Anthropology as Social Activism

Alaka Wali and R. Lena Richardson on drumming circles, sustainable conservation, and valuing difference.

By R. Lena Richardson

"There were all of these people who were passionate about making art and whose voice was not being reflected in arts policy."

A lot of my passion in anthropology was about advocating for human rights, Indigenous people, and greater awareness about what was happening to them."

Dr. Alaka Wali is curator of North American Anthropology and applied cultural research director in the Environment, Culture and Conservation Division of the Field Museum. Born in India, she was the founding director of the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change.

R. Lena Richardson is project coordinator/editor of the Bridge Conversations. In 2008 to 2011, she developed an intergenerational oral history project with activist elders at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists. Her current project builds relationships between elders and youth in East Multnomah County, Oregon.

I managed to catch Alaka Wali for our phone conversation just before she was leaving for South America to work on a project. Alaka is an applied anthropologist whose work has spanned fields and continents. The field of anthropology has provided the basis for her bridgework, but, as she explained, her identity as a bridge person started well before formally entering into the field. Alaka talked about how her early background led her to field of anthropology. As a former student of anthropology myself who struggled with aspects of the discipline’s history, I asked about bridging within the field of anthropology and whether allying anthropology with a focus on social justice was a form of bridging within the discipline.

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ALAKA WALI: I came here in 1960 at six years old. I was very influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. As an immigrant, I am always thinking about what my place is in America. We came before the big migration of Indians. When we moved here, we were living in places where people didn’t really know what to make of us. We were forced to make bridges from the beginning. We didn’t have an ethnic enclave to belong to. In a sense, my early life has influenced the way I think about making connections.

I came into anthropology in a time of social ferment. I knew I wouldn’t want to do anything that wasn’t about social change. All my teachers were protesting the Vietnam War. I saw how the discipline could bring in the voices of people who were being hurt by colonization, the Vietnam War. A lot of my passion in anthropology was about advocating for human rights, Indigenous people,, and greater awareness about what was happening to them. My doctoral dissertation was on what was happening to Indigenous people in Panama. So, it’s true what you are saying about making the connection between anthropology and social activism.

R. Lena RICHARDSON: How has your work continued to unfold?

WALI: I started doing urban anthropology—partly because I had two little children and couldn’t travel. [She eventually became director of the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois.] When we started doing the arts study, there were all of these people who were passionate about making art and whose voice was not being reflected in arts policy. How do you make the arts world realize that they need to pay attention?

We did 12 case studies of artists and arts groups who were not within the recognized spheres of arts practice—a quilting guild, a drumming circle that met in a park, community theater groups, informal music groups. A large part of our study was ethnographic research.

What we found is that there are many ways that artists are engaged in various parts of this continuum of arts practice and there are people that jump back and forth. You had professional artists who would be teaching classes in the Park District, but then they would also have their gallery shows. And there were all these medium-sized arts organizations where people who were never going to make a career out of arts were making connections with people who were. We really had the intent of getting the arts world to see that they ought to broaden their definition of art. That they should go beyond audiences who they usually tapped into, to also include people who were being labeled as amateurs. They are missing a potential set of allies.

RICHARDSON: Was there a response from the arts policy world to the study?

WALI: I don’t think the arts organizations have really understood that message. But other people have started to see it. The Rand Corporation and Maria Rosario Jackson of the Urban Institute did studies. The Urban Institute’s whole project on cultural indicators confirmed the arts as a measure of community health. What we basically said in our study is that art is a great bridge between people who are otherwise socially divided. In the drumming circle, you saw people coming together across all these divides because they were interested in pursuing their art. In doing their art, they gained skills of trust, tolerance and listening to one other that are really important.

RICHARDSON: I agreed, and shared the example of ACCESS and the Arab American National Museum, whose model is discussed by ACCESS cofounder Ishmael Ahmed and Arab American National Museum Director Anan Ameri in another Bridge Conversation in this series. ACCESS has effectively built long-term relationships and civic engagement in the Arab American community and with other ethnic groups in Dearborn, Michigan, in large part through arts-based programming.

WALI: That’s the power of art that we keep trying to marginalize or put it in some box. I’ve come to understand how culture itself works: Culture works to help build relationships. The fundamental aspect of culture is creativity that helps people problem solve, make things work. Creativity and art are a fundamental part of what it means to be human. If people don’t have access to aesthetic expression, that’s when they start to rise up and resist. That’s how we try to approach it in our work. It is how people tap into creativity in their life and how they create their identities, whether personal or collective.

RICHARDSON: What other forms has your bridge work taken?

WALI: I’ve started to do more and more work with environmental conservation. There was the need to bridge between people who were very impassioned about trying to protect certain kinds of landscapes and then others trying to make a livelihood in those landscapes. Are those two things incompatible? Do you have to exclude people to protect wilderness? How do you get both sides to understand what’s at stake? Where is that common ground? Our approach here at the Center is to try to identify the common ground and to help people. We’ve been doing a lot of work in places like Peru, as well as in communities in the U.S. like the Calumet region here in Chicago, on how you can have sustainable conservation.

We’ve had some good success. In our work with the Indigenous communities and an environmental Nongovermental Organization (NGO) working to preserve a park, the NGO has come to understand that only in working for security of the land title for the local people and respecting their cultural practices will there be long-term security for this landscape. Some environmental conservationists tend to think they need to teach these forest dwellers how to be environmentally appropriate. What we tried to show them is these people have great systems of knowledge and that their cultures are valid and worth respecting. Unfortunately, forest dwellers have been told they are the lowest of the low, and so they devalue their own cultural practices, when in fact, because of their low-impact subsistence lifestyle, they can potentially act as great promoters of conservation.

RICHARDSON: What other philosophies or methodologies have facilitated your bridging work?

WALI: I think it goes back to how you get people to really be empathetic with each other across differences. When people try to bridge, they often focus on commonalities and similarities. That is all to the good; there are a lot of commonalities. But there is also a need to bridge by respecting and deeply valuing each other’s differences. And that is the harder thing to do—to connect people in a way that allows them to empathize but also respect or value the difference. Going back to the arts, you wouldn’t want to turn all the people who have their musical ensembles in a church basement into formal arts organizations or nonprofits or members of the Chicago symphony. We need to respect that the way they approach their artistic work is different. By working on these different levels of engagement, you can open more space for arts practices.


Or with the forest dwellers we work with, so many people think they just need more schools and more health clinics and we need to give them Western medicine. Yes, up to a certain point. But no, they are educating their kids in a different way about the values of the forest. Making that connection through the understanding of differences is a lot harder, but we have to do it because it’s the only way to maintain the creativity that we need.

RICHARDSON: What advice would you offer about doing bridge work?

WALI: I think so much of our ingrained ways of working militate against bridgework. We are such an individualistic society. We have a hard time dealing with connectivity and collectivity. Bridging work is probably the most difficult work we can do. But I do think that this strategy of trying to figure out how to be empathetic is part of what I’ve learned from anthropology. And people from anthropology are uncomfortable with it sometimes. How can you really understand something from someone else’s perspective? But the ethnographic approach has really taught us how to do that. With ethnography, it really is what we call participant observation. When we do participant observation, we have to experience everyday life how other people would experience it. That’s the participant part. At the same time, you don’t ‘go native’. You don’t pretend to be someone else. It is kind of a balancing act that you do by maintaining a certain amount of distance and experiencing the world the way people do in their homeplaces.

When you do it long enough, it becomes a way of life. It is a way of looking at the world that is constantly with you. Anytime I am somewhere, I can try to understand things from all of these different perspectives. And partly I can do that because I grew up as a person from a different culture here, and it forced me to think about things from at least two or three different perspectives. There is a value in the method that can help other fields do this work of bridging. And I also think that practicing arts is in itself a very powerful form of bridging. But it takes a long time and it’s not easy.

RICHARDSON: What should people in the arts know about other fields?

WALI: I think that in arts organizations or arts policy, there is so much of a tendency to gravitate towards statistical analysis, and to use these kinds of approaches to make a case for audience building. I think they could learn a lot by doing more qualitative work and recognizing the power it has to open you to a more holistic understanding. I think the people in arts institutions could also learn a lot from people who have been forced to learn to keep their own arts practice going with very little recognition, but they have managed to keep art in their life. I think the people in arts organizations and arts policy could learn from those skill sets and strategies at the other end of the continuum.

RICHARDSON: What could more community-based art folks learn from other fields?

WALI: Community-based arts organizations could learn a lot from other kinds of organizing efforts, even the environmental movement. There are lots of strategies that folks have developed that could be useful for community-based arts groups. I think that some of these groups get very parochial in their approach and they feel like they have to sell themselves by saying they are doing good works in the community—we are helping the youth, etc. Have you looked at this book Is Art Good for You? The author, Jolie Jensen, makes the case that you don’t have to prove that art is good for you, that art is therapy, or that art can help build reading skills. You have to make the case that art is part of what it means to be human, part of the very fabric of humanity. Arts organizations have gotten away from that.

RICHARDSON: What are the biggest barriers to successful bridging?

WALI: There are so many ingrained stereotypes about people. Everyone says social ‘assets’ are important, but they don’t really want to acknowledge them. And even if they acknowledge them, they don’t really know how to tap into these assets. I used to think if I identified the social assets that would be enough. But that doesn’t happen. To know the assets and to really work with them are two different things.

So, in the case of the forest dwellers in Peru around the park, we did asset mapping. We showed how these communities have this low-impact subsistence lifestyle and they value their nature and resources and they have all kinds of local organizations. [But the environmental NGO] people were so wedded in the standard way of doing things that they couldn’t figure out how to work with that. They went back to teaching farmers how to do things the technical way. [The local] people didn’t need that much, they just needed to be respected for their own ways. They know that you don’t have to grow 30 acres of corn to have a good life. You can have a good life by leaving your forest intact and live off the fruit off the land. It was very hard for [the NGO] people to understand this when they have been trained in another way. Eventually, though, I think the NGO staff has come around, and has had a lot more success.

It’s the same in Chicago, trying to get others to see that people in low-income communities have assets. Even if we tell them, they really can’t see that. There is the assumption that low-income people have to conform to our middle-class way to be happy. Not everybody has to live a single kind of normative lifestyle. Do single mothers have to get married? No. I don’t think so. Is it hard to be a single mother? Yes. But maybe if people were allowed to share resources more and not feel so devalued because they don’t have the same things that other people have, maybe if people were not pressured to consume, consume, people could define happiness in different kinds of ways.

There is this new rule in Chicago Public Housing: You must work 30 hours a week. But what if people could make do on working less if different conditions were there? Social service providers are constantly trying to get lower-income clients to change their behavior to a better ‘work ethic’. A financial counselor was trying to work with this guy, saying you’ve got to get your act together and pay off your college debt. And then he saw him out on the street drinking a beer with some buddies; he talked about how this showed that this guy was irresponsible and had no work ethic. That he would never succeed.

After I had heard that, I was down in South America in this Indigenous community. They have a lifestyle where they cultivate small gardens, they have a very intact forest, and they can grow their gardens and they hunt and fish. And we were walking around the village and there were all these guys sitting around drinking. They don’t need to work all the time because their culture focuses on living off the fruit of the land. And here I was thinking this doesn’t look so bad.

If we really try to all live the same way, our earth will end or some people will suffer tremendously at the expense of others. I think we have to figure out how we can do this, respect different lifestyles and allow people to come up with different solutions.

I think people in the arts world need to understand that the power of arts is much more broad and deep than the way Western society defines art.

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I am inspired by Alaka’s example of taking anthropology out of the ivory tower to promote social justice through its methodologies. Alaka calls for an accountability about what it really means to value difference. It is something that we talk about in trite ways in our society, but Alaka emphasizes that from NGO conservation efforts in South America to social service providers in Chicago, there is a long way to go. Her work offers some concrete methodologies from anthropology (participant observation) and practices from the arts (community arts practices) for fostering the capacity to truly respect, empathize, and work fruitfully across differences.

In addition, Alaka’s articulation of culture as inherently about creatively building relationships has continued to resonate for me since our conversation. This dynamic and alive understanding of culture and cultural processes exists in contrast to a static idea of culture, which I think is also pervasive in our society and, at times, in my own thinking. My conversation with Alaka reinforces my sense of wanting to help create more spaces and contexts where people (including myself) get to experience ourselves as co-creators of culture and that put relationship building at the center.

Original CAN/API publication: April 2008