TIME society

Justice Scalia Is Right—California Isn’t the Real West

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But with immigration flatlining and the climate drying up, it may soon be

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was on the wrong side of most Californians, and history, in his cranky dissent to last week’s landmark ruling legalizing same-sex marriage across the nation.

But, much as we might hate to admit it, Scalia was right when, in the same dissent, he argued that California isn’t part of the American West. And in so doing, he raised—almost certainly unwittingly—an important question about California’s future.

Scalia made his point via a swipe at his colleagues for being unrepresentative of the United States as a whole (and thus being foolish to impose their views on marriage equality on the entire country). After noting that all nine justices attended Harvard or Yale law schools and that only one grew up in the Midwest, he wrote: “Not a single Southwesterner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner.” But what about Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is from Sacramento? Scalia’s answer came parenthetically in the next line: “California does not count.”

The words “California does not count” prompted an array of California pundits and leaders to fly off the handle, and challenge the justice. How dare he disrespect California? Of course we count! “Antonin Scalia Doesn’t Heart California—or Get Us, Either,” said an LA Times headline.

Kamala Harris, California’s Attorney General and leading candidate for U.S. Senate, coolly countered Scalia—an old-school “originalist” who thinks the U.S. Constitution should be read as it was in 1789—with a line from old-school rapper Ice T: “Don’t hate the playa, hate the game.” You should know that Ice T’s line was inspired by one from Gandhi’s 1927 autobiography (“Hate the sin not the sinner”) and St. Augustine’s 424 A.D. letter (“with love for mankind and hatred of sins”), so Harris out-originalist-ed the originalist Supreme Court justice by more than 1,300 years. Snap.

Despite all the California retorts, Scalia’s fundamental point went unchallenged, perhaps because it is so clearly correct: California doesn’t fit in the American West. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Indeed, the best book ever written about California—Carey McWilliams’ California: The Great Exception, published in 1949 and never out of print—is about precisely this reality. California is singular, among Western U.S. states, in how it was settled so early and grew so quickly. Our Western neighbors have always been slower, more plodding, less populous places. And so California became a ragtag giant among much smaller states in the West, defined by our sudden and explosive changes in culture, economy, and demographics.

“One cannot, as yet, properly place California in the American scheme of things,” wrote McWilliams, adding: “To understand this tiger all rules must be laid to one side. All the copybook maxims must be forgotten. California is no ordinary state; it is an anomaly, a freak, the great exception among the American states.”

Sixty-six years after those words were published, California is still an exception in many ways—we’re the only state to break ground on high-speed rail, we’re responsible for half of the country’s venture capital, and no one is as crazy about direct democracy as we are. Some, like the economist Bill Watkins at California Lutheran University, predict that coastal California will become even more exceptional, an ever-more-glittery playground for the global super rich, with the rest of California being populated by the working-class people who serve them.

But there is another possibility—that our state (or at least everything except the other-worldly Bay Area)—continues to change in ways that make us more closely resemble other Western states.

The crucial shift in this direction has been that California is no longer a state of arrival, a destination for the world. Immigration is flat. Over the last generation, more people have been leaving California for other states than have been moving here from the rest of the country. The high cost of living has been the prime force for driving out mostly lower-income folks.

Those outflows have given us more in common with neighboring states like Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Oregon—in two ways.

First, those states, having received so many Californians seeking more affordable housing, have effectively been colonized by us, and are beginning to vote and eat more like California. All four now have In-N-Out Burger outlets, as does Texas, another big destination for exiting Californians. And as we made huge hikes in tuition and limited enrollment in our public universities, more California high school graduates are heading to public universities in neighboring states. (I’ve seen see this phenomenon firsthand since I teach at Arizona State University).

Second, those of us left behind in California are also more Western—because we are more likely to have grown up here. In previous generations, California was populated by people from Asia, Latin America, and the American Midwest and South. But in today’s California, the majority is homegrown—born and raised in California—and the newer arrivals are more likely to be from Las Vegas than Little Rock.

This more-homegrown California is also becoming much older—and less dynamic. We remain more ethnically and racially diverse than other Western states, but there are signs that our diversity lead is narrowing. While out-migration from California slowed somewhat during the recession, it’s likely to pick up as our economy comes back and California becomes even more expensive.

It’s not just demography making us more Western; drought has a role too. We’re becoming a drier place, with dustier landscaping that resembles Arizona and Nevada. Last year, we finally regulated groundwater, as other Western states have been doing for years.

Of course, these trends could all change. But if they persist, and California continues to Westernize, it will pose questions for our state and our country. The fact that California was so exceptional often accelerated change nationwide. As the historian H.W. Brands has noted, the American dream was of slow, tedious Poor Richard’s Almanac-style growth until California became a state—and gave us a new, faster dream of rapidly accumulated wealth. Will it be good for us, and for America (Happy Birthday, by the way), if we become just another Western state?

For now, you are right, Justice Scalia. California doesn’t really count as Western. But time has a way of changing the meaning of many things, including marriage and our messy state.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Money

We Still Don’t Have Safe and Reliable Money

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

If we're going to have fast, reliable online transactions, we need a system that actually works

They said it was imminent. They said so two decades ago. But I am still waiting for a truly fast, reliable, and safe form of money for people—all 7 billion of us. So many other things that were once unimaginable to us are now true: we can connect with anyone on the planet almost instantaneously—to talk, see each other over video, and send each other pictures of our cats and dogs, even kids. But if we want to move a penny, or 10 rupees, it is no longer a brave new world, not even close. It’s virtually impossible for someone to easily transfer money to another at a low cost, unless both parties are physically present at the same place and same time.

Not so, you may protest. We have Apple Pay, Paypal, Google Wallet, Mastercard, Visa, M-Pesa, Bitcoin, hundreds of alt-coins spawned by Bitcoin, all of which claim that they will dethrone good old-fashioned cash off its mantle. But not so fast. Despite all the hype around the supposedly new-fangled digital alternatives to money, these remain either expensive or inconvenient. Credit card companies charge retailers two to three percent of any transaction, which we’re all paying for in the form of higher prices, passed on by merchants. Direct withdrawals from bank accounts are cheaper, but have traditionally taken a long time to clear, sometimes as long as a day.

The drawbacks of these digital alternatives are evidenced by the resilience of cash. Eighty-five percent of all transactions globally (and 40 percent in the U.S.) are still carried out using cash, particularly transactions involving small amounts of money. There are good reasons why that is the case. Cash is convenient. Cash is private. Cash is intuitive. Cash does not incur explicit transactions costs.

And yet cash is also cumbersome to carry and store. It can be stolen and forged, remains uninvested and usually loses purchasing power over time, and most importantly, cannot be transferred easily across large distances. And so, the pressing need for a digital currency that works.

If you are a cryptocurrency enthusiast, you are probably reading this with great impatience, eager to get to the discussion of how Bitcoin and its alternatives are the answer. Cryptocurrencies, which are digital, encrypted currencies that operate independently of a central bank, are almost costless to move instantaneously, offering both privacy and security. I am also a cryptocurrency enthusiast. But I am not ready to declare victory. At least, not yet.

First, transactions using cryptocurrencies are not convenient. They are not intuitive. Just watch someone pay for coffee at a coffee shop that accepts bitcoin as payment (there are some). Only geeks are likely to find it simple and easy to use. You may protest that this is what people said about email and Internet 20 years ago and look where we are now. Perhaps so. But the transition to electronic money will not be as easy or as simple. Why? Because we are talking about money. Bitcoin’s “blockchain” technology keeps a permanent, public, and seemingly inviolable record of all transactions, which is distributed publicly across many private computer servers around the world in a decentralized fashion. It’s brilliant, elegant, and revolutionary—but also, to quote the author Nathaniel Popper, “one big hack away from total failure.”

Money attracts both fraud and regulation. And uncertainty. Financial regulators are conservative, wary of any new technology that is easy to use and accessible, unless it be proven completely fraud-proof (an impossible standard).

And so, regulators are over-zealous in clamping down on innovation. They will reflexively (and absurdly) invoke “Know your customer” (KYC) regulations and “Anti Money-Laundering” (AML) requirements every time someone proposes something new. It’s as if regulators never want to hear the benefits that might come from financial innovation, however much they might offset any potential downside. But someone who designs a faster car should not be prevented from manufacturing and selling it lest thieves use it get away after robbing a bank. We need to rely on other means of deterring crime.

When we discourage innovation and proliferation of convenient, secure, and costless digital alternatives to money for fear of money-laundering and related crime, we are continuing to disenfranchise nearly 3 billion poor people in the world who would benefit the most from the financial inclusion that frictionless digital money and payments will generate for them.

Here is a concrete example. Imagine that a woman working as a day laborer in India earns 100 rupees on a given day. She may go to a grocery store on her way back home to buy goods worth 80 rupees. If technology made it possible for her to deposit the remaining 20 rupees (which is only about 30 cents) immediately in an account that earns interest or put it immediately in an investment that is expected to grow, without incurring any transactions costs, this could transform her life. Even “small” transactions costs of 5 or 10 cents per transaction would induce her to keep the money in the form of cash, which would not only fail to grow, but may be spent in an impulse purchase by her husband or children.

Similarly, a migrant worker should be able to send money he or she earns nearly free of transaction costs to the family that may live in a different city, or even a different country. Nearly $600 billion of such remittances are currently made across borders. And they are expensive, outrageously so. Nearly 7 percent is lost in intermediation.

How about services such as the mobile phone money transfer business M-Pesa, which is ubiquitous in Kenya? Given the lack of banking alternatives that exist in many African countries, M-Pesa services have deservedly received attention and acclaim from media, policy makers, and global development advocates such as Bill Gates. But even services such as M-Pesa have high transactions costs.

Given the revolution in communication technologies, and how they’ve transformed so many non-monetary domains, it seems reasonable to demand that in the near future we do away with most everyday transactions costs, which are unnecessary. We should shoot for a one- or two-tenths of a percent as an acceptable fee, whether we are seeking to pay with our Apple Watch at the corner deli or seeking to pay for a meal in rural India.

How do we get there?

First, financial institutions need to abandon the stupid idea that every transaction, no matter how small, must be verified. Every time I buy a cup of coffee using some form of electronic money, the retailer need not check with Visa or my bank if I have money or I am credit-worthy to be offered an implicit credit of a few dollars. Such verification should happen infrequently, only when the aggregate amount in question has reached a large predetermined amount. After all, most people have reputation capital these days; in our increasingly interconnected world, even sellers on e-Bay from far-off places like Guangzhou in China can be “trusted” given their reputation scores.

Second, the new digital money needs to feel simple, intuitive, and easy to use even in even the most illiterate parts of the world. You often hear experts advocating financial literacy and educational programs to “teach” people how to use new technology-based money. But the most effective adoptions happen when people learn by imitation. So, this electronic money must become ubiquitous. People should see it being used by rich and poor alike and in developed and developing countries in essentially similar ways. No one offered cell phone literacy classes or programs when the technology was introduced, but cell phones quickly went from being aspirational objects to being widely adopted as the costs fell sufficiently low. Now more people use cell phones than toilets in the world. In the same way, electronic money is likely to grow when middle-class consumers start using it regularly, even when transacting with the poor.

Lastly, the dream of the libertarian cryptocurrency enthusiasts that money will become totally anonymous, far from the reach of the government and inept regulators, is not practical. We want technology that empowers individuals, but we need shared institutions such as the courts and regulators that protect people and the integrity of the currency being used. After all, 7 billion people aren’t going to make the transition purely on faith.

Bhagwan Chowdhry is a professor of finance at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and the co-founder of Financial Access at Birth. More about him can be found here.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Education

My Immigrant Students Don’t Test Well—But They’re Learning

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

In this high school classroom, resilience is as important as textbooks

My mother immigrated to the United States when she was 16, in May of 1943. Though she didn’t know English when she arrived, she claims that by the fall she was able to read Silas Marner. I am sure that this is not true, but she graduated and went on to get a doctorate in psychology. Despite narrowly escaping annihilation in the Holocaust, she arrived in this country with a suitcase of virtual advantages: her parents were Viennese doctors; she had already learned a second language, having lived the war years in Bolivia; and she had read hundreds of books.

I have spent the past 20 years teaching immigrant high schoolers, many of those years in California, where 23 percent of K-12 students are English learners. Though there are some young immigrants, like my mother, who arrive in this country with a strong academic foundation, the vast majority of them do not. They come mostly from rural communities in Mexico and Central America and their schooling is rudimentary at best; few have read one book, never mind many.

When we talk about educating immigrant students, we focus almost entirely on teaching them English, but for many students the needs run deeper. In 2012, I taught at the Fremont High School Newcomers Program in the Fruitvale neighborhood of East Oakland. My students there were Mayans from Guatemala, who had had so little formal schooling we needed to teach some of them the alphabet. But they were not empty-handed. They also brought with them hope, resilience, and an ability to rely on their community that was rare in their adopted neighborhoods.

The idea for newcomer high schools and programs within regular high schools took off in the 1970s because this focused instruction proved so effective at helping students integrate linguistically and culturally. Since 2000, though, their numbers have fallen by at least half because of postrecession budget cuts and difficulty conforming to the testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Fremont High School had a 15-foot-high, barbed-wire fence, a security guard, and seven full-time security officers patrolling the grounds. The fence and guards were not there to keep people out, but rather to keep the students in. The buildings were dilapidated and covered with graffiti. The windows were barred, as were the doors, the lockers banged up and dented. There was rarely toilet paper in the bathrooms, and if there was, it was strewn all over the floor. After lunch, the halls and patios were covered with paper plates and half-eaten pizzas, apple cores, and purposefully squished oranges; the air was filled with cursing and the ubiquitous odor of marijuana. When it was windy, napkins flew about, keeping low like the ghosts of birds who had died a violent death.

The Newcomers Program, in contrast, is a sheltered environment, where immigrant teens study the basic subjects in English and take intensive English classes. Here students form a community, sharing curse words and traditional dances, as well as their problems. When one student was beaten so badly that he was hospitalized just a few weeks after he arrived in Oakland, the students supported him. I was struck by his maturity and lack of anger: “They thought that if they hurt me, they would be strong, but they are not strong,” he said.

My students had strong emotional survival skills, but they didn’t know that there were planets or that the Earth revolved around the sun. They did not know that the world was divided into continents or that it was round. They did not think it was flat, either. They had simply never thought about what the Earth was beyond where they were from. They did not know the difference between a city and a state and a country. They knew they were in California, but they didn’t quite understand the difference between California and Oakland and the United States.

So in the Newcomers Program, we all started from the beginning. I began my class with the Big Bang and continued on to the creation of the solar system and Earth, to Pangaea and tectonic plates and the seven continents and dinosaurs and the evolution of Homo sapiens. That took months. There were so many gaps in their knowledge that I kept finding I had to go back farther. Once when I said, “Save a tree. Don’t waste paper,” they asked me, “What do trees have to do with paper?” So I went all the way back to the beginning to show them how paper was made and to teach them about deforestation in the Amazon. They had never heard of the Amazon, so I had to backtrack again.

I felt as though I was always backtracking, though I understood that what we were really doing was moving slowly forward, building not only on what I taught them but also on the strength of what they had brought with them. Like my mother, they had survived violence and carried unique advantages. They know that they are strong—like the young man who was beaten so badly—for they have traveled through Mexico on the top of the train called La Bestia; they have been robbed by coyotes and crossed the desert on foot; they have brought with them their looms to weave huipiles so that they will never forget the past even as they are making their future.

My students made tremendous progress, but this progress looked like failure on the standardized tests: Their academic abilities were still far below grade-level and all tests are in English, which they have not yet mastered. By the time they are seniors, they most certainly will not be able to read Silas Marner. My most gifted Mam-speaking student is now in 11th grade, and is taking Algebra II in a regular high school class. The young man who was beaten up in his early days in Oakland is also on track to graduate, but many students have dropped out to have babies and work. Yet, this is not necessarily a failure. They have learned to speak English and how to read and write. They know that the universe began with a Big Bang and that paper comes from trees.

Over the past 20 years there has been a constant debate about how to educate immigrants, and most of this debate has focused on the acquisition of English: what proficiency in English is, how long it should take a student to reach it, and whether total immersion, bilingual education, or sheltered classes taught in English works best. Recently there has been an emphasis on cultural awareness and how to integrate this into the curriculum. All of these things are certainly part of the equation, but I have learned that there is no algorithm, no one ideal way to address all the needs of all English learners.

Because newcomers bring with them a great variety of skills and come from such diverse academic and cultural backgrounds, programs must be flexible. We cannot serve these students if we let ourselves be controlled by state and federal edicts or by the data accumulated by standardized tests and scientific studies. We must meet students where they are, keeping in mind what they have brought with them. There should be more vocational programs for students who are not on a college track and partnerships so that students can take hands-on courses in such fields as health technology, mechanics, and carpentry. When schools provide newcomers with the extra support they need and a safe, nurturing, and rigorous academic community, they will make progress. This progress will not necessarily be evident in the data, but it will be evident to them. This progress will be the foundation for a new generation of Americans.

Anne Raeff teaches English learners at East Palo Alto Academy. Her novel Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia came out in 2001 and she has just completed a memoir. She wrote this for “Reimagining California,” a partnership of the California Endowment and Zócalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME History

What It Was Like Growing Up at Gettysburg

My family's antique shop by the historic battlefield has helped customers—and me—connect to our nation's history

“Do you have the kind of bullet that killed Lincoln?” asked a tourist buying a Derringer pistol, wearing a God Bless America t-shirt. I looked up from the counter a bit confused. I’d come in late after watching Steven Spielberg and Doris Kearns Goodwin speak at Gettysburg’s Soldiers’ National Cemetery for the 149th Remembrance Day, the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s address. I was cold and my coffee had only begun to wake me up.

“It should be the size of any pistol bullet,” I said. “I’ll look up the caliber on my phone and see if we can find one that matches.” It was a strange request, but it didn’t faze me the way it would have years earlier. I had been working in my family’s store, The Horse Soldier, for a little over six full months after graduating college in that year of 2012. I had promised my grandmother, who still worked at our front counter every day possible until retiring this year, that I would stay at our relic and antique store through the summer of 2013. We were preparing for the deluge of tourists that would be drawn by the 150th commemoration of America’s bloodiest battle; this was no time to be squeamish.

I picked up a U.S. Minié ball from hundreds of bullets stashed in front of our counter and wondered whether my grandfather knew what he was signing us up for when he found his first one.

My family’s business started as my grandfather’s hobby. Chester “Chet” Small, a U.S. Marine, came home to Gettysburg after he and his brothers had served in World War II. While trying to move on from the war he fought in overseas, he kept finding relics and bullets from another war in his backyard, as he and his brothers had in their childhood, over the road from Pickett’s Charge. The harvest of such deadly memorabilia was tragically bountiful.

My dad, Maurice, is named after one of his uncles, the one killed in action in France and buried in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Most shop customers call him Sam. My aunts tell me my uncle Wes couldn’t pronounce his name when they were little so that’s what everyone calls him. My grandfather started trading the bullets and relics he had found with his old military friends. Sometimes he’d sell dad and Wes bullets for a penny so they could sell them for a nickel to earn money for ice cream at the stand past Devil’s Den.

At some point, my grandmother Patricia put her foot down, insisting that these strange bearded men stop bringing big rifles into her living room. So Sam, Wes, and Chet built a shed out near the side of the Emmitsburg Road in 1972 and hung up a sign that read “Civil War Relics.”

My dad and his brother went off to college and returned home in the 1980s. Unsatisfied with other jobs, they began to build the business and moved the operation into town. The park – like many famous Civil War battlefields, Gettysburg is part of the National Park Service – purchased my grandparents’ battlefield property and tore down their wooden house to restore the land to its state in 1863. Too bad they tore down the house: information later revealed that the house was a witness to the battle after all. It had just moved from its original foundation across the road, transported by horses pulling logs.

Piecing together a network of collectors, relic hunters, and researchers, my family would encounter an endless stream of Americana’s holy grails. By attending trade shows with vendors, growing up with families that ran Gettysburg’s museums, and distributing a catalog worldwide twice a year for nearly 20 years, my family built a reputation for the honest art of appraising Civil War authenticity. We’ve handled some impressive artifacts over the years; Ulysses Grant’s coat, a set of the Lincoln White House chinaware, signal flags from Little Round Top, a pike from John Brown’s raid, fabric from Jefferson Davis’s chair, Frederick Douglass’s signature.

Most recently, we handled the belongings of General John Fulton Reynolds. Reynolds was shot on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg in McPherson’s Woods and died in the building next door to our store’s current location. His descendants, the Scotts, had passed down the items generation to generation. The family relinquished some of the artifacts—the kepi, belt, sword, corps badge he wore on July 1, 1863–to the National Park Service. A photo of Reynolds ended up in the National Portrait Gallery, and some daguerreotypes and presidential commissions promoting him remain in our store; a commission signed by Lincoln will go for $35,000 to the right buyer someday.

To most Horse Soldier customers, that overpriced stuff is for eggheads. Why pay five figures for a piece of paper when you can buy an 1861 Springfield musket, original Colt pistols, cartridge boxes, an Ames Cavalry sabre, daguerreotypes, a Sharps carbine, artillery shells, a tourniquet, bayonets, a canteen for a lot less? Most collectors aren’t about the big names; they’re about connecting with the historical moment. Civil War fandom is very democratic that way.

Customer nostalgia – if you can be nostalgic for a past you didn’t experience first-hand – is triggered by all sorts of associations. Many come searching for a relative’s possessions or just an emblematic piece of state pride. A lot of our customers are veterans, communing with the artifacts (and sacrifices) of their predecessors.

The word nostalgia is a compound marrying the Greek words nostos (“homecoming”) and algos meaning “pain, ache.” Along with the other quack solutions you read about in Civil War medical texts, doctors believed that the homesickness variety of nostalgia could be cured by exercise and battle or would issue discharges and furloughs to treat more severe cases at home. Musicians, meanwhile, indulged the sentiment, pumping out songs about longing for home – from the hurrahs of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” to the forlorn ballad of “Lorena.”

The Civil War is a big draw for the nostalgic set longing for a time of purpose and moral clarity. And battle re-enactments offer adults a rare, if not last, chance to dress up and pretend. The combination of solemn respect and child-like play seem as contradictory as the Blue and the Grey.

The Horse Soldier provided the backdrop to my childhood. It’s where I best remember my grandparents. And everyone remembers the tree that grew right inside the front of the shop where Grandma used to feed acorns to squirrels. Around the corner you would find my grandfather, whom I knew only as Pop-Pop, rooted firmly on a green vinyl Steelcase chair next to the saloon doors and a row of rifles. Eventually, the tree was torn down, replaced with a panoply of cannons and Gatling-guns aimed at anyone who dared to enter.

My grandfather passed away five years ago. As his health declined, some of my relatives, high school friends, numerous Horse Soldier employees, and I boxed up every last item to move down the street to our new location. It was a strange exercise, tearing down something that seemed so permanent, accounting for every piece before I went back to my sophomore year of college.

That winter, I was deeply moved by an old poem entitled “My Childhood Home I See Again,” about the bittersweet mixture of remembrance and loss felt in returning home. Its author, Abraham Lincoln, submitted the poem to Illinois Whig in 1847:

O Memory! thou midway world
‘Twixt earth and paradise,
Where things decayed and loved ones lost
In dreamy shadows rise. . .

Lincoln’s poem goes on to describe the feeling of returning home “after 20 years have passed away,” and his sentiments rang true with me only after a couple of years removed from Gettysburg. We often take the places that nurture us into the world for granted. Having grown up surrounded by battlefields, I used to dismiss the reverence people displayed for this American shrine.

After my grandfather’s passing, I began to read Civil War history to coincide with the epochal 150th anniversaries being commemorated. I read Carl Sandburg’s tomes about a home-spun, rail-splitting dark-horse Republican candidate from the frontier that won the presidency that fall, assembled a “team of rivals” halfway during my junior year winter break, and was sworn in just a couple days before my 21st birthday in March. As I geared up for finals in April, South Carolina fired shots at Fort Sumter.

As I returned to Gettysburg in 2012, I knew the buildup to the battle would be long, so I made a daily habit to check the period newspapers—The New York Herald, The New York Times, Harper’s Weekly, Leslie’s Illustrated— in “real-time.” I also went on a serious history-reading bender, taking on a challenge from Horse Soldier employee, John Peterson, who offered a Bob Dylan poster as bait. Before I read James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, “Lincoln freed the slaves” was a platitude. Before I read Stephen Sears’ Gettysburg, the battlefield was a nice place for a picnic, not a three-day ordeal through the crucible of hell that took place during one July’s opening days.

After you actually learn the true history, rather than the ghost story, you can’t escape the grasp of shared humanity. I gained a greater appreciation of what it means to preserve history. Touring where I had spent my childhood, a Horse Soldier regular, Jerry Bennett, breathed life into the past, pointing out buildings and recounting diary stories from housewives describing my hometown under siege.

So much has changed since Lincoln transformed the war from an inexplicable horror into a global struggle for honor in his dedication of these fields. While many Americans have some personal connection to the Civil War, I’m struck by how many people from outside the country are drawn to where Lincoln declared our country would have a “new birth of freedom.” Lincoln was a wise man ahead of his time, but I am not sure he could have imagined little kids far into the future dressed like him with stovepipe hats and beards.

As for me, I am still pitching in at the store then and now, while pursuing a career in DC. But I am pretty sure I will be behind the counter in July of 2063, helping to commemorate the big bicentennial.

Andrew Small is a journalist living in Washington, D.C. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME society

Why We Must Teach Law to Those Who Need It Most

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

At the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project, we encourage families to join their loved ones' defense team

When I heard about the suicide of Kalief Browder, a teenager who was charged with stealing a backpack and served three years in brutal Rikers Island until the charge against him was dropped, I thought about the shared culpability of his death by the criminal court system.

Police may have racially profiled Browder and wrongfully arrested him; but a prosecutor decided to pursue charges on patchy evidence and drag the case out for years; a judge set bail at $3,000, a bar his family could not afford; a previous plea deal — when he thought he had no defense against a charge of stealing a truck for a joy ride — meant that he was put in jail when the backpack charge was leveled. No wonder so many people think it’s impossible to have their fair day in court. More than 95% of cases like this are resolved with plea deals.

While police in the streets or inhumane conditions in the prisons have been focuses of social justice movements, the machinery between arrest and incarceration — the courts — have remained a social justice blind spot.

In San Jose, California, where I’m from, families have started use the science of community organizing to penetrate the court system. Families who have loved ones facing charges meet on a weekly basis; support each other; and share knowledge about what helps defense attorneys and what sways judges and juries. They form a network behind the person who has been arrested.

It is a communal counterbalance to the isolation of the court system. At the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project, we call the approach participatory defense — essentially encouraging communities to engage in the justice system, rather then waiting for the courts to do what it will with loved ones.

The essential agents of change don’t have to be lawyers or judges. Our meetings are facilitated by people who first came for help on their own cases or the cases of loved ones, volunteers who have transformed from isolated mothers watching their sons get chewed up by the courts to vocal navigators for other families.

As the director of a community center where we host the meetings every Sunday, I had no intention of getting involved in court organizing. When we started eight years ago, we were doing police accountability work. But we realized there was a common denominator among the people who came to our meetings: when facing a criminal charge, they needed a compass to help them harness community power to fight the charges. So we extended that community-organizing ethic to the court process.

The tangible impact of family and community participation on cases is undeniable. We have seen acquittals, charges dismissed and reduced, prison terms changed to rehabilitation programs, even life sentences taken off the table. When we tally up the original maximum sentencing possibilities against the “time served” from all of our cases collectively over six years, we see over 1,800 years of time saved.

One of the co-founders of the approach, Blanca Bosquez, started because of her son Rudy. Like Kalief, Rudy was 16 when he was arrested, charged with robbery based on a flimsy investigation. His backpack, which was stolen a year prior, was allegedly found near the crime scene. The prosecutor claimed that Rudy was the ringleader of a teenage robbery crew, but his mom knew this couldn’t be the case: Rudy was severely mentally delayed, had the mind of an 8-year-old, and required 24-hour care.

Blanca quarterbacked a community-wide penetration into the court system with her large extended family and friends. They gathered critical medical and school records showing Rudy’s mental challenges, packed every courtroom, offered testimony to the judge about Rudy’s care requirements and the role specific family members played in his well-being.

Rather then keeping him in jail while the case was going on, Rudy was released on home detention. Though he had only been in juvenile hall a few days, Rudy was visibly shaken. It was the first time he had been away from his mother since birth. He didn’t know how to use the knobs for the shower.

And while he was home, “Team Rudy” continued to press: they reviewed the police interrogation video, and “confession” to help their public defender. The officers and even the defense attorney initially knew nothing of Rudy’s mental challenges. Several times the officers asked Rudy if he was high because of a slurred speech that came from his condition.

Within weeks, Rudy’s felony-level charges were dropped. After this battle, Blanca thought other families should know how they, too, could do something to change the outcomes of their own cases.

As more families have engaged in this practice, we have seen patterns arise in where a family’s intervention makes the most sense. For example, after arrest, we ask families to write a statement about the incident and arrest, preserving any information that could be helpful to the defense.

In preparation for a bond hearing, we gather testimonials of community ties — essentially what that detained person has in their life, and the impact on that person and others if he or she had to be away during the adjudication of the case. Would jobs be lost? An elder left high and dry because a caretaker is gone? Supporters also share their role in ensuring the person attends court hearings. What we do is to strip away the mythology that people facing charges are islands, rather then people embedded in communities.

If a case is heading to trial, families are encouraged to review documents unearthed during the discovery process, such as police reports, to point out inconsistencies or false statements. If the aim is to reduce a charge or a sentence during the penalty phase, families create “social biography” packets, which arm the defense attorney with arguments about future prospects like housing, employment, or educational opportunities.

One of the most effective cases I’ve seen involved a single father named Carnell. He had pled guilty to a low-level drug charge, but because of prior convictions from a long-forgotten past, he faced five years in prison. His greatest worry about returning to jail was that his three daughters would be put in the foster system. We gave him a camera, and he took pictures of his typical day as a father — making the girls breakfast, taking them to school and after-school programs, helping them with homework. His defense attorney used the photo essay during the sentencing phase, and instead of prison, Carnell was sentenced to a six-month outpatient program so he could keep his family together.

Of course, we know there are limits to how much we can fight the court system’s default tool of incarceration. For example, if someone is found guilty of a charge with a mandatory minimum, a social biography packet won’t change that sentence. The judge has no discretion.

But what participatory defense will do is create a ground-up movement where people are “looking under the hood” of the court system, and seeing where change needs to happen. People see their own capacity — and their community’s collective capacity — to bend seemingly immovable institutions like the courts. While that is not a new concept, it’s a potent reminder how we truly are stronger together then alone. And case by case, we hope we’re building a movement that could one day end mandatory-minimum sentences.

Raj Jayadev is the director of Silicon Valley De-Bug, which hosts the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project. Jayadev is a 2015 Ashoka Fellow. He wrote this for “Reimagining California,” a partnership of the California Endowment and Zócalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Money

How Rich Immigrants Can Solve L.A.’s Housing Crisis

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

If the city wants affordable homes, it needs to tap into funds from wealthy foreign investors

How could Los Angeles pay for more affordable housing?

One answer is money from wealthy immigrants.

To build apartments that are accessible to low-income residents, high-rent cities across the country—from San Francisco to Miami—have been tapping funds from EB-5, a federal government program that offers U.S. green cards to foreigners in exchange for investments in U.S. businesses. Launched in 1990 as a vehicle to create jobs, the program requires each investor to give at least $500,000 to a business that provides 10 full-time jobs to Americans. The investment is “at-risk,” so there’s no guaranteed return.

As an immigrant, a former securities lawyer and the founder of a business, I immediately found EB-5 compelling, and have worked to spread the word about its advantages and make it more transparent. I’ve created EB5 Investors Magazine, EB5investors.com, and a series of educational EB-5 conferences.

But the program was rarely used and little known until the Great Recession hit and traditional sources of capital dried up. Since then, real estate developers have embraced EB-5 funds from foreign investors around the world as an alternative for financing all kinds of construction projects, including buildings that contain affordable housing units. EB-5 funds helped build 115 affordable units at Stadium Place, an office-hotel-retail-residential project located in front of the Seattle Seahawks stadium. San Francisco’s massive Shipyard development in Bayview-Hunters Point, one of the poorest sections of the city, includes several hundred million dollars from individual EB-5 investors. As part of its negotiation with the city, the Shipyard developer pledged to devote 30 percent of its planned 10,000 units to affordable housing. And last month, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado said that his city plans to target EB-5 immigrant investors as a source for financing an ambitious agenda to build affordable housing.

Like Los Angeles, most of the cities that have benefited from EB-5 appear toward the top of “least affordable’’ lists of U.S. cities. They all have large populations of homeless people, although Los Angeles has the highest number. (The homeless population in L.A. County grew by 12 percent in the past two years; the number of tents, vehicles, and homemade shelters being used as housing jumped 85 percent.)

But Los Angeles hasn’t cultivated EB-5 projects that involve affordable housing. Instead, L.A. developers with EB-5 have focused on building hotels – an easier route when you have to show job creation. Flag hotels in big cities are also easier to “sell” than low-income housing with migration agents in China who connect potential immigrant investors with projects. Of course, San Francisco and Seattle projects face the same reality and have gotten deals done. That suggests that developers here need a nudge to be more creative; one nudge might involve some form of city incentives.

Yes, there are challenges. Real estate developers, will tell you that affordable housing—defined as housing priced for people making less than 50 percent of a community’s median income—is notoriously difficult to greenlight because it is perceived as unprofitable. But what they don’t understand is that the use of EB-5 funds can help developers overcome that hurdle.

The big advantage for developers is that EB-5 funds are relatively cheap capital. Most EB-5 investors want to immigrate to the U.S. to raise their families, send their children to American universities, and take advantage of the entrepreneurial opportunities. A large return on investment is down the list for these immigrants. That translates into reduced demand for a high rate of return, which ends up costing the borrower less.

Another advantage: developers don’t have to put as much cash into projects, because of the lower proportion of equity in most EB-5 deals. In a typical deal using EB-5 funding, the developer maintains equity amounts equal to between just 15 and 25 percent of the total project cost.

Los Angeles affordable housing advocates would do well to look into EB-5 funding as an alternative source for financing mixed-use projects that include affordable and workforce housing. The money is there. Investors from China, Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East already have invested billions of dollars of capital through the EB-5 program with the hope of raising their children in the U.S. What better way to use wealthy investors’ funds than by helping to finance the construction of housing for middle and low-income Angelenos?

Ali Jahangiri is the founder of EB5 Investors Magazine and EB5Investors.com, a platform allowing investors to communicate directly with attorneys, and developers to connect with EB-5 regional centers and funding sources.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME History

The Civil War Was Won by Immigrant Soldiers

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One in four Union fighters was foreign-born

In the summer of 1861, an American diplomat in Turin, Italy, looked out the window of the U.S. legation to see hundreds of young men forming a sprawling line. Some wore red shirts, emblematic of the Garibaldini who, during their campaign in southern Italy, were known for pointing one finger in the air and shouting l’Italia Unità! (Italy United!). Now they wanted to volunteer to take up arms for l’America Unità!

Meanwhile, immigrants already in the United States responded to the call to arms in extraordinary numbers. In 1860, about 13% of the U.S. population was born overseas—roughly what it is today. One in every four members of the Union armed forces was an immigrant, some 543,000 of the more than 2 million Union soldiers by recent estimates. Another 18% had at least one foreign-born parent. Together, immigrants and the sons of immigrants made up about 43% of the U.S. armed forces.

America’s foreign legions gave the North an incalculable advantage. It could never have won without them. And yet the role of immigrant soldiers has been ignored in the narrative of a brothers’ war fought on American soil, by American soldiers, over issues that were uniquely American in origin.

In the 1860s, Confederate diplomats and supporters abroad were eager to inform Europeans that the North was actively recruiting their sons to serve as cannon fodder. In one pamphlet, Confederate envoy Edwin De Leon informed French readers that the Puritan North had built its army “in large part of foreign mercenaries” made up of “the refuse of the old world.”

Embarrassed Northerners claimed the Confederacy exaggerated how many foreign recruits made up the U.S. armed forces—pointing to immigrant bounty jumpers who enlisted to collect the money given to new recruits, deserted, and then re-enlisted. The underlying premise was that foreigners were not inspired by patriotic principle and, except for money, had no motive to fight and die for a nation not their own.

It was not true. Immigrants tended to be young and male, but they enlisted above their quota. Many immigrants left jobs to fight for the Union, enlisting before the draft—and the bounties—were even introduced. They volunteered, fought, and sacrificed far beyond what might be expected of strangers in a strange land.

Historians have done an excellent job of retrieving the voices of native-born, English-speaking soldiers. But the voices of the foreign legions remain silent—thanks to the paucity of records in the archives, the language barriers posed to historians, and, perhaps, a lingering bias that keeps foreigners out of “our” civil war.

Why did they fight? What were they fighting for? Recruitment posters in the New York Historical Society provide hints at the answers. One poster reads: Patrioti Italiani! Honvedek! Amis de la liberté! Deutsche Freiheits Kaempfer! (Italian patriots! Hungarians! Friends of liberty! German freedom fighters!) Then, in English, it urges “250 able-bodied men . . . Patriots of all nations” to fight for their “adopted country.”

One immigrant mother gave testimony in 1863 to an antislavery convention as to why her 17-year-old son was fighting for the Union. “I am from Germany where my brothers all fought against the Government and tried to make us free, but were unsuccessful,” she said. “We foreigners know the preciousness of that great, noble gift a great deal better than you, because you never were in slavery, but we are born in it.”

Following the failed Revolution of 1848, thousands of young Germans fled to America. They took up arms in what they saw as yet another battle in the revolutionary struggle against the forces of aristocracy and slavery. “It isn’t a war where two powers fight to win a piece of land,” one German enlistee wrote to his family. “Instead it’s about freedom or slavery, and you can well imagine, dear mother, I support the cause of freedom with all my might.”

In another letter written to his family in Europe, a German soldier gave a pithy explanation of the war: “I don’t have the space or the time to explain all about the cause, only this much: the states that are rebelling are slave states, and they want slavery to be expanded, but the northern states are against this, and so it is civil war!”

So it was civil war, but for many foreign-born soldiers and citizens, this was much more than America’s war. It was an epic contest for the future of free labor against slavery, for equal opportunity against privilege and aristocracy, for freedom of thought and expression against oppressive government, and for democratic self-government against dynastic rule. Foreigners joined the war to wage the same battles that had been lost in the Old World. Theirs was the cause not only of America, but of all nations.

Don H. Doyle is the author of The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War. He is McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. Follow him on Facebook. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME world affairs

Why Every American Should Adopt a Second Country

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

A modest proposal for changing the way we see the world—and ourselves

About 10 minutes into the soccer game, Sebastian’s cries of “here,” “behind you,” and “cross it” became cries of “aquí,” “atrás,” and “al centro.” I’d never heard so much Spanish voluntarily pour out of my 10-year-old. There is nothing like a hunger for the ball. And nothing like full immersion in a foreign language.

I brought Sebastian to the quaint colonial gem of San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico for a couple of weeks of Spanish and art classes. But mostly, I wanted him to soak up the atmosphere of his other country, the one where his dad was raised. The one his dad feels guilty his son doesn’t know better.

I grew up in Mexico, in a split household – American mother, Mexican father. Two languages, two passports, two sets of cultural mores; two favorite sports; two historical narratives; two kinds of humor; two culinary traditions. I grew up always synthesizing, comparing, navigating, blending mischievously. Toggling between two worlds is what experts in bilingualism call it. My parents did what I haven’t done adequately for my son – they forced me to speak the other language (in our case, English) at home to make us fully bilingual.

Only in retrospect do I appreciate how much effort that took on their part, and what a phenomenal gift it was. In real time, it was more of a pain – and a mortifying one, at that, when Mexican friends would come over and my mom would speak to them in English.

North of the Rio Grande, generations of immigrants have struggled with the challenge of keeping in touch with their other country, and handing down its language and culture to their children. It’s never been easy, especially because prevailing notions of American supremacy and exceptionalism create a disincentive to studying other languages or cultures. My own son generally goes about his fourth-grade, suburban Maryland existence fairly confident he lives in the center of the universe, with little need to learn from the rest of the world.

The dirty little secret is that the more Sebastian steps out of his comfort zone, and the more he learns about his other country and culture, the better he will also come to understand the United States and his American identity. People are constantly extolling the study of foreign languages and cultures because it helps us better understand the rest of the world, and because it turns out that being bilingual is good for the brain (thanks, ma!). But one of the corollary benefits of spending time immersed in a foreign culture – as important as any other benefit – is that you gain a better understanding of your own.

Imagine if you spent your entire life going out to only one restaurant. Would you really know its essence? Doesn’t your appreciation and understanding of a place require some comparative context?

I remember when growing up in Mexico, looking into the U.S. from the outside, being struck by the disconnect between the tenor of news in the two countries. Mexico, for all its wonders, was clearly the less democratic and less prosperous of my two countries. But you wouldn’t know that from comparing the press in both countries. The copies of Time that made their way to Chihuahua weeks late described a country that was falling apart, while the front pages of the local papers all extolled the achievements and virtues of Mexico’s revolution. I thus acquired a deeper appreciation for how freewheeling criticism is a hallmark of a society that is never complacent, always moving forward. But you can’t know what’s distinctive about one place until you’ve sampled others.

That’s why all Americans should adopt a second country, if they don’t already have one. Recent immigrants and their families shouldn’t be the only ones to benefit from toggling between cultures.

Here’s how it would work: Every American second grader would be assigned a second country. School districts would organize annual festivals around a lottery that matched kids with their second countries, with which they’d establish a long- term relationship. Thanks to the ubiquity of interactive learning software and video conferencing, hundreds of kids in a school could be learning dozens of languages during this “global hour” by connecting to their fellow Pashtun or German or Vietnamese students and teacher remotely. (Occasionally kids and guest speakers in the foreign country would join the conversation.) Now that distance learning is a reality, kids shouldn’t be limited to choosing only between French or Spanish, or whatever languages their schools manage to find instructors in.

Under my proposal, kids would study their second language and culture through high school, and be provided creative exchange and entertainment opportunities within their bi-national community. Students would belong to strong networks connecting them not only to their assigned country, but also to others across America assigned to the same country. The result would go beyond creating a far more cosmopolitan and informed citizenry. This would be the most ambitious public diplomacy ever deployed by a great power.

America’s economic competitiveness and security interests would also be served by having a deep bench of regional experts, of people invested in other cultures. As Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan noted in a 2010 speech on foreign language education, 95% of college students enrolled in a language course study European languages, but fewer than 1% study a language the Defense Department considers critical to national security. Even when language study is influenced by market-based reactions to what’s in the news – the post-Sputnik spike in Russian study, the post-9/11 spike in Arabic study – the results tend to be transitory and scattered.

By contrast, my second grade students-to-countries matching lottery would guarantee a more rational distribution of interest and knowledge. We need Americans who understand and appreciate Indonesia, Kenya, and even countries like the Netherlands, regardless of whether or not they happen to be in the news. These long-term relationships with their second countries would be among the most rewarding and fun educational experiences for American kids.

That’s my proposal, anyways. Back here in the real world, however, the trends are heading in the opposite direction. Less than one in five Americans speaks another language (compared to slightly more than half of all Europeans) and many of these Americans, in immigrant families, wouldn’t have picked up the language in school. Only a quarter of all elementary schools offered foreign language instruction in 2008, compared to about a third a decade earlier. In our schoolyards, it’s as if the rest of the world were shrinking in economic and strategic importance to us.

Meanwhile, I will continue trying to expand Sebastian’s horizons, and appreciation for his other country. A Father’s Day lunch in San Miguel was a modest score along the way. Sebastian blurted out, “They should do this in the States,” referring to the sliced limes routinely served at meals here. I smiled. The boy was thinking comparatively, assessing how restaurants, and countries, vary – and can learn from each other.

Provecho.

Andrés Martinez is the editorial director of Zócalo Public Square and a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

East Africa’s American Idol Is Better

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

East Africa's version of American Idol is pioneering a less cutthroat, more human competition

Six blue-masked doctors in white coats stood before us, each monitoring an infrared detector, checking for signs of fever in travelers. It was late February, and I had just arrived at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, where I was greeted with an Ebola screening. Unlike many of the people deplaning with me, I did not come for a safari, or a post at an embassy, or to work for a non-governmental organization. I was hired to be the studio producer for an East African music talent contest show called Maisha Superstar.

Along the lines of American Idol or The Voice, this show was searching for – and helping to mold – the next big pop star from a region that includes Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. With Idol suffering from declining ratings and set to end next season, execs looking to make talent competition shows compelling would do well to look to Nairobi.

I’ve been working as a record producer, recording engineer, and mixer for nearly 20 years in L.A. I’ve never really watched TV talent competition shows in the U.S. – the music isn’t that compelling, they create false game-show drama to boost ratings, and they aren’t even effective in finding successful music acts. So why was I there in Nairobi to produce the studio recordings that would accompany a TV talent show in a country I’d never been to before?

It wasn’t for the money. The budget for our show was about 1/30th of American Idol or The Voice. I could have made more if I’d stayed in Los Angeles grinding out smaller gigs.

The answer: Eric Wainaina. We had been classmates in the late 1990s at Berklee College of Music, though barely acquaintances, then. He became a Kenyan superstar in 2001 when he released the song, “Nchi Ya Kitu Kidogo” (“Country Of Bribes”). It was a scathing indictment of governmental corruption in a country that had been effectively ruled by one party since its independence in 1963 until 2003.

Officials banned Eric’s song from playing on the national radio station. Police followed him. When invited to play at the national Kenya Music Festival, where the then vice president would be in attendance, Eric was harassed on stage. A reporter for the BBC interviewed Eric after the show and helped shine an international spotlight on Kenya’s democracy movement.

Sitting at home in Los Angeles, I heard that BBC interview one night. Here was a man who was using music not only for entertainment, but to create a different future for his country. I added a goal to my career to-do list: “Work with Eric Wainaina.” It took 11 years, but I finally got in touch with Eric in 2012 and I produced a re-mix of his song “Selina.” It would go on to become a huge regional hit.

Eric became the music director of Maisha Superstar, which was named after the show’s regional satellite network broadcaster, Maisha. Eric invited me to be the studio music producer, primarily responsible for making the recordings of each week’s songs to release online.

Viewers of any singing contest show will recognize the basic outline: auditions, performances, eliminations. At the beginning of each season, American Idol uses cattle-call auditions in several cities around the country so their panel of judges can select between 10 and 13 virtually unknown finalists. In contrast, we began with six successful “mentor” musical artists (two each from the three participating countries, which created a friendly regional rivalry) who searched their country for talent. By the end of the third episode, each of these mentors picked one “rookie finalist” to bring with them to Nairobi for the final nine performance shows.

Similar to The Voice, the rookies worked with their mentors through song choices, performances, arrangements, leaned on them for moral support, and had a week to work on new songs before the next episode. Unlike The Voice, each mentor had only one rookie artist and was fully invested in his or her development. Each pair worked as a team, but ultimately the rookies were competing against each other for the final prize (roughly $12,000, and a recording contract).

And, they also had Eric and me, working behind the scenes, coaching studio performances, rehearsing, recording, and helping to plan the staging of each contestant’s weekly song.

There were two other critical differences between Maisha Superstar and American music contest shows. First, Maisha Superstar’s scoring system was not based in any way on popular vote. Instead, an independent panel of judges (which did not include the mentors, Eric, or myself) accounted for 70 percent of the total, and the final 30 percent came from studio audience votes. Second, none of the rookies were eliminated during the first five weeks of performances. And while five weeks is a short time to try to find yourself as an artist or performer, it is a huge improvement over zero.

Because the scoring was cumulative and the eliminations were based on the rookies’ average score, one bad performance didn’t spell doom. In U.S. reality shows, there’s rarely such a safety net – we’re more interested in a Shark Tank or crowning a Survivor.

Did it work? I think it did. Having those first five weeks to sing without fear of elimination gave the rookies time to build a viewer following, which was important for ratings. It also freed the teams to try things they might not have otherwise. We had one rookie do an original song in week one.

And it gave the contestants time to find songs that resonated with the audience. For instance, even though all three countries share English as a common language, we found that contestants singing in Swahili, Luganda, or even a tribal language did very well. The judges and studio audience were all well aware of western Top 40 songs, but loved when the rookies “brought it home” with performances in their home language. Even if people didn’t understand exactly what words were being sung, the honesty of the connection the singers felt to the music was clearly more important.

There were a few bumps in the road. The cumulative scoring system over-rewarded consistency, and under-rewarded growth. At one point, attempts to plant blatant partisans in the studio audience threatened to derail the voting. When Ugandan and Tanzanian contestants felt that the Kenyans had an unfair advantage because the show was being recorded in Nairobi, a Ugandan mentor used his formidable social media presence to try to stack the audience with Ugandans who would vote for country over performance quality. The following week one of the Kenyan contestants retaliated. Suddenly we saw audience interest drop dramatically. An announcement was made about fair voting, and thankfully those attempts to stack the deck did not derail the show.

My experience with “Maisha Superstar” reinforced my feeling that music stars have rarely been instant successes. There are almost always years of work that go into their career before they hit it big. Their “overnight success” is a narrative illusion created to sell records, tickets, and often for the self-aggrandizement of the people who claim to have “discovered” a new star. But the reality is far more complex. Maisha Superstar showed that the process can be entertaining for an audience as well. And that everyone benefits from the support of those around them.

Will Kennedy is a record producer, recording engineer, and mixer based in Los Angeles, CA. He is also the co-producer of the Live At Studio Delux web series, and co-founder of the Mix Notes From Hell podcast. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME society

California, Where Brown and Gray America Collide

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Two of the country's fastest growing populations are learning how to embrace change

It was like being in a foreign country. Having never lived anywhere but California, I arrived at Brandeis University in the 1970s to study gerontology and geriatrics. I was a grandson of migrant farm workers, a polio survivor, and one of the first Latino students from the Southwest to attend a Boston-area college.

I found myself assigned to interview retirees in New Hampshire as a part of a survey of long-term care facilities. The subjects were Anglo, God-fearing, patriotic men who found it strange for a young disabled Latino to inquire about their personal lives. I later learned that the Brandeis faculty also had qualms about sending me into this uncharted territory. However, after shooting pool with me, these elderly gentlemen invited me for a snowmobile ride (my first-ever). We were soon like good friends, and thus the surveys were completed successfully.

Looking back now, I can see this experience was a prescient microcosm of one of the greatest challenges America faces today: addressing the sometimes conflicting needs of the two fastest growing population segments in the country—the elderly and ethnic minorities. It also shows us how California can lead the way.

The U.S. is facing two key milestone years: In 2030, the last of the aging baby boomers all will have turned age 65, and in 2045, we will have become a majority-minority nation. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that in 2044, non-Hispanic whites will drop below 50 percent of the population, and Hispanics—America’s largest racial/ethnic minority—will surpass 25 percent.

These years can be benchmarks by which to measure how we respond to a changing demographic landscape. Between 2015 and 2055, the Latino population will double in size, from 56.8 million to 112.3 million. In the same time period, the number of adults over 65 will have nearly doubled (from 47.8 million to 92.5 million), creating the largest “senior citizen” group in our history. Fifty-seven percent of those individuals will be non-Hispanic white, and 21 percent will be Hispanic.

What does this mean for the future of our country? Will fear and insecurity create racial discrimination and ageism, or will we have the foresight to prepare for, invest in, and embrace this new America?

The current state of our political discourse isn’t promising. Social Security could become a defining issue in the 2016 election. Its solvency hangs over politicians and the public on both sides of the debate. Immigration reform, meanwhile, is stuck in limbo, hampered in part by an undercurrent of nativism. Are we destined to forever have these conflicts, or can we find common cause, accept the reality of the demographic changes, and use them to our advantage? I believe my personal journey, and recent California history, provide insight into the path forward.

My mother, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, raised nine children on her own in Salinas, California. We were fortunate to have the benefits of public housing, a robust social welfare safety net, and of course, a mother with strong values. As a result, all nine of her children are college graduates with professional careers. If there is a message in our personal journey, it is to recognize and accept that America is a nation of immigrants, and the true task will be to adapt to a future, which holds the promise of reconciliation rather than generational and racial conflict.

I saw first-hand how my grandmother (who came with her family to California fleeing the Mexican Revolution) and mother faced discrimination, and now that I am an “elder,” I have seen how the Mexican community here acquired political and economic influence over the past half century. Yet I also see how other parts of the country (particularly New England, the Midwest, and the South) are only now coming to terms with waves of immigrants and facing the discomfort we once had in California.

We faced immense struggles (deportations, riots) in adapting to constant demographic shifts, but over many years, Californians became accustomed to change. California, which became a majority-minority state by 1999, continues to be a harbinger for the nation. Our struggles with propositions 187 (to deny social services to undocumented immigrants) and 209 (to end affirmative action) galvanized undocumented persons to naturalize and vote, giving impetus to a powerful set of Latino and Asian elected officials. California is the world’s seventh largest economy in part because of the interconnections of its immigrant groups. The Korean, Persian, Central American, Mexican, Chinese, and Armenian diasporas in California are second in size only to their home countries. These and other factors can show the nation (and older voters) that notwithstanding unsettling demographic trends, in time, regions can and will benefit from the presence of these groups.

With time, acculturation, and intermarriages, we have reached an equilibrium where a majority of Californians today feel that immigration is good for the state. This gives me hope that, as immigrants assimilate, the rest of America can adjust and adapt to these demographic changes.

Indeed, demographics suggest that America will be forced to adapt. Anglos make up 76 percent of baby boomers, a large proportion of whom will require long-term care assistance, whether in institutional facilities or at home. A rising percentage of their caregivers (currently 27 percent) are minorities and immigrants.

And it’s not just the caregiving where these two groups will have to learn to work with each other: As these same baby boomers sell their homes, who will the buyers be? The aging Anglo population is having fewer children. But will the growing, younger minority populations have the education, jobs, and financial resources to buy those homes?

The United States is aging, but with fertility rates above replacement levels, thanks largely to Latinos and Asian-Americans, many of whom live in California. These are groups inherently loyal to the U.S. and able to acculturate thanks to a civic culture that fosters engagement in our democratic processes. In turn, Latino culture and Asian economic investments enable cities such as Los Angeles to remain viable, and the cultural infusion of foods, new ideas, popular music, and capital investments keep the our country and state vibrant.

We must recognize that all Americans have a common stake and self-interest in our mutual success. As I learned in working with New Hampshire retirees decades ago, by drawing on our personal backgrounds, understanding individual concerns, and appealing to our good sense and compassion, we can forge unlikely bonds with one another.

Now is the time to make this compelling case to the baby boomer generation. I know that my children and grandchildren will grow and age in a nation that is much different than it was in the last century. By embracing and supporting who we have been and who we are becoming, we can be confident that America will continue to prosper and be a beacon for the world.

Fernando Torres-Gil is the director of the UCLA Center for Policy Research on Aging, the principal investigator for the Ford Foundation-funded Latinos and Economic Security project, and a member of the board of the American Association of Retired Persons. He wrote this for “Reimagining California,” a partnership of the California Endowment and Zócalo Public Square.

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