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The Challenge of Sustainability

The type of collaboration that we have described assumes that both scholars and the activist organizations can, over time, build infrastructure that facilitates interaction, reflection, and the sharing of learning from one engagement to the next. Boston College, as an institution, has provided a supportive environment for MRAP and for both public and critical sociology. At Boston College, the idea of a value-engaged rather than a value-free way of being a sociologist is completely legitimate and positively supported. We have found that old battles to defend the legitimacy of a value-engaged critical or public sociology against those who would disparage it as “journalism” or “ideology” were not relevant. All four of Burawoy’s sociologies (professional, policy, critical, and public) were legitimate and desirable and, far from being marginalized or merely tolerated, public sociology could make the claim of furthering the special mission of the institution as a Jesuit university, to advance social and economic justice with a thoroughly ecumenical spirit.

Yet the MRAP enterprise, in spite of its institutional legitimacy, has faced a number of difficult challenges and frustrations. During a seminar at Boston College, Burawoy was discussing doing public sociology as “organic intellectuals” in contrast to those who do it as “traditional intellectuals.” Someone from the audience wisecracked, “Yeah. Those are the ones who get paid.” We exchanged glances and a rueful smile.

The wisecrack was a reminder of how, even in the mostly favorable and supportive environment at Boston College, it has been extremely difficult to institutionalize the kind of public sociology pursued by Burawoy’s organic intellectuals. The experience has sensitized us to additional tensions between professional sociology and public sociology beyond the false dichotomy between scientist and advocate.

During the community outreach phase of MRAP, the university supplied both in-kind support in the form of office space and, for about four years, a half-time salary for Ryan as codirector. But Boston College aspires to be the leading Catholic research university, and the research university ideal is Harvard’s “Every tub on its own bottom.” Ultimately, the MRAP community outreach program would have to compete for sponsors with more conventional professional and policy sociologies. Our experience in seeking external, long-term funding for operational costs has been a discouraging one.

It is possible to frame what MRAP does in ways that are acceptable to nonprofit and public sector programs and we made such attempts—we accepted contract work from nonprofits, wrote grants, and responded to federal requests for proposals. A brief account of one such attempt will illustrate one of the central problems. MRAP participant Bill Meinhofer, an experienced grant writer, worked with eight of our community partners to respond to a Commerce Department request for proposals to address the digital divide: the program proposed to help low-income communities, particularly communities of color, increase their uses of new technologies, including the Internet.

Building on the groups’ participation in our Media Fellows program, we requested funding for computers, database creation, website development, and training in new technologies, the goal being to increase the groups’ overall communications capacity. In our proposal, we made the point that none of the organizations had sufficient staff and resources to achieve such a capacity on their own since they were almost all small organizations with budgets of $500,000 a year or less. Each group expressed eagerness to participate.

We received a high rating, just below the funding level for that year, and were encouraged to resubmit. The kicker was in the content of the reviews regarding how to improve our proposal. The reviewers, were concerned about the stability and survivability of the grassroots organizations with whom we had developed working relationships. We were likely to be funded, we were told, if we made the same proposal with a large, well-established statewide nonprofit such as the United Way. A public sociology dedicated to helping grassroots change organizations with limited resources increase their capacity and, therefore, their chances of survival, was not fundable; but working with an established charitable organization would be. We did not resubmit.

Our efforts to achieve funding from private foundations were more promising and successful. The Boston Foundation funded the Media Fellows program for a few years and we had a number of other small grants for specific projects. Often these projects consumed more resources than they provided, since large portions of them went to the community groups with whom we were collaborating; program implementation required a considerable amount of uncompensated work on top of what was covered in the budget.

We found that foundations are happier to provide seed money for projects that promise to become self-sustaining but have unrealistic expectations about the speed with which this can be accomplished. Furthermore, foundations with a social-action orientation are often distrustful—for good reasons—of university-based projects with community “partners” who are more like clients than collaborators.

 
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