Emory Scientist, Atlanta Artist Use Art to Teach Social Justice
A scientist and a comedian walk into a classroom. They start a discussion about how art can influence social justice.
You’ll have to wait for the punchlines. Emory first-year students will create them as part of a new fall seminar “Human Flourishing: Imagine a Just City.”
“Humans cannot flourish without true justice,” says Micaela Martinez, Emory assistant professor of biology, who developed the class. “We have so many huge societal problems that need creativity, imagination, hope and optimism to solve.”
The class is among the new First-Year Flourishing Seminars, aimed at deepening what students know but also who they aspire to be. It is also part of the Emory Arts and Social Justice Fellows program, which pairs Emory faculty with Atlanta artists to explore how creative thinking and artistic expression can inspire change.
Martinez is co-teaching with Arts and Social Justice Fellow David Perdue, an Atlanta comedian.
“You can’t save the world with jokes,” Perdue says. “But humor can be a good way to raise awareness of what’s going on. It’s a first step.”
Martinez, who joined the Emory faculty last year, is an infectious disease ecologist. Her lab studies how ecology, social determinants of health, immunology, climate change and demography intersect to shape health and disease.
She comes to Atlanta from New York, where she was on the faculty of Columbia University. “During the pandemic we saw Black and Brown New Yorkers dying at two times the rate as white New Yorkers. It was quite stark,” Martinez says. “It really shined a light on the social inequities of the city.”
Civil rights lawyer Norman Siegal tapped Martinez to serve on a commission tasked with making social justice recommendations to the newly elected mayor of New York, Eric Adams, to improve the lives of all New Yorkers.
“We were asked to imagine New York being a just city and what we would have to do to get there,” Martinez says. “We came up with a set of policies covering everything from health, policing, climate change, food systems, housing and education.”
Her idea for the Emory seminar grew out of that experience. “Emory undergraduates are eager to get a diverse, wide-ranging education,” Martinez says. “That gives faculty the freedom to develop seminars like ‘Imagine a Just City.’”
Co-teaching with a comedian puts an interesting twist on the class.
One way David Perdue has honed his sense of humor is coping with sharing a name with a former U.S. senator, who also recently sought the Republican nomination in the race for governor of Georgia. “When he lost I was like, ‘Oh, thank God!’” Perdue recalls. “I’ve been dealing with requests to fix potholes and other annoying remarks for years.”
A native of Georgia, Perdue graduated from Morehouse College with a degree in sociology and leadership studies. “A leadership studies professor, Dr. Walter Fluker, had a heavy influence on how I think about using comedy to reach people and talk about difficult things,” Perdue says. “He opened my eyes to how to build community. Sharing laughter with someone from an opposing view can add a little depth to humanity. Good comedy threads the needle and connects people across divides.”
A prolific entertainer, Perdue co-produces the free 1AM Secret Show for stand-up comedy on Saturdays at Smith’s Olde Bar. He has appeared at comedy festivals throughout the country and on Comedy Central. He co-hosts two comedy podcasts, “Forth and Ten” and “The Confused Caucus.” And he co-produced and co-created the stage show “Double Consciousness” with poet Adan Bean, which uses humor to process the social traumas of the Black community while also celebrating hope.
Becoming an Emory Arts and Social Justice Fellow was one more way for Perdue to apply his talent in meaningful ways.
Martinez and Perdue hit it off immediately through their shared commitment to social justice and building community.
“I feel a moral imperative to use my scientific training to help address the injustices I see around me,” Martinez says. Too often, she adds, scientists, activists and artists act in silos when complex social problems require a holistic approach. A sense of hopefulness is also vital, she stresses.
“It can be quite wearing on the spirit to keep going over the statistics for Black infant mortality, or the fact that if you’re Black in this country you’re so much more likely to die at the hands of a police officer,” Martinez says. “We want to foster a sense of optimism and stewardship in the students. We’re giving them the freedom to imagine a better world.”
In addition to scientific reports and articles, the seminar syllabus includes visual media, such as the documentary “John and Yoko: Above Us Only Sky”; creative writing, including the poetry of Ono and the essays of James Baldwin; and podcasts like the History Channel’s “Tulsa Burning.” Joint classes will be held with the “Fairy Tales and Flourishing” seminar led by Vincent Bruyere, associate professor of French and scholar of fairy tales, and “Nonhuman Flourishing” led by Sean Meighoo, associate professor of comparative literature and a founding member of the Animal Studies Society.
Each week, the students discuss a different justice topic, such as food insecurity, sexual and reproductive health, incarceration and policing, climate change, environmental justice as well as chronic health disparities and infectious diseases. They are then challenged with questions such as, “If you had executive power and limitless resources to create one policy to address this issue, what would it be?”
Workshops will help the students hone group class projects on their chosen topic, some of which will be presented in December at an Emory Arts and Social Justice Project Showcase and Community Conversation.
“We’re learning from the students as well when it comes to the form the final projects may take,” Perdue says. “My generation got a lot of its news from the comedy of ‘The Daily Show.’ Today, TikTok and Instagram are big sources of information.”
“When students leave Emory we want them to not only have a solid grounding in critical issues of social justice but also make sure that they are conversant in them,” Martinez says.
“It’s one thing to know information,” she adds. “It’s a completely different thing to be a citizen of the world who can navigate conversations about difficult topics in a comfortable, responsible, respectful way.”
Story by Carol Clark. Photos by Kay Hinton.