Alex Werth is a researcher, cultural organizer, and DJ. In 2019, he received his PhD in Geography with a Designated Emphasis in Global Metropolitan Studies from UC Berkeley. His dissertation, entitled Racial Reverberations, looked at the longstanding role of popular music and dance in campaigns to empower, but also police and displace, working-class communities of color in Oakland. He currently serves as the Policy Associate at East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO). He took the first Global Urban Humanities seminar course on The City, Arts & Public Space.
How did you get involved with the Global Urban Humanities Initiative? Tell us a little bit about your GUH experience.
I started graduate school in 2012. At the time, I was researching and organizing among the ad hoc group of artists, vendors, and activists that turned Oakland First Fridays into a large-scale street festival. I was looking for intellectual tools to make sense of these intersections of race, gentrification, and public culture in ways that neither simply celebrated nor condemned this new urban spectacle. So I was excited to learn that Shannon Jackson and Teresa Caldeira were piloting a GUH methods course that spanned urban and performance studies. A few years later, they invited me to serve as a GSI for the class. Those experiences were very formative for me. They ultimately equipped me to write my dissertation on the racial/spatial politics of music, dance, and public culture in Oakland in ways that remixed theories of the city from the humanities and social sciences alike.
You are working as a Policy Associate at EBHO. Can you tell us more about what you do and how your GUH experience has helped your job?
I work on policy development, advocacy, and coalition building to drive structural solutions to the housing and displacement crises in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. At EBHO, our mission involves both policy work and organizing work, with a focus on residents of affordable housing. Increasingly, we're working to transcend the silos that exist between these two cultures and categories of practice in order to transform how we show up in the movement for housing justice. I think that my experience in GUH--and graduate school, more broadly--prepared me for this work by teaching me to inhabit the interstices between at times divided disciplines, perspectives, and theories of change.
What advice would you give to current GUH students who may be exploring future career prospects?
I'd look for ways to connect your research to people and projects beyond academia. While in graduate school, I curated public cultural events at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Matatu Festival of Stories, and a party series called Good Culture. I also served as the research analyst for the City of Oakland's Cultural Plan, which, in 2018, sought to promote equitable investment and anti-displacement measures through arts and cultural policy. These endeavors expanded my horizons, practically and professionally. They kept me grounded in relations, aesthetics, and politics that complemented my studies. And, more instrumentally, they allowed me to build relationships with local activists, advocates, and organizations that proved invaluable in making the transition from academia to the social sector after graduation.
What are you most looking forward to in 2020?
My wedding! Now that I've graduated, I have a lot more time for family and community. My partner and I are in the process of designing a ritual to weave the two together this May. If that weren't enough of a reason to be excited, as an event producer and DJ, I can't imagine a more fun and meaningful party to plan!
Tell us what you are currently reading, watching and/or listening to.
I'm a quarter of the way through Valeria Luiselli's Lost Children Archive. The book was recommended to me by a former colleague, who thought that I'd enjoy the fact that two of the main characters are sound recorders and amateur geographers. He was right. But it turns out that, even more than the attunement to soundscape, what really draws me in is the fact that the story focuses on a road trip. This sort of slow, unfolding itinerary is my favorite form of travel.