Author Archives: Ari

The Dinner List By Rebecca Serle

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Sometimes, The Dinner List is a wisp of a book—romantic, sentimental, an escape from today’s agitating news cycles. At other points, though, it is wistful and insightful, peeling back layers of deep and troubled relationships.

We first meet Sabrina, the just-turned-30 protagonist, when she shows up late for her birthday dinner at an unnamed New York restaurant where five people are waiting, one not so patiently. The twist: They’re not all her friends. They’re the five people on her dinner list: her best friend, her ex, her father, her college professor, and Audrey Hepburn—all of whom she has unresolved feelings for. Audrey’s presence lends a magical air that permeates the story. Adding to the enchanting quality is the writer’s masterful use of cadence and pacing.

As Sabrina discovers why they’re all gathered in this place, at this time, she participates in a therapy session like no other and advances on her journey of self-understanding. She isn’t the only one. I realized Sabrina was more than the hopeless romantic initially etched and how an unforgiving trait was impeding her growth. I began to wonder whether peace and healing can be found through probing conversation. Is it sufficient? It’s a question that takes on new resonance in these unsettled times. In the case of the novel, Sabrina seems to be on her way to healing, but so much is left unsaid and remains unclear at the end.

The ambiguity propelled me to find a satisfying resolution with meaning. So I made my own list of five dinner companions—which, unlike many, I hadn’t really considered before. Around the table I’d want Moses, Paul, the Buddha, Joan of Arc, and Martin Luther King Jr. I’d want to talk about law, truth, love, purpose, and forgiveness—and apply their wisdom to this time.

 Who’s on your list? What would you talk about?

Five Skills Needed for Independence in the 21st Century

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I see educators focusing on 21st century skills so their students can make it in the real world. Just as prevalent are twenty- and thirty-somethings still living with their parents, unable to make ends meet.

The systemic challenges we millennials face in adulthood are real and widely covered. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find purpose and change our communities for good. Take Pete Buttigieg, a 37-year-old Afghanistan war veteran and two-term mayor of South Bend, Ind., who continues gaining traction in the 2020 presidential race. “I think when you run at this age, your face is your message in a lot of ways,” Buttigieg told CNN. “And part of what we are looking at is the idea that it’s time for a new generation in American leadership.”

While he may on the right track, clearer guideposts after school ends would help others take a road to success.

Being steeped in the education field, I see the way paved by five skills: learning, communication, care, relationship building, and self-advocacy. Some call these soft skills, but in my experience, they are the hardest to master.

See You In The Piazza By Frances Mayes

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“The greatest gift of travel: the steep learning curve. Second best: how your vision refreshes and you see with infant eyes. Third: memory. How the places seen will layer into life as time moves on,” Frances Mayes writes in See You in the Piazza, the latest among her memoirs on living and traveling in Italy.

Taken together, her points extend a clear road map to anyone seeking to make the most of a summer vacation. As I travel to parts of America I’ve never before seen, I find her wisdom becoming woven into my being.

Mayes lives out these ideas in evocative detail. It’s her signature strength, one I’ve relished while reading her renowned best-sellers Under the Tuscan Sun and Every Day in Tuscany. Employing such visceral language, she leads Piazza readers around corners of Italy that even many locals don’t know — it’s a picture-perfect capturing of the countryside.

While venturing through the Campo Tures village, she writes, “Here in the voluptuous valleys and idyllic green hills sloping up to raw and haggard mountains, I close my eyes. The power and spirit of this landscape … must be that you enter it as an explorer. What lies over the next pass? The Dolomiti are in Italy but there’s a bedrock German culture, too; these are mountains but not remotely like any seen before; the air is fresh but I want to gulp it like spring water….”

Along her journey of the country’s 13 regions, we sense her joy and closeness with her husband and grandson. In addition to glimpsing their interplay, we feel her love with all of Italy — from Piemonte to Sicilia. Once after exploring a mystical garden in the rain, she tucks in another bit of wisdom: “Gardens and houses. My obsessions. He was onto it, this Gregorio Barbarigo, the mastermind of this symbolic garden walk. Everything you bring or grow or create or care for in this realm moves you closer to the life more abundant.”

For certain, See You in the Piazza is not an electrifying page-turner, but a lyrical travelogue to savor poolside or a practical guide to earmark for an upcoming trip. In that spirit, Mayes provides the recipes from some of her favorite Italian restaurants.

If the mark of a seasoned writer is turning places into living characters, Mayes is surely a standout.

Amid Economic Uncertainty, Taking Stock of Personal Finance Chasms Across America

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There are many ways to crack the fissures of the American economy — the impacts are unfolding in real time. Take personal finance in this unpredictable climate for one. Peering into people’s financial accounts on the county level shows the degree to which communities of color lag in creating wealth. In particular, the 161 Hispanic Centers, with their young and growing populations, struggle here.

More than two-thirds of Americans report some form of financial investment for the future, according to Simmons Consumer Research. Across the American Communities Project’s 15 types, 69% say they hold investments. The common link stops there.

Beneath the surface appear obvious cleavages. Whiter, older, rural areas break away from the pack at considerably higher rates: In Aging Farmlands, 79% own investments; in Rural Middle America, 78% do. For these rural areas where the median household income is just below the national average, a mindset of frugality instilled in youth and deepened through experiencing reversals of fortune season to season may be driving these rates; small towns, too, have seen business dry up and people departing for places of greater opportunity.

Other predominately white suburban communities, the Exurbs and the Middle Suburbs, stand at 76%. Exurbs, on the far outskirts of cities, are full of high-earning professionals with the means to invest. Middle Suburbs, found across the Industrial Midwest, are still home to sizable populations of union workers with pensions.

Communities of color, meanwhile, are at the bottom of the pack: In Hispanic Centers, where the median household income is low at $45,800, just 55% hold investments. In addition to having lower incomes and younger, unestablished populations, Hispanic Centers confront the obstacles of documentation status and English literacy, including financial literacy.

For youth-populated Native American Lands, where 31% are under 18, as well as long established African American South counties, the investment figure dips just below the average to 67%; while Big Cities, the most populous, diverse community type with a highest degree of racial and ethnic segregation among the types, clock in at 61%.

Why Do Some Places Thrive and Others Collapse?

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In his opening presidential campaign speech, Donald Trump declared, “The American Dream is dead,” thus launching his campaign theme: Make America Great Again. This belief in the American Dream’s death was the “defining characteristic” of Trump’s enthusiastic Republican primary support, journalist and conservative commentator Timothy Carney soon realized, as he described in a recent interview with the American Communities Project.

In 2016, Carney set out to understand why the American Dream seemed dead to so many. He knew the widely discussed explanations: factory closures, more equal rights for women and minorities, old white men angry about losing their privilege.

Carney’s new book, full of personal stories and studies, is the product of his search for answers. Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse reveals how an invigorated community is the backbone of the American Dream. In his journey through America, Carney uncovered that “places collapse if they are not planted with institutions of civil society that connect people together and provide a sense of purpose. The places that thrive have those institutions, and in America, for the middle class, those institutions are mostly church,” as he put it in our interview.

Read on for more highlights of Carney’s research, his viewpoint shifts, and his ideas for rebuilding civil society. (Click on the anchor links below to jump to specific points of our interview.) Listen to the full, 34-minute interview.

As Americans Take Vacation, Where Are They Going, and What Are They Doing?

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Nearly two-thirds (64%) of U.S. travelers plan to take a vacation this summer — many escaping to Orlando, Florida; a historical European city; or a city in the American West, AAA recently reported. This divide between domestic and international destinations comes into sharper focus through the prism of the American Communities Project. So, too, do the differences in Americans’ preferred vacation activities. (Discover what type of community you live in using our interactive map.)

PASSPORT OR NO?

For a majority of Americans, traveling abroad does not appear to be on an immediate itinerary. Just 44% say they have a valid passport, according to recent Simmons Consumer Research data.

The rates are higher in more diverse, urban areas, yet no individual community type crosses the 50% threshold. Urban Suburbs, known for having a highly educated, multicultural population mix, reach 50%, while segregated, diverse Big Cities come up just shy at 48%.

In contrast, Working Class Country, the African American South, and Evangelical Hubs — poorer, more rural communities concentrated in Appalachia and the South — are well below the national average at 32%, 31%, and 30%, respectively. Rural Middle America, full of residents with average incomes and educations concentrated in small towns from Maine to Minnesota, is slightly higher at 37%.

Union-heavy Middle Suburbs, places in the Industrial Midwest hit hard by the globalized economy and more recently by America’s continuing trade fights, reach 40%. Graying America, often in rural areas and home to large numbers of retired seniors of moderate income and education, ticks to 41%.

Running in the middle of the pack are community types filled with educated, global-thinking, bilingual youth. LDS Enclaves, where many of Mormon faith undertake missionary work abroad, post a rate of 43%. Similarly, it’s 42% in College Towns, well-educated bastions where students learn the value of cross-cultural competency and studying abroad is commonplace. Hispanic Centers, home to high numbers of Latinos and youth, many of whom are immigrants, also stand at 42%.

Who’s Sleeping the Most and Least in America?

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Now’s the time when students of all ages are cramming for end-of-year exams through the wee hours. But it’s not just students sleeping poorly—and it’s not just in May. A health problem that’s been building in America for some time, insufficient sleep was classified as a public health epidemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016—and continues to be a pain point.

Sleep in American Communities

Now that the American Communities Project is bringing its lens to the 2018 County Health Rankings, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program, the ever-present problem comes into sharper relief. ACP found that insufficient sleep is an issue in all 15 community types, but it is a matter of degree.

One group stands out for being particularly sleep deprived: the African American South, often found in more rural areas from Virginia through Texas, where African Americans can make up more than 40 percent of the population and the median household income is at the lowest level of all types. Here the insufficient sleep average jumps to 38 percent. These counties show more evidence of other health problems laid out in the rankings, including high rates of obesity (35 percent) and physical inactivity (31 percent). Among the community types, it also ranks highest in income inequality, signaling socioeconomic distress.

On the other end of the scale are more homogenous places. The sharpest example occurs in Aging Farmlands, where the insufficient sleep rate drops to 27 percent. These counties in the Great Plains are home to about 576,000 people, 92 percent of which live in rural areas. They tend to be the oldest and least racially and ethnically diverse places in America, with more than a quarter over age 62 and 96 percent white. A slower, quieter life without work stress may contribute to better sleeping patterns. Graying America—where nearly a quarter of the population is 62 and older, and there’s also less diversity than the nation writ large—the rate holds at 31 percent on average. For that matter, Rural Middle America, where nearly 22 million people live, clocks in at 31 percent as well. These counties are a bit wealthier, more rural, and less diverse on average.

Sleep deprivation is slightly less prevalent in LDS Enclaves at 29 percent. Since the early 2000s, the Mormon Church has devoted some attention in its publications to the importance of sleep and rest.

Aside from LDS Enclaves and Aging Farmlands, the percentage of people in American communities not getting enough sleep remains above 30 percent on average—underscoring that the problem is justified to merit national attention. In fact, many different kinds of communities hover around the one-third figure. In the affluent Exurbs, 33 percent of residents on average report an insufficient amount of sleep. Hispanic Centers and College Towns, both of which have high percentages of youth, stand at 32 percent. Working Class CountryNative American LandsBig Cities, and Urban Suburbs are at 34 percent.

Why Sleep Matters

Since 2016, the County Health Rankings have included insufficient sleep in a host of measures about one’s life quality and length. The report cites many reasons:

  • “Sleep plays a key role in maintaining proper growth and repair of the body, learning, memory, emotional resilience, problem solving, decision making, and emotional control.
  • Ongoing sleep deficiency has been linked to heart disease, depression and anxiety, risky behavior, and suicide.
  • A lack of sleep can also affect others’ health. Sleepiness, especially while driving, can lead to motor vehicle crashes.”

To obtain a measure, the rankings incorporate a key question from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey: “On average, how many hours of sleep do you get in a 24-hour period? Think about the time you actually spend sleeping or napping, not just the amount of sleep you think you should get.”

Insufficient sleep translates to the percentage of adults who respond that they get less than seven hours of zzzz a night on average. In 2016, about one third of adults reported getting insufficient sleep. In some counties, it was almost one in two residents.

That same year Arianna Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life One Night at a Time debuted and became a national best-seller. In it, she describes collapsing from exhaustion in 2007.

A Call for More Inclusive, Empathetic Leadership

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Today’s independent school leaders are grappling with a number of daunting developments: more competition on the educational landscape, expanding demographic diversity, divisive politics, the rise of Millennial parents and workers, the retirement of Baby Boomers, the question of college’s value, the excitement of social media, and the hopes and fears of artificial intelligence.

The confluence of these global trends has spurred an urgency to redefine independent school leadership to espouse greater inclusion and empathy. To begin to achieve that, NAIS convened a group of independent school educators, academics, and thought leaders for a leadership summit at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore on October 2021, 2016. (See list of attendees.)

Limited Diversity of Leaders Nationally

The lack of diversity and inclusion in leadership was on full display as attendees addressed the limited number of women and people of color in leadership posts. Across industries, women continue to hold positions with less prestige, less power, and less pay, said Catherine Hill, vice president for research at the American Association of University Women. She cited the following statistics:
  • In public schools, women make up 76 percent of teachers and 20 percent of superintendents.
  • In the nonprofit sector, 75 percent of nonprofit professionals are women, and just 43 percent are nonprofit chief executives.
  • In the private sector, white men hold 63 percent of top leadership posts, white women hold 24 percent, black women occupy 2 percent, and Hispanic women account for 1 percent.
  • In government, U.S. state legislators are 75 percent men and 25 percent women, including 5 percent women of color.
Hill noted that several factors explain the leadership gender gap: caregiving demands and women’s choices, the gender pay gap, the lack of networks and mentors for women, and implicit and explicit bias and discrimination against women in the workplace.

Challenges in Independent Schools

The independent school sector mirrors these national trends. The percent of female heads at NAIS schools has hovered around one-third for the past 16 years. The percent of heads of color has ticked up from 3 percent in 2000-2001 to 7 percent in 20152016.
NAIS conducted a study to understand the dynamics of the recruiting process that aid or hinder the hiring of women and people of color for headship positions, said NAIS vice presidents Amada Torres and Caroline Blackwell in their presentation to the group. The study included women and people of color who were potential headship candidates as well as search firms and search committees.
A confidence gap between men and women was evident. Sixty-six percent of men of color said they are highly confident in their ability to become head of school compared with 43 percent of women of color and 43 percent of white women who said the same.
In the headship hiring process, there’s a noticeable disconnect between the qualities that search firms and committees seek and what professional women and people of color believe they’re seeking. For example, candidates said they thought experience at a similar school was the least important qualification; search firms valued this highly. Similarly, candidates believed that prior experience as head does not rank as high as search firms and search committees place this work history. Furthermore, the leadership experiences of business officers, admission officers, and diversity practitioners are undervalued. Many of these positions are occupied by women and people of color.

Ideas for an Inclusive Pool

Attendees discussed more expansive models of leadership to turn the tide to parity. Women and people of color say mentors, sponsors, and professional development can make a difference in their advancement. In particular, NAIS survey respondents said they wish for PD opportunities that improve their leadership skills.
It’s crucial to approach leadership development with an eye toward equity and racial justice, said Joe-Joe McManus, executive director of Rootstrong, a nonprofit that focuses on multicultural leadership education and development based on four global principles: human rights, social justice, diversity, and integrity.
He advocated the CUNY Star leadership education model, known for its cultural relevance and responsiveness. Competencies include professional excellence, self-knowledge, identity development, cultural competency, contextual literacy, civic engagement, work-life balance, community building, critical engagement, applied ethics, and dynamic balance. He noted that the aspects of these competencies can shift depending on location, and cited self-knowledge as an example because it is so individual.
While instituting a multicultural model, we must also navigate the existence of privileged fragility, McManus said. This applies to people who are advantaged members of racial and other systems of privilege/oppression. Such fragility is triggered by any loss of privilege or feeling of any stress related to one’s privileged status, and can manifest as anger, disengagement, fear, guilt, and white tears.
These challenges notwithstanding, cultivating a wider range of leaders was a running topic at the summit. The Center of Creative Leadership (CCL) aims to develop leaders at all levels and positively impact communities, said CCL Senior Faculty and Faculty Development Director Marin Burton. To do this, CCL employs the framework of leading self, leading with others, and changing your world. “Leadership is an inside-out process that begins with knowing yourself,” Burton said. The framework takes different forms in different grades. Kindergarteners learn to keep their hands to themselves. Middle schoolers practice working through conflicts. High schoolers learn to be intentional when choosing an internship. (Listen to a podcast between NAIS and CCL.)
In an example of CCL’s joint work with Ravenscroft School (North Carolina), Colleen Ramsden, assistant head of school for academic affairs, shared how the school’s Lead From Here program has transformed its young students into leaders. She relayed a story of a group of fifth-grade boys who befriended a new student, but were concerned that their new friend didn’t understand friendship skills. He lacked self-awareness, empathy, and accountability, all key components of the program. One boy explained to the school counselor that the group was helping their new friend learn the Lead From Here competencies. The counselor’s jaw dropped in response; that was the work she was poised to do, Ramsden said. (Read a blog about Lead From Here, and listen to a podcast with Ramsden and leaders of the program.)
In addition to spreading leadership throughout an organization’s hierarchy, attendees discussed that people of different temperaments ought to be represented in leadership. Heidi Kasevich, director of Quiet Education associated with Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution, urged schools to give voice to the introverts among us. Introverts are characterized by preferences for quiet stimulation over excitement and deliberate thinking over quick thinking.
Kasevich noted that 50 percent of workers self-identify as introverts, while 96 percent of leaders and managers self-identify as extroverts. Sixty-four percent of people believe their organizations are not harnessing the power of introverted employees, she said. To be sure, a group mixed with introverts and extroverts achieves a more creative outcome, according to organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s research.
Kasevich gave tips to promote quiet leaders’ success:
  • use energy strategically,
  • schedule solitary time,
  • show enthusiasm,
  • schedule a time to walk the halls,
  • let extroverts know you care,
  • talk to introverts one-on-one, and
  • use solitude to make good decisions.

Leading with More Feeling

Attendees discussed the move toward expressing emotional intelligence in leadership. Since Daniel Goleman wrote Emotional Intelligence in 1995, social and emotional intelligence has become a cornerstone of leaders’ development in schools and corporations, Janet Patti, a facilitator at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, said in a videotaped address to the group.
The results are clear: Managers and leaders with higher emotional quotients have greater sensitivity and empathy, are rated as more effective, receive higher performance ratings, develop high-performing effective teams, and create a healthier school culture.
The modern view of emotion encompasses attention, memory, learning, decision-making, relationship quality, physical and mental health, and everyday effectiveness, she said. To evaluate emotional intelligence, the Yale Center uses the RULER Approach:
  • Recognize emotions in self and others,
  • Understand the cause and consequences of emotions,
  • Label emotions accurately,
  • Express emotions appropriately, and
  • Regulate emotions effectively.
Patti concluded by underscoring the role emotional intelligence plays in building more creative, healthy, effective, and compassionate schools. “There is a growing understanding that we cannot change the behavior of schools until we change the behaviors of the people who work in them. We believe that intensive change in schools and in student learning will happen when school leaders develop their own social, emotional, and cognitive skills, and build professional capital through the transformation of the adults responsible for the teaching and learning of our children.”

The Unintended Leader

Tech entrepreneur Donald Golini also touched on the need to display emotional intelligence as he rose in his career. When he founded QED Technologies in 1996, he never dreamed his business would grow to more than 70 employees and generate $18 million in revenue. He developed and sold high-tech products for the precision optics market throughout the world, counting Canon and Leica as customers, among others. He began by giving presentations on how material science could solve an important problem for the industry, then wrote a business plan and persuaded others to join him.
After 10 years he sold the company, which was a difficult decision because he hired every single person there. Today, he teaches college student engineers how to write business plans and can spot problems early based on his experience.
Along his success route, Golini learned that surrounding yourself with competent people is a must. That means hiring top talent and establishing an advisory board that works for you, he said.
Also key is a strong company culture. Golini infused his with integrity, a can-do attitude, accountability, mutual respect, and transparency. “If the values statement posted in the lobby is not real…EVERYBODY knows,” he pointed out.
No matter how clear core values are, they can be misinterpreted, Golini discovered. A former employee confused “can do” anything with “can do” everything.  In that case, Golini put on his “chief executive counselor” hat to help. “You have to be willing to coach [employees] in personal and professional tough times,” Golini said. “He could have quit and would have quit if I wasn’t available to him.”
Golini said developing leadership skills was pivotal in his ability to recruit and maintain a great team at QED Technologies.

Your Leadership Stories Matter

Join NAIS as we continue to redefine and explore leadership amid our changing times. We encourage you to discuss ideas using the Twitter hashtag #NAISDeepDive and post in NAIS Connect’s “Idea Exchange” community.

The Austen Escape by Katherine Reay

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You don’t have to be a Jane Austen fan to become enraptured in The Austen Escape. Katherine Reay’s latest women’s fiction novel is very much a classic coming-of-age story with historic and modern twists. Even the two settings are emblematic of old and new eras.

The novel opens in Austin, Texas, a tech hub, where the main character, Mary Davies, is struggling with a project at a startup engineering design firm. When her childhood best friend and Jane Austen scholar invites her to visit Austen’s hometown of Bath, England, to finish her dissertation, Mary accepts, hoping the trip will help her forget her work woes and the company consultant she’s been crushing on for the past year.

While the book ticks along slowly at first, the road winds to pure enchantment in Bath. Scenes of fly fishing, dialogue, piano playing, and dancing unfold in flowing prose. But Mary and friend Isabel Dwyer wrestle with some huge obstacles: shortly after arriving in England, Isabel loses her memory and believes she’s living in the 19th century while Mary discovers that her friend is not who she thought she was.

In the midst of such conflict, Reay drops in many pearls, and often uses Mary, with limited life experience, as the source. Savor this one: “Music is math, and once you understand that… How can anyone not be in awe? It’s the audible expression behind the laws of the universe. It feels like the only thing, apart from God, that lives outside time. Once released, it lives on and it can make you laugh and cry, rip you apart and heal you, all within a few discrete notes strung together. And while it follows rules, expression is limitless.”

As Mary comes to more clearly understand life and work through her experiences in Bath and Austin, her coming of age can only be described as sublime.

 

‘A Disappearance in Damascus’ is the story of a journalist’s hunt for a kidnapped Iraqi colleague

Deborah Campbell’s clear, compassionate voice pierces war’s fog and woe in her new memoir, A Disappearance in Damascus: Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War.

We meet Campbell in 2007 in Damascus, Syria, where she’s reporting for Harper’s magazine on the refugees fleeing war-ravaged Iraq. A seasoned immersive journalist, she goes undercover as an academic to move about more freely and avoid suspicion. For a while, this approach works well: She doggedly pursues her work, describing refugees’ current suffering and survivors’ haunting memories of kidnappings, torture, and shootings with clear-eyed resolve and an empathetic touch. She even opens up to us about the toll such work takes on her own romantic relationship.

When Campbell meets Ahlam – a name meaning dreams – we see a walking example of resilience. (Campbell identities her only as Ahlam for her family’s sake.) After the Iraq war began in 2003, Ahlam worked as a fixer for The Wall Street Journal and then at the Americans’ civil-military affairs office. It was dangerous, she knew, but she didn’t see other options for work. In 2005, she was kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Baghdad, considered a traitor for working with the Americans. Freedom’s price: a $50,000 ransom and a promise to leave Iraq permanently. But tragedy followed when she, her husband, and three children started a new life in Syria. Ahlam’s 11-year-old son died in 2006 after an illness was mistreated.

Despite these circumstances, Ahlam remains a force of nature – and for good. She becomes the de facto mayor of the refugee community, Little Baghdad, and houses young men in her cramped quarters. In her work as a fixer helping reputable journalists get out the news, she earns a reputation for maneuvering through sticky situations with her fluency in English and Arabic, street smarts, and caring ways. Campbell quickly becomes one of her many admirers and friends. Early on, Campbell asks Ahlam what she wants to achieve through her work. Ahlam replies, “Someone has to open the door and show the world what is happening.”

It’s one of several bonds the two women share. Their friendship is forged in “shared risk,” Campbell writes. Their love of learning and their commitment to serve humanity shine through as well. “You’re a free bird…. Don’t let anyone put you in a cage,” Ahlam’s father once told her. Raised in a Sunni farming village, Ahlam described how her father taught her to see beyond sectarian differences, to see Sunni and Shia Muslims as brothers. He encouraged her to continue her schooling and she became the first girl from her village to finish high school and the first person there to earn a college degree. Campbell recounts the moment that Ahlam brought her college diploma to her father’s grave to show him she had accomplished their goal. Ahlam pays this gift forward by opening a school for young girls in her small Damascus apartment, where Campbell witnesses – and marvels at – the moment of hope.

The women’s friendship is tested when Ahlam is taken away right in front of Campbell. For the first time, perhaps in her entire life, Campbell feels helpless and grows paranoid that she is being watched. Who is Ahlam really? Why was she arrested? And is Campbell next? Even while she worries, she doesn’t stop searching for her friend. She taps her contacts and draws on her wits and knowledge of the area to guide her steps. Meanwhile, Ahlam is meeting challenges in prison, and we see the force of her spirit.

The thriller, mystery novel quality kept me turning pages, but of course, it isn’t fiction, even if truth has been obscured by war and the passage of time. Campbell takes time to dispel beliefs about what is now history. She reports that the civil war in Syria did not spark in 2011 because of sectarian divides but from a simmering class divide between the city and the countryside. Iraqi middle-class refugees poured into the Syrian cities, a famine in the poor farming areas drove Syrians to the same cities looking for work, and President Bashar al-Assad sought to liberalize the economy by privatizing state lands and services and cutting subsidies to the poor. After urban progressives protested the ruling elite, a sectarian proxy war spiraled as regional powers seized on the chaos to advance their interests.

Throughout her story, Campbell conveys both authority and humility — a refreshing combination of traits. At a few points, she questions whether she is making a positive impact with her writing. With her ability to open up, educate, and empathize, I would submit that she is indeed.