Sep 012016
 September 1, 2016

As I sat down to write my final Kenan Insider blog post, I reread the 29 weekly posts from the past year. I was reminded of how diverse my year has been. The Kenan Insider has given me a way to document my journey through the year and the process of connecting my experiences back to ethics and Kenan’s mission.   Over the past year, I tried to emulate a sponge soaking up information. After many talks, however, I was left with more questions than I had come with and few answers. Writing for the blog helped me work through this uncertainty.

In my time as the Stephen and Janet Bear Postgraduate Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics this year, I have had the opportunity to explore the intersection of food, culture, and ethics. The position allowed me to draw on past experiences and study new challenges. I have worked on two farms that are environments where ethics guides their missions: the Ohio City Farm, an organization that works with resettled refugees, and the Duke Campus Farm, which, like Kenan, facilitates interdisciplinary ways of approaching learning. The time I spent on these farms unintentionally foregrounded the events I planned at Kenan. Mentors from both farms were able to lend me their expertise to bring in speakers about southern hospitality and food and understand how farming can be utilized as a form of empowerment.

As I began the position last summer, I was adjusting not only to how to deal with the sweltering heat but also adjusting to Duke without the support of the majority of my recent undergraduate peers. No longer required to attend class, I was released from the pressure to take copious notes, to write a paper, or to be tested on the subject matter. I felt like I was able to pursue my own interests and learn for learning’s sake. I spent my first month at Kenan researching everything there was to know about foods and ethics. Some of the topics I had been exposed to through undergraduate classes; others I discovered as I took new paths on the research trail. As part of my research, I met with the Duke Farm staff and academics at Duke and joined the Duke food working group to gain a scholar’s perspective. I also examined different government programs and national, regional, and municipal food and water issues (and their connections to human rights), in addition to what corporations were doing to tackle these same issues. The quantity of information was overwhelming. However, with the help of others, I was able to continually refine and focus in on more chewable sized topics.

My goal was to discover ways to communicate through food themes the ethical choices students make each day as they choose what to eat on campus, to find potential speakers to bring new perspectives to campus, and to design programming that would get engage the Duke community in a rich dialogue not yet taking place on such a crucial topic. In turning this research into programming proposals for the year, I learned how difficult it is to zero in on a more finite topic and how to work within resource constraints. As I began to plan and implement the programs, including the annual film series and a series of events that included diverse panels and an interactive refugee-cooking workshop, I learned how to think through these topics and how to engage others in doing likewise. In the process, I became a more ethically intelligent person—one with tangible skills making things happen.

One of the most memorable things I did as a Bear Postgraduate Fellow was the Free Food Challenge. Many of my friends thought it was a joke when they heard that I was eating free food for an entire month, a manifestation of my natural extreme frugality. Despite the initial chuckles about the project and questions about the logistics of “surviving” for a month on the free food offered at academic events at Duke, my friends eventually were impressed by the purpose of the project and framework of rules I set for myself. The rule that was the least difficult was to engage with audience members and speakers — I needed to discuss the challenge with one or more participants, and also explore the topic that was being presented at the event. Critically thinking about how the unrelated talks I was attending each day connected to one another was a much harder rule to follow, but helped me to hone my critical thinking skills.

This year has given me the opportunity to explore what it means to see ethics in every aspect of living. I have taken the mission of Kenan to heart, and it has shaped the way I think. Each of the aspects of my position, be it research and program planning, writing, or helping students run the Ethics Couch, has contributed to my development as an adult and my decision making about the next paths on which I will venture. Right now, my next big step is my move to Dublin, Ireland in September. Although I have no set job plans, I have some leads related to food and ethics. Despite the uncertainty of my next move, I am certain that the experiences I have gained from Kenan over the past five years will allow me to adapt to anything Ireland (and life) has to throw at me.

Jun 202016
 June 20, 2016

As a freshman I participated in Kenan’s LEAPED DukeImmerse program. Whenever I describe the program, I talk about the field research component – how we visited Bhutanese refugee camps in Damak, Nepal and collected life story interviews. While the travel part of the program is the easiest to describe to others, the preparation for the travel and ethnographic research aspect is something I rarely talk about, but that I constantly reflect on.

Leading up to the travel in Nepal, I learned about the importance of capturing personal moments and landscapes while being mindful of consent. As a rule of thumb, we were taught not to use the zoom lens on the Kenan cameras that we carried around while in the camps – zooming meant that we should move closer, so subjects were aware of the picture being captured. If we could not get the shot without a zoom, then we were being intrusive unbeknownst to the subjects. Another lesson that we were taught as researchers: we are “always in the field.” We should not leave refugee camps and forget to observe and take field notes, nor should we use zoom lenses on our personal cameras. As a reminder, we had matching string “always in the field” bracelets.

These lessons have stuck with me over the past five years. Now, be it a research project or a holiday I am taking with my family or friends, I am conscious of my presence and how I take photos. I also always carry a field notebook to make observations and quick sketches.

I recently took a trip to Greece and Turkey with my parents and a friend. Despite being excited to go hiking and see Byzantine and ancient Greek architecture, I was apprehensive. Apprehensive to see what the situation on the ground was like for incoming refugees, having read many news articles. Apprehensive to be traveling and seeing similar sites that many migrants might pass through on a completely different journey. Wondering if I could be both a tourist with the intention of focusing on ancient historical sites and ancient conflicts, yet learn too about Greece’s current situation and its struggles as it is overwhelmed by more than 57,000 refugees and migrants bottlenecked in the country, largely due to Macedonia’s border closure in March.


Graffiti at a ferry pier in Greece

We did not notice refugees in Greece until we took a wrong exit heading to the ferryboat pier.   We drove past a group of tents with apparent refugees in the woods beside a decrepit gas station. From that moment on, though, I became much more aware of their presence, albeit slightly hidden. They were near the our hotel, in abandoned buildings on a side street that the concierge said to avoid; they were near the port, just off the highways; they were in the commercial square of Athens as we bought pastry for breakfast. Until taking a wrong exit as we headed to a ferryboat, more apparent than an influx of refugees was that city looked economically depressed: graffiti everywhere, stray cats and dogs, and parks and facilities from the 2004 Athens Olympics that bore the traces of a once well-kept facilities that had been left to slowly degenerate. It was apparent that Athens was in need of the money that tourism brings. Vendors echoed this sentiment and said it was difficult to keep their businesses a float. In addition, the local population was not consuming as much with the minimum wage at about €4 an hour.

Turkey looked better than Greece, at first blush.   We arrived in Istanbul at night and ventured out to Taksim Square to grab a bite to eat. Despite it being 10pm, there was lots of activity and many restaurants were open for dinner. As we walked through the square we passed folks gathered around flower vendors, toy vendors, musicians, and just enjoying the weather. Yet, unlike Greece, where refugees were “out of sight and out of mind,” mothers were sitting with children with containers in front of them ready for offerings. They did not come up to people passing by to ask for money. It seemed they were embarrassed to ask. I did not take a picture or make a quick sketch because both gestures felt intrusive and wrong.   However, the image of mothers holding their children will forever be imprinted in my mind. Shopkeepers told us how hard life was becoming now that tourism was down 27% from the prior year. And our visit was a week before the June 7 bombing of the area around city’s historic Beyazit Square neighborhood (a major tourist attraction) that will undoubtedly further frighten potential visitors from travel to Istanbul.

While I did not resolve my unease of traveling as a tourist who is focusing on historic sites, yet who is aware of the current refugee situation and the plight migrants to Greece and Turkey face, I did find myself thinking a lot about difference between my situation and others. For example, we visited Crete via ferryboat. Nearly at the same time, one June 3, about 340 migrants were rescued and nine bodies were pulled from the sea after a boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, 75 nautical miles (140km) south of Crete. I could not stop imagining the conditions these individuals faced on that boat, or the small dinghies that refugees are packed into to flee to Greece. In contrast, our party of four had a small room with two bunks and a private toilet with a shower.

I did try to maintain an “in the field” mindset, I did not see the trip to Greece and Turkey as a vacation that was a complete escape and disengagement from the world and the problems associated with daily life. Rather, it was an opportunity to see firsthand how two nations are meeting the challenge of assimilating some of the world’s 65.3 million refugees in 2015, as reported today by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (a 5.8 million increase from 2014). Kenan’s teaching of an “always in the field” ethos has changed the way that I approach foreign travel, I think, for the better.

Jun 132016
 June 13, 2016

For the past week I have had flashbacks to the end of high school and the agonizing process of writing a paper worthy enough that a college would allow me to attend. ­­I have been helping my good college friend brainstorm different ways to draft her medical school essay demonstrating her desire to become a doctor. My friend was trying to seek the optimal way of distinguishing herself from other applicants. She was worried about the cliché that she was entering the profession “to help people.” That was one of her motivations, but she feared that many applicants would have the same goal.

My friend had many examples related as to why she was interested in medicine and wanted to be a doctor. However, at first glance her vignettes appeared unrelated and disjointed. After some serious brainstorming, we determined that they had the central theme of crying. She used crying to as a thematic link to create a cohesive paper.

She sent the personal statement to her mom, sister, our high school English teacher, and some of our friends from college to give feedback and constructive criticism. Everyone loved the statement, as it captured my friend’s intellectual and general curiosity, her sincere desire to help others, and her insightfulness that medicine is wonderful but by no means a magical cure-all profession.

Her health policy mentor was not that impressed. He was concerned that medical school admissions officers would read the essay and consider the crying theme as “too feminine.” Upon learning that my friend was going to rework the entire essay to fit into his concept of the ideal candidate, I was indignant that she should abandon her sincere analysis of why she was choosing medicine. Was I mad because this was a man critiquing my friend’s piece? If a woman had said it was “too feminine,” would I have been equally upset? What the heck does too feminine even mean!?!

As I watched her essay go through five more revisions, I saw my friend bend over backwards to try and appease everyone’s opinion of who the ideal candidate should be, what characteristics they should possess, and aspirations they should have. Some readers thought that she should demonstrate her detached analytical ability. Others liked her ability to show empathy toward patient care. My friend became increasingly reluctant to finish her essay as each new reader had a different mold that they wanted her to fit into.

Watching her agony led me to think about why, to be accepted, we need to pander to who others want us to be. We shape our image to conform to what we think other people are looking for. My friend was struggling with how to stay competitive with such an enormous applicant pool that all want the same thing and are all extremely qualified. The difficulty was imagining what the competition might write about, so as to write something different, and simultaneously imagine the ideal qualities of young physicians-in-training as medical school admissions people might see them.

Fitting in and being accepted as one of the team is a skill we all have to learn. As we transition into new and unfamiliar spaces, we feel the pressure to revision our self-concept. Different groups shape our identity and our priorities through selection.

Some of my friends struggle with the concept of “being fake,” the idea of changing our outward actions to fit the mold of what others feel most comfortable around. It feels unauthentic initially to “put on a face” for new groups. However, I recognize this as a necessary measure we have to adopt to make forward progress getting to know anyone. When we show a commonality with others, even if it at first feels insincere, it facilitates the opportunity to connect and bridge our differences. We need the ability to see things from others’ perspectives so we can share our humanity. I believe that human beings have the capacity for multiple genuine faces.

Thus, reflecting on my initial reaction to her male mentor’s comments, I could more objectively understand why he critiqued her work. Although I disagree with how his criticism was framed, he was able to share the perspective of how a gendered reader might view the essay.

May 172016
 May 17, 2016

One of the main reasons that I chose to come to Duke for college was for the weather.  Hailing from Cleveland, Ohio, I’m used to erratic weather.  Hence, when my sister sent me a video of snow in Cleveland this weekend (May 14-15), I was reminded again why I live in Durham, the city that (usually) provides perfect weather for graduation.  All weekend long, we had warm, but not too hot weather, sun, and clear skies.  My graduating roommates have funny-looking tan lines from their excursions to the gardens and forgetting to put on sunscreen with their mortarboards.

With the undergraduate and Kenan’s Ethic Certificate Program graduation ceremonies, there was much “free food” to collect.  The Tupperware that I now bring to most events out of habit from my Free Food Challenge in the fall semester filled up quickly.  Much to my roommates’ chagrin, our refrigerator is way too crowded with leftovers.  However, another more important result of attending the assortment of ceremonies was being able to snap pictures and listen to all the speeches and remarks.  It seemed as though all the speakers wanted to squeeze in last minute tidbits of wisdom before the graduates slipped away.  As I listened to these final messages, I noticed that all of the speeches had a similar underlying theme: pride.

Pride that graduates had made it to this day; pride that students had picked the best department; pride that they were graduating from “the greatest institution in the world.”

It seems important to visibly denote the end of a life chapter and the start of a new one. Otherwise, we may not recognize that we have moved forward.  The physical reminder of a degree, the diploma, or the cap and gown we wear at graduation allow us to take stock of what we have accomplished. It’s both hard to get into Duke and hard to stay—the coursework is demanding; you have to work hard.  Degrees and awards represent the hard work and challenges overcome.  The graduation ceremony is the pat on the back on a job well done.  It also allows family and friends to celebrate with us a milestone to which they were an integral part of getting us.   All the frills and formalities are just as much for the parents as for the graduates.

Graduations also come with mentors for the future — models of who we might emulate with our new degrees.  These are the speakers who are highly acclaimed for what they have accomplished.  They try to inspire us to action, yet due to the blur of the graduation day — running from convocation, to major/minor/certificate ceremonies, picture taking, and switching a tassel from right to left — we remember that there was a speech, yet we often cannot recall the message itself.  Rather, we remember the sun shining, the crowds of our fellow graduates who we may not see again, and trying to move out all our things amidst the hullabaloo of the weekend.

Since I was not graduating this year, I was able to concentrate more on the speakers’ messages during the ceremonies.  I found that they consistently applauded Duke University for its institutional reputation and the quality of its programs.  Listening to all the rhetoric of pride for being distinctly Duke, I was not sure if I should be “distinctly” proud of the fact that I am a Duke and Kenan graduate.  Certainly, my Duke degrees are “valuable” in the sense that people assume certain things about me by dint of having received a degree from an elite university (sometimes the things assumed are less good).  As I stated, a Duke degree is testament to the hard work required to earn one.  I was raised to be proud of the things I had worked hard at.  But with this degree from a highly-selective University comes the risk of elitism, something I am less proud of.

Nearly all the different orators in their graduation remarks were selling how great Duke was. Almost as if being part of the institution was better than the hard work that has gone into earning the degree.  Yet, what I also heard repetitively was that Duke gives its graduates a critical lens to look at the world and our everyday interactions with others. Whether it’s a critical lens from the Women’s Studies Department, the School of the Environment, or the Kenan Ethics Institute (the three ceremonies I attended this year), those who attended Duke will be able to analyze, problem solve, and voice opinions.
It still seems like a giant fluke that I ended up with a degree from such a fantastic establishment. One of my roommate’s grandparent kept saying the whole weekend “you all are so smart and gonna go so far in life.  You are just so intelligent and lucky you went to such a great school like Duke.” It is easy to think that you’re average in a fishbowl like Duke, surrounded by so many intelligent folks all day everyday.  But the “lucky” part has really stuck with me.  I constantly feel as though I have won the lottery having gone to Duke.   And I feel compelled to do something worthwhile with this prize.   If this credential doesn’t get put into practice in some way later,I will have to wonder what it was for. I think it’s important to take stock of what we have and make sure we persevere utilize this winning lotto ticket to do good .As Coach K said in his commencement speech about teamwork and perseverance, we Duke graduates must to move forward as “good persons.”


May 132016
 May 13, 2016

Around the office it’s been unusually quiet.  Due to the Kenan baby boom, there are fewer staff members in the building and with finals done most students are staying far away from academic buildings.  Many students have headed for the beach to get some rest and relaxation before they go off to their various internships, DukeEngage programs, or other assorted plans.  Hopefully during this time students will get a break to get their book lists that have been pushed aside, or catch up on TV shows neglected during the semester.

Seniors are getting ready to graduate this weekend and leave Durham.  I also feel like I’m in the same boat as my year-long will soon conclude.  Right now I’m in that brief interlude that precedes a rollercoaster plunging downhill.  You know you’re secured safely in your seat because brilliant engineers, mechanics and safety officers have worked to design this thrilling adventure.  But, your gut is in this ominous state of not knowing what’s going on before things return to normal.  Your head tells you that everything will be fine in a few seconds but your gut can’t take a hint.

LinkedIn founder, Reid Hoffman, wrote an article In Startups and Life, You Need Plan A, B, and Z.  As the title suggests, Hoffman recommends having backup plans for you backup plans.  He emphasizes the importance of being a flexible yet persistent individual to accomplish the things you want to do.  While I currently have a Plan A, B, and “Z” for the next year, I often feel totally lost about what my long-term plan should be. During a break in our recent spring Advisory Board meeting, one of the Kenan Board Members explained to me that most recent grads have to balance the trifecta: fulfillment at work, lifestyle, and location.  Typically most will not “have it all” and have to figure out which things are the most important.  In my case, during this next year I have been completely uncompromising on my “location.”  I will be in Ireland for a year, be it via my Plan A working for a non-profit and picking up a part time gig, Plan B attending a year-long graduate program, or Plan Z wwoofing.   While I continue to wait for opportunities to shake out, I’m excited and hopeful for this next chapter of my life.  I can only wish the many graduating seniors the same excitement for whatever lies next in their lives plans or no plans.  Congratulations Class of 2016!

Congrats 2016!


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.