Religions and Public Life at the Kenan Institute for Ethics explores the role of religions in historical and cultural context as they influence the lives of their adherents, interact with each other across time and geography, and contribute to the formation of institutions that make up the public sphere. This year, twelve Religions and Public Life Graduate Fellows have been selected from Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill to be a part of an interdisciplinary working group to engage questions regarding the place of religion in contemporary social and political life. In response to global shifts of 2022, this year’s theme will be “Religion, Peace and War.”
On the working group’s focus, Professor Malachi Hacohen notes, “At a time when borders are closing and walls are being erected, an interdisciplinary graduate student group is responding with a model of collaboration for our world. Bringing together students from Divinity and the Graduate School, and with campus wide support from the Kenan Institute for Ethics, Center for Jewish Studies, Duke Islamic Studies Center, and Duke University Middle East Studies Center, graduate students studying divergent regions of the globe will explore the relationship between immigration and religion, seeking religious paths to the reconstruction of human life.” Over the course of the academic year, the cohort will discuss and develop their respective projects, providing each other with mutual support and opportunities for collaboration. Their work will be shared on the Religions and Public Life website at the conclusion of the fellowship.
Previous years’ themes include “Immigration and Religion” (2020-22), “Church and State” (2019-20), “Pain and Joy: Polemics and Praise in Religious Communities” (2018-19), and “Minorities and Diasporas” (2017-18).
Meet the Fellows:
Mary Dance Berry
Mary Dance Berry is a Ph.D. student in the Graduate Program in Religion, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament track. Her research interests center on divine violence and divine judgment/justice as well as comparative hermeneutics, feminist criticism, and postcolonial criticism. More specifically, her work examines how different communities, from American Evangelical readers to African biblical interpreters, read and understand often troublesome biblical texts and the import of their understandings. Mary earned a B.A. in government and classical studies at Sweet Briar College and an M.Div. at Duke Divinity School.
Yasaman Baghban is an MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts student at Duke University. Born in 1988, she grew up in Shiraz, Iran. After graduating from Shiraz University in chemical engineering, she changed her life's path through art. She received her M.A. in cinema from the Tehran University of Art in 2018. Since then, she has been a lecturer and independent documentary filmmaker. As a Middle Eastern female documentary filmmaker who was born and raised in Iran, social, cultural, and political issues are inseparable from her work.
Amanda Bolaños is a first year Th.D. candidate at Duke Divinity School studying Christian Theological Ethics. Amanda received her B.A. from Boston College in 2018, an M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2020, and an M.T.S. from Duke Divinity School in 2022. Her research interests include offering a real, pastoral, and critical perspective in looking at the systematic success and harm of religion in communities. Amanda hopes to ultimately build bridges and create a culture of inclusivity between the Academy and the people through the study and practice of Latinx Liberation theology, feminist theology, Catholic Social Teaching, and virtue ethics.
Tyng-Guang (Brian) Chu is a Ph.D. student in the Graduate Program in Religion at Duke University. He is in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible track. His work focuses primarily on creation-imagery and the cosmological dimensions of Israel's cultic tradition in the Hebrew Bible. He plans to further explore how the notion of peace can be seen in creation narratives.
Meyra Çoban is an M.A. student in bioethics and science policy at Duke University. Meyra studies the ethics of care and health care. Originally from Germany, Meyra studied philosophy and political science at the University of Edinburgh. Meyra's research is funded by Fulbright, DAAD and the German National Academic Foundation.
Ethan Foote is a bassist and composer working in jazz, new music, and other genres. He performs and writes in many contexts, including dance, theatre, and interdisciplinary art. In his recent chamber compositions, he has been motivated by an interest in how ideas of humanism and anti-humanism can be captured through engagement with gestural extremes. He received an MFA in composition from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2020 and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in composition at Duke University.
Emily Normand is a second year M.T.S. student with a concentration in Theology and the Arts at Duke Divinity School. She is interested in questions of decolonial aesthetics, theological aesthetics, and intercultural and cross-cultural dialogue in the modern and contemporary visual arts, specifically between Latin America and Europe. Her current research is on the lithographs of French-Mexican artist, Jean Charlot, and the significance of his life and work as a pioneer in multicultural art and scholarship. Before coming to Duke, Emily graduated with honors from the University of Notre Dame where she earned her B.A. in the Program of Liberal Studies.
Brooke Olmstead holds a B.A. in English and Biblical Studies from Briercrest College and an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School. She is currently beginning her second year of doctoral research in Duke’s Graduate Program in Religion. For several years, her research has focused on the reversal (and radicalization) of the Scriptural imagery for war and peace in the Gospel of Luke and in early Christian interpretation. In her more recent work, she asks how the interpretive practices of early Christians (and other readers from late antiquity) can challenge and broaden the scope of her own modern inclinations about reading and thinking. Following patristics scholars John Behr and Hans Boersma, her work defends the place of figural interpretations in the contemporary hermeneutical landscape.
Alejandra Salemi is a Doctoral student in the Population Health Sciences Department at Duke University. She is passionate about the intersection of public health and religion and wants to further explore how religion is a social determinant of public health. She is curious about the ways that religion impacts health decisions and behaviors, especially in different ethnic and racial communities and hopes to be a bridgebuilder between public health agencies and religious institutions. She is a recent graduate of Harvard University, with a Master of Theological Studies with a focus of Religion, Ethics, and Politics and also holds a Bachelor and Master of Public Health from the University of Florida. Alejandra is an immigrant from Colombia and is also passionate about increasing diversity and representation of Latinx scholars in academia, especially in religious and public health disciplines. She is a candidate for ordination in the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Nikita Schwartzman is a second-year M.A. student in religious studies at Duke University. Her academic interests revolve around investigating how gender dynamics and dependencies on colonial theories impacts interpretation of religious law and how it translates to legislation in Islamic countries.
Ehsan Sheikholharam Mashhadi
Ehsan Sheikholharam Mashhadi is a Teaching Fellow and a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. Holding graduate degrees in architecture and religion, his work examines the religiosity of non-religious architecture. He draws on urban projects recognized by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture to show how spatial practices function in the construction of religious subjectivities. Ehsan has received recognition from institutions such as the University of Miami, Dumbarton Oaks’s Mellon Initiative, and the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute. His work has been published in the American Academy of Religion’s Reading Religion, Iran Namag, Maydan, and WIT Press. Ehsan also serves as a Graduate Fellow at the Parr Center for Ethics.
Isaac S. Villegas is a Ph.D. student in the Graduate Program in Religion at Duke University. His research focuses on communities in the U.S./Mexico borderlands that have developed religious rituals and liturgies to remember and honor the lives of people who’ve died while crossing through the desert. More broadly, he is interested in the connection between the memorialization of victims and the formation of political imaginations.