From the Series: Teaching Ethnography in the Heart of Government
As an international student "Tribes on the Hill" was a unique experience to understand political life in the United States from the perspective of those working on the Hill. It also helped to understand the importance of political life for citizens from all over the country who make a kind of "pilgrimage" to the capital. As part of my group project for the course, I talked to tour guides from the Capitol Visitor Center and tourists from all over the country, taking many of the tours offered by the Center. All these experiences were an enriching way of getting closer, with a critical eye, to aspects of American culture I found very intriguing growing up in a South American country, like the cult of democracy and freedom, and a heightened sense of citizens’ duties.
As part of the course, we learned about lobbying and advocacy on the Hill. We practiced writing one pagers, setting meetings with Congress members and their staff, and delivering concise and strong messages about our advocacy issues. This was particularly helpful for me and my work with the Colombian Human Rights Committee, a group that aims to educate U.S. policy makers about human rights issues in my home country. After completing the course, I applied many of the tools I learned from "Tribes on The Hill" and have planned two lobbying days, helped circulate a Dear Colleague letter, and made several calls for action in Congress. Additionally, with the Committee, we periodically bring human rights defenders and social leaders from Colombia to the United States. Part of their agenda is to meet members of Congress and their teams—I have used my experience from lobbying meetings during the course to help them craft more precise messages with concise asks for Congress members which dramatically improved the experience of these meetings.
For three weeks between May and June 2019, I signed up to take Adrienne Pine’s "Tribes on the Hill" summer ethnographic field school. I went in having a desire to take an intimate look at the U.S. Congressional system through the lens of anthropology. The nature of public anthropology allows students of the discipline to think critically about our surroundings in the context of, but not limited to, race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, age, ability, etc. By looking at the roles within Congress through this context, I was able to understand how the Congressional body of interns, staffers, and members of Congress navigate their relationships with each other, as well as with the public and lobbyists.
While this field school took place in a site about politics, it was also based in ethnographic writing. Each week we looked at a different section of ethnographic writing, by understanding the steps it takes to write an ethnography. These steps included proposal writing, field notes, ethical research practices/interactions with research subjects, the necessity of archival research, and how to string these steps together to write a cohesive, purposeful ethnography. Every class involved practicing writing field notes, sometimes through activities which forced us to think about what we are writing and why. We would write down observations by sitting in one, stationary spot, only writing down what we heard, writing down times as we took our notes, incorporating pictures, adding voice recordings and transcripts, and/or graphs that reflected age/sex/race/etc.
By the end of the course, the class was split into groups where we used these steps in creating a basic framework for an ethnography to reflect on the role of a congressional staffer. Because of this experience of networking with staffers in order to obtain information for this final project, I had collected numerous contacts of staffers that would later benefit me in the role of my current internship with a nonprofit. Dr. Pine connected me with the Guatemala Solidarity Project (GSP) where I applied and accepted the full-time intern position. I was able to translate what I had learned about U.S. Congress, staffers, and social justice in "Tribes on the Hill" when lobbying against basic human rights violations in Guatemala on Capitol Hill. The staffer networks I had collected after the class had ended became valuable connections I was able to use when I needed to set up meetings with staffers in order to push social justice agendas that I felt passionate about.