Tuesday, July 26, 2016

As the End Draws Nearer

Thursday was the second-to-last day of our course, and the realization that we would soon be leaving seemed to be sinking in, as I heard frequent remarks from people saying that they were excited to be going home or that they would miss UPenn. Although I prefer the weather in California, home-cooked food, and my family and friends, I appreciated the culture of learning and intellectualism as well as the sense of independence I experienced at UPenn, so I wasn't quite ready to leave yet.
An interesting structure I came across in Philadelphia
Class began with a lecture from Dr. Salmanson, who talked about the history of the Navajo Native Americans in New Mexico. He started out with a story about TsoodziƂ, a sacred mountain to the Navajo. According to him, they believe that the mountain was inhabited by ethereal beings referred to as the Holy People, and that it was the site where a giant had been killed, with the lava flow being the giant's blood. However, when the Mexicans arrived and took over the area, they renamed it "San Mateo" after Saint Matthew, but later, when the United States won the territory, the Americans changed the name once more to "Mount Taylor." After World War II, the United States was interested in uranium to make nuclear weapons to get ahead in the arms race with the Soviet Union. They discovered a large deposit of uranium in Mount Taylor, so they employed the Navajo to excavate the uranium. However, exposure to the uranium had detrimental effects on the health on the Navajo workers, so they fought to have the mine closed and the area designated a traditional cultural property to protect the land as well as themselves, although there have been some recent efforts to reopen it for mining. It's rather disappointing that after all this time and given our history, Native Americans are still being mistreated and exploited today.

After the conclusion of his lecture, Professor Hanson introduced our next guest, Professor Sarah E. Light, who teaches Legal Studies and Business Ethics at the Wharton School of Business and is a former attorney. During her time as an attorney, she represented the Environmental Protection Agency, which led to her interest in protecting the environment. The first thing she did was to challenge the traditional model and preconceived notions we may have had. In the traditional model, we view government as the regulator and private firms as the polluters; however, this is not necessarily correct, as the general population and the government are major polluters as well and there are companies that promote sustainable practices. For instance, the military department of the U.S. is actually the biggest consumer of energy, while big companies such as Walmart and Chipotle utilize their leverage to incentivize sustainable practices. According to her, people are terrible at assessing risk, which she illustrated by asking people whether they would rather die being eaten by a shark or being hit on the head by a coconut. A majority raised their hands in favor of death by a coconut, while the rest, myself included, were in favor of being eaten by a shark. When asked why, the proponents of the shark attack said that it would make for a more interesting story or a less ridiculous way to die. My response was that I would be making an instant and direct contribution to the shark's well-being, whereas if I had died by coconut, it would take much longer for my body to decompose and be reabsorbed into nature. In the responses to the preference for getting killed by a coconut, people said that it would be less gruesome and painful than a shark attack and that they wanted their families to be able to bury them. Professor Light then revealed that there are fewer deaths by shark than by coconut, about 60 to 150, respectively. She then showed us a chart of the likeliness of death by various manners, demonstrating that many of the manners of dying that people are more worried about are less common than other manners. One of my primary takeaways from her presentation was that we should not trust out preconceived notions without being informed, as many of our assumptions seemed to be wrong.

In the following discussion session, we talked about both Patricia Kim's and Professor Light's presentations. We recognized that both knew their material quite well, although most of us had found Patricia's somewhat confusing at times. We also agreed that some of the situations that Patricia had talked about were rather depressing, which she had forewarned us about, particularly the situation in Eastwick, as the residents (who are mostly racial minorities) had been previously been displaced and coerced into living near environmental hazards, such as toxic landfills, and consequently, are now experiencing the repercussions to their health. In an attempt to revive an iota of hope, Yun brought up Dr. Salmanson's remark about the return of the shad to several rivers that they had been gone from for over 150 years. This attempt was somewhat successful, as we tried to brighten our perspective on our present circumstances, with people maintaining optimistic positions that this was an indicator of improvement. I described my own position as "cautiously optimistic," as I saw this as a good sign, but wanted to hold off on any celebrations and avoid false hope until there is further progress. 

As we shifted over to Professor Light's presentation, we ended up discussing the shark vs. coconut conundrum. I maintained my position, but mentioned that it was rather worrisome that approximately 150 people are dying from coconuts every year, which is a rather significant figure. That means that the frequency of death by coconut is once about every two and a half days. For me in particular, I found it rather difficult to wrap my mind around that absurdly high figure for deaths by coconut annually. Upon further research, we also found that over 450 people die from falling out of their beds every year. At that point, I lost the will to think about that any more, as it seems strange that a rather high number of people die in such ridiculous manners. After that, we tried, somewhat in futility, to engage in a more serious discussion about the content of the rest of her presentation, but the conversation about coconuts was still occupying our thoughts. However, we commended the efforts of companies like Walmart and Chipotle to use their leverage in the industry to influence change towards sustainability. We also discussed whether it would be better to have government regulation of environmental standards or allow companies to implement their own potentially higher standards. In my opinion, it would be best to impose a certain environmental standards for companies to comply with, but offer subsidies to those that use better methods, with varying amounts depending on how effective those methods are.

For the final component of our last discussion, we reviewed what we had learned in the course so far through an illustration of ourselves and both the forces working for us and against us. In my illustration, I deviated from the example provided of a person in an ocean with various currents and winds affecting the sail and instead simplified it to a wind pushing against me and my goals driving me forward. For the winds going against me, I listed racism, societal expectations, inequality, stereotypes, and ignorance, while for my motivators, I included my idealism, aspirations, justice, and equity. I ended up being far more vague than I wanted to be due to the time constraint Yun placed upon us, although I don't think it makes it any less accurate.

After that, we headed back to the lecture room to hear our final guest speaker, Mr. John Chin, the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC). He began by providing us with some historical context about the Chinatown in Philadelphia. Since about 1966, there have been numerous attempts at development projects that threaten to forcibly evict and displace the Chinese residents, starting with the Vine Street Expressway that would have resulted in the demolition of the Holy Redeemer Church and School. However, the community managed to organize and unite through the PCDC to oppose the project and succeeded. Now, the PCDC promotes and preserves Chinatown while protecting it from urban renewal projects. It has also created and is implementing its own Neighborhood Improvement Plan, which includes affordable housing for the disadvantaged, youth programs, a community center, and pocket parks. In addition, Chinatown serves as a link to China and a cultural center for Chinese people, despite the population being spatially spread out. To finish his presentation, Mr. Chin stressed the importance of planning and advocacy, as it has allowed Chinatown to have a voice, and left us with the message that it is possible to preserve one's culture and still be successful in the U.S.

Although class had ended, my section, the "House of Representatives," met up again for a group excursion to get ice cream at Ben & Jerry's. As one of the last times we would be together, there was somewhat of an air of sadness as everyone contemplated our imminent parting, but for the most part, we merely relaxed and enjoyed ourselves. Upon arriving at Ben & Jerry's we were informed that it was happy hour and that we would be able to get the large size for the price of the small size, which everyone was certainly happy to hear. I ordered a mix of butter pecan and strawberry cheesecake, a decision I did not come to regret, as they were delicious. We then ate our ice cream and talked in a small area next to Locust Walk. Our topics of conversations included our plans for college, Yun's shoes, his studies at UPenn, and our experiences at UPenn.
Throwback Thursday? A picture of Locust Walk I took on my very first day in Philadelphia.
Finally, after an hour there, we decided to head back to the Quad. After stopping for dinner at the 1920s, I returned to the Quad, where I thought my RC group and I would be walking to Insomnia Cookies together. However, it turned out that people in the group weren't available to go, so instead, Franklin went there himself, bought them, and brought them back for us to enjoy.

It was a great last regular day of class, although I wasn't quite ready for it to end yet, and I enjoyed the final presentations and discussion we had, and I'll miss them. I found it amusing that we had about a 15-minute debate about death by coconuts alone and it was an interesting way to make the last discussion memorable. The entire course has been an immensely elucidating experience for me, as I have been able to learn about a broad variety of topics and get fairly nuanced understandings of them from the speakers. Furthermore, the discussions allowed me to develop my own ideas about the topics and gain insight from various perspectives from my fellow section members. I've really appreciated this learning environment here at UPenn, and it'll certainly be something I'll miss when I leave.
My second-to-last night in the Quad

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