Taking back spaces: from eating disorder to empowering others

By Jazmine Bunch

Ariana Greenwood sat at the front of the Anne Queen Lounge in the Campus Y, with a little more than 70 white faces staring back at her.

“These struggles aren’t limited to thin, white women,” Justis Mitchell said, after sharing his journey with the dangers of diet culture and masculinity.

Ari scanned the crowd while listening to the other panelists.

She agreed to share her story at Embody Carolina’s diversity panel on eating disorders, especially because—after surveying the audience and seeing the few brown women scattered among mostly white, sorority women—she knew her story wasn’t one commonly told.

“Don’t think of eating disorders only in terms of the common image; a super skinny white woman,” Martina Ugarte said.

Panelist two of three. The narratives were so similar, yet, their experiences were still so different, Ari thought.

Just a few years ago, she couldn’t imagine being in this space. Just a few years ago, she couldn’t imagine waiting anxiously as she mentally crafted how she’d share her experience with binge eating disorder, because just a few years ago she couldn’t even imagine herself, her black body, experiencing it.

Her time to imagine ran out, because this was her reality and it was her turn. So, she began talking.


Haunted by size

Her disorder began with the desire to take up less space. One day, when she was in sixth grade, they weighed all the students in her gym class. She’d been weighed before, but hearing her smaller classmates share their sizes haunted her.

“Oh my gosh, something’s wrong,” she thought. “I just need to be smaller.”

From that day forward, she did so much to focus on her body and lost so much of her life in doing so.

Ari is Jamaican and Costa Rican, and she grew up with her Costa Rican family in Tampa, Florida. In a city full of beach days, it was easy for Ari to skate by her family with intense workouts and restrictive eating. She threw herself into the world of high school sports. Her family never suspected a thing, and she honestly didn’t even realize that what she was doing would be the beginning of a mental battle with her body.

Although her family didn’t know her intentions, she grew up surrounded by what she now recognizes as toxic diet culture. She’d spend hours in the gym attempting to burn off her body as easy as calories, and she’d come home to enabling.

You look great. You look so good. I’m so proud of you.

Those words were lighter fluid. She hid in plain sight and tried to lessen herself—lessen her body—while her family praised her for it.

“It starts off as a lack of control, which is why we try to control everything,” she said. “Controlling everything that I put in my body and trying to form myself into this idea I have. Like, going to the gym every day was something I could control, and if I missed it, my world would fall apart.”

It began with clothing; wearing things to accentuate the parts she liked and looser items to hide the parts she didn’t. Then came extensive cardio at the gym. Then it got to a point where she was restricting severely during the week, and when she was alone and no one was watching, she’d binge on the weekends.

She was trapped in a cycle of restricting and bingeing, saying no through the week and unable to say anything but yes on the weekends.

Her weight has fluctuated throughout the years, and she’s missed memorable moments because of the disorder. Senior prom is supposed to be one of the happiest teenage memories, but all she remembers is how her black prom dress didn’t fall in all the right places and screaming at her mom to stop snapping pictures.


Running, then recovery

She wanted to take some parts of her life back. Going into her first year at Carolina, she adjusted her mindset: Smaller, but healthier. The plan failed, and sophomore year she hit a low point. She studied abroad in Costa Rica to run away and get better.

Instead she ran head-on into her problems. She sat on the beautiful resorts of Costa Rica being totally consumed by everyone’s much smaller bodies. When she returned home, she knew that she needed help. Junior year, she began active recovery.

She walked up to the building marked “Still Frames Therapy and Wellness” as it seemingly towered over her. Here, she’d willingly visit a psychologist for the first time.

“It was tough, for sure super tough. Tougher than I thought it was going to be,” she said. “I had just been in denial for so long.”

But the inside was more comfortable. There were nice couches, white noise and her therapist was a black woman.

The office wasn’t quite home but it reminded her of feeling safe. Like when she’s in her white bedroom underneath her purple comforter, sneaking a glance at the reflection in the gigantic mirror she used to dread looking at every morning. Or when she sees Brooke Wheeler, a gym buddy-turned-best friend who’s recovering from anorexia nervosa. They met sophomore year and their friendship has been a journey of facing fear food, tackling gym milestones, and overwhelming support and love.

“We wish we would’ve met each other sooner, but we’re glad that we didn’t,” Brooke said, “because if we would’ve met each other when we were sick, our dynamic would’ve been completely different.”


Positivity and empowerment

Ari’s surrounded herself with people who’ve been positive to her recovery. Although her senior year has consisted of finding the parts of herself that she lost in her binge eating disorder, according to close friend, Brijea Daniel, there are still some things that never change.

“She’s definitely the positive friend,” she said. “Ari’s outlook on life is very positive all the time. She’s always there for us. She’s the mom of the group, and always making sure everybody’s good.”

For Halloween, her friend group dressed as the four seasons. It was no question that Ari would be spring because her “springy personality” was reminiscent of growth and new beginnings, Brijea said. Draped in light greenery and pastel blossoms and butterflies, Ari brought springtime to October.

Ari leads a Women in Weights class every Tuesday and Thursday evening in partnership with Campus Recreation. Although her journey to teach other women to lift has been empowering, her most powerful moment was maxing her squat at 225, with no one other than Brooke by her side.

This scale can only give you a numerical reflection of your relationship with gravity, That’s it. It cannot measure beauty, talent, purpose, life force, possibility, strength or love.   

Five months before she was officially diagnosed, Ari glanced at the Pinterest quote before leaving the caption empty and pressing the share button on Instagram for 1,442 followers to see. But the true receiver of that message was herself.

“I’m reminded that my body is a vessel,” she said. “It’s what’s in it that’s the most important thing.”

Her story is no glorified Lifetime movie, with decaying food in the closet or hopeless moments of dry heaving in the bathroom. It’s just a black girl trying to learn to love what her body can do, not what it looks like.

Once she was done talking, now sitting a little taller in front of all those white women who may or may not ever resonate with her story, Ari felt empowered that she shared it for the scattered brown girls in the crowd who may have never heard it otherwise.


Edited by Meredith Radford


Empowering moms-to-be: doulas push for the best pregnancies possible

By Molly Sprecher

In movies, pregnancy is a supportive pep talk from the partner, a tough-love nurse and kindly doctor chanting, “one more push,” a first cry and ensuing happy montage. Off-screen: stretch marks map stomachs, afterbirths seep, nipples crack, limbs swell, distended stomachs cramp, hair thins, postpartum hits.

“I think there is a movement now for women to reclaim their bodies and their birth experiences,” Spencer Tackett, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill seeking her doula certification, said. “And a large part of that is having a doula to help a patient advocate for themselves and calm them down when they are in a stressful and vulnerable position, or help women give birth with fewer medical interventions.”

What is a doula?

It’s hard to define what a doula is. Doulas aren’t medical professionals. Yet they are more than just emotional support humans who hold hands in the hospital. They are trained, largely through DONA, Doulas of North America, to support their clients throughout their pregnancy. Doulas offer physical, emotional, mental and educational support. . They answer questions and offer tips. In a time of emotional and physical vulnerability, doulas stand up for clients who cannot stand up for themselves — sometimes literally, seeing them balancing on the medicine ball, deep-breathing in the bed, pacing the floor with one hand dragging their IV.

Robin Rennells has been practicing as a birth doula for 11 years. She attended her first birth at the Women’s Birth and Wellness Center in Chapel Hill. She’s stood at the side of a woman, whose husband was out of town, getting a cesarean section. She’s scheduled her own family around being able to help grow others. She’s delivered all four of one woman’s children and been the doula for women who have struggled with infertility for years. She’s watched women mouth, “I did it,” through their tears and sweat. She’s left her home for a labor not knowing if she will be gone a few hours or a few days.

Doctors come in and out of the room, but Rennells stays, answering questions, holding hands, empowering clients and watching their confidence and courage grow. She’s emotionally and physically exhausted, but she keeps coming back.

“It’s like coaching someone through a marathon,” Rennells said. “Watching a miracle take place, believing in someone more than they believe in themselves, seeing a couple at their worst and best and seeing God answer many prayers.”

Why be a doula?

Joelle Schantz’s first birth lasted an hour and a half, and she stood in the corner watching her mentor coax the mother through. She’d thought she might cry. She didn’t.

Schantz completed her training to become a volunteer doula through the UNC-CH Birth Partners program. She’d first heard of doulas in a sociology class. She spent the rest of the day with friends joking that they would never have children.

“There’s this fear around birth for a lot of girls or women,” Schantz said. “Even though I was taking this reproductive sociology class, I think I still had that fear of it and thought that it wasn’t my cup of tea to be in the position to help someone. But the more you learn about something, the less fear is involved.”

Schantz has stood alone by the side of a teenage girl giving birth with no one to help her. She’s watched a father lean over the side of the tub holding his pregnant wife with pictures of their toddler. She’s hoped Spanish-speaking clients would understand her presence when they can’t understand her. She’s moved women into different positions, massaging pressure points and lowering them to the birth ball to facilitate shorter labors. She’s directed fathers away from televisions, reassured frantic women that the beeping on the electronic fetal monitor is normal and talked to people she’s only just met throughout the night. She’s wished she could be in 20 places at once, a doula for everyone who needs but can’t afford one.

Who needs a doula?

“There’s a huge disparity between maternal morbidity and mortality outcomes by racial divide, by income divide,” Schantz said. “The people who need doulas don’t have access to doulas. Everyone should be able to have a doula.”

Black, American Indian and Alaska Native women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Doulas are expensive and not everyone can afford them,” Schantz said. “The people who have doulas are typically high-income, educated, typically white women.”

Women with insurance still pay an average of $3,400 in hospital fees during pregnancy, according to a survey by Childbirth Connection, a program run by the National Partnership for Women and Families. Without insurance, prices range from $30,000 for vaginal delivery to $50,000 for a cesarean section. Many women who would benefit from having an additional support system cannot afford to hire a $1,200 doula. Although doctors help ensure the physical well-being of the mother and child, clinical settings limit women’s ability to take control of their pregnancy.

“Women in society often aren’t as assertive, and that’s just because of social norms that are put on them,” Schantz said. “And when you’re in labor, especially in a hospital setting, those norms are perpetuated. And when you’re in pain and confused and don’t know what’s going on, giving a person the space to speak and making sure a person knows their options is a huge part.”

How does it feel to be a doula?

Fariha Rahman and Spencer Tackett are both students at UNC-CH. Rahman has seen five births. Tackett has seen none. All the same, both are beginning their journeys as doulas.

“The first time I was a doula, it was a 12-hour shift, and by the end of it, I was exhausted,” Rahman said. “When I went into the client’s room, within an hour or so, I was holding one of her legs, and next thing you know, the baby’s born.”

Rahman doesn’t know what to feel each time she sees a birth. They’re all different. She laughs with new mothers cradling their child. She tenses with mothers who’ve been told something’s gone wrong.

Tackett studies high-risk births, medical paternalism and the struggles of black motherhood in secret during her Celtic studies class. She sets notifications on her phone for doula trainings and checks her Facebook messages for information on the new UNC-CH Doula Project. While filling her schedule with classes on cesarean sections and social work, she worries that not having had a child herself will limit her ability to help clients.

“It would mean everything to experience a birth with a family,” Tackett said, “The birth of a child is one of the most memorable moments in a person’s life, and knowing that a family trusted me enough to have me present for that moment, and trust me enough to advocate for their wishes, would be really special for me as well.”

Rahman’s favorite part of the job is interacting with the mothers, watching their faces transform from screams to smiles and sharing the intimacy she’s been allowed into. She sees bodies contort and triumph over impossible pain.

“I’m Humbled,” Rahman said. “Honored and humbled.”

Edited by Maddie Fetsko

Yoga in the era of #MeToo

By Mary Glen Hatcher

First, she asks them to breathe.

“Gently, softly,” she repeats, like the rain that trickles against the second floor window of Duke University’s dance studio — today’s yoga sanctuary.

A few dozen mats lay scattered across the concrete floor. Perched on each are educators, yoga instructors, activists and community leaders from across North Carolina.

Eyes closed, they listen intently to the rain, the sound of their collective breath, and to the voice of the woman they’ve traveled hours to hear — Zabie Yamasaki.

“Hands come to heart center,” Yamasaki continues. “Focus on your intention for being here.”

For many, that was simple: They are survivors of sexual assault.

They have come to help themselves, and others, heal.

Healing from #MeToo

This marks the fifth annual Embodied Learning Summit, a community event sponsored by researchers from Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill that aims to share the health benefits of yoga with the public.

Through interactive workshops and discussions, the summit tackles a different social issue each year and the ways in which yoga and mindfulness techniques can be used to address it.

This year’s theme: #MeToo.

After a conversation with a young sexual assault victim in 1997 left her speechless, activist Tarana Burke crafted a campaign around the simple, empathetic phrase, “me too,” to raise awareness for sexual and gender-based violence.

The message has since grown into a global movement as individuals share stories of abuse, solidarity and survival on social media using “#MeToo.” In 2017, the topic garnered more than 12 million posts, comments and reactions on Facebook in a single day.

Not only has #MeToo changed the conversation around sexual assault, it is also changing the way we think about the impact of sexual trauma on the body and the healing process.

“I think there’s really a hunger to have a space to talk about and to make some of these connections in the yoga community,” said Michele Berger, a women’s and gender studies professor at UNC-CH and lead organizer of the summit.

Every survivor experiences trauma and heals in different ways, Berger said, but yoga and mindfulness practices have the potential to be an effective form of therapy for survivors of sexual violence.

A 2017 report from Georgetown Law confirms this, citing that yoga practice in young girls who have experienced trauma can “restore neurological pathways in a region of the brain that processes emotion awareness,” leading to greater levels of self-compassion, self-esteem and general well-being.

“Even simple breathing techniques can help regulate your stress levels, your emotions and really improve your quality of life,” Berger said. “We know there are communities that could benefit from these resources, and we really want to just give them these tools.”

Taking back your body

“Now, if you feel comfortable, we’ll introduce some movement into the body,” Yamasaki said.

With eyes closed, she leads the class through a vinyasa flow — from a plank position, to a back-bending cobra, to a downward dog. The movement is notable for its smooth transitions between poses and the anchoring connection of the body to the breath.

To Yamasaki, the flow represents a physical, mental and spiritual connection to the body — one she never thought she’d regain after she was sexually assaulted during her senior year of college.

“I never imagined the years of disconnect I would feel from my own body,” Yamasaki said. “I wasn’t prepared for the way my past experiences of trauma would sneak up on me and manifest in various areas of my skin.”

Flashbacks and anxiety attacks pushed her to try therapy, but the thought of vocalizing some of her most painful memories made her symptoms worse. She needed something tangible, something that would allow her to regain power and control of her body.

When nothing else made sense, yoga did, Yamasaki said.

“I finally had an outlet to process the unsafe feelings that were residing inside of me, in a form of self-expression that really moved beyond trying to find the words to articulate what I was feeling,” she said.

Without having to speak a single word about her assault, Yamasaki began to heal from her own trauma by reconnecting with her physical body through yoga — discovering a new kind of energy and power within.

“Despite all the ways trauma makes it easy to feel small, yoga reminded me each and every day that I am more than the darkness that was done to me,” she said.

Now, as the founder of Transcending Sexual Trauma Through Yoga, an organization that offers yoga and therapeutic programming for survivors of sexual assault, Yamasaki hopes her teachings can empower other students as they navigate what is often a lifelong journey of healing.

Students like Emma Hayes.

Over the past few years, Hayes has put most of her time and energy into her studies at UNC-CH in hopes of becoming a therapist. She wants to give others the help she needed after she was sexually assaulted, she said.

“But I realized I’ve neglected my own body and my own healing process doing that,” Hayes said. “I’ve been so focused on everybody else that I’ve been ignoring my own needs.”

Attending the summit opened her eyes to how she can help herself heal through the practice of yoga, while also nurturing her body and her passion for helping others.

“It’s been a good reminder that I’m also deserving of love, I’m also in that group of people,” she said.

The ‘potential for change’

Outside the studio windows, the rain continues to fall. It has grown louder, heavier, steadier, but is drowned out by a voice inside.

Kratu! Kratu! Kratu!

Professor Keval Khalsa, a dance instructor from Duke, leads the group in a Sanskrit chant and dance exalting the “seed of inspiration” to end the day.

“What has it planted in you?” she asks.

Some women shared they felt empowered to talk to someone about their assault — their friends, their therapist, their campus Title IX office. Others said the summit introduced them to a new path of self-love and acceptance, finding stability and strength in their own bodies.

Almost all of them cried.

“There are many gifts that yoga can offer to trauma survivors,” Naomi Ardea, a licensed massage therapist in Chapel Hill, said during an earlier workshop on self-care. It can offer movement for strengthening, flexibility, balance, a space for inner awareness and an opportunity for spiritual connection, she explained.

“But throughout the practice, there’s always this potential for change,” she said.

Just as trauma can change the brain, Ardea explained that healing care can change it back toward health and wellness.

“It may not be back to 100 percent where you used to be, and maybe you put the pieces back together a little differently than before, but you can shift things,” she said.

Edited by: Madeleine Fraley

Increasing light pollution wreaks havoc in the sky — and on our health

By Anne McDarris

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Doug Lively of the Raleigh Astronomy Club could peer through the lens of his telescope and see the Whirlpool Galaxy in rich detail. The galaxy was clean and symmetrical, a pretty silver spiral that looked like a glow-in-the-dark ceiling sticker.  Lively could see one of its wispy arms reaching for the unassuming blob of its sister galaxy, M5195, and the details of the dust bridge between the two galaxies.

Now, on a wintery evening along the edge of Jordan Lake, Lively squints through his telescope lens at the Whirlpool Galaxy and M5195. The thin spirals look fuzzy and faded.  He can’t see the dust bridge. Newborn stars — which aren’t so new anymore because the light traveled for 25 million years to reach Lively’s eye — are only suggestions.

He sighs.  The light pollution is getting worse.

He can see it in the same way that the lights of Raleigh, Durham and Apex burn like suns pinned just below the horizon, a sunset that never fades. The way that they cast a white-orange fog that dims the starlight, the light of the Whirlpool Galaxy and its sister.

Light pollution, the bane of Lively and the Raleigh Astronomy Club, is the result of undirected light from artificial sources like streetlamps and buildings. The light reflects off clouds and small particles in the atmosphere, which creates a hazy glow that obstructs the view of the stars. For the past two decades, this has become a problem for North Carolina astronomers as people have flooded into the area seeking jobs and high living standards.

Mass migration carries quiet consequences.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Durham County grew by 16 people per day while Wake County grew by 67 people per day in 2016. With this mass migration into central North Carolina comes more roads, developments and lights that illuminate those places at night. This growth carries quiet consequences.

“I’ll never forget that night that the mall over there in Durham… completely obliterated our northern horizon,” Lively said, referring to the Streets at Southpoint, which opened in 2002. “Objects that are in the northern sky that you could see really well, it’s pretty well washed-out now.”

New development isn’t the only source of light pollution — LED lights have wreaked havoc on the night sky. While great for energy efficiency and city budgets, blindingly bright LEDs are terrible for light pollution. And because they’re cheap, some cities overlight areas because they can afford to, despite studies showing that more lights do not always mean less crime.

The crux of the matter is using light efficiently and taking advantage of the technology we have. It’s addressing light design more than light usage.

Although many cities have developed lighting ordinances that decrease inefficiencies, they’re not exhaustive. In Raleigh, the lighting ordinance does not affect streetlights, a major source of light pollution. This means that these lights do not need to be shielded like many others do and can shine in all directions — even up.

Our health is at risk, too.

Light pollution doesn’t just affect astronomers — it can affect the health of city dwellers across the globe. In large cities like Hong Kong and New York City where night is more like twilight, residents have decreased levels of melatonin production, a regulatory hormone that the body produces at night. Scientists have linked low levels of melatonin to breast cancer.  Light pollution also messes with the circadian rhythm, and the inconsistent ticking of the biological clock is linked to depression, cardiovascular disease and insomnia.

Many aspects of environmental change can feel intangible, seen only through long-range reports and scientists’ earnest articles and lectures. Melting glaciers and desertification are far-off issues that plague a minority. But with light pollution, the change is something that people can observe in their lifetimes. It’s something that affects our health and our ability to look at the stars. To see it, all that a person has to do is look up.

Amy Sayle knows this all too well. An educator for the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, Sayle teaches about the night sky under a dome of virtual stars. There is a light pollution feature that she can turn on during shows, and when she turns it off, people gasp and murmur at the difference.

“Lots of people have never seen a truly dark sky, but a lot of people don’t realize it,” she said. “They think they’ve seen a very dark sky but don’t even know what one looks like because there are so few places that are not light polluted anymore.”

But Sayle has found one of those few places in Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah, where she volunteers at its annual astronomy festival.

“It’s pretty darn close to a perfect sky,” she said. “It’s dark. It’s amazing.”

One night, she forgot her flashlight in her cabin when she went to go to the bathroom. She tried to walk along the paved road that curves around the campsite. She knew the area — she had come to this event 12 years in a row. But in the consuming darkness without a light, she stumbled into a ditch, reoriented herself, walked a few more feet and then smacked into a tree.  When she found the bathroom, she gravitated toward the light, relieved.

Light pollution continues its tour of the U.S.

On a recent data collection trip to Bryce Canyon, Chad Moore, the head of the National Park Service Night Sky Team, showed Sayle the new map of light pollution in the area. There appeared to be some detectable from Las Vegas, Nevada.

Las Vegas is 270 miles away.

“It’s just one of those things that I think is just thoughtlessness,” Sayle said. “Taking care of light pollution is a win-win-win-win-win situation.”

Sayle said astronomy is one way to get people interested in science and how it works.

“To be an informed citizen in a democracy, you have to understand how science works,” she said.

Far from Bryce Canyon, the Raleigh Astronomy Club continues to go to Jordan Lake, even as the glow creeps closer with each passing year. They’ve seen the light pollution maps. They know it’s only getting worse.

“At least for the next 10 years, we’re going to continue to use Jordan Lake, unless it gets absolutely bad,” Lively said. “Probably the next place we could go would be north up around Castalia, Rocky Mount and Medoc Mountain State Park.”

Medoc Mountain is just under a two-hour drive from Jordan Lake.  It’s a long way to go for dark skies. And like Jordan Lake, it’s not immune to the creeping fingers of light pollution.

So they grit their teeth. They bear it.  They don’t have much of a choice.

Edited by Adam Phan

The Eco–Institute is a sanctuary for those seeking to return to the basics

By Janna Childers
There’s a metal arch flanked by a vast blur of green. It reads “Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute.” As soon as I crossed that threshold, the atmosphere shifted. The grumble of gravel beneath my tires softened as my red Hyundai Elantra slowed and a sweet wind brushed its way through the leaves and into my small car.

I could no longer hear the distant hum of cars speeding down Jo Mac Road, but the stillness here was not silent. There’s a quiet roar to the invisible activities of the creatures, hidden underneath tall grass or nestled high in the branches of trees. The frogs bellowed as the sun began to drop through the sky. Birds released bursts of sounds that were carried through the expanse of open sky.  And the constant underscore of cicadas and crickets could not be ignored. I don’t know whether it was the pungent smell of nurtured earth or the crisp taste of clean air, or maybe something more intangible, but something struck me as different about this place. I exhaled deeply.

Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute is a place of hope. The educational farm offers many different programs, including summer camps for children, workshops in organic farming techniques and a ten-week immersive educational experience for young adults, all of which center around the work of restoring a broken relationship between the earth and humanity.

The 38 acres of land, owned by Megan and Tim Toben, offers a place for a community to gather, to learn, to build and to recharge. It attracts wanderers who sense something wrong with the traditional trajectory of education and career, burnt out environmental activists who want to be reminded of their motivation to do their work and people who are looking for a place to connect with others who share similar concerns about the state of the earth.

At Pickards Mountain, real work is done not only to teach people about the plight of the earth and crises that humanity is facing, but also about how to build a new way of doing things. Somehow, despite all of the negative things this place was built in response to, hope has seeped in to this place and refuses to leave.

A quick 15-minute drive west will take you from the paved and manicured world of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus to an unkempt land of oaks, separated by tracts of land for small houses and big fields. It’s here that you will find the Eco-Institute, tucked away behind Honeysuckle Tea House, an open-air tea house and herb farm owned by the Tobens.

While I was making this drive, I rolled the windows down to let the warm evening air blow through my hair and drown out the sound of the radio. I was rehearsing the questions I wanted to ask and the appropriate way to greet Megan Toben, the founder of the Institute, who had agreed to meet with me that evening. The repetition of “Hi, thanks so much for meeting with me,” and “Can you tell me more about…” was underscored by a flood of memories that I kept trying to ignore.

See, the majority of the first two years of my college education were spent sitting in white-walled classrooms being bombarded by devastating information. I heard stories of these structures of injustice that we, as a society have trapped ourselves in, and facts about the tipping point of parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere and how humans have passed that point. I saw examples of disparities between the rich and the poor and the way that greed and power seduce even the wisest of people to keep widening the gap– stories of a failing government, a failing economy, a failing society.

It was hard to find hope. And that same lost feeling started bubbling up again as I drove through the woods to this place I knew was full of people who had devoted their lives building a better future. I just couldn’t imagine how they could do that.

A conversation by the pond

Megan Toben greeted me with a hug, welcoming me to the farm like I was family, like I belonged there. We walked through the gardens of neatly planted vegetables, like spinach and potatoes, asparagus and mint. We passed farmer Dave, the bare-foot garden manager at the Eco-Institute whose shoulder-length blonde curls almost touched the ground as he bent over the rows of plants, pulling out weeds. We stopped by the pond, which takes up about four acres of the land, and sat down in a large red gazebo, with flags of faded primary colors rocking with the wind.

Toben took me back to her days as an undergraduate at Elon Univeristy, where she graduated in 2002. Toben studied biology, but was not able to detach herself from the phenomena she was studying the way her classmates could.

“How is it that things like deforestation and species extinction and water pollution rates and climate disruption are just continuing,” she said. “I mean, it’s still worsening every day. I got to the point where I felt like I couldn’t sit in a classroom and hear the data any longer without doing something. My intellect was being engaged with this desperate information. But there was no engagement for my hands, or my heart, or my voice.”

That’s where the story of the Eco-Institute began. Toben longed for a more holistic education experience, and searched for a way to provide one for herself and to work with others who wanted the same thing. She fell in love with the bodies of work of two environmental activists, Thomas Berry and Joanna Macy, who later would become the philosophical pillars for the work of the Eco-Institute. Then she met Tim Toben.

“When my husband, Tim, and I fell in love, he owned this land,” Toben said. “Part of what drew us to one another was our common love for earth. A big question for us in the beginning was, how can we offer this place to bring people together to support the movement?”

Together, they began to open up their land to the community, hosting potluck dinners and summer camps for children, and teaching people about a new way of living and being in the world — a notion supported by a global ecological and social movement that writer Joanna Macy has deemed “The Great Turning.” Macy wrote that The Great Turning “is a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.”

This global movement encompasses more than just a need to reduce carbon emissions. It is broad and diverse, but essentially is working toward a new way of doing things. It is built on the basis that our current societal and economic systems are disruptive to the balance of the earth, the balance of society and the balance of humanity itself.

“I think that it helps to remember that there was a time when humanity saw itself as a member of the earth community,” Toben said. “At some point, humanity began to see itself as sort of lord and master, and everything else then became, what we call, resource.”

The movement itself can be characterized by many different social movements, like the indigenous movements of Latin America, the Occupy Wallstreet movement in the United States and many other small movements happening in communities around the world. The Eco-Institute sees itself as a gathering place for this movement, a place where people can come to rest and to learn and be a part of the greater community.

“I think there have to people who go out there and picket,” Toben said. “There have to be people who petition for change. There have to be people who use their bodies to stop the bulldozers from taking down the old growth forests. There also has to be midwifing of a new way of doing things. So, there has to be both at the same time. And we’re more in the midwifing of the new way of doing things, like organic agriculture and renewable energy, social justice and cooperation, collaboration, creativity.”

The Eco-Institute offers a variety of programs, including permaculture classes, mushroom growing lessons and outdoor yoga sessions. But, the most important program they offer is a 10-week immersive educational experience called the Odyssey Fellowship. The fellowship was developed after years of hosting young adults who wanted to be a part of the work the institute was doing. Many of them found the farm through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a network of organizations that connect volunteers with organic farms. The program was named after a period of development between adolescence and adulthood called odyssey and marked by wandering.

“When I read that description, I immediately thought of the hundreds of young adults that have come wandering through here in the ten years that the eco-institute has been here, wanting to work on the farm, wanting to spend time here, wanting to engage, wanting to build community, wanting to talk about the issues that are challenging,” Toben said. “We realized that what young adults were really wanting was an opportunity to come and engage on all levels in a truly holistic educational experience.”

The Gathering Place

Apollo, a golden retriever, was lounging in the grass behind the barn and next to a gathering of a few of the current fellows. They had finished cooking and eating dinner together and were gathered around a picnic table with a large sheet of brown paper before them, thinking through plans to publish a zine. Even though they were all outdoors in this common space, they sat around in comfortable clothes with their shoes kicked off. It was like stepping into an outdoor living room. I could tell that this was home for them.

These fellows had gone through the first 10-week Odyssey Fellowship, and were here for another 10-week program, the Odyssey Leadership Program. Jimi Eisenstein, one of the fellows, called it the “graduate program” for the fellowship.

“We graduated from it and wanted more,” he said, his black poufy hair highlighting the swirls of colors on his tie-dye shirt.

Eisenstein was born in Tai Pei, Taiwan, grew up in Pennsylvania, but calls North Carolina his home. Growing up in multiple places was a common theme among the fellows. Anna Feldman is from New York, but lived in Asheville, North Carolina. Hayley May, another of the fellows couldn’t even name a place that she was from. “That’s a hard question to answer,” she said. “I’m from all over.” It made me wonder if part of the attraction to the Eco-Institute was its roots.

Jessica Cudney sat at the picnic table, leaning against Michelle Rozek. The two sat facing the gardens, both dressed in black sweatpants and sweatshirts, with long brown pulled behind their shoulders. For Cudney, the Eco-Institute was a place to learn how to actually live an alternative life.

“A lot of young people are curious about what other options are out there for them, and through social media, a lot of young people are discovering that there are other options available and that people are living alternative lives,” Cudney said. “It’s just difficult to figure out how to start on that journey.”

For Eisenstein, the Eco-Institute was a place where the dread of a meaningless life could be replaced by something more beautiful.

“I guess like a lot of people who grow up in just this culture, the dominant culture, they kind of go through the motions, but there’s also a part of them that feels like there’s something wrong with what they’re doing,” Eisenstein said. “Like, should I really be in school seven hours a day on a beautiful day? There’s this sort of innate rejection of the system that gets kind of quieted down as someone grows up. But here, that voice is nurtured, listened to and so, it kind of comes from the understanding that there is a more beautiful way to live.”

For Christine LeRoy, who graduated from the University of Northern Colorado, coming to the Eco-Institute was a supplement to formal education.

“I went to university and I double majored and I really excelled in that environment, and then I graduated and I realized, I don’t really have very many practical life skills and that’s really a large part of what that is, learning how to live in community, learning how to milk a goat, plant a garden, and like care for yourself and other people and the environment,” she said.


Wendell Berry is a farmer in Kentucky, an environmental activist and a prolific writer. In an interview with filmmaker Laura Dunn, he said: “This is an age of divorce. Things that belong together have been taken apart. And you can’t put it all back together again. What you can do, is the only thing that you can do. You take two things that ought to be together and you put them together. Two things! Not all things.”

Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute is a place that is putting two things together. It is a place of community, of care, of hard-work on all levels. It is a place of hope. And those pit of your stomach, desperate feelings that accompanied me to the farm dissipated at the threshold. I couldn’t be in such an abundant place and feel empty.  I may not yet know what my two things will be, but I’m hopeful that I, too, can find two things to put back together.

Edited by Luke Bollinger

Carrboro Farmers’ Market provides community, sustainability

By Leah Asmelash

An old man sells handmade mugs in a corner, in the same spot every week. He smiles and converses with the vendors and customers around him, pointing at different mugs and grinning with almost every sentence. Across from him, a farmer with three tables filled with different types of mushrooms leans against his truck, while his daughter collects money from customers. There are signs for ethically-raised meat and local dairy up ahead.

A few feet away from the vendors, kids run around on the open grass, playing soccer with a muddy yellow ball. Vans are parked on the grass, some with names of farms on the side. Everyone seems to be talking to someone else – farmers talking to customers and other farmers. They speak with the friendliness of people who have known each other for years, but they could have just met that morning.

This is the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, where every Saturday and Wednesday, dozens of farmers set up tables filled with fresh, local produce and meat. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of customers come to the market every week to shop, chatting with the farmers about new products and what’s good that week.

Although farmers’ markets can be fun for community members, the life of a farmer is not glamorous. It involves early mornings, mud, sweat, animals, animal feces and animal carcasses. It involves early mornings at farmers’ markets and pulling bugs off crops, high costs and hard labor with minimal profits. So what drives people to choose this life – a life without health benefits, a small paycheck and self-employment?

Cane Creek Farm

For Eliza MacLean, owner of Cane Creek Farm in Graham, it was love.

“I was fascinated,” she said, recalling her earlier days managing a pig herd at North Carolina A&T State University. “I fell head over heels in love.”

Although MacLean had worked with and studied animals for many years prior, she said she didn’t know anything about pigs when she started managing the herd. Working with the pigs made her realize she had a tender spot in her heart for livestock, and she became involved in evaluating farms and meat quality for hog production in North Carolina.

Three years later, Peter Kaminsky, author and writer for The New York Times, was searching for someone to care for a herd of rare Ossabaw Island hogs. MacLean was the first suggestion he received, and thus Cane Creek Farm was born, devoted to ethical raising of livestock.

Now, Cane Creek Farm is over 15-years-old. MacLean has pigs available every day of the year, harvesting three to five pigs for her butcher shop and a few more to sell at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market.

Customer Driven

When talking about the slaughtering process, MacLean said she tries to cater to the customers’ desires and do what works best for her community.

“For me, that’s why I’m so small,” she said. “I want to be able to see my community. I want people to know my little story and be able to see my animals and see what they eat, know why they’re paying a little bit more.”

But no one knows the animals, loves the animals, more than MacLean. She’s the one that feeds them every day and prepares them for sale. She takes them to slaughter herself, in a trailer that she says smells like them, and she’s around the animals when they are killed.

“My kids say I treat them as well as I treat the pigs,” she said with a laugh, before further explaining her rationale.

“I want everyone to have room to be what they want to be,” she said. “A pig gets to be a pig, a chicken gets to be a chicken.”

Ethical Breeding

Despite how well she treats them, the animals are always brought to slaughter and sold.

“It doesn’t make real intuitive sense to raise something to certain death,” she said. “But again it wouldn’t be there in the first place if I hadn’t raised it, and it’s doing a good thing for my land, it’s having a nice life while it’s alive, it’s good for consumer – it all makes sense to me.”

Still, MacLean admits it is not always easy.

“It’s sad a lot of the time,” she said.

The sadness doesn’t stop her from having fun though, which she always makes sure to include in her busy schedule.

“I plan my breeding this time of year so that I’m not having babies in August, and we can be flying off rope swings and doing things that are much more appropriate for August than everybody completely stressed because it’s so friggin’ hot,” she said.

MacLean doesn’t sleep much. Instead, she floats down the Haw River while drinking a beer and kayaks in the moonlight. Her kids, both 16-years-old, chase her up mountains. These playful times are important to her, and she makes sure she doesn’t take on too much work so that there’s always, even in the middle of a workday, time for play.

Turtle Run Farm

Two miles away, on the other side of the Haw River, husband-and-wife duo Kevin and Kim Meehan grow organic vegetables on Turtle Run Farm. Before owning the farm, they were in the construction business and originally bought the land to build a house. But Kim had always loved gardening. Gradually, a few rows of vegetables turned into a few plots. In 1996, Turtle Run Farm was born.

Two years later, Kim applied for a spot at the competitive Carrboro Farmers’ Market. She said they weren’t expecting to be accepted, but they ultimately were. They began selling their produce at the Wednesday market, but eventually moved up to the Saturday one.

“Once we got into the Saturday market, we kicked it into high gear,” Kevin said.

Afterwards, their crop production continued to grow to keep up with demand, so much that they began selling honeysuckle bouquets and strawberries which grew naturally on their property, just so they would have something to sell.

They both admit that farming is exhausting, but they enjoy their job because it’s never boring.

“Farming is very satisfying work and at the end of the day you are physically exhausted but mentally enriched,” Kevin said. “Farming is always changing as the seasons come and go, and the weather and tons of other variables create challenges.”

Environmental Advocacy

For the Meehans, their farm is also a type of environmental advocacy, and they refuse to use chemicals and pesticides on their crops. Although Turtle Run is not a certified organic farm, the two are dedicated environmentalists and did not see any other way to farm besides organically.

“(Using pesticides) just never occurred to us,” Kim said.

Since they don’t use sprays and chemicals, Kim said they learned through trial and error which crops will bring a lot of bugs to their land and which ones won’t. That’s the reason why they never sell carrots, she said. They’re too difficult to manage with the bugs and critters they attract. Instead, they try to keep the bugs in check by planting flowers and plants that bloom in order to attract beneficial insects, like ladybugs, to help with pest control.

Farming Community

They also enjoy the community farming has given them, saying the Carrboro Farmers’ Market is a social network just as much as a business network. Local farmers throw parties or host farm-to-fork dinners and other events to bring the farmering community together.

“It’s a tremendous social farmer’s club,” Kim said.

It was the Carrboro Farmers’ Market that pushed the Meehans to move to the area in the first place, figuring that if they had a nice farmers’ market, the town must be pretty nice too.

“It’s a very friendly market,” Kim said.

Kim said the market was one of the best she’s been to in the country.

Alex Rike, assistant manager of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, agrees, but he says friendliness isn’t the only reason consumers come back week after week.

Buying Local

“It’s a form of consumer activism,” Rike said. “When (customers) spend their dollars at the market, they know they’re supporting their neighbor and, with the case at CFM, someone within 50 miles of where they live. And they get to know their farmer. They get to know that their food is fresh – it’s been picked within the week. They can ask questions about the growing practices.”

MacLean prides herself on the social and economic effects Cane Creek Farm, and local farms in general, have on the community.

“My land is open,” she said. “The cross-country kids run their cross-country meets through the farm. There’s a 5K that combines land in Saxapahaw and goes through the farm. Teaching people about what these animals are really like, how funny, how curious, how smart, how dignified. And keeping the money in that community. What I’m growing is being sold to my neighbors and it makes me feel really good.”

It makes Kevin and Kim feel good too. For both MacLean and the Meehans, their farms serve as ethically raised and organic offerings to their community. So what’s a little hard work for something you love, for something that brings you and your community so much joy?

Edited by Sarah Muzzillo

The opioid epidemic remains a problem especially among women

By Lauren Tarpley

Meet Karen Cook. She is a 53-year-old wife and mother of one. She is an X-Ray technician. She is a Breast Cancer survivor. And, she is what doctors call a “physician assisted opioid addict”.

What is now the worst drug crisis in America—the opioid epidemic disproportionately targets middle-aged women, with 48,000 women dying of prescription pain killer overdose between 1999 and 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Easy access leads to addiction

Cook has endured a variety of chronic illnesses and surgeries from a very young age and still struggles with chronic pain along with depression and anxiety. As a result, Cook is very familiar with the treatments doctors typically prescribe—opioids.

“I don’t think anybody really thought I was going to live, so there was a time when I could get anything. Painkillers. Tranquilizers. Anything. All I had to do was ask,” Cook said.

Cook has been taking Klonopin, an opioid with sedative effects similar to Xanax, for fifteen years to combat her anxiety.

“When I first got them and started taking them, I was wound so tight I would take three a day. I would take Klonopin before breakfast. In X-Ray school I made A’s, but I was taking Klonopin before class,” Cook said. “I know I’m dependent on it now because I’ve tried to get off it.”

Impact of widespread drug addiction

Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death within the United States, according to the CDC.  Furthermore, the number one cause of death in opioid overdose is “respiratory depression” which is essentially when one’s brain has a reduced urge to breathe. In other words, the opioids cause the back portion of the brain to fall asleep and in turn, the individual’s brain is literally put to sleep. This makes sense considering that opioids are the most addictive pain medications, according to Harvard Health Publications.

Andrew Kolodny M.D., founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, said the high opioid users receive is identical to that of heroin. The need to experience this high can become an addiction for opioid users and could lead to an accidental overdose.

Juan Hernandez, 20, a Chapel Hill resident, said, “I can say that Xanax has placed an immense hold on my life due to the decisions I made while under the influence of them.”

The destruction caused by opioid addiction is not limited to opioid users. Friends, family members and loved ones can also suffer in the wake of addiction.

Olivia Huneycutt, 21, recalls what it is like living with an addict:

“With any drug addiction, you’re very wary of the person. You do things like count your pills even though you’ve already hidden them away. You think they might steal your money. You become very aware of how they act whenever they’re high.”

So, if doctors know about the potential risks of opioid prescriptions and their damaging effects, why do they continue to prescribe these drugs to patients? Simply put, opioids are cheap and easily accessible for both doctors and patients.

Opioids are also a proven treatment method for chronic pain—if you disregard the opioid addiction epidemic.

In a blog post for the Huffington Post, Director of Public Policy for the Society for Women’s Health Research Heather Boyd said approximately 50 million American women suffer from chronic pain associated with endometriosis, fibromyalgia, or other conditions. But, the effectiveness of opioid painkillers on chronic pains is also quite problematic considering that women are more likely to have chronic pain. Consequently, women are also more likely to be prescribed prescription pain relievers, be given higher doses, and use these drugs for longer periods of time than men, she said.

“I have chronic pain,” Cook said. “I have taken myself off of many pain medications and weaned myself off many drugs because, like I said, at one point all I had to do was ask. That’s it. I can’t sleep? I get a sleeping pill. I’m stressed? I get some Xanax. That’s it.”

Cook’s story of physician assisted opioid addiction is one that reflects that of thousands of other American women. According to Kolodny, older Americans are developing opioid addictions through medical use. Once these people are addicted to the strong high provided by opioids, they don’t have to search for “street drugs” like heroin. They simply complain of pain to their doctors who increase their dosage, which can be deadly. The American Society of Addiction Medicine found that 48,000 women died of prescription painkiller overdoses between 1999 and 2010 and the frightening statistics don’t end there.

The Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR) has conducted studies on why the opioid epidemic in America largely targets women. Between 1999 and 2010, prescription painkiller overdose deaths among men increased by 237 percent. However, among women, the number of deaths increased by over 400 percent during this period. Perhaps this is due to the fact that women experience more frequent and intense pain than men. In terms of treatment, the SWHR found that women are more likely to be treated with prescription painkillers, like opioids, as compared to over-the-counter pain relievers. In addition, women are often given much higher doses for longer periods of time—often leading to dependency.

Looking forward

The attack on women’s health is of epidemic proportions, but legislatures as well as independent organizations are beginning to step up and combat the problem. For example, Barack Obama signed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) of 2016 during his presidency.

Boyd said in her blog:

“This legislation requires the Department of Health and Human Services… to review, modify, and update best practices for pain management and prescribing pain medication and examine and identify the need for, development of, and availability of medical alternatives to opioids.”

That’s quite a mouthful. Simply put, the legislation promotes research of alternatives to opioids considering the epidemic at hand. Medicinal marijuana, for example, is significantly less addictive than opioids, but there are not enough research studies providing evidence of its medicinal qualities. The CARA legislation directly addresses this issue and therefore promotes research.

The opioid epidemic in America is disproportionately targeting women and while steps are being taken to minimize the effect these drugs have on our nation, there is still a long way to go. Through research, new legislation and support from loved ones this epidemic can be stopped.

Edited by Luke Bollinger