Maggie Shafer Writes

Unicode: The people who made the internet open to anyone

Maggie ShaferComment
The Unicode Staff and Editorial Committee Members celebrating the publishing of The Unicode Standard Version 5.0 in Mountain View, CA in December 2006. Clearly image resolution was the least of their concerns at the time.

The Unicode Staff and Editorial Committee Members celebrating the publishing of The Unicode Standard Version 5.0 in Mountain View, CA in December 2006. Clearly image resolution was the least of their concerns at the time.

This piece was originally published on Medium. A version of it was published on Mental Floss.


Where do emojis come from?

Most of the world knows they took off in Japan, but who designed them, and how did they get on my iPhone, and what are the broader implications of their ubiquity in text conversation? And what is that triangular-shaped thing with the black square loitering in the foods category? These are the questions I set out to answer when I began working on this article. Then I checked the internet and realized a lot of smarter people had already covered it.

Like this article from Vox about where they came from.

Or this essay from from New York Magazine, which explores their evolution and cultural implications.

Or this one from Wired, where you can find out what they mean and how to use them.

These articles answered a lot of my questions, but they also raised a new one. Every one of them mentions something called Unicode. Some of them in passing, as if to say, “We all know about Unicode, right? Let’s move on.” Some of them explained it briefly, just not in a way that makes sense to my 5th grade understanding of computers. A few of them included a link, which I clicked because that’s what you do when you’re looking something up real quick and then it’s a day. All these links took me to what appeared to be aderelict website relic of the 90s — here on out referred to as the Hidden Temple — complete with a left-hand nav bar and absolutely no margins that led me into an endless labyrinth of articles and papers and explanations bleeding to the very edges of my screen and more and more underlined links which I kept clicking until eventually the Home icon disappeared and thank God for the back arrow or I may not be here today to tell you the story of Unicode, and how a small group of linguists and programmers decided to fix the internet before most of us had ever even created an AIM account.


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One of the many good things about working at bulb is that I am never ever the smartest person in the room. Which is why the first thing I did after coming up for air from the depths of the Hidden Temple was make my way to our software architect David Anderson’s office that is actually a tiny hallway to ask him to explain a few things.

“What is Unicode?”

He slowly backed away from his 2.4 million open tabs, and with eyes lit up, turned to the glass board behind him and starting drawing what appeared to be a series of rectangles.

Unicode, he explained, is the universal coding standard for script.

It’s the reason you can email someone in China and they can read it, or I can text my Dad’s Android from iOS and he can yell text me back in all caps because he doesn’t know how not to (not Unicode’s fault), or that I can build a web page and Google can find that page for someone else, no matter where they are, even someone in space using rocket software. It’s a universal character language that all computers speak. The digital tower of Babel.

The Hidden Temple puts it like this: “Fundamentally, computers just deal with numbers. They store letters and other characters by assigning a number for each one. Before Unicode was invented, there were hundreds of different encoding systems for assigning these numbers.”

No single one of these systems could contain enough characters to cover all written languages, and some of them needed multiple encoding systems just for a single language with all its letters, punctuation and symbols.

Not only were these systems inadequate on their own, they also conflicted with one another. For instance, two encodings could use different numbers for the letter M, or worse, they could use the same number for two different letters.

Back to The Hidden Temple: “Any given computer (especially servers) needs to support many different encodings; yet whenever data is passed between different encodings or platforms, that data always runs the risk of corruption.”

So if you emailed “I love you” to your person but they were using a program with a conflicting encoding system, they might get a message that looks more like “◻◻◻◻◻.” Relationship over. Or at very least in the grey area.

Unicode saved your relationship by providing a unique number for every character, no matter what the platform, no matter what the program, no matter what the language. So “I love you” shows up in the exact script in which it was sent.

David has been working as a programmer since he was 14 (more than 25 years), and remembers the transition to Unicode like some of us remember getting our wisdom teeth pulled.

Like most American programmers, he had been primarily relying on ASCII — American Standard Code for Information Exchange — a 7-bit (a bit being a 0 or a 1 in binary code) character encoding system in his job at JD Edwards. This worked really well for English, but as soon as you needed to translate something into a non-Latin based language (which was happening more and more frequently as more and more of the world was coming online), you’d get the coding equivalent of all your teeth ending up crooked and your entire face would shapeshift until you were a monster of a person, a shell of your former self that no one would ever take to prom.

Joe Becker, a former Xerox corporation programmer and Unicode founder, explained why full extraction was necessary in Unicode 88, a paper he wrote to summarize the work he’d been doing with Lee Collins (a colleague at Xerox), and Mark Davis (then of Apple Corporation) in (wait for it) 1988. This would become the framework for what we know today as the Unicode Standard.

The problem with ASCII, according to the document, is that the people of the world need to be able to communicate in their own native languages, not just English. Modern text processing systems should be able to accommodate latin-based alphabets for all languages; latin and non-latin based alphabets, “exotic” scripts like Hindi and Thai, not to mention the thousands of ideographic characters used in writing many Asian languages.

ASCII vs. Unicode. Unicode wins every time. (Image from

ASCII vs. Unicode. Unicode wins every time. (Image from

What was needed was a new international/multilingual text encoding standard that would be as workable and reliable as ASCII, but that covers all the scripts of the world.

The paper goes on to explain how Unicode would be that standard, by creating a 16-bit number (or room for 65,536 unique codes) and assigning it to a distinct character. And then doing that for every character in every language in the world. It was later that they added for every time period.

Andy Updegrove, a lawyer who represents standard setting organizations like Unicode and maintains an entire site devoted to resources for and about these organizations, is perhaps the most vocally passionate Unicode fan there is. This is the way he put it in an interview turned blog post: “It lies at the very bedrock of equal access to the Internet, and equal opportunity to benefit from it by being able to influence others. It gives voices to those who would otherwise be voiceless, except in the language of another culture. With it, the world is a level playing field. Without it, we would be stuck in an upgraded example of a colonial world, where historically first world nations continue to force their cultures and rules on emerging nations and their peoples.”

The transition to Unicode was thus noble as well as deeply practical, though no one was looking forward to the procedure. Once it was done though, it was well worth it. Most notably, the copious time that developers like David could save from having to deal with translation issues could be repurposed for other things, like building new, better software and emailing friends without worrying about those mysterious white squares. Multiply this time saved by every programmer in every country in the world and we owe the creators of Unicode a big pat on the back. And now that there is a nonprofit Unicode Consortium, you can give them that pat in the form of a financial donation.

But before you do that, you might want to know a little bit more about them.


Ken Whistler is a smart guy. He received a Ph.D. in linguistics from UC Berkeley in 1980 and in his work as a linguist, he learned Japanese and Chinese and studied Native American languages. This all involved a lot of primary data entry, and it was good timing for data entry because the PC was fresh on the scene. The only problem was that he worked with languages that didn’t rely on latin characters, and his computer was like WTF?! So he did what all smart guys do and created his own ad hoc system for encoding the foreign characters. It took a lot of time, but it worked. And as long as you were using the same software on the same computer, it’d work for you, too.

And then the internet happened. I mean it’d been around since the late 60s, sure, but it began to look like something that would be useful to more than the military, the government and diehard Thunderbirds fans. Ken realized it would become increasingly more important that there was a universal system for linguists doing work like he was — at least if we wanted that work to survive in the digital age.

Turns out, Ken wasn’t the only smart guy thinking about this. He was hired in 1989 by a company called Metaphor, who also wanted him to work on developing an encoding system for characters. His boss at Metaphor, Mike Kernaghan, introduced him to the man we quoted earlier, Joe Becker, who had already been at work on Unicode with Davis and Collins.

Ken had found a home with these fellow language-loving programmers. And they did what smart guys do when they care about something important. They founded a consortium. Which was another thing I had to look up. This is what the people came up with who collectively wrote the “Consortium” Wikipedia page:

A consortium is an association of two or more individualscompanies,organizations or governments (or any combination of these entities) with the objective of participating in a common activity or pooling their resources for achieving a common goal.

Today, the Unicode Consortium is a non-profit corporation managed by a group of directors (Mark Davis is still president. He also works at Google.) and funded by its various members and donors including major computer corporations, software producers, database vendors, government ministries, research institutions, international agencies, various user groups, and interested individuals. Apple and Microsoft are both voting members, along with the Indian Government and UC Berkeley. Their common goal is to “develop, extend and promote use of the Unicode Standard, which specifies the representation of text in modern software products and standards.”

The entire organization functions out of a one-room office at the Microsoft campus in Mountain View, and only the office manager works there and even then, only part time. Most of the technical work is volunteer, distributed and done online, with most big decisions being made at theUnicode Technical Committee’s quarterly in-person meetings. Fun fact: There are people in the world who choose to attend these with their free time.

All but three positions within Unicode are volunteer, which is why we can’t fault them for the Hidden Temple. They’ve been busy doing more important things than designing coherent and navigable websites.

In the last 25ish years, the Unicode consortium had encoded more than 120,000 characters and 129 scripts (which support a lot more than 129 writing systems), including languages that have long been dead, like Hittite hieroglyphs from thousands of years ago. Not only does it ensure that these languages will survive in a digital future, they’ve basically digitally archived the entire history of writing in an interchangeable way.

“It’s one of those jobs — and a very large one at that — that is utterly essential and invariably taken for granted,” said Updegrove.

Add to that “misunderstood.” Case in point: the taco emoji is what finally got them in the news.

To celebrate the 20 year anniversary of Joe Becker’s publishing of Unicode 88, the consortium had a poetry contest at one of its conferences in September 2008. This is Craig W. Cornelius, a internationalization software engineer for Google, performing his original Unicode Was Made for You and Me. Thank you, Craig, thank you.


Now that all the major written scripts are encoded, The Unicode Consortium chooses which new projects to tackle from submitted proposals by interested parties.

The interested parties, in the case of emoji, were major software companies including Apple, Google and Microsoft, who basically wanted to sell more phones in Japan. Japanese phone carriers had long been offering emojis, and they had become wildly popular, though they didn’t work between carriers because they were all uniquely encoded. So you might send girl flipping hair to your friend on a different carrier and she’d receive girl crossing hands (or more likely a white box) and the result in either case was communication breakdown. Apple and Microsoft and Google wanted emojis because they wanted more Japanese Yen, but they didn’t want the breakdown part.

They needed Unicode. And as paying, voting members of the consortium, they got it.

The original Unicode-encoded emojis came out in the Unicode 6.0 release in 2010, but most of the public didn’t realize this until the time Unicode 7.0 came out in 2014. That’s when iOS and Android were coming online with the the 6.0 emojis, making the dancing lady in the red dress available to all and bringing on the press attention.

When Unicode releases new emojis, it includes the code point, a name for the emoji and a sample image or glyph of what it should look like. The Consortium does not design any of these images itself, but receives them for use from vendors or interested parties. Unicode emoji designs are noticeably lower in design quality than those on your phone, but unlike The Hidden Temple, they are that way on purpose.

Unicode should not be confused with font and/or emoji designers. According to Ken (who prefers emoticons to emojis any day), the example emojis Unicode includes in its releases are purely for identification, and they aim to “encourage all the software developers to go off and make good looking fonts that they can sell to people.” So you can thank Apple for that knowing smirk on the pile of poo.

A screenshot of the emoji data chart from the Hidden Temple. Andr: Why are your emojis so freaky looking?

A screenshot of the emoji data chart from the Hidden Temple. Andr: Why are your emojis so freaky looking?

There is something that the inclusion of emoji has forced onto The Unicode Consortium that they’re not necessarily cut out for. Encoding written language was always part of their plan. Creating one wasn’t.

Let me explain. Unlike most all of the scripts Unicode has encoded, the emoji characters are being constantly updated and added to, as it continues to evolve and grow in usage. This leaves the decision of what proposed characters to encode and when to the Consortium, a decision I sense they are somewhat uncomfortable with.

To help them sift through the emoji character proposals they receive, they’ve come up with a set of selection factors that includes compatibility, usage levels and distinctiveness. In this process, some characters are automatically ruled out: brands, specific people or deities, and ideas that can be represented by existing characters (i.e. man turned sideways + gust of air + monkey face with hands over ears = no need for a fart emoji).

Research has been done in recent years into how emojis are used and to what effect, but the truth is, it’s all relatively new, like emojis themselves. We don’t know exactly the impact they are having on our lives or communications, though many have speculated: they improve communication, they help us have more sex, they allow us to not have the words but still have the thought. But if it’s true that language can itself precede the concept it aims to explain, then the creators of letters, the building blocks of words, or pictures, have a lot more power than perhaps we are giving them credit for (consider the criticism they received over the lack of racially diverse or the same-sex couple emojis). In this sense, the Unicode Consortium is acting as both the preserver and creator of culture and society. Which is not something spelled out in the membership agreement.

Next year there is another large set of emojis coming — you can get a tentative list here. It includes the “call me” hand, so ya’ll can rest easy.

But the biggest addition to Unicode will be Tangut, a historical writing system of China and another large collection of Chinese characters. They’ll also be adding a few minority script additions, including Adlam from West Africa, Osage — a U.S. Native American language — and Newa of Nepal, the encoding of which has helped to legitimize a population’s native tongue and revealing a still fraught relationship between a government and one of its minority groups.

“But the emoji will get all the press ;)” Ken wrote.


Newar is a language spoken by more than a million people, most of whom live in Nepal, in the Kathmandu Valley and surrounding regions. It was the country’s administrative language from the 14th through the 18th centuries, used for royal decrees, chronicles, religious manuscripts, legal papers, official records and creative writing.

A sample of the Newa script from Lipi Pau magazine

A sample of the Newa script from Lipi Pau magazine

However, beginning in the late 18th century with the Gorkha conquest of Nepal, Newar has suffered from suppression, both officially and unofficially. From 1846–1951, the Rana Dynasty did everything it could to wipe out Newar entirely, declaring legal documents written in Newar unenforceable, forbidding literature in the language and jailing its writers, even going so far as to expel monks who were caught using it.

The history is, like most things, complicated, and like most complicated things, I am not qualified to expound on it with any sort of authority. But what I can say with surety is that Newar has a troubled past, and if it wasn’t for Unicode, it’s future wouldn’t look much better.

The endangered language was first proposed for encoding in 1999 by a group in Nepal, but did not progress in the encoding process until 2011. Making the decision to encode it turned out to be the easiest part.

There are people invested in this language, both proponents and suppressors, and where people are invested, there is usually conflict. Especially when one of those people is a government.

As the technical director and managing editor for the consortium, Ken must navigate a technical compromise for the encoding of the writing system while stepping on as few toes as possible. This has been no easy task. Even deciding on what to call the script was an issue, as Newari is a Nepali word, not a Newari word. Newa was what they landed on as a compromise. You can read Ken’s technical summary of the emotional issue here.

Hidden within the technical language are compromises and appeals aimed at keeping all parties on board with the encoding and the consortium apolitical.

The tenuous nature of this encoding project is not limited to Newa. Significant barriers stand in the way of the encoding of nearly all minority writing systems, not least of which is financial. But for Deborah Anderson, a Unicode technical director, member of the editorial committee and president of the Script Encoding Initiative, it’s a difficult but crucial task.

“Basically, I see my role as representing the ‘little guy.’ Since many experts in historic scripts and modern lesser-used scripts can’t come to meetings or study up on how to write a successful proposal, I offer to help them write a proposal (or can sometimes help find a veteran proposal author to write a proposal),” Debbie said in an email interview.

She then guides eligible proposals through the encoding process, which can take more than two years.

A Unicode Technical Committee meeting in 2009. That’s Debbie on the right, and Ken leaning forward in white. Mark Davis is in the back with the killer sweater. Can’t get enough of these photos? I get that. The good news is there are plenty more. Search the Unicode website for the photo album and eat your heart out.

A Unicode Technical Committee meeting in 2009. That’s Debbie on the right, and Ken leaning forward in white. Mark Davis is in the back with the killer sweater. Can’t get enough of these photos? I get that. The good news is there are plenty more. Search the Unicode website for the photo album and eat your heart out.

The SEI website (which may have been put together by the same person as The Hidden Temple) explains that the encoding of a minority language in Unicode promotes native-language education, universal literacy, cultural preservation, and removes the linguistic barriers to participation in the most powerful tool the world has ever known.

“Unicode it is what allows the richness of human history, culture, identity and knowledge to remain accessible as the fixed media of the past crumble into dust or (worse) are shredded into pulp as we race, pell mell into the digital future,” said Updegrove.

But it’s not all for the native speakers.

“On a more global scale, I think that by not having access to these scripts we (=humankind) are missing out on the literary, cultural, and historical contributions of such communities, which helps to define our world,” said Debbie.

SEI has identified more than 100 scripts that have yet to be encoded.


The contributors to Unicode number in the thousands, from font designers to programmers to linguists to historians — a collective effort moved forward by the collectiveness of the problem.

“What drove unicode was that everyone was in agreement that the the current system was unsustainable, broken and expensive. If it wasn’t Unicode, it would have been a different solution. A change was inevitable,” Ken said.

Which got me thinking about other problems that affect us all, the ones that everyone will deal with but aren’t any single person’s or people’s responsibility. We’re in the midst of a pretty major one right now. I think we have a lot to learn from Unicode and the Consortium when it comes to solving those collective problems.

Ken, the linguist turned programmer turned technical writer who was encoding ancient languages before Unicode even existed, is one of those initiative-takers, even when he won’t benefit directly from the solutions. For instance, the forthcoming selfie emoji.

“I never really use emojis. I’m pretty old fashioned in that way,” he said.

To learn more about the Consortium, submit a proposal, become a member or donate, you’ll have to visit The Hidden Temple yourself. Godspeed.

When Helping Helps

Maggie ShaferComment

How Homes of Hope Mazatlan is proving short-term projects can have long-term impact

Two young boys playfully ran toward our host, Alejandro Fernandez, interrupting our tour of the Loma Bonita colonia in Mazatlan, Mexico.

The younger of the two - still unstable on his feet and without yet the language to explain himself - was using a plastic bag like a leash, carrying around the body of a lifeless chihuahua by its neck, an afternoon discovery turned into a new toy.

If he felt disgust, Alejandro didn’t show it. He told the boys to put it down and they did, and ran off laughing.

“That could be my daughter,” Ale said, and then went on with the tour.

There are a thousand neighborhoods like this one in Mexico. Most of the homes are owner-built, one-room shacks, made out of found materials and sometimes trash, often housing three or more generations of a family.

During hot afternoons like this one, the neighborhood women sit outside, washing or cooking, while others sit in the windows of bodegas - tiny shops constructed the same way the homes are - selling cokes, single cigarettes, peanut candies and colorful, off-brand snacks. They first act shy towards us -  we’re on a “tour” of their poverty after all - but once you wave buenas tardes they smile and repeat the greeting. There are very few men around - most of them work 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the dump over the hill.

On this particular street, a Tang orange home jumps out, the reverse of an eyesore. Humble by American standards, the 350-square foot structure with a small sign by the front door that reads La Familia Ramirez in childish cursive is the only home on the block with a foundation, solid walls, a roof that looks permanent, patterned curtains showing through actual glass windows. It’s a palace.

The color was chosen by the home owners: a woman in her 30s and her two preteen daughters. She jumps at the chance to show it off, welcoming strangers inside having been given literally no notice and proudly giving the grand. The front room serves as a kitchen and a bodega, and right behind it is the bedroom with a dresser, bunk beds and a twin, all neatly made. When the house was being built, the girls were so excited to have a new bed they couldn’t sleep. When they entered the bedroom for the first time and realized they each had their own, they all but lost it.

“Please don’t look at this mess,” the woman says in Spanish, gesturing toward the spotless room.

La Casa De la Familia Ramirez, this family’s first home, was built in three days by a group of volunteers from Mexico and the son of a drug dealer named Miguel.

The real life prodigal

Miguel is from Nayarit Mexico, about 7 hours south of Mazatlan. His family relocated there from Michoacan after his uncles were killed in drug-related incidents, and it became clear to his father it was no longer safe for his family to stay. When Miguel found out his dad was what they call a narco, he was 13. Swallowing the fact that his father was part of the pervasive problem in his country was hard, but not nearly as hard as it was when his father tried to get out. The drug trade was all his father knew, and leaving it forced the family to leave the lifestyle it had provided. Miguel reacted by rebelling.

He dropped out of school, left home, started drinking, using, and even dabbled in the industry his father had worked so hard to keep him out of.

When his father was in the business, Miguel was largely sheltered from the endlessness of it - he saw what it brought in but didn’t understand what it took out of his father.  And after three years of living this way, Miguel was exhausted. He had a dream where he reconciled with his parents, and the encouragement of his girlfriend to make the dream a reality was all he needed to jump a train back home. He was greeted by his father.

“I’ve been waiting for this day, for you to come home,” he said.


Homes of Hope

Despite the joy of reunion with his family, the sheer pace of what had been his life for three years made the transition to the normalcy of homelife unbearable - so much so that he considered going back to the drug trade. Why he didn’t could be its own story, but suffice it for now to say that he eventually found himself at Youth With a Mission Mazatlan, a missionary training base right on the coast and home to the founders of the city’s branch of Homes of Hope.

Homes of Hope was started in Mazatlan by Edgar Morales in 2006. The structure of the organization is straightforward: They partner experienced local builders with teams of volunteers to build homes in Mexico’s poorest communities. The volunteers get what they want - an international experience, an opportunity to serve together and all the good feelings that go along with it - while the people get what they need - something permanent, something solid,  in an otherwise quite fragile existence.

We’ve all heard the horror stories about short term missions and voluntourism and the negative consequences they can have on the people and communities on the receiving end. If you haven’t, check out this or this or this. But this information hasn’t stopped thousands of people every year from signing up for trips like these, willing to raise and spend more money to travel for a week in a developing nation than any of its citizens will make in a year (and sometimes a lifetime). Rather than deny these individuals and teams the experience they desire, Homes of Hope has found a way to turn these good intentions into actual good.

The organization is staffed by volunteers, who have raised support to work with HoH full time. They are native Spanish-speakers, mostly from Mexico, who can fully invest in the projects and the people, who know how to build a house and can effectively lead a team of inexperienced Canadian teenagers through an intense three-day building process in the hot, humid sun. Miguel is all about it.

Miguel and the rest of the HoH team leave the base most mornings about half an hour late, right around 7:30, with a truckload of materials, tools and water. On day one with a new group of volunteers, they all meet at the build site where everyone is introduced to the family whose home they’re building, and Miguel and the others start doling out tasks. Then Spanish pop radio comes on, and the builders start to sing and fall into the rhythm of the work.

Miguel seems to know what he’s doing (he had experience in construction when he dropped out of high school), and thrives in the labor intensive, long hours. “I couldn’t stand working at a desk,” he told me on the drive home after another 9 hour day, in between huge swallows of Chips Ahoy cookies. “I need to be using my hands.”

Since joining in 2012, Miguel has helped build 75 homes, sometimes three in the same week. The organization as a whole has built 166 as of last April, with the audacious goal of building 30 more this year, despite the hot season being nearly unbearable. They hope to double that number next year.

“The long term goal is to see full communities transformed,” said Adriana Flores, the 25-year-old director of HoH.

HoH focuses on one community at a time, building homes for as many applicants that can meet its requirements. The family must own their land (this is to protect the homeowners from losing their home to the land owner). HoH prioritizes families based on their level of need - income, job opportunities, the number and ages of their children and conditions of where they are currently living are all taken into consideration in HoH’s socio-economic evaluation. Once a family has been approved, the actual build won’t start until they’ve taken what HoH calls a Family Values Course, an 8-class series designed to help the organization get to the know the family, and offer tools to help them thrive as homeowners and parents, including shifting out of a “poverty mentality.”

Adriana said, “To give them a house is not enough. When you talk about poverty, poverty is a bigger issue than just economic.”

She pointed to the lack of education, public policies that benefit minorities, job opportunities, familial structure, presence of the church, art and technology - even the resources to provide drinkable water - as contributors to poverty in her country and in the minds of the people.

“The lack of all this molds a poor mentality, and under that worldview, it is impossible to overcome poverty.”

This is why the classes, and the follow-ups in the months and years following a build, are just as important to HoH as building the homes themselves.


Alejandro, our tour guide and friend, volunteers with Homes of Hope as a host to teams, but his passion lies with the neighborhood. During the builds, he visits families who have received houses, checks in on neighbors, and meets with local pastors, hoping to establish a system of regular and local support for the community. He is the first to admit that it’s a work in progress.

“We are still organizing ourselves as a team, and we need a lot of cooperation with pastors and fellow workers,” he said. “It’s a bit more complex than I thought.”

Poverty always is.  While the leaders of Homes of Hope know that education is crucial to lifting people out of poverty, it’s hard for kids to focus on homework when they have no place to do it. According to, a child without a home is three times as likely not to attend school, and nearly twice as likely to suffer from asthma, ear infections, stomach and speech problems - all things that keep children out of the classroom.

“Family is the foundation of society, and private property is the space for it,” Ariana said.

HoH builds the material and equipment costs of the homes into the team’s fees, but its full-time volunteers must fundraise or find other ways to support themselves. Here in the states,  volunteer and nonprofit work is normal, and most people donate to support organizations or individuals tackling the issues they care about. That’s not such a common practice in Mexico.

“At the beginning it was hard for me to work and not get paid.  I had people saying ‘Are you stupid? Who works and instead of getting paid, pays!” Miguel said. “Sometimes I get embarrassed by asking people to give me money but I just do what I feel I should do.”

The people of this region are much more familiar with the drug trade. Everyone is connected to it in some way -  through cousins or uncles or friends, all money is drug money. For many, it’s easier to get involved than not to. Which is why what Miguel and the rest of the Homes of Hope team are doing is so countercultural. Working hard at a job for which they don’t get paid, to teach volunteers how to build and serve, and to transform slums one house at a time into neighborhoods where it’s normal to go to school and sleep in a bed and drink clean water. It all comes from hope. And when that hope is put into action, neighborhoods and lives are transformed.

You can find out more about Homes of Hope, donate or sign up for a build 

A Letter to Myself at 18

Maggie ShaferComment


Dear Maggie,

Stop running.

It will never take you to where it is you want to go, and you will never know where that is unless you stop long enough to catch your breath. To look someone in the eyes. To see yourself. Besides, you’re skinny as shit and no, it’s not your genes. It’s because you’re slowly running yourself to death, doing damage to your precious and delicate and life-giving insides and you’ll still be paying for it 10 years later when you’re trying oh-so-desperately to have a period and keep your brittle bones from breaking. You’ll call these your lost years.

Don’t do things because you’re good at them. Do things because you enjoy them or want to enjoy them or believe in them. The good part will follow and if it doesn’t no one will care, not even you if you allow yourself, because you’ll be learning and growing and tasting and seeing and that, Maggie, really matters. That’s how you discover who you are and become who you are supposed to be. You can find joy and purpose in starting over.

Stop looking at what other women are wearing. You will never regret not shopping more.

You know that girl you met while she was throwing up outside a party on her black Vans, the same shoes you were wearing? You can trust her. In 10 years she will ask you to marry her and your friend Grant and you’ll understand who you have been to each other.

Stop choosing your friends by what they wear and listen to. None of your favorite bands will be together in five years and all the trendy jackets and jewelry are lining the racks of your local Goodwill. The people you will choose outside of these things are still by your side.

Everyone’s family is a mess and yours will become less and less of one in time. Remember that this is where you come from, and know that much of what embarasses you now is what you will come to be so proud of and grateful for.

Next year, when your roommates go home for the summer and you stay in town to waitress, you are going to feel very alone. Do not leave. That deep and chilling feeling is honest and true, and it is what will bring real meaning when you’re found. And you will be, later that summer. Hang in there.

When you were four and your sister was six you were both molested by your 16-year-old babysitter. You have chosen to ignore this and the shame any memory of it brings up. You’ve been throwing everything else out of the fridge hoping to fix the smell but it’s coming from this small dark container hidden in the back and it needs to be handled before it will go away and when it does, your strawberries will taste like strawberries again. Please believe me and be brave.

That boy you made out with last weekend is not texting you back because he does not care about you and never will. None of them do. You don’t really care about them, either, you just think you do. Very few lasting things begin over cheap booze.

In a few years, you will discover that you are loved beyond your wildest imagination, and that love will drive you to experience a lot of amazing and wonderful things. You will live in Europe and South America, you will hear the voice of God, you will meet people whom you feel safe with in places your parents told you weren’t. You will stop running. But you will also start to put people in two categories. Don’t do that. The complexity of life and the people that live it are not yours to answer for.

The acne will go away. Most of it at least.

Keep journaling. Reflection will get continually harder the more screens you own, and you will have to fight for this space. You will carry all those pounds of pages with you in a sack through six different moves and they will hold your story and it’s a good one in every sense of the word.

One day you will look through one of these notebooks and come upon an old entry about a young man with a lip ring you met at a coffee shop. You think you want to marry him or someone like him, but he’s not interested. So rather than try to make him interested, like every other guy you’ve ever liked, you decided to figure out who you are and who God is instead. As you read all this, you’ll be sitting on a bed the two of you share in a house the two of you own wearing a ring he gave you after 8 months of dating. Your tears will leave marks on the seven-year-old pages for the second time.

Maggie, I love you, I really do. You of all people know how much work it will take to be able to say that but I can and I will and I wish you would, too. It’ll come.


Knowledge sharing: The solution to hunger, disease and bad art

Maggie ShaferComment

When David Runkles chose his Master’s thesis topic, he didn’t know that his research would force him to track down a researcher in the war-torn Sudan, navigate complex academic institutions and their arcane policies, and eventually turn to crime. Which is great, because had he known, the world would have missed out on this.

As a student at the London School of Economics, David had access to more research than he could possibly read in a lifetime. But the research he needed — the work of famed famine researcher Alex de Waal — had been lost while de Waal was working in Sudan, in the thick of the nation’s bloody civil war. Only a partial copy of the data was left, locked inside Oxford’s Bodleian, a formidable labyrinth of library prestige. In an email exchange from across the ocean, de Waal requested that if David was somehow able to get his hands on the data, would he please send over a copy. De Waal himself did not have access to his own work.

A two hour bus ride, an arduous process for approval to enter and several hours of searching later, David was able to find a portion of the research he needed. But the library had a strict copying policy (no more than 5 percent of any single work could be photocopied) and strict rules about removing any research from its fortified walls. Which left David, a previously upstanding citizen, no choice but to smuggle in a pen scanner, an illicit device that he used to scan the entire work while hunkered down in a dark corner, stealing the work for the author one page at a time.

There had to be a better system.

In response to this absurdity, David later started bulb — a publishing network for knowledge (and where I now work). And this is the problem we are trying to solve: how do you give everyone in the world a place to publish and find knowledge?

Why is the best information the hardest (and sometimes most expensive) to get?

Every year, millions of hours of research and an untold amount of data is compiled into papers and filed away into a university library, where access is limited and chances that it will ever get looked at again become slim and grow slimmer with time. It’s privileged information reserved for the privileged.

That’s actually the positive spin on things. Even more work gets lost forever, stored or thrown away by those whose thesis/research/writing, while potentially valuable, won’t make it into a journal or other publication for one reason or another, and let’s be real here, who is going to take the time to design a website for self-publishing and then pay $10/month to keep it up? Maybe a very small number. Another small number might start a blog but soon realize that their academic work doesn’t fit into a diary-style, chronological structure unless you publish it backwards. Neither of these options have any actual audience included except the one the author builds, and someone dedicated to their work isn’t going to take the time to learn content marketing to do so. And good for you, scientists, please do stay focused on curing cancer, not on SEO, for the love of pete.

This lost work doesn’t just hurt other students who may be able to reference, build upon or solve a problem with it (think Minecraft), but we all lose out collectively because we don’t utilize everyone’s knowledge or give everyone with some unique insight a voice. The people whose voices get heard the least tend to be the least powerful, but that doesn’t necessarily make their knowledge any less valuable, so our knowledge network itself is poorer for it.

So not everyone can participate in our collective knowledge network because we don’t have a good system for storing and sharing the information we do have. This is not just limiting but devastating.

“As an example, there’s the tragic story of Ernest Duchesne, the earliest documented discoverer of penicillin. As legend has it, Duchesne was a student at a French military medical school in the 1890s when he noticed that the hospital’s stable boys who tended the horses did something peculiar: They stored their saddles in a damp, dark room so that mold would grow on their undersurfaces. They did this, they explained, because the mold helped heal the horses’ saddle sores.

Duchesne was fascinated and conducted an experiment in which he treated sick guinea pigs with a solution made from mold — a rough form of what we’d now call penicillin. The guinea pigs healed completely. Duchesne wrote up his findings in a thesis, but because he was unknown and young — only 23 at the time — the French Institut Pasteur wouldn’t acknowledge it. His research vanished, and Duchesne died 15 years later of tuberculosis (a disease that would someday be treatable with antibiotics).

It would take 31 years for the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming to rediscover penicillin, independently and with no idea that Duchesne had already done it. In those three decades, untold millions of people died of diseases that could have been cured. Failed networks kill ideas.” -Clive Thompson in Why Even the Worst Bloggers Are Making Us Smarter

The more people given access to the best knowledge out there, the further and faster our (humanity, not just the Medium community) collective knowledge advances.

The internet has done the best job yet of trying to fix this.

The internet itself was born out of open knowledge exchange; it was open to everyone, it was inclusive. And it’s certainly helped. But it hasn’t yet fixed the broken network problem. Like I said earlier, most people could build a Squarespace website or start a blog or a podcast but these things take time and energy away from the work itself, and contribute to what we have now: a trillion giga something/shit ton of disconnected pages, and no real efficient way of finding the Duchesnes and other pages less traveled or distinguishing between those built for serious content and those built for Vines of politicians quoting Taylor Swift. Both important, but for different purposes.

Part of what we are trying to do here was to propose a solution by creating a user-generated content network (like YouTube, Instagram, etc.) built for long-form, serious content that was open at the bottom; a place online where anyone could publish their work in just a few seconds and where anyone could have access to that published work, regardless of power or station in life. Duh, right? Except that it hasn’t been done yet.

Despite an internet structured for inclusivity, the apps we most frequently use and the business models that support them typically aren’t. It’s much easier to create an app for an exclusive market because you can sell it immediately — making the creation of exclusive apps more profitable, faster and therefore sustainable. But selling a knowledge sharing platform to an exclusive market doesn’t tackle the goal: to keep knowledge from being stored and siloed and to do it in a way that encourages more people to contribute. A true knowledge-sharing network cannot sell exclusivity because exclusivity would ruin it.

“Cause you don’t talk to the water boy

and there’s so much you could learn but you don’t want to know,

You will not back up an inch ever,

that’s why you will not survive” — Spoon

So getting more people to publish what they know is not only better for those of us who, like me, are trying to make a profitable business in UGCN land — it’s better for the world at large. The more people you invite to participate in the network the better the network is and the better the world is for it. Just like pool parties!

This vision for a fixed and functioning knowledge network has to be a global one because we are living in a global world (welcome to 1999). And while I admit a global knowledge network that values everyone’s voice may not be the panacea for every world problem, it has truly amazing potential to connect valuable information with those that need it most. This is not a one-way info street from developed country to developing (and if you think that’s the case you missed the point). Being able to share and distribute quality information across cultural, racial, socio economic and other silos is crucial to allow that knowledge to reach its full , applicable potential and until a network that allows for this is realized, we’ll continue to see knowledge die in the hands of those that no longer see use for it — hands often carrying $15,000 library cards.

“But you won’t hear from the messenger,

don’t wanna know bout something that you don’t understand,

You got no fear of the underdog,

that’s why you will not survive!”




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    Orphan Care: An Overture

    Maggie Shafer


    My husband and I went to Africa with a group of photographers and journalists to document stories of orphans and the people who care for them with the intention of inspiring others to do the same. We published them all on a joint bulb page that you can check out here.

    The Upside of a Down Economy

    Maggie Shafer5 Comments

    This article was originally published in the November/December 2013 issue of Relevant Magazine.



    When my husband, Steven, and I got married, he was a milkman.

    As a liberal arts graduate fresh from Colorado State University, it had only taken a few months in the proverbial “real world” for him to realize no one was looking to hire an amateur literary critic at the height of one of the worst recessions our nation has seen. It didn’t matter how many classics he had read—or how many hours he scoured Craigslist. And so, he drove a dairy delivery truck.

    Then he discovered woodworking. Within a year, we opened a custom furniture business with Steven’s best friend. The venture ended nine months later—but not before Steven discovered he had the potential to be his own boss, that he works longest and hardest when no one is keeping time and that sometimes, when the right job doesn’t exist, maybe it just hasn’t been created yet.

    The Entrepreneurial Renaissance

    Steven’s entrepreneurial spirit is no exception in our generation. According to a recent study by Forbes, 30 percent of Millennials have started a business while in college, and 92 percent see entrepreneurial education as “vital” to the economy.

    Simon Johnson, a professor of entrepreneurship at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, says this kind of “entrepreneurial renaissance” is common in the midst of an economic downturn. Limited career options, he says, inspire Millennials to use whatever resources they have to create their own job opportunities.

    In other words, more young people today are going to work for themselves simply because they are the only ones hiring.

    “Many have realized the job market is not coming back and you must innovate your way into the workforce,” says Scott Gerber, founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council. “The starting salary out of college is now only $20,000 to $30,000, often without health benefits. So more and more of them have nothing to lose.”

    And with today’s widespread resources and their own web savvy, the price for innovation is just right.

    “Five thousand [dollars] is the new $50,000,” says Banks Benitez, vice president of partnerships for the Unreasonable Institute, a business incubator in Boulder, Colo. “The barriers to entrepreneurism are decreasing as technology catches up.”

    Specifically, the Internet has made the cost of advertising, communications, market reach and the supply chain minimal. Websites—the new global storefront—are vastly more affordable than a brick-and-mortar presence.

    But while affordable options and a hard-hitting recession are indeed part of what has galvanized entrepreneurism, they are not explanation enough for why this new wave of young people are choosing a path that is more stressful, unpredictable and consuming than a traditional career.

    More than profits, it seems, this generation is about doing what they love—and what they love is creating something meaningful.

    “We are a generation that shares a deep empathy for people and for the world, motivated to love people well and help them break free of the things that bind them,” Benitez says. “Social entrepreneurship is a way to do that. There is redemption in making something where there was nothing before.”

    A Generation at Work

    Victor Saad of The Experience Institute

    Victor Saad of The Experience Institute

    When David Chan started an online commercial book club in 2010, all he needed was a computer and some basic web design skills and—voilà—he was a business owner.

    Since then, the Northern Arizona University MBA graduate has started 11 companies, ranging from a custom bow-tie business to a biomedical engineering company. Today, he is actively involved in five of them—and the only consistencies in his average day are a shower and three eggs. After that, it’s anyone’s guess.

    “I’ve had to cultivate self-discipline,” Chan says. “Being your own boss can be a double-edged sword. You can sleep in, but you better be making it up later.”

    As the director of operations for Kulira Technologies, Chan relies on Skype and email to stay in touch with his business partner a state away. Aligning himself with smart people—people to whom he is accountable—has been key to maintaining momentum, he says.

    While serial entrepreneurs like Chan love the process of creating a business but not necessarily running one, others are creating their dream jobs—a place they want to be not just for 40 hours a week, but for 40 years.

    Austen Menges is the co-owner and founder of Two Shot West, a film and commercial production company based in Austin, Texas. Since his first high school job at a theme park, Menges has known he wasn’t cut out to work for someone else.

    "Many have realized the job market is not coming back and you must innovate your way into the workforce," Scott Gerber

    “I guess you could say Six Flags spurred me into entrepreneurism,” he says.

    But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t cut out to work. These days, between Two Shot West and his contract work, Menges will easily pull an 80-hour workweek—which isn’t as bad as it sounds when your career doubles as your hobby and “colleague” becomes another word for your best friend—or, in Menges’ case, his wife.

    Yet this dynamic is also why it can be so hard for entrepreneurs to take a break. Without an employer keeping the clock, there is rarely a clear division between work and home life.

    “Having a partner has really added some nice checks and balances,” Menges says. “My wife and I both work hard by nature, but it can be hard to turn the phone off. We’ve been cognizant of that and [have] gone off the grid a couple of times. The whole day of rest—we try to take that seriously.”

    Such rest grounds Menges in the reason behind his work. As a Christian in a largely secular industry, Menges hasn’t wanted to feel like a circle fitting into a square hole. His values don’t align with the big film producers, nor do his artistic sensibilities align with strictly Christian films.

    But with Two Shot West, Menges is able to tell stories the way he chooses.

    “Part of my story is to be salt and light here,” he says. “But we don’t want to be hit over the head in this generation. If we can make authentic pieces of work and instill them with qualities, then that’s the goal. We aspire to a very high level of craft.”

    Victor Saad jumpstarted his career in the face of a different kind of challenge.

    He wanted an MBA. But as a middle-school pastor with a heart for the nonprofit world, Saad didn’t want to take out a school loan that would take him the better part of his career to pay back.

    And so Saad created a 12-month plan—he calls it the Leapyear Project—to fully immerse himself in 12 different apprenticeships in design, business and social change. He calls it a “self-made MBA” and invited others to join him by taking “leaps” of their own. He “graduated” from TED headquarters in Chicago last summer and has since published a compilation book of the leapers’ experiences, funded fully through Kickstarter.

    The process may be unconventional, but Saad’s goal is simple: to use education to empower positive change. Because, Saad believes, “The greatest workers are the best students, and the best students are the greatest workers.” Perpetual students, he says, comprise the best blueprint for creating solutions for human needs around the world.

    Saad may be taking a different route to ministry than most, but it’s a route that fuses his pastoral heart with his innovative vision. “Perhaps the greatest opportunity to be Kingdom-builders is to strive to be the best entrepreneurs with the most honest motivations,” he says.

    Made to Be a Maker

    A tiny photo of Erwin McManus

    A tiny photo of Erwin McManus

    Erwin McManus, a pastor and entrepreneur in LA, believes we are all created to create—and that doing so fulfills a deep desire in the human heart.

    “God placed in us all the material necessary to accomplish His intent for our lives,” he says. “Every time we [innovate], we are co-creators with God in creating a future only He can fully imagine or realize.”

    Perhaps this is why, despite our first failure, Steven and I reopened shop last year.

    We found a shop space, secured the necessary finances and began our second attempt in the furniture business. Today, we have an official LLC—and I finally know what those letters stand for.

    Still, there are no guarantees when you’re signing your own paycheck. While Steven’s busy with work this week, we can’t be sure about the next.

    And you can forget about a five-year plan.

    “Entrepreneurs have to be able to deal with a degree of ambiguity. It’s really a critical step,” Benitez says. “You have to be at rest with the mystery and uncertainty of what’s coming up. It takes an aspect of faith.”

    What we know is that we believe in what we are doing. And at the end of each day, Steven has created something beautiful that didn’t exist when he woke up—something that someone will sit in, eat a meal over, or rock their child with for the rest of their lives, and probably someone else’s after that.

    And most days, that’s enough reason for Steven—and for a generation with him—to have faith to keep hammering.

    The Struggle to Have it All

    Maggie ShaferComment
    Tamara Cramer moved out of a full-time job after deciding to no longer try to balance the demands of motherhood and work.

    Tamara Cramer moved out of a full-time job after deciding to no longer try to balance the demands of motherhood and work.

    This was originally published in the December 2012 issue of Northern Colorado Business Report

    When Tamara Cramer found herself changing yet another milk-stained silk blouse at work, she knew something had to give. 

    Cramer was a public relations and events marketing manager at Group Publishing in Loveland, and she loved her job. She went in early and left late, believed in the company and knew she was well-positioned for a promotion. But it wasn't working.

    Her first child, Owen – who at the time was 2 – was struggling at home. He had cystic fibrosis, and between his meal and medication schedule, required a full-time caretaker. Cramer couldn't help but feel that he needed more time with Mom. 

    With the birth of her daughter, Eden, matters quickly spiraled. Whether it was catching up on email during family dinner or pumping milk at the office, Cramer constantly had to be two places at once – and couldn't help feeling as if she was never fully at either. 

    So she quit, deciding that trying any longer to strike the right work-life balance just wasn't going to work.

    Cramer says leaving her job for her family was "one of the hardest decisions" she's ever had to make.

    It is a decision that, it appears, many women who are mothers and top professionals across Northern Colorado and the nation grapple with every day. And as more women enter the workforce, more are expected to face this very dilemma.

    The notion of balancing work and life — of having it all — has been part of the feminist credo and the wider culture for a few decades now. 

    But this June, Ann-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, produced one of Atlantic magazine's most-read and talked-about pieces in years, an essay titled, "Why women still can't have it all." 

    The article — which earned its own Twitter hashtag, thousands of comments, talk-show commentaries and even a book deal — detailed Slaughter's personal tensions between work and family life and her ultimate decision to leave a powerful, high-level government position to spend more time with her two teenage boys.

    Her conclusion: that without reforms in the American workplace, without huge structural changes, mothers will never be able to compete on an equal playing field with their childless counterparts.

    Perhaps more controversially, Slaughter's piece asserted that women who believe they can have it all are just fooling themselves, at least in the current environment.

    Pushing a button

    Slaughter's case could be considered more extreme than most. Her job required that she be away from home during the workweek. Every week. 

    Still, many women professionals in Northern Colorado experience this tension in their lives every day. With unprecedented numbers of women pursuing higher education and joining the working world – making up 63.5 percent of the labor force in Colorado, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – the hectic, often frustrating work-life juggling act is one that many know too well. 

    "It's a riddle," said Judy Dorsey, president and principal engineer of Fort Collins-based engineering consulting firm Brendle Group and mother of two. "You have to (have) the firm belief that there is a solution to the riddle of being a great mom and a great engineer, even when the rest of the world is telling you that one of these things must give."

    There are plenty of reasons to explain why this "riddle" persists, including ones that have nothing to do with employment and workplace policies.

    In part, while women are increasingly bringing home the bacon, they're still the ones carrying the brunt of the housework. 

    According to a 2008 study by the Institute of Families and Work, women's role on the home front hasn't changed all that much since the 1970s. Mothers spent the same number of weekday hours with their children (close to four) in 2008 as they did in 1977, and married women today report still doing the majority of the cooking and cleaning in their households. All while earning almost half of the total household income. 

    Also, although the wage gap between genders has consistently narrowed over the past five decades, the average woman still makes substantially less than the average man, according to National Partnership for Women and Families statistics. In Colorado's district four (encompassing Fort Collins, Greeley, Loveland and Longmont), women made 24 percent less than men did for the same job, effectively costing women $11,000 in wages a year. 

    Some of that disparity lies in the career choices women make.

    Women in general tend to look for different things from their careers than men, including greater flexibility and more work-life satisfaction, and they are often willing to sacrifice financial gain for these perks, according to the Families and Work Institute. 

    Indeed, in 2011, women made up only 13.6 percent of architects and engineers, 4.3 percent of airline pilots and flight engineers and 33.8 percent of physicians and surgeons. Those are all traditionally higher-paying career fields. In contrast, more than four out of five librarians, registered nurses and elementary- and middle-school teachers were female, working in realms that tend to pay less. 

    Still, women today are doing more, making less and still stuck with just 24 hours in a day. No wonder Slaughter's piece pushed a button. 

    Forcing their hand

    Trying to find that work-life balance, women across the region have structured their lives in various ways in hopes of achieving success as both mothers and businesspeople. 

    Some have had more luck than others. 

    When Cramer made the decision to quit her job and stay home with her children, she understood her choice would mean financial sacrifice. Her biggest regret is that she and her husband, Matt Cramer, didn't transition to living solely off his income before the birth of their second child. Having more savings in the bank would have eased the transition to one breadwinner, Tamara Cramer said. Still, they've made things work.

    Since her departure from the everyday working world, Tamara Cramer has taken on part-time work from home, and helped her husband run the custom-order bakery and guitar lesson and repair practice they own. 

    She is also a certified labor coach and the manager of Loveland's winter farmers market. As her children have gotten older (Owen is now 7 and Eden is 5), she's even been able to take on some PR work, which she does around her children's schedule.

    None of her current workload is as time-consuming as her former job at Group Publishing — but, of course, her career isn't what it used to be, either.

    'Teetering' vs. balancing

    Dr. Emily Graves says she’s missed “some parenting moments” because of her professional life and has a nanny to help with childcare.

    Dr. Emily Graves says she’s missed “some parenting moments” because of her professional life and has a nanny to help with childcare.

    Dr. Emily Graves, a Fort Collins-based equine veterinarian for Pfizer Animal Health, has managed to stay on her career path but only after making some big changes and accepting a measure of sacrifice. 

    She also happens to work from home the majority of the time.

    In 2010, when Graves found out she was pregnant, the then 38-year-old knew she didn't want to give up her job, or let her investment in vet school go to waste. Childcare became a necessity.

    Her husband takes their 2-year-old son Mike to daycare every morning while Graves starts her workday. Mike gets picked up by a nanny, who watches him for the remaining hours until both Graves are off the clock. Although complicated, the childcare schedule allows both Emily and her husband to continue relatively uninterrupted in their own careers – what she believes to be a crucial part of her own personal fulfillment.

    "I certainly missed some parenting moments along the way," she said, including Mike's first steps and visit with Santa. But she considers the sacrifice worthwhile, at least so far.

    It helped that Graves' employer granted her three months of paid maternity leave when Mike was born, allowing her to focus on her son in the critical early months without worrying about work.

    Others aren't so fortunate. 

    In Colorado, there are no laws requiring companies to grant women flex-time or paid maternity leave, and most employers choose not to offer such benefits. Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, employers must offer up to 12 weeks of leave surrounding the birth of a baby. But that time off is unpaid.

    In the current economic climate, many women simply can't afford that option.

    And no matter what the career choice, women are, of course, still the ones bearing children.

    While teaching as an adjunct history professor at CSU, Dr. Ginger Smoak, mother of two, received no paid maternity leave from the school, teaching right up until her due date and returning to the classroom one week later. She described the juggle of work and family not so much as balance but as a "teetering." 

    "In general, I think that balancing work and family is more difficult for women than men because while a woman's partner may be willing and able to take on the role of primary caregiver for children, ultimately women have biological restraints, such as difficult pregnancies or hospitalization before or after birth, nursing, etc.," said Smoak. 

    "I can see why women can feel forced to give up on a career once they have children, or at least feel that it is too difficult to try to make it work," she said. 

    Many women, of course, choose to plow ahead, regardless.

    "Women shouldn't feel like they have to sacrifice anything," said Jessica Peterson, owner of the Customer Wow Project, a marketing and customer relations firm based in Loveland, and mother of one. "I'm teaching my daughter that she can be whatever she wants by living the example."

    Peterson splits childcare responsibilities with her husband, Evan Peterson. She often works from home, structuring her business hours around her daughter's school schedule. If work's not finished when 7-year-old Cadence gets home, then Jessica Peterson returns to it after bedtime, sometimes at her desk until 1 a.m. 

    But not everyone has the flexibility that comes with being self-employed or has a partner willing to share responsibility.

    For Jessica Peterson, having it all means sometimes working until 1 a.m.

    For Jessica Peterson, having it all means sometimes working until 1 a.m.

    History lesson?
    After stepping down from her position with the Department of State, Slaughter was fortunate enough to have options – she's now a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. As she noted in her piece, many more women struggle to get back into the working world after taking time off. 

    Smoak draws on history in conjuring up possible solutions to the issue. She said medieval women would have taken their children to the market to work with them, because there was no other option. This is one area, she said, where contemporary society would do well to follow. 

    "In the high Middle Ages, most women would not have recognized different 'work' and 'family' spheres, instead spending their time immersed in both," she said. "Those women, too, would have recognized the concept (of having it all) as faulty, as a fiction that simply didn't exist for them. Having children close by was a reality, and would be one aspect that would make attending to both work and family needs much easier for women today."

    Smoak, like many others, mentions on-site childcare, matching school and work schedules for vacations, flex-time, extended leave policies and benefits as ways employers could engender a better, more integrated experience for working parents. 

    "Perhaps we should become more 'medieval' in this way," she said. 

    Many workplaces have, in fact, incorporated some of these programs over the years. But many more have yet to even consider them.

    Last year, Smoak's husband was hired as a professor at the University of Utah. She said she allowed his job to take precedence in determining their residence because she felt her job at CSU didn't offer adequate flexibility or job security. Since the relocation, she has accepted a position as an assistant professor/lecturer at the University of Utah.

    Employers may have no choice but to eventually adapt.

    Statistics portend more women entering the workforce and rising to the highest levels of their organizations. Greater numbers of women than men have earned master's degrees since 1981, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Currently, 52 percent of CSU is female – up from 30 percent in 1960. 

    Despite these trends, Megan Shellman, president-elect of Colorado Business Women, thinks real change in the workplace will happen only if it's mandated by law. "I do not believe that corporations or small businesses will support an increase in costs (associated with hiring women with families) for any reason without legislation," she said.

    Slaughter goes further: "The best hope for improving the lot of all women … is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders," she wrote. "Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone."

    The Artisan Economy

    Maggie ShaferComment

    This was originally posted in the September/October 2012 issue or Relevant Magazine.

    The first time David Sutton roasted his own coffee beans, it was on a BBQ grill.

    The young pastor loved coffee, and he loved the process of making coffee even more. So when he heard he could roast his own at home, Sutton bought a few pounds of green coffee beans and set to work at the barbecue, roasting the very first of the thousands of batches to come. And to his great surprise, that first cup wasn’t half bad.

    Sutton has come a long way since those days at the grill. Today he is the owner and founder of the Coffee Registry, a craft coffee roastery and delivery service in Fort Collins, Colo. He is also the roaster, delivery guy, accountant, repairman and janitor. Between being a pastor, a father, a business owner and a roaster, he works weekends and nights and holidays. He sometimes gets to the shop at 5 a.m. on a Saturday after only three hours of sleep to roast beans for the day’s farmers’ markets, which he’ll then spend all day brewing and serving. He has no pension, no health benefits (besides what he gets delivering by bike), no corner office and no promise of a paycheck.

    And anyone who’s talked with him for more than 30 seconds knows he is a man who loves what he does.

    Sutton isn’t the only one who’s made an attempt to turn craft into career and been able to find a market for it. In 2010, when Americans were wading through the aftermath of one of the worst recessions in the history of the nation, Colin and Shannon Westcott were opening a business. Colin had long wanted to make a career out of his passion for craft beer and the brewing process, so when the opportunity arose to start his own brewery, the couple was all in—recession or not.

    The Westcotts opened the doors to Equinox Brewery in Fort Collins that April, hoping the community had been primed enough by the city’s microbrew giants, New Belgium and Odells, to embrace and support one more.

    By the end of the first month, it was clear to the couple that public support wasn’t going to be a problem—finding a place to put all of it was. Most evenings, it’s hard to find a seat in the brewery even though a draft at Equinox costs between $4 and $8—the better part of what a good chunk of their client base makes in an hour.

    “Once you make the shift from domestic to craft beers, you don’t go back,” Colin says. “People realize they like things to actually taste good, and they’re willing to pay for it.”

    Artisan entrepreneurs like Sutton and the Westcotts are popping up all over the nation, to the point that this subculture of aspiring artists can no longer be written off as hipsters bent on defying the system.

    They’re craftsmen and—dare we say—capitalists, creating jobs, boosting local economies and changing the way Americans buy. They’ve pioneered a shift in the economy toward higher quality and lower volume, formulating a new belief along the way that work can be art and art can be profitable.


    Although this slowly emerging economic trend is influencing artisans across thousands of trades, from letterpressing to carpentry to baking, the craft coffee industry epitomizes the values championed by this new generation of entrepreneurs. Rather than size or speed, craft coffee marketing centers around quality, taste, process, locality and even relationship—traits inherent to what Portland State University professor Charles Heying has dubbed the “artisan economy,” an approach to work that marks a significant departure from the modern industrial system.

    Although artisan work has always been around, Heying dates this new movement to the 1970s, the beginning of the post-industrial era. However, its overt expansion has only happened within the last 15 years—coinciding with the dramatic globalization, consolidation and de-localization of corporations.

    “No matter what sort of economic justifications they offered, people began to recognize these corporations treated people and places as if they were entirely replaceable parts in their calculus of efficiency,” Heying says. “Likewise, the commodities these de-localized corporations produce have become so homogenous, tasteless and soulless, they opened a space for artisans who could produce things that were interesting, tasteful, distinct and that made connections between the real people who made things and the real people who bought them.” 

    In the new artisan economy, the producer has a significant amount of engagement with his or her product. Design and production are inseparable, and the knowledge and skill of the crafter are necessary and deeply valued by purchasers.

    The Westcotts rely not only on their product’s taste, for instance, but also on their customers’ appreciation for the process and their willingness to pay more for beer they know more about.
    “Ultimately, the process of creating a beer—crafting—determines how that beer will taste,” Shannon says. “The quality of the finished beer depends on the brewer’s recipe formulation and techniques. We hope our customers are aware of the effort we put into our beers during production and how much joy it gives us to see them savoring the finished product.”

    Sutton also feels responsible for knowing the story of the farmers who grow the beans he roasts, believing himself to be a steward of their work and ensuring their stories get transferred to customers.

    “Consumers are becoming the experts,” Sutton says. “As they enjoy the coffee, they ask more questions and demand more knowledge of me as the roaster. It’s an interdependent relationship.”

    Still, Heying makes an effort not to say “consumer” when speaking of the artisan system. In the greater U.S. economy, it’s a term naturally associated with mindless or wasteful devouring of goods, with no thought as to where those goods come from or how they’re made. It’s a term that doesn’t accurately describe the role of the “taker” in this relationship.


    The crafters themselves are also different from producers in a consumer economy, right down to the hours they work. For Sutton, family comes before work. If his wife or children need him during the day, he’ll fill in where he needs at night or early in the morning or wherever he can fit it in. As his own boss, he knows he’ll get the job done. Whether or not it’s during office hours is irrelevant.

    Like farmers, Heying says most artisans are connected with the natural world, dependent on seasons and growing periods for what they create. Even those not reliant on the environment tend to work until their projects are complete, rather than circumscribing themselves into the 9-to-5 schedule typical of the industrial economy. The line between life and work can be less stringent because the work is considered life-giving and purposeful, not something to escape as soon as the little hand on the clock hits five.

    And with craft, a sense of place is paramount. What most know today as the “local” movement is an intimate piece of the growing artisan world, according to Heying. The purchasers and the producers are more anchored to the unique environment in which they live, touting their goods’ terroir—the local landscape, climate and flavor inherent in the products. Whereas Starbucks may boast that their caramel macchiato tastes the same in Tokyo as it does in Topeka, an artisan coffee roaster, like Sutton, would more likely promise that you can’t get their one-of-a-kind roast anywhere else.

    But unlike other large social movements, like the hippies in the ’70s, this group of artisans creates and consumes craft goods in an effort to redeem business and to be accepted and understood in the mainstream economy. In a column published in the New York Times, economics reporter Adam Davidson calls the craft approach a “happy refinement” of the excesses of the industrial era—not a rejection of the capitalist system. This, coupled with a return to the specialization (in this case, hyper-specialization) that Adam Smith himself could not help but admire, makes for a very new precipice for business.

    Davidson wrote, “Instead of rolling our eyes at self-conscious Brooklyn hipsters pickling everything in sight, we might look to them as guides to the future of the American economy.”


    Erwin McManus is best known as the lead pastor of Mosaic Church in L.A. But he also writes, acts, produces films and—among other artistic pursuits—designs a men’s fashion and accessories line.

    McManus believes to his very core that we, as humans, are undeniably creative—and that such creativity reflects our divine origin. After all, we were made in the image of God, the first Creator.

    “I am convinced that [Christians] have been called into the family business—to be artisans,” he says. “At our worst, we are creatives informed by darkness rather than light. At our best, we create such beauty that it brings glory to God and hope to the world.”

    As Christians with direct access to the original Creator, then, there is no reason we shouldn’t be leading the artisan movement, redeeming the workplace and marketplace alike.

    Lessons From The Lunch Line

    Maggie ShaferComment

    Tiny hands hold plastic trays up to a window and point at pizza or nachos, green beans or fruit, chocolate or white milk while the child debates whether the shiny blue salad cart their parents fought so hard for is worth the ten step walk.

    It’s a smart place to keep the Goldfish crackers.

    Unlike the majority of the school day, the cafeteria is the place where the student calls the shots. Mom isn’t here to regulate and the lunch lady will serve whatever is asked for, regardless of the colorful food pyramid hanging overhead.

    What’s chosen from the lunch line is up to them. But what they have to choose from and how that gets decided is a little more complicated.

    When compared to most school food systems, Poudre School District is actually quite progressive. They’ve far exceeded national nutritional and quality guidelines, and made efforts to keep up with local and sustainable practices.

    But like any good American business, they’re consumer driven, mostly reliant on children buying lunch to generate enough income to keep food on the tables. This is the priority before development in both the environmental and health arenas can be considered.

    While the schools strive to meet federal regulations within budget guidelines, parent demands continue to grow, and with studies showing that childhood nutritional habits can set the course for life, some busy moms and dads have placed the responsibility for creating those habits on the shoulders of the school.

    And as the number of diabetics (including children) in Colorado continues to grow—about 50 percent more cases diagnosed since 1994 according to Colorado Diabetes Prevention and Control Program—it’s clear that childhood nutrition is a pressing issue, and the school makes an easy target for blame.

    Some have pointed fingers at the the food system itself and the meals offered. The system points to its empty pockets and back to its clients, the children in our community. Who, whether we like it or not, are still pointing at the pizza.

    In the beginning, there was meatloaf

    According to Marion Nestle in her book Food Politics, the first school lunch programs were created during the Great Depression. They served as a way to assist low-income families with school-age children and allowed the government to use excess agriculture from a price-support agreement with farmers.

    Because chronic diseases associated with diet were not as prevalent, there were few rules regarding fat and sugar content, and often the foods served were those most affordable—salad bars were not in the picture.

    The Federal School Lunch Program, implemented in 1946 by President Harry Truman, expanded and regulated what the schools had started in an effort to “safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food” through government assisted school meals.

    The culture of the time considered a healthy, well-balanced lunch to be similar to what was served at home. A main course of meat sided by potatoes, bread with butter and a green vegetable, usually cooked. This was washed down with a glass a milk and often followed by a chocolate chip cookie or other “homestyle” dessert.

    This may sound gluttonous by today’s lunch standards, but portions were smaller and the children were typically more active. Additionally, because school lunch was quite possibly the only meal a child was getting that day, caloric content wasn’t considered an issue.

    In an effort to offset the costs the school lunch program created, many schools began allowing vendors into cafeterias in the 60s, selling typical fast food to students spending mom and dad’s money. When dependent on vendors, cafeterias save on the cost of food service equipment and employees.

    And in the food fight between mystery meat and Ronald McDonald, french fries win every time.

    The school lunch program has become an industrial giant, costing $9.8 billion in fiscal year 2009 and serving 5,274.5 million lunches in 2010, according to the USDA. No longer just intended for those living in poverty, this system has become a convenience that many parents depend on—Fort Collins is no exception.

    As with any business this size, economic, environmental and health issues are complex. Due to this area’s progressive movements in food, parent demands have changed and their standards risen. Many are calling for healthier, seasonal, locally produced foods that meet both allergy and diet restrictions, including vegan and vegetarian options. Despite the significant movements towards these goals in recent years, no one would claim the school’s work is done.

    Before the community can fix what’s broken, however, it must understand the tools it’s working with and who’s footing the bill.

    Who stole the lunch money?

    When nutritionist Craig Schneider was hired to direct the PSD Department of Child Nutrition three years ago, he had his work cut out for him—and microwaved.

    The entree meals were made/heated up in the morning at a central warehouse to be shipped and stored until lunch hour, where the students would choose between them or french fries and pizza from their favorite fast food chain. Follow it all up with a vending machine dessert boasting a two-year expiration period and lunch is served.

    Since Schneider started, the department has come a long way. Under his leadership, every meal is now being prepared on site, and the number of

    local farm purchases, fresh fruits, veggies and whole grains served has greatly increased. A colorful salad bar with seasonal produce cut fresh every day can be found in each cafeteria, and perhaps best of all, they’ve done away with the fast food vendors.

    “We’re changing the stigma of what school lunch is,” said Schneider. “The kids have to like it, but it also has to be healthy.”

    Along with these changes have come greater employee training standards and parent participation, including online payment plans, accessible menus, nutrition facts and efficient service.

    But it’s not all carrot sticks and cucumbers.

    The 175 member department must constantly weigh costs with quality. As a self-supported entity, their budget is based on student consumption—they must sell lunches to pay the bills.

    Suppose that nachos are their biggest sellers. If the department takes them away, fewer students buy lunch. When the students don’t buy lunch, the department doesn’t get paid. When the department doesn’t get paid, the food quality drops. A vicious, malnutritious cycle.

    This has led to many menu compromises. For instance, rather than get rid of the ever-popular hot dog, the department has substituted turkey dogs with whole wheat buns. Pizza, their most popular item, is now made with a wheat crust and low fat cheese.

    Tyson is currently working on selling a whole wheat breaded chicken nugget to PSD, but as of right now, it hasn’t passed the official “taste test.”

    “The kids hated the whole wheat nuggets,” said Schneider. “I won’t buy a product that my customers won’t eat.”

    And then there was the chocolate milk battle. Their most popular item, Schneider knew that getting rid of it would cost them. Rather than take it away completely, they switched to a fat free version with no high fructose corn syrup—what he considers a happy medium for health and budget concerns.

    With the district serving over 15,000 meals daily, each change takes significant effort from vendors, manufacturers, schools and perhaps most importantly, the students themselves.

    “It’s all a balance,” Schneider said. “We’re trying to constantly improve but we can’t change everything overnight. I’m not going to say we’re perfect, but I’d challenge you to find a better system in Colorado.”

    Classroom to cafeteria

    District wellness coordinator Nicole Turner-Ravana would agree with Schneider that the changes made in the cafeteria are significant. But if the changes stop there, the impact will be disappointing.

    Weaving healthy and sustainable living practices into all aspects of the school day is one of her main goals as the wellness coordinator, working with teams at every school to implement nutrition, physical fitness and community health practices.

    “The children are more engaged when they’re healthier,” she said. “Learning how to eat healthy at school creates a culture of how to live healthy in general.”

    Turner-Ravana works closely with the Department of Child Nutrition to monitor foods being offered throughout the school day, not just at lunchtime. She’s seen the relationships between the schools and the department flourish, as well as increased parent participation. For Turner-Ravana, it’s not just about where they are, it’s about the direction they are headed in.

    They’ve seen soda taken out of vending machines, more physical activity incorporated throughout the day, a larger number of students purchasing breakfast and more fresh food available before, during and after school.

    “Making small changes now can turn into something bigger in the long run,” she said. “When you have a lifelong philosophy of healthy living infused into kids, they desire it. They see that this is what they want to be like, not avoid.”

    When mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy

    Those that have been in the system several years would agree that schools in PSD have made positive changes. It’s the pace of the changes that’s the problem.

    Alisa Shargorodsky, a mother of two in the district, first became concerned after joining her children for lunch at Cache La Poudre Elementary School, where breadsticks “soaked in oil” were being served, and she saw nothing that looked fresh or appetizing being offered.

    Shargorodsky showed up with “her fist in the air” at the next district wellness meeting, but left unsure who to wave it at.

    “Craig is very progressive,” she said of Schneider. “He’s actually making efforts. These schools need money from exterior sources if we want to see a change.”

    Shargorodsky has written a proposal on incorporating more local foods into the school system and is still fighting to get Morning Fresh Dairy milk dispensers in the cafeterias. Currently, however, the budget won’t allow for many of these drastic changes.

    “It’s not that they don’t want to make changes,” she said. “They can’t.”

    In the 17 years that resident Carolyn Beiser’s two children have been in PSD she could probably count the number of times they’ve purchased lunch from the school on one hand.

    Although the menu boasts of healthy choices, Beiser described their efforts as minuscule, lacking balance and quality. After seeing “waffles with a side of Texas toast” offered as one day’s meal, Beiser has chosen to brown bag it the majority of her children’s school career.

    “Even though brown bag lunches become repetitive after awhile, kids

    learn to eat a balanced diet, and train their bodies to prefer the taste of healthy ingredients,” said Beiser. “They begin to notice that they don’t feel as good after eating foods with a lot of fillers or corn syrup, for example.”

    Chef Ann Cooper, known as the renegade lunch lady, says that change is possible, but it’ll cost you.

    Currently working on Boulder’s lunch system, Cooper said that before significant changes can be made, a feasibility study must be done and the readiness of the kids, community and facilities considered. When it comes down to it, eating better does cost more—and that must be reflected in the price of the meal.

    “How can it not be worth it?” she said. “What’s more important, your child’s health or the money? Our kids are dying because we’re killing them with the foods we give them. But it absolutely can change.”

    Schneider agrees that the health of the child is what’s most important, but with 20,000 families in the district, there are multiple ideas of what it means to be healthy.

    “I can’t just take away pizza and start serving tofu everyday,” he said. “We’d lose our customers. We’re always trying to instill good habits and introduce new foods, but we have to operate like a business.”

    Growth from the ground up

    Karen Mcmanus, known fondly by students in Greeley School District as Farmer Karen, has been selling produce to local schools since 2007. As a farmer and mother, she’s seen the importance of educating and connecting children with their food, and fostering relationships between schools and local farms.

    Providing fresh, locally grown produce to schools, she said, addresses childhood obesity issues, keeps money within the community, gives farmers the chance to create new markets and offers educational opportunities pertaining to where food comes from and how it’s grown.

    The interest she’s seen by PSD is encouraging.

    “There is a great deal of parent and staff support for farm to school, and the Poudre School District listens to their parents and staff,” Mcmanus said. “They are well regarded as offering Fort Collins children a quality education and high standards, and leaving this at the lunch room door is unacceptable.”

    Both Mcmanus and Schneider agree that relying completely on local produce is currently unrealistic for a district the size of Poudre, but making the connections to begin the process is crucial.

    At the recent Connecting Local Farms and Schools conference, hosted by Real Food Colorado, Slow Food Denver and CSU Extension, Colorado school district and community leaders had an opportunity to discuss methods and means with growers, and learn from the districts that have made the biggest steps in this area. The conference was attended by a representative from Poudre.

    Jeremy West, director of Nutritional Services for Greeley-Evans District 6, has made huge strides in favoring local produce. Three years ago the district worked with one local farm, and purchased one or two crops. Last year, they purchased 16 and worked with several local farms.

    “A lot of people like to blame the schools for childhood obesity,” he said, “but I don’t think that’s fair. Sure we’re part of the problem, but we can be a huge part of the solution.”

    Planting seeds of hope

    While the food fight rages on, many community members have chosen to get their own hands dirty. Quite literally.

    The Growing Project’s Chad Shavor is currently building gardens in two local schools, a mission that he sees as the beginning of a new understanding of food in the Fort Collins education system.

    The gardens will be used as outdoor classrooms and laboratories, where students can discover the growing process hands-on along with parent and community volunteers.

    Eventually, he wants to work with teachers to incorporate gardening into many subjects, utilizing the labs as real life examples of nutrition, ecology and biology.

    “Gardening allows us to slow down, learn patience, nutrition, about the community and about what’s good for our bodies,” Shavor said. “Knowing where our food comes from can make us a better global system.”

    Getting lunch out of the box

    Everyone can agree that the school lunch debate can no longer exist in a vacuum. It’s a complex web of corresponding factors involving farms, families, the district and the money it receives.

    The current movement is towards a more sustainable, holistic and healthy system that incorporates education and community, and places greater importance on what the children in our community are fueling their bodies with.

    But what the future will look like, however, will depend on who gets involved. Parent and community participation and financial sacrifice will be required to continue on the path towards the healthy food system we’ve dreamt of and proposed. And the momentum is now.

    The fingers of blame need to stop pointing at people and start pointing to the ground.

    Because only when the full system is acknowledged and understood will the children realize that without the dirt, we wouldn’t have the pizza in the first place.