Category Archives: Social Studies

Hillary was too perfect in an imperfect race

I cast my vote on Tuesday, November 8, with tears in my eyes, a bounce in my step and a broad smile cracking my aging face.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, for me, was no compromise candidate. She was “amply qualified” to be president, as the Washington Post and many other old-media outlets declared. I supported her over Barack Obama in 2008. I supported her over Bernie Sanders in 2016. Turns out, she was the right woman at the wrong time.hillary_mic

Weeks later, her stunning loss is doubly difficult. Our country fell back into the dark reaches of protectionism and fear with the ascension of “the Donald” as our president. But I also can’t shake the reality, the awakening, that Hillary brought this loss upon herself.

Consider this less a political analysis than a primer for women well into middle age who need to step up, speak up and shake up a system that continues to marginalize and overlook us, both in politics and at work.

Lesson 1: Be real.

Bernie Sanders was wrong when he told Clinton, in October 2015, that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” Instead of smiling and nodding and declaring, “Me, too,” Hillary needed to explain.

Why did she set up a private email server as secretary of state? Why did she delete 30,000 messages that she deemed to be private? Nothing is private in the digital hemisphere, and this bright woman is smart enough to know that.

Why did she not explain the logic behind the “zone of privacy” that she first made public back in 1994? The suspicions about her then never entirely were erased and may have obliterated her once-promising campaign.

A communications professional and the daughter of a onetime politician, I badly wanted to get inside the Clinton war room and advise her to drop the façade. To be real! (It’s advice that a female vice president once gave me, in commenting about my outsize work ethic: “You need to let your direct reports see that you are human, Amy.”)

“I made a mistake” with the emails wasn’t good enough, not even (or especially) for this diehard supporter. I wanted to know why. I wanted to understand her better. “That would require Hillary to look inside herself,” a friend and Clinton supporter told me days before the election.

Lesson 2: Be bold.

Perfectionism is the self-defeating disease of too many girls and women — evidenced by our obsession with looks and weight, our cautious tendency to play by the rules, our earnest efforts to be the hardest working participants in any venue, from the classroom to the boardroom.

Damned if the astonishingly accomplished Hillary Rodham Clinton — the woman who came closest to breaking the nation’s highest, hardest glass ceiling — isn’t hobbled by perfectionism, too. It may have cost the race for this candidate who can’t seem to be herself in public.

Straight talk, plainly and imperfectly delivered, played well in this election cycle. Hillary — ever the student — instead favored nuance and the latest talking points from her data-driven campaign. “She’s a policy wonk, and I like that because I’m a scientist,” a neighbor said the day after the election. “But she isn’t a politician.” She didn’t have to be.

  • When Trump paraded Bill’s former female conquests before a national audience at the second debate (two days after his own lewd behavior was revealed), Hillary could have squared her shoulders and declared that she was no more responsible for Bill’s behavior than Melania was for Donald’s.
  • When Sanders hammered on the Goldman Sachs speeches, which later revealed her reasoned preference for free trade, she could have explained global markets in terms that the average worker would understand.
  • If coal jobs and auto manufacturing are never coming back, she could have won over millennial voters (and scientists, like my neighbor) by talking about the environmental and economic benefits of wind energy, solar power and mass transit.

She could have helped us as Americans see beyond ourselves and come together as a nation for our common good.

Lesson 3: Be yourself.

Reportedly a charming and plain-spoken woman in private, Hillary could have risked speaking the bold, brazen truth in this “wild west” race. If it cost her the election, at least her supporters would have felt more pride in her defeat. At least then, I could have squared my own shoulders and declared: She lost, but she did not fail.

Too often, I felt Clinton was running for president rather than telling me how she would serve. “Make America Great Again” proved to be an irresistible tagline, and she didn’t articulate what she stood for in the face of it.

I supported Hillary, who is 10 years older than I am, for her lifetime of consistent service to women’s rights. I wanted her to play the woman card in 2008 — when instead she got caught explaining her 2002 Senate vote to approve the Iraq war.

Then and now, I wanted her to run as who and what she was: a path-breaking woman who naturally has been a target since her days at Wellesley College. I wanted her to talk about her evolution in the 1960s from a so-called Goldwater girl to a liberal activist. I wanted her, as an attorney, to talk about this president’s potential to appoint two to three justices to the U.S. Supreme Court and about the reality of what life will become — for poor women, for rural women — if women’s reproductive rights get reversed.

Instead, in long discussions with my Bernie Sanders–supporting sons, I came to wonder if Hillary would say anything to get elected.

And so, the final lesson: Be of service. Action and involvement are the only options left for those of us who believed in a future that did not come to pass. Hillary will go down in history as a courageous woman whose caution overrode her conviction, who — in the face of bigotry and misogyny — consulted her poll numbers and played it way too safe.

Living the daily grind of the working poor

Two years ago, over my husband’s objections, we became a one-vehicle household when I sold my car.

It was a financial decision, in part. I had recently downsized out of management and was earning significantly less. But it was also a lifestyle choice. After years of long-distance commuting, I re-established our household in a bus- and pedestrian-friendly neighborhood where I can walk to work.

Choice is the operative word in that scenario. When I observe that I’m among the few obviously professional workers — and Caucasians — on inner-city buses or trains, I don’t often acknowledge that for me this is a choice. Even the pay cut, though a blow to both my pocketbook and my ego, was made possible through income from rental properties that my family owns.

For the working poor, however, a reliance on sometimes unreliable mass transit — as well as food insecurity, substandard housing, or lack of affordable child care and health care — means the opposite of choice. “It is about economics,” says Gennae Falconer, director of community engagement at the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches.Cropped_Gennae

“I have a full-time job,” she explains. “I have parents who could bail me out. Without harm to them, they could support me. These families have grandparents who can’t watch the kids because they are working. It’s inter-generational poverty.”

An exercise in living poor

I recently had the opportunity through Leadership Saint Paul to be part of a workshop that Falconer runs called “Face the Facts: Understanding Poverty.” Although the exercise has the feel of a board game, there is nothing enjoyable about it at all.

Your challenge is to make it through a month in the city on a very limited budget, the instructions read. You will need to find housing, daycare, transportation and health insurance. In addition, you will need to pay for household expenses, food, clothing and entertainment.

My team’s choices got more difficult as we inched closer and closer to spending down the $3,400 per month that “Ted” and “Alice,” our working-poor parents, brought home. We started with housing, which we deemed the highest need for this five-person family.

Affordable housing means you are spending less than 30% on housing costs. In 2015, over 37% of Hennepin County residents paid more than 30% of their income for housing.

Given choices that included an affordable “rundown quad-plex” on a busy street where “loud fights and crime are common” and “a spacious duplex” close to a park and bus lines that cost $280 a month more than we were supposed to spend on housing, we opted for the three-bedroom duplex. Our rationale: free entertainment in the park.

We chose not to give this family a car, which meant we had to find daycare for the 2- and the 4-year-old on a bus line or close to home. Our decisions were starting to involve compromise:

  • The most affordable, high-quality child-care option, with a curriculum that focuses on healthful eating and self-esteem, looked ideal — but was a 40-minute commute by bus.
  • The other affordable option had a “frazzled and forgetful” owner who also cares for her aging mother. Plus, a child was injured there recently in the home’s unfinished basement.
  • The pricier option had a “sparse” supply of toys and limited activities, and it cost $160 a month more (remember, we already had overspent on housing, and we hadn’t yet factored in clothing and food).

“As you go into the exercise, you start to physically feel some of the stress,” Falconer says. “Sometimes, the only financial choice is to have the neighbor who smokes all day watch the kids, even though she lets them watch too much TV. As a society, we vilify the parents who will do that. But this is the best choice available.”

In the end, our family had spent $750 more than its monthly budget. The choices we made — to buy health insurance for the children, to enroll the mother in her 401(k) plan at work, to buy a share in the neighborhood community garden — reflected the circumstances in which we all were raised.

“Early on, there’s often not a lot of discussion about these choices,” says Falconer. “Participants are working on what is culturally ingrained: ‘This is what you do. This is how people live.’”

How could we deny “Alice,” the mom, the chance to attend her father’s funeral in Chicago? (None of us on the team works in an hourly-wage job where such a choice would entail lost wages.) How could we keep Valerie, the eldest child, from playing a sport or taking a field trip at school? (None of us had been denied those opportunities.)

Days later, Falconer and I discussed how she has seen the exercise affect participants.

This exercise was billed to our group as a “poverty simulation.” I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

“We try not to call it a poverty simulation, because that’s not fair to those who experience real poverty. We call it by its full name — Face the Facts: Understanding Poverty — and we define it as a simulation exercise to experience what life is like for the working poor.

“The exercise is specific to that group of people. They don’t make enough to cover living expenses, but they earn too much to qualify for state and federal aid.”

Who is your audience?

“We’re largely working with people who come from a privileged background and may not understand the complexities. They may believe that poverty is a choice driven by the person experiencing it. We’re hoping to show people that poverty is driven by economics.

“That’s why we call these poverty and privilege trainings. In our experience of working with white, middle- to upper-middle-class people — and I am one of them — we see that people tend to feel either guilty or defensive. And that doesn’t get us anywhere. We can’t sit in that space.

“If people act out of guilt, they give money. That’s fine, but it’s not working toward justice. If you act out of defensiveness, you become fearful and want to hold on to what you have.”

I’m on a committee at work that is examining how to move from employee volunteerism to true engagement with the community. How do you move people from throwing money at the problem to changing the system that enables poverty?

“People gravitate toward service and acts of charity because it’s on their terms. You get to decide how you do it, and it’s easier to do. Yes, you did something good: You painted a house; you stocked a food shelf.

“But if you’re doing the work of justice, it is going to take some personal sacrifice. You may make less money, because if we’re going to pay everyone an equitable wage, then the person who is white or male won’t automatically make more money. The sacrifice will come from those who have the most.

“That’s hard, and it creates fear. People think, ‘I’m going to be without.’ We live with such a notion of scarcity: ‘If we pay people more, I will have less.’ But we have enough in this country. We just don’t allocate it right. We don’t share enough.

“There has to be give and take among all community members to bring everybody up. Paul Wellstone said: We all do better when we all do better. Goodness begets other goodness.”

Although my team wanted to do well by this family, we also concluded that with low-skilled jobs and no apparent education, the parents should never have had children — or at least had fewer children. There’s another judgment against the working poor.

“You see that as the exercise progresses. Ted smokes, and for $75 he can keep smoking that month, or for $175 he can get the cessation gum. People assume you can just quit. But less than 1 percent of people who quit smoking cold turkey are successful within the year.

“There’s a mental health factor for the working poor. Smoking or eating junk food gives you a release. They don’t have time to sit in a therapist’s office for an hour. Again, poverty is about dollars and economics. It’s not just choices people make.”

It seems that people have grown both more rich and more poor since I was a kid. My family had one television and one car until I was 10 years old. Our house had no air conditioning; my mom hung laundry outside to dry. And my father was an attorney. We considered ourselves middle class.

“And we saw the privileges of the middle class as our right! I grew up in St. Cloud. I knew people at my school who were poor. You heard rumors. You could tell by the way they dressed. But all of those people had houses, had food, had a way to get to school. That’s not the way things are anymore.

“When homeless shelters came about in the 1980s, they were supposed to be a temporary fix. Federal poverty guidelines determine whether a person or a family is eligible for benefits, but those benefits were meant to be an emergency stopgap. Because the disparity between the rich and the poor keeps growing, it takes an enormous amount of money to raise yourself into a higher class. You remain dependent on the system.”

What are the next steps, for those of us who participated in this exercise?

“Our Urban Immersion Service Retreats focus on education, advocacy and service. Those programs help all of us understand that people who want to help — to be part of equity and change — can’t just ‘jump to justice’ without the underlying background. We have to move people along that continuum.”

To learn more, or to lease the “Face the Facts: Understanding Poverty” kit, contact Gennae Falconer at the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches: 612-276-1564 or

Saint Paul schools: more than a ‘single story’

As a St. Paul resident who kept her two sons out of urban public schools, I’ve been following the rising violence in my city’s beleaguered school district more closely than many empty-nest parents.

I’ve been recalling — no, justifying — why I commuted to the Twin Cities from Northfield for 20 years. I wanted my sons to have a well-funded, academically challenging education, and stories and statistics such as these frankly scared me:

  • Less than one-third of Saint Paul Public School graduates earn a two- or four-year college degree within six years after leaving high school.
  • Only 68 percent of high school students of color graduate on time — 13 points less than the 81 percent graduation rate for whites.
  • In December the Saint Paul Board of Education voted to expel a student who, six weeks earlier, had brought a loaded gun to Harding High on the city’s east side.
  • Since then teachers have been shoved and assaulted, and district officials learned they face a $15 million deficit.

If all I did was read the paper or watch the news, I would have but a single story about the Saint Paul Public Schools — a story of dysfunction and disrespect. But I know more than I hear or read in the media, thanks to my volunteer work last spring with four then–high school juniors at Harding High.

Here are their stories, the ones they shared and shaped with me during our work together on college-application essays.

An aunt at age 15

Faith was the most disciplined of my four mentees. She turned in her assignments on time. She asked me questions via e-mail, something I could not convince the other three to do. She had the most obvious writing talent.

A self-motivated girl, studious and somewhat shy, she had a knack for writing and a mature ability to see the meaning in her personal struggles and sorrows.

Push, Leah! Push! is all I heard as I stood behind the curtain waiting impatiently. As I heard my 18-year-old sister screaming and my dad talking to her as if she was back on the softball field, I knew right there that my life was going to change. I had another responsibility, to be the best aunt I could be to this newborn baby boy.

She titled her essay “Family Matters.” Her dream was to be a wedding planner. Personally, I wished she would aim for a more intellectual pursuit, and then I remembered what I taught my own sons: All work is honorable.College Classroom

The five of us become acquainted by sharing our favorite food, sport, car and college dream school. Faith was the only one to choose a private liberal arts college. She comes from a white, working-class family for whom the tuition would have been a stretch, but I believed she could cut it academically.

I recommended her for a scholarship to attend a summer writing camp through the ThreeSixty Journalism program. She passed it up so she could go camping with her family.

Hopes and dreams

My own mentor in this project, a former Saint Paul Pioneer Press colleague named Lynda McDonnell, urged me to keep my fears and feelings in perspective while appreciating the chance to be exposed to other priorities and ways of being.

“Most of us are fairly segregated by income, education and age,” she wrote me after the project concluded, “which leads us to make assumptions about each other that often are narrow-hearted, fearful and flawed.”

I saw that in my assumptions about Yasuhar, a Latino boy who called himself Joshua and whose dream school was Dunwoody College of Technology. He loved soccer, as do my own sons, and so I made a real effort to connect. But he disappointed me, time and time again.

I couldn’t figure out why Joshua kept neglecting to e-mail me his assignments on the iPad his school provided, until he conceded, finally, that he had no Internet access at home.

Do you live near a library? I asked him. “No.” Near a coffee shop? He shook his head. “I live by a McDonald’s.”

Do they have Wi-Fi? I asked, grimacing at how privileged I sounded.

Joshua’s college essay was about his efforts to get a driver’s license. At first, I hardly saw it as an achievement. Weeks into the class he told me that his father — who’s “never really been around as I’ve grown up” — praised him by phone for the accomplishment.

His uncle taught him how to drive. Joshua learned to ask for help. “Getting my license,” he wrote, “has taught me to take advantage of time and the resources around me.” He also wants “to be someone in the future and [be] successful.”

And then the clincher: “Most people say they really don’t see it in me.”

‘A single story’

I heard the phrase “a single story” in a 2009 TED Talk that I happened to see only a few weeks ago. It’s a graceful and gracious argument by Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about why a stereotype — a single story — is so dangerous.

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person but to make it the definitive story of that person,” she said.

I learned from my too-brief experience as a public school volunteer that knowing the people who shape an institution is a sure way to dispel stereotypes and soften judgments.

Dennis, a Hmong-American boy who recently had made the B honor roll, wrote his essay about the discipline and domestic skills he learned from his beloved aunt, whom he hasn’t seen since he was 10. I learned to overlook the grammatical errors (our project leader called them “lower-order concerns”) so I could find the true heart of his experience:

During my childhood years, I lived with my aunt and uncle. The things that she taught me was useful for my family. She also teach me good manners with a positive attitudes. She is always there for me, and I always thought we would always be like this.

Aileen wrote about her Quinceañera, “the day I had been waiting for since I was younger!” The Latina transition into adulthood, traditionally a preparation for marriage, includes dancing, a church ceremony, a pretty dress and a father-daughter dance.

“It’s a tradition that is passed on to each girl in the family,” Aileen explained. Part of being an adult now, at age 15, was working to contribute income to her family.

My mentees did their best against difficult odds. I was inspired by their talent, exasperated by their apparent apathy and touched by their vision of a better life.

All four aimed to finish high school and get “a good job,” something that would allow them to raise children and buy a house. I had the opportunity to hear their truth — unedited, unvarnished — and to witness how my “single story” only limited them, and myself.