Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Studies show where you live effects your health, other factors of success

I'm really excited by this Baltimore Sun article by Andrea K. Walker on the impact that living in lower income vs. more affluent neighborhoods has on health and employment. Citing two studies, one by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the other by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Walker discusses the research proven connection between increased health risks and the income level of neighborhoods. She also discusses the connections between location, health and employment, both in terms of finding a job and being healthy enough to keep it.
The implications for the findings are numerous-- in terms of policy, it can help the health industry, as Jens Ludwig, a professor at the University of Chicago and lead author of the HUD study, said "see improving neighborhoods as a form of preventive care focus on preventive care,"; it can assist urban planners in understanding the importance of integrating neighborhoods, providing (through stores or community gardens) access to healthier foods, outdoor spaces, etc; and help us create better social services that address the interconnected issues of social justice.
Hooray for social science!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Multiplicity is a Necessary Component of Postmodern Activism

The other night I was speaking with a friend about whether or not the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters would “be able” to present a unified goal in a similar way that the Tea Partiers are now known for their limited government agenda. The question he put forth revolved around the ability for OWS to move forward from their “we are the 99%” critique of wealth disparity towards concrete solutions and specific outcomes.

During our discussion, I was struck by the similarities between the tactics and criticisms of OWS and the freegan activists I worked with in New York City. Like OWS, freegan strategies and actions exemplified their criticisms of the status quo as oppressive, inequitable and unsustainable. In 2007 and 2008, I conducted fieldwork with freegan activists for my dissertation “‘A Revolution We Create Daily’: Freegan Alternatives to Capitalist Consumption in New York City.” Freegans are critical consumption activists working to limit their impact on the environment, consumption of resources and participation in the capitalist economy. The ethnography examines the goals, tactics and organizational structures of the movement, exploring where freeganism fits within the larger context of United States consumer, environmental and direct action movements. Freeganism in NYC is a product of and reaction to an overly commodified society that celebrates spectacle while struggling with a vacillating relationship to difference.

Postmodern is a complicated term to use: it (falsely) implies a break with a modernism and a linear progression of history.  Although there are a variety of “postmodernisms,” use of the unified term suggests that there is one, simple definition. What we mean when we talk about postmodern can vary if you talk about architecture, art or social theory. Saying something is “postmodern” from a theoretical standpoint, is to say that it embraces and celebrates difference, complexity and contestation.  It rejects that there is necessarily one metanarrative that describes or can solve all social issues.

Postmodern anthropology is a social theory of context, positionality and power which understands that world views are products of their history and experiences, not essential natures. Postmodern theory emphasizes, Richard Appignanesi et. al writes, “the local and particular as opposed to modernist universalism,” (pp116) arguing that knowledge is a construction of power that functions as a commodity— what we know and how we know it serves the status quo.

Freeganism, like postmodern theory, is a reaction to the “postmodern condition,” the highly commodified, a-historical, spectacle driven, technological, economically globalized culture. It’s helpful to view actions such as the freeganism and OWS through this postmodern lens because they are articulating a response to inequality and the status quo, and because their direct action tactics embrace multifaceted, public responses to their critiques of capitalism. These movements (or attempts at movements) are a postmodern activist response to economic, social and political frustrations that rally a diverse range of concerns. They inherently embrace difference and thus multi-messaging.

Embracing multiplicity and the potential contradictions is one of the postmodern aspects of direct action social movements. People have multiple identities and moments have numerous, equally legitimate, interpretations. In For What Tomorrow…A Dialogue, Jacques Derrida, considered the father of deconstructionism, talks about the term “différance” to challenge the idea of difference being inherently oppositional. He writes: “political choices are often determined by gradations rather than by clearly defined oppositions of the type: I am this or that. No, I am this and that; and I am this rather than that, according to situations and the urgencies at hand….différance is not an opposition, not even a dialectical opposition; it is a reaffirmation of the same,” (pp21-22). The term dialectical is used here to refer inherent logical inconsistencies. He’s saying différance is not really about difference at all but rather about recognizing the sameness in situations and people.

In many ways, this postmodern différance is liberating; it is not based on a fixed identity, but rather is fluid and allows people to participate in a variety of activities.  On October 27th, 1,484 out of 1,607 members of the General Assembly of the Occupy Oakland movement approved a general strike and day of action November 2nd. While the strike calls for participants to meet in downtown Oakland and includes plans to shut down the Port of Oakland in order to “blockade the flow of capital,” the resolution also states:
“While we are calling for a general strike, we are also calling for much more. People who organize out of their neighborhoods, schools, community organizations, affinity groups, workplaces and families are encouraged to self organize in a way that allows them to participate in shutting down the city in whatever manner they are comfortable with and capable of.”

This can be read as a call for more legally daring action, but it is also an opportunity for those more moderate “99%” to participate in other ways. The language “are comfortable with and capable of” indicates solidarity with all levels of participation. In another posting, they write: “Occupy Oakland recognizes that not all workers, students and community members will feel able to strike all day long on November 2, and we welcome any form of participation which they feel is appropriate. We urge them to join us before or after work or during their lunch hours.” A plurality of causes is an integral aspect of postmodern activism and embracing various levels of participation is a vital step towards maintaining an inclusive, equitable social movement.

What this means in terms of creating concrete outcomes isn’t clear yet. It doesn’t mean that, like other groups, OWS won’t eventually concede a unified goal. The Oakland General Strike, which calls on groups to shut down banks and corporations, is just a step towards participants trying to figure out what they’re just society looks like.

This column also appears in the online edition of Anthropology News, the official newspaper of the American Anthropological Association.  

Friday, October 28, 2011

USDA “Food Desert” Demarcation is a Starting Point for Localized Research and Resolutions

A recent article on the front page of the Oakland Tribune questioned the criteria under which certain areas are categorized as food deserts by the United States Department of Agriculture. According to the USDA’s online interactive map, there are 25 food deserts in the Bay area, although, as the article points out, many of those neighborhoods are serviced by corner supermarkets which offer a variety of fresh, healthy (sometimes local) food. Written by Contra Costa Times reporter Hannah Dreier, the piece used the example of Oakland residents’ various methods of obtaining healthy food to challenge the USDA’s assumptions regarding how people shop and eat.

The map, a product of an Interagency Working Group from the Treasury Department, Health and Human Services and the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), was created as a first step in the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), a core component of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity.  The HFFI used census tracts as their geographical unit of analysis. A census tract is described as “a small, relatively permanent subdivision of a county that generally contains between 1,000 to 8,000 people, with an optimum size of 4,000 people.” They defined a food desert as “a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” (Their definition of low income and low access communities can be found here.)

The point of Dreir’s article was that we have to acknowledge the variety of avenues in which people access food, not just large scale supermarket chains; the metrics the USDA used missed important family-owned businesses which were serving their communities. Dreier makes an important point and while I think it is useful to start somewhere, and sometimes that starting point is broad, my concern is the implication in terms of interpretation and resolution. The problem with using this particular system to determine access is that it could lead to focusing on broad-scale corporate solutions rather than localized community actions. The problem with using this particular system to determine access is that it could lead to focusing on broad-scale corporate solutions rather than localized community actions.  Indeed, Michelle Obama’s recent announcement of national commitments from three major chains, SUPERVALU, Walgreens, and Walmart, to open or expand “over 1,500 stores to serve communities throughout the country that currently do not have access to fresh produce and other healthy foods,” almost completely overshadowed similar commitments and initiatives from smaller, regional markets. (Granted, half of those smaller grocers are part of the ShopRite chain, but they are family-owned and at least somewhat more localized.)

Despite this seeming reliance on large-scale solutions, Dreier notes the inability of USDA research to find causal evidence that bringing large-chain grocery stores actually decreases obesity rates in poorer neighborhoods, which is the primary focus of the HFFI. It would seem that this issue is ripe for anthropological research on consumption and health- why, as Drier reports on USDA research, do people who use food stamps choose to shop at stores farther from their homes? What else is informing their consumer behavior?

In The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements (2005), Sandor Ellix Katz describes West Oakland as a “community of twenty-five thousand people served by thirty-six convenience stores and only one supermarket. These stores give residents easy access to overprocessed, overpriced junk food, but few choices for produce and other healthy foods.” Katz discusses various community responses which attempted to answer the dearth of healthy food, including creating community gardens, youth programs and mobile grocery stores which helped disseminate the food amongst the community.

In last month’s column, we began discussing the concept of food justice and ways in which anthropologists can analyze, discuss and apply our expertise towards the equitable distribution of resources. In terms of HFFI’s overarching goal of getting people to eat healthy food, there are two major needs for anthropological analysis. First, as anthropologists, we are specifically poised to assist with definitions and solutions to food deserts. The issue of who defines a food desert shouldn’t overshadow the need to define one in order to begin the difficult process of addressing nutritional inequalities. Dreier includes a quote from Shelly Ver Ploeg, the creator of the map, acknowledging the limitations of the study but still urging policy makers and community organizations to use it as a starting point to identify areas in need. “We know there are smaller stores that carry healthy food that are not included in this list, and that is a weakness of the data and food desert measure,” Ver Ploeg said. However, as we continue to look towards resolutions, Drier and community food activists concerns about the creating local, community based solutions must be at the foreground.

At the end of Dreier’s article, she writes that a better term to use to describe Oakland’s food situation might be “’ food swamps’ — neighborhoods in which a flood of convenience stores and fast-food outlets drown out grocery store offerings.” She quotes Hannah Laurison of Public Health Law & Policy in Oakland as saying that what policy makers should be focusing on is the “overall balance of the neighborhood.” In Oakland, anthropologists can help document and analyze various food sources and solutions to scarcity, better understanding the myriad and multiple ways people consume and connect.

Second, understanding the role that culture plays in our consumption patterns is integral to fighting obesity and equalizing physical health. In 1899, Thornstein Veblen wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which he talked about the ways in which commodities and consumption connotes social class. He called the excessive consuming in order to show others your status “conspicuous consumption.” (He also had some critical things to say about conspicuous leisure, as well.) In the early 1900s, there was a shift, away from the moral attributes of thrift and towards the social status of consumption of new things. The concept of conspicuous consumption is especially helpful in understanding the reliance on large, corporate grocery chains to herald in the era of equalized access to healthy food, even though research data shows otherwise. Consumption is a cultural phenomenon and thus a change in food access doesn’t necessarily mean there will be changes in consumer behavior and overall health.

Food justice is a nuanced concept which acknowledges disparities of food and nutritional access due to a variety of cultural factors. The Let’s Move! campaign is concerned with food justice and thus increasing policy makers’ understanding of how cultural values impact our consumer practices is extremely important.  The USDA research is just a starting point. In many ways, it might be helpful to view the HFFI as a development project. The concerns about displacement due to modernization can also be applied to local food solutions being ignored or replaced by corporate grocery chains. As we obtain more nuanced and localized data, anthropologists can help ensure that our understanding of food politics is contextualized in order to create successful, healthy community-based solutions.

This column also appears in the online edition of Anthropology News, the official newspaper of the American Anthropological Association. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

"Othering" the Wall Street protestors: How image is tied to legitimacy

I've been reading a lot of online media (Cutting Through The Visual Dissonance of Occupy Wall Street; Occupy Wall Street --Faces of the Revolution) and Facebook posts regarding the problems some people have with the carnival nature of many Occupy Wall Street activists. "This isn't Halloween/I can't take anyone in a drum circle seriously"... The line of reasoning appears to be that if activists aren't dressed in a serious nature then they can't be taken seriously.

In order to legitimize the movement, reporters are pointing out that "everyday people," retired teachers, military vets, business owners, are also part of the protest. Dissecting a photo of a protest in San Francisco, author Queena Kim writes: "There’s the tie-dyed clad man with the white beard (hippie), there’s the woman with multiple-piercings around her mouth wearing thongs in the rain (street kid?) and then there’s Beverly Best." Standing amongst the stereotypical activists, Best, a 60 year old unemployed white woman "who is really upset about the way this country is going," serves to authenticate the concerns of the movement.
I found a similar phenomenon when doing my dissertation work with New York City freegans. Many people I spoke with wanted to compare freegan dumpster divers with "legitimate" homeless people. Diving food was at best virtuous for homeless individuals and at worst an unfortunate survival mechanism. For freegans though, the stigma of choosing to root through garbage to make a political and environmental point rubbed many people the wrong way. I found that often this tactic of de-legitimizing freegan activists based on the (false) theory that most of them were privileged white kids on a lark, helped distance the politics behind what the freegans were doing and hoped to accomplish.

In anthropological terms, this process of "othering," creating oppositional distinctions between “us” and “them" and using those distinctions to create or maintain a power dynamic, has been used between and among nations for centuries.  (Edward Said wrote a classic book, Orientalism, which looks at the process of othering the "Orient" and the social and political implications.) Othering of activists by people who don't, or are looking for a reason not to, take the protest seriously, allows the focus to remain on stereotypes and differences.  This makes it difficult to find commonality and begin a conversation.

In the next blog, we’ll discuss another highly criticized aspect of the protest, the seeming lack of a unified message, and how the plurality of causes is an integral aspect of postmodern political activism.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The 2012 Farm Bill: National food policy debate sparks local food justice concerns

By the time the organizers finished laying out the snacks, an array of fruits and vegetables, crackers, almonds and pistachios, over forty people had settled into the plastic chairs at the West Oakland library meeting room. It was a little after 5 pm on August 25th and the predominantly female attendees had gathered from all around the East Bay. Many had children attending Oakland schools and several were frequent Farmer’s Market shoppers or ate organic food. Some of the community members were on food stamps or once relied on WIC (short for Women, Infants, and Children, a federal food supplement program) to make ends meet, several were farmers or community gardeners. All had gathered there to participate in the workshop: “The Farm Bill: What does it mean for me?”

The event was sponsored and facilitated by the HOPE Collaborative (Health for Oakland’s People and Environment) in partnership with California Food and Justice Coalition (CFJC), Oakland Food Policy Council and People’s Grocery, a non-profit whose mission is to improve the health and economy of West Oakland through the local food system.” As an anthropologist and Oakland resident interested in food justice, I came to the meeting to learn more about the specifics of the bill and how local food groups and concerned individuals related the national policy with local concerns.

The event “hoped to clarify some of the complex language of the 2008 Farm Bill, relate it to our daily lives, engage residents in discussion surrounding food access, quality and nutrition, and bring people together to create solutions and positive changes in our food system,” Lotta Chan, a member of CFJC and workshop co-facilitator, wrote in Oakland Local. Every four years, the United States Department of Agriculture reviews their budget, the primary farming and food policy tool known as the Farm Bill. The 2012 Farm Bill, which is supposed to be voted on before the next election, synthesizes many consumer fears about nutrition and obesity, farm subsidies and access to healthy, organic food.

Jumoke Hinton-Hodge, a co-facilitator and the Program Director at People’s Grocery, began the workshop by having the attendees go around the room and say their names and a bit about themselves so that we would “know who’s in the room, ground us… [and] set some intention.” “Setting intention” is a phrase commonly used in consensus decision making, a popular organizing tool for progressive groups. The goal of consensus decision making—a model that has been practiced by Mennonites, Quakers and some Native Americans—is not necessarily for everyone to agree to the same conclusion. Rather, it is a process of discussion which allows each member to express their opinions and concerns in order to reach a satisfactory resolution. Many have embraced the model because unlike voting, a quantitative method in which there are “winners” and “losers,” consensus decision making is qualitative process in which dissenting members opinions are taken into account.

The facilitators invocation of consensus terminology opened a space for dialogue about wants and desires for the next Farm Bill and how the community could create that change. Phrases focused on inclusion or “togetherness,” such as “coming together,” “learning together,” “interconnection” and “coalition building,” showed a desire for community derived solutions rather than a top-down call to action from any particular workshop sponsor or participant.

Many of the attendees were active in local food groups already invested and engaged in the Farm Bill debate. A few were community members genuinely learning more about the particulars of the bill, its’ history and potential allocation of funds. Discussion topics included the lack of federally mandated labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) and the difference between food grants (given to organic agriculture) and subsidies (given to the “big five” commodities: corn, rice, wheat, cotton and soy). Facilitators were careful to make sure that the terminology was well-defined and that expertise of non-facilitators was valued as well (some participants had a strong knowledge of international GMO standards, for example).

The organization of the workshop and discussion questions focused on the belief that access to healthy food is a human right. This is a primary tenant of food justice, a concept which recognizes the centrality of food in terms of nutritional quality, accessibility and environmental impact as a barometer of social justice and community development.The organization of the workshop and discussion questions focused on the belief that access to healthy food is a human right. This is a primary tenant of food justice, a concept which recognizes the centrality of food in terms of nutritional quality, accessibility and environmental impact as a barometer of social justice and community development. As an example of food injustice, Chan held up a box of eight Kellogg’s “blueberry” Pop-Tarts and a half pint of organic blueberries. She asked the group to guess the prices and one woman said it depended on if you got them at the dollar store or the grocery store.

“If you get them at the dollar store,” another woman responded, “it won’t be Kellogg’s. It’ll be some no-name brand.”

As Hinton-Hodge read through the ingredients to determine if there were, in fact, any blueberries in the Pop-Tarts, Chan announced that the blueberries were approximately three times the price of the packaged pastries. (Which contained less than 2% dried blueberries and artificial blueberry flavor.)

The workshop was simultaneously a place to learn and a space to organize around food justice. Access and price of healthy, un-processed whole foods were discussed, as were the environmental implications of factory farms and subsidies. A diverse array of Oakland residents was present, with differing concerns and interactions with the food community and food politics. The workshop wrapped up with some suggestions on what the community could do to influence the next Farm Bill. Ideas included talking with friends and family about the importance of the Bill, organizing a march on Washington, and writing elected officials. Although a first step, (and the first of the two Farm Bill focused workshops- the second was held on August 31st in East Oakland) the workshop created a space to start discussing food justice as it pertains to the Farm Bill while setting the stage for further social justice work.

As anthropologists, the food justice movement offers an opportunity to examine how consumer activists organize, around what issues, and how food justice is connected to social justice. It is an opportunity to document and evaluate consumer activism and for activist anthropologists to utilize their expertise to outreach and assist in the coalition between and among communities. My goal with this column is to discuss issues of consumer activism and critical consumption organizing both at the local, grassroots level as well as the national discourse around the protection and consumption food, space and resources. Consumer activism and food justice is an exciting area of study for anthropologists interested in social movements, social justice and grassroots organizing.

This column also appears in the online edition of Anthropology News, the official newspaper of the American Anthropological Association.

Friday, August 5, 2011

What is the difference between morality and religion and how is it applied to prisoner rights?

Yesterday the Bay Citizen ran a story about Marin County prison official's decision to let an inmate starve rather than serve him vegetarian meals. Since 70-year-old Mill Valley, CA, resident Dave McDonald didn't cite religious or medical reasons for his avoidance of meat, they couldn't provide him with vegetarian fare because "accommodating a multitude of diet demands from the facility's 300 inmates was problematic."
A vegetarian for over forty years, McDonald lost nearly 50 pounds during his 99 day incarceration. (The article begins by noting that the majority of the drug-related charges have since been dropped.)
Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, argues that denying meatless meals to an (almost) life-long vegetarian is cruel and unusual punishment (the end result, starvation, most definitely is). The muddying factor, according to prison officials, is that his diet is a moral choice and not a religious imperative.
Michael Risher, a staff lawyer with American Civil Liberities Union of Northern California, said that an inmate’s "'spiritual world view' not associated with an organized religion were often disregarded in prison."[1]
There are many, many issues and devices that this article problematizes: the need to legitimize a prisoner's desire for fairness by noting how he was (probably) unfairly incarcerated; nutrition disparities and funding for food in our prison system, for example. But for now, I want to talk about morality and religion and the misleading phrase: "moral choice." While this discrepancy isn't the real concern of the article, I think it is indicative of a larger cultural phenomenon; confusion over the difference between morality and religion and why that distinction is useful in understanding how we value our own beliefs in relation to others.
So what is the difference between morality and religion? Anthropologist Clifford Geertz writes that religion is a desire to understand and order that which we can't overtly explain. Religion is the "formulation, by means of symbols, of an image of such genuine order of the world which will account for, and even celebrate, the perceived ambiguities, puzzles and paradoxes in human experience. The effort is not to deny the undeniable-- that there are unexplained events, that life hurts, or that rain falls upon the just-- but to deny that there are inexplicable events, that life is unendurable, and that justice is a mirage."[2] Religion exists as symbols, rituals and rules which reinforce this understanding of our existence.
Morality, on the other hand, is an ideology, or a set of
social instructions. It’s a code of conduct, which separates the responsible citizen from the undeserving undesirable and encourages individuals to evaluate their actions based on larger, socially agreed upon "truths." These truths can be based on religion or politics or history.... regardless they help guide the actions of the individual in terms of their society's agreed upon ideas of right and wrong.
Although culturally, many view religion as immutable, anthropologically, it is viewed as a set of symbols which help us order and understand our world. Morality helps us live virtuously in that world. To assume that a diet based on morality is any less important to an individual is to deny the importance of our social ordering of right and wrong (and in a prison, no less.) The confusing (and sometimes anger inducing) part of a diet based on morality is that many still view it as a choice, an action which can be just as easily be ignored. Religious diets, on the other hand, are viewed as immutable edicts, with far harsher ramifications for deviation.

The article alludes to a fear on the part of the prison administrators that all inmates will now claim moral necessity for whatever dietary fancy strikes them (and it would not be the first or last time that someone used a claim of morality for individual gain). However, while there is clear evidence that vegetarianism (for some) is a moral issue, there is little research that chocoholics are feeding some fundamental social truth. In light of the growing number of vegetarians in the United States, it seems disingenuous to keep arguing that it is not a moral issue for many Americans and that morality isn’t as important as religion .A more nuanced (and anthropologically informed) understanding of dietary choices will lead to more equitable treatment among inmates and could help us expand our own dinner tables for our kosher, vegetarian, vegan, pork-avoiding neighbors, as well. While we may not personally feel as if we have a choice in whether or not to follow our moral compass or religious edicts, we do have a choice in how we treat others who don't follow the same systems we do.

[2] Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1973); 108.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Spot.us - Community Powered Reporting

My friend and fellow anthropologist Dvera Saxton turned me on to Spot.us:
"an open source project to pioneer 'community powered reporting.' Through Spot.Us the public can commission and participate with journalists to do reporting on important and perhaps overlooked topics. Contributions are tax deductible and we partner with news organizations to distribute content under appropriate licenses. Donors can also take a survey from our sponsors, when available, to support the story of their choice at no cost to them... Spot.Us is a nonprofit project of the "Center for Media Change" and funded by various groups like the Knight Foundation. We partner with various organizations including the Annenberg School of Communications in Los Angeles."

This is a really fascinating, multi-media project (reporters are encouraged to pitch their story ideas on YouTube to help garner interest and funds) that seeks to refocus journalism as a jointly created, participatory action rather than individually reported object. During his own video pitch, founder David Cohn describes their mission to "support local investigative journalism, civic journalism." One of their primary guiding principles is that journalism is a process, not a product, an exciting revelation for those sick of the overly produced spectacle of 24 hour new shows or the erroding line between journalist/celebrity/personality/authority.

They've provided relatively easy to navigate FAQS for community members, reporters and news organizations which helps break down how stories are produced, funded and what happens with the final content. I'm excited to see how this project evolves and the questions and solutions it can inspire.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

In Context

The auditorium was filled with kids; middle school students bused in from four different schools in the Anacostia area of DC. They were participating in a research initiative created by DC Voice, a non-profit working to include the local community in education reform. The students had spent the better part of the day talking in small groups about their schools, teachers and classmates. Now they were gathered together to artistically demonstrate what they had agreed were the most important concerns. Murmurs and laughter drifted through the room as a group of 12 students took the stage, some awkwardly shuffling their feet, heads lowered staring at the ground, others obviously delighting in the attention, dancing and posing as their friends laughed. A couple of students carried in a large painting, four feet high and at least eight feet long, bright rolling colors. “We need a better gym,” one student said loudly, clearing his throat. The noise in the seats died down. He pointed to an area in the corner where someone had painted a basketball hoop and what looked like monkey bars. “Yeah, and we’d like our teachers to listen to us more, you know, one on one, and talk to us better” another student said, pointing to a cartoonish picture of a man in a tie with one really big ear. The average teacher to student ration in DC is 13.8, but in some poorer districts there’s approximately one teacher for twenty kids. “It’d be nice if they could be, like, more like role models,” a young woman added. Other kids in the group spoke up, gaining confidence as their ideas were met with cheers and “yeahs!” from the crowd.

Several years ago I worked as the Service-Learning Coordinator at American University in Washington, D.C. I had just completed my dissertation fieldwork in New York City and returned to the nation’s capital to focus on writing. I worked part time at the Community-Service Center; my job was to place students in local non-profits and community-based organizations which complimented their course work. Unlike the concept of community service, which implies one privileged person helping out a disadvantaged person or group, service-learning focuses on both sides giving and receiving. It’s a symbiotic relationship rather than an uneven power-dynamic: students aren’t just “helping out the less fortunate,” they were learning about different communities and their needs, fulfilling a variety of roles for non-profits with limited resources. Some students worked on designing informative brochures and donor forms, others as translators for job training programs, soup-kitchen workers, or interim webmasters.

That year we had several students working as note-takers with DC Voice’s project, Invitation to Dream, which

My boss and I sat in with several of the student groups as they talked about what they wanted and needed out of their schools, teachers and classmates. We also watched the group presentations in which students danced, rapped and unveiled a painting of their conclusions from the day's discussions. As all the students were gathered in the auditorium for the presentations, the facilitators asked a series of balanced and unbalanced rating scale and multiples choices questions. The kids punched their responses into a handheld audience response system and within moments the results were tallied and presented on the screen for them to see. This data along with tapes of the performances and the notes the volunteers took during the discussion groups were collected for a final report which was presented to the school board a few months later.

I found DC Voices’ mission and tactics inspiring—the interactive, multi-approach research has stayed with me, motivating and informing the type of qualitative research I conduct. In an education system which often fails to include the voices of those most affected by their choices, these students were able to not only give their opinions and state their needs, they had the immediate gratification of seeing their votes tallied. Furthermore, they were able to artistically express themselves, encouraging and validating their creativity.

Seeing the work DC Voice was doing within the community on education reform, as well as seeing the vast amount of non-profits and community-based organizations working with limited resources, inspired me to start ContextAnalysis, a consulting firm that utilizes qualitative research and analysis to strengthen community partnerships. Qualitative research provides the tools to assist non-profits and community-based organizations include and analyze the variety of voices within their communities of service. It supplies the context which can help focus programming, creating long-term solutions and increasing success.

My goal is for this blog to create a discussion space for different people, ideas and experiences; creating context and understanding that is necessary for social progress. Applied anthropology offers practices and approaches that deconstruct complex social events, offering a better understanding of a range of social phenemon, placing individuals and communities within their historical, social and economic context.

What is applied anthropology? Applied anthropology uses theories, methods and perspectives of anthropology to identify assess and solve social problems. At its base, anthropology is the study of humans and anthropologists utilize qualitative research methods such as participant observation, interviews, and focus groups to place social issues in context; the "lived experience" of individuals and their relation to their community is a major concern of anthropological research. Applied anthropology can be a social service aimed at positively impacting social, economic and technological problems.

It was an interest in applied anthropology that brought me to American University in Washington, D.C. almost ten years ago. As I began my graduate studies, I knew I wanted to work within and among communities and I wanted make a positive impact. Like many academic disciplines, anthropology has been accused of talking mostly amongst itself, developing theories and conducting research that treated people as if they were in an isolated petrie dish. Thanks to critiques and methodological solutions from feminist, native and postmodern anthropologists, anthropology has developed an applied field which treats people as participating subjects rather than passive objects. Applied anthropology also carries with it an implicit concern for the well-being of the communities we work with; often applied anthropology becomes activist anthropology.

I have always personally been interested in how people choose to live their politics-- what motivates some people to get involved, what holds others back, what issues appeal to different folks and why. I wrote my dissertation with a critical consumption activist group in New York City; the Freegans are critical of contemporary capitalism and the waste it creates. They are involved in a variety of actions aimed at mobilizing, educating and organizing alternatives to conspicuous consumption.

My work with the freegans helped me better understand the many factors that motivate people to become activists. Concerns about the environment, animal rights, physical health and well-being of self, feelings of community and belonging all were concerns for the activists in New York City. Placing this consumer activist group within the history of American consumer activism and thrift illuminated the complex relationship Americans have with consumption and consumer rights.

Community members, consumers of social services and their providers all have specific but interlocking concerns. The methodologies and perspectives of anthropology, particularly qualitative research, are tools for collaborative social change and this blog is an extension of that applied anthropological work. The search for context is essential for social progress and this blog will include discussions of social, political and cultural phenomenon including contemporary social movements, direct actions, sustainability, alternative food systems, critical consumerism and popular culture.

In the end, we should all be able to listen and talk to each other much better.