Letter From the Chair, Summer 2020

I consider myself lucky to have been at the helm of the culture section this year. While devastated by the impact of COVID on our communities, and drained/exhilarated/consumed by the anti-racism protests of this spring and summer, we have also been able to take actions to address these crises, thanks to many people – section leadership such as Ruthie Braunstein and Terry McDonnell as well as the members of the section’s outstanding council. These folks were extraordinarily responsive, despite having small children, working across multiple time zones, and
managing the impact upon their own lives of the coronavirus and protests against police brutality. Thanks to them, we were able to:

  • distribute $8000 in emergency COVID grants to young scholars – graduate students and early career faculty – whose research was hard hit by the pandemic.
  • pledge $1000 a year for the next three years for the Minority Fellowship Program, and spearhead a campaign that ended up securing the pledges of all 52 sections of the ASA to contribute to the MFP.
  • plan and approve a host of anti-racist actions, including naming a diversity and inclusion council member; highlighting work that critiques prior culture scholarship weaponized against Black communities; amplifying Black and Brown intellectual contributions; and sharing bibliographies and syllabi that help to diversify the work through which we teach and think about culture.
  • set up an inaugural mentoring program for the section

We also made some changes this year to the way the section is run. Those kinds of changes are a bit quieter than the initiatives listed above, but also important – sort of like getting a new roof or earthquake retrofitting. You can’t see it normally, but I hope it will make the section run better in the future.

Mostly, my goal has been to make things more transparent, more responsive to the membership, and more systematic. Award committees are now chaired by elected council members. A program committee helps the chair shape the section’s ASA sessions. There is a membership committee devoted to member service. Committees are
peopled by volunteers from the section membership selected for diversity of all kinds – racial/ethnic, gender/sexuality, institution, national origin, rank/position type, etc. There is a diversity and inclusion council member keeping anti-racism and social inequality front and center. All committee chairs submit short reports in August detailing their processes and what changes they recommend, and we save these reports year to year, so people are not reinventing the wheel every Fall. Finally, with a landslide of approval from the membership for the bylaws change (thank you), we will be adding another council member to the roster starting next year. These changes are perhaps a little less exciting than new grants, but they were still warranted.

A few more thanks are due, as the annual meetings draw near. Thanks to our award committee chairs ( Gabi Abend for the Douglas award; Mariana Craciun for the Geertz award; Ming-Cheng Lo for the Petersen award; Victoria
Reyes
for the COVID grants) and their committees of volunteers for their herculean efforts (see inside for the award announcements). We also all owe a debt of gratitude to Dustin Stoltz, who is stepping down as webmaster and
social media representative for the section. Dustin has served ably in this role for three and a half years, and we are very appreciative of all of his efforts. Thanks to Patricia Banks, Ming-Cheng Lo , and Joanna Peppin , council
members who are stepping down this year. Finally, please congratulate Ruthie Braunstein, whose three years as COO are coming to a close – what a fine job she has done as the section’s chief financial steward! Thanks to all of these people, and to the many other volunteers that help the section do its job.

Thanks are also due to the newsletter trio ( Yu Ching Cheng , Johnnie Anne Lotesta , and AJ Young ) for putting together a fabulous issue. See inside for an interview with Cecilia Ridgeway, readings about intersections of culture and race, a set of papers submitted by members addressing how culture helps us think about COVID19 and vice versa, and other excellent features. We all benefit from the efforts of this editorial dream team.

When I was asked to come up with a statement for the chair’s election in February 2018, I wrote about three ways the culture section was unique: 1) our large budget surplus, 2) our informal and sometimes opaque governance, and 3) our tradition that the chair-elect plans the program. I wrote then, “A little rationalization (but not too much) can be a good thing.” We have put in place some new systems.

Yet 2019-2020 has meant so much more. The year of pandemic and protests elevated our mission beyond these planned infrastructure improvements, to instead call upon us all to address the meaning and impact of our intellectual legacy, and to take steps towards transforming that legacy. While this process has only just begun, it
has been an honor to be there for that vital work.