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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.

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

 

 

 

A photo of Royce Hall.

Alumna’s Gift will Support the Study of Contemporary Chinese Culture

A $250,000 donation from economics alumna May C. Chong has established the Heritage and Hope Endowment in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. Augmented by $125,000 from the Humanities Centennial Match, the gift will support students and faculty researching contemporary global Chinese culture and/or religion, specifically Buddhism.

A photo of Royce Hall.

Royce Hall (Photo Credit: UCLA)

“We are deeply grateful for May Chong’s generous gift, which will firmly embed contemporary Chinese cultural studies on our campus,” Dean of Humanities David Schaberg said. “More broadly, this gift further empowers UCLA in its mission to educate global citizens and foster greater cultural understanding.”

Chong, who graduated from UCLA in 1979, grew up in Hong Kong and immigrated to the United States after graduating from high school. As a student, she spent hours in the Richard C. Rudolph East Asian Library in UCLA’s Young Research Library, considering it her “home away from home.” In 2011, she established an endowment for the library supporting the acquisition of books and materials, including primarily Chinese classics, culture, education and modern literature, as well as publications in Chinese or dual language (Chinese-English).

“It is my hope that these complementary gifts will help UCLA become known as a premier cultural and educational resource for both Chinese and non-Chinese-speaking people who are interested in Chinese language, teachings and cultures,” Chong said.

Chong is a longtime financial adviser currently employed by UBS Financial Services. She previously worked for Merrill Lynch. In 2014, she was named by the Financial Times among the Top 100 Women Financial Advisors. In the same year CEOWorld placed her on their America’s Top-Ranked 100 Women Financial Advisors list. She is married to Danny Yiu. They have a daughter who graduated from NYU in 2017.

A graphic visualization of the layers and connecting points in a conspiracy theory.

How conspiracy theories emerge – and how their storylines fall apart

A graphic visualization of the layers and connecting points in a conspiracy theory.

Researchers produced a graphic representation of the narratives they analyzed, with layers for major subplots of each story, and lines connecting the key people, places and institutions within and among those layers. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

A new study by UCLA professors offers a new way to understand how unfounded conspiracy theories emerge online. The research, which combines sophisticated artificial intelligence and a deep knowledge of how folklore is structured, explains how unrelated facts and false information can connect into a narrative framework that would quickly fall apart if some of those elements are taken out of the mix.

The authors, from the UCLA College and the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, illustrated the difference in the storytelling elements of a debunked conspiracy theory and those that emerged when journalists covered an actual event in the news media. Their approach could help shed light on how and why other conspiracy theories, including those around COVID-19, spread — even in the absence of facts.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, analyzed the spread of news about the 2013 “Bridgegate” scandal in New Jersey — an actual conspiracy — and the spread of misinformation about the 2016 “Pizzagate” myth, the completely fabricated conspiracy theory that a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant was the center of a child sex-trafficking ring that involved prominent Democratic Party officials, including Hillary Clinton.

The researchers used machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence, to analyze the information that spread online about the Pizzagate story. The AI automatically can tease out all of the people, places, things and organizations in a story spreading online — whether the story is true or fabricated — and identify how they are related to each other.

Finding the puzzle pieces

In either case — whether for a conspiracy theory or an actual news story — the narrative framework is established by the relationships among all of the elements of the storyline. And, it turns out, conspiracy theories tend to form around certain elements that act as the adhesive holding the facts and characters together.

“Finding narratives hidden in social media forums is like solving a huge jigsaw puzzle, with the added complication of noise, where many of the pieces are just irrelevant,” said Vwani Roychowdhury, a UCLA professor of electrical and computer engineering and an expert in machine learning, and a lead author of the paper.

In recent years, researchers have made great strides in developing artificial intelligence tools that can analyze batches of text and identify the pieces to those puzzles. As the AI learns to identify patterns, identities and interactions that are embedded in words and phrases, the narratives begin to make “sense.” Drawing from the massive amount of data available on social media, and because of improving technology, the systems are increasingly able to teach themselves to “read” narratives, almost as if they were human.

The visual representations of those story frameworks showed the researchers how false conspiracy theory narratives are held together by threads that connect multiple characters, places and things. But they found that if even one of those threads is cut, the other elements often can’t form a coherent story without it.

A conspiracy theory unravels: The researchers found that with Wikileaks relationships removed as the “glue” for the false narrative, other elements of the Pizzagate myth quickly disconnected from one another. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

“One of the characteristics of a conspiracy theory narrative framework is that it is easily ‘disconnected,’” said Timothy Tangherlini, one of the paper’s lead authors, a professor in the UCLA Scandinavian section whose scholarship focuses on folklore, legend and popular culture. “If you take out one of the characters or story elements of a conspiracy theory, the connections between the other elements of the story fall apart.”

Which elements stick?

In contrast, he said, the stories around actual conspiracies — because they’re true — tend to stand up even if any given element of the story is removed from the framework. Consider Bridgegate, for example, in which New Jersey officials closed several lanes of the George Washington Bridge for politically motivated reasons. Even if any number of threads were removed from the news coverage of the scandal, the story would have held together: All of the characters involved had multiple points of connection by way of their roles in New Jersey politics.

“They are all within the same domain, in this case New Jersey politics, which will continue to exist irrespective of the deletions,” Tangherlini said. “Those connections don’t require the same ‘glue’ that a conspiracy theory does.”

Tangherlini calls himself a “computational folklorist.” Over the past several years, he has collaborated regularly with Roychowdhury to better understand the spread of information around hot-button issues like the anti-vaccination movement.

To analyze Pizzagate, in which the conspiracy theory arose from a creative interpretation of hacked emails released in 2016 by Wikileaks, the researchers analyzed nearly 18,000 posts from April 2016 through February 2018 from discussion boards on the websites Reddit and Voat.

“When we looked at the layers and structure of the narrative about Pizzagate, we found that if you take out Wikileaks as one of the elements in the story, the rest of the connections don’t hold up,” Tangherlini said. “In this conspiracy, the Wikileaks email dump and how theorists creatively interpreted the content of what was in the emails are the only glue holding the conspiracy together.”

The data generated by the AI analysis enabled the researchers to produce a graphic representation of narratives, with layers for major subplots of each story, and lines connecting the key people, places and institutions within and among those layers.

Quick build versus slow burn

Another difference that emerged between real and false narratives concerned the time they take to build. Narrative structures around conspiracy theories tend to build and become stable quickly, while narrative frameworks around actual conspiracies can take years to emerge, Tangherlini said. For example, the narrative framework of Pizzagate stabilized within a month after the Wikileaks dump, and it stayed relatively consistent over the next three years.

“The fact that additional information related to an actual conspiracy emerged over a prolonged period of time (here five and half years) might be one of the telltale signs of distinguishing a conspiracy from a conspiracy theory,” the authors wrote in the study.

Tangherlini said it’s becoming increasingly important to understand how conspiracy theories abound, in part because stories like Pizzagate have inspired some to take actions that endanger other people.

“The threat narratives found in conspiracy theories can imply or present strategies that encourage people to take real-world action,” he said. “Edgar Welch went to that Washington pizzeria with a gun looking for supposed caves hiding victims of sex trafficking.”

The UCLA researchers have also written another paper examining the narrative frameworks surrounding conspiracy theories related to COVID-19. In that study, which has been published on an open-source forum, they track how the conspiracy theories are being layered on to previously circulated conspiracy theories such as those about the perceived danger of vaccines, and, in other cases how the pandemic has given rise to completely new ones, like the idea that 5G cellular networks spread the coronavirus.

“We’re using the same pipeline on COVID-19 discussions as we did for Pizzagate,” Tangherlini said. “In Pizzagate, the targets were more limited, and the conspiracy theory stabilized rapidly. With COVID-19, there are many competing conspiracy theories, and we are tracing the alignment of multiple, smaller conspiracy theories into larger ones. But the underlying theory is identical for all conspiracy theories.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photo of community members at Royce Hall.

UCLA Announces Formal Launch of the UCLA Stavros Niarchos Foundation Center for the Study of Hellenic Culture

The UCLA College has announced the formal establishment of the UCLA Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Center for the Study of Hellenic Culture following a two-year campaign that raised an additional $4 million in external match funds.

The Center was initiated in October 2017 by a $5 million grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF). The additional matching funds include major gifts from George and Tina Kolovos, who established the George P. Kolovos Family Centennial Term Chair in Hellenic Studies, and from Demos and Carol Anagnos, who established the Aris Anagnos Family Chair in Hellenic Studies.

Photo of community members at Royce Hall.

UCLA SNF Center faculty and community members celebrate a lecture by Artemis Cooper at Royce Hall in October 2019. Courtesy of the UCLA SNF Center.

In addition, endowments have been created to support graduate students—a major priority of the UCLA SNF Center—as well as undergraduate scholarships, expansion of library holdings in Hellenic studies, and annual performing arts programs. Multiple gifts from members of the Hellenic community and Hellenic organizations indicate strong support and sustained interest in the establishment of a Center at UCLA.

Said Dean of Humanities David Schaberg, “I am immensely grateful to all those who have contributed their vision, leadership, and financial resources to help establish a permanent home for Hellenic studies at UCLA. This new center will help scholars shine a light on one of the world’s great cultures and its continued impact on society today.”

Led by Professor of Byzantine Art and Archaeology and inaugural holder of the Kolovos Chair Sharon Gerstel, the Center brings together scholars in areas including archaeology, anthropology, classics, Greek language, philosophy, art history, history, digital humanities, and the sciences. Gerstel, an award-winning scholar who has conducted research in Greece for more than 30 years, has been instrumental in establishing the Center’s long-term vision. Under her leadership, the Center has established courses in Modern Greek language and culture, strengthened connections with cultural and educational institutions in the United States, Greece and Cyprus, and forged partnerships with Hellenic organizations in Southern California.

“We are well on our way to establishing UCLA as the premier destination in the country for scholars and students of Hellenic studies while engaging the local Greek community in the Center’s activities and events,” Gerstel said. “Our work will ensure that the rich history, language and cultural heritage of Greece—from its earliest days until the Modern era—will be studied, discussed and presented for generations to come, not only to the university community, but also to the general public.”

Since its inception, the Center has become a vibrant cultural hub for the Los Angeles Hellenic community. Collaborations with UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance and the Los Angeles Greek Festival have brought major artists to UCLA. The visiting professorship of the Greek film director Tassos Boulmetis introduced hundreds of UCLA students to the study of Greek cinema. The Center has also sponsored musical performances of rebetiko and is fostering the production of new works in theater and opera by local Greek and Greek American artists.

The Center’s initiatives like Kouvenda bring students and community members together for the study of Greek language and a new program Ergastirio, held in collaboration with The Ohio State University, initiates a series of conversations among academics, authors and cultural producers with the aim of promoting the practice of writing and teaching Greek America in the context of U.S. multiculturalism, the Greek diaspora, and European American culture and history. UCLA is also working with the prestigious Benaki Museum in Athens to create innovative programming, including at the Patrick Leigh Fermor House in Kardamyli, Greece, a cultural center housed in the late writer’s residence.

“Hellenic studies draws its vibrancy not only from Greece’s rich history, but also from the fact that its subject is living, lively, and global,” said Stelios Vassilakis, Chief of Programs and Strategic Initiatives at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. “This is reflected in the amazing show of support from members of the Greek-American community whose donations made the creation of the Center possible. SNF is proud to have been able to help kick this off, and we look forward to seeing all that the Center will continue to offer the field, the communities of the Greek diaspora, and the public at large.”

A photo montage of 2020 Virtual Celebration speakers. Top: George Takei, featured speaker during the UCLA College’s 2020 virtual celebration. Lower left: UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. Lower right: student speaker Kristie-Valerie Phung Hoang.

Graduates encouraged to envision and build a better future

A photo montage of 2020 Virtual Celebration speakers. Top: George Takei, featured speaker during the UCLA College’s 2020 virtual celebration. Lower left: UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. Lower right: student speaker Kristie-Valerie Phung Hoang.

Top: George Takei, featured speaker during the UCLA College’s 2020 virtual celebration. Lower left: UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. Lower right: student speaker Kristie-Valerie Phung Hoang. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

UCLA’s class of 2020 celebrated their graduation today while scattered across the globe. For the first time, the university’s largest graduation celebration took place remotely, honoring the roughly 8,800 students of the UCLA College.

“Today we gather virtually to celebrate the conferral of your degrees in a uniquely 21st century high-tech way – but, rest assured, your hard-earned degrees will be real. You guys are so futuristic!” the graduates were told by actor, activist, alumnus and social media icon George Takei. The man who helped others imagine a brighter future through his role on “Star Trek” called on graduates to build a better world. “With the experience of the pandemic, challenge yourselves to imagine the unimagined. You have technology that dazzles the mind. Soar with it. Aspire as no others have.”

Though the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus means most students haven’t set foot at UCLA since March 13, classes continued remotely. While in-person ceremonies are planned once group gatherings are safe again, graduating students more than earned a celebration on what would have been their commencement day. Among the Centennial class, graduating at the close of UCLA’s first 100 years, nearly a third are first-generation college students, and more than 35 percent come from low-income households.

The ceremony opened with a moment of silence to recognize and honor victims of COVID-19 and also racial oppression. This was followed by a pledge by the six College deans to continue to fight social injustice.

“While we have all been affected by recent events, we have not all been affected equally,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of the division of social sciences. “We will continue to shine a light on inequality.”

Speakers borrowed from an array of real and fictional inspirational figures, quoting the words of activist author James Baldwin, historian Rebecca Solnit, wizard Albus Dumbledore, and Vulcan Starfleet officer Mr. Spock. The virtual celebration featured views of familiar buildings, fountains and hilltop vistas to soothe homesick Bruins, and senior Margaret Miller sang the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Students viewed the livestream or the later recording from couches with their parents, in apartments with roommates, or on laptops in empty rooms. Some added homemade pomp and circumstance by crafting their own mortarboards or using free graduation profile frames and yard signs from the Alumni Association they would soon join.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block praised the graduates’ resilience at completing their studies and acknowledged those who also found ways to get involved, whether by treating COVID-19 patients, making face masks to slow the spread of the virus, or joining the nationwide wave of protests against the murder of Black men and women by police.

“A global pandemic has upended our lives and prevented us from being together,” Block said. “We’re all reeling, once again, from the pain of racial injustice … The horrible killings of unarmed African Americans have reminded us of our society’s inequities, but strengthened our resolve to address them.”

History shows that catastrophic events can expose “the failings of the status quo” and lead to reforms, Block added, referencing Solnit before calling on the graduates to build a more resilient, compassionate and just society. Though in almost any year, graduates are asked to make the world a better place, current events added extra resonance to that plea.

“The imagination to envision better times, especially in hard times, is vital,” Block said. “James Baldwin wrote that ‘not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ … Now is your time to envision the role you’ll play in changing our world and creating a new one.”

UCLA Broadcast Studio

 

Filmed in an empty Royce Hall, student speaker Kristie-Valerie Phung Hoang grieved the loss of the students’ final months on campus, but reminded her fellow graduates that they have already begun to improve the world.

“It is at UCLA where we’ve felt compassion for each other, and drove our support toward undocumented students, first-generation students and immigrants working to make a better life of their own,” she said. “We poured our minds towards driving research in hopes of finding life-saving cures … We created paths towards a greener, healthier planet … We lived and breathed the spirit of equality.”

Though the campus’ graduation season shrank from the usual 60 or so ceremonies and celebrations to a little more than 30 virtual events because of the pandemic, UCLA awarded degrees to nearly 14,000 students from its undergraduate and graduate programs. Other speakers include guitarist Carlos Santana for the Herb Alpert School of Music, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for the UCLA School of Law, and California’s first surgeon general, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris for the David Geffen School of Medicine.

In introducing Takei, Block praised his activism in speaking up for Muslims, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community, and tied Takei’s activism to his days as an actor playing Mr. Sulu beginning in 1966.

“George made history on a multi-ethnic new TV show called ‘Star Trek,’” Block said. “The show premiered at the same time that the Vietnam War was fueling decades of anti-Asian bigotry. As a Japanese-American child during World War II, George had endured that bigotry first hand in America’s shameful internment camps. George’s presence as one of the heroes of the show was a rebuke to the prejudice of the time. Star Trek imagined a future in which all of Earth’s races lived together in peace.”

Sixty years after his own graduation from UCLA, Takei observed the highs and lows of the pandemic, from tireless medical and frontline workers, to unemployment and economic havoc.

“We live in a time of heroes and menaces,” Takei said. “And where we expect leadership, we find shocking dysfunction. It is a virtual dystopian state.”

But amidst this “dark moment,” he added, the air has cleared from the decreased use of fossil fuels for vehicles and factories, giving the world a glimpse of a cleaner planet. He urged the graduates to learn from it and find ways to improve the human condition.

“We look to you, the high-tech generation, to seize this moment,” Takei said. “Revitalize our civilization. Discover new challenges. Stretch as far as you can. Boldly go where no one has gone before. May the UCLA Centennial 2020 class live long and prosper.”

The virtual celebration closed with a bittersweet view of the Inverted Fountain, where graduating seniors traditionally take a dip to celebrate their years of hard work.

“Our 2020 graduates will be the class that persevered,” said Patricia Turner, vice provost and dean of undergraduate dducation. “Let this moment of adversity forge in you a strength to overcome, to persevere, to know that the world is inherently beautiful, and that your future has only just begun.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Join UCLA College for the Virtual Celebration

Q&A: George Takei on activism, humor and social media

George Takei, once best known for his role as Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek, has since become known to the next generation of fans as a social justice activist, author and social media star. The UCLA alumnus will speak at the virtual celebration of the UCLA College’s class of 2020 on June 12, publicly viewable online. In advance of the big day, Takei talked with UCLA Newsroom about some of the forces that shaped his activism, his advice for the class of 2020, and a couple of his guidelines for harnessing humor and social media in support of human rights.

George Takei, pioneering actor, social justice activist, author and social media star

George Takei majored in theater at UCLA. (Photo Courtesy of George Takei)

As a child during World War II, you were among thousands of Japanese Americans imprisoned in internment camps by the U.S. government, based solely on your heritage. How did that early experience inform your understanding of authority and your commitment to social justice today?

I was 5 years old when my family and I were imprisoned in a barbed wire camp in the swamps of southeastern Arkansas — too young to understand the experience. But, as a teenager, I became intensely curious about my internment. I couldn’t find anything in the history books of the time about the camps. So, my father and I had many after-dinner discussions about our imprisonment — some became quite heated.

He explained to me that ours was a “peoples’ democracy” in which the people have the capacity to do great things, and, at the same time, people are fallible human beings. Presidents are human with the fallibility of all humans. They make mistakes. However, our democracy is a participatory democracy. It is existentially dependent on people who cherish the ideals of our democracy to actively participate. In the early 1950s, my father took me to downtown Los Angeles to the Adlai Stevenson for President campaign headquarters and we volunteered. Actually, he volunteered me and I understood what he meant by participatory democracy. Since then, I have been active in electoral politics and social justice campaigns.

You are an activist known for speaking up for human rights, and you also have a big social media presence with a very specific brand of humor. How do you think about using humor to shine a light on injustice?

Politicians, like all of us, sometimes say ridiculous things. They become ripe for lampooning. When their proposals reflect their silly statements, they become wide open to mockery. It’s fun to kill those bills by laughing them to death.

On social media, you publicly call out prominent people when you think they are wrong. What guides your decisions on how to engage with people who disagree with you?

I put the statement of the person with whom I disagree in a larger context that that might underscore the inappropriateness or the unjustness of their point. If humor can do it, I avoid using ridicule or parody.

The class of 2020 is graduating into a global pandemic, a depressed economy, a climate crisis and what some are calling the biggest civil rights demonstrations since the late 1960s. What advice do you have to help these graduates tackle the problems they face?

It certainly is a dauntingly challenging world into which the 2020 class enters. As I wrote in my speech, they face a tough new world where they will be severely tested. They have to rise to the challenge — be as tough, even tougher, than the challenge. Be innovative as we have never been. We are counting on them to invent a new society we have never known before. Boldly go …

You became a theater major at UCLA despite warnings from friends that an Asian American would have limited acting prospects, and you went on to become an icon as Mr. Sulu on Star Trek in the late 1960s and beyond. You lived through a time when you couldn’t be openly gay, and now you and your husband are gay-rights activists. For others who need similar perseverance, what is your advice?

Same advice I gave above. When my father warned me about the Hollywood scene and its history of stereotypes, I, more out of audacity than thought, said, “Daddy, I’m going to change it!” And perhaps I ultimately nudged it a bit.

But that same teenager, as a man, was “closeted” most of my adult life because I desperately wanted my acting career. It was torturous for me as an activist on myriad social issues to be silent while other bold and determined people sacrificed their jobs, careers, everything, fighting for LGBTQ equality, an issue so personal to me. It wasn’t until I was in my 60s when California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the Marriage Equality bill in 2005 that I was angry enough to make the decision to “come out.” And I came out roaring! But I am not that heroic man I urge the 2020 generation to become. I, too, am a fallible man.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photograph of Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Sarah Stein named to new Viterbi Chair in Mediterranean Jewish Studies

Photograph of Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Sarah Abrevaya Stein. Photo credit: Caroline Libresco

Prominent historian Sarah Abrevaya Stein has been named the inaugural holder of the Viterbi Family Endowed Chair in Mediterranean Jewish Studies in the UCLA College divisions of humanities and social sciences.

Stein, who directs the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and is a history professor, has received prestigious accolades for her scholarship, writing and teaching, including two National Jewish Book Awards, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award. She previously held the Maurice Amado Endowed Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA for 12 years.

Stein’s 2019 book, “Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century,” was named to the Economist’s “Best of 2019” list, was a National Jewish Book Award finalist and received glowing reviews in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other outlets.

“Professor Stein is a leading scholar in her field and a gifted educator,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of the division of social sciences. “Faculty chairs like the Viterbi Family Endowed Chair are an important way we can recognize high-caliber UCLA faculty members while supporting relevant, high-impact research.”

Stein hopes to use the funds accompanying the Viterbi Chair to expand her research, develop new courses, and support graduate and undergraduate students in her field, which takes in the broad geographic and cultural sweep of the modern Jewish Mediterranean — including southern and southeastern Europe, the eastern Mediterranean, and North Africa — and of émigré Mediterranean Jewish communities across the world.

“I am honored to be the first holder of the Viterbi Family Endowed Chair in Mediterranean Jewish Studies and to see UCLA — in tandem with the Viterbi family — support the deepening and expansion of scholarship in this dynamic field,” Stein said. “Mediterranean Jewish histories and cultures are an often overlooked but magnetic component of modern Jewish history, as well as of modern regional, national, imperial, global and diasporic histories.”

Thanks to the Viterbi family’s longstanding philanthropic support, UCLA has become an established leader in Mediterranean Jewish studies. Andrew J. Viterbi is the co-founder of Qualcomm and a former UCLA engineering professor. He and his wife, Erna Finci Viterbi, funded a pilot program in Italian Jewish studies in 2004 and created the Viterbi Family Endowment in Mediterranean Jewish Studies in 2008, which at that time was the first endowed program of its kind in North America.

The Viterbi family’s most recent gift, of $1 million in 2019, included the creation of the Viterbi Family Endowed Chair, which complements the endowed programmatic fund in Mediterranean Jewish studies in the Leve Center and provides support for visiting scholars, public lectures, seminars and symposia.

“The Viterbi family’s generosity has been vital to UCLA’s growing strength and leadership in Mediterranean Jewish studies,” said David Schaberg, dean of the division of humanities. “This prestigious new endowed chair further embeds the field on our campus and underscores its growing importance and relevance in the world today.”

The Viterbi family’s support stems from their roots in the Mediterranean region. Andrew Viterbi was born in Bergamo, Italy, to Italian Jewish parents who emigrated to the U.S. in 1939. His late wife, Erna, was born in Sarajevo to a distinguished family of Sephardic intellectuals and rabbis who survived World War II and emigrated to the U.S. in 1950.

Viterbi said, “It is wonderful that this faculty chair has been awarded to such an impressive and engaging scholar as Sarah Abrevaya Stein. I look forward to witnessing her continued impact on an area of study that is very close to my family’s heart.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a student meditating during a break.

UCLA Students Find COVID-19 Silver Linings

Commentary on mindful awareness training by Sara Melzer, Professor Emerita of French & Francophone Studies:

Surprising as it may sound, some of my UCLA students are finding meaning during the pandemic. One student reports: “I’m excited at the inner changes this quarantine is bringing out in me.” Almost all the students are discovering that their lives are fuller than they had realized – when they re-direct their attention. This training is the work of a mindful awareness.

Mindfulness is not necessarily spiritual or mystical, although it can be. Mainly, it trains our most fundamental faculty: our attention. If skillfully cultivated, our attention can dramatically transform our experience and promote well-being, even during a crisis. This claim may seem astonishing because we are not taught to value our attention, even though it is the ever-present background to all thought and experience.

Mindfulness highlights the vast potential of this resource. Our attention is a muscle — a mental muscle that needs to be trained, just as athletes train their bodies, insists Shinzen Young, founder of Unified Mindfulness and my teacher for 20 years.

My students experienced the power of their attention to transform their relationship to pain in a class experiment where I had them hold ice-cubes in one hand, for two rounds. In round one, I offered no guidance and they relied on their standard coping strategy. After five minutes, they were in agony. In round two, I guided them to hold the ice mindfully. One student reported, “I felt blissfully calm. I could have held the ice forever.”

What made the difference? Their attention – what they focused on and how. In the first round, they tightened their bodies and narrowed their lens to block the pain. This mental image, a cortical homunculus, simulates the brain mapping the body from the inside: hands swell up like balloons and dwarf the body.

A photo of a student meditating during a break.

A student meditating during a break. (Photo Credit: Christian Ibarra)

Their hand defined their whole body. When we are in pain, physical or emotional, we often identify with the ailing part and let it become the whole.

Alternatively, we can re-frame our attention. I invited my students to expand their focus beyond their hands to include their feet, where they noticed pockets of calm.  I activated their attention’s telescopic lens when I had them zoom their awareness out, first to sounds inside the room, then outside, before extending to the silence beyond. While they felt their hands throb, they simply included it within a wider attentional field. The impact of the ice was diffused. Just as a few drops of red dye can define the water’s color in a fish-bowl, but not in a lake, my students could dilute and transform their experience of pain by enlarging their attentional frame.

The momentary shift of attention is actually not the hard part. Keeping it there is. To achieve this, Unified Mindfulness emphasizes sensory clarity as a key attentional skill. It can open up our awareness to a fascinating “something” within the seeming “nothing” of our ordinary experience. Take the breath, for example. Using a microscopic lens, we zero in on the outbreath to notice a subtle release of air. Other forms of release – in the jaws, shoulders, rib cage – ripple out. This inter-connectedness is a source of wonder.

Sensory clarity helps anchor our attention because our sensory world becomes more richly layered and attention-grabbing.  One student wrote, “I invited my family to join me in my mindful eating exercise. For desert, we had grapes — just ordinary grapes. They exploded with extraordinary taste sensations. Waves of sweetness, then sourness rippled out towards my ears, then throughout my whole body. It was so satisfying I almost felt full.” When we tune into the nuanced layers of something as ordinary as an exhale or a grape, any experience can anchor our attention and nourish us.

Managing our attention in this way contrasts with our standard notion of concentration. The term “concentration” in English mainly signifies a forcible narrowing of focus to bear down on an object. But our bodies tighten and we slip back into a version of the ice-cube scenario. What we resist, persists! Mindfulness, however, emphasizes that the truest concentration comes from an ease that unifies our energies. Coupled with sensory clarity, concentration holds our attention not through coercion, but fascination and wonder.

Of course, the COVID crisis is much more serious than ice-cubes. But the underlying principle still pertains: include the ailing part within a larger whole so that fear does not occupy all our attentional space or define our whole life. One student described how a shift in her attention helped ease her panic after learning that the “shelter-in-place” would continue longer than expected. Initially, she was glued to social media which convinced her “all of life was closing up shop.” Finally, she remembered she had a choice. She could re-frame her attention to include her anxiety within a wider container that diluted its power. She did not deny her fear but included it within a larger lens. As poet Maya Angelou wrote: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can choose not to be reduced by them.”

When all their attention was not colonized by fear, my students freed up energy to explore what was available to them. I had asked them to notice their COVID-19 Silver Linings. Since they were on the look-out for them, they found them. They used their mindfulness muscle to soak their awareness into them and anchor their attention there. Many experienced a surprising inner freedom when they discovered creative resources they didn’t know they had.

Creativity thrives when we are confronted with constraints. Let us seize this opportunity to turn our focus towards what remains possible and open up their hidden depths. In this way lies freedom and well-being.

Sara E. Melzer is a Humanities Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her latest book is Colonizer or Colonized: The Hidden Stories of Early Modern French Culture. Currently, she is working to integrate mindfulness into Higher Education through UCLA’s EPIC program

A photo of Matie Zubiaurre, professor of Spanish and Portuguese in the UCLA College.

Spanish professor wins award for book on the cultural uses of garbage

A photo of Matie Zubiaurre, professor of Spanish and Portuguese in the UCLA College.

Matie Zubiaurre, professor of Spanish and Portuguese in the UCLA College. (Photo Courtesy of Matie Zubiaurre)

Maite Zubiaurre, professor of Spanish and Portuguese in the UCLA College, has been awarded the 2020 Norman L. and Roselea J. Goldberg Prize from Vanderbilt University Press for her book “Talking Trash. Cultural Uses of Waste.” The award recognizes the best book in the area of art and medicine.

In “Talking Trash,” Zubiaurre looks at refuse in its early stages, when it is still litter that can be found on city streets. She also focuses on a significant non-urban scene: the desert landscape and the clothing and other items that immigrants discard as they make their journey across the border.

Zubiaurre’s other books include “El espacio en la novela realista. Paisajes, miniaturas, perspectivas,” a book-length study of the dialectics of space and gender in European and Latin American realist fiction, and of “Cultures of the Erotic. Spain 1898-1939”, the first scholarly monograph that analyzes the diverse visual and textual representations of the erotic in Spanish popular culture during the so-called Silver Age between 1898 and 1936.

Some of Zubiaurre’s areas of expertise include comparative literature, gender studies, urban studies, cultural studies, European and Latin American Realism and Latina and Chicana fiction. She is also the author of numerous articles and critical editions and co-editor of an anthology of Spanish feminist thought, “Antología del pensamiento feminista español: 1726-2008.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.