Prof. Sullivan is a newly tenured professor in the anthropology department. She is the first Black professor to achieve tenure in the Division of History and Social Sciences at Reed.
Prof. Sullivan is a newly tenured professor in the anthropology department. She is the first Black professor to achieve tenure in the Division of History and Social Sciences at Reed.

Fields of Resistance

Anthropology professor LaShandra Sullivan investigates land rights movements and inspires a new generation of thinkers.

By Romel Hernandez | April 7, 2023

LaShandra Sullivan has spent years doing anthropological fieldwork with Guaraní land activists in the cerrado (savannah) region of southwest Brazil. Traveling to roadside protest camps built next to sprawling plantations by protesters in Mato Grosso do Sul, she came to develop an enduring bond with people who are deeply connected to their ancestral land, despite decades of exploitation, despoliation, and displacement by powerful multinational agribusiness interests.

She may have been a continent away from rural Mississippi, where she spent idyllic weekends, holidays, and summer breaks growing up, but her childhood experiences there were deeply relevant to her work. Memories of playing outdoors near cow pastures among streams and pecan trees with her siblings and cousins influenced her perspectives on the many ways land shapes a community’s identity.

“The research I do is informed by having spent a lot of time in rural Mississippi, on my family’s land,” she says. “Looking back, my experience of that environment was formative.”

Sullivan’s ethnographic work in the Brazilian interior between 2007 and 2011 is culminating in her first book, Unsettling Agribusiness: Indigenous Protests and Land Conflict in Brazil, set to be published this summer by the University of Nebraska Press.

She has had another reason to celebrate recently—she entered 2022–23, her seventh year on Reed’s faculty, as a newly tenured professor in the anthropology department. She is the first Black professor to achieve tenure in the Division of History and Social Sciences at Reed.

Sullivan was born in Greenville, Mississippi, the youngest of four siblings, and grew up mainly in Birmingham, Alabama. Her parents were the first in their families to attend college, graduating from historically Black universities in Mississippi. Both became educators, with her mother’s career taking her from classroom teacher to elementary school principal, and her father moving on to become an administrator in the Boy Scouts of America.

Coming of age after the tumultuous school desegregation battles of the ’60s and ’70s in the South, she grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood before attending racially mixed magnet public middle and high schools in Birmingham. She quickly learned, she says, how to “navigate a given space” as she moved across and through very diverse environments.

She attended Howard University, seeking out the historically Black college experience her parents also had, but in the more metropolitan setting of Washington, D.C. At first she considered attending law school, but she soon found herself drawn to the analytic rigor of philosophy. She graduated with a philosophy degree and moved on to earn a master’s in international relations from Yale and a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Chicago.

Sullivan’s career direction in academia grew out of her intellectual interests and experiences. “I found I enjoyed reading about and discussing ideas—particularly the way those ideas shape the ways we live,” she says. “Making those connections was what was intriguing to me.” She had not considered entering the field of anthropology until it was suggested to her by one of her teachers at Yale, the eminent cultural scholar Paul Gilroy, now at University College, London.

“Anthropology aligned with the kinds of questions that most interested me,” she says. “I like the ethnographic fieldwork and the combination of theoretical and empirical research.” Her affinity for anthropology’s interdisciplinary scope informs her scholarship and teaching: “I want my students to understand the ways our work matters to the world outside the classroom.”

During her studies at the University of Chicago, Sullivan taught at Reed as a scholar in residence from 2012 to 2014, part of a Consortium on Faculty Diversity Fellowship to support diverse up-and-coming faculty. She fell in love with the school—its picturesque campus and its smart, hardworking students. Following a postdoctoral fellowship at Williams College and a brief time teaching at Purdue University, she was eager to return full time to Reed.

“I loved Reed right away,” she says. “It’s very intense intellectually, like the University of Chicago on a smaller scale. The students are so invested in learning—it’s very rewarding.”

Anthropology department chair Charlene Makley remembers contacting her for candidate recommendations for the open position when Sullivan suggested herself for the job.

“Hallelujah!” Makley remembers saying. “She was in high demand, so it was a real coup. She has only continued to distinguish herself with her range of experience and brilliance.”

In addition to teaching Introduction to Anthropology as a part of what Sullivan terms a “small but mighty” six-person department, she also teaches a wide range of upper-level courses, including, this spring, Black Queer Diaspora and Nature, Culture, Environmentalism.

Sullivan is a soft-spoken yet formidable presence in the classroom—engaging and engaged, she gently exhorts students to “say more” as she challenges them to think through their ideas. Her teaching approach is simple: “I give maximum effort and demand maximum effort.”

“She never let you get away with skimming through ideas or making bold statements without backing them up,” says Karina Ceron ’20, Sullivan’s former thesis advisee and now a graduate student in anthropology at Columbia. “I respected her so much I always wanted to try my hardest. She inspired me, not just to ‘get through’ college, but to enjoy the experience.”

Sullivan’s own metaphor for teaching is a boat that she and her students are rowing together: “We might encounter choppy water sometimes; some of us might get seasick. But we’re all in the journey together, and we’re going to get to our destination together.”

While her teaching style can seem rather formal—everyone goes by surnames only in her classes, and each class begins with a “cold call,” i.e. Sullivan calls on a student at random to present a summation of the day’s reading assignment (Makley notes that Sullivan is the only professor she knows who does both)—she is also warm and encouraging of her students’ efforts.

During a recent seminar, after a student read the day’s “cold call,” Sullivan beamed with pride as she responded, “Sooo good.”

Alexandra Gómez Lacayo ’19, who was employed as Sullivan’s research assistant for two years, says their relationship was inspiring. When she was struggling with “impostor syndrome” as a student, Sullivan took the time to encourage her to do good work.

“She cares so much about students,” Gómez Lacayo says. “If I had three-thousand questions about Hegel, she would always give me the extra time to talk things through. She’s brilliant and thoughtful and rigorous, and she’s able to recognize the humanity in her students.”

That potent blend of erudition and empathy has served her well in her research, too. Sullivan’s scholarship has focused on the ongoing conflict between indigenous communities and the domineering business and political interests in Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul. Her work explores the ethno-racial aspects of the conflict and the negative impacts of economic development on the region’s environment and native population. Starting in the 1950s, Brazil enacted policies systematically dispossessing poor indigenous communities, and ravaging the diverse ecosystem through deforestation to clear the way for massive cane and soy plantations and cattle ranches. The Guaraní and other indigenous groups were forcibly moved from their native homes and onto overcrowded reservations rife with poverty and violence.

“I felt a lot of solidarity with the people I met in Brazil,” she says. “It was much more than studying some sort of abstract political injustice—you spend time drinking tereré [a local drink containing yerba maté and medicinal herbs] and laughing together, and you develop close relationships; you come to really care about their well-being.”

In Brazil, Sullivan connected with activists and scholars who introduced her to Guaraní protesters on the front lines of the movement to reclaim their ancestral territory. Visiting their protest camps, she witnessed their daily struggles. Over time the situation has erupted into violence, with native activists targeted in beatings, kidnappings, and even assassinations. While Sullivan never put herself in dangerous situations where she might have feared for her safety, she was constantly aware that there was a degree of risk involved.

“I felt it was all just part of the work,” she says. “At the same time I was deeply moved by the people, especially in the protest camps, and how they embraced and trusted me.”

In her book Sullivan tells the story of how she tried to help a Guaraní worker named Diego by tracking down his government work papers after they fell into the hands of small-time “strongmen,” part of the region’s complicated and corrupt labor system. At one point during their circuitous quest through the impoverished backcountry to retrieve the documents, they were confronted by an angry, drug-addled associate of a white merchant whom they thought might have gotten possession of the papers. She wrote of the encounter: “He drifted over, arriving uncomfortably close to my face, staring into my eyes. The whole exchange seemed surreal.”

In the end Diego failed to recover the documents, at least during the time the two spent together, Sullivan reported. But his frustrating ordeal encapsulated the ways native workers are kept under control by actors in a system seeking to exploit their labor and lives. “The papers were the immediate problem,” she says, “but landlessness is really the bigger issue at stake.”

More recently Sullivan has broadened her scholarship into related areas of interest, such as Black and LGBTQ+ activism in Brazil. Last year she contributed a chapter titled “Holding the Wave: Black LGBTQ+ Feminist Resilience Amidst the Reactionary Turn in Rio de Janeiro” to a book collecting ethnographic essays about Brazil (Precarious Democracy, published by Rutgers University Press). Her piece examined the resilience of progressive activists in the face of an ongoing, sometimes violent, right-wing backlash against those marginalized communities—a topic that was also deeply personal to her as someone who identifies as a Black lesbian feminist.

“She is unafraid to deal with very difficult issues—violence and racism, deprivation and dispossession,” Makley notes. “She doesn’t stand apart from her subjects. It’s always a personal journey for her, and the work is so much richer for that perspective.”

Looking ahead, she is exploring a potential research project closer to home and to her heart: examining historical transformations of land ownership and labor in Mississippi.

At Reed she has also been active on a number of committees that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, including being a part of creating Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies. She was on the committee that formed CRES and taught the junior seminar in the program its first year of existence. She also serves on the faculty’s Sex, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Committee. (Sullivan identifies as lesbian and is married with elementary school–age twins.)

Being one of only eight Black tenured or tenure-track faculty at Reed is “far from ideal,” she notes. “Considering how few of us there are, just walking around campus, you are seen as someone embodying diversity, which is a sort of work that is impossible to quantify.”

At the same time, she embraces the responsibility of being sought out as a role model for students at Reed, especially students of color. “I hope that’s the case,” she says. “I really cherish it when students specifically seek me out—it’s one of the best parts of the job.”

Tags: Academics, Professors, Research