“How About You Amaze Me and Do the Right Thing… Have an Independent Investigation”: March Update on MSU, the USOPC, & USAG

“How about you amaze me and do the right thing… have an independent investigation.”

(Simone Biles in response to a tweet by USA Gymnastics wishing her a happy birthday– essentially in less than fifteen words also restoring my faith in the world again).

Chavez, Nicole. 2020. “Simone Biles Claps Back at USA Gymnastics After They Wish her a Happy Birthday.” CNN Online. Available here.

Need to catch up? You can read my last post here.

A lot has happened in the last month and a half. It’s only MARCH? SIXTEENTH?! But here we are.

Me, currently.

The biggest news to come out since January is the absolutely atrocious-I-can’t-believe-they-thought-this-would-work settlement offer USA Gymnastics attempted to pass off as somewhat appropriate for the hundreds of survivors currently suing their organization. In the settlement, some plantiffs would receive less than $100,000, oh and super casual, but agreeing to the terms meant that USA Gymnastics, the USOPC, Steve Penny, and every other X-Men-esque villain apparently hired to conduct business for USAG would be off the hook. No documents released. No mandatory structural changes. Oh, and the USOPC would pay nothing.

It would be laughable if it wasn’t so true.

2012 and 2016 Olympic Champion Aly Raisman made an appearance on The Today Show, expressing understandable outrage about how the organization could bungle a settlement proposal so badly, especially as their athletes are preparing for this year’s summer games. Simone Biles, on her way to USAG’s mandatory training camp, tweeted:

Friendly reminder: Simone continues to compete FOR and earn money FOR an organization that has yet to independently investigate how they allowed a serial molester to sexually abuse her, her teammates, and hundreds of others. Absolutely unbelievable.

Rachael Denhollander also posted online:

“Your words of change and care are utterly meaningless because your ACTIONS stand in direct contrast to those platitudes. To even ask for a release of the USOPC, Penny and Karolyis after the 100s of children they destroyed is galling beyond what I can express.

Shame on you. I don’t want to hear one more word about care and change from any of you. You are refusing responsibility for the damage to hundreds of children and asking us to ignore it too.

You can choose a blind eye. But know this: we never will. And your complete lack of care will do nothing more that motivate us to fight that much harder for justice and truth. The answer is no.”

What else? Kathie Klages was found guilty and Nassar’s appeal was denied, but unfortunately, there are a ton of how-have-you-not-learned-anything moments since my last post.

Let’s get into it:

Michigan State University:

Tiffany Thomas Lopez reads her victim impact statement on January 17th, 2018 to Larry Nassar.
  • Former Michigan State University Dean of the College of Oseeopathic Medicine will be released from prison in April. William Strampel was found guilty of willful neglect of duty and misconduct in office in relation to the mishandling of Larry Nassar last year. Strampel, Nassar’s boss, allowed the former doctor to continue seeing patients without ensuring policies set by a Title IX complaint were enforced, along with a number of other issues including sexually harassing co-workers and students. Originally given a one-year sentence for his crimes, Strampel will be released early for good behavior after serving eight months.
  • Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Joyce Draganchuk allowed a request made by attorneys of former MSU Head Coach Kathie Klagies to ban Lindsey Lemke, one of her gymnasts, from testifying in court. Klages, who faces two charges of lying to police, did not want Lemke to testify as a witness as the MSU and Twistars athlete has repeatedly stated that Klages knew of Nassar’s abuse, but failed to report him to police. Larissa Boyce, one of the athletes that reported Nassar’s abuse to Klages in 1997, along with a teammate who chose to remain anonymous, were allowed to testify.
  • On February 14th, Kathie Klages was found guilty of two counts of lying to police. The former MSU Head Coach for the Women’s Gymnastics Program, Klages repeatedly stated she did not know of Nassar’s abuse–even after two gymnasts told her that the former doctor was sexually assaulting them in 1997 (Boyce and an unnamed athlete) and one athlete (Lemke) disclosed the same story twenty years later–also forced her team to sign a card of support for the now disgraced former physician. She faces up to four years in prison and sentencing will take place on April 15th.
  • Former Michigan State softball player and survivor of Larry Nassar’s abuse, Tiffany Thomas Lopez, urged two athletic trainers still employed by the university to “listen and say something”. Lopez, who testified this week at hearings “related to the potential sanctions” against Destiny Teachnor-Hauk and Lianna Hadden, says she and another athlete, Jennifer Bedford, notified the trainers over twenty years ago that the former doctor was sexually abusing them under the guise of medical treatment. Prosecutors are currently reviewing complaints made against the athletic trainers that could result in revoking their licenses.

“Lopez testified Hadden told her to talk to Teachnor-Hauk. 

Though Lopez had other conversations with Hadden about being uncomfortable, she said she didn’t speak with Teachnor-Hauk until closer to the end of her softball career. 

‘It took me a long time to say something to her,’ Lopez testified. ‘I was intimidated and scared and I still didn’t know whether to believe it or not.’

Teachnor-Hauk gave her options, Lopez said, but told her that if she filed a complaint, ‘everyone would know,’ and ‘in doing that I may stir up controversy for the university, for my recently widowed father and especially for the doctor.’

Teachnor-Hauk again defended Nassar’s actions as medical treatment, Lopez said, adding she ‘left Michigan State believing what the ladies had told me.’

Lopez said, while people have told her Hadden and Teachnor-Hauk failed her, that’s hard for her to believe. She doesn’t blame them ‘for any of this at all.’

Banta, Megan. 2020. “Former Michigan State Athlete, Nassar Survivor, Urges Trainers to Listen, ‘Say Something.'” Lansing State Journal. Available here.
  • While the two trainers do not face any criminal charges, the result of the investigation could include fines, suspension, or even loss of their licenses. A decision could take months to conclude.
  • Four MSU survivors stood in solidarity with three men who came forward against University of Michigan doctor Robert Anderson. Anderson (who died in 2008), as well as the university, are currently under investigation for abuse that occurred for decades in Ann Arbor. Amanda Thomashaw noted: “U-M created a safe place and the predators flourished… You’ve seen the damage (non-transparency) has done to me and my sister survivors.”

USA Gymnastics and The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee:

  • Maggie Haney, coach of 2016 Olympian Laurie Hernandez and current National Team Member Riley McCusker was suspended by USA Gymnastics in relation to complaints of physical and emotional abuse in her New Jersey gym; Hernandez and “at least half a dozen families” filed complaints against Haney. She is now suspended from all contact with minors.
  • On January 30th, USA Gymnastics released their plan to emerge from bankruptcy by providing $215 million to survivors of abuse. The plan gave survivors two choices: as a group, accept the $215 million and settle every claim OR continue lawsuits against the organization. Most laughed at the settlement amount, which for example, is less than half paid out by Michigan State University. The $215 million would be distributed as a tier system, with Olympic athletes receiving more; the bottom tier plaintiffs would be given less than $100,000. The OC Register states that the average payout would be $250-300,000 per survivor, less than the current salary for the CEO of USA Gymnastics. The plan was met with outrage from survivors. John C. Manly, who represents over 200 of the plaintiffs, noted:

“This proposed plan does not include the critical structural changes necessary to ensure the safety of girls moving forward, nor does it appropriately address the myriad physical and emotional challenges the victims face as a result of these crimes. Most disturbingly, this proposed plan attempts to absolve USOPC of any responsibility for these crimes which were committed under its watch. This plan from USAG is not just unworkable. It is unconscionable.”

Whatron, David. 2020. “USA Gymnastics Issues Plan to Emerge from Bankruptcy and Settle Nassar Lawsuit.” Los Angeles Times. Available here.
  • The proposed settlement does not “address providing documents detailing the extent the national governing body knew of sexual abuse of young athletes and the lengths USA Gymnastics and other organizations went to conceal the abuse”. In addition to the lack of documents released, and any requirement for the implementation of new structures, the proposal also limits the liability of the USOPC. Under this plan, the USOPC would not have to admit to any wrong-doing or pay any money to the 500+ survivors:

“The opposition to the settlement proposal is wide ranging, with survivors and their supporters highlighting that the deal releases the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, former USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny, former national team directors Bela and Martha Karolyi, former U.S. Olympic coach Don Peters and other USA Gymnastics and USOPC officials and coaches from all claims, does not take into account the nature and frequency of each survivors’ abuse and contains no provision for USA Gymnastics and the USOPC to release documents and other information detailing the extent to which officials were aware of the predatory behavior of Nassar, Peters and others.”

Reid, Scott M. 2020. “Survivors Overwhelmingly Reject USA Gymnastics Settlement Offer.” The Orange County Register. Available here.
  • Alexandra Bourque’s personal story demonstrates how short-minded and insulting the proposal is for survivors. Bourque was only eleven years old when Larry Nassar began abusing her. The former doctor encouraged her to remain in gymnastics as she struggled to overcome a number of injuries including a cracked tailbone and broken hip. He continually abused her for another four years, when at age 15, she says his abuse became “aggressively worse”. Bouroque was also simultaneously abused by her former coach, Don Peters, who was banned for life by USA Gymnastics in 2011 for sexually abusing athletes. Under the tier system proposed by USAG in their settlement offer, Bourque would receive a settlement of $82,000, an amount that would not even cover her current medical treatments; she was diagnosed with endometriosis and post-traumatic stress disorder, which, doctors state, are correlated to the years of abuse by Nassar. The settlement would also not require the organization to release documents related to Nassar or Don Peters.
  • This weekend USA Gymnastics tweeted a happy birthday message to Simone Biles, who turned 23 on Saturday. The organization wished her (well, they tagged the wrong Twitter handle) a happy birthday along with “We know you will only continue to amaze us and make history!” to which Simone responded:
We stan a queen.
  • Last week, Larry Nassar’s final appeal was denied by Michigan’s attorney general’s office. Nassar’s attorneys argued that Judge Rosemarie Aquilinia was not impartial in her decision to sentence him to the maximum 175 years in prison. The state’s AG office found that Judge Aquilina may have made ill-advised comments, but did not demonstrate judicial bias. Nassar’s appeals for the 60 year sentence for child pornography and 125 years for sexual assault have also been denied.

Currently:
Reading: Start by Believing: Larry Nassar’s Crimes, the Institutions that Enabled Him, and the Brave Women Who Stopped a Monster (John Barr and Dan Murphy)
Watching: Broad City Season 5 (Comedy Central)

“Victory is Equality”: Paris, France

View in Montmarte

Last summer Chris and I spent a long weekend in Paris for the World Cup (USA vs. Chile). We had fun exploring the city while also attending our first women’s soccer football match.

 Hôtel de Ville is the home of the city’s local administration and was completed in 1357.

This was my first time in Paris–only my second time in France–and because of our limited time in the city I was forced to narrow down what we could see on our visit. With a day spent in Versailles and a second at the match, we were pretty limited with what we could fit into our remaining day and a half in the city. Sadly, the catacombs were closed on our only available day for a tour, so that will have to be scheduled for our next trip to France’s capital.

The Pantheon (“Temple of the “Republic”) was built in 1791 and was originally a church.
Latin Quarter

I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to not only visit, but also see the US women play in person. Paris is beautiful (no shocker there) and I was admittedly a little overwhelmed by the sheer size of the city and all there it is to do. Here’s the thing: You can definitely feel the pressure to “check items off the list” but my recommendation is to pick what is both feasible and interesting for you and go that route!

Also an excuse to post Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge gifs.

Where are we?

The largest and most populous city in France, Paris is known for its architecture and art, along with being one of the most expensive cities in the world (second only to Singapore in 2018). There is so much to see and do! We used the subway system as much as possible not only to save money but also sustainability things; opened in 1900, the metro is the second busiest in the world with over five million passengers daily.

Porte Saint Denis was built in 1672 and is 24 meters (80 feet) tall.

Known as “the City of Light” for both the role the city played in the Age of Enlightenment and literally as one of the first European locations to use gas lighting on a large scale, the area of Paris was first inhabited by the Parisil, a sub-tribe of the Celtic Senones around 3rd century BC and was first named Lutetua.

In 1901, the city’s population grew to over two million inhabitants including a number of artists from around the world–painter Pablo Picasso and author Marcel Proust–and after WWI, the city continued to be a mecca for artists: Josephine Baker, Allen Ginsberg, and Ernest Hemingway, among so many others. African American artists including Baker and acclaimed author James Baldwin found Paris to be an escape from the segregation and injustice they faced in America during this time.

On June 14th, 1920, the Nazis marched into Paris and ordered French police to arrest the city’s Jewish population. 12,844 people were detained (including over four thousand children) for five days before being sent to Auschwitz; none of the children survived. Today France has the largest Jewish population in Europe, although with growing anti-Semitic violence in the country, many have relocated to other countries in the past five years.

Tour Saint-Jacques (Saint-Jacques Tower) is the only remaining building of the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie. Built in 1509 and demolished in 1797 during the French Revolution, the tower is 52 meters (171 feet) tall.

With over 1803 monuments, 173 museums, and 450 gardens and parks throughout the city, Paris offers something for any visitor. Thankfully, we saw a couple of monuments, gardens, and of course cemeteries, while in the city. Paris is first in the world for number of libraries–830!–but unfortunately I wasn’t able to visit any; add it to the list for our next visit!

One of the best aspects of visiting Paris was merely wandering around the city, of course my favorite pastime. Meandering the beautiful streets, armed with coffee and a list of eventual destinations, I loved spending our long weekend here.

The Sites:

Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Garden):

Luxembourg Palace was built from 1615-1645, originally as the royal residence for regent Marie de’ Medici, the mother of King Louis XIII, but now is the seat of the Senate of the Fifth Republic (since 1958).
Marie’s palace was inspired by her native Florence. Today the gardens contain 23 hectares and includes a number of statues, fountains, and pathways.
View of the Panthéon from the garden.
We walked the gardens on a beautiful summer day (so thankful for the lovely weather) right after brunch. Much needed after treating ourselves to southern food!

Shakespeare and Company:

Shakespeare and Company was at the top of my must-visit list. First opened by Sylvia Beach in 1919, the store was known as the center for American literature and culture in Paris. Closed in December 1941 as the Germans occupied France–supposedly because Beach refused to give a German officer her last copy of Finnegans Wake, a true queen–this location never re-opened, even after the war ended.
George Whitman opened the new Shakespeare and Company in 1951 on the site of a 16th century monastery. James Baldwin, Allen Ginsburg, William S. Burroughs, and many other literary icons spent time here. A “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”, the gorgeous shop also includes beds for aspiring writers. Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia (named after Sylvia Beach) currently runs the store. Henry Miller called Shakespeare and Company “a wonderland of books” and I have to agree; I loved this place.
The epitome of a Parisian bookstore.
(Via Gavin Ford)

Place Josephine Baker:

In 2000 this square was named for American Josephine Baker, a performer and spy during WWII. Known for her dancing, Baker called France her second home.

The Moulin Rouge:

The famous red mill of the Moulin Rouge was co-founded by Charles Zidler and Joseph Oller and is known as the birthplace of the can-can dance.
Ewan McGregor, Nicole Kidman, John Leguizamo, AND Jim Broadbent?! Truly this film did what the others COULDN’T do.

Notre-Dame de Paris:

The Notre-Dame cathedral caught fire less than a month before we traveled to France. Constructed between 1163-1345, the building was badly damaged when the roof and spire were destroyed in 2019.
The cathedral is currently closed and under renovation with an expected completion date of 2024, in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics, which will be held in Paris.
One of the larger concerns with the Notre-Dame fire is health impact of the toxic dust created by the burning of the lead used in the cathedral’s roof and spire. 250 tons of lead were burned during the fifteen hour-long blaze.
Teams of scientists are currently working inside of the cathedral: restoring artifacts, attempting to safely remove burned scaffolding, and addressing contamination from the lead.

The Eiffel Tower:

We didn’t actively seek out the Eiffel Tower as I have zero interest in heights whatsoever, but happily we saw Paris’s tallest structure in a number of places. This is the view from the metro station on our way to Versailles.
The “cultural icon” of Paris opened in 1889 and is the most-visited paid monument in the world.
View of the Tower during our walk home from the World Cup.

Cimetière de Montmartre (Montmarte Cemetery):

The third largest necropolis in Paris, the Montmarte Cemetery was opened on January 1st, 1825.
The cemetery is located on an abandoned gypsum quarry that was used as a mass grave during the French Revolution.
Many famous artists are buried here including Emile Zola and Francois Truffant.
Our walk through the cemetery was a nice break from the busy city.
The cemetery is located under the busy Rue Caulaincourt.
Dozens of cats live here! We saw a couple sunning themselves on mausoleums.

View from the Seine:

Other Sites:

Saint Joseph des Carmes was constructed from 1613-1620.
The College of Sorbonne was founded in 1253.
The Paris Opera was founded in 1669 by Louis XIV.
Les Grands Boulevards
Nicolas Flamel’s former house is the oldest stone home in the city of Paris and was built in 1407. Legend holds that Flamel discovered the Philosopher’s Stone and was the inspiration behind the first Harry Potter novel that featured the Stone’s Elixer of Life.
59 Rivoli is a must-visit! It was unfortunately closed while we were in Paris, but we saw how the famous “artist-squat” was decorated for the World Cup: a banner stating “la victoire est l’égalité” meaning “victory is equality”.
59 Rivoli was renovated by the city and reopened in 2009 . The building includes six stories of artist studios and is known for its changing facade.

World Cup Match:

Attending a World Cup match was an absolute dream come true. I still can’t believe we were lucky enough to see the US women play in person.
Again, so thankful for this opportunity and the gorgeous weather. We traveled to the match by metro but walked home, using the crowded public transportation as an excuse to see more of the city.

Restaurants & Pubs:

Soul Kitchen:

Soul Kitchen offered the space I was looking for while in Paris–a bistro table on the sidewalk complete with great coffee and a beautiful view of the city. The restaurant’s interior is absolutely adorable with a ton of great brunch options and a menu written on a door that is brought to you when you order.

Break Time:

Ah, kebabs. Thankfully there were two kebeb restaurants near our hotel and Break Time was an inexpensive and convenient stop for a quick meal. They offered kebabs in cheese naan bread (!!) that was awesome.

Treize au Jardin:

My famous number one brunch of 2019 was enjoyed at Treize au Jardin. I essentially planned our trip around brunch and soccer, obviously.
Southern brunch is one of the things I miss most about living in Charleston. Treize au Jarden did not disappoint with their version of tomato pie (my all-time favorite breakfast food) and pimento cheese biscuits.
Still dreaming of this adorable cafe. AN ABSOLUTE MUST-VISIT. Take my word on this.

La Recyclerie:

I absolutely loved La Recyclerie! Located in Montmartre, this former train station turned restaurant/cafe/work-space takes sustainability seriously. The space includes DIY workshops, seed swaps, and while we were there, a community activism discussion. Reused mismatched furniture and a view of the restaurant’s garden and chickens made this a cozy spot for coffee (only a Euro a cup! In Paris!).
Not to mention their affordable cocktails.
The restaurant’s menu changes daily based on the availability of their urban farm. I had a lovely vegetable pasta our last night in the city.

🤍Paris

Currently:
Reading: Busted in New York and Other Essays (Darryl Pinckney)
Listening: Blunderbuss (Third Man Records)

Chornobyl Power Plant & Prypiat

The Chornobyl Power Plant and the city of Pripyat were the final stops on our tour. 

Where are we?

It was incredible to just be there. That’s the only way I can put into words the way it felt to stand at the place where everything happened. If you were just randomly driving near the plant–which is still in use today–you’d never know that the worst nuclear accident in history happened there.

Pripyat, once coined “The City of the Future” is frozen in time. Originally built to service the Chornobyl Power Plant, the city included almost 50,000 people–men, women, and children–before being evacuated following the explosion of reactor four. With over fifteen schools, an amusement park, pools, cinemas, hospitals, and parks, Pripyat was meant to be a shining example of Soviet life. 

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Only three kilometers (less than two miles) from the plant, Pripyat was forced to evacuate in just three hours, a day and a half after the explosion. Supposedly the clocks in Pripyat are frozen to 11:55, the moment electricity was cut off in the city and right before the announcement to evacuate was made. 

Чорнобиль (Chornobyl Power Plant):

Originally covered by a sarcophagus (Ukrainian: Укриття and interestingly in Russian called Объект “Укрытие”, which means not sarcophagus, but rather, “covering”) made of concrete and steel that encased the exploded reactor, the structure was deemed beyond repair in 1996. Construction on the “Chernobyl New Safe Confinement” was started in 2010 and finished in 2019. Funded by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the new confinement cost a total of €2.15 billion (an interesting note is that the EBRD, an international financial institution, ceased providing funding to the Russian Federation after the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014).

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Construction for the original covering began just 24 days after the explosion and was completed in 206 days. Reactor four is currently covered by the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement, which also contains the original sarcophagus, a structure in use from 1986-1996.  The new structure was called “the new tomb for the most dangerous waste in the world” and is taller than the Statue of Liberty and is bigger than Wembley Stadium.
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Monument to the Reactor 4 and Builders of the Sarcophagus with the new NSC in the background. Higginbotham notes that this structure also serves “as a final monument to the last resting place of Valery Khodemchuk–a radioactive mausoleum to memorialize for generations to come the first victim of the accident” (366).
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For reference, workers walking past the old sarcophagus and behind the same monument.

City of При’п’ять (Prypiat):

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Now an abandoned city, Prypiat was founded in 1970 to serve the Chornobyl Power Plant.
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Nature has taken over the city.
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Avanhard Stadium (Стадіон «Авангард») was built just for Prypiat but unfortunately was never used.
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The explosion of reactor four happened before the stadium’s first match.
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Prypiat’s amusement park was also never used. Scheduled to open on May 1st, 1986, the city was evacuated before it could be enjoyed by the inhabitants of Prypiat.
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There are rumors (and photographic evidence to support) that the park briefly opened ahead of schedule on April 27th to distract those who lived in Prypiat from the nuclear disaster occurring nearby.
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The Ferris Wheel of Prypiat has is one of the famous symbols of the Chornobyl disaster.
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Bumper cars 
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The amusement park (known in Russian at the time as a “Park of Culture and Rest” (“Парк культуры и отдыха”) also includes a mural drawn after the city was evacuated.
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Walking through the city.
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The Polissya Hotel (Ukrainian: Готе’ль Полісся) was used in the 1970s to house visitors to the city and is one of the tallest buildings in Prypiat.
The hotel before the evacuation of the city.
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The Hotel as it stands today.
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This building was used by Valery Legasov and Boris Shcherbyna as a command center after reactor four exploded at the power plant. They were tasked with investigating the accident and limiting the impacts of the radiation.
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Prypiat’s Cinema
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The Palace of Culture Energetik (Russian: Дворец культуры Энергетик).
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The Palace was built for Prypiat in the 1970s.
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Prypiat supermarket–considered a luxury for a Soviet city.
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Residential buildings
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Now abandoned apartment buildings.
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One of the many dogs that visited us on our tour. Nature is surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) flourishing without humans. These dogs however, are given beds and warm blankets during the winter and there are organizations that provide medical care for them as well. Many of the dogs here are descendants of the pets left behind by their evacuated owners and were not found by Soviet soldiers ordered to kill any animals in the city to stop the spread of the radiation.
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I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to travel here. My hope is that, rather than frame the explosion of reactor four as the past, we understand that the decisions that led up to the most disastrous nuclear accident in history, as well as the resolutions made in the aftermath of that event, are still impacting us today. The amount of radiation and contamination of Ukraine, Belarus, and numerous other places not only killed people, but are still ongoing issues for those living in these areas, now, in 2020. For me, this was not a simple understanding of a decision gone-badly, but a study into place, justice, and science wrapped into a human-made disaster. 

Sources:

Higginbotham, Adam. 2019. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster. Simon & Schuster: New York.

 

Currently:
Reading: The Atlas of Unusual Borders (Zoran Nikolic)

Chornobyl Duga Base

One part of our day trip to Chornobyl from Kyiv included a stop at the former Soviet base operating a Duga Radar Tower. What is a Soviet Radar Tower you ask? I had literally zero idea about this structure until we pulled up in the bus and walked the short way to the tower, also known as the Russian Woodpecker. As most know, I love AllTheOldAbandonedThings so I was of course fascinated by this Soviet adventure.

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This stop was an incredible look into Soviet military operations during this time period. With over 1,500 personnel at the height of operation, the base and tower are now abandoned, along with the other Soviet dreams for technological and societal prowess; this base met the same fate as the “city of the future”, Prypiat.

In his article for Newsweek, Alexander Nazaryan notes the connection between these two sites in Chornobyl:

“If anything, the military purpose of Chernobyl 2 [the Duga Tower] is a reminder that the purpose of the Chernobyl power station was never entirely civilian, either. While it did provide vast amounts of electricity to Ukraine, its four reactors were of the RBMK variety, meaning they could be easily switched between the fission of uranium for civilian purposes and the enrichment of plutonium for military ones. That left the top of reactor lightly covered, in order to make the switching of fuel assemblies easier. That’s why, when the thing unleashed its fiery belch one April day, a good part of Europe got a dusting of radionuclides.”

Nazarayan, Alexander. 2014. “The Massive Russian Radar Site in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.” Newsweek. Available here.

I can now cross “wandering around an abandoned Soviet base in Northern Ukraine” off my bucket-list.

Where are we?

This tower was part of the Soviet over-the-horizon radar (OTH), an aspect of the government’s missile defense early-warning radar network. There are two Duga towers: one here in Chornobyl and another was built in eastern Siberia.

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Known as the Russian Woodpecker because of the distinct tapping sound made by the system that interfered with other broadcasts, communications, and transmissions without warning, the tower is ENORMOUS. You can listen to the tower’s distinct tap-tap-tap sound here.

Like Prypiat, all operations at this hidden military base ceased after the explosion of reactor four. Today, the tower and buildings are deteriorating into the same woods that hid the operations taking place here during the Cold War.

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Abandoned buildings on this base include a kindergarten, work spaces, and apartments, along with the enormous tower.

Chornobyl Duga Base:

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This base near Chornobyl was such a hidden secret that the location did not even appear on maps of the region; it was simply referred to as a summer camp.
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I can’t put into words just how massive this structure is in real life. The tower is higher than the surrounding forest: at 135 meters (443 feet) high and 300 meters (984 feet) wide, visitors can see the structure towering over the trees on the drive through the woods.
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The plans for the first Duga tower started in 1946 as a way to combat the extension of missile ranges. This mission was accelerated in the 1960s as the Soviet Union became increasingly under threat of missile attack by the United States.
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The construction of the base and tower actually cost double the price of the power plant built in Chornobyl.
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These Duga systems were powerful and could emit over 10 MW.
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While the source of the Woodpecker signal was under constant speculation, NATO intelligence named the signal STEEL WORK or STEEL YARD. They were able to figure out that the location of the signal was in the USSR but there were conflicting sources on the exact location.
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The signal from this Duga Tower went silent in 1989 for supposedly unknown reasons but there are a number of factors that could have contributed to its demise: the end of the Cold War, the fall of the USSR, the success of the US-KS early warning satellites eclipsing the need for this type of structure, and of course, the explosion at the power plant which now placed the Duga Tower in the Exclusion Zone.
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There are a number of conspiracy theories surrounding this Soviet base and the Duga Tower.
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The documentary The Russian Woodpecker (2015) proposes the conspiracy that the explosion of reactor four was in fact a cover up for the design flaws of the Duga Tower. 
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Others believe the Duga tower was used by the Soviets for mind control purposes.
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Our tour guide in front of the tower. It really is absolutely enormous.
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We also toured through one of the buildings near the tower and on the base.
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The amount of electronic waste just strewn about the site made my heart hurt.
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Many structures on the base are still standing even though the operation here has been officially discontinued; the exact date of its termination is unknown.
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One of the most unbelievable aspects of this base is the level of priority given to its mission and the amount of money (7 billion Rubles) contributed to make this idea into a reality, only to see all this work and materials completely abandoned today. Nazarayan notes: “It’s almost like everyone agreed to play an incredibly dangerous game that, after half a century, suddenly seemed pointless and even boring. When it was over, the players dropped their toys and went home.”

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Sources:

Nazarayan, Alexander. 2014. “The Massive Russian Radar Site in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.” Newsweek. Available here.
Spencer, Luke. 2016. “The Top Secret Military Base Hidden in Chernobyl’s Irradiated Forest.” Atlas Obscura. Available here.

 

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Villages of Zalissya & Kopachi

Our day trip included visiting the villages of Zalissya and Kopachi. Zalissya is the first stop after the checkpoint into the Exclusion Zone while Kopachi is farther north; visitors can see the Chornobyl plant from Kopachi’s road near the Red Forest.

Where are we?

Both villages were two of 186 communities (including over 100,000 people) evacuated after the 1986 Chornobyl disaster. Kopachi, highly contaminated even to this day, remains abandoned, while other villages have seen a number of their former inhabitants return. These “self-settlers” chose to live within the Exclusion Zone, despite the health risks. One woman, Rozaliya Ivanivna, returned to Zalissya and became the village’s only inhabitant until she passed away a few years ago.

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I highly recommend the 2016 documentary, The Babushkas of Chernobyl. The film shows why three women returned to their homes inside the Exclusion Zone and how they live in their villages post-disaster.

Many chose to return because these are their homes, where they grew up, and where their families are buried. “I won’t go anywhere, even at gunpoint.” says one of the self-settlers in the documentary, Babushkas of Chernobyl. The women in the film, and many of the 1,200 people who chose to return to their homes (illegally) inside of the Exclusion Zone, survived Holodomor, the Soviet-induced famine that killed seven million Ukrainians, not to mention WWII, and the invasion of the Nazis. For many, the connection to home is greater than their fears of radiation poisoning.

Залісся (Zalissya):

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The first stop on our tour was the village of Zalissya. This path was previously a well-traveled road into the village.

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Located in the Exclusion Zone, the village was abandoned in 1986 and nature has taken over the once-bustling community.

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Unlike Kopachi, most of the buildings here remain above ground: homes, a grocery store, and the cultural center for the village are still standing.

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The forest near the village is slowly taking over. We visited on a beautiful day and were able to see how much nature was thriving in this once inhabited place.

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Zalissya is 30km (18 mil) from Chornobyl and was the first village to be completely abandoned after reactor four exploded.

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At the time of the explosion, Zalissya was a thriving village with over 3,200 inhabitants. The villagers initially did not know what (or the impacts of) the events taking place at the plant.

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Zalissya was also previously a collective farming village.

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Most of the inhabitants evacuated from Zalissya were relocated to the Borodyanka (Бородянка) region, roughly an hour and a half south.

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The supermarket for the village.

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Many left their belongings behind and their possessions can be seen scattered throughout the village.

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Oleksander Leonenko, evacuated from the village at age 22, said: “To tell the truth, we did not suspect we were leaving forever. The only thought we had was about coming back; maybe in three days or maybe in a week. But we would come back for sure.”

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Zalissya’s once busy roads are now only walking paths.

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One of the inhabitants, Rozaliya Ivanivna, came back to Zalissya after the explosion of reactor four. Known as one of the “self-settlers” that returned to the evacuated communities inside the Exclusion Zone, she lived alone in the village.

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Living a self-sustaining life, Ivanivna became annoyed with tourists walking through the village. She has since passed away, but her belongings remain in Zalissya. Her garden also continues to grow.

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I was super annoyed that tourists were touching things and even moving other people’s belongings! Now that Zalissya is considered a tourist site, people seem to forget that this was someone’s home and life before being forced to move.

Копачі (Kopachi):

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Kopachi, located 4 km (about 2 1/2 miles) from Chornobyl, was evacuated on May 3rd, a week after the nuclear explosion. 1,114 people lived in the once-thriving village before they were forced to leave their homes.

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Unlike other locations within the Exclusion Zone, most of the buildings in Kopachi were demolished and buried as an experiment to suppress the radiation. Today, only the village’s kindergarten and one additional brick building remain standing.

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The burying of the building materials did not negate the contamination from Chornobyl; today the soil and water around Kopachi are contaminated by plutonium, caesium-137, and strontium-90, having seeped into the water table from the burying of these radioactive houses.

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The village remains somewhat radioactive even today, exceeding normal numbers by 5x the approved amount.

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The “Parents’ Corner” of the kindergarten.

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Entrance into one of the two buildings left above ground in the village. Kopachi is also near the Red Forest, an area that received the highest dosage of radiation from the Chornobyl explosion, and was “cleaned” up in a similar way; most of the trees were knocked down, buried, and covered with sand.

For me, walking these villages was one of the most impactful aspects of the trip. So often the Chornobyl disaster is portrayed, or even just feels, like it was a long time ago. Seeing the homes of people forced to leave and the possessions they left behind is a reminder that this happened just thirty years ago.

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Zalissya, Ukraine

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Watching: The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)

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Tips for Planning a Trip to Chornobyl

Please read my Visiting Chornobyl post first.

I highly recommend the day trip to Chornobyl from Kyiv if you are visiting the Ukrainian capital (one of my favorite travel destinations!). Planning a trip to a former Soviet nuclear site might seem overwhelming, but I’m here to help you by giving an overview of booking your trip, how to be your best-and-most-informed-tourist-self, along with other helpful tips to make the most of your trip.

There is also advice for those that may start, stop, or be in the middle of their menstrual cycle as they tour Chornobyl. Please use the struggles–the blood, sweat, and tears of those that have walked before you–to plan accordingly. And anyone reading this paragraph that just thought ugh or shuddered at the thought of periods, kindly getoveryourself, Over half the population has one.

MiddleWorldAdventures Guide to Planning a Trip to Chornobyl:

Tip #1: Be Your Best-Tourist-Self

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Chornobyl facility today

One of the best tips I have is simply don’t be that guy. So-called Dark Destinations are increasingly becoming more popular, which is great, as long as visitors show the respect that these locations deserve. Intentionality and remembering the events that occurred at these sites is not only respectful, but gives you a better experience as a visitor.

Here are a couple of MWA rules on being a respectful tourist:

  1. Don’t take sexy selfies at the front of a nuclear site. You just look like an asshole.
  2. Don’t steal anything.
  3. Don’t ignore the rules of the tour guides: when they say stay out of the buildings, keep out.
  4. Be patient. You’re not the only person visiting, we get that some things are an inconvenience but speaking (loudly) about it does not solve the problem. 

Part of being your best-tourist-self is also being your-most-well-informed self. There are a ton of great books on the explosion of reactor four (including Higginbotham’s extensively researched book published last year). But if reading isn’t your thing, the HBO miniseries is not only a fairly accurate (and beautifully shot) representation of the actual events in 1986, but was also endorsed by Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her work. A couple of really great sources on Chornobyl:

  1. Alexievich, Svetlana. 1997. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. Picador: New York.
  2. Bogart, Anne and Holly Morris. 2016. The Babushkas of Chernobyl. Chicken and Egg Pictures.
  3. HBO. 2019. The Chernobyl Podcast. HBO. 
  4. Higginbotham, Adam. 2019. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster. Simon & Schuster: New York.
  5. Mazin, Craig, creator. 2019. Chernobyl. HBO & Sky UK.

Tip #2: Book Ahead

Prypiat, Ukraine

Since the site was opened for tourism in 2010, thousands of tourists signed up to see the power plant and surrounding villages each year. There are a couple of tour companies and multiple options for tours. We booked the one day tour from Kyiv, but there were two to even seven day options with the company we used.

You’ll need to decide what is important to you and how much time you’d like to spend in the area. Booking ahead is important and remember to have all of your travel documents in order prior to making the reservation.

For us, we had a limited time in Ukraine and it was important for us to see the plant, Prypiat, and a few of the abandoned villages. Luckily, our tour included a stop at the former Soviet Duga base, which was an awesome addition to our day and one I didn’t know was even an option to tour. Other options included an underground tour, visiting the control center of the plant, and staying overnight in city of Chornobyl.

I included a map here of the stops included on our tour:

Tip #3: What to Expect

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Zalissya, Ukraine

Traveling to the site of a nuclear explosion is obviously not an every day adventure. I did a fair amount of research prior to leaving and was still surprised by a couple of unexpected aspects of the trip. A few friendly reminders::

  1. A lack of cell phone service: I know this seems obvious, but many of the areas on the one day tour (and I’m assuming many sites on the longer tours as well) did not have cell phone service. I thought it added to the overall experience but just expect that you may not be able to play Pokemon Go in Prypiat.
  2. It is a very bumpy two hour bus ride from Kyiv to the Exclusion Zone.
  3. There is a lot of walking around. Not only wear closed-toed shoes, but also comfortable ones. 
  4. Bathrooms (or lack there-of): There are not a lot of bathroom options on this trip (see below) so make sure you are strategic with each stop.
  5. Don’t touch anything. Seriously. The amount of radiation exposed to you on a one day trip is about the same as a flight, but as the tour guides say, limiting yourself to radiation is also your responsibility. 
  6. Window seat: Visitors can’t walk the Red Forest–it is too highly radioactive, even to this day–but you can see the forest from the bus on the way to Prypiat.
  7. Potentially fall in love with your devishly-handsome-hot-dog-eating-in-a-full-suit bus driver. We LOVED Valeri. He had an amazing mustache and was just the coolest dude I’ve ever met. 

Tip #4: Pack the Essentials

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No shame in mustard and cheese sandwiches.

Overall, you’ll be spending about twelve hours either inside a bus or walking around deserted sites in the Exclusion Zone. Here are a couple of the essentials I’d recommend packing for a day trip:

  1. Food: If you’re a person who starts to get grumpy when they are hungry or lacking caffeine, make sure to brown bag this day. There are a number of great grocery stores in Kyiv where you can stock up on sandwich supplies, water, and snacks. Be mindful to check for still or sparkling water (I’m looking at you, American friends) and also that mustard can be extremely horseradish-forward in Ukraine. You are only fed lunch on the one day tour with the option to buy small snacks at the checkpoint, so I’d recommend packing food with you.
  2. Toilet Paper: Literally every single bathroom (either indoor or out) did not have toilet paper. The indoor toilets did not have seats. This is a use-the-restroom-at-your-own-risk situation so my recommendation is to BYOTP (see the last point for more information on the bathroom situation).
  3. Hand Sanitizer: Read above. The soap situation was not any better.
  4. Battery Pack: This is a long tour with a ton of beautiful photography opportunities. Or, if you’re like me, and running with an iPhone 6 with roughly a 45 minute battery life, bringing a battery pack is essential.
  5. Sunscreen/bug spray: We visited in the spring and did not see too many insects, but sunscreen (at least for my pale skin) was needed. Pro-Tip: use a sunscreen without microplastics like the one carried here.
  6. Clothing: It might be hot on the bus but cool outside. Bring a sweater or early 80s windbreaker, whatever is your jam for that day.
  7. Medicine: The ride to the Exclusion Zone is bumpy. If you’re a person prone to motion sickness, I recommend bringing some kind of medicine to help with the bus ride.

Tip #5: Menstrual Cycle Survival Guide

I am here to help you survive your period inside a Soviet nuclear disaster zone. My best advice is to pack supplies regardless if the tour falls before, during, or right after your menstrual cycle. Basically, there are absolutely zero options so being prepared for the worst case scenario is ideal, and in my opinion, worth the effort. Unfortunately for me, I learned the hard way when my always-unpredictable cycle started almost a week early and the eve of our Chornobyl trip.

My advice is to pack your preferred supplies: tampons, pads, cup, etc. if there is any possibility that you may experience your period while on the tour. Tampons and pads can be purchased at pharmacies in Kyiv (NOT grocery stores). If you are sporting a cup, I’d also bring a backup form of product. BYO any cramp or headache medicine with you.

As noted earlier, toilet facilities are scarce on an all-day tour. After leaving Kyiv, you have a roughly two hour bus ride to the Exclusion Zone checkpoint. There are facilities at the checkpoint, both portable toilets and access to indoor plumbing, but they are not (obviously) in tip-top shape. The portable toilets are made for taller individuals, so be prepared if you’re short like me as this space was difficult to hygienically navigate successfully. There was no toilet paper, soap, or hand sanitizer in either location. The indoor bathrooms did not have toilet seats.

If you booked the one day tour, the next actual bathroom isn’t until lunch at the nuclear facility. Here, the bathrooms are indoor, but again without toilet paper, seats, or sanitizer. I (along with my friends) ended up hoarding extra napkins out of sheer desperation to help with my situation. You’ll have a lot of walking after lunch, so this is your last bathroom facility until you return back to the Exclusion checkpoint.

Once at the checkpoint, the same access to the indoor and outdoor facilities will be available before traveling back to Kyiv.

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Overall, my best advice is to have fun, be present in the moment, and pack extra toilet paper and sandwiches. Which I feel is solid advice for any situation you may find yourself in.

 

 

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Reading: “Last Journey into Slavery” (National Geographic)

Continue reading

Visiting Chornobyl

Two quick notes before I discuss dark tourism and AllTheThings Chornobyl:

Spelling: As noted in my Kyiv post, I am using the Ukrainian government’s preferred transliterations of names into English. While both Ukrainian and Russian use the Cyrillic alphabet, the pronunciation of words can be different between the two languages. The commonly used English spelling for the nuclear plant in Northern Ukraine–Чорнобиль–is “Chernobyl”, the Russian translation of the word, rather than the Ukrainian “Chornobyl”. This transliteration was continuously used following the end of the Soviet occupation of Ukraine and even after Ukrainian became the country’s official language in 1991, overthrowing the Soviet-imposed Russian. The same can be said for the town of Прип’ять, as most English speakers use the Russian transliteration “Pripyat” over the Ukrainian “Prypiat”.
Here I am going to use the preferred Ukrainian transliterations of the words–Chornobyl and Prypiat–in my following posts as a way to decolonize language. I know this seems insignificant, but I do not want to use the language of the oppressors in these posts (even if it means unlearning literally twenty years of spelling). Changes such as these are small, take time and I’m obviously still learning and will make mistakes, but let’s put forth the effort to #decolonizelanguage. Any published works that use the Russian transliterations will remain unchanged in how I cite them here.
History: I am not going to outline the entire history and impact of the explosion of reactor four. I discuss a number of great sources that can go into detail far better than I could in a following post.

I’ve wanted to visit Ukraine since I was a kid, learning a bit of Russian through documentaries and watching the Olympics on TV. When we had the opportunity to travel to Kyiv last spring, I was ecstatic to start planning the few days we had in Ukraine.

Of course the question that popped up was should we visit Chornobyl?

Kopachi, Ukraine

I first read about the nuclear disaster as a freshman in a class at Kent State. One project included presenting to the class as the fictional head of a tourism office for your assigned country, encouraging would-be travelers to visit. Assigned with Belarus, I began researching the country and learned how their population was significantly impacted by the Chornobyl disaster, where 70% of the Ukrainian nuclear meltdown landed, contaminating 23% of the surface area of Belarus. Hundreds of thousands of Belorussians died from Chornobyl-related deaths and the country is still struggling to recover from the disaster. Over a million people remain in the exclusion zone, food is still grown and consumed on contaminated land, and the government has yet to disclose any information on the impact of the disaster:

“Belarus’s official policy on Chornobyl is aimed at persuading ordinary people to think about it as little as possible, and getting international organisations to allocate as much funding as possible to cleanup operations. Minsk spends billions on ‘making life safe’ in the contaminated zone, though independent experts believe that it would be cheaper and safer to simply resettle people.

Over 26bn Belarusian roubles (about US$1.3m), 25.5bn (US$1.26m) from public funds, have been allocated to the clean-up between now and 2020 – a considerable sum for Belarus, whose total annual budget is about US$9bn…

The Belarusian government is, however, determined to limit its costs associated with Chornobyl, and each year reduces the area of the zones defined as contaminated or dangerous, using as justification the natural decay of isotopes such as Caesium-137 and Strontium-90.”

Ivanova, Tatyana. 2016. “Belarus’s Chernobyl Taboo.” Open Democracy. Available here.

I was pissed off. In ClassicAshlyn fashion, rather than write a Why You Should Visit Belarus paper, I instead presented on governmental corruption, the impact of policies on the lives of citizens suffering from exposure to radiation, and the lack of medical treatment, safe housing, and employment.

I enrolled in more Political Science and History courses the following semester, declared my major in Poli Sci in 2009, focusing on Russian Studies and Geography. Nerdalert but I continued reading and researching the impacts of Chornobyl on the region.

Valissya, Ukraine

Back to 2019: we decided to book the tour.

Dark Tourism, or visiting sites of historical tragedy, should include respect and intent by the traveler. Places like Hiroshima, Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, Pompeii, Chornobyl, and Auschwitz carry a great deal of weight and should be treated as such. That doesn’t mean visitors shouldn’t go, but the approach should certainly have a greater level of respect for what took place there. One of the ways travelers can be respectful to the sites–and people impacted by events that occurred there–is to inform yourself and act respectfully to the surroundings. This means read a book (my plea for 2020) and not take selfies in front of buildings where people were killed (the new “I was here” desecration) or steal things from the site.

Unfortunately, many visitors choose to tour these sites and act like absolute assholes, showing blatant disrespect for what occurred there. Last year, the Auschwitz Memorial took to Twitter to ask visitors to be more respectful and not take selfies in front of the camp or on the train tracks (I was horrified to find initials etched into the barracks of Auschwitz when I toured the death camp in 2017). Following the release of HBO’s Chernobyl, the increase in visitors to Prypiat included a number of people disrespecting the tragedy that took place there. The writer-creator of the show, Craig Mazin, also posted to Twitter after “sexy selfies” of visitors started surfacing.

I wanted to be as respectful and responsible to both the people and the place. Yes, I did take pictures, but tried to keep in mind the magnitude of what occurred there.

Prypiat, Ukraine

We visited before the HBO miniseries Chernobyl aired and even then I was shocked at the commercialization of the tour. Having visited both Auschwitz and Chornobyl, the level of kitsch in Ukraine was jarring to me. Stands selling candy and Chornobyl-branded condoms–“they glow in the dark!”–at the checkpoint before entering the exclusion zone felt extremely disrespectful. While the number of deaths attributed to the disaster are debatable, the fact that people died there, people were forced to evacuate their homes, and continued health and environmental concerns loom over not just Ukraine, but the surrounding areas, seemed to be forgotten in exchange for touristy trinkets.

“Human curiosity is inevitable, and denying the existence of this vast, charged space that is a crucial part of Soviet and global history would be impossible and pointless. But Chernobyl has yet to find an appropriate tone for its tourism. Potential danger is almost commodified as a feature of the visit. We wore the suits and waved the Geiger counters not because we needed to, but because those who brought us there sensed that we wanted to feel close to danger.

Unlike some other sites of tragedy that, despite mass attendance, are places of solemnity and reflection, this is a messy and morally queasy experience. That scoop of kitsch radioactive ice-cream may stick in your craw and, for the moment at least, it probably should.”

Nolan, Megan. 2019. “Chernobyl Welcomes the Tourists–‘A Messy and Morally Queasy Experience.” The Guardian UK. Available here.

I thought about the impacts of the disaster on the people who lived here over twenty years ago and what it meant to buy radiation branded sexual protection on the same road where they were forced to leave everything behind.

Debris at the Soviet Chornobyl Duga Base, Ukraine

I hope to be as respectful as possible in the following posts about our tour. I highly recommend visiting Chornobyl, but with well thought out intentions, not as a shithead tourist stealing toys from an abandoned kindergarten.

Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk.

I’ve broken down my Chornobyl posts into the following topics/stops:

Tips for Planning Your Trip to Chornobyl: I include everything you need to know for a day trip from Kyiv to Chornobyl including what to pack, best resources for being your best-most-informed-tourist-self, and how to survive your period in a nuclear exclusion zone.
The Villages of Zalissya & Kopachi: Two of the 188 villages evacuated. 
Chornobyl Power Plant & the City of Prypiat: Serving as the nuclear city to Chornobyl power plant, Prypiat was evacuated two days after the meltdown.
Chornobyl Duga Base: A key part of the Soviet missile defense early-warning radar system, the now abandoned “Russian Woodpecker” is 150 meters tall (almost 500 feet).

I hope you enjoy these posts as much as I loved our tour. It was truly such a unique and amazing opportunity to visit.

Further Reading:

Chornobyl & Belarus:
Hjelmgaard, Kim. 2016. “In Secretive Belarus, Chernobyl’s Impact is Breathtakingly Grim.” USA Today. Available here.
Ivanova, Tatyana. 2016. “Belarus’s Chernobyl Taboo.” Open Democracy. Available here.
Kenigsber, Jacov E., Viktar F. Minenko, and Elena E. Buglova. 1996. “Radiation Effects on the Population of Belarus after the Chernobyl Accident and the Prediction of Stochastic Effects.” World Health Statistics Quarterly 49:1. 58-61. Available here.

Dark Tourism:
Gold, Hannah. 2019. “Please Stop Taking Selfies at Chernobyl, Requests Series Creator.” The Cut. Available here.
Nolan, Megan. 2019. “Chernobyl Welcomes the Tourists–‘A Messy and Morally Queasy Experience.” The Guardian UK. Available here.
Street, Francesca. 2019. “Chernobyl and the Dangerous Ground of ‘Dark Tourism’.” CNN Travel. Available here.
Sunkara, Lavanya. 2019. “From Auschwitz to Chernobyl: Tips on Respectfully Visiting Dark Tourism Sites.” Forbes. Available here.

 

 

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Listening: The United States of Anxiety (WNYC Studios)

2019 Year in Review: Favorite Books

Reading is my all time favorite hobby (nerdalert) and I thankfully had time this year to get through a ton of different books.

Me, in most social situations.

I love non-fiction and wanted to share my top ten of 2019:

What is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics
Rachael Denhollander

I was really looking forward to Denhollander’s memoir and found it to be one of the most impactful books of 2019. As the first person to come forward publicly against Nassar, she has been one of the loudest voices seeking justice for survivors. In What is a Girl Worth? (the question she posed at Nassar’s hearing), Denhollander details the struggles to come to terms with the sexual abuse she survived first in her church and then at the hands of her doctor; In both instances she was quieted and the perpetrators of her abuse were not held accountable. Denhollander’s book tells the struggle of a woman fighting to create change against institutions that enabled child abuse to happen.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
Casey Cep

I loved Furious Hours. The book tells two narratives: Harper Lee’s life and the trial of Robert Burns. They intersect as Lee covered the court case and Cep uses Lee’s notes from the trial to finish the story in this true-crime/biography. Furious Hours does a great job telling the gripping case of Robert Burns while providing respectful insight into the life of the very private Harper Lee. Cep’s writing is great too– I highly recommend this book if you’re a fan of Lee and/or true-crime.

The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down
Abigail Pesta

The Girls is a collection of stories told by survivors of Larry Nassar’s abuse. The narratives collected by Pesta are difficult to read, but show the grit and perseverance of these athletes as they overcame injuries and in many instances, mental and emotional abuse at the hands of the people that were supposed to protect them: their coach and doctor. Pesta’s writing is empathetic and places the stories of the survivors at the center of the book. The Girls is a good introduction for those unfamiliar with the sport or who may still be asking “How did this happen? How did no one know?”

How to be an Anti-Racist
Ibram X. Kendi

Part memoir, part political guide, Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist was one of my favorite books of 2019. After developing cancer following the publication of Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi notes that he is unable to separate racism and cancer: “Our world is suffering from metastatic cancer. Stage 4. Racism has spread to nearly every part of the body politic, intersecting with bigotry of all kinds, justifying all kinds of inequalities by victim blaming; heightening exploitation and misplaced hate; spurring mass shootings, arms races, and demagogues who polarize nations…” I love Kendi’s writing and as a scholar in race relations, How to be an Anti-Racist reads like one of his lectures, one desperately needed today.

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to Present
David Treuer

Described as the “counter-narrative” to Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Treuer describes how, rather than ending in 1890, Native American life and culture has survived. Despite the American government’s tactics to destroy them, Native Americans have persevered and survived even the most brutal of policies and massacres: “I have tried to catch us not in the act of dying but, rather, in the radical act of living,” Treuer states. This book is a must-read for those not only interested in Native American history, but those needing to combat the long-accepted narratives of Native life in America.

On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal
Naomi Klein

This collection of essays by Naomi Klein makes the case for a drastic systems overhaul to fight global climate change. Rampant and unchecked capitalism, she says, has created and continues to worsen not just environmental degradation, but also the disenfranchisement of people. Free-market ideology, Klein argues, has devastated communities; the push for growth is unsustainable, and is killing people and the planet. She quotes various social movements that were seen as unthinkable at the time–Roosevelt’s New Deal probably being the most cited–as the proof that systematic change is possible. At the heart of this shift should be equal places at the table and a drastic overhaul of how we define (and value) growth.

How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States
Daniel Immerwahr

Immerwahr’s incredible book, How to Hide an Empire, details how the power and colonialism of the United States stretches far beyond the “logo map” we see in classrooms: “You might see the intrusions of colonialism into recent politics as a sort of hangover– a price paid for yesterday’s excuses. In this view, empire is an affair of the past, even if its effects linger on,” Immerwahr notes, “But empire is not past yet.” Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines were seen as strategic locations for military bases, even if the native populations did not have the same rights as mainland Americans. This book taught me so much about the imperialist policies of the US and Immerwahr’s work is incredibly relevant for our modern times.

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
Caroline Criado-Perez

I purchased Invisible Women after I traveled to a country with a couple of friends last summer. My friend, a man who stands at 6 ft. 3 inches, casually noted that the portable bathrooms meant for all of us were actually built for people like him. Why? I thought as I struggled to regroup following a rather horrifying period experience in a port-a-potty.

Using data as her lens, Criado-Perez’s book details how the one-size-fits-all approach to not just bathrooms, but healthcare, community planning, and economic systems put women at a disadvantage. One case showed that orchestras hired 50% more women after blind interview practices were implemented–more women were hired because the interviewers couldn’t hear the sound of their heels walking into the room. Gender bias is in how we design things (intentionally or not, she argues, the bias is there): fitness monitors don’t track women’s steps as accurately, speech-recognition software commonly misunderstands women’s voices (Google alone is 70% more likely). She notes that “designing the female half of the world out of of our public spaces is not a matter of resources. It’s a matter of priorities, and currently, whether unthinkingly or not, we just aren’t prioritizing women. This is manifestly unjust, and economically illiterate. Women have an equal right to public resources: we must stop excluding them by design.”

Know My Name: A Memoir
Chanel Miller

In 2016, I remember pulling up the victim-impact statement of then-Emily-Doe during the sentencing of Brock Turner and being completely blown away by her powerful words: “To girls everywhere, I am with you.” I, along with 18 million others, read: “On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you.” Three years later, Emily Doe came publicly forward as Chanel Miller and released her memoir, Know My Name. Throughout the book Miller struggles to find her own identity as someone other than Brock Turner’s victim. She details the incredible frustration of working within a system supposedly meant to protect her, but instead favored the perpetrator of the crimes against her. Those who read her 2016 statement know Miller’s poignant writing and this book is a testament to her talent. It can be hard to read at times, but as society continues to doubt survivors, absolutely vital if we want to change the current system.

What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance
Carolyn Forché

My favorite book of 2019 is Forché’s memoir, What You Have Heard is True. I received the book as part of my Strand subscription and am so thankful the New York-based bookstore introduced me to this book. Forché was invited by Leonel Gómez Vides to travel to El Salavador and document the country’s horrifying civil war through her poetry. She meets a number of people touched by the war: insurgents, peasants, and military personnel. Her years in El Salvador eventually led to Forché’s activism as a “poet of witness”. The book is beautifully written and a testament to bear witness, no matter how terrible the events: “It was as if he had stood me squarely before the world, removed the blindfold, and ordered me to open my eyes.”

Currently:
Watching: The Outsider (HBO)

2019 Year in Review: Favorite Podcasts

I love podcasts. I’m always listening to something.

I can’t list any new music for you (except LIZZO because of course) but I can (and often annoyingly) go on a tangent about a new episode of some podcast covering an obscure murder, new media commentary, or policy about to pass.

A mood.

One of my new favorite genres is a podcast that accompanies a TV show or hosts a book club. For whatever reason, most of the ones I listened to (Chernobyl, Game of Thrones) also included Peter Sagal, not that I’m complaining. Nerdette gets a special shout-out for their ever-changing podcast that included special series of TV recaps and book discussions.

Here are my favorite podcasts of 2019:

Weekly Series:

My Favorite Murder
Exactly Right

My Favorite Murder is an oldie but a goodie for me. I’ve listened to Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark for the past few years and continue to love their weekly podcasts. They’ve extended beyond strictly murder to include cult stories, wrongful convictions, and natural disasters, which has been met with some push-back from fans, but I’ve enjoyed the episodes this year.

Code Switch
National Public Radio

A weekly race and culture podcast from NPR, Code Switch was one of my must-listen series last year. Hosted by Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji, each episode tackles issues of race and intersectionality in politics. “A Tale of Two Districts” and “Political Prisoners?” were a couple of my favorite episodes.

Keep It
Crooked Media

I am horrible with keeping up on pop culture (see above) but Keep It is my weekly update on what is happening in the world of music, tv, and culture. Hosted by Ira Madison III, Louis Virtel, and now Aida Osman, the podcast hit one hundred episodes this year. Each week they discuss different aspects of culture and politics, along with the occasional brunch recommendation.

On the Media
WNYC Studios

I’ve been listening to On the Media since 2007 (!!) when OTM was only a show on NPR and before anyone knew what podcasting meant (I’m so old). Each week hosts Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield cover the impact of media on American politics and the world. “Why Many Afghans Don’t Understand 9/11” and “We Need To Talk About Poland” are absolute must-listen episodes.

Reveal
The Center for Investigative Reporting, PRX

A weekly investigative journalism podcast, Reveal focuses on telling the stories of important issues as host Al Letson says, with the intent of “finding out what really happened”. “To the Ends of Earth” and “Year of Return” were two of my favorite episodes this year.

Limited Series:

1619
The New York Times

Last year The New York Times released the 1619 Project, an ongoing study into the impacts of slavery that first began in the United States 400 years ago. An accompanied audio series to the Times‘ magazine was released in August and I loved the series. “The Fight for a True Democracy” and “The Economy that Slavery Built” are absolute must-listens; In the second episode, Jesmyn Ward (author of Sing, Unburied, Sing) reads her piece on the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves and it is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking works I’ve heard all year; I think I listened to her reading the piece at least ten times.

Buried Truths (Season 2)
WABE

Hank Kilbanoff returned for the second season of Buried Truths to tell the story of A.C. Hall, a black teenager murdered by police in Macon, Georgia in 1962. The podcast beautifully covers Hall’s story and how the impacts of race and police privilege are still as much of an issue today as they were in the 1960s. Buried Truths is an amazing podcast and one of my favorites of 2019.

This Land
Crooked Media

An eight episode podcast developed by Crooked Media, This Land investigates how a 2000 murder in Oklahoma opened a case of land rights by five tribes in the state. Rebecca Nagle, a journalist and Cherokee Nation citizen, tells the dual narratives of the murder of George Jacobs and how the American government continued to marginalize Native Americans through policies that ignored treaties. Nagle’s ability to tie together true-crime, history, and politics makes This Land one of the most important podcasts of 2019.

In the Dark (Season Two)
American Public Media

Season two of In the Dark told the story of Curtis Flowers, a Mississippi man who had been tried six times for the murder of four people. APM‘s year long investigation revealed a number of problems with the Fifth Circuit Court District, District Attorney Doug Evans, and investigator John Johnson. While a majority of the second season was released in 2018, new episodes in 2019 updated listeners on Flowers’ case, including a report from the Supreme Court. In the Dark’s shocking investigation was one of my favorite podcasts of last year.

White Lies
National Public Radio

White Lies is an absolute podcast masterpiece. Hosted by Alabama journalists Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace, the series focuses on the unsolved murder of James Reeb, a white minister killed during the Selma protests of 1965. A four year long investigation, Brantley and Grace tell the story of not only Reeb’s death, but also how the culture in Alabama continues to protect the perpetrators of the crime to this day. In one episode Grace narrates: “Anyway, it was so long ago. Why go back? Why dig this up? Why reopen these old wounds, bother this old man? That was then. What’s past is past – water under the bridge. But you know what? That’s bullshit. We know it’s not true. The past is not past.”

Currently:
Reading: Such a Fun Age (Kiley Reid)

2019 Year in Review: Favorite TV Shows

What a year for television shows! I’ve always struggled with committing to an entire season, but this year I was able to watch a ton of great shows, both new and returning.

It was also a great year for television actresses: Regina King, Catherine O’Hara, Zendaya, Toni Collette, Elisabeth Moss, and the cast of Big Little Lies.

My reaction seeing End of the F***ing World Season 2 in my Netflix queue.

This was a difficult list to narrow down, so I wanted to include a couple of of other shows I loved this year:

  • Mindhunter continues to be amazing; I’m glad the show introduced more people to the Atlanta child murders and the fact that the cases remain unsolved.
  • I finally got on board with Stranger Things and fully love the series, so much so that Chris and I dressed up as Steve and Robin for Halloween.
  • How can you not love the second season of Big Little Lies? So dramatic, so over the top, so much love for Meryl Streep’s fake teeth, and this iconic scene:
Image result for big little lies gif"
BIG MOOD.
  • Another year of The Handmaid’s Tale and another year of frustration. The show can be soooooo good and this season was full of amazing scenes and social commentary–the Natalie birth episode still keeping me up at night, why aren’t we talking more about this!?–but the show overall can be incredibly slow. I’m all for a plot that takes a while to get there, but most of the episodes I thought were way too much filler and not enough substance. Maybe this is anxiety from the last season of Game of Thrones?
  • Admittedly, Euphoria is A LOT. There’s a ton of things happening in this show, to the point where it can make the viewer feel overwhelmed with allthethings. I’d argue though, that’s kind of the point. At the center of the show is Rue (played to perfection by Zendaya), a high school student returning home from an overdose and stint in rehab. She still uses, struggling to overcome her father’s death, and striving to feel loved, which she believes she’s found in her new best friend, Jules (a trans woman wonderfully played by actual trans woman Hunter Shafer). A great cast, awesome makeup, killer soundtrack, and one of my favorite shows of the year.
We stan a queen.

Here are my favorite shows of 2019:

Comedies:

The Good Place (Season 4):

KRISTEN BELL.

Oh, The Good Place. TV’s most positive show just ended THIS WEEK and I’m still recovering from the finale. I binged all three seasons in time to watch the fourth in real-time. Shur’s take on morality and the qualifications to what make a “good” human (and therefore entry into “the good place”) got a little old throughout the seasons, but I did love how everything came together in the last episodes. Similar to Handmaid’s Tale, there’s only so many plot-twists that can happen when your main protagonists are limited on where they can go (and the storyline is rooted in the idea of “place”) but the last season beautifully wrapped everything up. Call it comforting or sentimental, but it’s nice to have a series about basic human morality show us the complicated story of what it means to be human.

Can we also just talk about how great Maya Rudolph is as the Judge? And how truly awesome Marc Evan Jackson is as Shawn?

Succession (Season 2):

SUCCESSION. Do yourself a favor and binge this show if you haven’t seen it yet. The writing is so smart, the characters incredibly witty, and the plot just cruises (pun intended) through the season’s ten episodes of who may succeed patriarch Logan Roy. The finale, This is Not for Tears, is one of the most brilliant episodes of television I watched this year. A show about terrible people being awful, this final episode was less about who would inherit the big job and more on who would become the family’s sacrificial lamb.

All the performances are clutch and wonderfully acted but for me, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), Roman (Kieran Cuilkin), and Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) are my absolute favorites. I almost fell over when Tom stole chicken from Roy’s plate to prove he couldn’t be pushed around any longer.

The Righteous Gemstones (HBO)

HBO’s other family-centric comedy this year, The Righteous Gemstones, written by and starring Danny McBride, was also one of my favorite shows of this year. Less clever than Succession, Gemstones has a slow couple of first episodes, but the last few of the season were great. I’ve missed Danny McBride’s writing and acting so I’m maybe being a little sentimental here, but there’s just something about watching an outrageously ridiculous comedy each week.

It’s hard to pick favorites, but for me, the scenes with Judy (Edi Patterson) and Baby Billy (Walton Goggins) absolutely MADE this show.

The End of the F***ing World (Season 2):

The End of the F***ing World‘s season one finale was pretty perfect. As great as that ending was, I really loved season two. Yes, there’s a lot of redundancy in terms of rehashing what happened to Alyssa and James, but I felt that the creators did a good job of bringing the characters beyond the Romeo and Juliet-esque ending of season one. Instead, Alyssa and James are figuring out how to move forward from trauma and abuse, admittedly less dramatic but I’d argue, more human: “It was a fitting end,” James says in a voiceover, “A doomed love story. A perfect tragedy. And then I didn’t die.”

An arguable (very) dark comedy, the story of James, Alyssa, and now Bonnie, a new character linked to the couple, was one of my favorite shows of the year. The awkward and endearing couple show that you can work through trauma in whatever way you have to in order to move past it.

Schitt’s Creek (Season 5):

Schitt’s Creek is IT. There isn’t enough space or time to talk about how great this show is: the writing, the acting, the comedic timing etc. etc. The sheer joy of Schitt’s Creek draws you in and unlike other shows tied to place (I’m looking at you Handmaid’s Tale), does a good job of building around that common theme by giving space for the characters to either grow–David and Alexis–or not (MOIRA)–in a genuine way.

This cast is amazing. Dan Levy (David) and Annie Murphy (Alexis) are perfect. But the relationship between Eugene Levy (Johnny) and Catherine O’Hara (Moira) is my favorite part of the show. As always, Eugene Levy is endearing in a way only he can be while O’Hara proves she has always been the queen in how she portrays the eccentric Moira (and her wigs).

Can we just talk about Stevie’s performance (played by Emily Hampshire) and how this scene is absolute perfection? Maybe of any show of all time?!

Dramas:

Years and Years

Years and Years is criminally underrated. Emma Thompson, as always, is incredible as politician Vivienne Rock and Jessica Hynes, a favorite from her days on Spaced (1999!), has one of the best performances of the year in her role as a political activist.

The BBC show tells the story of one Manchester family over the fifteen years following an event in 2019. Immigration, technology, and love are just a few of the overarching themes of a show that follows the story of each character as Britain experiences both political and economic instability. Muriel, the matriarch of the family says: “It’s all your fault… Every single thing that’s gone wrong, it’s your fault. Every single one of us.” Hynes’s performance in the final episode is heartbreaking and overall I loved this six episode show.

Watchmen:

REGINA KING ❤ ❤

Based off of Alan Moore’s graphic novel, the HBO adaption Watchmen was one of the most bizarre, intense, and interesting shows of 2019. Starring Regina King–who is absolutely perfect as a daytime baker and vigilante by night–the story centers around Tulsa, Oklahoma and how the 1921 terrorism of “Black Wall Street” resonates in modern relationships and policing. As in the early 1900s, modern intersections of race and power drive the narrative of the show’s packed nine episodes. The storytelling of the show is amazing–episodes are jumping between time periods, places, and perspectives, but somehow manages to tie everything together in a satisfying, albeit for me, heartbreaking way.

Regina King (Angela) as the ass kicking superhero and police officer, struggling throughout the series to understand the truth of her family’s past. King notes that “so much of this country was built by black people, but yet in a lot of regards, we’re orphans because we don’t know where we’ve come from. There’s a metaphor in there for the history of the real America.”

Unbelievable:

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of Unbelievable is that the true-crime series is actually true. The story of Marie, a young woman who recants her account of rape after pressure from police, is at the center of the show and gives light on the struggles women face when reporting abuse. After a series of rapes occur in their town, detectives Grace Rasmussen and Karen Duvall (Toni Collette and Merritt Wever, who are great in these roles) begin connecting the pieces showing that a serial rapist has been committing these crimes, including Marie’s assault.

At the heart of Unbelievable is the question of who actually gets to be believed. Marie, a low-income young orphan, does everything right when she reports her rape: she consents to medical exams, explains the event multiple times to a number of people, and submits to questioning, and yet is made to believe that she invented the account and is even hit with a false reporting charge. Marie isn’t taken seriously but that part isn’t unbelievable, right? Here the show demonstrates the inherent problems within an unjust system–who gets to be believed and who is worthy of our time and empathy isn’t equal.

Chernobyl:

Chernobyl is easily one of the best five episodes of television this year. From the beginning the series draws you in as the horrifying tale of the Soviet nuclear disaster slowly unfolds. Jared Harris (Valery Legasov) is haunting, wonderful, and is the perfect protagonist to show the costs of attempting to save the world from nuclear ruin–the lives lost, the environment destroyed, and combating a regime intent on keeping such a disaster a secret.

We toured Chernobyl a week before the show premiered on HBO and all I can say is, holy shit.

The show is beautifully shot with such an attention to detail that viewers can forget that this isn’t REALLY 1986 Ukraine. I highly recommend listening to the Chernobyl Podcast with show creator Craig Mazin (can we also talk about how Craig Mazin, who is known for The Hangover Part II and III, created Chernobyl?) and NPR’s Peter Sagal as they discuss decisions made for the show. Emily Watson, as scientist Ulana Khomyuk, is one of the characters created for the show; she’s a combination of a number of scientists that worked to clean up the damage. Her interviews with the first victims of the explosion are absolutely heartbreaking. Much of the show, including the story-line of Vasily and Lyudmilla Ignatenko, was based on the incredible book, Voices of Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, who has endorsed the show.

When They See Us:

Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us is one the best shows of all time. While the miniseries was snubbed by the Golden Globes–many of arguments blame how difficult the show is to watch– the fact is that her portrayal of the Central Park Five IS hard to watch, mostly because the story of these teenagers sent to prison for a crime they didn’t commit not only happened, but is demonstrating how institutional racism is still happening in America today.

A legal system that allows for the arrest, interrogation, and eventual sentencing of children for a crime they did not commit is unjust. And yet, the power and outrage of When They See Us is not only showing the viewer that these things happened, but continue to happen. Disenfranchisement is seen throughout the show: a lack of money means inadequate legal representation, inability for families to see their children, and the sheer racism of a prosecutor to refuse to believe anyone other than these children of color could commit this crime. The lack of empathy throughout is heartbreaking and shows what happens when those in power see others as less than; Linda Fairstein refers to the kids as “thugs” and “animals” rather than the eighth graders they are.

All four episodes are powerfully written and acted, but the 90 minute finale centering on Korey, who is sentenced to adult prison as a minor, is absolutely brutal. Viewers might not be able to finish watching a show so outrageously unjust and unbelievable, but the point of When They See Is, is that it is.

Currently:
Listening: The Racist Sandwich (Soleil Ho and Zahir Janmohamed)