18 Jun

Oregon’s experience speaks to Orlando’s agony

Oregon has never had a mass killing on the scale of last weekend’s atrocity in Orlando, although we all know this could change at any moment, even in the time between these words being written and being read. At any moment we – or any other Americans – could look up and see CNN showing pictures of large numbers of our loved ones, see our local police chiefs telling a hastily assembled press conference that it’s too soon to understand just what happened.

Oregon has, in fact, already had too many mass shootings; knowing that one is too many, we’ve had many more than that. The same weekend the Orlando gay club was blasted apart, we saw this year’s graduation ceremonies for Umpqua Community College, ending an academic year that began with nine of its students and faculty murdered by yet another loner who couldn’t fit into society but possessed military-level armament.

At that commencement, Umpqua County Sheriff John Hanlin told the graduates, “Look at the class of 2016. Look around at everybody here today. Look at what we are made of. And be proud. We are UCC strong. We’re UCC strong.”

In contrast to that message of unity and strength, the days after the Orlando atrocity have been all about America’s divisions, about the dangers of being gay, about dark warnings against Muslims, here and everywhere. The outrage takes in a range of our hottest-button issues: the treatment of gays, terrorism, angry outcasts voicing their grievances with battlefield weapons.

In moments of agonizing trauma, it has been the calling of national leadership to bring us together, from Ronald Reagan after the Challenger explosion, to Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing, to George W. Bush after 9/11, to Barack Obama’s appearances after many too many mass shootings. There’s a time when the job isn’t about punching, but about opening your arms as wide as you can.

But then there was Donald Trump’s response, the day after the shooting. Repeating his call to ban Muslims from entering the country, he also attacked those already here, warning, “You have many, many, many people, right now living in the United States who are worse than (the shooter)… You have thousands of shooters like this, with the same mentality out there in this country.”

Meanwhile, a lot of politicians managed to condemn the Orlando murders without mentioning the identity of the people who were killed, and the likely reason they died.
Oregon has never had a mass killing on the scale of Orlando. But Oregon, like other places, has had searing experiences to divide us – and has come through them.

Throughout the 1990s, and into the 21st century, Oregon went through repeated corrosive initiative battles over the rights of its gay citizens. The fights were bitter and hard, with angry messages flowing into Oregon from around the world, and a police car stationed outside an Oregonian editorial writer’s house after the paper took a strong stand against one of the anti-gay measures.

But Oregon came through the hard time without compromising its citizens’ rights, and with a strong new activism of pro-rights forces. And now no sane politician – admittedly, not an all-inclusive category – would see an anti-gay approach as a strategy for Oregon political success.

At about the same time in California, a governor based his re-election campaign on an anti-immigrant initiative, including grainy ads showing immigrants seeping unstoppably across the border. The governor and the initiative won, but the campaign set off a Hispanic political mobilization that has changed the state’s electoral atmosphere thumpingly.

If Oregon and California didn’t achieve universal enlightenment, they have seen widespread mobilization, which has its own useful effects.

And the country has indeed seen some glimmers of enlightenment.

Last week, a post-Orlando rally in Salt Lake City was addressed by the lieutenant governor of Utah. He was, he admitted, not an obvious choice to speak there – a balding, straight, youngish Republican politician with a less than entirely inclusive record – but he had something to say.

“I’m here because those 49 people were gay. I’m here because it shouldn’t matter,” Spencer Cox told the crowd. “But I’m here because it does.”

He was there, Cox explained, for a simple reason: “You changed my heart.”

The world, Ernest Hemingway reminded us, breaks everybody. But afterwards, some people are strong at the broken places.

Afterwards, some places are strong at the broken places.

Oregon is.

Orlando can be.

And if we’ve learned anything over two centuries, as opposed to months of anguish and anger, America will be.

NOTE: This columnn appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 6/19/16.

06 Jun

On child nutrition reauthorization, House GOP is out to lunch

HILLSBORO – Justin Welch, principal of McKinney elementary school here, has been through this before.

“I spent a lot of my time at my last school in Utah tracking down families who owed lunch money,” he recalls, not exactly nostalgically.

“What a waste of my time.”

Only if you think principals could be focused on, you know, education.

Welch has been able to think about education more lately because of a change in the school lunch rules in 2010, allowing schools with at least 40 percent of their students on food stamps or Medicaid to serve everybody free lunch. (Lots of the remaining kids would qualify for free lunch by family income, or lack thereof.) Community eligibility might cost a few nickels that the school might have collected – probably, very few – but it allows principals, and other folks at the school, to think more about math and less about chicken fingers.
It also makes sure that kids whose parents aren’t great at paperwork don’t flunk lunch and breakfast – a problem that can spread to other subjects.

But in the current reauthorization of children’s nutrition programs – already a year late – the Republican majority of the House Education and Workforce Committee has another idea. In a party-line vote late last month, they endorsed a reauthorization that would raise the community eligibility requirement to a hard-to-reach 60 percent. That would mean that McKinney – and more than 150 other Oregon schools, and 7,000 across the country – would no longer qualify, and that Justin Welch would be back to worrying about whose family had and hadn’t paid for beefaroni.

“Having all of our students able to access healthy food for breakfast and lunch insures that they can be successful,” says Welch. “So many of our students don’t have their needs met at home. At least when they’re here, we can say we know they’ve got food in their bellies.”

McKinney, a modern, well-kept school in a pleasant neighborhood, doesn’t look like what you’d consider a high-poverty school. But in the way we’ve arranged our society – children on the bottom – 80 percent of its students would qualify for a break on school lunch costs.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici represents McKinney school in Congress and on the House education committee, where she joined all the other Democrats in voting against the Republican measure. “It’s totally unacceptable,” she said last week. “There are still too many kids hungry.”

Bonamici visited Mckinney this spring, and talked with students about what the lunch program meant to them. It made her curious why “My colleagues are so alarmed that a student who might be able to afford lunch might get one for free.” She even wonders why House members who just cheerfully passed a $600 billion military budget are so concerned about the source of each kid’s turkey hot dog.

There are some other problems with the reauthorization backed by the Republican committee members, reasons why it’s opposed by 750 organizations across the country, from the national PTA to the Newman United Methodist Women in Grants Pass. There are reasons why the Food Research Action Center in D.C. calls it a “hodge-podge of bad ideas (that) would roll back years of progress in the fight against childhood hunger.”

The reauthorization sets up a pilot program for three states that would roll all the school nutrition programs into an underfunded block grant to the state. Governors and legislators could then ignore nutritional advances made in the 2010 reauthorization, and find strategies to save money on kids’ lunches they could spend in other ways.

It also caps and discourages a successful pilot program, tried last summer in Oregon and five other states, providing $30 a month in food stamps for free lunch kids in summer, when the lack of school meals can leave them in stomach-growling condition. The U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded that the program cut summer child hunger by a third, a dam of sandwiches and fruit.

With luck, none of this will matter. Bonamici points out that this House of Representatives has trouble finding votes to actually pass anything, and the Senate is backing a much better version, promising at least a more nourishing conference committee. But with as many as a fifth of our kids living in food insecurity, we’re also missing a once-every-five-years chance to improve the situation, and we may be making it worse.’

“Last November, I told the kindergarten families that the meals were covered,” remembers Justin Welch, “and they broke into applause.”
The House education committee may not get much applause.

In fact, people may be throwing fish sticks.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 6/5/16.