By Thalia Halloran

This post is part of a series called Profiles in Leadership, chronicling the extraordinary endeavors of our students during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.


Political Engagement Project fellows Erin Lee, Catherine Martinez, and Julianna Rennie (PEP ’20, PPS’21) didn’t let the COVID-19 pandemic stop their fascinating work on immigration and representation.

Before the pandemic, Lee, Martinez, and Rennie were working on a research project in conjunction with Duke’s chapter of Define American—an organization that, according to its mission statement, “fights injustice and anti-immigrant hate through the power of storytelling”—to create a documentary about the organization’s advocacy for undocumented immigrants, especially Undocu-Awareness week—planned for the week of March 16. The work was part of PPS590 Democracy Lab, the gateway course to the Political Engagement Project, a fellowship co-sponsored by the Hart Leadership Program and Polis: Center for Politics.

When Duke announced that students would not be returning to campus due to the pandemic, the three students decided to shift the focus of their project to a pressing topic: ethical representation of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans in the wake of COVID-19.

For Lee, who identifies as Korean American, this issue hits close to home. As the severity of the pandemic became more clear on a global scale, even the highest levels of government repeated xenophobic rhetoric. Lee cites President Donald Trump’s retraction of his earlier use of the racially charged term “Chinese virus.” In his statement discouraging violence against Asian Americans, he tweeted, “They are working closely with us to get rid of [the virus].”

As Lee explains, “When he uses that identifier ‘American,’ and then uses words like ‘they’ and ‘us’ as if we’re not part of ‘us,’ that’s unethical to me. It shows how fragile representation can be and how powerful being intentional in your wording can be.”

Rennie, who co-created 9th Street Journal, a student-led news organization which focuses on Durham local news, has used her experience in journalism to spearhead six interviews with Asian immigrants, Asian Americans, and Duke professors which the students plan to use to create an audio documentary/podcast and a guidebook on ethical representation.

She says that the experience made her imagine “what it would be like to be on a campus that thinks about immigrant students not as an afterthought but on the forefront.”

Martinez, who co-directed Duke’s 2019 Common Ground retreat, which focuses on fostering student connection with frank discussion about identity topics, has taken point on assembling the group’s ethical representation guidebook.

“Ethical representation is being able to portray yourself how it’s supposed to be, and for people to perceive it the way that you portray it. It’s multidimensional, and it’s democratic,” Martinez said.

With the guidebook, the students plan to recommend ways for media to ethically represent any minority group, not only Asians and Asian Americans.

In this time of crisis, the students are focusing on helping others and themselves. Martinez advises that her peers “use this time for reflection and personal growth and to try to find peace.” Rennie recommends that students “reach out to people in your networks from on campus.” And Lee offered a saying she often shares with her friends: “When your brain and the world are unkind to you, you have to be kinder to yourself.”