What does Anthropology mean to you?
People. Humans. Who we are, what we do, what makes us, well, us. What makes me an anthropologist, though, is our method - ethnography. We are unique among social scientists in that our discipline demands closeness, long-term engagement, and really digging into the worlds that we choose to study. For me, this makes us uniquely suited to help explain the world - because, if we’re doing it right, not only do we know another culture/community/society/place but we care about the people there.
What brought you to the University of Michigan Department of Anthropology?
I came to Michigan because of Dr. Jason De León and his Undocumented Migration Project. I was compelled by the fact that this anthropology department - which is one of the most traditional and prestigious departments in the United States - was encouraging politically engaged, public-facing anthropology that pushed at the limits of the discipline and the academy.
Would you urge others to support the department of anthropology? If so, why?
I was teaching anthropology 101 during the 2016 presidential elections. Our students had to conduct a mini-ethnography, getting close to a community/culture that was different from their own. One of my students, early on in the semester, decided he wanted to study the democrats. He just couldn’t understand, he told me, how people could possibly be “liberals.” Later, after the election happened, I checked in with him. “I just couldn’t bring myself to vote for him,” he told me. After spending time with people who had been campaigning for Hillary, and really listening to the things they cared about and what motivated them, this student - who hadn’t been able to understand how people could be liberals - couldn’t cast his vote for a candidate who would threaten the well-being of the people he’d come to know, understand (to some extent), and care about. The fundamental premise of anthropology - that if we know each other we might understand each other better - seemed to work in this student’s case.
And right now the world desperately needs more people understanding and caring about people different from themselves. Anthropology - and anthropologists - can play an important role in fostering this kind of understanding.
Your dissertation research focuses on migration, detention, and deportation. What led you to study this area of study?
As a politically-engaged undergraduate student, I visited the US-Mexico border region for the first time in 2004. I was astounded by the gravity of the situation; growing up on the east coast I hadn’t fully understood the tragedy of the humanitarian crisis, as hundreds of people were dying in the Arizona desert each year. After that summer, I decided that this had to be my life’s work, in one way or another. After college, I was an organizer in the southwest for a number of years, but eventually determined that I could have the most impact as a teacher, researcher, and writer. In the subsequent years I have only become more convinced that issues of immigration are the most urgent issues of our time - especially as the United States has become increasingly hostile to immigrants and climate change promises to push even more people from their homes in the years to come.