Optimistic Anthropology in the Field: 2019 Good Reads & Listens (Thus Far)

One of the things we love to do, and is a core part of our practice at Optimistic Anthropology, is connecting people to resources they might not (yet) be aware of that will help them think about and do the work of positive and equitable social change.

In that spirit, we occasionally like to share some good reads, listens, views and more on the blog on topics like:

  • Building knowledge, learning processes, and cultures for positive and equitable social change

  • Optimistic anthropology in the field - examples of how people are telling the stories of cultures and how they developed (and/or continue to develop);

  •  Stories from the adjacent possible - the potential and serendipity created when you notice and connect the unlikely; and

  • Bits of inspiration, insight, and delight - because when the world and our problems seem tough, we’ll need a different type of mindset and energy to undo and remake them!

Here are 24 resources we’ve enjoyed in the first quarter of 2019. Let us know what you think about what we’ve shared and share your own in the comments below or by tweeting us with your #optimisticanthro. 


Building Knowledge, Learning Processes, and Cultures

Our work focuses on helping organizations and collaborations shape their knowledge, learning processes, and cultures to create a more equitable and positive future. Central to this work is our belief - based on what we’ve observed over nearly two decades - that what differentiates teams that make measurable impact have two qualities. First, teams that achieve impact build cultures of trust that recognize and value our humanity. Second, they focus on learning and sharing and using what they learn to improve their approaches continuously. Here are some interesting resources that we’ve been reading related to these topics.

Disagreeing isn’t the same as fighting and great teams do it!

We’ve got to move beyond this engineering-inspired credo, because many, many things are not technical and require far more deliberative and generative approaches and less destructive mindsets.

For my fellow high achievers and perfectionists!

It’s worth reading this resource and the previous one together!

Two new pieces on the topic of trust! Both are worth a read - and underscore why authentic relationships are not a “nice to have.”

Meritocracy is a construct riddled with bias!

A great pairing with the problems of “meritocracy” is this oldie but goodie about exploring the place of “expertise” and who gets to be considered an expert.

If the resources on meritocracy and expertise are confronting you, take heart that there are other ways of working that are inspiring and powerful!


Optimistic Anthropology in the Field

We coined “Optimistic Anthropology” to reflect our belief that in order to shape a more positive and equitable future, we need to study how our institutions, systems, communities, cultures and their problems developed in the first place. There are many signifiers of culture - from the food we eat, to the clothes we wear, to the wide range of ways stories are communicated (though the written word is often privileged), and the art and architecture we create. Here are a few great examples of people practicing what we consider to be optimistic anthropology in the field (even if they wouldn’t call it that).

I love how The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan is an anthropologist who uses fashion as a way to interpret culture!

This conversation between Roman Mars and Kassia St. Clair is absolutely fascinating - I learned so much!

In the Building Knowledge, Learning Processes, and Cultures sectionI shared a resource about the place of “expertise.” An amazing example of honoring multiple types of “expertise” from NASA and the Navajo Nation.

Lived experience told me this was true, but it’s sobering to read it in print.

To balance out the last resource, here’s a recent bright spot from my hometown of DC.

I worked for a National Park and have followed the story of Grand Canyon National Park’s culture of sexual harassment with great dismay and interest. This is a deeply dispiriting story of how oppressive cultures are perpetuated in bureaucratic institutions, and how they neutralize people aiming to change them.


Stories from the Adjacent Possible

I’m a big believer in the power and importance of paying attention to the adjacent possible, the potential and serendipity created when you notice and connect the unlikely. Too often, people’s mindsets and sense of possibility are limited by what we’re exposed to. So, here are some stories we’ve valued learning about that have been pushing us to think a bit differently about the world.

Photography is transportive, and we’re particularly enjoying seeing through the lens of women photographers of earlier eras who were often overlooked. Unsurprisingly, they seem to notice different things than their male counterparts often did.

Obituaries are fascinating little biographies of people and such a powerful way to see how many people - particularly people who may never get a book written about them- have contributed to making the world more positive and equitable. Patricia Wald and Bill Jenkins were two such people.

I am such a big fan of The Memory Palace and the way that Nate DiMeo makes stories from history, that could be overlooked or forgotten come alive.

As a traveler and the granddaughter of a great traveler, this was super interesting to me and a bit surprising.

Frederick Douglass was insightful about SO MANY THINGS including the role of art in social progress!


Bits of Inspiration, Insight, and Delight

Odetta is a sister-in-change and her letter and organization’s work is so great! If you’re in the Metro Atlanta region or passionate about equitable transit-oriented development, check out the TransFormation Alliance.

Something enjoyable and there’s even a small romantic mystery involved!

Curtis Ogden is not only a great teacher, insightful thinker, doer, and writer, he also shares wonderful quotes!


Let us know what you think about these recommendations and share your own in the comments below or by tweeting us with your #GoodReads and/or #GoodListens. And check out our previous recs here!