A Conversation with William White

In this conversation, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Bill White and PhD student Justin Greene speak about the path from astronomy to archaeology, Boise, community engagement, and the desire for happiness.


Justin Greene: I feel like the most basic place to start would be to ask about the story that led you to archaeology. Why archaeology? Why archaeology as a home discipline?

William [Bill] White: That’s a good question. A long story short: when I was a little kid, I went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I started elementary school in New York. I’m from Idaho, but I lived there until I started kindergarten and then after kindergarten we moved back out to Idaho. But I went there [to the Museum of Natural History]. I was always this nerdy kid that was reading when he was in kindergarten. I saw there were all these ancient remains from all these other civilizations that I had read about all in one building and then they had pieces of meteorites and other stuff from space and a whole bunch of information about planets. So, being four years old, I was decided one day that, when I grew up, I’d either be an astronaut or an archaeologist. And I followed that path all the way through school. I had no idea of how this was going to happen until I got to around high school. I was like, ok, now it’s time to really focus here. If you’re going to be an astronaut, you’re going to have to go into the military and know high-level math and all of this stuff. But, at the end of my junior high, when I first started high school, I realized that I was too tall to be an astronaut.

JG: I didn’t even know that was a thing.

BW: Yeah, the astronaut suit only fits [people who are] like 6’2” or something like that. I was already over that by the time I was starting high school. So, I was like, yeah, I’m bailing on all this math. I’m done. I’m not going to be an astronaut. I don’t want to go into the military. I’m not going to do it. They didn’t have SpaceX, so there was no company you could work for that did space exploration. You either joined the Navy or the Air Force. Then you went on to the Astronaut Selection Program or you didn’t get to go to space.

Then, when I was in high school, my guidance counselor was like, “archaeologist isn’t a job. Maybe you want to be an architect. Did you mean that?”

I said, “no, I mean archaeologist.”

They said, “well that doesn’t show up in the career plans of what you can do.”

I was like, all right, I guess I’ll go into marketing. I took all these business classes in high school and started the first day of undergrad as a marketing major. I had a macroeconomics class and was like, this sucks. I thought it was pretty clear that whoever wrote this book does not understand how humans make economic decisions. I don’t know if I can handle four years of studying this to get a degree in it. And then my class right after that was physical anthropology. That’s where I learned that archaeology was one of the four fields and I was like, oh yeah! That’s how you do it? Ok, I’m switching my major to anthropology.

At the time, you actually had to go down to the admin office and wait in line for your number to get called to go write on a piece of paper and say you want to change your major. There was no online way to change your major. You had to sit there and wait. Of course, the first day of school, there was a massive line that was, like, 50 people long. You get there and are like, do you really want to do this? Maybe you could just take the classes and do this later. But I decided, no. I’m in it. I’m changing. So I changed all my classes and I just went into anthropology.

JG: That sounds like the DMV of academia.

BW: Yeah, especially the undergrad school I went to. It was definitely like the DMV.

JG: But, still, you knew it the whole time. Astronaut or archaeologist. Astronaut didn’t work out and the guidance counselor just got it wrong.

BW: All along the way, there were a thousand obstacles and a million people who said, “wait, do you really want to do this? Is this really for you?” I finished my entire undergrad and I don’t think they ever once mentioned CRM [cultural resource management] ever. I didn’t even know that there was something like cultural resources or that they hired archaeologists. I thought you just had to go to college and then you became a professor.

When I finished, I was like, well, I wonder what professor jobs I can get after I finish this undergrad. I mean, I had no counseling. I was looking in the Yellow Pages like, where’re the archaeology companies and research? I had no idea what I was doing. I was looking on the Internet and it was just like: go to graduate school. Do this. Become a professor. In 2000, there was no clear statement on the Internet on how you get a job in archaeology. I just spent a year adrift without knowing how to really get into it.

Then, at a certain point, one of my old advisors from undergrad—I was working at a certain grocery store/big-box retailer—came through my line and was like, “what are you doing? I thought you were going to be an archaeologist.”

I told them, “I do want to do that, but I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know where to go.”

And they were just like, “you get a job in cultural resources!” I’d taken this person’s class for years and they never told me about cultural resources. They said, “that’s how I started in archaeology!” And I was shaking my head. Like, what? Are you kidding me?

Now, I knew to apply for cultural resources, how to look in Google for that as a thing. All of a sudden, I started to see more jobs. I just started applying and, at the same time, the same guy was saying, “you must quit this job because, as long as you are getting paid and have your rent covered, you are never going to leave this. The paycheck is going to keep you here forever. You’re going to have to eventually choose whether you’re going to go for this or if you’re going to stay here and take a paycheck.”

I didn’t quit right away, but at the same time I was applying to jobs. I also applied to master’s programs, and it was around the time that I actually got some serious offers to work for more than just a weekend or a week. I also got accepted to grad school, so then I had to tell those folks I was going to grad school in the fall.

So, I went to get my master’s. The school that I went to, the University of Idaho, they do contracts for Native American tribes and the Highway Department and stuff, so that’s where I got my first start doing cultural resources. The university pays its grad students to work on CRM projects, so I got employment as a master’s student that then helped me a lot when I graduated.

JG: When were you like, ok, I want to take it to the PhD and go the professorial route?

BW: I never actually chose to go the professorial route. It chose me. I finished at the University of Idaho with my master’s and didn’t march right out after the diploma and get a job. I found myself as a janitor with a master’s degree, cleaning floors and bathrooms in this building. I had to go to work at, like, 3:40am and had to get everything pretty much in tip-top shape. It was the law school at Idaho, the law library and school, so it had to be in good shape by the time the first people started showing up for class around 8:30am or so. The floors had to be clean. The rooms had to be all set up. Because it was a union job, I had to work like four nine-hour days and then a four-hour shift on Fridays. You start at 4am and get everything done by 9am. Then you just have extra time and what are you going to do? I spent all that extra time applying for jobs and learning how to write résumés and just reading and reading more and more about archaeology and stuff. Because I was a university employee, I could just go to the library and check out books and read book after book after book while I tried to find a new job. And, after about five or six months, I started to get some serious offers. Then, after six or seven months, I actually chose a job, a full-time job doing archaeology in Seattle.

I figured I’d just made it and was going to do cultural resources. That was the end of school. It was 2005 or something like that. For a few years, it was moving along pretty well. But then the recession happened and all the CRM contracts started to dry up. The company I worked for was one of the smaller ones, so I was essentially getting furloughed and didn’t have any projects. I started applying, looking once again to apply for other jobs and I took a job in Tucson. That bought me a few more years before that company also ultimately ran out of projects. I was being given some horror-story options: driving myself all the way from Tucson to the Mojave Desert on my own and paying for my own hotel room for the chance to work. Basically, I was laid off. I was laid off again and had to figure some stuff out. My wife and I were talking and it was kind of like, do I just keep doing archaeology or is this the end of it?

So, I lived in Tucson. Fortunately, if you want to learn how to do archaeology, you’re going to eventually come across something that came out of Arizona. It’s either going to come out of Arizona State or it’s going to come out of Tucson [at the University of Arizona]. Those folks there, those companies there, they’re really at the front of archaeology. And I ended up just living there. I knew a lot of people, and I was like, ok, I’ll apply to Arizona for the PhD program and, if I get in, then that’ll be a placeholder. I won’t have to pay my student loans. I should get enough money to be able to pay my mortgage and stuff. I’ll just finish my PhD and hopefully, when I finish, the economy will be good enough and I can go back to cultural resources. Then I’ll have a PhD and more than a decade of experience and I should be above the chopping block when it comes to layoffs for the foreseeable future.

When you’re in grad school for your PhD, there’s just a perpetual motion to apply for academic jobs. I was like, I’m going to be a principal investigator of a CRM company, or I’m going to work for the Forest Service or something like that. I was applying and interviewing for all those jobs while applying for academic jobs. The companies were interested and willing to hire me; I just needed to finish my dissertation. The universities kept rejecting me and I kept getting rejection letters from community colleges and state schools. They were pretty much like, sorry, we found someone better or, sorry, we’ve already hired for that position but we already paid for marketing for the rest of the month so that’s already full. They didn’t take down the ad and just left it open and it said “until filled” even though they’d already filled it. You spend all this time trying to get these letters and stuff. Applying for the academic market was just a crazy hornet’s nest and not in any way similar to working for a company.

Then I applied to Cal. They gave me an interview and, even at the interview stage, I was thinking, this place is amazing. It’d be awesome to work here but they’re looking for someone else and I don’t know if this is going to be me. And then I got the job at Cal.

To talk about my entire career from 2004 until now, we’re talking hundreds of rejections. Hundreds. And then, even applying for academic jobs, even after a decade of experience—I taught classes, written articles, all this stuff—it was still seven, eight solid rejections of just no, you’re not the person we’re looking for. Out of all of those, I probably worked for three or four companies and Cal. So, out of hundreds of rejections, five jobs.

JG: I don’t know the archaeology side of things as much, but, in working with graduate students and even undergraduates, and with your trajectory from CRM into academia, how does that affect your advising? Because obviously the market—and for sociocultural also—it’s bad. It’s bad everywhere. And a really important pragmatic concern is employment. How do you approach advising from that more career-oriented sort of thing?

BW: Well, it affects everything. Unlike many other people, I didn’t get a fistful of scholarships to go to college. I worked pushing shopping carts and landscaping and cleaning toilets and stuff for the master’s degree. I think, with a lot of folks, they were amazing students and they got to go to an amazing university. They were on a bunch of grant-funded projects that were a few weeks of research and months and months of chilling out at the lab and leisurely analyzing all this stuff. And then, from all those successes, there was a series of postdocs and tenure-track positions. I mean, that wasn’t my route.

When I went back for my PhD, my daughter was seven months old. I had a three-year-old son. I had a mortgage. I had deaths in the family. I had to take care of my sister. I had real, real needs and there was no one who was going to pay my rent or feed my kids or put diapers on them. There was no one who was going to cover that but my wife and me. So, if I didn’t have a job, then that was it. When you’re dealing with a situation like archaeology, where there’s so much competition, you have to be dedicated to the whole thing and using every single thing that you possibly can, every trick in the book to go after it because the alternative is going for another job that’s not the job you want. And every day you’re in those other jobs—I can tell you from personal experience—you want to get the job you want. If you take the other job to feed yourself, you’re always going to be disappointed and want to go for your dreams. So bust your ass and go for those dreams, because that’s the only thing that’s going to make you satisfied.

The other thing too is being realistic about it. Like, even though it’s hard to find a job in archaeology, if the job sucks and you’re not happy in it, just go find another job. That’s just the reality you live in. You only get one chance to live and this isn’t the only anthropology job or archaeology job. If you’re not getting treated right, if you’re not getting the money you want, if you’re not getting what you need out of that and can’t live the life you want, either anthropology’s not for you and go try some more jobs until you realize this isn’t going to work out, or quit that job and find another anthropology job until you find one that sticks.

When it comes to advising students, it’s meeting them where they’re actually at, rather than forcing them to go through postdocs and all this other stuff when they’ve got to feed children. It’s like, how can we use this time here at Cal to build the skills that are going to get you a job to feed kids? Hopefully, we get one that’s your dream job. But, any which way, you’re going to get something to make it to the next day. You’re going to hopefully find the job that’s going to cultivate skills that you can eventually transfer to anthropology or to graduate school. Put yourself on that kind of pathway for a different success that’ll help you get the kind of life you want.

I always ask students: what kind of life do you want to live? Forget about tenure track, forget about graduate school. When you close your eyes and just sit there and daydream, when you’re stuck in traffic and you’re daydreaming, what’s going on in there? Is it you sitting here teaching in front of students? Is it you out there in the middle of nowhere doing all kinds of participant observation? Are you digging holes in the ground? What kind of house do you want? If you’re interested in a small apartment, then obviously taking a job in the middle of Montana wouldn’t really be that great. If you were already thinking of living in the city with all that diverse city stuff, just know if you take that job with the Forest Service way out there, you’re probably not going to be as happy. Things can change and everything, but what you’re dreaming and what you think you’re going to get out of this—that’s a powerful visualization to keep you moving forward. A lot of the time, people figure out that the job was only an ornament on this overall thing they really wanted to have happen.

JG: This is the most grounded, transparent conversation about employment I’ve ever had with a faculty member, so thank you for that.

BW: Y’all never come over and talk to me! [Laughter] Whenever I meet sociocultural folks, they’re always like, what do I do? What do I do? And I’m like, well, there are several basic things, like sleep, eat, have camaraderie with others. And then there’s the altruistic stuff like smile, have family, good relationships, feel good about yourself. You can do almost anything under the sun to get money and still have all of those things. After you’ve gotten all of that stuff fulfilled, if there’s this lonely piece that’s not fulfilled without the research, now that’s what we’ve got to work on. If all you wanted was a house and car and a pathway to have a spouse and retirement or whatever, there are so many jobs with a PhD you can get all of those things with. Like, you’re going to be in the top ten percent of education in a country that has plenty of opportunity and will pay smart people money to do tasks. You can do tasks with a PhD in something that is nowhere related to anthropology and still have the house, still have the friends, still live where you want to. If you start with the dream that you want to have, it’s easier to achieve it because, then, the job just becomes a piece. But if you’re crazy like many of your professors, who cannot breathe or survive without that, then that’s the only path for you. You’re never going to be satisfied until you at least give it a chance.

That’s your life. You’re going to be grinding it. That’s all there is to it. Doing all the shenanigans. Leveling up. Writing. No sleep. All that kind of stuff. Living on less money because you just really want to have it. If that’s the kind of stuff you want to have, then you’re going to end up like your professors. And most people can be happy without being us.

JG: Thinking what it means to be happy in this seems so fundamental and commonsense but really isn’t talked about that much. It’s just really refreshing to actually go back to those basics and ask, what does a trajectory to happiness look like? Because it’s not a singular model that’s a pipeline to a postdoc. There’s any number of ways you can do it.

BW: When you’re applying for the postdoc, also be applying for other jobs that you think are going to work out. And don’t limit it to stuff that you think you’re going to get. With companies, you can talk your way in. They’re humans, right? They’re not government entities that have all these paywalls and requirements and weird fealty hierarchies where you have to do all this stuff to fulfill the requirements of the job. You can have a bachelor’s degree in whatever and just talk your way into working at a bank. There aren’t really restrictions keeping you out of working at a real estate company or for a film production company. Companies just want people who can get the thing done and help them make money and help further the goal of their organization. They really don’t care that much about requirements unless there’s some kind of state licensure. You can’t design buildings without being an architect. Now, to work at an architecture company, there’s probably a huge range of things you can do that you don’t need to have an architecture degree for. Government agencies a lot of times have the most difficult rubrics and, in a lot of ways, universities are some of the most stringent of the government organizations because they’re asking for maximum production, maximum degree level with just being a stellar, outstanding person in the weird way that they see it. If you apply for the state department and it said you need to have three years of experience in the field, a PhD from an accredited university, and be under whatever age to a diplomat or someone like that, you need to pass a background check. When you do that, there are going to be, like, 1,500 people in the United States that all apply to go to that country. When you do that for an academic anthropology job, they’re looking for like one person out of a stack of twelve out of hundreds of people who did it and it’s all based on capricious stuff in addition to the requirements. It’s difficult to game the academic job search, but it’s not hard to still find a way to do anthropological research at a company or government agency. There are tons of places that need anthropology and they don’t even know it.

The thing about the postdocs, too, is that there’s a wide range. There are postdocs that are dead ends, that are like, come here for three years, work on your book, write five articles and all this other stuff. They’ll dangle the potential for tenure-track in front of your face and sometimes they want you to teach a class, but you don’t always have to. But what they really want is for you to publish a ton of articles so they have their name all over them. It’s like free publicity, because it’s not about the grants a lot of the time. It’s not about a whole lot of other stuff and it’s also not about actually reaching people, too. If that were the case, we would all set up totally awesome websites and interview a bunch of people and go on YouTube and get thousands and thousands of clicks and spread our information far and wide, including the stuff that we’d published. It would be on the tip of everybody’s tongue. They don’t care about reach. They don’t care about that. They care about getting in these journals that they can game with citations and click-backs. When they get their name on it, then their universities are also getting the shoutouts. But they could be getting thousands more by using social media or something else or being on the news. They’re just still hooked on the ancient thing.

Having a bunch of postdocs publish articles, you don’t get paid as much money. You get barely as many benefits. There’s very little hope for you to have a permanent job. And they pitch themselves like, this is your time to go for tenure-track or something like that. But everything you’re doing at that place, you can easily do on your own and set yourself up in a sweet spot to get tenure-track and, in fact, probably even do five times more stuff, especially now with these webinars. You could be the leader in your thing very easily on the Internet, to the point that, when they type in your name, it’s synonymous with what you’re actually studying. You could set it up so that you’re the guru. You could set it up so that you’re the guru and getting paid for full-time work. With the postdoc, you use your articles and publish them in hopes that they’re going to get you tenure-track, but you can actually already do that and still make a livable wage.

JG: Yeah, it’s also just a reconsideration of the publishing model and that it’s, seemingly, the singular “proper” way to disseminate information through peer review. Like, why?

BW: It’s just old and time-tested and goes along with validity, social proof, and all of that stuff. We need to have those peer-reviewed journals because they’re still humans that care about accuracy and data and science in the academic world. Like, if it’s not in a journal, it’s not really real. Also, there’s the aspect of not just editing but double-checking against experts that have spent years. There’s something totally of value with the peer review, but it doesn’t have anywhere close to the impact as a lot of the other stuff that we can do. I mean, the danger is you can just be a total charlatan on the Internet and become absolutely famous, or you can be a normal person who’s using this to get information out to help people. But none of that stuff is going to be as equal as the academic publishing model. Academic presses, they’re the ones who are producing it. They want to have books. They want to sell books. But they really want to sell social proof. University of California Press is the leader in this. University of Alabama Press is the leader in that. That’s why they have those presses. They don’t actually make that much money. If they did, those books would be on Oprah’s book list. But they’re not. They’re just books. They’re just advertising for the university. The presses might break even. They might make a little bit of money if some of them are good but, in reality, that stuff’s dying. They spend money on it for the proof. It’s advertisement to demonstrate that they’re the experts. And you’re producing a way better product when experts are looking at your work. It won’t be as good sitting at your house writing it. It’s much better when two or three people who know what they’ve been doing for thirty years look at your stuff. It ends up being much better.

JG: Moving from publishing to published work of yours I’ve read, I’m curious to know about River Street. Was that always the project in mind or was that a thing that came to you and worked out as it did?

BW: I’m from Boise and my family’s not white. River Street was the place where segregation made it so that not-white people had to live. Before 1969, anyone who was not white in the city of Boise had to live in River Street. I guess I take that back. In the beginning, when there were not very many Black people, Black people lived throughout the city. By “not very many,” I’m talking about, like, ten. But, as soon as there started to be a few dozen families, then River Street was where Black families were forced through segregation. But it was a neighborhood that was integrated. Before the Fair Housing Acts and all these other ones where they gave you money with government-backed loans and such, poor people didn’t have money to buy houses, so they had to find places to rent. If you didn’t make enough money to rent in the white neighborhood, you rented in the ghetto, basically. So, a lot of times folks will think that redlining hardened our—well, redlining did harden our landscapes into the racial landscapes that we recognize. But, before, class was what dictated that stuff. You could find concentrations of Black people, Italian immigrants, Basque immigrants in cities through their own systems of helping each other and helping each other live near other communities. But, at the edges of those neighborhoods, there were always these other folks. It wasn’t just “draw a line down 6th Street and none shall ever live.”

But there’s always an exception to every single rule. In certain parts of the South, like where my dad grew up in North Carolina, there was a railroad track and no Black people were ever allowed to live on the other side. I don’t know if in 1890 that was also the rule. Definitely after home loans were available, that was the rule. So, in the River Street neighborhood, there are mostly white people that lived with Japanese folks, Basque immigrants, African Americans until 1969, and then those who could actually afford to leave or had the willingness to leave, left. Then there was just a group of people who had already paid off their houses. They were older, or they just didn’t have the means to leave the neighborhood. Even today, there are a lot of immigrants that live there, a lot of lower-income folks, even though the rents are going up dramatically in the city. They’re building new luxury—well, I guess we call it “luxury” but it’s actually market-rate—apartments and condos in that neighborhood. There’s still that work of getting rid of that Black landscape.

The project evolved when I went back to go for my master’s. There were some folks I grew up with who were saying you should really do your research on the River Street neighborhood, but I didn’t have the experience coming out of undergrad to do something like that. I was just like, oh, I can’t really do it. I went to Idaho and did something different. But then after ten years of doing archaeology, I was like, I can definitely handle a project in this neighborhood. I’ve already handled projects that were like this before. So that’s when it became more doable.

The stars did kind of align for me to even have the opportunity because, as I said, this neighborhood is slated for change, either development or redevelopment or demolition or whatever. It’s been like that for fifty years. And it just came together that there were several parcels still owned by the city that they were ok with doing an archaeology project on. So I had this entire city block and we dug through that and, after years and years of doing cultural resources, I realized that, if you don’t have community involvement, you’re not really doing historic preservation because you’re not really preserving the history of the people where they actually live. Community involvement definitely had to be a huge piece. And the city of Boise has a lot of people who are interested in volunteering for archaeology, so it wasn’t hard to find folks who would volunteer.

We did a summer project and there was a house there that, originally, at that time in 2015, the city was going to move. But, since they found more artifacts and many people were advocating for it to stay there and it was owned by the city, it was donated to another department. Now it’s being rehabilitated into kind of a community meeting place, a place where you can have weddings or community group meetings and stuff like that.

I’m still working on it. I was actually there a couple of weeks ago doing some digging while they were doing the construction and stuff. But that’s how the project ended up unfolding.

JG: I was really curious while reading  “Writ on the Landscape” about the relationship between River Street and Pioneer. Non-white people were relegated to live in River Street but then Pioneer Street was constructed as the place white people didn’t want to be. Have you done archaeological work on Pioneer in relation to River Street?

BW: That’s a good thing to point out. The place that we dug was right by Pioneer Walkway. It wasn’t very far from that place that they said was the red-light district. We did do work there, but we didn’t find anything from a gambling house or anything like that. It might’ve been more of making a bad reputation for the people who lived on that, doubling down on it by saying there’s a bunch of crime and vice and stuff. There were people who lived there saying that even a single part of this one block of this neighborhood was where the worst of the worst was at, but, where we were at, we didn’t find any necessarily “startling” evidence. Other people have done archaeology on brothels and bars and taverns. We didn’t find that kind of stuff there.

JG: The last thing I have written down that I’d love to speak about—and I wish sociocultural anthropology focused more explicitly on this—is this community engagement element. I was looking at “Creating Space for a Place” and there were all these pictures of people actually being involved, families getting in there. What is your approach to the community element of archaeology? How you can actually engage with members of the community?

BW: Archaeology has a bad reputation for just going to places, digging up things, and taking them away to museums far away that charge us money to go look at these things. The archaeologists are the ones who make up the stories about what that stuff means and what that tells us about human beings or people who live in that area. For years and years, doing cultural resources when I had opportunities to talk to people from the community, I would do that, but that wasn’t really how our government or developers make sense of heritage in the United States. I try to look for places where there are already communities that care about history and heritage, that already have a need, that know about archaeology or need funding or are already doing a thing that could be enhanced by someone else coming in with a different approach.

When it came to the River Street project, the University of Idaho already had public archaeology projects. And those go way back. The Forest Service at the Boise National Forest had a Passport in Time program where they took citizens out to go survey sites and check them for damage. Sometimes, they did archaeology, and it was like grandparents and students and kids that were in elementary school, all volunteering for the Forest Service, and then they would go out and record these sites and help the Forest Service while also learning about Idaho’s heritage. So, in the city of Boise, that was also connected to the Transportation Department and the Architectural History Society and the Idaho Archaeological Society. These folks were all volunteers who already had the habit of going out to archaeology sites and doing a range of different archaeology activities. Some folks had already done dozens of projects. They were always just looking for something in the summer to pass the time away or take a couple of days off of work and go to an archaeology site.  That was their hobby.

Boise has a really interesting city-governmental organization called the Department of Arts and History whose job is to promote the arts in the city of Boise and Boise’s heritage, including protecting sites. They have small grants that are available, and they already had these grants for oral histories. They have an oral history library so, if you collect oral histories, they’ll transcribe them and keep them on file for free. It was this combination of a city that’s already used to having summer archaeology projects with a whole list of people who had done archaeology before, mixed with this city-organization whose goal on city property is to promote the arts and protect heritage. And then the city of Boise itself cares about that kind of history, so that stuff gets on the news, gets in every newspaper. Like, if you do an archaeology project that is open to the public, you’re going to have students come. You’re going to have people come and visit. The city itself is already set up for that kind of activity. You provide the chance for that to unfold.

That’s where we were at with the River Street project. The community already cares about heritage. Or, I wouldn’t say that everyone in the city of Boise cares about heritage, but there’s a core of people who really do care about history and heritage and have a government office to facilitate that that’s already all set up. If we had no restrictions on COVID and we had the funding and the time, we could very easily send emails and spend the next few months planning some archaeology project or ethnography project in the city of Boise. It wouldn’t be hard at all because it’s already set up for that.

In the case of some of my other research, though, there are communities that are already doing heritage conservation stuff and then either invite archaeologists to come and be part of it or become aware of what we’ve done and realize that maybe we could help their cause as well. It’s not like they have all those structures like the city of Boise, but they’re communities that care about heritage and they’re asking for help. I don’t try to go to a community and create that kind of thing. The projects like the one that you read about in River Street, they only really happen in places where people already care, that already organically have to be there. Otherwise it doesn’t end up happening like that.

JG: I also see that you’re currently working on a project in St. Croix. How is community engagement facilitated there differently than it is in Boise, if it’s different at all?

BW: It is different because St. Croix is a Black place. Most of the people who live there are of African descent, so they already have a history that’s rich and deep, that they know for their own people and that they’ve been talking about. But that’s not the history that people tell about people who live on St. Croix. For the longest time, archaeologists and folks from Denmark and folks from the United States have been writing these “histories” or whatever of St. Croix that don’t necessarily connect with the reality of what the people who live there think of themselves or what they would want the rest of the world to know. In that situation, there aren’t archaeology or archaeology-minded folks, but there are plenty of heritage conservation people, and the goal in St. Croix is really to commemorate heritage.

First of all, I’m speaking about something and I’m not Crucian. I don’t live on St. Croix and my ancestry is not from St. Croix. I can only tell you the things that I know from working with the people who’ve been working with me, who are folks who are already interested in heritage. But I definitely can see from my own experience that there is an effort to change the narratives and to create some kind of truth of what it is to be Black and live on St. Croix. The folks that are already working with that whole thing have recognized that archaeology is a piece they can add. So, once again, the archaeologist is not telling the people from St. Croix what their heritage is. We’re just doing our archaeology thing in conjunction with folks who are already working for Crucian heritage in a way that hopefully helps them further their own community goals rather than us getting articles and stuff.

But, at the same time, there’s a different goal than Boise because the project is trying to train more Black archaeologists. Archaeology, and anthropology in general, has a huge problem recruiting African Americans. They suffer greatly from the fact that they don’t have any Black voices and it’s hard if you’re Black to try and be an archaeologist because it’s rare for you to have Black professors. It’s rare for you to be on sites that you can connect with emotionally. It’s rare for you to be a space where you’re not constantly having to deal with all the complications of being the only Black person in a white space. So, on St. Croix, the Black students are recruited from Historically Black Universities. They work with an all-Black crew on an island that’s mostly Black people. So, for their first experience in archaeology, they don’t have to worry about all that stuff, their own identity. They just have to learn about what it is to be Black and learn about Crucian heritage in a space that’s safe to just be Black. You don’t have to actually explain all that extra stuff that sucks energy and time when you’re working with a crew of white people or when you’re trying to constantly police yourself and monitor everything you do around white folks. You don’t have to do that because you’re around a bunch of other Black people and, at the same time, you’re helping this Black community further their own heritage conservation goals.

JG: Are there institutional linkages between HBCUs and a program that will take undergrads to St. Croix to do an excavation?

BW: Yeah. We have a grant through the UC-HBCU Initiative. The goal of that program is to provide experiences for undergrads from HBCUs and, if they qualify for the program in our case, they get a summer stipend to come and work with us. They also get their fees waived to apply to graduate school at any of the UCs. They don’t have to apply for anthropology; they can apply to any of the UCs and, if they get accepted for graduate school, the University of California system provides some extra funding for them. There are no HBCUs that I know of in the state of California, so the student is always going to be an out-of-state student, which is a mammoth hurdle to overcome. A lot of that stuff is minimized through the UC-HBCU program. So, folks that’ve finished, they’ve been applying to schools. We’ve had at least one person get accepted to a PhD at UCLA in anthropology and get more years of funding, so hopefully that’s actually working and helping increase diversity in archaeology.

JG: I hope so too. And, hopefully, Berkeley can help get that together.

BW: The number one thing that I hope that folks recognize, especially at this point, is that the machine is not going to be the thing that helps you solve the problem. Your professors are not just sitting on their haunches. Because we’re moving through the government system, right? Because are government employees and we work for the machine. The same structural racism, this state organization is a piece of that system. So, if you’re asking for the entire system to turn its own gaze back upon itself through its members and make change, you’re going to be an old man by the time they finally come around. Like, the Civil Rights Movement was not just 1965. There were people starting in 1860-something with the [Civil] War and even before that. So, if you’re looking for the UC system to make this mammoth change, even when you look back at the 1960s protests with Berkeley students, it wasn’t the UC that was doing that stuff. The UC was responding to the stuff the students were doing. It was students who were doing stuff, even when it was all over and said and done with and folks had graduated and everything slowed down and smoothed, you have the UC that you have today. UC takes a while for change to happen. UC is going to take a programmatic, structural thing. If you wanted to see change, you’re going to have to think out of the box. You’re going to have to connect to community groups and talk to humans and work on yourselves individually. It’s not like I sat around and waited for UC to set up the kind of stuff that I’m doing in Boise. I didn’t wait for the University of Arizona to set up the program I built in Boise. I didn’t wait for St. Croix for the UCs to all come together to help me teach Black students. We didn’t wait. We just did it. The project in St. Croix is greatly expanded and helped through the UC-HBCU, but it started before we had that money and we was already going to do that anyway.

And there’s plenty of research being done about why we don’t have more Black students at UC. No one has just actually gone to recruit students straight up from elementary school. Give them the laptop. Give them all the tutoring. Give them the aftercare and just straight up foster them all the way up. Because those lifetime problems that we all face as Black Americans, only a few of us are going to overcome all that crap to get all the way to UC Berkeley unless someone helps. So, go ahead and study what’s wrong with Black America, but if you’re not going to actually help and find students or find schools that you want to help and pour the top public university’s knowledge and abilities into that thing to cultivate that kind of community? I mean, what’s another study? What’s another survey of why we don’t have more Black students? There’re no Black students to support the other Black students. There’s no faculty to support the existing Black faculty. There’s no Black faculty to support the Black students. It’s pretty simple: if you don’t have any friends you’re not going to stay at the party.

JG: Yeah. And who is sent to certain schools? Military recruitment goes to some and college representatives go to others.

BW: If you’re going to have Black people at your university, you have to connect with Black people. You don’t make Black friends by just doing a study or survey, some participant observation, looking at some applications from local high schools. You actually have to go out and be a friend to people. And if you’re not going to be a friend, you’re not going to get any Black people. That’s what it all boils down to. They’re going to go where our friends are already at. Or they’ll be willing to withstand all of the discrimination and everything for things that are going to get them something of great reward. You’ll suffer all the structural racism to become a lawyer or a doctor. You’re not going to do that to be a CRM field tech. Nobody’s going to sit there and suffer discrimination on all sides for years and years to get a degree to only dig probes for $17 an hour. Not going to do that. It’s not a surprise. If [UC] ever asked any Black people why they are unable to attend, they might get an answer. You’re not going to get a truthful answer unless you already have Black employees they can connect with. So, if you’re not a friend of the Black community, you’re not going to get anyone to tell you the truth, and everyone who talks to you is either going to be somebody you’re paying, because you don’t really have any actually Black friends, or someone who wants to get paid and still not going to tell you the truth.

JG: It’s like friendship and getting to know a person seem fundamentally irreconcilable with the bureaucratic mechanism. So, like, maybe we need to reconsider that model? 

BW: Like, this [UC] is the place where brilliance could begin but it has all the human problems. So, if we don’t focus on the human problems, we’re not going to get the brilliance. There’s this idea that students should suffer greatly to be considered an academic. That’s such an unhealthy way to think, but also completely against everything in the United States, which is supposed to be “work hard to get money to improve your life.” Like, we all know that it’s flawed, but even the person who’s changing tires at the Jiffy Lube place knows that, if I work harder, I get more money, which means I can make these ideas in my mind become a reality. But the university system will cut dance, history, ethnic studies. They’ll cut us all away because we’re supposed to sacrifice our right to follow our dreams so they can have their cool university.  We’re the only ones who are like, no, I’m going to sacrifice all my dreams to keep you solvent.