Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Misty Luminais, Research Associate and Project Coordinator of the Voicing and Action Project at the Social Justice Institute of Case Western Reserve University

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. 

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

I work for the Social Justice Institute of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. I finished my Ph.D. in May 2012 and was having a hard time getting any interviews for teaching positions. I applied for this position kind of on a lark, as it was not an “anthropology” job. I didn’t really expect to get called back. Once I had my on-campus interview, however, I knew I wanted to be doing this particular work with these particular people.

What is your role at this organization? Describe your typical workday or some common tasks you perform.

I am the Research Associate/Project Coordinator of the Voicing and Action Project. This project is a collaborative effort between the Social Justice Institute and the City of East Cleveland to collect around 100 oral life narratives in the community on video, focusing on social justice issues, especially racism and inequality. By allowing space for people’s voices, we are able to work with residents of East Cleveland to move toward the “Action” part of the project, which will be a community driven initiative supported by the Social Justice Institute. My time is split pretty evenly between my two titles. As a researcher, I review the collected
interviews for completeness and then code them. As a project coordinator, I run meetings and trainings to keep our researchers engaged and plan out long term deliverables, since part of the mission of the project is to stay constantly engaged with the community.

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

I took my B.A. in anthropology from the University of New Orleans, then went onto my M.A. and Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at Washington State University. I really enjoyed my fieldwork experiences, which were vastly different. For my Master’s degree, I worked on a project in Belize looking at the effects of globalization on ideas of women’s beauty. For my dissertation work, I worked with a BDSM group in Texas studying how people use moments of erotic crisis to resist or reinforce hegemonic ideals (
the pervasive ideas held by most members of a society as unquestionably true yet; moments of erotic crisis are when a person experiences intense sensation, either painful or pleasurable, in an erotic context). 

Both of these very different projects can trace their roots to one of the first anthropology classes I ever took – Anthropology of the Body. That class changed my worldview and set me on the course to becoming an anthropologist. It opened my eyes to the idea of different ways of knowing things. Using cross-cultural examples, we learned about how different ways of “knowing what you know” shape people’s experiences in the world. 

For example, in the U.S., we focus our beliefs about knowledge on the intellect, downplaying the role of emotions and downright ignoring knowledge gained through the body. We see it bleeding through in the arts and in sports, but “real” knowledge is that which is located in books and universities. However, in the Amazon, some indigenous peoples use psychotropic plants to experience altered states. They would refer to these plants as “teachers.” It blew my mind that there were worldviews so completely different from my own. At the same time, my professor grounded us in the edict “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” After I recovered from the shock and fascination with exoticness, he was able to guide me into critiquing my own society, now that I understood that contemporary Americans didn’t have a lockdown on the “Truth” with a capital T. I left that class angry, suddenly aware of the sexism, racism, and classism I had been trained to accept as normal and, to some extent, ignore due to my own privilege. There is no un-learning that lesson. It is what keeps me passionate about anthropology.

Do you have a favorite anthropologist?
It is hard to point to any one anthropologist as my favorite, but my work has been heavily influenced by Gayle Rubin. Although her work on gender is important, I was taken with her study of the gay male leather scene in San Francisco, which
inspired me to respect sexuality and the communities formed around sexuality as legitimate areas of research with valuable lessons about humanity. Her continuing scholarship on queer theory also inspires me. She has also been an important influence on the visibility of queer practitioners in the discipline.As an out lesbian who wrote about sexuality, she made inroads for the queer theorists who followed her. Her work has gained new relevance in the current debates about the role of women’s sexualities, from the panic about sex trafficking to slut walks.

What are you most passionate about when it comes to anthropology? 

At its core, anthropology shows us that there are many ways of making a meaningful life. It is fundamentally about learning that there is no one right way to make a meaningful life. It combats partisan, neoliberal, and xenophobic politics by presenting us with living, breathing, working alternatives to the problems we confront. For example, when I hear politicians speak about “traditional marriage” while defending the exclusion of same-gendered couples from a state institution, I want to ask about polyandry as practiced in Tibet, ghost marriages as practiced in China, the existence of female husbands in parts of Nigeria, and the list goes on. Anthropology proves that it doesn’t have to be like this. Your answer isn’t the only answer.

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?

I feel like I have a dream job, as I get to do ethnographic work every day. In particular, I know that my love of text analysis was part of what landed me the job. A large part of my training focused on socio-linguistics, so I am able to parse dense interviews. I think another selling point was my ability to use qualitative data analysis software. I recommend that every cultural anthropologist learn how to use it, as people who are focused more on quantitative research are impressed when you can
methodically illustrate a concept like grounded theory analysis. 

In terms of other skills, I need to be able to communicate well with different stakeholders, from community members to researchers to department chairs. I feel like my time in the field prepared me to interact with a variety of people with different priorities and backgrounds. Finally, my passion for people, which was amplified by my training in anthropology, plays a huge role in my work every day. Justice is always in the forefront of all that we do.

While I was writing my dissertation, I worked for a municipal government, which gave me many skills that are useful in my job, including the ability to wade through paperwork when necessary. Although no one sets out to be a bureaucrat, employers really appreciate people who can do all of the follow-through on grant applications or create gantt charts for project schedules. Students have tons of experience dealing with bureaucracy and should definitely emphasize this as a nontraditional skill when looking for work outside the academy. It isn’t the most glamorous of my skills but it has been the most universally applicable.

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?

I work with a mixed bag of historians, sociologists, activists, and community organizers. When people ask what I am a doctor of, I tell them cultural anthropology, but it honestly doesn’t come up much. I encounter a lot of, “Anthropology – that’s just like sociology, right?” I’ve been able to introduce the concept of emic/etic (insider/outsider perspectives on culture) to many people in my group and I feel like that is a victory.

In many ways, research in East Cleveland harkens back to the ideals of classical anthropology – working with a geographically-bounded, small-scale group (while keeping in mind that all people are enmeshed in larger systems), except that these are Americans in an urban setting. When I am inspired to relate struggle to the indigenous resistance to the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil, my colleagues draw upon Black Liberation movements in the US; it is in this tension that we learn from one another. By focusing on my native culture, I have learned a lot about the internal policies of the United States, which brings my focus on social justice closer to home.

Describe one of your current projects.

Currently, we are working toward a theater production based on the interviews collected by the Social Justice Institute. A playwright has been commissioned to create a narrative from a number of interviews that will tell a story about East Cleveland – how people got there, the current strengths and struggles, and a vision for the future. The piece will engage the community on multiple levels, beginning with residents getting involved in many aspects of the production. We will end the play with a community dialogue and a call to action. It is my job to manage all the pieces of this long-term project. I am excited to be able to use anthropology in a direct way to enact social justice.

What advice do you have for current anthropology students for going out into the workforce?

It is never too early to start networking. Present at conferences as often as you can, even local ones. Collect business cards. Reach out to authors of books or articles that inspire you for advice on how they got funding or how they developed their topics. Be sure to manage your online identity. This means more than just making sure there are no drunken pictures on Facebook; you need a positive face on the internet. You will be googled before you are interviewed. Begin a blog, especially focusing on the area you want to work in – public policy, healthcare, NGOs, whatever. Even a general blog about the ways you apply scholarship and an anthropological perspective in your own life will help potential employers see the ways your degree could benefit their organizations or companies. Being an anthropologist does not limit you to working in a university

Check out Misty’s blog: Mistyfication – The Art of Applying Anthropology.

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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