Day 12 — Flying Back to Madison

Apr 20th, 2012 Posted in General, On the Road, Photos | No Comments »

April 19, 2012

I spent the final day of the trip mostly in Lexington at the architectural design studio of Richard Levine, the director of the Center for Sustainable Cities at the University of Kentucky. This was late addition to the trip, a kind of coda added a few weeks ago. Here is what happened: at the visit day for prospective graduate students in March, one of the students was Laura Frye-Levine. We chatted about various things and in due course I told her about my upcoming trip and mentioned that I was ending up in Berea. She lit up and told me that she was from the area, and knew Berea very well.  It turns out she had been working for an institute called the Center for Sustainable Cities which was concerned with issues deeply connected to Real Utopias and that she was going to be there just when I was in Berea. Gee, I said, why don’t I try to visit the Center while I am in Kentucky – I’ll be so close it would be a shame not to find out more about it. So, I contacted Jean, got “permission” (as it were) to change my return flight from the afternoon to the evening, and then coordinated with Laura for her to pick me up at Berea this morning.

If visiting Berea College was a fitting final real utopian meal of the campus lecture tour on real utopias, then spending the day exploring the issues of the Center for Sustainable Cities was a fantastic dessert. We didn’t actually go to the Center itself, but rather to the home and architectural design studio of the director, who I hadn’t realized was Laura’s father.  The setting was extraordinary: Lush green Kentucky countryside, wooded hills, deep ravines. The house was a spectacular solar design – basically a kind of cube with one obliquely cut plane cut through it on which solar panels were fixed. A beautiful interesting design. The house was largely built by Richard and students in the mid-1970s and was a pioneering design for solar design and energy efficiency. The house, and the adjoining studio, were on 30 acres of land, through which ran a gorgeous creek with limestone bluffs. At the end of the day, before leaving for the airport, we had a wonderful hike down to gully where the creek meandered and along the side of the creek to the end of the property.

For several hours we talked about urban design and the problem of sustainability, both in terms of the technical issues of use of nonrenewable and renewable natural resources and in terms of the social practices needed to sustain those technical parameters. I have not had many occasions to visit design studios and I am always blown away by the combination of the complexity of the technical parameters and the aesthetically compelling images and models.

I’m now in the plane, on the tarmac in Chicago waiting for the door to close. It is two weeks since I left for the visit to Penn State. The trip – both this phase and the earlier one to Texas and Navaho — has been remarkable for me. I’m hesitant to make any general, overarching comments that try to distill all of the impressions into a few catchy bullet points, but here is a first pass at some thoughts:

  • I was very impressed by the academic seriousness of the places I visited.  Both faculty and students engaged the ideas I was presenting in thoughtful ways, often posing demanding and sophisticated questions.
  • The faculty were deeply committed to their students, both in terms of their efforts to teach them sociology and in terms of their support for them as persons.  Of course this could be a bit because of self-selection – places with indifferent faculty would be less likely to have invited me. But at least in the schools I visited faculty were clearly dedicated teachers.
  • In every department I visited there were smart, talented students who, at least on the basis of my discussions with them, seemed capable to being in PhD programs. And in every department there were students who seemed really interested – at least intrigued – by the idea of an academic career. My general sense is that the pipeline problem has more to do with actively recruiting such students, cultivating a strong relationship with them, strengthening their self-confidence and providing them with the needed support, than it does with the sheer size of the talent pool. I have no real statistical basis for that judgment, of course, but I was impressed with the number of young people I met who I could easily see doing successful work at the graduate level.
  • I was also struck by the personal challenges facing so many of these students, challenges they have dealt with to get to college in the first place, let along to go on for graduate training.
  • At a practical level, I learned about the role of MA programs in helping some students get into a position to enter high-powered PhD program. I have had a very parochial view of MA programs, since the MA doesn’t really play a serious role at Wisconsin and similar departments.  But for some of the students I met on this trip, it clearly does offer a bridging degree that can be enormously helpful. I was especially impressed with the MA program at Texas A&M International, with its intensive mentoring designed to ratchet up core skills around writing and analysis. It would be a terrible shame if that program was eliminated because of rigid rules and budget cuts in the Texas higher education system.


Day 11 — Berea College

Apr 20th, 2012 Posted in On the Road, Photos, Visit Summary | No Comments »

April 18, 2012, Berea, Kentucky

Berea College was the fitting culmination of my tour of colleges and universities serving historically marginalized populations, especially given the focus on my lectures on real utopias. It was founded in 1855 by ardent Abolitionists as the only integrated educational institution in the South. It was founded on the Christian principle, “God has made of one blood all people of the earth.” In 1859 it was closed down by pro-slavery forces, and then reopened immediately after the end of the Civil War in 1865. From then until the beginning of the 20th century it was roughly 50% black, 50% white, and coeducational. I was told that when dating between black and white students emerged in those years, the administrators accepted it as “natural” in spite of the strong social norms against it in the region. As Jim Crow laws were introduced in the South, the college became increasingly a target of hostility, until finally in 1904 the Kentucky Legislature passed the Day Law making it illegal to have integrated educational institutions, public or private. Berea College challenged this in court, but in 1908 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Kentucky was within it Constitutional Rights to pass the law, so thee college had to be immediately segregated, and the black faculty and students had to leave. When this happen the college divided its endowment to fund a black college near Louisville, where the black faculty and students went (I am not sure that I have the history of that institution quite right – I’m not sure if it already existed or was directly created by Berea, and I don’t know how long and effectively this continued). The college had also help to anchor the racial integration of the town of Berea, part of which was organized in what was called a checkerboard pattern – every other lot being sold to a white family or a black family. The college also insisted on equal pay for black and white employees.  Once the school was segregated, however, this integrated pattern in the community declined, both because opportunities for African-Americans declined and, later, because of the great migration north during WWI. In 1950, when the Day Law was amended, the college immediately reintegrated and energetically recruited black students, both from Appalachia and from urban areas.

Berea has an extremely unusual admissions policy: tuition is free (the equivalent of a $24,000 scholarship for all students). Only low to moderate income students are admitted: families have to submit copies of their tax returns to prove that the family income falls below the required threshold. (I was told for a family of three this was around $40,000/year). 80% of the students come from the Appalachian region, 20% from elsewhere.  All students at the college have to work 10 hours a week, which contributes to paying for room and board. In the past this labor included construction work – many of the buildings on campus were built with student labor. Now janitorial work, secretarial work, various kinds of administrative support work, is all done by students as part of the labor requirement. And, the college does all this while clearly maintaining a rigorous and challenging academic program. I was deeply impressed and moved by the college’s aspirations and history, but even more by the earnest and passionate way in which these aspirations are translated into the reality on the ground in the institution today.

The visit to Berea had not been part of the original plan of this trip. It developed in a really sweet way. A few months ago I received a letter from Jill Bouma, an assistant professor in the Berea Sociology Department, telling me that she had used the book I wrote with Joel Rogers, American Society: how it really works as the core text in a class and how much she and the students liked the book. At the end of her email she said something like, “I don’t imagine we will ever meet, but I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate the book.” I looked at a map and saw that Nashville and Berea were not all that far apart. I wrote back thanking her for the kind words, and hen said that I would be in Nashville in Mid April and could easily pass Berea to the end of the trip. Jill was delighted with this possibility, and so she and Jean worked out the details. Since in any case Berea does serve a historically marginalized population – low income students, especially in Appalachia – it fit perfectly within the overall agenda of the campus tour.

Jean and I left Nashville for Berea around 8 in the morning. We were scheduled to arrive at noon for lunch, and according to Google maps the drive should take 3 and half hours or so, so this seemed ample. Only we didn’t notice that we changed time zones going from Tennessee to Eastern Kentucky.  When we stopped for gas in Somerset, Kentucky, Jean noticed the clocks. So we called and explained that we’d be late.

We arrived a bit before 1 and were met by Tom Boyd, a professor emeritus from Sociology who had taught in the department from the late 1970s until a few years ago, when he retired in order to be a full time wood sculptor funded, as he put it, by his benefactors FDR (via social security) and Lyndon Johnson (via Medicare). The day was sublimely beautiful – 70 degrees, brilliantly clear and sunny. Spring was in full throttle – lush green, flowers. The setting is lovely, in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains. The campus has a classic liberal arts college feel to it – old stately brick buildings, lots of green space filled with trees and grass. Charming little gazebos in which to sit are scattered around the campus yards.

Tom took us on a leisurely walk through the heart of the campus, telling us storied about his time there and the history of the place. When it began the institution was mainly devoted to promoting literacy rather than being an undergraduate college. After the Civil War it added more units – the college division, a high school, and industrial arts program, reflecting the changing needs of the population it served. In the late 19th century it began attracting wealthy donors and built up an endowment. Andrew Carnegie, for example, was a major contributor, as was the Danforth family fortune. I would like to know more about the way wealthy donors saw their donations to a place that is so consciously committed to social justice and equality as ideals. Perhaps it was seen more in the spirit of “helping the poor” rather than “promoting equality and justice”. The result, in any event, is a very large endowment – approaching $1 billion – which provides the basis for the zero tuition policy. (But also: most students have Pell grants and many receive food stamps). In the 1960s students from Berea joined the civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, over the objections of the administration which thought it wasn’t safe. In 2011 students went to Zarcotti Park to participate in Occupy Wall Street, over the objections of the administration which thought it wasn’t safe.

At 3:00 we went to the sociology department for a meeting with students and a version of the careers and sociology workshop. The students were obviously very motivated and academically serious with lots of questions. A number were already admitted to graduate schools and would begin in the fall, others were thinking about it.

My talk on real utopias began at 4pm.  The room was packed – maybe 120 people or so. In addition to the Berea students and faculty, was a group of students and faculty that had driven from Georgetown College, a Baptist-affiliated liberal arts college near Lexington, as well as some from the University of Kentucky and other places. Because of the setting at Berea I was especially filled with emotional energy and was there “in the moment.” Without any real planning, I began the talk with an improvisational riff on utopia: “This is the first time I have ever given a lecture at an academic institution in which the second sentence of its official brochure describes itself as a “utopian experiment.”  What a beautiful, poignant way of ending a lecture tour of universities serving historically underserved populations where I have been talking about real utopias. Berea is a real utopia:  a university that grounds itself in principles of equality and social justice and then tries very hard to live up to those ideals in its practices. Gandhi is often quoted as saying “Be the change you want to see in the world” (although I have been told that this is apocryphal). The idea of real utopias is “build the institutions you want to see in the world.”  This is not, however, exactly like many intentional communities driven by utopian ideals. 19th century utopian communities saw withdrawing from the world as their solution to the corruption of the world; real utopia envisions building alternatives in the world as a way of ultimately transforming it, even replacing it. I then went straight to the contrast between ruptural, interstitial and symbiotic transformations as a ways of putting into practice the idea that another world is possible – explaining why ruptural strategies seem so problematic under conditions of social complexity. I then argued for interstitial strategies as a way of building emancipatory institutions wherever possible in the spaces of the existing society, but also said that they will inevitably be limited to niches and margins and often become more like adaptive self-help projects than social transformations unless combined with symbiotic strategies that engage in political struggles to open up greater spaces for the interstitial transformations.  I then proceeded to the core of the talk as planned. Sometimes when you give a talk you feel completely connected to the audience, joined by common purposes, seeing their focus and attention and speaking to each person as in an animated conversation rather than an impersonal lecture. For me Berea was like that.

Some questions:

  • “What does it mean to be an activist today? How can an activist connect to real utopias?”  I spoke again of the connection between interstitial strategies and symbiotic strategies. Social movements to expand urban agriculture would be an example. Building community based urban agriculture is a way of actually transforming the food system in decayed central cities. But it is limited by land use rules and by property rights, and to change these requires politics, politics that change the rules of the game and open space for the movements. This is where activists and sociologists can play a role – linking the community building projects to political struggles. Sociologists can codify the experiences and models so that each new effort does not have to reinvent the wheel.
  • “Are there global south examples to add to your Western ones?” I explained how participatory budgeting came from the South and was initially copied and experimented me in many places in Latin America before really reaching the North. Basic Income is also being experimented in various places in the South more thoroughly that in the north.
  • “With processes that are messy, how can you keep the Real Utopias model?” Messiness is at the heart of the real utopia model. Democratic experimentalism of the sort advocated by John Dewey is central. Learning by doing, trial and error, experimentation – these constitute the iterative process that produces new institutions that.  The idea is not to come up with detailed blueprints in advance that can simply be put into place, but to establish design principles and the a dynamic of learning. That is inherently messy.
  • “What is the use of criticizing capitalism in a society like ours?  Can this be counterproductive?  Maybe it would be better to talk about real utopias without attacking capitalism.”  It may be that if I was an organizer, an activist who spoke regularly to things like church groups that I might decide I needed to tailor my language more carefully to the beliefs of the audience. But I hold academic values too strongly for this. Since I think capitalism is a source of great harm to people, that it is one of the root causes of the problems we face in the world, I feel I have to name the problem correctly if I am to be honest.  I also think that in the ideal world I imagine there probably is some place for a bit of capitalism, some role for capitalism. No socioeconomic structure is ever purely one kind of economic system. American capitalism has public libraries, which distribute books in decidedly non-capitalist ways. So I suspect that there would be a niche for capitalism even in a radically democratic egalitarian society. Capitalism between consenting adults is probably OK. My 94-year old mother, who supports my work tremendously, tells me, using my childhood name, “Rickey, do you have to call it socialism?” I feel that I do need to advocate for socialism, for a social-socialism and criticize capitalism because that best identifies the solutions and the problem.

After the talk people hung around for a bit; a number of students wanted pictures with me, including the group of students from Georgetown College, and I was happy to oblige.

Around 6:00 we left the sociology department and walked across campus to Jill Buoma’s house for dinner. Ten or so faculty members were there. I was really happy not to eat at a restaurant. I almost always prefer home cooking. The party was great – relaxed, lots of laughing, interesting exchanges about life in Berea and Kentucky and other matters. We had an especially nice discussion about the virtue of earnestness.

Around 7:30 Jean left for Louisville. He was flying back early the next morning, whereas I was going to stay for most of the day visiting people associated with the Center for Sustainable cities near Lexington. His leaving signaled the end of our glorious road trip together. Jean figured we had logged somewhere around 2800 miles of driving: San Antonio-Laredo-McAllen-San Antonio; Albuquerque-Chinle-Tsaile-Chinle-Albuquerque; Jackson-New Orleans-Montgomery-Tuskegee-Montgomery-Selma-Birmingham-Nashville-Berea. And we got along wonderfully the entire trip – never any grumpiness. I was sorry to say goodbye to my road buddy.

At 9:00 Tom Boyd escorted me to a cottage on campus that was a kind of retreat/hang-out for nontraditional students. They didn’t live there, but it had a kitchen large living room, and a number of study rooms. It was near the female dorm and was referred to as part of “Estrogen Island”, in contrast to the “penile colony” where the male dorm was located. There are nine or ten people waiting for me, mostly women, but a few guys as well. A number of them were single moms, and some of the others were clearly older adult returning students. One was a grandmother (although only 45). I told her I was jealous. She was basically the impresario of the event. She suggested that everyone introduce themselves to me. As each student did, I asked them questions about their work, commented on various themes and issues, sometimes gave some advice or suggestions, and after a bit of time she would gently suggest that we move on to another student, clearly anting to be sure everyone had a turn. It was a wonderful, relaxed, meandering conversation. The time slipped by and I didn’t even realize I was beginning to wilt, until suddenly, around 11:15 I felt a wave of fatigue.  I knew that I had a breakfast gathering with Jill and the other faculty in sociology at 8:00 the next morning, so I reluctantly said that I needed to call it a night.

The Boone Tavern where I was staying was just 100 yards or so away, so I was in bed just a bit after midnight.

Day 10 — Nashville Continued

Apr 18th, 2012 Posted in On the Road, Photos, Visit Summary | No Comments »

April 17, 2012, Tennessee State University

The visit to TSU was a bit different from the other HBCUs we visited. In the other visits we engaged in a variety of gatherings – with faculty, with students, with both in the public lecture. There was also time for more informal discussion. At TSU the only event was the public lecture. The option of a meeting with students was on the schedule for after the lecture, but in the end the student dispersed at that session didn’t happen. One reason, I think, was that this week is the celebration of the centennial of the founding of TSU, and tomorrow is the day of the big events connected with this. As a result the lecture was held in a different part of the campus from sociology, and people were especially busy. I did have an intensive discussion with two undergraduate students who were interested in graduate school after the lecture, and I explored with them the issue of getting an MA degree as a bridge to a PhD program, but it was a bit rushed and I felt bad that I didn’t have the chance to be more thoroughly encouraging.

At the talk itself there was a very lively discussion with the audience. Somewhat to my surprise, there was an extended discussion, involving four or five different people, on the issue of the value of Wikipedia and whether or not it represented a “real utopia”. One person strongly questioned the value of Wikipedia because of its unreliability, but others defended it because you could also follow up on the sources, and the editorial process was not so different from peer review. A former editor of a journal said that peer review journals were like monarchies with an all-powerful king making the final decisions. When I noted the way in which Wikipedia destroyed the market for the print edition of the Britannica, the critic of Wikipedia said that this was a great loss. I then explained the purposes of the ASA Wikipedia initiative and stressed the ways in which Wikipedia should be seen as a dynamic process rather than a static document. It is a massive public good and it will improve and become of high quality to the extent that experts in subjects begin to see it as a professional responsibility to contribute to the public good. The use of Wikipedia writing assignments in sociology courses is one way of doing this over time.

A few other issues discussed:

  • “Academic life is supposed run like a real utopia, but managerialism in many universities constantly undercuts this.”
  • “Isn’t it the case that powerful people and organization are in the best position to take advantage of new digital technologies? Do these technologies really facilitate real utopias?” I replied that powerful people always have advantages with respect to any technology, but that the new digital technologies have if anything reduced the disadvantage of the less powerful. It helps them more than it helps elites. IT massively reduces the costs of coordinating collective actions across distances, even across borders.  It opens up all sorts of new possibilities. And it reduces economies of scale, which is one of the sources of power of the wealthy – they can deploy technologies that require big economies of scale.
  • “What about the digital divide in the U.S.? Poor people have much less access to these technologies.” I explained that this was really much more of a political problem than a strictly technological one. We are a rich enough country to completely eliminate inequalities in access to these technologies if we had the political will to do so. And since access is getting cheaper and cheaper over time, this should become easier to overcome.
  • “I like the utopia part a lot, but I am not convinced about the real part. Consumerism is such a powerful thing in the U.S. Americans love their consumption: doesn’t this make the “real” part of real utopia unrealistic? How can you get people to move away from consumerism.” I said that I didn’t have any magic strategies for this. The best I could offer was the prospect of building new institutions on the ground the embodied these other values and for people to see that alternative ways of living – even in a capitalist society – are possible. But to make those possibilities viable, you need to create the new realities – community gardens, participatory budgeting, worker cooperatives.

It was pouring after the talk, so Jean and I scuttled the tentative plan we had made to explore a bit the honky-tonk street in the downtown. Instead we decided to go to Opryland and maybe even go to the Grand Ole Opry. It turned out that it was sold out, so all we did was go to dinner.


Day 10 — Nashville

Apr 18th, 2012 Posted in On the Road, Photos, Visit Summary | No Comments »

April 17, 2012, Vanderbilt University

The first stop for the day was Vanderbilt University.  I had initially resisted visiting Vanderbilt, not because of any lack of interest in the department or its students, but because I felt that in the context of the HBCU tour it would be better for people at Vanderbilt interested in hearing me speak to come to Tennessee State for the lecture this afternoon. But Jean thought it would be good for me to do something there, so I suggested I do a Speed Dating Mater Class like I did at Penn State just before the beginning of the HBCU trip.

We arrived at Vanderbilt at 8:30 for a very pleasant hour of informal conversation with faculty in the Sociology Department. I described the HBCU tour I was doing as well as some of the distinctive things that were going to happen at the ASA meeting in August.  I also raised the issue with the department about the minority “pipeline” – the problem of recruiting good undergraduates to go on to get PhDs in sociology and then enter the pool for assistant professors. One of the students I met in Laredo at TAMIU is one of the in-coming PhD students at Vanderbilt for next year. I told them about the MA program at TAMIU which automatically admits any student from their own program with a BA in sociology and sees one of its purposes as preparing their students to enter PhD programs in leading universities. I encouraged the faculty at Vanderbilt to think creatively about how they might be able to partner with Tennessee State to increase the flow of minority students into grad school. Vanderbilt is in the unusual position of being in the same city as a strong HBCU with a very active sociology program, and this could be an excellent context for increasing the flow of African American students into graduate school. They seemed receptive, but of course it is not so easy in practice to figure out an actual process for doing this successfully.

At 9:40 we began the speed-dating. There were ten students who wanted to participate, and since Jean and I needed to leave right at 11:30, I figured we really only could give 9 minutes for each “date.” The routine was the same as at Penn State: each student gave a condensed no-beating-around-the-bush account of their research topic and then explained some problem, confusion, impasse, bottleneck, unresolved issue, on which they wanted feedback. I then filled the time remaining with off-the-cuff thoughts and suggestions. I had my iPod countdown timer on the table with the quacking duck signaling the end of the time. The scene was wonderful: a dozen or so students intensively listening around a table; one person laying out core ideas of research; me giving as much focused attention as I can and then trying my best to give constructive reactions; and then a duck quacking vigorously telling us it is time to move on.

As has been the case in other times I have done this, I found this incredibly interesting and, I think, productive for the students. I won’t try to reconstruct my comments on the projects in detail, but here are brief descriptions of the research and a few scattered comments:

Sammy Shaw is working on a project concerning the ways in which artists navigate their artistic careers in cities that are not at the center of the art world. The study involved ethnographic data in Portland and Nashville. The issue we discussed was the difficulty of using Bourdieu’s framework in a way that isn’t just descriptive. I expressed some sympathy with the problem of finding “surprises” when you use Bourdieu’s field framework since it doesn’t tend to make strong predictions about configurations of relations, and in the absence of Predictions (expectations), you can’t be surprised by anything. I suggested that perhaps the old concept of reference group might be useful here – artists can have embedded local references groups which in a sense may insulate them from some of the status and power issues bound up with the large “field of power” in the art world.

Ebony Duncan is studying the impact of charter school reforms on minority communities.  She is particularly interested in the ways charter schools do, or do not, engage parents as meaningful partners. She also wanted to explore the idea that race should be seen not just as a liability, but as a positive asset, but was puzzled about how to construct a socioeconomic scale or index that reflects race as an asset. I commented that in exploring charter schools it is very important not to rely only on official documents and mission statements, since all Charter schools claim to be deeply concerned about the students and to engage the community and parents. I like the idea of race as an asset, but wonder whether it is really race as such which is the asset or, instead, things like communities and solidarities that are built around racial experiences.

Whitney Laster is interested in which she referred to as racial liminality – the ways in which certain groups are “in between” primary racial categories – mixed race categories being good examples. She wants to study “Coloreds” in South Africa as an instance of this. One issue she had was whether she should also have some comparative cases. Would she risk being seen as an area specialist if she only studied the South Africa case? I suggested that she probably didn’t need to worry so much about being pigeon-holed as an Africanist, especially since the theoretical problem she was exploring had such resonance in the American sociology of race. Comparative research always has potentially big payoffs, but maybe the kind of variation to look at would be within South Africa – perhaps Durban vs Johannesburg vs Capetown as three contexts in which liminality is constructed.

Blake Sisk is studying occupational mobility of previously unauthorized immigrants (about 30-40% of legal migrants were previously unauthorized). The research wants to compare them with people who were always authorized immigrants and those who stayed unauthorized during the whole period. The data spans three years. The issue is the extent to which the previous unauthorized status has enduring impacts on mobility chances. I thought this was a very interesting agenda, but that it was fraught with measurement problems, especially since there is likely to be very large selection issues into the categories and it is unrealistic to deal with these with “controls.” I discussed a bit the various strategies of dealing with these problems, but said that one should be a bit skeptical about all of these. A key question is: how likely is it to have findings that are strong enough to withstand the criticism that the differences in groups reflect unmeasured selection biases?

Carly Rush is studying the contemporary formation of deaf culture. The decline in residential schools for deaf children combined with the rise of things like cochlear implants has weakened attraction to Deaf Culture. Her dissertation focuses on the way various kinds of cultural organizations for the deaf — deaf clubs, deaf theater and music, institutions like Gallaudet, etc. – shaping the movement of people into deaf world. She is planning an Ethnographic study in Gallaudet where she will enroll next year (she is already fluent in ASL). Her main concern was whether she should also study a second site – a school for the deaf in Fremont California in which people take a very militant stance in support of deafhood. I said that I thought unequivocally it was worth investing the time and energy for the second case study. This should be thought of as banking data for the future as well. I know that this is a problem today when departments are putting such pressure on students to finish quickly, restricting funding to five years. But this can be a huge constraint, undermining the quality of data gathering, especially in this kind of project. If at all possible, adding the second case will have potentially great pay-offs. I also talked a little about my visit to Gallaudet University and how completely fascinating I found the issues around deaf culture and its dilemmas. I suggested that Carly meet Margaret Vitullo in the ASA Office who taught for many years at Gallaudet and would be a wonderful resource for her project.

Sandra Arch is studying the effects of development on the environment in the case of an island off the coast of Honduras that is a prime dive destination and has witnessed a huge tourist growth because of diving. This has had serious environmental impacts on the reef. She is in the early stages of the project, really the exploratory stages, and is trying to figure out what the most important questions might be. I used her case study as the basis for commenting on the distinction between learning about a case and learning from the case – on the analogy of a doctor who in diagnosing a patient conducts a research project in which much is learned about the patient’s disease, but generally nothing is learned from the patient. That is, knowledge about disease processes is not changed as a result. A lot of case study research is like that in sociology. The problem is that the cases are chosen not because of their potential to push general knowledge forward by, for example, showing some inconsistencies with received wisdom, but rather because the researcher has some special interest in the case for personal reasons. This can result in the choice of case in which it mostly illustrates the familiar story of capitalist developers not attending to the impact of their actions, and the marginally successful efforts of local and environmental forces to counteract this (or something like that).

Leslie Rodriguez is studying ways in which collaboration between the local police in Nashville and the immigration authorities is reflected in arrest patterns for minor offenses like driving without a license.  She is focusing on the way the arrest documents include more information than strictly needed for the arrest, and seeing if this extra information is connected to foreign status of the arrestee. I suggested that it would also be important to talk to cops and see how they understood what they were doing when thy added this extra information.  Complementing the quantitative study with more qualitative work on the meanings of the key actors engaged in generating the data could add a lot to the interpretation.

Kwon Mai is at the very beginning of his research. He is interested in explaining why, before the end of the USSR, there were 21 “Communist States” and now there are only five: why have these five persisted? I encouraged him to be careful with the expression “Communist States.” North Korea and China and Cuba are not all instances of the same kind of state and economy. If the proper category is one-party authoritarian states, then many of the pre-1990 “Communist States” are still one-party authoritarian states, even if the parties are no longer called Communist.

Allison McGrath wants to study how feminism is treated and understood by women within various white supremacy organizations. This follows the line of research done by Kathleen Blee, but instead of just focusing on the role of women in these organizations she is interested in how feminism itself is dealt with and even incorporated into the identities of the women involved in the movements. Tis lead to a discussion of issues connected with gathering data on such groups and the dilemmas of being transparent vs at least partially “under cover”.

Tailor Hargrove is interested in exploring various aspects of the “stress process model” in mental illness, especially as this affects black students. In the preliminary research he found that SES seemed to have no effects on the mental health outcomes in his models, even though he assumed that people with lower SES would be under more stress. I suggested that it was entirely possible that high SES and low SES each generated above average stress, but for different reasons: high SES puts people into high stakes competitive contexts which are stressful, for example. Low SES puts people in vulnerable positions, with lots of uncertainty and risks, which is stressful. Basically what you need to do is think through the mechanisms involved and then try to more directly measure these.

Everyone in who wanted to participate managed to do so by 11:30 when we had to leave. Jean and I then grabbed sandwiches and drove off to Tennessee State University, first going the wrong way on highway 440 for five or six miles and then turning around and eventually arriving at our destination by 12:30.

Day 9 — Austin Peay State University, Clarkesville, Tennessee

Apr 17th, 2012 Posted in Photos, Visit Summary | No Comments »

 April 16, 2012

A year ago I gave a talk at a conference on Social Justice at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. After the talk a group of undergraduates approached me and said that they were from the sociology club at Austin Peay State University and had driven to the conference to hear me talk. One them, D.J., said he was the VP of the club and asked me if I would be willing to come to Austin Peay to talk to the sociology club. I was charmed by the invitation and said that I would be happy to come if we could figure out a way to tag this on to some other trip. In the course of the fall as my plans for the spring HBCU tour firmed up, I got back in touch with the Sociology cub and said that I was going to be in Nashville in April. Jean then worked out the specifics with the chair of the department.

Austin Peay is a regional university in the Tennessee system about an hour’s drive northwest of Nashville. It has about 9800 students, 35% minorities, 61% female and 40% what they refer to as nontraditional students. The motto for the campus is “Let’s Go Peay.”

We arrived around 10 and spent the first hour talking about the department with five of the six sociology faculty members. The department had only recently been established as an autonomous department – before then it shared a chair of department with the political science department. It had also just moved into a new building, with nice offices and classrooms and lots of lights. Before this they had been in a basement. The official ribbon-cutting ceremony to inaugurate the new quarters was set for this afternoon. The faculty were all very pleased and excited about these recent developments. They were young – one tenured professor, the Chair, David Steele, and six assistant professors – and perhaps this contributed to the sense of vitality and commitment. No one seemed at all burned out; they all seemed very energetic and engaged with students and the fate of the department. Judging from the discussions I had with students later in the day, they were clearly doing an excellent job in transmitting this enthusiasm to their students.

An interesting issue that came up during the faculty discussion concerned the possibility of the ASA establishing some kind of formal accreditation of sociology departments. The ASA provides all sorts of materials which help departments review their curriculum, develop standards for new courses, and so on, but nothing that constitutes an official set of minimum standards to be an ASA-accredited sociology program. The chair of the Austin Peay department, David Steele, felt that such standards would potentially help them negotiate resources from their administration, since they could claim that they needed another faculty member (say) in order to get accreditation. I pointed out that it could also work as a way of getting rid of a department that fails to meet the standard. In practice I think it would also be almost impossible for the ASA to work out a set of minimum curricular elements for an “accredited” sociology BA because it would be so hard to get any kind of consensus on this, but it raises interesting issues.

Clarksville, we were told, is a very conservative city. Partially this is because of the large military base nearby, Fort Campbell. The University has a branch campus there were soldiers can pursue a BA. The sociology department has just started courses there and now as at least a couple of sociology majors on the base. Some of the faculty are also beginning a research project on the adjustment to the end of don’t ask don’t tell at the base compared to bases on the East and West Coast. Still, in spite of the military, some of the students, we were told, were really radical: “They want to change the world right away.” There had been an Occupy Clarksville movement that had only closed up its encampment recently. A number of students I met later in the day had been involved and were certainly very animated by the ideals of the occupy movement.

From the faculty meeting we went to lunch at a very pleasant local in the downtown, historic district of Clarksville, and then returned for an informal chat with about 15 students. The idea was for me to tell them something about my life in sociology and then just have a meandering discussion. I probably spent a little too much time telling my biography, but it ended up triggering an interesting discussion about religion. I mentioned that to keep out of the military during the Vietnam War I had enrolled in a seminary and worked at San Quentin Prison for a year as intern chaplain. A number of the students in the group were taking sociology of religion and asked me how my time in the seminar had affected my views about religion. This segued into a discussion of religion and politics, religion and morality, and a variety of other issues. In retrospect I think I may not have been sensitive enough to the likely sensibilities of my audience. Usually I am very tuned into this, but I forgot that I was in the South and that religion was likely to be taken quite seriously by some of the students. At one point in particular I may have been insensitive: I expressed my general views on the relationship between morality and religion, arguing that a person could have deep and robust moral conviction without grounding those moral beliefs in religion. I then raised a general point about the character of the claim made by some people that moral codes are dictated by God and that without God’s moral commandments, morality would lose its anchor: When people make this claim, are the saying that if God had commanded people to be mean and nasty rather than loving and compassionate, that it would have then been moral to be mean and nasty? If you then say that of course God would never command that, this implies that God had reasons for treating love and kindness and moral goods, that it is not a reflection of the arbitrary will of God. If this is so, then the reasons themselves provide the true grounding for these moral codes, not the fact God communicated these reasons to us. I think the discussion made some people uncomfortable, and when I sensed this, I shifted gears.

Following the informal discussion there was a department celebration of the opening of the new department digs, with a formal ribbon cutting ceremony and nibbles. In the reception I had an animated discussion with some of the students who had been active in the occupy movement.  They were indeed radical, committed, and articulate.  One in particular was very much animated by the anarchist impulse to refuse compliance with the state, to stay outside of any form of electoral politics and to connect to the state only through protest. One person mused, “If we could have a general strike in which everyone across the country participated we could change things.” The impatience is understandable, and the fantasy appealing, but the politics that reflect this, a dead end.

After the reception, Jean and I conducted the careers & sociology workshop, and then I gave my talk. Here are a few of the questions that followed:

  • “What is the role of the nation state in real utopias?”  I took this question to be about the two things: the role of the state in building real utopias, and the extent to which real utopias were bounded within the geographical scale of the nation state. On the first point I emphasized the idea that societies are not totalizing systems within which everything fits together in a neat organic whole; they are fragmented and loosely coupled with lots of spaces for counter-system institutions. This holds for the state as well – it is only partially internally coherent, and this allows – within limits – for institutions to be created that violate the core norms of the dominant system. On the second point I described instances of real utopias that were trans-national, that crossed borders and operated in a kind of global civil society.
  • “If the real utopia changes are contrary to capitalism, won’t this cause capitalism to fail?” I used this question as an occasion to talk about interstitial transformations and the possibility of building contradictory principles into the spaces of the system without knowing in advance how far this can go and what it would take to reach a tipping point in which capitalism is reduced to a secondary niche within the overall configuration.
  • “Does this mean abandoning a revolutionary ideology? How can anyone do anything today when everything is so corrupt and elections are so meaningless? Do we have to give up Big change for such small changes?” I explained that if by revolutionary ideology you mean the radicalness of the transformations you seek, then what I am proposing is revolutionary – it calls for a thorough-going, radical transformation of institutions towards a democratic egalitarian alternative.  But it is anti-ruptural and rejects the possibility of a revolutionary seizure of power as a means to accomplishing such revolutionary transformation. As for abandoning the idea of Big Changes, I think we should avoid the simple dichotomy of big vs small changes: cumulative small changes, if linked together and encompassing sufficient variety of settings and constitute a big change. This might take a long time, but we don’t know the limits of cumulative possibility. The woman asking the question plaintively added, “But I’m so impatient.”
  • “What do you mean  “reconstructing Marxism” in your piece with Burawoy in 2001?” I explained that reconstructing Marxism really meant sorting through the many ideas and concepts in the Marxist tradition and seeing which were robust and important for contemporary analysis, which needed repair and clarification, and which should be dropped. The idea is that Marxism is a tradition of debate and intellectual development rather than a doctrine. I explained that from my perspective the pivotal elements were class analysis, the critique of capitalism, and the search for a democratic-egalitarian alternative.
  • “Why do ideas like participating budgeting and worker cooperatives get so much more attention in other countries and spread so much more rapidly than here?” Alas, the United States is not going to be in the vanguard of progressive transformations. But still, there are experiments going on here that are important. And in some specific ways the U.S. has real strengths. We have traditions of voluntarism and engagement in civil society that can be the basis for building new institutions and grassroots initiatives. This is one reason why PB is so appealing because it taps into this.

By the time the discussion winded down, it was getting on to 6pm. Nonstop talking from 10-6, and not exhausted. I must be healthy again.

We drove back to Nashville and headed to the center of town for dinner. We didn’t have any guides or specific idea, but just plunked down somewhere plausible and wondered about for a while. It seems we went the wrong direction. We were within a couple of blocks of the honky-tonk district, but went away from it. Finally we found a small restaurant that advertised itself as classic American dining. We were hungry and the only other choice right there was – yes – Sushi, so we went for classic American, especially after the waitress who was standing outside said to us, “You boys want some good food?” Jean had corned beef hash with three eggs over easy.  I had a Mediterranean salad with grilled chicken breast and grilled portabella mushrooms.  Not exactly what I would call classic American dining, but perfectly good.


Day 7 & 8 — driving north to Nashville

Apr 16th, 2012 Posted in On the Road, Photos | No Comments »

April 14&15

The fireworks and music from Saturday night came from the opening game of the season for the Montgomery minor league baseball team, the Biscuits. What a fantastic name for a baseball team. If I had known they were playing we would have gone – Jean is a big baseball fan and I always like the scene of local sports events.

We spent the weekend visiting civil rights sites in Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham. On Saturday we drove to Selma along the route of the Selma to Montgomery march of 1965 ending the drive where the march began on the Edmund Pettus bridge.  The National Park Service has recently designated the Selma-Montgomery route a national historical site and are in the process of developing interpretative centers and other facilities. We stopped by the park visitor center in Selma, got some maps and brochures, and then drove around the town a little. Many of the storefronts and buildings seemed very much like the images from photos from the Civil Rights era.

Right near the bridge was the national voting rights museum. From the outside it looked more like an auto parts store than a museum, nothing like what we had anticipated, but once inside it was an impressive, compelling museum on the struggle for voting rights in the South with a particular focus on the events in Selma. The museum was run by a nonprofit organization While there we met on of the local civil rights activists and a fieldworker for SNCC from the 1960s, Annie Pearl Avery. She approached us and introduced herself and was eager to talk about those times and her experiences.

Today, Sunday, we drove to Birmingham to see the museum at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  It is located facing the park where a march of mainly youth was met with high powered fire hoses and police dogs under the direction of Sherriff Bull Connor. The park itself has become a sculpture garden with stunning sculptures commemorating those events. The most striking was a space you passed through with snarling German shepherds on each side pulling at leashes as if they were lurching at you.

The museum is absolutely worth the trip. You walk through it in a specific sequence, beginning with a series of exhibits that convey something of the reality of the Jim Crow era. You see mock-ups of a typical white and black elementary school classroom in the 1950s, a segregated drinking fountain, a bus with segregated seating, along with exhibits about the KKK, the segregation laws,, the constitutional decisions that backed them, and so on. Then you move to the Civil Rights era and basically walk through a series of spaces chronologically ordered, each featuring some pivotal event, with time lines and descriptive materials giving the context.  Throughout the exhibits there are videos and music and recordings bring the times and emotional intensity to life. We spent almost three hours there.

In the exhibit about the 1963 March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream Speech” they show a video of the entire speech, which is always inspiring, along with footage of people at the march. As it turned out, at age 16 I was at the March on Washington. I went there with my cousin Walley who lived in New York. We carried a large home-made poster of a white and black had clasping. Near the beginning of the film shown in the museum there was a close-up of the crowd marching, and there was our sign, with me by the side for about half a second.  If you blinked, you would miss it.

Saturday night

Apr 16th, 2012 Posted in On the Road | No Comments »

We’re back in our hotel after a day of visiting civil rights sites in Selma and the surrounding area. It seems that this is prom night – at dinner (at another sushi restaurant) there were lots of high school kids decked out. Now, outside our window, but out of site, there is some loud band playing somewhere nearby, perhaps at the river front, and fireworks exploding in the sky.

Day 6 — Tuskegee University

Apr 16th, 2012 Posted in On the Road, Photos, Visit Summary | No Comments »

April 13, 2012

When I first woke up this morning I thought I was over the worst of my cold, but by 9:00 I was coughing, clogged up, sluggish. What I really wanted to was sleep the day through, but of course that wasn’t on. Fortified with a decongestant and ibuprofen I managed to get through the day.

Tuskegee University is about an hour drive from Montgomery.  Like Alcorn State, it is located in the middle of a rural area with no real urban amenities nearby. When I spoke with students during the day they said that in the evening if they wanted to go out for dinner they really had to go to Montgomery, Auburn was a bit closer but, as one student said, there are race issues in Auburn.

When we arrived on campus we were greeted enthusiastically by the head of the sociology department, Vivian Carter. She is clearly the animating spirit in the sociology program here. I am really impressed with how much difference one very energetic and committed person can make.

The morning at Tuskegee began with a breakfast at a conference on Disparities in Health sponsored by the University. The tables in the room were labeled with health issues and diseases: obesity, breast cancer, diabetes, prostate cancer, hypertension. The idea was for people doing research on different disease issues to congregate at the same table for informal discussion at breakfast, which makes total sense, but it still felt strange to sit down at a table labeled with some dire malady. Since Dr. Carter was currently working on research on prostate cancer, that is where we sat. She had previously been working on issues connected to the lack of adequate screening for breast cancer in rural Alabama – actually, more like the absence of any screening – and at one point in working with the communities some asked the question “what about the men?” That led her to work on similar issues around prostate cancer.

The actual program in the morning began with what was referred to as an “Inspiration”. The sister of one of the organizers of the conference led us in a prayer, followed by a lovely gospel song and then an extended religious reflection on God and faith and their importance to the work of this gathering. Religion is certainly woven into the fabric of life in this part of the country to a much greater extent than in my usual academic circles.

We weren’t able to attend much of the symposium itself, but we did listen to the first part of a presentation on the importance of the Affordable Health Care Act for Alabama. The presentation was given by an outreach specialist for the Department of Health and Human Services for Region IV, which includes most of the South. The speaker began by saying how much she enjoyed the “Inspiration”, especially the song which was her favorite gospel song. She then gave a greeting to fellow sorority sisters. On several occasions at different campuses we have visited mention has been made of Black sororities, at least one of which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. I don’t know the history of Greek organizations on Black campuses, but they seem to have some real salience.

At 10 we went for a brief meeting with the provost of the University and then a tour of the Carver Museum. Tuskegee University has been designated a national historical site and has a museum administered by the National Park Service. It became very clear immediately when we arrived at the campus that people here have a very strong sense of its historical importance – founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881 and the place where George Washington Carver did his most important research for many decades. Throughout much of the 20th century it seems that when rich American philanthropists wanted to do something for Black education, one of their prime targets was Tuskegee. There were photos in the museum of people like Andrew Carnegie at the campus. After lunch we continued exploring the historical aspects of the campus by a visit to the University archives (although unfortunately the director was away so we couldn’t really be shown around) and the University historical museum, where there was an exhibit on the notorious US Government Syphilis research project carried out in Tuskegee (which we were told was not carried out with cooperation of Tuskegee University – then called the Tuskegee Institute – and thus should not be referred to as the Tuskegee project).

By the time of my talk at 4pm I was really dragging.  My voice was very throaty and I couldn’t project it at all. Fortunately I had a good lapel mic and people could hear me fine. And, as usually happens in such situations, once I got going in the talk and my focus was on the material and the audience and not my ailments, I was energized and able to do the talk without too much difficulty. I did cough quite a bit towards the end, and at one point I blew my nose forgetting that I was miked. It is amazing how loud a nose blowing can be with a good lapel mic.

I try very hard when I give talks, even today when I was really under the weather, not to be on “automatic pilot.” Given that I have given more or less the same talk many times now, it is easy to slip into that and not to actively think about the ideas as you relay them. When that happens, I think the audience can feel it – that you are just going through the motions. But it is not just that: you lose the chance to reflect on the flow of the ideas and interject new thoughts when you do a lecture in a mechanical way. As it turned out, this lecture was one of those times when in the middle of the talk, I had an idea for a new way of illustrating a point that I hadn’t planned on before the talk. This is one of the things I love about giving talks to new audience. With the mental focus on communicating the ideas and the repeated engagements with the same material, I often slip into a relatively improvisational mode in which new formulations jump out at me. Here is the issue: One of the things I discuss about half way through the talk is the distinction between policy reforms and looking at social transformations from the point of view of real utopias. The analysis and evaluation of policy reforms looks at proposals for improving life and asks: on balance do these changes make things better? The analysis of real utopias ask: what is the kind of society we want, what is the destination we want to realize, and to what extent does any given change move us in that direction. For real utopias, then, the critical problem is thinking through the central principles of the world we want to have and then asking of any given transformation: does this help build the elements of that world? That is pretty abstract. As I said this in the talk a really good illustration occurred to me: Consider the problem of adequate nutrition and hunger in America. This problem certainly violates the egalitarian principle that all people should have broadly equal access to the conditions necessary to live a flourishing life. Food stamps are a way of improving people’s lives with respect to this issue. But they are not a real utopia: in a society built around principle of social justice there would be no food stamps, no means-tested programs to fill gaps in nutrition. I strongly support food stamps as a practical solution to a pressing problem, but they are not a building block of a just society; they reflect and counteract injustice but do not embody justice. Community land-trusts connected to new urban agriculture, on the other hand, are potentially elements of a democratic egalitarian alternative to existing institutions around the production and distribution of food. They help solve the problem of the food desserts in central cities by restructuring the urban ecology of land and food and its relation to population, and potentially in ways that strengthens community participation and democratic control. I need to work this through a bit more, but I like the contrast with food stamps as a way of illustrating the real utopian perspective.

Here are a few of the issues raised in the discussion:

  • “Could you explain policy juries and randomocracy?” One of the examples of real utopias on the list I provide in one of the slides, but had not had time to discuss, was policy juries and randomocracy. I explained that this was a way of bringing aspects of Athenian democracy to bear on contemporary issues. In Athens democratic councils were filled by lot, by random selection. We still do this for juries today. The proposal was to extend this to more contexts where a representative sample of citizens might be the most effective way of embodying the ideal of government by the people. I suggested that the democratic quality of state legislatures might be enhanced of getting rid of one of the chambers and replacing it with a citizens assembly of randomly selected members. In the US Congress there is a rationale for a Senate representing states on a non-population basis, but what is the rationale for having state Senates as well as Houses of Representatives, both elected on the basis of population districts (albeit larger and smaller geographic units)? Why not get rid of the senate chambers and have a random selection assembly – well paid to make it attractive to citizens, with say three year terms and a third of the members replaced every year? [After the lecture was done I spoke with the young woman who had asked me this question. I felt it was unusual for someone to specifically pick up on the “randomocracy” term and ask about. She said that she was the campaign manager for a friend of hers – also a Tuskegee student – who was running for city council in Tuskegee. She was really interested in ideas about how local government could be made more participatory and democratic.]
  • “Are real utopias the next stage in capitalism or is this fundamentally opposed to capitalism?” I explained that I didn’t like the expression “stage” because it somehow suggested some sort Hegelian logic of a progressive of immanent stages that unfold towards some destination. If real utopias are to emerge they will do so out of conscious purposes and struggles. They should be seen simultaneously as something that is fundamentally opposed to capitalism, or at least in tension with capitalism, as well as something that occurs within capitalism.
  • “What about The Tea Party – is this a parallel with real utopias? And what about the occupy movement?” My response: All social movements have ideals, visions of the world they want to create. And one might want to say that these ideals regardless of their content are “utopias.” Everyone has their own utopia. I am using the term utopia in a more restrictive way, not as simply the specification of an ideal society regardless of the content of the ideals, but of society that realizes our aspirations for a just and humane world. But there is another issue here: my idea of “real” utopia insists that we pay attention to the problems of unintended consequences, self-destructive dynamics and normative trade-offs. The Tea Party vision for institutional transformation is oblivious to all of these. Their vision of the minimalist state with unregulated free markets and drastic reductions of taxes and services would have massively self-destructive consequences and negative side effects even from the point of view of the values which Tea Party members profess. As for the Occupy Movement, I would say two things: First, as a movement it was mostly a movement of expressive protest, clearer about what it opposed than its vision of alternatives. Second, in its internal processes it did embody rudimentary models of new forms of direct democracy, deliberation and consensus formation. To be sure, these were enacted in the narrow context of the encampments, but still those could be said to represent some prefigurative elements of real utopia.
  • “Do you have any thoughts about the Affordable health care act as a real utopia?” I said that while the affordable health care act had many desirable elements and would be an improvement over the existing institutional arrangements, it was really not a real utopian model, but rather a kind of patchwork, jerry-rigged solution to deep flaws in the existing system of healthcare in the United States. Perhaps it was the best that Obama could accomplish given the historical constraints, but in an ideal democratic egalitarian health system that reflects the ideals of equal access to the conditions to live a flourishing life there would be little or no role for private, profit-maximizing private insurance companies. If the Affordable Health Care Act survives the Supreme Court ruling it might set the stage for some future reform that would begin to introduce real utopian elements, but this reform itself does not.
  • “Do you have any thoughts about Real Utopian directions for higher education?” I didn’t have a lot to say on this, and I was beginning to run out of steam. I made two main points. The first was that the current trends towards a commercialization of higher education and an ever-greater subordination of educational goals to narrow business interests was moving higher education in exactly the wrong direction. Second, I mentioned briefly the idea of a graduate-tax as a way of replacing tuition for higher education, along the lines adopted in Scotland where there is no tuition, but university graduates pay a surtax on their income tax if their income rises above the median income (I think that’s the threshold). This gets rid of the problem of amassing large debts and the understandable risk-aversion of poor people taking out large loans for degrees with an uncertain pay-off, and yet also recognizes the fact that university education gives people a chance at higher earnings and this should not be subsidized entirely by taxpayers.

By the time the lecture was done, I was pretty much spent. But I also felt, somehow, that I was on the verge of turning the corner. There was a pleasant reception after the talk for an hour or so, and then we headed back to Montgomery. I began to feel revived a bit.

Dinner was at a Sushi place in the old railroad station – actually a combined Sushi & Thai restaurant. There seem to be sushi places all over Montgomery. We have counted at least six or seven we’ve seen from the highway. That certainly doesn’t correspond to my stereotype of Alabama: visit Alabama, eat sushi. I was in bed by 9:30 and asleep by 9:35.

The next morning, after 10 hours of sleep, I felt almost completely well.



Day 5 — New Orleans to Montgomery

Apr 13th, 2012 Posted in On the Road | No Comments »

April 12, 2012

My cold was much worse today, really miserable. The best would have been to stay in bed, but couldn’t. In the morning Marcia and I drove around the city seeing different neighborhoods with Vern Baxter, who has been doing really interesting research on the social psychological effects on people in different places of Katrina. I hadn’t slept very well and kept dozing off in spite of being really interested in what he had to say. We saw the devastated part of the L9W, which we hadn’t been able to see in the dark the night before. It looked more like a rural community with overgrown lots, a few houses here and there, but nothing like the dense blocks of houses everywhere else. Then there was the new housing being built by the foundation started by Brad Pitt – the Make It Right Foundation, with interesting environmentally compatible houses raised above the flood line. I gather that there is some controversy about these new houses since many of them are being occupied by new residents, not returning previous residents, and they are more expensive than initially planned. And from there we wandered around the various other corners of the city. As I said, I slept through much of this.

Vern dropped us off at Xavier around 12:30 where I hooked up with Jean to finish the professional workshop with students. Then we stopped for a subway sandwich and cold medicine and drove off to Montgomery, were we are this evening. I slept most of the way on that trip as well. With luck I will be better tomorrow.

Day 4 Continued, Lower Ninth Ward

Apr 13th, 2012 Posted in On the Road, Photos | No Comments »

Later that Night

After the talk, Jean, Marcia and I went with a person named Tom Wooten to the Lower Ninth Ward for a meeting with people involved in community activism. Here’s the background: I had met Tom in my living room a month ago when he was in Madison for “visit day” as a prospective graduate student. He had been living in New Orleans since 2007 and was heavily involved in community projects in the city. He is currently a teacher in a middle school. When I met him I asked if it would be possible to meet with people in the Lower Ninth Ward while I was there. Tom has just finished a book on community struggles to rebuild, We Shall Not Be Moved, which is to be published by Beacon Press. I read it as part of my preparation for the trip. It is a wonderful account of the heroic efforts of people in the most devastated parts of the city to rebuild their communities and the continual thwarting of those efforts by political elites who have other agendas.

En route to the Lower Ninth Road we stopped at a classic New Orleans spot for po’ boy sandwiches, Parkway Bakery and Café.

Because of the timing, we took the sandwiches with us and drove on the meeting place, an old warehouse that had been converted into a community center called Lower Ninth Ward Village (  This was the brainchild of a resident on the ward, Mack McClendon, who had purchased the warehouse after Katrina with the original purpose of using it to work on antique cars. But then, after a community meeting where issues of organization were discussed, he decided to turn it into a community center. Since then it has functioned as a kind of hub where volunteers come and get connected to local groups. The main room of the center was filled with banners hanging down from the ceiling from many of the universities around the country that had come there with volunteers to help.

We got to the Lower Ninth Ward Village at 8:30. I wolfed down my sandwich so we could begin the discussion. It was moving, powerful, and deeply interesting. There were twenty people present – 16 black, 4 white.  Ages ranged from 20s to 80s. Most were long-time residents of the L9W.

I gave a short introduction explaining the idea of real utopias and illustrating it with the example of worker cooperatives and participatory budgeting. I explained how PB could potentially be quite relevant to New Orleans because of the way in which it gave people direct control over part of the way city budgets were used. The discussion which followed revolved around a number of interconnected themes.

  • The L9W has been treated very different from other parts of the city. It is undergoing a process of gentrification in a whole new way. Only 25% of the original residents have returned. One person offered thee prediction that ten years from now only 5% of the people in the ward will be pre-Katrina residents. It is a prime location, close to downtown, and developers want to transform it.
  • There has been constant obstruction to allowing people to come back. There is only one school in the whole ward, a K-12 school. There is not a single grocery store. There are parts of the ward where there are whole blocks with no houses or only one house. Before Katrina, 65% of the home owners in the L9W were elderly. Most of them just couldn’t cope with the idea of starting over and rebuilding. People are resilient, but it is very hard to rebuild in these conditions.
  • None of this is by accident. This transformation of land use is something elites in the city want – they want to whiten the city and blocking the rebuilding of the L9W for the time being is one way to do this.
  • This all seems hopeless. I replied that new opportunities can emerge in very unexpected ways. One thing we know is that there are very big surprises. I was in the USSR in 1988. No one thought the whole system would disappear within a couple of years.
  • We talked about the idea of PB. One person asked if there are triggers for creating PB or did it happen by accident? Can the design be corrupted? I responded that it is important to distinguish between the accidental conditions in which something like PB gets started and the conditions under which it spreads and is copied. The more places that try PB the more models there are and the more people are likely to want to try it. But also it often does fail. It can be hijacked by elites. There is no guarantee that it will actually work well.
  • One participant in the discussion pushed for a much more positive view of things. This is a desperate place where it is easy to give up. A lot of people have a give-up mentality and don’t embrace things that give us success. What we need are small successes to breed enthusiasm. This is possible: to have projects that bring success and then build on them.
  • One guy who was a welder said that he had been doing welding work all over the city in different neighborhoods affected by the disaster.  Different areas of the city have very different mindsets. Other neighborhoods have been more successful at coming back. In the 9W is is sometimes impossible to get people to participate in a sustained way.
  • A woman at the meeting responded to this by saying that people are just burned out. You go to meeting after meeting after meeting and here all of these promises and make all sorts of plans, and then they get blocked and nothing happens. The community was ready to do things but people get completely burned out. I haven’t been to a meeting in a year.
  • An older man said emphatically that the decision was made that nothing was going to come back .There were plans for grocery store and everything was set, and then it was blocked. Without a grocery store, why would you move back here?
  • Right after Katrina we say a map of the plans for rebuilding the city.  In the map L9W was completely gone. The plan was to wipe out the community. Some areas hit harder or as hard as the L9W have come back, but they haven’t been obstructed.
  • One person talked about the idea that the levee that destroyed the L9W was dynamited rather than simply breached. (This apparently happened in the 1927 Mississippi flood – the deliberate sacrifice of low-lying poor areas of the city to reduce the chance of flooding elsewhere, but it is an urban legend that it happened in 2005).
  • How to get over burnout? I said that burnout is almost inevitable when you have too many meetings with too little results. What you need is more certainty of access to real resources and political allies to get the resources. Ultimately this does become a question of political power and political struggle.
  • One of the elderly people at the meeting talked at length about the creation of nonprofits to deal with the L9W with no ties to the community. These NGOs soaked up lots of money and had no accountability to the people. He said that he personally knew of 9 organizations with more than $1million in hand – but no paper trail. Where has all the money gone? We need accountability.

We continued until 10. By then I was completely wiped out.