Yes, Your Research can Matter in the Real World

From the article by Joanna Williams on the William T. Grant Foundation website:

Does the work I’m doing in academia really matter? This is a question that university professors like me should ask ourselves periodically.

In 2014, I was funded by the William T. Grant Foundation Scholars Program to study the complexities of racial and ethnic diversity by examining peer social networks in middle schools. The Scholars award has enabled me to take a mixed-methods approach to documenting academic and psychosocial correlates of peer group diversity, and to dig further into the contours of youth’s daily experiences in diverse schools.

In the years since I received the award, of course, conversations about race have become increasingly central to our national discourse. The Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, has brought greater focus to issues of structural racism and state-sanctioned violence, and has motivated me to think hard and deep about how my work on diversity can respond to urgent issues of pervasive, institutionalized, and violent inequalities that play out daily across racial lines. I’ve wondered at times how and to what extent research like mine, which focuses on diversity, ultimately matters.

But recently, I have begun to ask myself a new question: How can I use my work on peer network diversity to promote racial and social justice? I’ve pushed myself to consider what it means to bring a social justice lens to my work, giving particular thought to three points of reflection:

  1. Understanding where my research fits in the bigger picture

Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr. has made school diversity a priority since his confirmation nine months ago. King argues that, “diversity is not a nicety but a necessity… for all students… The transformative power of diversity in education is enormous.” Secretary King’s focus is primarily on what some have referred to as “first generation” or “first door” segregation, i.e., the racial segregation of school districts and/or buildings that is maintained by residential and economic segregation, and other state-sanctioned laws and practices. My own focus is on what happens inside the “second door”—specifically, how does racial/ethnic diversity manifest in students’ social relationships, and how does this inform students’ academic experiences?

…2. Developing a critical perspective

This past spring I attended a professional development training at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, titled “Using Critical Race Theory in Secondary and Higher Education Research,” led by Terrell Strayhorn and Royel Johnson. Prior to this, I’d had minimal exposure to Critical Race Theory (CRT); beyond reading a few articles that had used a CRT lens as a frame, my knowledge was quite limited. What I learned from that session, though, has stuck with me. The take-home points that resound most are that CRT brings activist, scholar, and practitioner together to study and transform relationships among race, racism, and power. It moves beyond race as a variable or grouping mechanism, and focuses instead on how race operates in our lives.

…3. Considering how my own position of power and privilege informs the research process

Here I give credit to three early career scholars whom I respect and admire tremendously: Elise Harris, Lisette DeSouza, and Mimi Arbeit. These scholars organized a powerful #BlackLivesMatter pre-conference at the 2016 Society for Research on Adolescence meeting, where they centered the voices of community activists who were on the front lines of social change with and for youth. They have since followed up with two blog posts on the SRA website. Most recently, Harris and Arbeit urged social scientists to “Know how racial power gets produced and reproduced within our field.”

Read the full article.