Julian White-Davis ’23 awarded Watson Fellowship to study connection to place

White-Davis will spend a year abroad exploring people’s feelings of belonging toward the lands on which they live.

Josey MacDonald ’25 20 April 2023 Posted In:
Julian White-Davis
Julian White-Davis '23Photo:

Julian White-Davis ’23 was recently named a recipient of the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. The Watson Fellowship gives graduating seniors the opportunity to spend a year exploring and pursuing a project outside of the United States. White-Davis is a political science major and one of 42 fellows nationwide, who will collectively travel to 54 countries and study a wide range of topics. White-Davis recently met with us to share his plans for the fellowship. 

First off, could you talk a bit about what your plans are for the fellowship—what you’ll be doing and where you’ll be going? 

JWD: The project is called Histories of Settler Colonialism. I’m going to be starting in Auckland, New Zealand—I’m spending three months in each location—and then I’m going to Cape Town in South Africa, Jerusalem in Israel and Palestine, and Belfast in Northern Ireland, U.K. In each of these locations, the main goal is to meet and talk with people about their belonging to the land and their connection to place.

This project has come from a situation that I’ve been thinking about a lot and have been perplexed by for quite some time, which is that I feel that I belong to the United States and the Pacific Northwest, specifically. I was born and raised on a little island called Vashon that I consider to be home. And I understand also that historically and politically and legally even, I don’t belong to this space, according to treaties… as well as just historically. There are groups of people who have more of a right to this place than I do, and my being there displaces these other people, specifically the Suquamish and Puyallup for where I’m from. These two things don’t work together—these two ideas of me belonging and then historically understanding that I don’t belong. 

I want to talk with people all around the world about this phenomenon that exists everywhere. So I’m going to these spaces that each have unique histories of settler colonialism. [The settler government] of New Zealand is considered by a lot of people today to be doing a really good job of incorporating Māori voices. So I want to talk to some Māori people and talk with settlers there, because people have been settled there for hundreds of years who are not Indigenous, similar to the United States, and they feel that they do belong there. I’m going to use [that pattern] throughout these four locations to talk to people about this situation. 

I’m curious whether you have a goal for these conversations with people. Is it culminating in a project? Are you going to be taking photos?

JWD: There’s a research method called PhotoVoice that I’m going to be tweaking a little bit. The original method has been developed for a couple of decades at this point. It’s based on Paulo Freire’s book “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” This methodology is where, instead of a researcher coming into a space and capturing photos of the subjects of the study, the researchers will give a camera to the subjects, and they are the ones who photograph whatever they want. And then those photographs are used in the study to allow the subjects to participate in that research and share what they want to share—it gives them agency. 

What I’m going to be doing is tweaking that a little bit. I’m giving the people that I’m talking with a camera, but I’m not doing formal research. I’m just trying to have a shared experience with people who are excited about these things and want to talk about them, where we’re both photographing.

Have there been any experiences or people, either at Carleton or elsewhere, that have been particularly meaningful in developing your interest in this subject? 

JWD: There’s a couple people. The first would be Mihaela Czobor-Lupp, [associate professor of political science]. I’ve taken quite a few classes with her and she focuses a lot on ideas of belonging and the stranger, the foreigner, the other, and about the politics of that and what it means to belong to a community of people. I find these ideas to be really fascinating, thinking about the United States, myself and my own communities. Who I consider to be a part of my communities, who I consider to be an other to my communities. Those have been really important ideas.

Meredith McCoy, [assistant professor of American studies and history], has also been really huge in developing my thinking about these things. She is just an absolutely brilliant person and really amazing pedagogue. She teaches really well. I’ve taken Introduction to Indigenous History with her and another class on research specifically.

What made you interested in applying for the Watson Fellowship? 

JWD: Throughout the application process, you have to prove that you will use this year to the fullest, basically. From there, once you’ve received the Watson, there’s complete autonomy. In a lot of fellowships there are really specific things you need to do for the organization. For the Watson, they give you the money and you do have to check in throughout the year, but it’s really wide open. It’s an experiential fellowship, not research-based at all. The goal is to build better citizens and leaders through experiences and building relationships with people around the world. I think that’s really exciting and a pretty incredible opportunity.

Have you always been interested in traveling to and exploring other countries?

JWD: Between my junior and senior year of high school, I spent some time in Ecuador living with an Indigenous community, a Kichwa community. I also took a gap year in Buenos Aires and Salta, Argentina. I was there for eight months, worked for a newspaper and had an apartment and a life there, and that was really a powerful experience.

I’m hoping to, in each of these locations, get an apartment, try to build a community, establish myself within these spaces and get to know people in all sorts of ways.

How does the fellowship fit into your long-term career interests or goals (if you have any)? 

JWD: We’ll see where the wind takes me. I think this is going to open up a lot of doors and force me to reflect a lot on how I want to spend the next little bit of my life. I’m trying to create space for that reflection and not necessarily have a big idea about what I’m going to do. This fellowship luckily provides some security. Now I have more space to see what comes up throughout the next couple years and from these experiences. I’m sure it’s going to greatly impact the rest of my life.

White-Davis’ fellowship will culminate in a photobook of his experiences. The book will be an extension and global follow-up to his senior comps project, a photobook and collection of essays exploring questions of belonging and connection to place in the United States. He will present his comps on May 2 in Boliou 104.

White-Davis has also benefited from the support of two fellowships funded by Carleton alumni, the David C. Donelson ’77 Fund and the Larson International Fellowship, which served as opportunities to prepare both intellectually and practically for his Watson year. As Director of Student Fellowships Marynel Ryan Van Zee notes, “it’s never too early to start exploring themes and topics that might lead to a Watson application,” and she encourages all Carls to check out the opportunities available to them on the Office of Student Fellowships website.