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Benjamin Hunter calls on us to lean into our vulnerability, honor our stories

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Award-winning multi-instrumentalist Benjamin Hunter, who has founded multiple community-based arts and education organizations, takes an expansive view of what folk means.

“When I think about folk, I don’t just think of music,” Hunter said. “I think about people.”

Hunter closed out the season’s Chautauqua Lecture Series and Week Nine, themed “A Vibrant Tapestry: Exploring Creativity, Culture and Faith with Smithsonian Folklife Festival.” He gave his lecture, “Metamorphosis: Folk Reclaimed. A Renaissance,” at 10:45 a.m. Friday, Aug. 26 in the Amphitheater.

Before Hunter began speaking, he played an original song on the violin, his first and most-favored instrument.

He wrote the song after reading The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss, a biography of General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, father of French author Alexandre Dumas. The elder Dumas was highly educated and trained in combat, and rose through the army ranks during the French Revolution, fighting passionately for the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Dumas fought for the abolition of slavery in America, but once Napoleon rose to power, he cut his abolitionist efforts short.

“What that said to me, like many other moments in our history, there’s this moment where we have the opportunity to take this path that can change the course of human history,” Hunter said. “Time and time again, we decided to bend to the whims of money and capitalism and power.”

Hunter theorized that there are a variety of reasons for those decisions, such as fear of losing power and fear of change. 

“But I wrote that song because I hope that in this moment right now, especially after a pandemic that changed the course of everybody’s life, that we can rise to the moment to embrace change, and tell ourselves that we don’t need to do the same thing as we’ve done before,” Hunter said, “that we can be brave enough to step into a new future and try something new.”

Hunter said that our personal narratives shape our humanity in countless ways. He was born in Lesotho, an South African nation, to a Black Tanzanian father and a white mother at the height of apartheid. While Lesotho served as a kind of sanctuary for revolutionaries in the daylight, by night, the apartheid secret police made people disappear.

Hunter and his family left Lesotho for his mother’s hometown of Phoenix when he was very young. They were sharing a house in Lesotho with another family, a couple and their daughter, who was Hunter’s first friend. A month after they moved out, they heard that the couple had been killed by the secret police; the young daughter was left alone in her crib.

“That story stuck with me my entire life,” Hunter said. “I’m affected by it right now, just telling you.”

Hunter lived a nomadic existence for the first 10 years of his life, traveling with his mother from Seattle to Zimbabwe before settling back in Phoenix. He started playing the violin at 5, and took ballet classes, played in orchestras and acted in plays throughout his youth.

Despite his involvement with the arts, Hunter went to college to become a doctor. The course of his life changed when he visited Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum and discovered variations of bowed string instruments from all over the world. The different cultural iterations of the violin from West Africa, Southeast Asia and South America opened up Hunter’s perceptions of the instrument beyond the Eurocentric classical practice in which he had learned.

“I knew right there that I could study this instrument for the rest of my life and have something to study, have something new and exciting to engage with,” Hunter said.

Hunter moved to Seattle after college, pursued a multitude of musical styles and experiences, and joined up with another musician named Joe Seamons. The musical duo collaborates even now, and explores their identities through American roots music.

“I tell you all of this because all of these things have made my story,” Hunter said. “They’ve made me who I am. They contribute to the person that I am. And each of us have these stories. Often they’re hard, they’re painful or difficult, they’re joyous. They’re beautiful, they’re sad, they’re nostalgic — they cause all these things inside of us.”

In 2011, Hunter founded his first arts organization, Community Arts Create, as a way for people to gather and cultivate community, self-discovery and empathy.

“What was exciting to me was creating a space where people could just come and express their creativity, whatever it was,” Hunter said. “A creative space for people to simply exist. How do we create environments for people to lean into their own vulnerability? What happens to yourself when you lean into that vulnerability?”

CAC, which originally did not have a physical location, hosted art walks, commissioned a mural based on the lived experiences of locals, and created Taste International, a program for sharing food from different cultures. But, Hunter needed a physical space. He partnered with a friend to rent a space and found Hillman City Collaboratory.

“Initially, it was just going to be a place for us to host organizations,” Hunter said. “But then after we kind of talked and met with other people, we turned it into what we call an incubator for social engagement.”

It was a space for interdisciplinary community development projects, to exchange ideas and stories and work towards social change. If someone couldn’t afford to pay to use the space, they could pay by doing chores.

One community member, Joe Howard, worked down the street at a mortuary, and confided the pain he felt when he had to bury a young person. Howard would come by every day, sweep the streets, have a cup of coffee and play the piano. 

The Collaboratory held barbecues, music gatherings, workshops, parties and more. It hosted a food justice organization founded by Hunter’s partner, bringing fresh, locally grown food to the community.

“Again, this is expanding that idea of creating space for people,” Hunter said. “This is reclaiming the words ‘make space’ so that people can just exist, and naming that space in such a way that people feel safe. People feel welcomed. People feel comfortable to live in their vulnerability, to lean into their vulnerability, to be their vulnerability, so that people can see their whole selves.”

When a building opened up across the street from the Collaboratory, Hunter jumped at the chance to realize a lifelong dream: opening a jazz club. He developed a business plan to extend the community work he and his collaborators had been doing.

Hunter named the club the Black & Tan Hall, inspired by Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy.” Ellington supposedly wrote the song after visiting “black and tan” clubs all over America, throughout the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, where people of all races gathered to enjoy jazz music.

“We named this place the Black & Tan Hall to resurrect that idea and that concept: a hyperlocal economy that respects and elevates diverse cultures, built by and for people rooted in the community, that feeds the arts and sustains good jobs,” Hunter said.

The club brought Hunter’s pursuits to the next level, building economic development into his existing practices of fostering the arts and community. It was a cooperative that aimed to combat gentrification and displacement, and that many people were able to buy into, whether with their money, their time or their talents.

Hunter noted that Seattle is both one of the richest cities in the country, and the site of one of the most devastating homelessness and affordable housing crises in the country.

“So what does it mean to own space as a community?” Hunter asked. “A space where you can say what the space does, where you have control of how the space is operated? Not the market, not a developer, not a landlord that needs to make money, but where you can actually create a space with anybody combined — young, old, Black, white, whatever. That’s what we were trying to do.”

With their cooperative model, Hunter and his partners were trying to create an alternative economy where people simply contributed what they had. They made the Black & Tan Hall a restaurant, a performance space, a gathering hall, and more.

“How do we become a cultural hub, a hub for celebration, reflection and creation?” Hunter said. “A place where everybody feels welcome? I can’t underscore this enough: We don’t have enough of these places.”

In 2021, Hunter became the artistic director of Northwest Folklife, one of the most significant folk festivals in the nation. He is honored to be part of such an institution that celebrates the multifaceted nature of American folk, but he acknowledged that the stereotypical image of the white folk musician persists.

“The question then becomes, how can we enlighten people to feel that this is for everybody?” Hunter said. “How can we use language, change language, redirect language and reclaim language, redefine language to be inclusive and equitable, collaborative, cooperative?”

One of Hunter’s duties as artistic director was to select the overarching theme of the festival for this year. The festival was returning to in-person after two years of virtual programming, and Hunter was considering the immense changes and challenges brought about by the pandemic. 

This thought process led Hunter to choose metamorphosis as the cultural focus. It encompassed three tenets: a creative ecosystem, a cultural economy and workforce development.

“We honor the legacy of our contributors by ensuring that cultural and creative work is truly sustainable, not simply a product, but rather a foundational asset of healthy and vibrant communities,” Hunter said. “Northwest Folklife wants to continue to use our positionality, our privilege, our enduring legacy as a cultural institution, to push both ourselves and our civic leadership to reimagine policies and resources to uphold a robust support system for artists.”

Hunter’s mission, and the mission of the festival at large, is to emphasize the importance of the arts and reclaim focus on shared values and people-centered progress.

Hunter also said that the virtual programming of the festival during the pandemic expanded its reach and transformed accessibility. In 2020 and 2021, Northwest Folklife’s offerings reached 900 cities, 60 countries and six continents. Whether people lived far away or were sheltering in place, the virtuality of the festival expanded and encouraged the notion of a safe space.

Hunter enjoys looking at the way that physical environments shape cultural environments, naming as an example the textiles in South America that incorporate the pigments naturally available to craftspeople. He also mentioned the psychological impacts of our culture, and acknowledged the burden and emotional weight of navigating race in America.

“While so many of us Black and Indigenous people of color can, and have, and will talk about race and racism, I’m personally tired of talking about it.” Hunter said. “I’m tired of having to teach this stuff. Because whiteness refuses to teach themselves about it.”

Hunter invited the audience to contemplate those words while he played another song.

Hunter said that change and resilience are fundamental parts of human existence, and that authenticity starts with us.

“The tapestry of folk starts with you,” he said. “It starts with identifying all the parts of you that have been, all the parts of you that you engage now and, all the parts that you have yet to actualize. Folk is built on storytelling, and those stories that you were told, the stories that you are a part of and the stories that you tell.”

Hunter believes that self-discovery is an important process of becoming connected to others. 

“The more you know yourself, the more you are comfortable with who you are, the more equipped you are to know somebody else,” Hunter said. 

Hunter paraphrased Yolanda Pierce, Tuesday’s Interfaith Lecture speaker, who said that we cannot live from a scarcity mindset. Instead, we must live from a place of abundance. He also said that we need to engage in our strengths and weaknesses alike to nurture and create spaces for dreams and community. 

Although he encouraged the audience to listen to the young people in their lives, Hunter also cautioned against leaving the task of changing the world to them; instead of falling victim to complacency and apathy, we all must work together to build a better future. 

In a time like the pandemic, Hunter said that we are given the opportunity to reshape the trajectory of the world. We must embrace change and resilience, those fundamental tenets of humanity.

“Folk is people,” Hunter said. “Let’s do and be what we’re built to do, instead of fall victim to what we’re told to do. To be that which we need to be requires us to breathe and live and change and move and sing and build and break.”

Hunter feels as though there is a connection between identity and vulnerability that has to be realized in order to be what we need to be.

“It requires us to discover our identity, as painful as it will inevitably be,” he said. “It requires us to be vulnerable and to lean into that vulnerability and to lend that vulnerability to somebody else. It requires us to create safe spaces that allow us to sit in our discomfort and our pleasure at the same time. It requires us to metamorphosize. Only then can we have the renaissance that we seek.”

‘World Cafe’ host Raina Douris shares hope for show as archive of stories, discovery

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We can’t talk about the advent of technology that allows artists to distribute their own music and engage in genre-bending without talking about American rapper Lil Nas X. 

Raina Douris, the host of NPR’s “World Cafe,” a radio program devoted to musical discovery and thoughtful conversation, played a clip of Lil Nas X’s viral smash hit “Old Town Road” during her Week Nine morning lecture. The song appeared on Billboard’s Hot 100, its hip-hop chart and then its country chart. It was subsequently removed from the country chart because it was decided that it did not sufficiently meet the criteria for the country genre.

The image of Lil Nas X’s grinning face under a cowboy hat was projected on the screen and his country-hip-hop tune echoed through the Amphitheater. The song’s defiant chorus reverberated: “Can’t nobody tell me nothing.” 

“Billy Ray Cyrus, who appeared on a remix of ‘Old Town Road,’ noted that the discrimination Lil Nas X faced from the country music industry gave him the honor of joining a long line of country music outcasts,” Douris said.

Douris continued Week Nine’s Chautauqua Lecture Series, themed “A Vibrant Tapestry: Exploring Creativity, Culture, and Faith with Smithsonian Folklife Festival.” She gave her lecture, titled “Moving Music Forward: ‘World Cafe’ ’s 30 Years of Music, Conversation and Connection” at 10:45 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 25 in the Amp.

“World Cafe,” originally hosted by David Dye, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, and has been dedicated to highlighting the world of folk music, including emerging talents and off-the-beaten-path artists, since its inception.

Douris told a story about folk singer-songwriter Janis Ian, who, in the mid-1960s, was receiving death threats and having items thrown at her head because of a song she wrote. 

The song, “Society’s Child,” which Douris played a clip of, was about an interracial relationship, and was banned from radios. When Ian came out as a lesbian in the 1990s, the powers that be in the entertainment industry tried to blacklist her. 

“I bring up Janis because she’s an example of what storytelling and music, especially folk music, is capable of,” Douris said.

Music can document our times and act as a reflection and an archive of what’s going on in the world, in ways that push back against dominant narratives and reveal truths that challenge the status quo.

“World Cafe” began in a tiny walk-up studio with no sound-proofing in Philadelphia. Its format, which remains largely unchanged, involves longform, deep-dive interviews with artists and a wide range of music, from deep cuts off classic records to fresh, undiscovered singles.

The very first guest on “World Cafe” was Bruce Cockburn, whose song “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” charted in 1984.

Dave munch / photo editor Douris speaks about the changing nature of music discovery in her lecture “Moving Music Forward: ‘World Cafe’ ’s 30 Years of Music, Conversation and Connection.”

“I should mention that a ‘hit’ in ‘World Cafe’ terms means it got to 88 on the Billboard Hot 100,” Douris said.

Cockburn’s music blended folk singer-songwriter traditions with various global influences. In a clip from Dye’s interview with him, Cockburn said that the folks who initially made him want to play music were the likes of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, but in the course of his travels, he sought out and absorbed the styles of international cultures.

Other early guests included Tori Amos, Jeff Buckley, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.

Douris said that the technological developments and the limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic have changed the musical landscape and how “World Cafe,” still based in Philadelphia, operates. Instead of lamenting the loss of the old ways, she values the opportunities these changes present.

Conducting interviews over Zoom allowed Douris to speak with Grammy winner Jon Batiste while he sat at his own piano at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City. She developed a show-and-tell segment where, from their homes, artists offered a window into their lives. She played a montage of clips — Jason Isbell displaying his Larry David portrait, Margo Price holding her baby, Billy Strings cradling a guitar made by his grandfather in the 1960s.

“We always like to say that radio is intimate, that we’re letting you in on these private conversations and you just happen to drop into them,” Douris said. “But in this context, speaking to them in their homes, from my home, it truly was intimate. Artists were unguarded. Sometimes they were a little bit stir crazy from lockdowns and social distancing. And the dynamic instantly changed.”

During lockdown, Douris got to interview Neil Young — one of her all-time favorite musicians. During the interview, Young received a phone call from his son, and he took it, having a whole conversation with him while on the Zoom session.

“There are not a lot of things that are more intimate and unguarded than seeing a man tell his son that he loves him on the phone,” Douris said.

Douris feels like we are in a rapidly changing world, a space between the familiar past and the unknown future that creates interesting opportunities. The fact that “World Cafe” is public radio also offers opportunities for creative programming unlimited by the demands of advertising.

“When we talk about emerging trends in music, and particularly folk music, that I noticed while hosting ‘World Cafe’ — what I’m really seeing is a shift in what stories we’re hearing and whose stories we are hearing,” Douris said.

As opposed to the highly segmented categories of other radio stations, “World Cafe” works in a format referred to as adult album alternative which covers a little bit of everything — singer-songwriters, indie rock, folk, Americana and more.

Douris pointed out that musical genre categories were constructed by the recording industry, motivated by commercial concerns. Those who wanted to sell music had to label it in order to do so.

Douris traced the dense history of American folk music, which developed from a combination of influences and traditions brought over by enslaved African and European settlers. Despite the divisions between these groups, they engaged in the exchange of culture, music and stories.

“Music let those stories integrate, even when the people weren’t allowed to,” Douris said.

The efforts of the recording industry to designate and segregate categories could not stop the cultural exchange, although they did determine who achieved mainstream success and who did not. 

Douris noted Bob Dylan’s admiration of the Black folk artist Odetta, who inspired him to become a folk singer himself and from whom he borrowed melodies. Odetta released an album in which she covered Dylan’s catalog, but despite their mutual admiration and exchange of influences, one artist shot to superstardom while the other did not.

While the recording industry’s obsession with genre divided along racial lines has persisted, as with Billboard’s treatment of “Old Town Road,” the rise of streaming has shown that genre matters less and less to consumers. 

“It turns out that the people actually listening to music, all of us, maybe never actually needed those genres as much as the music industry believed we did,” Douris said.

Furthermore, the accessibility and relative affordability of producing and distributing one’s own music is also eroding the power of music industry gatekeepers. These shifting trends and “World Cafe” ’s public radio status allows it to highlight new artists who are reinventing and reshaping genres.

“World Cafe” featured the Grammy Award-winning band Alabama Shakes before they had even released an album. The radio show had Sheryl Crow on in the early ‘90s when she only had one single to her name. 

Douris played a clip of Vietnamese-American artist No-No Boy singing “Tell Hanoi I Love Her,” guitar in hand and cowboy hat perched on his head. The artist grew up in Tennessee, while his mother is from South Vietnam, and he incorporates every facet of his background into his music.

“When No-No Boy visited the show, we talked about how writing these folk songs is a way for him to educate, but also a way to establish the history of immigrants as American history,” Douris said. “Each immigrant to America brings their stories, and those stories become part of this rich and diverse American history. Folk music has always been the music of people, not just a specific few people. An artist like No-No Boy gives us a fuller, more complete picture of this country.”

Douris also spoke about the wave of Black artists entering the Americana space in recent years, including Rhiannon Giddens, who lectured at the Amp at 10:45 a.m. on Monday and performed with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra at 8:15 p.m. on Tuesday. 

Earlier this year, “World Cafe” featured the Black Opry Revue, a collective of Black, Americana artists who created their own space in response to their ongoing marginalization in other musical spaces. Douris played a clip of their visit to the show, featuring Roberta Lea singing “Ghetto Country Streets.”

While “World Cafe” is not generally known for hip-hop, in June 2020, in the midst of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests responding to the murder of George Floyd, Run The Jewels released a new album. The album, RTJ4, spoke to the modern experiences of being Black in America, and Douris saw the importance of inviting the group to the show. She said that RTJ4 falls under the umbrella of folk music.

“If we think about folk music as the music of the people, the music that tells our stories, the de facto definition of it as acoustic singer-songwriter music can start to feel outdated,” Douris said.

Folk music has always been a record of the time in which it is made, and Douris said that she hopes “World Cafe” serves as an archive of those records, and as a library of our stories. 

Douris recounted a recent interview with British folk rocker and activist Billy Bragg, in which she asked him if he believed music can really change the world. She found his answer striking.

“He said, ‘Music might not change a vote,’ ” Douris said. “ ‘It might not change a piece of legislation. But what music can do is create empathy. Music can build solidarity. Music can help us see each other and truly understand each other. And if we can find that common ground and that connection, then we can change the world.’ ”

Douris concluded her lecture with a return to Janis Ian. Douris recently featured Ian on “World Cafe,” where she played a song called “Resist” from her latest album. The song is a searing critique of the ongoing policing and oppression of women and their bodies. In the year 2022, multiple radio stations told Ian they would not play “Resist” because it was too “suggestive.”

“ ‘World Cafe’ has tried to evolve to include those different voices and archive their experiences — our experiences,” Douris said. “In my opinion, if the story that you’re trying to tell is deemed too dangerous, too controversial or too suggestive by the powers that be, there’s a good chance it’s a story worth telling. That’s what folk music does.”

Scott Avett, with Moore, talks history, inspiration, folk music in wide-ranging conversation for Week 9

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Scott Avett is no stranger to the Amphitheater, and for the Wednesday, Aug. 24 morning lecture, the musician and co-founder of The Avett Brothers finally brought the conversations he’s had with Senior Vice President and Chief Executive Program Officer Deborah Sunya Moore over the years front and center. In previous years, they would talk backstage about music and Chautauqua, and since The Avett Brothers are considered a folk rock band, it only made sense to invite one of their lead vocalists as part of Week Nine’s dialogue on “A Vibrant Tapestry: Exploring Creativity, Culture and Faith with Smithsonian Folklife Festival.”

One of the first conversations the pair had was about the origins of Chautauqua Institution, whose roots were originally in the Methodist Church. Avett, whose grandfather Clegg Avett was a Methodist minister, grew up going to a Methodist camp in North Carolina.

“But the Methodist heritage, tradition and the memories of songs — that spirit certainly lives here, you can feel it … the settled nature of it,” Avett said.

With his grandfather being a minister, he explained how being raised by a preacher’s son was much different than being a preacher’s son. His dad was less stringent about his kids following specific traditions.

“Our experience with worship and the church became one of loosely gripping the most consistent, and I guess important, and only thing there is: that mystery that is God,” he said. “From a preacher’s son, it becomes more like, ‘Take it easy. Don’t take this stuff so serious.’ And that was important for us. That was key.”

Clegg Avett was an important figure in his grandson’s life, and both Avett’s uncle and Avett himself published his sermons. Moore asked what aspect of the sermons led Avett to publish them.

Avett always knew that his grandfather’s congregation loved him, and as Avett reached his mid-30s, he turned to those sermons.

“Around 33 or 35, the reality of ‘life is not forever’ just really had taken its full grip, I think,” he said. “… It had taken its full root, and I was curious, and there was this book with my grandfather’s face on the front of it.”

Clegg Avett’s sermons included discussions of figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as well as Chinese proverbs, which surprised Avett since his grandfather was a preacher in North Carolina from the 1930s to the 1970s. But, Clegg Avett was not opposed to speaking what he felt to be true, and had received threats from the Ku Klux Klan because of his sermons.

“In reading those, it moved me and just nudged me. … The next book was Gandhi’s autobiography,” Avett said. “And then the next thing was — wait, Gandhi mentioned Tolstoy and how Tolstoy wrote about Christianity.”

Avett fell in love with Tolstoy’s Christian writings, which continue to influence his music and writing.

Moore was curious about some of Avett’s other influences, specifically from his family.

Avett likens his home to as “Little House on the Prairie” as the 1980s could get. His family lived at the end of a half-mile red clay road, which the school bus would never drive down.

“My dad built the house on his own. It was untreated, pine siding,” he said. “We couldn’t get cable out there. There was never cable in our life.”

His mom was an intelligent, worldly woman, well-traveled because of her father’s position as a one-star general; and his dad was a welder, who came home every night in burned denim.

His father played drawing games with Avett and his siblings, and while having a blue-collar job was the main way to make a living in their corner of North Carolina, drawing and the music his father played showed Avett how creativity was still possible. He admitted that he understands how idyllic life in the country sounds, but that truly was his experience. 

“It was literally the broom grass where the deer had laid down, it was a good place to sit and just see how the sun hurts when I stare at it for a little while. And later, that was where you smoked the cigarettes you got from your dad,” he said. “It was deep, rich and I’m so grateful for this soulful existence.”

Since Avett’s childhood gave him a chance to be bored and thus have time to create, Moore asked if there were other values instilled in him from his childhood in North Carolina.

Avett admitted that he does not know if he could claim his values as particularly North Carolinian, but he appreciated how North Carolina is geographically diverse and gave him a chance to play in different areas, whether it was the rural area where he grew up or a nearby city.

“I was very grateful for my art school. I went to the East Carolina University Art School,” he said. “And the town is so small … you can really make a lot of mistakes there without causing too much damage.”

Moore pointed out how there seems to be an overall theme of goodness in Avett’s life.

“Zooming out to our experience when the band comes, when The Avett Brothers come, there’s a distinctly indefinable quality to your fan base,  and yet there’s also a very recognizable quality where there’s this — I’m going to say goodness — about your fan base,” she said.

One time The Avett Brothers came to perform at Chautauqua, Moore remembers a mass of fans approaching the Amp with beers in hand. Since only water is allowed in the Amp, she worried about having to tell everyone they could not bring their beers inside. When told this, all of the fans were gracious and did not hesitate to comply with the rules — whether it meant dumping their drinks out or quickly finishing them. To Moore, this exemplifies a quality of goodness that she’s experienced in many of the band’s fans.

“We weren’t designers of the good things that the people do or how they carry themselves,” Avett said. “And we’re probably not the designers of our own goodness.”

The only thing Avett could point to is that he and the other band members prioritize being true to themselves and being sincere. He admitted that some days he does not feel his best, he even finds himself ugly, but showing up as you are, at work or at concerts, is what matters.

“So I’m curious,” Moore said. “There must have been a time when you started to make it (big), where you were more in danger of that shifting and becoming less yourself. How did you and Seth and the band stick to that original authenticity and not become something that, I assume, people were trying to prescribe for you?”

For Avett, authenticity is just there. It isn’t something you have to search for, but it’s something you can ruin. He compared it to his Methodist faith and God’s love.

“It’s just there. You don’t have to earn it,” he said.

Dave Munch / photo editor Avett, who has performed with his band at Chautauqua in 2016 and 2018 — and again the night of his lecture — talked with Moore about his upbringing, faith, and the connective qualities of folk music.

The Avett Brothers had a 10-year rise to fame. Whereas other musicians sometimes seemingly catapult into the spotlight, they had a slower ascent. That gradual gain in popularity, versus becoming famous very quickly, helped keep The Avett Brothers grounded.

Avett had repeatedly mentioned his faith in answering several of Moore’s questions, so she asked him to talk about how, while his faith is important to him, The Avett Brothers is not considered a Christian band.

Not every member of the band shares his faith, and while Scripture influences Avett, he said he has numerous other influences, too, such as the poetry of Rumi.

All of these go into songwriting, which Avett does with Seth Avett, his brother and fellow bandmate.

“We have a brotherly agreement and human agreement that we write about what we experience and we write about what we feel and we put it out there,” he said. “And we’re not special. We are all feeling our version of these things.”

In this way, Avett feels concerts can draw people together better than churches can.

“We’ve witnessed fans that we knew personally, hard right and hard left, having a beer together,” he said. “And that’s the point.”

Before Avett and Moore paused their conversation (for now), she read a passage from Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk whom Avett often quotes.

“Literature, contemplation, solitude, Latin America, Asia, Zen, Islam, etc. All these things combine in my life,” she read. “It would be madness to make a ‘monasticism’ by simply excluding them. I would be less a monk. Others have their own way, I have mine.”

When asked to reflect on this quote, Avett said that studying many different texts and traveling to new places allows him to be a folk musician.

“There’s nothing wrong with being a North Carolinian. It’s OK,” he said. “But I’m allowed to be that way more when I’ve been around.”

Engaging with the world around him lets him be the best folk musician he can be, because, ultimately, Avett sees folk music not as a genre but as creating something from your heritage and what is around you.

When Moore and Avett first discussed him coming for a 10:45 a.m. lecture, Avett said he journaled through his perceptions and definitions of folk music.

“Folk music is likely much less a genre conversation and more a conversation about commonality, leading to inevitable oneness,” he said. “This is not to say that folk music or music alone, for that matter, has been given the task or even the ability to unify all people. But it is to say music, especially music for all people, does a great job at pointing out commonality.”

Thile, mandolin in hand, explores sacred, secular in music

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As a two-time Grammy Award-winning musician, it only made sense for Chris Thile to step onto the stage of the Amphitheater for his lecture with mandolin in hand.

In a lecture that was a mixture of music and conversation, Thile performed four songs interspersed with dialogue between he and Senior Vice President and Chief Program Officer Deborah Sunya Moore Tuesday morning as part of Week Nine’s Chautauqua Lecture Series “A Vibrant Tapestry: Exploring Creativity, Culture and Faith with Smithsonian Folklife Festival.”

Thile and Moore discussed the sacred and the secular and how Thile dances between the two.

He opened the lecture with “Laysong,” from his album of the same name, which served as an introduction. The song plays with the idea of coming to rest for a moment, and recognizing that life all around that moment is difficult.

“O but then what shall we sing now? / Tell us / Now as we gather together / With a hard week going / And a hard week coming / To take our breath,” Thile sang.

The song ends with a plea: “Laysong / Be our breather / Bring us together / Help us remember / Those with no breath left to sing.”

Thile grew up in organized religion, and he often explores that background through his music. “Laysong” stems from the idea of lay people in the church.

While Thile is no longer an active member of a particular denomination, he misses the community aspect of coming together with others. This, he said, is something at which Chautauqua excels.

“You have a summer-long communion here, which is just — I envy it,” he said. “And that’s not a thing I’m supposed to do.”

Moore noted how “Laysong” provided an introduction in the communion of the lecture, and asked Thile what the song means to him.

For Thile’s podcast, “Live from Here,” he would write a new song to follow the theme song every week.

“The deeper I got into my tenure as a radio host, the crazier the world got,” he said. “I had this sense when I was writing (‘Laysong’) of a profound need for communion that my current belief system maybe doesn’t plunge me into the middle of the way that my former belief systems did.”

Thile described himself as drifting from the shores of religion, and during his drifting, he cut off many aspects of religion that he now regrets a bit.

“How many babies have we all thrown out with the bathwater?” he said. “And communion — communion is one of those cherished babies that I think I threw out with the bathwater, and since been courting in every live performance that I ever give or receive.”

Thile needed a song about drawing together, which was something he desperately missed, leading him to write “Laysong.” He sees this as a pattern in his songwriting, that the songs he needs most often do not currently exist.

“So then I need to make it,” he said. “There becomes a very specific song-shaped void that I start hearing in my head.”

While he misses being a part of a congregation, Thile couldn’t help but remember his time at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and its organ, its choir and the pastor who reminded Thile of Gandalf, in both appearance and speech.

“I was thinking of how it felt to walk through those doors and smell that good Episcopal incense and (to be) transported away from me, from self, to anywhere else,” he said. “Even as I was starting to feel like the more I traveled, the more the religion of my youth felt overly dogmatic, I still yearned for that invitation away from self into something else.”

Missing this reminded him of laymen, he said, who are “in the Church, but not of it.”

“There’s often a rather large wall built between the secular and the sacred,” Thile said.

But music knocks down that wall. For Thile, music — specifically folk music — lets him explore the mixing and the in-between of what is traditionally secular or sacred.

Moore then asked about his song “Ecclesiastes,” also from the album Laysongs. “Ecclesiastes” is instrumental and a direct nod to Ecclesiastes 2:4. In the New International Version of the Bible, it reads: “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God.”

The fact that the song is instrumental led Moore to ask what it means when the listener does not get lyrics.

To Thile, instrumental music gets to be abstract in a way that vocals cannot, even though vocals are not always perfectly transparent either.

Dave munch / photo editor Thile sings to open his conversation with Moore. The conversation was part of the Week Nine Chautauqua Lecture Series theme focused on “A Vibrant Tapestry: Exploring Creativity, Culture, and Faith with Smithsonian Folklife Festival.”

“If clarity and specificity was the goal, then we should just talk about it,” he said. “Music puts this beautiful veil between you and the specific meaning.”

He compares the arts to building with blocks that have very loose instructions. When someone has a Lego kit with very specific instructions, putting something together is not as gratifying as when one creates something with no instructions, Thile feels.

“I feel like that’s what art is for, as opposed to an aesthetic or a lecture,” he said. “What we’re trying to do as artists … (is say) ‘Here are some blocks to build whatever it is you need to build right now.’ ”

The blocks, in the case of “Ecclesiastes,” are only instrumental, so people are left to build and imagine with what Thile provides.

“Instrumental music is glorious and abstract,” he said.

When Thile did his soundcheck before the lecture, he played one of Bach’s preludes. Bach once said that “the aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”

Thile disagrees. Composers can make music with no intention of doing it for the glory of God — but people can still interpret it that way. That is the beauty of instrumental music.

With that, he played “Ecclesiastes” on his mandolin, using his feet as a bass that reverberated through the Amp.

After “Ecclesiastes” and the applause that followed, Moore asked about Thile’s move from “a more fundamental background … to being more agnostic.”

Thile made sure to clarify he is a noncommittal agnostic. To him, agnostics believe that the existence of God could either be proven or disproven, but Thile is not sure either way.

Moore acknowledged that his experience, in many ways, fits into Chautauqua’s experience.

“Having just left the stage was a (worship) service. So we try to be very intentional in this living room and space about welcoming people of all and no faith,” she said.

For “Ecclesiastes” in particular, Thile pored over the Biblical text because he appreciates the candor of the narrator throughout.

“I really enjoy the honesty and sincerity that is pouring out of every word in that book of the Bible,” he said. “I find the lack of answers so inspiring.”

He remembered that while chapters in Ecclesiastes explore how everything is meaningless or full of vanity, there are “pockets of joy” throughout the text.

“There are little moments where the author finds meaning and satisfaction,” he said.

Thile knows his Scripture, but Moore also pointed out that, through his songwriting, Thile has interacted with British writer and theologian C.S. Lewis, specifically the novel The Screwtape Letters, which consists of letters between the demons Screwtape and Wormwood. Lewis “intercepted” and presented these letters in his novel. Screwtape gives Wormwood advice on how to cause the most corruption and how to best lead people astray.

Thile reflected those ideas in parts one, two, and three of his songs “Salt (in the Wounds) of the Earth.” The trio is Thile’s exploration of what those demons might be up to now.

Thile segued from the three parts of his song to his idea of three corruptions: dogmatic religion, demonizing of religion and agnosticism.

“(At the end) we don’t really get to tighten things up in a neat, tight little package,” he said.

The cycle of the three parts begins and ends with the laughter of the demons and the question: “And we savor your damnation with our Lord below / Whatcha gonna do?”

Straying from the traditional lecture format of closing with questions, the Q-and-A portion came before Thile’s final song, “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me.”

For this song, he dabbles in the realm of the sacred and a church he remembers.

“Sing those hymns we sang together / In that plain little church with the benches all worn,” he sang. “How dear to my heart how precious the moments / We stood shaking hands and singing a song.”

In words, song, Rhiannon Giddens reexamines American musical history through lens of banjo

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Grammy Award-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens digs into American music and its entanglement with all of America’s history. One can’t talk about the banjo, one of her historical and also musical loves, she said, without talking about slavery.

Giddens presented to her audience a slave advertisement posted in Ulster County, New York, in 1797 that truly affected her. The advertisement listed a “negro wench” for sale, about 22 years old, and read: 

“She has a child about 9 months old, which will be at the purchaser’s option.”

“So people ask me, how do I deal with this stuff?” Giddens said. “This is what I see. I write songs.” 

Giddens then played her song “At the Purchaser’s Option,” off her 2017 album Freedom Highway. Her voice flooded the Amphitheater: 

“You can take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood, but not my soul.” 

Giddens’ lecture was titled “The Banjo is from Appalachia: How the Creation of Musical Myths Damages Our Perception of Our True Past.” She opened Week Nine, themed “A Vibrant Tapestry: Exploring Creativity, Cultures and Faith with Smithsonian Folklife Festival,” at 10:45 a.m. Monday, Aug. 22 in the Amp.

Drawing on the work of historians and scholars who interrogate what it means to be an American, Giddens transforms that complex history into her folk music. She is interested in unearthing the forgotten, the erased, the misunderstood in U.S. history in order to contribute to a richer and fuller portrait.

“What I’ve discovered is that American music, particularly the banjo and all of its connective tissues, has been a really beautiful way to show some of the underlying issues and themes that have been mischaracterized over the last few centuries,” Giddens said.

Giddens gave an overview of the banjo in the popular cultural imagination — bluegrass, hillbillies, Steve Martin using the instrument for comedy, the damage done by “Deliverance.” These cultural phenomena have cemented the banjo in the collective American conception as a white instrument, but it originated in Africa. The akonting, a pre-banjo instrument, was the folk lute of the Jola people in West African nations such as Senegal and Gambia. Giddens shared a photo of herself learning to play the akonting on a trip to Gambia. Enslaved people being captured and brought to the Western hemisphere, particularly the Caribbean and South America, led to the creation of the banjo, she said.

Giddens emphasized the need to resist monolithic imaginings of whiteness, of Blackness, of Africa. Africa is a vast continent, home to countless cultures and languages, and yet for the captives huddled on ships, developing a community was a matter of survival.

“What you’re trying to do is, you have to create a culture that keeps you alive,” Giddens said. “And so there’s this creolization that begins as soon as people from different parts of Africa are put together on a boat to come over to the New World. So what happens is, people try to find these points of commonality before they’ve even engaged with the European world. They’re doing it amongst themselves.”

Displaying a folk art watercolor called “The Old Plantation,” attributed to South Carolina slaveholder John Rose, Giddens noted that the painting depicted a spiritual ritual with the banjo. The music, and its incorporation into religious practices, was an essential part of the survival Giddens referred. Those religious practices transformed into other cultural elements, such as the calinda, a pan-Caribbean dance. The music and dancing attracted the attention of white people. 

“The banjo was always at the center of this,” Giddens said. “What was dangerous about this was that people started to notice that when you had Black people doing this, the white people around started going, ‘Hey, what’s that? They’re doing something that’s speaking to me there.’ And they would start to gather around, and people said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no.’ These Black festivities can be tolerated, but when whites get involved, everyone needs to be careful.”

This intermingling of white and Black people, in which folks shared experiences and might realize their commonalities, was a threat to the status quo. Calinda and the banjo were banned in some places, a practice that contributed to the erasure of the banjo’s history.

“Why don’t we know this history? Because it’s dangerous,” Giddens said. “Because the more separate we are, the less we can compare notes. Because Blackness is not a monolith, right? It’s not a monolithic experience. Neither is whiteness. It’s all made up.” 

Another aspect of erased history, which Giddens said is inseparable from the Black banjo, is the prevalence of Black fiddlers and string bands. These artists provided the music for Black and white social functions throughout America.

“You find that there’s an underlying thread of Black dance musicians that go everywhere in the United States,” Giddens said. “It’s not just the South. I can’t stress this enough.”

Giddens connected the misconceptions about Celtic music to those about Black music. Irish traditional music is part of a cultural exchange between the Emerald Isles and the rest of the United Kingdom. While the narrative of history claims that Southern fiddling is descended from Irish traditions, in fact, those practices were happening simultaneously, in different locations. Regarding the non-monolithic nature of whiteness, Giddens pointed out that the Irish Catholic immigrants who fled to the United States during the 19th-century potato famine were not considered white by Americans. She said that cultural exchange, musical and otherwise, occurred between Black and Irish populations.

Giddens also pushed back on the very concept of an ancient tradition.

“It’s all about who’s controlling the narrative, and why are they doing it,” she said. “What are they gaining out of it? Just like nationalism is always dangerous, because all the good stuff happens in the margins. That’s where all of our beauty comes from, is where we interact with each other. So instead of focusing on that, people focus on how we’re different in order to control people.”

White people did not play the banjo until the 1800s. They brought in their own folk traditions and influences, and blackface minstrelsy emerged. Giddens said that we have to talk about that practice, as she believes we have not fully engaged with it as a society. It was the most popular form of entertainment for decades. 

“You can’t talk about minstrelsy without talking about the music,” Giddens said. “That’s what I focus on, is the music that went into it. The music is really all of the results of this cross-cultural collaboration between all people who are coming in. This is where you really see a lot of Irish and Black people interacting on the riverways, in the cities, countless interactions by musicians meeting and creating a new musical language that is uniquely American.”

Giddens plays a replica of a minstrel banjo from 1858, and uses it to write songs about American stories. To her, it sounds like American music.

“You hear the jigs, you hear three against two, you hear all of these proto-American aspects in that music,” Giddens said. “That’s why I’ve been digging into it, because when you talk about minstrelsy, you can’t just talk about the horribleness of it. Because it was horrible. It was mockery of Black people. It was. But there’s a lot of stuff underneath that.”

Giddens referenced Eric Lott’s book Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class

“There’s this idea of mockery, but there’s also this idea of admiration,” she said. “And I want to take that. It’s at the center of so many American cultural interactions, whether we know it or not.” 

The entire English-speaking world was enraptured by minstrel music, and it gave rise to classics such as “Oh! Susanna” and “Dixie.” Giddens pointed out that Black people performed blackface minstrelsy as well.

“It happened because Black people, if they wanted to entertain, had to enter into minstrelsy because that was the only way,” Giddens said. “So they learned how to use blackface minstrelsy, subvert it, get paid.”

Jewish people, who, like the Irish, have been historically excluded from whiteness, also forged connections with Black musicians. Giddens noted that in the 1920s, there was a proliferation of Jewish songwriters creating music for Black performers, specifically for the jazz and blues genres. In the musical As Thousands Cheer, Ethel Waters was the first Black woman to get equal billing with white performers on a Broadway stage. She sang “Supper Time,” a song about lynching by Jewish writer Irving Berlin. 

Other examples of songs written by Jewish artists for Black artists include “Strange Fruit,” which was drawn from a poem by Abel Meeropol and sung by Billie Holiday, and “Hound Dog,” written for Big Mama Thornton by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Giddens said Black music and Jewish music are interwoven in the DNA of American music, and that the persecution that those groups faced created a shared understanding. Waters also famously sang the Jewish song “Eli, Eli.”

“(Waters) said, ‘It moved me deeply and I always love to sing it. It tells the tragic history of the Jews as much as one song can. And that history of their age-old grief and despair is so similar to that of my own people that I felt I was telling the story of my own race, too,’ ” Giddens said.

Yet like every aspect of historical and cultural conversation, the kinship between Jewish and Black creatives was complicated. Power differentials existed between Jewish managers and producers and Black performers.

“But there was an honest, honest cultural exchange and admiration and connection that I don’t think we talk about nearly enough,” Giddens said. “Because it is at the heart also of what’s going on with the creation of some of our most American genres like blues and jazz.”

The birth of the recording industry was a significant instance of the erasure of musical history. American musical genres were created with an oversimplified understanding of consumers in order to sell record players and albums. Despite the public’s expansive tastes, executives like Ralph Peers, who famously bragged about coining “hillbilly records” and “race records,” were invested in putting music in boxes in the name of profit.

Figures like Henry Ford, whose racist and anti-Semitic views led him to decry jazz and blues as “jungle music,” and British musicologist Cecil Sharp, who hated Black people and specifically sought out white folk artists to record, contributed to the mythology of American music. What people in positions of power chose to record is what is remembered. 

“This is how we see how folk music has been influenced by people’s blinders and blinkers and racist thoughts,” Giddens said. “Each one of these is really a topic on its own, but it’s just to give an idea of the stuff that has yet to be talked about when we talk about American music.” 

The power of media representations is undeniable. Giddens, who formed the band Our Native Daughters, with three other Black female banjo players, said that people of color have told her she inspired them to play the banjo. They previously thought the instrument wasn’t for them.

“We can’t talk about the whole history of the country without talking about all of these aspects and realizing that it’s actually much more complicated than we think, and that’s actually where the beauty is,” Giddens said.

Maria Ressa pleads for courage in fight against misinformation, saving democracy

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Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Maria Ressa closed the Chautauqua Lecture Series portion of the Week Eight theme “New Profiles of Courage” with her own courageous experience, and a call to action surrounding misinformation spread on social media. 

“This is my 36th year as a journalist and I think, like you, I learn my lessons from experience. I’m going to pull together the data, the evidence of how journalism and technology come together,” Ressa said.

She described her journalism experiences in an era of changing technology as micro, macro, and then micro again, and said that this “micro, macro, micro that I lived through actually led us to a time where the new profiles of courage are far more atomized. It is yours. It is the person next to you.”

At 10:45 a.m. Friday, Aug. 19 in the Amphitheater, Ressa, the CEO and president of the online news organization Rappler, shared how we can all find courage and how her experiences show this path toward courageousness. Ressa used her experiences in her early career as a local correspondent for CNN to show the rapid changes born from journalism and technology fusing together. 

“I became a journalist because I knew that information is power, and the kind of dystopia we live in happens when that information is corrupted, when the boundary lines between fact and fiction collapse, when the gatekeepers moved from the journalists to technology,” Ressa said. 

Prior to major social media outlets spurring global interconnectedness, Ressa could spend time in a community for days before reporting back. During her career, she witnessed this shift as she began collecting information and reporting on the same day. 

“I couldn’t spend 10 days with you. I then had to come out on satellite to talk to you …” Ressa said. “… In 2005, I decided I don’t want to write for this global community where it feels like I throw my stories into a black hole. I want to write for my community.”

In 2012, Ressa founded Rappler because she saw technology changing everything that she knew. Rappler hoped to fact-check and help limit the spread of misinformation on social media, which was becoming increasingly popular. 

Four years later, in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines and things changed for Ressa once again. 

“I got 10 arrest warrants in less than two years. I haven’t done anything wrong, except to be a journalist,” Ressa said. 

She was arrested for cyber libel. And it was made possible for her to be arrested for content published before the Philippines passed their cyber libel law.

“… I could go to jail for six years. In fact, I could go to jail for the rest of my life,” Ressa said. 

Ressa found the courage to continue her job through the weight of the retaliation against her through five lessons: learn, speak, draw the line, trust and faith. 

“Learn. With all the changes happening, oftentimes what we tend to do is to bury our heads in the sand,” Ressa said. “In fact, on social media … the voices you hear the most on social media are the extremists. But the people in the middle, the people who are the connective tissue, tend not to speak.”

Ressa’s second lesson is to speak. She described now as an essential moment; if by 2024 nothing significant happens, then enough illiberal leaders will be democratically elected to change the geopolitical power balance. 

“Speak. This is a week since Salman Rushdie was here in front of you,” she said, asking Chautauquans to remember, “the sacrifices he made to speak, the fact that I could go to jail for the rest of my life because I refuse to stop speaking. Silence is consent. Speaking doesn’t mean punch, speaking means speak. When you see something in your area of influence that is right or wrong, speak.”

Ressa thinks the third lesson, draw the line, is most critical when people are young. By drawing the line, a clear distinction is made between good and bad. 

“Draw the line. When on this side, you’re good and when you cross it, you’re evil. You have to make that clear, because the rest of our lives is about rationalizing and perhaps crossing that line,” Ressa said. “Do it when you have no vested interest in it, when you know what’s right and what’s wrong.”

The fourth lesson, trust, deeply connects social media and Ressa’s work. She believes everyone’s connected courage “will determine the fate of humanity.”

“Trust. Why is that important? Well, we’re here because we trust each other. Your community is based on trust. With trust in the room, everything is possible. Without trust, nothing is possible,” Ressa said. “The other reason why I say ‘trust’ is because that’s what social media has broken down. Social media has divided, polarized and radicalized.”

Ressa’s last lesson is faith — though she isn’t necessarily a religious person. To her, it’s more about empathy and community. 

“We have to believe in the goodness of human nature. …  One person can only do so much, but a community — … it’s a faith in someone else that they will be there for you,” Ressa said. 

Social media has put this faith in humanity in danger. Social media uses our biology against us, as thinking fast and with emotions such as anger and hate, spreads further on those platforms, Ressa said, leading to fear.

“The way you get to those five (lessons) is by embracing your fear. Whether it was walking into my third grade class in Toms River, New Jersey, where I was the shortest, and only Brown kid — I could barely speak English — to today, when I’m going around in Manila, I drive in a car with security and I have to wear a bulletproof vest,” she said.

Ressa believes there has to be a person-to-person defense of democracy, as technology and social media platforms are increasingly becoming more and more manipulative. 

“What happened? How did it change us? … What can we do about it?” Ressa said. “That’s the question: What are you willing to sacrifice for the truth? It’s about trust.”

Rappler has worked to rebuild trust through three pillars: technology, journalism and community. Technology in the hands of journalists is different from technology in the hands of surveillance capitalism, Ressa said. 

“In my career, what I’ve seen in Southeast Asia is that the quality of the democracy is always inevitably linked to the quality of the journalists, as from 1986 to today,” Ressa said. “Then what’s happened is the incentive structure for journalism — because we are distributed on social media — has turned everything upside down. The incentive is against good journalism.”

Surveillance capitalism, through cell phones and social media use, fosters distrust and misinformation spread. 

“There’s that digital intelligence and machine learning that’s all in your smartphone, and it creates these trends, personalized mass persuasion,” Ressa said. “Imagine if every one of you could see the feed of everyone else. You wouldn’t be seeing the same thing.”

Ressa described it as “The Matrix” meeting the “The Truman Show” times 3.2 billion. Though there are levers to somewhat control this mass communication, like money, codes, norms and laws, Ressa said, these controls cannot do much against violence. 

“Online violence is real world violence. Impunity online is impunity offline. … We’re the same person online as we are in bigger groups, our brains, our emotions, the same person. We’re affected by what happens; online doesn’t stay online,” Ressa said.

An example of online rapid radicalization leading to real-world violence in America, Ressa said, was the May Buffalo Tops Friendly Market mass shooting. Social media platforms and their algorithms have taken over as the gatekeepers of the public information ecosystem, which has left journalists with little distribution power. 

“This happened because of the traditional power of journalism, in broadcast journalism, which is where I came from, technology separated content from distribution,” Ressa said. “Let me say this. This is not a freedom of speech issue. This is a freedom of reach issue. It’s the distribution of lies.”

A lie spreads faster and further than facts, and influences the behavior modification system; this system is when someone’s behavior is indirectly influenced by something online.

“For example, in 2014 it came bottom-up, and then came top-down. … You state the lie a million times, ‘Maria Ressa is a criminal,’ and then a year later, President Duterte says the same thing: ‘Maria Ressa is a criminal, journalists are criminals,’ ” Ressa said. “A week after he said this in the State of the Nation Address, I got my first subpoena. Rappler got its first subpoena, and then we had 14 investigations in 2018, and then I kept getting arrested.”

Another reason lies spread so rapidly is due to Facebook’s “friends of friends” algorithm, which causes the things you like to repeatedly show up on your feed. This meant hyper-political polarization, specifically in the Philippines, where if you were pro-Duterte you moved farther right, and if you were anti-Duterte you moved farther left, Ressa said. 

“Antitrust, data privacy, user safety, content moderation, all of this. These things roll up. Laws need to be put in place to protect us from this,” Ressa said. 

In 2016, Ressa, with the other co-founder of Rappler, wrote a three-part series that looked into how democracy was affected by Facebook algorithms and fake accounts. They found that 26 accounts influenced more than 3 million accounts. Ressa shared how accounts latched on and actively dehumanized her, with online harassment comparing her to apes and scrotums because of how she looked. 

“When you dehumanize, you then open up to treating people like criminals or beyond that,” Ressa said. “This is dangerous.”

In 2020, UNESCO conducted a survey regarding the treatment of female journalists and found that 73% experience online abuse, 25% receive threats of physical violence and 20% are attacked in the real world. 

“I’m still not going to let it stop me. Don’t let it stop you from doing the right thing. … 60%,  almost half a million attacks, on Facebook and Twitter were meant to tear down my credibility, 40% were meant to tear down my spirit,” Ressa said. “The goal is to silence. The goal is to make people not believe. The goal is chaos. The goal is to tear down trust.”

To further exemplify rapid radicalization and spread of misinformation, Ressa spoke about Jan. 6, 2021. The earliest mention of election fraud had happened a year earlier, online, Ressa said.

“Online conspiracy theories impact the real world. It wasn’t a surprise to me, but to see how easily American institutions can collapse alarms me because where America goes, the world goes,” Ressa said. 

Ressa then circled back to her Nobel Peace Prize speech and a case study on the repeated attacks on her Twitter account. The study found that a majority of the Twitter accounts attacking her were supportive of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and were created after his declaration to run for president. 

“We did a story to shine the light, as the only defense a journalist has is to shine the light. Otherwise, we just have to absorb the blows. We have no recourse. We just have to be strong enough to absorb the news,” Ressa said. “We did the story; Marcos tried to take over Twitter with freshly made accounts and, a few days after that, Twitter acted, and suspended over 300 accounts in Marcos’ network.”

To Ressa, the word “trust” means something different in this new age of social media. 

“If there is an information operation, do you ask the people who have been manipulated who they trust? This is a problem in every country around the world. How do we define trust? Are we defining trust because we’re measuring the impact of information warfare? Or the question here is: How much agency do you have if you live on social media?” Ressa said. 

Now Ressa is working toward rebuilding trust through technology, journalism and communities. She uses a pyramid to show how Rappler is working toward further fact-checking, meshing it with research and preparing legal action.

“Their goal is to share the fact checks on social media, with emotions,” Ressa said. “As much as anger and hate spreads fast, inspiration spreads faster.”

Through the help of outside research companies and lawyers, 21 tactical and strategic litigations were filed in about two months.

“It must be a whole society approach to restore trust. At the core of it is our faith and our commonality and our humanity. This is what we need to do,” Ressa said. “Please, I think we don’t have that much time. I’ve seen such degradation of democracy.” 

With Darren Walker, Levi Strauss & Co. CEO Chip Bergh speaks on leadership in U.S. businesses

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When Chautauqua Institution’s Department of Education and Department of Religion were first conceiving of a joint, 10-lecture platform dedicated to the theme of “New Profiles in Courage” with Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, for Walker, one name “immediately came to mind” — Chip Bergh, president and chief executive officer of Levi Strauss & Co.

In Bergh’s and Walker’s conversation Thursday, Aug. 18 in the Amphitheater, they talked about the state of corporate America, the state of the American economy, and the state of leadership in American industry.

Bergh prides himself on the fact that, for his entire professional career, he has served just three institutions: the U.S. Army, Proctor & Gamble, and now, Levi Strauss. The common thread? All three have been around for a very long time, he said, and all have a common purpose of making a difference in the world.

Founded in 1853 in San Francisco, during the midst of the Gold Rush, Levi Strauss bears the name of “the man, the legend” who invented and patented rivets for denim jeans.

“If you were a gold miner, … if you blew out your pants, you had to leave the mine and go back to San Francisco. You would lose about a month’s worth of potential income. So the rivet changed the jean forever,” Bergh said. 

Strauss made a profit in his very first year; but he wasn’t in the business to make a profit, Bergh said. So he donated a portion to a local orphanage. 

“He knew, 170 years ago, that the purpose of a company was to be more than just make money for himself and his family, and shareholders,” Bergh said. “He knew that part of the profit needs to go back into society, that business had a purpose to be good in the world. That was part of the legacy I’ve inherited.”

Walker asked how Levi Strauss’ values aligned with Bergh’s. The company, Bergh said, has a long track record of taking stands on social issues: Factories in the United States desegregated 10 years before the Civil Rights Movement; Levi Strauss was the first major American company to offer benefits to same-sex partners; in 1992, when the Boy Scouts of America introduced a policy excluding gay men and atheists from the organization, the apparel company pulled funding. More recently, Bergh said, in 2017 the company spoke out against President Donald Trump’s travel ban from majority-Muslim countries. 

“You punched above your weight because of the moral leadership of the company and at a time when consumers, when the public, desperately needs moral courageous leadership from corporate America,” Walker said. “But they do not feel that they are getting it.”

Further, Walker asked if Bergh could discuss why CEOs of public companies should be incentivized to share more revenue with employees, rather than a single handful of stakeholders.

“The big debate these days is stakeholder capitalism vs. shareholder primacy,” Bergh said. “The purpose of business is to return as much profit back to the shareholders. Shareholders are important stakeholders, but there are other stakeholders.”

Long-term thinking, Bergh said, means acknowledging that “there is a much broader stakeholder base than shareholders, with your employees probably being the single biggest stakeholder in your business.”

Sustainable businesses, like Levi Strauss, are ones that believe that the employees, and the communities in which they live and work, should be a priority.

Levi Strauss went on the public market with an IPO in 2019; in launching that offering, Bergh said he had made it clear: “ ‘If you don’t like the fact that the CEO of a company is taking a stand on ending nonviolence in this country, do not buy our stock. We are not the company for you.’ ”

“We believe that over the long-term, that doing good in the world and making a difference in our employees’ lives, in our retirees’ lives, in the communities where we live and work, that we focus on making a positive difference in the world — that that will pay dividends in the long run,” Bergh said.

Walker shifted Bergh to the idea of ESG, shorthand for “environment, social, and governance.”  

“Some companies are really trying to do the right thing, and you have other companies that are greenwashing and making claims that they cannot really back up,” Bergh said. “… With climate change, the actions that companies take or fail to take in the impact we can have in the world in that respect (can be significant).”

Environmental work is particularly important for apparel companies; Bergh said Levi Strauss has been proactive in “trying to take really meaningful and aggressive steps to make a difference there. It used to be that we used a lot of chemicals and dyes to produce some genes. We significantly reduce the amount of chemicals, the amount of dye in the amount of water.”

A new finishing process for Levi’s, Bergh said, saves billions of gallons of water a year.

Bergh noted that the company tends to get high marks on the “environment” and “social” aspects of ESG, but “dinged on the governance component because we have a dual flat structure.” The Strauss family owned the company before its IPO, and still has “a super-voting power, if you will.” But at this point, the Strauss descendants are so numerous, “the family’s interest in the company is exactly the same as what the public company interest should be, which is the long-term potential of this company.”

Thus, Bergh said, the shareholder interests are so commonly aligned that the company should be getting higher marks for it. 

But Walker pointed out that as ESG becomes more of a buzzword, there is also a growing anti-ESG movement, with a number of state treasurers directing pension managers to not invest in what they call “woke capitalism.” Bergh again pointed to the Boy Scouts, and the fallout of pulling funding in 1992.

“The company got 120,000 letters and emails over the next week saying, ‘I’m burning my Levi’s, never buying Levi’s again.’ The company was fine,” he said. “They did not walk or waiver one bit. They stood to it. So one of the examples I like to use when we make a decision on whether we are going to weigh in on something is, well, history proved us right. … You are not always going to please everybody, but it’s about — are we moving the ball ahead in a meaningful way to make this world a better place? To make a difference?”

To go back to the “social” of ESG, Bergh shared his own moment of reckoning in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd.

“One of the most important legacies I want to leave is making our company a more inclusive and more diverse company,” he said. 

The pandemic, and Floyd’s murder, threw “an incredibly bright light on the social and racial injustices that we experience in this country,” Bergh said. “The story that had been in my head was we were making so much progress as a company in breaking racism and the reality is what we discovered — I will speak for myself — is that we really haven’t.”

When he looked at the data, he was right, and he sees it as a failing.

“If you had looked at our numbers holistically in the U.S., we look pretty good, but if you strip out our retail stores and distributions center and focus on corporate headquarters, our numbers, our culture was not an inclusive and diverse culture,” he said.

The board makeup included women and Hispanic women, Bergh said,  buy there wasn’t any Black people on Levi Strauss’ board. And there’s still no Black leaders on his executive team. But he’s working on it, and Walker vouched for that to the audience.

“We are slowly making progress,” Bergh said.

Levi Strauss, Walker pointed out, does have a reputation for being a liberal, progressive company. Bergh shared strategies within the company to increase diverse hiring, particularly through a summer internship program.

“We do a lot of mid-career hiring, but not a lot of entry-level hiring. Eighty-five percent of those hires this year were BIPOC, because we were intentional about the results we wanted to get. We now have a process in place for hiring: 50% of the slate must be diverse,” Bergh said. “So we are getting different results because we have changed the structures, and we just have to stay at it.”

Walker asked what it felt like when Bergh walks into the room of the Business Roundtable, an organization of CEOs from America’s largest companies — and a big source of political campaign donations from individual members.

“I’ve got a bit of tension with the Business Roundtable,” Bergh said. “In many ways it serves a lot of good and does a lot of good work on behalf of the business community, but they often stay silent on a number of issues that I wish they wouldn’t stay silent on. … (But), at the end of the day, it’s really a lobbying institution to influence policy at the national level in particular.”

With 200 or so companies represented on the BRT, all of those CEOs are coming from different industries and different stakeholder groups. With the recent passing of the Inflation Reduction Act, Bergh said, the BRT was divided.

“They were very positive on a lot of the environmental things, but negative on, ‘How are we going to pay for it?’ … It was kind of like we want to do all the good stuff, but we don’t want the bad stuff to come along with it,” Bergh said. “I think that’s part of the dilemma.”

It’s a larger tension, Walker noted, “this notion in our culture and society that we want something, but we don’t want to pay for it.”

That notion goes beyond corporate America, Walker said, and extends to politicians and, most importantly, voters. 

“I worry that we don’t have leaders both in corporate America and, more broadly, in society who tell us the truth: that you don’t get nothing for nothing, that if you want services, you have to pay for them,” Walker said. “… We have a culture here, and many CEOs are part of this culture, that is a race to the bottom. ‘Tell me the state that will charge me the lowest taxes and I will move my headquarters there.’ ”

So, Walker asked, is it possible to imagine that this ideology can be changed?

“I think the answer is ‘yes,’ ” Bergh said, and went back to the very beginning of the company he now runs. It was started in San Francisco, is still headquartered there, and many members of the Strauss family still live there.

But the lease at the headquarters’ building is expiring at the end of 2022. And the company made a choice to stay, rather than race to the bottom.

“Two years ago we started talking, should we look at a lower cost place to do business?” Bergh said. “Even just moving across the bridge from San Francisco to Oakland would have saved us about $10 million a year just in city taxes. We decided, you know what, we are here in San Francisco as part of our legacy. … Today there is a vacuum of leadership in that many institutions and government, and companies needed to step in and build the bridge.”

With Nancy Gibbs as interviewer, Jonah Goldberg talks ‘gradual then sudden’ shifts in media, politics

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Ernest Hemingway once explained bankruptcy like this: It’s gradual for a long time, and then it’s sudden. 

This idea, of gradually into suddenly, of slowly and then all at once, was a frequent theme during Wednesday morning’s Chautauqua Lecture Series presentation in the Amphitheater with Jonah Goldberg, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Dispatch and the former senior editor of National Review. 

He was interviewed by Nancy Gibbs, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University and former managing editor of Time. Their discussion was part of Week Eight’s joint-platform theme, “New Profiles in Courage.”

Goldberg’s conversation moved among the decay of media, to the shift of the nation’s highest office from presidency to performance, and the crumbling of institutions and parties. And it all started with Gibbs’ opening prompt: Let’s start with the news.

Tuesday evening, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo) lost her primary by more than 30 percentage points; it was predicted, and speculation is already mounting that Cheney will launch a presidential bid.

“What I’ll often tell people is there’s a number of ‘closet normals,’ ” Goldberg said — the politicians who will say one thing when there’s no cameras around, and another thing if there is, who pretend that “somebody else would deal with Donald Trump, or … that the party hasn’t really changed.” He considered Cheney a closet normal until Jan. 6.

“I salute her bravery and courage, and we’re supposed to talk about courage these days,” he said. “I get very, very frustrated with a lot of my friends on the right who will say, ‘Look, I don’t want Republicans to compromise their principles on important things, but we also have to be practical about political reality.’ My view is that if you can’t tell the truth about Donald Trump and about what’s going on on the right, then you have compromised your principles.”

That idea, of saying one thing in public and another in private, is one of the reasons Goldberg left Fox News as a commentator in 2021. Gibbs pointed out how many moments, especially recently with the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago, seemed to be the moment that would “break the pattern of people saying one thing in private and another in public,” and yet Cheney is still out there “largely by herself.” 

It goes back to Hemingway’s explanation of bankruptcy, and Goldberg pointed to the shift Trump represented from a president leading the people, to people leading the president. 

“The problem is that Donald Trump was only responsive to praise. If you criticized him, he would go the other way,” he said. “… He has this oppositional disorder, and so politicians would go on TV and only praise him, because that was the only way you could influence him, and over time, that’s all the audiences wanted to hear as well.”

As the audience goes, so goes the market; yet another part of the problem is that the market and its consumers “tend to follow politics like it’s a form of entertainment,” Goldberg said.

Politicians become heroes, and once they’re heroes, voters don’t care about policy — they care about winning. Goldberg, a conservative and a fellow at both the National Review Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, pointed to how the hero-worship of politicians extends to the Democratic Party, as well.

“(Obama) did an enormous number of things that violated principles, constitutional principles, that were troubling and problematic,” Goldberg said. “… People didn’t care. They cared about the winning.”

With politics as a form of entertainment, or even what Goldberg described as “a religious, existential struggle,” cultural ideas like the alpha male move to the forefront. Gibbs asked him to discuss the idea of a masculinity crisis in America. The definition of manhood bandied about by people like U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, Goldberg said, is “basically juvenile, puerile, self-serving. It elevates rudeness to a virtue.”

“To me, this completely inverts what conservatism is supposed to believe, what any notion of Christian virtue or just old-fashioned civic virtue is supposed to believe,” he said. “What society doesn’t need is strong men — it needs good men. And good men aren’t cruel on purpose.”

Politics, going back to Aristotle, are supposed to be about persuasion, not performance or punitiveness.

And with the increasingly incentivized structure of the media landscape that, by definition, turns not just politicians, but pundits like Goldberg himself, into entertainers, the narrative becomes more important than the facts.

“I think one of the things that, as a society, we have a real problem with — and a lot of it has to do with the decline of religion in society and the decline of the family and the decline of healthy local communities — is that one of the reasons why we’re turning to politics as a sort of religious, narrative form of entertainment is because we are hungering for a sense of community and meaning in this country,” Goldberg said.

Thus, partisan politics becomes a form of secular religion.

“That’s what’s happening: We are taking partisan identities and coming to the mistaken conclusion that we can fill the holes in our souls with it, and we can’t,” he said. “That makes us angry and that makes us fight and cling to the stuff even harder.”

Both parties are guilty of it, and it ties back to the shift from politician to performer, to the need for a narrative of winning, and to the religious zeal people place, Goldberg said, on “presidents like they are God-kings.”

Gibbs noted that along with that, America is also seeing an “enormous rise in really negative attitudes towards the other side. And in fact, that the parties are mainly defining themselves by their opposition to the other.” 

Goldberg equates it to his favorite The New Yorker cartoon, of two dogs in a fancy bar, wearing fancy suits. One says to the other: “You know, it’s not good enough that dogs succeed. Cats must also fail.”

“Both parties are basically the ‘Cats Must Also Fail Party.’ They care more about the other side losing than their own side winning,” Goldberg said. “… This is part of the gradual and sudden problem.”

Institutions like mainstream media, amplified by the steroids of social media, have eroded trust. Other elite institutions have, as well, Goldberg said — and it’s again because those platforms are used for performance. Institutions, like the Marines or the Boy Scouts, are supposed to mold character, he said.

“We live in a time where people have no respect for the role of the institution or their role within the institution, and instead they use it as a platform for their own cult of personality, their own celebrity,” Goldberg said.

Colin Kaepernick may have been right, Goldberg said, about the issues of police brutality, but he used the NFL as a platform for his issues. Journalists do it, too, and Trump “used the presidency as an institution for his own personal needs … his own celebrity.”

The 2009 rise of the Tea Party saw “a kind of psychic break,” and the idea among voters that “ ‘if they’re going to call us deplorables, we might as well act like it,’ ” Goldberg said. 

Any sort of confidence in or presumption of good faith from the other side was lost, Goldberg said. If good character is defined in partisan terms, by definition, he said, no one knows what good character is anymore.

Gibbs turned the conversation to the academic debate on basic structural voting reform — Goldberg outlined the merits of a jungle general primary, but said that personally, he’d get rid of primaries entirely. In an era of significant polarization, the old patterns and habits don’t work anymore.

Weak parties create strong partisanship, he said, so both Democrats and Republicans have work to do. He described the idea of getting rid of the Electoral College as a “red herring” and a “siren song.”

Gibbs closed her interview by asking Goldberg to expand on something he recently wrote: that people on the left are waiting for a “mass atonement” from the Republican Party, by virtue of the right moving past Trump. Goldberg thinks that’s unrealistic, and not how America will move forward.

“Ronald Reagan didn’t go around beating the stuffing out of Richard Nixon and Watergate, but just moved on,” he said. “I think that the way the Republican Party moves on is by moving on. … The way the party moves on is by simply saying, ‘it’s time for somebody new.’ ”

Goldberg does hope that the party moves on, that “the fever goes away,” because he cares more about “the transformation of rank-and-file Republicans … normal, decent American citizens, many of whom now, I think, are enthralled or brainwashed by a crazy narrative about what’s going on with America.”

That narrative, Goldberg said, makes it normal to say that the FBI is the Gestapo, or normal to say that “we need a civil war,” and makes space in the Republican Party for politicians to dabble in Holocaust denial — space for the “views of people who have really, in some cases, truly evil positions.”

Too many of those who carry such views have started to gain power and control in various states, Goldberg said, and once more drawing on the idea of “gradual, then sudden,” he recalled a scene from “The Simpsons.” 

“Twenty years in the future, Marge and Homer are watching Fox … in bed as an old couple,” Goldberg described. “And Marge just turns to Homer and says, ‘Homey, it’s just amazing. Fox’s transformation into a 24-hour porn channel was so gradual, I hardly even noticed.’ ”

When Goldberg turns on the television, he sees political porn that’s “going to have a half-life, that is going to take a while to work itself out of the system.”

While the Democratic Party has lost its rationale for coalition, Goldberg said, that’s not the same as the  moral problems that exist within the GOP. He could see one of these two parties dying, and returned to the idea of The New Yorker cartoon.

“The ‘Cats Must Fail’ thing kicks in,” he said. “In an era of negative polarization, if the reason for one party to exist is because they hate the other party so much, when one party dies, the other party loses its reason to live. I can see us having a major scrambling of the nature (of the two parties in) what they stand for. What they are could be very different in 10 years’ time. And that would probably be a good thing.”

With Darren Walker, Misty Copeland shares how she found strength through dance, historic journey to ABT

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When someone looks at Misty Copeland, they see the first Black female Principal Dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, a mentor to young dancers, and the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir Life in Motion.

But what did it take for her to get there?

That is what Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, wanted to find out in his conversation with Copeland at the 10:45 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 16 installment of Week Eight’s Chautauqua Lecture Series in the Amphitheater.

For Copeland, her journey started in Kansas City, Missouri, before her, her three siblings and her mother moved to Southern California. Frequently homeless, Copeland and her family stayed in motels or with friends who had extra space.

“Because of that, I didn’t feel that I had a voice,” Copeland said. “I didn’t feel that anyone needed or wanted to hear from me, or the things I was thinking about or cared about.”

One thing showed her that her voice mattered and helped her communicate what was going on inside of her, and that was dance.

“It wasn’t until I discovered dance and ballet that I felt that I was good at something, that I actually had a way of expressing what was inside of me,” she said.

While dance felt right to Copeland, it was not always an easy journey. Her mother inspired her to continue to stay strong through hardship.

“To see her raising six children on her own, it instilled in me this is what a strong Black woman is,” she said. “I think that’s what I have always striven to be.”

After hearing about the hope and inspiration of Copeland’s life, Walker had to ask about the grief.

“No child who is technically homeless, moving from motels to sleeping on the sofas and floors of friends’ homes, can come out of that experience without having to deal with real pain,” he said.

Copeland acknowledged he was right. As she grew up, she noticed how the trauma of not having a stable home affected her; those feelings and that hurt would pop up without warning. She deals with pain through dance, and does not think that her background should limit her.

“You should not be boxed into this place where — just because of the circumstances you grew up in — that should dictate what your future looks like,” she said. “That has been my journey, believing in that. And knowing that, with the right support, that you can overcome anything.”

Walker expressed his surprise that she overcame so much pain through a career in one of the “most elitist, whitest” art forms. No stranger to the dance world, Walker has served on boards for prestigious dance companies, such as the New York City Ballet.

“There is no art form that is seemingly more unwelcoming of Black women than classical dance,” he said.

Whether it is critiquing the shape of their body, or encouraging them to switch into other forms of dance, classical dance is a difficult space for women of color. But when Copeland first experienced dance as a 13-year-old at the Boys & Girls Club of San Pedro, California, she didn’t immediately feel that. She did not know ballet’s discriminatory history at the time; she just knew she loved to dance.

“The technique, the pure language of this craft is not racist. It’s not. It doesn’t exclude,” she said. “It’s the most beautiful, pure way of communicating that I had ever connected with.”

Part of what made her initial encounter with dance so magical was her teacher.

“I had a teacher who supported and encouraged me and made me feel beautiful, and celebrated my Blackness,” she said. “It was never something that we were hiding. It was never a conversation that was avoided, and I felt like all of that gave me a really pure and natural introduction into classical dance.”

Walker used this moment to encourage the audience members to create scholarships for dancers. Donating money allows for dancers to learn and grace performance stages that they couldn’t have without financial support, he said.

The next step in Copeland’s career was her move to New York City, where she joined the American Ballet Theatre. It felt like a completely different world to her.

“I think, ‘I’m moving to New York City. There’s so many cultures and people from different backgrounds.’ And I was really excited to come into this atmosphere,” she said. “Then I was spending eight hours a day in a building where I only saw white people and I only interacted with white people. I was the only Black woman in the American Ballet Theatre for the first decade of my career.”

Her dance teacher in San Pedro encouraged her to join ABT because it is technically culturally diverse as it accepts dancers from anywhere, whereas other ballet companies only accept dancers from their own schools. Even with this practice, ABT’s company was still very white.

The language toward Copeland shifted when she came to ABT. In San Pedro, her teachers told her she was a prodigy and she was built perfectly for dance. But in New York?

“You are too short. Your breasts are too big. You shouldn’t be cast in the ballet blanc, which translates to white ballets — I would ruin the line,” she said. “I would take away from this sea of white dancers on the stage dressed in while tulle and pink tights and pointe shoes.”

This did not sit well with Copeland. She discussed it with her Black dance peers in New York. It came down to a lot of tough and uncomfortable conversations that Copeland had to have with the artistic staff.

Walker noted how a lot of Black dancers left the industry because these conversations are so difficult to have.

“Most just ultimately could not withstand the racism, the sexism,” he said. “So what gave you the courage? Where did you muster the confidence when you are being told things that actually undermine your confidence?”

Copeland points to her support system.

“(They were) powerful Black women who wanted to be an example and help raise me up. But it’s also been generations and generations of other Black dancers chipping away,” she said. “I think that the timing of me coming into ABT was a big part of it. This is not just my courage.”

Dylan Townsend / staff photographer Copeland and Walker’s conversation was part of the 10-lecture platform dedicated to the theme of “New Profiles in Courage.”

While many Black dancers have come before Copeland, she is the first Black Principal Dancer at ABT, a historic position. Because of this, Walker thinks she is part of the larger history of the company, and of ballet itself.

Copeland accepts this, but said she is hardly the only Black ballerina.

“My responsibility is uncovering, telling these stories that have been erased, that haven’t been documented. Yes, I’m the first African American Principal Ballerina with American Ballet Theatre,” she said. “But there have been Black ballerinas contributing to classical dance for so many generations.”

Without mentors like Raven Wilkinson, who was the first African American ballerina to dance for a major ballet company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Copeland isn’t sure if she would have had the courage to keep showing up in predominantly white, or sometimes all-white, spaces and keep dancing.

“I stand on the shoulders of so many people who have put in the work for generations and generations and deserve to be acknowledged and shown that they’ve contributed to this history,” she said.

She is not alone as a Black dancer, but sometimes she feels the added pressure of being one. When she thinks only about performing the movements of classical dance, she does not feel frightened. The fear comes when she considers being a Black ballet dancer.

“I would say the first time that I truly experienced fear, it was all wrapped up in years of baggage and trauma of the Black ballet experience that I carried on my shoulders when I was given the opportunity to perform Swan Lake for the first time,” she said. “The fear of, if I fail, will there be another opportunity for a Black woman to take on this role?”

She could not help but think of the Black people who would come after her, and if her performance would directly impact their opportunities.

This fear was backed up by the media response of her Swan Lake lead. For most dancers, they debut in a matinee performance, and it is not an earth-shattering experience, but for Copeland, the New York Times was previewing it. Newspapers and magazines were questioning if this opportunity would get Copeland promoted to Principal Dancer or not. All eyes were on her.

But when she got onstage, everything brewing inside her calmed.

“As soon as I stepped onto the stage, it’s like you remember the majority of the people who are in the audience are there to support you. They are there to enjoy the performance. So I had to remember that,” she said. “Once I went on stage, it was like I was enveloped in the embrace of people who wanted to be there.”

ABT now has one of the youngest and most diverse audiences out of all major American ballet companies. Walker and others contribute this to Copeland’s 2015 promotion to Principal Dancer, and he wanted to hear about what the day was like when she was promoted. As an outsider, Walker remembered seeing a Dow Jones ticker message proclaiming the news.

When Copeland was promoted, she was exhausted from a whole season of dancing at the Metropolitan Opera House. They were in a meeting the day she found out.

“My director just turned to me, and he didn’t even say, ‘You’ve been promoted to Principal Dancer.’ He said, ‘Misty, take a bow.’ Everyone knew what that meant,” she said.

Since the Metropolitan Opera House had a show that night, Copeland had to keep moving and did not have time to immediately process her promotion. She still knew she had to dance to the best of her ability, no matter what her new title was.

“My responsibility is to go on stage and put on the best show that I can, so to stay present and to stay ground ed. I think that’s the beauty of ballet,” she said. “There’s no shortcuts. There’s no way to phone it in. When you go on stage night after night, it is so technically and emotionally demanding that it humbles you night after night after night.”

While Copeland thinks about the rehearsals and the shows she has to do, she also thinks about the future of ballet, which inspired her to create the Misty Copeland Foundation. The goal of the foundation is to create diversity in the ballet by giving more opportunities for children to learn how to dance.

“Through my own experience of being given an opportunity, being given a scholarship, being discovered at a community center, I wouldn’t be the woman that I am,” she said. “It’s not about the beautiful, amazing career that I’ve had, but the tools that I have learned through dance, through being a part of a community center that gives you access to mentorship and tutors.”

In Copeland’s experience, people want to do that work of teaching students who may not otherwise have the resources to be trained. These conversations of how more people can become involved in dance, and the lack of diversity in classical dance are happening, she said. And especially after the murder of George Floyd, she said, they’re happening in major dance companies like ABT.

“I feel hopeful for the future of classical dance,” Copeland said. “And I will forever be a part of it in a major way.”

Neuroscientist Marsh opens week with fundamental biology of courage

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Abigail Marsh opened Week Eight’s theme, “New Profiles in Courage,” with the fundamentals of courage. Marsh’s lecture was the first after last Friday’s attack on Salman Rushdie and Henry Reese in the Amphitheater just prior to the 10:45 a.m. lecture.

Before Marsh gave her lecture, “The Courageous Brain,” on Monday in the Amp, Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill introduced the week’s theme. He said that Chautauqua’s summer season themes seek to answer the questions: “What are the most important and interesting conversations of our time? And what obligations do we have to humanity to propel positive action from what we learn?”

These themes take careful planning. 

“We conceive these themes sometimes well more than a year in advance of the day they come to Chautauqua stages, and this week’s theme is no exception,” Hill said. “What is also no exception is that our theme this week, given what we experienced on Friday, Aug. 12, on this very stage, seems prescient. This community proves the thesis. There’s nothing more important, more needed today in our world, than courage.”

“New Profiles in Courage” comes in collaboration with Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. Walker found the need to explore the idea of courage when he looked around the world for courageous leaders and found there was little incentive to be courageous. 

“When we look for courage, we must start as a community and you all know this, you saw this: Courage is often not exhibited by the most prominent members, the most famous members of those communities, the wealthiest, with the most status, but often from those everyday, hardcore, dedicated, determined, citizens of a community,” Walker said. “… This week is about looking across disciplines, in politics, in the arts, and in the private sector, to ask ourselves: Where might we find the courage?”

Marsh, a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience at Georgetown University and the author of The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between, looks at courage through the scientific lens. In her research she uses functional and structural brain imaging — and behavioral, cognitive, genetic, and pharmacological techniques. 

“The research I’ve done has done nothing but reinforce my belief and the great capacity for goodness that the vast majority of people have — a fact that I think was only reinforced by the incredible courage that was displayed here on Friday by Mr. Rushdie and by so many of the Chautauqua staff and guests,” Marsh said. 

Marsh shared the story of Dave McCartney who, in 2006, witnessed a car accident in front of him and rose to the occasion, helping save the driver as their vehicle became engulfed in flames.

 “He took a course of action that put him in serious danger of being hurt or killed for no personal gain,” Marsh said. “That is a hard choice to explain, understand, for anyone who believes … that humans are fundamentally selfish, that all of our behavior is motivated by our own self interest.”

Abigail Marsh speaks during the morning lecture Monday morning August 15 in the Amphitheater. SEAN SMITH/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

She quoted U.S. Senator Cory Booker, whom she described as a heroic rescuer: 

“Just driving in our car, most of us have problems and challenges and the question is, are you going to be someone who just keeps going?” 

Booker’s words resonate with Marsh, as during her own car accident, she was helped by an onlooker. 

“I survived. I’m standing here today because that stranger didn’t just keep going,” Marsh said. “What I’ve been trying to understand, more or less since then, is what made that man stop? What makes any of us change course from whatever road we’re heading down to help others instead of just keeping going?”

The definition of courage is the mental strength to persevere and withstand danger, difficulty or fear. Marsh asked if courage is the ability to overcome fear, or the inability to feel fear.

“Which one of these traits really makes heroes? Are they somehow better at overcoming fear than most people? And if so, how do they do that? Or are they just not affected by fear?” Marsh said. 

Booker is a great example of this, said Marsh, and shared a story of Booker running into a burning building to save his neighbor’s daughter. People took this as ultimate fearlessness. 

“Any of us can be a hero, because fearlessness is really easy to recreate in a lab. Any reasonably capable lab tech can make any of us fearless, and maybe heroes, instantly and we know it’s based on decades of research on the origins of fear,” Marsh said. “In mammals, including humans, the origins of fear lie this treasure called the amygdala.”

In the brain, the amygdala triggers the fear response in the body and is responsible for recognizing fear in others. The amygdala causes the freeze, as well as the fight or flight responses,  to threats in a matter of milliseconds. Marsh said she felt this once as she read on a porch and a bear walked toward her. Without even realizing it, Marsh yelled and ran toward the bear while she was trying to get to safety. This response was a function of the amygdala.

“People often find themselves responding to threats without even fully realizing what they’re doing, thanks to this incredibly sophisticated network within the amygdala,” Marsh said.

Marsh showcased its functions through videos of rats, one with a functioning amygdala and one without. The rats were subjected to the threat of a predator standing between them and their food. This study showed that the rat with an amygdala showed a fear response, while the rat without an amygdala did not. 

This phenomenon can be seen in the medical case Patient SM, a woman who lost her amygdala due to a rare genetic disorder. Patient SM does not feel fear. During a study, researchers would show her a picture before mildly electrocuting her. Though the shocks hurt and she didn’t like them, she did not fear them happening.

“This sounds a little great.  Who would like to go through life like this? But as it turns out, fear is a really useful emotion. … You might not be surprised to hear that Patient SM does have a lot of challenges in her life — in part because she’s just not motivated to avoid danger,”  Marsh said. “… Her behavior fits the definition of courage according to the dictionary, but seems to be missing something. Courage is something we think of as admirable and virtuous, but as this isn’t quite that. She’s just reckless.”

Marsh sees similar behavior in people with a more common disorder, psychopathy, which is connected to a malfunctioning amygdala.

“Having worked with adolescents and adults with psychopathy for over a decade now, I can tell you they are much more likely to be anti-heroes, to put other people in danger by exploiting or attacking them, and then to act courageously to benefit other people at some cost to themselves,” Marsh said, “which is a huge problem for our hopes that the secret to courage is just eliminating fear. Natural experiments that reduce or eliminate fear do not result in heroism, but in recklessness at best and cruelty and callousness at worst.”

Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it; courage is a virtue, as it’s being fully aware of the danger you’re facing while trying to achieve a goal that is more important, said Marsh. Booker felt fear while saving his neighbor’s daughter from the fire, but that did not stop him from acting. 

“In terrifying situations, people who act heroically often feel terrified. What distinguishes them from everybody else is not how they feel. It’s what they do. They move toward the source of the danger, rather than away from it, because somebody else is in danger,” Marsh said. “That is a huge leap in understanding the origins of real courage.”

Patient SM could not tell when someone felt fear or what situations would cause fear due to her lack of an amygdala. This blindness to fear helped Marsh understand what could increase courage in others. 

“People who don’t recognize that threats cause fear think it’s more morally acceptable to make threats,” Marsh said. “… We’ve done lots of brain imaging research in adults and children who have psychopathic traits, and we consistently find that those with higher levels of psychopathy have smaller amygdalas.”

This discovery led Marsh to see if the amygdala had direct correlation to someone’s courage.

“It may be that heroes are more sensitive to fear and that’s what moves them to act,” Marsh said. “… It turns out, that is exactly the case.”

Marsh and her colleagues looked at what she called “altruistic kidney donors” who underwent surgery for someone they had not met before. They compared 20 altruistic kidney donors and 20 typical adults and found that the former are more responsive to people’s fear and can recognize others’ fear better than the typical person. 

“We brought three winners of the Carnegie Medal for Heroism to Georgetown to scan their brains as part of an episode of ‘60 Minutes,’ and all of these heroes had saved the life of someone else, at significant risk,” Marsh said. 

They ran the same tests from the kidney donors and found that those heroes, on average, have bigger amygdalas than typical adults.

 “Heroes are not less sensitive to risk and danger than the average person. They’re more sensitive to it because their empathy for other people’s fear moves them to help,” Marsh said. “This is not the end of the story. It can’t be the entire explanation, because plenty of people have less fear systems and the capacity for empathy, but they’re not particularly courageous.”

The best way to overcome fear is through learning and deliberately exposing yourself to fear in small doses, Marsh said. Alex Honnold, a rock climber who ascends mountains without the use of ropes, has a normal amygdala and does feel fear, but because of his exposure to rock climbing he has the ability to stay calm during it.

“Fear is really important for developing courage in certain situations. … You often find out that real life heroes have some kind of prototyping that taught them to act — they were in the military, or they were lifeguards, or even firefighters,” Marsh said. 

Marsh studied a personality test of 500 adults, 200 who were categorized as typical adults and 300 who were categorized as heroes. In this test, it was found that the adults are mostly similar besides two traits: honesty and humility. 

“We found that humility was correlated with another outcome called social discounting. In a social discounting task, people have the option of keeping some amount of real resources, like money, for themselves, or sharing with somebody else at a cost to themselves,” Marsh said. “Most people will share to benefit people who are close to them, but their choices become … less generous the more distant the beneficiary.” 

This led researchers to believe that people who are heroic and have courageous traits actually value other people more than the typical adult. They often do not see that they are not any more special than the other person, Marsh said. Psychologists say one of the few ways to increase humility is through gratitude exercises, much like how fear exercises can increase courage. 

“There are a few better cures for self focus than to think about all the ways you’ve benefited from other people’s help,” Marsh said “… It does reduce a person’s sense of self-importance, relative to others, and heightens your sense of connectedness to all the people around you to think of yourself as part of this larger fabric of helping.”

This practice can reduce depression and social anxiety, as it takes your attention off yourself, said Marsh. The best way to encourage courageousness is to face fear.

“The contemplative and profoundly moving acts of the many heroes around us — and so many people are heroes in the background — can also inspire a sense of awe, and humility and gratitude,” Marsh said. “It certainly has for me, and I hope it has for you as well.”

PUSH Buffalo’s Rahwa Ghirmatzion traces history, work combating housing injustices

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Buffalo was once one of America’s prized cities. It had the sixth-largest economy among U.S. cities and a world-leading port. Today, it’s behind only Cleveland and Detroit as the United States’ poorest city.

A residual of the decisions that contributed to that downfall is historic and institutionalized disadvantage to its African American residents, according to Rahwa Ghirmatzion, the executive director of People United for Sustainable Housing — or PUSH — Buffalo, who spoke Wednesday, Aug. 10 in the Amphitheater for the Chautauqua Lecture Series.

Ghirmatzion is a trained community health worker and currently serves on the board of People’s Action Institute, a national multi-issue affiliate organization. She was born in Eritrea, a country in northeast Africa along the Red Sea, in the midst of a 30-year war for independence. At age 5, her family fled to Sudan following a dramatic 16-day journey. Her family emigrated three years later to Western New York.

Speaking under the umbrella of Week Seven’s theme, “More than Shelter: Redefining the American Home,” Ghirmatzion shared her experiences with PUSH Buffalo in combating housing injustices and reinvigorating Buffalo neighborhoods.

Ghirmatzion began by tracing Buffalo’s history. She shared a map of Buffalo in 1805, which she described as “a village rich with waterways and canals, innovation, and full of violence and destruction to Indigenous people and the environment.”

Following construction of the Erie Canal, Buffalo became the world’s largest freshwater port. Factory production drew immigrants and migrants from Europe and African Americans from the South. Ghirmatzion said it became an “industrial heartland” during the two world wars, and the birthplace of commercial aviation and innovations — including air conditioning.

“This is one of the best planned cities in America,” Ghirmatzion said, referring to early Buffalo. 

Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed the city’s Delaware and Humboldt parks, linked together by tree-lined Humboldt Parkway. 

“The city contains buildings designed by American architecture masters, like Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Henry Hobson Richardson and Louise Blanchard Bethune,” she said, “making Buffalo one of the most architecturally significant cities in America.”

Buffalo’s subsequent decline, Ghirmatzion said, is partly a product of city planners’ and federal housing officials’ decision to facilitate urban flight.

She said that flight was propelled by the creation of the Federal Housing Administration, or FHA, and Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, or HLC, a government agency established in 1933 to stabilize real estate that had depreciated during the economic depression and to refinance urban mortgage debt. While HLC provided mortgages to rescue homeowners from bank foreclosures, the FHA offered insurance to guarantee that homeowners would repay their loans. That led to the practice of redlining, in which mortgages and insurance were denied to people living in neighborhoods considered high-risk for investment. Many of these neighborhoods were home to underrepresented minority populations.

“The FHA, the government agency, codified existing redlining housing discrimination regimes; discrimination that runs through all markets, labor and all services that still permeate today,” Ghirmatzion said, pointing to data that showed 81% of investment was in Buffalo’s suburbs. “It shows you this extractive economy that is already building where, again, it’s privileging some areas and disadvantaging others.”

The phenomenon was furthered in 1963, when the Kensington Expressway decimated the bucolic parks and parkway that linked Buffalo’s Black and white neighborhoods.

“What was called progress was just another moment of violence to Black Buffalo and the ecology,” Ghirmatzion said. The expressway “cut down the middle of what was at the time … a burgeoning Black middle-class community to make way for quick transportation of white people from the city to white suburbia.”

In the post-World War II era, Buffalo suffered a drastic decline, with the blame variously placed on failed leadership, natural resource depletion, environmental problems, and even oppressive taxes. Whatever the cause, the effect was deindustrialization and a loss of about half its population. By 1970, Buffalo’s population had dropped drastically from its former peak.

“Industry has left Buffalo with brown fields, waterways and the collapse of the working class,” she said. “This leads to a 50-year economic decline, taking Buffalo from the sixth-largest economy in the nation to the third-poorest city, only coming in behind Detroit and Cleveland.”

Enter PUSH Buffalo, founded in 2005. Ghirmatzion said PUSH Buffalo aims to address the root causes of the systemic oppression of Buffalo’s history — to create strong neighborhoods with affordable housing and local employment; and to advance racial economic and environmental justice.

PUSH Buffalo is not a city agency. In fact, its success is owed to mobilizing its members to advocate, even pressure, local officials, even as it works with grassroots groups around Western New York. 

“Our theory of change revolves around community control, community ownership, and of resources and the just transition strategy framework for transformative structural change,” Ghirmatzion said.

Realizing the world’s – and Buffalo’s — immersion in an “extractive” economy that “digs, burns, and dumps,” Ghirmatzion said PUSH advocates for a “regenerative” alternative.

That green alternative exists “where the worldview is censored in caring and sacredness of our humanity, where resources are renewable energy sources and circular economies, where our work is actually cooperative and our purpose is restoring ecological harmony,” Ghirmatzion said. 

On the west side of Buffalo, PUSH advocated for a 20-square-block green development zone, now expanded to 40 square blocks.

One of its highest-profile projects has been public school No. 77, circa 1927, which was eyeballed by developers for a condo complex, meaning imminent gentrification of the zone. PUSH Buffalo stalled the city’s approval for several years while it polled the community on how to use the building. Instead of high-end condos, there will instead be 30 affordable senior apartments.

“It’s the people that are of and from the community that not only designed it, planned for it, helped raise the money, co-designed the spaces, but now they are also the stakeholders that utilize it,” she said.

PUSH also works to restore vacant properties, using green construction methods such as sustainable roofs and solar panels. Other community features address the problem of stormwater runoff, with features such as parking pads that filter rainwater, rain gardens and vegetated stormwater planters.

PUSH Buffalo has spent $84 million in green affordable housing, green infrastructure and stormwater management in the green development zone. It owns about 150 parcels of land. More than a thousand homes have been weatherized, or subjected to a “green retrofit.” Ghirmatzion shared that in April 2022, PUSH Buffalo broke ground on 14 sites across its green development zone.

“We’re the small little seeds of decency that we can plant today and tomorrow, for the next generation or two,” Ghirmatzion said. “… We often say what the hands do, teaches the heart.”

Ghirmatzion closed by challenging the audience.

“What did you learn today to go back where you are, what’s a small little thing that you can do to continue to build on those cells of decency for collective impact that will lead to our collective liberation?” she said. 

MacArthur ‘Genius’ Matthew Desmond examines eviction crisis, offers possible solutions

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The struggling single mother who committed armed robbery to make rent. The war veteran with amputated legs working laboriously to pay off his rent to his landlord. The elderly woman who pays 70% of her income to stay in a condemned home that was declared a biohazard by the city. These are the faces behind the pink papers on the doors that evict about 3.6 million Americans a year. 

While eviction may seem faceless, just a word to those untouched by housing displacement, it affects real people. In pursuit of understanding why eviction happens in America, over the course of a year, author Matthew Desmond followed eight families facing homelessness in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a journey he detailed thoroughly in his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Living in a mobile park in the South Side of Milwaukee, and later in a house in the North Side, Desmond watched the process unfold for both the evicted and the evictees. 

“I was going about this work, and then there were all of these questions that kept springing to mind that were just beyond the reach of normal reporting,” Desmond said. “ ‘How often do people get evicted? Who gets evicted? What are the long-term consequences of getting tossed from your home?’ I went looking for some answers, at least some data to support this kind of inquiry, and I got nothing. I decided to click the data myself.”

In writing his book, Desmond collected hundreds of millions of eviction records. In Milwaukee, he surveyed over 1,000 renters and 250 tenants in eviction court and looked over 100,000 eviction case records. 

Dylan Townsend / staff photographer Matthew Desmond, the Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, gives his presentation for both the Chautauqua Lecture Series and the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle on his Pulitzer-winning book ­Evicted Tuesday in the Amphitheater.

“I tried to write a book that brought all of this stuff together, to combine big data with the small data, and things that I was learning on the ground every day in Milwaukee,” Desmond said. “In that spirit, Evicted is really a book that starts on the ground and ends on the ground.”

Desmond told the eviction story of America to Chautauquans at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 9 in the Amphitheater in his lecture titled after his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Desmond’s discussion of how and why eviction happens in the country was part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Seven theme, “More than Shelter: Redefining the American Home,” and the Chautauqua Literary and Science Circle’s 2022 vertical theme, “Home.”

Desmond is the Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology at Princeton University and winner of the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” as well as the founder of the Eviction Lab, which published the first national dataset of evictions in the United States in 2018. In addition to Evicted, Desmond has authored several books, including On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters.

In addition to the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction, Evicted has amassed the National Books Critics Circle Award, the Andrew Carnegie Medal, the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award, the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and more; it was also cited as one of the best books of the year by over three dozen media outlets. 

Desmond chose one particular narrative of a single, Black Milwaukee mother named Arleen, and her children Ger-Ger, Boosie, Jori and Jafaris, to lay out how eviction happens in the country. He said Arleen’s story provides a lens through which people can understand and empathize with the housing injustices plaguing America. 

Arleen’s eviction experience started with an enraged man kicking down the door of her home after Jori threw a snowball at his car. The landlord swiftly kicked them out after the incident, leading them to stay at the Salvation Army until Arleen found another place to live. She bought a house for a little over $500, but it had no running water. 

“When we looked at that survey data and we asked, ‘What happens to families after they get evicted?’ a big thing that we learned is that they move into much worse housing than they lived in before,” Desmond said. “If we want to nail a kid who lives with lead paint, exposed wires, no heat, no water, a big reason is families are forced to accept these conditions in the harried aftermath of an eviction.”

The city found the house unfit for human habitation, sending Arleen and her sons back on the streets without a home. They then moved to an apartment on a block ridden with crime and drug activity.

“The fact that she was kicked out of this place was pretty important for understanding how she ended up in such a dangerous part of the city,” Desmond said. “… We found that you can control a lot of things, and you still see families who get evicted moving from high-crime neighborhoods into more dangerous neighborhoods in the city, from poor neighborhoods to even more impoverished communities. Eviction seems to push families deeper into disadvantage.”

Arleen quickly moved to another house in poor condition on the North Side of Milwaukee. With utilities excluded, the property cost $550 a month — 88% of Arleen’s entire welfare check. 

“Arleen is not alone in spending the vast majority of her income on housing,” Desmond said. “For 100 years, there’s been this idea, this consensus in America, that we should spend 30% of our income on rent. That gives us enough money to feed our kids, save and afford a car. For a long part of our history, a lot of us met that goal. But times have changed.”

Most poor, renting Americans spend nearly half of their income on rent and utilities, and one-fourth of those families spend over 70% of their income on rent and utilities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey. 

“If you want a roof over your head and hot water, under these conditions, you don’t need to make a huge mistake or have a big emergency hit your life to get evicted,” Desmond said. “Something as small as a snowball can do it. For folks like Arleen, eviction is much more of an inevitability than responsibility.”

Desmond laid out three reasons for the rise in rent, the first being that the income rate of Americans without a college education has been stagnant over the last 40 years, according to a population survey directed by the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Second, housing costs soared nationally within that same time period. Since 1985, rent has outplaced income gains by 315%.

The third reason is that federal government programs have little reach. Three-fourths of renting families below the poverty line receive no housing assistance, and those that have government housing often wait for years before they receive it, Desmond said, referencing the American Housing Survey.

Arleen tried to put her name on a government housing list only to find it had been frozen, with 3,500 families in Milwaukee and a wait time of five years; five years is a short wait compared to other cities, according to Desmond.

“The waiting list for public housing in our biggest cities is not counted in years anymore,” Desmond said. “It’s counted in decades.”

A notice for a welfare appointment was sent to Arleen’s old address and she missed the meeting, causing her $628-a-month check to be reduced. This, in combination with funeral expenses for a loved one, caused Arleen to fall two months behind on rent, and she was evicted yet again. 

“When we think of the typical low income family today, when it comes to housing situations, we shouldn’t think of them like living in public housing or getting any kind of help from the government to make rent,” Desmond said. “We should think of someone like Arleen, because she’s our typical case.”

Milwaukee has over 130,000 rental homes, and every year, the city evicts 16,000 people. One in 14 houses in Black neighborhoods are evicted in an average year, according to Desmond’s “Eviction and the Reproduction of Urban Poverty” article, which looked at the repercussions of inner-city evictions. 

In Desmond’s research, he found that “eviction is a cause, not just a condition of property.” 

“The home is the center of life,” Desmond said. “It’s our refuge from work. It’s our protection from the street. It’s where we go to let down. It’s where we remove our masks and shoes and (that) language is spoken all over the world. … Home is not just shelter, but like warmth, family, community, the womb. (When evicted,) families lose their homes, but children also lose their school. You lose your neighborhood. You lose your connections.”

Eviction proves to be particularly harsh for women of color, especially single, African American mothers. Desmond’s research shows that one in five Black women in Milwaukee report being evicted at least once in their life. 

“Eviction is something like the feminine equivalent to incarceration,” Desmond said. “We know that many poor, African American men are being swept out over the criminal justice system, being locked up. Many poor, African American women are being locked out and disproportionately bearing the brunt of the eviction crisis.”

For adults with children, the likelihood of eviction and homelessness rise. 

“This is a problem that affects young and old, the sick and the able-bodied,” Desmond said. “The face of our eviction epidemic is the smallest of kids. Go into any housing court around the country and you see a ton of kids running around.” 

Arleen’s eviction record — and the fact that she had children — prompted landlords to turn her away from a total of 90 homes. Arleen finally was accepted into a one-bedroom apartment, but was shortly kicked out after an incident involving Jori and his teacher that required the police to come to her home. 

“When I started this work, I thought kids would shield you from eviction,” Desmond said. “It’s the opposite. In fact, that study we did in eviction court, we were trying to crack that mystery. Why do you get evicted? It wasn’t your race. It wasn’t your gender. It wasn’t how much you owed. It was kids. The chance of you getting an eviction judgment tripled if you lived with kids.”

Having an eviction record also bars families from safer housing; Desmond said he met many landlords who would not accept a tenant with an eviction in the last two to three years.

“If you’re carrying around evictions like this, they follow you,” Desmond said. “They haunt you. This is the reason why families move into worse housing into worse neighborhoods after they get evicted, because there are limits.”

When Desmond began his journey to understanding evictions in America, he had no data to draw on. Seeing the shortage of information around evictions, he founded the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, a data resource for the public about evictions in America. In 2018, it released the first-ever comprehensive dataset on evictions with millions of data points collected all the way back to 2000. 

“We have collected millions and tens of millions and over 100 million eviction records from all over the country, and published them. … One thing we learn is every year in America, 3.6 million evictions are filed,” he said. “About seven evictions are filed a minute every year.”

The hope is that compiling research and data about evictions can help policymakers and communities target the issue head-on. 

While the eviction crisis pervades the United States, Desmond’s research offers good news and hope of progress in smaller areas of the country. New York’s eviction rates in 2020 were much lower than what was expected under normal conditions, and remained low even after the COVID-19 eviction moratorium expired. The strides the country has made in the last century of revitalizing communities show what can be done for the eviction crisis today. 

To pull communities out of the eviction crisis, Desmond suggests that the government expand the existing legislation of the Housing Choice Voucher Program. 

“If you qualify for this program, you benefit from the program,” Desmond said. “You can take this voucher. You can look anywhere you want in the private market, as long as your housing isn’t too expensive or too crummy. Instead of paying 50, 60, 70% of your income on rent, you would pay 30% and the voucher would cover the rest. That would fundamentally change the face of poverty in America.”

Two questions arise from this suggestion: Would the expansion be a disincentive to work, and can taxpayers afford it?

Research shows there is no relationship between housing and work, Desmond said, and he predicts that if adults worked less with this voucher, they are most likely spending time with their families.

“I think that if we’re honest with ourselves, the status quo is a much bigger threat to work and self-sufficiency than any affordable housing program could be,” Desmond said. “… Many can’t hold their jobs down long enough, because they can’t hold their homes down.”

In terms of national expense, Desmond points to a jarring statistic: The year Arleen was evicted, the country devoted $41 billion to housing assistance, where $170 billion was allocated on homeowner tax. That $170 billion is equivalent to the entire budget for the Departments of Education, Veteran Affairs, Homeland Security, Justice and Agriculture — combined. 

“Most of that benefit goes to families with six-figure incomes, because if you have a bigger income, you can get a bigger mortgage, take a bigger deduction,” Desmond said. “… If poverty persists in America, it’s not for lack of resources. We lack something else.”

A few years ago, the Bipartisan Policy Center calculated that to address the eviction crisis, the nation would need to devote an additional $22 billion. As rent increases, its calculations fluctuate from $22 billion to $40 billion to $45 billion. 

“These are not small figures,” Desmond said. “But this is well within our capacity. We have the money. We just made decisions about how to spend it. Every year, homeowner tax subsidies far, far outpace direct housing assistance. We already have a universal housing program. It’s an entitlement. It’s just not for poor people.”

While promising, this solution isn’t the only one that can solve the housing crisis; Desmond calls on people to work with housing equality organizations and educate themselves about a system that does not affect them directly, but does affect their neighbors and fellow citizens. 

“This degree of inequality, and this level and depth of social suffering, and this cold denial of basic human need, this isn’t us,” Desmond said. “This doesn’t have to be us.”

In concluding his lecture, Desmond asked Chautauquans to think of their communities and what America could be if people uplifted those like Arleen when they’re faced with eviction. 

“Poverty reduces people born from better things,” Desmond said. “Arleen didn’t want some small life. She didn’t want to make a living gaming the system. She wanted to work and contribute. Poverty is complicated, but a stable home is a great way to give folks like Arleen a shot at realizing their full potential.”

‘Post’ columnist Megan McArdle opens week examining history of housing trends

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As a writer, Megan McArdle spends a lot of time thinking about words. She encouraged the audience at her 10:45 a.m. lecture Monday, Aug. 8 in the Amphitheater to do the same, and specifically contemplate the word “house.” With that, she opened up Week Seven’s Chautauqua Lecture Series theme on “More than Shelter: Redefining the American Home.”

McArdle not only writes about economics, finance and government policy for The Washington Post, but she has also run her own blog since 2001, which was recently renamed “Asymmetrical Information.” In her lecture, “Homebound,” she addressed the history of housing and, ultimately, what housing allows us to do.

Although McArdle grew up on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, her idea of “house” was a little box she would draw as a kid with a triangle on top. This simple house was, of course, inhabited by a stick figure family.

“This captures so much about how we have come at housing in this country over the past half century. … The problem with our housing policy is we’re not actually dealing with a generic box house or stick figures. We’re dealing with this very, very, very complex product,” McArdle said.

Housing is essential because it impacts every aspect of our lives, she explained. From where children go to school, to where we work, to who our neighbors are — it is all impacted by housing.

“I won’t say that housing is everything, but boy, it is the lynchpin of almost everything that matters, and so, of course, this complex thing can’t be a generic commodity that’s covered by housing policy,” she said. “It’s as complicated as we are.”

Because of this, McArdle believes housing is not interchangeable with the word “home.” While housing policies might deal with the space where people actually lay their heads at night, home is about communities, and how those communities affect people’s lives.

“We talk about ‘housing’ in the abstract, but ‘home’ is in the specific. You go house hunting, but you find a home — because a home is where the people stop being stick figures and they start being individuals,” McArdle said.

To delve into this concept more fully, McArdle discussed the history of housing. For hundreds of years, the idea of a house looked the same to a lot of people because many people farmed for a living, specifically in the United States. She quoted a statistic that 72% of Americans worked in agriculture in 1820. This impacted where their house was: on or near the land they farmed.

One hundred years later, in 1920, just 30% of the workforce was in agriculture, and that again affected where people lived.

“There’s obviously a lot of cost to that. Anyone who has read Dickens is well aware,” she said. “But there’s also a lot of great things about that. We get a lot richer. We get a lot more prosperous. And then we start getting healthier.”

The Industrial Revolution initiated a widespread move to cities, which McArdle believes was only made possible by a housing revolution. During that 100-period, she said the population of New York City increased from 152,000 to 5.6 million. To make space for all these people, apartment buildings skyrocketed.

But apartment buildings were not a new invention created to deal with the 20th-century issue, McArdle explained. Ancient Rome also had apartment buildings.

“While the Romans were actually good with concrete, they were missing the two inventions you need if you really want to stack people safely and comfortably, which is structural steel and elevators — actually, really, elevator brakes,” she said. “It’s not that hard to build an elevator, but it’s hard to build an elevator that will go tall without killing you if it falls. That was the big innovation.”

The next big innovation was sanitation. The increased emphasis on sanitary measures made cities more inhabitable — and more enticing.

“Suddenly, for the first time in human history, cities are not death traps (of disease). … For the first time, you can go there safely, live comfortably with the new technologies that we have, with a ton of new people in a very small space,” she said.

These changes to make cities safe to live in were not cheap, McArdle added, but they happened because people enjoy being around other people. Cities make it possible to surround oneself with new people and new ideas.

“They’re the best places for spreading ideas. They’re phenomenally productive,” she said.

McArdle believes a reason the United States is successful is because so many people immigrated in from all over the world, bringing their cultures and ideas.

But the existence of cities relies on housing and, McArdle said, sprawl — which she acknowledges is sort of a dirty word.

The area of Manhattan where she grew up used to be known as Strycker’s Bay, long before her family lived there. It used to be a suburb, and the people would take a ferry into the city where they worked. Ferries, streetcars and trains create urban sprawl as they shorten the time it takes to get to work. McArdle pointed out that commute is an essential factor in where people decide to live.

Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti coined a concept now known as the Marchetti’s Constant, which says that people are willing to commute 30 minutes one way to go to work. McArdle views Marchetti’s Constant as key in explaining how communities are built; as commuting technologies advance and it takes less time to get to work, people move farther away from their workplaces. Increased car ownership led people to choose to live outside the city, she said.

“The old model of the suburbs was determined by the technology (like trains)that had shaped it,” she said. “… That dictated what we might call a walk-to-ride model, where you ride to a fixed destination and walk around the neighborhood. … The car doesn’t have that constraint.” 

McArdle acknowledged that the racism of “white flight” contributed to suburbanization.

“We shouldn’t forget all of those harms and all of the ways in which this was bad for us and for the environment,” McArdle said. 

Still, the mass movement  signified people’s desires to live in suburbs. 

“People weren’t just running away from the city’s problems or interracial panic; they were running to something that they wanted,” she said. “People really like single-family, detached homes with big yards where kids can play or they can sit out on a summer evening.”

Cheaper cars made it possible for the middle class, who lived in the city, to move out to the suburbs and buy detached homes in a movement McArdle called the Great Inversion.

“Historically, in cities, rich people lived close to the center because that’s where the center of the action was. Poor people ended up in a long, dismal walk away on the periphery,” she said. “In the second half of the 20th century, that pattern reverses. Suddenly, the affluent are living in a ring, and what we have in the center is people who have been left behind by the departing.”

We should not romanticize a time when people of all social classes lived together, McArdle said, because economic and racial injustices were still prevalent. Although, wealthy people living in city centers advocated for things like clean water, which positively impacted everyone living in that area.

“If you’re a billionaire on Fifth Avenue, you want the subway to work, you want crime to be low, you want your water to be clean, you want the electric utilities to be competent,” she said. “And it’s hard to have those things just for yourself.”

Twenty years ago, people started to notice that the opposite of the Great Inversion was happening. More young people who move to the cities are staying longer, delaying having children and focusing on work. But McArdle believes it started happening much sooner than the year 2000. 

Housing prices rise, and McArdle said a way to combat this is to build more places for people to live — in cities, this requires building upward. However, people fight against more housing being built.

“Suburbs had long used zoning codes and other tricks to keep out ‘the undesirables.’ Cities now get into that game,” she said. “A lot of early gentrifiers were outraged to discover that when they had finally got done fixing up the place just like they liked it, some big developer would come in and want to slap up a giant apartment building so a bunch of newcomers could enjoy the hard-won amenities in this beautiful neighborhood that you had just built.”

Activists who want to conserve the communities that they and their families grew up in fight against developers coming in and building more housing. McArdle said this often doesn’t work in their favor because the lack of new development means the housing is limited, prices go up, and ultimately, rich people still move into those communities.

“In the abstract, we all favor more housing,” she said. “But in the specific, we like our home just the way it is; that is, after all, why we chose to live there. So over the last 20 years, demand just keeps going up and up, while supply is going much more slowly. And that’s the housing crisis.”

Housing issues also exist in small towns and their communities. Often, McArdle said, the message to people who live in small towns is to move somewhere they can get a more lucrative job.

“If you don’t have a lot of money,” she said, “you tend to substitute social capital for financial capital.”

This means that people in small towns rely on family members to watch their children or call up a friend to fix their plumbing, rather than paying someone they don’t know, McArdle explained. When you live like this, it builds community, and that makes it even harder to leave.

“I love cities,” McArdle said. “I’ve lived in a city all my life. I’m not really sure I can live anywhere else. But there are a lot of people who don’t feel like me, and the only advice that we could give them was, ‘Be more like me.’ ”

Often, moving to a city doesn’t solve a person’s financial problems. For example, in California, teachers make double what teachers in Mississippi make, but in California, the cost of living is more expensive in terms of housing, groceries and taxes. It is, therefore, not always a smart financial decision to move somewhere just because the salary is higher.

“I’ve been talking in the present tense, even though I’m not really talking about the present. I’m talking about the economy as it looked on March 7, 2020,” she said.

McArdle believes the pandemic might have shown the United States a different method to approach the housing crisis.

“The pandemic has shown us a way around the bottlenecks we’ve created by refusing to build in the biggest cities,” she said.

A large answer to being able to live where we want and work where we want might come down to working remotely, which is made possible by platforms like Zoom.

“We should think of Zoom … as a technological transformation that eases the Marchetti Constant. In some cases, it blows it up,” she said. “Imagine a world where you can commute to anywhere in the world in 30 seconds. That’s exciting, right? It opens up so much land we could build on. And we could, if we could get our regulatory act together.”

Zoom can make new communities possible, she said. As of right now, building houses is expensive, but McArdle thinks we need to reimagine that. Instead of bringing all the materials to the site and building there, people should look more into modular homes. McArdle pointed to how some start-ups are even 3D printing homes.

“If we could make it work, we could be looking at some of the most exciting changes to American communities in decades, if not centuries,” she said. “We could make it easier for people to move out to the country. We could make it easier for people to move back to cities like Buffalo, which has a ton of lovely old houses and an amazing history — and a convenient location near some of the most beautiful scenery on Earth.”

She described it as reversing the vacuum. Instead of cities sucking in people and resources, people can spread back out and cover more land because they can work remotely.

“I’ve spoken to so many people, from Rochester and Syracuse and Buffalo and the towns around them, who wanted nothing more than to be here spending six months of every year scraping the snow off their windshield, but they couldn’t,” she said. “They had to leave home and everything they loved because they’d get a better job in the city or better house in the Sun Belt.”

While it might be a dream for some to live anywhere and work remotely, McArdle thinks the future of work looks more like a hybrid model, with people commuting in only a couple days a week rather than five.

“So now the Marchetti Constant — don’t think of it on a daily basis, but on a weekly basis,” she said.

This would mean people might be more willing to commute for longer, if they do not have to commute as frequently. McArdle thinks this would create more of a sprawl, which could help housing prices.

She knows, however, that not everyone can choose to work remotely. Some jobs cannot be done over Zoom. For those, they need affordable housing, which McArdle said can happen by building more houses — or reworking office spaces left empty by the COVID-19 pandemic into housing options.

McArdle also considers what people will do with their ability to work remotely.

“To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to drink coffee while looking at beautiful scenery. I have been doing it for two days, and I am so grateful,” she said. “But I think if that’s all remote work does, is enable highly-paid professionals to enjoy themselves even more, while displacing locals, I think we’ve failed. We can do better than that. This is America. We can still do big things.”

McArdle circled back to the idea of home. When she thinks of home, she thinks of the Victorian chair that her mother used to rock and sing to her in before she went to bed. That chair now sits in the home McArdle shares with her husband and her dogs.

“I’m actually really asking you to look back on your own reflections about home,” she said. “When you were thinking about home, were you really thinking about a house, or were you thinking about the people who were in it? Were you thinking about the people who made that the place (where) you will always be safe and warm and at peace?”

When people think of the housing crisis, McArdle they often only think of the technical side: the physical space.

“Everyone needs someplace to keep the rain off of their heads, and we need to figure out how to give it to them. But we need to do so much more than that, because, in the end, we need a house,” she said. “But we are still, all of us, wanting something that’s so much more important. We are longing for home.”

Walter Mosley warns of parasitic influences of systems, technology

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Many people see technology as the gateway to the future, but mystery writer Walter Mosley believes that humans are ultimately heading toward an alluring mirage — a facade with a bright light — that is leading society into a dystopian world of darkness.

“Darkness is inside of us, yet we are unaware of it,” he said, “darkness that on a bright and sunny day, hides the truth from our eyes. … The world we think we know, knows us better. The truth is that we live mostly in darkness. Even on a bright and cloudless day, the things most important to us remain hidden.”    

Mosley gave the final lecture of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Six theme, “After Dark: The World of Nighttime,” on Friday, Aug. 5 in the Amphitheater. Mosley is perhaps best known for his Easy Rawlins mystery series, in which he documents the African American experience from the deep South to the post-Obama era in New York City. Throughout his career, he has written more than 55 books, ranging all the way from crime novels to literary fiction, to nonfiction and political essays.

Instead of talking about his profession, he decided to speak to Chautauquans about the themes of darkness and night. He believes that the two words can carry multiple connotations, depending on their usage. 

“The concept of night cannot be pinned down because it doesn’t mean one thing,” he said. “We can see this in the many phrases used today that contain the word — fly-by-night, night owl, one-night stand, good night, two ships passing in the night, the night is young, and burning the midnight oil.” 

In his talk, however, he referred to darkness and night as the “unknowns.” He explained how humans have developed an intense fear of uncertainty — of “what they don’t know” and of beliefs that challenge their existing ways of seeing the world. 

He distinguished between two different types of darkness — one that is unconscious and uncontrollable, and another that is avoidable and technologically self-induced. 

One of the darknesses he mentioned is the human discomfort with subversive beliefs and elements, which he believes has led to widespread social issues, including political polarization. 

“The desire to eradicate any notion that interferes with the ideas of ourselves is paramount when we feel threatened on a global scale,” he said. “Many members of the left interpret words long ago as if they were uttered in opposition to today’s aesthetic. … In much the same way, today, members of the right misinterpret the meaning of concepts like Critical Race Theory in an attempt to protect themselves from being humiliated by their own history.” 

Humans have repeatedly sought out ways to come to terms with the unknown darknesses of life, such as death, aging and the passage of time. While clocks and other man-made creations are often used to cope with these uncertainties, he emphasized that time, which he referred to as a “source of modern distress,” is not actually quantifiable. Rather, it is a completely human concept.

“As children, we were all taught that time existed on a circular disk that was broken into 12 numbers representing 24 hours and 700 tiny increments,” Mosley said. “These hours and minutes are all equidistant, inferring that the passage of time between each indicator is also equal. We were taught that, in essence, time is an absolute and we can trust it to pass equally for all.”

But time does not pass evenly, he said, and then cited the rapid growth of digital technologies since World War I.

“All the way back to the beginning of human awareness, knowledge grew by 100% every 100 years or so,” he said. “… Before World War I, from one generation to the next, there was very little difference in how we were connected through technology and resulting technique, with bows and arrows, ironwork, agriculture, and other uniquely human modes of labor remained little changed in a century. … (Now) it doesn’t take five generations for knowledge to double. It doesn’t take a century, only somewhere around a year.”

With such immense changes, comes an increase in the velocity of time. 

“A threat, or simply a challenge,” Mosley said; he believes this rush is causing society to plunge further into the apocalypse of darkness. 

“These (technologies) are the intelligent parasites that control our hearts and minds,” he said. “… Even the physical systems of the Earth itself are deeply impacted by our economy and our technologies, but like any intricately involved parasite, these systems subtly and unconsciously take over our lives and bid us to the will of an inhuman system. It is the theme of many science fiction novels and movies, that a league of super-intelligent computers will one day soon take over. … As you may be able to tell, I believe in this apocalyptic prophecy.”

While many people believe that technology is aiding their lives, Mosley said that it may be actually dictating them, whether they are conscious of it or not. He referenced Sigmund Freud’s theory of hysterical blindness, which posits that an individual may consciously prevent themselves from seeing the dangers of a situation. 

Mosley believes humans are becoming small parts in a large technological machine, and urged Chautauquans to reconsider their usage of digital innovations in an attempt to open and enlighten their eyes. 

“Systems of trade and technique have blinded us to anything except their own glittering promise. And so, darkness — that which is hidden from sight. We live within systems that hide away from perceptions,” Mosley said. “We believe we are freely making decisions. … This, I believe, is the curse of night on humanity.”

Because of this, we’ve become a curse on the flora and fauna of this world, he said, and abandoned philosophical thought.

“We have lost our connections in this forever night, and until we are reunited, the sun will not rise,” Mosley said.

Sheena Jardine-Olade defines importance of nighttime economies

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No matter what Sheena Jardine-Olade does, in work, school, or leisure, it all comes back to the night. She loves it, and her hope for the audience at her Thursday lecture in the Amphitheater was that Chautauquans might fall a little more in love with the night, too — or at least learn how to think about it a little differently.

Jardine-Olade, who gave her lecture on “Equity and the 24-Hour City” as part of Week Six’s theme, “After Dark: The World of Nighttime,” opened with a land acknowledgment for both the ground on which she stood at in Chautauqua — the Erie and the Haudenosaunee — and for where she was born in Ottawa — the Anishinaabe.

She now lives in Vancouver, where she’s an equity planner for the city, and is co-founder of the consultancy group Night Lab, whose specialty is nighttime governance structures of municipalities. It’s the first nighttime economy development group in Canada. 

“I am a person who loves nightlife, the night economy, and night activities,” Jardine-Olade said. “In fact, I spend most of my time thinking about how we can cultivate our 24-hour day and strategically think of the hours between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.”

She invited the audience to think about what goes into planning for a city-centered vacation: restaurants, music venues, cultural attractions. But no city report or tourism brochure is complete without mentioning a great night out.

But what is the nighttime economy? Jardine-Olade ran through a couple definitions, but landed simply on the world between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

“That’s it. I feel anyone within that time, when I discuss the nighttime economy, falls within my purview,” she said. “Nighttime economy ‘Level One’ is when we  think about live music, clubs, restaurants, evening games, casinos, theaters, operas, night markets, street festivals and fireworks.”

Digging deeper, one considers doctors, nurses, firefighters, police and safety services, airports, and transportation workers. Even further, she asked, what else is going on while most of us sleep? Sanitation workers, factory workers, hotel staff and gig economy workers all are making their livings in the dark.

“When we think about the NTE, our mind always flips to the consumptive side — the revelry, the entertainment,” Jardine-Olade said. “But what about the productive side and the vital services that are components of this large, nighttime economy machine?”

A city with a strong nighttime economy is efficient in terms of public infrastructure — by sheer necessity. A solid NTE (Jardine-Olade’s shorthand) is good for branding, tourism and reputation. Vibrant NTEs create a unique culture, are good for attracting and retaining populations, support tech and start-up workers, and — her favorite — foster social cohesion from authentic experiences.

It’s only been within the past 10 years or so that cities have begun to consider the impact of NTE, but Jardine-Olade said that what we know so far is that in 2020, China’s nighttime economy grossed $4.6 trillion; in 2017, tourists in Toronto spent $8.8 billion on nighttime tourism; NTE contributed to 4% of Australia’s GDP and 6% of the U.K.’s GDP; in Berlin, 35% of tourists take part in NTE activities — 150,000 visitors every weekend. And in New York City, the nighttime economy brings them $35.1 billion a year and has created 300,000 jobs.

But, “what about the things that go bump in the night?” Jardine-Olade said. “Good question.”

Safety, noise, gentrification and residential conflicts top the list of concerns when considering a nighttime economy, and when determining what the right approach to NTE is in an individual city, “you have to determine what the drivers for your nighttime governance look like,” she said.

Most strategies at the moment fall into one of three categories: Public safety, revitalization and tourism, or resource distribution.

“Public safety is usually a top priority and a key goal for both residents, as well as municipalities,” Jardine-Olade said. “While cities with a vibrant nightlife do face challenges in public safety, including alcohol-fueled challenges to public order, a 24-hour city can actually improve public safety by providing additional eyes on the streets and critical infrastructure needed to support 24-hour things, like public transit and increased lighting along main routes and residential areas.”

In terms of public safety, governments can — at best — encourage residents to feel comfortable and participate in nighttime activities. At worst, the focus centers bylaws, regulations, licenses, fees, taxes and a disproportionate police presence. 

A good example: In Amsterdam, a nightlife initiative was paired with a mobile app to immediately report nuisances or threats. There was a 25% reduction in crime, she said, and a 30% increased perception of safety.

A bad example: New York City’s Cabaret Law, created in 1926 to make dancing illegal when three or more people were in a room unless an establishment had a license to operate. In a Prohibition effort to curb alcohol sales and enforce segregation, the law was weaponized against marginalized communities. It remained on the books until 2017.

To focus on revitalization and tourism, development offices use tools like tax breaks and other incentives focused on businesses, in the hopes those incentives will attract cultural and creative development.

“Often, the purpose is to re-energize downtown cores that have lost people or mass due to suburbanization or post-industry activity,” Jardine-Olade said. “Most of these efforts have worked very well when it comes to revitalization, and the injection of money usually creates vibrant entertainment districts. On the flip side, this can often act as a catalyst for gentrification.”

The final approach, she said, is a “fairly new take on night stewardship” — that of resource distribution and support services.

“Many realize now that the nighttime economy is merely an extension of the daytime economy,” Jardine-Olade said. “Policy-makers and planners and politicians realize the residents need access to amenities and essential services, the same ones they require during the day, as they do at nighttime.”

These services and amenities include policing, transportation, and food are needed by everyone, but marginalized communities need them even more, she said. Accessibility is important, especially with wayfinding and lighting solutions. This is a lot of municipal work; enter the night mayor.

“The idea (of the night mayor) was first conceptually introduced in the 1970s, and now it has taken off. There are 50-plus night mayors installed all across the world,” Jardine-Olade said, with different titles in different countries and different cities, but with essentially the same mission — providing municipal governments with the capacity to focus on nighttime management.

Across the world, some night mayors are internal to a specific government, external consultants, or a hybrid of the two. There are benefits and drawbacks to each, Jardine-Olade said, and limitations in either case can lead to a “focus on just one portion of the nighttime economy, the consumptive portion of the night, catering to demographics focused on a night out, tourism, or those who have the money to spend. That’s why many are slowing down to ask the question, exactly who are we planning for when we plan for the nighttime economy?”

Here, Jardine-Olade pointed to a photo of her mother in her PowerPoint above her in the Amp. A Triniadian immigrant to Canada, Jardine-Olade’s mother worked for $3.25 an hour, from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m., commuting long distances in terrible weather, often with no time to shop for groceries.

“That’s the question we need to ask ourselves. What about the people who are basically invisible to the policy-makers in the system, with the careers like my mother?” Jardine-Olade asked. “They are the cleaners, the drivers, the factory workers, the sex workers, the security workers, and people that go around in nighttime spaces and often fall through the cracks when we are considering about who we’re planning for.”

Jardine-Olade rattled off a list of what would cease to exist if not for these workers: Clean gyms, clean streets, coffee on a commute to work, no one-day Amazon packages.

“Even our evening experiences are facilitated by waiters, bartenders, cooks, often using secondary, part-time work to supplement low wages,” she said. “If you remember, many workers’ intersecting identities compound their ability to safely and comfortably navigate the night that is integral to their livelihood.” 

Thus, it is time to shift NTE from the top-down approach drawing on academics and experts. Cities need a bottom-up approach.

“We need to figure out exactly what cities, residents, and businesses with a focus on communities that have been particularly underserved actually need,” Jardine-Olade said.

With better citizen engagement and more fulsome discussions, cities can look deeper into how existing resources are deployed, or how new resources can be most practical and helpful. Even something as simple as increased, safe transportation and lighting, she said, can change the perception of public spaces. And then there are the resources that communities truly need, like 24-hour washrooms or phone-charging stations.

“Many times these amenities can be a lifeline for sex workers or those experiencing homelessness,” Jardine-Olade said. “But even beyond that, how many times have you been out in public and used a washroom or your phone died? Everyone can use these amenities and resources.”

Talking policy, governmental approaches and practical infrastructure for the NTE, for Jardine-Olade, stems from a very simple place, and one of her “most favorite things about the nighttime city” — social cohesion. She showed Chautauquans photos of herself at age 16, DJing at an underground music event. The warm reception she received in that community, at that age, is the reason she said she stood on the Amp stage now.

“As the main space for my social interaction, it has led to positions on municipal music advisory committees and eventually led to my degree in master’s in urban planning,” she said. “It also led to me consulting on the nighttime economy and my equity work. The relationships I made and causes I supported are a big part of who I am today. The nighttime economy provided invaluable social infrastructure for me and others in the community, and does so especially for queer communities and culturally based communities.”

These spaces were put at risk during COVID-19, making NTE stewardship all the more important now, she said. During the pandemic, Night Lab pivoted to partner with other organizations to offer services, “typically to underserved and marginalized populations to help them navigate the often-unwieldy processes” of businesses, permits and licensing to survive.

Closing her lecture, Jardine-Olade said she hoped the audience came away with, if not new information, a new way of thinking about the nighttime economy “in a more expansive way.”

“The key takeaway today is that the nighttime economy is a complex organism that is rapidly changing to meet the needs of the people and the surroundings,” she said. “Due to its complexity, night life moves beyond consumption and encompasses culture, production, social inclusion, and cohesion.”

She called on Chautauquans to help manage and support their own nighttime economies, starting small, starting collaboratively, starting from the bottom up.

Finally, she said, they must remember that “when we plan for the most vulnerable among us, we all benefit. By strategically allocating night resources in an equitable way, we can ensure that the invisible majority doesn’t get lost, especially since they shape so much of our environment.”

Her last question: “So, what goes bump in the night? Me, and hopefully you, too.”

Harvard emerita professor Maria Tatar speaks on interplay of dark, light in stories

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Maria Tatar has spent decades studying folklore and mythology, implicitly and tangentially exploring the power of darkness and light in the stories we tell ourselves.

And yet, after her initial excitement over the invitation to speak for the Chautauqua Lecture Series and the theme, “After Dark: The World of Nighttime,” she had second thoughts.

“Darkness? What do I know about darkness?” she asked. “… But what I could possibly say about darkness quickly yielded to: ‘There’s way too much to say.’ ” 

Google took her to Philip Pullman, Milton, Star Wars, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Leonard Cohen, whose “Anthem,” featured in Wednesday’s ecumenical worship service, includes the phrase: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

“Darkness and light, of course, are what we live in and what we live by,” she said. “The words we speak are saturated with metaphors drawn from the realms of light and dark.”

Tatar is the John L. Loeb Research Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures and of Folklore and Mythology, Emerita, at Harvard University, and the author of, most recently, The Heroine with 1001 Faces — a response to author Joseph Campbell’s seminal work. But it was a different author she told Chautauquans she’d be highlighting in her Wednesday, Aug. 3 lecture in the Amphitheater, which was titled “Light in the Night Kitchen” — children’s book author Maurice Sendak. A lecture on books, culture and meaning, it was a fitting conclusion to the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Class of 2022 Recognition Day Ceremony; graduates sat front and center in the Amp as guests of honor.

Before she got to Sendak, however, Tatar had to cover the nature of primal fear and the power of storytelling, the Enlightenment, and how aesthetics informed the cultural meaning of black (and Black) and white. So she started small.

Dylan Townsend / staff photographer Tatar’s lecture was titled “In the Night Kitchen,” and drew on numerous cultural touchstones, from Spike Lee to Maurice Sendak.

“For a long time, I was afraid of the dark,” Tatar said. “One night, with the help of a flashlight I swiped from my brother’s room, I made friends with the darkness. Suddenly, there was light; it was a little dim, but portals magically materialized. I found myself standing on thresholds that led to Neverland, to Narnia, to Wonderland, and to other outlandish places.”

Letters, she said, lit up her world. And they kept illuminating it.

“Letters and light banished my fear of the dark and of much else,” she said. “Reading may require candles, light bulbs, and other sources of illumination, but storytelling paradoxically, at least oral storytelling, is an art that flourishes at night and in the dark.”

Dreams let us tap into our unconsciousness, she said, evoking neuroscientist Sidarta Ribeiro’s Tuesday lecture. That, combined with human beings’ capacity to develop language and symbols, means we are both storytellers and interpreters.

“Anthropologists tell us many cultures forbid storytelling in the daytime, but once the sun sets, the moment comes for ‘once upon a time’ or other beginnings for stories,” she said, as she invited the audience to go back in time with her to a period when “ … nocturnal beasts are on the prowl. Mobility is limited. The labors of the day have fatigued bodies. So it’s time, then, to listen to the music and to the muses of the night.”

Man-made light, from campfires to lightbulbs, promotes activities “designed for a time when the sun disappears, when darkness descends on us,” she said. But as technology became more sophisticated, capitalist economies exploited the dark. Yet, storytelling has not disappeared. 

“Today, it’s a common practice to elevate storytelling with metaphors that reflect the social origins of the practice. We exist together in a little patch of warmth and light. … That patch of warmth and light powerfully evokes the heat and light generated by the campfires of our ancestors, and also indoor hearths of the generations that followed. In the comforts of electricity and central heating, along with the instant conveniences of smartphones, we continue to adapt storytelling, reading, … teeming with luminosity and warmth.”

Even e-readers, like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s NOOK, have names that evoke the warm spaces where our ancestors gathered. More than warmth, universally, light — and light bulbs — serves as a metaphor for knowledge, even genius.

“Nowhere is that link between light and learning more clearly demonstrated than in our collective veneration of the Enlightenment as a source of reason and progress,” Tatar said. “This is (the period) in human history where we discovered the liberating power of knowledge, of education.” 

As a professor of Germanic languages and literature, she had to draw on Kant, and the declaration that “ ‘the enlightened are not afraid of shadows.’ Once again, cementing the superiority of light over dark and affirming how epistemology, the science of knowledge, can rarely escape the metaphorical trap inherited from those campfires that served as sites for transmitting knowledge.”

If light is the embodiment of knowledge, it is only so because of theological traditions that said what is sacred, is luminous.

“Today, what is holy?” she asked. “What’s sacred, but knowledge? Knowledge is endowed with the aura of the sacred.”

Black, darkness, is symbolic of chaos and death, of both the Furies of Greek mythology and, more recently, dark matter and black holes — which, Tatar pointed out, Stephen Hawking showed “at least the really tiny ones, are actually radiant.”

“In line with the metaphorical logic of Enlightenment philosophy, daytime is dominated by reason, legibility and clarity, while nighttime is associated with opacity, irrationality and all of these sinister forms of darkness,” she said.

This bifurcation leads into “treacherous terrain with a force field of vectors, ranging from sin and evil to the diabolical and demonic … in a more pronounced form from the 18th century onward,” Tatar said.

Black has, subsequently, become the preferred hue for the wardrobes of villains, vampires, witches and wizards, coding their evil with hints of purple or green. In Western cultures, wearing black is a signal of mourning and loss, while white is for christenings and weddings. But modern culture is “working the transvaluation machine,” Tatar said, turning a villainous trope like Maleficent from Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” into a “victim, heroine and savior, associated with the forces that were traditional light.”

Aesthetics extend beyond color theory; the use of chiaroscuro in silent films and noir cinema further bifurcated light and dark.

“The drama of light and shadow is so powerful (in these films),” Tatar said. “… What we’ve seen as a productive interplay of the two, in aesthetic terms … may appear to be skin deep, but in fact, is far more than that.”

Moving from aesthetics to ethics, Tatar came to a question that is “a profound part of our social and cultural landscape” — race and skin color in the United States.

She showed a clip of Spike Lee’s 1992 film “Malcolm X,” in which two characters have a conversation about language and the cultural binary of black and white — literally taking to the dictionary for definitions on “black” and “white,” and all the connotations involved.

Fiction writers have tried to undo that binary, Tatar noted, but change is a challenge.

“The instinctive response of some Black writers was to conceal darkness by blending in with it and becoming invisible,” she said. “It’s precisely because black is so fraught with symbolic meaning that Barbara Neely, a Black writer of murder mysteries, named her detective protagonist – in a genius stroke of deep irony — Blanche White.”

Blanche, who is Black, takes a job as a domestic worker to solve murder mysteries, using her race to blend in and not raise suspicions. It’s the same approach used in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Tatar highlighted a more recent book — Jason Mott’s twisting and bending Hell of a Book, which won the 2021 National Book Award and was a finalist for the 2022 Chautauqua Prize. 

“(This character) is an author-protagonist who has a startling epiphany, a burst of human insight about how his character, Soot, could be seen at last, how he must be seen,” she said. “He also has this epiphany about how you recuperate the power of Blackness, the beauty of Blackness, while also pairing it with light, in a move that reveals their reciprocity and independence.”

The imagery Mott creates resulting from that epiphany, of light reflecting through the lens of darkness, Tatar said, shoots out “something more beautiful than I have ever seen.”

Before we ever read books like Hell of a Book, Invisible Man, The Color Purple or Barbara Neely’s murder-mysteries, we read picture books — like Goodnight Moon (she played a clip of the book being read by Christopher Walken) or Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen

“I want to take us to those books, because they are foundational,” Tatar said. “What children grow up with, that’s how they inherit these ideas about light and darkness, so we have to think carefully about what we read and think carefully about the conversations we want to have after we read those stories.”

In these stories, “darkness can be a source of existential anxiety,” she said, but also a rich place of creativity and imagination.

In the Night Kitchen explores the power of darkness to transform the anxiety bred by the dark into wonder. … This magical process is something of a myth-making process,” Tatar said. “Sendak himself emerges as the supreme mythmaker with a book that draws on the memories of materials of everyday life to construct a story that has taken on, I think, the cultural authority of a myth.”

From the Enlightenment to Spike Lee, E.O. Wilson to Leonard Cohen, aesthetics to Christopher Walken, Immanuel Kant to Maurice Sendak, Tatar tried to sum it all up: The values attached to light and dark are by no means transhistorical, or transcultural.

“The hierarchical structures that we’ve embraced can be reversed — better yet, leveled and turned into a partnership in places that darkness is valued as a source of transcendent beauty and knowledge beyond good and evil,” she said. “Our symbols are kaleidoscopic. They transform themselves with the flick of a wrist and the blink of an eye.”

Light and dark are not always at war; they can be in relationship, with symbolic power that strengthens each other, rather than diminishes.

“Instead of framing the dialectic of light and dark in terms of good/evil, innocence/sin, knowledge/ignorance, the concepts can be spring-loaded with bidirectional energy, depending on each other for richer, more productive forms of cultural energy,” she said.

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