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Cultural, academic partnership explores Latinx experience in 'Block Chronicles'

January 28, 2020

Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Professor Juan Carillo co-developed a new web series and online magazine

Juan Carrillo and Jason Méndez came from opposite sides of the country, taught at rival colleges, cheered for clashing NBA teams and even listened to different hip-hop.

They were the epitome of East Coast and West Coast. 

Far from home, they both felt like fish out of water, but they shared similar cultural backgrounds and lived experiences. So an unlikely friendship formed, leading to a podcast, a national-level web series, a feature documentary film and projects that continue to evolve.

“We are ‘scholarship boys,’ because we both come from working-class spaces and we entered mainstream society where we have had to negotiate feelings of gain and loss,” said Carrillo, an associate professor at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. He hails from south Los Angeles and is the son of Mexican immigrants from the state of Sinaloa. “As Latino males in academia, there was a sense of dislocation from our communities, and we felt very isolated.”

Méndez and Carillo were both in North Carolina teaching at competing colleges when they met in the fall of 2012. Carrillo was teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was the founding director of the Latinx Education Research Hub when Méndez, an education professor at Duke, invited him to speak at a lecture series he was hosting.

“Juan gave a great talk about family, culture, displacement and hitting upon all of these touchstones and themes that really resonated with me,” said Méndez, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, New York.

The two men felt an immediate connection, which deepened when they brought their families together. They all got along.

They shared stories of their past with music blasting in the background. Carrillo was partial to Tupac Shakur and Ice Cube while Méndez preferred the likes of the Wu-Tang Clan and Nas. They also got together for televised NBA games, with Carrillo rooting for the Lakers against Méndez’s New York Knicks. They fell into a quick routine of smack talk during the games or while doing battle on PlayStation; it was all in good fun.

“We were allowed to have these human moments together and be free and not think about the pressures of academia,” Méndez said. “It was a friendship that had quickly evolved into a brotherhood.”

Through their shared stories and experiences, an idea evolved: Why not record a podcast of one of their conversations and see where it goes? They recorded a two-hour conversation and called it Block Chronicles — the title referring to stories from their past and growing up on “the block.” It became a space to respect the cultural resources and knowledge that raised Carrillo and Méndez and bridged their communities in ways that were not oriented in a deficit perspective.

It took a few months to get the project off the ground. By the time the podcast was finally posted, the two men had moved on in their professional lives. Carrillo landed at ASU. Méndez moved to Pittsburgh, where he pursued a career in the literary arts. Today he is visiting professor of education in the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh.

Even though they were separated by thousands of miles, they still wanted Block Chronicles to grow. In early 2018 Méndez applied for a $10,000 grant through the Pittsburgh Foundation to film a seven-episode web series on various Latinx communities across the country. He promptly forgot about the application until he received an email a few months later.

“It read, ‘Congratulations, you are the recipient of a $10,000 grant,” Mendez said. “I called two people: one of my best friends, Cameron Parker, a professor at Brunswick County College in Wilmington, North Carolina. He used to be a producer for ESPN. Then I called Juan.”

Even though they abandoned the podcast, they kept the Block Chronicles name and pushed along an innovative approach that included a web series and later, an online magazine. They shot the first few episodes in Pittsburgh — all of it on iPhones to keep their costs down. Using mobile filmmaking enabled them to shoot 31 episodes. They visited places like New Mexico, Arizona, Puerto Rico and their respective hometowns — Los Angeles and the South Bronx.

“There is a lot of gentrification taking place around us and many in the community want a place where they can have that old-school identity."

— Sandy Flores, owner of Azukar Coffee in Phoenix.

In Los Angeles, they profiled award-winning writer Lilliam Rivera, who penned the young adult novels “The Education of Margot Sanchez” (2017) and “Dealing in Dreams” (2019). They also interviewed actor Taye Diggs (“All American”) about his series of children’s books, “Chocolate Me!” (2011), "Mixed Me!" (2015) and “I Love You More Than” (2018).

Over the course of eight months, they interviewed people in fields ranging from education and public health to arts and culture: This included musicians, artists, community activists, business owners, teachers, professors, researchers, photographers and a renowned urban revival strategist.

In December, they profiled Sandy Flores, owner of Azukar Coffee. Located in the heart of South Phoenix, the shop was the perfect story to showcase the fortitude of how a longtime community fixture is faring in the face of gentrification.

“The coffee shop is an identity for our community because it’s a place that brings people together,” said Flores, who hosts monthly art shows, workshops and yoga classes and holds an annual Dios de los Muertos event in the space. “There is a lot of gentrification taking place around us and many in the community want a place where they can have that old-school identity. It’s one of the few places in Phoenix that has generations of people that grew up and remained here.”

Block Chronicles really started to flourish thanks to the AW Mellon Grant Program, which awarded Carrillo and Méndez a $15,000 grant. The money gave them an opportunity to turn a 20-minute short about a Puerto Rican Celebration Day in Pittsburgh into a full length documentary feature called “Boricuas in the Burgh.” For the film, which will debut in 2021, they tapped their new friends Lilliam Rivera to narrate and Taye Diggs and Emmy Award-winning Emmai Alaquiva to co-direct. All of them said yes without hesitation.

Rivera agreed to narrate the documentary because their work will elevate the Puerto Rican community.

“I’m always paying attention to people who are documenting creative people of color and doing things that are really interesting and not getting enough play,” Rivera said. “I was excited about Block Chronicles because of the people they’ve chosen to highlight. There’s a community aspect to their work that elevates others and so it was an easy ‘yes.’ Even if this was something I wasn’t involved with, I know I would have promoted it on social media. I want to align myself with people who are doing positive things.”

The two educators have future plans for establishing Block Chronicle labs working with youth from communities similar to their own to produce their own content. They also want to shoot episodes in Mexico and other countries such as Iceland to explore Latinx communities and identity in unlikely places.

“It’s an exciting period for us because I’ll be eating Raisin Bran at 1 o’clock in the morning and get a phone call from Jason about collaborations in the works with artists, educators and Hollywood actors and I’ll be like, ‘Wow,’” Carrillo said. “It’s all happened so fast. There’s an energy that’s bigger than the both of us and I’m always reminded that Block Chronicles is about how education can happen beyond the walls of the classroom and how we can learn from places and people that are often overlooked.”

Top photo: Juan Carrillo (left) an associate professor in ASU's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and Jason Méndez, an assistant professor of urban education at University of Pittsburgh, talk about their Block Chronicles collaborative project, a national web series and online magazine profiling educators, artists, researchers and community organizations in the fields of Latinx and urban issues. They met at Azukar Coffee in south Phoenix, before interviewing shop owner Sandra Flores on Dec. 12, 2019. The artwork behind them was created for Azukar by local artist Lalo Cota. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU News


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Iran's regime is ripe for revolution, says ASU expert

January 28, 2020

The School of Social Transformation and Herberger Institute to co-sponsor ‘Understanding Iran: A Conversation with Pardis Mahdavi’

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a pressure cooker of politics, poverty, theocracy and paramilitary force. Experts say that after more than 40 years of power, the Iranian government is in danger of losing control.

The termination of a nuclear deal, crippling economic sanctions, female activists calling for change, assaults on oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the killing of General Qassem Soleimani and the downing of a Ukranian jetliner have escalated tensions to the point of potential revolution.

Arizona State University School of Social Transformation Director Pardis Mahdavi has been working in and on Iran for the past two decades and brings a nuanced view of the conflict. She will talk about the escalation in Iran during a Friday presentation at ASU’s Tempe campus titled “Understanding Iran: A Conversation with Pardis Mahdavi.

Michael Rohd, a professor at the Herberger Institute for Design and Arts will interview Mahdavi, who will then take questions from the audience.

Mahdavi's family lost everything in the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s. They faced displacement and discrimination in addition to the loss of home and country.

WATCH: Pardis Mahdavi on Belonging 

Mahdavi spoke to ASU Now about her upcoming presentation, her former life and Iran's future.

Woman in yellow dress smiling

Pardis Mahdavi

Question: You said last July that Iran has been ripe for revolution for several years, but U.S. military action has always set this back. What does that mean?

Answer: Iran has one of the youngest populations in the world with 70% under the age of 35. At the same time, these young people are highly educated, and many are dissatisfied with the current regime. Over the past decade we have seen an increase in the numbers — and socioeconomic diversity — of people pouring into the streets to overtly protest the Islamists in power. From the Green movement of 2009 to the larger protests of 2017–18, and then the widespread protests at the end of last year, we are seeing more and more Iranian citizens actively showing their disgruntlement with the regime.

That said, the street politics in Iran have often been adversely affected by U.S.-Iran relations. When the U.S. promotes sanctions, that gives the regime more power to say that the fault lies with the “Great Satan,” and not with the regime. Remember, this is a government that came to power through an agenda of reversing “Westoxication.” The Islamists in power gained — and still maintain — their power through anti-Westernism. What happens when the “West” acts aggressively toward Iran is that this argument suddenly gains more weight, and, by extension, the regime gains more power.

Q: How would you describe the current level of tensions, both within Iran and between Iran and the U.S.?

A: Within Iran the simmer of discontentment with the regime is definitely up to a boiling roar. Especially when news of Iran’s involvement in the downing of Flight 752 came out, people were incensed and began calling on global support to hold the regime accountable. Iranians living in urban and rural areas publicly decry the regime for falling short on its promises. And what is distinctive about this wave is that it appears to be led by Iranians in counties where there is limited voting or votes are often cast for a moderate candidate. At the surface, the protests seem to once again (in a repeat of 2017) be about gas prices and unemployment. But at their core, these protests were loud and resounding calls for regime change.

Between the U.S. and Iran the heat seems to have turned to a simmer — but one of mutual distrust. Both sides seem to be standing in a face-off, waiting for the next move.

To me, one of the interesting questions is also to consider what is happening between Iran and Iraq and throughout the regime as a whole.

Q: How seismic an event was the killing of General Soleimani for Iran?

A: Enormous. It was also unexpected — and the way in which it transpired, in Iraq, also added several layers of complexity. It was an incredibly aggressive act of war and shook the entire region. Members of Iran’s Foreign Ministry — including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif — said that the provocation demanded a response. In the immediate aftermath the entire region and perhaps the whole world held their breath to see what the magnitude of the response would be. Iranians living in Iran looked two steps ahead. What would happen to them after their government responded and then the U.S. or its allies hit back with even more magnitude? Iranians in the U.S. were terrified of the crushing tide of Islamophobia that was flooding our shores. Iraq and Syria were watching to see what their response would be. The reverberations were felt across the globe.

On a personal note, it was a terrifying moment to be an Iranian American. I was worried for my family back in Iran as I choked back tears when I heard their worried voices on the other end of our Skype calls. When I looked at the fearful faces of my own children who read headlines of an impending war with Iran, I had to take deep steadying breaths as I convinced them that it was still safe for them to go to school here in Tempe, that their classmates would not bear them any ill will — I hoped. And I was frustrated at the monolithic portraiture of Iranians that was sweeping the U.S.

Q: The initial expectation of escalation after the killing and the bombing of bases in Iraq appears to have quieted down. Has it? And how do you view the coming months or even the next year or two?

A: It seems to have quieted the escalation between the U.S. and Iran. But the situation in Iran is far worse now than even a few months ago. Iranians pour into the streets to protest the regime. The government responds with increased crackdowns. In the weeks preceding the assassination of Soleimani, people had already started protesting escalating gas prices and the failing economy. When the assassination took place, Iranians on the ground were shocked.

Inside Iran, tensions are mounting as people are increasingly frustrated with the regime and are calling for transparency and government accountability.

In the coming months I fear that there will be a reescalation in the stand-off with Iran, particularly as the 2020 election draws closer. The U.S. doesn’t switch parties in the middle of the war — we know that from history. I worry about history repeating itself.

Q: You know Iran, on the ground, particularly in Tehran. Most Americans don’t. Describe for us what life is like in Tehran and your sense about the people?

A: Despite the monolithic portrayal of Iran as diametrically opposed to all things “Western,” many ordinary Iranians — young people and activists in particular — actually share important values with Americans. Iranians who have been taking to the streets for the past several years have been calling for things like human rights, equality, women’s rights and government accountability. And while the two governments have been at war, Iranian students at universities for example, have welcomed dialogue with their Western counterparts.

Q: Looking ahead, are you optimistic or pessimistic that the U.S. and Iran can find a place of equilibrium?

A: I have to be optimistic, otherwise it is too hard to live here as an Iranian American. I have to hope that people will start to look past the headlines and fake news and start to understand the nuance of U.S.-Iran relations. My hope is also that the U.S. will find a way to support the street politics in a way that is not intervention, violence, war or sanctions, but rather engagement with local folks.

Many activists in Iran believe that the Green Movement was a missed opportunity for members of the U.S. government to strongly support a resistance that could have led to positive change. It is true that the U.S. does not have a strong track record when it comes to engagement with Iran — consider the CIA-backed coup in 1953 that ousted democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh, or the uncritical support of the Shah’s Savak secret surveillance police. However, with the infectious hope that (President Obama's election) swept throughout the globe — Iranians felt that there was a possibility that American engagement could come in the form of support rather than deadly intervention, that Washington could back local activists in the form of calling for investigations into human rights violations or election transparency. While Iranian feminists and youth activists tried to engage their American counterparts, their success was limited as the U.S. preferred a more “hands off” approach that involved then President Barack Obama indicating his public support but not taking additional steps.

In the years before and after the Green Movement, feminist activists continued to publicly call for regime change, often by highlighting the regime’s unequal treatment of women. In 2006, they began the One Million Signatures campaign to collect signatures in support of reforms of laws that would allow women equal rights. Since 2000, they have demonstrated their resistance by sliding the mandatory headscarf further and further back — earning this movement the nickname “the millimeter revolution”. In 2014 a social media campaign with the hashtag #MyStealthyFreedom spread rapidly featuring images of Iranian women photographing themselves in public without their hijab. In 2018, public protests of mandatory veiling swept the nation with women standing publicly without headscarves in protest. Again, feminists called on a global solidarity. Again, the global community turned their/our backs.

Top photo: Protests in front of Amir Kabir University, Jan. 11, 2020, against Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 being shot down. Photo by MojNews