‘Spreading a social venture for the campus’: Vintage Blue proves it’s more than just a company

By Mimi Tomei

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Two hundred forty-seven dollars is a lot of money to spend on one piece of clothing – especially for a college student.

It’s an even more staggering figure when it’s spent on an old windbreaker, even if that windbreaker is Carolina blue and has the UNC-Chapel Hill logo on the flap of the pocket. But that’s exactly what one customer paid after an intense bidding war unfolded on Vintage Blue’s Instagram page.

By giving the customer who lost the bidding war a free piece of gear, they built a relationship.

Vintage Blue is a purveyor of vintage Carolina paraphernalia from area thrift stores and various online sources. The group connects with its audience through Instagram, their main business platform. Other students model for photo shoots around campus and surrounding areas, fostering relationships. The photos serve as advertisements on the company’s Instagram feed.

Vintage Blue’s crew and models arrived with hangers of clothing at 1789 Venture Lab. Among the clothing was a blue windbreaker featuring the UNC-CH mascot Rameses outlined in yellow. But one item didn’t fit on a hanger: a pair of worn, white basketball shoes.

Marketing director Jessi Zhou springs into action, putting the sneakers on model Katy Dettmer, coming up with a way to lace the shoes so the laces can remain loose a la Jay-Z but will still stay on Dettmer’s feet.

As Zhou works, Dettmer and Connor Von Steen, also modeling for the day’s shoot, chat with the team..

Once the shoes are on, content and creative director Rodrigo Bustamante takes over.

Bustamante and Zhou set up on the steep stairs that lead into the entrepreneurship space from Franklin Street a level down. As Zhou styles Dettmer, Bustamante furiously clicks his shutter.

The whole operation has to pause occasionally when someone needs to walk up or down the creaky, paint-chipped stairs.

Nearby, technology and analytics director Kenny Barone sits at a folding table with his MacBook open, perusing Instagram. Barone calls his business partners over, consulting them about which athletes the group’s feed should follow.

Of course, all the basketball players are a given.

The company is run entirely on Instagram, a choice that was made due to the popularity of social media in the venture’s target customer base: college students.

“If it’s in front of your face, you’re going to click on it,” Zhou said.

Convenience is a big draw for Vintage Blue’s customers. The team scopes out and acquires items online and in local thrift stores, saving their customers the effort of having to traverse greater Chapel Hill area to find the perfect piece of gear.

During this time of year when much of UNC-CH is focused on basketball, it comes as no surprise that Vintage Blue is focusing on athletic wear.

“We definitely try to match the energy of the school,” Jemal Abdulhadi, finance and strategy director, said.

The entrepreneurs give the garments they sell creative names. Some of them coincide with upcoming games, such as a basketball warm-up shirt dubbed “Juice ‘cuse” in reference to the then-upcoming game against Syracuse.

Others include a sweatshirt featuring the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Toons dunking a basketball clad in a UNC-CH jersey entitled “Tazzz,” which Von Steen modeled in front of an old PacMan video game machine.

Why do they do it?

They all get real-world experience in fields they hope to pursue after graduation in a profitable business. They’re a part of the vintage fashion scene in Chapel Hill. They express their creativity by telling multimedia stories. They get to work with items so unique they sometimes struggle to let them go when they’re sold.

And they get to learn more about the people they go to school with.

“I like the idea of spreading a social venture for the campus,” Zhou said. “I like how we’re venturing out and doing the stories, because I think it’s very important whatever you do to have a social impact in some way, and selling vintage clothes isn’t a social impact. But by connecting people in the community – I would really love to learn more about my peers that I can’t reach out to.”

The company uses “originals,” which are journalistic profiles written by Bustamante and Barone, to promote their products on their website. So far, Bustamante and Barone have published three “originals,” accompanied by photos of the subject in the clothing.

“We’ve been working on how we can bridge this gap – like how are we going to make stories and vintage clothing work?” Bustamante said. “But we just realized that we can use the model, or the person that we’re doing the story on, to model the clothing. We do the story one day and then the next day drop the item that is associated with their story.”

So far, juniors Psalms White and Scott Diekema and senior Aaron Epps are all profiled on the originals page.

The company came together quickly at the beginning of the spring 2018 semester. The first profile appeared online February 6 – less than three weeks after the group’s first photoshoot.

Where did it come from and where is it going?

Originally conceived as In With the Old in fall 2016, the startup rebranded to Vintage Blue shortly before the semester began under the guidance of Bustamante and Abdulhadi.  Two weeks in, the business began turning a profit.

Photos of the items, shot by Bustamante, are posted on the feed, along with a starting bid and an ending time for bidding on items. From there, customers place bids through the comments section. Each bid must be at least $2 higher than the last. Customers pay through PayPal or Venmo and then arrange a time to meet with a Vintage Blue team member to pick up their item.

“In the first few weeks, we definitely were careful of what and how we spent money on because we weren’t (generating) significant revenue,” Abdulhadi said. “Since then, we’ve primarily been reinvesting profit in the website, gear and future offerings.”

The group has goals for the future, including an official launch party slated for next month. But these new developments come with logistical challenges the company will have to face, like delivery methods.

Vintage Blue hand delivers all their items to help continue connections with its customers beyond the sale. It helps the customer incur less cost, too, since they don’t have to pay for shipping – but that might not always be the case.

“I think we’re going to have to change our model towards shipping and e-commerce,” Abdulhadi said.

“I think as we grow our following nationally, since there are a lot of Carolina fans nationally, it’ll expand to a ton of people who want to buy stuff.”

Edited by Ana Irizarry

The queens have arrived: Chapel Hill’s emerging drag queen scene

Drag queen Naomi Dix hosts Cat’s Cradle first drag show on Friday, Feb. 23. The show was sold-out. Photo by Rachel Jones.

By Rachel Jones

It’s hard to make out either side of the chalkboard around the crowd.

Facing away from Cat’s Cradle, it reads “DRAG QUEENS ARE COMING!” in big, angular letters, traced in bright blue and retraced in even brighter red.

The side facing Cat’s Cradle reads “LIQUOR,” in just one set of bold white letters with an arrow pointing to the bouncer in the doorway.

Denim and leather and lace sneak around the concrete back porch, squeezing past the rusty green rails that the chalkboard rests on. Everyone looks like they’re wearing highlighter; it lights up under the continuous camera flashes in front of the door.

Nobody is moving — the line is too congested. Boys in makeup and baseball hats laugh at each other. The girls around them wear the same, their pastels muted and dark under the evening sky.

Suddenly, a glimmer of beige cuts through the crowd. Naomi Dix is here.

Short and glamorous, the queen’s shiny latex dress clings to her frame. Her ombre wig flows to her shoulders, making her brown skin glow. Her makeup is traditionally feminine, but with a distinct drag edge; her cheeks are carved out in a bright contour, and her eyelids are swimming in stacks of fake lashes. She’s wearing a massive necklace and an even bigger smile as she greets a gaggle of barely-legal-looking students.

“Oh my god, people showed up,” she said, exclaiming in a feminine, nasally voice. She hugs tightly to fans with the bejeweled hand that’s not clutching a cocktail.

In an hour, she’ll be on stage, announcing Cat’s Cradle’s very first drag show, and one of the only ones in Chapel Hill-Carrboro’s recent memory.

The show is sold-out.

Drag queens have arrived.

Coming up in drag

A sold-out venue was never a guarantee. The night before, Dix sighed into the phone when asked about her turnout expectations.

“I’m not expecting a lot of people to show up,” she said. “Because after all, it is the first show at Cat’s Cradle that they’ve ever had when it comes to drag.”

Dix connected with Cat’s Cradle through a link between her drag family and the bar manager. The reference was bolstered by her recent win at Miss Hispanidad Gay 2017, a drag pageant run by Durham Latino advocacy organization El Centro Hispano.

Friday was her first Carrboro show, but it’s far from her first performance in drag. For her, drag is an outlet, a welcome escape from her day job.

“I have to be a little more kept to myself as Carlos because I work a full-time job. I can’t act like that every single day. So, to be able to work a full-time job from 8 to 5 and then get off, go home and put on makeup for two hours… and look outstandingly gorgeous for the next eight hours,” Dix said. “Who in their right mind wouldn’t mind wouldn’t want to do that?”

Dix is ingrained in Durham’s drag scene, performing and hosting regularly at the Pinhook. It’s normally a concert and event venue, featuring indie bands like Girlpool and Screaming Females alongside activist talks like the Bible Belt Abortion Storytelling Tour.

While drag has entered the mainstream with VH1’s hit show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” that hasn’t necessarily translated to great financial and social success for local drag queens. Like 26-year-old Dix, many of these queens keep a normal day job and set ambitions for a statewide tour, not a national one. This holds especially true in North Carolina, a state better known for basketball and barbecue than its thriving LGBTQ community.

Dix grew up around Raleigh, arguably the hub of drag in the state. It’s home to Legends, a sprawling gay club with drag nights that once hosted Porkchop, North Carolina’s first and only contribution to “Drag Race.”

But Dix didn’t pursue the Raleigh scene, which she perceived as closer to an old-school, man-to-woman form of drag. Instead, she chose Durham.

“What was alluring to me about Durham drag was the free spirit,” she said. “When I started drag, I definitely had this feeling of acceptance and this feeling that I wasn’t being judged as harshly as I may be judged if I’d been doing drag in Raleigh.”

As a beginning queen, she was taken under the wing of Vivica Coxx, one of the pioneers of the Durham scene as a refreshing and more genderqueer alternative to Raleigh drag. Dix’s surname alludes to her drag “family,” the House of Coxx. Led by Vivica, the group often takes gigs together and holds a weekly home-cooked dinner for its members. Now, Dix has drag children of her own, two of whom performed with her Friday night.

One of those queens was Margaret Snatcher, a big queen with even bigger hair. She’s an undergraduate at Duke University, where Dix frequently plans student events and performs.

“Having fun, Chapel Hill-Carrboro?” Snatcher said, hearing screams from the crowd in response.

She had just finished a number to Adele’s “Water Under the Bridge.” During the lip-sync, she reached out to the crowd for volunteers. These brave souls were then gently pointed to motorboat Snatcher’s fake breasts, which were made out of a half-gallon of cooked rice.

“And it’s a snack after the show because it is already cooked,” Snatcher said to loud applause.

Every time a head went under, the crowd roared.

“This is a sold-out drag show,” she said, still out of breath from the song. “You’re in the right place if you’re here right now and nowhere else tonight.”

First-year Nick Tapp-Hughes, who came with his boyfriend, was in the right place. It was his first drag show and his first time at Cat’s Cradle.

“I didn’t think it would be that fun to watch someone lip-sync, but it was really fun,” he said. “I hope that more drag shows happen. Hopefully.”

On stage, Snatcher is still heaving.

“You are lucky, you are lucky, and I want to get lucky tonight! Let me ask — Naomi, are you ready? Now, the queen of the night, Miss Naomi Dix.”

Looking ahead

Dix has been doing drag for four years, and for the past year, her schedule’s only gotten busier. She’s begun thinking about a long-term strategy and vision for her drag career.

She knows she’s popular with students and young crowds, something that Chapel Hill and Carrboro have in droves. Now she’s choosing these towns, the same way she chose Durham.

“I mean, this actually might be something that I can go ahead and take under my wing,” Dix said. “As of a month ago, Chapel Hill and Carrboro have become my new baby, and everyone that lives in Chapel Hill and lives in Carrboro now knows that they are a part of my family, and they are now my children.”

Edited by Megan Cain

Pearl Hacks 2018: A woman’s laptop-laden utopia

Approximately 650 female students gathered together from across the country for Pearl Hacks 2018. The two-day event has been hosted annually at UNC-Chapel Hill since 2014.

By Jessica Abel

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Gina Likins, 49, has an email saved from 1996, written by the man she was dating at the time. It’s the most important email she’s ever received. In fact, she still keeps it printed in her office. It marked the beginning of a great love. But it wasn’t between her and her boyfriend.

The email marked the start of her career in technology.

“He wrote, ‘I heard a story on NPR this morning about a new way of accessing the internet,’” Likins said. “It’s supposed to be easier and more graphical. It’s called the World Wide Web.”

Likins sits in the Great Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill, her alma mater, as she tells this story. It’s just past 9 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 10, but the hall is already buzzing with energy from over 650 young women who are preparing to pull a tech-inspired all-nighter. They’re here for Pearl Hacks, a two-day, all-female hack-a-thon where women can code and create with other women. This is a rare occurrence in the tech industry.

Inception and evolution

Since its first event in 2014, Pearl Hacks has worked to fight gender imbalance and sexism in the tech world — a male-dominated, tough-guy culture known as brogramming — by providing a female-friendly space to collaborate.

And it’s working; Pearl Hacks has tripled in size over the last five years and welcomed women from across the country.

This year, women journeyed from schools like Emory, Georgia Tech and the University of Virginia. There’s a group from New York, too, and someone said she met a few Canadians in the parking lot.

They’ve taken over the entire Student Union this weekend to code projects, present their work, compete for prizes and explore careers in tech.

Empty boxes of catered coffee litter the Union breakfast area. Sponsors such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon and IBM have set up tables like one might see at a middle school science fair. Here, though, there are better prizes. Google brought blankets, YouTube earbuds and laptop stickers. Red Hat, where Likins works, brought ponytail holders and — a classic — branded pens.

Participants run from table to table, trading their resumes with recruiters and planning which tech talks they’ll be attending throughout the weekend.

The event is a scene Likins couldn’t have imagined as a young girl because nothing like it existed. It took dating an engineer while in college for her to discover the major she’d missed. Because she was a woman, it was as though everyone assumed she’d be uninterested something like computer science.

“I grew up in my grandfather’s shop building things with hammers and nails and saws,” Likins said. “My dad showed me how an old school stereo works, circuit breakers and everything, when I was, like, 10. I had all of the right mindset to do it. I just didn’t know it was a thing.”

Linkins finished her degree in public relations and got a job at a law firm in Raleigh.

In February 1994, a coworker asked her to build a website for the business. Likins did the site architecture and design and hired someone to do the coding and graphics. It was the first law firm website created in North Carolina. The invention of the web, still in grey-scale and without icons, aligned with good timing and a lot of luck for Likins to find her way into a technological career as an open source code expert.

Likins wants other women to find the career more easily and fight its male-dominated stigma.

Inclusive, ambitious and fashion-forward

“There’s all kinds of ridiculous things about the brogrammer culture, like, ‘You must have thick skin to be here,’” Likins said. “No. I think it’s possible to say anything in a kind way.”

To combat this tough-guy tech approach, Likins runs workshops on how to be inclusive in coding culture. She gave her first talk, “Netiquette: How to avoid getting flamed online,” in 1994.

But, for these women at Pearl Hacks 2018, Likins had something special and fun planned. Her workshop, “Hack Your Hoodie,” was one of 21 workshops that participants could attend throughout the day while they worked on their final coding projects.

Likins brought LED lights while participants brought shirts, hats, tote bags and other such items to decorate. Two women, Danielle Uzor and Marisol Garcia, who became friends at a hack-a-thon in Charlotte, prepared to reengineer a black scrunchie and a brown cotton headband.

Uzor, a senior at UNC-Charlotte, attended “Hack Your Hoodie” last year and discovered her hidden talent for creating wearable technology.

She once designed a glowing white gown that looked like a Taylor Swift tour costume. It caught on fire once as Uzor was working on it, a matter of crossed wires and a shorted circuit. She put out the smolder with no problem, though.

The piece was captivating, but Uzor remained humble about her work.

“It was really fun to make,” she said, head bowed, sewing the tiny lights into her headband. “Just a little bit of coding and a little bit of hardware. It didn’t really take that long. Maybe a week? And that was because I had to do it between classes.”

Uzor helped Garcia loop the metal thread through her scrunchie before the coders switched their battery packs on with pride. The room lit up with lights and smiles. All the women were asking to take pictures of one another’s work.

“When I was in middle school and high school, I never heard of anything like this,” Uzor said. “We need to get younger girls into wearable technology. It shows girls that coding can be girly and really fun.”

Lack of information isn’t the only problem. Women in science, math and technology constantly face discrimination and harassment.

A few years ago, Likins posted a video to YouTube. She’d had an engineering epiphany while serving as general contractor for her house and wanted to share her invention. The video was dry and instructional. In it, she was wearing a baggy grey sweatshirt.

“I got a comment in December,” Likins said, fixing her glasses. “The only comment: ‘Nice boobs.’”

She paused for a moment.

“I was trying to tell my husband I expect sexist comments. It’s terrible, but I expect it. That it happened on a video where I’m talking about construction? Jesus. What do I have to do?”

Stephanie Zhu, a programmer at Amazon Video and a Pearl Hacks speaker, said she started asking the same question during her undergraduate career at the University of Pennsylvania.

“When I was in college, I was in computer science and started to feel unwelcomed and didn’t know why,” Zhu said. “Some of the guys would ask, ‘Why do you feel like you’ve experienced bias here?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know, but it feels different. It feels slightly more hostile.’”

Her gender studies classes at UPenn equipped her with the vocabulary to describe what she felt. When she and her female friends acted ambitiously, their classmates thought they were pushy. When her male friends did the same, they were lauded.

Now Zhu is on a mission to share her findings. She presented the information to Pearl Hacks participants and shared her tools to help dispel the bias. Striving to celebrate other women for their accomplishments and learning how to negotiate salaries were two such tools.

Challenging stereotypes, celebrating success and looking to the future

As the sun rose on Sunday, Feb. 11, sleepy coders finished their projects and returned to the Great Hall to show their hard work to the judges.

Evelyn Lockwood from George Mason University and Savannah Jones, a University of Virginia student, created an application that used a Google program to scan library barcodes to lead users to the book’s exact location.

Mary Gibeau and Haley DeZwaan, UNC-CH students, programmed a self-watering planter inspired by the time Gibeau’s parents let her flowers die over Thanksgiving break. They used UNC-CH’s woodshop to craft the planter box and grabbed some pink and purple pansies from Home Depot for the demo.

There was a website application from Georgia Tech that doubled as a feelings journal, a new chat room for women interested in pursuing tech projects with other women from around the world and at least two dozen other creations.

All in less than 24 hours.

Next year will be Likins’ sixth Pearl Hacks. The graduating seniors are planning on returning to mentor new coders. Uzor can’t wait to outdo her last gown; Zhu will continue to arm women with feminist tech defense.

For them and the 650 other women, the weekend was a break from reality, a glimpse into the industry’s future, a laptop-laden heaven. And it was definitely worth the road trip.

“I tell everyone,” Jones said, hugging her teammate before packing up, “‘If Pearl Hacks is sending a bus, you’ve got to get on.’”

Edited by MaryRachel Bulkeley

No yoga partner, no worries. Goats may be available at your next workout

By Jackeline Lizama

You won’t believe this workout until you see it. Goat yoga is the latest exercise trend that everyone wants to be a part of, especially yoga enthusiasts.

On the weekends, people line up at a farm with mats in hand, ready to start their yoga class. Except, this class won’t start until the Nigerian Dwarf goats walk in. No, the goats don’t actually do yoga but they do a few stretches that look like they are.

From the moment you step onto the Hux Family Farm in Durham, you can hear the sounds of ducks quacking, horses neighing and sheep bleating. You will even see bunnies that are so fluffy they look like cotton balls with a hidden face.

As people pass the entry gate, goats crowd around and stare at them with their beady eyes, wondering what or who just entered into their domain. They will continue to sniff anyone, anywhere, searching for food.

The Nigerian Dwarf goats are a friendly miniature goat breed. This is their way of welcoming newcomers, even if it does come off somewhat strange.

The goats and sheep are free to roam around the guests. Not to mention, other goats eating, cuddling and jumping around. It only takes a few seconds before they forget you’re there and move on to the next person, and the entire cycle of welcoming starts over.

Is goat yoga really a thing? What are people saying?

The first time Sophie Davis, a student from North Carolina State University, did yoga at the farm one of the goats kept jumping.

“It would get like two feet in the air to get on top of you,” Davis said. “It was so cute.”

Davis has participated in the goat yoga class three times and is now looking to work at the farm with the goats.

With these goats you never know what to expect, one moment they’re taking a nap and the next they’re running around with pieces of carrot in their mouths.

“I think they are hyper for like ten minutes at a time and then they’re like goodnight,” Davis said.

The class is like no other. Half the class is doing yoga poses while the other half is laughing so hard they can hardly keep their balance. The goats will run between people’s legs, chew on their hair and even climb on their back to cuddle and take a short nap.

OK, but how did an idea like this even get started in the first place?

Farm owner, Matthew Hux, says he and his wife have had the farm for nearly four years and got the goats as part of their homestead. They primarily raised the goats for dairy and used the milk to make cheese, yogurt and even ice cream until they realized the goats had a lot more to offer.

“We ended up having really friendly goats…so we wanted to share that with people,” Hux said. “We heard about goat yoga in Oregon and we decided to try it out.”

The idea of goat yoga came from a woman in Albany, Oregon, named Lainey Morse. She started doing therapy with her goats after a recent divorce and illness. Morse found the goats to be therapeutic and soon began her own goat yoga classes.

Goat yoga has since snowballed into a global sensation with classes starting everywhere, including Hux Family Farm.

Amanda Hux, Matthew’s wife, started her own meditation with the goats and saw a video of goat yoga being done in several other places.

“I was like ‘Oh! We can do that, too!’” Hux said. “So that’s why we started this.”

The first three goat yoga classes filled up immediately and were a success, so Hux and his wife decided to keep the classes going. Participants are so fascinated by the goats they cannot help but laugh when a goat stands on their back as they do a Downward-Facing Dog. The classes are held nearly every Saturday and Sunday, and cost $20 for an hour of fun.

The most recent addition to the farm family includes two baby goats, Blaze and Maverick. These goat babies will come out with their tiny wagging tails. At first, these miniature animals look like they have no control over their legs since they won’t ever stop jumping, but that’s how every goat is as a baby.

From the moment the goats are born, they get completely accustomed to the people who treat and handle them. Once the goats are older and exposed to different people they will remain calm.

Goat yoga is more than stretching muscles and petting goats, it provides therapy to those who least expect it. In other words, it’s just plain happiness. Jeff Zimmerman, one of the yoga participants, said he came to the class after his wife had seen the event on Facebook and encouraged him to go with her.

“It was a little odd having a goat on me, but it was a lot of fun.” said Zimmerman. “We had a good time.”

If goat yoga isn’t surprising enough, there’s more

Hux Family Farm doesn’t limit itself to just yoga, it also offers classes of meditation and therapy with goats. “We’re also working on getting our horses to therapy status. Then we can help and engage with everybody.” Matthew Hux said. “That is our main mission here.”

Once the yoga class is over, everyone plays and takes selfies with the goats. Even if people don’t want to participate in the yoga, it can still be lots of fun to watch.

The best part of this unique experience is that the goats are completely unaware of how happy they make people. As everyone walked out of the farm, they all left with smiles on their faces and waved goodbye to their furry, four-legged friends.

Edited by Brittney Robinson


Beyond the rally: UNC students honor Parkland victims and fight for change

By Anne McDarris

Austin Hahn stood at the front of the room, his hands clasped in front of him, rocking back and forth on the balls of his Birkenstock-clad feet. He stared at the 31 UNC-Chapel Hill students sitting in gray plastic chairs and on the counter to the side of the room. The members of the Young Democrats club stared right back.

“So the rally’s in two days,” he said. He glanced at the woman slouching in the front row, dead center in a red hoodie.  “It’s been kind of a whirlwind.”

Shannon Taflinger, a senior at UNC-CH, looked back at him. She knew this well. After all, the upcoming rally against gun violence was her idea — the result of a Friday evening in her room, spent avoiding homework and instead thinking about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14. On Facebook, she watched a few interviews of the survivors.

Students from Stoneman Douglas have spoken out about their experience with gun violence, and many are taking their message of reform to the national stage. Students from across the country responded to this spark of activism, and demonstrations against gun violence from Texas to Michigan to California roared into existence.

Taflinger was inspired.

“They can’t even vote,” Taflinger said. “I’m 23. I can vote. I have political efficacy. I thought to myself, ‘Why? Why am I just sitting here in my room? I can do something.’”

She created an event on Facebook and emailed Hahn, the leader of the UNC-CH Young Democrats. He latched onto the idea, and together they planned a rally for Thursday, Feb. 22.

For six days, Taflinger’s Facebook event spread and reached 3,165 people. Three hundred and thirty nine people marked that they would attend.

Enough is enough

The day of the rally was sunny and warm, especially for mid-February.  People gathered in front of Wilson Library at 11 a.m., standing in the grass with handmade signs: “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH” in black marker, “#NEVERAGAIN” in blocky red.

Protestors faced the library, and, one by one, speakers came to stand in front of them on the low stone wall dividing the grass from the sidewalk. U.S. Rep. David Price and state Rep. Graig Meyer, both Democrats, were among those who spoke. They looked out of place in suits, addressing a crowd sporting T-shirts and jeans.

“There is something different about this time, and it has to do with the activism by people like you,” Price said during his speech. “We must respond to it… there’s nothing wrong with thoughts and prayers, but not when it’s a cover for inaction. We can’t let this die. We have to keep pushing.”

The people in the crowd sounded like old Southern churchgoers: they hummed, shifted restlessly, punctured the speeches with moaning, floating yeses and nos and dashes of applause.  But this congregation was angry at the situation that called them together; they yelled curse words instead of halleluiahs. There were many passionate words by passionate people, but they were preaching to the choir.

Hahn spoke, Taflinger spoke, and then after a few chants and howling applause, the crowd dispersed. It was over in 40 minutes.

After the rally, Meyer stood with the students. He was well over 6 feet tall and spoke in a long Southern accent without breaking eye contact.

“I don’t know whether I can guarantee whether it will turn into long-term sustained engagement,” he said.  “There’s all kinds of people who get fired up about an issue, and then you try to make a difference and it doesn’t work right away and it gets hard. But change like this is a major social, cultural change… and it’s going to take a lot of work extended over a long period of time.”

Sustaining the momentum

The next major milestone in reducing gun violence is translating student demonstrations into political action, which may be difficult in North Carolina.  The state’s U.S. senators, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, have received approximately $4.5 million and $7 million respectively from the National Rifle Association, according to the Federal Election Commission.

An email signed by Tillis from “donotreply@tillis.senate.gov” said, “While there are strongly-held opinions on these issues, I believe a healthy dialogue is long overdue, and I am optimistic we can find bipartisan common ground in the weeks and months ahead.”

High school students are also pushing hard. Students across the United States are organizing their own rallies and walkouts, including students at Woods Charter School in Chapel Hill, which is a ten-minute drive from UNC-CH.  Eleventh grader Matti Kauftheil is leading the charge at Woods Charter by organizing the school’s walkout as part of a nation-wide demonstration.

Kauftheil, who uses “they” pronouns, who likes English and feminism and the environment, is also 16 years old — too young to vote, but not too young for political activism.

“Students carry so much power when they stand together because we are the next generation,” Kauftheil said. “And when we show legislators that we can make a change and we will vote and we are coming for their jobs, we are a threat.”

Kauftheil said that Woods Charter’s administration is in full support of the walkout, which is slated for March 14. Kauftheil said there is a buzz in both the middle and high schools about the event and gun reform in general.

“Most people think that walking out is either an honorable thing to do or is an action that will do nothing,” Kauftheil said.

Taflinger certainly hopes it will do something. She is turning her attention to supporting national protests like the March 14 walkout and the national March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington DC.

And a new organization on campus, UNC 4 MSD, is planning another demonstration for March 29.

A suggestion of hope

At the rally, two young women stood in the crowd with their signs.  After a last round of applause, Niki Wasserman and Lily Skopp loitered for a few minutes, took a few pictures with Price, then started the walk toward North Campus together.

Wasserman and Skopp both graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Both knew victims of the shooting.

“It felt like time kind of stopped for a couple of days there,” Wasserman said. She is a senior at UNC-CH and graduated from Stoneman Douglas in 2014.

Skopp looked haunted. There was a subtle sagging in her shoulders and her sentences pushed and pulled, but her eyes were clear. As a first-year student at UNC-CH, she graduated from Stoneman Douglas last year.

“Every Friday, when Mr. Thompson would come on the intercom, he would sign off by saying…” Skopp trailed off and looked at Wasserman.  “What was it?”

They stared at each other for a beat, thinking of their principal’s mantra, and then both began speaking, uncertain for a word or two until their memory found a foothold.

“Be positive, be passionate and be proud to be an Eagle,” they said in unison.

“And I think that this message really stands for this movement,” Skopp said, a suggestion of a smile curving the corners of her mouth.

Edited by Janna Childers.

West Franklin Street’s VibeHouse 405 draws “creative rebels”

By Caroline McKinley

Their eyes were level with his sneakers planted firmly on the black platform. The crowd craned their necks and looked up past his dark pants and denim jacket to rest on the microphone in his hand. They tracked the trajectory of the mic to his lips.

“More sauce, 506, more sauce,” he said.

Kevin “Kaze” Thomas addressed the crowd at Local 506, a bar and concert venue on West Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The sauce? Well, that’s up for interpretation.

Thomas’ performance on Friday, February 23, was part of the second act of the grand opening of VibeHouse 405, a recording studio, art gallery and “home for creative rebels.” The concept evolved to fill a gaping void: Thomas needed a place to play music.

“I didn’t have anywhere to perform and it felt like…kryptonite,” Thomas said. “Like for real. I felt myself turning stuffy and dying. That was a thing that I needed, that I knew that other people needed.”

Thomas owns half of VibeHouse 405. The woman who claims the other half was one of the bopping heads on the dance floor beneath him.

Wendy Mann’s unruly black curls bounced as she moved with the bass. She shimmied next to her 19-year-old daughter, Adela. Mann wore blue jeans that she splatter-painted herself—she’ll make you a pair if you want. She lifted her phone to take a video of Thomas.

Cosmic intervention

They might be the most unexpected business partners. Thomas is a 40-year-old African American rapper whose album on Soundcloud is titled “Black Kennedy 2.” Mann is a 50-year-old white real estate owner who used to run a private counseling practice. A few years ago, no one would have guessed that they’d own a business together, much less finish each other’s sentences.

“Well hello universe for bringing us together,” Mann said.

Kevin “Kaze” Thomas (right) and Wendy Mann met in what seemed to be an act of cosmic intervention. A few years later, together they opened VibeHouse 405, a recording studio.

Thomas had just left L.A. and needed a way to pay the rent while he wrote rhymes, so he got a daytime gig at the front desk of Mina’s, a boutique salon across from Whole Foods. The day Mann walked in to make an appointment, Thomas handed her a CD.

“Do you listen to hip-hop?” said Thomas, extending the silver disc across the counter.

“Yeah,” Mann said, accepting the offering. “My daughter does. And I do too—if it’s good.”

She squinted at the print on the cover before looking back at Thomas.

“Wait a minute,” she said. “Are you doing something at the Local 506? That’s my club.”

The duo has been inseparable since the cosmic intervention. The recording studio is their latest joint business venture.

“I’ve been trying to get a format like this for eight years now,” Thomas said. “Where it would be all genres of music, all types of people, all the artist community together on one level. Exchanging that energy. Friday night.”

“We saw it all come [together],” Mann said. “It blew me out of the f—— water. It was everything we have been envisioning.”

Open house night a success

The event was twofold: An open house in the gallery portion of the studio followed by live performances at Local 506. It began at 5 p.m. that evening, when the sun was clocking out with the working folks, and the glass door between Perennial Coffee and a vacant smoke shop was unlocked. A sign was placed out front.

Neon pink capitals swaggered across the slick, black billboard: ART GALLERY OPEN HOUSE. A man carried a metal tree hung with empty perfume bottles up the narrow stairs. ‘90s hip-hop buzzed into the front room from Thomas’ phone. Mann arranged the table under the window. Bowls of Oreos, chocolate-covered almonds and Twizzlers plunked next to a plate of deviled eggs and chicken salad sandwiches. Bottles of pink champagne sweated in a bucket of ice on the ground. These were just the final touches. Mann had spent the better part of the day arranging works from 11 artists in the gallery. She gestured to the purple walls with a bejeweled finger.

“It’s like white, super punk chick, to white older guy with black woman friend,” Mann said, pointing at each canvas and indicating the artist. “You know it’s just white, black, Hispanic, mixed.”

While Mann adhered the last wall labels, the first guests of the evening arrived. It was her 70-year-old neighbors, Eleanor Rutledge and her husband Dr. James Lesher. Lesher is a semiretired philosophy professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who couldn’t keep his hands off the chicken salad or stop talking about his upcoming trip to Greece.

Event-goers consisted of a range of demographic groups

As the night went on, the average age in the gallery declined. Young professionals, students and even Thomas’ 6-year-old son Quaran perused the artwork and peeked into the recording studio. For the timid first-timers, Thomas was their guide. He ushered patrons into the booth’s hushed padded walls and let the chorus of “wows” lap over him.

“It’s like I was giving tours of Disneyland,” Thomas said.

Around 8 p.m., the crowd in the gallery meandered down the staircase and out onto the pavement, veering left. The doors of the Local 506 opened and a bearded man with a septum piercing waited at the front to check IDs and stamp hands.

Initially, the bar was more popular than the dance floor. People were inquiring about India pale ales on draft or ordering mixed drinks from the chalkboard menu when Benjamin Clancy, also known as sea brain, took the stage. The lanky young white kid in a blue and white striped sweater half-sang half-spoke an eclectic set list self-described as “music for whales.” And the crowd was into it.

“How many of my homeboys that came there for just the rap part saw sea brain and they were like, ‘Man, yo, I like the homie,’” Thomas said.

Thomas’ humble beginnings turn into success

Thomas has a crew now, but it wasn’t always packed bars and neon lights. He remembers his time as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, standing in the Pit, getting laughed at while passing out flyers for Hip Hop Nation. He still remembers the chorus of naysayers’ voices: “What are you trying to do? Are you trying to make a rap club?”

Friday night’s third act was the UNC Student Hip Hop Organization—perhaps today’s iteration of the rap club Thomas was spurned for trying to form. Five young men in assorted baby blue jerseys took the stage and wooed the crowd with their hit “Venmo,” named after the money-sharing iPhone app.

The crowd pumped their arms up and down in a move Thomas describes as “gigging.” Onlookers in faux fur coats and pastel fraternity T-shirts alike removed themselves from the periphery and claimed spots at the edge of the stage. The lineup built to a crescendo—just as Thomas designed it. During the final act, Durham rappers Defacto Thezpian and Lil’ Bob Doe spit tracks from their album “Facts about Bob.”

Thomas bounced behind the rap duo. Even without the mic, his hands waved the beat into the crowd. And even when the stage lights cut out, he kept his sunglasses on.

“It just felt crazy; I was like, ‘Oh my god,’” Thomas said. “It was like everybody’s in here glowing. It was crazy like that.”

Six hours after the gallery opened, the last stragglers slapped skin and called Ubers in front of the Local 506. Some embraced the mild February night and retraced their steps down Franklin Street.

“This town was always an artist community. Indie-based, rock, alternative—whatever. Just cool s— here,” Thomas said. “We didn’t want to see that die. This is a part of bringing that back—that energy back.”

The aftermath of open house night

Sitting together in the studio the next day, Thomas and Mann are still running on fumes of giddy energy. Thomas offers Mann a Blow Pop before he unwraps a cherry one for himself. He leans back into the windowsill to describe his takeaway from the night.

“I feel like it’s inclusive and open,” Thomas said, after the suction smack of the candy leaving his mouth. “It’s more like come get in the pool. Come get in the sauce.”

According to Thomas, more sauce means more energy. More swag.

“It’s getting in the flow of what feels good and amplifying that even higher,” he said.

Edited by Savannah Morgan. 

From “Flappy Yeet” to Linker Logic: Ritwik Pavan’s path to success

By Moses Musilu

Cary native Ritwik Pavan was a 16-year-old junior at Enloe High School in Raleigh when the must-have app was “Flappy Bird,” a simple one-button game in which you navigate a bird over obstacles by tapping the screen to make the bird jump. Around the same time “Flappy Bird” went viral, a Vine video of a boy, later named Lil’ Meatball, dancing in a circle surrounded by his friends yelling “Yeet!” was gaining popularity as well.

After watching countless tutorials on application development, Pavan thought he could create his own.

In April 2014, Pavan combined elements of the viral video with the concept of “Flappy Bird.” He built a game that featured a bird, too, but also Lil’ Meatball.

In the game, Lil’ Meatball sat on top of the flying bird, jumping over each obstacle as you tapped the screen. With every tap, Lil’ Meatball would yell, “Yeet!” Pavan called the game “Flappy Yeet,” and released it to the app stores.

For Pavan, it was just something to do for fun. But he had no idea that his own app would, too, go viral.

Going Viral

In the first couple of days, “Flappy Yeet” recorded over 80,000 downloads. After a couple of weeks, that number grew to 250,000. Soon, the number exceeded over 350,000 downloads. Ritwik says he became one of the first North Carolina residents to have their app on the top three charts for Apple and Android.

“Soon everyone wanted an app made. ‘Ritwik, I want this idea! Ritwik, can you do this?’ People started to reach out to me to make their apps when I literally used tutorials to make this game. It just went viral unexpectedly.”

Inspired by his success, Pavan saw an opportunity to learn more about app development. Many people were asking for help with their ideas, and Pavan saw a big market.

Knowing he needed help, he reached out to one of his high school classmates, now head of graphic design, Casey Riemann. Pavan heard Riemann was studying computer science and already knew how to build apps.

“It didn’t take that much to convince me,” Riemann said. “It was a good idea.”

And four years later, a party of two developers became a party of 30. Linker Logic Technologies Inc. was born.

Setting up Shop

Now the company provides clients with branding, marketing, web development, app development, software development, Apple Watch development and other services. The price to have an app made by Pavan and his team ranges from $25,000 to over $100,000. Pavan says his company is valued at more than a million dollars, and will only continue to grow. They’ve developed over 50 applications for clients, including Cary Cardiology, WakeMed and other startups.

One of the first big contracts they signed with was WRAL-TV. Pavan says his experience with them changed the whole mindset of Linker Logic Technologies Inc.

“WRAL saw an article about us on the News & Observer, and around that time the Apple Watch was just hitting the market,” he recalls. “They asked us if we could create an application for them on the Apple Watch, and we agreed to tackle their challenge. We created the first local news Apple Watch application for them. That got us to the next level.”

From there, many opportunities began to unfold for the team of app developers. Pavan says it gave them a new mindset. Being adjusted to the professional environment at such a young age gave him insight on what to expect down the road.

Playing as a Team

Pavan takes his employees out for weekly lunches or dinners to keep the team’s morale up. But when bigger deals are signed and completed, Pavan enhances the reward.

“If we win a big deal or contract, I’ll take the whole team out to a nice dinner spot,” he says. “Sometimes we travel. I’m definitely trying to get company retreats happening as we expand. We work hard, play hard.”

Every Sunday, Pavan spends the day in his Franklin Street office. Pictures of himself and past clients surround the walls. Meetings with the UNC Board of Trustees, shaking hands with Nasdaq CEO Adena Friedman and even business entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk can be seen smiling back at you. In his phone, he has pictures of his trip to Portugal, and after a couple of swipes, you’ll see him meeting Portugal’s Prime Minister, António Costa. Pavan says all his encounters with successful people made him realize one thing.

“They were all normal people at one time,” he said. “They just had a vision or a goal. Now they’re just normal people who have met their goals allowing for them to be successful and famous or whatever you want to say. They’ve made me realize that the challenge and struggles will be worth it by the end.”

Pavan doesn’t intend on stopping any time soon. His team of developers continues to grow, while adding new projects every few weeks. He says they’re working on nine ongoing projects and expect more to come.

Thinking Ahead

So, what’s next for Linker Logic in the future?

“I see the company expanding rapidly in the next five years,” Riemann said. “We have just opened offices in Raleigh and India, and are in the process of building a dedicated, full time team to service the triangle area. I see only greatness coming our way, and I look forward to the road ahead.”

Pavan wants the company to expand on their own ideas.

“I hope to bring a lot of in-house developments for Linker Logic,” he says. “There’s a lot of good that can be done in this world with technology, and over the past four years, my team and I have gained the funding, connections, and experience to do that.”

Edited by Lily Stephens

The Daily Tar Heel faces financial troubles as it turns 125

By Danielle Chemtob

Tyler Fleming’s nerves were racing as he proceeded to the podium. In front of him sat hundreds of journalists who had built the Daily Tar Heel, the student publication he was now in charge of.

All around him, the newspaper’s alumni traded stories full of truths and exaggerations from their time at the paper. Stories that, in many cases, shaped their careers as they went on to achieve national fame at some of the top news organizations in the country.

They were all gathered in the ballroom of the Carolina Inn for a historic occasion: to celebrate the Daily Tar Heel’s 125th anniversary. They proudly wore — and lived — the motto on the event’s buttons: print news and raise hell.

As the celebration ensued, Fleming, the paper’s current editor-in-chief, prepared to tell the crowd that despite the paper’s illustrious past achievements, the next 125 years of its survival were far more uncertain.

The paper has lost an average of $200,000 per year in recent years as the decline of print advertising revenue sweeping the industry has hit hard. In fiscal year 2016, its total revenue was less than a million dollars. It cut print publication from five days per week to four, and this year to three.

Nonetheless, Fleming began to describe his hope for the publication’s future to the 250 people seated in front of him.

“My editors have sat through meetings talking about what happens if the DTH doesn’t have any more money,” he said. “But if editors and young staffers can sit through a meeting and discuss what are we going do if we have literally no dollars left and still show up to work the next day excited to put out a paper, I think as far as internally goes, we have nothing to worry about.”

Staff enthusiasm alone can’t save the paper from financial peril, though. But the alumni in that room, a number of whom had generous pocketbooks, could certainly help.

This was Fleming’s chance to keep the lights on at the institution he loved.

A year of changes

The paper’s 125th celebration that weekend wasn’t the first time Fleming had detailed its financial woes.

In September, Fleming brought his management team to Starbucks, where he broke the news.

Prepare for the worst, he said. Print would be cut. Staff salaries, too.

They brainstormed ideas, but there was no simple answer. The same month, Fleming stood in front of his section editors and assistant editors after a typical budget meeting and had the same conversation.

“What are we going to do?” he asked.

One of the editors asked him what he planned to do.

“When you respond, ‘I don’t know,’ it really emphasizes how hard of a solution this is,” he said.

All along, Fleming fought for the student journalists on his staff as the paper’s board of directors — comprised of Fleming, students from the general campus community, alumni and professionals — ultimately decided its fate.

On some battles, he had to compromise, even when it hurt most. He drafted a resignation letter after the board began seriously considering cutting all student salaries.

“You go into journalism to try to hold people to ethical standards and sometimes you have to hold yourself to it,” he said.

Ultimately, the board adopted a plan shortly before the end of the fall semester that reduced student salaries by 40 percent and shrunk the size of the print product. The paper terminated their lease early on their office on Rosemary Street, moving into a smaller space on Franklin Street in February.

And as Fleming prepared to take the stage in front of the alumni at the headlining event of the 125th anniversary weekend, the decisions he had made over the past six months weighed heavily on him.

He spoke of the paper’s importance in the community, and speaker after speaker reflected on the Daily Tar Heel as a formative experience for their career.

“Not all fraternities are defined by Greek letters, some are defined by lead stories,” Rob Nelson, now a co-anchor at WABC-TV in New York, said in an impassioned speech to the crowd. “It’s about being part of something far bigger and far more lasting than yourself. Having a chance to write just one chapter of an extraordinary book. Feelings like that cannot be engraved on a Pacemaker plaque.”

The support kept coming as the paper kicked off its $25,000, one-month fundraising campaign. A week and a half after the event, it had raised more than $14,000.

While the fundraising alone is not enough to sustain the paper in the long run — or even for a month — the event was the start of changing tides. For the first time, alumni knew the full extent of the institution’s financial turmoil, and many were willing to do whatever it took to turn the situation around at the institution that built their career.

“This paper will not fold,” Nelson said to the fired up crowd. “Period.”

A multi-generational effort

The weekend wasn’t just about the monetary support from alumni. It was also about receiving guidance from the journalists who had been forced to grapple with the same crisis themselves.

In her opening remarks for Saturday morning’s panels and events, Daily Tar Heel alumnus Robyn Tomlin, the recently appointed executive editor at the News and Observer, offered a vision of hope for the transforming media landscape.

“In local news, it’s not about selling a product,” Tomlin said later in an interview. “The DTH is free. It’s about getting people to want to invest in a service. That’s part of what the Daily Tar Heel has to do, is to define, what is the service it provides to the community?”

Hugh Stevens, a 1965 graduate and former co-editor of the paper, has witnessed firsthand the financial strain placed on newspapers in North Carolina. Stevens, a North Carolina media lawyer who served as general counsel to the North Carolina Press Association, has represented the Daily Tar Heel, among other local media organizations, for decades.

Stevens continues to have faith in the newsroom he’s devoted his life to defending.

“In a town and with an institution like the university where there’s such an appetite for information, there ought to be a way to have a sustainable business model that involves collecting, editing and supplying info,” he said. “Exactly what that model is is what the DTH needs to try to figure out.”

Figuring it out

Last year, the publication began a venture that could quickly grow into a significant piece of that business model. The 1893 brand studio — modeled off of similar outposts of news organizations — provides marketing and branding services for local businesses and organizations. The team has grown to over 30 people working in graphic design, web development, photo and video, social media and event planning.

The 10 clients the studio serves are funding their own staffs, most of whom are paid as freelancers. But the studio’s costs are so low that it’s generating additional funds to help support the newsroom.

“I wish we could scale even faster,” said Madi Coffing, a senior public relations and economics student serving as managing director of the brand studio. “Once we get big enough, we could be a significant revenue stream.”

The brand studio is just one piece of the puzzle, and it alone won’t save the paper. Creating a sustained fundraising effort is another piece.

But even if all of these ideas fail, Fleming doesn’t seem worried that student journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill will be lost.

“I do think that worst case scenario, the DTH shuts down and packs up the bags,” Fleming said. “I have no doubt there’s going to be students who saw the value. They’ll keep the tradition of the DTH alive even if it’s by another name.”

It may not be print. It may not even be called the Daily Tar Heel. But whoever the young journalists to come may be, they will still achieve the most crucial part of the paper’s mission.

They’ll raise hell.


Edited by Allison Tate

The uncertain future of kratom: herbal remedy or addictive opioid?

By Mitra Norowzi

By the time Friday rolls around, Candice Varnadore is tired and sore. She steps into Oasis Coffee & Tea House at Carr Mill in Carrboro for a pick-me-up. The coffee shop offers a wide assortment of coffee beverages, teas and smoothies. But those are not what she came for.

Although her steps are slow and calculated, weary after a hard week’s work of cleaning houses, she strides purposefully towards the counter. She greets the shop’s owner, Robert Roskind, with a grin, revealing a few missing teeth. Wasting no time, she tells him she’d like four bags, please. Roskind quickly fills her order, telling her her total will be $86, and that he’s thrown in a fifth bag for free. She thanks him profusely.

The 20-ounce bags she bought contain a little-known substance called kratom. Scientifically known as mitragyna speciosa, kratom comes from the leaves of an evergreen tree that is part of the coffee family. It is native to Southeast Asia and has been used as a natural remedy in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia for thousands of years to treat pain and various mood disorders, as well as to increase energy.

It is believed that immigrants from these countries brought the practice of using kratom with them to the U.S. Here, people most often ingest crushed kratom leaves mixed into beverages. The plant is not smoked, nor is it taken intravenously. Older generations tend to use the plant to relieve pain, while the younger generation tends to most often use it for mood enhancement as an alternative to prescription antidepressants, marijuana or alcohol.

Varnadore is one of those users seeking pain relief, which started when she was about 60, she says.

“I would wake up and my hips and my knees would be killing me and I couldn’t get any relief from any doctor,” Varnadore says. “I ate so much Aleve, my stomach was upset. It wasn’t helping me.”

The pain was adversely affecting the 63-year-old’s ability to do the laborious work necessary to make her living cleaning houses until a friend asked her if she’d ever tried kratom. When Varnadore said she hadn’t, her friend brought her to Oasis and bought her a cup, which is typically served there mixed in chocolate almond milk or orange juice.

“It tastes awful,” Varnadore says. “But I’ll be darned if it didn’t take the pain away.”

But Varnadore and the other five million Americans who use kratom may have to seek relief elsewhere.

Legal limbo

In November, Scott Gottlieb, commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration, announced that that the agency is concerned about kratom’s opioid-like properties in the face of the nation’s opioid epidemic.

This statement came after a 2016 statement by the Drug Enforcement Administration said it intends to schedule kratom as a Schedule 1 drug, alongside illegal substances such as heroin, cocaine and meth. The DEA halted the criminalization process after an outcry from kratom advocates, agreeing to postpone the ban until further research by the FDA could be conducted.

On Feb. 6, Gottlieb released another statement further detailing the FDA’s worries about kratom, announcing that the agency was now confident in labeling the substances in kratom as opioids. This statement was based on computational modeling the agency conducted, and in consideration of reports of 36 deaths associated with kratom use.

But defenders of kratom are not satisfied with Gottlieb and the FDA’s evidence, and are especially displeased that their research is based off a computational model rather than practical trials.

Roskind criticized the FDA and DEA statements regarding kratom, pointing out that Gottlieb, who was appointed to the FDA by President Donald Trump, is a pharmacy industry insider. Indeed, Gottlieb has worked with drug companies in the past, making millions, an issue raised during his nomination.

Among the 36 deaths associated with kratom, just one individual had only kratom in his system—the rest either had other drugs in their systems in addition to kratom at the times of their deaths, or prior health conditions, according to FDA reports.

Kratom’s pharmacology isn’t well understood and few studies have been conducted on it. More comprehensive analyses, like those from researchers at Columbia University and the University of Oklahoma have found that kratom does contain alkaloids that bind to opioid receptors in the brain similar to the way morphine does.

However, the study conducted by Columbia University and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center found that kratom only partially stimulates opioid receptors, more closely resembling the effects of drugs used to treat opioid addiction than that of opioids most responsible for overdose, such as heroin and fentanyl.

The problem is, none of these studies have been conducted on humans, so the tangible human effects of kratom are supported only by anecdotal evidence. This anecdotal evidence is abundant, especially at Oasis.

Different purposes for different people

Of the five people lingering in the shop at the time of Varnadore’s visit, four are drinking kratom, Roskind points out. One is a graduate student using kratom to increase his productivity while he studies. He wears headphones and has textbooks strewn about on his table as he bends over his laptop. Another two are a middle-aged couple visiting from Sunset Beach, decked out in Pittsburgh Penguins jerseys, in town for a hockey game. They noticed a sign outside Oasis about kratom, and decided to try it for the first time, hoping it might be something they can recommend to their daughter to help her depression. The last is a young woman in business attire who says she takes kratom for her anxiety.

Tina Rizzo, 55, one half the of the Penguins-loving duo, thoughtfully evaluates her first drink of kratom.

“I’ve noticed it a little bit since we sat down,” she says. “It’s definitely relaxing — it’s nice.”

Her companion, Jeff Hillwig, 55, doesn’t feel as much of an effect, but speculates that his significant daily coffee intake might have increased his tolerance to stimulant-like substances.

“I couldn’t see this affecting anything to do with driving or cognitive skills,” he says. “I could see it being a beverage of choice in the evening over alcohol.”

An herbal alternative

Roskind has been selling kratom for two years now at Oasis, alongside his standard offering of teas, coffee and smoothies, and says it is his top-selling product. He has customers of all walks of life taking it for pain, depression and even to aid addiction.

“I got people kicking heroin, alcohol, opiates,” Roskind says. “And they’re using it and all are having success.”

For opioid addiction, the FDA urges the public to seek help from a medical provider.

Roskind, who is known as a proponent of whole-body healing in the Carrboro community, is confident that kratom is overall a helpful substance, though he is not oblivious to its potential for abuse. For most people, he says, kratom may be habit-forming, much like coffee or sugar, but it is addictive for only a small fraction of users.

The potential for kratom dependence, and risk of an uncomfortable withdrawal, is higher for those users who take it in the form of extracts, rather than in plant form.

“Some of the ones that have addictive personalities like they’re using heroin or alcohol real bad, I would say they kind of abuse it,” Roskind says.

While the average person takes around 6 grams a day, these people might go through as much as 25-30 grams. “But they’re trading a rather benign habit for a life-destroying addiction,” Roskind says.

Roskind says there’s probably little to nothing that can be done at this point to stop a ban on kratom in the near future, but predicts that the FDA and DEA will wait a few months at least to implement a ban to allow users like Varnadore to find alternatives to kratom treatment.

“If they cut it off, they’re taking stuff away from people who are just trying to make a living and do their best,” she said. “When you get older, you need a little help.”

Edited by Mimi Tomei

Changing sisterhood: sorority allows bids to transgender women


By Sophie Whisnant

The carpet leading into the Gaylord Texan Resort in the Dallas suburb of Grapevine was obnoxiously, unapologetically Texas; woven into the fabric was a pattern of cowboy boots, horseshoes and Texas flags.

Three young women from UNC-Chapel Hill followed the custom carpet runner to a conference room for the final dinner of the three-day national meeting of Tri Delta leadership. They expected yet another three-course meal shared with hundreds of their sorority sisters from across the United States and Canada.

Exhausted from a full day of meetings and leadership training workshops, they instinctively headed for a table in the back, content to finally be alone with a delicious raspberry cheesecake. The plan? Eat the Gaylord’s cheesecake, zone out during the dinner speech, and check their Snapchats instead.

But when National Tri Delta President Kimberlee Sullivan started talking, the UNC-CH delegation — and everyone else — forgot all about cheesecake and Snapchat.

Starting immediately, Tri Delta was officially changing its policy to allow chapters to grant bids to potential new members who identify as female, not just those who were assigned female at birth.

Cheesecake hung on forks suspended in the air.

It was about time, said Amy Queen, UNC-CH Tri Delta vice president of chapter development.

“The room just kind of burst into claps,” Queen said. “Everybody seemed really excited that an organization founded so long ago could keep up with current changes in our society.”

Making changes to tradition.

Mirroring change isn’t something always associated with sorority life, particularly in the South. Tri Delta was founded in 1888 at Boston University, but its headquarters have always been located in Texas. It was the first sorority to create a non-discrimination policy, which has protected people of any race, sexual orientation, religion or ability. But an update of this magnitude, coming from the Bible Belt, signifies a greater step toward inclusivity for Tri Delta chapters across the country.

“It made me happier to be a member,” said Abby Mueller, UNC-CH Tri Delta vice president of finance.

Returning to their rooms in the sprawling Gaylord Texan resort, which, oddly had a jungle theme, the Tri Delta reps were energized.

“Everybody was pretty proud of an organization that could take change like that,” said Queen. “I think it was progressive that Tri Delt [is doing this before] some other sororities.”

Mueller said she expects the change to sit well with her sorority sisters at UNC-CH.

“Our chapter is more open and diverse, a lot more so than other chapters,” she said.

But UNC-CH business and political science major Meredith Freeland wouldn’t say the sorority is diverse. Freeland, who dropped out of Tri Delta at UNC-CH last year after three and a half years, doesn’t see the change having any impact on the way Greek life operates on campus.

“I don’t think it means much at all,” she said. “A policy can say anything without doing much. It’s like with racial diversity. Obviously Tri Delta’s policies allow for members of all colors but the reason we don’t see much diversity in many chapters is because allowing for diversity is different from encouraging it.”

Freeland said sororities are still viewed as places of homogeneity—“people who look, feel and think differently are made uncomfortable.”

“This is exactly what drew me to Tri Delta in my recruitment: I was told ‘all the girls here are so different and unique, nothing is the same about everyone. Some sororities have a stereotype but I can’t think of ours. Well, maybe we all own a pair of Converses.’ That really spoke to me,” Freeland said. “Disrupting the pattern is hard. Who wants to be the gender non-conforming person to join a sorority grounded in historic womanhood?”

Bringing the changes home.

As they returned to campus, Queen and Mueller discussed how the change was great, but might not be relevant to the Chapel Hill recruitment process.

UNC-CH photojournalism major Alice Hudson considered rushing as a freshman but wasn’t impressed by the diversity of sorority membership.

“A lot of top tier sororities don’t have a lot of racial inclusivity,” she said. “A trans person might get a bid but I’d be surprised if they went through with it.”

“I just think it would be really hard for them to be among the only trans people within a cisgender group that has such a deep rooted history and traditional set of values,” Hudson said.

But Freeland is somewhat hopeful.

“I think this is really a good step…language is powerful,” she said. “The way we talk about things matters.”

From talking comes policy change, she said, “it opens the door for the conversation and forbids outright discrimination.”

Although she dropped out of Tri Delta in her senior year, Freeland said the experience was beneficial.

“I got a lot out of my time in a sorority but …my world became so small, so white, so wealthy,” she said. “All of my friends looked like me.”

The Greek culture hasn’t been historically receptive to the LGBT community. Freeland remembers a male friend who was gay but adamant that anyone who knew about his sexuality keep it a secret because he was afraid he wouldn’t get any bids.

“This is obviously troubling for a million reasons,” she said.

Resistance to change.

Back in Grapevine the morning after the news, chapter presidents met to start their final training session. The leader of the sessions had been calm and serene, until this morning when her complexion was flushed and there was panic in her voice.

After the bomb had dropped the night before, her inbox was flooded with emails from Tri Delta adult volunteers, outraged at the updated policy. She asked the group to talk amongst themselves so she could get some work done.

The presidents weren’t nearly as frazzled as their adult leader. Some discussed their indifference with the change. But most expressed their excitement for it, saying they couldn’t wait to go home and tell their chapters.

As Queen packed up and headed home to Chapel Hill she thought about what the new policy would mean for her chapter.

“I feel like people in our sorority would say they are in full support of this change,” she said. “But if we ever had a trans person rush, they would 10/10 drop them.”


Edited by David Fee