“Guests on This Land: a pacific northwest tu bishvat” connects Tu Bishvat traditions to Indigenous knowledge of the lands we live on. We examine four foods to use in your Tu Bishvat seder, as well as sharing supplemental essays on Jewish history in the Pacific Northwest and Jewish senses of ‘hereness’.
Want to know what media I especially enjoyed or learned a lot from in 2022? I’ve made a list! I’ve been making similar lists for the past several years, of course, but this year I’ve added a poetry section.
Please note that while I read and watched these pieces in 2022, not all these works were published last year. I’m slow and get around to things in my own time.
This heartrendingly hopeful story about transitioning gender actually came out in 2021, but I only discovered it as part of my reading up on Hugo nominees earlier this year. It’s a fast read, structured as a Twitter thread. When I first read this short story, it felt ephemeral — like something blowing past me that I just happened to catch. But rereading it feels especially ephemeral, given Twitter’s apparent lurching towards an end. (In the event the Twitter link stops working, the story is mirrored at GenderDysphoria.FYI.)
Content notes: stylized violence (including some blood), immigration, tax audits, coming out
Probably my favorite film of the last year (if not longer), Everything Everywhere All At Once has gotten major accolades from a huge variety of sources. It’s brilliant on so many levels: casting, costuming, setting, storyline, everything I can list. It’s tough to explain the plot of the movie, because the name accurately describes the scope of the story. More importantly, though, I have long said that Michelle Yeoh should get to play everyone in every movie ever. This isn’t the way I expected to get that wish, but I got to see her in a Wong Kar-wai-esque role, in an absurdist comedy, and in a queer-child-of-immigrants-coming-to-terms-with-their-family film, all in one go, and it makes me so happy.
If you’ve some how managed to not watch Everything Everywhere All At Once yet, I strongly encourage you to make the time.
Content notes: the Irish troubles, sectarian violence, alcohol use, bullying
I found this television show to be one of the most accessible texts on the Irish Troubles and the peace process in the 1990s I’ve seen. I’m not an expert on the topic, but I’ve studied the Irish Troubles quite a bit from personal interest, so please consider my recommendation in that context. It’s extremely emotional, but also riotously funny to balance out the tough topics. Derry Girls follows five teenagers growing up in Derry, Northern Ireland. They’re hilarious, but my favorite character is Sister George Michael, the principal of the school the main characters attend. Trust me, you’ll love Sister George Michael too.
Content notes: exhaustion I read this story by Iori Kusano after reading their story, Have Mercy, My Love, While We Wait for the Thaw, which is also good — it just didn’t hit me the way Next Station, Shibuya did. Next Station, Shibuya came out in 2017, although I missed it originally. The story explores the meaning of place and individuals’ connections to cities and other places, flavoring these ideas with poetry. The result is a beautiful ride on a Japanese train.
Content notes: obsessive behavior, isolation, mentions of the COVID-19 pandemic
I’ve read this story several times. After each reading, I felt haunted, but maybe in a good way. The protagonist will feel familiar to just about anyone who has spent a lot of time on social media, and will leave you thinking about how relationships can be performed, as well as where the boundaries of parasocial relationships may be.
Content notes: death, violence, body horror, disordered eating, memory loss
I am obsessed with the Locked Tomb series and the latest addition to the series, Nona the Ninth, has only increased my feelings for these books. I feel like I’m always rereading them, and I find new details each time. Each of the books is dramatically different, yet in ways that build upon each other. Nona is nothing like what I expected or hoped for. It’s better, but I don’t know where Muir could have pulled it out of. There’s even a dog! I’m waiting impatiently for the fourth book in the series to come out this fall.
Brivele’s music crosses from punk to klezmer and back again, mostly in Yiddish and often with a political bent. You don’t need to speak Yiddish to enjoy their music, though — they’ll get you moving either way. This latest EP includes their version of “Bella Ciao,” which may be my favorite version of the song to date.
Content notes: violence against Palestinians, death of a child, imprisonment
Tbakhi turns the process of writing this poem into a visceral experience of the violence faced by Palestinians. For all the pain the poet surfaces, though, there’s a vital delicacy and tenderness to this poem. It’s a difficult read, but one I encourage you to sit with.
Originally published in 2019, Choi’s poem evokes the many apocalypses we face each day, taking both the reader and those apocalypses back to their roots. As I read this poem, I felt like Choi captured the inside of my mind — anxiety chasing after so many different problems, an intensity that put me in the eye of a storm of apocalypses. Choi released a new book of poetry in late 2022 by the same name as this poem — it’s on my reading list but I haven’t gotten to it yet.
This article looks at the relationship between therapy and religion, focused on Judaism, but also with some forays into Zen Buddhism. Baer addresses what it takes to mainstream a therapeutic practice — from making that practice ‘evidence-based’ to removing community aspects. Of course, this requires discussing Sigmund Freud. Freud’s work was initially seen as divorced from his Judaism, but recent scholarship has found new connections, which Baer explores. The piece gave me tons of thoughts about the future of mental healthcare.
Our approach to AI mirrors discourse on race, ability, and even slavery — and speculative fiction so far supports it at every step. Jay Edidin wrote this piece on neurodivergence and artificial intelligence in 2021, laying out an alternative. It’s just for speculative fiction for now, but it could inform all those machine learning ethical questions that Silicon Valley keeps punting, provided the article makes its way in front of more programmers. I want to highlight one quote, which I keep turning over in my head.
The Turing Test isn’t a test of consciousness. It’s a test of passing skill, of the ability of a conscious entity to quash itself for long enough to show examiners what they want to see. This is the bar humans set for minds we create: we will acknowledge them only for what we recognize of ourselves in them. Our respect depends not on what they are or claim to be, but on their ability and volition to pass as what they are not.
Content notes: ableism, mentions of the COVID-19 pandemic, descriptions of medical care
In this essay, Micaela Bombard uses the problems with academic accommodations as a framework for a poetic examination of chronic disability. Prior to the pandemic, Bombard didn’t consider herself disabled. But the medication that controls some of the symptoms of Bombard’s condition also turned out to be useful at reducing certain COVID symptoms. That caused a shortage, which then left Bombard unable to handle work she’d managed previously and in need of accommodations. Getting accommodations, of course, sucks. But Bombard is a poet and each line of her piece drips into your mind like the slow drip of an IV. Due to that poetry and pacing, this isn’t just another essay about the personal impact of disability.
After the stabbing of Salman Rushdie last fall, Elamin Abdelmahmoud wrote this piece where he examined his own past and beliefs about Rushdie. Ruhollah Khomeini issued the initial fatwa against Rushdie around the time of Abdelmahmoud’s birth. Today, Abdelmahmoud still flinches when seeing Rushdie’s books in stores, even though he knows better. He also digs into the contradictions that have developed throughout Rushdie’s career, including how the fatwa pushed Rushdie to embrace politics counter to those shown in his early writing.
Ursula K. Le Guin wrote this piece in 1986, which makes it the oldest item on this list. How did I miss it when it came out originally? Well, I hadn’t learned to read in 1986. Le Guin starts with ‘the carrier bag theory of human evolution,’ which says that containers (bottles, bags, etc.) are crucial to humanity’s evolution. At the most basic level, you can’t collect or store food without a container. You can only eat that food immediately. That’s not the story humanity tells of our origins, but it’s a valuable perspective. Le Guin draws the line from this theory to fiction-writing, proposing that:
“I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.”
It’s a very different approach to writing than you usually hear about. It’s a framework for the type of speculative fiction Le Guin wrote, which can feel more relatable than those focused more on discussions of heroic technologies.
A last note
Just a head’s up: I’ve included links to Bookshop that will pay me a (very) small affiliate commission if you click through and make a purchase. However, I’d recommend any of these reads even without affiliate commissions — if you borrow books from the library or acquire them through other non-purchasing methods, I think that’s awesome.
I’ll have my usual assortment of Jewish zines, with a few political zines mixed in because I can’t help myself. I’ve got a new project in progress, with the amazing Meli of Weird Jewish Digest. The new project won’t be available at this market, but you can probably get me to talk about it if you swing by.
I tabled at the Portland Zine Symposium earlier this month. The event went well, and also provided me with an excuse to update several of my zines. They’re listed below, as well as a two new zine I’ve made recently. One is based on an article I wrote a few years ago about unreinforced masonry buildings in Portland and the other is a version of the mini-zine I made for the PDX Jewish Zine Fest popup I hosted in August.
While I published Towards a New Tu B’Shvat less than a year ago, I’ve found a few errors since then. I also wanted to tweak the information architecture a bit. So I cleaned up those typos and made some changes to the design. I’ve updated the files available here (which includes a PDF for printing, a PDF for screens, and an EPUB).
My set of eight Hanukkah zines needed updating even more, given that I wrote them in 2018. Hanukkah at the White House has the most changes, because the White House has hosted several Hanukkah parties in the past four years. I’ve updated the files available here.
A few years ago, I wrote an article about unreinforced masonry buildings here in Portland, Oregon. That might sound like an extremely niche topic, but URM buildings are a major risk factor for earthquakes — folks living and working in these buildings face higher risks. In the time since I wrote my original article, the City of Portland has actually managed to go from doing as little as possible to doing absolutely nothing about these buildings. I updated material from my original article to create this zine.
This zine covers the risks, how to recognize URM buildings, and what we can do about them. This new zine is available to download and share in multiple formats, and if you live or work in a URM building, you have my blessing to run off copies for everyone in your building. Laundry rooms are a great place to leave reading material for your neighbors.
I enjoy making zines. I especially enjoy making zines about Jewish topics. When I saw that the Jewish Zine Archive was planning to hold a Jewish Zine Fest, I obviously got excited. I got so excited, in fact, that I signed up to host a pop-up event in Portland.
Since this event is my first time hosting an in-person event since the beginning of the pandemic, I figured I’d write up my experiences, along with what I’d do differently if I were immediately running another similar event.
I signed up to host a little late, on July 12. As a result, I had 30 days to get everything set up. As a result, I wanted to keep things as simple as possible: I figured just getting a chance to hang out, share zines, and maybe make a few new zines would be both fun and manageable, provided I could get the right location.
Books with Pictures, at 1401 SE Division Street, was my first choice. The store is one of my favorite places in Portland, not just one of my favorite comic shops. As it happens, the Eisner Awards agree with me and named Books with Pictures the best comic shop in the world while I was prepping for this event.
As far as event planning goes, Books with Pictures has a lot going for it:
an inclusive vibe that makes most people feel comfortable
good COVID-19 safety practices, including requiring masks within the shop
an outdoor garden space, along with a food cart pod and eating area
a space I’ve already seen folks navigate with a variety of mobility devices
Books with Pictures also stocks zines, so I figured the location would be a good opportunity for zine makers to connect with a stockist, if that was something any attendees wanted to do. People could also pick up more zines without anyone needing to schlep along a bunch of projects. Luckily, the garden was available for this event!
I received a few comments from attendees on the decision to use a space that isn’t explicitly Jewish (like a synagogue or a Jewish community center). The comments were positive and I think they are emblematic of a larger discussion of changes happening within Judaism right now. We need more great Jewish events and spaces that are outside of institutional Judaism.
I already had Books in Pictures in mind when I agreed to organize a pop-up, in part because I personally value being Jewish outside of buildings set aside for that purpose. I also chose Books with Pictures because I wanted a space that not only has an existing connection to zine communities, but also because zines are about accessibility and often appeal to communities that have been othered. Books with Pictures’ whole shtick is creating inviting spaces for folks who have been othered by the standing comics community.
I was also aware from the get-go that some of the discussions I hoped to have at the pop-up wouldn’t be the best fit for most of the Jewish institutions around Portland. Like many other Jewish institutions, a lot of Portland’s synagogues and other Jewish organizations are committed to Israel and Zionism. Even mentioning Israeli nationalism or oppression of Palestinians is off the table in those sorts of spaces. That’s a problem, especially for me since some of my own Jewish zines focus on dismantling nationalism. So I wanted a space that allowed for discussions that just wouldn’t happen in more official Jewish spaces.
I prioritize making events as accessible as possible. For this event, my biggest concerns were
ensuring COVID-safety for attendees who are high risk, including immunocompromised folks
keeping the costs of attending as low as possible
guaranteeing access for folks using mobility aids, because outdoor spaces can be harder to navigate
Of course, providing access in one way can limit other kinds of accessibility. I know that there are probably people who didn’t feel they could participate in an outside event — there’s no way to control factors ranging from outside allergens to high levels of sensory input. However, I feel that focusing on the aspects of access listed above ensured as many people as possible would be comfortable at the event.
I described access efforts in the event landing page, as well as when discussing the event. I also included contact information for folks who needed access options beyond what I initially set up.
Attendees were required to wear masks at the event, which was outside. Working with Books with Pictures was easy, as the store requires shoppers to wear masks and advocate for mask use even at their outside events. They’ve held a bunch of events in their outside spaces, including their garden and on the sidewalks around the business, so they’ve got practice with the steps necessary to make outdoor spaces accessible (like making sure folks can get to the indoor bathrooms without too much hassle). That made ensuring mobility access much easier for me.
All attendees wore masks and no one shared any complaints. All I needed to do was set out spare masks where folks could grab them, and remind a few folks to mask up as they arrived. While I didn’t specifically ask attendees their thoughts, I do know at least a few folks came who are even more cautious than I am. That makes me feel like I hit my goals. From what other event organizers have shared on social media, I think a lot of people are willing to mask up, provided they’re asked to do so.
Zine events are typically inexpensive to participate in. Zine culture revolves around making and sharing work that costs a fraction of the cost of professionally produced work. But even a free event can cost money to participate in — expenses like transportation to get to and from a location or copying zines to swap can make some folks feel like they can’t participate.
With that in mind, I decided to offer a few stipends of $25, structured to be as low-effort as possible (both for me and for folks requesting the stipend). The application was a form asking for name, contact information, and payment options. I limited the payment options to methods that were easy on me (Venmo, CashApp, or cash at the event).
One person requested a stipend and I was able to provide them with funds before the event. In my experience, small stipends make a big difference to the folks who request them. I’ve had minimal issues with requests from people who may not actually need stipends, though that may be due to the relatively low dollar amount of this sort of stipend.
I’ve done enough work enforcing community codes of conduct that I plan for worst case scenarios for even the smallest of events. I tweaked the code of conduct template I use for meetups. One tweak I prioritized was ensuring that I’d be able to address anyone responding to support for Palestinians with accusations of anti-Jewish bias.
Speaking of anti-Jewish bias, one of my concerns about running this event is the growing bias and violence against Jews in this country. I didn’t think that a zine meetup presented a huge risk, but I wanted to make sure to mitigate that risk as much as I could. I reviewed social media thoroughly for potential issues (including checking up on prospective attendees) and planned for contingencies.
In the end, we had no reported problems with attendees’ conduct or problems from outside sources.
Even though I haven’t been running events lately, I still maintain a stash of certain supplies. I found three separate containers of name tags when I was preparing. I also have a fair amount of zine-making supplies on hand at any time. However, I did make a trip to Scrap in order to bulk up my supplies — and also to have a good excuse for visiting Scrap. I got a wealth of different kinds of paper (including two full reams of printer paper, one pink and one green) and didn’t break the $20 mark.
I did make some swag for the event — I haven’t had an excuse to pull out my button maker in a minute, so I had to make pins! I also made a mini-zine of relevant resources, as well as a short version of the event’s land acknowledgement and code of conduct. Of course, I printed the minizine on some of the pink paper I scored at Scrap. Here’s the mini-zine, if you’d like to check it out!
Here’s what I took with to the event in terms of supplies:
Event logistics: Name tags, sharpies, extra masks, extra phone chargers, and a spare battery
Zine-making supplies: A variety of types of paper, scissors, stapler, glue, stickers, colored pencils, crayons
Swag: Pins and mini-zines
My own zines to swap and share (as well as a few zines in my collection I wanted to show off)
All told, I spent under $50 to run the event. Of course, someone without a stash of event supplies or with more stipend requests might need to spend a bit more to run an equivalent event.
The Portland Jewish Zine Pop-Up was a resounding success. I was expecting a turnout of perhaps 15 people, but we had more than 35 attendees! I think everyone had a good time and got to engage in a way that worked for them.
A few highlights that really excited me:
A kid made their first ever zine!
Three people came from Seattle!
Eight people have asked me when the next Jewish zine meetup is!
Interestingly, only a handful of attendees were also going to the Jewish Zine Fest — the rest of the attendees were just present to hang out with other folks interested in Jewish zines.
I haven’t yet decided on whether to host a second Jewish zine pop-up, despite the requests to do so. If I were to do another one, I definitely want at least one co-organizer! I’m pretty sure that this event was relatively easy to run because of my excitement — a follow up event may be a little harder to put together.
But I am already thinking about what I might change for a follow-up event. Here are a few of the things I’m thinking about:
Signage — I somehow forgot all about signage during my prep work. Putting up some signs to suggest people wear name tags or direct folks to the restroom is just good sense.
Land acknowledgement — I always feel awkward about land acknowledgements. They’re important, but since I’m not Indigenous, I worry about getting land acknowledgements right. Jewish spaces add an extra layer of complication and I want to do more research and think more about how to improve on the land acknowledgement I offered.
Cold weather space options — Books with Pictures’ garden is an amazing space, but it will likely be a little less perfect during winter months.
I gave a 25ish-minute talk at PyCascades 2022 covering a Django app that Jamey Sharp built and I supported for the Portland GDC. My script and slides are below. Please note that this is not an exact script; I had to cut some material from my talk during recording to get it closer to the time limit that I’ve left in this version of the script. Consider it a little bonus material! You can watch a video of the talk on YouTube or below:
I’m here to talk about my experiences doing bail and legal support for protestors arrested in 2020 and 2021 during the George Floyd Uprising. Since I’m White and I’m talking about supporting people arrested while asking for racial justice, I need to say that I’m only talking about the specific project I worked on. I didn’t organize or lead protests or anything like that. Please consider this a report back on the small chunk of mutual aid that I worked and nothing more. Furthermore, I did not do this work alone. This talk covers the efforts of dozens of people who I am proud to work alongside.
This talk covers technical topics, but it also includes discussions of institutionalized racism and police violence. If you’re not in a place where you can hear about these topics, please consider stepping away for the moment. You can always watch the recording later.
On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd went to a grocery store in Minneapolis and made a purchase. Thirty-one minutes later, he was dead at the hands of a police officer.
On May 26th, hundreds of protestors took to the streets in Minneapolis, demanding accountability for Floyd’s death — and the long list of other deaths of Black people at the hands of police officers.
On May 27th, a small group of Black and Indigenous women gathered in Portland at the Multnomah County Justice Center to hold space in memory of Floyd.
On May 28th, around 100 people gathered at the same building, with some people sitting in the doorways. Riot police violently pushed people away from the building.
On May 29th, over 1,000 people gathered at Peninsula Park in North Portland and marched into downtown to gather again at the Justice Center. Portland police officers arrested 13 people.
The Portland General Defense Committee immediately started posting bail for protestors who were arrested. The GDC started as a legal defense organization for union organizers and workers. Members of the Industrial Workers of the World founded the GDC in 1917. The Portland branch started in 2017 and has provided jail and legal support to protestors since its start. We did the same things for folks arrested on May 29 that we did for past protests: We made a spreadsheet of people arrested and started figuring out who needed bail money, including prioritizing arrestees by relative risks at the jail. Those risks included whether the person arrested was Black or Indigenous, LGBTQ, or had health risks.
Dealing with thirteen arrests at once was a stretch for us. At that point, we were used to two or three arrests at one event and supporting maybe two people with ongoing cases at any given time. We were able to pull together bail funds from members and friends, but we knew we would need to raise money to cover legal costs and reduce the bail burden we’d already taken on. Prior to 2020, the Portland GDC had a budget of a few thousand dollars per year. I put up a GoFundMe early on May 30th. By the end of that day, police had arrested 64 people.
Protests continued every night into January 2021. I’ve heard estimates that 70,000 people participated over those eight months. Portland still sees several protests and rallies around racial justice every month. Local police and federal law enforcement agents made over 1,000 arrests at protests in Portland. They beat, gassed, and otherwise hurt countless protestors and journalists.
As you can guess, gathering and managing information on who had been arrested, who needed bail money, and where each person was in the legal process outgrew a single spreadsheet rapidly. On June 6th, 2020, I contacted on Jamey Sharp, who I knew from various tech-related things here in Portland and asked for help. I was deep in the weeds at that point and basically gave Jamey free rein to figure out how to replace this terrible spreadsheet with something that could manage information better. We were not in a position to pay Jamey and I am eternally grateful he was able to help us. The Portland GDC still has minimal resources beyond dedicated volunteers and some funds earmarked for legal expenses. While we eventually raised over a million dollars, that money is all for to bail and legal expenses and therefore not available for administrative costs like building software applications.
One of the reasons I reached out to Jamey is because of his experience scraping all kinds of websites. He was unable to speak at this event, but I encourage you to check out his project Comic Rocket at comic-rocket.com, which is one of the places he got that experience. I figured Jamey would be able to automate some of our information gathering, letting volunteers focus on things technology can’t do. Jamey’s experience meant that he had the first iteration of our app up and running on June 12, with all the notes in our terrible spreadsheet imported and ready for us to work on.
As the summer of 2020 wore on, we added users and functionality and scaled up a little just about every day. The Portland GDC’s workflow constantly changed based on capacity and the growing number of arrests. This was not a situation where a developer got to make nice neat little upgrades and slowly roll them out to users. This was duct-taping steering to an airplane that was already in flight and occasionally doing barrel rolls.
The web app we use for the Portland GDC’s work can be thought of as two key pieces. Most people only ever see an interface to a database, listing people who were arrested with a bunch of fields about their contact information, the status of their court case, and various other details. It’s an amped-up, search-friendly spreadsheet.
But the app also pulls in information from several sources, automatically prepopulating many of those fields and providing updates to volunteers. Those sources generally don’t have APIs, so the app scrapes them. The sources include Oregon state court records and jail records from the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. MCSO is responsible for processing anyone arrested on state charges and many of those arrested on federal charges in Multnomah County (which includes the majority of the city of Portland).
The information we need to do our work comes in an absurd variety of formats, with an equally absurd set of access requirements. For instance, a lot of court information is in PDFs that are scans of printed documents, often with important handwritten notes like “Dropped” to indicate a suspended charge.
Federal courts work differently than state courts. and have less public information that can be scraped. Federal court cases go through PACER, which is an app that charges 10 cents per page when you access a document, as well as fees for search results and non-case specific reports. 18F, the federal government’s in-house technical consultancy, has looked at upgrading the system but their report is best summarized as no one knows how PACER works, it’s unmaintainable, and we need something entirely new and built from scratch.
Important information also disappears regularly. MCSO’s arrest information will change with no warning and no record if someone at the jail updates information, including during the booking process. Records of arrests drop off the site entirely after a few weeks. There’s also no listing of citations — incidents where protestors are charged with a crime, usually a misdemeanor, but not arrested. And the information is available is often full of errors. Information collected during arrests is the worst. We’ve known for a long time that law enforcement agents will “tweak” certain information they collect to make their own stats look better. But the data we saw from protests made those changes much more obvious. Police record the races of people arrested incorrectly constantly. In particular, we’ve seen glaring errors around the race of people of color, which have allowed the Portland Police Bureau and other agencies to claim that almost all protestors arrested in Portland are White. We’ve also seen names, genders, physical descriptions, and more recorded incorrectly.
We’ve had to figure out the meanings of certain data through trial and error because there’s not any documentation available. MCSO also uses different terms and definitions for specific charges than the Oregon court system uses, to the point that our app only grabs the statute number a person is charged under and maps it to correct charge information in our database.
This system is especially infuriating when you realize that it’s on the people who are arrested to correct any errors. Since errors can have consequences that include being kept in jail, they can be impossible to correct without expert legal help. People who are arrested are also expected to stay up to date on their cases, without any of the modern notification systems you might expect. If someone’s charges are suspended, that person is instructed to call the district attorney’s office at least monthly to check if their charges have been reinstated for at least the next two years. If they don’t, they’ll likely miss a court case which will result in a warrant being issued for their arrest and other terrible outcomes. COVID has also meant that policies change constantly, often without online notice. Even before the pandemic, details around court hearings routinely changed on the day of, but as things moved online, everything about legal processes got more complicated.
These websites are also delicate. Some were constructed by contractors trying to keep costs down, while others are built by companies that know that they can take advantage of people who are incarcerated without anyone important caring.
Django and Python were the logical choices for this project for a few reasons: First, Jamey had already built Django apps and was pretty familiar with the framework. And while I haven’t built a whole Django app by myself, I’ve gone through some workshops. Second, Django’s built-in admin interface makes managing a bunch of structured data really easy. The user interface enables anyone to edit that data without tons of training. Jamey was also already familiar with Scrapy, a Python scraping framework, so he could get that set up with a Django-based app quickly.
One of the pieces of information we need to grab automatically are upcoming court dates. The Oregon court calendar site is particularly irksome. Jamey jumped through lots of programmatic hoops to get that scraper running: the site limits search to 550 results, without offering any “next page” button. The scraper can’t just grab all calendar entries over the next 3 months without hammering the site harder than we want to. So the solution is a little complicated: the scraper looks at the specific case numbers we care about, then groups all the cases with the same starting numbers, trimming off the last two digits. When the court calendar is queried with those truncated group numbers, there are a max of 100 active cases returned. By batching together cases, the scraper minimizes the number of queries — though Jamey has pointed out that if whoever designed the court calendar site had just limited to search results to 1,000 rows instead of 550, he could have cut the number of queries even further.
Of course, there’s still plenty of work that requires a human touch. We have to audit our data regularly, adding in pieces that MCSO missed or that come from conversations with the protestors we’re supporting. Django has made those audits relatively simple, even though they still require a lot of reading through information for the humans involved. We can use tags for indicating the specific categories that need auditing at a given time, as well as sort and filter information in a variety of ways.
The Portland GDC is not a large organization, even now. We’re also not an especially technical group. We recruited volunteers to work on legal support in July and August of 2020, and more volunteers have joined since then.
All onboarding, and all other work for that matter, happens remotely. Django’s user interface is reasonably simple right out of the box and while we’ve tweaked the user experience lightly, Django uses a visual language in interfaces that is very similar to what’s considered “standard” on the internet.
I created our technical onboarding process. Another person was responsible for walking new folks through specific support situations, communication norms, and our policies, so I was able to focus just on getting people on to the app.
I do a video call with each new user that includes a 30-minute walk through of the app. We actually don’t always need the full 30 minutes, but we set up user accounts during that session and getting folks through their first time logging in was often hard — in fact, it was the point our users struggled with the most. That’s because some of our account setup emails wind up in spam. So I built in time to search around for emails. I also limited onboarding sessions to a max of three new users because I only have enough patience to go through three people’s spam folders at a time.
During the walk through session, we go through each section of the app as well as our documentation. Our documentation is a shared Google Doc with screenshots and written descriptions — it’s not fancy, but it does contain answers to basically every question anyone has asked me about the app.
We tweaked the app as users asked questions and needed more features. Jamey wisely pushed back every so often and reminded us of our options, even deleting certain features when they were no longer needed. If Jamey hadn’t provided a technical voice of reason, we’d probably have a full-featured CRM at this point, even though that’s not what we need.
And when I checked in with our users while getting ready to give this talk, they told me that the app was intuitive, friendly, hard to break, and empowering. Users felt empowered to work with data, even if they didn’t come in knowing tech, legal proceedings, or activism. Some features still don’t get used as much as possible. But volunteers say this is more about the time available to do work, not due to difficulties with the app. People also like that they don’t feel beholden to the app and that it’s not judgmental about unfilled fields. One person even said that using the app reminds them of using a message board because they can see the notes and work of other volunteers, which helps them stay connected through all this remote work.
We realized early on that we were sitting on a pile of valuable information. While most of what we pulled together was publicly available, it wasn’t combined in this way anywhere else. Between what we scrape and the information we add from the people we’re supporting, we created a doxxer’s paradise. Not only do we have data like physical addresses and phone numbers, but we also have notes on who needs what kinds of help. The risks of holding this information are massive. If someone with bad intentions got access, they’d be able to easily harass people both online and offline. We have an ethical obligation to mitigate every risk we can and to protect this information. The alternative is compounding the harm legal systems are already doing to folks.
We also faced a lesser risk of losing access to the sources where we pull information from. That did happen several times — not only does MCSO remove information from their arrest records, but the Oregon court system stopped allowing access by anything with an IP address located outside of the US, which coincidentally enough included us at the time. Jamey found us work-arounds, but I’m always waiting for the next time one of these systems changes their access controls. We also faced concerted attacks on any tool we publicly use: we dealt with numerous malicious reports to GoFundMe, Twitter, our email provider, and more.
We reduced our risks in several ways. First off: we obviously didn’t go around telling people about this app. After all, if someone is attacking your email, they’ll attack every other system they can find related to your organization. We’re facing less attention online now, so talking about the app here is a calculated risk that we’re comfortable with — but I’m not telling you who hosts the app or other important details to keep those risks to a minimum.
We also look closely at everyone who gets access to the app. Our due-diligence process for volunteers includes an in-depth internet background search and confirmation of the information we find with shared connections where possible. Jamey was also able to set up multiple types of user accounts so that we could limit each volunteer’s access to information they actually need to do their work. If, for instance, someone is writing letters of support to people who are currently incarcerated, they can only see those people in the system who they’re writing to. Those volunteers don’t get much more than an address and some biographical information.
Technical security is, of course, an aspect of risk mitigation. Django has good security features out of the box, assuming you use them. By using Django, we could use built-in security options and also access documentation that we could adapt to explain what was going on behind the scenes to volunteers. But the most important step to managing our security concerns was our effort to avoid collecting information that we didn’t feel we could protect — and that policy would have been the same no matter what framework or language the app was written in. No technology choice is as important as defining what data you’ll collect and how it will be handled.
One of our biggest ongoing issues was burn out. Basically everyone burnt out over the course of 2020 and 2021 — doing legal support just made us burn out faster. We’ve had higher turnover among volunteers than I’d like, but this is hard work. Even though we don’t need to worry too much about gathering and processing data, we’re dealing with emotional situations and even the best outcomes for the people we’re working with involve lots of time dealing with an adversarial legal system.
The only way to handle the fluctuations in capacity is to document EVERYTHING. Everything that happens in an individual case gets recorded in the app. Everything about the app gets documented, too. Our documentation isn’t fancy: it’s a document that I add questions and answers to whenever an app user asked me something. I lifted some pieces out of the Django documentation and reworded them a bit to ensure our users understood how to handle a problem even if they didn’t come in with a ton of technical experience. And any time an edge case came up, I took tons of notes.
I did worry a lot about what would happen when Jamey and I burned out, however. We both managed to hang on until the app was basically stable and there hadn’t been any new features needed in a while. I did want to make sure that someone had enough knowledge to at least decide if a situation was an emergency and to have someone who could step up if such an emergency came to pass. Luckily, our most technical volunteers reached a point with the app where they seemed capable of handling questions and I drafted a back-up developer who would be willing to handle emergencies before I had to take a break.
I think the work I’ve done with the Portland GDC over the past two years is some of the most important work I have done or will do. We put together legal support for hundreds of protestors out of Django, duct tape, and donations from strangers. We did our part to ensure that protestors could be in the streets for months on end and reduced the risks they faced. One of the most meaningful measures of our work, at least for me, is that Rodney Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, thanked Portland protestors specifically last April. He said the support of protestors meant so much to their family and that staying in the streets helped ensure his brother’s killers faced justice.
So here’s where everything stands as of February 2022: Mike Schmidt, the district attorney here, suspended most protest-related charges. That’s not the same thing as dropping charges entirely. Instead of dropping charges, he’s just not currently prosecuting charges. The DA has the option to reinstate suspended charges for years to come. He’s already reinstated a few. By suspending charges, rather than dropping them, the state also gets to hold on to bail money and evidence until the charges age out. And since almost $700,000 of the money the Portland GDC raised went to posting bail for hundreds of protestors, that money is not available for legal fees or bail for future protests for an indeterminate amount of time. Schmidt is considered a very progressive DA and he’s still chosen to hold protest-related charges over protestors’ heads for years to come.
The federal district attorney, Scott Asphaug, hasn’t been so nice. Several protestors are facing federal charges, with Black and Indigenous folks facing the harshest penalties. There are at least three such cases which will be going to court in the next few weeks with each defendant facing years in jail. It’s also worth noting that Asphaug previously worked for the Portland police union to get police officers out of trouble during internal investigations and the U.S. Department of Justice does not consider that relationship a conflict of interest.
The city of Portland, as well as several federal agencies, are facing lawsuits from many of the protestors who police attacked. Residents of Portland who were not involved with protests but were teargassed or otherwise harmed are also bringing their own lawsuits. While a few cases have already been settled with payouts by the relevant government agency, many seem to be going to court.
While Portlanders are no longer protesting in the streets every night, cases related to the George Floyd Uprising won’t be over for months, perhaps even longer. The Portland GDC is still doing legal support and expects to be doing prison support for folks unjustly incarcerated over these protests for years to come.
I hope you found this talk valuable, both in terms of learning about launching a Django app with minimal resources and even less time and in terms of understanding the amount of work it takes to support protestors through arrests and court cases. The Portland GDC continues to support people arrested at protests in 2020 and 2021 and if you’re able to, please consider donating to help cover the legal costs that many protestors are still dealing with. You can donate through CashApp, Venmo, or by mail to PDX GDC, 2249 East Burnside Street, Portland, OR 97214.
A few years back, I wrote a short story set at a Python conference. You can tell I wrote it in the before-times because it involves people hanging out in a convention center in person! That story, “Backwards Compatibility,” was originally published as part of Our Python, an anthology of Python fan works published as a fundraiser for PyLadies.
I finally got around to posting the story somewhere anyone can read it. Since it’s fan fiction, of a sort, “Backwards Compatibility” is now up on Archive of Our Own. While this story is okay for all audiences, you should be aware that Archive of Our Own includes explicit material before you click around too much.
I’ve launched a new project that I’m excited to share with all of you.
PDX.Vote rounds up news related to the 2022 elections taking place here in Portland, Oregon. It also publishes long-form articles about specific aspects of Portland’s politics. Please support this work financially.
If you’re interested in my thoughts behind this site and my plans for its future, keep reading!
Why a news site focused on elections?
I’ve always followed local politics pretty closely. One of my first paid blogging gigs was covering the 2008 presidential election, which really helped me understand that local politics impact our day-to-day lives more than most things happening in Washington, D.C. I was also an election judge in Maryland and saw first hand how hard voting was for some folks.
I also think that a lot of the media covering local news just aren’t covering local elections in any real depth. That’s partially due to the financial constraints on a lot of news media. But there’s also a sense that nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters write great voters guides that provide enough information for most voters to make their decisions. Now, I read the Portland League of Women Voters’ guides cover to cover and think they’re a great resource — but those guides are put together by folks who are trying hard not to influence the outcome of the races they’re covering.
Local elections decide matters of life and death importance here in Oregon, from the oversight of police forces and the violence they enact to the budgets for supportive services for folks without stable housing. But a nonpartisan report doesn’t tell voters whose policies are likely to increase deaths or save lives. We deserve better information.
I’ve already soft-launched PDX.Vote with three key types of coverage:
Digests of news related to the current election cycle
Weekly calendars rounding up important meetings, deadlines, and other dates relevant to local politics
Articles that go deeper into specific races, as well as important context for upcoming elections
At the moment, I’m doing all of the writing for the site. But with the official launch of PDX.Vote, I’m accepting pitches for articles. I’m also actively reaching out to people who are able to talk about political issues in ways I can’t. I’m privileged enough to be able to fund my startup costs and an initial writers budget so that I can pay for these contributions. My goal is to share election coverage from as diverse a group of contributors as possible. In terms of numbers, the first metric I’m measuring is the percentage of contributors from different racial backgrounds than my own, which I plan to report back on quarterly. It’s not a perfect metric, of course, but it’s one that I’m confident I can track as the only administrative staff for the site, as well as one that will give a top-level view of how well I’m doing at recruiting writers with different experiences. If you’re interested in writing for PDX.Vote, please contact me.
While I can cover the initial costs of setting up the site, I do need community support to publish this coverage. My first financial priority is covering the expenses of running the site, including the media insurance policy I needed to feel safe doing this work. My second financial priority is paying contributors. It would be nice to be eventually rewarded for my labor, but that’s much farther down the list.
So how can you support PDX.Vote? Currently, you can give us direct financial support. The current options are a one-time payment of $10 or a recurring monthly payment of $10. I’ll be making other options, such as printed voter guides, available later on. However, I will neither be accepting advertising on the site for the foreseeable future nor putting up a paywall in front of content. Both options make me feel uncomfortable when we’re talking about election coverage: Every resident (including non-voters) should be able to access information about the governments under which they must live, without paying for that information. And advertising tends to affect what news media publish, even without any explicit expectations. While I’m happy to discuss financial support in larger amounts, I do want the site to be primarily funded by the people I hope will most benefit from having free coverage available — people who can afford to throw $10 towards PDX.Vote, rather than people who can afford to spend thousands of dollars a year on multiple newspaper subscriptions.
Because I’m talking about elections and political power, I think it’s important to be as transparent as possible, especially about finances. I’m making the site’s financials available on a monthly basis. I’ve also included a transparency section on the ‘About’ page, including my own donations to candidates and political committees. I’ll be asking contributors about their connections to candidates and political committees and adding that information as I deem appropriate and safe. I’m also explicitly talking about my own biases and the site’s slant as a whole: I’m a leftist and you should expect PDX.Vote’s coverage to lean left as well. Furthermore, I am critical of even leftist elected officials — rather than being invested in maintaining a status quo, I want us to rethink what governance looks like and limit the harm the state can cause to each of us.
What are my long-term plans?
Well, a lot depends on how many folks find PDX.Vote a useful resource. While I’m confident I can put together regular updates through the November 2022 election, I’m not yet sure if I’ll continue the site after that time. Financial sustainability and reader interest will probably be the determining factors.
I would love to continue to build on the site’s coverage long-term if I can. I’m already working with a few contributors for one-off pieces and I want the opportunity to bring in some folks as regular contributors if I can afford to pay them for their work. I see two key areas of expansion: first, geographic coverage and, second, linguistic coverage. Currently, PDX.Vote covers Multnomah County elections, because that’s the county that covers the largest chunk of the city of Portland. It’s also the county I live in. I’m working on coverage of Washington and Clackamas Counties because they’re part of Metro, along with Multnomah County. It’s hard to cover Metro races without having at least a working knowledge of Washington and Clackamas Counties. I’d like to eventually cover all seven counties that include Portland and its suburbs, but that’s beyond what I can do without regular contributors. Bringing on folks to cover these additional counties will require finding reporters already living in each county, so that we can read coverage from folks actually impacted by county politics. And I have to admit that expanding coverage to Clark County (and Vancouver, Washington) will probably be low on the list. Clark County is important to understanding Portland politics, but it’s in Washington State and therefore plays by a different set of rules. Adding Clark County coverage to PDX.Vote will take more work than adding another Oregon county.
I also believe that expanding coverage outside of the English language is crucial. Portland residents speak a wealth of languages and deserve news in languages they understand. Translation is expensive and I don’t expect to be able to publish every article in multiple languages right away, but that’s my ultimate goal. Currently, I see Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinuk Wawa translations as priorities. While the community of Chinuk Wawa speakers in Portland is smaller than the communities that speak several other languages, Portland sits on land that rightfully belongs to Indigenous tribes, including Chinookan tribes. Chinuk Wawa is a jargon used by many tribes. While I’m not Indigenous, I believe in the Land Back movement. Providing news in Chinuk Wawa seems like a tangible step towards respecting Indigenous sovereignty that goes deeper than a simple land acknowledgement.
I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to accomplish until I see what sort of financial support community members are prepared to provide. But I will do everything I can afford to do that will make local political information more widely available here in Portland. I’ll keep y’all updated.
Content warnings: Discussions of death, genocide, state violence
I made a short zine exploring new ways to observe Tu B’Shvat, which you can read on my Twitter or grab as a PDF. There are both print and screen-friendly copies of the PDF at that link. Please note that I wrote this recently enough that I have not been able to run it past a sensitivity reader yet — all errors are my own and I fully expect to have a new version in time for Tu B’Shvat 5783.
If you’re interested in reading further on the topics I mention in the zine, here is a list of websites, articles, and videos that I recommend, broken down by topics. The sources I used to create my zine are included here, along with those covering details I couldn’t fit into just eight pages.
“Tu B’Shvat and Malida” (video) — This short video from the Institute of Jewish Experience covers the Bene Israel custom of making malida (a sweet treat made of pressed rice and fruit) for Tu B’Shvat, as well as a summary of the history of the Bene Israel community in India.
“Tu B’Shvat? Why Not?” (article) — Linda Gritz, from the Boston Workmen’s Circle, documented the process of creating a secular observance of Tu B’Shvat.
“Tu B’Shevat in the Age of Ecofeminism” (article) — This article includes several ways to observe Tu B’Shevat while considering both climate change and feminism. Writer Steph Black highlights options like a Reverse Tashlich ceremony to clean up rivers.
“Tu Bi’Shevat” (website) — Ritualwell has an entire section of their website devoted to meditations, liturgy, and other suggestions for observing Tu B’Shvat.
Resources on Indigenous land return
“Remothering the Land” (video) — Patagonia produced this 10-minute film to discuss the concept of ‘rematriation’ (or ‘remothering’ the land) using sustainable agriculture techniques with William Smith, land steward of the Village of Huchiun, and Nazshonnii Brown-Almaweri, land team member of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust.
“#LandBack is Climate Justice” (article) — Restoring stolen lands to Indigenous sovereignty counteracts climate change, as documented by the Lakota People’s Law Project.
Braiding Sweatgrass (book) — Robin Wall Kimmerer’s collection of essays on Indigenous ecological knowledge provides a foundational guide. At the time of compiling this list, I haven’t finished reading Braiding Sweatgrass but I already find it informative enough to recommend.
Landback U (website) — The Landback Movement created a series of courses on land struggles in different locations to build a foundation of knowledge about Indigenous sovereignty. The organization accepts donations to continue their work.
“Tu Bishvat: Dish with One Spoon” (article) — Mazon Canada published this article on the Haudenosaunee concept of ‘the Dish with One Spoon,’ a way to discuss the interconnected relationship between humans and land. The article also links to a video where historian Richard Hill covers some aspects of Haudenosaunee culture and history that’s worth watching.
“Planting the Promised Landscape: Zionism, Nature, and Resistance in Israel/Palestine” (article, PDF) — This academic article is long at 50 pages, but author Irus Braverman provides important insights into the ways that Jewish campaigns to plant pine trees in Israel have been used to remove Palestinian presences from the land and are iconic to the Zionist experience. Pine trees are not native to Israel and act as a method to make the land more comfortable to Ashkenzai settlers.
“Why I no longer donate to the Jewish National Fund” (article) — This short article touches on some of the topics covered in more depth in the source above. Writer Matthew Gindin looks at the militarism and greenwashing associated with the JNF, the leading organization planting pine trees in Israel.
“Cultivating Resilience: Growing Olives in Palestine” (article) — Emily Baron Cadloff’s article on how Palestinian olive farmers have been forced to watch their trees systematically destroyed (along with their livelihoods) is a difficult but necessary read for American Jews.
“Trees for Life 2021 Report” (report, PDF) — The Palestine Fair Trade Association’s annual report on its Trees for Life program describes the organization’s work distributing more than 37,800 seedlings of native trees to more than 350 Palestinian farmers. The organization also educates farmers on regenerative farming and the use of native seeds.
Rooting Resistance (donation page) — For U.S. donors interested in contributing to the PFTA’s Trees for Life program, the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights offers a donation process that doesn’t require you to figure out international payment processors. Every $25 donated equals one tree sapling planted. Guidestar has reviewed the organization.
Resources for working in nature, including agriculture
Cultivating Culture 2022 (conference) — This upcoming conference includes sessions on Jewish relationships to agriculture and food. Tickets start at $36.
Friends of Trees (website) — Friends of Trees plants trees in the Portland metro area (as well as other parts of Oregon) and have streamlined the process. If you’re considering planting trees here, working with Friends of Trees is the easiest option. I’ve used their services in the past. And if you’re not in a position to plant a tree yourself this year, you can donate to the organization to help plant trees elsewhere in the city.
Native Plants and Trees of Oregon (brochure, PDF) — This list of trees native to Oregon offers options to consider if you plan to plant trees locally to observe Tu B’Shvat.
“Approved Street Tree Planting Lists” (article) — The government of Portland requires trees planted in the city to be permitted and be on the approved list of trees. This article covers their requirements.
Palestinian Products: Olive Oil and Medjool Dates (retail page) — Equal Exchange is a co-op that sells Fair Trade products in the U.S, which has partnered with the Palestinian Agricultural Committee to sell olive oil and Medjool dates grown by small-scale Palestinian farmers. Wholesale purchasing is also available.
Willamette River Cleanup (website) — The Willamette River Cleanup organization works to clean up the Portland Harbor, along with the rest of the Willamette River. Consider signing up for updates and donating to their work.
“Portland Harbor Superfund Site” (article) — As part of the effort to clean up the Portland Harbor Superfund Site, the EPA created a resource documenting the history of Portland Harbor, the impacts of its pollution on marginalized communities, and the work necessary to fix the site.