How to Talk About Solutions Journalism

Last month, the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network published a list of local newsrooms and other media outlets that have integrated the practice of solutions-oriented reporting into their coverage. The post was a turning point of sorts; when SJN was founded in 2013, the term “solutions journalism” wasn’t exactly common parlance, says co-founder and CEO David Bornstein. In Bornstein’s view, it’s not enough to simply lay out the facts of a problem: Society will only move forward if we’re exposed to what is working in communities — and work together to elevate those solutions.

Bornstein launched SJN to spread the practice of approaching news stories through the lens of problem-solving. Besides an ever-growing database of published solutions stories, the organization trains journalists and provides a place for them to connect. NationSwell spoke with Bornstein, who’s been covering social innovation for two decades and co-authors The New York Times’s “Fixes” column, on what solutions journalism is and why it matters.

NationSwell: Since you founded SJN in 2013, how has the organization evolved, and how has the field of solutions journalism evolved in general?

Bornstein: There’s been so much change. I would say our original mission was to legitimize and spread the practice of solutions journalism, which we define as rigorous reporting that looks at solutions to social problems. It’s fairly legitimized now that there are more and more news organizations regularly integrating solutions journalism into what they do — and not just as an add-on, but integrated into their core work. There’s certainly still a long way to go. But there’s much more adoption than there was even two or three years ago. And much more acceptance that journalism has to help people understand the nature of problems, and what their options are to try to respond to those problems.

NationSwell: Negative news still dominates most headlines. Why do you think that is, and what impact does that negativity have on audiences?

Bornstein: Most news is reacting to something that is problematic, and it still seems to be job one in journalism to identify problems and where society is falling short, whether through scandal, malfeasance,  corruption or negligence. As we used to say, the problems scream and the solutions whisper.

If there is a shooting or a fire or an explosion, these kinds of flash-point events demand coverage. Even if a politician says something inflammatory, it demands coverage. A solutions story is often something that is quietly working in the background to improve high school graduation rates, or to reduce the levels of addiction in a county — things like that. These are not always things that are clamoring for attention. They’re not screaming the way the problems do. It takes more of an intentional effort to discover these stories and more research, usually. They don’t land on your desk; they don’t appear on the police scanner. That’s why you need to build in the editorial habit to look for [solutions] stories, because if you don’t, you will continuously miss them.

NationSwell: How do you keep solutions stories from veering into the territory of advocacy? For example, you can say that in the U.S., gun violence is a problem. Most solutions stories would probably highlight organizations that are working to reduce gun violence (editor’s note: NationSwell has published several). But the reaction we see from some gun-rights supporters is to accuse us of trying to suppress the second amendment. How do you balance those two things?

Bornstein: I would say the main thing is to report on lots of different ways communities are reducing violence, [whether] by making it harder for certain types of people to get guns, or by policing approaches that use epidemiological tactics to try to anticipate where and when gun violence is going to occur, and head it off at the pass. The point is not to advocate for any one approach, but to look at all the options, and to associate options with the evidence.

Journalists should not be in the business of picking winners, but we should be in the business of furnishing as many options as possible, so people can deliberate with all the information they need. Every community should be aware of the full range of options that are available to solve the problems that are most pressing.

“If journalists don’t give people news that strengthens their ability to be effective and compassionate citizens, people won’t consume it very much.”

NationSwell: How can solutions-oriented reporting engage and impact people in a way that traditional reporting does not?

Bornstein: News avoidance is on the rise, because it’s very difficult to turn on the TV or look at your screen and see 50 stories that are all really stressful and depressing about the economy, about climate change, about the rise of polarization, or about populism or bigotry or violence. People will eventually stop engaging, which is what researchers are finding.

The simplest thing journalists can do is to tell the whole story. When you’re covering society, do you only cover the pathology? Or do you also look at responses and efforts to solve problems, which are quite abundant in most areas? We’ve rarely come across issues that you can’t report through a solutions lens. And when you do that, people might say, “Oh, wow, we have a really big problem with gun violence in our country. And look, there’s also about 300 different things that communities are trying to do to reduce gun violence.” You could get fatalistic and say, “Well, none of that seems to make a difference to Congress.” Or you can say, “But boy, there are a lot of communities that actually are safer today than they were five years ago, so let’s look at what happened there.” So you can give people information that enables them to engage and have a sense of control, efficacy, and curiosity.

Because people really do want to build a better world. It’s a very strong human impulse to have control over your life and over your community, and, in a way, be able to shape things with your aspirations. If journalists don’t give people news that strengthens their ability to be effective and compassionate citizens, people won’t consume it very much.

NationSwell: As local newsrooms shrink, are you worried about the sustainability of solutions journalism?

Bornstein: No, I’m actually worried if local newsrooms don’t start providing their communities with news they really value and are willing to pay for, those local newsrooms may go out of business. I think the number one thing news organizations have to do today to become more economically viable is to change the product, you know?

In survey after survey, when people are asked, “How does the news land on you?” they say, “It makes me feel depressed, it makes me feel powerless, and I don’t know if I can trust it.” Which are the top three reasons that the Reuters Institute has said people are avoiding the news. So basically you have a product called news that in its normal consumption makes people feel depressed and powerless. And then the news organizations’ response is to say, “And gosh, you won’t even pay for it.”

But if the product, over time, gives people information that helps them to be more powerful and creative as citizens, they will buy it. Just like people pay a ton of money to go to college, and a ton of money sometimes to go to conferences. People pay for knowledge when that knowledge is really useful to them. Question is: Why won’t people pay for the news? They’re not considering it useful knowledge at some level where they would pay for it.

NationSwell: A lot of people, as you alluded to, don’t trust the media because they think it’s biased. Why do you think that sentiment persists, and how does solutions journalism fit into that bigger picture?

Bornstein: Well, there are a lot of biases in media, and the bias we always look at is political bias, whether it’s a liberal or conservative newsroom. But the main bias in journalism is the bias that says a problem is newsworthy, and a response to a problem is not.

When we go around the country and speak to reporters in small towns, we say, “What do you think of the national news about your community? Is it accurate?” And they’ll say, “It’s usually pretty accurate, but it’s also not really fully true.” Especially if you go to the South, people say, “The national news always makes us look like a bunch of dumb yokels. You come to Alabama to cover us when Alabama can be made fun of.” And so you can look through newspapers for the last 20 years to see how many stories about things happening in Alabama in the national press look at the creativity, the agency, and the problem-solving acumen of the people in that state. And you will probably come up pretty empty-handed.

NationSwell: We’re obviously living through a time of profound division and partisanship. Do you think solutions journalism has the potential to bring people together for a common cause?

Bornstein: First of all, people have to learn how to talk to each other. We commissioned an article last year called “Complicating the Narratives,” which really looked at how journalists, or anybody, can listen and interview differently in order to develop a deeper understanding of people with whom they disagree. Those are skills that many people lack, including many journalists who end up, through the course of normal interviewing and reporting, pushing people into their corners.

But the lens of solutions journalism is an interesting one. If you look at a problem — like a school’s low graduation rate, or how to care for children who’ve experienced trauma — and you lay out 10 different responses to that problem, you’ll find that most of the time, the ideas and models put forward are not that ideologically divisive. If something is working people are like, “Yeah, that makes sense.”

It’s really the national-level frames on federal policy that are extraordinarily divisive, and we keep the focus on them all the time. When we shift the focus to local problem-solving, it’s amazing how much more trust and agreement and common ground people can find. By focusing on local-level problem-solving and the solutions that really do make a difference in people’s lives, journalism will rebuild trust. And it will reduce polarization: as a matter of fact, I know that to be true. I’ve seen it.

This interview has been condensed and edited. To support the Solutions Journalism Network’s mission with a donation, click here.

How to Stop Sexism From Ruining Your Kids

If you consider yourself a progressive parent, you’ve probably been riding the gender-neutrality train for a while, making a concentrated effort to let your boys and girls be … well, whatever it is they want to be.
For everyone else, the rise of headline-grabbing movements like the Women’s March and #MeToo has made discussions around sexism, and the effect it can have on their children’s future, part of the broader parenting zeitgeist. Which is a good thing: Research has shown that children raised in egalitarian households are less aware of gender stereotyping at age 4 than kids whose parents endorse more traditional gender roles.
By now, parents of all stripes pretty much know that old-school fairy-tales and video games can breed gender bias. But there is still much more moms and dads can do to keep their children from picking up on the social cues that lead to gender inequalities. Here, salient advice for raising kids who will push back against sexism, at any age.


What’s Happening: Babies’ brains are sponges, but not haphazard ones. Little minds rely on select experiences to fine-tune their social navigation. “Even before infants are able to physically mimic behaviors, areas of their brain are ‘rehearsing’ and mimicking behaviors they observe,” says Dr. Laura Jana, a pediatrician and the author of “The Toddler Brain. “Social interaction between babies and caring, responsive adults — most often their parents — influences the connecting of neurons in the developing brain.”
What You Can Do: For starters, keep you baby registry gender neutral. Otherwise you’re pretty much encouraging stereotypes right out of the womb. That’s not to say that dressing your daughter in a pink romper dooms her as a future feminist, but a playroom full of kitchen sets and dolls does send a certain message. Even subtle behaviors can impact your child’s future interests and actions. “Avoid defaulting to stereotypical gender-specific praise and descriptions,” Jana says. For instance, girls shouldn’t always be “pretty” and “sweet,” and boys don’t get to be “brave” and “strong” by default; by the time babies reach their first birthday, they’re already paying attention to these kinds of loaded words.  


What’s Happening: Toddlers have been shown to demonstrate a preference for their own gender. They also tend to attribute more positive qualities to kids of the same gender and more negative traits to those of the other gender. “Figuring out categories is as fundamental as you can get in terms of cognitive processes,” says Lise Eliot, a professor of neuroscience at Rosalind Franklin University and the author of “Pink Brain, Blue Brain.” “It helps organize your experiences if things are similar, or not.”
What You Can Do: Be mindful of gender bias come bedtime. Almost 60 percent of main characters in children’s storybooks are male (or male animals), according to a 2011 study in the journal Gender & Society. “Female underrepresentation in children’s books may contribute to a sense of importance and wide-ranging possibilities among boys, and consequently, a sense of unimportance and more limited possibilities among girls,” says study author Janice McCabe, an associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College.
Even well-meaning moms and dads may be desensitized to the over-dominance of male characters, especially if they are reading to a boy. In wanting their child to relate to the story, parents often don’t realize there’s a lack of female characters. “Discuss the absence of female characters with children as young as 2,” says McCabe. “By doing so, the inequality will not remain invisible, and you’ll also encourage critical thinking and media literacy.”
The prevalence of male-centered storytelling could be driven by the notion that girls are interested in boy things, but boys aren’t interested in girl things — and that’s unfortunate. “Parents are afraid [boys] will lose something by being associated with girls so it’s not as OK for boys to read books about girls, as opposed to the other way around,” says Eliot.
But that ultimatum is simply not true. Instead, try expanding your narratives. NationSwell’s suggestions: Interstellar Cinderella,” about a futuristic heroine who prefers a wrench to a tiara; Little Feminist,” a mini board-book series depicting notable femmes like Frida Kahlo and Rosa Parks; “Made by Raffi,” a tale of a shy, but ingenious boy whose knitting skills save the day; and Clive and His Babies,” which tells the story of a boy and his two dolls (Clive’s adventures continue in a series of books about his bags, hats and art).

One study has shown that almost 60 percent of central characters in children’s books are male. As such, experts recommend being mindful when it comes to gender bias during story time.


What’s Happening: While gender stereotyping seems to peak between ages 5 and 6, just two years later ideas regarding gender roles become less rigid. That’s because at this age, youngsters tend to process information on a case-by-case basis, instead of the overarching group stereotype honed in their preschool years. By the time a child is 7, she or he realizes that femininity and masculinity are not hard rules assigned by gender.
What You Can Do: Step it up as a role model. “Children in this age group are much more focused on their own world — their family and their parents’ ideas — than the external world,” says Richard Horowitz, a parenting and family coach in Palm Harbor, Fla. “It is crucial to shape views and attitudes during the elementary years.”
But you can’t reinforce gender-agnostic values part-time. Take each parent’s job, for example. No matter if one folds laundry at home while the other trades stocks from a fancy corner office, treating each path with dignity ensures your kids won’t think one is more important than the other. When alternate opinions and media try to interfere, back up your assertions: While watching TV together, for instance, call out blatant sexist jokes (network sitcoms like “Modern Family,” “2 Broke Girls” and “The Big Bang Theory” are all guilty). “If kids can’t talk about stereotypes with their parents,” Horowitz says, “then they are more likely to be manipulated by mass culture.”


What’s Happening: The hormone soup is brewing, and it’s contributing to more than just teens slamming their bedroom doors and yelling, “Leave me alone!” Puberty is also a time when the feel-good oxytocin shoots up. This hormone boosts your kids’ proclivity for social bonding and cements positive memories from social interactions.
What You Can Do: Encourage the socialization that teenagers crave, including their interest in the opposite sex. “Chauvinism begins with [gender] segregation,” says Eliot. “Each group starts objectifying the opposite gender and that’s where stereotypes come into play.” What’s more, when a boy doesn’t see girls in charge — whether that’s as the female president of his civics club or the de facto leader of his social group — he is more likely to balk at female leadership as an adult. Says Eliot, “If boys don’t have this experience, a female leader just ‘doesn’t feel right’ to them.”

5 Policies That States Are Using to Curb Gun Violence, With Encouraging Results

On average, nearly 34,000 people are killed in the U.S. each year due to gun homicide, suicide or accidents, with another 81,000 who are shot but survive. But zeroing in on the causes of gun violence, in order to thwart them, is no easy task. It’s not just about a glut of available firearms or how easy it is to obtain one. As the Center for American Progress pointed out in its 2016 Progress Index, there is a connected web of social and economic issues that can impact rates of violence in a community — persistent poverty and a lack of employment, to name a few.
That’s led several communities to take novel approaches to curb the bloodshed, either by expanding existing federal law or implementing new ideas altogether. Below, five policies put in place by cities and states around the country whose smart governance on guns is changing the landscape for the better.


Federal law already requires licensed firearms dealers to perform criminal background checks on prospective buyers. But unlicensed private sellers — who are responsible for about 40 percent of all gun sales in “no questions asked” transactions — are not legally bound to follow the same rules.
Since the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., six states (Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Oregon and Washington) have successfully closed this gap by passing and implementing these so-called universal background checks on every sale and transfer within their borders (including those purchased at gun shows and online) for all classes of firearms, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Nevada could soon be the seventh, but the state is currently undergoing a procedural dispute over the implementation of the measure.


Research has repeatedly shown a lethal link between domestic violence and gun violence in the U.S. In 2011, nearly two-thirds of women who were murdered were shot and killed by their intimate partners. “It’s a huge epidemic,” says Hannah Shearer, staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Under federal law, people convicted of a felony or domestic abuse cannot buy or own a gun. But there are some limitations to that measure, like defining a domestic abuser only as a spouse. To protect more women, some states, including six in 2017 alone, have strengthened federal law by expanding that definition to also encompass former dating partners.


The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives requires a federal license for those in the business of selling guns. But the law doesn’t mandate that dealers perform background checks on their employees, says Avery Gardiner, co-president at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “They also don’t train them to recognize signs of illegal gun trafficking, nor is a gun store even required to lock up its inventory at night,” she says.
In response, 15 states, along with Washington, D.C., have made state-issued licenses mandatory for gun dealers. Additionally, six states — California, Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington — now require gun stores to do background checks on employees.

Six states now require firearm dealers to perform background checks on their employees.


“Sometimes gun deaths in cities that are ethnically diverse get overlooked,” Shearer says, adding that instead, there’s a tendency to focus on mass shootings and rare events. But the reality is that deaths by guns happen every day across the country.
The Law Center published a report last year on promising approaches being implemented nationwide to reduce urban gun violence. One such city that’s seen success: Richmond, Calif.
In 2007, the Bay Area city was considered one of the country’s most dangerous. So officials there enacted intervention programs and policy reforms in response. They created a new agency, the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), to treat violence as a communicable disease and connected vulnerable residents to social services. As ONS’s director DeVone Boggan, a 2015 NationSwell AllStar, described the agency’s mission: “You’ve got to understand the nature of [violence], and you’ve got to understand the drivers of it” in order to combat it.
The results were impressive, with homicides in Richmond dipping by 2010. Three years later the city saw its murder rate fall from more than 40 homicides a year to 16, its lowest number in more than three decades.


A measure designed to keep guns away from people perceived at risk of harming themselves or others allows police, and sometimes family members, to ask the courts to intervene. Provided with enough evidence, a judge might temporarily deny a person’s access to guns if he or she is deemed to be a significant danger.
Connecticut was the first state to enact a version of this order in 1999, followed later by Indiana, California and Washington State. Others, including Oregon, are considering adopting similar bills. In 2016, researchers from Duke University led a study that found a measurable reduction in Connecticut’s suicide rate as a result of its risk-warrant policy.
“These laws have a huge potential for saving lives,” Shearer says, “because family members often notice warning signs that somebody is suicidal or homicidal before something really bad happens.”
Homepage photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.
Continue reading “5 Policies That States Are Using to Curb Gun Violence, With Encouraging Results”

How a Service Year Helps Turn Four Walls Into a Home

“A home, to me, is much more than four walls and a roof,” says Adam Hunt, a site supervisor for Habitat for Humanity in Charlotte, N.C. “I try to build homes — where you have Christmas and where you have birthdays, where you come home soaking wet after a rainy day, those kinds of things. That’s home.” As a child growing up in Lynn Haven, Fla., Hunt lived in a home built by Habitat for Humanity, an organization that constructs affordable housing and promotes home ownership for low-income families. While Hunt’s house was being built, he put in a 5-year-old’s version of “sweat equity” — picking up stray nails around the property — just like every other Habitat resident.
In this episode of NationSwell’s eight-part mini documentary series on service years, watch how AmeriCorps service year corps members help increase Habitat’s ability to provide affordable housing in Charlotte.
“[Habitat] meant a great deal of stability for myself and my family,” Hunt says. “I want to be able to give other families that same opportunity.”
NationSwell asks you to join our partnership with Service Year Alliance. Watch the video above and ask Congress to support federal funding for national service. Together, we can lead a national movement to give young Americans the opportunity to help bridge the divides in our country.

7 Things to Do to Help Others in a Blizzard

As a blizzard bears down on the East Coast, resist the urge to curl up under the covers until the snow stops falling. Thanks to Winter Storm Stella, you now have hours of free time at your disposal. Use them wisely: help out others.
Here’s how to make your snow day count.
You’ve heard this advice before, but it bears repeating.

  • Clear your sidewalk every couple of hours. Dig out a path that’s at least four feet wide. Your neighbor will appreciate being able to walk his dog without trudging through snow up to his knees. (Your back will also thank you.)
  • Look out for the elderly, disabled and homebound. Grab your shovel and remove the snow and ice from their sidewalks and driveways.
  • Check on your neighbors. Shoveling snow is particularly strenuous. Occasionally peek out and make sure they’re safe while clearing their driveway.
  • Don’t put yourself (or others) at risk. Download your utility’s app (most companies have one) and use it to report any outages or downed trees or power lines. Report non-emergencies to 311.
  • Know what to do with the white stuff. Clean off your car in your own driveway, making sure to sweep all the snow from its roof. Don’t throw snow into the roadway or into crosswalks and dig out fire hydrants and pedestrian ramps.

As local budgets continue to feel the pinch, funding for EMS and fire departments is drying up. Contact your local 911 crew and show your appreciation for their life-saving work by finding out what resources they’re in need of.
Instead of binge-watching Netflix all day long, commit two hours towards identifying a cause to support. Then, take action to help the homeless, eliminate food waste, protect immigrants or support wounded veterans.

Working Their Way to Independence

On a recent Monday afternoon, in an office tower in Manhattan, Judy Matthews sat around a table with three other domestic violence victims and talked about her résumé. Through a nonprofit, she’d recently taken a Microsoft Word course for the formatting, but Matthews, a black, middle-aged mother from Brooklyn, was worried about the content. The problem? A 10-year gap, the result of pressure from her abuser to drop out of the workforce.
“For the past decade, I spent most of my time near the window, while my husband went to work,” says Matthews. “I didn’t have any friends, and I didn’t have a career. I completed my degrees and I put them in a box. I didn’t know who I was, other than who [my husband] told me I was, which was a woman who’s got nothing to offer. It was a sense of: ‘Why did you even waste time going to school?’ That’s why I spent my time at the window, watching everybody else walk their kids to school, go to work, do everything they need to do.”
About a year and a half ago, Matthews (whose name, like other survivors quoted in this story, has been changed) packed a few belongings into a plastic Marshall’s bag and made her way to Sanctuary for Families, New York’s largest nonprofit for victims of domestic abuse, sex trafficking and other gender-based violence. There, she enrolled in the Economic Empowerment Program (EEP), a workforce-development program to help survivors regain the self-sufficiency and financial independence they lost during an abusive relationship. Today, Matthews, a victim of childhood sexual abuse who was once too scared to take the subway, has an internship with the city’s Human Resources Administration, which distributes public assistance.
Founded in 2011, EEP’s 15-week program prepares survivors for entry-level openings in fields with potential for significant career growth. During the first two weeks, sessions focus on workplace readiness: punctuality, email etiquette and proper attire, for example. But the bulk of EEP’s training focuses on math, literature and computer programs. Throughout, the women revise their résumés and practice mock job interviews.
“We don’t want them working in fast food or at a clothing chain. Not that those aren’t honorable work, but it can’t get a person off public assistance,” says Judy Harris Kluger, who was a New York State judge for 25 years before becoming Sanctuary’s executive director in 2014. After EEP, she says, “I hope they’re in a position to support their children; to live on their own in an apartment, not a shelter; and to find healthy relationships and people who care about them.”
Nationally, an estimated one in four women and one in seven men will experience serious violence at a partner’s hands. Within New York City, police responded to 279,051 domestic violence incidents in 2015 — roughly 32 calls every hour. For each of these victims, an intimate link binds her checkbook to the risk of abuse by her partner. When a couple’s finances are strained, the chance of violence triples. An abuser who can’t find work for months may lash out at his spouse, the one aspect of his life he can ruthlessly control. The victim, meanwhile, her bank account depleted, can’t afford to stay at a motel for a few nights, much less pay for her children’s basic needs or see a psychiatrist or divorce lawyer. Money, in other words, can force victims to stay with their abusers.

EEP participants attend classes in math, literature and computer skills, and receive guidance on resume-writing and office culture.

And when battered women do work, holding down a job is a constant struggle. In one survey, nearly two-thirds of victims said abuse interfered with their work performance. Of that group, two-fifths were harassed by a partner’s phone calls or in-person stalking. For others, the difficulty started before they even left home. To disrupt a victim’s schedule, an abuser might deprive her of sleep, unplug the alarm clock, hide clothes or car keys, refuse to babysit the kids, cut and bruise her or physically bar the doorway. Distracted or depressed, these survivors showed up late or not at all; one study showed these women earn less as a whole.
Faced with these challenges, how does EEP perform? In its five years of operation, 564 survivors enrolled in the program, and nearly all of them — 88 percent — completed it. By the end, two-thirds of the graduates land internships or jobs. A year later, at least 65 percent of those alumnae report keeping the position. EEP aims to place enrollees in fields such as workplace administration, construction management and medical billing. On average, EEP graduates are paid $13.71 an hour, well above New York’s $8.75 minimum wage.
Angelo J. Rivera, EEP’s director, believes the model works because it establishes a clear path off welfare. When a person starts the program, Rivera’s team sits down with a chart of seven “keys,” which demonstrate career readiness and includes benchmarks like reaching a 10th-grade reading level, earning a high school diploma or GED, and gaining intermediate computer skills and prior work experience. (On average, participants enter with only three or four of these skill sets.)
To start meeting the seven keys, EEP readies survivors for office culture, beginning with how they dress. At the program’s start, each class heads to Macy’s to pick out a suit and two blouses, which they’re required to wear to class on Mondays and Wednesdays. Dressing professionally — or in other words, putting on the appearance of success — is an important first step in the transition to the business world, explains Sarah Hayes, EEP’s deputy director. “A number are homeless and living in shelters. They’ve had to leave their possessions behind to flee an abusive situation,” she says. “Being able to put on a suit is dignifying. They don’t feel like they’re different from anyone else traipsing around Wall Street. It’s a powerful anonymity that you get to wear, and it helps you envision yourself as the professional that you want to be.”
Once they look the part, the women in EEP run through a crash course in sophistication, in part by catching up on well-known literature. Under Rivera, the reading list is a guide to power relations: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Animal Farm” and writings by James Baldwin. The group also recently toured the Metropolitan Museum of Art, many for the first time.
Though EEP’s classes avoid discussions of the women’s abusive relationships — a marked shift from other social programs that deal with trauma through support groups — counseling and other services are available at Sanctuary. Immigrants who need work authorization can seek remedies from the legal team, for example, and someone facing an eviction can receive emergency monetary assistance and defense in housing court.
But there’s another reason why EEP so clearly divides its efforts from the rest of Sanctuary’s services. Below the surface, EEP’s architects have an ambitious plan: To see their workforce-development program applied to other demographics, like foster youth, single mothers in public housing and the formerly incarcerated. The victims of gender-based violence that Rivera sees regularly come in believing they are worthless, after hearing it repeatedly from their abusers. The 15-week program works to reverse that by convincing battered women they’re worth a decent salary and empowering them to work their way to independence. The question for Rivera and his cohorts now is whether the EEP model can uplift other struggling populations toiling under their own trying circumstances.
If you are experiencing physical violence, emotional abuse or financial control at home, you can call 800-621-HOPE in New York City, 877-384-3578 in San Francisco or 800-799-7233 for all other locations.

10 Innovative Ideas That Propelled America Forward in 2016

The most contentious presidential election in modern history offered Americans abundant reasons to shut off the news. But if they looked past the front page’s daily jaw-droppers, our countrymen would see that there’s plenty of inspiring work being done. At NationSwell, we strive to find the nonprofit directors, the social entrepreneurs and the government officials testing new ways to solve America’s most intractable problems. In our reporting this year, we’ve found there’s no shortage of good being done. Here’s a look at our favorite solutions from 2016.

This Woman Has Collected 40,000 Feminine Products to Boost the Self-Esteem of Homeless Women
Already struggling to afford basic necessities, homeless women often forgo bras and menstrual hygiene products. Dana Marlowe, a mother of two in the Washington, D.C., area, restored these ladies’ dignity by distributing over 40,000 feminine products to the homeless before NationSwell met her in February. Since then, her organization Support the Girls has given out 212,000 more.
Why Sleeping in a Former Slave’s Home Will Make You Rethink Race Relations in America
Joseph McGill, a Civil War re-enactor and history consultant for Charleston’s Magnolia Plantation in South Carolina, believes we must not forget the history of slavery and its lasting impact to date. To remind us, he’s slept overnight in 80 dilapidated cabins — sometimes bringing along groups of people interested in the experience — that once held the enslaved.

This Is How You End the Foster Care to Prison Pipeline
Abandoned by an abusive dad and a mentally ill mom, Pamela Bolnick was placed into foster care at 6 years old. For a time, the system worked — that is, until she “aged out” of it. Bolnick sought help from First Place for Youth, an East Bay nonprofit that provides security deposits for emancipated children to transition into stable housing.

Would Your Opinions of Criminals Change if One Cooked and Served You Dinner?
Café Momentum, one of Dallas’s most popular restaurants, is staffed by formerly incarcerated young men without prior culinary experience. Owner Chad Houser says the kitchen jobs have almost entirely eliminated recidivism among his restaurant’s ranks.

This Proven Method Is How You Prevent Sexual Assault on College Campuses
Nearly three decades before Rolling Stone published its incendiary (and factually inaccurate) description of sexual assault at the University of Virginia, a gang rape occurred at the University of New Hampshire in 1987. Choosing the right ways to respond to the crisis, the public college has since become the undisputed leader in ending sex crimes on campus.

This Sustainable ‘Farm of the Future’ Is Changing How Food Is Grown
Once a commercial fisherman, Bren Smith now employs a more sustainable way to draw food from the ocean. Underwater, near Thimble Island, Conn., he’s grown a vertical farm, layered with kelp, mussels, scallops and oysters.

This Former Inmate Fights for Others’ Freedom from Life Sentences
Jason Hernandez was never supposed to leave prison. At age 21, a federal judge sentenced him to life for selling crack cocaine in McKinney, Texas — Hernandez’s first criminal offense. After President Obama granted him clemency in 2013, he’s advocated on behalf of those still behind bars for first-time, nonviolent drug offenses.

Eliminating Food Waste, One Sandwich (and App) at a Time
In 2012, Raj Karmani, a Pakistani immigrant studying computer science at the University of Illinois, built an app to redistribute leftover food to local nonprofits. So far, the nonprofit Zero Percent has delivered 1 million meals from restaurants, bakeries and supermarkets to Chicago’s needy. In recognition of his work, Karmani was awarded a $10,000 grant as part of NationSwell’s and Comcast NBCUniversal’s AllStars program.

Baltimore Explores a Bold Solution to Fight Heroin Addiction
Last year, someone in Baltimore died from an overdose every day: 393 in total, more than the number killed by guns. Dr. Leana Wen, the city’s tireless public health commissioner, issued a blanket prescription for naloxone, which can reverse overdoses, to every citizen — the first step in her ambitious plan to wean 20,000 residents off heroin.

How a Fake Ad Campaign Led to the Real-Life Launch of a Massive Infrastructure Project
Up until 1974, a streetcar made daily trips from El Paso, Texas, across the Mexican border to Ciudad Juárez. Recently, a public art project depicting fake ads for the trolley inspired locals to call for the line’s comeback, and the artist behind the poster campaign now sits on the city council.

Continue reading “10 Innovative Ideas That Propelled America Forward in 2016”

After a Devastating Scandal, Can Reformers Clean Up Atlanta’s Schools?

On April 2, 2013, wearing a pearl necklace and earrings, Atlanta’s former school superintendent Beverly Hall tilted her head for a mug shot. After a state investigation into cheating on standardized tests, a grand jury had indicted the one-time “National Superintendent of the Year,” along with 34 principals, teachers and testing coordinators, for posting illegitimate gains in struggling schools. In total, 185 educators were implicated in the scandal.
A jury eventually delivered 11 convictions on racketeering charges; Hall herself died of breast cancer before standing trial. But the sight of the district’s top employee marching into the Fulton County jail had a more immediate effect: Four young Teach for America (TFA) alumni all made bids to run in the school board race, just seven months away. The former TFA corps members included an incumbent — Courtney English, 31, a Morehouse alum who’d taught seventh-grade social studies in the same Northwest Atlanta classroom where he’d once taken the class — and three newcomers: Matt Westmoreland, 29, a high school history teacher whose father served as a county judge; Jason Esteves, 33, a lawyer from Texas running to be the board’s only Latino representative; and Eshe’ Collins, 36, also a lawyer with a passion for early childhood education.
Opponents warned of “a shadow conspiracy aimed at turning [Atlanta Public Schools] into an all-charter system,” as the city’s alt-weekly described it. Yet the fresh faces promised to fix a system that had lost its constituents’ trust. Despite only having served one term, English’s vision for comprehensive services, vocal calls for transparency during the cheating scandal and backing from TFA’s political arm won him Atlanta voters’ approval. He credits a mission of “keep[ing] it about the kids” for racking up his 23-point margin of victory. Esteves and Collins both triumphed in runoffs. (Westmoreland went unchallenged.) When the board, stacked with six new members, sat for their first meeting, a crowd of 200 admirers erupted in a standing ovation. English was unanimously selected leader — making him, at 28 years old, the youngest chairman in the district’s history. “It was a brand-new day in APS,” English recalls.
Far from the national spotlight, these four school board officials define Teach for America’s long-term strategy. The stated goal of the nonprofit, which placed 3,400 recent college grads in struggling public schools this year alone, is not to recruit career educators. (Indeed, you won’t find the word “teaching” anywhere in TFA’s mission statement.) Rather, the organization seeks to groom “future leaders” who will head a nationwide “movement for educational equity and excellence.” That coalition takes shape when former corps members, like English and Westmoreland, step away from the chalkboard and run for elected office.
The board’s decisions in Atlanta — where the newly elected seized a rare “opportunity to press the restart button on a school system,” as Esteves puts it — afford the clearest view of TFA’s mission in practice. In the South’s biggest city, the organization proved its former teachers could win elections and reshape an entire district. In 2015, the first full school year after the new board’s arrival, graduation rates shot up by 12 points. Meanwhile, charter enrollments since 2013 also increased by one-third. Whether those reforms have been effective or not will be judged by the voters in 2017.
Critics regularly lob attacks against Teach for America for turnover among its ranks of new teachers. But these opponents misunderstand the purpose of the 27-year-old organization. “All you have to do is teach in today’s schools to realize we will never solve this problem [of educational inequality] from within the classrooms alone. … We actually think some of these folks have to leave,” Wendy Kopp, TFA’s founder, told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2012. “We have a whole strategy around not only providing folks with the foundational experience during their two years with us, but also then accelerating their leadership in ways that is strategic for the broader education reform movement.” If TFA members are in law firms, hedge funds and hospitals, Westmoreland explains, their classroom experience will inform their decisions, the “things they might invest time and money in,” widening the coalition of those who care about schools beyond the people directly involved, like teachers and parents.
This long-term goal is instilled in corps members from the very first week of TFA’s summer training institute. “Before you start teaching, they’re already talking about your work as alumni,” says T. Jameson Brewer, a former corps member who’s since co-authored a book critical of TFA. Brewer recalled the executive director of the Atlanta branch saying he wanted TFA alums in leadership positions at all levels, from a high percentage of new principal hires and every seat on the local school board, all the way up to a sitting Supreme Court justice. (The director asked Brewer, who’d previously managed a gubernatorial campaign, to throw his name in to the school board race. He declined.)
Brewer questions whether the experience gained with TFA qualifies a person for those roles. “The idea is that you give these folks some manufactured expertise, that being a teacher in the trenches for two years somehow makes them an expert in policy or leadership,” he says. “For most people, I think that should be very troubling.”
Despite any qualms voters might have, TFA has proved very effective at propelling a number of its teachers into leadership positions. Leveraging assets worth $440 million and a 46,000-member alumni network, TFA alums currently occupy the offices of the state superintendent in Louisiana and North Carolina, the state education board in Nevada, the school board president’s chair in Los Angeles and seats on the board in Chicago, San Jose and Stockton, Calif.
Most of that work can be traced back to TFA’s sister organization, Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE), a nonpartisan leadership-development program for former corps members founded in 2007. The nonprofit group, which is keen to note it does not endorse any specific policy prescriptions, organizes some 30,000 alums to translate their TFA experience into laws and regulations, whether it’s mobilizing voters through grassroots campaigns, attending summer fellowships, mentoring younger members or sharing policy ideas at conferences. A select few actually run themselves, and they’re supported by LEE’s donors and consultants. Nationwide, there’s now over a hundred LEE members in elected office, organizing roles and policy-making positions.

“Today, there are many children in our country not receiving the education they deserve, and for a long time a movement has been building to address this problem in a systemic way,” says Michael Buman, LEE’s executive director. “This movement is diverse in many ways; it includes students, parents, teachers, advocates, and many, many others. LEE develops the leadership of Teach for America corps members and alumni to be a part of this movement.”

In the run up to the 2013 election in Atlanta, the organization gave the equivalent of $4,300 in services to the school-board campaigns. Simultaneously, money flowed in from Arthur Rock, a venture capitalist and partner in a charter-school management company; Rebecca Ledley, whose husband Charles, a hedge-fund manager, started Democrats for Education Reform; and Joel Klein, the former head of New York City schools.


LEE’s public support, however small the contribution, drew fierce criticism. Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University, wrote in a blog post, “At some point, TFA will be recognized as a crucial cog in the rightwing effort to destroy public education and dismantle the teaching profession,” a contention she stood by when NationSwell checked in with her recently, deriding TFA as “the workforce for charters.”

The four TFA alumni, for their part, adamantly maintained they would not bow to anyone who pulled out their checkbook. (“We’re not going to jump in there and hand over control of the school system to some for-profit charter monster,” Westmoreland told the AJC during the 2013 campaign, adding, “If they come at me with an idea that I don’t think is in the best interest of everyone in the city, I’m going to say no.”) And they took umbrage at the idea that their TFA experience automatically connects them with a pro-charter agenda. “Most people underestimate the difference of opinions in the alumni base,” Esteves says, pointing to fellow corps members who oppose school reform. “TFA does not impact whether I go one way or the other. What it does is give me that perspective that everything I do impacts kids.”

True to their word, English and Westmoreland can hardly be accused of straight up selling out the district to private managers. While the total share of Atlanta students in charters has risen, it’s largely because those approved by previous boards continue to add grades each year, Westmoreland explains. Under their watch, the total number of charter schools has actually decreased by two. The board declined to renew the contract for Intown Charter due to struggling academic performance, and it refused to bail out Atlanta Latin Academy Charter, which went belly-up after half a million went missing in a suspected theft.
But on the flip side, they’ve made it easier for future charters to set up shop in the city. In their first major decision, they hired Dr. Meria Carstarphen, who’d previously led schools in Texas, as superintendent. The turnaround plan she proposed this year included giving control of the city’s five worst schools to charter operators. She’d tried the idea once before in Austin, where she pushed for an in-district charter to take over an elementary school. Yet a single year into the plan, the charter’s contract was promptly cancelled, after parents staged a revolt and booted the experiment’s supporters from the school board.
Westmoreland says he signed on to Carstarphen’s idea after talking with fellow corps members at an LEE conference in Washington, D.C. — a gathering where TFA alums who’ve crossed over into politics share “war stories,” as English puts it. In January 2014, Westmoreland chatted with representatives from Nashville, who’d created a hybrid model of a neighborhood school managed by an outside operator in 2011. The primary criticism against charters is that they appear to achieve higher results by taking the most motivated students out of district schools, then kicking out underperfomers. (English calls it “creaming the top and skimming the bottom.”) Nashville, by forcing the charter to accept every student within a fixed attendance zone, seemed to have stumbled on a new model that prevents an operator from cooking its numbers.
Despite an outcry over the swiftness with which Carstarphen enacted her plan — “The community feels like it’s being sold out,” one parent remarked — the proposal, backed by Westmoreland, won unanimous approval from the board. Its passage marked the first time a charter was hired to run a neighborhood school in Georgia. So far, Westmoreland reports, the school’s seen better attendance and fewer disciplinary issues under its new management.

Atlanta school board member Courtney English speaks at the Governing for Impact summit in Washington, D.C., in 2015.

Would English like to see more charters open in the district? He won’t say. “Parents want good schools, period. If you’re a parent, you’re not thinking about the politics of education reform. You’re asking, ‘How can I help my third-grader get the best education possible?’ And I think when we speak to that, the other stuff becomes noise,” he says. “I’m not for more of one thing or the other. It is how you get more good schools faster” of any kind, he adds.
Next year, Atlanta’s Teach for America network will set its sights on a higher office, as both Westmoreland and English plan to run for Atlanta’s city council. In November, Westmoreland, who currently oversees programming to prevent summer learning loss at a nonprofit, will compete for an open seat, while English, now chief education officer of an ed-tech company, will duel with an incumbent councilman. Both will try to capitalize on a number of accomplishments during their school board tenure.
Westmoreland, as chair of the budget committee, is particularly proud of redirecting money away from administrators in the central office, hitting a high of 66 cents on every dollar being devoted to classroom use. He also won goodwill by providing teachers long overdue raises that had been frozen after the economic downturn in 2008.
English can also point to some big budget wins. This spring, voters approved a penny sales tax, which is expected to bring in $464 million to fund school construction. He also settled a longstanding dispute with Atlanta’s BeltLine over $162 million the school system was owed for its share of property tax diverted to funding the 22-mile loop. Another boast for English: a jump in graduation rates. When he joined the board in 2009, just over half of students graduated; in the seven years since, that number has jumped to 71 percent. (Part of this improvement resulted from doing away with exit exams as a graduation requirement; statewide, the rate increased 6 percent after the change.)
With those accomplishments under their belts, it’s a little surprising that English and Westmoreland still talk up their TFA experience, when the issue has proven polarizing. In highlighting their service, the debate becomes a referendum on Wendy Kopp’s idea; the men’s political capital rises and falls as the organization’s does. Their explanation? That TFA profoundly affected their worldview, and both now feel the obligation to give credit where it’s due.
English says TFA gave him an “opportunity to give back to the city that had given so much to me.” Westmoreland agrees. “I wouldn’t be on the school board and I wouldn’t have become a teacher if it weren’t for Teach for America. That organization and the experience I had at Carver [a public high school] and on the board really instilled in me how important this concept of equity is,” he says. “My takeaway is that if Teach for America’s idea was how to put passionate folks in the classroom, LEE’s was what we do with them if they choose to leave it. Either way, it’s how to make sure that whatever they do, they’re always thinking of equity.”

5 Super-Easy Ways to Use Your Holiday Dollars for Good

The average American plans to spend $752 on Christmas presents this year. That frenzy of gift-buying nets corporations (including some naughty ones) hundreds of billions of dollars. During that four-week shopping spree, from Black Friday to Christmas Eve, it can be tough to find a moment to research where all your cash is going — and, by extension, what business practices your purchases might endorse. NationSwell selected five apps, all available for free in the iTunes App Store, to help you shop responsibly. After all, you don’t want to find coal in your stocking come Christmas morning, now do you?

1. See what other socially conscious consumers think

Scan a barcode, and OpenLabel will give you the crowd-sourced lowdown on the item in hand. The Yelp-like reviews — which touch on everything from environmental sustainability to labor practices — aren’t fact-checked, but a system of up-voting puts the most helpful reviews at the top. See an un-reviewed product? Add your own slant to the growing mix.

2. Support companies that support women

Data on gender equality is tough to find online. How many women hold leadership positions in a given company? How many weeks of maternity leave does a business’s policies guarantee? Does its advertising reinforce gender stereotypes? Buy Up Index Index has your answers. Use this app to determine whether 120 popular corporations are worthy of women’s purchasing power.

3. Know which political party you’re backing

With its ruling on the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court allowed independent political action committees to raise unlimited sums from corporations. (In the past year, these super PACs spent $1.1 billion to influence the election.) BuyPartisan, an app built by a former Capitol Hill staffer, compiles data on campaign contributions so you can see if a company’s CEO, board of directors or a corporate PAC is funding a candidate you oppose.

 4. Join a campaign for change

Voting with your dollar is essential. But a company might not know you’re doing so, unless you explicitly tell them. On Buycott, you can join user-generated campaigns that will tell you which products to avoid. Whether the Koch Brothers or Kellogg’s are the objects of your ire, you’ll find plenty of others to join you in protest here.

5. Shop at ethically responsible companies

Worn out from all this research into the byzantine world of corporate ownership? DoneGood makes it easy to target mission-driven sellers. Select a value you prize — “green,” “locally sourced,” “gives back” — and you’ll see a list of businesses that match your criteria. Several vendors offer discounts if you find them through the app.

This Chef Has Been Putting Food Sustainability on the Table for Decades

Back in 2007, there were only two farmers’ markets in the country that offered a special deal for poor families: one in New York City and another in Columbia Heights, Md. That’s before Michel Nischan, a James Beard Award-winning chef long associated with the sustainable food movement, got involved. His grassroots organization, the nonprofit Wholesome Wave, helped persuade Congress to provide low-income families with extra bucks if they bought healthy, local fare. NationSwell spoke to Nischan by phone about his efforts to end food insecurity.
Wholesome Wave aspires to make healthy, local food more affordable to low-income shoppers. How have you accomplished that goal?
The target of our activity is federal dollars. The average person’s benefit through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) is about $4.20 a day — and that’s to spend on breakfast, lunch and dinner. When that’s all you have to spend on food, you’re really forced to make choices that you might not want to make.
The 2014 Farm Bill included the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program, with $100 million dollars in federal funding that has to be matched in full from the private sector to double SNAP dollars spent on fruits and vegetables. We wanted to level the playing field between healthy food and artificially inexpensive foods, like instant rice and noodles or snack chips, which are cheaper because of agriculture policies, tax breaks for large manufacturing facilities and transportation subsidies that scaled system enjoys. We raised private money to double SNAP and started with fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets. The message to the consumer was “Spend your SNAP on anything you want, but if you come over here [to the farmers’ market], you double your money.”
Why do fruits and vegetables often cost more than less healthy foods?
The major reason some foods are so incredibly inexpensive is the public support for soy, corn, rice and wheat. Cereal companies often pay a price that is below the cost of production. After world wars I and II, these crops were favored as the future, and we produced a lot of them, because whichever country or ally bloc had the most food for its marching armies would be the one to win a war. When we learned how to process food to make it last 10 years, how to make it lighter so it’s cheaper to transport, how to put nitrogen and phosphorous and potassium in the ground so things would miraculously grow, we felt secure. And we also thought we could end starvation and feed the world. In that compelling moment, it was really easy to get the American public and Congress on board. It wasn’t to give one sector an unfair advantage, but those systems are still in place. It’s kind of a false economy; it’s not a true free market. [The question now is], how do we create a case to shift all of that public money that goes to funding these artificially inexpensive foods, which we now know are not good for us and the environment, to the types of foods that are good?
What has building this grassroots organization taught you about leadership?
We need people to understand what they can align on. What I’ve learned over the years — and I think this is endemic in our society — is that we only want to work with people who think just like we do. Whether it’s in business or nonprofits, you’d much prefer working with someone who shares your core values. People ask us, “Is Wholesome Wave anti-GMO?” Why are you asking us that question? We’re about affordable access. Let’s align on that. If the thing you deeply, personally believe in is migrant farm-worker rights, equitable access to land or a ban on GMOs, work on those things. But there are other ways, while we’re doing our work, to come together on food justice.
What can the rest of us do to help further this movement?
I think food is one of the most powerful lenses to evaluate the quality of a lawmaker when we’re going to the polls. What’s their stance on abortion or marriage equality? All of those are important things and informed by deeply held religious beliefs. But if you’re going to take a meal a day off the table of a child by eliminating nutrition in schools, or you say that you don’t see the point of paying for healthcare in schools, you’re probably a jerk. How they vote on food and hunger is a great lens into their soul. Personally, I want an honorable, good person in office making decisions on my behalf. When you show up to vote, make sure you know what these folks do with food votes. You can go on Food Policy Action, put in your zip code and get a score for your representatives based on how they vote on food issues.
What books would you recommend to read up on the current system?
I’d recommend Michael Pollan’s “Botany of Desire,” Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America,” Mas Masumoto’s “Wisdom of the Last Farmer,” and “Fair Food” by Oran B. Hesterman. Still, none of those really touches on the potential power of changing the decision you make at the grocery store. Food has the amazing potential to fix human health, the environment, our economy and our society, and people need to be inspired.
What other innovations are you excited about right now?
With the advent of the Affordable Care Act, we see an opportunity in the way Medicare and Medicaid dollars are spent, now that we’re shifting to more of a prevention culture rather than a fee-for-service model. We could potentially see billions of dollars put toward creating a fruit-and-vegetable prescription program. [In 2011, Wholesome Wave launched the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program to encourage healthcare providers to prescribe fresh produce to patients.] Doctors, nutritionists and nurse practitioners can work together to diagnose an at-risk patient, work to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables, and then measure that for health outcomes.
It’s actually less expensive to feed a family of four fruits and vegetables for 20 years than it is to have one person go on dialysis for four years. Dialysis from diabetes and kidney failure is the most expensive line-item in Medicare and Medicaid. And if we could get certain healthy food item SKUs coded as reimbursable for prevention, that would unlock billions of dollars and affordability for the country’s 66 million food-insecure people who are having difficulty making the lifestyle changes to prevent diseases that cost us over half a trillion dollars a year.