Empathy Builds Friendships and Better Data Systems

Naman Parikh headshotWhen Naman Parikh was in 6th grade, in his hometown of Vadodara in the Gujarat State in

India, he participated in a volunteer project that included outings with children with disabilities. “They were my friends,” he said. “We would take them to things like sporting events and Paralympic games in my hometown.” That experience transformed Parikh’s focus during middle and high school and followed him to Duke, where it inspired a summer 2021 DukeEngage independent project.

During Parikh’s 6th grade project, he noticed that many people treated his friends differently, deepening their sense of social isolation. To promote inclusion and mutual friendship, Parikh collaborated with schoolmates and used his tech-savvy to start a web-based organization called Divyang Dost, which connects middle and high school students with and without disabilities through friendship, music, and technology.

“We would organize drum circle events where we would congregate abled and differently abled students,” Parikh said. “We would have this rhythmic event where we would all play at the beat of the percussion instrument and really bond together over the spirit of the music.”

As Divyang Dost expanded, they began helping participants find assistive technologies. One of the places providing these technologies was the Baroda Rehabilitation Center, led by Dr. Munna Kumar. Kumar became a mentor to Parikh, and Parikh interned at the rehabilitation center during high school, building orthotic equipment for knees, ankles, and backs.

Parikh’s middle and high school experiences deepened the strong commitment to community collaboration that his parents had instilled in him. When applying to colleges, he looked for programs that offered opportunities to join good work around the world, and he was drawn to DukeEngage. After his freshman year at Duke, he was unable to return to his hometown because of the pandemic, but he realized he could continue the collaboration he began in high school through a DukeEngage independent project working virtually with the Baroda Rehabilitation Center.

Based on his proposal for an independent project, Parikh was chosen as the first-ever Chelsea Decaminada Memorial DukeEngage Fellow. The fellowship, which rewards a passion for international service and doing good in the world, was established by the Decaminada family in memory of their daughter Chelsea, who was part of the 2013 DukeEngage-Kolkata (India) program. After graduating from Duke, Chelsea volunteered with the Peace Corps in Tanzania before joining the U.S. Department of Commerce. Chelsea was on assignment in Sri Lanka when she was killed during the 2019 Easter Sunday terrorist attacks.

In the summer of 2021, Parikh worked with the Baroda Rehabilitation Center to provide cost effective assistive technology to rural communities by designing a data system, researching sources for materials, and working with their CAD systems. While his experiences in high school cultivated empathy through friendship, this summer allowed Parikh to connect empathy to his computer science work.

“Initially I created data sheets and scripts so I could understand them, but I forgot to empathize at that point and think about what the people at the rehabilitation center needed to understand it,” he said. During one of the reflection sessions with DukeEngage, students worked through empathic practices. “[After the reflection session] I used conscious empathy to imagine what they would be feeling. I made a lot of changes to the data sheet, and in the end, we found a sweet spot.”

Parikh continues this fall to study computer science at Duke and to pursue his interest in social entrepreneurship. He hopes those interests combined with his passion for friendships across differences and empathic collaboration will lead to many other sweet connections.

Covid, Kinship and a Moral Economy

How are kinship and caring related to world economic systems, and might these concepts be central to a post-pandemic vision of flourishing for people and the planet? Kenan Senior Fellows Michaeline Crichlow and Dirk Philipsen teamed up with academics from several schools and disciplines to explore this and other questions in a special issue of Cultural Dynamics on “Markets, Race, and COVID-19” that comes out this month.

“The demands emanating from these twin crises, Covid-19 and racial justice, seem to coalesce around the need for an economy that is more caring than what we have known and endured,” wrote Crichlow and Philipsen in the introduction to the issue, which they co-edited. “Covid-19 has unambiguously peeled back the layers of socioeconomic inequality and sociocultural divisions globally. In stark terms it has revealed the gendered, raced and classed sacrifices and suffering endured by those unable to retreat from its ravages and secure themselves. The Covid-19 pandemic has multiplied the modes of disruption and cumulatively deepened insecurities at various levels—from local health and employment, to housing vulnerabilities, macro-economic shocks, systemic market strains and a global specter of unprecedented levels of debt and poverty.”

Crichlow and Philipsen began exploring “Markets and Morality” in 2018 through a Bass Connections project in partnership with the Kenan Institute for Ethics. In their Bass Connections classes, students learned about responses to the imbalances and inequities in the global economy, such as attempts to build various models of Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) or community banking schemes where participants pooled their savings to procure short term loans among themselves. Students also studied efforts by countries such as China to address environmental concerns even as they moved toward urbanization and advanced industrialization and researched case studies from the Global South that centered the experiences and stories of vulnerable populations.

The “Reflection on Markets, Race, and COVID-19” expands this work to the pandemic moment. The issue looks at questions such as “Who is being dislocated by whom and why? Are all relationships reduced to some form of transaction? What morality is possible in this reality?”  It also explores the concept of “caring that embraces all areas of life and pursues all practices of reimagining life without the carelessness to human, nonhuman, and ecological life.” This sort of caring is rooted in a kinship that transcends social capital.

The Covid-19 pandemic underscored the issues that Crichlow and Philipsen were already researching, but they also hope it is providing an opening to consider alternative models.

“Large and growing numbers of people seem interested in improving life for everyone, not just the privileged,” Crichlow and Philipsen wrote. “We may well be witnessing a resetting that centers care and promotes the interdependence of humans and the environment.”

Philipsen will continue researching the care economy with Duke undergraduate and graduate students this year through a 2021-2022 Bass Connections project on “Revaluing Care in the Global Economy,” which he is co-leading with Duke History Professor Jocelyn Olcott.


Incoming Students Make Community Connections through New DukeEngage Gateway Program

Incoming first-year undergraduates saw their final years of high school dominated by the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice, and by a period of intense political upheaval and polarization. For many, these experiences heightened questions of community, responsibility and citizenship, and created a desire to work for good. How might these questions and impulses shape this cohort into a community that values collaboration and is committed to partnership within and beyond Duke?

The new DukeEngage Gateway program invites these students to collaborate with community partners in their hometowns during the summer prior to their arrival at Duke, while joining a virtual community of engaged peers, faculty, and alumni to consider the responsibilities of citizenship, best practices in community-based collaboration, and their own sense of purpose in the world.

“After learning about redlining and historic housing injustices faced by BIPOC communities, I decided to get involved in zoning reform advocacy in my hometown,” said incoming freshman Coral Lin, who is working on a DukeEngage Gateway project with the City of Newton, Massachusetts’ Planning Department. Lin hopes to study housing policy and urban studies at Duke. “The Gateway program’s training and mentorship opportunities will not only help my work this summer, but also help me develop effective strategies for advocating for social justice.”

Ishaan Brar is working on a Gateway project in partnership with The Mission at Kern County, in his California hometown.

“Bakersfield has had a homelessness crisis for several years, but due to COVID-19, many shelters, such as our Mission at Kern County, are in critical need of support from all sides, especially in the realm of medical care and reducing barriers to medical access,” said Brar. “I have partnered with them to develop a telemedicine project to help address many of these issues.”

Even before they arrive on campus, Gateway allows students to begin building relationships within the Duke community. In addition to their community projects, participants engage virtually in reflection workshops led by Duke faculty and in weekly “community conversations” about citizenship with leaders in public service fields.

“Our small group reflection sessions give students the opportunity to think deeply about their work, to discuss challenges and celebrate each other’s accomplishments, and to learn about each other’s communities. They also offer a valuable opportunity to consider big questions like how to do work that has a lasting impact.” said Deondra Rose, Associate Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy and one of the DukeEngage Gateway faculty facilitators. The weekly meetings with faculty cover topics such rights and responsibilities of citizenship, working across ideological lines, and how students can think about their role in relationship to Duke and Durham once they move to campus. “It is a privilege to be a part of these energizing conversations, and we are so excited to welcome these bright, energetic, inspiring young leaders into the Duke community.”

Through Gateway programming, participants explore the challenges of community engagement, and strategies for making sustainable relationships while maximizing impact. Additionally, participants are placed in mentoring “pods” with Duke alumni who have completed DukeEngage.

“DukeEngage Gateway is so exciting, since it allows me to make an impact in my community before I leave, while still looking forward to my future at Duke by connecting with like-minded peers, passionate faculty, and amazing speakers – all of whom offer insightful new perspectives on the work we do,” said Brar.

Another Gateway student, Ian Bailey, shares Brar’s enthusiasm. He is working with a local office to support the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization’s contact tracing efforts.

“When I applied to Duke, I wrote in my application, ‘Duke will give me the opportunity to follow my curiosity, create solutions, and work collaboratively to improve society,’” Bailey said. “My first semester has not yet started, and Duke has already lived up to those expectations.”

Meet the Students

Migration & Religion

Alberto La Rosa Rojas is a ThD student at Duke Divinity School and one of twelve 2020-2021 Religion and Public Life Fellows from graduate and professional schools at Duke and UNC. For an immigrant from Peru, this year’s “Immigration and Religion” theme was personal as well as academic.

“Where is home? Why has it been so hard for me to experience a true and abiding sense of home—of belonging, intimacy, and connection—not only here in the United States but also when I return to my native land of Peru?” La Rosa Rojas asked in the introduction to his paper on “Religion, Migration, and the Longing for Home,” which he presented at the Religions and Public Life Consortium Conference in May.

“I am committed to understanding how Christian teachings were weaponized to justify the destruction of native homes at the same time that I am eager to show how Christianity can provide an alternative vision, one of many peoples sharing a common flourishing home,” he said. “However, such a Christian vision of home must emerge from reflecting on the everyday struggles for home of the migrants, the displaced, and the homeless.”

Rojas’ paper was part of a panel on Theologies of Migration and Home, which also included papers on “Religion in Black Migration” and “How the migrant church became an indigenous church in Hong Kong.”

“Each year we have a graduate group working on a topic that is of both scholarly and public significance, and we look for an interdisciplinary group that will try and have a plurality of approaches to the same question on the public agenda with the hope of developing an interdisciplinary conversation and possibly a vision – a public one and a scholarly one,” said Malachi H. Hacohen, who is Director of the Religions and Public Life Initiative at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, a Bass Fellow and Professor of History, Political Science and Religion, and a member of the faculties of Slavic and Eurasian, and Jewish Studies.

The panel on “Religion and Representations of Near Eastern Belonging” also considered ideas around home and belonging across Muslim, Jewish, and Christian populations from the Middle East.

“I thought the Middle East panel showed a remarkable spirit of collaboration, so rare nowadays, with Israeli-Palestinian and Jewish-Muslim-Christian concerns,” Hacohen said. “The three presentations shared a vision for a better Middle East and a home for the Middle Eastern diaspora, grounded in the universality of exile and the search for home, and the resources for them within the Biblical tradition, art and literature.”

During a panel on “Migrant Outreach and Contemporary American Protestantism,” Andrew Carlins, a master’s student at the Fuqua School of Business, reflected on his experience working with refugee high school students through Kenan’s Citizenship Lab.

“Throughout my time in the Lab, I have been lucky to work closely with one refugee as he navigated through high school and now college,” Carlins said. “We now call each other ‘brothers,’ have met each other’s family, and have a commitment to visit one another even after we both graduate from our respective schools.”

Carlins used his Religions and Public Life fellowship to investigate the role of social capital in creating post-secondary school opportunities, and to explore whether religious communities could foster economic mobility for refugees by creating avenues to spread social capital and by organizing events around economic empowerment.

The final panel, “The Nation-State and Its Others,” looked at issues of religion and immigration in history, and also the contemporary sanctuary movement in the U.S.

The May Consortium represented the culmination of the working group’s efforts. They met monthly throughout the school year to develop their projects and share feedback with each other. Written think pieces from the conference are available online.

The topic of Immigration and Religion is so rich that Hacohen has decided to continue exploring it in 2021-2022, building on the work of the 2020-2021 cohort. Applications to participate as a RPLI fellow for the upcoming year will be accepted through July 31.


The environmental justice movement started in Warren County, North Carolina in the 1980s, and the state has a long legacy of grassroots activism. Unfortunately, it also has a reputation as being a hotbed of environmental injustice, as issues around race, indigenous rights, pollution, farming, climate, and food justice intersect. Because these issues are rooted in and best addressed alongside local communities, there are many rural, community-based initiatives and organizations working on the multi-faceted and myriad issues around environmental justice in Central and Eastern North Carolina.

“The environmental justice landscape in North Carolina is a really rich network of people who are on the ground who have been doing work for a long time, though they sometimes don’t get recognized for that effort,” said Rebecca Vidra, an Associate Dean at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “The term environmental justice is flashy and there is a lot of buzz around making a big impact, but the reality is that environmental justice work is already taking place in communities all over the state all.”

Connecting the dots between environmental justice issues and initiatives is a project unto itself. Resourceful Communities, based in Chapel Hill, has stepped into this role. Resourceful Communities, works with a network of 500 grassroots and community organizations – such as the Waccamaw Siouan tribe, Episcopal Farm Worker Ministry, and Men and Women United for Youth and Families — to create opportunities that preserve the rural landscape, lift people out of poverty, and celebrate partner communities’ unique cultures. Resourceful Communities believes an integrated approach will produce more sustainable change in ways that benefit local communities economically, environmentally, and through social justice.

The Haw River Assembly, a watershed based non-profit in central NC that was founded in 1982 to protect the Haw River and Jordan Lake, is also doing work toward telling a more integrated story of environmental justice issues through their community mapping project.

“We believe environmental justice, diversity and equity to be an important part of our work.  In 2020 we created a new environmental justice mapping tool for our watershed to see where pollution was located and what communities are most affected by it,” said Elaine Chioso, Executive Director of the Haw River Assembly. For many years, the Haw River Assembly has worked with communities fighting disproportionate burdens of pollution based on demographic factors such as race and income. The Story Map they are creating, which combines demographic data pulled from sources such as census and tax records with mapping of potential and existing sources of pollution, such as landfill and sludge application sites, enables the Haw River Assembly to better articulate the burdens placed on particular communities and advocate for just solutions that are healthier for the natural environment as well as people.

DukeEngage student Quinn Beckham is working virtually with the Haw River Assembly this summer to add new layers and data to the Story Map. She is one of 8 students participating in a new DukeEngage program focused on environmental justice in North Carolina. The program is involved with 9 community partners.

“We decided that our umbrella for environmental justice was going to be super broad,” said Vidra, who is the faculty lead for the DukeEngage program. “We were basically going to show up and see where people needed help and then plug in.”

As students learn the rich history of environmental justice work in North Carolina, enter into the good work already happening, and discuss the projects with other students on their DukeEngage team, their stories join the intricate web of this work.

The interesting thing about these partners is that they are already connected to each other in some ways,” Vidra said. “Every week, our group meets with 2 of our partners, who share their leadership journeys and what inspires them. Usually, as they talk about their organizations, they recognize the other partners, and find new connections with them.

Can Artificial Intelligence Help Make Moral Medical Decisions?

Before COVID-19 forced doctors to decide who gets the ventilator, Professors Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Jana Schaich Borg, and Vincent Conitzer were asking, Who gets the kidney?

Since 2015, Sinnott-Armstrong, Schaich Borg, who co-direct the Kenan Institute for Ethics’ MADLAB, have worked with Conitzer and postdoc Lok Chan along with students and other colleagues at Duke and the University of Maryland to investigate moral attitudes surrounding kidney transplants, where supply rarely meets demand. Currently, decisions about who receives a kidney are based on medical compatibility, age, health, organ quality, and time on the waiting list. However, the research team found that the public generally thinks other factors should also be considered, such as number of dependents and unhealthy behaviors causing the kidney disease.

Should public beliefs influence how kidneys are allocated? The research team argues that these opinions should matter both because medical experts can learn from the public and because public hospitals are paid for with public funds. Therefore, the general public has a stake –and should have a say—in the decisions.

As illuminated by the pandemic, surgeons often must make decisions quickly, and those decisions can be affected by ignorance, emotion, bias. If a donor is killed in an auto accident, for example, the surgeon might need to decide who should receive the transplant without having much time to review all cases thoroughly. At times like these, a clinician’s moral judgment might not represent the values of the hospital or the public.

Sinnott-Armstrong and colleagues believe that computer technology in the form of Moral Artificial Intelligence (AI) might lead to fairer decision-making and reduce bias and its effects on racial and economic injustice in decisions about scarce medical resources. They recently received funding from the University for a collaboratory to expand their work in Moral AI with colleagues at Duke and Duke Kunshan by researching moral judgments in these sorts of medical situations. The collaboratory aims to develop Moral AI that could be used to help doctors and hospital personnel make better judgments about who receives scarce resources.

While acknowledging the possibility for AI to be used for good or harm, the team believes that there is the potential to harness the technology to reduce the kinds of bias that keep human decisions from aligning with fundamental social values. Surveying moral attitudes is the first step toward programming AI that reflects these values.

Sinnott-Armstrong’s team quickly realized that their studies also applied to the fair distribution of scarce ventilators and vaccines in hospitals and communities overwhelmed by Covid-19. They received grants from Oxford University and the World Health Organization, and collaborated with researchers at Oxford to investigate these questions in the midst of the pandemic. After concluding and analyzing their research on ventilators and vaccines, they plan to assess how well their methods work across medical contexts.

Additionally, the team plans to use the collaboratory to pursue new cross-cultural studies beyond the US and the UK. Through a partnership with colleagues Daniel Lim and Daniel Weissglass from Duke Kunshan, they will be able to survey moral attitudes in China. They are also pursuing partnerships in Europe and South America. They will first determine individual models, preferences, and moral judgments within diverse cultures, and then work toward understanding how divergent views within a society should be aggregated to inform social policies and regulations.

Although the team believes AI has the potential to produce decisions that are fairer and more in line with public desire, they realize that public resistance is a barrier to producing this tool. Additional research addresses this issue by investigating what kinds of presentations increase social acceptance and enthusiasm for this tool.

By collaborating across disciplines such as philosophy and computer science, this research team hopes to decrease injustice and better represent the moral values of society in emerging technologies, while helping their colleagues in medicine produce more ethical outcomes.