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Narratives can connect even the most disparate groups of people

October 10, 2019

Acclaimed journalist and author Earl Swift speaks on the power of storytelling to bridge divides on climate change

A lot had changed in the 15 years since Earl Swift last set foot on Tangier Island, located in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay. Whole swaths of coastline he’d traversed as late as 2000 had completely disappeared by the time he returned in 2015.

“I was struck by just how profound the change was to the landscape,” Swift, an acclaimed journalist, said Wednesday at a panel discussion on Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus to discuss his book, “Chesapeake Requiem.”

The public event was part of an initiative on “Apocalypticism, Climate Change, and the American Imagination,” a partnership between the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, the Global Futures Laboratory and the Narrative Storytelling Initiative.

Swift was inspired to write “Chesapeake Requiem” because of Tangier Island’s unique predicament: It is likely to become the first U.S. town to succumb to the effects of climate change, with its shoreline retreating at a rate of 15 feet per year, yet its conservative and deeply religious residents are loath to acknowledge mankind’s role in the rising sea levels, interpreting the situation instead as part of a divine, natural cycle.

“There are elements behind the science of climate change that they have a difficult time theologically buying into,” Swift said. “The island is also sinking, which is a byproduct of the last ice age. And if you believe Earth was only created 6,000 years ago, science that directly counters that is tough to swallow.”

He called Tangier Island a “bizarre” place, which is likely why it has been a popular subject for newspapers and magazines for more than a century. Settled during the American Revolution by fundamentalist Methodists, the island has always been a place apart. Today it totals less than 740 acres, only 83 of which are habitable, and roughly 460 people, who speak a distinct language Swift describes as a variation of the Hoi Toider dialectHoi Toider, or High Tider, is a dialect of American English spoken in very limited communities of the South Atlantic United States that can be traced back to influences from 17th-century English..

“It’s 100 miles from (Washington) D.C., yet it’s one of the most isolated communities on the eastern coast,” he said. “It’s a strange little community lost in time that is so close to the bustling Eastern Seaboard but completely separate from it.”

As a journalist living in Norfolk, Virginia, Swift was often sent to Tangier on assignment, but only to cover stories about the quaintness of life or the characters who lived there — never anything to do with climate change. That didn’t stop the islanders from broaching the subject themselves, though.

“I very quickly came to understand that they faced an existential dilemma,” he said. “They were losing eight acres a year on an island that wasn’t that big to begin with. I could sense a low-grade anxiety that ran through the population that has sharpened considerably since then.”

That anxiety was no doubt induced by the rapid changes islanders witnessed firsthand. Swift remembers one local, a 41-year-old man, who took him out on a boat to show him areas of the island where he’d played as a teenager, now 200 yards offshore. Despite what they are able to see with their own eyes, Swift said, the islanders’ faith plays a huge role in their steadfast belief that there is nothing they can do about it — except pray.

Over Tangier’s long history, it has been pummeled by hurricanes — including Sandy in 2012 and Isabel in 2003 — wracked with disease and tested by a number of other tribulations. Each time, the islanders prayed for survival, and each time, they believed their prayers were answered.

“It always worked out, so they came to see themselves as anointed by God, in a way, as separate and distinct from other Americans,” Swift said. “A people apart.”

And even though he listened as they spoke to him of concerns like whether to bother repairing a boat when the amount of time they have left on the island is uncertain, Swift said their resolve was unwavering: “I think they have great faith their prayers will again be answered and there will be intervention on their behalf.”

While writing “Chesapeake Requiem,” Swift estimates he spent four to seven hours a week in church with the islanders. He wanted to better understand them in order to better tell their story, and in a community in which “faith pervades everything,” church was the place to do that.

According to religious studies Professor Tracy Fessenden, it worked. She called Swift’s book a “deeply respectful and loving portrait of the men and women of Tangier Island.”

Fessenden joined Swift at the panel discussion Wednesday, along with moderator Steven Beschloss, senior director for narrative development with ASU Media Relations.

As participants in the “Apocalypticism, Climate Change, and the American Imagination” initiative, both Fessenden and Beschloss contend that narrative has the power to transform ways of thinking, bridge divides and spur change.

Fessenden’s father was a geologist who studied erosion in coastal communities.

“He had a sense of the majesty of geological time that reminded me a little bit of the folks on Tangier,” she said. “(In the book there are) images of gravestones being washed out to sea and there’s this sense that time and the elements mock even our attempts to memorialize ourselves.”

Even so, the islanders would most likely have met Fessenden’s father with a good deal of skepticism.

“I think for many on the island, climate change is a redescription of their reality, and one that doesn’t necessarily help because it doesn’t include a solution,” Fessenden said. And many are deeply critical of the islanders because of that.

“Chesapeake Requiem” briefly relays a 2017 incident in which the mayor of Tangier Island appeared on CNN's climate change town hall with Al Gore, disputing Gore’s assertion that the island’s loss of land was due to rising sea levels, but was instead due to erosion and calling for a sea wall. Gore then recounted a joke many islanders deemed disparaging to their faith because the punchline is a man trapped in floodwaters who refuses aid from rescuers in favor of divine intervention, only to learn from God later that he was the one who sent the rescuers.

Viewers' responses to the Tangier man that flooded the comment section after the segment aired were nothing short of belittling. Swift, Fessenden and Beschloss agreed, that kind of reaction gets us nowhere. However, the kind of storytelling Swift does in his book can.

“This book is … a very patient, intricate, beautiful read of a culture,” Fessenden said. “This kind of attention paid to communities and positions we don’t understand very well … that is the kind of work that’s going to be most effective.”

“You have to have a human face in the story you tell,” Swift said. “Abstract rarely moves to action.”

Paying attention to the language you use also helps.

“The language of climate change is the language of the left, which most on the island of Tangier feel alienated from,” said Fessenden, adding later in the discussion that “it doesn’t speak to their experience,” and that we should think about “enriching, broadening and changing the language of climate change,” to be more inclusive.

“These are deeply caring people, hardworking and honest,” she said. “There doesn’t seem to be a huge gulf between their ethics of care and caring for environment. But because of how it is presented, it seems to be a threatening scientific (concept).”

Additionally, Swift believes the story of climate change is best presented in a way that doesn’t focus as much on the cause as it does on how we can respond, which often means coming together, in spite of our differences, to wage a common war.

“We live in a polarized country in which there is no consensus on what science says is irrefutable,” he said. “I had nothing in common with (the people of Tangier) but was able to forge relationships. It’s possible to like — to love — people with whom you agree on nothing.”

Top photo: An audience of about 50 filled the Cronkite School's First Amendment Forum on ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus Wednesday, Oct. 9, to hear acclaimed journalist Earl Swift discuss his new book "Chesapeake Requiem" and how storytelling can help bridge divides. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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Bold restructuring of ASU’s College of Health Solutions results in growth

October 10, 2019

New model enables high-impact translational research and experiential learning

One year after a large-scale restructuring, Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions has announced growth in enrollment, new faculty and research advancement.  

Last fall, the College of Health Solutions made a bold move to eliminate its five departments and schools and centralize all of its academic programs and research initiatives. The goal was to give faculty and researchers a better way to collaborate and move their discoveries more rapidly into practice. The unique structure is starting to show results, with faculty creating translational research teams and forming new partnerships with the region’s health community to solve some of Arizona’s most intractable health challenges.

Growth is also evident with 15 new faculty and a nearly 10% increase in student enrollment. In addition, the college has added hands-on learning opportunities in many of its courses, giving students more real-world learning outside the classroom. Students are getting involved with research much earlier in their academic careers. They are also immersing themselves in the surrounding community through more internships and participation in health-related community projects.

Translational research to accelerate improved health outcomes

Translational research teams have begun work on practical, evidence-based solutions for health problems many people are facing in communities surrounding ASU. 

“Tackling health problems through translational science shortens the time between research and implementation so that discovery can directly impact and improve the health of populations in our community more quickly,” said Deborah Helitzer, dean of the College of Health Solutions. “To do that, however, you have to collaborate at all levels, not only within the college, but with researchers in other colleges and universities as well as with community partners and health professionals.” 

Currently, translational teams are addressing these complex health challenges:

• Autism spectrum disorder.

• Hearing loss in adults: Communication, connection and community.

• High-need, high-cost patients.

• Language outcomes in children with developmental disabilities.

• Metabolic disease.

• Value-based payment for oral health in Arizona.

Building relationships with community partners is a key focus. The Autism Spectrum Disorder team, for example, held its first conference recently, giving researchers and local practitioners the chance to pitch their expertise and needs in quick, lightning round sessions. “It was a little like speed dating,” said B. Blair Braden, assistant professor and a leader of the autism translational team. “The event helped remove traditional barriers between researchers, clinicians and community members, and we were able to share research and on-the-ground problems and brainstorm together. That kind of back-and-forth increases the chances of success when evidence-based solutions are implemented in the community.”

More experiential learning opportunities for students 

To bring the vision of a community-embedded, solution-oriented college to life requires that students have more ways to engage in research and hands-on learning. To that end, the college stepped up its research advancement efforts to increase grant awards. “The large amount of regulatory paperwork is a common barrier for researchers in applying for grants, and having more support through the research advancement team has allowed us to submit a greater number of proposals than ever before,” Braden said.

Research proposal awards were the highest since the college formed in 2012, with award funding increasing by 41.5% and faculty more than doubling their research expenditure goals over the previous year.

With this increased funding comes more projects in which students can gain research experience. Translational teams actively seek student participation, community connections provide more internships, and courses in citizen science have students combing downtown Phoenix to collect community health data. 

Jordan Junk, a College of Health Solutions kinesiology student participating in research with the Metabolic Disease translational team, said that she now realizes how important it is to do research that will benefit the real world.

“It’s not just about a single researcher or a group of researchers with the same idea exploring a question. It’s working with other people of different interests and expertise, getting their ideas on a topic so that we can examine it from different angles and get a better, more rounded solution,” she said. 

New faculty grow research and clinical practice

New faculty who share the college’s commitment to collaborative research, clinical practice and innovative teaching have joined the college, providing experiential learning to enrich the student experience. 

Chad Stecher is an assistant professor in the science of health care delivery programs. Stecher’s research applies experimental behavioral economics and social network analyses to identify behavioral and policy interventions that improve individual and population health outcomes. He received his PhD in economics from the University of California-Los Angeles and was previously a faculty member at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.

Katherine Hunt Brendish, clinical professor, brings deep experience as a certified genetic counselor and is developing degree programs that prepare students to counsel individuals and families on the complex issues surrounding genetic testing. 

And new clinical faculty in speech and hearing science — programs that are consistently ranked among the Top 20 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report — bring breadth and depth to the clinical training opportunities for students. 

Joshua Breger, director of the college’s Speech-Language Pathology Clinic and assistant clinical professor, brings a wealth of medical and critical care experience from many years as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) and rehabilitation clinic director in Phoenix-area hospitals and clinics. 

Victoria Clark, assistant clinical professor, has worked as an SLP in the region’s K–12 schools, expanding the college’s connections to those populations. Bilingual in Spanish and English, Clark serves children whose parents speak primarily Spanish and supervises graduate students as well as several after-school therapy programs for children. 

Elizabeth Trueba, assistant clinical professor, brings with her a long career working with adults as an SLP for trauma hospitals and certified stroke centers in the Phoenix metro area, expanding even further the variety of clinical experiences for speech-language students. 

Ten new lecturers are also bringing real-world experience to the classroom to prepare students in behavioral health, biomedical informatics and biomedical diagnostics, movement science, medical studies and health sciences, population health, nutrition, science of health care delivery, and speech and hearing science.   

“The results that we’ve seen over the past year are validating our decision to move forward with an integrated approach to creating community health solutions,” Helitzer said. “We have more opportunities for students to make a real and lasting difference in health as we address some of the most difficult health challenges facing Arizona. The culture of innovation at ASU has made it possible to implement a new vision that can more quickly improve health outcomes.” 

Top photo: Students research with Assistant Professor B. Blair Braden (second from right) to discover how aging affects adults with autism in the Autism and Brain Aging Laboratory at ASU's College of Health Solutions.

Kelly Krause

Media and communications manager , College of Health Solutions