Meet Raphael Mondesir, assistant professor of sociology
Hometown: Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Education: PhD and MA in sociology from the University of Washington; BS in economics from Salem State University
What’s your morning routine?
My alarm goes off, I silence it the first time, I silence it the second time, I get up, and I pray.
How would you describe your reputation on campus?
I tell students from day one: This is a class community. We have become a community today. That’s the reality of it. If you sign on to do something for 10 weeks with me, well, we are a community for 10 weeks, and perhaps beyond that. We are a microcosmic community within this larger campus community, and as a community I tell them this: There are rules, and one of them is mutual respect. We engage in debates and discussions — I tell them no subject is taboo — but there’s a way of talking about issues that is respectful. We can talk about anything, the more controversial the better, but that doesn’t mean we have to disrespect other people. So that’s something they hopefully remember from me and that they take with them beyond my classroom.
When did you first think you wanted to be a teacher?
My love for teaching started quite early, I would say. My oldest brother is also an educator — he taught literature in Haiti for a while — and my sister was also interested in teaching literature. This idea of reading constantly was sort of part of my everyday reality. It never occurred to me to ask why we have so many books around the house. This was a given, which is kind of a blessing, if you really think about it, in a poor country where those pursuits are not necessarily a priority. My love for books, my love for learning, and my love for constantly reading came from just being blessed with these relatives, these siblings, who were always interested in surrounding me with books and material to read.
What led you to study sociology?
I majored in economics while in college. After college, it took me a little while to figure out what I wanted to do professionally. I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but economics was not really on my radar. Not because I didn’t like it — it is a very interesting field, and I loved the problem-solving aspects of it — but I was not totally happy with the way economics questions were posed and answered. So a couple of things happened. I started reading broadly. My adviser told me to read casually and see where my interests took me.
Community might be the answer to a lot of problems we have currently, whether it has to do with the environment, political divides, providing services to underserved populations, or efforts to promote diversity.
As I did, it dawned on me, “Hey, something is speaking to me.” It turns out that one class that I took — it was an introductory class on sociology — was really amazing. That one sociology class made all the difference — all the memories I had from it. I still had the notes, so I went back to my notebook and after a few days of thinking about it, I made the decision that this is what I wanted to do. I could see how it could help answer all those questions that I had about the social world, about institutions, about authority figures, about how families work, about development in poor nations. Not that they would be answered in one swoop in sociology. But I could see how I could actually encounter models and ways of explaining that were stronger than the ones I had seen in economics.
That’s my story for coming to sociology. I am interested in studying communities. I’ve always been interested in the idea of community, and I think community is one of the biggest things we need to think about, as a concept and as a reality. Community might be the answer to a lot of problems we have currently, whether they have to do with the environment, political divides, providing services to underserved populations, or efforts to promote diversity.
What kinds of reading do you assign in your classes?
I’m a big fan of fiction. All the great novelists and all the great poets are amazing sociologists — they just don’t know it. There is so much sociology in fiction, so one of my treats for students is that for every day of class — in my power and privilege course as much as I can, and in my introductory sociology class — you get to read one theoretical piece or a fragment of a theoretical piece, but also you get to read a fictional story. We read Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Yeats, and others. Students can read the theoretical piece first, and then read fiction to see how the theory pans out in the story.
What was the best movie of 2018?
The best movie I’ve seen this year is definitely Black Panther. Not only was it well done with the special effects and so on but it had a good script. It was a script in which there’s plenty that’s positive about the black community, about Africans, and about the idea of Africa. Even though the idea of Africa is somewhat idealized in the movie, that’s fine, because I don’t think we’ve seen a movie with such a prominently black cast that was so successful. It’s a big moment, and hopefully it is a signal of a certain transition — maybe we are ready for these narratives where the hero is African.
What do you enjoy about living in Seattle?
I really love Seattle. At first, I was taken aback by the rain and moodiness of it. This city has a certain mood. You know, when you first get to it, it doesn’t seem very polite in terms of weather. Once you get used to it, you really fall in love with it. I love the laid back attitude. People are into family time and down time — “let’s just relax a little bit.” You still achieve, you still produce, but you don’t have to be on-the-go all the time, and I think that translates into richer relationships, richer friendships.
I love the restaurants here — it’s a good place to eat out. It’s a good place to explore certain things, I like to go downtown to the comedy outlet, by the gum wall. I like improv because improv is comedy, but the performers enroll you, and they string you along as accomplices, so you’re not just a spectator.
Who would you want to have as guests to a dinner with you?
I’d love to go to dinner with Denzel Washington. I would totally love to sit with him and talk. Spike Lee would be another one, and Nina Simone. Bob Marley would have to be there too. That music is so inspirational to me. Bob Marley is the Caribbean. He is the voice of the Global South to this day.
What do you miss most about Haiti?
The food. I can make the food here, but it’s not the same. It’s not because I’m not a good cook — it’s that there’s something about the family gathering around this meager fire and making something. You know what making food is in Haiti? It’s alchemy — it’s magic. It’s something happening out of nothing. It’s magic in the making. You see it happening right before your eyes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Photos by Erika Schultz.