5 Questions for Professor Sarah Besky
Professor Sarah Besky is alternately described as a “goddess” (by her students), as “a thorn in corporations’ sides” (by herself) and as an anthropologist (by the rest of the world).
She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown and author of The Darjeeling Distinction, an ethnographic study of the lives of tea plantation workers in India. Here is an anthropological look at her journey from coastal Connecticut to lush Nepal and back to Providence.
Saanya: How did you become interested in the field of Anthropology?
Sarah: I was in college and I’d never heard of Anthropology. I took this class because my friends were in this class and I thought, “Oh, this will be fun, whatever.” And it just clicked. It’s that time when you’re kind of questioning where you’re coming from, you’re questioning where you’re going, and it kind of intervened at this point in my life and the framework just made sense. Just asking about the world – asking about it, not telling about, not knowing about it, how it should or shouldn’t be — but asking about it. I realized I had all these questions about the world and my place within it. I love my job: I get to travel, I get to live in mountains, I get to live in Calcutta and I get to chat with people and drink tea. It’s pretty much as good as it gets.
How did you become interested in India and tea plantations, and what was your experience like there?
I was always deeply concerned about issues of class and inequality, growing up in not an affluent family, in not an affluent place. I had parents who worked in unions - my dad’s a lobsterman. [As an undergraduate,] I got this grant to go wherever I wanted to, do whatever I wanted to do for the summer. The farthest place I could get away from coastal Connecticut was Nepal. I went back after I graduated and worked for a year in the first public library in Nepal. I couldn’t go back and work in the rural areas I wanted to work in because of the civil war, so that brought me to Nepali-speaking India.
People in my field site were amazing because they understand that you’re learning. You never take yourself too seriously when you have the language prowess of a third-grader. [Some days], I thought “I feel so much better — I feel like a sixth-grader today!” You check your sense of importance because you ask dumb questions, or you use the wrong word for something and everyone giggles. You learn to use that as productive conversation.
I saw on your website that you are planning on expanding on your research in Darjeeling. What is the goal of your research, and do you see it as a tool for social change?
I see myself in terms of working for social change or working for justice [by] telling stories about the world. As putting those stories out in the world about other people’s lives, especially people who don’t get represented very often, and for me, that’s tea workers. It is hard to do something by myself, [so] where I feel I have the most effect is talking to people in the industry. I [want to] constantly poke in their sides, give them more information and write things that are accessible to them.
After the book came out, I talked to lots of tea-buyers who were kind of taken aback by what I had written. Not in a bad way. Not challenging [it], but more like, “I went to that plantation — it’s really like that? Now that you say that, I kind of saw that, so now tell me more.” That’s where you start — there’s no easy answer.
As a professor, how do you hope to inspire your students?
I have a lot of goals. My biggest is to encourage students to think about what they don’t know about the world and to ask questions of it. To just step back and think about complexity. To reflect on the messiness, to be with the messiness and not try to make things neat. We so often answer questions based on what we already know about a problem, not necessarily the newly acquired knowledge about that problem. This goes back to your question: we think as individuals we can solve problems. Sometimes, you can’t. Many times, you can’t. To be okay with that, [and to] reflect on the problem in and of itself as a problem, first and foremost.
Do you have remember thinking, “This is why I’m an anthropologist, this is why I do what I do” at a certain moment that stands out to you? What was going through your head at that time?
This is kind of a weird one. I was in the Detroit airport, just sitting, waiting for my flight. I saw these Bhutanese refugees from Nepal walk by with their chest X-rays to show that they didn’t have tuberculosis. They were so visibly lost, asking people but no one was helping them. Finally I saw them and they were talking to one of these airport people, and the airport person [says] “I can’t do this.” So, I go up to them and ask them, in Nepali, what the problem is. The airport employee just looks stunned. She stutters: “Wait, what are you doing?” The refugees are telling me that they can’t find their gate. So I turn to the airport employee and say: “Don’t worry, I’m an anthropologist!” and I escorted the family to their gate. It is one of my favorite moments. And it just seemed like the most appropriate thing to say at the time!
It’s really everyday, little interactions that make being an anthropologist awesome, because we don’t do grand gestures. We don’t have experiments, monumental interventions — [just] these little daily interactions. Every cup of tea is awesome. Every time I get to sit and chat and hold the baby and talk about whatever.
December 17, 2015
December 16, 2015
Ria is a 2015 Social Innovation Fellow and co-founder of No Country for Women (NCFW), an internationally-recognized gender education initiative that aims to combat systemic gender-based discrimination in India. Ria and her co-founder, Shreena Thakore ’16, who grew up in India, were awarded the Projects for Peace fellowship and used this grant to launch the project in May of 2014. NCFW was set up to educate the people in India on gender, rape culture, and misogyny through a series of workshops and initiate informed discussions about social change.
I was inspired by Ria’s story because she was determined to start a conversation about an issue in a country that fights hard to keep such issues silent and hidden. We reflected on Ria’s experiences, her interactions with young people, most of whom had never thought about this obvious form of discrimination before, and her moments of self-doubt and extreme conviction.
December 8, 2015
Drew first became interested in filmmaking at an end of the year party at his kindergarten graduation, glued to the screen watching Star Wars while his friends ran around the yard screaming. His love of political science was ignited by his high school constitutional law class and exposure to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, all of which provided average citizens access to a better understanding of the impact of the law.
Now Drew is a junior at Brown, bringing together his interests by double concentrating in Political Science and Modern Culture and Media. He brings his passion for filmmaking and accessibility of policies outside of the classroom by making films with Brown Motion Pictures and working as the head University News editor for The Brown Daily Herald. Next semester, however, Drew is taking the spring off to work at the U.S. Embassy in Dublin, Ireland, where he’ll be working in the consulate, handling public affairs issues, and hopefully creating multimedia projects while being in charge of their website.
December 2, 2015
“Time is a social construct,” Anastasiya laughs. From where I stand, I can’t imagine she has any.
It was a miracle that she agreed to sit and chat with me — between two meetings, of course. First off, Anastasiya is the co-editor-in-chief at bluestockings Magazine, an online feminist publication committed to a gender-aware, anti-oppressive framework. She is a facilitator for the Gender, Power, Sexuality (GPS) workshop (formerly known as FemSex), which is a student-led sexuality workshop held every semester. She is on Brown’s Title IX Oversight and Advisory Board, which reviews and makes recommendations concerning the University’s handling of sexual assault and gender-based violence on campus. Oh, and she also works remotely for Know Your IX, a national organization that empowers students to stop sexual violence and support survivors, by educating about student rights under Title IX. See what I mean? A miracle.
Anastasiya and I sat on a blanket on the main green, reflecting on her time spent within these communities at Brown: communities that advocate for social change, and also provide a supportive space for their members to share their own experiences and vulnerabilities with one another.
November 3, 2015
Olivia’s commitment to Swearer runs deep. She helps lead and coordinate Rhode Island Urban Debate League (RIUDL), which empowers local high school students to project their voices through debate, and increases their college readiness and academic success (see her wonderful story on RIDUL here).
Recently, she has been grappling with how to make the Swearer Center more inclusive of students of color. It’s a crucial conversation for all public service centers - and universities in general - and I wanted to know her process.
November 2, 2015The Power in Sharing Stories, Art, and Meals“We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it's never a question of 'critical mass.' It's always about critical connections.” - Grace Lee BoggsSarah Day is interested in how scholar-researcher-activists can interrogate their positionality when conducting research or engaging in community outreach. She's currently completing her Masters of Arts in Teaching for History and Social Studies and working as the Assistant for the Engaged Scholars Program.