An Operating System Gone Wrong

Not too long ago, I found myself paralyzed in the moment.

In light of the everyday tragedies that fill our world, this was really just a blip on the radar — however, in that moment, I was reminded of how dependent most of us have become on technology for our most basic everyday functioning.  

It was after lunch, and I was preparing to print materials for a board meeting late that afternoon and for a presentation the next morning. So naturally, at that exact point in time, my computer’s operating system decided that it was time for an update. Nevermind that I had previously set aside several reminders to update my system, or that I was the one that had chosen to use a PC instead of a Mac. For the next 45 minutes, I could do nothing but sit and wait for my computer to reconfigure itself into something more functional.

All of us operate within systems that we did not design and likely have little control over. Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about all of the operating systems that govern our lives, humming quietly in the background. On my laptop or mobile device, I have a tendency to focus my attention on all of the shiny programs and applications that offer greater efficiency, more robust communication, or inspire new creativity. However, ask any Microsoft executive about Windows Vista and you will hear the haunting tale of an operating system gone wrong, causing Microsoft to fall behind during an important season in mobile and traditional computing. Perhaps we have something to learn about the work of poverty alleviation from our friends in technology. Connections often reveal themselves in unlikely places.

Each year, we spend millions of dollars and countless hours of personal investment on the development of new programs aimed at addressing poverty. There is no doubt that these developments have spurred progress in many areas and have helped to improve quality of life and hope for many. At Think Tank, we encourage the development and cultivation of models of poverty alleviation that focus on restoring people to wholeness. However, in that process, we think it is vital that we get under the hood and look at our operating system driving the work of poverty alleviation in our communities. In other words, it’s not just about what we do to address poverty, it’s about how we do it.  

Change is most effective when those we serve have an equal say and stake in making their communities better.

To that end, we lift up five practices that must become ingrained into how we go about addressing poverty in our communities. These five practices are essential if we are going to attack American poverty at its core.

First of all, we have an opportunity to break out of our compartmentalized way of thinking that, for example, views health only in terms of healthcare or housing only in terms of bricks and mortar. We must recognize the interconnected parts of people and communities and pursue holistic solutions.

Secondly, we must cultivate the discipline of listening first. It’s easy for people, out of a desire to help, to assume what needs are present in their community and give accordingly. Yet, better outcomes happen when we first listen to those we want to help and truly value their experiences, needs, and goals.

Instead of inspiring people to work for their communities, we should care about people working with their communities. Doing with, rather than ‘doing to’ or ‘doing for’, should be our default posture.

Additionally, we believe change is most effective when those we serve have an equal say and stake in making their communities better. That sustained change is dependent upon intentionally promoting leadership from within communities impacted by poverty.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must learn to take an authentically-relational approach to fighting poverty. In an American society that continues to become more diverse, we need more contexts where people can connect meaningfully across difference. We know that relationships facilitate individual and community change, so we must build social capital — especially among, and with, neighborhoods impacted by poverty.

I am reminded time and again that change comes both in spite of us and, by the grace of God, through us. It comes, and the systems will adapt, just as they’ve always done. But, we have a choice in how change is seated within us.

Poverty is already proof of an operating system gone wrong. Will we check our own to fix it?

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by Marlo Fox for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Marlo’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Privileged Discontent

I couldn’t shake it. On the bus. In the street. At the apartment next door. Homelessness. Poverty. Drugs. Systemic marginalization. A blind eye turned. A gaze diverted. I was growing numb. Numb to the realities of a fallen world. My heart was hardening and I had to stop it.

I’d spent the past six years learning the ins and outs of some of our world’s most successful companies. From Honda to General Electric to Northrop Grumman to Boeing. I’d earned my engineering degree from The Ohio State University and soon found myself on the fast track to executive management at the world’s largest aerospace company. By many accounts, I was winning. Winning at this thing called life. Yet I couldn’t shake it. The growing discontentment. It was becoming far too easy for me to move through the routines of daily life in my safe bubble of self-absorption. Eat. Sleep. Work. Make money. Spend money. Be entertained. Do it again. Over and over.

Why me? Had I earned this life? Why are some people forced to suffer in the pits of generational poverty, while others coast scot-free on the backs of their forefathers? What was I doing to help? Do I have an obligation to help? Was I actually part of the problem? I needed to know.

These questions, and many more, plagued me. The more I learned about the complexities of poverty, the more distracted I became. I’d sit at my desk, staring at drawings of pressure bulkheads, and wonder how a man could possibly get to the point where he is content to dig his ‘meals’ out of a trash can. I’d wonder what led the young woman to work the street corner just to get by. That couldn’t possibly be her preferred choice…could it? I knew I had to do something, but I just wasn’t sure what.

I’d grown disgusted with my unmerited privilege — a White male raised in a middle-class family. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful for those that worked tirelessly to put me in this position and for the freedoms that this life has gifted me, but I just wasn’t sure that I was leveraging those freedoms appropriately.

I needed personal faces, smiles, tears and stories to be at the center of my framework. I needed them to shape me…mold me…break me. I had so much to learn. I have so much to learn.

At Boeing, I was losing my passion for a career that I’d dreamed about for so many years. The lifestyle of Corporate America was weighing on me and I didn’t have the strength to fight it. I was no longer that young man who out-hustled everyone in the workplace. I was subtly becoming okay with average work. Believe me, that is NOT okay.

So, I moved. I made a switch. I took a risk.

From Boeing to Coffee Crafters Academy. From building airplanes in Seattle, WA to making coffee inside of prisons around Central Ohio. I quit my job and promising career to serve with the AmeriCorps VISTA program.

I needed to get as close to poverty as I could. Books and TED Talks were no longer enough. I needed personal faces, smiles, tears and stories to be at the center of my framework. I needed them to shape me…mold me…break me. I had so much to learn. I have so much to learn.

For me, prison has been my playground over the past year, and I’ve been astounded by what I’ve learned. Take a look at these facts:

  • We, as a country, incarcerate nearly 25% of the world’s total prison population (over 2.3mil people without being a markedly “safer” country)
  • Our average annual cost of incarcerating each prisoner is over $31k
  • Our average rate of a prisoner returning to state prison within 5yrs of being released is an astonishing 76.6%

Folks, our prison system is not working, and it’s about time that we try something different.

Prior to joining Coffee Crafters Academy, I knew nothing about our country’s prison system. Again, a prime example of my privilege. I didn’t need to know anything about it. It didn’t affect me, but that was no excuse for my ignorance. I confess, I still don’t know much about prison and why exactly things are the way they are, but I’m striving to learn more each day.

Some days I feel hopeless and inadequate. Much, I suppose, like those trapped in our prison system. Other days, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of peace and energy to fight on.

The truth is that incarceration is trapping many families in endless cycles of poverty. Loss of income. Court fees. Poor communication. Isolation. Hopelessness. Fear. We are a people made for community, made for fellowship with other human beings. We become like those we surround ourselves with, so what do you think will happen when we group thousands of people struggling with drug addictions, mental illness, anger, and sexual perversion in the same cramped quarters? Those individuals are, inevitably, influenced. Influenced by ideas, attitudes and ways of life that are not conducive to a healthy existence. They learn to cope and survive in a world that is radically different from life outside their walls. Yet, we expect them to thrive once released? Really? Our strategy, in general, has been to make life so unbearably difficult and miserable for them that they couldn’t possibly want to go back to prison. I get it, I do. A bit of that makes sense, but that idea, on its own, is far from an adequate strategy or solution. The stories and data prove it.

Do I have all the answers? Absolutely not. But my eyes have certainly been opened to a problem. A problem that is so complex and multifaceted that is, at times, paralyzing. And that’s okay. Some days I feel hopeless and inadequate. Much, I suppose, like those trapped in our prison system. Other days, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of peace and energy to fight on. I often find myself tempted to return to the lifestyle of Corporate America, and that, also, is okay. I just may do that someday. To be clear, that life is not inherently bad. Those in that space are part of the solution as well.

However, for right now, this is good for me. It’s changing me. It’s giving me new perspectives, influencing my motives and making me uncomfortable. It’s blurring the boundaries of my life in ways that are challenging me to consider the whole. I encourage you to lean in. Embrace the messiness and not yet of this life. Soften your heart. Take a risk. It’s okay to hurt a little. In order to change anything, you must first be willing to be changed yourself.

Friends, use your freedom to serve each other in love. Life is a gift, strive to live like it.

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Additional sources: The National Institute of Justice, The New York Times, Vera Institute of Justice, and the Prison Policy Initiative


by Nick Hirsch

Hirsch is the operations manager for Coffee Crafters Academy by way of the Corporation for National & Community Service’s AmeriCorps VISTA program, a partner of Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Think Tank, please visit thinktank-inc.org.

Go With Love

I do not like crumbs in the bed…

My nine-year-old daughter, Mary, organized a surprise movie night for me. She decorated my room with movie theater candy, creative homemade reserved seat signs, popcorn, and soda with fancy straws. She was so excited to unveil her surprise. She grabbed the remote and said, “Okay, Mom, let’s pick a movie!”

She invited me to sit on my bed, with her hand full of popcorn to watch the movie. I could see the crumbs tumbling down into the bed before the movie even began. And the sight…

Made.

Me.

Cringe.

I had to make a choice.

I decided to go with love, instead of focusing on the kernels dropping on the sheets.

While this small event may be just a fleeting memory in my family history, it inspired me to think about the space between discomfort and a connection to something greater. In order to live in a community, sometimes I have had to take up my discomfort and recognize the opportunity to transform it into love and understanding.

Think about…

The single mom who has more children than she can afford, and you don’t like that she’s pregnant with another. Go with love.

The recovering addict who seems to have only curse words in his vocabulary, and you don’t like that he cusses in church. Go with love.

The felon who is covered in tattoos, and you don’t like that he lives with a woman he’s not married to. Go with love.

The stinky guy who always wants to give you a hug at the community meal, and you don’t like that he has poor hygiene. Go with love.

Sometimes we miss opportunities to create moments of genuine connection, because we can’t sit with a certain level of discomfort within our beliefs. We miss experiences that we never forget. We miss times that teach us more about ourselves than others.

When we go with love, it can be hard. It can mean navigating situations that go against our norm, and forgoing control and comfort.

Our movie night was wonderful. We watched Pete’s Dragon, one of my favorite movies as a child. I didn’t say anything about the crumbs in the bed, but instead I focused on the important stuff, and I chose love.

What does it really mean to choose love? 

Love is courage, not comfort.
Love is a decision, not a reaction.
Love is selfless, not selfish.
Love is connection.

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by Heather Cunningham — to learn more about Heather’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Paralyzed In Poverty, Part III

This is the third and final chapter of the Rethink Community mini-series, Paralyzed In Poverty, an as-told-to narrative based directly on the account of Andrea Harper and her perspective on living life in poverty.

Harper, a former presidentially-recognized mathematics educator from Springfield, OH, was put on the road of redemption after dealing with a combination of circumstances which left her struggling in poverty and having to reclaim her good name when left subject to the judicial system.

Currently earning her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling at Wright State University, today, the former Princeton Review professor is a licensed chemical dependency (LCDC II) counselor and serves as a poverty-alleviation training facilitator and speaker for Think Tank, Inc., a federal partner of the Corporation of National & Community Service (CNCS).

In case you missed them, please read Part I and Part II.


“Now remember, Andrea — you only have 30 minutes travel time from the time you leave work to pick up your child.”

That’s what I tell myself. The Title 20 social worker asked why my card swipe times were so inconsistent for picking up my baby. God forbid that I go to the store really quickly, or run home to throw a load of laundry in, or do the dishes, or have some decompression time before I pick up my kids. They have taken over the management of my life and determine who lives in my home. And so we make decisions I’m not proud of to make ends meet. Claiming his income would mean a loss of food stamps or a raise in the PIPP bills.

Sometimes I wonder how I fit it all into a 24-hour period. I do not seem to get much help. I work full time, I am responsible for all the appointments for the kids — and don’t forget to get documentation for every one of them, so you can get your gas cards at the end of the month. I do the grocery shopping and shopping for everything the home needs. I have a 1-year-old; a 12-year-old whose school calls me at least 3x/week, due to her special emotional needs; and a 17-year-old who lives her own life and is honestly not much help. I have to fit all the laundry, cleaning, and organization of the home in there, too — on top of my NA meetings on lunch break (instead of eating), my counseling to keep me sane, and my medications to keep me stable. I get jealous of those who can afford house cleaners and nannies that come to the home — or someone that cooks every meal.

I have worked so hard my entire life. Why the short end of the stick for me? Why do I always feel like I am working harder than every single person around me? Maybe not at work, but for sure in all of life.  Most days I am filled with gratitude and peace from a God of my understanding and that personal relationship carries me through.  But other days, days like today, I just feel some type of way…perplexed…frustrated.

Scarcity exists in poverty. There is no ‘off’ switch. There is no vacation.

Now I know what some of you that are reading might be thinking (especially if you are a typical working mother in 2017), ‘I have to run around and do all of these things in a day too! What makes poverty so rough?!?’ Really, this is a point of intersection of shared experience between people in poverty, people of middle class, and people of wealth. I encourage you to share in that feeling of being overwhelmed and connecting our shared experiences of scarcity — whether it’s in financial resources, social capital, or time.

Don’t quote me on this, I am recalling this from memory…but, I heard this story about a former President. The headline read something like, ‘President goes golfing after threat to America’. But, I thought about it… this man might have just wanted to turn off for a minute before making a huge world-changing decision that would weigh heavy on his heart. This man has the resources to go golfing. I could judge him and say, ‘Must be nice.’ But I also can identify with that feeling of ‘I JUST NEED A BREAK!!!’

As an addict in recovery, I can understand that feeling of wanting to turn off. There were many times when I thought that using drugs was my only option and resource to tune out for a moment. I thank God that I have been able to rid myself of the weight of substance abuse. But that feeling remains. I don’t feel like I have a means to turn off the switch of life’s expectations. That is the scarcity that exists in poverty. There is no ‘off’ switch. There is no vacation. Often, there are no social resources to just get away for a weekend.

This is not meant to produce guilt. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, because I don’t get a vacation. I am asking you find the space for understanding when you read stories of people in poverty or meet people with limited financial resources. I think that the feelings of isolation and brokenness are more pronounced in poverty. And I know this both from my personal experiences in poverty and my life as a middle-class teacher. But we all feel isolated and broken sometimes. Let’s use that common experience to connect us.

How can we experience restoration together?

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by Andrea Harper for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Andrea’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Paralyzed In Poverty, Part II

This is the second part of the Rethink Community mini-series, Paralyzed In Poverty, a first-person account of living life in poverty from the perspective of Andrea Harper.

Harper, a former presidentially-recognized mathematics educator from Springfield, OH, was put on the road of redemption after falling victim to a combination of circumstances which left her struggling in poverty and having to reclaim her good name when left subject to the judicial system.

Currently earning her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling at Wright State University, today, the former Princeton Review professor is a licensed chemical dependency (LCDC II) counselor and serves as a poverty-alleviation training facilitator and speaker for Think Tank, Inc., a federal partner of the Corporation of National & Community Service (CNCS).

In case you missed it, please read Part I.

The following are Harper’s own words.

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“Mom, why would you tell him we were ghetto-rich?”

My 12-year-old was shocked and embarrassed that she found out we make way less money than her uncle, my brother. I have literally built my life up from ground-zero poverty twice in my life. I mean poverty in every area, except intellectual, and sometimes, that spoke of the wheel even felt broken due to the heavy amounts of mental health medications I had to take at the time.  

Together for a family of five, we make $24,000/year and that includes the $700 monthly social security check and the $5000 of cash odd jobs we do throughout the year.  Our credit is good, so we buy new cars, both of us, my husband and I. Our house is paid off, but on the borderline of being condemned, due to damage to the foundation and malfunctioning windows in the home. We don’t have to pay a mortgage — just $110/month for insurance and taxes.  We all have new cellphones, iPads, and computers in the home. We pay cash for braces for our 12-year-old.  

My husband’s family comes from deep generational poverty and thinks we are well off. It is only because I can navigate the resources and know every program that can give me a break or benefits to offer. We don’t pay for childcare, but we have to leave our precious baby — the most important thing in our life — with someone we met once and has mediocre childcare.

We don’t pay for gas for my car. Or food. Or medical expenses. We all have name brand wardrobes. But, we have no money for vacations. We live off our tax returns for high-price items throughout the year.

Poverty comes with a great deal of stress with having to have all your documents and receipts and proof of attendance all in a row, and at the right time, because having one thing off means a benefit is cut off — just like that. My children don’t have to be without, and they get mostly what they ask for. So, by some of our families’ standards, we have it all together.     

Poverty is relative. Middle-class values, work ethic, and organizational skills can make you successful in the navigation of the resources available to those of us in poverty who think ‘middle class’. But, the system is not set up for those with a generational poverty mindset. The appointment and documentation and organization and tricks of the trade are way too much for someone who lives only in the moment. It is too much to manage for someone who does not have transportation or has a crisis in his or her life. We have a system that sets some up to be ghetto-rich (if they have the knowledge to become so) and others to fail miserably, trying to survive.   

How do relationships play a part in this real-life story…my real-life story? An employer allowing flex-time for appointments, or letting me leave an hour early to go home to clean or grocery shop before I pick up my kids. Someone who is willing to pay a living wage that would allow me to let go of the social security check (which has personally become my security blanket, if you will). A family member who would do childcare for you; a member of the family who would help a lot with the cleaning and cooking. One person, one relationship, can lighten the load — it can really make the difference.

So, the system, it may stay the same, so the individual may stay the same, but the relational interaction of just one person can be a game-changer in very small ways or very large ways. A relationship can move a family from living ghetto rich to middle class.

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by Andrea Harper for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Andrea’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

Paralyzed in Poverty, Part I

This is the first chapter of the Rethink Community mini-series, Paralyzed In Poverty, an as-told-to narrative based directly on the account of Andrea Harper and her perspective on living life in poverty.


Hi, I’m Andrea, and this is my first-person account of how it feels to suffer from the effects of poverty, to learn to live in it, and to struggle to climb away from it.

Once upon a time, I was an educator, top-rated and vetted by my school district, my state, and even my country. Some bad decisions and other complex factors led me to becoming a felon and I had to rebuild my life, but not before entering into extreme poverty first.

This short narrative is what has been crossing my mind as I continue my journey out of poverty.

My mind races with the following thoughts.

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I got my LCDCII (licensed chemical dependency counselor) licensure in the mail today — a crossroads and pivotal moment is in front of me. This could be my way out of poverty.

Why am I even contemplating staying where I am?

Why am I paralyzed in poverty, I am seeing a possible way to financially get out of it?

How in the world do I get out of this?

Do I have the courage to look over the cliff? Is there a way out without hurting too bad?

I have been tenacious and determined to figure living in poverty out. I have used my intellectual gifts to navigate every resource. My experience with material poverty is situational.

(My situation today includes — recovery in addiction and mental illness, a bachelor’s degree in education that is of little value [because of my conviction] and every subsidy you can access as an under-resourced mother of three [medical, food stamps, housing, social security, the list goes on…].)

I was raised with strong middle-class value system around saving money, having work ethic, and paying bills on time. I believe in higher education.

Why won’t I let this social security check go? It’s like a stronghold. I have been traumatized by the effects of losing it all…of being thrashed into situational poverty from the effects of the disease of addiction.

I lost my career, my home, my vehicle, my retirement, and every cent to my name. I moved into a home that should have been condemned while living off of $350/month and buying money orders at the moto-mart to pay my utilities (along with buying two cartons of cigarettes to last me the month) — that was my monthly ritual. I have used resources in poverty to make my earning power be as if I am middle-class. “Ghetto rich”, I call it.

I have the experience and license and education now to go on to full-time employment without the check — but damn, it’s $700/month gone! And 20 more hours of work a week away from my home and my children to be at the same earning power that I am right now.

Is the system a trap? or am I trapped, by fear?

Why not take the risk?


Getting out of poverty is not always this glorious move with rainbows and flowers. The change process is scary. The system offers important resources, but can quickly become a crutch to getting ahead.

Sometimes the pain of a comfortable situation is easier to live with than the ambiguity of the future.

That’s the pain. That’s the truth about poverty.

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by Andrea Harper for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Andrea’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

From Divisions and Differences, Radical Alliances

I was a newly-elected legislator with hard-wired opinions about ‘the poor’. He was an advocate for them. We both were stepping into a highly-charged policy discussion about poverty: one of the most politicized topics in America, and the first impressions were not favorable. All the signals of ‘left-wing do-gooder’ were flashing in my head about him. But, he probably thought that about me — no, I am sure he did — ‘heartless, right-wing conservative’. This is how we do it, you know — with our first moments of sizing up and labeling.

But, as we spent more time with each other, sharing our life stories and the like, we discovered a common bond and purpose in our work. We both felt that ‘the Great American Safety Net’ was keeping and trapping people into poverty, not liberating them from it– and the human cost of it all was devastating to our communities. Despite our very public political and world view differences, an odd couple was born, and together we helped craft legislation directed at solving the problem. A tiny step from a public policy perspective but a giant leap for a guy who had closed his mind to new ideas that didn’t properly fit into his ideological box.. I found an alliance in the strangest of places. A radical alliance.

What do I mean by “radical alliance”? A radical alliance is, simply, a relationship that cuts across ideological, class, ethnic/racial, or even theological lines for mutual benefit. These types of relationships may be the secret to laying the foundation and principles that will lead to lasting transformation for our cities and communities. It is our contention that the formation, development, and cultivation of radical alliances is the last best hope in alleviating poverty in a divided America. Alliances such as these — whether between institutions, organizations, or individuals — are radical, because they push against the prevailing norms, fixed ideas and established structures.

They may be new friendships with people who are very different than you. Perhaps they have values, experiences, ethnicities, lifestyles, neighborhoods, or upbringings that differ from your own. It could be unsettling and awkward at first, sweeping you away from your protected comfort zone. Maybe even a little risky and provoke comments like ‘what would people think’ or even ‘Why am I wasting time with this person? This is beneath me. Or, ‘This doesn’t add to my career or reputation if I align with them.’

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By intentionally and purposefully forming these kind of alliances, we just may be able to create positive, meaningful, and lasting community change. When we unite in spite of our differences, we just may discover the deep and sometimes hidden ties that bind us together around a particular cause, a mission, or a community project. It’s not only radical, but profoundly counter-cultural in an American civic environment. It carves us all into dozens of identity/political interest groups that intentionally pit us against one another.

The stories and narratives we tell ourselves about those so-called others, about their neighborhoods or their cultures, ethnicities, or political affiliations, can all come crashing down on us when we enter into relationship and discover that we have so much more in common than those things that divide us. We have to resist that gravitational pull away from people different than us and insist that a new approach of seeing others can deliver a powerful, spiritual, and personal rebirth that delight us when discovered. These moments of revelation can be transcendent and definitive, and have greater potential to shake us to our core, because they disrupt what ‘ought to be’ in our minds or the way things have always been. They can surprise us in their intensity and power, and beget fresh and new understandings.

As it turned out, this new relationship in my life inspired legislation to be passed and enacted. A relatively modest positive step in the grand scheme of things, but the process was in place for new relationships and new learning in how to impact communities engulfed in poverty. The lasting truths, however, for me and my own spiritual journey have been profound, notwithstanding some painful and humbling self-reflection. It took someone from the other side of the aisle, as they say, to shake up some assumptions and value judgements. I am a richer man for it, and I just bet you, he as well.

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by John White — to learn more about John’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org