Engaged Anthropology Grant: Mary Elizabeth Schmid

Students’ drawings of “Global Farming Families of Southern Appalachia” historical narrative.

Dr. Mary Elizabeth Schmid received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2015 to aid research on “Global Farming Families of Southern Appalachia and the Mexican Bajio,” supervised by Dr. Ann E. Kingsolver. Building upon her fieldwork Dr. Schmid returned to the field after receiving an Engaged Anthropology Grant in 2018 to aid engaged activities on “Anthropology in Schools: Diversity and Agricultural Change in Southern Appalachia”.

Who counts as a farming family in southern Appalachia? Which family migration stories are highlighted in agricultural histories and rural heritage programming? How do K-12 students learn these histories through narratives? What can anthropology do to enhance parity and equity in K-12 curriculums? These are a few of the questions that inspired this engaged project.

When considering Appalachia, the public imagination tends to erase and/or diminish the contemporary and historic diversity of cultures and perspectives that make Appalachia what it is today. Migration histories of families from Europe dominate the heritage lessons. These narratives can quietly teach people that “others” (deemed nonwhites and outsiders) do not belong. People in and of Appalachia know this and many contest it. For my dissertation, I worked with binational farming families in southern Appalachia and the Mexican Bajío. In the U.S., these families contribute to the food system as farmers, farm managers, packing house workers, brokers, truck drivers, and more. But, due to their racialized status in the U.S., their contributions are undervalued and mischaracterized. These Latinx-Appalachian farming families are making history as binational collective strategies. My dissertation tells their stories, counter- constructing stereotypes of Latinx in U.S. agriculture.

Students’ drawings of “Global Farming Families of Southern Appalachia” historical narrative.

Studies show that there is a need for disseminating anthropological knowledge in K-12 schools, for teaching diversity and inclusion in agricultural education, and for addressing racism within U.S. food system studies. This project addresses these needs. The active learning materials are built around a de-identified ethnographic text that weaves together the migration histories of two farming families in southern Appalachia – one from Mexico and the other from Ireland. I selected quotes that tell imagery-filled stories of what life was like for families in Mexico and southern Appalachia as they shifted from subsistence-focused agriculture to market-focused farming. The stories are woven together to both teach the history of the food system in southern Appalachia and the Mexican Bajío and to offer parity to migration histories of Appalachian farming families from Mexico and Ireland. The activities teach social science terminology (e.g., historical narrative, primary and secondary sources, technology, quality of life, and social transformation) as well as practical social science skills such as making kinship charts, interviewing family members, and reading maps.

The project addressed NC sixth-grade “common core standards” listed under History, Geography, and Economy through an integrated anthropological lens. The following are a few of the NC sixth-grade social studies core standards that guided me as I created the educational materials:

  • “Compare historical and contemporary events and issues to understand continuity and change” (6.H.2.2);
  • “Explain the factors that influenced the movement of people, goods, and ideas and the effects of that movement on societies and regions over time (e.g., location near rivers and natural barriers, trading practices and spread of culture)” (6.G.1.2);
  • “Explain how conflict, compromise, and negotiation over the availability of resources (natural, human and capital) impacted the economic development of various civilizations, societies and regions (e.g., competition for scarce resources, unequal distribution of wealth and the emergence of powerful trading networks)” (6.E.1.1).
Students’ drawings of “Global Farming Families of Southern Appalachia” historical narrative.

These enrichment lessons create an opportunity to celebrate diversity and promote intercultural belonging in public schools in rural southern Appalachia. The diversity in my sixth-grade classroom surprised even the students. Their family migration histories were often unknown to them until they interviewed a family member. Their families have come from countries like Russia, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Moldova, Honduras, Ireland, Scotland and England. Students made connections to their lives through “text-to-self” writing assignments:

“Thanks for the help of getting my family to tell more stories.”

“The story of global farming families reminds me that my grandfather and me would go to the field to settle maize.”

“This story reminds me of me living in Moldova because we grow vegetables in a farm or at our house at your garden. And they used to carry vegetables with horse and now they carry by car and some still carry by horse and wagon.”

“Thank you for coming and teaching us about history and how food can tell our family history.”

Public anthropology can promote intercultural belonging through K-12 educational materials, especially those used in social studies classes. Social studies curriculums are bubbling with possibility for anthropological data and values. In the school where I worked, some students suffered from trauma due to their separation from deported parents while others expressed that they wanted their new nickname to be “build the wall”. When xenophobia is being publicly popularized, intellectuals must seek out opportunities to counter-act hate across generations. K- 12 classrooms are places where hate can be challenged, and intercultural belonging can be cultivated. As my collaborator Michelle Then, an ELA/Social Studies teacher, said, “I think its education, but it’s also social and emotional for them. From the heart. Seeing that we all came from someplace else and migrated to this place, this class. And for a lot of them, they are making connections to their families back in Mexico. They can see themselves in their school materials.”

Check out http://teachinglearninganthro.com/in the coming months for an article with a detailed account of the steps I took to transform my de-identified dissertation data into sixth-grade social studies curriculum enrichment materials.

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