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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..

*pseudonym

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!

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

Anthropologists Back to School

Today’s guest blog post is by the 2013 Executive Program Co-Chair, Alaka Wali.

We are looking forward to an exciting four days in Chicago and want to share with you a brand new initiative that will take place on the first morning of the meetings, Wednesday, November 20.

In keeping with the meeting theme of public engagement, the “Anthropologists Back to School” initiative offers meeting participants to directly engage with Chicago middle and high school students and teachers at local museums and university campus sites. The initiative is the brain-child of Johnnetta Cole, who challenged us to create an event that permitted the AAA to “give back” to the host city in a substantive way. The objective is to spark student and teacher awareness of our discipline and its diverse subject matters and perspectives.

We have worked in collaboration with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Social Science Department and the Education Department at The Field Museum to recruit teachers from the fifth grade to high school throughout Chicago. The teachers will register for the “field trips” to the host sites based on their interest in the subject matter. The CPS social science curriculum has a broad thematic approach, but currently does not include anthropology specifically. However, the CPS is making a major push to integrate “culture” into the current curriculum. Teachers will be interested in program that focus on such themes as: connections between past and present, the human-environment interface, human evolution, immigrant experiences, cultural diversity, language and culture, among others.

Here is how it will work:

  • Meeting participants will select and register for one of the host sites. We encourage you to work in teams, integrating across sub-disciplines if possible.
  • Participants can develop a program that is appropriate for their selected site and designed for students from fifth grade and up. At most sites, the program should be interactive rather than pedantic.
  • There will be logistical support at each site, but participants will be responsible for any instructional materials they wish to use and for their own travel to the host site. All the sites are within fairly close proximity to the meeting hotel.
  • The time frame for the program is about two-to-three hours (9 am–12 pm), but at most sites, about a half-hour program can be repeated as multiple student groups rotate through.
  • At the end of your program, we would like to have you report back on the experience.

The host sites are:

  • The Field Museum. There are seven anthropology exhibit halls where meeting participants can set up stations. Students will stop at the station and have the opportunity to interact with the anthropologists.
  • The Oriental Institute at The University of Chicago. There are four permanent halls and a temporary exhibition titled “Ancient Occupations, Modern Jobs.” Potentially there can be one-to-two stations in each of these halls. The permanent halls feature exhibits on Egypt, Assyria, Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia.
  • The Chinese-American Museum of Chicago in Chinatown. This museum has a large meeting room and internet/projector capacity. Additionally, the exhibit halls feature stories of the Chinese immigrant experience in Chicago.
  • The National Hellenic Museum in Greek town. The museum has a large meeting room and projector capacity. Its exhibits feature both the Greek Immigrant experience and aspects of ancient and modern cultures of Greece.
  • Casa Michoacan in Pilsen. This cultural center for Chicagoans from the State of Michoaacan, Mexico, has a small gallery.
  • The South Side Community Art Center, on South Michigan Avenue. The oldest African-American art center in the United States has a main exhibit gallery. Its permanent collection includes works by many well-known Chicago artists.
  • The Latino Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The center has a large auditorium space with a vibrant mural depicting the Latino experience in the United States.
  • The Anthropology Department at Loyola University. Professor Anne Grauer is designing a program focused on physical anthropology.
  • The Anthropology Museum at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. This site is about two hours from downtown Chicago, but has several interesting options.

Registration to participate in the Anthropologists Back to School program is limited. Register here.

Additionally, on Saturday, November 23, the Council on Anthropology and Education will hold multiple sessions and their annual award ceremony at The Field Museum. Local educators will be invited and will have the opportunity to interact with Council members.  We’d also like to note that the Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges will establish a dialogue with Chicago Public Schools to develop pathways for high school students interested in pursuing anthropology in community colleges.

Dana-Ain Davis and Alaka Wali are the chairs of the 2013 AAA Annual Meeting. They may be contacted at 2013aaaprogramchairs@gmail.com

New Podcast! Ordinary Anthropologists Doing Extraordinary Things – Matt Piscitelli

Listen to the new podcast in the series Ordinary Anthropologists Doing Extraordinary Things featuring AAA member, Matthew Piscitelli. Matthew has gotten creative with funding his next project.

Through my years of work as an archaeologist, I’ve always been amazed whenever I can hold something in my hand that no one has touched in the last 5,000 years.  Well, now I am asking your help to provide more such opportunities, and in the process, help preserve part of our global heritage.

I am currently applying for funding to support my archaeological dig in Peru this summer.  The results of the project will form the basis of my Ph.D. dissertation and eventually help me accomplish my goal of becoming a university professor.  I have had some success already applying to the National Geographic, my university (University of Illinois-Chicago), as well as my place of employment (The Field Museum).  I also have applications pending through the National Science Foundation and Wenner-Gren Foundation.

During this process of application, however, I had an idea that definitely falls outside of the box.  In general, scientific projects in any field are funded through the government, private organizations or through a network of wealthy donors that are somehow already connected to those scientists.  The general public hardly ever hears of these projects, let alone gets the opportunity to support these important scientific endeavors.  With the popularity of social networking, a recently developed fundraising tactic known as “crowdfunding” is beginning to be used to back small-scale inventions, innovators, entrepreneurs, etc.  So I thought, “why can’t that work for scientific projects like my own?”

I have signed up through Peerbackers, a well-known and trusted website (Google it) in order to test run this strategy.  I ask you all to check out my project, offer words of encouragement, contribute (always well-appreciated), and most importantly, spread the word.  Please Tweet, post a link to my project on Facebook, forward this post to friends and family, etc.  Don’t hesitate to respond with questions and comments.  As with any Ph.D. student, I would be more than happy to talk to you about my research!

Are you interested in sharing your extraordinary in an upcoming podcast? Click here to learn how.

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