Jan 272016
 January 27, 2016

For those of you in Durham, we survived Snowpocalypse 2016 or Snowniño as my house has been referring to the winter precipitation we received this weekend. It is hard to imagine the warmer months of spring and summer when there is still snow on the ground. But DEADLINES for both spring and summer undergraduate opportunities at Kenan are quickly approaching. I have been fortunate enough to have participated in a majority of these programs during my undergraduate career. After reading about the other programs I have not participated in, and talking to the faculty and staff who are making these opportunities possible, make me want to go back to school to take advantage of these awesome programs.


January 29, 2016

Alternative Spring Break will be heading to Tucson, Arizona and Mexico to immerse into different migration issues related to the US-Mexican border.

This trip will be a new experience for me, as I have not previously thought about migration issues through a domestic lens as critically as I have migration issues in other countries. To prepare I have been reading up on the organizations that we will be visiting and working with. The more I read about the groups the more I want to spend a whole year with them. While a week is a short time period, I’m positive we will be able to learn a lot and be able to share our experiences with others.

February 5, 2016

Kenan Summer Fellows allows freshmen and sophomore undergraduates the opportunity to craft a summer project specific to their individual ethical interests and inquiries and research their topic. (Up to $5,000 summer stipend and $500 for advisors)

The summer of 2013 I utilized this fellowship to travel to Washington, D.C., New York City, and South Korea to research the ethics of international adoption. Although this summer was the most challenging thing I have ever done and pushed me way beyond my comfort zone, I gained so much insight on myself and helped me recognize capabilities I did not know I posed.

Pathways of Change is a NEW summer program, which will pair three undergraduates with a business and human rights partner organization (see website for partner list) for a summer-mentored experience. ($5,000 stipend)

This is definitely one of the opportunities I wish I was a student again. I first was introduced to the idea of corporate social responsibility my first year of college on a field trip to NYC after meeting Christine Bader. After reading Bader’s book [When Girl Meets Oil] The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist and Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s this summer I was intrigued by the possible growth corporations can achieve by focusing on their human rights impact.

February 15, 2016

Members of the Duke Community who incorporate ethics into their work and are able to share their work with the Duke/Durham community can apply for a Kenan Campus Grant. (Up to $500)

Also, here is a list of some of the events that Kenan is sponsoring this semester:

Every other Wednesday: January 27-March 23, 2016

Film Series is free and open to the public! Chef’s Table, Wall-E, Black Gold, The Hundred-Foot Journey, and Chef will be screened in the Griffith Film Theater in the Duke Bryan Center Student Union at 7pm.

February 1, 2016

Do Lunch with Father Greg Boyle. Undergraduates are welcome to sign-up for a catered lunch with “Father G” to hear about his work at the largest and most successful gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world.

If you are looking for your new book to read, Father Boyle’s book Tattoos on the Heart: Stories of Hope and Compassion is an excellent.

February 17, 2016

What is Good Art? Exhibit Opening will be at 5pm. Come check out fellow peers’ works of art and vote for your favorite piece. The theme of this year’s competition is food and culture.


February 27, 2016

Recipes with Resettled Refugees will be a cooking class open to 20 (max) participants. Hosted in an off-campus kitchen, resettled refugees will teach students how to prepare traditional dishes and share the meal prepared. (Transportation provided)

Yesterday as I was talking with the girls I have been a mentor to since sophomore year, it truly sunk in that this is my last semester at Duke (for the foreseeable future). I think that with a semester that is so jam-packed with such neat programs it is hard to look beyond to summer.  While I have slight tunnel vision honed into this semester, please try to think about all the neat spring and summer plans you could make through Kenan!

Jan 192016
 January 19, 2016

Whenever I go out in public and am behind a baby at the checkout, I immediately start playing peek-a-boo. For that matter I play peek-a-boo whenever a small child crosses my path. One of the things I find myself doing as I engage with these smaller people is asking their caretakers what the child’s name is. Although it is totally futile to know the baby’s given name since I typically forget it within the first 30 seconds, I find that asking for a name is a friendly conversation starter. Parents love to talk about their kids; caretakers love to tell you that they are not the parents of their respective charges. The name also helps me to determine the child’s sex rather than make an awkward mistake of calling a he a she, or visa versa: to avoid the huffy parent who gets upset when I use the wrong pronoun: “How old is he?” “Jane? She is 18 months.” Or do I ask because I have learned to place every individual into a box of male or female, and to associate babies’ attire with a color: blue for boys, pink for girls, and yellow for gender neutral. Interestingly, it used to be the other way around.

If you find yourself wandering around Kenan, you can understand why I have been thinking about babies. We are expecting to add five new members to the Kenan family: half of the staff this semester is expecting a baby.


Baby’s first Kenan “swag”

In honor of all the new arrivals, this past Monday we threw a baby shower for the parents-to-be. Baby Kenan “swag” was the gift of choice. Although we have a general idea when each staff member will take parental leave, the bigger “surprise” will be the sex of the babies, not maybe to the parents, but to me. I am just so darn excited with the anticipation of meeting the newest additions that it does not matter to me one bit if the arrivals are girls or boys.

The idea that parents to be could get more excited about having either a girl or a boy does not seem ridiculous to me, particularly if they have children already of one sex and are anxious to have a representative of the opposite sex. There was a family in my neighborhood that had seven boys before they were “blessed” with their first girl. But what is the difference between raising a girl or a boy, and should there be one? This increasingly seems to be an ethical concern of the college-educated parent.

My parents struggled to reject societal norms for raising two girls, suggesting that my sister and I should not base our self-esteem on appearances. They wanted us to have the autonomy to follow our hearts’ desire, not to adhere to what the norm said that a girl should do. Thus I joined the boy’s high school hockey team. They hoped we would have the freedom to transgress, disregard, or otherwise opt out of gender norms. Yet, my mom still reminded me this past December that, as woman, I would often be judged solely on whether I was “good looking,” evaluated on the basis of my dress and style, not my mental ability. And my sister has taken the “good looking” dress and style to the nth degree. She would not be caught dead attending class in a sweat shirt and without makeup—my normal attire for four years in high school.

One of the Kenan parents-to-be said that “ people want to relate their own parental experiences to other parents, and gender—usually in the guise of sex—because that’s definitive—it is usually the safest, easiest place to start.”   So perhaps I ask about the sex of a baby to connect with the caregivers in the checkout line that I do not know, using the binary classification of sex to make some quick assumptions so as to bridge the gap between the stranger and me. Perhaps the question, “Is it a girl or a boy?” will become increasing irrelevant as we attempt to break the gender norms and remold societal expectations.   We will also have to also generate gender neutral pronouns. But for now, my inquiry about the potential sex of the child remains germane.

Jan 112016
 January 11, 2016

Happy New Year! For those of you who have made your New Year’s resolutions and goals, I hope you are making progress.  I have made a shortlist of miscellaneous things I would like to accomplish in 2016.  Some of these things I should probably already be doing (e.g., flossing everyday) and others I think will be a nice challenge (e.g., working on language skills at duolingo.com everyday or learning how to play barre chords on the guitar).  The resolution I am most excited about is my goal to write at least one letter each week.

As a little kid I had a love-hate relationship with letters.  There were not many things that topped the sheer joy of receiving a handwritten letter from my grandma or an invitation to a birthday party.  Both would be gems mixed in with the junk mail that adults seem to attract.  However, I disliked writing all the addresses for the myriad of holiday cards my parents would send out once a year.  To this day, I’m still not convinced that my parents know that many people.

It is interesting how this annual ritual of sending holiday card updates is perpetuated.  Some of my parents’ friends send only a signature to a commercial sentiment.  Others write long, detailed updates printed on stationery.  Still others just send a family photo, or some use my family’s model of lots of photos in a collage with brief labels.  None of the holiday cards are treasured like the shoebox of letters from friends and family members that I have saved under my bed since a young girl.  These holiday updates are ephemeral, impersonal, displayed for a few weeks on the kitchen table before being recycled.

The people that my parents stay in touch with are from different periods in their lives: the family who lived down the street as they were growing up, high school buddies, college roommates, graduate school friends, work colleagues, former neighbors, and other acquaintances. It is also fascinating to me how my family pares down our list of recipients:  if we haven’t received a holiday card from a family in three years, generally we stop including the silent recipient on next year’s list.  But if we get a card, we always send one in return, even where the only contact with that family has been through this card sending ritual over decades, and even if we only get a signature on a pre-printed card in return.  It seems that neither family can admit that the other is no longer an important connection.  This insincere gesture to former acquaintances reminds me that I had to invite non-friends to my birthday parties because they had invited me to their parties, and it would be only polite to reciprocate.


I try to fit as many words as possible onto postcards and letters.

In my post-college limbo of not quite knowing what’s next, I can appreciate the desire to stay in touch with the familiar past as represented by my highschool and college connections.  In this light, my parents’ holiday letters seem to be a physical acknowledgement that, at one point, the recipients and my parents shared a meaningful relationship.  They are a friendly reminder that “I still recall our time together.  But I have moved and this is what I am doing.”  At one time the letters that sent long, detailed descriptions of the year’s activities talked of children’s accomplishments.  Now they discuss grandchildren and retirement.  The few that discuss life changes, blessings, and loss seem the most personal and intimate.  Even so, those longer printed holiday letters are a mere curated snapshot of a life in a year.

Social media sites like Facebook or Snapchat take a similar role to these holiday greetings.  Similar to the digitalization of photography, digital communication comes in copious amounts.  The uniqueness of the individual conversation is lost due to the sheer quantity of connections we are bombarded with.  The timeline postings of what I am doing now seem equally ephemeral–a very narrow and quickly dated glimpse of what I want to show.  There’s an interesting tension between what we want others to know about ourselves and what the whole picture might be.  In a post or a snap, I control what my friends and followers see.  I am reticent to lay bare my deepest thoughts or to be truly intimate with the over 1500 facebook “friends” that I have.  Actually this number of false friends makes my parents’ holiday card list look much more personal.  How did that number of “friends” ever get so big when my friends who are currently relevant number more likely in the 50s?

In college I got into the habit of writing postcards to a couple friends from high school from the different places that I visited.   I tried to keep up a very inconsistent pen pal relationship with four to six letters a semester, max.  However, a postcard only allows for 50 – 100 words, again a snapshot, and it is visible to even the postal carrier, so one cannot become too personal.  Usually they were just travel logs.

Now my New Year’s resolution calls for something more meaningful, something more intimate, something longer.  The idea to write on a regular basis to my closest family and friends did not form until this Christmas when my mother opened her gift from her brother.  Uncle Paul had found that my great-grandmother had saved all the letters my grandfather had written to his parents during World War II, detailing the daily life of a soldier.  These letters were one to four pages each, still in their original envelopes, stored in several shoeboxes that had been forgotten in a cupboard of my grandmother’s home.  Uncle Paul Xeroxed each, and combined them on a five-inch, three ring binder–quite a tome of work from a 19 – 22 year old who was seeing the world for the first time away from his childhood home.   One of the things that struck me about my grandpa’s letters was the sheer quantity.  He wrote a letter everyday for over three years.  The content varied, but, in general, my grandpa worried over seventy years ago about things that I worry about today: what is for dinner, who he was going to dance with, keeping warm, acne, and finding someone to love.  Reading them allowed me to see a person that I thought I knew in a different light.  I felt close to him as if he were still alive and in his youth.  I could imagine his surrounding and situations, as if I was reading a novel.

Thus, I decided that I needed to use letter writing to open up to others in the way that my grandfather had opened up to his parents about both the mundane and his deepest feelings. In a day and age where we seem to be constantly connected via phone calls, text messages, video calls, and emails, it seems like there is no place for a handwritten note.  In some ways we have lost touch with the ability to thoughtfully communicate with one another.  But I think that is one of the reasons that I want to make room for letter writing in my life.  Embarking on an authentic letter writing campaign is partly about the tactile, human act of writing a letter, and partly about making a decision to be open to another human in a way that is often profoundly difficult. While I will have the ability to control what I convey to my intended audience, hopefully my letters will convey my personality in a way that technology can edit out.  My mistakes will be preserved on the paper and emotions captured with the stylization of my penmanship.

A letter sparks a human connection that technology can’t encapsulate. It is something tangible that can be saved.  One typically does not print out memorable emails to be treasured; rather emails are buried under hundreds of other emails, eventually forgotten and generally not revisited.  In contrast, a written letter may be squirreled away to be rediscovered, providing both pleasure or anguish for those who reread moments captured in ink and paper.  A letter is special in that the individual who shares an emotion no longer has the ability to curate the contents once it is sent to the recipient.  Unlike social media, words and pictures once shared cannot be retroactively taken back.

An officemate pointed out that humanity is navigating a brave new world with the lack of letters.  Whereas the digitalization of communication is new, letter writing is a millennial old custom with the earliest handwritten letter written somewhere around 500 B.C.  And society responded to the need for this form of communication with elaborate methods of delivery: pigeons, ponies, boats, trains, and planes.  While it may be important for my parents to write holiday cards once a year to maintain their numerous relationships, I want to use this historical art form to cultivate a different kind of relationship with family members, college friends, high school friends, and others miscellaneous acquaintances who I have met along the way.  As graphic artist John Graham poetically noted “[l]etter writing is probably the most beautiful manifestation in human relations.”


Jan 022016
 January 2, 2016

For the first two weeks of December, at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference or Conference of the Parties (COP21), 196 nations have been in Paris working on a global agreement to reduce climate change. The countries successfully negotiated the Paris Agreement; key elements of the agreement included limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels and helping developing countries switch from fossil fuels to greener sources of energy. Two degrees is an important number in that it is the number generally agreed upon by climate experts as the limit the earth can endure before catastrophic climate changes.

There have been numerous gatherings prior to the Paris Climate Conference to lay the groundwork for this year’s agreement.   The last conference in Lima ended with a stalemate on important issues such as how much each country must reduce it’s greenhouse gas emissions and who will pay for developing countries’ emission reduction. One positive takeaway from the treaty that came out of the Lima conference was setting the parameters for ‘intended nationally determined contributions (INDC).’ These INDCs were used in this year’s COP; this strategy was unique in that each party came to the conference with the actions they were willing to take, a top-down approach to the issue. These individual terms were then cobbled together and tweaked so that the 2OC goal was met.

Developing nations that use large quantities of fossil fuels in their efforts to develop threaten the ability to reduce carbon emissions and stay under the 2OC limit. As a result, one of the major accomplishments of the COP21 deal was the agreement that developed nations would provide $100 billion a year to help developing countries switch from fossil fuels to greener sources of energy and to adapt to the effects of climate change.

Another focus of this year’s Paris conference was to determine what actions the geographically largest and wealthiest countries and major polluters would do for the smaller countries that will be more susceptible to the dire consequences of climate change (i.e. island states who will lose their habitable land as a result of rising sea levels). It is difficult for larger, wealthier countries that will be able to buffer the impacts of climate change to understand the importance and gravity of the situation to smaller island countries when climate change does not immediately threaten their potable water supply nor jeopardize their food security. For example, Kiribati is an island country in the Pacific with a population of over 100,000 residents that predicts it may be completely underwater within the next 30 years according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Kiribati has coined the term “migration with dignity.”   The Kiribati government is considering the real possibility that its population will have to move and the preventative measures it must take to ensure its citizens have a place to go if the island becomes uninhabitable.

Estimates predict that millions of people will be displaced due to climate change in the next 35 years — 50 million people by 2020 and upwards to 150 million people by 2050 worldwide. These environmental refugees, defined as “people fleeing from environmental crises, whether natural or anthropogenic events, and whether short or long term,” are not currently able to apply for asylum. While the Paris talks did not specify how to address this problem of environmental refugees, it is clear that this global concern must be addressed in future international climate agreements.

The next hurdle for the world is to ensure countries are able to pass the COP21 agreements in their respective home governments and to continue making forward progress from here.


Dec 142015
 December 14, 2015

Klara Skrivankova law school lunch chat

I typically spend the majority of my time on East Campus now that the free food challenge is over. (Feel free to drop by my office to say hi.) However, this past Wednesday I found myself on West Campus, far from my familiar stomping grounds, to attend a lecture at the Law School. Klara Skrivankova, the head of the Europe Programme and Advocacy Coordinator at Anti-Slavery International, gave a talk on “Trafficking and the European Refugee/Migration Crisis.” First, she explained the difference between trafficked pers ons and smuggled migrants: smuggled migrants are not considered victims of crime. Then she examined the chaotic responses European nations have taken to the Syrian refugee crisis. The current opportunities for low-skill migrants to immigrate to Europe through legal pathways are limited. Thus, there has been an increase in smuggled migrants in recent years. Skrivankova questioned how the legal pathways to enter the European Union could be improved and redirected to reduce the number of smuggled migrants.

Skrivankova called for the creation of an international policy that would uniformly deal with the increased number of peoples wishing to cross borders. This policy is particularly needed in the EU, where vulnerable populations are being taken advantage of due to the scarceness of safe and legal methods of entry. The current piecemeal approach by European states in response to the refugee crisis, which includes funding corrupt governments to prevent the departure of their citizens for the EU, is an ineffective use of resources. Instead, a strong international legal framework for refugee resettlement and migration due to economic disparities would reduce human rights atrocities that currently occur.

I would not have been at the Klara Skrivankova lecture had it not been for my interest in refugee resettlement, sparked by the first class I had freshman year at Duke with Professor Suzanne Shanahan. It was titled The Limits of Obligation and was one of two classes I took in the Ethics, Leadership and Global Citizenship Focus Program fall semester 2011. This class introduced me to refugee and migration topics and inspired me to participate in DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted where I was one of twelve students who spent the month of March 2012 in the refugee camps of Nepal conducting life story interviews. This semester, Spring 2016, the fourth DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted program will send six students to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan to conduct life story interviews.


Current DukeImmerse students meeting with alum

On Saturday, the new DukeImmerse students met with alumni of the Kenan Immerse programs from 2012, 2013 and 2014. There I recognized Julie Williams, one of the new DukeImmerse students, as an attendee earlier that week at the Klara Skrivankova talk. We discussed our common interest in refugees, her excitement about the spring travel to and immersion into the Jordanian refugee camps, and what I learned from the life story interviews I conducted with elderly Bhutanese living in the (now closed) Sanischare Camp in Nepal. I could feel our connection was an important part of Kenan’s continuing research into refugee migration. The population of focus this spring would be different than I had experienced, but I hoped that Julie, like me and my fellow Uprooted/Rerouted Immersers, will emerge from the semester of study and engagement with refugees prepared “to act and to educate, holding in our minds and hearts not just an understanding of refugee issues, but also all of the individual stories – the struggles and the tears, the friends and the children, the violence and the disorder, the rituals and the work – all the things that constitute [the refugee’s’] lives.”


Dec 042015
 December 4, 2015

This past week I would assume Kenan was quite quiet, with most of the students at home to celebrate Thanksgiving or away from academic buildings getting a slight respite before finals kick in. Most students like myself are probably catching the last flight possible that will extend their time off in their respective retreats.   I am just now returning from Seoul, Korea. After sprinting in both the Tokyo Airport and the Minneapolis Airport (the former my folly and the latter Immigration’s and Minneapolis’ ridiculously long terminals), I feel a huge sense of relief to be headed back to Durham.

My Thanksgiving was slightly less conventional than most. I was visiting my birth family in Korea; where they celebrate Thanksgiving but a few weeks prior and without stuffing, arguably the best part of the holiday. But as a coworker accurately pointed out, I still got to experience “all the family drama and guilt that comes with [Thanksgiving].”


Visiting with Birth Family in a trip to South Korea

The last time I was in Korea was the summer of 2013. I was there exploring the evolving ethics of adoption and meeting my extended birth family as a Kenan Summer Fellow.

My Thanksgiving excursion again presented me with questions I have grappled with before: What is my obligation, as an adopted individual with a loving family, to integrate my birth family into my present life now that I have contacted them? How should I balance this relationship I created with my birth family in a thoughtful way with my real family interactions and obligations?

Although these are not easily answerable questions, I recognize and am thankful for the opportunity to tackle these questions as a direct result of having contact with my birth family. Within my own family, my sister has not had the ability to contact her birth parents and I try not to treat my situation too nonchalantly. Due to cultural differences and unfamiliarity to one another’s quirks and tendencies, my birth family and I do not always see eye to eye on all issues. Their expectations for what it means to be a family are frequently different than mine, and this can cause friction that I find challenging to navigate. Nevertheless, with my parents’ support, I continue to try to meaningfully include my blood relatives in my life.

Sometimes I try to imagine what my life would be like if I had not contacted my birth family. However it is impossible, they are such an integral part of my life and development as a person.

Throughout the week as I Facetimed with my family back in Ohio, I was overcome with deep gratitude. I am grateful for their flexibility and understanding as I attempt to maintain my relationships with my various birth family members. It has been difficult negotiating this process. But, it is so reassuring to me how wonderful my friends and family have been both at home and at Kenan. At a time of year when it is traditional for Americans to sit across the table from loved ones and reflect on what we have—even in happy, traditional households, not always an easy thing—I continue to process my Summer Fellows experience and the doors it has opened in my own life. It’s amazing how full circle this whole experience has been for me.


Nov 232015
 November 23, 2015


Last night I attended a roundtable discussion on Smart Economics for the Environment and Development (SEED), which is a Kenan Creative Collaboratory project hosted by Kenan Senior Fellow Dirk Philipsen. The roundtable was unusual in that it brought together experts from a wide range of fields: business, politics, academics, NGO’s, arts, and community building.

As the evening started, we were divided into four small clusters. My group included: the Director of Durham County Social Services; the Executive Director of the Kenan Institute for the Arts; an expert in rural development; a senior manager at TROSA; a director for one of The Conservancy projects, and an economics graduate student.

Professor Dirk Philipsen, a Duke Arts and Sciences Senior Research Scholar whose work focuses on sustainability and the history of capitalism, introduced the impetus for convening the roundtable. In his remarks, Philipsen argued that Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”), as the dominant measure of success and a measure of wellbeing, is a problematic and flawed way of measuring economic growth and the health of a country. GDP represents the total dollar value of all goods and services produced over a specific time period; thus it reflects the size of the economy. However, as a measurement of the economic viability of a country, it fails to differentiate between harmful and beneficial activities, it fails to account for the environmental impact of the enterprises, it ignores the wellbeing of citizens, and it disregards the health of others countries, of society, of our planet, and of future generations. Rather, this dated measure reflects only the success of a homogenous group of privileged individuals.  Philipsen then challenged each cluster to create a more inclusive measure of economic wellbeing.

In an attempt to identify and formulate smarter goals for economic activity, my group tried to answer the following questions:

  1. What will our children need in order to thrive?
  2. How should we value the benefits and the costs in an economy (things like wealth, health, environmental impact)?
  3. What is development?
  4. Do we need economic expansion and economic growth to live well?

Although I do not think we came remotely close to figuring out an alternative to the GDP-centric worldview, the evening was filled with interesting conversations, perspectives, and examples of how GDP failed to capture the ups and downs of life.

The stories participants shared were most notable to me, as members of my group shared their personal backgrounds and work experiences. I wondered what that discussion would have looked like had I been a member of the July 1944 United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference — 730 delegates from 44 Allied nations who met shortly after the conclusion of World War II to determine international monetary and financial order — where GDP was adopted as a standard for assessing the economic health of a country. Certainly, we shared with our 1944 counterparts the basic human desires for peace, health, and happiness. And if 44 countries were represented at the “Bretton Woods (New Hampshire) Conference,” there must have been diversity of ethnicity, at least, if not gender and income. Did the diversity of our roundtable members generate a discussion much different that the post-war conversations held at this historic event? Were those different voices heard? Or did a more homogenous group of individuals back in the 1940s lobby for and succeed in passing this sterile measure the health of a nation that focuses on domestic production and state boundaries.

Philipsen’s roundtable discussion demonstrated the need to have diverse voices at the table, as we move toward a world economy, and generate new ways to access the planet’s and its occupants’ health. The importance of voicing all concerns was reaffirmed by last week’s “conversation” with President Brodhead and other Duke administrators about the racial injustices that impact our campus. While students had slightly similar personal grievances, it was clear that individuals needed to share their specific stories. Empowerment comes from having a voice.

It is challenging to formulate a practical and beneficial replacement or modification to GDP as a measure of economic health. But the SEED project definitely has the right idea in making sure that all perspectives are accounted for as we move toward a replacement.


Nov 162015
 November 16, 2015
Shifting Waters 400

Alex Cunningham’s Exhibit

If you are a frequent visitor to the Kenan Institute for Ethics, you will notice that the Voices of Home photovoice exhibit is no longer on the walls.  Rather, when you walk the halls of Kenan, you will find TV monitors with short films playing; aerial shots of green, brown and blue landscapes; Indian newspapers; and photographs of Indian glacial landscapes.  The exhibit is called Shifting Waters: Lenses on Mythology and Environmental Change in India.  It was curated by Alex Cunningham, who is the current KIE Graduate Arts Fellow working toward a Masters in Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts.

Alex’s exhibit examines some of the ways religious narratives can shape people’s understanding of environmental change. It includes work captured over his four visits to India in the past seven years.  He first visited India the summer after high school with a friend and his family.  His next visit was a semester study abroad program in college.  During these five months, he photographed glaciers, in addition to learning Hindi and about Hinduism.  For his BFA senior thesis at Ithaca College, Alex took a brief 14-day trip in 2012 to film the Ganges River and its nearby highways. After graduation, he worked in the archives at Cornell but longed to return to India.

His most recent trip was this past summer, traveling alone for two months.  Although Alex had no concrete plans of where he was staying and how long, the main goal of his trip was to create a film about the monsoon rains.  However, although Alex chased the rains, visiting villages where they were rumored to be, he kept missing them throughout the entire summer.  The running joke became that whenever he left a town, the rains would start.  Alex seemed to be the only one distraught about the lack of rain.  When he talked to locals, they did not find it unusual that there had been a change in rain patterns.

As Alex traveled solo, he continued to film what he saw, not really knowing what was his subject or goal.  Since he could not film the monsoon season, he struggled for a new vision for his project.   Alex realized that although the monsoons were a fascinating weather system for a foreigner, the annual rains were just a way of life, commonplace for those who had grown up with them.  It was “inherent folly” thinking that an individual could capture the Indian rains as just an interesting weather system. Rather, the project became about the experience of trying to follow the monsoon rains: his interactions with others, the long history humans have had with the changing environment, and how these changes have recently been accelerating. He connected his experience to Hinduism, and how it is “not a religion but a way of life.”  He discerned a spiritual connection between the environment and religious monuments that dotted the landscape.

Back in Durham and prior to the exhibit’s opening, Alex was still reflecting on his adventure.  With the added distance and time away from the summer’s travails, it was easier to contemplate what his videos had documented, and to bounce ideas off friends, family, and peers.  Christian Ferney, who oversees the Kenan Graduate Arts Fellowship at the Institute, was able to help Alex digest and make sense of his experience.  Working together, Alex and Christian formulated an overview of the exhibit:

Although climate change is occurring at a historically fast rate, the geography and climate of the earth has never been unchanging. In the Indian subcontinent, which has been continuously inhabited by civilizations for thousands of years, religious texts, mythologies, and artifacts record a long history of the changing physical earth. As fast melting glaciers and recent variability in the monsoon show us today, change remains constant. This exhibit examines some of the ways the physical and spiritual landscape of India have intersected over time, raising questions about how we understand the current climactic moment of inflection and can prepare for a future of shifted water.
Alex’s fieldwork experiences illustrate how ethical reflection is not usually a programed event.  Rather, ethical reflection is a struggle that has a complicated path, typically leading more to questions than to answers.  His exhibit is the culmination of extensive reflection and work.  It reminds that the end result is not something you might come by in a straightforward manner.  Similar to the ever-changing world, there is always an evolving, amorphous, and elusive goal.

Alex’s exhibit, including his recorded reflections on each piece in the show, will be in the Keohane-Kenan Gallery through the end of the calendar year. You can listen to his thoughts on each piece at dukeethics.org/gallery.


Nov 092015
 November 9, 2015

This week Michael Gerson, columnist for The Washington Post and former top aid, head speechwriter, and senior policy advisor for the George W. Bush administration, came to Duke for a potpourri of events.  One of the programs he participated in was a Do Lunch.  Do Lunches provide an opportunity for undergraduates to engage, on an informal basis with practitioners from diverse backgrounds.  All Do Lunches typically follow the same schedule: an overview of the practitioner’s life and career path, and a question and answer session.

The Gerson Do Lunch was held in the newly-dedicated Ahmadieh Family Conference Room at Kenan.  Everyone was seated in an intimate rectangle.  Each student introduced themselves to the group.  There was a great mix of grade levels and also diversity of student interests.

Gerson proceeded to talk about his life during the past thirty years.  He talked about his time studying theology and philosophy at Wheaton College, after which he worked for a Prison Fellowship Ministry.  He next moved to Capitol Hill as a legislative aid for a decade, where he worked on “compassionate conservatism.”  More recently, Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.  He also is a policy fellow for the ONE Campaign, an international non-partisan advocacy and campaigning organization that fights extreme poverty and preventable diseases, particularly in Africa.

A commonality that many practitioners highlight is the nonlinear trajectory they had to get to where they currently are, or to where they are going.  It is pretty standard for Do Lunch speakers to have worked at multiple jobs in a variety of fields.  This flexibility of career movement is reassuring for a recent graduate who worries about what road to start on and whether it may be the right choice.

In movies, there are pivotal turning points that shape the rest of the film.  Gerson spoke about getting a call from George W. Bush to write his announcement speech as a presidential candidate, and subsequently Bush’s speech as he accepted the Republican nomination for the presidency.  While I cannot speak for Gerson, I could only imagine this was one of those movie-like momentous opportunities that shaped the rest of his life.  It opened the door to work on key global health initiatives such as the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) and the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR).  It was clear from Gerson’s passionate discussion of these two Presidential initiatives that he had found his vocation working on global health projects.  Moreover, he was genuinely proud of the positive impact his contribution to these initiatives had made.

After the Do Lunch with Michael Gerson, I reflected on all the decisions I made during my undergraduate time at Duke University that I did not realize were pivotal at the time, but were life changing: trying out Focus at Kenan, getting involved with MASTERY, participating in DukeImmerse LEAPED, conducting research on Korean adoptions.  All these led me to the fellowship that I now hold at Kenan, a wonderful opportunity that I am sure will open even more unexpected doors to my future.   I look forward to the serendipitous career changes ahead.




Nov 022015
 November 2, 2015

Last night at the Coffeehouse, six students performed personal stories based on the theme of betrayal. Some stories portrayed how their bodies betrayed themselves; others were about how they betrayed their family; still others depicted times when the storytellers had been betrayed. I was amazed by the diversity of story content and the performers’ courage to share their intimate experiences with a full house.

The Monti Insider Pic

Pictured from left to right James Wang, Devyn Gortner, Leo Lou, Karly Gregory, Elizabeth Kim, & Sofia Manfredi

Jeff Polish, executive director at The Monti, guided the students and helped them work on their narratives. The Monti is a non-profit organization in the Triangle area whose mission is to “create community through the telling of stories.” As the master of ceremonies for the event, Jeff Polish, who sounded like Ray Romano’s voice doppelganger (but not similar to Ray Romano’s signature captious humor), provided enthusiastic introductions for the monologues.

After the event, I tried an exercise of putting myself in the performers’ shoes. Yet, I was stumped trying to think of a personal story about betrayal. There were none that easily came to mind. The more I thought on the matter, I came to the conclusion that in order to be betrayed one must be vulnerable. I often defend against vulnerability, putting up a barrier against disappointments. I also do not like to be blindsided by unexpected events. Or maybe it is that when “betrayed” I refuse to confront that feeling.

However, I learned from the performers that identifying and reconciling with betrayal can allow for growth and forward movement rather than suppressed resentment. The students were introspective enough to identify a point in their life when they were susceptible to betrayal. By formulating a story about it they confronted their feelings of resentment and transformed those emotions into acceptance.

The Monti encourages “ordinary people to tell extraordinary stories.” The Monti hopes that the story itself will resonate with others and foster community. The performers’ stories resonated with me. During the evening, I was able to step back from seeing these students as merely Duke peers. The stories revealed a richness of human experience that went beyond the campus walls. The storytellers were suddenly three-dimensional humans with complex backstories, not merely another Duke student stressed about an upcoming exam. They were extraordinary people telling their extraordinary stories.