Buffers Soften the Blow

Who knew Amazon wishlists could connect total strangers.

I sat with Lisa Nowak Wilkins in a Washington Square coffee shop, in awe of her drive, focus, perspective, and compassion. But I imagine she doesn’t want this blog post to be about her, her compelling storytelling talents, and her remarkable way of connecting people of all ages, continents apart.

Our conversation taught me many things, including that Lisa Nowak Wilkins will always deflect the attention away from her — and towards the refugee crisis.

Dozens of Diapers

Lisa started her journey of assisting refugees with some calls to nonprofits in the area. She called and called and called, and her inquiries fell flat. Finally, she showed up at one and asked how she could help. The staffers said the demand for services far exceeds their funding streams. A financial donation will always be appreciated. Lisa dug deeper. What specific things do the refugee families in Boston need?

Well for starters, they need diapers.

Lisa went home, created an Amazon wishlist for diapers, shared it on Facebook, and didn’t have to wait long. Within 24 hours, a whole room of her home was full of diapers. Her network of friends, families, and neighbors had answered the call. She was astonished, and she discovered something significant that day.

When she asks peers to buy something simple and specific for a refugee that they themselves would need to fulfill basic needs, her peers say yes without any hesitation.

50 Cans of Tuna

People are much more likely to buy nonperishable food, clothing, and bedsheets than they are to donate money. You and I know what we need to survive each day, and so it’s easy for us to understand what others need, too.

People are more likely to donate 50 cans of tuna than $50 to refugee families.

What started as a Facebook post for diapers quickly led to a larger movement. Lisa’s theory took on a life of its own, and gained speed. She saw how many people were ready to jump on board with the work. People saw devastating pictures of Syrian children on the news and they wanted to do something. Lisa provided the vehicle for doing just that.

Since the day she made that first visit to the Boston Center for Refugee Health & Human Rights, Lisa has created Boston Friends for Refugee Support, BFFRS. Buffers soften the blow.

Lisa and her group may be far away from the crisis, but they can do their part to buffer the impact for families and individuals facing the brunt of it. 1600 members strong, BFFRS is still growing and adapting to meet the needs of refugees here and abroad.

Lisa’s message isn’t only that people should part with what they don’t need, to share with someone else, although that is part of it. At the very DNA of BFFRS is the idea that each person has his or her own way to contribute. Whether its through our words, technology, clothing, toiletries, or nonperishable food, we can improve someone’s day-to-day reality.

A New Lesson Plan

Miraculously, Lisa has found her role in responding to the Syrian refugee crisis: she pinpoints areas of need in partnering organizations, and she reaches out to her vast network. She inspires people to think beyond themselves and creates pathways for them to serve. Lisa has her role, and she inspires people to find theirs.

Lisa’s background is in teaching. She swears by the importance of character development through service to others, for children, teens, and even adults. Service is a about a relationship. It’s reciprocal. Through her work, she sees that not only do the refugees benefit, but so do the people sharing with them.

When Lisa told me about her work in schools, her eyes lit up. She’ll go into high schools and task students with writing letters to their counterparts in camps. Through their writing, the geographic distance dissipates. The students express their hopes for the refugees, and tell them that they’re thinking of them and their families. As the students compose the letters, the refugee crisis becomes real and tangible to them. The letters build bridges between people living very different lives, but who at their cores have the same needs and dreams.

Writing is not the only way students participate in BFFRS. Lisa loves bringing backpacks to schools. She asks the students to fill them up with anything but technology that would make them smile. Then they share the backpacks with children of refugee families.

Dignity and Wifi

One of my favorite BFFRS ideas is the cosmetic bag gathering. After receiving a bunch of makeup donations for women, Lisa asked girls to “shop” through the items and put together kits for women in refugee camps. They made handmade tags that said “You are beautiful” in English and Arabic, to send dignity and love to other women they may never meet. Lisa told me about the high rates of depression in refugee camps, and how she believes little things like this can make a difference for a woman who is suffering.

A different, also powerful way to give is through donating phones. There’s a real need for smart phones and devices with internet in camps. A phone can pave the way out of a refugee camp; when an individual can contact a family member outside the camps, he or she can begin to conceptualize a way out. There are solar-powered charging stations in refugee camps, but people don’t have devices to charge and use. So if you have an iPhone lying around, clear the data, unlock it, and give it to BFFRS or another refugee-supporting organization. Same with tablets. A device with internet will change someone’s life, I promise.

Humanwire

Then there are bolder ways to give, if you have some disposable income you can share.

Lisa told me about Humanwire, an organization through which individuals can “host” refugees. After creating a profile and making a donation, an individual can follow the donation to the refugee who will receive it. Through their Tent to Home campaign, Humanwire works to transfer families from tents to apartments.

A donation of $200 per month can house a family in an apartment in Greece, where they can work and restart their lives. I love the idea of a family, a group of friends, a church group, or an office adopting a family and giving them a home. Through pooling together resources, we can give children better, safer futures and adults a way to break away from the horror and heartbreak.

A Bit of Introspection

My notebook is full of other ideas that Lisa shared with me. Here are some of the others:

Are you…

  • An extreme couponer? I challenge you to maximize your savings on any of these items, and give them to someone who needs them: wool socks, feminine hygiene products, soap, cans of food.
  • A parent or mentor to teenagers? Consider bonding with your daughter/son/niece/nephew/mentee through picking up a volunteer shift at a local organization supporting refugees. Invest time in their character development, while supporting refugees. If you live in Boston, BFFRS has a handy list of their partner organizations here.
  • An art collector? Support refugees through buying their art!
  • A writer? Send letters to refugees. Email your congressmen, if you are inclined, to strike the issue at a systemic level.
  • A chef? Host a refugee family in your area for a meal.
  • A teacher? Plan a lesson or two about humanitarian crises, or adopt Lisa’s letter-writing or backpack-stuffing activities.

Do you have…

  • Work suits or dress shoes you don’t wear anymore? There are refugees in the Boston area who want to start their careers here and need them for interviews. Bring them by the nearest drop-off location.
  • Extra Legos lying around your house, or other toys your kids don’t need? Your kids will enjoy the process of sharing them with children who unfortunately don’t have toys. Or if they’d be interested, for their next birthday party, ask children to bring $5 for refugees instead of gifts.
  • A spare couch or bed? Families new to this area are arriving with next to nothing. Lend them a hand in furnishing their homes. Or, sell your couch and donate the money.
  • 1/1000th of the social media followers that Selena Gomez has? Share this post, the BFFRS website, and stories of the crisis in Syria.

Think Global, Act Local

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you have other ideas, please give me a shout and I’ll share them on Twitter. There are infinite other ways to join the movement, one for each of us. And as we begin to look outwards, to help others, we discover our best, most authentic selves.

Just like local citizenship, global citizenship is about the bonds of human connection.

Simply Civics Ballot

What You Might Not Know About Ballots

I was eating dinner with my parents and one of my sisters, Alley, a couple weeks ago. Not surprisingly, our conversation shifted to the upcoming election.

My mom asked me about what determines ballot order. I didn’t have a clue.

Are candidates listed alphabetically, by candidate name or party? Is it random? What impact, if any, does the ballot order have on the election outcome?

Embrace your Individuality

As it turns out, it actually varies a lot state by state. In my Political Science classes at Boston College, I learned that in our system of federalism, oftentimes we see a plurality of policies at the state level. States get creative in how they approach various policy issues, such as school systems, tax structures, etc. On Election Day, too, states like to show off their own individuality.

Since the federal government doesn’t dictate how states organize election ballots, we see a plurality of ballot laws across the country. The University of Virginia Center for Politics released a super handy list in 2009. It’s fascinating to see the states’ different approaches to handling ballot order.

Lotteries & Incumbent Advantage

A lot of states seem to place value on the outcomes of previous elections. In Massachusetts, the incumbent is listed first, followed by the other candidates in alphabetical order by last name. Some states, like Connecticut, base the order on previous election results. For example, if the Democrats won the previous election, their candidate will appear first. Interesting, right? So in both Massachusetts and Connecticut, whichever party had the most success in the previous election will appear first.  The underdog is indeed the underdog.

Some states take a similar approach, with their own variations. For example, in Wisconsin, the party that won the most votes in the previous gubernatorial election will be listed first. Whereas, in West Virginia, the party that won the most votes in the last presidential election will be listed first.

In Maryland, the party with the most registered voters is listed first.

Some states leave it up to the official printing the ballots (Illinois) or the State Election Commission (South Carolina) to decide.

Still other states, like Virginia and Washington, have lotteries to determine party order. This sounds both exciting and stressful.

Unclear Bias

Thanks to Political Science academics, there are a ton of studies out there about ballot order.

As it turns out, the candidates listed first may have an advantage. Surprise, surprise! Larry Sabato, the Director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, calls this phenomenon the “first-listing bias.” Voters who are still on the fence might pick the candidate listed first. However, he says the bias produces fewer additional votes for offices at the top of the ballot, such as president or governor, than towards the bottom. The more highly visible the office, the less likely the order of the candidates matters. For more of Larry Sabato’s insights, check out his article, Who’s on First.

Things Aren’t Random

Academics have brainstormed solutions to this dilemma, too. In First Among Equals, Yuval Salant, assistant professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School and Marc Meredith, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania propose one solution. If we could somehow randomize ballots, we might be able to improve the fairness of elections. For example, on Election Day, I might see one candidate listed first, and you might see the other candidate listed first. That could be cool….but extremely costly. Towns, cities, and states already spend a ton on each election, without randomizing ballots. Would the benefits outweigh the costs? It seems like for now, officials have decided it doesn’t.

When The Ballot’s In Your Hands

So, the jury is still out on ballot order. There is some evidence to suggest that ballot order matters. Each state has used its own approach to remedy the issue, but no state is perfect.

As always, the best solution is voter education. Make sure you do some research on the candidates before you get to the polls. That way, you’ll vote for the candidate you most identify with, regardless of where they appear on the ballot.

Augmented Reality, Nextdoor

Simply Civics Nextdoor

As you’ve probably heard, Pokemon Go went viral this week. A quick Google search will show you all about the phenomenon. The game uses augmented reality technology and GPS tracking to superimpose Pokemon in the real world. As a result, players tend to congregate in public places (parks, beaches, etc.) to find and capture more Pokemon.

In the spirit of getting out in the community, I’m going to share an app I’ve used for the past couple weeks. It’s called Nextdoor: the free private social media for your neighborhood. This isn’t just for Bostonians. Actually, it’s all over the country.

Couches & Public Hearings

Nextdoor is like a local version of Facebook. I’ve seen people post for a variety of reasons. To illustrate, my neighbors recently posted about these topics and more:

  • Upcoming Town Hall meetings and public hearings
  • Does the cat that stops by to eat have a home?
  • A free couch
  • Babysitters and nannies

Actually, my roommate and I went to check out the aforementioned couch. We would’ve gladly taken it. However, we couldn’t figure out how to get it into our apartment before the date our neighbor moved away.

Each day, there’s a lot of activity on the feed, with neighbors posting and commenting. In fact, just yesterday, another neighbor posted to ask for input on research she and a friend are conducting.

Plus, Nextdoor is user-friendly and has some pretty cool features. For instance, my favorite feature is an option to “thank” your neighbor for their post. A little gratitude goes a long way!

Signing up for Nextdoor

It takes a minute to sign up. First, you can either access it on your favorite web browser or download the app. When joining the network, you just have to enter your address and then verify it. Then, it will tell you which neighborhood you belong to. Believe it or not, I didn’t know my neighborhood had a name until I signed up. It’s a lot easier to become an active member of my neighborhood now that I know what it’s called!

So, check it out and see what your neighbors are talking about. You wouldn’t want to miss out on some important community conversations.

Nextdoor transcends the digital world to bring community members together. Maybe it’s another type of augmented reality…one that doesn’t use up quite as much phone data.

July 4th Reflections

Simply Civics July 4th

I look forward to July 4th weekend each year. This year, I spent a lot of the weekend outside on the South Shore with friends: breathing in the fresh air, grilling hot dogs and hamburgers, seeing the American flag fly boldly in the breeze, and at the end of each day, watching in awe as the sun set on the water. I loved spending quality time with my friends and enjoying what makes summertime so magical.

Monday Night

Back in Brookline on Monday evening, I paused to reflect on my weekend. I perused through my Facebook feed and Twitter, and I was deeply moved by how many people had taken the time to post excerpts from the Declaration of Independence.

One of my friends in particular took a creative approach. He wrote the first line of the Declaration of Independence as his status, and then invited his friends to add each consecutive line of the document as comments. Together, they were rebuilding the document. I read each comment, allowing each revolutionary line to ruminate in my mind.

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation…”

At 10:15PM, after reading through these posts, I left my apartment and walked towards Corey Hill on Summit Ave. I had read in the Brookline TAB that the Boston Esplanade fireworks were visible from Corey Hill Park and Larz Anderson Park, and decided to see how Brookline celebrates the 4th.

Fireworks

I expected to see a small crowd at Corey Hill Park.

Instead, the hill was packed with community members of all ages. I couldn’t quite tell where to stand. I stumbled through the grass in the darkness, trying to avoid tripping on tree roots. A few minutes after 10:30, I noticed everyone shifting to the left side of the park, and I thought maybe they were packing up to leave. In effect, I resigned to the idea that perhaps I had missed the whole show. Next year, I’ll leave my apartment a little earlier and maybe even picnic on the grass.

But I walked towards the crowd and turned towards the Boston city skyline. As my eyes rested on the bright sky, I smiled. Through the trees, we could indeed see the whole show. It was breathtaking.

I stood there, captivated by the energy of the community around me. It was amazing. Many Brookliners ventured up a hill to a park on Monday night to watch the Boston fireworks in between trees. July 4th truly is a special tradition.

240th Birthday

July 4th fireworks carry so much meaning. Two hundred and forty years since the Declaration of Independence, we continue to celebrate. Each year, we gather with our friends, family, and community to reflect on what unites us. Through our celebrations, we renew our dedication to democracy.

“It’s the finale!” I heard a woman nearby say. People were clapping, amazed by the incredible show.

I looked around Corey Hill Park, thankful for the tradition that brings us together as a community. There has been a lot of troubling news around the world, near and far. To pave the way for our brighter future, I think we should reflect on the vision that first brought us together as a country.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Thank you to the many diverse communities of Americans who have carried the torch of liberty and pursued these truths through challenging times. Thank you in advance to those who will carry the torch into the future.

Happy Independence Day to you and your loved ones.

Happy birthday, America, and I hope this next year is one of freedom, peace, and unity.

Unpacking Health Care Policy

Simply Civics

The Honorable Michael Dukakis

The third floor of the Brookline Senior Center was packed last Wednesday night. Brookliners gathered for the 20th Annual Public Health Policy Forum, presented by the Friends of Brookline Public Health and Brookline Adult & Community Education. The theme was: “Celebrating 20 Years of Advocating for Health Care Reform: Looking Back, Looking Forward.”

I barely found a seat!

The event began with welcoming remarks from the co-founders of Friends of Brookline Public Health: Alan Balsam, PhD, MPH, the Director of Brookline Public Health & Human Services; and J. Jacques Carter, MD.

Dr. Carter introduced the night’s moderator, the Honorable Michael Dukakis.

You may not know that former Governor Dukakis is a Brookline native. He started his public service career as a Brookline Town Meeting Member and was elected to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1962. He served three terms as Governor of Massachusetts, first from 1975-1979 and then again from 1983-1991. During that time, he was the Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States in the 1988 elections. And he’s from Brookline!

The panelists

I sat in awe as former Governor Dukakis introduced the panelists.  Each of the panelists has contributed so much to the field of public health through their respective careers.

  • Dr. Judy Ann Bigby served as the Commonwealth’s Secretary of Health and Human Services from 2007 to 2013. She was responsible for implementing many aspects of the 2006 health care reform law. She is currently a Senior Fellow with Mathematica Policy Research, located in Cambridge.
  • Amy Whitcomb Slemmer is the Executive Director of Health Care for All in Massachusetts. Health Care for All is a “nonprofit advocacy organization working to create a health care system that provides comprehensive, affordable, accessible, and culturally competent care to everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us.” (HCFA website).
  • Dolores Mitchell recently retired as Executive Director of the Group Insurance Commission after 29 years of service! The GIC provides health-related services to the Commonwealth’s employees, retirees and their dependents, municipalities, and other entities. Congratulations to Ms. Mitchell on her 29 years of service to the Commonwealth!
  • John McDonough is the Professor of Public Health Practice, Department of Health Policy & Management, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He served as the Senior Advisor on National Health Reform to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He worked on both the writing and passage of the Affordable Care Act.

As Governor Dukakis pointed out, three of the four panelists were women!

A brief health policy primer

Throughout the forum, the panelists discussed the dimensions of public health policy in recent years and the challenges that lie ahead.

In 2006, Massachusetts passed a health care reform bill guaranteeing coverage to most residents of the Commonwealth. As Dr. Bigby explained, 500,000 people gained insurance in 2006, many of whom had previously struggled the most to get health care.

Four years later, in 2010, President Obama and Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). Among other statutes, it mandated health insurance coverage for all Americans.

Where we are now

Today, many more Americans are insured. Consequently, fewer individuals find themselves financially bankrupted by medical crises. Plus, more Americans are receiving preventative medical care. Since 2010, Massachusetts has had the smallest increase in health care costs yet.

It’s not as simple as that, though. Mandated health insurance isn’t a one and done deal, and not everyone is in agreement about whether it’s the right solution.

The best way for us to develop informed opinions is through learning more about it. I’ll be the first to say my knowledge of the Affordable Care Act is just about a drop in the bucket of what the law entails. However, that’s one of the great aspects of attending an event like this. It exposed me to many aspects of health care reform, and then prompted me to do some more research on my own.

To learn more about the Affordable Care Act, check out the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website. It has the full text and a guide with key features of the law.

Costs

One of the pressing issues right now, the panelists explained, is figuring out how to reign in the costs of our complex health care system. Medication prices are going up, which means the cost of care is also increasing.

Rising health care costs affect everyone: consumers, families, health insurance companies, medical practices, and hospitals.

Leaders have proposed reform in this area, particularly at the state level. Massachusetts State Senator Mark Montigny (D) sponsored Senate Bill 1048, An Act to promote transparency and cost control of pharmaceutical drug prices. You can follow the bill’s progress here.

Participating in policy

Because we live in a democracy, we each have a say in the future of our health care system. In fact, we can participate in our national policy discussions.

It’s important for each of us to be informed and to communicate our views and ideas to our elected officials, both at the state and national level.

If you’re interested in following cost control initiatives at the state level, the legislature has a Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. You can track bills and attend hearings.

Lastly, be in touch with your elected officials! They want to hear from their constituents about where they stand. Massachusetts residents, you can find your state legislators here.

Looking ahead

We know that the health care system is complex. The participants, speakers, and panelists at the forum brought up issues that impact all of us, wherever we live across the city, country, or world.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t sustainable and high-quality solutions out there. If we think boldly, we can both support the world-class medical system in America and bring down costs.

I wonder what updates the panelists will share this time next year at the 21st Annual Public Health Policy Forum.

Zoning for All

Simply Civics

I went to my first community meeting last night! It was the fourth installment out of four Housing Production Plan Community Workshops in Brookline Town Hall.

Because I had missed the first three, I had a lot of catching up to do. I’ll summarize the situation briefly. Brookline is working with RKG Associates, JM Goldson, and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council to create a housing plan. The Commonwealth requires that at least 10% of each town or city’s housing is affordable. Affordable means that residents don’t spend more than 30% of their income on housing.

Brookline is under the 10% benchmark, and it has work to do. In Brookline:

  • 1/5 of households spend more than 50% of their income on housing;
  • 1/2 of households with low/moderate-income spend more than 50% of their income on housing; and
  • For renters, 3/4 of households with low/moderate-income spend more than 50% of their income.

Those numbers are truly staggering. The housing market is actually pushing individuals and families out of Brookline.

What’s exciting, though, is that there was a big turnout last night of concerned members of the community. For the most part, they want to see more affordable housing units. They want the people who are currently living in affordable housing to be able to keep their housing, and they want people who do not have affordable options to find them in Brookline. The question is: how?

The Brookline Planning Board, Housing Advisory Board, RKG Associates, and JM Goldson proposed draft strategies. There were four buckets of strategies: Regulatory, Resource Allocation, Education & Advocacy (my favorite), and Local Policy & Planning. I’m not familiar with Brookline zoning laws, but from what I gathered, they are complicated and are probably in need of some serious updating.

I tried my best to keep up with the presentation. What is Chapter 40B? What’s a Zoning Overlay District? What are all these buildings the presenters are referring to? I felt clueless and uninformed. At least I’m only here to gather information and learn, I thought.

Wrong.

We broke out into groups and rotated through four tables, one for each topic. Each person had to speak once before anyone could speak twice. I couldn’t hide. I had no option but to participate.

Facilitators asked us for our feedback on each strategy. Should we promote the use of 40B on appropriate sites for development or redevelopment? That sounds right, I thought. Do we want to prioritize building more affordable housing units or renovating the ones we already have? Can’t we do both? Should we raise taxes, divert funding from social programs, or provide incentives for developers to build renewable units in Brookline? Should we take land away from parks and open spaces to build new housing? Definitely not (Channeling my inner Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec.) The parks contribute a lot to Brookline’s character.

We spent 80 minutes debating, proposing, considering, refuting, inferring….

My head was spinning.

I felt like I was back in college, only this time, the stakes were a lot higher. My thoughts were actually being recorded and I was contributing to the Housing Production Plan for my town. This plan is going to impact housing development, financing, and sustainability for years to come. I was reminded that not only do we have to plan for Brookline today, but we must consider the future, too. We need to think critically about how to promote smart and sustainable housing policy for generations to come. As a millennial at the meeting, I represented the future generations of Brookliners.

As the meeting came to an end, the facilitators stood up and presented on the themes that had come up during the discussions. There seemed to be consensus around a lot of strategies, but also some disagreement about others. Some participants even had suggestions for potential community partnerships to expand affordable housing options.

The revised plan will be submitted to the Board of Selectmen in July. Updates should be posted on the HPP site.

We adjourned at 9:15, but the discussion is far from over. To provide input in the production plan process, submit your thoughts and/or questions here. It’s a tangible step we each can take to ensure Brookline’s affordability for years to come.

If you’re interested in participating in future community meetings, visit the Brookline calendar. There’s something going on almost everyday!