In my first class, I asked my students what they thought of this video of the protests over the demolition of public housing in New Orleans:
They responded that protest needed to be rational to be effective. That protestors were “too emotional” and weren’t appealing to enough facts. The very way these communicated resulted in my students ceasing to listen to them. And yet, the protestors in this video have more first-hand knowledge of public housing than anyone voting on the demolition.
Much of the work in my career thus far has revolved around this idea of “local knowledge,” the type of comments you hear from folks everyday. Almost every day I ask myself and my students: How valuable is it? Where does it fit into our policy process?
It was in New Orleans that I first suspected that “local knowledge” was incredibly important. I was befriended by a community icon, Jennifer Turner, who managed the oldest African-American owned bookstore in the city. Mama J, as I came to know her, always had something to say, but rarely did it make any sense to me. She was always talking of the “slave state” of “politicians that don’t do nothing for the people” and “those 501(c)3s that are ruining the damn city.” I’d ask her how she was doing, and she would inevitably say “I do, I do.”
When at-the-time City Councilman James Carter stopped into the office, she gave him the cold shoulder, despite his reputation as a pillar of the African-American community. When I asked her why, she told me, “I’d rather vote for a cockroach in a tie than a New Orleans politician.” I scrapped it up as a crazy saying.
It was only years later, as I heard her discuss time and time again politicians in the city, that I pieced together her broader theory. Mama Jennifer insisted that two forces hurt politicians. The first was the lack of jobs. “What are the people supposed to do?” she said. What I finally realized was that there are few middle-class jobs available in the city (fewer now that teaching jobs were hard to get for locals, but that’s another story). Folks who are ambitious and want to earn good money are drawn to politics for career-path reasons. That factor combines with a historical one. For so long, the African-American community felt like white politicians had stolen and taken care of their own (patronage). Now, many black leaders feel that it is “their turn” and they should engage in the same behavior, but benefiting their own family, friends and leadership.
Underneath Mama J’s critique was a deep policy critique rooted in the history of her city.
I listen to Mama J now like I’d read classic literature, with an awareness that it is likely only after years of study and embracing its context that I can even begin to understand its deep critiques. I try to fly Mama J up to speak to my New Orleans class, and I often challenge my students to link her “craziness” to deeper themes and longer historical trends. I’ve seen her cry in my class, challenge my students, and win each of them over. No student of my Local Knowledge class has left without hugging Mama J.
One of the reasons I’ve started this blog is because I believe in the value of local knowledge. Like anything else, these nuggets of wisdom, built over the years and kept by pillars of the community, can be mistaken. At times they can be biased or unhelpful. But they are also links to community history and the deeply-held reasons a community is suspicious of outsiders, government forces, and development. It has continually surprised me how local community members, speaking their language not mine, have been able to predict what was coming next for their neighborhoods.
I believe that we, as policy-makers, academics, or anyone involved in the policy process, owe it to community anchors like Mama Jennifer to first try to understand what community members are saying before assuming that professional or expert knowledge supersedes it. The crazy man screaming at a City Council meeting may just be crazy. But it’s far more likely he’s the manager of a local bookstore, the grandfather of a neighborhood, and he’s frustrated that no one seems to understand the importance of what he has to say. It’s my hope that this blog can be a hub for trying to understand local knowledge: for sharing it, for writing about it, and ultimately, for better understanding its role in policy.