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.
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”
Writing is a solo act, but for those in attendance at the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, or AWP (https://www.awpwriter.org/) this past weekend, you’d think it was one big party, with over 12,000 people moving through the sterile hallways of Boston’s massive Hynes Convention Center to attend hundreds of sessions. I had been forewarned that this event was downright overwhelming. So before I stepped foot into the Hynes, I carefully studied the program, selected sessions that fit my criteria, and found out exactly where they were physically located. Getting lost in the Convention Center was not on my agenda! As it turned out, this surgical approach served me well.
In one day, I managed to attend five sessions, chat with five random strangers, purchase an energy bar for nearly $5, and wander around the book fair where I was invited by at least five non-residency writing programs to look at their literature. I spoke with five or so small presses about their books, and was also accosted by a woman selling a weeklong “writing trip” to Paris, which was, in sum, a total rip-off. Of my small sample of informal interviewees, a few were undergraduate creative writing majors who were totally blown away by the panoply of rich resources in one place; one was an art history professor and another was a writing professor.
But I wasn’t there to make friends, although later I joined the Women’s Caucus of the organization (yes, there is gender bias everywhere!). I was there because I’m writing a memoir about the experience of caring for my dad in his final year of life, in which I am inter-weaving my family’s experience of political persecution, the FBI and more. I wanted to hear published authors talk about their experience writing memoirs, and to garner some tips about the process of publishing this type of book.
Here are a few gems that I got from the conference:
In a panel called “The Art of Losing”, authors talked about how profound personal loss fuels their writing. One of my favorite speakers on this panel was Jennine Capó Cruce, author of How to Leave Hialeah (http://www.jcapocrucet.com/), who said that she was told that she shouldn’t write from anger. But as she wrote her book, she saw rage as her source, and while writing her book, recognized that underneath her rage was grief.
In a panel called “How Do You Know You’re Ready?”, novelists shared stories about manuscripts they either sent to agents too soon or had locked in drawers, never to see the light of day. I realized that the question of when a book is complete is a universal question. The panelists seemed to agree that knowing when you’re done writing a book is a “visceral thing”. I was touched that the panelists also welcomed attendees to approach them with questions at the end of the session. I asked novelist Dawn Tripp (http://www.dawntripp.com/) for suggestions about making a “pitch” to an agent. She offered me a few tips, including “make it short and to the point”. And another panelist, Kim Wright, author of Love in Mid-Air (http://loveinmidair.com/), added that it’s important to maintain the voice of the book when you’re trying to get others interested.
In a session called “Memoir Beyond the Self”, panelists talked about the importance of writing from one’s personal experience and broadening it to reflect on cultural implications. Travel writer and journalist, Colleen Kinder (http://www.colleenkinder.com/Colleenkinder/home.html) said, “personal essays have to be brave”, and she talked about the importance of “braiding” and “weaving” different strands of a story together. In describing this braiding and weaving process, Leslie Jamison, author of Empathy Exams (http://www.graywolfpress.org/Latest_News/Latest_News/Leslie_Jamison_wins_Graywolf_Press_Nonfiction_Prize//) said that “something in one sphere poses a question that another sphere can answer”. That intrigued me.
In a session called, “It’s Complicated: Memoir-Writing in the Political Sphere”, Melissa Febos talked about her book, Whip Smart, in which she wrote about her three years as a dominatrix while attending a liberal arts college in New York City (http://melissafebos.com/). Kassi Underwood talked about her book, A Lost Child, but Not Mine (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/fashion/a-lost-child-but-not-mine-modern-love.html?pagewanted=all), which chronicles her experience of having an abortion and then encountering her ex-boyfriend who was now a father. And Nick Flynn described the writing of his book, Another Night in Suck City about seeing his estranged father in the homeless shelter where he worked. The book was later turned into a film called, “Being Flynn” with Robert DeNiro and Julianne Moore. Talk about star struck!
In a session called “Poetics of Fiction in/at Buffalo”, three writers read from their work about my poverty-stricken, yet vibrant hometown of Buffalo, New York. Ted Pelton (http://www.starcherone.com/ted/) began with this poem: “Buffalo Buffalo, Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo…”, saying that no other city can be a noun, verb and adjective. And Buffalo writer of Buffalo Noir, Dmitri Anastasopoulos (http://www.akashicbooks.com/catalog-tag/dimitri-anastasopoulos/), brought the experience full circle for me, when he said, “Buffalo is all about loss”.
The conference had a commercial element as well: In a so-called “Book Fair”, the small presses are there to entice writers, as are the creative writing programs and artists’ retreats. But one of my favorite booths in the exhibition hall was run by 826 National, a nonprofit organization that runs eight writing and tutoring centers around the country, aimed at helping at-risk youth find a voice to tell their stories (http://www.826national.org/). And who knows? Perhaps these young people will be the authors of tomorrow, and future attendees of this chaotic but enriching experience that is AWP…
When I was in my early 20s, I spent a summer hitchhiking across America. I was with a good friend, Ingrid, who was ready for an adventure, and off we went with our forty-pound backpacks, starting in New York State and landing a few months later in California. Each driver who picked us up presented another set of wonders, as we listened with fascination to stories about their lives, and shared stories from our journey. One driver who picked us up in Kansas told us all about her research on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which required that she travel across three states to visit research sites. A young person anxious to find a career, I was blown away with how cool that sounded, but we were nearly blown away when her tire exploded. Luckily – and luck was what you needed when you were hitchhiking – we were just pulling into a gas station. Unluckily, it was July 4th and the mechanics couldn’t fix the tire until the next day. We slept in the car that night inside a stuffy garage, which was offered to us as a safe haven.
When we were moving up the coast of California, a driver picked us up in a mobile home he was hired to transport. When we hopped in, we discovered two other hitchhikers, and soon found that both of them had just been released from a local prison. They had committed minor economic crimes, or so they said. Another ex-convict joined us along the way, and we all slept that night in the van. But something obviously went awry during the night, because we woke up the next morning to our driver speeding down the road and screaming at high volume to one of the women, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you!”.
Ingrid and I never found out what that bone was, but we mousily asked to be let off at the next rest stop because we said that was our destination. As he drove away, we hid behind a bush, waiting for him to leave, and then went back out on the road with our thumbs ready to find our next ride. He knew we were lying and drove around in a circle, finding us back out on the highway. We did not get back into his mobile home, and survived to tell the tale.
Hitchhiking in America was pretty standard fare for a sub-culture of counter-cultural Americans in the 70s. And two young women going on the road “alone” wasn’t considered outrageous, because we were caught in the tide of a rising second wave of the women’s movement where females could do (almost) anything. While we knew we were dancing with danger, we had youth on our side, and the sense that we could handle whatever we encountered. Later I took my travelling skills to a nearly year-long trip in Europe, and continued to welcome adventure along the way. Sometimes I think my sociological imagination was birthed on these trips.
Now I am a mother whose young adult daughter is travelling – not with her thumb – but with a bike and a girlfriend – through Europe. Unlike my travels which happened sans parental approval or even knowledge, I am in the know about this trip, thanks to a very different kind of parental-child relationship in this 21st century, and a smart phone that supports that. I am caught between experiencing vicarious thrills and experiencing terror, because I know that sometimes things can go very right and sometimes they can go very wrong.
They have been biking for over a month, and still, every morning when I wake up and look at the clock, I add six hours, and imagine what my daughter and her friend are up to. Are they on a beautiful, winding country road, biking next to sheep grazing on the side of the road? Or are they on a jagged, narrow road where cars are, at best, only nearly missing them? Have they encountered the kindness of strangers? Or have they experienced “near misses”?
Both of my trips were much less structured than my daughter’s. If I ever feared for my life during my hitchhiking trip across the U.S, it vanished the second we moved on to the next ride. Even when one of our drivers had a bayonette on his dashboard, I felt invincible and maintained my faith in the goodness of people. With my trip to Europe, which I had spent one whole year saving up for, I was part of a sub-culture of young travelers like myself, populating hostels, walking the streets with our oversized backpacks, and finding bargain meals to stretch out funds for as long as possible. My daughter and her friend are more like speedy turtles, carrying minimal clothing, a tent and other supplies on their bodies and bikes, as they follow roads through small villages and towns, and bike along the side of lakes and rivers.
When they get a flat on the side of the road, they are only more fully a part of the scenery, and even a conversation piece for the locals. They are couch-surfing, taking advantage of a miraculous network of people who offer their homes to strangers, supported by an on-line forum where people post their availability and travelers contact them. Former couch-surfers can review their experience so that prospective ones can evaluate their options. Couch surfers even evaluate the travelers too. My daughter told me that after they left their first couch surf home, their host posted that she and her friend were “like sisters and made me smile the whole time of their visit”. For the most part, life for them has been pretty darn good, even great.
Unlike with my trip, where I didn’t talk to my parents at all, my daughter and I talk every few days, thanks to Skype, and when there’s a problem, we talk more than once a day. Forty years ago, I didn’t want to talk to my parents, and maybe because it wasn’t an option, I didn’t miss it one iota. Now I can’t imagine being on my parents’ end of things, not knowing where I was or what I was doing for many months at a time. I am relieved that I can check in with my daughter, and that she has a blog page that narrates her travels with glorious pictures! I doubt that I did more than send my parents a few postcards. At the same time, just because I can stay in touch, the challenge is to not hover, because the reality is that if there is a problem, there is very little I can do from thousands of miles away, other than listen and maybe help them solve it themselves.
As our children grow up, I “get” that we need to let go, to allow them to spread their wings and learn from experiences, both good and bad. But it’s a scary world, and sometimes I’m just frightened. I’m not naïve about the potential dangers out there, but at the same time, for two young women to explore the world – especially from the vantage point of a bicycle – it is just incredible. Some friends have told me how cool I am to “let her go” on the trip; others tell me they would never have approved a trip like this. But I did. (Did I really have a choice?) And in good part, I did because my parents didn’t stop me from exploring, even though they had no idea what they should have protected me from.
I imagine that for the next few weeks – the amount of time remaining in this trip – I will calculate the time zone differences and imagine where they are in their journey. I will control the amount of contact I initiate, but will steadily follow their blog and Facebook posts. I know that the life lessons gleaned from this challenge will be more potent without mommy. And I will continue to be caught in this odd place between vicarious pleasure and terror.