Profile with Somjen Frazer
Somjen Frazer (North Carolina & Nuffield 2003) is President and Principal Consultant of Strength in Numbers Consulting Group, a progressive feminist research consulting firm. She also holds the position of Director of Research and Evaluation at SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders). Somjen holds an M.Litt in Sociology from the University of Oxford and a B.A in Inter-disciplinary research in Social Movements and Social Change from Cornell University.
Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favourite childhood memory?
Somjen Frazer: When I was six or seven years old, living in this very small, very provincial suburb in the Southern US, there was this thriving community theatre and they were putting up a production of Annie. I auditioned for the role of the youngest orphan and I was cast because I couldn’t read. The idea of being part of something collective, like a theatre production, and also being on stage and speaking and singing confidently, I think was a real turning point; it was tremendously enjoyable and it was the first time that I got an attention that I really enjoyed. I still remember that feeling of being powerful because you were on stage. It certainly was the root of my capacities in public speaking and giving interviews. One doesn’t normally learn that as a young person, and it served me really well, both in terms of being a Rhodes Scholar and afterwards.
Rhodes Project: What surprised you most about Oxford?
Somjen Frazer: How little was expected out of Master’s students in my programme in Sociology and a number of other programmes. Like many other people, I thought of Oxford as the most rigorous possible education so I was very surprised both in terms of the level of work we were expected to do and the level of teaching -- which was very basic in my department.
Rhodes Project: Could you tell us more about the work that you do?
Somjen Frazer: A few years ago, I founded a small social justice entrepreneurship venture. My company is called Strength in Numbers and we work with small progressive not for profit organizations to conduct research and evaluation projects. We have had the incredible privilege of working with a very wide range of organizations across different sectors. We have done work like child health, transgender rights, violence in Asia, and citizen engagement in the US. I found that in the context of all this variety, the only way I could find was to create something on my own. When I was working in non profits, I found that I was always only working on one thing and usually at a very slow pace and very constrained to the organization’s ideology. I have really enjoyed building something. In some ways it speaks to my generation of entrepreneurs -- that we want to give back while also making enough money to live a dignified life, which wasn’t the case with activists of earlier generations. I have enjoyed the opportunities to grow and learn through different sectors, as well as learning new methods and practical skills they don’t teach you in school- like how you manage a relationship with a client who has been through a lot of trauma and thus behaves in a very difficult way. As an undergraduate or graduate student, I would have said, ‘this person is being unreasonable and I can’t work with them and I am going to go back to my books’. Now, I have a pool of things I can say, ways I can work productively. A lot of people in social justice have faced the social problems that they are working on. They may not be the happiest or healthiest people or organizations. The capacity to do work anyway, with not enough money or time and a really big tactical problem -- those are skills that I have never learned in any classroom but from the field itself and my mentors.
Rhodes Project: In starting your own feminist research consulting firm, what has been the biggest learning for you?
Somjen Frazer: The most rapid growth for me as a person was when I first hired employees. Like most academics, I was taught to work quietly, by myself, behind a desk and suddenly I had a team to manage and I had no idea how much I had to learn. I have had some terrible bosses in the past, a few good ones but mostly terrible ones and I was very committed to living the ideals that I want for the world and social justice, in being a boss who is very nurturing and who wanted to help people grow into the people they were meant to be. With the people I work with, I want them to tell me what they want to be, what their agenda is. It’s been about two years since I had that adventure and a lot of what I learnt were basic human skills- be very very patient, be polite even when you are in a hurry. There will always be more efficiency in being kind and thoughtful than to bulldoze through a problem. I came into the work more equipped academically than in management or inter-personal skills or working with clients. I feel profoundly grateful for the talented people I work with in my company and for their patience as I learned those things. We also have a serious playing culture here wherein we can make light of mistakes that happen or funny things without being disrespectful at all; just enjoying the “here” in the world and also making time for the world. We are all here because we are interested in the intellectual adventure as well as the social change adventure. So, stopping for a moment when you’re in a hurry and playing with ideas and giving yourself time to do that. I find it very difficult because I am a doer but this has really made a difference to the happiness in our office culture.
Rhodes Project: In your work with LGBT youth and older adults, what similarities and differences do you see in the values and beliefs of these generations?
Somjen Frazer: To me, in the LGBT community generations are for about four years. I came out at school about fifteen years ago and at that time, almost no women came out before college, it was very uncommon. Now lots of women do it. There are young people coming out in elementary and middle school. Particularly where the coming out is more about justice than about sexuality. Part of what is different is the explosion of information about what it means to be LGBT and the different options about that, the profusion of those images has exploded exponentially in the last five years. Various media images play an important part in accelerating social change. Being in your thirties in this context is like being in a different country from those who are now in their sixties or seventies.
It’s hard to make broad sweeping statements about generations, but there’s an awful lot of younger LGBT people who are much more confident about the fluidity of their identity and sexuality than older people, who are used to relying on identity politics as opposed to rights. Since the 1990s there has been a lot of academic work and social activism focused on how the world should be for everyone, not just for people of a specific identity. Those kinds of organizations tend to be staffed by people from my generation and younger whereas I think a lot of older people are focused on trying to obtain services and access to health and other things that LGBT people need because they weren’t able to create those recognised family structures that younger people have been able to. Lots of us can get married and even if we can’t get married, we can find a sperm bank or adopt openly. Those paths were forbidden to older people who are LGBT, many of whom have been failed by formal and informal support networks, and they are focusing on how to deal with ageing issues in a way that’s not insulting to them.
Rhodes Project: Has your idea of feminism changed over the years from the time you were at Oxford?
Somjen Frazer: When I moved back to the US, I was for the first time,out of an academic environment. I looked around and thought – “Feminism in this country is moribund, it’s boring, it’s not doing anything and it isn’t for people like me, frankly.” To a certain extent, I still feel that way but I also see that feminism that’s not rooted in the West is climbing and interesting and dynamic .In a lot of places it also well integrated with a lot of things that I care about, like economic status, choice about family forms etc. I thought that I would spend time working for one of the main feminist organizations at the time. I have never been drawn to doing that because I have never felt that that was a space where I could make a big impact. Honestly, a lot of the discourse that is labelled “feminist” on the web for example, seems pretty disappointingly self-indulgent to me, putting a lot of attention on upper class women who are financially secure. The big feminist issues I am concerned about are – rights for domestic workers, who are mostly women, often immigrants, some of the worst paid and most horribly treated people, and older field workers in that category. I’m much less concerned about “Can we have it all? “ No you can’t have it all. Nobody gets to have everything they want. That’s really frustrating because we’re really wasting a lot of energy talking about that, when really what we should be talking about is our own redistributive or anti-redistributive financial practices. So feminism now has been a bit of a disappointment but also has kept me closer to LGBT rights where I do see a lot of work around these things in my sector.
Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to tackle one issue, global or local, what would it be and why?
Somjen Frazer: It’s a little bit of a Miss America answer to the question, but it would be poverty and the maldistribution of resources. I’m not a Marxist by any means; I don’t think everything can be reduced to class. But if I think of one thing the world needs right now, it would be more even distribution of resources. I think that that would enhance some of the other issues around representation, culture and how to treat each other. They are also really important, but if I was in that sort of God-like position, I would immediately redistribute access and resources and take it from there.
Rhodes Project: What is the best part of your job?
Somjen Frazer: I would say the time I spend with really inspired people doing really good work. Even more than the intellectual stimulation which is pretty considerable and pretty important, practically every day I encounter someone who is working really hard to make an interesting and important change in the world. Even at the moment when a lot of them are not succeeding, there is a lot of heart there. I can’t think of any other job that would put me in touch with so many people, in such an open honest way.
Rhodes Project: What was the last book you read that you couldn’t put down?
Somjen Frazer: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adiche. It’s an account of a Nigerian woman who moves to the US and she spends a lot of time in the Northeast. I get through three or four books a week; I’m an avid reader; it keeps me sane. This stuck out incredibly for me because of the fact that she’s a non-American black woman writing about American race relations. Interspersed with a broad narrative and a frankly beautiful heterosexual love story, the book spoke such truth about things that people can’t talk about because as insiders we can see them but we can’t articulate them. It had interesting politics as well as beautifully crafted prose, an arc of a story. It was just a really moving read and I did lose sleep reading it which is saying something because I love to sleep!
Rhodes Project: What inspires you?
Somjen Frazer: The older I get, more simple things, wonderful beautiful things. I’m amazed by how beautifully everything works in the world. Somebody is an expert in every funny little thing we encounter in the world. I’m inspired by the same things that most people are -- my cute dog, my pretty girlfriend, a beautiful sunset, a good hike. Anything that is new for me and is not common, these intricacies of how our world functions.
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