Reflective Ways to Engage with Rural USA: A Case with Devon

After 2016 and in the whirlwind that is our current political system, liberal America has gained a new fascination with rural and conservative America, and it can be unproductive. We look at rural America under a microscope, travel through as if we’re in a far away land, and marvel as we observe how culturally different we are from them, how far away we are isolated in the city and in universities, and the poverty that has stricken shrinking spaces as if it wasn’t intentional or a direct product of capitalism and other systems.

However, Devon Shapiro approaches rural America with a more empathetic lens. He explains his reasoning for why he looks to rural and conservative groups, “I’m interested in politics and interested in thinking about what role I can play. At least in my lifetime, the political system feels crazy. What role I might consider playing in that?” And as someone from rural-conservative spaces, what is the best role to play in these spaces?

In an effort to understand his role and participate in the unruly political sphere, Devon went back to where he grew up in a semi-rural town in Ohio to canvas for Danny O’Connor in the special election.

He tells a story of this experience: “I consider myself progressive, I vote for democrats. I met a lot of people that would say, ‘you know what I care about it my children getting good jobs, social security, and you know, whether medicaid and medicare are going to be there.’

And, you know, I’d say, ‘Well, I’ve got a good idea for you, you should vote for Danny O’Connor!’ But they didn’t see it that way.

They weren’t really sure… they’d been republicans their whole lives. A lot of people wanted to talk about 2016, and they would say between those two candidates, this is a direct quote, ‘Do you want me to stab myself or shoot myself?’

I didn’t want them to do either of those things!

And I thought this was kind of this crazy, defeatist, nobody in politics cares about me, has my best interest at heart. Like why is someone so disaffected but can clearly articulate that they care about medicare medicaid social security, things that clearly the democratic party has become their issues.”

While recounting his experiences canvassing, Shapiro referenced The Politics of Resentment, a book by Kathy Cramer discussing the growing urban-rural divide in the US. In the book, Cramer explains a recurring pattern she hears while interviewing and speaking with folks throughout rural Wisconsin. People keep saying, “ I don’t have any evidence, but this is what I think.” This word of mouth reinforces already held beliefs in the communities through echoing feedback loops.

A key question Shapiro grapples with is how do we give those people that data? Or, rather, is thier perhaps lack of interest in data a function of the human condition?

In liberal spaces and especially in academia, we take data, rigorously acquired, to be the word of God. Yet, we forget that in other spaces, in rural and conservative spaces, the word of God is still the word of God, or at least as Devon found, something else reminiscent of it.

While in school, Devon became fascinated by the apparent contradiction that was rural evangelical protestant capitalists. He explains, “if you read the bible, ‘protect thy neighbor,’ like if you had to go from the bible to a government economic system, for sure you would go socialism. The question became, why do people who literally think the bible is the word of god, take it literally, how in the world do they support neoliberal economic policy?”

From this question, we began to dive into “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” an infamous book that found, basically, that rural voters do not vote in their best interest. The author, a journalist, argued that though a democratic candidate will offer agricultural subsidies, the farmer will still vote for the republican.

Devon explained the critique of the author, “You, Mr. journalist, can’t make a value judgement on why someone votes the way they vote. They have things they care about and vote on what they care about. Clearly these people in Kansas care about things that aren’t agriculture subsidies. And clearly you think they should care about the economy or what you care about but they don’t.”

Some of the liberal fascination with rural America is frustrating, for we can use it as a way lump an entire group together and speak of them as if they are all ignorant. ”They don’t look at data? They don’t prioritize economic interests? Not smart.” It can be annoying because we can so easily name their voting habits as a moral failing, an act of ignorance, not a reflection of something else. Therefore, we act as if the voting separation is a result of us (liberal leaning folk) being good and them (conservative or rural) being bad people, not something much more complex and nuanced. We have begun studying these rural spaces and doing the work to understand how different (and similar) they can be from spaces at MIT and in Massachusetts, yet we still offer rural spaces the same language of data assuming it will have the same effects on rural folks as it does with liberal people.

I’m not advocating to not use data. But as Devon questioned whether this was something we should be trying to get rural folks or not, I think we need to reflect and approach rural spaces and people with understanding, respect, and intentionality. To do anything less would be disrespectful to them, but also an absolute disservice to those trying to organize social and political movements against Trump who have potential allies in rural disgruntled communities.

Some of my frustration stems from the condescending tone that some folks in white, liberal, northern spaces can take towards those in rural, conservative spaces. We often hear how these folks dehumanize others, are racist, and are ignorant. Perhaps this is true about some, but it is also true about people in liberal cities. Boston can judge those in the south for being explicitly racist, but those in the north are covertly so, segregating cities, participating in harsh crime laws, all under the guise of being allies, and then judge rural communities for voting based on their values rather than data. Post Trump election, spaces in the urban north observe these rural spaces under a microscope and wonder why they don’t think in the right way. Yet, they have honesty and transparency about their values and act in line with them, a trait that not all liberal spaces carry.

For these white liberal people, I believe as a first step, it can be helpful to break down the assumption that the way people in liberal spaces think is the right way. I think understanding and respecting the ethic and approach of rural and conservative America is a second step. Devon finished with a simple summary I valued: “[I’m] fascinated by this apparent contradiction. These people don’t think the way I think they should think, but they aren’t dumb. There is a logic to it. And I might disagree with that logic, but it is about appreciating that and understanding that.” Of course, we shouldn’t accept racist and dehumanizing views. Yet, understanding why they hold these views can help inform next actions and steps to create positive change within rural spaces.

The shape of the clean meat industry

I made a story about clean meat on Graph Commons that you can check out here. It’s a bit light as an explainer piece as it took me a while to find a decent, online graph maker.

Graph Commons is a relatively intuitive tool to use. While I was excited about the speed at which I could build the graph, I quickly noticed difficulties between what I envisioned and what this tool offered.

  • It’s difficult to create clustering based on your choice of features e.g. food product or investors
  • Nodes have categories, the highest level of grouping, and properties which can provide additional information. You can’t color nodes based on their property.
  • Their story feature is shaped around slides and zooming in on sections of the graph. You can’t have a story where the graph is built (through animation) alongside a main body of text. A good example of this would be where the media supports the text.

Still, Graph Commons may be a good tool to draft a graph and export the data to a more customizable tool.

On the general idea of incorporating graphs into storytelling, it’s much more feasible to have it manually authored rather than computer generated. Although the most useful form of the tool might be a browser extension that generates a graph as you read an article, that’s difficult. Automatically generating graph networks based on text is an ongoing (read: unsolved) research field for knowledge representations in artificial intelligence. On the hand, having the author create the graph and its animation alongside the article is a natural extension of curating a story into an article, creating a graphical structure alongside a textual one. The trade-off is that requires more work on the author’s part. This additional work may be offset if the author considers it a valuable tool to use while they’re crafting the story. Humanizing the news, one perspective at a time

By Josh, Drew and Arthur

For our Future of News project, we set ourselves the goal of “Humanizing the news”. Our efforts took the form of a series of iterations between experimenting with and implementing innovations in how news stories are sourced and presented. The slides we presented in Wednesday’s class are here.

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Final project / Eva on Europeans and their stories

Dear Classmates,

To follow up on my presentation in class  last Wednesday, I am sending you the link to the website of my project on storytelling and the European identity (thank you again Katrine for your help!)

I am planning on continuing exploring the project, and would love to have your feedback and hear your thoughts and suggestions about any improvement you might think of. Please, fell free to reach out at my personal email address is:
I look forward to hearing back from you, and best of luck for the presentations tomorrow!
All the best,
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Who loses when foreign aid is slashed

Among the details of the 2018 budget proposal presented this week by the Trump administration were plans to slash nearly 30% of the combined State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) budget, with most of the cuts going to foreign aid and assistance.

Climate change work, unsurprisingly, was targeted for elimination or heavy cuts, but other programs included wide-ranging issues and departments such as the Bureau for Food Security, numerous global health programs, the ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, and general development assistance.  

There are many justifiable criticisms of international aid and the bureaucracy of institutions and most people would admit these agencies could be made more efficient. But foreign aid can also clearly save lives and improve living conditions, and many economists have pointed out what a tiny percent it constitutes of the U.S.’s overall federal budget (1.3 percent) and how, despite being the world’s biggest donor, how little we pay relative to GDP in comparison to the world’s other rich countries (.17 percent compared to .7 percent by the UK for example).  The Council on Foreign Relations has a good run down of these issues here.

There are so many other numerous pressing issues commanding our attention these days in terms of petitions to sign, marches to attend, and collective action to be planned. Restoring the Bureau for Food Security may not be the easiest cause to galvanize such acts.  So I’ll make it very simple, here are some places you can support with your wallet to attempt to cover some of the gaps should these cuts be made:


Global Health

Miraculously, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has avoided the chopping block. But numerous other programs in multiple countries will likely be effected. Besides the major intergovernmental and multilateral agencies,  Doctors Without Borders is a perennial favorite. But here are aggregations of other possible groups at the global ( here, here, here, here,) regional and local  here, here,  here, here, here and  here ) levels.

Food Security

The major intergovernmental and multilateral agencies play a big role here but other global and local groups also significantly contribute. See aggregations here, here, here and  here.

Women’s issues

The broad category of women’s issues of course can intersect with global health, development, civil liberties and numerous other issues. But here are some places to start:

Global groups  here , here and here. And an overview of a selection of regional groups herehere,  here and here .


This provides only the tip of the iceberg of groups working on these issues and, by virtue of necessity, skews heavily towards bigger organizations with a more global scope. Ideally, we would choose the issues that most matter to us and research local groups whose crucial and informed work provides the most sustained commitment.


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Fighting Corruption: An Active Pursuit

On Monday, the U.S. State Department posted a story about Donald Trump’s private club, Mar-a-lago. The State Department deleted the post but not before it was tweeted by various U.S. Embassies. The Guardian referred to the post as a blatant “plea for corruption.” This most recent event is one in a series of incidents that have raised serious questions about conflicts of interest and other ethical violations on the part of the Trump administration. Since taking office on January 20, 2017, the Trump administration has faced criticism for a wide variety of potentially corrupt practices involving US corporations, foreign states, transnational and foreign corporations, and nepotism.

Concerns about corruption are not limited to one party or administration, and reports of political corruption and crony capitalism have emerged outside of the administration. These include sitting congressman Chris Collins, who invested $2.2 million dollars in the IPO of Innate, an Australian pharmaceutical company. The congressman exploited a loophole in disclosure laws that do not require the reporting of foreign stock acquisitions by elected officials.

Public anger toward government corruption is driving voter sentiment not only in the United States but also globally. Protests have occurred in Europe (particularly eastern European countries like Romania), Russia, and almost every country in South America. South Korea impeached its sitting president on corruption charges following massive public demonstrations, and Brazil is currently in the middle of its first general strike since 1989. 

Corruption can take many forms and directly affects the ability of citizens to influence their political systems. It widens economic disparities and increases political instability by undermining the rule of law.

If news of the daily shenanigans in Washington feels overwhelming, save time by checking in with a couple of sites that will cut down on the mental fatigue. What The F*ck Just Happened Today? is a well-curated, daily compilation of news about the “shock and awe” of national politics, and the website,, is tracking 292 reports of suspected corruption linked to the Trump administration. The sheer number of instances of corruption can seem overwhelming and intractable, but citizens do have the ability to advocate for change.

Donating to organizations provides financial support for anti-corruption efforts. The ethics watchdog group, Common Cause works to expose political corruption and address issues like political gerrymandering. The group filed an ethics complaint on behalf of the public about the Mar-a-lago post. seeks to curb corruption at the city, state, and federal levels through the American Anti-Corruption Act. Transparency International also offers a number of ways for citizens to get involved with fighting corruption. 

Volunteering time or specialized skills to anti-corruption efforts through the organizations listed in this article may be of interest to some readers. Emerging possibilities for citizen participation include efforts to crowdsource fact checking.  More than 1000 volunteers participated in fact checking donor information for Donald Trump’s inauguration, which led to the uncovering of numerous errors. I spent about twenty minutes looking up information on the spreadsheet and really enjoyed participating. The non-profit organization Propublica recently shared access to financial disclosures of Whitehouse staffers with the public. These distributed efforts are in their infancy but show promise and are worth keeping an eye out for in the future.

American corruption and alt-right influence has gone global, with the Kushner family soliciting funds from real estate investors in Beijing in connection with a controversial visa program, and the American alt-right attempting to influence the 2017 French election. Global issues can be combatted on a local level. Help maximize grassroots efforts in your community and your voting power with this checklist. 

Quick tips for active citizenship: Active Citizenship Cheat Sheet

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How to give it all away: Steps toward smarter giving

Have you wanted to have more impact after the election of President Trump in the fall? Have you considered donating to the ACLU or Planned Parenthood?

I get you. I have also looked for ways to contribute what I can. The ACLU and Planned Parenthood support causes that I care for. They are credible organizations. But a new article on, “Rich charities keep getting richer. That means your money isn’t doing as much good as it could,” reminded me to get perspective.

The article summarizes why the big charities keep receiving donations at the expense of smaller, possibly more effective charities, challenges for nonprofit startups, and elements of the ‘effective philanthropy’ movement. Yet, it left me wondering what I can actually do. 

What action can I take to make my money count? How can I learn more about making my dollars go farther toward making the world better?

I have wrestled with these questions and want to share with you a few steps of varying time commitments that can help you learn about how to make your money count.

First, GiveWell—”a nonprofit dedicated to finding outstanding giving opportunities“ [1]—is a useful resource, even if you choose not to listen their advice. GiveWell was started in 2007 by two guys in the finance industry struggling to identify the best giving opportunities. Take two minutes and read their Giving 101. Then take another few minutes to explore their website and learn how they research and evaluate charities.

Second, Effective Altruism has a ten-minute written introduction to concepts for doing good better and how to direct our efforts. You don’t need to agree with what the intro suggests. You will still find value in these perspectives and in being mindful of what impact you want to have.

Lastly, if you prefer videos to text, check out Esther Duflo’s 17-minute TED talk on social experiments to fight poverty. Duflo is the founder and director of the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a research network that evaluates social programs, and a Professor in Economics at MIT. If the TED talk interests you, you’ll enjoy the award-winning [2] book Poor Economics coauthored by Duflo.

Money can do so much good if given to the right organizations. You can make a tangible, measurable difference with your money. The first step is to learn about how your money can do most good.

[2] The book Poor Economics won the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award as well as the Financial Times Business Book of the Year.

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Eating disorders insurance coverage – and actually getting part of your expenses paid for

According to national surveys, approximately 30 million people will experience an eating disorder throughout their life. These illnesses are life threatening (and even the third cause of death for women in America) and involve mental and physical aspects that both have to be equally seriously treated. The earlier the diagnosis, the more chances of recovery a patient has. In any case, these illnesses cannot go untreated: they necessitate important medical attention, and in a lot of cases this involves full time hospitalization, also known as inpatient care. If he or she can pay.

The American Psychiatric Association distinguishes between five levels of care when it comes to treating eating disorders. First are three levels of outpatient care going from appointments with a psychiatrist to a partial hospitalisation, also known as full day outpatient care. On a fourth level is residential treatment and on a fifth inpatient treatment, which involves the patient being locked up in a specialized treatment center.These levels are gradual and they are meant to respond in the best way possible to the specificities of each patient’s case. At least on paper.

The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has extensive documentation explaining how a general care provider usually decides on which level of care would best fit a patient and accurately respond to its medical needs. The text provided by the association reads, as one of its first points:

« The intensity and duration of the treatment depends on:

  • Insurance coverage limits and ability to pay for treatment »

In reality, money often comes before a patient’s medical needs. Obtaining coverage for eating disorder treatments is paved with obstacles and mentally exhausting for the families of patients who already have to go through their loved one’s illness (when patients are lucky enough to have people caring about them, and families willing to take the time to help). Getting an insurance provider to reimburse these types of medical expenses often involves having to make appeals and calling the insurer multiple times, being « persistent, assertive and rational ». It also involves getting as much information on the plan as possible, even if this usually involves reading the full description of the plan and « this document may be longer than a hundred pages », states once again the NEDA. What about those who do not have the legal literacy to understand what is at stake in those documents? Those who do not have parents or family to take care of the paperwork for them? The NEDA also stresses the usefulness of hiring an attorney to help with the case. What about those who cannot afford legal representation, as they are additionally most likely to be the ones who cannot afford care in the first place?

All in all, in the United States, getting access to a decent and appropriate treatment and partial coverage for the expenses attached to it appears almost as complicated as getting a PhD.

Insurers do not cover eating disorder expenses the same way. On paper, the situation is better than it what it used to be prior to December 2016, date at which a new law concerning the obligation for insurance providers to cover equally for physical and mental expenses passed. However, in reality, getting an insurer to reimburse these expenses is still very complicated, and no insurance plan will cover them entirely. Most plans propose to cover 12 psychiatric visits per semester. In many cases, these are of course not sufficient. Inpatient care costs on average 30 000$ a month, and many parents have so far had to find ways to pay for this through other means, among which the dilapidation of their retirement savings.

Primary care providers are the ones deciding over what is the most adapted treatment, considering their patient’s condition and financial resources. A treatment center is chosen according to the insurer’s affiliations with those types of structures. The care provider also discusses with the insurer, and even if the insurer does agree to pay part of the expenses, demands for extensions have to be made on a regular basis. Most of the time, insurance providers agree on covering several days of treatment, when inpatient treatments often requires the stay to be a few months before they start being effective. Moreover, the insurer can deny further care if it notices a « lack of progress in treatment », which manifests itself either by the patient « not restoring weight », « no reduction in behaviors », or a« lack of motivation in treatment ». However, eating disorders are also mental issues, and the patient is not always willing to get better  in the first place as he is mentally caught in a vicious circle. It is often the families who have to take action, and take their love one to see a care provider or a psychiatrist.

In anyway, being met by a refusal of even partial coverage for those medical expenses is stressful, and puts an additional burden on already worried families. Here are three ways to try to unlock your situation, and one way in which the system could be amended – but this last element requires an increase in awareness, and would need people to bring the issue in the spotlight for actors to take on the issue.

NEDA: A first step towards getting your insurer to cover for part of your expenses

Denial of coverage or refusal to provide further care can of course, be appealed. As odd as it may sound, these denials are actually to be expected. Families and patients should not feel desperate by these steps that are most of the time mandatory obstacles before getting partial financial coverage. NEDA provides extensive documentation, available to families for free. This documentation is highly valuable, and needs to be checked if needing guidance on how to make an appeal . NEDA proposes models of letters (p.53) that can be sent to insurers, and phone call scripts worth consulting (p.60).

NEDA also offers a helpline (1-800-931-2237). However, this helpline is not meant to provide help on extensive case to case solutions. If requesting a lawyer to manage your case is too expensive, you should consider taking the next step: contacting your representative in Congress.

Your representative: don’t be afraid to take the step – especially if you are covered by Medicare

Contacting a US representative is most efficient if your medical coverage is Medicare / Medicaid, as these are federal agencies. Your congressman might not have as much leverage if your health care plan is private.

You can find your own representative here, and should try to give a phone call to its cabinet in order to clearly expose your problem. You should not try to contact more than one of your representatives at the time, as this will not make your request process faster. Stressing the urgency of your request might be worth a try, but remember that in most cases you will have to be patient. However, cabinet members are hired to serve the representatives’ constituants, and these are issues they are here tackle. It can just take time.

The grant option

If you are unable to pay for the very out of the pocket cost of the coverage, which can rise up to 6000$ depending on your health plan, (such as for Blue cross Blue Shield), one solution might be to request a grant. Non profit associations, most of the times funded by family members of deceased patients, do propose such awards on return of application. Here is one you can contact to ask for financial help. You will have to return an application form, that can be downloaded here.

Moving forward

In a perfect world there would, of course, be universal and full healthcare coverage (if in search of an example, most european countries do so and it works -and Scandinavian countries are particularly good at this.) However, this is highly unlikely to happen in a near / far future.

What could be done, then? Private foundations should step in, and consider providing fundings to create structures that could provide eating disorder treatment for free. For the most part, these illnesses target young people, who have a future and a role to play in our society. Funding such structures is giving them a chance to recover and fully take advantage of what lies ahead. Private organisations in foreign countries already do fund such treatment centers. In France, the Maison de Solenn is funded by Jacques and Bernadette Chirac via the Fondation des Hôpitaux de Paris, and provides inpatient and outpatient care to anorexic girls. Why not transpose this model to the United States? Demand for such structures is high, and there is a lot of work lying ahead to change how eating disorders are taken into account in the united states, and who gets access to treatment.

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Unemployment in Serbia

Article note

After doing the article we realized that the topic might not be the best example for this exercise since bringing up solutions for unemployment is not very controversial. However, it is a topic that (unfortunately) is needed to be discussed in Serbia and that requires them to take actions individually.

The overall proposal for “solution journalism” is that in the future there would be a parallel set of articles linked to traditional issue reporting articles. Thus, there would be journalists that focus on bringing together different possible options (or the awareness of the lack there off) and experts debates on pros and cons of the solutions and their possible long term outcomes.
Maddie, Sruthi, Dijana


Unemployment in Serbia action Unemployment in Serbia

Unemployment in Serbia action

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