Countries: USA

Megan Tobias Neely

Megan Tobias Neely
Postdoctoral fellow in sociology

Megan Tobias Neely is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. In 2017, she graduated with a PhD in sociology from the University of Texas at Austin. She studies gender, race, and class inequality in the workplace and the labor force.

Her research examines rising economic inequality in the U.S. through the lens of gender and race. She pursued graduate school after working as a research analyst for a hedge fund from 2007-2010. This insider experience led her to sociology to study the mechanisms that reproduce gender and race inequality in this industry and to understand how the financial sector perpetuates class inequality in society at large.

Hedged Out: Inside the “Boys’ Club” on Wall Street

Income inequality has skyrocketed in the United States. Since 1980, the richest 1 percent doubled their share of the nation’s earnings, and these high earners are concentrated in the financial services industry. Today, hedge fund managers earn an average annual income of $2.4 million, astronomical payouts that have mostly gone to elite white men. Megan presents an insider’s look at the industry. Have a watch!

We spoke with Megan Tobias Neely during the conference: Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilisation, organized by The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD).

Find out more about UNRISD here:

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Read the transcript of Megan Tobias Neely's Video here

My name is Megan Tobias Neely and I’m a sociologist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University.

Thank you so much for joining me. What are your main research topics?

My research examines rising economic inequality, through the lens of focusing on how social inequalities such as gender, race, and social class inequality works in elite workplaces. For example, my current research examines the hedge fund Industry, and I conduct interviews with hedge fund workers, and I do field observations at their industry events and at their workplaces.

Was it easy to find people who wanted to get interviewed in the hedge fund Industry?

Yeah. So the research on elites, especially ethnographic on elites , usually says that you have to have an insider connection to industries like the hedge fund Industry in order to study it. And I thought I would be well positioned to study it because I had worked doing kind of support research at a hedge fund from 2007 to 2010. And I was surprised when I entered that world. It wasn’t a world I ever thought I would work in. And so I was fascinated by it and I was fascinated by how it shaped inequality.

And when I returned to study the industry, I tried to use those networks and that knowledge to access the industry. But what I found is that they were very resistant to talk to someone. I had worked at a large hedge fund that’s associated with a large financial firm that invests in hedge funds.

And so I represented a client, which made them very concerned. But once I positioned myself just only as a researcher and first and foremost as a researcher, they were very eager to talk with me and share their experiences. And they were excited in some ways to share the secretive world with what they understood as an unbiased audience. As a researcher, they understood that I would dig past sort of the stereotypes and the scandals that are often featured in the news media and portray the everyday lives and practices within the industry. So once they understood that goal they were very excited and eager to talk with me.

What are the results of your research so far?

Yeah, so what I found is that many of the features of this industry that they view as being very beneficial, actually created inequalities in unexpected ways. So they put a high precedent on having passion for your work. They really value trust and loyalty among employees. But what I found is that these kinds of features that seem good, they seem like beneficial things in the workplace, actually allowed [inaudible 00:02:57] biases based on status characteristics, which is the term that academics use to refer to things like gender identity, racial identity, and social class identity. So these allowed biases to flourish. Because when we make a decision about who we trust or who we view as passionate about their work, it’s usually based on something that we determine at the gut level or the instinctual level immediately when we interact with people. So even though those in this industry don’t think of themselves as being prejudiced or discriminating, they have built networks that do end up leading to the exclusion of women as well as minority men.

And what I argue is that those same processes that lead to this exclusion also create an environment that allows them to justify the high incomes they earn. So I argue that it is the very processes of an inclusion and exclusion along gender and racial lines that helps to foster an environment that allows for these high incomes that drive the current trends and widening income inequality.

Why this topic?

The research on the financial sector in the U.S and transnationally, has largely found that it is increasingly characterized by insecurity. Financial crises are happening at more regular intervals. And this creates an environment where people who work at firms like hedge funds face considerable insecurity and instability. And of course they have the incomes to weather that insecurity, but it also shapes the way they are motivated to earn money.

So for example, I interviewed one trader who I called Craig. He receives a bonus based on the trades that he makes in the stock market, and this affects the kinds of risks you take. So what he described to me is that he could take very high risk trades after he’d made a big bonus that would allow him to live for so many months based on that bonus. It could pay for his family’s rent, his children’s tuition, and then he might be able to live off that income for six months before he would have to start making more modest trades again to make sure that he could ensure his lifestyle.

Case of traders like Craig really captures how these workers live in a pretty unstable environment, because if the stock market shifts, those trades are less predictable, and they have to really shift their approach. They actually benefit from insecurity in the labor market and in the stock market, but it also leads them to be highly motivated to protect their interests.

So firms like hedge funds face insecurity in the stock market. They also face what they perceive as regulatory insecurity. So the government changes the regulation that influences how they do their business and that forces them to abruptly shift. And because of this insecurity, they put a high premium on trust and loyalty, and they select people that they perceive as trustworthy and loyal, so that they can weather this insecurity. I started studying the hedge fund industry in part because I was reading about the increasingly precarious working conditions of workers in the U.S and abroad as they face unpredictable wage labor, irregular schedules, many juggle multiple jobs in the low wage service sector. And this has led to increased polarization and inequality in the labor market.

There are not many women working in the hedge fund industry, right?

Only 17% are women, and among senior workers, only 11% of them are women, which shows that women are gaining access to some entry level positions but struggling to stay in the industry as they move up throughout their careers. And what I found is that there are processes that start at the moment of hiring, that preclude women’s access to these jobs. Things like biases against women who maybe are mothers or could be mothers leads employees not to hire them in the industry. For example, when I was doing my research, a very famous hedge fund manager named Paul Tudor Jones at a conference said that he thought that the experience of having a child would compromise a woman’s passion to the work, and he cited this as evidence that women could not be as good of traders. The women I interviewed expressed considerable frustration with this quote, and they’ve often described how as they progressed in their careers, they were shifted from jobs and on the investment side of the business. So jobs in research and trading, to jobs in client services, which were perceived to be more conducive to having a family.

Whether this is true was not entirely clear in my research because women who worked in client services described how they had to be on demand all the time. They had to travel to meet with investor clients, but the perception among managers was that it was a better job. But what it also did is it made it harder for women to access leadership positions because more of the executive positions come from working on the investment side of the business.

Is the job of a hedge fund manager more than a full-time job?

As a sociologist, we call this discourse. Which means it’s a story that people tell to explain their lives, but it reflects their deeply held belief system. So people held on to this belief that the passion for work would conflict with passion for family. But what I found is that mothers and fathers alike, described equal interest and enthusiasm for their work as they did for their families. In fact, I actually found that the men talked more about their passion for their children in their interviews with me. They often cited that as part of what drove them to succeed and excel. And this also emerged, I found some evidence of a bonus for fathers. I had a couple of interviewees who are hedge fund managers who acknowledged that they paid fathers more because they perceived male breadwinners as needing more money to support a family in an expensive location like New York City.

Is there a result that really surprised you?

One of the most surprising findings from my research had to do with how these hedge fund managers create community. I assume that because hedge funds are small and relatively isolated in terms of how they work, they’re very insular. I assume that there would be networks, but I didn’t think they would be quite as close knit as what I found.

What I came across were deliberate efforts to forge really close bonds and create community throughout the hedge fund industry. I found that there is a strong anti bureaucratic sentiment as well as an anti hierarchical sentiment. Many hedge fund founder’s actually founded these firms as a way to believe the giant hierarchies and large pyramid structures and investment banks that they perceive to be inequitable. They perceive them to be bogged down in bureaucracy, and they perceive them to be an efficient. hedge fund managers often talk about how they want to include employees. They want to create an open workspace that promotes communication and a sense of collective participation in their work. The hedge funds engage in all kinds of bonding rituals. Some host initiation rituals like Karaoke nights for new employees. They do things like relay races, they ski, they play poker, they have dinners, some even do things like group activity puzzle solving.

And they do this all to create an environment where employees feel like a family and can rely on each other and trust one another. But what I found is that that close bonding actually led to some employees feeling very ostracized. And when they encountered, for example, when women and racial and ethnic minority men encountered discrimination or harassment, they felt very isolated and did not have any avenues to seek recourse. Instead, they perceive the labor market as the only avenue for recourse. They thought that they would take their talent elsewhere, and they thought that employers who discriminated would be penalized by losing their talent.

But unfortunately what I found is that by taking a view of the entire industry as a whole, ultimately this does not penalize the employers because it is such a white male dominated industry. So in the hedge fund industry, there’ve been several industry reports, one in 2011 and then another one again this year that it found that those who do experience harassment or discrimination in this industry often have few other options, by pressing charges or calling attention to the issues was perceived as a career ender because it would ruin their reputation.

And this meant that those firms who engaged in these kinds of practices would encounter a few consequences for this behavior.

How do they see their work? How do they see themselves?

Yeah, that’s a great question. So I included in my interviews broad questions about how they perceive the benefits of their work as well as the risks or the negative aspects of their work. And I left it open ended because I didn’t want to lead the questions. I wanted to understand how they see the world. And what I learned from this is that hedge fund managers and workers at hedge funds tend to understand their work in narrow terms. Like most of us, we understand the social world that we impact, but we often don’t understand the kind of consequences our work might have for others. So for example, hedge fund workers, when they describe the benefits of their work, they usually reference the people who are impacted directly from their investments.

Roughly two thirds of hedge fund investments actually come from large institutions. These include pension funds, education, endowments like those at universities, and also government wealth funds. And so the average hedge fund worker, they understand the benefits of their work as being to save for retirement and help average workers save for retirement. So they often imagine the pension fund holder as the client that they’re serving. And I think that this would surprise many people. We assume hedge fund managers are thinking more about building wealth or driving companies into the ground. But really they’re focused on what they think of as adding value. And of course then many engage investment practices that do put workers at risk. So they often put pressure on companies to engage in labor practices that make work more precarious and unequal for workers. For example, they often want corporations to remove mid level managers or outsource labor or automate work using digital technologies, but they think that they are driven by this idea that that will make these firms more efficient and produce value in the market.

How do they feel they are perceived by everyone? Is this an issue?

Yeah. Yes. That is an issue. So one thing I encountered when trying to recruit participants is they often ask me or said to me, ’you’re not a journalist, right?’ Because they felt that the industry has been so burned (‘’burned’’ is how they would frame it) by journalists. And one of their motivations for talking with me was to kind of, because the focus of sociological research is to provide insight into the everyday practices of the people we study. And so what I heard from when I ask the question of how do people react when you tell them what you do for a living. Many of them said that they just don’t understand. They identified a gap between the public portrayals of the industry and the everyday lived experiences and many of also felt like the media portrayals focused on what they described as a few bad apples.

So they really thought that often those hedge fund managers who make news for doing really particularly egregious investments, or for engaging in insider trading or fraud, they felt like those hedge fund managers caught most of the attention but didn’t capture their work, which is largely true with what my research found is that is that: the average hedge fund manager is much less exciting and a little bit more boring than how we think of them in the media.

What does a hedge fund manager do?

What I find most interesting about what they do is that many hedge fund managers engage in all kinds of analysis of markets. So there are a number of hedge fund managers who use, they use all kinds of strategies to invest in the market. So some use quantitative strategies and algorithmic trading strategies, and others actually do analysis of economies around the world.

So they might study emerging markets and they’ll actually travel to different countries around the world to understand what kind of conditions the businesses face in each of those contexts. And then they use this information to invest worldwide. So for example, I had one interview with a hedge fund manager during the height of the Eurozone crisis. And she was investing in European stocks and government bonds. And she said, Europe is going to be here forever. Everybody’s trying to sell their European investments and I’m going to buy it while it’s low because Europe isn’t stable and I want to contribute to stabilizing it, and making sure that continues. So that’s kind of an example of what they do that you might not expect on the one hand. The other thing that was unexpected I found, is that many hedge fund managers come from academic backgrounds.

I interviewed several physicists, people with PhDs in artificial intelligence, biology, even fields like philosophy. And they use this academic training to shape how they think about markets, and that informs their kind of everyday decisions. And one thing that’s often not captured in media portrayals of hedge fund managers is that they engage in sort of what we would think of as more of like a tech startup culture. At their firms they’re often dressed more casually, especially if they’re not engaging with clients. They’re more relaxed and are a slightly nerdier bunch than what we think as in the media. And this is partly because of this academic influence. And that was a common theme that came across in my interviews with academics as they described a moment when funding went up for investments in research, whether by the government or by universities.

And this was the moment that pushed them into financial services as an alternative option for them to make a living with their academic degrees.

It sounds like many of the managers decided to do what they are doing because of the money.

Yeah. Yes. Many of them described how they were in academic positions, whether at research institutes or in postdoctoral fellowships or other kinds of positions, but just weren’t well funded. And they described how they couldn’t get jobs as professors like they had wanted. And so instead, many of them describe how a friend from Undergrad or a family friend gave them kind of the tip that their academic degree could be useful in finance. And that’s what led them then to the hedge fund industry or other financial careers that then led them to hedge funds.

I spoke to one hedge fund investor who had done his PhD in artificial intelligence in the late 1980s and early 90s. And he laughed and said ‘’when I graduated there was nothing to do with my PhD. So finance was the logical option for me.” And then with a laugh, he said, “it’s such a waste. There’s so many of us that could be coming up with solutions to broader issues in society, but because we haven’t found enough funding in academia or from government institutions, we ended up resorting to finance.”

In term of investment strategy, is there something that you feel people would not expect?

There were a few trends that I found particularly interesting in terms of investment strategies that the everyday person wouldn’t necessarily be familiar with. So during my research there were several ups and downs in the stock market, surrounding oil and gas prices as well as a stock market crash in China. And during these times, the people I interviewed spoke about how their client investors would redeem money because they get scared when the stock market crashes. And this made them very frustrated because one of the things few people know about hedge funds and other kinds of investment techniques is that they usually make money by buying a lot of stock at the bottom of the stock market crash. So even though stock market crashes are stressful and created headaches for them, they would be excited because it created opportunities for them to grow.

And this is something that theorists who study financial systems have theorized broadly – how it is actually these crises that create wealth. And that’s part of the nature of the system and how it creates inequality, because financial crises negatively impact everyday workers, but it actually allows those who are in positions to invest, to gain broadly from it. So that was one unexpected finding about how they invest. Another one that I found particularly interesting, so as a gender scholar, I teach fertility and reproduction. And one of the theories that I teach has to do with how fertility rates shape economic outcomes in capitalist societies or in other societies as well. And during my research, I heard a lot of investors talk about how they track fertility rates as a sign of where to invest in what countries around the world. And that is something you wouldn’t think of generally.

But as a country transitions from being high fertility, which is typically associated with a country with an agrarian economy. But as a country with an agrarian economy develops its fertility rate slows down and starts to decline. And so it becomes what’s called this economic sweet spot where there are many people who are young workers and just entering the workforce. And this creates a boom in the economy because there are fewer older workers who are dependents, who rely on their work for things like social security and other provisions. And then as they enter the workforce, they have fewer children. So there are also fewer children to take care of. And this creates a boom in economic development, which investors in hedge funds and other financial firms are aware of. And so they use this to shape what countries they invest in around the world. And they pay attention to where countries are in this fertility cycle as an indicator of how to invest in the companies in that country as well as in the government.

Why are you doing what you are doing? Why are you so passionate about this topic?

I pursued inequality because I cared about understanding poverty and inequality. And then I took this, I applied for a job at a financial firm when I graduated from university and ended up doing industry research at a large financial firm. I took this job because I wanted experience with data analysis to prepare me for graduate school, but I ended up being at one of the largest financial firms in the world and their hedge fund division. And this gave me access and knowledge of an area of the world that contributes to the rising incomes that are generating inequality on a broad scale. Those at the top of income distribution and how this contributes to inequality. I felt like we needed more insight into their social worlds and what shapes their everyday decisions to help us understand how inequality is reproduced and what the outcomes are for low wage workers and the poor.

Of course, we would like to have a decrease in inequality, but based on your study, how and where could we start working on it?

As a sociologist, we often focus on the causes of inequality rather than the solutions. And I currently work at a gender research institute called the Clayman Institute that focuses on interventions to create more equality in the workplace. So our research team actually works in partnership with corporations and government or agencies to create interventions. And what I think is key for interventions for social change is to have them be focused on the local conditions and the immediate context of the site that you’re trying to change. So what we do is we study work organizations and we identify the particular avenues that bias emerge and inequality happens within each organization. And then working with internal gatekeepers who are motivated to create change, we design interventions for change, things like calibration systems for how they hire, how they evaluate applicants and how they promote employees within the firm.

And then we work together with those gatekeepers to come up with that solution, how to implement it and then study the aftermaths to determine how much change can be made in terms of producing equality. And for example, in one firm that we studied, we found an enormous gap between men who are highly ranked in their performance evaluations and women who are ranked at highly. And what we heard in the interviews was that there was a perception that men would be harder to retain. And so they inflated their evaluations course. So the team working on this research project devised an intervention to create more specific criteria for evaluation of these employees, and they reduce that gap by almost 30% from the men’s evaluations to the women’s.

And if you had the possibility to change one thing tomorrow, what would it be?

It’s hard because I’m trained to study complex institutions. And so when I think of the problems, I think of them in terms of how many actors are at play in creating inequalities. One of the most startling dimensions of inequality in the world today ,from my perspective as a gender scholar, is the fact that there are very few women who are in the high earning salaries at the top. But most women earn the incomes that support the poor and working class families, whether that’s in the U.S or in the world. In general women worldwide carry the burden of poverty and inequality. They’re the ones who are raising children and with very few supports to do it.

And I think as a collective transnational society, we need to value the work of women who don’t often earn high wages, and especially the work that they do to reproduce society. So they perform all kinds of work to raise children who become future workers and we all need those workers, and we need to value those women’s labor as much as we do value the people who I study in finance.

Are you seeing positive changes?

I’m very encouraged and inspired by the fact that so many women are gaining access to political leadership positions. And I think what’s most important is the fact that many of these women in the case of the recent U.S midterm elections are not following traditional political careers, but rather they are entering office through campaigns based on transformative change, and are seeking to make more widespread changes in the institutions governing society. And I think that this provides a key to how women commit create broader change. I fear that if women only follow the same access to power as men do, that this will only serve to reinforce the institutions that help to generate power and inequality in our society. I think that we need more campaigns for transformative change like those we are seeing right now in many political movements around the world.

What kind of society do you dream of?

I think the kind of society I dream of is one where we value what people do outside of work as much as we value what they do for their paid labor. I wish that we live in societies where people’s care for each other was highly valued as well as their artistic pursuits, and a society that allows people to pursue those things and live comfortably while doing so.

What is the most important lesson you I have learned from this research?

I think what is most revealing about studying people who are considered political or economic elites is the realization that they are people like everyone else who make mistakes, who make decisions based on the information they have available to them. And this doesn’t excuse when they make decisions that have adverse consequences for everyone, but it does help us understand why they make those decisions and understand how the worlds that they live in influence why the kinds of solutions to social problems that they select. And I think we need more research that delves into those worlds and gets access to political and economic elites to better understand why there’s such a gap in between what they care about and what other people, the middle class, the working class and the poor care about in society. Overall, the economic elites that I speak to care about other people and they do care about the impacts of their work. But the problem is that they don’t understand necessarily the solutions to the problems that other people face.

What is the most important lesson you want your students to learn from you?

I think the most important lesson is about approaching research. Broadly speaking, approaching and understanding other people from a sense of curiosity and fascination rather than through preconceived notions about how we stereotype or assume people act or behave. I think that starting research or seeking background information on a group of people, we need to start from a place of really understanding where they’re coming from, understanding the experiences that they’re having and how that shapes their perceptions in the world. And I always hope that students will find that as fascinating as I do. To me, every person I interview prompts new questions and curiosities for me, and makes me want to learn more about their experiences, and it always challenges whatever I assume going into the interview based on social theory or based on previous research.

And I love that about my work, that it’s always surprising. It’s always unexpected because usually our assumptions going into research do not play out as we expect. And this is particularly true about ethnographic research, which is much messier because people’s lives are much messier than we like to portray them in stories or in books. And that’s what makes it so enjoyable and engaging and interesting.

What motivates you?

What motivates me is getting other people excited and interested in understanding inequality, and really delving into the data that helps us to explain how inequality reproduces and persists over time.

What do you look forward to?

I’m looking forward to continuing studying inequality, and what I want to do in the future is to really put workers who are at the top of the earnings distribution in conversation with those at the bottom. So I’m right now in the process of setting up a research project where I’ll investigate the lives of corporate elites as well as low wage workers in the same firm at different sites. One of the things that I love about studying inequality is figuring out how studying inequality at different parts of the earnings distribution changes how we understand it. And so I’m looking forward to putting those experiences within one context, within the same firm, into conversation with each other to understand why those at corporate headquarters make decisions that impact workers, low wage workers. And then to understand how those low wage workers actually experience those decisions, and how they think about them and how they impact their lives.

Thank you so much for this conversation.

Thank you so much for having me join you.

Thank you so much for watching. Thank you so much for listening and thank you so much for sharing. Next time we are going to continue with our miniseries about inequalities. I hope to see you soon again, bye and ciao.


Megan Tobias Neely is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. In 2017, she graduated with a PhD in sociology from the University of Texas at Austin. She studies gender, race, and class inequality in the workplace and the labor force.

Her research examines rising economic inequality in the U.S. through the lens of gender and race. She pursued graduate school after working as a research analyst for a hedge fund from 2007-2010. This insider experience led her to sociology to study the mechanisms that reproduce gender and race inequality in this industry and to understand how the financial sector perpetuates class inequality in society at large.

Souleymane Bachir Diagne

Souleymane Bachir Diagne

Souleymane Bachir Diagne received his academic training in France. An alumnus of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he took his Ph.D (Doctorat d’État) in philosophy at the Sorbonne (1988) where he also took his BA (1977). His field of research includes Boolean algebra of logic, history of philosophy, Islamic philosophy, African philosophy and literature.

He is the author of Boole, l’oiseau de nuit en plein jour (Paris: Belin, 1989) (a book on Boolean algebra), Islam and the Open Society: Fidelity and Movement in the Philosophy of Muhammad Iqbal (Dakar, Codesria, 2011), African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson, and the Idea of Negritude (Seagull Books, 2011), The Ink of the Scholars: Reflections on Philosophy in Africa (Dakar, Codesria, 2016), Open to Reason: Muslim Philosophers in Conversation with Western Tradition (New York, Columbia University Press, 2018).

His book, Bergson postcolonial: L’élan vital dans la pensée de Senghor et de Mohamed Iqbal (Paris: Editions du CNRS, 2011) is forthcoming in an English version to be published by Fordham University Press. That book was awarded the Dagnan-Bouveret prize by the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences for 2011 and on that same year professor, Diagne received the Edouard Glissant Prize for his work.

Professor Diagne’s current teaching interests include history of early modern philosophy, philosophy, and Sufism in the Islamic world, African philosophy and literature, twentieth-century French philosophy.

A passion for philosophy, science and society

What does it mean to be a philosopher in the modern day? Does philosophy still offer answers to todays’ most pressing issues, or does it belong to the questions of the past? What can philosophy teach us that we don’t already know?

Souleymane Bachir Diagne is a Senegalese modern-day philosopher that is here to answer these questions and more. With an extensive academic career that encompasses African literature, History of Philosophy and Francophone Studies across three continents, Souleyman offers a unique point of view on the history of Philosophy in today’s beliefs, actions and ideas, its influence across different cultures, and the decolonization of philosophical concepts.

A strong supporter of doing good in your own sphere before taking on the world, Souleymane believes that human progress goes beyond individual convictions, instead residing in the common forces that move us towards the greater, brighter goal of a shared human experience that pays no mind to religious, national or ethnic fragmentations.
Watch our interview to better understand today’s relationship between philosophy and religion, the importance of both in creating a better world for younger people, and how the ideas of the past have been revolutionized to provide a clearer reflection of today’s philosophical and spiritual needs.

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Souleymane: My name is Souleymane. Souleymane Bachir Diagne. I’m a Senegalese philosopher. I’ve taught twenty years in Senegal, after finishing my higher education in France, and in 2002, I crossed the Atlantic again and went to the United States, where I taught Philosophy, first at Northwestern University in the suburbs of Chicago, and then now, I live in New York, where I teach Philosophy and Francophone studies at Columbia University.

Nerina: Thank you for your time and great to speak with you. How did you get into philosophy?

Souleymane: That’s a really good question, because there is some chance, always, in the choices we make. When I finished high school and when I first traveled out of Dakar, in my country Senegal, and went to France to study, I was hesitating between two different paths; one of them would have made me an engineer by now, because I was admitted in a school of Engineering named INSA – Intitut National des Sciences Apliquées -, which was in Lyon, and I also was admitted to go to what is known in the French system as classe préparatoire, these elite paths where students prepare for entrance into école normale supérieure, the system of Grandes Écoles, as it is known in France. The first choice would have meant becoming an engineer, the second choice would have meant becoming a philosopher, and I decided for Philosophy after a while. It took me a while to make that decision, and now I’m very happy I made that decision; that was really what my life was about, being passionate, having feeling this passion for Philosophy, reading texts that I loved, explaining them and writing somehow from them in doing research in the field I had chosen.

Nerina: You had to choose between two completely different paths. What is the relationship between science and philosophy, in your opinion?

Souleymane: What I do is, in fact, not separate them, so the reason why I do not ask myself what is the difference between the two is that I do not separate them in the first place.

Let me give you an example, a precise example of my own work. As I said, I started working in the field of logic, history of logic and mathematical logic, and the author I worked on, George Boole, the British logician and mathematician, who actually invented our binary system, the 0 and 1 that we use in the language of our computers, was an invention of Boole. Something that people do not know is that his project was philosophical in the first place; he wanted to make Aristotelian logic more efficient by using the language of Algebra, and in so doing, he created the scientific object that would be called the Algebra of Boole and that we are using in our computers. So this interpenetration, I would call it, this interaction between science and philosophy is very important, so this is why I believe that the Humanities and the so called ‘Exact Sciences’ should never be separated. After all, it is one human mind which needs, at once, scientific procedures and artistic and humanistic values, and these should be together.

Nerina: What does it mean, being a philosopher in the 21st century?

Souleymane: It’s complicated, what does it mean to be a philosopher? Well, let me answer that question by letting you know what my experience was, and I said I was always between science and philosophy, mathematics and philosophy. The way in which I reconcile those two passions that I had, was when I finished, when I was going to choose a topic for my dissertation in Philosophy to work in the field of Algebra, of Logic, so I wrote a dissertation and my first two books, the first two books that I published, were both in the field of algebra, of logic, so that’s one way of answering your question, to be a philosopher may mean to be a philosopher of science, a historian of science, which was what a did.

And then I went back home, I went back to Senegal, and of course I was going to teach philosophy. My goal, going back home, was to create in the Department of Philosophy in Dakar, a strong curriculum in History, Philosophy of Science, Sociology of Science, because that was my fundamental training, and I did that, I created that curriculum back home. But then, at the same time, you had all the debates going on, and that is what it means to be a philosopher; you cannot be a philosopher in the same way you are a natural scientist or a physicist, etc, etc; which means that you pay attention to what is going on. Your thinking is also one way of intervening; you intervene in the public square, in some respects, or at least something of the debates going on around you find an echo in your thinking. So I could not just decide that ‘Ok, I’m a specialist in philosophy of science, this is what I’m going to do’. I had to be part of the debates that were taking place at that time.
And so one aspect was the question of philosophy in Africa, what does it mean to philosophize in the African continent, to philosophize (indiscernible, 7:02) the problems in Africa. To give you an example, what does it mean to look at African art in its difference from European art, for example. So, those were the debates going on, and I started taking part. The 90’s had been years of transition towards democracy, and so the thinking was about African democracies, what does it mean to make these countries democratic, what kind of institutions were to be designed, so this was a very exciting time for someone to think philosophically about the problems facing Africa.

Another aspect was also the question of religion. I went back home in the early 1980’s, and this was the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, and political Islam as we know it now was very much on the scene, was very much on our screens and our newspapers and so and so forth, and Senegal is a Muslim country, so that was an aspect of the debate as well, what connection should we have now, where’s the intellectual and spiritual tradition of Islam, which is not known and of which philosophy is an important part. So I decided, also, in addition to my more technical teaching in philosophy of mathematics, to teach the history of philosophy in the Islam world, and to intervene in some respect on the debate surrounding Islam today. So, this is a very long answer, but that is for me what it means to be a philosopher. Again, not just chose a path, a specialty and work in that specialty narrowly defined, but being ready to go different ways, to change and to adapt, also, to the discussion about what is going on around you.

Nerina: Religion and philosophy. They are considered by many people be opposite ways to see life. How do you see it? Is there a contradiction?

Souleymane: Well, sure, one could say, defining things in these broad brushes, that on the one hand religion is really about faith, and even blind faith; you have to believe in something, you have to believe without evidence, you have to believe in things that you cannot see, that you cannot touch, that are not for your sensible grasping or even for your human understanding, on the one hand. And then you have philosophy, which is based on reason, rationalism, and proof and evidence. So it would be simple to just oppose the two and say that religion is one thing and philosophy is a very different thing, but now if you look at the history of religions themselves, you can see how, from within religion, there is a need to philosophize; that was the birth of Islamic philosophy, for example.

You cannot just decide that everything has been said once and for all by a revealed text; even the text you have to read it. So you can never be in the situation where you say ‘This ends philosophical questioning and I have the answers now’; you have to build your answers, you have to keep them open, you have to understand how open they are and how open they remain, because it is really, truly, your own human duty to examine. One important Muslim philosopher (indiscernible name, 11:28) has said ‘He who does not doubt, does not examine, and he who does not examine, doesn’t believe’, and this is probably the best single sentence to explain why philosophy is necessary to religion itself and how the connection between the two is really an internal relationship and not an external relationship between two very different things.

Nerina: You mentioned that, as a philosopher, you have to take part in the discussions that take place in the public sphere. Right now, it is religion in focus, and not always in a positive way. How do your books participate in the general discussion?

Souleymane: We live in times where, paradoxically, religion is so present in our lives. I mean, if we open our television sets, we see religion everywhere, and many terrible, violent, unbelievable things being done in the name of religion, and at the same time, we are so ignorant about religions in general, because years and years of so called secularism has made religion something that is not known anymore.
You know, even independently form the political situation that we are living in, and the security questions that religions and fanaticism, rather that religion, by the way, are posing, there’s an ignorance of religion. I mean, younger people are even incapable of reading works of art because they just don’t know who the people represented in art are, and most of the time these are religious characters, biblical characters that you find in paintings and so and so forth. But what it means, also, in particular for Islam, which is probably the religion nowadays associated with violence and everything. It is a terrible thing, and people need to be reminded that this religion was not born yesterday, and it is the religion of one billion and a half people, and it is a spiritual and an intellectual tradition.
So there is a need to make that tradition known, primarily for younger Muslims, for Muslims themselves, and this is what led me to the decision to teach also the tradition of philosophy in Islam, and this is the decision that led me from there to use my teaching for many years and make it a book, and I believe that that book, by precisely reminding people of what this intellectual and spiritual tradition that we call Islam, that we should be knowing as Islam is, this becomes de facto, a kind of intervention in the public square to, again, make Islam known and, primarily, known to Muslims themselves.

Nerina: And your books somehow change the narrative about the history of philosophy, right?

Souleymane: Absolutely. It is important for philosophy, for the discipline of philosophy in general, to sort of decolonize itself, as I would call it, because philosophy has been constructed as a uniquely European phenomenon, and this has happened very recently, actually. Traditionally, historically, philosophers in Greece or in Europe before the contemporary modern times never really thought of themselves as being the unique philosophers that humanity has ever seen; this is something that happened almost around the beginning of colonialism, that Europe defined itself has the heir of Greek philosophy and the continent of philosophy par excellence, and decided that philosophy was really the defining feature of Europe, so African philosophy could not exist; philosophy could not exist anywhere else outside Europe.
So this changed, because the history of philosophy is just not supporting such an idea if you look at who is the heir of Greeks. Many people have been the heir of the Greeks; Greek philosophy was appropriated by the Islamic world, so you have a tradition of philosophy in Islam that we do not know; this is something that I decided to teach, to let my own students know, because we were a department of philosophy in a Muslim country and we needed to know about that tradition as well, and I mean, human beings are naturally inclined towards philosophy, because human beings, by definition, know that they are mortal, they bury their dead, they look up to the sky, and they ask themselves about the destination of humanity, what it means to be human, what it is be born, what it means to die, and so and so forth. So philosophical thinking and philosophical wisdom exist everywhere, so we have to think about that and reconstruct the history of philosophy in such a way that it ceases to be this uniquely Western history of thought, and that is a very important aspect of my work as well.

Nerina: What is the most important lesson that your students have to learn?

Souleymane: You know, to just give you my experience, among the class that I teach in my university, Columbia, I have one class on history of philosophy in the Islamic world, where I introduce my students to classical Islamic philosophy, form 9th century to 13th century, and then also modern questions and so on. I also teach a class that I call African Literature in Philosophy, where I look at what is being written in Africa and what are the problems being debated by African intellectuals and philosophers, and I also teach, of course, general history of philosophy and philosophy of logic, as I’ve always done. And when my students have the feeling that they are more of what Islam is, or that they are more aware of Africa in terms of the intellectual production of the continent – Africa not just being a subject of conversation associated with diseases, problems, epidemics and so on so forth, but what are Africans thinking and writing now, what have they been thinking and also writing – it is not known that, for example, you have a long tradition of written edition in Africa; Africa is generally associated with orality, and people are now discovering all the manuscripts in Timbuktu, for example, that this is not true. And when they become aware of that, when they change their mind about what they thought, or what they thought they knew about the topics that I’m teaching, I think that I have done my job as an educator.

Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of?

Souleymane: Well, I dream of a society that would not be fragmented into what I call ethno-nationalisms, which is unfortunately what we have today. It is not just that there is a kind of stiffening of identities where people are fighting in the name of their religious identities or their national identities and so and so forth. It’s not just religion, but even in the field of politics we can see that. What I call ethno-nationalism is, as well, all these movements, extreme right movements, that we are calling populism. We should call them tribalism, because that is what it is, and my dream is the reconstruction of the philosophical and ethical idea of one humanity, which means hospitality.
Let’s look at the crisis of migrants that we have nowadays, refugees and migrants. They are met with what the Pope has called the globalization of indifference. The Pope is appalled and is always reacting against what he sees as indifference to human suffering, because we are so fragmented and thinking about ourselves and people who look like us, have the same religion, have the same skin color, and so and so forth. We are losing sight of the ethical general idea of humanity, in general. And that is the foundation for common life, that is the foundation for building together our Earth, that is the foundation of having the sense that we are one, our Earth is one, and the we should come together and take care of it.
This was, for example, something we saw during the Paris agreement on our environment. This was a wonderful metaphor for the idea of humanity being one, and looking in the same direction and taking care of our common home, which is our Earth. Unfortunately, we have seen the forces of fragmentation come again, when the United States, for example, just decided that they are going to, you know, come out of this common agreement and so and so forth. So that is, somehow, what I think is important, and will be the ultimate goal of all the different aspects of my work, working really to what’s, you know, this general idea, this universal idea of one humanity.

Nerina: How can we reconstruct our notion of humanity?

Souleymane: This is long-term thinking. In the short term, it has to be played on the political ground; we have to resist this type of populism. I believe that we have to fight for that ideal of a world of social justice, where you do not just have a global capitalism indifferent to human suffering and to that kind of fragmentation that I have described.

Nerina: Do you have a dream?

Souleymane: Well, I’ve had for a long time the dream of, you know, all young people have that dream, of changing the world, and I was thinking of doing science, I was thinking of having the discovery that would change things on Earth and things like that. Growing up, you learn to be much more humble than that, and you just ask yourself ‘Ok, am I, right now, touching the lives of people and changing things in my own sphere of influence?’, because, if you are in my position, obviously you have some influence on certain number of people. So my dream is to be able at one point to ask myself honestly that question and be able to answer that yes, I did that, and I realized that wish of making difference in the lives of a certain number of younger people.

Nerina: What is life about?

Souleymane: For me, life is about love; in other words, the force of life. I believe in the force of life. If I have to define myself in terms of my philosophy, I would say that I am very much a vitalist, in the sense that I believe in the force of life, and I think that the force of life is the same as the force of love. That this world has been created out of love as an open ended, always emerging cosmology; that this world is something that human beings have to invent an reinvent all the time, and that the energy they use, the force they use for that, which is the force of life, is the same as the force of love. So, for me, that is the sort of cosmic significance of love, it is also the personal significance of love. It is because the world itself is a creation of love, and that its movement forward is the movement of love, that our individual lives are always about love.

Nerina: Thank you so much for this conversation, and thank you for watching, thank you for listening and thank you for sharing. Please feel free to reach out to me if you have any suggestion. Keep wondering, and see you next time again. Bye and ciao.


Souleymane Bachir Diagne received his academic training in France. An alumnus of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he took his Ph.D (Doctorat d’État) in philosophy at the Sorbonne (1988) where he also took his BA (1977). His field of research includes Boolean algebra of logic, history of philosophy, Islamic philosophy, African philosophy and literature.

He is the author of Boole, l’oiseau de nuit en plein jour (Paris: Belin, 1989) (a book on Boolean algebra), Islam and the Open Society: Fidelity and Movement in the Philosophy of Muhammad Iqbal (Dakar, Codesria, 2011), African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson, and the Idea of Negritude (Seagull Books, 2011), The Ink of the Scholars: Reflections on Philosophy in Africa (Dakar, Codesria, 2016), Open to Reason: Muslim Philosophers in Conversation with Western Tradition (New York, Columbia University Press, 2018).

His book, Bergson postcolonial: L’élan vital dans la pensée de Senghor et de Mohamed Iqbal (Paris: Editions du CNRS, 2011) is forthcoming in an English version to be published by Fordham University Press. That book was awarded the Dagnan-Bouveret prize by the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences for 2011 and on that same year professor, Diagne received the Edouard Glissant Prize for his work.

Professor Diagne’s current teaching interests include history of early modern philosophy, philosophy, and Sufism in the Islamic world, African philosophy and literature, twentieth-century French philosophy.

Michel DeGraff

Michel DeGraff
Professor of Linguistics

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative. Founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy. Fields of scholarship: inguistic theory, Creole studies and the relationship among linguistics, ideology, education, human rights and development.

The language we speak. Education, innovation and the future of Haiti

How does language use and suppression mirror societal power? What impact has colonialism had on the Haitian Creole language and its role in Haiti’s development? And how can linguists succeed in promoting the use of Creole languages, and elevating their prestige in the eyes of native speakers and their governments?

Michel DeGraff, a Haitian linguist and tenured professor at MIT, is interested in these questions and more, using his work to try and understand how languages like Haitian Creole come into being, and how new varieties emerge due to the contact of diverse populations throughout history.
Through his studies, and his own life growing up in Haiti and being forced to use French during his education, Michel believes that educating young people in their home language is essential for their freedom, well-being, and development.

In this video, he tells us why he set up the MIT-Haiti Initiative after the country’s devastating earthquake and discusses the challenges and successes in his research and teaching about the development and structure of Haitian Creole and other Creole languages, and his bringing Haitian Creole, alongside modern pedagogy and educational technology, into Haiti’s school system.

Michel DeGraff is a professor of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative. He is also a founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy. His fields of scholarship are linguistic theory, Creole studies and the relationship among linguistics, ideology, education, human rights, and development.

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Read the transcript of Michel DeGraff's Video here

Michel: Hello, my name is Michel DeGraff. I was born in Haiti. I’m a professor of linguistics at MIT, which is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And I’m also the founder and director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative.

Nerina: Thank you for joining me, Michel. What are your main research interests?

Michel: My main research topic in linguistics has been to try to understand the way that new languages come into being, and how new varieties of languages also emerge. My focus is on the interaction between the contact of populations and the creation of new varieties of language. In a way, my laboratory case is my own native language, Haitian Creole, which emerged in the Caribbean, in Haiti, back in the 17-18th century, out of the contact between varieties of French and various West-African and other African languages. And out this contact, this new variety emerged, which we now call Haitian Creole, or Kreyòl in Haiti.

I also work on the relationship between linguistics and education, especially in the context of my native country, Haiti. I think what we’re doing there can also be used as a model for other countries that speak a local language that, because of historical reasons, has been stigmatised, and excluded from the schools, courts and government, and other domains where knowledge and power are created and transmitted. So, I’m hoping that the work we are doing in linguistics can have a positive impact on education and development in countries like Haiti, but also other countries in the Global South.

Nerina: What makes your first language, Kreyòl, so unique in your opinion?

Michel: From my perspective, what makes Haitian Creole and other Creole languages special is the fact that both their own history and development and the way they have been studied by scholars reflect colonial history. At the same time, because of their very origins in situations of really drastic power inequality, I mean slavery, colonization. now those languages offer a path out of domination and stigmatization, a path into liberation. For me, that is what makes these languages very special: the fact that they come out of a history of colonial struggles. In a way, there are still the theater of struggles. But if you better understand how they emerged, how they are created, but also if you understand their capacity for education, literature and liberation, then they can be used for development in a way that hasn’t happened yet in the case of many Caribbean communities but also other communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America, where you have either Creole languages or what we think of as “indigenous” or “local” languages being spoken.

Nerina: The point is that French is the official language of Haiti, but Kreyòl in Haiti is not the language of a minority but it is the language of a majority, right?

Michel: Absolutely. What you’ve just said, Nerina, is absolutely right. In Haiti, Kreyòl is the language… I wouldn’t even say of the majority… but I’d say it’s the language of the totality. In Haiti, everyone speaks Kreyòl. In fact, you can hardly function there in French, except if you were to stay at a hotel or in the capital or in fancy neighbourhoods. Once you go out in the outside country, on the streets, into the busy vibrant neighbourhoods where people are living their lives, you have to use Kreyòl. So, everyone speaks it, even those who are forbidden to speak it! I remember very well when I was in school, I went to a school run by French Catholic brothers, I was forbidden to speak Kreyòl, but yet I learnt it, I speak it. In fact, it’s my soul language, my first language. Although my own parents were very concerned that I should speak French first, but in fact, Kreyòl is my native first language. And it’s the first language for most Haitians.

Nerina: How does this situation that you are not allowed to speak in your native language and that somehow your native language may be seen as not important or not even a real language, how does this affect you?

Michel: I often ask this very question, how does this stigmatization and oppression of a native language, how does it act on a child? I’ve done research on that. So I have many videos of children in classrooms and how their languages are being suppressed. Often when they are being taught to speak French, and if they have a Kreyòl accent or they pronounce the vowels in a Kreyòl way, the teachers look down on them and make fun of them. Then those children come to believe that what they speak at home, what their family speaks is a broken language, is broken French.

So, what it does to them, I think, is to make them believe that they are broken people. It makes them believe that they are inferior, that for them to be fully human they have to speak French. To me, the effect of that entire system, of what I would say is MIS-education, is undermining the entire foundations of our nation. In the school, the children are being taught from day one to mimic. In fact, they learn how to read not as they learn how to think. They learn to parrot, to mimic, because they read sentences by sounding out words without understanding what the words mean.

So, what it does to them? It teaches them that you go to school not to learn, but to become a parrot, to pronounce or mimic French words without understanding them. So, it becomes normal for them that learning means parroting French text without understanding it. I can imagine what in the long term it does to the nation because you have cohorts upon cohorts of children who come out of school without really knowing how to read a text, without any capacity for critical thinking. Even teachers teach by repeating without questioning what they repeat.

Nerina: What is the relationship between language and power?

Michel: Well, I think of the situation of a country where everyone speaks Kreyòl and a small group speaks French and yet French is the language used for power. I think it’s a good example of what psychologists and philosophers and sociologists have studied as the power of ideology, the power of prejudices to even affect those who are being oppressed. What you find is that it has been so long, since the 17th-18th century, that French has been presented as the real language, the superior language. Then, linguists and creolists have also played a role in that, in ranking Creole languages as if they were the world’s simplest languages, as if they were languages that were below in terms of capacity of expression, below languages like French for example.

So, what you find is that even those who speak only Kreyòl are also convinced that in order for them to achieve citizenship, to be real and fully human, they have to speak French. So, Steven Biko said something that is very important: he said that the most powerful tool of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. The idea here is something that Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and Frantz Fanon understood very well: that hegemony works because those people who are being excluded, those people who are being oppressed, they’ve been convinced to believe in their own inferiority, in the validity of why they’re oppressed.

And that’s why the situation in Haiti still holds, because you have parents who are so poor they give all this money to schools, and they don’t care whether the school teaches the kids math or science or literature, all they care about is whether the kids learn French, as if French is the key to knowledge and to humanity. But, no, it’s not. No language can have that kind of function, right? The best tool to develop your humanity and your knowledge is your native language, and with that, you can also learn other languages. So, that’s why I think it’s really important for teachers, scholars, leaders, linguists and anthropologists to really look at this issue very closely—also psychiatrists—to deeply understand how to correct it, because until it’s corrected, you’re going to have a nation that’s totally upside down. As my colleague Yves Dejean says, we have a country that’s upside down because the schools are upside down.

Nerina: Haiti is a beautiful country, has a long history even pre-Columbus, and after the years of the colonization it was a proud moment when Haiti became independent before other countries did at the beginning of the 19th Century. But what do you think or feel went wrong, why does Haiti still struggle?

Michel: I think that Haiti, as you said, is a beautiful country with an amazing history. It was one of the first lands to welcome Columbus when he got lost. Of course, he didn’t discover Haiti. He just got lost there. That’s why he called it the “West Indies.” And the Amerindians welcomed him to their own detriment because very quickly they were decimated. It was the first genocide in the Americas.

We’ve had this glorious history whereby the Europeans brought in the Africans as enslaved labourers, then these Africans managed to outwit the Europeans: they won an amazing independence war, back in the beginning of the 19th century. There’s something that our founding fathers understood. Jean-Jacques Dessalines who was our first president understood that we may have won the war of independence in terms of getting rid of the French, but if we don’t also become independent culturally, intellectually, linguistically, then we won’t really be independent.

He also understood that there was this danger of neocolonialism. So although the French had been expelled, there were descendants of the French in Haiti, there were also free blacks who for selfish interest wanted to just replace the French and not share the wealth with their compatriots, but create a new class of colonizers that could then oppress their own compatriots.

This is what we’ve seen. We’ve seen that in Haiti from the very beginning there was this small class of free blacks, the blacks who were free even during the colony, but also the mulattoes (descendants of French who mated with African women), and they replaced the colonizers, the French colonizers. One thing that they did that was actually quite clever was to enlist the school system as a way to preserve power, because very early on, although there were attempts at the very beginning to say ‘well, we need to use Kreyòl for the school system because given that we are a population that speaks mostly Kreyòl that’s what should be used’, but those proposals from the very beginning were excluded. So, what happened is that the school system very early on was based on French which means that only those who could speak French, and that was already a very small minority, would have access to success.

So, it’s basically a privilege given to the elite that became cemented, and became so entrenched in the society. That’s what we’ve been living with since then. So that’s the tragedy of Haiti, that’s the problem. But now with all that we know about language and education, I think that we can do another revolution, which is to convince the leaders and the population that our native language, our national language, is essential for our freedom.

Nerina: You wanted to use your knowledge to change the situation, right?

Michel: Absolutely. I really believe in something that Karl Marx said, that what is important is not only to understand the world, but it’s also to be able to change it. In linguistics, and in all the humanities—anthropology, history, psychology…—we have all this knowledge about the way the mind and society work. But what good does it do if we have all this knowledge, but we cannot make the kind of changes that will make the world better, and the lives of people better? What good does it do if we build all this knowledge about Creole languages, but at the same time Kreyòl speakers cannot benefit from this knowledge? Sometimes it’s even worse, Kreyòl speakers sometimes suffer because of the kind of statements and theories that linguists have been producing for centuries about Creole languages, classifying them as if they were the world’s simplest languages. This is the very reason why certain scholars and educators prefer to use French instead of Kreyòl, because why use a language that’s ‘simplest’ when you can use a more ‘sophisticated’ language, meaning French. You see…

So this is one area where the knowledge being produced by linguists is actually undermining the livelihood and the future of the very speakers of these languages that we study. At least, we have to understand the impact of these kinds of ‘knowledge’ and question the basis for them. Because if we have any doubt whether our knowledge is solid, then we should really think of what are we doing in the real world with this knowledge? How can we make it better?

Nerina: You are the founder and director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative. When and how did it start?

Michel: I like to think of it as having its roots from my childhood because as a child I was never allowed to use my native language in the school system as a means of knowledge. I was prevented from using it. When I was a computer scientist, my first job as a professional computer scientist was to write programmes for linguists who were trying to help computers to understand language, to have computers able to read, say, the New York Times and be able to pronounce text for people who cannot read, for example. As I was doing this work, I couldn’t help but think about my own language, Kreyòl, and I realised that if I were to write the same programme for Kreyòl it would also work maybe even better because in Haitian Creole we have a very transparent and logical spelling system which is a lot better than what you have both for English and French. It’s a very logical, transparent spelling where every sound is always written with the same letter. It’s very rigorous and logical, which would make it much easier for a programme to be able to read Haitian Creole as compared to French or English.

From that moment onwards, I was always thinking about the use or misuse of Haitian Creole, our national language, in the school system in Haiti.

Now, to make a long story short, in my work as a linguist I always kept in touch with colleagues in Haiti. The one colleague that really influenced me a lot, his name is Professor Yves Dejean, who used to run this state office to promote Kreyòl in the 90s. So, Yves Dejean invited in the mid-90s to do a seminar at the Kreyòl Language Bureau in Haiti, and there I met other linguists who, like me and Yves Dejean, understood the importance of promoting Kreyòl as the main language of education. So, we did some work together, training young linguists to understand the structure of Haitian Creole and to also realise that it has the full complex structure that makes it capable of expressing science, mathematics, philosophy… so there is no reason to exclude it from the school system.

So, when the earthquake happened in 2010, I was on this phone call with Yves Dejean, and all of a sudden, we got cut off! Ten minutes after, I realised that there was this major earthquake in Haiti. So, of course, I was very worried! Thank God, he was safe, his house was safe.

But then in the aftermath of the earthquake, me and my colleagues at MIT were discussing the best way that we could help. We realized that the best way was not to send money or bottles of water. The best way to help was to try and change the school system from the inside. In fact, Yves Dejean wrote a manifesto soon after the earthquake, where he says that the best way to rebuild Haiti is not with cement or with infrastructure, but it’s to rebuild Haiti from within, from the soul, to change the attitudes of the leaders of the society towards their own native culture, and their own native language. If we can do that, then we can really rebuild a Haiti that will be better for all.

So that moment after the earthquake and talking to Yves Dejean, I realised that what I could do at MIT is to try and create a team of colleagues, because at MIT we have very good scientists, educators, mathematicians, and engineers. Then we could see how we could bring some of our know-how and share it with Haiti, at the same time also expand our own humanity and expertise at MIT. So, it would be a two-way relationship where MIT would be sharing with Haiti, but at the same time, Haiti, with its own rich history and expertise and human capital, could share with us. So basically, both MIT and Haiti would expand and become better in the process. It would be an opportunity for both MIT and Haiti to try to create a new kind of university that might become a model, not just for Haiti, but for the entire world.

Nerina: What are the main pillars of this programme?

Michel: Our goal in the MIT-Haiti Initiative is to try to share with Haiti the best know-how at MIT when it comes to teaching and learning, because MIT is one of the best universities in the world. I think we’ve become very good at developing methods and tools and resources for students to learn in a very creative fashion. This notion of creativity is at the core of the initiative, because when I was growing up in Haiti I remember very well that, in order to succeed as a shining student, it was a matter of just memorising lessons, and being able to recite them by heart. If there is one feature that characterises the Haitian school system, it is rote learning. It starts from kindergarten and first grade, where children are being taught to read text they don’t understand. All that matters in ‘reading’ is to be able to sound out and repeat words without understanding them in any deep way. So, this is what my colleagues and I felt, from my own experience as a student, needed to be changed in order for the country to use the full capacity of its citizens who are very creative. If you look at Haitian art and at children on the farms in the rural country, those children are very creative, and yet they go to school, and their creativity is shut off and not exploited. So, the goal then was to create a school system, from kindergarten to university, where you can learn in a very creative way, you can learn in an active fashion.

The main aspect of the MIT-Haiti Initiative is to introduce methods and tools for active, creative, interactive learning. To do that, we need one indispensable condition which is that the students have to be able to use the language they are most fluent in because they cannot be creative learners if they have to use a language that they are not comfortable in. So that’s the second piece of the initiative.

The third piece is something that MIT is very good at, which is the use of software and tools that trigger and promote this kind of interaction.

So that’s basically the MIT initiative.

Nerina: What is the relationship between language and personality?

Michel: I think in Haiti the relationship between language and personality is such a clear one. For example, if you go to Haiti, you will be pressed to find a typical Haitian giving any joke in French. If you are in a courtyard or on the playground, all the jokes and stories and songs happen in Kreyòl. And those in that context who switch to French, they switch to French to be formal. When you go and court a girl, in order to impress her, you have to speak French, so she thinks that you are smart and well educated and of a good social class. But then once you get comfortable with the girl, you would switch back to Kreyòl. Once I was on the phone talking to my girlfriend, I was maybe 11 or 12, and we were talking in Kreyòl, and the mom heard us speak Kreyòl, got offended, and picked up the phone and said ‘Sir, please speak French to my daughter! You are disrespecting her by speaking Kreyòl’. I could speak French, but I was so frozen by this command that I had to hang up the phone. This shows you how, in Haiti, that link between language and personality is so clear because you cannot be yourself in French. For most Haitians, to be true to yourself is to speak Kreyòl.

Nerina: What motivates you, Michel?

Michel: I think it’s my own history in many ways. But also when I go to Haiti and I see those children and speak to them, I can feel and hear their intelligence and creativity and desire to succeed and I can feel that they have the capacity to succeed. Then, to look at them in the school and they start failing, but it’s not because they are stupid. They start failing because the school system is set against them. That is what motivates me.

Nerina: Do you have a dream?

Michel: My dream, really, is to see the Haitian leadership own that project because, so far, the project has been pushed on the MIT side, and by a growing number of Haitian teachers and faculty at the level of high school, elementary school, and university. But, for that project to have fruit in the long term, at some point it has to be owned by the Haitian society in total—meaning the government, civil society, the parliamentary system….

So my dream is that at some point, hopefully soon in the future, there will be political leaders in parliament and in the executive , alongside the society and all the NGOs, that will realise that for the country, or any project, to succeed, there has to be models like the one we are promoting where the national language is at the core of the project, but also that it be participatory—that everyone can participate without any barrier of language or technology. Of course, I would hope that a stronger alliance between MIT-Haiti and the powers that be both in Haiti and beyond.

And eventually the bigger dream is to have this initiative become a model for other communities—in Jamaica, Curacao, Seychelles, Mauritius, Latin America, Africa, and all over. Did you know that 40% of students are still being taught in a foreign language? That’s a huge number. And also what is really crucial is that there is a direct correlation between those countries that do not use their national language and the countries that are impoverished. So, the most impoverished countries are also those that do not make use of their local languages. So, the bigger dream is that this model will be applied globally, that in each community with a local language, the school system will enlist that local language in the teaching. On paper this is what UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank, USAID… that’s also what they believe in. Obviously, there is some blockage against this. But hopefully, in my big dream, those blockages will disappear.

Nerina: Is there a question that nobody ever asks you but you wish somebody would?

Michel: One question that I would like to be asked is: What would I have loved to do if I were not doing linguistics? What other profession would I have liked to have had!

Nerina: And what would you have become?

Michel: I have asked myself that question many times. And I answer it when I go to dance class! I have a dear friend who is an Afro-Haitian dance teacher, and I’m part of his company’s board as an advisor, and I often like to go to his dance performances. Whenever I see beautiful dance performances, I wish that I grew up in a country where boys could have taken dance lessons and become dancers. When I dance it makes me feel really good! So, sometimes I wonder if I would have enjoyed being a professional dancer, would I have enjoyed dancing maybe ballet or Afro-Haitian dance or the kind of dances that the Alvin Ailey dance company performs because they are so beautiful. It’s like a different language, but a beautiful language that people can speak even though they come from different backgrounds. So, in Jean Appolon’s dance classes, when you go there on Saturdays, you see people from all walks of life, of all ethnicities and sizes and ages, and all together they dance beautifully, and when in the class everybody feels so good and so happy! You see this community they built through dancing, and even though people don’t speak to each other that much. But they dance together, they have the drums going through their souls together, it creates that kind of coziness and love and bond that I rarely experience elsewhere. So that’s what I think I would have liked to become maybe, a dancer.

Nerina: My last question, what is life about?

Michel: Well, it’s like what I tell my little boy, that life is trying to make a change to make the world better. It could be very small, it could be something you do within yourself or in your family or neighbourhood. But in your life, if you can make that small change that will make someone’s life better, then it makes life worth living. Life is also about love: without love, life wouldn’t be worth living. That’s what I think life is about: to make some change that will make someone’s life better, and to fall in love and enjoy love and love other people and be loved by other people. That makes life worth it!

Nerina: Thank you so much for this conversation.

Michel: Thank you Nerina, that was a nice interview!

Nerina: And thank you for watching, thank you for listening, thank you for sharing. If you have any suggestions please feel free to reach out to me. See you soon, and keep wondering. Bye, ciao.


Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative. Founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy. Fields of scholarship: inguistic theory, Creole studies and the relationship among linguistics, ideology, education, human rights and development.

Anne Bahr Thompson

Anne Bahr Thompson
Global Brand Strategist

Pioneer of the Brand Citizenship Movement

Is it possible to align purpose and profit?

What is Behavioural Economics? Why does it matter? And how can companies acting as good corporate citizens create both success and sustainability in their business?

These are some of the questions that Anne Bahr Thompson, the founder of the movement of Brand Citizenship, and author of the book Do Good, is seeking to answer with her work.

Anne is passionate about showing companies that doing good is no longer a barrier to financial success. Her research on brand citizenship and cultural trends reveals that the notion of separating how your business behaves, from how you earn money, is one that is falling out of favour.

She now believes that doing good, behaving sustainably, and combining ethical considerations with economic pursuits, can actually help businesses to increase their financial success.

Watch our interview to discover the ways in which a new style economics can help lead us closer to an open, sustainable, and successful new world.

Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Anne Bahr Thompson's Video here

Nerina: Hi Anne. Great to have you here. Could you please introduce yourself?
Anne: My name is Anne Bahr Thompson and I am the founder of the Movement of Brand Citizenship and I’ve just recently written a book called @Do Good which is about my five-step model of brand citizenship.

Nerina: I am reading from your website Do Good: Brand Citizenship Aligns Purpose and Profit. Cultivate meaningful engagement with customers and employees and aligning purpose and profit. Is it possible?

Anne: For me purpose and profit never have been something that should’ve been separated. Really good well-run businesses have always had a bigger vision that has to do with something more than earning a profit or being the number one best thing and whatever. The notion of separating how your business behaves from how you earn money is almost like creating a false theoretical construct. In real life the two are so intertwined and I think this is why the notion of behavioral economics is becoming more and more popular because the old way of economics was theoretical and isolated itself from the way real people behave.

Real people don’t separate behavior and money. It’s so intertwined for us. Money is such a personal issue. You go online now you’ll see everybody trying to train people how to manage their money, how to feel better about their money. Why should it be any different for businesses? It’s so intertwined how you behave with how you earn money.

Nerina: You wrote that this book was born in order to create meaningful discussions and accelerate change. What kind of change?

Anne: If we can bring this out more publicly and have more public discourse and dialogue we’ll accelerate the movement of companies aligning purpose and profit. We’ll accelerate the movement of companies that are doing good and sustaining and progressing our world and while that sounds naïve it’s really important especially today. You know we’re at a point where people focus so much more on what divides us not what brings us together and I feel if we bring this out more and feel more comfortable talking about the fact that this is all new we will all come together and coming together will be stronger and we will help support companies as they try to find a way forward.

Nerina: Could you tell us a little bit more about the book?

Anne: The book is about my five-step model of brand citizenship and the cultural trends that led up to it. At the end of 2011 as part of my ongoing trend research we were doing a study to come up with Transfer 2012 and we went out to people in the US and the UK and asked them a series of questions: what were their hopes and dreams for the coming year, what were their fears, what brands they thought would exhibit leadership and why, which brands they thought were good corporate citizens and why, and which brands they thought were irresponsible or bad corporate citizens and why and there were some other questions in there, but they’re less relevant.

As we started reading people’s responses because we did not have the data coded by people in the backroom who read your responses and turn them into three-word answers. We actually read all the responses everyone gave us. We started noticing under the surface that people were asking for businesses to step in and help solve the problems on the planet and then in society. It wasn’t I want business to fix this problem. It was more how you connected the dots that was under the surface.

So, when that happened over the next three years I granted myself some money to research the difference between brand leadership, good corporate citizenship and favorite brands which is a proxy for brand loyalty. That’s how the model emerged and as a result of our learnings I thought it was something too important to ignore which is why I wrote the book.

Nerina: What is the core message?

Anne: Well there’s two sides of it. One is that doing good is no longer a cost of doing business; it’s actually a way to grow your business and increase your profits. Because historically all the things that fall under doing good have been seen as the cost of doing business, not an investment into your brand and into bettering and strengthening your business and today they are investments into bettering and strengthening your business. So that really the biggest message I would like to get out to people because when business leaders really believe that they will start acting on it and more and more business leaders are believing it and acting on it because more and more investors are believing it and acting on it and that’s what drives the business.

The other thing is that you need to really clarify your why. You know people talk about why in the sense of their individual why and their individual purpose, but this is equally as important to businesses. Knowing why you exist, clarifying your why is very important and it’s the starting point of being a successful business and that is simple. Once you clarify and know your why you do have to deliver it every day in every way and do what you promised and that’s why trust is the starting point in today’s world of fostering a meaningful loyal relationship not the endgame.

Nerina: Do you think that it’s more complicated trying right now to define what a brand is?

Anne: Well it is because when you think about the whole notions of brands and when they started in the 60s you know when brand marketing really started in earnest with the 60s everyone knows about the TV series Mad Men, which shows you the whole evolution. Brands now are all about their point of view on the world, the position they take in terms of how they see the world and their relationship with the world, their customers, employees and other stakeholders. It’s not solely about what you offer in your product and service anymore.

So yes, it is more complicated but what emerged from my research was five simple steps to actually start connecting with your different stakeholders and your customers in a way that fosters real faithfulness and loyalty and in a way that shows you care about them and you’re solving their problems and you also care about their greater what I call we worries and you’re solving the things that they’re concerned about for the world and the planet.

Nerina: You developed five-step model as you mentioned, and trust is a very important topic in this. Everything starts with trust. Could you tell me more about this?

Anne: What’s interesting about the fact that we learn that it starts with trust is advertisers and reputation management people and people who work in the marketing communications industry have historically thought of trust as the endgame. Once we have your trust we have you. What we learned in this three years of research is that trust is actually in today’s world the starting point because people out there know that we all contrive our “authentic” personalities. So we as individuals, politicians, celebrities and companies create “authentic” personas online so we’re skeptical of believing things they say because we do the same thing; we craft our Facebook posts, we craft our tweets, we craft our LinkedIn profiles to look like the person we want people to see. For people to see the “genuine” authentic self and there is truth to who that is, but it’s not the full, genuine, authentic self. Because of that trust is more and more important and harder and harder to cultivate.

What we learn from people is that there is I keep talking about five-step but there’s five-step to trust which begins with clarity of purpose. So really understanding who you are and communicating. Reliability, being reliable constantly in every action and delivering what you promise. Sincerity, speak from the heart and so when I talk to my clients for example, I try to get them away from the notion of authenticity and into the notion of sincerity and speaking from the heart and once you speak from the heart you also then have to learn to give to give not give to get and businesses are famous with loyalty programs and things that really aren’t giving things away. It’s more about what they’re going to get and that leads you into the notion of active listening that when we have this idea of big data and we can trap all these things about our customers and the people we interact with you need to use that to connect with the things that matter to them and what’s important to them, not just cross sell new products and services to them.

Those last two steps give to give and active listening are the transition points between trust which is step one of brand citizenship and step two which is enrichment and enrichment is all about bettering our lives. It’s amazing the brands people talk about that enrich their lives and how they enriched them.

In the US, there is this company called Mrs. Meyers and they’re household cleaning products and Mrs. Meyers have lovely scents and nearly all natural, but not all natural and people forgive it for that because of what it does. When they’re cleaning people talk about how they feel like they’re in a lavender field in France because of the scents and it makes cleaning more inspiring and enriching.

Actually enrichment is a very important point because Apple is a brand that enriches people’s lives and Apple is actually one of the first brands that came up in my research that intrigued me to learn more. So, when we went out and asked people who were good corporate citizens, this was the end of 2011 when Apple was being lambasted for its supplier relationships by activist, by the media, by a whole host of people and at the end of 2011 Apple was the brand that rose to the top as the number one good corporate citizen. Who would have ever thought and that was one of the things that intrigued me. But when you read people’s answers why Apple rose to the top was because of what it did for them: Apple enriches my life, Apple has made my life better and is good corporate citizen because it’s changed the way I communicate with people across the globe. Apple is a good corporate citizen because it brought joy into my life by bringing music into it 24/7 and that was one of the things that actually started and triggered the further research. We go from trust which is do what you say, enrichment inspire my everyday life.

Then we moved to responsibility and responsibility is more the traditional notions of corporate citizenship. But first and foremost, what matters to people is that you treat your employees well and fairly. So if you go out there and you better your supply chain and in doing so you are creating a benefit to the environment people say that’s good but if simultaneously you don’t pay your employees a fair wage they’ll say I don’t care. You’ve doing good but I really don’t care because you have to start closest to home first and that’s with your employees. So the critical notion if you see in that trust enrichment responsibility the critical notion is how you interact, treat and acknowledge people.

So then you move into community which is step four and community is all about bringing people together through shared values it’s not just digital communities or things like that. In the book I talk about IBM, for example, which in 2004 before Facebook IBM ran these values jam over three days. Where it allowed its employees across the globe to participate and contribute to what IBM’s values were going to be moving forward.

2004 was a year after Gerstner left IBM financially stronger but culturally weaker and Palmisano, came in and as a true IBMer and wanted to bring IBM back into itself and make people proud. He connected IBM people across the globe to allow them to participate in creating values that’s community. Community is also something like the notion of the Forest Stewardship Council, which is that tree on paper products you often see. Forest Stewardship Council brings together communities of businesses that have the same values and want to sustain forests even though they produce paper products or use paper products to package their goods and services.

So trust, enrichment, responsibility, community and then finally it is contribution and contribution is make me bigger than I am. So through my association with you, through being your customer or your employee I am bettering the world because you’re doing something better. And whilst it’s easy to put that in the notion of socially conscious businesses and businesses that have purpose at their core, not only businesses that have purpose at their core are considered businesses that contribute.

Kenco coffee, which is owned by Mondelez a huge global consumer goods company has an initiative called Coffee and Gangs and this is about giving teenagers in Honduras an alternative to the three choices they have when they hit a certain age. Honduras is the number one or number two murder capital in the world every year and when teenagers get to a certain age they have three choices: joining a gang, leave the country or be killed. Kenco has given them a fourth choice and that is to apply to become a coffee grower and learn how to run a coffee farm. Their impact in terms of scale is not great because they only can take I think it’s 30 to 50 students per year but their impact in terms of what it does for those students and give them an alternative is huge.

So one of the things I pose in the book is imagine if Kenco created a community of coffee producers, coffee manufacturers, coffee sellers and took all the coffee sellers that source their coffee from South America for example, and brought them together and working with the nonprofits they work with to run the program expanded it across the whole coffee growing regions in South America with these other coffee producers. The impact that would then have could potentially change a continent. So contribution doesn’t have to only be socially conscious brands.

Nerina: What you are inviting companies to do is not a onetime fix everything program but a journey, aren’t you?

Anne: I didn’t want people to think there’s a given set of steps to follow. Yes, there’s a general framework to go through to start actualizing brand citizenship and start stepping on the pathway of it but once you step on the pathway it is that it’s a pathway it’s not I’ve stepped and I’m done. You have to see it is a journey and I think what’s important is that people also step back and say no business can get it 100% right especially out-of-the-box and we have to start supporting businesses for the good they are doing. Not just every time someone does something good go in to figure out what they’re doing that’s bad.

What was really interesting when I was researching for the book, when I was doing research for the book and reaching out to companies, to speak to companies to see if they would give me more the inside scoop of what they’re doing virtually every company I reached out to I heard back from and a lot of people spoke to me but did not want to be named in the book or in the research. Because they felt if I was going to present them as a brand that was doing good, that exemplified one step of the five steps of brand citizenship activists would go and start hunting through their company to find out what they were doing wrong. I think we have to get away from that notion of trying to find out what people are doing wrong.

Yes, there are companies that behave irresponsibly and companies that do really bad irresponsible behavior you know will be caught out and should be caught out but most companies actually are trying to do what’s right. They just don’t know what the formula is and they’re working around it, so they are going to make mistakes and that’s one of the things that’s also important. Brand citizenship is a journey, it’s a pathway you step on but it’s also a pathway where you have to be a little bit more compassionate with your people and with yourself as a business. You need to forgive yourself when you make a mistake and you need to allow for more risk and more innovation.

Nerina: Is this something new?

Anne: Every really strong brand has always had a more holistic perspective. I think what we’re doing is adding one additional filter or making one filter in that holistic perspective stronger. So how you better the world is more important now than ever because we know that we have limited resources, we know we are using our resources up. There also is a cultural sentiment that’s growing stronger and stronger for equity, fairness and social justice. So business does not operate isolated from social culture. Business is integrated into the fabric of social culture and it’s an essential part of our social culture. So if business doesn’t respond to what’s happening frankly it may not exist or won’t exist in the form and shape it does now.

You look at how many disruptors keep stepping in and changing industries. Now granted, a lot of these disruptors now are huge corporations in and of themselves, but maybe there’ll be backlash against them and you see that little push that’s going on against the tech giants now that used to be the heroes and they still are heroes to a lot of people, but people are also calling for them to step up and behave better because they had so much influence over our lives.

Nerina: What really surprised you during this process?

Anne: The brands people named as good corporate citizens a number of them really surprised us. Apple was the number one good corporate citizen in both the US and the UK and it really was the number one by far. Why it was there was because what it delivers to me and enriches my life that’s helped me to better communicate with people across the globe, it’s brought joy into my life by bringing music 24/7 into my life.

So there was this whole me proposition which was really shocking and those of us in industry and sustainability professionals and social responsibility professionals would have [00:21:16] [indiscernible] at that answer and said these people are wrong, but we don’t want to say they were wrong we wanted to understand more.

Walmart in the US and Tesco in a comparable way in the UK came up and why were they named good corporate citizens? Not because of any of their initiatives but because of their low pricing. They afforded me a better lifestyle and in the US at the end of 2011 Ford came up and Ford was in there because for turned around its business, which meant America could turn around, which meant me as an individual can come back from the economic crisis in 2008, even though I don’t feel that now. So it was about hope and exhibiting what we all can do. So this was a me proposition and it was really very surprising to us.

Now there were brands in there but named in smaller numbers and more fragmented that delivered good to the world in the way we would have expected people to say a good corporate citizen behaved. What emerged through the five steps was something we call a me to we continuum and this came from the grassroots up. Brands must first deliver to me and that step one trust; do what you say, delivered to me your promises. Step two enrichment; inspire and better my life and then pivot points between being a me brand and we brand is responsibility. Responsibility is as I’ve mentioned before about treating your employees well and fairly first and foremost and then the other elements of responsibility, the environment, etc. So then you move from responsibility which is the pivot point: treat people, treat the environment fairly and that the natural pivot point between being me and being we and we as the community in contribution.

Nerina: Companies have to learn to listen, don’t they?

Anne: Yes, exactly and even more than just listen they have to advocate on behalf of their customers and their employees. Businesses and brands have historically wanted their employees and their customers to advocate for them. So, if you like them they want you to go out there and wave their flag and tell everybody how great you are and these people will do that but they’ll do it now only for businesses that are doing something for them first, that understand the issues that matter to them as a person and that matter to the groups of people they care about and the movements they care about. So businesses have to step up and step out first before people will step up and step out for them.

Nerina: Do you think that people want companies to advocate on their behalf?

Anne: So actually, when I first started writing that businesses had to step up and advocate on the behalf of their customers, employees a lot of people looked at me in a cynical manner like, oh really. But it was becoming more and more clear and it emerged at the end of 2011 when we started the research in the US it was another election year. A different election than the last one, but there still a lot of controversy around that election because everyone was saying that the economy had improved but most people still weren’t feeling it.

So they were on a roller coaster of emotions since the downturn and they said they didn’t trust politicians to fix or better the world anymore and business was better poised to do that because business had to keep progressing to keep selling its products and services so they knew how to innovate. What people told us was that politicians always had an opposing force which was the opposite party. Businesses did not have an opposing force so therefore they were better situated to do good because they didn’t have to deal with that opposition.

Now in reality and I talk about this in chapter 2 business does have an opposing force and that’s their shareholders and that’s their board. So those people have to get on board and a lot of CEOs that do want to do good are held back by the returns their board wants to see. But as I said now that investors are demanding this and you have someone like Larry Fink from BlackRock stepping up and in 2014 as I mentioned, he first started talking about long termism in his letter to the CEO. This year his letter to the CEO started talking about corporate social responsibility and when investors with that much power start telling people you have to do these businesses do do that.

So what’s happened since I first started writing about businesses stepping up to advocate on behalf of their customers and employees, we started seeing businesses having to do this and especially in the US, given the polarized politics and where large corporations stand. You know we’ve had businesses waving they gay flag, the rainbow flag for gay rights when the Supreme Court made a decision.

We’ve had businesses stepping up for social justice in terms of immigrants. Now granted a lot of that is selfish because a lot of the businesses that are stepping up for that are businesses that have an immigrant workforce, especially the tech industry brings people from across the globe into it who are the smartest people across the globe. So there may be a selfish aspect to it but again it’s still happening and where people don’t want to see businesses step up and behave it’s when it’s overtly political.

But what we found in 2011, which seems to be emerging as we’re seeing current events happening around us is that people felt business had a right to step up when it came to social justice, fairness and equality and now I think the environment will probably come in especially in the US, given some trading backroads on environmental laws. People are demanding it and you have business leaders and political business and political leaders such as Michael Bloomberg, who is creating a consortium of companies that are actually creating effectively the legislature and regulation of what they will abide by because the government in the US is no longer forcing them to abide by certain things.

So all of that is advocating on behalf of what people care about and if you don’t advocate on behalf of your employees guess what? They’re going to leave and millennials are a generation that switch employers much more quickly than Gen Xers and baby boomers had in the past and Gallup ran a survey that said this turnover was costing US USD30 billion a year. So guess what if you don’t start advocating on behalf of your employees and doing things that matter to them and the things that they care about you’re going to lose them and do you really want that cost to your business? So that’s why I say a lot of these things that were thought of as cost to the business are actually now investments in your business. Investments in strengthening your brand, investments in strengthening your reputation and investments in making sure that you sustain, in other words maintain your ability to keep earning a profit.

Nerina: Do you think that we want to feel like a community belonging to a brand?

Anne: Well we don’t want to feel like a community in a brand but we want brands to bring us together with people who care about the same things we do and the community just happens. I think part of the notion of what’s really hard for businesses and especially for marketing communications people in today’s world is they’re trying to contrive these communities. But if they let go of control and they participate as a part of the community or they are the facilitator of the community, not the one who’s controlling and directing it they will benefit more if they let the people they bring together sort of collaborate to create a bigger community.

You know the only thing that comes to mind is that it’s a beautiful thing. It is something that exponentially grows and fosters loyalty because you are the one doing it. If you think about if you go back to your days at the University there were certain professors that were always followed around by students because they were leaders, because they spoke about things that people cared about and because they acknowledged each of those people around them. Then there were professors who were leaders who were arrogant and people followed them, but always felt smaller around them. They didn’t feel bigger and then there were just the professors that went around doing their job that you know made one or two friends but didn’t have a group of followers; brands are the same.

The ones that are real leaders create almost coaxed following because they represent what other people aspire to be. So brands that progress the world, that better the world, that deliver across what I called the me to we continuum those brands inspire more people to believe in them because what they do is help people believe more in themselves.

Nerina: There are people who say that companies are starting to behave in a sustainable way or have started to speak about changing the world only because they want to keep earning money and they want to keep selling. How do you see it?

Anne: I don’t care why they’re doing it they’re doing it and that makes it better. You can’t expect companies to be altruistic that’s not their purpose. We have nonprofits, NGOs and thing that’s purpose is altruism, but to have the notion of doing good and some semblance of altruism forced upon them, whether they choose to do it or the market’s making them do it who cares why as long as it is happening. That’s all I care about is what we expect from our friends changes over time depending upon what’s happening in our life. So why what we expect from businesses shouldn’t also evolve and change over time.

Now that said there are businesses that have been doing it since the beginning. You look at a company like Lush which is handmade soaps and cosmetics out of the UK, but they are more global now and you read the story and understand the story of their founders and they had this mission since the beginning. They’ve had a lot of fits and starts. It took decades for them to actually get to Lush and deliver what they felt was their purpose. Another company seventh generation in the US has a similar story. A lot of fits and starts until they got there, but these were leaders with a purpose and yes, they are socially conscious businesses. But the more socially conscious businesses that exist the more regular corporations have to start embracing those notions because that becomes our expectation of business.

So as a Pollyanna, I personally believe and would want all business leaders to behave ethically because that comes from their inside, but at the end of the day if they’re only behaving ethically because their customers and their investors are demanding it the outcome is still the same. So let’s stop criticizing and let’s get on this bandwagon together so we can sustain this planet and create greater equity for people across the globe. Why it’s happening it doesn’t matter to me at the end of the day.

Nerina: And why now?

Anne: You know the whole notion of brand citizenship as I talked about started in 2011 but the underpinnings of it actually I think have been part of my philosophy and the way I’ve seen the world or the way I’ve read the world. The way I read the things I was seeing and hearing since nearly the beginning; I mean alignment from a single purpose has been something that’s always been important to me.

What I’ve said to people over and over is that what we’re saying happening in the world now is accelerating the recent trends that began at the turn of the millennium. These things were there and they were bubbling under the surface in a very light manner. You know the larva wasn’t popping out of the volcano yet but now it’s rising and rising and if businesses don’t really start changing the volcano will start erupting and if you’re forced to change as a huge reaction you won’t do it in a smart way. If you start learning how to respond rather than react you will maintain your business and you will maintain the customers you have nurtured over time and the reputation you’ve built. So too me if you don’t start doing this now you’re going to be forced into it at some point and then it’s probably not going to be such a good situation for you as a business leader to react to what’s going on around you.

Nerina: Which brands are going to be successful in your opinion in 10 years’ time?

Anne: The one thing that when people ask what I think is sort of the most important change in brands that I focus on, while every good company has always had that it hasn’t been as much of a discipline and for me what I’d like to see have happen is brands change human resources to human relationships. If it becomes human relationships it starts embracing a business, a brand, a company’s relationship with most of its employees and customers and actually it’s not just both employees and customers. If it is human relation it’s how it interacts with everybody across its entire stakeholder base.

So I think what’s the most important thing for brands is that we stop separating and saying oh the customer is important, the employee is important, this stakeholder is important but we start seeing it as holistic relationships and how we foster relationships with everybody across our interactions.

Nerina: Why are you doing what you are doing?

Anne: I am passionate about anything that I’m working on. When I’m not passionate about something I’m working on I can’t do it. What I love to do is help people and companies see what is possible, recognize what’s possible. To step back and break apart the Gestalt they’ve been living in and reconstruct it based upon what’s going on today and how people behave today because in doing that you open the world and you create a more expansive world of possibility. Opportunity is great but possibility is so much wider. So I love to help people just step up into what’s possible for them and I tend to see that more in people and companies than they see it in themselves.

Nerina: What motivates you?

Anne: What motivates me is getting out the truth, pilling things back to find what sits at the core. What motivates me is to change the way people see the world and connect dots that they haven’t connected before. What motivates me is helping to create a sense of fairness and equity across everything and helping people and companies to be more of their best selves, to be more of what they really can be you know when they’re sitting in the light. I’m motivated by progress and change and never accepting the status quo.

Nerina: Do you have a dream?

Anne: My dream just to have a meaningful impact and help people and businesses be better and keep progressing and not accept where we are but keep pushing to… Oh I hate the notion of push because it’s such a you know it’s like a fight and I don’t want it to be a fight. So I guess I would like to see progress flow rather than have to be pushed because in today’s world, we have to push to create progress. We don’t just embrace it and let it happen. We are so frightened of change and not every change is good but we need to be more open to change and risk-taking.

Nerina: Your vision?

Anne: To help people and organizations feel comfortable and confident and brave enough to step up and be more of their best selves and what they really can be.

Nerina: Thank you so much Anne for this conversation.

Anne: Oh, thank you and don’t hesitate to get in touch if you want to continue the dialogue.

Nerina: I will for sure reach out to you again and thank you so much. Thank you for listening, thank you for watching and please subscribe to our YouTube channel if you do not want to miss our next conversation. Keep wondering and see you soon again. Bye and ciao.


Pioneer of the Brand Citizenship Movement

Paul Shrivastava

Paul Shrivastava
Chief Sustainability Officer

The Pennsylvania State University. Director at the Sustainability Institute. Professor in Management and Organization, Smeal College of Business.

Sustainable management – sustainable life

How do we create a more sustainable world? Why should we care? And what parts do management practices have to play, in helping us to create a more stable equilibrium between the human and the natural worlds?

These are some of the questions that Dr Paul Shrivastava, an academic entrepreneur and the Chief Sustainability Officer at Penn State University, is seeking to answer with his research.

Paul advocates for a transdisciplinary approach to the world’s problems, in which we don’t just take an in-depth view of one particular subject, but instead integrate and synthesise our collective understandings, and work holistically to create meaningful change.

Watch our interview to discover the ways in which a new style of management can help lead us closer to an open, creative, and imaginative new world.

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Read the transcript of Paul Shrivastava's Video here

Nerina: Hi Paul, nice to have you here. Would you please introduce yourself?

Paul: Hello, I am Paul Shrivastava. I am the Chief Sustainability Officer of Penn State University, before that I was the Executive Director of Future Earth.

Nerina: Why are you so passionate about sustainability?

Paul: So I’m passionate about sustainability for both some intellectual reasons and for some very personal, practical reasons. So let me talk about the practical reasons first. I have two children they are both grown-up, I have other friends and relatives and neighbors and communities that I am going to leave behind when I’m gone and I would like to be able to say that my life contributed in some positive way to longing the sustainability of the earth. I think a lot of the things that we’re doing in our lives are wrongheaded, they are going in the wrong direction. So I see the need for people who can make some corrective action and I see my work towards that.

On the intellectual side I think you have come to a point in human history where the relationship of humans to nature is in the process of reversal. So for a million years we lived with natural cycles of working in a natural way and defining the world and we humans were sort of part of those natural cycles. Whether it was the water cycle or the carbon cycle or the nitrogen cycle or phosphate cycle nature had its own logic and we were part of that logic.

Since the 1950s there have been such a great expansion of human population and of the social impacts on earth that we are now disturbing the natural cycle, we have become the dominant force of nature and nature is getting broken in a lot of its ecosystems. So it is our intellectual responsibility, as academics it’s our professional responsibility to understand this reversal and try to create a better balance between humans and nature. So I feel my work is trying to understand nature and human relationships in a broad canvas, in a global scale, on a planetary scale and try to develop solutions that will make us more sustainable.

Nerina: You have also worked a lot on management and leadership. What in your opinion is sustainable management?

Paul: So yes, I’ve been a Professor of management in business schools and in schools of arts and science and I see management as a generic function of society. You and I do a lot of management in our own lives: we manage our children, we manage our kitchen, we manage our transportation, we manage our social life etc.

In the world today corporations are the major engine for producing wealth but they are also a major engine for destroying the natural systems. So management is the function in my view it’s not about maximizing profits, it’s not only about creating wealth, it is about managing human-nature relationships in a balanced way so that we can create a system of producing well-being for all of humanity and be able to do it in the long time frame not just for our lifetime. Certainly, not only for this quarter or this year that many corporations focus on but for the next generation and multiple generations afterwards.

So this kind of a planetary management of all the resources of the planet to serve the interests of 10 billion people that will be on earth by 2050 that’s the management that I want to advocate, I want to study and I want to teach.

Nerina: What do we need to implement this?

Paul: So there are a number of things that managers need: they need certain competencies, they need a certain kind of awareness and they need a certain set of values. So in terms of competencies we in the last 50 years have found out a lot of things about how corporations and their activities impact everything around them from the physical landscape and nature to communities and social landscapes. So that’s one set of competencies that managers need to develop. They could be in the form of developing mechanical technological efficiencies, energy conservation and resource conservation, etc. or they could be in the form of ecological efficiencies so that they can do more things with natural products and conserve natural resources or they can be in the form of social efficiencies so that we create communities and society that are more ecologically sensible and economically viable. So that’s at the level of competencies.

Those competencies are based on awareness. So managers need to be aware of the basic principles of how ecosystems operate. They cannot just be economists, they cannot just be technologists, and they need to understand how economy and technology are embedded in the larger natural systems and what technology and economic systems do to the natural system. That relationship and the awareness of it require them to read more broadly, to be multidisciplinary not just economists. So that’s the level of awareness.

Then at the level of values managers need to understand that money is not the only measure of performance, that finances and dollars is not what their own organization performance will be measured by, that we need to value other things in life. We have a world in which that a lot of people living without adequate food. There are 2 billion people who are living under two dollars a day and we need a kind of system in which the whole world can live a meaningful life, and that requires us to valorize and put more value on society, on culture, on arts, on equality and things like that. So they need some kind of reframing of their own values and this is not something that they have to come to it by themselves voluntarily, they have to understand the need for this kind of a broad prosperity and well-being for all and by all I don’t mean just people who might be poor in poor countries. I also mean the natural ecosystems and animals and plants and creating a world in which there is a kind of balance between humans and nature.

Nerina: You often use the word passion when talking about management. How are they related?

Paul: Part about this field of management with relatively a young field of study it originated in the 1920s or so with the idea of technological efficiency and rationality at the heart of it. The factories were being built and they wanted to make it very productive. So the whole field of management studies has focused mostly on sort of scientific rationality, bringing scientific rationality to the industrial workplace to me.

To me life is much broader than just rationality. Being a full human also means being an artist, being a family person, being a father, being a citizen and that’s not all captured within this narrow view of technological rationality. So I wanted to see what was the other side and the other side is emotion and science and rational thinking sort of separates itself from emotional side of things.

So to me, bringing the emotional and the passion into management is a way of expanding the function of management and I think it creates a more holistic way of managing and to the extent that sustainability is about managing holistically across the planet, across all human beings and all other species. I think this kind of an expanded view of management which includes passion and emotion into it is a very helpful thing. So I see this as the next generation of management studies which will allow a deeper emotional engagement and understanding of the phenomenon that we are interested in and helping shape that.

Nerina: What does your job as a Chief Sustainability Officer entail?

Paul: So in my current position my mandate is to incorporate sustainability into all the research programs and educational teaching programs and student life programs and employee programs off the 23 campuses of the University. So it’s like using sustainability as a spice to sprinkle it all around everything that the University does because my University as part of its strategic plan has stewarding of our natural resources as one of the three key pillars. So they have created this new position and my job is to add sustainability across the board.

Nerina: You advocate a lot for a more interdisciplinary approach to reach a more sustainable world: science, humanities and art working together. Could you tell me more about this?

Paul: Yes. So interdisciplinarity is a view that has been around for the last 50 years in an emerging science domain that has broken itself into literally more than 8000 different disciplines. So we have created these bubbles, these isolated conversations that go deep but they’re very small and very narrow. In the world that we are living in we have to think broadly and at a planetary scale, we have to look at the big picture. It’s also important to look at the individual silos and look deep but if everybody just looks deep and nobody is integrating and synthesizing and taking the big picture view then that doesn’t help us. It gets us to optimize at a sub or even sub subcomponent level while ignoring what is going on at the systemic level.

So the idea of interdisciplinarity and I don’t like the term interdisciplinarity I will talk about more about trans disciplinary in a second because that captures more my feelings of how this integration should take place. So it’s not just that biochemistry has to talk to neurochemistry, has to talk to physical chemistry, that is sort of within disciplines but we need to step out of the disciplines altogether because the real problems of the world are cannot be discovered at the bottom of the silo of disciplines.

The real problems with the world are happening in the world. So, we have to take the problem from outside of the disciplines and then bring the disciplines whichever ones are needed to address to solve the problem; that to me the meaning of transdisciplinarity. Where you pick the problem not from a disciplinary gap in knowledge but from the real world, you bring the right disciplines to interact with that problem, you engage stakeholders, communities, people who are affected by the problem to co-design and co-create knowledge that will solve the problem.

The real measure of how good your research is is how well you solve the problem. It’s not about how many papers you write. All the papers are important and you can write papers and books you can stop over there that is not the need of the hour. The need of the hour is solving real problems in real time because we have 20 to 30 years after which there are going to be some really catastrophic changes that are going to kill a lot of people. So, on the one hand we predict that there might be 10 billion people on earth but there are also scenarios that claim that if we don’t change now we might end up with 2 billion people. There will actually be a drastic reduction in population and if we want to avoid that we have this 20 or 30 year period in which we have to act and we have to create solutions.

So I say that yes you can write and think about it in academic silos but you also need to be able to make changes to the real problems. So bring your research to policy makers, bring your research to activists and the public, to the society at large. We want to create these interfaces between science and society, between science and policymaking.

Nerina: What is to biggest problem or challenge we are facing?

Paul: So there are many big challenges. I think the biggest challenge is sort of a self-imposed constraint on imagination. We are because in some ways creatures of habit, we are accustomed to doing things a certain way and we feel that the artificial barriers that are imposed by institutions or by society or by culture that we have to live within them. We need to find internal personal courage to break out of those barriers and do things that we are passionate about that I think is going to lead to solutions that are different, than are more creative, more imaginative and will actually produce solutions.

So the word is structured in a certain way, but God or no other creature told us to do it this way. We collectively decided we are going to be in the University, we are going to teach courses, we are going to do it this way but that’s not the only way to do it. So we have to be really imaginative and creative and find our own pathway into solving the problems that we perceive in our communities, on the ground, in society broadly rather than limit ourselves to the definitions that are handed down to us either by bosses or rules or disciplines.

So I’m not advocating anarchy here. I’m advocating an open, creative, imaginative engagement with the world to solve problems that are very real now and these problems are going to affect… they are already affecting our lives, but they’re definitely going to completely change the lives of our children and our grandchildren.

Nerina: If you change one thing tomorrow and money would not play a role and time wouldn’t matter what would you like to change?

Paul: So I wouldn’t say money plays no role, of course money plays a role and time plays a role, but I have great faith in human ingenuity, I have great faith in the human spirit. I think people need to look at themselves and their mode of living and engaging life and they need to find ways of enlivening. Everything they do, every ordinary thing they do has to be enlivened and made more than it is and it is possible to do this, it is possible to do it in your dining room, it is possible for us to do it in this interview. We can animate ourselves, we can jump up and down, we can create more life right now and we can do it everywhere that we exist. So we need to rethink of how we are going to live so that life is expanded in relationship to others, in relationship to nature, in relationship to our family, to our neighbors, and to our community.

Nerina: Who are the people who influenced you the most?

Paul: Yeah. So we are all sort of an accumulation of our many, many years and I am on the wrong side of 60s now so I’ve had a long time to form myself, and sometimes I even forget what part of me was formed as a child. But I did grow up in household led by a woman, a very strong woman my mother and I think I grasped a lot of things out of the way she ran the family. She was a working person, she was a gynecologist, a doctor in a small town in India which didn’t have any other female doctors, so by the time she retired she was almost like an icon and a big influence on the values that I took away, on the practical need to care. Because she was a doctor and caring for patients this idea of care, the value of care was deeply ingrained. It also gave me the value for education and knowledge because she was trained in the sciences and for her it was very important that her children and anybody that she could influence in the family go to school and college and do all the things that science has to provide.

So I think that the fundamental shaping as a child had happened but I think I also learned equally after reaching my own age of reason and becoming a person on my own and again I have to say a big influence on this has been my wife of 37 years. We have kind of grown together with the mutual understanding and she has shaped a lot of things and I always rely on her. She’s like my “strategic advisor” on times when there are challenges and especially around question of values and meaning. What is that is meaningful to do in life you know.

So I take a lot of guidance from her and then the third big influence is actually my children. So I hear from them. They sometimes ridicule me, they sometimes flatter me, they sometimes make fun of me and sometimes they’re loving to me and I kind of see in them a life that I haven’t passed over, but I’m seeing them and it becomes a form of renewal for me. So I always look forward to meeting them and learning what’s going on in their life, what is important to them, what is not important to them and I’m always surprised that they are thinking so differently from when I was 25 or 28 years old what I was aspiring to. So they have kind of opened up the windows to the next generations for me. So those are the main influencers on my life and they all come from very close and within my family.

And of course then I learned from the books and I like to read a lot and try to gain information from conversations with people and the community around me.

Nerina: What keeps you going?

Paul: I think I’m an optimist at heart. I think that the place that we are now is a place of turmoil and change both at the global society and also in terms of local issues. I feel that there are better answers that can be found and I am eager to be part of that imaginative, creative space and with that we can find better answers.

I’m dissatisfied with the way things are in the world and the way things are in my own community and in my country, which currently is the United States. They are deep sources of dissatisfaction and I think that is a better place and I think that there are solutions. So I’m very eager to contribute those solutions and improve those things that keep me going.

Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of?

Paul: So what do I dream of? This is a really good question. I think we all live our dreams and we all knowingly or unknowingly interpret dreams on a day-to-day basis. The life that I dream off is one of balance; balance between competing forces. I have experienced life in the form of competition and conflicts and I have always strived for finding the common ground and finding the place where we can bring some equilibrium to the competing forces that evolve us into the next phase.

So my dream for life is that we as a whole global planetary society will be able to achieve balance. A balance amongst us as human beings so we don’t fight with each other, bring peace. A balance with nature with whom we are on a war and we are destroying nature and nature can come and destroy us. It does so regularly in the form of floods and storms and so on. So finding a way of balancing with nature and finding a way of balancing within our communities in our local spaces so that we can create well-being and prosperity in the long run.

Nerina: What makes you happy?

Paul: My wife and I have been dancing Argentine tango for last 15 years and we see that as an embodiment of the passion we have for each other, but the passion we have for the community in which we dance because Argentine tango is a social community dance. You dance with everybody in the community, you become part of the community and you learn together and you become friends and so it embodies many parts of this connectivity. Everything from the body – dancing in between two bodies, the human body and the floor and the environment, the music, the people and the whole sense of community. So to me it’s a very good physical manifestation of the passion that I have for life in general.

Nerina: Difficult question but what is life about?

Paul: What is life about? Yeah, that is sort of a deep question. So to me life is about… It’s a kind of relational thing. It is about everything and it is about the quality of the relationship to everything. So to me life is manifested in ordinary, everyday events and activities and we can make that life bigger by being mindful, by being meaningful, by adding ourselves our enthusiasm, our spirit and connecting it to others, connecting it to nature. So expanding that connectivity expands life.

So instead of thinking about what his life I think about what will enliven. So I try to make it into an activity that will actually expand life rather than thinking about it as a static thing. I like to think about it as a dynamic moving thing that I can engage with and increase so that I can have this conversation with you and if this can be an enlivened conversation it will leave us both at a higher level of understanding and also well-being and joy. So creating the joy and well-being and expansion of life I’m calling that enlivenment is what life is all about.

Nerina: Thank you Paul for this conversation.

Paul: Thank you very much.

Nerina: And thank you for watching, thank you for listening and feel free to reach out to me if you have any comments. Keep wondering and see you next time again. Bye and ciao.


The Pennsylvania State University. Director at the Sustainability Institute. Professor in Management and Organization, Smeal College of Business.

Anne Murray

Anne Murray
Artist and curator

Exhibitions of her work in Turkey, France, Italy, Hungary, Spain, China, Belgium and many other places around the world.

Can art change the world?

What is ‘art’? Why do we need it? How have artists throughout history been drivers for social change, and how can they continue to be so in a world that’s rapidly changing?

Anne Murray, a nomadic artist and curator, spoke to Traces.Dreams about her work connecting artists around the world through her platform Cloud Conversations. As an artist herself, Anne has exhibited her work globally, and is passionate about helping artists to tackle issues such as racism, misogyny, homophobia, islamophobia, and other social concerns in their work, by setting up spaces where they can communicate with each other and grow.

For her, art serves many purposes, from helping people to see they aren’t alone, to giving a voice to the feelings we all have as human beings. Through Cloud Conversations, she’s preoccupied with how people can use their knowledge and experience of art to look beyond current world situations, find solutions, and help to create dialogues for change.

Watch the video to find out more, and join in the conversation.

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Read the transcript of Anne Murray's Video here

Anne: My name is Anne Murray and I’m an artist and a curator. I’m working on the curatorial research project that is called Cloud Conversations. I am a nomadic artist. So, I don’t really have a home base but mostly I return to Barcelona. So, I guess that would be my home base.

Nerina: Could you tell me more about this project?

Anne: Yes. The project is connecting artists from different parts of the world, they’re working in different disciplines, different media from: video art, photography, painting, sculpture, installation work, music, all different kinds of art forms and they’re working on different themes. The themes are to do with xenophobia, sexism, racism, Islamophobia and all kinds of global issues including climate change.

Nerina: How did you become an artist?

Anne: I don’t know if I would say that I became an artist. I would say that always throughout my life I was very curious and reflective and I spent a lot of time isolated, alone, just creating things and people started to call me an artist and that’s how it happened. And how I became a curator was really I had an interest in connecting different artists together because I saw that when you put the different artists’ work together it’s like the work itself has a conversation amongst other works. I thought it would be interesting to start to connect the artists and have them have conversations and it stimulates new work and also makes artists feel like they are not alone. They’re working in different parts the world on similar themes and they feel bolstered by that, they really feel more support.

Nerina: Are there some moments or some experiences that really determined or influenced who you are now? 

Anne: I was the only girl, I was the youngest and as I said I spent a lot of time alone because also my brothers were a lot older than me. I think that when you live like that you spend a lot of time reflecting and thinking and kind of developing different ideas. My father read poetry at the dinner table a lot and I really loved poetry and I guess that really influenced my development of the way that I thought and interacted with the world and reflected upon it.

My father died when I was 13 and I think that that really changed my life a lot because it made me realize how important it was to actually seek the things that you really care about and to try new things that you’re afraid of because life is short and it really made me aware of that and aware of the fact that the only thing that we can really rely on and count on in life is change. Things will change, people will live or die, or nature will change, everything around you will change and once you embrace that it really makes life a bit simpler and easier. Because even if you’re in the most difficult turmoil you know it can’t happen forever.

Nerina: Who are you as an artist?

Anne: I create video poetry. So I often go to different countries, staying in artists residencies. I make proposals for different ideas that are related to different things that are going on in current events in those countries, sometimes political issues, sometimes more personal issues and I write poetry. I record my voice and I put that together with imagery and the imagery often has an abstract connection to the words so it leaves room for interpretation and room for a bit of your own interaction, what you bring to it. It’s a little bit more free. It’s not so determined like a play or a movie it gives you a chance to enter into it and leave and enter again like poetry itself. I feel like poetry when you read a line and you read it again you see it in different ways each time you experience it and that’s what I’m looking for in my work.

Nerina: Why video poetry? What does video add to poetry?

Anne: I have always been as well a visual artist as a writer and so it came about naturally. I mean I started I was doing really large-scale drawings, painting on drawings and I started just writing phrases. I didn’t really think of them as poems at first but they became poems and I realized later of course because of my dad I had been exposed to a lot of poetry. Eventually I took… in my very last semester of graduate school, I took a video class and I made my first video poem then and I really loved that combination of things. It really for me it gave me everything I needed in the experience of creating a work.

Nerina: You are a nomadic artist. Why nomadic? 

Anne: It is a good question. I think that what happens when you live in different kinds of environments you’re constantly challenged and challenged in a way where you have to see yourself from the outside and the inside at the same time. Because you see the reflection of yourself in other people; how they react to you, how you behave and you start to have to accept that not all things are the same and your way is not right. It might work in some places, but it doesn’t work in all places and I really, really enjoy this metacognition and having an awareness and making changes and it really sparks my ideas tremendously about how I want to create work. I am fascinated by the interaction that I’ve had with so many different people from different cultures. I feel that it is expanded my mind tremendously. That you actually have many different options as a human being about how you’re going to interact with people, how you’re going to depend on them, how you’re going to you embody and embrace the idea of working as a community and I love it, I love that. So that’s why.

Nerina: Is there a place where you have felt a special connection to? 

Anne: Most recently I was just in Algeria and I really loved it. I was there for the Mediterranean Biennial of Contemporary Art in Oran. I had a work exposed there and I was really impressed by the generosity of people and their curiosity and also that they really felt it was important to understand from the artist what their intentions were and they asked a lot of really great questions when I was at the exhibit. It was very inspiring as an artist because often you can have an exhibition and maybe people come to an opening and they’re a little bit afraid to ask questions. Maybe they are intimidated by the art world, but I didn’t find that there. I found there was a thirst for knowledge and a thirst for an idea of what art could be and how far it could go and how it could connect to their own lives and I loved it.

Nerina: Which was the question that impressed you the most?

Anne: Somebody asked me about how I came up with the idea for the piece that I showed. The piece that I showed was called Exquisite Exodus and they really wanted to know why personally I had made the choices of the poem; the things that I said in the poem. Because in the poem I talk about the blue sky and it being a point of reference and something that makes me feel a sense of home.

Because the pieces about the Exodus of course from Syria and it’s relating my own life and my own experiences to what people go through when they have to leave there homes. I was thinking about having lived away from any sort of home for many years and traveling from one month to the next to do these projects of what is my focal point, where was the place where I call home and what can remind me of that and what would it be for somebody who had lost everything that was their home. Even the buildings, the cities are destroyed in Syria and so I thought it’s the blue sky.

When you look at the blue sky from anywhere in the world you can feel a sense of the grander scale of things and a sense that you have some constancy and some degree of change. So that for me gave me a sense of home and I related that to what perhaps if you are someone who has lost her home what you might think of or look at to have a sense of security.

Nerina: Why do we need art?

Anne: This is probably the biggest question every artist asks themselves, and many people and communities ask. I think that art serves many purposes and it can function in society in a lot of different ways.

For myself the way that I’ve started to use art is to help people to see that they aren’t alone, that there are connections between things, to give a voice to the feelings that we have as human beings that we often have trouble expressing and that we can relate to when we in theater and music and visual art. When you see those feeling expressed you can expel them and you can move onto the next thing and really that cathartic element of art is very, very crucial.

But another element of it is also how you can use your knowledge and your experience of art to look beyond current situations and to find solutions. Because art can connect people, you can create community projects and you can connect artists from across the world and find solutions for problems. Problems such as: xenophobia, sexism, racism. How do we address these problems? Artists find creative ways to do that and to create dialogues and so art serves a purpose where we have a gap in society.

Where there are many things that we look at in the media and we feel helpless. What can we do or what do you do? This is just human beings. These are just things that happen over and over again in history. It’s not true. Actually, if you look at history it’s often people who have looked at things from the outside, from a bit of distance, from a creative effort in any way with some different sense of logic that have created a way and a path towards change. So art’s purpose really is to create change and to embrace change.

Nerina: What is the most important lesson that you’ve learnt from this project? 

Anne: The most important lesson that I have learned is to have compassion, to really understand what it is to be compassionate. From living in different cultures, from experiencing different cultures and creating works that are related to a whole different cultural background in different countries I have learned so much about compassion. About how when we see things and perceive things the window that we are looking through can be very narrow and that compassion is actually looking at something from multiple windows and that that’s really beautiful.

Nerina: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Anne: This is a tough question. But of course I would like to have a pavilion at the Venice Biennial and I think I would like to have an in four years. Maybe that’s not enough time and after that I hope that I will still be working on this project; the Cloud Conversations research and doing curatorial work and also as a fine artist: as a video artist, a video poet. I hope to be in different museums around the world.

I want to be an artist like Marina Abramovic. I really admire her work. I got to meet her recently at the Serpentine Gallery. It was actually about three years ago, but it really impressed me. Her compassion and her kindness and actually we both cried when we met. She hugged me and she handed me a tissue. I was so amazed and I thought wow you know when you become a star, an artist star it doesn’t have to mean that you lose your sense of self and your sense of kindness and that really gave me the drive to keep going and to feel that I could also be one of these great artists in this century.

Nerina: Why is she your hero?

Anne: You know, at first when I was younger I didn’t understand her work. I thought maybe it was a bit crazy you know to allow people to take weapons and cut her. Like she put them out on the table and people had the option to do whatever they wanted to her in one of her performances and I didn’t really understand and now I completely understand. I think that to expose yourself, to be as vulnerable as possible to humanity is probably the bravest thing that you could ever do and the biggest trust and faith in people and that’s why.

Nerina: What keeps you going? What motivates you?

Anne: Sometimes it’s hard to keep going but I have this incredible drive. I think I have this passion that it’s unstoppable and the more momentum I gain the more I keep going. There’s a lot of times when I realize that people come to me there is a moment when maybe I feel like it’s a little bit too hard and always, always there’s somebody who comes to me and says something about how meaningful what I’m doing is and how important it is and it’s like a treasure.

Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of?

Anne: I want everyone to have that openness to experience life and to accept that all the different perspectives are important, and because of that you can experience life with the utmost richness, a depth beyond anything you can imagine.

Nerina: There are people who say that they do not understand art or they do not understand poetry. What would you tell them?

Anne: Every piece and every moment is a piece for you to experience. Because for myself there has been work like I talked about Marina Abramovic’s work. When I was younger I didn’t have the life experience really to even understand what she was doing and a huge part of that wisdom that comes from your life experience is what helps you to access and understand and indulge in art. It’s something that you indulge in, that you take a moment and it’s like eating chocolate. It’s like you can take that richness in and remember it and it’s not for everyone at every moment but there is something to be taken from art for everyone.

It’s just that you have to accept and understand that perhaps you need to also give something in the experience of looking at a piece of art, as a viewer you have to read and educate yourself and understand and try to look at what’s the perspective, the context of a piece of work is. Like reading a book the literature that you read you look at what country the person was from, what with her political situations, what was the culture like when a book was written. You have the whole context of life experience it’s the same with any person when you meet somebody. A lot of people maybe you like right away but then there are other people who are more quiet and you’re not sure, and those sometimes are the people that you really should spend time with because they have so much hidden inside and it takes time to know them and a piece of art is like that. You need to spend time with it like you would spend time with a child or a friend or a grandparent.

Nerina: Why are you doing what you are doing? Why are these kinds of connections of artists so important? 

Anne: It’s interesting because when I was in art school I didn’t feel this. I felt that a lot of times our differences were highlighted as artists instead of our connections. When you finish school and then you go out into the world and you’re alone in your studio it’s hard, it’s a difficult process to then connect and understand things. And I think that it really helps artists when they connect with each other, when they see how they see things, how they examine things, how they reflect on the world is similar and that those things can as a community working from around the world create and can be a catalyst for change in the world, for society, for good in the world.

I mean, of course, you can use it for something negative too; it’s a very powerful thing to create a piece of work. We know that, we see that, we see how in some countries artists are put in jail for creating a painting. It’s happened in Turkey to a young woman. She also got almost three years in jail for doing a painting. Art is powerful. It’s something that we know it’s powerful because it taps into and connects with something that’s so much from inside our humanity of the core of who we are as human beings, it taps into our emotions, our life experiences, all of the things that we care about and because artists are alone in creating we need to help them. We need to give them the chance to connect with each other so that they don’t become too fearful and give up or die you know from lack of attention really. It’s so important because they are like the shamans of society, they can bring to us something that we wouldn’t have in our lives without them.

Nerina: Why does Anne need poetry? 

Anne: I need it because without it I have no way to express my life experience and I feel this need. Perhaps it’s a human need, maybe it’s a selfish need or something that we need to capture our life experience and give it some kind of precious attention. So when I create a poem it’s sort of like a talisman. That talisman holds within it my feelings, my emotions, my perception at a particular point in my life that I can go back to again and I can feel it again and I can feel it in the same way that I felt it in that moment and otherwise I can’t.

You know, when I look at a photo it doesn’t have quite that quality but with words I feel it. Because I’m very, very selective about my words and there’s a richness in poetry that is very visual and it can capture the vision of an experience, the essence of something for me in such a powerful way that I really treasure being able to read it again. So that’s why.

Nerina: Is there a poem that you like in a special way? 

Anne: Perhaps I can read something. Can we stop then I can take the line?

Nerina: Oh, please it will be great. 

Anne: Yes, I’ll read a line from a poem it’s called A Weary Thing It Is. It’s about the boundary between love and friendship and kind of questioning that.


Exhibitions of her work in Turkey, France, Italy, Hungary, Spain, China, Belgium and many other places around the world.

Jason von Meding

Jason von Meding
Disaster Risk Reduction

and construction management. School of Architecture and built environment University of Newcastle, Australia.

When disasters are beyond natural

As long ago as the 1970s, scholars were already of the opinion that there’s no such thing as a truly natural “disaster”. Instead, there are simply conditions that allow for certain areas of society to be disproportionately harmed by natural events.

So, just how can we reduce the risk to human life during these occurrences? To answer this question, researchers like Dr. Jason von Meding at the University of Newcastle, Australia, are applying the scientific method to social, political, and environmental issues, and asking how humanity will be able to support itself in an era of increased consumption, and finite Earthly resources.

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Jason von Meding's Video here

Jason: Hi Nerina. My name is Jason von Meding. I’m a senior lecturer at the University of New Castle, Australia and I generally say my area of research is disaster science or disaster studies, but specifically in my field, we talk about disaster risk reduction.

Nerina: You wrote that there are not any natural disasters. Could you tell me more about this? 

Jason: Disasters are sometimes seen by both the people that are affected by them and by scientists, by decision-makers, policymakers as something that could really be avoided, which is nobody’s fault, which is an act of nature, which is maybe an act of God. They start to approach disaster in this way which takes away any culpability from the people who create the conditions where people are vulnerable to a disaster. A lot of us in that field are committed to fighting against this terminology because I think it creates this context where nobody is responsible, where nobody is accountable for the people that are impacted by disasters.

Nerina: Who is affected by disasters?

Jason: Disaster impacts affect the poor, they affect the marginalized, and they affect the people who are most unjustly treated by the conditions of the society. You will be able to find some examples of a disaster which only affected a small number of rich people, right? So there will be exceptions but they’re exceptions to the rule. The rule is that disasters affect the most vulnerable in society because of their structural conditions which are not an accident, they’re by design. So the way our societies are structured is to benefit a few people at the expense of the others and these are the things which you don’t get to talk about if you use words like natural disasters.

Nerina: How did you get into this topic? 

Jason. I think when I was about 12 in school I really started to feel like I wanted to pursue a career as an architect and right through school that was my one focus. When I went to University to study to be an architect, I started to work in the practice. When I was just finishing off my postgraduate studies I had the chance to do a research thesis and at that time Hurricane Katrina had just affected the US. So I was born in the US, from Chicago originally. So I put together a proposal to go and do some field study there looking mostly at how a hurricane affects buildings. So of course, I was interested in buildings and design, materials, structures. So I went to the Gulf Coast of US and did a very, very simple study.

You know I was affected by the stories coming from Gulf Coast of how people were impacted. I ended up doing not only a study of buildings but of people. So I started to talk to people about their experiences. I started to talk to design professionals but also just residents who are affected. So that fed into my thesis.

Nerina: You decided to change your career from being an architect to a researcher. When was the turning point?

Jason: I think when I went to Southeast Asia to conduct fieldwork for my Ph.D. I went out there with the intention of helping or producing knowledge to help NGOs manage disasters better or become more efficient as organizations. I was mostly collecting data from project managers within these NGOs. I heard stories through them about what it was like for people to experience disasters, but when I got the opportunity to actually hear directly from people who are impacted then it really started making me think about the structural problems that people were suffering from.

Because when I heard from people that were affected by this tsunami in Sri Lanka or by cyclones in Bangladesh they started to tell me about the conditions of vulnerability which they were forced to live in and those were the things that cause them to be affected by disasters. They didn’t feel like well it’s was just a natural disaster that has destroyed our homes or has killed people very dear to us. They felt like they were put in a position of vulnerability by conditions in their society, which were not fair. So they were poor, they were very marginalized and this is why they were affected like they were. So that really changed the way that I thought about disasters because it made me think much more about the social constructs which determine how people experience disasters. That really maybe shifted my research agenda for my career.

Nerina: What are you focusing on right now in your research? 

Jason: A lot of our research is on the social science side. So a lot of the time we’re working with vulnerable communities to understand how they experience vulnerability, how they experience hazards. It’s important to distinguish between disasters and hazards. If you have an earthquake which occurs in a location with no people who are vulnerable then you don’t have a disaster, you just have a hazard. What we try to in my group is to conduct scientific research to better understand the conditions that people experience and produce by their knowledge to present to the public, to present the policymakers, to the whole range of stakeholders in this field to try to convince them that we need to think more about the real courses of a disaster which are rooted in the way societies are constructed. So that’s how I try to explain my research to people.

Nerina: You wrote that disaster risk reduction should be everybody’s business. Should it be and why?

Jason: A lot of people when you speak to them about disasters will not necessarily be thinking about the social and political and economic angle. Of course, if you say economic system or politics is everybody’s business. That’s alright, yeah okay, but if you say disasters are, then not everyone understands the connection. So that’s something that I feel quite strongly about and it’s something I’m working on is how do we communicate the importance of involving stakeholders from across the spectrum in the discourse about disasters, connecting all these disperse interests and actors in this discussion about reducing risk. Because reducing risk is really about addressing the vulnerability, addressing structural injustices which often have its roots in historical events or historical developments. So I think the critical thing is really connecting all of those social constructs which everyone accepts as being part of something everyone should be involved in with the understanding of disasters. That’s what I’m trying to do through my kind of public advocacy and position as an author, as a communicator.

Nerina: What has changed in this field of research over the last few decades? 

Jason: The field has been active for a long time, 50 years. You know that it has very much progressed from a traditional understanding of disasters. In the 1980s you had efforts to manage disasters better; really that was kind of the approach. When the UN got involved it was to manage disasters and then to reduce disasters and then as we progressed over time you start to talk about reducing the risk of disasters. So, there’s been this progression in the language that is used in this. Although even in the 1970s top scholars were saying that we need to appreciate that no disaster is natural. So that’s a long time ago and we’re still having this debate.

So in some ways, things are still the same but we’ve learned so much more in many fields and we definitely learned a lot more about the real causes of disasters. In the last 10 years, that’s been really driving a lot of great research. So in 2015, we had significant global frameworks on climate change, on sustainable development and also on disaster risk reduction. In Sendai in Japan, we had the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in March 2015 which was agreed by the nations of the UN; which was really a global commitment to adhere to certain principles.

Nerina: Are we on the right path in your opinion? 

Jason: When I go to some of these international forums which are said to represent the international community… I mean now in 2017 we have a pretty good representation of stakeholders from different segments of society. So, you have your government representatives, your NGOs, the UN bodies, the community activists. You know the UN and different UN agencies have really taken the lead on bringing governments, bringing scientists and communities together to talk about these key issues.

So on paper, it all looks like a pretty good representation of the diversity of voices, but when you actually look at who’s speaking, who’s on the panel, who is in the small room at the side or who is on the preliminary stage then you start to see where the real power is. The voices that are given the most space are those who have the existing power, who represents the interest of maintaining the status quo and this is a big problem at that international level. It’s that we’re not putting the issues that really need to be discussed in the primary position.

Nerina: Which are the issues that need to be discussed?

Jason: Some of the things which are kind of unquestioned are this idea that we can have economic growth forever, and maybe through our innovation, we will find a way to stop damaging the environment, while still growing. But it comes back to the ideology that we actually need economic growth. There’s lots of literature out there which challenges this assumption but I think in terms of disaster risk reduction community it’s not really being challenged vigorously enough.

I would say that most of those in the scientific community, certainly most of those in large global institutions move ahead with that assumption. Maybe they agree that we should challenge but they think argh it’s just too difficult, it is not the right time. You know we have to work within the limits of like where we are in this time and space.

The other one that I really felt strongly about recently was this idea that we can continue to consume to the level that is expected by developed societies, highly developed societies. If you’re going to developing countries and you start to talk to people about what their idea of success or of a healthy society would be. They usually point to a country like the US or they point to Europe and say if only we could be like them, then we would be developed and we would be successful. As a global community and led by Western culture, we’ve become addicted to trying to consume and trying to accumulate as much as possible. The reality is that we’re on a planet with finite resources and already we consume far more than the earth can replenish. Only a small part of human society has reached developed or highly developed status.

So, when you start to let your mind think ahead to what would it mean for humanity if 5 billion more people join the middle class and start to consume the average American. That’s really a crazy thought and that’s a very scary prospect because it is just not possible. So, we need to start talking about this much more seriously. We need to start not only talking to developing nations and say well maybe that’s not the trajectory for societies to go in. But we have to challenge our own conception of what’s we are entitled to. Are we in highly developed countries entitled to consume like this forever when everybody else can’t or you know we can’t really say that. But on the other hand, are we really prepared to give up what we’re used to. It’s a big challenge.

Nerina: Yes indeed and what kind of world do you see these for researchers?

Jason: So in my position as a researcher, as a scientist, I try to think about what kind of knowledge I can generate, can I build which will actually help people to fight against injustice, which will help people to mobilize to move ahead, to build momentum to create change. So that’s kind of where I think I can best use my time and my efforts is by using my position to speak, to create this discussion to refocus people on they’re the real problems. They not only need to understand why but they need to understand how, like what they can do. I think there’s an important role for academics, for scientists to generate change.

Nerina: What kind of change do we need?

Jason: I’m making a documentary movie which is called Deviate and it’s really trying to express, articulate a lot of these issues which I’m interested in, which are connected to disasters. In the making of this movie, I’ve been talking with a lot of people who are part of movements or who are kind of influencers in different ways of change. I am hearing stories about how people resist structural injustice in their society and how they generate momentum for movements for change. So, there are different ways and I think we need a coordinated effort in all these different spaces. I mean there is no panacea, there’s no one way to get to a better society. But we need to advocate for all of these strategies as a coordinated movement for change which is inclusive because there’s no one way that we can make things better.

Nerina: Is there something that everybody can or should do? 

Jason: I think we need to really go outside our comfort zone in our own sphere of influence. We need to really make a robust challenge to the existing status quo, which tells us that we need growth, we need to increase consumption, and we need to accumulate stuff. Like we not only need to challenge government decisions, we need to challenge like our friends and our family about the choices they’re making and the ideas and the myths sometimes of which they’re so attached to. So we need to be willing to go, move outside our own comfortable existence. Of course, I speak is a very privileged person.

At the core, I think we need to develop a more human understanding person-to-person across those divisions in society and in international borders and so on. To understand that we have shared values, shared space of this planet and it’s the only one that we have. Anyone who speculates that we might just move on someone else’s is probably a little too optimistic.

We need people to understand, especially people in privileged position that there is actually value in caring for the people who are on the margins. Making the world better for everybody not just for us, not just for you know my family or my friends. It’s actually expanding what we care about beyond our little groups, beyond our social groups, beyond our national border. The solutions will not really happen if people in positions of privilege are willing to recognize that the way that they’re privileged is not fair and for them to be privileged, other people have to lose out. When you realize that then you can start to bring yourself to a position where you say oh I don’t need all these things and how can I be happy if other people are not happy. When we start to do that we start to humanize each other, we start to humanize the most marginalized in society.

Nerina: If you had the power and if it would be possible is there one thing that you would like to change tomorrow?

Jason: Oh wow. I would like to change the behavior of people that exercise power over other people in a negative way and change their behavior… change their mindset so that they understand that actually there are alternative futures. There’s a different way to do things where we can set up a society which functions well around shared values and around respect for each other, you know, around love, around trust and that’s actually powerful as well. If enough people come together around those values we can have a different society, but as long as the way that society is constructed is based on an oppressive type of power, like power over others I think that it’s going to be very difficult to resist that. Because a lot of times people become very obsessed with taking over the power, but as we’ve seen through history many times when a really revolutionary movement or individuals take power, they just end up oppressing other people.

I think there’s a problem with how we use power in the world and if there one thing I could change it would be to eradicate that behavior and that ideology of using power oppressively.

Nerina: What drives you? What motivates you?

Jason: I have five children you know quite young. When I got into this field when I started to read broadly and really understood the gravity of our situation with my limited understanding of science you have to think of the future. You have to think like what is the world going to be like for my kids or for their kids. The thing that motivates me is the concern of course for my children, but also all of the positive things that I see happening around the world.

The more that I meet people who are really on the frontline of the fight against injustice I realize there are more people than I thought that really want a better future. What gives me hope is that the majority of people do want a better future; they do want a future which is sustainable. The majority of us want a planet where our kids will be healthy and will be able to enjoy life.

Nerina: What is your dream? 

Jason: My dream is that the people who are trying to build change movements are successful and actually reach enough people to generate the power of the masses to say the world we want to live in is very different than what we have. So we’re going to dismantle the status quo and we’re going to build something different.

Nerina: Thank you so much, Jason, for this conversation. 

Jason: You’re very welcome. Thanks for the opportunity to speak to you Nerina.

#followup with Jason von Meding | Deviate - the movie about disasters

Jason von Meding, senior lecturer in Disaster Risk reduction is making a movie: Deviate. Disasters are not natural.

We spoke with him about his motivation, the purpose of the movie, some myths about disasters, the challenges, and the experiences during the shooting in Vietnam.

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:

and construction management. School of Architecture and built environment University of Newcastle, Australia.

Paul Mason

Paul Mason
Medical Anthropologist

Associate Lecturer, Macquarie University, Australia

Why does tuberculosis still kill?

Tuberculosis is a slow killer, and a hugely neglected disease. The programmes we currently have are not sufficient to stop TB. So, what are we doing wrong?
Paul Mason shares his vision of how we should address tuberculosis, and what approach we need to take in order to cure it.

Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Paul Mason's Video here

Paul: Hi, my name is Paul Mason. I am medical anthropologist based in Sydney, Australia. I work for the Woolcock Institute for medical research and also the Center for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine at the University of Sydney.

Nerina: How did you get into this field?

Paul: Okay, so my background is in biomedical science. I actually started off working in neuroscience on the brain and I was doing laboratory research in neuroimaging and then I moved into neurogenetics and then I moved to circadian rhythm research actually. And what I started to realize is that if we want to understand how organisms work, we have to understand them in context. This drew me increasingly towards anthropology because the basic premise of anthropology is to understand matters in context because it is the context that confers meaning. So after my biomedical science degree and after working in a few laboratories doing a honors in psychophysics, I then drifted into anthropology and eventually did a PhD in anthropology because I saw that the social and cultural dimensions of human behavior are so important to understanding how biological and physiological dimensions about being come into life and how they come into being.

Nerina: What has an anthropologist to do with tuberculosis actually?

Paul: As an anthropologist, I spent a year in Vietnam interviewing TB patients. So I interviewed 75 tuberculosis patients, conducted focus group discussions in rural villages in the southernmost province of Vietnam and also performed what is called Participant Observation Research in diagnostic laboratories and district health center. That means I took part in the lives of the people around me, I became involved in the activities of the health center and the diagnostic laboratory and mapped up and documented the activities in order to analyze it from a qualitative perspective.

Nerina: And what picked your interest for tuberculosis?

Paul: Tuberculosis is an infectious disease. It outranks HIV/AIDS as the world’s biggest infectious killer. So, sadly over 1.5 million people die from tuberculosis disease each year and this really shouldn’t be the case. There is an effective treatment for tuberculosis, so there are antimicrobials that patients can take to get rid of this disease and become healthy again. Sadly, however, too many of these patients are not accessing the proper diagnosis and treatment for tuberculosis.

It’s a very slow killer, so it takes a long time to kill someone which means that it has lots of opportunities to transmit to other people. The most likely scenario to get tuberculosis is sharing a house with someone who has tuberculosis and having a high microbial load in the environment.

Tuberculosis is a hugely neglected disease. There is funding available to conduct tuberculosis research, to fund tuberculosis control and care and prevention program, but it’s not sufficient. And so, as the biggest infectious disease but one that we can actually cure, I felt that this was an area where I could channel my skills and that would pay off, because we do have a cure for this disease. It’s just a matter of making sure that the cure is getting to the patients.

Nerina: What do we do wrong actually when we have a cure but we don’t cure the patients?

Paul: I think actually it comes down to this as an answer. We tend to invest all available life in the cure of tuberculosis in the tablets that we give to patients. So donor agencies around the world and foreign aid organizations work hard to make sure that those pills are offered for free to tuberculosis patients around the world. But what we forget of course with that is the care and support services that need to accompany those pills in order to make sure those patients can fulfill their complete treatment and treatments for tuberculosis are long.

At a minimum, they take six months, at their worst they can take up to five years and so this isn’t a very easy disease to treat. In the sense that it requires a big investment on behalf of the patients who have to access services, who have to find ways of making money when they can’t go to work, finding ways of meeting the ancillary costs of treatment, having proper nutrition, looking after the side effects that the drugs you are taking etc. So there are a lot of peripheral dimensions to treatment that we forget if we focus too much on the pills and don’t think enough about the quality of life and the patient important outcomes.

Nerina: How important is context for tuberculosis?

Paul: Oh, context is almost everything. I might be overstating it but allow me to explain. Not everyone who gets tuberculosis falls sick with tuberculosis. In fact, they estimate that around only 10% of people who are infected with the organism actually become sick with tuberculosis.

So, this says something. It says something about one people suspected genetic predisposition but secondly, it also tells us about the conditions in which someone is living. If someone is living in an overcrowded living arrangement, if someone is malnourished, if someone is living in poverty, these are the biggest risk factors for tuberculosis. Even before they discovered the organism Mycobacterium tuberculosis researchers and medical clinicians saw a relationship between poverty and tuberculosis. So, in fact, if we want to address tuberculosis then we have to address the conditions that foster the transmission of the disease and the activation of the disease in vulnerable bodies.

Nerina: But do we have a problem with resistance?

Paul: We have a very big problem with resistance. So sadly the globally standardized models of treatment that we’ve been using for tuberculosis have been focusing on drugs susceptible tuberculosis. Drug resistant tuberculosis in some locations around the world may, in fact, replace drug susceptible strains of tuberculosis.

Nerina: Why do we not speak about this danger or why do we not speak about tuberculosis that much?

Paul: This is a really interesting question because and I think a very superficial answer. Not an inaccurate answer but a superficial answer is it doesn’t affect us. In high-income countries tuberculosis is something that we can get treated, so if we get tuberculosis we go get treated and then we forget about it, which is unlike HIV/AIDS for example. If someone has HIV/AIDS that’s a chronic condition. At the moment we don’t have a way of getting rid of this disease, someone has it for the rest of their life. So this generates advocacy groups around HIV and AIDs, we don’t see the same culture of advocacy around tuberculosis.

So not only is it not happening much in high-income countries, it also is a surmountable problem in high income countries. People in low and middle-income countries don’t have the facilities to create this advocacy groups, don’t have the resources to create a community around this disease and really foster and support each other through what is a very lengthy treatment process. So because it doesn’t happen before eyes because it isn’t problematic for us, I think it’s very easy to forget how challenging this disease can be for people in the developing world.

Nerina: How can we beat this illness?

Paul: To really stop the devastation that tuberculosis is causing on human populations, then we really need to think about the complexity of this disease. We really need to be thinking about a holistic integrative approach that looks at the disease, not in terms of just a pharmaceutical treatment but also in terms of human races, in terms of food security, in terms political mobility behind the disease, economic capacity building, as well as stigma reduction strategies. So, there’s no simple answer to that question but there’s a very exciting answer in the sense of looking at these integrative holistic solutions.

Nerina: You wrote a book for children about tuberculosis. Could you tell me more about it?

Paul: I did, yeah. This is really exciting. I wrote a book about tuberculosis based on my work in Vietnam and the book has got this lovely message about supporting someone who is on treatment: sending them an SMS, sending them a letter, letting them know that you’re thinking about them, supporting their families as well. So it’s a very simple book, it’s got a very simple message and it talks about the diagnosis, the treatment, the symptoms of tuberculosis. What’s been really exciting for me is that I’ve been contacted by people from Tanzania, people from Malaysia, people from Indonesia, from Romania, from so many different countries to do translations themselves. That’s been really fun and almost weekly now I am putting the book into a new translation and making it available for free on the Internet.

Nerina: What motivates you?

Paul: It’s the opportunity to do something to someone else. It’s the opportunity to contribute. The sense of fulfillment that you get from doing that.

Nerina: And what is the most important lesson that you have learned from your research?

Paul: The most important lesson I’ve learned is perseverance. A tuberculosis patient I’ve worked with in 2014. He surmounted incredible challenges to: in the first instance to get a diagnosis, in second instance to complete his treatment. And when I realized how the small tokens of effort that came from me how much they transformed his life that’s when I realized that if we are willing to step outside our box, if we’re willing to really persevere and make those small tokens of effort possible then we can engage in some wonderful acts of reciprocity that build really unlikely friendships and transform lives around the world.

Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of?

Paul: Well, for one, I dream of a society that is free from the conditions of hostile diseases like tuberculosis that’s free from poverty. I dream of a society where we think about sustainability not just in terms of rhetoric but in terms of the practices that we bring into everyday life. I dream of an integrated society, you know a society that is free from conflict on a mass scale and mistrust. I think it’s really possible to engage in cross-cultural communication in ways that are fruitful and creative and constructive. I want to live in a world that isn’t as destructive as it currently is. I’d really like to live in a world where people learn how to get along and I just don’t know whether we’re quite there yet but we have the skills out there. I just want to make sure that those skills in some sort of way are getting to the greatest number of people possible.

Nerina: Thank you Paul.

Paul: Well thank you very much, Nerina. I appreciate that.

#followup with Paul Mason

Last year, we spoke to the medical anthropologist Paul Mason who told up about his research on tuberculosis. On the occasion of the World Tuberculosis Day, 24 March 2018, we spoke with him again. Listen to Paul and learn more about TB and Daru Island.

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Associate Lecturer, Macquarie University, Australia

Thomas Arnold

Thomas Arnold
Research Associate, Human-Robot Interaction

Laboratory, Tufts University, USA

What is robot ethics?

Recently, there have been many discussions around the ethical issues that a self-driving car would raise. How would it know if a toddler ran out onto the road, and would it react? Would it keep going to preserve the safety of the passenger? Or would it swerve and perhaps risk the life of the person inside the car, in order to save the child on the road? This question is one of many problems which Thomas Arnold tries to solve every day.

Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Thomas Arnold's Video here

Thomas: I’m Thomas Arnold; a research associate at Tufts University, Human-Robot Interaction Laboratory, in the USA.

Nerina: What are you working on right now?

Thomas: Right now I’m working on ethics and social robots. My Master’s and Doctoral work is in philosophy of religion. I still consider myself a scholar working in those fields; I just have a very specific context for it now: to test and apply it.

Nerina: What are robotic ethics actually?

Thomas: Part of robotic ethics is really asking about the specific contexts where robots seem to be coming onto the market and being designed, and really trying to think through carefully what the robots should be doing and how they’re going to be able to do it. Whether that’s elder care, tutoring a child, public safety or repairing something; anything where interacting with human beings is going to happen, that’s what I’m interested in trying to think through.

Nerina: Why do we have to think about this?

Thomas: Recently, there have been many discussions around the ethical issues that a self-driving car could have. How do we know if a toddler runs out on the road, how the car will react? Will it keep going to preserve the safety of the passenger? Will it swerve and perhaps risk the life of the person inside in order to save the child on the road?

That’s a limited case, but none-the-less it’s a case where we have to think about what we want the system to do and why. And the reason we need to think about it is because people have different views about that.

Nerina: What is your approach?

Thomas: We are interested in taking the problem from two directions. On one case, we are interested in how people will react to robots, and how they will expect things from the robots, so we’re interested in how we as human beings will react and what our expectations naturally are in some ways. Then from the other direction, we try to use a combination of approaches, one of them being a rule-based approach. But it’s not simply a matter of rules because we also try to build-in context. We try to represent in the code, in our computational system, different contexts so that the system is able to recognize that if you’re in a kitchen and there’s a knife in the kitchen it means something different, there’s a different set of rules for handing over a knife, what a knife would be, than there would be in a subway where if someone was holding a knife you would draw a different conclusion.

Nerina: Is this a way to try to make robots more human?

Thomas: That’s a really good question. That is I think one of the struggles in our field because I feel the answer is always yes and no. Yes in that, in order to interact with a person well you need to understand when they are responding, when they are in pain, or when something wrong has happened. On the other hand, you have to be careful not to encourage a relationship or expectations that are unrealistic and end up being maybe manipulative.

If a robot intentionally looks or sounds a certain way that a person might think they are actually able to reciprocate or return some type of affection, or that they are hurt or feel pain in the same way that a person does, then that starts to be a problem. We know that already robots being used in different cases are creating bonds with people. In the US military, for US soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are robots that are kind of called dogs. They are shaped a little bit like dogs that detect IEDs; they detect these minds on the ground. The soldiers bond with those robots. They give them funerals when they are damaged beyond functioning, medals, and consider them colleagues in some way.

You can say, well maybe that’s a very difficult environment so maybe the soldiers are in a state of mind where they vulnerable enough to do that. But I really think that’s something that will extend beyond that context. I think people will be drawn to that, and I think it’s a serious ethical issue how we prevent those relationships from being bad for human beings, from being hurtful and deceptive. And maybe this will be the struggle but I really want robotic action to always come back to human beings as being the ones that are responsible. So that when a robot performs something well and is responsive, I would like us not to say, “That robot is human, or that robot is moral”; I would rather say the robot performed a moral action that human beings are responsible for, that our design allowed that moral action to occur.

So ultimately it comes back to us. It comes back to our ethics and our relationships with one another because I think it’s our responsibility to keep ourselves accountable for what the robots do. It will be very tricky and hard. Lawyers and legal professors are already arguing about what happens when a robot does something wrong. Is that just a malfunction? Is the designer responsible? Is the owner responsible? Those questions will be difficult but I really would want to keep as a principle that we are still always accountable in some respect for the systems that are designed.

Nerina: In the end is it a question about what is a human being? Is it a question of who we are?

Thomas: I think part of what makes us human is imagining, how do we recreate ourselves. Not just biologically, but if through craft and technologically. That’s part of what it means to be human. The downside to that are all the shortcomings we are prone to when we try to do that. I think that’s the other side of that part of what makes us human, it’s that we are also flawed in how we imagine. Sometimes our imagination lets us do wonderful things, and sometimes our imagination deceives us as to how things will actually unfold.

I think robots are just another chapter in that story. In the press you have people that want to write headlines, “Will the robots take over?” Will they take over our civilization? I think those are not very helpful because it’s another way to avoid responsibility here and now and the fact that we need to pay attention to how we are treating one another. Robots and artificial intelligence is a reflection of what we think about one another, and how we treat each other as human beings. I think it will be an ongoing debate; your question is still on the table to figure out what we are doing.

Nerina: Do you have a wish for the future?

Thomas: My wish would be that we find a way to live sustainably on our planet.

Nerina: What is life about?

Thomas: I think life is about exploring, learning from one another, struggling, and continuously asking that question of what life’s about.

Nerina: Thank you very much, Thomas.

Thomas: Thank you Nerina.

#follow-up with Thomas Arnold | AI, Robots and Humans

Thomas is Research Associate in the Human-Robot Interaction Laboratory, at Tufts University in USA and tells us about the last ideas and trends from his lab. Have a watch!

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Listen to the Audiofile here:

Laboratory, Tufts University, USA

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