What the Eyes Don’t See: Everyone Should Read!

Chemical Symbol for Lead

What the Eyes Don’t See is a book written by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha about the Flint, Michigan water crisis. As a pediatrician and Community Health Residency Director at Hurley Center in Flint. Dr. Mona (as her tiny patients refer to her) learned from a high school friend, an environmental scientist, that she should be concerned about lead in the water in Flint. She was surprised. The Flint authorities told everyone the water was fine to drink. Like most of us, she expected the people “in charge” to protect the public. Isn’t that what government is for? But, Dr. Mona’s friend said no — it is not safe. That began an 8-month odyssey that grew from a conversation between two friends to a consortium of doctors, scientists, activists, and  parents who exposed the cover up and righted a huge wrong.  Dr. Mona knew all too well what lead exposure does to developing children.

I highly recommend this book for its depth, its fluid story development, and its educational value for every adult in the U.S. and for the sake of every child. I read it over two days, hardly able to put it down. See Dr. Mona on the web.

Exposure to high lead levels as infants and children can cause irreversible damage to their brains and other organs. Gray matter in the brain is eroded so that the child has problems with attention and impulse control; it affects white matter in nerves that carry signals in the brain; it is suspected of having epigenetic effects – changing a child’s DNA which means it can be passed to future generations. People exposed to lead as children show higher rates of crime and addiction as teens and adults. Lead in the body can erode eyesight and affect other organs.

Dr. Mona encapsulates the story in 1) the political policy — austerity; 2) the socioeconomic history of the city and those most affected by the lead poisoning — an environmental injustice; 3) the U.S. practice of requiring the victim to prove harm first rather than using the Precautionary Principle: when danger is suspected, move with caution, using science to understand the risk.

In 2014, due to Flint’s bankruptcy, the state assigned an emergency manager who alone made the decision to switch the city’s water supply from the more expensive fresh water of the Great Lakes to river water.  The Great Lakes water was treated with a corrosion control to prevent leaching of chemicals like lead into the drinking water. The new manager decided to not use corrosion-control treatment of the river water as a way to save money–his primary mandate.

Dr. Mona points out that the city lost democracy with the assignment of an emergency manager appointed by the state.  The city was in free-fall economically not by the fault of any of the families and small businesses that were struggling economically in Flint. The wealthy either moved out, or changed the housing and voting districts to wall themselves off from the poorer workers and neighborhoods. The people were essentially punished for being poor. Extreme austerity was what they got, a short-sighted, unjust policy.

When Dr. Mona and her team began to contact authorities to alert them and request data, they were met by silence or by bureaucratic barriers. They had to “prove” the harm done to children before the authorities would agree there was a problem. To protect industry, the U.S. requires harm to be proved first unlike all other nations in the world. Instead, Dr. Mona points to the Precautionary Principle.

Everyone in America knows that lead is dangerous, and officials in government know that corrosion-control in municipal water quality prevents leaching of lead. So why should she need to prove anything. Shouldn’t the authorities move with caution first to protect the possible harming of children? Again, in policy, money came before the kids.

Dr. Mona worked with data experts, scientists, policy makers, and many others to pull data, analyze it with rigorous methods to be sure the increase in lead that they were seeing was true. It was far worse than they expected. Thousands of children in the prime months and years of their development were impacted. But, just as you can’t see lead in the water, you won’t see the changes in the children for months or even years. So, one has to be cautious, right?

This book is something more. It is the story of an immigrant family who fled a brutal dictator (Saddam Hussein) to live in the U.S. Mona and her brother were natural born Americans but her parents brought the traditions of their country and lives to their home in America. I was fascinated to learn more about the history of Iraq. Instead of the war-torn, fearful images I have only seen through U.S. media during the Iraq war, I learned about the Iraq Republic before the revolution that installed Saddam. Women had similar freedoms to American women today. It’s hard to imagine that such a complete transformation of the country has happened in such a short period of time and a warning to our country to watch for destabilizing influences on our democracy. Mona describes her parents and grandparents, the food, language, and story traditions from Iraq that are lovely and that I related to my own familial traditions. Her family members, each in their own way, emulated qualities of citizenship and justice that Mona clearly inherited.

Dr. Mona opened the world a little more to me. This perspective of the immigrant is vital to understanding other nations and our role in the world. I kept thinking as I was reading, “Thank God we let her family immigrate to America. Look what she and her family have contributed to the welfare of our country!”

Landing in the America that made it possible for Dr. Mona to be a doctor, she began to see that there were “two Americas” – the one that worked for her and her brother, and the one that doesn’t work for most of the residents of Flint. The families most affected by the poisoned water were the same ones who could not pay for bottled or filtered water. Children impacted by the poisoned water were already dealing with major stressors such as malnutrition, neglect or abuse–all the impacts of poverty.  Dr. Mona explains what we know about the impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences, of A.C.E’s which cause such ailments as chronic asthma. Dr. Mona teaches the reader about Community Medicine that looks not just at physical health but also zip code–the socio-economic correlates of health. The book is annotated and provides references for professionals and parents in the back of the book. It contains an excellent summary of Flint’s history from the heyday of GM’s dominance to the disenfranchised neighborhoods of today. This gives readers a setting in which to understand how and why the story unfolded as it did.

Dr. Mona works in a public hospital so she sees and cares for the poorest residents. Her amazing story is about the indignation of one doctor who would not stop until she exposed the lead levels of kids she saw at Hurley. She tells the story of the coalition of friends, fellow professionals, legislators, and parents who managed in only 8-months to expose the truth. Ultimately, the governor mandated the switch back to fresh, Great Lakes, corrosion-treated water. It was a victory but it is also powerful implication of America’s environmental injustices. And it is an ongoing effort to stay with all the kids affected to make their futures as bright as possible.

Direction for Communities Across the Country: As Dr. Mona travels around the country to introduce the book, she is teaching all of us about community resilience and how coming together we can provide buffers to poverty and neglect that will help stabilize children, and how we can all work together to provide kids in low-income neighborhoods with books, with mentors., with education, and a social fabric that helps each child and parent be more resilient to stressors.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is just one child of immigrant parents who has become an amazing advocate for American children who is also showing our nation where we must re-examine our policies at least as they affect the very young.

Dr. Mona is exposing much more than lead in the water. She is showing us a direction to live up to our creed that all people are equal and deserving of equal rights and protections under the law. Her book is a call for government to live up to its mandates and for citizens to make sure they do. Ultimately, Dr. Mona explains that she is a believer in the role of good government as opposed to extreme policies of austerity which are often short-sighted and basically unfair. I agree.

See Dr. Mona on the web.

UPDATE: Frontline Article July 25, 2018 about death toll from Flint Water Crisis, specifically from Legionnaire’s Disease.

 

 

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Tragedy of Children’s Rights

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Tragedy of Children’s Rights from Ben Franklin to Lionel Tate

Hidden in Plain Sight (2008 Princeton University Press) written by Barbara Bennett Woodhouse examines past and evolving perspectives on the human rights of children. Written for both students of law and the general American public, this book offers a solid methodology for how to think about the rights of children through the science of human development. It frames the rights of children by grounding them in basic human rights values of privacy, agency, equality, individual dignity, and protections.

Barbara Bennett Woodhouse is the L.Q.C. Lamar Professor of Law, and director of the Child Rights Project at Emory University. She is also the Donald H. Levin Chair Emeritus in Family Law at the University of Florida.

Woodhouse presents the stories of historical figures familiar to Americans (Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather, Frederick Douglas, and Ben Franklin) as well as children she has known in her work as a legal representative, a law professor, and a witnessing advocate for children and families.

As the reader follows these lives, learning new insights about familiar Americans, the author describes her own journey to understanding of the problems and solutions society faces in adjudicating the rights of children in numerous situations such as living in child intolerant times, slavery, abandonment, violence, and juvenile justice institutions.

As I read each chapter, Woodhouse gave me ways to think about each child or teenager, how she thought about it and has since changed her mind or confirmed her understanding. The basic premise is that children’s rights in the U.S. are tragically wanting for just policies and deeper understanding of the ecology of child development as we understand it today. Woodhouse compares America’s policies and legal record on children’s rights to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).  It is the most rapidly ratified human rights convention in the history of United Nations, yet the U.S. has not joined the international community for fear that the rights of children might infringe on parents’ individual rights and undermine adult authority and control.

Woodhouse argues that the contemporary cult of individualism often contributes to harsh sentencing of children who have committed crimes and are held responsible for their actions by courts of law without due consideration of children’s developmental ability to understand the ramifications of their actions.

Hidden in Plain Sight asks readers to consider our American values in the light of the human rights of children. She evokes the language of the U.N. Special Session for Children:

A world made fit for children is a world fit for everyone.

With little personal foundation in legal study, this book read well for me as an unfolding argument by an experienced legal expert, a mother, and a legal guardian of children. I highly recommend this book to everyone who is concerned with the protection of children, and citizens who worry about the future we adults are creating for the children in our lives and around the world.

RELATED ISSUE: Juliana vs. U.S. – Children’s Constitutional Lawsuit.

Their complaint asserts that, through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.

 

The Writing Vortex: Louisa May Alcott

by Harriet Reisen

When Louisa May Alcott became seized with the idea for a new book, she describes the feeling as being drawn into a vortex. A prolific writer, most of the time by necessity, Alcott might turn out a novel in a month! Often her hand would become paralyzed and she’d have to switch to her other hand, a skill she taught herself in anticipation of her “overdrive” writing style.

Harriet Reisen’s 2009 biography of Alcott–Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women— is an engrossing read. Her extensive research (she read well over 100 of Alcott’s publications) and energetic writing style are only a part of why this book is so readable: she was also that little girl whose imagination was seized by Louisa May’s stories in Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys. Reisen visited the sites where Alcott lived, and met with editors and rare book experts who have followed the Alcott trail of hundreds of publications (books, essays, letters, short stories). There are still dozens of publications Alcott refers to in her journals and letters that have never been found. In fact, it was only recently that a rare book dealer found a letter squished between the pages of an Alcott book that eluded to one of Alcott’s aliases and discovery of another publication!

For writers it is worth noting how different the publishing industry was during Alcott’s writing life. Yet, for us writers, Alcott’s musings and writing practice still hold value today. She was relentless when she began a new story or novel. She wrote straight through without editing much (a Hemingway style) and she wrote from her own experience. She tried to stay away from contentious political topics (even though she was very much an activist for women, abolition, and all sorts of social injustices), instead keeping her narratives to common human emotions and situations that as time has proved are just as relevant today as when she was writing. Love, jealousy, conniving, friendship, loyalty–its all there in very well defined, unforgettable character. I suppose a writer could do no better than to study this one amazing author and human being as mentor for their own writing.

I highly recommend this biography to all writers but also to anyone who loves Alcott’s novels. The biographer, Harriet Reisen, wrote the script for an accompanying film which eventually PBS aired on American Masters with the publication of the book in 2009. Amazon Prime has it today as well as the film site.

REMINDER: For Mother’s Day, PBS is airing a new version of Little Women. May 13th is the Day. Make your crumb cake and brew the tea ladies and gentlemen.

The Wonder of Fiction

The year the youth novel Wonder was published, I lost my father and was still grieving the loss of my sister. At the time I worked full-time at the University of West Florida, and somehow I missed the wonderment of Wonder.

Here is the 2012 NY Times Book Review.

I am about through and savoring its completion. The narrative, characters, and the real life circumstances of each middle-schooler, especially August, are true to life. The story has the effect of healing my own wounds from that period of youth that is so very difficult. It is the time when we truly differentiate from our childhood identities, our birth family, and move into the harsh realities of life.

R.J. Palacio, the author, put this book “out there” and it has since been translated into many languages, and used in classrooms, and other educational venues. Palacio created one book with a narrative for our culture, and cultures worldwide  about being “different”.

Auggie Pullman’s disfiguring genetic disorder causes conflicting feelings. Palacio provides personal narratives of Auggie’s sister and his classmates to sensitively show us how we deal with difference depending on our family, experiences, and personalities. Reactions to Auggie when he enters middle school range from fear to revulsion. When we learn more about each character, readers explore similar feelings in themselves.

Palacio takes adult readers on a poignant journey to our preadolescent selves when we asked, Who am I? We present ourselves to the world with our face and expression. We experience Auggie and his peers grow and change as they deal with Auggie’s condition and his bright, true persona which they discover over time.

Auggie’s facial deformities are extreme. Yet, he is a pretty normal tween and a cool guy once you get to know him. His experiences are tenderly created by a talented writer who was raising middle schoolers at home. She had once encountered a small girl with a similar genetic disorder at an ice cream shop. That encounter led to the creation of Auggie Pullman and her first ever novel.

At a time in world history when fear of the other is strong, this book provides a way to understand how we react to difference but how our differences help us grow and make the world a more wonderful place.

Maybe it’s time for a National REREAD of Wonder.

Read about Treacher Collins Syndrome

See the movie after you read the book.

The Power of Stories to Foster Empathy

Research from Loris Vezzali, social psychologist, points to the power of storytelling, to fiction, in shaping attitudes. This NPR program features a recent study that Vezzali, et al, conducted to determine whether children who read Harry Potter novels change how they relate to stygmitized groups of people (disabled, immigrants, or “other”).

Recent research shows that extended contact via story reading is a powerful strategy to improve out-group attitudes. We conducted three studies to test whether extended contact through reading the popular best-selling books of Harry Potter improves attitudes toward stigmatized groups (immigrants, homosexuals, refu-gees). Results from one experimental intervention with elementary school children and from two cross-sectional studies with high school and university students (in Italy and United Kingdom) supported our main hypothesis. Identification with the main character (i.e., Harry Potter) and disidentification from the negativcharacter (i.e., Voldemort) moderated the effect. Perspective taking emerged as the process allowing attitude improvement. Theoretical and practical implications of the findings are discussed in the context of extended intergroup contact and social cognitive theory

Here’s the link to the NPR story below:

http://www.npr.org/2015/05/01/403474870/does-reading-harry-potter-have-an-effect-on-your-behavior

Loris Vezzali ResearchGate

National Parks: Citizen Library

Carlotta Walls LaNier

In the previous post I described my joy in visiting the Central High School National Historic Site which preserves and tells the story of desegregation in Little Rock, AK. There I bought two memoirs, one by Daisy Bates (The Long Shadow of Little Rock), the other by Carlotta Walls LaNier with Lisa Frazier Page (A Mighty Long Way). [*This link includes an interview with Mrs. LaNier and an excerpt from the first chapter, and links to purchase a copy of the memoir.]

Both memoirs brought me renewed appreciation for the personal struggles of individual Americans striving for their civil rights, and the importance of parents being involved in their children’s education. Reading both books rendered a deeper understanding of historical events through the lived experiences of my fellow Americans. The NPS Interpreter was also a powerful communicator who brought history to life–another important function of our National Parks.

On my current sojourn in Kentucky, I drove to Mammoth Park –another National Park site–preserving and interpreting one of the world’s great natural wonders. In 2016 it celebrated its 200th anniversary!

Stephen Bishop Portrait

In their gift store, I headed for the books section. There I found a historical novel by Roger Brucker, about Stephen Bishop, a famous and early explorer/guide at Mammoth Park (Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar). Stephen was a slave at the time his owners assigned him the duty to serve as a guide at the privately owned wonder.  It was already a favorite travel destination for wealthy and local people. The associated hotel inn for guests owned slaves who cooked and cleaned for guests. Charlotte Brown was a slave working at the inn. It was there that she fell in love with Stephen Bishop. They would eventually marry.

The novel’s story is told through the voice of Charlotte Bishop. The narration is based in part on Charlotte’s real story. Historical documents and testimonies from people who met and knew Stephen and Charlotte guided the author in writing this delightful book. (I am about half way through.)

My point is this: if we do not know history, how can we navigate the future? Each of these National Parks sites, and the books I found there, provide citizens with living history. Our National Parks are repositories for learning and recalling great moments and individuals in history.

Thank God for Daisy Bates

Daisy Gatson Bates

Thursday morning I was blessed to join a tour group from Baltimore’s Civil Rights Movement at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. They are teachers, leaders, and powerful women traveling the civil right trail — next stop Memphis at the National Civil Right Museum at the Lorraine Hotel.

Great women have made significant contributions to democratic societies. Daisy Bates is one of these women. As our talented NPS Interpreter stated today, “If it hadn’t been for Daisy, there would not have been a Little Rock Nine or desegregation as it unfolded in Little Rock.”

Central High School, Little Rock, AR

Daisy Bates was the President of the Arkansas NAACP at the time of the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs the Board of Education which desegregated public schools in the U.S. Nine children were identified by the Little Rock School Board to integrate Central High School. At the time, Governor Orval Faubus was not supporting the federal mandate and called in the National Guard to keep out the black students. Daisy realized that the nine teenagers would need protection and help and she organized meetings and support to help them on the first and subsequent days of their trials and tribulations. This story, and the life of Daisy Bates, is chronicled in her memoir, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, which I am currently reading. The individual stories of the nine students are each dramatic and many are told in their memoirs. What white students did inside the school to the nine black students, following integration, and the teachers who turned their backs, is horrendous and rarely told. I highly recommend that you visit this national historic site to reset your compass on American history and the long struggle of all American people for fulfillment of basic rights. As we see today, that struggle if still in progress. But, looking back to such pillars of courage and decency as Daisy Bates gives me renewed hope for a future all of us can make happen together.

Spirits of the Mountains

Mt Humphreys at 12, 800 ft. in San Francisco Mts.

The spiritual nature of the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff was an awesome experience for me. The sight of these sacred mountains took me off guard when they first came into view, and indeed, were the focal point of the sky all the way to Holbook, Arizona. I can see why so many first nations hold these mountains in such reverence, when from anywhere for hundreds of miles the shimmering white peaks are a beacon of light and orientation. The Hopi believe the Kachina spirits live at the top of the peak. Looking at this forested hillside on the way up the mountain to Snowbowl, I can almost feel the spirits there.

Birches and Pines on Mt. Humphreys on the way up to Snowbowl.

Supporting Youth in Climate Change

My novel, Threshold, was written over a ten-year period due to a period of care-giving for my father. I decided to revise the original story from one in the distant future to a more immediate story. Climate science improved over that period, and I realized that what we do now was the focus I needed.

In the new draft, two teenagers emerged that were not in the earlier draft. I believe my concerns for young people and years of teaching middle school and high school students in the Southwest resulted in three characters I love: Daniel  – Junior Docent at the Desert Museum; Luna – emerging youth leader of the Tohono O’odham Nation, and Enrique – a troubled youth with a brave heart.

The story lines follow my conviction that we all play a part in the development of young people in our lives. We may even play a key role by just doing simple things like showing up with a platter of burritos (Mrs Carillo, Enrique’s neighbor), or offering a  kind word at a particularly potent time (Harold Liebowitz with Daniel). Often, it is helping your child by letting them struggle (Luna’s mother). Youth need encouragement in ways that fit them.

They also need adults to clear the path by breaking down social and economic barriers that keep real talents from blooming or dying on the vine from poverty and hopelessness (Congressman Ramirez with his community). And some youths who have lost a parent or suffered an equally dramatic blow, just need us to be around dependably until they can get back on their feet (Ed and Carla for Daniel).

With the uncertainty of climate change, what can each of us do to empower and support the kids in our lives? What skills do they need, what can we change or strengthen while we are here that will enable them as they meet their future?

If it means changing a way of life, using different forms of transportation, giving up some of our sacred cows, will we be willing to do so for them, and all the children who follow? Read Threshold to learn what the adults in Daniel, Luna, and Enrique’s lives do to help them make a bright future.

Youth who are empowered and making change:

Changemakers High School

Our Children’s Trust

 

 

This September of Our Lives

Petroglyph
Petroglyph

My cultural heritage is one of linearity. Americans progress, move forward, dream of the future and its possibilities. Yet, this conceptualization of time is not shared by many cultures on earth.

Now, some westerners are reconsidering whether time is linear. Einstein demonstrated that space and time bend at certain velocities of light. Physicists document the structure of the universe as part of “parallel universes.” It might be possible one day to travel in a worm hole to other times, future or past.

In Threshold, Luna Lopez, a Tohono O’odham youth, is learning basket-making from an elder. She discovers the recurring pattern of a maze on her teacher’s baskets and queries what it means. Rather than tell her outright, Mrs. Romero tells an old Pima story. Luna is left to interpret it in her own life.

As the narrative unfolds, Luna recognizes circularity in things around her: seasons, natural history of trees and plants, and her own circulation system. She begins to intuit that the “man in the maze” is about her inner life.

Does time bend each September allowing us to return to it, to perhaps increase our understanding? If so, let us approach it with reverence.