Which Is Worse: The Schoolyard Thug or the Cyberbully?

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Too many headlines like this echo through our news feeds: Teenager Commits Suicide After Being Cyberbullied. It’s the era of Instagram and Facebook, where kids can torture other kids from the comfort of home, or the back of Dad’s minivan, or from wherever they’ve got Wi-Fi or 4G. But the new report “The Role of Technology in Peer Harassment: Does It Amplify Harm for Youth?” shows that our fears may to some degree be misplaced:

In-person bullying is actually more destructive than the virtual kind.

With funding from the National Institute of Justice, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, researchers conducted phone interviews with 791 youth between the ages of 10 and 20 who had been included in a previous nationwide Technology Harassment Victimization Study. Thirty-four percent admitted to being bullied in the prior year; of those incidents, 15 percent were cyber and a little more than half happened in person. A third of kids were bullied by a hybrid of tech and in person.

Our assumptions about the harms of cyberbullying make sense. You’re susceptible anytime, anywhere, and it can involve numerous attackers. And the humiliation can last a lifetime (thanks, Internet). That said, face-to-face attacks are more likely to be ongoing. (Schoolyard attacks are also still much more common than technology-delivered ones, the study found.) There is often a more pronounced power imbalance — the bully is bigger, older or more popular. And victims can’t escape by dropping their iPhone in the toilet, so there’s a feeling of helplessness. Barbara Greenberg, a teen psychologist, also points out that when bullying happens through a screen, the victim can react privately. “We as human beings function differently in groups; that’s when we feel the most shame,” she says. “We feel worthless.”

The hybrid bullying, perhaps not surprisingly, is the worst due to its unrelenting nature — and if someone is putting in the effort to attack on multiple fronts it probably means the vitriol runs deep. “Those ones were more intense, more personal, more complex, and the kid doesn’t feel like they can stop what’s going on,” says Kimberly Mitchell, the study’s lead author and an assistant psychology professor at the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center.

This study comes at a critical time in an age-old phenomenon. Bullying used to be seen as a kids-will-be-kids part of childhood, and if a victim complained, he or she might be further ostracized as the dreaded fink. But the tides have been turning. Kids now land in jail for terrorizing their peers — and so do their parents. Measures including legislation, DOJ-funded research into “youth courts,” and better communication between schools and parents have all been making the rounds as ways of addressing bullying.

More longitudinal studies with more participants need to be done. And the recent study didn’t directly look at which types of bullying were most likely to lead to violence or suicide. In the meantime, though, Greenberg says it should be a wake-up call to parents and educators to check their kids’ phones and patrol the hallways. Because even as technology advances, some things will never change.

Bringing College Costs Out of the Dark

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The author is the co-founder of College Abacus and vice president of Innovation & Product Management at ECMC Group.

School’s out for the summer, but for college-bound students, the next chapter beckons in all its glory: choosing a major, making new friends and, of course, forking over that first tuition installment. And so what should be an exciting time, full of promise, can become one of high anxiety — especially given growing student loan debt and increasingly prohibitive tuition prices.

To make matters worse, and more anxiety-ridden, college costs remain opaque, difficult to calculate in advance. Tuition prices rarely present the full picture, which includes need-based grants and scholarships. While U.S. colleges have been required, since 2008, to publish online net price calculators (NPCs), comparison shopping is shockingly cumbersome: Families wishing to compare prices have had to visit each college’s NPC and re-enter tax information on multiple websites in a painstakingly time-consuming process.  

We still have miles to go to ensure students and families have access to the pricing information they need.

That’s why in 2012 I created College Abacus, a free online tool offered by nonprofit education entity ECMC. It’s what I like to call “the Kayak.com of college financial aid” — it generates results from the NPCs of thousands of U.S. colleges so families can calculate bottom-line tuition costs in one place and compare results in an apples-to-apples format. Some 4,500 schools now participate, and by September, we expect 1,500 more to join. 

But a much-needed larger effort to make college costs less opaque will require buy-in from all parties, including colleges themselves. Fewer than 10 percent of all colleges now block College Abacus from accessing their pricing information, and we’re advocating that these schools help us avoid creating yet another barrier to students and families making informed decisions in the college selection process, and join us in taking a meaningful step toward greater cost transparency. 

Some colleges have expressed concern that College Abacus elevates cost over other important factors and could cause students to eliminate certain schools from their college search based on price alone. But as the thousands of colleges that participate know, price is only one among a variety of considerations that students weigh in selecting a school, and expanding access to cost information hasn’t stopped them from attracting students. As with the purchase of a home, a car or a plane ticket, consumers researching the relative cost of different options do not necessarily default to selecting the least expensive one; informed consumers consider both quality and cost, along with other aspects. Cost transparency will enable families to plan appropriately for college, which could mean saving for a more expensive option that best fits a student’s overall needs and objectives. 

Recognizing the continued need to promote transparency in college costs, the U.S. Department of Education will begin publishing new college ratings in the 2015 academic year that will include measures of affordability such as average net price and loan default rates. But the stakes are too high to stop there. At a time when Americans collectively owe more than $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, ratings should extend beyond averages to include and emphasize price transparency and the availability of personalized cost estimates. 

College Abacus is only one of many efforts aimed at increasing college cost transparency. We still have miles to go to ensure students and families have access to the pricing information they need to navigate the college selection process with confidence. While Congress and the administration have marked the path in their efforts to help students and families make informed choices, a comprehensive solution requires all Title IV-eligible colleges to come to the table. College Abacus will continue to advocate the benefits of price transparency to postsecondary institutions and provide a measure of immediate cost transparency to empower today’s students and families in making good decisions. With the college class of 2020 beginning their search now, we don’t have time to waste.

 

Joe Lee: Leaving Uber in the Dust in China

Taxi Aps in china

Each and every day, when Joe Lee is working in Shanghai, his assistant orders the same meal for lunch from the Shinwang Restaurant: fanqie jidan, or scrambled egg with tomato. For dinner? Just a few veggies. “I try to cut down on carbs, and I go to sleep early,” says the company’s chief strategy officer. Remarkably simple tastes for a senior executive behind one of the fastest growing companies in the world — China’s multibillion-dollar taxi-hailing behemoth, Didi Kuaidi. But maybe that’s his secret for success.

Roll over Uber. Lee’s plan for Didi Kuaidi, founded just three years ago, has focused on merging, growing and then more of each, as the company scales at a breakneck pace. And his minimalist routine, which Lee says yields better rest and keeps down his BMI, has helped him stay fit as he races to keep up with Didi Kuaidi’s explosive growth, which often has him living apart from his Hong Kong family while visiting three Chinese cities a week. So far, the plan seems to be working: Uber may be the most famous car-calling business in the world, but Didi Kuaidi — especially after the merger of Kuaidi with rival Didi Dache — claims to be the biggest, with some 11 million bookings a day (according to the company), many times Uber’s total volume. (Uber, which does not regularly disclose the volume of its business, said in December it was booking 1 million rides a day.) 

Unlike Uber, Kuaidi’s app allows for booking in advance, and payment is via China’s biggest system, Alipay.

It may seem that Lee is helping to navigate just another Chinese Internet company. After all, Alibaba runs the biggest online retailing business in the world, while other players like Tencent, Sina Weibo and Baidu are also gigantic, a reflection of China’s enormous population and a fast increase in its Web-savvy consumers (there are over 600 million of them now). So to some degree, it’s not surprising that Lee’s work at Didi Kuaidi has helped the company outpace Uber in total volume of business. Even so, his ascent through a series of startup companies is a keen reflection of the entrepreneurial spirit and risk-taking that’s driving the Chinese service sector and creating jobs as the rest of the economy cools off. With Lee’s help, Didi Kuaidi recently pulled in an additional $600 million in venture funding, with one press estimate valuing the company at as much as $8.75 billion. While the company declined to comment, a report by Hong Kong-based GF Securities puts the group’s market share in China at 99 percent.

Meanwhile, Lee and the other top brass at Didi Kuaidi have to worry about keeping Uber in the rearview mirror. Uber, which saw its office in Guangzhou raided at the end of April (apparently on suspicion that it was using unlicensed cars) recently told investors it was growing fast in China. (Uber didn’t respond to a request for comment.) Lee and his team have the home advantage, of course, and Jixun Foo, managing partner at venture capital firm GGV Capital, notes that Chinese companies “are able to localize better and faster than Uber can.” Unlike Uber, for example, Kuaidi’s app allows for booking in advance, and payment is via China’s biggest system, Alipay, managed by a big Didi Kuaidi investor — Alibaba.

Lee, who sports a scruffy goatee along with shaved sideburns and hair that’s swept back over his head, grew up in a family of modest means as the son of an auto mechanic. After moving from the Kowloon Tong section of Hong Kong, where he attended public schools, he earned his accounting credentials at Waterloo University in Canada. It was then back to Hong Kong for work and then to London, before Lee established an online gaming portal, 96PK, in 2009, which he later sold for enough capital to enter the ride-sharing business. “I will not disclose the sales price, because the buyer won’t be happy,” he tells OZY by Skype, throwing his head back with a hearty laugh. He speaks in that distinctive Hong Kong accent — British English with a Cantonese twist — and answers questions with an extremely serious demeanor until something suddenly strikes him as funny.

Joe Lee

It may seem that Lee is helping to navigate just another Chinese Internet company.

Source Mia Haggi for OZY

With the help of $6 million in venture capital support, Lee launched Bumblebee Taxi in Shanghai in 2013. The money first went to build the taxi-hailing app, and then to subsidize riders and drivers in an effort to stoke the volume of business. “That is a very risky move because if the driver collaborates with the passenger [to cheat the company], we’d be losing money like hell,” he says. Though generating revenue wasn’t the immediate goal, Bumblebee quickly became the biggest taxi-hailing business in Shanghai and expanded in Guangzhou before merging with Kuaidi. And then, just a few months ago, Kuaidi merged with its cutthroat competitor, Didi. 

Now, Lee says, Didi Kuaidi is thinking about overseas expansion, possibly through an acquisition. For the time being, though, the company has its hands full, and Didi Kuaidi pushing overseas would face the same localization issues that plague Uber in China, Foo says. Meanwhile, many of the company’s roughly 5,000 employees are being deployed to filling stations or shopping areas in China and are offering discount coupons while recruiting drivers and passengers. “China is far from saturated, which is why we focus on our backyard,” Lee says.

 

NYC’s Lower East Side … in India?

Bandra

India is changing. Its creative heart is beating fast. And one small, cosmopolitan neighborhood perfectly captures this transformation: Bandra West, a suburb of Mumbai, India’s most populous city. Sitting on the edge of the Arabian Sea, with outdoor cafes and restaurants dotting its narrow roads, Bandra West is home to residents who hail from all over India and the world. It’s a place where musicians, dancers, actors, artists and writers are carving out space for themselves.

“You get a sense of community here that is lacking in other places,” says restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani, who owns 42 restaurants in India, including the popular Salt Water Café in Bandra, and lives in the neighborhood with his family. A community where Range Rovers and rickshaws jostle for space, and the local vegetable seller stocks kale and arugula, alongside eggplant and okra. You can eat a butter chicken roll for lunch one day and have cold-pressed juices delivered to your door to detox the next. But you can still find bungalows with flowers spilling out of the balconies onto quiet, sleepy lanes.

Bandra, like [NYC’s] Lower East Side, is laid-back.

Jas Charanjiva, Indian-American street artist 

 

It is that same sense of community that drew Indian-American street artist Jas Charanjiva from New York City. She runs a store called Kulture Shop across the street from Mehboob Studios, famous Bollywood studios now used for art exhibitions, literary festivals and film shoots. Up a dark staircase, the shop’s bright space bustles with energy and showcases work from global artists as well as Charanjiva’s own artwork, including a “Don’t Mess With Me” T-shirt ($22) featuring a traditional Indian woman with her head covered, wearing a knuckle-duster with “BOOM” on it. Charanjiva talks animatedly about those who find their way to her studio, including a model/painter from South Africa and a writer from New York working on a biography of Freddie Mercury. How does this neighborhood compare to New York City? “Bandra, like the Lower East Side, is laid-back,” she says.

Bandra

Bandra is a thriving neighborhood.

Source Eric Pesik/CC

But, as often happens in such neighborhoods, artists are starting to get priced out. “The bohemians and creative artist types move here because it is affordable and then come the bankers,” Amlani explains. And when the bankers come, the rent goes up. For example, a one-bedroom in Bandra West costs about $720 a month, very high compared with the rest of India. Many original residents are selling their beautiful bungalows to builders to transform into high-rises, and the skyline is changing rapidly.

Not everyone is happy with this changing neighborhood, this India in flux. While I was taking photographs, an old woman from across the street yelled at me to stop, saying, “You people can’t keep taking pictures in Bandra without permission.” She means people like me who are not originally from Bandra but are drawn to Bandra. And it isn’t just the old auntie who’s upset. The people who moved here 20 years ago are annoyed by the people who moved here 10 years ago who in turn are annoyed by the people who moved here two years ago. You can’t blame them — Bandra is so lovely that nobody wants to share.

 

How Was Your Day … Jewelry Vendor?

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In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Ramona Tafoya
Old Town Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pretty slow. I’ve been sitting here for 40 years — things aren’t like they used to be.

I’m Tarascan Michoacan. The Tarascans were metalsmiths in Mexico, the only tribe that didn’t get conquered by the Spanish or Aztecs — because they were tough. My father was born in New Mexico, in a town called Swastika. Really. To them it meant “happy,” but after the war they had to change it. I grew up in Taos and moved here in 1975 to study dance at the University of New Mexico. I started selling jewelry to help put myself through school. It was the turquoise boom, in the ’70s and ’80s. I used to come out here at 1 a.m. and sleep in my truck overnight to get a spot on the sidewalk. I’d wake up and throw my cloth as soon as we were allowed, at 7:30 a.m. Then work 12 hours and do it all again.

Now we have a lottery system; there are just 15 spaces for 50 of us. So I’m out here only two or three days a week. Seniority doesn’t count. I’ve been here for 40 years, but if someone new came in tomorrow, they could take my spot. It is what it is. Business is up and down. Some people sit here all day and make $12.

Turquoise just isn’t as popular anymore, but in many parts of the country, you still can’t get it. So I wear as much as I can; people freak out because I’m wearing so much. That’s what we do in New Mexico — we wear turquoise. I figure I’m a tourist attraction.

I don’t like to say how much money I make because the merchants like to use it against us; the shop owners don’t like us vendors. And they really don’t like me — being the rabble-rouser that I am, I led a boycott of the merchants in 1990, when they kicked us out. But we fought back and were back on our blankets, selling our jewelry, a few months later. We have more restrictions than we did in the ’70s. Now we have to make our own stuff, which I really enjoy. I like to keep up my inventory.

I never graduated from UNM; I had 12 [credit] hours left, but I ran out of money. A few years ago, I tried to go back to school and finish my degree. But they told me my credits didn’t count anymore, that I’d have to start all over again. So I said, adios, I’ll be a street vendor. I don’t mind. I like being outside. I like talking to people from all over the world. I’ve learned a lot over the years.

Like whenever a tourist says, “I’ll be back” — you know they won’t.  

As told to Rachel Levin.

 

The Carlos Files: On Bail Bonds, Bounty Hunters and American Justice

Bounty Hunters, Tushina Crum, an unassuming yet fiery 30-year-old, and her partner, 25-year-old Ileana Zamudio, along with their "Boss" and the Bail Bond agent Katie Biorn on assignment outside Glenwood Springs, CO.

The Carlos Files is an ongoing OZY series with life lessons, great stories and advice from OZY co-founder Carlos Watson. 

Bounty hunters are neither police nor thugs. Instead, they are the enforcers for bond agents if a defendant skips his or her court date. But times are changing for those in the bounty hunting profession because cash bail may be on its way out. OZY’s Meghan Walsh reported on the story in Mesa County, Colorado, following 31-year-old Tushina Crum and her junior partner, Ileana Zamudio, who are seeing a slowdown in their business.

Bail bondsmen say they are issuing about half as many bonds as they did just a few years ago. While the alternative to bonds — for example, court supervision — may be bad for bail bond business, it can also lead to less strain on those too poor to pay for bail and fewer people in jail pretrial. Is it time to change an antiquated bail bond system? What about the great American bounty hunter?

Hearty White’s Southern Radio

Screen Grab Hearty White

With the radio dial so clogged with the vitriol that’s come to represent vox populi, Kentucky-based Hearty White is, well, hmm … let’s just say “unexpected.”

Initially, the title of White’s weekly radio show, Miracle Nutrition, sounds like a load of New Age quackery, and its host like a talkative, enthusiastic Southern evangelist with early-onset dementia. Listen carefully, however, and you realize neither is true. There is a unique, even enthralling genius afoot here as, for an hour every Thursday on Jersey City’s WFMU, White offers up a seemingly disjointed swirl of asides and detours, a blend of self-help, cultural references, non sequiturs, surreal metaphors, memories, fantasies, observations and the occasional impromptu song. It’s been called Southern inspirational Dada, reminiscent of Paul Harvey, but more off-balance and much, much funnier. The astonishing thing is after all that wandering around, White is able to come back and offer a cogent closing message. Ironically, in a radio landscape drowning in so much shrill rancor, White’s gentle, self-effacing and at times baffling wisdom makes him the medium’s true iconoclastic voice.

“Anger is just awesome in small doses,” White says. “But I think it’s like sugar; it can become poison. You can get anger fat and rotten teeth of fear. So even if your anger is righteous, from a practical standpoint it’s difficult to change hearts that way. It also makes me feel bad.” Miracle Nutrition first appeared on Tallahassee’s WVFS in 2003 and aired weekly for the next eight years before moving to WFMU in 2012.

What I would become was a sort of combination of Andy Griffith, Mr. Rogers and a rabbi.

David Morris, aka Hearty White

When asked what nudged him into becoming a radio monologist, White explains, “I just generally never say no. So if someone asks, ‘Would you like to be on the radio?’ I instinctively say yes. I don’t have to be good at it, as long as it sounds like something I’d like. If someone asked me to compose a symphony or paint the Sistine Chapel, I’d say yes. They’d regret asking me maybe, but I never turn down a gig.”

The remarkable thing about the show is White’s ability to juggle so many discordant thoughts and connections, not only making them coherent but also flowing through them so effortlessly.

“I love to share whatever I learn,” he says of his preparation. “I have to learn something every week to have something to share. So I go looking for something to obsess about, something to occupy my thoughts all day, every day, until I speak to you. It’s like if you limited a chatty relative to just one one-hour phone call a week, so he has to tell you everything about his trip and what happened to the neighbor in an efficiently distilled monologue.”

Hearty White is the creation of artist, writer and musician David Morris, who admits the line separating him from his alter ego has become blurry. His first foray into alternate radio personalities began at Florida State University in the late ’80s with the more anarchic and confrontational Lee Harvey, but a run-in with a local fraternity following some on-air comments led him to rethink his approach. “I realized that you could be morally correct but ultimately cause more harm,” Morris says. “And satire, even surreal and silly [satire], has to have some sort of moral and ethical standard from which to criticize the culture and society.”

Which is how Hearty White eventually came to be, inspired in part by an un-self-consciously outgoing ticket taker at a local theater, in part by religious Southern talk shows obsessed with colon health and in part by Morris’ desire to communicate with people inclusively without being snarky or sarcastic.

“What I would become was a sort of combination of Andy Griffith, Mr. Rogers and a rabbi. I wanted to just express one thing, and it has something to do with fear and the problems it causes. Probably close to, ‘Let’s be less angry.’”

 

Why the Keyword in Farming Startups Is ‘Regenerative’

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Home to leopards, zebras, hippos and elephants, Zambia’s Luangwa Valley is known for its sprawling wildlife sanctuaries. But it’s also where Dale Lewis, founder of Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO), helps transform hungry farmers — who poach on the side to supplement their income — into wildlife protectors. In exchange for honoring a “conservation pledge” to stop killing certain animals for money and use sustainable farming practices, the company’s 61,000 farmers, all of whom work on a small scale, receive up to 20 percent more than the standard market price for their corn, soy and honey, which are then used to create a line of food products that are flying off Zambian supermarket shelves.

As it turns out, COMACO is just one of a growing number of both nonprofit and for-profit enterprises that are taking a new look at the agricultural sector and finding that farmers can renew the land they use — and their livelihood that they draw from it. There’s Honey Care Africa, a for-profit franchise that works with farmers across East Africa to supplement their income through honey production while increasing crop yield with pollination help from their honey bees, as well as the Timbaktu Collective, which helps farmers in a drought-prone region of India sell products grown with traditional water conservation practices. Oh, and don’t forget Peepoo — yep, you read that right — a system that converts sanitation waste from poor urban neighborhoods, refugee camps and disaster relief sites around the globe into nutrient-rich fertilizer for farmers with poor soil quality.

These regenerative agricultural practices, as they’re known, have been developed in response to a growing list of problems plaguing farmers and rural workers around the world: land degradation, drought, crop disease and unpredictable market prices, to name a few. Of course, climate change isn’t helping on any of these fronts. But the trend is also being driven by the growth of B Corps — think of them as certified do-gooder businesses — and other companies that are under pressure to show responsibility for the planet, says Daniela Ibarra-Howell, co-founder and CEO of the Savory Institute, a nonprofit that promotes large-scale restoration of the world’s grasslands through a regenerative practice known as holistic management. 

Indeed, some corporations have asked the Savory Institute where to find beef, wool and leather products with the health of land in mind, and where investments are needed along the production supply chain to create a shift in global food systems. Brands that “want to be a good company” are in search of responsible projects — more, even, than consumers demand, says Jill Dumain, director of environmental strategy for the outdoor retailer Patagonia, which purchases regenerative wool.

“We’re calling it the nutrient economy.”

David Strelneck, senior adviser for Ashoka

The idea here is simple, really: Communities can nourish themselves by producing products that also drive well-being elsewhere. Sound familiar? Sure, there’s already organic this and fair-trade that, but a “holistic management” seal could find itself on your hamburger wrapper in the next few years — that is, if the Savory Institute has its way. Another of the organization’s co-founders is Allan Savory, the Zimbabwean biologist behind holistic management, a technique that often involves adding, rather than removing, livestock in order to restore land that’s been degraded through overfarming. The nonprofit’s plan is to help restore 1 billion hectares of degraded grasslands around the world by 2025 using a network of rural business incubators.

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Some poachers are finding new ways to make a living through sustainable farming initiatives.

Source John Warburton-Lee/Getty

Already, 30 hubs in more than 20 countries from Australia to Zimbabwe are working to educate farmers and spin out market-driven projects that encourage the switch to this practice. Some will include ecotourism operations, carbon credit sales and leather, wool and beef certification. The network’s Argentine hub, a certified B Corp called Ovis 21, has developed a standard for their farmers’ wool in partnership with the Nature Conservancy, the conservation nonprofit. Their Grassland Regeneration and Sustainability Standard (yes, that spells GRASS) is being adapted for the whole Savory Network in order to ensure consistency in measuring outcomes — and allow network members to get a premium on products grown with the health of the land in mind.

Do ambitious plans like these actually work, though? During the past nine years, Ovis 21 says it has helped around 160 ranchers put 3.2 million acres of degraded land in Argentina and Chile under holistic management, a switch that improved grass health and farmers’ income, according to a 2014 analysisAnd Ashoka, an organization that identifies social entrepreneurs, has studied the work of its rural innovation fellows — a total of 200 of them across five continents, including those behind COMACO and Honey Care Africa. One finding: For-profit enterprises that were making a connection between human health and health of the land — like COMACO, which has provided food security to millions of people while protecting biodiversity — were turning a profit. “We’re calling it the nutrient economy,” says David Strelneck, a senior adviser at Ashoka.

But banking on agriculture requires plenty of patience. Returns tend to take longer than other kinds of startups because it takes three to five years to see real change in farm land, experts warn. (After six years of business, Ovis 21 has yet to break even.) While more funds focused on sustainable agriculture have been established in the past decade, including Root Capital and Dirt Capital Partners, coming up with the resources to finance and manage new programs remains a big challenge for most of the world’s farmers.

Still, at the tip of South America, where the Strait of Magellan holds down the horizon, Ricardo Fenton proudly shows visitors the fence line that divides his neighbor’s dry earth from his sea of tall grass. In recent years, the fifth-generation Patagonian rancher has brought his grass back using holistic management. The sheep that eat this grass will be sheared, and their wool will be certified as regenerative using the GRASS standard. It will then be sold at a 3–8 percent premium to environmentally conscious brands like Patagonia and fashion label Stella McCartney. “We’ve improved our ecological capital,” says Fenton, who co-founded Ovis 21, “and we’ve improved our business at the same time.”

 

A Special Library, Devoted to Dissidents

Knihovna Vaclava Havla

I’m having trouble hearing Jáchym Topol, one of the Czech Republic’s most famous writers, over the sound of rock music. Downstairs, DG 307, the “legendary” underground psychedelic band, is preparing for a show. Topol is animatedly describing some of the discussions he’s hosted downstairs on the Ukrainian crisis that attracted hundreds of Prague locals. No, we’re not in that gem of a bar or coffee shop where the city’s interesting people gather. We’re standing in a library.

Granted, it’s not just any library, but the presidential library of Václav Havel, one of the leaders of the Czech anti-communist uprising and the nation’s first leader. Aside from being one of the world’s most celebrated humanitarians and political thinkers, Havel was also a prolific playwright, and he devoured culture of all kinds. The archive — full of Havel’s works, diaries and speeches, as well as other banned writers during communist times (some of which only exist in Havel’s library) — ironically looks pretty corporate: minimalist décor, high white walls and Ikea furniture. And though they’ve been settled in a back alley off the main streets of downtown Prague since August after moving from a previous place — which was “more authentic,” says Topol — boxes are still stacked in offices and artwork still rests on the ground purposelessly.

Since Havel remains a divisive figure, so is the library itself.

The library’s main draw is its programs — an eclectic mix of concerts, lectures and readings from mainly dissidents and activists that don’t get much love, or room to breathe, in their own countries, says Topol. The library and its events are open to the public and — cash-strapped backpackers, rejoice! — free.

Which means that those who pack the library are a unique breed of Praguer (Praguese? Pragsters?). The library brings together a circle of people, many intellectuals from NGOs or academia, who connect with Havel’s worldview of nonconfrontation and humanitarianism, says Masha Volynsky, a freelance reporter based in Prague. Kinda like hippies. The thing is, since Havel remains a divisive figure, so is the library itself. Which may dissuade people who don’t already love Havel to come and check out the space or its events. It may be a weak point that the library doesn’t open up to a broader audience, says Volynsky. “It’s preaching to the choir.”

They weren’t doing much “preaching” before Havel died, in 2011. But since, they’ve become quite visible, Volynsky says. For one, Havel personally asked Topol to oversee the library’s programs after his death. And Topol has taken the opportunity to become a bit more political. He’s invited dissidents from Belarus to China to speak about totalitarianism, hosted debates on Burma and Ukraine, and had contemporary Chinese writers read their books.

Which turns out to be a personal contradiction for Topol: “If there’s anything I hate more than the newspaper business, it’s the literary machinery, the author-reading system,” he told translator Alex Zucker. Still, sitting in his office, he points animatedly to a number of authors on April’s program calendar. “We’ve never had so many in one month!”

Goin’ to the Chapel

People gather in front of San Francisco City Hall on June 26th, 2015.

On Friday they celebrated, waving rainbow-colored flags and singing — “Hallelujah,” “We Shall Overcome,” a version of “Goin’ to the Chapel of Love” that came out like a hymn: Today’s the day we’ll say ‘I do.’ All over the country, gay couples were getting hitched. Up in San Francisco, the atmosphere was especially jubilant, as captured in these Instagram images by Bay Area photographer Nathan Weyland. 

And whether you’re excited or aghast about the Supreme Court’s decision proclaiming same-sex marriage a constitutional right, there’s little denying how quickly change has come. It’s been fewer than a dozen years since the Massachusetts Supreme Court held that same-sex couples have a right to marry — it was the first of the nation’s highest state courts to do so — and as recently as 2004, no less than the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Hillary Clinton, described marriage as a sacred bond between … a man and a woman.

Then again, 12 years can be an epoch in terms of love and family. How many people do you know who’ve married or divorced — or both — since 2003? How many babies born, how many kids who’ve become adults? That sense of urgency was part of the majority’s rationale in Obergefell v. Hodges: It would not do to wait for the 13 states that did not allow gay marriage, the justices argued. Families need solid ground beneath their feet, no matter what they look like.

But while the decision unleashed much joy, it also created bitter dissent. On the Supreme Court, four justices complained that their colleagues had created a whole new constitutional right. A few states, including Louisiana, are resisting. And looking ahead, there’s little doubt that Obergefell will play a role in the coming presidential election. Conservative groups are already fixing to make Supreme Court nominees a big deal in the campaign: strict constructionists only! But with 63 percent of Americans supporting gay marriage — including traditionally conservative constituencies like libertarians and Mormons — we suspect gay marriage has limited utility as a wedge issue. After all, love is love.