Category Archives: Impact

Engaging Academics and Reimagining Scholarly Communication for the Public Good: A Report

We are pleased to announce the release of “Engaging Academics and Reimagining Scholarly Communication for the Public Good: A Report,” which summarizes the work we accomplished in 2013.

JP365 Report Cover

The report highlights:

Much of the work we produced is available on our website and is all licensed under Creative Commons for reuse (CC BY-NC-SA). We encourage you to incorporate these resources into your own scholarship, activism and teaching.  Please join our email list to stay up-to-date on our latest work!

You can download a PDF of the report here or read it online.

Reach, Impact and Scholarly Communication Now

Academics working today are laboring in a rapidly changing landscape of scholarly communication.

When acclaimed Internet researcher danah boyd published her recent book, “It’s Complicated,” about the social lives of networked teens with the highly reputable academic house Yale University Press, she also put a free PDF of the book up on her own website.  She wrote this about that decision:

“…I didn’t publicize this when I did so. For those who are curious as to why, I want to explain. And I want you to understand the various issues at play for me as an author and a youth advocate.

I didn’t write this book to make money. I wrote this book to reach as wide of an audience as I possibly could. This desire to get as many people as engaged as possible drove every decision I made throughout this process. One of the things that drew me to Yale was their willingness to let me put a freely downloadable CC-licensed copy of the book online on the day the book came out. I knew that trade presses wouldn’t let a first time author pull that one off. …But what I started to realize is that when people purchase the book, they signal to outside folks that the book is important. This is one of the reasons that I asked people who value this book to buy it. Your purchasing decisions help me signal to the powers that be that this book is important, that the message in the book is valuable.” (emphasis in the original)

It’s an important and worthwhile book, and you should buy it and/or download it, depending on what you can manage. What I so appreciate about what she’s done here is to find a way to thread the very thin needle of open access and a prominent, scholarly book.

It's Complicated - book cover

Elsewhere in that post, she describes her experience with the machinery of publishing, and it goes like this:

“If you haven’t published a book before, it’s pretty unbelievable to see all of the machinery that goes into getting the book out once the book exists in physical form. News organizations want to promote books that will be influential or spark a conversation, but they are also anxious about having their stories usurped by others. Booksellers make risky decisions about how many copies they think they can sell ahead of time and order accordingly. (And then there’s the world of paying for placement which I simply didn’t do.) Booksellers’ orders – as well as actual presales – are influential in shaping the future of a book, just like first weekend movie sales matter. For example, these sales influence bestseller and recommendation lists. These lists are key to getting broader audiences’ attention (and for getting the attention of certain highly influential journalistic enterprises). And, as an author trying to get a message out, I realized that I needed to engage with this ecosystem and I needed all of these actors to believe in my book.”

Her experience with publishing is quite different from the traditional academic’s experience, but then that might be expected as danah boyd is not a traditional academic.  If you’re not familiar, danah boyd is something of a celebrity among folks who study the Internet, works as a Principle Researcher at Microsoft, and is starting her own research shop called Data & Society. Her work is also on two areas  — the Internet and teenagers — that has wide public appeal.

The reality for most traditional academics is that they produce “Long, complex monographs are expensive to produce yet sell only 150 to 300 copies.”

The news is even worse for academic papers published in traditional journals. A study at Indiana University found that:

“as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.” That same study concluded that “some 90% of papers that have been published in academic journals are never cited.”

This is a certain kind of impact, to be sure, if who you are trying to have an impact on is an elite group of specialists in your field.  But this model of publishing is never going to have much of a wider reach.

As Anthony DiMaggio, writing for CounterPunch, notes about his own field of Political Science, that it is dominated by “over-specialization and obscurity” with scholars who carve out “extremely narrow niches” that have “no practical utility.”  DiMaggio minces no words as he calls out social science academics broadly for a lack of relevance and what he deems as cowardice:

“Lack of relevance to the political world doesn’t make one’s research interesting or worthwhile, but this message falls on deaf ears in insulated places like high ed social science departments.  A main reason for scholars’ contempt for political advocacy is cowardice.  The vast majority of scholars have been socialized their entire lives to believe they must always remain ‘objective,’ and that to take a position on an issue would be heretical.  Most scholars operate according to a pack mentality – fearful of engaging in unconventional behavior.  By producing useful real world research, one is challenging the sacred rules governing ‘objective’ social science that celebrate esoteric research agendas. To step outside that mold would be to endanger one’s prestige, and risk that one will be seen as unprofessional in colleagues’ minds. Such pressures ensure that academics remain part of the problem, not the solution. They fail by design to challenge the political and economic power status quo and injustices that occur around them.”

There’s something to what DiMaggio says here, but I don’t know if it’s cowardice as much as institutional reward structures.  Or, perhaps those are two sides of the same coin.

The legacy model of scholarly communication values writing obscure books and papers for tiny audiences makes sense within a certain kind of reward structure. Within legacy academia, the people that sit on hiring, tenure and promotion committees still place value on at things like ‘impact factor’ of little-read journals and the fading prestige of boutique publishers with minuscule runs.

However, the appearance of digitally fluent, hybrid scholars – like danah boyd – who are more interested in reach and impact on a broader public, point to a new kind of reward structure, one that values influence beyond a small group of specialists.

The real challenge, I think, comes when a researcher that doesn’t have the star-power or following of a danah boyd wants to write about something that’s much less appealing than what teenagers are doing on the Internet.  What kind of broad reach or impact can a relatively unknown scholar writing about a topic that’s unpopular expect to have? This remains an open question in this changing landscape of scholarly communication, but it seems to me that the Internet offers a set of opportunities to reach beyond the conventional audiences for academic research.

Still, even when academics use social media there’s little to indicate they are doing so in order to reach a broad, general audience. Indeed, we know from recent research that even when academics use social media, such as blogging, they mostly don’t do this to engage with a broader public. In a recent study of 100 academics blogs, researchers found that most academics are blogging for professionals peers, rather than for the public in any general sense: 73% of the blogs analyzed were geared toward other academics, while just 38% were designed for general readers.

I can’t help but wonder how different academic research would look if we were guided by danah boyd’s goal: “I wrote this book to reach as wide of an audience as I possibly could.”  

The counter to this, of course, and one that I often hear in talks I give about this work, is something along the lines of: “well, small publishers and journals are providing a valuable service for getting academic work published that wouldn’t ever be interesting to a wide, public audience. This work is often too complex, theoretical, esoteric, important, too politically unpopular for a wide audience, so we must rely on the obscure publishing options to keep doing what we do as academics.”

There is something to this argument.  For example, I write about racism – a thoroughly unpopular topic in the US.  My academic books have done ok, but they will never be as popular as the work that danah boyd does.  It’s also the case that academic presses have published books of mine that probably would not have been picked up by trade presses for a general, public audience. Still, what I also know to be true is that the work I do on racism has gotten a much bigger following from my various social media outlets than it has from the books and articles I’ve published.

The skepticism about “reach” for academic work is built on a misconception that there won’t be an audience for that work. In fact, I think there are multiple audiences, varied publics and a wide citizenry that’s really interested in more substantive contributions about the state of the world than they’re currently getting.  And, I think academics can step up and make a contribution, if we’ll begin to re-think what scholarly communication is now.


The Unhappy Divorce of Journalism and the Social Sciences

Just about the worst thing you can say about a piece of sociological writing is that it’s “journalistic.” The term is often used as a criticism, interchangeable at times with “descriptive”, “thin,” or just plain superficial.

There’s good reason many us have little confidence in journalism: the closer a story comes to our own experience, the easier it is to see its flaws. Take, for example, the article about the proliferation of “hooking up” on college campuses that appeared in The New York Times a few years ago.

Image from NYT "Sex on Campus"(Source: New York Times, “Sex on Campus”)

The story claimed that hooking up—sex outside of relationships—is commonplace on college campuses, and is being pursued as actively by women as men. On the basis of interviews with a small number of women at elite schools like the University of Pennsylvania, the article claimed that busy women students didn’t have time for full-blown relationships, so they opted for more superficial sexual liaisons.

It was quickly denounced by sociologists, who charged that the reporter based on claims on flimsy evidence. It was even more roundly criticized on the Internet by college students who felt that the article’s generalizations were unfair or inaccurate. Many of their classmates were indeed pursuing long-term relationships, some argued. A veritable cottage industry of commentary cropped up alongside the article, showing the press’ power to incite and engage. (See, for example

Journalism Dictionary Image(Image Source)

“Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,” journalists frequently joke. And in fact, for journalists, who must hook the reader in and keep their attention in order to hold onto their jobs, storytelling is an end in itself. Since their audiences are reading for the sheer pleasure of good writing, they write, at least partly, to entertain, and to encourage readers to keep reading.

This is how George Saunders, the award-winning author of nonfiction and short stories, puts it:

“I’m essentially trying to impersonate a first-time reader who has to pick up the story and at every point has to decide whether to continue reading.” If an “intelligent person picks it up, they’ll keep going. It’s an intimate thing between equals. I’m not above you talking down. We’re on the same level. You’re just as smart, just as worldly, just as curious as I am.”

Academic books, in contrast, tend to be written for a finite group of other experts, conveying an argument which is typically based on  an extended research project. Writing a first book, which often emerges out of a dissertation, you may envision your audiences as particular professors on a tenure committee. Later on, you’re probably addressing experts in your field. While the writing should be persuasive, academics don’t particularly care if they’re holding the reader’s attention or not; they assume that what they say is inherently interesting, and that their potential readers are sufficiently intrigued by the topic to read on —even if the writing is less than scintillating.

Faced with these differences of purpose and audience, some would suggest that we leave storytelling to the journalists, and sociologizing to the sociologists. Let journalists speak to the people, while let sociologists keep working in the trenches, doing the hard work of data collection and analysis. As a graduate student of mine recently told me, “Sociology is supposed to be serious and scientific, not entertaining and story-like.”

Sociology and journalism, he was taught, are as different as cows and horses.

Horse and Cow(Image Source)

Early in their graduate school careers, students learn that professionalization means performing the role of sociologist, and differentiating oneself from those who value good writing for their own sake, and who write to entertain—writers of fiction and nonfiction. Rather than writing pleasurable prose, they are supposed to be advancing sociological knowledge.

But in fact, sociology and journalism have long existed in relation to one another. For one thing, sociologists know what they know partly through the media. And of course social scientists rely, at times, upon the media to disseminate our ideas to broader publics.

Likewise, journalists regularly mine sociological work for insights on everything from young adults’ changing pathways to adulthood, to the question of whether equality diminishes sexual desire, and sociologists are used to being consulted as experts for that telling quote on a variety of subjects. The best journalists do even more: browsing the web and journals for story ideas. They regularly raid our work, popularizing it for others to consume—at times without citing us.

Sociologists and journalists also have in common the fact that they’re both in the business of producing representations of social reality— stories– accounts of connected events that unfolds through time, which have characters that interact with another in different settings. Journalists and sociologists have different strategies of storytelling, to be sure. When journalists tell stories about social phenomena, such as hooking up on college campuses and other social trends, they tend to tell them through the lives of individuals—they show the reader what is going on, painting portraits of scenes and characters. Sociologists, in contrast, tell—they make arguments, drawing on data— numbers if we are quantitative sociologist, or vignettes and thick description if we are ethnographers.

But while we sociologists have been busy honing our rigorous methodological skills and ways of telling, we’ve ceded the field of translation, which requires showing, to smart journalists. By failing to discuss our work in compelling ways, we limit its impact, placing a wall, in effect, between our work and potential audiences.

Rather than deride “popular sociology” which addresses larger publics, in book-length works of general interest as well as shorter articles and essays –it’s time to reclaim it as something to aspire to. Popular sociology offers the general reader a sociological take on something he or she may be curious about. It embodies a hybrid style of writing, bridging journalism and sociology by showing and telling, painting a portrait of a group, a scene, or a trend that unfolds over time, offering thick description while analyzing what is occurring beneath the surface of events.

~ Arlene Stein is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, and editor of Contexts Magazine. You can follow her at twitter @SteinArlene. She blogs at

Transactional and Transformational Measures of Impact

As we come to the end of the meta-MOOC #FutureEd conversations prompted by Cathy Davidson and our lunchtime interlocutors here at CUNY, I’m pondering how we measure the impact of such a course, and more broadly, the impact of the work we do as academics.

In a recent post at The Chronicle of Higher Ed, Douglas Howard considers the unfinished feeling of so much teaching in general:

Did Jim, who talked about becoming a therapist, go on to graduate school in psychology? Did Jessica, who argued so passionately in class against the death penalty, make it as a lawyer? We fill in the blanks about them based upon what we know (or think we know), and tell ourselves that their stories ended the way that we hoped.

Teaching, in this regard, is the great open-ended narrative, the romantic fragment, the perpetually unfinished symphony.

The fact is, we almost never know if a course we taught, or a book we wrote, or an article we labored over, has any impact on anyone else.

Mark McGuire has a thoughtful post at HASTAC about the difficulty in rating transformational experiences specifically in the context of a MOOC, such as the one on #FutureEd:

We rate hotels, music, live performances, movies, etc., so that others are able to make an informed decision about how to best invest their time and money. Rating and reviewing MOOCs seems like a sensible thing to do for similar reasons, and it would not be surprising to see such a practice develop. However, unlike a hotel or restaurant franchise, a living, changing, organic learning experience cannot be packaged, replicated, and sold to consumers who are looking for a satisfying (and predictable) product or service. It can’t offer the same experience to the same person twice, and one person’s experience may not be a good indicator of the experience another person will have. A transformational learning experience is like a good pot luck dinner party — you might have had the time of your life, but it can never be repeated.

I like the dinner party metaphor for teaching much better than the “unfinished symphony,” perhaps because I’m much more likely to attempt a dinner party than a symphony.  I do think that there is a kind of alchemy in teaching, and good dinner parties, that makes it easy to assemble the same people, elements and conditions but difficult to replicate magic when it happens.

It’s also difficult to think about how one might measure any of this. Unfortunately, to my way of thinking, the word “measure” has become synonymous with “quantify.”  When we think of measurement exclusively in terms of quantification and counting, we lose a great deal of the story of impact.

I want to suggest an alternative way of thinking about impact that includes qualitative measures. In the chart below, you’ll see a way of conceptualizing “transactional” measures – quantifiable things we can count, alongside “transformational” measure – qualitative measures, that are more difficult to count but represent more lasting change.

Transactional v. Transformational metrics

(Chart content from Bolder Advocacy, h/t gabriel sayegh.
Chart design by Emily Sherwood)

In this schema, transactional metrics include both traditional (or “legacy”) academic measures of impact such as citations, along with alternative measures (or “altmetrics”), such downloads, or mentions on social media. Quantitative, transactional measures of impact can also include lasting social change, such as changes to public policy.  One of the things I like about this conceptualization is that it illustrates the incremental change that altmetrics represent. In other words, altmetrics are just another way of counting things – downloads and social media mentions, rather than citations – but it’s still just counting things. Counting and quantification can tell us somethings, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

On the “transformational” side are those things that it’s difficult, perhaps even impossible to measure, but that are so crucial to doing work that has a lasting impact. These include identifying allies, building relationships, establishing collaborations, and co-creating projects. Ultimately, transformational work is about changing lives, changing the broader cultural narrative, and changing society in ways that make it more just and democratic for all. These kinds of transformations demand a different kind of metric, one that relies primarily storytelling.

How might this work in academia? Well, to some extent, it already does. 

To take the example of teaching, you may have gotten the advice – as I did – “save everything” for your tenure file. This advice often goes something like, “everytime a student sends you a thank you card, or writes you an email, or says, ‘this class made all the difference for me’ save that for your tenure file.” That’s part of how we ‘finish the symphony,’ to borrow Doug Howard’s metaphor, we get notes from students, we compile those into a narrative about our teaching. It’s impartial, to be sure, but it’s something. The comments that students add to teaching evaluations are another place we see that impact in narrative form, although these are so skewed by the context of actually sitting in the class that it misses the longer term impact of how that course may have changed someone.

For the diminishing few of us on the other side of the tenure-hurdle, think about those letters of recommendation we write for junior scholars.  Whether we’re writing for someone to get hired, promoted, or granted tenure, what we’re doing when we craft those letters is creating a narrative about the candidate’s impact on their corner of the academic world so far. Of course, we augment that with quantitative data, “this many articles over this span of time,” and “these numbers in teaching evaluations.”

The fact is, we already combine transactional and transformational metrics in academia in the way that we do peer evaluations. What we need to consider in academia is expanding how we think about ‘impact’ and realize the way that we already use both quantitative and qualitative measures to evaluate and assess the impact of our work.

More than this, we need to reclaim storytelling and narrative, augmented by the affordances of digital media, to tell stories of impact that make a difference.

Cara Mertes on the Impact of Documentary

Earlier this year, it was announced that Cara Mertes would be leaving her job at the Sundance Institute to take over for Orlando Bagwell at Ford Foundation’s JustFilms.  In a world where foundations are more and more important financial resources for documentary filmmakers and “impact” is the buzzword of the day, Mertes held something of a town hall meeting at DOC NYC, in which she frankly asked documentary filmmakers what they needed from foundations like Ford.

CaraMertesAs more and more people, especially those circling the BRITDOC Foundation, advocate for documentary filmmakers to work with Impact Producers and elaborate impact campaigns, Indiewire followed up with Mertes to talk about the concept of impact.  Below, she shares how she sees impact as an integral part of the creative force that makes documentaries successful in a wide variety of ways.

What are you most excited to take on as you start your new job?

What’s exciting to me about the job is the potential for bringing new resources into this field.  I’m speaking globally, I want to bring creative, authentic, mostly non-fiction storytelling (as well as digital storytelling).

So the way that impact is being talked about, it’s about making sure that the film is doing the work it’s meant to do, and it’s something that the funders are concerned about, to make sure that their investment is well spent.  How do you feel about that perception? [Ed: Dan Cogan of Impact Partners foregrounded this when he spoke at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year.]

I think I would reverse the formula that you presented.  The question of impact is not driven by measurement and outcomes.  The world that I now live in and work in is populated by people who want to make a difference in the world. A regranter and a creative and executive producer.  How can we know that you’ve made a difference in the world?  That question leads to better storytelling.  That question leads to better resources.  Questions about impact vary broadly.  Being accountable for change is very important for filmmakers to take seriously.  Now that I’m in a philanthropic position, that’s an important question for me.  It’s almost a deep impulse:  asking why are these stories told?  It’s deeply embedded in the way of telling these stories for me.

But I know when you spoke at DOC NYC in conversation with Thom Powers, you mentioned that you were interested in developing new ways to talk about impact.

We want to define our terms when we talk about impact.  It’s a measurement piece — what are the quantifiable?  What are we measuring?  Who are we talking about?  It’s multiplicities of audiences.  There are many different ways to impact those audiences.  You’re talking about an extremely dynamic process.  We don’t have language for and we don’t have tools for talking about it.  that’s an incredibly interesting realm that we’re working in.  How culture makes change — what we’re trying to do at Ford. The kind of work that we’re looking for, the work that Ford supports — of course we need ways of understanding what the numbers are and striving for the appropriate impact.  We need more leadership and skill-building in terms of the question of impact.  People that understand the mix of numbers with dynamics.  Film impact is not predictable — how do we make room for that when we’re granting?

My predecessor Orlando Bagwell was working with Jana Diesner at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign on a project, and we’re going to do a phase two of funding for that.  It’s a big data research tool that actually looks at the difference a doc might have made in knowledge and behavior using Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, as well as any publicly available legal files.  This search tool has been built to do wide ranging searches for terms, names… you can upload the transcript to your documentary.  What’s really interesting is when you start applying it longitudinally, you start to see changes geographically and within social networks:  What are you saying? Where are you saying it? Who are you saying it to? Is it negative or positive? The tool is open source and it will be free.  We want this to be free to the creative community so they have tools that are scientifically validated and robust as commercial entities have.

When filmmakers approach you, what kinds of things excite you, with regards to the way they talk about impact?  What kinds of things do you want to hear?

On a basic level, you ask them if they’re thinking about impact.  A lot of people are saying “I’m not thinking about it and I don’t want that” — and that’s fine.  I think it’s unfair to rely completely on the creative filmmaker — who has to move from being creative/coordinative — they have to function like a CEO of a corporation that comes into existence very quickly.  The leadership tools are not ones that all filmmakers have.  You look to them and you see if they can create a team around them that can engage with these issues.

Narrative is creative, but you cannot sacrifice fairness, accuracy, deep research, the forces at play in the issues you’re talking about.  The filmmakers that are willing to dig in and question their process — can I do more? can I change the narrative in order to highlight something that I now understand better?  It’s important that your subject changes as you’re making the film.  As filmmakers, your subjects are changing and the issue is changing.  You’re managing in multiple dimensions, trying to create these compelling narratives.  You’re thinking about audience as well.  We want to be vigilant that the creative conversation is paramount.  But you can’t sacrifice these other elements.  You need to be responsible to the subjects — these people that are giving you their lives, for sometimes very difficult access.

With regards to building a team around you, Jennifer MacArthur published a piece on the POV blog about impact producers.  How important is carving out this space for you, for these people that are working on the impact of the film, outside of the production of the film itself?

A number of us were together in a retreat with US and UK producers with BRITDOC right before she wrote that.  Impact is a question you ask at the beginning of your film — it can benefit your funding and the telling of your film.  Often the conversation about impact changes your story.  We’re looking to embed the questions of impact into the production process.

Part of the skill-building piece for this kind of work is to name the skills.  These are high-level, sophisticated skills.  As Jennifer says in her piece, no, your intern cannot do this.  It’s building a case that this position needs funding and needs support — that it needs to be a part of film teams.  We now have these tools, we can ask the question about impact as these films are being done, by looking at how the issue is changing during production.  As you’re building and releasing your story, this person will work with the publicist and distributor, to work with the movement and change agenda that’s happening around your film.

What about the people who feel that thinking about impact is limiting?  That it impinges on creative freedom?

For me, any time you decide you’re going to be a cultural creator, you’re asking people to listen to you and to take seriously what you’re creating.  If you’re expecting people to spend time with you and your creation, you have a responsibility to your audience.  You need to take these questions seriously if you want an audience.  You’re always going to care about what people think.  How much time do you want to spend on your impact strategy? There are examples of people who could care less about change but they do want an audience.  I can talk to those people on those terms. “What do you want your audience to feel?  These are the co-participants in your creative experience.  How do you want them to feel?”

What I don’t expect is for filmmakers to say it doesn’t matter.  A lot of filmmakers point to the fact that they don’t have a good answer to the questions that foundations are asking about impact.  There is funder education that needs to be done so that funders are not led by the numbers.  That’s a conversation in the donor world and the foundation world.  Is it the means or is it the end?  I completely agree with filmmakers who say that some people are led by that.  The creative needs to be very strongly present.

You’ve spoken before about the need for the different projects and divisions within the Ford Foundation to work together on film projects.  What is important about that?

If you’re not partnering, you’re not doing it right.  I’m looking for partners at the institutional and individual level.  Partnership and collaboration is profound.  I see the world we live in as heavily networked, through the technology but also socially. There’s a phenomenon that the boundaries between disciplines and funding silos are more porous.  There’s a term in the foundation world — intersectionality — that acknowledges we’re all in this together.  You can’t talk about climate without talking about economy, health, gender.  Every time you pull out an issue, you’re pulling out a bunch of other issues.

The fact that I see things that way is perfect for this job.  We’re meant to work with all the other teams and see the commonalities.  While our structures may pull out certain things, part of the job of the storytellers is to rebraid and recombine all of the complexities of human experiences that reflect all of these areas.  There may be a labor story we tell we can find a gender story, a health story, a LGBT story.  Recombining so it looks like a human experience is really important.

* * *

~ This interview originally appeared on IndieWire, December 13, 2013, and was conducted by Bryce J. Renninger. 

Scholarly Impact: Measurement, Resistance and Human Need

Our new series on scholarly communication continues with a look at the idea of “scholarly impact,” a topic we’ll feature regularly.  The central issue at hand: how do we measure the value of scholarly work in a meaningful way?

In today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Aisha Labi writes about the resistance among researchers in the UK to having the impact of their work measured.  As Labi describes it:

The fundamental idea is relatively uncontroversial: As government spending in Britain has become more constrained, public investment in research must be shown to have value outside academe.

But calculating research’s broader value is a challenge—and a growing number of academics find themselves arguing that the requirements are unduly burdensome and do little to achieve their stated goals.

In the context of the UK, there is something called the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which requires that the impact of research by university departments accounts for 20% of the formula for financing them.

The resistance among UK academics, like Professor Philip Moriarty quoted in the article, is that while he sees his research in nanotechnology having a broad benefit to society, a focus on impact is a “perversion of the scientific method,” one that emphasizes “near-market” research, designed to generate a speedy economic return for taxpayers, he says.

I agree. If the definition of impact of scholarly work is going to be defined in business-school terms about ROI for taxpayers, then that’s not only a “perversion,” it’s a recipe for disaster for higher education as a long-term endeavor.

Resistance though there may be, some in the UK see value in the discussion of impact. The good folks at the LSE Impact of Social Sciences project are involved in a multi-year project to demonstrate how academic research in the social sciences achieves public policy impacts, contributes to economic prosperity and informs public understanding of policy issues and economic and social changes.

In the US, there’s a much different landscape of higher ed and impact is not (yet) tied to research funding in as systematic a way as in the UK with the REF.  This doesn’t mean that academics in the US are uninterested in the impact of scholarly work, quite the contrary. There’s a long history of attempts to measure impact here.

How many inches? 

The idea of measuring impact within scholarly disciplines has for most of the last century relied on counting the number of citations within peer-reviewed journals. For example, an individual scholar’s listing in the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI), which compiles number of citations in journals, has been a frequently consulted resource in tenure and promotion cases.


(Image source)

I know of stories in the olden days of analog when tenure and promotion committees would graduate student assistants to the library with an actual ruler in order to measure the number of inches a prospective candidate had in the SSCI.  Sometimes a ruler is just a ruler, but is this really the best we can do in measuring the impact of our work?

Alternative Measures, or “Altmetrics” 

Recently, attention in higher education has turned to new ways of measuring scholarly impact by incorporating the use of social media. The idea behind alternative measures, or “altmetrics,” is that the traditional metrics of citations in peer-reviewed journals (a la the (SSCI) should be joined by new measures, like number of page views, downloads, “likes” and re-tweets on social media. These have spawned a new generation of tools to automate the collection of this data into one platform or indicator (e.g., Almetrics,FigShare, PlumAnalytics, ImpactStory).


However, altmetrics are not yet widely used forms of measurement within academia by things like hiring committees or tenure and promotion committees. In fact, people in higher education don’t yet know what to make of these alternative measures and are actively working on how to resolve these issues. I, personally, sit on at least 3 committees within my institution and 1 committee in a professional association, that are all trying to come up with equitable, reasonable and widely understandable ways to measure scholarly work in the digital era.

Upworthy is Not the Same as Peer-Review

Many scholars express concern about the turn to social media as a measure of impact because of the kinds of information that often gets rewarded in an economy of “likes.”  We might call this the “upworthy” problem. If you’ve ever seen this site, or been lulled into clicking on something there, there’s a kind of relentless cheeriness and warm, touchy-feelingness to all things shared on the site. People who want to endorse content there indicate that it is “upworthy,” meaning worth moving “up” on your pile of things to read and do online. But it’s hard to imagine most of the research I’m familiar with and admire ever getting a vote as “upworthy.”

In a recent piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jill Lepore turned a critical eye to the problem of using social media as an indicator of scholarly impact. Lepore writes:

“…when publicity, for its own sake, is taken as a measure of worth, then attention replaces citation as the author’s compensation. One trouble here is: Peer review may reward opacity, but a search engine rewards nothing but outrageousness.”

Lepore is right to challenge us to think about what it is that search engines reward.  And, I think it’s also critically important to reconsider the value we put in publishing writing that is opaque in journals locked behind paywalls with tiny audiences.

I think where Lepore, and lots of others, get the importance of social media for scholarly work wrong is when they assume that it’s all just “publicity” or self-promotion.

The reality is that many scholars are using social media so that they can have an impact on the world, not just on their peers in academe.

There’s a Whole World Beyond Academe

Many disciplines have traditions of talking about “impact,” but it’s usually in a negative context. I’ll pick on a couple of disciplines that I spend some time in. So, for example, sociologists are very accustomed to pointing out the negative impacts of social structures and policies on inequality. Scholars in public health and demography are all about measuring the impact of lots of things on “mortality rates” – a serious measure of impact if ever there was one.  And, most social scientists of all stripes are perfectly fine with tracing worsening measures of inequality to changes in policy.

Yet, scholars are much less clear, timid even, on how scholarship might affect those laws and social policy.

This is especially ironic given what we know about what scholars want. According to a recent survey 92% of social science scholars said they wanted “more connection to policymakers.” 

Are academics just not capable of thinking about their own impact on the world? I think we are because, well, because we’re human.

The Desire to Have an Impact is a Deep, Human Need

We all, as human beings, want to know that our life matters, that we had an impact. Many scholars, but certainly not all, want to know that the work they spend so much time, training, money and effort into matters in some way beyond the small circle of experts in their chosen field.

Martin Rees, an emeritus professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge and one of Britain’s most noted scholars, quoted in the Chronicle piece mentioned at the top, says:

“Almost all scientists want their work to have an impact beyond academia, either commercial, societal, or broadly cultural, and are delighted when this happens. But they realize, as many administrators and politicians do not, that such successes cannot be planned for and are often best achieved by curiosity-­motivated research.”

I think Professor Rees is right that most academics want their work to have an impact beyond academia. I don’t know that I agree with him that there’s no planning for it (more about that another time). The desire for our work to matter is a class-bound one, to be sure, in ways that may not be obvious. Sanitation workers have possibly the most important jobs from a public health perspective (much more important than doctors); they can certainly take comfort in the impact their job is having on promoting the health of large populations of people. It’s harder for academics, who trade in ideas, to point to the impact of our work, but I think that the desire is an existential one.

In many ways, the classic Frank Capra film, “Its’ a Wonderful Life,” (1946) is a film about impact. As you may recall, Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, on the verge of suicide, is given the gift of seeing what the world would have been like without him in it. A guardian angel, Clarence, replays key events in his life and then runs the reel of what unfolded because he wasn’t there. “Your brother died, George, because you weren’t there to save him when he fell in the ice,” Clarence explains. As he sees more and more of this alternative reality without him in it, George Bailey begs, “I want to live again,” and his wish is granted.


(Image source)

The moral of the film, of course, is that we all have a much greater impact than we realize on the lives of others.  But it seems to be lesson that is lost on scholars and academics. Perhaps we are too practiced in the art of cynicism and critique to imagine that our research could have an impact.

The place where most academics I know are much clearer about their impact on the world is in the classroom. Academics will joke amongst ourselves about “shaping young minds,” but the joke reveals a truth we hold close: that what we do there matters. It can change lives. In many instances, we are academics because there was a scholar once, somewhere, who changed our lives, and then all we wanted to do was that… talk about ideas in ways that changed peoples’ lives. How do you measure a life? In cups of coffee, or in lectures given, in semesters taught.

Can We Work for Justice, Measure Impact, and Resist? 

There are many reasonable arguments on the side of those who want to “resist metrification,” as my colleague Joan Greenbaum puts it. Governmental, institutional attempts to link research output to business profits are, to my way of thinking, wrong-headed and doomed to fail. We should, and must, resist efforts to use any form of measurement to surveil and discipline faculty in the service of economic gain.

But, I don’t think that’s the moment we’re in right now in the US.  

I think that the moment we’re in is one in which academics are beginning to work in new, digitally augmented ways, and most institutions of higher education have no clue how to assess that work or evaluate the impact of a scholar who is up for tenure or promotion with a mostly digital portfolio.

I also think the moment we’re in is one of appalling economic inequality, and many, many academics I know want to join their work to the struggle to reduce that inequality.  Mostly, they don’t know how to go about doing that. And, if they do go about doing that, they wonder: how will this work “count” for me when it comes time for hiring, tenure or promotion? 

I think the moment we’re living in requires us to come up with innovative new ways to measure impact that take into account more kinds of work, including work for the public good. This is not as radical an idea as it sounds. I think we do this in some ways already. 

When I write a tenure letter for someone to get promoted, I’m crafting a story about their impact on the world as a scholar, a teacher, and a member of a community.  It’s very often the case that I will write about scholar up for tenure something like: “This scholar has made a profound impact on her/his community through their work engaging local residents about the topic of her/his research…” and then go on to detail the forms this impact has taken.  Quite simply, a tenure letter is a way of crafting a story about impact.

We’re left with many questions about scholarly impact in the digital era. Most pressing for me is this rather grand question: How do you measure an idea that takes hold and changes peoples’ lives, changes public policy, and changes the way knowledge is created and shared? 

I don’t think we know the answers to this question yet. We are still way before the beginning in understanding how to measure impact in ways that are meaningful.

Documentaries: Social Justice Storytelling

Documentary filmmakers are at the forefront of telling stories that help change the world. When the U.S. Congress held hearings on the sexual assault of women in the military, many people pointed to the documentary “Invisible War,” as a powerful mechanism that helped galvanize attention on this issue and support for the hearings. Indeed, one account speculated that this one film “might change everything” about sexual assault in the military.

Invisible War

Indeed, if you look at the website for this film, you’ll find that the filmmakers see the documentary as one component in a larger movement, working to “end sexual assault within the U.S. military and to help survivors of Military Sexual Assault heal.” Their strategy for doing this is to combine research with policy advocacy and good, old-fashioned movement building, augmented by a documentary film and social media campaign.

Military Sexual Assaults

(From Not Invisible: Policy)

This kind of innovative documentary, informed by research, and connected to a social media campaign and focusing on policy change is a 21st century model for how scholars, activists and media-makers can work together for social justice.

On Fridays in our series on scholarly communication, we’ll focus on documentaries as examples of art, activism, scholarship and key components of social justice campaigns in the digital era.

Launching New Series on Scholarly Communication

We’re launching a new series on Scholarly Communication in the Digital Era for the Public Good.  As we’ve done with the previous series, we’ll feature guests and highlight work here across traditional silos of academia, activism and journalism and media.

card catalog

(Image Source)

In the 20th century, scholars communicated within relatively small fields of other experts and did so primarily through monographs and peer-reviewed journal articles. Those works of scholarship were discoverable because they were indexed and sorted into card catalogs and bound reference manuals.

These analog forms of scholarly communication are now joined by new modes of digital expression that augment and occasionally supplant earlier forms.  In this final topic series, we will explore changes in the modes and emphases of scholarly communication, examining the shift from book- and journal-centric academic publishing to open access hybrids and alternatives, including film and video.

We’ll also explore the ways that social media can serve scholars to connect their work with wider audiences, including non-academic readers, activists, journalists and engaged citizens. What responsibilities do scholars have to shape and reflect public understandings? What can academics do to contribute fully to efforts to enhance the public good?

As part of our series here, we’ll recap the Friday in-person discussions we’re hosting of Cathy Davidson’s meta-MOOC on the future of (mostly) higher education (#FutureEd).  These changes in higher education and scholarly communication are intricately connected to the debates happening around, “open access,” and we’ll feature regular contributions from experts in this area. We’ll talk about the changing landscape of “impact” in scholarly communication, as well as the implications this has for the work we do as academics,  particularly for early career scholars. And, finally, we’ll feature regular interviews with some of today’s leading documentary filmmakers, discussing the many ways that their work traverses scholarship, activism, art, and journalism to create social change.

It’s going to be a great series, we hope you’ll follow along! And, of course, at the end of the series, we’ll bring it all together in one, handy easy-to-read and download format.

Interview: Digital Media Activist István Gábor Takács

In our on-going series “Punishment to Public Health,” I interviewed István Gábor Takács who is the Video Program Director with the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU).  Takács makes award-winning advocacy videos.


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The drug-policy focused videos he creates along with his colleague Péter Sárosi, head of the Drug Policy Program. Takács and Sárosi created a closing video of the International Drug Policy Reform Conference  (back in October, 2013) that was impressive. The video both reflected on the several days of the conference and rallied the assembled activists to leave the conference with a renewed commitment to transforming drug policy globally.  The video was so good created so quickly, and such a great example of digital video activism that I wanted to know more. I emailed questions to Takács and here are his replies.

Jessie Daniels: How did you get involved in working on drug policy?

István Gábor Takács:  While attending university in about 2001, I started working as an assistant at the HCLU, where I got to know a lot about harm reduction and drug policy. I then spent three months in Frankfurt working in a needle exchange program, called Cafe Fix, where I learned a lot about good social services and harm reduction. Later, in Budapest, I worked for four years at a needle exchange and worked at the drug policy program of the HCLU, where with Peter and Balázs Dénes, our boss at that time, we started experimenting with making videos. Then I got trained in Montreal, by Witness, in human rights video activism, and since then we have produced more than 500 videos at the HCLU, (not just in the field of drug policy), reaching around 3 million views online. We have also trained several activists in video production.

JD: Can you share a little bit about how digital video fits into your strategy for change?

IGT: Our video-making is always embedded in a wider advocacy environment. We always have a certain goal in mind, a change that we would like to happen. Video is a tool for achieving that change by educating and mobilising our audience. We are documenting what is happening with our movies, but documenting also serves a purpose. We record events, protests or conferences, where we try to chronicle, for example, the harm reduction and international drug policy reform movement, by highlighting the most important issues. We also document rights abuses by recording testimonies, which later can be used in court cases (which we also document for educational purposes).

Beyond documenting, we also try to educate the masses about important drug policy (and other human rights) issues through videos that try to be as short, interesting and understandable as possible. All our videos are freely available online, and they often appear on leading online news portals. By educating the masses, we hope to achieve attitude change, fighting stigma and discrimination and promoting public policies that help people instead of hurting them (for example decriminalisation of drug use and possession, and promotion of needle exchange or methadone treatment). With movies like the one on InSite, the only legal safer injection room in North America, or the one on Mexico’s Drug War and its consequences, we try to serve educational purposes. We know that our movies are used in universities worldwide.

We have also had feedback from decision-makers, that they use our movies as reference points to show where global drug policy is heading and what are the key challenges and good practices. We have also heard that our drug policy movies, published on our website Drugreporter, by thematising and showing good examples, and good ideas, help the drug policy movement define itself and clarify its messages. We also aim to reach out to the affected population and their relatives. Beyond documenting and educating, our main tool is mobilising. We try to get people engaged in acting for policy change. With viral videos like our Drug Lords Series, we try to get them involved in campaigns, like sending letters, signing a petition, spreading a message. We try to amplify the voice of the voiceless by working with activists who are drug users, Roma, sex workers,  or people living with disabilities or with HIV. We also use our movies to raise funds for particular programs, such as the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, the only needle  and syringe distribution program in Moscow. We use our movies in international campaigns like the Count the Costs of the Drug War campaign, as a support tool for research papers and policy papers, protests and other traditional, no less important advocacy tools.

JD: What sort of impact do you hope your videos have?

IGT: We try to improve people’s knowledge, and try to mobilise them to act for change. In our Romanian campaign for example we called on people to write to the ministers of Romania to ask them for financial support of harm reduction. In other campaigns, we ask for people to sign petitions, targeted at decision-makers. We believe that to a certain extent our movies contributed to the change in the strict drug related penal code in Poland, to the introduction of needle exchange in Stockholm, the opening of safer injection sites in Denmark, and the continued funding of harm reduction services in Russia by the Global Fund.

We were the first to produce video reports of the proceedings of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the annual UN gathering on drugs, with the aim of bringing more transparency to this level of decision-making. Making films like “Silenced NGO Partner,” that showed the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime avoiding the question, and shouting at a psychiatrist who asked how he explains the fact that in the Netherlands cannabis use is lower than in the surrounding countries, despite its legal availability, showed how decisions are made, and how really serious questions are avoided, at the UN level. This campaign resulted in several hundreds of letters being sent to Mr. Costa, head of the UNODC, which caused him to visit a coffee shop and a safer injection site in the Netherlands – something he’d never done before. (He still never answered the question though).

In non drug-related issues, our movies have also had a direct impact: We were able to stop a village from blocking deinstitutionalisation of a mass institution for people living with disabilities. We were able to stop the racist marches and the occupation of the Roma-populated parts of a village by radical right wing paramilitary in Gyöngyöspata, by documenting rights abuses and showing them to the masses. We documented the beating of Roma by the police, and this footage was used in a successful case at the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights. We were able to stop the wasting of taxpayer money, by using videos and the Freedom of Information Act to highlight corruption cases.

JD: Are there any ‘lessons learned’ on bringing together academics, activists and journalists in ways that promote social justice, civic engagement, and greater democracy that you could share? 

IGT: Our videos make use of academic knowledge, and try to translate that into short, easily understandable messages. By using personal stories, we bring the issues which are sometimes abstract, closer to the viewer. Traditional advocacy tools like protests, reports, scientific research can be complemented with videos to make them more successful. The voice of activists and academics is amplified by these videos. Journalists use our videos as background material or illustrations to their own work. Overall, in the age of internet videos and low-cost video production, self-made video production can be very successfully integrated into the work of activists, academics and journalists.

Journalism as Activism for Families Separated by Incarceration

After years writing technology articles for The New York Times and the Internet-only upstart, I felt constrained as a journalist. I yearned to rekindle the inspiration that drew me to the field: covering marginalized communities and exploring new ways to report and share their stories.

Then in 2007, I met Alison Coleman, a woman who had struggled to support her two children while her husband served a 25-years to life sentence in a New York state prison for petty theft under the harsh Rockefeller-era drug laws. She told me that for years she had had nowhere to turn for social or emotional help. Her parents only said, “We told you so” for marrying a black man. She kept to herself at church fearing her congregation would reject her family.

While statistics and political attitudes about incarceration rates in America are closely tracked, the human stories of prisoner families—like Ms. Coleman’s—are virtually unknown to mainstream Americans because this exploding yet unaccounted population is viewed with suspicion and rejected as guilty by association.

I decided to launch a media project to create a geographic and digital community for prisoner families even as social stigma and iron bars conspired to keep them fragmented and fearful.

I came at this as a journalist with a perspective–to show Americans the social cost of imprisonment beyond the political or “get tough on crime” perspective.

I explored and shaped the contours of crowdsourcing (having the community you cover help you cover themselves) and collaboration. Before it became standard practice, I trained people to produce video and audio columns about their experiences. One 22-year-old woman shot a powerful video about spending her first Mother’s Day with her mother outside of prison. As she prepares a special dinner, the mother-daughter banter slowly turns into a tense exchange about the daughter’s feelings of abandonment. The video captures a moment in the fragility of their relationship.

Another novel concept I used was to post a Skype phone number and asked people to leave voicemail with their questions and experiences. I posted these on the site as audio clips. We hear one woman, for example, describe her struggle to care for a loved one as he undergoes cancer treatment in prison. Years later, newsrooms began to use the same technique to engage their audiences.

In all I’ve published nearly 150 multimedia pieces, which when viewed as a whole reveal the financial, social and emotional toll on prisoner families like no other news coverage has.

I’ve produced live Web radio shows–with a community member as co-host–on topics as diverse as finding a job after incarceration and coping with separation during the holiday season when a family member is imprisoned. I’ve posted finely edited videos, each delving into a discrete corner of people’s experiences. In one video, for example, a 14-year-old boy describes the difficulty of having a “perfect moment” with his father when a guard is always standing a few feet away, and his need for a strong father-son bond.

The project’s most pivotal success, however, relied on a fundamental aspect of reporting: persuading sources who feared stigma and worse to speak publicly about their situation. “Our words have been distorted so many times to fit sensational or superficial pieces on TV and in newspapers,” Coleman, wrote about Family Life Behind Bars. “But we came to trust you because you let us share our voices with each other and the world.”

As the project gained momentum, its work resonated with the community. Coleman, who founded Prison Families of New York, a networking group in upstate New York, said the site brings “together a mosaic of voices that let us learn from each other’s challenges and small emotional victories.

~ This post was written by guest blogger Sandeep Junnarkar, Associate Professor, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @sandeep_NYC.

Women in Prison: Twice as Likely to Have History of Abuse

The rate of women who are incarcerated, whether in prison or jail, is increasing. According to the ACLU, more than 200,000 women are currently in jail or prison, and another 1 million are under the control of the probation and parole system.

women in prison(Image source)

While many of the demographics for women in prison parallel those of men – that is, they are disproportionately black and poor – a closer look reveals another story.  Women bring a gendered life experience with them to incarceration.  And, being gendered ‘woman’ in this society often means a series of difficult life circumstances and hardships, like physical or sexual abuse in childhood or as an adult.  Incarceration places the additional burdens of isolation, humiliation, and systemic marginalization to these gendered life experiences.

It is precisely because of their gendered life experiences prior to incarceration that women need gender-based interventions in order to re-enter their communities and rejoin their families.

National Profile of Women Offenders
A profile based on national data ( “Gender-Responsive Strategies”) for women offenders reveals the following characteristics:

  • Disproportionately women of color.
  • In their early to mid-30s.
  • Most likely to have been convicted of a drug-related offense.
  • From fragmented families that include other family members who also have been involved with the criminal justice system.
  • Survivors of physical and/or sexual abuse as children and adults.
  • Individuals with significant substance abuse problems.
  • Individuals with multiple physical and mental health problems.
  • Unmarried mothers of minor children.
  • Individuals with a high school or general equivalency diploma (GED) but limited vocational training and sporadic work histories.

One in three
One can hardly talk (intelligently) about women in prison without talking about childhood trauma and physical and sexual abuse.

Earlier this year, the Correctional Association of New York – a 170-year-old advocacy organization that leads efforts to protect and advance the rights of incarcerated women and their families – published the following facts about women and the criminal justice system:

  • At least one in three girls in the United States is sexually abused by the time they reach the age of 18.
  • Women in prison are twice as likely as women in the general public to report childhood histories of physical or sexual abuse.
  • Nationally, more than 37% of women in state prisons have been raped before incarceration.
  • 90% of women incarcerated at Bedford Hills reported suffering physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes.
  • 82% of women at Bedford Hills reported having a childhood history of severe physical and/or sexual abuse.

Yet another casualty of the war on drugs, most women are behind bars because of non-violent drug-related offenses. Much of their substance abuse is generally understood as “self-medication”, a device to help them cope with the aftershocks of traumatic childhood experiences – such as, in many cases, parental incarceration. In addition, the flood of crack cocaine that hit urban areas in the 1980s increased women’s experience of another kind of sexual trauma, street-level prostitution – a mainstay survival strategy for women addicts along with low-level drug dealing and petty property crimes.

free marissa signs(Image source)

The recent case of Marissa Alexander, sentenced to 20 years in a Florida prison for firing warning shots into the ceiling in an attempt to fend off her abusive husband, brought the national spotlight to the fate of many women who dare defend themselves and their children from their abusers.  Marissa’s appeal was successful and she has been granted a new trial – although she has been incarcerated since 2010. The Correctional Association has been spearheading the campaign to pass the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, which would change New York State laws that require long, harsh sentences for survivors who protect themselves from an abuser’s violence.

Impact of Incarceration on Children, Families
Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent declaration that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason” has drawn public attention to the issue of mass incarceration.  One area that still needs even greater attention is the impact that incarceration has on children and families.

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 1.14.53 PMClick image to enlarge.

(Sources: Christopher Wildeman, “Parental Imprisonment, the Prison Boom, and the Concentration of Childhood Disadvantage,” Demography, May, 2009;  and The New York Times, July 4, 2009)

Over 2.3 million children in the United States currently have a parent who is incarcerated in the jail or prison system and over 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration in their lifetime.  The social and health risks and outcomes that parental incarceration has on children include increased stress, family disruption, feelings of abandonment, traumatic separation, loneliness, stigma, unstable childcare arrangements, strained parenting, reduced care giving abilities upon reunification, and home, school, and neighborhood moves.

Visitation with children in prison is not an option for most mothers in prison for the duration of their time behind bars and, on average, the children of incarcerated mothers will live with at least two different caregivers during the period of their incarceration.  More than half will experience separation from their siblings.

Upon release from incarceration, reuniting with the incarcerated parent with his or her children is often desirable; however, the actual impact of the reunification process on children and families merits further investigation.  Reunions often causes stress to both parent and children because for better or for worse it constitutes a disruption of the status quo, and as such demands that both adults and children adapt to new household dynamics, especially if children had previously been placed in foster care. Bonds broken by incarceration are not easily mended, and children may experience difficulty in forming meaningful attachments for the rest of their lives.

Generally lacking adequate job skills, most women have trouble supporting a family upon their release from prison, and the communities to which they return are unprepared to receive them. And after serving their time, a woman’s criminal record may bar them, through law or practice, from accessing vital resources, such as employment; public housing; welfare benefits; food stamps; financial assistance for education. These post-conviction penalties constitute an ongoing and self-perpetuating additional layer of punishment that endures far beyond their prison sentence.

Designing programs for impact
According to the Women’s Prison Association, programs aimed at supporting women returning from prison must take account of the family responsibilities women bear.  Programs should be designed with the understanding that women and their families are often burdened with conflicting and inflexible requirements of multiple agencies.  Criminal justice, welfare and child welfare agencies may set competing or conflicting goals and conditions for women, while limiting or denying access to essential services needed to stabilize and maintain the family unit.

Family reunion(Image credit: Michael Kirby for The New York Times)

Family-focused Alternative to Incarceration (ATI) programs such as Drew House in Brooklyn, NY, have been successful at providing selected women charged with felonies and their children with the tools and the chance to strengthen these families without compromising public safety. However, the need to collect and coherently use women-centered data when addressing incarcerated women remains crucial for the relevance and success of any intervention.

~This post was co-authored by Alice Cini and Stephanie Hubbard.  Alice Cini is a social justice advocate and Social Work Fellow at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s From Punishment to Public Health Initiative. You can follow her on Twitter @CinikAl. Stephanie Hubbard is a public health professional and advocate for youth and humans rights at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.


This post is part of the Monthly Social Justice Topic Series on From Punishment To Public Health (P2PH). If you have any questions, research that you would like to share related to P2PH or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Morgane Richardson at with the subject line, “P2PH Series.”

Interview: Academic-Activist Partnerships for Social Change

Stop-and-frisk as a policing strategy is driven in large measure by marijuana arrests in New York City.  In New York, much of drug policy reform efforts has been around transforming policy around marijuana arrests.

At the moment,  International Drug Policy Reform Conference is coming to a close in Denver, Colorado.  The conference brings together academics and activists working to reform drug policy across the globe.  While at the conference, I had a chance to interview two people who personify academic-activist partnerships around the connection between stop-and-frisk and marijuana arrests.

LevineProfessor Harry Levine (CUNY-Queens and the Graduate Center, Sociology) is the leading expert on the racial disparities in marijuana arrests.  He holds Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, and his B.A. from Brandeis University. His work has received seven distinguished scholarship awards for historical and sociological research about addiction, alcohol prohibition and regulation, international drug policy, crack cocaine, the war on drugs, and racial bias in marijuana possession arrests.  In 2013 he was awarded a Senior Scholar Distinguished Achievement Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems.

gabriel sayegh is State Director, New York, Drug Policy Alliance, which he joined in 2003. sayegh and his team work in New York City and across the state, partnering with sayeghcommunity organizing groups, human service agencies, and researchers to advance drug policies that are guided by science, compassion, health, racial justice and human rights. Recent successes include reform of New York’s draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws and the passage of historic legislation to prevent accidental overdose fatalities.


Jessie Daniels: Can you share a little bit about how you two came to be involved in the issue of marijuana arrests and how it is related to “stop-and-frisk” in New York City?

Harry Levine: I’ve been researching and writing about (and against) the drug war since the mid 1980s, always trying to find ways of affecting national debate and news. In 2005 I began researching the huge numbers of marijuana possession arrests and their racial bias in New York City. In 2008 the civil rights attorney Deborah Small and I released a 100 page report through the NYCLU — called “Marijuana Arrest Crusade: Racial Bias and Police Policy in New York City.” It was based on two years of partly-funded research including attending national black police conferences and obtaining marijuana arrest data from New York State and the FBI. That report made a brief splash but no follow up. A year later I received a bit more funding so I could teach part time and work on this project and began my terrific partnership with Loren Siegel, formerly director of public education for the ACLU. Gabriel came to us immediately, encouraged, seduced, and tricked us into writing an “update” about marijuana arrests. Jim Dwyer of the New York Times eventually turned a bit of it into a fabulous column headlined “Whites Smoke Pot, but Blacks Are Arrested.”  And THAT made a splash.  Gabriel then encouraged and seduced Loren and me again and again to dig up more data and write about it, and he created brilliant press releases, wrote articles themselves, and and Tony Newman pitched the pieces to get them in the hands of newspaper reporters, wire service reporters, the NY City Council, members of the NY State Legislature, and even the national press.  I’d known Ethan Nadelmann for 20 years and Tony and Gabriel from when they were puppies, but we never worked together like this before. It was and remains a joy to do so and they’ve accomplished soooo much.

By the way, and as Gabriel is likely to say, the marijuana possession arrests in New York and nationally are a by-product or “fruit” of  police stops and searches (often illegal searches). And the vast majority (77%) of those arrested for marijuana are young people in their teens and twenties.  Although young whites use marijuana  more than young blacks and Latinos, throughout the U.S. blacks and Latinos are arrested at many times the rates of whites because they are stopped and searched much more often than young, whites, especially the many middle-class and wealthier whites.

gabriel sayegh:  The only thing I would add to in Harry’s response is that while my office wrote all our press releases they were based on Tony ’s winning formula. Tony Newman, the Director of Media at DPA, then helps to finalize the headlines and most importantly – he works his magic to pitch the stories.

In the mid 2000’s, a guy named Bruce Johnson at NDRI had published a series of academic papers about the marijuana arrests in New York City. Between that and the FBI data about the arrests in NY, we were generally aware of the problem. But it wasn’t until Harry and Deborah published their major report in 2008 that the scope of the problem became clear – it was, as Harry likes to say, a scandal. At that time, we were still working on reforming the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, and we started doing some field preparation for a campaign on the marijuana arrest crusade. It quickly became clear that we simply didn’t have the capacity at that moment to build and launch the type of effort we believed necessary to tackle the issue. After the Rockefeller reforms were passed in 2009, we were able to focus on building a new campaign.

Jessie Daniels: What changes do you foresee with District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin’s recent ruling on this controversial policing practice?

Harry Levine:  I think one of the most important things that Judge Scheindlin has done is to provide language for explaining why the extreme racial disparities in stop and frisks (and by extension the marijuana arrests) are bad — meaning morally, ethically, legally bad, wrong, unconscionable and unconstitutional.  In a piece coming out soon in The Nation magazine I say the following about the racist marijuana arrests throughout  America and quote Judge Scheindlin:

Marijuana possession arrests are skewed by class, race and ethnicity because police departments systematically “go fishing” only in certain neighborhoods and methodically search only some “fish.” The result has been called “racism without racists.” No individual officers need harbor racial animosity for the criminal justice system to produce jails and courts filled with black and brown faces. However, acknowledging this absence of hostile intent does not absolve policy makers and law enforcement officials from responsibility or blame. As federal Judge Shira Scheindlin recently determined in two prominent stop-and-frisk cases, New York City’s top officials “adopted an attitude of willful blindness toward statistical evidence of racial disparities in stops and stop outcome.” Judge Scheindlin found that high-level officials “turn a blind eye” and show “willful disregard” to the discriminatory effects of their policing policies. She cited the legal doctrine of “deliberate indifference” to describe police and city officials who “willfully ignored overwhelming proof that the [stop-and-frisk] policy…is racially discriminatory and therefore violates the United States Constitution.”

gabriel sayegh: A few years ago, there was a lot of confusion in New York City – among the press, among many advocates, and in many communities — about what the law pertaining to stop and frisk practices. We asked Ira Glasser, president of the DPA board and former head of the ACLU, to give our staff a private presentation on the issue. He taught us about the detailed and incredible legal history of stop and frisk and its connection to marijuana arrests in New York City. The presentation was so instructive and illuminating that we asked him to write it up. We published his analysis and distributed it widely, and document helped us and so many others understand exactly how these issues were connected and why the police stop and frisk practices were illegal.

Judge Scheindlin’s  ruling in the Floyd case is huge. If implemented, the oversight and community dialogues required under the ruling could prove transformative. We’re already seeing the number of stops in the city go down, and, along with it, the number of marijuana arrests are also going down.

Jessie Daniels: Some academics might be hesitant to get involved in such a controversial political issue.  What do you say to critics who might question your ‘objectivity’ as a scholar?

Harry Levine: Most university professors and administrators understand that being objective, or factual, or accurate is not at all the same as having no point of view.  And fortunately my colleagues at Queens College and City University of New York strongly support what I’ve done. And lots of academics do advocacy around criminal justice reform and the drug war —  especially in law, medicine, public health, social welfare, criminology, but also sociology, anthropology, history, psychology, economics. even education. And more would like to. One obstacle is that advocacy work requires a different set of skills, knowledge and connections than conventional academic work. And almost no academics have people like Loren, Gabriel and Tony to teach them and work with them. (And perhaps most important, there is no funding to make it happen, but that’s another topic.)  I think that as the movements for marijuana legalization, drug law reform, and police and criminal justice reform grow, that more academics will find ways to contribute. It is already happening in New York City and in many other places. I think of it as the huge task of building the institutions and policies for a post drug war America. 

Jessie Daniels:  It’s fairly unusual for people involved in policy or activism to reach out to academic researchers.  Do you have any advice for people who, like you, are working on a social justice issue and want to connect with researchers and maybe don’t know how to do that?

gabriel sayegh:  Back in the late 90s, I was doing a lot of activism for just and fair international trade policies, especially in those so-called free trade agreements. I learned pretty quickly that generally speaking, the public wasn’t really enthusiastic to hear about the complicated policy nuances of an international trade deal – it can be really boring stuff, inaccessible to regular folks. But those agreements often dramatically impact our economies and can undermine democracies here and abroad, so we had to find effective ways to understand and communicate about them in the public sphere. Activist researchers and academics helped us decipher some of the economic language in these deals at the time, boiling it down to a few main points. And because of their status as Ph.D.s and such, they could help legitimize our positions in the public discourse. If you’re a rag-tag activist as we were then, the press and public generally didn’t  pay attention when we declared that “These kind of trade deals are unfair, unjust.” But when Dr. So and So, who is Professor at some University comes out and says, “This particular thing is unfair,” well, then, it means something different.

I was fortunate to get more serious lessons in working with academics and researchers from two people: Judy Greene and Lorenzo Jones. They showed me how a new report, issued the right way and with the right kind of media plan, can not only earn a lot of press, but also shape the narrative around the issue – sometimes dramatically.  Judy is one of the foremost criminal justice researchers in the country. She started a group called Justice Strategies specifically to deploy action-oriented research – good research —  in campaigns to change policy and practices in criminal justice and drug policy. Lorenzo is a longtime organizer, advocate and strategist – and a mentor to many folks in the drug policy and criminal justice fields. He’s also one of the most successful policy reformers in any field anywhere in the country – he now directs a group called A Better Way Foundation, based in Connecticut. Lorenzo and his team would take reports issued Judy or academics at one of the local universities and then build an intervention and campaign plan around that report. When I first started working with him, back in 2004, he was engaged in a major campaign to reform Connecticut’s sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine. They won that campaign – the first to do so anywhere in the country. They used reports and research to reinforce and strengthen their organizing work and utterly  transformed the dialogue and politics around the issue. They deployed academics as experts, creating public contradictions between the experts and the idiotic nonsense of some opponents. The academics and researchers understood their positions in the university or their degrees conferred them a particular kind of social capital, and they were playing a role – as themselves, as academics, as experts operating as part of a broader campaign.  Judy and Lorenzo showed me what could be done with a partnership between researchers and advocates.

I’ve learned that many academics want their research and intellectual work used beyond the academy. I don’t know if there’s a special trick for organizers to connect with these researchers, but they’re not that hard to find if you look for them. Many of these folks go to advocacy conferences or write articles for the general public. The one suggestion I offer is this:  remember that little things can have a big impact. You don’t need a 100 page report to get press. You just need a few pages on a topic, cut in a new way, so reporters can write about it. Literally, a few pages authored by an academic can be called a report and you can build a whole release plan around it. Academics often fret about this, maybe because they don’t work in a world where a two or four-page document is sufficient. But if you can get them to do it, you can leverage their position as an expert to advance your cause. I admit it’s not always easy working with academics – Harry and I have gotten into our fair share of arguments – but it’s certainly worth it.  We’ve done this over and over again in New York with Harry and Loren’s research. Our campaign has transformed the overall narrative about marijuana arrests in New York– those research, deployed effectively, actually shapes how people perceive and think about the issue.  That’s huge.

Jessie Daniels: Another focus for us at JustPublics@365 is re-thinking how we measure ‘scholarly impact,’ and in the digital era there’s talk of ‘altmetrics’ or alternative metrics. That just means counting things like downloads instead of, or alongside of, the traditional measures of citations in peer-reviewed journals.  How do you measure success when you’re working to change drug policy?

Harry Levine: When I first got involved in doing this public advocacy work I was told that the gold standard of impact was getting cited in an editorial in the New York Times.  In 2008 we got cited in a Times editorial and in lots of news coverage — but we could not get even a little funding which is a much bigger problem than any problems within academia.

“Metrics” might matter if foundations were funding this kind of work. But they’re not. Academics have full time jobs, like plumbers and cardiologists.  This kind of advocacy (which is not academic work) takes time away from teaching and academic projects; and it takes money to pay for research help, data analysis, and for writing, formatting and editing public reports (which are not the same at all as academic publications). Foundations like Ford are willing to fund, say, re-entry from prison programs. But almost no large foundations offer support for work like we’ve done — collecting data to expose routine police, prosecutor and court practices and then writing public reports publicizing what we’ve found. And the bit of available subsistence funding is targeted at service and community-based groups and not academics.

Until recently many liberals (including at foundations) have been allergic to research and advocacy that confronts the moral, economic and social catastrophe called “The War on Drugs.” This is, after all, a huge government program strongly supported by enormous organizations of police, prosecutors, and many elected officials. We reformers will succeed, but It will take a lot to bring the drug war down. The lack of funding for basic expenses in doing this work (research, travel, data analysis, time) is probably a bigger obstacle than anything; I think the leadership of all criminal justice and drug policy reform groups would say that.

gabriel sayegh: There’s a group out of USC – USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) —  that issued a report a few years ago about metrics. They separated transactional metrics – like getting your bill passed – from transformational metrics, such as deepening the understanding of an issue among your members. We’ve gotten literally hundreds of media hits on the marijuana arrest campaign – that’s a transactional metric, we can count those media hits. But we’ve also changed the way this issue is reported on in the media – when we first started the campaign, the media, if we got any, would be dismissive: “Oh, the hippies don’t want to get arrested any more for weed.” But now, the issue is taken very seriously overall, by the NY Times, by the state legislature, by the Governor – they all acknowledge that this is a problem of racial bias, police lawlessness, fiscal waste.  That’s a transformational change. The PERE report is among my favorite tools for movements to think about metrics because it’s fairly accessible and applicable to social change work. We use PERE’s metrics outline to inform our objectives and to evaluate our progress and determine success in the marijuana arrest campaign and our other campaigns. It’s a work in progress – we’re always learning how to do it better – and I’ve found it enormously valuable.  I was recently talking with a foundation director who said she liked the PERE framework of transactional and transformational metrics, but many of her staff thought the transactional metric were too, I don’t remember exactly how she said it, something like wishy washy. But if we only pursued transactional metrics, we may end up just changing a policy —  a transactional change –  without developing an understanding of the systemic problems that often give rise to bad policies  —  a transformational change. I think both are essential, together.

There’s a dynamic relationship between them, and if we only pursue either transactional or transformational goals, then we’re probably not going to be all that effective overall, since the big-picture objective, at least for us, is social change.

Shaping the Narrative through Arts and Technology: Youth Activism in Stop-and-Frisk

Youth activism in stop-and-frisk is often overlooked in mass media.  Much of the news regarding stop-and-frisk is centered on the class-action lawsuits filed by Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), a collective made up of several organizations, including  Center for Constitutional Rights, Make the Road-NY, New York Civil Liberties Union, Picture the Homeless and Bronx Defenders.

With the focus on these high-profile efforts to end stop-and-frisk, the individual and collective efforts led by youth are often overlooked.  These efforts at the local community level often include an array of micro-mobilizations such as “know-your-rights” campaigns, “cop-watch” projects, community meetings and video storytelling, as well as door-to-door advocacy, that are much less documented than the court cases which garner lots of press attention.  Considered together these community-based efforts demonstrate the ability of youth to advocate for neighborhood change.  

It’s been well documented that the communities most affected by the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policing strategy are also characterized by low civic engagement and pessimism regarding the likelihood of neighborhood improvement (Rengifo & Slocum, 2011 in, “Police stops and community responses in the context of the New York crime decline“). The reality of youth mobilizations counter these prevailing ideas about these communities and demonstrate that the creativity and intelligence young people bring to these issues should not be overlooked. Particularly, as academics will be getting together to discuss deeper reforms (see the new Academic Advisory Council that will help implement stop-and-frisk reforms.)

Here’s just a short list of examples of some of these youth-driven and community-based responses to stop-and-frisk:

  • NLG-NYC Street Law Team, is made up of a group of law students from various New York City law schools.  These students meet with community groups throughout NYC and conduct free Know Your Rights: What to Do if You’re Stopped by the Police workshops.
  • NYC High School Youth from the Peapod Adobe Youth Voices Academy at Urban Arts produced, directed, and scored the documentary, Unreasonable Suspicion, which explores the causes and effects of stop-and-frisk.
  • 16-year-old NYC Black and Latino male, Cory Smith, created this photomontage which won first price at a Resilience Advocacy Project’s (RAP) “Youth Experiences of Stop-and-Frisk Told Through Art” contest.  The photomontange features a young man at the edge of the frame: he is seated facing its bottom left corner, shoulders hunched forward, hands folded in his lap.
stop and frisk nyc youth

Photo Credit: Cory Smith

These examples highlight two powerful lessons for the Academic Advisory Council and for academics looking to further study stop-and-frisk:

(1) The arts and technology are powerful mediums for not only engaging youth, but changing narratives and helping often-marginalized voices be heard.   These two combined can help overcome some of the pessimism and low civic engagement that often affect youth in low-income neighborhoods.

(2) The youth voice should be integrated into the discussion of police reforms and community healing.  New research should consider innovative strategies to capture the traction of these youth-led movements and to help amplify their voice and impact.

If you are feeling inspired by these youth efforts, here are a few things you can do to participate in stop-and-frisk discussions and events:

  • Have a Smartphone? Encourage everyone you know to download the Stop-and-Frisk app and report any instances of stop-and-frisk that you see in the community.
  • Are you on Twitter? Join the conversation and learn about local advocacy efforts by following these hashtags: #stopandfrisk, #Floyd, #communitysafetyact.
  • Work with youth? Contact NLG-NYC Street Law Tea at to set up a free “know your rights” workshop for your group. 
  • Feeling social?  Attend a local stop-and-frisk event and meet and collaborate with other activists.  This website features upcoming events: ChangetheNYPD.

For another discussion on youth involvement in stop-and-frisk, check out Morgane Richardson’s post on Envisioning A Better Future: Youth Action Against Stop-and-Frisk.  And for academics interested in getting involved in stop-and-frisk policy making, make sure to read, Julie Netherland’s post: Tips for Academics Who Want to Engage Policymakers.

Tips for Academics Who Want to Engage Policymakers

Many academics want their research to have broader impact.  In fact, according to a recent study, an estimated 92% of social science scholars said they wanted to connect more with policymakers.  With the ever-increasing clamor for “evidence-based policy,” policymakers –  elected and appointed officials at the local, state and national level – really do want to hear from academics.  Here, I offer some ways academics can get involved, tips for effectively engaging policymakers, and some frequent challenges.

As someone who was trained as an academic researcher and has worked in policy for a number of years now, I’ve come to realize that academics have an important role to play in transforming policy.  Most recently, I’ve been working on the front lines of efforts to end the war on drugs and reduce mass incarceration.  In my view, academics not only have important knowledge that can shape policy, their voices often have enormous weight and credibility by virtue of the training and credentials they carry.

Simply put, academics have an easier time accessing policymakers and are more likely to be taken seriously than does the average citizen without an advanced degree. There’s a privilege and a power to holding a PhD or an MD that can and should be used to promote social justice.

Despite a long tradition of notable scholar activists, many academics are either reluctant to get involved in policy advocacy or simply aren’t sure exactly how to go about it.

Here’s the good news: for most issues, you should be able to find a policy, advocacy, or grassroots community organization that is willing to work with you to be your most effective.  There are lots of nuances to policy advocacy; in return for your help, most organizations will gladly walk you through those.


NYS Capitol Building(New York State Capitol – Image source.
One place to find policymakers)

How Can Academics help?

Quick policy activities. These are some ways to engage for those who are just dipping a toe into the waters of policy-making or only have a few minutes, including:

  • Signing up for and responding to email action alerts (yes, these really can have an impact);
  • Writing letters and making phone calls;
  • Attend conferences, receptions where academics and policymakers mingle.  My organization, Drug Policy Alliance, is teaming up with JustPublics@365 and the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy to host one of a reception that’ll do just that.  Stop by the Sheraton Downtown Thursday night (6:15pmMT, Plaza Court 3), if you’re in Denver. We’d love to see you there!

DPA JustPublics ICSDP Reception

If you have a little more time and energy, you might try engaging with media, both traditional and digital to get your research out to policy makers.

Get your work in legacy (broadcast) media outlets, such as:

  • Letters to the Editor (LTEs)
  • Op-Eds
  • Be a guest on a television news show

Broaden the reach of your own work by learning to use the tools of digital media, such as:

  • Blogging
  • Twitter
  • Storify

If you’re an academic that’s fresh out of skills in either legacy or digital media, then you might consider taking some of these Mediacamp Workshops.  They’re all completely free and designed especially for academics who want to reach a broader audience with their work.

Other ways to get involved include:

  • Create fact sheets, policy briefs or other highly accessible materials that summarize research about the issue;
  • Tell a compelling story to help personalize an issue and highlight the human costs (I’m talking to you, qualitative researchers and humanities scholars);
  • Organize your academic colleagues – at your institution, or in your professional association – for sign-on campaigns and other forms of advocacy;
  • Convince your professional association to sign on to a policy proposal;
  • Lobby at your state capitol or city council or meet with legislators in their district offices;
  • Flesh out the policy implications of your research (or, the research you’ve reviewed in your area of expertise) to influence policy proposals.

To get you started, here are a few “tips of the trade” that can you help you avoid some of the most common mistakes. My work lately has been mostly at the state level working in Albany, but these guidelines are useful whether you’re trying to reach city, county, state or national lawmakers.

Tips for Being More Effective

TIP #1: Identify an organization working on the issue you care about and find the most effective one.

On any given issue, there will be a few organizations that are working on the issue.  Your first step should be to familiarize yourself with the landscape of organizations and identify the one you think has been most effective.

TIP #2: Be sure to refer to your credentials when contacting policymakers – they matter.

When you reach out to elected officials, make sure that you mention your degrees and institutional affiliations. These sorts of credentials matter when you’re talking to policy makers.  Without your credentials, you’re just another person with an opinion.  And if you happen to be a constituent of the policymaker, be sure to mention that too.

TIP #3: Messaging really, really matters.

Most advocacy organizations have worked long and hard to develop effective messaging on their issues.  It’s worth your time to speak to folks who have given this a lot of thought. Some organizations will even help you craft and/or place your op-ed or Letter to the Editor in major news outlets.

TIP #4: Work closely with an organization that understands the political scene to help craft a realistic policy proposal.

After you’ve become more deeply involved on an issue, you may have an idea for a new policy that would address a seemingly intractable problem.  Crafting a policy and seeing it through the legislative process is definitely a long-term project, but it can be worth it to see lasting change.  Before you spend a lot of time on your own crafting what is no doubt a brilliant new policy, it’s a good idea to work closely with an organization that has a clear understanding of the current political scene and what kinds of proposals might just make it through and which ones are dead-on-arrival.

  • Scholar Strategy Network (SSN) – If you want your research to influence policy, but don’t know how to make those connections, you might consider applying to become part of the Scholar Strategy Network (SSN), which brings together leading scholars to address pressing public challenges at all levels. Scholars in the network prepare short, vividly written briefs highlighting their research findings and offering policy options about a wide range of issues. SSN scholars engage in consultations with policymakers in Washington DC and state capitals, and also work closely with advocates and leaders of citizen associations.

TIP #5: Ask what research needs to be done and do it. 

Typically, academic researchers have their scholarship done before they contact a policy organization, but it can also work the other way around. Sometimes, scholars will ask what kind of research needs to be done to address policy needs, and then set about to do that kind of research.  CUNY Professor Harry Levine had been doing important research on marijuana arrests. He got involved with the Drug Policy Alliance and then worked with them to produce a number of highly influential reports highlighting the racial disparities and fiscal waste of marijuana arrests.  Levine’s report on the fiscal waste of such arrests is here, and was picked up by Alternet;  Jim Dwyer of The New York Times then featured some of Levine’s research in an Op-Ed, “Whites Smoke Pot, but Blacks are Arrested.” (There’ll be more about Harry Levine’s work in a post to follow in this series.)

  • The Tobin Project – If you want to do research that fills a gap in policy-making, you might contact The Tobin Project, which emphasizes “transformative research in the social sciences” and facilitates policy-scholar connections.  The Tobin Project starts by identifying the gaps in research that might influence policy, and then finding scholars who want to engage policy by conducting original research that makes a contribution in this way. They recently received a MacArthur Award for Creative & Effective Organizations, so it looks like they might be on to something.

Challenges for Academics Who Want to Influence Policy

Part of the reason I encourage academics to work with experienced policy organizations is because academia isn’t generally set up to train scholars to be effective policy advocates. In fact, many features of academia actually may make pose challenges for those who want to influence policy, such as:

  • Different metrics of success.  Even though changing a policy can impact thousands and thousands of lives, the kinds of activities above are rarely acknowledged or rewarded within academia. Books and/or peer-reviewed journal articles are likely the currency of your institution, but unfortunately, it’s the rare policymaker that looks to those sources to develop policy.
  • Different language. Most academics are concerned with precision and nuance, while most policymakers are looking for bullet points and sound bites.
  • Different forms of power and influence.  Just like the politics of academic institutions, each legislative body has its own set of (usually unwritten) rules about how power really works and who is really running show.  A good policy advocacy organization can help you uncover how policy is really made in your jurisdiction.
  • Different skills sets. Academics have lots of great skills that make them naturals at influencing policy, but some people may not know the first thing about how to conduct a lobby visit or neutralize an opponent’s argument.  Again, this can be taught.

The great news is that – for the most part – these are challenges that are easily overcome. More and more, I’m hearing from academics at all stages of their career that they wish their research could have more of a real-world impact.

It can.

I’ve worked with a number of extraordinarily talented scholar-activists who have re-shaped and profoundly influenced policy and in doing so, they have positively impacted the lives of thousands of people.  With a little investment of your time and talents and working with the right policy organization to gain the information and skills you need, so can you.


~ Guest blogger Julie Netherland, PhD (Sociology, CUNY, 2011), is Deputy Directory of the New York State Policy Office within the Drug Policy Alliance.  She works closely with Compassionate Care New York, a group of patients, providers and organizations working together to pass a bill that would relieve the suffering of thousands of seriously ill New Yorkers by establishing a carefully regulated medical marijuana program in New York. You can follow her on Twitter @jnetherland.


“I’ve Been Stopped a Thousand Times”: Measuring Effects of Stop and Frisk

“I’ve been stopped a thousand times” – Black male survey respondent during the research conducted for Coming of Age with Stop and Frisk.

How do you measure the effects of stop-and-frisk on NYC youth, such as the survey respondent above, who report having being stopped more often than they could count or remember?

This was a pivotal challenge faced by researchers, Jennifer Fratello (Research Director, Vera Center on Youth Justice) and Andrés Rengifo (Associate Professor, Rutgers University) for their report Coming of Age with Stop and Frisk: Experiences, Self-Perceptions, and Public Safety Implications which attempts to capture the effects of stop-and-frisk.  During a recent event organized by The Center on Race, Crime and Justice at John Jay College-CUNY on October 17th, Fratello and Rengifo discussed their research.

stop-and-frisk nyc academic advisory council

Now that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practice was rejected by U.S. District Judge Scheindlin, the debate has shifted from discussions regarding its effectiveness in reducing crime to the effect it has on the lives of those stopped (in many cases more than once). As activists seek deeper reforms in policing, public scholarship is once again called upon to inform this debate.

While conducting research, Fratello and Rengifo quickly found out that in order to capture the broader effects of stop-and-frisk, they would have to learn to ask better questions and work with key government and community groups. The latter is particularly important, as they soon realized, none of the stakeholders (e.g., schools, police, public agencies, churches) were talking to each other.  During the October 17th meeting, panel speaker, Dr. C. Jama Adams discussed the importance of having greater institutional channels for communication among these stakeholders.  He mentioned that stop-and-frisk should be addressed holistically through a community-approach.  He feels this is the only way to address the deeply-rooted culture of “fearfulness” of which he finds Black males are often the scapegoat and which he feels stifles the individual creativity and spontaneity of all community members.    

Fratello and Rengifo faced challenges in capturing the instances of stop-and-frisk events in a respondents’ life.  In some instances, the sheer scale of the policing practice proved to be a problem. In piloting the survey, the researchers discovered that they would have to modify their questions to account for multiple stops. For those people who were stopped more than once, they either asked them to talk about the last time they were stopped or their most memorable stop. Yet, even when conducting research in neighborhoods with high rates of stop-and-frisk occurrences, the researchers were not able to meet their data collection goals for two neighborhoods – Jackson Heights and South Bronx – even after adjusting their research questions and approach.  In both of these areas they found that in general, people seemed reluctant to speak with outsiders about the police.  However, in Jackson Heights they faced the additional challenge that the majority of residents (65%) are foreign-born and may have an added apprehension of talking with “outsiders” (Coming of Age with Stop and Frisk: 11).

In other words, the very nature of stop-and-frisk makes it hard to measure its effects.  The reason for this is that those most victimized have a general apprehension over being approached by strangers, especially to discuss involvement with the police.

vera institute study
Coming of Age with Stop and Frisk: Experiences, Self-Perceptions, and Public Safety Implications at John Jay College-CUNY, October 17, 2013.  (Photo Credit: WNegron)

Despite these challenges, Fratello and Rengifo were able to uncover some of the corrosive effects of stop-and-frisk policing, especially on young people. They found that among the young people most stopped (between the ages of 13 and 25), trust in law enforcement is disturbingly low.  

  • 88 percent of young people surveyed believe that residents of their neighborhood do not trust the police.
  • Only four in 10 respondents said they would be comfortable seeking help from police if in trouble.
  • Young people who have been stopped more often in the past are less willing to report crimes, even when they themselves are the victims. Each additional stop in the span of a year is associated with an eight percent drop in the person’s likelihood of reporting a violent crime he or she might experience in the future (Coming to Age with Stop and Frisk: 89).

These findings present several troubling public safety implications.  For one, this population is most at risk of future victimization, therefore, its worrisome to consider they may feel like they have no where to turn if victimized. Secondly, they are also the ones for whom law enforcement needs to connect with in order to solve crimes and significantly improve safety in these neighborhoods.

Previous studies have found a similar level of distrust of law enforcement among urban youth of color.  In a series of qualitative interviews with urban youth in the United States, Canada, and Australia, Ruck and colleagues document that these young people were not only concerned about abusive treatment by police but were also resigned to it because they saw it as “inevitable and unlikely to change” (Ruck et al., 2008:20, “Youth experiences of surveillance. In M. Flynn & D.C. Brotherton).  However, other studies have shown that distrust of law enforcement can be spread through social networks and does not necessarily require direct contact with the criminal justice system (Menjívar & Bejarano, 2004, “Latino immigrants’ perceptions of crime and police authorities in the United States: A case study from the Phoenix Metropolitan area“). Clearly, this highlights the need for more research to discern between other factors which could give rise to distrust of law enforcement.  

stop and frisk nyc,

(See full infographic here)

Fratello and Rengifo include a set of timely recommendations in the Vera Institute report aimed at restoring trust and improving police-community relations. Most relevant for academics is their recommendation for the NYPD to partner with researchers to better understand the costs and benefits of various proactive policing strategies meant to replace stop-and-frisk.

Although academic-police partnerships are not new and reflect a growing trend toward “evidence-based” practice, it is not a relationship which comes easily for either police or researchers. In the article, “Partnerships with University-Based Researchers,” in a 2009 edition of The Police Chief Magazine, Sanders notes that although partnerships between law enforcement leaders and academic researchers have achieved much success and demonstrate long-term benefits for both, “only a small number of law enforcement agencies have actually reaped the benefits of research partnerships” (Sanders, 2009).   Other scholars describe these partnerships as filled with mutual misunderstanding that negatively impacts police-academic relationships and practices (Bradley and Nixon, 2009: “Ending the ‘dialogue of the deaf’: Evidence and policing policies“).

This research raises serious questions about the prospects for success of the proposed Academic Advisory Council, proposed by Judge Scheindlin.  This council is intended to engage in a community-based remedial process to develop sustainable reforms to the stop-and-frisk practices of the NYPD.” Scheindlin recruited Brooklyn Law School Professor I. Bennett Capers to be chair of the council, along with a dozen law professors from Columbia, Yale, Fordham, City University of New York (CUNY), Rutgers and Hofstra law schools, all of whom will serve in a pro bono capacity.

Although this Academic Advisory Council will set to play a large role in informing and shaping further police reforms, it is worth noting that other police-academic efforts at reform are underway.  One important new initiative is The Center for, which seeks to promote police transparency and accountability by facilitating innovative research collaborations between law enforcement agencies and social scientists.

The Vera Institute report, Coming of Age with Stop and Frisk, by Fratello and Rengifo is a significant contribution to understanding the effects of stop-and-frisk policing, and there is much work to be done in documenting the effects of this practice, and in charting a new way forward.  The ruling by Judge Scheindlin makes it clear that the future of New York City is one without stop-and-frisk.  Academic researchers who are interested in this issue have a unique opportunity to help shape this future.