Faculty Spotlight: Professor Amanda Lewis

Conducted in Spring 2020, Amanda Lewis speaks about her time as Director of the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy and newly released report on the future of Black people in Chicago. The interview was conducted by Carlos Bossard.

Image of Prof. Amanda Lewis

Image of Prof. Amanda Lewis

“…it’s about using the strengths of UIC and intellectual resources to kind of help contribute to thinking about what Chicago needs and how we can become a city that much more serves everybody as opposed to just serving that kind of downtown crowd.”

Amanda Lewis  |  LAS Distinguishing Professor of Black Studies & Sociology; Director of Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy

What is the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy and how is it impacting the Chicagoland community?

Amanda Lewis: So IRRPP has we sort of have two parts to our mission. One is more internally facing UIC and we try to increase the quality, quantity and impact of faculty research and graduate research on race and policy. So that means across campus we are supporting people’s research, we’re trying to help them get the word out about their research, we’re trying to help them do more research, to do better research, have more nuanced understandings about race and how it matters in their research. We do a lot of workshops on kind of public engagement, so we support people who want to do community engaged projects. So, like if you have research and there’s lots of different forms with it. So sometimes it’s like Andy Clarno, another faculty member in AfAm did a project where he was doing research with a community, and that’s all the work that they did on the gang database, so we supported some of that. Sometimes it’s research where, for instance, there’s a sociologist, there’s a person in the sociology department, who was doing research, and it was clear that had implications for community groups, and so she was working with some community groups. Or there’s a person in public health, who done a lot of work on Latinas and breast cancer. And so she then figured out that her research had certain kinds of suggestions about how to intervene with health to get people tested faster. And, you know. She’s doing a bunch of work with community groups and Pilsen around that. We support that. So, there’s different ways of thinking about what it means to engage research. And then also is another way for people to think about, like how do you write for public audience? How do you engage with social media by thinking about how to get increased the impact of your doing research that has policy implications and we think about policy in the broadest possible sense? So even think of art sometimes as policy. Anything that’s really engaging in what’s shaping public conversations about the world and about what we how we should understand our context and how we should intervene to change it. You know, all those to us or early policy conversations.

And so that’s one big piece of what we do. Another big piece of what we do is helping to you know, the university has a mission, its mission around being the largest public research university in Chicago and one of the premier urban public research universities. And as the Chancellor always says, he’s describes us as “The University for Chicago”, and so part of our mission is about increasing understandings and conditions of racial and ethnic groups in the city of Chicago and sort of out of that part of our mission, we started, about four or five years ago on what we call now the State of Racial Justice Project, State Racial Justice in Chicago Project. It started off as a single report, there are now four reports out and there’s another one coming. But the idea for us is how do we help inform conversations in the City about thinking about racial dynamics, racial equality, questions of racial justice in particular, and have those conversations be much more informed by what we know both about the kind of history of Chicago and about the present Chicago. So for instance, on our first report, which was on Black, Latinx and White Communities, one of the things that we wrote about is that there’s been a huge focus nationally, locally on interpersonal violence rates, which is, obviously we don’t want to minimize the impact of violence in communities and things. But it became very clear from the data that structural violence was much more of a threat to people’s lives and experiences than their personal life. So fr more people are dying in the city of Chicago, from the effects of racial inequality that are, you know. So how do we have that be part of the conversation? Because if people think that everything that’s going on is about interpersonal violence then all the funding, all the philanthropy, all the programs are like how do we you know, how do we focus on that? Rather than think about the importance of access to health care and mental health services and affordable housing and all the other things that people really need in order to live and thrive in the City. After we did that report, we followed up on a report on Asian-Americans. We didn’t include them the first part because it was a smaller but you know, it’s the fastest growing population. And we wanted to because it’s a kind of complicated. You know, with Asian Americans, they’re extremely diverse. I mean, every group is diverse. But with Asian Americans, it’s a group that has really bipolar distributions, meaning that they’re among the most educated and the least educated, depending what group there are them. There are the highest paid and the lowest paid. So when you when you include averages of all that, you lose the real story about what’s going on. So we covered them in a separate report. And then we did a next report about Native Americans in Chicago, which of course, are, you know, very small group, but sort of both invisible in lots of ways, but also really hyper. But, you know, you kind of see images of Native Americans all over the place and allude to them all the time as the kind of original folks who lived in this area. But we don’t so much think about them in our present. So that was part of what we’re trying to do there is talk about that there is in fact, a pretty significant Native American community in Chicago that the experience of living in cities is actually the kind of modal experience for Native Americans today. More than half actually live in cities as opposed to like living on reservations. And that understanding experiences of them is super important, particularly because not including them and not writing about them meant for us that we were participating in a kind of historic erasure, that had to do a lot with kind of racial violence. So those reports we really had committed to not collecting new data to actually using existing administrative data. And now we’re sort of in the process of launching some projects that are involved in collecting data where we felt like there were gaps. As you saw, the last report actually was not new, but there was a whole conversation going about Black folks leaving the city and wondering like, well, what’s really going on? What can we contribute that to? That was what the last report is on. And then we have a report coming out late in the Spring, May or June, about kind of wealth inequality among middle class in Chicago.

So that’ll be coming up. So we have a couple other new things that are coming out soon. But for us, it’s a way of engaging with community groups, public officials, philanthropy. You know what sort saying like what’s really going on the city right now? How should we be thinking about this? And it’s about using the strengths of UIC and intellectual resources to kind of help contribute to thinking about what Chicago needs and how we can become a city that much more serves everybody as opposed to just serving that kind of downtown crowd.

This may be more interesting to you as a MUSE [Museum and Exhibition Studies] student, but we’ve done a couple collaborations with artists for the first report. We did a collaboration and had an exhibit at PUJA [the Pop Up JUST Art Gallery at the Social Justice Initiative] with an artist who did some work. Ivan [Arenas] can tell you more about his artwork, capturing, reinterpreting some of the data. We’ve also done engagements like we did a project with Victory Gardens Theater. They had a play on Cambodians and we went up and did a kind of talk with the audience after the play once about our Asian American report. And interestingly, the Field Museum is kind of rethinking all their Native American exhibits and stuff, and so they used our Native American report. They asked everybody on their Board to read that report, and they’ve been using that as a kind of, to help inform some of their work. So it has even, you know, for us involved engaging with even kind of artists and museums, to think about like, what does it mean to even represent the history of Chicago in these ways?

I’m really glad to hear that the Field Museum was able to take that report.

Lewis: And yeah, I mean, they were already doing that work, but I think it helped to kind of inform some of how they’re thinking about what maybe they need to redo.

 What was your journey like becoming the director of this space?

Lewis: Well, you know, interestingly connected with the directors historically, there’s been interim directors, but in terms of the three permanent directors, we’ve all been African American Studies faculty. So it’s Phil Bowman and then Beth Ritchie and then me. The institute was really important to me when I was a junior faculty member. It was some support from the institute, the intellectual space that the institute creates on campus, which values work, focusing on race and policy and recognizes its intellectual importance was really important to me, very valuable. Sometimes doing work on this could put you at odds with colleagues. And so having I mean, that was some of the original impetus for the institute was actually faculty of color on campus wanting a space that would support, value, be a space of belonging and be a space that could advocate for scholarship on campus. And so that’s kind of the legacy that when Beth was stepping down and there was a search for a new director, for me, my interest in doing it was a lot about you know, trying to pay it forward in some ways like recognizing that I needed this space when I was a junior faculty member and trying to do my work and find and deal with sometimes hostile colleagues. And so a big part of what we do is to try to create to make sure people know that there is a both a literal space but a kind of metaphorical space on campus for them and to provide lots of support both financially. You know, we provide pilot grants and that’s for people, but also to provide other kinds of support. And, you know, any university, the faculty at these universities does not reflect the diversity of the student body. And that is in part about historically challenges around retaining faculty. So it’s about hiring. It’s also about retaining and retention. And I think there’s a lot of understanding at the university administration that it’s important for people to know that their work is valued. That’s a big part of what we try to do on campus. We do writing retreats for faculty, there’s lots of things that we do to try to say to people, “that work, your scholarship, your research, is important, and the university supports it”, and that’s what we’re doing is expressing the university’s support, value, appreciation.

Can you tell me more about this research and kind of what you specifically, your personal research, what that is?

Lewis: Yeah. So that’s a good distinguishing. So the research that the institute does is not my research necessarily. So my intellectual work, I mean, it’s related obviously in that I have over the course of my career, much of my research has been engaged with questions about racial inequality, racial justice. And I think a lot of my work starting educational institutions has been really invested in understanding how to make them more humane and inclusive institutions, and so that’s sort of realized in some ways in why I’m interested in being a Director of IRRPP. But separate from that, my research historically has been focused on understanding schools, racial dynamics in schools and understanding both how schools serve as a space where kids come to understand themselves, their own racial identities, understand racial boundaries, kind of make sense of where they fit in the world, vis-a-vis others. And schools as places where racial inequality historically has been generated, and so this is both true thinking, like structurally, you know, I mean, if you go back as far as like during slavery when people weren’t allowed to learn how to read or write. So thinking about knowledge and education, schooling has always been a kind of key part of systems of racial control in this country. And I’m interested in understanding how that can be different. So part of the title of the talk was highlighting attention for those of us who study schools and think about issues of race and racial justice is that there is the reality that schools historically have done a lot harm to people and have been at court, sort of key lynchpin in a system of white supremacy in this country. But there’s also a truth that education is a form of kind of liberation is also regularly been at the core of social movements to challenge that and trying to imagine, is there a way for schools to serve a different role than they have historically? But a lot of my actual like, the research I’ve done in schools and this has been in elementary schools and high schools has been to ethnographically to try to understand within schools themselves all the kind of nuanced, subtle, everyday forms of both racial discrimination, but also just racial sense making, boundary making. So kids like literally trying to understand, you know, we talk about race as a kind of social construction, but what does that actually look like on a daily basis? How do kids come to understand what it means to be white or Black or Latinx or Asian? And how does that play out in the context of schools? And what are the kind of what’s the actual curriculum? What’s the, what we sometimes call the hidden curriculum, or the implicit and explicit lessons they’re getting in part to highlight for adults, both teachers and parents, are things that these are you know, kids are having to learn all this, and we can either passively accept whatever it is they’re learning from that speech or we can be much more proactive about thinking what I want them to learn and what would be the a different way of doing this.

What are some lessons learned for CPS educators to take note of? With your research in mind?

Lewis: Yeah, one of the things IRRPP does is we run a four-day workshop for educators in the summer and it’s on advancing racial justice in schools, and it builds on not just my research, but research by people like David Stovall, in the department, by Danny Morales-Doyle, who’s in the College of Education here, by one of the alums of African-American studies, a woman named Nakisha Harris Hobbs, who is here and started a school here called the Village Leadership Academy. She’s an amazing alum, you should talk to some time. So part of that is for people to understand all the ways that racial identities matter in classrooms, that learning is a deeply social endeavor so that both teachers identities and understandings, racial identities matter understandings, their reactions to students and their capacity. So in part, you know, there’s like that do no harm part. So that’s the part where I try to get people to be very thoughtful about it all their not just implicit bias, but all the kind of ways that they are facilitating, you know, teaching kids about kind of history and about all the ways that they you know, we have lots of data that show how people respond to kids, whether they treat them fairly, whether they have high expectations of them. All those things are in part shaped by questions about race. And so part of it is to get teachers to be much more reflexive about that, to increase in one way we talk about increase teachers, racial literacy, so you can see and understand racial dynamics that they’re part of. And to be thoughtful about, like, what are your outcomes? So what does it mean if you’re in a school and only black and brown boys are getting suspended? What’s happening there? And to think about that is an institutional problem rather than as a problem of the kids. Right. And another part of it is then to get them to think about like what are the roles that we can as educators play in creating critical and engaged citizens, kids who have a sense of an understanding of the kind of racial history of their own communities who feel a sense of efficacy and of as people who can change what’s going on in the world. So part of that workshop is about rethinking, you know, kind of focus on restorative justice and what it means. Crystal Laura, who is another UIC alum, not in African American Studies, but she got her PhD here, she does work where she encourages educators to resist the urge to punishment, and how do we kind of rethink that whole focus that we often have on discipline. And then, like I said, the work of people like the Village Leadership Academy and helping children to think about themselves as they do these grassroots campaigns every year, even with like kindergarteners, where they think about what’s going on in your community, that that you want to play a role in changing and how do we organize ourselves and what are the kind of partners that we need to pull in to get them to think collectively about how to make change? So, all of this different pieces come in. And so for me, it’s partly about probably about the work I do, but partly about all these smart, social justice oriented educators around, at UIC, graduates of UIC, many of them who are wonderful collaborators and kind of thinking about what’s the role that UIC can play in that IRRPP can play in trying to help people to think differently about what our role is as teachers.

So VLA is not a CPS school, it an independent, it’s part of sort of a tradition of independent black schools. So they’re able to try stuff and do stuff that. But I think the lesson is certainly I mean, we’re trying to encourage educators and CPS to think of themselves as being able to do some of that kind of work.

So I kind of wanted to backtrack some of your talking about before, which is this new report, The Great Migration and the Growing Exodus. So it talks about the Black population trends in Chicago and its correlation to racial inequalities. Many folks know about the history of this issue, especially redlining. I think you touched on this a little bit, but what prompted this research to be done now and why should people continue to educate themselves about these trends?

Lewis: So honestly, part of what generated the research was we were having all these conversations about what was going on, just racial dynamics in the city. A few years ago, there was a whole series of media kind of reports about this, about Chicago’s dwindling black population, about the causes of it. You know, the thing that kept coming up was the focus, again on violence as a kind of driving people out of the city. And then, you know, that sort of subtheme was that everybody was leaving Chicago to move back to the south. There’s this return migration going on. And one of our RAs at the time, a guy named Buddy, in a meeting sort of said maybe we can just do like a little research brief on this. Like we really thought the version of this where maybe like three pages or four pages. And then it turned into this obviously much longer report. And I think it’s a great example. And Stacey Sutton. I’m not sure she’s an Affiliate of AFAM, should be if she’s not, but she’s a colleague here in urban planning. She wrote an essay in the piece about why now? You know, because the data in the report, as you saw, shows that the outmigration only started in 1980. So it started 50 years ago.

And that the last 10 years wasn’t even the largest decade of it. So it’s not like it’s gotten more, it’s actually gotten less over the last. So, like, why are we paying attention to this now? And as Barbara Ransby writes about in there one factor is the kind of activism that’s gone on by groups like BYP 100 or We Charge Genocide, there lots of organizing by and particularly by youth of color and the city in the last 10 years that has raised, I think, the visibility of some of these issues. But I think it’s also people’s growing awareness about the preponderance of not just the consequences of historic structural racism, but also the continuing kind of consequences. So thinking about all the work done in recent years about ticketing practices and how they’re played out, different communities about fines and fees. So in the report, Stacey [Sutton] talks about this as kind of the effects of the punitive city and how they’ve been filled to the places. We know now there’s been studies done in recent years about how communities of color have been paying higher property taxes, about how they’re charged higher auto insurance costs. Right. So thinking about all these things, I think have come together. You know, again it’s hard to displace this narrative about violence as being the thing that’s driving everything, even when one of our collaborators went on the news, they asked us to come on and speak about this when I was gonna be out of town. So Stacy went, and she couldn’t tell, she couldn’t see it, but when she was talking, that kind of lead into the story was showing all these images of violence, people getting shot. And so that’s a narrative that’s really hard to displace. And the problem with that narrative of kind of racialized violence is that it suggests either that it’s a problem that comes from within the community itself. People don’t often have an understanding of violence as itself being generated by economic inequality, but also that it’s a narrative that suggests that what we need, for instance, is maybe more police. When in fact in our first report, one of the things we talked about a lot is that the communities that have experienced hyper policing are the communities where there’s been the most police violence. So more police in those communities where there has, aren’t necessarily making those residents feel safer. Right. So what does it mean to kind of contribute to a narrative that leads to, that doesn’t give communities what they need, which is, you know, jobs and community programs, places for young people to go, but instead, it produces more surveillance and that sort of thing. So I think, you know, it’s not just that the violence narrative is partial, inaccurate, but it’s also potentially really damaging. I think that’s a really important reason. I think the other thing we don’t get into in a lot of detail in the report, but that we allude to and kind of mentions other ways, is that one of the things we talk about is how different the story is neighborhood by neighborhood. And you can see how public policy is contributed. So like some of the neighborhoods we look at where there’s been a major drop in black population. It really was about the plan for transformation and about the destruction of High-Rise public housing in the city. And that was housing that wasn’t replaced. So it was supposed to be that 10 years after all that stuff was torn down and that there were no replacement units or people, and that has not been the case. So some folks have left because of that. It’s really helpful to look neighborhood by neighborhood and think about what was going on here, because, you know, some of the stories are quite different. I think it’s also important that people most people in go very far. So that was the other kind of surprise for us. In some ways in this is that most the people who’ve left the city of Chicago or left actually the unit we’re looking at in that moving, is Cook County. So most people have left Cook County ended up in the metro area there in northern Indiana, they’re in the south suburbs there in the northern and western suburbs there in Wisconsin. And that tells us that people are really anchored to Chicago on a lot of different ways. So the you know, people want to be nearby. They want to be connected to the communities they’ve been connected to for a long time. And they’re either moving because they need to find a place they can afford, you know, sort of thing or looking for jobs or so there’s lots of that suggest that we need to kind of, as much as possible, like having really good research to help us understand, like what’s really happening here is a kind of piece that places like UIC can really be helpful for kind of informed public conversations.

And I think that definitely ties into a next question. What is the work that still needs to be done? Yeah. You know, in creating this this more equitable Chicago for everyone. Versus just the just the downtown folks.

Lewis: Well, you know, obviously, that isn’t just about research. Some of the things that the new mayor has done are good first steps. So, for instance, one of the things they’ve stopped doing is trying to close gaps in city budgets by extracting resources from the poor. If you look at a lot of the kind of punitive ticketing, fines, fees, a lot of that stuff was really about wanting to avoid raising property taxes, needing to close city budgets. So revenue was getting raised in ways that was impacting some communities a lot more than others. I think there’s a lot of sense that schools in Chicago are still structurally underfunded. That’s big, so there’s lots of work that needs to happen within CPS. But Chicago Public Schools vis-a-vis, all of the communities near by us are still not receiving as many resources, and that’s a that’s a puzzle that the city is going, I mean, there’s some really kind of big issues that are going to have to need to get tackled. There’s lots of other really good suggestions by some of the commentators in the report about thinking about public finance and other ways that has sort of impacted. People talk about, one of the things that Mary Pattillo writes about and that I think is worth remembering, is that Chicago still has the second largest black population of any city in the country. So it’s still, you know, still eight hundred thousand. And there are lots of ways that it’s a really thriving community, too. So really understanding all, not just the amazing history of the community here, but currently all the things that are amazing things that are going on. So, you know, I think it’s really important to kind of have a sense not just of like the challenges, but also of the strengths. And that’s sometimes harder to quantify in a report. There’s some groups like the Field Foundation now that are doing work on asset mapping. They did it actually with arts organizations in a way that you might find interesting where they were trying to look at where arts organizations were located throughout the City. And at first it looked like there weren’t very many on the South Side because they were looking for 501c3 organizations. And what they realized is that you’ve got to have a certain amount resources even to form a 501c3, so if they loosened the requirements a little bit, then they realized there are a lot of different organizations. So, thinking about how do you capture all the great work activity, organizing going on, that’s going to look a little different, but that demonstrates all the great stuff going on in communities too.

And how do you envision IRRPP contributing to this work that needs to be done? I know you talked about this next report that’s coming out about wealth inequality. Is there anything else you know that you think this institution is going to be doing or should be doing to help this?

Lewis: Yeah, well, I mean, one of the important things is to try to understand, you know, we’re a pretty small shop. And it’s pretty important for us to remember, like what our lane is and how we can be. So, you know, we are a small research institute at a university. And so in many ways our contribution really is about kind of knowledge and about producing research collab, we do a lot of work collaboratively with organizations we’re working on right now, another project looking at Arab Americans in Chicago. And we’re doing that with the Arab-American cultural center and with a bunch of other scholars on campus, but also in partnership with a lot of community groups that are helping us think about how to do this, how to do it right, what kind of question should be asking what you we be looking at? And another big part of our commitment in producing these reports has been to make them available at cost or for free for organizations that don’t have any budget for it and to present the reports anywhere that any people want us to. So we have at this point done dozens of presentations around the city. Everywhere from theater groups to churches to foundations to community organizations to organizing groups. We did two talks last week. We’ve got one on Sunday. There’s one on Monday. So a lot of it is being available to help folks who want to dig into this deeper and want to understand more. You know, they call and we show up. That’s a big part.

My last question is and I think it’s very important to how can people get involved with IRRPP?

Lewis: Yeah, well, there’s lots of ways. So it depends on who you’re talking about. So we have a listserv, I mean, this is like entry level, we have a listserv that we encourage people sign up for it because then you can find out about our events. We really encourage people to come engage. A big part of what we’re trying to do is build intellectual community, and that’s a big way to do that. For like faculty, there’s like a race workshop that we run. We do a lot of support for graduate students through dissertation grants and through writing retreats for graduate students. As you’ve seen, we try to make the space a warm and welcoming one for people to come here and write and work. For undergraduates who want to do research, we generally try to connect them with faculty who are doing research in relevant areas and sometimes actually have groups of undergraduates through different classes who come and work with us on a project, that sort of thing.

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