Category Archives: Education

An Anthropologist at the Women’s March on Washington, Part 1: Finding Communitas, Feminist Style

Mass of Demonstrators in Front of Capitol 1, cropped
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
The doors of our metro car opened and closed, opened and closed with increasingly alarming dysfunction.  On any other day, the many more dozens of people jammed into our subway car than (for safety reasons) should have occupied our tight, air-deprived space would have panicked–jostled, elbowed, and accused one another.  Instead, taking the occasion as an opportunity to befriend new neighbors, we asked from where and how far our companions had traveled, asked where they were staying, asked if the growing-short-of-breath needed water.  In other words, we bonded.
Anthropologists have a name for that feeling of spontaneous community that developed in an unlikely place: we call it, “communitas.”  Coined by the great Victor Turner (one of my long-ago mentors), the term originally referred to feelings of solidarity forged in African initiation rituals.  But anthropologists now apply the word to all sorts of places beyond rain forest groves.  Two days ago, an urban subway offered my first sighting of communitas in Washington, D.C.–but certainly not my last.  On Jan. 21, 2017, feminism and anthropology converged, as women around the country–and around the world–forged a sense of communitas that, unlike many temporary feelings of communitas, may well have lasting effects beyond the day’s euphoria.
Indeed, after it was over, yesterday’s march in the nation’s capital felt, if anything, infinitely grander and more important when we learned of the 600 or so sister marches around the world attracting some 2 million protestors, begun on Facebook and coordinated by the miracle of social media.
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I’m old enough to have intense teenage memories of participating in the huge marches on Washington of the 1960s, supporting civil rights and protesting the Vietnam War.  But my anthropologist friend, Linda Seligmann, and I were accompanied to yesterday’s march by three young women (aged 17 to 21 years old) who had never participated in such a momentous event.
A, H, Mina, Charlotte on Subway
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
I watched their wide-eyed wonder with delight as some 500,000+ strangers, mostly women, found a new pink-knit-capped sisterhood.
Mass of Demonstrators, Pink Hats, cropped more
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
My day’s companions had their own somatic challenges.  One became dizzy and nearly fainted in the overcrowded, under-oxygenated metro car we occupied for nearly two hours; another exercised all her willpower to control her bladder, when toilet facilities proved elusive during six hours of enforced standing.  And yet, they never complained, never begged for an exit strategy.  Instead, they felt that strong pull of communitas.
I, myself, felt the tug of an old back injury asserting itself as those six hours of standing activated muscular fatigue.  And yet, communitas asserted a stronger pull.
After three hours of listening to inspirational speeches, many in the crowd became restless. “Start the march!  Start the march!” some began chanting.  And, indeed, some began marching (or, truth to tell, shuffling, amidst the thousands of protesters barely able to move), while others remained at the rally, to listen to yet more speakers.  Yet even that splintering of attention didn’t fracture our sense of common purpose.  Among those who stayed behind and those who forged on, communitas asserted a stronger pull.
Some protest signs and speeches signaled disturbing acts of police abuse across our troubled land.  And yet, even when faced with police officers and security guards trying to direct our unruly numbers, communitas won out, as protesters and cops responded with noticeable civility to one another.
The people who flocked to the nation’s capital looked more diverse than those at any march in my memory.  Judging by what I saw and heard, the event attracted white, brown and black folks; Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus; straight people, gay people, drag queens, and everything-in-between; breastfeeding babies and grandmothers in wheelchairs; sighted walkers and white-caned walkers; people sporting designer clothes and others wearing hand-me-downs; groups of teachers and groups of students; executives and labor union members; English-speaking and Spanish-speaking youth.
Latina Girls with Posters
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
And yet, despite this extraordinarily diverse concatenation of humanity, we forged communitas.
Muslim Woman Holding Poster (LS Photo) cropped
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
Or perhaps I should say, because of that extraordinarily diverse concatenation of humanity, we forged communitas.
Poster-We Are All Immigrants (LS Photo)
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
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I don’t mean to paint an overly Pollyana-ish portrait of an admittedly extraordinary day.  The challenges to maintaining momentum and organizing such a diverse constituency into a viable political movement are far from trivial.
But in the right circumstances, communitas can also cast a long shadow that can even produce some staying power.  Maybe, just maybe, it may prove powerful enough to help the organizers of these diverse groups–both those with impressive experience, and those just cutting their eye teeth on their first demonstration–mobilize the global energy, incorporating both love and anger, that asserted itself yesterday on all seven continents.

An Open Letter to My Grandchildren

Dear Dean and Mona,
 
At four years old and ten months old, you are both too young to understand why the grown-ups around you keep talking about confusing words like “deeply flawed candidates” and “misguided pollsters.” But sooner than I’d like, the realities of yesterday’s vote will begin affecting you.
 
If you see more boys bullying girls on the playground, and they say, “Our president says it’s okay to grab any part of girls we want,” remember what Mommy and Daddy have taught you: It’s NOT okay to hurt other people on purpose. Even if you didn’t realize at first that you were hurting them, if they tell you to stop, you must stop. As Molly of “The Big Comfy Couch” used to sing, “No means no.” Even if our president says otherwise. It’s important for you to learn this now: presidents are just people, and they can be wrong.
 
If you see some kids bullying other kids on the playground because they say that our president says those kids shouldn’t even be in this country, you can set those bullies straight. Tell them that any kid in your school has a right to be in your school. Even if our president says otherwise. It’s important for you to learn this now: presidents are just people, and they can be wrong.
 
If you see some kids bullying the disabled kids in your classroom because they say that our president just did that to a kid in a wheelchair, tell them that they shouldn’t be copying the behavior of a mean person. Even if that mean person is our president.
 
If the bullies are bigger than you and threaten to hurt you if you keep defending your classmates, tell your teacher. She’ll set those bullies straight.
 
If the teacher doesn’t set those bullies straight, tell the principal. She’ll set those bullies straight.
 
If the principal doesn’t set those bullies straight, ask Mommy or Daddy to help you write a letter to the chair of the school board. She’ll set those bullies straight.
 
If the chair of the school board doesn’t set those bullies straight, ask Mommy or Daddy to help you write an open letter to your local newspaper. Maybe your neighbors or your local congressperson will set those bullies straight.
 
If no one sets those bullies straight, keep studying hard at school. Study your hearts out, go to the best college you can find, and maybe one of you will become a better president than the guy we’ve just sic’ed on the world.
 
If we haven’t yet had a woman as a president by the time you’re figuring out your life path, Mona, don’t let that discourage you. We came really close this year, and someone’s time will come soon. Maybe it’ll be yours.
 
I love you.
 
Grandma

An Open Letter to My Children

Dear Nathaniel and Hannah,

I am sorry that my generation has failed you.

We have bequeathed you a world that has too many problems, too much fear, and too much hate.

Dad and I tried to raise you to see the good in people, to understand others’ perspectives, to argue for fairness in the face of injustice, to respect the earth, to treat others with respect no matter the god(s) they worship or the size of their bank account or the shape of their bodies or the origin of their passport, and to feel hopeful about the future. Our nation has just elected a man who embodies the opposite of all these principles. He will set the tone from above–but in the end, he’s just one person.

As Bertolt Brecht once wrote, “Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.”

Our nation is, like all others, a work in progress. Right now, it feels like we haven’t made any progress at all. With Trump’s election, we’ve set back the clock on women’s rights, minorities’ rights, environmental protection, civility, predictability, respect for science, and the acknowledgment that (like it or not) we all inhabit a globalized world.

But it’s not the end of the story. There’s always a next chapter to be written, and your generation will write a very different chapter.

Your generation understands the urgency of combating climate change. Your generation embraces difference of all sorts–sexual, religious, racial, you name it–because your online engagements show you every hour how diverse, and how interconnected, the world is. Your generation absorbs knowledge because you know how easy it is to find your way to facts, and, with a little research, to separate facts from fiction.

Dad and I so wished that today could have been a day to celebrate. Instead, it’s a day to reflect on the work to be done. It’s a day to dig deep and strategize about how to create the world we want to inhabit. With a president who revels in abusing his power, mocking his opponents, and ridiculing the disabled, the disenfranchised, and the poor, the rest of us will have to work harder than ever to protect the vulnerable and oppose the bullies.

If Dad and I raised you to be optimistic, we also raised you to be resilient in the face of setbacks. I apologize that those skills in resilience will be called for more than ever in the next four years. But we are confident that you have what it takes.

I love you.

Mom

As Usual, The Devil’s in the Details; or, Why Ethnography Matters for Everything

A new study reports that pre-kindergarten programs in Tennessee fail to achieve any long-term gains. Republican lawmakers are already seizing on the news as evidence that pre-K programs don’t work in general, and should no longer be funded.

By contrast, the same study reports that pre-kindergarten programs in Boston are achieving significant long-term gains. Democratic lawmakers will no doubt seize on the news as evidence that pre-K programs do work in general, and should be further funded.

As usual, the devil’s in the details.

The Tennessee program emphasizes passive classroom strategies that are dull even for college students, let alone three-year-olds: children sit and listen while a teacher talks.

Students Sleep in Lecture
The Boston program emphasizes active learning strategies that are tried-and-true even for college students, let alone three-year-olds: children learn to measure distance by measuring the shadows their bodies cast on the ground, and brainstorm about making their city a better place by using skills they learn in reading, math, art and science to present a proposal to City Hall.

Boy Measures Own Shadow
My conclusions:

1. Conclusions are only as good as the data they draw from.

2. “Think global, study local” should be the official Congressional mantra.

3. Everything is better with ethnography.