May 022016
 May 2, 2016

Reading with cousins

As a child growing up, I was curled up with a book constantly. I read voraciously. My favorite genre was historical novels. Authors were able to capture my attention with the personal narratives of seamstresses, knights, farmworkers, tailors, chefs, underage brides, and handmaids. Their stories kept me engaged and taught me about medieval wars, the 1930s Depression in the Southwest, colonial India, the perseverance of migrant farmworkers in 1950 California, and the stigma individuals diagnosed with AIDS faced during the 80s.

This past week, I attended a show put on by The Monti and monologues given by the Kenan DukeImmerse students. These two unrelated events used storytelling to immerse the audience in a perspective different than their own. Similar to the novels I read as a child, I was drawn to the personal narratives shared.

The Monti is an organization unique to Durham. The group tackles challenging issues for society at the moment: for example, race, religion, and betrayal. Instead of presenting the one correct way to interpret an issue, The Monti presents multiple viewpoints on the topic. Members of the community present their personal stories on the matter allowing the audience to form their own opinions. While each story is told from the performer’s point of view, they all bring other voices to the table.

Stories about Race” was told by five storytellers of different races, ages, and sexes. They shared personal challenges they faced in the community and within their families. Two of the stories were about being “brown” in America post-9/11. Torang, an immigrant from Iran, shared about growing up in in the Middle East and seeing the burning of American flags which she suggested could be seen as a racist gesture against Americans. But racism against her culture was more personally felt when she moved to California. There her high school math teacher continually told her not to sit by the radiator because he did not want her to blow up the school. Abhi, an Indian, discussed how his family’s house was toilet papered shortly after September 2011. Other presenters talked about microaggressions, depression, racist family members, and their attempts to change behavior to “fit in.” The personal nature of these shared stories permitted listeners to glimpse life as another and reflect on their own experiences.

The DukeImmerse Monologues differ from the Monti presentations in that the students do not share their own experiences, but they relate the stories of refugees they have interviewed. During March 2016, six Duke students traveled to Jordan where they did ethnographic research with refugees from Syria and Iraq. Each student shared two life-story interviews during the hour long performance titled, “Deconstructing/Reconstructing: The Refugee Experience.


Reed McLaurin delivers Zuhoor’s from Amman monologue

The introductory remarks informed the audience of the current global refugee situation: 52 million people are displaced globally, yet only 15 million of that number are registered as refugees with the UNHCR and thus have “official” status as having well-founded fear of persecution based on: 1) race, 2) religion, 3) nationality, 4) membership in a particular social group, or 5) political opinion. The facts and figures help us see the enormity of the crisis, but they do not drive home what it means to be displaced, and to lead a life of suffering. The life stories do.


Instead of generalizing the experiences of a diverse refugee population, the monologues give insight to specific challenges each per faced. We heard about a mother who was supporting her children, and had to hold the family together, as her husband had become too depressed. A sister refused to abandon her sibling who was unable to function independently due to the trauma that she had witnessed. These stories recalled others I have heard over the past four years with their themes of despair and hopelessness. Yet these stories also shared an optimism in the future – that life would improve.

As an alumna of the DukeImmerse program, four years ago I presented a monologue based on an interview I conducted with an elderly Bhutanese refugee in Nepal. While it was frightening to present a story that was not my own, I learned that I could take on the voice of another. Instead of assuming a population’s story was homogeneous I had to go through the process of reflecting on the stories shared with me. Also, striking a balance between what the interviewees had emphasized and what I found interesting and thought was important. In the moment I became Bishnu Sharma, a 74-year-old who had resided in the Nepalese refugee camps for over 20 years: “I love to sing and dance, I am a joyful person. I can sing for hours the different folk songs I learned as a child in my mother country. I do not want to go to resettle but this is what my son wants and all the younger people. They want to resettle for work and for their children. I will go with them because family is most important to me even though I do not want to leave my life here. What will become of me in another new country?”

Personal narratives inform, engage and inspire. It is important that we all learn to listen to the stories of others. In doing so, we can connect and find a common ground on which to revel in our shared humanity.


Apr 242016
 April 24, 2016

For the past few months, the office has been abuzz preparing for Kenan Distinguished Lecturer Michael Walzer. However, just as I was unfamiliar with the last KDL, Krista Tippet, I admittedly did not know much about Michael Walzer. I only knew that he was “a big deal in the political science world.” What became quickly apparent when I attended his lecture What is the Responsibility to Protect? And What Does it Mean in the Syrian Case? was that he was also a star in the academic world, not just political science there were attendees from philosophy, public policy, and others departments.

Michael Walzer has a familiar face, weathered and kind. Even before Walzer shared his thoughts, it was evident from the introductory remarks given by Noah Pickus, co-director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics, and Max Cherem, Senior Fellow, that Walzer’s writing are classics in academia. Although Pickus and Cherem completed their doctoral programs in different decades, they both recalled reading Walzer and they reflected on how influential and integral his thoughts and ideas were to their work.


Michael Walzer giving the 2016 Kenan Distinguished Lecture

I have hypothesized why Walzer’s work may be so timeless, and my best guess is that, at age 81, Walzer has lived through key periods of the 20th Century. For example, in his own words, “growing up in New York City as a young Jewish boy during World War II” gave him a unique perspective on pacifism and the necessity of entering certain wars to prevent mass genocide or lesser human rights violations. Although his talk was focused on the Syrian Crisis, he referenced numerous other conflicts, in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Darfur, Khmer Rouge and Vietnam. Here I found myself having difficulty remembering the Syrian Spring Rising. Yet, Walzer remembers these struggles that he has lived through and is able to compare the motivations, or lack thereof, for the international community’s intervention in each of these fights, its strategies, and its successes or failures.

Walzer maintained that that there are three general requirements critical to intervening in a foreign war or conflict:

1) Pick a winner by choosing which side to support and help this side prevail.

2) Seize the arsenal of weapons to prevent their use against humanity.

3) Protect whomever was defeated by guaranteeing the safety of minorities.

His whole idea is that you need stability once the conflict is over. While the first two stipulations are fairly straightforward and appear necessary for stability, it is unclear how his final requirement would be achieved. Walzer seemed to understand that if the losers were protected peace would ensue.

Walzer recognized that deciding when to intervene is a difficult question. Should the international community intervene when Syria is gassing its own citizens? How should it respond to Boko Haram kidnapping young girls? What should the world do in response to ISIS? “What should you do when you don’t know what to do?” to which he answered, “there is no right answer.”

From the images inundating the media over the past years, it is clear that the world community has been unable to guarantee the safety of minorities.  There are floods of refugees seeking asylum from conflicts in their home countries. Thus, Walzer’s third condition seems impossible to satisfy.

It is hard to justify intervening in a war from an outsider’s perspective. Walzer even admitted that there is high human cost for humanitarian interventions and no material benefit to the intervening country of stopping genocide. Despite this uncompensated cost, there is still a moral responsibility to act. Walzer argued that there is a responsibility to protect and intervene as long as there are people who need to be protected. He stated that, “as soon as terrible things start to happen, there needs to be a response.” To me this answer seemed unsatisfactory. First, will a response always deter the terrible things that occur — the inhumanity that seems to be part and parcel of the way people relate to each other? Second, will there not always be people who need protection? Third, should the United States or individuals who have the power to intervene always mediate for those who need protection? How do we discern which atrocities are bad enough to make the cut?

Although Walzer outlined three succinct ideas on how to proceed when intervening, it is not as easy as he makes it sound. The world of political theory and the world of politics don’t function in black and white. Or perhaps the trouble is making the elegant world of political theory reckon with the many gradations of the real political world.


Apr 182016
 April 18, 2016

Chefarmer Matthew Raiford

After talking to Matthew Raiford the first time back in February, I was so excited to meet him in person. Over the phone he just exuded enthusiasm for his work as both a chef and a farmer or as he likes to call himself Chefarmer.

Matthew Raiford grew up on the family farm that his great-great-great-grandfather purchased and now farms the same land as a sixth generation farmer. Yet, the challenge of farming does not seem to be enough to keep Raiford busy as he also has a restaurant, The Farmer & The Larder in Brunswick, Georgia that he owns and operates along with Food Alchemist Jovan Sage.

I was able to meet Raiford prior to the his talk on the connection between food production and preparation at Durham Spirits Co.’s new location. Durham Spirits Co. hosted our resettled refugee cooking class, which was the first part of the three-piece series on food, culture, and ethics. I arrived at Durham Spirits Co to find Katie the owner of DSC animatedly talking with Raiford about his restaurant and different techniques while he was questioning her about the cooking class model she employs. As a rule of thumb, individuals who incorporate food as part of their livelihood are genuinely interested in other foodies’ professions and delve into discussions about shared interests.

Raiford proceeded to make his signature “double oink” a pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon, risotto with Sapelo Island Red Peas, okra black eyed pea flour pancakes, and coconut pot de creme with pink Himalayan sea salt. When we arrived at Kenan the participants were eager to try Chefarmer Raiford’s cooking.

It was evident that Chef Raiford was right at home talking in front of an audience as he was in the kitchen. He knows how to read a crowd and is able to anticipate individuals’ questions and interests. Chef Raiford opened up talking about his history with food and how he studied both cooking and farming professionally. His first anecdote related to the memory of soil. Upon returning to his family farm after attending school for farming, Raiford initially tried different techniques such as adding amendments to the soil for his ocean sea pea crop. He mused about how sometimes overanalyzing certain tasks can cause failure. His neighbors laughed at him for adding fertilizer to the soil and told him that all he needed to do was drop seeds right on the earth. To which he concluded, there is as much to learn about the past as there is to learn about the future.

In addition to joking about his past faux pas on the farm like getting stuck with too many pigs, Chef Raiford spoke about the influence Southern climate had on cooking and how historically different food items such as biscuits were originally scones that did not cook similarly in the humid weather. He pointed out how different things that are considered “Southern” are not solely “Southern.” For example, grits which is typically associated as exclusively southern can be found in other cuisines in a more finely ground form of polenta.

Chef Raiford talked candidly about growing up in a hostile racist South as a black male. One of his stories that stuck with me was about how fried chicken was used as a beacon of safety on family roadtrips up the east coast. Raiford’s family, along with other black families, used the “chicken trail” – a route that included fried chicken places that implicitly indicated where it would be safe to gas up.

As the talk progressed, Chef Raiford continued to spin stories, explaining about the historical intertwining of food and southern culture. Although, slightly cliché, Raiford summarized how food is a common denominator that brings people from all walks of life together.

Apr 112016
 April 11, 2016

Recently, I had the pleasure of hosting a lively discussion with the esteemed Rabbi Ari Weiss on the intersection of food, ethics, and religion. Rabbi Weiss is the founding Director of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization guided by Torah values and dedicated to the fight against suffering and oppression. He has taught at numerous foundations, synagogues, and universities around the nation. Rabbi Weiss’s experience working with communities and running his organization led to an expansive and interactive discussion here at Kenan surrounding the ethics of food, from proper preparation of meat to fair wages within the food industry.

In the past, I have examined various ways in which religion, ethics, and food intersect, but I was especially excited to have Rabbi Ari Weiss because he provided a fresh perspective to the topic. In fact, the first thing that we did was pair up with others in the room and read passages from the Torah out loud. This helped us become more fully immersed in the subject and able to participate directly in his related conversation. Rabbi Weiss selected passages that discussed food, food ethics, Kosher laws, or broader food practices. One thing that struck me was how many passages from the Torah and Old Testament mentioned food, and how many of those I may have read in the past but never considered in that way. For example, our first selection was from the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a familiar story to many people. Rabbi Weiss pointed out how central food is to this story – the main premise is that God forbids Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but they do so anyways and face the consequences. This is only the beginning, as Rabbi Weiss put it, of how fundamental food practices are in religious text.

Rabbi Weiss continued our discussion by examining other passages from the Torah about Kosher food practices. He taught us how religious texts present guidelines on what to eat and how to prepare food. Instead of going through the guidelines and finishing with how they translate into traditional Kosher rules, however, Rabbi Weiss pushed our discussion further into the relationship between food practices and virtue. What is virtuous food and how can we practice truly virtuous eating?

Rabbi Weiss’s question on virtuous food provoked a lot of reflection within the room about what it means to eat ethically; perhaps following a strict religious guideline on food is not always the same as eating in a conscientious and thoughtful manner. He questioned the ethics of Kosher butchers who follow religious guidelines but still prepare meat in a repulsive manner – and the relatively weak international Kosher labeling that have probably allowed these practices to occur. He shared other ethical situations for consideration, such as the moral implications of Kosher butchers who hike their meat prices up enormously during Jewish holidays, when people have to buy from them for religious reasons.

Throughout his visit, Rabbi Weiss helped me reflect on how central of a role food plays in religious texts, and whether these texts have led us to truly virtuous food practices. For followers of Judaism, is there a way to ensure that Kosher food is prepared not just to earn a “Kosher” approved label, but fully how the Torah intended it? Through his expertly-led discussion on the topic, I came away thinking much more about where my food comes from, how to eat ethically, and what food practices are truly virtuous. I think and hope others in the room did as well.

Apr 042016
 April 4, 2016

The Kenan Institute for Ethics leads an alternative spring break for undergraduates every year. This year I was fortunate to travel with a fantastic group of six students and a co-leader to the Tucson, Arizona region and Nogales, Mexico to learn about the journey migrants take across the U.S.-Mexican border, and to study border enforcement issues.

Our group visited different stops along the migrants’ journey to the U.S. We also examined the migrant deportation process if they were caught in the U.S. unlawfully. Prior to the trip, I had little to no understanding of the different political, humanitarian, and policy problems linked to the U.S.-Mexico border.

We visited an U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Detention Center in Florence, Arizona where detainees are held for 72 hours before they are deported to their home country or transferred to another facility if they appeal their deportation. ICE officials led us on a tour describing the different services offered to the detainees. They led us through what looked like top-notch health facilities and raved about the food served in the detention center. Yet, as I walked past jail cells or detainees who were playing soccer in a barbed wire enclosed area, I hated the idea that I was touring a detention center as if it were a school in which I was considering enrolling. The officers talked about the detainees as if they could not hear us talking about them on the other side of bars. I felt as though we should not have been talking as if the detainees were invisible.

The previous day, while we were touring Nogales, Mexico, I had the same impression that the individuality of each detained was overlooked. There our group started a conversation with a recently deported migrant. The guide and translator started asking the migrant questions about his experience in Spanish, presumably assuming that all of these migrants were fluent in Spanish.   However, the interviewee answered in perfect English. He explained that he had spent his entire life in Tucson. I was struck by the idea that the entire group was seen as a whole as opposed to individuals with varied experiences, different cultures, and different languages.


Courthouse sketch of detainees in handcuffs being tried during an Operation Streamline visit.

On the third day of our trip, we attended an Operation Streamline hearing at the Federal Courthouse. At the hearings, up to 70 individuals are tried at a time. These mass hearings occur each day in several locations along the U.S.-Mexico border. At the hearing we attended, 50 individuals were tried and all were found ‘guilty’ or ‘culpable’ of unauthorized entry or re-entry across the U.S. border.   For this offense, defendants were give a criminal record and sentenced to anywhere from 30-180 days in prison. The ICE Detention Center we visited was one of many holding areas for detainees prior to deportation after they had served their time in jail.

Before the hearing, one woman introduced herself as a member of the Green Valley Samaritans. The Green Valley Samaritans is a humanitarian group that provides aid to migrants in distress. This retiree attended at least one Tucson Operation Streamline hearing every week in an act of solidarity with the migrants being tried. She explained that although those being tried would not know that she was a constant presence for the process. Rather, she was there as a reminder to the lawyers, judges, and other individuals who also were there on a consistent basis that there are individuals, such as herself, who are keeping watch over the process. Additionally, she wanted to serve as a visible, albeit silent, advocate for those on trial who may not have anyone supporting them through this inhumane process.

Although numerous thoughts crossed my mind while I tried to process the trip, I could not shake the notion that undocumented migrants are a vulnerable population, just as are children and prisoners. In research, to work with a vulnerable population requires special approval by the Institutional Review Board (IRB). As the term vulnerable, these groups have less autonomy than adult American citizens who are not incarcerated. They also need more protection from possible abuse due to their status. As the IRB provides important oversight to research protocols with these populations, so too might we need to have better oversight as to how we are treating migrants in the U.S. at a minimum, we may need to recognize their individuality. Perhaps recognizing the extent to how vulnerable populations are is important to contesting and challenging the status quo of the system.

While this one week experience gave me a only tiny insight as to the experiences of those who partake in an Operation Streamline hearing, migrants who are detained and then deported, or the guards who work in an ICE facility, I now can put faces to the migrants, the officials, and workers that are a part of this saga. The Kenan alternative spring break has given me a better understanding of the complex debate over border security issues.


Mar 302016
 March 30, 2016

Grace over meals isn’t something I normally think about. It’s not something I normally see others doing. In fact it has become such a rarity that it tends to make me uncomfortable seeing others say grace over their meals in public. I was only prompted to think deeply about the practice of grace after attending Duke Divinity School professor Norman Wirzba’s talk. Professor Wirzba challenged us to think why a practice that in its nature is simply meant to help us reflect and give thanks produces such negative reactions from those on the outside. As he suggests, it can be viewed as dogmatic and imposing, but I also think it causes us discomfort simply because it is so out of the norm. Our movement away from the practice of grace may be in part due to the fact that we are less traditional and more secularized, but it also demonstrates the country’s commodification of food. We expect food to be cheaply and abundantly available, so why give thanks? The tie between religion and food helped us to appreciate food as a gift that we receive as a result of the labor of others and often the life of an animal. To be sure, we do not need religion to reflect upon and appreciate the journey our food went through to reach our table, but quiet acts of reflection like grace seem like such a simple way to reconnect to the world.

According to Wirzba, our modern economy has turned food from a gift we receive through labor and resources to commodity that is produced by money. We as individuals buy food to put on our tables. It is a solitary process that simply involves the exchange of goods. We have become impatient and so far removed from the process of growing and producing food that we don’t need to think about how it got to us other than through our money. I admit that I am often guilty of this thoughtlessness as I walk into a grocery store with a list and my budget. I don’t view the food I buy as a gift so much as I see it as another cost I have to incur.

Often our food system prioritizes short-sightedness in environmental, humane, and labor practices in the service of cheap, abundant food. A lack of focus on the people who produce the food arises due to the notion that money produces food. Food is a communal effort that involves more labor and resources than we often imagine. I think this removal becomes much more dangerous when we think how it informs our decisions. It allows us the luxury to support an unsustainable food system that places our immediate desires over the health of the planet and the well-being of animals.

Now that I think more deeply about grace and its ability to connect us to not only our food, but our community and the earth, it doesn’t seem like such a strange practice. I like to think that I live my life in a thoughtful way. I actively work to be an informed consumer and citizen. Why should I not then also take the time to appreciate each meal for the labor and resources that it required. While I still don’t say a religious grace over each of my meals, I’ve become much better at mindfulness. I now try not to simply consume my food, but to appreciate it for the gift and the nourishment it provides me, while recognizing the often long journey it took to get to my table.

Mar 042016
 March 4, 2016
Duke students joined local refugees and their children at the Durham Spirits Company in east Durham to prepare a meal of traditional foods from Iraq and Sudan Here senior Chrissy Bartlett (left) and Cecelia Mercer (second from right) a Bear Fellow with the Kenan Institute are with Moram Taha (pink head scarf) and her daughter Ann who came to the US from Sudan The event was part of the Food, Ethics, and Culture series at the Kenan Institute for Ethics

Here senior Chrissy Bartlett (left) and Cecelia Mercer (second from right) a Bear Fellow with the Kenan Institute are with Moram Taha (pink head scarf) and her daughter Ann who came to the US from Sudan

For almost the past five years, I have done home visits with the local resettled refuge community to sign up children for the tutoring and mentorship program, MASTERY, at Kenan. The first time I did a home visit with the former directors Grace Benson (Trinity ’14) and Jenny Sherman (T’14), they suggested that I should allocate three hours for the eight students we were visiting. At the time, I thought three hours seemed like an excessive amount of time for obtaining eight signatures. However, I quickly realized on the trip that home visits are not something that can be rushed. They typically entail meeting all the family members who are home (fathers, mothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins), sharing a beverage (tea, coffee, soda), and a snack o. In the end the suggested three hours was not enough to cover all eight of the students that we had planned to visit.

The first few times I did home visits, I felt uncomfortable and unsure as to how to accept families’ hospitality. Was it appropriate to stay so long? Was I wasting their time? What if I wasn’t hungry? One of my good friends Tra Tran wrote a blog post in 2014 about her time in Jordan meeting with Iraqi refugee families during her Duke Immerse experience. Tra talks about the importance of hospitality in many cultures, not unlike Southern hospitality, to which I was also unaccustomed, moving to Durham from Ohio. Over the years, house visits have become an exciting trip I look forward to as opposed to the stressful encounters they used to be. Food is the quickest way to my heart, and being able to share food has created a fast way to become friends. The resettled refugees’ sense of pride in sharing culture, especially via food, is always so apparent.

Kenan’s programs have expanded and evolved from a summer camp for resettled refugee youth to MASTERY to an interrelated set of programs: MASTERY, SuWa, an ESL and GED help program for resettled refugee women, and SuWa skills, an empowerment program to help resettled refugee women via small business development. Cooking has been an idea that many women have expressed interest in pursing as a small business idea. However, due to high start-up costs of proper certification and lack of access to industrial kitchens, plans for a cooking-related social enterprise have been put on pause.

However, this past Saturday, three resettled refugee women and seventeen Duke undergraduates worked together to cook up traditional Sudanese and Iraqi food.

It was a great way for the resettled refugee women to showcase their culinary talents and for the students and women to interact with each other. The event was hosted at the Durham Spirits Co., in a beautiful historic Durham home, which had lots of counter space for participants to help with the prep work. The women brought their children as well and the afternoon was filled delicious aromas, giggles from the kids, and a shared meal with heaping piles of food leftover for attendees to bring home.

Duke students joined local refugees and their children at the Durham Spirits Company in east Durham to prepare a meal of traditional foods from Iraq and Sudan The event was part of the Food, Ethics, and Culture series at the Kenan Institute for Ethics

Duke students joined local refugees and their children at the Durham Spirits Company in east Durham to prepare a meal of traditional foods from Iraq and Sudan

A wonderful thing about food is that it cuts across cultures. Some of the women do not have the strongest grasp of English, but we were able to communicate via a mix of hand signals and broken phrases. We prepared a carrot salad, rice and potatoes, chicken and meat buns. The women were extremely excited to share their knowledge of food preparation, teaching new styles for prepping rice, and showing us the proper way to roll out the buns. Not many Duke students have the opportunity to do a home visit and experience the hospitality resettled refugees provide. Yet, for a Saturday afternoon a few Duke students were able to get a glimpse.

Mar 032016
 March 3, 2016

This past week, we are officially halfway through with the Ethics Film Series for 2016. The first three screenings of Black Gold, Wall-E, and Chef’s Table sparked interesting dialogues.

When Louis C.K. introduced the documentary short film category at the Oscars this weekend saying “all [documentary short films] do is tell important stories,” he suggested that documentaries are powerful pieces, usually not conceived to make a profit, that can educate and influence change. Black Gold is a documentary that focuses on the specific challenges faced by coffee growers in Ethiopia. Although the film is now 10 years old and slightly dated, it tells the story of Tadesse Meskela, “one man on a mission to save his 74,000 struggling coffee farmers from bankruptcy. As his [Ethiopian] farmers strive to harvest some of the highest quality coffee beans on the international market, Tadesse travels the world in an attempt to find buyers willing to pay a fair price. Against the backdrop of Tadesse’s journey to London and Seattle, the enormous power of the multinational players that dominate the world’s coffee trade becomes apparent. New York commodity traders, the international coffee exchanges, and the double dealings of trade ministers at the World Trade Organization reveal the many challenges Tadesse faces in his quest for a long term solution for his farmers.”   The movie sparked a lively discussion about how the supply chain can influence agricultural choices farmers make. Viewers also debated how, as a consumer, to approach different certifications such as “fair trade” or “organic.” Counter Culture, a Durham-based coffee roasting company that aspires to be on the forefront of ethical practices in coffee production, facilitated the post-screening dialogue.


Tim brewing coffee

Counter Culture kicked off the night with an educational brewing demonstration before the film. The coffee experts set up their equipment with deft hands in less than ten minutes. The arrangement looked like a science experiment complete with scales and beakers. Students passing by Griffith Theater and moviegoers were able to try different roasts from Ethiopia. Tim Hill, Counter Culture’s Head of Coffee, Meredith Taylor, Counter Culture’s Sustainability Manager, and Claire Fox, a Forestry and Environment Management student who is pursuing a Masters, led the discussion after the after the film.


Tim (L) Meredith (M) Claire (R)

Although the film suggested that there were too many middlemen in the supply chain, the trio argued that each role was important for the product to get to consumers. They self-identified that as roasters they were halfway between consumers and farmers and recognized the importance to provide education to both sides of the chain. Transparency is not a common thing for companies to provide, yet this is what Counter Culture is striving to accomplish with their sustainability and transparency reports. It was apparent that the film caused attendees to think more critically about how to purchase the “best” ethical coffee, something that is typically considered a commodity good. Although one woman expressed her frustration that today’s labels make purchasing difficult, the conversation ended on a note of hope for the ethical advances already made in the coffee industry.

The screening of Wall-E attracted not only students, but families with small children. The discussion afterwards was spearheaded by Dirk Phillipsen and Kati Henderson. They used this Disney/Pixar full-length cartoon to talk about environmental themes, and generated a sophisticated discussion that may have gone over the children’s heads. Phillipsen opened up the conversation by talking about the Supreme Court’s ruling that had come out that day. SCOTUS temporarily halted the Clean Power Plan’s efforts to regulate coal emissions. The 5-4 decision granted a request by 27 states, several energy companies, and multiple business groups to halt implementation and enforcement of federal regulations that would curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and to block the Administration’s Clean Power Plan, which also mandates a shift to renewable energy from coal-fired electricity, until the court battle over the Plan’s legality is resolved by the federal appeals court.

Phillipsen pointed out how the United States’ lack of commitment to the environment, as a world leader and major pollutant emitter, may have dire consequences for the COP21 Agreement. Following suit, other countries may not be convinced that they should be reducing their emissions. Phillipsen stated his fear that we, as a planet, are on “a speeding train headed for a cliff” because we are producing too much pollution and CO2, and there is little significant action to curb this pathway of destruction.

Later in the evening, our talk shifted to discussing privatization of water and how governments should regulate private companies to prevent future incidents like Flint from occurring without impeding private companies from providing services.

The allegorical dystopia portrayed in Wall-E and the chronicle of coffee grower’s plight in Black Gold highlighted different contemporary social issues we face and allowed for an opportunity to reflect critically on our impact on the here and now, and on the future, through the choices we make. The goal of the Ethics Film Series is not to leave viewers cringing in their seats about all the negative things occurring in the world. Rather, the film and discussion Series invites us to spend a few hours looking through different windows on the world— whether via a documentary on “real” systems, like the coffee supply chain, or fictional imaginings of the future that are based in current trends, like the world portrayed in Wall-E. Both of these perspectives give us some purchase on here and now. They allow us to “escape” our own place, but hopefully they don’t exactly let us off the hook, either. We get a little more sense of what it means to eat and live in the present. Screening a film permits us to focus on all the things going in our communities, country, and around the world when we are juggling our own personal lives.


Mar 012016
 March 1, 2016

This spring semester there has been a range of events and activities from a Conversation in Human Rights about truth and reconciliation commissions, to a cooking class with resettled refugees, and the Ethics Film Series.  Stay tuned for posts on the Ethics Film Series and the cooking class!


Coffee Cupping with Counter Culture before the screening of “Black Gold”

Feb 192016
 February 19, 2016

Last week, Father Greg Boyle visited Duke as this year’s Kenan practitioner-in-residence. I was fortunate to spend some time listening to him speak and watching him connect with students. Some words that come to mind when I reflect on Father Greg’s character and personality include genuine, jolly, sincere, kind, wise, humble, & Santa Clausesque.

Father Greg is the executive director of Homeboy Industries, the largest and most successful gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world. For nearly thirty years, Father Greg has been a community organizer in Los Angeles, California, where Homeboy Industries operates. He has built and developed important relationships with local communities, and along the way, has gathered many interesting experiences to share with audiences across the nation. When I saw Father Greg talk, he would ease audience members into the conversation by recounting some of the stories about different relationships he had developed. Although I was familiar with a fair amount of his stories from reading his book, Father Greg told them with such enthusiasm and candor, that it seemed like it was his first time talking about the event and not his hundredth.

During the Do Lunch, an informal lunch chat for undergraduates, Father Greg gave an overview of his life timeline. He briefly talked about his time as a community organizer in 1970s Oakland; his international ministry in Bolivia and how it motivated him to work in the “poorest place” when he returned stateside; and his current placement in Los Angeles at Delores Mission. As Father Greg chronicled the past 28 years spent in L.A., it was clear that he has witnessed truly heartbreaking and unfair events. He recounted important time intervals such as the period of “undocumented immigration” from 1986-1988, or “decade of death,” a period of high violence from 1988-1998. It was clear to me that Father Greg possessed a quality that I hope to emulate one day. He focuses on the positive and takes pride in his work, without discounting the importance of the negative events, diluting them, or ignoring them. He has a very introspective way of looking at life – rationally recognizing that people may get angry for unjust occurrences and become discouraged with God or whoever they consider a higher power. But he challenges the idea that a god-like figure should be blamed and suggested that these figures are constantly “sav[ing us] in the present moment,” and that this should give us encouragement.

Throughout Father Greg’s visit, I tried to keep my notebook open to jot down the pearls of wisdom that were constantly flowing from his mouth:

  • “It’s where the joy is, follow the joy, it’s about the joy”
  • “Intentionality versus results”
  • “Why measure the world we live all the time?”
  • “Presume everyone is in a place of struggle. The answer is compassion, the trick is to get to a place of awe.”
  • “Savor the world vs. save the world”

He could read the room, understand the hidden questions, and not talk down to the group. It was an honor to witness the way Father Greg recounts his stories and convey pure emotion from these memories. One of the most important lessons that Father Greg voiced was “no matter what you can do you can learn from anybody and everybody.