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Catholic Leadership Is More Diverse Than Ever

Tue, 2015-02-17 10:18
The College of Cardinals has grown more and more diverse over the past century, mirroring the regional demographic shifts of the global Catholic population. The 2013 election of Pope Francis (the first pope from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere and the first non-European pope since Pope Gregory III was elected in 741), and his appointments of voting-age cardinals from more than a dozen different countries, suggest a desire among church leaders to make themselves more reflective of their membership.

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Lessons From A President's Day Accident

Tue, 2015-02-17 10:04

Alice Lowenstein in the years before her car accident.

My parents almost died in a car accident on President's Day 1986.

Driving back to Boston on a snowy New Hampshire road, the car my father was driving swerved into oncoming traffic on a two-lane road.

A car with a snow plough on the front hit my mother's side.

Her seatbelt saved her life.

The only reason the paramedics gave her even a one percent chance of living was that they were already out on the road, heard the crash and responded immediately.

I flew back from attending college in California to be with my family.

I will never forget the first time I saw Mom in the hospital.

I had already visited Dad, who, although frail in a way I had never witnessed before, at least could speak.

I walked down the white tiled hallways, absorbing the hospital's antiseptic smell.

Having worked the previous two summer processing blood gas samples at my father's laboratory, I knew that the Respiratory Intensive Care Unit where Mom was staying was for severe cases.

I walked in, shuddering involuntarily when I approached the bed, which was enclosed by a screen.

I braced myself and looked.

Her eyelids were purple eggplants that covered her closed eyes. Tubes snaked in and out of her body. A respiratory machine pushed air into her lungs though a diamond-shaped hole that had been cut in her throat. The machine hissed inexorably, each push up and down illustrating her utter dependence on it for her tenuous hold on life.

I hated the machine.

I spoke softly to her.

"You'll get better," I said, desperation creeping into my voice. "You'll be out of her soon. Look! You just moved. See? I told you. All right, Mom!"

More hissing from the machine.

No movement from Mom.

The same hospital smell.

I kept talking and talking, telling Mom her that I knew she would get better, that she soon would be gone from this room. I uttered words that I did not believe in my heart, but had to say because the alternative was too terrifying.

Visiting Mom for the first time was one of the hardest things I ever did, yet it was harder still to come back for the second, third and thirtieth time.

But my brothers and I did just that as Mom began the achingly slow, sometimes backward-moving, process of healing.

At age 48, she had to relearn basic physical functions like how to stand, walk and control her bladder.

The massive closed head injury she sustained meant that she had to learn how to talk again as well as how to conduct herself appropriately in social situations.

Due to extensive medical support, an array of caregivers and her tenacious will, Mom has not only recovered, she started a non-profit organization, Vital Active Life After Trauma, to help others who have endured head injuries and other blows.

She writes prolifically to this day about her experience and the lessons she has drawn from them.

Although she and Dad split shortly after the accident, they have found in divorce a peace and a harmony that often eluded them during their 27 years of marriage.

And, while she has had health troubles, most notably a failing heart that led to a pacemaker installation and a hip replacement in 2010, Mom is probably now, for the first time in nearly three decades, at a similar health place to many of her peers.

The anniversary provides an annual occasion for reflection.

The lessons of the accident, are like a kaleidoscope, shifting constantly depending on the rotation.

The initial insights I drew were about how to rally and stay steadfast during a storm.

Now a year older than Mom was when she and Dad crashed, I am more viscerally aware of life's fragility and finitude, and of the importance of savoring daily gifts.

So on the day that our nation celebrates the births our first president known as the father of our country and an Illinoisan who kept the union intact during its most searing conflict, I give thanks for Mom's survival, for the paramedics who rescued her from the car, and for the battery of people who have helped her heal.

I am grateful, too, for the abundant meaning that comes from understanding the present moment in light of the journey we have taken to get there.

With Mom in the summer of 2014.

NOTE: Some of this material appeared previously in my book, On My Teacher's Shoulders.

This Supreme Court Decision Could Encourage One Of The Worst Forms Of Racism

Tue, 2015-02-17 08:26
For the larger part of the 20th century, housing discrimination in the United States was overt and unambiguous. Racial segregation was largely the norm, and those who worked to preserve it were under little obligation, legal or social, to hide their intentions. At least it was easy to spot:

Across the street from a federal housing project built for black residents of Detroit in 1942. (Photo via Arthur S. Siegel/Library of Congress)

Help came in 1968 with the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of homes. The law explicitly barred practices with a discriminatory intent.

The country has progressed since the late '60s, and blatant prejudice is now much less common. Yet housing discrimination persists, often due to bias built into the system. So over the years, the federal courts have expanded the Fair Housing Act to cover practices with a discriminatory outcome. Under this theory, known as "disparate impact," a policy or practice can be illegal if it disproportionately affects minorities, regardless if that was its purpose. Disparate impact claims are crucial to fighting racial inequality today.

But this key weapon could soon be taken away. The Supreme Court will likely rule this summer in a case, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, that may forbid disparate impact claims under the Fair Housing Act. Such a decision would effectively defang the law. It would also shed a disturbing light on how this court believes the law should react to entrenched discrimination.

The underlying reality of the Texas case is that certain housing policies disadvantage minorities more than whites, whether by hidden design, careless disregard or unfortunate coincidence. It's this type of discrimination -- in housing, but also employment, voting and education -- that today produces some of the biggest barriers to bridging the racial divide. If the Supreme Court acknowledges this truth and believes justice is best served by fostering equality "in fact, and not simply in form" -- to borrow a phrase from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- its decision should be easy. That it probably won't be helps explain why racial inequality remains such an unrelenting problem for the nation.

Here's what you need to know about the case, its history and why it could be a landmark decision:

In the past, property owners and policymakers openly supported segregation.

During the first half of the 20th century, racially restrictive covenants were commonly used to keep minorities from moving into white neighborhoods. Under these private agreements, property owners would stipulate that their land could not be sold to or occupied by anyone who wasn't white. Sometimes, a group of neighbors would sign a contract prohibiting all current and future owners of their properties from selling or leasing to African-Americans. Violating the contract could lead to forfeiture of the property.

Local authorities also played a role in maintaining segregated neighborhoods. Though the Supreme Court had ruled that explicit racial zoning was unconstitutional in 1917, exclusionary zoning to preserve the character of a community was -- and is -- allowed. Neighborhoods can be zoned to allow only more expensive, low-density housing while prohibiting smaller homes or affordably priced apartment buildings. Because of racial differences in household wealth, many minorities are priced out of the exclusive areas. This practice, which has repeatedly been upheld by courts, is still widely used around the nation.

A big part of the problem was how the federal government limited minority access to mortgages.

Established in 1934, the Federal Housing Administration enforced policies for decades that helped preserve segregation. Chief among these was "redlining," under which it declined to back home loans to people living in certain often-minority neighborhoods. This discouraged mortgage lenders from extending financial services to those areas. The consequences of redlining on home ownership and economic development are still apparent today in many urban areas.

A 1936 map of Philadelphia from another New Deal era federal agency, the Home Owners' Loan Corporation, identifying the neighborhoods in which lenders should and should not offer mortgages. Redlined areas are marked "hazardous."

Housing speculators capitalized on the fact that most African-American homebuyers couldn't access federally insured mortgages. In Chicago, for instance, mostly white speculators bought up cheap properties in black neighborhoods and marked up the prices, sometimes to twice what they had initially paid. These houses were sold under a contract that called for monthly payments until the entire price was paid -- and only then would the buyer receive the deed to or gain any equity in the property. If the buyer managed to pay off the contract in full, he or she owned a house in a minority neighborhood that would likely not appreciate in value. If the buyer didn't fulfill the terms of the contract, eviction with nothing to show for payments made was the usual response.

In the late 1960s, a group of black homeowners in Chicago began to fight this predatory system. A federal class-action lawsuit was filed in 1969 against speculators, contract sellers and financial institutions involved in the scheme. Activists also organized protests and holdouts, in which homeowners refused to make payments to the sellers. There were standoffs with police, arrests, negotiations, and in 1971, thanks to a policy change by regional banks and insurance companies, the homebuyers finally began converting their contracts into mortgages in large numbers.

Yet when the federal case finally went to trial in 1975, the black plaintiffs couldn't convince the mostly white jury that they had been price-gouged because of their race. As one juror reportedly concluded, "It was economics, not civil rights, in play."

Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968.

Passed just a week after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, the law made it illegal to discriminate in the sale, rental or financing of housing based on race, religion and national origin. It prohibited the sort of straight-up racist language and policies long used to maintain housing segregation. The more blatant forms of redlining, for example, were banned. (Gender, familial status and disability were later added to the list of protected classes.)

Martin Luther King Jr. delivers a sermon at Washington's National Cathedral on March 31, 1968. He was killed four days later. (Photo by Morton Broffman/Getty Images)

But as the Chicago case shows, it can be hard to prove that someone was motivated by racial animus. With the aid of the courts, the Fair Housing Act has also been used to target less explicit bias. Over the past 40 years, judges have repeatedly read the statute to forbid many policies and practices with a disparate impact on minorities, even where no racist intent can be shown.

In a rule issued in February 2013, the Department of Housing and Urban Development clarified the formula for deciding disparate-impact housing cases: If the plaintiff can demonstrate that a practice has a discriminatory effect, the burden shifts to the defendant to show that the practice serves a substantial, nondiscriminatory interest that can't be served by a less discriminatory means. If the defendant meets that burden, the plaintiff can still win by showing that, in fact, there is a less discriminatory means that would serve the defendant's needs.

Note this means that a policy with a disparate impact that also has a valid justification and no less-discriminatory alternative is legal. For that reason, there are plenty of legitimate housing restrictions and requirements that disproportionately affect minorities today -- like occupancy limits, credit score standards and income verification.

Housing advocates and federal prosecutors still use the law to fight housing discrimination.

A number of high-profile disparate impact cases have been settled in the past few years alone. Many focused on financial institutions and lenders that were accused of offering less favorable rates and services, on average, to minority customers than to white customers.

In 2011, for example, mortgage giant Countrywide Financial reached a record $335 million settlement with the Department of Justice following allegations that it had charged higher fees and rates to hundreds of thousands of Hispanic and African-American customers than it had to white customers with similar financial standing. The Justice Department investigation also found that Countrywide, which was purchased by Bank of America after the alleged misconduct, had offered subprime mortgages to 10,000 minority borrowers while offering regular loans to white borrowers with similar credit profiles. Using a disparate impact argument, federal prosecutors didn't need evidence that Countrywide's practices were driven by discriminatory intent, only that they had discriminatory outcomes.

The National Fair Housing Alliance reported that 27,352 housing discrimination complaints were made nationwide in 2013. The organization estimates that at least 4 million violations actually occur each year.

It's hard to overstate the ongoing importance of access to fair housing. Decades of segregation have helped to concentrate poverty in minority neighborhoods. Communities with large percentages of black and Hispanic residents tend to have fewer economic and employment opportunities; lower-quality education; less access to medical care, healthy food and public transportation; and lower levels of public safety.

While a number of studies released over the past few years have shown some progress in urban areas, fair housing advocates say the problem is far from solved.

"While recent modest declines in black segregation levels are welcome, the 2010 census shows that the average black resident still lives in a neighborhood that is 45 percent black and 36 percent white," William Frey, chief demographer at the Brookings Institution, told The New York Times. "At the same time, the average white lives in a neighborhood that is 78 percent white and 7 percent black. Black segregation levels are even higher for children."

For more on how ZIP codes correlate with opportunity, check out this tool created by Opportunity Nation and Measure of America.

Abandoned houses in Detroit, which consistently ranks among the most segregated U.S. cities. (Photo by Carlos Osorio/AP)

Even with disparate impact claims, the government has often done a poor job fostering housing equality.

The persistence of segregated communities suggests, at least in part, a decades-long failure at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A lengthy 2012 report by ProPublica reported that HUD had injected billions of dollars into communities without vigorously enforcing the Fair Housing Act:

HUD's largest program of grants to states, cities and towns has delivered $137 billion to more than 1,200 communities since 1974. To receive the money, localities are supposed to identify obstacles to fair housing, keep records of their efforts to overcome them, and certify that they do not discriminate.

ProPublica could find only two occasions since [George] Romney's tenure [as HUD secretary, ending in 1972,] in which the department withheld money from communities for violating the Fair Housing Act. In several instances, records show, HUD has sent grants to communities even after they've been found by courts to have promoted segregated housing or been sued by the U.S. Department of Justice. New Orleans, for example, has continued to receive grants after the Justice Department sued it for violating that Fair Housing Act by blocking a low-income housing project in a wealthy historic neighborhood.

The Supreme Court is now debating whether disparate impact claims can even be raised in housing cases.

On Jan. 21, the justices heard oral arguments in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project. The Dallas-area nonprofit, which promotes racially and economically diverse communities, filed suit after finding that for the past few decades, the Texas housing department had allocated almost all affordable-housing tax credits to developments in minority neighborhoods, while denying credits to those in white neighborhoods. This effectively kept low-income residents from moving to white communities. The nonprofit is raising a disparate impact claim under the Fair Housing Act.

The Texas agency, unable to show there was no less-discriminatory alternative to its practice, lost the case in federal district court and in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. It petitioned the Supreme Court to rule for the first time on the overall permissibility of disparate impact claims under the Fair Housing Act. Court watchers suggest the decision may come down to Justice Antonin Scalia, who during oral arguments indicated sympathy with both sides.

Opponents argue that disparate impact claims are unfair to policymakers, financial institutions and property owners. If housing policies and practices are instituted for legitimate reasons based on race-neutral criteria, the basic argument goes, then they should be legal despite any unintended discriminatory effects -- and the people who implement those policies and practices should not be blamed.

During oral arguments, Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller suggested another problem: that housing officials and developers wary of possible Fair Housing Act lawsuits might make race-conscious decisions in favor of minorities, creating "the functional equivalent of a quota system." This would raise constitutional issues of its own.

Other critics have expressed concerns that the idea of disparate impact is too fluid -- that just because a practice unevenly affects a minority group doesn't mean that it harms the group or that it doesn't help other minority groups.

Supporters of disparate impact think the law is on their side, if not necessarily the justices.

Since 1974, 11 federal circuit courts have upheld an interpretation of the Fair Housing Act that allows for disparate impact claims. Moreover, in 1988, when Congress amended the statute, it chose not to add language ruling out such claims, but it did include language that implied their use.

Amicus briefs have flooded in -- from lawmakers, public interest advocates and business interests -- seeking to sway the justices. There are 14 supporting the Texas agency and 23 backing the nonprofit. One brief in favor of the Inclusive Communities Project comes from the federal government, 17 states and an assortment of civil rights groups.

"This was really the last legislative victory of the civil rights movement, and it was Dr. King's last victory, too," Philip Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, told The Washington Post. "This is the message that Dr. King brought to Chicago in 1966, talking about de facto segregation in the North, segregation wherever it exists -- that we need to address it. That’s in large part what the Fair Housing Act was trying to do."

Fair housing advocates remain concerned -- in part because this is the third time the Supreme Court has agreed to consider disparate impact claims under the Fair Housing Act in less than four years. The two earlier cases were each settled less than a month before they were heard by the justices. Civil rights groups, which pushed for those settlements, worry that the justices' eagerness to rule on this issue could spell trouble.

"It is unusual for the court to agree to hear a case when the law is clearly settled. It's even more unusual to agree to hear the issue three years in a row," Ian Haney López, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told ProPublica.

A Supreme Court ruling against disparate impact would cap a string of controversial civil rights decisions.

"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a 2007 decision on school desegregation in Seattle. That sounds simple enough, but such a focus on explicit racial preferences overlooks the issues of structural discrimination -- the kind found in housing and other areas today.

In 2009, the Supreme Court declared that New Haven, Connecticut, had violated the civil rights of white firefighters when it threw out a promotion exam that no black firefighter had passed. The city took the racial gap in exam results as a sign that the test itself might violate employment protections under the Civil Rights Act, but the court ruled against New Haven. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted a key section of the Voting Rights Act that determined which states had to obtain pre-approval from the federal government before making changes to their voting systems. And last year, the justices upheld a Michigan ban on affirmative action, declaring that a state's voters can prohibit the use of race as a factor in college admissions.

As ProPublica noted, a ruling against disparate impact claims this year would give the Roberts Court a dubious hat trick: It would have effectively undermined the three most substantial civil rights laws of the 1960s -- the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

Whatever the Supreme Court decides in the current case, some of the justices are clearly unconvinced that discrimination not driven by overt bias is a problem, or at least one that the law should take a stand against.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke to this troubling pattern last year in her dissent in the Michigan affirmative action case. "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination," she said, responding to Roberts' quote from seven years earlier.

Sotomayor, one of only two racial minorities on the high court, chose to read aloud her dissent, something the justices do only when they feel particularly strongly.

A ruling in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project is expected sometime in June.

How America's Police Forces Are Solving The Crisis Of Mistrust

Tue, 2015-02-17 06:35
The president, police experts, activists and even some police officers have called for major changes to the American law enforcement system. Community policing -- used in Columbia Heights, Minnesota, where Captain Lenny Austin is seen here mentoring a student in 2013 -- might just be the change police departments need. (Photo: Richard Sennott/Star Tribune/ZUMA Press/Corbis)

Raising a black son, Gail Howard couldn't shake the fear that someday, he was going to get shot. She even saw a therapist, who told her the odds were higher that she'd win the lottery. Jordan, an A student and an athlete, wanted her to relax, too -- he told her she treated him like a baby. The 17-year-old spent the entire day of Jan. 5, 2011, begging his mother for permission to walk alone to meet up with friends. Eventually, she grudgingly gave in.

"I said, 'We'll see how safe this town is once your eyes are looking down the barrel of a gun,'" Howard, who lives in Redlands, California, told The Huffington Post. "Those were the last words I spoke to him, and then 15 minutes later I get a phone call, he's shot in the eye."

Jordan and one of his friends were lucky enough to survive the gang shooting that took place that day; two other boys who were with them at the playground were not. Over the course of the yearlong investigation that followed, Howard -- who had previously had few interactions with police -- began to see local police officers as partners rather than patrolmen, forging bonds that would last far beyond the investigation and inspire her to begin fighting for the city's kids.

"They did not stop until they figured out who shot my boy and his friends," Howard said of the Redlands police, who eventually caught the shooters; they were convicted and sentenced to life behind bars. "I'm forever grateful to them."

Gail Howard, right, looks on as a fellow mother of a victim in the 2011 Redlands shooting hugs a relative, shortly after three men received life sentences for the crime. (Photo: James Carbone for the Redlands Daily Facts)

Howard's attitude may come as a surprise at a time when relations between many police departments and their communities appear strained. The public remains outraged over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the subsequent failure to indict the police officers who killed them. In fact, there seems to be one thing nearly everyone agrees on after the months of protests those killings inspired: The relationships between American police and the communities they protect, particularly minority communities, are in need of serious repair.

"The system of policing has earned our mistrust," said Opal Tometi, a New York-based activist and co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. In many ways, Tometi's group embodies the recent decline in relations between police and communities.

#BlackLivesMatter protests across the country have called for reforms including increased accountability surrounding police shootings and a reduction in the use of military equipment by local police departments. The shooting of two New York City police officers shortly after the announcement of the Garner verdict further intensified the national debate on policing in America.

But beyond the headlines, many police forces are working to build trust with their communities. Police experts say that improved relations can be attributed largely to common-sense approaches that build on the philosophy known as community policing.

"Ordinary, good police work is not terribly newsworthy," said Gary Cordner, a professor of criminal justice at Kutztown University, "but lots and lots of good, ordinary police work goes on every day just about everywhere."

In the wake of recent police killings, national leaders and local police departments are increasingly turning to the community policing model that cities like Redlands have relied on for years. People like Gail and Jordan Howard are proof that the model can deliver on its promise of helping police and communities work together.

At a time of strained police relations, community-oriented policing offers a different approach -- one that makes good relationships essential to good police work.

The U.S. Department of Justice's Community Oriented Policing Services office defines community policing as "a philosophy that promotes organizational strategies, which support the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques, to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder and fear of crime."

Some police departments began emphasizing community policing during the 1970s, in response to the political unrest and widespread protests of the 1960s. The nation was reeling from incidents like the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles, the protests that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and a number of anti-Vietnam War demonstrations that featured violent confrontations between police and civilians. The conditions were, as they are now, ripe for reform.

In practice, community policing involves forming partnerships with community organizations, prioritizing transparency, actively pursuing feedback and establishing programs that allow police to engage with residents outside of the law enforcement arena. At its best, the practice allows community members to feel heard, respected and empowered to help police control crime in their neighborhoods, rather than feeling that officers are solely there to enforce laws through aggressive stopping, questioning, arresting and incarcerating.

"You can't arrest your way out of community problems," said Scott Nadeau, police chief of Columbia Heights, Minnesota. Nadeau took over the police department in 2008, and oversaw a shift to a community-focused approach. "That's something that I think is important for us as a community and us as a police agency to understand," he said. "Enforcement is a piece of the puzzle, but it's only one piece."

It's a strategy that seems simple, but it's far different from the way many departments operate.

Columbia Heights, an inner-ring Minneapolis suburb, was battling high crime rates when Nadeau took over, bringing with him a background in community-oriented policing. Four years later, the department won an international award for community policing after crime hit a 25-year low.

All officers in Nadeau's department are required to perform at least 10 hours of community policing activities every year, though he said most devote closer to 40 hours to the work. Officers are encouraged to choose activities that match their skills and interests. There are many choices: conducting CPR trainings, answering questions at classes for recent immigrants, serving food at a church's community dinner or holding "Coffee with a Cop" open hours, where residents are free to speak their minds with officers.

Nadeau said that community policing "wasn't always popular with [officers], it took months or years for some people to see the value." He noted that the department took care to introduce new initiatives slowly. "But I think even the officers we had that were more traditional saw the changes in the relationships between our police department and the community," he said.

Columbia Heights Police Department Sgts. Justin Pletcher and Maggie Titus speak with residents during a recent Coffee with a Cop session. (Photo: Columbia Heights Police Department)

Through the programs Nadeau has implemented, police hope to gain the trust of residents. But the officers themselves may also come away with a better view of community members.

"Law enforcement officers, many times, end up having ... a jaded view of police and community contacts just because of all the negative experiences that they have as a result of just doing their jobs," Nadeau said. "I think that having these positive interactions ... helps them to maybe refocus somewhat on the fact that the majority of the people in our community are great citizens and those relationships are important to both sides."

Building trust between police and the community has to start from an early age.

When Nadeau first came to Columbia Heights, youth crime rates were high, and a school board member told him that police had an especially rocky relationship with kids. Now, under Nadeau's leadership, a major focus of the city's community policing efforts is on youth. The department offers a variety of programs -- from open gym hours to one-on-one mentoring -- and officers visit each first-, second-, third- and fourth-grade classroom in the city's schools at least once a school year, building community trust from an early age. Since 2008, juvenile arrests in Columbia Heights have dropped by more than half. (Nationwide, juvenile arrest rates also fell during this period, though not as steeply.)

Officer visits to classrooms give students a chance to see "that familiar face, that this is a person that works in our community that cares about kids and families," said Michele DeWitt, principal of Highland Elementary School. This, she noted, is particularly important for students who have had negative experiences with law enforcement, like seeing family members be arrested.

Nadeau approached DeWitt a few years ago about the possibility of police doing more youth outreach. They started by getting the department involved in a bullying prevention program, in which officers would read anti-bullying books and discuss them with classes. The mentoring program followed soon after. And there's the annual visit when police let kids check out squad cars -- not surprisingly, a student favorite.

Police Chief Scott Nadeau celebrates the end of the 2012-2013 school year with the student he mentors at Highland. (Photo: Columbia Heights Police Department)

"It was a really concerted effort," DeWitt said of Nadeau's school involvement initiatives. "It wasn't just, 'Let's try this and then we'll move on and try something else,' it was the police chief really thinking outside the box and saying, 'What can we do to just inundate this community with a positive message?'"

Nadeau himself mentors a student once a week. He said that when police would walk into schools several years ago, they were greeted with alarm from teachers and fear from students, who saw their presence as a sign that something was wrong.

"Now when we walk down the hallways, the teachers smile, they're happy that you're there," the police chief said. "I probably get about 50 to 60 high-fives from some of the kids in the school. The fact that it's no longer unusual to see police officers in the schools has fundamentally changed our relationships with these kids."

Many local departments adopted community policing in response to a federal push in the 1990s.

By the 1990s, the philosophy of community policing had become widely known in law enforcement. DOJ's Community Oriented Policing Services office was formed in 1994 as part of President Bill Clinton's sweeping crime package. Created to support local agencies' community policing efforts, COPS sought to get 100,000 officers hired and distribute billions in grants. COPS Principal Deputy Director Sandra Webb told HuffPost that the office has provided community policing funding for about 70 percent of law enforcement agencies nationwide.

But while community policing can and does occur without federal support, Webb explained that attention for COPS' efforts waned after Clinton's initial investment, and the department's budget declined significantly, from a high of $1.6 billion in 1998 to just $208 million for 2015. (In 2009, $550 million was budgeted, but the stimulus package also allocated a separate one-time $1 billion for hiring officers). The George W. Bush administration actually proposed completely eliminating the COPS program in all eight of its annual budget proposals, though it was never successful in accomplishing that.

According to a Justice Department survey, the late 1990s saw a marked increase in the number of dedicated community policing officers specifically tasked with building relationships in their assigned neighborhoods: In 1997, 34 percent of all departments used such officers, while by 2000, the number had jumped to 66 percent. Similarly, there were 17,000 dedicated community policing officers in local departments in 1997, compared to 103,000 in 2000. But the survey found that starting in 2000, the number of community policing officers began to decline sharply, and had dropped by more than half by 2007.

But aggressive policing tactics gradually became more commonplace.

Mike Scott, director and founder of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, says that by the turn of the millennium, a confluence of factors had contributed to a turn away from a community-oriented approach toward more aggressive policing.

These included the gradual militarization of even small local departments, which began to use SWAT team-style tactics more regularly, as well as a tougher response to political protests in light of the violent showdown between police and protesters at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Police also began to rely more on strategies associated with the war on drugs, such as stop-and-frisk. In addition, "broken windows" policing, a controversial approach in which police departments aggressively pursue low-level crime, became more common in the late 1990s. Finally, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, federal funds previously devoted to community policing programs were redirected to fund counterterrorism and surveillance efforts.

Starting in 2008, the Great Recession also contributed to the shift, with many police departments seeing slashed budgets -- in Redlands, for example, department staff was cut by a third. Once the federal support for community policing began to disappear, Scott argues, many cash-strapped departments that were less invested in the concept turned their attention to areas where more federal dollars were coming in, particularly counterterrorism and disaster preparedness. Cities like Redlands, which were genuinely interested in community policing, didn't change their philosophies, though they had to carry them out with fewer resources.

Though many law enforcement agencies have turned to more aggressive strategies, they haven't necessarily created safer communities or better relationships.

The result, Scott says, was a rise in aggressive policing that eroded much of the progress that community policing had made, particularly among minorities. As critics of "broken windows" have pointed out, there is little evidence that aggressive policing has made most communities significantly safer.

Scott argues that the coexistence of community policing and the aggressive approach grew increasingly "schizophrenic," essentially canceling each other out. A department's community policing arm might take a softer, problem-solving approach in a neighborhood during the day, only to have that goodwill undone by SWAT-style tactics in the same neighborhood that same night.

"If we've learned nothing else over 200 years or so of policing, it's that police will never gain either the trust of the public or improve their personal safety solely by aggressive policing," Scott said. "It's a failed strategy. It's a natural kind of reaction, but it's the wrong reaction."

Scott Nadeau hopes meeting with students year after year -- here, an officer reads with a group of elementary school students -- will help build community trust. (Photo: Columbia Heights Police Department)

With a renewed focus on community policing, plenty of cities can serve as models for others looking to adopt the philosophy.

The Justice Department has acknowledged the problem: Amid protests over Brown's and Garner's deaths, DOJ last fall announced the launch of a new three-year initiative to study racial bias in the criminal justice system and restore community trust in the police. In December, President Barack Obama again called for investment in community policing, proposing a $260 million funding package that would in part go toward providing training and resources for police reform.

Across the country, many local police departments are also renewing their efforts to change the way they interact with communities. When the U.S. Conference of Mayors convened last month, it addressed the deaths of Brown and Garner and issued recommendations that cities use community policing to improve residents' trust. From Chatham, New Jersey, to Sacramento, California, police departments are testing out new ways to improve their relationships with the communities they serve.

Redlands is one of the places where the community approach has become a fundamental part of policing. In 1993, then-Police Captain Jim Bueermann was tasked with overseeing a transition from traditional to community-oriented policing in response to strained relations between the department and the public.

Jim Bueermann. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP)

Bueermann, who became police chief in 1998 and served until 2011, was known for the partnerships he made and his heavy reliance on evidence-driven strategies. Under his leadership, Redlands' housing, recreation and senior services departments were consolidated into the police department as part of a program to identify risks for young people. Though the city eventually separated the departments again, the collaboration -- involving schools, hospitals, the probation department and businesses -- gave police the ability to make quality-of-life services and crime prevention a core part of their community policing approach.

"Police and community have to co-produce public safety," said Bueerman, who now heads a nonprofit dedicated to innovations in policing. "That's probably one of the strongest pieces of community policing that frequently gets missed by practitioners. They have to reach out to the community and say ... 'How are we, all of us, going to solve this problem?'"

Ed Gomez, a history professor who has lived in Redlands for 11 years, commends Bueermann for promoting peace, balance and trust in the community. Gomez chairs the city's Human Relations Commission, a volunteer advisory board that works with city officials to address residents' concerns and protect their rights. The board, Gomez said, doesn't often hear complaints about the police department. Gomez believes current Chief Mark Garcia, who took over from Bueermann in 2011, has continued his predecessor's legacy. But, he cautioned, community trust can't be taken for granted.

"That's something that will go away if it's not held sacred by the citizens and the police department itself," Gomez said. "I believe Chief Garcia is doing what he can to keep things in place the way they were, so I hope he will continue that and maybe even take a more active role. It will also be up to the community to hold his feet to the fire."

Current officers say they're dedicated to continuing a legacy of trust with residents.

"I think the community has a high expectation of us, and we have a high expectation of them back," Redlands Police Commander Chris Catren said. "When significant crime, especially, occurs, their expectation is that we're going to do everything we can to solve it, and our expectation conversely is that they're going to assist us, and they do."

And when tragedy does strike, it's easier for the community to recover when everyone is working together.

Redlands' approach was put to the test when Gail Howard's son and three others boys were shot in an unprovoked attack at a playground. Throughout the subsequent investigation, police treated the shooting as a tragedy not just for the victims and their families, but also for the department.

"Lt. Mike Reiss told me that night at the hospital, 'This is personal, they shot my son, they shot my boy'" Howard said. Reiss had been a football coach for Jordan before the shooting. Jordan, now 20, is healthy and still plays football.

The week after the shooting, the police department partnered with faith groups to lead a vigil for the victims. About a thousand people marched alongside officers from the location of the shooting to nearby Micah House, an after-school program for at-risk kids and one of the police department's partner organizations.

"The fact that they pulled together and put on a march right afterwards showed a desire to pull the community together, and it did pull the community together," said Dianna Lawson, a Micah House program coordinator. "It just made a difference."

Left: Hundreds gathered to march for peace after the 2011 Redlands shooting. (Photo: Micah House). Right: For the one-year anniversary of the shooting, at which point the killers had not yet been found, Chief Mark Garcia joined the victims' mothers in asking the public to come forward with any information. (Photo: Gail Howard)

Community policing means working proactively and building relationships in the face of tension and issues.

In the aftermath of the shooting, there was concern from residents that police weren't dedicating enough resources to the area where the incident occurred, on Redlands' north side, which Gomez described as the historically poor part of the city. Garcia said the department responded by increasing their presence in the neighborhood, stationing a community policing officer at Micah House and conducting regular meetings with local citizen groups to exchange information.

And though Howard was appreciative of the police's efforts, as the investigation dragged on, some of the relatives of the other victims accused the department of not putting enough work into the case. Howard said they and some others in the black community believed the case was not getting sufficient attention because the victims were black. She thinks this notion is false, though she acknowledged that Redlands' efforts hadn't fully erased minorities' distrust of police.

"I do feel like I'm in the middle of something, that a lot of people in the black community want me to actually hate the police, and not like the police, but I cannot feel that way," she said, referencing the national protests over police brutality. "You've got to understand where I've been and how much they've done for me."

Since her son's close call, Howard's relationship with police has helped her find ways to get more involved in the community. She took charge of the Shop with a Cop program, which allows needy kids to go holiday shopping while fostering relationships between children and police officers.

"Some of these kids, the only contact they have with police is seeing their parent be wrestled down to the ground and handcuffed, and we want them to know that there's good officers out there. ... I want kids not to be afraid to approach that police officer," Howard said.

Lt. Mike Reiss, Jordan Howard and a Shop with a Cop student. (Photo: Gail Howard)

"The crazy thing about it is at the end, you see the officers giving the kids their phone numbers, 'If you need something or someone to talk to, give me a call,'" she added. "And to me, that's a success, because now it's personal."

Each year since the shooting, Howard has held a vigil to remember the victims. She noted that the police chief or members of the force have attended every march.

But building trust isn't easy for minority groups who have long felt the police have failed them.

Even amid the best of intentions, the shift away from traditional policing can be difficult to implement. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the community policing approach is fostering trust among minority groups.

A 2014 Pew Research poll found that while most Americans hold a generally favorable view of their local police, blacks and Latinos have much less faith in their police forces than white Americans do.

Pew Research Center

Bridging that gap by reaching out to minority groups is a key part of community policing, and the Columbia Heights police department has made it a priority. Dana Caraway, a pastoral assistant at the multicultural Church of Nations, said that her church has a robust relationship with local police. But it's difficult to surmount the historic tensions that some minority groups perceive between racial justice and the very institution of policing. The pervasiveness of those tensions came to the surface in Columbia Heights several years ago, when the Church of Nations discovered that minority members felt uncomfortable about the presence of patrol officers idling in the church parking lot.

The city of Madison, Wisconsin, began implementing community policing in the early 1980s. At that time, David Couper, who served as Madison's chief of police from 1972 until 1993, pushed his department to work in a more community-oriented, decentralized way, and also sought to diversify what was then a mostly white, entirely male department. Couper essentially invented what has been dubbed in some circles as the "Madison way" of community policing. Under his watch, the first officer focused on community policing took to the streets of Madison.

David Couper

Today, the department maintains a number of community policing initiatives, including a citizen police academy, black and Latino youth academies, teams of mental health officers and community policing teams dedicated to each of the city's neighborhoods. An "Amigos en Azul" team works in the department's Hispanic-majority South District to erode the barriers between officers and the city's Latino residents.

But although the department was an early adopter of community policing and has been heralded as a success story, statistics show the Wisconsin capital still has a long way to go. The city has an overwhelmingly high disparity between arrest rates of black and white residents, with black residents estimated to be nine times more likely to be arrested than whites.

New Yorkers protest in December 2014 after grand juries investigating the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner failed to indict the police officers involved. (Photo: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Some solutions may be perceived negatively by those for whom police mistrust is difficult to discard.

That disparity was at the heart of an open letter penned last month by an activist group called the Young, Black and Gifted Coalition, which discussed the issue of arrest rates as well as the deaths of Brown and Garner.

In the letter, the group criticized Madison's community policing efforts as ineffective, called for vast reforms to the local criminal justice system and outlined its preferred form of policing in minority neighborhoods: None whatsoever.

"Although Madison's model of community policing and attempt to build trust between the community and police, even acting as 'social workers,' may be a step above certain other communities, our arrest rates and incarceration disparities still top the nation," the letter read. "Our ultimate goal is finding alternatives to incarceration and policing, and our steps forward as a community should reflect the values of community control and self-determination."

Anthony Ward

Anthony Ward, a former Madison police officer who now works with at-risk African-American boys, acknowledged that the department has its heart in the right place when it comes to using community policing in minority neighborhoods. But in practice, he argued, the strategy results in a much higher number of officers in squad cars driving through communities of color and poor areas, which Ward believes sends a strong message to residents.

"While community policing sounds fine and dandy, what is actually happening is community seizing," Ward said. "We're not saying we won't call the police when we need help, but people in minority neighborhoods don't need to see them every time we look over our shoulder as if the community doesn't know how to take care of themselves, like we're savages and need a police presence to be civilized."

Mike Koval, Madison's current chief of police, admitted that his department has played an undeniable role in minority communities' negative impressions of the way people of color are policed. However, Koval said that instead of pulling back at this tense moment, he wants his department to "double down" on its commitment to a community-oriented approach. He thinks the time is right for officers to take on the role of problem solvers, rather than simply law enforcers.

"Right now, it's almost a calculus of a perfect storm for when community policing can really make some inroads on rebuilding some community trust," Koval said. "To me, this only creates an even greater challenge for our officers to prove our critics wrong."

A Madison police officer joins a group of girls from the local Boys & Girls Club filming a video on the steps of the Wisconsin state capitol in December 2014. Community policing advocates say that positive interactions with the community, even ones as simple as this, can go a long way. (Photo: Madison Police Department)

Ward hopes the department will do a better job pairing officers with neighborhoods they genuinely care about and ensuring that all officers are trained in cultural awareness. Only then, he said, can an effective partnership between communities of color and police officers be formed and the disparity in arrest rates and community trust be meaningfully addressed.

"I believe minority groups are going to be the ones who are going to change our community, who are going to make it better and we can do that in conjunction with police officers, but not with them at the helm," he said.

It's a difficult task, but the conditions are ripe for change.

Like some of the skeptics in Madison, Tometi, the #BlackLivesMatter co-founder, is hesitant to embrace community policing, which she describes as "a euphemism for more surveillance" of minority communities. Tometi considers community policing on its own to be "empty rhetoric," unless it is accompanied by meaningful community investment and the altogether rejection of "broken windows" policing. She is hopeful that the demonstrations led by #BlackLivesMatter and other groups can help inspire such reform.

Opal Tometi

"Training will not help if officers do not have a fundamental shift in how they understand their roles as public servants, not as racial profiling agents," Tometi said. "For us, an end to broken windows is healing. Community investment is healing. Not more police or policing technologies for more surveillance and racial profiling."

Despite the challenges, some experts are cautiously optimistic for change.

Couper, who today is an Episcopal priest and maintains the blog "Improving Police," said he is hopeful some departments with "wise leaders and probably wise mayors in their cities" will take advantage of what he sees as an opportunity for police to take a new approach.

"We're at a position where we can take the more comfortable way and the way we do that is to maintain the status quo. The argument for the status quo is they haven't done anything wrong and to wait until it blows over," Couper said. "Or, we can show some leadership and ask: Why is it that we're so mistrusted, why are we losing support and blaming the messenger on this?"

"Change is (hopefully) coming, but from my experience it will take a long, long time," Couper said later, when asked specifically about the racial tensions in Madison. "But why not start now?"

Madison's community policing officers engage with residents in a number of community events throughout the year -- but critics say such efforts fall far short of the sort of reform needed in the Wisconsin capital. (Photo: Madison Police Department)

And sometimes even small gestures end up going a long way.

"You can't always solve them, but people need to see police trying to solve the problems that the people who live there regard as problems, to see them working on their behalf as opposed to pursuing their own interests or something else," said Cordner, the Kutztown professor. "You can't just repaint the police cars or hire a new police chief."

"Policing is frequently not pleasant, sometimes it's very complicated and just messy," Bueermann said. "A police department's ability to weather a controversial incident -- it's almost always involving use of force -- is a direct function of the trust and confidence the public has in that department."

Nadeau acknowledged that the national focus on police brutality and mistreatment of minorities has had an effect on residents' impressions of police in Columbia Heights. But he believes that a fundamental part of his job is to engage those concerns, and to actually implement the feedback he gets. So, when Caraway told police that residents were responding negatively to officers idling in the church parking lot, the department ended the practice and met with the congregation to address the concerns. It was a small act, but an example of the philosophy that, over time, may be one of the best chances to repair the damaged relationships between police and the public.

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Lady Gaga Is Engaged To Taylor Kinney, Shares Photo Of Massive Heart-Shaped Diamond Ring

Mon, 2015-02-16 15:36
Lady Gaga is officially engaged to long-time boyfriend Taylor Kinney.

The pop star revealed the exciting news on Monday when she shared a photo of her huge, heart-shaped diamond engagement ring with her followers on Instagram:

He gave me his heart on Valentine's Day, and I said YES!

A photo posted by @ladygaga on Feb 16, 2015 at 1:06pm PST

The 28-year-old singer revealed that the 33-year-old actor asked her to marry him on Valentine's day, and she of course, accepted his proposal. According to Us Weekly, the pop star and her new fiance later celebrated at Gaga’s family's restaurant, Joanne Trattoria, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Gaga and Kinney first met on the set of her 2011 video for "You & I," in which Gaga wore her mother's own wedding dress. While the couple have had their ups and downs, briefly breaking up for a month back in May 2012, it seems they are in it for the long haul.


How The Boss May Be Quietly Pocketing Your Server's Tips

Mon, 2015-02-16 09:09
Laurie Zabawa says she'd been working at a Hilton Garden Inn in Bozeman, Montana, for seven years when the owners outsourced the management of the hotel in 2012. For Zabawa, the hotel's banquet manager, this meant that any parties that took place in the hotel would now be overseen by an outside firm, an Ohio-based company called Gateway Hospitality Group.

The banquet workers whom Zabawa oversaw weren't being let go, so the service-industry lifer says she took the change in stride -- that is, until Gateway explained the new policy on gratuities.

By tradition, when clients of the hotel ran up banquet tabs, they'd be subject to an automatic gratuity of 18 to 20 percent. That money was then distributed among the waiters, bartenders and other food workers who handled the event, according to Zabawa. For workers earning close to minimum wage, these tips could equal half their base pay, and they were essential to making a living.

But according to Zabawa and a lawsuit she's filed in Montana state court, after Gateway took over, the automatic gratuity was renamed a "service" or "setup" fee, and the house stopped distributing that money to staff. Zabawa claims that workers were told to sign papers accepting a new flat wage that didn't include gratuities. Most workers were given a nominal raise of about $1 per hour, but it didn't come close to making up for the lost tips, she says.

As banquet manager, Zabawa says she was tasked with implementing the new policy.

"It was awful," Zabawa, 50, told The Huffington Post. "Just imagine working there with those people for years. They were my family. It was horrible to go through, and I had no options."

Zabawa claims she was pressured to quit her job after telling management she believed the new policy violated Montana wage laws. She is suing over what she deems wrongful termination, and she's asked the court to declare the hotel's use of service fees illegal.

Hilton and the hotel's operator, Bozeman Lodging Investors, did not respond to requests for comment about Zabawa's allegations. Bob Voelker, Gateway's CEO and a Hilton veteran, told HuffPost he would not comment on ongoing litigation. According to the company's website, Gateway has contracts with at least 17 Hilton-brand properties in four states.

In the service industry, it's become fairly common for the house to present customers with a charge that's implied to be a tip for the workers -- only to turn around and keep that money for itself. Such add-on costs often come in the guise of a "service" fee, and the charge tends to match what most of us would associate with a typical gratuity.

For businesses, these fees often function as a surreptitious price increase, allowing them to charge customers more while maintaining the same base price. Though these fees don't go to workers, people like Zabawa believe their presence makes customers assume that the bartenders, servers and others who rely on tips have somehow been covered.

"I had employees who quit," Zabawa said. "They just weren't willing to work there anymore."

Zabawa's employees weren't the only workers feeling burned by such fees. In 2010, catering employees who worked the U.S. Open at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York sued the concessions company there for allegedly pocketing a 21 percent service fee that was tacked onto customers' bills. The workers, who also claimed they were shorted on overtime pay, argued that the service fee was portrayed as a gratuity. The class-action lawsuit was settled in 2013 for $600,000.

As HuffPost reported in 2011, beer and hot dog vendors at New York's Yankee Stadium claimed they were victims of a similar scheme. The stadium's concessionaire, Legends Hospitality, was attaching a 20 percent service fee to the drink and food orders in the stadium's luxury boxes, but the vendors who sold those orders were only taking in 4 to 6 percent in commission. According to a lawsuit filed by the vendors, the remainder of that 20 percent fee was going to Legends, which, at the time, was jointly owned by the New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys and the investment bank Goldman Sachs. (After it was sued, Legends made clear on its menus that only a small portion of the fee went to servers.)

The practice has even made its way into the pizza delivery business. As HuffPost reported last year, Pizza Hut, Papa John's and Domino's now commonly tack nominal "delivery fees" onto the tabs of delivery orders. Those fees, which are usually between $1.50 and $3 a pop, do not go to the drivers, even though many customers forego a driver tip believing that they do. Many career drivers told HuffPost they believe the practice has helped depress wages in their field.

HuffPost readers: Do you work in a job where "service fees" do not go to workers? Tell us about it.

One former catering worker at the U.S. Open said the use of service fees not only hurts workers' paychecks, but also creates confusion and tension among clients.

"In this industry, it happens a lot. A client will have the assumption that the service fee is indicative of some type of gratuity going to the employee," said the worker, who asked to remain anonymous due to the litigation. "They're feeling that they're already being forced to pay a tip. A strange sort of animosity can build up between the client and the server."

Several states have recognized the problems stemming from service fees and tried to address them in their own ways, with laws now on the books in Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New York and Washington state.

In Hawaii, any hotel or restaurant that tacks on a service fee is required to distribute that fee in full to employees. A similar statute in Massachusetts applies the same rule to the service industry at large, while also barring management from sharing in employee tip pools. In Washington state, service fees may be used, but receipts must show clearly how much of the fee goes to employees.

Recently, the hotel workers' union Unite Here has worked to insert language into local wage laws to ensure that service fees stay with workers. According to the minimum wage ordinance passed last year in Los Angeles, which established a $15 wage floor for large hotels in the city, any such fee belongs to the workforce, regardless of what management chooses to call it -- be it a "service charge," a "delivery charge" or a "porterage" fee, to name a few examples.

The Montana law, which would cover Zabawa's hotel, defines a service fee as "an arbitrary fixed charge added to the customer's bill by an employer in lieu of a tip." According to state code, such a fee "must be distributed directly to the nonmanagement employee preparing or serving the food or beverage or to any other employee involved in related services."

"Defendants admit they do not provide the 20% arbitrary fee to the nonmanagement staff members," Zabawa's lawyer, Jason Armstrong, wrote in a court filing, referring to Gateway and Bozeman Lodging Investors. "The question then becomes one of law; is the policy legal or not under the law?"

According to Zabawa, the hotel lost many of its servers under the new gratuity policy, since for them it effectively translated to a pay cut. Zabawa said she was simply instructed to hire new employees.

After workers lost their tips, one of the servers brought the language of the Montana statute to Zabawa, she claims in her lawsuit. Zabawa, in turn, took the server's concerns to a manager for Gateway. Zabawa alleges in her suit that she was then instructed to "write up" the "problem employee" and fire her. Zabawa says she refused.

Zabawa says she then lost her position as banquet manager and was switched to a sales job. In her lawsuit, she argues that leaving "was the only reasonable alternative" at that point. Under Montana law, such a voluntary termination could still be considered wrongful discharge if the employer created an intolerable situation.

After eight years at the hotel, Zabawa wound up working part-time at Pier 1 Imports before finding a new job in banquet work. Her income has taken a sharp drop, she says, but that's something she's managed to live with.

"I go to sleep at night knowing that I'm not apologizing [to my employees] and that I'm not sorry every day," she said. In the service industry, it's become fairly common for the house to present customers with a charge that's implied to be a tip for the workers -- only to turn around and keep that money for itself.

42 Illinois Counties Made the Poverty Watch List by the Social Impact Research Center

Mon, 2015-02-16 09:06
Illinois' poverty rate is the highest it's been in about 55 years, says a new study by the Social Impact Research Center. It's been on a steady rise for the last fifteen years, with 14.7 percent of Illinoisans now living at or below the poverty line as defined the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (an annual income of $24,000 or less for a family of four).

That means that nearly 2 million people in Illinois are living in poverty and nearly 1 million of them are living in extreme poverty. Even for people whose incomes don't fall under the poverty line, the economic situation is difficult--18 percent of residents are living in low-income households.

That means Illinois has a higher poverty rate than almost half of the country-24 states have a lower rate than Illinois. It also means Illinois has a slightly higher poverty rate than the nation as a whole in 2013, 14.5 percent of Americans were living at or below the poverty line, says CNNMoney.

The report lists 42 counties (out of the state's 102) that are on the poverty "Watch List," meaning they are facing possibly declining conditions in the areas of income, unemployment, high school graduation rates and teen birth rates. There are another four counties on the report's "Warning List," which are currently facing dire situations in those measurements.

Illinois' Watch List counties:

  • Alexander County

  • Boone County

  • Calhoun County

  • Champaign County

  • Clark County

  • Cook County

  • De Witt County

  • DeKalb County

  • Edgar County

  • Edwards County

  • Fayette County

  • Ford County

  • Franklin County

  • Greene County

  • Hardin County

  • Henry County

  • Iroquois County

  • Johnson County

  • Kankakee County

  • Lawrence County

  • Lee County

  • Logan County

  • Macoupin County

  • Marion County

  • Mercer County

  • Peoria County

  • Perry County

  • Pike County

  • Pope County

  • Pulaski County

  • Putnam County

  • Rock Island County

  • Saline County

  • Sangamon County

  • Scott County

  • Clair County

  • Stephenson County

  • Tazewell County

  • Vermilion County

  • White County

  • Williamson County

  • Winnebago County

Check out Reboot Illinois to see which four counties are on the report's Warning List at Reboot Illinois. Hint: They're all in southern Illinois.

Sign up for our daily email to stay up to date with Illinois politics.

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To the Jackie Robinson Boys of Summer: Thanks for the Memories!

Mon, 2015-02-16 08:16
With the stripping of the American little league World Series title from Jackie Robinson West, one of the happiest sports and human interest stories of the past year became one of the saddest.

In one fell swoop, the seeds of joy that these black youth from Chicago's South Side sowed in winning were transformed into a field of sorrow.

This was true not only for them. It was also true for countless fans of all colors and classes from across the country whose spirits soared with their unlikely victory of a national championship.

Jackie Robinson West lost its title because the team used players from outside the geographic area (district) that the team represented. The players themselves had nothing to do with this. Yet, they will pay a heavy price.

Is there a lesson to be learned from all of this? There are many.

There is a serious question as to why the adults involved such as the district administrator and Jackie Robinson's manager manipulated those geographic boundaries. Others have raised concerns about racism in the bringing of charges and the decision-making.

But, this is not a blog about lessons. It is a blog about memories. It is a blog of thanks.

Thanks to all those "boys of summer" who played for Jackie Robinson West: Jaheim Benton, Cameron Buford, DJ Butler, Brandon Green, Trey Hondras, Josh Houston, Ed Howard, Marquis Jackson, Pierce Jones, Eddie King, Prentis Luster, Lawrence Noble, and Darion Radcliff.

It is an opportunity to reflect on the accomplishments of those kids who won our hearts not only because of the way they played the game but through their sportsmanship as well. More importantly, these kids from poor neighborhoods and families - many of them single parent - of modest means beat the odds. In doing so, they gave wings to hope.

Kenny Williams, Executive Vice President of the White Sox, speaking to the Jackie Robinson team and a crowd of about 10,000 in Millenium Park at a city-wide celebration of the World Series championship pointed out that it was not just about the kids, however.

Early in his speech, he declared..."But right now I'm going to bring attention to the superstars of the South and West sides, and I'm not talking about these kids."

"(I mean) the leaders of community organizations. Teachers. Before-school programs. After school programs. The people in the neighborhoods who haven't given up on the village mentality, because it does take a village."

Williams moved on to address the Jackie Robinson players stating, "Now to get to those young men...who conducted themselves like professionals. You had ABC, CBS, NBC...anything with an N...trying to put a microphone in your face, trying to bait you, to show a little cockiness, to show a little arrogance, to show something other than grace and style. And you guys did not waver."

"You inspired me."

Williams continued to tell the young men, "I see Richard Dent (Chicago Bear Hall of Fame player) back here. He knows...What's the first thing you do when you get famous, Dent. You thank your momma. That's what you do. I have not heard anybody thank their mommas. So you guys, when you come on this stage, I better hear it. Because they did the washing. They filled your bellies. They got you to practice. They did all that, so you better give some love for the mommas."

We say to the members of the Jackie Robinson West team, don't forget Mr. Williams' observations and sound advice. They pertain no matter the final results on or off the field.

We also say to those young men always remember this. You were winners. Then, you were losers. But, to those of us who were moved and motivated by your stellar performance and behavior, you are still champions.

Here's to the Jackie Robinson boys of summer. Thanks for the memories! They can't take that away from you or us.

Let Lincoln's Character Traits Guide You to Business Success

Mon, 2015-02-16 08:00

Before Abraham Lincoln became our 16th U.S. President, he was a business owner -- and not always a successful one. His shop in New Salem failed leading to personal bankruptcy. He received a patent for his invention to lift riverboats over sand bars but never got the business off the ground. As a lawyer, he faced challenges with collections.

Despite the setbacks, he went on to become a state legislator, U.S. Senator and an undeniably superb national leader who helped preserve our Union during the Civil War. This President's Day, as we celebrate what would have been his 206th birthday on February 12, it's time to reflect on the character traits that made him great and how the same qualities can guide small business owners.

Honesty. Lincoln got the "Honest Abe" moniker because of his reputation for telling the truth and behaving with integrity. In a classic example, he mistakenly took six cents too much from a customer at his store and walked three miles the same day to return it.

The takeaway here is pretty obvious. Business owners who foster a culture of honesty and transparency will build the trust of customers and workers. There can be a surprisingly high cost to telling tall tales. When you exaggerate a metric, under-report an expense or are less than honest with a client or a member of your team, you create a false reality. Eventually, you'll have to manage the fallout from inflating the truth.

Perseverance. As a lawyer, Lincoln was persistent, fearless and tireless in his business and political dealings. He never let his failures and disappointments stop him from moving forward.

Failures in business are unavoidable, but they can build character and allow you to learn and grow. A nose-to-the-grindstone mentality will enable you to continue working towards your goals. Committed entrepreneurs know that quitting or succumbing to one's failures is not an option.

Communication. Lincoln had a remarkable ability to communicate his vision and goals, and make his concepts simple and relevant to people's concerns. He understood the importance of explaining why his approach to problem-solving was the better choice.

Entrepreneurs need to excel at communication, and be loud and clear about their goals. And, it doesn't hurt to be a great storyteller -- an ability that propelled Lincoln into the White House. The keys are to know -- really know -- your audience, and target your message to meet their needs. You may never deliver a message as memorable as the Gettysburg address, but effective communication can help get your message interpreted correctly.

Vulnerability. Lincoln was never afraid to share his vulnerable side. He allowed himself to be photographed in times of great despair and wasn't uncomfortable sharing his grief with the nation when his son, Willie, died of tuberculosis.

In the business world, it can be hard to reveal your vulnerabilities. But accepting and sharing your mistakes will demonstrate that you don't need to be perfect at everything and therefore, neither do your employees. Sharing your vulnerable side can also strengthen connections with your peers and customers.

Lincoln's impact on contemporary society is alive and well. Lest you have doubts, consider how often he is quoted! The many positive character traits that Lincoln displayed have the ability to impact all of us, lead to greater entrepreneurial success and serve to inspire the next generation.

Creative Solutions to Information Access from Chicago's Chief Librarian

Sun, 2015-02-15 23:00
There is a lot more to check out at the Chicago Public Library than just books and periodicals.

For starters, the library system through its 80 locations and "Internet to Go" service is the largest provider of free online access to Chicago's 2.7 million residents. Students, small business owners and citizens of all walks of life who otherwise have no or limited connection to the information economy can now at least tap into this foundational infrastructure at any Chicago library. As digital innovations have advanced dramatically in the two decades since the debut of the World Wide Web, however, it is essential that citizens are provided with the tools to create and not just connect.

"Today, more people have more access to more information than at any other time in human history. But that access is not equal," said Brian Bannon, who for nearly three years has served as Commissioner of the Chicago Public Library. Bannon's remarks came during a presentation to civic leaders at the City Club of Chicago. He added that "for Chicago to compete in this borderless economic frontier, we must ensure that Chicagoans are informed, creative, entrepreneurial, and innovative. It also means that our children must become lifelong learners who are able to absorb and utilize new information."

Prior to coming to Chicago, Bannon served as Chief Information Officer of the San Francisco Public Library. He possesses both a deep appreciation of a library's role in the public sphere, as well as an immense understanding of digital information delivery systems. These attributes make him the perfect advocate to showcase emerging technologies like 3D printing and multimedia production within educational settings that are available to anyone.

I've had the opportunity to have several conversations with Bannon over the last few months about how all Chicagoans can benefit from information innovations. Here are a few of the key points we discussed.

What is the role for a public library in a time when much of the world's recorded information is now literally available at our fingertips?

Brian Bannon: We recently surveyed 30,000 people and 95 percent of respondents said they had used their branch for books in the last year, and one in every four patrons have used the Library for programs. Of those who have used the Library, 79 percent said they were very satisfied or extremely satisfied with Chicago Public Library services. And 72 percent responded that the Library was very important in their lives. Chicago Public Library is adapting. With our expanded digital offerings -- like our new website with (periodical distributor) Zinio and movie and music distributor Hoopla -- and our Android and iPhone apps -- you can quite literally take the Library anywhere with you. We are a wonderful balance of both a community hub for Chicagoans, and something that is still accessible for people on the go in a digital world.

The Chicago Public Library's new three-year strategy launched earlier this year. Our timeless priorities are to provide access to materials, information ideas and knowledge to all, and to serve our patrons effectively by providing them books, programs and programmatic resources. This strategy will continue to respond to the current and evolving needs of patrons by focusing on three specific areas: nurturing learning for children, teens and adults; supporting economic advancement; and strengthening communities.

How can the library best serve individuals without reliable and regular home Internet access?

Brian Bannon: The Chicago Public Library is already the largest provider of free internet in the city of Chicago, offering computers and Wi-Fi access at 80 locations across the city. In 2015, we plan to go even further with our tech lending with our "Internet to Go" program thanks to a grant from the Knight Foundation we received last year. Earlier in 2014 we submitted a proposal for Internet to Go to the Knight News Challenge and were one of the winners, receiving a $400,000 grant to pilot the project. The Internet to Go Program will lend out Wi-Fi hotspots to patrons for three weeks at a time.

While we aren't ready to announce the locations at this time, we can share that we plan to pilot this program in three targeted neighborhood locations where internet access is particularly low. If the first three locations go well, we will expand to three additional locations. After that, we can explore how to engage this lending city-wide.

Describe examples of how specialists with deep access to technology and learning tools can take advantage of library resources.

Brian Bannon: Our Maker Lab offers access to digital technology, 3D printers, vinyl and laser cutters and even a robotic knitting machine. Some examples of people using the Maker Lab are:

  • A patron who comes in regularly uses the laser cutter to design jewelry to sell on Etsy. She draws the designs and then converts them to digital format and laser cuts them here.

  • A patron worked on a prototype for a dental hygiene instrument -- he used the 3D printer to print out these prototypes.

  • A patron came in to prototype some guitar hardware pieces. He has been printing them in 3D so he can then have molds produced in order to mass produce.

  • A patron from a volunteer organization came in to laser cut name tags for the volunteers in her organization.

  • A doctor from a teaching hospital is creating an image of a patient's skull in order to have a life-size model to see where the physical defects are in order to see how they will need to be repaired. It would cost many hundreds of dollars to have this done elsewhere.

Explain the motivation behind installing a Maker Lab within the Harold Washington Center.

Brian Bannon: The Maker Lab began as the first installation in a series of experimental offerings of our Innovation Lab. It's a hands-on, collaborative learning environment designed to expose Chicagoans to 21st century technology. Patrons come together to share knowledge, design and create. In its first nine months, our Maker Lab had 42,000 visitors and will be open through June 2015 thanks to a grant from the Motorola Mobility Foundation through Chicago Public Library Foundation. The Library's Maker Lab brings the latest in technology to patrons from all over the city -- in a free and welcoming environment where they can master the skills needed to join the maker community.

These skills are essential in the advanced manufacturing world and skills needed to imagine the future. Inventables (a Chicago-based retailer and promoter of 3D Printing equipment) donated 3D printers to our Maker Lab prior to opening. Inspired by our Maker Lab's success, Inventables will be donating 3D printers to other libraries across the United States.

Beyond providing access to knowledge and reading materials, libraries can serve as a place to foster social and collaborative learning. What is your approach to this, particularly for middle school and high school-aged students?

Brian Bannon: Opened in 2009, YOUmedia was the first space devoted to high school teens at the Chicago Public Library, occupying a 5,500-square-foot space on the ground floor of our central library, Harold Washington Library Center, in downtown Chicago. We now have expanded this program to 11 locations. The design of the space is based on the research of Professor Mizuko Ito and colleagues, Living and Learning with Digital Media (2008).

His ethnographic study of more than 700 youth found that young people participate with digital media in three ways: they "hang out" with friends in social spaces such as Facebook; they "mess around" or tinker with digital media, making simple videos, playing online games or posting pictures in Flickr; they "geek out" in online groups that facilitate exploration of their core interests.

We see the library as a node on a teen's pathway to lifelong learning, and we connect teens to other learning opportunities that will lead to skill-building as well as college and career development. YOUmedia connects teens to mentors, 21st century technology, and a space where their social skills and learning can be cultivated in a safe environment.

YOUmedia operates as a drop-in, out-of-school learning environment for teens to develop skills in digital media, STEM and making. We encourage participants to create rather than consume, and teens are encouraged to learn based on self-interest through intergenerational and peer collaborations. Teens learn how to code, record music and videos, create art through different mediums and are encouraged to explore 21st century technology.

Meet the Chicago Mayoral Candidates

Sun, 2015-02-15 20:41
Chicagoans across the city will have the chance to vote for their next mayor Feb. 24. If one candidate earns more than 50 percent of the vote in February, that person will win the election. But if no one receives more than half of voters' support, there will be a runoff election in April. Mayor Rahm Emanuel will face four challengers.

Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Ald. Robert Fioretti, South Side businessman Willie Wilson and community activist William "Dock" Walls are all bidding for the city's top office.

The latest Chicago Tribune poll shows Emanuel with 42 percent support among voters; Garcia trails the incumbent at 18 percent. While Emanuel leads by a comfortable margin, he'll need to win 50 percent-plus-one of total votes to avoid a dicey runoff election against the closest challenger.

Take a look at following infographics for some background information on all five Chicago mayor candidates.

Check out Reboot Illinois to see each candidate's education, experience and other personal information to help you decide for whom to cast your vote.

Sign up for our daily email to stay up to date with Illinois politics.

NEXT ARTICLE: State of the State video highlights: Rauner wants Dem help to take on unions, trial lawyers

Watch Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, Miley Cyrus, Chris Rock And Many Others On The 'SNL 40' Monologue

Sun, 2015-02-15 20:12
Steven Martin didn't host "SNL 40," but he did start the show's monologue. Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks, Chris Rock, Miley Cyrus, Melissa McCarthy, Peyton Manning, Billy Crystal, Paul Simon and Paul McCartney also joined Martin on the "SNL" stage. It was pretty great.

Poll: Gov. Bruce Rauner's Approval Rating Tumbles

Sun, 2015-02-15 09:09
In December, Governor-elect Bruce Rauner told voters "I ain't going to be Mr. Popularity for a little while."

That may be the first promise that he keeps.

A new poll of 908 Illinois voters taken by Chicago-based Ogden & Fry on February 11, after Rauner's first 30 days in office, shows the governor's approval rating at 43 percent.

The survey, commissioned by The Illinois Observer for its subscription e-newsletter, The Insider, reports that 29.7 percent of voters "strongly approve" and 13.4 percent "approve" of Rauner's handling of his job so far. Meanwhile, 28.2 percent of voters disapprove, with 16.2 percent "strongly" disapproving.

"Bruce Rauner has had a very busy and aggressive first 30 days in office," Ogden & Frey's Tom Swiss wrote in the polling memo. "Tensions are running high in Springfield as he has started revealing some of his yet undisclosed positions. While the politicians don't seem to like the change in status quo, 43% of voters either approve or strongly approve of his performance as Governor."

The survey, which had a +/- 3.32 percent margin of error, tested a random sampling of voters who voted in at least one of the last three elections. In a poll leading up to the November 2014 election, Ogden & Fry correctly predicted Rauner's five point win.

Given the low esteem in which the legislature and Congress are held, a 43 percent job approval is not bad.


Tensions may be running high outside of Springfield, too.

Rauner's 43% approval rating is down 9 points and disapproval up five points since a We Ask America January 14th poll that put Rauner's approval at 52 percent and his disapproval 23 percent.

What happened?

He pursued a confrontational approach rejected by voters.

A We Ask America January 15th poll of 1,026 registered voters, commissioned by Capitol Fax's Rich Miller, asked the following question:

"Do you think Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner should try to solve the state's problems by working to find common ground with the Democratic-controlled legislature, or should he take a more confrontational approach with the Democrats in trying to solve this state's many problems?"

The answer?

A whopping 67 percent urged Rauner to "find common ground," while just 22 percent backed confrontation.

The common ground approached was embraced across the ideological spectrum: 84% of Democrats; 63 percent of independents; and even 49 percent of Republicans said find common ground.

Instead, Rauner went confrontational.

In the days leading up to his state of the state speech, the governor rolled out his war against organized labor, core Democratic allies, in a series of speeches across the state, essentially laying the financial woes of Illinois and a culture of "corruption" at the unions' doorstep. He repeated those themes at his February 4 address before the joint gathering of lawmakers.

Even lead balloons have fallen to the ground slower.

Then on Monday the governor lowered the boom on AFSCME issuing an executive order freezing union dues of some 6,000 state employees who wish to opt out of the union. He also announced a federal lawsuit to scuttle the constitutionality of the "fair share" union fee arrangement. He charged that the unions were a "critical cog in the corrupt bargain" in Springfield. The moves grabbed national attention and not so favorable comparisons with Wisconsin's union-busting governor, Scott Walker.

The new Ogden & Fry survey could also be interpreted as a validation of House Speaker Michael Madigan's strategy of avoiding confrontation with Rauner, allowing the merits or demerits of the governor's actions to be judged by voters, not Democratic opposition.

Moreover, the poll may also confirm the angst that some GOP lawmakers are feeling about the governor's full-throated attack on the unions, fearing that slippage of Rauner's approval rating could hit their own numbers, particularly those labor-friendly Republican legislators who may be forced to vote for anti-labor initiatives.

All this before even the Fiscal Year 2016 budget pain is rolled out this week.

Oh, boy!

David also edits The Illinois Observer: The Insider, in which this article first appeared.

American Woman Confessed To Valentine's Day Massacre Plot In Halifax: Canada Police

Sat, 2015-02-14 15:01
TORONTO (AP) — Canadian police have foiled a plot by three suspects who were planning to go to a mall in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and kill as many people as they could before killing themselves on Valentine's Day, police said Saturday. One suspect fatally shot himself as police moved in to arrest him, and an American suspect confessed to the plot when she was arrested at the Halifax airport, a senior police official told The Associated Press.

Police and Canadian Justice Minister Peter MacKay said the plot was not related to terrorism. "This appeared to be a group of murderous misfits that were ... prepared to wreak havoc and mayhem on our community," MacKay said Saturday. "The attack does not appear to have been culturally motivated, therefore not linked to terrorism."

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said friends Lindsay Kantha Souvannarath, 23, of Geneva, Illinois, and Randall Steven Shepherd, 20, of Nova Scotia, have been charged with conspiracy to commit murder.

Nova Scotia RCMP Commanding Officer Brian Brennan said the suspects planned to go to the Halifax Shopping Center and kill as many people as they could on Saturday, Valentine's Day, before taking their own lives.

He told a news conference that police found three long-barreled rifles in the home of a third suspect, a 19-year-old who died before he could be arrested. He did not elaborate on how the suspect died.

But a senior police official told The Associated Press that the 19-year-old male fatally shot himself early Friday after police surrounded his home in the Halifax suburb of Timberlea.

The official said the American woman had prepared a number of pronouncements to be tweeted after her death. Shepard was also arrested early Friday at the airport where he went to meet his friend, police said.

The suspects used a chat stream and were apparently obsessed with death and had many photos of mass killings, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Police acted quickly after receiving information from the public on the Crime Stoppers tip line. The two suspects are due in court on Tuesday.

At the home of the male suspect, police saw two people leave the house who they determined were the 19-year-old's parents and pulled them over on a traffic check. They then called the suspect.

The man told police that he didn't have any guns but shot himself as he was on his way out of the house, the official told the AP.

A neighbor said the 19-year-old had not mixed with others in the neighborhood in recent years.

"He was one of those people who kept to himself, not a people person," said the neighbor, Steven Greenwood.

The official said police worked with Canadian border officials to find the female suspect on her flight as she was making her way from Chicago.

Police in Geneva, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) west of Chicago, searched Souvannarath's home on Friday night and seized several items. Geneva Police Cmdr. Julie Nash refused to describe the items or their potential value as evidence, saying Canadian authorities had requested that such information not be made public.

A former neighbor, Eva Schooley, moved into the same cul-de-sac a few months after the Souvannaraths in 2000 and lived across from them for about a decade. She recalled them as "very nice people" and said they participated in frequent block parties, Easter egg hunts and Halloween parties.

"My granddaughters ran around with Lindsay," she said. "Lindsay was a little strange. I think at one point she went kind of gothic on us for a while. She liked to dress in black, the whole gothic style."

Police said Friday they first received information a day earlier about a potentially significant weapons-related threat.

Tensions remained high in normally calm Halifax. Police responded to reports of shots fired at the Halifax Shopping Center on Saturday night, but backed off when it was determined that seven kids were playing with slingshots. Police tweeted that seven youths were in custody and said there was no active shooter.


Associated Press reporter Jason Keyser in Chicago contributed to this story.

Jeb Bush Won't Talk About Wars His Brother Started

Sat, 2015-02-14 10:52
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has no interest in "re-litigating" the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which began under his brother's administration.

"I won't talk about the past," Bush said at a Friday press conference when asked how he would have handled the conflicts differently, according to The Washington Post. "I'll talk about the future. If I'm in the process of considering the possibility of running, it's not about re-litigating anything in the past. It's about trying to create a set of ideas and principles that will help us move forward."

The governor, who is almost certain to jump into the 2016 race, said that instead he would focus on a positive vision for the country that revolved around the future. He will elaborate on that vision when he delivers what his aides are describing as a major foreign policy address in Chicago next week.

It's unlikely Bush will be able to avoid the subject for long. Democrats are already pointing to his brother's legacy, which has left U.S. forces in the Middle East more than a decade after their initial deployment. Both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars remain unpopular -- with a 2013 poll finding majorities that said the campaigns were not worth the tremendous sacrifice. Some Republicans, too, are likely to criticize Bush over the matter. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), another would-be presidential candidate with libertarian leanings, has spoken out against false pretenses used to justify the war.

At his Friday press conference, Bush suggested that he would address current threats to America, such as the rise of the Islamic State, during his speech next week.

“We have some big, hairy, complicated things we need to fix and one of those is what the role of America is in the world to protect our safety and security, but also to promote security and peace around the world, and I think we can be a force for good," he said.

7 Valentine's Day Charts To Help You Break Down The Holiday

Sat, 2015-02-14 08:14
Whether you love it, hate it, or just find yourself totally over Valentine's Day, we've got the chart for you.

It's no secret that V-Day or Singles Awareness Day (S.A.D.) is often one of the most disappointing holidays of the year, with grand romantic expectations being met with lackluster gestures and dates all too often.

Let these 7 charts help you get real about Cupid's day of obligatory courtship, whether you're celebrating or not.

2015's Trans 100 Event To Be Held In Chicago

Fri, 2015-02-13 15:44
Are you ready for the 2015 Trans 100?

The Trans 100 is an annual event in its 3rd year that honors some of the most influential voices leading the transgender movement. Co-directed by Rebecca Kling and Crispin Torres, this year's Trans 100 will take place on March 29 at Mayne Stage in Chicago and be hosted by Precious Davis and Myles Brady.

Not only that, but the event's keynote address will be delivered by by "The Matrix" and "Cloud Atlas" co-director Lana Wachowski and a performance given by Against Me! lead singer Laura Jane Grace.

"Chicago is proud to host the Trans 100 Live Event for the third year in a row,” Torres said in a statement. “The list honors our trans community in a way that holds up each individual by their varied accomplishments, passion for change and their unique place in their local community. Trans 100 is great way to create visibility and further open the doors for progress for a group of people that are frequently sidelined in the mainstream media and policy change efforts, and I’m proud to help further its mission.”

The Trans 100 functions as an overview of the valuable work being done by individuals across the spectrum of transgender identity. Head here for more information about the Trans 100 and a list of previous nominees.

Playing Devil's Advocate: Will Legal Marijuana Ever Come to Illinois?

Fri, 2015-02-13 15:09
When it comes to legalizing marijuana in Illinois, there are as many opinions as there are Illinoisans. But one Illinoisan, known only as the Devil's Advocate, has some particularly strong ideas.

The Devil's Advocate writes:

If there's one thing we like where I come from, it's good intentions. We've got a road rolling right into my hometown that's paved with them.

But the old highway can always use a little resurfacing, which is why I was so delighted to follow the creation of the Compassionate Use of Medical Marijuana Pilot Program.

Back home, we're counting on the good intentions from this one putting an overlay of gold on the old hometown highway.

Oh, not the good intentions of helping chronically sick people for whom marijuana represents the last hope for relief where pharmaceuticals have failed. Provided the state gets its act together -- and it looks like it finally did -- the program should work as intended.

No, we'll see nary a square foot of asphalt from those good intentions.

I'm talking about the good intentions that went into guarding against the medical marijuana program becoming something more than a means of helping very sick people. All those pages and pages of rules to make sure that only those suffering from specific chronic diseases are allowed access to Illinois-grown cannabis.

Your lawmakers sure twisted themselves into legalistic contortions to make sure the Illinois marijuana law didn't end up like California's, where a hangnail can earn you a cannabis card you can redeem at the friendly drive-thru up the street. Or heaven forbid (pardon the expression), Illinois might end up like Washington or Colorado, where there is no artifice of medical use forming a halo above the iconic herb.

None of that for Illinois. Your lawmakers wrote up reams of rules to make sure Illinois stayed on the side of the angels when it came to recognizing that there's some value in the devil's weed. (That is NOT a derogatory term here, by the way.)

Good intentions. The best. And in a few years I'll be cruising right over them on my daily commute. I've seen this happen before in Illinois...

Read the rest at Reboot Illinois to find out just how long the Devil's Advocate predicts it will take before legal recreational marijuana use comes to Illinois.

NEXT ARTICLE: State of the State video highlights: Rauner wants Dem help to take on unions, trial lawyers

Porchlight's <i>Sondheim on Sondheim</i> Explores the Art of Making Art

Fri, 2015-02-13 14:00
In the new musical revue, Sondheim on Sondheim, the chorus opens the second act with a self-deprecating number about how Stephen Sondheim is a "God." Though the purpose of this second act opener is tongue-in-cheek (Sondheim himself wrote it), I'd argue that most people in the opening night audience of Porchlight Music Theatre's incandescent production certainly felt like they were worshiping one of America's most gifted artists.

As any Sond-head knows, a handful of Sondheim revues, such as Putting it Together or Marry Me a Little, already exist. However, as smartly arranged as they are, they often feel like a crisp and hollow examination of Sondheim's canon. However, Sondheim on Sondheim, which was conceived by Sondheim's long-time collaborator James Lapine and premiered on Broadway in 2010, is the first revue that actually seems to have a firm point of view and an emotional core.

The cast of Porchlight's "Sondheim on Sondheim"

Sondheim on Sondheim's unique structure gives us the backstory behind each tune, as narrated by the master himself via video snippets of both new and archival footage (expert video design by Mike Tutaj). And, as anyone who's seen him speak in interviews, Sondheim is a relaxed and affable storyteller -- one who isn't afraid to speak pridefully of his work, but is also refreshingly frank in admitting when the work didn't hit the mark. The second act digs deeper, letting us peek into the famously reserved Sondheim's personal life, including matters of the heart and his harrowing relationship with his mother.

In short: We fall in love with Sondheim -- the man.

A risk with such a format is the actual performances can be overshadowed by the creator. Thankfully, director Nick Bowling has cast a richly talented and diverse cast of eight performers who more than match the material. Sure -- I've heard many of these songs performed more beautifully, but never with so much singularity and heart. Highlights include Porchlight stalwart Rebecca Finnegan's understated "In Buddy's Eyes," Stephen Rader's tightly wound "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," and a chilling "Something Just Broke" by the cast.

The surprising anchor of this production, however, is the mega-talented Austin Cook, who sets the music spinning through his deft accompaniment and charisma. Sporting a Sondheim-like beard, Cook represents the next generation of talent that "God" himself, I'm sure, would be proud of.

For anyone who finds fascination in the art of making art, Sondheim on Sondheim is a must-see.

"Sondheim on Sondheim" plays through March 15 at Stage 773. More info here >

Civic Federation says Illinois needs a higher income tax

Fri, 2015-02-13 12:25
The Civic Federation, the respected, Chicago-based fiscal watchdog, is hardly a bastion of tax-and-spend liberalism.

It was the leading voice in warning that the state's growing pension debt endangered all of state government. It has issued reams of reports over the years warning that the state was spending far more than it was taking in and needed to overhaul its budget approach. Last May, it ripped Gov. Pat Quinn's proposed budget as a formula for continued fiscal disaster. (That prediction, incidentally, has come true, as the state needs to find $1.5 billion to stay on budget through June 30.)

Yet for the second time in less than a year, the Civic Federation this week issued a warning that the state had put itself in serious financial danger when it allowed its personal and corporate income tax rates to fall by 25 percent on Jan. 1. It also recommends, again, that Illinois consider taxing retirement income and expanding its sales tax as it attempts to stabilize its finances and pay down a $6.4 billion backlog of unpaid bills.

As it recommended last year, the new Civic Federation report advises lawmakers and Gov. Bruce Rauner to raise the personal state income tax rate from 3.75 percent to 4.25 percent and the corporate rate from 5.25 percent to 6 percent. On Jan. 1, a four-year temporary tax increase partially expired, dropping the personal income tax rate from 5 to 3.75 percent and the corporate rate from 7 to 5.25 percent. Letting the tax increase expire arguably was the biggest plank in Rauner's election platform, and he has continued to support the rollback - while occasionally dropping vague hints that the rate might be open to negotiation -- since taking office.

"The incomplete FY2015 budget resulted in a greater deterioration of Illinois' finances and made the necessary actions to fix this crisis even more painful," said Civic Federation President Laurence Msall. "Illinois cannot afford such a steep rollback of its tax rates without eliminating entire areas of State services or completely restructuring the government."

In last year's "State of Illinois 2015 Fiscal Roadmap," the Civic Federation warned that allowing the 2011 income tax increase to expire would send state government over a "fiscal cliff." It recommended numerous changes in tax policy along with spending cuts.

Lawmakers ignored both the tax and spending advice, a fact noted in the newly released "State of Illinois 2016 Fiscal Roadmap."

"Largely as a result, State income tax revenues are expected to plummet by $5.2 billion from FY2014 to FY2016. Because no structural changes in revenues or spending were undertaken for FY2015, the current year's budget is estimated to have a shortfall of as much as $1.5 billion," the new report states.

Read the rest of the article at Reboot Illinois to see a chart explaining Illinois' tax revenues and a few frustrating facts about the state's finances, including its bill backlog pattern.

For many people, another frustrating part of living in Illinois is the state's transportation system. The Metropolitan Planning Council found that half of all Illinoisans are annoyed by their commutes every day and that Chicagoland drivers spend almost three days a year just sitting in traffic. So how do we ease the issue? Read the MPC's Peter Skosey's analysis at Reboot Illinois.

NEXT ARTICLE: Devils Advocate: When will legal marijuana come to Illinois?