Tufts Students Discuss Research and/as Activism
The panel, hosted by the Tisch College Community Research Center, highlighted perspectives from students in various disciplines.
When does community + students + research = activism? What questions are communities asking and how can students collaborate with community partners and help find answers? How can students help turn a spotlight on important community concerns?
In late June, we reflected on these and other questions during a virtual event titled Research and/as Activism. The panel featured four Tufts students whose interests span identity and language, racism embedded in computer models, voting, re-imagining the Tufts Police Department, and experiences of first-generation students in elite institutions. The students shared their research, considering how it lowers the barrier between conventional research and community activism. The event was supported by the Tufts Scholar Development Office and the Tisch College Community Research Center.
The discussion, facilitated by Anne Moore, explored the role of historical memory (or lack thereof) in college student communities. Some of this research, such as Lidya Woldeyesus’ investigation into Black Tufts students’ experiences with Tufts Police, had not been previously undertaken but evidence was available by examining archival data and learning from the memories of Tufts alumni.
The discussion turned to thinking about how frameworks and models are disrupted, such as our collective understanding of policing. Faizan Muhammad considered whether AI could eventually be automated to recognize when a model needs to change to accommodate missing patterns or data, and how that applies to our own thinking: “How deeply are you willing to rework your model of the world?”
Finally, a student asked about the challenges experienced navigating academia and its intersections with white supremacy. Further, what does it mean to question and critique powerful institutions of which you are a part? Panelists shared that these “unchartered waters” can be crossed, but it takes work and self-reliance, acknowledging the internal challenges inherent in doing this important work which blurs the line between research and activism. The discussion closed with the hope that participating students are able to “rely on one another and find pockets of community and resistance in the structures of which we are all a part.”
Here's a look at some of what these extraordinary student researcher/activists had to say:
Lidya Woldeyesus, Political Science and Civic Studies
“I think often times when people go to the ballot box, they look at the top of the ticket and hope that those people, the most visible people on tv, will make the choices and advocate for our communities and do the things that we need to better our lives and better the lives of other community members. But I think in the tragedy of the moment that we’re in, and the triggering of this moment by George Floyd’s murder and the pandemic to an extent, is showing people the importance of local politics…”
Lidya Woldeyesus shared how she was leveraging not only her academic studies and civic work on voting at Tisch College, but also her involvement with Black Lives Matter. She is applying these skills and knowledge to “the microcosm of Tufts” as the university works to re-imagine its police department. Her current research analyzes the militarization of policing on campus with a particular focus on the experiences of Black students and alumni, emphasizing that these are not isolated incidents of individual officers, but rather representative of a larger scale trend of policing in a higher education sector rooted in white supremacy. And Woldeyesus’ research continues beyond the Tufts community through engaging POC residents of Somerville and Medford on their experiences with police and sharing findings with elected officials and other stakeholders in both cities.
Faizan Muhammad, Computer Science
“In today’s information age, it is very easy to get a lot of information. It’s all about what you do with it.” And with that introduction, Faizan Muhammad shared his work premised on a belief that “intelligent behavior lies in proper utilization of information,” including how we leverage abstractions of data to find patterns. His Tufts Summer Scholars project highlights how humans and robots differ in how they perceive the world (eyes vs cameras), represent the world (analog vs digital), and reason about the world (neurons vs algorithms), identifying augmented reality as a tool for bridging this divide.
Muhammad next shared examples of how models used in machine learning are themselves embedded with societal bias, whether it stems from biased data, biased scientists, or biased applications of models. Ultimately, researchers cannot separate themselves or their research from larger social inequalities because no research is neutral. Instead, detachment from these social realities “makes researchers and their products complicit in furthering them.”
“There is no such thing as mathematically unbiased when it comes to social uses... No matter how sophisticated the math, when it comes to social uses you have to be cognizant of the way it’s used and the data that it’s trained on and how it will further certain things in society.” This inherent bias emerges from our individually flawed perceptions of the world around us: “… no one has or can have a perfect understanding of the world. We are all imperfect and we all have an imperfect representation of the world. And this is why diversity is important...”
Kella Merlain-Moffatt, International Relations and Africana Studies
Kella Merlain-Moffatt’s research centers on how “Spanish and non-Spanish speaking people with Caribbean and Latin American ancestry understand and/or identify with Latino/a/x labels and communities in the U.S.” She shared how this focus emerged from her own experience and in thinking about how language, geography, history, and race intersect identities in ways that highlight the need for a more complex understanding of identity. This research involved interviews with participants who identified with Haitian, Brazilian, Belizian, Peruvian, Cuban, and Mexican heritages and included a mix of Spanish and non-Spanish speakers.
Merlain-Moffatt highlighted how Latino/a/x identification frameworks are vague and often ignore historical commonalities such as the Middle Passage of people kidnapped and enslaved from Africa. She explained how effective activism must include a larger representation of what it means to be Latino/a/x. A key step in this regard is “starting discussions and really understanding that we are more inter-connected… than just rice and beans. There really is a large history that brings all of us together in many unique ways.”
Jessica Angeles, Clinical Psychology and Child Study and Human Development
“What are ways we can support our students… and actually create an action to plan to make a difference in this community that isn’t just ‘oh, you’re first-gen and here are the resources?” Building from her experience at Tufts and with the FIR$T Resource Center, Jessica Angeles launched her research from a starting point that differentiates a sense of belonging from a sense of being comfortable, and highlights the layers of intersectionality of each student’s identities -- racial, economic status, sexuality, and more -- that move beyond the largely invisible label of being a “first-generation-to-college” student, for which itself there is no single definition.
In particular, Angeles is examining how resources can be tailored to individual student needs, such as mentorship opportunities and social relationships. Her own experience has guided her questions around mentorship, as she shared “having someone I could go to on campus not only increased my feeling that I belong in that space because they reminded me of that,” but that it is also helpful for students to know that they have personal connections on campus. With this cumulative knowledge, Angeles’ research builds off an understanding of students’ intersecting identities, how that impacts their experiences (not one-size-fits-all), and what role social supports play for individual student experiences, particularly in predominantly white higher education institutions. Through collaboration with the FIR$T Resource Center at Tufts, this research seeks to advance peer mentoring practice and to understand students’ sense of belonging, with the goal of applying these findings beyond Tufts’ walls.