On Elephant Skin: Critical Data Studies and Political Economy

Critical Data Studies (CDS) is an emerging interdisciplinary research field that examines the role of data, particularly Big Data, in effecting social change. CDS scholars generally consider it to be a subcategory of new media studies, which includes other areas of inquiry, such as Information Studies and Software Studies. Although CDS has generated much notable research, it has yet to embrace the possibilities of a critique predicated on a rigorous technical definition of the word “data.” I suggest here that this development is necessary if the field is to address concerns of political economy effectively. Making “data” in this sense a central element of CDS would allow the field’s scholars rigorously to investigate the relationships between new media and capitalism.

In her essay “On ‘Sourcery,’ Or Code as Fetish,” new media theorist Chun recounted the fable of the six blind men and an elephant (Chun, 2008, p. 299; “Blind Men and The Elephant,” 2018) In the story, each man touches a separate part of the animal and describes it differently as a result.  One likens the elephant to a wall; others say it is more like a spear, tree, palm or piece of rope. Each man believed his understanding to be accurate and the others’ flawed. Chun argued that new media scholars face a similar predicament:

It is perhaps profane to compare a poem on the incomprehensibility of the divine to arguments over new media, but the invisibility, ubiquity, and alleged power of new media (and technology more generally) lend themselves nicely to this analogy. It seems impossible to know the extent, content, and effects of new media. Who knows the entire contents of the WWW or the real extent of the Internet or of mobile networks? How can one see and know all time-based, online interactions? Who can expertly move from analyzing social-networking sites to Japanese cell-phone novels to World of Warcraft to hardware algorithms to ephemeral art installations? Is a global picture of new media possible? (Chun, 2008, pp. 299-300)

“On ‘Sourcery’” was a “sympathetic interrogation” of Software Studies, a nascent area of inquiry within media studies at the time Chun wrote. She suggested that the subfield she analyzed was flourishing partly due to the fact that software can be thought as a common denominator among new media: “All new media allegedly rely on — or, most strongly, can be reduced to — software, a ‘visibly invisible’ essence. …  “Software seems to allow one to grasp the entire elephant” (2008, p. 300). In fact, what counts is not software’s actual ubiquity, which she contended was dubious, but rather that it can be figured as a common thread among so many different technologies. In this sense, its omnipresence is a productive mirage: software seems to allow one to grasp the entire elephant. It is thus attractive as a lens for new media scholars as they attempt to gather multiple technical and social artifacts into a single field of vision.

The title “new media” is often applied to academics unwittingly. Cultural theorist McKenzie Wark has often been described as such despite having critiqued the phrase repeatedly, both for its pervasiveness in digital scholarship and as a descriptor of their research interests.  Wark has argued that new media is an “absurd” term, especially to students “whose whole conscious life has existed pretty much within the era of the internet and increasingly also of the web and the cell phone” (Wark, 2017, p. 253). Meanwhile, Kember and Zylinska have contended that, “the majority of the theorists who have used this term have always done so somewhat reluctantly, with a sense of intellectual compromise they are having to make if they want their contribution to be recognized as part of a particular debate around technology, media and newness” (Kember and Zylinksa, 2012, p. xiv). They have also asserted that Chun’s self-identification with “new media” is self-reflexive. Chun took the problem of “new media” as a point of departure, describing the ostensive “singular uniqueness” implied by the word “new” as a myth that begged undoing (Kember and Zylinska, p. xiv).

As a descriptor, “newness” may indeed do little but conceal a dearth of similarities among contemporary media forms. Like Chun, however, I am compelled by the lack of internal unity that would give “new media” categorical coherence. In my research I generally use “new media” and “digital technology” interchangeably. Most people have some notion of what the phrases “new media” and “digital technology” mean, but their common use belies an absence of cross-disciplinary consensus on their “textbook meaning.” This lack of agreement should not be taken as a problem, however. In fact, it reveals something very crucial about digital phenomena. If we consider that there are no empirical commonalities that bind all digital/new media artifacts, we can only think about new media and the digital by producing fresh metaphors. This is central to the realization of digital technology as both concept and material entity. Like Chun, I am fascinated by the interweaving of digital technology and the language we use to describe it. As it turns out, the mutual constitution of human language and digital matter is a very rich avenue for inquiry.

Central to Chun’s analysis is the popular but, as she argued, misconceived, notion that views software interfaces as the singular and scientifically inevitable outcome of their source code. She contended that analysts should instead consider such an assumption concerning the connection between code and software as fetishistic, where that term implies a process by which causality is inferred from desire, as opposed to reason: “Software as source relies on a profound logic of ‘sourcery’ — a fetishism that obfuscates the vicissitudes of [code] execution … the relationship among code and interface, action and result, however, is always contingent and always to some extent imagined” (Chun, 2012, p. 310). Chun insisted that Software Studies’ strength lies in its capacity to point up the fact that humanity’s relationship with technology is largely imagined. As such, the subfield’s analyses should reveal the muddying function of fetishistic reason. Mystification as a foundational concept for a scholarly field may appear to be misguided. But a deemphasis on software qua software draws attention to the necessary place of metaphor and creative thought—fundamentally, acts of language—in humans’ relationship with the digital. These insights represented the cornerstone of Chun’s conception of Software Studies.

I would like to suggest a similar role for data and Critical Data Studies while noting a key difference. As with Software Studies, a primary function of such inquiries should be to clarify the role of the imagination in our conceptualization and apprehension of new media. But if the overarching goal is to excavate digital technologies from their varying contexts so as to grasp their social impact better, Critical Data Studies has potential to be more useful than Chun’s Software Studies. To explain why this is so, and how Software Studies highlights the privileged role I am suggesting for data, it is necessary to offer a working technical definition of “data.”  The benefit of using data as a basis on which to organize thought on new media cannot be understood by studies that illuminate its exogenous effects—which, in fact, neatly describes the majority of existing CDS analyses. While these are very helpful, they must be supplemented with the technical, endogenous definitions of data employed in the discipline of computer science.

Data is information that can be processed and transmitted by computer systems.  Strictly speaking, “data” is a plural noun—I employ “data is” rather than “data are” for stylistic purposes—that refers to binary digits: zeros and ones, also known as “bits.” Data is measured in groupings of bits. Eight bits comprise a byte; a terabyte is 240 (or 1 million million) bytes. Data becomes meaningful through acts of interpretation and contextualization.

The phrase “Big Data” refers to large volumes of information. Researchers originally employed the term to describe the exponentially accelerating global quantity of digital data as a social concern. Critical Data Studies has emphasized Big Data as a societal constituent. But, in fact, data is (or data are) discrete computable integers; figures that comprise or denote a symbolic language. And, importantly, data may be the only common thread that runs among all forms of new media / digital technology. Digital technology is data technology.

This argument might appear to suggest that Chun was incorrect in tying the role of imagination to any understanding of new media—the fact of data, manifest as digital technology, would seem to be true regardless of what humans imagine. But, that assertion misses the reality that human beings invest digits with power and agency by an imaginative consensus concerning their meaning and purport. This insight, in turn, suggests why a technical definition of data becomes important for political theory. As the basis for all signifying language acts in computer systems, data is the signature form of the digital age. I reference the Marxist notion of sign value, originally conceptualized to refer to the translation of real-world usefulness into capital, which has no tangible use until it is exchanged for a good or service.

In this sense, capital becomes valuable through acts of imagination—the mental process by which 10 dollars is related to an item of clothing or food, for example. Data also becomes valuable through imagined resemblances.  Rendered by the interpretive functions of a programming language, data is constructed to resemble human language, visual imagery, sound and so on. Data and capital are virtual and immaterial entities. Analogical cognitive leaps, the actions that make something appear as functionally similar to something else, are required if humans are to come to believe that they are interchangeable with tangible phenomena; e.g., data becomes akin to human language; 10 dollars can be seen to relate to a t-shirt, and so on. In this very radical sense, imagination is the means by which digital technology becomes an economic vehicle.

As noted, imagination is a critical component in Chun’s Software Studies. But if Critical Data Studies was to emphasize the technical understanding of data as sign just outlined, such analyses would more powerfully reveal the connections among digital technology and political economy. Chun’s software imaginary does not implicate the economic function of digital matter, but rather bends back into new media studies, “This emphasis on imagined networks I hope makes it clear that I’m not interested in simply exorcising the spectral or the visual, but am rather trying to understand how its spectrality lies elsewhere” (2008, p. 323). Or, as she also has contended, “Capturing ghosts often entails looking beyond what we ‘really’ see to what we see without seeing, and arguably, digital media’s biggest impact on our lives is not through its interface, but through its algorithmic procedures” (2008, p.323). It may be true that algorithms have a greater impact on end-users than do the graphical interfaces of software. But the “elsewhere” that is so distant from optics in her contention is not the space of algorithms, servers or any other digital device or dimension. In fact, it is not the domain of anything properly digital at all. Instead, that spectrality is ultimately native to capital, which produces all sorts of specters and spectacles in its representations of financial value.

Chun fails to indicate that data, the raw material of software, deploys imagination in the same sense that capital does. Instead, her essay concluded with a proverbial guilty verdict for algorithms. To be fair, the term “spectral” —which she uses frequently throughout her article—evokes theorists influenced by Marx. But even if Chun, or any other scholar, were to come to view political economy as a specter-haunting algorithms (or code, information or content, etcetera), the study of data leads one to that insight more directly.

It matters that data is omnipresent across digital applications. As software programs cross-pollinate across internet networks and application programming interfaces (APIs), their boundaries become increasingly porous. More than a decade has passed since major corporations introduced smartphones, and with them, the notion of “apps.” Now, the term applications/apps—infrastructure-agnostic software—may be more appropriate than “software” to describe the underpinnings of graphical user interfaces. But even as individuals decompose  and recombine software into new forms, data remains. It is an irreducible element of the modular digital ecosystem. It is more foundational than code, algorithms, content or information, all of which rely on functions and contexts that data does not by definition require. Conceived as a basis for new media studies, data can be thought as the skin of the elephant. The skin is the body’s largest organ. In seeking an image around which to organ-ize thought on new media, one could hardly do better. The skin is also humans’ most visible organ, the part of the body that is most commonly read for signs of organic functionality. This is not a meaningless coincidence in this analogy, especially if one views data as a sign form, as I argued above.

If scholars only examine data’s effects on society, they may miss this point of connection between political economy and digital technology/new media. Data is a highly productive starting point for the social study of digital technology. Critical Data Studies is important in that it allows the particularities of data to serve as a grounding logic for such investigations. In sum, this emerging field would benefit strongly from a rigorous technical understanding of data as language, irreducible integer and sign, because such a definition points up the way data’s functionality mirrors the function of capital. This similarity, I think, should serve as the foundation of Critical Data Studies.

Works Cited

“Blind Men and the Elephant.” 2018. AllAboutPhilosophy.Org. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/blind-men-and-the-elephant.htm

Chun, Wendy. 2008. “On ‘Sourcery,’ Or Code As Fetish.” Configurations 16 (3): 299–324. https://doi.org/10.1353/con.0.0064.

Kember, Sarah, and Joanna Zylinska. 2012. Life After New Media: Mediation As A Vital Process. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Wark, McKenzie. 2017. General Intellects: Twenty-One Thinkers for The Twenty-First Century. London, England: Verso Books.

Emma Stamm

Emma Stamm is a Ph.D. candidate in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) and Instructor in the Department of Political Science. Her research explores the epistemic effects of data science by investigating methodology in experimental psychiatry research. Her past research examined computer hacking, blockchain technology and machine learning through continental philosophy and critical theory frameworks. She has given talks on these subjects at conferences throughout the United States and Europe. Emma is also a freelance writer and web developer, and is co-editor elect of SPECTRA, a peer-reviewed journal housed by ASPECT. She holds a B.A. from Bard College and an M.S. from The New School. Her website is www.o-culus.com.

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Disturbing the Traces of Colonialism in the Tropen Museum

My research primarily focuses on the spatial and architectural legacy of early 20th-century colonialism in postcolonial cities, such as Casablanca, Morocco and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. However, this inquiry has provoked an interest in the remnants of colonialism in former “metropoles,” such as Amsterdam.

The most troubling encounter with these vestiges occurred during my visit to the material archive of Dutch colonialism, located in Amsterdam. Such European collections, established and furnished with late 19th– and early 20th-century imperial and colonial plunder, have sought to recalibrate their purposes in the post-colonial era to serve as opportunities for guests to reflect on the racialized violence and hubris that underpinned the projects that occasioned their founding. The recently renovated Royal Museum of Central Africa (outside Brussels) along with the Tropen Museum (Tropical Museum) in Amsterdam are examples of repositories that have reshaped their purposes in this way.

Tropen Museum Entrance

Tropen Museum Entrance

This essay reflects on my experience with a small sample of the material traces of colonialism displayed in the Tropical Museum in Amsterdam. I argue that despite the best intentions of present-day curators to confront the racialized violence and delusions that underpinned colonialism, selected objects in the permanent collection at the Museum nonetheless reinforce the Eurocentric gaze. I first sketch the history of the museum, then offer comments on a small sample of its vast permanent collection. I conclude with a reflection on the broader implications of these colonial remnants and the museum.

What is “Tropical” about the Tropical Museum?

Tropen or “tropical,” as in “tropical architecture,” relates to the notion of “tropicality,” a reductive discourse of representations that suggests Said’s notion of Orientalism (Arnold, 1996; King, 1995; Clayton and Bowd, 2006). Tropicality, like Orientalism, draws racialized distinctions between Europeans and Non-Europeans. It was developed and saw its fullest expression during the colonial project of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Arnold has described the notion of the “tropical” as a “way of defining something environmentally and culturally distinct from Europe,” much in the way that Said examined Orientalism as a discourse aimed at drawing imagined distinctions between the “orient” and “occident” to rationalize “dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Arnold, 1998, p. 2; Said, 1978, p. 3).

The Tropical Institute and Museum was first established as the Colonial Institute and Colonial Museum in Amsterdam in 1926. The Colonial Museum was occupied by the Nazis between 1940 and 1945, then was converted to the Royal Tropical Institute and Tropical Museum in 1950 (Lohmann, 2016). The nation’s government officials saw a need to shift the focus of the museum amidst changing global dynamics—the Dutch acknowledged Indonesian independence in 1949 (four years after it was declared)—and thereafter “the museum expanded its mandate to include all “tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world” (Ibid., p.17). Today, the institution, located in East Amsterdam, serves as a public “ethnographic” museum with a permanent collection of approximately 175,000 objects and rotating exhibits.

The Tropical Museum has positioned itself as a “Museum of World Cultures” that displays exhibits with “objects that all have a story to tell about humankind. Stories about universal human themes like mourning, celebration, ornamentation, prayer, conflict” (‘History of Tropen Museum’; ‘About Tropen Museum’). The overriding message the museum conveys concerning its orientation is that, “despite cultural differences, we are all essentially the same (About).”

Yet this “ethnographic” “Museum of World Cultures” glosses over, or worse, silences the violence, racism and injustice that produced its collection and the “founding violence” of the museum itself (Trouillot, 1997; Edkins, 2003, p. 53). As such, this space provides an ideal site to reflect on the legacy of colonialism.

Coping with the Legacy of the Colonial Project

I found the traces of the imperial and colonial projects contained in the museum disturbing.  The colonial project was founded on delusional notions of a “civilizing mission” as justification for exploiting territories for settlement and/or resource extraction (Wright, 1991; Young, 2001). Those colonizer objectives, premised on a racialized order backed by violence, prompted me to consider the ways these appear in the museum. As Mitchell has observed: “The Oriental was a creation of that [colonial] order, and was needed for such order to exist. Both economically and in a larger colonial order that depended upon at once creating and excluding its own opposite” (1988, p.164).

Vitalis has argued that a common tactic for reproducing this order through knowledge occurs in the notion of “recoding.” He has highlighted how the Journal of Race Development was recoded as the Journal of International Affairs and became the preeminent international relations journal, Foreign Affairs, in 1922. Vitalis explained scholars recoded “race development” or “enlightened imperialism” as “economic,” “political” or just “development,” and in some cases, as “nation-building” (2015, pp.133,173,178). Anievas, Manchanda and Shilliam sharpened the implications by arguing that “new terms and vocabulary often remain embedded within the same racialised logics that they claim to displace or, at the very least, dispense with” in the field of international relations” (2014, p.10).

Recoding terms drawn from past historical narratives represents a significant problem for coping with the legacy of the colonial project. Muppidi has suggested these altered vocabularies run the risk of reconceiving of colonialism—and colonial violence—as a potentially “desirable model of governance for our times” (2012, p.8). Efforts to re-envision or “recode” the purpose of the exhibits and displays of the Tropical Museum raise the question of whether the institution can ever escape its founding legacy.

Inside and Beyond the Colonial Archive

In my view, there are things so searing that they cannot be unseen by those who visit the Tropical Museum. For example, the institution displays the deranged accoutrements of the racialized pseudo-science that nourished the colonial and imperial projects of the 19th and early 20th centuries. My immediate reaction when viewing these objects was to turn away in revulsion. It is, in fact, disorienting to encounter the twisted racism that underpins many of the items, which represent, in effect, the material traces of unrestrained violence, plunder, exploitation and genocide in the Indies, Indonesia and elsewhere.

Display in “Indonesia” permanent collection at Tropen Museum

Display in “Indonesia” permanent collection at Tropen Museum

Accoutrements of racialized pseudo-science in Dutch colonial expeditions to Papua New Guinea

Accoutrements of racialized pseudo-science in Dutch colonial expeditions to Papua New Guinea

These objects range from the outright perverse to the celebratory and the mind-boggling. For example, the Tropical Museum offers an exhibit addressing the significance of photography to the Dutch colonial project, which recreates the scene of a sweaty colonial photographer capturing an image of subjects on a boat. This display overlaps with a room dedicated to life-sized mannequins of Dutch colonial figures, such as Jacob Theodoor Cremer, who was the “Joint initiator of coolie regulation” (1880), a “Tobacco planter in Deli (Sumatra)” and a “Joint founder of the Colonial Institute Amsterdam” (1910). The racial slur in the name of the organization along with Mr. Cremer’s role in establishing the Colonial Institute prompts the question of whether this is someone worth showcasing in a museum. Does the display glorify his legacy or are we confronting this unseemly past through the exhibit?

Mannequin of Jhr. Mr. Bonifacius Cornelius de Jonge, Governor General of Netherlands East Indies (1931-1936).

Mannequin of Jhr. Mr. Bonifacius Cornelius de Jonge, Governor General of Netherlands East Indies (1931-1936).

Museum Label for Jacob Theodoor Cremer

Museum Label for Jacob Theodoor Cremer

Other notable objects suggest the extent to which colonialism was normalized for families in the metropole. There are puzzles for children that allow them literally and figuratively to piece together stolen islands, such as Curacao. Similarly, there is a ceremonial teapot to commemorate 300 years of Dutch colonial rule of Curacao, a country in the Caribbean near Venezuela that was a part of the Netherland Antilles until 2010.

Children’s Puzzle of Curacao

Children’s Puzzle of Curacao

Three hundred years of colonial control commemorative teapot

Three hundred years of colonial control commemorative teapot

This said, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge that the museum has taken steps to expand the reach of the conversations its exhibits provoke. In October 2017, for example, the Tropen added an “Afterlives of Slavery” exhibit to its permanent collection. That display confronts visitors with “today’s legacies of slavery and colonialism in the Netherlands” (“Afterlives of Slavery” page). However, the three rooms of the exhibit are overshadowed by the organization of the remainder of the permanent collection largely according to former colonial territories (New Guinea, Indonesia, Southeast Asia) that, together, are three times the size of the new permanent exhibit.

Iron Dutch colonial sign that once hung in a “village on the norther coast of Dutch New Guinea”

Iron Dutch colonial sign that once hung in a “village on the norther coast of Dutch New Guinea”

The massive and imposing structure of the museum overwhelms its visitors. The magnificent Great Hall is a remarkable space that encourages one to linger and enjoy the space. Yet any ease is interrupted by second-floor signs for “Indonesia” and “New Guinea” that remind visitors of the founding violence upon which the institution was established. The reductive depictions throughout the museum and the structure itself encourages one to confront the fragments of colonialism that have adapted with time.

Interior of Great Hall in Tropen Museum

Interior of Great Hall in Tropen Museum

The Tropical Museum brings the visitor into contact with the racism, pseudo-science, unapologetic exploitation and hubris of the imperial and colonial project. Visitors confront the extent to which colonial violence seeped into the everyday life of those living in the metropole. The children’s puzzles, accoutrements and commemorative teapot made me uncomfortable, because they point to the ugly beliefs and rationalizations underpinning everyday colonial life. That is, the objects themselves prompt consideration of the ideas that produced them and of the broader portent of colonialism for the present and the future for all of those nations and peoples it affected.

Vitalis concluded his indictment of the racist origins of international relations in White World Order, Black Power Politics with a question, “what other unselfconscious factors of the day distort scholars’ understandings, given that so many in the American academy were hypnotized so long by the seeming truths of racism (2015, p. 181)?” My experience at the Tropical Museum extends this question to the traces of violence that seep into our everyday lives in the present: What traces will the injustices of racialized, exploitative, structural and actual violence of the current moment leave? How will those who inherit the buildings, museums, institutions, ideas and cities we have produced look back on our participation in those systems?


Anievas, Alexander, Nivi Manchanda, and Robbie Shilliam. “Confronting the Global Colour Line: An Introduction” in Anievas, Alexander, Nivi Manchanda, and Robbie Shilliam (eds.) Race and Racism in International Relations. Oxford: Routledge, 2014.

Arnold, David. The Problem of Nature: Environment, Culture and European Expansion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1996.

Clayton, Daniel and Gavin Bowd. “Geography, tropicality and postcolonialism: Anglophone and Francophone readings of the work of Pierre Gourou,” Dans L’espace Geographique, 3:35 (2006), pp. 208-221.

Edkins, Jenny. Trauma and the Memory of Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Mitchell, Timothy. Colonising Egypt. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988.

Chang, Jiat-Hwee and Anthony D. King. “Towards a genealogy of tropical architecture: historical fragments of power-knowledge, built environment and climate in the British colonial territories,” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 32 (2011), 283-300.

King, Anthony D. The Bungalow: The Production of Global Culture (2nd Ed). Oxford: Oxford University Press (1995).

Lohmann, Niek. The Post-Colonial transformation of the Tropeninstituut: How Development Aid influenced the Direction of the institute from 1945-1979 (Thesis). University of Amsterdam (2016).

Muppidi, Himadeep. Colonial Signs of International Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Tropen Museum. “About” Page. Available at: https://www.tropenmuseum.nl/en/about-tropenmuseum Accessed November 20, 2018.

Tropen Museum. “History of Museum” Page. Available at: https://www.tropenmuseum.nl/en/themes/history-tropenmuseum

Tropen Museum. “Permanent Exhibit: Afterlives of Slavery” Page. Available at: https://www.tropenmuseum.nl/en/whats-on/exhibitions/afterlives-slavery

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.

Vitalis, Robert. White World Order, Black Power Politics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015.

Wright, Gwendolyn. The Politics of Design in French Urbanism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Young, Robert J. C. Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001

Rob Flahive Rob Flahive is a third-year PhD student in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) and Instructor in the Department of History. His research explores the spatial and architectural preservation of early 20th century colonial urbanism in cities in the Middle East, North Africa, and East Africa. He is interested in the intersections of urbanism, architectural theory, history, historic preservation, and international politics. He holds an MA from American University of Beirut and a BA from Washington University in St. Louis.

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Acknowledging the Gap in Higher Education: The Importance of Empathy in Engineering Majors

In the context of a political environment in which many citizens believe that their concerns are not being considered nor understood by their elected representatives, the presence or lack of empathy among those leaders is frequently questioned.  Empathy, which refers to the ability to experience the values, feelings and perceptions of another, is needed to engage with the subtle complexities of current issues of social responsibility regarding sustainability and global affairs (Stover, 2005). However, despite the importance of this capacity, current educators and education practices do a poor job of encouraging the development of empathy in college students. This essay acknowledges and explores that gap in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines particularly.

The need to instill empathy, a foundational antecedent to developing a sense of social responsibility regarding sustainability and global affairs in college students, does not change during a student’s (typical) four years of undergraduate higher education. Nonetheless, students often evidence a decline in their sense of social responsibility with decreases in their volunteering and community engagement activities as their college years unfold (Bielefeldt and Canney, 2016). Furthermore, while STEM degrees have become incrementally more common for both men and women during the last decade (U.S. News, 2018), when assessing levels of empathy among college students as measured by the four subscales of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index—perspective taking, fantasy, empathic distress and empathic concern—students pursuing degrees in these fields demonstrate lower levels of empathy than their peers completing majors in other disciplines such as health care, social sciences or the humanities (Rasoal, Danielsson, and Jungert, 2012).

In any case and paradoxically, engineering majors are asked to empathize more and more in their daily professional activities, in both technical and social tasks (National Academy of Engineering, 2013). Engineers routinely engage with multiple stakeholders, design for future users, develop plans for sustainable projects, review the work of colleagues, report technical and administrative tasks to their superiors and inform the general population of their actions and findings, among other tasks. To tackle these challenges, engineers require social capacities beyond their technical expertise, including empathy, communication skills and comfort with interdisciplinary teamwork (Walther, Miller and Sochacka, 2017).

However, while recent years have seen publication of a range of research articles and books addressing empathy, there is still little research concerning the connections between engineering, and education to and for empathy (Strobel, Hess, Pan, and Wachter Morris, 2013). The need to explore this relationship has nonetheless been highlighted by a number of studies. For example, the National Research Council considered the concern in its influential report, Educating the Engineer 2020, in which it argued that engineering education programs needed to move towards more holistic pedagogical approaches, including ensuring that students work more directly on issues of contextual design, securing multiple stakeholder engagement, practicing interdisciplinary communications and considering social sustainability issues, among other concerns (Vest, 2005).

An analysis published in the Journal of Engineering Studies found that participating engineers agreed that empathy is a needed skill in their daily jobs, while faculty members interviewed for the same study could not agree whether empathy should be an add-on to their current educational efforts or instead was an inherent and necessary characteristic of the discipline and profession, thereby not requiring changes in existing curricula (Strobel et al., 2013). While the authors of this analysis described this tension, they also emphasized that their respondents shared the view that empathy was essential for engineering education and practice.

The ability to understand another person’s perspective, that is, to empathize, is critical to the development of stronger ties and understanding among individuals. Empathy is therefore, unlike in the United States, a core value in the United Kingdom’s guiding principles for teaching in engineering (Joint Board of Moderators, 2013). Faculty in Sweden, Spain and the Netherlands also have highlighted empathy as a desired characteristic for working in the design industry and in public administration (Segalas, Ferrer-Balas and Mulder, 2008). Empathy can help individuals understand others more deeply, to become more aware of the broader impacts of their statements and actions, build more trusting relationships, improve teamwork and, more generally, encourage more robust and successful communication and interaction (Hess, Strobel and Pan, 2016). Indeed, analysts have measured all of these attributes or capabilities by means of  the leading rating system for sustainable infrastructure in the United States, called Envision (“EnvisionTM Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System,” 2012).

Efforts to integrate empathy purposefully into pedagogies for STEM majors continue to grow (Rasoal et al., 2012). Studies have attributed multiple positive outcomes resulting from such initiatives including,  ensuring improved understanding of others, deepening awareness of broader project impacts, encouraging open-mindedness, building relationships, improving teamwork, securing more effective communication and interaction, improved design value and heightened awareness of contextual impacts (Hess et al., 2016). These findings have prompted a growing shift in current STEM field pedagogical practices away from more pedantic teaching methods to more student-centered and experiential learning strategies.

Faculty members educating STEM majors are increasingly adopting the view that helping students develop empathetic imagination is vitally important to their personal and professional development. However, despite the benefits of empathy and of student-centered pedagogical approaches that encourage it, research in this area remains largely undeveloped (Walther et al., 2017). Past analyses have found that engineering students evidence lower levels of empathy than other college students (Rasoal et al., 2012). Meanwhile, the National Research Council has, for more than a decade, stressed the need for more holistic education for STEM majors, including engineers. The Council has argued that  providing opportunities for such students to work directly on issues of contextual design, efforts to secure community engagement, to develop interdisciplinary communication capacities and to consider the challenge of social sustainability are critical to their development as competent professionals (Vest, 2005). Although, as noted above, voluntary community engagement among engineering students in college has declined in recent years, past analyses have found that engaging with residents concerning project design and implementation can lead to improved ability to empathize with others (Bielefeldt and Canney, 2016).

In this time of aversion to diversity among a share of the nation’s population, educators should be the first to highlight the rich insights that can arise from seeking to understand others and from collaborating with others who may think or act differently as a result of specific cultural backgrounds. Teaching empathy and encouraging its integration into engineering and other STEM-related disciplines’ professional practice can surely make a difference over time in building more caring citizenries and nations.


Bielefeldt, A. R., and Canney, N. E. (2016). “Changes in the Social Responsibility Attitudes of Engineering Students Over Time.” Science and Engineering Ethics, 22(5), 1535–1551.

EnvisionTM Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System. (2012). Retrieved May 5, 2013, from https://acwi.gov/acwi-minutes/acwi2012/slide.lib/09_Bertera_Presentation_Harvard_06_2012_4D.pdf

Frascara, J. (2003). Design and the Social Sciences: Making Connections. CRC Press.

Hess, J. L., Strobel, J., and Pan, R. (2016). “Voices from the workplace: Practitioners’ perspectives on the role of empathy and care within engineering.” Engineering Studies, 8(3), 212–242.

Joint Board of Moderators. (2013). “Degree Guidelines Annex C,” Sustainability. Retrieved from https://jbm.org.uk/getattachment/89888f7b-cc37-4769-ab2f-2a6729fa1a8b/JBM117degreeguidelines_jan18.aspx

National Academy of Engineering. (2013). NAE Grand Challenges For Engineering (p. 56). Retrieved from http://www.engineeringchallenges.org/File.aspx?id=11574&v=34765dff

Rasoal, C., Danielsson, H., and Jungert, T. (2012). “Empathy among students in engineering programmes.” European Journal of Engineering Education, 37(5), 427–435.

Segalas, J., Ferrer-Balas, D., and Mulder, K. F. (2008). “Conceptual maps: measuring learning processes of engineering students concerning sustainable development.” European Journal of Engineering Education, 33(3), 297–306.

Stover, W. J. (2005). “Teaching and learning empathy: An interactive, online diplomatic simulation of middle east conflict.” Journal of Political Science Education, 1(2), 207–219.

Strobel, J., Hess, J., Pan, R., and Wachter Morris, C. A. (2013). “Empathy and care within engineering: Qualitative perspectives from engineering faculty and practicing engineers.” Engineering Studies, 5(2), 137–159.

U.S. News (2018). “More Students Earning STEM Degrees.” Retrieved Nov 1, 2018, from    https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/01/27/more-students-earning-degrees-in-stem-fields-report-shows

Vest, C. M. (2005). Educating engineers for 2020 and beyond. National Academy of        Engineering. Retrieved from  https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=ZF5YAgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA160 &dq=National+Research+Council+addresses+in+Educating+the+Engineer+2020&ots=oaXsJMvQqM&sig=4LHcYM9Xsi1ZAZaxUgkDkcugsns

Walther, J., Miller, S. E., and Sochacka, N. W. (2017). “A model of empathy in engineering as a core skill, practice orientation, and professional way of being.” Journal of Engineering Education, 106(1), 123–148.


MiguelAndres Guerra

MiguelAndrés is a doctoral candidate in Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech. His research interests include sustainable infrastructure design and planning, smart and resilient cities, and the development of engineers who not only have strong technical and practical knowledge but the social awareness and agency to address global humanitarian, environmental, and social justice challenges.

MiguelAndrés earned a Master of Science degree as a Fulbright scholar in civil engineering at Iowa State University. His undergraduate studies were in civil engineering at Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) in Ecuador. At USFQ he taught full-time, advised students, led thesis projects, and directed community involvement projects. He also worked in the construction industry for three years as the Director of the Planning, Design, and Construction Department of a land and infrastructure development company.

Currently, MiguelAndrés uses qualitative methods to understand risk aversion among civil engineers and explores a phenomenon of citizen-led urban prototyping to change risk perceptions. Furthermore, he is working on developing a decision support framework for disaster response, assessing engineering students’ agency to address climate change, and teaching empathy studies in engineering and higher education. For him, social justice is a concept that should always be involved in discussions on infrastructure.


Vanessa Guerra

Vanessa Guerra is a PhD candidate in Environmental Design and Planning at the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. Researcher at the Global Forum for Urban Regional Resilience (GFURR) and DE Lab Decision Engineering for Sustainable Infrastructure. Her work focus on urban interventions as potential contributions to poverty reduction and sustainable development. Her research interests include informal urbanism, sustainable transport, spatial justice and urban inequality. She has presented her work in several conferences across the United States, the United Kingdom and South America, and has spoken at a TEDx event in Quito-Ecuador and at Cityworks (Xpo) in Roanoke. Prior to Virginia Tech, Vanessa worked as a project architect, participated with the University of Melbourne-Australia in the project “How Sustainable Transport Networks Build Great Cities” at Munich and Zurich, and taught at USFQ University in Quito-Ecuador, where she also coordinated the seminar “Ecuador towards Habitat III.”


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Cultivating Radical Imagination: Envisioning Alternatives to Ascendant Reactionary Movements and Neoliberal Self-Destruction

Setting the Stakes

Every historical moment contains risks for social retrenchment, for exploitation, violence and attempts by one or another group to dominate others. However, simultaneously, there are always possibilities for collective liberation. Human social, cultural and political history unfolds not as the overused metaphors of a circle of repeated mistakes nor as a straight line of progress. Members of every society in all times and places contend with unique contexts and constraints as well as the reality that human beings have a nearly infinite capacity to create, but also to destroy.

The challenges societies face today are acute, sharing continuities with past struggles, but also exhibiting new and different contours. Most pressingly, human-induced climate change and overall environmental degradation—caused by global patterns of resource extraction, polluting production and private-profit-driven disposable consumption—and the continued stockpiling of nuclear weapons are threats that exist at a scale unique in human history (Wuebbles et al. 2017). The technologies that societies could distribute to provide safety and material comfort for everyone instead have been employed in ways that have brought us to the brink of self-annihilation as a species.1

Intertwined with and exacerbating these twin crises is the current ascendancy of reactionary political movements in the United States and elsewhere around the world (Bond and Chazan 2018; Tharoor 2018).2 The individuals now in control of all three branches of the U.S. Government are committed to maximizing short-term profits for their primary supporters through carbon-fueled exploitation of natural resources and human labor (Eilperin, Dennis, and Mooney 2018) and to dismantling international agreements of all sorts, including efforts to reduce nuclear proliferation (Bump 2018; Doubek 2018). Further deepening these crises is the inability of the primary electoral opposition in the United States, the Democratic Party, to offer a robust challenge or propose genuine alternatives to the GOP’s reactionary vision, even when in power.

The American electoral spectrum is narrow and the leadership of both major parties is committed to perpetuating the joint projects of neoliberal capitalism and global U.S. military hegemony.3 While the modern Democratic Party has been more willing than Republicans to enact limited regulation to mitigate the consequences of capitalism’s inherent instabilities and inequalities, it has done so with the commitment to “save capitalism” rather than with the objective of altering or dismantling it as a political-economic or social system (Yglesias 2018).4 Moreover, in the past two decades, the Democratic Party has supported a borderless and limitless war against terrorism accompanied by a concomitant expansion of mass surveillance, the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and ever-increasing military spending (Bamford 2016; Herb 2017).5

For those of us who wish to see an end to the catastrophic consequences of both projects, the task is urgent and multifaceted. First, it is crucially important to reclaim the intellectual, moral and political terrain from reactionary movements and from the impoverished politics of technocratic liberalism. Second, we must expand our moral and political imaginations to envision alternatives to ecologically devastating “free markets” and perpetual war. I argue here that we need to draw resources from emancipatory traditions, working to turn radical visions of the future into practice and reality.

Cultivating Radical Imagination

Reclaiming this terrain and expanding the horizon of moral and political alternatives requires cultivating and exercising a radical imagination to envision fundamental transformations in the present organization of life in American society. This intellectual exercise is revolutionary because it is rooted in a commitment to join with others to work toward individual and collective liberation (Freire 2005, p. 39). It is crucial to begin from the intellectual position that human creativity is boundless. There is no reason to believe that the limited set of policy prescriptions presented by political parties, media and defenders of existing institutions are the only available choices. Observers should deeply question the notion that capitalist liberal democracy is the pinnacle of human achievement; societies can always be freer, more democratic and more just.6 While change is always constrained by historical, social and material realities, envisioning utopian alternatives allows analysts to search for the most progressive directions to push within, against and beyond those boundaries.

This exercise in critical thinking requires moving beyond “common sense” that insists we accept the limited confines of social and political life in its current manifestation and that forecloses alternatives pejoratively deemed idealistic.7 This practice of reflexivity necessitates instead, as Said has argued, a constant alertness and unwillingness to allow cliché and half-truths to guide intellectual inquiry (1996, p. 23). It means deeply exploring a wide range of historical and contemporary attempts and approaches to create better societies to identify strategies, tactics and insights for social change. To imagine in this way also entails continued reflection on one’s commitments and actions to avoid falling into determinism or reproducing the injustices one hopes to ameliorate. Exercising radical imagination is the creative act of critically examining and deconstructing ideological assertions. For example, the notion that individualism, entrepreneurship and private accumulation of wealth are synonymous with freedom and the belief that violence is an immutable aspect of human nature needs to be challenged.8 Contra these assertions, analysts should imagine social and political structures founded upon principles of cooperation, mutual aid and nonviolence as alternatives to current structures and conditions.

Importantly, however, radical imagination prefigures the processes of creating detailed plans and schematics to develop alternative institutions. Proponents of change should resist the mandate from so-called realists that any critique of existing structures must come with fully developed, implementable strategies. Often couched in the language of pragmatism, recourse to feasibility and practicality is a discursive tactic that too often proscribes the potential for radical action. The task for partisans of change is to identify structures of domination and to demand that those who support and benefit from those arrangements justify their continued existence. The burden of proof should lie squarely with those who defend social and political norms and institutions that create and sustain inequalities, oppression and violence.9 For example, it is the responsibility of corporate chief executives and stockholders to justify the morality of continued environmental destruction in pursuit of profit, and leaders of nuclear-armed states must explain the rationality of maintaining weapons (and/or expanding their stock of them) that could end life on the planet.

Optimism Motivates Praxis

A critique of this kind does not arise from a position of pessimism. Rather, radical imagination is at root an exercise in optimism and hope. The foundation to envisioning a better world is the belief that human actions can change conditions and that society can be made more just. It is difficult to remain optimistic in the face of cataclysmic long-term prognoses for human societies and daily assaults on the rights and lives of vulnerable people. The fragmented, atomized individualism of neoliberal capitalism exacerbates feelings of hopelessness and helplessness in the face of right-wing attacks. Collective action is the antidote through which advocates for change can move from imagination to a praxis that confronts these forces. Hope can be found by coming together with others in common struggle to fight these assaults and to build new organizations and institutions (Davis 2016, p. 49). Without committed struggle, there can be no progress. Those facing oppression must, in Frederick Douglass’ famous formulation, collectively demand liberation (1857, p. 22).

A commitment to building more just and democratic societies means those seeking change can reject the racism, misogyny and cruelty of the right-wing, tout court. Americans must also reject as a barrier to substantive justice the neoliberal individualism that insists upon equality of opportunity as its highest moral and political goal (Seitz-Wald 2018). Instead, those seeking change must demand nothing less than a society that guarantees the resources to live healthy, happy lives to every member without caveat or precondition. Achieving this goal requires working toward radical democracy in our homes, workplaces and governing institutions. The most vulnerable people worldwide are already suffering the consequences of inaction on the pressing issues facing humanity at large. Nothing short of a fundamental transformation of global political-economic structures and patterns of state violence is needed to ameliorate human suffering and avert looming disaster.


1 The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists—an organization founded in 1945 by scientists involved with the Manhattan Project nuclear weapons program—publishes an annual report on pressing threats to humanity. The nonprofit is known for its “doomsday clock,” a visual metaphor for humanity’s proximity to catastrophe caused by “nuclear weapons, climate change, and new technologies emerging in other domains” (“It Is 2 Minutes to Midnight,” 2018). Midnight on the clock face represents “apocalypse.” In 2018, the Bulletin’s editors moved the hands of the clock from two and a half to two minutes to midnight, the closest it has been since the 1952 U.S. and Soviet hydrogen bomb tests.

2 In order to obtain and maintain power, U.S. President Donald Trump and many other leaders within the Republican Party have mobilized xenophobia, racist and revanchist discourses of reclaiming the country from enemies internal and external (Riotta 2018), advocated political violence against opponents and journalists (Holmes 2018) and courted support from white supremacist organizations (Newkirk II 2018; Onion 2018).

3 In the United States, there are substantive policy differences between the modern Republican and Democratic parties, particularly domestically. The Democratic Party has not employed the overtly misogynistic, nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric that Republicans have. And, for example, the Obama White House, after initial reluctance to take a strong position, pushed for and secured significant expansions of rights for LGBTQ Americans (Horsley 2016). It is important not to discount such material improvements in the lives of millions of people. However, such gains cannot be disconnected from both parties’ economic and military policies. On such matters, the parties differ only in degree. While specific policies vary, both are broadly committed to the right-wing, neoliberal economic ideology—advocating private ownership and control of profit-driven firms by capitalists, deregulation, austerity and privatized public services and individual over collective action—and militarist foreign policy (Cooper 2018a, 2018b). For example, Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, entrenched private, market-based insurance coverage as the central mechanism to meet Americans’ health care needs, rather than create public or socialized universal provision of care. Obama also authorized expenditures of $1 trillion to maintain and upgrade U.S. nuclear weapons during the course of the next 30 years (Wolfsthal, Lewis, and Quint 2014), took over and dramatically expanded the global drone assassination program begun by Republican George W. Bush (Scahill 2015), deployed American special forces to more than 130 countries around the world (Turse 2015) and  supported the devastating Saudi Arabian-led assault on Yemen with record-breaking arms sales, intelligence and coalition warplane refueling (Emmons 2018).

4 U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example, widely considered to be on the left-wing of the Democratic Party declared in 2017, “I love markets—I believe in markets!” (Foer 2017) and in 2018, “I’m a capitalist to my bones” (Grim 2018).

5 In Donald Trump’s first two years in office, Democrats in Congress have overwhelmingly voted with Republicans to increase the U.S. military budget. In 2017, the majority of Senate Democrats voted in favor of a $700bn military budget, authorizing $37bn more than requested by the Trump Administration (Stolberg 2017). In 2018, Senate Democrats unanimously voted in favor of a short-term spending bill to increase the 2019 Pentagon budget $17bn (Werner 2018).

6 The late novelist Ursula K. Le Guin—whose work The Dispossessed sketches a detailed vision of a cooperative, left-anarchist society—noted in a 2014 speech at the National Book Awards, “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings” (Le Guin 2014).

7 The 2016 Democratic Party primary season serves as an illustrative example of the closing of moral and political imagination. U.S. Senator and self-identified democratic socialist Bernie Sanders campaigned on an essentially Keynesian, New Deal platform of improving infrastructure and expanding social program spending including free at-the-point-of-service universal health care coverage (Purdy 2015). Eventual Democratic presidential nomination winner Hillary Clinton, who ran as a “pragmatic progressive,” dismissed this proposal declaring its consideration a “theoretical debate” that would “never, ever come to pass” (Chozick 2016). Far from a speculative proposal, dozens of countries around the world operate such programs (World Bank 2013). Clinton also called Sanders’ proposed tax-funded, tuition-free college education “pie in the sky” (Merica 2016). Again, many nations around the world, including poorer societies such as the U.S.’s southern neighbor, Mexico, have tuition-free or very low-cost tertiary education programs (Jilani 2014).

8 One-hundred years ago, well-known figure Helen Keller identified what she understood to be the fundamental problem with American society. Keller, a committed socialist and supporter of radical unionism, argued that America was not democratic because its society was founded on the wrong basic principles of “individualism, conquest and exploitation, with a total disregard of the good of the whole” (1967, p. 55). Informed by her activist work with women and children forced by circumstances to toil in dangerous, health-destroying factories, she argued that American capitalism prioritized the “output of a cotton mill or a coal mine” over the “production of healthy, happy-hearted, free human beings” (Ibid.).

9 On this point, I draw particularly on Chomsky’s articulation of anarchism as a tendency toward suspicion of all forms of authority and hierarchy. The task for the anarchist is to identify systems of domination and oblige them to justify their authority over others. If they cannot—which is often the case—such systems ought to be dismantled and replaced with structures that are freer and more just (Wilson and Chomsky 2013).


Bamford, James. 2016. “Every Move You Make.” Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/09/07/every-move-you-make-obama-nsa-security-surveillance-spying-intelligence-snowden/ (November 1, 2018).

Bond, David, and Guy Chazan. 2018. “Rightwing Terror in Europe Draws Fuel from Populism and Xenophobia.” The Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/86f2645a-c7a2-11e8-ba8f-ee390057b8c9 (October 31, 2018).

Bump, Philip. 2018. “Where the U.S. Has Considered Leaving or Left International Agreements under Trump.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/06/29/where-the-u-s-has-considered-leaving-or-left-international-agreements-under-trump/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.93e62e41f6ed (October 12, 2018).

Chozick, Amy. 2016. “Hillary Clinton Says Bernie Sanders’s Health Plan Will ‘Never, Ever Come to Pass.’” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2016/01/29/hillary-clinton-say-bernie-sanderss-health-plan-will-never-ever-come-to-pass/ (October 18, 2018).

Cooper, Ryan. 2018a. “Somewhere in Between: The Rise and Fall of Clintonism.” The Nation. https://www.thenation.com/article/the-rise-and-fall-of-clintonism/ (October 18, 2018).

———. 2018b. “The Decline and Fall of Neoliberalism in the Democratic Party.” The Week. http://theweek.com/articles/725419/decline-fall-neoliberalism-democratic-party (October 19, 2018).

Davis, Angela Y. 2016. Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.

Doubek, James. 2018. “U.S. To End Cold War-Era Nuclear Arms Treaty With Russia, Trump Says.” NPR. https://www.npr.org/2018/10/21/659275572/u-s-to-end-cold-war-era-nuclear-arms-treaty-with-russia-trump-says (October 31, 2018).

Douglass, Frederick. 1857. Two Speeches by Frederick Douglass. Rochester, NY: O.P. Dewey.

Eilperin, Juliet, Brady Dennis, and Chris Mooney. 2018. “Trump Administration Sees a 7-Degree Rise in Global Temperatures by 2100.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/trump-administration-sees-a-7-degree-rise-in-global-temperatures-by-2100/2018/09/27/b9c6fada-bb45-11e8-bdc0-90f81cc58c5d_story.html?utm_term=.994db825f012 (October 12, 2018).

Emmons, Alex. 2018. “The U.S. Is Exacerbating the World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis by Outsourcing Its Yemen Policy.” The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/2018/06/16/yemen-foreign-policy-united-states/ (October 31, 2018).

Foer, Franklin. 2017. “What’s Wrong With the Democrats?” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/07/whats-wrong-with-the-democrats/528696/ (November 1, 2018).

Freire, Paulo. 2005. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York and London: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.

Grim, Ryan. 2018. “Elizabeth Warren Unveils Radical Anti-Corruption Platform.” The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/2018/08/21/elizabeth-warren-unveils-radical-anti-corruption-platform/ (November 1, 2018).

Le Guin, Ursula K. 2014. “Ursula K Le Guin’s Speech at National Book Awards: ‘Books Aren’t Just Commodities.’” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/20/ursula-k-le-guin-national-book-awards-speech (October 15, 2018).

Herb, Jeremy. 2017. “Senate Rejects Bid to Repeal War Authorizations.” CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2017/09/13/politics/senate-isis-war-vote/index.html (November 1, 2018).

Holmes, Jack. 2018. “The President of the United States Just Explicitly Endorsed Political Violence.” Esquire. https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a23927018/president-trump-praise-greg-gianforte-assault-reporter-montana/ (October 22, 2018).

Horsley, Scott. 2016. “Not Always A ‘Thunderbolt’: The Evolution Of LGBT Rights Under Obama.” NPR. https://www.npr.org/2016/06/09/481306454/not-always-a-thunderbolt-the-evolution-of-lgbt-rights-under-obama (November 1, 2018).

It Is 2 Minutes to Midnight: 2018 Doomsday Clock Statement. 2018. Chicago.

Jilani, Zaid. 2014. “7 Countries Where College Is Free.” Salon. https://www.salon.com/2014/11/02/7_countries_where_college_is_free_partner/ (October 19, 2018).

Keller, Helen. 1967. Helen Keller: Her Socialist Years. ed. Philip S. Foner. New York: International Publishers.

Merica, Dan. 2016. “Clinton Casts Sanders as ‘pie in the Sky’ in Wisconsin.” CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/29/politics/hillary-clinton-bernie-sanders-wisconsin/index.html (October 19, 2018).

Newkirk II, Vann R. 2018. “Trump’s White-Nationalist Pipeline.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/08/trump-white-nationalism/568393/ (October 20, 2018).

Onion, Rebecca. 2018. “A Devil’s Bargain.” Slate. https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/10/proud-boys-republican-club-wwii-fascists.html (October 20, 2018).

Purdy, Jedediah. 2015. “Bernie Sanders’s New Deal Socialism.” The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/bernie-sanderss-new-deal-socialism (October 19, 2018).

Riotta, Chris. 2018. “Why Can’t Republicans Stop Sharing Racist Propaganda?” The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/republicans-racism-gop-propaganda-trump-tweets-steve-king-ron-paul-racist-a8439541.html (October 22, 2018).

Said, Edward W. 1996. Representations of the Intellectual. New York: Vintage Books.

Scahill, Jeremy. 2015. “The Drone Papers.” The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/drone-papers/the-assassination-complex/ (May 31, 2016).

Seitz-Wald, Alex. 2018. “Sanders’ Wing of the Party Terrifies Moderate Dems. Here’s How They Plan to Stop It.” NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/elections/sanders-wing-party-terrifies-moderate-dems-here-s-how-they-n893381 (October 31, 2018).

Stolberg, Sheryl Gay. 2017. “Senate Passes $700 Billion Pentagon Bill, More Money Than Trump Sought.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/18/us/politics/senate-pentagon-spending-bill.html (October 17, 2018).

Tharoor, Ishaan. 2018. “How Brazil’s Bolsonaro Threatens the Planet.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2018/10/19/how-brazils-bolsonaro-threatens-planet/ (October 19, 2018).

Turse, Nick. 2015. “US Special Forces Are Operating in More Countries Than You Can Imagine.” The Nation. http://www.thenation.com/article/us-special-forces-are-operating-more-countries-you-can-imagine/ (April 16, 2016).

“Universal Healthcare on the Rise in Latin America.” 2013. The World Bank. http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2013/02/14/universal-healthcare-latin-america (October 19, 2018).

Werner, Erica. 2018. “Senate Passes Defense and Health Spending Bill, Tries to Delay Border-Wall Fight to after Midterms.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/senate-passes-massive-defense-and-health-spending-bill-punts-border-wall-fight-to-december/2018/09/18/ed6f8436-bb56-11e8-9812-a389be6690af_story.html?utm_term=.e946c099973e (October 18, 2018).

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Yglesias, Matthew. 2018. “Elizabeth Warren Has a Plan to Save Capitalism.” Vox.com. https://www.vox.com/2018/8/15/17683022/elizabeth-warren-accountable-capitalism-corporations (November 1, 2018).


Jake Keyel

Jake Keyel is a Doctoral Candidate in the Planning, Governance, and Globalization program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. His research interests include critical migration and refugee studies, democratic theory, and global ethics. Prior to enrolling at Virginia Tech, he worked for five years in the non-profit sector focused on integration of new immigrants, particularly from the Middle East and North Africa. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Nazareth College in Sociology and a Master’s degree in International Relations with a concentration in Middle Eastern Affairs from Syracuse University. Jake serves on the editorial board of Community Change, a peer-reviewed journal housed at Virginia Tech’s Institute for Policy and Governance. He is also a board member and treasurer for the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership.

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Rethinking the Challenge of Transportation Equity


Cities across the United States are experimenting with a range of transportation and mobility concepts to improve the accessibility and delivery of transportation services. Nevertheless, securing equitable access for all to these modalities remains a fundamental challenge for transportation organizations, planners and policymakers. Ensuring transportation equity includes addressing unequal and inadequate access to quality, reliable, safe and affordable transport options. A lack of accessible transportation alternatives can limit people’s ability to take advantage of job opportunities, healthcare, social activities and affordable housing. In most American cities, exclusionary zoning policies and land use practices, in tandem with inequities in transportation services, make it hard for poor or low-income individuals, especially racial minorities, to obtain adequate housing, jobs and other opportunities. Even so, rapid technological innovations are currently transforming transportation and responsible public officials must rethink how they approach issues of diversity, equity and inclusion as a result. This essay explores past and current forms of transport inequities and provides suggestions concerning how to address them.

Discrimination in Transportation

From the design of the built environment in cities to how policies are intertwined with planning practices, the exclusion of minorities in housing and transportation is systematic and deep-rooted. The history of transportation, particularly, in the United States has been characterized by discrimination against minority groups. For example, the refusal to treat African Americans as equals to their white counterparts, in the Southern United States especially, long relegated Blacks to segregated sections of public buses. The 20th-century segregationists perpetuated political, cultural and social practices and enforced rules that ensured widespread and systematic discrimination against African Americans. Institutionalized forms of racism, including disinvestment and underinvestment in public transportation for minority neighborhoods, continue to have a disproportionate impact on the ability of those citizens affected to obtain jobs and other economic opportunities. Practices and policies that enable structural inequities and systematic barriers to access have created a condition of broad transportation-related discrimination in the United States (Alexander, 2012; Williams and Collins, 2001).

Throughout the civil rights struggles of the 1950s, 1960s and beyond, many social interest organizations and advocacy groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Urban League and others, have advocated for more equitable transportation and housing policies for historically underserved minority communities. While the enactment of anti-discrimination laws in the 1960s helped in reducing many barriers to transportation access that had long afflicted African Americans, inequalities still exist. More, discrimination in transportation is not limited to race or income. For instance, a recent study in Boston found evidence of adverse gender (as well as racial) disparities in rides offered by transportation network companies (TNCs). The analysis showed that female passengers routinely experienced more expensive and longer routes when compared to male riders. People with disabilities also often confront restrictions in their ability to use public transportation infrastructure and services (McCluskey, 1987).  And, as Sanchez et al. have argued, transportation remedies that were part of landmark civil rights laws enacted in the 1960s were not implemented until the 1990s (2003). Transportation policies and practices have continued directly or indirectly to perpetuate these inequities. To address some of these issues in the delivery of public transportation, since passage of the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has mandated that public transportation service providers may not discriminate in providing services on the basis of race, color, national origin or English proficiency (Dumas, 2015).

There is also a spatial dimension to equity and diversity in many cities. For instance, poverty is often concentrated geographically in neighborhoods with disproportionately high minority populations. Planners can address the inequities arising from this fact by strategically linking affordable housing, safety, health care, green space, schools and public transportation options.  Securing sustainable transport alternatives for these populations depends on enactment of planning and policy measures explicitly designed to increase accessibility, mobility choices and multimodal travel options. This sort of integration of land use and transportation system options is essential to overcome the effects of strict zoning restrictions or ordinances, to reduce trip distances and to ensure access to non-motorized travel solutions for these populations. Moreover, and more generally, collaborating with such residents and strategically connecting them to jobs and other opportunities is a prerequisite for greater economic development in their communities.

The Transportation and Land Use Nexus and Inequities 

The implications of zoning and land use for travel behavior and associated housing and life choices are strong. Such linkages are also controversial, considering America’s long history of economic, cultural and geographic provision of housing, school and transportation options along racial lines. Across cities in the United States, there are many examples of compact and mixed-use development options that effectively integrate transportation and land-use policies at different geographic scales (UN-Habitat, 2013). The integration of land use and transportation policies through flex zoning, inclusive housing, multi-use and multimodal transportation planning practices can yield significant benefits for underserved groups. However, it is important to emphasize that such efforts require time and community involvement and buy-in.

In some cases, the issue of where, how and who benefits from such land use changes (i.e., gentrification) can become controversial. In previously underserved and marginalized communities with limited housing stock, initiatives designed to ensure the availability of mass transit have become hot-bottom local political issues. Continued changes in the spatial distribution of mass transit systems in the U.S. due to the development of new mobility options and the expansion of older systems is rapidly changing the population mix of once Black-dominated inner-city neighborhoods. Washington D.C., Seattle, Portland, New York and other metropolitan cities have seen increased investment in public transportation and the development of more accessible travel options, which have resulted in issues of gentrification and displacement in once predominantly African-American neighborhoods. This process has displaced lower-income residents and people of color in many affected neighborhoods as rents have risen with the influx of wealthier residents. Those relocating to these neighborhoods have done so in part because of transit-induced neighborhood revitalization (Pollack, Bluestone and Billingham, 2010).

The public dialogue on gentrification should address the issue of spreading the benefits of high-quality, interconnected public transport options to help bridge the spatial, racial and cultural divides between inner cities and their suburbs. The planning challenge is that of effectively linking neighborhoods and jobs.

Disparities in Funding Public Transportation Versus Transport Infrastructure

Public transportation is generally underfunded in the United States. Public support varies markedly by mode and that fact often has disproportionate impacts on equitable access to transport options. The distribution of federal transportation funds is unevenly distributed between public transportation and road and highway construction and maintenance, creating both structural and institutional inequities in specific groups’ abilities to access safe and reliable transport. Indeed, public transportation systems are woefully underfunded when compared with highway infrastructure. According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, mass transit received 18.68% ($28.942 billion) of Highway Trust Fund (HTF) allocations while highways received 79.31% ($110.985 billion) for the 2008–2017 period (Kirk and Mallett, 2018). Meanwhile, a recent study by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), Who Rides Public Transportation, argued that individuals of color comprise the bulk of such riders (60%), with African-Americans constituting the majority of users (24%).

Transportation as a Civil Right

Minority and other historically disenfranchised groups continue to face disproportionate burdens in accessing reliable transportation in today’s transportation environment (Sanchez et al. 2003). Because transportation has a profound impact on people’s lives—it is both a means of sustenance and a prime requirement to engage in daily activities—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has argued that public transit should be considered a civil right. As noted above, the effects of racial discrimination continue to affect transportation availability in cities across America. Historically, transportation funding decisions have not often favored accessibility, diversity or equity as important policy outcomes. As a result, the economic externalities arising from past planning decisions have frequently led to suboptimal and inequitable outcomes, including social costs related to traffic fatalities, pollution and congestion that have often severely affected already disadvantaged groups (Duranton and Guerra 2016). The cumulative effects of decades of past social discrimination and inequitable housing, planning and zoning practices left many American cities segregated along racial lines while imposing disproportionate costs on communities of color. This spatial segregation of neighborhoods within urban centers and between inner cities and their suburbs both reflected and has perpetuated deep inequalities in transportation along racial lines.

Technology and Innovation in Transportation

Rapid technological innovation is transforming transportation today, affecting travel behaviors and attitudes. Rideshare, bike-share and carpool platforms are quickly reshaping the way people access, deliver and manage transportation services. Technology offers new opportunities for planners and policymakers to address historical structural and institutional gaps and barriers to accessible and affordable transportation. The implication of these changes for planners is that they must incorporate measures for diversity and inclusiveness in the design and delivery of transportation services. To do so, they must also recognize that current transportation planning and policy is governed by a rule-based structure ill-suited to today’s emerging mobility systems. Also, while opportunities for transportation technologies today are manifold, planners must recognize that social biases may infringe on their adoption. Transportation planners need to ensure that today’s new mobility systems will not simply be employed in ways that maintain or reinforce existing social and institutional barriers that perpetuate inequalities (O’Neil, 2016).  To ensure equity and inclusion, transportation policymakers and planners should include criteria for evaluating the outcomes of their efforts in such terms while also encouraging purposeful dialogue and public participation in planning processes.

Transportation practitioners should be able to assess the role of science and technology in important public policy and planning issues to address discrimination against women, persons with disabilities and racial minorities. Building a culture of diversity and inclusion is an evolutionary process that will require that transportation planners and organizations work in partnership with various political, economic and educational institutions to build alliances and strategic commitments to achieve equity outcomes. Planning schools across the United States will also have to renew their commitment to recruit minority students to their programs. To make a meaningful impact, universities must undertake an explicit effort to prepare professors and researchers to address equity and diversity issues in planning and policymaking to help alleviate the transportation disparities affecting disenfranchised groups. Twenty-first century transportation practitioners will need to be skilled at collaborating with citizens and advocacy group representatives to plan and mobilize concerted actions to tackle issues of equity, diversity and inclusion within communities.


In summary, transportation inequities have historically been enabled too often because policymakers and planners have failed to discredit the institutional norms and social systems that created those injustices. Planners must be prepared to recognize and address all forms of inequities in transportation. One way of encouraging that outcome is to ensure that planners reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. In addition, transportation planning and policy practices can be tailored to enhance the accessibility and acceptability of public transit systems by providing a range of desirable travel options for all citizens, thereby promoting social justice and inclusion in transportation delivery and decision-making processes. I am confident that a critical first step toward promoting just outcomes in transportation is ensuring the involvement of diverse and underrepresented groups in policy and planning decision making (Fainstein, 2015). Both the workforce and leadership of transportation organizations should reflect the communities they serve. In practice, policymaking and planning decision-makers must consider a wide range of factors known to influence the relative equity of transportation outcomes, from funding structures and service provision mechanisms to leveraging innovative technologies.


Alexander, M. The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2012.

Clark, H. M. “Who Rides Public Transportation,” Transportation Research Board, 2017. Retrieved from https://trid.trb.org/view/1459720. Accessed October 24, 2018.

Dumas, R. A. Analyzing transit equity using automatically collected data (Doctoral dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology), 2015. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1721.1/103650. Accessed October 24, 2018.

Duranton, G., and Guerra, E. “Developing a common narrative on urban accessibility: An urban planning perspective,” Moving to Access, Washington: D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 2016.

Fainstein, S. S., and DeFilippis, J. (Eds.). Readings in planning theory. Malden, MA: John Wiley and Sons, 2015.

Fuller, M., and Moore, R. The death and life of great American cities. London: Macat International Ltd., 2017, pp. 1–88.

Ge, Y., Knittel, C. R., MacKenzie, D., and Zoepf, S. Racial and gender discrimination in transportation network companies (No. w22776). Washington, DC:  National Bureau of Economic Research, 2016.

Mallett, W. J. Trends in Public Transportation Ridership: Implications for Federal Policy, Congressional Research Service, 2018. Retrieved from https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45144.pdf Accessed October 22, 2018.

Kirk, R. and Mallett, W.J. Funding and Financing Highways and Public Transportation, Congressional Research Service, 2018.  Retrieved from https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R44674.pdf Accessed October 22, 2018.

MacGillis, A. “The Third Rail,” Places Journal, March 2016.  Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.22269/160321. Accessed October 20, 2018.

McCluskey, M. T. “Rethinking equality and difference: Disability discrimination in public transportation,” Yale Law Journal, (97)5, 1988, pp. 863-880.

McCormick, K. “How Baltimore and Dallas Are Connecting Segregated Neighborhoods to Opportunity.” Planning for Social Equity. 2017. Retrieved from https://www.lincolninst.edu/publications/articles/planning-social-equity. Accessed October 27, 2018.

O’Neil, C. Weapons of math destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. New York: Broadway Books, 2016.

Pollack, S., Bluestone, B., and Billingham, C.  “Maintaining diversity in America’s transit-rich neighborhoods: Tools for equitable neighborhood change,” Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy [Internet]. Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, 2018. Retrieved from http://www.northeastern.edu/dukakiscenter/transportation/transit-oriented-development/maintaining-diversity-in-americas-transit-rich-neighborhoods/. Accessed October 27, 2018.

Sanchez, T. W., Stolz, R., and Ma, J. S. “Moving to equity: Addressing inequitable effects of transportation policies on minorities,” Transportation Research Record, (1885), 2003, pp. 104-110.

UN-Habitat. Planning and design for sustainable urban mobility: Global report on human settlements 2013. Oxford, U.K.: Routledge Publishers, 2013.

Williams, D. R., and Collins, C. “Racial residential segregation: a fundamental cause of racial disparities in health,” Public health reports, 116(5), 2001, pp. 404-416.


Efon Epanty is a Ph.D. student in Planning, Governance, and Globalization (PGG) in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. His research interests include multimodal transit, mobility systems, transportation equity and technology policy. His current research examines the impacts of transportation technologies on public transportation systems. He previously earned a master’s degree in public administration from Virginia Tech and also holds a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Kansas. He has also completed a bachelor of science degree with honors in geography from the University of Buea in Cameroon

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Mental Health Interventions Post-Disaster

One of the most pressing concerns for health officials following a natural disaster, such as widespread flooding or hurricane or earthquake damage, is the mental health of those individuals most directly affected by these catastrophic events. Disasters place unique psychological distress on survivors, evacuees and others who may have lost their homes and possessions and loved ones or have been displaced from their neighborhoods. The unfamiliarity of a new environment, such as a temporary emergency shelter, can create particular difficulty for people who were already relatively vulnerable before a disaster, including women, children, gay and transgender people, the elderly and people of color.

This essay examines the types of mental health interventions available after a disaster and outlines the principal challenges that attend such efforts. It also provides policy recommendations aimed at strengthening post-disaster mental health support programs.

“Psychopathology” is an umbrella term that refers to the study of a variety of potential psychological difficulties. Psychopathologies post-disaster can include Major Depressive Disorder, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), general anxiety, grief, phobias and other fears and Substance Use Disorder, including tobacco and undue alcohol use, which are characterized by unhealthy coping mechanisms that can affect physical health (Goldmann and Galea, 2014).

The development of psychological issues affects individuals differently, and some demographic populations are more likely to experience specific kinds of distress than the general population. For example, Goldmann and Galea have argued that, “middle-aged adults are generally at greatest risk of developing psychological issues, perhaps owing to having more chronic life stress and burdens and needing to support others” and that individuals who have partners and children are more likely to experience distress (2014, p. 174). The authors also point out, however, that single people are at greater risk for depression after a disaster, compared to married people. For its part, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has formally suggested that middle-aged or older individuals are not necessairly at higher risk of developing psychopathologies because such persons have had more time to develop coping mechanisms than younger people (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2018). I posit that empirical reality may lie between these two perspectives; adults who have not experienced many disasters may be less able to cope and build resiliency than individuals who have done so, since the latter can anticipate their reactions and work consciously to address any issues that may arise. In this regard, age is not as much of a factor in developing capacity to confront disaster scenarios as lived experience.

According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), from 2004 to 2015, 700,000 people have been killed and more than 1.7 billion people worldwide have been affected by disasters. Between 2004 and 2015, the United States alone saw 212 disasters, second only to China, which experienced 228.  The U.S. events resulted in economic losses of  $443 billion.

The nature of disasters vary; some are hyperlocal and concern people in a specific community, such as the case of the tornado that hit the city of Joplin, Missouri in 2011. Others affect a wider range of people owing to the size of the storm, such as Hurricane Katrina, for example, which affected large populations across several states. There are also human-created disasters, such as the September 11, 2001, and Boston Marathon terrorist attacks, for example. These may touch both more people than natural events, as the episodes in New York, the Washington, D.C. region and Boston¾ all highly populated areas¾exemplified. Beinecke, Raymond, et al. have estimated that in terrorist-related disasters, between 4 and 50 victims develop psychological issues for each death that occurs (2017). Goldmann and Galea have contended that it is also possible that psychological issues present differently based on the character of individual disasters, and that mass violence is more damaging than weather-related events as a result. Goldmann and Galea have contended that mass violence creates multiple traumatic experiences in close proximity to victims. Weather-related disasters may include high loss of life and other hallmarks of trauma as well, but they may also be larger-scale events that may then include more people who were not as affected by trauma (2014). Disasters, whether natural or human in their origins, may also create secondary mental health traumas, as many individuals who did not experience these occurrences directly nonetheless may have family members who did. Secondary trauma is also possible in the case of massive terrorist events, such as the ones that occurred on September 11, 2001, the  news coverage of which dominated television and the internet around the world and captured the attention of millions.

Mental Health Interventions and Challenges

A variety of mental health interventions can be employed following disasters. At the federal level in the United States, mental health is covered under Emergency Support Function #8 (ESF #8)¾Public Health and Medical Services¾and coordinated by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS). A central component of ESF #8 is behavioral health care, and DHS acts as a liaison with the staffs of many other federal entities, including the Department of Defense, to provide such assistance to disaster victims. Additionally, networks of mental health professionals including, hospital professionals and private practice practitioners, voluntarily coordinate with federal, state, and local authorities in various capacities to address mental health concerns that may arise in affected populations after a disaster. ESF #8 is one of the broadest ESFs because mental health has a large impact (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018). ESFs are meant to provide a framework to encourage different federal agencies to work together in response to disasters. Each ESF covers a specific area that has been deemed vital for the country’s infrastructure and protection of life and property. Mental health treatment is a requirement of any federally-declared disaster (Beinecke, Raymond, et al., 2017). The President is the sole authority that can declare a federal disaster, under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 5121-5207), more commonly referred to as the Stafford Act. Under the Stafford Act, state governments may request federal assistance, typically when their (local and state) resources are overwhelmed. The President must then consider their requests, and approve or disapprove them.

There are many benefits to on-site mental health counseling. First, it permits mental health providers to provide immediate and person-to-person attention and to assess more quickly whether afflicted individuals need a mental health facility. Secondly, person-to-person assistance allows assisting professionals to employ an evidence-based approach called Psychological First Aid (PFA). The National Center for PTSD has developed this approach and it is supported by a rigorous training program geared towards non-medical professionals to equip them to engage in immediate mental health counseling. It emphasizes a step-by-step process of helping those providing aid to internalize their surroundings and context to ensure they remain calm and emotionally prepared to offer assistance (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2006).

The benefits of Psychological First Aid are numerous. It can be applied in a variety of situations and can extend the reach of mental health intervention far beyond what certified medical professionals alone could achieve. This approach also can be taught to individuals working in all three sectors of the political economy without much need for adjustment Whether one is working with government, business or school employees or with nonprofit organization representatives, PFA’s training principles remain the same.

Technology has also aided mental health interventions. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), part of the Department of Health and Human Services, operates a telephone and text Disaster Distress Helpline that is staffed by trained counselors and functions 24 hours a day, 7-days a week. In an interview with me, a SAMHSA project officer reported that the agency received 13,889 phone calls and 31,644 text messages from October 1, 2016 to September 30, 2017, primarily in response to Hurricane Harvey (Personal interview, October 4, 2018).

All states have their own help-lines specifically for use during disasters. These help counselors differentiate the needs of different populations and also to allocate aid resources more effectively.  More generally, technology is beneficial as an addition to in-person mental health counseling because it provides more flexibility to caregivers who often cannot attend at once to all who are in need, especially in harder to access rural areas, or during sleeping hours. Helplines also enable people whose first language is not English to obtain assistance in their native language. Indeed, SAMHSA provides help-line services in several languages, including Spanish.

Underlying these formal intervention options is a community’s social network, which encompasses the informal ties among family members and friends. Honeycutt, Nasser, et al. have contended that strong interpersonal ties within communities help build resiliency, and when individuals have vigorous connections to a social network they have access to other support as well, such as physical and emotional assistance and resources (2008). Honeycutt, Nasser, et al. also concluded that those with reliable internet access were able to cope better with the aftermath of hurricanes if they also had a reliable social network, because they employed that capacity to access friends and family members for support (2008). Additionally, individuals enjoying those advantages reported that they allowed them to imagine conversations with their friends and family, and to feel less alone in their (now) unfamiliar environments. Honeycutt et al. also argued that the demographic characteristics of disaster survivors were also a factor in their capcity to respond to what had befallen them. They determined, for example, that among college students, transfer students and individuals of color were more likely to have weaker social networks (2008).

In a study related to how and from whom college students seek assistance when faced with issues such as needing a place to stay or emotional support, Small and Sukhu determined that those sought who assistance from those who were well-connected within their social networks¾whether close friends or relative strangers—adjusted better than those who did not possess such ties. This finding indicates that a strong social network can be based on deep friendships or more surface-level acquaintances, and that in times of mental or emotional crisis, both can serve as at least a temporary salve (in lieu of professional intervention, if needed) for a person in crisis. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that in some cases, displacement causes distress for those who cannot access a strong social network and cannot find the social support they need to further their recovery.

Each of these intervention types (in-person care, technological and efforts to rely on social networks) has its own challenges.  This is so because first responders may have multiple priorities. For example, those conducting  search and rescue after a disaster may also need mental health counseling, but they are often not able to obtain it as easily or as quickly as necessary. In part this is so because their work to assist victims is a higher priority. While this is understandable, the delay in treatment and the possibility of seeing more damage and victims up close may create more trauma for those individuals in the long-term than they might otherwise have sustained had they been able to access care in a more timely fashion. On the other hand, first responders are often trained to recognize symptoms of distress and to seek treatment when they sense they are experiencing them (SAMHSA, 2018). Challenges associated with technology include cost. Shklovski, Burke, et al. surveyed musicians in New Orleans who were affected by Hurricane Katrina and found that before the hurricane, many of them did not own a laptop, but subsequently purchased one when it became clear such would be useful after the storm as a lifeline to their social networks (2010).

 Policy Recommendation

In general, the literature indicates that all individuals affected by a disaster are at risk of psychological distress, to varying degrees, and so interventions to assist confront a basic paradox¾they must be sufficiently comprehensive to help a large population (such as an individual state or the entire United States), but also sufficiently individualized to enable mental health professionals to address the needs of specific individuals requiring assistance. One model that seeks to address this challenge is the Pyramid of Interventions, depicted in Figure 1 below.

The Intervention Pyramid for Mental Health  Figure 1. The Intervention Pyramid for Mental Health

Source: Inter-Agency Standing Committee on Mental Health and Pschosocial Support in Emergency Settings (2007).

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings (IASC) (2007) developed the Pyramid of Interventions along with what its members consider to be minimum guidelines for post-disaster intervention. The first level obliges professionals to provide a basic level of care, which includes addressing disaster victims’ immediate physical and emotional needs. Such services can, for example, include providing potable water and shelter and helping family members find each other. Without strong basic services and security, it is difficult to develop the other areas of the pyramid.

Additionally, the IASC has emphasized the integration of several mental health intervention programs so that they can complement each other. A school district may, for example, implement its own intervention pyramid, focused on the long-term mental health needs of children. Fox, Carta, et al.’s suggested services pyramid, shown in Figure 2 below, was not initially designed to address disasters (2010). However, it emphasized the basic types of care that are important to a child’s long-term well-being, such as promoting nurturing and responsive caregiving relationships. This approach intersects nicely with the concept of strengthening basic services and security in the second tier of the IASC pyramid, community and family supports.

The Pyramid Model, a Structure for Intervention During Early Childhood

Figure 2. The Pyramid Model, a Structure for Intervention During Early Childhood

Source: Response to Intervention and the Pyramid Model (2010).

Mental health interventions are a fluid matter that can and must change with each disaster. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to how victims react to and experience distress, how it should be treated or by whom. Psychopathology equips researchers, government officials, medical professionals and citizens with knowledge of the types of psychological issues responders may encounter, but these are hardly the only ones possible. Showing empathy for victims who have been affected by an immense trauma and ensuring that their basic needs and safety are secured helps ensures and may lessen the traumatic effects of the disaster they have endured.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration project officer, personal interview, October 4, 2018.

Beinecke, R., Raymond, A., Cisse, M., Renna, K., Khan, S., Fuller, A., and Crawford, K. 2017. “The mental health response to the Boston bombing: A three-year review.” International Journal of Mental Health, 46(2), 2017, pp. 89-124.

Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018. Emergency Support Function #8. Federal Emergency Management Agency, https://emilms.fema.gov/is230c/fem0104160text.htm Accessed October 15, 2018.

Fox, L., Carta, J., Strain, P., Dunlap, G., Hemmeter, M.L., “Response to Intervention and the Pyramid Model.” Infants & Young Children, 23(1), 2010, pp. 3-13.

Goldmann, E. and Galea, S., “Mental Health Consequences of Disasters.” Annual Review of Public Health, (35), 2014, pp.169–83.

Honeycutt, J., Nasser, K., Banner, J., Mapp, C., and DuPont, B., “Individual Differences in Catharsis, Emotional Valence, Trauma Anxiety, and Social Networks Among Hurricane Katrina and Rita Victims.” Southern Communication Journal, 73(3), 2008, pp.229-242.

Inter-Agency Standing Committee, IASC Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings. Inter-Agency Standing Committee, 2007.  http://www.who.int/mental_health/emergencies/guidelines_iasc_mental_health_psychosocial_june_2007.pdf  Accessed October 19, 2018.

National Center for PTSD, Psychological First Aid Field Operations Guide, 2nd Edition. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2006, https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/type/PFA/PFA_V2.pdf Accessed October 18, 2018.

National Center for PTSD,. The Impact of Disaster on Older Adults. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2018. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/type/disaster_older_adult.asp Accessed October 16, 2018.

National Center for PTSD, Disaster: Risk and Resilience Factors. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2018. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/type/disaster_risk_resilience.asp Accessed October 16, 2018.

Shklovski, I., Burke, M., Kieslerb, S., and Krautb, R., “Technology Adoption and Use in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.” American Behavioral Scientist, 53(8), 2010, pp.1228-1246.

Small, M. and Sukhu, C. “Because they were there: Access, deliberation, and the mobilization of networks for support,” Social Networks, 47, 2010, pp. 73-84.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Department of Health and Human Services, The Dialogue, 14(1), 2016, https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/dtac/dialogue-vol14-is1_final_051718.pdf Accessed October 19, 2018.

United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Disaster Statistics, 2018,  https://www.unisdr.org/we/inform/disaster-statistics, Accessed October 15, 2018.

Joanne Tang

Joanne Tang is pursuing her Master of Public Administration and a Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security. During her time at Virginia Tech, she has developed an interest in combining urbanist issues such as affordable housing and environmental protection with emergency management. She intends to focus her studies on increasing community resilience. She currently works in strategic communication and policy within the homeland security community. Her other interests involve writing, hiking, and photography. She can be found on Twitter at @joanneliveshere.

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Recognizing the Inner Light in Everyone: Quaker Beliefs Provide One Foundation to Seek Mutual Understanding

Lighting the Path

This reflection briefly treats the relationship between culture and spirituality and how these constructs bear on conceptions of human identity in the context of sketching my own experience as a member of the Quaker community. It is rare today to find a culture without hybridity, that is, where some degree of exposure to other cultures and other people does not exist. Moreover, human beings, irrespective of their culture, create constant change in their communities and environments and are themselves ever changing. Amidst this persistent tumult, I have found solace in the Quaker community. I highlight that group’s key beliefs and way of operating here. I am particularly interested in conveying how Quaker values relate to the perennially significant question of the human search for hope. After introducing the hybridity of culture and the conflicts that inevitably arise from differences, this essay addresses my experience as a Quaker and the state of Quakerism today. By introducing my own term, “empa-cate,” I highlight the importance of active listening and teaching, if human beings are to understand themselves and one another. The empa-cate construct has provided me space for understanding humanity’s past, encouraged me to take time actively to listen to others in the present and to work toward a future in which all may co-exist despite their differences.

Cultural Differences Spark a Necessity to Understand

People connect or divide along the fault lines created by the similarities and differences of their beliefs, values and norms. However, it is vital to understand that cultures, as the bedrock of such perspectives, constantly change as the populations that shape them alter their views and practices in light of shifting circumstances, experiences and ongoing dialogue. Yet, in the United States today, children often do not learn about or understand their nation’s history or present status, much less those of other cultures and countries. In contrast, when understood as “progress,” as described by theorist John Clammer culture represents a transnational space in which people around the globe are becoming more hybridized (2012, p.17). As a result, entire populations are now experiencing messy boundaries as trade, transport and communication breach traditional borders. This dynamic sets up a need for individuals to engage persistently in efforts to define the meanings of their specific spaces. This desire can emerge from wanting to preserve traditional norms and values or, more negatively, to prevent the perceived usurpation of one’s culture by “others.”

In either case, what such efforts to preserve existing social structures as immutable miss, both in conception and in execution, is that cultures are never static and those who inhabit them become something new over time, whether consciously or not. Cultures cannot be “preserved” intact as if for a museum display. Indeed, such would be a recipe for their early demise. Instead, as populations mesh and mix various aspects of each other’s beliefs and norms, it is essential for their residents to listen to one another in order to understand better their increasingly interwoven identities. Today, especially in the United States, but also in a number of other countries throughout the world, conflicts concerning perceived “differences,” whether constructed as threats to the status quo or related to innate characteristics, such as national origin, race, sexuality, ethnicity, gender and so on, are frequent and, too often, demeaning and violent. Given this context, it is obviously necessary for people to learn to listen to one another with openness and empathy to make connections across their perceived differences so that such distinctions can no longer serve as a source for misunderstanding, belligerence and worse.

Quakerism Represents a Tool to Listen

As a practicing non-theist Quaker for 10 years, I have pursued a role of acceptance and active listening further to that group’s philosophy and teaching. From the beliefs I have honed and the connections I have developed as a member of that community, I have coined a term, “empa-cate,” to describe how individuals can combine learning, listening, understanding and teaching. Empa-cate represents one example of a set of practices that people can embrace to empathize and educate one another regarding their beliefs and values. By dedicating themselves to these practices individuals agree to make an active effort to learn about each other and themselves and, as often, both. This combination of other-regardingness and self-knowledge can help those seeking to practice it build stronger and more mindful relationships with others. Doing so can also aid them in sorting through today’s rapidly shifting cultural currents and hybridization dynamics as these are daily revealed in those with whom they interact. In my view, empa-cating allows individuals to build bridges to connect their diverse identities regardless of whether they agree on specific concerns. Empa-cating requires that individuals suspend (not change) their own beliefs to listen and seek to understand those of others. That overt willingness simply to listen can help to overcome often-isolating behaviors arising from misinformation or ignorance.

I do not mean to imply that all Quakers are alike or believe identical things. Indeed, according to the Quaker Information Center there are currently four branches of Friends, which is how this group’s members refer to themselves (2011). I have only attended the original Quaker meeting branch for worship. This version of Quakerism is “unprogrammed.” It finds Friends joining together for one hour on Sunday morning to sit together in silence. While I personally have not attended a “programmed” Quaker service led by a pastor, I recognize the differences in their spirituality practice. Original Quakers (my group) are not expected to share the same beliefs. This is so because what makes a person a Quaker does not arise from common views or creed concerning the origins of the universe or justice, but from how they participate in the community, connect with spirituality, “attempt to live faithfully in harmony” (Quaker Information Center 2011) with others and recognize God within everyone and everything.

In 2001, the Pacific Yearly Meeting of the Friends explicitly acknowledged that Quakers have a responsibility to reflect and seek to understand:

The lack of a creed or clear description of Quaker beliefs has sometimes led to the misconception that Friends do not have beliefs or that one can believe anything and be a Friend. Most Quakers take the absence of a creed as an invitation and encouragement to exercise an extra measure of personal responsibility for the understanding and articulation of Quaker faith. Rather than rely on priests or professional theologians, each believer is encouraged to take seriously the personal disciplines associated with spiritual growth. Out of lives of reflection, prayer, faithfulness, and service flow the statements of belief, both in word and in deed (Pacific, 2001).

All Quakers, irrespective of their branch, do share a belief that God exists in every human being as an Inner Light. That understanding implies that, “all persons have inherent worth, independent of their gender, race, age, nationality, religion, and sexual orientation” (Robinson, 2009). Moreover, Quakerism highlights the “act of seeking” as inherent to Quaker identity (2009). When individuals come together to sit in silence in worship together, they are encouraged to recognize that no person is “better” or more spiritual than any other. They consider themselves to be equals and believe that all human beings should be accorded dignity and respect. In terms of my coined term, Quakers seek to empa-cate by seeing and acknowledging the Light within everyone.

Advocate Peace-Building by Seeking

Humans have developed technologies of all sorts exponentially in the past century. These innovations have yielded a more tangible awareness of other countries because of the advent of inventions such as the telephone, the Internet, satellite communications and mass media. In theory, improved capacities for exchange and communications should yield fewer conflicts among the world’s cultures and nations. But, of course, it has not always worked out that way. In any case, Quakers were advocating for peace long before advanced technologies allowed our world’s current advanced modes of connection. Quaker efforts to promote world peace, including the group’s historic work to abolish slavery and to secure the equal treatment of Native Americans as well as to ensure the rights of countless other peoples and cultures worldwide, are widely known and respected (Robinson 2009). Indeed, the Friends Service Council was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for its pursuit of “humanitarian aid projects for military and civilian war victims” of World Wars I and II (NobelPrize.org). Quakers today continue to support a number of peace-building non-profit organizations that are active around the world. In this sense, the group continues to represent one way that people can empa-cate by acknowledging and listening to all in order to come to understand each other more fully.

Empa-cate for Hope

I am often struck that humanity, despite all odds and all of its often self-imposed disasters, continues not only to survive, but also to thrive. In my view, at least a part of the reason for this situation is the existence of hope. Hope for something better and for something different. Hope can and does continuously shape human behavior. One traditional source of human hope has arisen from, and revolved around, spiritual beliefs. Clammer has highlighted the significance of listening, spirituality and hope, if human beings are to develop connections and understanding with other individuals and places different from those they know well (2012). Although the struggles of humanity are many and doubtless these will continue and become even more complex, as, for among other reasons, there will always be those, captivated by greed and personal ambition, who desire more and therefore seek to dominate others. While this may be so, the question is how that fact may be addressed in the long run. In my view, one way to address this dilemma is by and through relationships; for it is only by growing together that individuals and populations can reveal and pursue a more empathetic and mindful truth. For me, Quakerism represents one tradition that seeks daily to keep this possibility alive. As a Quaker and as a person who has hope for securing bonds among people, no matter their differences, I believe in the process of empa-cating in order to understand each other’s identities and how those beliefs and values are shaped by culture and spirituality. When we are able to listen to one another, we can better realize our own story and how we all connect.


Clammer, J. Culture, Development and Social Theory: Towards an Integrated Social Development. London: Zed Ltd., 2012.

NobelPeacePrize.org. Friends Service Council—Facts. Nobel Media AB. Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1947/friends-council/facts/. Accessed on October 1, 2018

Religious Society of Friends. (2001). “Creed,” Pacific Yearly Meeting, Retrieved from https://www.pacificyearlymeeting.org/fp/pymfp2001pg005.html, Accessed on October 1, 2018.

Robinson, B. A. (2009). Quaker beliefs and practices. Toronto, CA: Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. Religious Tolerance.org. Retrieved from http://www.religioustolerance.org/quaker2.htm. Accessed on October 1, 2018.

Quaker Information Center. (2011). A Quaker Glossary. Quakerinfo.org. Retrieved from
http://www.quakerinfo.org/resources/glossary. Accessed on October 1, 2018.

Quaker Information Center. (2011). What do Quakers believe? Quakerinfo.org. Retrieved from
http://www.quakerinfo.org/quakerism/beliefs. Accessed on October 1, 2018.

Colie Touzel

Colie Touzel is a Master of Urban and Regional Planning student at Virginia Tech. She is especially interested in how community engagement inspires transportation infrastructure and hopes to work as a Community Outreach Specialist in Transportation Planning in the future. She received her Bachelor’s in Honors in English from the University of South Carolina Upstate. Apart from her professional interests, Colie likes to cycle, bake, garden and spend time with her family and her dog, Torrence.

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Minority Operated Farms across the Nation

Minority principal operators (MPOs) of farms in the United States constitute a relatively small percentage of principal operators overall, but they represent a growing demographic as the number of independent farms continues to decline.   In some states MPOs now comprise more than 50% of operators. This brief essay provides insight into the geographic distribution of farms managed by MPOs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has defined a farm as any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products is produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during a calendar year. According to the USDA, a principal operator is responsible for a farm’s day-to-day operations. This individual also typically considers farming his or her primary occupation. For the purposes of this essay, minority principal operators include five categories of farmers:

  • Hispanic, which defines a region of origin, not a person’s race;
  • American Indian or Native American;
  • Black or African American;
  • Asian; and multi-race, persons who identify with more than one race.
  • In addition, USDA recognizes Native Hawaiian / Pacific Islanders in Hawaii and Alaska Natives in Alaska.

The U.S. agriculture and farming industry now has approximately 2,109,303 principal farm operators and MPOs make up more than 151,891 of that total. MPO’s are a relatively small percentage of principal operators, but, as noted above, they represent a growing demographic, despite the nationwide decline of individuals who consider farming their primary occupation. From 2007 – 2012, the number of principal operators of farms decreased by 4.3%, (NASS Farm Demographics Highlights). Meanwhile, the number of MPOs in each minority group USDA tracks rose during the same period (Figure 1). States located in the Southwest have the highest number of MPOs, followed by Southeastern states (Figure 2). In the Southwest, Hispanic principal operators predominate in California, New Mexico and Texas; Native American MPOs constitute a major presence in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona; Asian MPOs prevail in California; and African American MPOs are much in evidence in Texas. The next largest regional distribution of MPOs is located in the southeast, where African American principal operators constitute a major demographic, although several other states, including Colorado, Washington, Hawaii and Alaska have a sizeable number of MPOs as well. The seven states with more than 5,000 MPOs together are home to 70% of all such farmers (Figures 3-4 and Tables 2 and 3). In addition, MPOs today comprise more than 10% of all principal operator farmers in these states (in the top four instances they make up 19.25% – 62.38% of MPOs in those states). Two of those high percentage MPO states are among the top agriculture producing areas in the nation. California is the top such state with 19% MPOs, while Texas, the third highest agriculture producing state, has 14% MPOs.

Despite the growth of MPOs, the majority of such farms produce sales of less than $10,000 (NASS Farm Demographics Highlights). This over representation in the $10,000 or less sales class translates into lower representation in higher sales classes (Table 1). There is an exception; MPO farms with Asian principal operators “tend to be smaller in size than farms overall, but have higher sales” (NASS AI/AN Highlights). This may be due in part to their production of specialty crops.

This preliminary analysis offers a snapshot of the locations in which MPOs are concentrated across the nation (Figure 2). The next step in my inquiry is to explore why most MPOs produce sales of less than $10,000. Where are Hispanics, African Americans and American Indians who are underrepresented in the higher sales classes, $50,000 to $99,999 and $100,000+, located? What qualities do MPOs in each sales class have that supported their entry into that group? What education, training, knowledge, and/or background do the most successful MPOs have in common? Which states generate the highest MPO farm sales and production? In which states are MPOs well integrated into the food system? What organizations provide assistance to MPOs? Where are federal, state and local resources earmarked for MPOs being directed and why? Are these resources having an impact? What has motivated these MPOs to enter into farming?

Figure 1

Minority Principal Operators 2007 and 2012

Table 1

Share of Farms by Sales Class for Minority Operators, 2012

(percent of group)



All Farms   Hispanic American


Black Asian
Less than $10,000 56.6 68.4 78.1 78.9 43.4
$10,000 to $49,999 18.9 17.1 14.3 15.6 22.3
$50,000 to $99,999 6.1 4.5 2.9 2.4 7.5
$100,000 or more 18.4 10.0 4.7 3.1 26.8
Total 100 100 100 100 100

Source: USDA NASS, 2012 Census of Agriculture.

Figure 2 

Number of Minority Principal Farm Operators within States

Number of Minority Principal Farm Operators within States


Figure 3 (see Table 2)

States with 10,000+ minority principal farm operators 2012


Figure 4 (see Table 3)

States with 5,000-9,999 minority principal farm operators



Figure 5 (see table 4)

States with 2,500-4,999 minority principal farm operators

Figure 6 (see table 5)

States with 1,000-2,499 minority principal farm operators

Table 2

States with 10,000+ minority principal farm operators, 2012

State AI/AN % AI/AN NHPI % NHPI Asian % Asian Black % Black Hispanic % Hispanic Multi-Race % Multi-Race Total
AZ^ 11,190 92.5% 0 0.0% 97 0.8% 25 0.2% 716 5.9% 72 0.6% 12,100
CA*^ 1,192 7.1% 0 0.0% 4,802 28.6% 345 2.1% 9,815 58.4% 660 3.9% 16,814
NM^ 5,202 35.2% 0 0.0% 29 0.2% 39 0.3% 9,377 63.4% 149 1.0% 14,796
OK^ 7,489 61.9% 0 0.0% 285 2.4% 1,337 11.1% 1,173 9.7% 1,814 15.0% 12,098
TX*^ 2,693 7.3% 0 0.0% 718 1.9% 8,551 23.1% 23,689 64.0% 1,371 3.7% 37,022
                                                                                                  Table 3

                                                   States with 5,000-9,999 minority principal farm operators, 2012

State AI/AN % AI/AN NHPI % NHPI Asian % Asian Black % Black Hispanic % Hispanic Multi-Race % Multi-Race Total
FL^ 386 5.2% 0 0.0% 829 11.3% 1,481 20.1% 4,459 60.6% 203 2.8% 7,358
MS^ 133 2.3% 0 0.0% 66 1.2% 5,029 88.1% 397 7.0% 83 1.5% 5,708


Table 4

States with 5,000-9,999 minority principal farm operators, 2012

State AI/AN % AI/AN NHPI % NHPI Asian % Asian Black % Black Hispanic % Hispanic Multi-Race % Multi-Race Total
AL 488 12.3% 0 0.0% 67 1.7% 2,779 70.1% 332 8.4% 301 7.6% 3,967
AR 507 18.7% 0 0.0% 354 13.0% 1,064 39.2% 509 18.8% 280 10.3% 2,714
CO 270 9.1% 0 0.0% 170 5.7% 47 1.6% 2,318 78.1% 163 5.5% 2,968
GA 127 4.3% 0 0.0% 239 8.1% 1,986 67.3% 443 15.0% 157 5.3% 2,952
HI^ 32 0.7% 613 13.4% 2,824 62.0% 18 0.4% 383 8.4% 688 15.1% 4,558
LA^ 204 6.2% 0 0.0% 64 1.9% 2,359 71.1% 538 16.2% 151 4.6% 3,316
NC* 596 19.3% 0 0.0% 179 5.8% 1,637 53.1% 493 16.0% 179 5.8% 3,084
SC^ 128 5.0% 0 0.0% 67 2.6% 2,025 78.4% 270 10.5% 92 3.6% 2,582
WA 458 14.7% 0 0.0% 436 14.0% 60 1.9% 1,874 60.1% 288 9.2% 3,116

Table 5

States with 2,500-4,999 minority principal farm operators, 2012

State AI/AN % AI/AN NHPI % NHPI Asian % Asian Black % Black Hispanic % Hispanic Multi-Race % Multi-Race Total
ID 154 14.4% 0 0.0% 85 8.0% 14 1.3% 695 65.0% 121 11.3% 1,069
KS* 395 24.7% 0 0.0% 71 4.4% 165 10.3% 693 43.4% 272 17.0% 1,596
KY 178 12.5% 0 0.0% 71 5.0% 437 30.8% 482 33.9% 253 17.8% 1,421
MI 204 15.5% 0 0.0% 54 4.1% 216 16.5% 674 51.3% 165 12.6% 1,313
MO 442 23.7% 0 0.0% 235 12.6% 176 9.4% 548 29.4% 465 24.9% 1,866
MT 1,318 75.2% 0 0.0% 31 1.8% 10 0.6% 246 14.0% 148 8.4% 1,753
OR 403 21.9% 0 0.0% 286 15.5% 31 1.7% 882 47.9% 241 13.1% 1,843
SD* 817 71.9% 0 0.0% 5 0.4% 6 0.5% 200 17.6% 109 9.6% 1,137
TN 281 13.7% 0 0.0% 87 4.2% 992 48.3% 467 22.7% 226 11.0% 2,053
VA 180 7.5% 0 0.0% 134 5.6% 1,496 62.1% 470 19.5% 129 5.4% 2,409


*Indicates top ag producing state.

^Indicates MPOs make-up 10% or more of principal operators in the state.

Source: For the above figures and tables: USDA NASS 2012 Census of Agriculture


Quick Stats – 2012 Census of Agriculture data, National Agriculture Statistics Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture https://quickstats.nass.usda.gov/

2012 Census of Agriculture, Highlights, Asian Farmers, ACH12-9 2014, https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Online_Resources/Highlights/Asian_Farmers/Highlights_Asian_Farmers.pdf

2012 Census of Agriculture, Highlights, Farm Demographics, ACH12-3 May 2014,


2012 Census of Agriculture, Highlights, Farm Economics, ACH12-2 May 2014,

Lavinia Panizo

Lavinia (Vinnie) Panizo is a Masters student in the Center for Public Administration and Policy (CPAP) at Virginia Tech and is pursuing a Master’s in Public Administration with a certificate in Economic Development. She received her bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a minor in Spanish from Virginia Commonwealth University.  She also has a teaching credential in Secondary Education with a focus on Social Studies and an emphasis in Cross-Cultural Language Acquisition and Development from California State University Northridge.

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Advocating for Diversity: A Critique of the Benefits Argument

At a time when racial minorities and immigrants are being used by populist politicians in western countries as scapegoats to mobilize their supporters, the concept of diversity now occupies a central role in political debates. For example, on September 7, 2018, Tucker Carlson, a Fox News network talk show host, questioned the value of population diversity, asking: “How exactly is diversity our strength?” His argument against diversity occasioned numerous reactions on news outlets and social media, outlining the postulated benefits of social heterogeneity. Indeed, this recent incident found many diversity advocates adopt a line of argument based on the benefits of the presence of minority groups for American society. I find this approach in many cases problematic and questionable. Instead, I believe, and argue here, that advocates of diversity should ground their arguments in ethical and justice claims.

Here is an example of the sort of “minorities provide benefits” argument that was so often raised in response to Tucker’s demagoguery. In a New Yorker article published in March of 2017 entitled “The Sriracha Argument for Immigration,” David Sax offered a list of delicious foods and pastries that have found their way onto North Americans’ tables thanks to the presence of diverse groups of immigrants (Sax, 2017). He argued: “When fighting for the rights of immigrants, and the greater ideal of immigration, food just might be an unexpected weapon” (Sax, 2017). He concluded his article by observing: “People brought us lunch from far away. In time, it became the food we associated with home. We should know better than to bite the hands that feed us” (Sax, 2017). Although I do not question the author’s good intentions, I find this line of reasoning problematic.

By linking the argument in favor of diversity with its benefits to a dominant group, advocates associate minority groups’ rights to exist with such provision. This sort of contention seems to suggest that such groups must present something worthy of the gods at Olympus or possibly lose their right to exist. In a sketch on the Not the Nine O’ Clock News show, the comedian Rowan Atkinson, playing the role of a Conservative Party United Kingdom parliament member, highlighted this assumption in a comedy routine: “Now, a lot of immigrants are Indians and Pakistanis for instance, and … I like curry, I do! But now that we’ve got the recipe, is there really any need for them to stay?” (Wilson, 1979) Unfortunately, this sort of thinking is common. On December 9, 2015, for example, George Osborne, a Conservative Party member in the UK parliament, responded to a Labour Party member’s (Rupa Huq) question regarding her concern that an average of two curry houses were closing weekly due to government immigration policies, this way: “We all enjoy a great British curry, but we want the curry chefs to be trained in Britain so that we can provide jobs for people here in this country. That is what our immigration controls provide” (Hansard, 9 December 2015 col 987).

But, there is a more troubling problem inherent in this line of argument. It assumes that the minority groups’ right to exist (and not simply at the policy making level, but also at an individual level) is up to the general public (i.e., the dominant group) and by doing so, this line of reasoning reinforces the dominance of historically privileged groups and maintains the status quo. For instance, a white, heterosexual male in the United States is never asked to justify or legitimize his presence. If one is perceived as a member of the ascendant group, his right to exist is simply accepted, as, indeed, it should be for everyone. A horrifying echo of this problem was evidenced in recent events in Chemnitz, Germany, during which “a group of self-described ‘vigilantes’ […] targeted a birthday celebration, ordering anyone they deemed did not look German to show their identification papers” (“Police arrest far-right ‘vigilantes’ in Chemnitz,” 2018).

Although my examples here concern immigration, a status with which I am quite familiar as a foreigner studying in the United States, the use of the benefits argument is not limited to this subject. The presence of women in the workplace, for example, is frequently advocated on the grounds that it will improve productivity or profitability. Similarly, African Americans are legitimated by arguments pointing up their roles in the music industry or in professional sports. For example, an article on the Center for American Progress (CAP) website reminded its readers that “Even Justin Beiber names Usher, Michael Jackson, and Boyz II Men among his greatest role models” (Ajinkya, 2011).

I argue that the way to avoid this instrumentalization of entire population groups is rooted in advocacy based on ethics. In this view, a society does not choose to be diverse because of the particularistic benefits to one or another group that arise from social heterogeneity. Rather, it accepts those individuals and groups as equals because they are human and, as human beings, they deserve rights on that basis alone and not on whether they supply a sufficient array of perceived benefits to one or another group. In this sense, diversity, without preconditions, is not a choice, but an indication of social justice. Another way to put this point is to suggest that diversity is not a cause; it is an effect of a factual reality. This logic would answer Tucker Carlson’s question: “How exactly is diversity our strength?” by suggesting, “It is not your strength. It is their right.”


Ajinkya, J. (2011, November 22). “Top 10 Reasons to Be Thankful for Diversity.” Retrieved September 27, 2018, from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2011/11/22/10602/top-10-reasons-to-be-thankful-for-diversity/

Hansard,HC Deb vol. 603 col 987 (9 December 2015) [Electronic version]. Retrieved September 15, 2018, from https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm151209/debtext/151209-0001.htm

“Police arrest far-right ‘vigilantes’ in Chemnitz.” (2018, September 15). Retrieved September 16, 2018, from https://p.dw.com/p/34vfY

Sax, D. (2017, March 27). “The Sriracha Argument for Immigration.” The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-sriracha-argument-for-immigration

Wilson, B. (1979). “The Immigration Speech.” Not the Nine O’ Clock News. BBC Two. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p007n19z

Reza Fateminasab

Reza Fateminasab is a PhD student in the Architecture and Design Research program in the School of Architecture + Design at Virginia Tech. He received his Master’s degree from the University of Tehran and his Bachelor’s degree from Tehran University of Art, both in architecture. His current research focuses on the design process and implementation of digital tools within it. He enthusiastically follows the arts and politics.

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The Political Dimension of the Challenge of Technological Disruption


While watching a recent interview on YouTube with the world’s first Humanoid Robot citizen, Sophia, [1] at the European Festival Brain Bar on the future held in Budapest, Hungary (Flex Tech July 2018), I was struck by one answer he/she/it gave regarding her consciousness and receipt of Saudi citizenship [2]:

… I am not fully autonomous like a person yet, so I do not really have rights in the same way the people do. I cannot take any actions on my own, not to mention the government has yet to actually do any (sic.) with my rights entail so … I see my citizenship as aspirational, my dream is for everybody to have equal rights, so I hope the question of my citizenship prompt[s] to (sic.) many productive and important debates … [3]

Several thoughts came to mind as I considered this exchange: How should interested scholars and humankind more generally, consider the question of humanoid citizenship? Who is going to facilitate consideration of that question and relatedly, lead human beings through the political changes and challenges that will arise globally from technological innovation irrespective of the outcomes of this specific debate? One issue Sophia raised in her comment above, for example, is whose political agenda should humanoids represent? I want to reflect briefly here on these and like questions arising from the rapid dawning of an international political economy in which machine processing power will require that existing human concerns be addressed in new and fresh ways. I use Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s (2016) book, The Second Machine Age [4], as a referent to contend that while their argument offers an insightful perspective into future debates arising from this sea change in the world’s technology infrastructure, they overlook the complexity of the social contract that must be constructed to address it adequately.

Contextualizing the Debate

According to Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2016), technological innovations are emblems of human progress. The authors define that condition as a people’s “ability to master its physical and intellectual environment to get things done” (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2016, p. 4). Roughly 200 years ago during the first industrial revolution humans were able to develop machines, such as the spinning Jenny and the steam engine, that ushered in the modern industrial era (Hillstrom and Hillstrom 2007). Today, computers and digital technologies employ algorithms to allow machines to perform programmed activities without additional intervention. After losing on Jeopardy, a famed television quiz show, to IBM cognitive computer Watson, Ken Jennings, a perennial champion and perceived master of that game, said:

Just as factory jobs were eliminated in the twentieth century by new assembly-line robots, Brad [a co-competitor] and I were the first knowledge-industry workers put out of work by the new generation of ‘thinking’ machines. ‘Quiz show contestant’ may be the first job made redundant by Watson, but I’m sure it won’t be the last. (Jennings, 2011).

The pace of technological innovation has increased not only the possibilities that machines can perform some activities better than humans themselves, but also accelerated the rate at which they are becoming capable of doing so (i.e., driverless cars, the IBM robot Watson diagnosing cancer, Sophia exhibiting facial expressions, etc.). As human beings improve the processing power and algorithm complexity of the computers they design, those units become better at addressing complicated social environments and functioning effectively within them (Schwab 2017). The concern that machines will replace the need for human labor and dispossess millions of their employment possibilities, has arisen regularly in history as new technologies have been developed. Indeed, many technological innovations have transformed portions of the economies adopting them and in so doing often reshaped individuals’ daily activities. However, the current level of social change is materially different in three ways than previous technology driven innovation, according to Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2016): 1) it encourages lasting and cumulative shifts in economic and social organization 2) it fosters new combinations of ideas and encourages their application and 3) its effects are not confined to any single sector of the political economy.

Leontief (1983) has argued that democratic institutions must develop new social contracts during periods of fast-paced technological change. In his view, such can only occur by means of informed citizens engaged in deliberative decision processes. Importantly, these twin criteria can be difficult to meet during periods of significant social shifts and the widespread anxiety that accompanies them. For their part, Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2016) adopted an optimistic view of the impacts of changing technologies in people’s lives. They contended that such situations provide unlimited economic opportunities for the future. For instance, during just the last few decades, shifting technologies have created positions and high wage premiums for specific Information Technology (IT) occupations and skills; offered mechanisms to increase worker productivity and provided new and revolutionary goods and services, resulting in increased levels of citizen well-being. Indeed, Brynjolfsson and McAfee contend that the beneficial impacts of technology innovation will be far greater than the potential costs they impose related to inequality, civil rights, human dignity and unemployment.

Economics in The Machine “Brain Power” Revolution   

Emerging technologies enhance and reshape production processes in ways that typically result in efficiencies and that are more likely, when compared to existing conditions, to create winner-take-all markets and to increase income inequalities. Analysts expect that these disruptions will both continue and quicken as designers equip computers and robots with new capabilities.  Depending on their specific characteristics, these shifts may heighten the risk of decoupling job and wage growth from gains in output and productivity [5]. These changes raise particular challenges for affected societies because they highlight clearly the prospect of how the new wealth they create should be distributed in a socially just way.

The mainstream neo-classical economic model argues that increases in capital or machinery will at once enhance output per person-hour and reduce labor inputs. As a result, labor productivity increases. Thereafter, competition will decrease the price of the introduced innovation and increase laborer’s relative incomes as production of the new product rises. Consequently, real wages increase and raise potential aggregate demand. In the end, firms will hire more laborers even as they increase their relevant capital investments. This has been the typical pattern when new technologies have disrupted economic sectors in the past.

The nature of the Second Machine Age or new technologies’ processing capabilities, such as image and voice recognition (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2016), are at the core of the decoupling effect, and in my judgment, are measurably changing the dynamics that neo-classic models were originally developed to capture. For instance, demand for low skilled workers has not only decreased, but this group of employees has failed to adapt to the danger posed by their being substituted by machines possessing skills previously unimagined capabilities. Moreover, according to Standing (2014) there is a growing number of individuals in middle-level jobs, moving in and out of positions with persistent stagnation in average incomes. In addition, Frey and Osborn (2013) have estimated that 47% of 702 occupations in the North American workforce across all education levels are now at risk to be replaced by computerization (i.e. machines) by 2030. People with more education, training or experience are in high demand today in flexible occupations and creative positions. It appears that Keynes (1930) argument concerning the short-term unemployment-related effect of automation and technological innovations may soon no longer hold and Leontief’s (1983) contention that mechanization will produce long-term unemployment for affected groups will instead become typical.

Nonetheless, Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2015) expressed confidence that humans will always be able to find ways to cope with such disruptive innovations because they possess brain power that machines will never possess and because they also enjoy capital ownership, citizenship and the right to vote to modify social contracts as needed.

The Missing Political Dimension  

Despite their claim to the contrary, however, I am concerned by how little attention Brynjolfsson and McAfee accord the need for thoughtful democratic choices to address disruptive economic change. Changing technologies do not alone affect markets, but also political governing institutions and processes and the often contradictory and complex negotiations that occur within them. Those are surely not neutral in shaping the ultimate effects of market disruptions and they are not reflected in economic measures. For instance, the use of some technologies may slow productivity due to social resistance or to existing institutional arrangements, resulting in increasing inequality. That is, while technological developments have resulted in increasing wealth during the post-World War II era, they have simultaneously reduced the share of income received by workers, and decreased workers’ bargaining power with business owners. This trend is likely associated with rising social inequality in the United States since the 1970s, as measured by the GINI coefficient (Freeman 2015).

A Final Note

In my view, Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s (2015; 2016) capitalist analytic lens led them to overestimate the capacity of the market alone to address the effects of rapid technology change. They also misunderstood and underestimated the complexities associated with how difficult it is to change an existing social contract in the face of major technological shifts. Humanoid Sophia is a symbol of the urgency of securing political and social change. Human beings will want to consider carefully how the technology this machine represents can/will be integrated into their ways of life and how those shifts will change how they organize and manage their social, political and economic relationships.


[1] Sophia is a humanoid created by Hanson Robotics, a company headquartered in Hong Kong. To learn more about the company and Sophia see http://www.hansonrobotics.com/robot/sophia/

[2] The Saudi Arabian government announced it was according Sophia citizenship at the launch of the Future Investment Initiative, a public Investment fund in that nation, in fall 2017 (Please see https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-41761856; http://futureinvestmentinitiative.com/en/pif). To date, the Saudi government has not provided an explanation for why it took this action.  However, that government and its agencies are investing heavily in Artificial Intelligence (AI). This fact may suggest the Saudis took the action they did to help to spur investment in that economic sector in their country (For reference see http://www.hansonrobotics.com/ai-in-the-middle-east-infographic/).

 [3] Flex Tech (2018, Jul 6): “Sophia AI Robot in Biggest European Festival” -Brain Bar. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDvSvhT95Ig

 [4] Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2016) defined the Second Machine Age as what “computers and other digital advances are doing for mental power.” These authors argued that digitalization is creating a world of abundance instead of scarcity since technologies improve skills at an exponential rate and allow the replication and translation of those new capabilities, thereby creating opportunities to spur fresh innovation.

[5] The decoupling phenomenon suggests that a society’s Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita and labor productivity may evidence an upward trajectory while median family income and private employment for average workers declines. Analysts have reported this empirical result since the mid-1990s and it does not match with traditional or mainstream economic theories (i.e. neo-classical theory) in which increases in real GDP per capita and labor productivity should also result in employment and in gains in family income. Please see https://hbr.org/2015/06/the-great-decoupling for additional information.


Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2015). Will Humans Go the Way of Horses? Foreign Affairs, 94(4), 8. Accessed November 29, 2016  https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2015-06-16/will-humans-go-way-horses

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Luis Felipe Camacho is a Ph.D. candidate in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program at Virginia Tech. He received his Master’s degree in International Enterprise Direction from FORO EUROPEO Escuela de Negocios de Navarra (Spain) and holds a post-graduate certificate in International Trade from the University Sergio Arboleda (Colombia) in collaboration with Georgetown University’s Center for Intercultural Education and Development. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Economics from the Externado de Colombia University. He is an adjunct professor for the Honors Discovery and Innovation Studio of the Virginia Tech Honors College in partnership with the Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience (GFURR) teaching the class: Robots: AI, Algorithms, and the Smart Machines (R)evolution. His research focuses on how technology influences workplace relations and conditions and how each can be improved through participatory practices.

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