New affiliation, new website, and other news

I have accepted an appointment as the 2015-2016 Postdoctoral Fellow in Ethnographic Design at the Studio for Ethnographic Design at the University of California San Diego.

This is an exciting position that includes a departmental home in the UCSD Department of Communication, and a key role in planning and executing upcoming events for both the UCSD interdisciplinary Studio for Ethnographic Design and the inter-institutional Collaboratory for Ethnographic Design (CoLED). Working with Dr. Elana Zilberg and CoLED, I’ll be planning a conference for the fall of 2016 on the future of ethnography as a form of qualitative inquiry. I want to hear about your innovative, collaborative, engaged, digital, design-focuses, multimedia ethnographic projects and thoughts about the ethnographic form.

So — get in touch!!

With this change in institutional affiliation, my UNC-CH web address and email with expire. The new address for my personal website – a minor redesign that retains many features of this site – is cassandrahartblay.com. My email address at UCSD is chartblay-at-ucsd.edu.

My current project on disability in Russia will continue, as I work on preparing my manuscript for publication, including the addition of new research on transnational disability rights conducted this summer at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington DC, and, of course, my dissertation data. I am also working on the script of a documentary play based on this work, which had its first read-through in May in Chapel Hill, and will be workshopped in the UNC-CH Communication Studies performance series in early 2016.

Summer 2015: The Role of Transnational Disability Rights in US-Russia Relations

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June and July of 2015 will find me in Washington DC, as a Summer Fellow at the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. I’m excited to be a part of this vibrant community of scholar working on global, policy-relevant research.

This marks a new phase of my research and the development of my manuscript, as I develop the ways in which the ethnographic research I’ve conducted with adults with disabilities in Russia holds relevance for transnational disability advocacy and for policymakers concerned with US-Russia relations and global human rights.

This phase of the project will focus on qualitative interviews with DC area experts including disability rights advocates, policymakers, and international relations practitioners. Interviews will focus on the recent history of transnational disability rights advocacy, on US foreign policy strategy concerning disability rights, and on how disability rights advocacy compares to other minority rights issues, e.g. gender and LGBTQ rights in these arenas.

A little background:

In 2012, the Russian Federation ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

As of 2014, the United States has not ratified the same Convention. In policy briefs and news articles, disability advocates cite the fact that Russia has ratified the CRPD as a manner of shaming US lawmakers, implying that a country often considered to be backwards on human rights is ahead of the United States on this issue.

What’s going on here? Why do Americans assume that Russia is always worse on human rights than the US? What is the recent history of the efforts of US disability advocates to lobby for a ratification of the UNCRPD? What are the political factors that have led to its repeated shelving in US Congress? When do US foreign relations practitioners bring up disability rights in transnational conversations?

In part this project will function as an oral history of the transnational disability advocacy movement. At the same time, it will document recent developments in both US-Russia foreign policy in regard to human rights, and offer a sustained investigation of how disability rights come into play (or don’t) when Americans talk about Russia.

New photo essay on Disability in Russia

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I’m happy to announce the publication of my photo essay and accompanying text in the interdisciplinary journal Landscapes of Violence. You can download the PDF version from the LoV website, or read the abstract, below.

A photo from the LoV photo essay shows my friend Alina and some neighbor children at her computer desk,  the monitor glowing white. Description: Alina is wearing a pink cardigan and has dark hair. Her hands are visible, but her wheelchair is not. She is talking to a young girl with a long braid who is looking at the screen, while a young boy leans over the keyboard.

A photo from the LoV photo essay shows my friend Alina and some neighbor children at her computer desk, the monitor glowing white. Description: Alina is wearing a pink cardigan and has dark hair. Her hands are visible, but her wheelchair is not. She is talking to a young girl with a long braid who is looking at the screen, while a young boy leans over the keyboard.

Abstract

A recent Human Rights Watch report documented the ways in which people with mobility impairments in Russia are both physically and socially marginalized by the built environment in Russian cities, which is strikingly inaccessible. These photos attempt to center the perspective of people with disabilities traversing (or being limited by) the Russian cityscape, and explore the ways in which (failure to adhere to) building codes effectively limit the public participation of people with (certain) disabilities in the daily life of the democracy. Subtle barriers, immediately obvious to a wheelchair-‐‐user, begin to emerge for the viewer considering these photographs. They document the ways in which people with disabilities recognize the material structures of the city as socially produced, and as a key factor excluding them from public life. Seemingly passive objects and the history of particular infrastructures turn out to be arbiters of marginalization, domination, and discrimination. Some of these photos have appeared on a collaborative blog documenting accessible and inaccessible entryways in the city of Petrozavodsk, Russia. Some images are examples of what I call check-‐‐mark ramps -‐‐ objects that look like ramps, but don’t “work,” i.e. that don’t actually facilitate access for people with mobility impairments. Images of such “failed” ramps have circulated as an internet meme, but their ubiquity elides the fact that there are far more places that simply lack the elements of accessible architecture altogether. This photo essay is related to the ongoing digital installation project DYTLI, based on the same ethnographic research.

What are we doing when we say Putin has Asperger’s Syndrome?

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I am someone who thinks about disability and Russia for many hours of the day, most days. So, naturally, I paid attention when the social media world was suddenly flush with posts and tweets about the strange story that a US government report had speculated that Putin has an Autism Spectrum Disorder. This was a story that hit the trigger buttons for two constituencies that aren’t usually found together: the neurodiversity community, and Russian conspiracy theorists intent on documenting US Imperialism and incompetence.

After tracking down the report for myself (so middling, it’s hard to believe it was newsworthy) and surveying both the US and Russian popular responses, I wrote a thought piece for the medical anthropology blog Somatosphere.

While much of the critical response focused on what The Guardian called “the stupidity of psychological diagnosis from a distance,” or, via media footage, I found a different element worth considering. What happens to a diagnosis when cultural traits are pathologized using that diagnosis? And what happens to ethnic or national identities when cultural traits are pathologized? Is there something specific about scenarios in which both occur simultaneously?

You can read the full blog post on Somatosphere, here.

Barriers in Digital Worlds: A conversation with Amanda Cachia

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I recently presented a poster at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association detailing the research methodology that I used in a recent project exploring barriers in digital space. In preparing that poster, I realized that I had lost track of a really fantastic component of that project, curator Amanda Cachia‘s interview with participating artists, including with me, on the subject of disability and access in digital and material worlds. Although the interviews are published in the Canadian Journal for Disability Studies, they are secondary to the curated artworks, which are the focal point of the special issue.

I especially like the following excerpt on accessible design:

There is no utopia. And something that might be enabling for one user can be totally disabling for someone else. So just the way the chirping sidewalk crossing might be really enabling for someone with low vision, it can be totally distracting for someone with autism, and then a similar thing can happen online where technological interfaces might be fantastic for someone and totally exclude other people.

This bit on the interrelatedness of cyber and material barriers:

We talk a lot about the built environment, and I think kind of take for granted that when we say “the built environment” we mean the physical environment. But we then use the word to build when we say to build a website, and in some ways that’s a metaphorical linguistic construction, but in other ways it’s completely not. It’s a very literal construction, not meaning to make a pun there, but I think when we are constructing a website, we’re thinking very carefully about how pieces fit together, and how design and elements might result in certain outcomes for users. And then you also have to – resulting question of how easy is it for users to rebuild or change or manipulate a given environment. And in some cases, it’s easier to manipulate an online environment, and in some cases it’s easier to manipulate a physical environment. But that also depends on who you are and what your embodiment is like. … So I think the kind of core of this is I wanted to lay bare how design can preclude or produce certain outcomes by intentionally or unintentionally allowing access.

And this section on non-text-based research modalities:

I think of this in the tradition of performance ethnography following Dwight Conquergood and other ethnographers. But I also think it’s really important to disability studies in that as an ethnographer whose goal is to recenter the stories of people with disabilities, I think it’s really important to put research outcomes in places and in voices or idioms or representations that aren’t only textual articles designed for scholarly audiences. So this is an attempt also at a public anthropology that lets laypeople and research participants interact in the process of knowledge creation in a much more explicit way than just being interviewed.

If you’d like to read the full interview, please visit the CJDS website, where you can find it as a .html webpage, a .PDF document, or as a YouTube video. All credit for this phenomenal set of interviews goes to Amanda Cachia, a phenomenal curator, scholar, and activist (and a fellow SDS Zola Award winner), and to CJDS editor Jay Dolmage for masterminding this special issue.

Society for Disability Studies takes Minneapolis!

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I find out what a nerd I really am when I realize how excited I am for the Society for Disability Studies conference. The conference will take place this week, June 11-14th, in Minneapolis. This will only be my third time attending, but I truly love this community. I look forward all year to finding out what people have been working on, congregating in hotel lobbies (bundled up to bear my Reynaud’s in the too-cold air-conditioning), and building new relationships. It’s also an extra-fun year for me to attend SDS, because I went to college at Macalester College, just across the river in Saint Paul. So, the Twin Cities are where I first got to delve into disability studies as a field – taking classes with Cindy Wu, doing campus activism (Disability Awareness Month) with SDS board member Joan Ostrove, and interning, then working at Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. Now in the culminating years of my graduate studies, it all comes full circle.

The poster for Disability Awareness Month 2005. Artwork adapted for this poster is RUSTY CAT MEOW, tempera on matboard, by Ron Christopherson, 2005. RUSTY CAT MEOW was one of the works featured in an exhibition on the 2nd floor of the Ruth Stricker Dayton Campus Center at Macalester College in October 2005. The exhibition included narratives and photos that Ron and I gathered together, as well as his multimedia artworks.

The poster for Disability Awareness Month 2005. Artwork adapted for this poster is RUSTY CAT MEOW, tempera on matboard, 8.5×11″, by Ron Christopherson, 2005. RUSTY CAT MEOW was one of the works featured in an exhibition on the 2nd floor of the Ruth Stricker Dayton Campus Center at Macalester College in October 2005. The exhibition included narratives and photos that Ron and I gathered together, as well as his multimedia artworks.

This year my presentations will be as follows:

Dual regimes of productivity?: tracing ableisms and resistances in Soviet and postsoviet welfare states” a paper presentation extending the questions raised in my recent DSQ article, on a panel titled Performing resistance outside of capitalism: Interrogating Soviet, postsoviet, and global leftist ableisms with Anastasia Kayiatos (Presenter in absentia), Stevie Peace Larson (Presenter), David T. Mitchell (Discussant/update: Dr. Mitchell is unable to attend at the last minute) and Louise Hickman (Moderator). Panel 9d/Friday 5:00-6:30 pm.

“Do You Like This Installation?” a paper presentation about my Ethnographic Installation investigating the built environment of public space and cyberspace in Russia, on a panel titled Cripping Cyberspace: Exploring Online Disability Aesthetics. With Amanda Cachia (Panel Organizer, Presenter, this year’s Zola award winner!!), Sara Hendren (Presenter in absentia), and Margaret Price (Chair/Moderator). Panel 5c/Friday 8:00-9:30 am.

I’m really lucky to be engaging with all these amazing folks, and I can’t wait to see what unfolds.

A screenshot from the home page of the installation website, showing the heading, the menu, two paragraphs of text, and three photos of unusable ramps in RussiaFellow graduate students, if you’re not already a member, check out the Facebook group for the SDS Grad Student caucus (you need to request membership, but one of us administrators will add you promptly). Join us for a happy hour at Brit’s Pub on Thursday evening, and for the Caucus Meeting Saturday 6:45-7:45 pm (holla, caucus coordinator Adam Newman) and the special panel on professionalization (how do you get a DS job, y’all?) that Jess Waggoner put together (Thursday 12:15-1:15pm).

See you all there!

Using Oral History to teach engaged Disability Studies at UNC-CH

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I wrote recently about the launch of a collaborative website – a digital archive of oral histories of disability advocacy at UNC-CH, gathered by undergraduate students in two disability studies courses during the spring of 2014. I wanted to highlight the philosophy behind that project, so I’ve excerpted below the “Why Oral History” page from the UNC ADA Legacy Project (written by me with input from collaborators Dr. Lauren Fordyce and Dr. Neel Ahuja). It’s been a fantastic project that we hope to continue with a new crop of undergraduates next spring. We’ve learned so much from curating these oral histories, and we hope the digital archive will serve as a resource to the community going forward.

To be clear, in the exerpt below, any reference to “the website” or “this website” actually refers to the website for the ADA Legacy at UNC-CH Project (not my personal website to which I’m posting this excerpt).

IPicture of Polk Place at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with Wilson Library included in the picture.

Dear friends:

It is our great pleasure to announce the launch of the culmination of a semester of work by the students in the Spring 2014 UNC-CH Anthropology of Disability and Introduction to Disability Studies courses.

As you make your way through the posts on the site, we wanted to give you a sense of how it is that we came to this format for the project, and why we think Oral History is an important form of scholarship for disability studies. We’ve also included some information about the format of the site and the editorial decisions more broadly.

What is Oral History?

Oral History is a method of gathering knowledge about the past from real people in their own voices. Often located as a tradition linked to ethnography, folklore, and folk history, oral histories are also used by scholars in the humanities (English, History) and social sciences (Anthropology, Sociology). Oral history, because it is focused on individual people’s memories and accounts of the past, offers a different perspective from traditional history, which is focused on elites and major events. Oral history can be considered microhistory or personal history. It can also be used to tell the story of struggle or of an outsider group.[1]

Oral History has some unusual conventions. You might notice as you read the Oral Histories collected on this website that the format of people’s quotations look a lot different from the quotes that you are used to seeing in newspapers and in novels. In ethnographic and oral history research, we consider people’s words to be the “data.”

We do our best to transcribe the words of interviewees in a way that is true to how they were actually spoken. We do less to “clean up” quotes and make them look like standard written English than a journalist or novelist would do. This often means striking a balance in terms of making it easy for a reader to understand, representing the interviewee’s intention, and still sticking as close as possible to what was actually said. It turns out that we are all pretty messy when we speak – we don’t always use full sentences, and we say “um” a lot! In keeping some of these imperfections in the text, the intention is to allow the reader to recreate in his or her mind how the conversation actually sounded.

We also try as much as possible to give the reader long blocks of unbroken text from the interviewee, so that they get to read the history in the interviewee’s own words. On this website, we do so using a convention that many ethnographers and oral historians use, which is to place quotations longer than four lines in length in “block quotes” – in those cases, instead of quotation marks, you will know that the words are a direct quote from the interviewee because the block of text is set off from the rest of the narrative with a line break and a paragraph-long indentation.

Why Oral History and Disability?

In the preface to his book, What We Have Done: An Oral History of the Disability Rights Movement, Frank Pelka writes:

“Nothing about us, without us” is one of the the most compelling slogans to come out of the disability rights movement.  … Advocates have had to raise their voices, often in frustration and anger, sometimes in desperation, to a society that assumes they have no voice at all.[2]

While people with disabilities have often been pushed to the margins of society and the margins of history, this project, like Pelka’s, seeks to put the voices of people with disabilities at the very center. Unlike Pelka’s work, this website does include many interviews and stories with people who do not self-identify as disabled, but who have been (and are) making the history of disability inclusion at UNC-CH and the surrounding community.

Catherine Kudlick proposed in her article “Disability History: Why we need another Other” that not only should history and historians pays attention to disability, but that thinking with and about disability will yield new theories and ideas. Just as paying attention to race and gender not only resulted in different versions of history, but also produced whole bodies of theory and interdisciplinary fields of scholarship, paying attention to disability results not only in stories about disability, but in different ways of looking at and understanding the world.

Disability Studies as a by now relatively established interdisciplinary field of study has also recognized that ethnography is particularly important tool for recentering the experiences of people with disabilities. For instance, a quick search of the web archive of the journal Disability Studies Quarterly for the word “ethnography” turns up 45 results (2004-2014); the journal Qualitative Inquiry about ethnographic process often runs articles highlighting methodological innovations for working with people with a range of disabilities.

As a mode of ethnography, Oral History is particularly suited to this project because it allows for student interviewers to engage in depth with a single interview subject. It also is more conducive to establishing a public archive than other modes of ethnographic research, which rely more heavily on the ethnographer to interpret the raw data. Here, the data – the recordings and interviews – are as much an outcome of the project as the summaries that our student interviewers have created.

Why Student Interviewers?

One unusual aspect of this project is that undergraduate student interviewers at UNC-CH have done most of the work of gathering the interviews. We’ve organized the project this way for several reasons.

In the first place, collecting, transcribing, and preparing Oral History interviews takes a lot of time. We realized that by having student ethnographers do some of this work would make it possible for us to gather many more interviews at once than if we did this project without students.

Additionally, for the reasons mentioned above, we believe that a core part of teaching disability studies is to allow people with disabilities to tell their stories in their own words.  For students in both of these courses, learning directly from people with disabilities, advocates, and allies is in line with the ethics of both disability studies and anthropology. Students, with input from us, have struggled with the work of representing their interviewees; this was a trying process, and one that we think is absolutely critical to the work of learning to understand the problematic, dehumanizing, and unjust ways that people with disabilities have been represented historically (and, sadly, in many cases, today).

For more on the recruitment process for this project, please see the FAQs on the Get Involved! page of this website.

What about the Other Blogposts?

In addition to the original oral histories posted on this website, our students have also contributed topical blog posts on issues related to access, disability advocacy, and disability experience at UNC-CH and in the surrounding community. The topics of these posts were chosen by the students themselves, approved by us, and researched and written by the students. All posts went through a rigorous editorial process before being posted to the site and made public. Students were asked to verify all quotations and representations with anyone named in their post. The website editor checked citations and facts, and many students posts went through several rounds of revision. Any photographic representations have either come with emailed consent from the photographer and those pictured, or are reposted from another web source. The website editor also edited all posts for grammar, style, and formatting.

How Should I Read this Site?

The Oral Histories on this site appear as blog posts, interspersed with topical stories by students that are meant to capture related aspects of life on the UNC-CH campus. You can start on the home page and simply work your way down, reading those posts that interest you as you go.

Or, if you are interested in a particular topic, you can use the tag cloud in the margin of the home page to find posts that have been tagged with that category. This works like an index for our digital archive. For example, clicking on the phrase “Students at UNC” will bring you to a discrete page; as you scroll down you will see that the site has pulled up all of the posts and Oral Histories that are about “Students at UNC”. The bigger the phrase appears in the tag cloud, the more entries it will pull up. This tag cloud will change over time as we add more posts to the site. If you like a post and you want to read others in the same category, you will find the list of relevant categories at the bottom of a given post.

An image of the tag cloud for this site

Finally, if you are looking for a specific entry, the quickest option is to use the search function. For example, if you want to read the post written by a certain student or about a certain community member, you can type that person’s last name into the search box in the side column and click “search”.

A Note on Terminology

In editing the student work that appears on this website, we have had to make several editorial decisions about what language and descriptive terminology about disability is appropriate. As disability scholars have documented (Linton 1996), there are striking ways in which language has been used to dehumanize and medicalize disability, and disempower people with disabilities. In accordance with many American disability advocates and disability studies scholars, we have erred on the side of the “people first” vocabulary that prefers “people with disabilities” or “a person with a mobility impairment.” Of course just as some people prefer this language, others, for instance many advocates for neurodiversity prefer the term “autistic person,” and British conventions often prefer “disabled person” in recognition that the environment is disabling the person. [3]

At the same time, in the Oral Histories, we have preserved the terminology that interviewees themselves used. Our first priority as researchers is to represent people as they really are and as they wish to be represented.

In all other cases, we have done our best to remove or trouble ableist language or sentiment in both student writing and in any and all representations that appear on the site. But, as editors, we are imperfect. If you notice language or sentiments that do not meet this standard, please let us know.

Making this Website Accessible

In creating this site, we’ve done our best to follow conventions of website accessibility to make sure that as many people as possible can visit and use the site smoothly.

For screen-reader users, we have done our best to make sure that photos and links open in a separate tab or window. We have also done our best to provide substantive and useful Alt descriptions of photos.  If you find any elements of the site which are not up to this standard, or would like to suggest another way in which we could make the experience better for screen-reader users, please let the site editor know by email.

For English-language learners or visitors to the site who prefer to read simple text, we have included “Simple English” versions of several posts (link to Simple English tag). We realize that not everyone reads at a college level; we struggled with how to approach this issue. Many thanks to Ellen Perry for bringing this issue up. In the end, we decided to keep most posts at a college reading level (partially because much of the text was prepared by college students as part of their coursework). Eventually we would love to have a Simple English version of every post! We had to decide which posts to rewrite in Simple English first, and we have prioritized those posts that are about people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. If you find a post that you would like to read in Simple English, but do not see a Simple English option (a link at the top of the post just under the title), please let us know! We will be happy to write a Simple English version and post it.

We haven’t used many videos in this site, but when we have reposted videos from other sites, we have tried to use videos with captioning.

Are there any other ways that we could make visiting this website a more accessible experience? Let us know!

Thanks for Stopping In!

Without further ado, please enjoy the website! We hope that this project serves as a resource to the community in the years going forward. We are truly honored to present what we understand to be the first consolidated record of the immense advocacy work that has gone into making the UNC-CH campus and communities accessible to people with a diverse range of embodiments and minds, we think this is a pretty good start. Just as our advocacy work is not done, and accessibility can never be fully “achieved” but only worked toward, we hope that this website will keep growing in the years to come.

Signed,

Cassandra Hartblay
PhD student, Department of Anthropology
Project Research Coordinator, Website Editor

Lauren Fordyce
Medical Anthropology Lecturer, Department of Anthropology
Instructor, Anthropology of Disability

Neel Ahuja
Assistant Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature
Instructor, Introduction to Disability Studies

April 2014

 


[1] For more on Oral History as a method, see:

DeBlasio, Donna Marie, ed. Catching Stories: A Practical Guide to Oral History. Athens,Ohio: Swallow Press. 2009.

Charles Price “Becoming Rasta: Origins of Rastafari Identity in Jamaica.” NYU Press: 2009.

[2] Disability History Citations:

Kudlik, Catherine J. 2003. “Disability History: Why We Need Another ‘Other.’” The American Historical Review 108 (3).

Pelka, Frank. “What Have We Done: An Oral History of the Disability Rights Movement.” University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. ix.

[3] Discussion of disability terminology:

Linton, Simi. Claiming Disability : Knowledge and Identity. New York University Press. 1998.

Davis, Lennard. The Disability Studies Reader. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge. 2006.

Brown, Lydia.  “Ableism/Language” on her blog Autistic Hoya. Accessed April 28, 2014. http://www.autistichoya.com/p/ableist-words-and-terms-to-avoid.html

Phillips, Sarah D. Disability and Mobile Citizenship in Postsocialist Ukraine. Indiana University Press, 2011. pp. 249-252.

Website Launch: The ADA Legacy Project at UNC-CH

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An invitation to attend the Website Launch party - white text on a background of colorful watercolor circles

I have been lucky to work over the past semester with Dr. Lauren Fordyce and Dr. Neel Ahuja on an engaged research project. Undergraduate students in both Dr. Fordyce’s and Dr. Ahuja’s courses have worked to gather oral history interviews and relevant news and events on issues related to disability advocacy and awareness on the UNC-CH campus and surround community. As the research coordinator and website editor for the project, I have recruited participants, coached student interviewers, and fact-checked and revised the student work.

Now I’m very excited to be finally launching the website with all of these collected stories in one place. As far as we know, this website is the first archive of disability history at UNC-CH. Down the road, we’ll be working to figure out how to save the digital archive and the original interview recordings and transcripts.

But for now, we just want to invite you to the party!

Join us for a Launch Party to celebrate the project participants and the hard work of our student interviewers.

Where: The Student Union at UNC-CH (at the corner of South Rd and Raleigh St, next to Davis Library and the Student Stores), Room 3103

When: Tuesday, April 29th at 1pm

What: Cake, snacks, mingling, and short presentations from student-interviewers about the Oral Histories

Everyone is welcome to attend this event. We are very excited to present this engaged, interdisciplinary project, and we hope that you can join us.

If you have participated in the project in any way, and would like to sign up to speak at the launch party, please let us know!

Please contact Cassandra Hartblay (hartblay@live.unc.edu) with concerns or accommodations requests.

**The party is sponsored by the Department of Anthropology**

Citizen Diplomacy in times of Discomfort

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As I prepared for my recent trip to Russia, many Americans were concerned with the timing of my trip, given recent events in Ukraine and the Crimea, with resulting diplomatic upheaval between the US/NATO/the EU and the Russian Federation. Others, less familiar with my work, commented (jokingly, I think) that it’s a good time to be an American spy! On the one hand, I bristle at the implication that all Americans interested in Russia must be spies. On the other hand, this type of comment offers the perfect opening to talk about the importance of citizen diplomacy.

The truth is that while I bill myself as an ethnographer of Russia, and my work focuses theoretically primarily on the social inclusion/exclusion of people with disabilities, actually, as an American citizen who spends long stretches of time living with and amongst average Russian citizens, I am also a citizen diplomat.

It’s easy, after years and years of Cold War rhetoric, for Americans to simply view Russia and Russians through the lens of national security and international competition. With so much of our news media discussion of Russia focused on international relations, economic sanctions, border conflicts, and critical reports on Putin’s leadership, or even spy scandals, the dominant lens through which most Americans view Russia is skewed toward the military, the high level negotiations, and clandestine intelligence. Compare this, for example, with our exposure to the goings on in Great Britain – we hear relatively little about scandals in Parliament, the corruption of the royal family, social unrest, or imperial ventures; instead, American news media focuses on British pop stars and athletes, hokey stereotypes about double-decker buses and tea-drinking, and reality TV breakout stars. The overall message that Americans get from mass media is that the Brits are just like us; meanwhile, the Russians are an oppressed, disempowered and undifferentiated mass subject to a corrupt kleptocracy led by power-hungry, territory-grabbing Putin.

Of course, this is false.

Russians have just as many pop stars and reality shows, and drink just as much tea, as the Brits. Like Americans, very few Russians are actually spies for their government – most are teachers or doctors or bus drivers or factory workers. It’s just that American media coverage of Russia does a very bad job of communicating this. Moreover, while Russians listen to American pop music, and can go and see Hollywood-made movies any day of the week, Americans have almost no exposure Russian pop culture (do you know who Kseniya Sobchak is?).

Point being, that while high level negotiations are of grave importance, we often forget that one of the most important “weapons” that the United States deployed during the opening of the Soviet Union in the 1980s was citizen diplomacy. As a form of soft power, citizen diplomacy relies on the idea that knowing actual people on a personal level allows citizens of two nations that might otherwise appear to be opposed to soften towards one another. Like Sting’s (now absurdist) nuclear disarmament lyrics, “I hope the Russians love their children too,” the thrust of citizen diplomacy is that non-military ties between average citizens promote peace and friendship on both the personal and international levels.

It is in this spirit that I forged ahead with my planned trip to Russia at the end of March, 2014, a moment when world media was reporting unresolved diplomatic crisis between out two countries. In an email to my mentor and visa-invitor, Larissa Dmitrievna Boichenko (a professor of international human rights and leader of the Gender Research Center in Petrozavodsk), prior to the trip I asked for her opinion about the planned travel, and wrote that, it seems that times of escalating discomfort on the international level only underline the need for the kinds of academic ties and citizen diplomacy that we share all the more.

With Russian Colleague Larissa Dmitrievna Boichenko

Cassandra Hartblay and Larissa Dmitrievna Boichenko in the lobby of the Northern Branch of The Russian Law Academy of the Russian Federation Ministry of Justice in Petrozavodsk.

In fact, it was citizen diplomacy that brought me to Petrozavodsk in the first place. I was a high school student at Amherst Regional High School in Massachusetts in 2002 when I participated in an on-going exchange program to Petrozavodsk. The program, begun in the early 1980s as part of the glasnost’ effort, and administered by the state department, began an ongoing series of exchanges between my high school, and it’s exchange sister, School Number 17, in Petrozavodsk. The exchange was successful and continued over many years in large part because of the determination and diplomatic efforts of our Russian teacher, Jude Wobst, and her counterparts in Petrozavodsk. I don’t know how many of those original exchange pairings remain intact, but it is certainly remarkable that the ARHS-School Number 17 relationship is now over twenty years old (contrast this with the sad state of the sister city relationship between my current city, Chapel Hill, NC and its Russian counterpart, for example).

The truth is, that while recent op-eds have bemoaned the lack of support for developing expertise in developing relationships with Russia and an awareness of Russian cultural ebbs and flows in the past twenty years, actually, a determined group of citizen diplomats (with support from under-acknowledged government agencies, like the Open World Leadership Center) has held steadfastly to this mission. In addition, Russian Studies and Russian Language programs at our nation’s universities have struggled to stay open and recruit majors, largely thanks to the efforts of determined and dedicated faculty (as someone who studied Russian in high school in the late 1990s, and in college in the 2000s, I literally never studied in a program that wasn’t under threat of being shutdown in the face of budget concerns or sudden fervor to start an Arabic program).

On my high school exchange program, I wasn’t the one who spoke Russian the best (not very well at all, in fact), or sang the best song at our intercultural talent show. But I have maintained ties with my host family to this day, and Masha, my host sister remains one of my closest friends.

I may not get to be a spy, but I do get to share twelve years of family memories with a dear friend who happens to hold a Russian passport.

In my work as an anthropologist, I get to repeat this process over and over again, as research participants and scholarly colleagues become first facebook buddies, then pals I see every other year or so, and even, eventually, close friends. Each time I leave Petrozavodsk, a different assortment of friends and acquaintances shows up on the platform at the train station, chocolate or snacks in hand, to bid me goodbye, and ask when I’ll next be back. It is my great privilege to be “nasha amerikanka” (our American) to this collection of Russian citizens, and the information that we share between us, about births, marriages, deaths, new jobs or favorite recipes and organic shampoo brands, may not be state secrets, but in the grand scheme of citizen diplomacy, they are certainly weighty indeed.

 

An photo from a scrapbook of the 1989-1990 ARHS-Petrozavodsk exchange (from Jude Wobst's archives).

An photo from a scrapbook of the 1989-1990 ARHS-Petrozavodsk exchange (from Jude Wobst’s archives).

 

 

Masha and her stepdaughter go for a walk near their home in Petrozavodsk, 2014. (Photo by C. Hartblay).

Masha and her stepdaughter go for a walk near their home in Petrozavodsk, 2014. (Photo by C. Hartblay).

My exchange sister Masha (center) and me (left) with a high school friend in Amherst during the 2002 exchange (personal archive).

My exchange sister Masha (center) and me (left) with a high school friend in Amherst during the 2002 exchange (personal archive).