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 provided students with opportunities to volunteer and engage in service projects (on and off campus). I provided intercultural competency training and volunteer training. I built and facilitated a feminist activism leadership curriculum and helped bring a women’s political leadership training program (Ready to Run) to campus.

At the time, I was interested in giving students that tools (and thus confidence) to examine policies and engage in politics through their service or activism. In other words, I sought to foster political participation (including political activism, civic engagement, public service) in hopes of redistributing power (through representation and/or policy).

But Home Rule, how does that fit?

My interest in Home Rule developed out of my research on municipal takeovers (a form of state intervention that supplants local elected officials through the implementation of a state-appointed manager, who is granted broad governing authority). Many critics and activists, as well as some legal scholars, argued that municipal takeovers undermined Home Rule…Others, typically proponents of municipal takeover as a strategy to address urban fiscal crises, argued that Home Rule, as a legal apparatus did not cover such cases. I was curious and happened to be in a State Constitutional Law class at the time. I began researching the history of Home Rule (focusing primarily on Michigan and New Jersey). My recent paper in State and Local Government Review looks at the erosion of Home Rule in NI and NJ in relation to the evolution of municipal takeover policy in each state respectively. The issue that most interested me, however, was how we interpret these policies: Why, if municipal takeover is viewed as a threat, do people gravitate toward Home Rule as a solution? How do people understand home rule? I would argue that Home Rule is perceived as not only a legal apparatus, but symbolizes local autonomy and local democracy. Home Rule calls for the protection of municipal governments from outside intrusion in a time when residents’ perceive the community to be under attack. Home Rule, then, provides a rallying call for activists seeking to strengthen local control and autonomy. Both Home Rule and Municipal Takeover, after all, are about who has power– the locality or the state.

 

So, do I have a unifying theme? Is power my unifying theme? It fits with my broad research interests. And, it seems to fit with my substantive areas of interest: intersectionality (race, class, gender, et al.) and oppression; participatory and deliberative democracy (including participatory budgeting). It fits with my teaching interests: public administration and public policy, environmental politics; urban politics; nonprofit advocacy.

“Power,” however, is likely far too broad. Maybe I will just stick with my original framing: I am an interdisciplinary scholar with research interests in urban politics/ governance; local democracy/ political participation; community organizing and activism; and nonprofit admin (particularly advocacy)… who dabbles in writing about pedagogy.

 

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