OUR Featured Researcher: Elmo Tumbokon '21

Portrait of Elmo Tumbokon
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

Elmo Tumbokon (he/him) is a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow (MMUF) majoring in Comparative American Studies. He is conducting mentored research under Professor Wendy Kozol. His project is titled "What We Talk About When We Talk About the Rust Belt's Future". 

Please describe your project: 

I’m interested in how people envision the future of the Rust Belt City and what those visions tell us about race, real estate power, and national identity. Supported by the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, my project analyzes images of economic development to understand how the Real Estate State is imagining the future of declining cities. And for a city like Cleveland—where more than half of its children live in poverty; where black neighborhoods are suffering from extreme housing loss; where, since the seventies, population has decreased while poverty rates have increased—questions about the city’s future are difficult to grapple with. One Clevelander said it best, “Realizing that as Clevelanders we aren’t asked to dream or even have hope about the future so a lot of these conversations are challenging.” I’m fascinated by this sentiment. Who gets asked to dream? Whose urban imagination is given the space and the capital to be imagined? Who is afforded what we might call a right to the city’s future?

Why is your research important?

Valued at $217 trillion dollars and making up 60% of global assets, real estate is by far one of the world’s most powerful commodities. I mean, come on, we have a real estate developer as our President. If we do not understand the nature of real estate’s power not just in terms of economics but how real estate weaves so intimately into America’s cultural relationship to land and property—then we cannot fully grasp with this nation’s most gripping problems.

What does the process of doing your research look like?

There’s no typical day for a Mellon researcher. I think my interests regarding my project wanders often, so I’m always jumping between seemingly disparate materials with my fingers crossed that they end up helping tell the story I’ve been struggling to tell. The most typical thing about being a humanities researcher at Oberlin is always making that story work somehow at the end of the day.

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field?

This is such a hard question because I have enough humility to say I haven’t contributed anything substantial to their field (whatever that means). What I can say, instead, is that my research is exploring an understanding of how we consume the culture of real estate. Phenomenologically speaking, I argue that when we look at images of economic development, we either feel invested or feel dispossessed. And what determines which of these we feel is the cultural grammar of racialized property.

In what ways have you showcased your research?

I’ve presented my research in two mini-conferences, Oberlin’s Summer Research Symposium and the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Conference in Carleton College. In addition, a portion of my research will be forthcoming in the Cleveland Review of Books about the racial politics of tragedy and what it means to mourn the once-prosperous Rust Belt.

How did you get involved in research? What drove you to want to seek out research
experiences in college?

I fell in love with American Studies when I took Professor Kozol’s CAST 200: Theories and Methods course the fall of my sophomore year. For her final, we designed a hypothetical research project. By the time I was finished drafting up my literature review, I knew that I wanted to do way more than just the designing, so that’s when I started thinking strongly about applying for Mellon Mays.

What is your favorite aspect of the research process?

Meeting new people. Through researching Cleveland, I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many cool people doing life changing work or who just want to vibe in the city. It is also through undergraduate research and the Mellon Mays network, I’ve met so many young, PhD-bound scholars of color throughout the country who are doing jaw-dropping and eye opening work across the disciplines.

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project? How has it impacted you as a researcher?

Professor Kozol is by far one of the best things about my experience with the Mellon Mays fellowship. She’s the one of the first people I go to whenever I got a new direction of analysis, a new material, or when I just need to bounce off ideas. Her wisdom is beyond illuminating and her kindness is beyond what I deserve.

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in
your field?

If you’re going to spend your time going down Wikipedia rabbit holes, you might as well apply for one of the Office of Undergraduate Research’s sponsored fellowship programs and get paid for it.

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