Grand Challenges Scholars Program network prepares for a more collaborative future

December 31, 2020

Among the lessons learned from 2020 is just how important it is for the global community to work together to solve the world’s biggest challenges.

Applying that lesson, the National Academy of Engineering-endorsed Grand Challenges Scholars Program network is working to shape the future of the organization in a way that prepares students to address the global challenges humanity faces today. The GCSP, formed in 2008 after the NAE identified 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century, has been adopted by 74 U.S. universities and 19 international schools as a way to support the development of engineering students to achieve the NAE’s goals for a better future. Grand Challenges Scholars Program Grand Challenges Scholars Program leaders at Arizona State University are working with other GCSP network members to lead the transition to a new community consortium leadership structure and expand how it prepares students to better engineer a complex world. Graphic by Rhonda Hitchcock-Mast/ASU Download Full Image

The GCSP leadership in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University is working with other longtime active GCSP network members from Bucknell University, Louisiana Tech University and the Olin College of Engineering to leverage NAE's successful leadership of the international community to transition to a new community consortium leadership structure.

During this transition, ASU will be assuming all administrative responsibilities for the day-to-day operation of GCSP. The NAE will continue to provide recognition to graduating Grand Challenges Scholars during and after the transition.

“The Fulton Schools of Engineering recognizes the impact of the GCSP program on engineering and is proud of our program and its students. We are excited about working with other schools as we transition to a community-led GCSP network,” says James Collofello, a professor and vice dean of academic and student affairs for the Fulton Schools. “We hope to leverage ASU’s and the Fulton Schools’ experience and resources in digital learning to connect GCSP students and alumni across the GCSP network in novel ways.”

Similar goals spark change

ASU has participated in GCSP since 2011 and was the fourth school to join the network after the program’s three founding schools. ASU faculty, staff, students and alumni have been highly involved in the network’s annual meetings. Amy Trowbridge, director of GCSP at ASU and a senior lecturer in the Fulton Schools, has served on the GCSP proposal review committee.

In recent years, some of ASU’s GCSP activities to engage students at the Fulton Schools and throughout the GCSP network have been supported by the Kern Family Foundation, an organization that supports education to create value and teach an entrepreneurial mindset, especially for undergraduate engineering students.

When applying for their latest Kern Family Foundation grant, Trowbridge and the ASU GCSP had ideas to expand opportunities for student and alumni networks and create a platform for faculty members to share best practices.

It was great timing for the NAE, which was considering a shift of the GCSP network leadership toward its members and expansion of GCSP’s original mission to be “a community-led endeavor to generate intended impacts in engineering education and professionalism,” as stated in an NAE memo announcing the transition.

Thor Misko, program director at the Kern Family Foundation, helped connect ASU and the NAE as the GCSP leadership at ASU had already started thinking about the future of the network. The support of the Kern grant team and other Fulton Schools staff put ASU in a great position to help pilot the transition.

“It is always great to be able to connect two like-minded partners together that see opportunities to advance their goals,” Misko says. “Their partnership naturally emerged because they share a mission of graduating engineers with an entrepreneurial mindset. We are happy to support their initial exploration and look forward to seeing how the NAE, ASU and the GCSP communities collaborate to create an even more robust and impactful program moving forward.”

Now ASU is drawing on its resources and innovative approach to expand how it can prepare students to better engineer a complex world.

Engaging the community

Each of the 93 institutional members of the GCSP community operates largely independently while still supporting students' development aligned with the GCSP goals and structure. To be named an NAE Grand Challenges Scholar upon graduation and be added to the NAE registry, undergraduates must complete a variety of competencies through curricular and extracurricular activities aligned with their institutional mission and vision.

“The GCSP network has been growing outward around the world, which is great. But I think that we need to strengthen the connections within the network for a more engaged community of passionate students, alumni and faculty,” Trowbridge says. “I see the transition team’s job as figuring out the best way to build a stronger network. A lot of people out there want to actively engage in the GCSP network, and we want to bring them together to build the future together.”

Keith Buffinton, a professor at Bucknell University who has been serving on the GCSP proposal review committee, says it’s an exciting time for the organization, which is valued as an important agent of change in improving the global quality of life. 

“We have thousands of current GCSP students and alumni who understand the interconnectedness of societal, cultural and technological issues and are intent on making a difference in the world,” Buffinton says. “We have an opportunity to build upon this great success and move forward in creating new points of engagement both for the growing range of institutions that want to establish GCSPs and for the next generation of students who will make the world a better place.” 

The faculty members who are leaders in their own schools’ GCSPs have excellent ideas that could evolve and strengthen the network as a whole, says Katie Evans, the associate dean of strategic initiatives at Louisiana Tech University College of Engineering and Science who has been serving as chair of the GCSP proposal review committee.

“Insightful ideas from our institutions’ faculty members span the spectrum of local implementations to collaborations across time zones and continents,” Evans says. “Transitioning the GCSP network to a community-led effort creates opportunities and shared responsibilities for the faculty members to create an even more robust program that provides students with empowering learning experiences for many years to come.”

Yevgeniya V. Zastavker, an Olin College of Engineering professor and the college’s inaugural GCSP director who has been serving on the GCSP proposal review committee, adds, “This is a unique moment in the evolution of the international GCSP network that allows us to reflect on where we have been, assess where we may want to go, given the current socio-political and cultural shifts in global society, and plan the network’s next steps accordingly.”

Zastavker says the network must engage in necessary questions such as, “How do we intentionally support development of the GCSP network to be even more inclusive, diverse and equitable? How do we leverage the GCSP to create equitable learning opportunities for all students across the globe? How do we bring all voices to the GCSP table to support sustainable learning structures for the future global citizenry?”

Brainstorming the future together 

During this year of change, Trowbridge and the transition team worked to foster a greater sense of community by hosting a virtual GCSP Annual Meeting in November focused on a relevant theme: staying in the present, reflecting on the past and imagining the future. 

The two-day event included talks by the GCSP’s founders and longstanding steering committee members, student and alumni success stories, student project showcases, various networking sessions for students, alumni and faculty and the first GCSP networking session for industry. Most importantly, the event included community brainstorming sessions to generate ideas and goals for the future of the GCSP network. 

“We want to take ideas from the meeting this year to find ways to build bonds and provide opportunities to really be a network and learn from each other,” Trowbridge says.

New opportunities for students, alumni, faculty

“The original Grand Challenges, and the original GCSP, were developed by relatively small groups of people who identified the challenges and created the program based on their collective wisdom and experiences,” Buffinton says. “The future of the GCSP can now be molded and guided by a much larger collection of people with an even wider range of experiences to ensure that the GCSP remains appropriately focused, inclusive and timely.”

Ideas for opportunities that originated during the annual meeting all bring value to students participating in the program, including new student networks and more engagement between the GCSP network institutions. 

“What a beautiful opportunity to create supportive structures for our students’ development and get out of their way,” Zastavker says. “We may just witness the impossible.”

Faculty members can also share best practices on how to make their program components more successful and better support their students.

GCSP alumni in particular will receive more benefits. As ambassadors to the program in their new roles as graduate students and industry professionals, alumni help others learn about the program and understand its value, Trowbridge says.

With a strong alumni network, industry relations also grow. ASU piloted an industry workshop this year to better align the skills GCSP students learn and what’s needed in industry careers. And in the future GCSP network, industry will become more involved to better understand the value Grand Challenges Scholars bring as tomorrow’s leaders.

The transition team hopes to have a new leadership structure in place during 2021 that provides more opportunities for community members to get involved at various levels — from making decisions about the program as a whole to serving on advisory committees and promoting alumni and student networks.

“The GCSP community is excited about this opportunity to lead itself,” Trowbridge says. “We’re excited to put community leadership in place and continue to grow and strengthen the network.”

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU organizations collaborate to fight for social justice

December 29, 2020

With the year coming to an end, three of Arizona State University’s groups committed to social justice met on Dec. 17 for reflection and healing after 2020's pandemic, contentious election and violence against people of color. 

After systemic racism gained fresh attention this summer following the killings of George Floyd and others, ASU President Michael Crow proposed a series of actions to promote inclusivity on campus. Zoom meeting Representatives from three faculty and staff organizations at ASU met for the "Hindsight is 2020" event on Dec. 17. Download Full Image

The Chicano/Latino Faculty and Staff Association (CLFSA), African and African American Faculty and Staff Association (AAAFSA) and Faculty Women of Color Caucus (FWOCC) are all planning to tackle this problem locally, and they said they hope to see enactment of Crow’s 25 items of support for the Black community over the next few years.

In September, the organizations met as one for the first time to discuss how they can better collaborate to promote inclusivity at the university and across the broader community. The presidents of each group said they believe coming together can help unite people of color at ASU.

“There is a need to be there for each other, to be able to process things together … but also look at ways where we can make an impact, where we can work together with university leadership to create progress and make sure that they know the needs of our communities,” CLFSA President Sandra Martinez said. 

That first meeting cemented a partnership that led to the “Hindsight is 2020” event, where 79 attendees learned about the importance of working together to create positive change at the university and to help students.

The presidents of each diversity organization shared the history of their group and plans for the future. Lisa Magaña, a professor at the School of Transborder Studies who heads the Faculty Women’s Association, also discussed turnout this election and the role of Arizona as a swing state. 

Vanessa Fonseca Chávez, an assistant English professor and president of FWOCC, said she hopes these efforts create a platform to help faculty “in this political moment” and to foster relationships among organizations. 

“Now is a conversation to really think about who are the critical constituents and key stakeholders to the types of national and even regional conversations that we are having on Black Lives Matter and police brutality,” Fonseca Chávez said.

Kenja Hassan, president and founder of AAAFSA and assistant vice president for government and community engagement at the Downtown Phoenix campus, said systemic inequities and the “visible and invisible hatred” against people of color make it vital for organizations fighting for inclusivity to band together.  

“In order for us to hold truth to these statements that our nation has written — that we believe in liberty and justice for all — it takes work,” Hassan said. “A conversation like this is so important, because in order for us to be successful as a nation, we all have to figure out where we can find common ground. … Us being able to do it at ASU is critical.”

Stanlie James, ASU’s outgoing vice provost of inclusion and community engagement, was a special guest at the meeting — her last appearance before the groups. She offered some words of wisdom about the importance of continuing to fight for social justice. 

“Our country has an opportunity to finally begin to figure out how to live up to the words in our founding documents,” James said. “We will not be returning to the way it used to be. Rather, we must begin to specifically clarify how we want it to be, and how we can contribute to enacting that vision here at ASU.” 

Martinez shared her excitement to see CLFSA member Nancy Gonzales as the next executive vice president and university provost and Maria Anguiano as the next executive vice president of ASU’s new Learning Enterprise.  

2020 marks the 50th anniversary for CLFSA, which has had a strong presence at ASU as an advocate and a voice for communities of color.

Martinez believes that despite the obstacles they faced this year, this new leadership is a positive way to end the year and celebrate the organization’s anniversary, as well as a step in the right direction for the university.

RELATED: Donate to social justice opportunities at ASU

Written by Diana Quintero, journalism student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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Natalie Diaz, in her own words

December 29, 2020

ASU poet wins national, international acclaim for latest book; here, creative writing students read from selections of her latest work

Cover image of "Postcolonial Love Poem" by Natalie Diaz courtesy Graywolf Press.

Her words are powerful. As it turns out, they’re as powerful as her jump shot.

A former professional basketball player, Arizona State University Associate Professor of English Natalie Diaz has successfully made the metaphorical leap from cager to poet. Her latest collection, “Postcolonial Love Poem,” was recently a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award. It has also delighted much of the reading public, and it continues to make appearances on year-end “best of” lists.

But the book is not just a crowd-pleaser.

“Postcolonial Love Poem” has stirred timely conversations about systemic racismIndigeneity and intimacy. The book has also made the long and short lists for several other literary prizes, including the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize.

Diaz, who directs ASU's Center for Imagination in the Borderlands and holds the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry, teaches in ASU’s creative writing program. Her first poetry collection, “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” — winner of the American Book Award — was published in 2012. Its poems focused largely on Diaz’s family of origin, and especially on her brother's struggles with addiction.

A. Meinen, a creative writing graduate student at ASU and a mentee of Diaz's, reads “It Was the Animals.” 

“Postcolonial Love Poem” is Diaz’s second collection. It also engages with familial relationships — Diaz’s mother and brother both make appearances in the book — but it expands to include romantic love; desire itself is the focus here. Published by Graywolf Press this March, the book crossed the pond in July, being selected by the British Poetry Book Society and released in a U.K. edition by Faber and Faber.

“Postcolonial Love Poem” is an ode to survival and resilience. This sentiment is encapsulated in its title poem, where the poet enumerates her desires, transcending expectations and limitations. She desires; therefore, she exists.

ASU creative writing graduate student Erin Noehre reads “Postcolonial Love Poem.” 

Even with the COVID-19 pandemic stymying traditional publicity junkets, “Postcolonial Love Poem” quickly arrived on must-read lists, from to O, The Oprah Magazine.

“One of the most important poetry releases in years,” said a reviewer in The New York Times. Another, in one of several glowing reviews in The Guardian, called it “breathtaking, groundbreaking.” Most recently, Diaz’s peers, poet Tonya Foster and novelists Viet Thanh Nguyen and Jess Walter — the latter of whom wishes that more poets would write about basketball — have given shoutouts to the book.

Diaz, for her part, is unfailingly gracious when receiving such praise. She says that she feels “lucky” that "the book was celebrated across this strange pandemic year.” Even before 2020, Diaz’s path to such literary accomplishments was certainly a winding one. Although, she might say, where she has ended up — writing and teaching poetry — isn’t all that far from where she began. 

From the Southwest to the world

Born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, Diaz is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. After playing professional basketball for four years in Europe and Asia, she returned to the States to complete her MFA at Old Dominion University. She then spent several years working on Mohave language preservation initiatives in the Southwest.

“I think language is a lot like basketball,” Diaz told The Arizona Republic in 2018, upon winning a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, “because I think language is an energy, it’s a happening, a kind of movement.”

In 2017, Diaz began her career at ASU. As an educator, Diaz’s focus is trained on close mentorship of graduate students in Department of English’s creative writing program. Her mentorship of and advocacy for students is an extension of her considerable gifts, and she encourages her mentees to incorporate both art and activism into their everyday lives.

Diaz does the same in her own life, and in her writing. Her words themselves teach and delight, turn and discomfit. She writes with wit, beauty, vulnerability and — especially in the love poems — with reverence. In the poem “From the Desire Field,” Diaz reveals the anxiety that keeps her up at night. It feels alive, and so she makes it into something lush and green: a garden.

Maritza Estrada, the artistic development and research assistant for ASU’s Center for Imagination in the Borderlands and a graduate student in creative writing, reads “From the Desire Field.” 

From the body to the page

The poems in “Postcolonial Love Poem” range in tone from humorous to tragic, sometimes in the same stanza. They reference Greek myth, police statistics and Sherman Alexie. Diaz doesn’t shy away from difficult topics; instead, she gives them a kind of dialectic treatment. She transforms the knife in her brother’s hand into a tool for mining starlight. She sings an indie rock lyric (“Oh say say say”) in her mother’s voice. And she churns her grief at America’s imperialist abuses into a caress under her lover’s shirt.

Topically, Diaz’s poems careen from her brother’s methamphetamine addiction (Blood-Light”), to the precarious sovereignty of the Indigenous body (“Top 10 Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball” and “American Arithmetic”), to the many virtues of her lover (“Ode to the Beloved’s Hips”).

ASU creative writing graduate student Julian Delacruz reads “American Arithmetic.”

Like “American Arithmetic,” many of Diaz’s poems reference and normalize her Indigenous heritage, beautifully articulating the pain and pride she feels in her cultural identification. Elsewhere, she has talked about how she navigates the divide between this and other dichotomies. “I am Native, so I am both — truth/fiction,” she told PEN America, “and also bleeding over or overflowing each.”

Nationally, efforts are underway to bring visibility to the service, sacrifice and sovereignty of Indigenous Americans – efforts like the National Native American Veterans Memorial, which was unveiled on Nov. 11 in Washington, D.C. However, Diaz acknowledges in her poetry that she must always remain vigilant — her primary goal is to be fully seen, not contextualized or defined, by others:

At the National Museum of the American Indian,
68 percent of the collection is from the U.S.
I am doing my best to not become a museum
of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out.

I am begging: Let me be lonely but not invisible.

— Natalie Diaz, from “American Arithmetic”

Top photo of Natalie Diaz by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

senior marking & communications specialist , Department of English


Associate dean elected to SACNAS national board of directors

December 22, 2020

Fabio Milner, associate dean of graduate initiatives and professor in Arizona State University’s School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, was recently elected to the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) national board of directors.

SACNAS is a nonprofit organization that strives to ensure populations underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have the support they need to obtain advanced degrees, careers and positions of leadership. Fabio Milner, associate dean of graduate initiatives and professor in ASU’s School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, will join the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) national board of directors on Jan. 1, 2021. Download Full Image

“SACNAS is a most energizing and dynamic organization,” Milner said. “It started 47 years ago when a handful of friends and acquaintances created it to support Chicanos and Native Americans in getting a chance at STEM careers. It evolved into an organization of many thousands of members devoted to creating opportunities and respect for members of underrepresented groups of any kind. To me, helping to expand this scope is a matter of social justice that I am very passionate about.”

Milner was born and raised in Argentina and has been with ASU for 12 years. In his research, he studies structured population models including demography, epidemics, ecology and tumor growth. He and his collaborators are also developing a family of epidemiological models structured by immunological variables in order to describe the multiscale problem of disease propagation at the individual level and the population level in a single model.

“Fabio’s election to the SACNAS board is an exciting and well-deserved honor,” said Patrick Kenney, dean of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “His ongoing dedication to The College, students and diversity in his field aligns perfectly with SACNAS’ mission of fostering the success of historically marginalized groups within STEM. We are grateful to have him advocating for this important issue and know his perspective will bring about positive change.”

As a member of the board of directors, Milner will work with other board members to provide vision and strategic direction for the organization. His three-year term will begin on Jan. 1, 2021.

Emily Balli

Communications Specialist and Lead Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

PhD grad uses math to explore the brain

December 21, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

Vergil Haynes is graduating this month with a PhD in applied mathematics from Arizona State University. His research approaches old neuroscience questions but in new ways. Although the questions are simple in appearance, long-held assumptions about them have limited new insights for decades. Vergil Haynes wears a surface electroencephalogram (EEG) recording cap. Surface electroencephalography is a method for recording electrical activity associated with brain physiology from the scalp. Download Full Image

“Often times when you are recording activity in the brain, you don’t know precisely what influences the signals you record and this limits your ability to interpret those signals,” Haynes said. “Do they come from one type of brain cell or another? I ask, what is the origin of certain brain signals associated with individual brain cells, and whether knowledge of those origins can aid in improving data analysis techniques.”

“Another problem I’m concerned about is community standards for modeling. Many assumptions are built into very detailed simulations of brain cells. For example, cells have protein structures in their membranes. I developed a framework for figuring out whether there are common patterns for these structure in how many there are, where they are, and what they do. For both of these problems, I use a combination of simulations, machine learning, and advanced statistical techniques to also challenge assumptions about how brain cells are grouped based on recorded signals.”

“Vergil is detail oriented in his research and has an astonishing knowledge of the literature. This helps him see the big picture and understand where his work lies with respect to previous and ongoing research in the community,” said Sharon Crook, Haynes’ adviser and professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

“Vergil will stay in our group as a postdoctoral researcher for a year in order to help us advance the research that he has been contributing to. Uniquely, he has the perfect combination of skills for this work which requires both the development and execution of computational models and also machine learning to analyze large datasets,” said Crook, lead researcher of the Informatics and Computation in Open Neuroscience (ICON) Lab.

The lab contributes to large, collaborative enterprises such as the NeuroML InitiativeOpenSource Brain, and the Human Brain Project, which lead to building an interconnected infrastructure for the advancement of computing within neuroscience based on transparency and accessibility.


Vergil Haynes (third from left) with Sharon Crook (center) and other members of the ICON Lab at ASU. Photo courtesy of ICON Lab

Haynes will also continue as a post doc in the Auditory Computation and Neurophysiology Lab in the College of Health Solutions, which investigates the neural mechanisms of perceptual and cognitive functions that support auditory experience.

“I’m excited to work with the same two labs – one is very experimental oriented, and the other is very modeling oriented, and I’m at the intersection of these two,” he said.

Haynes was born and raised in Melbourne, Florida, about 30 minutes south of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. As a kid, he watched the rocket and shuttle launches from the beach. “You could actually feel the sonic boom, it would shake windows and everything,” he said. Many of his friends back home still think of him as someone who would one day be an astronaut, since that is what he was always saying.

“I think it is still a possibility,” Haynes said.

Haynes is closest to his one maternal sibling, a brother about 10 years older, born to a different father who was in the Air Force. His mother is from the Philippines and moved to the U.S. a few years after his brother was born. It was here in the states that she met Haynes’ father.

Haynes is a first-generation college student, raised primarily by his mother. His father was mostly out of the picture.

“I could probably count on two hands how many times I’ve seen him in my life,” he said. His mother had a boyfriend for most of his childhood, but they did not get along.

His brother went to juvenile detention at a young age, and was later incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses that nowadays might not involve jail time.

“Due to the lack of social mechanisms to reduce high prison recidivism rates in the U.S., and like many community re-entries, my brother was reincarcerated multiple times over his early adulthood,” Haynes said. Even after participating in a recent work-to-release program, Haynes' brother still struggles to figure out how to get his life going.

“It was like every direction I looked for a male role model, I just couldn’t find one,” Haynes said.

Vergil Haynes and family tour ASU campus

Vergil Haynes, a first generation college student, with his mother and niece on the ASU Tempe campus. Photo courtesy of Vergil Haynes.

His mother worked as a restorative technician at a rehabilitation nursing home back in Melbourne. She mostly worked with dementia patients, helping them to be able to feed themselves or walk again.

“My mom would work double time, overtime, lots of holiday hours, so usually it was just easier if I just stayed there all day. I mostly lived there as a kid. I’d sing to the elderly, take them to lunch, play chess or Uno with them,” Haynes said.

“My mother often won awards for being compassionate, generous and kind to co-workers and residents at the nursing home. This instilled in me that supporting people was one of greatest gifts you could give someone – and sometimes this took hard work and sacrifice.

“Those experiences were very formative in a lot of different ways in my life. Especially in trying to understand people. How do they think? Why do they wind up thinking a certain thing, or not be able to think at all, or remember at all?”

In school, Haynes’ teachers would tell him he was unmotivated, didn’t have goals – but also had a lot of potential. He would sometimes fall asleep in class. He often got in trouble, resulting in suspensions or Saturday school. He failed quite a few classes in high school and almost didn’t graduate. His counselor and principal agreed on a plan so he could take adult education classes after school and still be able to graduate.

“I was like, ‘Oh, I made all these choices and now I’m seeing the consequences of them,’ which is that I might not get this diploma,” Haynes said. “And then I’ll live this life like the rest of my family has been living, not even having finished high school.”

There was a lot of hopelessness around that period of time. But there was also the peer pressure of seeing a lot of his friends were set to graduate, so he wanted to. One of the most motivating things for him was how much time he was spending with other people’s families.

“My mom had moved out of the projects and into this fairly nice suburban area, and I had met some friends and started hanging out at their houses. It was like, ‘Oh wow,’ your dad works at NASA, your mom is a financial adviser, and you have this nice house. For the most part, there might be some yelling here or there, but it’s not constantly hostile here. I remember them giving me a lot of validation, as well.

He spent considerable time with academic advisers figuring out how he could pay for college. He got a Medallion Scholarship which paid for 75% of his tuition for a four-year degree. To cover the rest, he took out loans and worked a couple of jobs throughout his undergraduate years.

“I told my mom I was going to get a PhD and she was like, ‘How are you going to do that? We don’t have the money for that,” said Haynes. “All her co-workers said, ‘Let him dream and let him do his thing, and he’ll figure it out as he goes.’”

At the same time, Haynes found himself repeating old patterns, using avoidance behaviors. If a class interested him, he would do well. But if a class stressed him out, he would stop going. He was convinced the system was trying to keep him down. There were many setbacks, and he ended up failing a math class.

“I remember that was also the time in my life where my dad and I had tried to start talking with one another again, and I think I was still hesitant. I was finding out more about who is this person, and I wasn’t really liking what I was seeing, but I was trying to reach out and say this is something that I want to try to rebuild.” 

Asking his dad for help led to a huge family blowup. “It got to the point where it was like, OK, that was my last attempt.”

That situation drove him forward, in a sense, since there was less constraining him to be near family. He was ready to go forward on his own. After getting his two-year associate degree, he transferred to the University of Central Florida, one of the largest public universities in the country. He was excited about all the different kinds of classes he could take. By the end of his first year at UCF, he changed his major from pre-med/biology to mathematics.

He was taking Calculus III, Linear Algebra, Introduction to C Programming — those were the classes that convinced him to keep going. He took a logic and proof class that he thought was really fun.

“Just the process of doing homework with people, doing projects with people and how intellectually stimulating that was, and also this sense of how I contributed some sort of value to this discussion. That was when I really started defining my personal value in relationship to math,” Haynes said. “People started coming to me asking for help or wanting for me to explain certain things. I was like, okay, actually I’m good at this.”

He had a network of people who were supporting him, but also had some people who were trying to get in his way. Particularly the faculty undergraduate adviser in the mathematics department, who he met with a couple of times. Haynes wanted to major in math with a concentration in physics. The advisor briefly looked over his academic record, which was not stellar, and then dissuaded him from pursuing that route. “Maybe this isn’t something for you,” he said to Haynes.

“I remember that resonated with me for a long time.”

Haynes knew he had an interest in research, so he reached out to a professor who studied mathematics and biology, and would later become his faculty adviser.

“It was a lot of leaning into him, weekly sessions with him. He would teach me how to read math papers and how to do research. He also instilled in me a sense of beauty.

“I still remember the time I came to him with my first result. It was really simple. And it was something he had been missing for a while. I showed it to him and he had this moment where he stepped back, leaned against the table and was like, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful.’ And I was like, whoa, I had never shared that kind of moment with someone before. And I was kind of hooked.”

When Haynes applied to graduate schools, he hoped he might be offered a Teaching Assistantship. He received his only offer from Arizona State University and got a phone call from the Hispanic Research Center stating he had won the NSF Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (Bridge to Doctorate) Fellowship.

Once he got to ASU, he knew he wanted to transition into something more related to neuroscience. During his first year of grad school, he took a mathematical cell physiology class with professor Sharon Crook. The following year he reached out to her. 

“As far as the math department goes, Sharon has always been deeply supportive. I can tell her all of these personal things that I would normally not tell any sort of authority figure or someone that could sway my professional life,” Haynes said.

Haynes identifies as being poor, being Black, being biracial (half Filipino) which is a unique kind of being Black, and also being a queer male.

“Being part of the LGBTQ community, I’ve met a lot of peers and colleagues who are also part of that community, at different stages with coming out, or being out at work," Haynes said. "There are many mental-health issues that can be exacerbated while feeling closeted and isolated, and navigating that is something I’ve become familiar with.”

“I definitely found my peer group here at ASU. They are scattered across a lot of different departments. But as far as my identifiers go, most people I’ve become close to have been very open to discussing how growing up at the intersection of all these things has really shaped me, and also provided a lot of opportunities for me to create my own barriers. But the people that I’ve met here at ASU have done a lot to help me dispel some of those barriers.

“ASU is this unique ecosystem where I’m allowed to branch out in unique ways that I never would have been able to at other universities.

“Being at ASU and around all these things, like Changemaker Central, for example, where you’re trying to solve community problems through these different lenses – they really do reinforce this idea that being at the intersection of things is very valuable.

“In general, I’ve come out of ASU very optimistic about what it is that I can accomplish, and how I can connect to other people to help them with the things that they want to accomplish, or what we can accomplish together.

We asked Haynes to share a bit more about his doctoral journey as a Sun Devil.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study mathematics?

Answer: I’ve never thought math was my strong suit growing up. I was good at it, but it didn’t really interest me until my undergraduate education. I was originally a premed/biology major for the first few years of my degree. I recall being dissatisfied with lab work and the way courses were taught in biology, example after example. I eventually switched into physics as a major and picked up two books that ultimately convinced me to study mathematics for the rest of my degree. The two books were: Leonard Mlodinow’s “Euclid’s Window,” about the evolution of geometry from the Greeks to modern physicists, and Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation,” which had a central influencing figure who was a mathematician and psychologist helping humanity survive through a period of barbarism through “matrices” and human behavior. I remember those were very formative in my scientific maturation as I had never really connected deep math with helping society. 

Q: What do you like most about mathematics (and your area of concentration)?

A: As far as mathematics goes, what I like most is that my capacity to build “models” has expanded. While research has very formal models, models in general have become central to how I navigate and make sense of life. It’s become very helpful in many areas outside of math. Before I approach most anything, whether it be a project, learning, connecting with people, making decisions, I go through a model building process. I’m always asking whether a certain model and assumptions is appropriate for whatever it is I want to do. Since my concentration is in computational modeling that leverages data, I find myself thinking how I can build better models to do more with my life.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Hands down, Dr. Sharon Crook — my PhD adviser. I’ve worked with Sharon for so many years now and I’ve shared both great intellectual moments with her but also moments for humanity, humility and humor. She taught me that scientists can often get hung up in being a scientist, but with the right nudge you can get them to let loose while still enjoying talking about research. I’ve definitely have her in mind when I’ve met new colleagues from different universities. I always make sure to be the one to remind everyone that everyday fun is also integral to science. She’s also helped me stop the excessive need to show off technical knowledge through jargon. She has a very down-to-earth approach because it’s so important that people relate to you and understand you when the subject matter is so rich.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school?

A: Continuously challenge your assumptions about things. School is a period for growth and figuring out even just a small fraction of life. Keep asking whether beliefs about yourself and others are actually beneficial beliefs. Ask whether your beliefs about what is expected of you, what you invest your time in, and what’s important to you are truly convincing to your best knowledge at the time or do they just feel convincing. In different words, be comfortable with feeling lost and seek it out often. Losing your notions about yourself is part of the process of transformation. I think this is especially important after everything related to the pandemic and the civil unrest we’ve all been feeling. The world is different, and we should be in response.

Vergil Haynes hosts regular "slack and relax" for students

Vergil Haynes hosted a regular "slack and relax" for ASU students, shown here teaching by far his oldest student how to slackline. Photo courtesy of Vergil Haynes

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? (This is more related to before the pandemic.)

A: I’ve always been a fan of the grass yard in front of Old Main. I would set up my slackline, some blankets, play music and enjoy the sun at least once a week. Other students would come up and I found it a fun space to connect with people and talk about life in the midst of all the frantic rushing. It felt good to share moments like those with other students going through similar challenges.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time for fun?

A: I’m definitely a hobbyist. If I’m feeling more relaxed, I like to read or listen to podcasts. I try to enjoy the Arizona scenery often with walks, hikes, slacklining and trail running. I’ve managed to try out a lot of outdoor activities since moving here like camping, backpacking and snowboarding. I’m passionate about fitness and like to devote time to calisthenics, tai chi, yoga and traditional strength training. I also have several projects that I try to ground my training in coding, data and technology in things related to my health and general performance.

Vergil Haynes explores the Superstition Mountains

Haynes explores the surrounding Superstition Mountains to de-stress and celebrate passing his comprehensive exams. Photo courtesy of Vergil Haynes

Q: What do you think is most misunderstood about math by the general public?

A: Math is just crunching numbers. It’s not, and some of mathematicians aren’t even good at that. Some really enjoy that, some of us find that really dull.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I have a lot of family members who have been incarcerated and unable to rebuild a life after reentering society. While I couldn’t solve something like the problem of privatized prisons and the overall corrections market, I think building an organization or cooperative that focused on reentry education, wealth building training, and personal and relational therapy for those leaving the prison system would be something I would put that money in right away.

Rhonda Olson

Manager of Marketing and Communication, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences


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Collaboration committed to diversity in engineering

December 18, 2020

Summer program brings together multiple universities, Intel and Facebook to broaden horizons for students, faculty and industry

Arizona State University’s new summer research experience for engineering students from historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, is expanding in 2021 to include new schools and added industry sponsorship.

The Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU launched a summer research internship program, known as SURI, in 2019 to engage undergraduate students from other American universities in meaningful research with Fulton Schools faculty and facilities. During 2020, the program extended to engineering students from leading international universities, and a new track was initiated for students attending HBCUs through a consortium facilitated by Intel to help improve diversity within the technology workforce.

The pilot version of the HBCU internship program included seven engineering students from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University who participated virtually, due to COVID-19 restrictions, in eight weeks of research with Fulton Schools faculty from late May to late July 2020. Those involved report that the experience was transformative.

“Many participating students arrived with little understanding of what researchers do on a day-to-day basis, or more fundamentally what graduate school is about,” said Adolfo Escobedo, an assistant professor of industrial engineering at ASU, who worked with four students from Florida A&M University, or FAMU.

“But after the program, these students said they felt motivated to become involved in research at their home institution and to pursue graduate school,” Escobedo said. “They also appreciated learning about the experiences of professionals at Intel. Stories from people in industry help students to see that the backgrounds and the life paths of many engineers are diverse, and that they themselves can get there.” 

Lisa Smith, manager of the Scholars Program Office at Intel, says FAMU students valued their research experience at ASU and the support they received from Intel mentors. Consequently, she says FAMU looks forward to taking part with more students in 2021, and the enthusiasm has extended to other schools.

“There are five other institutions in our consortium of HBCUs, and now they are eager to participate in this new collaboration,” she said, referring to Morgan State UniversityHoward UniversityPrairie View A&M UniversityNorth Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University and Tuskegee University.

“These schools additionally want to expand the connection by involving their faculty members with the experience of exchange,” Smith said. “When students return to their home university, they can build on the benefits of their summer research at ASU if their own faculty are on the same page and can aid their growth.”

Faculty involvement highlights student support, but it extends further. Cross-institutional connections open the way for new scientific discovery and engineering innovation.

This potential is exciting for the academic researchers, but also for the technology industry businesses that interface with colleges of engineering. Consequently, Intel and now Facebook have committed significant funding in 2021 to support not only HBCU student internships at ASU but faculty collaboration among universities.

“Of course, these relationships need to develop organically based on various interests and needs. The best thing we can do is create an opportunity in which faculty can come together and see what is possible,” said Anca Castillo, associate director of outreach and student recruitment for the Fulton Schools.

“So, we’re hosting a faculty networking event that works a little like ‘speed dating’,” she said. “It’s scheduled for Feb. 13, when ASU faculty can introduce themselves to peers from the participating HBCUs, and they all can talk about their research, their areas of expertise and so forth. Afterward, these amazing people can continue to communicate and generate ideas.”

Cristine Cooper, academic relations manager at Facebook, says these connections represent exciting potential worthy of funding.

“Issues of diversity within STEM fields are top of mind right now, so we are enthusiastic about the possibilities for addressing current imbalances,” Cooper said. “The idea of these partnerships supporting students from HBCUs is outstanding. These are vital. But the impact of cross-institutional collaborations among faculty is tremendously motivating. Connecting ASU faculty with colleagues at HBCUs expands the impact of scientific talent. Future issues of dramatic significance, including policy around those issues, may be resolved through complementary sets of expertise that come together through initiatives like this one.”

The summer 2021 program will be delivered both in person and digitally. More than 50 different ASU faculty members are opening their work on almost 70 different research topics. As well, they have indicated through the program website whether student intern involvement needs to be on campus or online.

“Most faculty are offering both options, so students have choices,” Castillo said. “If we are able, we want to have students come to Arizona. But we are offering maximum flexibility because building community and sharing resources reflect the charter of ASU. How that happens is less important.”

This spirit of broad collaboration is seen as the strength of SURI and the future it represents — particularly for current undergraduates, said Shonda Bernadin, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at FAMU as well as the faculty coordinator for the school’s internships at ASU.

“The success of this program,” she said, “demonstrates the potential to positively impact the career development of minority engineering students by building strong industry and cross-institutional connections through research, mentoring, and professional development opportunities.”  

For more information about SURI in 2021, visit the Fulton Schools graduate engineering program website.

Top graphic by Rhonda Hitchcock-Mast/ASU

Gary Werner

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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What is Kwanzaa? ASU professor explains tenets of annual celebration

December 18, 2020

The annual festival was developed in the 1960s and is designed to bring people of African descent together for the holiday

Kwanzaa has been celebrated in the United States for more than a half-century, but it still remains a mystery to many Americans.

The holiday is a weeklong celebration observed each year from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 and culminates in gift giving and a big feast.

Its origins are both ancient and modern, and it's dedicated to cultivating, harvesting and sharing the good in the world. It was conceived and developed during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and it asks all participants to strive for and maintain unity in the family, the Black community and the nation.

So why isn’t Kwanzaa better known to more Americans? For those answers, ASU Now turned to Arizona State University’s Lisa Aubrey, a former Fulbright Scholar.

Aubrey, an associate professor of African and African American studies and political science in the School of Social Transformation, has been doing community-embedded work related to reconnecting peoples of the African diaspora to their heritage lands of Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana. She is well versed in the origins, traditions and principles of Kwanzaa.

Woman in braids smiling

Lisa Aubrey

Question: Who started or invented Kwanzaa, and what is its origin story?

Aubrey: Kwanzaa was started in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga. Karenga is currently a professor and chair of the Department of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach. The impetus for starting Kwanzaa was to acknowledge and celebrate “family, community, and culture” of people of African descent in Africa and in the Africa diaspora.

Karenga is the quintessential scholar-activist whose life’s work has been dedicated to 1.) building and teaching scholarship on Africa and the African diaspora, and 2.) practicing Pan-Africanism in the everyday life of people of African descent worldwide.

Karenga’s establishment of Kwanzaa was an outgrowth of his deep immersion in Africa-centered scholarship from antiquity to the present and his identified need to establish an annual cultural event to reaffirm the African diaspora’s inextricable link to Africa from the grassroots community level.

As an annual event, Kwanzaa provides an opportunity to celebrate the survival and accomplishments of Global AfricaIn Africana scholarship, Global Africa is commonly defined as “the continent of Africa plus, firstly, the diaspora of enslavement (descendants of survivors of the Middle Passage) and secondly, the diaspora of colonialism (the dispersal of Africans that continues to occur as a result of disruptions of colonization and its aftermath). as well as plan for a future of prosperity. Kwanzaa draws on the past in the spirit of sankofa — “go back and fetch it” — from the Akan cosmology, acknowledges and appreciates the progress and blessings of the present, and provides an opportunity to imagine a fruitful future for Global Africa while empowering the youth.

Q: Do any other groups celebrate or practice Kwanzaa?

A: Kwanzaa is an African American and Pan-African holiday that highlights African-centeredness. It begins on Dec. 26 and ends on Jan. 1. It is practiced not only in the United States, but also in many other countries where people of African descent live. I have been part of Kwanzaa celebrations in Africa, most recently in Cameroon.

Kwanzaa is celebrated by some people of African descent as an alternative to Christmas, although it is not mandatory to make a choice between the two holidays. Some people of African descent celebrate both Christmas and Kwanzaa.  

Some people of African descent who celebrate Christmas if they are Christian, or Hanukkah if they are Jewish, or Eid al-Fitr if they are Muslim, also celebrate Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday and persons from any religious practice or spiritual belief system can partake in Kwanzaa celebrations.

Some whites also attend Kwanzaa celebrations. Kwanzaa reaffirms the African-centeredness of Global Africa, while it does not exclude others. Kwanzaa has been recognized by the U.S. Postal Service. In 2020, the U.S. Postal Service issued its 14th Kwanzaa stamp.

The Black African Coalition student organization here at ASU has also made a tradition of celebrating Kwanzaa following the principles as developed by Dr. Maulana Karenga.

Q: And what are those principles?

A: Kwanzaa draws in ancient traditions from many parts of Africa. Those traditions are expressed in the language of Kiswahili, the mostly widely spoken language in Africa across several countries. Kiswahili is also a language that is widely taught in some places in the African diaspora, and by Dr. Karenga himself. I also speak and have taught Kiswahili at Ohio State University.

Following are the Nguzo Saba — Seven Principles of Kwanzaa — along with the founder’s operational definition of each:

  • Principle 1 – Dec. 26: Umoja, which means unity. “To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.”
  • Principle 2 – Dec. 27: Kujichagulia, which means self-determination. "To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.”
  • Principle 3 – Dec. 28: Ujima, which means collective work and responsibility. “To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems and to solve them together.”
  • Principle 4 – Dec. 29: Ujaama which means cooperative economics. “To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.”
  • Principle 5 – Dec. 30: Nia, which means purpose. “To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.”
  • Principle 6 – Dec. 31: Kuumba which means creativity. “To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.”
  • Principle 7 – Jan. 1: Imani, which means faith. “To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.”

Q: Juneteenth seemed to get a big boost this year in terms of awareness and popularity. Are you seeing the same signs for Kwanzaa?

A: Kwanzaa is growing in its recognition and practice. Dr. Karenga, in 2013, estimated that approximately 18 million people worldwide were celebrating Kwanzaa. I believe that that number has grown since 2013 with increasing knowledge and understanding about Kwanzaa and how it is practiced. It has a global embrace and has been embraced globally. Last Saturday, we held an annual Kwanzaa celebration, the first virtual on Zoom, at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in collaboration with the African Diaspora Ancestral Commemoration Institute.

Top photo: Photo courtesy of iStock/Getty Images.

Reporter , ASU News


New ASU course illuminates how racism exercises its power geographically

December 18, 2020

The summer of 2020 was one of racial reckoning for America. Millions of people took to the streets in protest following the killings of unarmed Black individuals Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, forcing the United States to confront the racism of its past and present.

But as a country, how did we get to this point? And how has geography contributed to our understanding of race, systemic racism and historical racist policies that have led to this unique moment in the United States’ history?  Black Lives Matter protest rally, June 2020. Photo courtesy of Download Full Image

Rashad Shabazz, a human geography associate professor in Arizona State University's School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, has created a course that examines race in the United States from a spatial perspective. 

Shabazz, whose research focuses on the spatial function of racism through slavery, segregation and mass incarceration, is teaching Race Geographies in the United States, a new elective class that will be offered for the first time to ASU students in the spring 2021 semester

“In the wake of racial justice protests this past summer, Race Geographies in the U.S. will help students understand how racism works, and how race and geography are linked to the protests from this summer,” Shabazz said. “Racism is real. It shortens lives, it shapes our economy, it says whose life has value, and it impacts our geographies. Where you live, go to school, where you can and cannot walk in safety are examples of how racism works.”

One of the most pervasive examples of understanding race through a geographic lens in America, Shabazz says, is through the creation of racially restrictive suburbs.

“The creation of white suburbs in the aftermath of the Second World War was groundbreaking on many levels, but what stands out is how the suburbs were vital for producing white people and our cultural understanding of what 'white' is,” Shabazz said.  

He explains that because suburbs were racially restricted to people of European descent —Jews, Irish, English, Germans, Italians — in the years after World War II, ethnic whites that moved into the suburbs began to date and produce offspring that were made from the mix of European ethnics, giving rise to our modern notion of “white.” 

“White Americans today are multiethnic, Irish/German or French/English, for example. That’s not an accident. This was made possible by the racial restrictions of the suburbs,” Shabazz said. 

In the class, students will learn a mix of geography, history and theory, through the exploration and analysis of books, articles, films and documentaries. The class will also explore race and geography, in terms of their impacts on city organization and cultural production, and how race and geography work together to create urban, suburban and rural landscapes.

“Courses like Race Geographies illuminate what racism is, how it works and how we can create solutions to end institutionalized racist practices,” Shabazz said. “Racism is part of the meta-language of our lives, whether you are negatively affected by it or not. We all swim in a sea of institutional racism and learning about how it happened and how it affects us is not only fascinating, but it's our responsibility.”

“This will be one of the most important classes students take this (coming) year.”

Race Geographies in the United States is one of a series of courses offered by ASU that examine geography in unique ways. Visit the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning YouTube page to watch class preview videos from faculty and learn more about spring 2021 offerings. 

David Rozul

Communications Specialist, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning


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Indigenous writers featured at Queer Poetry Salon

December 17, 2020

The quarterly celebration of queer writers devoted their December meeting to those of Indigenous origins

It was the viral image of activist Allie Young leading a group of Navajo voters to an Arizona polling station on horseback that really drove it home for Diné poet Jake Skeets.

“That to me is empowerment of the people for sure, and it really is the power of community-based organizing,” he said.

Without question, the swell of Indigenous voters who turned out to cast their ballots in the 2020 U.S. presidential election were instrumental in swinging the state to a victory for Joe Biden. But as Skeets alluded to, doing so took work; it meant coming together to overcome a host of barriers, including poor access to voter registration offices and polling stations, limited transportation and excessive mail delays, all of which amount to voter suppression.

Given what they were up against, the sense of empowerment Skeets described that resulted from their success is well-earned.

That same belief in the potential of community-based organizing was apparent at the December meeting of the Queer Poetry Salon, a partnership between ASU’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing and Equality Arizona that aims to strengthen and grow queer culture in Arizona by hosting quarterly readings of works by world-renowned LGBTQ poets and writers.

December’s salon featured all Indigenous writers, including Skeets, who in addition to being a nationally recognized poet also holds a position as an associate professor at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, and was recently named one of this year’s Mellon Projecting All Voices Fellows by the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and ASU Gammage.

Also featured were poets Tommy “Teebs” Pico, a citizen of the Kumeyaay Nation from the Viejas Indian Reservation in San Diego, California; Smokii Sumac, a member of the Ktunaxa Nation located in the Canadian province of British Columbia; and Taté Walker, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe located in South Dakota.

The significance of December’s salon, which in essence served as a space for members of two marginalized communities – Indigenous and queer – to safely gather and express themselves, was not lost on the attendees. Though Skeets reported that queerness in his own Navajo Nation is “thriving in the larger scope of things,” he also acknowledged that “many still feel unsafe in their own families and communities.”

“It’s mostly due to the colonial and brutal language that our own government emulates from the U.S. government,” Skeets said.

Skeets sees his work, much of which he shared during the salon, as a means of “undo(ing) and reimagin(ing) a colonial and brutal language like English.”

“I like to think of queerness as an undoing and reimagining of heteropatriachy that drives much of the U.S. way of thinking and doing things,” he said. “This often leads to violence, which is what we are seeing today. Queerness is a resistance to that.”

tanner menardtanner menard uses they/them pronouns and doesn't capitalize their name., civic programming organizer for Equality Arizona and a poet themself, created the Queer Poetry Salon about a year ago with a similar spirit.

“I think that people finally being in a position where they feel safe enough to (share deeply personal work) in a place like Arizona, that is dangerously conservative and where some people are still violently oppressed, it can be a very powerful tool for queer people, and also people who are not queer to express their allyship,” menard said in an interview for a September ASU Now story announcing the partnership between the Piper Center and Equality Arizona.

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Diné poet Jake Skeets (center) was featured at the December meeting of the Queer Poetry Salon.

Skeets and menard met several years ago, and when the former learned of the latter’s endeavor, he was all in; Skeets has participated in several Queer Poetry Salons over the past year and was especially thrilled to be a part of December’s Indigenous-centered salon.

“I do think these kinds of spaces create community and empower those to feel at home,” Skeets said.

During the hour-and-a-half-long event, he read a number of poems, both new and old. One, from his first collection of poetry, “Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers,” is titled “Drift(er).” It’s about his uncle, Benson James, whose image graces the cover of the collection. The black-and-white photo was taken in the summer of 1979 by fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon, who came upon James in the streets of Gallup, New Mexico, while working on a project focusing on people in the American West. A year later, James was murdered.

“Gallup is a very strange place,” Skeets told the salon attendees while introducing “Drift(er).” “It’s a border space, so of course violence against Native people is very high in those parts of the country. But it’s where I grew up.”

Skeets’ apparent reckoning with that conflict — the love one feels for their home, even when it does not always embrace them — was echoed in works of other poets throughout the evening.

In Walker’s poem, “I Like Your Accent,” theyTaté Walker uses they/them pronouns. call out to “all the folks with names too thick and too sticky for colonized tongues to dominate,” reminding them that “your sticky thickness tastes like honey to the ones who named you.”

Still others celebrated their gender and sexual identities. Sumac read from a poem in which he compared embracing his sexuality as “like sitting in a cart waiting for a rollercoaster to begin.” In another, he advocated “for the love of all that is queer and brown for the beautiful disabled bodies … for all of our love, which can never be wrong.”

Clearly moved by their words, Skeets took a moment before he began his own reading to proclaim that he was “incredibly honored” to share space with them that evening. He also hinted that there may be a sophomore collection of poetry in the works, though he told ASU Now via email after the event that he doesn’t expect it to be a huge departure from his debut.

“My new poems are still very much informed by the landscape of the Navajo Nation but in a different context,” Skeets said. “My first book relies on the fields around Gallup and the field of the page to ground readers and myself in a narrative of trauma and beauty. My new poems are using landscape as a mapping tool and I’m able to hone in on certain parts of the reservation and conjure narrative and language. I am also thinking that it may serve as somewhat of a sequel to my first book. I’m not sure if poetry collections can have sequels but I am very much envisioning a picking up where the first book left off.”

He's also in the process of working with Phoenix-based WarBird Press and ASU’s Herberger Institute on a new text/image project as part of his work with the Mellon Projecting All Voices Fellows Fellowship, which he expects to be able to share with the public in spring 2021.

As for the Piper Center, its commitment to uplifting a diversity of voices continues to manifest in its hosting of such events as the NEA Big Read, a 30-day celebration of Indigenous culture and literary arts featuring over 25 performances and panels throughout March of 2021.

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay

ASU humanities institute hosts 'Hope and Empowerment' series

December 15, 2020

In the wake of 2020’s challenges, Arizona State University's Institute for Humanities Research wanted to infuse hope and empowerment into ASU humanities conversations. 

The institute's “Scholarly Series on Hope and Empowerment,” which took place in the fall 2020 semester, featured three scholars whose lectures revealed how personal challenges, triumphs and backgrounds can become an integral part of change-making scholarship. The “Scholarly Series on Hope and Empowerment” featured Kevin Winstead, who spoke on the role of hope in the Black Lives Matter movement; Leanne Simpson, who shared several readings of Indigenous stories; and C Pam Zhang, who spoke on her debut novel "How Much of These Hills is Gold." Photos courtesy Unsplash and Lauren Whitby. Download Full Image

First, Kevin Winstead presented his lecture on the role and function of hope in the age of Black Lives Matter. Though Winstead admitted that he struggled to find hope amidst the racial injustices that have been highlighted throughout the year, his lecture became a source of hope for attendees. 

For example, he shared the following quote from an activist in Washington, D.C.: “Being a Black activist, hope is in spite of everything that we’ve seen and everything that we endure. Hope is bravery.” 

At the second lecture in the series, Leanne Simpson, a renowned Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer and artist, shared readings of several stories that highlighted Indigenous experiences and voices of her community. 

“Leanne is unyieldingly committed to the flourishing of Indigenous life,” said Jerome Clark, Diné (Navajo), English literature PhD candidate and moderator of the lecture.

“Her talk was a reminder that we must tell our people’s stories to defend Indigenous life and world-build. She reminds us that the stories we tell about ourselves and others matter to life and how we live life. In my world, now and in the future, Indigenous life is worth living and defending.”

At the final lecture, C Pam Zhang discussed her debut novel “How Much of These Hills is Gold.”

Zhang shared that growing up she felt disempowered by the literature she experienced, which seemed to be predominantly “middle-class white suburban stories.”

She explained that she wrote “How Much of These Hills is Gold” as a “love letter to the Western canon” and an “act of defiance” to make Asian American families and stories a part of that canon. 

The three lectures are available to watch on the institute's YouTube channel on the “Scholarly Series on Hope and Empowerment” playlist. The Institute for Humanities Research is currently seeking out new ways to provide a source of light in the lingering darkness and hopes to continue the series in the future.

“This series was a great way for the ASU community to engage with speakers whose work is dynamic and important, especially in these times of uncertainty,” said Celina Osuna, institute coordinator and Desert Humanities assistant director. 

“By centering hope and empowerment, each event explored creative, generative ways that cultural identities and humanistic practices build a stronger sense of community.”

Lauren Whitby

Communications Specialist, ASU Institute for Humanities Research