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Oklahoma State University

OSU Faculty Spearheads First U.S.-Led Conference in Cuba

Denni Blum, an educational anthropologist and associate professor in Social Foundations in the College of Education at Oklahoma State University, made history in 2015 when she secured the first grant possible for an academic exchange initiated by the United States in Cuba and organized a workshop attended by anthropologists and scholars nine countries in Havana.

Blum has conducted research in Cuba for 20 years, is the only scholar of Cuba to have acquired long term access to Cuban schools, and is the author of,Cuban Youth and Revolutionary Values: Educating the New Socialist Citizen. While on sabbatical in the fall of 2014, Blum was invited to conduct research at the Juan Marinello Cuban Institute of Cultural Research in Havana. She received permission and invited colleagues at the Institute to collaborate with her in applying for a workshop grant, despite that fact that policy did not allow for a conference sponsored by a United States citizen to be held in Cuba. Anthropology had been eliminated as a discipline at the University of Havana in 1959 when Fidel Castro took over. Only recently, in 2008, have two cohorts been permitted to pursue master’s degrees in anthropology.

“I went with my intuition and decided to put in a proposal and see what happened. I thought, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen? They could say no?’.” 

That possibility was not enough to deter Blum.  

“As I had watched changes happen in Cuban schools (in 2011), changes which reflected economic and political apertures, I began to think that the country was going to open up,” Blum says.

On December 17, 2014, the time was right. Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba began to be restored, and two months later, Blum received notification from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, a private operating foundation dedicated to the advancement of anthropology throughout the world, that she had been awarded a $17,000 grant to create a workshop to bring lead anthropologists from Latin America to Havana. It marked the first time Wenner-Gren had funded anything in Cuba.

Blum worked with colleagues Rodrigo Espina Prieto and Rosalin Bayona Mojena from the Juan Marinello Cuban Institute of Cultural Research to organize the conference. Blum attempted to connect via phone with Prieto and Mojena on many occasions, but communication was unreliable as neither side could ever be heard very well. All of the planning was done electronically.

“Many of the files that had to be sent to Cuba would not even go through email due to size limitations on the Cuban end,” Blum says.  

She had to compile abstracts, forms and other important documents on a flash drive and have another colleague who was traveling to Cuba take them to the Institute. There is no mail from the U.S. to Cuba.

Blum invited lead activist anthropologists from Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil and Guatemala, as well as Cuban and Latin American scholars from the United States, to be a part of the workshop.

From December 1-3, 2015, 22 presenters and a by-invitation only Cuban audience of 40, gathered at the Hotel Habana Riviera.

Blum says the workshop was designed to nourish self-made cultural anthropologists and support them in the anthropological pursuits. Conducted in Spanish, the workshop focused on recent debates in anthropology, particularly on social justice. Panels covered race relations, violence, the transformative role of education, whether and how anthropologists can be active in academe and applied practices.

The library at the Juan Marinello Institute received anthropological scholarly donations in the field, including books and articles uploaded on flash drives. Materials were widely distributed to both the presenters and Cuban audience members.

The workshop was successful in building relationships and sharing scholarship.

“The group quickly became cohesive and collegial with each other and the Cubans. It was a wonderful group, not only as scholars but as people,” Blum says.  “This workshop was highly successful; the participants asked when would be the follow up to the workshop.”

The Cuban scholars also requested that the peer-reviewed presentations be published in Cuba as a book that can be widely accessible to the country.

Wenner-Gren was impressed with how much Blum and her colleagues were able to accomplish during the conference, and the foundation stepped up to provide funds to print 1,000 copies of the book.