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IPG Newsletter January 2019

As we enter into a new year, our team here at the Institute for Policy and Governance would like to thank you for your continued support and partnership. We look forward to working with you in the year to come, and are excited to share with you what we've been up to lately.  Thanks for reading!

Tidings   •   Accomplishments   •   Events   •   Conference & Print   •   Spotlights   •   Commentaries

Tidings: From the Director

Max Stephenson

Attacking Human Rights and Eroding Self-Governance

As I write in late December 2018, the United States government is partially closed, the result of an unnecessary choice by President Donald Trump to try to force Congress to provide funds for a wall along our nation’s border with Mexico. The idea of such a barrier has never made any sense and Congress has thus far ignored Trump’s grandstanding to his most fervent followers, who have elected to accept and support his claims concerning the wall. Now, however, Trump not only seeks to compel Congress into providing the funding for a barrier that he has repeatedly promised his devotees Mexico would fund, and which that nation has just as often said it would never do, but he has also argued he will close the border completely if he does not get his way. [1] Such a decision would quickly and significantly disrupt the U.S. economy and likely wreak havoc in the nation’s already roiled financial markets.

It now appears that the government will remain closed until after January 3, 2019, when a new Democratic Party majority assumes control of the U.S. House of Representatives. That fact will make Trump’s political calculus even more difficult. He has long lacked the votes to obtain funding for his proposed “beautiful wall” in the Senate and now will not be able to marshal them in the House. Moreover, political polls show that a decisive majority of the country’s citizens blame Trump for the shutdown and, in any case, do not support the wall he has purportedly taken this action to secure. Many Republican and Democratic leaders also are expressing increasing frustration with their inability to negotiate with Trump, who has dug in his heels at times and promised to bargain at other points. This impasse constitutes an indictment of the President and the GOP’s inability or unwillingness to govern.

The current shutdown arose directly from Trump’s claim that immigration constitutes a national security crisis, a central plank of his presidential campaign and presidency. Trump has denigrated refugees and immigrants as criminals or wastrels seeking to steal American jobs from citizens. And he has gone further, falsely suggesting that the Democratic Party has no interest in border security and that those individuals entering the nation who are black or brown represent a particularly untrustworthy class of refugees and immigrants due to their race or ethnicity. [2]  

Beyond these claims, Trump has sought to treat would-be refugees with cruelty, and just prior to the 2018 midterm election went so far as to send thousands of American troops to the U.S.-Mexican border on the pretense that a caravan of individuals from central America seeking asylum, including women and children, constituted a “national security crisis.” [3] They did not and he has since dropped that assertion, which was plainly a partisan stunt and a misuse of American military personnel. In short, since declaring his candidacy for the Presidency, Trump has scapegoated immigrants and refugees for all manner of ills and has sought to curtail their human and civil rights while diminishing and dehumanizing them in the eyes of those willing to accept his lies. 

All of this is of moment to us here at the Institute due to our abiding interest in the foundations of self-governance and in vulnerable populations. Trump’s choices echo past historically frequent mistreatment of minorities and the poor in U.S. policy and politics (including refugees and immigrants) and serve more generally as a warning of how quickly unscrupulous leaders can degrade the democratic norms essential to self-governance.

Trump doubtless had the opportunity to use immigration as a demagogic tool as a result of the swift pace of social and economic change in the nation in recent decades. But while that is surely true, the country’s currently dominant neoliberal public philosophy, with its utilitarian emphasis on individual preferences and responsibility and its anti-governance provenance, provided fertile soil for his claims. In particular, it allowed him to argue that all of politics and economics are zero sum in character and to play on racism and prejudice against unknown “others,” even as it permitted him to contend that refugees were therefore undeserving of civil and human rights and dignified treatment as a class. Never mind that these arguments violate international treaties that the United States helped to craft and that they also abrogate the most basic principles of our nation’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Never mind, too, that they violate all notions of human dignity on which rights claims are ultimately based. Our dominant governance philosophy has given Trump space to argue that Americans owe nothing to these individuals since, as he argues, they are all (or at least those that are not Asian-unless Chinese-or white) seeking asylum or refuge only to steal, rape or pillage from “real” Americans.

In making these arguments, Trump has not only attacked the idea and ideals of human and civil rights and dignity, he has concocted a lie to argue that such is necessary in absolute terms because the danger represented by often poor and terror-stricken vulnerable people seeking entry to the U.S. justifies such action. That all of this is nonsense does not make it less significant as an assault on the norms and rights that underpin both civility and self-governance. As New York Times columnist Michelle Alexander recently observed,


The founders of our nation did not merely wax poetic about the virtues of liberty; our nation was birthed by a Declaration of Independence, a document that insists that ‘all men are created equal’ with ‘certain inalienable rights’ including ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ After centuries of struggle, including a Civil War, we now claim to understand that all people—not just propertied white men—are created equal with basic, inalienable human rights. If this is true, on what moral grounds can we greet immigrants with tear gas and lock them in for-profit detention camps, or build walls against the huddled masses yearning to breathe free? [4]


Attacking vulnerable populations (whether they lack health insurance, they receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or are immigrants and refugees) as unworthy also taps into a long held cultural suspicion in our nation, stretching back to our time as colonies of Great Britain, that poor and vulnerable individuals are unworthy of citizen or government support because their status somehow arose from their own inadequacy. This cultural current and its tie to a particular conception of individualism runs deep. Charles Dickens sought to address it in many of his novels and stories, including his, A Christmas Carol, published in December 1843, in which the central character, Ebenezer Scrooge, reveled in mistreating the vulnerable. Likewise, in another Christmas novella published a year later, The Chimes: A Goblin Story, Dickens vividly depicted a wealthy government official as arguing the following:


‘You see my friend,’ pursued the Alderman, ‘there’s a great deal of nonsense talked about Want—‘hard up,’ you know: that’s the phrase isn’t it? Ha! Ha! Ha!—I intend to Put It Down. There’s a certain amount of cant in vogue about Starvation, and I mean to Put It Down! That’s all! Lord bless you,’ said the Alderman, turning to his friends again, ‘you may Put Down anything among this sort of people, if you only know the way to set about it.’ [5]


With this parody of the smug and self-rationalizing behavior of the rich people of his day, Dickens sought to remind a cruel and complacent elite of the conditions they were visiting upon a wide segment of the population in the name of their mythology of autonomous self-action and actualization. He also went further and sought to enjoin all those of good will to revisit their assumptions concerning justice and human dignity to secure social change.

Nonetheless, the cultural disposition that so concerned Dickens is alive and well in Trump’s scapegoating attacks on refugees and immigrants. Like the self-righteous wealthy citizens who routinely deprived the poor working men and women of the era of their dignity and rights in Victorian England, Trump has sought the same outcome for refugees and immigrants. Overall, a combination of demagoguery, the nation’s regnant neoliberal public philosophy and a widely held conception of individualism that convinces millions to imagine that difficult straits are ever the result of personal incapacity, has allowed Trump to persuade a share of Americans to believe the lie that immigrants and refugees must be punished for their situations, rather than assisted to address them.

While this is surely the case for immigrants, the same arguments apply, as we have found time and again in our work here at the Institute, to the poor and those with addictions, among other groups. Large shares of our nation’s population are willing to blame such individuals alone for their conditions and/or to argue that supporting them is a waste of time and money. Neoliberalism, with its mythology of absolute individualism, surely plays to this historic cultural prejudice and disposition.  Indeed, Trump has lately called for additional work requirements for those requiring nutritional assistance and that claim is rooted in no more than a prejudice that those needing such help must be asking for it illicitly. Trump has offered his assertions that such action is necessary in the face of evidence that little fraud or abuse of the program exists. In short, the arguments Trump is employing to vilify immigrants have also been employed to cast other vulnerable populations as untrustworthy or undeserving. [6]

Notably, none of Trump’s similar demagoguery concerning immigrants constitutes policy-making in the usual understanding of that term: of crafting legislation in the heated cauldron of diverse points-of-view. Instead, he has sought to undermine the norms and principles that must underpin all such democratic policy-making. Rather than develop an immigration policy via proposed legislation that considers border security concerns and the human rights of those seeking access to the United States, Trump has instead elected to attack and dehumanize those individuals.

As Dickens realized during his time and Alexander noted of ours, none of this is likely to change unless and until millions of Americans mobilize to decry Trump’s actions and demand that he and his party instead honor the values and social norms they now are seeking actively to undermine. History teaches that nations cannot sustainably legislate democratic norms. Rather, their populations must also work vigorously to embody those norms and reject leaders who, on grounds of prejudice, perceived self-interest or pursuit of power, choose not to value the freedom that flows from their broad and continuing respect and adoption.

The Institute will continue to explore these central questions of self-governance and capacity and seek to chart potential courses of action to address them as a part of its broad remit to chronicle the health of the nation’s democratic experiment. Few concerns are more vital to our country’s future.


[1] Karni, Annie and Nicholas Fandos, “Trump Threatens to Close Border if Congress Won’t Fund Wall,” The New York Times, December 28, 2018,  Accessed December 28, 2018.

[2] Qiu, Linda. “Fact-Checking Trump’s Rally in Missouri,” The New York Times, November 1, 2018,  Accessed December 28, 2018.

[3] Shear, Michael and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Trump Sending 5,200 Troops to the Border in an Election-Season Response to Migrants,” The New York Times, October 29, 2018, Accessed December 28, 2018.

[4] Alexander, Michelle, “None of Us Deserve Citizenship,” The New York Times, December 21, 2018,  Accessed December 29, 2018.

[5] Dickens, Charles. The Chimes: A Goblin Story, New York: A. L. Burt Company Publishers, 1937, p. 96

[6] Stone, Chad. “The Facts about Food Stamps Conservatives Don’s Want you to Hear,” U. S. News and World Report, May 16, 2013, Accessed December 29, 2018. 


Vanessa Guerra

Vanessa Guerra M (PhD candidate,  Environmental Design and Planning) has received an assistantship for next semester through the NSF program. The purpose of this NSF grant is to support a student's development through "industry experience". Vanessa will be joining the EmBed unit at the World Bank in Washington D.C. to collaborate in two projects concerning social cohesion and sustainable infrastructure in Pakistan and Ecuador while she maintains her status as a student here at Virginia Tech.  She is very excited and grateful for this opportunity. 

Congratulations to Jenny Callañaupa Huarhua! She successfully completed her Practicum Project and Report for her Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree on December 4th. Thanks to Associate Professor Ralph P. Hall in the School of Public and International Affairs, and Assistant Professor Nicholas Copeland in Sociology, for serving on her advisory committee. Professor Max Stephenson Jr. served as her committee chair. The title of her paper was "Administrative Processes and Program Development at the Literacy Volunteers of the New River Valley.”

Jenny Callanaupa Huarhua
Nathaniel Corso

Congratulations to Nathaniel Corso. He defended a major paper for his Master of Public and International Affairs degree. He also served as a Master’s International Program Peace Corps volunteer as a part of his Master’s program. Thanks to Professor Tim Luke of the Department of Political Science and the School of Public and International Affairs and Associate Professor Yang Zhang of the School of Public and international Affairs, Program in Urban Affairs and Planning, for serving on his advisory committee. Professor Max Stephenson Jr. served as his committee chair. The title of his paper was "Southwest University Students’ Volunteer Motivations and Views on Volunteering.”

Jocelyn Widmer (our colleague in the School of Public and International Affairs and affiliated faculty member with VTIPG during her tenure at Virginia Tech from 2012-2015) has been appointed as Assistant Provost for Academic Innovation at Texas A&M University.  Dr. Widmer will oversee the new Office for Academic Innovation as well as Instructional Technology Services (ITS), providing leadership and coordination for Texas A&M’s online courses, certificates, and degree programs. One of her first tasks will be to work with colleges to establish strategic priorities. She also will serve as chair of the Distance Education Coordination Committee, working to build Texas A&M’s online presence.   Dr. Widmer has remained involved with the Institute and is serving on advisory committees for SPIA graduate students since she left Virginia Tech for the University of Florida in January 2015.  Congratulations, Jocelyn!

Jocelyn Widmer
Henry Ayakwah

Henry Ayakwah (former VTIPG student with a Masters Degree in Urban and Regional Planning) started a new position as Planning and Zoning Associate at Baltimore County.  This position comes with the opportunity to learn a variety of skills around planning, as well as numerous opportunities in international development.  Congratulations, Henry!

Beth Olberding (graduate from Virginia Tech with a Master of Urban and Regional Planning and a Master of Natural Resources) recently accepted a position as a Research Assistant at the World Resources Institute.  Beth previously served as a Peace Corps Volunteer (Community Economic Development Facilitator) from Costa Rica. She is passionate about international development, community building, economic development, and environmental conservation. Congratulations, Beth!

Beth Olberding
Heather Lyne

Heather Lyne is currently the Operations & Development Manager for Embrace Richmond, an asset-based community development nonprofit located in the Northside of Richmond. She holds a M.A. in Public Affairs and a Certificate in Nonprofit Management from Virginia Tech. She was a member of Community Voices (now Community Change Collaborative) and specialized in community change studies with a focus on public spaces, humanitarianism, the arts and culture. Heather has been accepted to serve in the Peace Corps in Georgia and will begin her service in April 2019.

Lyusyena Kirakosyan, Ph.D. (Senior Project Associate for VTIPG) received notice from the Olympic Studies Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, that they decided to integrate her recent article “Exploring the social legacy of Paralympic Games for disabled people” into the Olympic World Library. This platform serves as a library catalog, an information portal and a search engine for Olympic knowledge. It contains the International Olympic Committee's official publications, as well as academic books and articles, mostly in English and French. Lyusyena co-authored the article with a colleague from the local state university, and it was initially published in March 2018 in the Brazilian Journal of Education, Technology, and Society.

Lyusyena Kirakosyan


Theresa Williamson, PhD

The Community Change Collaborative (sponsored by the VTIPG) has been awarded a supplement from the Women & Minority Artist and Scholars Lecture Series fund to bring Theresa Williamson (Founder and Executive Director of Catalytic Communities) to Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus.

Catalytic Communities and RioOnWatch raise awareness and improve quality of life in Rio’s favelas through community organizing and comprehensive reporting. Favelas are informal dwellings that arise due to a need for affordable housing, and although they often lack full public services, they are vibrant and adaptable urban spaces housing nearly 1.5 million people in Rio.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

1:30 p.m., Documentary and roundtable discussion.

2:30 p.m., Podcast interview.

4:30 p.m., Lecture: “Realizing Favelas As a Sustainable Model via Insurgent Planning: Rethinking Our Assumptions in Sustainable Development.”

Virginia Tech Graduate Life Center, Room F

155 Otey St. Blacksburg, VA

All events are free and open to the public.

VTIPG Annual Holiday Luncheon

IPG held its annual Holiday Luncheon on December 7th from 11:30 AM - 1:30 PM at the Alexander Black House.  The IPG Faculty and Staff catered the event, including homemade soups right from their kitchens.  Dr. Max Stephenson, Director of IPG, said a few words of welcome.  This annual event has become a beloved way to say goodbye to the old year as we look ahead in anticipation to the new.

VTIPG Faculty and Staff at Holiday Luncheon 2018
Left to right: Director Max Stephenson, Heather Parrish, Karen Boone, Liz Allen, Nancy White, Regina Naff, Associate Director Mary Beth Dunkenberger
VTIPG Holiday Luncheon 2018
VTIPG Holiday Luncheon 2018
VTIPG Holiday Luncheon 2018
VTIPG Holiday Luncheon 2018
VTIPG Holiday Luncheon 2018
VTIPG Holiday Luncheon 2018

Conference & Print Representation

Upcoming Paper presentation at the 42nd Annual Appalachian Studies Conference: AppalachA’ville

Dr. Max Stephenson, Professor in SPIA and Director of IPG, Neda Moayerian, Ph.D. candidate in Policy, Governance, and Globalization, and Lara Nagle, Master’s candidate in Urban and Regional Planning, will present a paper entitled “Cross-Sectoral Partnership Building in Two Appalachian Towns” at the 2019 Appalachian Studies Association conference in Asheville, NC, March 14-17, 2019. The analysis will focus on the dynamics of cross-sectoral partnerships and draw on case studies addressing two small communities in southwest Virginia and West Virginia undertaken as a part of IPG’s Community Change Collaborative work.

Appalachian Studies Association
Nada Berrada

ASPECT doctoral student Nada Berrada (whose Doctoral Committee chair is Max Stephenson, Ph.D.) had her abstract, entitled, "Challenging narratives of oppression: Middle Eastern Studies and the politics of research" accepted for the 14th Conference of the Italian Society for Middle Eastern Studies (SeSaMO) in Torino TO, Italy. Congratulations, Nada!

The Community Change Journal is proud to announce it's second publication titled “Culture and the State: Explorations in Community Change.” Articles in the this issue critically interrogate various community building initiatives. These works aim to locate where change is (or is not) happening, why, and in what ways. The authors and articles explore a range of conceptions, issues, and locations, including sustainability, democracy, art, gender, and race.  Click here to read the journal.

Community Change was also recently highlighted in a very nice VT News article.  You can read that by clicking here.

Community Change Journal
Midwest Political Science Association

Max Stephenson and Laura Zanotti to present at the upcoming Midwest Political Science Association conference in April 2019 in Chicago

Drs. Max Stephenson, Professor of Public and International Affairs and Director of IPG and Laura Zanotti, Associate Professor of Political Science and Affiliated IPG Faculty, will present their paper entitled “Tacit Knowledge, Cultural Values and Democratic Mobilization in Rural Haiti” at the 77th annual Midwest Political Science Association conference in Chicago, April 4-7, 2019. The article uses Michael Polanyi’s theory of tacit knowledge and an analysis of primary Haitian values to describe the self-organizing activities of a group of peasant farmers in a rural and very poor part of Haiti. This effort has implications for scholarly understanding of democratic agency and for international development project planning.

Article Abstract accepted for Special issue of the Journal of Appalachian Studies

The Board of Editors of the Journal of Appalachian Studies (JAS) has accepted an article abstract, “Pondering Scale and Community Social Polarization: Evidence from Three Small Appalachian Communities,” by Dr. Max Stephenson, Professor in SPIA and Director of IPG, Neda Moayerian, Ph.D. candidate in Policy, Governance, and Globalization, and Lara Nagle, Master’s candidate in Urban and Regional Planning, for a JAS special themed issue entitled “Practicing Appalachian Studies in our current era of polarization.”

The authors will consider the characterization of small towns and social conflict in modern America in three recent influential volumes—The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America (2018) by sociologist Robert Wuthnow, Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016) by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, and Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America (2018) by journalists James and Deborah Fallows—– along with their own research findings, drawing on Community Change Collaborative field work concerning conflict and social and economic capacity in three small communities in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and West Virginia.

In particular, the article will explore how an analytical framework grounded in community cultural development, which combines elements of Wuthnow’s sensitivity to demographic and scalar polarization and Hochschild’s emphasis on opportunities to instill empathetic imagination in development, holds promise to assist residents of these communities to understand more fully the conflict dynamics at play within their towns and to craft strategies aimed at addressing those challenges successfully.

Faculty Spotlight:  Elizabeth Allen

Elizabeth Allen

“Variety is the SPICE OF LIFE” sums up Liz Allen, Research and Program Associate at IPG.  Liz has collaborated on IPG sponsored research projects since 2010 and joined the institute’s staff in 2015 as a data/information specialist. She assists with the management of the institute and serves as a data manager/consultant, program evaluator, and project specialist on IPG sponsored research projects. She has 20+ years of experience supporting people and projects in academic, professional, medical, non-profit, and religious settings.

Liz has studied and traveled around the world. Her Master’s degree is in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from The University of Melbourne Australia.  She’s lived and worked in Australia, Italy, California, Arizona, Texas, and, of course, Virginia, and traveled to many places in between, including China and India. In the photo, she is vising one of her favorite places - Rome.  She has experience working with a variety of higher educational institutions, including community college, small private liberal arts colleges, and several large public universities.

She likes details and she likes people and gets to combine her passion and purpose at IPG by helping people collect and manage data, analyze and organize that data, and share and communicate findings with others.  She’s recently offered “storytelling with data” workshops around campus that help participants practice using data organization and visualization methodologies by walking through case studies.  She also consults with graduate students and faculty, especially those needing help with Excel. Recent projects on which she assisted focus on veteran programs, social services, children services, opioid addiction, and pre-school education. Before she became a data geek, she had careers as dental hygienist, university fundraiser, and event coordinator. When she is not working, she is a proud mother of two adult children, she sings and plays the piano and guitar, enjoys fine food and wheat beer, and takes long walks through Appalachian forests.