Thinking the World

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Davidson College anthropology class Politics, Culture, and SocietyBy John S. Syme

An anthropology class entitled “Politics, Culture and Society” is bound to get a little messy.

Anthropology is, after all, the “study of human beings.” And the big academic themes and questions that come with “politics, culture and society” can be unwieldy at best: group structures, power relationships, complex societies, resource distribution, race, social hierarchies, communications—where to begin?

“There are two basic sociological questions for making decisions in a group,” says Assistant Professor of Anthropology Mark Samson. “Who benefits? And who decides?”

It’s early in the spring semester. Samson and 11 students are putting meat on the bones of a class that, in important ways, they are creating as they go—or, re-creating, in the professor’s case.

“This course is being reimagined as community-based learning with an environmental justice component,” says Samson.

Texts range from 1972’s seminal The Limits to Growth to Noah de Lissovoy’s contemporary study, Power, Crisis and Education for Liberation. Discussions range all over the place.

Davidson College anthropology class Politics, Culture, and Society“We jump into the middle of all these discussions,” Samson says, cajoling and sometimes even haranguing his pupils as he guides them, “and then we spend a lot of time working our way back out to the edges to view the whole thing, and to view it through different lenses.”

This kind of clear and intentional academic framing is crucial at this particular time for this particular class: These students soon will jump into the middle of four specific community-based projects with the City of Charlotte, Greenpeace USA, Sustain Charlotte and Sow Much Good.

The theme of environmental justice is the common thread running through the entire course, with fieldwork including a day trip to Duke Energy and a weekend trip to the mountaintop coal mines of Kentucky.

And the themes of sustainability and environmental justice run strong, too, through the work of President’s Office Fellow Allison Dulin ’10. She was instrumental in working with Samson to discover just the right community project partners for the course, as well as in crafting community-based learning contracts with the four partners.

Formerly Davidson’s Sustainability Fellow, Dulin acts as a catalyst both inside and outside the classroom throughout the semester, often interjecting clarifying questions like, “What critical questions did you have that you wouldn’t have had otherwise?”

It’s a question that continues to arise.

Davidson College anthropology class Politics, Culture, and SocietyFifty Shades of 
Black & White

Daniel Seabrooks ’14, from New Jersey, and Californian Natalie Williford ’14 team up for the Greenpeace USA field project. In the weeks that follow, they activate fellow students to show up for a hearing on a Duke Energy 20-year plan, organize a photo petition on campus, study corporate and political relationships in the energy sector and go door-to-door talking with coal-plant neighbors.

Williford, one of Davidson’s inaugural class of environmental studies majors, takes a broad view of Greenpeace’s reputation for grassroots activism.

“I really like the way they look at the corporation side of environmental issues, which is Williford says. “The true power sometimes doesn’t lie in the political sphere, it’s in the corporate sphere, because the corporations influence the politicians.”
Meeting people where they are, whether energy company representatives or coal plant neighbors, adds a dimension not to be found inside a classroom, says Seabrooks.

“There are always variables that theory overlooks,” he says. “We have to continue to add to what we learn and connect it all.”
Environmental justice issues are rarely black and white—though sometimes its human constituencies are, say Seabrooks and Williford.

“If you’re working with social justice or environmental justice issues, how do you escape this question of black versus white?” asks Williford.

Indeed, hard questions about race show up in each of the fieldwork project areas.

The de facto elitism of the local foods movement strikes Courtney Reed ’15, Christiane Reppening ’14 and Laigha Young ’15. Their project partner is Sow Much Good, a locally-grown organization dedicated to providing direct access for everyone to fresh, affordable food. Sow Much Good addresses “food deserts,” or urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food, through community gardens, education and advocacy.

“Healthy food is a human right, and it shouldn’t be just accessible to the upper class,” says Repenning, of Hamburg, Germany.

In addition to socioeconomic breakdowns along racial lines, the Sow Much Good study group comes across another race-related issue: the reluctance of some African-Americans to “get their hands dirty,” in the words of Atlanta-native Young. It is an aversion with psychological roots in the history of slaves forced to harvest food for others’ benefit, explains Reed, who hails from Salt Lake City, Utah.

This is the kind of juncture between theory and practice where the simplifying, illuminating tools of academic reading and classroom discussion can come into play in the real world in a very real way.

“The class has influenced how we’re constructing the pamphlets we are working on, being able to take into account the ‘whiteness’ of the food movement,” Young says. “It goes back to the question of a liberal arts education when people say, ‘How are you ever going to apply it?’ This class says, ‘Here, you can use it. Apply it.’”

Horse’s Mouth, 
Devil’s Advocate

Race and socioeconomics meet demographic overlays and back-channel politicking in the work Rachel Killman ’13, Roxana Boyd ’13 and Grace Carr ’16 do for Sustain Charlotte, a non-profit that works in support of a region-wide sustainability movement.

The three are working on a comprehensive study of public transit, with an eye toward a controversial proposal for an uptown streetcar that would link racially and socioeconomically disparate parts of Charlotte through downtown. The streetcar is a favored project of Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx ’93. [Foxx has since been confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Transportation in May. See page 7.]

With the politics of hearings and regulatory deadlines and publication delays playing out around them, the students gut out real-time analyses and nationwide networking. They create sustainable relationships for Sustain Charlotte with municipal and non-profit counterparts in Seattle, Tucson, Los Angeles and Portland, Ore. They learn the difference between a politically expedient fact and one that’s been comprehensively fact-checked.

“We’re going straight to the sources,” says Boyd, from Wilmington, N.C.

Again, the classroom perspective is crucial.

“Dr. Samson plays the devil’s advocate,” says Carr, of Bethesda, Md. “It’s interesting to see what that brings to the forefront.”

“Where can you make the biggest impact?” Killman asks by way of example. “Where are you restricted by laws and regulations? What are the assumptions of power?”

Another field project, led by Natalia Spitha ’16, Caitlin Keaton ’14 and Jesse Alston ’14, dives into statistical analyses of the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County’s newly revised quality-of-life study of some 80 neighborhood-level variables across 400 neighborhoods.

“Our goal as a group is for each of us to look at a significant correlation between any of those variables, suggest why it might be so and offer recommendations for policy changes through writing individual papers,” says Spitha, who is from Lasithi, Crete.

Spitha looks at the effect of town planning on health and engagement. Keaton, from Iron Station, N.C., looks at how poverty indicators relate to energy consumption. Alston, from Littleton, N.C., digs into the relationship between poverty indicators and proximity to public transit.

“The numbers in the data cannot tell you everything,” says Spitha. “If you look at the southeast Mecklenburg County neighborhoods in the map, you get a largely white, wealthy population that has very low proximity to grocery stores, long commute times, etc. But having to ride a long way to work each day is not a problem for those people, because they have the income, vehicles and resources to afford it. For poorer populations (usually of color), low proximity to grocery stores and long commute times have an entirely different effect. Looking at the variable ‘commute time,’ on its own, does not really say much about the quality of one’s life, after all.”

A deeper look at the everyday realities behind statistical methodology is revealing.

“The most important thing I’ve learned in this class is how to recognize and more carefully examine the social structures that lead to issues of injustice in society. The community-based aspect of the class serves as a practical extension of the theory and puts a picture to the words. You have to see things with your own eyes to truly understand them.”

So You Want 
a Revolution

Back in class near the end of the semester, on a Davidson campus that is today actively engaged in “reimagining the liberal arts in the 21st century,” it is perhaps inevitable that the confluence of Anthropology 310’s ideals and analyses flows straight back to the very notion of education itself.

And again here is Samson, cajoling and haranguing and giving no quarter, in a nice way. On a beautiful spring day when students will give presentations in the outdoor classroom, he is cheerful and serene in a T-shirt bearing the classic slogan, “Stop bitching. Start a revolution.”

“One purpose of education is resistance,” he posits for his pupils. “Resistance to what? And that ‘what’ should be replaced with what?”
And, he wants to know, where do different kinds of education fit in the spectrum of commoditizing the human condition, on the one hand, or indeed, humanizing it, on the other? What is education supposed to look like?

“Reimagining doesn’t mean you don’t need history and facts and experience and theories in tension,” Samson says. “Theory is a tool. You have to ‘think the world’ if you’re going to be involved in change.

“And when you get discouraged by these issues, try to think your way out of it by asking the next question.”

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