By Milton Canas-Chinchilla, Jan English-Lueck, Patrick Padiernos, Abril Perez-Gonzaga, and Ann Warfield-Hooker
Anthropology departments across the United States felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding social efforts to contain it. The six counties of the San Francisco Bay Area were among the earliest to detect and react to the pandemic, and San Jose State University went into lockdown on March 9, 2020.
The San Jose State Anthropology Department, like many of its applied counterparts, faced more obstacles beyond scrambling to online modes. As an applied program with real-world projects embedded in courses, we had faculty and students actively working with regional organizational partners. We also had a substantial community of alumni from our Applied Anthropology MA program who faced challenges in working with their client communities. Retreating behind ivory parapets was not an option in our applied community. To document the anthropological response to COVID-19, our team of graduate and undergraduate anthropologists conducted an oral history of our department’s experience of 2020-2021. We collected oral histories of faculty, students, and practitioners, adapting our methods to follow physical distancing protocols. From February to April 2021, we interviewed faculty, students, and alumni practitioners digitally, and looked for shifts in research and practitioner activities, as well as changes in the social networks in which we all worked.
In an attempt to render these historic moments visible, we documented the challenges to conducting applied research and community action, and how academics and practitioners rethought how we recruited community participants, how we deployed research toolkits, and mobilized social and economic support for hidden populations. We found that the pandemic accentuated the underlying issues we were already investigating in our research agendas and community applications, such as Silicon Valley’s rampant inequality and fascination with technological solutions. As Dr. Melissa Beresford notes, “What the COVID-19 pandemic has done is it's just put a giant magnifying glass on all of the existing inequalities that were already in our society, and it's just kind of magnified, what those inequalities are, and exacerbated those inequalities for sure.” Publishing takes a long time, so it was important to get thoughts into the world quickly. Drs. John Marlovits and Roberto Gonzalez published an article in Anthropology Today early in the pandemic that framed the emerging experience for a broader audience. As Gonzalez comments, “But also trying to give an anthropological view on how the virus, how the pandemic, was really kind of breaking open these inequalities and these problems, these deep social problems that are often hidden in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area more generally.”
We found that applied anthropologists used the networking skills we so often investigate to create and intensify partnerships and collaborative relationships to get the work done. People amplified what they could do individually by building partnerships and coalitions. Faculty and students built research connections with other institutions. Dr. Faas used his existing network in disaster anthropology to build a collective. He notes that they had done this collaboration in the past, but that they could build on it, “I worked with my colleagues in this collective known as CADAN..., which is the Culture and Disasters Action Network... It's a collective that has been funded multiple times by the National Science Foundation, to work with non-academic practitioners around disasters to develop research-based solutions to really abiding problems in the world of disasters.” He collected data on COVID-19’s impact on social networks and worked with Dr. Beresford and their applied students to analyze that work.
Meanwhile, our alumni in applied anthropology were meeting the moment through their professional work. Many were working in research, non-profit, or governmental organizations serving communities radically disrupted by the pandemic. They found new strategies to build and redefine community relations. They seized the opportunity to include diverse voices in their organizations. Maribel Martinez’s work shifted from her duties with Santa Clara County’s LGBTQ communities to engaging with Spanish-speaking people about the pandemic, drawing on her own Master’s work with SOMOS Mayfair.She says, “We have partnered with community organizations, such as community health workers, and those who use the promotora model to make sure that our information is going out into the community.” The transition to inclusive, but digital outreach was not simple.
Mayra Cerda, (shown above) working with Sacred Heart, amplifies the challenge this poses in working with communities. She reflects, “Like the Flintstones, we just did everything on paper, on the rocks. And we needed to implement something more advanced like the Jetsons.” The pace of the transition was “moving fast” and “It was very crazy.”
The COVID-19 pandemic magnified existing social inequalities in our environment and the discipline of anthropology plays a crucial role in situating and addressing these challenges. While COVID-19 has brought a magnifying glass to issues and inequalities, it has also highlighted our ability and the need to collaborate and communicate with one another. From our departmental community’s oral history, we found that our students, faculty, and practitioners adapted in a variety of innovative ways, ironically cultivating community connections while enduring the barriers of physical isolation.