Listen: Alumni Discuss How Study of Religion Benefits Their Work
Earlier this month, Swarthmore’s Department of Religion invited three alumni to return to campus to share their experiences with entering the professional world with a religion major. Speakers included CBS News broadcast associate Dina Zingaro ’13, foreign affairs officer Martha Marrazza ’09, and nonprofit program manager Lauren Cardenas ’12, with Professor of Religion and Islamic Studies Tariq al-Jamil as moderator.
Zingaro, a broadcast associate at 60 Minutes and the CBS Evening News, cited 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt in explaining that the job of a television journalist is to find people to tell a story better than the broadcast staff. She credits her religion major with helping her find people who can tell their stories well. Zingaro also shared three anecdotes regarding how her study of religion has benefited her as a journalist. She recalled a press conference on ISIS during which CBS aired an incorrect definition of Sharia law. Zingaro immediately emailed al-Jamil and together they put together a more accurate definition for the show. Zingaro also described her time covering the 2016 election in Ohio. There, she spent time with steel workers who, after previously voting Democratic, voted Republican because the steel plant at which they worked had experienced severe cuts, and many of the workers had to be retrained at a local community college. Zingaro empathized with the men on their loss of their sacred space—the steel plant. She also discussed an encounter with two evangelical women, one who loved President Trump and one who hated him, and noted that both women could defend their choice for president using their religion.
Marrazza described her professional trajectory after Swarthmore. She worked for a congressman on immigration, received a master’s degree in refugee studies from Oxford University, worked in Kenya in refugee resettlement for two years, and currently works at the State Department Bureau of International Affairs. Marrazza noted that religion came up all the time during her work in Kenya because it is one of the five grounds of persecution that can determine refugee status; as a result she met many people fleeing religious persecution. She also saw how religion can build community, because when individuals resettle they often seek out people of the same faith, as well as how religion can be divisive, as religious taboos still existed in refugee camps. She explained how her background in religion prepared her to approach different cultural traditions with an open mind; for instance, some families she met practiced polygamy but regarded it as an issue of safety because single women were often not safe. Marrazza describes religion as “an incredibly relevant lens.”
Cardenas discussed her work with non-profits such as Planned Parenthood and her current role at the Posse Foundation in Los Angeles, an organization that sends talented high school students to top colleges with full scholarships. Cardenas detailed her research on spirit possession at Swarthmore and during her semester abroad in Vietnam, describing her studies as a useful background for her current work. A career program manager for high school students, Cardenas finds the same fundamental questions she discussed in her classes and research at Swarthmore returning in her conversations with her students. She also sees aspects of religion in her job and often thinks about how to create rituals that contribute to a healthy work environment.
The panel ended with questions from the audience. Zingaro, Marrazza, and Cardenas described the generally positive reactions they receive when their colleagues learn they studied religion, and expressed gratitude that their families accepted their choice of major at Swarthmore. “I feel very privileged that I had their support and could study what I love,” Marrazza said.
Host: I guess, I'll start this way with Dina. Dina Zingaro, Dina ... First started working at CBS News after graduation as a researcher for the evening news and then the weekend evening news. For the last two and a half years she's worked for anchor and correspondent Scott Pelley as the broadcast associate for the evening news and 60 Minutes. She's responsible for his research for his daily broadcasts, and his interviews. Dina also pitches and associate produces stories for both shows. Dina has developed a portfolio of stories centered on and incorporating the topic of religion including a panel with Muslim millennials in the wake of the San Bernadino and Paris attacks, a 60 Minutes story about the presidential election in Ohio, and evening news stories about Muslim comedian Mo Amer, and wrote about his story 'Episcopal Church Offering Prayer Space to 300 Muslims.' We look forward to hearing from Dina.
Martha Moraza, I'm going this way, graduated from Swarthmore in 2009 with an Honors Major in Religion and an Honors Minor in Political Science. Her senior thesis examined Muslim immigration to Italy specifically exploring how the interaction between religious and religious communities affected the national conversation about immigration in Italy. After graduation, Martha worked in constituent services Congressman Chris Van Hollen where she managed the Congressman's immigration portfolio. Martha received a Master's in Refugee and Immigration studies from Oxford University in 2012. From there she moved to Kenya where she worked in refugee resettlement for two years, conducting interviews with refugees in urban and rural refugee camp settings to determine their eligibility for resettling within the U.S. In January 2015, Martha joined the State Department's Bureau of International Organizational Affairs where she worked on humanitarian policy issues.
Lauren Kerdanis is an alumna of Swarthmore college class of 2012 where she majored in Religion with research interests in possession traditions and community healing. During her undergraduate year she started as facilitator for Swarthmore Women of Color elective and then went to another university program hosted by Swarthmore, Brandmar and Hatheford College. Lauren's work for Planned Parenthood in Southeastern Pennsylvania and the allowed public lecture program hosted by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. She's currently a [inaudible 00:03:01] Program Manager at the Posse Foundation, a leadership development program that sends talented high schools in cohorts to top colleges and universities across the country with full tuition-based merit scholarships. Outside of Posse Lauren freelances as an illustrator and her hobbies include eating, [inaudible 00:03:25].
So what I want to do right now is just let our panelists say a little bit about themselves. And you guys can decide who goes first.
Dina: Okay ...
Host: Dina has visuals so do you want to step up?
Host: I'm going to hang out over here. Can I?
Host: It's a big seat to fill. I'll try.
Dina: Ever since I've been at CBS, I always get [inaudible 00:04:05] tell people that, they ask what major I was in college. I was Journalism, Communications and then I say Religion and I always get this really shocked look. But to me it's always been a really natural occurrence. Especially when we think about the election, I see religion playing out in so many ways. So the question for me hasn't been what religion stories can I find? Every story you look at, it's what is the value system, what is the belief system that's being challenged, that's being defended, that's informing this character, this person who's telling their story? So to me it's always kind of made sense.
I'm just going to quickly tell you a little bit about what I actually do at CBS. So Don Hewitt, who is the creator of 60 Minutes ... And he always would say that our job is to find people who can tell a story better than we ever could. Because TV journalism is different than print journalism. Print journalism you find people, you interview them and then you write their words. TV's a little different in that you have to find people that, because most people have a story, but not everyone can tell their story. If you think about it's kind of a hard thing to do.
So my job, for example, we did a piece about the election out in Ohio. And so the heads of 60 Minutes come to us and say we want a piece about the election. That's it. And then six, seven months later you screen the piece. It's our job do to the research, find the place, find the characters, find those voices that are going to come to life. And I have found that being a Religion major has made that possible in so many ways. I guess I'll start in the most obvious and very early example of how my religious studies education appeared in the newsroom.
This was when I was [inaudible 00:06:01] for evening news. And we were breaking into a special report, which is a decision that's made by the higher ups if something happens and we're going to break into a new programming. I think it was President Obama was giving a news conference about ISIS. And there I was the definition of Sharia law. A couple of [inaudible 00:06:26] and I remember I emailed Clark right away. People went back and forth about how to put together a working definition. I went to the head writer and said all right here's a three paragraph explanation of what Sharia law is. He said, Dina I need five words. This is great but I need five words. You can imagine the shock on my face but we ended up getting something together that was just more accurate.
I think being a religion major you learn the importance of nuance, you learn the importance of language. Especially in the news room, like evening news that's made at such a fast pace, you have to slow down and you have to look at words. Because words matter. Especially like those sort of terms that get special news [inaudible 00:07:18] and they make a big impact.
The second thing I wanted to talk about is the power of images. I come from a Greek Orthodox household so the importance of it is not lost on me. But working in TV you are taught ... My correspondent Scott Pelley, we'll never write a script until he has seen the footage, he has seen the reel that we bring in. Because you're words have to marry the images. So imagery is so important. I have three examples, they're very very short. I just pulled them out of some of the pieces that we've done. The first one that you're going to see is about Captain Singh, he was the first active soldier to receive religious accommodation just last year to wear a Turban and grow his beard. I felt that, you know what I'll play it first and then I'll tell you later.
Video: Last February after a decade of service that included being awarded a Bronze star for battle for defusing IUDs in Afghanistan, Singh decided to stand up for his beliefs. He took the Army to court seeking a religious accommodation to wear his turban and grow a beard. He won.
When you got out of court that day, what was that like?
[Singh]: After 10 years it finally happened and I was extremely excited.
Dina: Part of the piece was having Singh talk about when he went to Westpoint when he was 18-years-old and going right to the barber shop and getting his beard shaved off and him trying to reconcile his understanding of his whole life of being a good Sikh. And now, for him, being a good Sikh and being a good military officer, those values are right in line. But what I thought was so interesting was that image of a camo turban and someone wrapping that around. Most people haven't seen that. So putting it on television was kind of a unique image that I got was powerful.
The second clip, so this is a church, [inaudible 00:09:23] mentioned it in the intro, a church that we found in the heart of D.C., Friday pairs, 300 Muslims walked in and set up their prayer rugs. Because it's one of the biggest, it's called the Adams Center and they have thousands and thousands of members. They don't have enough space in their own mosque so they rent out spaces in synagogues and mosques, I'm sorry not mosques, in churches. So this church rent out their prayer space to them.
Video: [inaudible 00:10:01]
I'm not a Christian but I love prayer, it's beautiful.
[Narrator]: And during the prayers [inaudible 00:10:11] church bells.
It's amazing. It's amazing to see two things together. Who can imagine church bells ringing in a Muslim community circle? It's [inaudible 00:10:24].
Dina: Interestingly enough the gentleman you saw at the beginning is actually [inaudible 00:10:37], he's a convert, Christianity to Islam. This was during Ramadan and John Madoud, who introed that clip, he actually also fasts. He actually talked about the beauty of Ramadan is for someone like him he always knows he's going to find food every night even though he's homeless. He knows there will be Muslims that he can join, his fellow Muslims and get a meal every night. So for me it was that moment when we were in the church, the producers are sitting there and you're watching these prostrations happen and you hear [inaudible 00:11:16] and then you hear church bells ringing at the same time, that was perfect. Because I really believe that you can talk at people all you want and tell them Muslims are peaceful, Muslims are peaceful, but when you have an image like that it can be striking for some.
The third clip, this is a piece, this is going back a while, but it's a panel that we did right after the Paris attacks in San Bernadino. There was Muslim safety guides popping up all over, there was a lot of kickback even in New York, a lot of hate crimes going up against Muslims in the city. So what we did was the got together a panel of Muslim millennials. A generation of Muslims that only knew what it was like to be Muslim post-9/11. Scott and I, correspondent, sat down with a group of them.
Video: Show of hands, how many of you were born in the United States? Everybody. In a recent poll done by the public religion research institute, 56% of the Americans they talked to said that the values of Islam are at odds with American values. How does that strike you?
I think it's absolutely absurd for anybody to say that anyway because we were raised in a way where we believe that we are supposed to follow[inaudible 00:12:50] and we were born and raised here.
What do you think people misunderstand about the values of Islam?
I think they believe too much that the religion is based on violence. I think a person does violence, not a religion.
When you pick a certain religion and try to find a certain person from any sort of text, you're going to find that person. [inaudible 00:13:12] Arabic was the [inaudible 00:13:12] metaphorical language where one word has hundreds of meanings. So if you wanted to find it in a violent sense you're going to be able to find it in a violent sense, the same way if you wanted to find it in a peaceful sense, which a billion and a half people do, you're going to be able to do so.
But there are no [inaudible 00:13:28] that allow the killing of innocent people under any circumstances.
Terrorism in [crosstalk 00:13:36]
Dina: To me one of the things we tried to do with only five people was try and show the diversity of people who identify as Muslim. We had the young Black woman who had so much to say about, it was very interesting to talk about all these different identities that she identifies with and she had a very unique perspective. And then RJ, the young man on the top left, he's Palestinian from Las Vegas, we've had hijabis in there who didn't wear hijabs. So with this piece we really tried to show through the image of seeing ... We say there are power in numbers, I think that image, that snapshot, we're limited, but I think we can get a little bit of that diversity across.
The other thing that we talk a lot about in religious studied that has translated for me is being a TV producer. It's this idea of sacred space. When we talk about temples, churches, mosques, I think religious studies across the board we also talk about the flexibility of sacred space and how it doesn't have to be in a building. It can be in all different types of places.
It really struck me when we did our 60 Minute piece out in Ohio in the fall. And for 60 Minutes you have the luxury of going somewhere for weeks at a time. So what I did was I lived in Ohio for a month, [inaudible 00:15:11], being a New Yorker who doesn't drive anymore, is terrifying. I ended up meeting 12 steel workers all voting for Donald Trump. All had voted Democrat in the past. So I spent a long time with them in a town called Lorraine, Ohio, which is known as steel city. Thirteen thousand people were employed there in two upscale plants, which have now both closed down. Only 100 people are working at one of the plants right now. So imagine 13,000 people and [inaudible 00:15:43].
It's interesting but it wasn't until I drove down main street, so imagine this steel plant is three miles long. It's massive and I'm from New Jersey, north Jersey, and I've never seen a steel plant so I was shocked. It's completely hollowed out. There's no one, and you can imagine the hundreds of people walking and clocking in every morning. The whole town is a ghost town. I remember talking to one of our steel workers, Carlos, his job was to, he basically controlled one building in the entire steel plant. I remember him flipping through his phone showing me his little control room, which he was so proud of. He talked about I have my own kitchen, I used to have my own bathroom in there, everyone was always jealous and he just detailed the control that he had. It was almost like he was describing a throne of sorts. It was really fascinating.
That's when I realized that for a minute he's [inaudible 00:16:49] working this space for 30-40 years. There I was, you fast forward a year, I'm standing with these men, they're 50-60 years old in a community college courtyard. Because after losing their jobs, they're all in retraining programs, back in the community college. So these are men who are my father's age who are now wearing backpacks and they have permission forms that they have to get signed by their teachers, who are probably younger than them, who have to say yes, you are in class. They go in and they get their pay at the end of the week if they're going. That idea of sacred space for them being taken away from them, and now they're surrounded my millennials on a college campus. It was so striking to me. To be able to understand perhaps their anger, their reason for going the way they did. Understanding sacred space I think was something that really taught me.
The last thing I'll talk about is I think in religious studies you are taught how religions can hold so many complexities, so many contradictions, so many extremities, all at once. Being a journalists you're telling people stories, you're talking about complex lives, absurd lives, lives that don't make sense, contradictions and ... So when we were out in Ohio, part of our story was about two women who went to the same church, both Evangelicals, both very very Republican, very politically active. One woman loved Donald Trump, the other woman could not stand him. I'll never forget, the woman who loved Donald Trump, I asked her, I said some people may question your Evangelical vote for Donald Trump. She looked at me and said Dina, I already got a savior, his name is Jesus Christ. She was so certain, it was so striking to me.
Then you think just in the pew over on Sundays you have the other mother, the other Republican who says I identify as a Christian, a conservative and a Republican. And during our 60 Minute interview, Scott asked her, do you think Mr. Trump is faithful. She said, I'm not one to judge but judging by his fruit, he stinks a little. These women are actually family friends. It was just fascinating to me that not only religion, but the church, the same pew, can hold such different views. And both women use their religion, very specifically with Biblical verses, they defended their choice for President, which I thought was so interesting.
But I think being a religion major prepares you for that. There's the text where there's a religion that has all these ideals but then there are the believers that live their lives with contradictions and the beauty is kind of in that space in between. I think being a reporter is finding that same sort of gray zone, where all the interesting things happen. So that's enough from me, but thank you, thanks for coming.
Martha: All right, I'll go next. Tough act to follow. I'm Martha, I graduated in 2009 and I think I'll talk a little bit about why I chose to study religion and what it meant to me when I was here. And then just speak a little bit about more recently, how it's come to play in my life if that's all right.
When I was here, I was telling Mark earlier, when I was here I decided to study religion sophomore year after taking gender sexuality and body in Islam. I left class every day with a lot more questions than answers. And I actually thought that was a good thing and I just kept taking religion courses with everyone from the department and had just an amazing experience. I think religion is a great way to study many things at once. For me it was a way to study psychology, history, art, culture and I just thought it was this really unique, very interdisciplinary actually lens through which to view the world. I think the three main things it's given me since then are empathy, better understanding and empathy for others; definitely the complexity and the variety that exists in the world; and then also just the comparative nature of the study was so key and so relevant for what I've done since then.
I've done a couple things, I mean I worked for a member of Congress. I thought about journalism but didn't pursue it. I moved to Kenya and I think I'll just speak about my time in Kenya when I was doing refugee resettlement work. And then I'll talk more recently about my time at the State Department and how religion is kind of undergirded both of those experiences. So in Kenya I was working for a U.S. government contractor where I was interviewing refugees for resettlement to the U.S. Very topical now but what we would do is the UN would interview refugees first. And then if they were extremely vulnerable and they thought they were good candidates for third country resettlement because they weren't safe where they were, they would be referred to countries like the U.S. for third country resettlement. Then our organization would come in, interview people about the persecution they experienced in their country of origin. After us the Department of Homeland Security would reinterview the people again.
Religion came up all the time. It's one of the five grounds of persecution when determining refugee status. So a lot of people I spoke to were fleeing religious persecution whether they were Pentecostals and Eritrea or Christians in Somalia, which is extremely extremely rare. So a lot of what they were fleeing from was on the basis of practicing their faith, often in secrecy, often in really difficult circumstances. Having that background and having that knowledge base of different religions and their practices and rituals was extremely helpful. It was also very personally moving to me to see people who had persisted in practicing their faith under such duress and under such hard circumstances.
The other thing when I was working in Kenya, and again I was based in Kenya but traveling throughout different countries in the region, is I saw both the way religion was very much unifying. And when people flee often one of the first things they do when their in a new country is they seek out people maybe in their same ethnic group who speak their same language or practice their same faith. I would see Congolese refugees who had fled from the DRC come to Kenya, immediately find a church and it would be this informal social net. That was really powerful. You would even see all this informal reunification process is happening. Let's say someone's nephew showed up as an accompanied minor in Nairobi, he would make his way to this church. The church would know his uncle, they'd put him in touch and they would do this family [inaudible 00:24:20] that was very organic and very moving around these faith-based groups.
Unfortunately, though I also saw, and I think we can all appreciate this, how religion could be very divisive. Like I said, many people were fleeing because of their religion. Often in camp settings, you would think that refugees who had fled when they were together in a camp would have a shared sense of persecution and so the camps would be safe. But often camps were subdivided in ways that were similar, analogous or parallel to the divisions in the countries they were fleeing from. So you still saw tensions, you still saw taboos about who marries whom, different people crossing different lines. So it was really interesting to me again both how heartwarming and how faith-based groups and even places of worship could be real sources of asylum and strength. And that the same time how they were causing, or elements of people of fleeing. So definitely undergirded everything I did.
One more thing about my time in Kenya and then I'll move on to State Department. I move there and I had certain perceptions about the world and the people I had been speaking with. I was constantly challenged based on meeting people and their stories. For example, in the camps I was working in, when dealing with Somali refugees and Ethiopian refugees, some of the families I met with practice polygamy. In the U.S., we have this version, this conception of polygamy, you think maybe Utah, you think [inaudible 00:26:01]. It's a very distinct American view of polygamy. When I went there I would talk to these families, not passing judgment, but it was very interesting because it wasn't the same conception as we have in the U.S. There it was maybe a safety issue. It was a protection issue often. Often a widow in a refugee camp setting with young children would be much more unsafe then as part of a family. I think having that religious background, having that study and exposure and openness toward different faiths, allowed me to a be a better and more empathetic interview. And definitely it allowed me to be more open and engage people and meet them where they were.
At the State Department, religion is also very relevant but in a different way. What I do right now, I work at the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, so we do international negotiations. If there's a big treaty to be signed or a document to be negotiated. We'll go, we'll help negotiate on behalf of the U.S. When I'm in those positions, when I'm in the chair for the U.S. and I'm negotiating with people from other countries, I would say that religion and the way it's taught be empathy and maybe a bit of cultural shorthand helps me at least understand or place people that are coming from all over the world. It's not a catchall, it's not that oh someone's from this country that means they must believe this, this and this and practice this, this and this way. But again, it gives me maybe a lens or an idea of their tradition or the context in which their coming from that I think helps very much when you're doing diplomacy.
Also, unfortunately, a lot the crises that I follow ... So I do humanitarian policy as well ... A lot of the crises that I follow, there are ethnic lines and ethnic dimensions, but very much religion is at play here too. If you look at Yemen, if you look at Syria, if you look at many other conflicts, having an understanding of the different traditions, kind of the ... I don't want to say the ... What's the word ... Just different concepts and kind of the battles that play out in election sometimes in reality has been very interesting to witness. I think I'll leave it there. I know that wasn't quite ten minutes, but I would say I find it to be an incredibly relevant lens. It both is always at the back of my mind and sometimes very much at the front of my mind in all that I do, both I would say personally, when I meet people, and professionally as well.
Lauren: When I first came to Swarthmore I thought I was going to major in English, just because that was something I was good at in high school. I enjoyed it. Then I took a couple classes here and decided, okay, this is not for me. No disrespect to the department or peers in the classes, but I felt like I couldn't really connect to the material. I wasn't really connecting with professors in the way that I would have wanted to. I randomly, I dropped a course and then needed to pick up another one to fill that empty spot. I ended up in Professor Mark Wallace's Religion and Literature course. I thought cool, it's books, it's English skills, I like it.
So I get into and we're reading Black Belt Speaks, we're reading The Stranger. I should have read that in high school, I didn't experience that until I got here. It was just such a wonderful experience because all these questions that had been in my head about what is the nature of my existence and what is my purpose in life? All of these fundamental questions about just being in the world, which I guess I have always had I was finally able to just experience and be critical about in that class. From there I knew that I was going to major in religion and everyone around me was like okay, cool, so you're going to be a professor, right? Or yeah, you're going to be a pastor or a priest right? I was like no, I will do whatever I want and I am doing what I want. More on that later.
I went into it because it was something that I really enjoy. After that I was taking classes that focused on transatlantic African religious traditions with Professor Vaughn Sheroe. Incredible courses that exposed me, I think, to ritual and religious iconography and spiritual images. So one of the research projects I did my first year was on religious/spiritual images in Los Angeles. The reason I chose that for my research project was because growing up in LA you see crosses, you see images from Dia de los Muertos. All sorts of things just exist that are religious in nature that are spiritual in nature, yet the back drop that they exist in, it's not inside a church, it's not inside a temple, it's not in these enclosed spaces. What I was always really passionate about was how religion and spirituality can exist outside of an enclosed space.
I discovered, not discovered, but one of the things that captivated me most in West African religious traditions specifically in Santeria and in [inaudible 00:31:55], and Haitian food actually. Which is why I ended up focusing on, it was this idea of spirit possession. How is spirit possession used in these different communities that practice it? As I studied and I learned more about it, I discovered that, my theory is rather, that every people, wherever you are there is some sort of spirit tradition that exists. A spirit possession tradition that exists. Whatever the religious tradition is, what is that function of that particular ritual? What function does it serve? How do people use it? How is that connected to community healing? How is that used as a way for people to air grievances or share messages.
So that ended up being my research question when I went abroad my junior year. I was in Vietnam and Cambodia. In Vietnam, [inaudible 00:32:55] is in central Vietnam and that was known as, that was the old royal capital of the country prior to the war. The atmosphere in that city is really interesting. When you're there you can almost feel like there's some sort of otherworldly presence when you were there. Whether that's due to the number of temples that are there, the old imperial city that's there. I was invited to a spirit possession ceremony and I remember I was in this boat and helping lugging crates of chickens on this boat. We were on this boat and were going down this river. It's two hours on this little boat and then we have to climb through this wooded, jungly sort of area. Then we end up at this temple. This temple was just build so I was helping create platters of food and set up all these little material goods that they were going to give to their spirits.
It was a really fascinating experience because when the ritual started I met the spirit mediums that came. There was a dozen different spirit mediums, men and women who were there. They're dressed in all this regalia that looks like imperial, Vietnamese royalty. So they have these big elaborate headdresses, these beautiful golden and red robes. It's midnight we're all sitting there and then one by one each priest, rather each medium comes up and they do a particular dance. Whatever dance or physical expression they were doing was meant to be, that corresponded to a particular spirit that was coming down. So they were sharing a message so ... There was one person who was this older gentleman who was dancing with swords. There was this other woman who was dancing with incense and fire in her hands.
It was incredible to watch. When I would tell people about my research they would say, oh well do you believe in that? Do you believe that they are really possessed? And it's just an interesting question for me, this idea of belief. Do you believe in X,Y,Z tradition? For me through my studies it was never a matter of do I believe in it, it's a fact, it is. It's not something you believe in it's something you do. It's something that just exists around you. Even the ideas that magic can exist, that hexes can exist ... I'm not sure if any of you are familiar with this one book, it's a really popular book it's called "The Wind Catches You and You Fall Down."
Something like that so it's about this little girl who's having seizures and the family goes on this quest with Western medicine, trying to figure out how can we address the seizures? How can we help her? The idea of you have these physical ailments, well they're also spiritual ailments and just like you would go to your doctor for an ailment, you could go to a medium and you could get ... You could go to a Voodoo priestess. You can go wherever or a botanica maybe, and you can get an herbal something or other, or a spell to address that. That was always really fascinating to me that the idea that there were these material goods. There was a buying and selling and bartering that also came along with it. So it wasn't just I guess the spirit of it. It was the actual physical, material goods that also helped power. And how those goods are used to facilitate ritual.
That was a lot of my studies when I was here. That was a lot of the research I did. Prefacing all of this with that, then I guess the question is how did you end up working at this leadership development nonprofit? How do you go from that to that? When I ended up at Posse, so I work for this leadership development program, it's a comprehensive scholarship program based in New York. We have ten offices and I work out of the LA office. A lot of my work there was around facilitating questions of identity. With our students relating workshops on religious identity. We're talking about race and ethnicity. We're talking about gender and sexuality class. All sorts of conversations that students experience when they get to college.
The great thing about our program is we're recruiting students from their junior year of high school for this leadership program that they do their senior year of high school. They go through eight months of training in their senior year. They're having these conversations and they're getting, I think, a leg up, more exposure then they might have otherwise, true to difficult conversations that you experience in college. When they get to school they know this is what to expect. Or this is how you engage with someone in conversation. There might be tension and there might be conflict but you can get through that. I think my studies in religion, well I guess I'll just say, my role now is a [inaudible 00:38:30] Program Manager. I work with undergraduate students and alumni in helping them navigate their career path.
One of the questions they always ask me is oh, okay so what did you study in school? I say religion. They're like, how did you end up here? So I go through that whole long thing, well this is what I did, that's how I ended up working in the nonprofit industry. They were like why not be a professor or why not be anything else I suppose? For me, I never approached my studies as there's just one trajectory and it's A to B in terms of what I do. I was always very open-minded about things I was interested in. So that's how I ended up working at Planned Parenthood, just because I was interested in reproductive justice. I think I was always the kind of person who was willing to take risks. So even if I didn't really understand what I was getting myself into, I just went for it anyway just to see what would happen.
It would either turn out really great and I learned something or it wasn't as great but I still learned something. That's the approach that, when I'm working with students, when I'm counseling them through academics or I'm counseling them on should I take this internship. Or I don't know what I'm doing with my life, all those questions come ... They're really those fundamental questions of what am I passionate about, what am I here for, what's my purpose and how do I make meaning in the world around me. For me that's a very direct connection from what it is I studied to what it is I do practically for money.
One of the things I think about now that I think draws me back to religious studies and ritual is the ritual of going to work and how you change, how you're changed and how your environment changes when you cross that threshold from home to office or from home to classroom. Whatever that might be just because when I think about community there is a community that develops when you go into work. I work in a very structured office sort of space. So I'm spending time with people that I see far more than my loved ones. So thinking about the community that's built there, there are rituals that happen, there are conflicts that happen. So I'm thinking of how do we create rituals that contribute to a healthier work environment. That makes it a more productive place to be where flow can happen, where people can be inspired.
Those are the questions that I'm thinking about now. For me it's still based in things that I pursued in my research in religion. And applying that now to the workplace. Those are things that I don't have answers to and I haven't, I've been out of school now for about five years and I don't really have any more ... I don't plan on returning for a Master's degree for about, maybe the next couple years or so. Just because I really enjoy working. I'm not in any rush to go into graduate studies. I have an idea of what it is I want out of those studies already. I'm interested in Social Work. I'd like to do some studies in organizational psychology. I'm just thinking about all of those things now and I think I'm at a point where I'm at this organization, I've had a chance to be creative and grow, I'm working in service to students, which I'm really passionate about.
From there I'm thinking about my next move. My next move can really be anything. Just because I think for me, my baseline level of being happy is, am I fulfilling my purpose, do I feel like I'm being useful, am I making some sort of meaningful impact on people in the world around me? I think as long as I have those things then I really can do anything. Folks are like what are you trying to do next, I'm like I don't know. Might work on a college campus. What are you trying to do next? I don't know, I might go work at a different nonprofit. Or at least stay in the nonprofit industry just because I like direct service work.
Working with students is really fulfilling to me because I know what it's like to be in those shoes when you don't know what you're doing and somebody is out there looking out for you and counsel you along the way. Being that cheerleader for you and make sure that you're achieving whatever it is that you envision for yourself. If you don't really have that vision then how are you getting thought partners together to make that come to life. How can I be somebody who serves as an intermediary or connector to the resources and people that can help you in that journey. So that's why I love what I'm doing and I hope to continue doing that. And then I think whatever comes next I'm just going to be open to. I'm not really concerned about it. As long as I can pay phone bill, have a roof over my head, and buy something nice for myself and my family every now and then, then I'm good. That's what happened to me on his watch.