Author presents religious, activist, feminist identity at GV
An author’s visit to Grand Valley State University on March 18 provided more than books for sale to LIB 100 and 201 students. Laurel Zwissler discussed anthropological research using her book “Religious, Feminist, Activist: Cosmologies of Interconnection.”
“So my project is ethnographic,” Zwissler said. “That means it’s anthropological. I went and interviewed people and hung out in communities to learn more about them.”
The book is about people who practice religious identities alongside social justice. Zwissler said her research challenges assumptions within popular culture that individuals need to be religiously conservative to partake in public space. She discovered religion is strongly associated with progressive communities.
Zwissler focused her research on three progressive religious communities in Toronto. These included a Protestant congregation from the United Church of Canada, the Toronto Catholic Worker and a contemporary pagan witchcraft collective. She interviewed female members who self-identified as feminists and participated in at least one street protest.
“Some of the work of ethnography is getting to know communities and being a responsible conversation partner,” Zwissler said.
Over several years, Zwissler developed a working relationship with all three religious communities. As an anthropologist, she committed to research reciprocity; she shared her work with the groups she studied, receiving feedback and ensuring they felt represented fairly by research. The reciprocity occurred while the book was a draft.
Zwissler said she had two goals for presenting at GVSU. One involved discussing the combination between religion and progressive politics. Another centered on what it means to conduct anthropological research on religion, including how it can help people understand broader issues worldwide. As a result, some students found key takeaways from the presentation.
“I think religion is very relevant in activism in the way that it shows that every person has a different outlook on how they look at activism,” said GVSU junior Nokomis Schultz.
Rituals represent distinct ways of approaching activism, Schultz explained. The author demonstrated how democratic protests took ritual form during the April 2001 protests in Quebec over the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
For instance, Pagan protesters countered anxiety by performing the spiral dance. Zwissler referenced a description of the Pagan practice as a cross between a dance and an amusement park.
However, religious groups varied on how they defined rituals throughout the Quebec protests. According to Zwissler, Protestants were hesitant to call their activities rituals while Catholics regarded some occasions as rituals. Pagans, by comparison, referred to each of their religious experiences as rituals.
Zwissler said that public practice of rituals does not come without risk, citing one Catholic activist’s concerns of imposing religious practices on protesters.
GVSU senior Julia Ervin visited the presentation as a peer mentor for the Brooks College Office of Integrative Learning and Advising. Peer mentors help LIB 100 and 201 students debrief and conceptualize what they learned in relation to class material, Ervin explained. Students, therefore, relate LIB 100/201 events to course readings and concepts.
“As peer mentors, we go to different events LIB 100 and 201 students attend for classes,” Ervin said.
Ervin recalled meeting one LIB 100 student who asked about Zwissler’s presentation. Peer mentors assisted the student by going over related readings. Despite forgetting an author’s name to a book on education, Ervin remembered the reading’s core concept.
“We’re all learners in a space who have the conversation in the bigger paradigm,” Ervin said. “So for instance, the speaker talked about how she wanted to specifically focus on female actors or female activists in her studies, as opposed to male counterparts.”
Ervin said the author’s preference for interviewing women gives voice to people not normally heard in conversations. The peer mentor pointed to men as usually being heard; Zwissler similarly described abstract debates as largely ethnocentric, or reflecting one viewpoint as dominant over others. With many women actively involved in religion, the author wanted female feminists to talk about themselves beyond male perspectives.
For students curious about religious identify within activism, Zwissler offered more than her book as a resource. She said GVSU’s religious studies program has plentiful opportunities to pursue questions further.