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.
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?
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.
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.
My research found that despite politicians’ claims to the contrary, municipal takeovers are in fact political, and have significant political consequences at the local level. By taking an in-depth, policy-focused look at the municipal takeovers in Flint, I found that the state’s intervention not only suspended the authority of local elected officials in the short-term, but reshaped the local political landscape for the long term.
In the summer of 2015, months before the city of Flint made national, rather international, headlines for the water crisis, I began my fieldwork in Flint. I was there to conduct research on the state’s takeover of Flint, under the now infamous “PA 4”. I wanted to understand the political impact of the takeover. At the time, I was a PhD candidate at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey studying public policy and administration with a focus on community development and urban politics.