Works in Progress

By Douglas Birch

A glimpse at ongoing faculty research

photo: a morrinho installation
Photo courtesy of Alessandro Angelini

Role Playing in Rio

Twenty years ago, two young brothers from a small town in Brazil arrived in a squatter settlement, or favela, on the hills of Rio de Janeiro, scavenged some bricks and tiles, and started building a miniature Rio all their own.

As they constructed their tiny city, called Morrinho, or Little Hill, they began to use it as the setting for a kind of three-dimensional board game, where they and their friends recreated life in Rio.

From the start, the game had a serious edge, says Alessandro Angelini, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, who is writing a book about Morrinho. The teenagers used it to make sense of their lives at the city’s social and geographic margins.

“People who perceive Morrinho as play reflect deeply held cultural assumptions about what play is and means,” says Angelini, who lived in the favela for four years during his research. “I saw a perspective on the world in all its messy complexity.”

He decided to study the game by playing it with the neighborhood boys, sometimes using his game piece, or avatar, named “Alex,” and sometimes playing the role of the Morrinho television news crew that reported on violence.

In the course of the game, the boys didn’t simply mimic their neighborhood’s real-life drug raids, dance parties, and love affairs, but spun fictional stories out of them. At the same time, they made the game rules as realistic as possible. Action was improvised in real time, and no one had superpowers. If one of the game pieces died, he or she stayed dead. Morrinho’s ruling ethos was summed up by an adage on some of the model’s miniature billboards: “God Knows Everything But He’s No Snitch.”

Life in the real-life favela was likewise unforgiving. During Angelini’s research, police killed two 17-year-old boys who were working as lookouts for a drug gang that operated in the community. Their favela was among the first in Rio to be occupied by police battling the city’s drug gangs.

In the early 2000s, Morrinho began to draw the attention of the international art world. Its creators were invited to art shows in Barcelona, Paris, New York, and Venice. One of the founding brothers is now the artist in residence at the Morrinho project site, and the other became a singer, or MC, in the Rio funk scene.

Their real-life neighborhood, meanwhile, now has running water, internet service, and bed-and-breakfast accommodations for art-lovers and tourists.

But Angelini says artistic notoriety has not “neatly translated into social uplift for any of the young men or their community.” He plans one more trip to Rio as he completes his manuscript.


Let it Stand

The title of Dora Malech’s latest poetry collection, Stet, means “let it stand”—a word that copy editors use to in

dicate that a marked correction or deletion in a text should be ignored. The title refers to the dual themes of the book: how words can split and recombine, and how a person goes about making and remaking her life.

“I wrote this in a time of many different transitions. Physical transitions. Emotional transitions. Transitions in relationships,” says Malech, an assistant professor in the Writing Seminars, whose work is full of word play and anagrams.

“And I was thinking a lot about what it would mean to make a clean break, quote-unquote, or start over. And more and more, I came to the conclusion that that wasn’t a possibility and is never really a possibility.”

Malech has published three previous collections—Inside & Elsewhere, a chapbook written while she was still a high school student in Bethesda in 1999; Shore Ordered Ocean in 2009, and Say So in 2010. Her work also has appeared in dozens of journals, magazines, and anthologies, including The New Yorker, Poetry magazine, and The Johns Hopkins Review.

Her fourth collection, titled Flourish, is due out in 2020. The poems in that collection will take a more narrative approach than Stet, she says, while meditating on themes of growth and thriving on both the personal and societal level.

Malech is also working on the libretto for Threnos, a choral work in progress by Jacob Cooper, an American composer, and Karmina Silec, a Slovenian artist who works with a choir called Karmina Slovenica. Threnos is Greek for a lyrical lament for the victim in a tragedy, and the work will focus on the killing of animals in slaughterhouses. Malech wrote the lyrics for “Unspun,” one of six songs on Cooper’s debut album, Silver Threads, released in 2014.

She’s been teaching young poets for much of her career, first as co-founder and director of the Iowa Youth Writing Project, through her current work with Johns Hopkins’ Center for Social Concern, and with Writers in Baltimore Schools.

With the latter two groups, she plans to teach a course she developed called Poetry and Social Engagement to Hopkins undergraduates and students from city high schools in the spring.


Seeking Inclusive Excellence

Many American universities have them: those galleries of oil portraits of the school’s founders, presidents, and professors who tend to have two things in common: their gender and their skin color.

“Some call it the Great White Wall,” says Rigoberto Hernandez, the Gompf Family Professor of Chemistry and a theoretical and computational chemist at the School of Arts and Sciences. “It’s important to celebrate the past, and it’s also important to promote the diverse environment that we aspire to.”

Over the past eight years, Hernandez has led an effort to make these academic pantheons more diverse by promoting to chemistry departments nationwide the hiring of women, racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ community.

He and several colleagues launched OXIDE, for Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity, which began staging diversity workshops in 2011. OXIDE’s current research group includes Hernandez and two other members from Homewood’s chemistry department, research scientists Dontarie Stallings and Srikant Iyer.

Many efforts to promote diversity in chemistry faculties, Hernandez says, focus on bottom-up programs to encourage the enrollment of women and minorities through the academic pipeline. OXIDE adopted a top-down strategy of persuading department chairs that key to their success is the creation of a more diverse faculty through recruitment, hiring, and promotion.

By some measures, progress at Johns Hopkins has been slow. There have only been six women professors in the history of the chemistry department, Hernandez says. Today, just two of the 20 members of the chemistry faculty—or 10 percent—are women. There is only one underrepresented minority, Professor Hernandez himself.

The good news, he says, is that Johns Hopkins is committed to diversity. “There is a desire within the university and the department to make a positive change.”

Recently, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation gave a $450,000 grant to OXIDE for the next two biennial meetings.