The Importance of Audio and Podcasts

The first thing I learned about podcasting was that it is powerful medium. Podcasting is powerful not only because it has the ability to relate complex arguments into digestible bits of information, but also because it can transform those arguments into relatable stories. Rather than shoving statistics at an audience, podcasts can transform statistics about subjects (i.e. the number of people arrested in 2012 in the U.S. on nonviolent drug charges was 1.55 million) into stories about real people who felt the impact of those statistics. The unique ability of audio to highlight the experience of making knowledge can also connect listeners to scholarship in a way that books often fail to do. Podcasts can allow academics to infuse themselves into the arguments they make rather than downplay their connection to their scholarship.

Podcasts – meaning audio uploaded to iTunes – are just one way to use audio to connect with a wider audience. There are many other platforms including WordPress, SoundCloud, and MixCloud that allow you to share audio. Often, these non-iTunes venues allow for a stronger engagement with your audience because they allow users to post comments on audio files. And, depending on your resources, posting at all four of these venues can give you the most engagement.

Making a good podcast requires planning. A podcast posted on iTunes should have a consistent length, release time, and theme to be successful. In other words, if you want a create a weekly interview-based topically connected 15 minute podcast series, iTunes is probably the most powerful platform to gain a strong following. On the other hand, if you want to post interviews sporadically and have audio that varies in length and topic then something like SoundCloud or your own personal WordPress site would probably gain more traction.

Not all good audio projects have to be formatted like a podcast. Projects can vary in length and subject but use the same intro and outro to make the audio files cohesive. For example, the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series uses the same music intro and outro for every episode. We also use that slice of audio for our shorter audio projects that we post exclusively to SoundCloud.

Collecting audio does not have to be expensive, but it can be. Like most media projects, you can make podcasts as expensive or inexpensive as you want. SoundCloud has the hefty price tag of $121.50 per year to upload an unlimited number of tracks. Using services like BuzzSprout, which offer podcast hosting can cost between $12 and $24 a month. You can upload audio to a server and link that file in a post in your WordPress site. Audio files take up a large amount of room so, often, you will have to pay for some type of server space.

You can be scrappy with equipment. Smartphones have the ability to record surprisingly excellent audio. iPhone apps like Voice Recorder HD ($1.99) or the built in Voice Memos can give you high quality audio. If you want to have higher quality audio you can purchase a number of different microphones that plug directly into your computer (I like the Apogee Electronics MiC Studio Quality USB Microphone) or that plug right into your iPhone or Android (I like the Rode SmartLav or the iRig MIC Cast).

Editing can make all the difference. You can use a number of different programs to edit your audio. GarageBand is one of the easier ways to learn to edit your audio. You can record directly into GarageBand or import audio from prerecorded files. It is free to Mac users so it is a great option for beginners. Audacity is free, open source, cross-platform software for recording and editing sounds that is compatible with PCs and Macs. It is slightly more clunky than GarageBand, but is an equally effective way to edit audio.

Length is up for debate. There are ongoing debates about how long a podcast should be. Some say 3 minutes, some say 30 minutes. I say, the most important thing is to pick a length and stick to it. If your audience is engaging with 30-minutes of content, there is no reason to switch to a 3 minute format. On the other hand, if you are making 30-minute podcasts and no one is engaging with them, it may be time to rethink your strategy.

There are many different types of podcasts. One powerful way to weave stories for listeners is through audio interviews. The podcasts and audio that I have produced for JustPublics@365 have mostly consisted of these. I think interviews are most effective when combined with “on the ground” audio, but they can also be powerful in and of themselves.

When JustPublics@365 interviewed people affected by the East Harlem Building Collapse the interviews were edited to have the same intro and outro for every interview in addition to the same music from the JustPublics@365 Series.

For example:

This method of interviewing consisted of asking the interviewee a series of questions to get them primed for the interview and then recording their uninterrupted story from start to finish. When editing these interviews, I inserted myself only in the beginning and end in order to give context to the story.

When creating the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series, I took a different approach and included my questions in the produced audio. This interview style podcast involved in-depth research and thought out questions, which I shared with the interviewee before the interview. These podcasts are structured in a way that allows for replicability and their format is designed for a structured ongoing series.

For example:

The most important thing is consistency. However you decide to structure your podcast, you should be consistent and stick to your strategy!



Heidi Knoblauch (@heidiknoblauch) is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Medicine at Yale University and JustPublics@365’s podcast producer.

A Guide to Blogging for Academics

Blogging can be a great way to find a broader audience for your academic research. Moving research out of the ivory tower and into the public sphere has the potential to address some of the most pressing social problems.  In the words Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Gilson of the London School of Economics, “Blogging is quite simply, one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now.”


                               Image by Chris Lysy FreshSpectrum

On the fourth anniversary of my blog,  Sociology Source, I want to share some of what I’ve learned about making research in my field of sociology accessible to a broad, public audience. Throughout my teaching, my work on Sociology In Focus, and the one-off projects like the “Doing Nothing” video, I’ve been developing my skills at communicating highly complex ideas using language that most people without specialized training in sociology could easily understand. The guidelines that follow are designed to help your scholarly work find it’s largest audience.

1. Talk to Me: Acknowledge the Reader.

EXAMPLE: Many scholars today argue that when sharing your ideas with your audience the use of the third grammatical person places distance between the two parties whereas employing the first and second person delivers a reading experience that is superior in it’s intimacy with the reader.

  • Write as if your reader is in the room with you.
  • Show don’t tell. Don’t be afraid to slip into a narrative to allow your reader to experience the event first hand.

2. Just Say It: Don’t lead with a disclaimer or qualifier.

EXAMPLE: I don’t want you to read this and think I am trying to be mean. I’m also not trying to say that this applies to all forms of writing. As I said above, these are just my opinions.

  • Your first sentence exists to entice the reader to read the second sentence. Your first paragraph’s job is to intrigue your reader so they are compelled to read the second. And so on and so on.

images-1                                                   (Image source)

3. K.I.S.S. : Keep it Simple Scholar

EXAMPLE: Academic writers who use jargon and esoteric language are often preoccupied with communicating their cultural capital to their peers and because of this they sacrifice what could be a learning opportunity for a lay audience.

  • Mercilessly destroy jargon. If you absolutely have to use a piece of jargon, don’t just define the term. Introduce the term to your reader using an anecdote or other illustrative tool.
  • The greater the pre-requisite amount of education a reader must have to understand your reading, the smaller your audience will be and the smaller your impact will be.

4. Get in & Get Out.

  • Keep it succinct. If possible, keep any blog post to less than 500 words.
  • Oh the hypocrisy! This blog post is 790 words long!

5. No, It’s Not All Important

  • Only present the reader with information that is essential for them to understand your larger points. “Kill your darlings” as the saying goes. Delete non-essential information.
  • As an academic, you have an expert’s mind, so to you it’s all essential. Try to remember back to when you were a novice to your subject and how you saw your subject as a beginner. Then, write to answer the questions of the reader with a beginners mind.

6. If You Have Something to Say, Say It

  • Say something compelling, intriguing, challenging, inspiring, evocative, poignant, or otherwise interesting.
  • If what you write is something that you sincerely believe and something that empirical research can back up, then take the risk and hit publish.

7. Don’t Let Perfection Be The Enemy of The Good

  • Focus on clearly communicating your ideas. It’s more important that you share your ideas with the world than it is to make sure your writing is 100% error free. Get in the public arena and mix it up with people.
  • Your writing isn’t etched in stone. Remember that unlike print, you can immediately change errors as your readers point them out to you.


                                                      (image source)

8. Scholarly Writing vs. Public Writing

Not every scholarly publication needs to be written so that a the general public can read it. There is value in scholars writing for peers in academic journals in ways that are highly technical and complex. However, as academics we need to cultivate a community of scholars that are highly skilled in communicating esoteric research into texts that can be read by a general audience.

You can download my full Guide to Writing Online here. For more tips on academic blogging (and some terrific drawings), see the Illustrated Blogging Advice for Researchers, created by Chris Lysy.

Happy blogging!

PalmerPic_350-331~ This post was written by Nathan Palmer, a sociologist at Georgia Southern University and founder of the blog You can follow him on Twitter @SociologySource.


10 Things about Twitter for Academics

Twitter bird in academic capAcademics who are skilled at writing long, nuanced, complex arguments may be flummoxed by the 140-character constraints of Twitter but they needn’t be.

I’ve been using Twitter since 2008, and in the six years (how time flies when you’re sharing in 140-characters!) since then, I’ve gleaned a few things that may make Twitter easier for my academic friends.

  1. There is Twitter lingo, but it’s not that hard.  When you’re learning a new software platform (or, a new anything really) there’s often specialized language that goes along with it. We all know this from the jargon in our academic fields (post-structuralism anyone?), but somehow it often comes as a surprise in Internet-land. Really, if you’ve mastered any field well enough to get a PhD (or, through the first few years of grad school), you’ll be able to master Twitter lingo. The first term you should know about Twitter: “handle” or, the name you use on Twitter.
  2. Choose a short, easy-to-remember handle.  When you choose a handle, you want it to be something that’s short (your handle takes up part of your allotted 140-characters). And, you want something that’s easy to remember. Usually, people include part of their name. Many times, academic folks want to include “Prof” as part of their handle. Fine if you want, to but there are a lot of these now, so it might not be as easy to remember. You probably don’t want to include your institution in your Twitter handle in case your Dream School calls and you switch affiliations. Or, if you’re already at your Dream School, you might not want to include it because people may mistake it for an ‘official’ account. My Twitter handle is @JessieNYC. It seems to work fine except for the unlikely event that I decide to move out of New York City.
  3. Write a bio that captures your interests. Take a few minutes to set up your profile. You can always change this, and should update it as your interests change. People will read this to get a sense of who you are and what kind of information you’re likely to share on Twitter. So, your profile should give some sense of your interests in 160-characters (slightly longer than the standard Tweet).
  4. Include a photo of yourself so people know you’re not a spam bot. The default icon that you get on Twitter is an “egg” (get it, like a bird’s egg?).  When there are spam bots — and yes, this happens sometimes — they can be easily spotted by the default egg icon. So, an important way to distinguish yourself from the spam bot is to change that default icon to a photo.  You want to show people that you’re a real person, and at least moderately friendly. Put a photo of yourself in there. Yes, we’re all pleased that you got married and had kids, but leave those photos for your Facebook page. On Twitter, people expect to have a glimpse of who you are.
  5. Figure out what you want to contribute. There are a bunch of metaphors that are useful for explaining Twitter, one of my favorites is “DJ.” Think of yourself as a DJ, and the Tweets you’re putting out into the world as your playlist. What do effect do you want to have on people listening?  On my scholarly blog, Racism Review, my focus is on race and racism. On Twitter, I have a broader range of topics I’m interested in and that I share. I Tweet about race and racism, and also about: academia, higher ed, digital media, documentary films, and memoir writing.  For academic folks, think about sharing what the latest news is in your field. Did you see a recent journal article that seems especially path-breaking for people in your field? Compose a Tweet about that and then people will begin to look to you for the latest news in that field.
  6. Learn to tune your TL.  More Twitter lingo! (breathe)  “TL” stands for “Timeline.” Timeline is the string of Tweets I see when I log into Twitter. Every person’s TL is different. What I see in my Timeline is a result of who I choose to “follow.” So, at the moment, for someone who is very into the World Cup, their TL may be filled with updates about who won the latest game and what the prospects are for their favorite team. For someone else who is very interested in Supreme Court decisions about reproductive health, their TL could be filled with updates about the Hobby Lobby decision.  When I first started Twitter, I didn’t get it. It just seemed boring to me. But, a friend who’s opinion I respect, said “this is where the action is, keep trying.” Finally, I figured out how to adjust my Timeline so that the flow of information is useful to me. It’s sort of like learning to tune a radio in the car, you want more “signal” than “noise.” For academic folks, you’ll want to figure out who to follow so that Twitter is useful for you professionally. Often this means following other academics, but it can also mean finding journalists, activists, policy makers, and philanthropists who are Tweeting about the topic you’re interested in. These sorts of connections can help inform your work, and may even yield real, material benefits for social change or just career advancement.
  7. Getting the flow of Twitter into Academic Life.  “I’m so busy already, I don’t have time for Twitter!” I hear this a lot from academic colleagues. I’m busy too. And, I’m on Twitter often. My experience is not that Twitter takes me away from the flow of academic life and knowledge production, but rather that it is now a part of how I conceive of what we used to call “the life of the mind.” When I say that I’m on Twitter often, by that I mean that I usually have one browser tab open to Twitter if I’m working on a desktop or laptop computer, or if I’m out in the world, I’ll check Twitter on my phone. But, it doesn’t mean I Tweet that often. I read Twitter and “listen” in the morning while I’m having coffee, and at breaks from work during the day. Twitter is something I learn from and something I think with. I’ve written more about how I use Twitter in knowledge production here.
  8. Find people you want to connect with. Re-Tweet them. Talk to them. Connect with them. I’ve heard it said that “Facebook is for connecting to people you already know, Twitter is for connecting with people you want to know.” I don’t know if that’s true for everyone, but it’s certainly been true for me. In many ways, finding and connecting with people on Twitter allows me to curate the ideal academic department (which also includes lots of non-academic folks). On Twitter, I can follow people that I want to know, without the reciprocity required and expected of being “friends” on that other platform. I can also go beyond merely “following” and reading the Tweets of someone by “re-tweeting” them. Re-tweeting, sometimes abbreviated as RT’ing, just means re-sharing a Tweet that someone else composed. When you’re on Twitter, you can see that someone has RT’d you and that’s a form of connection (people like it when you RT them). You can also talk to people using the “@reply” – more lingo! – which is just simply clicking on the “reply” button and it appears as a mention, sort of like a RT.  Too much lingo? Don’t worry about it. It’s one of those things that sounds harder than it is. It’s just a way of connecting with people.
  9. Academic conferences with Twitter. Perhaps one of the most useful implementations of Twitter is at academic conferences. For the uninitiated, the junior, the marginalized, or the just-plain-shy, academic conferences can be a nightmare of face-name-badge-scanning. Twitter changed this for me. Whereas I once felt alienated, connecting with people on Twitter (see #8) transformed the hallways of academic conferences into giant meet-ups where warm embraces replaced dismissive face-name-badge scowls. The Twitter backchannel has also enlivened sometimes dull academic conferences. The backchannel is just a conversation going on about the conference by people using Twitter.  The way this works is that people are using a particular hashtag (just any word, set of letters and numbers with a # symbol in front of it). For example, #ASA2014 becomes a hashtag for the sociology conference and so on. It also means that I can follow the conversation at a particular conference even if I didn’t get to attend it in person. This is a tremendous boon for academics with both intellectual curiosity and a limited travel budget.
  10. Be generous and kind. There is often some anxiety about using Twitter as an academic, especially for folks who are still in graduate school or early in their careers. “Won’t this hurt my career chances?” Well, it depends on how you use it. If you say evil, hurtful things – like wishing death on someone’s children – it can get you in trouble. My experience is that if used without malice, it won’t hurt and it might help. I started on Twitter when I was pre-tenure and got tenured (and promoted) since then. Some of my colleagues even suggested that getting added to this list helped my chances. In general, I think the world would be a better place if people were generous and kind, so I’m adding that as a recommendation for how academics should be on Twitter.




Launching Media Skills for Academics Topic Series

digital zeros and ones

Summer is typically the time when academics use to delve into research, writing, and brushing up on skills.

We’re here to help with a new series on digital media skills for academics. Beginning this week and continuing through July, we’ll feature posts on how to use Twitter, Blogging, Op-Eds, Podcasts, Digital Research and Analytics.

In the digital era, media skills are increasingly important for scholars to build an audience for their research. Here at JustPublics@365, we think hybrid training – in traditional academic research and digital media skills – is crucial for fostering collaborations between scholars, activists, and journalists in ways that further social justice.

Previously, we’ve hosted discussions here about the ways in which scholarly communication is changing. Building on these conversations, our latest series deepens and expands the work of our successful MediaCamp workshops. We’ll be offering some of these workshops at the August meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco.

social networks

This is also a good time to remind you about some of our other resources and skills guides we have put together, such as:

We encourage you to use and share all of these resources and check back with us for more!

Activist East Harlem Topic Series Now Available as an eBook!

We are pleased to announce that our recently-concluded social justice topic series on activism in East Harlem has been compiled into a free eBook, accessible here

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 6.37.47 PMThis eBook, the fourth in our series, deepens and expands the work of a community meeting at the CUNY School of Public Health on April 26, 2014. This meeting brought together volunteers, city officials, and faculty and staff from CUNY to discuss emergency response following a tragic gas explosion nearby that had killed 8 people the previous month. Participants met in groups to discuss the event, make recommendations for better emergency response in the future, and strengthen community partnerships. Afterwards, several people sat down with us to talk about their experience, which we produced as a series of podcasts.

The active participation in the meeting was characteristic of the strong, invested community of East Harlem, also known as El Barrio. We drew inspiration from this event and highlighted other important activist work and pressing issues impacting the community, especially affordable housing and gentrification, and drug policy reform. In addition to the conversations with local volunteers, our series included interviews with a local journalist and two scholar-activists; featured the work of local filmmakers; highlighted a two-day forum on drug policy reform held at the New York Academy of Medicine; and discussed current events and policies impacting the neighborhood.

rainbowPS191-470x140This series portrays only a small portion of the dynamic activist work being done by local residents. To do justice to this rich community would take far longer. Luckily, this work is represented by the many community groups that are active in East Harlem and in everyday life in the neighborhood. We encourage you to start here and do more exploring on your own, both virtually and in person. Take a walk around the neighborhood and meet some of the amazing people who call it El Barrio.

Click here to use and share this resource!

Concluding Our Topic Series on East Harlem

IMG_0537-470x260Listening to peoples’ stories is a powerful way to understand how inequality affects people in their everyday lives. For example, gentrification in a low income neighborhood like East Harlem impacts a person’s ability to find affordable housing, education policies such as opening charter schools affect young people at local public schools, and lack of digital access limits economic opportunities.

In this topic series on East Harlem, we have explored a number of social issues impacting the neighborhood and have featured the voices of local residents, activists, journalists and scholars.

Beginning with the aftermath of the tragic gas explosion in March, we highlighted the community conversation held at the CUNY School of Public Health that brought together volunteer first responders, city officials, activists, and researchers to talk about emergency response and plan for better preparedness in the future. The disaster, and the stories we gathered from participants at the event, highlighted a community that is unique and tightly-knit.

rainbowPS191-470x140However, this cohesiveness is threatened by changes brought on by disinvestment giving way to gentrification. East Harlem (aka El Barrio) is a primarily low-income, Latino neighborhood and has one of the highest concentrations of public housing in the city, yet its landscape is rapidly changing as higher-end chain stores open on 125th Street and luxury condos crowd out affordable housing.

Gathering the perspectives of people who are directly affected, rather than interpret a situation for them, is vital to understanding these issues. East Harlem resident, activist, and filmmaker Andrew Padilla emphasizes this point in an article he wrote about a Fox News journalist who contacted him. The reporter, Soni Sangha, seemed determined to frame the story of gentrification in Latino neighborhoods like East Harlem as being “taken back” by wealthier Latinos returning to the area, implying that this form of “gente-fication” benefited the community rather than displaced residents. Padilla countered that perspective, sharing his experience interviewing people in the community and offered a more contextual explanation. Ultimately however, the article didn’t include the perspectives of East Harlem residents, which was a disservice to the community and readers alike.

spirit_app_blogWe highlighted two documentaries, “Whose Barrio?” by Ed Morales and Laura Rivera, and “El Barrio Tours: Gentrification in East Harlem” by Andrew Padilla, which explore the significant impact of gentrification on the neighborhood.

We also profiled a number of scholars-activist and journalists working in the area, calling attention to these concerns, and working to address disparities.

Jeff Mays is a journalist who covers the neighborhood and spoke with us about how people have been impacted by the explosion. Even now, three months later, several of the nearly 100 families displaced by the disaster remain homeless and are having difficulty finding affordable housing in their community. Businesses are slowly recovering, but suffered great losses.

CUNY School of Public Health Professor Lynn Roberts addresses the intersection of race, class and gender and its influence on health disparities and models of community organizing for social justice.

BarrioEdProj.v.blue_.1090-332x205Educator-scholar-activist Edwin Mayorga recently worked with two young people from East Harlem to explore public education in the neighborhood and connected with community members using digital media to tell their stories.

And finally, we co-sponsored a symposium on drug policy reform, held at the New York Academy of Medicine. Many of the speakers focused on the intersections of race, poverty, and incarceration. Punitive drug laws and high rates of incarceration disproportionately impact low income, minority neighborhoods like East Harlem. CUNY Professor Harry Levine’s research reveals racial patterns in Marijuana arrests. As we wrote earlier, the data tell a story that whites use marijuana at higher rates, yet blacks and Latinos in neighborhoods like East Harlem are arrested for marijuana at much higher rates.

This collection of East Harlem stories exemplifies JustPublics@365’s approach to bring together scholars, activists and journalists to highlight social justice issues. By bringing together a diverse range of people with ties to East Harlem, we have offered a few of the many voices working to make the neighborhood a more just place for all its residents.

(Thanks to Edwin Mayorga and for images)

“Fighting Misinformation”: Comments on Drug Policy from the “Marijuana and Drug Policy Reform in New York” Symposium

On May 1st and 2nd, The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and The New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM)  hosted a symposium titled “Marijuana and Drug Policy Reform in New York: 70 Years After The LaGuardia Committee Report,” to look at the current state of drug policy. The goal of the conference was to foster a rich discussion of contemporary drug policy reform efforts nationally and in New York.

Over the next two days, JustPublics@365 will be posting some audio clips from the conference. Today’s post includes audio from City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Professor Richard Bonnie from the University of Virginia, Professor Samuel Roberts from Columbia University, and Deborah Small from Break the Chains.

“Elected officials need to be equipped with research and policy recommendations,” declared New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at the start of a day long discussion on marijuana and drug policy reform in New York. She focused on ways to combat “misinformation campaigns based on myth not science” to make sure that drug policies are fair and just. Most arrests for marijuana are a corruption of the original intention of the law.

For her entire comments you can listen here:

Richard Bonnie then opened up the conversation with comments on the Shafer Commission (aka National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse). He said that we have “over relied on prohibition and criminalization rather than using other tools to meet our objectives.” By looking at alcohol probation we can look at the regulatory practices that have already been put in place, he said.  There was a “tremendous success” in discussions of decriminalization during the Shafer Commission and between 1973 and 1977 twelve states decriminalized marijuana.

You can listen to his full comments here:

Following Richard Bonnie’s comments, Paul Theerman, from The New York Academy of Medicine led a panel discussion on “Drug Wars Past & Present.” Theerman opened the panel by refocusing the conversation on the “New York situation.”

The first speaker, Samuel Roberts from Columbia University, said that “as a historian of drug policy this is a very interesting moment in which we find ourselves.” He told the room that it was the role of the historian to remind people of their past and that there were some things we should think about as we talk about current issues in drug policy. There are many ways of thinking about drug policy and Roberts urged the room not to focus too heavily on medicalization because, like criminalization, there are problems with over medicalizing.

You can listen to his full comments here:

Deborah Small, J.D., Executive Director, Break the Chains, started by saying that it makes no sense to say we need more research to determine drug policy. The whole conversation around the need to protect children from drugs does not currently apply to other policies, like gun control and environmental hazards are much more dangerous than marijuana, she said. “The government is not protecting us from the right things,” she concluded. 

You can listen to her full comments here:

How Should a Community Use Digital Media to Plan for Emergency Response?

With the widespread use of social media, people often learn about emergencies via Twitter faster than they do on breaking television news or from official government news sources. In fact, these traditional news sources often get their information from social media and follow up to verify and report information.

Twitter E haimage source

Obviously, the advantage of sharing information via social media is that the faster people have information, the faster they can respond. However, a disparate media landscape means that misinformation can also spread quickly, or that different sources may report different information, contributing to confusion.

This was the experience for some in the wake of the gas explosion in East Harlem. While emergency responders and established organizations like the Red Cross adhered to their procedures, other groups like the Certified Emergency Response Team weren’t clear about their roles or where the most reliable information should come from. Participants in the April 26th community conversation held at the CUNY School of Public Health, these volunteers among them, emphasized the need for reliable, central communication channels during an emergency.

One interesting approach recently put into place in New Orleans makes use of personal health data to identify people with special needs and tailor responses to them. The New York Times recently reported on a pilot program that used Medicare data to target vulnerable individuals who may need extra help, such as people using breathing equipment. Officials from the program visited people in their homes to gauge the accuracy of the information they were able to gather from records and to get people’s reactions.

As journalist Sheri Fink wrote in the article,

“the program is just one of a growing number of public and corporate efforts to take health information far beyond the doctor’s office, offering the promise of better care but also raising concerns about patient privacy.”

While this program focused on visiting people in person, elsewhere, other digital and social media are being used to augment health care, such as text messages that alert parents that their children need to get vaccinations.


image source

But making use of personal health records raises privacy about using “big data” to reveal information people many not want shared. The pilot program conducted in New Orleans adhered to privacy guidelines and, as the article described, most people who were approached welcomed the help. However, the widespread use of digital media and the kind and amount of data we share, inadvertently or otherwise, has shaken up our ideas and expectations about privacy. The Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, more commonly referred to as HIPPA, and procedures of informed consent (i.e. all of those long forms you fill out at the doctor’s office) were designed to protect people’s personal health information from anyone other than themselves, their medical providers, and others with special permission, such as a family member. But those laws were drafted before digital media became so integrated in our everyday lives and before we thought about the potentials and pitfalls of vast stores of data.

Could (or should) a program like the one in New Orleans work in East Harlem? How could it reach the whole community, especially those with special needs? Are there other models to follow? How could people’s privacy be protected? How could clear communication channels be designed given the many outlets for information?

The Red Cross was an Integral Part of the East Harlem Emergency Response

In the wake of any disaster, emergency response typically includes the American Red Cross, whose recognizable logo signifies a first stop for help. Volunteers respond quickly to set up communication centers, coordinate medical attention, arrange shelter for displaced people, provide food, and offer general support. This wide range of services requires tremendous coordination, which is particularly remarkable for an organization that is primarily staffed by volunteers. The explosion in East Harlem was no different. Red Cross volunteers went to work immediately and their work continued for a month afterward.

RCimage source

According to a follow up report on their blog:

  • The Red Cross Emergency Operations Center was in operation and fully staffed 24/7 from the time of the collapse on March 12 through Sunday, March 23.
  • More than 338 adults and children were comforted and assisted by Red Cross caseworkers at NYC resident service centers.
  • More than 200 volunteers from across the Greater NY Region responded to the call to help those affected.
  • Over 20,000 meals, snacks and beverages were served to residents and first responders.
  • Between March 12 and March 14, more than 70 residents overnighted at the Red Cross operated shelter at the Salvation Army facility (for a total of 121 shelter stays; i.e., some of those 70 residents stayed more than one night).
  • Dozens of children received solace and safe haven at the Red Cross shelter, with a little extra help from the Good Dog Foundation therapy dogs in conjunction with the ASPCA.
  • Nearly 500 blankets and personal hygiene comfort kits containing soap, toothbrushes, face clothes, toothpaste, deodorant and additional items were distributed.
  • Red Cross Client Assistance staff connected with over 20 families in need of mental health and/or physical health support.

One experienced volunteer, Mary O’Shaunessy, spoke to us at a community conversation held at the CUNY School of Public Health on April 26, which brought together residents and community groups to discuss what happened following the explosion and how to better prepare for future emergencies. She shared her experience following the disaster:

My name is Mary O’Shaunassey, I am a Response Manager for the American Red Cross of Greater New York. On the day of the explosion on Park Avenue, I was actually at work at my day job as a technology manager for a legal services organization that helps low income women.

As part of response management at the Red Cross, I receive four-hour reports on general activities. Regular fires, evacuations of unsafe apartments, and other small disasters. I received special messages from the Office of Emergency Management and the Red Cross management regarding this explosion. As soon as I could leave work at 5:30 or so, I headed to the Red Cross where we have an emergency operations center. This is an office that is staffed only during major disasters. There are 24 seats and each seat is occupied by a person with a very specific responsibility: for obtaining large quantities of food, for arranging the setup of a shelter, for arranging for licensed mental health professionals and physical health professionals to arrive at a scene, and so on.

My job as operations management was to make sure that each of those seats were filled or that each phone at each seat was being answered. So it boils down to there are 24 phones, if it rings, answer it, respond appropriately, make the right decision.

A lot of people don’t understand that the Red Cross is not a government agency. We are 90% of us volunteers. The volunteers that were available were people who are retired, self-employed, or unemployed. That can really limit our ability to respond to people who are linguistically isolated. Our volunteers speak what they speak, they’re available when they’re available. We happen to be lucky that a couple of our people were native Spanish speakers. It is possible that at a fire you can have people that are so linguistically isolated that no one can help them. We have facilities for that, but it takes some time to set up.

When I arrived at the emergency response center, I found it in full swing. People were already at the blast site. They were already working on a reception center. Until we have the capability, that is, a released building from the Board of Education, a custodian, and shelter staff, we have reception centers. And that’s where clients —  and I have to define the word client here — we never call people victims because part of the Red Cross role is to encourage people in recovery and calling people victims does not encourage that. We have clients, and we have survivors. Clients, survivors, and family members were already at the site looking for information.

The definition of a disaster is that it is unplanned, therefore information is always partial, immediate, and changeable. It’s very difficult to set and manage expectations. We are also committed, individually, corporately, and internationally to client confidentiality. It is very common for family members to call, and we were getting these calls, and people saying “my sister-in-law was there, my nephew was there, my cousin was there.” We cannot release that information. We did not have the information about the deceased but even if we had it, we cannot. We cannot give information about who is registered at a reception center, or a shelter. What would happen if a man were to come and say my “wife is there, I need to get to my wife” and we released that information and that woman had an order of protection against an abusive spouse. That’s something that we always have to protect people against. We cannot make assumptions about what people are telling us.

Most people are honest. Most people want to help. We have to be realistic, as well as optimistic in our view of human nature. So we were getting calls from volunteers, we were getting calls from partner agencies, we were getting requests for food. We try to purchase food from local vendors. We try to purchase all our supplies from local vendors. Surviving vendors may have decreased foot traffic. They may have decreased customer assistance because their customers have been displaced. By the Red Cross spending money in these local businesses, we’re keeping these small businesses in business. We’re keeping their employees able to contribute to the community and therefore the function of the society is continuing to go.

Very often we get complaints from people who say “I didn’t want my money to do go overhead.” Overhead is very interesting. If you think about wanting a report about where money goes, you would say “yes I want a report.” A report needs a database, a list of expenses, and a list of donations. That computer needs electricity. The person who is putting that information in needs an office with electricity, running water, and maybe heat or air conditioning. The software needs to be purchased. That’s overhead. So it’s very interesting to try to explain what overhead means in terms of how people get their wishes in terms of donations.

We have overhead and we are not ashamed of that. We are very careful about donor dollars. In order for a Red Cross responder to go out by themselves, that is, to respond to a fire or a vacate, they have extensive training and extensive practice, and they undergo a background check. When I walk out to a fire, I can have as many as 30 debit cards, with a maximum value in the field of $1,000. If I’m handing someone, as a manager, $30,000 nominally in debit cards, I want to know who they are. That is why what we call spontaneous volunteers get asked to do really basic things: hand out water, hand out food. Trained responders go into people’s homes. We go into homes to evaluate damage, to determine how much cash assistance to give, whether to give hotel rooms. I would not want someone in my home that had not undergone a background check.

So these are the things that go into being a Red Cross responder. And it all gets really ramped up in the event of a large disaster. As you gain experience, it’s also important to know how to step back. I’ve been a volunteer for 7 years, I’m very experienced, and now I’m in management. I have to step back and allow other people to learn how to do this. That can be hard because they’re training and by definition, trainees make mistakes. Sometimes, in an event like this, a simple mistake can get very high profile very quickly, and it’s very difficult to manage. We never send trainees out alone, but in a fast-moving, crowded event, they make decisions. Sometimes they’re very good decisions and sometimes they could have been better. And we work on that in what we call hotflashes. After an event, and in some cases after every 24 to 48 hour period, we sit down together and figure out what went wrong, what went right, and how to keep doing what was right, and how to correct what was wrong. It’s a continuous process.

I love volunteering for the Red Cross. I like going out, I like adulation, I like people saying “oh you do wonderful things.” It’s an ego charge, and I’ll take that. Fires, disasters are an adrenaline charge, but you also have to balance that against the needs of the organization and the needs of the community. Those needs will go on long after I am able to respond to disasters.

Clear Communication is Vital in Emergency Response

Numerous volunteer groups joined in the recovery efforts following the deadly gas explosion in East Harlem, and while the community’s most important needs were met, there was some confusion and disruptions in communication in the aftermath. This was part of what inspired the CUNY School of Public Health and several co-sponsors to organize a community conversation on April 26 to reassess community response efforts and discuss ways to improve emergency preparedness.


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Several local members of the Office of Emergency Management’s volunteer Certified Emergency Response Team (CERT) were there. CERT members are trained to assist with fire safety, medical aid, and search and rescue, among other support tasks. Most of the time, they serve as community educators about emergency preparedness. The explosion in East Harlem was the first time some of them had dealt with a major emergency. They encountered challenges with knowing their role and communicating with other organizations, and a consensus from the community conversation was the need for clear, reliable communication channels so that all responders know where to go for information.

East Harlem resident and CERT member Sam Goudif shared his experience following the explosion, and highlighted how a lack of clear communication made things more difficult, but also demonstrated the desire to help that is the motivation for these volunteers.

My name is Sam Goudif, I’m a CERT member for the last two years. And during the disaster with the gas explosion, I was in Harlem. I was at home watching the news. Naturally, that was the main focus of the news and I knew right away that I would be mobilized. I got the call from the chief and was mobilized to go to 118th Street. Trafficking and crowd control were the main components of what we did. It was about 3 or 4 blocks away from the incident. We wore our masks, which were inadequate, but we had something. We had to double up on them, as a matter of fact. It was interesting that people responded quite well with us. We didn’t have the issues of struggling or fighting with anyone. As a matter of fact, people were helping out in a number of ways. It wasn’t an issue with the crowd. The issue came about as the chain of command. What we were supposed to do in terms of where we were located. Who comes and goes, who was allowed and wasn’t allowed. I was in the first responders. They were very visible, very active. We all tried to coordinate the best we could, the best we had. It was a very challenging moment for us, and a learning process for us. This is the biggest incident I’ve ever gotten involved in.

We had a discussion, we went over a lot of things [referring to the community conversation]. The main thing we discussed was equipment and being safe. That’s the number one issue.

If you aren’t safe, you can’t make anybody else safe. If you don’t have communication you’re really left out there in the field.

So you need better communication than we did. Where were able to communicate, we were able to go over things, was at Hunter College, Zero One ground for us…to have community come together and actually support whatever needs were needed at the time, in terms of people coming in asking questions: where to go, where to get help. Facilitate them in the best way we knew how. And we did that. And that’s something else we learned about. Red Cross, we coordinated with them. With the other organizations we had to find a place where we can do the best job we can do.


Faith Leaders Play an Important Role in East Harlem Following Explosion

With churches large and small throughout the neighborhood, religious faith is a hallmark of the East Harlem community. It was only natural that ministers, pastors, and chaplains were prevalent in the aftermath of the March 12 gas explosion, and that pews were full the following Sunday.

Faith leaders were also present at a community conversation held at the CUNY School of Public Health on April 26, which brought together residents and community groups to discuss what happened following the explosion and how to better prepare for future emergencies.

Chaplain Alicia Goudif from the United Chaplains State of New York, and who is active in NYPD Precinct 25’s community board, shared with us her experience following the explosion:

“I got a you call saying to look at channel one, and after that they told me you need to get out there because a lot of chaplains was out there at that time. We were just standing around seeing where we needed to help the most. I call myself the CEO. That means Chaplain Encouraging Others, so I was there to encourage others where their lives are concerned. If they need prayer, I give them prayer. If they need encouragement, I give them encouragement. I was there just helping out the police department, which I’m part of the Two Five Precinct Community Board Sergeant of Arms. So I was out there making sure everybody was safe. Everybody who needed help who were down and out to let them know it’s going to be ok. It’s not over until God says so. If they need help I give them my card to let them know I’m there whenever they need help. I was there following the explosion every day for those who needed my services.”

What does de Blasio’s Affordable Housing Plan mean for East Harlem?

On Monday, NYC mayor Bill de Blasio released his ambitious 10-year, $41 billion affordable housing plan, which proposes creating 80,000 new units of affordable housing and preserving 120,000 more city-wide. It emphasizes greater urban density, building up, and implementing some requirements (as opposed to current incentives) for developers to include affordable housing in new construction.

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What does this mean for East Harlem, a neighborhood whose affordable housing stock is dwindling as gentrification, particularly in the form of newly-constructed luxury housing, raises the overall market value of apartments.

According to a 2012 report issued by Manhattan Community Board 11, which represents the neighborhood, most East Harlem residents live in some form of rent-regulated housing. East Harlem has one of the highest concentrations of public housing in the city and much of the remaining housing stock has been rent-regulated. However, as the report suggests, the expiration of government subsidies will likely price current residents out of their homes. A third of rent regulations will progressively expire by 2040.

City-wide, rents have gone up nearly 40 percent in the last 20 years, while renters’ wages have risen less than 15 percent. Nearly a third of the city’s households who rent pay more than 50 percent of their income in rent and utilities. According to the 2012 U.S. Census, the median income of East Harlem households is $31,444.

Currently, despite incentives such as tax breaks for new construction and financial assistance to property owners to keep their buildings from turning market-rate, more rent-regulated apartments are lost to deregulation than new ones are built (source).

The strategies proposed in the 2012 Community Board 11 report may dovetail with the Mayor’s proposed plan. The Community Board 11 report recommends coordinating efforts to maintain the supply of rent-regulated housing, and working with building owners to promote continued participation in programs that will preserve affordable housing. If successful, de Blasio’s plan will preserve the current supply of affordable housing and both regulate and incentivize the creation of new stock. However, how the plan will be funded and implemented remain to be seen and it’s a question of how much affordable housing will be left to preserve in East Harlem and how many opportunities there will be to intervene in new development by that point.

The mayor’s report highlights El Barrio’s Artspace P.S. 109, which is an affordable housing project for artists, as an example of adapting existing structures into housing. This project was developed by Minneapolis-based developer Artspace with grant funding from the Warhol Foundation for the Arts. While this unique project may not be able to be replicated at a scale that meets the community’s overall needs, it is a start.

E ha report

Reclaiming property for housing and building on vacant lots is what activist organization Picture the Homeless has been vying for. Working with the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development, the group identified enough abandoned and unoccupied space in the city to house all of the homeless, outlined in this 2012 report. In their study of city housing data, they found a total of 143 vacant buildings and lots in East Harlem that could house 9,252 people. Perhaps implicitly acknowledging the organization’s exhaustive work, the mayor’s report calls for conducting a comprehensive survey of all the vacant sites in the city, potentially corroborating their data and analysis.

Overall, the plan has the potential to address at least some of the community’s urgent housing needs and ideally help shape a healthier community development over the usual displacement-through-gentrification.

Whose Barrio? Latino Community Resists Gentrification

As gentrification rolls across New York City like a tsunami, residents of lower-income neighborhoods like East Harlem are both concerned and conflicted about the changes occurring around them. This “Latino core” has one of the highest concentrations of public housing in the country. According to educator-scholar-activist Edwin Mayorga, approximately 31% of East Harlem residents in poverty, 45% are children and of those, 55% are Latino.


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With luxury housing replacing older tenements, residential and commercial rents on the rise, and more wealthy, primarily White, people moving in, current residents are already being priced out, and the flavor of the neighborhood is changing. As one resident interviewed in Ed Morales’ documentary Whose Barrio? described, gentrification in East Harlem is the “urban removal” of Latino residents. The film, created by journalists Ed Morales and Laura Rivera’s and released in 2009, examines the changes in East Harlem through the perspectives of several residents, some of whom oppose them and others who welcome it. You can watch the full film here and watch the trailer here:

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While East Harlem has already begun to experience these changes, there is a strong network of community groups, cultural institutions, tenants’ rights organizations, and other activists working to advocate for the neighborhood. Furthermore, with gentrification impacting so many communities across the city, the issue is gaining the attention of the general population and policymakers. With a history of activism and an identity as a strong Latino community, many in East Harlem are actively resisting the pressures of gentrification. As the community response to recent tragic explosion and building collapse demonstrated, this neighborhood is a cohesive and engaged community that stands a chance to resist some of the destabilizing changes that accompany gentrification.

Drug Policy Reform Symposium May 1-2

In his research, CUNY Professor Harry Levine documents the racial pattern in marijuana use and arrest rates. The data tell a story that whites use marijuana at higher rates, yet blacks and Latinos in neighborhoods like East Harlem are arrested for marijuana at much higher rates.

MJ Use and Arrests

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Marijuana policy is not a new issue to New York City nor to East Harlem.

In 1939—on the heels of the national 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, which established federal marijuana prohibition—New York City Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia called upon The New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) in East Harlem to produce a report about marijuana.

Mayor LaGuardia(Image source)

The La Guardia Committee Report: The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York was published in 1944 as one of the nation’s first systematic studies addressing many of the myths about marijuana, including: the alleged connection to “madness;” addictive potential; supposed role as a ‘gateway’ to other drug use; usage patterns; and potential relationship to crime and violence. The LaGuardia report concluded that “the sociological, psychological, and medical ills commonly attributed to marihuana have been found to be exaggerated.”

To mark the 70th anniversary of the LaGuardia Report, The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and The New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM)  are hosting a symposium to look back on the LaGuardia Report in order to inform a rich discussion of contemporary drug policy reform efforts, both nationally and in New York. The symposium brings together scholars, activists, journalists and elected officials from East Harlem to explore the historical context and the ongoing public debates and actions about marijuana and drug policy reform.

Marijuana & Drug Policy Reform
in New York—The LaGuardia Report at 70

May 1, 6-8 PM
May 2, 10 AM – 5 PM

A symposium hosted by
The New York Academy of Medicine and the Drug Policy Alliance

Program highlights include

Thursday, May 1

6:00 PM — The John K. Lattimer Lecture: Richard Bonnie, University of Virginia.

Friday, May 2

10:00 AM — Melissa Mark-Viverito, Speaker, New York City Council

Panel Discussion: Drug Wars Past & Present.

Moderator: Paul Theerman, Ph.D., The New York Academy of Medicine
Jeffrion Aubrey, Speaker Pro Tempore, New York State Assembly
Jason Glenn, Ph.D., University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston
Sam Roberts, Ph.D., Columbia University
Deborah Small, J.D., Executive Director, Break the Chains
Bobby Tolbert, Community Leader and Board Member, VOCAL-NY

1:00 PM — Panel Discussion: The Contemporary Research Agenda for Drug Use & Abuse

Moderator: Julie Netherland, Ph.D., Drug Policy Alliance
Helena Hansen, Ph.D., M.D., New York University
Julie Holland, M.D., psychiatrist and author
Amanda Reiman, Ph.D., Drug Policy Alliance, San Francisco
Maia Szalavitz, journalist

3:00 PM — Panel Discussion: New York Marijuana Policy Reform in 2014

Moderator: Kassandra Frederique, M.S.W., Drug Policy Alliance
Richard Gottfried, New York State Assembly, 75th District
Hakeem Jeffries, United States Congress, 8th District
Harry Levine, Ph.D., Queens University
Art Way, J.D., Drug Policy Alliance, Denver

4:30 PM — Closing Presentation: Dr. David T. Courtwright, University of North Florida

5:00 PM – Final Remarks: gabriel sayegh, Drug Policy Alliance

* * *

This event is FREE but registration is required for both days. To register for this event (required), click here (Thursday evening lecture) and here (Friday). The symposium takes place at the New York Academy of Medicine, located at 1216 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street.  You can also follow along on the hashtag #LGA70.

For more background on this important topic, see our “From Punishment to Public Health,” available as an eBook and a PDF.