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  • Writer's pictureKatie Vahey Gaebler

Her Ethnographic Life: Dr Debra Majeed

The time was August 2000, her first week as a Beloit faculty, and I was newly back to campus, fired up for my Senior Year after a travel term away. My externships brought my then 21 year old self to decide, post-Beloit, I would move toward a career in faith-based community work. Although at that time I didn’t know which faith, or what community, or for any particular purpose, which meant the path ahead would be winding. When I declared this intent to my then advisor Allen Patriquin, he shared that the major had been granted a new faculty, a Woman, an Islamist, a 20th century American Historian; he suggested our interests aligned and would I be willing to be her first Beloit College Advisee? Her courses then, Religions in America, Women in Religions, and a first colloquia seminar, rounded my schedule that term.

That year as she wrote her dissertation, her MI office brimmed with books, photocopied articles, towers of VHS cassettes and a perched full cube TV on a dolly, rolled to most of her daily classes. She often started a class with a recorded news clip to set a stage for that day’s topic. This early adoption of digital media into each class was a pivot for many of my peers compared to a traditional lecture style, bringing forth an initial exposure for many Beloiters to the variety of religionist communities. Before social media, or youtube expanded the option for options, Dr Debra Majeed recognized, in being her authentic self, her opportunity to break ground at Beloit College, to forth a presentation of something different. When you look different, dress different, speak different, teach different, love different, live different, now in a bubble where that was a new thing, the awareness of her differences struck a chord campus wide. Yet she saw her work unfold in one step at a time. Understanding herself as a qualitative social scientist, an ethnographic researcher of women among her faith community, she was charged to venture forth to teach the world this sensitive reality in the form of being her own authentic self among others who just hadn’t seen it before. Dr Majeed knew by presenting herself, it was a chance to teach acceptance and empathy of a demographic not wholly understood. Paraphrased, to one person at a time, she asked dynamically, "If not you, who? If not now, when?" Because that’s how she showed up, and asked others to join her. With her trademark grace and sensitivity, being different made her a teacher to everyone with whom she crossed paths.

As her first advisee, I was hooked. I was mesmerized by her stories as a Journalist in early 90s Los Angeles, drawn to Seminary to build a platform by which she could enter a 3rd career as a college educator, to present the intersection of gender, race, and theology. We shared many Diet Coke that year, discussing qualitative research particulars, how to be in and of, the “I and Thou,” the possibilities of isolationism in leadership while finding soul-food in connecting deeply with individuals who encompassed at least some shared identity characteristics. We discussed how women in faith communities throughout history may not have had their stories as readily recorded, so what could we know today based on the women who did. And how now with an ethnographic eye we could record our own inter- and intra- faith journey, could change the course of history in and for those communities, validating the academic and the personal perspectives in teaching first-hand among spaces that might not have the chance to know otherwise.

I stayed at Beloit for 2 years after my 2001 graduation, managing the CHAUS as a co-curricular space to celebrate creative work launches, new music, faculty-led community building opportunities, and to broadly lasso general debauchery by my peers in early morning weekend hours. Intending my next step to be Seminary, remaining on as a Beloit staffer post-alum provided an insider/outsider vantage point, a way to work out my aim for my own ethnographer position, and to ease transition as an engagement-activist between this campus and what came next. Within a month of starting my CHAUS role, September 11th 2001 traversed a course of history for our country, shifting a collective mindset in our understanding of citizenry, as inter-faith community members, requiring an immediate revised version of dialogue on privileges and its responsibilities. Dr. Debra Majeed, resident Islamists, as a 1 year new faculty, not-yet minted PhD, was turned to by her faculty peers and asked, help us make sense. To that point, I had not walked down College Street so still it was surreal, toward a conference room set up with a news broadcast possible. Her at the helm to pause the news, asking and answering questions, providing first hand explanation of Islamic particulars, ready to point out, when are we working with what we know and how we know it versus what we stereotype and why we do so. That day she provided our Beloit community a lexicon to work through a significant national touchstone. She was an ethnographer that executed her charge among the Beloit community on a day it mattered, then cementing a legacy to perform that charge for another 20 years, as a reason we gather today. Her purpose-driven life was her ethnographic life.

Dr. Debra Majeed wrote letters of recommendation for both my Masters and PhD degrees. She hosted a 2007 presentation I delivered at Beloit on the value of graduate education, a way for her then-advisees to consider how to more deeply understand approaches to research, academic life, and to translate that know-how as agents among our choice communities. I received a fellowship to study Religions at University of Colorado-Boulder, and then on to my doctorate in Higher Education Leadership at the University of Northern Colorado. For 20 years I trapezed among college campuses, non-profit, business, and faith communities, wherewithal recognizing myself as a woman, ethnographer, teacher, and leader that she first inspired, while still inching incrementally through the who, what, and why questions that first landed me in her office. Today I am a mother, wife, citizen, business founder, Board member, and Advocate for Autism acceptance. I am motivated daily to hear and share stories of the 1 in 44 people diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum, and the impact on their families. I am a sounding board for families navigating my local complex education systems, and I liaison to get students' supported in ways that work for their needs. With businesses, I present possible solutions to better interact with the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (I/DD) community, to articulate how to have solid recruitment and retention plans for the 85% of the Autism Community who are unemployed. I share that if we don’t have a plan for these dynamic Spectrum community members, particularly today’s youth, federal budget projections are $461 Billion annually for Adult Autism Services, and diagnostic statistics are rising annually. In my ethnographic life, I present my neurodiversity, diagnosed at age 41, and my parenting of neurodivergent children, with agency in all my identities because I know it matters in my community, as she showed me, because I am in it and of it. I am capable of changing the course of history in and for those communities, as she did in her ethnographic life, teaching first-hand among spaces that might not have the chance to know otherwise.

My contact with Debra had waned in recent years, but I thought of her often. I visited with Dr. Natalie Gummer in Aug 2021, and asked to please pass along to her my regard. I really thought I would see her again, as I’m sure many of us did. She lived out her purpose-driven life, her ethnographic life. Because “if not you, who? And If not now, when?”

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