Loading

Starting Strong in Durham with Project Change

Big changes are ahead for students heading off for their first year of college: leaving home, getting used to new surroundings, meeting new people. Amidst these inevitable changes, some of this fall’s incoming first-years at Duke aimed to challenge themselves and learn about their new community of Durham – a city that is itself transitioning – before they even moved into their dorm rooms.

Now in its eleventh year, the Kenan Institute for Ethics’ Project Change is an eight-day, immersive, pre-orientation program for first-years focused on the ethics of transition—for students, for communities, for the city that will be participants’ new home. Partnering with local non-profit organizations, “pChangers” live, learn, and work in Durham during an intensive week spent with only minimal possessions (and no phones). In doing so, they learn to collaborate and to be more critical thinkers – they take risks, make mistakes, and meet challenges while learning from a diverse group of peers and community members.

This year’s partners were Threshold Clubhouse, which works with adults with severe mental illness so they can succeed at work, education and other personal goals; TROSA, a non-profit focused on supporting substance abusers to become healthy, productive members of their communities and families; and Extra Terrestrial Projects, an organization that connects city-dwellers with wildlands and environmental stewardship through playful interactions. Teams of seven pChangers worked with one organization over the course of the program, learning about each organization’s mission while assisting with a project identified by each partner.

“This engaged immersion enables the students to think about their place in the communities of which they are now a part, how to move to a place of humility to make space for other voices, and to be enriched by what others know and can do,” says Christian Ferney, program director at the Kenan Institute and longtime co-organizer Project Change.

In addition, faculty guest speakers address key issues that encourage the students to think about their concepts of “community” in a more expansive way. “We discussed privilege and paternalism, and how we tend to define those we work with in terms of what they lack instead of their capacity,” says Ferney. “We also talked about Durham and its dynamic relationship to campus communities, and about recognizing the capacity and insights that people have to make their communities better.”

Reflecting on their experiences, this year’s participants gave group presentations about their intense and gratifying week.

They expressed gratitude for the guidance given to them by their KIE staff and student leaders, who also accompanied the Project Change students on scavenger hunts and introductory walks around Durham. The half-dozen rising sophomores to seniors who are themselves alumni of Project Change were credited with “fostering conversations about our experiences that we might not have otherwise had.”

All the Project Change students agreed that working with a community requires letting go of the tendency to think that one knows what is best for a group when coming into a situation as an outsider. Participants said that they learned that community members themselves know best what they need the most.

Duke Students’ “Power-Fresh Food” Project Accelerates at Hult Prize Finals

It has been called “the Nobel Prize for students.” Since 2009, the Hult Prize – an international competition between teams of enterprising undergraduates from around the world – has awarded millions of dollars to start-up companies dedicated to sustainability and aiming to solve the world’s most critical social challenges. The 2018 Hult Prize theme is “Harnessing the Power of Energy.”

In the fall of 2017, Duke University’s on-campus Hult Prize competition was won by a team of students known as “mPower.” Their project is to use cold-storage technology – specifically, custom-made, modular, solar-powered refrigeration units – to access rural farmers in India and transport their produce straight to retail. The result is a win-win-win: fresh produce for consumers, no food waste, and empowered small businesses.

Team mPower (l to r): Harshvardhan Sanghi, Sherry Feng, Saheel Chodavadia, and Jason Wang.

Team mPower’s victory at Duke led them to the Hult Prize regionals in Mexico City in early March of 2018, which they also won. Now, they’ve advanced to the finals, a Hult Prize competition that is preceded by a six-week start-up accelerator MBA course in England. Following the Accelerator Program, six teams will be selected to pitch their ideas at the Hult Prize Global Finals hosted at the United Nations in New York. The winning teams will receive $1 million in seed money for their project.

Team mPower – made up of Duke undergraduates Saheel Chodavadia, Sherry Feng, Harshvardhan Sanghi, and Jason Wang – call themselves “the world’s first power-fresh food company.”

Saheel Chodavadia explains: “Buying directly from rural Indian farmers and selling directly to retail at a brand-price premium allows us to pay the farmers 100% wholesale prices for their produce. This doubles their income and brings more food to tables in a country that sees 10 million premature deaths due to hunger and food insecurity annually.”

Saheel has engaged with Kenan Institute for Ethics programs throughout his time at Duke, first becoming involved in a Kenan FOCUS program and later DukeEngage Dublin, the MASTERY program, and the Kenan Refugee Project. Funded by the Kenan Institute for Ethics, mPower was able to visit India in early 2018 to do on-the-ground market research and form partnerships. “We visited several rural villages and formed relations with farmers and their families, enabling us to understand the problem we were addressing at the micro-level,” says Saheel. “We also visited several universities and formed partnerships with their engineering departments to begin prototyping and piloting our technology.”

With this additional research behind them, Team mPower arrived in England for the Hult Prize Accelerator Program on July 23rd, alongside 41 other winning teams from around the globe. They will be there until September 1st.

All the finalist teams live in Ashridge House, a castle-type estate owned by the Hult family located about 45 minutes outside London. Although this may sound cushy, life at Ashridge House is intense. “On average, our team works, learns, and networks together for about 18 hours a day,” says Saheel. “We have to schedule in one hour of ‘break time’ every day so that we can relax and enjoy the castle and each other’s company away from our projects.” Do the math and you’ll realize that leaves only five hours a day for sleep. According to Saheel, the intensive nature of the Accelerator Program means that team members typically go to sleep around 3:00 or 4:00 AM and wake up around 7:00 or 8:00 AM every weekday.

The Accelerator Program’s Monday through Wednesday schedule includes two three-hour “learning sessions” – one in the morning, one in the afternoon – with a variety of experts that might include university professors, CEOs of major companies, or experts in a specific industry. Team members are expected to network with and learn from these speakers during meals and in between sessions in order to enhance their projects.

On Thursdays, the entire day is dedicated to “Office Hours” with the experts: it’s a day full of meetings designed give the teams direct feedback they can use to fine-tune their ideas.

Finally, each week culminates with “Pitch Friday,” during which teams pitch their startup ideas to the experts who have spent time with them during that week. “The mentors now serve as judges,” explains Saheel.

Teams in the Hult Prize finals represent countries including Greece, Japan, Malaysia, Laos, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, along with many others. The 42 teams interact daily through planned cross-team activities and in their free time.

“Each participant brings an incredibly fascinating cultural outlook that has really kept me engaged,” says Saheel. “Everyone is open and interested in talking and learning from each other – the intensive structure of the Accelerator Program does not hinder the development of friendships here. I am proud and grateful to now call some of these people my closest friends.”

Still, as with any high-stakes competition, there is pressure on the teams and their individual members as they vie for the same $1 million seed-money prize. “Each and every team here has dedicated themselves to their respective start-ups, and yet, they know that not receiving the $1 million does not mean the end of their journey,” says Saheel. “The skills we are learning here will translate into the real world, no matter what we do.” Now four weeks into the six-week Accelerator Program, mPower is at the stage of coordinating their first few sales in the Bangalore area of India.

Saheel credits the Kenan Institute for Ethics programs that he has been involved with as enabling him to be well-prepared for the Hult Prize competition experience. “My experience with DukeEngage Dublin taught me how to work in a governmental setting, a skill that has been critical for mPower as we start gaining traction in different states across India; we need to make sure that government players will support our solution. The Kenan’s MASTERY program taught me how to think creatively to teach and mentor high-energy students; I have applied that same adaptivity in thinking here when it comes to overcoming roadblocks with our project. The Kenan Refugee Project taught me to think outside of the box and develop high-level management strategies for different programs, something I have definitely applied as mPower strives to make the most of the networking, learning, and competition spheres here.”

In the short-term, the knowledge and soft skills that the mPower team members gain through the Hult Prize Accelerator Program will be instrumental in their time at Duke. Undoubtedly, says Saheel, they will reap long-term benefits as well. “We’ve been part of a global network of like-minded people striving to improve the world. These include some pretty powerful movers, and having these connections will prove invaluable in our individual career pathways.” 

— Emily Bowles

If you have an interest in or experience with produce distribution, supply chain, or branded produce, please connect with the mPower team at team@mpowerco.org.

Diverse Religious Traditions Lived and Learned

Imagine these scenes:

Christian and Jewish scholars of the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible discussing the Quran with a Jerusalem Imam, while Duke undergraduates and Divinity students ask questions and soak it all in.

An Italian Muslim, who trains teachers in religious pluralism, talking to scholars and students from six universities and three continents about ISIS and the Quran.

These and other similar encounters happened this July in Leipzig, Germany, where the International Network for Interreligious Dialogue and Education (INIRE) held its annual weeklong conference and summer school, this year on “Normative Religious Traditions and their Authority.”

“These interactions are the world as it should be,” says Malachi Hacohen, Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. A professor of History, Political Science, and Religion, Hacohen was an organizer of this year’s program as well as a participant.

Supported by the Religions and Public Life program at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Duke Center for Jewish Studies, Leipzig University, and other members of INIRE, eight Duke students—from Trinity, the Graduate School, and the Divinity School—attended, studied, and socialized with faculty and students from Israel, Egypt, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These researchers in history, the Bible, the Quran, theology, and sociology of religion discussed questions that included whether “holy texts” are relevant for “secular people” today, and what role they play in the dialogue between religions and discourse in our societies.

In addition to discussions and presentations, the Leipzig conference and summer program actively integrated lived experiences and practices to its program. “We not only participated in seminars and academic discussions, but also read and sang sacred texts together, broke bread together, and worshipped together,” said participant Peace Lee, a ThD candidate at Duke Divinity School. “We each experienced the grace of being received into religious traditions not our own…It is the integration of theory and practice, learning and living together, that makes this program truly meaningful.”

The INIRE represents the collaboration of six universities—from Europe, America, and Israel—and a global network of scholars from different disciplines and fields. Religion is approached from interdisciplinary and multi-confessional perspectives, with a view to promoting religious literacy and encouraging interreligious dialogue among scholars, students, and the public. The 2019 INIRE conference and summer program will take place in Groningen, Netherlands, with the topic “Religious Heritage in a Diverse Europe.”

Emily Bowles

Irish Youth Express Ethical Challenges through Fiction and Photos

Early in August the Kenan Institute for Ethics in partnership with Ireland’s largest multi-cultural newspaper, Metro Eireann and the Gallery of Photography Ireland hosted the Fourth Annual Intercultural Young Writers and Photographers Competition. The national competition is part of Kenan’s more than ten-year effort to work with the Irish government and a range of NGO’s to usher in a new Ireland that reflects the countries increasingly multicultural population and culture.  Here, young people had the opportunity to depict the ethical challenges of this newly emerging Ireland through the art of fiction and photography. The submissions in this year’s competition came from across Ireland, from native born Irish as well as from recently arrived migrant and refugee youth.

One short story narrated by a teenager who is forced to decide whether to welcome the arrival of Syrian refugees in his small rural town or join his closest friends in violently opposing the newcomers was one of this year’s winning submissions.  Another short story that was awarded a prize in this year’s competition explored the meaning of Blackness in Dublin.  A set of poems depicted Starbucks as a crossroads of the many different cultures in Ireland.

The award ceremony was held at the Royal College of Physicians in downtown Dublin. The program featured remarks from Dublin’s Lord Mayor Ardmhera Nial Ring, Senator Aodhan O’Riordain and novelist and poet, Rebecca O’Connor.  In speeches that looked both backward, to Ireland’s past as a country of senders, and forward, to the possibilities of an increasingly diverse nation, the audience was encouraged to play an active role in shaping this new Ireland.  The ceremony concluded with a reflection from Duke Sophomore Andrew Carlins. Andrew spoke eloquently about his time this summer working in Dublin with the Irish Refugee Resettlement Program (IRRP) in the Department of Justice and Equality.

America First, Colombia Second? Peace with FARC in the Age of Trump

The peace deal signed by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Timochenko in June 2016 was a leap forward for a country devastated by civil war, but it was only the first step in a long process. As if winning over the opinions of the Colombian people were not enough to bring the agreement into force, Santos must also balance American concerns; without US funding and support, FARC disarmament is unlikely to occur. The Trump Administration’s “America First” foreign policy makes the prospect of Colombian peace all the more uncertain.

In its most basic formulation, an “America First” policy doesn’t have to spell out negative consequences for the Colombia-FARC negotiations. In his January 2017 Inaugural Address, President Trump declared, “From this moment on, … every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” Placing the welfare and security of American citizens over those of other countries is nothing new; past presidents have insisted on US interests throughout their dealings with foreign powers.

The problem with “America First” arises not from its emphasis on American interests, but from the diminished role it gives to the values of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. On the many occasions in which President Bush and President Obama asserted US interests, they also noted the importance of American values. This could not be further from the current administration, in which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted that if the United States allows its policies to be dictated by its values, “we probably can’t achieve … our national security interests.” Trump and Tillerson’s view of the relative importance of interests vs. values has become painfully clear in the Middle East, where restrictions on civil liberties in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have gone without even mild criticism from Washington.

The Obama administration pursued constructive engagement on the issue of peace in Colombia. In several instances, Secretary of State John Kerry forcefully stated the United States’ support for the negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC rebel group. President Obama committed over $450 billion to aid in the peace process, creating a joint program between the United States and Colombia called Peace Colombia. Some of this investment may have been an effort to protect US interests in the long term; as scholars of foreign policy have observed, a stable international order provides an advantage to the United States. At least some of the pressure for US engagement in Colombia, however, came out of a concern for the welfare of the Colombian people; notably, a group of American faith leaders pressed for US support for truth and reconciliation in the aftermath of the conflict.

President Trump’s lack of interest in promoting values is visible in his equivocating stance on Colombian peace. The administration began wavering on the issue during Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearings, in which he declared that the administration would have to review the agreement and “determine the extent to which the United States should continue to support it.” The White House waited nearly nearly four months in office before finally endorsing the deal in a meeting with Santos. In the meantime, President Trump held an impromptu meeting at Mar-a-Lago with two Colombian opposition leaders, Andrés Pastrana and Álvaro Uribe, raising eyebrows in the Colombian press. The President also fed doubts about his support for Colombia when he fired Special Envoy to the Colombian Peace Process Bernard Aronson, failing to appoint a replacement. These steps were not insignificant. By calling into doubt the international consensus in favor of peace, the administration fueled the already-strong movement against Santos and the agreement.

President Donald Trump, right, listens as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left, speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Trump has followed his muddled rhetoric on Colombia with muddled actions. In May 2017, President Trump preserved the Obama administration’s commitment of $450 billion to Peace Colombia with a federal spending bill. However, his “skinny budget” proposal for 2018 calls for a 21% reduction in funding that would have been used to reintegrate rebels into society, promote rule of law in areas formerly controlled by FARC, and provide humanitarian assistance. President Obama’s dealings with Colombia were consistent; this administration’s actions have been anything but.

Rather than taking a clear-cut position on the Colombia peace negotiations and using the power of the United States to accomplish that goal, the Trump administration has deployed American diplomacy to a more immediate US interest in Colombia: preventing the spread of cocaine. Unlike the Colombian peace agreement with FARC, which serves the long term interests of the United States but is more directly associated with human rights, cocaine interdiction has an immediate and obvious impact on US citizens. By cutting off a major supplier of drugs to the United States, the US hopes to curb its own domestic cocaine problem. If human rights have to be sacrificed to make it happen, then so be it.

Police officers stand guard over packages of seized cocaine during a media presentation at the pacific port of Buenaventura, Colombia, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017. About one ton of cocaine was seized in a container during an operation of control by counternarcotics police at the pacific port. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
President Trump’s swift action to curb cocaine trafficking has come at a high cost. In September 2017, President Trump issued an ultimatum to the Santos government: ramp up cocaine eradication efforts, or be designated as having “failed demonstrably” at adhering to international counternarcotics agreements. Just three weeks later, Colombian police fired on a group of protesting coca farmers, killing at least eight and injuring over 50 people. The massacre not only runs counter to human rights norms regarding free association and peaceful assembly, but also threatens the delicate peace between FARC and the central government. President Trump’s concern for US interests at the expense of American values is in sharp contrast to the Obama administration’s steady balancing of justice and peace.

US values have played a crucial part in Washington’s engagement with Colombia, and they should remain a factor as Bogotá navigates the peace process. Under an “America First” policy that abdicates the United States’ human rights obligations, the Colombian Peace Deal is in a precarious position.

How Americans Now View Health Care Cannot Be Repealed or Replaced

More than half of the world’s countries have a specific right to health care written into their constitutions. The United States is not one of them. Although the constitution of the United States does not guarantee any kind of health protection to its citizens, Americans increasingly consider health care to be a right. Seven years of Obamacare have established a belief among Americans that the government has a responsibility to provide access to health care coverage. Even as Republicans attempt to limit Americans’ access to health care, they cannot change the growing conceptualization and expectation of health care as a right in the minds of Americans.

Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, and the Supreme Court upheld its legality in 2012. Jeff Jeans, a lifelong Republican and small-businessman from Arizona, had passionately opposed the Affordable Care Act before being diagnosed with cancer and told that he would have just six weeks to live if left untreated. Jeans is alive today because of an early Affordable Care Act program that offered coverage to people with pre-existing medical problems. At a town hall meeting earlier this year, Jeans confronted House Speaker Paul Ryan with his story. “Being both a small-business person and someone with pre-existing conditions, I rely on the Affordable Care Act to be able to purchase my own insurance,” Jeans told Ryan. Jeans created a Facebook page called “Obamacare Saved My Life,” where those who have been positively impacted by Obamacare can share their experiences. As Jeans’ story shows, the individual mandate matters, as it allows premiums to be low enough so that the health care system is accessible to people with pre-existing illnesses. The individual mandate is the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that most people buy health insurance or pay a penalty. Without the mandate, premiums are expected to rise by 10% for most years in the next decade.

Republicans have vowed to repeal and replace Obamacare, efforts that failed this summer, but took on another life in their overhaul of the tax code. Senate republicans want to eliminate the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and have attached a provision to the $1.5 trillion tax cut to do so. Republicans hope that removing the individual mandate would allow lawmakers to save hundreds of billions of dollars to help pay for broad tax cuts to corporations and individuals. They are assuming that without the mandate, many people would no longer buy insurance, allowing the government to avoid spending billions on subsidies that the ACA provides to those under a certain income level to pay their insurance premiums. They hope that without the individual mandate, most people with lower health costs would choose not to buy insurance coverage. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that removing the mandate would result in $338 billion in savings and 13 million uninsured people by 2027.

But there are no guarantees that this is what would happen. According to the New York Times, “polling data, analysis from a private forecasting agency and interviews with people who buy coverage through the Affordable Care Act marketplaces suggest the savings could be far less, largely because many people who qualify for the subsidies will still take advantage of them.” Even if the mandate were no longer enforced, it seems likely that those who qualify for subsidies will continue to buy insurance. A survey by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation this past October found that only 7% of people who buy insurance on the individual market said they would choose to no longer buy coverage if the mandate were removed. Most said that the mandate was not why they chose to buy insurance. At the same time, consumers are confused about the current state of affairs: whether or not the marketplaces to buy insurance through Obamacare still exist, and whether or not they have an obligation to buy coverage. The marketplaces are still here, even as the government attempts to restrict affordable health care.

In a Slate article from May 2017, Mark Joseph Stern and Perry Grossman outline how Americans came to view health care as a right by drawing an analogy to marriage equality. Marriage was long viewed as a biblical sacrament and privilege that states honored through legal recognition, but states selectively granted marital privileges, discriminating based on race and sexuality. In the 20th century, civil rights attorneys challenged the idea of marriage as a religious benefit that states could discriminately revoke. Loving v. Virginia was a landmark civil rights decision made by the Supreme Court in 1967 that invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Marriage is now considered a right for all, not an exclusive privilege for those who qualify. Marriage equality was fought for on the same lines in the 21st century, culminating with Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples. Marriage rights in the United States are now for everyone, regardless of sex or race. Stern and Grossman illustrate that a similar evolution has taken place in discussions on health care. Since the New Deal, democrats have vouched for universal health care. In 1978, Senator Ted Kennedy declared that health care “is a basic right for all, not just an expensive privilege for the few.” Obamacare’s expansion of health insurance coverage has given these ideals more weight. A poll by the Pew Research Center found that “60% of Americans say that the government should be responsible for ensuring health care coverage for all.” The rise in the belief that the government has a responsibility to provide health coverage is significant even among Republicans. Among middle-income Republicans, there was a 20-percentage-point increase (14% to 34%) from last year to now. Now more than ever, Americans consider health care to be a right.

Taking insurance away from millions of Americans and allowing Obamacare to crumble would be a failure of the government’s duty to protect its citizens’ lives. Even as Republicans’ last effort to dismantle Obamacare unfolds, they cannot dismantle how Americans think about health care in their lives. Americans have a right to affordable health care and they know it, and no selfishness or cruelty on behalf of the current government can change that.