A narrative of engagement

*The following is the text + images I shared during a session on Publicly Engaged Critical Geographies at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Tampa, FL**

Today I’m going to share a bit of a long form personal narrative, and explore my path towards engaged scholarship. I’ll reflect a bit on what the concept of ‘engagement’ means to me in my own work, how a practice of personal engagement allowed me to be attentive and honest to my intellectual energy, and where I see this engagement leading me in my dissertation research.

So, I come to my understanding and practice of ‘engaged scholarship’ through multiple perspectives: as a student in the Geography department at UW, as a participant in the Certificate in Public Scholarship through the UW’s Simpson Center for the Humanities, as a Publicly Engaged Graduate Fellow through Imagining America, and, finally, as a long standing (and often uncomfortable) participant in the nonprofit industrial complex, as it has come to be known in critical circles.

Each perspective listed above operates in different spaces, and with different people, values and expectations (for instance, even within the University of Washington, the language and standards used in Geography are quite foreign to those in the Humanities Center). In addition, each of my involvements produce their own institutional affiliations and histories, whether that be a history of the quantitative revolution at UW Geography, or histories of contentious politics with some of my nonprofit partners. And, while time prevents me from elaborating deeply on this train of thought here, I need to acknowledge that these institutional affiliations are part of my intersectional identity. Thus, in addition to reflecting on power dynamics, positionality, shared risk, intellectual curiosity, ethics, and rigor, institutional affiliation also informs how I understand, and practice ‘engaged scholarship’.

Screen Shot 2014-04-13 at 6.48.22 AM
So, with all of these affiliations and influences in mind, I understand engaged scholarship as the practice of “scholarship in action”, as described by Syracuse University’s former chancellor Nancy Cantor. It is an active scholarship: one that is not content to delve into esoteric knowledge production for knowledge’s sake (though that’s a valid cause in its own right). Active scholarship is one that is working towards social justice goals; one that requires us to have ‘skin in the game’ and shared risks; one that asks us to stay attentive and, well, engaged.

This is all well and good on paper. But I’ve often found myself losing sight of what ‘engagement’ means in practice. When this happens, I think about my favorite pastime, one which has also informed much of my activism in Seattle: cooking and sharing meals. How do I know if I’m ‘engaged’ in this work? I am highly attentive to the needs and interests of the people around me. I am willing to put my own agenda aside and hold space with my guests. I am intimately interested in what people have to share and how they feel during and after a meal. I know I am not engaged when my mind wanders, when I run through my to-do lists, when I think about what is going wrong instead of attending to the energy that is emerging.

e4e4e4e cake candles
Eat for Equity Seattle, a local chapter of a nation-wide organization that I help co-organize, brings people together around community feasts for the greater good. Through a shared meal, we build community and raise awareness of a range of nonprofits that our guests support. Most importantly, to me, is that we bring people together to “come as you are, give as you can” –  thereby challenging the assumption that giving happens by wealthy people in elite spaces, like galas, auctions and the like.

While Eat for Equity is not scholarly in nature, the work has been absolutely central to my own personal engagement, and thus, towards my engaged scholarship. I have worked with Eat for Equity for 2 years. At some point during my work with this group, I became interested in broader questions about giving: what brings people to the table? How do we convey that anyone can ‘give’, whether that’s time, money, ideas, skills, energy? How can we show that we already live in a caring and gift economy, and that we could see this better if we expanded the lens with which we see the world? More personally, how could I do more to advance social justice through my own ability to give in multiple and creative ways?

Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 1.07.56 PM
This series of questions came into clearer focus for me this past fall, which coincided with the beginning of my PAGE fellowship. In October, I met my fellow PAGErs at the Imagining America conference. I was blown away: here were graduate students who were curating museum exhibits, organizing rural workers, building video games with high schoolers, creating and editing open source journals, making art, writing their own blogs, and pursuing many non-academic ‘side projects’, including, a sustainable vest company called Ishi Vest, that I must plug, because they are charming, beautiful, and run my dear friend Harishi in Chicago.

969946_375850339187313_1354952777_nlogo (1)


After only 4 hours of knowing these folks, I felt a deeper sense of home than I have ever felt in my own geography department.  This interdisciplinary group of grad students came from multiple institutions. Through the course of our meeting, it became clear that our unifying fiber was that all of the PAGE fellows were “project people” – never satisfied with one project, one interest, or one field. We were engaged in an array of spaces, with diverse stakeholders and multiple audiences. And we recognized that our own identities were fluid, shifting depending on which space and which audience with whom we engaged. I came home from this meeting absolutely buzzing, and wrote a blog post called “We Are Project People” that tried to capture the spirit an energy of our group.

Two days after that conference, I met with the program director of Social Justice Fund, a social justice philanthropic foundation based in Seattle. I had scheduled this meeting weeks prior, interested to learn more in how I could be involved in a ‘giving project’; many people who knew me in Seattle suggested I get involved as an extension of my interests in eat for equity, in giving, and in social justice more broadly. But this involvement was just going to be another ‘thing’ I did. Just another group to know and work with.

Meeting the PAGE Fellows encouraged me to see my interest in practices of giving differently. Up to that point, I’d sidelined this as an “extra-curricular interest”. Eat for Equity was just a fun thing I did on the side. Social justice fund was just going to be another community connection I fostered. My real project was going to be a critique of youth empowerment programs. And I thought I might be able to involve Social Justice Fund academically through the Practicum component of the Public Scholarship Certificate.

I think back to the anecdote I shared about having a meal together, and whether or not I could identify feelings of engagement. I wasn’t necessarily able to recognize that questions of giving were the thing that was capturing my attention and engaging me. But I was certainly beginning to see that questions of youth empowerment were not engaging me. I was apathetic, passive and lacked investment in the intellectual and political stakes of that project.

In fact, it was not long after I started recognizing my own disengagement that I had a powerful conversation with Ben, here. I told him about my excitement about SJF, and how I was thinking about partnering with them as a side project for my Practicum. He looked at me, quizzically, and said, “That sounds like a dissertation…”

So. I sat with that. I thought about the energy that the PAGErs brought to their projects, and the rich engagement that fueled their intellectual and personal lives. And I started to re-evaluate and take greater notice of my own excitement about these questions of giving, social justice, politics, donor-activism – more broadly, just questions of how, why and where people give. I started to take these questions seriously. I started to realize that my own lived experiences, the ones which I had heretofore thought of as “side projects” were the threads and fibers weaving together to inform my landscape of scholarship. These were it turns out, inseparable.

Now, as I start to shape my dissertation project, I look more intentionally to these lived experiences, community engagements, and scholastic projects as a larger tapestry of publicly engaged work. I share a few of these experiences here.

There is my involvement with the Mapping Youth Journeys program, a multi-year participatory mapping project with middle school students in Seattle. Through a cultural history mapping curriculum, I was part of a team that sought to understand how mapping shaped students’ civic engagement. Importantly, this work showed us how iterative the learning process was: the students’ insights shaped the direction of the research, they showed us that they were not ‘civic actors in waiting’, but that they already held a great deal of cultural wealth and civic knowledge. The mapping component allowed them to connect the dots of their situated knowledge in new ways, but they were, themselves, publicly engaged individuals who were able to express their knowledge in digital and non-digital ways. This project demonstrated how to take non-expert knowledges seriously, and to be open, attentive, and engaged to findings that we did not expect.

summer12 062
There is my vast participation with nonprofit organizations, as a staff person, a volunteer, a scholar and a mentor. One that I’ll draw on here, is my Master’s work with a Seattle based nonprofit, but I cannot say it was entirely engaged. Through that project, I realized that self-reflexivity does not equal engagement. I was intimately aware and involved in a reflexive practice, but I never felt engaged in the way that felt open and invested. I didn’t have much at risk. I was an observer, a critic. A participant, yes, but with not much skin in the game. My presence was not missed when I was gone, and my contributions did not make many ripples.

Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 1.38.08 PM
There is my current involvement with the Relational Poverty Network, a growing network of scholars, community members, students, researchers and activists connecting people and ideas to challenge poverty and inequality. As a member of the Network, and mostly as a research assistant, I am not involved in a ‘research project’ per se, but I am engaged in thinking deeply about what the Network can do, how it connects to multiple audiences, how its work can engage policy makers, how we can be vulnerable and share risk with our current and future community partners, and how we can engage in the political project of making new knowledge that disrupts reductivist notions of poverty.

This all brings me to my current engaged work with Social Justice Fund. Despite Ben’s prodding that my ‘Practicum’ sounded like a dissertation project, I am currently completing my practicum with SJF.

But they will also be one of my collaborators for my dissertation project! The youth empowerment project bit the dust a while back. I realized that to honor my own intellectual and political energies, I had to be honest and dive into where my engagement was leading me. So, in the fall I will begin 12 months of fieldwork that seeks to understand geographies of giving and philanthropy in the PNW. The backbone of the project is to understand the shifting political economy of philanthropy post recession, and the new spaces and subjectivities that emerge from philanthropic engagements. I want to know about how philanthropy can enable politics at various scales.

While I will engage with SJF formally through this process, I am already engaged in the program and have ‘skin in the game’ as it were. I will be part of a giving project, I am on their informal board of ‘community engagement’, I volunteer, and I’m completing a narrative analysis of their rich archival materials for my practicum. And, when the dissertation wraps up, I will not diminish my engagement with SJF. As long as I’m a resident of Seattle, I envision being part of giving projects, and a fierce advocate for the work they do.

This is a story about living an engaged life. It is not enough to expect graduate students, scholars, administrators, activists and advocates to be engaged in our work. We must be attentive to our own energies, needs, curiosities and positionality. To live an engaged life is to take time to check in, to evaluate where and when you can share risks, to reflect on one’s politics and privilege, and to pursue that feeling of being ‘in it’. Think about sitting around a dinner table, with dear friends, with a beautiful dish of food shared between you: that is a moment of engagement, and it is that feeling for which I think we should strive.

**Following this talk, there was a lively conversation about how to bring vulnerability and risk into our work. For more on this, I recommend Richa Nagar’s scholarly work on radical vulnerability, or Brene Brown’s TED talks on vulnerability, or her book Daring Greatly. Please reach out if you’d like to continue the conversation!** 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *