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Sam’s Soapbox: Detroit’s Water Crisis & What it Means for EVERY US City

Sam Halpert, PSJD Fellow 2014 – 2015

First, the news:

One of the many community water stations that have emerged in response to the ongoing crisis in Detroit.
Citizens of Detroit: whistleblowers, not freeloaders.
(Photo: People’s Water Brigade-CC License)

Yesterday afternoon, two UN-appointed human rights investigators with mandates to understand and develop the human right to adequate housing and the human right to water (respectively) concluded their three-day investigation into Detroit’s ongoing humanitarian crisis with a press conference at the Crowne Plaza Riverfront Hotel.

According to their press release, the UN experts were “deeply startled” by the magnitude of people affected: “thousands of households are living in fear that their water may be shut off at any time without due notice, that they may have to leave their homes and that children may be taken by child protection services as houses without water are deemed uninhabitable for children.” As the UN News Center reports, the Special Rapporteur on the human right to water was particularly blunt: “It is contrary to human rights to disconnect water from people who simply do not have the means to pay their bills.” The UN investigators called on the City of Detroit, the Federal government, and other lawmaking authorities to take a variety of steps to remedy Detroit’s problems and to protect against similar vulnerabilities elsewhere.

When people ask me what I would do if I could work on anything, I don’t blink: Water Affordability. This moment seems a perfect time to grab my first soapbox. Every once in awhile, I’ll take a break from more typical PSJD blogging to write about issues that matter to me personally as an advocate. This is a big one. The recent UN visit to Detroit invites a few questions which I’ll try to address in this post: First, is access to water for domestic uses a human right? Second, are thousands of people in Detroit really without the means to pay their bills? And third, why are some of the UN’s recommendations aimed at government actors generally—isn’t this a Detroit problem? In brief: yes, yes, and no.

The Human Right to Water – An Emergent Norm

Access to water for drinking and sanitation is a human right. It is explicitly mentioned in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights has discussed at length the right’s implicit presence within the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ (ICESCR) “right to an adequate standard of living.” Within the last few years, the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council have adopted resolutions formally recognizing the human right to water.

Granted, UN resolutions are not binding, and the United States has not ratified either CEDAW or the ICESCR. That’s likely why the Special Rapporteur’s comments yesterday were carefully shaded, discussing Detroit’s disconnections as “contrary to,” rather than “a violation of,” human rights.  That doesn’t make her wrong. The idea that human beings have a right to water for limited domestic purposes (drinking, cooking, washing, sanitation) and that states must progressively realize this right among the people they govern is an increasingly well-accepted international norm. Other countries may not have the means to provide water, but we do. And yet we do not. We are disconnecting thousands of people from water services for circumstances beyond their control, contrary to this emergent norm. Whether the United States has a legal obligation or not, it has failed its people in the eyes of the international community. That ought to be a big deal.

Water Affordability – A Nationwide Issue

So far, though, I’ve assumed that people losing access to water in Detroit have no control over their situation. As the Special Rapporteur said, disconnections are contrary to human rights only if the people disconnected “do not have the means to pay their bills.” How do I know that the residents of Detroit—half of whom were subject to disconnection notices this past summer—are actually that insolvent? It may be difficult to accept, but water is increasingly priced beyond the reach of many low-income families.

We’re used to thinking of water as inexpensive because for a long time the way we’ve managed it has prevented us from feeling the true cost of water service. For one thing, we’ve deferred maintenance on our water system for so long that estimates for the cost of renovations run from the hundreds of billions to the low trillions. Moreover, when we do pay up, it’ll be in a financial regime under which rate-payers are covering a much higher proportion of the tab than they used to. In previous phases of infrastructure development, state and federal governments would cover some costs in the form of grants. In the 1980s, we replaced these grants with loans, pushing water systems to charge their customers full-cost or nearly full-cost rates (see page 21). In the last 20 years, regular ratepayers have financed 90% of water and wastewater investments in the United States.

Logically, low-income households are the first to feel the pressure. The US Conference of Mayors and the American Water Works Association consider water to be “unaffordable” for households which must devote more than 2% of their monthly income to water bills. Little data available describes how many people in the United States live under these conditions, but what there is is discouraging. For example, the Pacific Institute recently estimated that over 100,000 households in the Sacramento region pay more than this 2% threshold. (Not people, households.)

As far as I know, most of these Sacramento households are still paying for water. The Pacific Institute’s study merely suggests they’re seriously struggling to afford their bills. Rules for how water utilities may proceed against customers in arrears vary from location to location, but many utilities will disconnect customers who fail to pay them. This measure might make sense in a system where water is cheap enough to be readily affordable for most people. In such a system, being disconnected would be a wakeup call to poorly-organized or dishonest individuals to take out their wallets and pay into the system. Disconnections would be brief, and would prevent anyone from freeloading.

But we don’t live in that system. When people genuinely can’t afford their water bills, they can’t simply pay up. Even if they find the money (and Detroit has had some success with collections through its shutoff campaign), qualitative research in Detroit and Boston suggests that families often turn their water back on by giving up prescription medications, food, or other essential goods also protected by human rights principles. If they can’t find the money, prolonged disconnections create severe consequences for affected families who find themselves unable to bathe at home (making it harder to stay employed), unable to cook or do laundry, forced to send children to live with relatives so child protective services won’t place them in foster care, and at risk of losing their homes entirely.

Struggling households aren’t asking for water to be free. Only for it to be affordable. If it were, some experts think water utilities might actually collect more revenue, not less. When customers genuinely can’t afford their bills, disconnecting them is more likely to result in default. The utility loses one of its customers, and must raise rates on every other customer in order to pay off the fixed cost of its infrastructure. If water utilities were to keep customers paying into the system at whatever rate they could manage (based on ability to pay), they would be able to put more toward these fixed costs than if they leave many former customers disconnected.

Looking Beyond Detroit

So far, much of the coverage of Detroit’s water crisis has assumed that the problem is specific to Detroit. I hope I’ve made the case it isn’t. As a nation, we’ve under-financed our water infrastructure and changed our finance strategies to rely on local ratepayers instead of state or federal tax dollars. As water becomes unaffordable for many Americans (just how many is hard to determine), the collections policies of many of our water utilities continue to assume it’s cheap. Detroit isn’t the only city where water disconnections are causing widespread human suffering: the problem is also significant in more prosperous cities like Boston. We don’t know how many such cities there are, and any city where large numbers of households struggle with their water bills is one economic shock away from the level of injustice and suffering that’s brought the United Nations’ humanitarian experts to Detroit’s doorstep. The citizens of Detroit who have been struggling to call attention to this issue for years are not freeloaders, but whistleblowers, working valiantly to inform the public of a hidden danger to us all.

I think the UN’s independent experts understand this. Speaking yesterday, they directed their recommendations not only to the City of Detroit but to the country generally. With one recommendation in particular, I think they’ve identified the smallest, simplest and easiest first step: They want federal and state agencies to deny funding and permits to water utilities that refuse to report annually on their water shutoff practices. From talking with non-profits focused on this issue, I’ve learned that the reason there’s little information about water affordability is because water utilities have resisted non-profits’ questions about their customer bases and survey methods like those used in Sacramento and Boston are difficult and expensive to implement. Tying utilities’ funding and development permissions to these reporting requirements would require only a small commitment from governments, but would generate the information we all need to truly understand the scale of this problem and –hopefully–will bring us one step closer to forming the political resolve we need to fix it.

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EJW Fellowship Deadlines EXTENDED for Animal Rights, Texas Orgs

Sam Halpert, PSJD Fellow 2014 – 2015

If you’re not sure what to do with your weekend, here’s a suggestion: consider applying for an Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Regular readers may recall that in my post on Project-Based Fellowships a few weeks back, I noted that Equal Justice Works Fellowships are about the most prominent (along with Skadden Fellowships). An EJW Fellowship is a fantastic start to a public interest career: By the organization’s own count, over 85% of Fellows are able to continue their careers in public interest. A number of them go on to become the Executive Directors of legal service organizations or found their own organizations themselves.

At this point, though, you may be confused. After all, the initial application deadline for EJW Fellowships was September 17th. But that’s why I’m excited: Equal Justice Works has extended the application deadlines for two subsets of their Project-Based Fellowships. Specifically, if you’re interested in working on a variety of legal aid issues in Texas or on Animal Law issues anywhere, you should strongly consider reaching out to organizations to create project proposals right now. In Texas, one foundation issuing EJW grants would like to see a larger pool of applications before it begins to evaluate its candidates. In the Animal Law field, it seems as though the overall demand was greater than initial interest. Either way, if you’re interested in these two areas its not too late to apply for an EJW Fellowship this year! Here’s how EJW explained their decision to extend these deadlines:

Texas Access to Justice Foundation Grantee Fellowships:

“We recently learned that Equal Justice Works’ applicant pool for the 2015-16 Class has very few applicants with [Texas Access to Justice Foundation] grantees as the host organization. While TAJF has made no decision regarding any current applicants, they have asked Equal Justice Works to re-open the application to diversity the pool. Again, the quality of the current candidates has not yet been reviewed or judged—this decision is about the total number of applications received. All applicants will be carefully reviewed once the pool is complete…The new deadline for these Fellowship applications is December 1, 2014 at 5:00pm EST. Should you have any questions please contact Carolyn Schorr at cschorr@equaljusticeworks.org or (202) 466-3686 ext. 137. To speak to TAJF about this opportunity, please contact Lisa Melton at ldmelton@teajf.org.”

EJW also directs potential applicants to this list of Texas Access to Justice Foundation’s grantees.

Animal Law Fellowships:

“Equal Justice Works is extending the deadline for applicants interested in working on Animal Law issues! There is a growing demand for strong candidates with top quality projects across the country. You now have until November 15th, 2014 to submit an application…If you have questions about Equal Justice Works Fellowships, please visit our website or contact cschorr@equaljusticeworks.org.”

Good luck with your project proposals!

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Winter is Coming: Homeless Advocates Prep for Cold Weather Services. Can You Help?

Sam Halpert, PSJD Fellow 2014 – 2015

As I write, my co-workers are festooning my desk with plastic ghosts and rubber spiders. It’s fall. But while DC’s nights may only be beginning to bite, for homeless advocacy organizations it’s already time to start preparing for winter, when shelter can be a matter of life or death for individuals experiencing homelessness here and in cities around the country. In one way or another, volunteers are often crucial to helping their neighbors make it through the winter. If you want to be involved, the time to begin is now:

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Ameriqa [Zach Stern, 25 Jan 2011]
Limited License under Creative Commons

For example, in the District of Columbia formal responsibility for ensuring homeless individuals survive the winter lies with the city. DC’s Homeless Services Reform Act of 2005 provides that the District “shall” provide space indoors for homeless people when the temperature falls below freezing [§7(c)]. It’s one of the few cities in the United States that does so. But as DC’s homeless population has grown to include more families (who have an additional, more expensive right to separate facilities [§7(d)]), these families have become increasingly less welcome in District shelters. In recent years, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless has found DC officials shutting the door on homeless families through “unlawful procedures that have created almost insurmountable obstacles.” According to the Legal Clinic’s 2013 report, DC officials have failed to call hypothermia conditions in a timely fashion after freezing forecasts, denied pregnant women and single fathers shelter placement, and threatened to expel families for unauthorized reasons. This is where you come in.

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless has responded by creating the Homeless Family Outreach Project. The project depends on law students and community members willing to serve as volunteers. These volunteers stand in front of the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, DC’s central intake center for families seeking shelter (920 Rhode Island Avenue NE). They pass out flyers and speak one-on-one with families about the family right to shelter under DC law and other rights crucial to survival under severe weather conditions. They provide families with contact information for local officials so homeless families can speak to decision-makers about their needs. Finally, volunteers connect families who believe they have been unlawfully denied shelter or who have suffered from other legal violations to legal counsel at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless so that an attorney can try to assist them.

The project itself won’t begin until next month: volunteer outreach runs Monday – Thursday from November 1st to March 31st in two shifts (8:00 – 9:30am and 3:00 – 4:30pm). But volunteers must attend a training before doing outreach. (For more information or to RSVP for a training, contact the Legal Clinic’s volunteer coordinator at Kaitlyn.uhl@legalclinic.org or call 202-328-1263.)

Homeless advocacy groups in other cities may not have as strong a legal hook to hang their winter efforts on, but there are groups across the country doing what they can within their own communities to help folks see another Spring. If you’re curious about what work is happening in your own area, you might try looking up the respondent organizations to the National Coalition for the Homeless’ 2010 Report on Winter Homeless Services. If you know what work is happening in your own area and you’d like to receive the same attention from PSJD as the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, write to me at psjd@nalp.org and I’ll post your volunteer information as an update to this article.

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Starting your project-based fellowship proposal: Where and why lawyers give great ideas away

by Sam Halpert, PSJD Fellow (2014 – 2015)

Those of you in your last year of law school are probably considering the variety of organizations offering themselves as potential partners for 2015’s batch of project-based fellowships.

If you haven’t heard about these entry-level opportunities, here’s the short version: they’re the most straightforward way to do what you are most interested in straight out of law school. You should read each fellowship’s application materials carefully before applying, but speaking loosely each follows a similar model: Prospective fellows partner with non-profit organizations to propose new projects that the hopeful applicant would undertake—projects which would expand the scope of the sponsoring non-profit’s work. Fellowship committees provide grants to their new Fellows to complete the proposed project at the host organization. In other words, successful fellowship candidates write their own job descriptions—not a bad first year as a lawyer.

The tricky part about getting a project-based fellowship is that you can’t apply on your own. You have to convince a non-profit to sponsor your application. You can find a sizeable number of non-profits looking for promising potential fellows to sponsor right now on PSJD. (Try searching for “Job Type: Fellowship – Legal: Project-Based” in the advanced search or searching for the keyword “Fellowship Sponsor” [in quotations].) Some of these organizations have project ideas already, and are looking for a 3L with the right experiences and skillset to successfully pull them off. Many, however, expect prospective fellows to bring their own proposals to the table.

This can be a daunting task. At the beginning of your third year of legal education, you may have been exposed to public-interest legal work through your internships or a clinic, but that doesn’t mean that you’ve observed some “group or issue not adequately represented in our legal system” and arrived at a clear idea about how to address the problem legally with the support of a host organization, to paraphrase the EJW Application Guide. So, as you set out to secure yourself a sponsor, you may be wondering, “Where do project ideas come from?”

In the non-profit legal world, there is far more work to be done than resources with which to do it. Mostly, this fact is discouraging. But students looking for project ideas should take heart: with a little research, you can find a plethora of already-identified legal needs begging for more attention.

Some of these issues are lucky enough to make the news. For example, last May NPR ran “Guilty and Charged”: a special series documenting at length its yearlong investigation into nationwide practices punishing impoverished defendants more harshly than those with means.  Among other resources, the series includes a state-by-state survey of costs courts pass on to defendants and profiles of a variety of individuals who suffered at the hands of such fee-based justice systems. If you’re interested in procedural due process or economic justice, check out the series and see what jumps out at you.

When reading NPR’s series, one thing you’ll notice is that particular legal organizations, such as the Southern Center for Human Rights, NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, and Arch City Defenders, drove NPR’s reporting. Many legal practitioners already know what they would work on if they had the resources and the manpower. Not all of them are fortunate enough to attract NPR’s attention. Look for organizations with missions related to your particular social concerns (try searching PSJD’s employer profiles) and see if they have white papers or reports about emergent issues they hope to address. For example, Georgetown Law’s Human Rights Institute funds a student-led fact-finding mission investigating an emerging human rights crisis each year. Each mission generates a report based on its research, but few of them attract enough resources to continue their work beyond their initial year. A number of these reports focus on human rights crises in the United States and would be excellent sources for a project proposal.

Once you find an idea that grabs you, try following up with some of the legal authorities behind it. An email or phone call might seem pushy, but these organizations will have unbeatable insight into what needs to be done next and will jump at the chance to help you convince a fellowship committee to devote resources to their issue. (Speaking personally, I would love to see my past work with Georgetown on urban water shutoffs receive this kind of attention from prospective project fellows.)

So remember, if you’re stuck: The proposal will be yours. The project will be yours. The inspiration doesn’t have to be. While you’ve been in school, some lawyer somewhere is already championing your particular interest. Find out what that person would do with enough time or enough money and begin your project proposal there.

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The ABA’s Steve Grumm Breaks Down New York’s New Pro Bono Scholars Program

During last week’s annual State of the Judiciary address, New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced the new voluntary Pro Bono Scholars Program. This new initiative would allow 3Ls to study and sit for the February bar exam and spend the rest of their final year of law school completing pro bono work with an academic component.

Steve Grumm, friend of NALP and director of the ABA Resource Center for Access to Justice Initiatives, recently posted a few initial thoughts and reactions on the Program for the ABA’s Access to Justice blog:

  • How are we defining “pro bono”? Clearly academic credit is not a barrier b/c it’s a part of the Program. How about paid/stipended placements? Since the Program is connected with the 50-hour Rule, maybe the Program will use the 50-hour Rule’s broad definition of pro bono. [EDIT: a law school administrator friend weighed in: “The definition will need to comply with the requirements of participating law schools' clinical/externship/academic programs. So it is not clear that pro bono work for which law students are paid will be allowed because the law schools will not be allowed to grant academic credit for paid pro bono work (even though certain paid pro bono work can count towards the 50-hour bar admission rule).”]

  • Can/will law schools reduce tuition on 3L spring semester?

  • Could a student participate in the Program without sitting for the Feb. bar exam?

  • To whom do 2Ls apply to participate in the Program? Their school, NY Board of Law examiners, NY courts? My guess based on the Chief’s announcement is that the schools will administer Program participation.

  • When will the Program roll out? Presumably this depends on the pace of the Advisory Committee and Task Force work, and the time law schools will need to create administrative structures.

To read the full blog post, including Chief Judge Lippman’s full address, head over to the ABA Access to Justice blog.

 

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Class of 2013 Skadden Fellows again a mixed group

The Skadden Foundation has listed its Class-of-2013 fellows.  Twenty-nine fellows, hailing from 16 law schools, will begin their projects next year.  Six schools had multiple fellowship awardees: Columbia (2); Harvard (6); NYU (4); Stanford (2); Georgetown (2) and Yale (3).  Other schools from which fellows come include Penn, Michigan State, University of Washington, Boston College, UCLA, UC Irvine, Washington & Lee, Vanderbilt, University of Chicago, and University of Illinois.  The 2013 Class includes four additional fellowships funded in memory of Joe Flom and Peter Mullen.  The Fellows will work in 10 states and the District of Columbia, focusing on issues ranging from the harassment of LGBT students in rural, impoverished regions of New York State to the foreclosure of homes of working poor Los Angeles families.

For comparison’s sake, here’s how previous Skadden Fellowship classes looked:

  • 2012:  28 fellows from 16 law schools;
  • 2011:  29 fellows from 21 law schools;
  • 2010: 27 fellows from 20 law schools;
  • 2009: 28 fellows from 14 law schools;
  • 2008: 36 fellows from 16 law schools.

Congratulations to the Class of 2013!  The Fellowship is such a extraordinary honor, and we look forward to seeing the great things you will accomplish.

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Job o’ the Day: Alan Morrison Supreme Court Assistance Project Fellowship with the Public Citizen Litigation Group in DC

From the job posting:

To augment its Supreme Court litigation, the Litigation Group operates the Alan Morrison Supreme Court Assistance Project, named after the Group’s founder. The Project focuses on helping small-firm practitioners, lawyers for non-profit organizations, and other lawyers with little or no experience in Supreme Court litigation. The Project provides direct assistance to lawyers before review is granted, either by helping with a petition for certiorari or a brief in opposition, and provides assistance in cases in which review is granted, working with the lawyers to prepare briefs and oral argument. In some cases, a Litigation Group attorney will become the lead lawyer on the case.

The Litigation Group is looking for a bright, energetic lawyer to coordinate the Project and work on Supreme Court cases for one year. Most, but not all, of the cases on which we work are civil rather than criminal. Most of our work at the petition stage involves assisting the party who won below in preparing an opposition to the petition for certiorari, to keep the case out of the Court and thereby preserve a victory. The fellow will review all paid cert. petitions. Working under the direct supervision of the Litigation Group director, the fellow makes an initial judgment about whether the case is of interest to the Project and prepares a memo and recommendation about whether to offer assistance. Considerable legal research and analysis are often required to determine whether assertions in the petition, such as a conflict among the courts of appeals, are supportable. The fellow then makes an initial contact with the attorney to whom help is being offered to explain the Project and the assistance that we can provide. In addition, all cases accepted by the Court for full review are considered for possible assistance by the Project. When an offer of help is accepted, a Litigation Group attorney assumes principal responsibility for the case within the office. For a list of the Project’s current cases, see http://www.citizen.org/ litigation/forms/scap_index.cfm.

The application deadline is12/09/2013. Ideal applicants will have had some practical litigation experience while in school or elsewhere and a solid academic background, in addition to a demonstrated commitment to public interest work.

For more information, view the full job listing at PSJD.org (log-in required).

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Job o’ the Day: Director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project in Durham, North Carolina

From the PSJD job posting:

The Capital Punishment Project (CPP) of the American Civil Liberties Union is seeking applicants for a full-time Project Director to work in its Durham, North Carolina office. The effective hire date will be on or about October 1, 2013.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Job o’ the Day: Southern Education Leadership Initiative with the Southern Education Foundation

The Southern Education Foundation is the South’s oldest education philanthropy organization, dating back all the way to 1867. Their mission is to advance equity and excellence in education for low income students and communities in the South – a region that is home to the nation’s poorest people. With low levels of education attainment and high dropout rates, the Southern Education Foundation helps fulfill the need for new leaders to develop community partnerships and corrective public policies that will improve education equity, quality and opportunity at all levels.

In 2004, SEF initiated the Southern Education Leadership Initiative to provide highly motivated and diverse graduate students opportunities to develop leadership skills and engage with their communities on contemporary education issues. Students spend the summer in trainings and working at a leading nonprofit sector organization. From the PSJD job posting:

Interns Receive:

  • An opportunity to work for eight weeks in an organization concerned with equity and excellence in education e.g., a policy institution, community-based organization or philanthropic institution;
  • A modest stipend and travel expenses for summer trainings;
  • Exposure to research in the field, practical experience, and opportunities to meet and work with outstanding and inspiring education reformers and advocates.
  • Professional development and leadership trainings that orient them to issues in education and the nonprofit sector.
  • Opportunities to network, reflect, and exchange ideas with fellow interns.

Eligibility Requirements:

  • Must be between the ages of 20-32 years old to qualify for program.
  • Completion of 60 credit hours (or the equivalent of junior status & above in undergraduate program) or enrollment in a graduate program or law program at a college or university.
  • Familiarity with or demonstrated interest in social justice and/or education policy and practice.
  • Excellent interpersonal, writing, and critical thinking skills, with flexibility to respond well to diverse people, settings, and tasks.
  • Submission of the complete application by due date, including all supporting documents. (No exceptions on late applications will be made). Application available here: http://southerneducation.org/SEF/media/Education-Legends/2013-Program-Application.pdf
  • Must be willing to potentially relocate for summer, not take any kind of coursework or other job opportunities during summer program, and attend in full the Orientation and Closing Meetings of the program.

The summer stipend is $4500 and the deadline to apply is March 1, 2013. For more information, view the full job listing at PSJD.org (log-in required).

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On a Lighter Note: Washington Post’s “What’s Out?/What’s In?” List for the New Year

If you’re sick of lists, you have our apologies.  Here’s the Washington Post’s annual offering, “The List”, which purports to tells us what’s coming down the pike in pop culture, and what’s being forgotten.  For some of us it’s a lesson in, “Darn! I just learned what that is and now it’s gone!”

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