Weiss Urban Livability Program
2010-2011 Community Reflections
The project this year was a series of interviews with different community members. The fellows wanted to get a sense of how the economic recession has impacted our local community. Each fellow conducted one interview with someone in the community, and these reflections capture some of the important themes they learned, as well as some of the things they learned about interviewing in general.
I was interested in learning about how the recession is impacting local conservation organizations and the resulting implications for the public and collective goods these organizations help provide. To this end, I interviewed a staff member at a conservation non-profit. Many of these non-profits depend on foundations for the bulk of their funding, and the foundations have of course been hit hard due to severe decline in the stock market. Many conservation non-profits have thus been forced to drastically cut budgets and staff size since the recession began.
However, conservation organizations are adapting to the economic shock by retooling their strategic plans: They are devoting more attention to human dimensions, by examining how communities can benefit from conservation through the provision of ecosystem services. The are also focusing less on site-specific projects and instead taking more of a big-picture approach by working at the landscape level in the field and advocating for better agricultural, energy, and natural resource policies in the halls of government. In the face of dramatic economic setbacks, conservation organizations are proving resilient.
My interview consisted of interviewing another anthropologist from the University of North Carolina. Much of her work has brought her into close contact with members of the Latino community who are illegal workers in the area. In interviewing her about her own interviews, I was able to pursue a “meta” ethnographic encounter, which was an extremely rewarding personal experience.
Throughout the interview, a reoccurring theme was that of the tension that can arise between a commitment to family and attempting to negotiate the economic recession. For example, most of the anthropological subjects that I was told about send money back to their respective home countries for their families. Tensions that arose from the economic recession included not being able to send as much money back — which one would suspect, but also certain emotional tensions. For example, several members of the Latino community, due to a sense of disempowerment of depression from an inability to earn as much money as they once had, would be seized by a desire to return to their hometowns in Mexico. However, as illegals, crossing the border (especially not once, but twice!) can have terrible consequences and their families would urge and plead with them to remain in the United States.
These undocumented workers find themselves in a position where they long to be comforted by those whom they cannot support as fully as they once did, where they wish to be reassured by the family members whom they wish not to disappoint. Their inability to cross the border to fulfill this need can cause emotional tensions that heighten the effects of economic recession.
My interview was with a recently ordained Methodist pastor. She related some of the challenges she faces personally and also as the leader of her church. One particular issue that was surprising was the lack of job opportunities for recently graduating pastors. Many church endowments and donations have been negatively affected by the recession, as well as the retirement funds of many older pastors nearing retirement age. As a result, positions have been cut, and pastors who are nearing retirement have not retired. She has had to take a half time position, although the work load still requires a full time commitment. This is the type of under-employment that seems increasingly common across the economy.
At her church she says that in many ways the recession has been a positive influence on people's faith and engagement with the community. She had been concerned with the growing trend that some churches were essentially country clubs that did little in the way of outreach into the community. She felt that as her community began to feel the pinch from job losses, the church began to focus their efforts on helping others. This has taken the form of backpack programs at local schools, and operating a food bank in an area previously underserved.
As a research methodology interviewing has the ability to leave open the possibility for exploring issues that arise without prompting. In my interview, the issue of the treatment of Latino immigrants was a recurring issue. The pastor felt that Latinos in her community were being unfairly demonized as a source of economic hardship. One of her personal missions in her church community was to change people's opinions of Latinos living in the community.
An interview with a Latino community organizer makes plain one of the most important facts about the recession: it had been affecting working class communities of color long before it became newsworthy. Indeed, systematic labor discrimination preceded the recession and continues through unchecked employer abuse and underpayment, to which undocumented immigrants are particularly vulnerable. Families in the community who are already living from paycheck to paycheck struggle to live on just one source of income. Upward mobility becomes even more challenging as a result of isolation and segregation.
Given these challenges and the necessarily institutional change that would directly address them, my interviewee remained hopeful in his community's skills, sharing of resources, and young people. They have already built a number of invaluable grassroots institutions that run on community resources, teaching one another in a model of true community empowerment.
Conducting my interview was a great experience! A lot of the responses I received surprised me, and they helped me both gain a broader understanding of the recession and learn more about my new community of North Carolina. Additionally, interviews will be an important part of my ongoing research projects, so this project was helpful practice to prepare for my later academic work.
I was surprised by what I learned, and how many stereotypes were contradicted, during my interview with a local pawn shop owner. First of all, I learned that pawn shops do not fare better in a down economy. True, my interviewee has been seeing more customers, including more “non-traditional,” middle class, professional customers come through his doors than before the recession began. The value of gold is also up, and many people are eager to sell theirs. However, since pawn shops have no legal recourse to collect from borrowers who do not pay, they fare better when there is a strong market for the collateralized items they have to sell. In the recession, everyone is selling, but few are buying. I also learned that even though they offer monthly, not annual, loans — pawn shops have to express their rates in terms of an annualized percentage rate (APR). This means that if a shop has a monthly interest rate of 20%, the loan contract must show a 240% APR (20% times 12 months). Of course, this makes it look like the pawn shop is getting away with murder, even with rates effectively comparable to a credit card's.
Pawn shops, because they carry huge inventories of pawned items on hand, also have costs (rent, insurance, security, heating and cooling) that other lenders do not have. Even though their average loan size of $100 is not cost effective for pawn shops, they are often the only lenders who offer such small loans. This, along with the fact that they care nothing about a person's credit rating or bank account status, gives pawns shops a unique and very important role in the community. For me, this interview highlighted how, especially in our “post-” recession age, with credit ratings destroyed, and equity and income sources lost, many Triangle residents are likely depending on the pawn industry to help them get by.
I was expecting to come out of my interview saddened by the hardships that so many people have experienced during this latest recession. Instead, I was amazed by the resiliency of the human spirit and challenged to be more optimistic in my own life. While I am sure that many people have come out of these past few years with very little to say that is positive, the person who I interviewed was nothing like that. Instead, there was sunny goodwill and unrelenting cheerfulness. As a housekeeper, on limited means, she had found a way to work with the strictures imposed by rising food costs without becoming too affected by them.
Conducting this interview was intended to teach us the principles of oral history work and the intricacies of conducting an oral history interview, and it did. Luckily, it also was one of the more positive conversations I have had since coming to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.