Look where anthropology led me…

By Guest Contributor: Adam Carter

As an anthropology major at University of Michigan, I had to deal with people always asking me, “Anthro? What are you going to do with that?” They referred to it as though it was one of those prison balls that would be attached to my leg for the rest of my life. I specifically remember a friend of my mother telling me, “When you are finished digging up old bones, give me a call and we can make some money.” I refrained from even explaining the archaeology anthropology difference, knowing such distinctions were beyond his comprehension, as it didn’t relate to the supply and demand curve he was focused on.

So, the question is: where have my Anthropology studies taken me?

In one word: everywhere. I have been living, traveling, teaching, studying, all the while delivering humanitarian aid and smiles in 80+ countries. Though I am not a professional anthropologist, the cultural sensitivities and curiosity I developed in my college days have driven my explorations and personal discoveries.

I remember my first anthro course like it was yesterday. From that day on, I have been enthralled by the study of human culture. Before every semester I fantasized as I read Michigan’s impressive course catalogue, considering which faraway time or place I wanted to explore the next semester. Though I never left campus, I felt like I had visited the first cities of the Indus Valley, the Great Plains of the Native American tribes, the Amazon rain forest and the mega-cities of Asia. My college studies in Italy and subsequent travels through Europe and Morocco sparked my travel bug, so by the time I graduated, I had developed a deep awareness about how human culture had emerged and evolved. More importantly, I felt unprepared for the “real job” all my friends were racing to acquire. With a whole world out there to explore, I decided to close the textbook and witness for myself the wonderful variety of the human experience.

I bought a one-way ticket to China, wrangled my best friend into the plot and began a nine-month journey of discovery. Traveling on a tight budget (with only my profits from my summer job as beer vendor at Wrigley Field in my hometown of Chicago) fueling me, I found myself living in the most immersive manner possible, staying at the cheapest, seediest hotels and eating tons of street food. In the process, I got a more authentic cultural experience than I could have dreamed. Over time, I grew more comfortable with the uncertainty of my traveling style and the occasional discomfort I experienced. What fueled me was the daily contact with people from all walks of life. Suddenly, my role had transformed from textbook reader to ethnographer. I started asking deeper questions, piecing together whatever I could about local cultures. Soon, I started pushing the limits, venturing into places I never would have imagined myself. One day, as I hung out with some Filipino teenagers I met in a shantytown in Manila, I had a catharsis of sorts. Due to the cultural affinity we shared (playing basketball and listening to Snoop Dogg all day), I realized first of all that what united us was stronger than what divided us. Second, I reflected on the inherent disadvantages they were  born with. No matter how smart or motivated, most of them would never be able to get beyond the circle of poverty they found themselves. I internalized my privileged position of being able to simply swoop in and visit these guys (and people from all over the world), knowing they could never dream of doing the same. As I sat there, I got the spark. “What if I can help even the scales a bit,” I asked myself.

This is when my social consciousness took root. From there, I traveled throughout Asia, Latin America and Africa for another two years, hungering for the open road and the amazing cultural experiences I had every step of the way. As I experienced one culture after another, demystifying places like Bali, Botswana, Bangkok and Belize, I came to the realization that despite all of the cosmetic differences between cultures (the styles of dress, the food, the language and the daily habits), a common humanity always seemed to ring true.

In 1999, with three years of travel under my belt and a desire to apply my interest in anthropology and cross-cultural studies into a lifestyle, I enrolled in GW’s Elliott School Master’s Degree Program in International Affairs. My experience at George Washington expanded my knowledge immeasurably. In addition to providing the economic, historical and political context I needed to become a truly global citizen, I was able to study international development with amazing professors as well as practitioners that were active in the field. I was very pleased the way the program placed a priority on cultural sensitivity. Professors like Barbara Miller from the Anthropology Department played an active role in the curriculum and principles like cultural relativism formed a basis for the school’s international development approach.

While at GW, I served as a United Nations fellow, working as an intern with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); in that role, I also traveled to Colombia to do research on behalf of the UN about the plight of the internal refugees (people displaced by violence in the civil war) there. My experiences interacting with these desplazados, as opposed to my time spent in UNHCR headquarters, reinforced my desire to “get my hands dirty” as it were as I sought a career in the development industry.

Capitalizing upon my anthropology background and Masters degree, I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study the socioeconomic effects of African immigration into Spain. My independent research allowed me to apply my fieldwork expertise into a contemporary, socially relevant setting, resulting in poignant articles and radio reports. More important though were the lasting friendships I formed with migrants from Morocco and West Africa.

After these experiences, I decided to pursue my humanitarian instincts, raising money on a grassroots level to assist at-risk kids in the favela shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I received an outpouring of support from friends and family and a grant from an American nonprofit. I was able to deliver these funds in a direct, strategic manner to a wonderful children’s community center where I had volunteered for months. I helped the director create a plan to administer the funds and oversaw every dollar that was delivered. One of the founding principles of the “micro-philanthropy” model I developed is granting recipients a prime role in their own development plans. I had learned this lesson at the Elliott School: all successful development projects must be developed in direct coordination with the recipients based on their input and addressing their immediate needs. This sounds like a no-brainer but the next year, while working as Associate Director for an amazing NGO called 100 Friends, I visited a Cambodian orphanage where some NGO had delivered 40 expensive mattresses. It turns out they never asked the orphanage about their specific needs, but felt the kids needed new mattresses. Since the kids there do not like to sleep on mattresses, $3,000 could have been spent on much-needed rehab and art supplies, but instead was rotting away in a closet. From experiences like this, I realized that too often, well-meaning organizations end up squandering their resources, so I was careful not to fall into this “top-down-westerner-knows-best” approach.

Soon thereafter I started my own nonprofit, The Cause & Affect Foundation, based on the “micro-philanthropy” model. Find a “cause and affect” a change. Simple maxim for a simple operation. When I find a project I want to help, the first question I ask is “What are your needs?” Whenever possible, I bring the stakeholders together to assess their communal needs. Together we brainstorm about the most effective way to spend the money. I often leave the amount open, assessing what can be done with $500 or $1,000 or $1,500. Sometimes we address crises, sometimes we expand the project to involve more recipients and sometimes we assist especially hard-hit families whose welfare lies beyond the mission of the organization they are associated with. I do not write checks and walk away; for every project, I oversee the purchase and delivery of whatever materials or services are required. I produce detailed field reports incorporating pictures, text and videos. These field reports are sent to my database via e-mail, posted on the blog and posted on YouTube. Donors can go to the site and make an instant donation on PayPal. My donors repeatedly tell me, “I give to Cause & Affect because I know you oversee every dollar spent.” Yes, it is great to learn that my years of thrifty travel amounted to something besides bed bugs and stomach disorders!

In eight years of humanitarian work, I have had life-changing experiences that have driven home my own good fortune and the continued importance of micro-philanthropy. I have also learned that if we were able to deliver aid in a more culturally sensitive manner, avoiding some of the pitfalls inherent in a top-down bureaucratic approach, our money could achieve a lot more good. In general, the international development industry has come a long way in adopting inclusion and local collaboration into their projects, but any “industry” there is plenty of room for improvement. I can’t help but think that aid would be much more effective if everyone involved had studied even a modicum of anthropology.

Since my work with Cause & Affect does not generate any income for me (all of the money raised, minus about 5% for expenses, goes directly to our recipients), I have pursued a career as a teacher in International Schools around the world. I created the Academic Social Action Collective, which is a website and blog designed to help international schools develop effective social action and service learning strategies. As a middle school social studies teacher, I am able to help young minds understand not only the world around them, but the potential they each possess to address the inequality in the world. While teaching at Schutz American School in Alexandria, Egypt starting in August, I will continue to support local projects and will also incorporate my students participation into my humanitarian work. I have become a firm believer in the importance of instilling Global Citizenship, so will use my anthropological background and cultural sensitivity to help shape my students into globally aware and socially responsible young adults.

Though non-conventional, my anthropological studies have opened my eyes to realities I never would have known and this basis has driven my desire to make a difference in the world and inspire a new generation of lifelong learners.

“Anthropology? What are you going to do with that?” Did I answer your question?

Adam Carter

Adam Carter is an Elliott School graduate (MA, International Affairs, 2001) that has been traveling, studying, and living in over 80 countries over the past 18 years. In recent years he has been conducting humanitarian work on behalf of his Cause & Affect Foundation, using his “micro-philanthropy” model to help people in need around the world. He majored in Anthropology as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan and is now pursuing a career as social studies teacher in international schools.



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