Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:01] This is Method to the Madness, a bi-weekly public affairs show on K-A-L-X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area Innovators. I'm your host, Lisa Kiefer. And today, our first show of 2020 will feature Layla Salazar-Lopez, the executive director of Amazon Watch. Most people know what Amazon Watch is, but for some people who may not know, can you review the mission?Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:00:31] Sure. Thanks for having me. Amazon Watch is a Bay Area based nonprofit organization. We were founded in 1996. Our mission is to protect the Amazon rainforest and advance the rights of indigenous peoples throughout the Amazon basin. The Amazon rainforest is the biggest tropical rainforest on the planet. Most people know and think of the Amazon as the lungs of the earth. All those trees, all of that life, absorbing carbon and producing rain for not just the Amazon, but for the world. This massive rainforest, an ecosystem, actually helps to create the weather systems throughout South America and also around the world. So it is a vital organ of the earth's ecosystem. And so we're working to protect the rainforest to avert climate chaos. And our theory of change is that the best way to do that is by working with, standing with, supporting the rights and the voices in the territories of indigenous peoples.Lisa Kiefer: [00:01:44] And is that because they live there, they are on the front lines of i?Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:01:48] Of course! indigenous peoples have been living in the Amazon rainforest for thousands of years, over 400 distinct nationalities, groups and even uncontacted peoples. Indigenous peoples in the Amazon and throughout the world are the best protectors of the natural places that we still have left on this planet. Eighty percent of the biodiversity around the world is on indigenous people's lands. So if we are concerned about climate change or chaos, I would say, or if we concern about the extinction crisis that we're facing, one of the best ways that we can do all we can to protect what we have left, is to support indigenous people's territories being protected. Those are the places that have the biodiversity and have the trees that create the much needed rain.Lisa Kiefer: [00:02:43] Well, you just got back from the Madrid climate summit, the 25th summit, and it was supposed to be in Brazil. And Bolonaro nixed that. And there have been many challenges, but it did come off. I wondered if you could give us sort of a a summary of what what you talked about.Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:03:00] You know, as you mentioned, COP 25, which is a conference of parties on climate change, world leaders, government leaders, elected leaders, negotiators that represent governments. Nearly 200 governments around the world attend the cops, plus civil society, NGOs, affected communities and also corporations. Unfortunately, the COP for decades has been primarily dominated by governments and corporations. That's why we've had 25 years of inactivity, really, of doing the minimum. And yes, we could praise the Paris Climate Agreement. Amazon Watch was there with indigenous peoples from around the world, from the Amazon to Alaska, to ensure that the voices of of the community that are most affected are heard. Our focus at COP 25 was to amplify the voices of indigenous peoples. There are very few spaces for indigenous peoples, people who are protecting biodiversity on our planet, for them to speak, for them to share their concerns and share their solutions. And so our mission is to ensure that they have a space not only to have space, but they are promoting their solutions and their solutions are heard. And one of those solutions is the Sacred Headwaters Initiative. So we released a report, at COP, a threat assessment on the sacred headwaters. And we spoke to global media and got a lot of attention on this region. It's in Ecuador and Peru, which is the most biodiverse part of the Amazon. It's Yasuni National Park. The scientists, the conservationists who are on the ground in the Yasuni, the indigenous peoples who live there, say that this is the most biodiverse part of the Amazon. It's under threat by massive oil development. This region, the tropical Andes region of the Amazon, is mega-biodiverse. We need our governments and true leaders to really take the action that's needed, right now, which is to make commitments to really take us off fossil fuels.Lisa Kiefer: [00:05:05] So what does the COP 25 conference hold people to?Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:05:08] All of the governments, 196 countries have made commitments to reduce emissions. I mean, that's really the language spoken at COP, to reduce emissions, to deal with mitigation, adaptation. Governments have made commitments to reduce emissions. The big elephant in the room is what about stopping extraction? What about a phase out, a full phase out of fossil fuel extraction and a complete commitment to a transition to renewable energies, to renewable energy economies, green jobs? Like what we're talking about in the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal is a recipe for what, not just the United States, but world governments can be doing around the world to do what's really, really needed. Because if we only focus on reducing emissions, we are not going to get below 1.5 degrees. 1.5 degrees is really what we need to aim for. We've already surpassed 350 parts per million. We're on a track to go way beyond 2 degrees and way beyond 2 degrees is is what we're seeing. We're seeing the signs of it now. We're seeing Australia. We're seeing California. I mean, right here in our own backyard for three years, for three summers and falls, we have felt the effects of climate change and climate chaos. We have had massive wildfires, massive forest fires. And not just in the forest. Right? They've all also affected communities, you know, from Santa Rosa to Paradise. We're not just seeing fires, you know, in forests in California. We're seeing fires in the Arctic. We're seeing fires in the Amazon. We're seeing fires in Australia right now. It's not 10 years away. It's not 20 years away. It's now.Lisa Kiefer: [00:06:59] I'm curious if Black Rock was at the COP 25 conference. Do they show up?Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:07:05] Representatives of Black Rock. Representatives of Exxon. Representatives of agribusiness or the fossil fuel and agribusiness industries? The financiers. I mean, they're definitely there.Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:17] And do you feel that you had success this time or is it just sort of a stalemate?Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:07:21] I think COP 25 was a major failure for the state of the planet right now. Major failure for global governments, considering the urgency of what we're facing.Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:32] We have so many distractions right now, the assassination of Soleimani, the impeachment proceedings, those are attention grabbers. With those challenges of distraction, what is your strategy at Amazon Watch for 2020 to keep you in the news cycle?Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:07:48] At the end of August 2019, the world woke up to what was really happening in the Amazon. It's what we've been seeing for decades, which is, the Amazon is under major, major threat by governments, including, you know, the Bolsonaro government in Brazil, by corporations, primarily agri-business in Brazil, and the fossil fuel and mining industries in the western Amazon and also by the banks that invest in these destructive projects and destructive practices. You know, warning after warning, report after report, protest after protest, we were doing everything that we could to sound the alarm. And it wasn't until the news story broke that the Amazon is on fire. And the visuals people saw the rainforest on fire, that people started to say, what is happening? You know, not only the Amazon is on fire, we should stop the fires, but why? Why is Amazon on fire? The Amazon is not on fire because it was an accidental wildfire. The Amazon was set on fire. The Amazon was set on fire by intentional government policies to set the fires, to clear land, to make way for agri-business. And that's why over 3 million hectares of forest burned in Brazil and over five million burned in Bolivia. And while people will say there's always fires, yeah, there's always a dry season and a wet season in the Amazon. But the fires are not like this. And the reason they're not like this is because, one, there is a drought-- for many years. And two, there was an intentional, deliberate, malicious intent behind this.Lisa Kiefer: [00:09:31] If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Method to the Madness, a bi-weekly public affairs show on K-A-L-X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. Today, I'm speaking with Leila Salazar Lopez, the executive director of Amazon Watch, an organization that protects and defends the bio cultural and climate integrity of the Amazon rainforest.Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:10:00] There's always been fires in in Australia during the dry season and they're wildfires. They're not intentionally set. But why have millions of hectares of Australia burned and are burning at the same time? Because there has been a massive drought caused by climate change. Basically what I'm saying is making the connection between the Amazon and Australia's drought caused by climate change and there's governments behind policies that are ignoring the reality of what's happening.Lisa Kiefer: [00:10:28] Bolsonaro's argument is to the world that 'this is my country. Don't tell me how to run my country.'Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:10:35] Well, he prides himself on calling himself the Trump of the tropics. Bolsonaro is a far right president who was elected last year in Brazil. You know, we're talking about a fascist, a leader, and, you know, I hesitate to say that because I think, you know, a leader should be thinking about all of their people they're representing. People like Bolsonaro were elected on a platform of stability and security. The prior government was deemed corrupt, inefficient. And so what the government ran on was, you know, we need security. We need jobs and we need to better our economy. And under the Lula administration, under the prior socialist, the Worker's Party platform, the government of Brazil was on top. The National Development Bank had money and they were, you know, constructing and building and had plans to have zero poverty, zero hunger, zero deforestation. They had a soy moratorium. They had lots of policies in place. But they also, because there were the Workers Party, they also were promoting jobs that were mostly engineering construction jobs like huge industrial construction, including the Belo Monte Dam, which is the third largest mega dam in the world. And it was built in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. So, you know, while we had many, many concerns, environmental and human rights concerns, with the prior government. They are nothing in comparison to what's happening with this government. The Bolonaro government is in an all out attack on civil society, is an all out attack on indigenous people, on human rights, on women, on Afro-Brazilians across the country, the environment. And we've seen it since day one in office. A year ago when Bolsonaro was elected, he immediately merged ministries, the agriculture, the environment ministry. He defunded the FUNAI, which is like the Bureau of Indian Affairs, de-funded IBAMA, which is the Environmental Agency, like the Environmental Protection Agency. How is IBAMA and FUNAI going to do their work in protecting the rainforest and defending indigenous people's rights if they don't have any funding? And it was intentional, if you defund them yet there's no forest guards, there's no there's no monitoring. I mean, Brazil is the most dangerous place to be an indigenous or human rights activist. And that was even before Bolsanaro. But now it's even worse. On a weekly basis, we're getting reports of indigenous people primarily being assassinated, not only threatened, but assassinated on their lands for protecting their lands, for protecting forests from cattle ranchers, from people paid by agri-business, people paid by corporations, to take their land and land grabbers.Lisa Kiefer: [00:13:29] So what do you, as an organisation, what are you going to do about this?Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:13:32] So Amazon Watch has been working since 1996, protecting the rainforest, defending human rights, indigenous rights. And our mission isn't going to change. Our strategies are really to hone in on the major threats and who's causing those threats. So, for example, we are naming and shaming the governments, companies and banks that are responsible. We actually released a report last April with ipb, which is the articulation of indigenous peoples of Brazil, because remember, Brazil has the world's largest rainforest, tropical rainforests, the world's largest tropical savanna and the world's largest wetlands, the Amazon, the Sahado and the Pantanal. It is a massive, interconnected ecosystem protected by indigenous peoples and very threatened by industry and government. And so we are organizing campaigns, organizing actions, coordinating with our NGO allies, with indigenous allies, with human rights organizations around the world to act for the Amazon. And immediately after the news of the fires broke at the end of September, we called upon allies around the world and said, let's all work together. Let's all work together. This is the time to work together.Lisa Kiefer: [00:14:48] And who are those allies?Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:14:50] Extinction rebellion, Greenpeace, Avaaz, Rainforest Action Network, and here locally in the Bay Area, Brazil Solidarity Network. Every month, there's an action at the Brazilian consulate since Bolsonaro was elected, there's been actions to respond to the attacks on the rainforest, attacks on indigenous people, attacks on Afro-Brazilians. Attacks on women. And so if we continue to coordinate actions at the Brazilian consulate, the government, we continue to organize actions at BlackRock, which we have done many times over the last year. And we also engage with the governments and these corporations when possible. We're writing them letters. We're going to their headquarters. During the U.N. Climate Week in September with a delegation of, you know, over 50 people, we went into BlackRock's corporate headquarters in New York and delivered over 500000 thousand letters from around the world to say BlackRock stop investing in the destruction of the Amazon, the destruction of our climate. BlackRock is an asset manager that is the biggest investor in climate destruction around the world. They invest in oil and gas. They invest in mining. They invest in agro business. And so there's a network called "BlackRock's big problem" that we're a part of, that is organizing, you know, writing reports and writing letters to BlackRock and engaging with BlackRock, going to their shareholder meetings. Before two years ago, no one had ever been to a BlackRock Shareholder meeting. It was just 30 people sitting around a table in suits. And over the last two years, they've had to face criticism. They've had to face indigenous peoples in their boardrooms. They've had to face, you know, NGOs and questioning.Lisa Kiefer: [00:16:36] Has this resulted in any changes?Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:16:38] Not yet, to be totally honest. You know, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock every January, puts out a letter to clients saying how they're committed to the environment, how they're committed to equality. You know, we're going to continue to call him out on that and hold him to those words, because if you're saying you're committed to the environment and climate change, we don't want minimum action, as Greta Thunberg so eloquently says. You know, we have to act as if our house is on fire because it is. We are responding to the needs and requests of our partners, primarily in the Amazon.Lisa Kiefer: [00:17:18] So how often do you go down there?Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:17:20] I go a couple times a year to to meet with our partners and actually be in the forest and get inspiration for, you know, why we're doing this work. And we also lead delegations down to the Amazon. We have field coordinators in the Amazon, in Ecuador and Peru and Brazil. And we're a pretty small organization. And our strength really lies in the partnerships, the long term partnerships that we have with the indigenous communities, organizations, national organization, national indigenous organizations and regional organizations, and as well as our NGO allies throughout the Amazon. So those long term partnerships are what help us define like what we need to do this year. You know, respond to the fires, respond to new oil development projects, respond to China in the Amazon, and then from there develop strategies. Also work with local movements such as the Sunrise Movement that is really led by the youth. The youth right now are really showing the leadership.Lisa Kiefer: [00:18:22] Who do you think of all the candidates is the most, would be the most reliable partner in terms of climate mitigation and adaptation?Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:18:31] Amazon Watch doesn't officially endorse, but personally, there's only two candidates that even come close. And that's Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.Lisa Kiefer: [00:18:40] Well, they're the only ones who even talk about the Green New Deal.Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:18:43] Yeah. Think about how much energy and resources governments put into war. We invest a lot of our tax money in, you know, it's all in. But when it's time to think about the future of our children, grandchildren, seven generations and all life on this planet, what we need is a war effort to turn, not only turn emissions around, but turn extraction around and a complete commitment by government and civil society and the private sector and companies. If we have any kind of future left on this planet, we need to really turn around the way that we're living our daily lives. And, you know, that may be scary for people to hear. But when I say we need to, we need to change our economy, we need to change our daily way of life. It's not inconceivable to think that civil society can mobilize a new economy, a new way of life, new policies that could protect us and and our future. Nationalism and the rise of nationalism is the opposite of what we need to be doing. You know, we need to be looking at planet Earth like a system. We're all on this earth together. We have no other, even though there's some people who want to build, you know, space stations and think they can get away from our problems. The majority of the people can't. We are the Majority. We're way more than them. We can demand and make the changes that we need.Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:20:04] I'm curious how you got involved in the Amazon. Was there a moment where you were inspired to do that?Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:20:10] Well, I grew up in Southern California, near the border. My family's from Mexico. I grew up pretty traditional Mexican family. We grew up near the beach. And one summer there was a medical waste spill on our beach. We couldn't go on the beach for a while. And that was my kind of wakeup call to environmental awareness. You know, because the beach was like, oh, you know, it's where we go to to play, to rest, enjoy. And it's free and it should be open and accessible to everyone. And when it wasn't, that was my wake-up call. And then from there, you know, we we started up an environmental group on our high school campus and, you know, started doing beach cleanups. And that was kind of the beginning of activism. We started our environmental group and we started or organizing our own Earth Day festivals and Earth Day events. One of the guest speakers I will always remember because he gave a slideshow about the rainforest and it was so beautiful. And I'd never seen anything like that. And I just thought one day I want to go there. Fast forward a couple years. I'm at UC Santa Barbara and student advisor says, you know, you're going to need to do an internship in your second year. And, you know, you could volunteer at a local environmental organization or a local government representatives office. And I said, well, I wanna go to the rainforest. I said, okay, that's pretty far and pretty expensive. And I said, well, I'll take out a student loan. And I did that. And that changed my life. That changed the path and the direction of my life. Because, one, I'd never been to South America. I'd never seen the rainforest. I'd never seen the beauty and also the destruction and the threats. The summer of 1995 was when I connected with the forest and realized that it was indigenous peoples who were protecting it and that they were a library of knowledge that could not be replicated in any way. You know, just walking in the forest with someone who has lived there all their life and has a spiritual connection to the forest. I mean, you could walk 30 meters and they will know every single plant that you walk by and know what its properties are. Know what it's used for and whether it's used to build a house, or to cook with, or to use as medicine, or to build a canoe. They know how to use everything and they do it with respect. And that, just that, was like a huge lesson in what is really needed to protect the forest. On my way out of the forest, I saw an oil spill. The trans Ecuadorian pipeline had ruptured and crude oil from the north east Ecuadorian Amazon was just spilling into the river, into the main water source of the city of Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. It was my, you know, my second kind of wake-up call to how could this be happening? Who did this? Why is this happening? Who allowed this? Why aren't they shutting it off? Why isn't it stopping? That really enraged me. And I found out that it was Texaco who had set up the infrastructure, who had basically found oil in the Amazon, set up the entire infrastructure, convinced the government in the 1960s to allow them to set up the infrastructure and drill and dump. And there were no environmental or human rights or indigenous rights laws in the country or even in the world. At that time, there weren't conventions on, there was a declaration on human rights, but there wasn't the declaration on indigenous rights. But still, during this time, Texaco drilled and dumped on the indigenous territories of five indigenous nationalities. And also where uncontacted peoples are and created what we called a rainforest Chernobyl. And still to this day, even though Chevron, which Texaco is now Chevron here in the bay, even though Chevron was found guilty in 2012, they still have not paid a dime, and probably have paid more in legal fees in the last 25 years to fight this than to resolve it. They've never denied that they did it, that they drilled and dumped. They don't wanna set a precedent that if you do this, you'll be held accountable. When I got back from the Amazon the first time, I said, I'm going to dedicate my life to doing everything I can to prevent this from happening again. And I will do everything I can to hold this company accountable. And so in 2002, when I first started working for Amazon Watch, we launched a campaign called the Chevron Cleanup Ecuador Campaign. And so we've been doing a lot of.Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:34] That was very successful.Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:24:34] The Chevron lawsuit was a major, major victory when we heard news of of the judgment. It was one of the proudest moments of...Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:46] We can do this.Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:24:47] We can do this. Like this is one of the biggest just a very typical David Goliath story. Right. We're going up against one of the biggest corporations on the planet. We beat them. Also another Oil victory was Occidental Petroleum. Occidental Petroleum did very similar to what Chevron, Texaco, now Chevron did in the Peruvian Amazon. And after seven years of attending their shareholder meetings, also filing a lawsuit against them with the Otwar people of Peru. We we actually settled a lawsuit with Occidental Petroleum and they agreed to pay a settlement to the Otwar people for the contamination that they had caused in the Peruvian Amazon and also with Oxy, one of the first and most proudest victories of Amazon Watch, is working with the Ottawa and a whole network that wide defense coalition around the world to get Occidental Petroleum out of what territory in Colombia. Many of our victories, the last one I'll mention is in Brazil. Actually, it's the Tapajos dam and we were not able to stop the Belo Monte mega dam construction. The following dam proposal was Tapajos mega dam on one last free flowing blackwater rivers in the Amazon, in Brazil. And just a few years ago, the Brazilian government announced that they were not going to build it. They were actually going to change their dam building policy and begin to invest in renewable energy. That's now all changed with Bolsanaro.Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:18] Are the dams back on the table?Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:26:20] Everything's back on the table. I mean, their policy is the Amazon is open for business. And I think that's shameful. It's completely shameful.Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:28] What are some of your immediate plans as an organization?Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:26:32] Funny that you mentioned it. Amazon Watch has been a pretty small organization for the last 23 years. I mean, we've been around 10 people plus field consultants plus, you know, working with our partners across the Amazon. One result of the attention on the Amazon is that there's been a lot more interest in supporting organizations like ours. And so we are growing. There is a lot more attention on organizations such as Amazon Watch and a lot more offers for financial support and a lot more offers for volunteers and people who across the world who want to volunteer, who want to help. And so right now, we're at a moment, we're actually at a moment of strategic planning to really envision what we want the next five to 10 years, the focus of our next five to 10 years, to be. Our mission is to protect the rainforest, defend indigenous rights and advance climate justice. We're going to continue to focus on those strategic areas with campaigns, but we have to do it with more urgency because the Amazon is at a tipping point. Scientists say that the Amazon will reach its tipping point when the deforestation and degradation is over 20 percent. It's about 17 to 18 percent now. And so what we need for the Amazon is a full scale commitment to protect, defend and restore it. Protect means protecting what's left. Anything that's still left standing, whether it be indigenous peoples territories, whether it be protected areas, national parks, private lands, anything that's still left standing needs to be protected and defended. And promote solutions of indigenous peoples, promote on the ground solutions for restoration, for alternative energy. We need to invest and increase the use of solar energy, the use of renewable energy.Lisa Kiefer: [00:28:19] And show some solutions.Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:28:21] And show those solutions. And so we are working on promoting indigenous led solutions, promoting protection and defense of indigenous territories with our people in Peru. We're fighting Geo Park to get them off territory this year and in years to come. Our focus really is going to be on protecting and advancing the sacred headwaters and beyond. Who is complicit in the destruction of the Amazon? Let's call them out. Let's engage with them. Let's pressure them. We're also getting ready for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the establishment of the environmental movement around the world. I'm a UC Santa Barbara alumni. It's where the first environmental studies department was in the whole world. And why was that? Because there was a giant oil spill in 1969 in Santa Barbara. And what that sparked was a movement, that sparked environmental studies department at UC Santa Barbara. It sparked environmental laws across this country. It sparked Earth Day. When we reflect on 50 years ago and everything that's happened, we've made progress and we've also majorly rolled back progress with the Trump administration. Here in the United States, we need to defend all of the achievements over the last 50 years. We need to defend our laws. We need to defend our rights and our democracy. And that's very similar to what Brazilians are saying. We're at a turning point, a very important election that, you know, could really turn things around. We have to do everything we possibly can.Lisa Kiefer: [00:29:55] If you could just tell people how they might get a hold of you?Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:29:57] Amazonwatch.org. Follow us on social media for all the latest reports and news and updates and opportunities to get involved. We're located in Oakland. You can call us up, visit us. We would really encourage youth and students and anyone who wants to get involved to make the connections between California and the Amazon. The oil and the Amazon, while it comes from the Amazon, the majority that's exported comes right here to California. We are very connected to the Amazon. It's it's it's real. Learn more. Go to our Web site. We have to do this together.Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:36] Thank you, Leila, for coming on the program.Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:30:38] You're welcome. Thank you.Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:41] You've been listening to Method to the Madness, a bi weekly public affairs show on K-A-L-X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. We'll be back again in two weeks.
UC Berkeley Professor Gabriel Zucman
TranscriptLisa Kiefer:[00:00:03]This is method to the madness, a biweekly public affairs show on K-A-L-X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. I'm your host Lisa Kiefer. And today I'm speaking with Gabriel Zucman Professor of Economics and Public Policy here at UC Berkeley. He has just co-authored a book with Emmanuel Saezcalled The Triumph of Injustice --How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay. Welcome to the program, Gabriel.Gabriel Zucman:[00:00:36]Thanks for having me.Lisa Kiefer:[00:00:37]Why did you write this book. What was the problem or problems you were trying to solve?Gabriel Zucman:[00:00:42]So the main problem is the rise of inequality in the US. So if you look for instance at what has happened to income concentration, in 1980, the top 1 percent highest earners in the U.S. earned about 10 percent of total U.S. national income today they earn 20 percent of U.S. national income. Now contrast that with what has happened for the working class for the bottom 50 percent of earners. They used to earn 20 percent of income and now about 12 percent. So essentially the top 1 percent and the bottom 50 percent have have switched their income share. And the reality of the U.S. today is that the 1 percent earns twice as much income in total than the bottom 50 percent a group that by definition is 50 times larger. So you have this huge level of inequality and this big increase in inequality and the tax system is a key institution to regulate inequality. And so we wanted to know OK does it do a good job? Does the tax system limit inequality or does it exacerbate the rise of inequality?Lisa Kiefer:[00:01:58]And as you say in your book all the way back to James Madison the whole point of taxes yes is to raise revenue but the other significant point was to reduce inequality.Gabriel Zucman:[00:02:07]Exactly.Lisa Kiefer:[00:02:08]And that's something that's been kind of forgotten since 1980.Gabriel Zucman:[00:02:11]That's been forgotten despite the fact that it's deeply rooted in American society. The U.S. was created in large part in reaction against the highly unequal aristocratic societies of of Europe in the 18th century and ever since, many people in the US have been concerned about becoming as unequal as Europe. Europe for a long time was perceived as as an anti model, too unequal, at least until the middle of the 20th century. Now it's the opposite, it's funny to see how these beliefs and perceptions have changed over time. Now many people in the US feel that Europe is too equal, but in fact for most of US history it was it was the opposite. The US invented some of the key progressive fiscal institutions designed to limit inequality to regulate inequality. Let me just give one example. In 1943 Franklin Roosevelt goes to Congress. He makes a famous speech. He says I think that no American should have an income after paying taxes of more than twenty five thousand dollars which is the equivalent of a few million dollars today. Therefore I propose to create a top marginal income tax rate of 100 percent above twenty five thousand dollars. And that's the idea of a legal maximum income. That's an American, a Roosevelt invention. And people in Congress they hesitate a little bit you know 100 percent, maybe it's too much, but they agree on 93 percent which when you think about it is that very far from 100 percent. And then the U.S. kept these very high modern 90 percent top marginal income tax rates for a long time. So there is this deeply rooted tradition in the U.S. of using the tax system to limit the concentration of income. The idea being that wealth is a good thing for the working class, for the middle class. It provides safety, provides security. But for the very rich,wealth is not safety or security. Wealth is power. And an extreme concentration of wealth means an extreme concentration of power, of political power, of economic power, which is detrimental to the rest of society and so one key function of the tax system is to prevent such a concentration of wealth and such a concentration of power from happening.Lisa Kiefer:[00:04:52]You've been consulting with Elizabeth Warren and others adopting pieces of some of the ideas that you had. How does Elizabeth Warren's plan, when you plug it into your model in the book, your 1980 model,what was the outcome of plugging in her wealth tax.Gabriel Zucman:[00:05:09]So Elizabeth Warren proposes to create a wealth tax at a rate of 2 percent above 50 million dollars and 6 percent above 1 billion dollars. So just let me explain what this would do. It means that if you have 50 million dollars in wealth or less, you pay zero. One of the things we do in the book we tried to imagine how the U.S. economy would have looked like if such a tax had been in place since 1982. So let me first start with what has happened to wealth concentration since 1982. If you look at the 400 richest Americans, you know Forbes magazine has estimates every year of their wealth. And according to Forbes magazine, the 400 richest Americans owned about 1 percent of U.S. wealth in 1982. And today they own about three point five percent of U.S. wealth. That is their wealth has been growing much much much faster than the economy as a whole and than average wealth in the economy. If the Warren wealth tax had been in place since 1982, inequality, wealth concentration would have increased much less, it would have increased a little bit. That is, today, the top 400 richest Americans would own about one point five percent of U.S. wealth. So a bit more than 82 but that would be much less than the current three point five percent. So this shows something which is very, to me, is very striking, a 6 percent tax on wealth. It's a big deal. You know it means that someone who has a hundred billion dollars has to pay six billion dollars a year in taxes. So it's big. And even if that tax had been in place since 1982, billionaires would still have seen their share of wealth increase.Lisa Kiefer:[00:07:00]In other words they'd still be billionaires.Gabriel Zucman:[00:07:02]Not only billionaires but multi billionaires. Some of them would still have tens of billions of dollars because the rise of wealth inequality has been so massive. The growth rate of wealth of billionaires has been so much higher than the growth rate of wealth for the rest of the population that even with a big wealth tax you know it would not have been enough to reduce inequality.Lisa Kiefer:[00:07:26]Well you give a good example about Warren Buffett. You know he's always bragging about how "I pay taxes. I pay a lot of taxes."Gabriel Zucman:[00:07:32]Yeah. So Warren Buffett is a good illustration for why we need a wealth tax. He's one of the main shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway. His wealth, according to Forbes magazine again, is about 80 billion dollars. His true economic income is his share of Berkshire Hathaway's profits. It's something like five billion dollars a year. That's his income. But what he does is that he instructs this company that he owns, Berkshire Hathaway, not to pay dividends. And so his only taxable income is when he sells a few shares every year of his company, is a taxable income of the order of 10 to 20 million dollars. And on that 10 or 20 million dollars he pays three or six million in capital gains taxes. And now you do the math. His true economic income is 5 billion. His tax bill is something like 5 million. So his effective tax rate is essentially zero percent.Lisa Kiefer:[00:08:41]It's lower than his secretary.Gabriel Zucman:[00:08:43]It's not only lower than its secretary, it's it's zero. Essentially you know five million compared to five billion. It's nothing. Then you have a number of proposals such as oh but let's just increase the top marginal income tax rate or let's just increase the tax rate on capital gains.But you see the problem....Lisa Kiefer:[00:09:01]That's what Bill Gates says.Gabriel Zucman:[00:09:03]That's what Bill Gates, Warren Buffett himself, there is this so-called Buffett Rule that was popular at some point among Democrats and the idea was we need to increase the tax rate on capital gains. Fine. You know it's not a bad idea. But you have to realize that the Buffett rule itself would make essentially no difference to Warren Buffett's tax bill, because even if you increase the capital gains tax rate to 100 percent let's say, then Warren Buffett would have to pay let's say 20 million in taxes. 20 million divided by five billion, which again is his true income, would still be zero percent. So if you want to tax billionaires like Warren Buffett or like Jeff Bezos or like Mark Zuckerberg, the proper way to do that is with a tax on the stock of wealth itself, with a wealth tax. Because when you're extremely rich it's very easy to own billions or tens of billions while having very little taxable income. And so you cannot tax billionaires well just with the income tax. You also need a wealth tax.Lisa Kiefer:[00:10:10]Gates also argues estate taxes and I like your argument in the book, you say well you know fine but are we going to wait around all these years? Some of these billionaires are very young.Gabriel Zucman:[00:10:21]Yeah exactly. You look at Mark Zuckerberg you know he's in his 30s. He's not paying much taxes today. Just like the Warren Buffett example because Facebook doesn't pay dividends. Facebook doesn't pay a lot of corporate tax. So is it wise to wait for 50 years or more before some of the country's wealthiest individuals stopped paying taxes. I don't think that's very wise.You Know, essentially because there are all these needs for revenue for early education, for university, for health care, for infrastructure. These are immediate needs and some billionaires can contribute much much more than they do today. There's no good reason to wait for 50 years to make them contribute.Lisa Kiefer:[00:11:12]If you're just tuning in, you're listening to method to the madness, a bi weekly public affairs show on K A L X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. I'm speaking with Professor Gabriel Zucman about his new book The Triumph of injustice how the rich dodge taxes and how to make them pay, co-authored by another economics professor here Emmanuel Saez. They advocate for a progressive wealth tax as a solution to global inequality, one that rethinks both evasion and the goals of taxation.Lisa Kiefer:[00:11:48]You talk about labor versus capital and I want you to explain that a little bit because you said for the first time in history labor pays more than capital. Why do the working class pay so many taxes right now. And that has to do with that labor capital crossover.Gabriel Zucman:[00:12:04]Absolutely. So historically the U.S. has taxed capital a lot. The corporate tax was high. The estate tax. Taxes and dividends, on interest. Property taxes. So there is a long tradition of relatively heavy capital taxation in the US.The main change that has happened since the 1980s is that these capital taxes have been rolled back, have have been cut massively, so the corporate income tax is a prime example. In December 2017, the Trump tax reform slashed the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent. Another good example is the estate tax which used to generate quite a lot of revenue in the 1970s. Today almost nobody pays the estate tax and even the very wealthy who are supposed to pay it can claim valuation discount and avoid it in many ways so that the revenue generated by the estate tax is extremely small. Dividends are taxed less than wages and so on and so on so capital taxation is essentially disappearing,it has not disappeared completely but has it has been dramatically reduced. And at the same time Labor taxation has increased. So Labor taxation, what is it? Taxes on wages, you know the income tax, but also the payroll taxes. So no matter how low your wage is in the United States today, 15 percent of that wage is paid in payroll taxes, that fund Social Security and Medicare, and these payroll taxes they used to be quite small you know in the 50s-60s, less than 5 percent of income. And they've grown a lot and these are taxes that are essentially only on wage income. And so you have this process where wages have stagnated for the working class for the middle class. In fact at the bottom of the wage distribution, wages have declined a lot because the federal minimum wage has declined enormously since the 1970s. Today it's only seven point twenty five dollars. It's a number of states and and municipalities like Berkeley have higher minimum wages. But if you look at Southern states for instance they only have the federal minimum wage seven point twenty five dollars an hour, much lower than in the 70s, and at the same time as minimum wage workers so their income fall, their taxes have increased because of the big increase in payroll taxes. And I don't think that's a sustainable process.Lisa Kiefer:[00:14:40]And not only that, the cost of childcare, education, I mean when you think about it, they could be considered taxes on the working people. You know you're out of pocket for everything and not to mention medical care and a lot of people do not even have medical care.Gabriel Zucman:[00:14:55]Absolutely. And that's a very important point. When you look for instance at health care, health insurance, it is in effect a giant tax today on working families. If you are lucky enough to work for a firm or an employer that has more than 50 workers, the firm has to provide you with health insurance, that's mandatory. And the way this works is that employers pay premiums to insurance companies and these premiums are enormous, the costs for covered work today on average is thirteen thousand dollars. That thirteen thousand dollars that in effect reduces the wage of employees. Okay. That's something that could be added to their wage for instance if there was a public insurance program, if everybody was covered by Medicare, workers could get thirteen thousand dollars more in wages and it would make no difference for employers. These insurance premiums are in effect a huge tax on labor, a huge hidden tax. There mandatory.Lisa Kiefer:[00:16:04]You call it a poll tax.Gabriel Zucman:[00:16:05]We call them a poll tax or head tax because they are of a fixed amount per head, that is, the employer pays those same essentially for a secretary and for an executive-- thirteen thousand dollars. So it's the most regressive type of tax. It doesn't depend on income, it doesn't depend on your ability to pay. It reduces wages by thirteen thousand dollars for all work workers no matter what their wage is. This is a huge problem.This is a big part of the reason why wages have stagnated since the 1980s for the working class and the middle class. Their wages have stagnated because employers have to pay more and more to private health insurance companies and so that leaves less and less money that can be paid in wages.Lisa Kiefer:[00:16:56]In the Democratic debates, why are they not explaining this. They seem to defend the choice of a private insurance tax. "Oh let people choose." It doesn't sound like people truly understand what they are choosing.Gabriel Zucman:[00:17:11]I agree. We are trying to explain that in the book and we are trying to explain that to as many people as we can. There are many problems with the way that healthcare and health insurance currently works in the US, but the main problem is how it reduces wages dramatically for the working class and for the middle class. And we have a solution. In my opinion, this is how things should be presented. If you move to a universal public health insurance program let's call it Medicare for all. What would happen the first Year? Employers would be required to convert insurance premiums into wages. That is, an employer that used to pay thirteen thousand dollars for the health care of each employees, would add thirteen thousand dollars to their wages, so this would be the biggest pay raise in a generation. First year of Medicare for all, everybody's wage increases by thirteen thousand dollars. And then of course you need to collect extra taxes to fund Medicare for all. But if these taxes are smart enough, if they are not head taxes or poll taxes that doesn't vary with income but rather if they are taxes based on your income or your wealth or if you tax corporate profits, you can make sure that the new tax would be much lower for the vast majority of workers than the extra wage that they gained. And so you can make sure that 90 percent of workers would benefit from a transition to Medicare for All in the sense that they would have a huge wage boost. They would have to pay a bit more in taxes but the extra tax would be much less than thirteen thousand dollars. Any my way is the proper way to explain Medicare for all. Your wages have stagnated. Big part of the explanation is there so much money that goes to private health insurance. There's going to be a law that says all the premiums are converted back into wages. Part of your wage was stolen. Now we're giving it back to you. You have a huge wage boost. We're going to raise taxes. But in a progressive manner so that the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution has a big net of tax pay increase.Lisa Kiefer:[00:19:33]With a wealth tax, it seems like the taxes for middle class and lower class would actually go down, even paying for Medicare for all.Gabriel Zucman:[00:19:41]Yes that is, if you include current health insurance premiums in your measure of the tax rate which I think is legitimate since these premiums are essentially like private taxes, mandatory payments. And if you abolish these premiums and replace those by progressive taxes, you get a big tax cut for essentially 90 percent of the population.Lisa Kiefer:[00:20:05]That's something no one's talking about.Gabriel Zucman:[00:20:07]Not yet. I'm not losing hope.Lisa Kiefer:[00:20:09]One of your most interesting chapters is on tax evasion and tax competition, which is going to be a challenge to any kind of change to our tax system. Can you talk about what you discovered and actually it goes back to when you were working as a young man at Exane.Gabriel Zucman:[00:20:26]Yes. So many people have that view that in a globalized world it's impossible to tax multinational companies, impossible to tax corporations, because if you do that they would move their profits to tax havens, the Cayman Islands or Bermuda. Or they will move their factories or their headquarters, their production activities, to low tax places like Ireland. And so according to that view, the only possible future is the race to the bottom with respect to the corporate income tax rate. So countries slashing their rates one after another. And we are very much in that situation today where countries are slashing their corporate tax rate. And for a long time I thought OK no this this makes sense. I understand why in a globalized world, countries want to attract some activity by offering lower rate and there's going to be tax competition and it's the huge pressure that pushes towards lower rates. But what we understood by doing research, that the research is summarised in the book is that this view is actually wrong. That is tax competition, just like tax avoidance or tax evasion, these are not laws of nature. These are policy choices. So we've embraced as nations, collectively we've embraced a certain form of globalization, which is characterized by tax competition and tax avoidance. But that's a choice. It's not a very democratic or very transparent choice, not a very well-informed choice, but it's a choice that's been made, and we can make other choices. There's another form of globalization that's possible. There's no tax competition. There's no profit shifting. There's there's much less tax evasion. So the way this would work for instance is this: right now if you are a U.S. multinational company and you book your profits in Bermuda, for instance, where the corporate tax rate is 0 percent, you don't have to pay taxes. Bermuda chooses not to collect taxes and the U.S. essentially doesn't tax the profits booked by its companies abroad. Okay that's that's a choice but we can make another choice. We could say the U.S. is going to tax all the foreign profits of its companies. It's going to collect the taxes that other countries choose not to collect. If Apple for instance, books a billion dollars in profits in Bermuda, taxed at 0 percent, and then the corporate tax rate is 30 percent in the U.S., the U.S. is going to tax that billion dollar at a rate of 30 percent in the U.S.. If Apple Books profits in Ireland taxed at 2 percent in Ireland the U.S. is going to collect 28 percent, so that the total rate would be 30 percent on a country by country basis.Lisa Kiefer:[00:23:12]So that would change everything.Gabriel Zucman:[00:23:14]That changes everything because then it removes any incentive for firms to book profits in tax havens, or to move real activity to low tax places, one. And second, since firms wouldn't have incentives anymore to do these things, it removes any incentive for tax havens to offer low tax rates in the first place. Now they would have incentives to actually increase that tax rate as so you see how you change the race to the bottom into a race to the top.Lisa Kiefer:[00:23:48]Yes and manufacturing might start to happen more in the countries that had previously been taking them offshore.Gabriel Zucman:[00:23:54]Exactly and what might also happen is that instead of competing by offering low tax rates as countries do today, a very negative form of international competition, we would move to a more positive form of competition, where countries would compete by providing the best infrastructure for companies or by having the most productive workforce thanks to good universities, good schools, good hospitals. So that's how globalization could look like. You know it's good to have some competition but the form of competition that we have today, which is you know countries are competing by slashing their rates, a very negative and bad form of competition. We could have a much more positive form of competition once you put taxes out of the picture.Lisa Kiefer:[00:24:46]So this would require cooperation amongst countries and just the will to do this.Gabriel Zucman:[00:24:52]Yeah and look there's already a lot of international economic cooperation. We've made a lot of progress. For instance, when it comes to trade agreements, some of that is is unraveling today with the Trump administration. But if you take the longer view. We've made tons of progress. Reducing tariffs in terms of facilitating accessLisa Kiefer:[00:25:14]Access to data which helped you with this book.Gabriel Zucman:[00:25:16]Exactly, in terms of access to data, so does there is international coordination. But the problem is that there's way too little coordination on the tax rates themselves. So for instance when countries talk about free trade agreements these days, these free trade agreements are essentially about property protection, protecting the rights of foreign investors and dispute resolution settlements. So know how to protect the rights of investors, but property cannot come with only rights and no duty, no, property also comes with the duty to pay taxes. And so the way to make progress, to reach an international agreement on taxes, in my view. is to put taxes at the center of free trade agreements, is to say, we are not going to sign any of any new free trade agreement if it's only to guarantee new rights to investors and ignores taxes. Any new free trade agreement should have taxes at the center stage and that's how it would become possible to make quickly a lot of progress in terms of tax coordination.Lisa Kiefer:[00:26:19]And that's also true when you think about the constitutionality of any tax reform here in this country, it's going to require the will and the cooperation of our legislatures. It can happen.Gabriel Zucman:[00:26:32]Yeah it can happen because the current situation is issimilar in many ways to the discussion during the Gilded Age in the late 19th century early 20th century. Inequality was rising a lot with industrialized nation, with urbanization, you know huge fortunes were being created. And second, the tax system was very unfair. At the time, the only or the biggest federal tax was the tariff. So taxes that essentially exempted the very wealthy and that that made the price of goods more expensive and so that hurt the working class, the middle class. The situation today is pretty much the same. Inequality is rising a lot, the tax system is less regressive than than during the Gilded Age, but this is much less progressive than what people think it is. During the Gilded Age you have all these debates about the creation of a progressive federal income tax. The 16th Amendment 1913 allows the federal government to levy progressive income tax and it was a huge success. So the income tax very quickly became extremely progressive with rates in 1917 of close to 70 percent. So it's it's a huge change in just a few years. In 1912. There's no income tax. People say it would never happen. It's unconstitutional. You know there's no way this is going to become reality. And then in 1913 the constitution changes. 1917, ,70 percent of marginal income tax rates for the highest earners. So I'm not saying that the same process is actually going to happen for the wealth tax today. But when I look at history, I see dramatic U-turns and changes and reversals and retreats so the history of taxation is far from linear. There is progress and that's what fundamentally makes me optimistic about the possibility for change and for reform.Lisa Kiefer:[00:28:27]Well when 50 percent of the population makes eighteen thousand five hundred dollars a year, it's untenable. You created a Web site. Tax Justice now dot org. That's all one word.Gabriel Zucman:[00:28:40]We developed this website to make the tax debate more democratic, because it's not for economists, it's not for experts, to say what taxes should be. It's for the people through democratic deliberation and the vote. And we want to give the tools, the knowledge, to the people. So it's a tool for the people to simulate their own tax reform. It's user friendly, it's very simple to use. Everything is is transparent. It's fully open source, with all the code you know onlinefor people who want to dig into this. But the Web site itself is extremely simple. You don't need to be an expert or to know anything about economics. What the Website does is two things. One, it shows how regressive the U.S. tax system is today. When you take into account all taxes paid at all levels of government, the website shows what the effective tax rate for a group of the population and how it has changed over time. And then you can change taxes. You can change let's say the top marginal income tax rate. You can change a corporate tax rate. You can create new taxes like a wealth tax, change the rates, change the exemption threshold. And the website shows how this would affect the progressivity of the tax system, one. And second, it shows how much revenue would be collected. So let's say you want to fund Medicare for All, or free college, or student debt relief. These things have a cost and there's several ways to fund these things. And so the user can very simply say OK, with that combination of taxes, with that tax refund, I can collect enough revenue to do these important policy changes.Lisa Kiefer:[00:30:24]Obviously you guys have plugged in all the numbers and come up with the ideal type of tax and you call it the national tax. Can you describe that and how it might be different from or in addition to a wealth tax?Gabriel Zucman:[00:30:37]The idea here is, how do we fund universal public health insurance and more broadly how could the U.S. increase its tax collection in a sustainable manner? The way that European countries do this is with value added taxes which are taxes essentially on consumption, better than sales taxes, but still pretty regressive because they're only on consumption and the rich consume a small fraction of their income whereas the poor consume most or even sometimes more than 100 percent of their income. And so what we are saying is look the U.S. doesn't have to introduce a V A T --A value added tax like other countries, it can leapfrog the V.A.T. and create a new tax which like the V.A.T. can collect a ton of revenue, but can do it in a much more progressive manner. And we call it the national income tax. And so the idea is for instance, if you want to fund Medicare for all. Step one is you convert the premiums into wages and so everybody's wage increases by thirteen thousand dollars. Step two, maybe year or year three. You create this new national income tax, which essentially is a tax on all labor costs and all profits made by corporations. So it's the broadest possible form of income taxation. And the beauty of it is that because it's so broad with a tax rate of only 5 percent, you can generate a lot of revenue, enough to replace all the insurance premiums that employers pay today.Lisa Kiefer:[00:32:20]What about education?[00:32:20]And you can increase the rates,go to 6 percent or 7 percent and that generates a lot of revenue that can be spent on early education, an area where there's nothing in the US in terms of public spending essentially, something municipalities do spend some money, but the U.S. is at the bottom of the international ranking when it comes to a public child care and early education in general. So that's a high priority. It's easy to collect a percent of GDP with that national income tax to fund universal early education. It's easy to collect an extra 1 percent if you want to make public universities,much more progressive than than anything else that exists.Lisa Kiefer:[00:33:01]And it's still less than what I would be paying today.Gabriel Zucman:[00:33:03]Of course.Lisa Kiefer:[00:33:04]Way less!Gabriel Zucman:[00:33:05]That's the beauty of it because today you're paying so much in child care, for college, for health, in a way that's very unfair because it doesn't depend on your income. It's the same amount essentially for each individual.Gabriel Zucman:[00:33:22]Essentially what's at stake is the future of globalization and the future of democracy. If globalization means ever lower taxes for its main winners, big multinational companies and their shareholders, and at the same time, higher and higher taxes for those who don't benefit a lot from globalization or sometimes suffer from it, retirees or small businesses, then it's not sustainable, neither economically nor politically. The problem with high and rising income and wealth inequality as as the Founding Fathers themselves understood at the time is that excessive wealth concentration corrodes democracy, corrodes the social contract, and we're seeing this today when you look at, for instance, what has been the main piece of legislation of the Trump presidency so far, it's been a big tax cut for wealthy individuals. So you've had three full decades of rising inequality and then on top of that, a law that adds fuel to that phenomenon. And it's hard to analyze this other than by saying that it reflects a form of political capture of plutocratic drift. That's the reality of the U.S. today and so if democracy is to prevail, and if we want to have a more sustainable form of globalization, we need to tackle this issue of tax injustice.Lisa Kiefer:[00:34:53]Thank you for being on the program,Gabriel.Gabriel Zucman:[00:34:56]Thank you so much for having me.Lisa Kiefer:[00:34:58]The book is The Triumph of Injustice --How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay. The website: TaxJusticeNow.org and you also have a profile in the October New Yorker which is really great reading. So thanks again for being on the program.Lisa Kiefer:[00:35:24]You've been listening to method to the madness, a bi weekly public affairs show on KALX Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. Today's guest was Gabriel Zucman, professor of economics and public policy here at UC Berkeley. We'll be back again in two weeks.
TranscriptLisa Kiefer: [00:00:01] You're listening to Method to the Madness. A biweekly public affairs show on K-A-L-X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators.Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:12] I'm your host, Lisa Kiefer. And today, I'm speaking with Mohamed Shehk, co-director and media and communications director of Critical Resources. Welcome to Method to the Madness.Mohamed Shehk: [00:00:28] Thank you for having me.Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:29] I've been hearing a whole lot with the upcoming presidential election and all the debates, about prison reform. I find it kind of interesting that for the past over 20 years, your organization has said "forget reform, we need to abolish prisons."Mohamed Shehk: [00:00:43] Yes. Critical Resistance was founded in 1998. It was founded in Berkeley. There was a conference called Critical Resistance Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex.Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:53] Yes. And you had a lot of heavy hitters, Angela Davis.Mohamed Shehk: [00:00:55] Angela Davis was one of our co-founders,.Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:57] And, Ruth Wilson Gilmore!Mohamed Shehk: [00:00:59] And we're actually doing an event with Ruthie down in L.A.. Yeah. So we began using a term that was actually coined by Mike Davis, the prison industrial complex. And it was a way to begin thinking about the interrelated systems of imprisonment, policing, surveillance and other forms of state violence and control. Really looking at this system as being built intentionally to control, repress and inflict harm and violence in communities. So if we understand that its purpose is to control communities, then we don't want to fix it. Right. We want to chip away at its power. We want to abolish it. So we really popularized the notion of prison industrial complex abolition. And for the past 20 years, we've been working on various projects and campaigns toward eliminating the prison industrial complex in our society.Lisa Kiefer: [00:01:51] So of all the candidates, who do you think is most onboard or at least understanding of what your strategy is toward prisons?Mohamed Shehk: [00:02:00] It's really interesting with the current presidential candidates that have approached criminal justice reform in a variety of ways. I mean, you just had Bernie Sanders releasea platform that actually picks up a lot of some of the concepts and community based approaches rather than continuing to invest and waste millions and millions and millions of dollars into the system of policing, into imprisonment. What are the reforms that appear to be liberal or progressive but are actually entrenching the system?Lisa Kiefer: [00:02:36] Right. They're kind of co-opting.Mohamed Shehk: [00:02:37] Yeah. After the death of Mike Brown and Eric Garner back in 2014 with the, you know, upsurge of Black Lives Matter and the enormous amount of attention being focused on policing, and you had an array of reforms being discussed, such as body cameras, such as,more training for police officers. And we see that these kinds of reforms are actually pouring money into the system of policing. They're expanding the role of policing. We're giving surveillance technology to policing. Right. So these reforms aren't actually chipping away at the power, but actually legitimizing and entrenching the system of policing itself. So these are the kinds of reforms that we want to be cautious of and use this framework of thinking about abolitionist reforms vs. reformist reforms.What are the reforms that are actually cutting away resources from the systems that we're fighting rather than continuing to waste investments into these systems.Lisa Kiefer: [00:03:36] And so what are some of the strategies that you are using in your organization? And you're located in four cities.You're headquartered in Oakland in the Temescal. You're in New York City, L.A. and Portland.Mohamed Shehk: [00:03:48] Yes. Our national office is based in Oakland. We are a nonprofit organization and we function primarily through our chapters and our chapters, the ones that you named, our volunteer members really make up the bulk of the organization and we work with them and they decide what local projects and campaigns are most relevant to the political geography that they're operating in, to attack the prison industrial complex. So, for instance, in Portland, we started a campaign called Care Not Cops. Initially, that campaign was really focused on cutting policing away from mental health crisis response. We want to divest resources away from policing, take money away from the police budget and put that into community based and user determined mental health resources. One strategy is to really focus on the city budget and to use that as a method to organize communities and to say these are actually where we want our resources going, not continuing to go into the Police Bureau's budget. We use a variety of different strategies and tactics, so we do a lot of media and communications work to kind of shift how we understand safety, how we understand what strong and healthy communities actually look like. We do a lot of work around the legislative realm. We work with decision makers and also put pressure on decision makers to put forth policies that are actually in line with what we're advocating for.Lisa Kiefer: [00:05:28] So let's talk about what you're doing in the Bay Area... Urban Shield, for one thing. Can you talk about that a little bit and some of the other successes you've had locally?Mohamed Shehk: [00:05:36] Yeah. Thank you for raising that. Critical Resistance along with a number of other organizations, including the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, Chicano Moratorium Coalition, the American Friends Service Committee. We're part of a coalition called the Stop Urban Shield Coalition. And we came together to put an end to Urban Shield, which was the world's largest SWAT training, and also included a weapons expo. That organizing happened for five plus years. We built a grassroots campaign to essentially pressure and empower the Board of supervisors in Alameda County to say to the sheriff, no, we do not want this kind of program anymore. Urban Shield was justified under the guise of emergency preparedness. Right. And so the sheriff would say, well, we need this kind of program because of all these different kinds of emergencies. But obviously, just as with many programs that came after 9/11, it was funded through and bolstered by the logic of militarization and counter-terrorism and was effectively a program that endorsed war on black and brown communities. So last year, the Board of Supervisors made a decision to end Urban Shield. They said after this year, Urban Shield is no longer.Then this year, a gain, after some kind of foul play by the sheriff to attempt to kind of reverse their decision and even just ignore that it actually happened. Earlier this year, they reaffirmed their decision and Urban Shield was effectively defunded.Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:08] Does that money then go to the programs that you are backing?Mohamed Shehk: [00:07:12] Yes. So we have been working alongside various city and county agencies to really put in place what emergency preparedness and disaster response looks like. So one of the things that we did with the Alameda County Board of Supervisors is part of their decision to end Urban Shield was to put together a task force to say, okay, let's actually look at how this money could be funded. And they adopted a number of recommendations, which was about 60 recommendations that called for things like no more SWAT centered scenarios. You know, we want inclusive programs and transparency that include community members in the planning and the implementation. And so these recommendations were adopted. We also took them to San Francisco because San Francisco is the fiscal agent of this money that's coming from the federal government. And they also looked and adopted many of the recommendations. And so for what comes next, we are hopeful that it really embodies the kind of program, the kind of framing that we were after.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:23] Can you tell me also about the project called Oakland Power Projects?Mohamed Shehk: [00:08:27] So there was a coalition, the Stop the Injunctions Coalition, that put an end to gang injunctions in Oakland. It was the first instance of a city in the United States ending gang injunctions as a result of grassroots mobilization and pressure. And so after that, we said, OK, we ended gang injunctions. This is tremendous. What do we want to do next? So we started surveying and interviewing Oakland community members around things like what does safety look like to you? Do you have instances where you feel like you need to call the cops? What kind of investments do you want to see in your community? And so we compiled all of these interviews. We started picking through them and found a common theme which was around health related emergencies and people saying, when these emergencies happen, I don't want to call the cops, but they're the only options that I have.Lisa Kiefer: [00:09:19] Give me an example of something like that.Mohamed Shehk: [00:09:21] So it could be someone gets in a car accident. Someone is having a or experience as someone else, having a mental health crisis or someone just badly cuts themselves or injured themselves. They have to call 9 1 1. And in many instances, the police show up and either don't really help in what's often the case or exacerbate the situation.Lisa Kiefer: [00:09:45] By criminalizing it.Lisa Kiefer: [00:09:46] Exactly. What we did is we got together a number of health workers from counselors to kind of traditional like EMT as doctors, nurses, acupuncturists, the whole range, right? Street medics and we said, okay, now we want you to come up with different resources and come up with a number of different workshops that you can provide to communities on knowing your options when situations occur. They did exactly that and it was really powerful. They came up with three different tracks. One was acute emergencies. Another was mental health and behavioral crises. And another one was chronic illnesses and also tied in opiate overdoses. And so we began to offer these workshops to different community organizations, to places of business, to community groups, neighborhoods. And the workshops are really geared toward ending our reliance on policing by building up our know how and our capacity to be able to respond to situations in our communities.Lisa Kiefer: [00:10:54] You must've gotten a lot of resistance because it sounds very radical when you say abolish prison.Mohamed Shehk: [00:10:59] We really want to understand the root causes of harm and violence. Right. Because oftentimes what the status quo has been is that when something happens, we're reactive and we respond. And oftentimes what that looks like is targeting black and brown people and putting them in cages. So if we really are to want to address harm and violence in our communities, social injustices, we have to understand the root causes. And we have to begin to see how we can transform the underlying conditions that gave rise to harm and violence in the first place. When we say prison industrial complex and when we say prison industrial complex abolition, we know full well that just taking the prisons away from society is not going to be the end of the game. Right. We have to understand that prisons don't exist in a vacuum. Policing does not exist in a vacuum. That we're gonna have to also look at the ways that different dynamics in society are integral to the prison industrial complex. And so changing social conditions and transforming the ways that we relate to each other is fundamental to understanding and achieving abolition.Lisa Kiefer: [00:12:21] If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Method to the Madness,a bi-weekly public affairs show on K A L X Berkeley, celebrating Bay Area innovators. Today, I'm speaking with Mohammed Scheck, the media and communications director of Critical Resistance.Lisa Kiefer: [00:12:43] And you've been successful. You're stopping a prison from being built locally here in San Francisco, is that correct?Mohamed Shehk: [00:12:49] Yeah. So one of our one of our campaigns here in the Bay Area is the No New S.F. Jail Coalition. What that essentially is, is the sheriff back in 2013 or so or even a little bit before, but that's when the coalition really came together. The sheriff wanted to build a replacement jail to one that already exists at 850 Bryant Street, which is known as the Hall of Justice in San Francisco. The interesting thing about the Hall of Justice is that nearly all of San Francisco, it's it's unanimous that that building needs to be torn down because it's seismically unsafe, it's decrepit, it's falling apart. And the sheriff wanted to build a replacement saying that that was his only option. What we did was we formed a coalition with a number of other organizations and effectively put a halt to that plan. So in 2015, we got the supervisors to vote unanimously and say we don't want to build a new jail. We actually want to look at alternatives. We want to look at ways to reduce the jail population while building up resources and looking at investments that actually support people coming back home and can support communities in need where we don't have to respond by criminalizing.Lisa Kiefer: [00:14:08] So you guys are active participants in this new solution?Mohamed Shehk: [00:14:12] Yes, absolutely. And so right now, our effort is to actually close the jail at 850 Bryant Street. That's that's kind of the main thrust that we're working on right now. We do have one supervisor who has stepped up and is willing to put forward legislation toward shutting the jail this year. What we're looking at is opposing different kinds of reforms and different proposals that would actually legitimize other forms of punishment as a response. So like they'll say, OK, we're going to close this jail, let's put everyone on electronic monitoring and we're like, no, we don't want to expand surveillance. We don't want to expand the jail beyond its reach, which is essentially what electronic monitor shackles are. We don't want to move people to Alameda County, to Santa Rita jail. We want people to remain close to their families, close to their communities. And we don't want to reopen new jails or reopen old jails and refurbish them. So it really is about looking at what are the resources that we can build, what already exists, and then what do we need to build up around. Housing is a big one. I mean, you have nearly 30 percent of the jail population that was house less before they were arrested and booked. You have enormous racial disparities in the jail population in San Francisco,.Lisa Kiefer: [00:15:34] And in the nation.[00:15:36] Yeah, but I was going to say even more so than the rates that we see across the country where the city of San Francisco has about a 4 percent black population that is on the decline and black people make up 80 percent of the jail population. So you look at that enormous disparity and say what's really going on wrong? Right? What is, what's wrong? You have a significant number of people that face mental health issues and substance abuse. Just looking at these numbers, we can easily begin to say a new jail is not necessary. We do not need to be locking these people up. We can easily be thinking about other kinds of investments that would actually strengthen communities and make new jails obsolete.Lisa Kiefer: [00:16:16] Tell me how you're getting funding for these programs, because they sound like they might be pretty expensive.Mohamed Shehk: [00:16:22] We do fund raising. We are actually fortunate to be majority grassroots funded. So about 65 percent of our of our funding comes from people, you know, donating monthly, giving us onetime gifts. We hold events, you know, fundraising benefits. In terms of the funding for the programs,were advocating for those to be taken away from the police, sheriffs, other agencies that are about criminalization. And we want to divert funding away from them into the resources that we want and need.Lisa Kiefer: [00:16:57] Have you seen an upsurge in interest over the 20 years that you guys have been working hard at this? It seems like there's more of an opening now.Mohamed Shehk: [00:17:05] We definitely have seen a tremendous upsurge in the popularity and interest in just in the concept of abolition. Right. What we've done and other community members, other organizations have done is to really make this concept common sense. Because you mentioned earlier that, you know, this can be kind of a scary radical concept for people. One of the things that we really do is to show how practical it is. We show the the way that abolition can be worked on, can be practiced on a day to day level.Lisa Kiefer: [00:17:38] How did you personally get involved with Critical Resistance. How long have you been there?Mohamed Shehk: [00:17:44] I've been involved in Critical Resistance for just over five years now. The way that I came to Critical Resistance was really beginning to recognize the role of policing and imprisonment in this country. My background as a Palestinian, as someone who has long been involved in organizing and in different activism around Palestine, solidarity, began to really look at what are the intersections between what's happening there and what we're experiencing here. When you see that the state of Israel imprisons such a significant portion of the Palestinian population, the aid that they get from the U.S. government in order to do so, that helps them and and allows them to do so. And then the ways that Israel really practices its tools of repression on the Palestinian population. So for many that follow this issue closely, you might know that Gaza is essentially a laboratory experiment for the state of Israel to test different tools, tactics, technologies, and then they export those technologies to governments all around the world by billing them as battlefield tested.Lisa Kiefer: [00:19:03] And I assume we are one of the recipients?Mohamed Shehk: [00:19:05] Absolutely.Mohamed Shehk: [00:19:06] And that's kind of what we get back for our military aid that we provide. When you look at this, the interconnections between policing and imprisonment there and in other places with the systems here, you begin to see that they're playing a fundamental role in whatever issue that you work on, whether that be environmental justice, whether that be public education, climate change, women's rights, LGBTQ rights and liberation, the prison industrial complex is tied to all of those issues. The prison industrial complex is fundamentally patriarchal. It's fundamentally toxic to the environment. It's fundamentally why we have such a disinvestment from public education. Right. Because of how many how much resources are being squandered on this enormous system. That for me, became very central in the kind of activism and organizing that I wanted to do.Lisa Kiefer: [00:20:02] Are you also working inside prisons?Mohamed Shehk: [00:20:05] Yes. So our Oakland chapter has a inside, outside working group. Their primary drive is to communicate with people on the inside and to share resources on how to support organizing that's happening. We also do a lot of work in communicating with people on the inside to help inform the work that we're doing out here. We have a reading group that we do where we read articles from a newspaper that we published with people on the inside and then share and give reflections and circulate those. We publish a newspaper called the Abolitionists that goes to now over 7500 people in prisons, jails and detention centers across the country. Much of that content is actually composed and written by people that are currently or formerly imprisoned.Lisa Kiefer: [00:20:55] How about education programs inside?Mohamed Shehk: [00:20:58] We don't do education programs like formally, although we do share a lot of educational resources and organizing resources with folks on the inside. One of the main campaigns that we supported is the California Prisoner Hunger Strikes that happened. And so this was an effort that was organized by and led by people that were in prison in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison. They had a list of demands and they initiated a hunger strike effectively aimed at ending solitary confinement, improving conditions, getting rights, ending discriminatory and criminalization policies. That hunger strike in 2013 reached over 30000 people in California prisons that joined in solidarity.Lisa Kiefer: [00:21:45] And what was the outcome?Mohamed Shehk: [00:21:46] That had a huge impact. It gained national and international attention and drew widespread condemnation on the practice of solitary, of locking someone up in a windowless cell for 23 hours a day. Because of that attention, the United Nations rapporteur on torture said that solitary confinement is a form of torture. The California legislature held a number of hearings on the use of solitary confinement. Mow in the midst of this happening, there was also a lawsuit that was initially brought by the prisoners themselves and then was taken up against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, CDCR. That was then taken up by a number of lawyers and legal organizations, including the Center for Constitutional Rights and that lawsuit in 2015 ended in a settlement by which the prisoners achieved a tremendous victory and effectively ended indefinite solitary sentences, which a lot of the prisoners were being held for five, 10, 15, 20 years in solitary confinement and were were put in indefinitely. It also greatly reduced and restricted the rationale by which someone could be placed in solitary confinement. Yeah, so we supported that as part of a coalition, the prisoner hunger strike solidarity coalition and Critical Resistance specifically kind of played the media house for the campaign.Lisa Kiefer: [00:23:25] I recently read about your new headquarters location in the Temescal, which used to be Baby World, and it's such an interesting story. Would you mind sharing that?Mohamed Shehk: [00:23:35] Yeah, we had already been talking about needing to find a new location because the place that we're currently at, which is in downtown Oakland, the rents have been rising exponentially. And so we said to ourselves, we really have to start looking. This is just unsustainable. During the same time, some of us, you know, just through kind of personal and political connections, were having conversations with with other folks and the family that owned the building, the Cabello family, we had conversations with their daughter, Danya Cabello, and realized that this building was for sale. When we found that out, we jumped onto the opportunity and reached out to a loyal donor, Rachel Gilman, who is part of an organization called Resource Generation, which is essentially an organization that seeks to bring in people with wealth in order to redistribute their wealth to social justice causes. In talking with Rachel, we kind of put that on the table and just had kind of a frank conversation. This is what we're thinking. What do you think? And she loved the idea.Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:43] She's only twenty nine.Mohamed Shehk: [00:24:44] Yeah.Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:45] She said herself that she thinks of giving as a "way to help up end the forces of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy that underlie her very own inheritance." And she said, "I believe ending this economic system that creates such drastic wealth inequality is necessary for all people's humanity and dignity, including my own and that of my family." I think this is revolutionary.Mohamed Shehk: [00:25:10] Yeah. Absolutely. And it's a beautiful space. We're in the process now of renovating the building to serve community organizations that are operating in the Bay Area. We want it to be a hub for social and racial justice organizing of all stripes. We want it to be a place where organizations and communities that are fighting to resist gentrification can have a place to hold their meetings, to have events, fundraisers. So we really want it to serve the community and to really pay homage to the legacy of organizing in Oakland.Lisa Kiefer: [00:25:46] And it's kind of interesting because the owners, the Cabello's, their family had suffered under Pinochet in Chile. So they there was just all this serendipity that happened between you and them.Mohamed Shehk: [00:25:57] Yeah. No, absolutely. They come from a very kind of rough political history and also are very much tied to resistance movements. Right? So they were part of the first suit against basically the horrors of the Pinochet regime, the School of the Americas, and the role that the U.S. played in supporting the horrors of Pinochet.Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:21] I did want to ask you what your greatest challenge has been in the time that you've been in this organization.Mohamed Shehk: [00:26:28] One of the greatest challenges that we face today is the way that the prison industrial complex is shifting, how much technological innovation is going on, the ways that technological innovation is being integrated into the prison industrial complex to expand its reach. Now, this can be like the physical tools and technologies that are developed or something that isn't so tangible, but it's just as dangerous, such as predictive policing or risk assessment algorithms. These are, in a way kind of taking away the the human element, so to speak, and putting in place algorithms and technologies that are actually serving to criminalize people in an automated fashion. It's a very scary concept to think about. We really need to resist attempts to say that we're going to make the prison industrial complex better by removing the bias of humans, by introducing technology. The society that we live in is built on racial oppression, gender oppression, oppression against sex. And so technologies are not going to solve that. We have to actually begin to transform those dynamics, eradicate systems of oppression if we want to achieve liberation.Lisa Kiefer: [00:27:50] What's coming up for your organization?Mohamed Shehk: [00:27:52] As I mentioned, we are working on the NO NEW SF Jail effort to close 850 Bryant Street. Be on the lookout. Join our mailing list, visit our web site, sign up, because we'll be putting out information on how folks can can really plug into that fight and and close the jail. For folks in Los Angeles, we're gonna have an amazing event. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who's an amazing, inspiring, brilliant scholar, is going to be speaking. This comes after a huge victory where we, along with the Justice L.A. Coalition, stopped L.A. County from building a, quote unquote, mental health jail. That was an enormous victory. You've been fighting jails in Los Angeles for 10 years. And we wanted to celebrate and bring our communities together. We really just encourage folks to check us out.Lisa Kiefer: [00:28:40] What is your web site?Mohamed Shehk: [00:28:41] criticalresistance.orgLisa Kiefer: [00:28:43] And can people volunteer in your organization?Mohamed Shehk: [00:28:45] Absolutely. Our Oakland chapter holds volunteer nights every Tuesday from 6 to 9 p.m. And that's in our current office. Not the not the new building, 1904 Franklin Street, Suite 5 0 4. And so come through, volunteer. We find ourselves in a very trying political moment. You know, the current presidential administration is unrelentless and attacks that it's waging on our communities, blatant racism and sexism and xenophobia that has come from this administration. We also have seen the ways that communities are resilient and resistant.Mohamed Shehk: [00:29:24] You saw the massive energy into opposition to shut down airports in response to the Muslim ban. We see opposition from ICE raids. We also want to resist the tendency or maybe even the appeal to want to go back to how things were, because there were a lot of things wrong and violent and racist in the policies in former administrations. Rather than shy away in this political moment, actually to raise up radical ideas like abolition as the tools, as the strategies that are actually going to get us to where we want to be, to a society where we truly have equity, self-determination and freedom.Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:10] That's a nice, positive way to end this. Thank you, Mohamed, for coming in.Mohamed Shehk: [00:30:15] Thank you.Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:16] You've been listening to Method to the Madness, a bi weekly public affairs show on K A L X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. We'll be back again in two weeks.
Saraswathi Devi and Claire Lavery
Method to the Madness host Lisa Kiefer speaks with CALSTAR Yoga program faculty Saraswathi Devi and Claire Lavery about their innovative adaptive yoga class on the UC Berkeley campus that teaches students how to help members of the public with disabilities.TranscriptLisa Kiefer: [00:00:27] You're listening to Method to the Madness. A bi weekly public affairs show on K A L X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. I'm your host, Lisa Kiefer. And today, I'm speaking with faculty members of CalStar Yoga, a program that helps people with disabilities practice yoga.Claire Lavery: [00:00:51] I'm Claire Lavery.Saraswathi Devi: [00:00:53] And I'm Saraswathi Devi.Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:54] Welcome to the program. And you're both on the faculty of Cal Yoga.Saraswathi Devi: [00:00:58] I guess you could put it that way.Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:59] OK. Well, why don't you tell us about your program?Saraswathi Devi: [00:01:02] Well, we call it CalStar Yoga and at their recreational sports facility, the RSF, there is a little program called CalStar, which serves people who live with different kinds of disabilities and it's open to the public. So our part of that is an adaptive yoga class.Claire Lavery: [00:01:19] The class has been going on since 1996,.Lisa Kiefer: [00:01:22] Since 1996. Is it for just students or.Claire Lavery: [00:01:26] It's open to anyone with a disability in the community or in on campus, on staff, on faculty and any member of the gym or outside the community?, campus community can also join?Lisa Kiefer: [00:01:39] I thought it might be useful for our listeners to know how you define yoga and how you define disabilities.Saraswathi Devi: [00:01:47] Yoga is an ancient practice and it's a lot about body and mind health. It comes from an ancient root, yog, meaning to join. So it's all about balance of body and mind and the quiet aspects of the self and the more assertive aspects of the self. It has a lot to do with exercise, which is how most people in America know it. But it also has to do with mind training, with making your intellect more sharp and your emotions more clear and peaceful. And some people pursue it as a spiritual practice as well.Lisa Kiefer: [00:02:22] And could you define disabilities for this class?Claire Lavery: [00:02:25] We define it as someone who is living with some kind of an ongoing condition that limits their presence, their ability to move in the world. Most of our participants have physical disabilities. We don't work too often with people with intellectual disabilities.Lisa Kiefer: [00:02:44] Are you speaking of autism?Claire Lavery: [00:02:46] Right.Lisa Kiefer: [00:02:46] So you don't service.Claire Lavery: [00:02:48] We've had students with those kinds of disabilities in the class, but they've definitely been in the minority. And it's much more about the people who are living with more physical limitations, people with multiple sclerosis, people with cerebral palsy, people with post stroke syndrome, injury, trauma. So we've had quite a wide range of different kinds of disabilities represented in our class. And people with multiple disabilities are, have been long term members as well.Lisa Kiefer: [00:03:14] I didn't know that this existed, honestly, and I want to know how it got founded. What was the reason behind it? Were you there at the beginning? Well, Saraswathi is the one to tell you.Saraswathi Devi: [00:03:24] Well, I've been practicing and teaching since the mid 70s. And as the years went on in the beginning, in the early days, we just had everybody in class. We would have kids and seniors and people who were injured or disabled. Everybody would just be glommed together.Lisa Kiefer: [00:03:42] On campus?Saraswathi Devi: [00:03:42] No, in the community in Berkeley. I was trained by and served very closely a yoga master from India who lived here part of the year. But then as the years went on, we found ourselves specializing. So I began to teach pre and post-natal yoga and children of all ages and seniors and adults at different levels. And then I found myself partly because I have some of my own disabilities. I found myself very attracted to the whole subject, observing a person who was not typically abled and so found myself to the Multiple Sclerosis Society and other places and began to develop a practice that seemed to be really helping people. And that gradually led me to UC Berkeley, where I was hired. Well, at first at the Hearst Gym and then down at the RSF.Lisa Kiefer: [00:04:28] Did they hear about you and hire you or did you know approach them?Saraswathi Devi: [00:04:31] They did. It's a kind of long, convoluted story. But there was a really forward looking woman working in the RSF who hired me. And what I have tried to do is in serving a person who is living with a profound disability or multiple disabilities, we're trying to offer them a practice that they would never otherwise have access to. So we're taking yoga to a place that you wouldn't imagine it could go, so somebody might not be able to speak or move outside of a power wheelchair, whose body might be contorted or who might be having a lot of involuntary movement and and meeting the whole person. So sometimes a person on the street will see somebody living with a disability and they'll either discount them or not have proper regard and respect for the humanity of that person. They just see a bunch of equipment on a wheelchair. But anybody who comes over the threshold into our class is automatically recognized for their rich humanity and just loved and respected instantly. So what I tried to do is take other disciplines that I recognize as another form of yoga in a way and sort of a broad way of thinking. So I'd like to add massage and acupressure and range of motion and sometimes even using free weights.Lisa Kiefer: [00:05:50] Do you use water?Saraswathi Devi: [00:05:51] No, we're not. I would...Lisa Kiefer: [00:05:53] There are pools here and I thought maybe...Saraswathi Devi: [00:05:53] True. Well, I love aqua yoga and if we had a way of somehow having a pool, we would do it for sure. But we lift people out of their wheelchairs who are not ambulatory. They'll be four or five or six of us carrying a person. Proper word is transfer out of the wheelchair onto the floor and then people who are much more mobile who will arrive in class with mobility aids like a cane or a walker, or even walking on their own in a maybe halting way. They're also in the class, so it's a broad range.Lisa Kiefer: [00:06:28] I can imagine that you've encountered some really beautiful transformations for people who have never experienced this before.Saraswathi Devi: [00:06:36] It's a lot of hard work, but it's a joyful experience for all of us. For the students themselves. For Claire, for me, for our volunteers and for our young undergrads who help us every semester.Lisa Kiefer: [00:06:48] And how many undergrads help you?Claire Lavery: [00:06:50] Well, we have a range. We often have up to 60 or 70 students. They enroll in an undergraduate course that gives them two credits. It's a DeCal course. So they come and help us every week.Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:03] And they learn how?Claire Lavery: [00:07:04] We train them. We supervise them. We keep an eye on them and they blossom. They do wonders. Many of them arrive without any experience. Many of them arrive thinking that they're going to be doing yoga. And we tell them right away that's not the case. But some of them decide that's not for them. Some of them despite their fears or trepidation, stay with us. And just are wonderful helpers.Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:29] Are any of these students disabled that come to you?Claire Lavery: [00:07:31] Yes, some of them are. We've had many students who didn't tell us right away that they had a disability and some are significantly disabled, but would gradually feel safe enough to reveal that. And sometimes they found that they couldn't do the kind of heavy lifting or harder work that we asked them to do. And we are fine with having them help in whatever way they can.Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:54] It seems like they would have the most empathy and understanding of where that person might be.[00:07:59] Sometimes that's true.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:01] Not always, but.Claire Lavery: [00:08:02] Not always. And many of the students who come have a family member with a disability or an aging family member or have had an injury and and can apply that emotional information to the work that they're doing with the students.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:14] And how many of your students are Berkeley students and how many are community members generally?Saraswathi Devi: [00:08:21] At the moment, we don't even have one Berkeley student, but we've often had maybe four, three, four or five, maybe a professor or two. But actually the better part of the student population is from the surrounding area.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:35] Do you do this every semester?Saraswathi Devi: [00:08:36] We do it all year round and we have a summer session.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:39] OK. Claire, how did you get involved in this?Claire Lavery: [00:08:43] Well, I had started teaching yoga in the mainstream yoga classes here at Cal and had been doing that just for a couple of years. And the same wonderful woman who hired Saraswathi knew me and said, you know, there's this great class that you might like to help with. They're always looking for volunteers.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:59] Is she still around?Saraswathi Devi: [00:09:00] NO,Suzanne McQuade, she retired. We miss her terribly.Claire Lavery: [00:09:06] Unfortunately, she's not there, but we're trying to keep it going. And she steered me to help out with this class. So I showed up as a volunteer. And I just kind of stayed. I learned a lot.Lisa Kiefer: [00:09:19] It seems so innovative. Do you know of any other programs, anywhere else that are like this or is this unique?Saraswathi Devi: [00:09:25] For a lot of years, we thought we were the only place in the country or maybe beyond. And we're starting to see others somewhat similar programs sprouting up, but we still haven't found anything that that goes as far as we go. And the reason why I say this, once we have the opening of class where we're sitting in concentric circles and doing a little bit of breathing or light meditation, then we will transfer people onto the floor. And then we essentially divide ourselves up into two groups where Claire works with the people who are more ambulatory during that part of the class. And I work with people who are less mobile and. So with the people who are more mobile, they'll be two usually two people serving each of the students and they'll be on the floor. They'll be sitting up. They'll be standing against a wall using chairs and yoga blocks and people's hands and arms and legs to help hold them with good alignment in yoga postures. And that actually draws up the strength and balance and alignment from within the person's body. It's not just an artificial hole. On my side of the room, we're moving people on the floor and forward and backward bending movements and yoga postures that look pretty conventional. But there might be two or even five or six people clustered around each of the students holding them at the shoulder at the low back and stretching their feet. And then we incorporate, as I said, a lot of massage and acupressure and other methods.Lisa Kiefer: [00:10:58] If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Method to the Madness, a bi weekly public affairs show on K A L X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. Today, I'm speaking with faculty members of CalStar Yoga, a program that helps people with disabilities practice yoga.Saraswathi Devi: [00:11:24] We had a woman who came in the other day and this is a few months ago, and she had been injured rather badly in her back and was able to after her initial rehabilitation, this was probably 20, 15 or 20 years ago, after her initial rehabilitation, she was able to walk at first with a walker and then with a cane. And then she was able to somewhat haltingly walk in a conventional manner. And then as she started to age, gradually, she found herself in a wheelchair. However, it's a manual chair, so she gets around quite nicely. But she came in very suspicious, trepidatious, and frankly, bitter, understandably highly educated, very productive, talented woman. And she was a little resentful, understandably, of of this new loss of full action in her body and and in some ways in her personality and affect and effect. And so came into the class and we tried to humor her and love her and respect her. And then she said to us, I feel transformed. At the end of the first class now, she's a very stalwart member.Lisa Kiefer: [00:12:30] Once you founded this, what were your major challenges in getting this up and running and accepted?Claire Lavery: [00:12:37] We've had challenges. Initially, the class was really only supported by volunteers from the community and Saraswathi would put out messages in the free papers. This was several years ago before there was a big Internet presence, posters and flyers and put out the word on the street asking for people to come and volunteer. And so we struggled along and it would only be maybe five volunteers and we still have about that time, 10, 15, 20 yoga students. So we couldn't have two people working with each yoga student. We didn't have the manpower of a woman person power. So we would revolve. And we'd do some poses as one person and then we'd set them up comfortably and we'd move on to the next. So that was a little difficult. We had a really innovative and wonderful undergraduate volunteer who had a brainstorm in about 2003 and said, we should make this into a DeCal class because then students would get credit and then.Lisa Kiefer: [00:13:30] ..Tell me what a DeCal class is because some people may not know.Claire Lavery: [00:13:33] A DeCal class is an undergraduate led class in the university and there are hundreds of them. They range from things like baking, hip hop music, to electronic engineering theory or more esoteric interests that students in in Cal hold and want to share.Lisa Kiefer: [00:13:52] And there's credit, course credit?[00:13:53] There's course credits. So our student who was interested in social work and in our class really wanted to make this accessible to more calendar grads. He thought they'd be interested. And so he went registered as a DeCal. And he was right. People came. When that happened, we had many more students and we did start to get the numbers of people we wanted to see to really fully support our yoga students. I know Saraswathi's dream is to have 75 students every semester so that we can have a really full bodied support group and we get pretty close sometimes now.Lisa Kiefer: [00:14:29] Do students have to pay to get into this class?Saraswathi Devi: [00:14:32] Yeah, it's a modest fee and they get a little bit of a discount for proving that they they might come in in a wheelchair and not able to speak, but they still are required to bring a doctor verification. That's understandable.Lisa Kiefer: [00:14:43] I wanted to ask you what you think your greatest impacts have been. You've been at this for several years now,.Saraswathi Devi: [00:14:49] Since 1996.Lisa Kiefer: [00:14:50] Yes. So what do you think has been the greatest impacts or accomplishments?Saraswathi Devi: [00:14:55] I think as far as the yoga students, probably the best benefit that they derive from the class is psychological. They feel seen, respected, loved. They are touched. And I don't mean that in any kind of negative way. They're touched in a nurturing and helpful way. And many of them also experienced good physical effects. They're more relaxed. They feel more cheerful. They have better sleep. Sometimes they have a considerable reduction in pain and stiffness. Many of them find that their circulation has improved, their digestion, a whole host of physical benefits. So I would say really in some ways, though, it's more, one of our students who had been coming for some years who is living the after effects of having been assaulted. So he was brain injured. So he asked what we would call TBI, traumatic brain injury. It affects his vision. So he's legally blind, almost completely blind, and his brain somehow recovered quite amazingly. So he has a very sharp mind, but very halting speech. So he has a speech aphasia. So he walks and speaks in a halting manner and uses a cane. So one day he said to us, when I come into this room, I am treated utterly differently from anywhere else that I go. People just see me as a disability and don't see me. So that's a huge part of it. For our yoga students, volunteers, the undergrads, we always at the end of every semester we ask them to write a reflection paper and we'll give them a certain theme, but essentially it's asking them in some way or other to tell us what their experience was and what they derived from it. And many of them, well, undergrads often will try to write to what they think the professor wants to hear. But nevertheless, you can hear a lot of sincerity in it, too. Most of them will say they were, they had never met a disabled person, with a small exception of some of them who do have as Claire said a disabled person in their family. Many of them have never met a disabled person, or if they have or seen people in the community, they've discounted them or really not given them much credence or attention. And then they also will say that they were terrified that they were gonna do something wrong. They didn't want to touch or hurt anybody. And then they started to get to know our students while we're practicing. There's a lot of really fun, gossip and conversation and everybody's giving each other mutual support and mutual interest in each other's lives. And so they discovered that these are full human beings. Some of them are UC grads. As I said, some are professors. They're all incredibly interesting. And so they find their lives utterly transformed. And we've had a small percentage of of them also change their majors. We've had some who decided to be an attorney giving pro bono services to people who were disabled and any number of really interesting trajectories to their story as they moved through the semester and have their their experience transformed. For me, it's impossible to describe. It's each of the people that we serve is an entire universe as it is for any human being. And I've gotten to know almost all of them, at least those who've stayed for many, many years. I've gotten to know them very well. Some of them have become very dear and close friends. So for me, it's it's like seeing the face of all of creation in the eyes of each person. So I feel like it's the huge super consciousness of the universe. Me and this other person in this lovely communication together across all conventional societal membranes, across any way that you might think that there's an encumbrance when you are communicating with someone who is not is typically abled.Lisa Kiefer: [00:18:33] Well, that kind of leads me to the next question, which is when you're doing these movements, do you also provide some sort of a lecture on the philosophy of what you were just talking about, which is, it's so beyond the physical, that we can, you know, reach each other beyond the flesh.Saraswathi Devi: [00:18:52] We do that in a variety of really subtle ways, and we do it increasingly quietly coming in the side door for our young undergrads as the semester goes on, through reading assignments, through the opening in class, where we give them some internal practices and in some other ways. So.Claire Lavery: [00:19:11] I agree. And Saraswathy said it so beautifully. We don't approach them head on. These are skeptical young people and really don't want to be told what to think or how to think. But they do come into class pretty much glazed over and heavy and distracted. And in our opening session, where we do some meditation and some breathing exercises, you can see them visibly relax. And we have had people, undergraduates right in the end of this semester that that meditation session was what transformed their experience and how they've got to understand what we were really doing. Many of them say that they are now going to start doing yoga. Of course, as we've noted, that might just be so that they look good in our eyes. And I do see some of them in my classes, in the mainstream classes. We do have some readings that we ask them to consider. And when we veer from the very technical or practical readings into a little more theory, they're sometimes a little bit at sea. We just had them reading the Bhagavad Gita which is a pretty familiar text to many Westerners, but it's dense and it talks about a lot of mythological people that are not familiar in the Western culture, and that's enough to really put up a wall for many of the students. So when we discuss it, we have to kind of break down and ask them what did they understand? And some of them are just unwilling to engage in that. They want to be, they're scientists, they're practical, they're 21st century kids. So some of them get it from the meditation. Some of them get it from the theory and the Bhagavad Gita. Some of them have their own understanding or practice of yoga that they bring with them. And some have other traditions that are congruent or complementary to the kinds of thoughts that we were just discussing.Saraswathi Devi: [00:21:03] And partly also when we're teaching a technique because they're learning hands on as we go over the semester, we're not training them for weeks. And then we have weekend workshops throughout the semester, several of them. But part of what we're doing, too, is we're helping them to see a link between this kind of beautiful ancient ritual form of exercise and the quietness and focus of mind and emotion that comes to the yoga student who's being served, but also comes to the volunteers who are doing the serving. Because here we are, we're holding a little bit challenging position and we have to breathe slowly. Yes, there is a lot of fun conversation in between. But there's also a lot of slow, deep breathing. And anyone who experiences that kind of breath on a regular basis will find that it has a very focusing effect on the mind and emotions and makes your brain more clear. So one of the things I like to say when we're doing an opening meditation with these undergrads is this will help your memory, your ability to focus and do well on finals. So sometimes that..Lisa Kiefer: [00:22:04]that's kind of a carrot...Saraswathi Devi: [00:22:05] that helps.Lisa Kiefer: [00:22:06] Well, this Igen generation after the millennials is the first to have grown up with so much technology in their lives. Have you been able to monitor the difference in the students you've had over the years since technology has become so prevalent in their lives?Claire Lavery: [00:22:22] We kind of saw a sea change about 10 years ago in the way the attention spans worked. Students are a little, a little antsy at the start of class. They generally settle in and they can focus. They're intelligent and they're used to working hard and intellectually hard. But they're not always used to working emotionally hard or are focusing in a more subtle way. We do have them take their phones out, turn them off and put them on the side of the room for class. And that's challenging for a lot of them.Saraswathi Devi: [00:22:52]we have a little bit of fun with that.Lisa Kiefer: [00:22:55] Probably helps them in school. What you're doing?Saraswathi Devi: [00:22:58] They've said that. Yeah. So we all benefit everybody. And they. One of the things that they will say to us often is this was a great ending of my school week. I've left class feeling really refreshed and ready for the weekend.Lisa Kiefer: [00:23:12] Do you have anything else going on that you want to tell us about coming up?Saraswathi Devi: [00:23:16] People have been asking Claire and me in all of the different universes that she and I both live in. Asked if we would please do a teacher training. So we're in the very, very first steps of organizing that. And we're going to do it collaboratively between the two of us and a third person who has been an on and off volunteer with us, who's very talented. So we're just in the beginning stages of formulating that. And then we have to do outreach and funding and all of that.Lisa Kiefer: [00:23:42] And where do you see this heading out to?Saraswathi Devi: [00:23:43] We'd like to serve other yoga teachers who are interested to make a foray into this universe. And many of them, most of them have not. They couldn't even imagine it. And we'd also like to find ways of influencing and giving some practical strategies to someone who's a family member or a caregiver who could help someone with a disability at home.Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:06] It sounds like you've got a lot of data over the years that you maybe collected?Saraswathi Devi: [00:24:10] We do. It's it's very informal, but yeah.Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:13] Still, that's very valuable. I would think from a lot of different people it would be of value. Are you going to put together guidelines, like a book?Saraswathi Devi: [00:24:22] There will be our training manual. Yeah. Okay. And it may end up and we'll see. Claire, we're both so busy, but it may end up that we'll have satellite programs that will come from that where we'll we'll start with a basic teacher training and then we may find that we'll do some specialty as an extra specialty training over there. You might do some kind of weekend workshopy kinds of things. We haven't figured it all out. Yes. But it's something that we really we have a responsibility to do. We need to share it more widely than just here.Claire Lavery: [00:24:53] We would like to have medical professionals in our trainings that would learn a different way to communicate and work with the people they see on a very regular basis.Lisa Kiefer: [00:25:03] Are you talking about physical therapists?Claire Lavery: [00:25:05]Physical therapists, doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, the whole spectrum. We want them to be aware that this is an alternative to the very strict regime of drugs and hope.Saraswathi Devi: [00:25:17] You know, we have the father of one of our students who lives with cerebral palsy one time said to me, what you're doing here is much better than most of the doctoring my daughter is ever going to receive. He's a physician. I thought that was maybe a little dramatic, but actually in a lot of cases, I'm sure it's quite true.Lisa Kiefer: [00:25:34] If somebody is interested in the community, whether that's a student or a regular person out there, how would they get a hold of you? Do you have a Web site? And how can they help you or join up?Saraswathi Devi: [00:25:47] One way is to contact the RSF, the recreational sports facility, on the UC Berkeley campus on Bancroft at Dana. And it's right near the student union.Lisa Kiefer: [00:25:58] Is that reachable via the Web?Claire Lavery: [00:26:00] There is an online website presence under CalStar. So if you look under recreational sports and there's a drop down menu and you'll have to look, I think it's under group exercise or you can type in the search bar. CalStar, one word C-A-L-S-T-A-R and that's the program. And if you write CalStar yoga, it should bring you to the page that describes our class.Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:24] And if people wanted to volunteer, it's the same. It is the same place you go to the same place, whether you want to volunteer or take the class.?Claire Lavery: [00:26:32]Right. And in either case, if you're interested in volunteering or in being a student, you could drop in to one of our Friday afternoon classes and just see the first class.Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:41] And where are those classes located? Where would they go?Claire Lavery: [00:26:44] They're in the RSF, the main gym on campus at Bancroft Way. They're in the combatives room, which is unfortunate for a yoga class. It's on the first floor. You'll have to tell the guard at the gate that you're going to CalStar Yoga and they'll let you in and you'll walk down the hall. It's the last door on your left.Lisa Kiefer: [00:27:00] And how long are your sessions, generally?Claire Lavery: [00:27:01] We meet from 1:30 to 3:30 Friday afternoons every week.Saraswathi Devi: [00:27:06] I like sometimes for someone who's inquiring, who might be interested. Who really wants a description of the class beforehand. Some people like to just jump in. Everybody has a different way. I would be happy to give my email address if somebody wanted to contact me. I would be very pleased to describe the program and just try to light a little psychological fire in the person. So it's email@example.com. I teach and live in a yoga and meditation center. So yogalayam is all one word spelled y o g a l a y a m.org.Claire Lavery: [00:27:42] And it is a good idea before joining the class, especially as a yoga student, to communicate with us so that we can both understand what you are going to experience.Lisa Kiefer: [00:27:52] Before we leave today, I wanted to ask you what advice you might give someone before they start this program.Saraswathi Devi: [00:27:59] And I believe you're talking about people who would come in as a volunteer and also people who would come in as a yoga student. I would say for the volunteers, please come with an open mind and realize that you will probably learn more than you thought you could and that you will enjoy what you're doing and feel a certain psychological upliftment that you might not ever have imagined you could. For the yoga students, again, I would ask the person to come to the class with an open mind and see if they feel like it's a good fit and give themselves a chance, coming even more than once to see how we can stretch the practice to accommodate anyone's needs.Claire Lavery: [00:28:42] I would also just advise everyone who comes to come with an open heart and to be open to the transformations that might not feel familiar.Lisa Kiefer: [00:28:54] It seems like this is such a valuable experience for anyone of any age to to take part.Saraswathi Devi: [00:29:01] I would say the human body, mind and heart have an amazing ability to survive. If you find yourselves, caught yourself, compromised in some way. If you're not able to garner all of the themes and abilities and structures and functions that you typically have or used to have, other people can come in and make up some of that difference. They can support you not only physically with their hands, but really, I would say psycho spiritually surrounding you and helping you to find and sustain what is profound and essential in yourself. Even if you can't do it all by yourself.Claire Lavery: [00:29:43] I can say from my experience, I am an able bodied yoga instructor. I have been fortunate to be fairly strong and healthy. I get so much out of this class. I get emotionally an uplift. I get a calming effect. I get love. And I'm a cynical New Yorker, so it works for me.Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:07] Well, I want to thank you both.Claire Lavery: [00:30:08] Thank you so much for having me.Saraswathi Devi: [00:30:09] Thank you very, very much.Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:16] You've been listening to Method to the Madness, a bi weekly public affairs show on KALX Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. You can find all of our podcasts on iTunes University. We'll be back again in two weeks.
A trio of Northern California women (two of whom are UC Berkeley alumni) foundedSalt Point Seaweed in Spring 2017 to harvest seaweed from the Pacific Ocean. They forage, farm, and do research along the California coast to offer the highest quality and most nutritious seaweed, responsibly sourced from the pristine waters of Northern California. Catherine O’Hare talks to host Lisa Kiefer about their business model, the different types of seaweed, and their commitment to ethical, sustainable solutions for humans and our environment.TranscriptLisa Kiefer: [00:00:08] This is Method to the Madness, a bi weekly public affairs show on K A L X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. I'm your host, Lisa Kiefer. And today, I'm speaking with Catherine O'Hare. She's part of a trio of female entrepreneurs who have started a company called Salt Point Seaweed. Welcome to the program, Catherine. Thank you.Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:38] I have so many questions for you about this seaweed company, first of all. Are you the only women owned seaweed company in the world?Catherine O'Hare: [00:00:45] That's a good question. I don't think so. There's a seaweed harvester up in Sonoma County who's a woman. I don't know if her business is all women owned, but there's not many.Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:55] Are you an alumni of UC Berkeley?Catherine O'Hare: [00:00:57] No. Tessa and Avery, the other two women, are alumni. They did their grad program here at UC Berkeley. Tessa and I both went to Oberlin College in Ohio for undergraduate.Lisa Kiefer: [00:01:08] How did you get started in the seaweed business? What inspired you to do this?Catherine O'Hare: [00:01:13] All three of us have a background in agriculture, so we've always been interested in food. I was a biology major and then worked on farms. So I'd always been interested in local food and healthy food. But it wasn't until moving to the bay now like five or six years ago that I got connected with the seaweed harvester and started learning about all the local seaweeds that we have here on the Northern California coast. I grew up by the ocean in Southern California. So I loved the ocean. I loved the beach. I was always looking for ways to be by the water. They were the first to get involved. Of the trio of founders. Yeah. So we all have a background in agriculture. We also all have some ties to East Africa where we've either worked before or lived before. And there we all saw seaweed farming in Zanzibar.Lisa Kiefer: [00:01:58] Were you in the Peace Corps?Catherine O'Hare: [00:01:59] No. I studied abroad there when I was in college, just doing a coastal ecology program. Tessa and Avery both did their graduate program at UC Berkeley and they did a master's in development practice. So it's kind of sustainable international development. So that brought them to East Africa.Lisa Kiefer: [00:02:17] Did you all meet up over there or did you find out later that you had.Catherine O'Hare: [00:02:22] We found out later. Tessa and I knew each other from Oberlin. We both ended up in the bay. We each had independent experiences in East Africa. And Avery and Tessa met here at UC Berkeley. And during their during Avery's program here, she did work in East Africa. So we all just kind of had these in our weaving paths. So I was just living and working in the bay, working for a small food company and kind of learning more about seaweed harvesting and doing it as a hobby. And in the meantime, I was good friends with Tessa. So we were talking all the time about all these things related to food, just tossing around ideas about local agriculture systems, herbs, seaweed, farming, like we just were tossing around all these ideas every time we met up. And seaweed was always one of those things, I think because I had seen seaweed farming in Zanzibar and she was interested in these alternative livelihood systems for women all over the world. And so it was during that time where Tessa and Avery were finishing their graduate program here.Catherine O'Hare: [00:03:23] I was working and exploring where the seaweed on our local coast that we just started delving deeper and deeper into the world of seaweed and talking to everyone we can, emailing people, trying to meet up with people just to learn more about the seaweed industry, about seaweed farming. And it just has kind of.Lisa Kiefer: [00:03:42] How to harvest and all that?Catherine O'Hare: [00:03:43] Yeah.Lisa Kiefer: [00:03:44] So what were your steps?Catherine O'Hare: [00:03:46] Well, so we're doing our pilot project with Hog Island Oyster Company there in Oyster Farm in Tamales Bay, because the legislation and regulatory agencies are you know, it's a long process to get your own aquaculture permit. So we're doing a research project. This Hog Island Oyster Farm is hosting our pilot, but Hog Island leases from the state, the state waters. So they have aquaculture permit from California Fish and Wildlife. And that's kind of one of the many, you know, permits that they have to be doing aquaculture.Lisa Kiefer: [00:04:19] Are you going to be a pilot for a long time or how long does that last before you actually have to get your own permits independently?Catherine O'Hare: [00:04:27] We're still figuring it out. We first talked to Hog Island over two years ago where we just showed up and kind of bounce this idea off them of, you know, we're interested in doing a little pilot to farm seaweed to see how these native species of seaweed grow. Have you ever thought about that? Would you be interested? And so those conversations happened kind of over the course of a year. Meanwhile, we were trying to apply for grants to fund this, I think because Tessa and Avery had this grad school academic background that was kind of the framework that that we knew of how to try to do a project like this.Lisa Kiefer: [00:05:04] So you got your funding via grant?Lisa Kiefer: [00:05:06] We applied for one grant through NOAA that was big. It like gave us the structure to really dive in and figure out all the details. We did not get that one, but because it had set us up to really have a project. Then Hog Island was still on board to do this. So we were like, OK, we'll find we'll find other funding. So then we got a smaller grant from California Sea Grant, which is like an affiliate of Noah. And that gave us ten thousand dollars That development grant is just to prepare mostly academics to go after a bigger grant. So it's kind of this like small bundle of money. So we were awarded that and then that really funded the pilot.Lisa Kiefer: [00:05:48] Have you continued to just use grants or or did you go out into the private equity?Catherine O'Hare: [00:05:53]No. We. We all put in a little bit of our own money to start. We got another business, small business grant from Oberlin College where Tessa and I went. That was great. That was a huge help. We just finished a Kickstarter a few weeks ago. And other than that, we've just been getting some revenue from our product line of our wild harvested seaweed.So we're kind of...Lisa Kiefer: [00:06:16] So you're keeping your mission in tact, keeping outsiders out.Catherine O'Hare: [00:06:19] Yeah. So far, we're also growing very slowly because of that, which is okay with us. We're not we're definitely not the traditional Bay Area business, I think. But yeah. So far, there's no other investment in the company.Lisa Kiefer: [00:06:32] Okay. This oyster company. What is the relationship between oysters and seaweed?Catherine O'Hare: [00:06:38] It's a really beautiful symbiotic relationship. Oysters are also filter feeders, so they're filtering the water and making it less cloudy and less murky. So more light can reach the seaweed. And seaweed is a really beneficial. You know, seaweed is just the term for marine macro algae. So any algae that's growing in a marine environment that's like seaweed is kind of this big, vague term.Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:02] So it's kelp and there's all kinds.Catherine O'Hare: [00:07:04] Yeah. There's all kinds,kelp or brown seaweeds. There's also green algae and red algae. So what seaweeds do just like land plants, their primary producers, they're absorbing carbon and nitrogen to grow. And so unlike a land plant, that carbon and nitrogen is coming from the water. So in seaweeds, growing in an environment, it's, you know, kind of taking out some of those excess nutrients. Too much carbon in the water is what's leading to ocean acidification. And that's one of the factors that can inhibit shellfish growth. So if the water's too acidic, it's hard for their shells to form when they're young.Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:39] And seaweed helped with that.Catherine O'Hare: [00:07:40] Right. So seaweed is making the water. You know, so far the studies done show that it's just in a local area.Catherine O'Hare: [00:07:46] So right where you're growing the seaweed, there's hope that you can be moderating the P.H. of that water. So making it a little bit less acidic, making the water chemistry a little more balanced for lack of a better word. And also by absorbing nitrogen that helps, you know, too much nitrogen in a marine environment is what causes those harmful algal blooms, though. So the thought is by growing the type of seaweed that you want and then harvesting and getting it out of the environment, you're helping to kind of capture some of that nitrogen before it leads to. It's like using it for the seaweed you want instead of the algae that.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:21] It's kind of like seaweed farming.Catherine O'Hare: [00:08:23] Yeah. What we're doing is technically under the umbrella of aquaculture, but there's a lot of different ways that aquaculture can look. Seaweed and shellfish farming are pretty low input like you need to put physical equipment in the water column. But then there's no feed, there's no additives, there's no additional fertilizer or anything. It's just, you know, they're using sunlight in the case of seaweed, sunlight and the water aquaculture on the other end of the spectrum can be fish farming can be these bigger, more intensive systems. Some of those fish farms, you need to get fish to feed the fish. You have to I mean, I'm sure some add a lot of additives. So, yeah. This word aquaculture really has a big range.Lisa Kiefer: [00:09:06] OK. Are you testing the water daily? What have you discovered in the short time that you've been in this business about the quality of the Pacific Ocean?Catherine O'Hare: [00:09:15]That's a great question.Catherine O'Hare: [00:09:17] We have had to kind of scale back our pilot based on money and time and resources. But the wonderful thing is that Hog Island has been doing partnerships with but Bodega Marine Lab through UC Davis that they get water quality measurements every day. They have these monitors in the water that are constantly giving them feedback. So through that, we've been able to see how the salinity is changing, the PH, the temperature. They're measuring all these things every day.Lisa Kiefer: [00:09:44] And what are you discovering?Catherine O'Hare: [00:09:45] Our pilot ran from April of last year till November. So a pretty small window. And really what we saw were just seasonal variations. So like seasonal temperature changes and PH changes not related to our pilot. I think there is concern just in general about ocean acidification. But our pilot was a little too small scale.Lisa Kiefer: [00:10:05] But you will continue to see any changes. So that's really valuable.Catherine O'Hare: [00:10:10] Yeah. So right now, that pilot wrapped up in the fall. And just because everything is so unknown, we're kind of taking a pause to see what's next. We're still working with Hog Island, but we're kind of in conversation about what phase two will look like. So, yeah, I think if it were easier to get an aquaculture permit in California, that would be the direction we would want ahead. It's a long and expensicve process in California and, you know, rightfully so we have this beautiful protected coastline.Lisa Kiefer: [00:10:48] If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Method to the Madness, a bi weekly public affairs show on K A L X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators today, speaking with Catherine O'Hare of Salt Point Seaweed.Lisa Kiefer: [00:11:09] If you could just walk me through the process of I guess you'd call it farming the seaweed. What would a typical day be like for you three?Catherine O'Hare: [00:11:18]It's about to be harvest time for our wild harvested products. For the seaweed farming pilot, we harvested mostly in September and October because the species that we grew, we grew throughout the summer and then harvested in the fall. A lot of the kelp farms on the East Coast grow throughout the winter and then harvest in the spring. But the type of seaweed that we did for this pilot is a type of red algae. So not the big long kelps, but a type of red algae called grass grassaleria. It's also called ogo. It's like a kind of a red spindly seaweed. We chose it because it's native to Tamales Bay. It's edible. It's pretty easy to propagate because we were doing this very low tech. And so how we did it was we created little bundles of seaweed.Lisa Kiefer: [00:12:09] So do you go out there and cut it? Or how do you do it?Catherine O'Hare: [00:12:11] So we had a permit to wild harvest the initial, you know, seed stock. And then so we harvested we created cut little bundles. And this seaweed is a type that will propagate vegetative. So just by cutting it, it can grow more. So we created little bundles and then out there already, Hog Island had big, long lines that were floating on the surface of the water and anchored to the bottom. You know, there are buoys and each of those buoys were anchored to the bottom. Each of those bundles that we created, we kind of un-twisted the long line to create a little gap in the long line and then shoved the bundle through. And as we let go, the tension of the line would hold the bundle in place. So that's the basic,our basic propagation method. So it was originally wild and then that's how we farmed it onto a line. So then we had a long line out there in Tomales Bay and the bundles of seaweed were kind of growing down from the line. So we were measuring growth rate. So each month we would come back and harvest it and see how much grew. You know, we have this little fishing boat and we just use scissors. We can get really close to the line and just use scissors.Lisa Kiefer: [00:13:19] And so you don't actually get in the water.Catherine O'Hare: [00:13:22] Not for this farming pilot. We stayed on a boat. So we're kind of have this split personality where we're all so wild harvesting seaweed and that we do get in the water, that we go at low tide to these rocky coves up on the northern coast and still just using scissors in our hands. But we're on foot and kind of exploring the intertidal when it's really, really low tide.Lisa Kiefer: [00:13:47] And what kind of seaweed is that called?Catherine O'Hare: [00:13:49] The re were harvesting three species. Two are kelps. One is a lemonaria. We call that California kombu. And then alaria is California wakame. And then we're also harvesting Nori, which are actually many species that look almost identical. So it's hard to kind of say for sure the exact species, but they're on the genus Pyropia. So those are the three wild harvested seaweeds. We don't harvest any of the giant kelps. Yeah, although species can be sustainably harvested. So you're just kind of pruning the species, so you're cutting it to a certain level and then they'll regrow and regenerate.Lisa Kiefer: [00:14:29] And so you bring it back to the shore and then what happens?Catherine O'Hare: [00:14:32] Usually when we're harvesting is far from any road because, you know, we're choosing the most pristine area. So then we hike it up because it's so misty and cold and wet on the coast. We have a drying location that's inland about 45 minutes or an hour so that it's, we can get the hot sunny afternoon and then we dry it in the sun and seaweed roll on a good day, dry by the end of the day. And so that's why the sun is really important.Lisa Kiefer: [00:14:59] So you can have it in a truck ready to go to market in 24 hours?Catherine O'Hare: [00:15:03] Selling dry, the low tides are low for many days in a row. So we like, do you know, day after day. But yeah, after harvesting one early morning. By the next day, we could have product ready to go when you're done with that process.Lisa Kiefer: [00:15:20] When you are done with that project, you have a warehouse here?Catherine O'Hare: [00:15:20] We have a small storage location in Oakland.Lisa Kiefer: [00:15:24] OK, yeah. And is that the place from which it's distributed to end users?Catherine O'Hare: [00:15:29] Yes. Basically, we have so many locations because we're trying to scrape together affordable places, but we have a commercial kitchen that we sublease where we do all the food production so that it's up to California health code.Lisa Kiefer: [00:15:44] And where is that located?Catherine O'Hare: [00:15:45] That's in South Berkeley. It's at the Berkeley Kitchens. It's an amazing group of food businesses. We sublet from Cult crackers who make those really amazing gluten free crackers. So we're using their kitchen on nights and weekends. That's where we make our food products. So from there, we, you know, have another storage location where we can do all the shipping and distribution.Lisa Kiefer: [00:16:07] So do you have to do packaging as well?Catherine O'Hare: [00:16:09] Mm hmm.Lisa Kiefer: [00:16:09] There's a lot of pieces to this.Catherine O'Hare: [00:16:10] There's a lot of pieces to it.Lisa Kiefer: [00:16:12] How would I find your product as an end user here in the East Bay?Catherine O'Hare: [00:16:16] We just got into Berkeley Bowl, which was a exciting development a few weeks ago, we're at two farmers markets, the Fort Mason market in the city in San Francisco and every other week we're at the Kensington Market both on Sundays and then when a few stores.. it's growing. But Berkeley Bowl in the city, you we're in Rainbow Grocery. We're at Far West Fun guy's booth in the Ferry Building. We're at Oak Town Spice Shop in Oakland, preserved in Oakland. The whole list is on our Web site. So you can also buy products on our website, which is SaltPointSeaweed.com.Lisa Kiefer: [00:16:52] You also have recipes on there for using seaweed.Catherine O'Hare: [00:16:55] Yeah, we have recipes.Lisa Kiefer: [00:16:56] You also post your research notes or anything.Catherine O'Hare: [00:16:59] So we're creating this public report from the pilot. We're trying to get it done as soon as possible. And then, yes, that's gonna be on our website. We're kind of gonna distribute that widely because we want the results of this pilot with Hog Island to be distributed and open for people to see. We want it to kind of help tell the story of what seaweed farming could do and how it could, in theory, be a positive benefit to the environment.Lisa Kiefer: [00:17:23] Tell me about using seaweed. I don't think most people know about the nutrients in seaweed.Catherine O'Hare: [00:17:30] Each species has slightly different nutritional profile, but in general, seaweeds are just very nutrient dense. So there's a lot of minerals. Almost all seaweeds have iodine and that's a hard especially for vegans. It's a rare mineral to find in high concentrations. Seaweed has vitamin B, calcium, iron. It's just kind of like the super dense food. Seaweeds also have these mineral salts. So instead of sodium chloride, which is table salt, they have these other mineral salts like potassium, which kind of just give it a unique flavor. And I just read this article about the scientists who discovered you umami in Japan back in the nineteen, early nineteen hundreds. That flavor umami is attributed to the glutamate. I hope I'm getting this right, that seaweed is high in. So seaweeds also aside from the nutrition, give food this really savory umami flavor. Partially because of those minerals.Lisa Kiefer: [00:18:28] So it must be really good in soups.Catherine O'Hare: [00:18:30] It's great in soups. Yeah. So the types that we sell the kombu is this great bass for broth, for stews, for soups. It's high in that umami. It's high and iodine. So it's adding,I throw it at anything I cook just because it's giving it minerals, nutrients. And this kind of savory flavor combo also helps break down the carbohydrates and beans and legumes that sometimes give us digestive problems. So it helps make beans easier to cook and digest. Kombu's an easy one to to throw in a lot of dishes without thinking about it too much. We also sell California wakame, which is a thinner kelp. It's more mild. It's like Kombu is hard to eat. Just raw because it's thick. Wakame is thinner, so it's easier to just cut up and then throw the pieces in like a stir fry.Lisa Kiefer: [00:19:19] Or a salad?Catherine O'Hare: [00:19:20] So yeah, it's great to rehydrate and then make a seaweed salad with. We have some of those recipes on our website. A lot of people come up and take samples at the farmer's market and they're like, oh, that's not, you know, that's not the superintense seaweed flavor I was expecting. I always say that I think the varieties that we harvest here in California are a little bit more mild or maybe it's that they're fresh.Lisa Kiefer: [00:19:40] I was going to ask you that. What would be the taste difference between the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific and, you know, any other bodies or what have you noticed? Have you done a tasting?Catherine O'Hare: [00:19:48] You know, I this is a maybe a sad confession. I haven't done too much tasting of East Coast Atlantic seaweeds, just haven't spent much time on the East Coast. Chefs tell us that they can taste a difference between Japanese and Korean grown seaweed and the type that we're growing here. The Nori that we harvest here, they tell us that there's a more mineral, kind of like wild rich taste compared to the Nori that's coming from Japan and Korea. Out of the three of us, Avery has the most culinary background. She was a chef and has background in culinary. I'm learning how to put more culinary words to seaweed. But sometimes, you know, that's a, that's a muscle I'm trying to build.Lisa Kiefer: [00:20:31] That's when you just say, I like it.Catherine O'Hare: [00:20:33] Yeah. I love it. I love eating it. Can I describe the differences? I'm working on it.Lisa Kiefer: [00:20:38] Speaking of Japan and that area, do people worry about the fallout from the Fukushima radioactivity in the waters?Is that a concern?Catherine O'Hare: [00:20:48] Yeah, we get a lot of questions about that. That's one of the reasons why we're excited and interested in providing California seaweed, because it's harder to trace the seaweed that's coming from Japan and Korea.Lisa Kiefer: [00:21:00] Don't most seaweeds come from Asia?Catherine O'Hare: [00:21:02] Yeah. Most edible seaweeds are coming from Korea, China and Japan. There's seaweed grown all over the world, but in the US, over 95 percent of the seaweed eaten is coming from overseas and other, other places. UC Berkeley actually was part of this consortium of UCs that after the two thousand eleven Fukushima disaster started testing the kelp beds from the coast of, like off San Diego to Canada. So for years they were testing the kelp beds and looking for radioactive isotopes and they didn't find any being picked up by the kelp beds.Lisa Kiefer: [00:21:40] Great.Catherine O'Hare: [00:21:41] Yeah. So that's good news. And we have you know, we so far can't do our own testing, but we turn to that third party. I'm so grateful that now that they have done that and if anyone's interested, it's called Kelp Watch and you can go to the website and they have all the information there.Lisa Kiefer: [00:21:55] And a lot of people are allergic to oysters. If your seaweed is in a bed of oysters, do they have to worry about that at all?Catherine O'Hare: [00:22:03] Good question. We rinse every all the seaweed in saltwater. So if someone's allergic to shellfish, like on our products right now, we have a disclaimer that because it's a wild product, there might be some small sea crustacean that, you know, we can't ever 100 percent confirm that there's no traces of shellfish, but it's not like they're touching or intermingling. We rinse all of the seaweed in fresh seawater.Lisa Kiefer: [00:22:29] And I wanted to ask you about the challenges that you three have faced in entering this field, whether it's being an all woman business or finding money. You've talked a little bit about that. What are some of the major challenges?Catherine O'Hare: [00:22:44] Gosh, I think there's a couple different categories. One is that we did start this very slowly and organically and didn't take funding. So we all were working other jobs for the last two years. You know, it's kind of a feedback loop, right? We were working other jobs so grew slower, but it grew slower because we're working other jobs. But just finding access to funding that we would feel good about and that we would still have control of our company. That's been one. I think the Bay right now is a really supportive place to be a woman known business. So we've felt a lot of enthusiasm and encouragement from that. But sure, there are always people who don't take you seriously or don't give you the time of day because you don't look like the typical business person. A big challenge with theseaweed farming pilot that we're doing is that the regulatory process to get our own aquaculture permit is just so long and expensive. That was one of the reasons to do the pilot is to take the results of the pilot. How much carbon and nitrogen the seaweeds absorbing and show it to these regulatory agencies. So have a document that you can go to Fish and Wildlife and California Coastal Commission. But that's been a big challenge because if that were easier, I think we'd be in a different place. And we're definitely supportive of the regulatory agencies. They have a big job and a hard job and are doing the good work of protecting our coast and our resources. You know, I think there's a number that there's been no new aquaculture leases granted offshore in 25 years or 30 years. So there's just no precedent. So that's a big challenge that we're trying to we're trying to address by sharing the results of this pilot.Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:27] And are you making any money on your product?Catherine O'Hare: [00:24:29] We are. Right now, we're about breaking even.Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:32] That's pretty good in a short time.Catherine O'Hare: [00:24:34] Yeah, I mean, we have low expenses. We're being very scrappy. And, you know, just being at farmers markets mean we have regular sales and regular income and we sell online. We sell our products online. And then we also sell bulk to food restaurants and food businesses. There's a few restaurants that are ongoing supporters and then some businesses like a kimchi company and a bone broth company. So there's been regular sales. So we've been able to keep ourselves going on the wild harvested products and and really, you know, show that there's demand for seaweed and help build the education and awareness around seaweed.Lisa Kiefer: [00:25:12] Do you have any competitors in this marketplace?Catherine O'Hare: [00:25:14] There are other wild harvested seaweed companys.Lisa Kiefer: [00:25:16] Local?Catherine O'Hare: [00:25:17] Most based in Mendocino County, and they're amazing. Some of them have been doing it since the 80s or the 70s. There's a few other groups, you know, they feel like collaborators who are also trying to do seaweed farming. So there's a duo down in San Diego trying to farm seaweed in the port of San Diego. There's a company called Farmer C in Santa Barbara who's head by Dan Marquez, and we know him really well. So there's other people who are trying to farm seaweed in California, but so far all are at the research stage or the preliminary stage because it's hard to get those permits.Lisa Kiefer: [00:25:53] So you all share information, I would assume so far.Catherine O'Hare: [00:25:56] Yeah, it's been very collaborative. We're all trying to you know, we kind of see it like a rising tide, lifts all boats, like it would benefit us all to have easier access and sharing resources. And then there's a lot of Kelp farms starting on the East Coast. Most farms on the East Coast are farming sugar kelp, especially the state of Maine, has made it really streamlined and much easier to get aquaculture permits and start kelp farms. So it's really exciting to see all the progress happening over there. There's kelp farming that's being started in Alaska, so it's starting... California, I think it's gonna be a little bit slower to take off in California because of the regulatory agencies.Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:33] You're doing a lot of your harvesting in public water. There's boats and you know, the whole idea that there could be motorboats and oil in the water. Yeah, you know, it's complicated.Catherine O'Hare: [00:26:44] It's definitely complicated. And seaweed. You know, a lot of aquaculture happens in mixed areas like that.Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:51] So I don't mind a little bit more regulation as a consumer, if it means a higher quality product.Catherine O'Hare: [00:26:57] Yeah. And seaweeds can absorb you know, they absorb what's in the water. So that's why it's really important that our waters are clean and pristine and as protected as we can have them.Lisa Kiefer: [00:27:07] What have been some of your best accomplishments?Catherine O'Hare: [00:27:10] Someone gave us the advice like keep a list in your journal or on your phone of other little firsts like, oh, first time someone emailed about having an internship. So I think we've done a mediocre job at that. But there's been a lot of little accomplishments that feel great. The Kickstarter last month was a big one. We rais..we set our goal at $25000. And I think we ended up raising $42000. And it was really emotional to see so much support come in. So that felt like a very tangible success.Lisa Kiefer: [00:27:40] Have you gotten any awards or recognition?Catherine O'Hare: [00:27:42] We have bee n featured in Vogue and on the the website Goop. But it's funny, like the little like Berkeleyside just did a feature on us and that I think resulted in more sales and attention. So you never know which ones are going to end. The Kickstarter did also help with that. It's kind of like this concrete little time pressured event that really helped spread the word. So I think like there are publications that we reached out to for the Kickstarter, but it just resulted in more awareness. But yeah, winning some of these small business grants felt like big accomplishments and we had to, like the one at Oberlin was a competition. So we had to pitch and get judged and people emailing to ask if you're hiring. It's like, I have to be one day, that we can you know, there's like lots of things that feel like accomplishments.Lisa Kiefer: [00:28:30] What are some of the things coming up? Maybe if you project out a couple of years?Catherine O'Hare: [00:28:33] So we're definitely still talking with Hog Island about phase two of the pilot. So we're still trying to do research on seaweed farming. We're looking for more grants to fund that, because really what we want to do next is partner with the academic institution and kind of go for a bigger scale project. You know, we're kind of split personality because we're still running the business and creating these food products. Just our time and resources are limited. So we're looking for partners for that. But we hope to be finding ways to sustainably scale, sustainably source our seaweed. We feel like as if we continue to grow our presence and our market demand, that will only help us be in a better position to, you know, to take on some of these issues around seaweed farming.Lisa Kiefer: [00:29:22] What is your website and can people reach you if they have questions?Catherine O'Hare: [00:29:25] Yes. So our website is SaltPointSeaweed.com. You can also follow us on Instagram. That's where we give the most updates. We're @SaltpointSeaweed. Yeah, you can reach us on our website. There's an email form. We have products on there. We have recipes. We send out email newsletters. You can sign up for that on our website, too, or we'd send out little fun articles and pictures of our harvest and stuff like that. Seaweed is this amazing resource that grows without land or freshwater. It can be farmed and harvested sustainably. It can be grown abundantly. And I think as the world changes, we're going to need food sources that are sustainable, that are locally grown and that are nutritious. So for us, seaweed is this wonderful resource for that reason.Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:14] Well, thank you, Katherine, for being on Method to the Madness.Catherine O'Hare: [00:30:17] Thank you so much for having me.Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:22] You've been listening to Method to the Madness, a bi weekly public affairs show on K A L X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. You can find all of our podcasts on iTunes University. We'll be back again in two weeks.
Rev Lebaredian, Vice President of Simulation Technology at Bay Area based company, NVIDIA speaks about innovations in artificial intelligence, gaming, and robotics as well as how technology is impacting our humanity.Transcript:Ojig Yeretsian: This is Method to the Madness, a biweekly public affairs show on KALX Berkeley, celebrating Bay Area innovators. I'm your host, Ojig Yeretsian. Today I'm speaking with Rev Lebaredian, vice president of simulation and technology at NVIDIA, where he leads gaming technology and simulation efforts. Welcome to the show, Rev. What is VR?Rev Lebaredian: Well, VR stands for virtual reality, obviously. What most people imagine when we say VR are these clunky headsets that you put on your face or some little receptacle you place your phone into before putting it on your face. VR is actually something that we've been experiencing throughout mankind from the very beginning. All of our perception actually happens in our brains. You're not seeing with your eyes, you're seeing the world around you interpreted through what your brain is actually doing. When we sit around and we talk to each other like we are right now, [inaudible] elephant, and you just got an image of an elephant in your brain. There's not one around here. You conjure up this image and that's me incepting this image into your brain a virtual reality that we're constructing. Here we are talking, having this conversation, we're constructing a reality amongst ourselves.These new versions of virtual reality that we're starting to see are just a more direct way to create an immersive virtual reality experience. It's not actually the end yet. We're not totally at the end of this thing, it's just one of the steps along the way. Humanity has figured out ways of creating this virtual reality, this just communicating, telling stories to each other verbally. Eventually we had books, you can write them in there. You could do recordings like the one we're making right now, movies, video games, but the end game is going to be where we can start communicating even without words, potentially. I highly recommend you look up Ken Perlin from NYU. He's one of the greats of computer graphics, where he describes what virtual reality means to him. I completely agree with what he's saying. My piece in this is construction of virtual realities and virtual worlds through simulation, that's fundamentally what we do at NVIDIA. Our core as a computer graphics company, we power most of the computer graphics in the world, at least the serious stuff.Constructing these virtual worlds so we can inject them into these virtual realities is what our currency is.Ojig Yeretsian: What is AR?Rev Lebaredian: They're actually related. So, virtual reality is a new reality that you create that you're completely immersed in, but it's on its own. AR stands for augmented reality. Another term is mixed reality, MR. Some people use that term instead. Currently we're in a reality of our own right here. We're sitting in this room talking to each other and I'm perceiving you sitting there. Mixed realities or augmented realities are ones where I can blend in other realities into this world more directly. The current manifestations of this, the beginnings of AR, we're seeing through your phones. I mean, every iPhone and Android phone nowadays has something, that crude thing we call AR, where you can point your phone at something in your environment and it creates a digital representation of some reality mixed into it. The first one to make this popular, the first app, was the Pokemon Go. It was very cool but still extremely crude. A few years from now it's going to be far more compelling and far more immersive.Ojig Yeretsian: AI versus deep AI.Rev Lebaredian: These terms are very contentious. What is AI? What is intelligence? We still haven't really defined that. Generally speaking, when we colloquially speak about artificial intelligence today we're talking about algorithms. Computers doing things that we used to think only humans could do. We've been going through series of these things throughout computing history. One of the first challenges that we had for computers that we thought only humans would be able to do is playing chess. In the 90s, Garry Kasparov, the world champion at the time, was beat by Deep Blue. It reshaped what we thought computers could do and what is the domain of humans. Interestingly, it didn't kill chess which is what one of the things that people assumed would happen once a computer wins. Turns out, we don't really care what computers can do. We mostly care what humans do. So, I'm sure we'll make a robot one day that could play basketball better than any NBA player, but that won't kill basketball.Ojig Yeretsian: It won't replace it, no.Rev Lebaredian: We have people that run really fast and we really care about how fast they can run, and we go measure that at the Olympics, but just because cars exist or even horses that can run faster, it's just not particularly interesting. What we've assumed all of these years, that there are things that only humans can do. It's something special. So, we've defined artificial intelligence as the things that computers can't do and that humans do. We're inching along over here, occasionally make big steps. We have computers do things that we thought would be impossible. The big one in recent history, it was around 2011 in Geoff Hinton's group at the University of Toronto, there were a few grad students, they took some of our processors, our GPUs that were used for gaming and they were able to use a machine learning, a deep learning algorithm to train, to create a new algorithm to do computer vision. To do classification of images. There's a longstanding contest called ImageNet where all these computer vision experts in the world would have their algorithms compete with each other to see who could get the highest accuracy classification.Look at an image and you say, "This is a dog. This is a blue bicycle." Traditionally extremely hard problem. It's been there since the beginning of computer science. We wanted to solve this problem. At first we thought that it would actually be pretty simple and then we realized it's extremely hard. I mean, I've been coding since I was a little kid. I never believed I would see the day when a computer would be able to tell the difference between a cat and a dog properly. This magic moment happened when these grad students took their gaming processors and they applied an older algorithm, but modified, using the computing available to them. This extreme performance that they could get was a super computer inside their PC, afforded to them by the fact that there's a large market that wants to do computer games. They took that and they created a new kind of algorithm where instead of them writing an algorithm directly, they trained this algorithm. They fed data into it which was only available because the internet had existed long enough for us to have these images to begin with.They shattered all the previous records in terms of accuracy. A few years later these algorithms started to become superhuman, and by superhuman I mean humans when they look at these images are sometimes not accurate. They don't know exactly what kind of dog is in the image, or maybe sometimes they think it's a dog but it's really a hyena in the dark. Humans make mistakes but now the algorithms are superhuman. Before that moment we believed that only humans could do that kind of classification, but that changed. That changed over night. Now computers are actually better than us for doing that. What does that mean? Is that intelligence? It's hard to say but the trend, if you look at it, we keep figuring out new ways to make computers do things that we didn't think was possible. It's happening so fast. If you extrapolate, you imagine maybe at some point we will have machines that are superhuman in a lot of the things that we consider the domain of humans. Emotions, humor, things that we call human. Or, maybe not. Or, maybe they'll be some other thing that we don't quite understand.Ojig Yeretsian: What are you working on these days?Rev Lebaredian: I've been here for almost two decades. I really found my calling when I was around 10 or 11 years old. I saw this image in an [inaudible] magazine of two spheres, these balls, floating above a checkerboard floor. They looked so strange. I'd never seen anything quite like it. I couldn't make out whether it was drawn or whether it was some kind of weird photo of something. I read a little bit more and I realized that it was an algorithm that produced that image. That it wasn't actually drawn by someone, nor was it real, or a photograph of something. I was hooked. This image was created by Turner Whitted, who invented ray tracing back in 1980. He published [inaudible] on this. Luckily I got to work with Turner years later. He was with us until he retired recently at NVIDIA doing some amazing work. I got to tell him that, that the reason I was there at NVIDIA working with him was because of that image.What really excited me was that I could finally draw without having to know how to draw. I could use the tools that I'm good at, which was programming a computer to produce these images.Ojig Yeretsian: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Method to the Madness, a biweekly public affairs show on KALX Berkeley, celebrating Bay Area innovators. Today's guest is Rev Lebaredian, vice president of simulation and technology at NVIDIA. He's speaking about gaming technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence.Rev Lebaredian: So, what is computer graphics, what is a digital image that's been constructed? Basically, computers aren't really drawing or drawing in the traditional sense. What we have that computers do is through simulation. We have some understanding of how light works and the physics of light, and the images that you see are the products of this simulation that's happening around us in the real world. We're trying to approximate that. Light travels through space. It interacts with matter that's present all around us. It reflects, it absorbs, transmits, it refracts, it diffracts. There's all of these things that happen, and so what we do with computer graphics is we try to get as close as possible to what reality is and simulate that. So, those images that we're producing for a video game, or for the Avengers movie many of the people probably just went and saw, it's fundamentally a simulation of the physics of light.When NVIDIA started before I joined, our CEO Jensen Huang who's probably the smartest person I've ever met, he realized how important the computer graphics is, the simulation of light, but also realized that it's important to find a large market that could support the development, the amount of R and D that goes into creating something like this. Previous to then, most of the companies doing really advanced graphics were in fairly niche areas like making movies, or professional CAD design and stuff like that. What we did was we took this to the masses through video games. Realized people love playing video games. What we're creating in a video game is a simulation of some world, and in this world you have to do the simulation of light. That's the graphics that we produce, and you have to do it really fast because it has to be interactive. We do it in a 60th of a second instead of the hours it takes to produce one of the frames in the Avengers movie.We have to simulate physics and the interaction of objects, how they collide with each other. We have to introduce some kinds of AIs to drive the opponents or the virtual cohorts and people you have on your team. You need to collaborate with other people or play against them and deal with the interaction of people in these virtual worlds and large distances between them. They may be on the other side of the globe. They have to interact with each other and make it all feel like they're present there at the moment. Video games are actually the hardest problem, if you think about it, for computer science because you have to do everything in order to make the best experience. One day when we have the ultimate video game experience, it'll feel no different than being in reality here. We're actually going to feel like we're inside it. That's the ultimate game.So what Jensen realized was that there's demand here, and the fundamental technology needed to create that is one that's important for mankind in general, but you need this large market in order to pay for the development of this thing. There's an entertainment purpose over here that's large enough where we can afford every generation GPUs we create. It's $3, $4 billion dollars that we invest in creating that. None of the other single markets can support the development of that, but through video games we get this core, and then we can have adjacence. Simulation for robotics, for autonomous vehicles, for design of products, for collaboration. Maybe one of these days we'll be doing an interview like this inside a virtual reality that's powered by that same gaming technology. So, my team is focused on building the tooling and the fundamental technologies at that layer to create these possibilities with these applications. Whether they be video games or simulation for some of the things I mentioned like robotics and autonomous vehicles.Ojig Yeretsian: What are some of the problems you're trying to solve?Rev Lebaredian: There's a whole lot of them. We still haven't solved rendering. Simulating light is really, really hard, and then doing it fast is even harder. We understand the principles of light, physics, well enough so that we can do approximations but what we have to do is simulate billions and billions of photons bouncing around in a scene, and figure out which ones hit your sensor whether it's your eyeball, or a camera that you're modeling. Doing that extremely fast, in a 60th of a second, it's hard. Even the best that we do for movies, which don't have that restriction, they can afford to have supercomputers. Thousands of computers they put in the data center to calculate those final pixels that you end up seeing in the movie theater. They can spend hours and hours, or even days rendering a single frame. We have to do that in a 60th of a second in real time. So, the first problem that's on my mind always is, how do I take the things that we are doing that take hours for a film and make it so that we can do it in a 60th of a second?Once we can do that, then we can really approach, get close to making a virtual reality that's believable. So that if I stick you in this virtual reality, you might not actually know that you're in it.Ojig Yeretsian: Sounds to me, from all that we're talking about, is that the future is coming faster and earlier, and it's forcing us to contend with our understanding. It's like a culture shift. It's like a paradigm shift for us. AI is already here. There's technology to do gene editing. There's facial recognition, there is amputees with robotic limbs, sensors on the steering wheels for cars that if they sense that you're getting sleepy or your mood is changing, the car will start talking to you to keep you awake and engage you. These are all these that were unimaginable.Rev Lebaredian: There's a lot of technology we're building inside the car, not just for self driving cars, but for assisting drivers. Technologies like that where we have cameras in there that can see if your eyelids are drooping or if you're agitated, and try to help you, it's remarkable.Ojig Yeretsian: To help reduce road rage perhaps. Sebastian Thrun developed machine learning algorithm to help diagnose cancer, and that radiologist's role is going to change as a result of this. That they're not going to be necessarily replaced, but they're going to have augmentation of what you mentioned, with classifying and reading of the CAT scans and the MRIs and the X-rays, and do better classifying, and the radiologist will be more of the cognitive end of thinking about disease. So, how do you see technology impacting our lives and humanity?Rev Lebaredian: Understandably, all of this technology happens so fast it's scary. It's even scary for me even though I'm in the middle of it. It's happening at a pace that mankind hasn't experienced before, so it's hard for us to just digest how fast it's happening, what the repercussions are to each of these things. So, we have to be very careful about how we integrate technology into our lives, and really be thoughtful about it and not just assume that they're by default good. Technology is neutral, but the application of it isn't necessarily, right?Ojig Yeretsian: Yeah.Rev Lebaredian: That being said, one of the biggest fears is that AIs are going to make people obsolete. I just don't see that. It doesn't make sense to me that we would feel that way. A lot of the things that we think about are manufacturing jobs, and stuff that robots can go replace. If you look at it traditionally, those jobs didn't exist to begin with. It's kind of weird to think that the pinnacle of mankind is a human standing in an assembly line, toiling away hour after hour doing mundane, monotonous tasks. We were mechanizing mankind, which is odd. Humans are creative, they're wonderful creatures that are interesting. We should try to do everything possible to make it so that they can reach their potential without having to do the mundane and monotonous things.We were just discussing virtual worlds and simulating them, but one of the bigger problems actually with virtual worlds is the creation part of it. Creating a virtual world is extremely expensive. It takes thousands and thousands of people to construct a really large virtual world experience. One of the most important ones in recent times is a game called Grand Theft Auto V. It was released in 2013, I believe. If I recall, they spent about seven years building this game and they had, at some points, probably 1,000 artists constructing this virtual world. It's still extremely popular. People play it all the time. If you go search on YouTube, you'll find millions of videos of people creating movies inside the Grand Theft Auto world. They take it and they modify it and they insert their own characters, they put Marvel superheroes in there. The reason why it's so popular is because it is the most accessible, the largest virtual world that you can go access that's of high quality, but it took 1,000 artists seven years to create this.It's a micro version of Los Angeles. They call it San Andreas in there, and it's great but it's nowhere near what we really want. Something that's as rich as the real world we live in, and even more, except we've reached the limit. There's only so many hundreds of millions of dollars you can put into creating these virtual worlds. So to construct them, how do we take these thousands of artists and augment them with AI tools, not so we can put them out of business, but so that they can create not just this little micro version of Los Angeles but they create the whole globe? So that you can go walk into any building, into any alley, into any basement and it's detailed, and rich, and filled with all of the objects that you would expect there to be in the real world. It'd be based on maybe the real world. We can take our Google Maps data that exists, satellite data, and use AI to go augment that and build these worlds out.When we introduce these AIs, I don't believe there's going to be a single artist that goes out of business. What we're going to do is we're going to take away the monotonous task of handcrafting every single piece of geometry, every single little thing in there, and I think that's what's going to happen in general. Now, the scary part is when it happens fast. There's this period where you have people who have been doing something for a long time. Sometimes they're not even capable of adjusting to the new thing, so there's pain there. We need to get better at that as a society. How do we make people not dependent on one specific task as their job or career their whole lives? People should be adaptable, and creative, and we should be progressing together and learning to do new things.Ojig Yeretsian: So, you believe that we're not prepared?Rev Lebaredian: I don't think so, and I particularly don't think we're prepared here in the US. We're actually notoriously bad at dealing with new technology. If you look at it in the political landscape, I don't think we have leaders in politics that truly, really understand what's happening as we speak, and there's no plan for this. Hopefully that'll change soon. There are of course smart people in government, in our various agencies and whatnot, but just in terms of leadership you could see it any time congress calls tech leaders to-Ojig Yeretsian: Fly them out there [crosstalk].Rev Lebaredian: Summon them out there to talk. There seems to be no understanding or even respect for what it is they're talking about.Ojig Yeretsian: The European Union has the General Data Protections Regulation. Article 22 that states Europeans have a right to know how an automated decision involving them was reached and a right to know how an automated process is using their personal information. Is this something that you welcome?Rev Lebaredian: Well, I welcome governments thinking about these things. I don't know if the particular way they've implemented is the best, but at least they're doing something. We comply with all those, and as far as I can tell so far there hasn't been any negative repercussions except we had to do extra work to go comply with them. All of those things are important, but I think something is necessary and society should be engaged. These are important questions.Ojig Yeretsian: There's a lot of concern that machines are making decisions instead of people, and that there's an inherent bias embedded within algorithms. Is this something you encounter in your work?Rev Lebaredian: The algorithms that we deal with usually are not probably the ones that you're thinking about there. We're not Facebook or Google where we're dealing with peoples' personal information and social media. So, bias to us means something else. It's this car thinks there's a lane to the left here versus to the right. Something like that. That being said, I'm actually less worried about machine bias than I am human bias. Human bias we definitely know exists and we know it's really bad. Machines might have bias right now, but we know how to fix that, and we know how to test it, and we know how to measure it. I don't think we know how to fix humans yet as far as their biases are concerned. I can imagine that sometime in the future, maybe not so far future, we'll have judges and arbitrators that are AIs that make decisions. I trust them to make a decision on a criminal case involving a minority holding up a liquor store or something like that over most of the judges that are currently in place, and probably do it in a far less biased way.Ojig Yeretsian: I've heard the example of in a hospital exam room, where a machine assisted healthcare is actually reducing the numbers of hospital acquired infections and sepsis. I had never heard it on the more moral and [inaudible] realm such as the judicial system.Rev Lebaredian: Yeah, we trust humans to be arbiters of things that they probably have no business doing. I'd rather have an algorithm or math to decide these things.Ojig Yeretsian: What could go wrong?Rev Lebaredian: The work that I'm doing is actually to help us solve these problems before they cause harm. Simulation is actually the key to do that. So, one of the most direct examples is a simulation we're doing for autonomous vehicles. Before we put these cars out in the road and really sell them to people, we need to make sure that they're going to work well in every possible environment and every possible situation. With other crazy humans around them, driving around doing crazy things. There's actually no good ethical way to do a lot of the tests we would really like to do. How are you going to be sure that the self driving car doesn't run over a parent pushing their baby in a baby carriage when they go out into the road without looking both ways? Can't test that in real life. We can try to mock it up with some cardboard cutouts of those humans or something like that, but it's not the same thing.Ojig Yeretsian: Yeah, it's scary.Rev Lebaredian: So, all this work that we're doing to construct these virtual worlds and do them in real time, that ends up helping us here. We need to put humans inside these worlds that we test our cars in, and have them drive millions of miles and fool these cars. We're building a brain for this car that perceives the world and decides to act upon it. Our simulators are virtual reality for those car brains. We produce these graphics and pipe those pixels directly into the sensor inputs on the computer that's running inside the car, and the car, if we do our job right, doesn't really know the difference between reality and the virtual reality we're giving it. So, if we can simulate it beforehand, the better we can do these simulations, the higher fidelity simulations, we have a better chance of averting some of the really tragic things that might happen. We can all imagines what happens if an autonomous vehicle goes awry, but I'd actually argue that we already know what happens when humans go awry. There's plenty of-Ojig Yeretsian: Examples.Rev Lebaredian: Plenty of bad drivers. I'm sure you've experienced some of them driving out here earlier.Ojig Yeretsian: Absolutely.Rev Lebaredian: So again, I think in a lot of these realms, best chance is to make algorithms that are less biased and not as flawed as humans.Ojig Yeretsian: How might this create a better world?Rev Lebaredian: That's a good question in general, and what does that mean even? A better world. I think there's some simple metrics of better worlds. They have less babies dying. That would be a good thing. People living longer, more people with enough food in their bellies so they don't have to worry about it. People getting educated so that they can keep their minds busy. Without technological progress, we wouldn't be where we are today. I know things seem pretty crazy, but it wasn't that long ago that a good portion of our babies used to just die at birth, and the mothers along with them. We take it for granted now. Babies are born early, like my sons, they were born weeks early. That would have been a death sentence for them before, but they're alive and kicking right now and thriving because of technology. Everything that we're doing, there's the dangerous aspect of it, but generally the world has always gotten better as a result of it.Ojig Yeretsian: What's exciting for you in terms of new technologies? What do we have to look forward to?Rev Lebaredian: Well, in the near term the things that we were just discussing, the things that I've been working on for the past few decades. In terms of virtual worlds and computer graphics, I feel like we haven't realized the full potential to them. We've been primarily using them for entertainment, which is great, but we're almost there where we're going to start weaving these virtual realities into our daily lives. 40, 50 years ago the average person didn't have a video camera. The average person barely had a camera, and if they did, it wasn't something that they could use all the time. To go get film developed, it was expensive and cumbersome. You look at our children now and they're all videographers, they're all photographers, and they're creating content and worlds themselves. Everybody is. I want to do the same thing for 3D worlds, for virtual worlds. I want to get to the point where my grandchildren hopefully, hopefully before but at least my grandchildren, are going to be able to construct virtual worlds that are more complex, richer, and more beautiful than what Grand Theft Auto has done or what we saw with Avengers: Endgame.By using whatever device is there or just by speaking, I want to see my grandchild step into a virtual world and say, "I want a forest here," and a forest appears. "I want a stream with a unicorn jumping over the stream." Just describe it and have this world unfold in front of them. Once we get to that point, I can't even imagine the things that people are going to do with it. So, that's the thing that gets me excited.Ojig Yeretsian: How can folks get more information about your innovative work?Rev Lebaredian: Well, you can definitely go to our webpage and all our social media feeds. NVIDIA.com or find us on Facebook and Twitter. If you're a developer or into the technology directly, we have Developer.NVIDIA.com where we provide most of the technology I've been speaking about directly for free for people to download and go incorporate into their tools. One of the most interesting things I've ever worked on, and my passion right now, is a new project that we just announced that we kind of hinted at about a month or two ago. We call it NVIDIA Omniverse. It's a platform that we're building that allows for a lot of the things that I've been talking about here. We want to connect various tools in different domains whether you're an architect, or a product designer, or a video game creator, or a director for a movie. All of these domains have different tools that they use to describe, things that are actually quite similar. They're constructing objects, and worlds, and scenes.So what we're building is a platform where all of these can come connected together, and we can allow people to create these worlds together using the tools that are specific to their domain. We showed an example of this. We called it the Google Docs of 3D. Just like how you can go and edit a spreadsheet with your colleagues or friends simultaneously, we want to provide these and we are starting to provide this for people creating 3D worlds. So, you and I can be in completely different parts of the globe using our own tools. You might be using a tool to paint textures on a model, and I could be using a tool to construct a building using something like Revit from Autodesk, which many architects use. We can be collaborating together, building these worlds together. So, you can go check that out if you search for NVIDIA Omniverse. We're doing some cool stuff.Ojig Yeretsian: Thank you so much, Rev.You've been listening to Method to the Madness, a biweekly public affairs show on KALX Berkeley, celebrating Bay Area innovators. You can find all our podcasts on iTunes University. We'll see you again in two weeks.