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Anna Deavere Smith Discusses community, character and diversity in America.

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Smith
Smith

Anna Deavere Smith grew up in Baltimore in de facto segregation legislation did not overtly segregate students by race, but school segregation continued. Her grandfather told her “if you say a word often enough, it becomes you.”

That sentiment stuck with her and, over the past few decades, Smith has traveled around the United States, interviewing thousands of people about different topics.

“I’ve been trying to become America, word-for-word, and in some ways I’m doing that to defy de facto segregation, to defy the idea that I can’t go here, I can’t go there, I belong here but not there, that I can only care about me and mine,” Smith said.

Smith is the founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, now housed at New York University, and is the recipient of the National Humanities Medal and two Tony nominations, and in 2015 was named the Jefferson Lecturer by the National Endowment for the Humanities. She is also the recipient of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and most recently, the 2017 Ridenhour Courage Prize and the George Polk Career Award for authentic journalism. She has written more than 15 one-woman plays, using her portrayals of her interviewees to shine a light on the different emotions and views of controversial topics. She talked on Monday, July 13, on the CHQ Assembly, delivering her unique brand of performative lecture for the Chautauqua Lecture Series titled “Community, Character, Diversity” as part of Week Three’s theme of “Art and Democracy.” 

Smith first performed an interview from the Rev. James Cohn, who she interviewed for her play Let Me Down Easy.

During this interview, Cohn had talked about how most “Black love songs, blues and jazz is a transmutation about injustice, too.”

“But it’s covert, not overt,” Smith performed as Cohn. “And it’s a combination of talking about love and talking about hurt from broken love, broken-heartedness, and at the same time talking about what’s happening to you in society.”

Cohn said people need something, whether it is social or personal, to sustain themselves in harsh times.

“There’s something within that you can’t always explain; there’s something within you, that’s a kind of affirmation of you,” said Smith as she embodied Cohn, “that allows you to know who you are and to be at ease with who you are, at peace with who you are, no matter what’s happening around you. And no matter what you’re gonna face.”

Smith said that the themes in Cohn’s interview would resonate throughout the presentation, especially love. 

“Most rebellion, protest, or this reckoning that we’re in now, is filled with love. … Think about all the love songs about broken love,” Smith said. “And isn’t it funny so many of us fall in love to those songs almost, you know, in anticipation of when it’s all going to go away?”

The next interview was with Kevin Moore, who in 2015 filmed Baltimore Police beating Freddie Gray, who died in police custody.

Moore had said that he was awakened by the screaming. He put clothes on and he went outside. 

“They had him all bent up. He was handcuffed, like facedown on his stomach, but they had, like the heels of his feet, almost in his back,” Smith quoted Moore. 

“They had the knee in the neck, that pretty much explains the three cracked vertebrae, the crushed larynx and 80 percent of the spinal cord being severed,” Smith recited.

Moore filmed with his phone, and when he zoomed in, he could see the pain on Gray’s face. The officers then put leg shackles on Gray and had him walk to the police vehicle.

“The camera is the only thing that we have to protect ourselves that is not illegal, you know, but at the same time, you know, in the same sense, these guys could feel threatened. ‘Oh well. Yeah, I mistook his camera for a gun,’” Smith performed.

Moore had never filmed before, but he knew people had to see what happened to Gray. He called every news outlet he could, like the New York Times. People from Ferguson, Missouri, supported him, spent the night at his house and bought him four cameras, “basically arming me.”

Smith also interviewed more than 320 people in Los Angeles after Rodney King’s beating by police. She could not find a song that was sung during the protests, unlike the music that came out of the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s. Smith asked Jesse Norman, a famous singer, “Why do you suppose there were no anthems in the Los Angeles riots?”

“Black people have a great tradition of singing ourselves through troubles,” Smith performed as Norman. “I mean, this is how the spiritual came into being. That in order to deal with this unbelievable situation of having been transported from one’s homeland and being made a slave, we had to sing ourselves through. … We didn’t take ourselves out of it. We sang ourselves through it.”

But Norman also said that if she were a young person, and she felt she was being heard for the first time, “It wouldn’t be singing, as we know it.”

“It would be a roar. Oh, I think it would be a roar. Oh, it would come. Oh, it would come from the bottom of my feet,” Smith enacted. “I really think it would be like a lion. Just roaring. It wouldn’t be singing, as we know it. It wouldn’t be words. It would just be like the Earth’s first offering.”

The next interview was from Rep. John Lewis (D-GA). Every year, Lewis went to Selma to commemorate the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. In 2013, he stopped by Montgomery and stopped at the First Baptist Church. A young police chief came on behalf of the mayor, who was not available. The chief apologized to Lewis for when Montgomery police did not protect him from an angry mob during the Freedom Rides, and indeed beat Lewis themselves.

That was the first time Lewis received an apology from a police chief of a city where he was beaten or arrested.

“He said, ‘To show the respect that I have for you and for the movement, I want to take off my badge and give it to you.” And this church was so quiet. No one said a word,” Smith said, performing as Lewis. “And I stood up … and I started crying, and everybody in the church started crying. There was not a dry eye in the church.”

Lewis said he himself was not worthy of taking the officer’s badge. The chief said he could get another one and told Lewis again to take his badge. Lewis took it, and they hugged. 

“I cried some more. You had Democrats and Republicans in a church crying. And this young Black officer was sitting down. He couldn’t stand,” Smith said as Lewis. “He cried so much so much, like a baby really.”

Smith then quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We were out to redeem the soul of America. We first had to redeem ourselves.”

“This message, this act of grace, a badge, says to me: Hold on, never give up, never lose faith, keep the faith,” Smith said.

The lecture then shifted to a Q-and-A session with Matt Ewalt, Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education. Ewalt asked if enough Americans were asking, “What can I do?”

Smith said she has heard many people asking what they can do after George Floyd’s murder and in the midst of the pandemic.

“I think it’s interesting to juxtapose our behavior as Americans in this global pandemic with the unrest, and the moment of reckoning, because they both present an opportunity to just think about the person across from you in the simplest way, or in a bigger way,” Smith said.

Ewalt then asked how people could become better listeners.

Smith said she listens for utterances, not for words.

“Don’t try to get to where someone’s going too quickly, but be willing to stick with utterances, and what you’ll hear is that many people don’t finish their sentence, they don’t get successfully to the end of a sentence without making utterances, other than words,” Smith said.

She also said that she does not think “of my listening as necessarily being morally good.” Too many people, she said, are not present in the moment while they listen. Smith was moved by a speech from a doctor in which he described his work.

“Every single time he walks into the room to meet a new patient, it is such an exciting experience because it doesn’t matter whether it’s a street sweeper, another physician, a scientist, you know, a debutante,” Smith said. “He has something in common with them: mortality, and humaneness. And that’s the interaction he’s about to have. And to me, that’s a real healer.”

Derek Thompson, senior writer for ‘The Atlantic,’ discusses how COVID-19 is reshaping the world

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The song of American urbanization is played on an accordion, “in and out, in and out,” said Derek Thompson, senior writer at The Atlantic

“Americans compressed themselves into urban areas in the early 20th century. And then by mid-century, many white families were fanning out to the suburbs,” Thompson said. “Then in the early 21st century, young people rushed back into downtown areas — but the next few years, I think, American cities will exhale more residents who have moved to smaller metros and southern suburbs.” 

American cities will not be the same after the COVID-19 crisis, according to Thompson: fewer tourists, less diverse food, maybe safer and healthier and less nightlife. Many people who moved into expensive downtown areas may also move.

“But then something very interesting will happen — the accordion will constrict again and American cities will have a renaissance of affordability,” Thompson said. “In the decade after the Great Recession, American cities became really popular.” 

Thompson is the author of Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, which explores how blockbuster success is created through a mix of power, networks and other factors, and the host and founder of the podcast “Crazy/Genius.” On July 10, he presented his lecture, “How COVID-19 is Reshaping Our World,” as part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series on CHQ Assembly. This was the last presentation in Week Two’s theme of “Forces Unseen: What Shapes Our Daily Lives.” 

Thompson said that large businesses are getting larger due to the pandemic. These big companies, such as Walmart and Amazon, have several advantages over smaller competitors: more cash reserves, a closer relationship with the government and banks that are more likely to bail them out first. Thompson thinks that these big companies will do a disproportionate amount of hiring after the pandemic.

Early in the crisis, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called COVID-19 “the Great Equalizer.” Thompson disagreed: “It is a toxin for the underdogs and a steroid for the big dogs.”

Thompson said that immigrants start companies at much higher rates than people born in the United States, and are twice as likely to create small businesses like restaurants and retail outlets — the “underdogs” in the economy. With many countries closing their borders and barring travelers from different countries, global immigration may decline in the next few months or years.

“American cities in the medium run will just get a lot more boring,” Thompson said.

American consumers are now spending ¼ of their money through online retailers, a rate that was projected to be reached in 10 years, according to Thompson. Oddly, in the 19th century, families who lived on farms would often order all their desired goods by mail from Sears — so now, Thompson said, the American consumer is “both being pulled forward and thrust backward hundreds of years at the same time.”

Restaurants have seen a “reckoning” that is similar to the Prohibition Era in the United States. Without alcohol, hundreds of fine-dining establishments closed down in those years, but the total number of restaurants tripled, according to Thompson, mainly due to diners that appealed to children’s palates with hotdogs, hamburgers and milkshakes. 

“For decades, you could argue prohibition has this fascinating effect on our palates. It infantilized the American palate, making every meal fit for a kid,” Thompson said. “Over the past few decades, U.S. restaurants have emerged from that muck, that doldrum of mediocrity, and become rather relatively world class.”

But COVID-19 has brought on a delivery-first style to every restaurant. Many entrees, especially expensive ones, are not made to sit in a car and then in a microwave. Because of the shift to delivery and take-out, Thompson said “the American diet 100 years ago after prohibition is going to stage a triumphant, or perhaps not so triumphant, recovery. Burgers, pasta and Chinese food are going to take over our palates again.”

The American worker has also experienced a dramatic shift. Since the invention of the personal computer, Thompson said that jobs were predicted to move out of the office. The pandemic forced tens of millions of Americans to work from home, and Thompson said that white collar workers, in fields such as financing, law and marketing, are much more able to work from home. This ability to work from home could mean that many workers move out of cities, and into suburbs.

The lecture then transitioned into a live Q-and-A with Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education Matt Ewalt. One of the first questions asked was how the pandemic has affected the arts.

Thompson was an actor before he became a writer, and worked in professional theater until he was around 23. 

“I have unbelievable fondness for the arts in general, but theater specifically. And I’m devastated by what I see here,” Thompson said.

He said that a person cannot have a normal theater or movie experience when there is a live outbreak in the area, but two positive caveats exist. One, people can practice social distancing in a theater, and two, people are not talking like they would in bars, which are some of the most dangerous places to be in. 

Live theaters for the actors pose a unique problem; they are intimate.

“What is Romeo and Juliet without kissing?’ What is Oklahoma! without dancing and people hooking arms? It’s very difficult to imagine a really, really safe way that you can rehearse complex plays with lots and lots of people,” Thompson said.

The next question was if there was a reason — other than leadership or preparedness — for why America has been especially susceptible to COVID-19.

“I think this has been a rather vast institutional failure and then you have the institutional failures in the individual states,” Thompson said, and his working theory is that the U.S. is in a bad position because “we thought we escaped history.”

In the last 15 years, countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan experienced SARS, H1N1 and MERS, and rewrote their laws, changed regulations and taught citizens what to expect. This is part of the reason, Thompson said, that no one in Vietnam, a country with 80 million that borders China, has died of COVID-19.

“It might sound unsatisfying, but I do think it’s a huge part of it. We stopped learning. We are obsessed with, for a variety of reasons, the anxieties of the late 20th century,” Thompson said. “Police (are policing) the streets, as if we’re experiencing the kind of urban crime that existed in 1990. That no longer exists, but there still are way too many police murders.”

The last question from Ewalt was what questions are keeping Thompson inspired, and what he may work on in the near future.

Thompson is most interested in what makes some communities so ready to respond to crises, and others unable. After the Chicago fires in 1871, the U.S. built back its second-biggest city and invented skyscrapers. When New York City was hit with a blizzard in 1888, it was rebuilt with a subway.

“We weren’t hamstrung by the inability to build in the past. That is a muscle,” Thompson said. “That is atrophied in modern leadership, and I’m interested in what is that muscle? What does it take to build it back and why is it atrophied?”

Joan Donovan Talks About Media Manipulation and Online Extremism

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Uncle Sam is a meme, “an idea, that’s sort of like a piece of DNA,” said Joan Donovan. “It gets transmitted, usually through people, but also through media, and it spreads between people.”

A meme is an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture, but usually refers to online images. Uncle Sam is one meme that has been around since 1917, on posters with the words “I want you for the U.S. Army.” Donovan said Uncle Sam was based on a similar poster in London, and has since been through many different iterations for military recruitment campaigns.

Donovan is the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and leads The Technology and Social Change Project in examining the internet, online extremism and disinformation. On July 9, she presented her lecture, “On Media Manipulation and Online Extremism,” as part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series on CHQ Assembly, and discussed the nature of memes and their role in the U.S. political conversation, particularly in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. This was the fourth presentation in Week Two’s theme of “Forces Unseen: What Shapes Our Daily Lives.” 

With the internet, memes have moved online, creating what Donovan and many news sites call a “meme war.” There are four characteristics to understand specific memes and how they travel across the internet and world: Memes tend to be authorless; every profession has memes; they tend to stick with people; and they promote participation with the audience.

One such meme that was important in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election was Pepe the Frog, which became a symbol for the alt-right and white supremacists. Pepe is a frogman and started as a character in a comic online. Donovan said the frog is very easy to draw and make changes to, so many people started to draw their own Pepes, until the internet had thousands of different iterations of the frog. In 2016, certain versions of Pepe became very popular, particularly ones drawn as Hilter, according to Donovan.

“I’m not making the claim that online meme culture voted (President Donald Trump) into office. What I am making is the claim that their participation in political communication online, really amped up and created the energy needed to meme Trump into existence, and to give him relevancy amongst younger populations,” Donovan said. “Even if they didn’t go vote for him en masse … it helped create an environment where people would share these memes and then talk about Trump’s political platform.”

By 2016, politicians began to realize the power of social media, and Donovan said social media and memes helped candidates like Bernie Sanders and Trump become popular and discussed among younger generations. An example of a less popular meme from Sanders’ campaign came from when he was giving a speech. 

“A little bird just kind of sat down on the podium,” Donovan said, “and it looked at him and he looked at the bird and, in a very Snow White way, the bird flew away. Instantly his social media team was like, ‘That’s it.’”

This meme did not become popular, as Donovan said, because it felt forced. On the other side of the political spectrum, Trump’s social media presence often confuses people, and Donovan said this is because he is targeting five to six separate audiences, including younger audiences. One of his social media strategies is “dropping a thing into the world without much context, and then watch people try to sort it out.”

For example, a few months ago, the president tweeted a picture of himself as fictional boxer Rocky Balboa, without any words. Thousands of people commented and made their own versions, including ones where “Nancy Pelosi or Sanders were knocking Trump out.”

In the 2016 campaign, Donovan said the alt-right largely ignored Hillary Clinton, until the former U.S. Secretary of State made statements about them and called Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables.”

“She had really kicked this hornet’s nest of people that may have largely ignored her and focused most of their energy on creating messaging for Trump,” Donovan said. “But because she had entered into a political conversation about the alt-right, they had felt attacked and swarmed back.”

The lecture then shifted to a Q-and-A session with Shannon Rozner, chief of staff and vice president of strategic initiatives for Chautauqua Institution. The first question was how people who do not know they are spreading lies fit into a disinformation campaign.

Donovan shared a recent example of disinformation being spread about COVID-19. Early in the pandemic, people shared on social media that if someone drinks water every 15 minutes, they can protect themselves from COVID-19. Oftentimes, disinformation will have an appealing headline that confirms a person’s point of view. 

We do need to begin to devise systems where these corporations are acting more in the service of the public, and less in the service of the bottom line,” Donovan said. “That needs to be our bottom line.”

Donovan said that in the online world, confirmations of any point of view can be found, including that the earth is flat. While she said it is probably not dangerous to believe in a flat earth, this issue comes down to if the internet is supposed to enhance knowledge, or to share information of any kind.

The last question from Rozner: If Donovan could design the way that the internet and regulations would work, what would it look like?

“I think we need a lot more at the front end of our information ecosystem. We need curation,” Donovan said.

In an article she wrote for Wired last week, she said content moderation has to have systems that are reactive to what people post, especially when it comes to issues that involve money and lives — such as posts about the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic, Donovan said that more than 100,000 new web domains have been registered dedicated to COVID-19 and coronavirus, many completely empty and some that are scams selling fake products. 

Social media companies have had to adapt. To try to lessen the amount of people sharing false headlines, Twitter has made a notification that warns users if they are sharing a link that they themselves haven’t clicked on. Facebook in recent weeks has changed the way it operates in an attempt to lessen the amount of civil rights violations on its platform. 

“We do need to begin to devise systems where these corporations are acting more in the service of the public, and less in the service of the bottom line,” Donovan said. “That needs to be our bottom line.”

Franklin Leonard spotlights unseen forces from Frederick Douglass to modern-day Hollywood that shape society

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The greatest abolitionist believed in the power of images, leading a descendant of slaves to believe in the power of imagery in motion. 

Even though nearly 168 years separate Franklin Leonard’s 2020 Chautauqua lecture from Frederick Douglass and his 1852 speech, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?,” Leonard finds the parallels between them “inescapable.” 

But there is one thing that doesn’t overlap. Leonard is using his words to give a voice to the unseen, something Douglass never was — Douglass, who was born roughly 20 years before the first person was photographed, was the most photographed American of the 19th century, more than Thomas Edison, P.T. Barnum, Abraham Lincoln or any other president of the era. 

Leonard, CEO and founder of the Black List, spoke Wednesday, July 8, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, delivering his lecture, “How the Black List Revives Dead Scripts,” as part of Week Two’s theme, “Forces Unseen: What Shapes Our Daily Lives.”

“Douglass believed deeply in the power of photographs to define the reality outside their frames,” Leonard said. “If Douglass believed so deeply in the power of a single frame, one can only imagine what potential he would have seen in a motion picture — stories projected high and wide and transmitted around the world with a single keystroke.”  

Motion pictures are Leonard’s “thing.” He grew up in West Central Georgia, where his adolescence was defined by a few basic facts: he’s Black, from the Deep South and extremely good at math. Those factors, when combined, meant one thing: “I didn’t have much of a social life,” he said. 

Instead, he split his time between school and the movie theater. 

“It is reasonably safe to assume that I saw every major studio release between ‘Jurassic Park,’ which was the first time I was allowed to go to the movie theater by myself, to ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau,’ the last movie I saw in the theater before heading to Harvard as an undergrad,” he said.

Four years after graduating from Harvard University, Leonard landed a job on Sunset Boulevard as a script reader and junior executive at Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way Productions.

The easiest way to distinguish a good script from a bad one is fairly simple: Read them. But the volume of material makes that “impossible.” According to Leonard, the Writer’s Guild of America registers around 50,000 pieces of material every year. About 200 will become films.

“Fundamentally, it’s triage, and when you are in triage, you tend to default to conventional wisdom about what works and what doesn’t,” Leonard said. 

Leonard is embarrassed to say he found himself in triage, but proud to have found a way out. In 2005, he sent an anonymous email to friends in the industry asking for a list of up to 10 of their favorite unproduced screenplays of the past year.

“I was looking for the scripts that people loved, untouched by the unseen market forces that, more often than not, determine their value in Hollywood,” Leonard said. “It was an opportunity for people to speak their mind about what they love.”

Leonard compiled the results and emailed the spreadsheet to everyone who submitted scripts. He called it the “Black List” — “a tribute to those who had lost their careers during the anticommunist hysteria of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, and the conscious inversion of the assumption that black, somehow, has a negative connotation,” he said. 

The list went viral in the only way something could in 2005 — via email. Leonard was so scared he would get fired, he vowed to keep his decision a secret and never do it again. But six months later, he received a phone call from an agent who changed his mind. After pitching a movie, the agent tried to “sell” Leonard by saying he was certain that script would be No. 1 on next year’s Black List, not knowing that Leonard himself was the creator of that list.

“This agent was exactly right about this list being evidence of a good script’s value, and that a great script has even greater value than people may have previously assumed,” he said. “To put it another way, the unseen forces that govern a script’s value were wrong.” 

Since its inception, just over 1,200 screenplays have been added to the Black List. A third of them have been produced, earning nearly 300 Oscar nominations and winning 50.

In November 2016, Harvard Business School released a study stating Black List scripts were twice as likely to be made into films, and those films would make 90% more revenue than movies made with similar budgets.

“The conventional wisdom — the unseen, even within the industry, (the) forces that determine what has value in Hollywood and what doesn’t — is wrong,” he said. “It is all conventional and no wisdom.”

Because it’s “all conventional,” the young Leonard who adored movies never saw a place for himself in the business. But the success of the Black List forced him to consider a question: If the industry was wrong about the talent that was already in the system, what about the talent that wasn’t? 

Seven years after the first Black List, Leonard turned the list into a website that allows anyone who has written an English-language screenplay to have it evaluated and available to industry professionals. He has also launched three screenwriter’s labs. 

“Much is right, with me, of this effect: If you can see it in life or in fiction, you can be it,” Leonard said. “Less, I think, is made of its corollary: If you see it enough, it is going to affect how you see the world.”  

The trends Leonard sees in films worry him. Girls aged 13 to 20 are just as likely as women aged 21 to 30 to be shown on various screens in “sexy attire with some nudity and referenced as attractive.” Despite studies challenging the likelihood of these notions, half of Latinx immigrants are shown to be engaged in criminal activity and 64% of gang members in films are Black, he said. 

“Should we be surprised then that an estimated 1 woman in 6 in America have been the victim of rape in some form?” Leonard said. “Or that 3 in 5 have experienced gender-based harassment in the workplace? Or that Black Americans are nearly three times as likely to be killed by police as their fellow citizens?”

As startling as those statistics are, Leonard said they still don’t match the unquantifiable realities many face daily. It is the confusion when a job interview ends before it begins; the boss or coworker who takes an after-hours interest in someone that has nothing to do with professional pursuits. It is the panic when a county sheriff raises his voice when one asks permission to remove their hands from the steering wheel, a reality Leonard lived only two years ago. It is the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that George Floyd couldn’t breathe because a police officer was kneeling on his neck, ultimately killing him. 

There has not been a year in this decade when women have accounted for more than one-third of the speaking roles in major Hollywood movies, Leonard said. In 2014, only 28.3% of all speaking roles went to people of color. Only 2% went to LGBTQ characters. Less than 9% of Hollywood films directed between the years 2013 and 2017 were directed by women. 

“The list of people who directed a feature sanctioned by the Directors Guild of America in 2013 and 2014 is roughly as diverse as Donald Trump’s cabinet,” he said. “It should come as no surprise that talent is in no way connected to race, gender or anything else — and yet, our hiring in Hollywood would suggest that we believe that it does.” 

Almost 20 years to the day after Douglass died, Hollywood held the premiere of its first-ever blockbuster, “The Birth of a Nation,” based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman. Months later, 15 men gathered in Georgia and refounded the Ku Klux Klan, which led to the lynching of Black Americans throughout the United States. 

Douglass knew the power of a single image; had he been here to see it, Leonard said, he knows Douglass would have recognized the power of a moving one, too. 

“There are unseen forces that create the images that we see and stories we consume, and those images and stories set in motion unseen forces that define how we see the world and, as a consequence, how we live in it,” Leonard said. “I don’t know how to change (the world), but I know if I keep talking about how dirty it is out here, somebody’s going to clean it up, let’s hope. Since the better part of optimism is action, let’s act.”

In Deep: Journalist David Rohde discusses new book on unseen forces of the ‘Deep State’

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When the Senate investigated decades of work from the FBI and CIA in 1976, they found that these agencies looked into more than half a million Americans who were involved in political activities protected by the Constitution, such as peaceful assembly. 

Most notably, the FBI had sent a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife with alleged evidence that he was having an affair, and that he should commit suicide or be publicly humiliated.

“But obviously, thank God, Dr. King didn’t fall for that FBI ruse,” said David Rohde, journalist and executive director of Newyorker.com. “But this was an astonishing abuse of government power.” 

Rohde has been awarded two Pulitzer Prizes: one his reporting on the massacre in 1995 of Bosnian Muslims by Serbian forces in Srebrenica and the second for his for his account of being held prisoner by the Taliban for seven months before his escape. His most recent book, published this spring, is In Deep: The FBI, the CIA, and the Truth about America’s “Deep State.” 

Rohde spoke on Wednesday, July 8, on CHQ Assembly, delivering a lecture for the Chautauqua Lecture Series titled “Does the Deep State Exist?” as part of Week Two’s theme of “Forces Unseen: What Shapes Our Daily Lives.” His lecture was originally scheduled for 10:45 a.m. EDT on July 7, but due to technical difficulties was rescheduled and broadcast at 3:30 p.m. EDT July 8.

A Monmouth University poll in 2018 found that 70% of Americans believe that groups of active government officials are secretly influencing policy in Washington — commonly known as the “deep state” — and a majority felt that unelected officials had more power than they should.

“I completely agree with the premise that our elected officials should have the power in Washington,” Rohde said. “If President Trump today orders an unelected government official to carry out policy, that government official should obey that order. That’s his or her job, unless the order is somehow illegal or unethical. An elected president, a senator and a house member, they should have the power in our democracy.” 

Rohde said that one of the few topics liberals and conservatives can agree on is the existence and dangers of a deep state. Liberals are more likely to cite as evidence the military industrial complex, meaning that certain generals, defense contractors and companies are pushing the U.S. into endless war. Conservatives lean toward the idea of an administrative state, a growing federal bureaucracy that, Rohde said, “they feel is constantly and relentlessly … inserting itself in our lives and taking away our personal liberties.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is spurring the debate of the usefulness of wearing masks, and accusations that health officials are a part of the deep state.

“What’s so extraordinary and very, very tragic this spring and summer,” Rohde said, “(is that) our ability to agree on basic facts, our ability to trust government experts, is a matter of life and death.”

Generations of Americans have been suspicious of a deep state, including in 1976 when a committee in the Senate, chaired by Frank Church (D-ID) and John Tower (R-TX), investigated decades of work done by the CIA and FBI.

Rohde said that the committee found that the FBI had investigated more than half a million Americans involved in legal political activities, and tried to disrupt and discredit them. Groups targeted included the John Birch Society and the Civil Rights Movement, as he had mentioned earlier with King.

Rohde interviewed the chief investigator of the committee, Fritz Schwarz Jr., who attended Harvard. Because CIA agents at that time primarily went to top schools, Schwarz thought he would identify with them more. Instead, he was astonished by how effectively senior CIA officials could lie without being caught, and identified more with FBI officials. What did trouble Schwarz about the FBI officials was not that they were skilled liars, but how they rationalized their actions.

“I’ve seen in my reporting,” Rohde said, “the tendency of human beings to rationalize that they need to break laws, and, in some cases, I’ve seen while covering wars overseas, the need to use violence to protect their country, their way of life, their cultures, their faith and even their family.” 

Rohde then shifted to how Trump’s use of the phrase “deep state” has grown. At first, Trump applied it to the CIA and FBI’s investigations of his 2016 campaign and alleged ties to Russia. When Pentagon officials questioned the president’s desire not to have a group reinvestigated for war crimes, he called the Pentagon part of the deep state. Recently, Trump supporters have also called public health officials part of the deep state.

Trump is skeptical of government in general — as are many conservatives — and believes that government officials work harder for certain presidents, slowly implementing policies for presidents they don’t like, according to Rohde. 

“But the president is sort of a product of his own background. He grew up in New York in a very rough and tumble and hyper-competitive world. … In New York, there’s a sense that everybody in every project has sort of an angle; everybody is exaggerating a little bit what they’re claiming regarding their deal,” Rohde said.

Rohde has interviewed staffers of the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, as well as current and former members of the Trump administration. Rhode said that these sources said that “the president’s view of these scheming civil servants is exaggerated, that it’s not true, it’s not as severe as President Trump says.”

Tom O’Connor, former president of the FBI Agents Association, said that there is a deep cynicism about the state of U.S. politics. O’Connor, as well as other CIA officials Rohde interviewed, felt that their work is used to score political points, and is hidden by politicians when it does not help their cause.

Rohde asked O’Connor if he ever considered running for office, and he said, “No, I’d never run for office. I wanted to do something that actually has meaning.”

“That’s a very dangerous sign, I think, for the state of our democracy,” Rohde said. “And I worry that we’re in a constant cycle of conspiracy theory and revision and fighting, that’s leading us to question basic facts.” 

This questioning of basic facts has been seen through the pandemic. Rohde said that most liberals believe the numbers of COVID-19 deaths is more than what the government reports, whereas conservatives believe that the amount of reported deaths is fewer.

The lecture then shifted to a Q-and-A session with Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, and questions sent in from the live audience. Ewalt asked Rohde what role journalists play in the culture at the moment.

With the rise of the internet, the journalism industry had to change its basic business structure of print advertising. Rohde said this collapse of print ads led to the pressure on journalists to get the audience to watch and click on their work, have exciting headlines, and play on conspiracy theories — while also sticking to the facts.

“And the more partisan reporters are, (as opposed to) just people trying to write great news stories with just facts in them, I think that hurts us,” Rohde said. “Let the columnists throw bombs. And so myself, in my own work, and other colleagues try to stick to the facts as much as possible.”

The last question was about how people can have a healthy skepticism and not drown in conspiratorial thinking.

Rohde advised people to subscribe to their local newspapers and websites, read widely and also read more mainstream news instead of articles on Facebook and social media. 

“Just give mainstream journalists a chance. I think you’ve seen what is out there on the wild, wild web,” Rohde said. “And I think it’s time to give a chance for vetted, traditional journalism.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin seeks for synagogues to shift with the needs of “nones”

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin
Salkin

Every Sunday, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin opens The New York Times and counts wedding announcements. It might not be a perfect scientific study or a full picture of reality, but he uses it as a wake-up call.

“On average, non-clergy, instant clergy and friends of the couples (officiate at) about 30-50% of all weddings, as recorded in the Sunday New York Times,” Salkin said.

Salkin pulled from his experiences speaking with non-religious Jews to explain why people leave organized religion — with a focus on Jewish nones — in his lecture, Looking for God in All the Right Places: an Appeal to the ‘Nones,’” on Monday July 6, on CHQ Assembly. As an established writer on Judaism after completing 10 books, Salkin maintains a Religion News Service blog called “Martini Judaism: for those who want to be shaken and stirred” that explores ties between Judaism and culture.

The audience submitted questions that were addressed in a live Q-and-A after the lecture through questions.chq.org, or through Twitter with #CHQ2020.

The lecture was recorded on June 28 and was the first in the Interfaith Lecture Series for that platform’s Week Two theme, “Forces that Shape Our Daily Lives: The Contemporary Search for Spirituality” which follows the overarching “Forces Unseen: What Shapes Our Daily Lives” Week Two theme.

Salkin said he has nothing against civil ceremonies. But as a rabbi, the concept of a couple’s friends becoming ordained online through the Universal Life Church or through the Church of Jerry Garcia had bothered him.

“Those instant clergy raise in my mind the possibility that we are devaluing the meaning of theological education, at least for these private moments,” Salkin said. “I suspect that in many cases, though I have not attended them, those weddings might represent a loss of the sacred — that sense of inheritance, historical tradition that goes beyond the couple, beyond the moment and beyond that place.”

But Salkin’s son, who performed a wedding for his two ex-Catholic friends, helped changed his perspective on the matter. Salkin asked his son why he did it.

“Why shouldn’t I do the ceremony?” his son said. “They asked me as a friend. And why would they have clergy there? They’re not anything.”

Salkin said the number of Americans who align with Protestant, Catholic or Evangelical Christianity are declining in a steep decline that had occurred in an earlier shift in Europe. Judaism is falling behind as well, though not at such a steep rate. The Church of Latter-Day Saints is still growing but at a slower pace, while Islam and Orthodox Judaism are experiencing steady growth.

Salkin said “nones” are typically motivated to leave the religious institutions of their youth because they are frustrated by negative personal experiences, clergy misdeeds or politics in an institution. But he doesn’t hear anger from Jewish nones.

Salkin cited influential Jewish writer Abraham Joshua Heschel’s 1995 book, God in Search of Men, to explain this.

“It is customary to blame secular science and philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats,” Heschel wrote. “Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of society is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain, when religion speaks only in the name of authority — rather than the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless.”

Salkin said the nones agree with this criticism. Messages from the synagogue need to be relevant to people’s values and issues in the world, including the current Black Lives Matter movement. Salkin said that as a fellow group with a long history of being persecuted, Jewish institutions and people should be sympathetic with the BLM movement.

Above all, Salkin said that the nones needed to be treated like more than a body in a pew and be taken seriously if synagogues hope for them to return.

“I can deal with anger,” Salkin said. “I can process anger. But what I hear is not anger. I hear disappointment.”

Cedric Alexander Talks the Reformation of Policing and Systemic Racism

Michael Hill and Cedric Alexander
Michael Hill and Cedric Alexander
Hill and Alexander

During the time of Jim Crow laws, elected officials used police departments to keep people of color oppressed.

“So that history is there, it is real. It is still real in the minds of many people who have shared those experiences, has been passed down from one generation to the next,” said Cedric Alexander, the former chief of police in DeKalb County, Georgia and former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

Those experiences were seen in the 1990s with the beating of Rodney King and in 2014 with the death of Michael Brown — both at the hands of police. And this strained relationship is still seen in 2020, Alexander said, with the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.

“So here we are now, in 2020, with the horrible event that we all witnessed in front of us, a murder that took place shamelessly by four officers who appeared to just do have no moral compass, no sense of humanity and an inability to have any compassion to someone who was begging for their life, and even begging for their mother, as life was leaving (their) body — in people standing there on the streets begging officers to let him breathe … even up to the point that he could not breathe anymore,” Alexander said.

Alexander is a former member of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing — formed after Brown’s death in 2014 — and has served for four decades in law enforcement and public service. He is also the author of two books. He spoke with Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill on Monday, July 6, on CHQ Assembly, delivering a presentation for the Chautauqua Lecture Series titled “Reformation of Policing and Systemic Racism,” opening Week Two’s theme of “Forces Unseen: What Shapes Our Daily Lives.” 

Alexander discussed Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor’s deaths, the former reminiscent of a past of “running down someone and taking them into captivity” and the latter “irresponsible on so many levels.”

These events, as well as many others, led to conversations around change — in private industries, sports, schools and universities, law enforcement and all levels of government.

Hill’s first question was about why the recent protests have not subsided.

Alexander said that forces have been developing over time, particularly in recent years. The protests following Brown’s death in 2014 saw a diverse group of people in attendance. In the protests following Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, there has been a resurgence of young people and multiple generations “who are all taking a stand against racism in this country, against sexism, against homophobia, against all the -isms that are out there.”

Social media plays a role, Alexander said, allowing thousands of people to organize like never before. Social media also contributed to the rapid sharing of cell phone footage taken of Floyd’s arrest and death, which was witnessed by people across the United States, and around the world.

“Anybody who had any type of humanity about themselves, it rips your heart out of your chest, and we knew, at that very moment, that something very different needs to happen in this country,” Alexander said.

People of color often weren’t believed when they told their experiences of racism until body cameras and cell phone cameras were invented, Alexander said. He also said that people are not only talking about change they would like to see, but are also taking action to make change happen.

“I am so proud to be an American. I’m so proud to be a part of a country that is 244 years old, and in spite of the challenges that we … struggle through in our short period of time on this planet, we have accomplished a lot,” Alexander said. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”

Hill asked about the main pillars of Obama’s Policing Task Force, and how they connect with current issues.

In 2014, Obama convened a group of stakeholders to create a roadmap of how to develop relationships between police and the community. That group, including Alexander, traveled around the country collecting information from human rights groups, civil rights groups, police unions, academics and others. Two months later, Obama signed off on the report, issued around the country to help police departments and communities develop bonds.

For Alexander, one of the most important pillars of that project was building relationships, trust and legitimacy between police and the community. He said that public safety depends on communities and police working intimately together, and that many police departments continue to work and improve upon these relationships.

Hill then asked how reform would help police officers lead more balanced lives, coupled with their very difficult jobs.

Alexander said that with such a job, stress is built over time, affecting a person consciously and unconsciously. This stress may cause marital or family problems, as well as aggravate pre-existing conditions. Alexander said that there should be an officer assistance program, which officers can use confidentially, and have a psychological assessment each year or every couple years, “not as a way to get them off the job, but a way to keep them healthy while they’re on the job.”

The conversation then shifted to questions from the audience. One of the questions was about police militarization.

Alexander said that the “military-style look” has its place in American policing only under certain conditions, such as deploying SWAT teams to combat terrorists. He said military equipment is not acceptable as a response to peaceful protesting. 

“So you have some little small town in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, wherever, they’ve got what would appear to be tanks, they’ve got all kinds of weaponry … it gives the impression that we’re at war with our communities,” Alexander said. “We’re not at war. We’re not”

The report from the Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended that in order to acquire military equipment, police departments needed to show why they needed such items, confirm that they’d been trained in their usage, and demonstrate how the equipment would help the community.

In the past, Alexander said, “(the equipment was) just passed out. No policy, no training, no nothing, and departments just decide” whatever they want, and however it should be used.

The last question was what everyone could do, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, to make America’s democracy stronger.

Alexander said each person needs to take individual responsibility.

“We all of us harbor some bias towards some person, place, or thing. And if we do, we need to be able to acknowledge it,” he said. “And once we acknowledge it, we need to be able to engage it.”

In annual Middle East Update, political scientists Barbara Bodine, Geoffrey Kemp explore climate change’s impact on region

Kemp Bodine
Bodine & Kemp

Barbara Bodine started her Chautauqua lecture with a story that has spread throughout the Middle East. The King of Saudi Arabia was reluctant to let Americans search for oil, but relented — and on the seventh try, the oil was found. The king was clearly disappointed: “I was hoping that you would find water. My people can’t drink oil.”

Bodine, former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Yemen and currently the Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy and concurrent Director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, spoke with Geoffrey Kemp, senior director of Regional Security Programs at the Center for the National Interest, on Friday, July 3, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. Their lecture on “The Geopolitics of Climate Change and the Environment” was the final presentation in Week One’s theme of “Climate Change: Prioritizing Our Global and Local Response,” and the year’s Middle East Update program.

Kemp shared three important issues to give the audience context to climate change in the Middle East: drought and higher population in Egypt, rising sea levels in the Mediterranean, and the Syrian Civil War.

Because of droughts, the water supplies that feed the Nile River are decreasing, and the demand for water in Egypt and its neighbors to the south, like Ethiopia, are growing. Ethiopia is also building an enormous dam, and Egyptians have said that if water to their country is cut by any significant amount, conflict will occur.

The second problem Kemp detailed was how rising sea levels in the Mediterranean are affecting agriculture. The salt water makes farming very difficult, and the rising waters are approaching the mouth of the Nile, where much food is grown. The only solution is to invest heavily in new agricultural methods and in desalination plants to remove the salt.

The Syrian Civil War was the last issue and the most dangerous, according to Kemp. Before the war, an intense drought forced many farmers to move into cities. When the war came, most of them were ready to join the rebels. The ongoing result of the civil war is the refugee crisis in neighboring countries and in Europe.

Bodine began her part of the lecture by talking about how the world still sees Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries “through the prism of our insatiable need for oil.”

Bodine said that need led to President Jimmy Carter announcing that the Persian Gulf region was a vital interest to the United States which would be defended by all means necessary, and drove the U.S.’s decision to protect and liberate Kuwait in the ‘90s, and “was part of our reason for going into Iraq in the 2000s.” 

“For us, energy security — our energy security, our friends’, our allies’, our trading partners’ — has always rested on the free flow of oil from the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz and ever onward,” Bodine said.

Shifting from oil to water, Bodine said that within the Arabrian Peninsula there are no rivers, not even a creek, and temperatures in the summer consistently reach over 120 degrees Fahrenheit with no tree cover.

“Water is seen as a gift from God, which brings all life — and the loss of water, simply means death. Once upon a time, very few people dared to live in this environment, and life was sustained by the miracle of water. (Water) was held in common. It is owned by no one. And it is neither to be hoarded nor squandered,” Bodine said.

Oil changed that equation, because there was energy to create and purchase drinking water, according to Bodine. 

She said that these countries are aware that climate change is a direct threat and are taking steps. For example, the United Arab Emirates are leading a project to make a carbon-neutral city.

One of their neighboring countries, Yemen, has a different story.

“There’s a story in Yemen that when God created the peninsula, he tipped in one direction, and all the oil flowed to the east, and then he tipped it the other direction, and all the people flowed into Yemen,” Bodine said.

While the country has no significant oil reserves, it does lack surface water, like other Gulf countries. Other societal issues abound: The average income is $2 a day and Yemen has been at war for five years. In 1975, Yemen had the highest fertility rate in the world at 8.7 children per woman.

“Usually when I say that in front of a live audience, every woman … in the audience just cringes,” Bodine said.

Currently, the fertility rate is at 3.9%, and from 1980 to 2005, the population tripled. Bodine said that a child dies every 12 minutes in Yemen. Due to all these factors, the country is ranked as one of the most vulnerable — and least able to adapt to the changing climate — in the world.

Another country that has been struggling with water security is Iraq. The country is located between the Tigress and Euphrates Rivers and used to be very fertile. Due to poor water management, decades of war and Turkish-built dams reducing the amount of water flowing into Iraq, Bodine said that it will take generations of investment to build the country back to what it was.

The lecture then shifted to the Q-and-A session between Bodine, Kemp and Geof Follansbee, vice president of advancement and CEO of the Chautauqua Foundation. The first question was about what implications climate change in the Middle East have on the rest of the world.

Bodine said with the conventional view of Gulf countries as oil producers, the disruptions from climate change mean that oil is harder to produce and export. Another key element is that in these countries, food and water security is the basis of society. A friend explained to Bodine that in the past, a leader’s most important job was to get the tribe from one oasis to another. When food and water are not secure, the social contract begins to fray, as do political structures.

“Whether or not this would end up in a Syria-like civil war, I don’t know. Could it end up in a mass migration? Where at some point there is just (the idea of) ‘We can’t live here anymore’?” Bodine asked.

Kemp then talked about climate change disruptions in Iran and security threats to the United States. Iran is the largest country in the Middle East and has had terrible droughts and instability brought on by climate change, according to Kemp. Iran also has a political rivalry with Saudi Arabia over control of the Persian Gulf and shipping of oil and food.

There is good news, however, and according to Kemp it is twofold: cooperation and technological advancements. Relationships between Israel and its neighbors are fragile, but there has been relative peace for 20 years. Israel has been able to work with Jordan and has been providing water to the country through the Red Sea-Dead Sea project.Israel has also been able to better preserve water, diversify their agriculture and improve their management of water resources. 

The final question was about the link between progress on climate change and overall Middle East peace work, particularly efforts that involve the United States.

Kemp and Bodine said that they are separate issues. Bodine said that the current U.S administration has not helped in putting together a comprehensive overview of climate change or Middle East peace, particularly exiting the Paris Agreement. Since the European Union is next door to the Middle East, they will be the ones seeing the most migrants.

“(The E.U. has) a huge interest in working together with the Middle East countries on all these long-term sources of conflict which lead to migration,” Kemp said. “So, at this point, the United States can be a cheerleader. … The hope would be that Europeans could take the lead on this.”

Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac Discuss the State of Global Environmental Action

Figueres
Figueres_Rivett-Carnac
Rivett-Carnac & Figueres

Many people ask Christiana Figueres     and Tom Rivett-Carnac where they get their energy and optimism.

“Well, we get it from facts, from data that we see,” Figueres said.

Stubborn optimism has practically become their motto – Figueres said it’s not a “naive” optimism, sitting back on the couch and assuming everything is going to be OK, but a “courageous” optimism, rooted in understanding the challenges before them.

“We understand the science, we understand the current trajectories,” Figueres said. “And at the same time, we know that (humanity has) the ingenuity, the capacity, the technological knowledge, the finance, the capital (and) the policies … available to align all of this to make a dramatic difference in the trajectory that we need to set.”

Figueres and Rivett-Carnac are both architects of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement and authors of The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis. Figueres is also a Costa Rican diplomat with 35 years of experience and the former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Both Figueres and Rivett-Carnac spoke on Thursday, July 2, on the CHQ Assembly Virtual Porch, delivering a special presentation for the Chautauqua Lecture Series titled “The State of Global Environmental Action.” This was the fourth program in Week One’s theme of “Climate Change: Prioritizing Our Global and Local Response.” 

The conversation started by Rivett-Carnac asking Figueres how COVID-19 changed their work and field.

Figueres said the world is completely different. In the beginning of the pandemic, it was obvious that people would need to change their individual lifestyles, as well as entire industries and governments. They would also have to actively listen to scientists.

“The only thing that is so delightful, that we are rejoicing, is that science is back. Science is back on the platform. I don’t know how we decided at some point that science was irrelevant — how stupid can that be?” Figueres said. “But science is back and those countries that are following the advice of our professionals and health professionals are doing so, so, so much better.”

Figueres said that while not everyone is universally heeding that advice, most are paying attention to what scientists are saying.

Rivett-Carnac said that 2020 was expected to be a transformative year for climate negotiations, but the pandemic, as well as a recession, have dominated most of the political focus. 

The topic turned to economic recovery and how that is tied to sustainability. Rivett-Carnac said that if fiscal stimulus promotes parts of the economy needed to thrive in the future, such as renewable energy, clean infrastructure and new types of transportation, then there will be rapid acceleration to a low-carbon economy.

But, if stimulus packages are distributed without the intent of building back the economy in a greener, better way, then the economy could be locked into current, unsustainable practices.

In their book, Rivett-Carnac and Figueres explore the mindset that people need to have in order to create a positive, thriving world. Figueres detailed how important it is for people to understand, and be open to, regenerating the environment, society, politics and economy — “all of which we have destroyed,” she said. “… (We need) to understand that, yes, we have destroyed it, but we have the capacity and the wherewithal to regenerate all of that. Not only do we have the capacity, frankly, we have the responsibility to do so. And to do so urgently.”

The lecture shifted to a live Q-and-A session between Figueres and Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education Matt Ewalt, with viewers sending in questions in the chat on the Virtual Porch. One of the first questions from the audience was what the “lowest-hanging fruit” was that a future U.S. administration could address.

Figueres’ answer was energy efficiency. She lived in the U.S. for 20 years and knows that many people like using their air-conditioning to live in cold temperatures.

“Sadly, we should get used to living at, you know, temperatures that are meant for human beings and not just for penguins,” Figueres said.

Figueres once lived in a 60-year-old home while in the United States, and did an energy audit of that house to learn its efficiency.

“At the end (the inspector) said ‘I’m very sorry, did you say that you work on climate change?’ And I said ‘Yeah, that’s that’s what I do.’ And he goes, ‘Well, I have to tell you, I’ve been an energy auditor for 16 years, and I have never seen a house as inefficient as yours,’” Figueres said.

Figueres then invested in insulating her home, and believes that many houses can benefit from using energy more efficiently.

The last question Ewalt asked was what first steps people can take to combat climate change.

Figueres’ first step was simple: a carbon footprint test. The average U.S. citizen’s carbon emission is 20 tons a year compared to 0.1 tons annually per person in India, and 6 tons in European countries. These carbon footprint tests make it easy to see where a person’s largest emissions are and what their largest reduction potential is. 

The next step is for people to make a plan to halve their carbon footprint by 2030. She said this is not difficult — everyone tends to underestimate what they can do in the long term, and overestimate the short term.

“Just ask your kids, and they’ll know what you can do to reduce your footprint,” Figueres said. “I bet that most of us can actually get to one-half of our carbon footprint in about three or four years. Forget the 10.”

Project Drawdown’s Katharine Wilkinson Talks Three Interconnected Areas that need to be Improved to Combat Climate Change

Screen Shot 2020-07-01 at 8.42.13 PM (1)

Climate change lectures don’t usually start with poetry. Katharine Wilkinson’s did, this one by David Whyte.

“Sometimes / if you move carefully / through the forest … / you come / to a place / whose only task / is to trouble you / with tiny / but frightening requests / conceived out of nowhere / but in this place / beginning to lead everywhere. / Requests to stop what / you are doing right now / and / to stop what you / are becoming / while you do it, / questions / that can make / or unmake / a life, / questions / that have patiently / waited for you, / questions that have no right / to go away.”

She discussed her time as an undergraduate, snowballing through her religion class and being fueled with a fascination with human rationality. And now Wilkinson is curious about what it means to be human on a rapidly shifting planet.

“So what I want to do today is offer up kind of a cartography of this moment, a snapshot of how I’m making sense of the climate crisis, and where we are and who we’re called to be,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson is the Vice President of Communication and Engagement at Project Drawdown, and the author of Between God & Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change. Wilkinson spoke on Wednesday, July 1, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, delivering her lecture on “How to Reduce Greenhouse Gases.” This was the third presentation in Week One’s theme of “Climate Change: Prioritizing Our Global and Local Response.”

Wilkinson started with climate events of the current year, specifically the rising concentration of greenhouse gases. 

“I think of it in some ways like an EKG that has spiked wildly beyond (the) normal range of up-down, up-down, up-down,” Wilkinson said.

She said carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at roughly 415 parts per million, blanketing the globe with other greenhouse gases.

“We are in totally uncharted territory, as a human species,” Wilkinson said. “We’ve never lived on a planet like this, much less (the) planet that we may be heading for.” 

From 1850 to the present day, Earth’s temperature has been rising, and is approaching the 1.5 degrees Celsius increase limit marked by the Paris Agreement. Wilkinson said that the world has to cut around 50% of all emissions by 2030 to have a shot at a future with a stable climate. Wilkinson defined the point in time that greenhouse gases decline each year as “Drawdown,” which is where the name for her non-profit, Project Drawdown, comes from.

Wilkinson said that Project Drawdown has three interconnected areas of action: reducing sources of emissions, uplifting the carbon cycle and improving equality for everyone.

A major part of reducing emissions is powering a world without burning fossil fuels. Wilkinson said part of this will include shifting production to wind, solar and geothermal energy, as well as using electricity more efficiently. Another part is addressing food waste and shifting the global diets to less meat and more plants. Wilkinson also said that reimagining transport will play an important role, by having more people walk, bike or use public transit, and replacing petroleum with renewable energy to fuel these vehicles. Then there is the task of transforming existing buildings into ones with more sustainable heating, air conditioning, water and lighting systems.

As society works on all these, Wilkinson said the sources of the carbon emissions, such as coal plants, must be stopped as well, “not only because of their climate impacts, but because of the disproportionate impacts they’re having on poor communities, and communities of color and indigenous communities.”

Project Drawdown’s second focus is uplifting the carbon cycle and putting more carbon back into the soil. This includes protecting and restoring mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass meadows, as well as forests, wetlands and grasslands.

“One of the things that doesn’t get talked about enough here, is shifting agriculture practices to actually regenerate soil,” Wilkinson said. 

And the third area of focus for the nonprofit is improving society, including advocating for universal access to high-quality education and voluntary reproductive healthcare. 

“These are fundamental human rights, and they’re cornerstones of gender equality. Their ripple effects are myriad, including planetary ripple effects, and that includes some direct impact on emissions,” Wilkinson said.

She recommended that anyone who wanted to dig deeper into the intersection between human rights and climate change, to look at the research done by Christina Kwok at Brookings Institution, and also on Drawdown Review.

“For me, the Drawdown Review and our work at Project Drawdown leaves me with a bit of an emotional paradox. In some ways, a sense of hope for what’s possible. But at the same time, a sense of overwhelm about just how much needs to be done to realize that possibility,” Wilkinson said.

For Wilkinson, it was “incredible” to see climate policy being a main issue in the Democratic presidential primaries, with Jay Inslee, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders centering it in their campaigns. She said the climate crisis has been, fundamentally, in a leadership crisis for far too long.

We absolutely have to have transformational leadership,” Wilkinson said. “I think that means leadership that is much more characteristically feminine, and also more faithfully feminist leadership that is rooted in compassion, and connection, creativity, and critically collaboration.”

Wilkinson sees transformative leaders having four distinct qualities: a focus on making change and moving beyond ego, competition and control; healing systemic injustices rather than deepening them; embracing a heart-centered approach and not just a head-centered one; and recognizing that building community is the foundation of a better world.

The lecture then moved into the Q-and-A section, moderated by Chautauqua Institution Chief of Staff Shannon Rozner. One of the first questions from the audience was if industries and governments should be the bigger players, since individual changes, such as eating less meat or turning off the lights, cannot possibly make a difference.

Wilkinson said that when people integrate solutions into their daily lives, it sends a cultural message, and also potentially a marketing signal, to these industries. For her, daily actions means being the change she wants to see in the world.

“When I was 16, I became vegetarian. Do I think I’m single-handedly having a measurable impact? Maybe, maybe not. But it gives me a chance. Three times each time I eat to reflect on my connection with living systems on this planet, and why I’m doing what I’m doing,” Wilkinson said.

One of the next questions from Rozner was about the role developing countries play in combating climate change, specifically countries that feel they need to catch up economically and societally.

Wilkinson said much of the responsibility to combat climate change lies with countries that participate more in creating the problem. These countries, such as the United States, have more resources and the capacity to be more resilient toward changes on the planet.

“We do need to bear the credible inequity and fundamental unfairness that those who have done the most to cause the problem are probably going to suffer, (but) those who have contributed the least will suffer the most,” Wilkinson said.

Rozner closed the lecture by asking Wilkinson about three actions viewers can take when they go home.

“This is always the favorite question, and you can tell at this point that I do a lot of reframing of climate questions,” Wilkinson said. “So, there are no three things that everyone should do, because we’ve all got different superpowers to bring to this moment.” 

She said that people can think about something they can do. Wilkinson quoted from Katharine Hayhoe: “The most powerful thing we can do is talk about climate change, and particularly to talk about solutions.”

Janis Searles Jones talks importance of the ocean in fight against climate change

Janis and Leonard Searles Jones
Janis and Leonard Searles Jones
Janis Searles Jones and George Leonard

Sitting on the beach, the ocean is still big, the water is still blue and the horizon is still endless. Yet the news is full of wildfires, droughts and temperatures in Siberia reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit. So it might be easy to assume that climate change is mainly affecting the land.

“One of the things we do at Ocean Conservancy,” said the organization’s chief scientist George Leonard, “is we try to change the conversation by telling the stories about those people, those communities, those industries that are either already wrestling with the ocean impacts of climate change or will have to wrestle with those impacts in the future.”

Leonard and Janis Searles Jones, CEO of Ocean Conservancy, spoke on Tuesday, June 30, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, delivering their lecture “The Ocean and the Climate: How to Save Both.” This was the second presentation in Week One’s theme of “Climate Change: Prioritizing Our Global and Local Response.”

Leonard began by detailing the importance of the ocean, saying it is the life support system of Earth. He said the ocean produces half of all oxygen in the atmosphere and governs weather, in addition to the ocean’s fish providing 16% of global animal protein.

Leonard then said that there are four major ways that climate change is impacting the ocean: the water is hotter, more acidic, has less oxygen and is essentially bigger from sea level rise.

In the last 50 years, the ocean has absorbed about 90% of excess heat caused by climate change. Leonard said that the ocean has warmed .7 degrees Fahrenheit since measurements started, which may seem like a small number, but the rate has doubled in the last two decades. He also said averages do not tell the whole story, as different parts of the ocean have heated more than others.

“So think about a sweltering summer day in New England with 95% humidity, and imagine the same kind of thing happening under the water,” Leonard said.

Among the many animals affected by rising temperatures are Maine Lobsters, which are slowly marching from the Gulf of Maine into Canada in search of cooler climates.

From a physics perspective, Leonard said, a warm ocean can hold less oxygen than a cool one. Every marine animal is affected by this de-oxygenation, also called ocean suffocation. From 1960 to 2010, he said, the ocean lost 2% of its oxygen, about 5 to 8 billion tons. The next impact climate change had on the ocean is sea level rise. About 2.5 billion people live 60 miles from the coast. Many of these populations are the least prepared, and have little access to resources to rebuild.

The last impact of climate change that Leonard detailed was the drop in pH levels in the ocean, 30% since the beginning of the Industrial Age. This is particularly dangerous for shelled marine life.

He said this almost ran the oyster industry, which produces $270 million annually, out of business. In 2007, the Whiskey Creek Oyster Hatchery in Oregon had trouble keeping baby oysters alive, finding them dead at the bottom of their tanks. About a year later, other companies in the region had the same problem. They found out the cause was low pH levels, and not a bacteria or disease, and while they have found processes to put a Band-Aid on the issue, according to Leonard, only reducing carbon emissions globally will save this industry.

After Leonard’s pre-recorded section, the lecture transitioned to a live conversation between Jones and Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education Matt Ewalt, followed by a Q-and-A section from viewers.

Jones lives near the Whiskey Creek Hatchery, and she said others in the industry have felt the effects of climate change too. Another example is an oyster farm that has been owned by a family for five generations, named Hama Hama Oyster Farm. The brother and sister who now own it have become advocates for coastal communities. 

And part of Jones’ and Leonard’s responsibilities include connecting these business owners — who are personally affected by climate change’s impact on oceans — to policy makers. This practice of connecting voices to Congress helped ensure that funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s ocean acidification program has grown from $6 million to $11 million. NOAA is one of few climate-centered initiatives with increased funding over the past few years, and Jones attributes that rise to those most affected speaking directly to members of Congress.

One of Ewalt’s first questions was about the importance of adaptation strategies, and strategies to decrease the severity of climate change.

Jones said that even if mankind turned off all emissions right now, the ocean would still hold lingering effects of climate change.

“Regardless, we are going to see oceans and coasts that will look different from the ocean of today and there’s a lot that we can do to prepare for that,” Jones said. 

She said that the ocean has to be made more resilient, which is done by eliminating stressors like overfishing, plastic pollution, as well as oil spills and noise pollution.

One of the ways to lessen these stressors is with spaces in which fishing and natural gas mining are limited, which are called Green Protected Areas. Jones said that 30% of the ocean needs to be protected to achieve a more resilient ocean, and as of now, 5% is protected, with 2% fully protected.

“(Those protected areas) demonstrated to have a really huge conservation benefits and the science has demonstrated that marine protected areas result in a healthier ocean,” Jones said.

Ewalt’s next question was about generational work, and what this work looks like in the short and long term.

“We are in an interesting moment of time right now, I would say; this is clearly an all-hands-on-deck moment. We’re behind where we should be,” Jones said. “There’s still a lot of opportunity and there is still time, but we need everybody’s focus.” 

In the short-term in the United States, the need to defend existing environmental regulations is very high. Many of these environmental regulations are being rolled back, such as ones to reduce emissions.

“We need to defend those existing protections, so that we can start building on top of them to increase our climate ambition and to create lasting change,” Jones said. “So that’s one important short-term action … both domestically and internationally.”

The next question was from a viewer asking what progress has been made to reduce the use of plastic in other countries. This person wrote that when they traveled to small coastal villages in Vietnam, they found that no garbage or recycling service existed, and everything went into the ocean.

Jones said in the past, she and her coworkers would annually clean up beaches in select countries. After some time, they realized that the solution was stopping the trash from ending up on the beach, instead of collecting it after the fact. These scientists started asking basic questions, like where the trash was coming from, how much trash was in the ocean and how the trash impacted nature.

“We didn’t know the answer to any of those questions. The field was really a new field,” Jones said.

After some time researching, they found that the best way to reduce the flow of plastic into the ocean was to create effective waste management systems in those countries.

Based on a second set of research, they found that the main barrier to creating those systems was financing, and having the resources to support collection and basic waste management.

Ewalt closed by asking Jones whose climate work is inspiring her the most right now.

“There is so much remarkable science being done right now … there’s still so much to learn about the ocean,” Jones said.

Jones talked about coral scientists and the creative work being done around full restoration, and people moving threatened species to a new location, or assisted migration. She also mentioned Greta Thunberg and the youth movement to combat climate change.“I have a daughter, and she is part of what keeps me optimistic every day. We are going to she’s going to have a different world than I do,” Jones said. “But it’s part of my responsibility to try to make that as good a world as I can.”

Christine Todd Whitman Talks Acting Anew to Confront Climate Change

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Bipartisan interest — as well as great public demand — in environmental protection spurred the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in the late 1960s.

“Those were the days,” said Christine Todd Whitman.

Whitman served as the first female governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001, and as the administrator of the EPA under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003. On Monday, June 29, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, she kicked off the Chautauqua Lecture Series for the 2020 season with her lecture, “Government, Economics and the Climate,” opening Week One’s theme of “Climate Change: Prioritizing Our Global and Local Response.”

Whitman started her lecture by discussing the history of government action in response to climate change and how the United States went from an agrarian society to an industrial one during the late 1800s and early 1900s. During this time period, there were no regulations on industrialization’s impact on the environment.

Some saw the early signs of environmental damage, like Theodore Roosevelt, but they failed to elevate climate change into the general consciousness until the 1960s. “And,” Whitman said, “it took a woman to do it.” 

Whitman detailed Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the focus on the threat of overusing pesticides on bird life — and how Carson launched a movement that spurred the government, federal and local, into action. Republicans and Democrats supported the creation of the EPA, and this started the first golden age of environmental protection in the U.S.

Because of the actions of bipartisan lawmakers, and the general public who demanded it, America’s environment is cleaner than what it was 50 years ago, according to Whitman. She said this kind of bipartisan support is needed today.

“It is, frankly, absurd that climate change has become a political battleground,” Whitman said.

She went on to say the fact that humans are accelerating the impacts of climate change is beyond dispute, and that arguing what degree of damage is caused by people, and how much is natural, is beside the point.

“It’s like having a team of ER doctors debating whether a dying patient’s heart attack was caused by his lifestyle or his genetics,” Whitman said. “What’s important at that moment is not the cause; it’s the cure.”

She also said that people cannot depend on governments alone to act, and that each person must do their part. She cited an article on BBC Future detailing studies that found if one person decides to decrease their carbon footprint, others follow.

Whitman then went back to the role the government plays in combating climate change, particularly in terms of the current administration.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the actions of the president and members of his administration have diminished the sense of urgency we need to combat climate change, while also eroding public trust in the value of good, solid science,” Whitman said.

Whitman said these actions include the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord and the “scrubbing” of mentions of climate change by the EPA, and the rolling back of vehicle emission standards, as well as many other examples.

“Prudent public policy should always be rooted in unbiased science,” Whitman said. “Science that is bought and paid for by organizations that have a vested interest in the results of a scientific inquiry must be taken with a certain amount of skepticism. It doesn’t matter whether the interest is political or financial.”

While some argue that environmental protection comes at the cost of economic success, Whitman believes the opposite — and cited several statistics. From example, she said, from 1980 to 2017, total emissions of six major air pollutants were reduced by 67% thanks to U.S. laws and regulations. During that same time period, energy consumption increased by 25%, and the U.S. GDP increased by 165%.

Throughout the lecture, Whitman quoted President Abraham Lincoln, who told Congress in 1862, “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.” She said this saying was especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic. The response to the virus from federal, state and local governments showed that people are capable of responding to a global crisis.

“Now, even as the original (COVID-19) restrictions are being relaxed, most people are still acting prudently to protect themselves and others from the virus,” Whitman said. “Could we not also mobilize a similar effort to build a true consensus around the need for action to meet the threat and the challenges of global climate change?”

Whitman said that people must reach out to their elected officials, hold themselves to the same commitment, stress the importance of objective science and dispel the idea environmental protection means losing economic prosperity.

In closing, Whitman quoted Lincoln once more.

“We must be willing to think anew and to act anew,” she said. “Only then can we succeed in changing how we think, talk, and act about the compelling need to respond effectively and successfully to global climate change and its threat to our way of life and the life of this planet.”

Smithsonian curator Curtis talks need for non-white narratives in museums

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Ariana Curtis, curator of Latinx studies at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, speaks about race and culture in museum spaces Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

As curator of Latinx studies at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Ariana A. Curtis advocates for accurate and inclusive historical narratives that depict everyday people, not just the extraordinary. 

“Marginalized racial, ethnic and gendered identities do not deserve recognition because one person poked a hole in a racist and patriarchal system to become the first woman, the first black person or the first Latina,” Curtis said. “Our everyday experiences belong as part of our national narratives because we exist.”

At 10:45 a.m. on Thursday in the Amphitheater, Curtis gave her lecture “Creating We: On continuum of Latinx and African American Identity” as part of Week Nine, “Exploring Race and Culture with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center.”

The Fulbright scholar began by explaining her own identity as an Afro-Latina and African American from Western Massachusetts, home to the country’s densest population of Puerto Ricans prior to Hurricane Maria. Curtis grew up surrounded by classmates who were the children of immigrants from Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.

From a young age, Curtis knew that immigrants are not just people of color, that Latinx is not a race and that black people are culturally diverse. 

“Those were fundamental truths of human diversity that I grew up with,” she said. “I share them with you now because I have learned over time that experiencing this depth of diversity was unusual.”

Curtis said her experiences are intertwined with her work as a museum curator and have allowed her to tell accurate histories as the first curator of Latinx studies at two different Smithsonian museums.

Curtis joined the Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2013. Around this time, Anacostia broadened its mission from a focus on African Americans to urban communities, mirroring the national increase of Latinx populations. 

“My position as Latino studies curator created an official space not just to talk about Latinx urban populations, both established and emerging, but also to visually display stories and people within multiracial, multiethnic, diverse urban contexts,” Curtis said.

On her first day at Anacostia, when Curtis introduced herself to an older, African American female colleague, the woman threw her hands up and said, “You people have such difficult names.”

“I laugh when people identify me as Latina because of my first name, Ariana,” Curtis said. “My siblings are Bryan, Derrick and Johari. Being Latina had nothing to do with why my African American mother chose the name. She just liked it.”

This colleague, Curtis said, did not see her as part of her community.

“I had assumed an immediate shared sense of belonging based on our mutual blackness,” Curtis said. “What I received from that exchange was a rejection of shared identity and an assignment of Latinx ‘other,’ this refusal to see each other.”

This first day jolted Curtis and prompted her to reexamine allying phrases like “black people” and “people of color.”

“Non-white people do not necessarily know anything about one another’s histories, how to address each other, or even consider themselves in an alliance,” Curtis said. “Those phrases are descriptions, not promises or coalitions.”

Curtis resolved to use her position to answer urgent questions about the relevance of Latinx studies and to showcase the past and present diversity within Washington, D.C.

“For decades, Washington, D.C. was known affectionately as ‘Chocolate City’ because it was predominantly black,” Curtis said. “That chocolate, however, was not all African American.”

Ariana Curtis, curator of Latinx studies at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, speaks about race and culture in museum spaces Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

In her two exhibits at Anacostia, “Bridging the Americas” and “Gateways/Portales,” Curtis gathered poetry, art, archival recordings, artifacts and photography to highlight Latinx stories, from Afro-Panamanian parades to movements for college access for undocumented students, as well as the Dominican salons where black women gathered to discuss the natural hair movement.

“There were stories of community leaders and political firsts — most of them women, by the way — but the majority of the images in this award-winning exhibition depicted everyday life in urban spaces,” Curtis said.

Although both “Gateways” and “Bridging the Americas” are gone — Anacostia does not have permanent exhibits — Curtis said they allowed the museum staff and the community to see and appreciate the many identities that call D.C. home.

In 2016, Curtis joined the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture. Although she was not on staff for the museum’s opening, Curtis was delighted that her colleagues had woven black ethnic diversity throughout the museum, such as the inclusion of Afro-Latinx athletes, politicians and military personnel.

“This inclusive reality sets a didactic and emotional tone for the visitors, the staff, the collection, the programming and the public,” Curtis said. “It represents an institutional decision about how this collection will be built and who this museum will represent.”

In terms of the museum’s representation of Afro-Latinx women, Curtis highlighted two particular artifacts.

The first was a dress worn by Celia Cruz, a black Cuban woman known as the Queen of Salsa. The first time Curtis saw this dress at the NMAAHC, she said her heart skipped a beat.

“I will never suggest that museums do not collect and display material culture from famous women,” Curtis said. “But being extraordinary, like Celia Cruz, is atypical. Singular stories of famous women are aspirational, but do not create a broad base for incorporating women’s history or Afro-Latinx history.”

The second artifact was a wooden boat seat that an Afro-Ecuadorian woman named Débora Nazareno once used to navigate the waterways of Ecuador. It is decorated with a spider and a spider web, representing Anansi or Aunt Nancy, “a character out of West African folklore that traveled via the transatlantic slave trade and rooted in the African Diaspora, including in the United States.”

This object — the very first donated to NMAAHC — is Curtis’ favorite because it breaks patterns by representing an everyday woman’s story without depicting her via a portrait or clothing.

“It is a reminder that no matter the political rhetoric, African American culture, like all U.S. culture, is globally constructed and globally connected,” she said. “The popularity of NMAAHC shows that people worldwide are hungry for alternative perspectives of our shared history.”

Those visiting Curtis’ galleries may never know they were curated by an Afro-Latina woman. Although Curtis’ exhibitions are not authored, she said her curatorial voice matters.

“To borrow language from Wynton Marsalis’ talk on Monday morning, I have a responsibility to not lie to myself about what being a black Latina curator means, both in challenge and reward,” Curtis said.

Curtis said her experiences at black museums are not representative of her field, where white men make up 93% of museum directors and 89% of board members, according to a 2018 study.

“We know that public history perspectives are overwhelmingly white and male,” Curtis said. “You have heard of #OscarsSoWhite. Well, #MuseumsSoWhite is also a thing.”

Another study Curtis cited found that Americans across all ages, races and geographical locations consider museums the most trustworthy source of information, above local papers, nonprofits and academic researchers.

“So museums’ trustworthiness exists despite movement from within the museum field to openly acknowledge that museums are not neutral,” she said. “The reality of who is telling the story matters in what stories are being told. It matters to how the stories are told.”

Although she is an introvert, Curtis said she feels it is important for her to discuss her experiences with racism, microaggressions and exclusion. She also feels responsible for documenting a diversity of people, not just the white or famous.

“Museums can literally change how millions of people see women and which women they see,” Curtis said. “To be clear, it is not only important that I see myself in official public narratives like those of museums. It is equally as important that you see me.”

Bird Runningwater Spotlights Importance of Indigenous Filmmakers and Stories

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Bird Runningwater, director of the Sundance Institute Indigenous Program, delivers his lecture “Indigenous Perspectives on Cinema” Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019 in the Amp. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

As director of Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program, N. Bird Runningwater travels the world in order to amplify indigenous stories. Ultimately, he wants all Americans to see these stories on their movie screens, as well as in their textbooks.

“I really feel like there’s still a lot of history, a lot of wisdom, a lot of culture and a lot of perspective — especially from those of us coming from matrilineal, matriarchal societies — that can contribute to the learning and ongoing development of our country and society,” Runningwater said.

At 10:45 a.m. on Wednesday in the Amphitheater, Runningwater gave his lecture on “Indigenous Perspectives on Cinema” as part of Week Nine, “Exploring Race and Culture with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center.”

“At this point, what I call my life’s work has been dedicated towards really dismantling this notion of invisibility that we, as indigenous people to North America, seem to exist within in our larger American media and popular culture system,” he said.

His work has also been dedicated to exploring representation, but also “dismantling the history of misrepresentation.”

Before introducing Chautauquans to generations of indigenous filmmakers and artists, Runningwater began his lecture with a background of his ancestry, with a geographic range that spans the entirety of North America.

On his father’s side, Runningwater’s Chiricahua great-grandfather was born as a prisoner of war in Vernon, Alabama. Upon release in 1930, the Chiricahua were told they could share land with the Mescaleros in New Mexico, but they could not return to their ancestral land. In a similar vein, Runningwater’s maternal great-great-grandmother, White Buffalo Woman, was forcibly relocated from Colorado to the Cheyenne land in Oklahoma.

Runningwater was raised on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico, and grew up speaking Cheyenne and Apache. Recently he returned, for a 12-day, coming-of-age ceremony, to sing young women into womanhood.

“We sing all of our songs going back to the creation of the universe and the Earth from the Apache perspective, going back to our first person who was created, … White Painted Woman,” he said. “These young women basically reenact her life, and they’re given that honorary title during that ceremony.”

According to Apache belief, White Painted Woman’s two twin sons told the Apache to migrate south from Alaska, to where the tribe settled near the present-day U.S.-Mexico border.

“I think under today’s immigration policies, we probably wouldn’t be let into the country, even though it’s our own land,” he said.

Unfortunately, Runningwater said that this Apache story is not communicated in American education systems or in cinematic history.

Runningwater’s desire to communicate indigenous stories is shared with his boss and Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford, who purchased the land in Utah that would later host the Sundance Resort after he was asked to audition for a Native American television role.

“(Redford) was particularly appalled by that, and so it kind of led him on a personal quest,” Runningwater said.

Redford began inviting Native filmmakers, writers, directors and actors to meet and discuss filmmaking. Together, with Chris Spotted Eagle and Larry Littlebird, among other collaborators, the Sundance Institute was born.

For the first 20 years, Runningwater said Sundance struggled to gain traction with indigenous work.

“It was around 1992 when they finally brought on Native staffers who had relationships with Native communities to carry out the work,” he said. “That’s when it really took off with creating very specific workshops and labs to support Native filmmakers.”

Now, Sundance has cultivated four “generations” of Native filmmakers.

The first generation, which includes Spotted Eagle and Littlebird, largely focused on documentaries because filmmakers could secure funding from the Public Broadcasting Service and other organizations.

“They all had aspirations to eventually work in fiction film,” Runningwater said. “Of all these people, only one, Merata Mita from New Zealand … she’s the only Māori woman in New Zealand to direct a dramatic feature film.”

The second generation of Native filmmakers saw more fiction films, such as “Grand Avenue” by Greg Sarris and “Smoke Signals” by Sherman Alexie and Chris Eyre. The latter’s script was rejected six times before Sundance finally agreed to film and finance the project. “Smoke Signals” went on to become the second-highest-grossing independent film of 1998, and won the Filmmaker’s Trophy and Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival.

“Smoke Signals” served as a major inspiration for the third generation of Native filmmakers. As members of this third generation began their filmmaking journeys, Runningwater joined Sundance and broadened the Indigenous Program to support more filmmakers from around the world.

Two notable filmmakers from this third generation are Seminole-Mvskoke director Sterlin Harjo, who directed “Four Sheets of the Wind” and “Barking Water,” and Māori director Taika Waititi from New Zealand, who directed “Eagle vs Shark” and “Boy” before being tapped by Marvel Studios to direct “Thor: Ragnarok” in 2017.

“These two scenarios are ideal for us in terms of our position as filmmakers,” Runningwater said. “We can identify them at the short film stage, give them an interesting script, put them through the Sundance writer’s lab incubation process, spit them out the other end with a feature film and then, ideally, the industry would take notice.”

Another example from the third generation is Sydney Freeland, a Navajo, or Diné, trans woman who directed “Drunktown’s Finest” and recently directed episodes of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“That’s a major accomplishment, I think, to have a Navajo director have two prime time episodes of episodic TV on a major network,” he said.

The fourth generation of Native filmmakers has been focusing on short-form content and has pushed Sundance to explore immersive media projects, including virtual reality storytelling.

“They’ve grown up with technology, but they’re also balancing a commitment to their culture, a commitment to language, but also a commitment to technology,” Runningwater said. “They’re really unlike any generation, I think, that has come about, so we’ve really been able to create some great work.”

The fourth generation is also the first, Runningwater said, to predominantly feature women.

Among these female filmmakers are Amanda Kernell, a Southern Sami director from Sweden; Peshawn Bread, a Comanche director who is currently working on a film about a Native dominatrix; and Ciara Lacy, a Native Hawaiian director whose documentary “Out of State” examines how Native Hawaiians have reconnected with their culture while in prison in Arizona.

While Sundance has helped foster greater indigenous representation in film, Runningwater said there is still a long way to go to combat a canon of misrepresentative cinema.

“Our indigenous filmmakers carry much more of a burden than other filmmakers do, because we have 100-plus years worth of cinema that we have to deconstruct in our work,” he said. “But then we also have to create something authentic and innovative and new.”

According to a study conducted by IllumiNatives, a nonprofit dedicated to authentic depictions of Native communities in popular culture, between 0% and 0.4% of all characters in prime time television are Native American. Furthermore, 87% of state-level history education standards fail to cover Native people in a post-1900 context. 

“So basically, we’re erased from history books, and we’re also erased from the screens,” Runningwater said. “I fan the flames of creativity, and I’m cheerleading and encouraging our young talent to keep going and fighting against the system, (so they know) there are these opportunities that they can really create something new and help contribute to the cultural fabric of this country.”

Another challenge for Native filmmakers, he said, is convincing film distributors that there is an audience interested in Native stories.

“A lot of times they’re part of those people who have come from this education process where we haven’t been represented, and so they look at an indigenous film and are at a complete loss,” Runningwater said.

Fortunately, Runningwater said digital platforms like Netflix have helped Native filmmakers somewhat circumvent this hurdle. Additionally, Runningwater was recently invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; in the role, he would be granted an Oscars voting position, as well as a voice in the nomination process.

“I think I’ve had seven filmmakers that have come through my program that have also been invited to join the Academy, so the steps are incremental,” he said. “They’re small, but we’re all on the same page. It’s kind of a given value that so many of our indigenous filmmakers, not only in the United States, … continue to fight to be represented in our own countries.”

Harvard Professor Sarah Lewis Examines Representation in, and Power of, Art and Images

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Sarah Lewis, author of “The Rise” and guest editor of Aperture’s “Vision & Justice” issue, speaks about the power of images in the history of racial identity and justice Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

When Charles Black Jr. was 16 years old, he went to a dance at the Driskill Hotel in Austin, Texas. It was there that, instead of socializing with young women as he intended to do, Black became so transfixed by one trumpet-player that he would later describe the performance as an encounter with “genius.”

The man he saw perform that night was Louis Armstrong, and Black — who would join the legal team of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, as well as become one of the preeminent constitutional lawyers of the United States — cited that evening at the Driskill Hotel as the day he “began walking toward the Brown case, where (he) belonged.”

Sarah Lewis, an award-winning scholar, best-selling author, and professor at Harvard University, offered this anecdote during her 10:45 a.m. Tuesday lecture in the Amphitheater as an example of “what aesthetic force can do.” For the second morning lecture in a week titled “Exploring Race and Culture with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center,” Lewis distilled for the Amp audience the “Vision & Justice” course she teaches at Harvard — a class that the school incorporated into its core curriculum after the Aperture issue of the same name, guest edited by Lewis, garnered nationwide acclaim in 2016.

Among the individuals Lewis thanked at the beginning of her lecture — including a former Harvard student who attended the talk even though, as Lewis noted, he is “not being graded anymore” — was her grandfather Shadrach Emmanuel Lee. As a junior at a Brooklyn public high school in 1926, Lee asked his teacher why the representations of excellence that filled his history textbooks were exclusively white. His teacher told him that African Americans had accomplished nothing to warrant their inclusion. Lee refused to accept that answer, and was later expelled for “impertinence” after asking again and again.

“He went on to become a jazz musician, playing bass, and a painter,” Lewis said. “And here I am, two generations later, teaching at Harvard University about the very topics that he was expelled for asking about. I’d like to just think it’s a testament to what is still possible in this country.”

Images are integral to the affirmation of humanity’s dignity, Lewis argued, adopting the framework her grandfather employed in the early 20th century. She recalled a question a Chautauquan had asked Wynton Marsalis during the question-and-answer period after Marsalis’ 10:45 a.m. lecture on Monday in the Amp: “At the age of 70, what can we do to improve this country, besides voting and donating?”

After acknowledging that both voting and donating are important acts of citizenship, Lewis introduced another action the audience could perform in the service of racial justice and freedom in the United States — “To question what you see, why you see it, and what it means.”

“I’m going to ask you to do this because we are in an urgent, almost perilous moment,” Lewis said. “This country has been in such moments before, yet this particular one has a distinct character. It offers near-daily reminders that the fragility of American rights has not only been secured by norms and laws, but by how we judge — how we quite literally see each other. And how we refuse to see each other.”

Art can help overcome “the blind spot around our privilege shaped exactly like us,” Lewis said, by not only illuminating “what we already know,” but also “what we don’t know we don’t know.” This was the central question of a trip Lewis and her students took to Washington, D.C. In preparation for their visit, which included a tour of the Capitol Rotunda, Lewis showed her students a short clip in which a diverse group of Americans read an excerpt of the Declaration of Independence. The video reveals that each person gathered in that room is a living descendant of one of the original Declaration signers, all of whom were white men. It pauses on the still of these contemporary Americans positioned like their ancestors in John Trumbull’s 1818 painting “Declaration of Independence.” The image, in Lewis’ words, looks like “the world has rushed in.”

Around the time of the creation of this painting — one of the pieces currently showcased in the Rotunda — citizenship necessitated that one had to be white, male and own property.

“What is the definition of the journey between 1790, and the current day?” Lewis asked. “Has the enlargement of the idea of citizenship — of who counts and who belongs — just been a legal narrative, a series of amendments? Or has it been a cultural one?”

As an art historian, Lewis admitted her bias for the latter portrayal, and spent the remainder of her lecture arguing for culture’s role in determining the “health” of a representative democracy.

“Representative democracy has also meant measuring life through representation itself,” Lewis said. “What we put on stages becomes our collective currency to assess who we are.”

She characterized the story of Black and Armstrong as an example of art as a catalyst for justice, and the detailed plan of a 17th century slave ship, “Description Of A Slave Ship,” as “evidentiary proof of slavery’s inhumanity.” NASA and William Anders’ 1968 photograph, “Earthrise,” helped galvanize the environmental movement by “(having) enough coalescing force to do what rational argument alone could not.”

In December 1861, Frederick Douglass — who was the most photographed man of the 19th century — made the case for the role of images in advancing society. At the beginning of the Civil War, an age during which the new science of photography was weaponized to cement racial hierarchies, Douglass contended that it is inside the gap between “the fact of life” and “the ideal” where “moral imagination” can emerge.

By sitting for photographs, Douglass “was subverting the stereotypes that were being hardened through these images with his own body,” Lewis said. According to her, he is “one of the earliest art historians focused on racial justice in this country.”

Martin Luther King Jr. was an artist too, Lewis claimed, as she shared a copy of his seminary transcript, which documents the C+ and C grades King received for two public speaking classes.

“It occurred to me that we would be nowhere in this country without the power of the arts to overcome collective failure,” she said. “And here, of course, the arts include the power of oratory and the style, distinctive as it was in the body of King.”

In 2015, the photography magazine Aperture asked Lewis to guest edit an issue. Initially, she declined. She agreed when Aperture allowed her “to focus on this understudied nexus of vision and justice.”

“The centuries-long effort to craft an image, to give honor to the full humanity of black life is, in and of itself, a corrective task for which, as Douglass knew, the camera has been central — even indispensable,” Lewis said, before exhibiting a few chosen images from the Infinity Prize-winning issue, including Awol Erizku’s “Girl with the Bamboo Earring” and photos by Pete Souza, chief official White House photographer for President Barack Obama. 

“Understanding that relationship of race and the quest for full citizenship in this country requires an advanced state of literacy,” Lewis said. “It’s especially important today as we’ve been able to witness injustices in a firsthand fashion on a massive scale, via technology that would have been unimaginable decades ago.”

The viral dissemination of Eric Garner’s 2014 killing by a New York City Police Department officer, as well as Dylann Roof’s self-styled portraits before murdering nine African Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, are significant spaces of potential visual analyses, Lewis said. Such considerations become all the more important, she argued, when we know that every two minutes, Americans alone take more photographs than were made in the entire 19th century.

“How many went to Selma because they were moved by an image of injustice on the television?” Lewis asked. “How many figures like Charles Black Jr. were struck still by the power of the arts to deliver a message that rational argument could not?”

Turning to art censored by the U.S. government as a testament to the image’s capacity to inform society, Lewis displayed photographs that chronicled the internment of Japanese Americans. One, a 1942 photograph by Dorothea Lange, framed a large sign placed in the window of a store. The sign reads, in all caps, “I am an American.” The store belonged to Tatsuro Matsuda, a man forced to evacuate Oakland, California, as a result of Executive Order 9066.

“Although the sign was hung as a public plea to his neighbors, the empty street suggests that no one was listening,” Lewis said, reading from a short essay one of her students wrote about the photograph. “The photograph’s impartiality mimics the distance between former neighbors and fellow citizens. The sign, too, functions as a memorial — what was once a proud statement of presence, of ‘I Am,’ now becomes a somber lesson in the futility of Japanese Americans’ fight for citizenship.”

In the final portion of her lecture, Lewis shared images of Thomas Crawford’s sculpture, “The Indian: The Dying Chief Contemplating the Progress of Civilization,” and a wall of jars of soil — an aspect of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice — that honors victims of lynching in every county in Alabama. Circling back to her field trip to D.C., Lewis spoke about standing at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and looking out to see the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in the distance.

“My colleague Tina Campt reminds us that, in the context of race, possibility comes with an examination not just of the future tense — ‘what will be’ — or even the future perfect tense — ‘that which will have happened’ — but what she refers to as the future real conditional — ‘that which will have had to have happened,’ ” Lewis said. “It is, as she argues, an orientation towards ‘what should be true.’ It involves living the future as an imperative, rather than a subjunctive. As a striving for the future you want to see right now, in the present.”

To conclude, Lewis played a video created by her students — a series of images set to a recording of John F. Kennedy’s eulogy for Robert Frost, a speech that is often titled “Power and Poetry.”

“I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens,” Kennedy narrated, as photographs of James Baldwin and Serena Williams flashed on the screen. “And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world — not only for its strength, but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity, but also for personal distinction.”

Wynton Marsalis Opens Week with Thematic Preview of ‘Ever Fonky Lowdown’

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Wynton Marsalis, managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and world-renowned trumpeter and composer, speaks about “The Ever Fonky Lowdown” Monday, Aug. 19, 2019 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Wynton Marsalis was 22 years old when he won his first two Grammy Awards, becoming, in 1983, the only artist to ever win for both jazz and classical records. His father, Ellis Marsalis Jr., attended the ceremony in Los Angeles, but was careful to avoid feeding his second-eldest son’s ego.

“I was looking at him and he said, ‘I hope you don’t think that this means you can play,’ ” Marsalis said, quoting Ellis. “I’m so happy to have him here, because he is always for real.”

With his father watching from the audience, Marsalis considered the state of truth and freedom in America as he opened the final week of Chautauqua Institution’s 2019 season — “Exploring Race and Culture with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center” — with a lecture at 10:45 a.m. Monday, August 19 in the Amphitheater.

Marsalis structured his talk around an in-depth explanation of “The Ever Fonky Lowdown,” an intricate, board game-style composition that, in the tradition of his Grammy Award-winning “Black Codes (From the Underground)” and 2007’s “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary,” critiques the idea of American freedom through the prism of race. Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will perform “The Ever Fonky Lowdown” at 8:15 p.m. Thursday in the Amp.

Entering the Amp gates on Monday morning, Chautauquans received a program that outlined several of the “The Ever Fonky Lowdown” details upon which Marsalis elaborated in his lecture. After an introduction from Institution President Michael E. Hill — during which Hill reminded Chautauquans to avoid “an extended jam session” during the backstage meet-and-greet — Marsalis began by expressing gratitude for his parents and for their struggle “to get not just their portion of the American Dream, but to realize the dream of living and being recognized as a human being.”

He then launched into his artistic vision for the epic piece to be performed on Thursday evening.

“ ‘The Ever Fonky Lowdown’ is a game of buying in and selling out,” Marsallis said, describing how the piece is “written in symbolic language” and revolves around “leadership exploiting followers” through bluster and the promulgation of stereotypes.

“Who is we, and who are they?” Marsalis asked. “ ‘The Ever Fonky’ examines the integrity and results of the culture we create every day by serving the tension between our dream vision, television, mythology and the underlying facts that we have actually experienced.”

The players of “The Ever Fonky” game include “The Hustler,” otherwise known as Mr. Game; the “Rubes,” or O Glorious People, Mr. Game’s followers; the “Rebel,” or activist, community organizer and civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer; and the “Savior” — the piece’s “moral compass.”

“The game is about gaining the confidence of everyday people and exploiting us into accepting a predatory narrative that creates greater wealth and comfort for us, and poverty and pathology for them,” Marsalis said.

The goal is to make “us” comfortable with that narrative, and to promote “the forever war between the haves and have-nots.”

According to Marsalis, there are seven objectives of “The Ever Fonky Lowdown,” and the achievement of those objectives determines if a player earns five available “prizes” at the game’s end.

However, no matter how a player plays, the conclusion leads back to the beginning — a “Return to start” card on loop.

First, Marsalis said, Mr. Game convinces O Glorious People to join him in the name of freedom. Then, he introduces the falsely nefarious presence of “others” as a crooked basis for community, followed by a “gang-recruiting” method of perpetrating acts of violence against those “others” in order to solidify the bonds of his expanding empire. Although O Glorious People might have qualms about their participation, they experience the associative glory, “like wearing their favorite team’s football jersey.”

Breaking laws requires that Mr. Game and his Rubes must justify their actions by rewriting legislation and reframing offensive attacks as defensive — protection against the crimes of the “others” who haunt our midst. Mr. Game forces the persecuted “others” to “get on board” and then forgoes any memory or responsibility for the horrors he has committed. 

For Marsalis, the first half of “The Ever Fonky Lowdown” ends on a note of “enjoyment and laughter,” while a voice of the dispossessed repeatedly screams, “But what would the savior think?” A disembodied voice responds: “The word is the will of God, not the will of the people.”

In the second half of the composition, Mr. Game gives players five “non-partisan prizes”: the freedom of segregation and homogenization; freedom from romance; “prime time pornography and the commodification of community”; constant surveillance; and finally, after players reject the revolutionary ideas of Fannie Lou Hamer, “freedom from thought and constructive engagement.”

Marsalis also described the “sirens” within the piece — singers who attempt to seduce with wisdom — and the three young men who dance to “represent the sweep of our youth going through the gauntlet of experiences that is ‘The Ever Fonky Lowdown.’ ”

As they dance, Marsalis said, they try to emerge from the “Lowdown” with their sanity, humanity and optimism intact — a tribute to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

“We are the winningest winner in the whole wide world,” Marsallis said, inhabiting Mr. Game and the Glorious People in a Dr. Seussian-esque patter.

Despite the sweet-talking, con-man personality of Mr. Game, “The Ever Fonky Lowdown” is “not about (President Donald) Trump,” Marsalis clarified.

“It’s easy to put it on him,” he said. “Is the Klu Klux Klan why our education system is segregated? … Is that why our judicial system is the way it is, because of the Klan? … Is that because of the president? Or is that something in our character? Is it just us?”

That, he said, is the central question of “The Ever Fonky Lowdown” — and it’s also why audiences stop laughing as the piece moves from the first half to the second. Marsalis summarized his argument with an anecdote about Marcus Roberts, a pianist with whom he played gigs for seven years.

“Marcus said, ‘When something goes wrong on the bandstand, I just assume it’s me. So that way, I’m doing everything that I can be doing to make everything right,’ ” Marsalis said, quoting Roberts. “The twist is, you have a choice to fight for something that isn’t directly benefiting you or not.”

Tracing his journey from his childhood in New Orleans, to his adult life in New York, Marsalis confided that “all of the perspectives (in ‘The Ever Fonky Lowdown’) are things that I’ve experienced.”

“ ‘Ever Fonky’ means it is a groove that has been established across time and space,” he said. “ ‘Lowdown’ is the actual truth that exists beneath the public scope.”

Marsalis rejected the notion that the United States is the greatest country in the world, and asked what citizens can do “to rein ourselves in, in our stupidity, our greed, our callousness, our lack of concern for the condition of others as long as we don’t see them.”

“Where do we go from here?” Marsallis asked. “That’s what ‘The Ever Fonky Lowdown’ tells us and leaves us with: Where do we go from here? It’s not ‘Don’t elect Trump.’ It’s not ‘The Klansmen or the people in the middle of the country (are causing all the tension).’ There’s no real left or right. … We’re in a position, and we need to wake up, and we need to fight for the country we want to see.”

To manifest that future, he argued, people need to do more than protest online. He encouraged the audience to fight for economic justice, and to abolish mass imprisonment and indiscriminate warfare.

“We are the United States of America,” he said. “We already have a history full of blood.”

Listing normalized injustices of the modern era — presenting identification at every checkpoint, encountering a room devoid of diversity, paying $800 for a bottle of pills necessary for survival — Marsalis urged the people filling the Amp seats to constantly ask themselves: “Am I free?”

“With ‘The Ever Fonky Lowdown,’ the only thing I’m trying to do is pull the covers off of something and say, ‘Hey, let’s look at who we actually are,’ ” he said. “We’re in a tough spot. This is the time to assess who we are and step up to the plate and be for real about what we’re supposed to be about.”

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