What I learned setting up WordPress on cloud.gov

Since around June, I’ve worked on 18F’s cloud.gov product and this week marked my last quarter on the team. We end every quarter with a so-called “innovation and planning” sprint. The product managers do the planning and the team members do the innovating. Innovating in this context means working on parts of the product that will benefit users that aren’t part of the normal business work. I chose to work on improving the WordPress example app we maintain for our users.

If you’re not familiar, cloud.gov is a Platform as a Service built by federal employees and designed around the specific security and regulatory concerns federal agencies need to consider before they’re authorized to launch a web product. No matter how big or small, whether it has open data or national secrets, all information systems operated by the federal government are required to undergo some kind of evaluation against standards published by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). The result of this process is the granting of what’s called an “Authority to Operate,” or ATO. Basically, an ATO says that the system meets the requirements outlined by NIST and the agency has accepted any risks the system might present. If an agency runs several websites they end up with a lot of repetitive documentation for components that may be the same across each individual app. cloud.gov attempts to solve this problem by standardizing many of those common components so that the agency only has to worry about the parts of the application that serve their mission directly.

It’s a fully open source and based on the Cloud Foundry PaaS project. Compared to how I’ve launched and managed WordPress sites in the past it’s a pretty big shift in how to think about the product. The main shift is finding ways to not rely on the filesystem.

To do that means pushing your uploaded files straight to S3 or another cloud storage service. It also means session information needs to be stored in a cloud service like redis. Most of the example we cribbed from Cloud Foundry’s example WordPress app but due to slight differences in our infrastructure environment, we needed to make a few alterations. The most significant was the recommended plugin for connecting to S3. Cloud Foundry’s example used a more robust AWS plugin but one that required extra effort for us to connect to Amazon’s GovCloud environment. Using that plugin meant installing two plugins from WordPress and then writing and maintaining our own helper plugin to interface with them. Human Made’s plugin was a drop in plugin that already pulled credentials from the environment and was much simpler to configure for cloud.gov.

Getting this up and running reminded me of the work I did at CFPB getting their then-WordPress site — the last major WP site I worked on — into a stable, easily deployable production environment and how much easier that all would have been with cloud.gov at our disposal.

We configured WordPress very similarly to how cloud.gov arranges the pieces. Uploads were synced to S3 and we heavily cached the site — including the local session. The difference is that we spent weeks, maybe even months, writing and maintaining a Fabric project that could install plugins, update the themes, and manage the version of Core we ran in production and then getting our CI server, Jenkins, to automate the deployment of it all. We ended up with a well-functioning DevOps flow for consumerfinance.gov that didn’t require any of us to be physically around whenever someone needed a deployment to happen. All of that was good and important work, don’t get me wrong, we were rightly proud of what we did. The point is that a product like cloud.gov could have saved us a ton of time because a lot of that orchestration is done behind the scenes.

If we’d had a platform like cloud.gov to start from, we could have saved ourselves a lot of that work and focused on other things closer to our mission.

WordPress was the first open source project I ever worked with and the one that taught me how to be a professional developer. cloud.gov has the potential to make government web applications faster, more reliable, and more secure. The two of them together make up a giant stack of open source code. I’m glad I had a chance to bring these passions together.

On trains, health care, and misfiring democracy

When we lived in Hungary we noticed a curious thing about their train network. Our city had about 68,000 people in it yet only had one train per day to the capital city, Budapest. If you couldn’t make the early morning direct train, to take a region train to the much smaller town of Dombovár and transfer to a high speed train the rest of the way. This only added 10 minutes of travel if you caught the right train to Dombovár, but quite a bit of unnecessary hassle.

Today, if you want to get from Kaposvár to Budapest you have three direct trains and five connecting through Dombovár for a total of eight possible trips. Meanwhile, Dombovár has 10 total trips — though some of them are quite long they’re all direct. A fact that would be less strange if there weren’t any direct trains to Budapest at all, but the fact that there are some, and all of them stop in Dombovár, suggests there could be more.

Maybe there’s really more demand for connections to the capital from a town a third the size of Kaposvár, but when I asked my Hungarian co-teacher about it, I was told that Kaposvár used to have many more lines to Budapest but voted for the wrong party in the last election and lost their direct connections. I take most things that particular teach told me with a grain of salt, but assuming it’s true, punishing people because they didn’t vote for the majority seems like an anti pattern for a democratic society.

That’s essentially what the GOP is trying to do to with this most recent health care bill, the so-called Graham-Cassidy Amendment. Numerous analyses of the bill have shown it stands to benefit the states that chose not to expand medicare — giving them more money — at the expense of those that opted for the expansion under the Affordable Care Act. What’s worse is that it appears the leadership — the amendment’s authors especially — are offering deals to exempt Senators whose states will be adversely affected in attempt to sway their vote for the bill. The guise of a policy reason for this is to not over-burden states with low population density:

Beginning on page 95, the bill has a provision that exempts low-density states whose block grants either decrease or stay flat between 2020 and 2026 from the Medicaid per capita cap. Under that scenario, Alaska and Montana would be exempted from the funding cap that applies to all other states during that period.

If only Montana and Alaska are exempted, where are they drawing the line on population density? Let’s look at 13 most sparsely populated states, how they fare, and how they voted in 2016 (source):

  1. Alaska: exempt — R
  2. Wyoming: 2% cut — R
  3. Montana: exempt — R
  4. North Dakota: 8% cut — R
  5. South Dakota: 45% increase — R
  6. New Mexico: 15% cut — D
  7. Idaho: 27% increase — R
  8. Nebraska: 13% cut — R
  9. Nevada: 8% cut — D
  10. Kansas: 61% increase — R
  11. Utah: 30% increase — R
  12. Oregon: 32% cut — D

The line is apparently 10 people per square mile. Except, for some reason, Wyoming. Shutting out those other states with similarly difficult rural healthcare problems. There may be roads to all the towns in these other states but that doesn’t mean their rural communities aren’t hard to reach. They’re in the desert, at elevation, or hundreds of miles from the nearest major city. If the states have to close rural health care facilities because of lost medicare funding, lives are at risk. The population density argument is ruse. It’s not about saving states with disproportionately hard to reach residents, it’s about sparing Republican senators in hard-hit states who are resistant to voting for the amendment.

Democratic governments should govern for the people and by the people. That means our representatives should act in the interest of their constituents for the good of the country — not subject the opposition to vindictive consequences. Furthermore, the 14th Amendment to our Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law. If the law has special provisions for certain sets of people who happen to vote the right way, that’s not equal protection. It’s bad enough this amendment administers benefits so unevenly, to add special protections for senators to get them to vote for it makes it unconstitutional.

Why I’m on the Medicare for All train

2017 has been the year of people visiting us in Colorado. It’s also been the year of health care.

This year we’ve re-established primary care and have been hunting down a strange set of symptoms I’ve been experiencing. None of it is particularly concerning. I don’t have a terminal condition. It’s really just run of the mill going to the doctor stuff. But it is all stuff I probably wouldn’t have done without the great health insurance we get from my employer. We have pretty low premiums in the grand scheme of things and we only pay for part of it. We had the option of choosing a plan with a higher premium but a lower deductible and we hit our out of pocket limit pretty quickly. Since I’m a federal employee, we have a flexible spending account (FSA) we pay into pre-tax which reimburses us for co-insurance, copays, and other fees we still have to pay despite the fact we pay a damn premium every month.

We’re fortunate to be so well taken care of but not everybody is. My term is up at the end of the year and when I research potential future employers, I notice few of them offer as good of health plans. Many only offer a high deductible plan. Many of those plans don’t have out of state coverage, and prohibitive out of network costs. People who aren’t fortunate enough to have a full time job don’t get the privilege of sharing the costs of their healthcare with their employer. More still don’t get access to cost-avoiding tactics like FSAs or Health Savings Accounts (HSAs).

When we had worse health coverage, we coped with the higher costs by avoiding going to the doctor. That doesn’t make any sense!

Employers only offering shitty plans to their employees, and paying a diminishing share of them, is a problem older than the Affordable Care Act. the ACA only made them a little better. Before, even good employer based plans would still leave some basic, preventative measures uncovered or force you to pay an outsized co-insurance or copay for them. If you wanted a flu shot, depression screening, immunizations and vaccines, your insurance company could charge you a copay or force you to share some of the cost.

Health insurance is stupid. You pay hundreds of dollars each month only to have to cough up even more when you go to the doctor. At least with the ACA these basic things that keep people healthy are covered. But it’s still stupid. If you’re on a high deductible plan and need to see a cardiologist about chest pain, you might be on the hook for the whole visit despite the fact you’re paying your premium every month. Let’s say you’re pregnant and think you miscarried, you might have to get blood drawn once every 48 hours until your HCG hormone goes back to 0. Maybe your kid got a concussion playing high school football and needs to see a neurologist. Any myriad of unexpected health problems can happen to even the healthiest people and if it happens to you, your family could be on the hook for up to $13,000! That’s assuming every doctor, hospital, or urgent care is within your health provider’s network and isn’t dropped from that network while you’re still a patient.

Maybe you have an FSA or a health savings account to help you cover these costs. Maybe! But the point is you shouldn’t have to guess about how much of your paycheck you can sequester away every month just to pay your health bills. You shouldn’t have to worry about whether you can afford to take your kid to the neurologist, or whether you can afford to verify you miscarried.

The insane hoops I’ve seen people jump through to get the care that need has led me to only one conclusion: Medicare for all. It’s the only solution I’ve seen that provides coverage for our most vulnerable populations and keeps costs contained. There are plenty of things Medicare doesn’t cover that people will still buy insurance to cover (elective surgeries for example, aren’t covered). Taxes might have to go up to cover it but the people most affected by that tax rise aren’t the people deciding which is preferable going broke going to the doctor or staying sick and getting sicker.

Every doctor with a license to practice medicine should be in network and every person on American soil should be able to access them without going broke. Medicare for All is the best way to get there.

Switching back to WordPress

I’ve been writing this blog as a Jekyll for quite some time now. There’s a lot I really do love about the idea of static sites, but also a lot I’ve cooled on. One of those things was the writing experience.

My first encounter with Jekyll was at CFPB and I briefly switched to Octopress while I was learning how it worked. At 18F, I decided it’d be prudent to eat my own dog food, as it were, and host my blog the same way we hosted the site I was managing, 18f.gsa.gov. It’s been three years on Jekyll now and while I love a lot about Jekyll and the paradigm of static sites, I’ve grown tied of the work I have to do just to publish a new post. I’ve written about this before and won’t repeat myself but I was hopeful that there would be a product, open source or otherwise, that would give all the advantages of static hosting with a writing and publishing experience that was just as simple and powerful. The fact is, there’s not.

And it turns out easy publishing on a trustable platform is all I really want.

Getting here meant I had to write a Jekyll plugin and a page to generate a WordPress eXtended RSS (WRX) file out of the old Jekyll site. Most of the work was done in the liquid page, except for custom fields which were filled in with the plugin. The only problem I’ve noticed so far was about 22 pages with no title that were in the WRX file — these were Jekyll paginator pages and the WRX file itself also generated as HTML 🤷‍♂️.

Readability and academic writing

Last week I started teaching as an adjunct professor in DU’s Electrical Engineering program. I’m teaching a course called Entrepreneurship in Engineering. My approach is to introduce my students to concepts and ideas from Science and Technology Studies, and some high level concepts of human centered design like usability, content, and accessibility. The goal is for the students to understand how a multi-directional approach to thinking about products, design, and technology are important when constructing a business, particularly one trying to make the status quo more judicious or democratic.

Last night we read an article that I loved in graduate school but might never ask my students to read again. The piece was, Paul David’s “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY.” I like it for a few reasons:

  1. It’s short, about 10 pages.
  2. The topic is familiar.
  3. It makes a pretty straightforward point.

These three things together are the makings of a good reading. Short means students can consume the whole thing and not need a whole afternoon to do it. The familiar topic — the standard “QWERTY” keyboard layout is a technology that’s been around about 150 years and doesn’t require any special knowledge to understand it. Even if you don’t own a computer with a keyboard, the layout is on most major phones touch keyboards, and because it’s a standard you’ll find it at public computer terminals at libraries, schools, and really anywhere you see computers. The final one, straightforwardness, was what made me love it in grad school. Paul David’s point is essentially: There were and are better technologies for keyboard layout but negative externalities stemming from a somewhat arbitrary choice made 150 years ago make it basically impossible to switch on a large scale.

Here’s why I might never teach it again.

At the beginning of class, I asked my students to each write one thing they didn’t understand on the board. A few of them wrote questions relating to reading’s argument: If Dvorak is 40% better, why don’t we switch? What does quasi-interrelatedness mean? But about half of my students wrote some of the strange turns of phrase and metaphors used in the piece. For example, “What is a Topsy and what does ‘it jes’ growed’ mean?”

The question comes from this line:

Rather like the proverbial Topsy, and much else in the history of economies besides, it “jes’ growed.”

I completely understand where my students were coming from. Why is the author spelling things wrong? Why is he using words that aren’t real? Is a Topsy a kind of keyboard? What’s proverbial about it and why are we interspersing proverbs into a discussion about the history of a computer keyboard anyway?

This line, and others similarly obscure, stood out to me as I was re-reading the article to prep for last night’s class. It turns out Topsy is a slave from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin who said she didn’t think she had parents rather, “she just growed.” Reading around the context, I understood it the first time around; this time I started wondering whether I’d lose my students who got stuck trying to work out where this phrase came from and what it could possibly have to do with the history of keyboards, economics, or typewriters.

It turns out Milton Friedman was fond of this quote as well. There’s an argument to be made that The American Economic Review, who originally published this article in 1985, is meant to be read only by American economists. If the only people who will read your work are economists you can probably recognize an oblique reference to Milton Friedman. If only Americans will read your work, maybe they’ll recognize the reference to literature. Journals are written for their field but because they have a rhetorical purpose to advance of knowledge and scientific discovery, they should be written in a way that communicates the ideas, not the writers literary cleverness.

The ideas being introduced in an academic article are often difficult enough to grasp. Jargon and in-group speech will become dated, literary references will become more obscure as even the best of books compete for prominence. Rather than showing writing talent with this kind of flair, show it by making the content understandable and indicating to readers how they might read deeper if they’re moved to do so.

This is not a new idea, it’s simply one I’ve learned first hand. Writing for The Conversation, a Duke research scientist and Northwestern PhD wrote “if we’re not clear and engaging, then editors and the general public simply won’t read us.” They argue more academics should write publicly in order to improve their academic writing.

A letter to the Colorado Congressional delegation regarding the Muslim immigration ban

Below is a letter sent by email to Colorado’s Senators Bennet and Gardner and Congresswoman DeGette on January 30, 2017.

I’m writing today about President Trump’s executive action barring immigration from seven countries in the middle east, suspending the refugee admissions system, suspending the Syrian refugee program and lowering the total number of refugees the United States will accept.

The totality of this order is alarming, but particularly the complete ban on arrivals from seven countries: Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. This overly vague order has barred legal residents of this country from entering it. This includes green card holders, people who are coming to our great country to work and build a life — maybe a better one than they left behind. The ban is also singles out these seven countries despite there being little evidence of any compelling national security interest.

The arguments from the president’s campaign and his supporters in Congress always said that those who were here, who waited in line, who filed their paperwork, should be allowed to stay. They came to our country, followed the law, and should be praised. These are precisely the people who were trying to get through airports on Saturday night — people who were returning to their jobs, their families, and their neighbors in Colorado and across the country. They have documents stamped in their passport or tucked into their wallets that grants them entry to do these jobs, to love these families, and to befriend these neighbors. Endowed in those documents is an agreement, with strict terms, about the terms and duration of their stay.

Immigrants to the United States go through one of the most rigorous application processes in the world. Refugees go through an even longer ordeal, they submit biometric data and identifying documents, undergo thorough security checks by the FBI, NCIC, State Department, and Department of Homeland Security — and that’s just the beginning. Refugees from Syria are fleeing terrorism, fleeing war, feeling corrupt government. Some of them arrived in the United States this weekend only to be told by our government: You are not welcome here.

Senator, I have a few questions for you about this travel ban:

  1. It’s been said these countries were on a list of places with connections to terrorism from the Obama administration. Why only these seven countries and not others with connections to terrorism in their region like Egypt, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia?
  2. What evidence do we have that rejecting refugees from these countries will make us demonstrably safer?
  3. Why has the State Department suddenly stopped honoring visas and green cards given to immigrants who filed their paperwork and waited sometimes years to get them?
  4. Will individuals with dual citizenship in these seven countries be bared from re-entry into the United States if they travel abroad?

More broadly, I hope that as you and your colleagues in Congress will consider what message this action sends to individuals from around the world who look to the United States as a land of opportunity. What message does this action send to the Mexican immigrant who has spent months and hundreds of dollars traveling back and forth from the U.S. consulate to complete paperwork for four month work visa? What message does it send to the next war-torn country where the best choice is to leave everything behind and seek safety abroad? What does it mean to see “Give me your tired, your poor; your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” on the Statue of Liberty if you are sent right back home?

Thank you for taking the time to read this message, and for your service to the State of Colorado.

Sincerely,
Greg Boone

A letter to Senator Cory Gardner regarding Betsy DeVos: Nominee for Secretary of Education

Sen. Gardner,
I’m writing today to share a few thoughts on the nomination of Betsy DeVos for the post of Secretary of Education. After watching segments of her nomination hearing and reading her responses on a variety of issues I am convinced she is uniquely unqualified to fill this position. While she demonstrated a general lack of knowledge about the federal laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and a flippancy toward existing whistleblower protection laws that ensure federal dollars are not being misused, her answers about student loans and higher education financial assistance were particularly troubling to me.

I am currently among the large and growing swath of Americans who carry a large sum of student loan debt. Student loans helped me buy books and pay for room and board for four years of undergraduate education but the bulk of my debt came from my decision to attend graduate school. When I graduated in 2013, I had amassed nearly $150,000 in debt to the Department of Education. Over the last four years, I have paid back about an entire year’s worth of tuition, and still owe the government more than $100,000.

The reason it felt safe to take out this much debt in order to attend school was precisely because of the federal programs available to help me pay them back. One of those programs is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which helps students with sizable amounts of debt take jobs in non-profit and public service organizations, rewarding us for taking low-paying jobs that support our local communities while still staying on top of our debt. Another is the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program, which similarly rewards individuals who commit to teaching in K12 schools for at least 10 years. The most impactful, and complex, of the federal student loan benefits is the variety of repayment options. These, and especially the income based plans, ensure that borrowers with high amounts of debt can take risks and live their life without risking default. My wife and I were able to afford the house we just bought because of the lessened debt burden we bear as a result of being part of these programs. We are able to consider having a child because these programs ensure that if we do, we’ll have enough in the bank to continue to support our family.

Some might look at these programs and see them as ways of getting out of paying a debt we owe, but they are not. These programs do the opposite: They make repayment possible. Public servants like myself only earn debt forgiveness if they make 120 on-time, regular payments on their loans. If I qualify for this program, the amount forgiven will be small compared to the amount of interest I have repaid on my loan to the Department of Education. The repayment programs still obligate the borrower to pay some money every month, it’s just capped to a percentage of their family income. For many like myself, these programs are the only means of survival. Without them, we would have to put on hold large, potentially risky decisions like taking a low paying job, starting a business, or starting a family.

Not only did Ms. DeVos never take out loans for her education, she doesn’t know anybody who did. She grew up a kind of wealthy most people can hardly even imagine, so did her children, her friends, and family. She doesn’t know any Pell Grant recipients, and in her testimony on the Hill this week, did not demonstrate she recognizes the importance of ED’s role in helping people who aren’t billionaires afford college. These programs are not perfect but they are helping millions of Americans, young and old, afford higher education. We need a leader in the Department of Education who will work with us borrowers to improve these programs and keep us from default. In her testimony yesterday, Ms. DeVos demonstrated she is not aware of these programs, and cannot, or will not, have the empathy with borrowers required to make thoughtful decisions about the future of these programs.

The Secretary of Education does not need to be intimately familiar with every one of the Department’s programs. But the Secretary does need curiosity, thoughtfulness, and empathy for the individuals who are impacted by the Department every day. Her testimony demonstrated a lack of all three. For these reasons, I urge you to vote against her confirmation.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.

Sincerely,
Greg Boone
Denver, CO

A letter to Senator Cory Gardner regarding conflicts of interest in the incoming White House

Senator Gardner,
My name is Greg Boone, a resident of Northwest Denver and a proud public servant in our federal government since 2014. I’m writing you today because your voicemail has been full for several days and I got a busy signal when calling your local office here in Denver. It should go without saying but, for the record, I make these remarks freely as a concerned citizen, independent of the agency I serve. I’ve been told that email is less effective than phone calling, and I sincerely hope that is not true for your office.

I’m writing today about conflicts of interest, specifically as they relate to President Donald Trump. The president is not bound to the same ethics laws I am as a public servant, but he is bound, like all of us and every president before him, by the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution. As you know, the clause expressly prohibits anybody holding office in the United States from accepting “any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”

This clause was written into the constitution to protect our republic from the influence of foreign governments. It’s also the bedrock of a strong set of anti-corruption laws this country has built itself on since its founding. Divestiture from businesses owned or operated by the president is a key component of avoiding a violation of this clause precisely because any representative of a foreign government who does business with those companies would constitute an “emolument,” or profit from a foreign government.

With President Trump, this means any foreign officials visiting Washington who stay at Trump’s hotel in the Old Post Office Building, will be giving an emolument to the President of the United States. Because he has properties around the world, even when foreign leaders are not traveling in the United States, he’ll be profiting from their stay. When President Trump goes the the G8, the UN, or any convention of world leaders, foreign governments have an opportunity to curry favor with him by staying in his hotels.

In his press conference this week he offered a possible solution to the DC hotel’s problem: All profits from the Trump Hotel in DC will be donated to the U.S. Treasury. This is hardly a solution and perhaps makes the problem even worse. Now, when a foreign leader is coming to Washington, they have to think about their choice of where to stay and whether their decision not to stay in a Trump Hotel will be seen as a choice to not donate to the U.S. Treasury.

Never before in history have all foreign diplomats had to think about the politics of how their hotel choice will affect their standing with the U.S. Government. The only way to avoid it would be for the president to relinquish complete and total, and divest himself from his companies. Every other president in history has been held to this standard, and it’s up to the Congress to hold President Trump to the same.

Some in the Administration, Congress, and in the press seem to be OK with these conflicts of interest. Even if you think they’re OK, you should be demanding his divesture because of the precedent it will set going forward. The next president could own a business that supports a known terrorist organization and use the same arguments President Trump is using to retain ownership in them. Will it hurt his stake in a business he’s owned and built for decades, maybe, but that hardly seems too price to pay for the stability of our republic.

If Congress doesn’t demand his divestiture now, they need to be watching the money flowing from foreign governments into the Trump Organization and making absolutely certain that no emoluments have been accepted without Congressional consent. If Congress doesn’t do this, you can be sure that the voters will.

Thank you for your service to the State of Colorado, and to the United States of America.

Sincerely,
Greg Boone
Denver, CO

What I learned not reading books by white dudes in 2016

In 2016, I didn’t read any books by white men. I already knew so many, that I decided to press pause on them for the year. I looked at the books I’d read in the last few years since grad school and ones I’d put on the ever-growing reading list, and realized that many were white, mostly Christian or Athiest, men. I’m a white man who grew up Christian and drifted toward Atheism as I grew older, why only read books that reinforce that point of view. Perhaps, I thought, there was a lot to learn from people who didn’t look like, sound, or grow up the way I did.

And oh, was I right.

I started this discipline with Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie, the first novel by a Native American writer I think I’ve ever read — certainly the first I’ve read as an adult. Alexie is a wonderful writer I had known about but never gotten a chance to read until last winter when I picked up this novel. Other books of his, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and The Toughest Indian in the World, are already on my list for 2017.

Another book that impacted me this year was The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a great book to read while moving west. Her whip smart characters and their observations and timeless insights into a world marked with uncertainty and impossible choices made this a provocative and enjoyable read.

Perhaps the most powerful books I read were the ones I ended the year with: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Americanah tells a story of a woman who emigrated from Nigeria to the United States in pursuit of education. But as the main character, Ifemlu, says, books are never ‘about’ just one thing. This book is about hair, it’s about love, about racism, wellness, politics, media, culture, internationalism and survival in the United States in the 21st Century. As I read this book, I thought about interactions I had with international students at the small, liberal arts college I attended. Did I lead with questions, or by asserting some sort of worldliness I wasn’t entitled to? Did I make false equivalencies like saying the week I spent in a German high school is the same as their leaving their home country to go to university in rural Minnesota? Did I ignore geographic and cultural differences between places rather than showing a genuine curiosity about their home country? What about in high school? The Somali students I went to school with might have been refugees, but they might have been kids like Ifemlu’s cousin, Dike — children of parents who left for one reason or another. They were harassed, taunted, abused by our peers. What was their broader experience in suburban Minnesota? I don’t have answers to these questions but Americanah has made me think more carefully about how I can listen better, learn harder, and be a better citizen.

Between the World and Me I think deserves a second read. It’s a dramatic letter to his son who recently witnessed the justice system decline to press charges against the police offer who murdered Michael Brown. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ perspective is scholarly. He shows himself persistently pondering the question: How do we protect, affirm, and celebrate black bodies? The black body, the individual and the collective, permeates the book and offers a forceful argument that they have always been systematically used, pillaged, and destroyed to advance the economic and political agenda of people who “need to be white.” Reading it showed me the world of decisions my parents never had to make, daily considerations about my personal security I never have to think about, and worries I’ll never have as a future parent, but ones that black parents and their children have to struggle with every day.

All of these books provide a much needed perspective in a world where Americans of color, immigrants, and religious minorities are inundated with stereotypes and daily inundated with bigotry and the threat of hate crimes. The books are invitations for empathy for those of us from outside those communities. Yes, these books make observations about white people, and those observations might make you uncomfortable if you’re a white person reading them. That’s OK. Really, fellow white folks, it’s OK to be uncomfortable. The reality is that the people of color around you are probably just as uncomfortable on a weekly, daily, maybe even hourly basis. Think about how you can use your discomfort to ask better questions, and be a more proactive ally for all in your community.

I thoroughly enjoyed my year of avoiding white male authors. I enjoyed it so much I also branched out of my other media bubbles to try and bring more diversity to what I watched and listened to. Podcasts I’ve discovered as a result include Buzzfeed’s Another Round and See Something, Say Something, Call your Girlfriend, 2 Dope Queens, and Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. These podcasts might not be for me, but as an outsider they, too, are invitations for empathy. In 2017, I want to continue to further diversify my media consumption. If you have a good recommendation, please let me know on Facebook, Twitter, or drop me an email.