Featured Anthropology Alumni
Curious about what alumni do with their Anthropology degree from Reed? The Center for Life Beyond Reed has compiled data on this. See this page for more information about Reed Anthro alums' careers.
See below for blog posts on the fascinating work of Anthro alums! We always like hearing what our Alumni are currently doing. Want to be profiled here? Email the department at email@example.com. Find previously featured Anthropology Alumni here.
- Abigail George '19 - Internship at MapLight
- Becky Hausdorff '17 - Book Publishing
- Emily Youatt '10 - International Development Work
- Susannah Glickman '15 - Graduate School
- Stuart Steidle '14 - Burmese Studies and Documentary Filmmaking
- Genevieve Roudané ‘08 and Sam Smith ‘13 - Documentary Filmmaking
- Sam Law '14 and Anna Montgomery '14 - Presenting a Conference Paper
Skills Related to Training in Anthropology at Reed
In March of 2014, the Anthropology Department held our second anthropology alumni careers panel. This time, we invited five alumni, Robin Fink '09, Kevin Henner '10, Kendall Taggart ‘09, Peter van der Porten '11, and Johnny Casana ‘05, (see their profiles) who are engaged in widely varying work. The discussion was a fascinating foray into how broadly anthropological training shaped their career trajectories. Below are some summary points made by the panelists.
Translation Skills: mediating multiple forms of data and brokering among different constituencies and stakeholders
- Awareness of the relation between language and power (Fink)
- Working internationally and using foreign language skills (Von der Porten)
- Developing sophisticated writing skills: editors are always needed
- Training in linguistics and linguistic anthropology aids computer/IT work (Henner)
- Analysing data and translating them into compelling graphics (Von der Porten)
- Importance of quantitative skills: stats are pervasive and authoritative, responding critically and translating them to qualitative points (Henner)
- Developing online quantitative data analysis skills to fact check (Taggart)
- Understanding models and their real-world consequences: “having that crossover skill is a huge advantage” (Henner).
Research Skills: Understanding broad cultural contexts
- Ethnographic and historical research aids in ‘data-driven journalism’ (Taggart)
- Ability to analyse complex situations and distill to key issues
- Ability to track specific decision makers and key decision moments (Taggart)
Comfort with Difference and Partiality:
- Ability to recognize and allow flexibility in human systems and networks
- Capacity to be comfortable in very different and unfamiliar contexts
- Ability to ‘read’ and respond to different interactional or performative contexts, including in elite or professional situations.
Capacity for Reflexivity
- Recognizing consequences of one’s own participation amidst structural inequalities: “How you take up space in the world” (Fink)
- Awareness of the potential for unintended consequences: “We can’t control everyone” (Taggart).
Courage to take a Stand in Advocacy Work
- Recognize the importance of evidence-based action (Casana)
- Know how to follow through with and build trust among people who oppose or protest your work (Casana, Fink)
- Capacity to wrestle with ethical questions, engage in “harm reduction” in non-ideal situations (Casana, Von der Porten)
- Training in Anthro theory and cultural politics provides sensitivity in contentious situations (Casana)
During her internship at MapLight, a non-profit organization that tracks money in politics, anthropology major Abigail George '19 drew on her coursework in economic anthropology to co-author an article on multinational corporations lobbying the GOP for tax reforms this past year.
I was recently hired as Production Associate at a nonprofit book publisher in Pasadena, CA; my first serious job since graduating from Reed ten months ago. The interim was spent working retail and deciding what kind of long-term jobs to pursue. After reaching out to the Reed community, hearing from students who were already working in publishing, and two informational interviews with women who had worked at Simon & Schuster, I started an unpaid editorial internship at a nearby independent press.
As an editorial intern, I came in two days/a week to copyedit and proofread manuscripts. The press publishes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction alike, so I was able to review manuscripts in all three categories. It was incredibly rewarding to do what I love most (read, a lot) in the company of people who had similarly (and suspiciously) high interest in things like oxford commas and subject-verb agreement.
The company’s Production Associate happened to put in her two-weeks’ notice soon after I started my internship, later that day the Head Publisher asked if I would be interested in the position. I was mortified, but of course I said yes without skipping a beat. Despite an overwhelming feeling that I was deeply unqualified and in over my head, when I sat down in the conference room for a group interview with the Lead Designer, Editorial Assistant, Development Associate, and Director of Operations, I was more confident than I expected because I had so many things to say about my work as co-editor of Radicle.
My current day-to-day involves a lot of emails and phone calls, visits to my coworkers’ offices, finding solutions to big- and small-scale problems, and a number of other odd-jobs around design and editorial decisions. My personal favorite aspects of the job are specific to book publishing, because that’s what drew me in from the beginning. Still, the actual job that I do is a widely applicable coordinating position, so I am undecided as to whether I will continue to seek jobs in book publishing or jobs in other industries. Working on Radicle exposed me to so many aspects of publishing work that I don’t think I would have this job, or even have known to look into publishing, without that experience.
Here are some key notes about how I got to this point:
- I would not have applied to work for Radicle without a lot of encouragement from my professors
- I learned SO MANY THINGS on the job
- Publishing work is a terrific mess of reading, writing, editing, collaboration, problem solving, visual design, and any number of variable components
- Informational interviews are super helpful in terms of getting a sense of what it’s actually like to work in a certain field
- Follow-up emails (and handwritten thank-you notes) can make or break job interviews
- Confidence goes a long way
- Radicle is a real publication; as such, any experience with it will directly translate to real world jobs and opportunities
- I was told by some people never to accept unpaid work in publishing, but in my case it was enjoyable, informative, and led straight to a paid position
I find myself sitting at my desk at an international organization in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, trying to come up with a succinct way to write about my experiences working in Central Asia as an alumna of Reed (’10) and University of Chicago (’12). It’s a Sisyphean task—making sense of tiny countries made up of more than 30 ethnicities squeezed between China, Russia, Afghanistan, and Iran, all struggling for power, independence, money, the moral high ground, you name it. In my time living abroad, I have come to appreciate a frank discussion. Bluntness, alongside a good deal of tact, has been a valuable tool in my adventures in this part of world, and so my post here will follow suit.
The nature of my work in the international development sector in Central Asia, I have found, is to teeter between a trifecta--my qualms with applied anthropology and the interference it entails, understanding my place as a researcher, and staying in line with donor strategies. International development is an interesting field of work in that it is so competitive, but has a high burnout rate. And what is development, anyway? Who are “we” to develop a group of people?
International organizations and development workers focus on finding some of the most forefront issues facing our world today—refugee crises, public health, disaster response and risk reduction. We work with communities who welcome assistance, some who begrudgingly accept it, and some who simply reject it for religious, political, or sometimes even for cultural reasons. Like anthropologists, we are thrown into unknown situations with the task of creating some order for ourselves out of what we perceive to be chaos. The difference is that we are to take on this task with the goal of building capacity, sparking economic growth, and improving livelihoods, all for the global good. We work with the knowledge that our work might not make a difference and that we may just be symptoms of global politics.
While international organizations do see a good deal of successful data and long lasting change that indicates donor money well spent, we still have moments of complete and utter frustration. Thanks to my background in anthropology, born at Reed, I take extra care in these moments because I understand they are the moments to pay attention to. They are moments for growth—to challenge what we think we know and to take educated leaps toward solving problems.
Take my bewilderment during a visit to Tajikistan’s Khatlon Province, 90 miles north of Kunduz, Afghanistan, to a community that had been participating in nutrition and hygiene trainings for several years. Communities in this region had been trained on the importance of hand washing and water boiling to prevent dysentery, parasitic infection, and other illnesses, and more importantly, had understood it according to pre- and post-tests. However, a good percentage of those trained continued to ignore the trainings in favor of quenching an immediate thirst with water from a contaminated irrigation canal or feeding a crying baby with dirty hands. When faced with this particular challenge, I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t understand why, despite understanding the risks of drinking contaminated water, someone would continue to do so, and end up spending money on expensive anti-parasitic medication days or weeks later, or suffering from malnutrition for years.
Other questions we ask in current projects include: How do you convince someone to rebuild their house for the third time in a new location to avoid climate change-induced mudflows and flooding? How do you work with a government that refuses to acknowledge the linkages between youth unemployment and religious extremism? How do you convince a woman’s husband to let her learn about reproductive health and safety in light of the growing rates of HIV/AIDS in the region in an extremely patriarchal society? And with Multidrug-resistant Tuberculosis fast becoming one of the region’s biggest threats to public health, how do you train a doctor to stop overprescribing antibiotics and how do you convince infected individuals to follow cough etiquette and respiratory hygiene in public places?
Meeting immediate needs is a vital skill for Tajik citizen, in a country with recent memories of a five year civil war that killed upwards of 100,000 individuals. When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, or if your small family business is on the government’s black list, how can you think years down the road? By and large, immediacy is a way of life in Central Asia. Though this is changing slowly and only in certain pockets of the region, when a nation has adapted its culture to accommodate ongoing political, social and financial instability and external shocks, how are we, as development workers, to reinstate practices that attempt to give pockets of the country what they need to live healthier, more stable lives?
These are the types of questions we ask ourselves every day. They are questions with as many answers as there are people in this world, and that makes this work so simultaneously fascinating, frustrating and rewarding. Furthermore, these are the questions that are so well suited for anthropologists to answer. With a little learned pragmatism and an open mind, I can think of few groups more suited to this type of work than Reedies, who never stop asking questions and who take unique approaches to problem solving.
During my senior year at Reed I lived on and off in a remote village while studying prehistory archaeology and linguistic and cultural revitalization among a First Nations and Native American tribe living along the Yukon/Alaska border. After a short time working as an archaeologist in cultural resource management I received my Master’s in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. My Master’s thesis looked at the integration of migrants in Switzerland and how integration policies fit in with the fluid democratic process of the country’s constitutional reform procedures. Since then I have lived and worked in Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan thus far), during which time I have worked in microfinance, in research, and most recently as a development officer at a global non-governmental organization. I’ve immersed myself in Central Asia to such an extent that I got married last year to my husband, who is ethnically Kyrgyz. I’ve broken a few rules that Anthropology professors set out before heading out to the field, and like most Reedies, I think I’ve come away with more questions than answers.
I graduated last May (2015) double majoring in Mathematics (specifically working on quantum computing and HSP algorithms) and Anthropology with a strong interest in science studies. Through my education at Reed, I became increasingly invested in combining my interests in Math and Anthropology and found that through my studies they became more and more intertwined. I ended my Reed career interested in making the very technical aspects of science, finance, and technology available to social science researchers as contestable and political objects/entities/ontologies. This interdisciplinary perspective sparked my interest in studying the sciences (e.g. quantum computing as a field) from the perspective of the social sciences (e.g. ethnographies of researchers/research structures). As a result of my Anthropology training, I have a perspective on the sciences and their enmeshment with the larger world which allows me to pursue this kind of research. I assume that the nexus of science and technology is both product and productive of cultural meaning, politics, structural and institutional frameworks. As fields which seem to have significant effects on the way the world is seen, how funding flows, etc, the study of these areas should illuminate how these meanings are produced and how their reciprocal production shapes the ultimate production of knowledge and technology. These questions led me to pursue further study at the graduate level.
This past year after graduating from Reed I worked as a researcher for my math thesis advisor at Reed, taught a bunch of sessions on quantum computing, worked a few service jobs, and applied to graduate school.
I very recently decided I am going to Columbia University next year to pursue a PhD in the History of Science! Charlene asked me to put together a list of things I wish I had known going in to this very opaque process—so here it is.
- Do you want to go to grad school? Now vs. Later vs. Never
- PhDs take 6 years, sometimes longer
- Masters degrees cost a lot of money usually
- Being young and doing other things before you go to graduate school
- Want to do something different for a while?
- Need more research experience/teaching experience? (If either is necessary—something else to ask about!)
- What for?
- Research different programs, visit their websites, email people you are interested in for specific information, advice and informational interviews. I especially recommend the informational interviews because they seemed to be the best way to get information.
- If you’re doing a masters look into funding and grants, otherwise (PhD) don’t worry about it for now.
- If you are trying to apply to schools abroad I would try to get information way in advance because these seem especially hard to figure out/get money for. I was interested in the M.Phil from Cambridge but by the time I figured out that it existed I was far too late to apply for funding.
- Look into what you can/want to do with said degree from whatever program and figure out if that’s what you want to do. Is it purely academic? Are you cool with that? Is there a similar degree that is less limiting?
- Find someone or several people who know your specific field or interests well and ask them for a survey of the field/schools/people/where to go. Don’t be afraid to cold call big names in the field for advice.
- Be gracious toward your recommenders, people you are asking for advice, other people you are contacting—send thank you emails, communicate gratitude. This holds for the entire process. See this set of tips on etiquette for requesting recommendation letters.
- Given the lists or lists you have received or created for yourself, create a main list of schools/programs you want to apply for
- Inquire into places you might want to go, email relevant professors.
- If you’re close, visit. Or attend annual conference
- Keep in contact with professors, ask about applications (like what they are looking for in an application).
- Figure out who you would want to work with/where
- Ask the people you talk to at these programs what types of recommendations they are looking for (do they want all professors? Someone outside your major? Someone from outside your college? A recommendation from someone involved in a more technical aspect of what you’re trying to do –i.e. if you are trying to study biology from sociology of science, maybe they want a rec. from your biology professor--?).
- Ask for recommendations early—if you are not sure about certain schools/programs say so. Keep your recommenders closely posted.
- Look into whether the school has other resources you need. For example, I wanted to continue studying math so I looked for places that would allow that. I was also interested in whether it would be possible to get a math masters from the school or whether they had a good quantum computing center/program there or nearby.
- What people say about where you should go/what you should do may be completely contradictory—people have different agendas and ideas of where they want the field to go. Use your best judgment and apply to places that seem good to you (you may never know what’s going on). I found this aspect of the process to be very frustrating.
- Talk to current grad students at these programs about their programs – they are probably the most reliable and are the people you will be working with for 5+ years. You can either cold call them (most program websites have a list) or often the professors you contact will refer you to their students. Definitely ask graduate students about the quality of life wherever they are/if they are happy.
- Begin putting together application
- Map all the little pieces and part you need to put together for each school (transcript, statement of purpose, writing sample, CV, recommendations, GRE, other weird things schools sometimes ask for like book reviews). Make sure you keep track of each one.
- Take the GRE asap because it takes a while to give you scores and to send them to schools. Also, if you think you might need to re-take at least once (most people do!) then plan early.
- Have someone read and re-read your materials (perhaps professors you were close to in college?)
- Ask for help on how to put things together/what is necessary in a project proposal in your field of interest. The Reed anthropology page on this was the most helpful online resource I could find. Asking people in the field or professors you know well is also a good idea.
- Figure out the specificities of each school (are they looking for a particular kind of project? Subject matter? Look to tailor to the school/program but not too much—still do what you want to do/the project that interests you)
- For the project proposal or statement of purpose (for social science programs): Make sure not to seem like you are set on this project (programs want to be able to teach/guide you) but also make it seem like you know how to put together a concrete project. Try to be as concise as possible.
- Provide recommenders with list of where you are applying and who you want to work with, when the recommendations are due for each school, and other relevant information. As soon as you have a decent project proposal, send them that. Also send an annotated CV.
- Make sure to proof read! (Especially if you are copying and pasting paragraphs from different applications, make sure to change names !!)
- Try to chat with the main people you are trying to work with at least once before you apply.
- Submitting/getting close/post application
- Submit everything at least a month before so you know it all will go through by the due date/no technical failures
- Keep in close contact with recommenders about where they need to write letters for, what they need to do, and by when. Make sure they are up to date if anything changes.
- Send thank you cards to all recommenders either after they send in their recommendations or when you hear from schools. Also, update them on what happens and where you decide to go.
If anyone wants additional advice or help feel free to contact me @ Susannah.firstname.lastname@example.org.
In senior year I pledged myself to becoming a ‘vigilant observer,’ to upend conventional representations of people and places in order to reveal the dynamic issues facing marginalized peoples and to leverage their voices, ideally through visual media. For me this ambition sprouted from a Reed career filled with political activism and historicized examinations of inequality, the vehicles of power in culture, the structures, conflicts and ideologies of societies, and the mighty purview of representation. This matrix of social facts was alive and well in my senior thesis research on Buddhist nationalism, Islamophobia, and sacred landscapes in Burma/Myanmar, but certainly exceeded the topic. As such, I was gripped by the vivid contradictions in Burma’s history and its superlative stats (from natural resources to refugees) as well as the outstanding issues still facing this diverse nation during its well-publicized détente’. Seeking much needed foreign investment, Burma’s junta dawned the garb of civilian rulers in 2011, and the generals have since proceeded with well-choreographed reforms while still squelching dissent and committing routine human rights abuses. Meanwhile global responses to reforms in Burma reeked to me of consumerist desires, ever present in both the exoticizing depictions of an ‘undiscovered,’ and unblemished ‘shangri-la,’ as well as the triumphalist announcements that promoted Burma as the “final frontier” of capitalist markets.
Little did I know the ground I would cover as I attempted to insert myself into this conversation, first by literally learning the language…in Madison, Wisconsin of all places! There in ‘Mad Town,’ I had an exceptional summer studying Burmese, which I think has an incredibly beautiful script and is heaps fun to speak, tones and all (thankfully it only has three!). To study a language that is such a far cry from English and the romance languages – in terms of syntax, grammar, and other basic linguistic elements – is such a rewarding, mind-opening experience that I would recommend it to any of my peers. Moreover, I got to rub elbows with a small cohort from around the world whose backgrounds are as diverse as their interests in Burma (from medically-inclined students focused on the pervasiveness of landmines, to others interested in the Buddhist evaluation of women in pre-colonial Burma). An unforgettable experience was the opportunity to present, in brief, my senior thesis at a student research conference, and to win the accolades of Dr. Ingrid Jordt, whose research I had relied on in my work. Oh, yes, and for 8 weeks I learned, first-hand, the amazing Indonesian traditional music known as gamelan – it’s still a fanciful dream of mine to move to Indonesia to more fully resonate with this melodious music!</1em>
Upon a delayed return to Portland, Oregon, I had ambitions to learn more about the city’s sizable Burmese immigrant and refugee community, which is second in the nation only to Ft. Wayne, Indiana (go figure). However, shortly after beginning to tutor Burmese youths, I was drafted as a filmmaker to create a short documentary on the history of “Africa House,” an advocacy and resource center affiliated with Portland's Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO). The center specializes in providing culturally specific aid and empowerment to a largely under-served and maligned African immigrant and refugee population (though it recently widened its umbrella of care to incorporate the Bhutanese community and even US citizens). My premier attempt at visual journalism with this center, its staff and patrons – who hail from places such as Togo, Sierra Leone, Chad, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Burundi, Nigeria, among others – exposed me to a sector of my adopted city that I had no knowledge of previously. I was deeply humbled by the energy they put into divulging their stories and their trusting reception of me as a person who would honor their experiences.
While the front end of many of their stories includes depictions of the perils at home and a tenuous existence in refugee camps, the move to America has entailed for some the sudden onset of chronic diseases, exposure to gangs, a woeful lack of culturally-specific support services. Of particular concern nowadays is a dearth of necessary municipal statistics detailing their presence in the welfare net. For example, at the time of the mini-doc, hospital registries didn’t provide space for patients to distinguish themselves from “black” patients, even as their needs differ. And the number of children from African diaspora families living in foster care in the area remained unknown. Given that Africa House has won national recognition for its transformative conflict resolution activities and headway in cohering multi-ethnic communities, these oversights in the domestic welfare system likely represent a national, systemic deficiency. The resilience of the community, however, is exemplified by Africa House’s operational progression from initial conflict resolution activities and attempts to connect newcomers to 3rd party resources, to the provision of ever-expanding services like health advocacy, in-house job training, ESL classes, and senior services. This saga had, however, remained unspoken, and its protagonists placed faith in visual media as a tool to broker human understanding. Their faith in turn deepened my resolve to pursue this kind of hands-on engagement with technology and communities on the fray.
Notwithstanding my fulfillment from working with Burmese and African families in Portland, I followed a gut-urge of mine and applied for a research internship with a non-profit in Bangkok, Thailand focused on promoting human rights and democracy in Burma: ALTSEAN-Burma (Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma). I wanted an inlet to Burma, to pursue on-the-ground storytelling there, hopefully one day training locals to make their own vigilant captures. To my surprise, I won the position.
I lived in (marvelous) Bangkok for nearly eight months, consumed with advocacy research and report writing on an overtime basis, realizing what it means to wet one’s feet in the non-profit world. Emblematic of many ad hoc maneuvers, I effectively leveled up from a research intern to research officer in two months because of chronic staff turnover. Piggybacking on the domestic and international news output on Burma, the task of researchers is to explain key stories – like the landmark 2015 elections – and present comprehensive updates on the wide range of the government’s ignominious activities, such as: military offensives against ethnic minorities; the arrest and torture of civilian activists; confiscation of land for development projects; passage of misogynist and Islamophobic legislation; dismissal of deadly working conditions at the world’s largest jade mines; safeguarding of racists and extremist nationalists while rebuking the international community for concern over incipient genocide against the Rohingya people, etc. You know, your textbook ‘light-hearted’ work. The reports ALTSEAN furnishes are meant to expand the conversation on Burma by reminding the world of the bottom line in the country. Besides media, business people, fellow NGOs, academics, and the lone few who’ve Burma on their radar of personal interest, our materials also get picked up in diplomatic circles and circulated through the vast UN echo chamber. In addition, I contributed some research and environmental stewardship training to Burmese women interns who cycle through and learn about, inter alia, human rights, community organizing, women’s health, economic development, racial prejudice and the like. In a tongue-and-cheek way you could also say I was the ‘gender diversity candidate’ in an organization otherwise staffed by women and that, admirably, prioritizes furthering the rights and voices of women in Burma.
There is no doubt in my mind that ALTSEAN has been a bastion of astute moral condemnation and critical defiance with regard to Burmese affairs for twenty years. It’s easy to witness this when one is invited to UN expert sessions on early warning systems for human rights abuses, or when one co-writes advocacy letters with the likes of Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights. Yet my presence in this nexus of human rights actors, non-Burmese agitators, and the slippery ideological scaffolding supporting UN altruism in the shadow of diplomatic expediency, increasingly felt suspect vis-à-vis my aspirations for more embedded activism or support. This is largely due to operating at a distance. The gap between living in-country alongside actors facing the harsh reality of injustice or fighting for self-determination with all the trappings of multi-faceted identities, and the constructed environment of an office creating secondary source materials informed in part by emerging concerns of international onlookers, expressed a certain scale of misrecognitions or differential motivations and expectations that is substantively relevant (AKA problematic) for cultural anthropologists. That being said, there were other operational shortcomings of the organization that led to my burnout, and family/fiscal stressors back home also limited my wherewithal for remaining in Bangkok.
As I recoup in Vietnam, teaching English to save some money before returning home (originally intended to finance Burmese forays), I realize that my discomfort with distanced engagement may even persist were I to intervene more concretely in Burma. I don’t want to be the white savior over here, and I’ve always recognized that the beguiling transparency of documentary media can obfuscate certain dynamics of power in representation. And while I think Reedies are very attuned to seeking out the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of positive – perhaps disruptive (dare I say emancipatory?) – action in the world, the cultural anthropologist in me asks, “How do I go about achieving this without reproducing inequitable power dynamics that are entrenched in and across societies, accounting for historical biases or prejudices and their effects without replicating or dismissing them?” I’m obliquely acknowledging the colonial origins of Anthropology’s interest in the ‘other,’ coupled more forcibly though with the privileged (white) flight from problems in the US. In recognizing this cultural baggage, I recall Thai dissident Dr. Thongchai Winichakul in Madison, WI, who admonished us starry-eyed SE Asian purveyors to account for the unintended effects of our positionality along the insider-outsider axis. In this vein I think more horizontal relationships and more productive revelations – due to shared proximity to the issues – could all be awaiting my renewed presence in immigrant communities (Burmese and others) back home, not to mention the generally dispossessed of America.
Nevertheless, these ruminations, sentiments, and ambitions (in short, my condition) are all mutable – some crest like a wave in the ocean just as others are swelling anew, requesting a different stance and balance. I’ll likely return to Burma eventually, with renewed tact for negotiating the path forward. The point right now is to return to family, reconnect with my own communities for inspiration and vitality. Any Reedie knows the power of such a homecoming, to the collective!
Stuart's photo Tumblr: Steidlegraphy
A man dressed as a Chuntá does his makeup. Photo: Genevieve Roudané
A group of Reedies, several of them Anthro Alumni, are teaming up to work on a new documentary feature film about a little-known, gender-bending tradition in Chiapas, Mexico. The filming of The Chuntá Documentary began in 2013, and the post-production team is now editing the footage and planning for the January 2017 premiere.
Genevieve Roudané (Anthro ‘08), the film’s director, and Sam Smith (Anthro ‘13), a volunteer with the project, offer their thoughts below:
1. What’s the film about and why is it important?
Genevieve: The Chuntá Documentary is the untold story of a traditional Mexican festival where “gangs” of neighbors—gay and straight, cis and trans, men and women— don flowered skirts, bright makeup, and elaborate accessories to become the “Chuntá” as they dance through the streets at night. Tensions arise between tradition and change, masculinity and femininity, identity and belonging.
Three generations of Chuntá: Grandmother, father, and son, celebrate their town’s tradition during the Fiesta Grande. Photo: Genevieve Roudané
2. How did you decide to make this film?
Genevieve: I left Portland right after graduating from Reed in 2008. When I arrived in Chiapas, I started missing having a queer community, so when I showed up at a traditional festival that includes many gay men and trans women, I immediately wanted to figure out how to connect with them. Making video is the medium I’ve chosen for connecting with new people and communities and feeling like I can give something back at the same time.
I remember the moment that I made the decision to tell this story in film. I had been visiting the festival for years, and one January I posted a photo of a cis man dressed as a Chuntá. A former classmate commented that he couldn’t believe that such a gender-bending festival could exist in Mexico. I realized that I had access to a story that could challenge people’s ingrained ideas about gender, rebellion, and tradition in Mexico, and document a piece of queer history outside of a white, middle-class U.S. context.
Members of the LGBT community in Chiapas marches to defend their rights. Banners read: “Proudly Gay, Proudly Trans, Proudly Lesbian.” Photo: Genevieve Roudané.
3. How did Sam and other Reedies come to get involved, and what is everyone working on? Sam, what drew you to the project?
Genevieve: Last fall I published a call for volunteers on the Reed Switchboard, without knowing whether anyone would be interested. Within a few days, five alumni volunteered to work on different aspects of the film, from researching grants to helping strategize how to reach different audiences across the US and Mexico. I live and work in southeast Mexico, in the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, so I was expecting volunteers to work remotely from the US. It was great when Sam flew almost 3,000 miles to work on the ground in Chiapas.
Sam: Following graduation, I’d been involved with several video activist projects In Portland, and was interested in helping out with Genevieve’s film as a way to keep developing technical facility with video, as well as learn more about the ways Genevieve was putting some of the critical tools and vocabulary we practiced at Reed into practice. I was also enthusiastic to find a reason to travel to Chiapas, a region I’ve long been interested in visiting, and spend time speaking Spanish.
4. How does having studied Anthro at Reed inform your work in film?
Sam: One of the most notoriously slippery problems at the heart of the discipline of anthropology is the ethics of representation; who gets to frame a narrative, and what affords them the privilege to do that work. If one considers documentary an interpretative project akin, in the most important ways, to ethnography, then the false transparency of video only intensifies such problems.
The visual and aural immersiveness of the medium, in particular, allows for a broad form of legibility, and a capacity to hold attention, that can function as a political technology for challenging prevailing narratives and truth-making regimes. This was an important consideration in my thesis, on the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Olympics and protests against the demolition of the city’s informal settlements, work which definitely influenced my ongoing interest in multimedia projects.
With the rise of highly accessible video technology, suddenly everyone can be a videographer; the Zapatista uprising, and its use of video and media to articulate the war in Chiapas as a node in a global struggle, is exemplary of this. Video is never really a direct transcription of events, but always a particular and partial interpretation, overflowing with motives and political interests. The same things that make it problematic, chiefly its beguiling power to immerse the viewer, are what makes it politically powerful, and worthy of our attention as students of discourse and power.
Genevieve interviews Sary about her experiences as a trans woman and Chuntá dancer living in Chiapas. Photo: Alma Valeria Ruiz
Genevieve: Making documentaries has a lot in common with field work. Over the past three years I’ve spent a lot of time just observing, listening, and establishing trust before picking up the camera. This story, in particular, contains tensions between a group of Chuntá dancers who think gay and trans folks are “distorting” the tradition of cross-dressing in the festival, and a rival group of Chuntá who welcome LGBT dancers and celebrate their contributions to the tradition. Studying anthropology at Reed gave me the ability to tell this story in a way that seeks to understand the logic of both groups while being transparent about my own perspective and rejecting the idea of “objectivity” as a director.
Chuntá dancing in the streets of Chiapas. Photo: Cecilia Monroy Cuevas
5.What challenges have you faced during production and what have you learned along the way?
Genevieve: From the beginning, I’ve approached this documentary as if it were a film school in and of itself. Until now, I had worked primarily as an editor; this is the first time I’ve directed a full-length documentary. I had the honor of working with several talented cinematographers, but also faced the challenge of shooting the majority of the footage myself. I’ve gained experience and confidence as a filmmaker. Learning to capture beauty in movement in the dark—in the middle of a river of thousands of dancers— while carrying gear for up to 8 hours, overnight, was definitely one of the biggest hurdles.
Sam: During the brief time that I was in San Cristobal, one of the biggest challenges I faced was being constantly sick! I contracted typhoid almost immediately upon arriving--thankfully, Genevieve was quick to help me get antibiotics. Getting used to the conditions of working in Southern Mexico definitely took some time. Much was dependent on the weather (roads become flooded easily), as well as the ongoing public school teacher strikes that frequently blocked the highways leading out of San Cristobal.
A Chuntá pauses from the dance to pose in Chiapa de Corzo. Photo: Cecilia Monroy Cuevas
6. When and where can we see the film?
Genevieve: The film will premiere in Chiapas in January 2017. After that, I hope to bring it to festivals, colleges, and community spaces across the US and Mexico. If you’re interested in screening the film, get in touch!
7. Are there ways for the Reed community to get involved
Genevieve: Yes! In the coming year, we’re hoping to grow our following on social media, launch a crowdfunding campaign to help fund post-production, and map out a tour of spaces interested in hosting screenings. I’m hoping to connect with film producers and distributors who can help bring the film to a wider audience. In the links included below you can watch the a video teaser and follow the film online. If you’re interested in volunteering or supporting the film, get in touch!
Find the film online at:
Video teaser: https://vimeo.com/133797723
Instagram (in English): www.instagram.com/the_chunta_documentary
Website: (will be announced on our Facebook pages this year)
Genevieve Roudané (far right) filming a LGBT rights march in Chiapas. Photo: Erick Acosta
Genevieve Roudané (Anthropology, ‘08) is a queer documentary filmmaker and artist from the U.S. living in Mexico. She has shot and edited numerous documentary videos and worked as a media educator and organizer with diverse rural and indigenous communities. She is currently directing the documentary feature The Chuntá Documentary. Roudané is a member of the Mexican Documentary Filmmakers Network, co-founder of the Ocote film festival, and founding member of Cine Catrina Productions.
Her portfolio can be found online at www.genevieveroudane.wordpress.com
Sam Smith filming in Chiapa de Corzo. Photo: Genevieve Roudané
Sam Smith (Anthropology, ‘13) has focused much of his efforts on activist and multimedia projects since graduating from Reed, including campaigns for migrant and undocumented rights, community responses to gentrification and commercial development in Portland, and an investigative report into the American Legislative Exchange Council funded by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Most recently, he has been engaged in outreach work with KBOO Community Radio and Portland-based Rake Films. His writings and translations have been published in The New Inquiry, Reed Magazine, and Parole de Queer.
Sam Law '14 and Anna Montgomery '14 Present Paper on "Border as Crisis" at Columbia University (2015)
Anthropology alumni Sam Law '14 and Anna Montgomery '14, as well as Biology alumnus Sara Post '14, traveled to the US-Mexico border in the summer of 2014 to work with an NGO. Sam and Anna ended up writing about that experience and presenting that paper at a conference at Columbia University. Below is Sam's account of that trip and a link to their paper, entitled "Border As Crisis: Sovereignty And Boundary-Making Practices In The American Immigration Crisis of 2014".
Sam writes: The story of how Anna and I came to write the "Border as Crisis" paper is a reflection on the difficult but concrete ways that Reed students work to tie together the critical frameworks learned in the classroom with activist projects and continue to engage intellectually, even outside of formal academic settings. The story begins when, following graduating in 2014, Anna Montgomery, Sara Post and myself, Sam Law, all traveled together to volunteer with the organization No Más Muertes/No More Deaths and provide material aid in the form of food, water and medical care to migrants making the treacherous crossing across the Sonoran desert into the United States. The trip brought together various projects and interests that we had all developed and discussed with each other during our time at Reed. For Sara, who studied biology but took many anthropology classes, the decision to go to the border brought together experiences working with migrants in Portland and allowed her to put to use some of the medical and first aid skills she learned through a WFR at Reed and various street medic trainings conducted in Portland, a preliminary exploration in a social conscious and political active forms of nursing. Anna had already spent time at the border, when she was funded by Reed to spend a summer working with the Tuscon based organization Derechos Humanos. Her previous time on the border informed her senior thesis, which explored the history of the construction of migrant illegality and the treatment of bodies on the border. For myself, I had long heard of the work of NMD, especially in the organizing in the Pacific Northwest against the Tacoma Detention Center. However, I became interested in heading down to the border after learning Spanish and spending time in Guatemala for my senior thesis project, where I became aware of the issue of migration speaking to countless Guatemalans who had made the journey to the north.
While we were at the border walking migrant trails laden down with backpacks full of beans and water, we spent a lot of time, as intellectually curious Reedies are want to do, thinking about what the border meant, how it functioned in the lives of migrants, in the national context and within transnational economic flows. One particular issue we discussed was the rhetoric of the "border crisis", rhetoric that was ubiquitous that fall on the heels of "the American Immigration Crisis of 2014".
Several months later, I found myself living in a house in Brooklyn with Anna, working as a bike messenger and spending exorbitant amounts of time trying to engage intellectually- sneaking into New School lectures and attending artist talks, book launches and poetry readings. During this time, Anna or myself discovered that the annual Institute for Comparative Literature and Society conference at Columbia had the theme "Crisis and Critique". In a coffee fueled frenzy, much of which happened at the cafe Anna was a Barista at (cashing in on that Paradox experience!), we wrote and submitted an abstract tying together conversation that had begun back in the Sonoran Desert (or perhaps in the classrooms of Reed and coffeeshops of Portland), leaving our affiliations purposefully vague. Our paper was then accepted, and we had a wonderful time presenting it at the conference and slipping back into the warm intellectual embrace of the academy, if only for a day.