What would Jesus do? A serious question

The country where I live is far from perfect, but it is, from what I can see, providing support during this massive crisis to anyone within its borders, as best it can. The government is providing subsidies to families in Costa Rica who do not have a way to eat – regardless of their immigration status. It provides them with free health care, too, but it does that all the time. It is hardly worth mentioning in this country where I live.

All over the world, I see people huddling together with the beings in their physical proximity. It’s what happens during times like these. We are getting to know our neighbors, whether we are chatting at a safe distance from stoop to stoop, or picking up groceries for someone, or just giving a bizarrely enthusiastic “How are you?” to people we’ve never seen before as we pass them on a walk. (The need to greet comes from our loneliness, and also from the need to show we are not being rude when we scutter to the far side of the street.) Some people are even quarantining with whoever happened to show up just before everything shut down: Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. Stranded hotel guests and their hotel owners. Politics make strange bedfellows, and pandemics make unexpected housemates. We grab whomever is near us and we bunker down.

I rambled on about this idea in my Facebook Live last week, a disheveled video that I broadcast sideways. I talked, still discombobulated, about the sudden rain that knocked a clay-colored thrush nest out of our banana plant and onto the ground. I pushed aside the twigs with a stick to find one baby yigüirro trapped beneath. My family has watched for weeks as the mother gathered twigs, sat on her eggs, fed her hatchlings: it took my breath away to see the baby up close, as if I were glimpsing a celebrity. His mother was nowhere to be seen. It was me he opened his little yellow mouth to, soundless.

I was beside myself, disproportionately upset. I jittered and fretted until we got the nest back up into the plant and until, long after nightfall – notable only through the slightest movement in the darkness, a whoosh of darker black against the dark sky – I saw the mother return. I realized in that moment how tiny our physical worlds have become, how limited our opportunities to actually do something for someone else with our hands. My whole world seemed to depend on whether that baby bird would be ok. I had no idea how to make sure of that, but I knew it had to be done. What else would I do, closed into my house like a snail in a shell?

It is not easy, perhaps, for a government to take that approach to all the people within its borders when the pandemic strikes. It should be easier for the richest country on Earth than it is for a developing country with limited resources. But it’s not. Costa Rica, imperfections and all, has been showing an understanding of this basic idea: the people who are here right now belong to us. Immigrants or nationals, insured or uninsured, documented or undocumented.

What would Jesus do? What would any figure do right now whose message of love we revere? The “how” can be tricky, even impossible. The “what,” however, is obvious. I am seeing that “what” happen around me, here in Costa Rica. I am seeing that “what” being rejected out of hand by the government to which I submit my tax return. To which I pledged allegiance as a child and a schoolteacher. To which I owe, in part, the stability and freedom of my upbringing. That government, which has committed many wrongs over the years under the authority of various men, is now rescinding government aid even from U.S. citizens who are married to non-citizens. Somehow, that piece of news hit my gut particularly hard, made my mouth gape open like the baby bird’s. (I’m sure it was partly out of selfishness: if I were living in my own country, I might not be eligible for support, should I need it. If Costa Rica took this approach, my husband might be ineligible.) It is impossible not to compare this to some of the darkest chapters in human history.

It feels that we are sinking down. “What would Jesus do?” ask the bumper stickers. You can see people all over the world, of all faiths and walks of life, looking for more immediate sources of inspiration as well. Mine is a bureaucrat I do not know, someone with her head on straight, or maybe just following orders from people with their heads on straight. Someone in a developing country without an army. Someone reviewing the thousandth form of the day, this one a cry for help from an undocumented immigrant who has lost the job he worked so hard for and needs to feed his children.

She clicks, “Approved. A transfer has been made to your account.”

Maybe I’ve been reading too many books about fairies, but I think a little spark goes up from her fingers when she hits that key. It’s the tinest speck of light, but there are a lot of them from all over the world. The most dangerous thing, as the undertow sucks at us, would be for us to lose our sense of direction, the way my own country’s leader and those around him have lost theirs. Those little specks of light make a dim glow through dark water. They show which way is up, and out, and through.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or FacebookIf you want to learn more about how to support Costa Rica during the crisis, visit my COVID-19 section, updated regularly – or for ways to enjoy Costa Rica from afar, visit Virtual Costa Rica.




The power of immigrant vision

Founders’ Day remarks delivered at The Derryfield School, Manchester, New Hampshire, May 19, 2017.


Thank you, Dr. Carter, the Founders, Mr. Sanborn, and everyone who played any part in helping me get me back to Derryfield today, including my parents, who made the drive from Eastport, Maine. The list of reasons we love Derryfield is very long, but one I have been thinking about lately is how much I was allowed to try when I was here. Middle and high school are always going to be scary – but I got to experience that part of my life in a place where I felt able not only to do the things I was naturally good at, but also to do things I was clueless about. I mean, they let ME on the soccer team! Mr. Holland let ME through the door of his classroom every day for years! Breakthrough Manchester let ME teach a total immersion Latin class to sixth-graders.

I was not great at any of those things. That means that Derryfield helped me start to learn what it felt like to enter new spaces where I did not quite belong. Those small experiences of awkwardness in a safe place build up little muscles that help us deal with bigger uncertainties later on. Those muscles, that practice of cluelessness, have been crucial for me as an adult.

Continue reading The power of immigrant vision

‘Nothing is black and white: there’s a lot of gray’

How old were you when you became an adult? Were you 16? 15? How about 10?

That’s the question the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project poses at the start of one of videos. I’d say 25, I thought to myself, only half-joking.

The idea went on to haunt me. The number 25, along with the faces of kids and teenagers in my life, kept flashing before me as I read on about this Philadelphia nonprofit that provides mitigation and reentry services for young people being treated as adults in our courts and prisons – particularly children sentenced to life in prison without parole.

That’s right. Children sentenced to life in prison without parole. The United States is the only country in the world that does this; we even have an acronym for it (JLWOP). And of more than 2,000 JLWOP cases that must be resentenced, thanks to the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court Montgomery vs. Louisiana decision, Pennsylvania has 500, and Philadelphia more than whopping 300.

Lawyers Lauren Fine, 33, and Joanna Visser Adjoian, 34, got to know each other during and after law school when they were working with families of incarcerated youth. They created the YSRP in 2014 to address the misinformation and lack of support that often results in young people’s cases entering the adult system – cases like that of Eugene, who, at 16, was sent to adult jail as a result of a botched group robbery attempt using a BB gun he didn’t handle, in which no one was hurt, and in which no money was taken.

Fine and Visser Adjoian helped Eugene’s case get transferred to the juvenile justice system and, once he made bail, connected him with education and counseling services he needed.

I spoke to the lawyers about how our country reached this pass and what they are bracing for in the new presidential administration. Excerpts follow.

So – a lot of this project is about me realizing how much I don’t know.

JV: That’s like every day for us [laughs].

There was so much on your site I didn’t know before. What struck me the most was on your list of Frequently Asked Questions: “Why should kids receive special treatment?” Is this really a question you frequently hear? How is this a question for our country?

JV: We first drafted those when we were getting started, feeling like we needed to justify our existence, and trying to anticipate pushback we could get from any member of any audience. It went back to really what goes back to the basis of having these law on the books in the first place: the terrible superpredator era of, “You do an adult crime, you serve adult time.” Our desire was to cut this off at the pass and address this head-on – to say that our work is informed by the belief that no kid deserves to be in adult jail.

The United States is the only country in the world that’s treating kids in this way – how did this happen

LF: Race is at the center, and otherization in general, and the idea of certain children being different from other children: using terms like juvenile delinquent, juvenile offender. In our view even the word “juvenile” has an impact, and we try not to use it as a noun. Certainly the idea that there are some children who are inherently bad and corrupted, and should be treated in a way that those who propagate those kinds of laws, across the board, would not want their children to be treated.

Bad facts make bad law, and there were a number of cases in the 90s in particular when the superpredator myth was rising from academia that made it easier that made it easier to justify decisions in legislatures accordingly, to “protect” people from what they feared.

JV: We subscribe to the racial justice or racial injustice view of how our criminal justice has evolved over time, that Michelle Alexander writes about in “The New Jim Crow,” and that Ava Duvernay has so brilliantly pulled together in “13th.” The undercurrent of modern-day slavery as reflected in our system of mass incarceration disproportionately impacts young men of color. That’s what we see day in and day out in our cases:  both in terms of the young people prosecuted directly in adult court, and now the hundreds of juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania who have spent the majority of their life behind bars, since they were kids.

As we’re heading into the impacts and ramifications of our new administration, this is something we’re paying close attention to: how these dynamics are going to be exacerbated.

A promotional image for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary “13th.”

In terms of the Trump administration, are there any issues or changes you’re engaged with already, or are you waiting to see what transpires?

JV: It’s all of the above. We’re in a bit of a wait-and-see posture right now, but not really. We can anticipate what’s coming down the pike… Lifting up a Blue Lives Matter narrative over a Black Lives Matter narrative is directly impactful on our work and something that we would be pushing back on from the start. As a colleague wisely advised a week or two ago, we are storing up our energy for when more explicit things come down that we need to respond to.

We also take an intersectional approach, feeling like we’re all implicated here… [on issues like] the Muslim ban and immigration.

There’s a section of “13th” that discusses the idea that a merging of the immigration system and criminal justice system is taking place. In President Trump’s speech to the joint session of Congress, he talked about getting gang members and drug dealers out of the country, and I saw it differently than I would have even a couple of months ago. It’s all knitted together.

JV: Yup. That was an incredible line. This idea of the bad ones, getting the bad ones out, all goes back to the idea of the bad guys being the superpredator kids. It’s rooted in the same racism.

What can people to do to take action on this? We can donate to your organization, of course! For people in other regions, what organizations can they engage with?

LF: There’s a DC-based organization called the Campaign for Youth Justice and there’s another one specifically on the issue of juvenile sentencing without parole, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. They have an important, sweeping perspective: getting involved on the litigation front, but also doing family organizing with loved ones of people serving life sentences, as well as loved ones of people who were lost to individuals who were then convicted of life without parole. Their goal as an organization is to get rid of sentences of life without parole for children.

The Incarcerated Children Advocacy Network – ICAN – is made up of individuals who, as children, were sentenced as life without parole but have been released through various legal mechanisms, and are doing really amazing things in countries around the country.

Many people now are getting more involved in the political process. On this issue, I guess a first step people can take is to find out about their own state’s policies, right?

LF: It can be really encouraging the focus on the local level with these issues. There’s a lot of change that can happen on the municipal level or the state level.

JV: It’s become really clear for us that there’s huge power in local elections – in particular in states like ours where judges and district attorneys are elected. That’s something people can do even if there isn’t an organization on the ground. They can pay more attention to these kinds of elections and hold the folks who are running accountable.

There’s been a lot of attention on the legal profession in general in the past few weeks and the power that lawyers can have. Have you experienced fellow lawyers showing new interest in addressing some of these issues?

LF: Philadelphia is a sanctuary city; there have been a lot of efforts directed and defending members of our immigrant community who are under attack right now. Our local Bar Association has been really fantastic in convening a lot of our partners, colleagues, and local attorneys to get them trained in deportation defense and figuring out what the front line should look like. It’s encouraging knowing how the community has mobilized so far, and that when issues [related to criminal justice] present themselves, similar mobilization efforts will likely occur.

You’ll each have a million answers for this question – but what have you learned from the young people you are working with, that you wish more people knew?

LF: At the risk of being really cliché, I think an overarching theme that I have learned is that nothing is black and white. Our system is designed to put things in those terms, but people are really complex; there’s a lot of gray. Even in the advocacy world, we want things to be black and white, and there’s complexity and grayness there, too.

It’s about recognizing the full humanity of everyone we come in contact with, and understanding that this doesn’t fit into an easy narrative, but trying to really understand people as individuals.

And that’s what our country is struggling with on every level.

JV: I keep thinking about what one of the young people we work with said to me last week – in our first meeting, actually. We were just getting to know each other. He looked at me and said, “You know, I have so much untapped potential, and I have never had an opportunity to reach my full potential, and I need help doing that.”

That degree of self-awareness was so – I can’t even find the right word. Poignant, I think. It reminded me that the systemic oppression and inequality that our young people and families are experiencing are not lost on them. They are aware of the barriers that we have erected on people’s paths. It was a helpful reminder, at the very least, and something we need to remind ourselves of in terms of how we do the work.

LF: This is easy, Hallmark-y, but to put a more positive perspective in the mix, too: just how resilient people are. Even in the face of all these things, there’s still that hopefulness in wanting to reach one’s potential. That’s so important in all of this.

Donate to the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project here; meet other women leaders from the Shadow Cabinet series here.

Comments, suggestions? Connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.


‘Don’t be the one clipping your own wings’

Read more Shadow Cabinet interviews here.

Step one if you want to interview Mariana Santos? Figure out where in the world she is.

And no, following her on Facebook won’t help much. As the driving force between a growing international network of journalists, she’s not only traveling constantly to trainings and events, but also sharing updates, event announcements and most of all, news from all over the world. Oftentimes, it’s groundbreaking digital journalism created by members of Chicas Poderosas (Powerful Girls), an organization she founded in 2013 and now co-directs with Vicki Hammarstedt, the digital media director of the Berkeley Advanced Media Institute.

The organization’s goal is to address the gender gap Santos, 34, experienced during her work in digital media at organizations including The Guardian and Fusion, and to provide women – both professional and citizen journalists – with the tools they need to tell their stories online. From free training and events to the organization’s New Ventures Lab, which offers intensive support to women-led media startups, Chicas is on a mission to get women telling stories using digital tools they might otherwise be uncomfortable using.

Continue reading ‘Don’t be the one clipping your own wings’

‘Making calls is the gateway drug to political involvement’

Every woman I’ve spoken to for this series is busy by definition. But in the case of Laura Moser, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that I can hear the time pressure in her voice over the phone – understandable for a woman who is surely experiencing one of the busiest times in her life.

A woman who, in a matter of months, has become the person on whom hundreds of thousands of people depend to help them strike back at the Trump Administration’s most extreme positions.

A woman with a $30,000 phone bill.


How did Moser, 39, an accomplished writer and mother of two, come to preside over the phenomenon that is Daily Action, a service through which users can easily sign up – just text DAILY to the number 228466 – to receive a daily text tailored to their specific location with a key message to convey to their representatives? (The service then automatically connects the user to the elected official of the day, making a daily call a one-stop operation that can be done almost hands-free on the way to work.)

Continue reading ‘Making calls is the gateway drug to political involvement’

‘Before you say you want to help, say you want to learn’

Allegra Love doesn’t mince words. It’s obvious from the pace and passion of her speech that she doesn’t waste time, either. The immigration lawyer can’t afford to, not with her clients depending on her – plus the onslaught of “thousands of emails” and calls since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, just one week before we spoke.

The waves of new attention come from people who want to help the organization she created: the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, which provides free legal aid to immigrant youth and their families.

At one point during our Skype conversation, Love stands up to go ask her colleagues for a website address she wants to give me. “I’m sitting outside,” she explains, “so I don’t disturb all the other lawyers while I YELL. AT. YOU.” She laughs for a split second, recognizing the heightened emotion that has dominated the conversation, and then the moment of mirth is gone and it’s back to the urgent topic at hand.

Continue reading ‘Before you say you want to help, say you want to learn’