Photography, DACA and Jazz: A Week in the Studio with American Dreamers

When Studio Music and Jazz Department Chair John Daversa asked me photograph his American Dreamers recording session last March, I thought I was signing up for a fly-on-the-wall kind of job. “Just a couple hours to grab some shots of the band,” he told me. But when I showed up with my camera, it became clear that this was not that kind of gig. This was something much bigger and more crucial than I had expected. 

I knew very little about the project before I arrived, and learned quickly that was entirely the point. It wasn’t until Kabir Sehgal, one of the album’s producers, found me and said, “All these musicians here, everyone you don’t know—they’re all DACA recipients,” did I understand the situation’s sensitive nature. At the time of the session, not even a year had passed since the Obama-era legislation had been rescinded, stripping nearly 800,000 early childhood arrivals of their protected legal status. And there I was with my camera. Documenting the undocumented.  

Understandably, some of the Dreamers were initially uncomfortable having their pictures taken. Not knowing what to say and unable to empathize, I relied on members of the film crew and some of the older DACA recipients to quell their fears. Está bien, I heard one say. It’s okay.

I spent a lot of time with the Dreamers, learning about their lives and stories. Originally, I thought this was the best way to secure their willingness to be photographed. That motivation quickly disappeared, and in its place grew the utter joy of simply being with them. After a couple of days, whenever they saw me with my camera they would strike a goofy pose and say, “I’m thinking this for the album cover.” 

I spent most days that week in the studio, for several reasons. My photography responsibilities multiplied. I ended up recording percussion and vocal tracks. But more than anything, I was overcome with respect and adoration for the dozens of Dreamers—several of whom were flown in from across the country—whose musicality and fearlessness make Dreamers more of revolution than a record.  

Since the album’s release just few weeks ago, politicians from both sides of the isle have lauded its critical and timely message. U.S. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi stated:“May the soaring melodies and harmonies of these courageous Dreamers remind everyone who hears them of the beauty and resiliency of the human spirit and of our responsibility to honor our heritage as a nation of immigrants.” Republican Senator Lindsay Graham added, “Dream Act children have known no country other than America. American Dreamers features a heartfelt expression of patriotism by talented Dreamers performing the songs of our country."

I will not soon forget the week I spent witnessing this project come to life.  American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedomis available everywhere. Oh, and a note about the music itself: if you haven’t heard anything by John Daversa, prepare to be thunderstruck. 

And don’t forget to vote.

Running from Hurricanes in the Age of Incuriousness

Since ancient times, man has forged explanations for the unexplainable. The ancient Mongolians claimed earth rested on the back of a giant frog whose movements caused earthquakes. The Igorot people of the Philippines believed the eldest son of Lumawig, the Great Spirit, formed mountains when he sent water flooding over all of earth, forcing the ground to rise.

People create stories to make sense of their surroundings. As time and technology progressed, the scientific method replaced mythology and the scope of discovery globalized. Curiosity drives people to understand and moderate the environment, enabling us to learn, make calculated decisions and ultimately survive.

Yet curiosity lacks in recent times. Scientific evidence is met with disdain and disbelief from the public and elected leaders. Despite the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that “scientific evidence for the warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” our own president has called the phenomenon “nonexistent.” It seems that what people believe to be true is held in higher regard than what is actually true. 

The hot button topic of climate change reentered the limelight again this month after two major hurricanes left much of Houston and Florida dilapidated and waterlogged. And while scientists agree that no single weather event can be attributed to climate change, warmer waters provide storms with more energy to grow substantially and rapidly, causing more dangerous weather conditions.

Despite current partisan divisions, science has not always been a partisan issue. So much has changed since Republican Sen. John McCain ran for president in 2008 on a stronger climate platform than his opponent, Barack Obama. Since then, top Republican lawmakers have gone from publicly endorsing climate science to being silent on the topic. 

One of the explanations for this shift is big political money. Koch Industries, the giant frog atop of which the fossil fuel industry precariously rests, gave nearly $2 million to Republican congressional campaigns in 2016. Additionally, representatives from the coal-mining states of fill top Republican leadership positions, and are more likely to vote against measures that monitor carbon dioxide emissions and fund clean energy projects.

But while scientific curiosity may bring us to unsavory conclusions that threaten jobs and traditions, we must allow it to guide us toward truth, and adapt. Unfortunately, President Trump has not embraced this approach.

His administration has responded to climate change by instating Scott Pruitt, who refuses to admit that carbon dioxide is a harmful pollutant, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and scrubbing any mention of climate change from the EPA’s website.

Others have taken actions contradictory to their stances on climate change. Florida Gov. Rick Scott strongly and repeatedly warned Florida residents of the wrath of Hurricane Irma, calling it “a catastrophic storm that our state has never seen before.” Ironically, climate scientists have been predicting storms like Irma for years now, yet Gov. Scott continues to say he is “not convinced” that global warming is a reality.

Irma was the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Basin. Hurricane Maria, which devastated Dominica and Puerto Rico, strengthened from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane in fewer than two days. 

If these were ancient times, people would wonder what they did to anger the deities. But we live in the information age, not the era of blind conjecture. Asking "Why?" is more important than ever. If elected officials continue to assert that the growing severity and frequency of natural disasters is utterly incidental, the nation will face dire consequences.

People must take collective action to limit our impact on the planet, refocus attention on data and facts and stifle the plague of incuriousness that—unlike all plagues that have so far beset us—may be our own undoing. 

Bringing Back the Value of the Individual Voice in Politics

I learned a new word recently: dehisce, meaning to split along a natural line or weakness. The term usually refers to the way in which seedpods are discharged from plants at the time of maturity, allowing their genes to be disseminated in the environment and eventually grow anew. 

Interesting, I thought, how this process of separation is innately regenerative. After all, the term splitting usually evokes feelings of reduction or defeat: the end of a relationship, the breakdown of a physical object. 

We are wired to view splitting of all sorts as unfortunate, a departure from the esteemed state of unity. Politically speaking, this is a common sentiment: the partisan divide is widening and we are worse off because of it. Polarization has rendered compromise a thing of the past. Divergence halts progress. 

But the great political split we are witnessing is not inherently problematic. The problem lies in the product of the split. Congress no longer consists of hundreds of individual actors, but two ideological blocs, each comprised of legislators that are largely unwilling to voice opinions contrary to that of their party. When it became known that over 20 million Americans would lose their health insurance under the Graham-Cassidy Health Care Bill - a staggering statistic that should have nullified the piece of legislation - only four out of the 52 Republicans senators said they would vote against it. What's worse is that 20 Republican senators either refused to speak publicly about the bill, or offered a noncommittal statement. When the voice of the individual is diminished to serve the will of the many, opportunities for constructive debate and negotiation are stifled, and superior ideas never reach fruition. 

It is not ideological disagreement, but impenetrable unity exhibited by both Democrats and Republicans that truly divides us. In Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison famously deliberates on the topic of faction, stating that a republic’s representatives must be “raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude.” This statement is predicated on the assumption that every representative is a relational actor, capable of harboring unique perspectives as well as the ability to work with others. This has not been the case. We have reduced ourselves to two warring cabals, equally disinclined to split apart and explore new avenues of growth. 

The result is the current state of American politics. A culture deadened by inflexibility and constant conflict. And its reach extends beyond Washington: one's political leanings can instantly destabilize a preexisting relationship. The words "conservative" and "liberal" are weighed down by so many connotations that they negate self-efficacy.  

Let us be immaculate with our words, and resist attachment to the comfortable and familiar. Let us find solace in reconstructing relationships. Let us dehisce and grow again, with stability and respect at the roots. 

The Rise of Modern Sophism in the Trump Era

There existed in ancient Athens two schools of intellectual thought: philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, made up one school characterized by a devotion to serving justice and seeking epistemic truth. The second school was that of the sophists, a group of rhetoricians known for manipulating public opinion through fallacious language and skepticism towards fact. Simply put, sophists were exceptionally skilled at arguing and using any means necessary—even openly flouting the truth—to convince others of their correctness.  

Donald Trump and his administration reside in a sophistic world. Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer’s frequent denunciation of the media and coinage of “alternate facts” destabilizes the public’s preexisting ideas of equity and justice, and dizzies them with messages of racially-tinged urgency and nationalism. That is, after all, how Trump found his way into the White House: he authenticated people’s fears and feelings without regard to what is actually true.  

What the Trump administration must soon realize is that what worked on the campaign trail doesn’t fly in the White House. His voters are expecting guidance where charisma used to satisfy, and they are coming up empty handed. Trump’s keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference offered no substantial information on how he plans to rework NAFTA or drastically improve our national security. What the public heard was a slew of bizarre assertions and a reminder that, if you didn’t know already, things are still “very bad.”

I had hoped that the tone of Trump’s presidency would shift under pressure to become less antagonistic and more informative, but the opposite has happened. One of Trump’s advisers stated that the powers of the President should not be questioned. Steve Bannon has called the media the “opposition party.” Major news outlets were barred from attending a White House briefing last week. Trump will condemn federal judges before he utters one word against a murderous, foreign dictator. 

Evidently, the immaculate democracy that Trump promised to harness and hand to the people has fallen out of the dream from whence it came. 

The irony here, which I imagine is lost upon the President, is that by ignoring the facts—denying the legitimacy of climate research, falsifying crime and unemployment statistics and misrepresenting historical events—we only isolate ourselves from our own sensibilities, and the stabilizing systems that the world relies on to achieve peace. 



The Importance of Discomfort

This summer I spent a month working as the Office Coordinator at a music camp where I was a student for many years. When I first got to work, I was excited to learn that we were presenting a class called Social Justice in Jazz, in which students discussed stereotypes in the context of jazz music (women don’t like long solos; white people over-intellectualize music) and gained tools to help them talk about sensitive topics like race, gender and sexual identity. “Speak your truth” and “expect and accept discomfort” were some of these tools.

The latter struck a chord with me. Expect and accept discomfort. Nowadays, discomfort is one of the things we avoid at all costs. We surround ourselves with people who reinforce our opinions and look, speak and hold the same number of degrees as we do. It’s considered rude to bring up politics and religion at social gatherings and risk inciting a debate. Why? Because validating differing philosophies and perspectives makes us reevaluate our own, and that is uncomfortable. Because the anxiety of insecurity is a small tug boat in a sea of uncertainty pushing us towards ideological isolation. And it is in this place where we can rest easy, knowing that we are morally and intellectually superior to the faceless others who do not think like we do. 

Evading discomfort does wonders for one’s ego, but it doesn’t teach us anything. The beauty and the gift of discomfort is that it breaks open our notions of truth and forces us to confront a new reality, one that incorporates the stories, sacrifices and truths of those whose lives are vastly different from ours.  

This was the goal of the Social Justice in Jazz class. To open the floor to every student who wanted to speak his, her or their truth, and leave them with a better understanding of what music can be when we see each other as whole, complex and legitimate beings.  

Some people did not share this belief. Before the Social Justice class even ended, I received a phone call from a mother who asserted that we were “indoctrinating” her son with a “liberal agenda,” that this class has nothing to do with music and her son doesn’t hate anybody, why do we think he hates people? 

I was bewildered. How badly I wanted to shout “Good!” when she told me her son felt excluded, probably for the first time in his life. How desperately I wanted to explain that jazz came about in response to and in protest of intolerance and racism that permeates our country to this day. I wanted to tell her that I am the only woman in my major, and even though I embrace that now, I would have given anything to have someone tell my younger self that my experiences in this male-dominated field were valid, and teach me to be comfortable sharing them. 

But my job was not to say those things. My job was to listen, and the conversation never left the realm of polite civility. She thanked me for my time, I hung up the phone, locked the office door and plunged my head in my hands until a 12-year old girl came knocking a minute later, in need of a tissue. As I left the office that day, still rattled from that conversation, I passed a group of campers discussing the Social Justice class.

“It was…interesting,” one of them said slowly, “but good.” 

It wasn’t a resounding endorsement, but in the silence between the words one could hear the sound of newly-formed gears beginning to turn, and that is what mattered the most.  


How Kids Teach Us the Meaning of Mindfulness

Recently a friend lent me a book of poems written by children. Sifting through the pages, we alternated between stunned silence and riotous laughter. The emotional acuity these children—some as young as four—were able to convey, and with such simple language, absolutely floored me. 

THE NIGHT by Amy Goodman, age 11

As I curl up to go to sleep

I have such lovely thoughts

The darkness of my room

The warmness of my bed

And what the day has brought

UNTITLED by Mona Thomas, age 11

A little white mouse

Playing upon a sunbeam

Then sliding back down.

Because we see knowledge of life’s pitfalls as necessary to understanding life itself, we often characterize children as ignorant. This is a misjudgment. Children possess a heightened awareness of their feelings and self-worth. They are unencumbered by imagined insecurities. They exist entirely in the present. They remind us what is real and important, and what is ultimately insignificant.  

Lately I’ve been wondering if it’s possible to reconcile childishness and adulthood. On one hand, we have our president—a wildly emotional, stunningly ignorant person who is more tantrum factory than he is diplomat. This is not what I’m talking about. 

I believe the thing I am searching for is mindfulness. Mindfulness has gained significant popularity in Western cultures, but its roots are in Buddhist ideology. One component of Buddhist mindfulness is vipassana, which is insight into the true nature of reality. This necessitates an understanding of the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering and the realization of the non-self.

I’ve heard it said that once we experience childhood, we spend the rest of our lives attempting to return to that state of vulnerable, fearless loving. The pursuit of mindfulness, especially vipassana,underlies this point. Children demonstrate an awareness of impermanence, suffering and the non-self when they fictionalize, emote freely and become consumed in every moment.  I can’t say the same for adults.

Nor can I explain why our awareness grows lackluster as we mature. Perhaps the human intellect, in all of its perceived superiority, is committing a disservice in this sense. Perhaps our ability to intellectualize every little thing doesn’t bring us more freedom than simply accepting all that comes our way. 

MY POEM by Ethyl Hewell, age 11

My poem is full of joy

And full of hope.

I love my poem.

I enjoy reading it

While I am alone.

I forget my sorrows and

My happiness comes along.

HURTING by Benny Graves, age 6

It doesn’t hurt no place when I’m sad

I just know I’m sad.

PLAYING by Pauline Costello, age 5

When I was playing

I said to myself

“I’m all alone

And no one comes.”

So I go and see

What they are doing.

Each of the above poems is a lesson in acceptance. Accept your work. Accept your feelings. Accept yourself, even when others do not flock to you.  

Richter Library hosts mindfulness sessions throughout the year, and the counseling center is a great resource for students looking to overcome emotional hurdles, or simply become more grounded. We are utterly capable of achieving everything we want. Let us stay present and grateful, and remember these lessons during the course of this coming year. 


Sí se Puede? Where the Women’s Movement Falls Short

When I returned home from the Women’s March in Miami I felt invincible. I carried my optimism in feet aching from hours of marching and a raspy voice from hollering dozens of liberal aphorisms through the downtown streets. My exuberance lasted until the next day, when my ears stopped ringing and I was again without the immediate presence of ten thousand protesters crying “Pussy grabs back.” 

The Women’s Marches were an inarguable success, a worldwide grassroots triumph. Marching in one was inspiring, and anyone who participated can tell you that the sensation of hope was palpable. 

In spite of this, the Women’s Marches will likely do little to curtail the Trump administration’s frantic efforts to undo Obama’s influence. Unlike the most successful grassroots movement in the United States—the Civil Rights Movement—the Women’s Movement has not decided on a single message that is accessible or inclusive to all Americans. Disparities in opinions on reproductive rights (what do we do with all the pro-life feminists?), what it means to be a woman (how does the transgender marcher feel about the woman sporting a homemade uterus hat?) and the apparently confounding role that race plays in this whole thing have already lead to infighting and alienation of women and others outside the movement. 

To add to the ambiguity, the Women’s Movement seems to have tacked itself onto the Black Lives Matter and environmental awareness movements, which on the surface appears to be an act of inclusivity and solidarity. However, assigning unrelated beliefs to millions of individuals has more potential to divide, rather than bind—a result often, if not always, conjured by the employment of identity politics.  

The Civil Rights Movement was able to secure success by placing economic pressure on political systems. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was hugely successful because it forced the Montgomery bus system to comply with the demands of protesting African Americans, who made up about three-quarters of the bus system’s ridership. The Women’s Movement has yet to offer an economic incentive for the government to continue meeting their demands. 

I believe deeply in the power of the Women’s Movement to influence the course of our nation over the next four years, and the decades after that. These are the nascent stages. The Women’s Movement must make a lot of decisions about what it wants to be—and if success is in the cards, those decisions must augment and deepen, not limit, our collective American identity.