Virginia Tech®home

IPG Newsletter April 2020

April 2020 Newsletter

Letter From the Director

April 1, 2020

Dear Friends of VTIPG,

This Newsletter appears at an extraordinary moment in our national history and for our university community. Like Virginia Tech more generally as it addresses the current virus pandemic, the Institute is maintaining our office hours with minimal staff on site in each of our locations and grappling with how to continue our research and meet our obligations to our sponsors and other stakeholders in an environment in which it may literally be dangerous to have sustained interaction with groups of individuals. Our staff and faculty have been uniformly amazing in adapting daily with reason and reasonableness to whatever vicissitudes have arisen. And I have been personally heartened that their response is not atypical in our broader university and state community. While fear is surely palpable and perhaps most visible in our local grocery stores, it is also true that many folks are reaching out and doing what they can with sensitivity and compassion to assist one another, especially the most vulnerable, through this difficult period. As a student of democratic governance, I am hopeful that all of this social turmoil will prove positive for our polity in the long run, despite its already self-evident and steep economic costs.

Please know that as all of this transpires, we are going to do our level best to maintain a community of curiosity-driven, thoughtful people engaged in scholarship and research and we will be available, albeit more often virtually, to be sure, to work with any of you to address questions of mutual import. It strikes me as I write this, that higher education has never been more important to our society than now and that it can now choose to represent the possibility and serve as the transmission belt for our society’s highest and best instincts. I am hopeful that as this pandemic unfolds, Virginia Tech and its sister institutions across this nation can rise to that test.

Meanwhile please stay safe, take care of your loved ones and keep looking forward to a time this is all behind us.


Max Stephenson

Max O. Stephenson Jr., Professor of Public and International Affairs and Director, Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance

Tidings: From the Director

On Empathy, Social Imagination and Efforts to Combat the Current Drug Crisis   

By Max Stephenson Jr
Max Stephenson

The Institute is now engaged in a number of projects to address our region’s opioid and drug addiction crisis, under the leadership of Associate Director Mary Beth Dunkenberger. She and a number of colleagues at the Institute are working on the epidemic in concert with faculty and graduate students from our university’s Public Health program, the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, the Office of Economic Development, the Department of Communication, Virginia Cooperative Extension and the University of Virginia Medical Center. There are important technical aspects to this work linked to the design of interdiction and program evaluation strategies, and the study teams are giving these the time and attention they deserve, but as I have considered their efforts, I have been reflecting on the social currents that together have shaped, and continue to mold, how our society and region have responded to this still unfolding challenge. And, more particularly, I have found myself pondering the critical significance and relative fragility of empathy in forming the social imagination and the major trends that shape its character and contours.

In an October 2014 interview for the New York Times Magazine, the distinguished novelist Marilynne Robinson, then 70, surprised her interlocutor, Wyatt Mason, with the following observation as they began their conversation:

‘I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear.’ Perched on the edge of a sofa, hands loosely clasped, Robinson leaned forward as if breaking news to a gentle heart. ‘What it comes down to—and I think this has become prominent in our culture recently—is that fear is an excuse: ‘I would like to have done something, but of course I couldn’t.’ Fear is so opportunistic that people can call on it under the slightest provocations: ‘He looked at me funny.’ ‘So, I shot him,’ I said. ‘Exactly.’ ‘Can you blame me?’ ‘Exactly. Fear has, in this moment, a respectability I’ve never seen in my life.’[1]

The emergence of that palpable sense of fear and its social legitimation were perhaps understandable. Our nation was then still confronting the long-lived effects of the 2008 global recession and the markedly uneven geography of recovery from it. Some parts of the country had not then, and have not to this day, recovered from that disastrous economic downturn. In Central Appalachia and its environs, for example, the Great Recession exacerbated the long-term decline in the coal or other single-commodity or product economies of many communities. As the recession worsened, the conditions it created contributed directly to what emerged as a pandemic of opioid and other drug addiction among the area’s residents. It is that ongoing social conflagration in our region and beyond that Mary Beth and her colleagues are working to ameliorate, if not to arrest.

Surely one impetus for many people who turned to drugs in Central Appalachia was the sense of helplessness and the wounds to their dignity and self-worth in finding themselves out of work at middle-age and without prospects as a result of economic forces well beyond their province to control. Those dynamics have also been especially cruel and unsparing in their effects on young people in Appalachian communities, as well, who have too often come to perceive their life prospects as dismal or worse as a result. Despair can lead to hopelessness and to a willingness to seek to escape, via substance addiction, from the bitter, economic and social realities one confronts. This has surely been the case for many residents in Central Appalachia who have become addicted to opioids and other substances in recent years.[2]

But this is not the entire story. Opioids especially, as it happens, were foisted on this vulnerable population by some pharmaceutical industry firms that were so ethically bankrupt as to be willing to push their products in the name of profits, whatever the consequences for those whose lives were affected by that choice. And we now also know that a share of malfeasant physicians and pharmacists profited handsomely from their involvement in the wounding or shattering of thousands of lives.[3]  

This is all part of a deeper and still more variegated narrative. Historians and political analysts have informed us in recent years that responses to the present drug addiction crisis cannot be understood apart from deliberate political efforts to exploit the atmosphere of fear that the Great Recession and long-term economic decline have wrought in many parts of the country. The Republican Party has self-consciously employed fear of the economic changes that have engulfed the Appalachians and other rural regions in recent decades, to delegitimize government and governance. The GOP has contended that these alone were responsible for the calamity confronting many communities, pretending that prior conditions can magically be returned. The party has worked just as assiduously, as a part of that strategy, to encourage residents to “other” their fellow citizens on the basis of any difference that might elevate their existing fears and make them more vulnerable to electoral manipulation. Fear of minorities, immigrants and refugees can be engendered fairly easily on the basis of evident differences. Those groups can readily be labeled as interlopers who have come to “steal” employment or to undermine one’s way of life.  The GOP has adroitly followed just that playbook. While it is more difficult to mobilize citizens against their long-time and ethnically or racially similar neighbors who have become drug addicted, it is surely possible to do so on the basis of an underlying fear tied to arguments that the individuals targeted for animus are “weak,” “less than” or “contemptible” to succumb to the difficulties now afflicting them.  And this, too, the GOP has explicitly sought to do with arguments that such people are “takers,” unlike their fellow citizens, and are undeserving of social support.[4]

(Click here to continue)

Project Updates

The Federal Reimbursement Unit (FRU) 

The Federal Reimbursement Unit (FRU) continues to provide positive fiscal and programmatic returns to the Fairfax County, VA Foster Care and Adoptions and Fairfax/Falls Church Children’s Service’s Act (CSA) programs. The FRU Principal Investigator, Dr. Melony Price-Rhodes, recently presented FY20 2nd quarter data to members of the County’s CSA Management Team, comprised of program managers of the multiple agencies the CSA supports.

FY20 results to date have yielded the following financial impact for each of the federal and state funding streams for which the FRU is responsible.

Social Security Administration Benefits-Title II and Title XVI


Child Support-Title IV-D


CSA Parental Contributions


Medicaid Title XIX Estimated Local Savings


Total Third-Party Federal Reimbursement Unit Revenue


Addressing Substance Use in the Region

Institute researchers continue to work with community partners to address the region’s substance use crisis by providing evaluation, outreach and technical support. One such applied research initiative is the Roanoke Valley Connection to Care (C2C) project (Principal Investigator, Mary Beth Dunkenberger, VTIPG). The C2C stakeholder team recently hosted a site visit for the University of Baltimore Center for Drug Policy and Enforcement Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Office to highlight project progress to date. The project has so far distributed 110 backpacks with harm reduction and personal care supplies to people challenged by substance use disorder (SUD) and housing instability in the Roanoke Valley. Each backpack includes a referral card to connect recipients with treatment options. The project partners will collect engagement and outcome data as program participants contact assessment and referral services. This data will support an improved understanding of the service needs of individuals engaged actively in substance use and help to craft strategies for connecting them to needed services.

Along with VTIPG, C2C project partners include the VT Center for Public Health Practice and Research, Fralin Bioinformatics Research Institute, VT Department of Industrial Design, the Bradley Free Clinic, the Virginia Harm Reduction Coalition, Roanoke City EMS, Roanoke County Police, Carilion Emergency Department and Blue Ridge Behavioral Health.

C2C Project
The C2C Project team has distributed 110 backpacks with harm reduction and personal supplies to people challenged by substance use disorder (SUD) and housing instability in the Roanoke Valley.

VHEOC Projects at VTIPG

The Virginia Higher Education Opioid Consortium (VHEOC) in partnership with the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services has funded two grant projects now underway at the Institute. The Virginia Tech project team is collaborating with Piedmont Community Services to evaluate the need for inpatient detox and other services to create a more complete continuum of care to serve people with substance use disorders (SUDs) in the West Piedmont Health District more effectively (PI Mary Beth Dunkenberger, VTIPG). Additionally, in partnership with the VT Office of Economic Development and the VT Center for Public Health Practice and Research, a transdisciplinary project team is assessing the cost-benefit and programmatic impacts of the four currently operating adult drug treatment courts in the New River Valley (PI Sarah Lyon-Hill, VT-OED).

VHEOC is a collaboration of five Virginia public universities (George Mason University, Old Dominion University, University of Virginia, Virginia State University and Virginia Tech) working together to support local Community Services Boards (CSBs) to prevent and treat opioid and other substance use disorders by providing cutting edge academic knowledge and resources.

New River Valley Community Services (NRVCS) – Certified Community Behavioral Health Center (CCBHC) Project

An evaluation team lead by VTIPG Associate Director, Mary Beth Dunkenberger in partnership with VT’s Center for Public Health Practice and Research (CPHPR) Associate Director, Sophie Wenzel, is providing on-going data management and outcomes and process evaluation services to New River Valley Community Services (NRVCS), which, in the fall of 2018 received a two-year grant from the Substance Abuse Mental Health Service Agency (SAMHSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to become a Certified Community Behavioral Health Center (CCBHC). NRVCS was the first Virginia Community Services Board receive such a SAMHSA grant and the distinction that accompanies it.

The research team with support from graduate assistants Summer Bork (VTIPG), Samantha Seay (CPHPR) and graduate research associate Farhanaz Sharmin (VTIPG), is into its second year of evaluating the initiative, having recently completed first year annual reports in early January that were submitted to SAMHSA and presented to NRVCS’ stakeholders. Those reports outlined the successes and challenges experienced within the first year of the grant, while also providing outcome data concerning NRVCS consumers who accessed CCBHC services. NRVCS exceeded its goals for numbers of individuals served (more than 900 adults and children). The effort also demonstrated positive results for several outcome indicators.

During the second grant year, the team will continue evaluating implementation of the CCBHC and its impact on service expansion in the New River Valley (NRV). In addition, Liz Allen, VTIPG Research Associate, who is heading the management/outcome evaluation effort along with her data team, will continue assisting NRVCS leaders with the implementation and monitoring of on-site data collection processes. The grant requires collecting individual level data every three months, using SAMHSA’s national outcomes measures tool (NOMS). Liz’s team will process all collected data and enter it into SAMHSA’s Performance Accountability and Reporting System (SPARS), a cloud-based data bank that tracks data from all SAMHSA grantees across the nation.

During the second grant year, the team will continue evaluating implementation of the CCBHC and its impact on service expansion in the New River Valley (NRV). In addition, Liz Allen, VTIPG Research Associate, who is heading the management/outcome evaluation effort along with her data team, will continue assisting NRVCS leaders with the implementation and monitoring of on-site data collection processes. The grant requires collecting individual level data every three months, using SAMHSA’s national outcomes measures tool (NOMS). Liz’s team will process all collected data and enter it into SAMHSA’s Performance Accountability and Reporting System (SPARS), a cloud-based data bank that tracks data from all SAMHSA grantees across the nation.

Read more about Summer, Sam and Farha:

Summer Bork

Summer Bork, VTIPG Graduate Assistant, is finishing her Masters in Urban and Regional Planning with certificates in geographic information technology and stormwater management through Virginia Tech's Urban Affairs and Planning program. She has focused her studies on natural resources, agriculture and land use planning and management. She hopes to obtain a position soon that will allow her to continue to develop these interests, in either a private firm or government agency.

While working as a graduate research assistant at VTIPG, Summer has had the opportunity to work with wonderfully knowledgeable and talented people from the beginning of the SAMHSA grant project. Her role throughout this has been to assist that effort’s Data Manager, Liz Allen, to ensure that program information is collected and submitted promptly to SAMHSA. Daily tasks have included data entry, as well as assisting with determining and communicating compliance benchmarks to the Institute’s local community services partners. Summer has also helped to liaise with local community services staff to maintain compliance with federal requirements and to ensure services to citizens.

Samantha Seay

VTIPG Graduate Assistant Samantha Seay is pursuing a Master of Public Health degree (MPH) with a concentration in Public Health Education. She is from Bassett, Virginia, a small town located an hour and a half south of Blacksburg. She is passionate about helping people, and she hopes to use the skills and knowledge she has obtained from her graduate program to help rural areas thrive through wellness. The Public Health Program has encouraged her to expand her experiences, to be able to use what she has learned to help support community growth, specifically in rural areas. Samantha is collaborating with New River Valley Community Services on the Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic project. She is assisting with process evaluations, interviews and data analysis. She plans to continue her education by pursuing a dietetics internship. She will also be working in Southwest, VA as a community organizer.

Farhanaz Sharmin

Farhanaz Sharmin is currently a PhD student in Agricultural and Applied Economics (AAEC). Her areas of interest are Development and Applied Behavioral Economics. Her research applies economic theory and structural methods to the decision-making, health and well-being of vulnerable populations. She has employed a behavioral and quasi-experimental approach to study farmers’ decision-making and evaluate the effectiveness of the Integrative Pest Management Innovation Lab program (IPM-IL, Virginia Tech) in Bangladesh for her dissertation. Farha has worked previously in several policy-oriented research organizations where she has employed a mix of theory and empirics to evaluate macro-and-microeconomic indicators.

In her current role as a Graduate Research Assistant at VTIPG, she is assisting with data management and analysis and designing efforts to improve the existing data collection process. Her goal in coming months is to evaluate the effectiveness of behavioral and mental health services provided by New River Valley Community Services (NRVCS) and the validity of self-reported data concerning illegal substance use.

 Acknowledgements & Accomplishments

Neda Moayerian

Planning, Governance and Globalization PhD student, Neda Moayerian, successfully defended her dissertation entitled “Exploring the Connections between Community Cultural Development and Sustainable Tourism in Central Appalachia” on March 19, 2020.

Special thanks to Neda’s committee members: Drs. Kwame Harrison, Department of Sociology, Nancy McGehee, Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management and Laura Zanotti, Department of Political Science. Professor Max Stephenson Jr. chaired her committee. Neda is the 34th doctoral student closely affiliated with the Institute for Policy and Governance to complete their studies since its founding on July 1, 2006. Warm congratulations to Dr. Moayerian!

Vanessa Guerra

Environmental Design and Planning PhD student, Vanessa Guerra, successfully defended her dissertation entitled “Informal Car Share’s Contribution to Quito’s Urban Resilience” on March 24, 2020.

Special thanks to Vanessa’s advisory committee chair: Dr. Earl Shealy, Civil and Environmental Engineering and committee members, Drs. Max Stephenson Jr., School of Public and International Affairs, Jennifer Day, University of Melbourne and C.L. Bohannon, Department of Landscape Architecture. Vanessa has been an active member of the Institute for Policy and Governance Community Change Collaborative and has collaborated with Dr. Stephenson as well. She is the 35th doctoral student closely affiliated with the Institute for Policy and Governance to complete their studies since its founding on July 1, 2006. Warm congratulations to Dr. Guerra!

Samantha Mahdu

Congratulations to Samantha Mahdu, who recently successfully defended her Master of Urban and Regional Planning program major paper entitled, “Family-Friendly Communities: An Autoethnographic Reflection on the Social Importance of Child-Care Services.”

Sincere thanks to her Committee members, Professors Diane Zahm and Yang Zhang of the Urban Affairs and Planning (UAP) program in SPIA. VTIPG Director and UAP-SPIA Professor Max Stephenson Jr. chaired Samantha’s committee. Warm wishes to Samantha!

Max Stephenson

Stephenson pens his 300th Soundings essay

Dear readers,

Today’s Soundings marks the 300th essay in a commentary series that began publication on January 17, 2010. I certainly did not imagine then that I would be writing these articles more than 10 years later or that a share of them would comprise a published book. Nor did I anticipate that the period in which I published them would see the United States enter into a severe governance crisis, and now, with the current pandemic, a social and economic emergency, as well. In fact, as I write, we know neither how this global health crisis will end, nor whether the current, and thus far, successful, decades-long assault on our democratic institutions and social fabric by a share of our public officials will resolve. Nonetheless, I remain hopeful that our general population will find a way to salvage and reinvigorate its collective devotion to democracy, human rights and freedom for all. No issue could be more important to the American people, as on its determination all of our nation’s future governance efforts will unfold.

I am deeply grateful to those who encouraged me to begin and continue this series and who have offered reactions to my essays during these years. I have surely learned a great deal along the way and believe myself deeply privileged to have undertaken this journey. So, this special juncture finds me both very appreciative for what has been an amazing opportunity and still curious about shining what light I can on facets of our nation’s evolving democratic experiment. I share these thoughts with sincere thanks for the decade of possibility represented by this body of work. On reflection, it does indeed represent the fruits of my pursuit of an irreplaceable opportunity.

 Community Change Collaborative

Recently published Trustees Without Borders Podcast interviews: Julia Dinsmore and Todd London

Julia Dinsmore, a poet, singer, and educator from Minnesota, recently served as “keynote listener” for the Amplifying Unheard Voices symposium hosted at Virginia Tech by the University Libraries, Center for Humanities, and the Advancing the Human Condition Symposium of the Office for Inclusion and Diversity. The goal of the symposium was to “acknowledge the many groups in Southwest Virginia that are largely invisible in media and research, despite being integral to the fabric of our communities. Academics and community members were invited to listen to each other’s stories to consider how to partner directly in community-based research.

Julia is the author of the 2007 book, My Name is Child of God . . . Not “Those People.” By sharing her first-hand account of dealing with poverty, Julia teaches her audience about socio-economic inequality while empowering people to be part of the solution. She challenges stereotypes about people in poverty and asks compelling questions about why people in power have not done enough to eradicate structural barriers that reinforce generational poverty. She invites listeners to think critically about the actual and imagined divides that alienate people experiencing poverty in society; in particular, she speaks about the weaponization of the sacred knowledge shared through "oral culture,” which she contrasts with "print culture,” and the dehumanization that can result from hoarding too much wealth.

Special thanks to the Community Change Collaborative (CCC) Trustees Without Borders (TWB) podcast host Andy Morikawa (Senior Fellow at VTIPG), and CCC interviewers Lara Nagle (Community-Based Learning Projects Manager at VTIPG), and Steven T. Licardi, LMSW (spoken word poet, mental health advocate and therapist with New River Valley Community Services). Give the podcast a listen here.

Todd London, an essayist, novelist, arts journalist, and theatre historian, recently visited Virginia Tech for a podcast and public lecture through Virginia Tech’s School of Performing Arts Colloquium Series entitled Art, Community, Ecology, and Health. This program, co-sponsored by VTIPG’s Community Change Collaborative, features talks and workshops by nationally recognized artists and thought leaders on the power and practice of art and culture as essential elements of healthy communities. Todd’s public lecture, was entitled “Let Me Sit with You a While, or The Challenge of Theater is the Challenge of the World,” helped frame the podcast interview and the preface to his talk helped center the shared conversation: “What brings us together? What keeps us apart? Theater is one of humanity's most enduring ways of exploring both conflict and communion in society. More, it's a way of modeling society itself: how do we make a world that supports individual freedom/distinction and collective welfare?”

Special thanks to the Community Change Collaborative TWB podcast host Andy Morikawa (Senior Fellow at VTIPG), and CCC interviewers Sarah Lyon Hill (PhD in Planning, Governance & Globalization at VT) and Courtney Surmanek (MS/MFA Candidate in Urban and Regional Planning and Theatre: Direction & Public Dialogue at VT). Give the podcast a listen here.

We are also thrilled to share the recordings for our most recent Trustees Without Borders Podcast interviews with:

- Dr. Monica White, an Associate Professor of Environmental Justice with a joint appointment in the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Special thanks to Andy Morikawa (Senior Fellow at VTIPG), Lara Nagle (Community-Based Learning Projects Manager at VTIPG) and Nicole Nunoo (CCC member and PhD Candidate in Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education at VT) for conducting the interview with Dr. White.

- Andreza Jorge and Henrique Gomes da Silva of Redes Da Maré, an NGO founded in 2007 by residents and former residents of the Maré Complex in Rio de Janeiro. Their work as cultural advocates and organizers centers on the residents of the Maré favela complex in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and helps to mobilize positive change regarding issues of race, ethnicity, gender and class in women’s empowerment as well as public security, drug policy and use in the city. Special thanks to Andy Morikawa (Senior Fellow at VTIPG), Molly Todd (CCC member and PhD Candidate in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought at VT) and Courtney Surmanek (CCC member and MS/MFA Candidate in Urban and Regional Planning and Theatre: Direction and Public Dialogue at VT).

New CCC Website

The Collaborative is excited to launch a new website featuring a diverse body of work and to showcase the ongoing process of growth and shared learning among CCC members, community and campus partners through the podcast and lecture series, community-based projects, and the CCC’s weekly membership meetings.

Check out the new website here:

 Faculty Spotlight

Desiree Poets

Dr. Desiree Poets is Assistant Professor of Postcolonial Theory at Virginia Tech’s Department of Political Science as well as a Core Faculty of the interdisciplinary Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) PhD program. For the last eight years, she has been working with urban indigenous and black (maroon and favela) movements in three capitals of Brazil’s Southeast Region – São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, and Rio de Janeiro. Her work builds on collaborative and critical methods, through which she engages the difficult and imperfect task of building transnational solidarities across the Global North and the Global South, the Western and non-Western worlds, and the differences of class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, language, and institutional location. This implies approaching black and indigenous peoples as well as the Global South more generally as knowledge producers who are already theorizing and responding to the many challenges that we share globally but that impact the North and South with different intensities. It also implies centering questions of ethics and accountability in research and navigating the ever-present risk of epistemic violence.

Desiree’s work is located across several expanding and innovative fields. For example, scholarship has predominantly focused on rural indigenous and maroon communities. Challenging this paradigm, she has been co-leading efforts to create a network of researchers who work with indigenous peoples in urban contexts in Latin America as well as to establish the field of Indigenous Urbanization/Urban Indigenous Studies in the region. In addition, academia still usually approaches black and indigenous communities separately, Sociology typically engaging with the former and Anthropology with the latter. Working with both communities, on the other hand, has led Desiree to understand how Brazilian nation- and state-building has attempted to bring both indigenous and black peoples under its logics and structure with interrelated yet distinct effects. Paying attention to these intertwinements, she concludes that contemporary Brazil is a settler colony in a dependent position in the capitalist world-system. This has implications for the transformative potential of indigenous and black rights when they remain rooted in settler sovereignty. Desiree’s work has therefore been focused on breaking into the field of Settler Colonial Studies from a Latin American perspective, a field that has so far mostly remained circumscribed within the Anglophone world. Her forthcoming book takes up precisely this task, showing how contemporary urban black and urban indigenous struggles in Brazil against militarization, incarceration, genocide, super-exploitation, and dispossession are all connected under the structure of dependent settler capitalism.

Here at Virginia Tech, Desiree has been working with the VTIPG’s Community Change Collaborative to develop collaborations with Rio-based NGOs and favela activists. These include Catalytic Communities (CatComm), an empowerment, communications, think tank, and advocacy NGO for whose activist journalism platform Rio On Watch Desiree has been writing since 2012. They also include growing collaborations with Andreza Jorge and Henrique Gomes, two activists from the Maré favela complex in Rio de Janeiro who work for the Redes da Maré NGO. In February 2020, Desiree and the CCC facilitated a visit by Andreza and Henrique to Virginia Tech, which included a roundtable that placed Appalachia and Rio de Janeiro in conversation as well as a podcast interview for CCC’s Trustees Without Borders. As part of these efforts, Desiree is also co-leading a fieldwork trip to Rio de Janeiro in the coming academic year with CCC-affiliated faculty and graduate students. This trip will deepen the CCC’s existing relationships with CatComm and will investigate how Maré residents engage in memory-making to challenge dominant and pejorative narratives about favelas with the aim to enable community development and change. Desiree approaches the creation of such transnational research connections as opportunities to amplify the exciting work already being developed at Virginia Tech, in Appalachia, and in Rio’s favelas. They are also an opportunity to think comparatively across the North and the South without uncritically collapsing them.

Desiree’s collaborations with the CCC are part of a more recent research focus on community museums in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Such museums, which are not devoid of contradictions and questions of power, demonstrate the role of the arts and memory in enabling us to imagine and create different futures by re-engaging with the past. They also push us to take more seriously the role of the body, of emotions and affect, in both upholding and challenging discourses of favelas ‘as a problem’ (of security, of crime, of violence, of sanitation, of governance, of order, and so on) and as the object of fear in the city. Desiree’s work has been concerned with how these are precisely the affective-discursive foundations of policy approaches and government interventions, such as the Pacification Police Units (UPPs) since 2008, that enable state violence and neglect in favelas. It is against but also beyond these (affective) discourses and policy approaches that favela residents are already writing, thinking, theorizing, producing, and mobilizing. Desiree is building collaborative links with community museums and memory projects with the aim to understand the limits and possibilities of artistic and poetic production as well as of counter-hegemonic memorialization in challenging this state of affairs. As President-elect Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing government promises to reify and deepen the status quo, the work of community museums is particularly timely.

Desiree’s service and teaching in both the Department of Political Science and the ASPECT PhD program, and as an affiliate of the Women and Gender Studies and the American Indian Studies minors, reflect these interests and commitments. In 2019-2020, she has been serving as El Centro’s Faculty Fellow, supporting its mission to bring visibility to Virginia Tech’s and Blacksburg’s growing Latinx community. Having been born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Desiree identifies as a white Latinx faculty member here at Tech, a category whose meanings she is still learning since moving to the US in 2018. Before then, she was in Wales (UK) for almost ten years, having received her PhD from Aberystwyth University.

 Student Spotlight

Nicole Nunoo

Nicole Nunoo is in the first year of her PhD program in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education (ALCE) with professional and academic goals that reflect the important nexus of education, community development and agricultural policy. Nicole is a proud member of the Community Change Collaborative (CCC), which she regards as a safe space to share her views and be herself around like-minded professionals and individuals.

Nicole’s current research interests address critical policy issues related to agricultural policy locally, regionally and nationally. Nicole has been active in exploring the complexity of agricultural policy and leadership as those foci relate to African American farmers in the rural South. She obtained her Master’s degree from Tuskegee University and for her thesis research, she created a Social Justice Index (SJI) for the State of Alabama utilizing the Community Capitals Framework. She has presented portions of that research at several conferences and has won an award for it as well.

Prior to coming to the United States to pursue her Master’s degree in Agricultural and Resource Economics, Nicole received her Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the University of Ghana’s School of Performing Arts. She was named Valedictorian of her class. While an undergraduate student in Ghana, Nicole served as a volunteer with the Hope Development Foundation; a nonprofit dedicated to educating and empowering orphaned and street children within the suburbs of Accra. Following graduation, she served her country in its Upper West Region and that experience prompted her love for agriculture and community development. She considers herself a community development advocate, especially as linked to food systems. She believes that everyone deserves to have access to healthy food and the farmers who grow our food should receive appropriate compensation and recognition for feeding the world.

Nicole considers herself a foodie and an authentic chef. She loves cooking and trying out new recipes. She also loves to dance and especially enjoys dancing to Afrobeat music. Visitors to Nicole’s home will be met with good Ghanaian food and authentic Afrobeat music. Her summer 2020 goal is to learn to swim.

 Max Stephenson's Tidings (continued)

Whether one empathically relates to a community member who is drug-addicted and wishes to do all one can to assist them, or one instead elects to revile that person for supposed character flaws and assumed “weakness” and assigns them complete responsibility for their condition, turns in good part on what one understands to be socially appropriate behavior. As noted above, for their part, GOP elites and their major supporters have consistently told residents of Central Appalachia and nearby regions for decades that government is responsible for all woes that may befall them and that the national government particularly has given minorities and immigrants benefits that they do not deserve, even as their white brethren have otherwise worked hard to deal with calamitous economic shifts and/or decline. This has led to the ironic turn in many such communities, especially those in rural regions, that finds public sector employees (that is, current staff members of the otherwise unacceptable government) adopting disparaging attitudes toward their fellow citizens and neighbors who have become drug addicted.

Political thinkers as far back as Aristotle, and certainly many scholars writing in recent decades, including John Dewey, Martha Nussbaum, bell hooks and Cornel West, have embraced empathy as a way to educate the social imagination and to serve as the foundation for democracy and social change.[5] These authors have argued that empathy can enlarge the vision of the individual practicing it and allow them to come to grasp, if not fully to comprehend vicariously how the imagined other is experiencing life. Empathy can leaven the perspective of another’s life and help one view that person with openness and compassion rather than with the cruelty always implicit in apprehension and “othering” when encountering individuals different from oneself.  While scholars argue about whether empathy alone is sufficient to result in social change, there is little doubt that it can prevent heedless scapegoating and hate mongering on the basis of difference and fear, however innately human those reactions may be.[6]

Nonetheless, as Robinson contended so clearly, even when, or if, empathy is encouraged or possible, its beneficial effects can be overwhelmed by human fear, and certainly by a combination of anxiety about unalloyed change by unseen forces for which “others” are then held responsible by influential social elites. And this is precisely what has occurred across Central Appalachia for immigrants, minorities and drug-addicted individuals alike. These residents have been held up for scapegoating opprobrium in their communities as agents of negative social and economic forces. This naturally human, if lamentable reality, as Robinson might say, has arisen from underlying fears associated with the vast changes afflicting the region and from residents’ companion desire to hold someone or something accountable for those shifts. For those suffering with drug addiction, this situation has been exacerbated by a related social norm, dating back to the Elizabethan Poor Laws and beyond, that if one is poor or otherwise afflicted, one must be morally weak or degenerate in some way and therefore should be considered unworthy and untrustworthy. 

One result of these social realities is the curious situation in which many of those residents least able to cope with the shifts that have beset Appalachia and who, collectively, are least responsible for those changes, have nonetheless been unjustly saddled in the popular imagination of many of the region’s residents with a major share of accountability for them. Among those affected by this paradox are individuals who are poor and/or coping with drug addiction. Both groups have been the target of attacks and each has had a difficult time garnering empathy from the broader public. In policy terms this has created an environment in which programs to support drug-addicted, vulnerable or impoverished community members are ironically—given how many families depend upon these initiatives—viewed with popular suspicion and there is little public patience for helping the drug afflicted in the first instance, let alone if/when they suffer a relapse.

In short, the conflation of these trends has made for an inauspicious environment in which to seek ways and means to assist those suffering with drug addictions. This is so in no small part because of decades of partisan attacks on the idea of empathy as a fool’s errand. It has also resulted in a decline in what might be labeled the collective capacity for empathy in the Central Appalachian citizenry, an essential characteristic of self-governance. While the human capability for empathy has certainly not atrophied entirely in the region, it has attenuated across Appalachia and this represents a major concern. It is difficult to conceive of how that region, or our nation more generally, will realize any aspiration to social justice without widespread recognition of the centrality of empathy and without a citizenry prepared to act on that vital human capacity. Fear cannot be permitted to result in its widespread eclipse. The present predicament in seeking public support for remedies for the ongoing drug crisis in Appalachia and beyond provides a case in point.

This situation makes the work now underway at VTIPG and with its partners to address that scenario especially important, even as it complicates its pursuit. Those wrestling with addiction in our region can be assisted to help themselves with their difficult circumstances, but such efforts must proceed with all involved fully aware that such an aspiration is, in and of itself, complex and difficult. It is made more so by the imperative to work with the larger populations of affected communities to encourage them to act empathetically to assist those among them requiring help. This shift must occur and succeed if this region’s residents are to realize the central significance of moving forward together, rather than dividing amongst themselves and demonizing some groups within their midst, amid otherwise faltering economies and inadequately resourced governments. In sum, the work that Mary Beth and her VTIPG colleagues and partners are pursuing is vital and much needed as well as challenging on multiple scales. As the old adage goes, this sport is surely worth the candle.  


[1]Mason, Wyatt, “The Revelations of Marilynne Robinson,” The New York Times Magazine, October 1, 2014,, Accessed March 10, 2020.

[2] Cohen, Hannah, “Why Opioid Misuse Policies Must Comprehensively Address Social Determinants of Health to be Effective,” RTI International, Accessed March 10, 2020.

[3] Hong, Nicole, “6 Drug Companies’ Role in Opioid Epidemic Scrutinized by Prosecutors,” The New York Times, November 27, 2019,, Accessed March 10, 2020.

[4] Hochschild, Arlie Russell, Strangers in their Own Land, New York: The New Press, 2018; Reynolds, Barbara,” “Mitt Romney’s America: Makers vs. Takers,” The Washington Post, September 21, 2012,, Accessed March 10, 2020.

[5] Aristotle, The Politics (especially Books VII and VIII), (Ernest Barker, Translation), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946; Dewey, John, “Democracy and Education” in J. A. Boydston, (Ed.), The Collected Works of John Dewey: The Middle Works (Vol. 9). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1916/2008; Nussbaum, Martha, Poetic Justice, Boston: Beacon Press, 1995; hooks, bell, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, New York: Routledge Publishers, 1994; West, Cornel, Democracy Matters, New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

[6] Boler, Megan, “The Risks of Empathy: Interrogating Multiculturalism’s Gaze,” Cultural Studies, 11(2), 1997, pp. 253-273; Boler, Megan, Feeling Power, New York: Routledge Publishers, 1999.

 Commentaries & Essays