“The Other Side of Austin” Project

By Pamela Neumann and Caitlyn Collins

Photo Credit: Maggie Tate

It had been a lively, thought-provoking semester. Javier Auyero taught a course called Poverty and Marginality in the Americas, and we had reached the last day of class in Spring 2012 before we parted ways for the summer. Javier sat at the head of the table, cross-armed, leaning back in his chair. Although he often had a look of intensity about him, today he looked more deep in thought than usual. He began speaking slowly, his enthusiasm growing as he presented our class with an idea. What if, he said, we take what we’ve learned during this course about the nature and experiences of those living “at the margins” of society, and apply it to our own city of Austin by writing a book? Javier couldn’t promise us where the project would lead, whether it would be successful, or what the outcome would look like. But he was certain that the collective endeavor would be unlike anything else we had experienced in our years of schooling thus far: a pedagogical, intellectual, and political project that, as Javier writes, would chronicle “the lived experiences of inequality and social marginalization, the ways in which inequality and exclusion intertwine with individual lives and are embedded in intricate seams of biological issues.”

We jumped at the chance. The collective energy we had felt together over the semester, our faith in Javier, and the importance of the joint enterprise all felt compelling. This new endeavor came to be known informally as the “Other Side of Austin” project. Over a series of intellectually and sometimes emotionally intense meetings (held as potlucks on Friday evenings several times a month at someone’s home), we began to develop a consensus about both the aims and methodology of the project.

We decided that each of us would conduct a series of life-history style interviews with different individuals representing various dimensions of life in Austin, which, though hardly invisible, are rarely noticed or discussed in either popular or academic publications about this city, which tend to focus on the city’s reputation as a cool, trendy, creative, musically inclined, and environmentally conscious place to live.  While all of these descriptors are true to some extent, we felt that much more remained to be said about the issues and struggles confronting men and women who live at the margins of most people’s imaginations but who are in fact at the center of everyday life in Austin.

Photo Credit: Maggie Tate

We spent many months selecting and then getting to know the subjects of our respective chapters. We visited their homes, ate meals with them, spent time with them at work, and met their families and friends. We conducted many hours of interviews and transcriptions, and then began writing. In doing so our goal was to weave together the details of each individual story – a taxi cab driver, a migrant worker, a musician, etc. – with different structural forces or phenomena shaping their lives—e.g. gentrification, corporate labor practices, gender inequality, immigration policy, racial discrimination. We met regularly to workshop each other’s chapter drafts, offering feedback on style and content, as well as how best to incorporate relevant research and theoretical perspectives to illuminate what C. Wright Mills famously dubbed “the connection between biography and history.” The subjects of each chapter read, revised, and approved their respective stories.

Photo Credit: Javier Auyero

In the introduction to what eventually became our book manuscript, Javier describes both the “economy of effort” and the “economy of feelings” that went into the completion of this project. For many of us, participating in this collective production of scholarship—a “labor of love”, if you will—has been one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of our graduate career. Much of the work we do (and will do) in academia is done alone, and that may always be the case. But these past two years proved that another model is also possible, one built on collaboration and sustained by common purpose and commitment. If all goes as planned, the seeds of this collective enterprise will bear fruit in the form a book published next year.

A Telling Two Days for Julián Castro

A double-wide home is split in preparation for it to be hauled out of a closing mobile home park in Florida.
Photo Credit: Edna Ledesma
A double-wide home is split in preparation for it to be hauled out of a closing mobile home park in Florida.

by Esther Sullivan

On Friday, news began to circulate from the White House that President Barack Obama would nominate San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro as secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  On Thursday, the day before, Castro and his city council members reviewed and voted on a zoning change that would facilitate the redevelopment of the 21-acre mobile home park Mission Trails. This redevelopment will result in the eviction of 300 low-income residents.

In 2011, I moved into a different 21-acre mobile home park as part of two continuous years of ethnographic fieldwork. I lived within, and was evicted from, these parks in Florida and Texas because of redevelopment. Like Mission Trails, the Florida Park where I lived was being redeveloped into a multi-million dollar mixed-use development. Like Mission Trails this required a single vote on a zoning change by our city council. Like Mission Trails the city council voted that the redevelopment was in the best interest of the city and evicted over a hundred poor and elderly homeowners.

In our case, however, the next director of HUD didn’t head a council that listened to “a lengthy citizen-comment session when scores of residents and advocates delivered emotional appeals, often laced with tears and sobs,” or watched as two residents were taken to the emergency room when they fell ill during this public testimony.

Read more here: http://www.expressnews.com/news/politics/article/Council-approves-controversial-zoning-in-split-5482254.php#/0.

In our case the city council voted unanimously to approve the zoning change on our park. In the case of Mission Trails, Castro not only voted against the zoning change but also urged his council members to do the same. Castro also urged the council to create a task force to address the issue of gentrification in San Antonio. He lamented, “We move mountains to create jobs in this city. We move mountains to preserve our aquifer. We move mountains to save bats. And we move mountains to preserve historic buildings … we need to move mountains for people.”

Castro made this plea in vain and the city council voted 6-4 in favor of rezoning Mission Trails and evicting its residents.

The concurrence of these two events – the news of Castro’s potential appointment to HUD and the apotheosis of the human toll of urban growth – might seem propitious if it weren’t for the fact that mobile home parks operate (and close) with minimal state oversight, and zero federal oversight.

Mobile home parks operate in a vacuum of federal and state regulation, and yet fulfill a crucial role in national affordable housing production.

Understanding the spread of manufactured housing, over half of which is installed in mobile home parks, requires situating the housing form within historic shifts in the provision of affordable housing in the last four decades. Mobile home communities are not accidental enclaves of individuals making similar housing choices; they are the material expression of the gutting of federal subsidy of low-income housing and the privatization of affordable housing provision.

The rise of manufactured housing occurred directly alongside successive cutbacks in direct federal subsidy for housing. Today HUD has experienced more budget cuts than any other federal level branch of government. And now manufactured housing makes up 66% of the new affordable housing produced in the US.

As mayor of one of the first US cities to receive a grant from the new HUD “Promise Zone” program,  Castro has experience leveraging  diminished HUD funds to reinvest in high-poverty neighborhoods. But the job of secretary of Housing and Urban Development requires balancing the need for housing provision and housing security, with the needs of urban growth and economic revitalization.

Here’s hoping Julián Castro can really move mountains.


Esther Sullivan is a doctoral candidate at UT-Austin who studies urban sociology, poverty and inequality. 

How to Build a Body of Research: A Workshop with Dr. Theda Skocpol

Skocpol pic

by Megan Neely

How often do we reflect on how to build a body of research? Pressed by our day-to-day deadlines, we easily forget that what we do in graduate school sets the foundation for an entire career.

Graduate students recently had the opportunity to ask questions of a preeminent scholar with a tenure spanning 40 years. The Power, History and Society (PHS) network sponsored a lecture by Dr. Theda Skocpol, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University. For a broader audience, Dr. Skocpol spoke about her research on the Tea Party, but earlier in the day she provided graduate students with guidance on how to build a long and enriching scholarly career.

Her remarks touched on several themes:

Research Questions

  • Research questions should be driven by empirical puzzles in the world, rather than gaps in the previous literature.
  • Tackle projects where you notice something that does not fit or cannot be easily explained in the world.
  • It is not necessary to know the answer going into the research. Instead, identify something that needs to be figured out.
  • Research questions should not be motivated by a particular data or method, but instead by questions about the social world surrounding us.

Theory and Methods

  • Tackle a range of subject matters that are united by common theoretical threads.
  • A macro theoretical perspective should inform your research, regardless of whether you study individual cases or use comparative methods.
  • Spend time developing an understanding of the independent variable you study, rather than focusing your attention to variations in outcomes.
  • You must have a strong understanding of the empirical puzzle before you theorize the outcomes.

Interdisciplinary Work

  • Crossing disciplinary boundaries is very fruitful when addressing complex puzzles.
  • When you combine literatures or disciplines, it involves an exercise in showing how alternative explanations approach the puzzle at hand and demonstrating the value in your own interpretation.
  • It is better to have a counterintuitive explanation.
  • Talk in the language of your audience when you cross-disciplinary boundaries. For example, Dr. Skocpol explained how she used the term “class” to audiences in Sociology, but automatically shifted her language to “interest groups” when speaking to political scientists.

The Job Market

  • Demonstrate your versatility.
  • As departments contract, they will not be interested in hiring hyper-specialists, but scholars who examine different subjects and use multiple methodologies.
  • Learn and combine different methodologies.
  • Avoid jargon to make your work accessible to broader audiences.
  • Prioritize publishing. Depending on your stage in the program, this might be in print or through conference presentations.

During the workshop, I reflected on how quickly my thinking can become microscopic, focused on the details of conducting research, writing literature reviews, and operationalizing variables. Dr. Skocpol’s talk prompted me to consider my research from a broader perspective. I felt inspired by the original questions that piqued my interest, and reflected on what new theoretical directions I might explore. I hope her insights inspire you, too.

Happy end of semester and many thanks to Christine Williams

The end of the semester party was a perfect opportunity to surprise the fabulous Dr. Christine Williams, who will complete her term as Chairperson of the Sociology department in August.  Many thanks to Christine for her hard work on behalf of our community and special thanks to Dr. Deb Umberson and Julie Kniseley for pulling off the surprise!  Our incoming chairperson Dr. Rob Crosnoe presents the commemorative plaque on behalf of all of us.

Marc Musick: Rape prevention requires campuses to control what they can

Mandatory 11 p.m. classes, a requirement that students had to live on campus for orientation, and repeated messaging that if you see something, do something. Those were some of the changes my colleagues and I at the University of Texas at Austin implemented last summer in an effort to keep students safe during our summer orientation, well before the recent call by the White House for greater attention to sexual assault on college campuses.

As professors, administrators and, perhaps most importantly, parents, we knew it was essential to run an orientation that put safety first for our newest and most vulnerable students. But the unfortunate reality is that universities have limited means for policing conduct that sometimes occurs away from campus. Even with a clear- eyed recognition of the problem, change sometimes requires creative solutions that seek to identify the places where a university does have control. So changing what we could control is exactly what we did.

As noted in the report released by the White House Council on Women and Girls, many rapes occur at parties that are fueled by alcohol. At UT, these parties frequently happen in off-campus locations, thus limiting our possible responses. Criminologists have long understood that crime is not a simple function of the behaviors and intentions of perpetrators, nor is it simply about choices that victims make. Instead, situations create opportunities for crime, and we had to find a way to cut down on these opportunities. Simply telling 18-year-olds not to go to parties or to be careful when they did was not enough.

In the summer of 2012, we undertook a careful examination of how off-campus activities affect students who attend our summer orientation. We instituted several major changes that we hoped would cut down on opportunities that might endanger our students. We required that students live on campus for orientation. We required students to attend an 11 p.m. meeting each night of orientation, a period that conflicts with the timing of most off-campus parties. What was the motivation for students to attend these late-night classes? Only regular attendance at these night meetings preserved the students’ access to priority registration slots, which was a major reason students attended orientation in the first place.

Orientation had always included a mandatory session on campus safety, but last session we also included repeated messages about the importance of bystander intervention. Using the tag line, “I saw something, I did something,” we created a video with UT students that emphasized the need for all of us to look out for one another. By repeating our bystander intervention message through videos, small-group discussions, speeches and other programs, we hoped to shift the culture, so that students would come to believe that it is their job to look out for one another.

The results were dramatic: more than 99 percent of our orientation students attended those late night meetings, attendance at our other evening events increased significantly, and, most importantly, we cut down on opportunities for risk. Although we do not have hard data on the full effect of these changes, we heard nothing but positive stories from this past summer’s program.

I know that we, as a higher education community, have a long way to go. But with Vice President Joe Biden’s recent remarks on these issues and the guidelines put forth by the White House task force, I have hope that we will see progress.

As the students featured in our bystander intervention video proclaim, “At UT, we take care of each other.” I firmly believe that if all students across the country heard and practiced that message, and other universities adopted the same kinds of changes that we did at UT, we would be on a firm path to eliminating campus rape across the country.

Musick formerly directed summer orientation for all incoming freshmen students at the University of Texas at Austin. He is an associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and a professor of sociology.