Profile with Mira Debs
Mira Debs (Iowa & Magdalen 1999) is a sociologist, local community organizer and social activist. She currently a Junior Fellow at the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University writing a PhD thesis on parents and public Montessori schools. She is a board member of Elm City Montessori, New Haven’s first public Montessori school, which opens in 2014. A former high school History and English teacher in Massachusetts, Mira holds a Postgraduate Certificate in Education and an MPhil in European Politics from the University of Oxford, and a BA in Humanities from the University of Chicago.
Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?
Mira Debs: I live in Hamden, Connecticut.
Rhodes Project: Who is your favorite author?
Mira Debs: Vikram Seth. He is a British-Indian author who wrote A Suitable Boy, which is the longest novel ever published in English. When I was at Oxford, I had a chance to meet him at a dinner. He’s a really delightful person. He told me that if his next novel was any longer, he would cut off one of his fingers, which proved an effective deterrent.
Rhodes Project: Tell me about a favorite childhood memory.
Mira Debs: When I was six, my father started reading me the Narnia books and I was convinced that I too could go to Narnia. I was going to a school in the foothills of the Himalayas in India and at that time, I remember staging a ceremony with a bunch of my friends where we asked Aslan to transport us to Narnia. We were convinced that we could make it happen, and these third grade girls found us and started making fun of us, saying, “You’re so silly.” I remember my friend Rachel being tearful and saying, “We can too go to Narnia!”
Rhodes Project: When did you know you wanted to be a sociologist?
Mira Debs: I fell into it by accident. I did an undergraduate degree in Humanities and a Master’s degree at Oxford in Political Science before teaching public school and becoming passionate about educational reform and equity issues. I realized that in sociology I could actually combine all of those interests. The themes of collective identity, history and memory, creative social protest and racial integration that I had studied and taught as a history teacher came together in sociology. Since I’ve been a sociology graduate student, I’ve been able to write about Italian art, Gandhi’s non-violent protests in India, and also the history and memory of school desegregation in Little Rock. I can’t think of other academic disciplines that allow for such a broad range of subjects.
Rhodes Project: What does an average day look like for you?
Mira Debs: There is no typical day! My kids usually wake me up between 5:00 and 6:00 in the morning. My son is one and my daughter is five. After they’re at school, the research will vary. I’m about to start my ethnography, so days when I’m at my research sites, I could be there from 8:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. or I could be writing at a desk, or attending classes and lectures as a teaching fellow at Yale. In the evenings, I am involved in a lot of community meetings getting Elm City Montessori school off the ground, or I’m cooking dinner for lots of friends. My daughter is always disappointed when no one is coming over for dinner.
Project: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and why?
Mira Debs: Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch. Like the other plucky heroines of her time, Dorothea struggles with a desire for independence and the limitations of her time. She gets married rather young to a scholar, Edward Casaubon - someone who she thinks is going to open up intellectual possibilities for her, but actually turns out to be not that interesting. There’s a great line that will always stay with me: she saw his mind as being this series of corridors that she thought would open up into all of these interesting vistas, and they turned out to just be rather dusty and old small rooms. She then realizes that marriage alone is not going to be enough to satisfy her and has to come up with other ways. What I take from Middlemarch is the importance of an equal and intellectually rich partnership in marriage, and taking risks to pursue your own passions in life.
Rhodes Project: Who is your favorite real-life heroine?
Mira Debs: I taught US history for five years, and I became really fond of radical female suffragists from the 19th century and the turn of the 20th century. I would say it’s a tie between Alice Paul and Carrie Nation. Alice Paul was the mastermind behind a lot of the non-violent social protest in the 1910s. She mobilized the American public around getting women the right to vote. Susan B. Anthony had been doing a slow and steady progression state by state, and Alice Paul took it to the streets of Washington. She and her colleagues started picketing outside the White House. Ultimately, they all got jailed and went on hunger strike. It was the coverage around the hunger strike that really started to mobilize American awareness about women’s suffrage. Carrie Nation was the super-cranky, perhaps divinely inspired temperance protestor who heard a message from God telling her that she should destroy saloons in Kansas. She was six feet tall and dressed all in black with a black bonnet. She took her hatchet, went into saloons and started breaking up the whole place. Through her unorthodox actions, she galvanized public opinion towards temperance. Both of these women inspire me with the power of creative non-violent protest, or mostly non-violent in Carrie Nation’s case. It’s a small detail, but I believe firmly in the power of artful propaganda. Our New Haven parents activist group is leading a campaign to have recess in all New Haven public schools. Alongside our petition, I printed up “Recess for All” stickers. By the end of one meeting, the New Haven Assistant Superintendent for Schools was wearing one! And now the district is drafting a mandatory recess policy, using our recommendations.
Rhodes Project: What is your biggest vice?
Mira Debs: I grew up without a television, so staying connected to pop culture has been a secret pleasure. Plus there are great sociological insights about the social construction of meaning and performing identities to be found in the pages of People magazine.
Rhodes Project: What do you like to do in your free time?
Mira Debs: There is free time with children and free time without children. As part of my Montessori research I trained as a Montessori primary assistant. One of the things I learned is how to step back and observe children in order to give them independence. My son just started walking, so I started to watch and see where he wants to go. It made me realize how much time we spend directing our children and getting them from point A to point B. During my free time without children, I love to go see old movies on the big screen at the Yale Whitney Humanities Center. This fall, they did a screening of one of my absolute favorite films, A Room with a View. It was a 35 mm print, and the actor, Julian Sands, and the director, James Ivory, were at the screening. It was so magical to be at this theatre with a full audience of people, having everybody react to the film at the same time and then getting to talk about it with a cast member and director.
Rhodes Project: What inspires you?
Mira Debs: The more I study and talk with people in the community, the more I realize how challenging it is to access good education, even when you theoretically have lot of choices. I’m inspired by all the effort parents put in to provide best for their children, no matter what the circumstances. As a local organizer and activist, I also firmly believe that if you build a community, if you build a website that shares information, if you open doors and connect people, you can make amazing things happen.
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