33 Remarkable Things Happening In The Food World That Will Make Your Day

By Stacy Basko

Need a break from what can feel like an endless supply of bad news? Here are 33 inspiring things happening in the food world, from refugee-run enterprises to restaurants that serve everyone, regardless of whether or not they can pay.

1. Anyone can enjoy South Indian specialties at Vimala’s Curryblossom Café whether they are able to pay or not. “Nobody turned away due to lack of money. Food is a human right,” reads the sign outside the restaurant in Chapel Hill, NC. “When Vimala cooks, everybody eats.”

2. The University of California at Irvine opened a food pantry that evolved into a wellness center. It’s now a model for colleges across the country that help food-insecure students stay in school.

3. Eat for Equity, Syria Supper Club, and Queer Soup Night throw dinner parties where like-minded folks come together to feast, fundraise, and maybe even dance a little. Each organization encourages generosity and creates community through the shared experience of a fabulous meal.  

4. Houston café A 2nd Cup provides coffee, lunch, and a place to combat slavery and human trafficking. Funds from each sale help raise public awareness and provide housing, tutoring, job training and more for survivors as they restart their lives.

5. Intending to bridge small farmers of color who lack market outlets with urban communities that lack access to healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate food, Phat Beets Produce strives for a more equitable food system in gentrifying Oakland, CA.

6. In Wisconsin, adults with disabilities find training for future employment at Café Hope along with opportunities to reach their full potential in society.

7. In New York City, League of Kitchens matches immigrants who teach cooking classes in their homes with students eager to learn about food from around the world. Lessons bring people together to cook, eat and share stories, with family recipes and shopping tips provided at the end.

8. Star chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen has served more than three million meals in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. And Queer Kitchen Brigade continues to can farm-fresh vegetables and send jars to the island.

9. For the last 30 years, homeless women have been able to live with their children at a shelter in Sacramento, CA, and obtain life and job skills working at Plates Café and Catering. The program has provided nearly 30,000 women and children with tools to overcome poverty and lead healthier, more self-sufficient lives.

10. Good Food Markets, a nonprofit grocery store that works in, and for, food-desert communities in Washington D.C., is opening a second location. Partnering with local growers, producers, and distributors allows the stores to bring quality products and fresh food to neighborhoods that need it.

11. Across the country, Restaurant Opportunities Center United pushes to improve food service wages and working conditions so that everyone in the industry can achieve financial independence and improve their quality of life.

12. With training, scholarships, and enrichment programs, C-CAP helps underserved high school students complete culinary school in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, and other US cities.

13. Meals at Café Momentum in Dallas, TX, are prepared and served by young men and women who earn wages and learn the trade as they complete a transformative 12-month  internship following incarceration.

14. In the face of attempted travel bans, refugee-run enterprises like Global Grace Café, Refugee Coffee, and Eat Offbeat offer employment for recent arrivals and a unique eating experience for diners.

15. Lunch shaming, the practice of humiliating students or denying them food when they can’t pay for it, has been banned in Pennsylvania and California while lawmakers in the state of Washington are considering similar legislation.

16. Greyston Bakery’s “open hiring” policy enables cooks with no education or experience to learn how to bake the brownies that make Ben & Jerry’s ice cream so delicious.

17. Baked goods from Homeboy Foods give formerly gang-involved men and women a new way to belong in Los Angeles, CA. Cooks work with case managers to set goals and devise a plan to obtain job skills or a high school diploma, or form a course of action following parole or probation.

18. Haley House, an interdisciplinary program that rounds out its food justice offerings with affordable housing, has been established in Boston for more than half a century. The agency’s overarching goal is to help those made vulnerable by the harshest effects of inequality move toward wholeness and economic independence.

19. Art, activism, storytelling, food, and community come together at People’s Kitchen Collective in Oakland, CA. Through international dinners, workshops, performances, speeches, installations and more, the collective not only fills stomachs, but nourishes souls and feeds minds, ultimately fueling a movement.

20. Drive Change operates food trucks with a social justice mission in New York City.  They impart transferable skills that broaden education and employment opportunities for young people coming home from adult jail and prison.

21. Komeeda’s Displaced Kitchen dinners allow recently resettled refugees a way to share their stories with fellow New Yorkers.  Diners discover flavors they may never have known and socialize with chefs whose passion shines beyond their food

22. Kids create and sell salads at Minnesota Twins games with Roots for the Home Team.  They attain culinary skills in the kitchen and sales skills working with the public. For many,  it’s their first paying job outside of their own community.

23. Edwin’s Restaurant prepares formerly incarcerated adults for the world of fine dining in Cleveland, OH, while FareStart’s training programs help cooks affected by joblessness, poverty and hunger thrive in the Seattle food scene

24. Self-sufficiency is the main goal at Work Options for Women in Denver, CO. The organization helps low-income women break the cycle of poverty by instilling skills, confidence and support that lead to economic independence.

25. Harlem Grown’s urban farms inspire healthy living by increasing access to, and knowledge of, fresh locally grown food. They also run a summer camp for kids in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood.

26. ALBA’s ‘Farmworker to Farmer’ program enables agricultural workers in Salinas, CA, to grow and sell organic crops of their own. With broader skills, farmworkers are able to advance into management positions and maybe one day acquire a farm of their own.

27. Youth who have trouble finding regular employment run an artisanal chocolate shop called Confections with Convictions in Kalamazoo, MI. Opened by a counselor who worked with young people in the court system turned chocolatier, the shop emphasizes fair wages and local, organic, or fair trade ingredients.

28. DC Central Kitchen (Washington D.C.), Liberty’s Kitchen (New Orleans, LA), and Root (Salem, MA) are interdisciplinary agencies that uplift young people through education, employment, mentoring, meals, and more.  At Liberty Kitchen, 16 to 24 year-old youth who are out of work or school attend a 16-week program where they attain life skills, culinary, and customer service training and professional development.

29. Across the country, food incubators like La Cocina, Hot Bread Kitchen, West Side Bazaar, and Comal Heritage Food Incubator help low-income food entrepreneurs realize their small business dreams.

30. A new online tool rates the risk for human rights abuses on fishing boats around the world, which helps businesses ethically manage seafood supply chains. “The Seafood Slavery Risk Tool” is run jointly by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, Liberty Asia, and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership.

31. Philadelphia Assembled Kitchen, a group of 12 culinary artists, cooks, and storytellers, creates recipes and pop-up meals around themes of survival, resistance, and victory.

32. In Rhode Island and Massachusetts, people with a critical illness find support and nutritious, culturally-appropriate meals through Community Servings. The organization  allows clients to maintain their health, dignity and family connections, while sending the message that someone cares.

33. At Jon Bon Jovi’s JBJ Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, NJ, an hour of kitchen work earns anyone a meal along with four family members. SAME Café in Denver, CO, has a similar policy.


Stacy Basko is a freelance writer and recipe developer with past lives in branding, marketing and non-profits. Her career has taken her into boardrooms, 4-star kitchens and state prisons. She writes in New Jersey, close enough, but not too far from New York City.

Cover photo courtesy of Work Options for Women in Denver, CO.

 Copyright © 500 Pens. March 2017.

How to Take Aim at Gun Violence

By Steve Tanner
Photo by David Moriya/Rogue Photo 

More than half of all Americans support stricter gun laws, according to a recent Pew Research report. Another recently conducted Pew survey found that supporters of stricter gun laws are less likely to contact elected officials than gun owners, which means there’s still plenty of work to be done. 

Simply stated, we are not powerless. In addition to calling your state and federal representatives, you can check out the following list of prominent gun control advocacy organizations and get involved.   

Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America

Moms Demand Action was founded by Shannon Watts, a concerned stay-at-home mother, in late 2012 in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Current campaigns include the following:

  • Educators Demand Action  a campaign opposing the gun lobby’s attempt at putting guns in schools and on college campuses
  • Pressure to implement background checks on all gun sales in Nevada
  • Opposition to the SHARE Act, a broad piece of federal legislation that would, among other provisions, legalize silencers, protect the use of lead ammunition by hunters, and open up more federal lands to hunting.
  • Opposition to the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, which would force all states to recognize concealed carry weapon permits from other states.

How to get involved:

Everytown for Gun Safety

Everytown was founded in 2014, combining Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action (see above) into a single organization. The group is co-chaired by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Current campaigns include the following (keep in mind that Everytown and Moms Demand Action work in concert with one another):

  • Pressure to implement universal background checks at the federal level
  • Phone drives to call federal Representatives and Senators about opposing the SHARE Act and Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act

How to get involved:

Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence 

First founded in 1974 as the National Council to Control Handguns, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence was renamed in 2001. James Brady, a cabinet member who was seriously injured during an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, led the organization from 1989 to 2012.

Current campaigns include the following:

How to get involved:

  • Call elected representatives, sign/organize petitions, volunteer at local Brady Campaign chapters
  • Donate to the Brady Center’s Legal Action Project

Violence Policy Center

Founded in 1988 by Newtown, Connecticut native Josh Sugarmann, the Violence Policy Center (VPC) employs research, education, advocacy, and collaboration with other organizations committed to curbing gun violence. 

The VPC suggests the five following ways concerned individuals can do to stop gun violence:

  1. Contact your federal and state lawmakers (directory at OpenStates.org and the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121) and voice your opposition to federal and state legislation that further erodes gun protections.
  2. Make a contribution to the Violence Policy Center. Or, create your own online fundraiser. Visit the Violence Policy Center’s pages on the crowdfunding sites Crowdrise and Razoo.
  3. Join a local gun violence prevention organization. Visit States United to Prevent Gun Violence, the national umbrella organization for state gun violence prevention organizations to find a group in your state.
  4. Write a letter to the editor in your local paper in support of gun violence prevention, or use social media. Visit the VPC’s Twitter feed or their Facebook page for tweets and postings detailing the facts about gun violence, as well as effective solutions.
  5. Host an evening of information and action to educate your friends and community about gun violence.

National Gun Victims Action Council

Elliot Fineman founded the National Gun Victims Action Council (NGVAC) in 2006 after his only son, Michael, was fatally shot by a mentally-ill man who, despite having been institutionalized twice, was legally able to buy the gun. One of the organization’s campaigns successfully convinced Starbucks to change its gun policy.

Current campaigns and initiatives include the following:

  • Sign a petition urging the President to declare the gun violence epidemic a National State of Emergency.
  • Check out the NGVAC’s Corporate Hypocrite of the Month and take appropriate action (boycotts, protests, letters, etc.).
  • Sign the Tell and Compel Pledge, which tells legislators you want strong, sane gun laws and pledge to withhold all financial support from corporations and states that do not support these protections.
  • Sign up to receive email updates from NGVAC.
  • Make a donation.

Remember, those who want saner gun protections such as universal background checks and bans on certain types of weapons are in the majority. Let’s use our voices accordingly.


Steve Tanner worked as a journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 10 years, covering technology, business, and the culture of Silicon Valley, before pursuing a paralegal certification. He currently writes about the law for FindLaw.com and lives with his family in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Photo of protesters outside of NRA headquarters in July 2017 by David Moriya of Rogue Photo.  

Copyright © 500 Pens.


‘Riding Up Front’ Drives Home The Immigrant Experience Through Art

By Poornima Apte

A person she respected once told Wei-En Tan that she did not have enough emotional intelligence. Although it stung, she might not have given the comment much thought if her grandmother hadn’t passed away shortly after. Tan, a native of Singapore, admitted that she had not known her grandmother well. “I never really found out what her story was,” she said.

As a busy finance professional, her travel schedule forced her to hail rides wherever she went. Tan soon made it a mission to ride up front to talk to her drivers and strike a connection. The results floored her. “I have learned a lot and met the most interesting people in the process,” she said.

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A portrait of Wei-En Tan, used by permission from “Riding Up Front.”

Over time, Tan started documenting the stories on a personal blog. One of her friends suggested she get them illustrated, which she did. “Riding Up Front” was officially up and running. Then the 2016 presidential election happened, and things accelerated. Taken aback by the anti-immigrant rhetoric and hate that preceded the election and stunned by the Muslim ban that was declared shortly after President Trump took office, Tan realized she had to do something more. “Riding Up Front” was the perfect vehicle to channel her voice — and that of thousands of others who felt powerless in the wake of crippling hatred. Today, the nonprofit “Riding Up Front,” run by a team of twelve, receives a steady stream of submissions and shines a light on the immigrant perspective.

Each story on “Riding Up Front” narrates a rider’s interactions with his or her driver. Since one of the missions of “Riding Up Front” is to promote awareness of immigrant and refugee rights, submissions must have an immigrant tilt to them. Story writers are not compensated for their work, and a roster of volunteer artists illustrates each submission. Artists get to pick from a set of stories they would like to work on and are reimbursed for the purchase of art materials from Tan and her team.

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by Paula Vrinceanu for “Riding Up Front.”

The public can donate to the blog which is used to maintain the site; and money left over is channeled to the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Immigration Council and the International Rescue Committee.

Does Tan worry that the people who access the blog might already be open to its message, a case of preaching to the choir as it were? She does see that to be a problem but judging from the thousands of times they have been trolled, Tan is quite sure their message is reaching far and wide. The team doesn’t engage with virulent commenters but if somebody is looking to strike a meaningful dialogue, they’re certainly game.

One of the other mission statements of “Riding Up Front” is to create a community through stories and artwork. Here too they have succeeded, Tan said. She still remembers returning home to San Diego after a daylong work trip to San Francisco and complaining about a long, taxing trip. Tired and miserable, she got picked up from the airport by a Jamaican woman who was full of spirit. The driver, who had awoken at 3:00 a.m. that morning, had worked in the military and held down a side job.

By Alexandra Burda for “Riding Up Front.”

“She has a daughter and goes back to cook every day because she doesn’t trust her husband’s cooking. And she would return and drive and then go back to sleep at 1:00 a.m. And she was so full of positive energy that I just felt kind of ashamed complaining about my job,” Tan said. “That attitude of hers — to look at life so much more positively and to be happy about the things you can’t control, it really hit me.”

“Immigrants are humans, we all have the same struggles and we share the same joys,” Tan said. And “Riding Up Front” is eager to drive that message home far and wide.


Poornima Apte is an award-winning freelance writer and editor. Learn more at wordcumulus.com.

Cover art by Iris Hopp for “Riding Up Front.”

Copyright © 500 Pens. December 2017.

Community Rallies After Arsonist Hits Texas Mosque

By Rebecca Steinitz

In the early morning hours of Saturday, January 28, 2017, fire destroyed the Victoria Islamic Center, a gold-domed mosque that was home to a thriving congregation of 150 members in Victoria, Texas. The flames erupted just hours after President Trump issued the executive order commonly known as “the Muslim ban,” which barred citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. Although Victoria officials and community members cautioned against drawing conclusions about its cause, news of the fire spread quickly, generating a remarkable local and global response.

By the end of the day, four churches and the local synagogue had offered their sanctuaries to the displaced congregation. The architect who designed the mosque volunteered his services for the rebuilding effort, and individuals offered a handmade prayer rug and a truck to haul dirt. The next morning, an estimated 400 people showed up to an interfaith prayer service held in front of the Center’s blackened remains, where representatives of the mosque, the synagogue and local churches spoke.

photos of mosque on fire II
Fire destroyed the mosque on January 28, 2017. Photo courtesy of Victoria Islamic Center.

At the end of the service, a letter was read from retired pastor Bill Hassel, who can no longer speak due to ALS. It concluded, “We need you, we love you and we respect who you are and what you represent. Please call on us for whatever you need.”

Though Hassel wrote the letter on behalf of the local interfaith group Communities of Faith, he could have been representing the tens of thousands of people worldwide who were already heeding the call to meet the mosque’s needs. On the day of the fire, the Victoria Islamic Center launched a GoFundMe campaign that went viral almost immediately, raising over $300,000 by midafternoon. The campaign was shared 103,000 times on Facebook and stopped accepting donations within a week, after raising 1.2 million dollars from more than 23,000 donors in 90 countries. Stories about its success were reported everywhere from the New York Times and Fox News to England, India, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Few were surprised when the fire was ruled arson on February 8. And on March 3, a local suspect was identified and arrested on unrelated charges. Although he has not been charged as of this writing, investigators revealed that he was in possession of items stolen from the mosque and has made anti-Muslim comments and social media posts.

Since the 2015 attacks in Paris, France and San Bernardino, California, there has been a notable rise in threats and violence aimed at American mosques, with over 60 incidents so far in 2016 and 2017. Yet none of those events received the same degree of attention. Why was the Victoria Islamic Center such a flashpoint? And why was Victoria the epicenter for such support?

For one thing, there was the timing. Victoria Islamic Center member and spokesperson Omar Rachid pegged the passionate response directly to Trump’s executive order. “People were already outraged by the ban,” he said. “Subsequently, a few hours later, when the mosque burned down, people were outraged because it was un-American. Almost every single donation came with a comment of support saying this is not the America we know, we value you, you are welcome to whatever worship you want.”

The religion writer for the Victoria Advocate, Jennifer Preyss, also identified a larger political and social impetus. “It was the polarizing volatility of the election season,” she said. “It’s this movement that’s happening in little pockets of America. People are tired of fighting. They want community. People want to be the person that chooses to go over and smile at their unfamiliar neighbor, rather than pointing at them because they practice a different faith.”

And then there is Victoria itself. Aptly nicknamed the “Crossroads of South Texas,” Victoria is approximately equidistant from Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi. It has just over 60,000 residents, nearly 100 churches, four McDonald’s, two hospitals and a farmers market. Victoria’s residents are mostly white and Hispanic, in almost equal numbers, with a small black population and an even smaller representation of other groups; 6.5% were not born in the United States. In the fall of 2016, 68.5% of Victoria voters supported Trump, 28.5% went for Clinton, and the Victoria East High School football team made it to the fourth round of its division playoffs. In short, Victoria is an ordinary American small city, Texas-style.

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Victoria Islamic Center congregants in their temporary space. Photo by Adriana Monsalve.

But a closer look reveals Victoria’s pride in being friendly and neighborly, a “tolerating community,” as Hassel put it. As a small city, “we’re all in this together,” said Robert Loeb, president of Temple B’Nai Israel, the synagogue in Victoria that offered mosque members the use of its sanctuary.  

Loeb said he has always felt welcome in Victoria, which has had a small (and now dwindling) Jewish community since the middle of the nineteenth century. He, in turn, has welcomed the Muslim community, which has been growing since the first arrivals about three decades ago. Loeb recalled, “It took me a nanosecond to know that [offering the sanctuary] was the right thing to do. Here’s 150 Muslims in town and only about 25 Jews. We’ve got a beautiful temple that we use four times a year. These people pray five times a day. It just made sense.”

Rachid agrees with his friend Loeb. “The community is very tolerant, people are extremely nice,” he said. “It’s a melting pot on its own; we have never felt a sense of discrimination or concern about us being Muslims.” Rachid himself has chaired the Victoria United Way and Chamber of Commerce and ran for mayor a few years ago, losing by fewer than 200 votes.

One more notable point about Victoria is that its religious leaders were already meeting regularly. After the police shootings in Dallas last summer, Hassel invited local religious leaders to join him in forming Communities of Faith because he wanted to be prepared if a similar event happened in Victoria. Although Hassel noted that some pastors declined to participate because they disagreed with the group’s mission or felt their congregations would not support it, ultimately twenty-eight leaders responded to his call. Communities of Faith now meets monthly.

Little did we know that this burning of the mosque would happen,” Hassel said, reflecting on the group’s role. “However, when it did, we already had in place a group of religious leaders that stood together against violence, hate and actions of intolerance. When the fire happened we were the first to lend our love, support, prayers and community action to help.”

A toddler held by his grandmother. Photo by Adriana Monsalve.

Today, the Victoria Islamic Center is moving forward. The mosque site is now a smooth patch of dirt ready for construction. The gold dome was removed from the ruins and will be restored to the roof of the new mosque, whose plans have already been drawn up. And since the GoFundMe ended, the Islamic Center has received over $300,000 in individual donations, as well as countless expressions of support in person, through the mail and on social media.

“On the day of the fire, I cried because when someone burns your house of worship, it’s like giving you an eviction notice from the community,” said Rachid. “The tears that day were tears of sadness. But the tears the next day were tears of joy, of the comfort we have experienced. The people wanted to send a message of solidarity, a message of love. They did not want bigotry and discrimination to win.”

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Story: Rebecca Steinitz is a writer, editor and literacy consultant in Boston. 

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Photos: Adriana Monsalve is an in-depth story teller whose documentary work is found at the intersections of identity and race.  She is the Master Artist Grant winner of the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC).  For the time being, she is located on the border of US/Mex in Laredo, TX.  She is documenting the many layers and nuances of the immigrant story.  She serves as an adjunct professor of photojournalism at Texas A&M International University.


Copyright © 500 Pens. May 2017.

His Murder Changed One Maine City Forever

By Sarah Cottrell

“May we, the citizens of Bangor, continue to change the world around us until hatred becomes peacemaking and ignorance becomes understanding,” reads the memorial stone for Charles O. Howard that sits in a small garden beside the State Street Bridge in Bangor, Maine. “Charlie Howard, an openly gay man, died here at the hands of hatred and ignorance on July 7, 1984.”

Howard was 23 years old when he was murdered. He was out walking with a companion downtown when a car stopped and three teenagers got out. They called Howard an anti-gay slur, chased him down and beat him. Then, they picked him up and launched him over the railing of the State Street Bridge. The teenagers took off, and Howard, who had asthma and couldn’t swim, drowned.


After the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, novelist Alexander Chee, who grew up in Maine, wrote in the New Republic, “The first story I ever heard in the news about a gay man was about the murder, in 1984, of Charlie Howard, who was thrown by his attackers from a bridge to his death. A certain violence has always followed me since coming out, whether I was in a bar where someone threw an M-80 at the door, or attacked in the street — it follows us all.”

Local newspaper stories about the death of Howard. Photo courtesy of Bangor Daily News.

The story of Howard is not only the story of a young man robbed of his life through violence and discrimination. It is also the story of how one community — and ultimately a state — was forced to examine its prejudices and create change.

After more than thirty years of self-reflection, the city of Bangor and the state of Maine have come a long way since the tragedy on that summer night, according to a number of residents, community leaders and activists. Many trace the roots of significant societal and cultural changes, in part, to the Howard murder. This includes a 2005 amendment to the Maine Human Rights Act that protected people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

One of the state’s most famous residents, the author Stephen King, wrote a reflection on the murder for a Bangor Daily News special project in 2014. “I think the death of Charlie Howard shocked people in the Bangor area out of their complacency about matters of sexual preference and prejudice. I know it did me,” he wrote. “In the aftermath of this inoffensive young man’s death, the community underwent a period of self-examination that hasn’t ended to this day.”

Judy Harrison has written extensively for the Bangor Daily News about Howard’s death and the annual services held in his memory by the Unitarian Universalist Church. The actions surrounding Howard’s death “sparked a lot of activism and a lot of grassroots organizations that got started to lobby for changes in the laws,” said Harrison.

A sign shown during Bangor Pride in 2016. Photo courtesy of Bangor Daily News.

Matt Moonen is the executive director of one of the most prominent of those organizations, EqualityMaine. “Following the death of Charlie Howard in 1984, LGBT Mainers felt the urgency to get organized and take action to make change, which led to the founding of the Maine Lesbian Gay Political Alliance (MLGPA), which later became EqualityMaine,” he said.

His organization, which is based in Portland, has been involved in education and advocacy work on behalf of the LGBT community for the past 25 years and gaining voter support has been an essential practice for them. “Many states advanced legal protections for their LGBT citizens through their legislature, their court system or both. Here in Maine, our most significant advances in legal equality were approved by the voters,” he said. “That makes us unique because our legal protections are less vulnerable to the whims of whoever gets elected because our elected officials know where Maine voters stand on these issues.”

Former Governor John Baldacci knows about the power that lies with voters well. He signed a bill in 2009 that would have made Maine the second state in the country, after Vermont, to give same-sex couples the legal right to marry. “Charlie Howard’s death was a seminal moment in people’s consciousness in how they viewed and treated gay people. The way he died was tragic and sad, and it caused people on a personal level to reconsider how they treated each other,” he said.

The crosswalk painted for Bangor Pride Week in 2016. Photo courtesy of Bangor Daily News.

Maine voters overturned the law months later in a statewide referendum. But on November 6, 2012, another election took place. Its outcome was a milestone not only for Maine, but for the world: Maine became one of the first three states in the country — along with Maryland and Washington — to allow same-sex marriage by popular vote.


Each year, residents of Bangor gather to celebrate the life of Howard as part of the Bangor Pride Parade, which marches along State Street. There is also an annual memorial service held at the Unitarian Universalist Church. The memorial concludes at the Kenduskeag Stream, where flowers are dropped in Howard’s memory. And, last year, prior to the kickoff of Pride Week, city officials painted rainbow colors across the crosswalk near the bridge over which Howard was thrown to his death.

The Pride events attract Mainers from every corner of the state to celebrate the LGBT community and include the support of the city council and police department. This is a big change since the days when LGBT were too afraid to be “out” in public, explained 61-year-old Greg Music, an organizer of Pride Week.

Participants during the Bangor Pride Parade in 2016. Photo courtesy of the Bangor Daily News.

“At [Bangor Pride Parade] they have the freedom to not only be open but to openly celebrate the way they are made. That is life changing,” said Music. “In my lifetime being homosexual and acting upon it was illegal and would earn me a diagnosis of a mental illness. It’s not that long ago in the working memory of many of us.”

“The way we treat any group is a reflection of the safety and goodness of our community. It goes right to the heart of the word ‘community,’ to commune, to live together in harmony. Some recent research in the percentage of people who identify as LGBTQ shows astounding changes. In my generation, only 3 to 5 percent of the population claimed to be LGBTQ. Among millennials the numbers are much higher, around an astonishing 20 percent. This is not because more people are actually LGBTQ than before. It is because more young people feel safe and confident enough to admit to a wider range of emotions and experience than ever,” he said.


In 2011, the area around the monument for Charlie Howard was vandalized. The response — including a rededication ceremony for the memorial — was swift. But the action, of course, proves that hatred by an unknown number persists.

More recently, there has been an effort on the part of the group Maine Resistance (which has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center) to put a measure on the November 2017 ballot to remove the words “sexual orientation” from the Maine Human Rights Act. The proposal has been condemned by LGBT advocacy groups. And it reminds those who seek equality for members of the LGBT community that the fight isn’t over.

“To say that all medical, educational, vocational, recreational and spiritual places are safe spaces where LGBTQ people are treated with dignity, safety and equal opportunity would be untrue,” Music said. “We can only change ourselves; but, in doing so, change in our environment is made. That is why we should all care.”

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Sarah Cottrell is a Maine-based writer and the voice behind Housewife Plus at the Bangor Daily News. She is also a regular contributor to Scary Mommy, Disney’s Babble and Momtastic.

All photos courtesy of the Bangor Daily News. In 2014, the Bangor Daily News published a special report on the murder of Charlie Howard and its effect on Maine. You can read it here.

Copyright © 500 Pens. May 2017.

Cincinnati Suburb Unites Around Neighbor Accused Of Terrorist Ties

By Anjali Enjeti

One day this past January, upon returning to her home in Mason, Ohio, a quiet suburb 25 miles northeast of Cincinnati, Rawd Saleh learned that fliers accusing her of having a terrorist connection had been distributed to her neighbors.

One side of the flier contained images of Saleh and her home. It listed her first and last name and her address. A Google map image pinpointed the exact location of her residence.

Neighborhood terrorist warning, it began. We have someone linked to terrorism living in our neighborhood.

On the back of the flier was a copy of a 2003 Cincinnati Enquirer article which stated that Saleh’s father, Omran Saleh, may have funded terrorist bank accounts in the Middle East. Though a Hamilton County judge later cleared him of any terrorist connections, he was eventually sent to jail for one year for defrauding the state of tax funds. “That was an awful time,” said Saleh. “The worse thing we’d ever been through.”  

Saleh was stunned that someone could be so cruel as to dig up her father’s 15-year-old false accusation, attack Saleh for having links to terrorism herself and paper the neighborhood with a lie.

“I am busy with life, home and work,” she said. “I’m not out there to hurt or offend anyone. I do what I can to help others. I couldn’t believe someone could do something like that.”

She was scared for her safety and angry that someone could put her or her children — ages 21, 15 and 12 — in harm’s way. For weeks afterward, she found it difficult to sleep at night and would often look outside her window if she heard a noise to make sure the perpetrator hadn’t returned.

“I don’t know who was out there thinking I’m evil or anti-American — what process they go through before they commit a hate crime. I was shocked someone could go through all the trouble to do this to me.”

Saleh, who is Muslim, moved to Mason in 2014 with her three children. The town of 30,000 is made up of approximately 17 percent racial minorities. And some 25,000 to 30,000 Muslims live in the greater Cincinnati area. Saleh, who was born in Jerusalem to a Palestinian father and a Turkish mother and immigrated to the United States when she was 6 years old, had come to love the “diversity and welcoming feel” of her community.

Saleh’s neighbors demonstrated an immediate “outpouring of support.” Saleh was sent letters that condemned the flier and offered phone numbers in case she ever needed help. Nearby neighbors redirected the lenses of their security cameras away from their own homes toward hers so they could catch the perpetrator if he or she decided to return. “It was heartwarming and reassuring,” Saleh said. 

Saleh Rally 5
A Mason, Ohio rally in support of Rawd Saleh. Photo by Lori Pike.

The flier was posted to a neighborhood Facebook group, where Sarah Martin, a Mason resident, first saw it. “I was outraged,” said Martin. “I wasn’t sure what to do at that point, but I knew I needed to take action.”

Martin redacted Saleh’s personal information and re-posted the flier to her own Facebook page. Cyndi Ritter, a Cincinnati native and former co-worker of Martin’s, saw it and left a comment. The two friends discussed the need to take action.

Ritter reached out to Saleh on Facebook and asked if she wanted to meet with Ritter and Martin for coffee to discuss the flier. Saleh agreed. Martin explained, “I wanted Rawd to know that even though she had never met me before, she has a safe and supportive person on her side if and when she needed me.”

At the meeting a few days later, Ritter and Martin made it clear that though they wanted to help Saleh, they didn’t want to overstep their bounds. If Saleh wanted to walk away and forget what happened, that was fine. “I didn’t want to do anything Rawd was not comfortable with,” said Ritter.

At first, Saleh was hesitant to go further. “But then I started thinking that so many people must be going through something like this. We’re an all-American Muslim family, but someone else didn’t think so.” Saleh decided that the best way to respond to the flier was with a rally.

Ritter took the next step of securing the Mason Community Center for a rally on January 29th and created an event on Facebook entitled, “Calling All Activists: A Rally to Promote Inclusion, Peace and Solidarity of our Muslim Brothers and Sisters.”

Ritter, Martin and Saleh were astounded by the turnout, especially since they’d planned the event only three days earlier, one week after the flier was distributed to Saleh’s neighborhood. “We hoped to get 50 people at the rally,” said Ritter. Instead, an estimated 300 people turned out.

Residents of the Cincinnati metro area assembled alongside Mason-Montgomery Road, a busy thoroughfare, with signs calling for solidarity and tolerance. “We wanted to show that we were not going to tolerate that kind of behavior in our community,” Ritter said.

Ritter had no prior experience organizing. “I’m not a professional,” she said. “This rally was the first thing I’ve ever planned.” But she had attended the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. the day after the Inauguration and felt inspired. “The March is what gave me the courage and ability to stand up and make an impact.”

To date, the identity of Saleh’s perpetrator is still unknown. And at times, Saleh feels nervous about what could happen to her in the future.

“If I’m walking in the neighborhood and say ‘hi’ to someone, I wonder if this could be the person that did this to me,” she said. “Do I let my guard down? What if I let my guard down and then something happens?”

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Hundreds gathered in support of Rawd Saleh. Photo by Lori Pike.

There’s a world of difference between the community’s reaction to her father’s false accusation in 2003, said Saleh, and the community’s reaction to the flier in January of this year. “In 2003, people cut ties with us. One of the boys in our Cincinnati neighborhood called my oldest son, who was then only 6 or 7 years old, a terrorist,” she said.

This time, the community rallied around her and her family. Saleh feels “really blessed” to live in a diverse city like Mason.

“There are so many things going on in the world that make you feel alone. There are mean, hateful people,” said Saleh. “But the ones who are kind outnumber them.”

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Anjali Enjeti’s articles, essays and criticism have appeared in Longreads, Vice, NPR, Quartz, NBC, the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and elsewhere. She’s a board member of the National Book Critics Circle and can be found on Twitter: @anjalienjeti

Photos by Lori Pike.kate-barsotti-pen-bw257

Copyright © 500 Pens. May 2017.