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One Mission: Three Phases

Within sociology, we have worked primarily within one subfield, political sociology—more specifically political discourse—to explore how social movements and marginalized constituencies “talk politics” under conditions not of their own making. Our choice of media as an entry point reflects our understanding of mass media as our historical period’s master forum—the arena in which groups commonly engage in political discourse. How we advance this mission has varied with resources. Finding sufficient resources to create sustainable infrastructure has been an ongoing struggle, and we have been forced to adapt our agenda again and again.

To condense a long and complicated history into a few paragraphs, MRAP has gone through three phases since the mid-l980s. At first, we were a weekly breakfast seminar, meeting during the academic year, which served as a kind of incubator for doing public sociology focused on the mass media and social movements. Graduate students developed public sociology projects focused on strategies of change, various faculty from sociology and other departments and universities used the seminar to present their work, and staff members from advocacy groups or campaigns would join us to reflect on their experiences, strategies, or both.

Eager to bridge the academic-activist divide, we approached activists, asking them to share with us successful experiments in “talking politics.”4 We would often run one- or two-day workshops and other training exercises on the media for various groups during this phase. To create a workshop curriculum, we blended activists’ identified best practices with social movement scholars’ lessons from the civil rights, antiwar, women’s and gay liberation movements. We modeled ourselves after Aldon Morris’s “movement half-way houses,” building intentional relations between academic social movement theorists and social movement practitioners.5 In our first several years so operating, we ran workshops for close to two hundred local and regional organizations.

Our frustration with one-shot training exercises as vehicles for building effective media strategies propelled us into a second phase in the mid-1990s. This community outreach phase involved actively seeking outside funds and building long-term relationships with a smaller number of organizations. The two most important projects in this phase were an ongoing relationship with the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence and a multiyear Media Fellows program. The Media Fellows were community activists, nominated by their organizations, who spent several days a month over one to two years working with MRAP staff to strengthen their groups’ media capacity. One of us (Ryan) took the lead and provided the central energy to make these programs happen.

At the turn of the century we encountered a perfect storm of resource challenges. First, the economy tanked, with the crash being of particular import in our case. September 11 catalyzed an added shift in foundation and state spending that destabilized many of our partners. Finally, foundations expressed little interest in the type of sustained regional capacity-building MRAP championed. Facing its own financial pressures, Boston College pressed MRAP to become self-sufficient. As the federal government went on a war footing and cut social spending, we made the very hard decision to mothball MRAP’s outreach program in 2003. This decision signaled the opening of a third phase in which MRAP returned to its origins as a research seminar and incubator of public sociology.

A word is in order about public sociology. Just as MRAP entered its third phase, noted ethnographer Michael Burawoy was elected to the 2004 presidency of the American Sociological Association (ASA) on a public sociology platform. Burawoy’s definition of public sociology embraced all efforts by sociologists to work in the public interest broadly conceived. MRAP’s work fell easily within this big tent definition, and we were gladdened that the American Sociological Association had chosen to focus on the profession’s social responsibilities. While many have debated Burawoy’s delineation of four quadrants—sraditional or professional scholarship, policy work, critical theory, or direct engagement with marginalized communities—we share the view that mutually respectful synergy among the quadrants is critical.6

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