Insight News

Feb 14th

Born again: Anthropologist Dr. Irma McClaurin infuses pursuit of global truths about inequality with personal experience - Part 3

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Born again: Anthropologist Dr. Irma McClaurin infuses pursuit of global truths about inequality with personal experience
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The other area that my team (Makeda Zulu-Gillespie, our Community Liaison and Hawona Sullivan Janzen, our University Liaison) are focusing on is communications.  Over three years, a lot has been accomplished.  There have been numerous reports, assets mapping, minutes from community meetings, and the like. We have the UNP website (, but there is a lot of work that is occurring that the community may not have heard about.  There are programs and departments that have been working in collaboration with community partners in North Minneapolis for a very long time (for example, the College of Design and Juxtaposition Arts).  We now have to figure out how to pull all of the information about this wonderful work together into a single place, into formats that are accessible, and develop effective ways of communicating the value of these collaborations – through community newspapers, radio announcements, etc.  In other words, we need to make better use of the resources that are right within our reach.  The second thing that I’ve read in some of the minutes from the community meetings is people saying, “You didn’t just discover this … we’ve been doing some of this work forever, and we’d like to have that a recognized.”  And so the question we are grappling with is how do you do that?  We are exploring the ways in which the University can help affirm and bring more visibility-that is, elevate the profile-- of the work that has been done by community organizations and individual residents in the areas of education, health and wellness, and economic development and that reflects their efforts as assets. 

The Northside Residents Redevelopment Council (NRRC) is one example of a community organization with a long history; there are other non-profits also that have been doing important work.  One of the things that I’ve said to my University colleagues who have expressed a desire to work in North Minneapolis is that the University has to be very careful that we don’t duplicate efforts.  Just because the University is bigger and may have access to greater resources, doesn’t mean we need to do the same thing, or just because we can scale it up, doesn’t mean that we actually do it.  We must ask ourselves hard questions: what does this duplicate, is there someone out there already doing the work, are we partnering with them, and if not, why not, and if so, have we begun discussions about this particular grant or the project we wish to pursue, are our partners involved from the very beginning, what is it that we want to do, and bottom line, what will to be the outcome.  We must also ask what is going to be left in place once the project or grant is finished, what is going to be the outcome of what we do that is going to help resolve or speak to, or address concerns, issues, and problems that the community has identified as urgent?

Now, much of the discussions up to this point have been centered on problem solving. But we all know communities are not simply a constellation of problems; they are comprised of spiritual, cultural people, and research is not, or should not be, always about solving problems.  Research is also about innovation, creativity, taking risks, and asking questions no one wants to hear. So one of my first questions was where are the partnerships that involve art?  Where are the people (in the University and in the community) who have an interest in doing things that will feed a different kind of need, in ways that recognize our spiritual and cultural selves?  We are working to identify those partnerships that already exist in the community, such as the one between Juxtaposition and the University’s College of Design.

There are people already in the North Minneapolis community who have done extensive work on hunger and nutrition, on early childhood education, developing youth leadership through the arts, etc. How do we affirm their work?  Could the University work with them to provide a “map” of important resources that already exists in the community?   We must find ways to affirm and support the life-long civic engagement of so many committed community people and organizations in ways that will build stronger relationships, and hopefully begin to heal some of the pain and anger that lies beneath the surface, and is righteous; it is righteous pain and righteous anger about feeling invisible, about not being viewed by the city, the state, the University as assets.

Every program that may go into the UROC may not be permanent, so we must also ask, what are those projects or initiatives that need to be sustained beyond a few years?   How can we work together to build the capacity in the community to take over some of this work, after the grants are finished? How do we build sustainable programs that people then can look to and use as resources, once the grant money is finished? How do we strengthen the human resources that have lived and worked in this community and will continue to do so?  The idea of sustainability is something that I learned from my work at USAID. My guiding principle as an activist scholar is that even as you are building something, you must also think about how to sustain it. 

I understand the concern the community has expressed about the way in which abuse of individuals and groups of people have occurred under the guise of research. And the example most often invoked is that of the Tuskegee project.  It is important to understand that the Tuskegee project was conducted under the jurisdiction of the federal government. It was not a University-based project. Nonetheless, it is a tragic moment in America’s research history. Despite this failing, we must recognize that all research is not evil.  The type of research that will occur in the UROC is action research—that is research driven to discover solutions that we hope will empower this community.  Without research, we would not have any understanding of sickle cell anemia, lactose intolerance, fibroid tumors, HIV-AIDS—issues that adversely affect our communities of color and those that are underserved.  More to the point, if parents believe that the schools are not doing right by their children, or that the county is not responsive to their input,  you cannot critique these situations without some kind of proof , which is  provided by research.  That is the bottom line.  Anecdotal stories do not change policy.  Only data, derived from rigorous research, changes policy.

So is there righteous research?  I wouldn’t be here as an anthropologist if I didn’t believe that.  My research in Belize gave voice to the women with whom I worked, who were uneducated: one had a fifth grade education, one had gone back to school and received her GED, another had dropped out when she was about in the ninth grade, and these were women whose stories were not usually told. Many of them also had first-hand experience with emotional and physical abuse. My book, Women of Belize, book gave them visibility.  My research methods were collaborative and I involved the women in my research.   I conducted life histories and shared the transcriptions with them before I completed my dissertation.  When I presented them with their narratives, I said, “We don’t have to agree on the interpretation.  I might have a different interpretation than yours, but did I your story right?”  For them, it was the first time that their voices were being heard, and it was important to them both on a personal level and on a policy level because now the Department of Women had data that they could take to the government to say, “You’re not funding us enough to work on issues around women.”  But you can’t do that without research.


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