public sociology in farmtown (2): the set up

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I wrote this from notes I took at a conference on racial disparities in incarceration and education at a branch campus of the state university located in a rural very-white area I will call Farmtown. I was invited to give my disparities talk by a group of university-connected people in Farmtown who have been meeting because they want to do what they can to fight problems of racial disparities. The call to the conference expressed the hope of linking up people in different communities working on these issues. Farmtown is 150 miles away from metropolitan Segtown, where most of the state’s African Americans live, and 75 miles away from Unitown, the state capital and home of the major university where I work and live, so this seemed an odd locale for such a conference. I could have just given my talk and left, but I am a member of the “community” who is working on these issues, so I decided I’d like to stay for the whole two days to talk to people and see what was going on. I told the organizer that if they covered my conference registration fee (which includes three meals and a dorm room) I would consider myself adequately compensated, and did not need an honorarium. I was told that about 45 people have registered for the conference, although not everyone is spending the night, a large contingent of Unitown people are coming tomorrow only, and some people have been coming and going from the room.

When I counted at the opening session, I got about 11 whites and 18 people of color who are mostly black. I learned as the day progressed that I had miscategorized some folks, about which more later, but the errors were in both directions. The conference is about 2/3 people of color. Thinking about it later, I realize that I am the only white speaker at the conference. Although most of the groups I talk to are overwhelmingly white, I have addressed and worked with groups that are at least half black before, and am comfortable in the setting. I’ll talk more later about the impact of racial mix. Roughly half the attendees are from Farmtown, virtually all university faculty, staff, or students, including mostly people of color but also a couple of white deans. In pre-opening chit chat, a white woman who is one of the deans chats with a black woman who is a U-Farmtown staffer about the new choir director at the church they both attend. Most of the non-Farmtown people I talk to turn out to be alumni of U-Farmtown, and the core of the conference is clearly African Americans who know each other because of the U-Farmtown connection. This surprises me, as it had not occurred to me that ANY African Americans would be at or have gone to a university in this very-white part of the state. Shows what I know. I learn more later about what they have been doing at U-Farmtown and think there are things to learn from them. There are few representatives from the criminal justice system here, unlike the groups I’ve worked with in Unitown or Segtown. Unitown’s police force has three representatives here, one black (who seems to know the organizers well) and two white, a man and a woman; all seem fairly young to me. I chat with the black police officer as we wait for the opening; he knows of my work and we talk about the issues. There is also someone from the state university system and her intern; I don’t know whether she is part of the network or not.

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off campus: public sociology in farmtown (1)

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In the past 8 years, I’ve given over 80 speeches to various audiences about racial disparities and have attended some or all of dozens of conferences, as well as participated in over a hundred meetings of various groups, boards, and commissions. These range from lawyer-dominated professional groups to white church groups to student groups to mixed-race community groups. Although I am a good public speaker and articulate and forceful in manner, I’m also by nature an introvert and by avocation an academic who is quite happy spending hours in front of a computer or otherwise minding my own business. So being at all these conferences and meetings has opened me to a lot of experiences I would not otherwise have had. I’m interested in what people talk about and how they talk. Last week, I spent two days at a racial disparities conference organized by university people in a rural area I’ll call FarmTown. I took detailed notes on what happened and my reactions and thought I’d write some of this up as a blog, as a reflection on what this “public sociology” stuff is really like out there in the trenches. I told some of the organizers of the conference that I was going to do this, and they were ok with it, agreeing with me about not using real names. It was a complex event, and my impressions are more about the juxtaposition of many different themes and kinds of experiences than about drawing any single conclusion or point. I’m going to follow the wise lead of some other bloggers (especially Bradley Wright who does this so well) and break this up into a series of small posts, rather than one long one. In so doing, I’ll lose the kaleidoscopic impact of the event as a whole, but avoid producing one big block of indigestible prose. My point, to the extent that there is one, is to counter what I see as a common one-sided romantic or patronizing view of “public sociology” as a sociologist bringing revealed truth to the uneducated masses or the national elites, and to stress the extent to which I learn things I did not know when I get out of my office and go spend time with people in different social locations.

Next: Farmtown #2: The Set Up

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