Posted by: soanstolaf | October 16, 2014

Finding A Family In Peru

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When Maddie Haakenson was in high school, she visited a small non-profit organization in Peru called Generación. Years later, as a junior in college, she returned to work there for a month. Generación is an organization dedicated to getting kids off the street and out of situations of poverty, violence, and abuse, and put them into school and jobs.

When she first visited as a high school student, she didn’t speak Spanish, but managed to stay in contact with many of the people she met, developing  friendships and learning just how important an organization like Generación can be. Going back, she said, wasn’t “just going to some foreign, third-world location as a random volunteer looking to make a distance. These were my people. My family.”

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She designed her own academic internship at Generación with the goal of learning the reality of the childrens’ lives “through full emersion and volunteer work.” Generación, like many similar organization, lacks funds and staff, so she went hoping to do whatever was needed and to understand what she could do to help in the future. She spent three weeks in Peru, living with other volunteers and working at one of their shelters doing lots of childcare. She found it a very fullfilling experience, and was both teacher and love counselor. Not only did she remind small children to share multiple times a day, and then let them fall asleep in her lap, but she listened to the teenage boys when they asked “me to sit down with them so they can tell me about a girl they love.”

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Haakenson is an experienced traveler, having done a gap year in Colombia, a semester in Ecuador, and having spent time in Guatemala, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Spain, France and a few other countries. This doesn’t mean that it’s an easy experience though. She acknowledges that it’s difficult to learn how to fit into different cultural customs, “especially when dealing with class differences.” For this internship, she also made sure she was mentally prepared to deal with everything, but discovered that “learning to have an empathetic lens from So/An and then working with kids in ROG (Reaching Our Goals)” had prepared her well, without her even knowing it.  Her So/An major skills helped her to deal with culture and class differences and to adapt and immerse herself as she connected with people “so vastly different from me”.

Once there, she made sure to deal with culture shock as best she could. This mean taking the time to process, but not isolating herself when things got tough. A natural extrovert, she spent plenty of time with other people, which in her opinion is the best way to get over culture shock  – “to be around those differences so much that it becomes familiar and normal”.

It wasn’t all having small children nap in her lap on the beach and getting presents of flowers from four year olds (although there was plenty of that!) There were some downsides. She caught lice from a few of the kids, for example. But even that has a happy ending. She went to the Minnesota Lice Lady to get treated as soon as she got back, but “now I work there, at Minnesota Lice Lady as an official ‘Lice Technician’”.

As for her study-abroad internship experience, she wouldn’t change it for the world, and wants to go back for at least three months.  “I would totally make it a study abroad program if I could, especially for SOAN majors.” If anyone is interested, she said, she would “love to do everything to make it possible for future Oles to have the same experience.”

If you’re interested in Haakenson’s work or Generación, you can email her at

You can check out for mor information on Generación.

If you’re interested in ROG, visit this link:

MarcelLaFlamme-headshotMarcel LaFlamme is a visiting professor this year in the Sociology/Anthropology department. He comes to us from North Dakota, where he researched unmanned aircrafts and pilots. He is currently a PhD candidate at Rice University and got his M.S. from Simmons College. Professor LaFlamme was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his history, interests, and advice for students.

How did you get interested in anthropology?

Professor LaFlamme: My undergraduate major was folklore and mythology, a small, quirky program that attracted both students who wanted to work with cultural materials that others had collected and students who wanted to collect or create themselves. I guess I was in the latter camp: I fell in lovewith fieldwork over the course of my thesis research at an all-male boarding school in Connecticut. There was something thrilling about seeing my theoretical framework completely upended by what I was learning from my informants. One of the recurring pleasures of anthropology is the moment of realizing you’re dead wrong.

 What are your areas of specialty?

Professor LaFlamme: I think of myself as an anthropologist of work, although my research also overlaps with the fields of cultural geography and science and technology studies. I also have a teaching interest in gender and sexuality, and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of scholarly communication: an interest that grows out of my training in library and information science.

 Where and on what have you done your research?

Professor LaFlamme: I just finished a year of fieldwork in North Dakota, where I was conducting research on unmanned aircraft testing and training. I sat in a ground control station behind Customs and Border Protection agents as they learned to fly the Predator, and I built a small unmanned aircraft of my own alongside students at the University of North Dakota. I also surveyed licensed pilots across northeast North Dakota to understand their perceptions of unmanned aircraft and the strategies they use to communicate with each other both before and during a flight. Thus far, my research has been primarily in the United States, but I’m starting to think about a second project that would include comparative research in Canada.

 What brought you to St. Olaf?

Professor LaFlamme: Most of the colleges to which I applied as a senior in high school were liberal arts colleges like St. Olaf. Although I ended up at a research university, I stayed curious about the small college setting and the distinctive experience it fosters. Read More…

Posted by: soanstolaf | October 2, 2014

Bridging the Gap

Evan Davis and Madison Goering, both class of 2015, spent their summer exploring the (new for them) area of Public Health and HIV/AIDS. Davis, from Iowa City, IA and Goering, from Broomfield, CO, did a Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) project in conjunction with Social Entrepreneurship Scholars doing client-based research at the Minnesota AIDS Project in Minneapolis, MN. They worked with Matt Toburen, the Public Policy Director and an Ole Alum. They had a variety of tasks, doing prep work for his meetings with government officials, and doing research via individual interviews among other things.

Neither of them had backgrounds in HIV/AIDS or public health. Tom Williamson, a professor in the department who sometimes works in the area of Medical Anthropology has connections and they soon discovered that a number of Oles work at the Minnesota AIDS project, and after a few interviews at various places, they found themselves in an internship that was completely new territory. Read More…

Posted by: soanstolaf | September 25, 2014

Exploring Her Passion for Social Justice


One of the 2014 summer recipients of the Ken Olsen grant was Sierra Napoli, class of 2015. From Proctor, MN, (a small town near Duluth) she spent the summer as the Women’s Advocate intern at Safe Haven Shelter for Battered Women. Being an Ole, however, she also tutored people trying to get their GED at Community Action Duluth and worked as a server at Pizza Luce to offset transportation costs.

Sierra first heard about Safe Haven through her mother, who volunteers at their Resource Center. It interested her, because as a Women’s and Gender Studies concentrator, she was interested in issues surround gender, including the effects of domestic violence. She also wants to work with oppressed populations and be an advocate for social justice. So when she got the chance via the Ken Olsen Grant to take an internship related to her field of study that interested her, she took it.

Her job at Community Action Duluth was found through the Ole Network. While searching the Ole Alumni network, she ran across an Ole who connected her to the right people. This method of finding internships is something Sierra recommends to other students searching for an internship.

There can be no doubt of the values of these experiences for Sierra. She says “both of these opportunities furthered my knowledge and interest in the realm of social justice and working with oppressed populations.” These internships tie directly into what she wants to do following her graduation at the end of this school year.

As for finding great internships like these, her advice to other students is simple: “internships don’t really fall out of the sky, you have to seek them out yourself.”

If you’re interested in Sierra’s work, feel free to contact her at

Posted by: soanstolaf | September 23, 2014

Dance and Anthropology in Bangalore

Lindsey Mornson, class of 2015, didn’t spend her summer at the poolside. A double major in sociology/anthropology and dance, she interned for eight weeks in Bangalore, India working with the Attakalari Centre for Movement Arts. The goal was to promote “traditional performing arts through community outreach projects, coordination of artist support, and marketing and promotion efforts”. Attakalari is a dance school and company, and also organizes dance workshops and lectures in schools around Bangalore, helps with career development, and has a bi-yearly international dance festival.

Lindsey found the internship the old-fashioned way: Google. An internship company based in Bangalore called LeaveUrMark helped her plan her internship, provided an apartment and pre-departure support. St. Olaf helped fund it, with grants from the Ken Olsen fund in the So/An department, the dance department, and the Kloeck-Jenson International Development Scholars fund from the Piper Center.

The work was the perfect way for Lindsey to explore the connections between her two majors and enjoy two things that she loves. Although her day to day work was in an office, drafting funding applications, compiling information for brochures, attending meetings, and helping plan the dance festival for February, she was able to use her anthropological skills daily to see how dance communities function in another country.  “I found it interesting that the way dance was talked about, how the dancers existed together, and how the community functioned (were) as a whole very similar to … back home.”

The internship helped her define what she’s interested in doing in the future as well. While arts management doesn’t appeal to her as much, she learned that she has a passion for learning about the history, culture, and traditions of Indian dance styles. This semester, she’s working on a DUR with Professor Von Bibra in the dance department “looking into how globalization, modernity, and capitalism have influenced Classical Indian Dance forms today.”


The most important thing she learned, however, wasn’t about the specifics of dance, but about how to adapt to a new work environment in a new culture. The biggest challenge for Lindsey was being more flexible about deadlines and getting work done. Her anthropology classes helped her let go of her ideas about deadlines and work schedules and to just go with the flow. “In the end, we accomplished so much in the time I was there. Their work methods were very effective after all.”

As for other So/An majors looking for internships, she offers this advice: “Find something that will really push you out of your comfort zone. I had my biggest learning moments when things went completely wrong or I felt so uncomfortable and out of place.”


If you have questions for Lindsey feel free to email her at

Posted by: soanstolaf | September 18, 2014

Human Trafficking in Minnesota

Human trafficking is a major problem in the United States. Minnesota and the Great Lakes region face the particular issue of the trafficking of Native women, in which we see the intersection of many forms of oppression. Several of our majors are involved with an on-campus group dedicated to raising awareness and ending human trafficking.
You can see a video about this topic here:

Posted by: soanstolaf | September 16, 2014

New Anthropologist: Marcel LaFlamme

The department is lucky to have Marcel LaFlamme with us this year. Professor LaFlamme comes to St. Olaf from Rice University, where he is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Anthropology. He recently completed a year of fieldwork with unmanned pilot trainees in North Dakota, which was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Check out an article about that work here:

Marcel received his B.A. in folklore and mythology from Harvard University, where he wrote a thesis on narratives of masculinity at an all-male boarding school, and his M.S. in library and information science from Simmons College. From 2008 to 2010, he served as the library director for a rural community college in southeast Kansas, where he curated the manuscripts of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright William Inge.

Stop by and say hello! And keep on the look out for another post about Professor LaFlamme in the coming weeks.

Posted by: soanstolaf | March 17, 2014

Art, Prison, and South Africa

Kyla[Kyla Rathjen, center]

Kyla Rathjen, a senior SOAN major from Eden Prairie, MN, spent her last semester studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa through CIEE, a non-profit organization offering study abroad programs across the world.

Kyla’s experience, a “service-based learning” program, sought to educate students about issues of social justice and ethical citizenship by requiring students to become directly involved in a community-based service organization.  Kyla split her time between the classroom and her service project, spending three days a week studying social science theories and research methods two days a week volunteering at an organization that sought to decrease racial and economic inequalities in Cape Town.

Specifically, Kyla worked with Young in Prison, a non-profit that seeks to give educational and emotional support to youth experiencing incarceration.  Kyla divided her time between the Young in Prison office and Pollsmoor Prison, a large high security prison famous for housing Nelson Mandela.  Working at each location one day a week, Kyla focused on building positive relationships and improving self-esteem through various art projects. 

A large part of the student’s time is focused on the creation and implementation of an end of term “capstone” project.  Working with Young in Prison, Kyla proposed and developed a creative writing project that sought to connect current and former prisoners.  Through writing letters back and forth in a “pen-pal” format, Kyla hoped to help people who had extremely limited human interactions build relationships and relate with someone who had been through a similarly difficult experience. 

Through her work with Young in Prison, Kyla gained valuable insights into both the practical challenges and important functions social justice organizations face.  Kyla learned quickly that one of the most persistent problems of non-profit work is figuring out how to carry out a project in cost-effective and practical ways.  While Kyla developed many potential arts projects for the prisoners, the limited resources of the prison itself often made the implementation of these projects difficult or impossible to achieve. 

Yet, while practical constraints often limited the scope of the projects, Kyla observed that it was not the projects themselves but rather the relationships prisoners were able to form through the arts projects that ultimately had the most long lasting and meaningful effect.  Kyla told me that many current and former prisoners felt a great sense of loneliness and abandonment.  Their art projects, then, allowed them the opportunity to make human connections and build relationships. 

Kyla’s SOAN background helped her both in her transition to living abroad and in the classroom.  First and foremost, Kyla felt as though her SOAN classes allowed her to approach her time abroad with an open mind.  Additionally, her previous experiences studying social inequalities in the United States prepared her to both analyze the social inequalities of South African society at a structural level and confidently discuss issues related to race, class, and gender in a large group setting. 

Kyla stressed to me that her program might appeal to students seeking a slightly less “traditional” study abroad program.  Because many programs go directly through a university, students going abroad often find it difficult making connections outside of their university community.  What Kyla appreciated about her program was the opportunity it gave her to connect to larger, more diverse communities in Cape Town.  Additionally, the focus on service learning placed a greater emphasis on what a student does outside of the classroom.  While Kyla appreciated her time spent engaged in group discussions, she continually reiterated that her internship with Young in Prison had the largest and most meaningful impact on her while studying in Cape Town.

While Kyla hopes to return to work at Young in Prison in the future, she is currently seeking out positions in programs involving youth-centered and arts-based restorative justice initiatives in the Twin Cities.

If you would like to contact Kyla about her experiences working and studying in Cape Town, email her at                                                                                                                                                — Interview by Mac Leydon

Posted by: soanstolaf | February 19, 2014

The Anthropologists at Intel

From the New York Times business section:  “At Intel, an anthropologist’s team travels the globe, trying to learn what customers crave in their everyday electronics.”


Posted by: soanstolaf | February 15, 2014

Anthropologists as Journalists

New Rules for Radicals

How George Goehl is transforming community organizing.

BY DAVID MOBERG (Ph.D in anthropology from University of Chicago)

Published in:  IN THESE TIMES

As a hungry young drifter who had only recently (and barely) finished high school in the late 1980s, George Goehl (pronounced “gale”) got by with a little help from a free soup kitchen in Bloomington, Ind. A few years later, that kitchen served as the launching pad for his dynamic career as a community organizer. For the past six years, as executive director of the community-organizing network National People’s Action (NPA), Goehl has spurred a rapid growth. More important, he is spearheading a dramatic transformation of NPA’s strategy and goals—while helping to unleash more of the progressive potential of the large and uniquely American community organizing movement.

Goehl’s first political awakening came after he had returned to the soup kitchen as a volunteer in 1990. One day, it hit him that many of the patrons from years earlier were still regulars: The kitchen, part of our country’s tattered safety net, had kept them alive, but it had not reduced poverty, generally or individually. He began discussing the root causes of poverty with the kitchen’s patrons. Then, with tips from a mentor he met at a tenants’ organizing conference, he transformed the talkfest into the Coalition of Low-Income and Homeless Citizens. His work caught the attention of Shel Trapp, an organizer and a disciple of Saul Alinsky, the founder of modern community organizing.

Trapp recruited Goehl to study the craft in Chicago’s hard-pressed West Side neighborhoods in 1996. Goehl dutifully learned the commandments of traditional Chicago-style community organizing: Don’t talk ideology, just issues. No electoral politics. Build organizations, not movements. No coalitions: Protect organizational turf. Focus on neighborhoods and on concrete, winnable goals. Goehl quickly recruited hundreds of new members to Blocks Together, then an allied organization of National People’s Action, his first association with the multi-state network of community groups founded in 1972 by Trapp and the brilliant neighborhood leader Gale Cincotta.

NPA won widespread admiration for its 1977 success in getting Congress to pass the Community Reinvestment Act, which prevented banks from engaging in the practice known as redlining: disinvesting in poorer, seemingly riskier neighborhoods. But Goehl grew frustrated with the limits to his community organizing work. He thought that NPA had become too preoccupied with enforcing its landmark legislative victory and had failed to press onward to bigger goals, such as breaking up the banks or further regulating the industry.

And Goehl grew frustrated, too, with Alinsky-style organizing. Community organizing was dominated by several large networks, each with its own training centers, styles and goals, which had accomplished a lot: helping members deal with local problems and sometimes tackling bigger issues such as homeownership, energy policies or healthcare. But Goehl, like many other critics, thought that these community organizations lacked the ambition, vision, strategy and full arsenal of political weapons needed to roll back decades of corporate conservative victories and to create a more democratic economy and government. One big flaw in traditional organizing was that it was “designed to win the best things possible for a landscape we had not created,” Goehl says.

Goehl left NPA in 2004 for a stint as an organizer for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM). There, he had a second political awakening: “A lot of people came in [to immigrant rights organizing] with a political analysis first, then [learned] organizing,” Goehl says. “For me, my politics developed after my organizing skills. I would be in a room like this”—he gestures to the spartan basement of the NPA’s national headquarters in Chicago—“and almost all of the organizers were immigrants, and their ideas around movements, strategy and political analysis were so different from anything I’d experienced in the Chicago school of organizing— so much more expansive, broad and complicated.” At FIRM, Goehl began to understand the value of flexibility in adopting new tactics and strategies, as well as collaborating with different groups to build movements.

When Goehl returned to NPA six years ago as executive director, he found most of his staff and community leaders open to a bolder strategy. That ambition inspired new affiliations and new organizing, helping NPA’s membership leap to about 90,000 members in 30 groups across 14 states, he says. But Goehl doesn’t think growth alone will enable community groups to rival the networks built by the corporate Right. To win game-changing victories they also need more alliances (with progressive issue groups, unions and other community organizing networks, for example) and a stronger progressive infrastructure (more varied and potent communications strategies and funding sources, including more member donations to end overreliance on foundations).

At the same time, Goehl stresses that the NPA must retain what he sees as the soul of its tradition: “the willingness to challenge corporate power and both parties, [to take] direct action to transform power and transform the human spirit, and to organize from the bottom up.”

With these ideas in mind and with assistance from Richard Healey, a consultant with the nonprofit Grassroots Policy Project, Goehl and the NPA spent the last six years developing a new strategy that the group adopted at its April 2013 convention. The crux: The NPA is no longer satisfied with protesting the powerful and aims to help the powerless take the reins instead— through elections, and also through greater worker decision-making power in workplaces. And it is thinking not just in months or years, but in decades.

The organization now commits itself to a vision of a “new economy”: democratic and public control of finance, and cooperative and alternative forms of business ownership. Beyond using cooperatives to show how worker-run economic alternatives are viable, NPA also envisions giving workers real decision-making power within corporations and giving the public the right to revoke the charters of corporations that provide too little social value.

NPA wants to directly challenge the conservative ideas that limit the American political imagination, such as hyper-individualism, market fetishism and hostility not only to socialism and other alternatives to capitalism, but to government itself. It also emphasizes the need to eliminate the structural racism that impedes any strategy to address inequality. Although “NPA has always worked to advance racial justice,” Goehl explains, it must eradicate any barriers to leadership by people of color within NPA.

“If we fail to win the battle of big ideas, we fail,” Goehl says.

To spread these big ideas and pave the way for a new future, the group plans to advocate concrete structural reforms that shift power from corporations to people. These might include, for example, “democratizing money” by establishing state banks like North Dakota’s or reforming the rules of electoral politics—“people in, money out”—as some statewide affiliates are trying to do. The idea is that, as these structural reforms accumulate, they will lead to a transformation of society, ushering in a new social and economic egalitarianism. A major upcoming NPA campaign will focus on raising tax revenue for local, state and federal governments through a financial transaction tax. When anti-tax crusaders claim the country can’t afford higher taxes, Goehl’s rejoinder is, “We found the money, and it’s not in Grandma’s pension or our children’s classrooms, but on Wall Street.”

While traditional community organizations eschewed electoral politics—unless it was simply to confront an elected official—many have now ventured into direct electoral waters, even endorsing candidates and mobilizing voters for them (as the progressive coalition USAction does). The NPA has established a separate nonprofit 501(c)4 arm, called the National People’s Action Campaign (NPAC), to engage in everything from legislative advocacy to registering voters, and even running candidates.

TakeAction Minnesota, an NPA affiliate with an active electoral politics arm, provides an example of how NPAC may operate. Like many progressive groups, NPAC hopes to be independent of the two big parties but has no plans to form a third party. Being politically independent, says Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, means that candidates for office must be accountable to grassroots members instead of party leaders. TakeAction also has been independently nurturing its own candidates to run in primaries or general elections. Ultimately, Goehl says, the Democratic Party will be “the field of struggle” for most of NPAC’s political candidates, since the Republican Party’s terrain is so far right.

TakeAction Minnesota won a big victory in 2012 when it helped defeat a supposedly slam-dunk referendum that would have required voters to show a photo identification card. This fall, a city council member and longtime TakeAction Minnesota activist, Betsy Hodges, was elected mayor of Minneapolis. Her campaign stressed the need for racial and ethnic equality, and used community organizing tactics to defeat former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew, the candidate favored by many Democratic Farmer Labor Party leaders (even though the party made no endorsement) and by most of the city’s labor unions (except SEIU). That split underscores why a leader in another network, who spoke off the record, thinks that NPA needs to learn how to work more closely with the labor movement to forge common strategies as early as possible.

The ambitious and long-range strategy of Goehl and NPA could greatly alter the progressive movement as a whole, both by adding heft to existing campaigns—for a financial transaction tax, for example—and by initiating new ones.

However, the NPA has its work cut out for it. NPA’s intent to shift power through a series of reforms is appealing, but it is often difficult to develop campaigns that meet all the ideal criteria of structural reform. The nation’s big corporations had a decades- long approach not only to changing policy but also to winning the “battle of big ideas,” in Goehl’s terms. It was certainly easier for corporations with great power to launch a 40-year campaign to regain what little they lost in the progressive reforms of the 1960s and the 1930s, than it will be for progressives to execute a long-term strategy to dethrone the corporations and other concentrations of power and money. But NPA’s work on such plans offers both a counterpoint to the short-term thinking that too often shapes the progressive agenda, and a template for how progressives can make greater gains—perhaps on the scale of the New Deal—as opportune moments arise, whether they are crises like the Great Recession (when many opportunities were missed) or the growing reaction now against extreme inequality.

“The biggest challenge is also the biggest opportunity,” Goehl says. “So many people—black, white, Latino, Asian—are being pushed down by the current economic order. If there was ever an opportunity for people to get on the same page and go after the real culprits, this is it.” Goehl hopes the organizational grandchildren of Alinsky will move from neighborhoods to national challenges. “Now community organizations not only can win policy campaigns,” he says. “They can change the country.”

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