Intro. to Sociology field trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Last December I heard that the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was soon to open up its online ticket system for large groups. I set the date on my calendar, waited until the day arrived, and put in a request for both of my Introduction to Sociology classes to visit the museum. We got lucky – sixty tickets were allocated to us on the day I had requested, a Saturday in early March.

I made the field-trip a required part of both of my Introduction to Sociology classes, and will likely continue to do so in the future (though the Museum seems to have suspended the group pass ticket program for the moment due to continuing high demand). The idea was not just to expose the students to the museum’s content, but to ask them to engage with it sociologically. I wanted them to practice identifying sociological ideas outside of the classroom. For example, they were tasked with looking for where the museum content illustrates the idea of the social construction of race, which we had read about in class, though I told them the exhibits that did so wouldn’t use those specific terms.

For teachers who live in Washington DC, the NMAAHC is a great place to take students. It’s free, easy to access by metro, and, of course, has incredible content. I had been through the lower floors once before, which helped me decide how to direct our visit. We arrived early to make sure all 60 students were assembled by the time the museum opened at 10am, which was also the time our tickets gave us entry. The space set up for large groups to wait and enter worked fine. I used the time in line to hand out worksheets and give reminders about what time we would meet again as a group. The worksheet served the purpose of directing their eyes toward things we had already been discussing in class, and giving them lots to talk about in our group discussion. Take a look at it here.

The students were free to peruse the museum individually or in groups at their own pace. The only requirements were that they take notes on what they saw on the worksheet, and meet on the ground level at noon for discussion until 1pm, at which time they were free to go. I encouraged students to start at the bottom of the museum in the earliest section of the history floors. Because we entered at the beginning of the day, most of the students reported not spending more than 20 or 30 minutes waiting in line to go down the elevator to enter the exhibit at the bottom floor. The few that didn’t begin there and tried to go down later in the morning reported that the line had ballooned out significantly, making those floors inaccessible within the time we had available.

Because I didn’t get around to looking into classroom space within the museum until it was too late, we had our discussion on the entry level of the museum instead, with most of us sitting on the floor in a large group by the windows. This was fun in a way, as we were very much in the mix of the museum-goers (one curious soul even stopped to join us for a short time). However, the ambient noise and the size of the group made it hard to hear ourselves talk, so next time I’ll inquire earlier about those classrooms. Next time I might also give the students a bit more time in the museum itself before asking them to meet for discussion – probably 10-12:30 on their own and then group discussion from 12:30-1:15.

Next semester I’d also like to make time during the next regular class meeting after the field-trip for discussion, especially to revisit some of the more conceptually challenging content on the worksheet. I’ve started a small collection of photographs of specific museum exhibits that relate to course content that I think will be useful to show in the classroom. As I show an image of a particular exhibit,  the students that saw it at the museum but didn’t think to link it to our course readings will make a new connection, and students that missed it at the museum will get a chance to see it for the first time.

Check out photos from our trip below, or if you are reading this in your e-mail inbox, online.

 

Teaching Environmental Inequality: Class research project

This is the fourth post in a series about the Environmental Inequality class I finished teaching in December. The first post shared the syllabus and class project, the second described how I’ve used the documentary Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek, and the third described the first of two field trips we took – a boat tour of the Anacostia River. This post describes our class research project, undertaken in collaboration with the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Empower DC, and ANC 6D commissioner Rhonda Hamilton. Here is the project overview from the course syllabus:

This semester we will work on a collaborative research project with the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Empower DC, and ANC commissioner Rhonda Hamilton from the neighborhood directly adjacent to Buzzard Point in Washington, D.C. Buzzard Point is an industrial neighborhood that is currently being redeveloped. It will be the site of the new DC United Soccer Stadium and many other new construction projects. Our work will involve conducting oral history interviews with residents living near Buzzard Point to document their family history in the neighborhood, relationship to the community and to the adjacent Anacostia River, and experiences with pollution and gentrification. We will host guest speakers as well as go on field trips and conduct off-campus research activities as part of this project. The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum will then add the transcripts to their archives and create a booklet based on your interviews to distribute to research participants after the class ends. When the booklet is ready (early 2017), there will be an optional reception at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum to which you will be invited. This effort is a pilot project to upon which I hope to build a longer-term research relationship with our off-campus partners.

After working with the various groups involved to plan the project, I scheduled a number of “Class Project Days” in my syllabus to move the project forward. Here’s what we used them for.

Preparatory assignment: Research Ethics and the Institutional Review Board

Howard University requires all research plans, including research conducted by students as part of their coursework, to be approved by the campus Institutional Review Board (IRB). This process is designed to protect “human subjects,” or people that are the target of academic research, from potential harm. Accordingly, the students’ first assignment was to complete the IRB’s two required online short-courses on research ethics. They then submitted their certification of passing grades, along with their resume, to me. See the assignment prompt here. I submitted their certifications and resumes along with the rest of the paperwork for the proposed study to the IRB early in the semester. This was stressful as there was no guarantee that the campus IRB would approve the project in time for us to start and finish our work within the limits of a single semester. It worked out in the end, but I would recommend others submit and complete the IRB paperwork in the semester or summer before the class whenever possible. Then at the beginning of the class in which the research will be conducted, merely do the necessary paperwork to add students to the project as extra research personnel. I recommend this process even if your university does not require IRB approval for research conducted by students as part of their coursework. Going through the IRB approval process is educational for the students, reinforces the importance of taking seriously their interactions with the public as researchers, and enables the faculty member or students to publish out of the research they conduct.

Preparatory assignment: Practice interview

After covering the fundamentals of oral history interviewing, students were assigned a practice interview. They divided into pairs and interviewed each other outside of class, using modified versions of the same questions we intended to use with our real interviews later. Students had to record the interviews, write short papers about the interview (its form and content), and turn both in. See the assignment prompt here. In class we then discussed what worked well and what they would have done differently in order to improve their interviewing skills. After they conducted the practice interviews with sample questions I gave them, we also had a class discussion about what other questions ought to be added before we conducted our “real” interviews and I edited the list accordingly.

Guest speakers

On two different class days, I hosted guest speakers from our collaborating organizations to come tell us about their work and describe what they hoped to get out of the class project. Kari Fulton, Empower DC’s environmental justice organizer, spoke on the same day the students did a reading on the concept of cumulative environmental impacts – or the way multiple pollution sources add up to a cumulative health burden that is poorly understood by science and poorly addressed by regulation. Katrina Lashley, the Urban Waterways project coordinator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, spoke to the students on the same day they read about oral history interviewing.

Field Trip

We also took a field-trip designed to help students better understand the local environment by taking a boat tour of the Anacostia River. See photos and a description here. Although many of the people living near Buzzard Point that we interviewed later in the semester had little contact with the nearby Anacostia and Potomac rivers, the field-trip still helped the students locate themselves and the project within Washington DC environmental concerns. If I teach this class again with the same research project, I hope to schedule a field-trip to the Buzzard Point neighborhood in place of, or in addition to, the river tour.

Readings

The topical readings of the course were relevant to the research we conducted. In addition, we read things designed to educate the students on the research process. These included the following:

  • Hunt, Marjorie. 2012. Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interview Guide. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved August 21, 2016 (http://www.museumonmainstreet.org/education/Oral_History_Guide_Final.pdf)
  • Cable, Sherry, Tamara Mix, and Donald Hastings. 2005. “Mission Impossible Environmental Justice Activists’ Collaborations with Professional Environmentalists and with Academics.” Pp. 55-75 in Power, Justice and the Environment: A Critical Appraisal of the Environmental Justice Movement, edited by D. Pellow, D. Naguib and R. J. Brulle. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

In addition, two other “Class Project Days” featured readings specific to our local research topic. One on the Anacostia River and was assigned the day before our river tour. The others included press coverage of the redevelopment efforts at Buzzard Point, neighborhood that was the target of our research. See the syllabus for details.

Outcome

By the time we got to conducting the actual interviews, the students were well prepared to do so professionally, though of course they still have room to improve their interviewing skills, as does any novice researcher. Our class traveled together to the Syphax Gardens public housing units to conduct the interviews after a meeting of the residents’ council. Some of the people there had been notified by our host, Rhonda Hamilton, that the interviews would be taking place, and others learned of our project for the first time that evening. Eight residents stayed after the meeting to be interviewed. The students individually reviewed the consent forms required by Howard and the Anacostia Museum with the residents before proceeding with the interviews. I floated through the two rooms in which the interviews were taking place to make myself available if any of the residents had questions the students could not answer.

In our next class, we discussed the following questions as a group to prompt the students to reflect on the interviewing experience and began to analyze the interviews themselves:

  • What went well?
  • What could be improved?
  • What did you learn in your interview?
  • What new questions did the interview leave you with?

After discussing these topics, I then linked the above questions to the methods, findings, and future research sections of the final papers that they would write.  But before writing their final papers, the students had several other assignments. They wrote and sent thank-you notes to the people they interviewed, uploaded the audio files of the interviews to our course management system, and transcribed the interviews. Then they wrote final papers in which they analyzed not only their own interviews, but the interviews conducted by the entire group.

Overall, I’m pleased with how the project went. It was a good opportunity to learn more about ongoing environmental justice work in Washington D.C. for both myself and my students. The fact that many of the residents brought up similar issues that the students had read about during the course made everything more real to them. The students also seemed to enjoy the opportunity to take their learning outside of the university walls. For their part, the residents we interviewed seemed appreciative of the students’ interest and professionalism.

This semester, I continue to work on the project with one of my graduate student research assistants (Jesse Card), and one of the undergraduates from that class who has stayed on as a spring research assistant (Amanda Bonam). They did quality control on the student transcriptions by listening to the interview recordings and correcting the transcriptions as necessary, and then sending the corrected transcripts to the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum to place in their archives. Jesse is also sending copies of the transcripts and signed consent forms to all the participants. We are also conducting more interviews with other Syphax Gardens residents that were suggested during our first round of interviews. As a group, we will be reading through all the transcripts and recommending excerpts to feature in the booklet that the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum is making. My undergraduate research assistant is also communicating with the project partners about organizing a spring event to launch the booklet, and establishing a review process for the creation of the booklet. Between the three of us we have been attending ongoing public hearings about the development of Buzzard Point and its impact on neighboring residents. Amanda has adopted the project for her senior honors thesis, and Jesse will lead us in writing one or several academic articles out of the interview data, which parallels his own master’s thesis research. After this spring, we will revisit the project with all partners to discuss to potential of continuing or expanding it with my next batch of Environmental Inequality students in the fall.

See photos of our interview outing, and links to the class syllabus and assignment prompts ,below.

img_7471

My students waiting for the residents’ council meeting to end and interviewing to begin.

img_7474-2

Project partners Kari Fulton (Empower DC) and Rhonda Hamilton (ANC 6D).

img_7485

Student Brittany Danzy interviews Ms. Mildred Young.

img_7557

Students Tyla Swinton and Joseph Dillard are having a good time interviewing Ms. Michelle Young.

img_7574

Students Ravelle Matthews and Romie Michel interview Ms. Mary Wilson.

img_7584

Students Angelyna Seldon and Amanda Bonam interview Ms. Gloria Hamilton.

img_7606

Kari Fulton’s son kept the students entertained when they weren’t otherwise occupied.

img_7632

The view from Syphax Gardens public housing.

Class syllabus and assignment prompts:

Teaching Environmental Inequality: Boat Tour of the Anacostia River

This is the third post in a series about the Environmental Inequality class I finished teaching earlier this month. The first post shared the syllabus and class project, and the second described how I’ve used the documentary Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek. This post describes the first of two field trips we took – a boat tour of the Anacostia River.

Who: Our tour-guide was Jim Foster, executive director of the Anacostia Watershed Society. We were also joined by the person who organized the trip for us, Tony Thomas, the Education Coordinator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum and board member of the Anacostia Watershed Society. A few other faculty joined in for the fun, as did one of our class research project partners from Empower DC, one of the residents whom the students would later interview for the class project, and the executive director of Energy Justice Network.

What/Where: The tour began and ended in the Bladensburg waterfront park in Maryland. We got on one of the Anacostia Watershed Society’s boats and drove slowly up the river into Washington D.C. and back. The first half of the tour was largely spent listening to Jim Foster describe what we were seeing as we went. On the return trip conversation broke into smaller groups and the students enjoyed just being out on the water. After the tour, Tony Thomas took a smaller group of us to see two trash-traps that divert trash from the river.

When: We took the trip about a third of the way into the semester. I wanted to do the trip relatively early in the semester as a way to help the students learn about some DC issues before diving into our off-campus research project. We also needed to get the trip in before the weather got too cold.

Why: I organized the field trip as a way to help the students connect some of what they were learning inside the classroom to Washington D.C. I also hoped the trip might be informative for our class research project (the Anacostia River forms one of the borders of Buzzard Point, the neighborhood at the heart of our project).

How:  I assigned the following two readings to prepare the students for the trip. The first gives a socio-ecological history of the river that begins before European colonization and continues through the end of the 1990s. The second is an 11 minute video about efforts to clean up the river, which was historically one of the most polluted in the country.

Outcomes: Several themes somewhat in tension with each other emerged amongst the students as we reflected on the tour in class the following week. Because of the stigmatization of the Anacostia River as both dirty and dangerous, many  of the students who grew up in Washington DC and the surrounding areas described being pleasantly surprised at how scenic the river was, and how many people were out enjoying it. At the same time, some were a bit shocked by the spare tires they saw here and there in the river as real-life, visible examples of pollution (for my part, I didn’t think there was much trash on the river at all, spare tires or otherwise). Our tour-guide’s discussion of how raw sewage flows directly into the river when heavy rains overflow the local sewage infrastructure also made quite an impression. So did the discussion of how poverty leads people to eat the polluted fish they catch from the river, despite the signage warning them against doing so and sometimes visible lesions on the fish.

An encounter with a baby deer that had gotten stuck in the water and couldn’t climb over the low wall at the river’s edge also was memorable for many of the students. Jim Foster used this as a teachable moment to make a point about the need to take down some of the old walls along portions of the river’s edge. (For those of you concerned for the deer’s fate, you’ll be glad to know, as my students were, that a passing group of boaters later ushered the deer to a safe exit further down the bank.) The students were also very interested to learn about the history of the Seafarer’s Yacht Club, one of the country’s oldest black yacht clubs. Several expressed interest in participating in the Yacht Club’s annual river cleanup for Earth Day.

There were a few conversations that interested me greatly but my students mostly missed because, 1) many had broken up into smaller conversations by then, or 2) they were unfamiliar with the technical language being used, or 3) were not yet well equipped to quickly recognize common areas of environmental conflict. One was a debate between one of our hosts and an environmental justice activist on board concerning the pro’s and con’s of waste-to-energy facilities/incinerators. We read about this topic later in the semester through this short piece on the multiple meanings of renewable energy that I co-authored with Lindsey Dillon. There was also some tension in a conversation about the relationship between river-clean up efforts, riverside redevelopment, and and the threat of displacing current residents due gentrification. My students read about this subject later in the semester through the lens of “green gentrification.”

Overall, the experience was a great way for all of us to learn more about how the issues we read about in class play out in the city beyond our classroom walls. On the last day of class, when I asked my students to reflect on what they learned that was most interesting, surprising or memorable, things they saw on the boat tour were a central theme. Take a look yourself below.

dsc_0007

All aboard!

dsc_0016

Students Cameron Clarke and Amanda Bonnam settle in for the tour.

dsc_0024

Standing: Tour-guide Jim Foster, Executive Director of the Anacostia Watershed Society. At right: students Tyla Swinton and Brittany Danzy.

dsc_0039

Wildlife sitings were a big hit, here’s our first egret of the day.

dsc_0054

Kari Fulton, environmental justice organizer with Empower DC.

dsc_0059

The Anacostia River flows under several DC thoroughfares.

dsc_0092dsc_0098

dsc_0145

We saw a bald eagle!

dsc_0105

This baby deer trapped in the river by a low wall along the river bank prompted great consternation among the students (the deer was later rescued).

dsc_0108

One student even took notes!

dsc_0116

Student Joseph Dillard taking it all in.

dsc_0121

Plenty of pretty scenery…

dsc_0125

… with a few abandoned tires here and there.

dsc_0126

Riverside signage warns people against eating the fish they catch here, which pick up unsafe levels of pollution from the water.

dsc_0137

Benning Road Trash Transfer Station.*

dsc_0147

New construction designed to resolve the problem of raw sewage flowing into the river during heavy rains.

dsc_0152

These will line the wall of a giant tunnel being built to contain runoff during heavy rains, which now mixes with sewage and overflows into the river.

dsc_0141

dsc_0160

Metro!

dsc_0173

We passed lots of other groups out on the water, including this crew team and their coaches.

dsc_0179dsc_0215

dsc_0223

After the river tour, Tony Thomas took a smaller group by car to see two trash-traps.

dsc_0224

Whatever is on the road eventually ends up in the river.

dsc_0290

Trash-trap #1.

dsc_0303

Tony Thomas, Education Coordinator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.

dsc_0268

Howard faculty-member Vernon Morris at the top of trash-trap #2.

dsc_0259

When this tributary into the Anacostia River is flowing, the water flows through these bars and the trash stays behind.

dsc_0242

Lots of the captured trash could have been recycled but ended up on the streets instead, and from there makes its way into the the river.

dsc_0279

dsc_0271

Leaving trash trap #2, near the now-closed Kenilworth landfill. The landfill was built next to the historically black neighborhood of Deanwood.

* Mike Ewall, Executive Director of Energy Justice Network, e-mailed me the following when I sent a note asking him to jog my memory about this photo: “This is the Benning Road trash transfer station — one of two large trash transfer stations that the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW) operates. The other is at Fort Totten.  It also used to be the home of DC’s trash incinerator, from 1972-1994, and is the place that the leaders at DPW were nearly certain to have tried to locate the new incinerator they were exploring a few years ago before we derailed that conversation in 2013. We = Energy Justice Network, Sierra Club, ILSR, and DC Environmental Network. The community around it is 98% black and 52% of the people are below the poverty line. That site also hosted the oil-fired Pepco power plant that shut down in June 2012, and was torn down in more recent years.  That plant left behind a toxic waste site that remains to be cleaned up and won’t be fully cleaned up. Ash from the old incinerator there is in the Kenilworth Landfill just north of there, next to public housing. The landfill is now a Superfund site that the National Park Service plans to “clean up” by merely dumping two feet of soil on it. It’s currently used as a ball-field / park by local residents.”

“Toxic tour” of Baltimore

Last fall Mike Ewall and Dante Swinton of Energy Justice Network led my students and me on a “toxic tour” of Baltimore. Toxic tours are one way that environmental justice activists do political education. They involve bringing politicians, environmental agency staff and others into the communities where activists live and/or work to build awareness of the problems there and find ways to support local activists in trying to solve them. In our case, Mike and Dante led the students in my fall Environmental Inequality classes to see some of the contested sites where they work. This gave the students a better way to visualize the things we had been reading about, and to learn about their local applications.

We started at the Wheelabrator Baltimore trash incinerator. We were immediately reminded of the environmental justice slogan that defines the environment as “the places we work, live and play” by the sight of families picnicking at the park directly adjacent to the incinerator. We moved on to the site of a proposed new incinerator (for trash, tires, shredded cars and wood waste), a coal and steam-fired electrical generating station, a closed hazardous waste landfill, the port (piled high with coal), the nation’s largest medical waste incinerator and a municipal waste landfill, among other industrial sites.

Since our visit, the proposed new incinerator that we learned about has been defeated, at least for now. Baltimore resident Destiny Watford, co-founder of the student group Free Your Voice, became the 2016 recipient for North American of the international Goldman Prize for her leadership role in the campaign.

My students got a lot out of the trip. They had read about the problems of industrial pollution and the people who live right next to polluting industries, but walking those landscapes seemed to make the issues much more real for them. For my part, I was saddened to see again in Baltimore many of the same problems I am familiar with from my research in California. It’s one thing to know about national trends, and another to see for oneself that they are, indeed, national.

The photos below show some of the places we went. They depict Mike Ewall and Dante Swinton from Energy Justice Network, as well as my students from Howard University – Olivia Byrd, Jesse Card, and Gerlene Toussaint. Sign up for the Energy Justice newsletter or “like” the Free Your Voice Facebook page to find out how you can plug in.


DSC_0107DSC_0083DSC_0045DSC_0021DSC_0003DSC_0163DSC_0052DSC_0064DSC_0070DSC_0066DSC_0061DSC_0102DSC_0072DSC_0087

 

The view from faculty seating – HU Commencement with President Obama

Last Saturday Howard University hosted its 148th graduation ceremony. I donned my (borrowed) academic robes to celebrate our graduates and hear President Obama, our commencement speaker. I’ve shared my snapshots below to convey what it was like to attend and participate. They show: workers setting up for graduation during the last week of the semester, getting through security and onto campus on the day of the ceremony, faculty waiting for the event to begin and then processing into the the yard together, President Obama being “hooded” while he receives his honorary Ph.D., and the commencement ceremony. The last photo is of Sociology graduate Diamond Crumby showing off her awesome cap. Congratulations Diamond and the Howard class of 2016!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For the full text of President Obama’s commencement address, click here. For video, click here. And for summary and analysis, try the following:

Classes are over now, but next year I plan to show the President’s commencement speech toward the end of my Introduction to Sociology class. I’ll ask the students to analyze it according to sociological concepts we’ve been learning (structure, agency, social stratification, intersectionality, theories of change, American individualism, etc.). Then I’ll have them chew on a few of the wide array of responses to his speech listed above. I like doing these sorts of activities to underscore how the concepts we are learning in the classroom get used in the political world, even if they are not always referenced by the same names. If any of you do something similar with the speech, let me know how it goes. I won’t be teaching Intro to Sociology again until next spring, so there’s plenty of time to build on your experience.

Trash as a renewable resource?

Over the last few years I’ve been involved with a multi-campus group thinking about the many different ways that the concept of sustainability is used. Under the able leadership of Miriam Greenberg, this group recently launched an collection of digital essays called Critical Sustainabilities: Competing Discourses of Urban Development in California. It features short case-studies to show how the idea of sustainability is used for competing political purposes. It also features essays about key-words that underpin sustainability debates. The project’s focus on Northern California complicates the ways in which the area is often seen as a model of sustainability efforts.

My contribution, with co-author Lindsey Dillon, analyzes efforts to create a policy mechanism by which energy created from trash could qualify for sale as renewable energy in California. This poses the strange prospect of categorizing trash as a “renewable resource.” We locate this debate in the small farmworker town of Gonzales. A proposal to locate what was alternatively called a “waste-to-energy plant” or an “incinerator-in-disguise” was recently defeated there. Though the case center on Gonzales, the broader conflict is happening nationwide. You can read our piece here.

Those of you with overlapping research interests may be interested in submitting a paper to the group’s proposed panel at the 2016 annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers.

Worker.GonzalesLandfill

Workers cover the existing landfill at the site of the proposed “waste-to-energy” facility in Gonzales.

New digital project in honor of Teresa De Anda

Today I released a new digital project to honor the memory of California pesticides activist Teresa De Anda, and to help educate the public about the problem of pesticide drift. In Her Own Words is an expansion of the blog post I wrote the day before Teresa’s memorial service last fall. It includes photography, new and previously published oral history, suggestions for readings to use with the website in college classrooms, links to resources to help address the problem of pesticide drift in community settings, and a short essay I wrote about Teresa.

Thank you, Valerie Gorospe, for allowing me to continue to work with your mother’s stories, and to share them with others so they might learn from everything she accomplished. Thank you also for your support Linda MacKay, Lauren Richter, Tracey Brieger, Sarah Aird, Tracey Osborne, Rachel Deblinger, Zoe Stricker and Evelyn Torres Arellano.

DSC_0153 copy

With Teresa, in front of a photo I took of her, at an exhibit of my photography in Fresno. February 10, 2011.