Synergies and Satisfaction: Finishing my Exams!

To those unfamiliar with the process of academic qualifying exams, they go something like this:

1) figure out what areas of [your academic discipline] you want to specialize in (i.e. moving forward, what are the subject areas within [discipline] that will most inform the dissertation project?)
2) write up a big ole’ statement about how those 3-ish areas inform your work
3) give said statement to your committee (usually 3 faculty), who each generate a question for you to answer. the questions are based on a gap in the statement, or an area the committee wants to push you towards
4) write fully cited essay responses to said questions in a short amount of time (for me, it was three 10-page essays in three days.)
5) sleep for days.
6) at some point, have an oral defense with your committee for an hour and a half of very hard, direct, on-the-spot questions.
6a) sweat bullets. say awkward things. watch committee cringe and try and help you along.
7) with any luck, PASS exams, and become a PhC (candidate for the doctorate)
8) go out for drinks with all of your academic friends
9) then research and write a g-damn dissertation. oof-dah.

As of today, I’ve done parts 1-5, but am waiting for parts 6-infinity for another week (+beyond). My statement detailed my interest in exploring the model of social justice philanthropy (SJP) through three lenses:
1) state restructuring: with the rise of nonprofits, and the simultaneous shrinking of assets, how is social justice philanthropy mobilizing for social change? how is it similar or different than existing models of philanthropy and social service provision?
2) critical poverty studies: what assumptions and beliefs does social justice philanthropy practice that challenge dominant, individualized and pathologizing discourses about poverty? In other words, how do SJP organizations understand poverty, and what do they believe they can do to change it?
3) political geographies and subjectivities: who are the people engaging with SJP? at what scale are they enacting politics? how do the practices of SJP challenge or contest more national level beliefs about the ‘best practices’ of new philanthropy?

So I got questions back that loosely fit into those narratives and questions. I was encouraged to think about my own epistemology (how I see the world), my methodology (how will I look at ‘discourse’? how will I remain open to engaging the possible rather than critiquing the limits?), and about the contradictions and position of *any* philanthropic engagement (i.e. the fact that philanthropy, by its very nature, relies on unequal distribution of wealth as a means to try and solve the problems created by unequal distribution of wealth…)

So I donned my coyote hat (one of my birthday gifts from a friend), hoisted a hefty backpack with my laptop, wireless mouse and keyboard, and lots of books, and I split my 3 days between Office Nomads and WeWork. I packed good food. I got good sleep. I made sure to exercise and not work more than 8 hours a day. I watched an episode of Sherlock every night. I wrote sitting down, I wrote standing up. I wrote while dancing. I took some naps, and I texted and g-chatted with fellow PhD students near and far. I called my parents with updates and posted at least one self-congratulatory facebook post.

And you know what? I had fun with it all. Really and truly. I think this is a testament to the fact my program is an extremely good fit for me, and that my committee knows me well. And that I am a huge nerd at heart.

I also think I was ready to be pushed, to truly develop my ideas. To dig deep and think hard. The questions were incredibly productive. That said, by the end of the three days, my brain was mush. It took me at least a full week to recover my thinking capacity.

But when I woke up a few days later, I thought, “huh. what was all the fuss about? one day I woke up and started writing, and 3 days later I was done.”

The tendency is to build this whole process up SO MUCH. To stress about all of the reading to do, the work to prepare, the elusive ‘readiness’ that one should feel before writing the exams. However, I decided early on to try and avoid this stress. To just read in an incredibly focused way, and to take thorough notes. I decided to start writing the statement, and that if I came upon an area that I needed to read more deeply, then I would pause and read. I trusted that my adviser wouldn’t let me take the exams if it was clear I wasn’t ready. Lo and behold, she gave me the green light immediately, and I saved myself an enormous amount of stress.

Because here’s what I realized: I was always going to be ready, because this is the stuff I’m living and breathing. I’m not only thinking about social justice philanthropy in the context of school, I’m thinking about it as an activist, as a long-term project, as a writer, as a nonprofit manager, and as a participant. I am not only thinking about poverty politics through academic papers, but through my own discourses, through twitter feeds, through public policy, through the ways my entrepreneurial peers approach social inequalities. And politics? It is part and parcel of how I see the world, how I think about every day actions and larger strategies. To clarify, I don’t mean electoral or governmental politics. I mean the actions that people take that put them in a position to live their values, to stake a claim, to push for change, or to say something challenging. For scholars writing on politics in this way, see Lynn Staeheli, Stuart Hall, Tracy Skelton, Gill Hart, Vicky Lawson, and J.K. GIbson-Graham. 

So I turned in my exams and sent them off in a 36 page PDF. I then proceeded to have a dance party to some very loud pop music in the lobby of WeWork, to eat an enormous bowl of celebratory pho, and then go home and make myself a strong hot toddy. And then sleep for days (kind of).

This was not a process I would elect to undertake again, but it was incredibly positive, productive, and not-that-painful. I look forward to hearing from my committee during the oral defense. And I am so pleased to have had the chance to think deeply about my research, to write it out, and to remind myself that I am ready and I will continue to be ready. Bring it on, dissertation! You’re next.

Mini-Blog Series: Synergies and Satisfaction

February. What a whirlwind.

After my fair city of Seattle dominated the Grammys and the Superbowl, I began a week-long birthday celebration with friends throughout the city.

The following week, I wrote my qualifying exams. And then tried to recover.

I then quickly prepared a talk and hopped on a plane to the Critical Geography Conference at CU-Boulder.

The afternoon of my return from Boulder, I was back in my relational poverty seminar. And I just applied for the Numad program at Office Nomads.

At some point in the last three weeks, I noticed that it all just kind of came together. A great synergy. All of the tendrils I’ve been testing and floating out there came zipping back in and went shooooomp!

This coalesced during my exploratory talk at Boulder, which discussed how I was going to engage critical feminist theory in my dissertation research on social justice philanthropy.

I am one who processes through writing. So, I’m designing a short blog series on this synergy and finding satisfaction with my professional energies. I will post a few short reflections in the coming days that help articulate and capture the energy, intentionality, questions and ideas that have been generated in the last month. I continue to develop my identity in the world of creative philanthropy: as a scholar, a writer, by planning events, through speaking events and as a community connector. I believe this is going to be the basis of my life’s work for the next little while. Hang in there with me while I start to put all the pieces together.

Relearning poverty knowledge

I recently published a new piece of writing on the blog for the Relational Poverty Network, of which I am a member.

The piece asks what it might look like to acknowledge, unlearn and re-learn our ideas and assumptions about poverty.

It is in response to a TEDx talk by Ananya Roy at UC Berkeley. Check it out at:

If you like the post, consider following and/or joining the RPN!

Today, I fell in love

Well, not real love. Not the oxytocin drunk, I want to spend every minute with you, can’t concentrate on work because I’m thinking of you, smiling so much my colleagues wonder what’s wrong with me kind of love.

Maybe it’s more of a crush. The kind where I  can’t stop thinking about all the good things yet to come, about the great times we’ll spend together, about how unbelievably perfect it all seems to be, about the energy high I felt for hours after our parting, about wanting to share my feelings with anyone who will listen because I am

I am falling for my office. For coworking.  I’m falling for Office Nomads.

I knew it was time for me to get some different office space after I emerged anew from my autumn transition, after some deep reflection about my personal and professional needs. I let go of one dissertation idea and let myself follow all of the obvious signs to accept and pursue a dissertation on social justice philanthropy. I realized I was woefully unproductive in my graduate student office, where the (perfectly normal and totally acceptable and I’ve been there) nervous energy of the new students was putting me on edge. I realized that many of the professional habits I had clung to (see “I’ve Always Been a Juggler“) were being triggered by the familiar space of my office and colleagues.

Two of my friends manage coworking spaces in Seattle (Impact HUB andWeWork) – both of which are incredible, and I would highly recommend them. However, they were both a bit out of my price range, and targeted for actual businesses or self-employed individuals / entrepreneurs who needed flexible but regular office space. I, on the other hand, just needed a place I could go once a week or so to shake up my routine. Where I might meet other hybrid-scholar-activist types who wear many hats in the world. Where I could go, sit down with my computer, not feel obligated to buy a coffee, not fight for crowded space, not risk falling asleep at the library (not like that’s every happened to me, but I’ve heard it could…)

Office Nomads, where have you been all my life?! With a new student priced membership, this was the perfect option for me. Free coffee, tea and printing. Unlimited wifi. Desk space guaranteed. Standing desks available. Meeting rooms to book. A shower (!) so I could potentially run mid-day and come back and work more. Dogs! (At least two so far.) Couches, where people unabashedly take naps. A lovely little kitchen area where I met three people already who have similar interests (one a social responsibility consultant, another who used kickstarter for a social action project in India, another who is discovering GIS for the first time). I had pleasant conversations with lots of other people. I listened to the light KEXP in the background when I wanted to, and put headphones in when I needed more focus. I drank a lot of (free!) tea.

I got about two days of work done in four hours.

Like I said, I’m in love.

Here’s to having space that feels welcoming, pleasant, encourages productivity and also play, has all the resources I need. Here’s to work space that is not filled with undergraduate students, is not freezing cold, is not a sleepy library, and is *not* my couch or dining room table. Here’s to an office that brings me into contact with lots of new people, and will foster the hybrid scholar-connector-event planner-writer-activist identity (and work) that I am working on becoming.

For more on coworking in Seattle check out the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance to find a space that might work for you.

Pumpkin pie and philanthropy

I have seen and consumed more pumpkin pies in the last week than in any other week of my life, as far as I can remember.

Last week, Eat for Equity Seattle held its first anniversary dinner, E4E4E4E! A tradition started by the Minneapolis branch, E4E4E4E is an annual dinner that benefits the local branch, to raise money to help buy kitchen supplies, run our program and build capacity. We held our largest dinner yet, and featured 7 pumpkin pies made by volunteers. They were absolutely delicious. We also fed 90 people and raised $1100 for our own work – by far the most we’ve ever raised, and the most people we’ve ever hosted. By all accounts, it was a huge success.

Pumpkin Pies
Then, of course, there was Thanksgiving. I spent Thursday evening with my inherited Seattle family, the sisters and cousins of one of my dearest friends from back East. There were too many pies that night. So many that we, (gasp), had to try a little bit of each one. All four. It was, if I dare to say it, entirely too much pie.

And then I had the gift of opening my home to my new Seattle family. These are the people to whom I’ve grown so close, with whom I can share my vulnerability, who have met me in this time of transition and reorientation and said, “dive in – we’ll catch you”. In fact, many of them have told me that my transition has inspired them to ask questions of their own lives, to have the courage to explore the taken-for-granted stories we find ourselves within; these friends have given me their love and received mine. Given my love of food and friends and gratitudes, it was a no-brainer that I would open my home and share a feast with these folks. Many hadn’t met before, but they all got along with ease. The group were couples, single friends, a roommate, an old friend, an adventurer, soon-to-be-parents, soon-to-be-married, a new friend, a visitor, many chefs; all in all they are my family. And there was another pumpkin pie. And a beautiful gluten-free buckwheat cake with carmelized pears. Oh, sweet goodness.

photo (2)

Enough of desserts. What does this have to do with anything, you might ask?

In the course of these last 10 days, I have also been working on a side project that has spanned all the pies and has energized me when the sugar highs run out. I am developing a syllabus for a proposed class that I could teach independently through the Comparative History of Ideas department on UW’s campus. CHID always hosts a call for classes for pre-doctoral instructors. My class would be called Reimagining Nonprofits, and takes an interdisciplinary and action-based approach to learning about the nonprofit sector. Rather than approach it from a practitioner standpoint or a policy perspective, this small seminar would guide students through an exploration of the current role of nonprofits, how they’ve come to hold this role, and how alternate theorizations might expand our possible expectations for the sector. The class asks students contribute to popular discourses on nonprofits (through blog posts or op-eds). Additionally, students would design a proposal for an engaged project with a local nonprofit (that they could choose to enact, but wouldn’t have to).

I am so.fired.up. about this class. It has been the first thing I want to work on every day, and my biggest source of satisfaction. The syllabus captures what I am passionate about, but also what I want to learn more about. I certainly don’t have the answers, but I suspect that students and I could develop a really fascinating dialogue about what nonprofits are and what they could be. I’ve sent the syllabus to a few colleagues and friends to look over before I submit the proposal, and all of them have responded, “I wish this class was offered when I was an undergraduate!” “I want to take this class!” One of my friends/colleagues, (who recently got hired in a tenure-track position in nonprofit management), told me that I should absolutely plan to apply for nonprofit education faculty positions when I go on the market.

Which leads me to the ‘ah-ha’ moment over all of this pie I’ve been eating (and which I’m about to go have a slice of in a moment!)

Between the amazing article in Crosscut about Eat for Equity (A new model for millenial philanthropy?) writing this course syllabus, the two sessions on Philanthropy I’m organizing at this year’s AAG, and my upcoming membership with Social Justice Fund I realize that my identity and interests in philanthropy are more than just a tangent to my dissertation research. They are the central pieces to a larger puzzle. They are the core of my intellectual passion.

For a long time people have asked me how Eat for Equity fits into my research trajectory and broader commitments. I never knew precisely how to answer that question, because it was never *meant* to be part of my research trajectory. It was a passionate commitment to pursue social justice and community building through good food and positive, welcoming spaces. Now, though, I see a larger arc.

I believe that the current state of the nonprofit sector can never address large scale inequalities and offer systemic change. I believe that large scale systemic change is possible. I believe new approaches to philanthropy and giving are a radically important piece to this puzzle. I believe social justice philanthropy like SJF empowers donors, activists and community members to work together towards collective action. I believe that Eat for Equity allows individuals to realize that no act of giving is too small, that giving doesn’t have to ‘look big’, and that when we come together, we can do amazing things that we could never do on our own. I believe that scholars need to address this sector and use our theoretical toolkit to expand how we understand what nonprofits and philanthropy can do in the world. Quoting one of my advisers, then, I ask “what work does the nonprofit sector do?” I ask this of the sector at large, and I ask it of donors. I ask it of myself and I ask it of alternative forms of giving. As producers of knowledge, I believe academics have a responsibility to advance our theoretical understanding of this sector that influences so many people’s lives, and yet is often brushed off based on its perceived benevolence. In fact, when I say that I study the nonprofit sector, many people sometimes question my motives, “but, don’t you believe in the work that these organizations do?”

Yes! Of course I do. I think any program that makes someone’s life better is a valuable program. But what are the relationships between nonprofit programs and their donors? Between donors and the program recipients? What vision do these organizations have for the future, and for social change? How do organizations address questions of systemic inequality, privilege, wealth and inequality? Can organizations conceptualize ‘leadership training’ and ’empowerment’ not for individuals only, but for the collective?

So, the ah-ha pie moment: I am a philanthropy scholar. I am, maybe, a social entrepreneur (though  I don’t know if I am even sure what that term means anymore). My scholastic interests are not my primary identity. I want to expand and develop this larger broader identity as someone interested and committed to reimagining, envisioning and expanding the nonprofit sector through questions of social justice philanthropy and collective giving.

All of this is to say, I’m making myself some business cards. I just don’t know what they should say.

I’ve always been a juggler.

Interesting that on the heels of my last two posts, which praised the pursuit of projects, I drastically reoriented my own standing in relation to my multiple projects.

Without going into much personal detail, suffice it to say I recently found myself smack dab in the middle of a big internal reorientation. A few things had changed in my life over the summer, and in the months that followed, I’ve needed to take time to reorient the internal structuring of my identity, habits, assumptions and priorities. This process has been exhausting, it has been scary, and it has required me to drastically reconfigure my daily activities. There has been very little progress on school work. I’ve stayed committed to my teaching, but my own progress has been sluggish. Viscous, even.

Let me pause and say: everything is ok. I am doing great. In fact, I feel more centered and at peace than I have in… years. The energy I have is not from the adrenaline of being busy every second of every day, but from knowing that I have the capacity, skills and knowledge to figure out how I want to (re)build and (re)establish the infrastructure and architecture of my life. Where low-levels of anxiety used to be the norm, now they are a warning beacon. They are letting me know that I’m clinging to old habits, trying to fit too many things into a life that has asked me for simplicity. These stress beacons make me conscious of when I am trying to make plans and find conclusive answers to things down the road, of which I have little control and are often distractions for what I’m feeling right now.

That is the thing about being a project person. It’s really easy not to look inward. I was always scheduling the next meeting, brainstorming the next conference, scheming for my next trip, calculating a budget; I was always planning my days to be the most efficient possible, so I could fit in yet another thing. My colleagues were baffled by me: how do you get so much done? Literally, how do you do it?! My advisers praised me: you have what it takes to be an academic! you’re so good at time management, you’ll be a wonderful professor! My family and friends were always supportive, but had also come to expect that they would rarely see me, for I was so busy and had so many people to see and projects to tend to.

And one day, about a month ago, I realized: I didn’t feel good about being this person anymore. I was tired of juggling. But, but…

I am really good at juggling. I can keep multiple balls in the air, think logistically, plan efficiently. I can have a day in which I teach, grade papers, write a blog post, exercise, cook a delicious meal, go to a meeting, respond to emails, call a friend on the phone, read food blogs, catch up on twitter, and read academic articles. And I can go to bed exhausted, my body tense and my mind in a whir. I am really good at to-do lists.

Just because I can juggle, doesn’t mean I have to juggle. I find I am wanting simplicity,  and that I am not as satisfied by being as busy. I long for deeper connection with the people in my life, and want to nurture my capacity to look inward and explore who it is I want to be, how I want to relate to myself and others, and what types of projects I actually want to be involved in.

Just because I’m not juggling right now, doesn’t mean I’m not still a juggler. I have a lot of fear in letting go of this hyper-busy-version of myself. Can I be successful as a graduate student if I’m not cramming 15 things into a day? What if I only do four? Can I still get published? Develop my own course syllabus? Apply for grants? Teach? Be a mentor and receive mentorship? Perform department service? Continue to build relationships with community partners? Complete my exams? Develop my Public Scholarship Certificate? Go to conferences? Is it even possible? In these moments of extreme doubt (and, to be honest, wrinkled brow confusion at the vast number of *things* we’re supposed to balance as under-paid graduate students), I remember that just because I’m choosing not to tackle *all* of those things in one day, doesn’t mean I don’t have the capacity to. I am choosing to focus my energy and be intentional in my activities, rather than prioritizing efficiency and speed. If at some point I want to get the juggling pins out again, I can. They’ll just be in my closet, along with multi-colored juggling balls, circus knives and flame throwers.

Even though I’m really good at juggling, I can do other things, too. I am building out my repertoire of ways-of-being. In response to the litany of “Can I still…” questions above, the answer is, of course, “yes”. It might take more time, and it will be guaranteed to look different. But it is possible, because while I am a juggler, I am not only a juggler. Right now I’m feeling more like a tightrope walker: focusing, moving slowly, striving for balance, and trusting that there’s a big ole’ net to catch me when I inevitably trip, stumble and make mistakes. Maybe later I will be a clown. Perhaps someday I’ll tame lions.

Learning to understand this transition has been difficult. There were days early on when I was still going through the motions of doing-everything-all-the-time, and I felt like a ghost floating through someone else’s life. One day, I barely recognized myself in the mirror. I had no appetite. At one point, a colleague said, “you look… muted.” Hm. Concerning. Time to reevaluate.

Where once I proselytized juggling as many projects as possible (to nurture your whole self! to not limit yourself to just academia! to keep your passions and energy fresh! to collaborate and work with others!), I am now a disciple of simplicity. Making that transition within an academic department in which I could have carried around a coffee mug that said, “World’s Best Juggler!”, it is a great vulnerability to share that I am no longer performing that show. And, of course, I am not yet “good” at simplicity. I don’t know how to get an “A+” in simplicity. I do know how to get an A+ in juggling, and so I see myself slipping back into those habits, those grooves, with distressing ease. But that is when the stress signals chime in and say, “Take a step back, Elyse. Pause. Simplify. We know it’s hard. You’re not going to get an “A”. You’ll probably get a “C” at best… but at least you’re trying.”

And try I will. Because we’re all just doing the best we can, just trying to get our needs met. I am doing the best I can, and trying to get my needs met. Right now, I have a deep need for intentionality, focus, and connection. Does this mean I’m scrapping all of my projects? Not at all. But I am holding myself in a new relationship to my projects. I’m practicing saying ‘no’ before I say ‘yes’. I’m learning to do those things that feel like a gift to me, rather than doing things out of a feeling of obligation. And I am pursuing projects in which I feel like I can be my honest and whole self, whether that is a frazzled juggler, an off-balance tightrope walker, or a sad clown.

Takeaways and commitments from Imagining America 2013

My previous post was rather emotive, reflective. Pausing to think through what united the PAGE fellows this year, and where I found resonance.

While I usually scribble notes furiously at conferences, this is the first time I can remember going through and actually reading them. On top of that, I actually synthesized all of my scribbles into one word document. Wow! What a revolutionary way to approach conferences: learn from them like I would my own studies or courses!

Jen Shook, a PAGE Co-Director, captured the weekend beautifully on Storify.  Here, I am going to exercise some self-imposed brevity and highlight 5 key takeaways from the conference that I think would be helpful for my own research and home institution, the University of Washington. The conference this year was A Call to Action, and throughout all sessions the emphasis was on making commitments, be they big or small, that we could each enact once the conference concluded. In that spirit, I will also share the top 5 commitments I heard at this conference, whether they be mine, a friend’s or IA’s as a whole.


1) Let’s challenge the idea of “a real job”. This idea presumes a linearity from degree to career, and it privileges institutions that are deemed “prestigious”. Many of us, whether we are graduate students, activists, or scholars, will not take a linear path. We are in webs and networks that pursue greater equity, representation and democratic engagement with higher education and cultural institutions. What matters is the level of engagement, not if your job has a title, or if it is the one that got circulated on your discipline’s most prestigious listserve.

2) We all deserve accountability and intention in our mentorship relationships. Whether we are the mentor or mentee, we need to check in with ourselves and establish boundaries. What are my needs, what are my expectations, and how can I communicate these effectively to make sure that both parties can be accountable? Perhaps our mentorship relationships might look better if we do them in the style of a mentoring community, so that needs are being met by multiple people, rather than in a one-to-one relationship.

3) Making change in our institutions, especially universities, can learn a lot from community organizing. At the University of Richmond, members from their civic engagement and diversity offices shared how they are trying to mobilize theories of Full Participation on their campuses. In this example, it was clear that principles of community organizing are clear. It is necessary to make ample time, and to start small. Start with the relationships and connections you already have. Who on campus and in the community share these values, are already doing this work? Perhaps the commitments are practiced in different ways, with different language. But the point is to find allies and find common interests. Also, it is key to recognize differential levels of investment. An administrative office worker who cherishes job security above all else might be less receptive to radicalizing an office environment for fear they might not be able to “cut it”, and then risk losing their jobs. This doesn’t mean they don’t share the values, it just means leaving additional time for empathy, listening, and follow through. Any of this work, these movements, these alliances, also require us to let go of self and recognize the contributions of others, especially when these come in forms of knowledge not usually found in Universities.

4) Our scholarship is in a double-bind. The type of work we want to do (engaged, public, humanistic, etc) is being threatened by institutional and political economic trends that undermine the resources for this type of work. This makes it all the harder to complete the work, to do it in a timely manner, and to share its value with others. The double-bind is that this makes it all the more vital that we fight to make this work possible. In theory, engaged work does not exist in a bubble. It emerges from multiple ways of knowing, and spreads through networks and communities (including institutions of higher ed). Engaged scholarship resonates with people, and (hopefully) inspires the joys of learning. In a time when diminished resources, de-funding, and hiring freezes, we need to continue to fight to make space for this work. It both highlights the disparities and inequalities within our current moment, and offers alternatives to those that feel alienated from capital ‘H’ higher education.

5) We are not alone. While we might feel alone at our home institutions, there are folks all over the country that share our commitments. One of my favorite moments from the conference was a panel on Sunday morning that shared the work that graduate students are doing in Central NY to organize around engaged scholarship. Challenging the ways that Syracuse and Cornell Universities claim to support publicly engaged work, (but then never match that support with resources), graduate students are being strategic: writing reports and recommendations, sharing resources, looking for allies. We may not all have the time to organize regional networks, but it is a great reminder that there are precedents out there and there are likeminded individuals and communities.


I commit to educate my undergraduates about the structures of graduate student labor at the University of Washington. I am a teaching assistant for the Geography of Global Inequality – many of the lessons of neoliberalization and privatization, unequal access to education, legacies of racism, and the internationalization of higher ed can all be fed through the lens of Labor and the University — as a member of this community, I commit to do my part to share this knowledge and experience with students who are rarely given this insight.

Some of the PAGE Fellows committed to taking better care of themselves. Quoting Audre Lorde, Blair Smith shared, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” This self-care will look different for everyone, but it involves many micro-commitments: giving yourself permission to say ‘no’ to new projects and activities; taking the time to check in about your needs; making space, time and possibly money to practice self-care so that these are not played out as all-too-easy excuses; communicating our needs to others.

John Armstrong, one of the PAGE co-directors, committed to making sure his mentors (of which there are many in the University and community partnerships!) know each other. He pointed out that though they all have deep impact on his life and work, some of them might have no idea who each other are. And while they might think they don’t like each other, perhaps they actually have some shared values and could learn from one another. I love this idea: make sure the people in your life know how they fit into your life! Convey their value, their connectedness. Make sure they know that they matter, and that they count, and that they are also part of a larger web.

The PAGE fellows and co-directors committed to making sure we continued this conversation, by seeking funding for a mini-summit in Chicago summer 2014, positioned around some work that our own Harish Patel  is doing with the Social Justice Initiative at the University of Illinois Chicago (directed by the amazing Barbara Ransby!). We just had far too much fun and camaraderie to wait a whole year to be reunited.

And now, to #5 of the top 5 commitments to come out of IA. I really wanted to highlight one that Imagining America made, as an organization…
But, you know? I cannot think of any.
This is not necessarily me being facetious (though it is a bit of that). At a conference that is as wonderfully non-hierarchical and interactive as IA, it is incredibly difficult to maintain cohesion. Truly, I have zero idea what happened at any of the sessions I didn’t go to, unless I had a friend share their takeaways and summaries. Though people were live-tweeting and note taking, aside from 2 plenaries (one of which I missed because I was on a plane, the other I missed because I was just too darn tired),  there was no recognition of what the commitments and calls to action were for the organization as a whole. I heard themes and trends, but especially in response to the 5 takeaways above, I wonder how IA sees itself as an organization set to respond to these ideas.

So there you go, folks. 4 days wrapped up in 10 neat concise points. Hardly doing it justice, but hey. In the spirit of self-care, I am giving myself permission to share this and then say, “ok. that is enough.” I will say, I am already looking forward to next year’s IA in Atlanta!


We are project people.

We are project people. To the refrain, “How do you do it all?” We respond, “How could we not?”

We are PAGE fellows. We are graduate students who pursue community engagement. We define community broadly. We study humanities, arts, social science. We are driven by humanistic inquiry. We are activists, scholars, organizers, artists. We are makers. We are parents, lovers, siblings, friends, allies, partners.

We want to make higher ed more equitable for all; we want to take what we can from a system we see is not working, and go on to other institutions; we want to incorporate care into our teaching and activism; we seek to explore activism through the arts; we want to organize and advance more democratic engagement with the arts and humanities; we believe in the joys of learning; we believe that knowledge comes in many forms; we are not convinced the academy is for us; we are sure that we want to teach.

We are project people. We know that there’s not one path to academic success. We know that we nourish our selves through multiple engagements. We wear many hats. We do a little of this and a little of that. We piece things together.

Maybe we will only be ‘ok’ academics. Maybe we won’t go on to even be academics. Maybe we give too much of ourselves to our communities and causes, feeling depleted in our own bodies and minds. Maybe we don’t have sufficient mentors on our campuses. Maybe we are reinventing the wheel. Maybe we feel lost. Maybe we feel tokenized on our campuses. Maybe we feel alone on our campuses. Maybe our departments have been gutted. Maybe our departments don’t support our work. Maybe we spend most of our time at other institutions. Maybe we aren’t sure what our next project will be. But we know that there will be a next project.

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I have returned from this year’s Imagining America conference, an annual convening that brings together artists and scholars in public life. Unlike any other academic conference I’ve ever been to, IA is about as non-hierarchical as a conference can get. There are site visits, performances, workshops, seminars, roundtables. The only time someone gets up in front of the room to “present” is one of the few keynotes of plenary talks. People are identified by their institutional affiliation, not by rank. Community organizers and leaders run sessions alongside academics and graduate students. Across the board, we are united in our belief that higher education can work more democratically. We can do this work better. Whether that is through more thoughtful and equitable community partnership, through interrogating our own practices, through trying to opening the doors to our institutions, to thinking through our pedagogical commitments… we believe that there is little space for us in higher ed and our current cultural institutions to do the work we believe in. And so we come together to find strength, share ideas, recognize we are not alone, and to organize. This year, we came together for a Call to Action, to share commitments and leave the conference with actionable items to put into place at our home institutions and communities.

Within IA, there is a group of graduate students fellows each year that contribute to the IA blog, lead sessions, and are seen as the folks who will carry these values and commitments forward as we navigate in/through/outside of the academy. I am incredibly honored to be one of the PAGE fellows for 2013-14. 15 of us arrived in Syracuse, New York to meet the board of directors of IA, meet our co-directors (9 incredible past PAGE fellows), and get to know one another.

In four short days, I feel I have gained a new family. I spoke more openly with some of the PAGE fellows and co-directors than I have with folks in Seattle I’ve known for years. I felt at home with these folks in a way that I often don’t in my home institution. Rather than being looked at like an alien when I discuss my multiple projects and commitments, people responded, “oh, cool! I do something like that, too!” Or, “I know exactly what you mean!” or, “wow, I can’t wait to share and learn with one another!” Or, “Huh. Have you thought about x, y and z?”

We dined together, we drank together, we cuddled together, we laughed together. We walked the streets of Syracuse, reflecting on our conversations throughout the day. We discussed race and gender politics in our lives and in our home institutions. We shared our multiple projects: from making sustainable vests to running our own nonprofits, from teaching arts to organizing labor movements, from editing journals to facilitating challenging conversations on our campuses, from parenting to community building, from making art to conserving art.

Soon, I will reflect with some more concise points about some of the lingering questions and takeaways from the conference. For now, I am so comforted and reassured in knowing that I have found kindred spirits who appreciate a back scratch and understand that “how are you doing?” doesn’t warrant a quick response of “fine” – it means we generally care and are curious about well being. That these are folks that have more than work-partner-eat-sleep, but who value whole self wellness and that part of that wellness is pursuing different projects and keeping our passions fresh. We want to make an impact and put our energy into things we care about NOW, and that through our organizing and community building, that energy will spread. It is contagious.

We are project people – how could we not?

Call for Papers, 2014 AAG: New Geographies of Philanthropy and Giving

I am re-posting here to provide a direct URL link to the CFP for any non-geographers or folks not on listserves. If you know of anyone who might be interested in submitting a paper to our session, please forward!


Please see the CFP below for the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, Tampa, FL. Apologies for cross-postings.

New Geographies of Philanthropy and Giving

Elyse Gordon, University of Washington
Helen Olsen, Rutgers University

Discussion of philanthropy and giving are often silo-ed to nonprofit management and public policy circles. However, scholars attuned to theories of social justice, poverty, relationality, policy mobilities, and urban/community development are all keenly positioned to address the changing geographies of philanthropy. On the heels of the Great Recession, the political economy of nonprofits and service provisioning looks quite different than it did a decade ago. On a broad level, disparities in available funding are on the rise due to diminishing resources to address inequality. Nonprofit organizations have responded to this climate of austerity through a variety of means. More specifically, advances in digital technology, increasing reliance on individual donors, crowd-funding sites such as Kickstarter, and the growth of social justice funding sources mark some of the changes to the geographies of giving.

Rather than addressing philanthropy through a series of measures, metrics, or reports, this session is more interested in new relationships and approaches to giving ushered in during this particular economic and cultural moment. Beyond the question of how much do individuals give, and to what?, this session seeks to examine more critical questions: How have nonprofit organizations adapted to diminished foundation and grant funding streams? How do digital technologies enable new geographies of giving? What are the relationships between middle-class and low-income individuals and philanthropy? How do individual donor values and ideologies come to bear on the work of organizations, social service agencies, and/or disaster relief efforts?  How are individual donors relating to the places and people to whom they give, especially across distance?

Theoretically, our session is grounded in literatures on the shadow state, the neoliberalization of social services, and community/urban development in both the Global North and the Global South. We see this topic as worth revisiting, particularly through the lens of relational poverty studies, feminist care ethics, digital technologies, and/or policy mobilities. We explore the values, relationships, technologies, and politics of giving in this current (post)neoliberal moment.

This session aims to explore new geographies of philanthropy through empirically grounded and/or theoretical epistemologies of ‘giving’. Topics may include, though are not limited to:

–  the political economy of nonprofit funding and the changing demographics of donors & giving

–  relationships and encounters between donors/participants, including those facilitated by digital technologies

–   policy transfer and mobilities informing funding ‘best practices’

–  ideological and discursive analyses of funding structures, materials, publications, and forms of outreach

–   urban governance of social services and public/private partnerships

–  radical and/or intentional social justice funds

 new geographies of giving or caring across distance

Submissions: Please submit paper abstracts of no more than 250 words to Elyse Gordon (egordon4 AT uw DOT edu) no later than Friday, November 1st, 2013

On Doing Development. Or, what I learned from Heifer International

I am in the business of practicing critique. Of contributing, yes, but simultaneously critiquing the institutions with whom I work. I have been trained to see the flaws in development projects; to criticize Western beliefs about how nations and communities of the global South should develop; to see many aid projects as inherently flawed.

Yet, there are moments when I just want to believe that things can be done well. Of course, if this wasn’t one of my core beliefs, I wouldn’t be pursuing the work I am doing. I do believe that individuals, and organizations, have the power to make profound and positive change in the world. Even those I’ve worked for that I’ve been quite critical of are still doing phenomenal work in the lives of individual young people.

At the end of August, I had the great privilege of joining some of the staff of Heifer International and Garnet Hill as they went to visit their field projects outside of Cusco, Peru. (side note: for more information on how I got to be a part of this, click here).In from of Asangate, one of the two most significant peaks for the Andean people.

Arguably, this was some glorified voluntourism, except that we weren’t even volunteering. We were 6 White North Americans, accompanied by 3 gracious Peruvian staff that worked for Heifer. Our roles were complicated, of course. We probably contributed 400 extra plastic bottles to Cusco’s waste system alone. Not to mention our excessive (by Peruvian standards) use of water, electricity, gas and food. Alas, this is not a post about the complicated role of travelers and tourism. All of that aside, I was immensely impressed by the actual work that Heifer is doing in Peru, in the few communities we saw. (worth noting: I have no official affiliation with Heifer, and all thoughts expressed are my own).

One of my longest standing frustrations with development projects is based on their perpetuation of Western ideals of efficiency as models of success. As we have learned from many geographers, policy’s are not one-size-fits-all, and development projects, whether big or small, never follow a mold. In Peru, (and I cannot speak for elsewhere), the projects were incredible well adapted to the specific communities with which they took place. For instance, we saw two Heifer projects, both revolving around alpacas. Why alpacas? Because they are the native animals to the high Andean elevation. Are alpacas the focus of projects elsewhere in Peru? Not at all. In some places they are helping communities raise guinea pigs, other projects involve artisanal crafting, and elsewhere the projects target coffee and cacao production.

Another critique I often have are the assumptions about value and production. Often times, involvement in market capitalism is seen as a direct corollary to development, success, empowerment, etc. Obviously, the goals in Cusco were not removed from market capitalism. The goals were still around increasing efficiency and labor time involved in raising alpacas and then using their wool for fiber. However, the longer term and more consistent goal was that the community as a whole could better understand the life cycles, health, well-being, and systems-thinking approach to raising alpacas. The animals are healthier, the are living longer; the notation and record keeping is directly associated to better cared for animals. In turn, community leaders (called Promoters), are able to pass on the knowledge, and more alpacas, to additional families when their own operations allow. Sure, this is about being able to earn more money to the kilo for alpaca wool. But it is also about the community as a whole integrating their knowledge, and sharing it in a way where multiple families are benefiting. This is not a project about economic empowerment via small business entry. It’s about effective community asset sharing. I was quite impressed and moved by how much pride some of the Promoters exuded when they showed me their record keeping. “Look,” they said. “Before, we never had any idea which animal we were breeding with which animal. Now, the wool is more pure. Look at my records.”

Photo credit: Katia Megarejo, Heifer Peru

Photo credit: Katia Megarejo, Heifer Peru

Finally, a note on that ole’ buzzword: empowerment. I am still unsure of what the Heifer Peru staff, the Heifer International staff and the Garnet Hill staff think this word means. I would love to know. That said, I can see a few things that resonate based on my understanding of the word.

In the Heifer model, the community comes together with Heifer staff to determine which family would benefit the most from the first Heifer gift (in this case, training and tools to help with alpaca husbandry). There is an agreement that this family, once they have benefited from the training, will pass on the gift to another family. This is an empowering act. It is saying to a family, “you may not have much to offer, by international standards. But you will have enough to become a donor, to become a partner, to help your neighbor, to flip the traditional and patronizing cycle of giving.” This resonates with some of the work on encounter and poverty that is happening in the US – empowering those with very little financial resources to actually become donors and influence the direction of gift giving and social justice initiatives.

Additionally, I do think a positive trait associated with empowerment is this notion of having a purpose; feeling useful; feeling like you have the power to change your own circumstances. This has been associated with consciousness raising in the US, or educational empowerment of students. I saw it with many of the women in the community. While many of the men leave the villages in the dry season to look for work in the towns and cities, we learned that these women have learned how to care for the animals, shear the wool, select animals for breeding, and then categorize and spin their wool. This is not to say that women in Upis were magically empowered (!). It is to say that learning a skill, feeling proud of that skill, and being able to share that with your children — hey. That is a positive thing.

So. Obviously there are critiques to be made. But… I don’t feel like it. I’d rather sit with the hope and optimism that a lot of the projects happening can have some truly positive impacts. I’ll save the critique for later.