[Personal] Reflection on Identifying as a “Critical Scholar”

Originally Prepared for: ARNOVA Conference, Austin, TX, November, 2018   My entrance into critical nonprofit and voluntary action studies was winding and non-linear. This reflection essay highlights my journey to identifying as a critical scholar, how I see this identify in relation to my identities as a scholar-activist and feminist, how critical perspectives have shaped my approach to both teaching and research. While it may be perceived as academic navel-gazing, the goal of this essay is to highlight that critical scholarship is not an exclusive club, but a broad umbrella under which a range of critical perspectives are valued. I was not trained in big “C” Critical Theory, but instead stumbled into it. My undergraduate degree was in psychology, and I minored in women and gender studies. My graduate degree was in public (and nonprofit) administration. With a few notable exceptions, my course work emphasized professionalism and a neo-managerialist approach to in public and nonprofit management, rather than public service and social equity (for a discussion of these two conflicting paradigms see Eikenberry & Kluver 2004; Denhardt and Denhardt, 2015; Rivera & Nickels, 2018). So I sought out course work in macro-social work, reading and discussing Freire (1970); I independently read and tried to find ways to apply feminist theory to my nonprofit (and public admin) coursework. For a long time, I did not know that there were scholars that merged these areas of research and practice under the broad mantle of critical nonprofit (and critical PA) studies. In fact, I was often conflicted in classes, frustrated that activist, organizing, and social movement voices/ theories were not represented in course syllabi....

Three co-edited books!

This last year has been a whirlwind. I am wrapping up my second year on the tenure-track with some successes and some failures. For today, I am focusing on the successes! Between May 2017 and April 2018, I published three co-edited books. Each of the books is very different. Two are academic books and the other a collection of essays, poetry, and personal narratives. Two of the books focus on urban and community-based issues and the other on feminist approaches to teaching and learning. All of the books, to some extent, focus on power and oppression. And, all three of the books explore the ways in which individuals and organizations navigate and/ or respond to structures of inequality, paying close attention to strategies for creating social change. All of the books are available for purchase: Feminist Pedagogy, Practice, and Activism: Routledge or Amazon Grand Rapids Grassroots: Belt, SchulerBooks (support a local book store!), or Amazon Community Development and Public Administration Theory:...

Fieldwork and Parenting

I am a parent. I am also a qualitative researcher, whose work often requires time in the field. In my last blog post I talked a bit about the challenges of avoiding “parachute research.” In that post I discussed the importance of continual reflexivity–the process of self-reflection wherein I am constantly checking my own power and privileged as the researcher and how my “position” might influence not only my analyses, but the people with whom I interact.  It requires that I adapt my research to the needs and interests of the people with whom I am working, continually reflecting on my role in the community. Avoiding parachute research, also requires being present. Working with communities, building relationships with people, and gaining a sense of “life on the ground” requires fieldwork. Yet, doing fieldwork as a parent is complicated. Some scholars have the ability to spend a year doing field work, others a few months. What do you do when your time is dictated, in part, by your role as a parent? I can’t leave for a year. For one, my kids are school-aged. Second, I have a job that requires me to be present. So, I typically carve out  3-6 week periods during the summer months to “live” in the community. I rent rooms from local residents, stay at local B&Bs, and attend an array of events, meetings, and get-togethers. I schedule my interviews during this time, too. So, as I am trying to be continually reflexive, I am also thinking about my role as a parent: “I wonder how the kids are doing?” or “I can’t wait to see my kids.” Thus, my identity and role...

Parachute Researchers

[edited April 2018] 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 scholars 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’ respond to public policies. I myself have a history of community and feminist activism. Does this make me immune to...

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...