Life & Letters Magazine Mon, 12 Feb 2018 19:22:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Women’s Magic Hour: A Q&A Starring Donna Kornhaber Thu, 08 Feb 2018 22:34:02 +0000 Since its humble beginnings at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in 1929, when a seat cost a mere $5 (equivalent to roughly $72 today), the Academy Awards have celebrated the creative pursuits of some of history’s most notable characters. But in a year marked by controversy surrounding a disturbing number of sexual assault accusations and increasing demands to afford proper recognition to women both on and off the screen, the 90th Academy Awards sets the stage for long-overdue commendation for Hollywood’s women.

According to Donna Kornhaber, a UT Austin English associate professor who was named a 2016 Academy Film Scholar for her project Women’s Work: The Female Screenwriter and the Development of Early American Film, women’s role in the film industry looked starkly different a century ago and much of Hollywood’s early success was due to the work of female screenwriters on silent era films.

“It was more open in the early days. The levers of power hadn’t been established yet. They were simply looking for talent,” Kornhaber says. Her thoughts on what to expect from the 2018 Oscars and views on the film industry today are detailed below.

Screenwriter Anita Loos and silent film director John Emerson reviewing an intertitle in 1919, the year they married. (Alamy stock photos)

Q. How have women’s roles in the film industry transformed since the first Oscars ceremony 90 years ago?
Kornhaber: Well, if you judge exclusively from the very first Oscars ceremony in 1929, women have come a very long way – there wasn’t a single woman nominated that year outside the Best Actress category. Although in truth, that first slate of nominees came during a period of transition when women were starting to lose ground in the film industry. Prior to the late 1920s, during the silent era, women had a far more prominent place in the film industry than in later years. There were women in nearly every major facet of silent era film production, including notable female directors and some very powerful producers. By some estimates, as many as half of the screenwriters on staff at the major studios during the silent era may have been women, and many of the leading editors of the time were female as well. Really, women have spent the better part of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first slowly trying to regain the level of prominence they enjoyed in the film industry’s earliest decades.

A screening of The Breadwinner, by Nora Twomey, at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. Photo by D. Bouchet/CITIA

Q. In what ways was 2017 a turning point for females in the film industry?
I hesitate to call 2017 a turning point — only time will tell — but it’s certainly been an important year. For me, the most important thing is that women’s work behind the camera is being recognized and rewarded. The fact that we have a female nominee in the cinematography category is a huge development. There are three women nominated in the two screenwriting categories. Nora Twomey, an outstanding animator from Ireland, is nominated for Best Animated Feature, an area of filmmaking that has traditionally been dominated by men. Greta Gerwig has a real shot at winning Best Director. It’s a very exciting time.

Donna Kornhaber

Q. Where are the greatest gender gaps in the film industry?
I think the biggest issue is making sure that female filmmakers are recognized and supported. There are women working in every facet of the film industry these days, but their work isn’t always recognized and they often are not given the same opportunities as their male counterparts. I truly believe that everyone benefits when the films we watch are informed by a broad spectrum of viewpoints and perspectives — not just in the high profile positions like director or screenwriter but also cinematographers, animators, editors, producers. It takes many, many creative voices to make a film, and women have something to contribute in each of those fields.

Q. What makes an Academy Award winning film?
It varies, of course. There has to be a high level of technical competence, and hopefully some degree of formal innovation. Sometimes one or two standout performances might make a film, or it might be about rewarding the work of a visionary director. Typically, though, I think the Academy tends to favor films that are trying to use the platform of the motion picture in some way — not just to take their audiences on an emotional journey but to show how film can make a difference in the world, by celebrating something worthwhile or showing us something new. People often speak of this in terms of films that make a social statement, but I think it’s more about opening a window into some aspect of our past or present that might not otherwise come into view. Last year’s Best Picture winner Moonlight was a perfect example, and I was so thrilled when it won.

Rachel Morrison received the first-ever female nomination for Best Cinematography for her work on Mudbound (2017).

Q. What surprised you about this year’s nominations?
Personally, the biggest surprise was that The Florida Project, directed by Sean Baker, didn’t receive any nominations beyond a much deserved nod to Willem Dafoe in the Best Supporting Actor category. I thought it was a transformative film, one of the best of the year, and it topped many critics’ best films of 2017 lists. But Baker is a consummate indy filmmaker who has always worked outside the studio system, so perhaps the film’s absence from this year’s list of nominees shouldn’t be all that surprising. On the plus side, I was very pleasantly surprised to see Rachel Morrison nominated in Best Cinematography for Mudbound, making her the first woman ever to be nominated in that category.

Directed by Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird has been nominated for 2018 Best Picture.

Q. What film do you predict will garner the title of 2018 best picture? Why?
I really do think it’s wide open this year. You have films like Call Me By Your Name or Lady Bird, which, while being very different from one another, are both beloved by audiences — which is not always the case with the best picture films. You have the ingenious ways that a film like Get Out uses the tropes of the horror genre to talk about race. You have visionary works from directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, who directed Phantom Thread, and Guillermo del Toro, who directed The Shape of Water, both of whom have long been recognized as masters of film form and have not yet won a Best Director or Best Picture contest. I really could see it going in any number of ways. This year has already been full of surprises.

Small But Powerful Moments: An IRG Senior’s Experience Abroad Fri, 02 Feb 2018 17:22:54 +0000 Experiential learning is an essential part of a liberal arts education, and Austin native Megan Nater’s time studying abroad has served her well.

Nater is an International Relations & Global Studies senior whose studies focus on security and Latin America. For her undergraduate honors thesis, Nater is examining women’s rights mobilization in Colombia.

As a UT Austin student, Nater has studied abroad in Havana, Cuba (May-July 2016, Casa de las Americas), Lima, Peru (fall 2016, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú), and Santiago, Chile (spring 2017, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile).

She also received a Marion Burke Smith Research Scholarship from the Liberal Arts Honors program to help support her thesis research. In January, Nater traveled to Bogotá and Cartagena, Colombia, for 12 days to conduct in-person interviews.

Read about Nater’s research into women’s rights and how her experiences studying abroad have shaped her education in the Q&A below.

Nater visiting a volcano in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

What were your experiences abroad like?

That is a big question. I had so many incredible experiences abroad and they were all so different. I will say that I loved living in Latin America. It was a blast to navigate the cities. It was also so much fun to speak Spanish. My friends and I would try to chat with as many people as we could. People were so receptive and open—especially in Cuba. It was so energizing to be there. As a summary of all my experiences, you could say that my experiences abroad in general really filled me up.  

How did the culture differ? 

Each place was so different. Santiago, [Chile] I would say felt a little bit like the culture of the Northeast in the U.S. It was a big city, so people were always on the go, but I’d also say they were a little more reserved at first when meeting strangers. Cuba was the opposite. Everyone was open to talk. People were generally interested in hearing about your life and sharing their experiences. That was my favorite part about Cuba—all the small conversations and moments of just being with people. Peru was somewhat of an in-between.

Nater hanging out with a llama in Machu Picchu, Peru.

What was your favorite moment of your time abroad? 

That is a really hard question. I don’t think I have a favorite moment but one that has stayed with me was from my trip to the Amazon in Peru. I stayed in a small hut far out in the rainforest. We took a three-hour bus ride and a two-hour boat ride to get to our lodging.

The village where Nater stayed in the Amazon outside of Iquitos, Peru.

At night, I walked out into the rainforest a little ways on my own to a big clearing to see the stars. It was incredible. I had never seen a sky like that. That was a beautiful moment because I was overwhelmed by how lucky I was to be there. Who would have ever thought that I would be standing in the Amazon rainforest so far from my home but at the same time so content and at peace? Studying abroad brings a lot of small but powerful moments like that—especially if you choose to go off the normal path and are considerate of where you are.

Nater with the sloth that lived in the home where she stayed in the Amazon.

How did your experiences abroad change your outlook?  

In terms of my studies abroad, it was really interesting to learn the same themes, but from another perspective. It was a good learning experience to see how the U.S. is perceived. I would like to work in or with Latin America at some point and understanding the U.S. perception is a valuable perspective to have. 

What advice would you give to other students who are considering studying abroad?

Do it. You should not miss out on going abroad. Each person has something substantial to gain from living in another country. The benefit may differ slightly on the person depending on where they are in their lives and what they are looking for, but regardless of differing experiences, living abroad teaches you so much.

In terms of advice, I’d say really reflect on what you are wanting out of your abroad experience and do research before choosing a place. With that being said, no matter how much research you do, there is no way to anticipate exactly what your experience will be like. You have to go into studying abroad with an open mind and with excitement for the unexpected in order to get the most out of the experience.

Nater hiking in Huaraz, Peru.

How has the Marion Burke Smith Research Scholarship aided you? 

The Marion Burke Smith Research Scholarship funded my trip to Colombia. It would not have been possible to go to Colombia without this funding and I would not have had the opportunity to speak firsthand with women working in rights implementation. I gained valuable information that I could never have found in books or articles. This information will make my thesis more relevant and, hopefully, impactful. I am incredibly grateful to have received this scholarship and am so proud to attend a university that supports its student to go above and beyond in their education. 

Can you describe your research on Women’s Rights Mobilization in Colombia?

My goal is to understand how to effectively implement women’s rights so that women may truly enjoy the right to a life free from violence. Violence against women is an issue that is prevalent in all societies. So figuring out how to ensure the right to a life free from violence is crucial and this guarantee comes when rights are actually implemented.

My research looks at the various factors that lead to implementation including education, access to resources, government response, societal responses, etc. I hope that by seeing which factors are necessary to implement rights, we can see where the gaps are and understand how to address these gaps.

How did you decide on your topic? 

During my time abroad, I witnessed gender-based violence on various occasions. I had been pretty sheltered beforehand in terms of exposure to violence. It was very shocking and unsettling to see. These events caused me to reflect on gender dynamics globally, especially in the U.S., and to reinterpret some experiences I’ve had. So from that point, I knew I wanted to focus my thesis on gender relations and violence against women. It needs to be talked about.

The reason I chose Colombia is because I love the country. It is my favorite place I’ve been—with Cuba being a close second. The people are so kind and open. There is a love for life there that I haven’t quite seen in other places. Yet, at the same time, they have a painful and violent history that is very recent. Although the peace agreement is underway, there is still a lot to be done to reconcile the violence people, especially women, faced in the conflict. Women faced a two-sided violence—violence from the conflict and violence from “normal gender dynamics.” For this reason, it is a really interesting place and context to be looking at violence and the violence directed at women.

How are you conducting your research?

My research in Colombia is based off of interviews. I am trying to figure out what factors are necessary to ensure the protection of women’s rights. Through literature and reports, I have seen that Colombia has incredible laws, but there is a major gap between laws on paper and implementation.

I asked questions getting at the causes of this gap. I talked to people in the UN Mission and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. I also met with various Colombian NGOs working on women’s rights and equality. In Cartagena, I had the privilege of meeting with amazing women who started their own organizations in their small towns and learned about the challenges that they face at the grassroots level. It was really wonderful to hear people’s perspectives at different levels of society. It showed me how someone’s societal position influences the way they see the same situation.

What element of your research do you find most fascinating?

Something that really struck me from my research in Colombia was the importance of education. It wasn’t so much systematic education, such as formal schooling, although that is important; but education on “rights” and the resources available to an individual. This type of education is generally done through programs and work of NGOs. The legal system is so complicated that it is often hard to understand. Teaching people about their rights and the systems in place to protect them is crucial.

However, I also learned that the way it is taught is a factor that can make or break the impact of education. You must really understand the social dynamics and the networks a person is surrounded by in order to find the best approach to teach them what “rights” mean and how to navigate claiming them. If you don’t approach the situation with knowledge and care, efforts may be wasted because they will not be understood or well received.

I saw this dynamic play out when NGOs would try to translate international education agendas and programs to the grassroots level in Colombia. It can be a tricky relationship, but one that is important to understand in order to guarantee women’s rights at every level of society. 

Has this project impacted what you want to do after graduation?

Absolutely. I know that I want to be working to help ensure people’s rights are accessible and respected. My project has showed me how difficult that can be. There are so many factors that go into making rights “accessible,” something that I think a lot of people, myself included, can take for granted.

I just started an internship with a legal NGO called RAICES. It works with refugees and immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. The main issue I will be working on is protecting the rights of unaccompanied minors who are sent to the U.S. for various reasons, some being to avoid violence and sexual exploitation. I hope to continue doing this line of work after I graduate. In order to do that, I will need to attend law school, which is a plan for the near future.

To learn more about studying abroad as a liberal arts student, visit Liberal Arts Frontiers.

The Dead Deserve Peace and Privacy Tue, 23 Jan 2018 22:05:07 +0000 “To display the dead, after all, is what the enemy does,” writes Susan Sontag in Regarding the Suffering of Others.

Logan Paul became Public Enemy No. 1 after posting a videolog on YouTube of a dead, hanged body of an unidentified person in Aokigahara forest, a dense thicket on the northwest side of Mt. Fuji, which, as Paul quickly points out, is more sensationally known as “The Japanese Suicide Forest.” (cue dramatic sound effect)

With his tent in hand and sleeping bag dangling from his backpack, Paul self-mockingly bills the adventure as “just a couple of dumb ‘mericans goin’ campin’ in the Suicide Forest.” Just 100 yards into the hike and 43 seconds into the video, he discovers the body of a man who had recently hanged himself.

The Japanese have a phrase “The dead have no mouths” (Shinin ni kuchi nashi) to describe their powerlessness to speak on their own behalf. This is especially true of those who choose to die in this location,  rarely leaving behind any note and often desiriring “only a quiet death, only to vanish,” according to Japanese psychiatrist Dr. Takahashi Yoshitomo, who investigated suicides there in the early 1980s. In the face of this self-willed muteness and this desire for invisibility and even self-erasure, our responsibility to see, hear, feel and speak is awesome.

Notwithstanding his removal of the video and apologies following the outcry, nearly everything Paul did was criticized: his choice to show the body, including close-up stills of the discolored hands; his choice to focus on his own reactions; and his choice to upload the vlog — despite pixalating the face and demonetizing the video so no profit could be gained from advertising revenue.

Demonizing Paul has proven remarkably easy. Many of his choices flout the YouTube Community Guidelines (not to mention the WHO suicide prevention “Resource for Media Professionals”), which stresses avoiding “zooming in or sustained focus on the most graphic sections of the video” as well as sensationalist titles that “highlight the most provocative or shocking aspects of your video.” Most importantly, they recommend including informative narration to provide crucial context for any graphic content.

This was not the first cultural production that garnered criticism for misusing the forest. Two Hollywood films were universally panned for falling into the trope of what one critic called “spooky Japanese thing, but with Caucasians to root for,” and Japan has had its share of sensationalist productions that have been critiqued for fueling the attraction of this site as a suicide destination. Several other famous Youtubers have cast themselves as intrepid explorers braving the “haunted” forest in a Blair Witch Project-like style docu-drama, mistaking deer bones for human and claiming to hear, feel, and see ghostly bodies where they were not.

What feels so wrong about many of these representations is the sense that these travelers are looking and showing, but not seeing. But maybe, paradoxically, it is the obtuse otherness of these outside observers that can save these representations after all. Or as Sontag puts it in her book about images depicting suffering, they can force us to think about how “intrinsic to the perpetration of this evil is the shamelessness of photographing it. The pictures were taken as souvenirs…. The display of these pictures makes us spectators too.”

Sontag’s choice of book cover is illuminating in this respect: a hand-drawn Goya print of the profile of a man hanging from a tree, his head slumped, pants pulled down and hands dangling at his side. Beside him, a mustachioed man languidly lounges, gazing squarely and even seductively at the spectacle.

The insertion of an unattractive spectator into an image that depicts human suffering speaks volumes. It offers a check on our baser rubbernecking impulses, on how we look at those who do not, cannot, see or speak for themselves by instead forcing us to look at ourselves looking. This is especially important when considering other cultures, places and times that seem remote and distant from our own.

We’re always outsiders looking in at someone else’s pain. Now, in watching Paul repent, we are witness to his pain too.

Paul framed his vlog with what is perhaps one of the most dubious Trigger warnings of all time: “Now with that said: Buckle the fuck up, because you’re never gonna see a video like this again!”

I hope he’s right. I hope we have just witnessed a cultural shift in our collective community standards for regarding the pain of others. Hopefully none of us ever does “see a video like this again,” if not because videos like this stop being posted, as YouTube promised in its recent open letter apology to the community, then because we learn to look differently at those who suffer and at those who look at them.

Kirsten Cather is a professor of Asian studies at UT Austin. Her current book project, “Scripting Suicide in Modern Japan” considers the representation of suicide in Japanese art and society in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Smile, You’re on Camera: Behind the Lens of 24/7 Surveillance Thu, 18 Jan 2018 19:22:59 +0000 “Even a strutting exhibitionist has something to hide: certain diary entries, genetic predispositions, financial mistakes, medical crises, teenage embarrassments, antisocial compulsions, sexual fantasies, radical dreams,” writes Randolph Lewis. “We all have something that we want to shield from public view. The real question is: Who gets to pull the curtains? And increasingly: How will we know when they are really closed?”

Why worry about surveillance if I have nothing to hide? This has become one of the most disingenuous phrases in the English language, according to Lewis, an American studies professor and author of the new book, Under Surveillance: Being Watched in Modern America (University of Texas Press). It is a phrase often spoken with a privileged voice, but spoken by people who are rarely prepared for someone to start digging into every forgotten email or ill-considered social media post.

Surveillance has become engrained in governance, business, social life and even churches, but well-intentioned technology can have unexpected aftershocks that far exceed their intended purpose. UT Austin professors are beginning a much-needed conversation on how we relate to surveillance emotionally and ethically, and what that means for our security and our way of life.


Imagine a “state of permanent visibility” in which your every action may be recorded and each step you take leaves a digital footprint, rendering you utterly predictable.

Frantz Fanon, a Martinique-born psychiatrist, philosopher and writer, described the emotional and physical response to constant monitoring as: “nervous tensions, insomnia, fatigue, accidents, lightheadedness and less control over reflexes.”

Elevation, section and plan of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon penitentiary, drawn by Willey Reveley, 1791. Source: The works of Jeremy Bentham vol. IV, 172-3

Fanon was a jumping-off point for Simone Browne’s research for her book, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Duke University Press) when her requests for information on Fanon to the FBI and CIA were met with a response that neither confirmed nor denied the existence of files. She was particularly interested in Fanon’s travels to the United States during 1961 to receive treatment for myeloid leukemia; he would die that year at the age of 36.

“Fanon was this critical theorist, someone who actively participated in anti-colonial projects; to think that his death in the U.S. is something that is still under this Glomar response (can neither confirm nor deny) was a spark to think about how blackness itself is redaction — sometimes you see these FBI documents blacked out,” says Browne, a sociologist and an associate professor of African and African diaspora studies. “These important parts gave me a way to think about how in the study of surveillance a lot of important parts about black history and presence get redacted, too.”

When we think about surveillance, we often imagine it in the abstract, like “Big Brother” or a shadowy government agency — something out of a Tom Clancy novel — but surveillance can be felt at a very real and intimate level.

For example, Browne points to the ways a person might monitor a spouse or partner, check into their  phone receipts, track their everyday movements by whom they’ve been calling or texting. It might not be a hacker or a government wiretap, but it is nevertheless a type of surveillance.

Architectural design can also lend a watchful eye to surveillance culture. Jeremy Bentham, the early 19th-century reformer known for his controversial designs for English prisons, located a nearly invisible watcher at the center of a circular prison. The design provided the mental restraint that comes from the assumption of constant monitoring — much like social media sites do today.

“You can even think about something like a public bathroom,” Browne says. “A lot of times when you go into public bathrooms the door doesn’t reach all the way to the ground, there is some space between the door, so you can actually see people walking. A lot of that could be about controlling who’s in the bathroom. Bathrooms, as we know, are quite a contested space.”

Physical spaces such as airports can be an especially anxiety-filled. Browne describes it as a type of security theater or performance that is dependent on anxiety and compliance. It’s the notion that people being uncomfortable would betray some type of tell if they were “up to no good,” Browne says. It’s already an anxiety-filled space because you might be subjected to a search based on your hair, gender or self-presentation. This security theater is probably most pronounced in the TSA check-in line, where “safe” and “unsafe” areas are in close proximity. “Anyone can stand up there really,” Browne says. “To think about the TSA checkpoint being an unsafe place, and the idea that right next to it is safe — the space where the security is happening and we are taking out our liquids and taking off our belts.”

“My fear is that [digital natives] will just accommodate themselves to it because it’s easier, and because we are seduced into doing it by corporations that get so much data from us, and what we get is a free game, a free app, a social network.” –Randolph Lewis

Randolph Lewis

Lewis points out that it may be no coincidence that anxiety rates in America are at historical highs. When we are moving around airports or city streets, there’s a self-consciousness that can be overwhelming, especially if you’re already an anxious person, he says. Surveillance has even encroached upon our natural landscape, taking with it those feelings of escape and tranquility.

“Wilderness is always a little bit of a fantasy,” Lewis says. “We’re going to be off the grid, but it’s an important fantasy in America to be unobserved and truly alone in nature, and that’s going to become impossible as drones are flying overhead.”

“We are losing our liberty and important forms of dignity that can only exist when we are able to be truly alone, at least for a moment,” he says.


In the 1960s, the social critic Paul Goodman published Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society, a grim look at the homogenized mass culture for those who had grown up during the Eisenhower years, but Lewis says today our children are reared in an additional layer of absurdity: the controlling gaze of the parent, school and state, which creates a culture of almost constant monitoring.

“Rather than growing up absurd, we are growing up observed …,” Lewis writes. “And this constant emphasis on control, predictability and security seems to have a perverse byproduct: The more we press for a deep and lasting sense of security, the more we are miserably insecure.”

Surveillance has even crept into the workplace and home. Hotel maids may be monitored for maximum efficiency, call center operators may be listened to for an appropriate customer service tone, and nannies watched with suspicion via nanny cam.

“It’s kind of the regulatory Wild West where there’s this data hunger.” -Sarah Brayne

“One of the sad things about this type of domestic surveillance is that we constantly hear these horror stories about nannies — working class, often people of color — my mom was a nanny, so I’m really sensitive to this, I guess — they are held up like the demon in so many news stories,” Lewis says. “They are going to hurt your child; they are going to shake the baby — where statistically there’s no evidence that nannies pose any danger to children any more than the rest of the population. It creates another level of social disconnection, paranoia and fear around something that is already emotionally fraught, which is letting  someone else take care of your child.”

There is a crippling self-consciousness that can come from feeling monitored so closely and invasively, but what will the next generation’s response to surveillance technologies be? The answer may lie in our biographies, particularly in aspects of our identities in regard to empowerment, autonomy, respect and vulnerability.

“I think that I’m in a transitional generation where this feels really foreign and toxic to me to live in the increasingly surveilled mode,” Lewis says. “The real question is for digital natives who are 15 years old like my daughter. Will it seem strange to them or just part of a world they’ve just grown up in? And we don’t really know the answers except for anecdotally.

“My fear is that they will just accommodate themselves to it because it’s easier, and because we are seduced into doing it by corporations that get so much data from us, and what we get is a free game, a free app, a social network,” Lewis says.


A November 2014 Pew Research survey revealed 91 percent of Americans “believe that consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies.” Although consumers seem to dislike this, there seems to be a disconnect between their feelings and actions.

The brokering of private data is a multibillion dollar industry. Data has become capital in the Digital Age, and so this huge industry has emerged to sell, share, trade and even rent your data.

“We normally think about consent at the point of data collection, like ‘Yes I’m consenting to give this contact lens company my information or yes, I’m consenting to give my phone number to Pizza Hut when I call and order a pizza,’” says Sarah Brayne, assistant professor of sociology and a Population Research Center research associate. “But with this repurposing of data, or what some people call ‘data creep’ or ‘function creep’ — the idea that data originally collected for one purpose is then used for another — is rendering this concept of consent somewhat anachronistic, and it doesn’t really fit well with how data is used now.”

Privacy laws usually relate to the point of data collection, but not “function creep” or repurposing of data that may be collected with no expressed purpose.

“It’s kind of the regulatory Wild West where there’s this data hunger; let’s just collect all the possible information we can, and then we’ll try machine learning. We’ll try seeing if we can learn anything from this data,” Brayne says.

“Data collection doesn’t always have to have malintent either,” she adds. “A lot of data integration is originally done under this welfarist ideology of service delivery. Like electronic medical records — let’s improve prescription drugs and care coordination, that kind of thing. But once data exists, it can be repurposed, and so the harder edge of social control can come into the picture.”

It’s difficult to change habits and the conveniences we become accustomed to, even when the safeguards are not in place.

“I wish Equifax and these other breaches would provoke some type outrage that lasted for more than a week,” Lewis says. “One company after another gets hacked, and we lose all of this data, and there’s not real accountability or consumer protection. I think that this is the most maddening part of this, the unknowability and unaccountability.

“We’ve created this incredible machinery of surveillance, and if you trust who’s got the keys to the system, OK. Fine. But what happens if it’s in the hands of someone you don’t trust?” Lewis asks. “We need to figure out a way to have a really mature conversation about privacy in the Digital Age,” Lewis adds. “But my cynicism comes in where I don’t think we have the political leadership or the cultural maturity to have that conversation. It’s a really hard one because we might have to give up some of the fun things about surveillance culture.”


In an age when we bring our smartphones almost everywhere with constant connectivity, ordinary people find themselves encouraged to play along with surveillance practices, and most are happy to oblige in the name of convenience, connection or fun. We, in part, share in the surveillance burden.

“The implication is fascinating: The world won’t get a radical makeover when surveillance becomes omnipresent, woven deep into our buildings and bodies, but instead it will look reassuringly familiar to us,” Lewis writes. “The new Panopticon will have Wi-Fi, cappuccino and vegetarian options. It will utilize the language of choice, freedom and pleasure. It will speak casually about freedom and dignity. It will make us laugh and feel connected with a lightness of spirit that seems, at least on its bright, shiny surface, very far from the world of Bentham, Orwell and Foucault. It will make surveillance seem cool.”


Uploading your image on Snapchat with bunny ear filters may sound fun in the moment, but you should also consider that you’ve now given an entity, Snapchat, access to your biometric measurements. -Simone Browne

Simone Browne

However, some of that convenience and entertainment may come at the cost of your privacy, Lewis writes in a chapter devoted to what he calls the “Funopticon.” Lewis shares examples such as the Roomba vacuum cleaner that maps your home to know your furniture’s locations for cleaning purposes, but then the company sells that information to third parties who may then send you targeted ads; or the Samsung television introduced a few years ago that used voice commands and recorded every conversation in the house, a practice the company has since discontinued.

It’s become increasingly difficult to manage our data footprint, especially our digital presence on social media. Employers can already search job candidates’ social media presence to gain insights into the candidates and their friends. Insurance companies have even used Facebook to deny claims.

“If you’re not on Facebook, your friends may put you there in group shots, so it comes back to questions of consent and access, and can we truly even opt out of some of these surveillance sites because for many people, a site like Facebook — I think it has close to over a billion users now — it’s something they see as a necessity, whether it’s for news or connection to family and friends or seeing pictures of cute cats,” Browne says.

Uploading your image on Snapchat with bunny ear filters may sound fun in the moment, but Browne says you should also consider that you’ve now given an entity, Snapchat, access to your biometric measurements.

Often, we don’t understand how the body is made into data, or what our rights are to our own body data. Browne says one possible way to improve our understanding would be a push for shorter user agreements in plain and easy to understand language. Browne asks her students to think about what happens to this data. How long is it stored? How is it shared?

“It’s not only about understanding the human body, but the notion of how much can we refuse to have our body turned into data,” Browne says. “And often the question is no. If you need to get a green card, you have to give your fingerprints or you have to give your face print, and some places you have to go closer with your iris. So, there are questions of what are our rights of refusal and ownership. So who owns that data? Information that is derived from the human body, is that our intellectual property or that of the social media site, the government or the other entity that has this information?”


Biometrics in its simplest form is a means of using the human body as identification.

Browne recalls working on her dissertation about Canada/U.S. border security when the permanent resident card — considered to be one of the most secure documents due to its use of biometric information — was issued after 9/11. She says that got her interested not only in the ways that surveillance is used at the site of the human body, but also who is targeted and even opting in to these types of technologies.

Browne cites a U.S. company in Wisconsin that uses radio frequency identification (RDIF) chips that are embedded under the skin. “It’s the idea of being cool and on the cusp of using medical-grade radio frequency identification chips that you can use to open a door. They call them biohackers … But the idea that a company encouraged their employees — I use the word encouraged lightly — to sign in or out like a punch clock.

“Your employer could track more about you. What happens if you leave that company in Wisconsin?” Browne asks. “What happens if (the chip) migrates in your body and it can’t be removed or it calcifies and hardens? Those are also concerns.”

RDIF chips are also being used at some exclusive hotel resorts. Browne mentions an example in Ibiza, Spain, and there are nightclubs offering access to VIP areas and using the chip to serve as a debit account. Unlike people who don’t have the right to refuse (those who are imprisoned or even children), this clientele wants to be the first to try something cutting edge.

The idea of biometric surveillance is nothing new. Browne’s book gave her the opportunity to look at how our history informs our present.

“I looked at branding of enslaved people as a form of marking the body as a site of surveillance,” Browne says. She also looked at how runaway notices would include not only physical descriptions, but what the runaways took with them, what they wore and the languages they spoke.

Browne researched The Book of Negroes, a record of 3,000 formerly enslaved black people who escaped to the British lines during the American Revolution and one of the first large-scale uses of the body as a means of identification and tracking by the state. The British ledger included name, place of birth and physical description.

“Whether someone had lost an eye or they had pockmarks, these types of ways of identifying a person became important because claims might be made of these people who were to be free, but there were others who demanded they were to be property,” Browne says. In essence, The Book of Negroes is a story about the regulation of mobility through biometric surveillance.


Lantern laws in 18th-century New York City mandated that enslaved people carry lighted candles as they moved about the city after dark, writes Browne. Luminosity sought to keep the black, the mixed-race and the indigenous body in a state of permanent illumination, thus regulating people’s mobility, she explains.

“Lantern laws made the lit candle a supervisory device — any unattended slave was mandated to carry one — and part of the legal framework that marked black, mixed-race and indigenous people as security risks in need of supervision after dark,” Browne writes.

“We live in a messy social world, and so data is also a messy reflection of that.” -Sarah Brayne

Sarah Brayne

“That was still a technology at the time, but the idea was that these human beings became part of the city’s lighting infrastructure in some way,” Browne says. “It was not only about surveillance — the individuals who were mandated to carry these lanterns, but it was about lighting up the city in some way for other people who were walking. And I think you still see the ways that certain humans get made into technology in our presence.”

Browne recalls as an example the 2012 South by Southwest Festival, when BBH Labs hired homeless people to wear hardware that made them Wi-Fi hotspots, which some people criticized as dehumanizing. The homeless participants became part of the Wi-Fi infrastructure, wearing T-shirts that said, “Hi, I’m a 4G Hotspot.” Another example is the 2010 city code in Tampa, Florida, requiring roadside solicitors to wear reflective vests or risk a citation from the police.


Brayne’s research, published in the American Sociological Review, examined for the first time how adopting big data analytics both amplifies and transforms police surveillance practices. Brayne interviewed and observed 75 police officers and civilian employees of the Los Angeles Police Department — a pioneer in data analytic policing — to identify key ways law enforcement has implemented in-house and privately purchased data on individuals to assess criminal risks, predict crime and surveil communities.

“I think that what’s really important is that it’s not just one new surveillance technology that’s transformative, but rather, it’s this combinatorial power of using different things in conjunction with one another that grants authorities a level of insight into individuals’ lives that previously would have required a warrant or one-on-one surveillance,” Brayne says.

Big data supplements officers’ discretion with algorithm-based, quantified criminal risk assessments. For example, in some divisions, an individual’s criminal risk is measured using point values based on violent criminal history, arrests, parole or probation statuses and police stops. People with high point values are more likely to be stopped by police, thus adding another point to their record.

“When you start to codify or bake in police practices as objective crime data, you sort of get into this feedback loop or self-fulfilling prophecy,” Brayne says. “It puts individuals who are already under suspicion under new and deeper and quantified forms of surveillance, masked by objectivity or as one officer described it: ‘just math.’

“You have to believe that the data is perfect, and it’s not,” Brayne adds. “We live in a messy social world, and so data is also a messy reflection of that.”

Brayne says she definitely thinks law enforcement and other surveilling agents should use emergent technologies to improve service delivery, reduce crime and focus resources. However, she does think they can improve their practices by rolling out things more slowly, more thoughtfully and more systematically to gain empirical insights about best practices.

“While people in managerial roles tended to love it, line officers felt like it was a means by which they came under increased surveillance themselves,” Brayne says. “There is a lot of distrust among officers about what is actually happening.”


Some U.S. churches have begun to invest in surveillance technologies with security teams and threat detection at the door. Lewis focused his research on smaller and mid-sized suburban churches.

“It’s just really strange to be in a church where there is a crucifix and above that a camera and you start to wonder, which one really has control here in some symbolic sense?” Lewis says. Lewis attended a surveillance trade show at the Javits Convention Center in New York — filled with spy gadgets, cameras and sensors galore — to try to gain a better understanding of what is motivating some churches to make such a large investment in security.

“The market uses emotions to sell things and doesn’t give any consideration to ethics or even efficacy,” Lewis says. “That really blew my mind because I thought ‘Well, you can’t sell this million-dollar system without saying: Here’s the evidence that it works,’ but you can.”


Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness
Duke University Press, Oct. 2015
By Simone Browne, associate professor,
Departments of African and African Diaspora Studies and Sociology

Under Surveillance: Being Watched in Modern America
University of Texas Press, Nov. 2017
By Randolph Lewis, professor,
Department of American Studies

Illustrations by Eric Moe; Photos by Bryan Schutmaat

]]> Sick: The Poetics of Modern Health Care Thu, 18 Jan 2018 19:21:50 +0000 …And all the while, I kept thinking about that great old Whitman  poem… ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.’
I…I don’t know it.
Well, can you recite it?
Pathetically enough, I could.

With some encouragement from Walt, Gale continues:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and
measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much
applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

After watching this clip from Breaking Bad, a group of first-year students from the Dell Medical School read the poem silently, using a close reading protocol that guides them to paraphrase, observe and analyze. English professor and associate director of the Humanities Institute Phillip Barrish facilitates the discussion. One student points out that there is a tension in the poem between real-world experience and scientifically mediated experience. Another student mentions how in the first part of the poem the language is analytical and passive and in the second, where the speaker takes action, the language becomes more sensory and subjective. Finally, the students note that this literary shift, a break in the poem, happens with one word: sick.

Illness is disruptive. It tears apart the fabric of a person’s life as well as the lives of family members and even their community. Imagine an earthquake, shockwaves radiating from an epicenter along fairly predictable, or at least observable, paths. Imagine the aftershocks and the features of the landscape hinting at more earthquakes to come. Imagine the built environment at ever-increasing risk. What would happen if geologists only looked at the moment of the earthquake itself, treating it as a discrete event separated from human activity? They would put whole communities at risk. Yet, that’s how we often understand and expect medicine to operate — in tight focus, at a microscopic, individual level, and solely in a moment of crisis.

O N E E V E R Y O N E • Maria

“Medical school will teach you what a human is; the humanities teaches you what it means to be human.”

– Dr. Steve Steffensen

But this wasn’t always the case. As Dr. Steve Steffensen, chief of the Learning Health System at Dell Medical School explains, until about 150 years ago Hygeia, or wellness, took precedence over — or was at least equal to — Panacea, universal cure. There was really very little that could be done once someone became sick. However, various innovations, including control over bacteria and better means of diagnosing illness, led to medicine focusing on, as he says, “the hope of cure” rather than prevention. But the pendulum is now swinging back.

“And if your focus is on health, then you need to ask the question: Where does health happen? Does it happen in my 10-by-10 exam room when you come to see me with a condition to treat? … I can prescribe something for you. I can do a diagnostic work up. I can help you manage a condition. But rarely does health happen,” says Steffensen, who believes it does happen when we escape the confines of the lecture hall, the examination room and even technology. “Health happens outside of our hospitals and institutions where we work, live, pray, play. Medical school will teach you what a human is; the humanities teaches you what it means to be human.”

Medical professionals are now understanding that the observation and reflection skills that the humanities disciplines engender need to be reintegrated into their practice to better serve patients, the community and clinicians themselves. Consequently, many medical schools are now setting up medical humanities institutes, or, at least, developing and implementing medical humanities curricula. At Dell Med, arts and humanities are foundational to the mission of patient-centered care and their commitment to the community. According to Steffensen, “everyone from our dean to our vice deans to our faculty and staff understands  and appreciates the importance of the humanities.” Thus, as the Dell Medical School continues to grow, humanities will be integrated into student-focused curriculum and development, faculty development, community engagement and collaboration with the humanities expertise on the Forty Acres.


Ann Hamilton’s public art project O N E E V E R Y O N E, commissioned by Landmarks for the Dell Medical School, is a series of community portraits in which the experience of touching is made visible, an apt metaphor for Dell Med’s commitment to patient-centered care and the natural intersection of medicine with the arts and humanities. These images are also indicative of the deep collaborations and lasting cross-campus relationships built to welcome Dell Med to the UT community. As Pauline Strong, professor of anthropology and director of the Humanities Institute, explains, “the health humanities is an area in which exciting research and community partnerships are occurring nationally and internationally.” Consequently, the Humanities Institute chose as its theme for 2016-2018, “Health, Well-Being and Healing,” to bring together UT faculty members, students, clinicians and community researchers to, in Strong’s words, “collaborate on programs that seek to understand health, illness, healing and health justice in the broadest possible perspective, across time, space and academic disciplines.” This focus has also led to additional collaborations with Dell Med, Landmarks, the Blanton Museum of Art and the UT English department’s Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies (TILTS).

TILTS chooses a different theme for each academic year and in 2016-2017 focused on “Health, Medicine, and the Humanities.” A series of speakers covered a broad range of topics in medical  humanities including gaming and its applications to the humanities and health care education, race and metabolic disorders, disability studies, and death as a cultural and medical phenomenon. Additionally, they collaborated with the Humanities Institute in bringing other distinguished lecturers to campus including poet and physician Rafael Campo and Priscilla Wald, professor of English and women’s studies at Duke University, who spoke on “Cells, Genes, and Stories: HeLa’s Journey from Labs to Literature.”

The TILTS–Humanities Institute collaboration also sponsored a week-long residence by Dr. Rita Charon, professor of medicine and founder and executive director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia Presbyterian Medical School. In addition to delivering a public lecture “The Shock of Attention: Bodies, Stories, Healing,” her residence as the C.L. and Henriette Cline Centennial Visiting Professor in the Humanities included a panel discussion with university and community leaders on the notion of a caring society, and a lecture at Dell Medical School, where she met with students and inspired several of them to form their own close reading and expressive writing group based on the Columbia Presbyterian model.

O N E E V E R Y O N E • Taylor & Lilah


Dell Medical School student Virginia Waldrop, now in her second year, was excited when she saw the poster advertising Charon’s lecture at Dell Med because she knew a bit about Charon and Columbia Presbyterian’s narrative medicine program. A former humanities major who enjoys creative writing and reading literature, she knew that several of her fellow students would also enjoy a chance to get together outside of their regular studies to read literature and reflect on their experiences as an outlet to help them document their experience, preserve their humanity and “observe some of the aspects of ourselves that otherwise might be squashed over the course of four years of intense study.”

Waldrop and her fellow students approached the Humanities Institute and proposed a reading and writing workshop, a concept that Strong embraced. She turned to Barrish to develop an informal class that would be informed by Charon’s teachings about narrative medicine and the Close Reading Interpretive Tool (CRIT) protocol developed in the Department of English by several graduate students and faculty members, including Barrish.

Most importantly, the students saw Charon’s work at Columbia Presbyterian as a model that could help them become more adept at patient-centered care. In his introduction to Charon’s lecture at Dell Med, Steffensen emphasized that the most important job of a physician is to tell the patient’s story, citing the physician’s narrative summary as a form of contract for a “sacred relationship” that doesn’t exist in other venues and might be the only place where a patient’s story is told. Thus, evaluation of narrative prose — “the ability to have the expertise to write [the patient’s] story, to critique that story, to reflect on what that patient has told you” — is a skill that physicians need to know in order to create a plan that is beneficial to the patient.

In her book Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness, Charon explains that the better equipped physicians are to listen for or read for a narrative, “the more accurately they will entertain likely diagnoses and be alert for unlikely but possible ones.” In order to do this, physicians need to be trained to recognize metaphors, images, allusions to other stories, genre, mood — in other words, the things that literary critics look for in literary works. Literature, “because of its verbal richness and complexity,” as Barrish puts it, is not only good for teaching these competencies, but it can also help the students who come from a strong science background to recognize and “perhaps come to tolerate” ambiguity, conflicting evidence and the possible need to revise one’s initial assumptions about a situation.

O N E E V E R Y O N E • Pauline Strong, anthropology professor and Humanities Institute director.

Physicians need to be trained to recognize metaphors, images, allusions to other stories, genre, mood — in other words, the things that literary critics look for in literary works.

Reflective writing also helps build these literary skills — all of which serve to strengthen the core competency of observation — and it can also build empathy. As Charon argues, the ability to shift perspective to acknowledge another point of view is critical, and it may be weak in the contemporary health care profession. However, it’s a skill that can be taught, and one way is through a tool developed at Columbia Presbyterian called parallel charts.

Parallel charts give health care students a place to express things they can’t write on an official medical chart. Their value to students is more instructive than therapeutic, helping them better understand a patient’s experience and reflect on their own journey through medicine. When health professionals write about their experiences, they discover aspects that were not otherwise evident to them. Charon notes that students who write parallel charts report having more confidence in treating seriously ill or dying patients and in delivering bad news.


The informal class incorporated both aspects of Charon’s program: close reading and expressive writing. The students met with Barrish for two hours once a month, and no outside work was required of the already taxed students. Waldrop says this allowed everyone to start on the same foot, and all ideas and perspectives were welcome. Over the course of the spring, the group analyzed poems and brief prose selections from physician-writers including William Carlos Williams and Rafael Campo, and short pieces and poems from other literary figures including Junot Díaz and Walt Whitman.

Additionally, the method of close reading helped students become more attuned to their patients as complex human beings and, according to Barrish, develop the ability to recognize meaningful details and “weave them into a complex interpretation that tries to do justice to a text, whether it is a literary text, an intake interview with a patient or a discussion with a patient’s family.” The protocol for the close readings, which was adapted from Charon’s work and  the CRIT tool, also served to equalize the group; not all of the students were from a humanities background, and so this scaffolded yet flexible method made them feel supported in potentially unfamiliar territory.

In the second half of each session, students drew upon their individual experiences, emotions and interests in responding to open-ended prompts loosely related to the day’s reading. Students then took turns reading what they had written to the group, and each writer received feedback from the class and instructor about what was especially striking or effective in the piece. The writing exercises emphasized reflection and expressive communication as well as engaged listening and discussion.

In summarizing the evaluations from the workshop, Strong says the experience helped enhance the students’ skills in literary analysis, added to their sense of community, prompted self-reflection and discussions relevant to their professional formation, and improved their ability to offer patient-centered care. Aydin Zahedivash, now a second-year student at Dell Med, said that the workshop was “a really cool way to reflect on how the profession of medicine affects our patients.” The students generally also indicated the workshop made them more observant, more able to process difficult experiences with patients, and more able to maintain empathy and compassion in the clinical environment. All strongly agreed that they would recommend the workshop to other Dell Med students.

Ann Hamilton, O N E E V E R Y O N E, 2017, in the lobby of the Dell Medical School Health Learning Building.

One of the most powerful sessions, according to Barrish, was a discussion of William Carlos William’s “The Use of Force” — a story that describes an incident in which Williams has to restrain a child in order to perform an examination. The students were then asked to describe a personal experience inside or outside of a medical context in which power was exerted either by the student, against the student, or in a situation they witnessed and in which they were somehow complicit. One student wrote about trying to buckle her 2-year-old into a car seat, and the ambiguity of using force to ostensibly do something for someone’s good. As Barrish explains, this discussion connected directly to the medical school curriculum through the concept of patient compliance, and how difficult it is to understand and navigate humanely the myriad reasons why a patient may not always comply with a physician’s instruction. Zahedivash said he felt this session was “particularly impactful,” and that it “served as a reminder of the importance of professionalism.” Barrish concludes, “I wouldn’t say that session was the most successful, but I would say that it was the most emblematic of what we were trying to do.”

Students are required to take medical ethics class as part of their accreditation, but as Charon points out, the field of medical ethics seems to be grounded in the assumption that the doctor-patient relationship is adversarial and needs to be mediated by law and moral principles. Practitioners are now realizing that a knowledge of medical law is no longer enough to fulfill ethical duties to patients, but bringing literature or art into ethics instruction can help medical students experience these issues viscerally and be better equipped to make decisions based on their own values. As Barrish explains, ethics asks “What would you do in this situation?” while literature asks “What is the whole experience — physical, emotional, social, spiritual, etc. — of the situation and the people involved?” Armed with an understanding built on empathy, a physician is potentially poised to make a more humane decision and better fulfill what Steffensen refers to as the “sacred obligation to care.”

In turn, this potential change in ethics could lead to a different understanding of public health. Physicians can learn from humanities fields beyond literature — anthropology, art history, classics, history, and so on — to extrapolate from individual cases the influence on communities and the patterns that have led to social inequalities that in turn lead to health disparities.

O N E E V E R Y O N E • Heather

The Humanities Institute is interested in exploring these connections in many contexts. Not only will this year’s faculty fellows be presenting their work in a symposium in the spring, there will be additional lectures and events centered on medical humanities. Next summer, the Institute will also offer a Pop-Up Institute, “Health and Humanities: Narrative Medicine, Equity and Diversity, and Community Practice,” supported by the Office of the Vice President for Research.

As for the Dell Med students, they hope that the informal class will continue. And they aren’t the only students wanting to continue the work started this year. Thomas Nguyen (’17) was a neuroscience major who started writing poetry after taking an undergraduate studies course with English professor Brian Bremen, co-organizer with Barrish of the TILTS 2016-2017 program. Nguyen was also the event organizer for TILTS. Poetry intrigued Nguyen as a way of describing creatively what he was learning about the body because both medicine and poetry are “concerned with human contact and stories.” He had planned to go directly to medical school, but after Charon’s visit he applied and was accepted to the narrative medicine program at Columbia Presbyterian. Now he hopes to do in New York what he did here in Austin when he taught writing workshops at Austin State Hospital: “Narrative training will help me honor each story I hear — its pauses and silences, its tone and temporality, its form and frame, the body language and eye contact I witness — and then be moved in such a way to care for the patient. That’s as simple and as difficult as it sounds.”

“Asylum” (excerpt)
A patient from unit two
is screaming, threatening
to choke herself, but you can’t hear
anything, just see veins pulse
around her neck, branches
bare like elms in wintertime.
Silence still like sunrise
over Lake Vermilion.
You tell her to write down her words,
it helps with the processing.


Photography by Ann Hamilton

ONEEVERYONE is a public art project commissioned by Landmarks in 2017.


Tropical Storm: How Cuba Sent Revolutionary Waves Around the World Thu, 18 Jan 2018 19:19:25 +0000 When it comes to staging a revolution, timing is everything.

In 1959 an island nation of 7 million revolted against its U.S.-backed dictator, and with its subsequent export of revolution to Latin America became a major driver of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War.

In a story as compelling as it is complex, Professor Jonathan Brown’s new book, Cuba’s Revolutionary World, shows us why this one revolution — at a particular time in history — succeeded where many others had failed.

When Fidel Castro’s rebel forces seized control of Cuba on Jan. 1, 1959, their success in maintaining and building support among the Cuban people was fueled in part by the counterrevolutionary actions of the United States, which at the time saw much of the world through the lens of its rivalry with the Soviet Union.

“If the Cuban Revolution happened in 1949 rather than in ’59, it would have been completely different because of the international constellation of countries and their competition at the time,” says Brown, who teaches in the nation’s top-ranked Latin American History program in UT Austin’s Department of History.

The Cuban Revolution occurred at a time when a political tactician like Castro — who was a voracious reader and student of the French Revolution — seized the historical moment and exploited tensions between the superpowers, ultimately turning to the Soviets and Marxist-Leninism more for pragmatic than ideological reasons.

“The Cuban revolution in its origins wasn’t about Marxist-Leninism, it was more about nationalism,” says Brown. However, Castro’s fellow revolutionary, the Argentinian Ernesto “Che” Guevara, was committed to socialism — and to spreading the socialist revolution — from the very start.

“Fidel, after all, faced the practical concerns of running a country. But he never parted ways with Che, even when Che went to Latin America by himself [to export the revolution],” says Brown. “Their partnership was pretty important. Che kept Fidel grounded in the revolutionary ideology and the revolutionary pursuit.

“But neither Che nor Raúl [Castro] had Fidel’s personality or political skills. He was probably one of the greatest politicians of the 20th century for good or for ill, because he was so effective,” says Brown. “It’s hard to believe that the Cuban Revolution of 1959 could have produced another leader like him … if Fidel had taken a bullet on the last day of 1958, would history be the same?”

Within the context of the Cold War, Cuba’s export of revolution vastly disrupted the status quo in the Western Hemisphere, leading to a “secret war” with the U.S. that was largely conducted by the CIA. Ironically for the U.S. — a country that promoted democracy around the world — this secret war actually led to the decline of democracy in Latin America because the U.S. felt compelled to prop up anti- Castro leaders, even if they were dictators. In essence, Cuba exported both its revolution and counterrevolution.

“Any way you look at it, there is a lot of irony in the Cuban Revolution,” says Brown, who writes that “[Washington’s] opposition to Cuba trumped all other policies for Latin America. As a result, generals ruled Brazil for 21 years and Argentina for most of the 30 years after the fall of [Juan] Perón in 1955 … By 1976 a majority of Latin Americans lived under military rule, as opposed to 1958, when only a small minority did.

“The U.S. support of counterinsurgencies in Latin America became something like a game with no end point,” observes Brown. “The CIA didn’t want to show that its hand was behind it all — but they did  want to continue to harass Castro.”

But Cuba also effectively played the game with the U.S. and with the Soviets, who like the Americans were not keen on Cuba’s export of revolution. In fact, the Soviets weren’t all that interested in Cuba until a change in leadership made it attractive to Joseph Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev.

Fidel Castro and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev appear together on the rostrum of the Lenin Mausoleum during Castro’s four-week o icial visit to Moscow in May 1963. Photo by Getty Images.

“How many dictators do you know who can retire in their home country, and die peacefully in bed?” -Jonathan C. Brown

“Stalin would never have gotten involved in the Caribbean, but it just so happened that Khrushchev was looking for a big victory somewhere outside of his country, and Cuba was it,” says Brown.  “The official doctrine from Khrushchev to [Leonid] Brezhnev was that they wanted to compete peacefully with the United States and Western Europe, and they did not want to risk nuclear war. But Cuba wanted to go out and spread the revolution to the rest of Latin America, and they got away with it. That’s the amazing thing. And still the Soviets kept giving them arms and economic aid.”

Although Cuba’s adventures abroad played an outsized role in Cold War politics, Che Guevara’s dream of exporting revolution to countries in Latin America and Africa was mostly unsuccessful.

One exception was Panama, which had sought for years to gain control of the U.S.-occupied Canal Zone that bisected the small country. In 1959, eighty armed Cubans led by two Panamanians assaulted Panama’s small Atlantic port, Nombre de Dios. Perhaps the assault helped to “rile up” a few Panamanians, but Brown notes they already had inspiration in the 1956 anti-imperialist uprising at the Suez Canal.

If anything, it was U.S. intransigence that fueled the ire of Panama’s citizens and leaders. Brown writes that during a time of strong anti-communism in the U.S., “Castro always popped up as the cause of the troubles over the Panama Canal.” When the Americans showed no interest in renegotiating the canal treaty, Panama’s de facto dictator Omar Torrijos reached out to Cuba and sought assistance from the newly formed Non-Aligned Movement, created by Castro to ensure “the national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and security  of non-aligned countries” in their struggle against imperialism.

Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior, located at the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, bears a large image of revolutionary Che Guevara. Photo by David Ochsner.

Brown saw first-hand the mood in Panama, where he served as a military officer in the Canal Zone in the late 1960s.

“I arrived in Panama about three or four weeks after Torrijos made a coup d’état. He did not become the right-wing dictator the Americans usually put up with. He became a reformer,” says Brown. “It was the inability of politicians in Washington to fashion an intelligent policy that led directly to the coup by Torrijos, who would eventually convince the Americans to give up control of canal operations and the Canal Zone itself. He probably would not have been able to do that if it hadn’t been for Fidel Castro.”

Although Cuba had less success in exporting revolution to other countries, this aggressive stance did buy it a measure of security.

“You look at the French Revolution, the Iranian Revolution, the Russian Revolution — they wanted to inspire revolutions in other countries to bring safety to themselves, and they knew that their neighbors were going to hate them because they had introduced a new model of development to the region,” says Brown. “So, in order to sustain the revolution over the long term, the revolutionary leader uses aggressive foreign policy to continue to mobilize people, and the leader gives each new generation a revolutionary mission.”

Before relations with the U.S. soured, Fidel Castro demonstrated his PR skills during an April 1959 visit to New York City, just four months after he took charge of Cuba. Castro hired a public relations firm for the visit, during which he held babies, ate hotdogs and was kissed by beauty queens — all of it eagerly lapped up by news cameras. Here he clowns around with schoolchildren who were visiting him at his hotel. Photo by Getty Images.

Cuba remains the only country in Latin America that has successfully defied the United States and cut off all relations to the country. And up until his death in 2016, Castro was probably the most successful nationalist dictator in the world. Asks Brown: “How many dictators do you know who can retire in their home country and die peacefully in bed?”

Fidel, his brother Raúl, and Che were successful in equalizing society and destroying the class system in Cuba, notes Brown, but now that Cuba is changing back into a more worldly, globalized economy, the class system is coming back, favoring white Cubans who have relatives in Miami.

Despite the changes in Cuban society, including the relaxing of economic restrictions, strong opposition remains to normalizing relations with Cuba, particularly from the Cuban-American community in Miami. According to Brown, that too has deep historical roots.

Fidel Castro’s famous explanation of the meaning of “Patria o Muerte” (country or death) is hand painted at the grand entrance to a decaying colonial mansion in Old Havana. The building’s top floor houses one of Cuba’s most celebrated restaurants, La Guarida. Photo by David Ochsner.

“Castro’s revolution was a middle-class  revolution — Fidel himself was from that background. They were educated people,” says Brown. “But the Cuban middle class was also a historically divided class. Long before the revolution there were great sectarian divides. The middle class could not unite on any political objective. And that was true from 1902 when they were allowed to become independent from the U.S. up until 1959, and that’s why only a strongman could stay in power and unite the country. It was the middle class that moved to Miami.”

Brown notes that those who arrived in Miami first were the most conservative members of Cuba’s middle class, many  of them supporters of deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista. And because they were there first, they still have a lot of control over money and politics in Miami’s Cuban community, as well as over Washington’s stance toward the island nation.

“Our foreign policy toward Cuba depends upon presidential electioneering, and that’s really sad. Fidel is still influencing the United States … from the grave,” Brown says. “You can never expect intelligent foreign policies to come from presidential elections, because every president will be blocked from creating new policies for unusual situations in the world. The electorate always goes for strength first. All during the Cold War we confused nationalism with communism and treated both the same — with hostility. And it didn’t matter if the nationalist was a dictator or a democratic leader elected by his own people.”

Cuba’s Revolutionary World
Harvard University Press, April 2017
By Jonathan C. Brown

Brown says he believes Cuba will remain a communist nation “as far into the future as I can see. It will remain communist like China has remained communist. But economic restructuring, social change, those may be allowed to proceed. But the Communist Party is not going to give up without a fight.”

He says Cuba’s communist leaders can persist because they have a “safety valve” in the U.S. “Because the country is so close to the United States, anybody who is politically upset with the Communist Party can always leave and join the people in Miami and continue to live a Cuban life.”

As for future relations with Cuba, Brown says it is important for Americans to remember one thing: “The Cubans will always be Cubans. And they’re not Russians.”



Where India Goes Thu, 18 Jan 2018 17:00:23 +0000 UT Austin economist Dean Spears and sociologist Diane Coffey founded the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (r.i.c.e.) in 2011 with the goal of improving health and well-being in India. They focus on an important driver of economic development: the health of children.

Despite rapid economic growth, India’s infant and under-five mortality rate continues to be higher than its poorer neighbors in Bangladesh and Nepal.

“Money is not the only component of a good life — another is health,” Spears says. “When a population’s children are not as healthy as they could be, the whole society and economy will eventually miss out on well-being.”

Their work was featured in National Geographic magazine in August 2017 in an investigative story on the dangers of rural Indian communities’ unsanitary practices of defecating outdoors. Like Coffey and Spears’ book, Where India Goes, the narrative wrestled with offering feasible solutions for outdoor defecation — mainly, constructing latrines — while addressing the communities’ “unique legacy of untouchability.”

Unlike in other countries, where it is an unpleasant and low-ranking job to empty a latrine pit, in India this work is associated with a deep stigma of untouchability and the lowest social rank in the caste system, Spears explains.

“When big problems are driven by social inequality, we should not expect it to go away overnight. As we write in the book, working to end casteism and untouchability is working to end open defecation and vice versa,” Spears says. “The exact right things to try are a matter for trial and error and iterative improvement, which is exactly why more people need to be involved.”

The Journey Continues: Rapoport Scholars Fulfill a Commitment to Community and Civic Life Wed, 17 Jan 2018 19:49:24 +0000 It began with a daring escape from Siberia that involved walking more than 600 miles. After five years of exile, a Russian revolutionary named David Rapoport found refuge in Belgium, and in 1913 he immigrated to a new life in San Antonio. It was from this man, his father, that Bernard “B” Rapoport drew his inspiration.

“My father taught me three things,” B Rapoport wrote in an address to students on business ethics. “One, protect your name; two, never let a book out of your hands; and three, and most important, have a sense of outrage at injustice.”

In San Antonio, David Rapoport met and married Reva Feldman, who was also a Russian immigrant and the daughter of Hasidic Jews. B was born in 1917, and he and the family lived in poverty during and after the Depression, David selling blankets from a pushcart to earn a living.

Bernard “B” and Audre Rapoport.

After a childhood facing eviction and discrimination, and a car accident that confined him to bed for a year and a half and left him with a permanent limp, B made it to The University of Texas at Austin, where he worked his way through school and graduated with a degree in economics in 1939.

In 1942, B met Audre Newman in Waco. They went on a blind date, where they argued about whether women should wear eye shadow, and Audre asked to be taken home. The following day, B showed up on her doorstep with flowers and proposed. They married a month later on Valentine’s Day.

Audre Newman Rapoport was born in Chicago in 1923. At age 3, she and her mother, Waco-native Josephine Newman, moved to Waco, a town Audre would be passionate about for the rest of her life. She attended UT Austin as well, and worked tirelessly in public service and politics.

In the 1950s, the Rapoports founded the American Income Life Insurance Company, which found its success selling policies to labor unions. They spent the first five years establishing the business in Indiana, but in 1956 Audre insisted that both the family – Audre, B and their  young son, Ronald – and the business move to Waco.

The Rapoports established The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation in 1987 to focus on areas that they were most passionate about: education, arts and culture, democracy and civic participation, health, community building and social services.

It was through this foundation that the Rapoport Service Scholarship program was established in the College of Liberal Arts in 2001. B approached the college himself, interested in creating a scholarship that reflected his experience as a liberal arts undergraduate student, combined with his advocacy for community engagement and civic life.

In April 2012, B died at the age of 94. He and Audre had been married for 70 years. Audre became the president of the Rapoport Foundation after his death, running and guiding it before she died in April 2016 at the age of 92. Their son, Ronald, now leads the foundation.


The Rapoport Service Scholarship was founded on three tenets emphasized by B and Audre: community service, academic coursework and leadership development. With this program, the Rapoports’ goal was to train community leaders who would then provide service to their communities.

They also wanted to help support students financially while developing their civic awareness and responsibility. Applicants, who must be freshmen in the College of Liberal Arts, are considered on both financial need and academic merit. Those selected, typically 12-15 students annually, receive $10,000 per year, a total of $30,000 per student, as well as an Apple MacBook.

But the monetary gift is only a portion of the support Rapoport scholars receive. The scholarship is rooted in service learning, so the 200-hour community service requirement for scholars each summer isn’t the only component of their experience.

“Service learning means there’s an academic component to the service that you do,” says Eric Bowles, who serves as the program’s assistant director, as well as a teacher and mentor to the Rapoport scholars. “It’s a reflection piece.

“The idea, I think from the beginning, was to give students a space to be able to talk about their service,” Bowles says. “So that’s what makes it a true service learning experience, instead of just volunteerism or community service.”

As incoming sophomores, Rapoport scholars take a one-hour weekly course, Leadership, Ethics, and Society, taught by Bowles, which challenges students to discuss issues that influence society including race, gender, inequality and discrimination. Students learn about systems of privilege and power in society, how they work and how people and society as a whole are connected to them.

With that knowledge, scholars are assigned groups and set out to design a nonprofit organization that solves a problem within a community.

“They think it’s all about the project, but it’s not,” Bowles says. “They have to resolve a problem by using volunteerism as a cornerstone to what they do. That’s part of it. I want to see the product, and the entire class gets to rate the product. So it’s a group effort the entire way  through – we want to pick apart what they did and try to improve it.

“At the end, though, we have a really long discussion about what did you learn from your experience, what did you learn about yourself as a leader, your communication skills. The idea is always to try to connect academics and school with service and work, and your ability to create change.

“That’s a big belief for us; you don’t need any kind of accolades and fancy anything to create change,” Bowles says. “You can go and create change right now, and that’s an empowering thing. ‘Wait a minute, I don’t have to sit around and wait for a grant. I don’t have to sit around and wait for the government. I don’t have to sit around and wait for anybody. I can do this. I’m educated. I’m smart. I know what I’m doing.’ And that’s what we’re trying to do with that first class, is do a quick introduction to some of the themes and then really just empower them and say, go do it. Go create that change.”

“That’s a big belief for us; you don’t need any kind of accolades and fancy anything to create change, you can go and create change right now, and that’s an empowering thing.” -Eric Bowles

As juniors, Rapoport scholars take Civic Engagement and Civic Responsibility with Bowles.

“The whole point of that class is, ‘Are you connecting to the community? If so, how and why?’” Bowles says. “‘And if you’re not, why aren’t you?’ It’s learning how to ask really, really good questions.”

In 2010, the Rapoport Service Scholarship program partnered with the Bridging Disciplines Program (BDP) in the School of Undergraduate Studies to allow select Rapoport scholars to participate in a certificate program made up of 19 hours of coursework that combines classroom, internship and research experience. The BDP allows students to choose one of 16 concentrations based on their  specific interests. The most popular categories among Rapoport scholars are social inequality, health and policy; human rights and social justice; social entrepreneurship and nonprofits; children and society; and global studies.

Since the Rapoport Service Scholarship was established in 2001, more than 200 students have received funding and mentorship to encourage their interest in public service. Over the life of the program, Rapoport scholars have contributed more than 100,000 hours of community service, averaging more than 7,000 hours of service per year. Those hours were spent with more than 250 organizations including public schools, government organizations, universities, hospitals, religiously affiliated groups, nonprofit organizations and charities. Each was carefully selected by individual scholars in areas they were most interested in helping make change.

The Rapoport Service Scholarship program has directly benefited hundreds of lives, and indirectly helped untold numbers through each scholar’s service work, as well as the lives reached when Rapoport alumni go into careers in public service. The following are four scholars who were aided in pursuing their passions for helping others as recipients of the Rapoport Service Scholarship.


Dr. Emiko Petrosky, who serves as a medical officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, is an ’05 humanities alumna who was part of the scholarship program’s second year.

“The Rapoport Service Scholarship  does more than simply pay for school. It teaches its recipients the importance of giving back to the community,” Petrosky says. “When I reflect back on the time I spent volunteering through the scholarship, I realize that at some point I began to see community service as not just an activity, something you do in the moment, but as an action.

“An opportunity to improve the world in which we live that requires ongoing action to be effective and sustainable,” she continues. “It can’t be just a one-time event. You have to develop relationships with people and the community to effect change.”

“Volunteering in so many different organizations allowed me to see the importance of community involvement in health.” -Dr. Emiko Petrosky

As a Rapoport scholar, Petrosky participated in community service in many settings, from hospitals, to schools, to local nonprofit organizations. These experiences helped shape her future.

“I ultimately chose a career in public health, and I suspect the scholarship influenced my choice to go down that path,” says Petrosky. “Volunteering in so many different organizations allowed me to see the importance of community involvement in health.

“Medicine often focuses on diagnosis and treatment for the individual, but public health focuses on prevention and promoting the health of people and communities in which they live,” she adds.

Petrosky attended medical school at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and went on to specialize in preventive medicine and public health. At the CDC, she works in violence prevention, studying “trends and patterns in violence so that we can better understand who it is affecting and how, and to try to get to why it is happening so that we can work to prevent it from happening in the first place.”

Becoming a Rapoport scholar was an affirmation that Petrosky’s goals were both valid and reachable.

“I don’t remember a time when I did not want to work in public service,” Petrosky says. “My life has been pretty fantastic, in large part because I have been lucky. I’ve been provided with a set of opportunities that not everyone gets, and I feel it is my duty to give back to a world that has treated me so well. I am so grateful that I was able to participate in this program, and I hope it continues so that future students can learn from it and be influenced in the way that I was.”


Lauren Birks graduated from UT Austin in 2013 with a degree in psychology and a UTeach natural sciences middle grades mathematics certification. She received her Master of Social Work from the University of Michigan with concentrations on interpersonal practice for children and youth in families, and completed the school social work certification.

“Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Rapoport,” Birks says. “However, I attended his memorial service during my fourth year. I knew Mr. Rapoport was one of a kind in many ways, but attending his memorial service furthered my appreciation, admiration and thankfulness for him believing in me without ever knowing me.

“It was unexpected for a man I never met to have such an impact on my life, and he will forever.” -Lauren Birks

“Hearing stories from so many about how he impacted their lives and others displayed the legacy he left, and I am  forever grateful for that,” Birks says. “It was unexpected for a man I never met to have such an impact on my life, and he will forever. Attending his memorial helped me remember too that I am here to advocate for others because I have been given the platform to do so, and I cannot lose sight of that.”

While pursuing her MSW, Birks served in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica from 2014 to 2016 as a youth development volunteer. She participated in the recently retired Master’s International Program, in which the Peace Corps collaborated with various universities as an opportunity for graduate students to incorporate the Peace Corps into their graduate studies. Birks completed a year of her MSW prior to serving, then returned to the University of Michigan to finish her degree.

“The Peace Corps’ unofficial motto is ‘The Hardest Job You’ll Ever Love,’ and I completely agree with it,” Birks says. “I lived in a small rural community with limited resources, which taught me to be innovative and creative to implement projects centered on art, recreation and life skills to positively influence self-esteem in youth. Serving in Peace Corps came with its challenges personally and professionally, but that’s what makes it Peace Corps, and I would not change any of it.”

Recently, Birks has taken on the role of school social worker at Hamtramck High School and Early Childhood Elementary in Hamtramck, Michigan. The job allows her to advocate for what she calls her two passions, a youth’s education and mental health. In her position, she is a resource for youths, teachers and the community, “so we can all work together in helping youths achieve their goals and successfully receive an education.”

The lessons that have stuck with Birks are the ones that the Rapoports were hoping to instill when they created the scholarship program.

“Being a Rapoport scholar is more than a scholarship,” Birks says. “The service learning courses created a hands-on learning environment that taught me to really think about being intentional about service and my interactions with others. This scholarship taught me how service should and can be part of your regular lifestyle.”


Public service is personal for Lizeth Urdiales, a 2017 Mexican American studies alumna from Houston.

“I started volunteering when I was 14 years old,” Urdiales says. “I would work with food pantries and summer programs in my community. If I wasn’t volunteering, I would be the recipient of the services provided, so it was my way to give back to my community for as much as they had given me.”

As a freshman at UT Austin, Urdiales was succeeding academically but was under financial pressure.

“While I still worked multiple jobs during my collegiate career to keep up with my living expenses and help my family back home, with Rapoport I wasn’t concerned about how I would be covering the expenses for my tuition.” -Lizeth Urdiales

“I was already struggling to buy a single $10 book for one of my classes,” Urdiales says. “I was on my way to Barnes & Noble, and I borrowed the funds from a friend. That’s when I got the call announcing that I had received the scholarship. It was super exciting, and I felt a bit better about knowing that I wouldn’t struggle to purchase a $10 book in the following years.

“While I still worked multiple jobs during my collegiate career to keep up with my living expenses and help my family back home, with Rapoport I wasn’t concerned about how I would be covering the expenses for my tuition,” Urdiales says. “Which left me room to be an advocate through being an officer in the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the Queer and Trans Students Alliance.”

In addition to her leadership roles in campus organizations, Urdiales volunteered with a variety of nonprofits including Skills4Living, a financial literacy organization for underrepresented communities in Houston; the speech and debate organization that she participated in during high school; and the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Now that she’s graduated, Urdiales says she plans to spend the next two years working before applying to graduate school, pursuing an MBA with a concentration in entrepreneurship.

“I would like to continue my work in focusing on queer and immigrant advocacy,” Urdiales says. “With my MBA, I hope to assist in the expansion of co-operative companies with businesses owned and worked by underrepresented populations. As I go from undocumented student to U.S. permanent resident worker in this country, I’m excited to see how Ican increase my outreach.”

In the time between her undergraduate and graduate education, Urdiales will also be pursuing a creative project.

“Since I’m a Campus Ambassador Alumni with GLAAD, the queer media national organization, between now and grad school I will also be focusing on a media project centered around the intersections of being queer and undocumented,” Urdiales says. “I can’t wait to present it to the world.”


Juan H. Guerra is a Rapoport scholar from Eagle Pass, Texas. He is a senior majoring in history and Mexican American studies.

“My parents always raised me with the values of helping others and giving back to your community,” Guerra says.

Lizeth Urdiales was Guerra’s mentor during his freshman year. After they discussed their mutual passion for public service, she introduced him to the scholarship.

“Receiving the news after a day of stress, after a semester of stress, really made all the work I had been putting into my college career worth it so far,” Guerra says. “I won’t lie. After that first year of loans I had to take out to attend UT, I was skeptical on whether or not I would be returning. My family could not afford to send me to UT, so all the loans I had taken out were under my name. After receiving the Rapoport scholarship, I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.

“My parents always raised me with the values of helping others and giving back to your community.” -Juan H. Guerra

“The money received is not everything, however,” he continues. “After receiving the scholarship, I was able to focus more on education-based public service, not to mention being able to form a bond with other individuals who value public service and want to better their communities as much as I do.”

As a Rapoport scholar, Guerra has volunteered with Angeles Del Cielo (Angels From Heaven), a nonprofit in his hometown that helps special-needs children and people across the community with tutoring in school subjects, social exposure and trade skills. He also volunteered with Las Colonias Head Start, which provides children from low-income households with a free education before they are enrolled in the school district.

After graduation in the spring, Guerra says he plans to attend graduate school at UT Austin, studying history with a focus on the U.S.-Mexico border. He also wants to return to Eagle Pass to teach. “I feel like that is one of the best ways to help out your community,” Guerra says.

“I plan on continuing to do education- based public service and continue to help the youth,” he adds. “My goal is to eventually become superintendent of the school district in my town. I really want to have an impact on my community and make a significant difference in my hometown.”


David Rapoport could not have made it out of Siberia alive without the help and support of others. People along the way clothed, fed and sheltered him on his journey to a new life in a new country. Learning from his father about that experience was formative in B Rapoport’s life, and he found that he had those values in common with Audre.

The emphasis they placed on public service lives on through the Rapoport Service Scholarship program and through the young scholars whose life journeys the Rapoports so generously support.

Illustrations by Eric Moe
Damning the Amazon? Fri, 12 Jan 2018 18:31:44 +0000 Hundreds of built and proposed hydroelectric dams may significantly harm life in and around the Amazon, according to research led by UT Austin scientists recently published in Nature.

To meet energy needs, economic developers in South America have proposed 428 hydroelectric dams, with 140 currently built or under construction, in the Amazon basin — the largest and most complex network of river channels in the world, sustaining the highest biodiversity on Earth and 20 percent of the planet’s fresh water. Though justified for providing renewable energy and avoiding carbon emissions, these dams may present major disturbances to the Amazon floodplains, rainforests and the northeast coast of South America, as well as the regional climate, researchers say.

Rivers in the Amazon basin move like a dance, exchanging sediments across continental distances to deliver nutrients to “a mosaic of wetlands,” sustaining wildlife, contributing to the regional food supplies and modulating river dynamics that result in high habitat and biotic diversity, says lead author Edgardo Latrubesse, professor of geography and the environment and faculty affiliate of the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies.

Researchers found that many of the existing dams are located in areas of high sediment yield, such as the Andean Cordillera, which provides more than 90 percent of the detrital sediment to the entire system. The Marañón and Ucayali rivers are the most vulnerable in this area, with 104 and 47 dams planned or constructed on each river, respectively. Researchers estimated 68 to 80 percent of the area upstream of the lowermost planned dam in these rivers will remain unprotected from dam influence, modifying the rivers’ dynamics, decreasing floods and floodplain sediment storage, and putting thousands of species of birds, fish and trees at risk.

Similarly, the Madeira River — which accounts for about half of the Amazon River system’s total sediment transported from Bolivia and Peru and is home to the most diverse fish population in the Amazon — faces extreme risks of potential land use change, erosion, runoff pollution and trapped sediment, researchers say. Here, two huge dams were recently constructed, the Santo Antônio and Jiaru dams, which led to a 20 percent decrease in the average sediment concentration in the Madeira despite unusually high flood discharges in 2014 and 2015.

Other large rivers in the central highlands of Brazil are also impacted, researchers say. Investigation of the Tapajós River — where the main stem has not yet been directly disrupted, but 28 dams were recently constructed in its major tributaries — showed that the river and all its major tributaries will be impounded if developers move forward with 90 proposed dams and deforestation continues at its current rate.

“We have to put the risks on the table and change the way people are looking at the problem. We are massively destroying our natural resources, and time urges us to find some rational alternatives for preservation and sustainable development,” Latrubesse says.

Banner image: Marañón River and Cochapata bends.

Photo: Gato Montes
Fashion Meets Function Fri, 12 Jan 2018 17:22:17 +0000 Though an avid cyclist, Gloria Hwang was never a fan of helmets, referring to them as “sci-fi” nuisances. But after losing a friend through a cycling accident, her perspective changed. Hwang, a psychology alumna, says her mission in founding and launching Thousand, a new brand of cycling helmets, was to save lives, noting that there are 50,000 reported cycling injuries each year, 1,000 of which are fatal — hence, the name Thousand.

The company, overseen by a board of advisers made up entirely of women, aims to eliminate the stigma around wearing helmets by introducing a modern style twist to protective wear. Thousand safety-certified helmets offer lightweight and cooling protection, with finishes to match any style and a patent-pending PopLock system — designed by Hwang’s father, a former NASA engineer — so riders can securely leave both their bike and helmet behind.

A Kickstarter campaign last year raised $230,000 for the company, allowing Thousand helmets to be sold at specialty retailers worldwide, as well as on the Thousand website.

“Because of our mission, I think we’ve approached the industry differently. Our goal is to ‘rebrand’ the bike helmet from commodity to lifestyle accessory,” Hwang told Forbes. “Moreover, we really don’t see ourselves in competition with other helmet companies. Our approach has always been to grow our industry, so we’ve always viewed our competition as ‘not wearing a helmet,’ not other companies.”

Banner image: Gloria Hwang, Thousand founder and CEO.

Photo courtesy of Thousand