Do I have a unifying theme?

Do you need a unifying theme in academia? Do I have one? On the surface, my work may seem disjointed… how do feminist activist pedagogy and home rule fit together on one research agenda? On my website, in my cover letters,  in my job talks, and even in my SSN page, I typically focus on being an interdisciplinary scholar with research interests that fall into four categories: urban politics/ governance; local democracy/ political participation; community organizing and activism; and nonprofit admin (particularly advocacy). It is not hard to see how these different topical areas overlap. Community organizing and activism are forms of political participation, if political participation is conceptualized as anything broader than voting.  Nonprofit advocacy can include everything from formal direct lobbying of elected officials to grassroots mobilization campaigns. While most discussions of nonprofit advocacy focus on national policy, nonprofits are profoundly influential in local governance (e.g. agenda setting and decision making). My work boils down, I suppose, to analyses of power: who has power; how do people/ institutions wield their power; how and why do people organize/mobilize to exert their power; how do policies shape these processes; and, how do we teach these some-day change agents? So what of feminist activist pedagogy and home rule? My recent chapter on feminist activist pedagogy (co-authored with Adrienne Trier-Bieniek) is concerned with how women’s center faculty and staff approach both teaching and practicing feminist and community activism. The inspiration for this paper (much like my inspiration for editing the book) stemmed from my years as an Assistant Director of Volunteer and Community Outreach at a university-based Women’s Center. In my role in the center, I...

Empowered Participation: What Cities (including Flint) Can do to Foster Meaningful Participation

This post was originally published in FNU’s Our Community, Our Voice newspaper. It is reprinted here with permission.  To date, most of my work has focused on how local governments and states are becoming less participatory as a result of budget cuts and resource shortfalls.  These fiscal pressures are compounded by popular movements that call for “less government” or “smaller government” in favor of public-private partnerships and the contracting of the public services to private entities, often compromising (or eliminating) time-consuming deliberative and participatory processes. My research has examined how community members respond when their voices are silenced or discredited by local and state leaders. In Flint, this included the elimination of citizen advisory councils and local ombudsman’s offices (among other things) under municipal takeover. When confronted with disproportionate policy burdens (perceived or actual), these community members sought out alternative forms of engagement. They organized coalitions of activists and community residents. They led recall petitions. They organized demonstrations, protests, and actions at the local, state, and national levels. When pathways for participation were eliminated, community activists found alternative means of making their voices heard. Should this be necessary? This is outside the scope of this article. But the message is important: people want to be involved and there should be mechanisms for meaningful engagement. What then is the alternative to this scenario? What might a program that fosters participation and raises up the voices of residents look like? There is a lot written about participatory governance in both theoretical and practical terms. Here, I will focus on a one practical model, participatory budgeting, that may be relevant in Flint,...