Visiting Anthropologist Discusses Gentrification in DC


Dr. Sabiyha Prince, a highly distinguished anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., recently presented a captivating lecture on gentrification, urban change, and community activism. On Wednesday, Oct. 16, Dr. Prince elucidated the inequality that has overcome generations in the heart of the nation’s capital. In some neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., African Americans have had a difficult time being accepted into communities.  This limits the range of work they can do, as well as places restrictions on how much they can be involved in their own community. Countless private businesses have failed, numerous jobs have been lost, and an abundance of families have faced being unwelcome in their own community due to the issue of inequality, not only in our nation’s capital, but in neighborhoods and cities all over the country. Dr. Prince addressed these issues eloquently in her lecture, and she showed her audience how she expresses her love of helping people through the work she does on a daily basis.

During her lecture, Dr. Prince tells why she wanted to address such important issues in her studies. She expressed her concern that there are not equal opportunities for African Americans in D.C. Her findings on wealth, employment, and equality pertain to social history in Washington, but they affect our lives today as well. She wanted to share her findings with the audience in the hopes that they would find ways in their own community to accept all people and provide help wherever needed. When I had the honor of interviewing Dr. Prince, I asked her how students can make a difference in their own community.  She explained that students can impact their community by purely following their passions. “Some people have different levels of understanding [of what others are experiencing and going through on a daily basis]. Students should try to consult with people. Let them share what they need, educate yourself about your own community, and listen to what their challenges are. Get involved [with your community]; helping people is good! Find different ways to help and be educated.”

What first attracted Dr. Sabiyha Prince to the study of anthropology was the fact that she enjoyed interacting with people in her community and listening to their stories. She always feels honored when people open up to her, and she loves building relationships and developing a strong trust with people. Even though her focus is on the African American culture, she said that she found a certain connection with anyone who will share their history with her, especially when people share their memories and past. She loves having the opportunity to travel and meet people, doing research, and letting the data she finds lead her to an analysis. She says that it is important to keep your mind open to what you might find – anthropology is like a puzzle; you will not know what the result is going to be until you fit all of your pieces of evidence together.

Before graduate school, Dr. Prince had done a lot on social justice and community work. But aside from being an anthropologist, she enjoys being an amateur photographer, as well as playing tennis with her daughter. In college, she participated in many performances while majoring in communication art. Music has always been a big interest of hers, and would have liked to further pursue the arts (music and acting) if she had not become an anthropologist. She feels that one of her greatest accomplishments was when people would come up to her and tell her how much they enjoyed reading her first published book. She was most excited when she realized that she had been able to contribute to the literature coming from the African American middle class. Her accomplishments have made an impact, and she is proud that her accomplishments make a difference. Now, she is excitedly awaiting the release of her second book, which will be released this coming January.

As presented in her lecture, Dr. Prince interviewed a number of people who wanted to be a part of her study of gentrification. She was pleasantly surprised how many of them welcomed her into their homes as they told her their personal stories. Dr. Prince fondly remembered how she learned lessons through those she interviewed. “They shared very powerful stories with me,” she recalled. “I learned so much from them.”

As an anthropologist, Dr. Sabiyha Prince acquaints herself with many different people, but she is especially familiar with the elderly people in her community. She told how the “housing of the elders [whom she interviewed] have become part of their stories.” When their homes were taken away because it became unaffordable, they had nowhere to turn. “There were very real dangers and fears for African Americans,” she explained. “And even still, whites were worried about [the possibility] of living next to them.”

The lecture concluded with Dr. Prince explaining the major issue between gentrification and class. “Gentrification is about class, but class and race intersect too. It is hard to detangle race and gentrification in D.C. It is difficult to find where race and class divide. Also, social justice is still an important issue today as it was through past generations, it may just come across in different ways. Multiculturalism is about respect in relationships. Neoliberalism is inherently bad, if interpreted in the wrong way.” St. Mary’s College student Addie Schlussel attended the lecture with hopes of learning more about gentrification in anthropology. “I think that many of us can tend to think of gentrification in positive terms as a kind of economic process,” Schlussel shared, “so I really admire Dr. Prince for using her work to challenge that assumption by showing that ‘progress’ has a dark side as well.”

Dr. Prince believes that the most important thing, especially for college students, is to identify your passion and follow it. In school, students should focus on developing skills that will carry them far in life and in their career. She thinks that anthropology is a great field to pursue, but its major pitfall is only the fact that it is a broad field, and it presents the challenge of having to narrow down what to focus on in the field because there are so many interesting directions to take within anthropology. “If you are passionate,” Dr. Prince advises, “and you have a lot of interests, that is fine for learning – but students should be thinking ahead to their career. Students should consult their passions and do what you enjoy, and this will prepare you for a successful career in not only anthropology, but anything you are interested in pursuing.”