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...

What I learned while studying Flint’s Municipal Takeover, Pt. 1

This piece was originally published in Flint Neighborhoods United’s Our Community, Our Voice and is reprinted here with permission. 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. During my time in Flint, I met (and interviewed) many Flint residents. I rented rooms and apartments in different Flint neighborhoods. I ate at local restaurants and shopped at the Flint Farmers market. By spending time in the city and attending community events, I began to build connections with members of the Flint community. When my interviews ended and my dissertation was complete, I did not cut ties. Instead, I made a personal and professional commitment to stay involved. I made a commitment to share what I learned with whomever will listen and advocate for policy change wherever I can. This is how I came to writing this article for Our Community, Our Voice. In fact, this is the first in a series of pieces about what I learned. First, why Flint? It is a question that I am asked often. First, let me start off by saying that I am originally from Michigan- Grand Rapids to be exact. I studied at Grand Valley State University (first...

A Day Without a Woman: International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. It is a day dedicate to celebrate the successes and achievement of women and gender non-conforming people. It is a day dedicated to action. (It also happens to be a day with a long history, with roots in the 1908 women’s march in NYC and official designation as International Women’s Day by the UN in 1975). Today–March 8, 2017– is also that day that the Women’s March on Washington organizers called for a general strike: “a day without a woman.” Thus, today I am striking. I will not be going into the office, I have arranged to Skype in for an important meeting. I will wear red for the call/ meeting. I will not buy anything today, but I will organize the massive amount of Girl Scout cookies that will be dispersed to my troop tomorrow. I will cook. I will read to my kids at night (maybe from their new book: Rad American Women A-Z) I will use this time to write letters to my elected officials. I finish a paper on feminist activism (ok, this is working…). I will make a donation. I will use my privilege on this day to call attention to the important, yet undervalued, role of women in our economy and in our society through my absence, my spending choices, and my writing. I will use my privilege to challenge systems that perpetuate my privilege. But, as many have noted, striking looks different to different people. Some women–including women business owners–have vowed to work today at their women-owned places of employment open as their own form of protest. Some women work in...