What is WAPA?

The question of what is WAPA might be better put as “Who is WAPA” This short message will answer both questions. Both questions were brought to mind at the springtime celebration of our 40th anniversary at the Sumner School Museum. Whether you were able to attend the celebration or not, the questions are worth considering.

WAPA is an unincorporated organization made up of anthropologists and those associated with anthropology designed to provide a social, professional, and intellectual meeting place for those in and around our discipline. Monthly meetings and a variety of enrichment activities and fun events hold us together as they have for four decades.

The kernel of the WAPA idea came to a group of graduate students and their professor from Catholic University at a meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology (SFAA) in San Francisco in 1975. There, a group from Arizona spoke of their efforts to encourage interaction among anthropologists who were not primarily engaged in academia. They were calling themselves “professional anthropologists.” Conrad Reining, our Catholic University professor and his two PhD students, Joan Volpe and I, listened closely. We were very interested in the idea, as Conrad was anxious to embark on consulting in his forthcoming retirement, and Joan and I already had decided to form our own anthropological consulting firm upon graduation.

Within a short time, we had gathered names of anthropologists in D.C. and called a meeting at Catholic University. We were surprised at the enthusiastic response and quickly formed an organization. At Conrad’s suggestion, we substituted “professional” for “practicing” in its title, which Conrad thought was more welcoming to academics whom we decided should be an equally welcomed part of the membership. Thus in 1975, the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists (WAPA) was born. Conrad became our first president.

We established a few founding principles. At that time, few women had leadership positions in national anthropological organizations. To counter this exclusion, WAPA decided to alternate a female and male president with each yearly election of officers. Our first years focused on jobs, public influence in government policy, and comradery. We had an active job service in which dedicated committee chairs searched for openings that were relevant to anthropologists, helped job seekers write resumes, taught them how better to respond to interview situations, and how to help one another in the job market. This was a very welcome and useful activity and brought us many new members.

A WAPA Monthly Meeting at Charles Sumner School
A WAPA Monthly Meeting at Charles Sumner School

Our monthly meetings in our second decade began to reflect a larger emphasis on content, as people were invited to speak about their own work and the skills and the background needed to be effective. The wide range of opportunities continued to be explored. WAPA members also offered courses in a variety of skills at national anthropological meetings.
Over the last 20 years, WAPA, along with its major function of sharing information and skills, increasingly was a place to meet friends, to have social and informal contacts through happy hours and salons. Were we networking or creating friendships? Perhaps, both. For some, WAPA was a group they could move into or out of at will, for others, WAPA was a touchstone of social life in the city.

What always distinguished WAPA from other anthropological organizations was its face-to-face contacts, its age diversity, its mix of intellectual and social importance to its members. Because of the comfort level of long-time members with one another, it became less oriented to new members, including students. The diversity of the group was not as broad as its original intent would have indicated.

A reassessment of the meaning of WAPA as it was envisioned in the 70’s, and as needs have arisen or been newly recognized in the second decade of the 21st century, is now necessary. An emphasis on hearing from students, giving them a space to lead, becoming more inclusive in terms of not only gender (which is where we started) but race and other identities that are impacted by “othering” is a renewed commitment of our new president, Fannie Norwood, and the WAPA Board.

WAPA remains a vital organization of opportunity, growth, and social interaction. You can have as big a role as you desire in ensuring your field remains exciting, relevant, and influential in the coming decades by becoming or remaining an active professional in this proud, longest existing, local anthropological organization in the United States.


Profile Image for Gretchen Schafft

Dr. Gretchen Schafft was a co-founder of the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists and a pioneer in the movement promoting anthropological practice in the public sphere. The major foci of Gretchen Schafft’s career have been minority/majority interface, social justice, education and access to health care in the United States. She currently serves as a Public Anthropologist in Residence at American University’s Department of Anthropology.



2 thoughts on “What is WAPA?

  1. What a great set of blogs to launch our new initiative, WAPA Features. We have Queshia’s blog on the really dramatic changes in our city and how people young and old, black and white experience that and we have Gretchen’s on the 40 year history of our own organization and how young and old have experienced that. I am so excited to begin this year as President of WAPA. I’m new to a leadership role like this and was just thinking yesterday that as I embark into this new territory for myself, that I can use the lens of anthropology to help me figure things out. Foucault is a favorite read of mine and once you get hooked on Foucault it is hard not to see the competing discourses of youth and age, color and family background in these pieces. Foucault suggests that discourses are “in every society… controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its ponderous, awesome materiality” (1972:216). WAPA brings its own set of discourses and as we move into our next decade I’d like to think about how to hold on to the traditions that brought me and my colleagues into WAPA — programs such as the monthly speaker series in which anthropologists from various backgrounds come and share their work; the happy hour and dinner that precedes the talks where I usually get to talk to old friends and new; the mentorship program; the potlucks; the outings where we often get a behind-the-scenes tour of interesting historical sites or museum exhibits; and the anthropology jobs listserv, a free service for anyone looking for the next opportunity. I am also thinking about the discourses that resonate with younger members from various ethnic backgrounds who are coming of age in a very different employment-sparse environment. How can we use the resources we have to connect with those who are seeking education and employment today? How can we speak the language of those who rely more heavily on virtual ways of connecting? And how can we grow and rework some of our core traditions to speak to members from such different backgrounds? I think we start by dialogue — this blog where we can connect to each other in addition to a global community of anthropologists and face-to-face in traditional programs and in new programs, such as our WAPA Meetup series where WAPA members will talk theory, enjoy happy hours, and connect with students from local universities, etc. If any of this resonates or if you have ideas to share, please reach out. We are an all-volunteer organization and we are happy to have you contribute.


  2. Pingback: What is WAPA? | Bring Our Parents Home: De-institutionalizing Long Term Care in the U.S.

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