Anthropology at the U.S. State Department (feat. Janette Yarwood)
Alumni Aloud Episode 2
Janette Yarwood is Staff Director for the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations. When this interview was recorded, though, Janette worked at the U.S. Department of State, where she was Chair of the Sub-Saharan Africa Area Studies program at the Foreign Service Institute. Janette earned her PhD in Anthropology at the Graduate Center.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Janette talks about her reasons for pursuing a career in government and the advantages her academic training gives her, as well as the satisfactions that come with applying her skills to make a difference in international affairs.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: You’re listening to Alumni Aloud, a new 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 current students. This series is sponsored by the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development at the Graduate Center.
ANDERS WALLACE, HOST: Janette Yarwood works at the U.S. Department of State. She’s chair of the Sub-Saharan Africa Area Studies Program at the Foreign Service Institute where she helps train diplomatic staff, research emerging issues in countries across sub-Saharan Africa, and helps craft policy recommendations for a diverse range of stakeholders in the US government. Yarwood had her PhD in Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center.
In this episode, Janette talks about her reasons for pursuing a career in government, the advantages her academic training gives her, as well as the satisfactions that come from applying her skills to create change at the level of international affairs. She’s interviewed by myself as well as PhD candidate in Anthropology at the Graduate Center. Thanks again for taking the time; really appreciate it. Tell me your name and what do you do for a living.
JANETTE YARWOOD, GUEST: Janette Yarwood. I’m a cultural anthropologist and I am the chair of the Africa Program at the Foreign Service Institute with Department of State.
WALLACE: Could you tell me how did you come to do the work that you do?
YARWOOD: I can, actually. I feel like I always say to people – I sometimes talk to students, some of them undergrads in universities. I always tell them that I feel like I happened upon my career. I always thought I’d be a professor. That was my sole purpose in going to get the doctorate. I always thought I’d be a professor. Not just that – when I was in college, there were very few professors of color. My goal was to increase the number. I taught every summer, like most grad students, and then I got a fellowship, and I was teaching more than just during the summer. I thought, “Yeah, I don’t think this is for me. I don’t think this is for me.”
Not because I didn’t enjoy being in front of the class and engaging students. I really like watching them get it; really get it. But I think students are different. They want to be sitting in the class texting, they want to have their laptops open, and doing other things that they shouldn’t be doing, not paying attention. It’s coercing and convincing people to do work. Okay, that was part of it but then the real, real part of it – I’m gonna be 100 percent honest with you. I hated grading papers, the exams. I knew that if I wanted to be a good professor, I had to give them a lot of writing. I just hated that and I just didn’t wanna read things like what are the four fields of anthropology. It just wasn’t interesting to me.
So I, at about that time, thought, “Mm-hmm, there might be something else I wanna do.” I’m gonna say it; it was that coupled with – I was at a AAA meeting, and I was sitting at the meeting, and first, I was riled up with emotion and excitement because there were all these professors that were probably 12, 15 years my senior; mostly black professors on this panel. I just thought, “Wow, in a few years that’s gonna be me and it’s gonna be really cool.” I was really excited. Then when they started speaking, there was so much jargon, so much debates internal to the discipline. I thought, “I don’t wanna do that. That’s not what I wanna do.” I think that the process started there. I don’t think consciously.
This is reflecting upon it. But I think for me, it was at that moment I wanted more than just academic debate. I thought to have more of an impact. I’m not saying that we don’t have an impact by engaging with students. But I wanted a different kind of an impact. That’s how I came to think about myself outside of academia. Then I worked for a research institute where, essentially, I answered questions for the government. It would be human rights.
I wouldn’t say absolutely Department of Defense type questions but, I would be in the room, and I’d be the one fighting, and screaming, and basically saying, “You know what? You might wanna come with your military might. You might wanna come with your policing. But if we don’t deal with some of the inequalities and some of the development issues, this problem is just gonna crop up again. You might squash it but it’s gonna happen again.” I did that for nearly five years. I often worked for the Human Rights Bureau, for the Africa Bureau, for, again, sometimes the Department of Defense. And I think they probably just threw my reports in the trash.
But the thing is, I was the one in the room saying this and there’s always that part where you wonder, “Am I doing the right thing? Am I selling out?” I just get tired of being on the sidelines critiquing. For me, I thought, “I need to be in here.” I did almost five years. I spent a lot of time on the continent, traveling across Africa. Basically, I had my own research agenda. I didn’t have to take any kind of work that I wasn’t interested in doing. That was really good. It was almost like a postdoc. Slowly but surely, people started to know who I was and then the opportunity for this job came along. So I feel like those last five years, those five years at that job, was really engaging with policy, US-Africa policy.
Now, I have this career where I am at the crossroads; at the intersection of policy and academia. I’ll then tell you what I do here. As the chair of the Africa Program, basically, I create the curriculum that anyone who is going to be a diplomat across the African continent. So they’ll be heading out to post and/or they cover Africa from the United States. I create the curriculum. I teach a couple of classes. I teach almost as the equivalent of a semester, I would say. In two weeks, basically, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. hardcore two-week classes and I do that four times a year. Other than that, I’m a regular professor. I think, I read, I go to lectures.
Sometimes, I go to the Africa Bureau and different bureaus across the state department who will use me as a resource as a special adviser. Sometimes, because of my knowledge of Africa, I’ll get invited to meetings, and to weigh in, or go out to post. I continue to do my own research outside of my work and I like to keep that part a little bit separate.
WALLACE: Was there more that you wanted to say about the work you do on a day-to-day basis? It sounds like you have a lot of freedom.
YARWOOD: I do. Again, nobody oversees what I do. I’m considered the Africa expert here. I am the sole Africa expert here. So I put together a curriculum that I want to put together. I feel like, in many ways, I get to influence policy. I get to influence policy makers at a critical time. I don’t fill my class with government speakers; I don’t drill my class as former Foreign Service Officers or former ambassadors. I challenge whatever they think they know. For example, a couple of people in the next class going to Mauritius. I invite a former GC student who actually, David Vine. He’s a friend in BU and he did some work on Chagos Islands.
And this is, basically, the space where a population was resettled for American base. If you’re introduced to another perspective, I just think that the way they engage with Africans, with African governments, the way they think about US foreign policy will be different. This allows me to both be an academic, continue to do the kind of work that I wanna do, and make an impact.
WALLACE: Now I was wondering if you could talk a little more… you said you sort of fell into this work. Could you say more about the connections or how that process of getting to where you are now from academia, how that worked out?
YARWOOD: Yeah, I always let my own personal research interest guide what I do. It didn’t matter. If I was in a country for some conference or whatever I was in a country for, I would make it a point of meeting with activists, of understanding what their grievances are, of understanding – meeting with the media, and these countries don’t have free media. I just became known for that kind of work. I mean, you keep going, and you keep going, and you keep going.
Eventually, I guess the Human Rights Bureau became aware of the kind of work I was doing. I was meeting with activists nobody else was meeting with. I was going to countries that people weren’t usually going to. American diplomats weren’t going to [inaudible] a researcher. So that’s how I came into my current role. I think you just do what you do. This is advice that I give to anybody. You do what you do. You do it well. People feel your passion. They will probably come to talk to you and say, “That’s somebody I should be talking to.”
WALLACE: In this case, you had a set of passions, and interests, and concerns. You let those drive you in the role that you were in, being able to do this kind of research.
YARWOOD: MTV has a program, Rebel Music, right? Where they look at activists, right? I was a producer on the Senegalese episode and the reason why was to translate this work. How do you translate this important stuff that these people are doing on the ground to an American public? MTV is targeting 16 to 21-year-olds and I thought this is a way. That episode is essentially the book that I’m writing right now. It is just a visual representation.
For me, again, I think that right now it happens to be this. Maybe next year, it’ll be some other way, but I know I have a clear vision of what I wanna do. I think of myself as slightly an interrupter. So I think that if I’m just doing whatever I’m doing with passion, then the job will come to me.
WALLACE: One thing is I’m curious to what degree your anthropological training has come in to be a benefit to you in this kind of research work. Just to be clear, for the listeners, that you did get a PhD in anthropology. Was that useful?
YARWOOD: 100 percent useful. Two things I wanna say. First, I got a PhD in anthropology, regular trained academic scholar, theoretical base, all of this, ethnography. I’m still very much ever the scholar. I think it was essential because I think that when we have a problem to answer, we end up going back to our disciplines. For me, it’s going to the people, what is happening on the ground. For political scientists, they look at the institution and so I often engage with political scientists. I believe in civic education, I believe in engaging populations, I believe that an engaged population will then hold their governments accountable.
So for me, my anthropological training has forced me to always think about the people. Put the people first and talk to the people. For me, I think that’s what’s important. It also gave me a certain amount of credibility outside of just the PhD. Everybody in this town has a master’s. It’s a very educated town. I’m in Washington DC. But it gives you a certain amount of credibility. My on-the-ground experience in Africa, years, and years, and years, gives you a certain level of credibility. That’s good. But I think, again, for the listeners, what’s important is you’ve gotta get outside the debates because when you’re trying to get a job outside of academia – nobody wants to see your 10-page CV.
Nobody wants to see that. Nobody wants to see all the talks you gave. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry to tell people that they don’t care. What I want to know is what skills you have, how can you now transfer this to spaces outside, and oftentimes, they still want us to be academics. But it’s through writing, so that’s how we get our credibility. Writing outside of your average academic journal is important; not using disciplinary jargon is important. I think writing op-ed’s important; brief, short. Here’s this problem. Here’s the solution. That’s it. I think that there’s a gap right now between government and academia that just really can be filled.
But I just don’t think academics know how to take advantage of that space. We are experts and we have a certain level of knowledge. So I think that we could probably do it better but we could start with our CVs.
WALLACE: One thing I wanted to follow up; you said that you had a niche, really, through your training, your degree, your credential. But on the other hand, I’m wondering if it was hard and if you found resistance from the people you’re working with, in terms of the methods that you wanted to use.
YARWOOD: When I’m in a space, I only come at it from a mostly development and governance space. When I’m in a space and I’m saying, “Okay, some level of policing is necessary.” I get it but you know what? You have to give people some access to services, you’ve got to give them governance, you’ve got to give them running water; they need roads, and they need sanitation, and they need toilets. It’s not really popular because Boko Haram is kidnapping girls and it’s all over the news. But I think it is necessary. It is unpopular – I think there’s continually a tension. I think that academia probably – in particular, coming out of the GC which has a very particular bent that I obviously appreciate. Gramsci is the best.
I think academia in some way says, “Eh, you really shouldn’t be working in that space.” But then that space says, “Eh, you’re not really one of us.” So then you find yourself at the crossroads or maybe fitting nowhere. I still think you have to just stick to your guns and you have to say, “This is my position,” and you’re gonna keep saying it. Somebody’s gonna listen someday but I’m just gonna keep saying it in different ways until you like it. But I’m not gonna say it with jargon, and I’m not gonna speak to fellow academics, and call out the government, and say how horrible they are. I’m gonna speak to the people making policy.
WALLACE: I was curious to drill down into just what’s a typical day like for you at the office?
YARWOOD: I would say typical day just as classes are coming up is – these are two-week-long classes. I don’t have to teach them all. Like I said, I got some former GC student coming in. I’ve got some government people coming in. I’ve got academics from all over. Human rights activists Skyping in from the region. I’ve got all kinds of things going on. It can be anything from spending way too many hours on email, reaching out to people, or responding to people. That’s not a fun part of my job. I don’t like admin. But if the class is not on, it can be going to lectures around town, going to meetings at the bureau, it can be coming in – right now, I’m reading American Policy in Southern Africa. This is a history book.
It’s from during the Cold War. It can just be reading, it can be writing an article, working on my book. I just got back from spending three and a half weeks across the continent because I’ve spent a lot of time on the ground but not as a government employee. So I have to go spend some time in an embassy to understand what that’s like. I would say some days a lot more like that as an academic. Today, I spent time working on my syllabus and putting together a reading list. But other days, it’s probably a lot more like a government worker.
So I’ll go to some all-hands meeting with senior Africa people in the bureau and then meet with some other people to talk about who knows what; some Africa policy stuff. Then maybe go catch a lecture, and then come back, and think a little bit because we have –
WALLACE: That sounds great.
YARWOOD: We’ve gotta have thinking time when you’re a scholar. Then, of course, the lovely responding to e-mails. That’s every day.
WALLACE: What’s the best part of that, the most satisfying aspect of the work you do that you just described?
YARWOOD: Some days, I think it is in the classroom. Some days, it’s when I do bring someone in and feel the tension. Some days I’m in the classroom and I feel the tension with the students. It’s not like an undergrad tension. These people are making decisions. They’re making decisions. I can feel like, “Damn, I’ve always done it this way and this person’s interrupting that a little bit.” I bring this woman in and this is – I keep talking about Boko Haram. But I bring this young woman in who’s been to the region, and interviewed people and all that. She’s no joke.
She’s saying governments are – not the US government but some of these governments who are claiming to fight terrorists or committing human rights atrocities. Now they get to hear from a different perspective. For me, that is satisfying. Mostly the undergraduate perspective, I see the light bulb goes off, and so that’s nice. Other days, it might actually be sitting in the room with a lot of very senior policy makers and then saying, “Hey, we kinda want this person in the room.” And sometimes I speak. Sometimes I don’t.
But the point is that being in that space, and seeing it up close, and feeling like it’s okay to have this perspective, it’s okay to be a little bit outside of your comfort zone, it’s okay to stick to your beliefs. So some days, it can just be the fact that I’m think in a certain room. I’m able to be part of this conversation.
WALLACE: And make an impact that’s quite big, really, in terms of these influencers and policy makers.
WALLACE: Some of it.
YARWOOD: Someday; someday.
WALLACE: Some days.
YARWOOD: Someday, I’ll hopefully know that I’ve done that. I’m still in the process.
WALLACE: Could you talk about what specific skills and knowledge you might have gained in grad school that helped you prepare for your current work?
YARWOOD: I’m a solid, solid researcher. In this time, I like to use the word “analyst.” I know that GC prepared me. I’m a solid scholar. I can read anything, synthesize it, plot the important parts. I can pull different pieces of things together, different bodies of knowledge together, and come up with something. I still think very much like a scholar.
I know that my view is just one view, I know that it’s important to look at something historically, I know that political autonomy is important, I know that talking to people is important, not just people on the ground but you need to speak to government, opposition. I think you need to just see things from multiple sides. I really got that from my training, from my training, from my dissertation committee that really pushed me. I don’t feel like I am second class when it comes to my intellect in any space. I know that the GC prepared me well.
WALLACE: Are there professional skills that you would recommend current GC students who are interested in a government job or perhaps something you described that they might hone in looking forward –
YARWOOD: If we thought about just a regular government job, let’s say in a Human Rights Bureau, or in a regional bureau, or any other functional bureau for that matter, I would say knowing how to write is important, knowing how to communicate your thoughts in a non-scholarly way is essential. I think if people know that this is what they want to do – look, I think it’s absolutely important to keep your academic street cred because I really do care about what my academic colleagues think. But the fact is that, on the way out the door, they should probably have a couple of maybe one or two-page articles that have been in non-academic publications.
Everybody wants to blog. Forget about your own blog. Go put a piece on somebody’s famous blog, not your blog. Nobody knows your blog. Go to the famous blog. For me, it’s writing. There’s a way that people like to think of branding themselves. Look, I don’t really care about that stuff. I think, even in this town, everybody wants to push for that. I just believe that if you work really, really hard, that translates. You’ve got to be able to communicate the broader importance and impact of your work so that you don’t have this really myopic study. I’m gonna tell you that as much as the dissertation is important to your life right now, that’s just a moment in your life.
I think you’ve got to be able to say at an interview, “My dissertation was on this or my study was on this. Here’s why it matters in the world. Here’s why it matters in policy spaces.” It probably can be translated. I would say anybody who wants to get into government, they should start looking at any sort of research institutes and think tanks, and looking at the things that they put out, so that you can think about writing in that way also. I don’t mean to say you can’t be creative and have your own style. The jargon, nobody wants to hear it. I’m sorry. I’m just so sorry but nobody – not if you wanna get outside of academia.
Say things like research, you would say things like, “I know how to analyze things.” You would say things like, “I can run focus groups, engage different communities.” We do all this amazing stuff as we’re doing our ethnographic research; intercultural or cross-cultural skills. All of these kinds of things are really important. I always say things like, “Have you served on committees?”
That means you know how to serve team building and all these other kind of things. Just thinking about all of the work we do that is also outside of our own, even what you’re doing now, this thing that you’re doing now, all of these things can go on a CV, on a resume. You can rather than the study, boil it down to the skill. So those kinds of bullet points.
WALLACE: Anything you miss about academia?
YARWOOD: No, I do. I do. Even though I engage with academics – I’m teaching a class in a couple of weeks and then I don’t teach again until February. I thought now I’m gonna take that time to go to a lot of the universities and their academic talks. Even if you totally disagree with a scholar, that disagreement gets you going and you think about things. I kinda wanna do that again. I was in Namibia not so long ago, and they mentioned Gramsci, and I was like, “Yes.”
I think just being able to just be in that space and talking about an issue just for the sake of talking about it, I miss that. Your intellectual juices get going. You have a separate notebook for all your future studies. When you’re working, it’s not exactly the same way.
WALLACE: Right. That makes sense.
That about does it for my interview with Janette Yarwood. Thanks for listening in on this episode of the CUNY Graduate Center’s Alumni Aloud podcast. We’ll see you here next time for another interview. Subscribe or touch the download tab on your iTunes App to get the latest.
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