By Marla Holt
Every issue in the news these days seems to have an “us versus them” divisive component to it. Stories about racial strife, gun violence, terrorist attacks, and a gridlocked political system clog our news feeds. It’s enough to make you leery of even glancing at the sky-is-falling headlines.
But, we know the news is more complicated than most media diets—composed mainly of sound bites and tweets—would suggest, and there are plenty of reasons for hope. To lift our collective mood, we asked experts at Hamline to help us combat our daily dose of doom by commenting on or sharing examples of good news in their respective fields.
1. Social ills are declining across the board, even given society's stratification.
Ryan LaCount, assistant professor of sociology, points to the overall reduction of many social ills in the United States as good news.
“Violent crime has declined significantly since the 1990s,” he said. Drug use—with the exception of marijuana—is also declining, as is alcohol use, smoking, and driving under the influence. Teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and abortion and divorce rates are all shrinking. “We’ve even seen some small reductions in chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease,” LaCount added.
But, that’s not the impression we get from our 24/7 consumption of media, which can lead us to believe these ills are getting worse.
While overall this is good news, LaCount clarifies that “because our society is stratified, all of these things are becoming more concentrated at the bottom of certain segments of society. So the rates of decline vary, with disadvantaged persons more likely to see a smaller reduction.”
The progress we’ve made is tempered, of course, with the reality of growing inequalities, and LaCount notes that social ills have declined most steeply for relatively well-educated, well-off people. “I want to be very clear that because our society is stratified, those who enjoy the benefits of reduced social ills varies a lot depending on which segment of society they occupy.”
Research has shown that we are drawn to controversy and spectacle, which may contribute to the media focusing on bad news, LaCount said. We’re also the most connected we’ve ever been, which is “forcing us—the privileged—to confront issues, such as racial and criminal justice, that are being brought to the forefront by those who’ve been disadvantaged and had very different life experiences,” he said. “That story and that work is not sexy, but it needs to be told.”
2. Climate change is making us think differently and creatively about our food sources.
Valentine Cadieux, director of environmental studies and sustainability at Hamline, first met artist Marina Zurkow at a University of Minnesota workshop on how climate change will affect how we eat in the future. Participants created new foods from plentiful and overlooked sources, such as snow cones from frozen rain, syrup from creeping Charlie, and “corn dogs” from carp.
“It was about making the best out of what we have and reconsidering the potential for food from sustainable sources, especially those that people traditionally have not looked favorably upon,” Cadieux said.
This past summer, Cadieux teamed up with Zurkow, architect Aaron Marx ’03, and Sarah Petersen, a fellow in Hamline’s sustainability program, to create Making the Best of It: Dandelion, an all-night public art and food event that explored people’s relationship with dandelions. Nearly 500 people sampled dandelions prepared in many forms—such as pickled roots, kimchi pancakes, hot tea, and power bars—by local chefs under sculptural garden shacks. Volunteers—mostly Hamline students—prompted people to discuss the risks of climate chaos, our business-as-usual food system, and short-term food innovations. The project will continue during the 2016–17 academic year through several potluck-style community dinners that explore innovative ways to eat in an unpredictable future, using the dandelion as its poster child, Cadieux said.
“We get hung up on the negative news about climate change and resign ourselves to thinking that the moment for mitigating or changing things has passed us by,” she said.
“Public art is a great resource for engaging people in talking about issues and getting us to creatively approach some of our biggest challenges, such as food insecurity.”
3. Students are harnessing the power of digital media to problem-solve and strengthen human connection.
Aaron McKain, an assistant professor of English who teaches courses in digital media ethics and First Amendment law, said he’s continually amazed by his creative, “digitally native,” and connected students.
“They finally have enough Ghostbusters-type tools at their disposal that they can do things earlier generations never dreamed of doing,” said McKain, noting that technology has turned students into “hustlers” and constant networkers.
When he posed the question: “What if the scientists who said cell phones are dangerous were right?” to his digital media students, they arranged a conference call with several expert sources who had researched the issue in the 1970s, all of whom they’d convinced to talk with the class about their findings. They broadcast the exchange on Hamline Radio and later turned it into a podcast, all without prompting from McKain.
“The technology has shown them how easy it is to connect with people and get ideas out in the world,” McKain said. Other students turned ambient electrical noise they’d recorded into public art, showcasing their unique creations in an exhibit at Como Park.
The potential is there for future leaders and problem-solvers to use the technology they’re so comfortable with in ways beyond cool class projects, McKain said. He’s adjusted his teaching style to match their entrepreneurial spirit. “They expect me to put forward solutions, even if they’re aesthetic or theoretical,” he said.
Generally, he views the current generation of students as optimistic and open to new ways of solving our most entrenched problems.
“Technology has upended politics, journalism, art, and science, and the good news is these students are adapting and using these tools in positive ways, not just for
fun and games.”
4. Critical incident training is teaching police and corrections officers to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations.
Police and corrections officers are learning how to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations, thanks to broader access to critical incident training (CIT), which focuses on compassion, empathy, active listening, and how to bring someone out of crisis.
“A lot of CIT is focused on responding to people with mental illness, but the skills can be applied in any situation involving someone in crisis,” said Jillian Peterson, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice, who is certified in CIT and now teaches it at Hamline as part of a new class titled Mental Illness in the Criminal Justice System. “It’s good to see our curriculum adapting and teaching the skills needed to approach difficult situations,” Peterson said. “Hopefully, this will create a new generation of more compassionate police officers.”
Minnesota is ahead of the curve in educating officers about the latest research on mental illness and personality disorders, Peterson said. Gov. Mark Dayton has indicated that he’d like all of the state’s officers to undergo CIT. As of this fall, all undergraduates who are studying to become police officers will receive the training.
Peterson has already trained corrections officers in the prison system. Initially, they were apprehensive, she said, because CIT goes against what they’re typically taught to do, which is to identify and shut down threats to keep everyone safe. “CIT forces them to take more time, be more patient, and leave more room for the unknown,” Peterson said, noting that, anecdotally, the officers have found CIT effective in reducing suicides and the need for placing prisoners in solitary confinement.
As more incoming officers take courses in CIT, as well as in criminal theory, race, and diversity, Peterson foresees a shift in community policing. “Being a servant in the community and being connected with other social services will be more balanced, creating a new level of trust,” she said.
5. Community gardens are teaching students to be responsible food-shed citizens.
As director of the Wesley Center for Spirituality, Service, and Social Justice, Chaplain Nancy Victorin-Vangerud is inspired by Hamline students’ willingness to take on various social justice projects in which they interact with community members for the greater good.
For example, students are passionate about food justice or “food-shed citizenship,” Victorin-Vangerud said. This summer, Joseffa Smith ’19 and Hannah Hoeger ’19 interned at the SPROUT community garden in partnership with Hamline Church United Methodist. Together with local families, they grew vegetables to distribute to elderly residents in the Hamline Midway area. The garden also provided produce for the church-hosted Keystone food bank and its mobile market that brings healthy food to neighborhoods where it’s needed most.
Not too far away, families and individuals tend more than 50 garden plots, beehives, and an orchard at the Midway Green Spirit Community Garden, which is one of the oldest gardens of its kind in Saint Paul. Intern Olivia Skjervold ’19 cares for the garden’s donation plot, which provides nearly 350 pounds of produce annually for a local food shelf.
“Not only are students gaining urban agriculture knowledge,” Victorin-Vangerud said, “but their leadership skills are emerging while practicing good citizenship and community democracy. These efforts help students see that their neighborhoods—not just now while they’re at Hamline, but later in life too—are their homes, and they’re capable of caring for them in positive ways.”
6. Technology is helping teachers and students learn in ways they never could before.
People learn in different ways, bringing a variety of skills, interests, and needs to the classroom, said School of Education Associate Dean Vivian Johnson, a professor in Hamline’s Advanced Degree and Administrative License program, which drives the need to counter a one-size-fits-all approach to education.
“I’m excited about the idea of universal design for learning, which takes a flexible approach to both curriculum development and physical environments so that learning can be customized and adjusted for individual needs,” said Johnson, noting that advances in technology have allowed educators to apply the concept.
For example, in earlier grade levels, students’ ability to read often varies widely. Using interactive software allows students to hear the pronunciation of words and see images of objects and places in context, such as how far California is from Minnesota, a concept that can be hard to grasp for a child who has never traveled. “It can make a huge difference for those students who have opportunity gaps,” Johnson said.
Game-based learning, or gamification, is also getting a lot of attention, Johnson said. “Content-related games can be very engaging for this plugged-in generation and offer ways to design personalized experiences that motivate students.” One of her master’s degree candidates who teaches a high school course on conservation is using a game to raise students’ awareness of their power usage and ecological footprint.
“Technology has reached a level of sophistication that has tremendous power to make a significant difference in learning,” Johnson said. “That’s very exciting for the field of education.”
7. Practicing yoga or meditation can help us react more positively to stressful situations (or bad news).
Lisa Stegall, assistant professor of biology and director of the Public Health Sciences program, wants us all to take a deep breath and slow down.
“Today’s world of gun violence, health disparities, and political unrest is taking a toll on everyone,” she said. “It can affect public health, and we need to improve the way we respond and react to all of the negativity we take in.”
Practicing yoga or meditation allows us to hit our reset button by stepping away from the chaos, worry, and angst.
“Finding some peace, even if it’s temporary, can do a world of good,” Stegall said.
Research has shown that calming our thoughts and bodies can help us interact better with the world around us. Stegall, together with Eric Lindahl ’14 and Katherine Tilton ’15, authored a study on yoga and its effect on older people that found perceived stress levels lowered significantly in already active, healthy older adults after they practiced yoga twice a week for seven weeks.
“Their stress perceptions reduced dramatically and their perception of their emotional wellness significantly improved,” Stegall said. The study suggests that by taking the time to step outside the craziness of what’s going on in the world and re-centering and refocusing ourselves, we can “open up to more peaceful, thoughtful, and kinder discourse,” she said.