Alicia McGill is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at North Carolina State University. In 2008, while a doctoral candidate at Indiana University, she was awarded Wenner-Gren’s Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Students, Teachers, and Community Leaders Negotiating National and Local Heritage Ideologies in Belize,’ supervised by Dr. Bradley Levinson. Five years later, she became one of the very first recipients of the WGF Engaged Anthropology Grant, which enabled her to return to her fieldsite in the Central American country to share the results of her original research.
I received a Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant (EAG) to present the results of my cultural heritage-based dissertation research in Belize in summer 2013. In my dissertation research, I examined how constructions of heritage are promoted through public venues including archaeological practice, tourism, and education and how these shape the cultural production of young citizens, specifically in two Belizean villages (Crooked Tree and Biscayne). Through my work, I learned about state efforts (especially in education) to emphasize certain forms of archaeological heritage and cultural diversity over others to reinforce national identity. I also observed ways that messages about the past are interpreted and negotiated by community members as they navigate contemporary identity politics. My research connected with many public issues, especially education policy, archaeological practice, and heritage management, which is why I applied for an EAG.
With the EAG, I incorporated three forms of engagement 1) Sharing, dialogue, and support, 2) Teaching and public education, 3) Social critique. I interacted with heritage scholars, practitioners, and national actors, students and administrators in higher education, and host community members in Crooked Tree and Biscayne. The EAG helped me learn that engagement is often a multi-step process, and enabled me to reflect upon my initial findings, creating new opportunities for engagement in the future.
Engagement with Scholarly Communities and National Actors
I spent twelve days engaging in dialogue about my research on national and institutional levels by meeting with Belizean heritage policy-makers, practitioners, and members of academic communities. My goal was to connect my research with current heritage concerns and ongoing national and local heritage management initiatives, such as the creation of a National Cultural Policy by the Belizean National Institute of Culture and History (NICH).
I attended the Belize Archaeology and Anthropology Symposium (BAAS) and gave a presentation on youth’s knowledge about heritage and community needs and interests. At BAAS, I met with a national archivist, NICH officials, and foreign anthropologists involved in heritage initiatives to share my research results, offer policy recommendations, and discuss collaborations between host communities, national actors, and researchers. I participated in discussions about incorporating heritage and community involvement in a new national history project, and future engagement projects involving exchanges between teachers and students of different ethnic groups in the country.
I also met with Belizeans in the Ministry of Education, Belize Audubon Society, Belize Tourism Board, and Belize Kriol Project. I gave research reports to these individuals, and we discussed ways to integrate my findings with their educational programs.
At University of Belize and Galen University, I gave presentations, had a forum with students, and met with faculty. These visits were valuable as I contributed to the sharing of knowledge integral to higher education and engaged with the future generation of Belizean heritage practitioners, teachers, and tourguides. I also learned about students’ interests in heritage politics and university needs and ideas for collaborations. Students asked questions about my experiences as a researcher and my interests in Belizean culture. We discussed contemporary heritage issues in Belize including the recent destruction of a Maya temple. I was struck by students’ comments about the issue of balancing community development needs with the protection of cultural heritage.
Engagement with Host Communities
I spent nine days interacting with Crooked Tree and Biscayne residents and organizing activities aimed at key stakeholders (youth, teachers, and other leaders) to disseminate my research results in culturally appropriate ways, engage in dialogue about heritage and community development, and provide space for celebrating local heritage. I organized three forums and participated in other community events, such as primary school graduations. These activities, though structured slightly different than I originally planned, sparked dialogue and ended up being successful reflective social engagements.
The Biscayne students I originally worked with now live throughout the country, so I could not bring all of them back to the school. At the suggestion of the Biscayne principal, I organized a forum with teachers. This was particularly appropriate because when conducting my dissertation research the teachers and I often engaged in conversations about school needs and student development. In the teacher forum, we looked at photographs, exchanged stories, and in a loosely Freirean model I shared what I observed with regards to ways teachers negotiated challenges related to school diversity to create strong community identity and advocate for their students.
In Crooked Tree, I organized two events at the school. At the first event (attended only by youth), we looked at old photos, causing the young people to reflect on growing up. Youth (many of whom now attend separate high schools) enthusiastically shared memories about primary school, how much their peers had changed, and visiting Da Ruins (the nearby Chau Hiix archaeological site).
I also organized an event attended by tour guides, teachers, community elders and families who had participated in the archaeology project. I made a brief presentation and we looked at hundreds of photographs. I invited a teacher to talk about community history, but he chose instead to tell stories about the project, school politics, and student learning about heritage. Although I intended this to be a forum about local history and village settlement, it became an opportunity for the exchange of memories and reflection about recent village events. Old photographs were a catalyst for reminiscing about people who had passed away, ways the community had changed over the last 20 years, and stories about Da Ruins and the archaeology project. This event highlighted local tools for preserving community stories, and the ways an archaeological site integrates with community heritage. The event also opened possibilities for future engagements – for the first time, community residents made suggestions for heritage projects they thought would make valuable contributions to community development and youth learning (such as the construction of a social studies reader about local history).
The EAG facilitated engagement with national heritage practitioners, members of the academic community, and a range of host community members in Belize. What I learned through the EAG will continue to influence how I approach my role as an anthropologist. Interactions with diverse stakeholders revealed new connections between research and engagement and possibilities for future collaborative initiatives resulting in a variety of mutually beneficial exchanges.