public sociology in farmtown (3): getting information

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My in-house editorial advisor says he likes the longer posts better, that the shorter posts seem like wind-up and no pitch, so I’m going to do this in somewhat bigger lumps. To recap posts 1 and 2, I’m writing about a conference of 35-45 participants on racial disparities in incarceration and education being put on at a university in a rural area (Farmtown) that is organized by faculty and staff of color whose attendees are predominantly people of color, roughly half from the hosting university and the others from the metropolitan areas in the state, which include the state capital with the main university campus I call Unitown, the big city I call Segtown, and other urban areas in the swath between Segtown and BigCity in the next state over. I wanted to write about partly because interactions in a conference that is mostly people of color are different from those in a white-dominated setting and are different from what many whites think they would be. And partly just to give the flavor of a real conference in all its complexity.

This is an ambitious and even exhausting conference. Here is the line-up of events: Day 1: Opening remarks, lunch, me talking for 45 minutes about racial disparities in incarceration, 15 minute break, a educational administrator speaking on disparities in education, break, a panel of students from SegTown, a pair of lectures on racism by two Farmtown professors, break into small groups for brainstorming solutions to criminal justice disparities, dinner, an educational administrator from another state talking about how their success in educating youth of color, break, another brainstorming session about educational disparities; quit for the night at 9. Day 2: breakfast at 8, a social scientist speaking on ethnographic work on school-family relations, break, panel discussion of 6 speakers from UniTown about the various community programs they are involved with, break, small groups to develop community action plans, lunch, speaker from the next state over who delivers a rousing “call to action” speech, large group discussion, closing at 3pm.

We start about 30 minutes late, I think maybe because the chancellor who is supposed to welcome us has not shown up. It is possible the chancellor welcomed us but, if so, I have erased this from my memory banks. I recall being welcomed by the university’s diversity coordinator who is also in charge of conference logistics. We skip the planned “get acquainted” activity due to the late start. Another of the leaders of the task force, a black criminal justice professor, sketches the history of the group and the reason for the conference. He opens with how he decided to do something about the issues after visiting the juvenile corrections facility and meeting high school kids who could not read. He tells the story about how you can boil a frog if you heat the water slowly, and urges us to wake up the frog and do something about the problems. After everyone briefly says their name and affiliation, we go to lunch.

The folks who organized this conference are largely unaware that other groups have been working in SegTown and UniTown on these issues for years. They have decided they want to do something, so they go to the trouble to organize a conference and bring in speakers who will tell them more about the issue. This is often the setting for “public sociology.” The “public” isn’t just sitting around like bumps on a log, it is real people who care about an issue and take initiative to pull in outside experts. Until you get activated on an issue, you often are oblivious to what others are doing. In one telling interaction later in the conference, I’m talking to two black women who are friends from going to college together at Farmtown but live in different cities. One woman says she’d like to learn more about what is happening in other communities, and I say, sort of laughing, “Well, I think I can put you in touch with someone who can tell you about UniTown.” “That would be me,” says the other black woman, an assistant district attorney, who is the director of the juvenile disparity project in UniTown. (I know her because I’m on the advisory board for that project.) “You’re doing that?” says the first woman. “I didn’t know.”

I speak after lunch. My presentation on incarceration disparities is well received. They wanted information and I gave it to them in a passionate and engaged way, keeping an eye on the clock and making it clear that I respect the schedule. I use the r-word, referring to the situation as racist, but without make a big deal out of it, as in this group it is obvious to the majority that the situation is racist. They are more interested in how and why it happens. At the end of my talk, a black woman comes up and gives me a hug and calls me her sister and says she is so happy to know we think alike. After a break, we hear a presentation from a black woman who is the diversity coordinator for the state department of education school system. She is a former school principal, and is proud to tell us that she has brought along her adult daughter who is now also a school principal and will be handling the PowerPoint slides. She talks about the problem of kids being kicked out of school for “school rules violations,” about racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions, and also about graduation disparities. She has charts that show that suspensions rise in middle school and peak in 9th grade. She stresses that points of transition are especially difficult for young people and that schools are experimenting with 9th grade academies. Audience discussion rapidly gets into the problem of parental involvement in the schools, how important it is and how difficult it is to get it, with discussion of problems of unwelcoming schools and parental stresses. An audience member from SegTown talks about his son, who has a racially ambiguous appearance, visiting the families of his (black, I think) students and having the parents call the police, thinking he is a criminal. He talks about year old children being kept out of school to care for their younger siblings, and the problem that the children’s only real meal is at school, which they don’t get if they don’t attend, not to mention the loss of instruction.

Then there is a panel of one college student and four high school students on the campus for a pre-college program. All are black and from SegTown. In response to audience members’ questions, they describe problems of violence in their schools and neighborhoods, teachers who don’t care whether they learn, and examples of what sure sounds like discriminatory/inappropriate behavior (i.e. being suspended for insubordination for asking the teacher for help, or for saying “gravity”). One college student talks about being given all As in high school and passed along because he was a star athlete and making Ds in his first year of college. He talks about just not having the academic skills he needed, and praises the mentoring and training he has gotten in the college program, so that he he is making As and Bs in his junior year. Also in response to audience questions, they describe the factors that are helping them to succeed, which involve some combination of mothers who go to bat for them, mentoring programs with a strong component of social connection and solidarity as well as academic help, and determination or competitiveness. I feel like I’ve learned a lot listening to their thoughts and am particularly struck by the young men’s somewhat vague descriptions of a fraternity-type program (I think it is mixed-sex though) that seems to build on peer solidarity and deep emotional support. Every time a young person describes getting a good GPA (3.1, 3.4, 3.5), the audience claps. Celebrating academic success is an important part of the group culture. In the process, I come to realize that this campus seems to be doing a good job mentoring young disadvantaged people to succeed in college. Speakers stress the importance of people of color running the programs, because they know what the young people need. Later in small groups, I’m chatting more with the people running the program, and mention a young woman I worked with at my school who had made As in high school and was struggling to get Cs in college (I said C’s, although I realize now that it is Bs that she is making). They insist they would have her making As, that it is a matter of mentoring and instruction. I wonder if they are right, whether they are mentoring better and whether their classes are as hard as ours. I don’t know.

I’ve been at a number of conferences that feature youth panels, or meetings that invite youth to speak. All of the ones I can think of that did this were organized by groups with a high percentage of African Americans. I don’t believe I’ve ever been at a white-dominated conference where youth were asked to speak to the adults as “experts” about what youth concerns are, much less asked what solutions they would advocate. I’m struck by this. Every time I’ve listened to youth speak, I’ve learned stuff I did not know that has influenced my thinking.

In this session, I’m sitting next to two youngish white police officers (one man, one woman) from my home city of UniTown and we talk about issues of local policing during break. The man is asking me for details about a story I told about blanket parole revocations after a local murder, and I’m worried that I messed up and got the details wrong. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the next session starts before we can sort out the facts and figure out whether I’ve spoken in error.

Next time: talking about white supremacy

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Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

5 thoughts on “public sociology in farmtown (3): getting information”

  1. An edit via comment. I meant to mention that while this largely-Black audience was upbeat about getting my presentation, Black audiences often respond by getting angry and upset: “I’ve heard enough statistics, I know there is a problem. What are you going to do about it?” White audiences are more likely to react with surprise and distress: “I did not know it was so bad.” The people who don’t want to confront the issue rarely invite me to speak or show up at a conference on disparities.

  2. In most communities of color where I have gone to town meetings/community organizing (e.g., New Haven, CT) youth are empowered and time is spent listening to their needs/issues. Youth are also socialized into civil rights/leadership positions so they can be tomorrow’s leaders.

    This is a good series of blog posts. It is good to see someone who takes RACISM seriously blogging about issues of racial oppression.

  3. olderwoman, your comment @1 is, in a sense, a huge relief to me in that it reflects my experiences teaching a race & ethnicity class. It’s been the most difficult thing to address: how to present information to people with differing base knowledge. It’s always a juggle, no matter what you’re presenting, but in my experience the responses from students have been much more emotional in the r & e class than in, say, methods.

  4. volscho: thanks, your comment just taught me something I ought to have been able to figure out for myself from observation but hadn’t!

  5. I have to agree with your comments on a white-dominated conference where youth were seen as “experts.” They are few and far between. I attended an AAC&U institute earlier this year where students were given a little over an hour I believe to describe what they think would help with making colleges more inclusive, supportive, and welcoming. It was interesting hearing what students thought and their responses to the faculty’s and administrators’ questions. I think most people left that session with a renewed view of students as active learners and contributors to a cause. I hope that view of students can spread among some groups…

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