Parachute Researchers

Another story came out recently about a possible water scam in Flint. Through my various connections, I have heard of several stories of opportunistic charities popping up, fly-in activists, and many parachute researchers. These are outsiders who come in and seek to benefit from the challenges facing the Flint community. Let’s be clear, I too am an outsider who has benefited (professionally) from my work in Flint. I am not a Flint resident. I have never lived in Flint nor have I ever worked for a Flint-based organization. I am not even from Flint’s surrounding area—but I am from Michigan (does that count?). Am I a parachute researcher? I try not to be… The term “parachute researcher” refers to scientists, inclusive of social scientists, that descend on a local community (which is not their own) to collect specimens, data, or interviews; quickly leaving to conduct their analysis elsewhere. It is often associated with researchers from wealthy countries swooping in to poorer countries uninvited, but it can be applied to people like me, as well: a privileged white academic, interested in understanding the lived experiences of a majority minority city. So, what to do? According to Cordner et al. (2012), we as scholar should seek “continual reflexivity concerning relationships between researchers and participants.” Reflexivity is about understanding my position-my role- as a researcher in relation to the community. I am an outsider. I am a researcher. I am a scholar-activist with a research interest in how communities’ response to public policies. I myself have a history of community and feminist activism. Does this make me immune to becoming a parachute...

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,...

What I learned while studying Flint’s Municipal Takeover: Pt. III

What I learned while studying Flint’s Municipal Takeover: Final Thoughts (this blog post was originally published in Our Community, Our Voice and is reprinted here with permission). I have been warned by numerous scholars, and practitioners alike, to keep an open mind about the use of municipal takeovers. These policies are not designed, they have argued, with malicious intent. Instead, they offer, these policies are intended to help fiscally distressed municipalities deal with the reality that they are facing municipal bankruptcy or dissolution. In other words, would I rather see these cities go bankrupt? Would it be better that the state did nothing and watched the city grow poorer and poorer? No! That does not, however, mean that municipal takeover policies should go unquestioned. The impact of these policies are real—and deserve scrutiny. While I argue that the burdens placed on residents through the implementation of municipal takeover policies outweigh the benefits of fiscal stability, the crux of my research centers on the political impact of municipal takeovers: How local government—and governance—was restructured, how communities responded, and why? As noted in my previous article, my research examines who had access to decision making and who was left out under emergency management. I look at how the policy allocated both benefits and burdens and how people interpreted policy directives. Ultimately, my research offers an explanation for why Flint residents did not “back down” or “shut up,” when the state intervened to ostensibly fix Flint’s finances and instead sought alternative ways of engaging in local politics. I find that the differential allocation of benefits and burdens was interpreted by many as rewarding the...

What I learned while studying Flint’s Municipal Takeover, Pt. 2

This piece was originally published in Flint Neighborhoods United’s Our Community, Our Voice and is reprinted here with permission. Municipal takeover policies, known in Michigan as the “emergency manager laws,” claim to eschew politics. These policies, which rest on the principle that local government is broken, suspend local democracy in an attempt to fix local fiscal problems. Fear of municipal bankruptcy, economic contagion, and credit downgrades are among the most common motivations for intervening in local municipal affairs. For Flint, the city’s budget deficit was the expressed reason for its takeover. States have a fiduciary responsibility to guarantee that municipalities meet their obligation to provide services to the public. When faced with on-going fiscal problems, some proponents argue that strong state interventions are necessary “in the interest of efficiency”. From an economic-stability perspective, municipal takeovers are considered to be the best alternative when compared to municipal bankruptcy or doing nothing. State interventions by emergency managers are designed to be temporary and quick, yet often the typical processes of deliberation (or checks and balances) be damned. In a 2012 op-ed in the MLive, Governor Snyder defended Michigan’s municipal takeover policy. He wrote, “It’s not about takeovers or control. It’s about helping communities and schools get back on solid financial footing and adapt to changing circumstances and fiscal realities.” Addressing the concerns of public workers, the Governor stated, “It’s not about voiding contracts or circumventing collective bargaining, but about ensuring fair contracts and benefits while recognizing that the past status quo simply isn’t sustainable anymore.”  And his answer to citizens deeply worried about the loss of their voting franchise, he offered...