The Exchange Program

Working as a practicing anthropologist led me down many dark alleyways looking for or trying to develop work. The late eighties found me working as a freelance consultant, and I’d talk to anyone if I thought there was a contract in the offing. As a result, I had some surreal experiences.

One was the not-for-profit group in a wealthy community interested in bringing children from impoverished African communities to the USA for cultural exchange. I was very excited about this program until midway through the interview.
The interview took place in a high office overlooking Boston Harbor, and the group of interviewers was less interested in what I might bring to the fruition of the project than my academic connections with my grad school anthropology department. They had a marquee letterhead and wanted someone with a degree from a prestigious school. Over the interview, I became appalled by their casual colonialistic expectations for the program. It was a sort of one-way deal where the American youth would study the culture of the Africans, and the Africans would be astonished by the generosity of the Americans in lifting them from the mire; while working as sort of domestic servants.
I politely extracted myself from candidacy. But as a parting shot, I observed that cultural exchanges typically had something substantive in the exchange part of the equation; that the exchange part of things was integral.
I didn’t expect that my comments would squash their program, but I hoped that enough other candidates for the job might offer similar observations and that they would realize that there was something out of kilter with their ideas.

Poll any group of people in my trade, and you’ll find us working for supermarket chains, hi-tech, marketing companies, candy manufacturers, and many other situations where it can be a bit of a stretch to fit in. wherever we go, we often find that we create our own job descriptions over time. I do not know which poor colleague got the job at the not-for-profit, but I am grateful that it was not me.

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