Dr. Elijah Adiv Edelman is a graduate of the AU PhD program in anthropology and now teaches at Rhode Island College. On Monday, October 10, he will join us at the Social Justice Colloquium to give the talk “Trans and Queer Anthropology: Activism, Academia and Community.”
In this discussion, Elijah will address how to do activist-engaged anthropological work. He will especially focus on how students and academics working in Trans and Queer-specific anthropological inquiry can partner with LGBT activists and communities of practice. He’ll introduce us to international and U.S. case studies that serve as examples of both best practices and inequities in conversations around LGBT civil rights.
The conversation will be active, with participant invited to brainstorm ways of shifting or reformulating our own research practices, and we thought it might be helpful to introduce you to Elijah before his talk. We reached out to him over email to learn more about his research, his time at AU, and what he’s up to now.
The evolution of Elijah’s research interests
There has always been a close relationship between Elijah’s activist interests and his work as an anthropologist. “My graduate school research interests really emerged out of my activist interests, which, in turn, further informed both my graduate and post-graduate work,” Elijah said.
During Elijah’s time in DC, most of his work focused on issues facing trans communities in the metro area. “By virtue of the communities I worked with, this led to my work taking a turn towards looking at how the loss of life—in this context trans women of color—may be seen as not terribly important due to institutionalized anti-blackness, transphobia and the hypercriminalization of trans women’s bodies,” he said.
Now, in Providence, Elijah’s work focuses more on public health and the accessibility of harm reduction materials to sex workers, as well as on general public access to HIV/STI testing.
“I teach courses on sex and sexuality (as well as queer and trans anthropology!). It was only through the continued support of my AU advisor, Bill Leap, that I felt encouraged to work on and towards issues that, at the time, were not terribly hot topics in anthropology,” Elijah said.
What does activist-engaged anthropological work look like?
Elijah’s work pursues questions about how community-based concerns and activism can be addressed in academic-based projects.
“I think one of the biggest challenges to activist engaged anthropology, or any kind of social science research, is that the process itself can take real time,” Elijah said.
A researcher can write a survey and get it out within months. But if the researcher wants that same survey to include questions generated by community members and framed in ways that support community needs, and then to test the questions in the community, the timeline increases to upwards of a year.
“While this means that getting the ‘data’ can take time, that entire process is a key element of cultivating truly meaningful relationships between the ‘researcher’ and the ‘researched,’” Elijah said.
A profound example of this came out of a series of roundtables Elijah and trans community researchers conducted with DC trans community members between 2010 and 2011, reaching a total of 109 trans community members.
This was followed up with a large, community-produced 81-question needs assessment survey, with community-led data collection running between 2012 through 2013. Upon closing in May 2013, 624 surveys were completed with a total of 521 surveys qualifying for inclusion in the data analysis. To date, this is the largest city-based, trans-specific needs assessment survey in U.S. history. The final report outlining these findings, ‘Access Denied,’ was released in November 2014, and is available for free download here.
“We (the researchers) learned that many young trans feminine folks of color would often find community in spaces that police identified as areas of ‘prostitution’. This resulted in many, many young trans women of color being wrongly charged with solicitation, being forced to move into areas with less traffic and less safety and, in some cases, it resulted in their murder,” Elijah explained.
“In short, while the police (and perhaps the broader ‘lgb’ community) might have seen groups of young trans women of color in sex worker spaces as evidence of sex work, this community-informed research allowed for those with institutional privilege to go to local community organizations, and even to city council, and make it clear that not all ‘LGBT’ organizations are inclusive of trans folks and not all trans folks will go to the same places to find community.”
The work had a concrete impact on legislation. The legislation that allowed for pre-emptive arrests of people who merely appeared to be engaging in sex work because of their presence in “prostitution free zones” was declared legally questionable and is no longer carried out in DC.
“This was a profound win on many levels and a fantastic reminder of the importance of community-based research,” Elijah said.
Snagging a tenure-track position after the Ph.D.
After his time at AU, Elijah managed to find something a lot of anthropology PhD students seek: a tenure-track teaching position at a school he loves.
“I found my current faculty position at RIC through the nightmare process that is the academic job market! I was very, very fortunate to have been offered a tenure-track position at an institution like RIC,” Elijah said.
Rhode Island College is the only public college in the state (though there is also a community college and a university). RIC students are majority first-generation college students, and many work full-time jobs in addition to going to school.
“The students are in the classroom because they want to be there and I think this really translates into a level of investment that isn’t terribly common in many spaces in higher education,” Elijah said. “We cap our classes around 20-30 students and tuition works out to be around seven thousand dollars a year for a full course load. Our faculty, adjuncts and staff are all unionized and are paid truly living wages. I am beyond grateful that I landed where I did!”
He advises students who share his interests in gender, sex, and sexuality to pursue experiences outside the academy in addition to their studies. “I think these issues are really extremely ‘hot’ topics not just in higher education but also in NGO work, public health work, and community justice work. Having experience in those areas is definitely a good thing,” he said.