The Reunited States asks what is really dividing Americans and what must be done to fix it
image via Reunited States film

Susan Bro in the Reunited States

At first glance, Ben Rekhi's new documentary The Reunited States is an optimistic, love-letter with a message about hope, unity and piecing back together our tattered political landscape. But underneath that feel-good surface is a hard truth: Our dysfunctional politics is only a reflection of the culture it represents. And if we want to fix it, we have to fix ourselves first. Achieving any sense of unity means letting go of our own prejudices, and most challenging of all, actually listening to those we disagree with.

"The political divisiveness started as a grassroots movement that became reflected in the actions and positions of elected officials," Rekhi told Upworthy in a phone interview. "Not only do you have rights as citizens you have responsibilities."




THE REUNITED STATES - Trailer www.youtube.com


Rekhi chose four real life stories to help make his point in the film:

Susan Bro, whose daughter Heather Heyer was murdered in the Charlottesville protests against white supremacy, picks up her daughter's mantle of advocacy to explore the roots of racism, all while processing her grief in the lead up to trial of her daughter's killer.

Erin and David Leaverton leave behind their comfortable suburban lives to travel with their young children in an RV across America to have sometimes uncomfortable dinners with people who are different from them politically, racially and culturally to find out what's really driving a wedge between us. Part of that answer stems from David himself, a former Republican political operative who says he decided to get out of politics after seeing how his own work was explicitly designed to push Americans further apart in the pursuit of power.

Greg Orman, a political independent who runs for governor and the U.S. Senate in Kansas, fighting against the pressures of a two-party system.

Steven Olikara, founder and president of the Millennial Action Project. MAP's stated goal is to bring together young leaders from across the political spectrum in order to "transcending the tribalism" that has created a seemingly insurmountable divide in our modern politics.

"We really wanted to spotlight the everyday heroes who are doing this work," Rekhi said. "This is a citizens' movement and those of us taking responsibility for our thoughts, words and actions. That kind of self-awareness is something we hope comes of that."

The film was inspired by the book The Reunited States of America, written by Mark Gerzon, who also appears in the film.



Greg Orman campaigns during The Reunited States


To its credit, one of the major obstacles the film challenges head on is the idea that what divides us can be cured by something as simple as a conversation and a hug. It's not that there are "two Americas" as the political cliche goes: there are seemingly countless Americas, separated by economics, race, religion, age and, of course, geography. Technology has been further dividing that split by pushing us into echo chambers that reinforce our own prejudices and create a digital divide amongst those with the most social media savvy and access to the high-speed internet and devices required to have a voice online.

One of the most surprisingly emotional moments in the film occurs when Bro sits down to have dinner with the Leaverton family. We've grown to admire all three of them over the course of the documentary but their worlds collide in a way that shows just how difficult reconciliation can be, even for people who have made it their mission to heal our political and cultural wounds.


Erin Leaverton is a scene from The Reunited States


Promoting the film itself has resulted in some unexpected controversy. It turns out that the only thing political pundits hate more than the "other side" are those willing to cross the divide. One of the film's producers, Van Jones, found himself unexpectedly under attack while promoting the film on "The View" last week. Jones, a former Obama official, have been criticized by the Left for working with members of the Trump Administration on prison reform. Jones, a vocal critic of Trump, defended his work, saying it has resulted in the release of an estimated 50,000 individuals from prison. Work, he points out, that can be measured in actual lives changes, as opposed to points scored from attacking someone on social media or cable television.

A clip of View co-host Sonny Hostin telling Jones "Black people don't trust you anymore," because of his work with Trump quickly went viral after the segment. Jones said he felt "ambushed" by the attack from Hostin and her view co-host Ana Navarro, ironically, herself a longtime Republican strategist.

"The business model is geared toward the most inflammatory voices," Rekhi said when asked about "The View" segment and some of the reactions on social media. "Ten percent of the people on social media are getting 90 percent of the air-time. Negative news is being amplified because of our instincts to pay attention to danger. It can also be part of what brings us back together. To work through these divides is not easy. A lot of this is directed toward friends and family, the people closest to us. It's not sustainable."

The Reunited States tells a powerful story about America but it's not an easy one. We've all read a book or seen a movie that we absolutely had to share with others. The truth is, when we're do that we're almost always proselytizing, either insisting that others come around to our long held views, or playing the role of enchanted neophyte, spreading the word of some new slogan we're convinced is a magic bullet to all that ails us (and them).

That's not the kind of film The Reunited States is. It's honestly the kind of movie you might want to watch by yourself, or with your family. Which is perfect in quarantine time. There are many vital conversations to be had with others and many voices that deserve to be heard. The film does an excellent job of exploring that theme, even if it's one we've probably heard in some form or another. Where the film really excels is in its message to challenge ourselves, explore our own biases and be open to moving past them. In other words, be the kind of American you want other Americans to be.

This article originally appeared on August 27, 2015

Oh, society! We have such a complicated relationship with relationships.

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This article originally appeared on August 27, 2015

Oh, society! We have such a complicated relationship with relationships.

It starts early, with the movies we are plopped in front of as toddlers.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."