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“Back to School” Field Trip to the Chicago Field Museum

Today’s guest blog post is by Kamela Heyward-Rotimi. Kamela Heyward-Rotimi is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for African and African American Research at Duke University.  She is a visiting research scholar in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria, and is an adjunct affiliate in the Department of Anthropology at University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  Her research interests include race, gender, science, digital media, and education.  She is presently working on a manuscript that looks at the impact of Internet Fraud, also known as “419” or “Yahoo-Yahoo”, in the lives of everyday Nigerian communities.

Anthropologists are reconstituting ways to communicate anthropology with communities that host our meetings. At the 112th AAA Annual Meeting, anthropologists did just that in the Anthropologists Back to School initiative.

The past two AAA annual meeting themes addressed the imagined place of anthropology and the place of anthropology in our communities in the 21st century.  In line with this reflexive inquiry of contemporary anthropology, anthropologist and public intellectual Johnnetta Betsch Cole challenged her anthropology colleagues to reach out to the youngest members of the host cities of our AAA meetings.  The program chairs for the 2013 AAA meetings, Alaka Wali and Dana-Ain Davis, responded to the challenge and invited anthropologists to participate in the Anthropologist Back to School initiative in Chicago.

Dr. Cole’s invitation to partner with her in the Anthropologists Back to School initiative brought earlier lessons of “giving back” to communities, and engaged anthropology full circle for me.   My initial consideration of what is public anthropology would occurred after Dr. Cole’s inaugural address to the student body as the President of Spelman College.  In that speech she stressed that we budding professionals and scholars had a responsibility to our West End neighbors.  She challenged each of us to get involved with community service in the West End area, the area that both the Spelman community and the West End communities shared.   Community involvement was not a new concept for me but one I largely associated with civic and grassroots organizations, not higher institutions or anthropology.  The possibility of an anthropology advocating for community development challenged my previous understandings of anthropology as an immutable discipline.  I questioned how to pair my activism with my new found interest in anthropology; I never stopped asking where a “community involved” anthropology fits within the definition of anthropology.

In many ways, questioning the positionality of anthropology in society benefits from the legacy of anthropologists across subfields who have questioned anthropology’s role in addressing societal problems (Blakey 1998; Borofsky 2005; Cole 2009; Gwaltney 1980; Harrison 1991; Mead 2004; Sanday 1976).  It is increasingly clear, both in our research and everyday lives, that current understandings of society and anthropology require anthropologists’ active contribution.  The rapid exchange of information on digitized forums and open content online encyclopedias which shape peoples’ interpretation of everyday life highlight an opportunity and responsibility for anthropologists to be a part of these conversations in multiple mediums.  The conversations at the Anthropologist Back to School initiative presented a public space to engage in conversations about anthropology with young community members.

The Anthropologist Back to School initiative involved anthropologists representing all subfields engaging with students of all ages in and around exhibits at Loyola University, The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Latino Cultural Center and The Field Museum.

At the Field Museum site I found it meaningful to talk with young students about what it means to be an anthropologist, anthropological concepts, world cultures, and how to critically digest images in popular culture.  It was especially significant to share this time with colleagues who were also engaged in sharing their narratives of anthropology, and to anxiously admit that we hoped our presentations were relevant to these very young communities of primary and secondary school learners.

At the Field Museum, anthropologists engaged with local students in connection with various presentations they had prepared on a range of topics:  racial categories and diversity, ethnographic practices and fieldwork and interviewing techniques, vernacular and contemporary African culture; African innovation through the ages; Ghanaian culture, Adinkra symbols and ideographs; and African cities.  I discovered, as did my colleagues, that it was great fun talking with groups of cross learners.

I joined Dr. Cole in the Africa exhibit for our presentation, “Africa Connected,” where we discussed African stereotypes vs. contemporary African life and digitally connected African communities.  Dr. Cole began our presentation with a critical discussion of current perceptions of Africa based on tropes of a primitive and Dark Continent. I then shared contemporary images of West Africans digitally connected through social media and various new media technologies.  Our goal was to initiate a dialogue about Africa for young learners who are far too often instructed from curricula that codifies Africa and nations of the South as subpar civilizations.  An example of this kind of instruction was shared with me by a parent whose teen age son attends a magnet high school in southeast Chicago. This student’s ninth grade history teacher said the following to his class: “Colonialists brought a gift to West Africa, the gift of reading and writing.”  Many of our discussions with student groups ranging from 5th grade through 10th grade reflected this troubling popular misunderstanding of the history of colonialism in Africa and first world/third world dichotomies that are traded as fact. It was encouraging to see that students who may well have been exposed to distorted and factually incorrect information about African people and cultures were willing to listen to ethnographic and anthropological data depicting a more complex African existence.

One of the most memorable moments for Dr. Cole and me was our conversation with a 5th grade class and their teacher Ms. West*.  The students of this 5th grade class expressed informed perspectives about the diverse and dynamic realities on the African continent. The students’ responses caused me to revise the unofficial script I found myself following when talking with previous classes.  When we asked children from other visiting classes their impressions of Africa they generally listed diversity of animals, poverty, and ‘primitive societies.’  However, when the students of Ms. West’s class were asked the question, “What do you know about Africa?” A little girl responded with little hesitation: “It is an interesting place with smart people.” Her comment was immediately followed by a fellow classmate’s observation, “And, West Africans are using the Internet.”  Because their responses differed greatly from the responses given by fellow students also educated in Chicago area schools, I assumed that Ms. West’s class was sharing information they gained outside of the classroom.  Which prompted me to break with the script and ask, “Where did you learn all of these things?”  The students unanimously replied, “Ms. West is teaching us about Africa.”  Following our presentation, I asked Ms. West to briefly speak with Dr. Cole and myself. We first commended her for presenting a perspective of Africa seldom presented at the primary level in American Public school curricula.  She said, “This perspective you all and the other anthropologists presented about Africa is not in the units I am told to cover in my class. So, I referred to sources outside of the mandated Common Core Curriculum to find information that talks about positive views of Africa.  This is a part of my lessons on world history.”  Finally, she added that she would like to incorporate these kinds of analyses in her lesson plans.  After sharing with her some websites with images of contemporary Africa, Ms. West said she was inspired to widen her search for more complex stories of other countries.

Those conversations with the students, their teachers and side debriefs with participating colleagues reinforced the importance of a responsible anthropology that gives back and assumes an active role in understandings of culture writ large and in the margins.  The Anthropologists Back to School initiative allows me to extend my community engagement to the host cities of the AAA meetings.  Coincidently, in the past year some of my own community involvement included work with students from pre-K through college both at home and abroad.  In Nigeria I spoke with recently graduated secondary school students about anthropology and demystifying notions of democratic wealth of all American citizens.  In Durham, NC I conducted an interactive presentation for pre-K through high school aged students that addressed the presence of cultural symbols in our everyday lives.  And, on my way to the 111th AAA meetings in San Francisco and during a visit to my childhood home, Los Angeles, I was invited to speak to the young women of the Women’s Leadership Project, a feminist service learning program based at two LAUSD high schools in South Los Angeles.  My topic affirmed questions I asked of anthropology as an undergraduate; I discussed the perfect fit of anthropology for women of color who are community advocates.  I look forward to the continuation of the Anthropologists Back to School initiative and opportunities for anthropologists to engage with local communities during our AAA meetings in Washington, D.C..


Susan Hyatt: An Anthropologist Back to School

Today’s guest blog post is written by Dr. Susan B. Hyatt.  Dr. Hyatt is currently an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). During the 1980s, she spent 8 years working as a community organizer in South Chicago, which is where she first developed her interest in  community collaborative projects. Dr. Hyatt has volunteered to lead a program in the Anthropologists Back to School initiative. Her program will take place at The Field Museum. This new initiative seeks volunteers to lead and assist programs at various host sites throughout Chicago on Wednesday, November 20 from 9am to12pm. Share your passion of anthropology while giving back to this year’s host city – Chicago. Learn more about how you can participate in Anthropologists Back to School and register today!

Photo courtesy IUPUI

Photo courtesy IUPUI

I am looking forward to participating in the Anthropologists Back to School initiative at the Field Museum in Chicago on November 19th.  My workshop will be based on a collaborative ethnographic project I carried out in Indianapolis, which brought together university students, a synagogue, a community center and a Black Baptist Church in an endeavor we called, “The Neighborhood of Saturdays.”

In 2010, Anthropology students from my institution, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) began conducting oral history interviews with former residents of what had once been one of the most multi-ethnic neighborhoods in Indianapolis—the near Southside.  We focused on two groups who had occupied that space between 1920-1960— the children of Jewish immigrants whose families hailed from cities formerly located in the Ottoman Empire in the early years of the 20th century, and African Americans whose families arrived from the south during the Great Migration.  During the 1950s, many of the Jewish families began moving to the more affluent northside neighborhoods where many of the Jewish communal institutions had already relocated.  Ten years later, the remaining African American community was displaced by the construction of an interstate highway that bisected the old neighborhood, destroying both residential properties and a once-vibrant commercial strip.

Photos courtesy of Angela Herrmann

Photos courtesy of Angela Herrmann

Former African-American and Jewish neighbors largely lost contact with one another after the highway came through.  Once a year, however, the African-American former southsiders continued to gather in a small park in the old neighborhood for a reunion picnic, held on the first Saturday in August.  I learned about the reunion picnics and began attending them in 2008 with the idea that students enrolled in my Ethnographic Methods class would collect life histories about the old Southside and about the reunions, which were then in their 35th year. I had assumed that the neighborhood had long been primarily African-American, however in my interviews at that first picnic, several folks shared with me their recollections of how special they felt it had been to grow up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood, especially in that earlier historical era, and they reminisced in particular about their former Jewish neighbors and about the many Jewish-owned businesses that had once thronged the main thoroughfare, Meridian St.

Through a chance encounter, I met later met a member of one of those Southside Jewish families and she put me in touch with others.  Both communities were excited and enthusiastic about coming back together to work with the students toward the goal of writing a book about their community.  We changed the name of the project from “First Saturday in August” to “The Neighborhood of Saturdays,” which incorporated references to both the picnic and to the Jewish observance of the Sabbath on Saturdays.

Photo courtesy of Angela Herrmann

Photo courtesy of Angela Herrmann

Over a two-year period, Jewish and African-American Southsiders gathered regularly with the students to record their life stories and to talk about the on-going research and plan the book.  In addition to carrying out the oral history interviews, students also engaged in archival research about the neighborhood and they organized several events we called “scan-a-thons.”  The scan-a-thons were held at a community center, at the synagogue and at the Black church, where we invited people to bring old photographs, church bulletins, newspaper articles and other memorabilia about the neighborhood which we scanned using laptops and portable scanners.  All of that material was organized and catalogued by our university library’s Digital Scholarship team and it is now available on a library web site, along with some of the publicity that the project garnered, including an article from the New York Times and a recent story on our local NPR affiliate.

Last February, we self-published the book, The Neighborhood of Saturdays: Memories of a Multi-Ethnic Neighborhood on Indianapolis’ Southside.  Elders who were involved in the project have continued to organize events around the city to share their memories of growing up together and to reflect on their experiences reuniting after more than 50 years to work on the book.

Photo courtesy of Angela Herrmann

Photo courtesy of Angela Herrmann

The students and I were surprised to learn that during an era when Jim Crow was a de facto aspect of life in Indianapolis, in the “neighborhood of Saturdays,” people had once come together across racial and religious boundaries to forge friendships that were revived by our research project. For my Back to School workshop, I plan to share some stories about this project and to perhaps show the students some short videos of our elders talking about the old neighborhood.  I hope to help them think about how urban neighborhoods change through time, and to understand how we can use strategies like mapping, interviewing and scanning old photographs to discover stories that might surprise us today. Like Sabiyha Prince, I also hope that some of them will think about working on their own neighborhood history projects, and about perhaps organizing their own story-telling sessions and even scan-a-thons with their family elders and neighbors.   If nothing else, hopefully they will learn that the communities where they live now and that they take for granted in their current incarnations may once have looked very different, and that they can use some of the strategies we used to uncover their own neighborhood’s “hidden history.”

Sabiyha Prince, An Anthropologist Back to School

Today’s guest blog post is by Sabiyha Prince (Coppin State U). Dr. Prince has volunteered to lead a program in the Anthropologists Back to School initiative. Her program will take place at The Field Museum. This new initiative seeks volunteers to lead and assist programs at various host sites throughout Chicago on Wednesday, November 20 from 9am to12pm. Share your passion of anthropology while giving back to this year’s host city – Chicago. Learn more about how you can participate in Anthropologists Back to School and register today!

S. Prince

I am an adjunct professor at Coppin State University in Baltimore, Maryland and a researcher and qualitative data analyst for the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum of Washington, D.C. which is currently closed due to the government shutdown.  As a cultural anthropologist I have been interested in the unfolding elements of race, class, and other aspects of status and identity as these overlap to shape the conditions and experiences of African Americans in cities. This is a focus that has led me to look at socioeconomic diversity among Blacks in the U .S. and to explore the continued legacy of racial inequality in the contemporary period.  Most recently my research and writing have resulted in my second book, African Americans and Gentrification in Washington, D.C. Race, Class and Social Justice in the Nation’s Capital (2014).

This forthcoming book uses qualitative data to explore the experiences and ideas of African Americans as they confront and construct gentrification in Washington, D.C.  It contextualizes Black Washingtonians’ perspectives on belonging and attachment during a marked period of urban transformation and demographic change and attends to the impact of hierarchies and standpoints over time.  I present oral history and ethnographic data on current and former African American residents of D.C. and combine these with analyses from institutional, statistical, and scholarly reports on wealth inequality, shortages in affordable housing, and rates of unemployment in Washington, D.C.  Completing this project led me to glossed-over histories of a people and a place too often narrowly construed within adherence to an inside or outside the beltway conceptual dichotomy.  Among my most central findings is the conclusion that gentrification seizes upon and fosters uneven development, vulnerability and alienation in affected communities.  While proponents deploy the language of multiculturalism and diversity in support of gentrification I noted heightened forms class and race-based tension in areas that have experienced this type of urban restructuring.

I am also a longtime proponent of an engaged anthropology and, as such, have worked with grassroots organizers in Washington, D.C. and anti-war, environmental justice and anti-apartheid social movements in D.C. and New Orleans, Louisiana.  The Back to School program appealed to me on a number of levels although I will admit to mildly panicking after coming on board because I couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to share.  I have volunteered to work at The Field Museum site but when I was told Power Point presentations would not be possible I began to fear I would bore the pants off of the students in my attempt to support such an important initiative.  This all changed after I read Julie Lesnik’s guest blog posting and became inspired.  As I began ruminating on strategies for incorporating my own research into the process my mind turned to urban change and rested on the D.C. residents without whose cooperation I would have had absolutely nothing to write about in my book.  Certain the students I would come to meet in Chicago would have folks in their lives with stories in need of recording, I decided to lead mini-workshops designed to empower young people around using anthropology to explore their neighborhoods and/or surrounding areas.

The details of my plan are coming together but my goal is to imbue students with (or reinforce in them) a sense of how valuable their own communities are – even those in which residents are experiencing challenges.  I will provide handouts with listings of community assets – broadly considered – and questions students can ask of potential participants in their self-constructed projects.  I intend to encourage those who visit me at the museum to either interview select neighbors or members of their social networks and/or engage in small acts of ethnographic observation within their communities.  It is my hope that this project will inspire students to look at their communities through fresh eyes and encourage them to consider the value of anthropological inquiry.  It is also possible students can use some of the suggestions I will share to complete homework assignments or school projects.

Lisa Gonzalez, An Anthropologist Back to School

Today’s guest blog post is by Lisa Gonzalez (Wayne State U). Gonzalez is a doctoral student in the Business and Organizational Anthropology Department. She has volunteered to lead a program in the Anthropologists Back to School initiative. Her program will take place at The Field Museum. This new initiative seeks volunteers to lead and assist programs at various host sites throughout Chicago on Wednesday, November 20 from 9am to12pm. Share your passion of anthropology while giving back to this year’s host city – Chicago. Learn more about how you can participate in Anthropologists Back to School and register today!

Lisa GonzalezI became interested in the Anthropologists Back to School initiative due to my passion of introducing young people to anthropology early on in their academic studies. I have followed the success of the Royal Anthropological Institute’s A-level Anthropology Program and had hoped to some day participate in a similar U.S. based program, whenever one is developed. I am pleased that AAA is taking the lead with this concept and look forward to many more opportunities to increase the awareness of Anthropology as a career to young people in the U.S.

During the Anthropologists Back to School initiative, I will lead a program on Peoples and Cultures of the Pacific at The Field Museum. I plan to discuss my interests in the culture and daily lives of Native Hawaiian people living in the Pacific today. Students will have the opportunity to participate in a cross-cultural exchange activity with Hawaiian youth while at the same time learning “what” anthropologists do and “how” they go about collecting research data.

Introducing young people in primary and secondary schools to Anthropology will increase their thinking about other cultures. Through their engagement with this program, they will develop a deeper understanding of themselves and how they fit into the world.

Learn more about how you can participate in Anthropologists Back to School and register today!

Cynthia Fowler, An Anthropologist Back to School

Today’s guest blog post is by Cynthia (Cissy) Fowler. Dr. Fowler is an Associate Professor at Wofford College, Secretary of the Society of Ethnobiology, and co-Editor of Ethnobiology Letters.  She conducts transdisciplinary research on society and nature. In her fieldwork in Eastern Indonesia’s dry monsoonal tropics, she studies the materialization of fire — fire as a creative expression of social relations and ecological perceptions.

Dr. Fowler has volunteered to lead a program in the Anthropologists Back to School initiative. Her program will take place at The Field Museum. This new initiative seeks volunteers to lead and assist programs at various host sites throughout Chicago on Wednesday, November 20 from 9am to12pm. Share your passion of anthropology while giving back to this year’s host city – Chicago. Learn more about how you can participate in Anthropologists Back to School and register today!

Cissy FowlerThe Anthropologists Back to School initiative caught my attention because it is an outlet for connecting with and contributing to the community beyond the meeting rooms and conference hotel during the AAA Annual Meeting. I selected the Field Museum host site with colleagues Isabella Abuchaibe and Natalie Bump. The Anthropologists Back to School initiative provides an unusual opportunity to experience the Field Museum in potentially meaningful ways, where we can be both observers and interpreters of the exhibits. It also provides an opportunity to support the teaching mission of Wofford College, where I work. Other Wofford faculty inspire me with their publications, grants, and continuing education related to teaching excellence and service through education.

I hope to share my fascination with the diverse, colorful, sometimes inspiring and sometimes troubling character of human-environment interactions. In my life-long pursuit of inspiration, I have witnessed many beautiful places and encountered many amazing creatures.  Along the way, I have met inspiring people who have sustainable (and other) lifeways and compelling (and humdrum) beliefs.  Anthropology provides the most amazing tools for understanding those people relative to Earth’s ecosystems.

During the program, we will guide school children through interactive experiences as they move through the “Restoring Earth” exhibit hall.  “Restoring Earth” already operates as an interactive exhibit, thus it will be easy for us to play off of that set up.  We will spotlight the Field Museum’s ongoing conservation-related projects with indigenous peoples in Amazonia, Peru, the Philippines, and other places/communities where their scholars work.  As an anthropologist, I’d like to infuse the exhibit with lessons about how anthropologists determine the role people have had through time in maintaining, creating, destroying, and/or conserving biodiversity.  We will discuss biocultural diversity during which we will emphasize the association between megabiodiverse regions and cultural/linguistic diversity. We will also point to the importance of considering the presence or absence of people in conservation areas and the implications of those alternatives for diversity.

Writing and delivering our presentation will be a collaborative effort between Isabella, Natalie, and myself.  Isabella’s special interest is in American food industries.  Natalie will share her special interest on the restoration of nature in the Chicago area drawing from her research on the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. And my special interest is in social justice and global change. The umbrella theme for our three segments will be the value of anthropology for understanding Earth’s processes and resolving the problems the Earth and its people face in ways that are socially just and ecological sound.

The children’s greatest take home message will be a recognition that culture has a major influence on people’s perceptions of environments and the ways people manage landscapes.  The children will take away with them the knowledge that anthropology is a science that asks especially fascinating questions about biological and cultural diversity and has powerful techniques for answering those questions as well as brilliant insights on achieving conservation. so that the school children will gain an appreciation for the value of anthropology.  The 6th-12th graders who attend the AAA Back to School initiative at the “Restoring Earth” exhibit will learn the message that the world consists of diverse cultures living in diverse environments, and will learn to not only value biocultural diversity but also to think critically about it.

Share your passion of anthropology while giving back to this year’s host city – Chicago. Learn more about how you can participate in Anthropologists Back to School and register today!

Julie Lesnik, An Anthropologist Back to School

Today’s guest blog post is by Julie Lesnik (U Illinois at Chicago). Dr. Lesnik has volunteered to lead a program in the Anthropologists Back to School initiative. Her program will take place at The Field Museum. This new initiative seeks volunteers to lead and assist programs at various host sites throughout Chicago on Wednesday, November 20 from 9am to12pm. Share your passion of anthropology while giving back to this year’s host city – Chicago. Learn more about how you can participate in Anthropologists Back to School and register today!

Julie LesnikI moved to Chicago from Ann Arbor, MI in 2011.  I was very active in community outreach in Ann Arbor, especially regarding science education for young girls.  I have not had a chance to get involved with a program yet here in Chicago, so the Anthropologists Back to School initiative is especially appealing to me.

I have spent the last two summers working on an archaeological project and field school in highland Peru. Working in Peru is a new endeavor for me, and I found the prehistoric cultures of the region absolutely fascinating.  I am excited to co-chair the Ancient Americas program at the Field Museum this November and bring what I have learned about the dynamic history of this region to students of the Chicago Public Schools.

My research focus is on bioarchaeology; the analysis of human skeletal remains in archaeological contexts.  One activity that students will be able to take part in includes taking measurements on replicas of skeletal materials and estimating the height of individuals.  I will use this exercise to describe how growing up at high altitude affects the human body, not only through shorter statures, but also through adaptations to breathing effectively in low atmospheric pressures.  I hope that students will walk away from this experience with a better understanding of human variation and adaptation.

Calling All Anthropologists – We Need You for Back To School

Today’s guest blog post is by the 2013 AAA Annual Meeting Program Chairs, Dr. Dana-Ain Davis and Dr. Alaka Wali. Share your passion with the local community through the Back to School program this November!

Dear Colleagues,

We hope you will sign up to participate in the first Anthropologists Back to School event, to be held at the beginning of the 2013 AAA Annual Meeting on Tuesday, November 20 from 9am-12pm. The Program Co-Chairs and the Executive Program Committee have organized this special initiative to provide a way for all of us attending the Annual Meeting to give back to the city of Chicago. Through this program, we will inspire young people and their teachers to pursue anthropological forms of inquiry.

Photo Courtesy of The Huffington Post

Photo Courtesy of The Huffington Post

Undergraduate and Graduate students are encouraged to participate. Registration for the AAA Annual Meeting is not required to participate in Anthropologist Back to School. Sign up today!

Currently there are several exciting Anthropologists Back to School programs under development. Here is a sneak peek:

Elizabeth Chin is going to create a display on the story of Jefferson-Hemmings connections, using Barbie dolls at the South Side Community Arts Center.

Dvera Saxton will present on school district struggles against pesticide contamination at the Casa Michoacan.

Rosa Cabrera will present the amazing story of a mural at the Latino Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Gina Perez will also be there sharing her work on the award winning ethnography “The Near Northwest Side Story: Migration, Displacement, and Puerto Rican Families,” which focuses on Puerto Rican Life in Chicago and San Sebastian, Puerto Rico.

Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole and Dr. Kamela Heyward-Rotimi will be joined by Malcolm London, a Chicago resident, poet and activist at the Field Museum. They will be addressing stereotypes and myths about Africa and its 54 African nations, in addition to its diverse and dynamic people and cultures.

Come help showcase your work in anthropology to the wider public! We need you. Please sign-up now.

-Dana and Alaka
2013 AAA Annual Meeting Program Co-Chairs


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