Julie in Dallas

Julie is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. She was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Internship for summer 2013 from the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU. She is collaborating with the Dallas Women’s Foundation and Dallas Habitat for Humanity to conduct ethnographic field research. As part of her work, she is interviewing single mothers of different races and ethnicities who are Dallas-area Habitat for Humanity homeowners in the same southeast Dallas neighborhood.

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Stories that need to be known

From my previous work with economically vulnerable single mothers as well as my research in ethics, theology, and economics, I believe single mothers face particular cultural and economic pressures that often mean their realities are mostly invisible and their lives often stigmatized. Thus, many single, working-class mothers are marginalized in the broader culture.

My research methods – of starting “knowledge gathering” with the women’s own voices and perspectives – reflect my concern that these stories need to be known and ought to help shape the cultural and economic structures impacting them and, ultimately, all of us. I am deeply concerned to recognize and support the dignity and agency of the participants who will shape the trajectory project by identifying themselves what issues and realities they find most germane to their experiences. Thus, I don’t know from the outset what specific themes I will ultimately explore and discuss. This is a particular method of qualitative, ethnographic research. I like the term “feel forward” for this approach because I try not to being with my own assumptions as I listen deeply to the stories of the collaborators in this project.

These have been my starting ideals, premises, and commitments. As I moved into the detailed planning and scheduling of this research, I encountered significant delays related to the University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), which must approve any project working with people in order to ensure the safety of participants. This is an important process, and one cannot conduct any official interviews until official approval has been secured. However, since I needed to begin interviews as soon as I got IRB approval, Dallas Habitat mailed a recruiting flyer to potential participants early in the summer.

One respondent was especially eager to begin, and we communicated via a few brief text messages. I knew nothing about her yet, but on one of our exchanges, I expressed embarrassment about the delay in starting interviews. I’m offering a modest amount of compensation for collaborators so I worried that she needed the money soon (although nothing was texted along these lines, I did find out later that this is true). However, after one particular expression of embarrassed apology, she responded with a few simple, unsolicited words of empathy and encouragement: “Don’t worry. Don’t get frustrated. It will be fine.” Sitting alone in a coffee shop, antsy with uncertainty and frustration, these words triggered an unexpected flood of relief and gratitude. I realized I had just experienced the first moment of the mutuality I hope to find in this internship. We are real humans with real emotions relating to one another even across our differences. I am not an impassive, distant researcher. I am a human being talking with other human beings whose stories need to be told.

I chose ethnography as a method because it seeks to treat marginalized women as subjects rather than objects, whose experiences reveal individual, nuanced knowledge beyond stereotypes and generalizations. I believe we must connect with one another in authentic, deep ways, even when differences in power and privileges have real consequences for our realities.

I finally got the clearance to start interviews later in the summer, and this collaborator was my second interview. After almost three hours of her talking about her experiences (which included some tears from both of us), I told her how deeply affected and graced I had been from her words of assurance and encouragement in that moment. We both welled up a little more. And connected a little more deeply.

While I do not want to romanticize anyone, which would detract from the power of actual, lived realities, I can already say that these are amazing women who are teaching and will teach me — and whoever cares to listen — so much about strength, perseverance, and determination in the face of incredible pressures and odds. Hopefully, these lessons will be heard in ways that catalyze us all to work together to create a more just society.

I cannot wait to continue learning more about and from women who have faced and face some of society’s most difficult circumstances and still have the grace to extend encouragement to a frustrated PhD student.

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