Washing Dirty Laundry: Organic-Activist-Research in Two Social
Lisa Sun-Hee Park
David Naguib Pellow**
Department of Sociology
1812 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, Illinois 60208-1330
Dirty Laundry and Participatory Research
Washing Dirty Laundry
Washing Dirty Laundry at RPT and KWH
Dirty Laundry within the Social Movement Organizations
Dirty laundry within the Community
Social Movement Dirty Laundry
Organic-Activist-Research in Communities of
Color by Scholars of Color
This paper is a comparison of two social movement organizations--of which
we are members--that 'wash' their 'dirty laundry' in order to maintain
solidarity and manage "frontstage" impressions. We view this process of
washing dirty laundry as a normal and routine practice that deserves systematic
attention by participatory researchers. Participatory researchers often
maintain a separation between researcher and community activist roles.
We argue that this need not be the case--that academics can practice organic-activist-research
in communities, organizations and movements--under particular circumstances.
We also analyze and offer pragmatic solutions for dilemmas we faced in
So the question is do we let this dirty laundry pile up in the basement
or do we wash it? Because sooner or later someone is going to smell
This paper investigates the processes through which members of two grassroots
social movement organizations (SMOs) manage sensitive, potentially harmful
information within their own organizations, communities, and movements.
In this reflective analysis we draw upon our experiences as organic-activist-researchers
and as members of an African American environmental justice organization
and a Korean American women's domestic violence advocacy organization in
a large U.S. city. In defining potentially harmful internal information
as "dirty laundry," we will position this concept within a participatory
research (PR) framework. Placing these SMOs at the center of our analysis,
we will illustrate the processes through which these organizations manage
or "wash" dirty laundry internally, that is, within the confines
of their respective organizations, communities, and movements.
Dirty Laundry and Participatory Research
Social movement theorists argue that "[m]ovement participants... must deal
with internal factionalism" (Morris and Herring 1987:169, see McAdam 1982)
and that "challenging groups" must have internal organization which may
consist of "various forms including established institutions, professional
and informal networks, and formal movement organizations" (Morris 1981).
In this paper, we focus on three of these arenas of loyalty--the
SMO, the community, and the social movement.
One can view peoples of color' social movements, social movement organizations,
and entire communities as three distinct but interactive social constructs
that emerge and sustain themselves through "oppositional consciousness"
(Morris and Mueller 1992) in relation to the dominant power structure and
society. These constructs--or what we call "arenas of loyalty"--are relatively
"safe spaces" (Evans and Boyte 1986; Gamson 1995) where not only the pressures
and assaults from the outside world are absorbed and endured, but where
sensitive and potentially compromising information and actions emerge and
are routinely managed or 'washed.' Dirty laundry therefore can be thought
of as a "social fact" (Durkheim 1982) that deserves systematic exploration.
Whether practicing as collaborators or consultants to communities, participatory
researchers often maintain a categorical separation between the role of
the researcher and activist (Cancian 1993; Elden and Levin 1991; Reardon,
Welsh, Kreiswirth and Forester 1993; Stoecker and Beckwith 1992; Whyte
1991). We contend that such a division need not be so distinct. After all,
"[a]cademics... do not cease to become members of the community by going
to work in a university" (Hall 1992:25). As an African American and Korean
American, we are members of subordinate populations with whom we share
intimate cultural understandings and history. As activist-researchers working
in our indigenous communities and social movements, we thus conceive of
what we do as inseparable from who we are. We think of ourselves as "organic-activist-researchers"1
because we come from the communities we work in, much of the knowledge
we employ in scholarly arenas originates from those same communities, and
our research and activism have direct impact on our lives. Gramsci (1971)
contrasted what he called the "organic intellectual" with the "traditional
intellectual." The first is the type of philosopher who emerges outside
the university and within society. The second emerges within the university
and largely apart from society. Our model of the "organic-activist-
researcher" is a hybrid of Gramsci's in which our cultural, ethnic, racial,
gender and/or immigration statuses provide us access to these organizations'
intimate "backstage" (Goffman 1959) where we have come to understand and
observe the centrality of dirty laundry. In practice, this model presents
the organic-activist- researcher with a number of dilemmas, which we will
address later in this paper.
The generally accepted role of the participatory researcher is to contribute
"what we have to offer, namely theory and research skills" (Stoecker and
Bonacich 1992: 9). While this is ordinarily the case, our contributions
often extend beyond our academic training. As the assistant policy coordinator
to the environmental justice SMO, Pellow's work included providing transportation,
lobbying local and state lawmakers to pass environmental legislation, and
co-authoring grant proposals, policy reports and surveys with fellow members.
As a board member of the domestic violence SMO, Park also co-wrote grant
proposals, contributed time and energy in providing child care, transportation,
language translation, community education and directing a volunteer training
program. More importantly, as these tasks indicate, our work with these
organizations is not characterized by the completion of one or more projects,
as is the case with most PR. Rather than serving solely as researchers
for these organizations, we are in fact members in decision-making positions.
Our experiences thus expand the boundaries of PR, moving beyond the accepted
separation of activist/researcher and community member.
Participatory researchers' accounts of community-based action are often
outcome--rather than process--oriented (Stoecker and Bonacich 1992). We
argue for an emphasis on the practice of washing dirty laundry as a process
because it is an integral component of "impression management," the inner
workings of much of what Goffman (1959) referred to as "backstage" behavior.
The "back region" or "backstage" is, in Goffman's words, "where the suppressed
facts make an appearance" (ibid:112). Ours is not an attempt to prevent
dirty laundry from arising. Indeed the point here is that dirty laundry
is a normal and routine reality that deserves systematic attention by participatory
Washing Dirty Laundry
In this paper, we take advantage of our insider status and focus on the
washing rather than the airing of dirty laundry. By "washing," we
are describing how activists manage sensitive information within an organization,
community and/or social movement. We will document the "cycles" through
which social "dirt" moves through arenas of loyalty. We wish to clarify
that our conception of "dirty laundry" is related to, but distinct from,
G.T. Marx's notion of "dirty data" in that rather than focusing on cover-ups,
illicit and/or immoral activities (Marx 1990:80), "dirty laundry" consists
of routine, legal activity and information that activists perceive might
be harmful to the organization, community and/or movement if made public.
In the following section, we will introduce two social movement organizations.
Then, we will illustrate the processes through which these SMOs wash their
own dirty laundry as well as the dirty laundry of their communities and
larger social movements. Finally, we will conclude with a discussion of
the dilemmas associated with organic-activist-research.
Washing Dirty Laundry at RPT and KWH
Residents Pulling Together (RPT): An Introduction
Residents Pulling Together (RPT), a grassroots environmental justice organization,
has for more than a decade struggled to address industrial pollution's
impacts in an African American community in a large U.S. city. RPT is an
African American organization with five staff personnel, two hundred dues-paying
members, and a shoe-string budget. It is important, however, to understand
that RPT is not a "localized social movement" (Stoecker 1995) in that the
organization and its members, as part of a national network, regularly
travel around the country advocating changes in environmental policy at
the federal level. Since its founding in the early 1980's, RPT remains
in a dilapidated neighborhood isolated from the city. Situated in a region
many call a "sacrifice zone" (Bullard 1993), RPT is surrounded by a multitude
of polluting industries and landfills. Activists describe this community--locally
known as "the Flats"-- as "economically poor, politically unaware, and
environmentally unhealthy." The Flats is home to over 8,000 residents,
has the third highest neighborhood poverty rate in the city, and is located
in the zip code with the second highest volume of toxic industrial releases
in the city.
Korean Women's Hotline (KWH): An Introduction
KWH is a non-profit, community-based organization (CBO) that provides crisis
intervention for battered and sexually assaulted Korean American women.
Founded in the early 1990's by three Korean American women, KWH is located
in a large U.S. city with a Korean population of over 100,000. The community
is tightly knit, fairly self-sufficient and in many ways is a "micro-society"
with many of the same services and institutions found in the larger society.
For instance, there are over 100 Korean churches, 16 social service providers,
several banks and a variety of merchants. There are also several daily
newspapers, weekly papers, and television and radio stations.
As a fledgling organization run entirely by women (many of whom are young)
with little financial and social support, KWH occupies a precarious position
in the Korean community. KWH challenges the local patriarchal power structure
through its open campaign against domestic violence; a taboo subject many
community leaders would rather not discuss.
(In the case material that follows concerning RPT and KWH the authors
are Pellow and Park, respectively.)
Dirty Laundry within the Social Movement
Residents Pulling Together (RPT)
For the three years I have been with RPT, not a week goes by without some
mention or gripe about Rachel, the organization's director, who appears
to run RPT as a one-person show. She is a charismatic leader, whose name
is recognized around the nation in policy and movement circles, but whose
organization shares little recognition. She embodies what organizational
theorists dub the "myth of the triumphant individual" (Hampden-Turner and
Trompenaars 1993) wherein one person takes credit for achievements that
would have been impossible without the aid of many others. John, an RPT
member, argues that Rachel is a figurehead in the movement, a symptom of
the general "crisis in Black leadership" (West 1993). She is what John
calls an, "...'acquired leader.' That's basically what black so-called
leadership is. It's people identified externally as being your leader and
basically what happens to them is they get co-opted to such a degree that
they basically serve the interests of the external forces who anointed
Another member, Celeste, complained, "I'm sick of RPT and Rachel and the
way they boss you around like they're somebody!" Vice president, Simone,
who serves as public affairs coordinator, fundraiser and accountant informed
me, "I don't feel appreciated around here and Rachel seems to want to take
all the credit for what we're doing."
When members perceive their organization as overshadowed by its leader,
this creates a potentially harmful situation. Any hint of decline or internal
division would likely create image problems and result in funding difficulties
for RPT. There were two strategies by which we, as members, washed this
dirty laundry. First, as the quotations above indicate, we vented our frustrations
and came to a consensus that this was indeed a problem. Second, as a more
formal strategy, we began developing a stronger board of directors and
creating new programs. A more active and powerful board would help remind
the director that she did not have a monopoly on decision making, thus
serving as a checking and balancing force; developing new programs entailed
hiring more staff members, who served as a tangible measure of the organization's
strength and growth. We are still in the process of completing these projects
My role in this process was neither pivotal nor insignificant. As a concerned
member of RPT, I agreed with the others that Rachel's charismatic leadership
style was unsustainable and that RPT needed a stronger foundation. Two
other members and I developed new programs and secured new funding for
RPT. This was a way of re-examining our long term survivability as leaders
in the environmental movement. Some months afterward, during a staff meeting,
RPT member John delicately raised this question with Rachel and, to our
surprise, she acknowledged that she had been aware of this problem for
quite some time. She also agreed that to, as she put it, "convince our
funders that this is RPT, not Rachel," stronger programmatic emphasis was
necessary. Although no member directly confronted Rachel with this problem
on a personal level, by framing it as an organizational issue we feel we
are managing it while admittedly falling short of actually solving it.
Korean Women's Hotline (KWH)
Given KWH's precarious position in the Korean community, the organization
must maintain the appearance of internal solidarity. In presenting a united
front, we KWH members describe ourselves as an egalitarian, consensus-oriented
organization that fosters a sense of sisterhood among the women involved.
Kim, one of the founders, described her experience with KWH:
As an Asian American or Korean American woman, you always feel that
sense of isolation and rejection, a sense of just being lonely in some
weird way but you go there [KWH] and there are all these Korean women of
all different ages and you just can't believe that you're able to just
talk as Koreans. I feel like I belong and having that experience living
in America is, I think, a rare experience.
In addition, our philosophy statement reads, "We will work collectively
to promote the philosophy of equality without regard to race, class, gender,
sexuality and disability. We will exercise this principle of equality though
a consensual decision-making process."
In many ways, KWH successfully upholds these standards. We host annual
retreats for the sole purpose of reaffirming members' commitment to non-hierarchical
practices. At one particular retreat, however, an incident transpired in
which one board member accused another of classism. This accusation stemmed
from mounting tensions among members from varying socioeconomic backgrounds.
Our shared sisterhood as Korean American women did not eliminate these
class disparities and, in this case, the difference was vast. One volunteer's
household income ranged in the millions while the other barely sustained
herself above the poverty line (similar to most clients). The fur coats,
diamond bracelets, and expensive foreign-made cars, as symbols of social
stratification, challenged the group's agreed objective of equality. The
volunteer who raised this issue previously told the author "...there's
so much dichotomy and so much friction going on within the organization
that I couldn't really tell you what the character of KWH is or what keeps
it together as an efficiently run organization because, to be honest with
you, I haven't seen it."
The retreat concluded after we reminded ourselves of the need to present
a cohesive image in the face of numerous oppositional forces in the community
who would cheer at any sign of division within the group. We understood
that the social inequalities that existed prior to the meeting were still
with us. Nonetheless, we made significant progress by acknowledging our
differences. In certain respects, the agreed outcome to dress casually
during KWH functions appears superficial. On the other hand, I reminded
them of the realities facing our group and that addressing the "poor without
pity and privilege without guilt" (Higginbotham 1993) is a tremendous challenge
facing all organizations. Thus, in our effort to engage in impression management,
KWH washed its dirty laundry--in the form of internal class division--to
maintain the appearance of organizational solidarity.
Through internal impression management, both KWH and RPT washed the dirty
laundry of difference and division within their organizations. RPT's process,
while not confrontational, included a formal, structural response; KWH's
process was the converse--very confrontational and informal. Both processes
resulted in positive outcomes.
Dirty laundry within the Community
Residents Pulling Together in the Flats
RPT's internal charisma problem provides a bridge into the discussion of
the conflicts RPT has had with community leaders. Like most impoverished
neighborhoods, the Flats has a "hierarchy of needs," (Mohai 1990) in which
ecological sustainability is not the highest priority for the average resident.
This presents RPT with a serious problem of legitimacy from both inside
and outside the community. Not surprisingly then, most dues-paying members
come from other parts of the city. One fellow activist, put it this way:
"In this society, you don't effectively motivate anybody or anything unless
you're employing them. The alderman has got more people mobilized in the
community than RPT because it's like you might get a job."
As Simone admitted at an advisory committee meeting, "....our support base
is outside of the community...." RPT's lawyer once confided in me a similar
RPT is on the forefront, on the vanguard [of the movement] but there
are a lot of people in the community who are either indifferent or not
convinced that this [the environment] is an important set of issues that
people should be dealing with by comparison to other things. It is ironic
when I think that Rachel is a national leader and is justifiably accorded
enormous respect...but I don't know how much respect she has in the Flats.
This lack of support, however, does not result from a corresponding lack
of effort on the part of our organization. In addition to hosting community
health and environmental awareness fairs we provide job training classes,
energy assistance, earned fare employment, sex education services, and
canvass door-to-door periodically to disseminate information about local
environmental quality and the organization's campaigns. Lack of local support
is problematic for any community-based organization in that its very existence
and claim to legitimacy are that it represents local concerns. At first
glance, this lack of support might appear as RPT's dirty laundry. However,
if RPT were to publicly air the community leaders' failure to support their
cause, it could damage the leaders' reputations, thereby becoming the community's
dirty laundry. Opposing the call for a clean environment might mark a local
physician, a community council president, or an alderman as an uncaring,
self-serving individual. RPT manages this lack of support by appearing
at community gatherings and meetings and confronting local authorities.
Our presence prompts an acknowledgment of local environmental deterioration
and, in so doing, leaders must recognize RPT as a legitimate entity.
In the summer of 1993 RPT's director and I attended a large meeting at
the Flats community center. The neighborhood physician organized this meeting
to announce plans for the construction of a new health clinic. We at RPT
were concerned because, unknown to most residents, much of the clinic's
funding came from a waste management corporation that operates a nearby
landfill. This corporation also owns an abandoned incinerator that was
shut down due to RPT's protest efforts. Rachel told the meeting attendees
that the community should resist this corporate "buy off" in light of what
she viewed as the company's responsibility for many suspected environmentally-related
illnesses among residents. She then exposed the clinic's funding sources
in the following exchange with the community doctor:
Rachel: The City Trust [a foundation] is putting in half a million
dollars for this project, the [national] Church is putting in $25,000,
and [the waste company] is putting in half a million dollars. The landfill
out there is running out [of space] so they might be looking for a new
one and they might want to re-open the incinerator. I want this clinic
as much as anyone but my only objection is that [the waste company] is
In this case I was verbally silent but symbolically effective. Before the
meeting Rachel told me to "dress nicely but don't say anything. If they
ask, just tell them you're with me to keep them guessing." As a new member
at the time, few people recognized me and many thought I was a lawyer.
This perception may have lent legitimacy to Rachel and RPT as the doctor,
residents and other community leaders present took her concerns seriously
and agreed to disagree through this confrontational internal meeting.
Dr.: Now if it weren't for [the waste company] we wouldn't even
be talking about a new clinic. I don't belong to anybody! [Applause for
Dr.] I'm doing this for my mother and for my child. With the new facility
we could be able to test these [environmental health] problems and track
them and find out how to prevent them.
Rachel: Black people are easily led.
Korean Women's Hotline
Like RPT, KWH finds itself in a situation in which, despite its status
as a community-based organization, it receives little community support.
From the community's perspective, KWH has committed the forbidden act of
rejecting established cultural norms. During an interview, a male community
leader described domestic violence in the Korean American community in
this way: "It's the oriental way--to be silent and to suffer. I think that's
one of the reasons why women take punches from their husbands and still
keep going--taking care of their children, their family and put them in
nice schools. That's strength and that's power."
KWH members strongly disagree with this interpretation of women's power.
A staff member replied, "For over a thousand years, women have been culturalized
as submissive and weak by presenting images of powerless women as beautiful."
One member describes KWH's relationship with the community in this way:
"... the community is run by 40 or 50 older generation men who fear women
who get together to do something. It's more like a war between them and
This lack of community endorsement is not unusual. Tierney (1982) writes
that ever since domestic violence became a visible social problem (largely
through the efforts of community-based crisis centers), movement organizations
received funding from sources outside the community. Ironically, as in
RPT's case, KWH members have defined this issue as the community's dirty
laundry and has garnered some local support or at least acknowledgment
of the organization and its cause. This acknowledgment was evident during
my interviews with community leaders as they reluctantly recognized spousal
abuse as a problem. As one leader put it, "...we thought it was a woman's
problem and we just weren't interested...." KWH has become an active participant
in community events by threatening to air the community's lack of support.
The community learned this lesson the hard way during one public event
in which two KWH members stormed the stage and took over the microphone
to protest our exclusion from the agenda. I provided support for my co-members
by accompanying them to the event and looking after the children of one
activist who was busy addressing the audience. This incident, coupled with
periodic coverage in a major Korean newspaper, has forced community leaders
to "save face" by acknowledging the importance of what was once seen as
Both RPT and KWH experience an uneasy relationship with their respective
communities. Although they lack strong community support--which, for an
SMO/CBO, poses a threat to organizational maintenance and legitimacy--both
have found creative methods of co-existing. Both organizations decided
to wash, rather than air, this dirty laundry because by doing so they can
avoid endangering their chances of receiving outside funding and prevent
further alienation of community residents and leaders. Through parallel
strategies of contesting and confronting sensitive issues in the "backstage,"
RPT, KWH and their respective communities engaged in internal impression
management whereby all parties "saved face."
Social Movement Dirty Laundry
Residents Pulling Together and the Environmental Justice Movement
In the last decade-and-a-half, poor, working-class and of-color communities
in the United States have responded to the disproportionate toxic and hazardous
facility siting in their neighborhoods--a practice called environmental
injustice and/or environmental racism--with the Environmental Justice Movement
(Bryant and Mohai 1992; Bullard 1990, 1993, 1994; Lee 1987). The Environmental
Justice Movement is at once a part of and apart from the more traditional
environmental movement. We have observed the tense nature of this relationship
in the charges of discrimination and neglect by activists and organizations
of color. In 1990, U.S. environmental justice leaders charged the "Big
Ten" national environmental organizations with ignoring the plight of other
'endangered species,' namely urban and rural people of color (Bryant and
Mohai 1992; Bullard 1990; Shabecoff 1990). Environmental Justice leaders
argued that the larger movement's "definition of the [environmental] situation"
(Thomas 1969) revealed a marked insensitivity toward social and racial
justice. These internal divisions along racial and class lines constitute
the environmental movement's dirty laundry. Activist-scholar Robert Bullar
writes "The larger movement is doomed to the charge of being an elitist
movement that cares more about 'protecting the environment from humans'
than about 'protecting humans from the environment'"(Bullard 1990:117).
What scholars of environmental justice have missed entirely, however, is
that both the mainstream, mainly white environmental movement, and the
working class/people of color led environmental justice movement are curiously
interdependent. That is, many organizations in the latter movement often
may receive technical, legal, and/or monetary assistance from the larger
groups. Conversely, however, the larger organizations use these relationships
with environmental justice organizations to secure legitimacy within communities
of color and with foundations. Thus, RPT members and activists in other
environmental justice organizations commonly charge the "Big Ten" with
racism and cornering the market on environmental justice funding. Andrea,
an African American member of an environmental justice organization in
a nearby city contended, "the 'Big Ten' environmental groups couldn't identify
with what people of color in the movement were doing" but more disturbing
is her view that "These white people are trying to capitalize on it [environmental
justice] now that there's money available." RPT activist, Simone, argues,
We have a love-hate relationship with them [larger environmental organizations]...We
don't have the money or resources and we need them for that.....That's
the sad fact so we've got to play their game. But at the same time, these
white groups divert money from us. We know these groups are racist, but
we don't go advertising it because they network with each other...
In this city and around the nation, predominantly white environmental organizations
have in fact used RPT's name, without consent, in grant proposals that
were then funded. These organizations thus solicit funds to address environmental
racism without informing or working with SMOs and/or communities of color.
This hostile relationship is the dirty laundry of the entire environmental
RPT members and a number of other SMOs led by people of color in the region
decided to form a coalition amongst organizations of color and predominantly
white SMOs for the purposes of working out these differences. I and other
leaders stressed that, as one activist put it, "Environmental Justice means
a multicultural movement for ecological and social justice led by people
of color." I posed the question, "where do non-people of color fit in?"
and Rachel answered that "the white people are going to be a part of it
because they've been working on this for years. It's just that the people
of color will lead." We now are working toward building a regional environmental
justice coalition and have secured funding to do so.
Korean Women's Hotline and the Domestic Violence Movement
The domestic violence--or battered women's--movement began in the mid-1970s.
According to the National Woman Abuse Prevention Project, there are currently
more than 1400 shelters, hotlines, and safe-homes nationwide. The Project
states that "Effecting systematic changes, dispelling the myths about domestic
violence, and promoting victims' rights remain ongoing challenges to the
movement" (NWAPP). What is not included in this list of challenges is the
embarrassing problem of racial discrimination within the movement. Certainly
this issue is neither new to this movement nor to the women's movement
at large (Chow 1987; Collins 1991; Giddings 1984; Lam 1994; Moraga and
Anzaldua 1981). Perhaps what is most embarrassing about this internal racial
discrimination is its persistence. Lam (1994) writes, "... the current
feminist discourse in the United States [is one] where white "professional"
or bourgeois feminists typically speak of, or for, the general experiences
and needs of women, of whom they of course constitute but a small subset"
KWH encountered discriminatory behavior toward immigrants during its efforts
to secure emergency shelter for non-English speaking battered Korean American
women. On several occasions, mainstream shelters with empty beds have denied
KWH's clients admittance despite KWH's offers of translation services.
This anti-immigrant behavior creates a problem for the Battered Women's
Movement because, unlike other cases of cultural insensitivity, the movement
cannot place the blame on inadequate funding or other external constraints.
For example, the inability to provide a variety of cultural foods and bilingual
employees is understandable for shelters on shoe-string budgets, but denying
an available bed is an internal problem.
In response to this mistreatment, I wrote a letter of complaint to the
shelter involved on behalf of KWH and mailed a copy to the national domestic
violence organization. In this letter, we requested an amendment to the
by-laws that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of language. The
first incident occurred in 1993 and unfortunately recurred one year later.
KWH members agreed to take action against the shelter again while not going
outside the movement networks due to our reliance on the few available
shelters in the area. We viewed airing the dirty laundry as an act of last
resort; taken only if our demands were not adequately addressed.
What the above stories illustrate are the ongoing struggles--within the
environmental and domestic violence causes in particular and in social
movements in general--between people of color and white activists over
charges of racism and neglect. Equally important, however, are the struggles
over leadership, agenda-setting and decision-making power. In neither case
did the local SMO decide to air this dirty laundry publicly, but instead
made efforts to manage and resolve the dilemmas. In both cases the outcomes
have yet to unfold, but the stresses of cultural and racial discrimination
continue to plague both organizations and the larger social movements.
In both cases the researcher acted only as a member of the affected organization.
Communities of Color by Scholars of Color
A central question in participatory research concerns the role of the researcher.
This question presents difficulties for organic-activist-researchers because
the answer calls for a distinct separation between the researcher and the
"community" (Stoecker and Beckwith 1992). First, as indicated earlier,
there is no "sharp division of roles" (ibid:209) between activist and researcher
or SMO member and university employee in our cases. Our roles and personal
characteristics transcend the accepted, often limited scope of PR. The
organic-activist-researcher then is, in a sense, a walking paradox, a schizophrenic
individual straddling at least two, often conflicting, communities or arenas
Both authors are caught between the ideals and strains embedded in African
and Asian American upward mobility and whether the association with a respected
university represents an individual or group success, or neither.2
That is, when Pellow informed RPT members that he was affiliated with a
university, in the same conversation he was applauded for 'having a good
education' and reminded that "that's the place where they put out studies
that claim poverty is the fault of Black folks." At KWH, Park is constantly
reminded that the university is the site of the simultaneous celebration
of the myth of the Asian American "model minority" (Takaki 1989) and the
often violent backlash against calls for Asian American studies. Historically,
there has been significant tension between universities and communities
of color (see Blauner and Wellman 1973; Montero 1977). As an institution,
the American university has denied people of color equal access and neglected
to provide culturally relevant curricula, in addition to often behaving
as a "growth machine" (Molotch 1976) actor by gentrifying our communities
(Taub 1994).3 Our ability to gain the trust of our fellow activists
then is at once a cultural expectation and a hard-earned social achievement.
Second, there is no single definition of "community" (Stoecker, this volume)
as this term can embody geographic, cultural, religious, and/or political
boundaries. We, like many of our fellow activists, do not live and work
in the same micro-geographic space, but share common history, language/dialect,
and political orientations. Koreatowns across America are marked by the
presence of Asian Americans who work in town by day but who often reside
outside of these areas. Likewise, the idea of the "African American community"
is not bound by spatial or socioeconomic limitations. When Pellow explained
to RPT activist, Celeste, why a fellow African American university colleague
felt she had to choose scholarship over activism, she replied:
It's not like we ain't a part of the same community--the Black community,
the world community. Plus, you can't tell me that she ain't never had to
struggle for something in her life. That makes you an activist. Hell, if
you're Black you got to be an activist, by definition.
We also must ask whether our presence in these SMOs was an aid or a hindrance
in their washing dirty laundry. The case narratives demonstrate that, as
active members of these organizations, our roles varied depending upon
the situation. Both authors were involved in addressing the internal problems
of SMO, community and movement in so far as we voiced our opinions and
acted in what we felt were the best interests of these arenas of loyalty.
However, unlike most university researchers, as continuing SMO, community,
and movement members, we are directly accountable to these institutions
and the individuals within them.
A related dilemma arises in that by publishing this article about two organizations
washing their dirty laundry, we are, by our own definition, airing that
same dirty laundry. This is a valid concern. Activist-scholars have always
labored over deciding which arena of loyalty is the most important--the
university or the community--and whose interests it serves by writing about
a particular subject(s). Our solution is a pragmatic one; we are members
of a university community and our SMOs, communities of identity, and social
movements so we must manage these often contradictory and conflicting arenas
of loyalty without compromising any one. In order to survive as academics
we must publish our research findings, but to protect our communities and
SMO colleagues we have a) provided members with copies of our work for
comment, criticism and disclosure4 , b) we employ pseudonyms
for the city, organization and individuals' names in this paper, and c)
we deliberately chose cases that, if ever tied to these actual organizations
and members, would have less harmful effects than other cases we could
In this paper we argued that, in certain situations, participatory researchers
can move from an academic researcher role to an "organic-activist-researcher"
role. Organic-activist-research challenges and extends traditional PR.
Participatory research remains a transaction-driven process wherein researchers
provide technical assistance in exchange for career mobility and community
improvement while activists give up their time, labor and indigenous knowledge
for funding increases, organizational and community development. In our
cases, this exchange does not occur. Our use of shared indigenous knowledge
and multiplicative role-positioning of both the researcher and the activist
shifts the traditional, transaction/project-driven participatory research
model to one that is relationship-based.
Though each case was not without dilemmas for the activist-researcher and
yielded varying degrees of positive and negative outcomes, the process
was the point of our focus. While participatory research has so far provided
significant ways to build bridges between researchers and communities,
more rigorous and challenging models are necessary to help sustain and
develop grassroots organizations, communities and social movements.
*We would like to thank Randy Stoecker and our fellow activist sisters
and brothers at KWH and RPT.
**Authors' names appear in alphabetical order
1. Rubin describes "organic theory" as a "set of coherent principles that
guide the actions of those involved in social change. The concept 'organic
theory' contrasts with 'academic theory' in which explanatory systems are
derived by those removed from immediate action" (1994:402-3)
2. e.g. The contradictions are most readily embodied in "Lifting as we
climb" the motto of the Black Women's Club movement of the late 19th century.
3. Universities are often viewed as the institutional source of academic
imperialism which often extends to the point of physically altering and
destroying urban communities as universities grow and acquire neighborhoods.
Thus when the 'ambassadors' (read 'ethnographers') from these institutions
venture into especially vulnerable communities it is analogous to missionaries
and scouts arriving to size up, objectify, and ultimately commodify a people
and their land.
4. We both provided copies to members of each organization, and the responses
we received ranged from "I didn't see anything wrong with it" to "Even
though you tried to disguise it, it was obvious to me that you were talking
about KW.H" Overall it would be fair to say that while no one was especially
stimulated by our paper--a common response from fellow activists (see Stoecker
1994)-- no reader recommended that it not be published.
Blauner, Robert and David Wellman. 1973. Toward the decolonization of social
research. Pp. 312-330 in Joyce A. Ladner, ed. The Death of White Sociology.
New York: Vintage Books.
Bryant, Bryant and Paul Mohai, eds. 1992. Race and the Incidence of
Hazards. Boulder: Westview.
Bullard, Robert. 1990. Dumping in Dixie, Boulder: Westview.
_____, ed. 1993. Confronting Environmental Racism. Boston: Southend.
_____, ed. 1994. Unequal Protection. San Francisco: Sierra Club.
Cancian, Francesca. 1993. Conflicts between activist research and academic
success. American Sociologist 24: 92-106.
Chow, Esther. 1987. The Development of Feminist Consciousness Among Asian
American Women. Gender and Society 1:284-299.
Collins, Patricia. 1991. Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge.
Durkheim, Emile. 1982. Rules of Sociological Method. New York: Free
Elden, Max and Morten Levin. 1991. Cogenerative Learning. Pp. 127-142,
Whyte, ed., Participatory Action Research. Newbury Park: Sage.
Evans, Sara and Harry Boyte. 1986. Free Spaces. New York: Harper
Gamson, William. 1995. Safe Spaces and Social Movements. Paper presented
at the Department of Sociology Colloquia Series, Northwestern University.
Giddings, Paula. 1984. When and Where I Enter. New York: Bantam.
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Prison Notebooks. New York: International.
Hall, Bud. 1992.From Margins to Center? The Development and Purpose of
Participatory Research. The American Sociologist Winter: 15-28.
Hampden-Turner, Charles and Fons Trompenaars. The Seven Cultures of
New York: Doubleday.
Higginbotham, Elizabeth. 1993. Workshop on Diversity in Teaching. Northwestern
Lam, Maivan. 1994. Feeling Foreign in Feminism. Signs 19:865-893.
Lee, Charles. 1987. Toxic Waste and Race. New York: United Church
Marx, Gary. 1990. Notes on the discovery, collection, and assessment of
hidden and dirty data. Pp. 78-113 in Studies in the Sociology of Social
Problems, eds. Joseph W. Schneider and John Kitsuse. Norwood, N.J.:
McAdam, Doug. 1982. Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency,
1930-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mohai, Paul. 1990. Black Environmentalism. Social Science Quarterly
Molotch, Harvey. 1976. The City as a Growth Machine. American Journal
Sociology 82: 309-330
Montero, Darrell. 1977. Research among racial and cultural minorities:
Journal of Social Issues 33:1-10.
Moraga, Cherrie and Gloria Anzaldua, eds. 1981. This Bridge Called My
Watertown, Mass: Persephone Press.
Morris, Aldon. 1981. Black southern student sit-in movement. American
_____ and Carol Mueller, eds. 1992. Frontiers of Social Movement Theory.
_____and Cedric Herring.1987. Theory and Research in Social Movements.
Annual Review of Political Science Vol.11 ed. Samuel Long. New Jersey:
National Woman Abuse Prevention Project. 1989. Domestic Abuse Facts.
volunteer training manual.
Reardon, Ken, John Welsh, Brian Kreiswirth, John Forester. 1993. Participatory
Action Research from the Inside. American Sociologist 24: 69-91.
Rubin, Herbert. 1994. There Aren't' Going to be Any Bakeries Here If There
Is No Money to Afford Jellyrolls: The Organic Theory of Community Based
Development. Social Problems 41: 401-424.
Shabecoff, Philip. 1990. "Environmental Groups are Told They are Racist
New York Times, p.A20, Feb. 1.
Stoecker, Randy. 1995. Community, Movement, Organization. The Sociological
_____. 1994. Defending Community. Philadelphia: Temple University.
_____ and David Beckwith. 1992. Advancing Toledo's Neighborhood Movement
through Participatory Action Research. Clinical Sociology Review.
_____ and Edna Bonacich. 1992. Why Participatory Research? The American
Sociologist. Winter: 5-14.
Takaki, Ronald. 1989. Strangers from a Different Shore. New York:
Taub, Richard. 1994. Community Capitalism. Boston: Harvard Business
Thomas, William. 1969. The Unadjusted Girl. Montclair: Patterson
Tierney, Kathleen. 1982. The Battered Women Movement and the Creation
of the Wife Beating Problem. Social Problems 29:207-220.
West, Cornel. 1993. Race Matters. Beacon Press: Boston.
Whyte, William, ed. 1991. Participatory Action Research. Newbury