Friday, July 8, 2016

The Power of Speech

Today's class started out with a video that reinforced what we had learned yesterday about Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, while introducing us to the topic of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. The death rate rose quickly after the outbreak of yellow fever, with doctors of the time not being able to effectively treat the disease, occasionally even worsening the situation, such as Dr. Benjamin Rush's method of bleeding patients. Once the epidemic ended once the first frost set in around November, whites accused blacks of profiteering, or attempting to make financial gains by taking advantage of the situation. Professor Hanson then elaborated on the events shown in the video that transpired during that time. He informed us that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had fled Philadelphia at the onset of yellow fever and, as some trivia, that dignitaries like Jefferson had to sleep on the floors of taverns. Professor Hanson then started talking about the "invisible institution," or the clandestine religious meetings held by blacks in wake of the accusations, that eventually led churches to become media for radical messages. He also noted that many political movements among black people occurred through churches, such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s Civil Rights Movement.
Our lecture room in the McNeil Building
Once Professor Hanson had concluded his lecture, Mr. Salmanson gave us a brief, yet detailed presentation on how to choose a topic and write a proposal. He advised each of us to select a topic that interests us, create a position supported with evidence, and to be open-minded. He then went through the process of writing the proposal, which mainly consists of finding a specific topic, asking questions about it, and finding resources to back up our position. After that, we walked to the Van Pelt Library together to learn about the resources offered there.
Van Pelt Library from the outside
Getting into the library itself was a fairly straightforward matter that was primarily comprised of showing a security guard one's Penn Card, after which they let us in. The library seemed to be fairly large and seemed like a great place to study, with comfortable-looking armchairs as well as a relaxed, yet quiet ambiance. We went up to the third floor (I think), and entered a room, where we were taught by Mr. Nick Okrent how to use the library's search function to its maximum potential and informed of other various resources offered by the library, including a poster printer, video equipment, and the Vitale Digital Media Lab. After Mr. Okrent's presentation was over, Mr. Salmanson gave us another presentation, this one about various forms we could make our capstone project with. After this presentation ended, I went on a tour led by Ms. Diamond Zambrano of the library, where she showed us the various floors and how to operate the stacked bookshelves.
The armchairs in the library
Upon completion of lunch and arriving back at the lecture room in the McNeil building, we had the opportunity to listen to Mr. Chris Rabb, who is an alumni of both Yale and UPenn as well as a "Chidelphian," a portmanteau of Chiagoan and Philadelphian. He started out by asking us if we went to public schools and inquired how many languages we speak. He made us participate in some word associations, which called for us to think of words that related to currency, and claimed that language is a currency. He also told us about his aversion to the use of the word "slave," as he felt that it dehumanized the slaves, making them property of other humans.
The chalkboards with his diagrams
Mr. Rabb also talked to us about his political career and how he managed to beat the political machine that had run Northwest Philly for 30 years by going door-to-door and using a message that resonated within people, which was that they had a real candidate. He referred to what he dubbed the "Unholy Trinity" of business: work hard, have good ideas, have a good attitude. People often believed that if one did all three of these, he or she would be successful. He acknowledged that he is privileged due to his family's history of college education and because he has more invisible qualities that don't restrict him. After explaining his interest in genealogy and recognizing that his ancestry included people he didn't want to be associated with it, he made an important distinction between the who and what. While it is part of his ancestry, something he cannot change, that comprises the what, it doesn't reflect who he is as an individual. He claimed that we all have varying views of value due to perspective and urged us to consider wealth in forms other than the financial one, such as education, safety, or health.

It was truly inspring to hear what he said to us, not just because he congratulated us on being part of this selective program, but also because we realized that he was being genuine and sincere in wanting to help us, unlike most politicians today. He was also a very effective speaker, to the point that I had to analyze myself more than usual to recognize the influence he was having on my views of certain topics, such as that of affirmative action, which I had previously been rather strongly in favor of banning, until he pointed out that although we are equal under the law, certain races had more of an advantage than others. While it didn't quite change my stance, it certainly added another factor for me to consider in my argument. The only thing about his presentation I wasn't very fond of was his manipulation of our thinking, which he accomplished through loaded questions intended to evoke a very specific response, as well as some mockery that forced us to align with his side of thinking or risk being associated with the negative image he portrayed. I felt it somewhat restricted our individual thought by coercing us into thinking a certain way, which is incredibly effective due to people's fears of alienation by defying expectations and disagreeing with everyone else. However, aside from this single issue I had with his presentation, I have the utmost respect and admiration for his speaking abilities, as he was able to sway the crowd and elicit specific responses through his words and the emotion behind them unlike anyone else I've seen before.

After he gave us some final words of inspiration and took a few selfies to remember the occasion, he left, and we watched videos of Jeremiah Wright's incendiary speech as well as now President Obama's reaction to it, as he had been associated with the church Wright preached at. While the "God damn America" from Wright's speech was taken out of context frequently, as it makes sense when listening to the entire speech, I can also understand Obama's reaction to it, as he was running for president at the time and could not agree with a statement that would have alienated many of his supporters. 

After watching the speeches, we went to our discussion groups in College Hall once more. We discussed religion in social justice again, which I think can be a very effective tool for uniting people, although I think that it could be restricting to social justice if its core tenets are inflexible. People also pointed out that religion created another area for discrimination. We also talked about Mr. Rabb's speech, which we all agreed was quite impactful, although I mentioned my complaint about the manipulation of thought. I also wasn't sure that his approach would be successful, as there is growing distrust among the public towards the government, and by entering politics, his image of trying to actually help the people may be tainted, but perhaps (hopefully) he'll be able to create a change in public opinion and be able to implement social justice. Mr. Yun Cha, our discussion group leader, also brought up that Donald Trump is defying political machines, which are typically seen as corrupt, and asked whether in a way, Trump is good. However, while I'm glad he's going against the political machines,which shows that it can be done, I think his views are rather extreme and not quite socially acceptable for modern times. As for the "Unholy Trinity," I disagreed that those values should be classified as unholy. While they are unfair due to the advantages that certain groups have over others, the qualities that comprise the trinity are good characteristics. We discussed social reproduction, which is essentially the concept that wealth begets more wealth, and how that is a larger problem than the inequality itself. We deliberated over what race and ethnicity were and the purpose of race, as it seems to be a social construct that changes over time and leads to stereotyping and social stratification.

Finally, our discussion had to come to a close as we were dismissed. I decided to get dinner with Adi, but due to the lack of seats, I was unable to sit with him, so I ended up sitting next to two girls, Kruti and Catherine, and talking to them for a while. They are both part of the Leadership in the Business World program here at UPenn, although they seemed to have some interest in computer science, where my primary interest lies, so we ended up talking about that mutual thread. Eventually, I had to leave to hear the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Eric Furda, speak about the admissions process. When I returned to the Quad at around 6:50, it seemed that everyone had already left, so I was forced to ask my friends where to go. After being told it was at Penn Museum and finding several entrances to the museum closed, I finally found the right entrance and found a seat. Thankfully, it wasn't very long after he had started, so I was able to hear most of what he had to say. He mentioned the 5 I's (identity, intellect, ideas, interests, inspiration) to help students perform self-evalutations and the 4 C's (culture, curriculum, community, and conclusions) to help students find schools that are good fits for them, based on their self-assessment. While his method is similar to other approaches that I have heard over time, I think that his is easier to remember and simpler to apply than others, so I will certainly use it during my college application process
Penn Museum, where the Dean of Undergrad Admissions spoke
I think that Mr. Rabb's presentation really helped show me the effect good speaking skills can have on an audience, as he was able to captivate our attention and make the audience sympathize strongly with what he was saying. I also think that his speech, as well as the follow-up discussion that we had really opened up a lot of interesting topics to consider, which I will probably end up doing even against my will. All in all, I was glad to be able to do so much thinking today, as it allows me to exercise my capacity for critical thinking and wrap my mind around these complex issues.

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