed up" both physically and emotionally by the officer.  I cannot imagine the powerlessness of this situation.  Nor can I imagine the emotions he must feel in regards to reflecting on similar experiences that his son has suffered through, and struggled to find a way to come to grips with it.  These incidents reflect a national malady that we are suffering from.

That was not the only national malady expressed in the winter issue of the Notre Dame Magazine.  In a separate article entitled Our National Malady, ( Our National Malady), the author focused on the gradual deterioration that has occurred in the credibility of what anyone says on a national scene.  This truly is a National Malady.  The author, David Shribman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, focused on the deterioration of trust that we have seen particularly in national politics, reflecting on the shortcomings and lack of complete truth-telling from President Lyndon Johnson on.  The author demonstrated the guilt of multiple actors in this loss of trust that has occurred.  There has been a loss of trust in news; in business; in our faith community; in individuals.  How can we get this trust back?  Certainly not by dealing in truthful hyperbole, nor in mischaracterizing someone or their actions in response.  David spoke of the need to rebuild credibility not by words, nor through cold calculation, but through character.  He referred to an interview he had with Frank Luntz, a former Republican pollster who helped build the Contract with America in the 1990's.  Luntz discussed the importance of living out your character, focusing on how our credibility is built and sustained by how others perceive you. 

I didn't see this specifically written, but the implication of what David Shribman was stating in this article was the need to be genuine.  Politics, and basic interactions, will likely always incorporate a modicum of self-interest and calculated decisions.  They need to also demonstrate a desire to genuinely care about the other person.  I don't know if this is the intent of the article, but I left the article with a question of how our loss of credibility can be overcome.  The only answer that I could come up with was to make decisions that show a true caring and respect for others.  We need to communicate in a way that doesn't look to score points, serve our own interests, or disparage others, but rather to build up.

The final article from the current Notre Dame Magazine that I wanted to address is entitled Hope At Risk (Hope at Risk), written by Anthony Walton, a 1982 graduate.  These were very personal reflections on what President Obama meant to him in terms of race relations, as well as the response to President Obama by at least a portion of our society (specifically in regards to questions about whether he was truly American or whether he was a Christian, among other things).  I was moved by the following statement of Anthony Walton in particular:  "In my view, the message that was sent, deliberately, by these tactics to blacks and people of color throughout Obama's presidency was:  Even if you make it to Harvard Law School, become a U.S. senator, win not one but two elections to become president and happen to be black, you are still illegitimate.  You are not good enough.  You are a usurper and a threat to all that is good and holy."  I can hear the sincerity of these feelings as I read his article, and have a little (from the outside looking in) understanding of the pain involved in feeling them.  
Having a political discourse that scores points by the tearing down of others is a losing proposition for us as a society.  That was the message that I saw conveyed through this series of articles.  Kerry Temple, the editor of Notre Dame Magazine, reflected on this subject about "the collapse of civil discourse in this post-truth age" in the introduction to this issue.  One of his thoughts in the opening went as follows:  "I came to work at Notre Dame almost 40 years ago because I was discouraged by the ways of the world, but I felt great comfort and resolve knowing I was part of a large group of like-minded people -- people animated by Christ-like thinking, compassion, goodness, justice and the requisite moral and spiritual qualities to do what's right in a conflicted, broken, fallen world."  

I am happy to say that I found that perspective, as well, during my time at Notre Dame.  Yet I am challenged to find how to bring it to the world I am confronted with on a daily basis.  I have it as my goal to pursue those same qualities mentioned by Kerry to the lives of the people I come in contact with.  That starts with my family, but it extends to this great community that we are a part of.  We have a need to meet each other as people.  We have a need to show love and respect, and to honor truth.  We have a need to not turn our back on problems, but to challenge each other to grow.  Anthony Walton mentioned the need to make the words of the Declaration of Independence real, the idea that "all men are created equal."  I can think of no more laudable goal this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

The hardest part of this type of discussion is that we seem to have gotten so concerned about being right or showing where the other person is wrong, and are willing to tear each other apart (ignoring facts, or making them up, as we need to in order to accomplish it).  None of us view events the same way; none of us see them from the same perspective.  I have to admit, as I read Notre Dame Magazine, I am often not in agreement with the subject matter or perspective being presented.  But I learn from it, most particularly the perspective that someone else brings to the issue.  We need to find a way to quit judging the views, feelings, and worldview of each other.  We don’t have to be in agreement, but we need to not tear apart any hope of community in our eagerness to express our disagreement and prove our superiority.  David Shribman provided an example of this in his article Our National Malady.  He quoted a line from Senator John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, where he praised Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, a conservative Republican.  Their worldviews, and proposed solutions to problems, did not line up, yet he said of Taft: “He was known in the Senate as a man who never broke an agreement, who never compromised his deeply felt Republican principles, who never practiced political deception…. We need more intellectually honest men like Senator Taft.”  I pray we can find a way, even if we are on different sides of the aisle, to have that respect for each other as what was demonstrated between Kennedy and Taft. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Under Caesar's Sword

This weekend reminded me of why Notre Dame is so special to me.  No, I certainly am not talking about their football team, which lost yet another game as part of one of their worst seasons in football history (probably among the worst 5 ever).  This weekend, I spent some time watching a documentary entitled "Under Caesar's Sword", produced by the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture in partnership with the Religious Freedom Institute and the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. 
The "Under Caesar's Sword" is a research project that looks at how Christian communities respond when their religious freedom is violated or threatened.  Fourteen scholars were involved in a study of 100 Christian communities in over 30 countries, Some of the overall facts of our world's religious persecution problem are sobering:  in 2013, Christians were harassed in over 103 countries; in 2012, 76% of the world's population lived in a religiously oppressive country; Christians are not the only religious group facing oppression (in fact, Christians can be said to be responsible for oppression of other religions), but they are the recipients of 80% of all acts of religious discrimination worldwide; before 2003, there were around 1.2 million Christians in Iraq.  By 2013, that number had shrunk to about 500,000.

Some quotes are particularly illuminating and concerning:
·         Are we seeing the end of Christianity [in Iraq]? We are committed come what may, we will keep going to the end, but it looks as though the end could be very near.
– Louis Raphael I Sako, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon

·         We are witnessing levels of persecution of ancient Christian communities of the Middle East at levels that are something that we have not seen, one could almost say, in millennia. It’s very disturbing and disheartening...
– Katrina Lantos-Swett, Chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

·         [Religious] minorities are threatened with death and executed, they are kidnapped and raped, they are robbed and pillaged. They are denied water and electric service. Women are kidnapped and sold and forced to marry ISIS members. Women are forced to wear veils.
– Pascale Warda, Former Minister of Migration and Displacement in the Iraqi Interim Government

The documentary, and the research that was undertaken on which it relied, was designed to place focus on the kinds of sufferings Christians go through and what they do in response.  It was designed to take an in-depth look at who is persecuting them and why.  It was also designed to look at their responses to persecution and why they chose those alternatives.  Christians have suffered persecution from non-state organizations such as ISIS and Boko Haram, from the actions of individuals such as the Kandhamal riots in India, and some from governments as restrictions enforced in India and Turkey.  Christians have been forced to respond in a variety of ways, generally through courses of action such as fleeing the country (as in Iraq and Syria), trying to protect themselves in their environment and build connections with neighbors such as in Turkey, or by pursuing legal means of protection of human rights such as in India.

The documentary highlighted the basis of religious freedom on a secular, international stage:  "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."  (Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, 1948).  Too often, these long held rights, protected in international law, are forgotten.  I am proud to be ND this weekend, as I think through the issues raised in "Under Caesar's Sword".  Today is a special day, The International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.  Our freedom as individuals, to live and worship as we choose, is a cherished right that is not always honored by all people in all places.  I encourage each of you to do your part, to recognize the issues and concerns before us, and to stay informed.

I encourage each of you to find out more about the efforts of those involved in the research of Christian Persecution and to watch their documentary "Under Caesar's Sword".  Their work can be found at the following link:  Under Caesar's SwordAdditional resources can also be found at Voice of the Martyrs as well as at Open Doors USA.

Religious Persecution is not something that is solely about Christians, nor is countering it something that can be done lightly or with an incorrect attitude.  In this regard, I leave you with the following two quotes:
·         We don’t forgive the act because the act is heinous. But we do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.
 – Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom

·         The Bishop of Rome will not rest while there are still men and women of any religion, whose dignity is wounded and who are deprived of their basic needs for survival, robbed of their future, or forced to live as fugitives and refugees. Today, we join the Pastors of the Oriental Churches, in appealing that the right of everyone to a dignified life and to freely profess one’s own faith be respected
– Pope Francis

We need to ensure that all members live up to the standards established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948, and we need to ensure that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom remains ever vigilant, and that our country ensures that great significance is placed on their efforts.  Moreover, we need to ensure that we ourselves show the kind of religious freedom in our own country, and that our attitudes towards people of all faiths matches the reflections of Pope Francis.  We must also have the heart towards others reflected by Bishop Angaelos lest we be consumed by anger and hatred towards others.