We are pleased to announce that our recently-concluded social justice topic series on activism in East Harlem has been compiled into a free eBook, accessible here
This eBook, the fourth in our series, deepens and expands the work of a community meeting at the CUNY School of Public Health on April 26, 2014. This meeting brought together volunteers, city officials, and faculty and staff from CUNY to discuss emergency response following a tragic gas explosion nearby that had killed 8 people the previous month. Participants met in groups to discuss the event, make recommendations for better emergency response in the future, and strengthen community partnerships. Afterwards, several people sat down with us to talk about their experience, which we produced as a series of podcasts.
The active participation in the meeting was characteristic of the strong, invested community of East Harlem, also known as El Barrio. We drew inspiration from this event and highlighted other important activist work and pressing issues impacting the community, especially affordable housing and gentrification, and drug policy reform. In addition to the conversations with local volunteers, our series included interviews with a local journalist and two scholar-activists; featured the work of local filmmakers; highlighted a two-day forum on drug policy reform held at the New York Academy of Medicine; and discussed current events and policies impacting the neighborhood.
This series portrays only a small portion of the dynamic activist work being done by local residents. To do justice to this rich community would take far longer. Luckily, this work is represented by the many community groups that are active in East Harlem and in everyday life in the neighborhood. We encourage you to start here and do more exploring on your own, both virtually and in person. Take a walk around the neighborhood and meet some of the amazing people who call it El Barrio.
The La Guardia Committee Report: The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York was published in 1944 as one of the nation’s first systematic studies addressing many of the myths about marijuana, including: the alleged connection to “madness;” addictive potential; supposed role as a ‘gateway’ to other drug use; usage patterns; and potential relationship to crime and violence. The LaGuardia report concluded that “the sociological, psychological, and medical ills commonly attributed to marihuana have been found to be exaggerated.”
To mark the 70th anniversary of the LaGuardia Report, The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and The New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) are hosting a symposium to look back on the LaGuardia Report in order to inform a rich discussion of contemporary drug policy reform efforts, both nationally and in New York. The symposium brings together scholars, activists, journalists and elected officials from East Harlem to explore the historical context and the ongoing public debates and actions about marijuana and drug policy reform.
Marijuana & Drug Policy Reform in New York—The LaGuardia Report at 70
6:00 PM — The John K. Lattimer Lecture: Richard Bonnie, University of Virginia.
Friday, May 2
10:00 AM — Melissa Mark-Viverito, Speaker, New York City Council
Panel Discussion: Drug Wars Past & Present.
Moderator: Paul Theerman, Ph.D., The New York Academy of Medicine
Jeffrion Aubrey, Speaker Pro Tempore, New York State Assembly
Jason Glenn, Ph.D., University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston
Sam Roberts, Ph.D., Columbia University
Deborah Small, J.D., Executive Director, Break the Chains
Bobby Tolbert, Community Leader and Board Member, VOCAL-NY
1:00 PM — Panel Discussion: The Contemporary Research Agenda for Drug Use & Abuse
Moderator: Julie Netherland, Ph.D., Drug Policy Alliance
Helena Hansen, Ph.D., M.D., New York University
Julie Holland, M.D., psychiatrist and author
Amanda Reiman, Ph.D., Drug Policy Alliance, San Francisco
Maia Szalavitz, journalist
3:00 PM — Panel Discussion: New York Marijuana Policy Reform in 2014
Moderator: Kassandra Frederique, M.S.W., Drug Policy Alliance
Richard Gottfried, New York State Assembly, 75th District
Hakeem Jeffries, United States Congress, 8th District
Harry Levine, Ph.D., Queens University
Art Way, J.D., Drug Policy Alliance, Denver
5:00 PM – Final Remarks: gabriel sayegh, Drug Policy Alliance
* * *
This event is FREE but registration is required for both days. To register for this event (required), click here (Thursday evening lecture) and here (Friday). The symposium takes place at the New York Academy of Medicine, located at 1216 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street. You can also follow along on the hashtag #LGA70.
A key focus of JustPublics@365 is on the work of scholar-activists. Someone who exemplifies this model of engaged scholarship is Lynn Roberts, an Assistant Professor at the CUNY School of Public Health. Her broad range of work and research has included reproductive justice, youth development and juvenile justice, the prevention of intimate partner violence, models of community organizing for social justice; and the intersection of race, class and gender and its influence on health disparities. In this series on East Harlem, we’ll feature a number of scholar-activists.
Collette Sosnowy: Thanks for talking with me today, Lynn. Can you share a little bit about your work in East Harlem and in the South Bronx?
Lynn Roberts: I suppose my work in East Harlem began actually many years ago when I was also teaching at Hunter College, in their public health program. I developed a course about 12 years ago focused on initially the South Bronx because I have been doing some work there and expanded it to include Harlem, not just East Harlem but Central and West as well, from the perspective of people who lived and worked there, so that you could look at it through various disciplines and also through lived experiences rather than just an academic lens and then updated the course when we moved into the community here of East Harlem in Fall 2012.
That brought me back to East Harlem with fresh eyes and in a different period of time in its, I guess, evolution, depending on how you look at it because a lot of changes in the community in terms of real estate and gentrification and then our being here and being able to reach out again and form relationships with those who are doing interesting and exciting community work here.
Collette Sosnowy: What are the parallels between South Bronx and East Harlem?
Lynn Roberts: They’re each very rich communities and one of the things that I think was highlighted in the course was just the diversity. I choose the South Bronx and Harlem because they both represented what I think are perceived by the general public as iconic communities.
People hear the South Bronx, they hear Harlem, and they might have a preconceived notion about what each one of those communities represent if they haven’t been there or lived there. I wanted to demystify and clarify the richness of each of these communities, not just as whatever someone’s preconceived notion of what might be described as a low income or an urban community is like. They each have rich histories of growth and decline of innovation in terms of the arts and just really rich histories in terms of the larger American story.
I think it’s important for all of us to know about these communities from those who know best and bringing the community into the classroom I think is really important. A large part of wanting to revisit the course was to, I guess, dispel some of the myth and even some of the apprehension and fear of that, some of my fellow colleagues and students had about being in East Harlem in particular, fear of crime, fear of some type of danger, which I didn’t experience and I didn’t think was any different than other parts of New York City.
I thought if they knew more about the community, that would widen their lens of working in any community and approach any community with eyes wide open and with ears more attentive to hearing from those community voices.
Collette Sosnowy: How is health a social justice issue?
Lynn Roberts: Very much so. I think that social justice is necessary for health. When you have social justice you have health and wellness, all the positive attributes we associate with that. You have clean air. You have clean water. You have equity in terms of resources such as education and employment. You have a diversity of ideas and background. You have democracy. You have people who get to decide what will happen in their community, in their society, in their country and that is fundamentally good in terms of these peoples’ overall well-being but also just how they also feel about themselves and how much they feel willing to participate civically and have raised expectations for themselves, for their families, for their entire communities. I think they’re intertwined. I think they’re one in the same. I don’t think you can have one without the other.
Collette Sosnowy: As you were talking about before, some academics are hesitant to get involved in controversial issues like those confronting East Harlem. What do you say to critics who might question your “objectivity” as a scholar?
Lynn Roberts: First of all, I probably identify first as an activist and second, or simultaneously, as a scholar. They’re both a part of who I am. I don’t think scientists or scholars really can practice objectivity. I think all questions are based on our lived experiences, our exposures. What we consider valid depends on that. We’re all subjective in terms of how we pursue knowledge and what knowledge we consider important.
That’s not a quest of mine. I’m probably more inclined to just disclose what my subjectivities are, whatever my biases are as I know them. Not all of them are known to me but being more accepting of that, I’m much more inclined to be accepting of that in others. I’m much more inclined to engage with others in a way that I think, maybe it’s an objective but is open. If I’m open I can probably look at things and consider another point of view in a way that makes me more accessible and makes others with whom I interact more accessible to sharing.
I see it as an advantage in terms of my scholarship. How that plays out on the academy depends on, again, someone else’s perspective on that, so that can be a challenge.
Collette Sosnowy: A major focus of JustPublics@365 is bringing together academics and activists and journalists in ways that promote social justice through civic engagement and greater democracy. What sort of “lessons learned” do you have from your experience as an academic-activist in going into some of these fields that are usually more in the area of activism and journalism?
Lynn Roberts: First and foremost I go as a listener but that doesn’t mean that I don’t also bring who I am and my own point of view. It means sometimes hearing first and then hoping that we all come to some conclusions where I’m also listened to. I know that as an academic, in some instances, my voice might be given more credence than someone else’s, so needing to balance that and have some humility around that is really important.
Then using my voice may be perceived a greater agency or power, if you will. Effectively but again, in collaboration, not in speaking for or instead of others. I can contribute to in ways that others might not but I don’t really distinguish doing that in or outside of the academy. I really don’t. I think a lot of those lines are rather artificial.
There’s a lot of wisdom everywhere. There’s expertise everywhere and it’s just realizing that and when you approach it that way you tend to get a lot more done and people, once you dispel that notion of difference, I just find it’s just really easy to work with people.
Many academics want to engage in research and produce knowledge that informs progressive social change. Digital media technologies are making it easier for academics to connect their research with people, community groups, and movements who are also trying to bring about social change. Yet, most academics are perplexed about how to share their research with publics beyond the academy.
JustPublics@365 is here to help meet this unmet need, connecting academics and social change agents through digital media for the public good. Our toolkit, available in multiple e-book formats, is an easy way to get started.
Several academic papers and presentations about the collaboration involved in the open, online course, and the extraordinary efforts required to make readings for the course legitimately open access;
A novel approach to assessing the impact of scholarly work through qualitative measures such as storytelling, along with a discussion about the impact of JustPublics@365.
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!
This past week, I interviewed Eli Silverman, PhD (Professor, Emeritus, john Jay and Graduate Center, CUNY), about his experience testifying as an expert witness in the recent stop-and-frisk trial, Floyd, et al. v. New York City. In this interview, I asked Professor Silverman about his involvement as one of the leading scholars working on the issue of stop-and-frisk in New York City and his experience translating academic research to a wider audience. We also discussed the potential changes that will occur as a result of District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin’s ruling and the ramifications of stepping outside the academy and into the courtroom.
Can you share a bit about yourself, and your involvement as one of the leading scholars working on the issues of Stop-And-Frisk in New York City?
I have been involved for some many years on research on the NYPD. I wrote a book [NYPD Battles Crime: Innovative Strategies in Policing] that came out in 1999 that was updated in 2001, which dealt with the reforms, the very important reforms that were introduced in the police department in 1994. I went back before then, but focused on that period, from 1994 on, which was a very significant period in terms of management and crime reduction and reforms. It was essentially a positive book. But when I updated it in 2001 with an epilogue, I found I was hearing many stories and discussions about how some of the things I had considered positive were being distorted and turned on its head, and had resulted, had stemmed from management pressure from the headquarters to really just produce numbers, and these numbers were the number of summonses, the number of arrests, the number of Stop-And-Frisks, and all in the name of driving down crime.
How did you get involved with the recent Stop-And-Frisk case in New York City?
I was approached by someone I knew from the PD, who had retired, named Dr. John Eterno. He was a former captain. He is a dean now at Molloy. He had been writing and hearing stories on this as well. He approached me and said, “Let’s do some research.” So we decided to look into this issue, but the police department had become very closed and exhibited a total lack of transparency. So we did a survey of retired captains and above, which had startling results and turned out to, the story appeared on the front page of the Sunday New York Times, which caused quite a stir a few years ago. That was a survey we did. And then we did subsequently a second survey. But the first survey and other research we did resulted in a book called The Crime Numbers Game: Management by Manipulation. We talked about this phenomenon of what they call downgrading crime, moving it from felony. The major crimes that are reported in the U.S. and in New York are what I have called felony crimes, the seven major crimes, that’s how police departments keep score and compare themselves with one another. But the way they were doing it was not taking crime reports. They were moving felony crimes into other categories that’s called misdemeanor crimes, which are not publicly known. There was manipulation. Part of the manipulation ran parallel with this enormous pressure from above to drive down crime and produce activities that they thought drove down crime, and not worry about any of the collateral effects and the impacts of these strategies.
When were you approached to testify for the trial?
John and I were approached many months before the trial came to pass. We had discussions with them and they thought our research was relevant. The part of our research that they thought was relevant was the research, the two surveys that we did, 2004, 2008. In 2008 we did even a more extensive survey of retired people from all ranks of the police department, and those results were even more dramatic as we refined our survey. We found that the biggest up-tick in these pressures, in a number of areas including Stop-And-Frisk, occurred in 2002 in the Bloomberg-Kelly era. So the plaintiffs, the lawyers for the plaintiffs approached us. They wanted us to report on our research and testify. John could not testify because he was involved in the police department in some of these related activities. So it fell upon me to testify, which was one very stressful experience, but ultimately gratifying because the judge did cite our research, and the judge did cite my testimony, among many other things in her decision, but she did do that.
What changes do you foresee with District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin’s recent ruling on this controversial policing practice?
She wrote two decisions. One is the liability decision, which is goes through the whole thing. If you get a chance to look at, it’s unbelievable. This was a nine-10 week with tons of material and documents. She, when you read it, it’s like some 150-some-odd pages. I think it’s extremely comprehensive and extremely analytical. She goes through all this, and she just peels away the layers of the police department defense. The police department, there was an earlier case called the Daniels case, where the police department agreed to make changes, under what’s called a consent decree, no admittance of anything wrong. But in this case, the Daniels case, which has been in the works for many years, it was clear that these things that police department agreed to do, it wasn’t even a question of whether it was on the back burner or the front burner. It wasn’t on any burner. They were just narrowly focused on crime reduction. So these constitutional legal issues were not addressed. In fact, our second survey asked the question, whether there was a pressure to obey constitutional legal positions. That was the only area where the pressure decreased. In other words, while pressure to increase Stop-And-Frisk, summons, and arrests climbed, the pressure to really do it correctly, or as we said in the questionnaire, to obey constitutional legal rights, that went down. It was quite stark.
In answer to your question, the judge issued the liability, which goes through all this, and in the second decision, which is some 50-some-odd pages, I think, is called the remedy. This speaks to your question, I think. The remedy may be pretty stark. It’s uncertain now because she appointed a federal monitor. Now no police department wants to be overseen by a federal monitor, because they don’t like someone overseeing it. But the federal monitor has to report to the judge in terms of changes that she recommends in training, in changes in supervision, in changed in how forms are filled out. She recommended pilot precincts where the officers would wear cameras so it will record the interaction. So it’s not sully fleshed out what in fact will happen, but the potential is for something quite significant. Plus the fact that this is an open-ended, this introduction of a federal monitor, that she selected a lawyer. It’s open-ended, and it depends on what he works out and what the judge approves, and how long this goes on. So this could be quite a long-standing thing.
To me, it’s a very, very sad legacy of a fine police department that’s gone astray because the leadership has taken it astray. To have this record of crime decline, which we agree with, John and I, although from what we’ve ascertained we would guess it’s about half of what they claim. But nevertheless, to have this fine record, and then it actually being sullied by just the obstinance and the refusal to talk to anybody or any of the critics. The city council, as you may know, introduced the Stop-And-Frisk bill, and inspector general, and both of those were passed over the mayor’s veto. So there can be some very long-term implications. And it’s even more dramatic than that, because the New York so-called police model has been a model for not only other cities throughout the world, but throughout the U.S., but throughout the world. I just came back from Denmark where some of this stuff is percolating. I’ve been in Australia. I’ve been in Paris, which modeled this whole issue of performance measurement and management. If it’s done right it’s great, but it it’s done wrong it can have all these perverse consequences. And this has been spreading all over. And everyone now does know or will know what’s happened to the police department and their once fine reputation. Now it’s going to be a whole different ball game, and this model is not going to be be all for everyone. They’re going to have to look more carefully at how it’s done.
Some academics might be hesitant to get involved with such a controversial issue. So what do you say to critics who might question your objectivity as a scholar now, after your involvement?
You know, there’s an old saying, as a scholar all you can do is speak the truth as you know it to power. I mean, I was a reluctant warrior in this. I didn’t seek this out. In fact, when we first got our first survey results, we were floored. We were floored by the extent of it. And not only that, we had a place where they would write comments. And the comments… The interesting thing is, most of the cops agree with us. We get emails and comments and stuff all the time. But they have to remain anonymous, except for those who are recorded. I don’t know if you are aware, but there have been several who have recorded this stuff from their own station house, Schoolcraft, and Palenko, and others. So it’s not just us saying this. There’s tons of evidence to support it. But it was very stressful. At times I almost said, “Let’s forget it,” because the city did everything they could to keep me out from testifying, including demanding all our research, even the research that was not relevant to the court case.
We balked at that because it’s our research. We worked on it, and nothing to do with the court case. We had to agree that it would be held confidential. We gave some. But it wasn’t, I can assure you, it wasn’t something that I leaped into. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t feel that the plaintiff’s case was very valid and made sense, and really was for the good. Now obviously I’m now high on the party list of the NYPD leadership, which I was when I wrote the first book. But, you know, that’s just the consequences of doing this.
But I try, everyone tries to be objective, or everyone should. We tried to be objective. We tried to call it as we saw it. The city tried to throw out our results. They tried to negate it. They tried to keep me out. And at times I said to the lawyers, I said, “You know, this is too much. I don’t really need all this.” And they said, “No. No.” I said, “It’s just too much.” They said, “They’re doing it.” What they told me is that the other side was doing it in order to discourage me and keep me out.
What sort of lessons have you learned do you have from your experience with this case about academics entering a train that’s more frequently trod by activists and journalists?
I think academics have to make a judgment for themselves. Do they want to go forward with what their research uncovers? If they feel their research is valid, and they feel that it’s supportive of a valid cause, then I think every academic has to make a choice for him or herself, whether they feel they want to be supportive. And you know, there is an argument for academic research just not being academic and in the social arena. The interesting thing is, the interesting thing here is, you have to be creative in order to get the data, especially when an organization, and here you have a large organization or a large bureaucracy, is totally nontransparent. The police department has not provided data, not responded, and we spell this out in the book, freedom of information requests.
So the academic, if he or she wants to pursue that, then they have to be creative and say, “How else can I get at this topic, if the institution itself is not providing the, giving me access?” I had access in my first book. In this one we didn’t. But what we did, fortunately, John was a retired member, and had access to the retirees list. And so we did this first through a mail list, and second through a computer program. But you have to be willing. It’s time consuming. But if you believe in something, then you have to make a decision. Do you go forward, or do you just throw in the towel. And if you believe in something then it’s an individual decision, I feel. In the process, you’re going to encounter great obstacles, and there’s no question it’s going to be stressful. Doug Muzzier asked me in an interview, he said, “Who should play you in the movie?” He was being, you know, kidding. I said, “Someone who’s very nervous.”
But that’s the nature of the game. I know this from other academics I know who have testified in cases that by nature it’s very stressful. Even before you testify, in the pretrial examination they try to knock you out, and they try to dismiss what you’ve said. And then they provide. The second day I was there, I was presented with a chart of retirees and how they were. I’d never seen this. But the city lawyer presented it to me. The plaintiff’s lawyer and the city lawyer were going back and forth whether that should be entered into the record. I had never seen this chart. And I said to the judge, I said, “May I object, your honor?” And she said, “Yes, depending on what you have to say.” I said, “Well, this chart is bogus. It doesn’t represent what it pretends to.” And then she queried the person and the city attorney, and she didn’t allow it.
There’s a certain amount of risk. I guess that’s what I’m saying. And one has to make the judgment, is the risk worth taking. In this case, the fact that on my testimony and our research was one piece in the overall decision, was gratifying, and in a way a confirmation of our research.
This timeline illustrates some of the major moments of, responses to, and influences on Stop and Frisk dating back to Terry vs. Ohio, the 1968 Supreme Court decision to the present Federal District Court ruling on Floyd v. New York City. Collected here are important documents, reports, and films, created by the state, activists, research and community institutions. In the comments, we welcome your suggestions for other entries to add to the timeline.
This post is part of the Monthly Social Justice Topic Series on Stop-And-Frisk. If you have any questions, research that you would like to share related to Stop-and-Frisk or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Morgane Richardson at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line, “Stop-and-Frisk Series.”
Today begins our month-long social justice topic series which asks academics, activists, and journalists to reimagine New York City after the end of stop-and-frisk and to consider how civic engagement and greater democracy might be promoted for all residents. The first week of this month’s series, Stop-At-Frisk At A Glance, will provide an overview of the issue to-date. We will include a blog post on the connection between social justice and activism, as well as interviews with activists and academics in the field. Emily Sherwood, a member of the JustPublics@365 team, will introduce an interactive timeline about milestones in the Stop-and-Frisk story along with steps to creating your own digital timeline to use as a form of digital activism and social engagement.
“The Morris Justice Project teamed up with the Illuminator to share some of the initial findings of their ongoing research into policing in the Morris Avenue area of the South Bronx. As a crowd watched from across the street, the Illuminator projected survey results onto a high-rise apartment building. Two short films were also projected: Julie Dressner’s New York Times op-doc “The Scars of Stop and Frisk” and “Community Safety Act” by The NYCLU and Communities United for Police Reform. Drummers from BombaYo provided a musical intro.”
Stop-and-frisk has been a tool used by the NYPD for decades, though in recent years the number of criticisms and grassroots protests around police tactics has increased tremendously. In the case of Terry v. Ohio (1968), the United States Supreme Court established a national legal basis allowing officers to stop, question and frisk citizens. This decision allowed police officers to stop and detain individuals based on reasonable suspicion rather than a higher level proof of probable cause. According to the NYCLU, New Yorkers have been subjected to police stops and street interrogations more than 4 million times since 2002. Nearly 9 out of 10 of those stopped and frisked have been completely innocent with Black and Latino communities representing an overwhelming target of these tactics.
While Mayor Bloomberg and New York City police officials have stated stops-and-frisks are beneficial for decreasing crime, citizens of NYC affected by stop-and-frisk saw these tactics as intrusive, unwarranted and ineffective. Together with activists, journalist, and academics, the city of New York City organized to shed light on the realities of stop-and-frisk and on August 12th, 2013, the U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin found that the New York City Police Department had violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments in the way that they have conducted stop-and-frisks, thus ending a controversial policing experiment.
Click here for more information about our Monthly Social Justice Topic Series.
If you have any questions, research that you would like to share related to Stop-and-Frisk or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Morgane Richardson at email@example.com with the subject line, “Stop-and-Frisk Series.”
New York City has long been a hub of activism. An exhibition on Activist New York at the Museum of the City of New York uses artifacts, photographs, multimedia presentations to tell a broad story about activism in the five boroughs across a wide range of issues such as civil rights and racial justice, fair wages, civil rights for LGBT people, and religious freedom. New York is an intellectual and academic hub as well, so many of these activists movements have also included scholars, professors, and public intellectuals without institutional affiliation.
Some of us from JustPublics@365 will be on the tour, as well. One of our goals is to help build digital elements of the walking tour that will be informed by scholarship by and about the neighborhood of East Harlem and openly available to everyone.
Activist history is especially important to lesbian and queer women because it is this marginalized group’s primary public, visible history. Data visualization tools can help us understand that history.
My research looks at the lives, spaces, and experiences of justice and injustice of lesbians and queer women in New York City from 1983 to 2008, a span of time marked at the beginning by AIDS activism toward the end by the popular cable tv show “The L Word” and asks: did these women’s lives get better? If so, how important was activism to this? Part of this answer is in the archival data of lesbian and queer women’s activism.
Originally part of my dissertation research and now a part of the series of books I am writing, I knew the activist and organizational history was much more complex because I surveyed the complete collection of 2,300+ organizational records at the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA). Out of that, I created a data visualization (see left) of all NYC-based organizational records spanning my period of study, 1983-2008 (n = 381).
My choice of data visualization as a tool was inspired by a conundrum: how do you make sense of 25 years of radical and mundane social, sexual, political, and cultural history in nearly 2,000 detailed nodes of information spanning a word to a paragraph to a few pages each?
The minutiae of politics, places, and people’s everyday lives was available in the stories of lesbian and queer organizational records and publications in ways that weren’t accessible through other research methods, like the focus group interviews I used in another part of the research. Rather than the individual stories that emerged from personal interviews, an entire chronological history of lesbian-queer life could unfold in the quantitative study of these places, spaces, and people.
This is where data visualization came in. I had read Nathan Yau’s utterly inspiring Visualize This when it came out but never dug in to data visualization and didn’t know how it might be useful for my research.
Attending the MediaCamp workshop on Data Visualization with Amanda Hickman was a breakthrough for me. In that workshop, I realized that the only way my data from the LHA would be revealing and fun was through data visualization. Using the data visualization tools HighChartsJS and jsFiddle, in just a few hours I saw the way my data shifted from 2D to a 3D platform for the public. These tools made my data about activist lesbian and queer women suddenly interactive and engaging in ways I had not imagined.
Here’s an example. One of the key takeaways from my focus groups with lesbians and queer women who came out between 1983 and 2008 was the persistence experience of loss and mourning of key lesbian-queer places, namely neighborhoods and bars, as well as bookstores and other community spaces. At the same time, many women, especially those who had come out in the 1980s and 1990s generations, lived with an expectation that one just created the organization or space they required, often through activism or socializing. When we turn to the actual numbers of lesbian and queer organizations in terms of their totals and their patterns of opening and closing, there is more to these shifts.
The generational social and political shifts explain a great deal about the growth of these organizations and this helps to frame my reading of this visualization. The number of activist lesbian-queer organizations rises significantly in the 1980s and early 1990s, as we can see in the graph above, both in terms of the total and those founded. Many of these groups were inspired by the continued to response to issues facing women and the successes of the feminist movement, as well as the burgeoning and powerful response to the AIDS crisis and the inspiration for change instilled by many movements for action.
There are also outcomes for organizing in the 1980s and 1990s that this graph also illustrates. Prior to this time period, there were very few if any social support services especially for LGBTQ people at the state or national level. During rhis period of activism there was a pattern of growth in the non-profit industrial complex as a primary method of social support for LGBTQ people in the US. In the 2000s, the number of these groups plateaued. This matches the ways non-profit organizations have become the official brokers of what remains of the US welfare state as it relates to LGBTQ concerns.
The LHA records have more to say on a range of issues relevant to lesbian and queer women. In a series of posts on my site, I’ll be posting a set of interactive data visualizations from my analysis of the 381 NYC-based records available at the LHA of lesbian and/or queer organizations spanning 25 years (1983-2008). I invite you to join me in exploring the meaning behind an often invisibilized activist lesbian-queer past.
~ Jen Jack Gieseking, PhD is the Project Manager of JustPublics@365. She is a cultural geographer and environmental psychologist. Her website is jgieseking.org.
A recent feature on the London School of Economics (LSE) blog, asked a question which has been plaguing the academic community for over 10 years: “Why are so many academics against academic blogging?” There is much anecdotal evidence as to the reasons why academics refrain from blogging. They include concerns that academic blogging:
Demeans or cheapens scholarly work
Can become misconstrued, misunderstood, and misused to fit narrow political or social agendas as it enters the public realm. This may threaten the autonomy of academic work.
Takes too much time and so, takes away from “more legitimate academic activities”.
Leads to internalized self-censorship that comes with years of enforced academic perfectionism
Can hurt the academic and professional prospects of a scholar
Looking at these concerns it’s clear that academics have to mediate between the discomforts and concerns that surround academic work and the public realm. Academic blogging is merely one of the common ways that academia life intersects with the publics. LSE argued in their article above, “Academic blogging exists somewhere in an ether space between academic research and broader community.” It is the space where academic research is made more accessible and so facilitates a more democratic relationship between academics and various publics.”
And who is most equipped and suited to overcome these challenges and provide further definition and insight into this ether space – than academics themselves! Many academics are trained in ethnographic and field work methods which prepare them to act as brokers and mediate between two worlds. These are the same skills that can be used in order to merge the academic with the public and lay the groundwork for channeling academic blogging towards activism and community engagement.
(CC Image from Flickr)
Last week was the launch of CUNY Graduate Center’s first participatory, open, online course “POOC”: Reassesing Inequality and Reimagining the 21st Century: East Harlem Focus. The speakers Dr. Michelle Fine and Dr. Maria Torres shared personal experiences conducting participatory action research (PAR) in regards to stop and frisk policy issues in NYC communities. Their talk described and emphasized the mutual reliance that academics and the communities they study have to foster and grow a shared learning process. Academics have learned though years of hard lessons out on the field; to juggle the ethical demands and principles of their scholarly community with those that arise when they embed themselves in the lives and communities they seek to study. Like in most types of field work research, as the mediation process is introduced, there are risks of misrepresentation, misinterpretation and exaggeration that may arise. However, in field work we have learned to persevere and overcome these challenges. Why can’t the same difficult, long, yet rewarding learning process take place, as it is now academics and their work, ideas, and thoughts which are placed under the microscope of public scrutiny and for public consumption? The basis of much of academia is to bring people together across these boundaries, ideas, and beliefs – and we should be committed to contributing to this shared learning process.
So, my hope is that by acknowledging the difficulty of “becoming public” we can set ourselves on a path to identifying lessons we have learned in our own research and work that can help us move on and “get over it.”
With that being said, embracing a culture of connectivity is not for every academic. However, there has never been a better time to be a public intellectual thanks to the abundance of technology and digital tools available. And as this article argues – academics are among the best equipped to help forge that path.