Anna Mueller asked Eve Ewing the following questions about writing Ghosts in the School Yard, working for Marvel Comics, and authoring a children’s book.
AM: Your book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, came out to rave academic and lay reviews, including a comment from NPR calling it “superbly written and researched…at once poignant and deeply troubling.” Could you tell us about the book and your inspiration for writing it?
EE: The book comes from my dissertation research, which in turn was inspired by my own experiences of loss and uncertainty when the school where I had taught grades six through eight was slated for closure as part of the 2013 mass school closings in Chicago. I wanted to better understand the relationship between this policy decision and the history of racism and segregation in Chicago. I also wanted to provide a useful tool for teachers, community members, and young people to have a framework for thinking and talking about school closures and education policies more generally. And I wanted to provide an accessible text for people at all academic levels—undergrads, graduate students, and faculty members—to think through what racism actually is, how we talk about it, and the implications of that discourse or silence.
AM: On top of your outstanding academic work, you are involved in a substantial number of artistic endeavors (including writing the Ironheart series for Marvel Comics and books on poetry!). How do your sociological training and research and your artistic work inform each other?
EE: I often say that I am the least capable person of answering this question, because in my brain all of these things are kind of jumbled together. They manifest in different ways in the world, but they are all engaged in a similar set of questions and concerns. I think the best way that I can describe it is that all of these works draw on modes of close looking and inquiry. The poet’s job and the social scientist’s job are to look closely at the things that other people take for granted and ask why they are the way they are.
AM: I am really excited about your forthcoming children’s book. I am always on the hunt for books for my nieces and nephews that also teach deeper lessons about how the social world works. What was your inspiration for writing a children’s book and can you tell us a bit about it?
EE: Thank you! I love literature for young people and I always expected that I wanted to write some eventually but didn’t plan for it to be so soon. It’s just that a character came into my head and she refused to leave and so I had to write it all down. The book is called Maya and the Robot and it’s about a young girl who, through happenstance, becomes best friends with a sort of hodgepodge refurbished robot she finds in the back of the corner store in her neighborhood. In terms of deeper themes, without revealing too much, it’s also about the way that gun violence affects communities beyond just the nuclear family, the way that we struggle in our culture to deal with mourning and loss, and the ways that we are all accountable to our communities and that our work has meaning beyond each of us as individuals. But in a way that I hope is engaging, fun, meaningful, and relatable for kids between the ages of seven and eleven or so years old.
AM: There have been many debates recently about the relationship between sociology and social action/activism and how we can use our research and knowledge to effect change. What sorts of choices (e.g., professional and/or practical) have you had to make in order to be the sociologist inside and outside of academia that you want to be?
EE: I’m really befuddled by this debate. The first thing is that I am inspired by the Black intellectual tradition, which has always married theory, empirics, and social engagement with a variety of publics. The second, related thing is that I don’t understand what it would mean for someone to not be concerned with the way their work has an impact on the world. What would it mean to do work on, say, incarceration, or poverty, or educational injustice, and proclaim to be somehow neutral? As though these are issues where there are multiple reasonable sides to take on within any sort of ethical or moral framework? And the third, related thing is that for me, caring about social issues is why I entered academia. The purpose of rigorous study and inquiry, to me, is to make people’s lives better. That’s why I’m here. So I have a hard time engaging with those kinds of debates at face value or in good faith.
Any time you are engaged in any kind of knowledge production, that project is inherently a political project and an ideological project. None of us, no matter what folks may think, are actually capable of producing apolitical work, because we live and breathe and move in a dynamic social and political context. The question is, how do we make intentional decisions about the kind of political impact our work may have? To me, thinking through those questions isn’t “activism,” and I don’t identify as a “scholar-activist.” I identify as a scholar who cares about who my work helps or hurts, and who cares deeply in particular about the liberation of Black people.
I like the way you framed the second part of the question. I would reframe it just slightly and say that I am trying to move through the world as a certain type of person. An inquisitive person, an accountable person, a courageous person, a kind person, a hard-working person. I believe it’s an incident of good fortune that my efforts at striving toward those dispositions also strengthens my sociological work.
AM: What is next on your agenda (academic and non-academic)?
EE: I’ve got some projects cooking that I’m pretty excited about. This past year I’ve been working on a study of how middle school students understand and make use of concepts of consent in their interpersonal interactions, and I’m going to be working on a couple of papers related to that. I’m also beginning research for my next academic book project, which will be about Black out-migration from Chicago and a reframing of what people refer to as the “inner city.” The working title is Outer City Children: Chicago at the End of the Black Century.
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Eve L. Ewing is a sociologist of education and a writer from Chicago. She is the author of Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago's South Side. She is also author of Electric Arches, which received awards from the American Library Association and the Poetry Society of America and was named one of the year's best books by NPR and the Chicago Tribune. She is the co-author (with Nate Marshall) of the play No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. She also writes the Ironheart series for Marvel Comics. Ewing is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and many other venues.
Section on Children and Youth