25 Faces 25 Years: Alden Young
By Tinashe Michael Tapera ’17 and Amy Weaver
Photo by Jared Castaldi
March 29, 2017
Alden Young wears a T-shirt and workout trousers in colors that mimic the attitude of a campus early in the Friday afternoon, in no rush to be any place in particular. He is soft spoken and calm, and seems to be a man simply going with the flow.
“I was born in New Orleans,” he begins.
Something glimmers in his eye as he speaks, as though, like a superhero, Young’s true identity lay somewhere behind the simple frames resting on his nose.
Like other heroes, he’s had the opportunity to watch justice and injustice battle it out. Though in his case, it was in the political ring, and through the eyes of his mother and father.
“Both of my parents were heavily involved in city planning and civil government,” he says. “I guess as a result, I’ve developed an intrigue in cultures, people, economics, and how the three interact in different parts of the world.”
Young’s father was a development studies consultant in New Orleans. His mother was a professor of urban studies, the chairwoman of the Port of New Orleans, and later the dean of the College of Urban Labor and Metropolitan Affairs at Wayne State University when the family relocated to Detroit.
Young’s public school days were culturally and economically diverse: he lived in Mexico at the age of 5, South Africa at the age of 13 while his mother was there on a Fulbright, and he traveled to France, Germany and Zimbabwe in between.
But most of those early days were spent immersed in the rich culture and history of New Orleans, where he was avidly involved in music and arts programs. The experience still runs deeply through Young’s blood: “I love the craft of murals, music and canvas. I walked the hallways of my school with a lot of talented people.” People who grew up to become superheroes of the arts world, including concert pianists, jazz musicians, and one Dwayne Michael Carter Jr., who grew up to be known as “Lil Wayne.”
“It was the first time I had ever seen or been involved in political protests, and it was eye-opening to see how people viewed me as an American…”
Young himself grew up to be an impressive man, with a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a doctorate from Princeton University in African history.
But school wasn’t always easy.
“I actually struggled to learn how to read as a kid,” Young shares. “I had to wake up every morning at six to meet with my tutor to study and memorize the phonics and spellings.
It was difficult, especially since it was causing me to fall behind in other subjects.”
In time, Young caught up, and learned to love not only literature but also the world of academia. He studied American history at Columbia and studied abroad in Egypt in 2003, just as the Iraq War began. Experiencing the world event in a Muslim nation not far from the fighting, Young gained a new understanding of empathy and justice.
“I remember being in the middle of these different protests,” he recalls. “It was the first time I had ever seen or been involved in political protests, and it was eye-opening to see how people viewed me as an American and how people thought about the other conflicts in the region.
“I was an Americanist at the time, studying American history, but the experience made me interested in becoming an academic who studies African and Middle Eastern history. It made me want to understand the places I was visiting and the places the U.S. was affecting.”
Today, Young’s research interests lie in the developmental trends of societies and cultures. His travels and childhood experiences in New Orleans and as a high school student in Detroit allowed him to see firsthand the expansion and deterioration of cities and suburbs, and what it takes to build a community.
“Most importantly,” he says, “I learned to think about international affairs through an international lens, to grasp the idea of a worldview from every angle, which was very difficult to do, for example, while attending school in apartheid South Africa, where there were very different perceptions of white and black people.”
Young’s next publication will investigate how the drawing of state boundaries in Sudan impacts the states’ approaches to policymaking and the stability of communities. He’ll also look at how the lens through which one investigates such matters plays an important part in the outcome of the investigation.
Young encourages all of his students to travel abroad. Like a hero refining their powers, all people, he believes, must refine their understanding of the world before they can venture to take on the world.
“One’s understanding of how things should be must be flexible to the time and situation,” Young says. “And that is a skill that can only be learned by hard-earned experience.”
This article originally appeared in the College of Arts and Sciences' Ask magazine feature story, "25 Faces, 25 Years." For more Ask stories, visit askmagazine.org.