Chelsey R. Carter
Career Spotlight is a series of interviews with anthropologists who are members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to share insights, knowledge, and expertise about career opportunities, growth, and development.
Dr. Chelsey R. Carter is an Assistant Professor of Public Health in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Yale University. She is an anthropologist of medicine, public health, and race. Dr. Carter was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, where she earned a Ph.D. and a M.A. in Sociocultural Anthropology and an MPH from Washington University in St. Louis. She completed her undergraduate education in Anthropology and Spanish with high honors at Emory University. She is currently working on her first book project, Finding the Forgotten: Race, Bias, and Care in the World of ALS, an examination of the experiences of Black Americans living with ALS and how they are impacted by race, gender, class, and bias. Using the Ferguson Uprising of 2014 as an entry point, her book grapples with the consequences of race-based medicine and scientific racism on Black people’s health and healthcare access in St. Louis. You can find out more about her work at: www.crcarter.com.
1. What made you decide to choose anthropology as a career path, and specifically your specialty?
I enrolled in “Anthropology 101” in my first semester at Oxford College of Emory University. I vividly remember telling my mom during the first few weeks of class, "I finally found a class that teaches about differences and cultures...that thinks like me!" I had grown up attending predominately white schools where history, social science, and humanities classes were exceedingly Eurocentric. The way I was taught anthropology (by Drs. Aaron Stutz and Valerie Singer) encouraged me to think about societal concerns from different perspectives and challenge hegemonic modes of thinking. By the time I left undergrad and worked for a few years at non-profits and corporations, I realized I had questions that I wanted to answer. I spent the years between undergrad and grad school reading a lot of Zora Neale Hurston and I realized I needed the “spyglass of Anthropology,” too. Once in graduate school, I better understood anthropology's rich interdisciplinary nature and found ways to blend medicine, race, and Black feminism. Ultimately, anthropology felt like the right path find the answers to questions about Black experiences with ALS.
2. What does a typical workday look like for you in your chosen career?
Every day is different. This semester, Mondays are lighter meeting days, and I try to make time in the afternoon for various writing projects. I teach on Tuesdays, so I usually spend the morning preparing for class, tweaking PowerPoints, and reviewing course texts. In the afternoon, I hold my seminar, “Biomedical Justice: Public Health Critiques and Praxis,” with a group of 15 students and hold office hours after class. On Wednesdays, I follow up on post-class tasks, grade, and spend the afternoon writing (if not tackling email). Thursdays are always meeting days for my various research projects – The Black Genome Project, Project STEER, an epigenetics study, EPIC – and I make time for student appointments. I'm currently collecting data for the Black Genome Project – a study that seeks to understand how genetic research is impacting Black communities in St. Louis and how Black communities value their genomes and genetic data – so I'm often following up with potential participants, scheduling interviews, and conducting interviews or focus groups. I continue this work on Fridays. I also have project meetings with The Black Genome Project team and my research lab at Yale. What I appreciate most about my work week is that other than teaching on Tuesdays, nothing is ever really "typical."
3. What is a piece of advice you would share with job seekers or offer a new anthropologist just beginning their career?
Don't go into grad school (for a masters or a doctorate) with only one career in mind. There are so many jobs that need the mind of an anthropologist. When you're enrolled in coursework and deciding between certificate programs and internships and finalizing fieldwork/homework/data collection locations for your thesis, consider what tools you can learn and leverage outside of traditional academic anthropology. Overall, our goal should be to support positive societal change and liberation for historically marginalized people worldwide, whether or not we are situated within the academy.
4. Is there a unique short story about how you landed in your current career or path?
I would not have become an anthropologist if it wasn't for the anthropologists Zora Neale Hurston, George Armelagos and several Association of Black Anthropologists (ABA) mentors. Zora inspired me and created the blueprint for a Black girl to return home to study her people. She gave me words, tools, and a different meaning for my work once I read her writings and studied her life. Professor George Armelagos, the 2008 recipient of the AAA’s Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service to Anthropology, believed in me and my aptitude to become an anthropologist. He supported me in significant ways – through conversations, co-writing, theorizing together, and even financial support toward my dreams.
5. What do you consider one of your career successes? How did you achieve it?
One of my career successes is earning a doctorate in sociocultural anthropology and a Master of Public Health degree. I encountered several obstacles during graduate school, including family health emergencies, advisor changes, an unsupportive academic community, and an abusive relationship. Sometimes it still amazes me that I was able to overcome so many challenges and complete my program in six years. I know that I would not have succeeded in completing my degrees without the support of my close friends, family, therapist, and anthropology mentors. At the end of my dissertation writing, I recall two mentors supporting me by reading last-minute drafts, providing meticulous line edits the day before my dissertation was due to the Graduate School, and offering me words of encouragement whenever I needed them. I also had several close interlocutors, people affected by ALS, who encouraged me to keep writing. They reminded me that their stories, histories, and afterlives couldn't be shared if I didn't keep going. So, I kept going and was able to achieve my goals with the support of a robust community of care.
6. What do you consider a challenge you've faced in your career? How did you overcome it?
One of the biggest challenges I had to overcome was the colonial foundations of our discipline; it has historically valorized the study and exoticization of other cultures for research or "fieldwork" for it to "count" as Anthropology. Because of this, I often felt influenced to pursue a research project outside the United States. I spent my first summer of fieldwork in Costa Rica, attempting to cobble together a project on race, health, and neurodegenerative disease in very disingenuous ways. When I returned home at the end of the summer, I shared my experiences with advisors. A professor encouraged me to consider studying in my hometown of St. Louis, despite how anthropologists are often trained. I listened to this professor's advice, immersed myself in St. Louis history, and began to situate my research questions in the context of home. Through this process, I talked to colleagues, read the work of anthropologists Brackette Williams and Kamala Visweswaran, re-read more Hurston, and realized that it was critical to situate my work at home. I considered my data collection within the tradition of homework and not fieldwork – which ultimately transformed how I viewed my work as a Black feminist anthropologist who not only studied home but intentionally situated their work within Black communities in the United States.
7. Where would you like to see your career path going next?
I don't think in terms of career path. Instead, I consider what I want to accomplish before I no longer work in a racially capitalist system or in academic anthropology/public health. One of those accomplishments would be to write several books centered on various Black experiences that have been rendered invisible in anthropology and our broader world. I'm working on a book now, Finding the Forgotten: Race, Bias, and Care in the World of ALS, about Black people in America living with ALS, an incurable disease. I want to write a book of essays about caregiving, fatphobia, and my mom and another book centered on the findings and art from the Black Genome Project. I would also love to think through how to create better health outcomes for intentionally marginalized people in healthcare – either through direct material supports like Community Health Worker interventions or structural interventions through medical/healthcare curriculum and policy changes.
8. What membership benefits offered by the American Anthropological Association have helped you in your career?
After I graduated from undergrad, I was not connected to a university. AnthroSource was very useful and allowed me to still read new articles in anthropology from journals like Transforming Anthropology, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, and American Anthropologist. However, I could only afford the benefits because my professor paid my student dues. I wish more mechanisms supported students as members at AAA, like how the Society of Medical Anthropology began to waive student section membership fees a few years back. I also believe that the network of scholars that I have met at AAA annual meetings have helped with my career.
9. What impact has the American Anthropological Association had in shaping your career?
With the financial support of George Armelagos, one of my undergraduate professors, I was able to attend the AAA meetings in San Francisco in 2012, the fall after my undergraduate graduation. I felt like an outsider at the event, given the lack of diversity, but I found exciting panels and was able to present my research on gendered ALS illness experiences. I received critical and helpful feedback from the (very) few participants who attended my panel, and these comments made me feel like I had good ideas that could help improve knowledge and care for Black people with ALS. Once I found the Association of Black Anthropologists (ABA), I was inspired and committed to the idea of becoming a Black, queer, and feminist anthropologist. Despite the inequities that still exist in the AAA, I encourage students to attend the annual conference, if they can. A positive experience at a AAA conference when I was 22 and finding my people in ABA radically shaped my career.
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Commencing in 2020, the AAA dues ability-to-pay chart was restructured to reduce the financial burden on our members as well as provide other financially supportive opportunities like the DSP Undergraduate Cohort Program and New and Recent Graduate program, which provides free memberships to undergraduates and recent MA/MS and PhD graduate students, respectively.