Alumni Aloud Episode 30 Transcript

Anthropology in Environmental Advocacy
(feat. Jay Blair)


VOICE OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with a GC graduate about their career and the advice they would give to students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.


ANDERS WALLACE, HOST: I’m Anders Wallace, a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Program at the Graduate Center. In this episode, I speak with Jay Blair who is Assistant Professor in Geography and Anthropology as California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. Jay earned his PhD in the Anthropology program at the GC. He took a Mellon ACLS Public Fellowship with the American Council for Learned Societies before joining Cal Poly Pomona on the tenure track. His ACLS fellowship placed him with an environmental advocacy nonprofit organization, The Natural Resources Defense Council. In this episode, Jay talks about the pros and cons of applying his research skills in a nonprofit, how to tell your professional story in ways that let you bridge academic research and advocacy work, and why the constraints of an unpredictable academic job market might actually push you to rediscover passions and skills you might have sidelined during your PhD.

Can you say what your name is and what it is you do for a living?

JAY BLAIR, GUEST: My name is James or Jay Blair and currently I’m in a tenure track job as an Assistant Professor in the departments of Geography and Anthropology at Cal Poly Pomona, so California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. There were two searches when I applied for this job. One of them was for a cultural anthropologist and the other was for an applied anthropologist. The CUNY Grad Center happens to have a strong geography training built into it, so it was a good fit for me, but last year I was in more of an applied position outside of academia, and so I actually chose to apply to the applied anthropology position even though I could’ve been eligible for either of those.

WALLACE: So can you tell me broadly a bit more about your academic background and what got you interested in anthropology?

BLAIR: I’d never taken a course in anthropology before grad school. I was a History and Philosophy double major in college as an undergraduate and a Latin American Studies minor. And for the first few years after college, I had a nonacademic job working for an environmental nonprofit called Sierra Club. I was their land agency coordinator, so I was their liaison for national parks and national forests. But there wasn’t a lot of room for moving into the direct kind of advocacy work that I wanted to do there. So I applied for PhD programs to do something that was a little bit more outside the box—more stimulating—and I just really liked the faculty at the Grad Center. And the students also when I went and visited the anthropology program I really connected with the political commitment that a lot of the students had. And so I just went straight from scratch basically at the Grad Center in anthropology.

And for my dissertation research I ended up building on some previous work I was doing in Argentina, which, I had been doing basically an independent project on these cooperative factories that were forming fair trade commodity chains after the economic crisis in 2001 in Argentina. But I went down there with a grant in 2012 to do some preliminary research and I found that actually a lot of people had already been doing research on that topic and, I don’t know, it just didn’t have a lot of teeth for a dissertation. It also happened to be the 30th year anniversary of the Falklands of the Malvinas War and I hadn’t really researched that war very much. A lot of people have written about it. These are these islands that are sort of near the tip of South America—kind of a gateway to Antarctica—and I got to know the literature a little bit about it. I started to get more intrigued because it was just everywhere I could look because of the anniversary and I ended up totally switching my topic.

What really intrigued me was that there was no historical evidence of a pre-colonial indigenous population on these islands. So from an anthropological perspective I was interested in how the settlers who are primarily British descendants and voted 99.8% in favor of remaining British in 2013 in a referendum on self-determination. I was interested in how, with that claim of self-determination, they were constructing themselves as natives through new forms of governance over energy and the environment and in particular preparation for offshore oil.

WALLACE: Did you see yourself becoming a professor when you switched tracks and joined the PhD program?

BLAIR: I know it’s not the case for everybody, but for a lot of us you feel as though that’s the expected first path. But having worked in the environmental NGO context previously, I knew that was always something I could do and I could grow from. And the funny thing about it is even though that project might sound appealing as though it has teeth, etc. and that earned me all these grants—external grants for research—but once I actually tried to get on the academic job market, what I found was that there is no search committee in any anthology department that is looking to hire someone who studies up with British settlers in the South Atlantic. They want to replace their Africanist or their scholar of Amazonians and there are these gaps that occur only when these older school anthropologists are retiring. And they don’t really appreciate necessarily innovative, pushing the envelope approaches the same way a grant committee would. So I had to really think creatively. It’s not to say I didn’t have any success. I was having interviews for jobs in academia and I got an article published towards the end of my dissertation. So it’s not as though it was hopeless.

So what I did after the PhD is I was a sub lecturer or visiting assistant professor at Brooklyn College for a year, which was a really good opportunity. I had great colleagues and support there. It was also really intense. I was teaching five courses per semester, so it was a big teaching load and made it very difficult for me to continue to do the research I wanted to do. So I was then left with a new opportunity. I basically had a choice. I was offered another visiting assistant professor job which would’ve been a great opportunity, but it was only one year, nonrenewable and so I would’ve been right back on the academic job market right away once I started there and would have to move to a new city. And so I decided, you know what, I’m going to apply for something that’s nonacademic and see how it goes and it’d still give me a foot in academia. And that was this Mellon ACLS Public Fellowship.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Mellon American Council for Learned Societies has this really wonderful fellowship. It’s called the Public Fellowship and they place recent PhDs in the humanities or humanistic social sciences in jobs in either government or nonprofit positions. And so the one that I applied to was really kind of returning to this environmental nonprofit work I was doing before grad school and expanding upon it. And it was with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the NRDC. The NRDC is one of the bigger environmental nonprofit organizations in the US. It started as a small law firm in the 1970s and they’ve really expanded quite a lot. They have had major influence on the Clean Air Act the Clean Water Act. Now it comprises 500 fulltime staff. A lot of them are scientists—not just lawyers— experts in all kind of different things. But I’m pretty sure that I was the only anthropologist there. So I was definitely a fish out of water in a certain way.

And so I was in this position there as an international campaign advocate and was working in both their Latin America and Canada projects. The Latin America work was primarily focused on protecting rivers in Chilean Patagonia. So mostly following up on a social movement that was trying to resist the development of large hydroelectric dams in Patagonia. I had done a lot of work on the argentine side of Patagonia for my research, but really was excited about being able to expand into the Chilean side. So there was continuity both in terms of my environmental advocacy interests, but also in terms of my area expertise as a scholar. And then the Canada work was mostly working closely with indigenous partners especially the Waswanipi Cree First Nation in what is now Quebec and Ontario where there’s a dispute over industrial logging in their territory. And we were working with them mostly on caribou preservation, which is an at-risk species facing extirpation due to the logging. So it had me really expanding the scope of my research.

WALLACE: This program both broadened the potential of your own research, expanding it into different areas, while also really engaging your interest in nonprofit advocacy and environmental issues. Was it fortuitous coincidence that the NRDC was one of the places being offered as a fellowship location for the ACLS, or did you actually scout them yourself—did they give you that reign to pursue that opportunity?

BLAIR: No, it was really fortuitous. I read the description and I wasn’t really 100% committed to going with the nonacademic route. But when I read the description I was just like geez, this is really a great fit for me. It was also a 2-year fellowship, so it’s a postdoc that’s nonacademic; it was a 9-5 job. That’s very different, too, than other postdocs where you’re just in a research position, and maybe just have to finish writing articles or a book. Very different nature of that. But it was a 2-year position, so it was more appealing to me than another one year visiting assistant professor job somewhere. So like a lot of us at CUNY, I had a lot of teaching experience already, so it’s not like I felt I needed more of that necessarily. It basically allowed me to embrace a new identity as an applied anthropologist or a public or engaged anthropologist in a much more concrete way that had actual implications in terms of policy. I found it to be really gratifying.

WALLACE: Do you want to tell me more about your experience in the job on a day-to-day basis? What did that look like? Did you have to learn new skills to get the job done or was it intuitive?

BLAIR: It’s a tricky thing. Monday through Friday had a very different kind of rhythm than what we’re used to as academics. The tricky thing is I was in both these two different projects doing totally different things—Canada and Latin America. And it was often difficult to balance that. My supervisors were very conscientious about wanting to make it so I didn’t have two jobs, but rather two halves of one job, but even though they expressed that and I appreciated it, it was still difficult to balance that and often felt like I had actually two and a half or three jobs, because I still wanted to get some research outputs for my dissertation and working long nights at the office after my work was done for the advocacy stuff on articles was difficult and ultimately did not necessarily work out. I had a revise and resubmit on an article that was a flagship anthropology journal that I ultimately just wasn’t able to make the revisions that I think it required. In terms of the day to day, it was a really wonderful office environment.

WALLACE: Was it an office where you were working, or did you go out into the field a lot?

BLAIR: Oh, yeah. It really depends on the particular team you’re on. For Latin America, yeah, I was traveling to Chile. Rather than what anthropologists are used to, which is doing extended field work for months at a time, it would be 2-3 weeks before some big summit of these river protectors and we’d decide pretty last minute, oh, alright Jay, you’re going down there, spend a quick week or 10 days. It’s a lot of shorter trips. So I went down to Chile three times in five or six months, and I went to Mexico. This was also the week of. They were like, “You’re going down to Baja.”

It was a different kind of rhythm, so it was exciting and very different in that sense. But that often made it difficult to balance the priorities, too, because with the Canada project, there would be opportunities to also travel to various different events in Canada, but often I was already on some big trip in Chile or something. So I was on weekly or so video calls with our indigenous partners there. It was a very different rhythm. So in Chile I became part of this network called La Red for los Ríos Libres, so the Network for Free-Flowing Rivers, and it’s all these activists all over Chile. Basically I had to keep up with them. It was like, they’re sending me WhatsApp messages still to this day and I’m just trying to basically continue to keep up with them so that I can support whatever is happening in these different disputed rivers.

But that was a very different from the situation in Canada where often there were changes in leadership of particular First Nations and we would have to be very patient and persistent in trying to keep up the momentum on various campaigns, but really make sure that it’s something that the leadership of these indigenous partners wants to pursue. And it was really them taking the lead. Each campaign kind of has its own rhythm and its own moments of intensity. You have to be outspoken. That was my job. And the NDRC is a major organization that has excellent connections internationally and nationally. If I were in Chile, I would get interviews with these major newspapers or radio stations in Chile. It was really an amazing opportunity. It was also a challenge to make sure that I was really knowledgeable about a topic. I had to learn really fast to be able to talk with some kind of authority on it, but also make sure that I’m not stepping on the toes of our local partners. And generally, in the vast majority of instances, I found that our partners were just really appreciative because this was a new network that was growing of these river protectors that wanted publicity and we were able to showcase that.

The great thing about that is that I was able to, basically, whenever there were certain moments where I felt as though I was uncomfortable with an interaction… Actually I realized there are all these tools that we have as anthropologists and as social scientists generally that you can apply to those situations. So I basically treated any of those instances in a meeting or a summit or doing fieldwork where something felt uncomfortable as an ethnographic moment. And I would basically make of a note of it for myself. I wasn’t taking field notes every day like I would in the field for dissertation. But I tried to log things like that that were tricky situations and revisit them later. And what I was able to do is, I just got a new publication forthcoming in the Journal of Ethnobiology, which is an analysis of reflecting on my experiences doing environmental advocacy for NRDC.

I think this is the message I’d like to get across: that it’s exciting, it’s challenging to do something that is not in our comfort zone as academics, to work as part of a team rather than just independently doing advocacy or nonacademic work. But it’s also useful to think about how our tools apply in ways that we don’t realize and also how we are able to tap back and forth between academia and nonacademic work. And I found that actually this made me a far more dynamic and versatile scholar doing this actual work. That’s why I was able to be eligible for this applied anthropology position. And now I’m trying to have the best of both worlds, building that advocacy into a research project.

I just got a new little grant that I’m going to go back to Chile in the summer to continue doing that work. I hope to have a contract to keep working for NRDC as a consultant and continuing to do that work in Chile. And on top of that, NRDC has offices all over the place, including in Santa Monica near where I am in Southern California. I got to know those folks well, even though they don’t work on anything I was doing. And they were able to connect me with local organizations that do environmental justice work here in LA and the Inland Empire. And I’ve already established a partnership now with this faculty fellowship here at Cal Pol Pomona to turn this course I’d been teaching in the Fall on environment technology and culture into a service learning course where we’re going to partner with this center for community action and environmental justice, working on local responses to air pollution. I just saw it as all these new opportunities that if you do it right in a position like mine, it makes a lot of sense.

WALLACE: And that doesn’t have to be a deviation from academia.

BLAIR: No, and I’m in a position where I have a great department. It’s not a publish or perish situation. It’s mainly teaching-centered. And so even though it has a high teaching load, it’s often an expectation or an understanding that a lot of my colleagues and myself will try to get these contracts to do this more applied work. And if I do that, then I can actually buy out of some of the teaching and also continue doing that work in both advocacies. And if I get publications out of that, then it’s really just a win-win-win. It’s still a process. I’m still kind of waiting for certain things to come to fruition, but generally that’s been my path—trying to build from one thing on to another and kind of expanding from there.

WALLACE: That’s very interesting and I think encouraging in a vision of how you can build your career from steps that aren’t necessarily a linear path towards your goal, but actually enrich each of the goals you have through the detour as it were.

BLAIR: Yeah, I think the trick now for me is trying to think about how I relate to my earlier research that I was doing for my dissertation. I’m still trying to get some publications out from that and ideally a book project. So balancing that with all this exciting advocacy that I’m still trying to keep up with is a challenge on top of obviously the teaching.

WALLACE: I wanted to go back to the advocacy work to ask if there were any skills you had to learn when you got on the job, and, if so, did the NRDC or the ACLS provide you with that support or did you have to sink or swim?

BLAIR: So the ACLS generally paid for my salary, which went through NRDC’s payroll. There were professional development funds available. I think about $3000-worth. Now I didn’t use that. They generally encouraged you to do that in the second year once you have a better sense of your bearings. In addition to ACLS’s fellowship, which paid for my salary and gave me those professional development funds, NRDC also is very rigorous in training its own employees in various things.

So I was trained in Spanish language media communication through the Latin America project. I had also from Canada went through an indigenous partnership training with the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, which is a group mainly based in Canada, especially Innu guardians working on conservation and forestry. I also got training in things like Excel, but also Esri or these interactive story maps. It’s kind of like a blog but with ArcMap built into it. So you use ArcGIS and ArcMap and make it so you’re telling a narrative about a particular topic and doing so in a way that is going to allow people to click on dots on a map that will give them more information, as well as photos and videos and other things. And so yeah, so people can check it out, it’s online—the protecting rivers in Chilean Patagonia story map that I did a lot of work on.

NRDC also—and this is something that’s a different cultural thing I think between academia and nonprofits or big nonprofits or private firms as well—they do a lot of retreats. I was a member of the Latin America project, the Canada project, the international team, and the program staff. I had retreats for each of those things in addition to an all-staff retreat. So I went on five retreats or something like that. Sometimes I had three in one week, so seven days of full retreats. And there you also have lots of training opportunities and networking.

I just want to say also that one of the things I ended up getting most involved in, especially related to the Canada work that I was doing, is this equity initiative. So this was a cross-institutional equity initiative at NRDC where basically we had these different pilot projects. And really a lot of the environmental movement has problems with diversity, equity, and inclusion. Often a lot of environmental NGOs have this reputation of mostly having a perspective that is white and perhaps of a little bit older generations. And so we had these different pilot projects that were specifically geared towards having a more equitable approach in terms of how we did our work. And I took the lead on this supporting indigenous people’s sovereignty equity initiative. So having training in settler colonial studies or indigenous politics in the coursework I did as an anthropologist put me in a really good position to do that. That’s where I think my social scientific perspective was most useful and appreciated besides all the field-based stuff I was doing in Chile.

WALLACE: Interesting. And then the skills that you got out of it and that you’re talking about as well— interacting with media or building digital story maps—all of these things sound like they feed into your academic career.

BLAIR: Absolutely. When you’re back on the academic job market, there are always going to be questions about your approach to diversity, those kinds of things. I had very concrete things to say about the work I was doing. So that was helpful. But also academic departments want to know about what kind of service you might contribute. Working on all these various teams and being used to having several meetings in a day, I was very well prepared for service duties in academia, as well, that a lot of people fresh out of PhD programs may not have. So there were so many skills that really translated, especially having already done a lot of teaching at CUNY. It’s not as though I needed that as much. So it really complemented everything well in terms of giving me that applied approach, giving me that service-oriented perspective, and sincerely engaging with things like diversity, equity, and inclusion.

WALLACE: I was wondering if there was anything you would do differently in hindsight, looking back? Or taking the long view of your journey in academia and at the intersections with nonprofit work is there anything you’d do differently or wish you knew when you were starting out that would’ve made that journey easier? Because it sounds like you approached it in a very savvy way.

BLAIR: That’s a great question. I think one of the things I might’ve done differently is maybe as a grad student really engaging more in policy realms—having a better understanding of not just the publishing world of academic journal articles or books, but there are also white papers and policy briefs and reports. But in addition to those more formal gray literature as we call it in academia, which has perhaps a way bigger impact a lot of the time than an academic journal article that only a few other experts will read. There are those things to really familiarize yourself with that really is a different genre. And in addition to those, the more public scholarship types of things, which are the media interviews and the blogging that really are a different kind of skill. I had already kind of done that before. I was doing some journalistic reporting in my fieldwork. I wrote a string of articles for The Economist when I was in the field just because I was well-positioned on certain things there. And I did a couple of blogs also. I wrote for NACLA, the North American Congress on Latin America. And I wrote for this anthropology engagement blog for environmental anthropologists.

So I had been doing a little bit of that, but I think what I didn’t really connect was how all of those things relate to policy and also how sometimes it can be much more strategic in advocacy to have certain kinds of pragmatic approaches that will be compelling and persuasive depending on who your audience is. And so there are certain compromises where in academia it would be very easy to take a more critical or ironic approach to analyzing a topic. When you’re doing advocacy you have to really think about what your partners actually want in terms of how to advance their cause. And maybe that isn’t always the most radical, critical, grassroots orientation. Maybe they want just a concrete policy reform that’s going to be different. So you have to have a different, nuanced look at what are the actual achievable goals and what are ways that you can actually win certain campaigns. And sometimes that means doing things that I wouldn’t have been very comfortable with doing previously.

For example, with the Canada project, we had a corporate campaign. So this involved trying to get all these different companies from the US, which are paper purchasers, to sign on to letters that would persuade the governments of Quebec or Ontario to have more restrictions on industrial logging in arboreal forests. Basically to say they’re not interested in sourcing their paper product from those places unless they go through certain kinds of reforms that are going to support our indigenous partners. Those kinds of things mean that I had to establish relationships with private sector actors that as an academic you just don’t need to involve yourself with those kinds of real world messy details that can have a real impact.

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of these advocacy campaigns, you’ve got to be pragmatic and strategic, and I was lucky enough to work with some folks that were really good at that. Now that’s not to say that there are things that I was always comfortable with and those are the things then again that, even though I was involved in some of that work, that I had to basically reflect on and analyze as a kind of ethnographic moment. When I was doing my field research in the Falklands on offshore oil, I didn’t always feel like I could express myself. I had to be thoughtful about who I was engaging in conversation so that my research would be comprehensive and so that I could talk to oil managers and engineers and do that studying up of these elites without necessarily compromising my position. So it’s a very different kind of way of dealing with it. In advocacy it’s not as though I had to hide anything in terms of my politics in the same way, but I had to engage with different kinds of actors in sincere and candid ways that were just more complicated.

WALLACE: I was wondering, too, are there any resources or experiences that you would recommend current GC students could take advantage of at the GC that would prepare them better for working in a nonprofit for instance?

BLAIR: I think if I were to do it again, I probably would have done a certificate program in GIS or something as an anthropologist. I think it would’ve been helpful if I had a really strong grounding in GIS. My colleagues at NRDC did not feel that was necessary at all. So it’s not as though I went there and they thought it was something I should’ve had or anything. But I think it would’ve been useful and I would’ve been able to really use things like these story maps in more dynamic ways. Also, I think any kind of preparation you can do in terms of trying to understand policy and to some extent litigation. What I found really interesting was how a lot of the folks I worked with, whether they were consultants or fulltime staff—a lot of them were lawyers—but they used the law and litigation as one of their tools in a broader toolset for advocacy.

So just like mapping, litigation, just understanding that as something that you can use to support a campaign for advocacy. I didn’t really understand fully before that what kind of power that can have. So I think generally, you don’t need to go full extent into having some other degree in terms of law or geography or whatever. But at least having some kind of familiarity with how anything you do may relate to some kind of policy framework and whether that means supporting it through different kinds of tools like that or just being able to communicate about it to translate technical information more widely for public audiences is something I think is worth developing early.

WALLACE: That’s such a good point. I think that applies to so many different nonacademic careers as well as academic careers, to translate specialist knowledge, to be able to engage different audiences, whether you’re motivating them to take action or for any other range of reasons. It’s incredibly useful. That’s a great point.

BLAIR: Yeah, exactly. So it’s engaging with all these things that are not just part of the debates in the academic literature, and engaging them in a way that gives you a sense of fluency that you can talk about it to anybody. Not just to other kinds of wonks, but being able to actually make a compelling case on a policy to an ordinary audience is something that I think is definitely something worth trying to understand early on. It’s also going to give you broader impact even if you want to stay in academia—if you’re applying to grants and everything—to show that you’re relating to actual on-the-ground things that are happening.

WALLACE: That’s great, Jay. That’s about all the questions I had. Is there anything else that comes to mind through this conversation?

BLAIR: In advocacy especially, so much of it is really about working as a team. I think that is a big change especially from cultural anthropology. We sort of are lone wolves doing research in our fieldwork, and that may be different if you’re say in archaeology or another subfield of the discipline where you’re used to working as a research team. But that’s probably something that’s the most fundamental—sometimes just taking a backseat, listening, thinking about how you can contribute in ways that might not be the most glorious, but that are day-to-day important things that need to happen. So I found that to be humbling and also gratifying. And that I think is an important skill to develop as well—learning how to be a good team member.

WALLACE: That’s a wrap for this episode of Alumni Aloud. I want to thank Jay for coming on the show to share his experiences with the Mellon ACLS Public Fellowship and his life on the tenure track with our listeners. Remember to stay tuned for more episodes of Alumni Aloud, published every two weeks during the fall and spring semesters. Subscribe on iTunes and you’ll automatically be notified when new episodes are released. Also check out our Facebook, Twitter, and career planning website at for more updates on our office or to make appointments with our career counselors. Thanks for listening and see you next time!


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