It was famed critic Roger Ebert who first who first called film “the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.” But over the past few years another medium has begun to claim that mantle: virtual reality. As the kickoff to the winter film festival season approaches, a wave of new projects promises to immerse viewers in different worlds that help them better connect with subjects. But VR’s power to stoke empathy reaches further than just the movie industry. Even as far back as 1992 the federal government recognized the impact VR can have on military training exercises. Journalists, activists and doctors are among those using the technology to bring about action around some of today’s social issues.
In 2016, The Guardian was rolling through an online and print series on life in solitary confinement. The newspaper’s stories, videos and podcasts appeared around the same time that Albert Woodfox, a 69-year-old man who had spent over four decades in solitary confinement, was released from prison, renewing the debate on how the U.S. treats its prisoners. As part of their series, The Guardian produced its first VR project, called “6×9,” which simulates the experience of being held in isolation for 23 hours a day, every day. “People hadn’t thought the cell would be so bad, or so small,” Francesca Panetta, The Guardian’s executive editor for virtual reality, told theDigital News Initiative last year. “They didn’t realize that people were in for nonviolent crimes, or for so long.” Since then, other news organizations have used VR to explore the psychological toll that isolation can have, such as 2017’s After Solitary, produced in part by PBS’s Frontline.
It’s one thing to hear about the throngs of angry protesters that confront women who visit abortion clinics. It’s another to experience that vitriol for yourself. “Across the Line” was produced by Planned Parenthood and debuted at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Featuring real audio of protesters outside of clinics, the VR film gives viewers a first-hand experience of what it’s like to access an abortion while being harassed, cajoled and insulted. In one screening, a Republican lawmaker was so visibly shaken by the film that he stormed out of the room, says Molly Eagan, vice president of Planned Parenthood Experience and the executive producer of “Across the Line.” “Seventy percent of the people I showed [the film to] were in tears,” she tells NationSwell. “I am not a filmmaker; I’m a public health person. I did not have any idea about the emotional impact that a seven-minute VR piece would have on the viewers.”
As the number of Americans addicted to painkillers and other opioids remains a significant problem, VR is providing drug-free pain management to hospital patients. The Virtual Relief Organization, a project sponsored by the Center for Social Change, brings VR headsets to medical facilities at no cost, allowing patients to simulate the experience of traveling to destinations around the world as part of their recovery process. The technology may even be helpful in revealing injuries that doctors have a nearly impossible time diagnosing, such as mild concussions caused by small impact during athletics or military training. The company Sync-Think recently received clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to start using headsets to track eye movements when an injury has been sustained. The technology, Eye-Sync, records, views and analyzes eye movements and can analyze brain health in 60 seconds, according to the company. “The EYE-SYNC technology was initially developed to identify changes in brain function after injury,” founder and Stanford neurosurgeon Dr. Jamshid Ghajar says in a press release. “However its application has evolved significantly in recent years, and we intend to leverage our core technology to expand the many ways we can help people get the most out of their daily life activities.” For the time being, the verdict is still out on whether the form can truly change how people think and act. You can, however, say it’s entertaining and seems to be helping in some way.
This year’s top news stories sometimes made it tough to remain optimistic, given the mass shootings, hurricanes and wildfires, controversial legislation and the threat of nuclear war. In times like these, when the daily headlines can feel so oppressively grim, we often turn to longer works to put our historical moment in context — to show us that there’s a better way forward in organizing healthcare, dealing with crime, addressing climate change and stabilizing government. That’s where this list comes in. Spanning both fiction and non-, essays and memoirs, these are the books that gave us hope in an otherwise tumultuous year.
After her 5-year-old son was accidentally killed by a cop, Susan Burton descended into a crack addiction that landed her in prison — over and over again. As detailed in this heartfelt memoir, Burton eventually got the help she needed and now runs A New Way of Life, a scrappy nonprofit that offers sober housing and treatment for formerly incarcerated women at five safe houses in South Los Angeles.
The Great Lakes used to be a cesspool of industrial chemicals and municipal sewage, until Congress intervened in 1972. A massive cleanup followed, but that ongoing recovery is being threatened today by invasive species inadvertently dumped into the lakes. Dan Egan, a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, lays out a natural history of how foreign fish and filter-feeders arrived (then spread through the nation’s waterways) and how government regulators can adapt.
Ever since the unrest in Ferguson in 2014, policing’s become a hot-button topic. Rather than blaming cops, Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University, tries to move the conversation forward, arguing that judges and ordinary citizens alike need to do more to restore the Fourth Amendment’s protections against “unreasonable search and seizure” in a time of heightened surveillance and militarization among law enforcement.
On a frozen morning in December 2008, the nation’s largest automaker, General Motors, closed down its oldest assembly plant, laying off thousands of workers and hollowing out Janesville, Wisc., the hometown of Rep. Paul Ryan. Amy Goldstein, a reporter at the Washington Post, picks up the story there, poignantly describing the efforts to shore up a vanishing middle class.
Why did you come to the United States? What countries did you pass through? Did anything happen on your trip that scared or hurt you? Depending on how they answer those questions, unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Central America are either granted a pass or sent back. Writer Valeria Luiselli, a volunteer who administered the questionnaire, details her first-hand experiences with the immigration system in this 120-page essay.
One in three low-income adults avoids smiling. That’s a consequence of treating dentistry as optional, allowing tooth decay and gum disease that afflict the poor to be written off as failures of personal responsibility. Mary Otto, a veteran health journalist, makes a stirring plea to close an unacknowledged gap in our medical system.
In 1988, after a neighbor came forward to claim a $1,000 reward, Willie Grimes was convicted of breaking into a 69-year-old widow’s house and raping her twice. Two decades into Grimes’s life sentence, DNA evidence exonerated him. In this meticulously researched book, Benjamin Rachlin explores North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission, the first body of its kind to hear wrongful conviction pleas and restore integrity to a system that’s locked up thousands of innocent people.
The Founding Fathers curiously left any reference to wealth out of the Constitution, believing that America was a country where citizens were born equal, rather than becoming so, as Alexis de Tocqueville later put it. In a treatise packed with historical anecdotes and political theory, Ganesh Sitaraman, a Vanderbilt law professor, makes the case that America’s “middle-class constitution” is straining under an economic divide and offers corrective reforms.
The lone work of fiction on our list, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s epic debut novel follows three generations of a black New Orleans family, from World War II to the War on Drugs of the 1980s to Hurricane Katrina at the dawn of a new century. Even as they struggle to get by, in a country where racial progress has always been fitful, the family members display remarkable endurance.
Another book about how to save our democracy, this slim volume dispels the notion that a republic can persevere without an engaged citizenry. “History does not repeat, but it does instruct,” Timothy Snyder, a Yale professor, begins, as he shares how totalitarianism gobbled up Eastern Europe a century ago and what can be done to prevent its creeping approach today.
Josh MacPhee grew up looking at art. His father was an artist, and the discipline helped him cope with his teenage years in the mid-1980s, when the DIY punk scene was gaining steam in the U.S. “Some people were in bands, some people did ’zines and somepeople, like myself, did artwork,” says MacPhee, now a graphic designer and street artist in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I got involved in politics through that independent culture, using my skills to address the issues and communities I felt were important.” That was more than 25 years ago. In the decades since, graffiti and street art has gone from underground movement to mainstream acceptance — it’s no longer rare for rogue wheat-pasted and spray-painted art to be sold at Christie’s auction houses, for one. Driving this change are artists like MacPhee, who is also a founder of the radical-art distribution project called Justseeds. Their visual representations of hot-button issues like climate change, immigration and civil rights are more in demand than ever. There’s a long history of using art to make a political statement. Nearly a century ago, the antiwar Dadaists and painters like Diego Rivera, a dedicated Marxist who advocated for workers’ rights, were creating art meant to drive social change. Today that tradition continues, albeit in a different form. Thanks to the ubiquity of social media and the elevated profiles of world-famous street artists like Banksy, it’s easier than ever for artists to reach the public with their images of protest. It’s also allowed collectives like the Seattle-based Amplifier to hit upon a unique niche: commissioning mission-driven artists to produce works that can be printed, for free, by activists and others agitating for change, both in the U.S. and around the world.
“I don’t think the world has ever seen an art machine like this: one that does not exist to make money,” says executive director Aaron Huey, who founded Amplifier in 2014. “We turn any money that does come in into more art and awareness. We build campaigns that can and do change the national narrative.” Huey has friends in high places. He was able to recruit big names like Shepard Fairey — probably best known for his Obama “Hope” poster — and the muralist Mata Ruda to contribute art to campaigns ranging from voting rights to prison reform. Early last year, in the run up to the worldwide Women’s March protests, Amplifier launched a campaign called We The People, placing its artwork in full-page ads in the Washington Post, the New York Times and USA Today. The group also distributed more than 30,000 placards, some of which were also designed by Fairey, in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Half a million more people downloaded and printed the posters themselves. Featuring stylized photographs of a diverse group of Americans, the campaign’s goal is to encourage dialogue about national identity and values. “It’s an opportunity to represent marginalized groups and to get stories out that aren’t always in the mainstream press,” says Chip Thomas, who works under the name Jetsonorama in Arizona. He’s known for wheat-pasting enlarged photos of residents of the Navajo nation, where he also works as a family doctor, onto the sides of buildings, water tanks, grain silos and fences around the reservation. His work was highlighted by Amplifier last spring during the People’s Climate March in D.C. and hundreds of other cities around the world. “The most I can hope for is that [my work] would stimulate people to see some things differently and not just think about taking action, but actually doing it,” says Thomas. For MacPhee, whose designs were also featured in Amplifier’s climate-change crusade, the most effective campaigns aren’t the ones tied to large national demonstrations, but rather those targeted to local communities. “I’m happy Amplifier did what it did with the Women’s March, but I try not to spend my time doing grandiose cultural work,” MacPhee says. “[Change happens] in actual physical places, not on the internet, so it has to connect to people on the ground.”
Last year, MacPhee partnered with Amplifier to design and distribute oversized foam fists for the New York–based Close Rikers campaign. The props were carried by demonstrators during a series of protests in the city against the massive Rikers Island jail complex. “They were used over and over again. They just have become a staple of the campaign,” says MacPhee, who will be an artist in residency at Amplifier’s Seattle headquarters in 2018. “One of the things I’ve always wanted — and I think many artists who work in this space want — is to print 20,000 posters and bring them out on palettes to demonstrations and have them disappear. One of the things about Amplifier is that they’ve been able to actualize that.” Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that MacPhee runs Justseeds and is currently an artist in residence at Amplify and that Amplify started in 2010. NationSwell apologizes for these errors.
It was 2012 when Nicole Riggs decided to seriously reevaluate her life. The year before, her mother passed away. So did her mother-in-law, a friend’s young daughter and the family dog. As 2012 got under way, Riggs’ fifth-grade son fell victim to school bullies, her stepson’s mother succumbed to ovarian cancer and Riggs’ marriage ended in divorce.
A renovation consultant at the time, Riggs began questioning her career choice, realizing that she no longer cared so much what color toilet someone wanted in their bathroom. “I saw no value in what I was doing. It wasn’t helping people who needed help,” says the New York City-based Riggs, who is also a NationSwell Council member. “It wasn’t offering a shining light to me, my sons or anyone else in the world dealing with loss or trauma.”
Riggs had always made time to volunteer with various nonprofits, including producing events for Team Rubicon, an organization that encourages veterans to serve on emergency teams that respond to natural disasters. But she found herself drawn to the idea of making documentary films ― specifically, she says, “issue-based films that do more than entertain.”
In 2015, Riggs founded Make It Happen, a transmedia production company committed to creating films that educate, engage and build solutions to social challenges. Inspired by her volunteer work with Team Rubicon, Riggs chose to center her first project ― a social campaign featuring 10 short films ― on the mental health of veterans. After hiring a videographer, she traveled the country, conducting interviews with each service member herself.
Instead of spotlighting the many difficulties facing soldiers as they transition back to civilian life, “we focused on their futures,” explains Riggs. “I wanted people to see positive role models they could emulate.”
The campaign, called Empower Our Vets, launched on Veteran’s Day in 2015. The first film profiled a retired Army sergeant who had struggled with survivor’s guilt after a grueling tour of duty in Iraq’s “Triangle of Death.” The turning point, he admitted, was finally talking to a therapist.
Soon after the three-and-a-half minute film was posted on Facebook, another veteran left a comment: “I’m getting ahold of the VA finally in the morning,” he wrote. “Seeing this made it sink in … I can only thank you.”
“That’s my proudest achievement as well as my greatest hope,” Riggs says. “If I saved one young man, maybe he’ll help somebody else.”
Make It Happen’s most recent film, “My Intention Was Not to Leave,” tells the stories of three adolescent refugees ― one teenage boy from Iraq and two more from West Africa ― and their harrowing journey as unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Europe. Riggs and her film crew spent five days in Athens last summer, listening to the boys talk about their experiences with child slavery, brutal violence and ethnic cleansing. Despite the solemn subject matter, the film strikes an optimistic tone.
“It’s true I don’t have all the money and resources to succeed,” one of the boys acknowledges in the film. “But I have all the people I need to succeed.”
Riggs has a similar mission for Make It Happen.
“These films are vehicles to start conversations,” she says. “We want to engage regular audiences, policymakers and fund-raisers.”
Currently, Riggs is working with the nonprofit Concordia, which promotes public-private partnerships that drive social change, to screen the film in several cities across the globe, beginning with New York in late January. She’s also in talks with other organizations about not only sharing her films, but helping viewers understand how to take action.
“How can we teach adolescent refugees skills? How can they get an education? How can we engage communities to help?” asks Riggs. “I’m a big-picture person.”
Each of her films, she says, “offers hope that even in the face of something awful, there is the potential to overcome. It’s just a matter of hearing something positive.” Nicole Riggs is a NationSwell Council member and the founder of Make It Happen, a transmedia production company that aims to inspire large-scale social change.
Getting old isn’t for the faint of heart. Healthcare is expensive. Extra services are needed. There’s pressure on your adult children to take care of you. (And from their perspective, they’ve got to deal with the mental anguish of watching you try to cope!)
Yes, it’s joyous to lead a long, healthy life, but the operative word is “healthy.” If you’re lingering, not living, I don’t see an upside.
Making it to 100 — or beyond — only makes sense, to me, if you have a high quality of life. If you’re confined to a wheelchair, if someone has to clean you, bathe you and dress you, and if you’re not even aware of your surroundings, living to such a ripe old age doesn’t feel like much of a victory. To enjoy longevity, it’s crucial that we can still give back to others, feel well enough to participate in activities, and enjoy our family and friends.
When my father was 69, he had a stroke. A medevac helicopter rushed him to the hospital, where doctors told us there was a possibility that he’d recover. As a family, we decided to put in a feeding tube.
Had I understood the magnitude of my father’s stroke and been given more clear medical information, I would have made a different decision.
My father lived 14 more years, but he was confined to a wheelchair and had minimal speech capabilities. He suffered. Despite my parents’ long-term health insurance policy, his illness also ate away at their financial resources.
Three years ago, my father finally passed.
Afterward, I thought my mother would have a chance to be healthier and happier, as she was no longer a primary caregiver. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Last year, she fell and broke her hip. At the same time her physical health declined, so did her mental health. Now she, too, requires 24-7 care.
Today, my mother resides in a senior living facility. It’s clean and safe. She’s treated with kindness. A nurse visits her once a week and calls me with any problems. But since my mother’s finances were drained from my father’s illness and her long-term insurance doesn’t cover much, I support her. At first, I was optimistic that Medicare would help, but at the end of the day, when someone needs around-the-clock care, the cost is too considerable.
I’m not complaining; many others are in a similar situation. As people live longer, they need to be cared for. That’s the concern with an aging population, and it’s one that should be addressed more seriously.
I think the healthcare crisis we’re in is substantial. It’s a tragedy to see people lose their Medicare while drug prices rise, and to hear about terrible nursing home situations in the news. The longer people live, the more needs they have, and the greater the burden on our entire system.
I doubt that I’m alone in these thoughts. There’s a movement in our country toward hospice services. People want compassionate solutions, not 911 drama. As we have the opportunity to live longer, it will become critical for people in the medical field to come clean with families so that appropriate choices can be made. Hopefully, those decisions will be guided by love.
On the other hand, exactly when the “best” years are in your life depends on you, your career and your interests. Each individual’s journey is different. There’s no prescription for success or happiness.
If I were to live to 100 and still had a good quality of life, I’d continue to engage in enriching, cultural activities. I’d spend my days going to the theater, watching old movies and reading fiction. I’d surround myself with interesting stories, and would hopefully be reading them to my great-grandchildren.
Although I officially retired as president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2015, I recently completed a two-year senior fellowship at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Now, I’m serving as a senior advisor to the Onassis Foundation’s cultural centers in New York and Athens, Greece.
I love what I do, but it’s hard to know if I’ll still be working at the age of 100. Younger people will call the shots at that point, but hopefully I’ll be interesting enough to stick around and contribute to their shining moments.
If so, I’d try to illuminate and educate younger generations without always saying, “In my day…” I’d try not to hold on to the same level of professional intensity I had in my 40s, 50s and 60s.
In return, I’ll hopefully be seen as a visionary in my day — someone who worked hard, did well and added more vitality to the field.
As humans, we can’t go backward. We have to move forward. If it’s intimidating to think about that in big chunks, then we can break it down day by day. To me, that means if I can wake up and feel good, continue to work and be with the people I care about, then I’m lucky.
Karen Brooks Hopkins served as President of the Brooklyn Academy of Music from 1999 until her retirement in 2015 and was an employee of the institution since 1979. She has worked with the Cultural Institutions Group, the Mayor’s Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission and as the Brooklyn Regent for the New York State Education Department. In 2013, Crain’s named her one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in New York.” Karen currently serves on the boards of the Jerome L. Greene and Alexander Onassis Foundations, as Senior Fellow in Residence at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Fellow of the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University. This post is paid for by AARP.
It’s hard to imagine Ari Afsar ever losing her tune. But the “Hamilton: An American Musical” actor, who plays Eliza Schuyler in the Chicago production, spent several years as a tween, then teen, perfecting her craft at a senior living center. Those long afternoonspracticing were filled with lost tunes, forgotten words and cracked notes, but “they wouldn’t care at all,” she laughs, describing them as “the best people to perform in front of.” Those performances sprang from a troubling insight: “When I would visit my grandma, it seemed like I was the only visitor,” she told a packed audience at the Social Innovation Summit in Chicago. “We’re afraid of getting older, so we put older people in the back of our minds.” A young Afsar decided to change that, and at the age of 13, she started Adopt a Grandfriend, a social club that brings theatrical performances to nearby senior centers. After the curtain closed on productions, the performers would spend time with residents. According to Afsar, the results extended beyond the stage, and several long-term friendships resulted from their work. In a social media landscape that encourages young people to scroll through endless cause posts and calls-to-action every day, it’s easy to wonder if online exposure translates to actual action. But according to DoSomething.org CEO Aria Finger, the next generation isn’t just engaged — they’re highly engaged: 62 percent of Gen Z and millennial respondents have volunteered in the past 12 months, and roughly half volunteer every single month. And, despite the volume of cause-related content presented to young people, tomorrow’s leaders appear to have a knack for targeting the opportunities that are most relevant to them. That was true for Afsar, who combined her passion for performance with her desire to improve the quality of life for local senior citizens. It also was true for summit speaker Marley Dias, a diehard bookworm who discussed her frustration at her library’s limited selection of books about “white boys and their dogs.” Dias, then 11, reacted by creating a book drive called #1000BlackGirlsBooks, and turned her passion into social action. The hashtag — and initiative, which focuses on books that feature black girls as protagonists — went viral. Since the launch in 2015, the New Jersey tween has collected more than 10,000 books and landed her own book deal. “I want to raise awareness and consciousness,” she says, about her mission to bring inclusivity to bookshelves. “It’s not about just knowing the problem exists, but having the consciousness to want to make a difference.” Despite stereotypes that Millennials are lazy, self-involved, digital addicts, there is equal — or more — evidence that positions them as nascent innovators. Millennials are more inclined to launch their own initiatives that align their passions with social, economic and civic good, rather than join older organizations aimed at solving the world’s broadest problems. For a generation that grew up with technology and access, it makes sense that their ventures are often responding to trending or topical issues. Maria Yuan, a NationSwell Council member, was managing a political campaign in Iowa when she realized that citizens also wanted to engage between election cycles — when the real work that affects our lives is done — but there was no venue to support that need. Yuan launched the nonpartisan platform IssueVoter to give everyone a voice in democracy by making civic engagement accessible, efficient and impactful. “The focus on issues makes sense because 40 percent of voters are independents and 48 percent of Millennials don’t identify with a political party, according to Pew,” says Yuan. IssueVoter also helps turn slacktivism into activism: Users can read legislation in layman’s terms, check out what both sides are saying, look at a personalized scorecard and also send their opinions to representatives in one click. The Millennial generation’s proclivity for independence and solution-driven work shows no sign of slowing. Market research firm Millennial Branding found that72 percent of high school students want to run their own initiative one day. Researchers at Northeastern University dubbed Gen Z the most entrepreneurial generation alive. “I’ve realized life is long,” says Hamilton’s Afsar. “Yes, I want to accomplish things in my career in the arts, but I also see other areas that I can be involved in. There’s a connection between being an artist and being an activist, and we have to open our eyes to all opportunities.” Presented by Social Innovation Summit. NationSwell is a Social Innovation Summit partner. Social Innovation Summit is an annual global convening of black swans and wayward thinkers. In June 2017, more than 1,400 Fortune 500 corporate executives, venture capitalists, CSR and foundation heads, government leaders, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, activists, emerging market investors and nonprofit heads convened in Chicago to investigate solutions and catalyze inspired partnerships that are disrupting history.
Updated: Aug. 19, 10:12 a.m. When white supremacists and neo-Nazis recently marched in Charlottesville, Va., they chanted old, racially-driven mottos like “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.” The tenor of the protest’s cheers were horrific to many Americans glued to their televisions or mobile phones, but the slogans are nothing new for white supremacists who have been listening to them for decades with the help of hate music, or “hatecore,” a genre of white supremacy and fascist music. Heavy rock songs like “White Victory” by the band Blue Eyed Devils is a favorite on white pride forums, and one of the individuals involved in the events in Charlottesville,Ryan Roy, was a member of a white power heavy metal band called Hate Speech. But there’s another favorite among white supremacists that differs from the typical anger-filled lyrics of traditional fascism music: fashwave. The music, based on the hipster genre “vaporwave,” is a mix of cybernetic swells matched with video game 8-bit sounds and is a throwback to music of the 1980s, when Halloween-esque theme songs collided with pop culture bass to create a genre fully centered on beats and synthesizers. “Fashwave is almost like this transient music that puts you away. It’s definitely a different kind of beast,” says a senior investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League familiar with hate music and fashwave. “But we can’t view it as just a flash-in-a-pan trend, because we’ve seen that this kind of music doesn’t just go away.” Fashwave’s influence is no different than the American neo-Nazi punk rock and industrial music that rose out of the mid-80s and became popular among white supremacists in the 90s. With more of the youth population interested in indie-pop electronic and the EDM scene, it was only a matter of time before white supremacists would evolve their tastes for music, as well. But there is a push by activists and organizations to stop the spread of fashwave and other hate music while also using music and other art forms to teach impressionable youth to appreciate diversity.
A HIDDEN MESSAGE OF HATE
Music has always been instrumental in getting citizens to rally around political and cultural movements. The hundreds of thousands of people gathered in upstate New York at Woodstock in 1969 to listen to music were also protesting the Vietnam War and celebrating free love. Today’s white supremacy groups use it as a recruiting tool. “Music is incredibly effective in bringing together communities, and the alt-right recognize that and are using it to generate excitement about their cause,” says Scott Crow, an author on subcultures and music, referring to white supremacists who bill themselves as “alt-right.” Arno Michaelis, a self-proclaimed former skinhead and former lead singer of the band Centurion, a white power band, echoes this sentiment. “It’s not a new thing. Through the skinhead and punk-music surge of the late 80s, it likely revealed the power that music had to move people,” he says. “Going forward, the movement won’t ever miss a beat as far as using music to spread their message.” Michaelis, who left the band — and the white power movement — close to a decade ago, says that the music coming from neo-Nazis resonated with him as a teenager. “It was like crack. It conveyed the message in a really catchy habitual way,” Michaelis tells NationSwell. “And if it has that kind of effect on you while conveying a message of blood and soil, it really indoctrinates you into that ideology like nothing else can.” Today’s fashwave music has the same mission, but goes about it differently. For one, the music is mostly lyric-free and is a hodgepodge of electronic and video game sounds, and trance-like beats. And with the exception of a few song titles, such as Xurious’s “Team White,” or tunes that have sampled vocal tracks (like C Y B E R N ∆ Z I’s “Angry Goy,” which is paired with portions of speeches made by Adolf Hitler) it’s entirely possible that listeners have no clue what they’re actually hearing.
“It’s always better to reach people that don’t think like you and convince them to think that the international Jew is the ultimate enemy of the human kind,” C Y B E R N ∆ Z I tells NationSwell in an email. “It makes no sense to compose music only for people that think like you when you want a peaceful change of regime.” NationSwell reached out to Xurious via social media, but did not receive a response by time of publication.
In a 2016 post entitled “The Official Soundtrack of the Alt-Right,” Andrew Anglin, founder of the white supremacist news website The Daily Stormer and an organizer of the Unite the Right event in Charlottesville, said “The forms of music associated with previous White Nationalist movements, various forms of rock music, are pretty dated… the solution to this problem had been staring me in the face all along. The Whitest music ever: Synthwave.” He continued, “Synthwave represents the truest sound of the Alt-Right, … Within this genre is the sound of reading the Daily Stormer…the sound of an old guy punching a Black Lives protester in the face at a Trump rally.”
On the song “Hail Victory” by Xurious, the voice of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump is heard saying, “We will have so much winning if I get elected, that you might get bored with winning.” The song is not a parody or a mockery of President Trump, but instead a galvanizing piece used at white supremacist rallies — such as the one in Charlottesville — and championed within the circle as a rally call. President Trump hasn’t defended the use of his name by white supremacists, but did say during a contentious press conference that there was blame “on both sides” in regards to the Unite the Right rally, which left one person dead.
MUSIC CAN DIVIDE, BUT ALSO EDUCATE
In 2004, Panzerfaust Records (a white power record label that was named for a German weapon from World War II) released 100,000 sampler CDs to middle and high schoolers as part of its “Project Schoolyard” mission. The company failed, though, when parents, schools and the Anti-Defamation League caught wind. To mitigate the spread of hate music, organizations such as the ADL have called on leading tech companies to take a proactive approach to uncovering the content and having it removed or flagged. The group hasn’t been able to track how effective its efforts have been, but various businesses have started cracking down on hate speech in the wake of Charlottesville. In the matter of just a few days, The Daily Stormer (which had a dedicated “Fashwave Friday” blog) was taken offline by its host, GoDaddy. When the publication tried to transfer its domain registration over to Google, the tech giant canceled its account. BuzzFeed News reported that Apple disabled Apple Pay on white supremacist websites and Squarespace will no longer serve white nationalist businesses or individuals, including Richard Spencer — the self-proclaimed leader of the “alt-right.” Spotify, the music streaming provider, removed dozens of artists from their platform after the Southern Poverty Law Center released names of current bands. Neo-fascist and fashwave playlists created by users, however, were still available to be streamed. When NationSwell contacted Spotify and asked for an explanation of its policy on allowing fashwave playlists and users, the company seemed unaware that the genre was even on their platform. A spokesman for the tech company immediately responded, saying the company was “glad to have been alerted to this content — and have [sic] already removed many of the bands identified today, whilst urgently reviewing the remainder.” At the local level, former white supremacist Michaelis now works as a leader of the organizationServe 2 Unite, which introduces students to arts and different cultures to combat hate and radicalism. It was organized almost immediately after the 2012 mass shooting of six Sikh members in Milwaukee, where Michaelis lives. The shooter in the attack, Michael Page, was part of the supremacist band End Apathy. Michaelis says that even though music can divide and radicalize, it can also bring education and hope to those who have been taken in by far-right ideologies.
He says, anecdotally, that at the hundreds of speeches he’s given on converting from radical white supremacist to open-hearted peace advocate, he’s been approached by young white men who have gone down the path of racist thoughts and have “changed their way of thinking,” he says. And according to research conducted by Reinder’s Research andposted on Serve 2 Unite’s website, the nonprofit’s work increases students’ personal, behavioral and social growth, on average, 52 percent. “If you get that angry young white kid, and involve them in an art project, like music, that shows positivity, they are empowered because they see a problem in society that they can solve and be a part of something,” he says. “That process is the biggest blow you can give to hate groups.” Additional reporting by Sean Ryon MORE:Can You Really Improve Race Relations in a Country Divided?
When Kevin Vaughn Jr., a 15-year-old from North Philadelphia, wrote a letter to victims of police brutality, he did so from a perspective that many in his community say they share. Namely, that being young and black in America is a raw deal. “I am sorry you were treated as something less than human,” he wrote. “No matter who or what you are, you should be respected as a human, a citizen, and an American. … Use your experience to make a difference.” The letter wasn’t intended to be read by anyone other than him and his classmates, a group of about a dozen teens from some of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods. Vaughn Jr. wrote it for a writing workshop that encourages young people like him to record their thoughts and feelings in a journal — punctuation, spelling and grammar be damned. The point wasn’t to get a good grade; it was simply recording his experience that mattered. Vaughn Jr. is taking part in Mighty Writers, a program that teaches writing skills to students between the ages of 7 and 17. The nonprofit works with about 2,500 kids annually, exposing them to everything from playwriting to comic book creation through after-school classes, night and weekend workshops, and summer sessions. Boosting literacy skills is crucial in a city like Philadelphia, where nearly half of the population lacks even the basic reading skills to hold down a job. The idea behind Mighty Writers is that kids who master writing also make better decisions, have higher self-esteem and achieve greater success as they enter adulthood.
The first step is getting them to think creatively, says Amy Banegas, program administrator for the North Philadelphia chapter of Mighty Writers. This summer, Banegas, a 14-year teaching veteran of North Philadelphia schools, is holding weeklong summer sessions at the Mighty Writers location just north of the city’s burgeoning Center City neighborhood. It’s the fourth writing center the nonprofit has opened since its founding in 2009. Despite downtown Philadelphia’s booming economy, the local school system is flailing. The cash-strapped district, which educates about 130,000 students, has had a hard time retaining permanent teachers, resulting in dramatically low test scores across the city. To save money, the education department will reportedly begin closing three schools a year starting in 2019. All of this is bad news in a city where nearly a quarter of the population can’t read or write beyond an eighth-grade level, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2003, the most recent year information is available. “Literacy is horrible in North Philly, from kids to adults. And as parents, you can’t help your child read or write if you can’t do it yourself,” says Banegas, who sees many sophomores enter her program at a fourth-grade reading level. “It’s sad that it’s not shocking.”
Mighty Writers’ network of 400 volunteers, made up largely of filmmakers, musicians and journalists, attempts to combat that by providing structure through consistent writing exercises based on the issues that affect the kids who attend. In one recent session, for example, students learned how to channel their voices to become advocates for justice and equality. Mighty Writers measures the impact of their program by assessing participants’ writing development using a tech platform. Additionally, the organization tracks students’ self-reporting on writing motivation and writing stamina over time. Education director Rachel Loeper says that she’s seen improvement among the students who attend. There have been other city-based organizations that are similar to Mighty Writers. One is Writers Matter at La Salle University, which focuses on middle schools students. Professor Robert Vogel created the program in 2005 and says writing classes like it are imperative in urban areas with large populations of low-income and special-needs students. “The writing programs in most large cities are pretty minimal and don’t really address the adolescent issues these students experience. Schools there just aren’t as well-funded as they are in suburban and rural areas,” Vogel says. “It’s a whole different social-economic dynamic in inner cities. As a result, the resources aren’t that good, and the challenges are much greater.” At the Mighty Writers summer workshop that NationSwell attended, the topic at hand was the state of “being unapologetically black.” Students discussed police violence against African-Americans — specifically the deaths that have dominated headlines over the past five years — and then wrote in their journals. That these kids would have strong feelings about cops isn’t a surprise. In 2015, a federal study found that 81 percent of police shootings in the city targeted black residents in North Philadelphia. Just last month, a policeman in North Philadelphia’s 15th precinct shot and killed an armed black man after he was stopped for recklessly riding a dirt bike. “It’s not just a workshop,” says Banegas. “It’s about self-growth and connecting to community.” Those are qualities that Vogel, who conducted a three-year study on the effectiveness of his Writers Matter program, says are necessary for future success. “There’s an emotional and social impact, and a building of confidence among the children that is hard to measure, but we’ve been able to see [those positive results] through interviews with [participants],” he says. “These kinds of programs have an impact that goes beyond the academic.” Vaughn Jr., the 15-year-old who penned a letter to victims of excessive police force, says he’s learned to appreciate the practice of keeping a journal since enrolling in Mighty Writers. “I find value in it because it’s a great way to let you know what you’re thinking and feeling,” he says. “It’s just keeping note as to where you are as a person.” Homepage photo by Joseph Darius Jaafari Continue reading “They’re Finding Hope for Their Future in Comic Books and Journal Entries”
Communities coast to coast have added artistic flourishes to troubled or abandoned neighborhoods. But revitalizing areas takes additional finesse — and, oftentimes, creative placemaking projects capable of connecting segregated communities. Here are some of the public art efforts that have helped do just that.
The midsize Southern enclave of Huntsville always had public art tucked in here and there, but it lacked a comprehensive way to tie those works into the greater landscape. With its profile on the rise, Huntsville created a master plan to make large-scale art more accessible and better integrated into public spaces. This targeted approach has resulted in collaborative projects like SPACES, a revolving sculpture trail with nearly 40 works by 22 artists from 12 different states. According to a report by Americans for the Arts, in 2015, Huntsville’s art initiatives generated nearly $90 million in economic activity while supporting the equivalent of 3,073 full-time jobs.
The mission of the city’s Porch Light program: to strengthen community wellness through public art. By working with those suffering from mental disorders, trauma and substance abuse, Philadelphia has shown how civic engagement can foster healing and challenge social stigmas, while simultaneously giving the existing landscape a meaningful makeover. Since the program’s inception in 2007, dozens of massive murals have been erected throughout the city, providing opportunities (like community “paint days”) for the public to contribute to the meaningful works of art. And research has shown that public art really can promote public health. Philly residents living within one mile of a newly installed mural reported an increase in social cohesion and trust among neighbors, according to a study by the Yale School of Medicine.
Detroit In 1986, troubled by the violence and blight of Motor City’s East Side, local artist Tyree Guyton began transforming empty homes and lots, as well as nearby sidewalks, streets and trees, into a massive public installation. Dubbed the Heidelberg Project, the colorful houses and funky sculptures made mostly from recycled materials and found objects, have attracted an estimated 200,000 visitors annually and generated millions to the local economy since its inception. Last year, Guyton began removing some smaller, less prominent installations on Heidelberg Street to make room for a new vision: Heidelberg 3.0, which organizers say will continue the transformation of the McDougall Hunt neighborhood “into a self-sustainable cultural village for residents and visitors alike.”
Arts programming got a boost when four Baltimore nonprofits banded together to raise the profile of the long blighted area now known as the Station North Arts and Entertainment District (SNAED). Though it lies just north of a major commuting hub, most travelers pass through the zone without ever leaving the station. To encourage passersby to stick around, SNAED holds programs and performances, such as Final Fridays, a monthly public art event, and the “Think Big” awards, which supports local artists, in empty lots and abandoned buildings. Though the neighborhood has long suffered high vacancy rates, it’s become a cultural center, with numerous arts and entertainment venues and several artist live-work spaces opening in recent years.
After plans for a roughly four-mile, multi-use walking and biking greenway started coming together in 2001, the local nonprofit Action Greensboro saw an opportunity to help revitalize Greensboro’s city center by installing public art along the route. The project Over.Under.Pass transformed a long-abandoned railroad trestle with Art Deco-style iron sculptures and interactive light displays. Action Greensboro also commissioned ColorHaus, which brought together artists to paint bright, Bauhaus-inspired murals on highway overpass concrete supports. The economic impact of the pedestrian walkway has exceeded expectations, with high visitorship in particular to the Over.Under.Pass section of the trail. “Over.Under.Pass is unlike anything that has been done before in Greensboro,” said project manager Dabney Sanders, “and the interactive aspect of the installation has been particularly well received.”
“Seeing Spartanburg in a New Light,” a dynamic public art project built as part of the annual National Night Out, promoted crime prevention, strengthened police-community relations and fostered neighborhood camaraderie. Funded by a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, “Seeing Spartanburg” brought temporary LED-light installations, including “Glow,” which transformed two of the city’s towering smokestacks into multicolored beacons, and “Benchmark Spartanburg,” a long public bench backed by pulsating lights, to 10 local neighborhoods. According to Jennifer Evins, president and CEO of Chapman Cultural Center, the project began to “cultivate relationships between local residents and law enforcement officers, which is a step towards reducing crime.” MORE:Want to Fight Urban Blight? Wield Art as a Weapon Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jennifer Evins is the president and CEO of The Arts Partnership. NationSwell apologizes for the error.
At the start of the L train in the upper-class Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, there are 10 city-funded Wi-Fi hubs within two blocks. When the train hits Brooklyn, two miles east, there are another six Wi-Fi hubs being installed in the hip East Williamsburg area. But the numbers start to fall as the train dives deeper into Brooklyn, where poverty is rampant. By the time it hits the neighborhoods of East New York and Brownsville, there are none. Out here, almost a third of homes don’t have internet access — the gateway to a community’s broader participation in STEM industries and the jobs they offer. High schools, meanwhile, are under-equipped with the basic infrastructure needed for internet access and technology education. Music, dance and the arts, in contrast, are well established in the community. This disconnect — in the midst of a national trend to move funding from the humanities to STEM — is what led Yamilée Toussaint, a mechanical engineering graduate from MIT, to start STEM From Dance, a program for high school girls that merges the local culture of dance and music with a future in learning complex science and technology concepts. “Students who would be a natural fit for, say, a career as a coder don’t necessarily know that until they are introduced to it,” Toussaint says. “Through dance, we’re attracting them to a different world that they wouldn’t otherwise opt-in themselves.”
Toussaint, a tiny woman with large hair and a soft voice, created the program five years ago. Normally it spans a full semester, but this year she increased the number of girls she can reach with a summer intensive curriculum focused on circuitry. During the course of one week, participants practice a dance routine that they pair with lessons on building and coding circuits. “It was hard at first,” says Chantel Harrison, a 17-year-old participant from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “I didn’t know what it was about, honestly.” Harrison and a couple dozen other girls are taught to wire battery-powered light circuits. They sew them into their dance costumes to create splashy light effects synced to a song’s beat. For many of them, this is their first introduction to computer science and coding. And that is a stark reality check. In New York City, where technology often seems boundless — and where there have been huge strides to build up “Silicon Alley,” New York City’s own version of the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley — kids educated in the city’s outer borough’s face significant barriers to a future working in the tech industry. “If we cannot allow our children to have first-class computer equipment in a first-class city, they’re not going to be prepared to be employed at a first-rate corporation,” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams tells NationSwell. “We cannot have a digital divide in our borough and in our city.” Both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have pushed for high-speed internet access and STEM course integration into the city’s high school curriculum by 2025. But in Brooklyn, a study published in December 2016 by the Brooklyn Borough President’s office found there is progress to be made: Internet access is subpar (the average rating is 3 out of 5) in the district’s schools; there are only enough tablets and laptops for 7 and 20 percent of the borough’s student population, respectively; and 70 percent of schools don’t have an established computer science curriculum. “The mayor has a very strong goal, but the question is, are we set up to meet this goal based on current investments in schools?” says Stefan Ringel, a spokesperson for Adams. He adds that reaching the 2025 goal will require more investments in infrastructure upgrades as well as in the curriculum. “There is a lot of talk around getting these students active in STEM education, but I’d say for our program, if we have 12 girls sign up, maybe one has actually been exposed to coding,” says Toussaint, as she watches a group of six teenagers practice a dance routine to Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor.” “We’re not trying to make engineers or professional dancers within a week,” says Arielle Snagg, an instructor with STEM From Dance who also has a degree in neuroscience. “But we are hoping to give them an idea on how they can use technology within this art.” Snagg, originally from Bushwick — another impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood — says she understands the plight of students who live in these parts of New York. Of those who work (and only about half the population does), just 5 percent do so within the tech and science fields. And getting more women into technology can help a labor force that is desperate for diversity, especially when it comes to women of color. After a week in the camp, Harrison, who will be a senior at Achievement First Brooklyn High School in the fall, says she gained a new appreciation for the integration of dance and science. “And I’ve gotten better in math — I’ve even learned to love it.” Next spring, Toussaint will see her first group of students graduate from high school. And though she hopes that many of them pursue technology in college, more than anything she wants them to enter any career with confidence. “The point is to let [these girls] know that they can do anything, and they don’t have to do one thing,” she says. “They just have to open up their minds a bit.”