Category: All Issues

Reflections on March for Our Lives

By Samantha Samuel-Nakka

I attended the March for Our Lives rally in Washington D.C. with my family, including my one year old son. When we arrived at the Archives Square metro stop, the Metro Police offered to escort us (and our stroller) out of the station because of the volume of people congregating in the Square. As a Washington D.C. native, it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

The March brought an estimated 800,000 people to the nation’s capital on March 24th to rally around the urgency for gun control and demand an end to gun violence. There were also over 800 “sibling” marches in cities across the globe. One of the first things I noticed when we got to the event was this palpable energy in the air. It was contagious and electrifying. There were people of all ages (from infants decorated with protest signs like my son to grandparents chanting for their grandchildren), races and ethnicity, and from many regions unifying their voices to demand more from their governments and elected officials.

The March organically created a (physically visible) collective community. People were unafraid to engage with strangers, converse with one another, exchange pictures, stories and ultimately find a common thread of solidarity toward the same cause. It was humbling to see that your own individual desire for gun control and ending gun violence was not only a shared sentiment, but was also a tangible majority view, exemplified from the crowd around you. That sense of collectivity made me feel that there is strength in numbers and maybe, with this shared unity, change is possible.

Inclusiveness

What struck me most about the March was its extraordinary inclusiveness. This inclusiveness took different forms. The first was the spectrum of speakers on the stage. The organizers successfully broadened the scope of the March from solely being focused on a single event at Parkland, Florida to highlight the devastating impact of gun violence across the country; from suburban schools like Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to urban inner cities of South Los Angeles. Aside from this, there was diversity in the representation of the collective voice they projected.

The biggest highlight for me was witnessing eleven year old Naomi Wadler use such directed eloquence to demand that black women, who are killed at disproportionate numbers, be included in conversations about gun violence. She said she was there to acknowledge and represent all of the black girls whose stories don’t lead on the evening news or make the front pages of newspapers. I have watched her speech online dozens of times since the March and it moves me to tears. Every. Single. Time.

Photo by Samantha Samuel-Nakka

 

The Signs and the Intersection

The diversity of the speakers and their speeches was certainly matched by a diversity in the crowds. The signs were unapologetic and defiant. There were signs indicating the relationship between gun control and preventing domestic violence, National Rifle Association’s (NRA) involvement in politics, and specific signs calling for House Speaker Paul Ryan to take action. Some of the most memorable signs for me were:

“I want to read books, not eulogies”

“Arm teachers with books, not guns”

“I want to live to see graduation”

I was really impressed by how intersectional the March was, particularly in recognizing and acknowledging that gun violence disproportionately affects people of color. Several people had signs that highlighted the excessive disciplining of black students and there were also many people representing the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Despite the intersectional approach, I do feel that discussions on the gun violence from police brutality were not represented. I personally did not see the adequate inclusion of police brutality in the March agenda, which I believe could have provided another layer to the discussion.

It has been a few weeks since the March and I am still in awe of its ability to generate thoughtful conversation and wake the political consciousness of its participants, particularly the next generation of youth. Students really took the lead with the March and have quite successfully showcased the power of youth-led activism. Since the March, they have continued to advocate, encourage people to vote and organized town-halls. These young activists have proven that the March for Our Lives is not a moment, it is a movement.

Most importantly, my participation in the March gave me a renewed sense of hope when I witnessed what these young people are capable of doing. It was the first time since President Trump took office that I have felt hopeful for the future of politics and the state of this country.

Return to May 2018 Issue

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Ask The Sociologist

The Sociologist has officially launched our latest resource called “Ask The Sociologist.”

This is space for our readers and the general public to send us questions about everyday life and have an expert sociologist provide feedback. The “Ask The Sociologist” section is a resource for all who want nontechnical answers to life’s vicissitudes, social conundrums, and challenges.  (You are welcome to ask us technical questions too!)

Source: pixabay.com

 

All submissions will remain anonymous, but the questions and responses will be made public so that individuals with similar inquiries can use them as a resource.

Check-out this new resource to anonymously submit your question today!

Return to May 2018 Issue

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The Mall is Dead, Long Live the Mall

Ladmark Mall sign

I prepared for the obligatory gift-giving of the holiday season by visiting three malls in the suburbs of Washington D.C. I planned to check-off all of the names on my shopping list and not wait until the last minute to find gifts (for once). I did not find many gifts at the malls and instead relied on Amazon Prime to deliver gifts with a few days to spare; however, I was surprised that the malls were busy. The hustle and bustle that I experienced seemed to counter the dominant media narrative of dying and dead malls in the U.S.

Media reports of major retailers, such Sears, Macy’s, and JCPenney, closing their doors have become a regular occurrence. These closures have fed a narrative that the death of the mall –the large enclosed shopping center– is near in this age of online shopping and minimalist millennials. The closing of major anchor stores is indicative of, or at least often conflated with, the death of the traditional mall itself. The oft-used phrase is typically paired with ominous photographs or videos of empty stores and in some cases abandoned buildings. For example, the website deadmalls.com is dedicated to archiving the death of malls across the U.S. with stories and images. Once synonymous with the image of a booming postwar society characterized by flourishing capitalism, unbounded American dreams, and the assertion of the individual through mass consumption, malls now seem to be a remnant of a bygone era.

The Life of the Indoor Shopping Mall

While indoor shopping centers first appeared in the U.S. as early as the first half of the 19th century, large-scale enclosed suburban shopping centers characterized as “the mall” today did not appear until much later (O’Malley 2016). Historian Lizabeth Cohen (1996) explains that in the 1940s and 1950s, there was a large shift in the population distribution of American citizens as predominantly white families began moving into newly developing suburban areas. With only a small number of local shops located in town centers, these newly developing suburbs were unable to keep-up with the growing demands of a larger population. Many people living in the suburbs had to make trips to nearby cities to buy products until developers began to take advantage of the residents’ growing need for a shopping center. Cohen (1996: 1052) describes the emergence of the new postwar marketplace:

“By the mid-1950s, however, commercial developers–many of whom owned department stores–were constructing a new kind of marketplace, the regional shopping center aimed at satisfying suburbanites’ consumption and community needs. Strategically located at highway intersections or along the busiest thoroughfares, the regional shopping center attracted patrons living within half an hour’s drive, who could come by car, park in the abundant lots provided, and then proceed on foot.”

One such marketplace is Southdale Center, which opened in Edina, Minnesota in 1956; it was the first fully enclosed and climate-controlled suburban shopping mall in the U.S. Designed by architect Victor Gruen, Southdale Center was intended to “bring European sensibilities stateside by dramatically blurring the lines between shopping, socialization, leisure, and play” (Newton 2017:6). Gruen’s design, although never fully realized, would act as the prototype for what we now identify as “the mall.”

As Cohen (1996) explains, after WWII, the move from “town center” to “shopping center” was an intentional transition to combine both consumption and civic activity into an all-in-one center. Despite the narrative that the indoor mall was a public space where all members of the community, especially women, could tend to needs and wants (shopping for the family, recreation, and community activities), the indoor mall acted as a regulated and segregated space intended for middle-class whites; those with a low socioeconomic status and people of color were not welcome in this space. Eventually, the mall as a community center became “too political” for private owners because it was also a strategic location for free speech and demonstrations (ibid.). Therefore, mall owners transitioned away from the community model to focus more intently on consumerism. Gruen, who is now known as the creator of the modern shopping mall, would later state that his original design and ideas were “bastardized” by modern developments, devoid of rich community life (Newton 2017; O’Malley 2016).

Ladmark Mall sign

Source: Briana Pocratsky

 

There was a significant increase in the number of shopping malls and shopping centers in general in the 1960s into the late 1980s (Feinberg and Meoli 1991). O’Malley (2016) writes that the construction of enclosed malls reached its height in 1990 but subsequently decreased through the 2000s. This decline is indicated by the fact that in 2007, “for the first time in more than 40 years, no new malls opened in the United States” (O’Malley 2016:4).

According to retail analysts, the decline of the mall is due to factors such as online shopping, the closing of anchor stores, retiring/retired Baby Boomers, more women in the workforce, teens spending less time at the mall, mall saturation, mall consolidation, and outstanding loans from the indoor mall building boom of the 1990s. While some top-tier traditional malls may be able to adapt to changing socioeconomic conditions by incorporating entertainment and technology into the space, other traditional malls may not have the funds to do so (ibid.).

It is important to note that the “death” of the traditional indoor mall is not necessarily an indication that consumers only want virtual shopping experiences. Preferences regarding online shopping and physical shopping are complex. For example, some corporations associated with an online presence, such as Amazon, are opening “brick-and-mortar stores.” This trend is due in part to consumers’ desires to tangibly experience a product before they purchase it in addition to the immediacy of the transaction (ibid.).

From Traditional Mall to Town Center

My shopping experiences for holiday gifts point to larger questions regarding the evolution of malls locally and in the U.S. more generally. Why do malls in the Washington D.C. suburbs appear to be thriving, and why are malls now often referred to as town centers? There seems to be a turn back to the town center brand and romanticized notions of community along with it.

Before the indoor shopping mall, the town center played a prominent role in suburbia where residents would purchase their products downtown at local shops that were not located in one large building (Cohen 1996). Fung and Safdar (2018) explain that many malls are undergoing makeovers and dropping “mall” from their names, citing Ballston Common Mall in Arlington (Virginia) and its recent renovation plans to become Ballston Quarter in 2018 as an example of this rebranding.

Springfield Town Center (in Virginia) is another local example of this image overhaul. Springfield Mall, which opened in the 1970s, underwent a multimillion dollar renovation from 2012-2014, also dropping “mall” from its name.

Buildings

Springfield Town Center. Source: Briana Pocratsky

 

The moniker “town center” signifies how the mall is changing; it is not simply a site of consumption but a place of experiences and particular lifestyles. In explaining the changing image of the mall, O’Malley (2016:17) notes: “Over-the-top, non-retail experiences, from unique restaurants to indoor swimming pools will be as ubiquitous as the stores, and most malls will incorporate apartments, offices and service providers like doctors, barbers, gyms and hotel rooms into or next to their space.”

Town Centers for the Community

An important aspect of the life trajectory of a mall is related to how it serves the larger community. The turn back to the “town center” tag and the connotations it evokes seems to suggest a move to incorporate malls within the town or the communities of which they are a part, as opposed to operating as isolated and contained consumer locations. For example, Landmark Mall in Alexandria (Virginia), built in the 1960s, is currently undergoing renovations to become the “new Landmark,” described as “a new live-shop-dine urban village” (see the website thenewlandmark.com).

The new Landmark’s homepage emphasizes that the renovations will benefit the community and that the corporate owner “is dedicated to transforming it and bringing back a sense of community” to the area. It is important to consider how these developments affect the surrounding areas in the name of “the community.” What roles are these town centers actually playing in the communities in which they insert themselves? Will they actually foster community cohesion? What does it mean for nearby housing prices? Will these renovated spaces create more jobs or will the number of jobs shrink? How might the arrival of national retail outlets, restaurants, and entertainment venues impact local culture and businesses? In the Washington D.C. suburbs, town centers may be the eventual future of the indoor mall and perhaps even necessary for its survival, but it is also important to consider what incarnations indoor malls or town centers in more rural areas may take, based on (perceived or real) community needs and wants.

References

Cohen, Lizabeth. 1996. “From Town Center to Shopping Center: The Reconfiguration of Community Marketplaces in Postwar America.” American Historical Review 101(4):1050-81.

Feinberg, Richard A. and Jennifer Meoli. 1991. “A Brief History of the Mall.”Advances in Consumer Research 18 (1): 426-27.

Fung, Esther, and Khadeeja Safdar. 2018. “Please Visit Our Collection of Stores Under One Roof, Which Totally Isn’t a Mall.” The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved January 15, 2018 (https://www.wsj.com/articles/please-visit-our-collection-of-stores-under-one-roof-which-totally-isnt-a-mall-1515686374?mod=e2tw).

Newton, Matthew. 2017. Shopping Mall (Object Lessons). New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

O’Malley, Sharon. 2016, August 29. “Shopping Malls.” SAGE Business Researcher. Retrieved from (http://businessresearcher.sagepub.com/sbr-1775-100682-2747282/20160829/shopping-malls) doi: 10.1177/237455680217.n1

By Briana Pocratsky

Return to February 2018 Issue

 

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The Magic of Breakfast: Pancake Saturdays

People eating pancakes

I was doing the customary end of year decluttering, when I found myself flipping through a magazine with an article on the history of breakfast. It never occurred to me that breakfast would have a contentious history. According to this article, the breakfast meal has “long been the source of medical confusion, moral frustration, and political anxiety” (Garber 2016). At one point or another in history, breakfast has been shunned for being a temptation to commit the sin of gluttony, or an occasion for lavish social gatherings (in the 1800s when it experienced a revival). In our times, new research has cast doubt on the purported health benefits of breakfast (Carroll 2016; see also Anderson 2013).

Normally this type of article wouldn’t have caught my attention except that for the last couple of months, breakfast has been an important part of my endeavor to learn more about reentry in the District. Every month Changing Perceptions1, an organization dedicated to enabling returning citizens2 in the District to reach their full potential, hosts Pancake Saturday.

The site of Pancake Saturday is a very special row house on 18th Street in Southeast. I say special because this house serves as a home base for many returning citizens in the District, including those participating in the Aspire to Entrepreneurship program (see Valdovinos October 2017). Some returning citizens live here. For others, this house is the base for their small business, a safe space, a place to stop by for mentorship, or on certain Saturdays, the site of communal breakfast. Pancakes are usually the star of Pancake Saturdays but there are also eggs, bacon and sausage, sometimes waffles make an appearance, and on one occasion, the sweet potato hash from Reese’s Catering, even overshadowed the pancakes. Reese’s Catering is part of a growing network of small businesses owned by returning citizens in the District.

Just like breakfast, pancakes also have a long, albeit much less contentious, history. Pancakes are also ubiquitous throughout the world, known by various names and branded by levels of thinness or thickness. The idea of a “pancake day” is also anything but contemporary (Rupp 2014).

Pancake Saturday, however, is not just about breakfast or pancakes. It is also about building a healthy community and a positive social support network in line with the principles of the Aspire to Entrepreneurship program. Returning citizens in the District of Columbia face many challenges in reentry, some of which are unique to the District (see Valdovinos May 2017). Among the many challenges is securing traditional employment. As I arrived at Pancake Saturday this past October, I noticed that the Clean Decisions team3, another business owned and operated by returning citizens in the District, had gotten an early start on breakfast and the staff were on their way out, ready to start a full day’s work on a full stomach.

We have all heard the adage, at some point in our socialization that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” However, the latest research debunks this aphorism. After looking at the collective body of medical research on the health benefits of breakfast, Aaron Carroll, a journalist, has concluded that: there was “nothing magical about breakfast” (Carroll 2016). And yet, I wonder what a sociological body of research on the significance of breakfast, or meals in general, might suggest? The earliest sociological analysis of our gastronomic experiences I uncovered was Georg Simmel’s 1910 essay on the sociology of the meal.

The last Pancake Saturday event of 2017 was an occasion of delicious food, stimulating conversation, shop talk for returning citizen entrepreneurs, affirmations, reflections on the year ending, and wishes for the new year. And the weather was unseasonably balmy.

People eating pancakes

Pancake Saturday. Source Maria Valdovinos

 

For this group, this repast event has become a site of learning and support, serving to reduce anxiety or frustration for many participants. I’ve never been much of a breakfast person myself, but the meal has become increasingly important thanks to Pancake Saturday. As a student/researcher working in reentry in the District for a year now, Pancake Saturday has provided me entry into ethnographic work, and as a resident of the DMV area, it has connected me to neighbors.

Notes

  1. To learn more about Changing Perceptions and Pancake Saturday, visit their Twitter page at https://twitter.com/changingdc?lang=en
  2. The use of “Returning Citizen” as opposed to “prisoner” is reflective of the use of “people first” language which aims to move past the use of dehumanizing and stigmatizing language such as “offenders”, “inmates”, or “convicts” when talking about people who have come into contact with the criminal justice system.
  3. To learn about Clean Decisions LLC, visit their Twitter page at https://twitter.com/CleanDecisions?lang=en

References

Anderson, Heather A. 2013. Breakfast: A History. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Carroll, Aaron E. 2016. “Sorry, There’s Nothing Magical About Breakfast.” The New York Times, May 23. Retrieved (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/24/upshot/sorry-theres-nothing-magical-about-breakfast.html?_r=0)

Garber, Megan. 2016. “The Most Contentious Meal of the Day.” The Atlantic, June 19. Retrieved (https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/06/breakfast-the-most-contentious-meal-of-the-day/487220/)

Rupp, R. 2014. “Here’s the History of Pancakes.” National Geographic: The Plate Series, May 21. Retrieved (http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2014/05/21/hot-off-the-griddle-heres-the-history-of-pancakes/)

Valdovinos, Maria. 2017, May. “There is No Prison in Washington: Challenges of Reentry in the District.” The Sociologist, May 22. Retrieved (http://thesociologistdc.com/all-issues/there-is-no-prison-in-washington-challenges-of-reentry-in-the-district/)

Valdovinos, Maria. 2017, October. “Aspiring to Entrepreneurship in the District.” The Sociologist, October 10. Retrieved (http://thesociologistdc.com/all-issues/aspiring-to-entrepreneurship-in-the-district/).

By Maria Valdovinos

Return to February 2018 Issue

 

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Re-Centering the Student Voice in the Debate of Free Speech in Higher Education

microphone

In January 2018, I attended the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U) annual conference to gain a deeper understanding of how university administrators and faculty are talking about the recent attacks on academic freedom on college campuses in the name of the first amendment. A theme around student protest emerged again and again during the many panel discussions on the first amendment on college and university campuses. Here I reflect on how student protest is framed, and how a sociological analysis of power can add to the conversation.

In her piece on the right’s “weaponization” of free speech, Joan Scott (2018) contends that in this current time: “The university as a place for critical thinking, for difficult dialogue and frank, open debate, has been damaged.” She goes on to say that such damage is not simply the result of different subject matter in higher education curricula, but a political choice within the context of the neoliberal university. Rather than encouraging students to engage in debate, colleges and universities tend to encourage students to stay away from difficult subject matter in the name of career preparation. Simultaneously, a resurfaced anti-intellectualism that disregards the importance of academic freedom threatens our mutual capacity for democracy.

This past year, a number of highly-publicized college campus protests flooded millions of social media feeds and TV screens across the country. These protests were against controversial, explosive speakers, Charles Murray at Middlebury College and Milo Yiannopolous at University of California (UC) Berkeley, to name a few. Media frenzy brought free speech debates to the forefront of what was already an ongoing national conversation, especially among college and university campus communities. These protests also became highly politicized. Donald Trump’s tweets, for example, threatened to withhold federal funding from UC Berkeley. With this climate as backdrop, the 2018 AAC&U conference hosted a number of free speech and critical inquiry themed panels and seminars.

Donald Trump Tweet

Throughout the various free speech panel sessions, I found that speakers, facilitators, and participants mainly addressed three themes: constitutional law, moral obligations of campus communities to uphold respectful dialogue, and student conduct when controversial speakers were headlining an event.

Constitutional law scholars clarified the limits and bounds of the first amendment throughout the sessions. Ethics experts spoke on the need for education on civil discourse methods to resist the backlash of using disruptive methods of protest. Journalists argued that the realities on campuses responding to controversial or provocative speakers is often much more civil than the many media reports suggest.

However, somewhat lost in the conversations from my view were students’ concerns that drove protest (whether deemed violent or not), save for a few voices such as sociologist Linus Owens of Middlebury College. Conversations intended to foster dialogue about best practices in creating democratic and safe campuses focused on the form of student protest rather than the content of protest or the context in which students engage in protest to begin with.

As sociologists, we continuously question, observe, and theorize how social inequality transforms our communities. Sociology makes clear that social stratification is not always overt, and is embedded in our interactions and social structures (Giddens 1990; Mooney-Nickel 2013); at the same time, merit and fairness can elevate certain voices over others (Khan 2016). In the context of debating first amendment rights on campus, speakers such as Milo Yinnapolous and Richard Spencer are supported through vast funding networks. During one panel discussion about free speech and critical inquiry, Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed argued that provocative speakers on college campuses are not new. What is new is the amount of money spent on these speakers, and the outside funding networks that use student groups to promote provocative speakers on campuses. For this reason, the marketplace of ideas is skewed in favor of provocateurs.

The limits of a constitutional law or ethics argument could be extended by a sociological analysis of networks, power, and the expanse of inequality that could potentially contribute to frustration and protest, even as colleges and universities are changing rapidly. For instance, many students are paying more in tuition, but seeing less support by institutions of higher education (Mitchell, Leachman, and Masterson 2017). This reality that contributes to tensions on campuses and unequally gives power and voice to outside influences to reshape campus life often also frequently weakens free speech debates in the context of student demands for corrective actions from administrations.

Sociologists can take a significant role in blunting the right’s “weaponized” free speech blade by using our methods and theory to bridge conversations and re-center student voices in three ways. First, sociologists can promote a more dynamic dialogue as to how constitutional law posits equal access to free speech on structurally stratified grounds. Second, sociology’s tradition of power analysis can contextualize explosive speakers as richly funded provocateurs rather than egalitarian colleagues in the marketplace of ideas. Finally, sociologists can challenge the politicized and grossly reductionist notion that college students are immature and coddled, in need of discipline. Rather, the sociological gaze should focus our attention on how a robust education fosters our collective right to citizenship.

References

Giddens, Anthony. 1990. Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Khan, Shamus R. 2011. Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Mitchell, Michael,

Michael Leachman, and Kathleen Masterson. 2017. “A Lost Decade in Higher Education Funding: State Cuts Have Driven Up Tuition and Reduced Quality.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Retrieved January 10, 2018 (https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/2017_higher_ed_8-22-17_final.pdf).

Mooney-Nickel, Patricia. 2013. Public Sociology and Civil Society: Governance, Politics, and Power. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Owens, Linus, Maya Goldberg-Safir, and Rebecca Flores Harper. 2017. “Divisiveness Is Not Diversity.” Retrieved January 19, 2018 (http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/03/17/professor-and-two-former-students-say-why-they-think-students-are-protesting).

Scott, Joan W. 2018. “How the Right Weaponized Free Speech.” Retrieved January 11, 2018 (https://www.chronicle.com/article/How-the-Right-Weaponized-Free/242142).

By Emily McDonald

Return to February 2018 Issue

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Our Meeting Place

computer keyboard with social media keys

There are hidden, latent patterns to our social behavior and the way society functions. These latent patterns may be unintended or unconscious (per Robert Merton), but they may also be deliberately covert or furtive. So, which functions or patterns of society are unintended, unconscious and which ones are consciously hidden? For me, there are three main outlets that allow us to go behind the scenes, so to speak, to uncover the invisible patterns in our social lives and in society. You don’t have to be a sociologist or any kind of scientist for that matter to avail yourself of the information offered by these outlets.

The quarterly magazine, Contexts created by the American Sociological Association, is the official channel for jargon-free information about “latest sociological ideas and research.”1 The magazine, perhaps modelled after Psychology Today, is meant to be nontechnical (you won’t find articles using confidence intervals or p values) and to “stimulate fresh thinking, and disseminate important information produced by the discipline.”2

After shepherding Contexts for several years, the editors left the magazine to create The Society Pages, which is an online only platform that “brings social science to broader public visibility and influence.”3 This online sociology ‘project’, as the proprietors call it, is perhaps the most familiar space for staging what has become public sociology, or sociology that is not confined to the closeted world of sociologists.

The other outlet for publicly disseminating information about sociology is Hidden Brain, which uses science and storytelling to reveal the “unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, the biases that shape our choices and the triggers that direct the course of our relationships.”4 To be sure, this award-winning weekly series of reports broadcasted on National Public Radio covers more than just sociology; it brings together research from all the social sciences and links them to neurobiology. On my daily commutes, I have often heard revelations or disclosures about certain unknown patterns of our social lives, such as the fact that the rate of mortality declined during the Great Recession (2007-2012).

Together, these three outlets provide sociological information that is credible and accessible to me as a public consumer.  And all three of them offer different takes on the functions and patterns of especially our latent social lives. It is already easy to see what is manifest, so we need decoders to help us unpack the latent.

stick figures dancing

Source: pixabay.com

 

In terms of bringing technical social science knowledge to the public, I am convinced that Psychology Today has done an exemplary job – by reaching out to the public more than 50 years ago with a publication that made the stuff of the mind and human behavior easy for all non-psychologists to understand.

While pop psychology may be derisively used to describe oversimplified concepts, the fact that psychology is on the public stage makes it strikingly more accessible to everyone who wants to be informed about things that do not always seem evident about ourselves, our lives.

There is nothing in the public theatre that resembles anything close to Psychology Today for sociology and the challenge remains to let the public in on what sociologists know and talk about. The challenge for any hub outlet for sociology meant for the public is that our information technology eco system places at our disposal thousands of online outlets for information; it is the bane and blessing of our world.  And although there is considerable consolidation and contraction in print media, Psychology Today seems to be thriving after 50 years. What is their secret sauce?

 

computer keyboard with social media keys

Source: pixabay.com

 

For four years now, the editorial team at The Sociologist has wrestled with how our magazine will become like Psychology Today; we want to define ourselves as caterers not custodians of sociology. It may seem we arrived at this public square a tad late, showing up at a time when the stage is crowded with a garden variety of online information outlets, fake news, memes, tweets, blogs, face news (as in Facebook).

When our regional sociology society was founded more than 80 years ago, it was one of the first regional organizations of sociologists to be formed in the U.S. and so it is now the challenge for our magazine to be novel in our engagement in the public square where we want to be. When we transformed our newsletter into a magazine for public sociology, we wanted this space to be a meeting place where all sociologists and non-sociologists can gather through an interest in sharing insights about ourselves. The goal remains the same, and the destination is distinct, but the path is not yet clear to us. We want to be like Psychology Today by providing insights about your social life and also by becoming a resource to get help with your social life.

We hope that the feature section “Ask a Sociologist” will become a go-to resource for all who want nontechnical answers to life’s vicissitudes, social conundrums and latent challenges about living. So send us your questions and your queries. And we also hope that the new “Resources” section will provide a supply of informed people and agencies that can provide help on a range of manifest and latent patterns in life. We also want to bring you perspectives from the Washington D.C. area; this regional aspect of our magazine is how we stay anchored in a physical, actual, space. We are more than a virtual community.

Our rendezvous becomes an occasion for curiosity about our world. Everyone has a story to tell, and we want you to send us your insights for publication – and you don’t have to be a scientist. What we ask of you is that you are earnest and honest in what you write and what you share. It is how we avoid malnourishment in a time of abundance.

Notes
1. http://www.asanet.org/research-and-publications/contexts
2. Ibid
3. https://thesocietypages.org/#/about
4. https://www.npr.org/series/423302056/hidden-brain

By Y. Shaw-Taylor

Return to February 2018 Issue

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Starting with Community: Sociological Practice in Building Scholar-Activist Coalitions

By Marisa Allison, Carrie Hutnick, and Emily McDonald

Following the 2016 elections, members of the Public Sociology Association at George Mason University began a project in attempt to create a community of scholar-activists on our campus. Recognizing the tremendous amount of activist and advocacy work that has been happening in different spheres on our campus, we felt called to use the tools we have developed as public sociologists to lay a groundwork that could help create a network of support during a time of rising attacks on students, faculty, and staff who engage in social justice and liberation work across the U.S. On September 1, the Public Sociology Association invited student activists across campus to come together for a day of reflection and getting to know one another. Our group is now in the process of determining next steps in terms of how to best create a collaborative network of scholar-activists, supporting work that is already present rather than recreating strategies and efforts already in place. What we recount here are a series of lessons that we continue to work through as we strive to create a community of scholar-activists on our campus.

While there are sociologists working outside of academia, a large part of our discipline remains housed in the university. In debates around practicing public sociology, and using sociological inquiry as a means of activism, distinctions are often made between sociologists who work inside the academy and those who do not. As noted by Michael Burawoy in his 2004 ASA Presidential address, such a distinction draws a line between university-based sociologists as the “professionals” who publish for academic audiences and other sociologists engaged in activism, policy debates, and contributing to decisions not necessarily particular to university communities. Yet, there are incredible networks of activist students, faculty, and professional staff that exemplify how the university is embedded in and reflective of the “real” world. Inequality does not dissipate at the classroom door. As Mason’s Vice President for University Life and Mason Sociology alumna Rose Pascarell stated in her address to the Public Sociology Association last year: “If it’s happening in the ‘real’ world, it’s happening here.”

Lesson One

Much of the important advocacy and activist work already underway on campus is invisible to much of the broader university community. As those seeking to build a scholar- activist community, we must recognize the importance of the activist and advocacy work that is already happening. Many of the issues on campus emerge specifically due to our status as students, staff, and faculty, which make us actors within an institution with lived experiences shaped by it, while giving our actions meaning in shaping the university.

For example, in September of this year, the student group “Transparent GMU” went to court after suing the university and the university foundation for not being transparent about donor agreements. This student group is already connected to the UnKoch My Campus initiative, and if their case succeeds, it will not only allow decades of donor agreements to be made public at GMU, which could unmask donor influence over course content, faculty scholarship, and hiring, tenure, and promotion, but it could also set a precedent that would allow anyone to ask for transparency in donor agreements at public universities across the U.S. Such a precedent could potentially disclose efforts made by corporate foundations to influence public perception and public policy under the guise of unbiased research and scholarship that comes out of public universities, but which ultimately benefit corporate interests. Such efforts may seem small in scope, yet could potentially create systemic change by encouraging free speech and autonomy both within and outside the academy. Student activism is often framed as somehow less legitimate “practice” for the “real” world, yet we know the work done by these students is transformative. On the other hand, faculty/staff activism can be suppressed due to their employment status within the university. A scholar-activist community, therefore, must learn to “see” and support one another, in an environment that tends to render us invisible to one another.

Lesson Two

Public sociologists have something unique to contribute to coalition and community building within activist spaces because of our work as both scholars and activists as well as our commitment to centering and highlighting the work of the publics we engage with. In this way we can help bridge and support current work that individual scholars and groups of activists are doing without recreating existing efforts.

As sociologists, we identified our potential capacity for theoretical analysis of social issues, our training and experience as instructors in leading students in developing tools for analysis, and our ability to support movements for social transformation through research to support groups engaged in activism on campus. As public sociologists, we reflected on our ability to build relationships with populations we seek to support and allow those directly experiencing issues of inequality to maintain their own voice in activist spaces, define their needs for our support, and have ownership over implementation of tools and information we might provide.

We do not necessarily look to transform practices already in place or claim expertise in issues we ourselves are not directly connected to through scholarship or activism. Rather, we hope to help these groups connect their more immediate efforts of creating effective communities of change to structural efforts that can help them understand how the issues they address are interconnected and influence one another.

Source: George Mason University

 

We hope to work with groups on campus addressing particular issues and working for liberation to create more collaborative networks by finding connections with each other, and with sociological tools of analysis, help them identify ways those connections mirror the structural issues they are facing. This is a reciprocal, mutually beneficial learning process that can inform work as a community rather than a one-way relationship of information sharing.

Lesson Three

Whether we are scholars, activists, or both, when we individually (or collectively) work on any liberation/justice project, that undertaking becomes the main focus of our efforts. One issue in forming a community where the goal is to support and give equal recognition and attention to every project/issue people are addressing in their work is that our current climate makes each different project being addressed a priority. Therefore, supporting the work that the Mason DREAMers are doing around the president’s ending of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is equally important as supporting the faculty and graduate students producing scholarship about white supremacy in response to the events that occurred in Charlottesville.

Ultimately, creating a community of scholar-activists is the best way to support all of the projects that scholar-activists are working on within our campus community. Such an effort requires an active commitment to centering the mission of collaboration rather than centering one specific mission of one specific group. A support network is both showing up for one another when needed without sacrificing one’s own commitment to a particular issue.

No one aspect of liberation work is centered as the most important. Striking the balance between actively creating shared space to come together without reproducing the traumatic silencing many groups experience due to their progressive mission, or due to the identities of the activists themselves, is a challenge our group continues to work through.

One of the key lessons learned in coming together and exploring the idea of how we even begin to create shared spaces as scholar-activists is the recognition that coalition-building is a messy process with no clear answers. As scholars and graduate students, we are often left silent and immobilized with the anxiety of “finding” the answers.

However, this process is ultimately an invitation to dialogue rather than a process of creating the perfect handbook. Our process is rooted in that of “seeing” one another first, overcoming the boundaries that often separate activists engaging in this important liberation work.

As bell hooks stated in her reflections on practicing education as freedom: “Our capacity to generate excitement [in a learning environment] is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence” (1994:8).

Our next steps in terms of taking concrete actions are to continue supporting the work of activists on our campus while continually inviting them to come together. It is our hope that this effort grows. If interested in starting something similar on your own campus, feel free to reach out to us at any time.

References:

Burawoy, Michael. 2005. For Public Sociology. American Sociological Review, 70(1), 4-28.

hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

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Aspiring to Entrepreneurship in the District

By Maria Valdovinos

One of the things we know about a criminal record is that it has a significant negative impact on employability. In a 2009 study, researchers found that a criminal record can reduce the likelihood of a job callback by nearly 50 percent (Pager, Western, and Sugie 2009). This study also found that the penalty is double for African American job applicants than for whites (60 percent vs. 30 percent) (Pager et al., 2009).

Restrictions on traditional employment are one of the most prominent collateral consequences of criminal conviction. Collateral consequences are “legal and regulatory sanctions and restrictions that limit or prohibit people with criminal records from accessing employment, occupational licensing, housing, voting, education, and other opportunities” (Council of State Governments Justice Center, National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction). In 2015 there were over 46,000 documented collateral consequences (Palazzolo, 2015), but the truth is, no one knows how many there are because they are scattered throughout federal, state and local ordinance codebooks.

In an effort to create an inventory of collateral consequences nationwide, the Uniform Law Commission created a model bill, the Collateral Consequences of Conviction Act of 2010 which would require individual states to take inventory of their collateral sanctions.

States, however, have been slow to act on it. Vermont became the first state to enact the legislation in 2014 and to date, is the only state to have done so. As of 2017, the bill has been introduced but not enacted in Nevada, New Mexico, Minnesota and New York (Uniform Law Commission, 2017).

People sit at a table for a meeting.

Aspire to Entrepreneurship Stakeholder Meeting,
August 4, 2017, photo by Maria Valdovinos.

 

Given the challenges of criminal conviction and its negative impact on employment prospects, returning citizens1 in the District have been pressed to find alternatives to traditional employment. One of those alternatives is small business entrepreneurship.

For the past year, the office of Mayor Muriel Bowser has piloted an intensive 6-month entrepreneurship training and business development program called Aspire to Entrepreneurship. The goal of the program is to help returning citizens open, own, and operate their own businesses in the District. During the training portion of the program, participants receive a stipend from Project Empowerment, a program within the Department of Employment Services (DOES) aimed at helping to reduce economic disparity related to employment barriers in the District.

In the spring of 2017, I met with Kate Mereand-Sinha of the Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD) to learn more about Aspire to Entrepreneurship and the role of small business entrepreneurship for returning citizens in the District. Consistent with the general research findings on the consequences of criminal conviction, Kate noted that 50 percent of returning citizens in the District are unemployed or cannot find employment and this fact led to the development of the pilot program under the DSLBD. She explains that DSLBD and DOES Project Empowerment are only two of several partners in this effort. Other partners include the Capital Area Asset Builders (CAAB) who provide a matched-saving account program to participants, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs (MORCA) and the non-profit Changing Perceptions which provides mentorship and community for participants. With its stakeholder model, the partners developed three core principles to drive the program’s implementation and design.

“The first one is meeting people where they are. The second one is building the community. And the third one is building community wealth. We use those principles and tie back all the time to ask ourselves “are we on track?” to make sure we are doing the right thing,” says Kate.

It is because of this open community stakeholder model that I have become an Aspire stakeholder. In addition to the core training program, the program also holds monthly Aspire Stakeholder meetings and We * Aspire networking meetings that are open to anyone interested in networking with or supporting returning citizens in their business development pursuits. It is an open venue, which welcomes ideas, topics, and questions, and which seeks to expand its existing collaboration base of Washington, D.C. government agencies, federal agencies, local-nonprofits, and community volunteers.

For the past year, Kate has been the facilitator of the stakeholder meetings where agenda items include the question of program growth and institutionalization. “We have this small pilot, but how do we get more people to do this kind of work? We have this program and it’s strong. How do we help the idea both take root and fly?” she asks. Every first Friday of the month we have met on the 11th floor boardroom of a Washington, D.C. government building in Judiciary Square to tackle this question and discuss any number of matters related to the program, including the many challenges of program implementation.

In the meetings, we have shared success stories, celebrated victories, provided input into the future of the program, identified barriers to small business development such as licensing restrictions (which is a collateral consequence of criminal conviction), learned about the inner workings of the District government and perhaps, my favorite, practiced business pitches. The diversity in business ideas is extraordinary. At first, I silently sat at the far end of the long boardroom table not saying much and only taking notes. True to their second principle of building a community that can be self-reinforcing while drawing its strength from its network connections, everyone is welcome. I have never felt out of place.

The pilot program has been very successful, receiving a U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) DollarWise innovation grant to help expand it. It has recently begun the transition from the pilot phase into a more permanent program within the District government. As more and more cohorts of Aspirants (the term used to describe participants of the program) graduate, the hope among this group of retuning citizens is to build a network of small businesses in the District that will help address the problem of collateral consequences by hiring other returning citizens.

People standing with award.

Aspire to Entrepreneurship program wins award, photo by Maria Valdovinos.

 

Notes

  1. The use of “Returning Citizen” as opposed to “prisoner” is reflective of the use of “people first” language which aims to move past the use of dehumanizing and stigmatizing language such as “offenders”, “inmates”, or “convicts” when talking about people who have come into contact with the criminal justice system. For more information see: La Vigne, N.G. 2016. People First: Changing the Way We Talk About Those Touched by the Criminal Justice System. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute.

References

The Council of State Governments Justice Center. 2017. “National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction.” Retrieved September 30, 2017 (https://niccc.csgjusticecenter.org/description/)

Pager, Devah, Bruce Western, and Naomi Sugie. 2009. “Sequencing Disadvantage: Barriers to Employment Facing Young Black and White Men with Criminal Records.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 623:195-213.

Palazzolo, Joe. 2015. “5 Things to Know About Collateral Consequences.” The Wall Street Journal, May 17. Retrieved May 6, 2017 (https://blogs.wsj.com/briefly/2015/05/17/5-things-things-to-know-about-collateral-consequences/).

Uniform Law Commission. 2017. “Collateral Consequences of Conviction Act.” Retrieved September 30, 2017 (http://www.uniformlaws.org/Act.aspx?title=Collateral%20Consequences%20of%20Conviction%20Act).

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“28 Blocks” Mural and Public Art

By Briana Pocratsky

On a warm, sunny Saturday evening I walk down R Street NE toward the Metropolitan Branch Trail. A train rumbles past on Metro’s Red Line. I look to my left. A red brick warehouse, Penn Center, sits on the outskirts of Eckington, an industrial neighborhood in Northeast Washington, D.C. On the side that faces the rail line is a large mural of black, white, and gray that runs the length of the building. Emerging from the brick surface are images of the Lincoln statue, people quarrying large blocks of marble, and a man chiseling. This mural, “28 Blocks,” has received substantial local media coverage and interest the past few weeks.

“28 Blocks”

The mural includes a familiar sight: the Lincoln Memorial statue, which sits a few miles southwest. Since its official unveiling in 1922, this marble statue of the 16th President has been a witness to a range of important historical events. The popular narrative surrounding the creation of the Lincoln statue typically credits architect Henry Bacon and sculptor Daniel Chester French with designing the Lincoln Memorial and the Lincoln statue respectively; but, there’s more to the story. “28 Blocks” provides a more complete visual account of the statute’s creation. The mural highlights the often overlooked contributions of individuals whose labor made not only the statue but the nation possible. Referring to the twenty-eight blocks of white Georgia marble used for the statue’s construction, the title suggests that this mural has a different story to tell.

While the mural includes a rendering of the familiar Lincoln statue at its far end, there are a number of less familiar images that accompany Lincoln as one walks down the Metro trail. In the trailer for the “28 Blocks” documentary film, the mural’s artist Garin Baker explains that “28 Blocks” started with the question of who built the Lincoln Memorial statue. Looking into the history of the statue, Baker found that first and second generation freemen and Italian immigrants were integral to the iconic statue’s construction. A quote by Frederick Douglass at the bottom left of the mural reminds us that finished products or end results have a history that precede them. The inclusion of the quote within the context of the mural suggests that without the labor that went into the statue there could be no great statue –with every end product there are very important, and often unrecognized, means.

While the mural features Daniel Chester French thoughtfully examining a small scale model of the statue, the mural also features less well-known creators of the statue and its setting. Also referenced in the mural are African American men, who quarried the marble used for the statue; Evelyn Beatrice Longman, a woman sculptor who created decorative art that is inside of the Lincoln Memorial; and the Piccirilli Brothers, a family of Italian immigrants who carved the statue.

Men quarry marble.

Photo by Briana Pocratsky.

 

The Complexities of Public Art

As I sit on a bench near “28 Blocks,” I see people on the trail pause at the mural. One cyclist stops, looks at Frederick Douglass’ quote for a while, and takes a selfie with the mural. Others on the trail glance at the mural for a few moments as they walk, jog, or bike past. A few others simply pass by, unfazed by, or perhaps already familiar with, the huge mural. While “28 Blocks” seems to be welcome in Eckington and in the District, public art is not always welcome in its intended spaces.

The seemingly positive reception of “28 Blocks” by the general public led to me think about public art, mainly its definition and its relationship to society. The notion of art itself is a topic that can result in a number of questions. What is art? Does art have a role in society? Can art be revolutionary? The notion of public adds yet another layer of complexity to an already challenging topic. For example, is “public art” art made by the public, art presented in a public space, or art made for the public? Whatever the case, public art is related to public opinion in some way, especially when the artwork is tied to public space and public funds.

In the 1990s, two artists, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, attempted to understand the world’s Most Wanted paintings and surveyed individuals in a number of countries for their aesthetic preferences in order to “discover what a true ‘people’s’ art would look like” (Dia Art Foundation 2016:1). Based on the survey results, the artists created a painting for each country that reflected these preferences.

The U.S.’s Most Wanted painting is the size of a dishwasher and features a hodgepodge of images including George Washington, children, and wild animals (a hippo and deer) in a grassy green foreground with blue water, mountains, and sky in the background. The project as a whole is tongue-in-cheek; a commentary on the reliance and inadequacy of polling as a means of participatory democracy and the reduction of everything to numbers in general.

Photograph of Garin Baker's "28 Blocks" mural.

Photo by Briana Pocratsky.

 

The project also demonstrates the difficulties in incorporating numerous opinions into a singular whole or, in this case, a work of art. Most Wanted illustrates how public opinion may be distorted or misrepresented and gets at some of the complexities of a democratic society.

The following example shows how public art can result in controversy if power and authority are concentrated outside of the public, such as with the artist or the government. Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, a 12’ X 120’ X 2 ½’’ modernist COR-TEN steel sculpture, was a site-specific public artwork installed in 1981 in Federal Plaza, Manhattan. Commissioned by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), Tilted Arc sat in a busy plaza surrounded by federal office buildings.

Serra’s sculpture caused controversy and illuminated societal tensions about private/public spaces and power, illustrated by petitions, a public hearing, a lawsuit, and media coverage. Some found Serra’s work to be an obtrusive, elitist eyesore and even a potential safety hazard that dismissed local culture. Others found it to be purposely disruptive and critical artwork that did not pander to the public. Removal of Tilted Arc from Federal Plaza would destroy Serra’s site-specific public art.

Tilted Arc highlights the lack of public spaces dedicated to fostering debate. As historian Casey Nelson Blake (1993:250) explains, Tilted Arc “demonstrates that the most important source of the aesthetic crisis of public art is the ongoing political crisis of the public sphere. Bitter disputes of the aesthetic and social functions of public spaces both reflect and contribute to a waning belief in the very possibility of a democratic public sphere constituted by collective deliberation.” As sociologist Steven C. Dubin (1992:38) further explains, public art controversies tend to occur when “there is a high degree of communal fragmentation and polarization, and widespread civic malaise and low communal morale.” This controversy usually manifests at public sites, such as Federal Plaza. Eight years after its installation the federal government removed Tilted Arc from the plaza, replacing the artwork with benches and some landscaping.

Public Art: Always Controversial?

When public art causes major controversy, it becomes clear that art, especially public art, can materialize complex power dynamics that were hidden, dormant, or largely unchallenged. But, public art does not have to be controversial to provide a commentary on power or to enrich a community or public. This is evident by the reception of Baker’s mural. “28 Blocks” is not Baker’s first work of public art; Baker is well-known for “public art murals” across the nation and in Europe. Rooted in realism, Baker’s murals are approachable, welcoming passerby to linger on details of large-scale art.

A man chisels, a man looks at Lincoln statue model, and a woman descends a staircase

Photo by Briana Pocratsky.

 

While Baker’s mural may disrupt our notion of the narrative surrounding the Lincoln statue, the mural also promotes a needed narrative of solidarity in a particularly divisive time in U.S. history. By using an iconic image woven into the cultural fabric of the nation, Baker grabs the public’s attention in order to convey a narrative that would otherwise be unknown or dismissed.

Celebrating the contributions made by immigrants and African Americans to the construction of this national symbol, the mural challenges and complicates the dominant narrative of who helped to build the nation. To view Garin Baker’s public art murals and other artwork, visit http://garinbaker.com/.

References

Blake, Casey Nelson. 1993. “An Atmosphere of Effrontery: Richard Serra, Tilted Arc, and the Crisis of Public Art.” Pp. 247-289 in The Power of Culture: Critical Essays in American History, edited by R.W. Fox and T.J.J. Lears. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Dia Art Foundation. 2016.

“Komar + Melamid: The Most Wanted Paintings.” Retrieved September 8, 2017 from (https://www.diaart.org/program/exhibitions-projects/komar-melamid-the-most-wanted-paintings-web-project).

Dubin, Steven C. 1992. Arresting Images: Impolitic Art and Uncivil Actions. London: Routledge. National Park Service. 2017.

“Lincoln Memorial Builders.” Retrieved September 3, 1027 from (https://www.nps.gov/linc/learn/historyculture/lincoln-memorial-design-individuals.htm).

Strong, Shawn. 2017. “28 Blocks Trailer.” Vimeo website. Retrieved September 2, 2017 from (https://vimeo.com/222625398).

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Berlin on My Mind: Traveling through Memory

By Amber Kalb

I traveled to Berlin, Germany in June 2017 for a Jewish studies program at Humboldt University. Memory of Berlin’s former Jewish inhabitants is omnipresent, inscribed into the buildings, on the cobblestones, and, of course, in the memorials that fill the public spaces as a reminder of those who were persecuted and perished in the Holocaust. I have been exposed to Germany’s ongoing memorial debates concerning the preservation of memory and how it ought to be done (whether through icons with specific lessons to imprint onto the public consciousness or by more ambiguous, conceptual monuments that resist passive speculation).

I was able to observe and, in some cases, speak with people in the “spaces of memory” or “the space between the memorial and the viewer” where one renegotiates the spatial and temporal boundaries that separate the lessons of the past from their applicability in the present (Young 2000: 374).

Over the course of eight weeks, I lived and learned under the same roof with a group of both Jewish and non-Jewish students (hailing from Toronto, Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv, Budapest, Madrid, Moscow, and the States, namely Florida, Kentucky and Texas), and the conversations often revolved around our experiences walking through a city that is a dizzying amalgam of sleek futuristic structures interrupted by surviving architectural relics of and memorials to Berlin’s past.

Of the various walking tours scheduled throughout the program, Berlin’s Jewish quarter was in many ways the most haunting. Armed with photographs from the interwar period, our tour guide would march us up and down gentrified streets pointing out the shops and apartments that had once been predominantly occupied by the Jewish communities. A kosher butcher on this corner, a record store on the next, all erased except for images he held up as proof of their transient existence. While much of Berlin’s Jewish communities has disappeared in the post-war period, the construction of memorials commemorating a murdered people has proliferated in public spaces all over Germany.

As the walking tours wore on, so would the number of memorials to which we were exposed. In speaking with fellow students, many expressed feeling suffocated by the sheer pervasiveness of them, while others walked seemingly unperturbed by their presence. One acquaintance would often avoid routes that were particularly crowded by monuments and memorials because of the intense feelings of melancholia they provoked. In another instance, at the Eisenman Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, I watched as children jumped slab to slab as parents relaxed nearby enjoying what I imagined was an overdue family vacation.

As I reflected on the variety of ways each of us chose to engage with these spaces of memory, what stood out the most was a sense of disengagement. Perhaps, that is too simplistic of an interpretation of my limited observations and interactions, but I think there are some important questions contained in these moments of passive acceptance and avoidance.

Visitors resting on the concrete slabs of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Photo by Amber Kalb.

Visitors resting on the concrete slabs of the Memorial to
the Murdered Jews of Europe. Photo by Amber Kalb.

 

What does it mean when memorials and monuments fail to engage people in memory work? How might we relate these relics of the past to the present? And, to what end?

Obviously, these questions have little to do with the monuments and memorials themselves (whether they be traditional, conceptual or otherwise), but rather what they symbolize to a society.

Ultimately, it is not the statues or icons that transmit lessons from the past into the present, but it is the continual conversations we have with one another and ourselves that create, maintain and eventually, renegotiate their meaning for the present.

During my stay, I would often find myself walking about the city, hoodie up, staring at my feet to avoid the spitting rain that seemed to find me whenever I ventured outdoors. My eyes were always naturally drawn to the gold Stolpersteine that perforated the brown and grey cobblestone.

Inscribed with the name and life dates of victims of Nazi extermination or persecution and placed in front of the homes where they were last known to freely reside, the Stolpersteine (meaning, “stumbling stone”) are one of the many civic commemorative efforts in Berlin and Europe designed to intrude on and interrupt the present with memories of the past.

The old Jewish Cemetery on Groβe Hamburger Straβe. It was desecrated by the Nazis. Photo by Amber Kalb.

The old Jewish Cemetery on Groβe Hamburger Straβe.
It was desecrated by the Nazis. Photo by Amber Kalb.

 

When I passed by a refugee center, overburdened and undersupplied, I wondered how people negotiate these new instances of persecution considering their memories of past Nazi crimes under the Third Reich.

A memorial in the former Jewish neighborhood of Berlin to its former residents who tried to escape deportation. Photo by Amber Kalb.

A memorial in the former Jewish neighborhood of Berlin to its former residents who tried to escape deportation. Photo by Amber Kalb.

 

I wondered: Are daily errands interrupted by a sense of injustice as they enter these spaces of memory?

I realize this question seems rather historically and geographically limited, given transnational nature of contemporary Holocaust memory and the current political and social climate where monuments and their meanings are increasingly contested. But this question applies to every community that erects monuments in an effort to impart normative meaning and values to the next generation.

References

Young, James Edward. (2000). At memory’s edge: after-images of the Holocaust in contemporary art and architecture. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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