SfAA President’s Column

Michael Paolisso

(Oct 2022)

Some years back I attended Sunday service at a Unitarian Universalist church near my home. At that time, I was a professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland and had undertaken long-term, applied work with coastal communities on the Chesapeake Bay. Much of that research focused on community and environmental resilience. By chance, the minister’s sermon that day was on resilience. My ears perked up and I was curious to see what she meant by resilience, and whether there might be implications for my own work. While I had been steeped in literature on social and ecological resilience, what I heard that day felt like a clearer and more applicable understanding of resilience, and one that resonated with my deeper anthropological sensibilities:  resilience is something that conserves opportunities for renewal.

In years since and in different contexts, I have been drawn back to this definition of resilience.  As I pondered what I might write for this issue of SfAA News, I began to wonder if using this framework to think about the SfAA might yield insights on our strengths and challenges, now and in the future. As an organization and for our members, these past few years have required us to be resilient in new and old ways. Can these responses and adaptations serve as opportunities to renew --refresh, rejuvenate, redesign -- our commitment and capacity to apply the social sciences to address human, societal, and environmental challenges?  I think so, or at the very least the possibility warrants more reflection.  

What qualities and practices conserve opportunities for SfAA renewal? While not exhaustive, the ones below seem important to me, in part because we may not consider them enough and because of their intangible nature.

SfAA belongs to us: There is a strong, shared cultural norm among members that the SfAA is their organization. Many members, both academics and practitioners, tell me repeatedly that the only organization they belong to is the SfAA. For most members, there is little formal division between the elected leadership, staff, and the membership: we all feel the SfAA belongs to us. Some of this feeling of ownership arises because we are a small organization and dependent on member volunteers to serve in leadership positions and on our committees, topical interest groups (TIGS), working groups, and as editors. Members freely share their ideas with these volunteers, expecting they will be heard and taken seriously. This is also true of the relationship between members and our dedicated office staff, all of whom have worked for the SfAA for years. It is not a formal check in at our annual meeting. Instead, members are greeted by Trish and Melissa, who despite all the hectic activities that arise at the beginning of the meetings, warmly welcome and assist everyone. Members want to be engaged with the SfAA for personal and professional reasons. If I may, in the language of some contemporary sports, “This is our house.” We make the SfAA, and we don’t take that work lightly. 

We are responsible:  Related to our sense of ownership comes responsibility. We have all invested time, effort, money, and often heart in the SfAA, and that brings personal and professional rewards. Over time, not only do we develop expectations about what our SfAA should do for and provide to us, but there emerges an understanding that we are responsible for the SfAA. These responsibilities can take many forms, from very explicit actions such running for office to less visible activities such as making small but regular donations, promoting the SfAA to others, and communicating likes and dislikes to leadership and our office. One of the responsibilities of the position of president is speaking with members who are less than pleased with something the SfAA is doing, or not doing. Usually, I can resolve only part of the problem due to other factors, which I explain to the member. What often happens next is an expression of understanding of the limits of what I can do, followed by an offer either to help address the situation that prompted the conversation or more broadly. I come away from these conversations, and other interactions with members, with a sense of shared responsibility to strengthen and improve the SfAA. I believe this sense of responsibility is in part due to the rich and rewarding experiences we accumulate from participating in our annual meetings, writing and reviewing for our publications, participating in TIGs, and experiencing pivotal moments of mentorship and collegiality. For many of us, supporting the SfAA is more than a professional obligation, it is a rewarding responsibility.  

Not fully satisfied:  Most of us have extensive experience with critical evaluation of our work, whether generated from our own self-assessment or from more formal processes, such as peer review. We bring that experience and expectation to our involvement with the SfAA. From the newest members, still in school or early in their careers, to our fellows and past presidents, SfAA members continually provide opinions and assessments of our current policies and practices and recommendations for the future. I admit to an occasional internal response of “oh no, not another reminder of what we are doing wrong,” accompanied by a deeper, silent wish to hear more about what we are doing right. But expressions of dissatisfaction and criticism by members are essential information that guides the SfAA forward. While we may not always like to hear what is not going well, this information always deserves our full consideration and response. In my experience, SfAA leadership and staff do an exceptional job in responding to member comments and criticisms. Additionally, the comments and feedback sometimes reinforce ideas and viewpoints the leadership and office were considering, which helps us refine and prioritize next steps. Even the sharpest of our member critics is generally collegial and understanding. So, keep the comments and criticism coming.​​​​​​​

Generous and Giving:  SfAA members and staff give significant time, expertise, and financial support to the organization. This is particularly true for the student awards that help cover expenses to attend annual meetings. Many members consistently add donations with their membership renewal. In times of special need, our members have responded by making additional financial contributions; for example, to help with additional program costs required to create online and hybrid components for our annual meetings. SfAA officers, board members, and staff are grateful for this generous support. We also appreciate the gift of time and expertise that many members provide the SfAA. As I wrote in last month’s SfAA News, this volunteered time is essential to the running of the organization. Our officers, editors, program chairs, and board members devote time each day on SfAA work, particularly during busy periods, such as prior to our annual meeting.  These volunteer efforts are matched by the commitment of the SfAA office staff to give extra time and effort on our essential administrative tasks.  

The dedication of our members and staff conserves opportunities for renewal. Their shared ethos and habits intersect and mutually reinforce each other. They represent intangible resources of personal and professional importance to our members and staff. They help us account for and rely on the essential service of our members. Examples of such service can be found in other articles in this edition of SfAA News. All our editors deserve a special thanks for their generosity of time and expertise. These things are critical to our ability to refresh, rethink, and rejuvenate the SfAA. They help make us resilient and better positioned to address future challenges. Let us recognize and conserve them. 

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