Public Sociology and Community Engagement: Reflections from Former Swearer Center Graduate Proctors

This month’s spotlight focuses on public sociology and community engagement, with excerpts from Dr. Prudence Carter’s ASA presidential speech and reflections from two former Swearer Center graduate proctors.
December 11, 2023

This year’s American Sociological Association (ASA) theme, ‘The Educative Power of Sociology,’ chosen by Dr. Prudence Carter, the Sarah and Joseph Jr. Dowling Professor of Sociology at Brown and the 2022-23 President of the ASA, fostered extensive discussions on the role of sociology in education, community engagement, and public service, as well as the importance of public sociology. Dr. Carter, in her presidential speech, emphasized her years of sociological engagement not only as a scholar, but also with policy-makers, practitioners, and community members in her approach to education, focusing particularly on structural inequalities based on race, class, and gender. Dr. Carter says “what we do need to think about is the refinement of the techniques in order to be more truly transformative and integrative.” She invites sociologists to be: 

“introspective on whether we should perpetuate the status quo in our role as scholars, researchers, and educators, or whether it is time to expand our horizons toward more interventionist practices. This invites a holistic exploration of the intricate interplay among power distribution, resource allocations, and the nurturing of humanistic ethics…. Our mission, I am suggesting to you...transcends state policies and extending into the civil sphere and reaching across diverse demographics.... Central to our endeavor is not merely research...but the seamless integration of research and practices that’s critically scrutinized, the balance between producing knowledge just for each other...and utilizing it for the well-being of society.”  

Two Brown Sociology PhDs Drs. Laura Garbes and prabhdeep singh kehal reflect on their work at the Swearer Center during graduate school, their experiences in community engagement and the ongoing discussion within sociological practice. Dr. Laura Garbes, currently an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota, was a graduate proctor focused on the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), a program funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs with the aim of strengthening leadership and economic development in Southeast Asia. As the academic director of YSEALI at Brown (2018-2020), Dr. Garbes led this six-week program with young social entrepreneurs, consisting of a combination of classroom learning and experiential, place-based learning. Dr. Garbes recounts that the experience “made very deep and lasting relationships with the students in the YSEALI,” and they keep in touch frequently. The program “enabled a transnational understanding of race and identity, and opened up really interesting conversations,” including with engaged undergraduates. The program also highlighted the Southeast Asian community of Providence; for Dr. Garbes, it was: 

“a really special experience to get to foster connections between different local Filipino restaurants in town for example, or other Southeast Asian small businesses. It was special being able to share across that and talk about the diaspora, talk about migration flows in this really applied setting.”

Dr. Garbes emphasizes the role of sociology as providing a critical lens for community engagement: 

“in its ability to critically apprehend patterns in the social world, sociology is to me a very useful and at times a necessary precondition to engage responsibly in an existing community that you are not necessarily a part of. I think of public sociology as an orientation towards learning about the patterns of the social world for a particular end, and the particular end is to ameliorate inequalities or change the relations of society and the patterns that reproduce inequalities. But the point is not to just analyze it for its own sake. The point is to analyze it to be able to then enter into a space and be able to more fully collaborate with the broader understanding of patterns in society.” 

Her research on racialized practices and the ‘sonic color line’ in National Public Radio informs her current engagement with the nonprofit Listen Up Youth Radio in the Twin Cities. She describes that engagement as: 

“applying my research to helping folks understand – particularly those from immigrant communities – the politics of voice and good radio voice in order to make sure that they have sort of a critical consciousness about who is seen as a good talker on air, who has a dominant voice on airwaves and how one can develop their own understanding of both their own voices and how they are going to articulate things outside of the bounds of traditional radio training.”

Dr. prabhdeep singh kehal, currently a postdoctoral fellow at University of Wisconsin-Madison working on the HEAL Project, worked as a graduate proctor in community-engaged scholarship at the Swearer Center (2017-2019, 2020-2022). Through the proctorship, they were engaged in research and assessment projects and co-produced a series of briefs and publications on community-engaged scholarship, student engagement, and social innovation. They worked on developing assessment metrics around community engagement from a perspective of reciprocality, equitable participation, and collaboration. They worked “on developing a process that they can implement with community partners around how to create community-based evaluation that would work for Swearer and the partners.” As a sociologist of knowledge, Dr. kehal emphasizes that “there is too much influence of power” at the moment of survey and research design, and the moment of presentation of results. Thus, for them, it was meaningful to contribute to and inform a participatory process of assessment. 

Dr. kehal emphasizes reflexivity on community engagement as a particular ethic, which allows for the critique and transformation of the working space towards more equitable ends. They draw attention to the two big criticisms of community-engaged work: 

"One is that you go into a space and then you basically displace or colonize that in order to build yourself up. And the other is that you send students or people who are unprepared out into the world at which they can cause harm. It is not always a productive generative experience.” 

To address these issues, thinking beyond inclusivity and in terms of structural inequality is required, which is a major part of Dr. kehal’s research. Inclusion without taking into account structural factors and developing support mechanisms can reproduce relations of inequality and cause harm. Dr. kehal continues, “I remember putting together a literature review about organizations and racism and misogyny and cisheterosexism and that became part of the conversations that Swearer was having.” 

Dr. kehal emphasizes how their sociological research skills connect to their community-engaged projects and inform their public sociology projects. They underline that 

“my skill is not my PhD, which is how academics often will think of it. Swearer helped me break that apart and think about the actual things that I was doing and how to find value in them. Like using my research skills to create community-based world history archives, which is now what I do for my own community back in California. That is both informed by my own research but also the experiences and practices that I had working in a place like Swearer.” 

Dr. kehal is currently working as part of the Sikh LGBTQIA+ Oral History project which aims to create an archival resource drawn from the experiences of Sikh LGBTQIA+ communities in California, and as a resource for the community itself. In their engaged work and as a scholar, Dr. kehal emphasizes not just the process of gathering data, but how to present the resources gathered and how to ensure access to communities that need them. “That to me is a very community-engaged question, and beyond just partnering with an organization,” they remark, posing the question of audience and for whom research is done. “It made sense for me to return to the place that I have relationships with. That requires doing the messy, ethical, relational work of being a subject and object within your research space. I felt like I could ethically do that.”

When asked what their advice would be to current graduate students thinking of getting involved with community-engaged work, Dr. Garbes responds: 

“Do not think that engagement is a solo exercise in which you alone have to integrate yourself into a new context. There are always lots of people and collectives that have been forging these relationships over time. Take your time as you are thinking through your engagement and be very intentional about learning as much as you can about the context of the space before jumping in.” 

Dr. kehal adds: 

“You may not always know what to ask, but sometimes just asking if a thing exists. There is a culture around that. Having worked in many places, it is rare to be in a place where people are willing to constantly come back to things and change them after making a decision. If you know what you want, I would just figure out how to ask for it.”