On 2017

Last weekend, Vanity Fair released a video suggesting a new hobby for the first female to be nominated for president by a major political party: Take up knitting. Vanity Fair’s message isn’t new; in fact, many of us know it quite well.  Perhaps that’s why personally addressing it to the one person who came closest to shattering the glass ceiling is so audacious.  Yes, Vanity Fair.  Yes, America. We hear you.  We’ve always heard you. Sit down.  Be quiet.  Bake cookies.  Make tea.  Go knit.  Look pretty.  Smile.

There’s no doubt that women got the message. If the data bears any indication, 2018 will be a year of reckoning in this country.  369 women are planning to run for Congress next year, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.  Over 22,000 women have reached out to Emily’s List about running for various offices.  And if the nastiness of the 2016 election and the resounding defeat taught us anything, it was how to knit pretty pink hats to decorate the heads of some three million women who participated in marches all over the country last January and who will be the first in line at the polls next November.

You see, we can’t keep quiet, and we won’t stay seated.  The legacy of the United States of America demands that its citizens not sit idly by when our country is headed down the wrong path. Our democracy gives us both the right and the duty to do more than just complain about inequality and injustice – it compels us to take action. We know without a doubt that our tomorrow can bring affordable healthcare, superior education, and a vibrant economy for all of our people, not just those at the top. We care deeply about this country and our institutions, and we will fight to protect this democracy for the future of our children.

As I write this, a bouncy, vibrant three-year-old girl is running across our living room, yelling, “I’m brave, fast, and strong.”  It’s one of her favorite phrases.  And it’s one of mine too, along with a few others:  Stand up.  Be proud.  Dream big.  Make change. Don’t quit. Believe.

There are many lessons my daughter will learn over the years, but there is none I’m prouder to teach her than that she’s worth fighting for.

The countdown to 2018 is on.  I can’t wait to see what it brings.

After all – it’s our tomorrow.




On Addiction in Arkansas

We have a drug problem in southern Arkansas, and we can’t afford to ignore it any longer.  For years, methamphetamine use has plagued our rural counties, sinking its claws into our communities and turning residents into addicts.  A November 2017 issue of Rolling Stone magazine described the problems currently facing the state of Arkansas this way: “There are no jobs here, especially since Walmart moved on, and residents seem chained to a life of poverty, addiction, and dealing to support their habits.”  While this description at first may seem harsh, the reality is that it is an accurate portrayal of the problems facing our rural residents. For many, drug use is an escape from the reality of life in south Arkansas, where our citizens are frustrated by a severe lack of jobs and educational opportunities in the towns where they live.   And if we don’t take immediate action to address the root of the problem and help our people, the issues of poverty and addiction will only get worse.

Last month’s heartbreaking HBO documentary “Meth Storm” highlighted the deeply devastating effects meth use has had on rural Arkansas communities and the people who live here.  In the film, Veronica Converse, a resident and addict from Clinton, Arkansas, explains how many people in her community turn to dealing drugs because it is often the only opportunity they feel they have.  At one point she pointedly remarks, “Nine out of 10 people here are meth heads.” The documentary closely follows Veronica and her son, Teddy, who is jailed repeatedly for drug charges only to be released and return to the same habits that put him there.  Sadly, the story of the Converse family is not unique to communities in southwest and central Arkansas.  The film exposes the harsh realities of depressed communities and poor economic conditions in our state, where people often feel ignored, trapped, and hopeless.

And now our state’s residents are grappling with yet another addiction that is growing at an alarming rate:  Opioids.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of prescriptions written in this state far outnumber the people who live here; in fact, for every 100 residents living in Arkansas, there are now 116 prescriptions.  And those most at risk are our low-income rural residents – the same people who have been struggling with meth use for decades.  What’s even more concerning is the effect this is having on our young people.  According to the Arkansas State Crime Lab, Arkansas now ranks first in the nation for nonmedical teen prescription drug abuse, and two thirds of those drugs are obtained by teens in the homes of their friends and family members.  Overdoses are also on the rise. Data from the Arkansas Department of Health Emergency Management System reveals that the number of emergency medical calls made in 2016 that required the administration of Naloxone – the medication administered to combat opioid overdose – almost doubled from that of the previous year.  In 2016 alone, over 2,456 calls were made due to Arkansas residents who had overdosed.

What’s interesting to note is how many opioid addiction cases in this state begin with what seems relatively harmless.  If someone suffers a fall or is injured as the result of a car accident, they do what anyone would: Seek pain relief from their doctor.  But opioid addiction often develops as the undesired result of what was originally a legitimate prescription yet eventually led to a dangerous drug dependency.  And it’s affecting all of us.  Almost everyone knows someone who is affected – from the veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome to the mother who started taking painkillers as a result of an injury – opioid addiction does not discriminate.  So how do we approach a problem that is growing more and more prevalent with every passing day?

First, we must recognize the mistakes of our past.  This is not the first opioid epidemic we’ve encountered, although it is the first to come in the form of legal prescriptions.  In the early 80s and 90s, the heroin epidemic was widespread and predominantly affected communities of color throughout this nation.  Large numbers of people were addicted, and our initial response was to criminalize the behavior of addicts, resulting in a massive increase in the number of incarcerations. It is imperative that we act upon a sincere desire to treat the cause rather than condemn the results. We also must take responsibility for the mistakes of our past and do all we can to help those who are reentering society from prison as a result of heroin related convictions in the 80s and 90s.  Going forward, our actions must be guided by both empathy and compassion for those suffering from addiction rather than the judgment and condemnation we showed in the past.

We also must recognize the importance of keeping families together while treating the problem of addiction.  According to the Arkansas Department of Human Services, “There are more than 5,000 children and youth in foster care in Arkansas, but only about 1,600 foster family homes.”  And research shows a link between substance abuse and the growing number of children in foster care. In fact, more than half of the children who are removed from their homes in Arkansas are taken because of parental drug abuse. The current opioid crisis is forcing more and more children into state custody. Parental substance abuse is one of the primary causes of the rapid increase of children in the foster care system.  Rural areas with a higher propensity for substance abuse also have a higher number of drug related foster care cases. In Arkansas, our system is overloaded, and we do not have enough resources or trained caseworkers to handle the growing crisis. By taking a proactive stance to address addiction, we have the capacity to keep families together and to give our state’s children the best chance at a promising future.

What that means is that legislators must take a two-pronged approach to solving the problem, expanding our state’s services through a whole patient approach to treat addiction while at the same time keeping families intact.  Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) is one approach that balances medications with a proven history of success at treating opioid addiction with behavioral counseling.  According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “MAT increases social functioning and retention in treatment,” while decreasing “opioid use and opioid-related overdose deaths.”   But as we seek out the programs like MAT that will do the most good for those suffering from addiction, our primary goal must be to ensure that working parents have access to the treatment they need and that they can care for their children while accessing outpatient services.

Finally, we cannot ignore the hopeless economic conditions that are the reality in rural Arkansas. We must make it a priority to create meaningful job opportunities for our residents in depressed rural areas and to raise wages for hourly employees so that they earn a livable wage. Too often our attention is focused on expanding economic growth in our more populated areas, while people in small communities all over our state are hurting – and hurting badly.  The reality is that our legislators have failed to provide solutions and practical pathways for our rural residents to get ahead, and with no other viable option before them, many have turned to drugs for temporary relief from the hopelessness of their situation. It is our responsibility to provide practical pathways to affordable vocational and educational training for our people so that they have the means to climb up and out of the vicious cycle of poverty.

The people of Arkansas are facing real problems, and we need legislators who are focused on finding real solutions. The time is now to elect leaders who will take action to address the very real issues of poverty and addiction that are plaguing our state.  We can’t afford to wait.

After all – it’s our tomorrow.


On Sex and Society

Yesterday, the women of the #MeToo movement were named people of the year by Time Magazine for breaking their silence and bravely speaking up about sexual harassment.  During the course of the past few weeks, we have witnessed an onslaught of women coming forward to share their experiences with men who have engaged in inappropriate behavior. Just today, Senator Al Franken announced his intention to resign from his position in the U.S. Senate as a result of allegations of sexual misconduct.  The problem itself isn’t new.  In fact, the male-female power dynamic is as old as time itself.  What is new, however, is an overwhelming number of women in the workforce and a society that is ill prepared for how to deal with the rapidly changing face of the world. And while exposing the problem by speaking up is a step in the right direction, unless we take active measures to address the root of the problem, our daughters and granddaughters will continue to struggle with the problems of sexual harassment, gender disparity, poverty, and income inequality that plague this nation.

The solution to this problem lies, as it often does, in education – but perhaps not where you might think. The initial response to the public outcry has been calls for resignations and an increased implementation of sexual harassment training in the workplace. Companies are providing comprehensive training for their adult workforce, and even the federal government is now requiring members of Congress and their staff to attend mandatory sexual harassment training.  And while that is a valuable and worthwhile investment, the reality is that waiting until men and women are fully grown is much too late to address a problem that begins far earlier and the effects of which encompass much more than instances of sexual harassment. We must do a better job at educating our youth about the boundaries of healthy relationships, and that education must begin in the formative years of early adolescence, when young men and women are just learning about one another and how to interact.

Any experienced educator will tell you that the only way to achieve the results you seek is to teach the outcomes you desire.  But all too often our schools focus strictly on academic content while ignoring one of the most critical components of a holistic education: Life skills.  And one of the most important life skills young men and women must learn is how to interact with one another appropriately and how to develop and maintain healthy relationships. We might not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but we can certainly teach our youth the boundaries of appropriate behavior, and in doing so, we can train a new generation of young people to enter a workforce that looks vastly different than it did fifty years ago.

By teaching our young people to interact with one another appropriately and to develop and maintain healthy relationships, we will do much more than reduce the likelihood of sexual harassment in the workplace – we will improve the overall state of our economy by addressing other problems that stem from a lack of education, like teen pregnancy and poverty. Research shows that there is an inarguable link between poverty and family planning choices.  According to the National Conference of State Legislators, “Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of teen pregnancy and childbearing.”  Having a child is one of the costliest undertakings of an individual’s life, and when teenagers become pregnant, they often become trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, depending on public assistance for support. The truth is that poverty is cyclical, and the only way we can break this vicious cycle is to equip our young people with the life skills they need to make wise decisions in relationships with the opposite sex.

The United States ranks as one of the highest in the industrialized world for teen pregnancy and birth rates, and here in Arkansas, the numbers are even more alarming. Arkansas is ranked 44th in the nation for poverty rates, according to U.S. News and World Report.  We are 49th in the nation in terms of wages, and 1 out of every 4 of our children live at or below the poverty line.  It should be no surprise, then, that our teen pregnancy and birth rate is also one of the highest in the nation, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. In 2014, more than 4 out of every 100 teenage girls gave birth, 85% of whom were single and without adequate resources.  Teen pregnancy is the number one reason young women drop out of school, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, and this directly affects their career goals and economic future. “Only about half of teen mothers earn a high school diploma by age 22, compared to 90 percent of women without a teen birth,” the National Conference of State Legislators reports.  And the children they have are much more likely “to have lower school achievement, enter the child welfare and correctional systems, drop out of high school, and become teen parents themselves.”  Thus the cycle continues.

Some might argue that teaching our young people to make wise and healthy relationship choices is best left to parents in the comfort of their own home. I wholeheartedly agree. There is nobody better equipped to teach my daughter to look out for her health and financial well-being than I am.  But the reality is that my daughter does not face the same challenges as the majority of the youth in this state.  She was born into a two-parent household where both individuals hold graduate level degrees. In a state where almost 190,000 low income children live with only a single parent, we cannot expect the overwhelming majority of our young people to receive this education at home, where too often a full time working mother is struggling to pay the bills, put food on the table, and pay for prescription medications her children need. And if we don’t intervene – if we don’t come together and demand a better tomorrow for the future of our children – the cycle will only continue, and the income gap between the rich and the poor will continue to widen.  And our daughters and granddaughters will continue to face the same problems that plagued our mothers and grandmothers.

Now is the time for all good women to come to the aid of their country. Now is the time to lift our voices in unison to say that enough is enough – and to demand better for our children. Education is the answer.  It always is.  And we have the power to bring about the change we seek.  It’s our time.  We are called to lead the charge.

After all – it’s our tomorrow.