For a couple of decades, I have been an “applied sociologist”, meaning that my sociology leaves the classroom and situates itself in organizational contexts. There are many ways that applied sociologists “do sociology”. For the most part, my work focuses on evaluating a range of programs and policies to help organizations get stronger and ultimately, bring in more funds so they can continue to do their good work. Applied sociology may be perceived by some as the step child of academic sociology. “Professor” is a far more classy title than Senior Research Associate or even, Wowza Evaluation Research Expert! But academic and applied sociology are equally good options; the choice to pursue one or the other has more to do with the job market, as well as one’s career goals and interests. That said, applied sociologists have fewer institutionalized steps along the career ladder to achieve “success”, and we certainly experience less institutionalized scrutiny. For better or worse, applied sociologists also don’t generally have a “family” of colleagues for life!
A lot of us “applied folks” are happy with our choice. The work is challenging, and the potential to improve programs and policies that improve people’s health, education, incomes and more is satisfying. Many of us also love to teach, but generally when we do, we’re on the lowest rung of the totem pole as adjuncts, with low wages, no benefits and depending on the institution, no status, even if one is a stellar teacher whose students adore you. But unlike adjuncts who are scraping a living together teaching multiple single courses, we may choose to teach a course, without fully depending on this income.
This spring, I discovered another way to put my sociology into action, when I joined with a friend to organize a neighborhood music festival on porches, called “Jamaica Plain Porchfest”(www.jpporchfest.org).
My type of applied sociology had, for the most part, been stuck in a room, or on occasion, at an event or rally. But I felt ready to break out. While I have been evaluating arts-based programs for a number of years, I found that I could bring my sociological eye to designing and implementing this participatory arts-based musical event. Luckily, I was partnered with an old and dear friend who brought the same sensibility and perspective.
Our sociological eyes went into motion from the very beginning of our planning, as we identified the “outcomes” we wanted to achieve for this event. We live in a community that is considered very diverse, in terms of race/ethnicity, class and sexual/gender orientation. But in reality, the community is very divided. There is a “Latin Quarter” which houses Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Central Americans; there are public housing developments that cloister poor people in large high rises; there are new mixed-income housing developments; there are sections of “town” that are entirely working class, and others that are entirely middle class. Our goal was to bring the various strains of the community together – bridging race/ethnicity and class – using music as the vehicle.
The phenomenon of “porchfests” is not new. The first one was organized in Ithaca, New York in 2007, and now there are 20 of them in cities and towns throughout the U.S., including Tucson, Napa Valley, Boulder, Buffalo (my home town!), Salt Lake City and in Somerville, Massachusetts, the porchfest that initially inspired us. From the looks of the incredible photos on each of their porchfest websites, we can see that they are joyous events that build community. From our conversations with the Ithaca and Somerville porchfesters, we also know how successful they are in promoting community bonding, as people come out on the streets to enjoy music together.
In contrast to some of the neighborhoods where other porchfests take place, around half of Jamaica Plain’s residents are people of color, including 25% Latino, 14% African-American, and 4% Asian, and 50% are white. Our commitment was to promote bridging and bonding, by pursuing three strategies: include a diverse range of musicians in terms of their racial/ethnic backgrounds as well as their musical genres; locate and include porches throughout the neighborhood where musicians can play; and engage and bring out diverse audiences. We hoped that these strategies would help to overcome some of the “tri-furcation” or “quadri-furcation” (!) in the ‘hood.
Initially, we created a Facebook page with a call for musicians and porch hosts. But a lot of people don’t go on Facebook, including 27% of online adults who don’t use social media, and another group of people defined as Facebook “resisters”.
So we reached out to local non-profit organizations, some of whom serve youth, others who manage low-income housing, others who coordinate small business activity, and yet others who run programs around maintaining a beautiful, large park in one of the neighborhood’s low-income neighborhoods. We also reached out to students at a highly renowned local music college. We even “scouted” musicians, sometimes at a local park or other venue, as well as musicians we just heard of through friends.
My organizing partner and I started with the idea that we’d do a “pilot” event, with three bands and three porches. But if were to stay true to our goals, we needed to do more than that. Ultimately, we had 60 bands sign up, and enough porches committed so that two bands could play on each porch. We spent hours poring over the mix of bands and porch hosts we would match, focusing on bringing together a mix of people from diverse backgrounds, by race/ethnicity, gender, and where possible, class. In the end, diverse bands and solo musicians shared a stage – aka porch – hosted by a third party who generously offered her/his porch.
We had been informed that one of the other porchfests almost got shut down one year because there were crowds of people roaming the streets, obstructing traffic and trashing neighbor’s lawns. So we created a tiered structure, in which each porch had a “Porch Fun Manager”, each cluster of porches in a particular part of neighborhood had a “Cluster Manager”, and the overall event had two “Network Managers” (me and my partner), who kept an eye on the whole picture. Organizational sociology in action…
While the two of us organized this event, we realized that we were operating within the construct of social institutions that needed to be privy to our plans, offer advice, and inform us of any limitations. So we met with officials from the City, from the police, and from a neighborhood services department that does city permitting. (We were committed to NOT have permits for each porch! We didn’t have the budget and we didn’t want to deal with the bureaucracy.)
And did I mention that we had NO budget whatsoever? This was one of the appeals of the event. Nothing commercial. No “brought to you by”, banners, logos or even food trucks! We received a few in-kind donations: one from a friend, another from the City of Boston which paid for printing colorful maps of the porch routes to be used on the day of the event, and another from a printer who didn’t charge us for printing postcards to announce the event. For many people, the fact that JP Porchfest was commercial-free was a breath of fresh air.
So how did it go? On the day of the event, we had 7,000-8,000 people roaming throughout the neighborhood listening to music, and hundreds showed up at a local restaurant, Bella Luna Restaurant and Milky Way Café, for an after-party which served $5 all-you-can-eat pizza! Anecdotally, it seemed that everyone loved the event from the audience to the musicians to the porch hosts.
But a good “action sociologist” can’t just leave it there! We needed to evaluate the impact of the event. In order to count the numbers in attendance, we used porchfest stickers, and had intended to count the leftovers to gauge the size of the crowd, except we ran out of stickers in one hour! We consulted an audience researcher on how to calculate the final numbers, and it’s her figures – 7,000-8,000 – that we are citing.
We also distributed very short surveys with a few questions that would help us learn what worked and what didn’t work, as well as to identify the demographics of porchfesters.
Nearly 100% reported that the event was excellent or very good (we’re still working on analyzing this data). In addition, we had two sociology grad students from Brandeis University (my alma mater) traversing the event and interviewing participants about their experience.
And we queried musicians and porch hosts to provide more detailed feedback on their experiences performing at JP Porchfest, and learned that they made great connections with the other band with whom they shared their porch as well as with their porch hosts. They were pleased that they were able to add people to their mailing lists and increased their CD sales. We also heard that small businesses had increased sales. One of our colleagues and friends from Hyde Square Task Force, a JP youth leadership organization, conducted her own short survey to see if business picked up in the “Latin Quarter”, and interestingly, small shops like the local beauty shop and local rotisserie chicken take-out place increased their business by anywhere from 100-400%!
Finally, we wanted to document the event, creating a team of professional filmmakers who shot the event and will produce two videos. One is a documentary about JP Porchfest that centers on three narratives: a long-time Latina political activist who had just moved into affordable housing and wanted to use porchfest as a way to unite her racially divided neighborhood; a veteran rocker musician who writes songs about JP and is a staple in the ‘hood; and a group of youth leaders from a local non-profit organization who were accompanied by two filmmakers who documented their response to the event and the different types of music. The other is a 5-minute how-to video, which will be accompanied by a training guide that we write, in order to help other communities produce their own porchfests!
My organizing partner and I were initially worried that no one would show up, and then after the event, we worried that we would experience a post-event malaise. But we have been disproven twice! We are now planning JP Porchfest 2015, this time knowing a lot more than what we knew before we started. Soon we’re going to launch a Kickstarter campaign, and Bella Luna/Milky Way has offered us their venue for two fundraisers.
In the end, we determined that we had done a pretty good job, maybe even a really good job! While roughly one-third of our musicians were people of color, we want to increase the diversity of the audience, and we are developing a strategy to do so.
In a follow-up conversation I had with Ayanna Pressley, a brilliant African-American City Councilor who spoke at the event, I lamented that the audience wasn’t as diverse as we wanted it to be, and she told me, “you are acting like a woman!” I was startled. What did she mean? She told me that the event was a great success, but I was focusing on the negative. “We’ll work on that for next year”, she reassured me.
Photos/Video: 1. Woman doing limbo at Nate Smith House, affordable housing for elders. Band was Tempo International Rhythm Section. 2. Sterling Rhyne performing at home of Betsaida Gutierrez, housing activist. Photo credit: Sam Sacks. 3. JP Porchfest banner, created by Hyde Square Task Force Youth Leaders 4. Damn Tall Buildings. Photo credit: Damn Tall Buildings (selfie!) 5. The Amy Hoffman. Photo credit: Jane Akiba 6. Guts and Buttons. Photo credit: Sue Dorfman 7. Cornell Coley and Hyde Square Task Force. Photo credit: Jane Akiba 8. Filmmakers planning Porchfest videos 9. Son of Chris Antonowich, Riding Shot Gun. Photo credit: Sue Dorfman 10. Video, Rick Berlin and Nickel and Dime Band: “I Love My Street”
I was on the treadmill at the gym the other day, frantically trying to undo a day of sitting and staring at my computer, when a casual “gym friend” joined me on an adjacent treadmill. She noticed that I hadn’t been there lately, and wanted to know why. I don’t know her well and could have manufactured some story, but she had always been so warm and friendly, so I decided to tell her the truth, that my 97-year-old dad had just passed away. Her response was immediate and kind, as she empathized with how hard it is to lose a parent. Then she looked up to the ceiling of the gym, and as I followed her gaze, wondering what had stolen her attention, she said in a reassuring voice that he was in heaven now, and then looked back at me with a smile. Not knowing how to respond, I smiled wanly and increased the incline on the treadmill. I wish I believed that he was in heaven and as my partner says, I hope to be happily surprised…
She then asked about the funeral, and I explained that we had it right away because I’m Jewish and that’s what we do… Apparently, distracted by the realization that I was a Jew, she then said that she had many arguments with her Catholic friends who believed that “the Jews killed Christ.” (Wait a minute – where did that lovely empathy go?!) Just as I was thinking about an exit strategy, she came back to earth and said, “It’s crazy that people of all faiths don’t get along.” And as I was mentally excusing her for that detour, she added, “except for the Muslims”. Again, I was hooked, and as I looked at her, I know I must have appeared surprised because she looked back at me with a slightly uncomfortable smile. And then went on to say that she worried that Muslims – presumably all Muslims – were terrorists. Wasn’t it time for me to leave the cardio area and work on my abs or something? But no, I couldn’t leave now, as this was a “teachable moment.”
I said that the media would like us to believe that all Muslims are terrorists, but most Muslims are peaceful people. And she asked me, didn’t I think that the “Koran incites Muslims to commit terrorist acts?” I replied with certainty, with whatever knowledge I have accumulated since 9/11, that that was untrue.
This really bugged me, a kind-hearted, well-meaning person swallowing Fox News whole. And it really upset me that the media is so compelling that good people can believe such nonsense.
I learned the hard way from my father not to run away from difficult conversations and to stand up for my beliefs. In the 1950s, and again in the 1960s, he was called before the Senate House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) to answer the now-infamous question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party (CP) of the United States?”. The first time he was subpoenaed before the committee, he challenged its legality. And the second time, he used the first amendment, declaring his right to freedom of speech. As a result of the first committee hearing, he was “blacklisted” from work in the U.S., and ultimately sold life insurance for 15 years through a Canadian firm. He also became a prolific playwright, writing about his experiences within the labor movement in attempt to give voice to working people.
It was not until I was well into my 30s that my father admitted to me that he had been a member of the CP, but had wanted to protect me in case the FBI approached me with that question. That might seem like crazy-thinking, but the FBI actually did follow my father – and consequently, our family – for half a decade, employing agents to observe meetings where my father spoke, reviewing documents he wrote, including plays and memoirs, and even observing the fall-out we experienced in our family, as a result of being persecuted by the government.
When I left for college, my father warned me that I might be approached by an FBI agent, asking about his political activities. At the time, that seemed ridiculous, the product of narcissistic, paranoid thinking. But in my junior year, a guy from the Dance Club – in which I was very active – began asking me questions about my dad. Through some research, I discovered that he had been working out in California, trying to sabotage the Cesar Chavez grape boycott. I realized that maybe my father’s paranoia wasn’t so crazy after all. Using the Freedom of Information Act, my father ultimately received roughly 5,000 pages of FBI notes, with many of the words redacted (meaning crossed-out!), supposedly to “protect” the identity of the agent who was following him. I spent hours pouring through these files a number of years ago, and was stunned to read that the FBI knew that my sister and I were being ostracized by our so-called friends because of my father’s political beliefs, and that my mother lost many dear friends and family members to the fears they had about being associated with “a Communist family”. You can read more about this in Colin Dabkowski’s article in the Buffalo News:http://www.buffalonews.com/spotlight/article727714.ece
After my mother died, my father told me another reason why he left the Communist Party. He didn’t want that admission to have negative repercussions on his CP colleagues and friends. He was a working class Jewish man who had strong convictions and was loyal to his friends, risking a lot to stay true to them. He wasn’t trying to overthrow the government, although he was challenging an economic system that, even more so today, creates haves and have-nots. He was simply a very effective labor organizer who mobilized workers around issues of wages and benefits and fair treatment on the job. In doing this work, he was simply executing his first amendment rights to speak out about his beliefs. I believe that the world was a better place because of people like him.
So what to say to my friend at the gym, who seems to have drunk the kool-aid of misinformation in the right-wing media? What to say to many of my fellow Americans who are now stumped about whether to support a wealthy businessman for President whose personal and political interests are intertwined or an evangelical politician who would happily turn our country into the United Christian States?
There are many ways to fight disinformation and work for a better, more equitable world, through organizing, writing, teaching, and just speaking to friends, colleagues and acquaintances. And we must not be afraid to do so.
Last night I went to a rally and public hearing in Chelsea, Massachusetts about the “Secure Communities” program. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this program – as I was up until recently – it would increase federal authorities’ access to information about immigrants who are suspected of committing a crime.
Currently, police now have the technology to take the fingerprints of crime suspects and share them digitally with other state officials around the country, to see if they surface other crimes. Under “Secure Communities”, the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would have access to the technology of state officials, including suspects’ fingerprints and background information.
The program was supposedly started by ICE to identify serious criminals, but it turns out that the majority of people identified by Secure Communities have minor or no criminal convictions. In fact. in Boston, where the program was piloted, over 50% of the immigrants who were arrested and deported were in this category! Nonetheless, the federal government plans to implement the program – to be administered through state agencies – by 2013.
Given this federal mandate, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has stated that he will comply with the program. Last year, a number of jurisdictions around the country – including San Francisco and Santa Clara – requested to opt-out of the program, but they were given mixed responses from federal officials about how the opt-out process works. First, the administration said that opting-out was allowable, and then they reversed their position, saying that the program was not voluntary. Finally, in an official response, ICE said that “Secure Communities is not voluntary and never has been. Unfortunately, this was not communicated as clearly as it should have been to state and local jurisdictions by ICE when the program began.” What?!
It turns out that Governor Patrick only scheduled these hearings following pressure by community-based organizations that focus on immigrant rights. In response to the “Secure Communities” program, a non-profit called Centro Presente launched a “Just Communities” campaign, in collaboration with the ACLU of Massachusetts and the American Friends Service Committee. Their campaign included high visibility events like rallies in front of the State House, and hand delivery of 1,000 protest postcards to the Governor.
Last night, at the Chelsea hearing, opposition to the program came through loud and clear. Over 200 people jammed into the auditorium of the local high school, mostly to voice their opposition to the “Secure Communities” program. Before the event, there was concern that the Tea Party would show up and be disruptive, as they had been at another hearing in Waltham, Massachusetts. And sure enough, a small but vocal group was there. I happened to sit next to two Tea Partiers. Given the “otherness” with which these folks are painted – and the outrageous behavior of many of their leaders – I felt a certain trepidation and immense curiosity about who they were and what they were thinking throughout the evening.
The hearing began with a public official from the state’s Public Safety office, explaining how the system functioned to track criminals. His voice was monotonous, designed to make the most patient listener edgy. Backed by an uninspired Power Point presentation, he droned on and on, and the crowd got restless. His main points, which he made over and over again, were two-fold. First of all, he said that the “Secure Communities” program only involved procedural changes that would allow state officials to share information about suspects with federal immigration officials. Skirting any potential policy implications, the official described the program as if we, the audience, were simple people who just might not understand the complexities of government. His second message was that this program was going to be implemented, regardless of public concerns, and that the role of the state was to figure out how to best accomplish this goal.
So what was the point of these hearings? Why bother asking us what we think of the program? There was something odd about this introduction that said, ‘basically, this is going to happen anyway,’ when clearly, the door for dialogue and debate is still open…
I wondered if the purpose of this state official’s droning speech was to take up time, so we’d have less time for public testimony. But sure enough, he finally finished and the audience was invited to line up along the side rows of the auditorium to take turns commenting and asking questions.
My Tea Party friends sitting next to me were busy. The woman adjacent to me was videotaping the entire event, and her partner – who carried a series of signs in support of the program – was tallying how many people spoke out for the program and how many spoke out against. Given my curiosity about them, I tried to make small connections. I asked the woman if she could lend me her pen and we smiled at one another. And when people were looking for seats, we both raised our hands and pointed to the seats in our row. I donned my sociological eye and thought of this as a “research-able moment”.
One by one, Latino immigrants shared heart-felt stories of working hard to contribute to this society and their sense of betrayal with this program. The audience cheered in support. Many shared stories of being racially profiled, or stories of friends who were deported unfairly to countries where they were not safe. Again, the audience cheered. An elderly Chinese immigrant spoke with the help of a translator, saying that we are all immigrants to this country, as the crowd stood up and burst into applause. And when he walked away from the microphone, audience members reached out to shake his hand in solidarity. Many white audience members spoke about being second or third generation immigrants, bridging the gaps between first generation immigrants and nearly everyone else in this nation. Again, the audience cheered. A lawyer from the Center for Constitutional Rights told us that there were a couple of lawsuits challenging the legality of the program, and her comments reassured the audience that there was, in fact, recourse. And several others spoke about the danger of “Secure Communities” for women victims of domestic violence as it might deter them from reporting abuse for fear of being deported if they are undocumented.
Interspersed between the 80 or more speakers who opposed “Secure Communities” were roughly 10 Tea Party speakers who supported the program. With some, it was evident that they were Tea Partiers from the moment they opened their mouths, because they started with inflammatory comments like “immigrants are criminals.” But the most controversial Tea Partier who spoke was a Latino man who loudly declared his support for the program because he said it would get rid of immigrants who were criminals. When the crowd began to “boo” him, he shouted defiantly, “Soy Dominicano y soy un Team Partier!” (I am Dominican and a Tea Partier.). And as he loped back to his seat, he nodded to his fellow (white) Tea Partiers, punching his fist in the air.
At the end of the hearing, as we were all putting on our coats and preparing to leave, I turned to my Tea Party friend and asked her what she planned to do with the video she had been shooting. She kindly responded that she would put it up on YouTube for those who weren’t able to be there. I asked if she was a member of the Tea Party, to which she answered, yes, and then replied by asking if I was in the Tea Party too! That surprised me, and made me realize that she wasn’t paying any attention to my hoots of support for those who opposed the program! I wondered what she was thinking about what she had just heard. After all, we had both spent the past hour listening to the same speakers and many of their compelling stories. So I asked her if any of these stories had moved her to think differently. She looked at me with a pained expression, and said, yes, particularly the women who were victims of domestic violence. ‘But what can we do?,’ she implored. ‘We need to deal with the criminals! We need to change the police chiefs!’, she exclaimed. And with that, we walked in separate directions.
What will come of these hearings? Will the Governor take this outcry seriously, and consider opting out of the program? I certainly hope so, but I now realize that the pressure for him to do so comes from a number of directions, including the legal strategies being pursued by advocacy organizations, legal strategies in motion because of a powerful Congresswoman, AND the people in that high school auditorium. I left the meeting feeling satisfied and proud of the amazing people in that room who had the courage to speak out and express their outrage at a policy that doesn’t produce the outcomes it’s intended to produce, and in fact, creates more insecurity in our communities. It was this sense of community – created in that room – that gives me a sense of security.
My father just died. My 98-year-old, fearless, outspoken father – who was devoted to fighting for the rights of workers – just died. He hung on for over a year, despite major organ failure, with incredible determination and will. Just the way he lived. Even towards the end, despite the challenges and limitations to his body and mind, he was energized by the protests in Wisconsin, as state workers – police, firefighters, nurses and more – fight to maintain their right to bargain collectively.
In the 40s and 50s, my father was unafraid to speak up for working-class people who toiled in factories. This was his organizing base, and as a child of the 50s, it seemed very foreign to me in my middle-class world. I was schooled by the antiwar movement, the women’s movement and gay/lesbian rights movement, all a far cry from the world of factory workers who made auto or typewriter parts.
Manny speaking before House Un-American Activities Committee 1964
But I absorbed my father’s social justice values, even though I felt very separate from the people he was organizing. It was hard for me to imagine the unfortunate plight of the factory worker, but over the years, I began to understand the need to fight against inequities around workers’ wages and working conditions. And once I was in the work world, I learned first-hand what it meant to be caught in a stratified social structure that appropriated varying amounts of power to its employees. In fact, a string of lousy work experiences was one thing that inspired me to study workplaces once I became a sociologist. I discovered first-hand that worker control is the key to job satisfaction, and many people don’t have enough of it…
I was once on a plane with a factory owner, and over the course of our flight, discovered that this guy’s plant – Remington Rand – was one that my father had organized. Listening to him talk about how he decided to move the company abroad, and how he couldn’t understand why his workers weren’t willing to move with him, I realized how out of touch he was with the reality of his workers. I knew more about him than he could have possibly known. My father had led the workers employed by that man in a successful strike against the company, and the workers forced the company to back down on cutting wages and benefits. I decided not to share this information, but found great satisfaction in knowing…
At my father’s funeral this past Sunday, I told the congregation that if he were still alive and well, he’d be in Wisconsin. This was his fight, something to which he dedicated his life, through his organizing work, and then later through plays he wrote about worker-management struggles. The nature of the “working class” is different today, as factory work has moved to locations with cheaper labor. Wisconsin workers represent the “new” working-class, whose self-identification is folded into our broadly defined middle-class. They are service and professional workers who provide the critical supports to our society – regulating safety, putting out fires, teaching our children, maintaining our sewage systems, and caring for the sick.
There are far too few heroes these days, people who are willing to stand up against adversity to speak their piece and demand justice. My father chose to do just this. It wasn’t always easy to have a father who prioritized the outside world over his family. In fact, I learned early on that if I wanted to be close to him, I had to speak his language. I tried very hard – sometimes too hard – back then. And the older and more knowledgeable I became, the more I realized where we differed. But at the very base, I valued his commitment to a set of ideals, even when they created adversity for him and for us. He always hoped that we would see he made the right choices. And in the end, as a daughter to a loving father who became more emotionally generous with age, I feel that he did.
Manny receives Joe Hill Award from AFL-CIO Labor Heritage Foundation