A photo of Norma Mendoza-Dutton.

Q&A: Norma Mendoza-Denton on how Donald Trump weaponizes words

Norma Mendoza-Denton, professor of anthropology in the UCLA College, studies the language used by President Donald Trump and politicians of all stripes. She’s co-editor (with Janet McIntosh of Brandeis University) of a new book, “Language in the Trump Era: Scandals and Emergencies,” which brings together 27 academics — including three other UCLA professors, H. Samy Alim, holder of the David O. Sears Presidential Endowed Chair in the Social Sciences and professor of Anthropology and African American Studies; Otto Santa Ana, professor emeritus of Chicana and Chicano studies, and Aomar Boum, associate professor of anthropology and Near Eastern languages and cultures — to analyze and understand the language of our current political moment. In this interview, Mendoza-Denton talks about how Trump uses words to manipulate reality, and how linguists can help us view politics through a more critical lens.

A photo of Norma Mendoza-Dutton.

Norma Mendoza-Dutton, professor of anthropology in the UCLA College. (Photo courtesy of Norma Mendoza-Dutton)

What did you set out to do with “Language in the Trump Era”? 

For me, the main purpose of this book has been to try to equip people to do their own analyses on the fly. So that when you hear something coming from a political figure or from somebody in authority, you have some tools to say, “Oh my gosh, I recognize this, it’s a discourse pattern that somebody is putting out there. And as a discourse pattern, I’m able to name it and I’m able to have it not take me in.” It’s a kind of tool set for people to make their own determination about what they believe.

As a linguistic anthropologist, how do you study Trump? Do you watch his rallies and read his tweets, just like the rest of us?

Yeah. He’s a very productive data source, you can just imagine. There’s a really excellent resource that you can get if you go to Factba.se. It’s a compendium of everything he’s ever said, tweeted and videoed out. And it’s searchable.

The introduction describes Trump as a “linguistic emergency.” What does that mean?

One of the ways that we mean “linguistic emergency” is that Trump is using language to shape reality. He’s able to say, “This agency can no longer talk about climate change.” When you’re able to legislate something in this way, it means that unless people are aware of the way that language is being regimented around them, their reality is changing right under their feet.

Another example is when he accuses someone of a crime, even though they’ve been exonerated. With Kamala Harris and the “Birther 2.0” thing, he says, “I don’t know, but somebody very highly qualified says that she’s not able to run.” When he keeps repeating it and the airways repeat it for him — because he’s news, he’s the president — it goes a long way toward creating the reality that all of us share. Even if it’s not true, it plants a little bit of a doubt in the average person’s mind: is she really not qualified? Or wait, I know that she is, but should she be? It creates a discourse, and that’s why it’s a linguistic emergency. We haven’t had somebody that holds so much power who so continuously changes the linguistic ground under our feet. That’s really a pressing thing for us to understand.

The book breaks down a lot of phrases that we’re all familiar with at this point. One chapter, written by co-editor Janet McIntosh, professor of anthropology at Brandeis University, discusses the terms “crybabies” and “snowflakes.” Why are politicians using these words?

McIntosh’s term “semiotic callusing” is really applicable here. It’s a way of saying to everybody else, “the people that have complaints about this are just weak.” It’s a continuation of a discourse that we have in the U.S., first identified by George Lakoff, which is that the Republicans are like the strict father and the Democrats are the indulgent, overprotective mother. By setting up the crybabies and snowflakes discourse, the Republicans have managed to continue the discourse of the strict father. And Trump is like the ultimate strict father in this way. He’s calling out the weaklings, showing his own power, but also demonstrating to people how they should be treating others. It’s setting the stage for us to not only understand ourselves as being subject to this kind of power, but to regard each other in this way. To regard somebody who needs help to make ends meet as a weakling or somebody who yells on the street as acceptable, because they’re not being a snowflake, or to see people who are trying to get redress for past wrongs as crybabies.

It’s also mimicked by the left, where they start calling out people on the right, saying, “Who’s the snowflake now?” It’s amplified on both sides.

Yeah, that’s a great point. Again, because the language is creating reality, you get swept up in the logic and you start reproducing that same idea, instead of challenging the premise of it to begin with.

The phrase “fake news” seems to be another major new feature of our discourse. Is this just a part of our politics now, referring to something as fake news?

I don’t think the strategy is new. This is a strategy that was used by Mao Zedong, it was used by Stalin, it was used by Hitler. Victor Klemperer has a book about the ways in which the Nazis crafted language and a big part of it was basically going against the press and questioning independent news. It’s not a new thing at all, but definitely “fake news” —that’s part of the genius of Trump. He’s able to come up with these incredibly audiogenic, pithy little sayings like “fake news” that just stick. Now people are using “fake news” in non-Trump contexts all the time. At first it starts as a joking thing, they’re kind of making fun of Trump. But now it’s just used in a kind of normal way. So, you can see he’s a source of linguistic innovation, and that’s really interesting.

Trump famously said that he was going to “build the wall and make Mexico pay for it.” Obviously, Mexico was not going to pay for it, and everybody knew this. What is he doing when he says things like that?

He’s basically creating a show. He’s creating a form of entertainment that we are supposed to participate in. By saying, “I have the biggest crowd. I have the most beautiful wall. It’s getting made,” — first of all, it doesn’t matter that half of the assertions that he makes are actually suspect, right? But they paint a particular picture. And frankly, when you’re one of his supporters, you’re in a mode of suspending disbelief as it is. So, once you’re in that suspension of disbelief, it paints the whole tableau so that you can get carried away in the illusion.

What can linguists do to help ordinary people understand and cope with Trump’s language on a daily basis? 

All of us are linguists in a way. All of us try to be critical when somebody makes an argument and they’re trying to pull a fast one on you, each one of us has to use our critical capacity, to try to figure out how reality is being constructed for us. And I think that that’s for me the most important thing. It doesn’t matter what spectrum of politics you’re coming from. As long as you’re equipping yourself to be able to understand when somebody is pulling a fast one or working against your interests, even though they claim to be working for your interests, when they reverse themselves, when they contradict themselves, when they’re calling someone names just to be memorable, instead of accurate.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a sleeping baby.

UCLA-led team of scientists discovers why we need sleep

A photo of a sleeping baby.

A UCLA-led team of scientists explains why sleep is so vital to our health and shows for the first time that a dramatic change in the purpose of sleep occurs at the age of about 2-and-a-half. (Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com)

Prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to severe health problems in humans and other animals. But why is sleep so vital to our health? A UCLA-led team of scientists has made a major advance in answering this question and has shown for the first time that a dramatic change in the purpose of sleep occurs at the age of about 2-and-a-half.

Before that age, the brain grows very rapidly. During REM sleep, when vivid dreams occur, the young brain is busy building and strengthening synapses — the structures that connect neurons to one another and allow them to communicate.

“Don’t wake babies up during REM sleep — important work is being done in their brains as they sleep,” said senior study author Gina Poe, a UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology who has conducted sleep research for more than 30 years.

After 2-and-a-half years, however, sleep’s primary purpose switches from brain building to brain maintenance and repair, a role it maintains for the rest of our lives, the scientists report Sept. 18 in the journal Science Advances. This transition, the researchers say, corresponds to changes in brain development.

All animals naturally experience a certain amount of neurological damage during waking hours, and the resulting debris, including damaged genes and proteins within neurons, can build up and cause brain disease. Sleep helps repair this damage and clear the debris — essentially decluttering the brain and taking out the trash that can lead to serious illness.

Nearly all of this brain repair occurs during sleep, according to senior author Van Savage, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and of computational medicine, and his colleagues.

“I was shocked how huge a change this is over a short period of time, and that this switch occurs when we’re so young,” Savage said. “It’s a transition that is analogous to when water freezes to ice.”

The research team, which included scientists with expertise in neuroscience, biology, statistics and physics, conducted the most comprehensive statistical analysis of sleep to date, using data from more than 60 sleep studies involving humans and other mammals. They examined data on sleep throughout development — including total sleep time, REM sleep time, brain size and body size — and built and tested a mathematical model to explain how sleep changes with brain and body size.

The data were remarkably consistent: All species experienced a dramatic decline in REM sleep when they reached the human developmental equivalent of about 2-and-half years of age. The fraction of time spent in REM sleep before and after that point was roughly the same, whether the researchers studied rabbits, rats, pigs or humans.

REM sleep decreases with the growth in brain size throughout development, the scientists found. While newborns spend about 50% of their sleep time in REM sleep, that falls to about 25% by the age of 10 and continues to decrease with age. Adults older than 50 spend approximately 15% of their time asleep in REM. The significant dropoff in REM sleep at about 2-and-a-half happens just as the major change in the function of sleep occurs, Poe said.

“Sleep is as important as food,” Poe said. “And it’s miraculous how well sleep matches the needs of our nervous system. From jellyfish to birds to whales, everyone sleeps. While we sleep, our brains are not resting.”

A chronic lack of sleep likely contributes to long-term health problems such as dementia and other cognitive disorders, diabetes, and obesity, to name a few, Poe said. When you start to feel tired, she said, don’t fight it — go to bed.

“I fought sleep and pulled all-nighters when I was in college, and now think that was a mistake,” Savage said. “I would have been better off with a good night’s sleep. Now when I feel tired, I don’t have any guilt about sleeping.”

For most adults, a regular seven-and-a-half hours of sleep a night is normal — and time lying awake doesn’t count, Poe says. While children need more sleep, babies need much more, roughly twice as much as adults. The large percentage of REM sleep in babies is in stark contrast to the amount of REM sleep observed in adult mammals across an enormous range of brain sizes and body sizes. Adult humans have five REM cycles during a full night of sleep and can have a few dreams in each cycle.

A good night’s sleep is excellent medicine, Poe says. And it’s free.

Co-authors of the study are Junyu Cao, who conducted research in Savage’s laboratory and is now an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin; Alexander Herman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; and Geoffrey West, a physicist who is the Shannan Distinguished Professor at the Santa Fe Institute.

Funding sources included the National Science Foundation and the Eugene and Clare Thaw Charitable Trust.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of powerlines in Southern California.

What the wildfires tell us about the shortcomings of California’s electric grid

A photo of powerlines in Southern California.

Powerlines along a road in Playa del Rey, California. (Photo Credit: Sean Brenner)

In addition to the vast destruction they have caused, the wildfires that have engulfed California in recent weeks have laid bare serious concerns about the state’s electric grid.

In an email interview, UCLA’s Eric Fournier explains why the architecture of California’s grid isn’t well suited for such extreme conditions and what it would take to improve it. Fournier has been research director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability since 2018 — he joined UCLA as a postdoctoral researcher in 2016 — and his research involves analyzing energy systems and the mechanics of the electric power system.

What are the core issues that the wildfires have exposed about our power grid?

The wildfires are exposing some of the inherent weaknesses of the grid’s current architecture, which relies upon highly centralized sources of power generation.

The grid has historically been designed to support the unidirectional flow of power from a few large generator stations to many smaller consumers. That architecture seeks to take advantage of the economies of scale in power production that come from building generator stations as large as possible.

One thing that happens under this approach, however, is that these large generator stations tend to be built far away from the consumers. For fossil fuel–based generator plants, that’s because their operations produce large amounts of harmful air emissions that can negatively affect public health. For renewable generator plants, it’s because they need to be on sites with access to renewable energy flows — whether that’s wind, sun or hydraulic potential, for example — and those locations are typically remote.

As a result, the grid’s operations depend heavily on transmission infrastructure to move power around. If this infrastructure becomes compromised either due to age or some other external hazard — like extremely high heat or wildfire — grid operators have a difficult time maintaining reliable service.

The public safety power shut-offs in response to wildfires and other high-risk weather conditions are attempts to mitigate the grid’s exposure to these hazards. These measures are obviously not ideal, however, because power outages result in significant disruptions to the lives of large numbers of people.

Ideally, we should be taking a longer-term view on how we can mitigate both these underlying hazards as well as the extent of the grid’s exposure to them.

What are some ways California could realistically address those problems? 

Adopting distributed renewable energy generation and storage would have a number of potential benefits, in terms of both mitigating hazards and reducing exposures.

In the former case, generating energy renewably avoids the emissions of greenhouse gases. This would help slow the rate of climate change and reduce the likelihood of more severe wildfires occurring in the future. In the latter case, generating energy in a distributed way helps reduce our reliance upon transmission infrastructure, and it would provide some capacity to continue making power available to consumers in the event of a transmission infrastructure failure.

What would it take to make those things happen? 

There are a number of barriers to achieving a more renewable, more decentralized energy future. Some of them are technical and some are legal and administrative.

On the technical side, the grid will require extensive modernization upgrades to support higher levels of distributed energy resource penetration and, even further down the road, fully bi-directional power flows. These efforts will need to be supported by a dramatic expansion in the grid’s capacity to store and share the energy that is produced by renewable sources — such as with batteries. This will be necessary to address problems related to many types of renewables’ only intermittent ability to produce electric power.

On the legal and administrative side, there needs to be a recognition of the benefits associated with decentralized energy solutions. And these benefits should be considered during long-term energy system planning.

Utility companies have extensive experience building, operating and maintaining the grid as it currently exists. The proposed alternative represents a paradigm shift within this sector and will have to be supported with strong policy mandates. Otherwise, it is highly likely that in the future we will simply replace our existing, large-scale, remote, fossil fuel generation facilities with new, large-scale, remote, renewable generation facilities. That would mean that we would be retaining all of the same systemic vulnerabilities to climate change and wildfire that are inherent to the current system.

Finally, relative to this idea that we should promote greater decentralization: It is crucial that questions of equity be considered in the process. These solutions will fundamentally not work if they are only the provenance of the rich. Thus, we need to be forceful about ensuring that residents of disadvantaged communities are not left behind due to the cost or other difficulties associated with the adoption of these types of new technologies.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Images from the four episodes of Earth Focus

Faculty, students co-produce documentary on bipartisan environmental solutions

Images from the four episodes of Earth Focus

Earth Focus Collage
Images from the four episodes of Earth Focus. Top Left: “The New West and the Politics of the Environment,” image courtesy of KCET and LENS at UCLA; remaining images courtesy of Thomson Reuters Foundation. (Photos Courtesy of KCET, LENS and Thomson Reuters Foundation)

Anew documentary exploring environmental politics, which was researched, reported and produced by UCLA faculty and students in conjunction with the Southern California public media channel KCET, is slated to air in September as part of the locally produced environmental series “Earth Focus.”

This is the third season of “Earth Focus” that UCLA’s Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies has worked on. LENS advised on three of the episodes in this year’s series and co-produced the fourth, a feature-length documentary. Launched in 2007, the series is the longest-running investigative environmental news program on U.S. television and features reports about the changing environment and how it affects people around the world.

The 90-minute documentary, “The New West and the Politics of the Environment,” focuses on Nevada Sen. Harry Reid’s work on sustainability. The film looks at topics like bipartisan solutions to water wars and land conservation, compromises between progressive urban areas and conservative rural areas, and equitable energy transitions from coal to renewable energy.

LENS co-founder Jon Christensen, a UCLA adjunct assistant professor and member of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, served as executive producer on the documentary. In collaboration with the filmmaking team at KCET, Christensen’s work included researching and shaping the story, interviewing subjects, and overseeing UCLA students working as researchers, reporters and writers on the series.

UCLA fourth-year political science student Lucas Holtz investigated environmental initiatives emerging in the western United States, while Spencer Robins, a graduate student in English, delved into Reid’s archived congressional papers, many of which were fortunately digitized before the pandemic quarantine.

Shouhei Tanaka, also a graduate student in English, researched the history of California’s reliance on coal and fossil fuels and turned it into an online article that will run with an “Earth Focus” episode about coal mining in South Africa. Geography grad student Alexandria Herr researched and wrote an article for the website about the environmental legacy of mercury used in the California gold rush, which will run as a companion piece to an episode about illegal gold mines in Peru.

“In a political season that’s as polarized as we’ve ever seen, we want to tell these stories showing that environmental politics are complicated and nuanced, and there are different paths being forged on the ground,” Christensen said. “Even among politicians who are opposed to funding climate change research, in the Midwest for example, there are many who care deeply about how changing weather patterns, drought and flooding affect farming.”

KCET partnered with the Thomson Reuters Foundation for the international filmmaking. While LENS’ work focused on the feature-length documentary, all the partners gathered for weekly calls on story development, providing Christensen and the UCLA students a voice in the development of the other three episodes in the series.

“Earth Focus” airs on KCET and Link TV beginning on Sept. 8 at 8 p.m. with “The Youth Climate Movement around the World,” and culminates with “The New West and the Politics of the Environment” on Sept. 29.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

An illustration of a friendly neighborhood.

Connecting With Kindness

An illustration of a friendly neighborhood.

Connecting With Kindness (Photo Credit: Juliette Borda)

With so many people hurting in this turmoil-filled year — be it physically, economically, socially or psychologically — it’s hard to imagine a time when acts of kindness, both large and small, were in greater demand. For anyone resolving to contribute to a more compassionate and just planet, there’s good news: Kindness is contagious.

UCLA anthropology professor Daniel M.T. Fessler has led studies demonstrating that when we witness altruistic acts, the uplifting emotional experience motivates us to follow suit. Idealists are the most strongly affected, with cynics — those who tend to see others as self-interested — harder to move. What’s more, the effect appears to be cumulative. “We have good reason to believe not just that kindness is contagious in the moment,” Fessler says, “but that repeated experiences of kindness or unkindness shape people’s expectations, and those expectations in turn shape their behaviors.”

Fessler is the inaugural director of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute, established last fall as an effort to better understand kindness through evolutionary, biological, psychological, economic, cultural and sociological perspectives. In addition to supporting research, the institute aims to translate findings in ways that promote kindness — which it defines as actions intended to benefit another party wherein the benefit is an end in itself, not a means to an end.

If kindness is contagious, fear of a different contagion poses barriers. The era of COVID-19 has placed constraints on physical contact and face-to-face interactions, often dulling the experience of giving and receiving kind acts. We wear masks that hide emotional expressions and veer away from strangers on sidewalks. On the other hand, Fessler points out that at no other time in human history could we communicate with anyone, instantly, and provide benefits so easily without leaving our homes. “Even as there are pragmatic constraints to the emotional experience that’s an important part of kindness, there is enormous opportunity for positive interactions,” he says. “People need to work together, recognizing that our common humanity is important not only in this moment, but in solving major challenges to come.”

Idealists are more likely than cynics to experience the uplifting and contagious effects of kindness.

For those of us contemplating how to help create a kinder world, Fessler offers the following advice:

Acknowledge strangers

Spreading kindness starts with the everyday encounters we have with people we don’t know. “There is research showing that positive small-talk interactions, like the chat you have with the cashier at the grocery store, enhance well-being,” Fessler notes. In the era of COVID-19, making such connections might require a little more effort. Exchanging smiles with the individual crossing your path isn’t possible if you’re both wearing masks, but a wave or a head nod can suffice. When no-contact food delivery was instituted as a safety precaution, the transaction became faceless, but “people can still leave a sign on the door saying, ‘I appreciate your making it possible for me to stay home,’ as a way of breaking down the anonymity,” Fessler says.

Make a connection

At a time when many are feeling socially isolated, among the kindest acts is to reach out to family, friends, neighbors and anyone else who might benefit from some company, even if it’s via phone, text or Zoom. Older adults in particular are at high risk for loneliness, especially during the pandemic. “Recording their experiences in a different kind of world can have inestimable value in the future, and I don’t think I’ve ever met an elderly person who didn’t like to tell stories from the past,” Fessler suggests. “It’s emotionally powerful for both interviewer and interviewee, and the technology affords it like never before.”

Watch your media consumption

The finding that idealists are more likely than cynics to experience the uplifting and contagious effects of kindness has led Fessler to examine the effects of media consumption in shaping our perceptions of those around us. “We know, for example, that people who consume a lot of local news overestimate the probability of being victimized by violence,” he says. “If you’re constantly hearing messages that people are bad, it’s probably going to affect not only your mental well-being and physical health, but also how you view other people.” In addition to curating a media diet that’s less focused on the darker aspects of human behavior, choosing to surround ourselves with kind people will likely increase our own kindness quotient.

Play to your strengths

With unlimited possibilities for kindness, determining how to act often involves thinking about people’s practical needs and matching them up with your own interests and talents. “Volunteering to deliver groceries to people who can’t get out because they’re at greater risk of the virus — that’s a beautiful thing,” Fessler says. Other pandemic-era examples: sewing masks for neighbors or offering virtual tutoring sessions for children whose parents are struggling to meet work/family obligations. “People need to look at their skill sets,” Fessler says. “Some are naturally garrulous, while others are not as comfortable interacting with people, but they’re good musicians and can entertain neighbors or people online playing guitar.” Of course, kindness can extend far beyond our immediate community. “One thing made clear by this pandemic is that everyone on the planet is connected,” Fessler asserts. “People can think creatively about ways to provide benefits to those they would otherwise never interact with.”

Start small

The universe of kind acts is infinite, and organizations such as the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation have aggregated the possibilities. “Everyone needs to assess their own situation in terms of their health, obligations to other people, financial resources and so on, and decide what they’re able to do,” Fessler says. “If you can give money, obviously there are many causes that can benefit enormously. But if you’re not in a position to do that, maybe you have oranges or avocados from your yard that you can bring to a food pantry.” And those who are motivated to find new ways to practice kindness should feel free to start small. Fessler’s expectation is that the satisfaction we derive from making even small gestures will prompt us to increase our investments in altruistic actions. “The vast majority of people who try to do things that benefit others will find those things rewarding,” Fessler says. “That’s how we’re wired.”

Remember, it’s the thought that counts

Fessler is quick to point out that actions don’t have to be great to be kind. Is that fruit from your backyard bruised? It’s still a kind act to share it. You’re just a so-so musician? Your friends or neighbors might still enjoy listening to you perform. The bottom line, Fessler explains, is that kindness is defined in terms of the intended actions, not the results. “We are very attuned to discerning the genuineness of others’ actions,” he says. “If we see that someone’s emotions suggest they are genuinely motivated simply to help others, we admire them and are motivated to be kind ourselves. Not every well-intentioned action will succeed, but only some of them have to in order to make the world a better place.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Left image: The inaugural public event hosted by the Black Feminism Initiative, held in February, featured a conversation between local reproductive justice advocate Kimberly Durdin, left, and UCLA graduate student Ariel Hart. Top right image: Audience at the event. Bottom right from left: Kali Tambree and Jaimie Crumley, student co-coordinators of the Black Feminism Initiative.

Black Feminism Initiative meets the moment, in service of a more just future

Black Feminism Initiative collage. Left image: The inaugural public event hosted by the Black Feminism Initiative, held in February, featured a conversation between local reproductive justice advocate Kimberly Durdin, left, and UCLA graduate student Ariel Hart. Top right image: Audience at the event. Bottom right from left: Kali Tambree and Jaimie Crumley, student co-coordinators of the Black Feminism Initiative. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

If higher education can be thought of as a superhighway to success and social mobility, Black women have always had to manufacture their own vehicles to access it. They must navigate a system whose fastest on-ramps, most well-maintained lanes, bridges and sources of replenishment were founded and structured to best support those who are white, or male, or both.

Against the backdrop of rampant health, social and economic inequality, women studying and working at universities know that systemic inequities won’t change without radical thinking and eventually a radical restructuring of what the academy itself represents and how it functions.

To support that paradigm shift, in late fall 2019 UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women, with backing from the division of social sciences in the UCLA College, launched the Black Feminism Initiative. The mission of the initiative is to support, develop and perpetuate Black feminist scholarship and ideas among the campus community. They do this by way of fellowships, mentorships, public programming and they are also developing collaborations with community organizations to advance these goals.

The need for such a group was acute, and the voices they can bring to the current cultural conversation around social justice are critical, said Sarah Haley, who directs the Black Feminism Initiative.

“In the current cultural moment Black feminism has a lot to teach us all about institutionalized modes of care, and institutionalized modes of harm,” said Haley, who also leads the anti-carceral research track in the Center for the Study of Women.

The initiative also serves as a means of mutual aid for the interdisciplinary approach and community-engaged research of its graduate students, which is often undervalued not only by the structures of academia writ large, but sometimes, members say, even by their own institution.

The idea for the Black Feminism Initiative originated from a course taught by Haley, a professor of gender studies and African American studies at UCLA . About 15 students are currently involved in the initiative, which is in the early phases and is not necessarily limited to Black women, or even just women. There are four affiliated faculty in this early phase and the group is working to expand.

Haley is proud that Black Feminism Initiative offers two graduate fellowships: one named for Alisa Bierria, a professor of African American studies at UC Riverside; and the other for Mariame Kaba, researcher in residence at the Barnard Center for Research on Women. Bierria and Kaba are leaders of Survived and Punished, a group dedicated to advocating for the release of incarcerated women who are themselves survivors of violence.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about a variety of Black feminist research practices and what does it mean for us to be Black feminists at UCLA, but also what does it mean to do our research in a way that really values the lives and contributions of Black women personally,” said Jaimie Crumley, a fourth-year doctoral student in gender studies who serves as one of the initative’s student coordinators. Crumley’s work is historically based, about 19th century free Black women who were abolitionists.

“These days we call that anti-carceral feminism, but it’s really about abolition,” she said. “We’re having a lot of conversations about archives and the silence and the violence that is done to Black women just because of the way that our stories are remembered or captured in official state archives. We’ve also had a lot of conversation about digital life and how Black women are represented online.”

Thinking about care and community

Confronting the very visible disproportionality of care for Black women is also a major theme for members of the group, from how Black nurses and essential workers have been affected by COVID-19, to the vulnerabilities of Black women to violence, both state and individual, to the fact that Black women are so much more likely to die in childbirth than other women.

“The scholarship we’re doing is related to our own survival and the survival of people who are in communities that we care about,” Crumley said.

Maternal mortality was the theme of the group’s inaugural public event, held shortly before the safer-at-home order took effect. The initiative invited Kimberly Durdin, a midwife and founder of Kindred Space LA, to campus to have a discussion with initiative member Ariel Hart, who is working on her doctorate in sociology and her medical degree.

“We really want to be pioneering new forms of community-engaged scholarship,” Haley said. “We want to blur the lines between what counts as scholarship in the academy and foster scholarship via what serves the work of people in our communities.”

Initiative co-coordinator Kali Tambree, a fourth-year doctoral student in sociology, has had to find new approaches toward her dissertation without current access to the archives upon which she relies. The Black Feminism Initiative has become an invaluable part of her experience at UCLA.

“Sarah and Jaimie have done a lot of work to set the goals and standards and pressing questions,” said Tambree, who organized the 2019 Thinking Gender conference, titled “Feminists Confronting the Carceral State.” “I’ve never been in a space that is so joyful, and vulnerable and courageous. It just feels really good to be able to talk about how the world feels for you and what type of historically grounded writing and thinking can help guide us as we shape ourselves.”

Rethinking institutions and norms

Courage and vulnerability are part of the package for abolitionist thinkers, Tambree pointed out.

“An abolitionist organization existing within the academy must have some investment in undermining the academy’s continuation as is,” Tambree said. “Anyone who is interested in unraveling the world as we know it and imagining a new one can’t continue to support the old one.”

That means, the academy can no longer remain a privileged space, she said.

“Being in an academic space with other people who identify as Black feminist abolitionists allows for a really urgent and necessary conversation and collaboration — and kind of support system — as we individually and as a collective navigate that reality,” Tambree said.

Making higher education and UCLA more aware of the work of Black feminists of the past, present and future is an important part of the group’s mission, Haley said.

“Mentorship and grad support are a critical facet of the Initiative, but our broader vision is to circulate new ideas for all faculty, students and the community as well,” she said.

In a world that seems more ready than ever to confront the enduring logics and racist underpinnings of settler colonialism, capitalism, the hetero-patriarchy and anti-blackness, Initiative student leaders are looking to harness the current state of virtual learning to best effect.

“One thing that’s going to be really exciting for the group this year with us being more online is that some of our workshops might be more open to more people,” Crumley said. “We’ve been talking about scholars and activists and performance artists who can join us on Zoom and lead workshops with us.”

This story is part of a series highlighting UCLA women whose teaching, scholarship and research centers on racial and social justice.

This article, written by Jessica Wolf, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Ida B. Well.

Five Black suffragists who were critical to the long battle for the vote

A photo of Ida B. Well.

In her latest book, “Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote,” UCLA professor emerita Ellen DuBois traces the three-generation struggle that led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920.

The battle for women’s suffrage was intertwined with America’s confrontation with slavery and its enduring effects of structural racism and inequity. As DuBois traces the sustained movement, she also shines a light on suffragists who fought for the enfranchisement of all Black citizens, and who often found their cause diminished — or themselves dismissed — by white women leading the suffragist charge.

Today is Women’s Equality Day, which marks the date the 19th Amendment was certified by the Secretary of State. In honor of the 100th anniversary of that milestone, we celebrate five African American women highlighted in DuBois’ book — each of whom played a critical role in the fight for women’s suffrage. They are listed here in order of their birth years.

Sojourner Truth

A photo of Sojourner Truth .

Sojourner Truth (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Truth (1797-1893) was an abolitionist and women’s rights activist best known for her speech on racial inequalities, “Ain’t I a Woman?” delivered at the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. In it, she challenged prevailing notions of racial and gender inferiority and inequality by reminding listeners of her combined strength and her gender.

She devoted her life to the abolitionist movement and sponsored several other causes, including prison reform, property rights and universal suffrage.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary

A photo of Mary Ann Shadd Cary.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary (Photo Credit: National Archives of Canada/National Park Service)

Cary (1823–1893) was an activist, writer, teacher and lawyer, and the first female African-American newspaper editor in North America. Her family participated in the Underground Railroad until the passage of Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, causing them to move to Canada.

In 1853, she created “The Provincial Freemen,” Canada’s first anti-slavery newspaper. She was a member of the National Woman Suffrage Association and spoke at the NWSA’s 1878 convention. Cary also advocated for the 14th and 15th Amendments at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, publicly taking offense that the writing of the amendments was not gender neutral.

► Read an interview with DuBois about her latest book

Frances Watkins Harper

A photo of Frances Watkins Harper.

Frances Watkins Harper (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Harper (1825-1911) was a poet and orator who advocated for abolition and education through speeches and publications. She published several poetry collections and the publication in 1859 of “Two Offers” made her the first African-American woman to publish a short story.

She was a member of the American Equal Suffrage Association and later formed the American Woman Suffrage Association with Frederick Douglass and other reformers.

Ida B. Wells

Wells (1862–1931) was a journalist, abolitionist and feminist who led an anti-lynching crusade in the 1890s. She openly confronted white women in the suffrage movement who ignored lynching, causing her to be ostracized by some women’s suffrage organizations. Wells brought her campaign to the White House in 1898, calling for President William McKinley to make reforms.

With Frances Watkins Harper, Mary Church Terrell and Harriet Tubman, she cofounded the National Association of Colored Women (later the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs), which was created to address civil rights and women’s suffrage issues.

Mary Church Terrell

A photo of Mary Church Terrell.

Mary Church Terrell (Photo Credit: Wikimedia)Commons

Terrell (1864-1954), one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree, is best known as a national activist for civil rights and suffrage. After graduating from Oberlin College, Terrell became part of a rising Black middle and upper class who fought racial discrimination.

Terrell joined Ida B. Wells in anti-lynching campaigns, but her life’s work focused on the idea of racial uplift, the belief that Black people would help end racial discrimination by advancing themselves and other members of the race through education, work and community activism. She was a cofounder and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of two N95 respirators.

Single-use N95 respirators can be decontaminated and used again, study finds

A photo of two N95 respirators.

N95 respirators reduce exposure to airborne infectious agents, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. (Photo Credit: CDC/Debora Cartagena)

N95 respirators, which are widely worn by health care workers treating patients with COVID-19 and are designed to be used only once, can be decontaminated effectively and used up to three times, according to research by UCLA scientists and colleagues.

An early-release version of their study has been published online, with the full study to appear in September in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

N95 respirators reduce exposure to airborne infectious agents, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and are one of the key pieces of personal protective equipment used by clinical workers in preventing the spread of the virus. Critical shortages of these masks have driven efforts to find new decontamination methods that can extend their use.

“Although N95 respirators are designed for just one use before disposal, in times of shortage, N95 respirators can be decontaminated and reused up to three times,” said James Lloyd-Smith, a co-author of the study and a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “But the integrity of the respirator’s fit and seal must be maintained.”

In a controlled laboratory setting, the researchers tested several decontamination methods on small sections of N95 filter fabric that had been exposed to SARS-CoV-2. The methods included vaporized hydrogen peroxide, dry heat at 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit), ultraviolet light and a 70% ethanol spray. All four methods eliminated detectable viable virus traces from the N95 fabric test samples.

The investigators then treated fully intact, clean respirators with the same decontamination methods to test their reuse durability. Employees with the National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana volunteered to wear the masks for two hours to determine if they maintained a proper fit and seal over the face. The scientists decontaminated each mask three times, using the same procedure with each.

The masks treated with vaporized hydrogen peroxide experienced no failures, suggesting they potentially could be reused three times, Lloyd-Smith said. Those treated with ultraviolet light and dry heat began showing fit and seal problems after three decontaminations, suggesting these respirators potentially could be reused twice.

The study authors concluded that vaporized hydrogen peroxide was the most effective method because no traces of the virus could be detected after only a 10-minute treatment. They found that ultraviolet light and dry heat are also acceptable decontamination procedures, as long as the methods are applied for at least 60 minutes.

The ethanol spray, the scientists discovered, damaged the integrity of the respirator’s fit and seal after two sessions, and they do not recommend it for decontaminating N95 respirators.

The researchers stressed that anyone decontaminating an N95 respirator should closely check the fit and seal over the face before each reuse.

Co-authors of the study include Amandine Gamble, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher in Lloyd-Smith’s laboratory, as well as researchers with Rocky Mountain Laboratories, part of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Funding sources included the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Science Foundation.

In a widely cited study, Lloyd-Smith and colleagues reported in March that the virus that causes COVID-19 remains for several hours to days on surfaces and in aerosols.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

 

A photo of Professor Lili Yang.

How a UCLA scientist is using stem cells to take on COVID-19

A photo of Professor Lili Yang.

Lili Yang (Photo Credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center)

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, UCLA researchers are rising to the occasion by channeling their specialized expertise to seek new and creative ways to reduce the spread of the virus and save lives. Using years’ — or even decades’ — worth of knowledge they’ve acquired studying other diseases and biological processes, many of them have shifted their focus to the novel coronavirus, and they’re collaborating across disciplines as they work toward new diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccines.

Here’s a look at one project in which UCLA scientist Lili Yang, associate professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics in the UCLA College is using stem cells — which can self-replicate and give rise to all cell types — to take on COVID-19.

Invariant natural killer T cells, or iNKT cells, are the special forces of the immune system. They’re extremely powerful and can immediately recognize and respond to many different intruders, from infections to cancer.

Yang is testing whether iNKT cells would make a particularly effective treatment for COVID-19 because they have the capacity to kill virally infected cells, offer protection from reinfection and rein in the excessive inflammation caused by a hyperactive immune response to the virus, which is thought to be a major cause of tissue damage and death in people with the disease.

One catch, though, is that iNKT cells are incredibly scarce: One drop of human blood contains around 10 million blood cells but only around 10 iNKT cells. That’s where Yang’s research comes in. Over the past several years, she has developed a method for generating large numbers of iNKT cells from blood-forming stem cells. While that work was aimed at creating a treatment for cancer, Yang’s lab has adapted its work over the past few months to test how effective stem cell–derived iNKT cells could be in fighting COVID-19. With her colleagues, she has been studying how the cells work in fighting the disease in models of SARS-CoV-2 infection that are grown from human kidney and lung cells.

“My lab has been developing an iNKT cell therapy for cancer for years,” Yang said. “This means a big part of the work is already done. We are repurposing a potential therapy that is very far along in development to treat COVID-19.” Read more.

For more on campus-wide research efforts related to COVID-19, visit: https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/stem-cell-research-covid-19

Shu-mei Shih named inaugural Edward W. Said Professorship in Comparative Literature

A portrait of Shu-mei Shih (Photo Credit: Raymond Schorr)

Humanities scholar Shu-mei Shih has been named the inaugural Edward W. Said Professor of Comparative Literature in the UCLA College division of humanities.

A UCLA faculty member since 1993, Shih is a professor in the departments of comparative literature, Asian languages and cultures, and Asian American studies and is vice president of the American Comparative Literature Association.

David Schaberg, senior dean of UCLA College and dean of humanities, said, “This prestigious endowed professorship recognizes Shu-mei Shih’s distinguished record of scholarship and teaching in comparative literature. We are proud that the legacy of Edward Said’s contributions to scholarship will live on at UCLA and will be represented in our eminent colleague’s continuing work.”

Shih’s research centers on the intersections of Sinophone, Asian American and transnational studies, with a focus on literature, visual culture and critical theory. She writes about modern literature and culture from the Sinophone world, as well as minority discourse, feminism and settler colonialism.

“It is a great honor to be awarded the Edward W. Said Professorship of Comparative Literature,” said Shih. “This endowment will allow me to continue pushing the boundaries of this vibrant field and to support graduate students in their endeavors.” Specifically for the field, she is currently at work on a monograph titled “Comparative Literature in a Relational World.”

Shih’s groundbreaking work “Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations across the Pacific,” published in 2007, launched the field of Sinophone studies, which trains a cultural lens on Sinitic-language communities dispersed around the world, including in the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the United States.

Shih co-directed UCLA’s Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Humanities Cultures in Transnational Perspective for a decade. She is the recipient of numerous awards, honors and fellowships and has been a visiting professor in prestigious institutions around the world. She also serves on editorial boards in Asia, Europe and the Americas and is the editor of the Sinophone Studies book series at the University of California Press. She currently holds an honorary chair professorship in the Department of Taiwan Languages, Literature and Culture at National Taiwan Normal University and was previously the Hon-yin and Suet-fong Chan Professor of Chinese at the University of Hong Kong.

The Said Professorship was established in 2018 by a gift from the estate of Jean Stein, eldest daughter of Jules and Doris Stein (namesake of the UCLA Stein Eye Institute). Stein, who died in 2017, was a bestselling author, arts patron and magazine editor who greatly admired the prominent scholar, literary critic and political activist Edward Said. During her career, she regularly crossed paths with other luminaries, writers and intellectuals such as Joan Didion and John Kenneth Galbraith.

Learn more here