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Award recipient builds Migrations community at Cornell

Eleanor Paynter, a researcher and postdoctoral fellow with Cornell’s Migrations initiative, received the International Studies Association’s 2021 Lynne Rienner Publishers Award for Best Dissertation in Human Rights in a ceremony on April 12.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants embark on treacherous journeys each year, yet most of their stories go untold or are reduced to statistics. Paynter is working to learn and share the lived experiences of these migrants. She completed her dissertation, “Witnessing Emergency: Testimonial Narratives of Precarious Migration to Italy,” at Ohio State University in 2020.

Paynter’s work is pathbreaking, critical and urgent, according to Rachel Beatty Riedl, Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies director, the John S. Knight Professor of International Studies and professor of government in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“Eleanor’s work gives voice to migrant testimonies, investigating how their own framings can shape public attitudes and political responses,” she said. “In a world of rising xenophobia and increasing mobility restrictions, her research is at the forefront of human rights, race and migration studies.”

After living in the Netherlands in 2014, on the brink of what would be called Europe’s refugee crisis, Paynter noticed how concepts of crisis and emergency were used to characterize migration as a problem. In particular, migrations from the global south to the north tend to be framed as crises – often without accounting for the experiences of the actual people involved.

“These migrants are people who have fled really precarious situations and undertaken dangerous journeys, only to find themselves caught in systems that lead to further insecurity. Instead of finding safety, they are stigmatized with terms like crisis,” said Paynter. “Listening to their stories and thinking about the lack of accountability was what compelled me to do this work.”

A humanist now working among many legal scholars and social scientists at Cornell, Paynter explores the histories of migration, asylum and crisis, drawing on people’s narratives and testimonies and a range of texts. She is currently writing a book that expands her dissertation research, with a focus on mobility from Africa to Europe and fieldwork she conducted at Italian migrant reception centers.

“The book directly addresses the Africa-Europe context, in Italy in particular, but it also offers a broader understanding of how border crises function and their complex historical and racialized dynamics,” Paynter said.

Since arriving at Cornell last summer as the Einaudi Center’s Migrations postdoctoral fellow, Paynter has raised Migrations’ visibility on campus and beyond – from teaching a class and mentoring students, to hosting a podcast and creating space for scholarly research discussions. Paynter works closely with Einaudi’s faculty fellows in Migrations, Gunisha Kaur (Weill Cornell Medicine) and  Stephen Yale-Loehr (Cornell Law School), and other task force members to advance multidisciplinary scholarship in migration studies and support related community engagement.

Paynter has used her expertise in narratives to shape Migrations’ storytelling, creating multiple platforms to share scholars’ work and get students engaged in research. She is the host of Migrations: A World on the Move, a monthly podcast, and cotaught the fall 2020 Migrations seminar class. The class brought in weekly guest lecturers in a unique virtual public event format, ranging over topics including One Health, farmworker rights, the Underground Railroad, and immigration policy ethics.

Paynter meeting with Migrations seminar students, Nov. 2020.

“It was one of the best classes I’ve taken – and I think a large part of that was because of Eleanor. She created a safe and comfortable space for anybody to speak, making our discussions really interactive and passionate,” said Vanessa Olguín ’22, a college scholar and migration studies minor.

The connections Paynter built with her students last fall grew into the undergraduate Migrations scholars, a cohort of migration studies minors – including Olguín – supported by the Einaudi Center. With monthly meetings and events in the works, the group is also coordinating an undergraduate research symposium on May 7.

To expand the Migrations community for scholars, Paynter launched the Migrations Forum, a bimonthly seminar to convene and discuss research in progress. With his students, Ian Kysel, a visiting assistant clinical professor of law and Einaudi Global Public Voices fellow, presented a paper last semester. “It has been a privilege to benefit from the Migrations community as a relatively recent arrival to Cornell,” said Kysel. The research he presented has since been published online.

Riedl believes that Paynter’s broad vision of migration has been crucial to the initiative's overall growth. “Eleanor has expanded the institutional capacity of our team in exciting ways and generated a wealth of opportunities for teaching and learning about Migrations,” she said.

Priya Pradhan ’22 is a writing intern for Global Cornell.

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