WRA welcomes back 2019 Waring Prize Recipient Dr. Joseph S. Wood ’64

On Friday, April 21, Dr. Joseph S. Wood shared his commitment to the issues and challenges of urban life and his ongoing efforts to address them.

 

Established in 1972 to honor faculty master J. Frederick Waring, the Waring Prize is awarded to "an alumnus or alumna of Western Reserve Academy who, by his or her way of life and achievements, whether at the beginning, middle or near the end of his or her career, represents the human and individual values the Academy strives to foster, as well as the many graduates known or unknown who have similarly made their contribution to society." It’s no wonder how Dr. Joe Wood, WRA Class of 1964, embodies this description. Identifying as a cultural geographer, but fully embracing a commitment to the study of people and places, Dr. Wood uses his research to affect change within communities, specifically marginalized ones. 

If this geographer could leave the WRA community with one lasting word of advice, Dr. Wood encouraged us to get lost, but also pay attention. “The liberal arts offer a compass,” said Wood, “to find your way out of getting lost… of seeking meaning.” Dr. Wood reminded students of the privilege of an education designed to help us make sense of the world. This doesn’t come without challenges. “Discipline is a part of avoiding the wrong turns that you will encounter along the way of getting lost,” said Wood. He acknowledged the rabbit holes we might find our way down, the weeds that might distract us. But the more we wander, the better we are able to navigate.

Dr. Wood shared his own career-long experience with wandering. He’s wandered through China, Iran, Turkey, India, Vietnam, fascinated by and getting lost in open air markets. “I had come fully to appreciate how these markets are products of social life.” Not only could he learn about a culture through these markets, he soon made the connection between how landscapes are shaped by access to food. This information drove Dr. Wood to draw some conclusions about suburban and urban life in the United States compared to foreign countries.

Dr. Wood’s career brought him to the University of Baltimore, and he became fascinated by the demographic of his students. He noticed that students were typically enrolled part-time, lived in inner city Baltimore and, because of the color of their skin, were discouraged from venturing into the American equivalent of open air, social markets — suburban retail districts, churches and parks. “So I taught courses about race in the city and students, in turn, helped me understand how race [impacts so much],” said Wood, “how lives are segregated geographically, economically and socially.”

When Freddie Gray was killed in Baltimore in 2015 as the result of police brutality and the city erupted with protests and demonstrations, Dr. Wood and the University of Baltimore responded by opening doors and providing access. “We invited faculty members, students, community members, officials, business people, anyone who had something important to say on the topic to come every Monday night for a whole semester,” said Wood. “We focused on how segregation and discrimination exacerbated access to housing, education, health care, justice and a healthy environment.” Dr. Wood and an entire community became lost in these questions. How when “we discriminate against people for failing to achieve what equal rights were supposed to allow them to achieve,” we undermine the ability to break out of the constraints the entire system has created. If it weren’t for this cultural moment, the opening of these doors, these conversations would not have existed. Beyond conversations, it is the reparations that come next, said Wood. The repairing of communities. 

When Dr. Wood looked out at the rows of the Chapel, he marveled at the diverse faces in front of him and shared that when he was a student, a majority of the faces were white and male. Dr. Wood left us with the words of T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.” So, Reserve, let’s “break out of conventional thinking, see things with new eyes in a disciplined kind of way… and seek meaning.” Let’s get lost.

 

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Dr. Joe Wood, Reserve Class of 1964, is a cultural geographer whose scholarship and teaching focus on the North American cultural landscape. His scholarship is nationally recognized, and he has brought important new insights to his field. He has especially been in the forefront of development of community-engaged university courses.

But Joe’s activities and accomplishments extend significantly beyond rigorous scholarship and teaching. As provost of the University of Southern Maine, he led development of a nationally recognized general education program, and at the University of Baltimore, he shepherded a critical transition in its student body’s composition as it became a Predominantly Black Institutions (PBI).

Moreover, he has been active in community service organizations and activities in every one of the four cities to which his academic career has taken him over four decades, working on issues of historic preservation, immigrant place-making, and prevention of hate violence. Most recently his focus has been on the geography of structural racism. At the time of the Freddy Grey tragedy in Baltimore, Joe instigated, led, and co-taught the Divided Baltimore course to sustain a crucial dialog, which played a role in the city’s coming to terms with the violence and the circumstances that fueled the unrest. As Chair of the Journey Home/Baltimore City Continuum of Care to End Homelessness, Joe was a leader in the city’s efforts to deal with the problem of homelessness. As a member of the Maryland Humanities Council, he worked to secure grants for local organizations addressing the needs of long-neglected, predominantly Black neighborhoods. The university and community leaders with whom Joe worked are unanimous in their praise for his collaborative approach and sustained accomplishments. 

In 2016, Joe stepped down as provost at the University of Baltimore after 20 years of central administration in three universities and rejoined the university’s faculty full time, focusing on the geographical origins of Baltimore’s segregation and concentrated poverty. He retired in 2018 and now devotes time to lecturing on the historical geography of structural racism in Baltimore and working to diversify the ranks of professional and academic geographers nationally.

For his scholarship and past and continuing focus on community problems – the issues and challenges of urban life, racism, bullying, homelessness, and the loss of historic structures and identity – and his efforts to address them, WRA is proud to award Joe Wood the Waring Prize.