Closing Keynote Panel: Making It Real – Bridging Theory and Practice

This is a live blog entry by resident pluralist, Sarah Nusser. The panel is part of the 2011 Graduate Consortium of Women’s Studies conference on Gender, Sexuality, and Urban Spaces in Cambridge, MA.

Sharon Reilly, Executive Director, The Women’s Lunch Place
Karen Tei Yamashita, Professor of Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz
Gia Barboza, Assistant Professor, African American Studies, Northeastern University

Before I get into detailing this panel, I have to report that it was truly exceptional and that I highly encourage the PT audience to check out the work of these three women – a non-profit ED, a novelist, and a policy researcher, respectively.  They each brought radical approaches to their work, something I thought was missing from much of the conference (although perhaps that is because most of the panelists were still in the infant stages of their research and work).  More ruminations on this panel to come as I synthesize the conference in a later post.

Gia kicked off the closing panel with a presentation entitled, “A New Approach to Research in the 21st Century.” This was a savvy and scathing critique of applied research that reinforces the stigmatization of marginalized communities and produces statistics that become embedded in our policies.

She argued that it wasn’t necessarily the research methods themselves that produce these results, but a “research paradigm [that] ignores community input.”  She advocated for “community participatory research,” but didn’t have time to fully get into what that looks like.  She took quite a bit of time to go through examples of how research is manipulated through framing and data aggregation, arguing that the research of policy think-tanks is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.  She discussed examples of her investigative research, in which, by disaggregating the data of particular studies, she could present very different narratives about the experiences of marginalized groups.  I really recommend checking out her research; I know I will.  Gia was mostly interested in African American men, women and LGBT populations.

Sharon had a very interesting background (at least in the context of this conference) – she grew up on a sharecropper’s farm in the 1950s and has a rich professional background in the corporate world.  She currently runs the Women’s Lunch Place (WLP), a shelter for women who are poor or homeless.  The concept of ‘dignity’ drives everything that they do, and they offer a rich and responsive array of services based on constant evaluation of their guests’ needs.  For example, a lot of women are uncomfortable seeking medical services from mainstream providers, so WLP began providing its own medical services.  Sharon made a point to state that anyone who identifies as a woman is welcome at WLP (this is rare in the shelter world).  Several years ago the WLP began to notice that more and more transgender women were utilizing the shelter, and while WLP’s services haven’t changed, they spent considerable resources educating non-transgender women who may have had little exposure to trans folk. Finally, Sharon provided some interesting data on who they serve, including that a substantial majority of their guests have been victims of sexual violence and also 40% are college educated.  She posits that there is 90 to 100 day period to re-thread your life once you’ve experienced something traumatic, which obviously has key policy implications.  Sharon’s talk weaved nicely with Gia’s in terms of providing community-based research that should be driving policy and our policy paradigms.

Karen came to the panel from the perspective of a literature professor and writer, and she talked about her new book, “I Hotel,” set in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s.  “I Hotel” (I for International) was a place where older, Asian-American male laborers resided, and it was torn down by the city in the 60s-70s.  Her book discusses the social movement that arose during this period and around the demolition of the hotel.  Karen spent about 10 minutes reading a piece from her book, which was complemented by slide show visuals.  I recorded her reading (which I will add to this post shortly).  Her textual and visual presentation was truly fascinating and touched on a lot of issues relevant to urbanism and planning, including how home is defined and conflicts in city-making between government agencies and marginalized groups.

All three panels held race, gender, and sexuality together in the same conversation, with complexity but without contradiction. Something most attendees were longing for during the conference.