University of Wyoming Janitor’s Grain of Sand

At last week’s Shepard Symposium on Social Justice, my husband and I sat talking as a student walked by.

She was headed for recycling bins labeled trash, mixed paper, cans and glass.

It’s where a University of Wyoming janitor was tidying up.

As the student carrying a soda bottle approached, the custodian directed her to the correct container.

Curious to know if I’m the only one who finds such bins and labels confusing, I asked if people comply with the campus sorting system.

See the source image

“I think of my grandchildren inheriting the planet, and I know this work is my grain of sand.”

“No,” the custodian said, pulling the lid off a can and delving for misfiled recyclables.

“I spend a lot of time going through trash and doing it myself.”

Then in a barely audible voice she added, “I think of my grandchildren inheriting the planet, and I know this work is my grain of sand.”

And that was the moment of recognition.

Clearly we were in the presence of the extraordinary.

Here was one person doing her job from a place of tender care for future generations.

Here was social justice in action — a living example of what Cornel West says “. . . love looks like in public.”


To Consider


Ellen Webster Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.

DC Books to Prisons — a Spark in the Dark in 35 States

by guest writer Barbara Cornell

It’s Wednesday evening, and we’re in a church basement. The walls are crazy-crammed with books–from foreign languages in the far corner to business and science by the door. Busy people buzz around us.

Why have I brought you here? Joseph’s letter says it best: 

“A book or magazine is a major event in my 8×10 universe, and I would not have that spark in the dark if it were not for free.”

Joseph’s 8×10 universe is a prison cell in Woodville, Texas. And you are at DC Books to Prisons in Washington, DC.

If social justice is what love looks like in public, then DC Books to Prisons shows how love brings people together to push back against the darkness.

Our little group of volunteers—and we are all volunteers—is one of a handful of organizations around the country that sends free books to people in prison.

DC Books to Prisons serves 35 states, so we know how hungry prisoners are to read. We will send more than 16,000 books and other reading materials this year. 

If social justice is what love looks like in public, then DC Books to Prisons shows how love brings people together to push back against the darkness.

Barbara Cornell

But that’s only part of the story

We send Spanish books to children in immigration detention centers. We provide books and magazines for children visiting federal prisons, collect books for prison book clubs and build prison library collections. 

Hundreds of caring people give us books and the money to mail them, free space, free storage, free supplies. 

Sending even 16,000 books is a tiny act against the damage of mass incarceration. But choosing humanity over inhumanity is at least a spark in the dark.

“If we can act with courage and choose humanity over inhumanity, it does not seem that it can affect the larger trajectory of history,” said Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. “But I believe it can.”

.  .  .

Location of other prison book programs (click for details).

Take Action!

Explore  DC Books to Prisons .

Support DC Books to Prisons with a donation.

Find similar programs near you using this map

Learn more about mass incarceration.  “Being involved in Books to Prisons made me want to know more about mass incarceration in America,” Barbara said. Here’s a fact sheet by the Sentencing Project.

Read about progress being made. There has been some progress to undo some of the factors that have contributed to mass incarceration, but there are still many more issues to tackle such as money bail

Visit previous blog posts:  
Carla Trier Brings Heaps of Love to Sheridan, Wyoming by Way of the Foster Parent Exchange
“Gillette Against Hate” Stands Up to Violent Speech and Actions

.   .   .

Barbara Cornell lives in Washington, DC.

Refugees Resettled in Maine Give Me Hope

Deo, Uber driver in Portland, Maine by way of Tanzania and Burundi.

While visiting my home state of Maine I used Uber to get around Portland

During one trip the driver, Deo, and I started talking.

He has lived in Maine for 10 years.

And he is an immigrant from Burundi, one of the poorest countries in Africa.

In 1993 the first democratically-elected President came to power there.

Voter turnout was 97%.

Later that year the President was assassinated, and civil war erupted.

After two of Deo’s children died the same year, he walked 600 miles to Tanzania.

For the next decade he called two Tanzanian refugee camps home while assistance from the United Nations helped secure his asylum in the United States.

In 2008 he relocated to Maine after a short stay in Iowa.

Maine Used to Champion Refugees

For close to a decade Maine championed refugees, and whether that is because its population is rapidly aging and attracting younger workers was strategically smart or if it was a humanitarian gesture, I can’t say.

Either way, it was a powerfully good thing.

And unlike Wyoming, Maine had a plan to assist people in need.

But as of January 2018, an amended Act curtained Maine’s participation in what remains of the federally-funded refugee resettlement program.

In truth, since the U.S. presidential election of 2016, refugee resettlement in Maine and elsewhere has all but ended.

Between October 1, 2017 and March 15, 2018, 91% fewer refugees came to Maine.

That’s 21 arrivals versus 229 in the same period the previous year.

Yet for Deo, life here is good.

He works in Portland and belongs to a supportive community that both sees and believes in his worth.

I’m encouraged

After all he has witnessed and experienced, he reports being treated fairly and with respect in the whitest state in the country.

And his reflection on Maine matters to me; I want to live where human life is valued and compassionate acts are not only tolerated but are sanctioned.

•  •

Deo’s Uber profile shows he has a 4.86 overall rating with almost all evaluations being perfect 5-stars.

He says on the Uber app, “I am honest and take care of people.

“I love gospel music.

“I am filling [feeling] nice when I give people rides.”

Take Action!

•  Read about the Wyoming student who wrote a refugee resettlement plan for the only state without one.

•  Listen to Maine Public Radio, The Year the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Unraveled, by Deborah Amos, Jan 1, 2018.

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski (she/her/hers) lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Her website is She is a Registered Craniosacral Therapist (RCST), is on the Board of Directors of the Biodynamic Craniosacral Association of North America (BCTA/NA), and is a practitioner of both HeartMath and The Connection Practice.

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.  — C. West


Wyoming Refugee Resettlement Plan Written by University Student for Only State Without One

“. . . Wyoming is the single state in the U.S. without a Refugee Resettlement Program (RRP) filed with the federal government.”

Gabe Selting wrote his senior honors thesis as a “How To” plan for Wyoming to initiate a Refugee Resettlement Plan.

So begins Gabe Selting’s 2018 honors senior thesis from the University of Wyoming, “Refugee Resettlement in Wyoming: A How-to Guide.”

Selting says social justice addresses “equal access to opportunity.”

Yet his own interests are broader.

They extend to equal access to opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers.

And this fall his already passionate life takes a step forward as he begins law school in Washington, DC.

His interest in social justice and service began when he was 16 years old.

He was living in London with time on his hands while his parents, both professors at the University of Wyoming, were on sabattical.

During this time he thought, and he struggled.

“The ultimate question was, ‘What is my personal interpretation of happiness, and how can I get there?’”

The answer came as a question.

“What is my ability to impact others in a meaningful way? How can I have a positive impact?”

Resettlement Plan Began with Education

As an International Studies undergraduate, Selting expanded his lens on the world.

He studied and volunteered in multiple countries.

And those experiences gave him perspective on Wyoming’s role in global issues.

As well as Wyoming’s role in the refugee conversation.

“All around Wyoming there’s affordable housing, low-skill jobs, and open spaces so you’re not forced to live next to others’ religions, if you don’t want to,” he said.

“By not having a Refugee Resettlement Plan, what message are we sending to Washington and to the United Nation’s High Commission on Refugees?

“It takes 50 links to make this work,” he said. “and one doesn’t exist – Wyoming.”

The website of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is clear.

Refugees are given, “the opportunity to achieve their full potential . . .”

The U.S. Government along with individual states and organizations offer a hand up with “critical resources to assist them in becoming integrated members of American society.”

“It takes 50 links to make this work, and one doesn’t exist — Wyoming.”

Refugees are Free to Move Into Wyoming

Because there are no cross-state entry restrictions, once refugees have been permitted to enter the country, Selting says they can go where they like.

“Former refugees are making their way to Wyoming, whether people like it or not.”

Yet without a RRP Selting says, “those who arrive here don’t have access to key services.”

Selting thinks that state’s resistance stems from fears for safety and economic security.

“It’s so much more dangerous to not have a refugee infrastructure program then to have one,” he said.

“There’s a huge body of literature showing that extremism often comes in the form of social and economic alienation.

“We need to have systems for people to integrate into; to combat social isolation.

“Wyoming has the capacity to help and accept refugees,” he said.

And thanks to this recent grad’s persistence, Wyoming’s “How To” is ready to go.

Take Action!

•  Read Gabe’s thesis, Refugee Resettlement in Wyoming: A How-To Guide.

•  Learn about the Immigration Alliance of Casper.

•  Check out the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.

•  Read Gillette Against Hate. 

•  Read Where refugees go in America,” from the Washington Post.

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.  — C. West


Bright pink states are the worst for welcoming refugees. Bright green are the best.

Positive Roadside Messages: Won’t You “”?

I noticed a billboard on Interstate I-25 in Cheyenne, Wyoming with the then child Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai’s photo and quote, “Girls should learn history. And make it,”

I saw it again in Laramie along I-80.

And a similar one a few miles away that featured a 13-year-old boy who started a nonprofit when he was 5.

Today in Tucson, Arizona I drove past a bus stop with a picture of Garth Brooks and lyrics from his song.

“When there’s only one race, and that’s mankind . . . We shall be free.”

And each billboard and post included, “”

The Foundation for a Better Life is the nonprofit that began in 2000 to promote positive values through public messages.

It is a 501(c)(3) that has, it says, “zero political or religious affiliations.”

They don’t accept financial contributions, and not a single thing is for sale on their website.

Rather, the Denver-based nonprofit that offers free billboard copy, radio and TV spots, posters and daily emails is funded entirely by Philip Anschutz through the Anschutz Family Foundation.

Its website says it “. . . exists solely to create and share uplifting messages . . .”

According to Variety, though, there has been significant criticism surrounding Philip Anschutz’s funding of conservative groups including pro-gun, anti-abortion and those touting anti-LBGT values.

A Gift to the Elton John AIDS Foundation

Yet earlier this year, Anschutz donated $1 million to the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Isn’t passing it on what we human beings do really REALLY well?

He said, “My gift to the Elton John Foundation is intended to emphasize that we support freedom of all people to live their lives peacefully, without interference from others.”

Each message includes a red rectangle identifying the value in its story.

Inclusion, inspiration, courage, service, soul, persistence, compassion, soul, optimism . . .



You could be driving across country on I-80 or getting on the same interstate to travel to the other side of Laramie.

It doesn’t matter.

Most of us can use a reminder now and again that we have it in us to do and be better.

As imperfect humans we look to one another for stories of encouragement and inspiration, even stories that fit on billboards.

And passing those stories on is something we do really REALLY well.

Take Action!

•  See someone — really  see someone with the eyes of appreciation, then tell them what you see.

 Access the entire collection

 View Garth Brooks’ full We Shall Be Free video on Vimeo

•  Read about Rooted in Wyoming‘s efforts in Sheridan, Wyoming to bring people together through community gardening.

•  Get to know why Wyoming Untrapped‘s work to keep bobcats alive could be a tourist draw for the state.

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.1  — C. West

Charity and Social Justice: “Distinct but Complementary”

Alan Watts
credited to Alan Watts

The difference between charity and social justice often confounds me.

My good friend, Carol Brownson, devotes much of her life to charity while saying social justice is at the heart of her public health work.

“Social justice efforts get at underlying causes of inequities and fix them structurally,” she said.

Like Carol, the Catholic campaign, “Put Two Feet in Love in Action” advocates attention to both social justice and charity.

They say they are “two distinct, but complementary ways we can respond . . .”

Charity, as they define it, is an answer to “immediate needs and specific situations.”

Another source explains the complexity of social justice by saying it “involves many processes which may be against established rules existing in society.”

I think of the distinction this way:  as charity addresses present needs, social justice is taking the long view by tackling underlying causes of present needs.

And isn’t our big, blue planet crying for both?

For example, it’s a fact that more than half of American school children are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches.38

Which, in turn, means more than half of American children live at or close to the poverty line.

Consider that in 2018 that means a family of four earning even a penny over $24,600 a year isn’t considered poor.39

So doesn’t it follow we need to offer assistance — charity — to the children in those families so they are nourished enough to learn?

And at the same time we could use all-hands-on-deck to fix the underlying problems of poverty, income inequality, educational privilege, etc. etc. etc.

. . . the people featured in each week’s posts are role models for both charity and social justice.

Another Perspective on Charity and Social Justice

Mary Lupien
Mary Lupien

Mary Lupien’s TedXRochester talk takes an unambiguous look at charity and social justice.

“Charity is easier and makes us feel good,” she said.

“Justice requires us to ask the tough questions of why — ‘Why do the inequities exist that create the need for charity?’”

“Justice,” she says, “can make us feel uncomfortable, defensive, even angry as we’re forced to question our way of thinking — our way of life.

“Charity doesn’t really require us to change anything about ourselves or the way we live.

“But justice requires us to think hard about our systems and our choices.

“And not everyone is ready to acknowledge how their choices affect others.”

She says that America’s decisions regarding Native Americans, the slave trade and other heinous aspects of history must be part of the discussion.

“I often think that the fundamental divide in this country . . .  is our unjust and ugly past and the direct relationship [it has] to inequities that exist today . . .

“And although the U.S. may be one of the most charitable countries, that charity does nothing to undo the forces that keep people poor.”

“Justice requires us to ask the tough questions of why — ‘Why do the inequities exist that create the need for charity?’”

“I challenge you to look justice in the face; you can’t change what you don’t see,” she said.

Another Lens on Charity and Social Justice

Tanya Krummriech, co-founder of Gillette Against Hate, recently wrote me.

“When I’m engaged in case management and there are hungry clients in my office, they’re going to have little interest in learning about my long-term goals for them until they are fed.

“I am passionate about addressing systems and disrupting cycles of poverty that have trapped people,” she said.

“Yet, I am just as passionate about meeting my clients where they are and fulfilling their basic human needs.”

•   •   •

So, you might wonder, how willing am I — Ellen — to change my own life?

To give up comforts? Time? To take a stand when it’s not popular or easy?

I don’t yet know.

But it’s a discomfort I’m prepared to sit with.

What I do know is that the people featured in these posts are role models for both charity and social justice.

They’re the company I want to keep along the way.

Care to join me?

Social Justice and Charity Role Models

Lisa Robertson on charity and animal rights
Lisa Robertson

Lisa Robertson with Wyoming Untrapped



Ali Dunford on food charity and the need for social justice
Ali Dunford

Ali Dunford with Hole Food Rescue




Tanya Krummriech on social justice and charity
Tanya Krummriech

Tanya Krummriech with Gillette Against Hate



. . . and so many more.

Take Action!

•  Read The Barefood Mommy, a website by Rebekah Gienapp about,  “. . . raising little global citizens who are ready to change the world.”

•  Look at Mary Lupien‘s website to see how she promoted social justice in her nearly-successful run for Rochester city council.

•  Treat yourself to this gentle version of Man in the Mirror sung by Angela Watson.




Archbishop Helder Camara on charity and social justice
quote by Archbishop Helder Camara

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is


“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.1  — C. West




Connection amid political chaos: Impossible, you say?

Connection in plitical calls in Tucson, AZ to urge early voting.
Finding connection with political calls in Tucson to urge early voting.

Connection amid political chaos: Impossible, you say?

Last Wednesday I volunteered at a political phone bank in Arizona.

It was the day of the last Presidential debate and 20 days before the election.

My only job was to urge citizens of Tucson to vote early.

Simple enough.

My workspace was sparse: ear buds, cell phone, call sheets, and a written script.

John, the 20 something manager-on-duty, offered three minutes of instructions including the mandate not to leave messages.

As a swing state, Arizona voters are flooded with calls like mine. One message I heard confirmed it: “If you’re calling about politics, hang up now.”

About an hour into my shift after I’d had a couple of angry responses to my suggestion that folks vote early, an idea came to mind.

If I put more emphasis on the tools of The Connection Practice I’d have a better chance of empathizing with whomever and whatever I encountered.

I started with self-care by focusing on my own emotions and why I was making these calls.

I’d been feeling powerless, agitated, frustrated and worried. My needs for peace, balance, and progress were high, but no satisfaction was in sight.

I asked for wisdom about the calls I was making. And then I paused.

I waited until a truth came forward in the form of reassurance.

Confirmation that because I care deeply about the outcome of this election, any small contribution I make will move me toward my own power and could even help create the progress I’m desiring.

With my own motives clear, I turned attention to the people on my list.

Might they be feeling fear and confusion?

Could it be some were distressed because their needs for ease and safety seemed far from where we were?

Considering strangers’ needs as well as my own changed the nature of my calls.

Instead of selling people on voting early, I listened, empathized, and if an opening presented itself, I encouraged early participation in the voting process.

Connecting with Voters

Then Dan, 41 years old, a registered independent, answered my call.

“Hi. This is Ellen. . . . I’m calling to ask if we can count on you to vote early this year?”

“No ma’am, you can’t. It’s disgusting what’s going on.”

“Sounds like you’re really disappointed. What’s bothering you most about the election?”

He told me, ending with, “I just can’t bring myself to vote for either one.

“I know that’s not what you want to hear. I’m sorry, ma’am.”

Yet I was oddly energized.

In that short exchange two people with different mindsets had expressed empathy for one another.

Here was a guy telling me exactly what I didn’t want to hear and yet the call felt like a success.

The next person who answered was an 80-year-old woman, Angeleine.

She said for the first time in her adult life she’s refusing to vote for a President.

“One’s a Nazi and the other should be jailed,” she said.

I asked if she felt discouraged.

Her voice softened. “Yes,” she said. “I’ve never felt like this before. It’s just awful. There’s so much fighting. I’m so angry. This isn’t right . . . ”

“I can understand why you don’t want to vote,” I said,

“If you change your mind, would you like to know where the closest early voting is?”

She declined.

I knew she was hurting; so was I.

Nonetheless I was grateful that that the two of us had, if only for a moment, found common ground.

With both Dan and Angeleine I experienced connection amid chaos.

What else might be possible if more of us knew and practiced these skills?

Could family divides be mended? What about gender equality? Might bullying be reduced?

Today I’m off to volunteer at a local nonprofit.

If you asked me what the likelihood is I’ll need empathy for myself or someone else in such a friendly place, I’d say the chances are right around 100%.

They usually are.

I’ll keep you posted.

Connections in more posts

•  Wyoming Social Justice in Action: What exactly does love look like in public?

•  Why I care: Witnessing Childhood Injustices