Category: All Issues

Art Exhibition Expands the Construction of “American Workers” in the Popular Imagination

By Briana Pocratsky

At points in American history, certain types of workers and forms of labor have been hypervisible, while others have been made invisible though processes of value assignment. By analyzing representations of laboring bodies, we can gain an understanding of how society has valued different workers and forms of labor. Similar to the category of “the working class,” “American workers” are often narrowly associated with whiteness, maleness, and industrial labor in the popular imagination. Contemporary dominant constructions of the working class elicit an image of a dirt-covered white man wearing a hard hat while standing, arms crossed, next to heavy machinery in “Small Town, U.S.A.” However, the category “working class,”1 and the notion of “American workers,” intersects at multiple axes of identity, including but not limited to race, gender, age, and geographic location and also includes the service industry and industrial jobs.2

I visited the National Portrait Gallery to see the current exhibition “The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers.”3 I was interested in how the exhibition crafts a narrative of “American workers” and if it complicates dominant portrayals of work and workers in the U.S. Featuring approximately 75 works of various media, “The Sweat of Their Face” aims to capture points of the changing and multidimensional landscape of American workers over time and their relationships to labor, power, and emotion. The exhibition presents a range of topics and themes including slavery, war, child labor, exploitation, solidarity, the “everydayness” of work and depictions of heroism, joy, and despair.


The exhibition displays familiar representations of American workers, such as the Farm Security Administration documentary photographs during the Great Depression, including Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” (1936), and the WWII propaganda character and cultural icon associated with Rosie the Riveter. Well-known artists, such as Norman Rockwell, as well as less mainstream portrayals and artists are also included in the exhibition. Many representations unsurprisingly echo themes relating to Karl Marx’s ([1932] 1972) concepts of exploitation and alienation and Max Weber’s “Iron Cage.”4 In addition to portrayals directly offering a commentary on social inequalities in relationship to American workers, the exhibition also presents other themes to its audience, such as strength and dignity.

The two main entrances to the exhibition are used to loosely bracket representations across time, space, and identities in conceptualizing American workers. One of the entrances includes the work “Pat Lyon at the Forge” (1829, orig.1826) by John Neagle. The oil on canvas painting features Pat Lyon, a blacksmith and businessperson, who was wrongly accused of and imprisoned for robbing the Bank of Pennsylvania (a location that he made locks for). Years after proving his innocence, Lyon commissioned Neagle for the painting (Ward and Moss 2017).

The image features Lyon at the forge, sleeves rolled, and pausing in the midst of manual labor as an apprentice in the background looks at Lyon with admiration. Also in the background is Walnut Street Jail, a reference to his imprisonment (ibid.). Lyon chose to be represented as a laborer, contrary to the popular conventions of the nineteenth century when commissioned portraits were usually representations that conveyed an elite status (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 2018). Neagle’s portrait of Lyon captures the spirit of modern capitalism, illustrating Max Weber’s ([1958] 2003) concept of the Protestant work ethic in which hard work, frugality, and industry were at one time signifiers of salvation.

However, Weber argues that these traits have since become untethered from ascetic Protestantism, allowing capitalism to thrive on its own. The artwork at the other entrance of the exhibition is “Woman Cleaning Shower in Beverly Hills (After David Hockney’s Man Taking Shower in Beverly Hills, 1964)” (2013) by Ramiro Gomez. The acrylic on canvas work features a woman of color, a housekeeper, whose back faces the viewer; she is hunched over and cleaning a shower with a squeegee.

Gomez’s painting references a previous work, David Hockney’s “Man Taking Shower in Beverly Hills” (1964), which features a faceless white man, bent over, taking a shower in a very similar setting as the housekeeper from Gomez’s painting. Gomez has reframed a number of Hockney’s paintings, providing a commentary on class, race, gender, and immigration.

The faceless white, affluent male of Hockney’s painting, who leisurely takes a shower in a Beverly Hills home, seems unaware of the labor behind the maintenance of luxury. In an interview, Gomez elaborated on the faceless domestic workers in his artwork in relationship to his reimagining of Hockney’s art:

“Culture shapes and shifts as it moves. It influences perception. That is something that Hockney has always involved himself with: perception, the ways of rendering something three-dimensional in two dimensions. With me, I’m very curious how [my] work can re-shape and re-form what people had previously seen as the California life. People tell me they can’t see Hockney’s work the same way after. That was the goal for me” (Miranda 2016).

While Gomez’s painting makes a statement on its own regarding invisible and unrecognized labor, especially in relationship to the working-class Latinx community in Los Angeles (Ward and Moss 2017), the full extent of Gomez’s narrative can only be understood in context with Hockney’s work.

Taken together, these works provide a stark contrast of laborers and employers and their social statuses particularly as it pertains to agency and visibility.

Photo by Briana Pocratsky


Moments and Settings

“The Sweat of Their Face” exhibition includes representations of American workers whose identities and labor are often not valued, forgotten, or made invisible in the popular imagination. Representations, which often teeter between individuality and anonymity are never total or complete in relationship to the subjects or the history of which they are a part. Moreover, representation depends on who is behind the camera or the canvas and how the artist chooses to represent a subject. However, the exhibition pulls out moments in time and space across American labor history through fine art representations to highlight some cultural, political, and social settings while attempting to foster empathy along the way.

The direct stare in portraiture of a blacksmith, a newsboy, an enslaved woman, a weaver, a share cropper, a grape picker, a barber, a steel worker, and a sandwich artist or the genre art of the worlds in which work takes place in everyday life, such as a factory, a house, a home, a field, a farm, a mine, a street, an office, or one hundred stories in the sky collectively ask the viewer to pause and linger on the sweat of American workers. “The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers” will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery until September 3, 2018.


  1. The label “the working class” and how it is conceptualized and measured often masks the complexities of individuals who fall under this category, making clear and concise definitions of “the working class” and other class categories difficult and problematic.
  2. For example, depending on the parameters of the definition of working class (in this particular projection, working people without a college degree) and how people identify in terms of race and ethnicity, it is estimated that by 2032, people of color will comprise the majority of the working-class population in the U.S. (Wilson 2016).
  3. David C. Ward, the National Portrait Gallery’s former senior historian and co-curator of “The Sweat of Their Face,” explains that the title of the exhibition refers to the Fall in Christianity, or “the biblical judgement that expelled Adam and Eve from paradise and enjoined them to work, that ‘in the sweat of their face, they shall eat bread’” (Ward and Moss 2017: 13).
  4. Max Weber ([1958] 2003: 181) contends that the rise of rationalization and bureaucratization is occurring in everyday life. Unchecked rationalization and bureaucracy results in the Iron Cage, in which modern economic order “is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force.”


Marx, Karl. [1932] 1972. “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.” Pp. 68–125 in The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by R. C. Tucker. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Miranda, Carolina A. 2016. “From Nanny to International Art Star: Ramiro Gomez on How His Paintings Reveal the Labor That Makes California Cool Possible.” Los Angeles Times, May 4. Retrieved (

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 2018. “Pat Lyon at the Forge.” Retrieved (

Ward, David C. and Dorothy Moss. 2017. The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution in association with the National Portrait Gallery.

Weber, Max. [1958] 2003. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.

Wilson, Valerie. 2016. People of Color Will Be a Majority of the American Working Class in 2032: What This Means for the Effort to Grow Wages and Reduce Inequality. Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved March 5, 2018 ( 

Return to May 2018 Issue

Breakfast with a Side of Public Sociology

By Maria Valdovinos

In the last issue of The Sociologist I wrote about how Pancake Saturday (see Valdovinos February 2018) is not just about breakfast or pancakes for that matter (although there are plenty of them to go around), but rather about building a community and a positive social support network among returning citizens in the District. The most recent Pancake Saturday gathering was extra special; not only did we get to meet the newest cohort of the Aspire to Entrepreneurship program (see Valdovinos October 2017) but breakfast came with a healthy side of public sociology. There was far more listening, dialoguing, and community building than there was eating. We were all pleasantly surprised to see Councilmember Charles Allen stop by to meet the cohort’s newest members and to learn about the challenges of reentry in the District.

Charles Allen represents Ward 6 on the Council of the District of Columbia.1 Allen was elected in 2014 and is up for re-election. He chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety2 and serves as the Council’s liaison with key stakeholders in criminal justice and reentry in the District.3 “The goal is not just to make DC a safe city, but also a just city,” Allen said as he shared with everyone his vision and goals for the District if he were to get re-elected.

For the Aspirants4 at the table, the goal of a “just city,” raised many issues of fairness and equity in opportunity, particularly as it pertained to access to traditional jobs, safe and affordable housing and city contracts for the entrepreneurs working to grow their small and local businesses. The Aspirants shared specific challenges they encountered in their reentry experiences, such as not being able to obtain paid sick-time benefits and the fact that “ban the box” still resulted in individuals being denied jobs because of a criminal history. Among the returning citizen entrepreneur group, the issue of access to city contracts came up almost immediately. The Aspirants shared that while the desire is to stay local it is not always to stay “small.” They also shared that they felt their chances to access city contracts were hurt because they could not donate to campaigns. Allen listened intently, noting that the contracting process should never work in a way where campaign donations give people an advantage in obtaining city contracts. He proceeded to explain the current process of securing and awarding contracts in the District, how that process should work and where it could be improved. Before jumping into another round of questions and answers, Allen thanked everyone for their insight, remarking that he had been unaware of some of the issues raised that morning.

As a student in public sociology, I have thought long and hard over the last couple of years about the nature of the public and our responsibility as social scientists to the discipline and civil society. In the past two years especially, I have worked to develop a series of arguments regarding the need to integrate what I have referred to in those papers as “subaltern knowledge” into criminal justice reform policy. Drawing from Antonio Gramsci’s use of “subaltern” in The Prison Notebooks, the use of the term is simply intended to describe how ‘knowledge’ and experiences are frequently and routinely overlooked when they belong to non-hegemonic groups or classes of people that are socially, politically, and geographically on the periphery of hegemonic power structures (Gramsci 1948).

Among the arguments I have made is that the seeming contradiction between public sociology and academic sociology characterizing the “public sociology wars” (Burawoy in Adam et al. 2011) also needs to engage the value placed on alternative and subaltern knowledge by key decision makers (such as policymakers), and the willingness of decision makers to legitimize this kind of knowledge. While far from the ideal of the Habermasian public sphere (where private people gather as a public and have direct access to the state and where this sphere is accessible to everyone), the question and answer forum that I witnessed during the previous Pancake Saturday was encouraging. For me, it reinforced the fact that unlike Weber’s articulation of the people of the state as an inarticulate mass, the public can in fact be very articulate. In the vein of C. Wright Mills and Charles Gallagher, I witnessed the power of linking individual biography and private troubles to public issues via what I have heard Graham McLaughlin refer to as “the ask.” McLaughlin is co-founder and chair of the board at Changing Perceptions.5 This is the idea that raising a question about a seemingly private trouble can reveal the collective and socially embedded nature of that problem potentially leading to a solution for what is in fact a public issue of wide scope.

Over the course of sociology’s history and development, the publics of sociology have included educated elites (Weber 1946), intellectuals more generally (Durkheim 1895),  intellectuals and the proletariat with the purpose of mobilizing (e.g. see Marx in Tucker 1978, The Communist Manifesto), intellectuals with the purpose of giving voice to the poor (e.g. see Addams 1910, 20 Years at Hull House), White Americans with the purpose of educating them (Du Bois 1903, The Souls of Black Folk), the sociological profession with the purpose of promoting reflexivity (Burawoy 2005), feminist activist-scholars with the purpose of “talking the talk” and “walking the walk” alongside testing their theories (Collins 1998), or policy audiences (Desmond 2016; Wilson 1990). This list is by no means exhaustive. Contrary to some arguments which have been leveraged within the discipline over the years, I would argue that at no point has science and instrumental rationality been sacrificed whether the move has been away from or towards engaged scholarship–activism.

The arguments I have made over the past two years pertaining to subaltern knowledge and criminal justice reform are at their core emancipatory and imply that the next step in the public sociology wars is to work toward the recognition that the co-production of knowledge is a legitimate and necessary enterprise. Such a step could potentially allow for public sociology and professional sociology to be in dialogue regarding the creation of new research programs and methods rather than a focus on the division of roles where the function of professional sociology is to produce knowledge and the role of public sociology is simply to communicate it.

Such a step could also create necessary and overdue connections with academic circles and policy circles to target urgent problems. In short, we must move from questions of knowledge for what (Lynd 1939), whose side we are on (Becker 1966) and for whom (Lee 1976) to questions such as knowledge from whom? To that end, when my turn to ask a question came, I asked Charles Allen what I thought was a simple question. How can stakeholders such as myself, a sociologist with scientific training, work to connect publics and translate various experiences into forms that are actionable for policy reform? How can we access policy circles to communicate the unintended and potentially harmful outcomes uncovered by the scientific research of some policy reforms (such as ban the box) to policymakers?

Councilman Allen at Pancake Saturday. Photo by Maria Valdovinos


Allen did not seem to have a concrete answer. Although, he recognized the importance of the connection between research and policy, it seemed that the proposition I had raised was somewhat of a new idea, potentially unexplored territory. Afterwards, however, one of the Aspirants came up to me and told me that she really appreciated what I had to say, and that she thought “I was someone to be reckoned with,” before quickly walking way. I have to admit that she left me speechless with her comment. The more I have thought about it, the more I realize the power in public sociology to overcome certain counterproductive debates and to refocus that energy into expanding the existing assumptions, theories, concepts, questions so as to catapult the types of changes needed in society. I walked out of that last Pancake Saturday with a strong re-assurance that there is not an essential incompatibility between public sociology and academic sociology.


  1. For more information about Charles Allen see
  2. For more information on the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety see
  3. The stakeholders include the U.S. Attorney’s Office, D.C. Courts, Public Defender Service, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, Pretrial Services Agency, Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Parole Commission.
  4. The term Aspirant is a term used to refer to members of the Aspire to Entrepreneurship program.
  5. For more information on Changing Perceptions and the Aspire to Entrepreneurship Program see


Addams, Jane. 1910. 20 Years at Hull-House. New York City, NY: The MacMillan Company.

Becker, Howard S. 1966. “Whose Side Are We On.” Social Problems 14:239.

Blau, Judith and Keri E. Iyall Smith, eds. 2006. Public Sociologies Reader. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Burawoy, Michael. 2005. “For Public Sociology.” American Sociological Review 70(1):4–28.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 1998. Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Desmond, Matthew. 2016. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. New York City, NY: Crown Publishers.

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago, IL: A.C. McClurg & Company.

Durkheim, Emile. 1895. The Rules of Sociological Method. edited by S. Lukes. New York City, NY: The Free Press.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1948. Prison Notebooks. edited by J. A. Buttigieg and A. Callari. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Jeffries, Vincent, ed. 2011. Handbook of Public Sociology. New York City, NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Lee, Alfred McClung. 1976. “Presidential Address: Sociology for Whom?” American Sociological Review 41(6):925–36.

Lynd, Robert Staughton. 1939. Knowledge for What: The Place of Social Science in American Culture. New York City, NY: Grove Press, Inc.

Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. New York City, NY: Oxford University Press.

Tucker, Robert C., ed. 1978. The Marx/Engels Reader. New York City, NY: W.W. Norton.

Weber, Max. 1946. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Oxford University Press.

Wilson, William Julius. 1990. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Return to May 2018 Issue

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!)



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

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 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.


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

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.


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 (

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 ( doi: 10.1177/237455680217.n1

By Briana Pocratsky

Return to February 2018 Issue


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.


  1. To learn more about Changing Perceptions and Pancake Saturday, visit their Twitter page at
  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


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 (

Garber, Megan. 2016. “The Most Contentious Meal of the Day.” The Atlantic, June 19. Retrieved (

Rupp, R. 2014. “Here’s the History of Pancakes.” National Geographic: The Plate Series, May 21. Retrieved (

Valdovinos, Maria. 2017, May. “There is No Prison in Washington: Challenges of Reentry in the District.” The Sociologist, May 22. Retrieved (

Valdovinos, Maria. 2017, October. “Aspiring to Entrepreneurship in the District.” The Sociologist, October 10. Retrieved (

By Maria Valdovinos

Return to February 2018 Issue


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


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.


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 (

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 (

Scott, Joan W. 2018. “How the Right Weaponized Free Speech.” Retrieved January 11, 2018 (

By Emily McDonald

Return to February 2018 Issue

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



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



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.

2. Ibid

By Y. Shaw-Taylor

Return to February 2018 Issue

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.


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.

Return to October 2017 Issue 

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.



  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.


The Council of State Governments Justice Center. 2017. “National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction.” Retrieved September 30, 2017 (

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 (

Uniform Law Commission. 2017. “Collateral Consequences of Conviction Act.” Retrieved September 30, 2017 (

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