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Search for identity drives young sociologist

[1]As a sophomore, Luisa Batiz traveled to Ghana, where she conducted an ethnographic study focused on the effects of structural adjustment programs. She looked at the lives of a taxi driver and a street vendor and how programs put in place during their childhood affected their ability to get an education.

“In order to decrease its debt and get loans, Ghana had to get rid of a lot of social programs,” she says. “The two men I was interviewing grew up around that time. My goal was to tell a story about what had happened historically in Ghana and how it manifested in the lives of these two young men.”

From there, the sociology major’s work took a more personal turn.

Batiz’s honors thesis focuses on the Garifuna community in New York City. The Garifuna, including her own family in Brooklyn, are descendants of marooned slaves who were exiled when the British took over St. Vincent. The New York City community has grown to some 100,000 people.

“My inspiration was my own search for identity here in the United States,” she says. “Growing up, people would say to me, ‘You can’t be Latino; you’re black.’ For me, it was that confusion that drove me to write an honors thesis.”

Batiz conducted a survey of Garifuna and used census data to see whether individuals considered themselves black, Latino, both or neither. The results left Batiz with questions about how Americans negotiate race and how culture is transmitted. “Is it your phenotype?” she asks. “Is it the social condition you grow up in?”

Batiz’s advisor, Michael West, considers her self-directed and ambitious. “Her research shows that the Garifuna, as befitting a people spread over several nation-states in Central America, with roots in the Caribbean islands, have multiple identities,” says West, a professor of sociology and Africana studies at Binghamton. “They are at once Hondurans, Belizians, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, etc., and Americans, and also Latinos, and black, plus of course Garifuna. Along this cultural continuum, there are varying degrees of identification with any of the categories according to class, gender, religion, age, education and so forth. The beauty of Luisa’s thesis is that it speaks to all of these issues.”

Last summer, Batiz traveled to the University of California, Berkeley, as a public policy and international affairs fellow. The program gave her a dynamic view of how to tackle issues, she says. She was part of a team tasked with improving education in Micronesia. The group didn’t find an easy fix, but the experience led her to an insight: “Often when we try to solve a problem, we come up with a Band-Aid when the real issue is that the problem is adaptive,” she says. “You’re only fixing part of the problem.”

Batiz, who will join Teach For America this fall, plans to pursue a doctorate in public policy.

“I do want to do research, but I also want to be sure that I am an advocate for what I’d like to see changed in the world,” she says. “Too many people accept things the way they are.”

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