Academic folklorists can serve as advocates for the communities in which they work without ever having to take off their researcher hats. In this case study, Tom Mould describes the creation of a collaborative research project that brought community members, program leaders, and students together to study the personal experience narratives and legends about poverty and welfare in the U.S. in order to help dispel the stereotypes and stigma around these programs and people.
In 2011, I heard a story at a cocktail party about a woman dressed in a fur coat with jewelry and designer clothes who tried to buy dog food with food stamps. setting on buying steak instead. The story was a scurrilous and spurious legend of “the welfare queen” that I thought had died out years ago. I was wrong. But I wasn’t ready to let go of it. So I sought out some folks I knew who worked in the area of poverty alleviation in my city, who introduced me to others doing similar work. Intellectually, I was interested in the role legend and narrative play in constructing perceptions of welfare and poverty; but socially and politically, I shared their interest in dispelling the stereotypes and stigma surrounding those in need. So we set up a few meetings to talk about how we might bring our various skills and expertise to address our joint concern.
During the next few months, we worked to flesh out the parameters of a project that would examine and ultimately work to dispel the stereotypes and misperceptions surrounding public assistance and the people who receive it. We agreed the project would also involve students, developing a model of research as service learning that would, among its many advantages, offer the practical benefit of greater capacity.
Over the course of the next year, we met monthly to establish a list of ten outcomes: six to serve community agencies and community members, four geared toward academic audiences. Additionally, we determined a timeline, submitted grant applications to fund the project, set the structure and learning goals for the service-learning course, received institutional review board (IRB) approval, and developed fieldwork protocols, including interview questions, field note templates, and processes for how to identify and approach participants. Initial conversations helped us establish the nature of our collaboration together. Following the model of community-based research that embraces a division of labor, the students served primarily as fieldworkers; I served as the principal investigator for the research and was involved in all aspects of the project; and community partners served as project developers, advisers, facilitators, advocates, and researchers in gathering and providing statistical and policy information.
Our most important collaborators, however, were the women and men receiving public aid. As with all ethnographic fieldwork, we worked carefully to earn the trust of the people with whom we worked. Some of those relationships deepened as we returned again and again over the course of the next few years, joining them for meals, youth football games, and school events. In other cases, a single interview was all that was feasible, as with many of the people we met at the homeless shelter, where transience was the norm. With all, however, we asked a crucial question: how would you like to see your story shared? The discussions that followed not only helped us meet the outcomes we had set at the beginning of the project, but encouraged the development of others, such as a photo exhibit, cheat sheet on poverty for public officials, and an expanded website with aid recipient’s stories. When we began to publicize the work of our project, a neighboring county asked us to develop a similar project with them, which we did.
Folklore research is increasingly collaborative, part of a recognition of the importance of agency among our participants, and the ethical obligation we have to the communities in which we work. Using CBR, models of service-learning, and methods of collaborative ethnography provided a valuable way to work as an advocate within the community while never taking off my researcher hat.
For a more detailed description of the project in terms of service learning, see “Collaborative-Based Research in a Service-Learning Course: Reconceiving Research as Service” by Tom Mould. Partnerships: A Journal of Service-Learning and Civic Engagement, 5(1): 1-21.
For a more detailed description of the project in terms of methods, confidentiality, and findings, see Overthrowing the Queen: Telling Stories of Welfare in American by Tom Mould. 2020. Indiana University Press.
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