Posts

A photo collage: from left, top row: Elaine Hsiao, Andrea Ghez, Sarah Stein. From left, bottom row: Heather Adams and Lynn Vavreck.

UCLA College Celebrates International Women’s Day

A photo collage: from left, top row: Elaine Hsiao, Andrea Ghez, Sarah Stein. From left, bottom row: Heather Adams and Lynn Vavreck.

From left, top row: Elaine Hsiao, Andrea Ghez, Sarah Stein. From left, bottom row: Heather Adams and Lynn Vavreck.

On International Women’s Day we give a shout-out to five incredible UCLA College faculty whose research and accomplishments are truly awe-inspiring—including discoveries about our galaxy’s black hole, landing on The Economist’s “Best of 2019” book list, spearheading one of the largest public opinion surveys for the 2020 election, revealing how anti-depressants affect our gut microbiome, and advocating for transfer students. See our highlights below.

Physical Sciences

A photo of Andrea Ghez.

Andrea Ghez (Photo Credit: Christopher Dibble)

Astronomers discover class of strange objects near our galaxy’s enormous black hole

Astronomers from UCLA’s Galactic Center Orbits Initiative have discovered new objects that “look like gas and behave like stars,” said co-author Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics and director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group.

 

Social Sciences

A photo of Lynn Vavreck.

Lynn Vavreck (Photo Credit: UCLA)

UCLA political scientists launch one of largest-ever public opinion surveys for run-up to 2020

UCLA political scientists Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch launch one of largest-ever public opinion surveys for the run-up to 2020 elections.

 

Life Sciences

A photo of Elaine Hsiao.

Elaine Hsiao (Photo Credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA)

Study shows how serotonin and a popular anti-depressant affect the gut’s microbiota

Senior author Elaine Hsiao, along with a team of researchers, hopes to build on their current study to learn whether microbial interactions with antidepressants have consequences for health and disease.

 

Humanities

A photo of Sarah Abrevaya Stein.

Sarah Abrevaya Stein (Photo Credit: Caroline Libresco)

Professor’s book about Sephardic Jews chosen as a Best of 2019

The Economist has named to its Best of 2019 list, “Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century,” by Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Sady and Ludwig Kahn Director, Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies.

 

Undergraduate Education

A photo of Heather Adams, first row center, former director of the UCLA Transfer Student Center.

Heather Adams, first row center. (Photo Credit: Ivan Mendez/UCLA)

UCLA’s Heather Adams wins national award for work helping transfer students

Adams was honored by the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students.

 

 

A photo of an I voted sticker.

USA Today harnesses UCLA political scientists’ ‘Nationscape’ data

A photo of an I voted sticker.

I voted sticker. Jessica Whittle Photography/Creative Commons 2.0. (Photo Credit: Jessica Whittle Photography)

As voters in 14 states, including California, go to the polls March 3 to vote for their preferred Democratic presidential nominee, information gathered by UCLA professors Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch will offer data-based insights about what voters care about most.

Every week, observations and analysis from their massive Nationscape voter data project will be published on USA Today. The newspaper’s first published report on this project, which is a partnership between UCLA, Washington, D.C.-based Democracy Fund and the market research firm Lucid, launched Feb 28.

“At a moment when everyone from voters to pundits is focused on who is ahead and who is most electable in November, our data about what people care about and how this varies across geography and demographic groups in the United States can hopefully inject a dose of substance in to conversations about electioneering and strategy,” Vavreck said. “We are delighted that USA TODAY wants to visualize our data for their readers in the lead up to the 2020 presidential election. With their reach, they are able to share insights from our Nationscape project with people in real time.”

Vavreck and Tausanovich have been deep in the throes of Nationscape data gathering since summer 2019, conducting about 6,250 interviews each week. By election time, they will have done 500,000 interviews asking people about policy questions and their opinions about the attributes of elected officials. The way the data is presented allows respondents to really think about what they care about most, and also consider what they are willing to give up to get it. Researchers are also tracking how those attitudes might change over time.

The USA Today story that posted Feb. 28 reveals a wealth of information on voter attitudes about gun control, immigration, middle class tax cuts, health care and more.

There are issues where attitudes overlap between Democrats and Republicans — background checks for gun ownership and middle class tax cuts — while topics like building a border wall shows a starker split based on party affiliation.

A tax cut for families who make less than $100,000 is a particularly fertile ground for commonality. According to Nationscape, 79% of Democrats agree with cutting taxes for families that make less than $100,000 per year, while 10% disagree. Among Republicans, 70% agreed, while 18% disagreed.

When it comes to Americans who are most likely to vote Democrat, the policy with the widest variance of support is Medicare for All, according to Nationscape data released last week.

For supporters of all the Democratic candidates still in play for Super Tuesday, a majority of these likely voters agree with the idea of Medicare for All, regardless of their chosen candidate. Sentiments run strongest among supporters of Bernie Sanders for whom it is a signature campaign issue, with 87% of his voters agreeing with Medicare for All. For Elizabeth Warren, 67% of her supporters agree with the policy. When it comes to Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg, 58% and 57% of their supporters, respectively, agree with Medicare for All.

An employment among homeless graphic.

Nearly 75% of L.A. County’s homeless previously worked in California

An employment among homeless graphic.

Illustration of a retail employee superimposed over a Los Angeles street map. (Photo Credit: California Policy Lab)

report published Feb. 26 by the California Policy Lab at UCLA sheds light on people’s employment histories before, during and after they received homelessness services in Los Angeles County.

The report’s authors studied data for more than 130,000 people who received homeless services from Los Angeles County. They found that 74% of people who experienced homelessness had some work history in California and that 47% had worked in the four years prior to becoming homeless.

But only 19% had worked in the calendar quarter they became homeless, and the average annual earnings for people who worked before experiencing homelessness was only $9,970 in the year before they became homeless — just 16% of the Los Angeles area median income of $61,015.

“There’s often an assumption that people experiencing homelessness are not working,” said Till von Wachter, a co-author of the report and faculty director of the California Policy Lab at UCLA. “While it’s true that some individuals in our study had not worked in a long time, a substantial number — close to half — were working within four years before entering homelessness. These recent workers had a higher likelihood of returning to work after receiving services and their average earnings were also higher.”

Von Wachter, a UCLA economics professor, said the study’s findings — particularly those on who is most likely to work after enrolling for homeless services — could be used to tailor workforce programs that would help people who are receiving services to find employment and to increase the earnings of homeless service clients.

The study’s three main findings:

The likelihood of people finding employment after they enrolled in homeless services varied widely based on demographic factors and work history. For example, people who were recently employed before becoming homeless and younger people were more likely to be employed after homelessness. To a lesser degree, adults in families, and people without mental and physical health issues also had higher employment rates than the average for the entire sample. Understanding those differences could help officials better target services to those who are most likely to find gainful employment.

The employment rates for certain groups of people in the study improved within the two-year period after they enrolled to receive homeless services, although the authors pointed out that the relationship between the two facts may not be causal. For example, people in transitional housing and people who came from stable housing saw increases in employment rates after enrolling.

Sixty-five percent of the people in the study worked in four broad job categories prior to enrolling in homeless services: 28% in administrative support, waste management and remediation services; 14% in health care and social assistance fields; 12% in accommodation and food services; and 11% in retail. That finding could help inform the types of job training and placement programs that could help prevent homelessness or help people transition out of homelessness.

For the study, the researchers used data from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority from 2010 to 2018 for people who were 18 to 70 years old at the time they enrolled for services, and state employment records from the California Employment Development Department for 1995 to 2018.

The authors wrote that although report should improve understanding of employment trends among people who receive homeless services in Los Angeles, more research is needed to develop specific policy recommendations. Future research should examine whether job loss is the direct cause of homelessness and for whom, and how workforce and training programs could either prevent homelessness or accelerate exits from homelessness.

The California Policy Lab creates data-driven insights for the public good. Based at UCLA and UC Berkeley, it partners with researchers at other University of California campuses, as well as with California’s state and local governments to generate scientific evidence that solves California’s most urgent problems, including homelessness, poverty, crime and education inequality.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

 

Ellen DuBois, professor emerita of history in the UCLA College and author of “Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote.”

Historian’s new book traces three generations of suffragists

Ellen DuBois, professor emerita of history in the UCLA College and author of “Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote.”

Ellen DuBois observes that expanding the vote is still not something established political leaders are eager to do. (Photo Credit: Scarlett Freund)

They persisted.

August 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which ensured that all American women could vote in federal elections. Ellen DuBois, UCLA professor emerita of history, has devoted her academic life to the stories of the women (and men) whose unrelenting, passionate and organized advocacy withstood 75 years of shifting partisan politics to finally enfranchise women in the U.S.

Written for anyone who cares about rights in America, her latest book, “Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote,” which came out Feb. 25, takes a comprehensive look at the incomparable effort.

Her storytelling illuminates the lives and efforts of three generations of suffragists, as her prose passes the baton from woman to woman, grandmother to mother, mother to child. She celebrates the efforts of such champions as Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul, who were critical in the final push into the 20th century, and she illustrates how African American women — led by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell and Mary Ann Shadd Cary — demanded voting rights, even when white suffragists ignored them.

In a presidential election year, and as primary voters head to the polls for Super Tuesday on March 3, it is fitting to heed activist Gloria Steinem’s praise for DuBois’ work:

“Ellen DuBois tells us the long drama of women’s fight for the vote, without privileging polite lobbying over radical disobedience — or vice versa. In so doing, she gives us a full range of tactics now, and also the understanding that failing to vote is a betrayal of our foremothers and ourselves.”

We asked DuBois to share some of the key takeaways from “Suffrage.”

The Americans who took up the fight for women’s right to vote were originally proponents of “universal suffrage,” which would have meant a constitutional amendment affirming votes for every American citizen over the age of 18 — regardless of race or gender. How different might this battle have been if that original purpose had been successful?

The Constitution gives little control to the federal government over voting — just times, places, etc. — and none whatsoever over who gets to vote. The three voting amendments, including the 19th, barely tamper with that, only forbidding the states from named disenfranchisement. And as we know from the history of African American voter suppression, those are easy to get around.

If the suffragists’ early attempt to reframe voting as a positive right of national citizenship [had been successful], much of what we suffer today by way of voter suppression — which comes from the states — would no longer be legal or constitutional. We would have universal enfranchisement, which we cannot say we have now.

A photo of the cover of “Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote.”

“Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote” Photo Credit: Simon & Schuster

This book is also a fascinating rendering of the kaleidoscopic nature of American partisan politics. What was the biggest obstacle to women’s suffrage?

This is a question that suffragists and historians have long pondered. General male opposition to women taking a place in politics, as well as women’s hesitation about leaving their traditional roles, certainly played a part.

But as I studied the last few decades of the movement, I was especially struck by the determination of politicians to keep women without votes — both at the national level, fighting against amendment passage, and the state level, opposing ratification, the ultimate obstacle.

This was the case even when it was clear to the final opponents that women’s suffrage was inevitable. Politicians’ opposition certainly reflected their own conservative ideas about who women were — their delicate wives and the pesky radicals who wanted the vote — but it was also a political calculation. The suffragists and other social activist women had developed a solid reputation as nonpartisan reformers, and politicians didn’t want that. Finally, it was impossible to predict which party enfranchised women would favor. It turned out to be both.

As we know from our own times, expanding the vote is still not something established political leaders are eager to do.

By the time the 19th Amendment was passed, millions of women already had the right to vote in federal elections, thanks to state constitutions. By 1919, women in Wyoming and Colorado had voted in five or six presidential elections. Western states like California were critical to eventual nationwide suffrage. Who were some of the most important suffragists who helped win the vote in California?

California, when it amended its state constitution to enfranchise women in 1911, was the sixth state to do so — and by far the most important.

Maud Younger was a wealthy San Franciscan, among those young people known as “new women” for their eagerness for modern lives and new experiences. She left home, went to New York City, worked as a waitress and trade union activist, and returned to California to organize working women. They called her the “millionaire waitress.” She was responsible for getting the brewers union on board, which helped to overcome suffragists’ reputation for being anti-alcohol.

Sarah Massey Overton, an African American woman from San Jose, not only organized her area’s African American community, but — unusual for these years — worked closely with white suffragists in the interracial Political Equality League.

Hispanic Californian suffragists were harder to trace. I located a very interesting woman, Maria de Lopez, whose family was in California before its statehood. As of 1910, she was a college graduate and taught at UCLA and later was a scholar of Spanish-language literature. Fascinating!

Multiple other amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified before the 19th. How did the push for these amendments affect the fight for women’s suffrage? Why was the 17th Amendment critical to the eventual passage and ratification of the 19th?

The reconstruction amendments 14th and 15th were crucial: the latter for omitting women from the expansion of the franchise, which angered suffragists; the former for establishing — for the first time — national citizenship, which led hundreds of suffragists to claim the right to vote in the 1870s including Susan B. Anthony.

It was several decades before other amendments were added. The 17th made the election of senators dependent on the people’s vote, when previously they were appointed by state legislators. This played a role in breaking the final opposition to the women’s suffrage amendment in the upper house. The 18th Amendment [prohibition of alcohol] took this contentious issue, often associated with women voters, off the table and removed an issue of the opposition.

Do you have a favorite suffragist? If so, who and why?

I’m often asked this. I do love Elizabeth Cady Stanton for her brilliant insights into the multifaceted nature of women’s subordination and her vision for broad freedoms for women. These days she is remembered more for her racist and elitist outbursts against men who voted before women, but I think she has more to offer us than just that. These women are all so great, so varied, so brave, so determined — “nevertheless they persisted.” I love them all.

Your book also illustrates the power of an archive. Susan B. Anthony had the brilliant foresight to establish a multivolume history of the movement — including photographs and images of suffragists — and then donated copies to libraries and universities for posterity. Obviously this was critically important to historians like yourself and Eleanor Flexner, who wrote 1959’s “Century of Struggle.” What other stories are waiting to be told from this archive? What are you working on next?

The suffrage movement is unique for its geographical breadth and depth. It lasted so long, and constitutional amendments, which are contested like this one, require organized activism in virtually every state. There is so much more to be said about suffragists in our country.

A second issue is a more complex one: the varied and painful history of racism within the suffrage movement, which lasted from the years of emancipation through the height of the Jim Crow era.

Finally, and this is one of my unfinished projects, women’s enfranchisement was an international issue. In almost every country where women have received the right to vote, they have organized to fight for it. It was rarely given. I’m working on that in the interwar years.

My next big project is a major biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who has never really had one. I’m going to give her that.

DuBois is on a speaking tour for the book, including several upcoming events in town.

March 7 at 2 p.m. — “The Surprising Road to Woman Suffrage” illustrated book lecture at Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library

March 8 at 1 p.m. — “The Right to Vote Then and Now” panel discussion at Royce Hall. Also featuring Adam Winkler, Brenda Stevenson, Katherine Marino, Sheila Kuehl and Sandy Banks.

March 14 at 11 a.m. — “The Surprising Road to Woman Suffrage” Caughey Foundation Lecture at the Autry Museum of the American West

March 15 at 2 p.m. — Book presentation with Jessica Millward, UC Irvine associate professor of history, and Culver City Mayor Meghan Sahli-Wells at the Wende Museum

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a Himba father and son.

Study of African society inspires broad thinking about human paternity, fidelity

A new study from UCLA professor of anthropology Brooke Scelza invites geneticists and sociologists to think more broadly about human fidelity and paternity.

Scelza’s study, published in the journal Science Advances, uses data from a long-term anthropological study in Namibia with Himba pastoralists. She found that Himba have the highest recorded rate of what researchers call “extra-pair paternity.” The term refers to an instance in which a child is born to a married couple, but the husband is not the biological father.

The rate of extra-pair paternity found among Himba is 48%, far exceeding the 1% to 10% range previously thought to be typical for humans. Having children with non-marital partners was widespread among this group. A high percentage of couples (70%) had at least one child who was fathered by someone outside the marriage.

Extra-pair paternity is typically thought to occur at the expense of the husband, who is ostensibly being “tricked” into caring for a child who is not biologically his, Scelza said. However, her team shows that Himba men and women are highly accurate at detecting extra-pair paternity in their children. And Scelza contends that men not only are aware of this pattern, but they also have a system of social norms that support the practice.

A photo of a Himba father and son.

Brooke Scelza’s study found that “Himba have strong beliefs about the importance of social fatherhood, that a child is yours if it is born to your wife, regardless of paternity.” Photo Credit: Brooke Scelza/UCLA

“Himba have strong beliefs about the importance of social fatherhood, that a child is yours if it is born to your wife, regardless of paternity,” Scelza said. “Both the stigma that typically surrounds women having multiple partners and the bias that might lead to children being mistreated are markedly lower among Himba than they are in much of the rest of the world.”

It was important for researchers to collaborate closely with members of the Himba community involved in the study for ethical and logistical reasons that come up whenever paternity is at issue. For this study, Scelza and her team, in collaboration with the community, designed a novel double-blind method of analysis, so that none of the researchers was privy to both genetic data and individual-identifying information. The team received ethical approval for the study from Namibian Ministry of Home Affairs and the University of Namibia, as well as UCLA and the State University of New York’s Stony Brook University.

This research, while focusing on a small group, provides a new perspective in the study of human reproduction, Scelza said.

Generally, researchers believe that extra-pair paternity is rare among humans. Geneticists have estimated the extra-pair paternity rate in populations from the Netherlands and other European-descent communities. Historically, they have found the rate in these societies to be extremely low, from 1% to 6%.

Over the last decade, more social scientists have begun to focus on diversity and inclusivity when it comes to research samples, rather than focusing solely on people from Western societies, which has been the norm.

“Anthropologists have long emphasized the need to include diverse groups in research,” said Dr. Brenna Henn, a population geneticist formerly at Stony Brook and now at UC Davis, and co-author of the study. “Geneticists are still catching up. Our study shows that paternity rates can vary widely across different populations.”

Scelza emphasized that there is no “correct” or “moral” standard that researchers should think about when examining human reproductive behavior. In Himba culture, for example, extramarital sexual activity is common and not stigmatized.

“What we’re starting to understand and examine is how social and biological notions of paternity reflect complex suites of locally relevant norms, traditions and cultural histories,” Scelza said.

Scelza has been working with the Himba people for 10 years. A previous study published in Nature Human Behavior about infidelity also included Himba.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

2020 Hollywood Diversity Report: A different story behind the scenes

Image from the 2019 film "Aladdin"

Mena Massoud and Will Smith in the 2019 film “Aladdin,” which sold more than $1 billion in tickets worldwide, and whose cast was more than 50% minority.

Oscars viewers this weekend might see the predominantly white nominees and think Hollywood still has a diversity problem.

It does.

But there are indications that the film industry is starting to get the message that diversity sells. The numbers of acting jobs for women and people of color are getting closer to being proportionate with the U.S. population overall, according to UCLA’s latest Hollywood Diversity Report.

The report focuses on the top-grossing films of 2018 and 2019. (A related report covering the past two seasons of television data will be published in April.)

Although minorities were largely ignored for Academy Award nominations, films with diverse casts continued to resonate with increasingly diverse audiences, a fact emphasized by each new edition of the Hollywood Diversity Report.

When it comes to key jobs in the film world, the seventh annual report tells the story of two Hollywoods.

“As of 2019, both women and minorities are within striking distance of proportionate representation when it comes to lead roles and total cast,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of the UCLA College division of social sciences and the report’s co-author. “But behind the scenes, it’s a very different story. That begs the question: Are we actually seeing systematic change, or is Hollywood just appealing to diverse audiences through casting, but without fundamentally altering the way studios do business behind the camera?”

Women make up about 50% of the U.S. population and minorities slightly more than 40%. A majority of the nation’s population will be minorities by 2050, according to U.S. Census estimates.

The numbers of acting roles for women and people of color in film have been progressively increasing since UCLA researchers first started tracking data. And results from the last two years of film are heartening.

The researchers analyzed 139 films with the highest gross global ticket receipts of 2018. They found that 41.0% of lead roles went to women and 26.6% to minorities. And among all acting roles in those films, 40.4% went to women and 30.9% to people of color.

Things improved somewhat in most casting roles in 2019. Women had 44.1% of lead acting roles and 40.2% of the total cast in the 145 films from 2019 examined in the report; people of color made up 27.6% of lead actors and 32.7% of all film roles in 2019.

Each year, the report also analyzes the range of cast diversity among the top-grossing movies. In every previous report, films with the least diverse casts — those in which less than 11% of the cast were minority actors — made up the largest share of the top-grossing movies.

By 2019, that was not the case: Just 15.9% of the top-grossing movies had casts that were less than 11% minorities. By comparison, more than half of the top films in 2011 had less than 11% minority casts.

When it comes to writing and directing, minorities and women have gained a little ground on their white and male counterparts in recent years, but still have a long way to go.

In 2018, just 7.1% of the directors of top-grossing films were women and 19.3% were people of color. In 2019, women posted meaningful gains to reach 15.1%, but minorities directed just 14.4% percent of the top box office movies, a slight increase over recent years.

Women earned 14.8% of writing credits on the films analyzed in 2018, and minorities claimed 10.4%. Both figures improved for 2019, with 17.4% of writing credits going to women and 13.9% to people of color.

“Getting writing, directing and acting jobs is a critical step for women and people of color because success in the industry is largely driven by the credits you have,” Hunt said.

The statistics for people of color in key entertainment roles are particularly striking considering their visibility, buying power, ideas and experiences in the population at large — including as consumers of entertainment. People of color accounted for at least 50% of domestic ticket sales for six of the top 10 films in 2018. In 2019, minorities bought at least 50% of tickets for nine of the top 10 films.

In 2018, films with casts made up of 21% to 30% minority actors had the highest median global ticket receipts. In 2019, the films that tended to perform the best at the box office were even more diverse, with casts in the 41% to 50% minority range.

Despite that buying power, the analysis suggests, fundamental structural change in Hollywood is not yet evident.

The 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report also includes a workplace analysis of 11 major and mid-major studios, which found that 91% of C-level positions are held by white people and 82% are held by men. Among all senior executive positions, 93% percent are held by white people and 80% by men.

Further down the org chart, gender equality is somewhat better: Studios’ film unit heads are 86% white, but only 69% male.

“What’s being green-lit matters,” said the report’s co-author, Ana-Christina Ramon, director of research and civic engagement for the UCLA College division of social sciences. “And although the industry is changing in front of the camera, white men are still doing the overwhelming majority of the green-lighting and making the major decisions behind the scenes at the studios.”

That phenomenon largely dictates what stories get told and who gets the all-important jobs in front of and behind the camera, she said.

The report’s authors in 2019 published an analysis of inclusivity practices across several entertainment sectors. That report included a five-part strategy that could help push the needle on Hollywood diversity.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Unearthing Easter Island’s Moai

Two Moai are shown during excavations by Jo Anne Van Tilburg and her team at Rano Raraku quarry on Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island. Photo credit: Easter Island Statue Project

Rapa Nui (or Easter Island, as it is commonly known) is home to the enigmatic Moai, stone monoliths that have stood watch over the island landscape for hundreds of years. Their existence is a marvel of human ingenuity — and their meaning a source of some mystery.

Ancient Rapanui carvers worked at the behest of the elite ruling class to carve nearly 1,000 Moai because they, and the community at large, believed the statues capable of producing agricultural fertility and thereby critical food supplies, according to a new study from Jo Anne Van Tilburg, director of the Easter Island Statue Project, recently published in Journal of Archaeological Science.

Van Tilburg and her team, working with geoarchaeologist and soils specialist Sarah Sherwood, believe they have found scientific evidence of that long-hypothesized meaning thanks to careful study of two particular Moai excavated over five years in the Rano Raraku quarry on the eastern side of the Polynesian island.

Van Tilburg’s most recent analysis focused on two of the monoliths that stand within the inner region of the Rano Raraku quarry, which is the origin of 95 percent of the island’s more than 1,000 Moai. Extensive laboratory testing of soil samples from the same area shows evidence of foods such as banana, taro and sweet potato.

Van Tilburg said the analysis showed that in addition to serving as a quarry and a place for carving statues, Rano Raraku also was the site of a productive agricultural area.

“Our excavation broadens our perspective of the Moai and encourages us to realize that nothing, no matter how obvious, is ever exactly as it seems. I think our new analysis humanizes the production process of the Moai,” Van Tilburg said.

Van Tilburg has been working on Rapa Nui for more than three decades. Her Easter Island Statue Project is supported in part by UCLA’s Cotsen Institute of Archaeology. Tom Wake, a Cotsen Institute colleague, analyzes small-animal remains from the excavation site. Van Tilburg also serves as director of UCLA’s Rock Art Archive.

Van Tilburg, in partnership with members of the local community, heads the first legally permitted excavations of Moai in Rano Raraku since 1955. Cristián Arévalo Pakarati, a noted Rapanui artist, is project co-director.

The soils in Rano Raraku are probably the richest on the island, certainly over the long term, Sherwood said. Coupled with a fresh-water source in the quarry, it appears the practice of quarrying itself helped boost soil fertility and food production in the immediate surroundings, she said. The soils in the quarry are rich in clay created by the weathering of lapilli tuff (the local bedrock) as the workers quarried into deeper rock and sculpted the Moai.

A professor of earth and environmental systems at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., Sherwood joined the Easter Island Project after meeting another member of Van Tilburg’s team at a geology conference.

She wasn’t originally looking for soil fertility, but out of curiosity and research habit, she did some fine-scale testing of samples brought back from the quarry.

“When we got the chemistry results back, I did a double take,” Sherwood said. “There were really high levels of things that I never would have thought would be there, such as calcium and phosphorous. The soil chemistry showed high levels of elements that are key to plant growth and essential for high yields. Everywhere else on the island the soil was being quickly worn out, eroding, being leeched of elements that feed plants, but in the quarry, with its constant new influx of small fragments of the bedrock generated by the quarrying process, there is a perfect feedback system of water, natural fertilizer and nutrients.”

She said it also looks like the ancient indigenous people of Rapanui were very intuitive about what to grow — planting multiple crops in the same area, which can help maintain soil fertility.

The Moai that Van Tilburg’s team excavated were discovered upright in place, one on a pedestal and the other in a deep hole, indicating they were meant to remain there.

“This study radically alters the idea that all standing statues in Rano Raraku were simply awaiting transport out of the quarry,” Van Tilburg said. “That is, these and probably other upright Moai in Rano Raraku were retained in place to ensure the sacred nature of the quarry itself. The Moai were central to the idea of fertility, and in Rapanui belief their presence here stimulated agricultural food production.”

Van Tilburg and her team estimate the statues from the inner quarry were raised by or before A.D. 1510 to A.D.1645. Activity in this part of the quarry most likely began in A.D.1455. Most production of Moai had ceased in the early 1700s due to western contact.

The two statues Van Tilburg’s team excavated had been almost completely buried by soils and rubble.

“We chose the statues for excavation based on careful scrutiny of historical photographs and mapped the entire Rano Raraku inner region before initiating excavations,” she said.

Van Tilburg has worked hard to establish connections with the local community on Rapa Nui. The project’s field and lab teams are made up of local workers, mentored by professional archeologists and geologists.

The result of their collective efforts is a massive detailed archive and comparative database that documents more than 1,000 sculptural objects on Rapa Nui, including the Moai, as well as similar records on more than 200 objects scattered in museums throughout the world. In 1995, UNESCO named Easter Island a World Heritage Site, with most of the island’s sacred sites protected within Rapa Nui National Park.

This is the first definitive study to reveal the quarry as a complex landscape and to make a definitive statement that links soil fertility, agriculture, quarrying and the sacred nature of the Moai.

Van Tilburg and her team are working on another study that analyzes the rock art carvings that exist on only three of the Moai.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Photograph of Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Professor’s book about Sephardic Jews chosen as a best of 2019

Photograph of Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Sarah Abrevaya Stein. Photo credit: Caroline Libresco

Adding to the chorus of critics’ raves, The Economist has named “Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century,” a new book from UCLA professor of history Sarah Abrevaya Stein, to its best of 2019 list.

Stein’s latest work explores the intertwined histories of a single family (the Levys), Sephardic Jewry, and the dramatic ruptures that transformed southeastern Europe and the Judeo-Spanish diaspora. It has received glowing reviews from The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), the Los Angeles Review of Books and more.

Stein, who holds the Maurice Amado Endowed Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA, spent a decade researching this work, a journey that took her to a dozen countries, dozens of archives, and into the homes of a Sephardic clan that constituted its own, remarkable global diaspora.

The phrase “Sephardic Jew” refers to those of Spanish or Hispanic background. Stein’s new book begins with a family originally from old Salonica, a Mediterranean seaport of the Ottoman Empire, now Thessaloniki, Greece. In the late 19th century it was home to a large community of Spanish Jews.

The idea to tell the story of the Levy family came as Stein researched another book, an English-language translation of the first Ladino (which refers to a background of mixed Spanish, Latin American or Central American heritage) memoir ever written, “A Jewish Voice from Ottoman Salonica: The Ladino Memoir of Sa’adi Besalel A-Levi.”

“He spent the last years of his life writing a Ladino-language memoir to air a lifetime’s worth of grievances,” said Stein, who is also the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Director of the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA.

Her book traces the history of a collection, how one family archive came to be built and preserved.

The existence of Sa’adi’s personal memoir, one sole copy written in written in soletreo (the unique handwritten cursive of Ladino), outlived wars; the collapse of the empire in which it was conceived; a major fire in Salonica; and the Holocaust, during which Jewish texts and libraries as well as Jewish bodies were targeted by the Nazis for annihilation.

Stein was fascinated by the fact that this manuscript passed through four generations of Sa’adi’s family, traveling from Salonica to Paris, from there to Rio de Janeiro and, finally, to Jerusalem.

“It somehow eluded destruction or disappearance despite the collapse of the Salonican Jewish community and the dispersal of the author’s descendants over multiple countries and continents,” she said. “It knit together a family even as the historic Sephardi heartland of southeastern Europe was unraveling.”

Stein’s book traces decades of family correspondence and shared memories to reveal what became of Sa’adi’s 14 children and their far-flung descendants. Most fled Salonica after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, or attempted to flee later in 20th Century, when 37 members of the Levy family perished in the Holocaust.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Lynn Vavreck.

UCLA political scientists launch one of largest-ever public opinion surveys for run-up to 2020

As the nation heads into another contentious presidential campaign, what will drive people’s choices? What sacrifices are Americans willing to make to see their preferred politicians take office and their policy preferences take hold?

UCLA political science professors Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch plan to tackle those questions through the 2020 election with an ambitious data-gathering and analysis project called Nationscape. The effort is a partnership with the Washington, D.C.-based Democracy Fund, and the surveys are being fielded by Lucid, a New Orleans-based market research firm.

Every week until the end of 2020, Nationscape will survey 6,250 Americans, asking them to choose between two groups of policy positions and political attributes, among hundreds of other questions.

What makes Nationscape unique is the way it asks respondents to make choices. The survey includes 41 different policy statements and eight hypothetical attributes of potential candidates, all of which are randomized to appear in two sets of issues that voters must choose between. For example, respondents could be asked to choose one of the following sets of statements:

Each bundle of policies and outcomes could contain views that respondents disagree with, mixed with ideas they favor, but Vavreck said posing the questions that way will give researchers a better sense of what really makes the electorate tick.

“We designed the project to learn what people’s priorities are when they are forced to choose among states of the world they want to live in,” she said. “This will help us sort out what is really important to people who, in traditional surveys, tell us they ‘strongly agree’ with all sorts of issues. That response doesn’t really tell us how people will vote if a choice has to be made, and voting is all about making a choice.”

Researchers will share insights and analysis from the surveys regularly throughout election season on Nationscape’s website. By November 2020, the team will have completed a half million interviews — including at least 1,000 interviews in every congressional district.

“Our measurement approach, coupled with the massive scope of the project, will allow us to track both attitude change and shifts in the impact or importance of issues and candidate traits over time and space,” Vavreck said.

Data gathering began in late July. Among the initial findings: Even when Democrats and Republicans agree that children shouldn’t be separated from their parents at the southern border, that there should be a pathway to citizenship for people brought to the U.S. as children, or that the size of the military should be preserved, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to concede on the other issues to preserve their preferred stances on immigration issues, while Republicans are more likely to make tradeoffs to preserve the military.

The results also hint at how people’s priorities change — or don’t — in relation to current events. For example, Vavreck said, few people changed their opinions about the need for universal background checks for gun purchases after the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

“But the importance of that issue changed quite a bit,” she said. “It became significantly more important to people in choosing policy packages after the shootings, even though only about 1.8 percent of them changed their positions on the issue.”

Vavreck is the co-author of critically acclaimed books about the two most recent presidential elections, “The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election” and “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.” She is UCLA’s Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy.

Tausanovitch, an expert on political representation, is the co-principal investigator — along with Chris Warsaw of George Washington University — of the American Ideology Project, which characterizes the conservativism and liberalism of states and voting districts through a 275,000-person survey.

Tausanovitch combed through studies, programs and policies to develop the lists of scenarios that respondents are confronting in the Nationscape surveys. He’s interested in the tradeoffs people are willing to make based on their political leanings and where they come from.

“Data is already demonstrating to us the way people’s attitudes and priorities change in response to events taking place in the country and showing us how Democrats and Republicans prioritize things differently, even when they agree on policies,” Tausanovitch said. “This helps to explain how Americans agree on many things, but also illustrates that their priorities are different.”

The overarching goal of Nationscape is to engender more informed and productive political deliberations, said Joe Goldman, president of the Democracy Fund.

“Nationscape goes beyond horse race polls and battleground states and gets to the real issues that are driving voters and their decisions,” he said. “The unparalleled size and scope of this survey will help us understand how opinions differ across small geographic areas and groups of voters in a way that isn’t possible with traditional surveys, providing a deeper understanding of the electorate in this vital election.”

By the end of the election cycle, Nationscape will have reached people in every state and congressional district, America through Lucid’s platform.

“We were very eager to partner with the UCLA team and help apply their expertise on a scale that reflects the complexity of contemporary American politics,” said Patrick Comer, Lucid’s founder and CEO.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center: 50 years of providing Native peoples a voice

This video for Carrying Our Ancestors Home features interviews with UCLA leadership and tribal cultural heritage and repatriation practitioners.

As a quiet darkness descended over the several thousand people gathered between Royce Hall and Powell Library eagerly waiting to celebrate UCLA’s Centennial, a voice broke the silence:

“UCLA acknowledges the Tongva peoples as the traditional land caretakers of the Los Angeles basin. As a land grant institution, we pay our respects to the ancestors, elders and relations of the past, present and emerging.”

Those 15 seconds of alumna Cari Champion’s narration for the “Lighting the Way” light and projection show were a culmination of years of work and advocacy from dozens of people, including members of the Tongva community who collaborated with the UCLA American Indian Studies Center. It was also an opportunity for UCLA to demonstrate a commitment to acknowledging the history of the indigenous peoples of Southern California.

“It is an important gesture in Native tradition to ‘place yourself,’” said Mishuana Goeman (Tonawanda Band of Seneca), who in 2018 was named special advisor to UCLA Chancellor Gene Block on Native American and Indigenous affairs. “Introductions and acknowledgements place us in relationship with specific families, nations, geographies, cultural and political lineages. It is something we are taught to do from a young age as an anti-colonial tool to find connections between one other and remember that we are the result of bitter survival.”

The inclusion of the message in such a high-profile public forum — “Lighting the Way” capped the biggest UCLA Alumni Day ever — was for Goeman, who is chair of the American Indian Studies interdepartmental program and former associate director and interim director of the American Indian Studies Center, and her colleagues just a part of their tapestry of the center’s achievements.

The center’s work is not limited strictly to campus, of course. Over the years, people in the American Indian Studies Center have been at the forefront of efforts to build bridges between UCLA as an institution and members of local and state communities of people from indigenous backgrounds, especially the Gabrielino/Tongva, whose ancestors called the Los Angeles basin home for thousands of years before UCLA existed.

Shannon Speed (Chickasaw), director of the center, and Goeman were instrumental in convincing the Los Angeles City Council to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day in 2018.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of UCLA’s four ethnic studies centers, which together make up the Institute of American Cultures. All four were launched in 1969 and designed to invest in research and projects that illuminate the struggles and uplift the experiences of people from marginalized communities.

For the American Indian Studies Center, known as the AISC, that involves embracing students and faculty from multiple indigenous backgrounds, those who continue to make up the smallest numbers in UCLA’s diverse population. Part of the AISC’s inclusive mission is to empower a strong campus community that helps recruit Native students and faculty and once here, support their academic success.

UCLA recognizes the cultural history of the region

Goeman shepherded the creation of the official statement that acknowledges the Tongva people. In August, Block encouraged all campus groups to adopt a form of the following statement at significant public events. (Click on links to hear the Tongva words spoken aloud):

UCLA acknowledges the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples as the traditional land caretakers of Tovaangar (Los Angeles basin and So. Channel Islands). As a land grant institution, we pay our respects to Honuukvetam (ancestors), ‘Ahiihirom, (elders) and ‘eyoohiinkem (our relatives/relations) past, present and emerging.

The land acknowledgment was used on behalf of UCLA officially for the first time at Bruin Day in April, an event that invites thousands of admitted high school students and their families and caregivers to campus, and the “Lighting the Way” centennial launch in May. American Indian Studies Center leaders and some campus units and professional schools had been incorporating it into their events and materials for a year before that.

“Sometimes if feels like very small steps, but they are important nonetheless, because for many decades, universities didn’t even take small steps at recognitions like this,” Speed said. “And this builds momentum for other policies and programs that consider the needs and desires of tribal communities.”

The American Indian Studies Center is hosting a conference on Oct. 15–16 titled, “Lighting a Path Forward: Land Grants, Public Memory and Tovaangar.” The first day is open to the public and includes a series of presentations on the history of land grant institutions, of which UCLA is one. Other presentations and panel discussions will highlight the state of American Indian education and consider how all of the University of California campuses can continue to forge stronger relationships with tribal communities.

A California tribal listening session includes representatives from the Gabrielino/Tongva, the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, Chumash, and Acjachemen communities, as well as from the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians and Wintu.

“We want people to come away feeling like they made new connections and collaborations around important issues, and that they understand the responsibility of land grant institutions” Speed said.

A second day of closed workshops, as part Goeman’s special advisor programming, will hopefully yield ideas for white papers that will lay the groundwork for how universities might embrace those responsibilities, by prioritizing best practices that benefits indigenous people to establishing tangible government-to-government relations with tribal nations.

Leading efforts to return remains

For much of its 50-year history, faculty and students affiliated with the American Indian Studies Center have been deeply involved in efforts to return human remains of indigenous people to their ancestors. UCLA has been a leader in repatriations, much of its efforts led by Wendy Teeter, curator of archaeology in the Fowler Museum at UCLA and a lecturer in UCLA’s American Indian studies interdepartmental program.

A website launched this summer called “Carrying Our Ancestors Home” includes a timeline tracking UCLA’s path to almost complete repatriation. Videos featuring interviews with campus leadership and tribal cultural heritage and repatriation practitioners help underscore the powerful impact of repatriation. A large part of this project is giving communities their own space to work out tribal matters around repatriation and providing archival source material online, Goeman said.

The site is meant to help tribes and indigenous people navigate a process that is extremely complex and often met with resistance, Teeter said in May at an event during which she and Goeman launched the website.

In one of his final events as UCLA’s executive vice chancellor and provost of UCLA, Scott Waugh commended the efforts of the AISC to an invited audience from the Native community at that event.

“I know it is important for us to acknowledge where we are in place as well as time, to acknowledge the responsibilities of our shared history,” Waugh said. “I am also well aware that the history between Native peoples and institutions like ours can often be painful. While we cannot ignore our past, we can take steps to shoulder with respect and obligations that history places upon us. We can remember that the beauty of our state — the rivers, the ocean, mountains and deserts — was first experienced by the native and indigenous peoples who watched it before us and were the caretakers of it.”

Geography is something AISC-affiliated faculty take very seriously, knowing that Los Angeles and California are both home to some of the largest populations of humans of American Indian and indigenous descent.

Speed’s approach is to also invite students and faculty to also consider the nature of North American indigeneity at large and for scholars to confront ideas and stories about the indigenous people of Mexico and how their experiences with colonization are interconnected with American identities.

The center has offered critical support in recent years to scholars working on a web project called Mapping Indigenous Los Angeles, which seeks to tell layered stories from the city’s original inhabitants, especially the Gabrelino/Tongva and the Tataviam, as well as indigenous peoples who have come to call Los Angeles home by using digital maps and oral histories.

The AISC is about to embark upon one of its most ambitious research projects to date thanks to a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation that will help a team of researchers affiliated with the center tackle issues of race and water.

Speed, along with professor of anthropology Jessica Cattelino and Aradhna Tripati, professor in the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, will conduct community engaged research on water in the context of global warming in the southwestern United States.

“We’re really hoping this project brings together many disparate communities,” Speed said. “As a community collaboration project, part of what we are trying to do is decolonize the STEM field. With this research we’re bringing de-colonial methodologies into the sciences.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.