Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Jesse Smith, Curriculum Development and Evaluation Specialist and Coordinator at BRIDGES, USA in Memphis, TN

Anthropologists in Practice is an ongoing series of interviews featuring anthropologists (and professionals with anthropology training) who work outside of the academy. The goal of the series is to provide a source of information and inspiration to other practitioners and (potential) students of anthropology, and to illustrate the wide variety of jobs, skills and competencies held by anthropologists for employers and anyone else who is curious about what anthropologists actually do. While the interviews all follow a similar framework, each one is unique in its reflections on anthropology training and education, workplace applications, and advice for current and future practitioners. This week’s Anthropologist in Practice is Jesse Smith, Curriculum Development and Evaluation Specialist and Coordinator at BRIDGES, USA in Memphis, TN.

Tell me about the organization you work for. How did you end up working there?

I currently work for BRIDGES, USA in Memphis, Tennessee. BRIDGES is a nonprofit organization that focuses on social justice work with youth. The primary focus areas are racial, economic, environmental and education justice. Youth come from across the city to work together in order to learn about and address these issues. One of the great things about BRIDGES is that youth voices and input are valued, and youth are empowered to lead both one another as well as adults in their communities to work to change whatever issues they feel passionate about. They are able to work collaboratively with one another regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds. I came back to Memphis to take the position after my colleague and a former professor told me about the opening.   

What is your title and job description? Describe your typical workday and some common tasks you perform.

My current job title is Curriculum Development and Evaluation Specialist and Bridge Builders Change Coordinator. This is a long-winded way of saying that I am responsible for assisting in the research, development and implementation of the social justice curricula at BRIDGES. Recently I have been writing the curriculum for our 7th and 8th grade summer conference, which focuses on environmental justice and more specifically environmental health in relation to stressors. This has been a rewarding experience because I have had the freedom to write curricula about a topic I have always been passionate about. Additionally, I have gained invaluable insight and experience learning about the experiential learning cycle and how to write activities that follow this framework. In a typical day I may also be working simultaneously on an evaluation piece. BRIDGES is gearing up to launch a longitudinal study of former participants in our programs. We are also actively working on pre/post tests of current participants, facilitator feedback, and other topics.

The remainder of my time is dedicated to working for the Bridge Builders (BB) Change Interns.  This is our most committed level of Bridge Builder or participant, and I have the privilege of working with 12 high school age and two college age youth who make a one year (or more) commitment to working for BRIDGES for a minimum of six hours per week on a social justice issue of their choice. This year, they have been working on passing a Student Congress, which has been a challenging and rewarding undertaking with the Shelby County and Memphis City School systems merging into a unified school district. The youth act as community organizers to spread the word about their work, and have engaged with numerous other youth and community stakeholders to gain support for their efforts.  As the coordinator for the interns, I serve in a support capacity along with the Director of the Changers to facilitate discussions and activities the group may want to pursue, assist with communications among stakeholders, provide research support including assistance with Participatory Action Research, help them plan events, and more.

Tell me about your anthropology background. What were some of your favorite research projects, subjects, courses, and experiences as an anthropology student? 

I received my B.A. in Sociology and Anthropology from Valdosta State University where I first got my feet wet in data collection (which I love) while living in a small town in Santa Elena, Belize. This was one of my favorite “projects” because I was able to truly engage with participants in a meaningful way and this experience ultimately solidified my decision to go to graduate school.  I went on to graduate from the University of Memphis with a M.A. in Applied Medical and Urban Anthropology and a certificate in Nonprofit Administration.  By far one of my most significant experiences was working with the South Memphis Revitalization Action Plan (SoMeRAP).  This community-based effort opened my eyes to what it means to truly collaborate with others. We worked with various departments at the university, organizations in the community, and most importantly the residents, who were one of the primary driving forces behind this project. It was fascinating to get their perspectives on the social, political and environmental climate of their community and their input on what needed to change and how they could be a part of that change at the grassroots level.

Do you have a favorite anthropologist? What are you most passionate about when it comes to anthropology? 

I do not necessarily have a favorite anthropologist but I do sincerely appreciate anthropologists like Margaret Mead who helped make anthropology accessible to the masses.  I also find Marshall Sahlins and Roy D’Andrade (a cognitive anthropologist) very interesting. And it goes without saying that
Michael Agar has done some truly fascinating work.

I would say that I am most passionate about data collection and research that allow me to work directly with participants.  I have found that these processes allow me to move fluidly between community organizing and evaluation, arenas for which I am passionate but still have a lot to learn about.

How have you been able to use your anthropology training in your current job? What specific training, skills, experiences and competencies have been most useful to you? What other academic/professional training do you have and how has that come into play? 

The vice president of our department and my predecessor are both applied anthropologists, so I have been exceptionally lucky to be able to use my skills as an anthropologist at my job and also to have them valued.  I am fortunate to get to use the field methods that I learned during projects like SoMeRAP and my work in Southwest Memphis near T.O. Fuller State Park and Chucalissa.  Not only did these experiences allow me to practice the application of the different methods I was learning, but they also exposed me to my first real experience in grassroots community organizing.  I am able to use these skills every time I work with the Change interns and am fortunate to rediscover skills and knowledge about different methods through the PAR (Participatory Action Research) work we do.  For example, this year I have been able to assist the Changers in outlining the methodology they intended to use for their work, and help guide them through the development of tools including surveys and interview schedules.  Additionally, the experiences I had in the past conducting focus groups and interviews have come in handy for teaching the Changers how to conduct them and then assisting them in applying their skills.

I would also say that my training in Nonprofit Administration, my work as an intern at organizations like The Works and United Housing, and a job at the Elachee Nature Science Center have all equipped me with additional tools and an understanding of the culture of nonprofits that have been advantageous.
How have you navigated your workplace as an anthropologist? Do you define yourself as an anthropologist or use another title? Have you taught others about what anthropology can do at your organization? If so, what has this process been like?

It is has been extremely easy to work as an anthropologist at BRIDGES because there are and have been anthropologists working in the organization. Therefore, the experiences that the other staff have had with these individuals help to shed light upon what anthropologists bring to the table and help them understand that no, we do not all dig up bones!  I have not sat down and specifically outlined what an anthropologist might be able to do or the skill set that one can bring to the table, but I think that through everyday interactions and tasks with my colleagues they are able to see the many benefits of having them on staff. In my everyday work I do not say to people, “hey, I’m an anthropologist,” but it does come up in conversation with new people that I meet outside of the organization, and I am always pleased to identify myself in that way.

What is the most interesting project you’ve worked on in your current role? 

The most interesting work I have done so far has been with the Changers, as they are a truly inspiring group of young people, and working with them has encouraged me to again pursue new information and ways of looking at things. 
What advice do you have for current anthropology students for marketing their skills to prospective employers? Is there something you wish you had done as a student to prepare yourself for the workplace?
I encourage anthropologists seeking jobs to be explicit about the skills you bring to the table.  Do not just provide people with a vague description of something you have worked on in the past and expect that they will ascertain on their own the numerous assets you may have.  Instead, reinforce your strengths through examples of tangible/applied work that you have conducted and what you learned from that experience.

As a student trying to prepare for the workplace, I wish that I had not spread myself so thin. While I was fully committed to whatever tasks I may have been working on, I wish that I had taken a step back to fully immerse myself in certain experiences. While I personally feel that it is a good idea to have a diverse portfolio of skills, I do wish that I had focused less on some things and fully engaged more in opportunities like the community organizing activities and practical application of research methods through some of the projects I worked on. 

Editor’s note: Are you an anthropologist who practices outside of academia? If so, I am currently looking for additional participants for the Anthropologists in Practice series. If you are interested in doing an interview, please get in touch!

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