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With a Rockefeller-funded project, two Krieger School anthropologists are taking a child-centered approach.

Above, children working with professor Veena Das shot this photo of one of the narrow alleyways in their Delhi neighborhood of Nooida.

In South Africa, people who have grown up since the 1976 Soweto Uprising are commonly referred to as "the lost generation."

Krieger School anthropologist Pamela Reynolds says the term implies the generation has been failed by inadequate education and suffers from a lack of discipline and respect. To Reynolds, who has spent most of her career studying children, "The phrase insults youth."

Worse, it's dangerous, she says, because "it fosters a myth that excuses those in power from assuming responsibilities and absolves us from assessing the scale of young people's needs." In other words, they're lost. No sense trying to reach them.

But to Reynolds, they aren't lost. She made reaching them part of her life's work, in a study-part of the ethnographic work of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission-during the 1990s of people who, as students, had been political activists and subsequently victims of violence and torture during the struggle against Apartheid.

In 1976, thousands of South African students organized protests against government oppression and segregated education, sparking police attacks and deadly riots. The protests, while tragic, signaled a turning point in the fight against Apartheid, attracting worldwide attention and spurring others, particularly youth, to take action. The next generation of activists rejects the notion that they were victims of the regime. They want to be remembered for contributing to the overthrow of Apartheid, not for being oppressed by it. What is at stake, Reynolds says, is "their place in history."

To write a history from the point of view of children is a somewhat radical notion. Indeed, to truly examine social issues-poverty, violence, and others-from the perspective of the child is unconventional at best, but more accurately, rare.

Reynolds and her colleague in the Anthropology Department, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor and department chair Veena Das, seek to change that with their Child on the Wing project, a four-year initiative funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The interdisciplinary research project focuses on "children negotiating the everyday" amid violence and poverty. Its intent, according to Reynolds and Das' proposal, is to "reconfigure research methodologies to mirror children as active makers of their worlds."

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“Usually, children are completely neglected in ethnographic work," says Das, renowned for her research on violence and suffering, as well as on health status and poverty in India. Ethnography refers to research involving long-term investigation and immersion into a particular field site with a view toward generating understanding of the multiple contexts within which people live. When children are considered in such work, Western concepts of childhood-which assume that childhood is a period of innocence-have tended to dominate. Such concepts don't take into account local complexities of childhood or the extent to which children might be contributing to the survival of their families, for instance. Children have been more often seen by researchers and advocates alike as dependent and passive than as contributing actively to their own lives and those of their families.

Das and Reynolds sought the Rockefeller grant in the hopes of providing a more complete picture of childhood, as seen through the child's eye by social scientists, humanists, and activists. Das and Reynolds, through fellowships and workshops the project provides for, are promoting this approach among undergraduates and graduate students, helping ultimately to carve out career paths for anthropologists who study children and to blur the line between academia and advocacy.

"The conversations remain sporadic between those engaged in academic studies and those engaged in advocacy to improve the lives of children in vulnerable situations," they wrote in an essay on the project. "Our hope is [this project] will help us take important steps to advance a non-romanticized, child-centered social theory and to foster robust collaborations between theorists and advocates."

Das and Reynolds hope, for instance, that work produced as an outcome of the Child on the Wing project will contribute to the planning and policy work of institutions and agencies that aid children. Such collaborations occur throughout anthropology, but they are perhaps more difficult when they involve children. Idealized notions of childhood-of the need to protect childhood as a time of innocence, for example-don't always jive with anthropological perspectives that Das, Reynolds, and some others offer on children as responsible providers and caregivers.

Das has included children in much of her research with families in Delhi, but children have not been the sole focus of her career. When she thought about applying for the Rockefeller grant, then, she turned immediately to Reynolds, who has concentrated her career on ethnographies of children and, whom Das said "has always believed you need to look at children and the young as very important."

After an introductory year that included an opening workshop, the Child on the Wing project this year hosted the first two of four postdoctoral fellows, Ross Parsons and Jason Hart. Each fellow spends a semester at Hopkins before doing a semester of fieldwork. Hart, who came to Hopkins from a fellowship at the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, is now conducting research about young Palestinians' experiences with humiliation in Israeli-controlled territories. Two more fellows will be on campus starting this fall, and all four are expected to return to Homewood in 2006, the last year of the project, for a final workshop in which they'll present their research.

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R oss Parsons is not your typical postdoctoral fellow. A practicing psychotherapist, the Zimbabwe native specializes in helping people deal with traumatic stress. Parsons is director of the Mopane Group, a non-profit organization of mental health professionals in Zimbabwe, and he is particularly interested in ways to treat victims of political violence. It may seem odd that a psychotherapist would land a fellowship in anthropology, but for the Child on the Wing project, Das and Reynolds sought candidates from all backgrounds, whether academic, policy, or advocacy-based, who were involved in innovative research on relevant children's issues.

Parsons jumped at the chance to study from an anthropological perspective topics he had approached only as a therapist. As one of the first two Child on the Wing fellows, he has done just that. "It has been an extraordinary experience," Parsons said, just before departing for Zimbabwe for his fieldwork. "What's especially nice is the interdisciplinary part of it, to be able to come into anthropology without an anthropology background."

Participating in a Child on the Wing workshop in December that convened international experts to discuss issues of security in the lives of young people, Parsons reflected on his experience with the project-a moment in which he was "at the edge of disciplines," he said. "This time at Hopkins has been a journey."

Parsons, now pursuing fieldwork back in his native country, is taking on a "therapeutically informed anthropological study of children" involving child-headed households. Zimbabwe's political violence and the AIDS pandemic have devastated the country. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that Zimbabwe's life expectancy, 40.2 years in 2002, would be 69 without AIDS. By 2010, the AIDS-impacted life expectancy will drop to 34 years. Parsons says his homeland now has at least a million orphans, most of them living in severe poverty, with chronically low levels of nutrition.

When he left for Zimbabwe, Parsons wasn't sure exactly where he would be able to conduct his research due to the country's unstable political landscape. But he planned to examine child-run households, "the ways in which they've gotten there, and the losses they've suffered," he said. "Not necessarily how damaged they are, but how strong they are."

Das, too, has been studying the strength of survivors, most often with adults, but increasingly with children as well. In an upcoming book, Words and Life: Explorations of Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary, Das illuminates her interactions with Indian children who survived deadly riots against Sikhs in Delhi in 1984. While conducting her research, Das organized a summer camp for the children through the University of Delhi and picked up the children every day. The commute to camp became an opportunity for the children to share their experiences with Das. She writes:

One of the children in our group was Avatar, an 11-year-old, who had a severely damaged eardrum and was described as a deaf-mute. His mother often said to me, 'He cannot speak, but he understands everything, and his actions can say more than words.'

One day the van took a slightly different route and passed through a street we had not been in before. Suddenly Avatar became very excited and pointed to a tree. His shoulders were heaving and he gave the impression of jumping up and down on the seat, although he was, in fact, not moving at all. As he forced my attention towards the tree, pointing to that direction in agitated gestures...I asked him what had happened there. Then Avatar did a bit of mime: his hands first gripped an imaginary object and began to drag it, his face showing the resistance and struggle of a person being dragged against his will to a terrible fate. He then stretched his hands as if over an imaginary rope, and made it into a lasso. The lasso was sprung to catch a branch of the tree, and, on the other side of the hanging rope, a noose was made which slipped round a neck. His face now became the face of a person around whose neck a noose is tightened, and then his head slumped forward, the face becoming that of a dead man. One of the children, who had perhaps watched the performance earlier...told us that it was the tree from which [Avatar's] father had been hung. 'Were you watching?' I asked, and an emphatic nodding of the head affirmed his presence during this frightening episode. In the mime, it seemed to me, the hands had become those of the murderers and the face, that of the victim. His body was a repository of knowledge and memory which surely must have been beyond him, for what he had been initiated into was a mode of dying.

 

Writing that comes from the kind of interaction Das had with Avatar and the other children-relationships of trust built over years of fieldwork-will add significantly to the ethnography of children, Das and Reynolds say. "It's about how we enable children to be their own ethnographers," Reynolds says.

As part of her work in several towns in Delhi, Das recently took on another project with children, this one documenting how they view their own communities. Armed with disposable cameras, the children were asked to shoot photos of their neighborhoods as if to reveal their neighborhoods to people who had never seen them.

Thumbing through these snapshots back in her Homewood office, Das shows that the poorest children took pictures of everyday life: their water source, a public toilet, the inside of a home, a local hangout spot for kids. Children who live in a slightly more affluent neighborhood-but still poor-focused mainly on things just outside their community, things they see every day, such as a nearby market.

A fascination with commodities emerged both in those pictures and in interviews with the mothers of the children in that community, Das says. But the fascination isn't about a desire for wealth so much as an ability to look outward, to imagine different lives. "They are able to see the outside world," she says.

"That's a lot [of meaning] to put on some photos, but I was so struck by the differences," Das says.

Her approach-looking at the ways children view their own lives-sits well with Michael Wessells, a Virginia psychologist who is a professor at Randolph-Macon College and senior adviser to the Christian Children's Fund, a Richmond-based international child development organization.

Wessells, who helps provide psychosocial support for war-affected children and families, has lately been aiding those devastated by the December tsunami in the Indian Ocean. In that work, he says, it's important to treat children as survivors, not victims, and it's a mistake to assume all children will react the same to such an event.

A participant in last winter's Child on the Wing workshop, Wessells says the project provides a helpful "corrective" to current approaches to the analysis and protection of children.

"It gives us a different lens that takes into account children's own perspectives and unearths children's everyday lives," he says. "This is a very useful challenge to the view of innocent child victims that fills much of the current literature in psychology." For instance, in helping young survivors of the tsunami, Wessells and the Christian Children's Fund advocate community interventions and support over typical Western forms of individual counseling. In many cases, they say, the Western approach may foster a victim mentality among children, leading to dependence, not resilience.

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After working for five years with adult torture survivors in Latin America and Africa, first-year graduate student Lauren Heidbrink was attracted to Hopkins' Anthropology Department because of its emphasis on social suffering, medical anthropology, and its expertise in Africa.

Now, after taking part in the Child on the Wing project-including a seminar Reynolds led last fall-Heidbrink has shifted her focus. "The Child on the Wing project got me looking more at children and their invisibility," she says. She's hoping to spend her summer researching children's roles in changing family structures in Mozambique. She's not so much interested in studying children who are "problematic" in one way or another-street children, child soldiers-but in examining children's contributions to families (how they navigate social service agencies to provide for their families, act as interpreters, contribute to the economic well-being of the family, and the like).

At this stage in her career, Heidbrink isn't sure she'll stick with a focus on children, though. "When it comes to looking for jobs, it would be beneficial to have a back-up plan," she says. "You don't see many job opportunities for anthropologists focusing on children."

Reynolds managed an incredibly successful career studying children, but she is an exception. "It wasn't seen to be a sensible career path," she says. She's hopeful that will change, though, and that more anthropologists will "look very seriously at the ethnographies of the child," she says.

Today, Reynolds is a leading authority on the crises of children involved in warfare, civil war, and revolution in modern Africa. She is a member of the advisory board for the International Research Network on Children and Armed Conflict, a United Nations-supported consortium organized by the Social Science Research Council that is studying child soldiers (including documenting the number of child soldiers worldwide). And she is currently involved in a four-city study of how to better serve young girls with HIV, a collaboration with Das and the School of Medicine.

Before coming to Hopkins, Reynolds headed the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town. She held visiting professorships at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan. There, she convened a seminar titled "Contested Childhood in a Changing Global Order," a year-long look at how children and youth are represented in public policy and cultural politics, and how children effect changes in nation-states and institutions.

Reynolds, as one might imagine, welcomes any opportunity to continue to work with children-"to focus on issues I think matter," she says. She is thrilled with the evolution of the Child on the Wing project, which she regards as almost a think-tank. "It's a great privilege," she says.

Considering broadly society's responsibility to the future, Das says it's critical to examine the ways people think about children. "Both Pam and I are very driven by the notion that anthropology has something extremely important to contribute to this," she says. <empty>

 

 

SPRING/SUMMER 2005
Features
Conquistadors of Cotopaxi
Child on the Wing
Ten Issues We Can't
Afford to Ignore

 

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