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Illuminating Moonlight: President Frenk and Tarell McCraney Discuss the Playwright’s Academy Award-Nominee

A screening at the Cosford gives UM President Julio Frenk an opportunity to talk to one of the creative forces behind the Academy Award-nominated ‘Moonlight’

By Robin Shear
UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (January 30, 2017)—The evening after Moonlight received eight Academy Award nominations, the University of Miami hosted a special screening event at the Cosford Cinema, with a Q&A between UM President Julio Frenk and Tarell Alvin McCraney, the playwright and Miami native whose largely autobiographical work inspired the critically acclaimed film.

McCraney has been a professor of theater and civic engagement in UM’s College of Arts and Sciences since 2015. During that time he also launched an arts leadership project for young women of color at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center in Liberty City, one of the local resources that gave McCraney a rare refuge from the poverty, crime, and bullying he struggled with growing up in the neighborhood.

After last Wednesday’s screening of the 111-minute drama, currently slated to run at the Cosford through February 9,  a visibly affected audience paused briefly before breaking into applause.

Moonlight, already a Golden Globe winner for Best Picture-Drama, tells the story of Chiron, also nicknamed “Little” and “Black,” in three gripping acts. Chiron lives with his drug-addicted mother in Liberty City during the turbulent 1980s. With troubles at home and school, the quiet but intense Chiron (pronounced shy-rone) traverses dangerous terrain, buoyed by fleeting moments of sanctuary and support from a drug dealer named Juan, based on a significant figure in McCraney’s youth. Unlike Chiron, McCraney took another path and went on to become a renowned playwright, recognized in 2013 with a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

“This is a stunning example of how artists can move us to new understandings of our world,” Frenk said during his introduction of McCraney, who has “story by” and executive producer credits on Moonlight. “Tarell is a son of Miami. He is an artist of Miami. And he is an advocate for Miami. The film we just saw is such a beautiful, poetic, loving portrait of our incredible city in all its dimensions.”

But it is a story that might never have been widely known. When McCraney was 22, his mother died of AIDS-related complications. Trying to make sense of his life up to that time, he wrote In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Though never staged, almost a decade later the work came to the attention of director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins, also raised in Liberty City. Their collaboration has garnered a powerful response that has pushed the self-described “painfully shy” McCraney into a new kind of spotlight.

Among Moonlight’s eight Academy Award nominations are Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Director. At the Q&A on January 25, McCraney spoke openly and eloquently about what it was like to be part of such an intensely personal project and why he thinks it has resonated with audiences and critics as one of the best films of the year.

Crediting the authenticity Jenkins brought to the screen and a “one-of-a-kind” ensemble cast, McCraney said, “There hadn’t been this kind of storytelling in a while, specifically about people of color from this part of the world. I think there was an appetite for it.”

He also credited School of Communication lecturer Rafael Lima, who taught playwriting at McCraney’s high school, with the words of wisdom that helped him begin to share this poignant and intimate piece.

“I had tried to figure out ways to create the story before and didn’t really understand how to do that,” said McCraney. “He said, ‘If a story keeps coming to you visually, then it’s a film. If you hear it, then it’s a play.’”

Asked by Frenk what he would tell young people who live in a world where they, like Chiron, may face violence in terms of their race, sexual orientation, or any other dimension of their identity, McCraney replied, “I don’t know if I would tell them anything, to be fair. Having sat in that chair and having to listen to adults figure out how to fix an ill of society by telling you something feels counterintuitive. The thing I often try to do in those circumstances is show them where they actually belong. One of the initiatives I’ve appreciated since I’ve been here at the University is the Culture of Belonging because it’s a powerful tenet. We have work to do here, but that’s where it all starts. One of the things that Juan does in the film for Little is he says, ‘You belong somewhere, you’re a part of something.’ And that’s what I would try to show rather than say.”

Praising Moonlight, School of Communication Dean Gregory Shepherd asked McCraney to expand on the character of Juan, complexly portrayed by Academy Award nominee Mahershala Ali. McCraney started with an anecdote about walking up to Ali backstage after seeing the movie with an audience for the first time in Toronto. “My tie was askew and [Ali] started fixing it,” recounted McCraney, “and I burst into tears because for me he had just sort of transformed into this person I had not seen since I was 6 or 7 years old.”

The character of Juan, he explained, was based on his mother’s boyfriend, a man named Blue. “He was a drug dealer, and he was every bit of a hero to me,” McCraney said. “He taught me how to ride a bike. He taught me how to swim. He told me that I was good enough. He often stemmed my mother’s abuse from affecting me in many ways. I was the best-dressed kid in Liberty City for a long time. I always wanted to honor that memory but not expunge it of any of the things that, actually, he did.”

Thanking McCraney for coming to speak to one of his classes previously, UM student Jeremy Penn asked him to discuss the bullying and violence portrayed in the film and how the “school and police fail to address the systemic issues that are going on.”

McCraney said that in his own life the system didn’t fail him. “At some point the bullying stopped because I was led out of danger,” he explained. He was offered free classes at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center and attended the New World School of the Arts, “so I could be in a place that was just a little bit more accepting of who I was.”

But that’s not everyone’s story. McCraney notes that Chiron’s story doesn’t follow his own trajectory of success. “One of the reasons I wrote [the story] in that way was, what if I took that one missed step to the left? And both things cost. No matter what school I’m at, no matter what instructor I’m with, I still carry the scars of that time.”

President Frenk concluded by thanking McCraney—who will be returning to his alma mater, the Yale School of Drama, in July to serve as chair of the playwriting department—for his artistic creation, his work at UM, and his service to the greater Miami community.

“Obviously on Oscar night all your friends and family at the U are going to be rooting for Moonlight. We hope it does very, very well,” said Frenk. “We wish you well—and you know this will always be the home where you truly belong.”

The evening was sponsored by the Office of the President, the Office of Civic and Community Engagement, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the School of Communication.

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New Employees Begin Their Journey at I Am the U

By Charisse Lopez-Mason
Special to UM News

One by one, the University of Miami’s newest faculty and staff—physicians, patient access representatives, researchers, IT professionals, and more—gathered on an early Monday morning at the Newman Alumni Center for their first day of work.

After a ceremonial ribbon cutting to mark the occasion, the group of 50 participated in I Am the U, UM’s reimagined new-employee orientation program. Inspired by feedback from University faculty and staff and several months of planning and hard work from the Building a Better U Together’s Global Orientation work team, the new program introduces employees to the University’s common purpose, DIRECCT values, service standards, structure and operations, history, and more.

“The experience was invigorating,” said participant Tamara Long, a patient navigator for Clinical Access.

The highlight for her, was when alumnus Ray Bellamy, a UM trailblazer, popped in to talk to the group.

Bellamy is the first African-American to sign a football scholarship to play for the University of Miami, and the first African-American football athlete given a scholarship to a major university in the Southeastern part of the United States.

“When I listened to his story, it brought tears to my eyes,” said Long. “He said one thing that stood out to me, he said the University of Miami had his back.”

Bellamy, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the School of Education and Human Development, spoke to the group about his UM experience, saying, “You cannot find a better place. UM made a difference in my life, and I promise it will make a difference in yours.”

Throughout the day, a team of facilitators, UM employees who volunteered, auditioned, and trained to lead the program, led the group through a series of hands-on interactive activities that focused on the University’s past, present, and future.

Kesha Grayson, a supervisor of systems and technology at the Shalala Student Center and an I Am the U facilitator, said that participating in the program was a no-brainer. “As an alumna, I innately know what it means when we say, ‘It’s great to be a Miami Hurricane.’ I wanted to share that and be a part of welcoming new employees to their new roles,” she said.

Grayson has worked for UM for 13 years and says the best part of the experience has been finding 25 new “besties,” co-facilitators whom she now considers friends.

“I always knew I was a part of a bigger picture,” said I am the U facilitator Sergio Pintado, a patient access supervisor. “But being a part of this program showed me just how bright the future is at the U.”

The new program runs up to three times per week on the Coral Gables campus. It closes with a graduation ceremony and special visit from Sebastian the Ibis, who teaches the group the Miami Hurricanes C-A-N-E-S chant.

“At the end of the day,” said Long, “I realized I was now part of a new and growing family.”

To learn more, visit firstdays.miami.edu.

 

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UM’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute Sees Rapid Growth

OLLI offers more than 50 classes to seniors who want to remain active in mind and body.

By Bárbara Gutiérrez
UM News

 Leslie Gross gives fellow Osher classmate Jenny Zanzurri some tips on using her iPhone.

Leslie Gross gives fellow Osher classmate Jenny Zanzuri some tips on using her iPhone.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (January 26, 2017)—Jenny Zanzuri is a living example that one can master new technology at any age. The 97-year-old is the oldest student at the University of Miami Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), but her spirit and determination are forever young.

The retired United Nations staffer, who worked for the assistant secretary of economics and social affairs, Ubers every Wednesday to join 20 students taking the iPhone and iPad Basics Class.

“I am stupid when it comes to these devices,” she said, tapping her iPhone. “But this class will help me.” Zanzuri wants to use her new knowledge to keep in touch with her daughter and friends.

The class, offered at Founders Hall on the Coral Gables campus, is one of more than 50 classes offered per week at the institute for anyone over the age of 50 who has an active mind and the willingness to be a student again. Many of the students are doctors, lawyers, professors, and others whose lives and personal experiences enrich the everyday curriculum. At the center, students enjoy a variety of programs, from tai chi and yoga to watercolor and classes on investments and current events.

Keeping active and feeling a sense of purpose is what attracts many OLLI members, who pay $40 to join the institute. These days the numbers of students are increasing in great part thanks to an explosion of baby boomers who are retiring, said Julia Cayuso, OLLI director. OLLI has seen close to a 140 percent rise in enrollment numbers in the past four years.

“It has been truly remarkable,” said Cayuso. “Our numbers are going through the roof.”

Fortunately, OLLI recently received a second $1 million endowment grant from the Bernard Osher Foundation, which will support the center’s operations so it can continue providing classes and activities for seniors. About 10 percent of the faculty are UM professors, said Cayuso.

Marco-Polo

For his class Triumph and Tragedy: the Lives of Great Men, historian Richard Dawson dresses as his subjects, in this case Marco Polo, would have dressed.

There seems to be a class for every interest. But among the most popular is Robert Dawson’s class Triumph and Tragedy: the Lives of Great Men. At the inaugural class this year, Dawson, a historian, wore a turban and red frock and proudly introduced himself: “My name is Marco Polo.”

Each week he dons another costume and identity. He believes teaching in costumes makes the lessons more memorable.

That resonates with 70-year-old history buff Tom Brown, a retired Miami-Dade County Fire Department battalion chief, who has been a member of OLLI for four years and has taken all of Dawson’s classes.

“I like coming here because I find that I learn a lot and it keeps me active,” said Brown, who also volunteers as a tour guide at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and teaches Sunday school at his church.

Another popular offering is Global Viewpoints, taught by Mitra Raheb, a former St. Thomas University professor whose candid style kept her nearly 100 students in awe as she taught the politics of the Middle East.

“What I most enjoy is the students,” said Raheb, who also teaches at FIU’s OLLI. “Their diverse educational, cultural, and political background keeps the class lively and informative.”

For Chris Weinberg, 67, who has been taking classes at OLLI for two and half years, that energy is what keeps her coming and volunteering for several committees.

“It’s a very special place,” said Weinberg, who worked in advertising for many years. “It draws the intellectually curious, and we feel that we are part of a family.”

Like Weinberg, many members donate their time and energy to the member institute. That is the motor that keeps OLLI running, said Cayuso.

A caring committee keeps tabs on members who may be hospitalized or have suffered a loss. A recently organized choral group provides another outlet for those with musical talents.

“It is truly a volunteer-driven place,” Cayuso said. “Many of the members serve on committees that determine the curriculum, plan the social events, and focus on growth and retention of membership.”

For more information, visit the OLLI website or the class catalogue.

 

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With Pencils and Drones, Architects Put Informal Cities on the Map

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
UM News
01-09-17-informal-cities-390CORAL GABLES, Fla. (January 09, 2017)—The children play soccer barefoot on a dirt field, and when they aren’t imitating the flamboyant striking and passing skills of their country’s greatest footballers, they roam neighborhood streets, playing other games or sometimes just looking for something to eat.

If not for the efforts of a woman named Julia, many of them would go hungry. A 50-something community elder with an energetic spirit, Julia helps keep their bellies full, working with a group of other women to prepare meals that feed as many as 100 kids a day.

Life in some parts of Las Flores, a 5-square-mile shantytown near Barranquilla, Colombia, often presents a multitude of challenges. Food can be hard to come by; sewage, water, and electrical systems are nonexistent in most areas; and residents build shotgun-style homes with whatever materials they can find—in this case, mostly wood.

The local governments where slums like Las Flores are located see these places as eyesores, electing to leave them off of official maps. But two University of Miami School of Architecture professors, Carie Penabad and Adib Cure, believe slums should not only be recognized, but also given the assistance they need.

So with tools as simple and archaic as pencil and paper, and as advanced and high-tech as camera-equipped drones, the husband-and-wife team has made its mission to map some of the poorest and most vulnerable places in the world.

They started in 2006, using traditional surveying techniques to map the slum of Shakha near Mumbai, India. The following year, they traveled to the Cape Town, South African township of Langa to map the informal settlement of Joe Slovo, one of the largest slums in that country. “Then we realized something,” recalls Penabad. “We’re based in Miami, and we’re traveling to the other side of the world to study these informal settlements, when, in fact, we have at our doorstep Latin America and the Caribbean, where an urban population is growing. So why not turn our focus closer to home.”

And they did, beginning with Las Flores. For every spring semester between 2008 and 2015, Penabad and Cure have taken students from their School of Architecture upper-level design studio, and starting two years ago software engineers from UM’s Center for Computational Science, to this 60-year-old settlement to map its 75 neighborhood blocks and seven barrios. While CCS engineers operated the drones that produced highly detailed aerial maps of Las Flores, Penabad, Cure, and their students walked the streets, studying the slum’s building and construction patterns, peering into its simple wood and clay brick homes, observing neighborhood social interactions, and talking with  some of the 10,000 residents who live there—all as part of an extensive effort to better understand the settlement’s structure and inner workings and, perhaps, help cure what ails it.

“When these cities that are literally off the map are documented and studied, you begin to not only understand them but get a much bigger picture of their problems,” said Penabad. “Where would it make the most sense to bring in water and sewer lines? Where are they disconnected in terms of transportation? Where would it make the most sense to build a medical clinic? The potential for progress becomes more tangible and possible when you can see everything mapped out.”

Penabad compares the maps to “X-rays that allow us to diagnose a settlement’s condition.”

Here’s what their “X-ray” of Las Flores shows: Newer barrios where small sheet-metal roofed houses are built so close together that hardly any light and fresh air penetrate, older districts where, over time, wooden houses have been replaced by concrete homes, few if any public gathering spaces, and unpaved streets.

Las Flores is compact, mirroring on-the-grid Barranquilla only in having a clearly delineated pattern of streets and blocks. “Houses come up to the edges of streets,” explains Penabad, “and there aren’t many automobiles, so people walk to get to where they need to go.”

Usually where they need to go is to the larger metropolis, where shantytown residents frequently work in factories and hotels. Some of the women toil as housemaids. Only Penabad and Cure’s direct interaction with residents reveals that aspect of life in Las Flores, making their on-the-ground research just as eye-opening—and important—as the images the drones produce. What that research has shown is that Las Flores and many other such slums are surprisingly sustainable.

“There’s a well-structured network of families,” said Cure. “Older, more established families usually become the leaders, creating daycare centers and micro businesses that help the community.” One woman, he notes, even started a mobile clothes-washing service, wheeling a portable manual washing machine door to door.

“Everyone living in an urban slum isn’t necessarily worse off,” said Justin Stoler, an assistant professor of geography and regional studies in UM’s College of Arts and Sciences, whose own research on informal settlements has taken him to Accra, Ghana, to explore links between neighborhoods, the environment, and human health. “Living in a slum has been shown to not only hinder growth, but sometimes aid it via tight-knit communities that offer better resilience for overcoming stressors, and communities where residents take care of one another and provide buffers from all the problems they’re dealing with on a daily basis.”

Penabad and Cure’s goal is to make UM a center for the collection of data on informal settlements throughout Latin America. “We’ve found a way to map these in a pretty distinct way,” Penabad explains. “We’d like to acquire enough funding to deploy this toolkit more systematically and make it entirely open-sourced.”

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School of Communication Opens Two State-of-the-Art Centers

By Karina Valdes
Special to UM News

broadcastcenterUniversity of Miami School of Communication ushered in the interactive age with the dedication of two new centers on Friday, December 2.

The school officially opened the Koenigsberg & Nadal Interactive Media Center and the Robert & Lauren Mann Broadcast Center in a unique ceremony emphasizing interaction and technology. UM trustees, donors, guests, and friends watched the ribbon cutting on two flat screen TVs in the school’s courtyard before touring the new facilities.

Gregory J. Shepherd, dean of the School of Communication, opened the ceremony by thanking the university’s Board of Trustees, donors, faculty, students, staff, parents, and friends. He then told a story about “a space over here that we called the Reading Room.” The underutilized space would be transformed into the Koenigsberg & Nadal Interactive Media Center, but before “it was your typical small library that people of a certain generation remember well.”

“It was sort of dark and quiet, full of old dusty journals and hardly any students. It wasn’t a great place to be the front of the school. It wasn’t a great place for our students, as was obvious by their absence,” said Shepherd.

He “wanted a space that would encourage interactivity among our students.”

In the Koenigsberg & Nadal Interactive Media Center, students will gain hands-on experience in a professional setting by providing a multitude of digital and traditional creative services to clients.

Shepherd first approached Koenigsberg about four years ago with his vision for a new interactive space. Koenigsberg along with Miles Nadal, both parents of School of Communication students, lead the effort to build the interactive media center, and also encouraged other parents to become involved with the project.

“As you will see when you see the donor wall, you will note how many of our donors were parents,” said Shepherd.

With blueprints for the IMC showing a modern, high-tech space, it quickly became apparent the area adjacent to the IMC and the Robert Corley Groves Studio needed to be upgraded as well. Shepherd also, for a very long time, wanted to “put the Mann name up in this school.”

“Bob Mann has been a supporter of this school before it was a school,” said Shepherd. He also called him an adviser and a friend.

Mann was co-founder and first general manager of WVUM, UM’s student-run radio station. He is a member of the university’s Board of Trustees and chairs the School of Communication’s Visiting Committee. For more than 30 years, he has supported the university in numerous efforts including gifts to construct the Communication International Building and the Koenigsberg & Nadal Interactive Media Center. He established the Robert A. Mann Endowed Fund for the Department of Athletics, and the Samuel and Grace Mann Endowed Scholarship Fund in his parents’ honor to benefit undergraduate students majoring in broadcast journalism.

“And we now have the opportunity to put their names on this broadcast center. The Robert & Lauren Mann Broadcast Center,” said Shepherd.

The Robert & Lauren Mann Broadcast Center includes two HDTV broadcast studios, a sound stage for film production, an equipment room providing students with the latest technology, two control rooms, and editing suites with multiple functions.

“We have to keep on improving and we have to stay up with our peer schools and make sure we offer students the best equipment and the best facilities to learn in,” said Mann.

Thomas J. LeBlanc, executive vice president and provost, thanked the donors who supported the project and noted that in “higher education, and particularly in private higher education, things don’t happen without the support of philanthropists.”

“All of the great work that will take place within these centers…would not be possible without Bill, Miles, Bob, and Lauren. Thank you for your leadership and generosity in shaping the School of Communication,” said LeBlanc.

He also thanked the university’s trustees for supporting the vision to construct these centers.

“Today we celebrate a vision of what the School of Communication can be and how the facilities can impact undergraduate student learning,” said LeBlanc. “We are no longer in the medieval age and we need to make sure our university stays at the forefront, and this new project represents that commitment,” he added.

Margot Woll, School of Communication student and executive producer of UMTV’s SportsDesk, then asked guests of the ceremony to turn their attention to the TV screens to take a virtual tour of the Koenigsberg & Nadal Interactive Media Center and the Robert & Lauren Mann Broadcast Center.

Oliver Redsten, School of Communication student and UMTV’s NewsVision anchor, lead the audience on the virtual tour and detailed what guests would soon have a chance to experience in person. He also explained how students would benefit from the spaces.

“As students, we will not only be learning about communication, but also how to implement communication plans and tactics, making us more confident when we enter the workforce,” said Redsten.

The TV screens then cut to the donor wall where Rebekah Chung, School of Communication student and executive producer of UMTV’s Pulse, interviewed Koenigsberg.

Koenigsberg expressed how we are living in a digitally connected world. “The currency of the future is digital currency,” he said, and he expressed how he hopes students who experience the IMC are provided with “digital currency so when they get out into the world they are richer than students from other schools because of this incredible space and atmosphere we’ve been able to develop for them.”

He also thanked Shepherd, and Donna Arbide, associate vice president of advancement, for inspiring him to want to help with this project.

“We are going to create the best students in the world through this interactive media center,” said Koenigsberg.

Nadal could not attend the dedication ceremony, but he was present through a videoconference from Ottawa, Canada.

“What excited me about this opportunity was that the University of Miami was taking a leadership role in creating the interactive media center of the future as part of its integrated communications program,” said Nadal.

He also added how “the amount of invention and investment that the university was making” made it apparent he wanted to “support and to invest behind the future digital interactive leaders of the future.”

After the ribbon cutting ceremonies, guests toured the Koenigsberg & Nadal Interactive Media Center and the Robert & Lauren Mann Broadcast Center. Students of the school were on hand to demonstrate the facilities and how they plan to use the spaces.

After touring the facility, Joseph B. Treaster, professor at the School of Communication, noted how “this center has got everything we need to really move on to the next stage.”

“I don’t think any other university has got something as powerful or as sweeping as this. All the greatest, neatest tools you want are here,” he added.

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