Monday, July 13, 2009

Where the Research Meets the Road

By Matthew Martin, GIS/Planning Specialist at the Kirwan Institute

Since I began working as a planning and GIS research analyst with the Kirwan Institute back in January, I have been eager to direct my experience and educational background towards issues of social justice. I enjoy the ability to carry out my personal concerns and convictions with utility in my job, and I continually strive to produce work that means something to the world in which we live. But it wasn’t long after I began my current position that I started recognizing the disconnect between my professional aspirations and my personal experiences. My walks and bus rides to and from work each day often contained encounters with homeless folks asking for money, or with young boys seemingly concerned only with emulating the gangster culture they find in much of modern hip-hop. The stories my wife would bring home from the urban hospital in which she works often seemed to confirm the worst stereotypes of the communities whom I spend my days researching. For a while, this created a frustrating paradox in which I longed to make a difference, but ended up feeling as though such effort was futile.

I started going to a local recreation center in my community, because in addition to its convenient location and affordability, I need to get into better shape. But as I became more familiar with the hard-working folks employed there, as well as some of the kids who hang out there regularly, I have been reminded that the face of laziness and solicitation that we often encounter in the public squares does not accurately represent the reality of much of the urban poor. Building relationships with poor folks through my local church has also allowed me to see some of the extreme circumstances experienced by regular people.

What I’m learning then, is that you can’t just be content to read articles or make maps about poverty and race, nor can you be satisfied with giving a dollar and a warm greeting to whoever asks on the sidewalk. I’m finding that although it takes a lot of initiative and costs some comfort, what I really need to do is go to places where I can forge relationships with real people. This provides the helpful benefit of rounding out my personal knowledge of my ‘research subjects’, but the even greater value of learning about people in a much more intangible and intimate way, and learning from people with different cultural and experiential backgrounds than my own. I may not feel cool enough to play basketball with the other boys at the rec center yet, but as with any group of people, over time, trust and friendship can be gained, and that’s where the research meets the road.

1 comment:

  1. Update: This weekend two different homeless men tried really hard to hustle me for money. It's frustrating learning how to deal with them, but I also got to play football with some kids at Weinland Park, which was awesome. They were such good kids, and I hope that they get a chance to grow up with some good male influences in their lives. I hope I get to do more of that.