Weaving in progress on a backstrap loom. Zaachila, Oaxaca. Photo courtesy Alejandro Linares Garcia and wikicommons

Lean In or Lean Back

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Blaire O Gagnon


Reproducing Sustainable Livelihoods in the Transnational Indigenous Art Market

Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (2013) has generated an enormous amount of discussion and debate over whether it is critical of women or a manifesto of empowerment. The book’s title is often shortened because the phrase—Lean In—sums up the career drive that Sandberg believes is critical if women are to achieve success in the corporate world. It refers to tilting one’s priorities toward one’s work/job/career, and thus presumably, away from one’s family/children/husband/heritage even. Lean In hit the airwaves just as we began analyzing interviews with artisan-vendors from Latin America that sell their products in the United States. Sandberg’s forward stance seemed contradicted by the use of the phrase “leaned back” by an artisan-vendor from Oaxaca, Mexico to describe the process through which he connects his cultural heritage and contemporary US based artisan identity.

The phrases “lean in” and “leaned back” at first suggest a dichotomous relationship, much like the juxtaposition of the moral and political, the local and the foreign, the natural and synthetic, the artisanal and the mass-produced, or stay-at-home moms and working moms. Yet, I found several similarities between Sandberg’s narrative and that of Miguel’s (a pseudonym) through a reflection on the use of these phrases. Miguel’s use of the phrase “leaned back” is not referencing a regression but a progression of the artisan-vendor’s identity and career trajectory that required a leaning into his heritage and contemporary American migrant identity. In addition, Miguel’s leaning-back incorporates an analysis that leads to an awakening to responsibility, an evaluation/critique of individual practices, and opportunities for empowerment, much like Sandberg’s argument. Ultimately, a reflection on the discursive use of the phrases “lean in” and “leaned back” illuminates the complexity surrounding the reproduction of quality lives and livelihoods (see Griffith, García-Quijano, and Pizzini 2013).

Lean In

Sheryl Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, holds two degrees from Harvard, and was the vice president for Global Online Sales and Operations at Google. She is on Forbes’ 50 Most Powerful Women in Business list, and as of February 9, 2014, her book Lean In had been on the New York Times Bestsellers list for 44 weeks. Sandberg began her book with the recounting of an incident regarding reserved parking for pregnant women to illuminate the potential good that can come to all women when women gain positions of power and use that power to make a difference. This incident awakened in her a sense of responsibility. “To this day, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t realize that pregnant women needed reserved parking until I experienced my own aching feet. As one of Google’s most senior women, didn’t I have a special responsibility to think of this?” (Sandberg 2013:4). Sandberg’s book seeks to address the reasons why women are “woefully underrepresented” in top leadership positions. It is a call to action, a manifesto for a social movement, which asks women to embrace ambition and resist the tendency to hold back due to real or anticipated work-life balance challenges. Through leaning in, which requires getting rid of internal barriers such as lacking self confidence and not raising one’s hand, women can attain positions of power that can influence institutional barriers and result in “true equality” (Sandberg 2013:11).

Critics call Sandberg an elitist who is hard on women and soft on institutional sexism.

Even her advisers acknowledge the awkwardness of a woman with double Harvard degrees, dual stock riches, … a 9,000-square-foot house and a small army of household help urging less fortunate women to look inward and work harder. Will more earthbound women, struggling with cash flow and child care, embrace the advice of a Silicon Valley executive whose book acknowledgments include thanks to her wealth adviser and OprahWinfrey?” (Jodi Kanter Feb 21, 2013, New York Times).

Sandberg (2013:158), on the other hand, calls herself “a pom-pom girl for feminism.” She does critique the actions of women but in relation to outcomes within the field she knows best, the corporate world. She recognizes that not all women want positions of power within the corporate world, nor is it simply about making choices. Yet, she claims a responsibility to mentor others as she seeks to “reignite” a revolution and the hope that a “shift to a more equal world will happen person by person” (Sandberg 2013:11).

After reading Sandberg’s book, which was precipitated by the analysis of the interview with Miguel and an expected juxtaposition of their arguments, I began to see similarities rather than dichotomies through a reflection on the phrases “lean in” and “leaned back.” Miguel also had an awakening of responsibility that has led him to critic contemporary practices that he considers detrimental to the pursuit of a quality life for himself, his family and his community and set himself up as an instigator of a potential revolution in textile production that has the potential to improve lives and sustain heritage.

Lean Back

I recorded the interview discussed in this essay during a preliminary study of Latin American artisan vending in Southern New England in 2012. In the overall data set, the theme of heritage was very strong. By heritage, I mean that the vendors interviewed felt a responsibility to connect their past to the present through the lives they lead and the products they make and sell. Miguel used the phrase “leaned back” when I asked him if he was the only family member in the United States, or if others were here that helped him. He said, “No, I am the only one. I have other siblings that live in the U.S. but I’m the only one that’s promoting it. I’m the only one that’s kind of leaned back again and going back to my roots and um [to] promote it, the face of the family.”

Weaving in progress on a backstrap loom. Zaachila, Oaxaca. Photo courtesy Alejandro LinaresGarcia and wikicommons

Weaving in progress on a backstrap loom. Zaachila, Oaxaca. Photo courtesy Alejandro Linares Garcia and wikicommons

Earlier in our conversation, I had asked Miguel how he came to be a textile artisan selling in the US. His use of the phrase “leaned back” references how not until he moved to the United States did he begin to appreciate the weaving tradition of his Zapotec heritage. After he had been in the U.S. about five years and begun to acclimate, his “art started coming back and [I] start [to] remember. So I went home. I start, you know, seeing the loom and seeing all this great things. I started appreciating more… I can appreciate my culture, my language, my arts. So that’s when I really, you know, start to consider it.”

According to Miguel, before coming to the U.S., weaving was merely work. After his commissioned loom arrived from his home village, he started to work on his own stuff and now that I’m seeing the two world[s]: my ancient heritage tradition with, you know with, the modern, you know, environment that I’m in now. So, I’ve been incorporating that getting different ideas and combine them together to create something unique. That’s kind of how I started to uh to going back to that and now I start looking at it more as an art not just a work.

Just as pregnancy provided Sandberg the lens for an awakening of responsibility, Miguel’s move to the US led him to redefine himself as a textile artisan who carries a burden of responsibility to himself, his family, his culture and the field of art. “So I’m representing you know being in a different country. I’m representing Mexico and my art and my heritage.”

Being an artist and differentiating this from merely textile work is central to Miguel’s sense of who he is and how he represents his heritage through textiles to audiences in the United States. He believes there is a difference between an artist and a mass producer and quality and uniqueness, which he links to natural dyes, hand-spun yarns, colors and designs that index Mexico and his Zapotec heritage, are important to this differentiation. Miguel is working to revive the natural dye tradition in his village, which he claims has been lost. The use of traditional natural dyes, in particular, indexes Miguel’s desire to bring respect and an improved quality of life to his community. He associates current dye practices with environmental problems, social justice issues such as a fairer wage for his family and a lack of respect for traditions. “As far as the dying tradition, I say, you know, I’m doing, trying to do a positive impact, on my, you know, to my family’s way of life, my community’s life, and also I believe a heritage for the next generation.” Like Sandberg, he hopes to start a movement that will “inspire” and create “a sense of wellbeing.”

Reflection

Miguel, an artisan-vendor in a transnational indigenous artisan marketplace, connects heritage and sustainability to reproduce quality lives and livelihoods for himself, his family and his ancestral community. Not until he moved to the United States did he have the frame of reference to appreciate the ‘work’ of his village, textile production. At first, I thought of Sheryl Sandberg’s phrase “lean in” as a counterpoint to Miguel’s use of the phrase “leaned back.” Yet, upon contemplation, I wondered are they not commenting on the same thing: a reflection on the power structures of their respective domains—business and indigenous arts—from positions of privilege that provide the lens to both critique and empower individuals within their respective cultural contexts? A focus on discursive practices and reflections on seemingly disparate if not often analytically, if not morally, juxtaposed domains provided a more nuanced view of how cultural heritages influence the conceptualization and reproduction of quality lives and livelihoods.

Blaire O Gagnon is an anthropologist and assistant professor of textiles, fashion merchandising and design at the University of Rhode Island, Kingston, Rhode Island. Her research focuses on the relationship between people and objects, intercultural markets, and the construction of value particularly in relation to ideas of authenticity and power.

The phrases “lean in” and “leaned back” at first suggest a dichotomous relationship, much like the juxtaposition of the moral and political, the local and the foreign, the natural and synthetic, the artisanal and the mass-produced, or stay-at-home moms and working moms. Yet, I found several similarities between Sandberg’s narrative and that of Miguel’s (a pseudonym) through a reflection on the use of these phrases. Miguel’s use of the phrase “leaned back” is not referencing a regression but a progression of the artisan-vendor’s identity and career trajectory that required a leaning into his heritage and contemporary American migrant identity.

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