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Reflecting on American politics and society – Corbett scholar Parsa Shani

Photo credit: Parsa Shani.

July 18, 2019

Growing up in beautiful Vancouver, BC, the United States was always a bit of a puzzle to me. On the one hand, its proximity and similarity to Canada, coupled with our frequent visits, made it familiar. On the other, popular culture and news media would often convince me I actually knew very little. Close, yet distant. As such, the goal of the Corbett scholarship for me, first and foremost, was simply this: to experience America. Thankfully, six months after moving to Seattle, it is safe to say that I did exactly that. I was able to move beyond the day-to-day, beyond the surface and dive deep into the intricacies of American politics and society.

Coursework at UW

While coursework is often independent of the location of study, I was able to align my academic goals with the broader aim of understanding the United States, in line with the Corbett scholarship’s goal of cross-border understanding. My courses on political economy and the framework of American capitalism, religion and politics, sociological theory, and urban planning in the American context, cultivated an in-depth, multifaceted understanding of the inner workings of American society, its historical context and its implications in an ever-changing globalized world. The following are two quick glimpses into my learning at UW:

  1. What is the American Dream? Is it Adam Smith’s promise of a capitalist system that produces “universal opulence” for the masses? Or is it simply a tool of capitalist domination, aimed at driving consumption (a bigger house, a bigger car, a bigger lawn)? What are the implications of the American Dream in terms of urban development, climate change, and the economy? For one: cheap fuel and cheap land, alongside the pursuit of the white picket fence, gave rise to the auto-centric American suburb. Endless rows of single-family homes that are as synonymous with America as baseball and apple pie. Decades later, American cities are left with the aftermath of this endless sprawl, making the shift to a transit-oriented low-carbon urban transportation model a significant challenge. What does the future look like for American cities?
  2. Historians argue that industrialization and the embrace of the free-market economy give rise to secularization. Following this logic, America must be deeply secular. However, this is not the case. The United States boasts the highest levels of religious participation among all advanced industrial economies. Why is this so? Some political scientists argue that this is due to religious freedom in the United States, that allows one to choose their preferred religion and level of engagement, as opposed to an official state “Church” that alienates those who do not support it. While this may very well be the case, what other forces are at play here? What role does religion play in the American political landscape?

Internship at the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT)

Working part-time at a large municipal agency was an ideal supplementation of my academic path at UW, and gave depth to my six months in the United States. In addition to the technical skills from my day-to-day work at the City of Seattle, I learned profound lessons about the nature of American bureaucracy.

I worked in the Infrastructure Asset Management group of SDOT, where I primarily worked on ensuring the City of Seattle’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This meant managing a complex database of curb ramps and accessibility infrastructure, reviewing new project plans and improving data maintenance practices. However, what stood out to me was the wide-reaching impact of federal policy. Everything from the size of a curb ramp to its slopes and angles are tabulated and regulated by law. These complexities, alongside the fact that the City is required to build 1250 ramps per year for the next decade, have necessitated the creation of an entire group dedicated to curb ramps and the ADA.

A Day on the Campaign Trail

I’d always wanted to attend a presidential rally, so when I heard that Andrew Yang, a long-shot Democratic candidate for president was holding a rally in Seattle, I knew I had to attend. For me, it was not about the candidate, nor showing support (given that I cannot vote in American elections), but about witnessing the phenomenon of the American presidential race. It felt bizarre to see such a large number of people rallying around a candidate, unknown just a few months earlier, so far in advance of the 2020 election. I wondered if the incredible turnout was also perhaps a reflection of the level of public frustration with the current administration, or a pent-up desire to break out of status-quo politics, particularly given that Andrew Yang is a proponent of progressive policies like the (in)famous universal basic income (the “freedom dividend”, he calls it), which promises $1000 to every American every month.  At the rally, the people in support of Yang’s policies chanted their support, including many tech employees, who Yang explained would be heavily taxed under his plan. Unlike Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, Yang called himself a proponent of “human-centered capitalism”. The question is: can capitalism ever be human-centered? Or is that an inherently paradoxical pursuit?

Presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Photo credit: Parsa Shani.

Talking Affirmative Action

In the aftermath of a divisive campus bake sale held by the UW College Republicans, where baked goods were priced based on the race and gender of the individual making the purchase, a local radio show reached out to UW students to facilitate a debate, of sorts, on the topic of Affirmative Action. I was fortunate enough to appear on the show and provide my thoughts on the controversial policy framework that aims to tackle some of the most challenging and complex issues faced by American society. What was most eye-opening for me, though, was not the conversation on the radio itself. Rather, it was the many conversations I had before and after the radio show that provided depth to my understanding of systemic inequality in the United States, and why, over a century after the end of slavery, sixty years after Brown v. Board and the abolishment of institutional segregation, and dozens of other momentous rulings later, the racial wealth gap, de-facto segregation, and racial discrimination persist in American society.

Moving Forward

If there’s one thing that six months in Seattle has left me with, it’s this: a real, grounded perception of America. My understanding of America beyond what’s shown on the news could not have been achieved any other way than to live, even briefly, a day-to-day life in the country. This in no way implies that the vast and diverse United States can be understood by half a year in Washington state; Americans spend decades learning about their own country. However, the insights I have formed are valuable ones, and I have the Corbetts to thank for making them possible.

The Corbett British Columbia-Washington International Exchange Program Fund provides an opportunity for undergraduate students at the University of Washington to spend two semesters at the University of British Columbia or University of Victoria; and for students from the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria to spend three quarters at the University of Washington.