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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.

A photo of a Covid-19 fence sign.

Voters in both parties favor caution as cities begin to reopen

A photo of a Covid-19 fence sign.

“Our research has revealed a nation largely in agreement on everything from preventive measures to thoughts about returning to normal activities,” said UCLA political science professor Lynn Vavreck. (Photo Credit: Sean Brenner)

Over the weekend of May 9–10, many states, including California, began to ease safer-at-home restrictions, allowing some businesses to reopen under strict conditions, and opening some public spaces, including hiking trails and beaches.

Now, a weekly survey co-led by UCLA political science professors Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch has found that Democratic and Republican voters favor the restrictions that were enacted to slow the spread of COVID-19. And by and large, people prefer a cautious approach to getting life back to normal.

The UCLA + Democracy Fund Nationscape survey began adding COVID-19–related questions in March, shortly after businesses, schools and events began shutting down. Topics include Americans’ beliefs, worries and behaviors related to the pandemic. The survey will post results each week on a new coronavirus-specific page of its website.

“Our research has revealed a nation largely in agreement on everything from preventive measures to thoughts about returning to normal activities,” Vavreck said. “Far from the partisan division that has described the last several years, nearly everyone has incorporated precautions against the virus into their daily lives and most people support government interventions to stop its spread.”

The study was quickly noticed by government leaders. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland referenced the findings during remarks on the Senate floor on May 13.

A graphic of the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Survey.

A majority of voters surveyed agree with measures local and state governments have implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Faded dots represent results from previous weeks. Data collected March 19 through April 29, 2020.) (Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Survey)

Researchers also surveyed respondents about the economic pain caused by COVID-19. Of respondents who earn less than $25,000 per year, 26% reported that their income has been reduced significantly due to the crisis, and 24% have lost their primary source of income entirely. Among those earning more than $85,000 annually, 23% reported significant income loss but just 8% indicated that they had lost their income entirely.

► Read more about UCLA + Democracy Fund Nationscape

Vavreck is an expert on presidential elections; her previous research has shown that a good economy is often critical to a president’s reelection chances.

“As we head into the presidential election, we will continue to chart how the government’s response to the pandemic will affect the way voters view an incumbent president presiding over an unexpected downturn in the American economy,” Vavreck said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of UCLA professor Renee Tajima-Peña.

PBS series on Asian Americans features work of UCLA filmmakers and scholars

A photo of UCLA professor Renee Tajima-Peña.

UCLA professor Renee Tajima-Peña, series producer of “Asian Americans.” (Photo Credit: Claudio Rocha)

n 1982, a young Chinese American man named Vincent Chin was beaten to death as he was out celebrating his bachelor party in Highland Park, Michigan, near Detroit. America was fraught and tense, in the middle of a recession that had hit automakers particularly hard, given the rise of economically desirable Japanese cars. Racial animosity toward Asian Americans was running high.

Chin’s death and the relatively lenient sentence laid upon his two white attackers — one a recently laid-off autoworker in the city — were a shock to Asian American communities and sparked a wave of civil rights activism.

“There were lot of people at the time who thought, ‘I’m OK, I’ve made it, everything is OK,’ and then they were really awakened by the case,” said Renee Tajima-Peña, a UCLA professor and director of the Center for EthnoCommunications in the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

Chin’s story is just one of many told in “Asian Americans” a five-part series that airs on PBS over two nights, May 11 and 12. It’s a story that Tajima-Peña knows well. She co-directed an Academy Award–nominated documentary about Chin’s murder.

A photo of Vincent Chin, who was murdered in Michigan in 1982.

Vincent Chin, who was murdered in Michigan in 1982. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Tajima-Peña also served as series producer for “Asian Americans.” And, while she has been working on the project for nearly two years, the timing of its release feels particularly potent, and unfortunately familiar, given the hate speech and even physical attacks that have been levied at people who might look Chinese in the wake of the crippling economic and health crises brought about by the spread of COVID-19.

“We’ve seen all of this before, but the question is, what’s our takeaway from this history?” she said. “To me, the takeaway is for people to find a way to support each other. The series is really future-oriented, even though it’s about history. The U.S has become more diverse yet more divided. When that happens, you’ve got to figure things out because we can’t move forward divided in this country.”

It’s also a personal history for Tajima-Peña, whose ancestors came to the United States from Japan in the early 1900s, a time when national law prevented the immigration of certain Asian groups. “My family arrived during the exclusion, they were on skid row during the Depression, they were incarcerated during World War II,” she said.

Her family’s story dovetails with the stories of subsequent generations of Asian Americans who came to the U.S. as immigrants and as refugees from the Korean and Vietnam wars. “People found a way to thrive,” she said. “And Asian Americans have been a part of moving this democracy forward throughout its history.”

Showcasing this reality is one of the overarching goals of the series. The episodes include a wealth of interviews with artists, activists and scholars.

It also quickly became a very UCLA-centric project. Grace Lee, an alumna of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, directed two of the episodes. Several other alumni served as crew on multiple episodes. And David Yoo, a professor of Asian American studies and history and vice provost of the UCLA Institute of American Cultures, served as lead scholar on the project.

“As an epicenter of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and arguably the most diverse city in the world, the greater Los Angeles area is a generative space,” Yoo said. “This is not new for AAPIs and other communities, and many legacies are reflected in the series, including the remarkable contributions of UCLA Asian American studies, in terms of our students, alumni, staff, faculty and programs like EthnoCommunications, which has produced so many talented filmmakers.”

Solidarity is a running theme within the series. The Asian American community is itself the most diverse of any racial group and has faced internal racial conflicts, Tajima-Peña pointed out. But, she said, civil rights leaders past and present recognize that the struggle must always include other marginalized groups within the prevailing racial tensions of America.

“Asian American history is a history of solidarity,” she said. “People may see us as the model minority, but Asian Americans have been fighting from the very beginning. The biggest labor strike in the 1860s was by Chinese railroad workers.”

Tajima-Peña was delighted to find footage of Hawaiian-born Patsy Mink, the first female U.S. congressperson of color, speaking to the Democratic National Convention in the 1960s. Mink urged delegates to stay firm on a civil rights platform.

“What we wanted to lead to in the series is really the question of today, when we are a larger population with a greater presence in society — to quote from Richard Pryor, does justice mean ’just us?’” Tajima-Peña said. “That’s what we need to focus on, because people really want to get to work.”

Yoo said he hopes viewers will be inspired by the stories of civil rights efforts from the 1960s and 1970s. “The activism, struggle and creativity of that era set into motion remarkable efforts for social justice that provide a foundation which we can draw upon to engage the concerns of today,” he said.

The series is organized around personal stories, ones that will hopefully engender empathy and connection.

“These stories we are telling are personal stories around tipping points in history, and at these points, Asian Americans have found a way to work amongst themselves or work across ethnicities,” Tajima-Peña said. “You don’t have to be Asian yourself to see yourself in these stories.”

A photo of Wong Kim Ark, whose U.S. Supreme Court case led to a change in citizenship laws.

Wong Kim Ark, whose U.S. Supreme Court case led to a change in citizenship laws. (Photo: Public domain)

When Tajima-Peña thinks of hope, she thinks of young Asian Americans, some of whom might be experiencing the effects of racism for the first time. She thinks of their potential. She thinks of the stories of other young Asian Americans that came before and brought hope with them.

The series is bookended by two of their stories.

Wong Kim Ark was the son of Chinese railroad workers. He was born in San Francisco, where his parents legally resided at the time of his birth. In 1880, after a trip to China, he was denied entry back into the country on the grounds that he was not a citizen. Just 21 years old, he chose to fight — and took his struggle all the way to the Supreme Court. The landmark 1898 ruling in his favor established birthright citizenship for children born in the United States to parents who were not citizens.

“Asian Americans” also tells the story of Tereza Lee, who migrated from South Korea with her parents. Known as the first “Dreamer,” in the late 1990s, she fought for herself and other undocumented children through the DREAM Act, which ultimately failed to pass Congress after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed political thinking around immigration.

“She kept on fighting and joined a movement of other undocumented young people,” Tajima-Peña said. “And my own parents are citizens because of Wong Kim Ark. The inspiration of those two ends of the Asian American story is what will take us into the future.”

 

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of students in a course on the U.S. Census taught by Professor Natalie Masuoka. From left: Milagros Martinez Stordeur, Kaumron Eidgahy, Iris Hinh and Amy Bugwadia.

For census season, these UCLA students want to make sure everyone counts

A photo of students in a course on the U.S. Census taught by Professor Natalie Masuoka. From left: Milagros Martinez Stordeur, Kaumron Eidgahy, Iris Hinh and Amy Bugwadia.

Students in a course on the U.S. Census taught by Professor Natalie Masuoka. From left: Milagros Martinez Stordeur, Kaumron Eidgahy, Iris Hinh and Amy Bugwadia. (Photo Credit: Agustina Martinez Stordeur)

Two civic-minded UCLA undergraduate students have turned one of their courses into a platform for encouraging others to participate in the U.S. Census.

Amy Bugwadia and Kaumron Eidgahy were inspired to action by a UCLA course on the census taught by UCLA political science professor Natalie Masuoka. The course, which ended in March, required students to undertake a community engagement project related to the census.

Bugwadia and Eidgahy both came away with a new appreciation for the need to boost participation in Los Angeles County, which historically has been undercounted in the survey. Both have served as UCLA resident assistants, and one of their efforts has centered on communicating the importance of the census to students who have relocated because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the campus’s recent shift to remote learning.

The California Complete Count committee, a state entity helping to conduct the census, has encouraged students who had planned to be living in UCLA residence halls as of April 1 to count themselves as campus residents.

“Whether or not students are able to actually be on campus right now, UCLA has been our home for years, and making sure we get counted will benefit [students] who will be here 10 years from now,” Bugwadia said.

Bugwadia and Eidgahy are both second-generation immigrants, and both have adopted roles as trusted messengers of political and cultural information for their extended families.

“I am extremely passionate about making sure people of color are counted,” Eidgahy said. “I have this tradition with my mom. Every time there is an election, we sit down and spend a couple of hours going through the ballot. I saw this very clear parallel with the census, even though I’d never had that experience before.”

For Masuoka’s course, Bugwadia and Eidgahy decided their work in the community would focus on inspiring high schoolers in two of Los Angeles County’s vulnerable neighborhoods to become trusted messengers for their families and communities. So the UCLA students developed a curriculum and presented it with their class team at two San Fernando Valley high schools, El Camino Real Charter and Canoga Park, shortly before the county’s safer at home protocols went into effect.

While it has historically been difficult to produce accurate census counts for Los Angeles County, Masuoka said the coronavirus pandemic is likely making it even more challenging in 2020.

“We live in one of the most hard-to-count counties in the country, thanks to a confluence of factors,” she said. “It is a populous county and is geographically spread out, which means counting is exacerbated by the multiple socioeconomic and racial groups within it. And there’s every indication that it will be even harder this year.”

Dispelling myths and fears is a big job for families’ “trusted messengers,” especially in immigrant communities, said Bugwadia, a fourth-year student majoring in political science and minoring in disability studies.

“Being a trusted messenger particularly important in the current political climate,” she said. “It can be frustrating and maybe even terrifying for a lot of folks who come from underrepresented communities, but those are the communities who really do benefit from the census.”

Bugwadia said the campaign was aimed not only at students, but also at teachers. “They, too, are trusted messengers. That was our experience growing up in the school system.”

Eidgahy is a third-year student majoring in political science and communication. His family emigrated from Iran, and he has spent time recently quelling their fears about the census by explaining the provisions for how census information is used — including that only non-personally identifiable data is released to government institutions or outside organizations. And he explained the Title 13 confidentiality protections that were put into place after census information was used to incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II.

Bugwadia and Eidgahy have continued to make virtual connections with campus and local community groups as part of a spring quarter independent study project under Masuoka’s tutelage. Both students are aspiring social scientists, and they recognize the importance of accurate census data for people working at research institutions like UCLA.

Other students in Masuoka’s course focused on efforts to reach different populations, including people with disabilities and individuals experiencing homelessness. The students made videos, stickers and graphics to promote participation in the census, and they collected a total of nearly 2,000 pledge cards from community members who promised to complete the questionnaire.

Those cards were meant to be displayed in Kerckhoff Hall during spring quarter as a way to inspire more people to complete the census questionnaire. Fortunately, Masuoka’s syllabus for the class had already included a plan to create a website that would house information and images from the students’ projects and continue their pledge effort.

The course materials and website were funded through an instructional improvement program grant from the UCLA Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

Masuoka said it was important to her to create a politically engaged learning environment that lent itself to a range of political viewpoints.

“The census is nonpartisan; it’s something everyone can and should care about regardless of their position on politics or government policies,” she said. “The class went even better than I could have imagined. I’m new to UCLA and this was a great example of the kind of talented students we have here.”

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 Lynn Vavreck and Miguel García-Garibay.

Two elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences

A photo of Lynn Vavreck and Miguel García-Garibay.

From left: Lynn Vavreck, Miguel García-Garibay

Six exceptional UCLA professors and leaders — including the UCLA College’s Physical Sciences Dean Miguel García-Garibay and Political Science Professor Lynn Vavreck — were elected April 23 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies. The other honorees include School of Law Dean Jennifer Mnookin, Education Professor Pedro Noguera, environmental champion Mary Nichols and Hammer Museum Director Ann Philbin.

“I am delighted to congratulate each of this year’s UCLA inductees, who are all deserving of this wonderful honor,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said. “Election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is a testament to the exceptional work of our scholars and leaders. The entire campus community can take pride in this news and their many accomplishments.”

A total of 276 artists, scholars, scientists and leaders in the public, nonprofit and private sectors who were elected to the Academy today. More about UCLA’s honorees:

Miguel García-Garibay, dean of the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences and professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has earned worldwide recognition in the fields of artificial molecular machines, organic photochemistry, solid-state organic chemistry and physical organic chemistry. He studies the interaction of light and molecules in crystals. Light can have enough energy to break and make bonds in molecules, and García-Garibay’s research team has shown that crystals offer an opportunity to control the outcome of these chemical reactions.

His research has applications for green chemistry — the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the generation of hazardous substances — and it could lead to the production of specialty chemicals that would be very difficult to produce using traditional methods. Among his many honors, he was elected a fellow of the American Chemical Society in 2019.

Lynn Vavreck is UCLA’s Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy, a contributing columnist to the Upshot at the New York Times, and a recipient of many awards and honors, including the Andrew F. Carnegie Prize in the Humanities and Social Sciences. She is the author of five books, including “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America” and “The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election,” which has been described as the “definitive account” of that election.

Consultants in both political parties refer to her work on political messaging in “The Message Matters” as required reading for presidential candidates. “Identity Crisis” was awarded the 2019 Richard E. Neustadt Prize for the Best Book on Executive Politics by the Presidents and Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.

Vavreck’s 2020 election project, Nationscape, is the largest study of presidential elections ever conducted in the United States. Interviewing more than 6,000 people a week, Nationscape will complete 500,000 interviews before next January’s inauguration.

► Read more about the Nationscape election project.

“The members of the class of 2020 have excelled in laboratories and lecture halls, they have amazed on concert stages and in surgical suites, and they have led in board rooms and courtrooms,” said David Oxtoby, president of the Academy. “With [the] election announcement, these new members are united by a place in history and by an opportunity to shape the future through the Academy’s work to advance the public good.”

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences was founded in 1780 by John Adams, John Hancock and others who believed the new republic should honor exceptionally accomplished individuals. Previous fellows have included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

It also is an independent policy research center that undertakes studies of complex and emerging problems. Current academy members represent today’s innovative thinkers in many fields and professions, including more than 250 Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of the sidewalk with chalk that says "Play your part, stay apart"

Play your part, stay apart: Advice and insight on physical distancing

A photo of the sidewalk with chalk that says "Play your part, stay apart"

Play your part, stay apart (Photo Credit: Jessica Wolf)

It has been a month since the wide-ranging safer-at-home directive went into effect in Los Angeles on March 17, following, and followed by, similar policies in other states and countries around the world.

It’s been hard. It’s wreaked havoc on our economy, our communities and our sense of emotional well-being. People understandably want to connect, go outside, share physical spaces, make a living, enjoy friends and family.

We asked Daniel Fessler, professor of anthropology and director of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute to help unpack why physical distancing feels so counterintuitive even while it represents one of the greatest mass acts of kindness — what scientists call “prosocial” behavior — we have witnessed as a species.

Why is it so hard to stay away from the people we are closest to socially? 

Our evolved mental mechanisms prioritize close social relationships over disease avoidance because those relationships were so important to the survival of our ancestors. One of the results of this is that we underestimate the risk of contagion that is posed by those to whom we are emotionally close. And as a consequence, people visit their relatives and close friends, and by so doing, they put at risk those whom they love the most.

The truth is, you’re probably even more dangerous to your loved ones than you are to strangers. After all, when’s the last time that you hugged a stranger on the street? If you care about the welfare of people you care about, then stay away from them.

Why is it so hard for us to fully accept that we might be dangerous to others, even if we don’t feel sick?  

Our evolved mental mechanisms are only attuned to overt cues of illness, so it’s difficult for us to grasp that we can be symptom-free and still infectious.

We can sort of understand that in an abstract way, but it’s hard for us to understand it in an emotional way. Likewise, our evolved mechanisms are attuned to harm that is tangible and immediate. The harm that we can do others is transmitted invisibly in this current situation and occurs after a delay of days or weeks. I’m quite confident that none of those college students who were partying on the beach in Florida during spring break would ever intentionally run over an elderly person in a crosswalk, but they’re potentially doing exactly that by contracting and spreading the virus.

How do we remind ourselves that staying away from one another physically is actually a huge act of kindness right now? 

As individuals, we all have a role to play in mitigating the impact of this disease. But problematically, social distancing doesn’t feel like prosocial behavior. And the reason it doesn’t feel like prosocial behavior is because in the world of our ancestors, helping other people and working together meant working face-to-face and side-by-side. You can think, for example, about how good it feels to help a stranger on the street or to work as a team to clean up trash on a beach or repaint an elementary school.

These things feel really good, right? And this is because our evolved psychological mechanisms are sensitive to cues that we are part of a prosocial cooperative group.

You may also think about how great it feels to do the wave with a huge crowd at a sporting event or to sing the national anthem together with thousands of people. These things are emotionally moving. They feel great because we are sensitive to the situation in which we’re coordinating our actions with those of many people around us towards a common goal.

Yet in the current crisis, for most of us, the first prosocial action that we must engage in is to stay away from other people. And ordinarily, staying away from other people can feel selfish. So staying away from other people doesn’t feel like we’re helping anyone.

I encourage everyone to think creatively. How can you help? For example, millions of kids are out of school right now. Can you tutor children via video link? Maybe just read a child a story. Many small businesses are in danger of going bankrupt. Can you purchase products or services at a distance that will help them to stay afloat?

Or maybe you can help deliver meals or medication to the elderly or to children who normally rely on school lunches and school nurses for their needs — of course, conducting yourself appropriately with regard to the safeguards of hygiene and social distancing when you are making those deliveries. Think outside the box. Get some ideas online. Find a way to help other people while still playing your part and staying apart.

What can we do to encourage others to continue to practice safe distancing until city and state leaders relax guidelines?

If you see someone ignoring social distancing guidelines, you need to acknowledge in discussion with them that you understand that it may seem safe because neither you nor they feel sick right now. But despite this, it doesn’t mean that either of you can’t transmit the virus to the other or to someone else. How we feel physically is simply not an accurate index of whether we might harm other people by being near them. Those kinds of conversations, of course, you need to hold at a safe distance, six feet or so.

In having those conversations, it’s helpful to think about language. Language can reflect the priorities and needs at the moment. People coin new words all the time. Just think, for example: Phrases like “gig economy,” “screen time” or “trending” weren’t things a few years back. I find acronyms particularly useful in this regard. You can Google the origins of two of my favorites — snafu (situation normal, all fouled up) and fubar (fouled up beyond all recognition) — two terms that were coined during other desperate emergency times.

We can coin a new acronym, a new word: PYPSA. It stands for “Play Your Part, Stay Apart.” You can use the word as praise for people who are doing a great job of social distancing: “Hey, man, way to go! You’re really PYPSA-ing,” and remind people who might forget or who might underestimate the importance of social distancing.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of an article in the newspaper detailing the layoffs that continue to happen around the world.

With record unemployment filings, federal stimulus will help, but more is needed

A photo of an article in the newspaper detailing the layoffs that continue to happen around the world.

COVID-19 will plunge the United States economy into a recession. Photo Credit: by James Yarema on Unsplash

As an economist and director of the California Policy Lab, Till von Wachter is continually spearheading research projects and policy recommendations related to labor and employment as well as homelessness, education and crime.

As the U.S. economy further slows because of how the COVID-19 pandemic has forced so many businesses to close, UCLA Newsroom asked von Wachter, who is also the associate dean of research for the division of social sciences in the UCLA College, to help parse through current employment statistics, why the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package called the CARES Act — which was signed into law March 27 — is so critical and what its immediate and far-reaching effects might be for U.S. workers and the economy.

How do you interpret the unemployment numbers that came out April 2?

The number of new claims to unemployment insurance — 6.6 million — was deeply alarming because that number is so much higher than what we’ve seen in previous recessions. Moreover, these numbers do not capture the many people out of work that are self-employed, have low wages, or for some other reason do not qualify for unemployment insurance. As CNBC noted, even in the worst week of the Great Recession, the number of claims were only 665,000 in March of 2009. The highest since the 1960s was 1,073,500 in the 1982 recession. Having studied unemployment, recessions and the policy responses to them for most of my academic career, I’m deeply concerned that if policymakers don’t act quickly, we could see a recession the likes of which our country has never experienced before. It will impact Americans for decades to come. There is still hope that the economy will turn back to normal after the Covid-19 pandemic is contained, but prolonged large-scale unemployment may be hard to reverse.

What will this mean for the U.S. economy and Americans who could be laid off in the coming weeks?

I have studied a range of situations where workers were hit by a sudden shock in the labor market, such as a job loss when a business suddenly lays off a large number of workers. The key here is to compare people who lost their jobs to a counterfactual of luckier workers who kept their jobs and that otherwise would have looked like them. The result from my research is that a worker with a steady job at a good employer that loses their job during a mass layoff in a recession will die 1.5 years sooner than they would have if they had not been laid off.  When you extrapolate that to an expected unemployment rate of 10% (approximately 10 million additional unemployed workers, which given the most recent week’s numbers may be a conservative scenario), my back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest a loss of 15 million life years. Beyond increased mortality, in separate research I have found these workers also suffer immediate and permanent earnings losses. Again, if those accrued to 10 million workers, it would amount to over $1 trillion dollars in earnings capacity lost over their lifetimes.

It’s also important to keep in mind more than 6 million individuals will graduate high school or obtain a college degree this year, and about 13 million workers age 16-24 are currently in the labor force. Hence about 20 million young individuals are of particularly high risk of exposure to a recession. Existing evidence suggests that unlucky labor market entrants suffer losses in earnings that last 10 to 15 years, depending on the severity of the recession. Yet, it appears their socioeconomic status declines again in middle age, and several studies have found that they experience higher rates of death over the long term. For example, entering the labor market during a large recession appears to reduce life-expectancy of young workers by about half a year. There would be an additional 10 million of life years lost from a prolonged recession.

Will the CARES Act help? 

The CARES Act is a good start. It includes significant funding spread out in a variety of ways to help sustain the economy while people practice safe distancing to defeat COVID-19. The additional pandemic unemployment assistance provided to the self-employed and others not covered by unemployment insurance benefits is of course an important aspect of the law. Yet, I argue in a recent proposal (PDF) that states need to act decisively and creatively to quickly scale up programs included in the CARES Act.

The funding Congress included for several programs that help firms to keep workers on their payroll could be a game-changer. This includes federal funding for “short-time compensation,” or STC, programs, sometimes also called work-sharing, as well as short-term emergency loans that include provisions for job stability.

In the same way that we are all “sheltering in place,” state employment departments — the agencies that administer unemployment benefits in every state — can use STC programs and equip companies to keep their employees in place. Under STCs, firms are able to reduce the hours of a large group of their employees (instead of laying just a few of them off), and employees can partially make up the difference in pay through receiving unemployment benefits. For a state like California that already has a functioning STC program, these STC benefits will be paid entirely by the federal government. This could lead to substantial saving for the state’s finances that will be likely very stretched in other ways.

Even better, the CARES Act also included a substantial subsidy for firms that were impacted by COVID-19 to help pay their workers’ wages. A small to mid-size firm that pays average wages could reduce the hours of their workers by 50% through shared-time compensation and have up to half of the remaining 50% of wages paid for by the federal government. This would be an instantaneous reduction of their wage bill by 75% while workers are kept on the job instead of flooding unemployment offices. Some businesses may find it hard to pay for even part of their workforce, perhaps because of large reductions in revenues or substantial fixed costs. The CARES Act also provides struggling businesses with the option to apply for short-term emergency loans through the Small Business Administration that would help them pay rent, wages and other operating costs. The key is that the repayment of these loans can be waived if the firm refrains from laying off their workers. Overall, firms now have a range of options to adjust to the economic conditions without laying off their workers.

How would states use short-time compensation?

Twenty-six states, including California, already have STC programs, meaning about 70% of the U.S. workforce could be covered. There is also funding in the law for the administrative costs of expanding these programs. For those 26 states, the federal government agreed to pay 100% of the benefits under STC programs.

Unfortunately, many employers are not currently aware of the program. Yet, states can be proactive in making the STC more attractive than layoffs to employers. Typically, if a firm lays off workers who receive unemployment insurance benefits, its payroll tax increases to help offset the costs to the unemployment insurance system. Yet, states could choose to pass on some of the cost-savings (from the federal government paying 100% of STC benefits) by committing not to raise the payroll tax for those firms that use STC instead of unemployment insurance. This incentive would help states to make a strong case for employers to use this program.

The key is to dispatch these funds quickly because failure to do so will likely lead to skyrocketing claims for unemployment insurance and serious bottlenecks in processing claims. It can also lead to substantial long-term effects on the income and health of people who are losing their jobs, young labor market entrants and others directly affected by the economic crisis. Unfortunately, many states’ STC programs are understaffed, such that there is a concern that bottlenecks may arise. In a recent proposal, I outline a proposal as to how states could quickly enroll thousands of firms despite these issues, such that these problems could also be surmounted.

The CARES Act also included $100 million in start-up grants for states that do not yet have STC programs, and if they do create them, the federal government will fund 50% of the benefits. While this is less than existing programs receive, it is still a great deal for workers, for firms, and for states because it means fewer layoffs, lower payroll taxes, and lower program expenditures, respectively.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Daniel Fessler, Anthropologist and Director of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute.

Listen Now: A Global Lifeboat, Evolution and Kindness in the Time of Coronavirus

A photo of Daniel Fessler, Anthropologist and Director of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute.

A Global Lifeboat: Evolution and Kindness in the Time of Coronavirus Oral Essay

Daniel Fessler, Anthropologist and Director of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute, discusses how an understanding of humanity’s past and present can help us to meet the personal, social, and political challenges posed by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

A Global Lifeboat: Evolution and Kindness in the Time of Coronavirus

A photo of Cecilia Menjívar.

Don’t call it ‘social distancing’

Opinion by Cecilia Menjívar, Jacob G. Foster and Jennie E. Brand

Editor’s Note: Cecilia Menjívar is Professor of Sociology and Dorothy L. Meier Social Equities Chair, Jacob G. Foster is Assistant Professor of Sociology, and Jennie E. Brand is Professor of Sociology and Statistics, all at the University of California at Los Angeles. The opinions expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) – Public health officials tell us to minimize physical contact in order to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. While the public, thankfully, is hearing the message, there is a hidden danger: As we retreat into our homes, we can lose sight of our essential connections to one another and forget about the plight of those most vulnerable to the fraying of social bonds.

It is important for us all to realize that when they recommend “social distancing” — a phrase that has rapidly entered the public lexicon — what health experts are really promoting are practices that temporarily increase our physical distance from one another in order to slow the spread of the virus.

They are not recommending social disconnection, social exclusion, or rampant individualism.

To combat those social ills, we should replace the term “social distancing” with the more precise “physical distancing.” In fact, when we practice physical distancing, we need social connectivity and social responsibility more than ever.

A photo of Cecilia Menjívar.

Cecilia Menjívar (Photo Credit: UCLA)

On Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced strict new measures for isolation (as California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom did the day before). In his televised remarks, Cuomo noted the difficulty — but crucial necessity — of maintaining physical distance from loved ones.

But even as he rolled out these drastic measures (including civil penalties) to ensure physical distance, he underscored the importance of maintaining social connections, touchingly recounting how he is doing this himself with his daughter, who was in isolation for two weeks.

“I was very aware of what she was dealing with and what she was feeling,” he said. “I tell you the truth I had some of the best conversations with her that I have ever had … we talked about things in depth that we didn’t have time to talk about in the past, or we didn’t have the courage or the strength to talk about in the past.” He urged people to be “mindful” that those “three word sentences can make all the difference: ‘I miss you;’ you know ‘I love you, I’m thinking about you; I wish I was there with you; I’m sorry you’re going through this’…”

Indeed, a large body of research points to the immense physical and mental health benefits of such social connections. Social isolation, by contrast, brings risk, especially for older folks.

In the difficult circumstances we are facing now, we can still connect and take social responsibility — even as we are trying to stay physically distant. Social responsibility and connectivity come in different forms, and they go hand in hand with empathy, compassion, and humanity.

So how do we remain socially connected and responsibly engaged at a time when physical distance is critical?

For one, we can use technology to strengthen friendships and support one another through telephone, social media, text, video chat, and even gaming. If you are able to work from home, consider taking the time you would have spent commuting to reach out to family, friends, and neighbors — even and especially those who might not have heard from you in a while.

People and organizations are also rapidly re-thinking membership and group participation in imaginative ways. They are holding virtual religious gatherings, and other social events — famously, now, singing together from balconies in Italy; streaming opera nightly (as the Metropolitan Opera began this week), having virtual parties, happy hours and celebrations.

Now is the time to unleash our capacity for collective creativity and find new ways to build meaningful community and connection.

We can also turn our creative energies toward social action. Seattle, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, is witnessing an impressive flourishing of outreach: people helping each other out. One Seattle resident — an artist — made a Facebook live video where he read guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Ethiopian-American community — in Amharic — in order to replace swirling rumor and misinformation with hard science.

Even the writing of this piece has been a group effort — by UCLA sociologists concerned that the call for “social distancing” risked doing unintentional harm — and needed to be replaced with the more precise language of “physical distancing.”

Physical (but not social) distancing still allows us to provide material support to the most vulnerable in many ways, like asking neighbors if we can pick up groceries, pet food, and other essentials for them — delivered from a safe distance — to minimize travel. We can refrain from panic shopping and the hoarding of essential resources, which creates artificial scarcity that affects everyone.

We can organize to provide enrichment for youngsters who are suddenly being homeschooled, as in the #openschools project. We can combat the spread of misinformation online and enhance the collective intelligence of social media discourse about Covid-19. And we can call on our leaders, employers, and corporations to provide needed resources and coverage for people who cannot afford to work from home so that they too can practice physical distancing.

In California, the most populous state in the country, Gov. Newsom has ordered residents to stay home and closed restaurants, bars, gyms, retail stores, offices, and all non-essential establishments to ensure physical distancing.

Gov. Cuomo’s mandate directs 75% of the New York workforce stay home. Similar mandates across other states will follow. These radical but necessary steps to ensure physical distance will result in significant job losses and likely a recessionary economy — and undoubtedly create considerable stress for millions of workers.

We must be particularly supportive of those among us who are vulnerable to contagion — unable to “physically distance”– precisely because of the work they do. This includes not only health care workers but also service and delivery workers, domestic and home care workers, cashiers, sanitation workers, janitors, store clerks, farm workers, and food servers who quietly but vitally sustain our collective lifestyles, even in a pandemic.

They cannot afford to be absent from work, cannot work remotely, and often do not have health insurance.

In large cities, like our own Los Angeles, these workers are often immigrants who also bear the weight of negative stereotypes and discrimination and often experience social and institutional exclusion. Our notions of social connection and responsibility must be big enough to include the vulnerable among us. As coronavirus has made abundantly clear, health is not an individual matter. Such diseases do not respect social or political divisions.

While the Covid-19 pandemic will eventually pass, its consequences will be with us for years. The fallout will disproportionately harm many of the same people who are suffering now: the socially and economically marginalized. But this is not inevitable.

Just as physical distancing can give us a fighting chance of combating this virus, finding creative and socially responsible ways to connect in crisis can have positive and long-lasting effects on our communities.

We must be physically distant now — our health depends on it. But we should redouble our efforts to be socially close. Our health depends on that, too.

This article originally appeared on CNN.com.