Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

Author Debbie Urbanski on the deck of her home in Syracuse, N.Y. Photo © Jim McKeever

Debbie Urbanski writes with raw honesty about the choices we make as individuals and as a species. She examines the vulnerability of a woman who discovers she has inherited a BRCA1 breast cancer mutation (herself) and the fate of a planet whose inhabitants continue to make choices that are not sustainable. 

And she does all of this with a sense of humor. 

Urbanski has been published in dozens of magazines and literary journals since 2003. Several of her short stories and essays have won awards and have been selected for “Best of” anthologies. Her first novel, “What Comes After the End,” will be published next year by Pantheon Books.

Urbanski calls her fiction “speculative,” rather than applying a label of science fiction or fantasy. She also writes essays on climate change, species extinction, nature and her own physical and mental health.

She is a regular contributor to The Sun magazine, including her recent essay, “Inheritance,” about inheriting a mutation of the BRCA1 tumor suppressor gene, which increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Urbanski’s grandmothers and an aunt died of cancer, the oldest at age 61. Two of them had a variant, or mutation. In the essay, Urbanski writes about the emotional and physical toll of learning of her “inheritance” and her decision to undergo major surgeries. 

Urbanski and her husband, Harold, and their two children (Jasper, 14, and Stella, 11) live in Syracuse, N.Y. Jim McKeever visited with Urbanski on the family’s backyard deck. Here are excerpts from that conversation, and from follow-up e-mails. 

Q. Why don’t we start with your novel coming out next year, the whole process?

A. I’m editing now. I’ve been working on it seven, maybe eight years. Some parts of it have been published in The Sun — apocalyptic, environmental climate change stories, and the same characters are the people in the novel. It takes place in the future and I’m imagining humans going extinct as a solution to climate change. And it’s told backwards. There’s A.I. (artificial intelligence), as narrator, so there’s a lot going on.

Q. What was the germ of it? You delve into sci-fi a lot, and children are probably part of it. 

A. I love apocalyptic fiction just as a reader, but I think what always frustrated me was the entertainment value in it. I mean I love getting lost in heroic stories of the end of the world and survival, but I was interested in a non-heroic story. Humans are such a small part, a speck in the big picture. All species eventually go extinct, so that got me thinking, what if that happens sooner? And then I started reading more and more about climate change and species extinction, and started questioning whether we should prioritize humans vs. other species when we’re thinking about climate change. 

Q. In your non-fiction, you put yourself out there as far as vulnerability, your family and physical and mental health. That’s really courageous.

A. I guess I feel like the mental health stuff, the depression, also for the BRCA1 mutation and the surgeries I went through, I feel like that’s important to try and verbalize or get out there. I wish there were more writers that I could have seen being OK on medication. I Googled and I looked and I looked, but I think a lot of writers are still uncomfortable about it. I myself was really uncomfortable about it.

And with the BRCA1 stuff, it’s kind of the same, it’s still kind of new, they’re testing more and more. I don’t see a lot of essays, there’s a lot of articles that are helpful, but it’s not about the emotional experience. Those topics felt important. That said, it is weird having that stuff published. Writing it is one thing, and realizing people are reading it, it’s different for non-fiction. I think the hardest part was going through it, to be honest, so writing gave me some nice closure. 

Q. I detect some humor in your writing, self-deprecating or dark humor. Like when you broke your leg in a fall in the Adirondacks. I confess I laughed out loud at, “I asked my husband to shoot me. We didn’t have a gun, of course. All we had was Advil.” Where does that come from?

A. Good, I’m glad that comes through. I think partially the topics I write about are pretty dark most of the time, so I also think looking back at a lot of moments, they’re so surreal they are kind of funny. I jot them down. I can’t believe we actually said this stuff, but we did. The humor I think comes from it being surprising or weird or strange, so I don’t do it intentionally. I think it’s just how things in retrospect feel and sound. 

Q.  We have to laugh at ourselves occasionally.

A.  Yeah, yeah, in some of the pieces about the BRCA1 stuff, I had my dead relatives come and question, “Why are you writing about yourself so much?” and the question about why I was making my — I was calling it suffering, and they’re like, “Whatever, that’s not even close to what we experienced,” so it gave me an opportunity to have a little voice in my head come out, in a funny way maybe. 

Q. There’s a character Dana in one of your apocalyptic stories who has to record everything. She’s the witness, and it doesn’t matter if anyone else gets to read it. You obviously have an audience, but why do you do this?

A. I feel like often I find holes in genres or in stories. I’m interested in what I feel is missing. That’s why I’m interested in genres, in science fiction, fantasy. The idea of portals (temporary passages to another world) fascinated me for a while — what if somebody never gets to see those? It’s so often a story of someone who goes through a portal, what about the people left behind? Or can’t find their portal. That’s a fantastical example.

I guess some of my non-fiction, like the BRCA stuff, I feel I want more about the experience to be out there so if people go through it they feel like other people have gone through it as well. 

With my novel — why am I writing my novel? (laughs) We hike a lot. I care very deeply for the forests around here, and other species. I do hope the novel gets people to think. I hope they also enjoy it as a novel, but I would love for someone to think about, “Are these the right choices we should be making for the entire earth rather than just ourselves?” 

Q. I don’t know if you want to delve into the political realm right now. I saw in one interview, your concern about the rise of right-wing extremists out there … 

A. I wrote a short story (“Long May My Land Be Bright,” in the New England Review) about envisioning the country as having two presidents. There was an even-day president and an odd-day president and the country splits off. It’s very fantastical. Your neighbor could be an “oddist,” I called it, and they have to pretend to be an “evenist” on even days. Eventually these rifts, these holes in the ground, started opening around neighborhoods and in cities and they got so wide people couldn’t cross them. So I guess that describes my feeling about what is happening. I love thinking of it as a physical distance between each other.

Q. In a 2018 interview about the writing process, you were asked how you know when you’re done. I think your answer was something like revise, revise, revise and if you reach a point where it seems like “I didn’t write the words at all, that these words have always been this way,” that’s when you know it’s finished. I found that fascinating. 

A. It’s kind of magical when that happens. 

Q. Does it happen every time?

A. Usually I don’t have actual deadlines, so this (the novel) is a weird experience for me. Generally I’m writing essays or short stories and I send them out so I can take as long as I want on them. I have the luxury of going over and over and over them until everything is like I want it. So it has happened. At The Sun they do a lot of editing, they send back their edits and when I’m reviewing them I think, “I would never have said that, had written it that way,” and I assume they changed it, but no actually I wrote it and I just forgot that I had. I hope it’ll happen with this novel. 

Q.  Your background and education — you’re from Minnesota?

A. I was born in Chicago. We lived in a suburb growing up, I moved to Minnesota for college where I met my husband. We went to Minneapolis for a couple of years and moved out here to go to grad school (she has an MFA from Syracuse University’s creative writing program). We co-own a letterpress business, Boxcar Press, so the presses moved with us and were in our house for a while. I ended up working with Boxcar Press during grad school instead of teaching. I ended up working with my husband for a long time after I graduated before I decided to write more and spend more time with the kids.

Q. Do you want to talk about the pandemic, and the effect on your writing, your life? 

A. Our letterpress shop prints wedding invitations and nobody was getting married. There were a lot of scary things about the pandemic for a lot of reasons, but one of them was watching businesses really dwindling to nothing until the government was able to step in with all the loans and support. I’m a writer and I sold my book, but we still need our business to survive. So that was stressful. I did try writing in that time, when I was really stressed and nervous and wondering whether our livelihood was going to go away. 

I remember walking with my daughter — we go on a lot of walks together — and we were walking maybe a day or two after things shut down and there were no cars on the street. We were walking down the middle of the road, no people, it really felt post-apocalyptic. Whenever I saw somebody I was so grateful somebody else was out there. But people are getting married again and the business is more stable, and the kids went back to school, the vaccines, things are feeling more normal. 

Q. I remember one of your stories, it was in the Sun in 2019 and has to do with a virus —

A. — That’s my book!  

Q.  So you were prescient in regard to that. Did you think about that once COVID hit?

A. Everybody’s going to think I wrote (the novel) in reaction to COVID, right? But it is amazing how I feel like lot of novels and movies that are post-apocalyptic kind of nailed how things were slowly falling apart. I’m glad they stopped, in the books they keep falling. But at that beginning stage, they really understand what it’s like even though they imagined it. 

Q. I started following you on Instagram. Does photography serve a particular purpose for you, as a human being or as a writer?

A. Lately I’ve been interested in trying to identify plants and insects since I got a macro lens. I love just putting the camera with the macro lens on the ground and taking pictures to kind of see what things look like down there.

Q. I saw some of your photos of ants and dandelions.

A.  l feel kind of bad about the ant thing. I really want to write more about the environmental landscape, I feel like such an intruder sometimes — here I was lifting up this pot and then the ants had their eggs, some stage of eggs, they were trying to save the little white things, so it really disturbs them and I did it to get a picture.

I’m interested in the kind of choices people and companies are making on a larger level. It’s just me and my backyard and my ants, but a lot of times people make the same choices with bigger repercussions. So with photography I guess I’m excited by looking at things close up. I had no idea dandelions are so beautiful, or anything when you look at it close up.

Q. Are you optimistic about the way things are going, pessimistic, or do you go back and forth about our society, our planet?

A.  I think I’m more — rather than optimistic or pessimistic, it’s more maybe just a sense of acceptance that (pause) I’m not sure I want to say it, I don’t think things will go great for the planet. 

I think we’re prioritizing humans over natural spaces, over other species.  I feel like there’s going to be a lot of extinctions. And I think that’s going to be a huge loss. All the stuff I’ve read, it’s about how we can keep our lives as close to how they are now, how can we use technology to make our impact less but still have everything we have now. I feel like there’s not a discussion about the radical changes we would need. I feel terrible saying that. So I don’t know … I think there’ll always be dandelions (laughs) and ants. They’re amazing! Maybe there will be a lot of loss, but we’ll find some new forms of nature. 

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. In the spirit of the quirky biography blurbs published by The Sun magazine, Urbanski would someday like to eat the ripe fruit of a mayapple, and she recently learned that everything is beautiful when looked at close up (except, perhaps, jelly fungus.)



I am in awe of James Baldwin. 

The novelist, poet, essayist and activist has been in vogue recently, thanks in part to the 2020 re-release of the documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” and scholarly books such as Eddie S. Glaude’s “Begin Again.”

Baldwin, who died in 1987, was a brilliant writer and champion of civil rights and a lightning rod for criticism. As an outspoken gay Black man, he was attacked from every corner, including by fellow Black civil rights activists. 

“I Am Not Your Negro” includes excerpts of a 1965 debate Baldwin had with conservative icon William F. Buckley at Cambridge University in England. The motion, or subject, of the debate was, “Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?” 

The entire debate is on YouTube, and it is fascinating viewing. Baldwin is absolutely mesmerizing throughout his 20-minute argument. 

The most powerful point he made, one that still resonates, was his empathy toward White racists in America, particularly in the Deep South.

He cites infamous Sheriff James Clark of Selma, Alabama, who led violent attacks on Black Americans during 1965’s “Bloody Sunday” on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, and other physical assaults on civil rights demonstrators, particularly Blacks trying to register to vote.

Baldwin tries to understand why Clark was so cruel, and said that no one, including the sheriff, can simply be “dismissed as a total monster.” 

Sheriff Clark, Baldwin said, “doesn’t know what drives him to use the club, the menace of the gun, and to use a cattle prod. Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breast, for example.”

Baldwin’s view of Southern Whites in general shows how he tried to find the roots of their racist behavior.

“They have been raised to believe … that no matter how terrible their lives may be, and their lives have been quite terrible, and no matter how far they fall, no matter what disaster overtakes them, they have one enormous knowledge and consolation, which is like a heavenly revelation — at least they are not Black,” Baldwin said.

“Now I suggest that of all the terrible things that can happen to a human being, that is one of the worst. I suggest that what has happened to White southerners is in some ways after all much worse than what has happened to Negroes there.”

It astounds me that Baldwin endured and witnessed such cruelty at the hands of Whites throughout his life, and still tried to find the humanity within.

Racism is not strictly an American epidemic, of course.

In mid-July I watched the championship match of the Euro 2020 soccer tournament featuring England vs. Italy. 

The score was 1-1 at the end of regulation and extra time, forcing a penalty-kick “shootout” to determine the winner. In a shootout, five players from each team are selected and each team takes a turn with one player attempting to score on a single kick vs. the other team’s goalkeeper from a designated spot 12 yards away.

The English coach chose three young Black players among his five, and all three failed to score. Italy won the coveted title.

I immediately texted a friend, an avid soccer fan who I knew was also watching the match. I told him I feared a nasty racial backlash from English fans toward the three players. 

Within an hour or so, he texted me back with a link to a news item about the trio immediately being racially abused on social media. “As you predicted,” my friend wrote, punctuating it with a frown symbol.

While some ranters faulted England’s coach (who is White) for selecting less experienced players to take “spot-kicks,” there was plenty of racist venom directed at the three players, ages 19, 21 and 23.

Bukayo Saka, the youngest of them, issued a statement a few days later, thanking his supporters and admonishing social media platforms. “I don’t want any child or adult to have to receive the hateful and hurtful messages that me, Marcus (Ashford) and Jadon (Sancho) have received this week,” Saka wrote. “I knew instantly the kind of hate I was about to receive and that is a sad reality …” 

He signed off with, “Love always wins.”

Meanwhile, back in America, those who harbor the views of Sheriff Clark don’t need to resort to billy clubs and cattle prods to keep Blacks from voting. Some state legislatures are taking care of that without bloodshed.

In 1962, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, James Baldwin said it would be another 100 years before Blacks in this country could celebrate true freedom. We are more than halfway there.

If he were alive today, what would he say of that timetable?

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.

This sign is one of many sold as a fundraiser by business owner Mark Golden, whose goal is more civility in public discourse. Photo © Dennis Harrod


A word has ignited a war of words on the letters to the editor page in The Sherburne News, a weekly newspaper in the next county over from where I live. The word that started the war begins with “F” and ends with “K.”  It appears in very large letters on the main road into town. The “F word” is followed by “Biden.”

A letter to the editor a couple of months back objected to the F word, saying it was vulgar and not appropriate for school children to see as they pass by on the bus. The following week, the owner of the sign wrote her own letter and said that what was vulgar was the current deplorable condition of the country.

She said it’s becoming a “third-world cesspool.” Democratic policies are leading us down a dangerous path, especially the rolling out of a “red carpet” for immigrants. That’s what is vulgar in her opinion. And school kids learn far worse language than that long before they pass her sign, she added.

Letters appeared weekly on both sides of the issue. At one point, in what appears to be unintentional irony, the person displaying the “F***  Biden” sign tells her left-wing counterpart that “you really need to move on.”

The nature of this sign and other expressions like it prompted the #KEEPITKIND campaign. Photo © Dennis Harrod.

While the war of words raged, Mark Golden was driving to work in New Berlin every day and passing a number of other signs of the F Biden variety.  

“By the time I got to work, I was angry,” he said in a recent interview. A self-described “child of the 60s,” Golden doesn’t like to be angry. So he decided to do something about the decline in civility along the roadsides and in society at large. 

Golden, CEO of Golden Artist Colors, an employee-owned company (and a story of wonder and kindness in itself) talked to an artist friend about designing a sign to encourage people to tone down the rage and keep in mind that we’re all human.

They came up with a yard sign with rainbow colors and #KEEPITKIND written on it. Golden took out an ad in The Sherburne News. Under the headline #KEEPITKIND, the ad said: “We have so many more things that bind us than divide us as a community. Please help us share a message of kindness by posting a ‘KEEPITKIND’ sign on your property. They are available at Golden Artist Colors….”

The ad goes on to request a $10 minimum donation that will be given to one of three local food banks, and concludes with: “Let’s plaster our community with kindness!”

Golden said his action was not specifically in reaction to the ongoing exchange on the letters page of The Sherburne News, but to the general decline in civility throughout our society. He did say, however, that although he disagreed with the tone of the F Biden signs, he admired the woman who wrote in for putting her name on the letters and not hiding behind the anonymity that makes so much of contemporary discourse so nasty.

In a 2019 interview with, Golden said respect is a value he holds dear and it’s that loss of respect in contemporary society that he laments. The anonymity of the Internet has contributed heavily to that loss of civility. In the past, you “wouldn’t give someone the bird because you knew you’d see them later in the grocery store,” he said.

So far more than 100 signs have gone up along the roads in Chenango and neighboring counties and Golden expects to see more. Now, on his drive to work, he passes more signs saying #KEEPITKIND than the other kind. And he’s not angry anymore.

“Now, seeing the signs along the road, I arrive at work happy,” he said.

So if the state of debate in our country has you down, follow Route 80 into the hills of Chenango County to the Golden Artist Colors and pick up a sign. You’ll be helping to feed hungry people. And it’s a beautiful ride. And you might come back less angry.

Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.

#KEEPITKIND signs can be picked up at Golden Artist Colors, 188 Bell Road, New Berlin, NY 13411 Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. You might want to call ahead at (607) 847-6154 and make sure they have some on hand. Golden said they are going fast and he plans to order more. The requested $10 minimum donation will go to your choice of the following: New Berlin Food Pantry, St. Malachy’s Community Food Bank (Sherburne) or Hamilton Food Cupboard.

Volunteers with Team Brownsville in Texas play with children recently arrived from Mexico. Photo © Jim McKeever May 2021.


What must it be like to give up everything you have, especially if you are forced to flee your home and travel thousands of miles, protecting yourself and your children from harm?

Each day asylum seekers from various countries, as well as detainees released from a Texas immigration detention center, are dropped off at the bus terminal in Brownsville, Texas. Bus stations aren’t always cheerful or safe places, but Brownsville’s is clean, well-maintained and welcoming.

Through a cooperative agreement with the city and not-for-profit organizations, the new arrivals receive help with basic necessities and bus transportation to cities throughout the U.S. where family members or sponsors live.

I spent a week in mid-May volunteering with Team Brownsville, a not-for-profit founded three years ago by special education teachers to help asylum seekers, first at a makeshift camp in Matamoros and now in Texas as two or three dozen people per day are allowed to cross into the U.S.

Every day, Team Brownsville volunteers staff several tables and distribute donated and purchased items to the arrivals after they are given a hot meal and have secured their bus tickets. 

My interactions with these men, women and children were both practical and profound. How best to explain that? Perhaps through a partial list of the things we gave them — and what we were given in return.

We gave men new underwear and T-shirts; we gave women feminine hygiene products and socks; we gave children stuffed animals and Hot Wheels cars.

We gave snacks, face masks, deodorant, toothpaste, shoelaces; we gave Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle caps that grown men were not ashamed to wear.

We gave bottles of water, essential in the Texas heat; we gave blankets for the air-conditioned bus rides to places like Virginia, Florida, Nebraska.

We gave a dwindling number of shoes, trying as best we could to find the right sizes for men, women and toddlers.

We gave pens and notepads, coloring books and crayons.

We gave backpacks to the liberated detainees to replace the demeaning, tattered mesh sacks they were given in detention.

Most important, however, were the intangible things we gave when these folks first arrived at the terminal. We gave of our time and talents, kneeling on the hard cement floor to play with a brother and sister, speaking our best Spanish, braiding the hair of a 5-year-old girl so her pregnant mother could rest.

From our tables or from the parking lot, as each group arrived, we stood and waved and smiled and called out one word.



Here is what they gave in return.

Immeasurable, silent expressions of gratitude and hope as their eyes met ours, spoken words of “Gracias” and “Dios te Bendigo” (thank you and God bless you), the gift of allowing us to share in their relief, their safety, their freedom from whatever horrors they had endured in Central and South America or the months or years they had spent in detention centers in the U.S. 

We did not ask where they had come from, or anything that might remind them of why they had fled — gang violence, threats, rape, extortion, abject poverty, recent hurricanes, corrupt governments and police. 

We didn’t need to know any of that. All we needed was to look at the children the moment we handed them one of the teddy bears that had been donated that week. They hugged the bears tightly and smiled at us and whatever fear they had disappeared, at least for a moment. 

There are images from that week that I hold onto now, images of hope amid ample evidence of the cruelty of man and governments: 

A child not much older than my granddaughter, comforted by a stuffed animal, ecstatic to see a bin filled with hair ties she could choose from … adult female detainees hugging each other after they emerged from a detention van and were freed from waist chains, handcuffs and ankle restraints by guards who glared at us… a 69-year-old Venezuelan man’s smile as he rather generously complimented me on my Spanish … a young detainee approaching me the morning after he spent the night in the station, asking for a sweater for the air-conditioned bus that would take him, eventually, to Florida.

I found one that fit. It was my last shift with Team Brownsville and as he thanked me and rushed off to catch the bus, I said for the last time that week, “Buena suerte.” 

Good luck. 

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. The headline comes from 1 Corinthians 13:13: “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

A group of asylum seekers is admitted into the U.S. from Tijuana, Mexico, 2019. Photo © Jim McKeever.


I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. — Matthew 25:35.

On April 15, the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University hosted a dialogue, “Immigration Challenges and Choices: People, Principles, and Policies.” The hourlong presentation was recorded and can be viewed online.

The panelists — a Catholic bishop, an Evangelical minister, a journalist and a DACA recipient — offered their perspectives on immigration, refugees, xenophobia, race-based violence and asylum. 

They stressed a humanitarian approach to addressing a global reality that is thousands of years old, and is drawing attention again at the United States’ southern border. 

Some excerpts:

The current situation at the southern border with Mexico represents “a pivotal moment in our country,” said the Rev. Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Presbyterian pastor in Charlottesville, Va.

The Rev. Kim, whose father fled Communist China for South Korea before emigrating to the United States, pointed out that the Bible “is a story of migration. … Essentially to be a Christian is to be a migrant. … It’s also a call to be hospitable, to extend hospitality to those who are migrating.”

Journalist Sabrina Rodriguez said the Biden administration had pledged to create a fair and humane immigration system, but “saying it and doing it are two very different things. There are very real challenges to accomplishing that.”

The administration has made some changes, including discontinuing the Migrant Protection Protocols. About 6,500 of the 25,000 MPP enrollees, some of whom have been waiting for more than two years in Mexico, have been admitted to the U.S., Rodriguez said. Other groups of migrants from all over the world, including Central America, are fleeing their countries for various reasons — crime, lack of jobs, the pandemic and the devastation of hurricanes. 

Rodriguez said the number of migrants arriving at the border has increased since April 2020, but there are nuances that are often overlooked. Most families who attempt to cross are sent back to Mexico, she said, but often the next step is to send their children across on their own. This inflates the numbers of apprehensions cited by government officials and has resulted in an increase in unaccompanied minors — many of them who have relatives in the U.S.

Bishop Mark Seitz, who has been in El Paso for eight years, noted that politicians “fall into place” and say the same things every time the border is in the news. “Maybe it’s time to stop politicizing these issues and begin Christianizing them,” Seitz said. “People are at our door and they are begging to come in for refuge.”

The bishop urged people to learn why migrants are coming to the U.S. southern border, what countries they are coming from and what situations they are fleeing, especially in Central America.

Bishop Seitz was asked about the August 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, in which a white nationalist drove hundreds of miles to El Paso because he was upset by the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” The 21-year-old shot and killed 22 people and injured 26 others, many of whom had Latino surnames.

“I don’t think there’s any question that racism plays a role here,” Seitz said. “One message we often give to politicians is watch your language” and stop using fear-mongering words like criminals and invasion that appeal to fear, as well as to the racism that has been a part of this country since its beginnings. 

“This attitude is death-dealing,” Seitz said. “It has an impact.”

Loren, a Georgetown University student and DACA recipient, said her family came to the U.S. from Colombia when she was 3. The economy was bad, and it was dangerous where they lived. It wasn’t until she was a freshman in high school in Boston that she learned of her immigration status and that of her parents. She has younger brothers who were born in the U.S. 

“I constantly struggle with being stuck between two countries,” Loren said. “I want to tell my story as often as possible, to let others know they’re not alone.” 

Two months ago, Loren’s parents contracted COVID as front-line workers in the food industry. They have since recovered.

Rodriguez, who writes about immigration for POLITICO, urged people to listen to people who live and work near the border and to listen to immigrants who have been in the U.S. for years as well as new arrivals. 

“It is really essential that we humanize this reality,” Bishop Seitz said. “That we listen to those who are experiencing it … to hear the stories, to understand that these aren’t just numbers, they are real human beings, brothers and sisters.” 

Ultimately, Seitz said, we’re going to need the courage to think beyond “the narrow confines of, ‘How do we enforce our law?’ without really asking whether the law and its consequences are moral in the first place.”

Moderator Kim Daniels asked Rev. Kim to discuss the recent increase in physical attacks on Asian-Americans. He cited the case of the woman assaulted in New York City, when three men at a nearby luxury apartment did not help the woman and a security guard closed the doors.

Such “bystander apathy” happens too often, he said. “Do not close the door and turn away. …

“No one can do everything,” Kim said. “But everyone can do something. So choose some thing.”


The Rev. Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Presbyterian pastor in Charlottesville, Va. 

Sabrina Rodriguez, journalist with POLITICO. 

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, which borders Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Loren, a student at Georgetown University and a DACA recipient.

Moderator Kim Daniels, co-director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University.

The initiative will host a followup program May 4, featuring Sister Norma Pimentel, a nun who works with migrants at the southern border. 

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.


The abolition of slavery in 1865 through the 13th amendment, together with the 14th amendment (citizenship for all people born in the U.S. including formerly enslaved people) and the 15th amendment (the right of citizens to vote) ratified soon thereafter, supposedly laid the foundation for racial equality in the United States. If this is true, then why is it that, a century later in the mid-1960s, the struggle for civil rights began almost as if it were starting from scratch?

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is an American literary critic, professor, historian and filmmaker. He is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Photo credit: Stephanie Berger.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. answers this question in “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow.” Gates sheds light on how the institutions of white supremacy, hardly deterred but instead inspired by their defeat in the Civil War, systematically dismantled the civil rights gains of Reconstruction through widespread violence, suppression and rescinding at the state level of civil rights granted ineffectually at the federal level, and through mass saturation in literature, advertising, and other public imagery of alleged inferiority of African Americans.

Gates places emphasis on this cultural battlefield because it has been largely out of sight. He also documents the rich history of courageous efforts by African Americans to right the wrongs committed on this battlefield.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968 that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” While we have to hope this is true, Gates’ book reminds us that this arc does not bend gently, but instead lurches in accordance with whether white supremacists or racial egalitarians have the upper hand in the long-term struggle.

And that is precisely why “Stony the Road” is so important at our current juncture in history. With the failure of the “Second Reconstruction” in the 1960s to create a decisive shift toward justice, and with white supremacy emboldened and unleashed by the Trump presidency, it is vital that we understand our cultural history well. To see how deeply rooted supremacist thought, culture, and action is in history is to appreciate how virulent and dangerous it is now.

It is especially important for white people to learn these lessons, for two related reasons. First, the historical underpinnings and dynamics of contemporary racism are far more opaque to the oppressing race than they are to people of color. Second, an unstated lesson of the Gates book is that bending the arc of the moral universe decisively toward justice will require far greater participation of white people than has been the case to date.

“Stony the Road” is a difficult read because it spotlights the depth and breadth of white supremacist thinking in the decades after emancipation. But the knowledge gained provides useful guidance for understanding our ugly current impasse, and inspiration for helping to smooth the stony road.

William D. Sunderlin is a researcher, professor and activist living in Fayetteville, N.Y. He is affiliated with the State University of New York – College of Environmental Science and Forestry (Syracuse, N.Y.), the Center for International Forestry Research (Indonesia), and the Rights and Resources Initiative in Washington, D.C.

“Stony the Road” are words describing the struggle for freedom and justice in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the African American National Anthem. Composer and pianist Jon Batiste performs part of the piece during an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” with an introduction at about the 11:30 mark.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump express their outrage about the ‘stolen’ 2020 election outside the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, 2021. ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ is a reference to Julius Caesar’s decision that led to war and his eventual dictatorship in ancient Rome. Photo © Maranie Staab.


A few summers ago, as our Sunday morning running group mingled and stretched before our weekly long run, the subject of Ultimate Fighting or Mixed Martial Arts came up.

I think there had been a highly publicized fight on TV the night before. 

One runner, whose well-muscled physique indicated a serious dedication to weight-lifting (unusual among distance runners), shook his head and said something like, “I think all those guys were beaten by their fathers.”

I bet he’s right. Of course there are other factors that lead to men having or developing a liking for violence — genetics, poor coping skills, bullying, overexposure to violence in person or videos glorifying it, etc. 

If it’s a learned behavior, it starts early.

I don’t mean the adolescent aggression common in contact sports. The satisfaction of a hard tackle or an effective body check is something that most of us outgrow at a certain point in life, because we know at the time it served a purpose in an athletic contest. 

In college I could never understand why a particular acquaintance of mine would hit the campus bars on weekends, basically looking for a fight. He was intelligent, a good athlete and had a wicked sense of humor. And not safe to be around.

He was far from being the only guy on campus who seemed to enjoy it, whether alcohol was involved or not. It was depressing. What was I missing? Is not enjoying fighting a “man card” violation? The men I associate with now are not anything like that, and I doubt they ever were. 

Where am I going with this? 

The hyper-violent and fatal Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, of course.

That horrific display wasn’t a beginning, but a spike along a continuum of violence that has left an indelible stain on our history. 

All one has to do is take a hard and honest look at our nation’s past — especially at white-on-black violence and murder — to know what men are capable of. There’s no shortage of well-researched books and fact-based documentaries that hammer that point home.  

More than 150 years after the rise of the KKK and its celebration of violence and murder, right-wing extremist groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers are front and center. White hoods have given way to  body armor, military fatigues and a range of weapons. Were they all beaten by their fathers? Bullied? Are they genetically predisposed to violence? Easily manipulated by a racist authoritarian leader? 

Of course, some will go into full “what about” mode and point to Black Lives Matter protests in some cities last summer and beyond. But there’s a huge difference between violence and property destruction. Yes, there were some bad actors and looters at those protests, but no one was attempting to prevent a peaceful transfer of power in American government by threatening to kill the vice president or members of Congress. 

Conspiracy theories to the contrary, the Jan. 6 mob was led by supporters of the former president, threatening and committing violence and destruction, assaulting police officers (killing one of them — Blue Lives Matter?) and desecrating a national treasure. 

Arrests of more than 300 insurrectionists notwithstanding, right-wing mob violence will continue.

These violent actors, mostly white men, see themselves as the embodiment of patriots, martyrs and aggrieved victims — a lethal combination. They feed off of each other. 

Even that pathetic 17-year-old misfit who killed two Black Lives Matter protesters with his AR-15 style rifle last summer in Kenosha, Wis. is hailed as a hero in that world.

There have been warnings of further violence to come, as conspiracy theories about the “stolen” election won’t die. Expect more trouble this month when the trial of Derek Chauvin begins.

Chauvin is the former Minneapolis Police officer who knelt on the neck of African-American George Floyd for more than eight minutes last May after responding to a $20 dispute at a convenience store. Floyd’s death, and that of many other African-Americans at the hands of police, sparked last summer’s protests. 

There likely will be more protests in Minneapolis that start out peacefully, and then get ugly — perhaps when the Proud Boys and other right-wing sympathizers arrive in their puffy camo glory. 

When they do show up — to do what? Defend the honor of former Officer Chauvin? — just remember that this is the mob that attacked cops and used the “n word” against Black police officers as they tore through the Capitol, broke into offices and smeared excrement in the hallways. The same crowd that had special “MAGA Civil War” T-shirts printed for the occasion. 

So what do we do about these guys who’d love nothing more than to punch us in the face? Or, perhaps, use a gun or other weapon on us to make them feel like real men? 

We can’t do much about their propensity for violence, but we can deter some from acting on it. Our weapons:

Keep spreading truth to counteract lies that incite violence.

Keep a cell phone handy at all times, especially at politically charged events, and be ready to hit “record.”

Encourage people to turn over to authorities the names of violent offenders seen on cell phone videos, and in photos and video shared by photojournalists. The Jan. 6 mob did one thing well — incriminate themselves with their cell phones. Many of them were identified by friends and acquaintances (and one ex-girlfriend) who were disgusted by what they saw.

As the song says, teach your children well.

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.

Women at the wall in Friendship Park, Tijuana, Mexico. Photo © Bill McLaughlin.

soy de aquí

y soy de allá

I didn’t build

this border

that halts me

the word fron

tera splits on my tongue

from “Where You From?” by Gina Valdés


Hope is the last thing you’d expect to find in the faces of people trapped in the border city of Tijuana. They’ve traveled from all over Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and beyond in hopes of finding a life in the promised land of the United States. They endure hardship, suffering and loss. Stuck at the border, some for months or years, they wait. And hope.

Bill McLaughlin captures that hope in a series of portraits he made late in 2019 before the Pandemic shut the border even tighter and challenged what hope the migrants and refugees still had.

McLaughlin left his home in Chenango County, took a train to San Diego and then the trolley to the border to meet and photograph people a world away from the rural landscape he calls home. He is passionate about the land and talks reverently about the bonds one forms by planting and cultivating. He’s primarily a painter but began photographing landscapes in and around Chenango County, which connected him with people, and he expanded into making their portraits. He became fascinated with what he calls “the power of the portrait, people looking right back at you.” 

The cover of the photozine available for purchase. Photo © Bill McLaughlin.

Meanwhile, McLaughlin was hearing about the humanitarian crisis at the United States southern border and was upset. Photos in the media “showed migrants as dangerous, threatening, in the worst possible condition,” McLaughlin says. “It was a terrible misrepresentation, combined with hateful rhetoric, a formula to otherize people.”

Not for McLaughlin. “I wanted to put a face on the tragedy; take what I’d been doing about making portraits and apply it to the greater good.” 

For McLaughlin, the atrocity that moved him to act was the drowning deaths of Salvadoran Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, as they tried to cross the Río Grande in June of 2019. The photograph of their bodies, face down in the shallow water, was seen by millions and sparked outrage. But people soon went back to their lives and the outrage faded.

So he went to Tijuana. Once there, he connected with Hugo Castro, who led relief efforts in Tijuana for Border Angels, a San Diego-based volunteer group that provides aid for migrants on both sides of the border. Castro helped put him in touch with shelters providing support to migrants stuck in Tijuana as they awaited an opportunity to cross legally into the U.S. He rented an apartment in Las Playas, on the coast west of the city where the border wall reaches the sea. From there, with the help of Castro and others, he was able to go into Tijuana each day and connect with people in shelters. He even stayed a couple of nights in one of the dozens of shelters in Tijuana.

McLaughlin was impressed by the warmth and compassion he found among people who have nothing. “Here they are, 1,000 miles from home,’ he says, “food insecure, future insecure, they can’t go back, they can’t go forward and the camaraderie among them was really inspiring.”

He doesn’t speak a lot of Spanish, so communicating his aims in making the portraits was not easy. The difficulty was compounded by the fact that many migrants are fleeing danger at home and in Tijuana, and do not want anyone to recognize them in a photograph. But many were willing to pose for portraits and when they did, they showed their resilience, faith and hope.

The road leading to Shelter Embajadores de Jesus in Scorpion Canyon, Tijuana. Photo © Bill McLaughlin.

The portraits show people of all ages, from children to grandmothers. In most of them, there is a slight smile, tinged with sadness but not self-pity. McLaughlin only identifies them by their first names. Ruth, a mother from El Salvador, looks away from the camera with a slight smile, and a face that shows wisdom without resignation. In another striking family portrait, a. young Mexican mother holds her small son in her arms. He is looking at her, but her young daughter, perhaps five years old, looks straight at the camera, cautiously, curiously. The mother also looks directly into the camera, a slight smile showing hope. And faith.

One young man from Honduras thought long and hard about whether he should have his picture taken. After pondering it overnight, he approached McLaughlin in the morning and said yes, he’d like a portrait of him and his family. His family turned out to be him and his wife. The portrait shows a proud man, looking directly and confidently at the camera, as if posing for a formal portrait. McLaughlin compares it to the formal portraits immigrants to America traditionally made upon their arrival in a new land. The young man’s wife is also looking directly at the camera, but a little more apprehensively, as if the journey and the experience weighed more heavily upon her. McLaughlin would like to give them a copy of the. portrait, but he doesn’t know what happened to them and cannot find out anything about them.

But it’s the photograph he missed that haunts McLaughlin. One night, after the daily religious service at the shelter, he sat talking with a young woman in the dark. “She was maybe 19,” he says. “It had taken her months to get to the shelter and she was pregnant the whole time. She had the baby in the shelter but lost it a month later.”

He was struck by her attitude. “There was a sadness about her, but it wasn’t a neurotic sadness. She was not being a victim. She struck me as still hopeful.” 

She agreed to have her portrait taken the next day, but in the morning, McLaughlin couldn’t find her. He has no idea where she is now or what happened to her.

What has happened to her, and the young family man from Honduras and all the others who look out from these moving, affecting portraits? Some may have made it to America. Others may have lost hope and gone away. Others are still waiting in Tijuana. Wherever they are, McLaughlin’s portraits remain as a living reminder, at once static and vital, of lives lived on the border of hope and despair. 

Note: An exhibition of McLaughlin’s portraits, “Living in Limbo, Portraits from the Border,” was on display recently at Hamilton Center for the Arts in Hamilton, NY.

No other shows are planned right now, but a photozine is available for purchase.

More information about McLaughlin is on his website.

More information about Border Angels is on the organization’s website.

Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He was among a group of volunteers who went to Tijuana to provide humanitarian aid a few months before McLaughlin’s visit. The poem by Gina Valdés uses the word “frontera,” which means “border” in Spanish.


On November 22nd, 1963, shots rang out in Dallas, Texas, that ended a life, a presidency, and an era in which we as Americans believed in so strongly: an era of hope, of dreams, and the illusion of a safety in which such things could happen elsewhere, but they could never happen here. The world mourned, but none so much as we did.

This was our horror, in our home. Grief washed over the nation, and it lingered. Christmas passed barely noticed. New Year’s Eve celebrations were non-existent. It seemed almost blasphemous to allow ourselves to experience any joy after the magnitude of what had occurred.

And then, after six long weeks, four young men from England landed at the newly renamed John F. Kennedy airport, and with an explosive sigh of relief, Beatlemania was unleashed. Like a shaken Etch-A-Sketch, the oppressive pain of the nation seemed erased overnight as the country exploded in joy at this new musical phenomenon. Their music and images were everywhere. The country could not get enough of the Beatles. After what we had been through, we needed them, and we needed what they allowed us to be.

Volumes have been written about the impact of the Beatles on this country. Most, if not all, mention the timing of their arrival, finally giving our country permission to shake off the shackles of grief that had paralyzed us after our national tragedy.

Which brings me to Bernie memes.

After the most painful year in our lifetimes, a year of more than 400,000 lives lost to a pandemic, thousands of businesses lost, millions of workers left with significantly reduced income, if any at all, the trauma of the most controversial American presidency, racial protests set against the glorification of white supremacy, and terrorists invading the Capitol, the lone image of Senator Bernie Sanders, sitting by himself in a folding chair, clad in a practical winter coat and mittens, has become the 2021 version of Beatlemania.

Within hours, a phenomenon spread like wildfire across social media. People have seized on Bernie’s image and had a field day inserting it everywhere: album covers, classic paintings, movie scenes, locations ranging from the Last Supper to local pizzerias.

After the trauma of 2020, it’s so good to breathe a sigh of relief, laugh and just have fun.

Even old curmudgeons like me have joined in and laughed out loud at the creativity, the humor, and the plain old absurdity of the craze. 

By next week, I’m sure it will have worn out. I doubt very much that Bernie memes will have the lasting impact on our culture that the Beatles did.

But God, we needed this right now. We really needed this.

Mike Donohue is a father, grandfather and friend who hopes for a better world for his family and loved ones to live in.  He is a licensed chemical dependency counselor, former professional musician, political moderate, and has published articles related to local music, addiction recovery, and human rights.

A segment of the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21, 2017, in front of the Newseum building on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Newseum, featuring exhibits highlighting the history of journalism and freedom of the press, closed at the end of 2019 after 11 years. The First Amendment prevails. Photo © Jim McKeever.


On Jan. 7, the day after pro-Trump insurrectionists invaded the U.S. Capitol, my West Coast brother went on his regular shift driving for Meals on Wheels.

The first client he spoke with, a man in his early 80s, asked how my brother was dealing with the shock of what had happened at the Capitol, where five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died in the violence.

“I’m sad,” my brother answered. 

That’s when the 80-plus-year-old man started bawling.

My brother then met with another client on his route, a man in his 90s who flew bomber missions in the Pacific during World War II. His reaction the day after the Capitol was breached?

“He’s pissed,” my brother said.

Then my brother asked me, “What can we do? What can people like us do?”

By “us,” I think he means people who understand the gravity — and the truth — of what happened that day, and who respect the principles of democracy and peaceful governance. 

My brother and I share a pessimistic outlook about the future of the country, and a profound sense of sadness mixed with contempt for the perpetrators and enablers of the violence of that day.

My only answer to “What can we do?” at that moment was to continue to offer some degree of comfort, understanding and empathy to people like the two older gentlemen my brother told me about. 

Of course we can pressure elected officials — as was done leading to Trump’s second impeachment — and try to share factual information and rational opinions from respected journalists and thoughtful leaders from across the political spectrum.

Beyond that, I don’t know.

Last week after the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Trump for the second time — amid rumors of further violence before Joe Biden is inaugurated as the 46th president — I asked more than a dozen people I know: “What can we do?”

Below is a random, edited sampling of responses. 

My 95-year-old dad was in the Normandy invasion, and said he never imagined he’d see a day like this. On the day of Pearl Harbor, he enlisted. As simple as that. Our nation had been attacked. 

Last week, my daughter told him to turn on the TV, and he and my mother were shocked to the core to see our nation once again under attack, this time from citizens. 

The first goal is to attempt to accomplish something. Help raise money and/or donate to the best candidates. Pick up a pen, phone or computer and praise the corporation, restaurant chain, big bank and individuals who do the right thing. And if one of your favorite retailers has not acted yet, politely suggest doing something good.  You don’t need to be a golfer to understand one of the quickest and hardest hits, post-Jan. 6, from the PGA. 

On voting, work on registering others, fighting voter suppression. On election days, if you or your team have a car, give folks a lift to and from the polling places. And in between elections, show up: attend online meetings for now, and post-vaccine, consider joining a community effort to do good things.

On the day-to-day front, try to actually listen after you ask the cashier at the checkout line how it’s going. Maybe take an extra five seconds to pass along a positive thought if you sense someone’s not having the greatest day. And if you’re chatting with someone on the other side of the political fence, consider that they might have a good idea or two, and, by providing a thoughtful audience for them, perhaps you’ll have a good opportunity to discuss, disagree or weigh in with ideas of your own.

Finally, a bit of perspective on the question of whom to support in this historical time. My father was a prisoner of war in WWII after being shot down on his 43rd mission. He said his decision to sign up was quite easy. He was risking his life daily to overcome the evil of a master propagandist who ruled by lies and murder. In recent years, I’ve heard of another masterful propagandist who in 2015 made this remark — on camera — about ex-POW John McCain of Arizona:

“He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

In closing, one footnote: my dad escaped.

I saw that veterans (wrote to) the Eagle Bulletin (weekly newspaper), expressing dismay … the raw emotion and sense of betrayal seems palpable. A friend who was an intelligence officer was saying that we have to fear domestic terrorism and a civil war like the conflicts across Afghanistan, where allegiances are fractured and there is great confusion about alliances. But we cannot let anti-Semitic and racist values join forces with those who worry that government officials are corrupt. I feel like veterans are in a good place to highlight this. 

My niece is an immigration lawyer and has introduced me to a young man from Honduras who has been in ICE custody. He holds down three jobs and supports family back home, including his father who is battling COVID-19. My niece is helping the young man in his asylum hearing, a long, torturous process. I have been sending money to support him. When I feel overwhelmed by events and think, “What’s the point?” I try to remember that HE is the point. He deserves the same advantages as any other young man. 

Everyone needs to avoid stereotyping, snap judgments and arrogance, putting aside calculations of winning, being ahead and demonizing those with differing opinions, beliefs, skin color, class status, etc., and regard each other as fellow human beings and fellow Americans.

Also, attention must be paid to the problems that led to the grievances that propelled Trumpism. Can things like a living wage, available jobs, affordable housing, available health care, etc., help people who feel abandoned by their leaders? Can progressives refrain from looking down their noses at Trump supporters?

On a personal level, can we engage in a respectful way with those we disagree with, keeping the lines open, not taking or offering the bait for a fight, and maybe talking about subjects other than politics and online stuff? Can we bridge the gaps through sharing a recipe, petting a dog or saying how nice someone’s yard looks? 

This is not going to be fast or total — there are still people who say Nixon did nothing wrong.

A strong dose of humility and humanity, avoiding any cruelty, should be the drivers personally and politically.

For both sides it has become about power and not about the people. I do not feel there is a desire or ability to unite our people via the parties or politics. It has become a country of “YOU against ME” instead of a country of US. I don’t believe that responsibility lies with one person, one party or one entity (politics, news, even the world of entertainment, etc). I do believe the responsibility does lie with all entities and in every person. 

I do not believe anyone is listening to anyone else. I don’t have any more faith in the new order voted in, then I had in the old order leaving. I know very good people on both sides of the fence and their feelings are all valid. I think there are more like me, who have no faith in the parties/the politics/the agendas and are stunned by all of it. But I have faith in people. As much as people frustrate me, they also inspire me, encourage me, embolden me. When we the people start talking to and listening to one another, that is when changes for the good will occur.  

I’ve got a friend in her 80s who thinks she’ll never in her lifetime see our country free and at peace again. I imagine people who study history can talk about how we emerged from dark times before. 

I think it’s crucial Trump be held accountable. I’ll bet the agents who work in counter terrorism never imagined they’d be investigating such a big group of Americans.

This is not a one-off, but an ongoing struggle that will be years or decades in resolving itself (no guarantees which way it will go). I remember well that the coup plotters in Chile staged a trial run to gauge public sentiment. So a loud public rejection of this can help push back any military who might be thinking of hopping on the bandwagon next time.

Stop talking about American exceptionalism. It can happen here.

As the nation prepares for the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as its 46th president, many of us struggle with often debilitating and conflicting emotions — anger and despair, empathy and hope. Anger and despair come easily; empathy and hope do not. I believe the cult members who fell victim to propaganda and their own misplaced sense of victimhood and reality are beyond reach. I fear what the more desperate and violent among them will do. They are terrorists, and terrorists plot, as they did leading to Jan. 6. As one of my good friends said the other day, “Some of us are going to die.”

All of us must do whatever small thing we can to make the country safer for the vulnerable among us, for our children and subsequent generations. I think often of something my friend Carlo from Tijuana told me when we teamed up on a volunteer effort to help migrant laborers at the U.S.-Mexico border: When it seems overwhelming, and it feels like you’re not making a difference, remember that you’re making a difference in the life of that one person.

Please feel free to add thoughts and suggestions in the Comments.

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.

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