One month in.

It has been one month of summer ‘vacation’ – one week of full-on, no-work, sleep-til-10 vacation, and three weeks of summer – sleep-til-8, have slow, luxurious mornings, attempt some school work for a few hours (or not), do one or more of the following activities the rest of the day: garden, run, see friends, cook, clean my house, yoga, see a movie, volunteer, plan eat for equity, go on walks, read a book, nap, swim. Not bad.

I am at the point of this genealogy project where I think it is necessary to check in and reflect on where I am at, what I have learned, what new questions have been raised.

There are a few core themes or findings so far that I think will guide the questions I bring to the rest of the project:
— the way we think about empowerment is based on how we think about power —
— empowerment, broadly speaking, is either seen as something ‘given to’ or something ‘taken’. this difference will impact where the responsibility for empowerment lies —
— management and organizational communication studies go ga-ga over empowerment, and while their conceptualizations are about productivity, efficiency, and worker satisfaction, much of the language appears in the nonprofit world —

I am balancing the multiple meanings that appear in different genres and disciplines, practicing ‘recitation’ (Hemmings, 2012) to put multiple scholars in conversation with one another. The findings in management and business studies, for instance, see empowerment as a process begun by an employer. It is the responsibility of those with power (primarily supervisors) to make sure that power is made available to their subordinates (primarily, employees). They must create conditions that foster non-hierarchical relations of power, and that allow all employees to feel they have input on decision making processes (interesting side note, as I indicated in an earlier post, this is often called self-efficacy. less about your actual ability to make change, but your perceived ability to change your circumstances).

On the other side of things, women’s empowerment movements, often traced to gender and development (GAD) movements, sought to improve the experiences of women in the global South who experienced increased marginalization at multiple scale of the family, village, city, state or nation. Much of the early women’s empowerment work (Dingo, 2012) recognized that women’s marginalization was not limited to economic terms, or singular indicators of poverty. Instead, there were broader social, cultural, political and economic constructs that yielded women as more marginal to their male counterparts. And, of course, women’s experiences were exacerbated through other factors such as religion, class, caste, physical ability, age, literacy, and health. In this lineage of empowerment, power is to be taken by more marginalized groups, through consciousness-raising, social movements, and larger efforts for transformative justice that do not stop with individual women, but work to make more just social and political contexts.

These two uses and conceptualizations of ’empowerment’ seem disparate at first. In fact, as I indicated above, they are almost incommensurable, due to their different understandings of power and where power originates. But, in some ways, I am beginning to see how the nonprofit sector is an area where these two conflicting understandings of empowerment come together. In fact, I wonder if  nonprofits can be seen as spaces of transmission where empowerment is enacted, understood, performed, practiced, translated, learned, passed down, codified, internalized, projected, critiqued… the actions are quite endless, really. Much of my understanding of this concept is informed by Policy Mobilities (McCann and Ward 2012, Temenos and McCann 2012) and feminist transnational rhetoric studies (Dingo, 2012). Different parties bring their own understandings of rhetoric, discourse, language to the organizations in which they participate. The way these get inscribed into practices is so interesting to me, and could be a way that more supervisor/subordinate understandings of empowerment find translation alongside more social movement / pedagogy of the oppressed practices. Finally, I am interested in putting these two parallel fields into conversation (or re-citing them) with relational poverty studies, social movement theory, and feminist scholar activism.

My most recent beacon of hope in this whole project comes from the insights of relational poverty studies and feminist social theory.  I often can see the cynical ways that donors transmit hegemonic neoliberal notions of successful, responsible citizen-subject-hood to youth participants. What if, rather than propagate status quo subjectivities, donors, volunteers, staff and participants come together to work towards understanding oppression, privilege, systemic issues of justice, in order to better see how they all  can be / are working towards systemic change. This is lofty, yes. But. It is a way that donors, (or those with more power, in a conventional sense) are actually empowered to see their ability to change the system we live in. This is the work that Resource Generation and Social Justice Fund Northwest undertake.

So, some thoughts for now. I am going to continue reading some of the early writings on empowerment from each of these fields to really get into its lineages. See what I can tease apart. How I might be able to find new combinations, recitations and conceptualizations that map onto nonprofit work in (new) ways.

Another month, here we go!

Self-efficacy, self-regulation and success

Earlier this week, I wrote a post in anticipation of getting lunch with two of my close peers/mentors at Seattle Youth Garden Works. We enjoyed big bowls of spicy pho, and caught up about the development of the summer program. I was asked to come in as a guest chef for one of their days of meal prep, which, with a crew of 40, is not unlike Eat for Equity! I have not met the new crew yet, but there are 8 youth that have continued from last year’s year-long program, all of whom are a complete delight every time I reconnect with them.

While brief, our lunch reiterated to me the importance of asking questions about the meaning and use of ’empowerment’. I began our conversation by alluding to much of the cross-disciplinary reading I’ve been doing that situates empowerment from a supervisor-employee position, a position whose goal is to increase worker productivity. Both of my friends laughed, acknowledging how counter intuitive that felt to real empowerment. So what was real empowerment, then, to them? Robert, the farm manager, has a background in psychology. He framed ’empowerment’ in regards to a few ideas (ideas which I was starting to see recur in the literature I’ve been reading).
1) self-efficacy. to Robert, self-efficacy means the perception of being in control or having power. He referred to a study in which folks were given tasks to do, and a very annoying noise was playing. One group was told there was a button that they could press at any point that would end the noise (a button which, in actuality, did nothing). The other group was not given a button. The group with the button demonstrated much more happiness, productivity and satisfaction — and never even pressed the button. The mere belief that they could change the situation, though, increased their self-efficacy.
2) self-regulation. This is a concept I’ve heard Robert talk about before, and as best I can understand it, self-regulation is about delaying gratification, being able to break goals into small, achievable pieces, and then regulating oneself to achieve goals those goals. This is a skill that can be taught. One of Robert’s greatest goals it to help the youth identify goals, (and, relating to self-efficacy, to have them believe they have the power to actually do/change certain things in their lives), and then teach them how to break large goals down into smaller pieces. And, finally, to develop the tools to manage one’s life so that those pieces fall into place. The classic example he gives is to be able to set an alarm, wake up with enough time to get where you need to be, to take initiative and call if you’re going to be late, to get directions, to be prepared, etc…
3) That ’empowerment’ is an amalgamation of these two ideas — you can’t really get to self-regulation without self-efficacy. He ties this into an idea of ‘possible selves’, meaning, being able to look to the future and see many possible ideas and paths for oneself.

Kristen, my fellow Eat for Equity organizer and the program coordinator at SYGW, followed up with some thoughtful questions here, prodding and asking for clarification. In fact, in another life, I think Kristen could be a really amazing feminist ethnographic scholar. She is emotive and poses inviting, open-ended questions. I am continually inspired by her.

I followed up to both of them, asking if they thought that multiple people at the organization would agree with those ideas. “Of empowerment?” they asked. “Yes,” I said. “Definitely not…Especially if you asked the youth.”

Bingo! While I was not fishing, this is exactly a question I have been floating around.

“Oh yes? Do you think they’d be into that?” I asked.

“Yeah! What if you, like, did a video project? You could ask them all what they think it meant? That’d be neat.”

Bingo again! This is totally the type of project I was envisioning, especially for my Public Scholarship capstone project: filming and collaborating with the youth. Asking them about a possible narrative they would want. Doing some editing. Asking them about possible audiences for the video.

At the end of lunch: “I mean, I love this idea. I’m going to mull it over. But… I want to make sure they youth would be into it. I don’t want to force this idea on them.”

“Oh. They’ll love it. They have always been excited about these types of projects, especially if they get to speak on camera. They’ll love it.”
[I am skeptical on this last point, and would want to develop this project more closely with the youth I already know, rather than assume they’d be into it. But, encouraging that both staff were the ones that suggested the idea I already had brewing! How neat.]

So, I can look forward to getting to know the youth crew as a guest chef and volunteer, continuing to read and contextualize ’empowerment’ across many disciplines and activities, and, eventually, developing a possible video project. Great things.

Digging into Empowerment

This week I began a somewhat daunting task. I dug into a feminist genealogy of the word ’empowerment’. My committee suggested this undertaking following my preliminary round of exams, with the hope that I would actually be able to do substantively richer theorizing if I had fully grappled with the long history, diverse lineage and multiple meanings and conceptualizations of the word. As I begin, I am realizing how right they were.

I’m bringing a fair amount of energy and excitement to this project. As my partner alluded the other day, ‘it’s like a scavenger hunt’ – a fun hunt to see what I find, where new definitions lead, where citations take me. It’s also a chance for me to put into practice a methodology exercise I was exposed to recently: feminist recitation (Hemmings 2011). In this practice, we complicate the genealogy and historiography of particular ideas and concepts by mixing up our citation practices. Rather than cite Butler as always following the lineage of Foucault, for instance, we might get a different story about feminist theory’s relationship to post structuralism if we cite Butler in relation to Wittig, a poststructuralist feminist, a contemporary of Foucault. I am trying to keep this idea of recitation fresh in my own reading and digging into ’empowerment’s history and evolution. Rather than assume I know the path and story, I will keep an open mind as to how different intellectual influences come to bear on one another. Today, I stumbled upon an excellent article, now 15 years old, coming out of feminist social work. It is a really interesting piece to re-cite critiques of empowerment that were starting to come out of feminist development scholars in the global South.

However, while I begin this genealogy (a task that, conceivably, has no real ‘end’ point…), I am keeping in mind the reasons that I care about this concept. I am not digging into 30 years of literature just for the fun of it. I’m doing it because I am committed to better understand how terms like ’empowerment’ are conceptualized, operationalized, and experienced by multiple nonprofit actors. In my reading today, for instance, Trethewey (1997), sees empowerment as practices against subordination. Human service organization clients were empowered when they resisted the dominant discourses and practices of the top-down, paternalistic and patriarchal human services they relied upon for support. This is a very different understanding than the discursive work ’empowerment’ seems to do when deployed in mission statements, as donors, staff and volunteers seek to do empowerment for others.

So, part of my process right now is to uncover how empowerment has been utilized in hopeful ways. Hopeful theorizations. Who is doing empowering work? What does it mean to empower oneself? [Can this ever really be true?] Is it possible for empowerment to be deployed, and still be successful? What lessons can be learned from social movements and consciousness-raising (Collins, 2000) that might be applied to nonprofit work?

Tomorrow I am getting lunch with two of my favorite folks, who work for Seattle Youth Garden Works. Empowerment is in their mission. And, while I’m kind of taking a hiatus from volunteering with them right now, I really value my relationship with this organization. I am so curious about what my two friends/mentors/peers understand ’empowerment’ to mean. How they see this playing out in the organization? How they feel about the tensions between short-term change (definitely improving the lives of a handful of youth, undeniably), and long-term change and advocacy (something the organization is not equipped to do, but nonetheless is an important goal).

From a social movement perspective, ’empowerment’ creates enabling relationships of power, wherein individuals and community raise consciousness of collective experience, and then enact multiple forms of resistant to oppressive and hegemonic power dynamics in their individual and community practices (Trethewey 1997, Simon 1990). While I value individual level social services, confidence building, support systems, etc., I wonder about the perpetuation of the status quo.

In other words, it’s great to help these kids, right now. But what are we doing to prevent 10 more kids from filling their spots? What are we doing to end systemic inequality that makes certain young people more marginalized in the first place?

When I say it like that, people seem to get it. They nod. They understand that I’m not in the market to just critique nonprofits til the cows come home (though, I am pretty good at that). If it’s really about ’empowerment’ from a sense of challenging structures of oppression and dispossession, then it’s vital to also unpack and reflect on the work that gets done in the name of empowerment. It is not to say that benefits don’t occur here. But what do we miss? What is elided? What do we presume?

With these things in mind, I am excited to continue this scavenger hunt. I am also feeling energized and honored and slightly nervous to get lunch with my peers/friends/mentors tomorrow. It should be a formative, fun and enlightening conversation.

I invite comments on this one: what does empowerment mean to you?

Reflections on Digital Humanities, Collaboration and Play

This quarter, I enrolled in an exploratory course called “Hybrid Humanities: Critical, Digital, Geographical”. While I did not know precisely what to expect when I enrolled 11 weeks ago, I am now quite pleased with the course and the new skills and questions learned/posed.

Our aim was to play with digital humanities, explore code, and create new interventions from a critical cartographic and geographical perspective. Many of the questions about how knowledge is made, how arguments are visualized, and how we support our claims through new platforms and technologies have been the domain of digital humanities. However, critical geographers interested in representation, GIS, and the geoweb have also questioned how we can better represent relation space. To this point, this has mostly been done through qualitative GIS, critical GIS, and theorists who have not yet linked theory and digital practice.

This is where our class attempts to intervene. A persistent question on the table is: “how can we make the technology and form of our arguments best suit the arguments we want to make?” In other words, rather than constraining our arguments/claims to existing platforms and sources, can we make this process more iterative, playful and creative by learning and adapting the technology TO our own work? Can we harness the skills, at whatever capacity we are able, to be both digital producers, consumers, theorists and analysts?

We have approached the quarter through two paths: one, theoretical, reading about new ontologies of space and knowledge, better understanding the lineage and aims of the digital humanities, exploring the ways network society impacts our studies and technologies. On the other hand, we’ve been encouraged to play through praxis activities: learning some basic Python, experimenting with javascript and D3, and encouraged to apply these skills to our own projects and interventions.

A consistent question seemed to emerge. One of my colleagues, Lila Garcia, and I noticed that many of the technologies and projects were doing really amazing things with multimedia, creating interactive platforms that served as archives as well as stories, pathways as well as explorations. However, we saw a significant arena for geographic work: how are current digital humanities projects conceptualizing and operationalizing ‘space’ and ‘place’? How could we adapt and intervene with future work to specifically address this question? Can we make our own critical interventions in representations and theorizations of relational space through platforms like SCALAR, D3 or even something like Prezi?

Lila and I decided to apply some of our basic coding skills to a network visualization platform called Gephi. After conducting a multi-modal literature review of existing examples and projects, we tagged and cataloged projects based on their use of technology, their platform, their use of ‘space’, their collaborations, funding sources, and goals. We are hoping to do two types of visualizations: one network will show how a sampling of projects are related, via their tags, to show similar trends among existing projects. The second will attempt to more concretely visualize how space is currently portrayed, and expose gaps as to how geographers could better visualize and represent relational space in the future.

The thread of comments that follows will include our reflections on this process. This project is not meant to be exhaustive or definitive. In the spirit of the digital humanities, we are approaching this as an experiment, a chance to play, and perhaps a chance to fail. It is iterative, and we are learning as we go, even if there is nothing conclusive to say at the end.

Join us through these comments, reflections, screen shots, frustrations and insights!

Reflections on Writing

This month, I feel very lucky to be joining a writing workshop of 8 of the most inspired/inspiring women I have ever worked with. We are working with Victoria Lawson, [who has more credits to her name than are even worth mentioning here] in a Writing for Publication workshop. The final product of this class will be a submission to a journal article. I have chosen to aim high, and am going to submit an article to the Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Wish me luck.

Vicky’s advice to us is to write every day. Don’t put it off. Make space for it. Protect that space.

There are a million and one excuses not to write. One of our colleagues just had a baby – surely that is reason enough to put the pen down [or laptop, as it were]. Others have relationship concerns, physical ailments, teaching conflicts and expectations, discomfort with the journal writing process… there are a million and one reasons.

But, today, I am sitting with one that I have not yet figured out how to navigate.

Grief.

I cannot talk myself out of this excuse. I cannot just nudge myself, close a browser, turn off my internet, eliminate distractions. This is one that I have confronted throughout the year, and has reared its head, hidden and haunted me in various ways for the last 9 months. When I was first beginning to write my thesis, a dear friend of mine was brutally murdered. His murder goes unsolved, to this day, and it probably forever will.

At the time, I found solace in writing. The thesis was a project I could devote myself to, with a clear purpose, clear deadline, and clear outcome. I would write. I would argue my points. I would tell a compelling story. I would defend the thesis. I would eventually publish.

Well, here I am, trying to complete that final step by writing a journal article drawing on one of the primary chapters of the thesis. Except that today, [MLK Jr.’s birthday, Obama’s second inauguration, a ‘day off’ which is supposed to be wildly productive], I am feeling blinded by lingering wisps of grief. Tendrils of my memories of Sam are pulling at me, away from the thoughts of nonprofits, discourses of deservingness and subjectivity. Towards future memories, yet to be created, where his absence will be felt glaringly: the first of our friends’ weddings, reunions, eventual babies and families, his brother’s graduation.

So how to reconcile these? There are a million reasons not to write. I suppose I should appreciate that even in this grief, in these memories, are encouragements to write, even if not for today’s stated purpose: this journal article.

I shall attempt to find a bit of focus, a trait that my dear friend proudly lacked. His joyous, frenetic attitude brought unpredictable adventures, projects and obstacles. Perhaps a scattered brain is ok in this moment. It might take me to new places in my writing for which I cannot plan. Or, I will just go home and knit and watch movies. Both of these seem potentially ok, though one is more acceptable in the path of academia. Though as I’ve always said, my life is not about me as an academic. I hold multiple roles in multiple communities. One of those communities is about 3,000 miles away, continuing to navigate this same grief as we hold it everyday.

sam_sailboat

Thinking through politics, democracy and technology

In the spirit of Loader and Mercea’s  claim that “testimony, story telling, greetings and rhetoric can all be employed as discursive forms of democratic engagement” (2011, 761), I was inspired to write a weekly response piece for one of my seminars in a slightly more narrative form.[1]

The acquisition of an iPhone or access to a social networking site does not determine the engagement of citizens (Loader and Mercea 2011, 761).

#endworldhunger
#anti-racism

“What’s on your mind?”

Habermas’ public sphere has not materialized. Web 1.0 never even had a chance. A sphere free of social difference and politics? That would and will not come to pass, regardless of the digital space and technology. Web 2.0 – does it necessarily lead to ‘politics’ and ‘democracy’? What do these terms even mean or look like in practice?

what do I mean when I talk of ‘the political’ anyway?

…a more open conception of democratic citizenship…open instead to a more personalized and self-actualizing notion of citizenship… that recognizes the multiplicity of identity positions that citizens are required to grapple with in contemporary societies, where the spheres for democratic engagement reach into the private spaces to enable the personal to become political (Loader and Mercea, 761).

The personal becoming political. Reaching into private spaces. I retreat to my screen, a safe place to write. Yet I don’t have the courage to speak up in a crowd. To stand up as a worker, for labor, for my own politics. My politics is by making my home public. I bring people to my table to build community, compassion, relationships. My personal becomes… political? these politics. what do they look like .  what work do they do? through small actions, I activate changes, make small challenges to larger systems. even in  questioning the larger structure and system, I grapple.  I become political.

Although various modes of communication, institutional structures, or technological systems may appear to remain stable over time, in fact mediation is a continuous process of countless small adaptations – interrelated reconfigurations and remediations that gradually produce new practices, artifacts, and social arrangements, and thus whole infrastructures, like the changes that occur when small parts of a building or machine are replaced over time (Lievrouw 2011, 234).

Ok. So I enact the political through small change over time. Technology, society, institutions, individuals, collectives… we reconfigure and remediate our systems and content in a dialectic process of mediation. Constantly adapting, constantly reworking, constantly producing new knowledge and ways of knowing; we create new frameworks and technologies and simultaneously construct new epistemologies. This is the making of knowledge politics. Again, the political.

New spatial media knowledge politics… [are] deeply intertwined in the political-economic and institutional contexts of the types of organizations [profiled here]. The hardware, software and other digital capabilities of new spatial media are of course part of the story, but also deeply implicated are the material and discursive contexts in which NGOs, community based organizations and civic engagement groups operate (Elwood and Leszczynski 2012, 13).

Purchasing an iPhone does not make an activist an activist. A reconfiguration of that technology to help make sense and remediate the artifacts, encounters, interactions, practices and relationships of our current time, current material/discursive context… this can activate the activist. This can open up private spaces for political expression. This can enable narrative to tell a political story. Multiple forms of rhetoric, multiple forms of democratic engagement.

Access to sites of citizen(ship) does not determine the engagement of social networks or the acquisition of an iPhone.



[1] Credit to Magie Ramirez for inspiring this type of writing.

On the heels of Imagining America 2012. Or, “what do I want to be when I grow up?”

This weekend I had the immense honor and opportunity to participate in the Imagining America annual conference. “A consortium of 90 colleges and universities, and their partners, IA emphasizes the possibilities of humanities, arts, and design in knowledge-generating initiatives. Such activity can span disciplines through collaborations with public health, environmental issues, community education, neighborhood development, and others. We also value the knowledge and creativity-generating components of partnerships among people whose everyday lives produce different kinds of expertise. So the scholar in the library, the teacher in the classroom, the organizer in the community – each provides different expertise that together is greater than the sum of its parts.

This year’s convening was titled, “Linked Fates and Futures: Communities and Campuses as Equitable Partners?, and emphasized creative and imaginative explorations into partnerships between communities (broadly conceived), and campuses (also broadly conceived). Many sessions explored highly successful, generative productive and justice-oriented partnerships between institutions of higher-ed and groups or organizations rooted in communities throughout the US. Other sessions explored vocational roles and how practitioners at different sites in institutions can help activate justice, learning, and access in equitable ways. Still other sessions were specifically tailored for graduate students and how we can find support across networks to support publicly engaged scholarship. An undercurrent of the whole conference is an understanding that the traditional academy does not have language or structures to adequately value or evaluate community or publicly engaged scholarship.

One of the COOLEST things I saw all weekend was Nick Sousanis‘ dissertation work: through the education department at Columbia University, he is publishing the first ever comic-form dissertation.

I presented a poster from my own work with Youth Grow in Seattle, exploring how graduate students can play a unique role in meeting and advancing the work of youth-oriented non profit programs. Specifically, I proposed three realms for graduate students to contribute: through practical research that advances the programming and capacity of the organization; through caring and reflexive mentorship with youth; through creative relationships with the organization and youth, wherein students can leverage their hybrid positions as volunteer/student, tap into the resource-rich university, and recommend new projects that can help link youth to the organization in more effective ways. Let me expand on this (especially because it is the direction I am currently envisioning my dissertation work would take).

Oh! But before I do, I wanted to explore the crazy-eyed look that most conference participants gave when they learned I was a geographer. It looked like this:
As a consortium that caters more to the arts and humanities, I was a bit out of place as a graduate student in geography. As someone who thinks about space, place, scale and power, my language and research questions were a bit out of the element for others.

Of course, I do not want to see my research questions as existing in a vacuum. So, the confluence between my identity as a geographer, as a scholar-activist, and as a community member were all at play at this conference. I found myself reflecting a great deal about how I can, as always, strive to find greater balance and synthesis between these different worlds I walk between every day.

That said, I have also spent some time now preparing for my preliminary examination in the geography department. This will operate independently of my other work in community and in public scholarship, and, coming off of a weekend of enthusiastically thinking about how to find even more linkages between my interests and spaces of interest, I now find that I have to siphon off specific time to address my prelims with specific language that will appeal to my committee.

This brings me back to my dissertation research and interests. While I do not anticipate writing a comic book for my dissertation, (I wish!), I think that the questions and applications of my work are important and worth sharing with different audiences.

My interests lie in tracing how discourses and ideologies of impoverishment, middle class-ness, and social difference simultaneously inform the landscape of social service provisioning in the United States while also shaping particular programmatic decisions and frameworks for individual non-profit and CBOs. Following this more structural approach, I want to trace how non-profit programs help shape the everyday lived geographies of program participants (in my case, young people). Beyond this, how do youth participants see themselves as active agents in the spaces of non-profit programs, in larger urban networks, and as politicized, racialized, gendered, classed, (un)deserving subjects.

I think that there is a really interest possibility to interject technology studies into this work. How are organizations incorporating technology into their “empowerment” work? Additionally, how could feminist media making and technology studies inform the ways that young people self-identity and internalize questions of subjectivity?

This gets me to, I think, a really productive place between my public scholarship / activist tendencies, and my interest in theoretical and intellectual frameworks for thinking about social difference and inequality. It all comes down to this:

– – – – – – – – – – – young people matter – – – – – – – – – – –
– – – – – – – – – – – technology matters – – – – – – – – – – – –
– – – space is in a constant state of *becoming* – – –
AND
– – – relationships and community building matter – – –
– – – I don’t want to be in graduate school forever – – –
– – – – I want my scholarship to matter. to count. – – – –

Oh, and I want to go to Scandinavia. Let’s make that happen, dissertation work, ok? Thanks.

 

Onto the next…

I realize it has been many moons since I last wrote here.

Some bloggers might feel apologetic for that. But I have spent a lot of time over the last few months thinking about habits, how our habits intercept our work, lives and relationships, and how to try and look at these habits without judgement. That said, I have tried to observe patterns and habits around my own writing without laying too much judgement. What I can say is this: I spent the winter and spring months writing like crazy as I completed my masters thesis. I was incredibly disciplined in this endeavor, setting aside 4-5 hour chunks 3 days a a week, venturing down to the same coffee shop on my bicycle, ordering a delicious made-to-order cup of coffee and plugging in my headphones. I wrote each chapter on schedule, and felt very little stress throughout the entire process. That is, until I realized that my system for organizing my citations had failed me at the very end, and I had to enter 10 pages of bibliographic citations by hand. Yeesh.

So now, months later, having submitted the 120 page document proudly to my committee and my family and friends, I have written very little. Scratch that. I have written zilch. Zero. Nothing. At. All.

This does bring me, if not shame, then mild embarrassment. I had grand visions for spending the summer drafting a journal article from my master’s thesis; writing a policy memo for the organization I volunteered with for my fieldwork; reading lots for my prelims this winter and writing copious notes. Alas, my pen was dry. The only writing I did, at all, was to jot down notes of my favorite recipes that I cooked. I also wrote some nice wedding cards. Ok? Ok.

Now I return to the blogosphere to whet me palette again for writing. I have an intensive 2 years of writing ahead of me: back to seminars, prelims statements, prelim exams, grant proposals, generals statements, general exams, dissertation proposal, etc. I also have many conferences on my docket, which I hope will galvanize my interest, intention, and attention towards nuanced pieces of my research and interests. Transitioning into the PhD from the Master’s in my program is historically very challenging for many students. The expectations are vague (ha! what else is new), the direction is unclear, and the projects are not as concrete as in the MA portion of the program.

However, the two conferences ahead of me should be very helpful in focusing my attention. The first, Imagining America, takes places in New York City. It will be an excellent opportunity for me to immerse myself in a conference about public scholarship: the role for graduate students, the potential for collaboration with local organizations, and envisioning the future of scholarship and partnership between universities and publics. I will be presenting a poster reflecting on my own work as a budding scholar-activist who works between and within the university and Seattle based non-profit sector. I will also forecast and provide some recommendations for future collaborations and ways that young people can more directly affect the direction of organizations.

The second conference is the 6th Race, Ethnicity and Place Conference, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I will be presenting on a session titled, (En)countering Space, Place, and Agency:  Everyday Youth Geographies, which will, “explore how children and youth live, navigate, and (re)define the linkages of race and ethnicity, space and place.” Here, I will reflect on how the young people at Youth Grow, where I did my fieldwork, are positioned and racialized as “good workers”. Through attention to middle class aspirations and work ethic, the youth are delineated between deserving- and undeserving-ness. This paper session will explore the nuances around how the youth assert their own agency and identity amidst very subtle, though powerful, disciplining.

Ah-ha. There. I’ve written. A bit. There is more to come. I also still plan to achieve all of the things I hoped to do this summer, just in the next 2 weeks. It is entirely possible to consolidate 2 months’ worth of work into 2 weeks, right? I believe it is. With less time we are more productive.

I approach this fall hoping to stay excited and open about new directions . I don’t yet know how I will articulate the three main contributions of my committee to my PhD direction, but I’m sure I will get there… [urban inequalities + new poverty studies + ideology/power]? [critical race theory + youth / technology + subjectivities]? [critical youth geographies + urban inequalities + discourse/ideology]? Oy. Too many options.

I’m excited to read and write on all of these things and start to pinpoint my identity as a scholar! Also, on the public scholarship front, I continue to operate under the belief that scholarship is experienced through everyday lived experience. I am learning and sharing and teaching and researching through all of my activities and activism: through community building, my mentorship with Seattle Youth Garden Works, my co-organizing for Eat for Equity Seattle, my involvement with the Public Scholarship program, my contributions to the Women Who Rock project, my travels to conferences… it all connects. I think this recognition is what enables me to have the energy, zest, and excitement to live a balanced graduate student life. So, here goes another year, with new transitions and expectations. And a lot of writing.

The digital and the archive

I’ve spent a lot of time this past week thinking about (digital) archives. This quarter I am taking the first part of a two part class called Women Who Rock Digital Scholarship. Organized as a part of the Women Who Rock Research Project (chaired by Sonnet Retman and Michelle Habell-Pallan), this course will help produce a collection of digital oral histories for the WWRRP.

As preparation for the course, we’ve spent a good deal of time learning how to use digital recording equipment. Initially intimidating to me, I’ve now just become frustrated, for both times I’ve recorded, I haven’t been able to capture any sound! What a tragedy.

At the same time, I’ve been writing a proposal for the NEH Advanced Institute on Spatial Humanities and Deep Maps. Ryan Burns and I applied for this summer institute together, and spent a lot of time thinking about how digital geo-spatial technologies (or the geoweb, in our case), can impact the humanities. We wrote a bit about our experience with Mapping Youth Journeys, and how the students struggled with finding spatial materials. Lacking a substantive digital spatial archive, students had to weave together their own stories using what maps or photos they could find. What would a digital archive have contributed to this exercise? And, alternatively, how do we place the maps that these youth produced? They are not being archived. They are not even being made public. So, while there are now new digital materials in the world, knowledges produced by middle school students, these do not inherently serve as an archive.

On a different note, while the WWRRP isn’t making direct use of digital spatial technologies, it is simultaneously raising questions to me of time, memory, and what we compromise by creating an archive. In our intentional decision to build an archive of oral histories, decisions come into play of power and politics. We as knowledge producers are choosing what goes in the archive, whose stories are told, etc. On the flip side, the seemingly democratic form of youtube or “the digital” (not a true archive, but all of web 2.0)… is, falsely, seen as without politics. When we look back historically on this era, what will the archives we create now say about this time period? And how will that compare to the crowd-sourced, “democratic” web materials that dominate much of popular discourse about Web 2.0?

I find this particularly interesting right now because of my own technological snafus with digital recording material. As the technology is seemingly more accessible, (but still very difficult to master! and expensive!), what experiences get documented, and which ones never do? As many of the older women in our GWSS class explained, they are excited about music and social justice, but are intimidated by the technology. Without understanding the contexts and social implications of technology and the digital age, it is easy to fall into a false trap of thinking the digital to be inherently democratic. But those who do not feel comfortable picking up a camera are not going to document their experience. Equally tricky then, would be politicizing and challenging the academic’s instinct to then go “in” and document those stories for “them”.

A tricky situation, it seems. I have no real claims to make here, but have been mulling these things about in my head for the better part of the week, and felt it time to put them on ‘paper’. (Ah, but again, the digital. Paper is obsolete!)

Spatial Humanities and Proposal Writing

The other day, my colleague Ryan and I finally sat down to discuss our co-proposal for the Spatial Humanities Institute being hosted in Indianapolis this summer. “Spatial Humanities…” we thought. “That sounds right up our alley.”

It turns out that the collective work that we’ve done nearly perfectly fits this Institute’s goals and motivations. We are engaging in geo-spatial technologies that can enhance traditional humanists’ understandings and depth of inquiry. We are both interested in cross disciplinary collaboration, and are committed to public scholarship via information dissemination and knowledge production.

Also, our work on Mapping Youth Journeys, a really amazing research project chaired by our adviser and our department chair, serves as a great example of how spatial technologies can increase the richness of cultural histories, personal narratives, and story telling, particularly with / for / through underserved communities. In my own case, the fact that we were working primarily with youth of color in Seattle’s Central District was an incredibly opportunity to collaborate and collect stories through geo-spatial technologies that would otherwise have been less apparent or vocal.

All in all, following our planning meeting, we both felt so excited about this Institute that we were even starting to scheme the logistics of it! (Can anyone say, “presumptive”??) I went promptly to my new favorite writing spot on campus (Allen Library North, Wing that looks out to Smith Hall, well lit, large tables, and, usually, no one is talking, glass walls on both sides so it is well lit and airy feeling…) and banged out a proposal draft in record time.

I truly hope Ryan and I receive the opportunity to go to this summer Institute. It would be a fabulous chance to meet other faculty and graduate students asking similar questions. Personally, I would get to develop my technical skills and continue to learn more about the technology side of the questions I am interested in. For instance, one of the issues Ryan and I write extensively about in this proposal is to gain a better understanding of the social impacts of geo-spatial technologies. Obviously, Ryan already thinks about this all the time, but it is still fairly new to me.

That said, I think about it more every day, especially in TA-ing an Urban GIS class right now and amidst the current PIPA / SOPA debates and protests. It will be incredibly interesting to see how this all pans out, and if it has any impact on things like the Institute this summer. Hopefully we get the chance to go, and I can report back afterwards!

Until then, hopefully I won’t get too distracted from thesis writing by my new excitement over proposal writing. For instance, I just saw a Call for Papers for a perfect session for me… in Edinburgh…that I know I cannot afford to go to. But, apply anyway? Why not.