My week in public sociology

We have to make choices. As part of trying to convey what it really means to do public sociology (whatever that is), here is the list of what I’ve things done in the past nine days (Written Saturday):

(1) Thursday. I forgot to go to the meeting I was supposed to be at for Unitown’s disproportionate minority confinement project. My bad. It is summer, I got my days mixed up, and was mowing the lawn when my spouse asked me why I was at home.

(2) Friday. Spent time pulling together tables & memos from previous reports relative to American Indians in my state’s criminal justice system for the American Indian activist who asked me to do this last May; I press hard on it because I know I’ll see her at tomorrow’s meeting, so this seems like a good time to do it. She’s older than me, a retired social worker, and does not use email. I also start, but do not finish, reworking the code written by a former grad student so I can access the information from the lastest DOC file I have to meet her request and also update my slides for presentations I’m giving in September and October. (8 hours)

(3) Saturday. Two-plus hour meeting of the advocacy group I’m part of. Participants besides me are the American Indian activist, a semi-retired white nun sociologist, a retired white statistician, a retired white state legislator who is very ill with incurable cancer but is still working on a prison funding reform initiative, a white woman retired from running an after-school program for disadvantaged youth and has health problems, a long-time woman activist (she looks White and has an Anglo name and accent but identifies as Latina) about my age who is a photographer who also works part time for the prison reentry project run by an interfaith organization. It’s summer, there are other regular attendees, all white, who don’t make it for various reasons. The group has gone through a variety of incarnations in the eight years I’ve been in it, and is currently small and relatively inactive due to a major organizational crisis with a bad racial dimension that blew up last year. There is not a lot of business, mostly we talk about issues and what all the other groups in town (with which we have overlapping memberships) are doing. The longest discussion is about the latest attempt of a local group to deal with “the phone issue,” which is that jails and prisons earn extra money by contracting with private firms that charge exorbitant amounts for phone service and typically mandate collect calls only for security reasons. The result is that poor families of inmates end up with multi-hundred dollar phone bills and inmates are cut off from nonprofit advocacy groups who cannot afford to accept their calls. The American Indian talks a lot about her work trying to get the state’s tribes to develop programs for American Indians in the criminal justice system.

(4) Monday. I spend two hours on the phone, patched into a meeting happening in SegTown to plan a conference there about community justice initiatives. (The organizer wanted me on the planning committee and was sympathetic to my desire not to spend all day driving to and from SegTown for it.) A mostly White group – at one point I asked their races – debates whether making racial disparities a major focus is “too divisive.” I ask about intended audience, point out that some people would consider it divisive to avoid the topic, but try to stress that not every conference can or should be about racial issues, you have to consider who you want there. A compromise is reached where disparity issues are included as part of a broader way of framing issues.

(5) Wednesday. I get a letter inviting me to be on UniTown’s local racial disparities task force. I’m going to do it, and fill out the on line “application” form.

(6) Friday again. I get a call from a SegTown reporter asking advice about analyzing data for a possible story about racial disparities (I spent 45 minutes on this one) and another call from the American Indian activist about setting up a meeting with tribal leaders and university people about whether it is possible to fund a graduate student to help with disparity issuse about American Indians (30 minutes).

(6) Saturday again. The American Indian activist comes over to my house, bringing a stack of tables she got from the DOC and asking my help interpreting them. We go over the tables and while she waits I write a two page memo summarizing what they say in terms of issues the tribes ought to consider. (90 minutes)

Does everyone who gets involved in a public issue spend this much time every week? Of course not. But if you work on an issue and engage the other people in your community who are working on an issue, you will over the years get asked to do more and more, especially if you have data analysis skills. You cannot do everything and you have to make choices. But if you do one thing, it makes less time for other things.

(Truth in advertising compels me to assuage the possible self-portrayal as a martyr to service by pointing out that there’s a lot of other stuff I’ve been doing instead of working on my way-overdue book, including visiting with family while my father is in town for a week, writing blogs, and spending way too much time with my latest vice, Set. )

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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

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