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.


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 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.”