Senior Kelly Maby has been intrigued with trash since she was a child growing up in New York. She and her brother collected cans and bottles to support their low-income family. That childhood fascination with the value of discarded objects and an intellectual curiosity about the waste scavengers she encountered during her study abroad has earned her a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship.
The $28,000 award will support her research of the informal waste collection systems that have developed in several countries. Many people have turned to scavenging to survive or to rebel against consumerism–sometimes even creating elaborate networks that compete with formal waste management systems. The methods of scavenging as well as the reasons for it vary by country. So Maby, who is pursuing a double major in Hispanic studies and sociology and a minor in urban studies, will conduct research in Egypt, Australia, Brazil, Ecuador and Guatemala to take a closer look.
The Woodhaven (Queens), N.Y., resident is one of 40 college students nationwide selected to receive a Watson fellowship, which is awarded to seniors of unusual promise for independent exploration and travel outside the United States. She is the fourth Wheaton student to win a Watson in the past two years.
“I still can’t believe it. It’s very shocking, but it’s very exciting for me,” said Maby, who found out that she won the Watson via a cellphone call as she was returning to campus from spring break by bus.
Maby already has done some research on scavenging during her SIT Study Abroad program in 2008. In January she presented her paper “Tales from the Trash Can: An Analysis of the Informal Waste Management Circuits of Buenos Aires, Bangalore, and Beijing” at Wheaton’s 27th Annual Sociology & Anthropology Senior Majors Research Symposium. She also is writing her senior thesis on the subject. Recently sitting in the café in Balfour-Hood she pulled from her backpack two fat paisley-covered journals full of notations, illustrations and photos based on her work so far.
A Trustee Scholar and a former member of the synchronized swimming team, she has won many awards during her time at Wheaton, including a100 Projects for Peace $10,000 award in 2008 that she used to take New York youths to the South to learn about the Civil Rights movement; and a 2007 Wheaton funded project for peace to implement social, recreational and cultural programs at an orphanage and help promote a women’s micro-credit group in Argentina.
With the Watson fellowship, she wants to further understand the political, social, historical, economic and cultural forces that lead people to scavenging.
“I want to know what the collective perceptions of scavengers in cities around the world are, and how these perceptions either hinder or encourage scavenging,” she said in her proposal. “It is also my goal to understand the nature of the programs being implemented worldwide that directly and/or indirectly affect informal waste management.”
Beyond that, she wants to truly understand the individuals involved, their personal stories and their motivations. To do that, she plans to work alongside waste scavengers and talk with them to get to the core of their informal circuits.
“What happens when a community, a family, a person must pick through trash as a means of survival?” Maby wonders. “I think that it’s hard for others to see scavengers for who they are as people.”
Hidden stories have always been a draw for Maby. “I’ve always had this human need for connection. In New York City there are so many strangers. As a child, I would look up at buildings, and I always yearned to know who is living behind those walls,” she said.
“Traveling gave me the opportunity to start connecting to people even across oceans and across continents. That’s what this project is partly about. Now I finally have the opportunity to not just study scavenging academically but study it from this human connection, this human level.”
Being a recreational scavenger of sorts as a child gives Maby special insight into the minds and motivation of those she will be researching.
“It was really fun for me as a child. It was more like a scavenger hunt,” she said. “Anywhere we would go we would pick things up. As I grew older we stopped, but I never stopped noticing things and never stopped the desire to pick up a can and bring it back for deposit. And I never stopped noticing other scavengers and the different ways that they did it.
“When I started going to Wheaton I realized that it was something that I could study especially when I went abroad.”
Some of the stories are heartbreaking, she noted: “Many scavengers are stuck in a circle of poverty which feeds itself, a circle that is just people trying to survive. In the garbage dumps of Ecuador, there have been many accidents such as people being buried beneath trash avalanches or children being run over by garbage trucks. Many children never get the opportunity to attend school as even their meager contributions to the family income by scavenging become essential to survival. Scavenging gets passed down from generation to generation, becoming a poverty trap.”
Maby hopes that her research sheds light on an issue not often talked about. “I don’t think this is an issue that is paid attention to either academically, in social science or even public health-wise. Eventually I’d like to go into public health and I’d like to pay attention to the special needs of scavengers.
“More than that I hope my research can shed light on what scavenging really is. It’s not just happening in dumps. It’s not just something that afflicts marginalized populations. It’s not always about poverty, either. It might be middle-income people making a conscious decision. Also I want to be able to look at alternatives and possibilities.”