I have been an activist since before I became a professional anthropologist.
Activism spans research, teaching, and service, and they are all connected to one another.
As a grad student, after 9/11, many of us were struggling to find our voices and our footing. A group of grad students at UCSB, where I got my Ph.D., put together a weekly radio show, “Voices for Global Justice.”
One of the first projects spanning this, in my attempt to Decolonize Anthropology, was asking women in one of the two women’s NGOs in my dissertation research what thank you gesture would be appropriate. Without flinching, they asked me to make a film. Said one: “Who’s going to read your book?” They knew the power of film to move people, especially people who buy the jeans they sew and residents of the U.S. that continues to play a powerful role in Haiti’s internal affairs. Thanks to support from UCSB’s Center for Black Studies Research, and award-winning UCSB alum, filmmaker Renée Bergan, Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy was born.
After the earthquake thousands of people spoke about Haiti, many of them newly minted experts because of a mission trip, local heroes. But what do Haitian scholars, journalists, NGO professionals, and activists, have to say about their own country? What about solidarity voices? It became an urgent need to share these voices. Within five weeks, NACLA editor Pablo Morales and I assembled these chapters in Tectonic Shifts: Haiti since the Earthquake.
The diss finally was published in 2012, with a foreword from Paul Farmer, Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs.
After the earthquake, with support from CUNY, where I taught, and working with the Faculté d’Ethnologie, where I have been teaching since 2003, on the behest of activists living and working in the camps, especially the women and grassroots groups profiled in Poto Mitan, I led a large study of Haiti’s internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. Two studies came out of this research: Unstable Foundations in October 2010, just before the outbreak of cholera, and Mèt Kò Veye Kò in January 2011, three months after.
As Haiti fell quickly from its highly visible place within the collective consciousness of people in the U.S., tens of thousands still languished in the IDP camps, and cholera continued to ravage, killing 8,000 people. Working with a fantastic team at the James and Rosalyn Pick Museum of Anthropology at NIU, we created an exhibit where people could be moved to radical empathy by going inside of a typical shantytown and seeing an IDP camp tent. Fragments: Haiti Four Years after the Earthquake also included public talks in DeKalb and Chicago, thanks to a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council.
The camp study was finally published as a book on January 12, 2016, six years after the earthquake: Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti.
Activist colleagues at NIU helped bring me back full circle, organizing a weekend community organizing retreat much like the one where I decided to become an organizer years and years ago.