A Conversation with Dr. Alicia Bonaparte, Professor of Sociology

Alicia Bonaparte  Headshot

A member of the Pitzer community since 2008, Dr. Bonaparte is an associate professor in the Sociology field group. In a candid interview, Dr. Bonaparte discusses social activism, teaching pedagogy and the trials and travails of the midwife in American culture.

What brought you to Pitzer?

That’s an interesting question…when I was in graduate school at Vanderbilt, I took a teaching pedagogy course where we were asked what type of school we wanted to work for. I, in essence, described Pitzer without knowing that Pitzer existed! I knew I wanted to work at a liberal arts college that had some type of social justice as a major part of its ethos. I knew I wanted to teach small classes, and I also knew that I wanted to be a part of the decision-making process, rather than having it be a top-down situation. Those are some of the main reasons why I came to Pitzer.


What were some of your first impressions of Pitzer’s students?

The students helped me engage with the institution through the types of questions they asked, and the fearless nature that many of them tend to have with their questioning. I liked the fact that that seems to be promoted here, that the students are inquisitive in a way that some institutions kind of shut down. I really appreciate that about the College.


How do you define a Pitzer student?

I don’t think there is a general type of Pitzer student, but I will say that there are common themes amongst our students. For example, I think that our students are naturally inquisitive and outspoken. Our students embrace interdisciplinary learning – they don’t just want to talk about the topic through one particular lens; they want to talk about it from multiple perspectives, including a social scientific standpoint, a public health standpoint and through a gender/feminist lens. That’s one of the things I love about being in the classroom. I get students who are coming from different disciplines, and because they actively pursue classes in different disciplines, it informs the way they discuss different topics.


How would you describe Pitzer to those who have never encountered the College?

Our students have a huge social justice ethos, and Pitzer lives and breathes that in a number of ways. If there is some type of social protest going on, more than likely my students will be there! I refer to Pitzer as a tornado. While there are days in which the eye of the storm is very calm, there are other days where there are so many things going on, so many activities and so many speakers coming to the College!


What courses do you teach at Pitzer?

I’m a trained medical sociologist, so I teach a class called Sociology of Health and Medicine. I also teach an internship course in conjunction with that class called Internship: Sociology of Health and Medicine. I teach an African American social theory course and a class called Men and Women in American Society.  I also teach a class called Juvenile Delinquency, and last semester I taught a first-year seminar called Race, Gender and Health in Historical and Contemporary Perspective.


What makes Pitzer’s sociology field group unique?

We have six professors in our field group, so it’s one of the larger ones. Each of us have different academic interests, but since three of us teach social responsibility courses, we’re not just working in the classroom – we build a bridge between the classroom and what happens in the community. I’m extremely excited about the work that Professor Roberta Espinoza does with education, particularly for students that are coming from largely marginalized populations. I think it’s also important to highlight Professor Eric Steinman’s work with native and indigenous communities as well. My colleagues Professor Phil Zuckerman and Azamat Junisbai are pushing academic boundaries in ways we haven’t seen before. Professor Zuckerman’s work on secularity is a growing field, and many people are highly interested in it. Professor Junisbai is interested in political activism within areas of the world that we don’t generally think about, like Kazakhstan. He’s exposing things in regard to political unrest and the ways in which people become under-resourced in areas we don’t generally talk about.


How do you define social activism at Pitzer?

Social activism starts within the classroom. The fact that I am a woman of color teaching in the classroom, that in and of itself is challenging the academy, because we know there isn’t a large number of people of color within the professoriate. I also strive really hard to push my students. I tell them at the end of the class that I’ve been trying to turn them into change agents of some sort. In my classes, we talk about issues of oppression, and the various ways in we see oppression come out in people’s lives. Since I’m a sociologist, I borrow from C. Wright Mills’ sociological imagination, which calls for students to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. I like giving students experiential activities that force them to ask themselves, “If I were a part of this lobbyist or interventionist group, how would I use the tools we discussed in class, rather than just saying that racism, classism and sexism are bad?” If you were in a position of authority, how could you challenge those things? I think pushing students to think about that is another form of social activism.


Are students ever uncomfortable with the material they encounter in your classes?

I make it very clear to my students that concepts like privilege may be uncomfortable, but they’re important to discuss. We have to recognize that we all have various layers of privilege, which I think makes students uncomfortable. They are sometimes uncomfortable, for example, with the idea that “If I’m a first-generation college student, I don’t have as much privilege as someone who comes from the upper-class,” but I remind them that, you are also a college student, and that in and of itself is embedded with several layers of privilege. Making students aware through exposure is another form of social activism.


How do you introduce students to the sometimes uncomfortable topics they will encounter?

I teach a class on African American social theory, and I’m very upfront with the students in that class that there may be moments where we talk about something that challenges their pre-conceived notions. The purpose of the class is not to say that they’re wrong, but rather to expose them to a different lens, a different way of analyzing a particular social issue, problem or phenomenon. The class looks at the ways in which African American social theorists like Charles Johnson have discussed race and race relations. The students read Johnson’s work, in which he talks about a concept called the plantation economy, in which emancipated blacks were, in essence, still working as slaves for their previous plantation owners. It was a very complicated relationship – I explain to students that we’re talking about an area in which blacks were still marginalized despite their “freedom.” They no longer had to work in chains, but there’s still an invisible chain that exists there. I ask students what they think, and they tell me it’s disgusting, and they don’t understand why the relationship continues to be exploitative.


How did you address the concerns and thoughts the students had after they encountered the Johnson piece?

Charles Johnson talks about relationships that were formed during slavery and continued during post-Emancipation in a way that was grounded in ideas of capitalism, colonialism, racial ideology and racial and social hierarchy. He interviewed black people and heard many of them say they thought life was better during slavery. So many students try to grapple with that notion. They learn from Johnson that black families stayed in the South because they didn’t have skill sets that would enable them to leave that particular area. When they did decide to leave, the issues they faced in the North caused many of them to migrate back to the South! Those who were able to get an education (their children, for example) didn’t want to go back because they see various negative race relations. Students grapple with the notion of being “free” but working in a situation in which you’re still dependent on the master. We talk about the crop lien system, in which blacks had to give a portion of their crop yield to the landowner, and how that was an exploitative relationship that feeds into this issue of the plantation economy. It’s hard for students.


How does social activism play into the internship courses you teach?

As a community health advocate, one of the things I do is place students within community health organizations like East Valley Community Health Center, the HIV Education Mobile Unit or Kids Come First, a small community health clinic in Ontario that serves Spanish-speaking populations, many of whom are first-generation immigrants. I also have my students work at Ability First here in Claremont, which works with individuals who have psychological or developmental delay or disability. I’m trying to expose my students to communities who have invisible voices. By virtue of them being there, they learn something different. I think it’s one thing to assume that people are disadvantaged in other parts of the world, but showing students that there are people suffering from various levels of disadvantage roughly 20 miles away is extremely important to me.


What does the change process look like for students who participate in these internships?

That’s an interesting question. I tell my students that sometimes the best learning comes from being uncomfortable. Sometimes students tell me, “When I was working in the community health clinic, they had me do all of this filing, and I was hoping to do more activist-oriented stuff.” They have this idea that activism has to look a certain way. But when I read their journal entries, I notice that students reflect on the experience and say things like, “Well, I realize the reason they’re asking me to deal with the paperwork is that they’re under-funded and under-resourced, and they have an audit coming and they don’t have the time or the staff to be able to get the files ready.” The other thing that’s beautiful to see is when students realize just how much funding comes into these organizations, where the funding comes from, and the issues many patients have with acquiring insurance and paying for the health services they need. I think having the opportunity to do what many people consider busy work gives them a birds-eye view of why these communities, and these community health centers in particular, need more volunteers, more interns, more staff and more funding. As I said before, my secret goal is to turn them into change agents. If students have had the opportunity to work in a community health center that is under-resourced, it makes them better advocates because they have been exposed to the issues and can talk about them in a very cogent way.


Can you talk about some of your research regarding midwifery?

I am a HUGE fan of the midwife! I champion the midwife proudly! My dissertation research looked at the ways in which physicians considered midwives in their medical journal articles. I was particularly interested in how black midwives in the South, specifically South Carolina, were discussed. I had this assumption that, because it was the South, it would largely be filled with racism and sexism, and instead I discovered a theme of inter-occupational conflict. The American Medical Association had just started to rise in prominence, and midwives were seen as interlopers in comparison with these newly-minted physicians. We know that, in the past, midwives have been the main birthing attendants for women all over the world. I was interested in this perception shift and change. I wanted to know if doctor’s advocacy had something to do with it. I tend to think of myself as a historical sociologist, and I wanted to know the historical precedent for why midwives are considered the way they are presently.


What does the relationship between midwives and physicians look like today?

Currently, insurance companies have, with the aid of the AMA and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (affectionately known as ACOG), been saying that hospital births are the safest births. One of the things we discuss in my class is the pathologization of birth. Birth is now considered dangerous because the woman could possibly die during the process. As a result, women are automatically placed into a deviant status, because they’re doing something that’s viewed as very dangerous. Insurance companies and the medical establishment have said that the only way you won’t die in childbirth is if you have a licensed and trained medical professional to supervise that birth within a hospital setting. What you end up seeing is a convergence of a variety of different entities saying that if you attempt to do something outside of a traditional birth setting, you’re abnormal. ACOG has made fear-mongering statements in which they say that if you trust a midwife, you’re on your own. I wrote a chapter for an upcoming book called Black Women Birthing Justice, in which I talk about a midwife activist with whom I work. Her name is Jennie Joseph, and she principally works in communities of color, in essence teaching women how to be community health workers for pregnant women, which is very powerful, and something that midwives, historically speaking, used to do. Midwives would offer pre- and post-natal care and actually stay with the woman in her home from anywhere from three to six weeks, helping with the cooking and cleaning. The only thing the woman was responsible for was healing and bonding with her baby. How powerful is that?


Are people advocating for the midwife in communities today?

Jennie Joseph is creating social networks of support within the communities in which she works, which are primarily poor communities of color in Florida. It’s very important work that focuses on bettering maternal health outcomes and shifting maternal and infant mortality rates, which tend to be very high in marginalized communities. Unfortunately, there’s been push-back from the medical establishment, which is problematic. If midwives cannot be paid for the work they do because insurance companies are saying birth can only happen in particular ways, that’s a problem. You also can’t find physicians who align themselves with midwives because ACOG is telling them that midwives are dangerous, which is a problem. We are still looking at elements of historical precedence as it relates today with what I would argue is a competitive relationship between midwives and physicians. I also think that this competition is, unfortunately, buoyed by capitalism, which is in turn buoyed by professionalism.


What do you enjoy most about teaching Pitzer students?

I’m surprised regularly, but I like that! Students will ask me questions I hadn’t thought about before, and I’m a huge fan of asking students if I have their permission to use their question in a later class. For example, in one of my classes we were discussing the relationship between philanthropy and charity. One of my students asked whether charity was a good thing or a bad thing when it came from a white mainstream organization that was supposedly going to help a marginalized population. What does that mean? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Their question sparked an amazing conversation, and I have since used that question in the classroom. I’ve also had students re-conceptualize theories or ideas we talked about in class, and I’ll ask them, “Can I borrow that? Can I copyright you?” The students seem to be very excited about the fact that I want to use their words, so that’s highly enjoyable for me!


What’s one thing that you always tell your students during class?

I tell my students that this is a collaborative learning environment – it even says so on the syllabus! I remind them that for all they think they’re learning from me, I’m learning from them as well. I enjoy those moments when students re-conceptualize a concept, idea or theory in certain ways, and I like to use their ideas. I’ll give you another example – I work with community health workers, who are members of the community trained to assist in health activism and health education. I explain to my students that these individuals are very important because they are familiar with the type of language that’s needed for the communities in which they work, because they know the people. One of my students said, “I feel like the community health worker is a cultural broker.” And I said, “Yes! I really like that! Can I use that?” They are cultural brokers between the larger medical establishment and their communities. They are the intermediary that sits in the middle of those transactions, so yes.


What’s something that prospective students should know about Pitzer?

If you want to go somewhere that’s comfortable, Pitzer isn’t for you. If you’re interested in being exposed to a diverse array of opinions and perspectives, then Pitzer is the place for you. If you’re interested in exploring the connection between scholarship and activism, then Pitzer is the place for you. If you’re interested in seeing the ways in which you can start learning how to become a social change agent, Pitzer is the place for you. If you have this idea that college is simply about gaining assets and what you need in order to get a job, then you should go to a different school. If you’re interested in developing a passionate, well-thought out voice, then I would suggest coming to Pitzer!


What’s the best thing about being a professor?

I have several! Learning from my students is definitely number one, but a close second is the “a-ha” experience. When I’m explaining a concept, there’s a moment in the classroom in which people are like, “Okay, I get it now,” and then they explain the concept back to me in a way that demonstrates a very clear, in-depth understanding of it, and that is exciting! During those moments, I tell my students, “Okay, yes! Keep going! You’re making me very happy!” Moments like those make me very excited, when students understand something and understand it well.


Click here to learn more about Dr. Alicia Bonaparte!