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Edgy anthropology project puts real life of Baltimore in focus

Towson professor Matthew Durington speaks with project participants.

Towson professor Matthew Durington speaks with project participants.

“I look at things differently now. I think deeper.”

The student’s words are posted in tiny black text on a white “scrap” on anthropologybythewire.com – a blog for the project led by Towson University anthropology professors Matthew Durington and Samuel Collins. In what looks like a scrambled sea of short notes, those two sentences offer a succinct summary of an ambitious endeavor.

Anthropology By the Wire focuses on activist efforts with underserved or disregarded segments of the city population. In its third summer session, ABTW digitally documented two major community issues: the deindustrialization of Sparrows Point and the need for HIV/AIDS testing in lower income areas of Baltimore City. Its name is a play on words, using the hit HBO series The Wire as a springboard to address the reputation and misconceptions about the city while acknowledging the realities.

“We want to show communities that we are consistently engaged with them – not only showing up to volunteer to paint a wall in matching T-shirts, never to be seen again,” Durington says. “Anthropologists are pesky. We keep showing up to ask questions and be involved.”

Student researchers interviewed steelworkers who lost their jobs when production at Sparrows Point was shut down. When media coverage of the effects on the community lagged, the project lent those workers a voice. Former RG steelworker and United Steelworkers Local 9477 vice-president Chris MacLarion says it was a powerful chance for the workers to tell their stories.

“Too often, the legacy left behind isn’t the words of the workers who suffered the most but is instead left to senior managers to write,” MacLarion points out. “These are the people who are truly the victims of deindustrialization and are left scrambling at the end to pick up the pieces and to try and reinvent themselves fast enough that they don’t lose everything they spent their whole lives working for.”

The student researchers also worked with a community outreach program called City Uprising to encourage city residents to get tested for HIV/AIDS. The outreach was in cooperation with the Institute of Human Virology’s JACQUES Initiative at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

A student researcher interviews a participant of the Anthropology By the Wire project.

A student researcher interviews a participant in the Anthropology By the Wire project.

“I think HIV is so often viewed as a personal issue, and one that’s a result of irresponsibility,” says student researcher Leon Mait. “But the reality is that it’s a social and economic issue. And speaking with these people, I was able to understand just what kind of impacts the broader context in which people live has on them.”

ABTW, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, was created to reach students where they live – in the digital world – and then use that to push anthropology’s efforts forward. The grant’s structure means that Durington and Collins head up a faculty contingent spanning several local colleges and universities. Towson students serve as undergraduate learning assistants who can use their experience for upper level independent study. The student researchers come from other schools and community colleges.

National trends show that fewer than two percent of students who start in community college successfully complete a graduate degree. A significant percentage of Towson students transfer in from a community college. “By focusing on community college students and bringing them to a four year university research environment and an intensive experience, we are hoping to create a bridge for success,” Durington explains.

Back on the blog, a student researcher posted a thought about her interview with an unemployed steelworker. She may or may not have realized she was expressing what anthropologists might consider a significant failure in social understanding.

“When I first walked away from the interview, I thought that it wasn’t nearly as emotionally difficult as we were led to believe…

“Now I feel like it was and I just hadn’t been paying as close attention as I should have been.”


Related Links:
Research student Leon Mait’s project blog

2011 video overview of Anthropology By the Wire
ABTW Facebook page
About the National Science Foundation

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