We need one another. That’s the message anthropologist Nadia El-Shaarawi wants members of the Class of 2023 to take with them as they prepare to leave Mayflower Hill.
“We are taught that dependency is a bad thing. We are taught to compete, to distinguish ourselves, to stand alone,” said El-Shaarawi, associate professor of global studies. “We need each other, but we often do not live as though we do.”
The practice of care is integral in a world of mutuality and reciprocity, she emphasized.
El-Shaarawi made her case for interdependence during the “Last Lecture” as the 2023 Charles Bassett Teaching Award winner. Now in its 31st year, the Last Lecture brings together graduating students and the teaching award winner, chosen by the senior class.
By titling her lecture “Care in Dark Times,” El-Shaarawi acknowledged that students faced “serious disruptions” during their college years between the pandemic, political polarization, and war. As an antidote, she opted to “look for some moments of light that emerge in dark times and follow those beams to see, in true liberal arts fashion, what we can learn from them.”
Among the lessons is the importance of care, which “indexes our deepest feelings, attachments, and relationships,” said El-Shaarawi, a medical and cultural anthropologist who has invested time theorizing about and studying care with scholars from other disciplines.
Inspired by this scholarship, El-Shaarawi spent her Last Lecture discussing care centered on three uplifting and comforting ideas.
She began focusing on the concept of “care with others,” sharing a story of her fieldwork along the Balkan Route, a migratory path from Turkey into Europe traversed by more than a million displaced people in 2015.
El-Shaarawi and her colleague Maple Razsa, associate professor of global studies, traveled the route seeking to understand how migrants as well as local migrant-rights activists fought for and enacted freedom of movement in the face of growing opposition from European countries.
In Greece, they met Nasim Lomani, who was one member of a collective of refugees and activists who converted an abandoned hotel in Athens into refugee housing called City Plaza, a space of safety and dignity. The activists who established City Plaza rejected the Greek government’s claim of scarcity and found a way to provide shelter and resources for thousands of migrants trapped in Greece.
Lomani came to Colby as the 2020 Oak Fellow for Human Rights, sharing his work with City Plaza and dispelling the myth that people “behave badly” amid disasters. Instead, when things fall apart, ordinary people take care of one another.
El-Shaarawi’s second focus was on care for the planet, evoking the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, who visited Colby this spring. Kimmerer asks, “What does the earth ask of us?” and answers “gratitude and reciprocity,” which expands our notion of care, El-Shaarawi said.
“Kimmerer teaches us that we are not the only ones who practice care. Indeed, the world cares for us, binding us together in relationships of mutuality, whether we recognize them or not.”
El-Shaarawi recounted her personal experience on her grandparents’ farm in northern Saskatchewan picking the serviceberry, or Saskatoon berry, which produces an abundance of sweet berries. Its fruit is a gift that inspires gratitude and demands reciprocity, she said, drawing on Kimmerer, and brings us into a web of relationship with the earth.
Thirdly came the idea of self-care, seemingly a beacon of light in dark times. “Desperately urgent and at the same time empty,” self-care is often nothing more than what El-Shaarawi called “a marketing slogan, a way to sell us yoga classes, face masks, vacations, meditation apps, and dietary supplements.” When co-opted by capitalism, she said self-care is often more about consumption and performance than about tending to the self.
A self-care countermovement draws on the work of Audre Lorde, a Black feminist, poet, lesbian, and activist. Her work points out that for oppressed and marginalized people, self-care is a form of resistance and is thus political.
El-Shaarawi encouraged students to take away two things from Lorde’s work, that self-care should always be embedded in various kinds of mutual care and that it be in the service of their work in the world.
Sofia Arleo ’23, an anthropology and Latin American studies double major, smiled as she walked out of Page Commons after El-Shaarawi’s Last Lecture. Although the Class of 2023’s college experience was marked by disruption, taking care of themselves and others helped them pull through, Arleo said.
“I think she did a nice job incorporating scholarship and also being transparent as a human,” she said of El-Shaarawi. “I felt like focusing on care was a nice note to end on.”
Care and interdependence are deeply entwined for El-Shaarawi, summing up her talk with a quote from activist Mia Mingus.
“We must live out the truth that we need each other.”
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