Why This GC Alumna Is a ‘Hidden Congressional Hero’

Graduate Center alumna Janette YarwoodIt was late 2017 and a story on CNN about modern-day slavery in Libya demanded attention. “Constituents were calling, church groups. I mean this story was on CNN and people were up in arms,” Janette Yarwood recalled.

Yarwood (Ph.D. ’11, Anthropology) is staff director for the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations. She and her committee chair moved quickly to respond, drafting a resolution condemning the human rights atrocity. But, Yarwood emphasizes, they also wanted to understand the root causes of what was happening in Libya.

As an article in The Root highlighted, it is Yarwood’s job “to keep focus on an issue that isn’t sexy, isn’t getting a lot of attention but is simply a moral imperative.” The Root called her “the kind of hidden congressional hero you seldom hear about.” 

Yarwood says, “The good thing about working in Congress is that things are immediate.” And, at times, overwhelming. The subcommittee chair cares about a range of issues throughout Africa that revolve around governance, democracy, and human rights. Yarwood’s job is to support that broad agenda.

She researches a deluge of issues at once, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Cameroon, constantly monitoring the news from Twitter to African news sources. Her subcommittee gathers information from citizens of the U.S. and abroad, from human rights and other advocacy groups. She adds, “I’m an anthropologist so I’m always engaging with people out there.” She relies on her Graduate Center doctoral education, asserting that, “It’s embedded in everything I do.”

When she arrived at The Graduate Center to pursue her doctorate in anthropology, she was intent on becoming a professor. She loved her field and recognized that there were too few faculty of color. But, while she kept her sights on an academic career, the anthropology program also offered hints of alternatives. She studied social movements with Distinguished Professor Emerita Leith Mullings (Anthropology), a public anthropologist who, Yarwood says, “was solidly respected as an academic, but also did applied work.”

She remembers a class with the late Distinguished Professor Neil Smith on gentrification in New York City where she learned to understand power and class dynamics. She worked with Professor Kate Crehan (GC/Staten Island, Anthropology) who “got me to understand the history and anthropology in Africa … and that has served me well.”

“I’ve got this great training from The Graduate Center where I know how to analyze situations,” she said. “It’s more rapid research, but I’ve built up a knowledge, which certainly started with my academic training.”

Supported by a Fulbright and other fellowships, Yarwood spent two years researching and writing her dissertation in South Africa. She began to teach, but says, “I wanted to find a better way to utilize what I knew — work to have real and practical impact.” Also, she says with a laugh, she did not like grading papers.

She brought her expertise on Africa first to a position with a think tank, then to the State Department where she created the curriculum and taught classes to prepare diplomats and others posted to Africa. She even collaborated on an episode for MTV’s series Rebel Music, based on her research on protests across Africa that originated in Senegal and spread to young people across the continent through hip hop.

Now, as majority staff director of her subcommittee, she is optimistic going forward. “I certainly understand now the impact of what we do in the United States and across the world because if other countries think we are retreating from the world, Congress can show that various branches of the American government still care about the world, care about American values, and so I look forward to the work we accomplish over the next two years.”
 

Submitted on: FEB 13, 2019

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