Oct 172014
 October 17, 2014

Eula Biss dedicates her 2009 essay collection Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays to “[her] baby, who doesn’t have a name yet”; she dedicates 2014’s On Immunity: An Inoculation to “other mothers, with gratitude to mine.”  Here I mean to draw attention to an idea that we all already know: that dedications are acknowledgments of the other, before the book—whether fiction, nonfiction, poetry, whathaveyou—runs it course. They read like declarations of being for, and that implies something quite meaningful, I think: that one person’s labor and artistry can exist for others, and thus that this work exists in a continuum with life, with other people.On Immunity

“There is some truth, now, to the idea that public health is not strictly for people like me, but it is through us, literally through our bodies, that certain public health measures are enacted.” This is Biss writing early in On Immunity about herd immunity, which essentially equates to the vaccination of a majority in protection of a minority—“the minority of the population that is particularly vulnerable to a given disease.” In all the press about Biss’s book—just Google “Eula Biss On Immunity”— there’s much said about how the book originated from Biss’s own pregnancy and deciding whether or not to immunize her son. This is also, often, how I begin to relate the “story” of On Immunity to friends and family.

But there is something deeper at work in Biss’s narrative, which she uses to unravel the cultural history of immunity through her own experiences and through the words of pediatricians, disease scientists, Susan Sontag, and Rachel Carson (among others). Biss writes with a singular persistence from, at, around, and through her status as a well-educated, financially stable white woman and mother. “People like me” isn’t a droll invocation of empathy, of generalization; it’s Biss’s extreme precision in placing herself, and those who share her demographic characteristics, on a continuum with those who do not. It’s not even so much a placing as it is a recognizing, and abiding-by: we are human, we all contain sickness and health, we share airplanes and blood drive queues. One of my favorite passages of Biss’s book takes place in one of these queues; Biss is giving blood “to repay the loan [she] was given,” upon her giving birth, “by some other anonymous donor.” She writes:

“I try to imagine that donor now as I look at the people in the chairs across from me—a muscular man studying flash cards and a middle-aged woman reading a novel and a man in a business suit looking at his phone. They are the same people I might see waiting for the train, but here they are bathed in an aura of altruism.”

It may be that circumstances like giving blood—or receiving yearly vaccinations— illuminate why we do so in the first place. We give, and receive, in order to become part of a majority in protection of a minority, and how conveniently visceral this experience is:

“When the needles are inserted into the people across from me, I notice each of their faces twist, for just an instant, into a grimace. I dread giving blood, and because I have been sitting here imagining these others are more willing to give than myself, it is surprising to see this look flash across their faces. As the nurse pushes the needles into my arm, I feel my face make the same expression. I, too, dislike it.”

I think, here, about the Terence quotation, which was brought up at the “Apartness” poetry event last week: I am human: nothing human is alien to me. I think, as a writer, about the commonly held notion that writing is birthed from alienation, from a need to reconcile the self with that which feels un-self-like. I think of a recent tweet from a conference on women writers in New York, in which The Empathy Exams author Leslie Jamison is quoted as saying, “All writing is about empathy.”

These may feel like grand-gesture ideas; even, perhaps, like didactic throughlines. Besides, my body is separate from your body, and I am too busy trying to figure out how to avoid your cough so that you do not infect me.

Yet we play host for weakened disease so that we may not catch it in full; we give blood, literally indebted to those who did the same for us. Eula Biss: “Our bodies are not war machines that attack everything foreign and unfamiliar…but gardens where, under the right conditions, we live in balance with many other organisms. In the garden of the body, we look inward and find not self, but other.”

Next month, Eula Biss visits Duke as part of the inaugural Kenan-Center for Documentary Studies Visiting Writers Series in Ethics, Society, and Documentary Art. In the spring, Leslie Jamison visits.

As it happens, Jamison has that same Terence quotation tattooed across her arm. She wrote a short piece about it in The New York Times. “It hurt just enough to make me feel like something was happening,” she says about the tattooing process. “There was a sense of deserving—that I’d earned this by hurting for it. It was an old logic I hadn’t felt in a while: Pain justifies ownership.” Perhaps, also, it reinstates collectivity; it brings us into one body; it molds our faces into the same contorted expressions; it makes us visible to one another as we board the trains together.


Oct 102014
 October 10, 2014

On Wednesday, sophomore Lara Haft convened the Coffeehouse and asked all of us to turn off our normal audience-participation mode (read: quiet, no thumbs tapping on screens, no murmurs to disturb the performers). Disturbance, she explained, should be the norm for this event. She reminded us—or, explained—that this was a poetry slam, and we—slouched and standing and sipping nice drinks—would need to give to the performers so that they could give back. “So, that means snapping,” Haft said, demonstrating, “and if you like what they’re saying, if it speaks to you, say mmmm!”


Senior Destiny Hemphill performs at “Apartness: Race, Gender, and the Ethics of Storytelling” this past Wednesday.

And mmmms were said. We gave so that they could give back. The evening—under the heady title “Apartness: Poetry, Race, and the Ethics of Storytelling”—began with a slew of diverse slam poets from Duke and Durham and everywhere in between. There was a high-schooler who spoke with elegant immediacy about her race and family history; there was G Yamazawa, a Durham native and the 2014 National Poetry Slam Winner. He performed poems about identity and growing up as a North Carolina-born Japanese-American (“Make some noise if you grew up in an immigrant household!”). His language drifted in and out of conversational Japanese; his parents and his grandmother were in the crowd, laughing in response to G’s family jokes.

I’d attended spoken word events before, but perhaps never listened as closely. I was struck by how all the poems performed on Wednesday spoke so distinctly to where each of the performers comes from: their families, their ethnicities, their histories. Each piece was inextricable from its speaker; each piece was unapologetic presence. Collectively, they felt like origin stories unfurled in real time. Lara, who spent her summer as a Kenan Summer Fellow conducting oral histories with woman veterans of the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements in Birmingham, Alabama and Cape Town, South Africa, respectively, shared a poem about what it felt like to be a “wannabe poet with a research grant.” I edited Lara’s letters home over the summer but hadn’t met her in person until this week. Through her letters, I had one idea of her story and how she came into this particular research project. I watched (and edited) as she moved through different communities and physical geographies, trying to reconcile her outsiderness—her apartness—in each one. In her powerful final piece, she writes about her journal from the summer, which was unexpectedly destroyed:

I flipped gingerly through the soggy pages, taking stock of everything I’d written. Since I’d started the notebook, at the beginning of the summer, I’d filled 157 pages. There are doodles, to-do lists, notes scribbled during my interviews. There’s the first version of these blog posts, notes to self, drafted poems about parking lots, single mothers, and mince-meat pies. There’s Eileen’s kitchen table, where she shows me newspaper clippings and I give her computer lessons. There’s the scent of frying samosas in Davinia’s kitchen, where her stories of anti-apartheid marches blend with the sound of bubbling oil.

I realize it’s not a moral or perfect phrasing I need for my poems, but these flickering, precarious images. It’s these moments, suspended in ink, over which I feel like a guardian. There’s a certain ink-blotness of time, a blurring that seeps in from the edges. Decades leak like open water bottles, memories fade to pinks and oranges. Stories of the past warp and whither, from time or misspellings or the solubility of ink.

Reading something on paper and hearing it in person are never the same, right? Each form gives a different effect; each encounter with the material produces a different response. During the panel that followed the performances, Professors Adriane Lentz-Smith (Duke) and Randall Kenan (UNC), along with G Yamazawa, talked about the preservation and passage of stories from their different disciplinary perspectives. They talked about what their work aims to do; as a historian, Lentz-Smith explained, she “pushes people to inhabit,” whereas a poet might “push people to see.” All storytellers, they agreed that the ethics of storytelling are endlessly complicated, but that there is worth, after all, in the telling. The worth circles back to the ethical responsibility of the teller. It’s about “making your choices visible,” Lentz-Smith said. Coming together that evening and listening to each others’ stories felt like an exercise in visibility—an acknowledgement of apartness, but a movement, if even for a few hours’ time, toward togetherness.


Oct 032014
 October 3, 2014

I’ve been meaning to update you all on the documentary project I’ve been working on since June. As I wrote back in the summer, I traveled to Dublin with the DukeEngage cohort to undertake my own investigation: the recent suspension, via the Dublin City Council, of The Exchange, a collective arts center in downtown Dublin. At present, I’m 34 pages deep in transcriptions from interviews I conducted with Exchange volunteers, activists, academics, arts administrators, and politicians. Once I’ve transcribed the last few interviews, I’ll begin to post updates on the blog from time to time as I put the pieces of the story together.

It’s still difficult to visualize, at this point, what exactly the story I write will look like. But I am certain, especially in the midst of ongoing press about the closure of The Exchange and similar arts venues in Dublin, that the story I write will attempt to interrogate both the closures themselves and the ways in which I came to know them, and their sphere of actors and participants. Why do I care? What experiences stateside, both personally felt and otherwise, contribute to my interest in the collapse of creative spaces anywhere? What kind of story can a relative ‘outsider’ tell about these stories generally, and The Exchange’s story specifically?

A few days ago, writer, artist, and radio documentarian Gareth Stack published a short audio documentary about the startling trend of creative spaces closing in the city, and what can be inferred from this trend about Dublin’s, and Ireland’s financial wherewithal. Put another way, in the prelude to his report: ”Could the city’s economic status be gauged from the number of independent arts spaces that’ve closed down, suggesting a new competition for space?” In the piece, Gareth interviews representatives of several different arts spaces about gentrification, the relationship between art-making and place, and the ways in which arts organizations’ structures are changing as demand for real estate threatens to erase them.

Gareth actually contacted me over the summer, referred by an Exchange volunteer who I talked to several times during the two weeks I was in the city. He was just then beginning the radio piece and was looking for more contacts, more stories of spaces being threatened with closure (or in the process of closing). His piece is helpful as I continue to contextualize The Exchange’s story within other ones, as well as recreate my experience from the summer on the pages of a Word document.

But the thing I like most about Gareth’s piece—which stands alone as culture reportage—is the way it’s embedded, on his personal website, within a longer (written) narrative of his own connection to these creative spaces, especially The Exchange. You can read this piece, replete with photos from his time at The Exchange,  here. He talks about how he found both The Exchange and another non-hierarchical collective space, Seomra Spraoi, after graduating from college. “I found myself footloose and penniless,” he writes. “Ireland didn’t seem to offer anything in the way of meaningful, ethical work, and I couldn’t afford to emigrate.” Volunteering at The Exchange offered him an alternative, and quickly became a vibrant community in which he played a key part. He calls his time there “three of the most creative, rewarding years of my life.” The language he uses to describe and to commemorate his time there is not dissimilar from that of other volunteers I interviewed over the summer. I have hours of audio recordings that are made up, simply, of different voices describing their favorite events, exhibitions, and moments spent at The Exchange. The details of their experience testify to the venue’s uniqueness. I wonder, still, what it would’ve been like to be there.

Gareth’s longer narrative is another voice, and another testimony, for this evolving archive. (Several of the volunteers I interviewed told me my piece would add to the archive, too). And I say “evolving” because in the wake of these closures there’s another trend forming: what these people will do with their memories, with their relationships, with their art, with their activism. There’s the question of what Dublin’s —or Durham’s, or any city’s—creative architecture will look like in 10 years, but there’s also the question of what it will look like in two months. And this archive is part of that doing.


Sep 262014
 September 26, 2014

There are several things that interest me about Alice Gregory’s recent New Yorker profile of Bard College president Leon Botstein (the New Yorker paywall is still down, so you can read it here). There’s the objective feat—and perhaps oddity—of Botstein’s 40-year (and counting) leadership of the college, and the fairly young age (27) at which his tenure began. There are Botstein’s intellectual proclivities that position him somewhere between savant and dilettante: he entered college at age 16, did Ph.D. work on the social history of Viennese modernist music, and devotes time to social justice work and orchestra conducting. There’s the institution itself: small, secluded, and aggressively committed to the liberal arts. Extracurricular accoutrements like Greek life and athletics don’t jive there in the way they would at, say, a school like Duke. The types of students Bard tends to attract, Gregory (a Bard alumna) explains, are “easy to caricature.” Instead of “being student-body presidents or varsity point guards, they took black-and-white photographs of their friends’ shoes, wrote first chapters of postmodern novels, and played in noise bands. They were apt to believe that their talents and interests could be assessed only subjectively.”

Leon Botstein, conducting Bard. Illustration for The New Yorker by John Cuneo.

Leon Botstein, conducting Bard. Illustration for The New Yorker by John Cuneo.

But the most interesting question the piece arises for me—as a writer, as a reader, and as someone fairly embedded in contemporary higher education— is who, or what, exactly, is being profiled. I left the piece wanting to read at least five more pages of it. I wanted the seedy details of undergraduate life at Bard; I wanted to know what the “parties” Gregory alludes to are like. When I applied to college I was definitely a B&W photo-taker and postmodern novel enthusiast (I didn’t know what “noise” music was until later, when a friend at UNC—who almost went to Bard—explained it to me). Back then, I didn’t know who Botstein was. I didn’t think about the imprints of college presidents on “their” respective institutions, but I nevertheless focused my attention on institutional culture. Did the students at X college care about learning? Did they care about it enough to lay on the grass and talk philosophy into the morning hours? What scenery would I observe from the classroom of my avant-garde poetry seminar? I had the sense that Bard would foster a distinctly different undergraduate experience than a place like Duke. I erred on the side of Duke. And despite that decision’s tie to my sense that Duke and Durham’s relationship was more substantial than that of many New England liberal arts colleges, I still saw colleges as tiny islands. Collectively constructed, but somehow singular in their identities.

Reading about a place like Bard—and about its selfsame leader—does make me think about the college student I could’ve been had I attended elsewhere. But moreso these days it makes me think about what sustainable educational institutions look like in 2014 (and counting). How are their finances managed? Do they have finances in the first place? Do the “eye-catching initiatives” Gregory mentions secure funding, or is it more lucrative to pound the pavement of the traditional liberal arts? Do these initiatives line up with the culture of the student body, and how is that body consciously—or unconsciously—shifting?

I think about Black Mountain College, that remarkable progressive institution nestled in the hills outside of Asheville that attracted an all-star list of 20th century artists and educators. It stayed (financially) alive for only 24 years, from 1933-1957, but the the lore seems to grow bigger with each passing decade. (In fact, the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center just received significant expansion funds). There are books written by alumni with feverish appreciation for their school and time spent there; there are odes to larger-than-life professors and poets; there are odes to being young in the 1940s and happening to attend Black Mountain, and the ensuing magical convergence of these two things. I came across a funny exchange on Twitter in response to Gregory’s article. The respondent suggested that Bard should’ve “followed the route of Black Mountain rather than becoming Botstein University.” Gregory’s response: “Even though Black Mountain doesn’t exist anymore?” Maybe it’s a suggestion that Bard break post-Botstein and, to borrow that modernist adage, “make it new.” Or maybe Bard will cease to exist as the world knows it, as Bard-Botstein are inextricably linked. Then what? The institution—any institution—will look different, but that’s not a passive action. Even as our educational landscape changes, I imagine that learning spaces will subsist: collectively constructed, but somehow singular in their identities.


Sep 192014
 September 19, 2014

After several months away, Kenan’s finally headed back to our home base, the West Duke building. Keep track of the move on our Instagram (@KenanEthics).

West Duke's new tracklights and seating arrangements!

West Duke’s new tracklights and seating arrangements!

Sep 112014
 September 11, 2014

Ellerbe Creek is a body of water that runs through downtown Durham. Meaning: it runs through our city and contains our muck. “Think of all the medicines people take and then flush down the toilet,” the tour guide implores. “I wouldn’t let my kids swim in here. Fecal coliform.”

The water looks mucky indeed: clay-colored, churning fast, loopy with oily bubbles. It feeds into Falls Lake, which is not a natural lake. Its non-naturalness frustrated, and continues to frustrate, nearby residents; their land was taken and dug and filled with water, yes, but also mosquitoes and pollution. photo 1

The tour of the Glennstone Nature Preserve turns out to be as much about the surrounding forest—its canopies, its rose-hips and big-bodied black snakes, its spray-painted neon orange, marking where public land stops and Army Corps land begins—as about the water itself. (Where did my body end and the crystal and white world begin?). It is also, perhaps equally, about the history of Durham development, filtered through two Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association tour guides. They’ve lived in Durham long enough to have conversations with people who worked in Erwin Mill when it was an actual mill. Blue jean indigo used to run into the creek.

I scribbled that in my notebook the other day—the creek running blue—because I liked the image (forget the pollution!). But my assignment, assigned on the creekbank, was to write about something I’d noticed on the trail, and to describe it in formal, third-person detail. This was—is—hard for me. I wanted to write about the two women tour guides, how they gave our group a collaborative map of Ellerbe Creek by finishing each other’s sentences. How their excitement about stump sprouts excited me. How the leaves looked next to the mushroom fairy rings. I wanted to understand the forest, the creek, and the developed land holistically: one thing, albeit nuanced, but one thing. I wanna be cohesive!, as the fictional Hushpuppy moans in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

In other words, I wanted to position myself at the center of the ecosystem: me, writing about my surroundings. Which is funny, because I’d just dropped in on this trail on this day through a class I’m taking. And as I told one of the guides, I’d lived here my whole life, but never traversed the banks of Ellerbe. 23 years is a lot of time for a city to transform: livelihoods can revert, invert, take different shape. So can creekbeds and the creeks they carry.

It’s a lot to ask to understand the before, during, and after—of a place, a person, a story. On this day, September 11, I read a Facebook remembrance post by a friend. She wrote about those of us who have little memory of what came “before” that date. I was in fifth-grade; I’ve told “my” story a million times (it was sunny out; I was confused about how something bad could be happening in the world if it was sunny out). But it was vaguely kid-stuff before, and adolescence after.

photo 2I start to wonder: is that before memory within my control? What about the during, and after? I asked one of the tour guides if an investigative article had ever been written about the creek, considering it exists within plain sight of Durham’s residents. “No,” she said, after asking her tour partner. “Maybe you should write it!” I fantasized my potential agency: I write a luxurious, sprawling journalistic account of the creek’s history, and suddenly more people care. It’s the same fantasy that flickers sometimes about my project in Dublin this summer: if I write a good piece about the multiple dimensions of The Exchange’s suspension, maybe more people will care that it happened at all, or at least want to understand the situation more deeply. Maybe they’ll want to understand each other more deeply.

In this current, there’s an ethics of control, and there’s an ethics of empathy, and I want to be able to cite enough philosophers and enough theorists to cover every inch of nuance of both. I’m not sure that project is within my control, nor am I sure it should be. Inevitably, it will revert, invert, take different shape.

This morning, feeling weight from the day and from the idea of writing, I walked outside our building and sat at a picnic table and watched a ball of fluff float until my eyes strained or the ball became indistinguishable with the color of the sky or both. I sat there for a few minutes and then walked back. My legs lately feel taut and Tinman-like. (I just started dancing again after a few months’ break. “I’m a little rickety,” I keep telling people. I also walked about 1.6 miles through the woods yesterday).

I came inside and opened The Chronicle; there was a 9/11 Remembrance advertisement on one page, and a giant Miró painting on the other. I came back to my desk, and Ikea USA had tweeted, “Save time for reflection this Patriot Day morning.” (The account has since deleted the tweet). I felt strange about that (who decided it was called “Patriot Day”?), so I started writing my way into and out of it—that current, that stream—controlling only as much as the words ahead of me.


Sep 042014
 September 4, 2014

If you want to go on an adventure in plain sight on a Tuesday, you must first tell yourself it is an adventure. Hitch a bus from Smith Warehouse and sit in the very back, on the right, where you can rest your legs, fully extended, on the metal crossbar. Feel the weight of your body brace the window as the bus turns left; stare at the unfurling greenery as you make your way to West Campus. You make notes in your notebook under the heading, “To West on a Tuesday.”

The history of LGBTQ activism, advocacy, and acceptance at Duke was “neither quick nor linear,” as an information plaque in the Perkins Gallery tells you. This is part of a new exhibition—Queering Duke History—curated by Denzell Faison, who graduated this past spring. This is the exhibition you travel to West Campus to see. It’s about the history of queer activism at Duke; it’s about, as Faison says in his curatorial statement, “refut[ing] the prevailing theory that Duke University never actively discriminated against LGBTQ individuals.”

The exhibition feels both introductory and comprehensive; accessible, but chock-full of deep cuts—Chronicle editorials, banners, “Coming Out Party” flyers—from the Duke Archives. There are photos of impassioned student protestors and there is a hard copy of Steven Petrow’s controversial 1990s Duke Magazine article on the AIDS crisis. There is a big red “rejected” stamp on a queer student group’s charter.

photo-5You come to West Campus, not for a class or a meeting, but in search of this exhibition—because you want to write about it, which means you want to place it within some larger conversation about the history of Duke and what Duke looks like now. You live and breathe what Duke looks like now, because you both went to school and now work here, so you focus on the visceral particulars. When you get off the bus on West Campus, you’re greeted by heat and negative space. Walking through campus on 97-degree days feels like a whole-body gulp of hot tonic. You take photos of the construction alongside Perkins and the Divinity School; there is no shade, due to the magnolia trees now being gone, but there is the chain-link fence and the excavated dirt behind it. There is the banner on the fake Gothic construction siding: “Coming Soon to Bostock: The Research Commons.” There is the mulch path you must now take to Perkins. A desire line you didn’t make.

Once inside, you walk around the Queering Duke History, which is arranged in a chronological circle. Some students walk through, en route to class, and bemoan loudly that they “hate how the [usual Perkins] entrance is closed.” Another stops and peers down into one of the glass boxes while talking on the phone in Spanish. You think about how maybe, now, the Perkins Gallery is an extension of the library’s commons, the sudden link between Von der Heyden and the circulation desk.

You think about your last interview in Dublin this summer, with a sociologist, in the rose garden at Trinity College. He studies the commons. He also, after the Great Recession, co-founded an online activist hub called The Provisional University, an “autonomous research project that emerges in response to the precarious conditions we find ourselves living and working in and a desire to transform them.” Their mission seems like a rebuke to the “tragedy of the commons”: its participants choose, in present circumstances, to collectively imagine better. They acknowledge what they’ve lost, but devise an image of how the community, the commons, could look different.

You think about how this particular exhibition seems timely: at the beginning of a new school year, in the face of campus’s changing facades, in this young university’s ongoing process of self-definition. You think that maybe, hopefully, others on camps are thinking similar things. But at some point you close your notebook and float out of the air conditioning and into the heat wave. You board a bus back to where you came from in the first place.

In other news:

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will speak this Friday, the 5, at 7 p.m. in Baldwin Auditorium about the 2014 Duke Summer Reading, Americanah. The event is free and open to the public.
  • Last week, the Durham Herald Sun reprinted my recent Insider piece, “Surfacing.” You can read it online here.


Aug 292014
 August 29, 2014

On Thursday, August 28, Kenan held its annual fall BBQ as a way to welcome students, faculty, and staff back to campus and into the semester. Adhering to the BBQ tradition, we unveiled a new t-shirt expressing the theme for this school year: Ethics Outside the Box. In keeping with the theme, I meandered around the BBQ, prodding students with one (perhaps unusual) question: how do you do ethics outside the box? Below are their photos—replete with creative box poses—and responses. You can check them out and follow us on SoundCloud, too!


Aug 222014
 August 22, 2014

The following two articles were published (by different newspapers) in quick succession: the first on August 8, the second on August 13. Both are about Durham.

I’ve supplied the lede sentences, and article links, for each below.

  • “Public school teachers, low-level city workers, even journalists can’t afford many, if not most, of the 2,400 new apartments and condos being built in central Durham.”

From “Durham development: What’s being built where and who can afford it?”, Lisa Sorg, Indy Week.

  • “Like firecrackers exploding around downtown Durham, clusters of small businesses are popping up and enlivening one desolate block after another.”

From “Surfacing: A Corner of Durham, N.C., Comes to Life”, Ingrid K. Williams, The New York Times.

Throughout the week of Project Change, it’s odd (and hard), pedagogically, to balance discussion about real-time events, trends, and articles with real-time personal immersion—in Durham, and within the group of 21 PChange students. After all, the students don’t have access to social media or personal technology (they could, hypothetically, pick up a newspaper somewhere). I found this particularly challenging, this past week, with the unfolding events in Ferguson, MO. These are events that touch on a multitude of interconnected issues—including race, justice, and the organization of public space—that continually and intentionally surface during Project Change, often in connection with students’ personal experiences.

That said, the above pairing of articles came up during a conversation about the types of things students noticed throughout the week (things like gentrification) while working on a community garden with Reinvestment Partners. RP is a multi-pronged organization that advocates for economic justice and empowerment in Durham. Right now, they’re creating a food hub and food corridor along East Geer St., which forms part of a traditionally low-income, majority-minority neighborhood.

It’s no coincidence that Geer St. runs into the cultural district Ingrid Williams, with the weight of a New York Times pronouncement, describes as “surfacing.” If she walked up Geer, toward Reinvestment Partners’ office near N. Roxboro, she might call that segment “neglected.” After all, where are the NYT-approved signs of urban progress—the string-lit beer gardens, the runners’ clubs, the warehouse-chic? During a Durham scavenger hunt last week, we had the Project Change students look for (and interpret) “old things” and “new things,” and how they related to “art spaces,” “places to eat,” and “gathering places,” in Durham. How often they coexisted, how often they overlapped—pseudo-rustic signage, new construction abutting abandoned shops, murals on old buildings with new site plans.

Williams’s article is in the travel section; it’s geared toward tourism; it aims to generate a conversation, for outsiders, around desire, around an assumed familiar metric of “cool” and “good.” I want to go there! But I think about how the NYT article, bound by its genre, fails to mention the ~$50mil luxury condo and retail development that’s begun to displace the historic Liberty Warehouse at the corner of Rigsbee and W. Corporation. As Sorg points out in the Indy piece, many locals—all of whom presumably hold the right to access Durham’s cultural center—won’t be able to afford living there. I can’t afford living there. I think of a recent CityLab article about how high-rise apartment dwellers typically feel safe and “cozy” in their respective fortresses, but unsafe in the surrounding neighborhoods. I drive around downtown Durham and see umpteen simultaneous apartment developments. All seem to have a suspiciously similar drab aesthetic, far from Durham’s historic architectural styles; sore thumbs in their respective neighborhoods. I wonder if these new residents will converse with neighbors beyond their building.

Between articles about Ferguson and Durham, and between eight days of Project Change, I’m thinking a lot about framing conversation. Which voices, and which stories, cast the net and create the frame? Is said frame equitable? Who gets easy access? Who doesn’t? How can conversation be framed in unique and unexpected ways, and how does this framing influence “the information” itself? I like to think that the pairing of these two articles about Durham—one from a major national newspaper, one from a local alt-weekly—casts a wide net for several conversations that need to happen. The thematic content and tone of each piece speak to the mere existence of a conversational spectrum. I’ve been similarly inspired following Marcia Chatelain’s #FergusonSyllabus project—a means to expand the net by crowdsourcing articles and resources, both for students and the general public, related to the events in Ferguson. It provides tangible products, but also says, more broadly, this is complicated; let’s err on the side of conversation, and move with it in turn.


Aug 152014
 August 15, 2014


I’ve been spending the week thus far with Project Change. By design, the Durham-immersion program is intensive—packed with events, discussions, challenges, and exploration in Durham. I haven’t had much time to write, but I’ve had a lot of time to engage with the students and the ways they’re thinking about how they interact—with each other, with ideas, with the world. I’m thankful to share that space with them.

I’ll be back next week with a longer post, but in the meantime, check out Kenan’s Instagram feed for some more photos from the week.