Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke

Category: History

How Art Reflected Child Mortality in the 20th Century

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How does parenting change when infant and child mortality affects every family in society? Recent history may provide an answer. For the entirety of the 19th Century, child mortality was ubiquitous. In the year 1880, nearly 35% of children born in the United States passed away in their first five years. The medical literature that explores the common diseases and public health inadequacies, though expansive, often fails to address the central humanistic questions surrounding such widespread death. How were these children mourned? How did grieving families move on? And how has this mourning changed in the context of the past hundred years of medical advancement?

These guiding questions drove Dr. Perri Klass, Professor of Journalism and Pediatrics at NYU, to pen her recently published book, “The Best Medicine: How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future.” A distinguished clinician, author, and medical historian, Klass explored prominent art and literary works from this era of high infant and child mortality at the recent Trent Humanities in Medicine Lecture at the Duke School of Medicine, titled “One Vacant Chair: Remembering Children”.

Dr. Perri Klass, MD

Throughout the lecture, Klass guided the audience through famous portraits, poems, and prose produced in the 18th Century that memorialized children who had died at a young age. Perhaps the most famous fictional account of childhood death in the 19th century emerged in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The emotionally wrenching death scene of young Eva, who succumbed to tuberculosis, struck a chord with virtually all those who read the novel. Published in 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin would go on to be reproduced in theaters across the country for several decades, the death scene becoming a ubiquitous anchor that often brought the audience to tears. Klass further described how Beecher Stowe drew from her personal experience, the death of her son Charlie from cholera only a few years prior to the writing of the book, to create this powerful literary scene.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Published in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Beecher Stowe was not the only author whose personal experience impacted their art. Charles Dickens, deeply impacted by the death of his children, had created a slew of sentimental yet mortal child characters in his stories. One of the most prominent examples, young Nell from “The Old Curiosity Shop,” was published in installments and developed a strong following. Dickens ended the series with the death of twelve-year old Nell, much to the outrage of international readers.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that parents chose to memorialize their deceased children through literature and art. Wealthy families would often contract famous portrait artists were often contracted to depict their dead children. Some, including the Rockefellers and the Stanfords, channeled the deaths of their children and grandchildren into resourced academic institutions.

For grief to drive philanthropy and art is not a new phenomenon, but the sources of grief that drive such artistic and financial overtures today have changed considerably. Klass sought to bridge this knowledge gap and pull closer the history to which society has the privilege of being oblivious. Maybe, even, it would even inform how we cope with the mortality of young people today.

“How do we situate ourselves in a world where infant and child mortality is so low?” Klass asked at the beginning of her presentation.

The past does not reveal one clear answer, but it does provide a tapestry of options, many lost in our modern collective memory, for mourning, for celebrating, and for memorializing.

Post by Vibhav Nandagiri, Class of 2025

American Epidemics and the Viral Underclass

March 2020. The subsequent blur of months. Of spring into summer, fall into winter, a year into another and likely into the next. Like millions of humans around the world, 2020 itself feels infected, as if wrapped up with yellow caution tape. Virus dominates the current zeitgeist; pandemic won Merriam-Webster’s 2020 word of the year; vaccine in 2021.

We are all proto-virologists, sludging through the constant slew of “viral” media: novel variants, outbreaks, booster shots, mutations (a jargon in which we’re collectively fluent). 

In the somewhat-receding wake of COVID-19, like floodwater, viral fear recently surged again when the World Health Organization began reporting monkeypox (MPX) outbreaks in Europe and North America. The stigmatization of MPX patients as “disease-spreaders” (in the media, on the internet, in conversation, etc.) suggests these individuals have a kind of authority over the virulent strands of DNA in their bodies. This belief aligns with the etymology of “virus” from the Latin “poison,” a word that functions as both noun and verb. Passive and active. Culpable.

Alan Krumeweide in Contagion (Claudette Barius / Warner Bros.)

I’m reminded of Jude Law’s fear-mongering character in Contagion, Alan Krumewiede, the conspiracy theorist who conjectured MEV-1, the film’s fictional virus, was “Godzilla, King Kong, Frankenstein, all in one.” 

Of course, this sentiment did not bud from MPX or COVID-19 like a novel variant. No, it has existed in the United States for decades, if not longer, and it has not been dormant.

Dr. Stephen Thrasher, a scholar of the criminalization of HIV/AIDS at Northwestern University, stood in Duke’s anthropology lecture hall this month and drew parallels between the recent MPX/COVID-19 epidemics and that of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s-90s and stretching into the new millennium. He asked us to raise our hands if we personally knew someone with HIV/AIDS. A few did. If we knew someone who had died from HIV-related causes. A few less. What about COVID? The entire audience raised hands as if to signal the new era of viral infection.

Dr. Steven Thrasher is the inaugural Daniel H. Renberg Chair of social justice in reporting (with an emphasis on issues relevant to the LGBTQ community) and an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern. His research focuses on HIV in America.

Since the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1981, more than 700,000 people have died from HIV-related illness in the United States, a disproportionate number of whom were men who had sex with men and injection drug users (with poverty exacerbating the likelihood of acquisition).

As Thrasher historicized, the stigma that encapsulated HIV/AIDS significantly delayed life-saving interventions on the local and national scale. Prejudice hindered research funding, drug distribution, and government health agency mobilization. The rising tide of the HIV/AIDS epidemic was concurrent with increased violence towards the LGBTQ community, and gay men in particular, analogous to a king tide flooding the coastline.

Thrasher exemplified this taboo through the “patient zero” misconception, which was propagated by the media during the epidemic and embedded like a splinter in pop culture’s thumb (i.e. the film Patient Zero with Matt Smith, Stanley Tucci, and Natalie Dormer). 

Gaëtan Dugas was miscredited as Patient Zero of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in America 
Credit: Fadoo Productions

Gaëtan Dugas, a Québécois Canadian flight attendant, was inappropriately labeled “patient zero” of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in America. As Thrasher and other researchers have debunked, Dugas was, in fact, not the first person to bring HIV to the United States. Further, Dugas was not even included in the early infection group. And Dugas was Patient O (like oh), not zero, for Out-of-State. Yet, this contextualization of the virus endures despite being disproved. Upon diagnosis, many infected individuals will experience shame.

In the 1980s and 90s, HIV/AIDS was characterized as the “gay plague,” setting ablaze a moral panic in America comparable to that of the Satanic Panic, rock ‘n’ roll, and fear of razor blades stuffed into gooey 3 Musketeers bars at Halloween (and there’s an interesting overlap in the timing of these hysterias in the collective American consciousness). And just two months ago even, many people were characterizing MPX in the same accusatory and morally dubious way. 

Like with the AIDS epidemic, Thrasher said the US government failed to mobilize public health initiatives early enough to proactively stifle MPX outbreaks in spite of the disease’s well-documented diffusion across Europe and into neighboring Canada.

“We could’ve tapped the Strategic National Stockpile,” he argued. Thrasher listed multiple public health interventions that could have and should have been implemented with the first faint smoke signals of MPX in the United States (as they were in the past for meningitis and polio outbreaks). 

For context, the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) is a cache of medicines, antibiotics, and vaccines that the government started to accumulate just prior to 9/11 in 2001 and, seemingly, in an exponential manner after — almost like doomsday preppers hoarding freeze-dried beef stroganoff and cans of beans in their underground bunkers. Born from the smoking rubble and smoke of New York City following the terrorist attack, fear of biological warfare, especially the weaponization of smallpox, paralyzed the US (i.e. the Anthrax scare).

The SNS was tapped after 9/11, for 12 major hurricanes, COVID-19, and the swine flu (to name a few), but not for monkeypox.

As historically evidenced, mass vaccination and herd immunity effectively prevent the spread of viral infections, especially for slow-mutating viruses like MPX.

“We should have quickly vaccinated queer men and transmasc people,” Thrasher said, “building on a very historic anomaly which is that adults have been socialized to take vaccines en masse in a way that has not happened in many decades.” And because MPX and smallpox are closely related viruses, a rollout of the stockpile’s smallpox vaccine could have nipped the outbreak in the bud. 

But, the SNS was not tapped. 100 million doses remain stockpiled. There are nearly 28,000 total monkeypox cases documented in the United States.

A large focus of Thrasher’s research is on who is affected by viruses, and how, and why. Nearing 6.6 million COVID-19 deaths worldwide, many would argue that viruses — these ancient, non-life forms — are Earth’s “great equalizers,” as acknowledged by Thrasher in multiple publications. Evolution has pushed them to infect, replicate, and spread: machine-like and non-discriminatory.

But, he added, viruses are not great equalizers. Infection is inherently unequal. Again, we must ask the question who?

Thrasher’s book The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide was recently long-listed for the 2023 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in nonfiction

Viral infections disproportionately burden marginalized bodies and communities, a concept Thrasher framed as the viral underclass (coined by activist Sean Strub and reshaped by Thrasher to describe this phenomenon)Writing in his book of the same name, “… the viral underclass can help us think about how and why marginalized populations are subjected to increased harms of viral transmission, exposure, replication, and death.”  

Let’s return to the MPX vaccine. The Biden administration did not tap the SNS for mass vaccination. Instead, it rolled out meager health interventions at a snail’s pace (like Sisyphus pushing his stone up the hill). Still, many at-risk individuals, in particular men who have sex with men, opted to receive a two-shot regimen to protect themselves from the virus. Considering the viral underclass, Thrasher posed the following questions: 

Who is disproportionately burdened by MPX in the US? He answered, “Black and Latino men who have sex with men.” 

And, who is receiving the medical interventions to protect themselves from the painful infection? He answered again, “I got one MPX vaccine shot, almost everyone in line but me and a friend were white.” He describes the discrepancy between those receiving the vaccine and those most at-risk of acquiring MPX in his Scientific American article “Monkeypox Is a Sexually Transmitted Infection, and Knowing That Can Help Protect People.”

And his years of HIV research corroborate this trend.

From the New York Times, Michael Johnson has been working to overturn laws criminalizing HIV in the United States.

He spoke (and wrote in The Viral Underclass) about his time reporting the Michael Johnson court case in St. Louis, Missouri. Michael Johnson, a black, gay, former college wrestler, was sentenced to 30 years in prison after failing to disclose his HIV status to his sexual partners — a criminal offense. The prosecution had sought a maximum 60.5 years, practically a life sentence.

For context, in the state of North Carolina, the maximum sentence for voluntary manslaughter is a little under five and a half years. In the courtroom, Thrasher was privy to the prosecution’s smoking gun: Johnson had previously signed a legally-binding acknowledgment of his HIV diagnosis. With the flick of a pen, nondisclosure was a criminal offense.

In his interviews, however, Thrasher found that Michael Johnson was semi-illiterate and had not been properly informed of the legal implications of the document he had signed. Nor had he been informed of the consequences of breaking the legal contract. Nor had he been counseled or given any legal advice prior to being charged. 

Michael Johnson was released from prison 25 years early after his ruling was overturned. His is a body in the viral underclass. 

Excerpted from Thrasher’s book The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide
Vito Russo speaks at the 1988 ACT UP demonstration at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C.
Credit: Rick Gerharter/HBO Documentary Films

Concluding his lecture, Thrasher quoted AIDS activist Vito Russo’s Why We Fight speech from the 1988 ACT UP Demonstration at the Department of Health and Human Services. In reading the entire transcript, I found that Russo was aware of the viral underclass, as Thrasher theorized, despite the term not yet existing in the academic ethos. He said in his address: 

“If I’m dying from anything — I’m dying from the fact that not enough rich, white, heterosexual men have gotten AIDS…. Living with AIDS in this country is like living in the twilight zone. Living with AIDS is like living through a war which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches. Every time a shell explodes, you look around and you discover that you’ve lost more of your friends, but nobody else notices. It isn’t happening to them.” 

Is it possible to ever resolve the viral underclass in the US? As long as systemic inequities continue to exist, no. This may seem pessimistic or even cynical, but Thrasher concluded his lecture (and his book) with reserved optimism. “Let’s get to work,” he implored.

If we can identify and actively dismantle the systems that disproportionately burden certain populations with viruses and diseases, like a spool of yarn, we can begin to unravel the viral underclass in America.

Yes, infections should be treated with accessible and affordable medicine. Yes, healthcare should be expanded. Yes, we should continue to improve the efficacy of drugs and diagnostics. But, health interventions alone do not cure communities of disease.

Thrasher found that marginalized bodies will continue to be infected, in spite of medicinal intervention, if the inequities from which the viral underclass emerge are not concurrently cured. Let’s get to work.

If interested, here’s a link to Thrasher’s website and book: http://steventhrasher.com/

Post by Alex Clifford, Class of 2024

What is Biblical Research, Anyway? The Answer Might Surprise You

This is part one of a two-part series; next week we will dive into the nitty-gritty of biblical research, but for now, we’re focusing on what biblical research is and why it matters.

Image courtesy of Duke Divinity School

To the uninitiated, “biblical research” might not conjure up images of dancing, or analyzing films, or studying engineering. But meet Maximillion Whelan. A third-year M.Div. student at Duke, Whelan runs a website for film aficionados focusing on analyzing movie scenes and was recently published in Quarterly Review of Film and Video for an article on theology and film. He notes: “Biblical research sheds light on how everyday activities effectively shape history and are also shaped by history. By “zooming in,” delving into the details and contexts, biblical research enables us to simultaneously “zoom out” – to see what things we are taking for granted, where our readings have led us, and how we take our readings into other spheres of life.”

Image courtesy of Nicole Kallson (as part of her course Introduction to Theology and the Arts)

Or take Divinity School student Nicole Kallson. She is pursuing a Master’s of Theological Studies with a Certificate in Theology and the Arts.

“As a theologian and dancer, I use my background in dance to assist my understanding of the Bible.” Kallson explains. “I tend to focus on ideas of embodiment, beauty, and inter- and intra- personal relationships.”

Both students—along with countless other Blue Devils and other mascot identities—use their studies as a lens through which to examine themselves and their passions. And isn’t that what we emphasize so clearly at Duke—the interdisciplinary, interpersonal, interfaith, international, interwoven identities of people, places, and things? Is that not what research is all about in the end? Perhaps the purpose of biblical research is not as foreign to us as we may think at first.

Degree-seekers may come from expertise in literature, classical studies, practical faith, or other backgrounds that may easily come to mind. But they also come from natural sciences, physical sciences, political science, art and media studies, creative writing, engineering, medicine, sociology, public policy, economics, and so much more. And each of these students is applying their research and understanding of the Bible to their understanding of the world at large, seeking to become better, more intentional academics in the process.

The new Dean of Duke Divinity School was born and raised in Puerto Rico; he has prayed with Pope Francis and presented him with writings on interfaith dialogues. He also has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in mechanical engineering.

Dean Edgardo Colon-Emeric moderated a symposium on the Bible last Friday, October 11, 2022 through the Karsh Alumni Center Forever Learning Institute (part of the Policing Pages series, which Jakaiyah Franklin also wrote about for the Blog!).

“It might seem odd to have a series focused on the Bible as a banned book, given that it’s the most polished book in history,” he opened. He gave an example further; for a time in recent Guatemalan history, possession of the Bible was persecuted as a means of targeting perceived Communist empathizers. Even within Christain communities, he explains, there has been discourse among devotees of certain translations and versions—not all of them amenable.

The event also featured Brent Strawn of the Duke Divinity School and Jennifer Knust from Trinity College of Arts & Sciences Department of Religious Studies.

Jennifer Knust during the Forever Learning Institute’s Policing Pages presentation on the Bible

“The survival of the New Testament as a text and a collection is a theological and practical achievement,” noted Knust. “It is repeatedly refreshed in response to new circumstances, even as remains of past approaches continue to shape what can happen next.”

It is because of the differing opinions of so many people over such a long time that we have different faiths, and biblical research uses the lens of Christianity to evaluate that phenomenon.

Knust continues: “Today we know that there are over 5,000 manuscript copies of the New Testament, none of which are identical in every particular.”

She herself was a member of the board of the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition—the most recent scholarly translation of the Bible, published in 2021. She elaborated on her feelings on the dynamics and fluidity of the text, describing a constant push and pull of desire and tradition. Perhaps researchers, in the present, past, or future, may desire to change words, meanings, or uses of the Bible, but they are contradicted by a tradition dictated by the populous.

Biblical research seeks to answer questions about the Bible— and by extension, the fruitfulness of humanity. The sustainability of religious texts of all kinds is a testament (pun intended) to the success of human minds compounded over thousands of years.

A 1611 copy of the Authorized Version Knust uses as an example of different Protestant translations.

On this PeopleMover-style tour of biblical research, I hope we’ve taken away some key points:

Firstly, the work of many biblical researchers is deeply personal. We’ve discovered through this that the work of any researcher in any field has the potential to be deeply personal.

Additionally, we learned that the interdisciplinary reach of biblical studies works inversely; students may turn to biblical research from other subjects to enhance their work, or they may even turn to other subjects to enhance their work in biblical research.

And finally, we arrive at our destination; next week we’ll talk more in-depth about what biblical research entails and meet some key players in those conversations.

Post by Olivia Ares, Class of 2025

Banned Books Then and Now

With the never-ending news of schools banning books, one has to ask about the history and effectiveness of banned books. Fortunately, the Duke Forever Learning Institute hosted a seminar on the history of banned books in late September and provided examples that showed the ineffectiveness of banned books throughout time.

There was one particular story, however, that caught my eye, and that was the retelling of the history behind a banned book written by a man named Gottschalk. Clare Woods, an associate professor of Classical Studies at Duke, delineated the narrative of Gottschalk’s life from birth to prisoner.

A map containing the monasteries Gottschalk visited. (provided by Dr. Clare Woods)

Gottschalk was born to an aristocratic family around 803 AD and started his academic career when he moved into Fulder, a monastery, to become a monk. However, in 829 AD, Gottschalk left Fulder for reasons based either on the loss of his older brother or the enlightenment he received from the monastery he attended while studying abroad.

Upon leaving Fulder, Gottschalk studied at the monasteries of Corby and then moved to northern Italy after he received his orientation as a priest. Gottschalk was unusual because monks tended not to move around that much, and monks also tended not to speak about their studies on heretical doctrine. Unfortunately for Gottschalk, he ignored the criticisms from other monks and instead grew confident in his studies to the point where he wrote a book about them.

While receiving hate for his ideas from multiple people, one man from Gottschalk’s past was truly adamant about having Gottschalk punished. This man was named Rabbanis, and he was accused by Gottschalk of coercing Gottschalk’s earlier career as a monk. From that, and with Gottschalk leaving the Fulder, Rabbanis developed a personal vendetta against Gottschalk.

This is an excerpt from Gottschalk’s confession, which was provided by Dr. Clare Woods.

Gottschalk, the confident man he was, decided to defend himself at a Synod in Mainz, but it proved unsuccessful because he was condemned by the Synod and banned from the Kingdom of Louis. From there on, things did not improve for Gottschalk because, in the following year, he was brought to a second Synod that was attended by King Charles, who was the brother of King Louis the German. By the end of this Synod, Gottschalk was stripped of his priesthood, sentenced to silence, and imprisoned.

However, even with the punishments Gottschalk personally received and his books being burned, his books were still preserved and influential on others.

This influence seen with Gottschalk’s books after being banned was not an anomaly because that was seen with all banned books throughout history.

Another example was given by Lauren Ginsberg, an associate professor of classical studies, who presented Permussius Cordis, an author who lived under the Roman emperor Tiberius in the 1st century AD.

His story ended in tragedy since his books were included in a mass book burning and he was sentenced to death. However, his book still was able to influence the Roman population due to his daughter Marsha’s vigilance in keeping her father’s book alive.

While I only provided two examples, this pattern of books withstanding their ban is throughout time, and it is being repeated in the present. Across this country, book banning is back in style. In 2018, there were only 347 books that schools formally challenged, but in 2021 it became 1,500.

An example of books that have been banned in multiple schools (Freedman)

While this does put light on our current education system in this country, this is simply a gesture. It does make us think about what children will be learning in schools, but because the books are banned in schools does not mean the information within those books will not reach their target demographic. As seen in history, knowledge always finds a way of spreading, but of course, that is dependent on those who want to expand that knowledge.

At the end of this article, I hope you are reassured that seeing a banned book does not mean it is forever silenced. Instead, I hope that by reading this, you understand that you have all the power to ensure that the words within a book can withstand anything, including time.

Post by Jakaiyah Franklin, Class of 2025

Citation: Freedman, Samuel G. “A Display of Banned or Censored Books at a Bookstore Last October. Over a Recent 9 Month Period More than 1,500 Books Have Been Banned in Schools, Most Featuring Nonwhite Protagonists, Dealing with Racism, or Addressing the LGBTQ Experience.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 27 June 2022, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-06-27/book-bans-critical-race-theory-wisconsin. Accessed 10 Oct. 2022.

Introducing Muser – A Better Way to Find Student Research

An effortlessly simple research platform where Duke students and Duke research projects can connect? Yes, please!

If you are anything like me, Duke University’s incredible research opportunities were extremely enticing when considering this school. One of the top 10 research institutions in the United States, Duke University’s research community spends over 1 billion dollars annually to fund its projects, which includes notable research facilities like the Duke Center for Human Genetics, the Duke Cancer Institute, the Duke Center for AIDS Research, and the Duke Human Vaccine Institute.

However, the amount of opportunity in this area can be overwhelming to approach, and as a student you often have no clue where to start.

Summer undergraduate research in cancer biology at the Duke University School of Medicine.

That’s where Muser comes in.

Duke introduces: Muser.com

Muser is a website created by Sheila Patek, a Duke biology professor who used grant money from the National Science Foundation to create a more equitable and straightforward way to connect undergraduates with professors with research opportunities. The resource allows researchers to post ongoing research positions with a direct application through the website.

Muser can sort research projects by compensation, hours, year, and project category, simplifying Duke’s incredibly complex research community by a lot.

“Muser posts research projects in 4 rounds throughout the year, a Fall round (August), a late Fall round for Spring projects (October/November), a Spring round for Summer projects (February/March), and a Spring round for Fall projects (March/April),” according to its website. Muser makes it easy to accommodate research positions into the part of your semester that works with your busy schedule.

I connected with some Duke students who have found success with the growing research platform, and though their interests were diverse, the success was all-encompassing.

“My experience with my Muser Project for the summer of 2021 was great overall,” said Elaijah Lapay, class of 2025. “It was essentially a history research assistantship helping a professor in the history department conduct research on elderly and eldercare in North Carolina. I was able to go to the NC State archives as well as archives across eastern North Carolina to really dive into the question of treatment of the elderly during the 20th century.”

Lapay’s research is so fruitful that the professor, James Chappel, the Gilhuly Family Associate Professor of History, is continuing to pursue this project for the rest of the school year. “I truly felt one-of-a-kind… I definitely feel like I’ve learned a lot and it’s sparked a passion in me for geriatrics and eldercare.”

A look inside Dr. Laurie Sanders’s lab here at Duke University.

“I got the chance to work in the Sanders lab under principal investigator Dr. Laurie Sanders and post-doctorate Dr.Claudia Gonzalez-Hunt!” said Shreya Goel, class of 2025. This lab was the first to link a genetic mutation to mitochondrial DNA damage which was ultimately discovered to be a marker for sporadic Parkinson’s disease.

“I get to work with human cells to induce and track mitochondrial and nuclear DNA mutations to determine their effect on the progression of the cell cycle,” Goel said. Her research position is making a difference and it allows her to gain tangible experience in a field she is passionate about.

The success stories are copious, and the opportunity that this platform has brought to prodigious students like these is without question.

At a billion-dollar research school, understanding where to begin can be intimidating. Muser alleviates these worries by connecting researchers and students through an accessible platform.

Have more questions? Visit Muser’s FAQ page to get more information and get into contact with one of Muser’s staff.

Post by Skylar Hughes
Class of 2025

Building a Just Foundation for Our Energy Transition

Swine Country Documentary Project

As conversations about the energy transition away from fossil fuels become increasingly important (and time-sensitive), some experts in environmental policy aren’t just worried about the conversations themselves. They’re worried about who has a seat at the table — and who doesn’t. 

Sherri White-Williams

On November 8, at “Building a Just Foundation for Our Energy Transition,” a few of these experts — Sherri White-Williamson, Environmental Justice Policy Director at the NC Conservation Network; Josh McClenney, the North Carolina Field Coordinator at Appalachian Voices; and J. Spenser Darden, the Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy — spoke about this and other issues. Thomas Klug, a Research Associate at the Duke Energy Access Project, moderated the panel, which was put together by the Sanford Energy & Environment Club.

Klug asked the panelists to define what a “just transition” really means in the context of the panelists’ work, and whether it differs from a diverse and inclusive transition.

J. Spenser Darden

McClenney answered that a just transition entails recognizing that Black, brown, and indigenous communities, as well as low socio-economic status individuals, have historically faced the worst effects of fossil fuel economies. Living in the “physical and economic traction zones,” they’re the ones that lose jobs — like coal miners, in the case of McClenney’s work with Appalachian Voices. 

However, where a diverse and inclusive transition involves “getting people to the table,” just policies will actually reflect the conversations had at the table. An unjust transition, McClenney said, is one where “people clap themselves on the back for doing such a great job having these diverse, inclusive discussions — then make policies that work against their participants.” Ensuring inclusion for communities that have historically been excluded is important, but it’s equally important to make sure the resulting policies are actually inclusive.

Josh McClenney

White-Williams agreed with McClenney — inclusion should never end at “checking the box.” The goal should be to incorporate the input of marginalized voices into resulting policy. White-Williams also added that fairness, while not necessarily guaranteed by diversity and inclusivity, is a key part of a just energy transition. 

Spenser stressed the need to move away from “extractive, colonial” ways of thinking about energy and who makes up society, and to instead incorporate indigenous ways of thinking. He stated that diversity and inclusion is reactive: people realize flaws in the way they’ve built something and try to address it later by incorporating new elements. A just system, on the other hand, is built to be “for and by” communities that have been excluded from the very start.

Klug asked the panelists to recount some of the ways they’ve seen organizations, utilities, and decision makers putting the processes required for a just transition into practice.

McClenney spoke of revelations from the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020. Preventing utility shutoffs became critically important: people were losing jobs or forced to stay at home. They couldn’t come up with the money to pay their utility bills. While fighting utility shutoffs with Appalachian Voices, he saw a group of Knoxville organizations, including Knoxville Water and Energy for All, bringing attention to the fact that the shutoffs were not just a COVID problem. For some Black and brown communities, McClenney said, “keeping the lights on had always been an issue.” These grassroot groups’ advocacy expanded beyond the pandemic: they wanted energy and water recognized as human rights.

Klug asked the panelists how they feel about President Joe Biden’s performance with regard to just transitions in the energy sector — specifically, his January executive orders and recent bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill

White-Williams cited a major concern with Biden’s policies: they don’t give enough attention to rural issues. In Sampson county here in North Carolina, massive hog farms overwhelmingly surround communities of color. North Carolina’s new Farm Act will allow Smithfield Foods to build a system to trap methane from hog waste to be processed and eventually used as renewable electricity. But residents living near hog farms already experience toxic water, unbearable stench, and heightened risk of other diseases, and this system would likely make the problem even worse. It’s a textbook example of an unjust energy transition. That’s why environmental and civil rights organizations have asked the EPA to intervene — to no avail, at least thus far. (White-Williams is featured in this article about the current state of affairs.) “Rural America is suffering,” White-Williams said. She wants to see federal agencies using their power to ensure a just energy transition.

McClenney echoed White-Williams’ concern about hog farms, adding that deaths have resulted from providing workers with limited information about the conditions they would be working in — especially those who don’t speak English and whose undocumented status puts them in a vulnerable position. 

On a different note, he thinks Biden’s expansions to Broadband and clean water are a step in the right direction. He stated that with North Carolina’s House Bill 951, which requires the Utilities Commission to cut emissions by 70% by 2030 (even more ambitious than Biden’s executive order, which seeks to cut US emissions in half by 2030), “there are opportunities right now to effect positive change — we just have to do a good job.” It’s about how we get to that carbon reduction goal.

Klug asked how people at universities — faculty, students, and staff alike — can contribute to this work in policy and in advocacy.

White-Williams told the audience to recognize that “having a degree does not make you an expert when you walk into these communities.” Community members have lived experience: they can tell policymakers and activists what they need, not the other way around. Change should be a partnership, and so should research: “Academics have a research question before they’ve even spoken to anyone.” Instead, “listen and learn from the people who have been there all their lives.”

Spenser invited the audience to think about “who the real experts are” in unique and different ways. Institutions like Duke are often separate from the communities they inhabit, serving as a sort of beacon on the hill. “We need to invert this paradigm,” he said.

McClenney added to Spenser’s criticism of schools like Duke, who “throw food out every day and hold dorm rooms empty during the summer while people go hungry and unhoused.” What’s needed is a fundamental reimagination of the university’s relationship to the community it inhabits. He also added to White-Williams’ point about research: it can be merely “another type of extraction” if not carried out in a just manner.

Klug asked the panelists whether we need to assess the impacts of energy policy differently through the lens of research.

McClenney flagged the words “affordability” and “reliability” in energy research, asking the audience to consider who that applies to. Affordability is not just about how rates compare to New York City or California, but whether someone has to forego insulin or go hungry in order to make a payment. By thinking through these words and what they really mean, we can “begin to understand impacts on a deeper level.”

Spenser implored researchers to use an intersectional lens: instead of considering economic impact and efficiency in isolation, to consider the way in which policies “contribute or ameliorate historic disparities.” In order to truly measure impact, efficacy, and outcome, researchers must be “historically aware and community invested.”

White-Williams agreed with McClenney and Spenser, asking researchers to consider whether policies are a “band-aid or a true fix.” She cited North Carolina’s Weatherization Assistance Program, which allocates tens of millions of dollars toward fixing “patched-up” homes that may have serious underlying problems. She wonders whether it may be better to simply spend the money on programs to place people in housing that is “actually livable.”

Klug opened the panel to questions. One audience member asked the panelists what concrete steps they recommend in order to “harness the power of diversity.”

White-Williams reiterated the importance of working with impacted communities, stressing the need for local leaders who can serve as experts on the needs of the community. Elected officials might “sacrifice the needs of these communities for some other interest,” but local advocates can apply pressure where needed.

Spenser pushed back on the question, stating that instead of urgency and speed, “we need to commit to a longer process” — honoring historical legacies and “spending time helping people understand what the conversation is.” 

“Environmental policy isn’t sexy,” Spenser concluded. (“Except,” he added, “for pipelines.”)

Maybe not. But it’s important that it gets made — and that it gets made justly.

Post by Zella Hanson

“News for the Rich, White, and Blue”: Nikki Usher on her new book and the state of American journalism

Erik Carter

News organizations are facing an economic crisis

In their battle for survival, they are “realigning their priorities in ways that favor audiences who are willing to pay.” And those who are willing to pay tend to be rich, white, and politically blue.

On November 3, as part of the DeWitt Wallace Center’s Fall 2021 Information Inequalities Speaker Series, author and University of Illinois associate professor Nikki Usher discussed her new book News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism.

Usher began by explaining that as newspapers face “market failure,” only non-geographical news is in a position to survive. As news becomes a private good (The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The New York Times come to mind), the result is inconsistent and unequal access to news. 

According to Usher, 1800 local communities lack any regular access to local news. Usher stated that political consequences result when news organizations pull back from places that don’t exhibit that aforementioned willingness to pay. 

She gave an example of one such consequence: many journalists had their “heads in the sand” about the rising tides of populism in rural America. As a result, they were blindsided when Trump won the election. But the win simply revealed what had been the case all along. 

The New York Times editor Dean Baquet acknowledged this after the election: “We’ve got to do a much better job of being on the road, out in the country… and remind ourselves that New York is not the real world.”

Usher said that another consequence of the delocalization of news is reduced trust: only 11% of Republicans say they trust the media a great deal or a fair amount. Additionally, when places lose news, they grow more polarized, with reductions in split-ticket voting. 

Usher said that she practices a kind of “gestalt scholarship,” employing the tools of ethnography and lived experience as well as quantitative data. She dipped into this side of her research, recounting a few anecdotes which represent the “materiality” of the loss of local news.

In 2018, the LA Times moved from its Downtown home, near Skid Row, to El Segundo. The move was not without controversy. In a 2018 editorial, an anonymous author wrote that “location matters, on both a physical and symbolic level, and… moving the headquarters far away from the local power base and the most important entities and stories the Times covers… is the wrong choice.” 

The Miami Herald’s old home got demolished in 2015. Now the newsroom is near the airport, across from a cow pasture. “It’s bad for the psyche for there to be no building to exist for people to see every day,” said an editor. (A recent bit of unnerving news regarding the future of the Herald and journalism at large.)

Usher then stated that newsrooms are “places of power” that are becoming “increasingly inhospitable places for those who are non-white and who lack financial resources.” 

In June 2020, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s top editor resigned after the publication of an article with the headline “Buildings Matter, Too,” led to a walkout by dozens of staff members. At the LA Times, Latinx journalists penned an open letter drawing attention to the fact that its 13% Latinx newsroom does not reflect its nearly 50% Latinx community. In Detroit, the disparity is even worse: an 80% Black population is served by a newsroom that is only 14% Black. 

In 1968, the Kerner Commission put down a series of recommendations to improve diversity, noting that the journalistic profession was “shockingly backward” in its absence of Black journalists. The American Society of News Editors set a target date for newsrooms to be at parity with the populations they represented: 2000. They’ve since pushed the deadline to 2025. 

It’s not looking good. That’s because, according to Usher, newsrooms aren’t hiring, and “when newsrooms don’t hire, they don’t hire minority journalists.”

Usher also touched on the “death of the working class reporter.” Increasingly, the only young people who are not deterred by journalism’s instability and lack of lucrativity are those who come from copious amounts of privilege. Add this to the inability of poorer students to pursue resume-building journalism activities alongside work-study jobs, and the preference of news outlets for the oft-wealthy students of elite universities, and one can see why “journalism is becoming a profession for the elite.” 

Usher said that when “newsrooms become bastions of privilege, [that’s] bad news.” Losing journalists who come from blue-collar backgrounds means losing the ability to “empathize” with a whole set of experiences.

Usher said that as news revenue goes increasingly digital, reliance on those willing to pay is even more pronounced, with “consequences for equity in access and geographically specific news coverage.” She referenced The New York Times, whose rise “mirrors the rise in inequality” of access to news. “They know they’re leaving people behind,” Usher said. She quoted Dean Baquet, who acknowledged that 98% of Americans “were now excluded from The New York Times’ journalism and might well have to do with substandard information.”

Usher also discussed “Goldilock newspapers” — not too big, not too small, but just right for survival according to the “upside-down logic” of digital advertising. The problem is that, as Mike Wilson of the Dallas Morning News put it, “the pursuit of digital subscriptions has honed our focus on what we’re covering” — sometimes to the detriment of local readers. As a result of this phenomenon, Usher has seen reduced coverage in places considered too low-income to get advertisers. In one instance, she saw a dismissal of concerns about ad- and malware clunking up the computers of those with inferior Internet access because “those people are less likely to subscribe anyway.” 

Where does this leave us? Usher identified a few potential solutions. She reiterated calls for more inclusive newsrooms, and added her own call for higher-ed financial aid reform so that lower-income students can have a fighting chance at pursuing journalism. She discussed the need for a “post newspaper consciousness” — to acknowledge that we cannot save the newspaper, but we can identify what journalism does best and save those “special parts.” 

She left the audience with a final recommendation: journalism should “embrace the partisan media system.” Usher clarified her position: the news media like The New York Times “hides behind a veil of neutrality,” when this is only an (unconvincing) illusion. “People want to see them advocate for social justice,” she said, and she agrees. Usher doesn’t think polarization is inherently bad “if it’s polarization toward social justice and breaking down systemic inequality.”

“There’s no use assuaging people who have given up and aren’t listening. And then you have lots of people unsubscribing because the phony neutrality was irritating them,” Usher said. For organizations like the Times, the veil of neutrality is looking like a lose-lose.

She advised them to “go for those who are still listening. And just own it.”

Post by Zella Hanson

“Rainforest Radio”: Linguistic Ecology in the Western Amazon

Radio host Rita Tunay interviews a local elder on the Kichwa-language radio program “Mushuk Ñampi” [A New Path].
Photographs from Dr. Georgia Ennis.

Starting at the pre-dawn hours of 3 or 4 AM, the Kichwa people of Napo, Ecuador, gather with family and spend time talking and listening and drinking tea, in a tradition known as Wayusa Upina.

In Kichwa, the verb “to listen” also means “to understand,” says Penn State anthropologist Georgia Ennis, who spoke at Duke last week. Wayusa Upina provides natural opportunities for children to learn from parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. Kichwa pedagogies, Ennis explains, “have a lot less to do with a traditional classroom.”

But as multigenerational households become less common and Kichwa children spend more time in schools, the tradition has become less widespread. Meanwhile, other traditions, like radio programs in Kichwa, are becoming more common, and “the radio ends up filling the space” that multigenerational conversation might otherwise fill. Through music videos, social media, live performances, books, and radio programs, the people of Napo are finding new roles for an old language.

The town of Archidona, Ecuador, located in the Western Amazon.

Ennis studies language oppression and reclamation and is broadly interested in the relationship between ecological and linguistic change. “How can we bring language and the environment together?” she asks. While her work was initially focused on language standardization, she became interested in the environmental aspects during her research. The two issues aren’t separate; they are linked in complex ways. To explain ecology in a linguistic sense, Dr. Ennis offers a definition from Einar Haugen: “Language ecology may be defined as the study of interactions between any given language and its environment… The true environment of a language is the society that uses it as one of its codes.”

Many scientists believe we are witnessing a sixth mass extinction, and extinction is occurring at unprecedented rates, but Dr. Ennis says we are losing another kind of diversity as well: the diversity of languages. Her own work focuses on Upper Napo Kichwa in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Though there are 47,000 speakers, there has been a language shift toward Spanish among younger generations. “Spanish really remains the dominant language of social life,” she says, even though the majority of the residents are Kichwa.

The concept of “language endangerment,” or the rapid loss of marginalized languages as speakers adopt dominant languages instead, is complex and not without its critics. Dr. Ennis believes languages like Kichwa are “actively oppressed,” not passively endangered.

There are eight varieties of Kichwa in the Andean highlands and the Amazon. “Unified Kichwa,” which Dr. Ennis says is based on reconstruction of Andean varieties, was adopted as an official language of Ecuador in 2008, but this standardized version fails to capture local variation. In Napo, Dr. Ennis found that “the regional linguistic varieties were understood to be inherited from your elders.” Initially, she had “a much stronger stance” against standardized language, but she now sees certain benefits to Unified Kichwa. It can, for instance, help encourage bilingual education. Still, it risks outcompeting local dialects. Many of the people she worked with in Napo are actively trying to prevent that.

The reverse of language endangerment or oppression is language revitalization or reclamation, which aims to preserve linguistic diversity by increasing the number of speakers and broadening the use of language. Media production, for instance, can help create social, political, and economic value for Upper Napo Kichwa.

Ofelia Salazar of the Association of Upper Napo Kichwa midwives weaves a shigra bag from the natural fiber pitak.

In Napo, Dr. Ennis realized that many Kichwa are interested in reclaiming more than just language. They are also working to preserve traditional environmental practices and intergenerational pedagogies. None of these issues exist in a vacuum, and recognizing their links is important. Dr. Ennis wants people to realize that “ecologies are more than just biological ecosystems.” Through the course of her work, she’s become more aware of the ties between linguistic and environmental issues. Environmental issues, she says, are present in daily life; they shape what people talk about. Conversations like these are essential. Whether in radio programs or casual discussions, political debates or household conversations before the sun has risen, the things we talk about and the stories we tell affect how we view the world and how we respond to it.

By Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

School Segregation & Culture War: Color of Education 2021

Mary Hassdyk

Perhaps you’ve heard of the 1619 Project. A Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalism project which sought to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” the project has been controversial and is thought to have sparked the current debate over critical race theory in the classroom.

Its creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, spoke at the Color of Education virtual summit on October 26. She discussed her journalistic research on systemic racial inequities in the education system, as well as the 1619 Project and the struggle over teaching race in the classroom.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Hannah-Jones defined the public school as an “intimate place” where young members of society come together to “exchange ideas and culture, meeting across class and race.” The public school serves to create community, which, she stressed, is necessary for a healthy democracy. “A sense of community prevents polarization,” she said. “I know that a person who’s different from me still wants, fundamentally, the same things.” That gives us more of an opportunity to solve political problems without hostility. 

Instead, she often sees “segregated” low-income mostly-Black schools and “integrated” mostly-white schools, separated by a disturbing chasm of resources and opportunity. (She’s written about this in several Times pieces.) She remarked that “this bifurcation doesn’t serve our democracy and it doesn’t serve humanity.”

But that’s been a problem since before Brown v. Board of Education. What’s changed in the last few years, according to Hannah-Jones, is that in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, there is now a “culture war” being waged over critical race theory. 

Critical race theory is an academic framework that examines the intersection of race with law and public policy. The theory is controversial: many fear the fundamental critique of the US legal and economic system that the theory ultimately implies. (In 2020, whereas white conservatives and more moderate liberals tended to blame fatal incidents of police brutality on “a few bad apples,” the viewpoint consistent with critical race theory is that “the problem is the barrel and the systems that produce it.”)

Laws banning the teaching of critical race theory have already been passed or are in the works in several states, including here in North Carolina, where Governor Roy Cooper recently vetoed a bill which sought to regulate the teaching of several race-related concepts, including whether “a meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist.”

There’s also historical revisionism, known pejoratively as ‘revisionist history’: the reinterpretation of orthodox views surrounding historical events, or, according to fellow Times contributor and historian Timothy Snyder, “the parts of history that challenge leaders’ sense of righteousness or make their supporters uncomfortable.” (Snyder says that in the US, “the ‘revisionists’ are people who write about race.”) 

Critical race theory ultimately requires some revisionism — to critically examine the intersection of race with the laws and policy of the current moment, we must critically examine how we got here, and that means taking another look at the US’ legal history, war history, even its history of infrastructure. Critical race theory is usually taught in college humanities classes. (Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in the 1980s, and her work is decidedly college level — I’ve read her here at Duke, but certainly not before.) But because critical race theory and revisionism are linked, it’s come to pass that any K-12 effort to teach about how racism has informed US history now gets labeled as “critical race theory” by adversaries of these efforts. 

Critical race theory has become a buzzword — and in many circles, it’s a bad word. These days, if a parent thinks you’re teaching critical race theory, you might soon find yourself without a job. (The summit required a passcode and was not recorded for fear that educators participating might be “outed as believers” in critical race theory and subsequently maligned.)

Along with educators in the Zoom comments, Hannah-Jones discussed this problem: teachers are getting accused of teaching “critical race theory”; the term is being used as a weapon and to imply wrongdoing; and it seems that parents, legislators, and even some educators don’t know what it actually means. 

Hannah-Jones asserted that this is “how propaganda works.” The term “critical race theory” is being used to produce fear and automatic condemnation, which distracts from the content of the theory and shuts down further (more rational) conversation. Hannah-Jones gave some advice to educators: “When a parent says, ‘I do not want my child to learn critical race theory,’ Ask them what they think that it is. They don’t know. And then you get to say, ‘Well, no, that’s history. Well, no, that’s anti-slavery.’ You get the point.”

Hannah-Jones explained that “as educators, you have to have these conversations with people.” Parents don’t necessarily know what their children are learning in school — and that can be a source of anxiety. So when “bad-faith actors are fear mongering, saying ‘Don’t you know what terrible things your kids are learning?’” it’s all too easy for parents to become distraught and distrust their child’s teacher.

Moving to discussing other issues in education, Hannah-Jones emphasized that schools are generationally deprived of resources, which is a problem that “can’t be fixed overnight.” She’s seen parents trying to advocate for their children and failing because they lack proximity to social, political, or legal power. “Maybe they can’t come to PTA because they’re a single mother, or they work at Popeyes — they get dismissed,” she said. “There’s no meeting with the superintendent. They can’t call the media in.” And when power dictates one’s ability to make change, the generational deprivation of resources can only continue.

Jayden Grant, a senior at Falls Lake Academy, asked Hannah-Jones how to ensure that these issues are addressed on the level of charter and private schools, which aren’t governed by the same policies. 

Hannah-Jones replied that she is fundamentally opposed to charter and private schools, viewing them as “undemocratic by design.” As such, “holding them accountable” is only possible through public advocacy, namely through the media. Students have the strongest voice, she told Jayden. They’re the reason these schools exist in the first place; it’s up to them to challenge policies or actions they see as unfair and make the public aware. 

On that note, Hannah-Jones brought the conversation back to the question of which version of our collective past will be taught in the K-12 classroom. Hannah-Jones said that based on the feedback she’s gotten and conversations she’s had, the 1619 project has inspired kids. It’s made them excited about history and learning in general. She denounced the neoliberal “privatization and commodification of education,” stating that often, parents wrongly view themselves as consumers. “We need to center kids in these discussions,” she said.

Hannah-Jones wrapped up the discussion with a call to action. She told the audience to “get angry” that authors like Ruby Bridges and Toni Morrison are being blacklisted, because “that is the same kind of thinking that’s led to the inequality we see now.” She claimed that “people wouldn’t be freaking out about the 1619 Project if it wasn’t having an effect,” but the Project is making waves, because “those who control the stories about who we are control the culture.” And the culture Hannah-Jones wants to see is one which sees the “least of us as just as deserving as anyone else.”

Professor Emeritus at UNC Harry Amana had the last word, saying that one cannot be an educator without being an optimist. That’s because, as an educator, you believe that “if people knew better, they would do better.” 

Maybe one day, we all will.

Post by Zella Hanson

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