Gender, Sexuality, and Taxis: An Interview With Elliot James

A person, Elliot James, wears a navy blue blazer with a blue shirt and yellow and blue tie. He is facing the right, and holds a stack of papers in one hand while he gestures with the other.

The Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) is proud to present these profiles highlighting our faculty’s outstanding research and community engagement around grand challenges.

by Amelie Hyams

Why should we pay attention to gender and sexuality in something as benign as setting up a business?

Elliot James, Assistant Professor of African History and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota, Morris, looks at how gender and sexuality are not typically factored into business models, and yet they play a significant part in normal operations.

“For instance when Uber was being internationalized,” says James, “in various parts of the world, from England, the US, India, South Africa, they noticed that a lot of women were complaining of being harassed and in some instances they were being violently attacked. My study looks at how, in the process of being set up, it almost created the conditions for things like that to happen.”

Similar to the Uber model, discrimination has historically been part of the ride-sharing taxi business in South Africa. James explores how the taxi business became successful, under political conditions that didn’t want it to survive.

During apartheid, blacks weren’t allowed to own businesses. However the government looked the other way when it came to taxi businesses. “It was seen as something that didn’t threaten the state” and so became pretty much the only option for blacks to run their own business.

“They were successful not just because of the political climate, but because it became a sort of this masculine industry that became seen as what respectable African families do . . . [and] it was able to thrive under those conditions.”

But this masculine model has had unintended consequences. James tells us, “In the historical record there’s always these kind of stories about rape – or that women were not able to own those kind of businesses because they needed to be at home, not bread winners.”

The taxi industry is a shared economy. “Drivers and passengers encounter all sorts of people every day. However, South Africa’s underrepresented minorities report some gender-based discrimination.”

“The industry was developed for normative, sexual presenting individuals and because of that history, it’s made it very difficult for queer people to feel safe within that,” James explains.

His goal is “to see how their discrimination came about historically, what was a product of that, and what are the best ways to change or challenge that situation.”

Who influenced him in this work?

Growing up in New York City, James was always interested in public transportation. His family relied upon it to get around, plus James’ father made his living as a bus driver. “He always talked in terms of driving a bus as a way to teach me about how to be good to people.”

As an undergrad at Carleton College, he recalled how Professor Harry Williams liked to expose his students to “really unconventional material” and make them think about its past. “I like to do that now, bring in songs and materials you don’t encounter … It brought [history] to life for me, and I like to teach that.”

“African Queer Studies was a way to look at different African histories in new ways, in ways that prioritize the concerns of gender and sexual minorities.” It brought together several of his interests.

James feels queer studies are very focused on the United States and Europe because they are seen as more progressive in valuing human rights, “while in places like Africa, the majority of countries kind of criminalize homosexuality and embrace very traditional African values. So queer studies overlooks Africa.”

However, on the African continent, ”South Africa is the only country that has enshrined in its constitution protections for gender and sexual minorities.” So South Africa seemed a likely place for James to research a queer studies topic on the African continent.

How does he conduct his research?

The ability to explore history through a broader, interdisciplinary scope serves James in his research. To learn the history of the taxi industry in South Africa, James digs into old taxi applications, business ledgers, newspaper articles and advertisement. He collects oral histories of taxi veterans who were foundational in setting up the business. He also journals, continually recording what he observes, engaging an anthropological perspective.

His research is almost entirely qualitative. But, he says, “The field of transportation studies is almost entirely quantitative.” So he is broadening the information they have.

“It’s not just how many riders from point A to point B – but what kind of experience did they have?”

James focuses deeper into the human experience , that’s not reflected in the data. ”My concern is the same as the feminist concern. I want to be sure that it is equitable for people of different gender and sexual identities.” 

How does his work impact the local community?

Learning about the rest of the world helps James strategize how to engage the local community. And when he lectures, he is able to bring in international perspectives.

“Having people in South Africa caring about what’s happening in the United States and having people in the United States care about what’s happening in South Africa, I think that’s a good starting place for getting traditionally underrepresented students into international affairs and international relations and being interested in things beyond the United States.”

He also encourages his students to use their own social realities to empathize with people across the globe. There are active students of color who are passionate about social justice who are focused on the US. “But if the University of Minnesota wants to engage in global affairs and have a global perspective, they need to reach students of color and attract them to this.”

What attracted him to teach in Morris?

“I grew up in New York City and now I live in a town the size of the apartment complex I grew up in, in the Bronx.” The differences between his home town and his new home are obvious, but the choice was easy. The students drew him. James was very attracted to the student profile at Morris: the fact that 18% of the student body is American Indian. The vast majority is also low-income and first generation.

“In my experience here as a teaching fellow [initially], I found the students to be kind of less entitled about what they need to learn in your classes but really open about wanting to learn… So I really enjoy the students, they are really interested in learning.”

He also appreciates the small class size in Morris and the proximity to the Twin Cities, which he says he loves. “It’s the best of both worlds. A small teaching environment and the support to develop professionally.”

[Header Image Credit: Kari Adams, University Relations, University of Minnesota, Morris]

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Discovering & Reconnecting to an Ancient Culture: An Interview with Bianet Castellanos

A person, Bianet Castellanos, stands in front of an altar. Bianet has dark hair, wears glasses and a red and black shawl.

The Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) is proud to present these profiles highlighting our faculty’s outstanding research and community engagement around grand challenges.

by Amelie Hyams

Beginning in high school, Bianet Castellanos had an interest in the history and the culture of the indigenous people of Mexico. That particular history wasn’t easy to explore.

Growing up in San Joaquin Valley of California, all she learned about Latinos in history was the Mexican American War and the conquest of the Aztecs, Maya, and Incas. And that’s all she could find in the library.

As an undergrad she became interested in the art of the indigenous people of Mexico. But art history seemed to focus on European traditions and there too, she found very little written about Mexico and South America. Her instructors focused on the Renaissance. “That wasn’t what I was passionate about.”

Professors at Stanford convinced her to study anthropology, instead of art history. And that was the beginning of a journey eventually leading her to a position as an anthropologist and core faculty member in the American Studies department, focusing on indigenous communities in the Americas.

Castellanos began by spending months learning the Mayan language at Stanford, followed by spending her summers working with a Maya community in Yucatán. She smiles as she recalls discovering years later, there was a large community of Yucatán Mayans much closer to home, in San Francisco. She needn’t have traveled to Mexico to learn the language.

“This story is just one of the interesting ways in which we imagine indigenous people to be rooted in one particular place because that’s where they’re from. But we forget there are also diasporas.”

Castellanos still travels to Mexico and has spent over 20 years working with the same communities and developing relationships there. She also works with Maya immigrants in Los Angeles. Among other insights, studying both groups allows her to explore “how race is constructed across time and space.”

Racial systems in the United States are very different from those in Latin America and Mexico. The experience of being indigenous gets reconfigured in the U.S. as indigenous migrants settle into this space. “When they are defined as Mexican or Latino, their history as indigenous peoples is erased.” Castellanos has found that for “indigenous people in the U.S., race impacts their lives in subtle but significant ways.”

Race in the U.S. is based on blood quantum. You’re defined as indigenous mostly based on how much blood you have, your bloodline. Castellanos explains that in Mexico indigeneity is based on language. If you are 5 years or older and speak an indigenous language, then you are classified as indigenous.

Informally in Mexico, race is also determined by your phonotype, your dress, and where you live. “In Yucatán, how you dress can determine whether you are defined as indigenous or not.“ So in coming here, indigenous people are exposed to very different ideas about race and its impact on their lives.

“These ideas do not easily translate across cultures.” Castellanos had to find “basically new vocabularies – and I’m not talking about just words,” in order to tease out how race is understood in Mexico and in the United States.”

“Excavating that history is really important for Mayans migrants and their children to feel that they are valued.” Castellanos’ work helps them do that.

When asked to consider the future of her work, the political climate comes sharply to the front. It won’t just affect her work. Castellanos is also deeply concerned for the wellbeing of the communities she is working with, both in this country and in Mexico.

“If Mexico pulls out of NAFTA, that’s going to have repercussions for all Mexicans, especially for indigenous communities, because they … have the fewest resources available to them.”

“Most of the people I work with are in the service industry and tourism. If there is any kind of impact on tourism, it effects how they can feed their children. So you can see the repercussions of the United States government’s stand against Mexico, how that’s going to effect people in their daily lives.”

She’s also concerned about the Maya migrant community in Los Angeles due to the political climate against immigration. Some of them are documented, but some are undocumented. Changing policies will have a huge impact on these communities.

“You have a lot of families that are mixed status, where somebody has their green card or is a citizen but other family members do not.” Sometimes the kids are citizens and the parents are not.

Just like other immigrants throughout history, migrants come to the United States for a better life. Some are escaping violence due to sexual orientation, or other dangerous situations. It’s complicated, but Castellanos feels “the policies that are being proposed don’t take into consideration those issues at all. The translation is that they end up harming a lot of people and creating a lot of structural violence.”

“A lot of these folks are just living at the margins. What are the lasting, generational implications for families who are living in an already precarious status and then having to undergo these experiences and shifts in policies?”

“In the media people are talking about how these protestors are politically motivated. Yes, they are politically motivated but not because it’s a Democrat or a Republican, but because these policies are going to affect people’s lives. These are not just protests for protest’s sake. People are protesting who have never protested before because fundamental rights are at stake.”

“So this is the kind of work we need to be moving forward with – it’s important. There are some of us doing it, but we need more support for more of us to do it.”

[Header Image Credit: Amelie Hyams, 2017]

The Paths of Greater Resistance: An Interview with Zenzele Isoke

Zenzele Isoke

The Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) is proud to present these profiles highlighting our faculty’s outstanding research and community engagement around grand challenges.

by Amelie Hyams

Simply stated, associate professor of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, Zenzele Isoke researches resistance.

More specifically, Isoke is “looking at the multiple ways that black women create political spaces in cities, to enable different forms of resistance.”

The Oxford dictionary defines resistance as “the refusal to accept or comply with something.” Isoke explores the many ways in which black women ‘refuse to accept or comply with’ the status quo of racial, gender and sexual subordination in cities.

Over time, and in different places, black women have come together to “reconfigure the meaning and practice of the city for black people.” Using the arts, spoken word, educational programs and other activities, they organize and reshape their communities.

In her book, Urban Black Women and Politics of Resistance (2012), Isoke examined several of the different forms of resistance black women have used to re-imagine their communities:

  • Political Homemaking – These are forms of “community mothering” such as re-Urban Black Women and the Politics of Resistance - book covertelling histories in public forums, and using words to re-configure black people’s understanding and practice of living in cities.
  • Activism and the LGBT community – These groups have come together to challenge extreme forms of social violence, especially the premature deaths of black people.
  • Hip-Hop Politics – Black women use hip-hop feminism to create connection across difference among black communities and communities of color. Hip-hop provides a means of coming together and documenting the forms of violence committed against black people.

Although black women have been effecting change in their communities for a very long time, their resistance has not always been recognized as political activism. Isoke tells us that “a lot of black female agency has been ignored or seen as ‘behind the scenes‘ work”.

Black women’s resistances evolve over time, as needed. “These are short lived assemblages” says Isoke, “in which they come together, they challenge an issue, work together for a period of time, and retreat back.”

“Whether it’s a movie night, a clothing exchange, a rant fest, or poetry,” Isoke explains, “they come together and re-emerge in different places. So it actually changes across their life span. You have black women coming together across multiple differences to create different forms of political spaces all the time within cities.”

Isoke is interested in these histories and all the ways in which black women do this work. But she sees that these efforts are often ignored or devalued.

So it is important for black women to find ways to come together, as she says, “to provide affirmation of each other’s political efficacy, leadership potential and each other’s ‘being-ness’”.

“A lot of it has to do with the way black women see ourselves. Being able to see ourselves as creative, to see ourselves as artists, being able to see ourselves as intellectuals.”

Coming together in support of one another helps to reaffirm black women’s efforts in this work. However, it is also, says Isoke, “an important part of the way black people are able to survive the onslaught of racism, racial terrorism and gender violence that our lives are marked by.”

As a part of understanding how black women work towards change in cities, Isoke is seeking to more fully understand the differences in black identity for women.

“Whether in the US or elsewhere, what does ‘blackness’ mean,” she asks, “when they evoke ‘blackness’ as a way to make sense of their resistance?”

For example, Isoke described how the Twin Cities has people from many different places who identify as black. These include people from Somalia, Ethiopia and parts of the US who are “all coming together and recreating blackness. It has a different meaning [here] than in, say, Newark.”

Exploring these differences further, Isoke has talked with hip-hop producers, MCs and spoken word artists in Dubai to learn what blackness means to them.

She wanted to understand how participating in hip-hop as a cultural form allows the women in Dubai “to articulate new meanings and properties of blackness.”

There are women in Dubai who are Palestinian, Sudanese, Algerian, and Emirate people. Although they all identify with blackness, they are all very different.

Isoke examines how hip-hop brings these women together to communicate and explore what blackness means for them. Hip-hop provides a way of communicating across differences and a channel for sharing themes of resistance.

“This type of scholarship provides young people, particularly people of color, a pathway in which they can also find their voice and find their meaning in relation to academia, and the larger world.”

It’s taking time but these efforts are making a difference. “Black women need to understand the ways in which our political and cultural work is actually changing and having a tangible and observable impact on urban spaces.”

When asked what she feels the impact of this work has been for these communities, Isoke has a powerful answer:

“The observable impact comes from folks who manage to overcome the really ‘death-dealing’ consequences of racism in their community.” She sites the police violence, institutionalized bias in the educational institutions, “you know, the school to prison pipeline.”

“It’s the folks who managed to come out of urban spaces and were able to create a different kind of life for themselves by being politically and civically engaged. That’s where the impact comes, for me.”

[Header Image Credit: Amelie Hyams, 2016]

Living Our Own Story: An Interview with Moin Syed

Moin Syed

The Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) is proud to present these profiles highlighting our faculty’s outstanding research and community engagement around grand challenges.

by Amelie Hyams

There is an old, familiar saying, “we are the hero of our own story” (Mary McCarthy). But what if our story was written with someone else in the lead role?

Professor Moin Syed, from the Department of Psychology, knows that the script for our story has already been written for us. He is researching a concept called the Master Narrative, which is particularly powerful in American culture.

“The American dream: success through hard work, determination, going to school, going to college, choosing a major, getting a career, getting married, having a child, buying a house – that’s a Master Narrative. It’s a script that tells us how to live our life.”

Syed tells us that we adopt the story and these plans unconsciously making them our own. We compare our life against the script, usually without even noticing we are doing so. For most of us, the Master Narrative is a pretty good story line to follow. But what if we don’t fit the plan? What if we don’t want to follow this script?

If you don’t fit the Master Narrative, it becomes a challenge for you. Syed explains, “There are all these societal level attitudes and belief structures that we as individuals have to interact with.” There is an expectation of what being an American is. There is even “an idea about what a prototypically American looks like and what a foreigner looks like”.

People who are different from this image spark curiosity. It can be as simple as having what is perceived to be an unusual, “foreign-sounding” name. But always being asked about their background can be unsettling. It repeatedly sets them apart as “other.”

Syed knows first hand what this is like. He is often asked where he is from. He says that when he “answers ‘California’, they say, ‘where do you really come from?’ The implication is that you are not really an American.” Syed tells us this is referred to as “Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome.”

Referencing the Erika Lee profile (October 2015), Syed recalls how her family has been here for generations. But, he says, “I assume they still get that question, and often from people whose ancestors came here more recently.”

“Curiosity seems innocent but can sometimes not be perceived that way.” Syed tells us that “It’s an unconscious form of prejudice. . . They don’t understand why the person takes offense to such an innocent question.” People think the victim is being too sensitive, too politically correct. But Syed explains, “the perpetrator doesn’t understand that the target goes through this all the time.” They’re continually being reminded that they don’t fit the script.

Being out of step with the Master Narrative also means that you have to repeatedly find your place. Syed tells us that every time people change contexts — for example from home to high school and then on to college, etc. — they need to adjust to the new expectations. Being different from the expected image makes this process harder.

There are also a lot of conflicts that arise about attitudes towards cultural heritage and the difference between these and mainstream American culture, especially for kids from immigrant families. These kids have to find their way between sometimes-conflicting expectations.

“It leads to differences of opinion between parents and children about what the child should be doing. So this is really an identity issue.” Syed adds that, “If they are experiencing family conflict, they are doing more poorly in class,” which he says, “is not surprising.”

“If you look at the entire population of college students in this country, 75% of them could be considered non-traditional in some way. Our idea of a non-traditional college student has changed. The 18-22 year old, living on campus, white, middle class, that’s a very small percentage now. Our college students aren’t getting more diverse, they’ve been more diverse for a long time. There are a lot of people who come from poverty. They’re underrepresented, but they’re here.”

Cross discipline efforts are needed to more fully understand our students and to find the best ways to educate them. Syed wonders, “How do we teach about intercultural, interracial relations? How do we teach about our own history?” He reminds us how Erika Lee didn’t learn about her family’s part in American history, until she was in college.

“The purpose of grand challenges is to bring people from different disciplines and perspectives together, but this still relies on getting them together.” Interdisciplinary work is especially difficult, he explains, because of very different ways of thinking.

As an example Syed looks at how psychologists and sociologists are talking about the same things, but from different types of analysis. “When you can’t even agree on what constitutes evidence, it becomes very difficult to solve grand challenges.” But he and his colleagues are trying to bring some of these different disciplines together, “a little more.”

Syed is excited about a new project he is working on in collaboration with Colin DeYoung in psychology and Valerie Tiberius in philosophy. This work is focused on the development of virtue and on personality development. “One of my really passionate interests is trying to understand the different pathways of college students . . . different ways in which they try to figure out how to make a good life.”

He wonders “How do college students develop the best way they can, opposing that idea that there is one path and one way, or that there is a good way and a bad way?”

Part of the answer, he believes, is that we need to find a way to “support students from diverse backgrounds to have positive experiences and to feel that the way they are doing college is an okay way to do college too.” Recognizing that “There are many different definitions and different cultural definitions of what a good life is.”

[Header Image Credit: Amelie Hyams, 2015]

The Strength of Family: An Interview With Priscilla Gibson

Priscilla Gibson photograph

The Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) is proud to present these profiles highlighting our faculty’s outstanding research and community engagement around grand challenges.

by Amelie Hyams

Kinship care is about family helping family. When children are raised by family members, other than their parents, it’s called kinship care. Dr. Priscilla Gibson, a professor in the School of Social Work, tells us kinship care has been done informally in the African American culture for centuries. “My mother was raised by her grandmother, so I am from a family that did kinship care. We didn’t have a name for it, we just did it.”

Gibson feels the public’s understanding of African American culture has not often been about its strengths. “Yes,” she acknowledges, “there are lots of issues and problems but there are also strengths.” Kinship care is one of these strengths.

Even when other desirable options are available, affluent African American families have chosen kinship care for their children. One example Gibson has studied is the care provided by Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson. Through her research Gibson learned that for the Obamas, the advantages were clear.

Mrs. Robinson had concerns about raising her granddaughters in the White House. Are they missing something about African American culture, or about their FAMILY culture, that they need to know? She provides that connection for them, and cares for them as only their grandmother can.

Unlike the Obamas, most African American grandmothers providing kinship care have very few options. They step in when parents can’t care for their children due to drug abuse or other issues. “They go on emotions”, says Gibson. “They overwhelmingly do not want their grandchildren in the foster care system, with strangers.” It’s important to them that these children are cared for by a family member.

And it’s not easy. Typically these grandmothers are older, have low incomes and often have health issues. They’re doing the best they can to raise their grandchildren, but they often need resources to maintain the caregiving arrangement. However, when these grandmothers encounter the Child Protection System, things become even more difficult due to the many rules and regulations.

This system can be hard to navigate. Plus it’s designed to work with paid foster care providers, who are trained by the system. Gibson asks, “How do we train this person [a grandmother who already has a relationship with the child] and how do we assess what they may have been doing with their children and grandchildren that doesn’t work?” The system needs to adapt in order to better facilitate this type of care.

While working with grandmothers providing kinship care, Gibson found another issue, out of school suspensions “kept coming up”. African American students living in out of home placement represent one of the highest groups in out of school suspensions.

The challenges these grandmothers face with the education system moved Gibson to explore grandmothers’ experiences and later, the experiences of students, educators and caregivers. In this latter study, she worked with a team of researchers who found that the lack of a functional caregiver-educator relationship was a significant barrier.

Gibson’s paper, “Enough is Enough: Grandmothers’ strategies for mitigating out-of-school suspensions for African American youth” (Gibson & McGlynn, 2013) came from this research. She reports that children in kinship care have often experienced neglect or abuse, prior to living under their grandmother’s care. This increases the instances of behavior problems at school.

Person holding a sign that says "Education not Incarceration"

From the 2014 Kirwan Institute study

A U.S. Department of Education report (2014) tells us that black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. A research study by the Kirwan Institute (2014) shows clear evidence of bias in these situations. Black students are being suspended for behaviors that are excused for white students. This cycle begins in elementary school.

Education is vitally important for these children’s lives. Gibson knows education “is the only way parents can get their kids to move up economically.” So we need to end the cycle of out of school suspensions in order to educate these kids.

“I get really concerned about the blaming,” she adds. Blaming doesn’t help. “Schools ought to recognize grandparents in similar ways as they do parents.” Gibson also feels that, “Teachers and grandparents would benefit from discontinuing the cycle of blame and work together to avoid out of school suspensions.”

There is a lot that can be done to help these children. But first, Gibson tells us, “Empathy and forgiveness and problem-solving are needed.”

[Header Image Credit: Amelie Hyams, 2015]