Alexandra van Doren (MAPH ‘13) is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Co-Founder/CEO of Three Spinners Inc., a new non-profit which works to provide food, clothing, and shelter for Syrian refugees admitted into the US.
Alexandra kindly agreed to answer the mentors’ questions about the work Three Spinners does, her Ph.D. program in Comp. Lit., her time in MAPH and her advice to current MAPHers. You can read her responses below, and find contact information for Three Spinners at the end of the article!
Could you tell us a little about the non-profit that you recently founded, Three Spinners, and the work that it does?
In January 2016, my colleagues and I co-founded Three Spinners Inc., a charitable organization based out of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, with the purpose of advocating for human rights that are being violated amidst the chaos ravaging Syria on an unprecedented level. Our organization provides not only the very basic needs of food and shelter, but fosters and facilitates educational opportunities such as English language instruction and job training. Generous members of the Champaign-Urbana community are opening their doors to refugees accepted into the US and offering their homes to incoming families and individuals. Basically, if you supply the space, we will provide the rest. Drawing from a multitude of resources in our community and charitable monetary donations, we are creating a network of support for those in desperate need of safety. By hosting a series of ongoing food, clothing, and item drives and working in conjunction with local businesses, restaurants, non-profit organizations, etc., we are establishing Champaign-Urbana as a self-sustaining community with the resources to provide for refugees in need.
Our foundational principles are simple: we believe that no individual should ever be persecuted on the basis of religion, race, or gender; no child should ever be subjected to violence or hunger; and no man or woman should be denied their basic human rights to food, shelter, safety, and education. While our housing process is non-discriminatory, our first priority is families with children.
What drew you to further graduate studies in Comp Lit, and what kind of academic projects and questions are you currently working on at the University of Illinois?
My time at the University of Chicago was ultimately what both challenged and reinforced my decision to pursue further graduate studies in Comparative Literature. As everyone reading this well knows, the UChicago MAPH program is rigorous to say the least. I came to Chicago from a relatively small liberal arts school in Los Angeles, so being thrown into the belly of the research beast really made me consider moving away from a career in academia. While I loved my courses and advisors at UChicago, I wasn’t quite convinced an even more research-intensive PhD program was the right choice for me. After I graduated from the MAPH program in 2013, I moved to Poland for a number of months to pursue some language training and independent writing projects I had begun in one of my poetry classes at UChicago. I ended up meeting a librarian/archivist from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Lublin who ended up being a great resource since I had been considering museum work pertinent to the Holocaust. The more we discussed career goals and trajectories, the more I found myself talking about my MAPH thesis project and related research I wanted to conduct in the future. Whether it was museum work or a position in the professoriate I was after, it was clear to me after that conversation that my scholarship really thrived in an academic environment, not to mention if I wanted a shot at working in Holocaust archives, it would be a long shot without a PhD and three or four languages under my belt. After my time abroad, I came back to the states, filled out my PhD applications, and eventually moved out to the cornfields in Champaign.
As a PhD student, it’s rare to be able to talk about the projects you are working on without any funding on the line, so forgive me if I’m a little over-eager to share some of my current research endeavors. I work in Polish, Spanish, German, and American literatures and languages, but predominantly on Polish poetry. My dissertation, entitled “‘Where foot knocks against/the unburied bones of kin’: Topographies of Memory in Mass Graves in Poland and Spain,” identifies and refashions a critical point of convergence between Poland and Spain’s national histories under the umbrella of Holocaust and Memory Studies. My current research has landed me at an intersection between the poetry of witness that began to surface in the immediate wake of the Holocaust in Poland and more recent depictions of Franco’s mass executions in documentary and photography from modern-day Spain. Immediately following the end of WWII and the collapse of the concentrationary universe on Polish soil, survivors began the Sisyphean task of reassembling the history of a people intended for annihilation. Witnesses sifted through the rubble of Babel to reconstruct a language that could speak of Auschwitz, ovens, mass graves, and the mechanized murder that had ravaged the Jewish population of Europe, producing volumes of poetry that were initially met with opposition by the general populace or, at best, apathy. Less than a decade before the Second World War in Poland, Spain faced its own internal crisis, “La Guerra” (the Spanish Civil War), with the institutionalized massacre of Republicans at the hands of the Nationalists/Rebels under Franco. Perpetrators were mindful of the evidence of these summary executions, often concealing the corpses of victims in mass graves in both remote forest-laden areas and also in cities and towns in which the shootings took place. Only within the last decade has the weight of “La Guerra” on the fabric of Spain’s topography become a topic ripe for inquiry with the recent excavations of these mass graves, but the process of distinguishing propaganda from scholarship has grown increasingly difficult to navigate. The resistance to literary and visual depictions of memory in Poland and Spain poses a multitude of questions at the crux of my research, questions that revolve around the representations of the physical and metaphorical body in mass graves and the sociological, historical, and political implications of their documentation and/or exhumation.
How did your experience MAPH impact upon your career choices, both in graduate school and the non-profit sector?
As I mentioned before, my experience in MAPH helped me evaluate the right career path for me. As far as the impact the program has had on my graduate studies, in retrospect I feel like I walked away from MAPH with a really solid foothold in critical theory that helped build the foundation for a lot of my PhD research. Additionally, the research methodologies employed in our preceptor meetings and in the classroom set me up for success at another R-1 institution. MAPH was my introduction to what real literary scholars and historians looked like and it gave me the tools to climb the ladder that I hope will lead me into those ranks in the coming years.
In terms of the program’s impact on my career choice in the non-profit sector, I have always been involved in community service organizations and activities and there was no shortage of them at UChicago. There were always opportunities to get involved in Chicago communities that really benefited from local non-profit efforts and contributions, which helped keep my feet on the ground throughout the MAPH program. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, but when you’re in the throes of your thesis, you sometimes forget to look up from your books and remember there’s a world outside the brick and ivy and the community service opportunities at UChicago gave me a productive outlet, especially since my research material topics are so heavy.
What does your role at Three Spinners look like on a day-to-day basis?
At the moment, it’s a lot of hurry up and wait. I spent a lot of time over this last winter break brainstorming ways to provide some sort of rescue and relief effort to aid in the Syrian refugee crisis, and eventually resolved to starting with a community food drive. After pitching the idea to a colleague in the Comp Lit Department, she and her husband jumped on board and after we saw the amount of interest expressed by fellow students and local businesses, we realized that we could do something much bigger. We registered our organization with the Secretary of State the next day, submitted all of our paperwork to the Attorney General and IRS, and launched our website just a few weeks later. Right now I’m really focusing on community outreach and strategizing/logistics. A lot of state representatives in the U.S. have expressed their unwillingness to shelter refugees, so we’re working on creating a self-sustaining community independent of government funding that can support a community of refugees. The last few weeks have been a lot of phone calls, emails, and office visits to businesses and individuals that have volunteered to host food barrels, run item/clothes drop-off centers, provide housing, host fundraisers, etc. Once we have the final approval from the Attorney General, it’s all plug and play. The day I get that letter in the mail, we’re delivering food barrels to our volunteers and accepting, sorting, and storing material donations so that we can get a better estimate of how many refugees we can support for up to one year. The sooner we have the resources in order, the sooner we can reach out to the Department of State and get families in need to a supportive and safe environment.
How have you integrated your academic, political and creative interests into your career? How would you suggest that current students think about this for their future?
Honestly, I’m still figuring out how all of these things weave into the career tapestry I want to create, but that’s part of the graduate school journey. The beauty of working in Comparative Literature is that there’s no limit to the kinds of literature, film, and information I have access to. I read a few English translations of Tadeusz Różewicz’s poetry years ago and decided I was going to learn Polish. Now I work on Polish poetry. This last year I couldn’t read most of the Nazi documents I was investigating for a research project and needed translation programs just to get by. Now I’m learning German. While my career choices have been in flux for several years, the constants have remained: I enjoy research and historical investigation, I embrace crossing linguistic borders as a polyglot, I am deeply invested in advocating for human rights, and I can’t live without poetry. None of these things fit neatly into a career package, so you have to write your own job description. Working in academia as a student and teacher as well as branching out into the non-profit sector allows me to create the career I think would most contribute to the world instead of molding myself into a prepackaged one. That is my advice for students that have not yet found a path that calls out to them or that are struggling to tailor themselves to the job market’s expectations. Of course you have to be realistic about your prospects, but don’t carve your edges to fit into a ready-made puzzle. If you haven’t found your niche, build your puzzle around the pieces you already have.
What advice would you give to current MAPHers interested in working in or founding a non-profit, or to those interested in a hybrid career?
You don’t need much to start a non-profit, so don’t hesitate. Anyone pursuing that field of work, presumably, already has admirable intentions since we all know no one is going to strike it rich in non-profit work. That’s not why we’re in this. We’re in it to make a difference and to repair pieces of the world that perhaps we didn’t break, but need healing nonetheless. Three Spinners Inc. started out as a maybe-I’ll-start-a-food-drive-or-something kind of idea that, after a conversation with a friend over tea, became something that will change hundreds (hopefully eventually thousands) of lives. Start building your network of resources now; you’re in the best place you could possibly be in at a university. There is such a diversity of talents, skills, expertise, etc. among students and professors. You can literally find at least one person in any given classroom that speaks a different language, grew up in another country, is pursuing a degree in law/medicine/education, etc. Truly, all you need is an idea (and the ability to run without sleep for a while), and you can get your project’s wheels off the ground. There are never too many warriors for social justice.
You can read more about Three Spinners via their website here, visit them on Facebook here or subscribe to their Newsletter here. Below are the contact details for the Three Spinners team – don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’d like to learn more!
Alexandra van Doren