ENVISION is thrilled to post a dialogue with Susan Brin Hyatt, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. As an urban anthropologist and former community organizer, Dr. Hyatt prioritizes participatory and community-based research methods. She is the founding Director of the Graduate Program for IUPUI’s MA in Applied Anthropology.

Dr. Hyatt’s corpus of ethnographic work examines the gendered impact of neoliberal policies on grassroots activism in the United States and the United Kingdom. She has published numerous articles that untangle how neoliberal policies shift relationships between working-class and poor communities and the state. Her work contests discourses that depoliticize poverty while simultaneously targeting women and poor people as victims of their own individual deficiencies. Recent publications include: “Universities and Neoliberal Models of Economic Development: Using Ethnography to Understand ‘The Death and Rebirth of North Central Philadelphia,” in Learning Under Neoliberalism: Ethnographies of Governance in Higher Education, edited by Hyatt, Susan, Boone Shear and Susan Wright, Berghahn Press, 2015; “What was neoliberalism and what comes next? The Transformation of Citizenship in the Law-and-Order State,” in Policy Worlds: Anthropology and the Anatomy of Contemporary Power, edited by Peró, Davide, Cris Shore, Susan Wright, Berghahn Press, 2011; and “The Work of Being Governed: From the Welfare State to the ‘Big Society,” in The Anthropology of Government, edited by Kendra Coulter and William Schumann, Palgrave Press, 2012.

Read on for discussions about anti-poverty organizing under Margaret Thatcher, teaching about race and racism, the use of archival photographs to generate memories and document community change, the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, and community-academic collaborations. We also rant about the current state of higher education and the challenges of preparing students for careers in applied anthropology.

Susan Hyatt (second from right) with collaborators from the Southside project
Susan Hyatt (second from right) with collaborators from the Southside project


Defining applied anthropology

Beth U: Can you talk a bit about your background as a community organizer and how this influenced your trajectory to become an applied anthropologist?

Susan Hyatt: I love talking about my community organizing days as you probably recall. I would say that community organizing certainly influenced my trajectory into anthropology, but I don’t know that I really considered myself an applied anthropologist when I started out. I guess it depends on how we define that term. I had an odd professional trajectory. I usually think of somebody who is an applied anthropologist as somebody who has been employed in his or her capacity as an anthropologist outside of the academy, which I have not. So my community organizing drove me to be interested in the question of how grassroots activism effects the lives of low income women and that’s what I went to research for my dissertation. I always had a very participatory approach to my fieldwork that emerged out of my philosophy as a community organizer. So then I brought that with me into my teaching. But I guess it depends on how we define applied anthropology.

BU: How do you define it?

SH: I define applied anthropology as using anthropology in the service of solving real world problems. I think the distinction between “applied” and any other sort of anthropology is an invidious one because I believe that ALL anthropological knowledge should play a role in addressing the human condition in one way or another.

BU: I would agree with that.

SH: Almost all of my classes that I teach here with a few exceptions have some sort of project component, where students have to take the ideas that they are learning about in class and somehow apply them or experience them in some kind of real world context.

For example my urban anthropology class this fall, we read about de-industrialization and its impacts and that was our theme of the class. Students went out and did little fieldwork projects with a community neighborhood development corporation that’s working on a formerly industrial corridor in Indianapolis that has a lot of vacant industrial property. So we did some neighborhood tours and students picked topics and looked at the impact of various changes in that neighborhood as a result of the departure of industry.


Preparing students for applied careers

SH: So one of my things here—we have a master’s degree in applied anthropology and our undergraduate program has always emphasized applied anthropology—is that we need to have students take more quantitative methods classes.

BU: I highly support that.

SH: Especially our grad students, we try to steer them toward those classes. We do have a quantitative methods class that is offered on an occasional basis in anthropology taught by an archeologist, so when that course is offered we steer students into that. But there is always lots of quantitative methods classes offered in other departments and so we try to direct our students to those because I think you really just have to have those skills.

BU: You have to have both qualitative and quantitative skills, especially to be employable outside of the academy.

SH: The kind of institution that I teach at–most of our students are not headed for graduate anthropology. There are a few but only a few and I don’t really encourage them to think in that direction.

BU: You don’t? That’s good.

SH: But I always tell them, and it is true, that my mission in life is to infiltrate all parts of the world with the anthropological perspective, which I think only leads to good. They are part of my underground army of moles who are going to go out and spread the word of anthropology, or at least bring that perspective to whatever work they might end up doing. Frankly, I think that is the way that anthropology should be taught everywhere, even at elite institutions.


Community-academic collaborations

BU: I was just reading about one of your recent projects, the Eastside Story Portrait of a Neighborhood.

SH: Actually there are more recent ones than that! I can send you a link to the Neighborhood of Saturdays, which was a big project, about a three-year project that wrapped up in 2013. And we have a very nice website on that. Eastside Story was a project that I did with students here with a community-based organization that was trying to build an identity; it was a neighborhood that was redefining itself and relabeled itself Community Heights. Eastside Story was undertaken collaboratively with that organization to document the history of the neighborhood and what was going on currently. Then we got a grant to print a thousand copies of a little book and distribute it to neighborhood residents.

Neighborhood of Saturdays was a much more ambitious project that involved bringing together African American and Jewish elders who had all grown up together in the same neighborhood on the south side of Indianapolis and had then been dispersed by the construction of an interstate and also by the trajectory of upward mobility that the Jewish community experienced after WWII, which is very nicely analyzed for us by Karen Brodkin in her book and article How Jews Became White Folks. So both communities are part of the story although the public narrative became about how the interstate destroyed the neighborhood, which indeed it did, but it wasn’t as multiracial by the time the interstate came through as it had been in earlier decades.

We scanned over 400 images from people in the neighborhood. It was a wonderful project. We organized what we called scan-a-thons, we organized these events with portable scanners and laptops. We brought our scanners and laptops to the black church, to a synagogue, and to a community center. We’d announce when we were going to be there and people would come and bring their memorabilia and talk about it with us and with one another. We would scan the material and catalogue it while people talked about their materials, which was a great part of the entire experience. We have a really great digital library team here and they uploaded everything to a website so anybody can access it. And then we used those images for a book, called The Neighborhood of Saturdays: Memories of a Mulit-Ethnic Community on Indianapolis’ South Side. You can order the book but you can also look at an e-copy of it on the Neighborhood of Saturdays website. There is also a little documentary film that was done by our local PBS affiliate about the project: http://www.wfyi.org/programs/the-story-of-the-jews-with/television/the-story-of-the-jews-a-neighborhood-of-saturdays. And, we had an article in the New York Times so that got a lot of attention.

BU: I love this idea of using photographs as material culture, as memory-making devices.

SH: It is such a great way to unleash peoples’ narratives.


Researching incarceration and teaching in the prison system

BU: Are you still involved in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program? [Inside-Out brings college students together with incarcerated men and women to study as peers in a seminar behind prison walls.]

SH: Oh yeah I am very involved with it still. I was one of the co-founders of Inside-Out Indiana and it has grown a lot in Indiana, which is really great. There are classes all over the state now. In Indianapolis we have a few instructors. Unfortunately for the last few years they changed management at the Women’s Prison and we haven’t been able to get Inside-Out back in. We do still teach at the men’s facility and I’ve brought the class to other women’s sites, including a residential house for women overcoming addiction and a work release center. And so I think we are going to have to do some political work with this new superintendent of Indiana Women’s Prison and try to get him to understand our controls on Inside-Out are often stricter than the prison’s are. Our semi-anonymity policy, our no contact rules and all of that. So I am hopeful that we can get back into the Women’s Prison.

BU: I used to work in a residential house for women overcoming addiction.

SH: Oh yeah? Well, I taught Inside-Out there in 2010 and again last spring. And that was a really great setting for the class although in those setting it was a little bit harder to get the women from the house to participate. They were very intimidated. And it is not like being in prison. They go out to work; they have contact with their families so they are not as desperate for meaningful activities as people who are incarcerated. This semester I am going to be teaching a class at a women’s work release facility, which is a residential facility for women who are sentenced to 24 months or less of custodial time and they can, if the judge deems them appropriate, get redirected to do that time at this facility called Craine House.

So they are not there voluntarily, but it is a work release so they can leave if they have authorized activities, either work or school and so I am going to teach the class there. I am hoping they can get enough women from the house to participate. I have 15 IUPUI students who are ready to go. So I am hoping for at least 10 from the house. And that class is going to be on women and social policy, and looking at the factors that lead to incarceration for women. I think it is going to be really exciting, I am just nervous about getting enough women from Craine House to participate.

BU: So you got some publicity for the class?

SH: Yeah, so hopefully we can recruit participants because people who have been alienated from higher education are so intimidated. Their experiences with post-secondary education if they even have any are bad, or they have never had the experience of post-secondary education. And they think, oh I don’t want to be in a college class, it will be boring and the college students will look down on us. They have these very understandable anxieties about it. So in a way I consider that part of the mission of applied anthropology because it does bring, I mean everything I teach has some sort of anthropological spin to it, so it does bring that kind of spin to those kinds of settings.

BU: Have you taught or worked with issues of incarceration independent of the Inside-Out program?

I did do a project with graduate students in our School of Philanthropy last spring where we looked at issue of re-entry. We were looking at the problem of people who are getting out of prison and then end up getting sent back to prison because they have what are called technical rule violations, which means they violated some condition of their parole or probation but they did not re-offend. But they can still be sent back to prison.

So we were looking at ways to intervene in this and I am actually going to be writing a report for the agency that commissioned us to do that work. They are trying to start a program where people who are convicted of technical rule violations rather than being sent back to prison would be eligible for a work experience, which would hopefully keep them out of prison. So that was a very concrete problem that we were looking at, we were observing court hearing and interviewing judges. So that is probably the closest I have come to a piece of work that was requested by a local organization.

BU: How did that come about?

SH: Somebody knew that I was interested and that I teach in the prisons through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program and that I am concerned about issues of incarceration and re-entry. They wanted a qualitative study, because they understood that unlike quantitative methods, it could give us very important insights about the motivations of both the offenders and the judges. I wouldn’t say otherwise, but for a lot of organizations, qualitative research and ethnographic research in particular is kind of a hard sell, as you know.

BU: It is.

SH: It can be very time consuming; well, it is very time consuming when done correctly. And it usually requires a longer trajectory and so that can be very problematic.

BU: Yes, it can be cost prohibitive for agencies.


Cutting funds for public education and the rise of contingency labor

 BU: Let’s talk a bit about the structure of academic teaching. You told me recently that you thought lectureships were scandalous. Can you expand on this statement?

SH: Absolutely. What we are seeing is the complete degradation of the professoriate. And I guess lectureships aren’t as bad as adjuncting, as hiring adjuncts, which is even a step or two further down, but the casualization of the academic work force obviously has huge implications and will for some time to come. I don’t understand what people are thinking. University administrators and presidents make huge, huge salaries now. University campuses have become downright lavish. I mean we are a very modest place, but even here we have a nice new residence hall, we have a nice new campus center; the campus center has made a huge difference to the quality of life so I wouldn’t want it to not be there, but nonetheless these are where the resources are being directed. Students now have to have all of these amenities. This is not an elite university, but at the elite residential universities too students have to have a state of the art athletic facility, and they have to have a state of the art campus hall with gourmet cooks and 4000 different choices and stuff. It’s the way that the physical plant of what colleges and universities used to be has gotten ratcheted up.

My point is that the way that money is being spent by universities–I think the priorities have become very different. Public money has also been grotesquely cut back from public education.

BU: Now it is loans; with public funds rescinded, college students take on the cost of education through federal and private loans. Student debt is unfathomable.

SH: And that is another really bad trend. And all of this, the ways the books are being balanced, is on the back of casualized teaching labor, which really doesn’t serve the students’ interests either. And I think that is where we have to mobilize people. I think we really have to mobilize the parents and the students. I think a lot of our lecturers and adjuncts are fantastic teachers, they put a lot of thought and energy into it. I am a bit jaded now; I like to see their energy. I would never say they are not good teachers, but it is really not good to have so many classes taught by people who are frazzled and exhausted and running from campus to campus, and trying to make ends meet and who don’t have offices. They have to have office hours, but aren’t so accessible because they don’t have offices, they have cubicles. It is not good for the students and it is not good for them because, as you know, they can never get enough time to publish and therefore they become less and less competitive on the job market.

BU: It is a disservice to teachers, to their expertise and dedication, and to students. Many adjuncts make poverty wages to prop up the scaffolding.

SH: It is a disservice and I think the place that the pressure really has to be brought to bear on these administrations is the parents who are paying the bills.

BU: Yeah, you have to hit the consumer ethic of it.

SH: And they have to understand what they are paying for.

BU: Administrative bloat basically.

SH: Administrative bloat and a nice new Phys Ed facility.

BU: I started to take it upon myself, some time during my teaching years, to educate students about the structures of higher education because their expectations of adjuncts and contingent faculty are the same as tenured or tenure track. They don’t understand differences in hiring practices, why they exist, and the consequences for what happens in the classroom.

SH: They call everyone professor and that is nice, but no, they don’t understand.   I tell them about that too.

BU: It is an example of casualization and contingency more broadly

SH: And the job market in general that affects them!


Researching activism and community organizing in the UK

BU: I would like to switch gears and ask you about your ongoing work in the UK. Can you talk about the photographic and archival material that you are working with?

SH: I started this in the summer of 2010 and then I continued it during my sabbatical, which was during the spring of 2013 and I continued this work last summer. I have been doing oral histories and some archival research on this anti-war program in Britain that was modeled on the US War on Poverty in the 1970s that was very much about putting community organizers in low-income communities. I tracked down a whole bunch of people, they are now my age or older, who had been involved in that program and I have been interviewing them and I found this amazing photographic archive that somebody had in her attic and I scanned parts of it.

BU: In her attic!

SH: Yes! Other people and I are working on trying to get her to donate those photographs to someplace where they will be cared for properly and curated because I am very worried that the stuff is just going to get lost or tossed out by her kids or whatever. So that was really exciting. I haven’t started writing that material up yet, I really need to be working on that.

BU: We always need to be working on a million things.

SH: Yes, there are always a million projects.

BU: Is this work directly related to the research you did in the UK for your dissertation? [Susan Hyatt’s dissertation examined women’s grassroots activism in public housing estates in 1990s Britain.]

SH: It is and it isn’t. It is an earlier period than my dissertation, but my dissertation has a little discussion of this antipoverty program in there because it was part of the context for looking at what was happening with community work in the UK at the time that I was there. And now it is interesting, I have gone back and I am relooking at my dissertation. I gave a talk last month at UMass about it and I realized in my subsequent visits to the UK how much things have changed and the particular kind of activism that I observed in the 1990s, the early to mid 90s really no longer exists. And then the question becomes, well, why not? And that leads one to think about the larger structures in which activism is either produced or not produced, or what kinds of activism are produced. I have been thinking a lot about that question. I am actually hoping to publish my dissertation now, twenty years later or whatever it is, and kind of contextualize it with those kinds of questions.

BU: That’s fascinating.

SH: You probably know this already, but no one ever does as good fieldwork again for the rest of their lives as we do for our dissertations (laughing) because it is the only time in our lives, no matter the other constraints or complications are, that that’s really a focus.

BU: You are immersed.

SH: And you can never really have that again.

BU: You can’t have that immersion in quite the same way.

SH: No, not in the same way. So I realize that I have this incredible ethnography about what was happening in these public housing communities in the ‘90s and how they have just changed so much since then.


Teaching race: on deindustrialization and white privilege

BU: What do you think about the grassroots mobilizations that are happening around the Ferguson verdict and how you are teaching about that, if you are teaching about that? How do you think anthropologists can lend our particular world-view to an analysis of state violence in the public sphere? As a side question, were you at the American Anthropological Association Meetings?

SH: I was.

BU: Did you participate in the die-in?

SH: I did not participate in the die-in. I really feel badly about it. To be honest, I didn’t know about it. It came through on my Facebook feed the night before and it just slipped my mind the next day to go down and see it or lend my support to it. I have not talked explicitly about Ferguson, which is a little surprising now that you point it out. I do talk very explicitly about race and I do talk very much about the topic of deinstrustialization, I have overwhelmingly white students at this particular institution. And many of them feel very aggrieved, many of them do come from very low-income backgrounds, and many of them don’t understand, they really don’t think that they have white privilege because they are not middle class and their families were laid off from these various auto plants. And so I definitely deal with those issues. And I show them how shifts in the economy are disadvantaging everybody at a certain income level and benefitting people at the other end of the spectrum. I am trying to get them to focus on a structural analysis of what is happening. I think that does make an impact.

BU: I agree.

SH: I hate it when students say well my family isn’t rich or my family didn’t have slaves, all the things that are defensive. I try to talk about race in a way that short circuits that kind of conversation by just really focusing on the economy, how the economy has become more and more bifurcated: it’s not even the upper 1% now, it’s the upper like .001% that is doing fabulously well, and why isn’t everybody else? You can get students really refocused on thinking about these issues structurally and not focusing on their own experience as the sole source of data that they have about what is happening.

BU: I spent a few years teaching a race and racism class. I felt that if, by the end of the semester, I got students to refocus on understanding the institutionalization of racial inequality, how racialized structures and polices shape our chances, I accomplished something.

SH: Absolutely. The urban anthropology class is always a really good forum for talking about race and changes in neighborhoods, gentrification, displacement.

BU: Housing.

SH: Yeah, housing, and we do talk about all of those issues.

BU: Are there any student mobilizations happening on campus that you are following?

SH: This is a very conservative city and this campus—even though they are building some residence halls, which actually I don’t approve of because they are trying to attract a more 18-22 year old demographic and I think the demographic we should be serving is not that—it’s mostly a commuter campus. There is still a good percentage of older students here who have jobs, who have families, so it is not the kind of campus where people are hanging around or spending a lot of social time here. It is hard to get things going. I am on the board of a scholarship program here that provides support for students who are specifically interested in social justice and social change and as part of that scholarship program the students take classes in issues related to social justice. When I taught my class at the Dove recovery house last year, that was a seminar through that program, so all of the students in that class were Masarachia scholars, and the topic of the program was women and social action. So we looked at the history of women and social movements, like the Civil Rights movement, Welfare Rights, neighborhood-based community organizing. And then the students did some amazing projects where they applied those principles to issues that they had some kind of concern about. So there is some stuff going on but it is not a tremendously active campus that way.


Activism then and now: from Thatcherism to Ferguson

BU: If you had to make a summation about how activism happened in the 1990s in Britain what would you say?

SH: I would say that what I was observing at the time, although we didn’t quite know it at the time, was really a shift to a radical form of neoliberalism under Margaret Thatcher and that the rhetoric about empowering the poor was really about removing state services. That particular historic moment where that shift happened did actually produce reaction from poor people. But what happened over time was that as those changes in governance got increasingly institutionalized, and various kinds of other support systems were removed, that people became very disabled in terms of being able to organize themselves. Because for one thing, the emphasis on making low income people go into low wage labor took people out of their communities, put them in low-wage jobs which did not get them out of poverty, but took a tremendous amount of their time and energy up that could have gone, and much of it did used to go, to community-based activities.

All the public housing that I did fieldwork in during the 1990s is now privatized in various ways and these communities have really been redeveloped supposedly as mixed income communities, but I think that is misleading; they are really separate communities occupying proximate space that really don’t connect to one another anymore. So there isn’t a kind of sense of the community. I mean there are always divisions in every community, we know that, but there is no longer a sense of people having a common interest because they really don’t, and they don’t have a target either, because since services have been privatized, there isn’t a clear target for people’s frustrations.

When you can hold the government accountable that it as least one avenue that you have, but even the government can’t hold some of these companies accountable in some of their practices. For example, the privatization of water which I did look at in the 1990s in England just had huge implications. And people would protest and have meetings with their members of parliament and/or their city councilors, and the politicians would respond, ‘you know we don’t really have jurisdiction anymore over these companies that are disconnecting people from their domestic water supplies.’ I just thought something like that could never happen to us here in the US and then came Detroit.

BU: Detroit!

SH: I saw people disconnected from their domestic water supplies in England in the 1990s and I thought oh that could never happen in the US and guess what it did! Big time in Detroit.

BU: Yes.

SH: That was just shocking! I should have been writing about that at the time but hopefully I can somehow incorporate all of it.

BU: That was part of what I was thinking: how you would transpose some of these observations that you made in England in the 1990s to what is happening now, and how people can access activism given structural changes in services and labor, and if they are doing it in a different way. We know that neoliberal policies create more distance between people and accountability from the state. And we can observe activism, such as the ongoing post-Ferguson mobilizations. What can we say theoretically about how activism has shifted? How community has shifted?

SH: Well, I actually have more hope for Ferguson than I did for Occupy. I mean Occupy kind of came and went very quickly, and I think Occupy really introduced this idea of the 1% and the 99% and I think that was very powerful. But for some reason, people couldn’t really mobilize beyond these kind of individual encampments, even though there were these encampments in different places around the world. I think the anarchic structure of Occupy was really kind of problematic.

BU: It alienated some people for sure.

SH: And people who could have really latched onto what the message of that movement was. And Ferguson I think has sparked off a lot of discussion and self-examination and demonstrations about the incredible racial inequalities built into the criminal justice system. I don’t think that is going to go away so easily. Especially because it keeps happening; I mean even since the Ferguson verdict there are have been several black men and boys shot and women shot, and some we probably don’t even know about because they didn’t make it into the national news.

BU: It is not tracked – state violence against people of color. I do find it interesting that people are talking about police murder of people of color in terms of state violence.

SH: Yes, it is interesting.

BU: There is hope.

SH: Yes, there is always hope.

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