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Want to fix policing? Start with a better 911 system.
A 911 emergency dispatch center in Centennial, Colorado, on February 5. Arapahoe County is the second county in Colorado to classify telecommunicators as first responders. | RJ Sangosti/Denver Post via Getty Images “911 call takers are gatekeepers for the entire criminal justice system. We need to start treating them that way.” Tamir Rice,a 12-year-old Black child, was playing with a toy pellet gun in a Cleveland park when a police car arrived on the scene. Within moments of exiting his squad car, officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed Rice. The surveillance video of the November 2014shooting garnered worldwide attention, and Rice remains a symbol for the Black Lives Matter movement. As is the case with many high-profile police killings, most after-the-fact reports focused on the incident itself and the officer’s record: Why didn’t Loehmann give any warning before shooting? Would he have done the same to a white child? Why was the officerhired in the first place, given he had been deemed unfit for duty by a different police department? These are legitimate questions. But it’s possible the most important factor in Rice’s killing was what happened in the moments before the police officer arrived on the scene. Like the majority of police killings of unarmed civilians, this incident began with a 911 call. The civilian who called 911 on Rice initially reported a Black male with a gun in a park, but then clarified the initial description, saying that Tamir is “probably a juvenile” and that the weapon is “probably fake.” However, according to police records,that clarifying information did not get passed on to responding officers. All the information Loehmann and his partner heard from their dispatcher was, “We have a Code 1” — the department’s highest level of urgency. That error may have been the difference between life and death for a child. When Paul Taylor, a former police officer, use-of-force training instructor, and now a criminologist at the University of Colorado Denver, found out that the 911dispatch information about Rice had been wrong, he decided to run an experiment. Taylor put 300 police officers representing 18 agencies in two states through an interactive firearms training simulator. All the officers were told about a “possible trespass in progress.” Then some were told that the “subject appears to be holding a gun” and others that the “subject appears to be talking on a cellphone.” When the officers arrived at the scene, they sawa man matching the description of the suspect with his hands in his jacket pockets. For half the volunteers, the man quickly pulled a cellphone out of his pocket to film the officers; for the other half, the man pulled out a handgun and pointed it at them. The officers had to make a split-second decision to shoot or not shoot, with their virtual lives at stake. The results were dramatic. Six percent of officers who had been advised that the subject appeared to be talking on a cellphone ended up shooting the man who attempted to film them with his phone. But 62 percent of the officers who were told the suspect had a gun did the same. In other words, officers who were told the man had a cellphone were 10 times less likely to shoot an unarmed suspect than those with incorrect information. (In the scenario where the suspect drew a gun, 100 percent of the officers shot the suspect, regardless of what dispatch told them.) “What blew me away is that these results held for all officers no matter what,” Taylor told me. “It didn’t matter how much experience you had. It didn’t matter if you were on a SWAT team. Getting the wrong information universally increased the risk of making an error.” Findings like this one do not excuse police officers of wrongdoing. Nor do they suggest that anti-Black racial bias doesn’t play a huge role in police shootings — it most certainly does. What studies like this (and others) demonstrate is that when it comes to police violence and aggression, the officer-civilian interaction itself is only part of the story. Of the 50 million Americans who came into contact with the police in 2015, about half were the result of citizen-requested police services, usually through an emergency call number. And 83 of the 153 police killings of unarmed civilians that year began with a 911 call. Research on the 911 system is scarce and imperfect (that’s putting it lightly), so we don’t know for certain how many of these calls contained incorrect information. But the experts I spoke to mentioned data points — like the proportion of calls downgraded by officers once they arrive on the scene — and examples like the killings of Rice, Francisco Serna, and Fridoon Rawshan Nehad and the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. as evidence of the severity of the problem. “We will never know what would have happened to Tamir Rice if the officer had been given a different image of what was happening,” says Rebecca Neusteter, the executive director of the Health Lab at the University of Chicago’s Urban Labs and a senior fellow at the Vera Institute of Justice. “But I would like to believe he would have approached that situation very differently if he was aware this could just be a kid playing in the park.” Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images Protesters took to the streets of downtown Cleveland, Ohio, in 2016, after a local grand jury decided not to indict the officers who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. The emergency call taker who relayed the incorrect information in the Rice case was temporarily suspended by Cleveland’s police chief for “violating protocol.” But for Neusteter and others who have studied the role of 911 call takers and police dispatchers within the American criminal justice system, the Rice killing isn’t a one-off example of a bad call taker gone rogue — it is the product of systemic flaws in how call takers are trained that amplify the risk officers perceive when they enter a given situation. Addressing those flaws will be essential to the success of any police reform agenda. Emergency call takers also decide whether police should be sent into a given situation in the first place. Thus, as communities develop alternatives to traditional police response — as many cities are already doing — their role may evolve into that of a public safety quarterback who will be tasked with the all-important role of sending the correct first responders. Yet call takers are undertrained, underpaid, and underresourced. They are treated as though their role is no different from that of an administrative assistant. And they are ignored in most conversations about policing and criminal justice reform. That’s a shame given the essential role they play in our public safety system. “911 call takers are gatekeepers not only for police but the entire criminal justice system,” says Neusteter. “We need to start treating them that way. We can’t solve any of our public safety problems without taking care of call takers.” How the call-taking system canamplify the risk of a dangerous police encounter To understand an error at the center of Tamir Rice’s killing, you first have to know how the 911 system works. When you call 911 to summon police, the person you are talking to is generally neither a police officer nor a dispatcher directly in charge of sending police to a scene. Instead, you are talking to a call taker who’s in charge of collecting the relevant information about the incident and the suspect and then classifying the incident according to a list of predefined categories like “suspicious person,” “breaking and entering,” or “active shooter.” That incident type, along with some descriptive information about the suspect, is forwarded to a police dispatcher, who then relays it to responding officers. This sounds like a fairly innocuous system. But according to Jessica Gillooly, a former call taker and research fellow at the Policing Project at New York University Law School who studies the role of call taking in the criminal justice system, it has a glaring flaw. Call takers are trained and incentivized to think of minimizing potential safety risk to police officers as their highest priority. That means if a caller is uncertain or ambiguous — for instance, simultaneously speculating that the event unfolding could be either a man at a park with a gun (a potential violent threat) or a kid playing with a toy gun (a clearly innocuous act) — call takers are more likely toclassify the incident as more serious to ensure officers are prepared for the worst-case scenario. “There’s a huge training emphasis that essentially tells call takers, ‘You’re safer and better off by sending a police over-response,’” Gillooly tells me. “The big fear is that you don’t send a big enough or serious enough response and something bad happens. There’s no mention of the idea that maybe sending an over-response could also produce a really bad outcome.” This emphasisproduces systemic police over-response. Scholarly research has found that between 20 and 40 percent of all crime calls that 911 call takers enter are downgraded by officers once at the scene. In other words, officers routinely arrive on the scene primed for a far more dangerous, serious encounter than actually exists. In some cases, this means officers end up killing unarmed civilians like Rice, Serna, and Nehad, each of whom they were led to believe had weapons. More commonly, the result is the sort of humiliation, fear, and aggression that can occur when officers believe they are entering a situation far more serious than it actually is. “I think about the current state of call taking and dispatching as a game of Telephone,” says Neusteter. “Often, the end result is very different than the original message. And that’s a huge problem. Public safety is too important to leave to a game of Telephone.” The gatekeepers of our criminal justice system 911 call takers don’t just impact incidents between police officers and civilians; they also determine whether police are sent out in the first place. Some240 million calls are made to 911 every year. Tens of millions — possibly hundreds of millions — more are made to non-emergency and alarm lines. In each case, acall taker’s first job is to play the role of gatekeeper: either assign the call to the appropriate first responders or try to resolve the situation on the spot if it does not require immediate assistance. In the real world, however, this gatekeeper function tends to devolve into a just-send-the-police function. Most jurisdictions have only three types of first responders: fire, medical, and police. And typically there are narrow, predefined criteria for sending in firefighters or EMTs. If those criteria haven’t been met and the situation can’t be easily resolved over the phone, the call taker only has two options: send the police or send no one. Faced with this choice, call takers will usually opt to send the police for a simple reason: They face severe punishment and liability if they don’t and something bad happens. “There are situations where if it’s not a clear-cut need for fire or ambulance service, sending law enforcement is the only legitimate response,” says April Heinze, a former call taker and call center director, and current 911 operations director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). “That’s not because the call taker wants to send police — they are constrained by local protocol.” Gillooly, the former 911 call taker and researcher, says she rarely denied police services no matter how benign the situation seemed. She describes a call from someone who found it suspicious that an older Asian man was walking on the side of the road; another about a dispute over a pet peacock defecating on a neighbor’s front lawn; and one from a man who felt uncomfortable at the bus station because a Black teenager’s jeans were hanging too low. “In most of these cases, sending the police is the only option you really have,” Gillooly tells me. “The informal motto among most call takers is, ‘When in doubt, send them out.’” Sending police to situations like these can have devastating consequences. That’s why a central plank of the “defund the police” campaign is to reimagine public safety such that police are no longer the default response to all of society’s ills. Instead, activists point to a variety of potential non-police first responders, from trained mediators to crisis specialists to community patrols, that would be better suited to address problems like homelessness, mental illness, and traffic accidents. In the wake of recent protests against police violence, cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Denver, Minneapolis, Albuquerque, and Los Angeles are developing their own civilian first responder programs. And Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) recently introduced the CAHOOTS Act — named after the much-applauded initiative in Eugene, Oregon, that sends unarmed crisis specialists instead of police to address noncriminal 911 calls — that would provide federal government support for such programs. But even if these alternative programs are successful politically, they will only succeed logistically if 911 call takers can clearly distinguish between incidents that require sending in police and those that don’t. “We expect our call takers to make really important judgment calls,” says Steve Zeedyk, a call center supervisor in Eugene who works closely with Cahoots. “There are many jurisdictions where if someone calls and wants an officer, they get an officer. Our call takers screen at a much higher level to determine whether police really are the right response. That’s why we’re able to make good decisions deploying the resources we have.” My conversations with Zeedyk and others made clear that 911 call takers will be crucial to the success of any non-police response efforts. “The 911 system needs to be part of the conversation as cities think about how to set up alternate public safety initiatives,” says Ayesha Delany-Brumsey, director of the Behavioral Health Division at the Council of State Governments Justice Center. “Call takers are going to make consequential decisions about what responders get called in where.” How to fix our 911 system A few modest changes and investments could go a long way toward addressing the 911 system’s tendencies to default to police and amplify the risk of police over-response. As Gillooly points out in a recent paper on the subject, the technology that call takers use to transfer call information could be redesigned toinclude fields that capture a situation’s level of ambiguity and uncertainty, signaling quickly to the dispatcher and police that the information they’ve been given may be wrong. Training for call takers could be more comprehensive and include a greater emphasis on asking clarifying questions — like “are you sure that the gun is real?” — before classifying an incident. And incentives for call takers more broadly could be changed to incorporate the social costs of sending a police over-response. A more sweeping solution would be to invest in significantly upgrading the technology that 911 call takers use. Imagine how many problems with the current 911 system would be mitigated if call takers could receive pictures or videos of a given situation as it is happening and then forward them directly to theresponding officer — or use them to determine that police aren’t needed for the situation at all. That’s part of the vision behind “Next Generation 911,” an initiative spearheaded by the US Department of Transportation’s National 911 Program to upgrade the emergency call system nationwide. According to experts at NENA, the biggest obstacle to Next Gen 911 deployment is inadequate funding. Before Covid-19, about half of jurisdictions in the US were slated to have Next Gen core services by the end of 2020 and 85 percent by 2025; however, the pandemic’s impacts on state and local government budgets may create a shortfall of funding and thus delay deployment. A modest federal investment could change that. According to the National 911 program, the cost of national deployment of Next Gen 911 comes out to about $12 billion over five to 10 years, a relatively small drop in the bucket of the federal budget. “It’s about time to move 911 technology into the 21st century,” says Brian Fontes, CEO of NENA. “With so many 911 calls originating from smartphones, there is so much potential information we could gather that is essential to responding to an emergency.” Call centers could also implement “criteria-based dispatching,” a script-based set of questions that guide the call-taking process. This would mean that both the level of police response and whether police are sent in at all would be left up to predefined criteria instead of the subjective discretion of the call taker, which could be subject to all kinds of momentary biases. The criteria-based dispatching model is often used in medical and firefighting dispatching centers and has been credited with curbing over-response. The approachis being piloted for policing in a handful of cities including Seattle, Tucson, Houston, and Washington, DC. With criteria-based dispatching, the important consideration is to draw the criteria boundaries such that police forces aren’t the default response. For instance, in Seattle, part of the dispatch criteria makes a strict distinction between “suspicious activities” and “suspicious persons”; if the caller can’t definitively name a specific suspect behavior that a given person is engaging in, the call taker does not dispatch police. Some places have gone a step further. Houston 911 call-taking scripts involve mandatory questions to assess whether the given incident involves someone experiencing a mental health crisis. If a case does involve a mental health component, it is flagged for dispatchers. And for those cases, the city employs a handful of mental health clinicians to sit with dispatchers and help them determine the appropriate first response: a civilian clinician team, a co-response team of police and clinicians, or a police team. The result is that of the 40,000-plus calls that were flagged by call takers as having a mental health component in 2019, only 0.5 percent ended in an arrest, according to Wendy Baimbridge, assistant chief of the Houston police’s mental health division. That’s partly because Houston sometimes sends non-police first responders, but it’s also because when police officers do enter such situations, they are fully aware that what they are dealing with is probably a mental health crisis. “Call takers can’t possibly train for everything,” says Baimbridge. “And they certainly don’t have the time to do a full mental health assessment. That’s why we need mental health clinicians on the floor to play that role.” Of course, without the availability of non-police first responders, reforms like these will only go so far. For the many situations that require some kind of trained response, call takers can’t do much except call the police unless they have alternatives available. In addition to these specific reforms, the experts I spoke with called for a cultural shift in how we as a society view, compensate, and treat emergency call takers and dispatchers. Only 20 states have even minimum training requirements for call takers and dispatchers, and even fewer provide funding for that training. In most states, call takers make less than $50,000 per year with scant benefits. And they routinely experience burnout, high stress levels, and PTSD from their work. “The 911 system has been completely undervalued, underfunded, and underresourced for 50 years,” says Neusteter. “The technology is terrible. The training, benefits, and occupational standards are subpar. Call takers have not been set up for success institutionally.” That’s a shame because call takers are the first point of contact, the most common reference point, and the gatekeeper for our entire criminal justice system.As cities and communities across the country wrestle with how to change policing, it’s more important than ever they invest in 911 call centers that are better equipped, better trained, and better suited to handle the range of responsibilities they will be tasked with. “Over the years, 911 has been treated as a stepchild of the public safety community,” says Fontes. “That needs to change.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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America is failing Black moms during the pandemic
Ashlee Paisley chose an out-of-hospital birth after bad experiences in hospital settings. | Ysa Pérez for Vox The pandemic is making the maternal health care crisis worse. It doesn’t have to be this way. Ashlee Paisley was about 23 weeks pregnant when her doctor told her that her iron levels were so low, she would need regular infusion treatments. But it was March, the coronavirus pandemic was sweeping the country, and the last thing she wanted to do was go to an emergency room. Paisley was able to find an outpatient center to get the infusions, where staff members were scheduling only two patients at a time. Still, with Covid-19 cases rising where she lived in Miami, going to a medical office regularly was “a nerve-wracking thing,” she told Vox. She had to wait two hours for the medication to be delivered, then two more hours for the treatment, all the while exposed to people in the center. Then, when she called the center ahead of her fifth treatment, she was told it was closed due to the pandemic. “We’re just going to send everybody to the ER,” a hospital staffer told her over the phone. “I was like ma’am, you don’t understand, I’m not going to the ER,” Paisley recalls. “That is putting me at high risk as a pregnant woman, to be in there, sitting with people who are coming in with symptoms of Covid.” Instead of listening to her concerns, the staffer treated her like she had done something wrong, Paisley said, telling her she was “refusing treatment” and saying she would have to put a note in her file. “She was really being nasty to me,” Paisley said. Paisley, who is Black, believes the staffer treated her differently because of her race. “I’m sure if her daughter was calling her,” she would have warned her not to go the emergency room during a pandemic, Paisley said. “But it was okay for me to go to the ER.” “That was a really big turning point for me,” Paisley said. That night, she told her husband, “we’re not having the baby in the hospital.” Jamarah Amani, a midwife and the director of the Southern Birth Justice Network, meets with Paisley for a postpartum checkup at the Magnolia Birth House. Paisley’s story is one of many like it. Long before the pandemic hit, Black pregnant and birthing people around the country were reporting that doctors disregarded their concerns, ignored their wishes, and put them at risk. Out of 10 similarly wealthy countries, the US had the highest number of maternal deaths per capita in 2018. Black women are disproportionately impacted, dying in childbirth at three to four times the rate of white women. Now, birthing people and their advocates say the Covid-19 crisis is only exacerbating the discrimination that Black patients and other patients of color already face from providers — one of the main drivers behind their higher rates of maternal mortality. In response, some people are looking outside of hospitals, to midwives, home births, and birthing centers they feel are more likely to provide them with the care they deserve. Increasing access to such out-of-hospital care is critical to making birth more equitable for Black Americans and others who have faced discrimination in medical settings. But so is improving the health care system at all levels so that people who do give birth in a hospital receive good care there, too. “In the US we have dictated safety to mean the highest level of technology,” Joia Crear-Perry, an OB-GYN and the president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative, told Vox. “But when it comes to birthing, the evidence shows us that what makes us safe is actually being heard and listened to and valued.” Now, she said, the question is, “how do we create a system that does that all the time” — both during the pandemic and beyond? The maternal mortality crisis in America goes back to the very beginning of gynecology Maternal mortality has been rising across the United States for decades. Between 1987 and 2015, the rate of women dying in childbirth more than doubled, even as it fell in other countries, according to US News & World Report. And Black birthing people are dying at especially high rates — in 2018, the maternal mortality rate for Black women stood at 37.1 deaths per 100,000 births, compared with 14.7 deaths per 100,000 births for white women. Many factors contribute to overall maternal mortality in the US, from underlying conditions like diabetes to a lack of adequate health insurance. All of these disproportionately impact Black women — Black Americans, for example, are 60 percent more likely than whites to be diagnosed with diabetes. And 11.5 percent of Black Americans were uninsured as of 2018, compared with just 7.5 percent of whites. But differences in things like chronic illness, insurance, or socioeconomic status still don’t fully explain the gap between Black and white maternal mortality rates, experts say. For Black women, “even when we get prenatal care,” Crear-Perry explained, “even when we are normal weight and not obese, even when we have no underlying medical conditions, we are still more likely to die in childbirth than our white counterparts.” In New York City, for example, a 2016 study found that Black patients with a college education were more likely to have pregnancy or childbirth complications than white patients who hadn’t graduated from high school. The reason, Crear-Perry said, is simple: “When Black birthing people have worse outcomes, it’s because of racism.” Part of the issue is that providers treat Black patients differently from white ones. Black women and other women of color often aren’t listened to when they express pain or discomfort, Jamila Taylor, director of health care reform at the Century Foundation, told Vox. Racist beliefs about people’s bodies and their ability to experience pain are shockingly widespread: Half of the white medical students and residents surveyed in one 2016 study, for example, believed at least one myth about racial differences in pain perception, such as the idea that Black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than white people’s. The more myths someone believed, the more likely that person was to underestimate a Black patient’s pain. The denial and dismissal of such pain are rooted in the history of obstetrics and gynecology in the United States. In the 19th century, “father of modern gynecology” J. Marion Sims performed experimental surgeries on enslaved women without anesthesia. Sims developed a technique for repairing vesicovaginal fistulas — an injury that can occur after childbirth. But he did so by experimenting, again and again, on Black women who were brought to him by their enslavers, as medical historian Vanessa Northington Gamble told NPR in 2016. He performed 30 surgeries on one woman, identified in his papers as Anarcha, who had developed a fistula after a traumatic birth at the age of 17. Sims allowed other physicians to watch his surgeries, which he performed while the women were naked. “When we think about it, I think we think about pain,” Gamble told NPR. But “we also need to think about how these women’s dignity were also taken away from them.” The legacy of such abuse, and the perception that “Black women don’t feel pain or they have thicker skin,” persists today, Taylor said, and “it’s also translating into the type of maternal health care that they receive.” Amani sees clients at the birthing center as well as in their homes. Midwives at the birthing center are using telehealth options during Covid-19, but still encourage clients to come in for some appointments. In a 2018 study in California, more than 10 percent of Black mothers said they were treated unfairly during the birth process because of their race. Black mothers were almost twice as likely as white ones to say they felt pressured into getting a C-section. And nearly a third said hospital staff did not encourage them to make their own decisions about the birth, while only 20 percent of white mothers said the same. Paisley experienced some of these issues with the birth of her first child, a daughter who is now 4. After she arrived at the hospital, staff said her labor wasn’t progressing quickly enough, so she needed an epidural. When she said that wasn’t part of her birth plan, a nurse responded, “I’m sure it’s not, but these things happen.” Paisley said she was concerned about an epidural because she had a curvature of the spine that might make it difficult to place, but her concerns were waved off. Her epidural ended up coming out multiple times, and she suffered a “wet tap,” a puncture in the lining of the spinal cord causing spinal fluid to leak out. As a result, she suffered a severe migraine while still in labor. After her daughter was born, doctors told her that she couldn’t nurse and that the baby would have to be transferred to the NICU, but didn’t tell her why. She only learned the reason (doctors were trying to rule out sepsis) when her daughter was discharged, six days after she was born. Paisley and her daughter are both healthy now — but, she says, “my first birth was a nightmare.” Covid-19 has exacerbated the barriers Black birthing people face Many say the discrimination Paisley and other Black birthing people face — alongside Indigenous and other patients of color — has only gotten worse as Covid-19 sweeps the country. In April, for example, 26-year-old Amber Isaac, who was pregnant with her first child, was admitted to a hospital in the Bronx with a severely low platelet count, according to The City. Doctors found she had HELLP syndrome, a type of preeclampsia that can be highly dangerous. Her platelets had been falling since February, and she had been asking doctors for an in-person appointment, but she was only offered telehealth appointments due to the pandemic. On April 17, she tweeted that she couldn’t wait to share her experience “dealing with incompetent doctors.” Can’t wait to write a tell all about my experience during my last two trimesters dealing with incompetent doctors at Montefiore— ✨ (@Radieux_Rose) April 17, 2020 But Isaac was unable to tell the world about what she went through — she died on April 21, just after giving birth to her son. “Covid-19 did nothing except exacerbate the phenomenon of, Black people are not believed when we go in for health care,” Monica McLemore, a professor of family health care nursing at the University of California San Francisco, told Vox. “We are not heard, we are not listened to.” In some cases, the switch to telemedicine for prenatal care seems to be worsening disparities. As coronavirus spread this spring, many providers moved at least some prenatal appointments to phone or video chat to lessen transmission risk. For some, telehealth has been a blessing, allowing them to see doctors without the need to travel or find child care. And for some trans patients, especially those of color, remote health care has the advantage of putting some distance between them and providers who might misgender or otherwise discriminate against them. “They don’t have to have the in-person conflict while they’re trying to receive care,” McLemore said. But in other cases, telemedicine has made it even harder for Black patients to get their concerns taken seriously, as some struggle to convince providers that they need to be seen in person. “If nobody’s believing you,” McLemore said, “then it’s just another barrier.” And some patients — especially low-income people and those living in rural areas or on reservations — cannot access telehealth at all because of a lack of internet access or the right device. Telehealth “is a great option for people, but there’s still a digital divide,” Taylor said. Meanwhile, the pandemic has also introduced a new risk factor for Black birthing people: isolation. Several studies have shown that having a doula or other support person present during birth can improve outcomes for birthing people and their babies. And doulas — coaches who assist people through birth and sometimes the prenatal and postpartum periods as well — are especially important for Black patients and others who experience discrimination during birth, Jamarah Amani, a midwife and the director of the Southern Birth Justice Network, told Vox. “Having an advocate there can be lifesaving,” she said. It can be instrumental in “getting the right medication that you’re supposed to get, or being heard about the symptoms that you’re experiencing or about your pain level.” “Doulas, for many marginalized people, are essential,” Amani said. “They’re essential workers.” People often choose to deliver with a midwife because “they want more individualized care, they want holistic options, they want informed consent,” Amani said. “These are things that are kind of built into midwifery care.” While the Magnolia Birth House has instituted some new restrictions due to the pandemic, birthing people are still allowed to bring partners and doulas to a birth. But as coronavirus spread around the country this spring, many hospitals instituted limits on the number of people who could accompany pregnant people into the delivery room, forcing patients to choose between a partner and a doula. While some of those policieshave been reversed, some hospitals around the country continue to limit birthing people to one support person, McLemore said. The limits on visitorswere intended to conserve personal protective equipment and slow the spread of Covid-19, but when implementing them, hospitals didn’t consider the disproportionate impact they could have on Black patients. “To have that be universally applied when we know that risk of harm in hospitals and other health care institutions is not equally shared, is a problem,” said McLemore. And it’s not just what happens during birth— but also after. To limit the spread of Covid-19, some hospitals are separating birthing people from their infants immediately after they are born. Many medical experts advise against such a practice, even if the birthing parent tested positive for the virus, as newborns have not become severely ill in high numbers and separation can inhibit bonding and breastfeeding. But some say hospitals are doing it anyway, sometimes without parents’ permission — and families of color may be especially at risk. Multiple birthing people and birth workers have reported such separation to Elephant Circle, a birth justice group that is collecting reports of mistreatment and abuse during the pandemic. One witness reported that a mother who did not speak English was denied an interpreter, then “coerced and bullied into agreeing to being separated from her newborn immediately at birth and indefinitely” due to a positive Covid-19 test. “Scare tactics were used and she was not allowed to initiate breastfeeding,” the witness reported. In another case, a doula reported that since her client had a fever, her newborn “was whisked away: no skin-to-skin no physical contact at all.” Despite negative Covid-19 tests, the mother was not allowed to see her baby for the duration of her hospital stay and “there was no explanation nor support regarding what transpired.” At one hospital in Albuquerque, clinicians say that some staffers are taking newborns away from birthing people if the families appear to be Native American, even in the absence of a Covid-19 test, ProPublica reported in June. “I believe this policy is racial profiling,” a clinician told ProPublica. “We seem to be specifically picking out patients from Native communities as at-risk whether or not there are outbreaks at their specific pueblo or reservation.” Overall, many say that separating newborns from parents during a vulnerable time for establishing breastfeeding has no medical rationale, especially when they will be sent home together after the birth anyway. “Lactation has never been limited, even in pandemics,” McLemore said. Separation “makes no sense.” The pandemic also threatens to close hospitals and maternity wards around the country Beyond discrimination by providers, the pandemic is also exacerbating other inequities Black birthing people face, including the difficulty ofeven finding a doctor to treat them. Decades of redlining, the racist practice of denying mortgages to Black people and other communities of color, has left cities and towns segregated across America. And communities with a high proportion of people of color don’t get the same investment as majority-white, suburban neighborhoods, Taylor said. “You go into those communities, you have state-of-the-art health facilities, the best technology,” she said. “You just don’t see that in majority-minority neighborhoods.” For example, Washington, DC’s Wards 7 and 8, majority-Black parts of the city, do not have maternity facilities. In addition, obstetric services have been disappearing from rural counties around the country for years, Katy Kozhimannil, director of research at the University of Minnesota’s Rural Health Research Center, told Vox. The cause is a combination of factors including declining revenues, lack of trained doctors and nurses in rural areas, and clinician concerns about their own ability to handle higher-risk births, especially if they lack adequate training or resources. And like in urban areas, patients of color are disproportionately affected. Rural counties with a high percentage of Black residents were more likely to lack hospital maternity wards in the first place, and to have them close between 2004 and 2014, according to research by Kozhimannil and her team. The result of a lack of hospitals in communities is that pregnant people to travel far from where they live, and “too often it means that women go without the health care that they need,” Crear-Perry said. “There are times that women, particularly low-income women of color, will show up to a hospital to give birth, [and] they haven’t had one prenatal care visit.” And lack of prenatal care is associated with an increased risk of maternal mortality and morbidity, as well as a higher risk of infant mortality. Now, with elective procedures postponed and fewer people coming for care — which means less revenue — hospitals around the country are under even more strain during the pandemic than they were before. More than 250 hospitals have furloughed staff as a result of the crisis, according to Becker’s Hospital Review. Between early March and mid-April alone, at least two rural hospitals shut down and two more announced plans to do so, Becker’s reported. “Doulas, for many marginalized people, are essential. They’re essential workers.” Hospitals and clinics that see a large number of Medicaid and other low-income patients are at especially high risk, many say. “There are safety-net hospitals that aren’t going to make it out of this crisis,” Laurie Zephyrin, vice president of health care delivery system reform at the Commonwealth Fund, told Vox. “What does that mean for providing maternal health care when hospitals are closing and birth workers are not able to do their job?” Meanwhile, even hospitals that remain open have struggled to continue delivering babies as they treat rising numbers of Covid-19 patients. St. Bernard Hospital on the South Side of Chicago actually stopped labor and delivery care earlier this year in order to focus on Covid-19, as Kelly Glass reports at the New York Times. And in rural Nobles County, Minnesota, cases skyrocketed earlier this year after an outbreak at a meatpacking plant, Kozhimannil said. “That small hospital is overwhelmed with this,” she told Vox in June — and there aren’t very many other places nearby to give birth. “If you’re in that circumstance, there are limited resources available to you as a birthing person,” she said. “Hospitals are really strained and very, very focused on immediately addressing the pandemic first.” It’s likely too soon in the pandemic for researchers to see the full impact of the crisis on maternal mortality and morbidity, McLemore said, and they haven’t seen an overall spike in the numbers yet. But, she noted, many pregnancy-related deaths happen in the postpartum period, with about half occurring at least a day after birth and more than 30 percent happening at least a week afterward. Postpartum follow-up with new parents was already spotty before the pandemic began. Now, it’s sometimes nonexistent. “My worry would be that we would be missing things in the postpartum period,” McLemore said. And in the months and years to come, the situation is likely to get worse, not better, thanks to pandemic-related budget cuts that will further threaten hospitals, patients, and programs designed to address maternal mortality. In Tennessee, for example, a proposed expansion of postpartum Medicaid coverage is likely to be scuttled due to budget cuts. New York State’s latest budget legislation includes $138 million in cuts to New York City public hospitals, which serve predominantly Black and Latinx residents, as Emily Bobrow reports at the New York Times. “When we have fewer revenues, in many cases the programs for poor people are the first on the chopping block,” Alina Salganicoff, director of women’s health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told Vox. Overall, an existing maternal mortality crisis has combined with the threat of the pandemic to leave pregnant and birthing people isolated, disregarded, and at risk. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Fixing the crisis starts with giving birthing people choices After Ashlee Paisley was told she would need to visit the ER in the midst of a pandemic to get iron infusions, she started looking for alternatives to a hospital birth. She found Magnolia Birth House, where Amani is one of the midwives. Paisley “instantly fell in love with her,” she said. “When she speaks to you, she’s teaching you.” Amani and the staff at Magnolia walked her through the rest of her pregnancy. And on June 20, at 41 weeks pregnant, Paisley gave birth to her son with Amani and her husband by her side. Her oldest daughter was allowed to come to the birthing center, and staff there cared for her during the birth. “When she came in after I had the baby, she had made him a birthday card,” Paisley said. Overall, Magnolia “was so different from being in the hospital,” Paisley said. “I could not believe the support that I could feel.” Paisley with her family near the Magnolia Birth House. Giving birth there was “such an amazing experience,” Paisley said. Advocates have long been calling for greater access to non-hospital births, whether at a birthing center or at home, as a way to combat the discrimination Black patients and other patients of color can face in hospital settings. “Other countries that have better outcomes than we do create a system and a network of birth centers and home births that allow for people to make choices based upon their needs,” Crear-Perry said. In the UK, for example, where the rate of maternal mortality is less than half that in the US, midwife-led maternity units, similar to birthing centers, are an integrated part of the health care system, as Alice Callahan reports at Undark. Midwives are responsible for most low-risk births in Britain, with OB-GYNs stepping in only for more complex cases. In the US, only 8 percent of births are attended by a midwife, according to ProPublica. But midwife care is all about listening to pregnant patients — exactly what birthing people in America need to be and feel safe, Crear-Perry said. And expanding access to it is especially critical for Black patients, who have historically been mistreated in hospital settings. “Our health care system was built with a belief that Black people were broken,” Crear-Perry said. “The same negative assumptions that happen around Black men when it comes to interacting with police is what Black women feel inside of health care and hospitals.” The pandemic has drawn enormous attention to home birth as many people search for alternatives to overstretched hospitals. That includes white patients, who are now facing some of the same fears Black birthing people have long dealt with, Crear-Perry said, including not being listened to by hospital staff. Midwives and doulas around the country are seeing higher demand, and in some urban areas, like New York, home-birth midwives’ calendars are fully booked, largely driven by a spike in requests from white women, Crear-Perry said. But the growth in interest hasn’t necessarily translated into better access — Florida, where Paisley lives, is one of just five states where Medicaid and other insurance plans are required to cover out-of-hospital births. And even there, insurance doesn’t cover all costs, meaning patients typically pay $300 to $1,000 out of pocket for a birth, Amani said, putting the option out of reach for many low-income patients. The Southern Birth Justice Network and other groups focused on Black maternal health and rights are calling for comprehensive insurance coverage and other support for midwife care as one way to help Black Americans have better birth experiences. “We are about bringing midwifery care back to the community in a way that there’s access, in a way that families can feel supported and held and cared for,” Amani said. “Midwives have always offered that kind of protective factor within their communities, so that’s what we’re looking to restore.” But birth at home or a birthing center is by no means for everyone — some underlying conditions, like diabetes, can make home birth more dangerous; it’s also not an option when a baby needs to be delivered by C-section. And plenty of people of all races would prefer to give birth in a hospital. “I don’t want a home birth,” Crear-Perry said. “I had three children who were born in hospitals.” That’s why in addition to greater access to out-of-hospital births, she and others are calling for a slate of reforms to keep Black birthing people and other patients of color safer regardless of where they deliver. Access to Black practitioners and others who represent the communities they care for, whether they are midwives, nurses, or OB-GYNs, is critical, Crear-Perry said. Indeed, a 2019 study found that Black patients got better care when they saw Black doctors, and another study found that patient outcomes were better when hospitals specifically focused on the experiences of the communities they served, as Glass reported at the Times. Some proposals already in Congress would address the crisis. The Black Maternal Health Momnibus, for example, a legislative package introduced this year by Reps. Lauren Underwood and Alma Adams and Sen. Kamala Harris, would address the lack of providers in many majority-Black communities by funding the expansion and diversification of the maternal and birthing care workforce, including nurses, physician assistants, and doulas. The legislation would also provide funding for community-based organizations working on Black maternal health, among other provisions. Staff at the Magnolia Birth House maintain a board with the names of babies they’ve delivered. However, “we need the political will to pass something and to implement it if it does pass,” Taylor said. “We wouldn’t have that under this administration.” In other words, in order for change to happen, leadership has to come from the top. In a recently released policy agenda, the National Birth Equity Collaborative calls for an Office of Reproductive Wellbeing in the White House that would address barriers to all aspects of reproductive autonomy, from maternal health to contraception to child care. “All of these things can happen if we have the highest levels of government invested in them,” Crear-Perry said. “If we keep doing it on the margins, and trying to fix little tweaks here and there, and investing in structures that have been harmful, we will never get to this beloved community of birthing that we all want.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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Performative masculinity is making American men sick 
Sardar Ismail, an Iraqi Kurdish bodybuilding world champion, trains at a gym in a mask! Be more like Sardar! | Safin Hamed/AFP via Getty Images American men are failing the pandemic. Fellas, is it gay to not die of a virus that turns your lungs into soggy shells of their former selves, drowning you from the inside out? Is wearing a mask to avoid death part of the feminization of America? Is it too emasculating to wear a mask to protect the others around you? Does staying alive make you feel weak? According to many American men, yeah. Poll after poll, most recently a Gallup poll from July 13, has found American men are more likely to not wear masks compared to women. Specifically, the survey found that 34 percent of men compared to 54 percent of women responded they “always” wore a mask when outside their home and that 20 percent of men said they “never” wore a mask outside their home (compared to just 8 percent of women). What’s startling about these numbers is that it’s now been months since the US first began measures, including statewide lockdowns, against the virus. Since late April, health experts and medical professionals have stressed the importance of wearing masks, as more and more research has found that the virus spreads through face-to-face close contact like talking, sneezing, and coughing. US cases and deaths continue to rise; at the same time, scientists are finding that men are more likely to die from Covid-19 and do not know why. With the deaths and rising cases, it seems unclear what would convince more men to wear masks. According to bias, behavior, and health experts, the reason is maddeningly simple: Masks aren’t manly. Attempts have been made to make masks aesthetically more stylish, more age-appropriate, and more sustainable in a hope to appeal to the mask-less and change their ways. Sports heroes like LeBron James and Mike Trout have been photographed playing with masks on. And when President Trump finally wore one in public in July, his supporters rushed to praise him. Still, some see masks as weakness, and men, regardless of politics or race or sexuality, don’t like being seen as weak. This virus can’t do pushups or race cars, so the usual displays of dominance are meaningless. Instead, it can best be battled by, of all things, putting on little cloth accessories. The coronavirus has issued an undeniable taunt to American men on their home turf, and some have chosen to prove their virility through risk with no foreseeable reward. It’s a narrow vision of manhood that ignores other tropes like self-sacrifice and being a protector; performative masculinity for an audience of one that puts many more people at risk. And the solution would be so easy, if it weren’t left in the hands of the manliest men in the country. Masks are caught in the eternal battle of men versus their own masculinity Carolyn Kaster-Pool/Getty Images Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) removes his mask. Americans can tell you how the coronavirus has completely changed their lives. From buying habits to social gatherings to commuting (or not) to the way we work out, the pandemic has altered our day-to-day existence. But not everyone’s behaviors have changed the same way. The personal difference, as experts told me in July, comes down to how we respond to threats and stress. In crises, humans go into fight-or-flight mode, and we rely on our instincts. Those instincts tell us whom to listen to, which messages are important, and whose behavior to emulate. That notion about being sensitive to important messages and signals is central to why certain men are more likely to go against health directives and not wear a mask. “The notion is masculinity is a status that you constantly have to prove,” Peter Glick, a Lawrence University professor and senior scientist at the Neuroleadership Institute, told me. Glick specializes in overcoming biases and stereotyping. “Any sort of stumble is perceived [as you losing your masculinity]. So if you do have a stumble, then you have to reestablish it. And if you perceive a mask as ‘Oh, I’m scared of this little virus’ — that’s weakness.” The term for this phenomenon is called “precarious manhood,” coined by Joseph A. Vandello and Jennifer K. Bosson, researchers from the University of South Florida. In their research, they found that past studies show men experience anxiety when it comes to their manhood and masculinity, or masculine gender identity. Vandello and Bossun posit that this is because masculinity, or what society thinks is “manly,” is something that’s hard to achieve and easily lost. And when masculinity is slighted, men compensate by acting out in risky ways. “[M]en experience more anxiety over their gender status than women do, particularly when gender status is uncertain or challenged,” they wrote in their 2012 research paper. “This can motivate a variety of risky and maladaptive behaviors, as well as the avoidance of behaviors that might otherwise prove adaptive and beneficial.” In the US specifically, American culture has a history of framing disease as an individual battle or competition in which there are victors and losers, triumph and defeat. More recently, right-wing pundits and Republican lawmakers turned masks into a political issue, often framing masks as a slight on manliness. Gestures like Vice President Mike Pence’s mask-less visit to the Mayo Clinic in April and actions like President Donald Trump calling Dr. Anthony Fauci’s credibility into question strengthen the mask-is-weakness connection. Especially among men who see Trump as a leader they want to emulate. “In those situations where your masculinity is called into question, the question is embarrassing” “Trump even kind of made fun of people who are wearing masks, right?” Glick said, referring to Trump’s mockery of Joe Biden wearing a mask in May. “In those situations where your masculinity is called into question, the question is embarrassing. And ostracism is extremely powerful. Embarrassment, ostracism — that’s what keeps us in line with social bonds.” Glick’s analysis lines up with research that people with sexist attitudes are less likely to take precautions against the virus. Tyler Reny, a postdoctoral research fellow at Washington University in St. Louis, found this by combing through data from the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape project, a public opinion survey that’s been interviewing more than 6,000 Americans about the virus per week since March 19. “Those who had more sexist attitudes were far less likely to report feeling concerned about the pandemic, less likely to support state and local coronavirus policies, less likely to take precautions like washing their hands or wearing masks, and more likely to get sick than those with less sexist attitudes,” Reny told me. “What I found is that sexist attitudes are very predictive of all four sets of [aforementioned] outcomes, even after accounting for differences in partisanship, ideology, age, education, and population density.” There’s no set-in-stone rule that face masks are a sign of weakness. Masks and masculinity existed separately long before the pandemic. Health officials have also consistently said shame doesn’t work to get people to change their behavior for the better. Yet the triggers of shame and slighted masculinity are so effective in getting people to abandon advice that could save their lives. So why, then, does shame work to deter men from wearing masks? It could be that men are more invested in their own masculinity than in their community. Shaming people who don’t wear masks “doesn’t have the same power,” Glick said. “Are those people really experiencing shame? I don’t think they’re ashamed about their behavior. Shame is something you have to buy into.” How we get men to wear masks Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images LeBron James wears a mask! YAY! There exists an entire industry to masculinize inanimate objects to make them worthy of man usage. War Paint is makeup specifically branded for men. So were Kleenex’s “Man-Size” boxes and “Brogurt,” a yogurt for bros, before being rebranded after public mockery. And the Dude Wiper 1000, according to its semi-ironic, tongue-in-cheek website, “is not some ordinary bidet attachment,” as it has “blasters” to clean even the manliest of buttholes. Going by capitalism’s penchant for man-plifying objects and knowing about men’s fragile relationship to their masculinity, it would seem that the obvious way to get more men to wear masks would be to make the manliest version of a mask possible. Maybe put guns on it, or a football team, or make a mask that makes men feel like a super-soldier spliced from both Rambo and Captain America. You can see the effect in sports and athletic wear, where companies like Nike and Under Armour are making masks that superheroes might don. They’re sleeker, curved like shark fins. In June, Under Armour launched its Sportsmask, which it promised would “reinvent” the face mask for athletes. The Nike Strike Snood, which kind of makes the wearer look like Bane or a ninja, is sold out. GQ’s pick for masks includes one that makes you look like “you’re in Mortal Kombat.” Make a mask that makes men feel like a super-soldier spliced from both Rambo and Captain America For men concerned with masculinity, the appeal here is that these masks not only look cool but allow you to do masculine things like run faster, lift heavier, and be stronger. At the same time, in Asia, designers are incorporating new tech and fashion into their masks. But according to health officials, appealing to consumerist impulses isn’t the best way to change men’s, or anyone’s, behavior. Glick and Reny echoed a sentiment that health experts I spoke to in July said: To get people to change behavior, masks have to become a socially accepted norm. Once people start accepting masks as normal behavior, like they do wearing seat belts and not smoking indoors, the number of people going against the norm decreases. Getting to that tipping point is a lot easier said than done. Laws and mandates that the government used in the past in regards to seat belts and smoking took time for everyone to adjust to — time we don’t have due to how fast coronavirus is surging in the US. And while experts say people are likely to emulate behavior they see from leaders, Republicans like Trump and Pence haven’t consistently modeled good mask behavior or messaged how important they are to our health. “So a good start would be to have stronger repeated signals from elites (particularly Trump) on the importance of mask-wearing as an easy and cheap way to slow the pandemic,” Reny said. “Having publicly ‘tough’ men (actors, athletes, some musicians) and other Republican elites also join in and wear masks would help.” There’s evidence of this working. In late June, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter posted a picture of him wearing a mask with the hashtag #RealMenWearMasks. And Trump wore a mask in public for the first time in July at a visit to Walter Reed medical center. He called himself “patriotic.” His supporters hailed him for looking “intensely masculine” and putting #AmericaFirst, and lauded how heroic he looked in a mask. truly incredible.— Jesse Lehrich (@JesseLehrich) July 11, 2020 In May, Trump and conservatives had mocked Biden for wearing a mask, some saying it was a sign of weakness. The abrupt turn is, of course, politically driven. But it’s worth noting that the praise Trump received is about his manliness and heroism — the type of motivators that Glick and Reny mentioned. If Trump wearing a mask gets more people, men specifically, to wear masks, that’s a positive for health officials. The problem therein, though, is that there’s not enough consistent messaging or consistent visibility to really effect change — Trump and Pence need to wear masks consistently and visibly for it to make a difference. That’s what makes Glick a little more skeptical. “It’s an uphill battle at this point,” he said. “It’s going to be hard as long as our leaders are undermining the message.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.
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Forest Fires Are Setting Chernobyl’s Radiation Free
In the clear, calm, early hours of May 15, 2003, three miles west of the hulking ruins of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Vasyl Yoschenko was bustling around a stand of Scotch pines planted 30 years earlier. The trees were spindly and closely spaced, but he was skinny enough to move easily among them, taking samples of biomass and litter. Just beyond the trees, he tinkered with the horizontal plates he had placed on the ground in a diagonal grid and covered with superfine cloth designed to absorb whatever came their way.Yoschenko had just finished adjusting his monitoring equipment in the mid-afternoon when the first gusts of smoke billowed from the far side of the pines. Firefighters were torching the edges of an area the approximate size and shape of a football field. Wearing respirators, camouflage pants, and khaki shirts, cloth bandannas covering their heads, the men were systematically setting the woods ablaze. Flames leapt five feet up trunks, racing to the tops of some trees and sending plumes of smoke aloft.Yoschenko, a Ukrainian radioecologist, had planned the controlled burn to study how radioactive particulates would behave in a fire, and he knew about the risks represented by the nuclear contamination swirling overhead. He prudently scooted to the edge of the forest, donned a gas mask, and began taking photographs. Was it dangerous? Yoschenko shrugs: “Not so much. We were lucky the wind didn’t change direction.”The forest burned intensely for 90 minutes, releasing cesium-137, strontium-90, and plutonium-238, -239, and -240 in blasts of smoke and heat. In just one hour, the firefighters—and Yoschenko—could have been exposed to more than triple the annual radiation limit for Chernobyl’s nuclear workers.“That was crazy,” says Sergiy Zibtsev, a forestry professor at the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine. “That place was really contaminated. Yoschenko risked his life to provide new science—just like Marie Curie.”[Read: Photos from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster]Yoschenko’s scientific blaze was a preview of Chernobyl’s future. Since then, the area’s climate has warmed and dried, and its wildfires—most sparked by arson and other human activity—have grown larger and more frequent. Each fire releases radionuclides, just as Yoschenko and his colleagues documented in 2003; each one raises anxieties in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and in Europe’s major cities. But none has incinerated the landscape at the scale of the fires that burned this past April. They were far larger than any since the 1986 disaster, burning for weeks and scorching nearly 165,600 acres before rain finally doused them.Monitors in Norway, 2,000 miles away, detected increased levels of cesium in the atmosphere. Kyiv was smothered in smoke. Press reports estimated that the level of radiation near the fires was 16 times higher than normal, but we may never know how much was actually released: Yoschenko, Zibtsev, and others impatient to take on-the-ground measurements were confined to their homes by the coronavirus pandemic. August is typically the worst month of the Chernobyl fire season, and this year, public anxiety is mounting. The devastation left by the world’s worst nuclear disaster is colliding with the disaster of climate change, and the consequences reach far and deep.The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a rich mosaic of forests, grasslands, and bogs stretching 1,000 square miles across northern Ukraine. When I visited in 2013 I was shocked, like so many other visitors, by the abandoned family farmhouses with branches growing out of their empty windows, by painted silhouettes of children dancing on the walls of a community center in the hastily evacuated city of Pripyat, still haunted by their absence. But I also saw grasslands dotted with young pines, the wind wafting tawny heads of grains gone wild, and a white-tailed eagle soaring over the power plant cooling pond. In a grove of native birch trees, I stood in the morning light as it burnished the leaves against luminous white trunks. I was enchanted—until my dosimeter began chattering. Had I lingered there for an hour, I later realized, I would have been exposed to radiation levels 100 times beyond what’s considered safe for humans.From Hiroshima, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, we are learning about the ghastly, lingering effects of radiation on human bodies. From the uninhabited landscapes of Chernobyl, we are learning how ecosystems react to—and recover from—the same invisible insult.In the chaos after the April 26, 1986, disaster, Soviet officials worked frantically to contain the radiation spewing from the nuclear power plant’s No. 4 reactor. To protect public health, they evacuated an area nearly the size of Yosemite National Park. Since then, only those with permission are allowed into this exclusion zone, which Ukrainians aptly call the Zone of Alienation. Ukrainian law mandates that nothing—no blackberries, no mushrooms, no radionuclides—leaves the zone until the radiation dissipates, a long-term proposition, given the 24,000-year half-life of plutonium-239.The unexpected result is an immense, long-term ecological laboratory. Within the exclusion zone, scientists are analyzing everything, including the health of the wolves and moose that have wandered back and the effects of radiation on barn swallows, voles, and the microorganisms that decompose forest litter. Now, as wildfires worsen, scientists are trying to determine how these hard-hit ecosystems will respond to yet another unparalleled disruption.[Read: Visiting Chernobyl 32 years after the disaster]Chernobyl is not a landscape inclined to burn. The Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant was built on the southwestern edge of the Pripyat Marshes, Europe’s largest swamp. For centuries, the watery terrain was all but impenetrable; floods made it impassable for months at a time, and bogs disoriented persistent invaders. The drier areas were forested with birch, aspen, other hardwoods, and some pines. Late in the 19th century, these forests were cleared for intensive agriculture. But even the most enterprising farmers struggled to grow wheat and other crops in the gravelly, sandy soil.After Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union in 1922, the government returned the land to forests, logging them for fuel to produce glass and vodka. But instead of the natural mix of species, Soviet foresters planted row after evenly spaced row of Scotch pines, creating a giant softwood production area in a highly regulated forest. By the 1950s, these regularly logged pine plantations covered 400 square miles of what is now the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.The explosions that wracked the nuclear power plant in 1986 transformed all life in the region, human and otherwise. Thirty-one people died as an immediate effect of the explosions, and as many as 150,000 have since died of radiation exposure in Ukraine alone. Conservative estimates predict that the death toll will grow by another 41,000; other estimates exceed 1 million. And the disaster upended the lives of those who survived: The mandatory evacuation of 350,000 people forced residents of Pripyat to leave their newly built city, farmers to abandon their fields, and loggers to find work elsewhere.The forest hit hardest by the nuclear blasts was a pine plantation that stood directly in the path of the most deadly debris. Pines are extremely sensitive to radiation, and the trees turned rust-orange before they died; workers nicknamed the plantation the “Red Forest.” As part of the effort to contain the radioactive material, they bulldozed it, buried the trees in more than 5 million square yards of topsoil, and covered the area with more than a foot of sand. Then they replanted it with pines. As the new trees grew, radiation in the soil suppressed an enzyme that contributes to the classic single-stem conifer shape, resulting in an expanse of odd-looking, bushy dwarf pines.The rest of the forests in the exclusion zone were simply abandoned. Management stopped, leaving the heavily industrialized forests to evolve in their own way at their own pace. Pines began creeping into less contaminated farmland. Birches and other native species less sensitive to radiation began colonizing the hotter areas, slowly replacing the Scotch pines so favored by Soviet foresters. Before the explosion of Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor, forests covered about 30 percent of the exclusion zone; they now cover about 70 percent.Less than two months after the disaster, Soviet officials launched a research institution designed to study the effects of irradiation on agriculture and ecology. Renamed the Ukrainian Institute of Agricultural Radiology in 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union, much of the information we have about contaminated foods and the dynamics of radionuclides has been developed here. When I arrived in 2012 at the institute, located in a suburb southwest of Kyiv, I was ushered through an imposing rotunda, where loose tiles in the beautifully ornate floor provided a percussive accompaniment as I clicked and clacked across it. Vasyl Yoschenko, then 47, was waiting in a conference room, pacing around a long table and fidgeting with his glasses. He has a thick shock of intensely white hair and a wandering left eye, which give him a slightly reckless look.In the spring of 1986, Yoschenko was a soldier in the Soviet Army, stationed 60 miles east of Moscow “for protection against the United States, of course,” he told me with an ironic grin. When his service ended a month after the disaster, he was excited to return to Kyiv: “It is a beautiful city, especially in spring, so just imagine what I was feeling after two years of military service.” Instead, he found an empty city. The only people on the streets were those employed to wash them down. Yoschenko resumed his education, completing a master’s degree in 1989 and immediately going to work at the radiology institute. Now armed with a doctorate, he carried at the time the unwieldy title of head of the laboratory of radioecological monitoring, mathematical modeling and dosimetry. He simplified it for me: “I study radiation.”[Read: California’s wildfires are 500 percent larger due to climate change]One of the institute’s most important early tasks was to estimate the concentrations of radionuclides in the soil throughout the exclusion zone. In the conference room, Yoschenko pointed to two framed documents covered with polygons of colors ranging from pale green to screaming orange. Made in 1997 and 2000, these are the first maps to chart the deposits of strontium, plutonium, and other radionuclides that rained down during the disaster. With Yoschenko and others, the institute head Valery Kashparov found that two-thirds of some of the contaminants and almost all the plutonium and strontium have been retained in Ukrainian soil. That was a surprise to some scientists, who had assumed that the radionuclides would move quickly into the water table or scatter around the world in the volatile winds generated by the explosions. Instead, as much as 96 percent of radionuclide activity was confined to the top 10 centimeters of soil.Over the past 30 years, the government has largely succeeded at keeping what’s in Chernobyl in Chernobyl. But the radionuclides aren’t contained by Ukraine’s quixotic law forbidding their movement. They’re contained by functioning ecosystems.The gases and debris blasted out of the nuclear power plant fell on trees, grasses, other plants, and fungi, coating them with radionuclides; as much as 90 percent of the contamination was captured in the canopies of pines and other conifers. When their needles fell to the ground, they became part of the forest litter, slowly dispersing the radionuclides they carried into the top layer of soil. Within several years, the trees began taking up these radioactive elements; because cesium and strontium are the chemical analogues of potassium and calcium, Yoschenko and his colleagues studied how the unsuspecting trees treated them as nutrients, absorbing them into their roots and moving them into their trunks. Over time, cesium and strontium accumulate in the trees’ needles, which again fall to the ground and become part of the forest litter.Without trees or other permanent ground cover, Chernobyl’s radionuclides would have been carried out of the zone by wind or water. By sucking up the nuclear leftovers strewn across the landscape, the forests are stabilizing the contamination, helping prevent the spread of radionuclides south to Kyiv and northwest to Europe.The forests’ astonishing ability to both survive and contain radiation is now threatened by the worsening wildfires, exacerbated by climate change. “Forests are our friend in health, our enemy when they burn,” says Zibtsev, the forestry professor. When Chernobyl’s trees burn, they send their stored radionuclides aloft as inhalable aerosols. Instead of blasting from a single source, as it did in 1986, the contamination now comes from the trees that cover some 660 square miles around the nuclear power plant. Twenty-five years after the disaster, Zibtsev and others predicted that if the forests in the exclusion zone were completely consumed by fire, residents in Kyiv would face an increased risk of dying from cancer and government bans would need to be imposed on foods produced as far as 90 miles away. Although such a large and intense fire is currently unlikely, recent fires have been sizable enough to create similar problems. “If Chernobyl forests burn, contaminants will migrate outside the immediate area,” says Zibtsev. “We know that.”Zibtsev, 59, is lean and lanky, with a heavy gray crew cut that always seems fully grown out. His father, a teacher, spent the summer of 1986 working outdoors, mostly in Kyiv. He developed cataracts that he suspected were caused by his radiation exposure, though they were never officially attributed to it. Two years later Zibtsev, whose doctorate in forest ecology is from Dnipro State University, had an opportunity to do research in the irradiated forests. His parents, afraid for his safety, refused to allow it. “They didn’t think I needed to risk my health over researching the migration of radionuclides in temporary waste-storage sites,” he told me. His career stopped. “You don’t turn down a good opportunity like this, but I did,” he said. Instead, he mapped contamination in forests 150 miles west of the No. 4 reactor, where, ironically, the random patterns of radiation release deposited radionuclides that exposed him to the danger he was trying to avoid. Another offer to monitor Chernobyl forests came in 1993, and this time Zibtsev took it. He spent the next five summers collecting soil and vegetation samples that were later analyzed for traces of radionuclides. The radiation he found there was higher than it had been in the period immediately following the explosions, a surprising observation until Yoschenko’s 2003 experimental burn explained it: Fires had burned 12,500 acres in 1992, ripping through the crowns of trees and depositing hot ashes across the exclusion zone in the first out-of-control blaze since the disaster.[Read: The forest service is about to set a giant forest fire—on purpose]Zibtsev was on a Fulbright scholarship to Yale University in 2005 when he learned about catastrophic wildland fires in the western United States. “What if that happened here?” he wondered. “More than Ukraine would be affected.” Zibtsev started drumming up international interest in fire and radioactive safety. Not only Chernobyl firefighters but “distant populations” in other countries were at risk, he told an international conference in 2007. He began coordinating projects aimed at improving wildfire-management capacities through the Regional Eastern Europe Fire Monitoring Center, which he established in 2013 under the umbrella of the Global Fire Monitoring Center and the Council of Europe.In 2015, a rash of fires in Chernobyl brought international attention to their dangers. By that time, the abandoned forests had filled with flammable dead trees, and when farmers just outside the zone set their fields ablaze—a time-honored agricultural practice—the nearby stands quickly caught fire. From April to August, 37,066 acres burned within the exclusion zone. Zibtsev and his colleagues later reported that radiation releases in the zone during the fires were nearly 10 times normal levels, and that radiation levels in the forests of Chernobyl and Belarus nearly doubled in 2015.Alarmed by the potential for fire-borne radiation releases over Europe, international concern focused on the sorry state of the firefighting forces assembled in Chernobyl. In the exclusion zone, firefighters monitor smoke from rickety lookout towers built before the 1986 disaster. Access roads are deteriorating and often blocked by downed trees. Though Zibtsev helped design a system of fuel breaks creating gaps in the vegetation, the large majority have never been built. The situation is worsened by an almost complete lack of coordination among the three agencies with jurisdiction in the exclusion zone. Faced with government instability, economic chaos, and a six-year war with Russia, Zibtsev said, Ukrainian officials do not have the energy, financial resources, or political will to concentrate on fires in Chernobyl.During my 2012 visit, the firefighter Nikolay Ossienko showed me around the Paryshev Fire Station near the Belarus border, one of seven stations in the exclusion zone. A fleet of well-polished but aging four-by-four fire trucks was parked in a shed next to the wooden building that serves as the station’s office. Dominating the compound was an imposing Soviet-built tank, modified with a pointed plow blade. It’s used to create fuel breaks by crushing trees and brush—“anything,” explained Ossienko, a burly, blue-eyed Ukrainian whose warm smile winked with a missing tooth. Though firefighters like Ossienko maintain their equipment admirably, says Zibtsev, most of their vehicles are at least 20 years old and no longer reliable. During the April fires, many of them broke down, forcing firefighters to evacuate.In recent years, a U.S. Forest Service project has installed five fire-detection cameras within the exclusion zone, provided protective gear and breathing devices to Chernobyl firefighters, and developed a fire-management plan to coordinate fire-suppression efforts. It’s very helpful, Zibtsev said, but it hasn’t solved the equipment shortage. In April, camera traps, which the University of South Carolina professor Timothy Mousseau had set up to monitor wildlife, photographed men fighting fire with wet rags. “No shirts, no masks, no gloves, just wandering around in a burning fire trying to tamp it out,” he told me.This April’s fires, which scorched 23 percent of the exclusion zone, were the largest burns ever recorded in the area, nearly four and a half times the size of fires in 2015. Flames torched trees less than three miles from the ruined nuclear reactor, which is now enclosed by an arch-shaped steel shroud.Although the fires expose Chernobyl’s firefighters to dangerous levels of radiation, their risks to residents of the region and beyond are so far relatively low. But as Zibtsev pointed out, individual health is a combination of many factors—food, water, quality of life—and any increase in radiation exposure, however small, adds to existing stresses. In his office, as he ticked off various threats to human health, he moved a small box around on the desktop in front of him, closer and closer to the edge. When he got to radiation, it tottered, ready to fall onto his lap. “Too many stressors hasten death,” he said.Fire also imposes one more stress on Chernobyl’s ecosystems, a decidedly human wrench thrown into their long recovery from nuclear disaster. Induced by climate change and sparked by human activity, fire here is only slightly more natural than radiation. Persistent and widespread fire may destroy soil organics and radically redistribute the accumulated radionuclides, Yoschenko said, altering soil chemistry. Changes in soil chemistry will alter plants, which in turn will affect the food chain and animals dependent on it. And larger, more intense fires could destroy the forests entirely, obliterating their ability to keep what’s in Chernobyl in Chernobyl. “Keeping forests healthy is the main ingredient to preventing the migration of radionuclides outside the zone,” Zibtsev told me.For now, Chernobyl’s forests and grasslands are continuing to process cesium, strontium, and other radionuclides. Even the roots of the contorted trees in the Red Forest are taking up radionuclides, holding and stabilizing them in an ecosystem’s gift to the humans who created these contaminants. That process promises to continue—at least until the August fire season gets underway.
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The Huge Minimum Wage Reform in Biden's Disability Plan
For 15 years, Ross Ryan traveled an hour from his Oregon home to clean bathrooms, mop floors, and take out trash at noisy car dealerships and cavernous state buildings from 4 p.m. until midnight. His employer paid him about 60 cents per completed task—and it was legal.Ryan’s employer was a sheltered workshop, a program that exclusively employs people with disabilities for less than minimum wage. Ryan, 51, has a developmental disability called Russell-Silver syndrome and couldn’t find a job after graduating from high school. Until his 40s, he believed that a sheltered workshop was his best option. But he didn’t like it. “We were treated as second-class citizens,” he told me. “They looked down on us like we didn’t know what we were doing and we didn’t know the value of money.”Although the Americans With Disabilities Act, passed 30 years ago this summer, protects people with disabilities from employment and pay discrimination, a little-known loophole allows employers that hold a special certificate to pay disabled workers less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. These employers can even pay workers with disabilities according to how productive they are, or at a rate per piece. In other words, if the average nondisabled worker cleans 10 car-dealership bathrooms an hour for $7.25, and the employer can show that the disabled worker cleans one bathroom an hour, it can pay the disabled worker 72.5 cents an hour. This waiver program stipulates no minimum for wages paid to workers with disabilities. The same rules do not apply to nondisabled people: An employer cannot pay a nondisabled worker less for performing below peak productivity on an “off day,” because they, unlike some disabled workers, are guaranteed a minimum wage.Today, more than 1,200 employers nationwide employ more than 300,000 workers with disabilities in below-minimum-wage jobs, in which they often perform menial labor, such as shredding newspapers and counting bolts and nuts. These employers are supposed to transition workers with disabilities into the mainstream workforce, but many fail to do so. Only 5 percent of workers—most of whom have developmental and intellectual disabilities—ever find employment outside the workshop, according to a 2001 report to Congress by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.But a Joe Biden presidency could mean the end of sheltered workshops and the subminimum wage.Biden’s disability plan, released in late May, includes a promise to work with Congress to pass the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act. The act would provide grants for which states can apply to help employers phase out the subminimum wage and integrate workers with disabilities into their community over a period of six years.[Read: What Joe Biden can’t bring himself to say]Introduced in 2019 by Bob Casey, the Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, and co-sponsored by 59 Democrats and seven Republicans in both houses, the legislation is the product of a yearslong effort. Since the civil-rights movement in the 1960s, disability-rights activists have decried the subminimum wage as discriminatory, and federal lawmakers have made several unsuccessful attempts to abolish it. Their efforts have been thwarted time and again by lobbyists for large subminimum-wage employers, such as Goodwill, who argue that eliminating the subminimum wage would deprive people with disabilities of work opportunities. Neil Romano, the chair of the National Council on Disability, says these lobbyists often have the “single most important weapon” in tow: parents or guardians of someone in a workshop who fear for their loved one’s prospects in the mainstream workforce.But Biden and an increasing number of lawmakers today are resolute about getting rid of the submimimum wage, arguing that it conflicts with existing policy meant to protect people with disabilities from discrimination, including the ADA. Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, for example, has been pushing federal legislation, including the bill Biden supports.“The subminimum wage sends a message to the disability community that their work isn’t as valuable as the work done by able-bodied people,” Duckworth, the first woman with a disability elected to the Senate, told me in an email. “It traps disabled workers in low-end jobs, creates a stigma associated with their work, and makes them feel more isolated. Integration of our workforce should always be the goal, and we will never achieve that goal so long as we keep accepting this outdated, exploitative policy.”For these reasons, Duckworth said, she’s a “proud” co-sponsor of the bill, as well as another: the Raise the Wage Act introduced by Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, which would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 over six years for all workers, including workers with disabilities. Sanders’s bill has no bipartisan support.The fate of both bills may hinge on whether Biden takes office and Democrats take Congress, as disability rights have unprecedentedly become associated with the left. Until President Donald Trump’s 2016 run, disability rights were largely uncontentious and not associated with a particular party. The ADA, for example, was enacted by a Republican president, George H. W. Bush. However, after Trump mocked the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Serge F. Kovaleski, who has a physical disability, and after reports that Trump has been repeatedly sued for violations of the ADA, disability issues entered the mainstream political conversation. For the first time in history, they became a focus of a major-party presidential nominee’s campaign, as Hillary Clinton pledged to ban the subminimum wage.[Read: How did disabilities become a partisan issue?]Since then—because of the efforts of activists such as Andrew Pulrang, Gregg Beratan, and Alice Wong, who together co-founded the nonpartisan movement #CripTheVote—all 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have emphasized their relationship with voters with disabilities. Many held Twitter town halls to answer questions from the community and, like Biden, released disability plans. Biden’s advisers are also vetting Duckworth to be his running mate, which excites some members of the disability community, given her strong attention to disability rights.Movement on the issue could happen without legislation. Since June 2018, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has been investigating whether the subminimum-wage program violates the civil rights of people with disabilities. It expects to publish its findings in September.Some states have also already ended or begun phasing out the subminimum wage and sheltered workshops. In 2002, Vermont became the first state to abolish the subminimum wage—and, data show, has been the most successful at integrating people with disabilities into the mainstream workforce. Within three years of sheltered workshops’ closure, 80 percent of former workshop workers found employment. Today, the state’s integrated employment rate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is twice the national average: 38 percent, compared with a rate of 19 percent nationally.At least six states have followed Vermont, including New Hampshire, Maryland, Alaska, Oregon, Nevada, and Maine. In 2019, Texas mandated that all state contractors increase their wages for workers with disabilities to the federal minimum wage by 2022. To date, 40 states have adopted “Employment First” legislation or state policy aimed at integrating workers with disabilities into the community.Maine has transitioned less successfully. According to two studies prepared by George Washington University, Maine has seen the number of disabled people employed after the policy shift decline. The latest study showed that 24.9 percent of people with an intellectual disability were employed in 2009, compared with 17.2 percent in 2015.For Ross Ryan, leaving the workshop has made a huge difference. A couple of years before a class-action lawsuit shut down his workshop for violations of the ADA and other civil-rights legislation, Ryan found work as a community advocate at the Oregon Self Advocacy Coalition, providing testimony to state lawmakers on legislation that affects people with disabilities. He earns about $16 an hour—more than double the federal minimum wage.The wage increase has transformed the way Ryan lives, he told me. “It allows me to buy stuff I couldn’t before. I was able to go to a NASCAR race in California and a KISS concert,” he said, adding, “It makes me happy to be able to pay taxes and contribute to my community.”Ryan says it’s time for the rest of the country to catch up. He envisions a future where people with disabilities aren’t just gainfully employed, but community leaders. He wants to see those “more successful than me … helping younger people with disabilities to stand up for themselves,” he said.
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Dear Therapist: I Don’t Want My Sister in My Bridal Party
Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at Dear Therapist,My younger sister is a few years younger than I am. Growing up, I had to care for my younger sister, and tension resulted from me having to include her when playing with friends, etc., despite not wanting to. This tension continued when my sister had mental-health issues and other life crises. Although I didn’t have a great relationship with her, I was responsible for stepping in and filling the role of caregiver. My parents were so overwhelmed and unable to meet my sister’s emotional needs that they turned to me to do so instead. This resulted in much resentment and anger and hurt between my sister and me. My sister craves closeness and my approval, and I just want to be left alone.I recently became engaged to a stable and loving partner, and I informed my sister that she would not be in the bridal party, because she and I don’t have a close relationship. Instead, I said that I would like her to be an usher with my partner’s sister and walk my mom down the aisle. It should be noted that before I even spoke about how I would want my sister involved in my wedding, she started off by saying, “I’m not sure I am even going to attend your wedding.” Now my entire nuclear family is incredibly angry with me and has taken drastic actions, such as calling my best friend to tell her that they are upset with me.Over the past few years, I have tried to set caring boundaries with my family, which has been viewed as an act of war. I feel as though I am at the end of my rope with my family and don’t know what else I can do, save cutting ties completely.AnonymousMilwaukee, WisconsinDear Anonymous,There are two issues here: the question of how to handle your family’s discomfort with your bridal-party decision, and the more general question of how to handle your discomfort with the role you’ve played in your family since childhood. Understanding the latter issue will help you manage the former.It sounds like your sister has long felt hurt and rejected by you, and you’ve felt resentful of her. This is a common dynamic in families with a high-need sibling, whether those needs stem from mental-health issues or simply from a certain kind of temperament. The high-need sibling tends to take up a lot of emotional air in the house, sometimes so much that the parents, as you said, begin to feel overwhelmed and unequipped to help. In an attempt to keep the peace, they may accede to the high-need sibling’s requests and desires at the expense of everyone else’s. This might involve asking the other siblings in the house to “be flexible” and “help out”—by, say, including the high-need sibling when playing with friends, or caretaking in a variety of ways that aren’t appropriate responsibilities to place on a child or a teenager or even a young adult.This is what happened to you, and you didn’t have much choice in the matter. The result is that you became angry and resentful toward your sister—even though none of this was really her fault. It was your parents who placed you in this role—not your sister—but because your sister seemed to be the problem, constantly interfering with everything from your autonomy to your joy, she became the focus of your rage. So it’s no wonder that she would crave your closeness and approval while you just wanted her to leave you alone.The difference between then and now, though, is that you’re both adults, and with adulthood comes agency. You can either remain stuck in the past and react to your sister and parents from that place of childhood anger, or you can separate the past from the present by taking advantage of the choices available to you and managing your feelings in a more productive way.For instance, consider the way you approached your sister about your wedding. So far, you’ve both reacted exactly as you did in childhood. Feeling perpetually rejected by you and possibly anticipating the perceived rejection to come, she preemptively rejected you: I’m not sure I’m going to your wedding. Instead of hearing the hurt underneath her comment, you went back to that childhood place of Here she goes again, creating drama. Then, rather than looking at how you contribute to the tension between you, you communicated your choice about the wedding in a way that sounded like a rejection, thus confirming her feelings of rejection.There’s a world of difference between saying, essentially, “You’re not going to be in my bridal party, because I don’t like you very much, but you can be an usher to keep the peace,” and saying something like, “My partner and I are very excited about our wedding and we’d both love to include our sisters in the ceremony as ushers to the other important people in our lives. I’d love to have you walk with Mom down the aisle—that would feel really special to me. Would you accept this honor?”When those childhood resentments are simmering just beneath the surface, you may struggle to communicate your needs and decisions to your family in a gentle and loving way. You say that you’ve tried to create “caring boundaries” with your family, but you might want to reflect on how much care has actually gone into those efforts and why they might be perceived as “an act of war.” Keep in mind, too, that boundaries aren’t about dictating what someone else will or won’t do. They’re about getting clear with yourself about what you will or won’t do.That distinction matters, because I think what you really want as you embark on this new chapter of your life with your partner is to make choices that feel right for you, and then no matter what your family does, to be able to tolerate their disappointment (often delivered in the form of guilt or pressure or attempts to control) if they want you to do something different.So what does that look like now? With your sister, you might muster some compassion for her hurt feelings about the wedding, and take responsibility for your role in the tension between you. You might say something like “I’m sorry about how I handled my request for you to participate in my wedding. It came out all wrong, and what I wish I had said was this.” Then you rephrase the request, and let her know that you’ll understand if she chooses not to do it, but that you hope she will, because it would mean a lot to you. And here’s the important part: No matter what she does with this kinder request, you keep your boundary to yourself, which might look like not investing any emotional energy in her response and instead staying focused on the fun parts of planning your wedding with your partner.Meanwhile, you can take your parents aside and begin the conversation you’ve been wanting to have with them for decades but haven’t had the words to do so. It might go something like this: “You may not be aware of this, but my sister isn’t the only one who has struggled in our family. I have some feelings to work through about what happened in our family, and maybe that’s gotten in the way of how I’ve tried to communicate about the wedding. I want my wedding to be a joyous occasion, and I want to include everyone in a way that’s meaningful to my partner and me.” Then you explain how happy you would be to see your mom walk down the aisle with your sister. If your parents still try to get you to do something different, give them a big hug and say, “I love you very much and I know we see this differently, but I hope this is the start of a conversation we can continue to have as this next chapter in my life begins.” Then, hold your own boundary: If your parents continue to express disappointment over your decision, don’t engage in those conversations other than to say, each and every time, calmly and with warmth and compassion: “I know you love me, and one way to show your love is to make room for my happiness. I’m so looking forward to having a closer and more peaceful relationship with you, and I’m optimistic that focusing on the joy of my wedding can be a great first step.”People often wonder whom weddings are for—are they for the couple, or for the family and friends of the couple? Many would say it’s the former (“It’s your day; do it your way!”), but in my view, weddings are about the couple, and they’re also about the community surrounding the couple. They’re about building a family that consists of the old and the new, the past and the future, and it’s because of this that they offer a unique opportunity to redefine who we are in relation to the people we love.Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.
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What Is MasterClass Actually Selling?
Image above, clockwise from top left: MasterClass instructors Serena Williams (who teaches tennis on the platform); Natalie Portman (acting); Gordon Ramsay (cooking); Malcolm Gladwell (writing)Sometimes an advertisement is so perfectly tailored to a cultural moment that it casts that moment into stark relief, which is how I felt upon first seeing an ad for the mega-best-selling writer James Patterson’s course on MasterClass a few years ago. In the ad, Patterson is sitting at a table, reciting a twisty opening line in voice-over. Then an overhead shot of him gazing out a window, lost in thought like a character in a movie. A title card appears: “Imagine taking a writing class from a master.” It didn’t matter that I’d never read a book by Patterson before—I was hooked. What appealed to me was not whatever actionable thriller-writing tips I might glean, but rather the promise of his story, the story of how a writer becomes a mogul. Any hapless, hand-to-mouth mid-lister can provide instructions on outlining a novel. MasterClass dangled something else, a clear-cut path out of the precariat, the magic-bean shortcut to a fairy-tale ending—the secret to ever-elusive success.To hear more feature stories, get the Audm iPhone app. MasterClass launched in 2015 with just three classes: Dustin Hoffman on acting, Serena Williams on tennis, and Patterson on writing. Since then the company has grown exponentially, raising $135 million in venture capital from 2012 to 2018. It now has more than 85 classes across nine categories. (Last year it added 25 new classes, and this year it intends to add even more.) After the pandemic hit, as people started spending more time at home, its subscriptions surged, some weeks increasing tenfold over the average in 2019; subscribers spent twice as much time on the platform as they did earlier this year. In April, the company moved from offering individual classes for $90 a pop, with an all-access annual pass for $180, to a subscription-only model, and in May, it raised another $100 million. Its trailers have become so familiar and ubiquitous that they spawned their own SNL parodies, “MasterClass: Quarantine Edition,” in which Chloe Fineman appears as Phoebe Waller-Bridge for a class on journaling, as Timothée Chalamet for a class on fashion, and as Britney Spears for a class on … something.[Watch: David Sedaris on keeping a diary in the age of over-sharing]MasterClass trailers tend to follow a certain playbook: the introduction of a famous person; a peek behind the curtain; an overview of their setbacks and failures; the promise of what you might learn; the emotional, soaring soundtrack. But the courses are distinct from one another—there’s no standard format or formula. What MasterClass purports to provide is a premium, high-level learning experience via a series of glossy videos taught by the world’s best. In some classes, instructors address the camera for a few hours. In others, they are more hands-on, demonstrating techniques or leading workshops. You can take writing classes with Margaret Atwood, Dan Brown, David Baldacci, Joyce Carol Oates, David Sedaris, Shonda Rhimes, Malcolm Gladwell, or Aaron Sorkin. You can take photography with Annie Leibovitz; acting with Natalie Portman; comedy with Judd Apatow or Steve Martin; and cooking with Thomas Keller, Gordon Ramsay, or Alice Waters. There’s a directing class with Ron Howard, a makeup class with Bobbi Brown, a negotiation class with the former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss, and a class on how to be a boss with Anna Wintour. RuPaul has a class on authenticity and self-expression, and Neil deGrasse Tyson has one on scientific thinking. Two classes—taught by Kevin Spacey and Hoffman—have been removed following allegations of sexual misconduct against the actors (which both have denied). MasterClass is a brand built on other people’s impeccable brands.David Rogier, who co-founded MasterClass, likes to tell the story of his grandmother who as a young woman fled the Nazis, emigrating to the United States with her mother. After working in a factory for years, she applied to medical schools and was rejected by dozens of them—one dean flat-out told her that she had three strikes against her: She was a woman, she was Jewish, and she was an immigrant—until she finally found one that would accept her. She always impressed upon her grandson that an education could never be taken away from you. That was the grain of the idea for MasterClass.It’s a great origin story, the kind perfectly suited for a MasterClass trailer, and also the kind that every young Silicon Valley founder is more or less ready to recite when the press comes along. But the story sits somewhat uncomfortably alongside the actual product, which is to a medical degree what an apple is to an orange planet.Rogier grew up on the Westside of Los Angeles, the son of two lawyers who became artists in retirement. After getting his M.B.A. at Stanford, he asked one of his professors—the angel investor Michael Dearing, who founded Harrison Metal, a seed-stage venture-capital fund in San Francisco—for a job. Rogier got the position, but after a year or so realized it wasn’t for him. He went to Dearing and told him he planned to quit. When Dearing asked what he had lined up, Rogier responded, “ ‘I’m going to build something.’ He’s like, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ So he wrote me a check for about half a million dollars.” Rogier formed a holding company and called it Yanka Industries, after his grandmother.The question of who (and what and how and why) gets funded in Silicon Valley might not be asked often enough, considering the impact of technology on our society, economy, politics, and daily lives. But patterns are discernible: Mainly, the ideas that rise to the top are those that seek to address deficiencies in an industry by creating a new category from within the old one, the way caterpillars consume themselves to become butterflies. (Also, most of these ideas are had by young white guys.) Turning the housing market into an infinite unregulated hotel, for instance, or everyone’s cars into an unregulated fleet of taxis. Or aggregating mastery across disciplines.“I felt a lot of pressure,” Rogier told me of the windfall investment. He was aware that he’d been given a gift. “You can’t whine about it or complain about it, because there’s nothing to whine or complain about, right? This guy threw me a blank check.” Rogier knew he wanted to do something related to education, but he wasn’t sure what. So he posted ads on Craigslist offering to pay people $25 an hour to talk about their experiences with education. He asked subjects about the schools they’d gone to, whom they’d learned from the most, the topics they wished they had studied more. What things did they want to learn now? How did they want to learn now?[From the June 2016 issue: How kids learn resilience]Rogier already knew life was changing at a much faster rate than it had for his parents’ generation. What you learn in school no longer lasts you through your career. His research showed that people are willing to invest in personal growth and education, but many feel “ripped off” by their education. He isn’t referring only to formal education. “People pay tremendous amounts to take not-great classes,” he said. “And then there are also the scam stories. Somebody went to school to be a receptionist, and she paid for it, but the ‘school’ was answering phone calls for two weeks at an office.”MasterClass instructors Shonda Rhimes (writing for television) and RuPaul (self-expression and authenticity) (Illustration by Jade Purple Brown; MasterClass)Rogier had an idea: What if anybody could learn from the best? “That would be kind of awesome,” he said. Especially if he could offer the class at a relatively low price. After two rounds of fundraising, getting the first instructors on board (Hoffman was the first to agree—Rogier was school friends with his daughter), filming some test classes, and hiring a small team, Rogier asked a friend, the entrepreneur Aaron Rasmussen, to join the company as co-founder and chief technology officer, which he did. (Rasmussen left the company in January 2017 and later founded the for-college-credit education platform first, Rogier said, many people told him his idea would never work. It was unclear whether people would pay to watch high-end tutorials when they could view lower-budget ones on YouTube for free. It was also unclear whether celebrity teachers could be recruited in meaningful numbers. The best in the world will never want to teach, people told him. They’re not going to be good at teaching. People aren’t going to want to learn from them. It’s going to be too expensive. People won’t pay for production—they won’t care if it’s higher production quality. Everything’s free on the web. Why are you trying to do everything from making the classes to putting the classes out? You should just take one small slice. One of the things Rogier is still often asked is whether he’s selling education or entertainment. The question annoys him. “Why can’t education also be entertaining?”Rogier always knew that part of being an entrepreneur is believing in something that nobody else believes in, but still, he was scared. Within a few days of MasterClass’s launch in May 2015, however, the numbers told him he was onto something. Within four months, he had 30,000 students.MasterClass’s mission, as it was originally defined, was to “democratize access to genius.” But the service actually offers something different—although what that is, exactly, is hard to put your finger on. Strictly speaking, a master class is a small class for very advanced students taught by a master in their field. But very advanced students in particular subject areas are vanishingly small cohorts—certainly not enough to attract hundreds of millions of dollars in investments. And so, MasterClass courses are not really designed for a specific skill level, but instead are aimed at the most general of general audiences.MasterClass doesn’t disclose how much it pays instructors, although a 2018 Bloomberg article reported that they are paid a guaranteed sum, plus up to 25 percent of revenue generated by their classes. (In 2017, The Hollywood Reporter claimed that instructors were paid roughly $100,000.) But money is not the only motivation. For many of the instructors, MasterClass presents an opportunity to take stock of a remarkable career. Wintour, the longtime editor of Vogue, kicks off her MasterClass by saying, “I know many people are curious about who I am, how I approach my work, and what I believe … I have never had the opportunity to share the many lessons I have learned as an editor and as a creative leader in one place before.” Her class feels, more than anything, like a historical document.For Atwood, the celebrated author of The Handmaid’s Tale, among many other novels, the decision to participate was partly motivated by her age, “which is old,” she told me over the phone. “This is a way of downloading what I would ordinarily do, or possibly uploading it.”Scenes from MasterClass courses led by (from top to bottom) Margaret Atwood (creative writing), Anna Wintour (creativity and leadership), and Aaron Sorkin (screenwriting) (MasterClass)The last time Atwood taught full-time at a university was in the 1970s. Filming a MasterClass was an opportunity to reach a less-privileged cohort than she might in a university setting. “For a lot of people who might have jobs, but also might be interested in writing, [MasterClass is] a way they can pursue this in their own time, at their own pace,” she said. On the other hand, Atwood said, “in-person teaching is interactive. People get to ask you direct questions.” Later she added, “If you’re teaching in a university, you can see the people you’re teaching. You know how old they are. You have some idea about what background they may have come from. You usually start asking them what were the last five books that they read … But if you’re doing something online, it could be anybody. It’s more like publishing a book. It’s out there. It’s accessible. You don’t know who may be accessing it.”[Read: The future of college looks like the future of retail]As an educational platform, MasterClass is limited by its instructors’ inaccessibility. But as a repository for career advice and discussions about the creative process and how to navigate life as an artist (or athlete, chef, magician, entrepreneur), it’s a gold mine. When you are just starting out—especially if you lack connections in your areas of interest—it can be helpful to hear how other people “did it,” what obstacles they faced and how they overcame them. You might get a hit of encouragement or see yourself reflected for the first time in a field you thought was off-limits to you. The ballet dancer Misty Copeland says MasterClass was a way of doing this.Copeland’s class is typical of MasterClass’s more inspirational offerings. It’s a mix of instruction and aspiration, covering subjects on everything from owning your power and being confident, to barre exercises (pliés, tendus), to working with Prince, to the importance of mentorship and diversity, to showing people that ballet is more approachable than they think.“The fine arts and classical dance have been kind of categorized as this elite form that is only for an elite, exclusive category of people,” Copeland—the first Black principal dancer of the prestigious American Ballet Theatre—told me over the phone. She wanted to show that dance didn’t have to be so intimidating—“that it’s for every person, with any background and body type.” For Copeland, the tools, perseverance, strength, and passion that you need to be an artist are derived from doing the work, engaging in the process. That’s what she aimed to share in her class, to “give people some insight into what it is to be an artist and an athlete.”I’ve taken Atwood’s class, Rhimes’s class, and most of Gladwell’s, among others. I’ve watched Part One of Keller’s course, and a little bit of Part Two. I’ve watched Brown’s “smoky eye” tutorial, tried the technique on myself, and came out looking like a prizefighting panda. The classes are visually sumptuous, transporting, uplifting, and yet, frankly, a little boring, especially if you try to watch them all the way through. Doing so feels like being seated next to the dinner guest of your dreams—the Dalai Lama or Oscar Wilde or Barack Obama—and discovering that they won’t stop talking and that the dinner is 12 courses long.The cooking classes are enjoyable and resemble the prestige food programming on Netflix. The mixology and gardening classes interested me as an unskilled cocktail maker and novice gardener, but I still found it easier to Google specific questions like how exactly to deal with my lettuce or make a cocktail with things I already have in my bar. Yet, after watching Gordon Ramsay do it, I did finally learn how to properly salt an eggplant.Instructors approach their classes in different ways, from simply walking viewers through their practice and methods, to putting their teams to work on a comprehensive curriculum, as Keller did upon being asked to come up with a class. But Keller was told his curriculum was too much.“From what they told me, they’d never seen anything like it before, both in presentation, as well as in content, as well as in length,” Keller said when we spoke. It would have been much too long to film, so it was distilled down to the fundamentals and split into three parts.Having someone of Thomas Keller’s stature teaching the basics of cooking is impressive, but is it necessary? You can learn useful things by watching a video, but formal education is generally understood to demand some kind of participation, as well as a teacher evaluation. Some instructors host promotional contests with student participation—in one case, James Patterson co-wrote a book with a student—but in general, Malcolm Gladwell isn’t going to grade your essay, nor is Thomas Keller going to evaluate your meringue.Scenes from MasterClass courses led by Misty Copeland (ballet technique and artistry) and Thomas Keller (cooking techniques)(MasterClass)As terrible as the pandemic has been, it has proved unexpectedly good for some—specifically billionaires, yeast manufacturers, and streaming services, of which MasterClass is now one. For a certain cohort of people looking to pass the hours at home, namely those with leisure time and money, the new courses in cooking, mixology, and gardening arrived at the perfect homesteading moment. But the fact that MasterClass is so popular now also speaks to people’s fears, especially economic uncertainties that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Tens of millions of jobs have been lost, and many newly unemployed people are looking for a different direction. And if they’ve kept their jobs, they are dealing with a whole new way of navigating work, which is stressful and confusing. In a way, MasterClass seems ideally suited to frustrated 30-somethings for whom education has not necessarily resulted in upward mobility or even a job, who feel stuck in their career without a clear path to success.In fact, the company refers to its target customers as CATS: “curious, aspiring 30-somethings.” CATS are old enough not to be planning to return to school, but young enough, in theory, that they need help advancing in their career. A CAT is a person whose life has become complicated, who has had to put aside some of the things they loved to do, who isn’t exactly doing the thing they dreamed of doing, David Schriber, MasterClass’s chief marketing officer, told me. They’re anxious about their future, their present, their position relative to that of their peers. “They’ll talk about having anxiety that their co-workers or the people on their social networks all seem to know more about a subject than they do,” Schriber said, referring, presumably, to pre-pandemic focus testing. “Someone will come to the office party and talk about wine, and then they’ll feel like I don’t know enough about wine. Someone else will talk about photography, and they’ll be like Man, I should pay attention to who the photographers are these days. Or their boss will say things like ‘You need to work on your leadership profile, or hone your creative judgments,’ and the poor 30-something is like Where am I gonna get all this?” Something about this struck me as clammy and sad, as far away from They can’t take your education away from you as it’s possible to be. As though it’s revealing another layer of unpaid labor—cultural labor—one is expected to do in order to secure the privilege of performing actual labor.What MasterClass offers 30-somethings is “a curated group of people” recognized as “the world’s best,” who are “breaking down the thing that they do in a really entertaining and digestible way,” Schriber said. “You can take away the life lessons, but you can also take away the conversation points. You can come back to work on Monday and talk about what Anna Wintour did for the Met Gala—you can also think, Man, Anna Wintour really gave me permission to show up like a boss today.”But what does it mean to “show up like a boss” at this moment? And what does it mean to learn it from Anna Wintour, who has recently come under fire for allegedly feeding a toxic and racist culture at Condé Nast? The idea that everyone should show up like a boss, so current five years ago, feels hollow now that the brutal inequalities in our system have become undeniable to all but the most willfully obtuse.[Derek Thompson: Workism is making Americans miserable]Education researchers have known for decades that being good at something and being good at teaching something are two completely different skill sets. In fact, universities are mostly ranked on the strength of their research, and, of course, the brand name can be worth a lot. Something similar holds true for MasterClass, whose impressive roster of talent feels like a who’s who of elite professionals, a gallery of the meritocracy’s winners.To understand where we are right now, and why MasterClass seems to slot in so perfectly with the moment, it’s useful to think about how it has evolved over time.MasterClass launched after the early hype around online education had already fizzled. Filmed university lectures seemed to be even less thrilling than the real thing. MOOCs (massive open online courses) had poor retention rates, and still structurally favored people of means. At first, MasterClass focused on specific skill sets, and providing an educational journey from beginning to end. But its data revealed that people weren’t necessarily consuming the courses from start to finish, nor was this really necessary to benefit from the content. “What we were finding was that when people were allowed the freedom to jump from lesson to lesson based on their interest, it was just a much more freeing experience,” Nekisa Cooper, MasterClass’s vice president of content, told me. What people seemed to want was a fun mix of short-form inspirational content. They also displayed surprisingly wide-ranging interests. Students who first watched Bobbi Brown followed her up with Chris Voss.[Read: Virtual classrooms can be as unequal as real ones]Lately, MasterClass has started presenting its offerings less as classroom education and more as part of a learning lifestyle built around a community of people with common interests and concerns. It reminds me of a kind of Spotify for careerist inspiration, a platform for dispensing assorted self-help and personal-development bonbons for the young capitalist striver. “And we’re not just offering classes or education,” Cooper said. “We’re also offering escape.”As for whether it matters if a MasterClass member finishes a course, Rogier said, “Most education sites look at completion rates. But I think that’s the wrong metric. The measure I look at is what’s the impact we have on your life. I know it’s going to sound fluffy, but we legitimately ask people if we changed their life”—which nearly 20 percent of those polled said it did.[From the September 2014 issue: The real value of online education]Silicon Valley has talked about changing the world and people’s lives for a long time, and it’s safe to say that it has succeeded. The world has been remade by private equity and venture capital. Tech has “disrupted” almost every aspect of modern living.Maybe it’s not a coincidence, then, that we find ourselves in a golden age of self-help and self-development, of “how I did it” podcasts and conferences and workshops. We’re encouraged to optimize ourselves at all times, and told to look upon this as fun, albeit compulsory. But although you can get a lot out of these activities, you can waste time looking for the answer, when what these stories all reveal is that great success is a combination of doing the work and getting (or perhaps starting out) really, really lucky.Lately, I’ve been thinking about how prospectors in the California Gold Rush rarely struck it rich. In 1849, the ones who did well were those who supplied prospectors with shovels, tents, and jeans—they kept the dream alive. Samuel Brannan, who sold shovels and other goods, was considered California’s first millionaire. Levi Strauss, who co-invented blue jeans, died with a fortune of $6 million, worth $175 million today. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with supplying people with what they need to pursue their dreams, but it seems that during this time of growing wealth and social inequality, the jeans and shovels have become largely symbolic, and the prospecting they facilitate, the endless panning for something, anything, ever more intangible. There is no goal, really. The panning is the goal.This article appears in the September 2020 print edition with the headline “What Is MasterClass Actually Selling?”
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Backdoor beetle: Insect survives being eaten by frog
This bug made “The Great Escape.” An aquatic beetle was eaten by a frog and successfully emerged from the amphibian’s anus unscathed. Watch video of the un-beetle-able experiment conducted at Kobe University in Japan. Biologist Shinji Sugiura guesses that the beetle uses its legs to promote excretion inside the frog’s digestive tract.   Subscribe to...
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