Friday Feb 24, 2023
Friday Feb 24, 2023
From his childhood on a rural Nebraskan farm to the negotiating tables in our nation’s capitol, Daniel Dawes has combined his lifelong passion for health equity, political acumen and confidence in a collaborative process to create real and powerful changes in the American healthcare system. With contagious hope and a non-partisan process, the widely respected health equity and policy expert leverages his understanding of the root causes of America’s healthcare problems to advance solutions.
Daniel E. Dawes is a widely respected healthcare and public health leader, health equity and policy expert, educator and researcher who currently serves as Senior Vice President for Global Health and Executive Director of the Global Health Equity Institute at Meharry Medical College. He's also founding Dean of the School of Public Health at Meharry Medical College, the first school of public health at an historically black institution. He has also served as Executive Director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine and is a professor of health law policy and management. Highly respected for his ability to achieve sound policy changes in a nonpartisan manner, Professor Dawes is an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine and an elected fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine.
He serves as an advisor to the White House COVID-19 Health Equity Task force, an appointed member of the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions Advisory Committee to the director and co-chair of the CDC'S Health Equity Working Group, as well as the National Institutes of Health's National Advisory Council for Nursing Research. He's the author of two groundbreaking books, 150 Years of Obamacare, published in 2018, and the Political Determinants of Health published in 2020, both by Johns Hopkins University Press. Among his many achievements, he was an instrumental figure in developing and negotiating the Affordable Care Act's health equity focused provisions among other landmark federal policies.
He's the principal investigator for the nation's first health equity tracker, and he's a recipient of the American College of Preventative Medicine, Dr. Daniel S. Blumenthal Award and the National Medical Association's Louis Stokes Health Advocacy Award among many others. Professor Dawes holds a bachelor's degree in business administration from Nova Southeastern University and a juris doctor in law with concentrations in health law and labor and employment law from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Later tonight, he will address App State students, faculty, and staff, as well as members of the broader community as the keynote speaker at Appalachian State's 38th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration, where he will speak about his work as well as the legacy of Dr. King. Daniel Dawes, welcome to App State and welcome to Sound Effect.
Well, thank you so much for having me. It's wonderful to be here.
I'd like to start, if you don't mind, if you wouldn't mind just beginning talking a little bit about your personal background and the path that led you to where you are now.
Yeah, absolutely. For me, it starts in Lincoln, Nebraska where I was born. You always wonder where should I start? I'm going to start from where I was born, because I think that played a significant role in who I am today. Born in Lincoln, Nebraska to farmers in a little town called Deshler, Nebraska, a town of 600 people in rural Nebraska, and really this product of a interracial marriage, black father, a white mother. What I found interesting as I was growing up was the dichotomy in terms of their health statuses on each side. On my mother's side, I noticed that a lot of my grandparents, uncles, aunts, other relatives were able to live past their 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, had longer lifespans.
But then on the white side of my family, I mean on the black side of my family, I realized that they were lucky they made it out of their 60s. They had higher rates of diabetes, higher rates of cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke. I kept thinking to myself, why is that? What is the reason that they seem to have worse health outcomes and lower life expectancies? As I was investigating, my dad and his mom, quite frankly would say, "We just have bad genes." I thought, "Gosh, is it really true? Could it be genetic solely?" As I was investigating that, interestingly enough, I went to college thinking, "I'm going to do healthcare administration." I'm going to do it because there was a report that had come out in the early 2000s from the Institute of Medicine, now the National Academy of Medicine called Unequal Treatment.
Then, there was another report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality that had come out with a national healthcare disparities report. I thought, "Wow, there's more to this." It seems like it's maybe our healthcare system that isn't providing equal care and equal treatment depending on your background. That really excited me that folks were looking into this and exploring what were the causes of these outcomes. I decided, "Yup, healthcare administration, that's exactly what I'm going to do." I decided I wanted to focus on cultural competency because of an experience that I had. Now, after my parents moved from Nebraska, from Lincoln, Nebraska, they actually moved to Miami, Florida. Imagine that. Quite the opposite, right?
A little warmer, maybe.
A little warmer, exactly. It was interesting now growing up in that setting meeting folks from diverse backgrounds and cultures. One day I decided I wanted to intern in a public safety net hospital. I wanted to get a feel for why there's so much dysfunction and fragmentation in our health services. The CEO at the time of this hospital said, "Sure, feel free. You can go to the emergency department and observe as long as you have permission from leadership." I said, "Sure." They gave me permission. On my first day I witnessed this woman who was pulled in on a gurney and she spoke very limited English. She was writhing in pain trying to be understood, but the triage nurse just couldn't understand because they couldn't communicate in the same language.
I saw her then ask one of the other nurses on the team to go and speak with her. The nurse goes there, and it didn't even last a minute. You saw the nurse go back to the triage nurse and an argument erupted, where to make a long story short she says, "I have no idea what she's saying." The triage nurse said, "Well, I thought that you could speak her language. You have an accent." I thought, "How did she not know?" Because I picked up on the accent really fast. I said, "It sounds to me like she is from a Haitian Creole speaking nation, so a French Creole speaking nation, maybe Haitian Creole. It really caused me to start thinking, how many times does a situation like this happen in our hospitals, in our clinics, and in other healthcare entities across the United States?
From that point, that really was the impetus for my journey to advance health equity nationally. After that experience, I then applied for a leadership development program with a hospital system, one of the largest in the country, the largest Medicare provider in the country, and one really that served a diverse group of folks internationally. I said to the administration at the time, I said, "Listen, there are these major studies that just came out showing tremendous disparities in healthcare, and I'd like to work with you all to rectify it." They looked at me and they said, "Well, we don't discriminate against our patients." I said, "Well, I'm not saying you do, but the literature," and at the time there were 600 peer-reviewed journal articles, "are demonstrating that this is something that is systemic.
Perhaps we can try to create a cultural competency toolkit." Finally, after making the business case that this would be a competitive advantage over such and such hospital in your backyard, they finally let me do this. We created this toolkit that was, I think, pretty groundbreaking for the time, and one that really brought the community out and really engaged the community in developing, and it's something they appreciated. From there, they used it in all 50 of the hospitals at the time. During that process though, one of the things that struck me was how many barriers I had to go in order to do this project. I had every lawyer in that health system bother me and say, "You cannot do this because it would be a violation of X, Y, Z statute."
Now remember, I'm an undergrad, never gone to law school, couldn't even research the law, much less interpret it. I just thought, "You know what? Instead of going the hospital administration route maybe, or the public health route, maybe I should go the law route and immerse myself in the health laws and anti-discrimination laws in this country so that I can fight for people who really have been locked out of our health system." That is what really pushed me on the journey. I then, of course, immersed myself in the law and left and got this amazing fellowship in Congress where I got to work with Congresswoman Donna Christensen, who was the first female physician member of Congress. She took me under her wings, this lawyer, imagine the doctor, the lawyer.
Usually, were butting heads, but she took me under her wings and she helped me to understand how the sausage is made. She introduced me to her network, she mentored me. Because of her, the rest really is history, I then got to work with the late great Senator Ted Kennedy on the Senate Health Education, Labor and Pensions committee, and worked on behalf of special needs populations. These are people with disabilities, people who have been marginalized in our society. Really have been excluded from enjoying the benefits, the social and economic benefits of our policies. That again was eye-opening to get to work with one of the lions of the Senate at the time, and to see how you could effectively push policy that would positively benefit as many people as we possibly can. That really was my journey in a nutshell.
That's an incredible story. One of the things that occurred to me when you were talking about this, I was going to ask a little bit about, I think our students might be interested in how your educational background, both your undergraduate and your graduate background, informed the work that you do today. I was just thinking, you're sitting there talking about how you had to make a business case, so you're using your business background and then you had to make the legal case, so you used your legal background. I think it's just interesting. Do you find yourself now drawing on the undergraduate experience too, as well as your legal experience?
Oh my goodness, every day. Every day. I think in the introduction you talked about my focus and it really was on business administration and psychology. I find myself as this advocate for mental health under the umbrella of health equity, employing a lot of what I had learned in psychology and realizing even from a relational standpoint, we talk about proximity theory, the closer you are to someone and the more rampant you engage with them, the more they like you. It just helped me to understand how to negotiate. Business, my business background as an undergrad, we were quite fortunate, I would say, to have professors who allowed us to not only learn the theory, but apply that in the classroom and outside of the classroom and with externships and internships.
For me, I see how my undergraduate degree has helped me to figure out how in the world I can negotiate a very complex statute or bill, a legislation, perhaps it's a regulation. I can also see how the law degree would help me, of course, to be able to do that. But in terms of building coalitions, building alliances, building a national network of really transdisciplinary group of folks, there are folks who have economics degrees. They may have sociology degrees, English degrees, humanities even, and whatnot. You really appreciate the contributions that we all can make in this movement to advance health equity. That's what I really love, because no one discipline has all the answers.
I think through our unique lens, no matter what we concentrate on, no matter what we major in or minor in, I think it will add value if you care deeply about health justice.
Yeah, so your work now is heavily involved in advocacy to ensure health equity. Can you talk about what health equity means?
Oh, my gosh, absolutely. A lot of folks, they think health equity means health equality. There's this notion, I think all of us, especially for those of us who went to law school, there's always this emphasis on equal protection of the laws, on equality. Interestingly enough, when you think about equality, it's giving everybody the same thing, but equity now looks at where we all are starting off, not everybody's starting off at the same point. Some folks may need maybe extra health services or extra resources in order to reach their optimal level of health, to reach their full potential, their full health potential. It's really thinking about what it's going to take to overcome the barriers that groups that have been locked out of our health system for generations, what resources they're going to need.
What structures need to be dismantled in order for them to have a fair shot. It's really rooted in distributive justice, rooted in this idea of fairness.
I think that the way that you were talking about health equity is a great segue to my next question, because what I'd like to do now is talk to you a little bit about some questions related to your latest book, the Political Determinants of Health. You began the book with this allegory of a farmer and an apple orchard to explain all of these challenges that our nation faces in providing quality healthcare. All the trees begin as seeds, but they're growing conditions affected their health and productivity. As I was getting into the book, I was like, "Okay, I'm getting this." Then, you start talking about, a little bit, as you layer on all of the different aspects, the condition of the soil.
Whether they get fertilizer and whether they get pesticides and whether they're used for research and all of these things. Well, let me ask you this. Why did you decide to use the allegory of an orchard and apples to tell this story?
Because when you're dealing with sensitive topics, you're talking about racial inequities, racial injustices, you're talking about ableism, sexism, classism. They're very sensitive topics. I thought perhaps I want folks to keep reading. I want them to feel like I'm not personally attacking one group versus another. That's not my intent. I wanted to create an allegory that could tell that story because I felt when you look at what has been done, you look at the parables in the Bible, they're not as threatening. You look at allegories that have been created by non-religious philosophers. It seems to do its job in really pulling folks in and helping them to imagine, "Okay, I can see how this could then lead to one thing versus another."
I wanted to really pull folks into this without hitting them in the eye. I wanted to create a story that I thought would be pretty compelling, and every part of that story having significant meaning. That was really the reason for that.
Yeah. I think too, as I was listening to this, I thought the language is equalizing too, in terms of there are so many just topics and terms that have gained stigma, whether they were ever intended to or not. In this way, perhaps you can remove all of that and just simply talk about these seeds.
Yeah, it was interesting. I think a lot of us think about the many factors that affect our health and the health of our loved ones. I'm a Gen X-er, I'm in that sandwich generation. I have children that have aging parents. I was actually on the phone with my mom this morning and she was like, "We might be taking your dad into surgery next week." We hear a lot in the news about these social and environmental determinants, like water quality, all of these things. Is there a factory nearby that might be messing with the soil quality or the air quality? But you state that the political determinants of health are the underpin of all of the other determinants. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Oh, absolutely. I'm so glad you raised social determinants of health first. A lot of folks in public health and in healthcare have accepted what Michael, Sir Michael Marmot, Paula Braveman at University of California, San Francisco and David Williams at the Harvard School of Public Health have been focusing their careers on. It's really fleshing out and helping us to think beyond the downstream impacts that we see, those immediate outcomes that we see. What led to them? Can we really go to the root causes of these poor health outcomes among population groups? Folks have said, "Well, healthcare is one aspect. Genetics, as we talked about earlier, that does play a role." Probably a 10% to 20%, it has a 10% to 20% impact on your overall health.
Then, they look at behaviors, right? Behavioral health, which can include, of course, from exercise and diet to, of course, mental health. That has about a 30% impact. Then, they fleshed out and they said, "But there is one key driver among all of these determinants, and that is the social determinants of health." These structural conditions in which all of us are born into, we live in, we die in. No matter your race or ethnicity, no matter your background, we all are affected by the social determinants of health. Understanding that, understanding, as you mentioned, the housing issues, water issues, transportation or the lack thereof, education, employment, all of these are "social determinants" of health.
But then, as a scholar of history, and as someone who has studied policy, studied law, worked in this public policy arena for a number of years now, it just never sat right with me because I felt we hadn't completed the equation, that we're still nibbling at the edges of the problem of health inequities by addressing the social determinants of health. Yes, they play an outside role, but what instigated those social determinants of health? For every social determinant of health, I came down to this conclusion. There was a preceding policy action or an action that resulted in it, a ordinance at the local level, legislation at the state level, a regulation at the federal level, or a case law that came out of a federal court, state court, you name it, and they have health implications.
I've been on this quest going all the way back to, not 1619, although I do believe that is a fair starting point, but it's 1641. I wanted to know why is it that we see these disproportionalities in health between groups. It's going now and doing that equation, doing the examination to understand what preceded that social determinant of health from a political standpoint. What is that policy that created or has been instigating or exacerbating the results? Then, in addition to that, can we go back in history to identify when it started? We're going to learn about that tonight, obviously, so I don't want to give away too much. But it's just fascinating when you look at what was leveraged by the commercial determinants of health.
Let's add that into the equation, and understand how the commercial interests back in the 1600s, wanting to sustain their business model of slavery, created this body of liberties law to legalize slavery. The abolitionists at the time were fighting and saying, "This is absolutely immoral. How dare you all do this?" But the commercial interests worked with the political interests, and they created this template, the Body of Liberties in Massachusetts. Then, from Massachusetts, they started advocating, lobbying other governments in New York, in Connecticut, in Maryland and beyond. But as we have seen in the course of history in this country, every time proponents of health equity and justice have fought to elevate the status of a group that have been oppressed in our country, then there's this backlash, pushback.
As they received that backlash with that legislation, they again regrouped and said, "But it never included the offspring of these enslaved groups." Then, they went about, the commercial interests and the political determinants, went about amending the law to include the offspring, and as if that weren't enough, what else do they do? Then, they introduced other laws that today we know as these social determinants of health. They restricted their social determinants of health needs. They were unable to move about beyond a certain mile radius. They were unable to raise their own food. We know food, access to nutritious foods is a key social determinant of health. They were prohibited by law from learning to read and write, from being educated. Again, another social determinant.
You can see then how the political determinants of health really played a role further upstream. They are the fundamental causes going way back in history and still today in terms of what we see with the health inequities.
I think frustration with the medical system is somewhat a universal experience. Everyone has had at one time or another.
Yeah, and that would be fair.
We've all been in the emergency department urgent care. You talked about that experience that you had where there are other sick or injured people, and seeing them express frustration and maybe even leave without being treated.
It can feel like such a huge problem. I think it's one that many of us feel powerless within, especially when you're in the moment trying to figure out how to problem-solve. You sit there. I was in the ED recently with my husband who just had a minor injury, but we waited six hours and we saw all these people come and go, and people who needed to be treated leave. In my head I'm thinking, "Boy, they just need to do this and this." Then like, I know, right? I'm the expert on this from all of my six hours of sitting in the emergency department. But it does make me wonder, especially as we think about how complex the problems are and how deeply rooted they are in the history of our country, how do you energize people to get involved? What are those beginning steps that you suggest?
I love this question because just today, actually, on my flight here to App State, I was reading this article published by ProPublica, and it was detailing a student at another university in Pennsylvania who has struggled with a health problem. Fortunately for him, both his parents are professors at the university. They had the wherewithal to fight the insurance company that had been discriminating against their son and believed that his treatment was not medically necessary. What I found very compelling from the article too was a statement that said that only 0.1% of folks in our country have fought and appealed any decisions made by an insurance company. I thought that was pretty compelling. I mean, 0.1%, only 0.1, not even a percent, 0.1% of folks will appeal a decision that is averse to their health status.
Under the Affordable Care Act, it's called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, there are provisions in that law that consumers really should be leveraging to protect themselves and their loved ones and to fight for what they are owing under the law. That was pretty troubling. But to get to your main point, because you reminded me of this story that really tugged at my heartstrings this afternoon, but how can we fight? I think we absolutely cannot lose hope. It seems like the system, as complex as it is, can force one to lose hope really quickly. We know that our systems, whether healthcare or otherwise, were intentionally designed to make it frustrating for many people.
The way I look at it is, and I've worked with groups that whether you're in Texas or in Florida or in the South, states that may be hostile to this agenda of health justice, what we have done is to say, "Let's take a look at what you can do, what's in your power to do." Perhaps you're in a state where you may have a legislature that quite frankly is setting forth policies, and they don't want to advance a more comprehensive agenda, but perhaps there may be a piecemeal agenda that you all can work on collectively. I like comprehensive because I'm like, "Let's just resolve this as much as we can." But perhaps the piecemeal approach might be one way.
There's another tool that I found very few health equity and health justice advocates have used, which is citizen initiated ballot initiatives, but they've been very successful, about 25% success rates in the past and been around since the 1800s, and yet we haven't really leveraged that, and so that's another one. Of course, it takes money. I understand that, but it's still another tool. Then, there's the piece, when I think about what you can do at the local level, a lot of what we have been able to do at the federal level, and that I would include in legislation that I was working on were incubated at the local level. I always remind folks, there are amazing ideas that you can employ in your city, in your county, that you never know another county or city might then adopt.
Maybe tweak, depending on how different they are with their population. Then, ultimately, through your successes we can make the case for greater investments, federal investments in those kinds of programs. That's one way. Then, there are those who say, "Oh my gosh." Like my wife, who wants nothing to do with policy or politics. I said, "Well, you know what, honey? You are a dentist. You are a public health dentist trying to provide oral health services to folks who are locked out of the system, working a federally qualified health center." I said, the number one thing that she complains about is the lack of Medicaid reimbursement, or the fact that Medicaid oftentimes is trying to prevent her from saving the tooth because it would be more costly.
You're only allowed to extract the tooth, get rid of the problem. I've said to her, "You know what, honey? I think if you don't want to get involved in policy development, you need to get involved in your association, your trade associations, your medical societies, and really urge them to harness the power of collaboration to push forth policies then that will help the very people that you struggle every single day to help." I think those are ways that we can. If you remember from the model in the book, I talk about the four different levels of discrimination, but really there are levels that I think each of us can operate in. The intrapersonal level, perhaps there are things that we need to correct within ourselves to get us ready for this advocacy work.
There are interpersonal things that we can do. There's also the institutional piece. If you work in a company or you work for an institution, there are things that you can do to change the processes. Change the private policies in an institution. Change the culture so it can be a more welcoming environment for diverse groups of folks. Then, of course, structurally for those who are ready. Those are the public policies, the economic policies, social policies that you can help to either advocate for or to ensure that they are informed by the evidence, that you are helping to inform them by virtue of you being an expert in whatever area the bill touches on. I think that's the beauty of how we can all contribute. It gets back to that multidisciplinary lens that is needed to inform policy.
In your book you give a peek behind the curtain into the incredible process that brought the Affordable Care Act into being. Those of us who were old enough to remember and followed it in the news, I think we did get a sense of just the public side of the process, which I at the time felt very complex. One day you think you know one thing, and then the next day you're like, wait a minute, I thought we knew that. No, now we know this instead. But what you really do is take us behind the scenes into that incredibly complex process of bringing together all these groups representing very diverse segments of our country's population. Gaining consensus around meeting these challenges that really have faced our nation since before we were even a nation.
I've heard the word collaboration come out of your mouth several times since we've sat down here, but it's against adversity that takes a lot of forms. Sometimes the adversity is people, sometimes it's the system, the process. All these hoops that you got to jump through. I think for young college students in particular, but really for a lot of us, there's a sense of passion mixed with urgency. When they learn about problems, they just want to fix. How do we fix it? Give me a quick fix. Maybe if I jump up and down and yell out enough or call the right person, then they'll fix this situation.
I want a quick fix too.
Sure, yeah. But how do you balance that sense of, let's get this done with the patience that it takes to compromise, find that right research, develop the right message, gain momentum, and then not lose the momentum that you've gained?
Oh, my gosh, that is a great question. Like I said, I am someone who wants the quick fix. I have had to learn to be a little more patient because change does take time. It takes time to educate folks on what the issues are and what are the potential, and develop the potential solutions with folks so they have buy-in. I think there's a professor, Johan Mackenbach, from Rotterdam University in the Netherlands, who I found his writings very interesting because he says, he basically comes to the conclusion that he doesn't believe that we can ever reduce health inequities. Because you're going to have to get the government, first of all, you're going to have to vote in a government that is supportive of health equity.
You're going to have to work with the masses, with the citizens of that country to educate them about why these are important so they can keep sustaining and pushing that agenda with the government. You're looking at it twofold, government and the people, and you're doing this, what I find interesting, educational process with people so that they can support what the government then is pushing in terms of the health equity agenda. We see that going on right now. I think for me, it's knowing that this is a journey. It is a arduous journey. I know that there have been so many people before us who have fought for people with mental illnesses in this country, to open up opportunities for them.
Who have fought to provide health services to poor whites in the South who were displaced by the Civil War and freed blacks as a result of the Civil War. Who have fought to keep those doors open and to really desegregate our institutions. It's taken a while because you do have to educate folks. We see what's going on right now where we're educating folks now on all these other issues, from LGBTQ health inequities, to the disabilities that confront people with disabilities. You're talking about ableism. It takes time. If folks don't walk in your shoes, you're going to have to take time. I've heard people say to me, it is not my job to educate people on these issues. I'm not wasting my time. You need to go and do your homework.
I say to folks, "Well, I do think it is our job to educate folks, because they haven't lived in your shoes. They don't have your same lived experiences." Sometimes folks don't even know where to begin to research a particular issue. You do need to sensitize, and then you have to win them over so that they will support the movement, support the cause. If we fail to do that, then you may be able to get a government institute that supports health equity, but then you will have folks, whenever the government is trying to do something, pushing back and saying, "Absolutely not. We don't support that." The government gets scared and backs off. I look at it in terms of, we need to get something done. I need to think about what are the opportunities that have been presented right now?
Where are the challenges in terms of building the alliance and the coalitions of folks that are needed to do this? How do we work together to make that happen? All of that takes time. Otherwise, you might as well just institute a dictator. Yeah, if you want that quite frankly to be a quick fix. It takes time to build the consensus with folks and to build it within government and outside of government. I think once you do build consensus, then it will sustain that much longer than if you basically try to cut corners and do things impatiently.
Yeah. This is an in the weeds question, but I thought it was also really interesting the role that staffers play in this process and play in the legislative process in general. I think a lot of us have this impression that our elected officials are the key people we need to get in front of when we're advocating for ourselves or for other people. Not that that's not the case, but can you talk about the role that their staffers play in the process of developing legislation?
I love that one. I'm hoping some of your students may be interested in becoming congressional staffers or even agency staffers in the future, perhaps interning or seeking a career in public service. Well, I think a lot of folks have that same mindset that it is the elected official that really wields all the power and is the only one I should be talking to. I'm not wasting my time with these staffers. Oftentimes, the staffers are folks who that elected official highly trusts. You're in an environment where trust is key. They, of course, are surrounding themselves with people who they trust, with people who have, quite frankly, the expertise in particular subject areas. A lot of times you may have an elected official who is passionate about one or two issue areas, but there are a host of other public policy issues that they will confront as members of Congress.
They have to pull in these experts, and they are relying heavily on these folks to what? Craft a bill, or to amend legislation in the committee and to put their stamp of approval on it. They want their fingerprints over that legislation as well, because they want to demonstrate that I have done something on behalf of my constituents. These folks, a lot of times when you see folks going in, they're always surprised how young the staffers are, "Oh, my gosh, what is this?" Then, they dismiss them. That is the worst thing you can do. These staffers are, my God, they're brilliant, they're exceptional. They are working ridiculous hours day and night in order to create positive changes for our country.
I think it is such a rewarding experience to finally see your baby, if you will, this policy that you've been working on come to life eventually, and to negotiate that and to learn how to work with those across the aisle. You have issues working within, whether you're a Republican or Democrat, working within your respective groups, trying to get them to that point of agreement. Then, you will learn how to then work with folks who may oppose or maybe have different opinions on the mechanism or perhaps the approach that needs to be taken. I think it is such an incredible experience for folks, especially here at App State, who may be interested in working in that environment.
I just think it is second to none in terms of experiences, and truly complimentary to what they are being taught here at the university. I think they are a powerful force to be reckoned with, and oftentimes they are dismissed, but they should never, folks should never do that because they are the gatekeepers.
You say in your book that political determinants of health inequities in the United States have rarely been addressed unless their reduction or elimination served other purposes. Can you talk about what this has looked like historically and also what you think it might look like in the future?
Yeah, absolutely. In the book, I talk about the four different arguments that have been tried and tested in order to advance this agenda. A lot of folks are quite surprised, and I'll tell you, my students are shocked. They come in, they're all gung-ho, and then we talk about the moral argument. There are so many thousands of people dying each year. You have 83,000 racial and ethnic minorities dying each year alone. You have countless people with disabilities dying, people in rural areas of our country without the ability to access health services, again, dying prematurely. You try to raise the moral argument with policymakers and say, "This should be sufficient for you to want to pass this legislation to help them."
That is absolutely not the case, especially at the federal level. In terms of advancing more egalitarian policies, that has never worked. The moral argument alone has been insufficient. You usually have to tie that to an economic or a national security argument. Let me give us an example since you raised that. I'll bring up mental health since that's my number one passion. We know that we are seeing disproportionate rates, higher rates of suicides than we've seen in quite a while. We have seen the toll that depression and anxiety is taking in this country. Yet, what we have found in mental health policy is that usually there has to be a major, a major crisis for our government to invest the resources to address mental illness.
I'm going to go back about 150 years ago, because that was the time when Dorothea Dix, who was a schoolteacher from Massachusetts tried ... She had actually gone to Europe. There was this movement to advance mental health reform on the continent. She comes back to the United States and she says, "We need to do right by people with mental illnesses. These folks, they were being pushed out of their homes." Because sometimes you have a loved one with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Family members, they didn't have the wherewithal, they didn't have the ability to take care of that loved one. Their only recourse they felt at the time in the 1800s was to push them out. They were then left to fend for themselves on the street. They were then pulled in, really locked up by the police, by law enforcement.
What was so sad, and what really angers me is the lack of consideration, of thoughtfulness that people paid to those who really are struggling with a mental illness or substance use disorder. At that point, what they would do is they would lock them in these jails. They would strip them naked. They would chain them to the walls. They would beat them, "We're going to beat the devil out of you. We're going to beat this illness." It was a horrible time. If you had a mental illness, it's always a horrible time. Even today, we know mental health is relegated to an inferior status on the hierarchy of chronic disease value, but especially back then, where folks really didn't understand the science behind our brain in terms of brain diseases.
At that point, she was making the moral argument, and she spent 40 years of her life going around the country, trying to make the case for why the government should create a mental health reform bill. She finally convinces Congress after she highlighted these abuses. But then, the President at the time, Franklin Pierce, President Pierce, who really should have been the most sensitive president when it comes to mental health issues having witnessed the tragic death of his son, his only child at the time, his wife and him, they had just had left a funeral for a loved one in New Hampshire. They were heading back home by train. Unfortunately, it was a new invention at the time. The train crashes in a ditch and their son was the only one to die. Poor Mrs. Pierce was, the former first lady, was never the same. She had succumbed to clinical depression and anxiety for the rest of her life. She was a devoutly religious woman and believed that God had inflicted this on them for some past sins. Her husband became an alcoholic, a substance misuser, and is actually deemed one of the least effective presidents in our country. But he didn't recognize how he was suffering and how his wife was suffering. He said, in vetoing that law that had taken decades to get passed, he said, "While it pains me not to be able to sign this into law and provide the resources that these people need, unfortunately, it is not the role of government to provide these necessities for them, and so based on our constitution we cannot do that. It's a violation of the Constitution." He argued.
He essentially made a confederalism argument. Well, that veto message then set the federal policy of inaction in mental health policy for the next almost 100 years. No matter how much the mental health advocates tried to push their mental health reform agenda, they just couldn't succeed. Until we went through a civil war, we went through World War I, and then World War II, when the country is finally on its knees in terms of mental illness. What they found at the time was the generals, the admirals, our surgeon general at the time as well, recognized, wait a second, my gosh, these young people, they're suffering. They're not able to serve in the military. 20% of young people they found were unfit to serve in the military, 40% that ended up in the military actually ended up leaving.
Then, what they also found was that at the time in 1946, 60% of our hospital beds were being occupied by people with mental illness. Now, we have this major national security crisis, because we don't have enough young people to serve in our military. In addition to that, then the business interests were starting to get nervous because now we don't have enough young people who are going into the job market. They recognize, wait a second, huh. There's an economic issue here, and there's a national security issue. It's not just a moral issue. We've got to address this. We've got to expend government resources to rectify this immediately. Finally, oh my goodness, after 150 years of being established as a constitutional republic, our federal government then passes this very peacemeal legislation to establish the National Institute on Mental Health.
To provide some resources to people so that they can have the services and supports that they need in order to get better and stay better. That's how they finally recognize the mental health advocates. That you can't just make the moral argument that, gosh, people with mental illnesses are dying prematurely. In fact, people with serious mental illness die 25 years earlier than the general population. Think about that. But if we give them the services and supports that they need, guess what? They live much longer and they too can contribute to our society and they deserve that.
When you were talking about that, what occurred to me is while the compelling rationale was the national security rationale or the business rationale, it's the story that goes along with the moral argument that really probably helps sell the legislation or the changes.
That's right. For folks like me, the moral argument is always sufficient. But guess what? There are not a lot of Daniel Daweses in our US Congress, and I mean that on both sides of the aisle. You not only have to be policy savvy, but you have to have some political acumen, and you have to know what levers to push and pull in order to affect those changes. I think when folks realize that, you'll be a much more effective advocate for your community.
Are you hopeful for healthcare equity in the future?
I absolutely am hopeful, and I'll tell you why. Because I believe that we are in the fourth period of an awakening, a great awakening for health equity in the United States. We've had three prior awakenings. The first, as you read about in the book, happened under President Abraham Lincoln's administration. But we saw how short-lived that was, right? That was the first time in trying to provide healthcare access, in addressing the social determinants of health needs for newly freed black people and poor whites. The second opportunity for us was addressing the overt forms of discrimination in our society, in healthcare in particular.
The third one actually opened up in the mid 1970s where folks said, "My goodness, we've addressed segregated healthcare, but yet we see these striking disparities." There was a movement in this country and an awakening, if you will, about these subtle forms of discrimination, and so there was an attempt to address that. Then, we have now come through a really interesting time where we have, for the first time ever, a federal government that has centered and prioritized health equity to a degree that I never dreamed possible, at least in this lifetime, and has actually prioritized addressing the upstream factors that drive these poor health outcomes for everyone. Whether you're white, black, Asian, Latino, Native American, et cetera. That's what makes me hopeful.
It makes me hopeful that when there have been backlashes after each of the previous three awakenings, the last one for the third awakening was much shorter. They've usually been pretty long. It's getting shorter. I'm hopeful because of what I see with young people, I'm telling you, these college students give me so much hope. They understand what it's going to take to create a healthy, equitable, and inclusive society. They are not apologetic about creating a society that values everyone, and that gives me hope.
Boy, isn't that the truth? You'll be speaking to a lot of young people tonight, but you'll also have their mentors, their parents, family members in the audience as well. What do you want the leaders of tomorrow to take away from your talk tonight? What message do you have for those of us who are supporting young people as they learn to become leaders in their communities?
I want them to take away this notion that this movement to advance health equity really is not for the faint of heart. It takes courageous leadership. We need folks to understand what Dr. King was pushing when he talked about direct action. If you read his writings, letter from a Birmingham jail, you read his convocation speeches, a lot of them really emphasize the need for direct action. You'll hear me emphasize in my remarks tonight, the two myths that he believed we had to address. The myth of time that we should just let things play out, it'll actually fix itself, just wait, be patient. Then, the other myth is the myth of legislation. Again, the fact that folks say, wouldn't time be better spent on education and religion? Let's just really grasp and convict the hearts and minds of the population.
He kept saying, that's a half truth with that second myth, but we need folks who are focused, who are courageous, who are going to directly act. It is not enough to sit on your laurels and believe that it's going to work itself out, or that the legislation's just going to miraculously be created and push the agenda forward. We need to speak up. We need folks to really advocate. I'm hoping that after this talk people will be excited to participate in our democracy.
Wow. Well, Daniel Dawes, public health expert, professor, dean, author, most recently, of The Political Determinants of Health, it has been my absolute pleasure to speak with you today. It was an incredible conversation. I appreciate your time.
Thank you for sharing your insights and your perspective with us here, but also with our students tonight.
My pleasure. Thank you again for having me.
Friday Apr 01, 2022
035 Bakari Sellers on a heavy heart, patience and a lot of work to do
Friday Apr 01, 2022
Friday Apr 01, 2022
A child of the civil rights movement, a trial lawyer and the youngest individual ever to be elected to the South Carolina Legislature — as well as the youngest African American elected official anywhere in the nation, Bakari Sellers has known great personal loss and earned historic public victories. On this SoundAffect, Megan Hayes speaks with Bakari about cancel culture, the most valuable currency, relationships and being bipartisan but still getting the votes.
Megan Hayes: A self-described country boy from South Carolina, Bakari Sellers is the son of educators, Gwendolyn Sellers, and civil rights activist, Cleveland Sellers. He grew up under the influence of legends of the civil rights movement, including Julian Bond and Stokely Carmichael. At 22 years old, he made history when after graduating from Morehouse College and while enrolled in law school at the University of South Carolina, he became youngest member of the South Carolina State Legislature, and the youngest African American elected official in the nation.
Megan Hayes: In 2014, he won the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant governor in South Carolina. Bakari Sellers has worked for Congressman James Clyburn and former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. And he served on President Barack Obama's South Carolina steering committee during the 2008 election. He has been named to Time magazines 40 under 40 in 2010, as well as the route 100 list of the nation's most influential African Americans in 2014. Bakari Sellers currently practices law in Columbia, South Carolina, where he heads strategic communications and public affairs team for the Strom Law Firm LLC, and has recently added diversity, equity and inclusion consulting to the list of his services offered.
Megan Hayes: He has provided political and social commentary and analysis on many major national news outlets and is a prominent political contributor for CNN. His memoir, My Vanishing Country, was published last May and he's a New York Times best seller. Bakari Sellers is on our campus as the featured speaker for App State's 37th annual celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Bakari Sellers, welcome to Appalachian State University and welcome to SoundAffect.
Bakari Sellers: Hey, I'm glad to be here. Thank you. That was a great intro.
Megan Hayes: Well, thank you. And think the weather's a little better than the last time we tried to bring you here.
Bakari Sellers: So yes, that was it. It snowed and snowed and snowed. And although I am a country boy, the snow is not my friend. I'm glad that it is clear out there. Although it's really hilly out there. I got a workout walking around this campus.
Megan Hayes: Yes, We call it the High Country. And I think you say you're from the Low Country.
Bakari Sellers: I'm from the Low Country. Yeah, for sure. Well, thank you for having me.
Megan Hayes: Well, we're really glad to have you here. And I'd like to begin by asking you to share a bit more about your background. In your book, you describe how in many ways you are defined by the Orangeburg massacre, the first deadly confrontation between university students and law enforcement in the United States history. Can you talk about the influence of this event on just the decisions you made early in your career?
Bakari Sellers: Well, yeah, I mean, I look at it as being the most important day of my life truly. The way that I look at life socially, culturally, politically is through the lens of the movement and that speaks to me as probably the most impactful day. My father was shot and imprisoned. You had three people who lost their lives, but between that and the Charleston massacre in 2015 where I lost my good friend Clem to a racist killer, Dylann Roof, murdering nine people in a church. I say my life has been book end by tragedy, and I highlight those two tragedies as a point that I still live with that pain, but try to truly understand and dissect the role that race plays in society and continue to live for those who can't live for themselves any longer, whose lives will cut short because of that type of violence. It's a heavy burden to bear but one I carry with pride, I believe.
Megan Hayes: Do you see differences between how you respond or how you responded to that influence in your life when you were in your twenties and now?
Bakari Sellers: No, I mean, the answer to the question is no, because it is so ... it's always so heavy, and I've felt that heaviness in my heart since when we first started going over to South Carolina State on February 8th and my dad would pick me up from school and we'd go to the memorials. It's just a really, really heavy feeling. So I don't know if there's any difference in the last 10 years or 20 years of my life in the way that I carry that history with me. But I think that I utilize it. I said in the book that I think that I have a larger chip on my shoulder than my father does from those incidents. I'm reminded that he could have lashed out with righteous anger, but he chose to believe in what Lincoln calls the better angels of our nature. As I'm as I go through this maturation process, I try to let go of some of that. Unburden myself is probably the better term of some of that. Not quite hate that I have, but resentment that I have and live a freer life. It's just difficult.
Megan Hayes: So it's certainly no secret that you're considered a rising star in the Democratic party. And I'd like to ask you about your experience in reaching across the aisle to effect change within an established political system. I would imagine that this work takes time and patience. Is that frustrating or was that frustrating for you? Or was it rewarding or maybe some of both?
Bakari Sellers: No, it wasn't frustrating. I mean, I think that when you get into politics, you have to have some element...first of all, you can't be an introvert. That's not the job, not the career path for you. But there was some feeling of reward even from building the relationships. I'm someone who always am reminded that the most valuable currency we have is relationships. It's superior to the dollar. The dollar's a close second, but it's relationships that are the most valuable. And you learn how to meet people where they are, and you learn how to build those relationships which help you become effective when you're trying to legislate. When you're a young black Democrat, and you're a young black Democrat in South Carolina, you are compelled to find ways in which you can find some common ground to be successful. So it's a necessity.
Bakari Sellers: When I first got elected in 2006 and which was pre-Barack Obama, you had very small Republican majorities. By the time I left in 2014, you had super majorities where they didn't need you for anything. So if there was any frustration, it was probably that frustration, because it's easy to be bipartisan and go and get four votes. It's a different animal to go get 34 votes.
Megan Hayes: Right. Yeah. Obviously that was a learning experience for you. And it sounds like you were pretty patient going into it, but do you feel like you have more patience now or less patience?
Bakari Sellers: I definitely have more patience than I did then. I wasn't someone who believed in incrementalism, but I understand the value thereof. I'm not ready to, you know. What's the quote? I always screw it up, but you don't want to throw out. So anyway, I can't ...
Megan Hayes: Never let the perfection be the enemy of the good.
Bakari Sellers: There you go. You got it. Anyway, I've learned that incrementalism, if we're going in the right direction, will get you there eventually. And that helps me with my resolve to continue to try to fight to get things done.
Megan Hayes: So what surprised you most entering the South Carolina Legislature as a young politician?
Bakari Sellers: How worthless a lot of politicians are. I really thought that there was this uniformity in service. Because, I mean, you literally have to choose to do it and put your name on a ballot, and then go out and run an election and have people vote for you. It's a cumbersome process to get there. And there were a lot of people who were there just to be there. Democrats and Republicans, black and white. I could never wrap my head around the fact that you were just there to be there. I always laugh and joke with folk and say, when I first got elected, I would look up at the ceiling. I'd be like, I cannot to leave I'm here. And then after about a month, I'd be like, I can't believe you're here. I can't believe you're here. So that was probably my biggest disappointment was just the absence of public service oriented people.
Megan Hayes: Do you think that was from a sense of complacency or entitlement or where do think it came from?
Bakari Sellers: All of the above. And the fact that we don't pay our elected officials enough, which is a random unpopular view. I mean, in South Carolina, our salary was $10,600 a year. I mean, it still is. I mean, you pay for what you get in a lot of places. It's hard too. That's why ... Not disparaging the professions, but many times we got retired folk, trial lawyers like myself, people who could afford to do it because you can't have someone who is a teacher or someone who is a plant worker or someone who is a fireman do that and then come serve in this part-time job, which is really a full-time job for $10,600 a year. Just it's not feasible.
Megan Hayes: Do you think the political landscape is more or less divisive than it was in 1968 when your father was arrested?
Bakari Sellers: That's an interesting question. I didn't think you were going to go back to '68. I thought you were going to go to 2006 when I got elected. The answer is the answer is ... The answer is ... I don't know the answer to that. Is it more or less divisive? It's about the same, which is a tragedy, I think. I think that we began to rip at the seams January 20, 2009, which was the inauguration of Barack Obama. I think that the advent of the Tea Party in 2020, the issues we had with race in this country came to the forefront. They became more pronounced recently and I think that's eerily reminiscent of 1968.
Bakari Sellers: I mean, we have to remember, and I am very clear eyed about this and very sober about the fact that every ounce of political change we've ever had in this country has been because of black blood that's flowed in the streets. When you think about that sentiment, you think that in the 60s, but for the images of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the death of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till in the mid-50s. You don't have the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. But for the assassination of King, you don't have the Fair Housing Act. And we've seen those similar occurrences. And I thought after the very, very hot summer where Ahmaud, Breonna and George were murdered, you would get to a point where we were having these conversations about race that proved to be fruitful, but I think that might have been youthful naivete and I was wrong.
Megan Hayes: Wow. So you talked a little bit about relationships earlier and you built a lot of success by fostering relationships that were built by your parents. I think that's something that ... I think that's something that maybe a lot of people that grew up without means probably have done and maybe people with means too. I don't know. But can you speak to the new relationships that you build? And one in particular that I was thinking about when writing this question was your, and you speak of her as a friend, your friendship with, with Nikki Haley.
Bakari Sellers: Yeah. I mean, Nikki, I think she's mad with me right now, but-
Megan Hayes: You can get mad with your friends.
Bakari Sellers: I know. She always gets mad at me about a tweet or something. Nikki Haley, Tim Scott. I mean, this is ... it's South Carolina. We, we have some really interesting bed fellows in South Carolina. Lindsey. When I call on them, they are inclined to be helpful if they can, but I understand the politics is very rough and tumble, but also, I know them. I know them to the point where I disagree with them wholeheartedly on policy ideals, but I think I was in the Washington Post magazine, and they were doing a profile on Tim and I said the interesting part about my relationship with Tim is that I will never vote for Tim Scott, but if he needed a kidney, I'd give him one. And I know that's decently hyperbolic to some but ... or sensationalized is probably a better term, but I think that's where we need to get back to in terms of our political discourse. Where you can disagree with folk and still maintain relationships.
Megan Hayes: Yeah. I've certainly been feeling a lot of that lately. I think so. And so along those lines, I want to talk with you about the importance of making mistakes. On a college campus, I think it's important to create a space where people can make mistakes and then learn from them and recover from them importantly, and hopefully do that with some grace. Although I'm not sure I have much grace in the mistakes I was making when I was in college. But I had the privilege of speaking with Julian Bond about this in 2015. I was wondering if I could play his response to my not very well asked question, and then get your response or your reaction to it.
Bakari Sellers: It'd be good to hear I'll Uncle Julian's voice.
Megan Hayes: There's a part of me that wonders if just trying to create an environment where it's safe to stumble and fall a little bit. It's safe to mess up.
Yes, Yes, yes. He has to be ready to make a mistake, and get pick up and go ahead and do it again.
Megan Hayes: In 2015, it seemed hard, I think, to find that space for recovery, but there's a part of me that thinks it may even be harder now.
Bakari Sellers: It is harder now. By the way, you were really, really, really youthful in your voice. It's like, what's 16-year-old is asking this question?
Megan Hayes: Well, let's not talk about how I sound on there.
Bakari Sellers: So yeah. I think that first of all, I don't necessarily believe in cancel culture. I think that's a myth perpetrated by a lot of my friends in the media. I think there's such thing as consequences. You can say something extremely stupid, racist, xenophobic. You have the freedom to say it. We also have the freedom to..., So you free from consequence. So that's first. But I don't think we allow for forgiveness and grace and people to evolve and learn. I think that sometimes when somebody does something stupid or ignorant, when you look at it's not necessarily the country music singer who says nigger all the time. Right? That's not necessarily what I'm talking about, but I am talking about when clips emerge from somebody talking 15 years ago and you want to cancel them today.
Bakari Sellers: I'm like, well, let's look at what happened over the last 15 years. Let's apply some grace through the lens that we're looking, and let's see how much they've evolved. I mean, if they're the same that they were when they said it, then that's one thing. None of a us are the same person we were 15 years ago, and I think that we have to show people the same grace. And that's the two points I made. That's part of the problem we have right now is that people want grace, but they don't want to give it. And then the other is, and it's a political lesson, I guess. And it's something I tell people who want to get involved in the political process, which is being a pastor and a politician are the only two professions where people expect more from you than they expect from themselves. You have to understand that going into it. And so many times in politics, there is a higher bar, a threshold, regardless though we should all give people some grace and allow people to be forgiven for transgressions.
Megan Hayes: Bakari Sellers, I have one more question for you.
Bakari Sellers: Sure.
Megan Hayes: But before I ask you, I want to thank you for your time with me here today. You didn't have to do this. I appreciate you stopping in.
Bakari Sellers: I'm glad to do this. This is amazing. I'm all about podcasting united. Everybody, all the podcasters across the world need to come together and form a super group. I appreciate what you do here.
Megan Hayes: Well, thank you very much. And your next step is to speak before an audience of students who are not much younger than you were when you ran for office and landed a seat in the South Carolina Legislature. It's really incredible to think about. You were hopeful then, excited about the future and the change that you could bring. Can you talk about what gives you hope now?
Bakari Sellers: My children. Looking at Sadie and Stokely at three years old. Whenever you get down, you see that you have to live for them. It's a different type of love. It's a different type of heart flutter. It's a different type of anxiety and worry. And you just want to make sure that you are leaving them a better world than the one you inherited. And as we sit here today, you realize that you got a lot of work to do, and maybe in their generation, maybe one day they'll be free.
Megan Hayes: Well, thank you so much for your time, sir. I certainly appreciate you being here, and I hope that the rest of your stay is great.
Bakari Sellers: No, thank you for your preparedness and thoroughness in this interview. That's amazing. And it was good to hear Uncle Julian's voice. For sure.
Megan Hayes: Yeah. Well, when I read your book and actually I listened to it, so it was really great to hear your voice. I had a really good time doing that, and I thought, wow, this is an opportunity to ... That was really an incredible moment for me to speak with him.
Bakari Sellers: He's an amazing person. All right. Thank you so much.
Megan Hayes: And as are you. Thank you so much.
Bakari Sellers: I'm working at it. All right.
Megan Hayes: Appreciate you.
Friday Jan 14, 2022
Friday Jan 14, 2022
Monique Johnson's drive, dedication and joy are undeniable. Born with diastrophic dysplasia dwarfism and scoliosis, doctors predicted she would not live past the age of 6. Now 36, with a business degree and a law degree, Johnson is a successful entrepreneur and artist who touches the lives around the world with her incredible tale of perseverance and her gifts of humor, painting and motivational speaking. Overcoming obstacles each day, she says she doesn't mind being defined by what she can't do, because it opens them up to seeing what she can do, and the possibilities within themselves. Monique Johnson joins Megan Hayes on this all new Sound Affect.
Megan Hayes: Monique Johnson is an artist, attorney, entrepreneur, and motivational speaker known for her gifts of humor, intelligence, business acumen, and the ability to inspire others. Born with diastrophic dysplasia dwarfism, one of the rarest forms of the condition, Monique Johnson was also born with scoliosis, which caused curvature of the spine. Doctors anticipated that her spine curvature would collapse her lungs and her heart, and predicted she would not live past the age of six.
Megan Hayes: At an early age, Johnson realized overcoming obstacles of her own, gave her the power to, not only live, but succeed beyond anyone's expectations. Now, the co-founder of Made 2 Soar, LLC, she capitalizes on her sense of humor, combining straightforward pragmatism with a drive and enthusiasm for inspiring others to advocate for those with disabilities, speak in support of education and diversity initiatives, and develop creative and innovative lectures, speeches, and trainings for corporate entities, educational institutions, and athletics groups and organizations.
Megan Hayes: While Johnson stands at two feet in stature, she fills a room with her presence and has been called gigantically tall in her wisdom and insight. Her incredible tale of perseverance and her gifts of humor, painting, and motivational speaking are profoundly empowering to others. Her work and her powerful example have led to being featured on news platforms, ranging from local to national, including Fox and CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. She holds an undergraduate degree in marketing from North Carolina A&T University, and a juris doctorate from Elon University.
Megan Hayes: Monique Johnson, welcome to Sound Effect.
Monique Johnson: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure being here.
Megan Hayes: We're so glad to have you on our campus.
Monique Johnson: I'm excited.
Megan Hayes: What a great way to start 2022.
Monique Johnson: Absolutely.
Megan Hayes: Can you start by giving our audience just a little bit of background about you and your journey to being a successful entrepreneur and advocate, who inspires and empowers others?
Monique Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. It started from when I was just a young child. I knew that I was destined for greatness. A lot of that had to do with the influence that I had from my family members, particularly the women in my family. I come from a long line of powerful African American women, who really did not allow me to sulk in my condition, but really highlighted what my skills and just different attributes that would really help me to succeed. They really highlighted that, and really inspired me, and empowered me to continue on. And so, that started from a young age and just continued to multiply with my self-esteem, with my outlook on life, and who I am. And I just took their vision and what they stood for, and ran with it.
Megan Hayes: So, you've talked about how doctors told you that you would not live past the age of six. And each night, you went to sleep afraid that you wouldn't wake up the next day. How has that shaped your worldview?
Monique Johnson: Oh, my goodness. Unfortunately, much of my childhood, especially at night, was me dealing with fear. And I wish that I could go back and just reassure myself that, "Hey, Mo, I understand that that's what the medical professionals have stated. But you've got a long life to live. And there's no need to be afraid." I wish I could go back and just speak to my younger self, to say that. I am thankful that they say, "Joy cometh in the morning." So, every day that I would wake up, especially past the age of six, I knew that it was just another opportunity for me to live life. After my sixth birthday, something clicked to say, "You know what? Maybe medical professionals got it wrong. And I'm hoping that they've gotten it wrong." And now that I'm about to turn 36 years old, I think that they've got it wrong. But I've used that experience to help shape me to be someone who is fearless today. And to not only just be fearless, but to count every day as a blessing. And to live life to the fullest every single day.
Megan Hayes: It's almost like the fear that you experienced then, is something that, not only you overcame it, but you're using it in a way to motivate yourself and others beyond that point now.
Monique Johnson: Absolutely. It's the fuel that really projects me to just different goals that I want to accomplish. And I'm happy, honestly, that I had that experience. I can say that now, looking at it from this vantage point. But I think all things work together for my good. So, yeah.
Megan Hayes: So, can you talk about some of your educational and career choices? You chose marketing as an undergraduate degree, then you got a law degree. What influenced those decisions?
Monique Johnson: So, I knew early on, that I wanted to be someone of power, someone who could influence others. And so, I knew that I wanted to become an attorney. Part of that was, because, one thing that I knew that I could do, there were many things that I couldn't physically do, but God had really blessed me with the ability to articulate clearly. And growing up with four other siblings who happen to be female, we argued all of the time. And so, I developed the skills necessary to prove my point. And I said, "Well, hey, if I put these things together and marry my personality with my skills, I could help to speak out for other people, who may not have a voice or may not know how to use their voice."
Monique Johnson: And so, I knew that I wanted to attend North Carolina's A&T State University. And, originally, I was going to major in political science, but the Dean over at A&T, over business, said, "Hey, listen, we see your 4.0 GPA. If you come over here, we'll give you a full ride." And I couldn't put my way wheelchair in a fast enough speed over there. And I decided to do so. And so, that's why I majored in business. But it has helped me to become the entrepreneur that I am now. And I married my business degree with my law degree. And, hey, it was just a perfect combination for me to do things with excellence in business.
Megan Hayes: And now, you're an entrepreneur. So, how did you get to that step? How did you get to the step of starting a business, knowing that that's what you were going to do-
Monique Johnson: Yes.
Megan Hayes: ... and then do it?
Monique Johnson: Yeah. Originally, I didn't think that I would be a business owner, to be honest with you. My whole goal was to graduate law school and just hit the courtroom. But it was upon graduating, that the news picked up my story. And then from there, I received the invitations from all across the country to come, and to speak, and to inspire. And I didn't think that that would be my thing, until it was an elementary school... I'm sorry. A high school, that I went to visit. And I was able to see how my story impacted those young people. And there was a teacher, who called me after speaking to an ROTC class. And she said, "You know what?" She said, "There was a young student there, who heard your story. And he had not submitted any other assignments. He had not participated in class. But after hearing you, he decided that he was going to better himself."
Monique Johnson: And so, just hearing that, I said, "You know what? I think that my story is not just for me, it's for everyone who will hear." And so, I decided to shift. Instead of advocating for individuals with disabilities and advocating for others who may not have a voice in the courtroom, why don't I do so from the stage? And why don't I do so from in front of the classroom? And that's when my passion decided to magnify. And I started Made 2 Soar, and I've been encouraging others to soar ever since.
Megan Hayes: So, can you talk about one of your most memorable experiences, either in advocacy work or the inspirational work that you're doing now?
Monique Johnson: Oh, my goodness. There's so many. I would say, there's so many I could bring up. For me, what's been the most impactful... Actually, I will. I was able to speak at a huge corporation, to be the keynote speaker. Afterwards, I was wondering, "Did I really pierce the hearts of those out in the audience?" Because I don't know about you, but anything that I do, that's important to me, I do a self-assessment immediately afterwards.
Monique Johnson: So, as I was rolling off of the stage, there was a long line of individuals, who wanted to shake my hand and just say hello. And there was a businessman, who stood taller than me. And he looked down at me. And I remember seeing him through my speech and it didn't seem like anything was registering. He had this stone cold stance. But here he was, at the front of the line, wanting to greet me. And he looked down at me with tears in his eyes and he said, "Listen." He said, "I've got the corporation, I've got the position, I've got the finances, the money, I've got the cars. I've got everything," he said, "But there's something that you have, that I don't have. And that's joy." He's like, "Where do you find your joy? How have you tapped into that?" And he, literally, had tears in his eyes.
Megan Hayes: Wow.
Monique Johnson: And I realized, at that point, that it was that scenario, as well as the scenario with the high schooler, that I realized, "You know what?" Again, this is not just for me." And I was able to inspire him and keep in touch with him. But I knew from there, "Mo, this is bigger than you. You're two feet tall. But let me tell you, you're impacting so many different people. You are a giant."
Monique Johnson: And so, I've used that to fuel me even more to not think of myself as little, but think of myself as much, and understand that my reach can extend beyond my wildest imagination. So, yeah.
Megan Hayes: Well, we've certainly seen a lot of that today on this campus, too.
Monique Johnson: Awesome.
Megan Hayes: So, thank you for that. So, I want to switch gears a little bit and ask you, when and how did you discover your talent as a painter?
Monique Johnson: That's an interesting story. So, I've always known that I could command different writing utensils. In elementary school, I would have different occupational therapists try to come and give me different adaptive equipment. And me, being a little, perhaps, hard-headed, possibly, I don't know, but I didn't want to stick out. I didn't want to be as different as I was from my peers.
Monique Johnson: Thankfully, I didn't have to worry about bullying or anything like that, but I felt like anything that was strange would cause more attention to me and my condition. And so, the occupational therapist would always try to think of different tools and gadgets. And I was really determined to say, "You know what? Okay. So, here's a pencil. And, yes, I cannot close my hands, because of the way my bone structure is, but let's just try. Let's try."
Monique Johnson: And I realized that I could command writing utensils really well. So, my writing skills, from a young age, was impeccable. My handwriting was better than my teacher. And so, I knew that I had the ability to maneuver paint brushes, crayons, markers, colored pencils. And then I also had an eye for color. But I did not highlight that at all, elementary, middle, high school. But it was my senior year of high school, that my mom found a sale at Michael's, or something like that. And if you know anything about moms who love sales, then you know that-
Megan Hayes: I might be one of those.
Monique Johnson: ... she's going to get something, okay? She's going to get something. She came home with a canvas and some paint. And said, "Mo, try to paint something on this." And at first, I was like, "Mom, I don't really feel like it." She's like, "No, just try." So, I was like, "All right, fine." So, that night, I decided to paint an African American saxophone player. And it ended up coming out really nice. I wasn't surprised, but my mom was surprised. So, of course, being a proud mom, she presented that to family cookouts and everyone knew about it.
Monique Johnson: And then someone at a cookout said, "Hey, I'll give you $100 for that." Now, that was what really got my attention. And the light bulb popped off. And I said, "You know what? Maybe I can flip some of these canvases, and add a couple of dollars in my pocket." And that really motivated me. So, yeah, I just decided, "Okay. Well, cool. So, let's push the limits and go with bigger canvases." So, I've completed canvases that were four feet. So, that's two feet higher than I am. And I've just been having a ball, just really extending outside of my reach, to create something beautiful. So, yeah.
Megan Hayes: And also, didn't you use the proceeds to pay for an aid?
Monique Johnson: I did. Yeah, because I had a full ride academic scholarship, but I wanted to have the full college experience. I wanted to stay on campus. But that would require me to have an assistant with me. And that was quite costly. But I said, "You know what? Let's go ahead and just sell as many of these as possible."
Monique Johnson: The news picked it up again. My community back in Greensboro really picked up the story. And people came out to support. And I was able to pay for an assistant all four years of college. So, yeah, it worked out pretty well.
Megan Hayes: Full-time creative job, on top of your incredible academic experience, too.
Monique Johnson: Yes. It was a ball of fun, though.
Megan Hayes: So, I realize it is a little hard to talk about visual art in an audio format, and we're going to post a link to show some of your work on our website, so our listeners can experience it themselves. But can you talk a little bit about your paintings? What kind of subjects do you paint and what inspires you as a painter?
Monique Johnson: Right. So, my favorite is doing abstract work. I enjoy being able to put on a canvas, take a blank canvas, first of all, and create something beautiful, something that doesn't have structure, but allows the viewer to be able to interpret whatever they interpret from it, to get whatever they get from it. I love being able to even translate and communicate through that.
Monique Johnson: So, a lot of my work is abstract work, but I've also really picked up with portraits. So, different celebrities. A lot of my commission pieces are portraits, as well, which is funny, because I would say, maybe about three or four years ago, that I wasn't doing portraits. And realism wasn't my area. I was quite nervous about, because if you're painting someone, you want to make sure that it looks like them, and that they like it, and whatnot.
Monique Johnson: And so, I was nervous about that. But now, portraits make up maybe about 75% of my commission work. People love it. And I've garnered so much attention around even painting celebrities, as well, on social media. So, what it's taught me, is that, "Yes, Mo, you can take a blank canvas and create something beautiful. But you still need to stretch yourself and you still need to overcome some things that may not come naturally to you, at first. But with practice and determination, you can perfect your craft." And thankfully, I think I'm there. So, yeah.
Megan Hayes: Your work is beautiful.
Monique Johnson: Thank you very much.
Megan Hayes: So, it's interesting. You started off talking about your mother and the women in your family. When I was reading up on you, I was remembering my mother always saying that no one wants to be defined by what they can't do. We all want to be defined by what we can do and what we do well. So, how do you want to be defined?
Monique Johnson: You know what? I don't mind being defined by what I can't do. And the reason for that, and I understand, but for me, I think people look at me and they see what I can't do. But then they see what I can do. And what, I think, registers to them, or translates to them, is that we all have strengths and weaknesses. We all are not capable of doing every single thing. And that is okay. But if you highlight the things that you can do, if you find your gifts and your talents, and you really work it, truly work it, number one, it can end impact your life tremendously. And it can impact the lives of others.
Monique Johnson: And so, I think that people are interested in me as a person. They're interested in my work. They're interested in just my life, because they see what I cannot do, but see what I can do. And to a lot of people, that's weird. It's mind-boggling. But I love doing it. I like confounding the wise. That's what I love doing. And so, yeah, I think more so, I would like to be defined as someone who was not afraid to tackle circumstances and obstacles, someone who understands her weaknesses, her strengths, but is determined to really enjoy life and enjoy life to the fullest.
Megan Hayes: So, do you ever have days when you just want to have a bad day?
Monique Johnson: Absolutely.
Megan Hayes: Because you don't seem to be the type.
Monique Johnson: Yes. No. I love empowering and inspiring folks. I love doing this. But at the end of the day, I'm just like everyone else. And there are days that I wake up and I'm just absolutely frustrated. And that can come from many reasons, whether it is an assistant didn't show up that day. And so, what does that translate to me? Well, the very things that you might get up out of the bed and you're able to do, I can't. So, I have to figure out, "Okay. Well, who's going to come in their place?"
Monique Johnson: And I think people see my personality, which is all true, that I'm being very transparent. You see the joy, you see the happiness. This is all very true, because I realize I could not be here. This is not a fake at all. But I think that I've been able to look at life from the bright side so much, that people forget that I do have struggles. And so, when I break it down and say, "Hey. Yeah, I can hop out of the bed, but I need someone to help me with a glass of water. Or I need someone to help me with just the ordinary things that everyone else takes for granted. I need help with that."
Monique Johnson: And so, if an assistant doesn't show up, okay, I got to figure this thing out. So, it can come from there. It can come from just not feeling like doing life that day. And I think that everyone has those days. And it's okay. And it's deciding, "Okay. Well, are you going to push beyond that? Or are you going to just chill out?" And I think, for me, it's okay, sometimes, to just chill out. And so, I don't want people to beat themselves up for not feeling like doing life that day. And I have those days, as well.
Megan Hayes: I think that's really important, sometimes, for people to hear.
Monique Johnson: Absolutely.
Megan Hayes: So, you spoke to audiences today at App State. What was your goal? I've heard you say that you want a goal, you want to learn a little bit about your audience before you go in there. What was your goal in speaking to that group today?
Monique Johnson: Oh, goodness. I had many things that I wanted to accomplish. Ultimately, I wanted them to be impacted in such a way, again, that they weren't just inspired. I get that people are inspired by Monique, your favorite little artist. I have an inspirational story. I get that.
Monique Johnson: But beyond that, I feel like when you leave that room, and when every individual left that room, I wanted them to be impacted in such a way that they impact the communities that they return to. And they impact their family, their neighborhood, their classroom. I was hoping that, even with some of the young students, that there was something that I said that would really pierce their heart and be buried in there, for when there's a bad day or when you don't understand something. And when life is complicated, which life gets complicated, I was hoping that, at least something that I said, or even the image of me being on stage here at Appalachian State would inspire them. And, hopefully, give them the nudge that they needed, to continue on. So, I'm hoping that people were really ignited from my speech today.
Megan Hayes: My money's on yes, that happened.
Monique Johnson: I'm glad.
Megan Hayes: So, I don't know if this is a great way to end, but as we were thinking through where we've been just over the past couple years, it's been a rough couple years for society. And I think that tends to be amplified on a college campus. There's anxieties about COVID, about global warming, about economic concerns, political, civil clashes, all that.
Megan Hayes: And then you combine it with this extreme social isolation, that can present a lot of mental health challenges for young people, in particular. And so, I'm just curious, what do you say to people who are searching to find hope and strength among those, sometimes, what can feel like really overwhelming challenges?
Monique Johnson: Well, I think the first thing is to know that you're not alone. I think a lot of times, we encounter these difficult moments and what really magnifies this feeling of despair is feeling like you're all alone. I've heard from many college students who will bury themselves in their dorm room and do not want to have any interaction with the outside world. You can be on a campus with so many thousands of students, and staff, and faculty, and feel alone. I think that the first thing is to know that you're not alone. Even if you feel like you're alone, just know that you're not alone. We're all experiencing everything that's going on. So, just, again, know that you're not alone.
Monique Johnson: I think that after that, it's about really being okay with how you feel. I think that, and I would never want people to look at me and think that I'm just trying to advocate for, "Hey, feel better." No, if you need a moment to gather yourself, if you need a moment to feel sadness, feel it. Feel it and know it, because you're going to be able to use that later, to maybe help someone else. So, feel it. And if we turn a blind eye and act like we don't feel it, that's not going to do anything. So, feel it. Absorb it.
Monique Johnson: And then I would say, really talk to someone when it's your time. So, not trying to push anyone. Take your time. But talk to someone, be around someone who cares about you, who wants to pour into you. And even if that's not them giving advice or them saying something, get with someone who will just listen to you, lament about whatever's going on. I think that that is really important. But in today's age, with everything going on, you've got to have someone who is in your corner. And so, I don't mind even being that person. So, yeah. But make sure you have someone that's in your corner, that's willing to be there to support you.
Megan Hayes: Well, I think that's really important for people to hear.
Monique Johnson: Yes.
Megan Hayes: Thank you.
Monique Johnson: Absolutely.
Megan Hayes: Well, Monique Johnson, it's been my privilege and my pleasure to speak with you today.
Monique Johnson: Thank you.
Megan Hayes: You have brought joy to our campus on the first day of class.
Monique Johnson: It was my pleasure. Thank you so much.
Megan Hayes: The beginning of the semester at the beginning of a new year, I think it's a really great way to get started. And those who had the pleasure of hearing you speak today are inspired to embrace what the new year holds for us. So, thank you for the joy, and the light, the hope that you brought to our campus. And also, the pragmatism, as well.
Monique Johnson: Thank you.
Megan Hayes: So, the impact that you have, I am confident is going to continue on our campus for quite a while.
Monique Johnson: Awesome.
Megan Hayes: Thank you so much.
Monique Johnson: I'm so grateful for the opportunity. Thank you.
Wednesday Dec 15, 2021
Wednesday Dec 15, 2021
Host Megan Hayes welcomes Dr. Baker Perry, a high altitude climber and higher education professional who along with a team sponsored by Rolex and National Geographic installed the world's highest weather station on top of Mount Everest. On this SoundAffect he is joined my Panuru Sherpa who helped lead the team.
Megan Hayes: Well, it's been a long time since we've been able to record a SoundAffect podcast and I am so very, very pleased to be returning with climate scientist Dr. Baker Perry, who is a professor in App State's Department of Geography and Planning, and his colleague, Panuru Sherpa.
Megan Hayes: In 2019, as part of the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Expedition to Mount Everest, Baker Perry and Panuru Sherpa were part of an expedition team that braved record crowding, temperatures of nearly negative 22 degrees fahrenheit and icing that compromised their oxygen intake to install the two highest operating automated weather stations in the world on Mount Everest.
Megan Hayes: In 2021, the global COVID pandemic prevented many members of the expedition team from returning to Everest weather station maintenance. Sherpas in the village of Phortse, who make nearly every Everest expedition possible, were able to service the weather stations which are providing scientists with an unprecedented level of weather data that will improve weather forecasting across the globe.
Megan Hayes: Today I'm joined by Dr. Baker Perry and Panuru Sherpa to talk about the project, their expeditions and their partnership. Baker Perry and Panuru Sherpa, welcome to SoundAffect.
Panuru Sherpa: Thank you.
Baker Perry: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
Megan Hayes: Oh, we're so glad to have you. Baker, let's start. If you could tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be interested in climate science.
Baker Perry: Well, I had some unique experiences as a child. I lived in the Andes of Bolivia and Peru, and as high as 13,000 feet and we would take outings up higher than that. So I had this natural fascination. And for some reason too, as a kid I read a lot of books about Everest. And I didn't really expect necessarily to be back on Everest, but as a result of the National Geographic expedition and my relationship with the director Paul Mayewski, I had the opportunity to go.
Baker Perry: And so clearly these early experiences were very formative in my own childhood. And there were some memorable snow events in the Southern Appalachians too that I can point to, in 1987 and 1993, the big blizzard, and I think those experiences were very important in my career path.
Megan Hayes: So how did you end up on an expedition to Mount Everest?
Baker Perry: Right. So this particular expedition, the opportunity to join it came through an existing relationship, collaboration with Dr. Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. We had collaborated on a project in the Andes together. And then he was invited to head up the expedition to Everest and knew that I had experience working with weather stations in the Andes and invited me to come along.
Baker Perry: And again I had not necessarily been planning to go to the Himalayas for research. I'd been there once before in 1999 when I was a graduate student, but this was an opportunity that came up and of course I was very excited to be a part of it. And it was through that opportunity that I developed the relationship here with Panuru and the other Sherpas in the communities there in Nepal.
Megan Hayes: So Panuru, I understand you grew up in Phortse, the Sherpa village in the Himalayas which is home to the Khumbu Climbing Center. Did I say that correctly?Panuru Sherpa:Yes.
Megan Hayes: I understand this village and your climbing center has more Everest summiters than anywhere on Earth. Talk about your childhood responsibilities in Phortse.
Panuru Sherpa: Yeah. So when I was younger, I started school at 3 years old. After 3 years I had to look out for my family, my father, mother's yak and nak, looking after them in the mountains.
Panuru Sherpa: I like trekking and that time, first time I worked as a trekking porter. I carried 30 kilo bags, carrying for the trekking. My job was to set up tents and pack them up. 1988 was my first expedition to Mount Everest, in September and October. First time I climbed the South Col route., which is very steep.So I continued to climb in mountain and trek in mountain.
Baker Perry: So how old were you the first time you went up above base camp? Up through the icefall. How old were you?
Panuru Sherpa: That time I was 17 years old. Before, I had no climbing training, did not know how to use rope or use crampons, harness, nothing. Just I trek, I went to base camp and my big brother's name is [Passan Goltsen Sherpa 00:05:14]. He taught me how to use crampons, how to use rope. They had to teach me more in the next days and I had to carry the big ladders, three ladders I carried and I had to bring in the Khumbu Icefall, first time.
Baker Perry: First time! How many kilos is that?
Panuru Sherpa: One ladder, like 7 to 8 kilos.
Baker Perry: So we're talking 21, 22 kilos. So 50 pound plus load going through the Khumbu Icefall.
Baker Perry: So, you were chairman of the Khumbu Climbing Center in Phortse 2004 to 2019. Talk about the history of the KCC and the motivation too is to train Sherpas to have more climbing skills, to be safer. Right?
Panuru Sherpa: Yes, because the Khumbu Climbing Center gives the people going to mountain, never been mountain and they are first time to climbing and they're interested in climbing and that we give first time for safety, safety margin. And some how to use knot, how to use for climbing gear, the climbing gear name. Everything is basic thing. And then also he have to coming for next year advance, maybe we have more advanced trainings for rescue. Rescue training, save.
Baker Perry: Yeah, so I was there in January 2019. There were a few of us from the National Geographic expedition that went early to train with Panuru and the other Sherpa team members and Conrad Anker was there. And so we were there at the same time as the Khumbu Climbing Center class and it was so impressive to see how well it was run and how well it was working. And to see all the people, the young people, coming in for the training. So that was very neat to be a part of that.
Megan Hayes: Is that the first time you two met?
Baker Perry: That was the first time, yeah January 2019. So we stayed at his lodge at the Phortse Guest House in a very comfortable lodge with a wood stove in the middle of it and very good food and very comfortable. And so that's where we met and I met his wife and some other family, and other Sherpa team members too.
Megan Hayes: Yeah, I would imagine having that personal connection is also really helpful when you're climbing together.
Baker Perry: It was so helpful for us, I mean especially for Tom and me to have been there, and begun to develop the relationship with especially Panuru and the other Sherpa team members because we didn't have a lot of time together during the expedition because there was so much to do. You all were carrying lots of loads up and down the mountain, and so I think if we hadn't had that time together as part of the KCC course, that it would have been more challenging to communicate and to plan. It may have been harder to have the success that we had without that, without those relationships that we built.
Panuru Sherpa: Yeah.
Megan Hayes: Yeah, because you had to make some tough decisions when you were on the mountain. Do you mind talking a little bit about what your roles, each of your roles were, on that 2019 expedition and kind of get us into that a little bit Baker?
Baker Perry: So I was the co-leader of the meteorology team on the expedition, worked closely with Tom Matthews, my colleague from the UK. And so we were tasked with setting up a network of weather stations, including one in Phortse in, in fact, Panuru's land. He's so generous to let us set up one of the weather stations on one of his agricultural fields where they have grown potatoes and buckwheat. There's not a lot of flat land in the community and this was a great site. And we didn't need a lot of it, just a little, small piece. And he said, "Okay."
Baker Perry: And so we set that station up and then we went up to base camp and set up another station at base camp and then at camp 2, South Col. And of course the highest one at the Balcony. And so that was my major responsibility, and of course we had to work very closely together. And maybe you want to talk about what was your responsibility on the 2019 expedition.
Panuru Sherpa: Yeah, that times I'm on the expedition, we call Sirdar. Sirdar is a lead guide for Sherpas own group. So I make food, tent and oxygen. Everything to prepare from Kathmandu to base camp. When the group's coming we have to have ready oxygen tank, food and climbing gear, everything we have to have ready for basecamp.
Panuru Sherpa: So we make tent. One group, the main group coming, making tent camp everything's ready. We have the tent, dining tent, mess tent, kitchen tent, shower tent, toilet tent. Everything's ready there and then the group's coming there. And then I making plan, like good ceremony puja there.After that I sent Sherpas in Camp 1, Camp 2. And then making load, how oxygen, tent, food, everything we have to separate in the camp 1, 2, 3, 4.
Panuru Sherpa: And then my job (was deciding) like which Sherpas going to ice cores, which Sherpas going to the weather stations. And I have to divide that
Baker Perry: And this was the largest scientific expedition ever on Mount Everest and so it was a big team. I mean even above base camp, there were seven of us. So three scientists and four media team members and then plus the 15 Sherpa. So just the logistics of moving that many people up high is very challenging, but we also had the scientific equipment. And so, I mean the weather stations were big loads to carry, right?
Panuru Sherpa: Yes, heavy and big load. Yes. Yeah and the batteries are small but they're heavy, you know? And then many times the Sherpas, many time carrying from base camp to camp two 18-20 times there. And then South Col, the camp 4, they have to carrying five times to there. And also there down, everything's carrying down. Yeah the Sherpas have a very difficult job.
Baker Perry: Yeah, and I mean none of what we did would have been possible without the Sherpa team and especially your leadership, Panuru. It's just so much weight to move up and just the challenge of negotiating the Icefall and the Lhotse Face and bringing ice cores down. Those were very heavy I know and complicated, and drills and just, it was a big job.
Megan Hayes: Well you had lots of different parts too, right, because nothing was put together. Didn't you have to take it all in pieces and then on site build it in order to get the scientific equipment to work?
Baker Perry: Yeah, so there was a load of the tripod and then a battery was its own load because it was so heavy and then there were different instruments spread out among different people, different members of the team. Then yeah, we had to put them all together and we practiced a lot, including back in January 2019 when we were there. We did lots of practicing and training and then of course at base camp and at camp two before going up, we did lots of practicing putting it together so I think you all were pretty confident, you knew what to do.
Panuru Sherpa: Yes.
Megan Hayes: So what was the hardest part of the expedition, what was the biggest challenge that you had?
Panuru Sherpa: Main hardest part is going to Balcony, carrying the heavy load with oxygen, everything. And then also many peoples this day.
Baker Perry: The traffic jam!
Panuru Sherpa: Traffic jam.
Megan Hayes: I remember seeing pictures of that.
Panuru Sherpa: Main hardest part is going to Balcony, carrying the heavy load with oxygen, everything. And then also many people this day.
Megan Hayes: Because that wasn't the original plan, right?
Baker Perry: The original plan was to get up to the South Summit, which is a little bit higher than the Balcony, up on the main ridge line there. But that was tough. I mean we were in this just traffic jam that was just moving very, very slowly below the Balcony. And then when we got up to the Balcony, it took us longer than we anticipated and we could look up ahead and see just a lot of people up there and knew that it was going to be very, very challenging to go on. And just from the time standpoint, that we might not be successful even if we went on. And then of course, it would have introduced a lot more of a safety hazard to stay up so long, and then to be coming down after such a long time up high.
Baker Perry: So I think that was a very, very wise call and it was your call. You were the lead and we topped out at the Balcony and I had been following Panuru up to there and knew that you were concerned and frustrated too at the slow pace. And so we got up there and you looked at me and said, "I think we need to stop here, it's not safe to go on." And I said, "I trust your judgment." So.
Megan Hayes: Well, that was making world headlines at that point, the number of people on Everest. I remember reading the news and seeing photographs from that time and thinking about you all. How challenging and also frustrating that must have been. So, what about the best parts? What were the highlights of the expedition for you all?
Baker Perry: What were the successes? What made you happy about the expedition?
Panuru Sherpa: So that 2019 expedition, I'm very happy for all of the success. The weather station, cores, ice cores, the ice also highest ice core at South Col and we make Phortse for weather stations there is good. And also base camp is very nice now also good. And Camp 2, South Col and Balcony, that times I'm very happy. And also all people safe to back to home, that is very important and I'm very happy there.
Megan Hayes: That is always the goal isn't it.
Panuru Sherpa: Yes!
Baker Perry: Yeah, I think for me too. It was an incredibly successful expedition all the way around, not just with the weather stations but with the ice core and the other science teams too. Just amazing work and I think for me it was so special or important to see how many Nepali students and scientists were involved, especially working out of base camp. And then the strong support of our Sherpa team and just how capable in putting together the weather station and really learning how to build a weather station, just gave me such excitement and pride that we were able to do this together and install the two highest weather stations that have ever been installed at South Col and the Balcony. And the fact that all of the stations have collected such important data and that stations at Phortse and base camp are just doing very, very well.
Megan Hayes: So Baker, can you talk a little bit about the data that's being gathered and why weather data from high altitudes are so important?
Baker Perry: So these high altitude regions in the Himalayas and also in the Andes and other mountain ranges where there are glaciers and where there's a lot of snow and ice, are so important for sustaining communities downstream with water. They're the livelihoods and we call these water towers, these mountains are water towers. But there are only a handful of weather stations above about 20,000 feet in the world. And so we really don't understand how quickly they're changing or what the important atmospheric processes are that are driving the glacier retreat at these elevations. And so the data that we are collecting from the weather stations include just basic temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, wind direction but also solar radiation, incoming solar radiation and the reflected solar radiation from the surface and also the thermal or the long wave infrared. And especially those data are incredibly important for understanding what's happening at the glacier surface and what is really causing the melt or the disappearance of the glaciers. And so we need those in order to be able to feed into the glacier melt models that ultimately predict how much water is going to be running off. And lower down we have precipitation sensors that measure how much rain and how much snow is falling and of course those are very important variables as well. These have all been already very helpful in scientific studies that have shown for example that Mount Everest may be one of the sunniest places in the world. It's very high up and because it's so high up, the intensity of the sunshine is exceptional. And even when there's clouds, during the monsoon there's a lot of sun that's coming through there. And so this is a very important finding that there's a lot of melt that's occurring on the glaciers, even when air temperatures are well below freezing. And so that's not necessarily been well understood within the scientific community and so that's a really important data. From a forecasting standpoint, just having the wind speed measurements and the temperature measurements available for climbing forecasts, it's helped to improve the weather forecast during the climbing season and has allowed us to better calibrate the forecast models that are being used so that when we look into the future we can say with higher confidence what the wind speeds, what the temperature are going to be. And we think that this will certainly save lives during the climbing season by having the better weather forecasts.
Megan Hayes: Wow, so do you want to talk a little bit about the importance of water?
Baker Perry: Yeah, so water we know is so important and so maybe... How is water important in Phortse and for your family and your community?
Panuru Sherpa: Yeah, the water is very important for the people and also animals and about everything.
Baker Perry: And up high in your summer pastures the water coming off of the glaciers is so important for the grass that grows for your yaks and naks.
Panuru Sherpa: Yeah, that's right. If water is not coming we have no grass there. And then that was very important for the yak and nak and also some vegetables and also fields.
Baker Perry: And also the electricity that's in your community comes from hydropower, right?
Panuru Sherpa: Yes, we have a 60 kilowatt hydro power in Phortse. Before is like many people not use, "Oh, we have this too much." But now we have not enough, because everybody needs heaters and also TVs there and washing machines there, now is not enough.
Megan Hayes: A lot more demand for electricity.
Panuru Sherpa: Yes, yes.
Megan Hayes: So Baker, the 2019 installation which is recently recognized in the Guinness World Records book as the highest altitude weather station on land. I feel like we can't get through this conversation without at least acknowledging that, because that's pretty darn cool.
Megan Hayes: But as a matter of fact this is one of three world records set by the expedition team and I understand that even some of the other scientists.... There were other discoveries of insects at some of the highest altitudes known previously. So can you just tell us a little bit about the records that you were involved with and kind of what that means to you?
Baker Perry: I mean as a kid, I grew up... I think I had multiple copies of the Guinness Book of World Records and you're like, "Oh, let's look." There is a cool factor about that, and yeah so I think there is a certain excitement of being a part of that but I think the scientific accomplishments are much more valuable to me, I think, at this stage. But it's not to diminish the fact that we've done something that nobody else has done before, and it's really part of this incredible team that we had and so the weather station was a huge success but it wasn't the only one, as you said. And we had the highest ice core, our team from the University of Maine led that. Mariusz Potocki and Paul Mayewski and these guys did the heavy lifting and getting it down was so important.
Also, our team collected snow samples from just above the Balcony, just up a little bit from the Balcony and that's where the highest microplastics in the world were found. And so this is just an indication that we've got plastics just everywhere, not only in the oceans but even up on the highest slopes of Mount Everest. And I don't know that that's necessarily something to celebrate, it's a record but it's not...
Megan Hayes: Maybe it's an important teaching tool for us though.
Baker Perry: It is. It's an important teaching tool and a milestone in some ways that, "Hey, this is very serious, our impact on the environment." And then colleagues make important biological discoveries on the mountain and there may be more records that come out of that work, they're still in the process of analyzing it. It was a very significant expedition on many fronts and it was just for me personally such a wonderful experience to work with a diverse team of scientists from lots of different disciplines under the umbrella of National Geographic and with the sponsorship of Rolex, it was very much of a highlight for sure.
Baker Perry: A question for you Panuru, can you just talk a little bit about what you and especially Lhakpa, your son Lhakpa and Tenzing were able to accomplish this spring on the maintenance expedition.
Panuru Sherpa: Yes, so I'm very happy this year we are going to Everest, the National Geographic expedition. We have to check all the weather stations from Phortse to Balcony, we have to change batteries or some... We have to change. And then the old one we bring down.
Baker Perry: And it reminds me too that after we installed the Phortse and the base camp stations in 2019, you went back with a few others. Well, you built a fence around each of those stations for security, and especially at base camp that was a big job to haul all the materials up. Because you had to haul the fence and the posts and some cement too, right? All the way up to base camp.
Panuru Sherpa: Yeah, we had to carry and we had to mix there. We make one days there.
Baker Perry: It was a great opportunity this year to develop more experience and to build capacity of especially Tenzing and Lhakpa who did everything they were supposed to do that they needed to do. They were extremely successful. So I think that gives us a lot of optimism, moving forward that we can maybe maintain these stations for many years into the future and so that's the goal. And to build the capacity of the Sherpa team to serve as the caretakers and to keep the stations running for a long time, maybe at least four more years. Four more summits for you, right?
Panuru Sherpa: Yeah, I think so yeah.
Baker Perry: Beginning to think ahead, maybe next year, having a weather station academy in Phortse perhaps.
Megan Hayes: Oh nice!
Baker Perry: Kind of like the Khumbu Climbing Center course, to give people more opportunity to work hands-on with some of the weather stations and invite people from other parts of Nepal and perhaps other parts of the Himalaya to come in and learn. And perhaps bring somebody from Campbell Scientific that has built a lot of the stations to do some of the training but also for Tenzing and Lhakpa and some of the more experienced members of our team to actually do some teaching as well. And so we're very optimistic and excited that something like that can start up in the next year or two.
Baker Perry: I'm optimistic that we can keep these stations operating for some, for several more years at least. We're clearly building relationships and building capacity there on the ground, that is an important component of it. And we're also building stronger collaborations with our colleagues in the Nepali government department of hydrology and meteorology and at Tribhuvan University, and trying to work with more Nepali scientists as well that can provide leadership down the road. So those are some of the, I think, points to look forward to. Maybe this can be a kind of a testing ground and a place where we can bring people from other mountain regions around the world to learn from our Sherpa friends and also learn more about how to operate weather stations in mountains and so that's part of a vision that we're working on as well. So, we'll see.
Megan Hayes: Wow, that's exciting. It's exciting to sit here. It's been a pleasure to spend a little bit of time with you two and just see the continuation of a friendship and a trusted colleague relationship as well, so I appreciate that. It's been my privilege to be here with you today. So Baker Perry and Panuru Sherpa, thank you for being here.
Panuru Sherpa: Thank you.
Megan Hayes: To be able to revitalize the SoundAffect podcast after this time with the two of you has been my privilege. So thank you so much for being here today.
Megan Hayes: The work that you're doing that's expanding and deepening our perspectives on climate science, which is really for the benefit of the Nepali people and all the citizens of the world. It really is groundbreaking and it makes such a huge difference. You sit here in Boone, North Carolina and think about the far reaching impact that this work is having and the fact that I can sit in my office and see what the temperature is on Mount Everest is pretty darn cool. So beyond the cool factor, it's also just incredibly important for climate science and thank you for that work and for being here with me today.
Panuru Sherpa: Thank you.
Baker Perry: Thank you again for having us. This was a lot of fun.
Megan Hayes: It was a lot of fun. Thanks so much.
Panuru Sherpa: Thank you.
Wednesday Apr 01, 2020
032 Nikki Giovanni on holding on and letting go
Wednesday Apr 01, 2020
Wednesday Apr 01, 2020
A Civil Rights activist and world-renowned poet, Nikki Giovanni's journey led her from Knoxville, TN to the forefront of the late 1960s Black Arts Movement. On the path she fell in love with hospitals and space, befriended gangsters and nuns, and determined that writing is not about keeping score - but it is about making a point.
Friday Jun 14, 2019
Friday Jun 14, 2019
Richard Blanco earned his engineering license and MFA in poetry in the same year. Within a short time, he found himself among a group of only five poets who have read their works at a United States presidential inauguration. Through the fame, the newfound career success as a poet, and the book tours and speaking engagements, he keeps it real.
Tuesday Feb 05, 2019
Tuesday Feb 05, 2019
What happens when the FEMA Administrator and a water quality expert and biology professor start talking about resiliency and the effects of climate change? The discussion moves from what it's like being on the front lines of America's worst disasters, to the interplay of environmental, social and economic resiliency, to how Appalachian is cultivating resilient students.
Friday Dec 14, 2018
029 Stewart Harris on free speech, hate speech and protected speech
Friday Dec 14, 2018
Friday Dec 14, 2018
Constitutional law scholar and radio show host Stewart Harris considers the First Amendment protection of speech and expression, and how they play out on college campuses.
Conversations with smart people about stuff that affects our world, and how we affect it