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.