Faculty Spotlight: Chelsey Carter

Chelsey Carter is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology and a dual candidate in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work public health program. Chelsey started college as a pre-med student with the goal of becoming a doctor and finding a cure for Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and results in loss of muscle control. However, during her freshman year she took an Anthropology 101 survey course and discovered that she loved learning about culture from different perspectives: cultural, anthropological, linguistic, etc. Chelsey recognized that anthropology “was a great foundation to learn about people.” She always knew she wanted to go into medicine and was fortunate to have great mentors and advisors who suggested she take her interest in ALS and think about how it could dovetail into anthropology, resulting in an honors thesis project about the intersection of gender and ALS. After graduating, Chelsey worked at various Atlanta-based nonprofits and a benefits brokerage focusing on healthcare and health policy, which is where she learned more about how these systems were affecting care and disease. She then decided to pursue her PhD at WashU starting in fall 2015. Chelsey notes that many of the observations she makes and questions she asks about race in St. Louis have been born out of fact that she is a St. Louis native. Chelsey teaches in WashU School of Continuing & Professional Studies (CAPS): she has taught Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, and this fall she taught a course called “Race Matters: How Race and Racism Affect Health and Medicine.” Chelsey also currently teaches “Introduction to Medical Anthropology” at University of Missouri St. Louis (UMSL). Recently, Chelsey has accepted positions to be a Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University and then an Assistant Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Yale School of Public Health starting in July 2022.

Prior to the pandemic, Chelsey’s day-to-day research involved attending three ALS clinics in St. Louis. In addition to recruiting patients for her study, she served as a phlebotomist (someone who draws blood), shadowed doctors as they gave ALS diagnoses, helped provide patient care, and observed researchers to see how patient care translated to the science side of the disease. One of Chelsey’s favorite parts of her research is getting to know her patients. As an ethnographer, Chelsey enjoys “hanging out with people that are cool because she wants to know their stories.” Sometimes this occurs during formal interviews, while other times it involves her going over to a patient’s house to watch a movie, eat dinner, or assist with non-medical tasks. Chelsey notes that it was important for her to share her time and be useful: “With the richness that I get from my patients’ stories and lives, I wanted to make sure I was also being useful – running errands, cleaning up, and doing other non-medical tasks.”

The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly affected Chelsey’s research. She saw people that should have lived with ALS a bit longer get impacted by COVID before there was widespread information about the disease publicly available. Near the beginning of the pandemic, she also started doing public writing with colleagues about how the COVID-19 would disproportionately impact Black and brown communities. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic helped accentuate how structural racism impacts these communities. Chelsey notes that “the spread and the ways that the American healthcare system is so fragmented and dysfunctional has accentuated not just the role of inequality in the spread of disease but also identified which health communities don’t have resources or access to education. COVID-19 has gotten down to the basics of why my project is really important. We really can’t racialize diseases in certain ways, and it was so powerful to see how people didn’t realize how everything but biology can affect an illness.” Chelsey hopes that the personal and societal devastation brought on by this pandemic “will be the last crucial example of how that impacts care and how we have to think further than biology about how to fix diseases and help people.”

Chelsey first heard about and got involved with PEP from Anna Preus, who has both taught and tutored with PEP. Chelsey and Anna first met in 2015 as recipients of the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Fellowship for Women in Graduate Study and became good friends. Once Anna got more involved in PEP, she introduced Chelsey to Jennifer Hudson, who at the time was the program manager for PEP, because she had expressed interest in offering an anthropology course.

Chelsey taught a class called “Reading and Doing Ethnography” at MECC in Summer 2019. She recalls that there was interest in offering a qualitative methods class because students had already been introduced to quantitative methods but didn’t yet know the mixed-methods approach: “Part of the reason I called it reading and doing ethnography is I wanted students to learn how to conduct an ethnographic project but then also how to synthesize, analyze it, and write up your findings afterwards.” Chelsey gave students an introduction to the methods of qualitative research and then folded that into them reading different ethnographies. Chelsey notes, “When I think back to my development of the course, what really mattered to me was including ethnographic texts that meant something to the students and that they can learn something from and dissent with.” Selected assigned readings included Philippe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio about drugs and incarceration in New York City in the late 90’s-early 2000’s, Christine Walley’s Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago about whiteness in Chicago and being a middle-class white person in America, and Amy Speier’s Fertility Holidays: IVF Tourism and the Reproduction of Whiteness to get her students to think about what fertility means for families and the reproduction of ‘whiteness.’

Chelsey tried to be intentional about teaching her students about the qualitative methods themselves but also discussing examples of texts that use those same methods to make their arguments. The culmination of class was students completing their own ethnographic research projects. By proxy of their confinement at MECC, it was important to Chelsey that her students thought about problems that they were already seeing and considered how could they use ethnographic methods to both better understand and solve the problem. One example of a student project was determining if the thin mattresses at MECC were impacting or contributing to health problems like back pain and poor sleep. Another student considered attrition and what that meant for people who had been to prison multiple times. One of the important things Chelsey wanted the class to reinforce to students is that “research is not restrictive about where you are; you can do it anywhere, you just have to have the tools.”

I really wanted students to think about the things that mattered to them because I think that’s where ethnographic research is best created: when people have something that they’re passionate about and want to solve it.

Chelsey laughs when she recalls realizing on the first day of class that her course reader ended up being over 300 pages, in addition to the multiple books that she assigned to her students. She remembers joking with her students about it, but notes that they never complained about having too much reading: “The students were hungry for knowledge, and even if they joked with me that it was too much reading, it didn’t mean that they were going to stop doing it, and they made time to do it because it was important to them. Most of the students that jokingly complained asked for more reading!” For Chelsey, this was a reminder that education can’t be confined and that no matter where somebody is at in their stage of life, physical location, race, class, etc., people want to learn and that “the students in PEP were the best students I ever had because of that hunger and that desire to learn something new.” Another thing that stood out to Chelsey about the power of anthropology was seeing students learn to collect data in a formal way but still be able to use their personal experience and their own individuality to think about how this was impacting certain issues and how they decided to craft their argument. Based on her experience teaching with PEP, Chelsey will never stop bringing her full self into classroom.

I think that it is critical in every environment as an educator to bring your full self into the classroom. Students appreciate you more when you’re honest and when you’re a real person. Students valued the fact that I was a Black queer woman from St. Louis and didn’t have expectations for me to leave [my identities] out of the classroom. This allowed students to bring their full selves into the classroom. Being able to bring your full self into the classroom and not see it as this performance of being a student or teacher but really embracing who you are and how you learn has been really instrumental, and I think I learned it best in that class.

Chelsey believes that “prison education can be emancipatory – not just in the sense that you’ll be free and get out of prison. We understand the realities of the school-to-prison pipeline and how prison particularly disenfranchises Black and brown people. I see PEP as something that is both emancipatory in the physical sense – that once students are released, they’ll be able to open themselves to more opportunities – but more importantly, it’s emancipatory of the mind when you’re in a place that can subjugate you in so many ways, where you’re told that you don’t matter, that you’re less than, and that you shouldn’t be treated like a human because of mistakes you’ve made. WashU being at MECC is so critical to helping students not just feel emancipation over the carceral system but be emancipated in their mind and recognize that they are smart, they have ideas, and they have contributions that are valuable. WashU has a responsibility to continue having PEP because in many ways WashU has directly benefited from prison industrial complex and from gentrification, marginalization, and structural racism.” Chelsey’s biggest honor has been writing parole recommendation letters for students, especially because she recognizes that WashU’s name, particularly in Missouri, carries a lot of weight: “If these students have the opportunity to do their best in these programs and then are able to get out, it’s a necessary thing for us to continue to right the wrongs of capitalism – and specifically racial capitalism – in this world because there’s not one student that I met that wasn’t there because of a crime of poverty.”

When asked how she would like to see PEP grow and expand over the next 5-10 years, Chelsey responded that she would love to see more students being able to enroll in the program at MECC and an expansion of the physical space inhabited by the program at MECC. She would also love to see more majors being offered and more tracks for students to select. Most importantly, she stressed the importance of clear and seamless pathways for students to matriculate to WashU once they are released, as well as pathways for masters and professional programs. Chelsey notes that students will face so many institutional and societal barriers when it comes to obtaining employment after being released and that she would like more ways to help students to see the possibility of higher education – because PEP has helped create many of those pathways. Chelsey notes, “One of the best things that can come of PEP is the connections and the family and the networking. What I think we don’t realize is the connections students get to faculty is an invaluable gift… that’s a really important aspect of the program.”