Suzette V. Chang has been the Director of Library Services at the Guthrie Public Library for five years but she is also an anthropologist. The culmination of these two fields led her to founding the tax exempt Thick Descriptions.
Thick Descriptions comes from the anthropological term coined by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Geertz described the practice of thick description as a way of providing cultural context and meaning to human actions and behavior, as opposed to “thin description” which is a factual account without any interpretation. He stressed the importance of considering why people behave as they do, what they are trying to express or achieve in doing so, and for whom.
“The census is coming up so that’s a need,” Chang said. “We need to be able to not just quantify, we also need to qualify, the amount of citizens in any given space and we need to push beyond that box. There is much more nuance to us.”
Thick Descriptions was founded in 2008 and after receiving a Creativity in Motion grant from the University of Oklahoma, they started doing s.t.e.A.m. events. The acronym stands for science, technology, engineering, anthropology and math. Chang said the events target historically overlooked communities throughout the state where learning loss is a big issue and they work to fill the learning loss gap. Thick Descriptions holds these events during school breaks, especially during the summer, when children are more likely to experience it.
“Education is a big deal, not just for Oklahoma, but the United States as a whole,” Chang said. “A big issue for historically overlooked communities, and this isn’t just about race, it is about gender and class... It’s those families where Mom and Dad are working two, sometimes three, jobs to sustain and when school is out, kids don’t have anything to do. More so in the summertime, but if education is not a staple at home, kids are going to school behind.”
One of the most popular events that Thick Descriptions holds is the Elephant in the Room—Unboxed, which people can physically attend or tune in to the livestream on the Thick Descriptions Facebook page. This is a monthly conversation about those topics most are uncomfortable to address and talk about. Although we share categories such as race, gender, language/ dialect, class, geographic spaces and so many more, all human beings are different. We operate and live through diverse perspectives. Chang said that since she is an anthropologist, the topics that are chosen come from daily conversations and observations. Chang also emphasized that while there is an undeniable need for these conversations, inclusivity doesn’t equal exclusivity.
“There’s this overlying current of we just don’t talk about certain things and it’s time,” Chang said. “It’s time to do it in ways that make people slightly uncomfortable but not so uncomfortable that they shut down. There are ways to do that where you’re not making someone feel inhumane.”
Some of the other events include OKEE or Oklahoma Educators Evolve, healthy literacy workshops and cultural awareness training. The work that Thick Descriptions does also extends to the Oklahoma Policy Institute. They’re partnering with the Oklahoma Policy Institute to figure out ways to empower legislators how to have those difficult conversations in a way where it’s not just inclusive, it’s humane.
In terms of what people can do on a daily basis, Chang said that when you are interacting with someone who may not look like you or talk like you, find ways to open up the conversation. Know that things are not the way they should be and they can change. The key is transparency.
“Understand that everyone has privilege and when you see that your privilege is really standing out—use it. When you do that, make sure that you’re very transparent. ‘Look, I see that you have this degree and you have this and that but it doesn’t seem like you’re getting the recognition you deserve. Do you mind if I help?’ Always position it as a question. It puts some of that responsibility on the other person as well.”
For more information about all that Thick Descriptions has to offer, please visit www.thickdescriptions.org or call 405-397-0584.