‘I Became a Scholar in Order to Become a Better Activist’
Kitty Kelly Epstein was recently awarded the 2013 Marilyn Gittell Activist Scholar Award by SAGE and the Urban Affairs Association for her work in Oakland, California which combined scholarship, community organizing, and public policy creation.
Much of Epstein’s work was discussed in her most recent book, Organizing to Change a City. Interested to find out how her work as a scholar impacted her work in Oakland, I asked Dr. Epstein a few questions about what came first – the scholarship or the activism, and why.
I became an academic in order to be a better activist, rather than the other way around. I was influenced by the civil rights movement and the student movement. I saw how much people in an academic setting could produce when students at the City University of New York and San Francisco State University, with the support of faculty and community, won campaigns for more fair and open admissions, ethnic studies, and financial aid several decades ago. This led me to the conviction that people could win change, that academics could be helpful, and that structured institutional racism was at the center of inequality in the U.S.
So as an academic, I studied the racial wealth gap. I learned that the median white family has 20 times the net assets of the median Black family and 18 times the net assets of the median Latino family at this time.
With this background I have been able to bring up racism in a stronger way in Oakland. The idea that we live in a post-racial world is ridiculous, and the racial wealth gap is the best evidence.
Here are two examples of work that we chose to do in Oakland partly because we paid attention to the racial wealth gap: We campaigned successfully for a diverse teaching force while I worked in the city because teaching is a good, stable job which brings economic benefit to diverse residents, in addition to the educational benefits it brings to young people. And we fought successfully for a strong industrial land-use policy, because without it, cities experience huge gentrification. High-end residential development does not create permanent working-class jobs as it results from allowing housing developers to build anywhere they want.
Being a resident, an academic, and an activist meant that I could help to organize the task-force process which involved a thousand people in making the kinds of changes I have been describing in Organizing to Change a City.
How did your work as a scholar impact your book Organizing to Change a City?
I have had a chance to read a lot of academic writing and I concluded that I wanted to write for regular people. To me that means using plain language. Anything that cannot be explained in a clear way probably does not need to be said, at least in the social sciences. I have a few good role models in that regard. The great physicist Michio Kaku, for example, is able to explain the future of something as complicated as physics in completely clear and interesting language. And the educator Gloria Ladson-Billings is another wonderful example.
So that is what I have tried to do in this book. I explain the complexities of gentrification and police policy, the history of the racial wealth gap, the fascinating history of Oakland, the role of participatory research, the strategy and tactics of change in brief sentences with only as much documentation as I need to make my point.
What advice would you give to a scholar who is looking to use his or her work to make a positive, real-world impact?
If you’re going to be active in the community, you have to be willing to put your academic interests aside a little bit and think first about what the community wants and needs. We often have career priorities that are not matched up with community needs. Here is an example from the field of education:
A couple of education scholars have become famous by “exposing” horrible conditions in urban schools, and calling on the federal government to “do something.” They sell a lot of books, but many of the educators in the schools they write about are made to appear ignorant and uncaring. The feds “do something” but often it is counter-productive, and the local people who were already trying to “do something” are disenfranchised. Simply exposing conditions for outsiders is not, in my view, the best use of our talents.
Native American academic Mallory Whiteduck uses the term “communitism”, a combination of community and activism, which keeps her constantly aware of her responsibility to the community in everything she writes.
Early in my career, some politicians and much of the mainstream press promoted attempts to have the state take power in the Oakland school district away from the newly emerging African-American majority on the school board. Many academics were writing the “exposés” and policy proposals that led to these takeovers, but the argument did not feel right to me. I had a son in the schools and many friends in the African-American community. I saw huge education issues that needed fixing, but I thought the state would be less likely than the school board to work on the issues I found to be most important. There wasn’t any “scholarship” encouraging resistance to the takeover, but a little coalition of parents, academics, educators, and community activists resisted anyway, and I think events in the years since 1988 have proved that we were right. Now I am able to write about it (A Different View of Urban Schools), but I had to live it as a conscious resident rather than as a more removed academic, in order to fully understand the dynamics.
Karl Marx gave us the best overall scholarly critique of capitalism, but he was also an activist. He helped workers organize dozens of circles all over Europe to improve their conditions, and I bet they gave him an earful when he got his analysis wrong. Paulo Freire wrote extensively about the difference between banking education and transformative education. Then he practiced what he preached by organizing literacy work in Brazil and other countries. None of us learns in isolation. Our thinking is improved in dialogue and in practice.
Previous winners of the Marilyn Gittell Award have included John M. Wallace Jr., the Philip Hallen Chair in Community Health and Social Justice, in the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh, and Marla K. Nelson of the Department of Planning and Urban Studies at the University of New Orleans. The award is named for Marilyn Jacobs Gittell, an outstanding scholar and a community urban activist who wrote seminal works on citizen participation, was founding editor of Urban Affairs Quarterly (now known as Urban Affairs Review) and was an impassioned participant in one of the most controversial social experiments of her time, the decentralization of New York City’s schools.
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