Sunday, July 25, 2010

Breaking the cycle

Last week, while catching up on my This American Life podcasts, I listened to a story from 2008 about Geoffrey Canada's work in Harlem. He had noticed that the things most middle-class, suburban parents know about raising children were nowhere to be found in inner city families. He wondered whether the secret for breaking the cycle of poverty could actually be teaching inner city parents about raising and educating children and providing children better educational experiences. So, he started the Harlem Children's Zone. In 1997, HCZ brought programs to a 24-block area in Harlem, and the project grew to 100 blocks in 2007. Today, the project serves more than 8,000 and 6,000 adults and includes Baby College, which works with parents and their newborns, Harlem Gems, a preschool program, and the Promise Academy, a public charter school. The organization also provides programs to help people manage their asthma and fight obesity. When the first kids in the program took their assessment tests, they ranked above the state average, which shows that the program could be working. The hope is that the kids in these programs will graduate from high school, perhaps go to college, and delay parenthood until they are financially and mentally ready to be parents. And when they do become parents, hopefully they will employ the same child-rearing techniques their parents learned and used.

The program is old news by now - Sunday Morning featured it last year, Geoffrey Canada was on The Colbert Report, and while preparing the FY2010 budget, President Obama proposed including $10 million for the 20 Promise Neighborhoods program, which will replicate the HCZ program in 20 cities across the country. But it's worth talking about again and again, because this new model could be the approach that actually works for fighting poverty.

For more information about the program and its success, start first with Act One from the Going Big podcast, and then read the book written by the podcast's narrator, Paul Tough, called Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Old Missouri adventures

I'm in St. Louis for a conference this week. It feels strangely good to be back in the Midwest. I was worried that I hadn't brought nice enough clothing, annoyed that I was all bloated from the long heat wave and high humidity, insecure about my general lack of trendiness and my clothes that I worry scream "Limited Budget!", because that's how I generally feel in DC. Then all the St. Louisans got on the MetroLink to go to the Cardinals game, with their comfort-food Midwestern bodies (not necessarily fat, just normal-looking, not anorexic like on the East Coast) and their lack of being overly concerned about appearance. Then I felt better. Like I was home, back in a place that's much simpler.

The conference just started today, so I had much of the weekend to spend with old friends. Saturday night I got together with a friend from college who just married one of my Chicago friends - a fun merging of two worlds. Among the things we did that night was a trip to Ted Drewes, the best frozen custard place around. It's so good, Alton Brown visited it a few years ago during his "Feasting on Asphalt" series.

Sunday, we took a trip to Columbia, the ol' college town and home of many memories (some of which I'd like to forget), to walk around campus and visit with some other college friends who have had two children and conceived a third in the five years since I was there last. Their kids are great, and they are great parents. If I could be absolutely guaranteed that my children would be like that, I might give more consideration to becoming a parent myself.

Anyway, even after seeing the big changes on campus, around the downtown area, and in my friends' lives, it's nice to know that some things are still the same. I got quite nostalgic, feeling like I was back home where I belonged. My college friends and I joke around in ways that people on the East Coast don't seem comfortable with. Something about Midwestern sensibilities and the openness that comes with growing up in communities where people really get to know each other and talk about the things that really matter. It's too bad that Missouri is "fly-over country" to people on the East Coast, because I think the social and political atmosphere in this country would be different if Midwesterners weren't just seen as hoosiers, rednecks, farmers, or any of the other stereotypes that prevail. Being out here has just further solidified my need to get away from the Beltway. I never thought I'd get burned out on Washington DC, but after two years, it's happened.

The funny thing is, as much as I really love Missouri, I can't see myself moving back here. Why? There are lots of opportunities for outdoor recreation. There are Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and plenty of other organic/natural food options. According to my friend, there are few farmers' markets, which is puzzling, but not really limiting. There are young people who are professionals, smart, active, interesting. There is art, music, good food, plenty of good beer and wine - all things I enjoy. It's just not in your face like it is in major metropolitan areas. You have to look a little harder, and you have to drive everywhere. Perhaps my biggest concern is that I am a bit of an eco-snob. Yes, I'll admit it. People in Missouri are not necessarily eco-snobs. That kind of culture just isn't prevalent here. I was the silly hippie in my college days, and I'd be the silly hippie again if I moved back. For that reason alone, I was never fully content out here, and I just can't do that again. So, Missouri, I love you dearly and I promise to come visit more often. But I'm sorry, I just can't stay.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Missing the river

I just finished writing a paper for my class about a natural place that's special to me. I chose the Katy Trail/Missouri River in Missouri. It made me really miss the river. I haven't been back to Missouri since a brief trip in 2005, and I haven't really connected with the place since my week-long adventure in 2003. When I was in college in Missouri, I used to ride my bike on the trail along the river, seeking out solace and answers from the crunch of the gravel under tire and the slow whoosh of the muddy water echoing off the bluffs. I also wrote for a local newspaper about the management issues associated with the river and the threatened and endangered species that biologists were trying to protect.

This fall, it will be ten years since that semester at the newspaper. Knowing what I know now about watersheds, natural resource management and policy making, I wish I could go back and redo that semester. Rewrite those articles and write some new ones as well. Investigate more. Talk to more people. I was a budding environmentalist those ten years ago, and all I knew was that I wanted to protect the animals, but those darn corn growers and their barges got in the way. I didn't understand just how complex the issue was, and I didn't know what questions to ask. I didn't know how to be a journalist.

Writing this paper reminded me of how special that river is, and how much I enjoy writing when I can be a little creative with it. Government reports are not the least bit creative, I can tell you that much. I've been doubting my writing skills lately, and in fact had forgotten how much I enjoyed writing until now. Rachel Carson was a writer and a scientist, and she recognized that she had a special role to fill by writing about environmental issues in a passionate way that moved people to take a stand against pesticides and pollution. I still haven't found my role, still haven't figured out how I can have an impact. I just have to remember the river and hope that if I can keep my boat upright, eventually it will take me where I'm supposed to end up.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Savory summer

I resurrected my pepper plant, which I planted last year and harvested one small red pepper that was promptly mixed in a stir-fry. I kept it alive all winter, unwilling to trash a plant that seemed to be hanging in there. This spring, I added some organic fertilizer, gave it lots of love, and placed it on my fire escape to capture the sun's rays and hopefully a passing pollinator or two. It worked - I now have two peppers bulging out from the tall plant stalk. Every day I cheer it on, hoping that even in this ridiculous heat wave, I can have fresh, homegrown peppers in my fajitas instead of the $3.50-each store-bought kinds. I wish I had planted more veggies in my container garden this year. I got kind of discouraged after last year's flop, but maybe I'll try again for some cooler-weather goodies.

Speaking of fajitas, I marinated some chicken breasts in Whole Foods' brand Santa Fe marinade for 12 hours, then pan-cooked them whole. What a difference it makes. I cannot remember ever making such flavorful, juicy chicken. The garlic and herb flavor is tasty too - the last batch of chicken I made with this flavor turned into chicken salad with grapes and walnuts. I used to be against marinades but they just make life so much easier. And tastier.

Some other recent concoctions:
green bean and carrot salad with rice vinegar, toasted sesame oil, dried red pepper flakes, and salt
savory egg noodle kugel with shredded zucchini, mushrooms, and lentils (next time, with ricotta too)
smoothies with frozen spinach
sugar snap peas from the farmers market (perfect just as they are, no concocting needed)

It's hard to find inspiration to cook in this ridiculous heat, but as long as I'm going to be cooped up inside with the A/C blasting, may as well get creative. We'll see what this week's bounty brings.


A few weeks ago, I joined a large portion of my family in Hilton Head, South Carolina, for some beachy time and good eatin'. So much good eatin'. After five days I felt like the snake that ate the alligator, except I didn't split in half like the snake did. To work off some of the food we ate, my brother, sister-in-law, and I took a couple of afternoon trips to check out parts of the island that existed before the golf courses and touristy resorts moved in.

On one afternoon, we went to the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn. The house on the property showcases a history of the island, both natural and human, and included an exhibit of photography from around the Carolinas. The house sits along some salt marshes, and visitors can wander along a trail through the property that winds past some boardwalks overlooking the salt marsh, small gardens, some bee hives, an old barn, and even a native historical site that is being rebuilt. It was hot and muggy and totally made me miss North Carolina. We were there at low tide, and in the flat areas along the marsh, fiddler crabs scurried everywhere like roaches, the males waving their one giant claw to woo the ladies. We saw some herons wandering through the grasses and heard other birds chirping everywhere. A green anole scurried along a tree near us, and the butterfly garden was aflutter.

The best part for me though was when my sister-in-law and I saw a bluebird fly onto a low branch nearby. Neither of us had seen a bluebird in person before, and even though I'm the nature nerd of the group, we were both equally awed. I am always wowed by nature, but there's something so special about seeing nature through the eyes of someone else, especially if they're not the type to get excited about things like that.

The next day, we went to the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. Again, hot and muggy, even early in the morning. We were hoping to see some gators, but no luck. We did see about a gajillion birds at Ibis Pond. I couldn't get any good close-ups because I realized after the fact that the super zoom on my camera only works when I turn on the digital display panel, which I don't use because it soaks up battery power. I brought my binoculars, and it seemed like my brother and sister-in-law really enjoyed getting to see the birds way up close through them. Unless they get into wildlife watching or hang out with me more often, they might not get to do that very often. I recognize that not everyone feels the need to experience nature as much as I do, but I hope that the experiences they had those two days made a difference to them. It gave me a new perspective on my volunteer work at the zoo as well, where most visitors will just walk through the exhibit without much afterthought, but a few might take away something meaningful from what they learned there.

Last weekend I hiked through Little Bennett Regional Park in Maryland, where I discovered some other new things, like the crayfish in the stream that eyed me and then scurried under a rock when I bent down to wash my hands after lunch. And the white-tailed deer that snorted and whined as it high-tailed it away from the trail I was walking on. And the giant red-headed woodpecker that startled me when I was too busy examining the map. I caught a quick glimpse as it flew by, but I didn't have enough time to see enough of the bird to identify it. Shortly afterward, I realized that the woods in that spot was particularly melodic and lamented the fact that I had spent too much time looking and not enough time listening to the sounds of the forest, so I sat on a bridge for ten minutes, just enjoying the sounds. Which unfortunately included road noise as well.