Music Is Powerful

“I say I survived for a reason: to tell my story. I believe that…Music is powerful. It is the only thing that can speak into your mind, your heart and your soul without your permission.”
– Emmanuel Jal

The Second Sudanese Civil War from 1983 to 2005 was one of the longest and bloodiest civil wars on record, yet it barely registered in Western media. The war resulted in the deaths of roughly two million people and the repeated displacement of over four million others in southern Sudan alone, constituting one of history’s largest refugee crises. Among the atrocities committed during the war were slavery, rapes, mutilations, mass killings, and the forced enlistment of children as soldiers by all sides.

Emmanuel Jal was one such child soldier. Born in what is now South Sudan, Jal was a young child when the civil war broke out. After his father joined the rebel army (SPLA) and his mother was killed by loyalist soldiers, Jal joined the thousands of Sudanese children travelling to Ethiopia, hoping to escape the conflict and find education and opportunity. Along the way, however, many of the children, Jal included, were forcibly recruited by the SPLA and taken to military training camps where they were taught to kill, in Jal’s words, “mercilessly and efficiently.”

For the next several years Jal and his comrades fought with the SPLA, first in Ethiopia and then back in Sudan, until the fighting and deprivations became unbearable. Jal and some of his friends ran away, and for three months they were constantly on the move, stealing food and dodging roving patrols. Eventually Jal met a British aid worker who adopted him and smuggled him to Kenya, where he attended school. It was in the slums of Nairobi that Jal became a community activist. He also discovered hip-hop and the power of the spoken word; singing and rapping became a form of therapy to ease the pain of his experiences, and his life’s course was set. Over time Jal developed a unique form of hip-hop, seemingly conventional in form but layered with African beats and sung/chanted over African-inspired choruses.

Unlike many of his American counterparts, Jal sees hip-hop as a powerful vehicle to lobby for social justice and political change in a positive manner, rather than as a method of pursuing street credibility. His raps and spoken word pieces emphasize unity and common humanity as motivators for young people and weapons in the fight against the scourges of ethnic and religious divisions, such as those that plague his homeland. This hopeful outlook, combined with his many humanitarian activities, dovetails neatly with the goals of UC San Diego’s Eleanor Roosevelt College, and marks Jal as a suitably inspirational figure to help celebrate the College’s 30th Anniversary.

His dynamic performance is by turns thought-provoking and uplifting, at times almost somber, but also leavened with humor and, yes, with fun. As Jal himself puts it, “Life without fun is no life at all,” a remarkable perspective from one who has suffered much but has refused to give in to bitterness or cynicism.

Watch From War Child to Global Citizen with Emmanuel Jal.

Bring Back Mammoths

Remember Dolly the sheep? How in 1996 she made international news as the first cloned mammal? Now, imagine using those techniques to bring back extinct animals, such as the mammoth or the passenger pigeon. While the concept may no longer be science fiction, the costs and consequences of this research are still unknown. MacArthur Award recipient and evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro of UC Santa Cruz discusses the scientific and ethical questions raised by what’s known as Ancient DNA research in this fascinating talk presented by the new Institute for Practical Ethics at UC San Diego.

Watch Can We, Should We, and Will We Bring Back Mammoths? with Beth Shapiro .

Losing the Nobel Prize

When Alfred Nobel stipulated the creation of the Nobel Prize in 1895, the inventor of dynamite could hardly have guessed that the award – considered by many to be the world’s most prestigious honor – would often come at the expense of the very careers and the disciplines Nobel sought to promote. Per Nobel’s will the Prize is ostensibly awarded to those who “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind,” but it has arguably fallen short of that commendable goal on several occasions.

In Losing the Nobel Prize, his provocative and incisive critique of the award, physicist and cosmologist Brian Keating addresses what he calls the Nobel’s “systematic biases,” noting that by its nature the Prize discourages communal efforts among scientists, and during its history has lauded such questionable pursuits as lobotomy and eugenics. Recipients have included Nazis and war criminals, but surprisingly few women. Upon reflection, perhaps not so surprising; Nobel’s will states that:

It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, so that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not. [Emphasis added]

Since its inception, only two women have been awarded the physics prize, and none in over fifty years.

Keating is uniquely equipped to offer a perspective on the Nobel Prize. He is the inventor of BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization), the most powerful cosmological telescope ever made, and co-leader of the team that conducted the BICEP2 experiments that lead to discovery of “the spark that ignited the Big Bang.” After much drama and debate that discovery was subsequently proven to be a cosmic mirage, but in the interim Keating found himself drawn into the headlong pursuit of the Nobel medal, encountering competitiveness, intrigue, and naked ambition along the way. The lessons Keating learned in losing the Nobel Prize serve as a cautionary tale about abandoning the collaborative spirit in pursuit of a near-unobtainable prize, but also as a prescription for radical, much-needed reform of the world’s most coveted award.

Following his talk Keating chats with David Brin, noted science fiction author and futurist, in a lively conversation about the nature of scientific enquiry, the merit of awarding scientific prizes, the importance of collaboration, the need for transparency, and the urgent need to improve communication between scientists, policy makers, and the general public. Above all, both men stress that those lessons learned by Keating and outlined in his book may ultimately prove to be more valuable than the prize itself.

Watch Losing the Nobel Prize with Brian Keating.

Providing Hope

“Gang violence is about a lethal absence of hope. Nobody has ever met a hopeful kid who joined a gang.”

St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, exhorted Jesuits to strive to find God in all things while actively engaging the world, and to focus on cultivating the whole person. Put another way, faith must be expressed through positive works in order to serve the common good. After years of giving the final benediction for victims of gang carnage, Father Gregory J. “Greg” Boyle, SJ, put those principles into practice by founding Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, the largest and most successful gang rehabilitation program in the world. Homeboy’s mission is to provide the means for men and women to break the inter-generational cycle of gang violence through therapy, education, practical services, and vocational training. Homeboy’s various businesses – Homeboy Bakery, Homegirl Café, Homeboy Silkscreen & Embroidery, and others – focus on job training to provide healthy alternatives to gang life. The benefits extend well beyond the ten thousand former gang members served yearly and into the wider community.

8232As evinced by his quote above, Father Greg believes that the single greatest motivator for gang membership is the lack of hope for a better life. His remedy, treating gang members with compassion while offering a holistic and pragmatic “exit ramp,” was considered radical at a time when law enforcement relied on harsh suppression and mass incarceration to confront the growing problem of gang violence. Despite widespread skepticism from police and prosecutors time has proven the value of the Homeboy model, and it has spawned imitators across the globe. At the root of Father Greg’s philosophy is the importance of empathetic relationships in breaking the destructive mindset of “us vs. them.” As he notes, “The measure of our compassion lies not in our service of those on the margins but only in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.”

Watch: Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship with Father Gregory Boyle – Burke Lectureship

Behind “Farm to Table:” The Labor of Farming

32822Did you know that the median age of US farmers is now is 58? And that the number of people actually farming now equals just one percent of the population? As farmers, chefs, food vendors and policymakers gathered by the Berry Good Food Foundation explain, those trends are not sustainable. So what to do? How do you make agriculture attractive to young people? What will bring them back to the land? And how do you connect the rest of the community to their sources of food? Watch as these experts make the whole process of growing, harvesting, selling and serving food sound incredibly, what’s the word they used? Oh yes, sexy!

Learn more: Behind “Farm to Table:” The Labor of Farming — Future Thought Leaders Series Presented by the Berry Good Food Foundation