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When We Practice What We Preach

Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity. 

“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” –– Angela Davis

How often do we make the decision to go beyond the analysis and reports and take action?

For most researchers and public policy analysts, the motivation that leads us to carry out this work is to create equal opportunities for each member of society using analytical and research methods to evaluate, change, or create laws that reduce or eliminate inequality in society. Many times, this motivation is related to previous experiences, whether personal, familial, or with vulnerable populations that interest us or that we have previously helped. But how often do we make the decision to go beyond the analysis and reports and take action? How often do we directly connect with those who represent the cause that we defend in our academic work or the problem that we try to explain with our analysis? Or what if “they” are “us”?  To what extent are we willing to directly show up and support people with similar characteristics to our “study subjects,” or recognize the collective and interconnected nature of the social problems that we study?

I recently traveled to my home country, Ecuador. Ecuador has suffered for decades from corrupt governments, weak institutions, and an unstable economy, leaving the country with extreme levels of poverty and inequality. COVID-19 exacerbated these problems and brought to light the social and economic inequality experienced by the most vulnerable groups, similar to what we’re seeing in the United States. In Ecuador, the pandemic has led to one of the worst economic recessions seen in years. According to the Ecuadorian government, 550,000 families have lost employment since the start of the pandemic. The United Nations Development Programme estimates that the number of Ecuadorians experiencing poverty has increased from 4.3 million to 6.4 million people (37% of the population), with 800,000 people falling into extreme poverty (13% of the population).

In my first week in Ecuador, I met M,[1] a five-year-old boy who sold garbage bags on the street. After buying him some food and a toy, I asked M about his life. It turns out that M is not studying because he does not have access to the internet. At his age, he does not know what playdough is. He only knows his numbers because he has to know how much change to give when he makes a sale. I thought, “How is it that a five-year-old has to spend long hours every day selling bags on the streets, in the sun or rain, when he should be playing and learning instead?”

We eventually realized that little M and the other children with him were possibly part of a child labor network.

Since Christmas was approaching, my family and I organized a small fundraising campaign and gave food and toy parcels to families making their living on the streets of Quito. We started talking with M’s family about ways to increase their income, with the stipulation that M attend one of the government’s community centers to receive food, education, and health care. But we eventually realized that little M and the other children with him were possibly part of a child labor network, exploited by their own alleged parents and relatives. According to a study carried out in November 2019, 25,600 boys and girls in Quito are involved in child labor. The number of child laborers has increased by up to 40% as a result of COVID-19 and the loss of parental employment and in-person schooling.

We contacted the authorities, asking them to intervene and rescue those children, but they told us to file a complaint with prosecution services. We then contacted the child development department at the Ministry of Economic and Social Inclusion, who told us that they had been investigating this particular case since March of last year! I gave my testimony, and we presented “evidence,” such as photographs of the children working on the streets. These events took place about two months ago; every week, I contact the principal to ask about the case and to let her know that we are invested and plan to be involved until M and the other children are safe. This experience has led me to connect my dissertation with this issue: I plan to focus on vulnerable children and families involved in various migration processes, using my academic work to continue to bring awareness to the public and search for useful recommendations for NGOs and/or governments.

It is frustrating and, to be honest, emotionally difficult to think that each day that passes is one more day that M and the other children are being exploited and mistreated; one more day in which they do not receive the care that children at their age need; one more day in which they will not be able to play or study, increasing the likelihood of fewer opportunities in the future. As humans, it is emotionally challenging to directly connect with and engage with the people we fight for through our analysis and reports—but what happens if we don’t? What if we don’t react to the injustices that we see around us? What I know is that as researchers, if we ignore and turn our backs on vulnerable people or families, they will become just numbers, statistics, and descriptions, which dehumanizes them and forgets that they are human beings with needs and dreams.

For centuries in the United States, we have seen injustices perpetrated against different vulnerable groups, resulting in socioeconomic inequity. And although our academic work supports political reforms that will bring equality and justice, how long can a family in a vulnerable situation wait until that reform is approved to have access to the resources needed to survive? How can we catalyze or move that reform forward?

Social policy research should not be passive observational and analytical work, and researchers shouldn’t be simple spectators. Social policy research is evolving, becoming a tool for community empowerment and a more active, engaging, and empathetic science with our “studied” population. Participatory action research (PAR) is an example of this thinking and evolution. In PAR, the community and researchers work together to find the cause of inequality affecting the group, propose solutions based on the context and knowledge of that particular people, and have the community actively respond to those results. Research is finally connecting with real action because the need is urgent and communities cannot wait months for a law to be passed.

There are many ways to be more active in our social justice work.

This is an invitation to my fellow researchers who work for greater well-being and equality to stop and look at the needs around us—to match education with action more often in order to humanize the numbers that we analyze. As Paulo Freire proposed, we should make our education a political act. Take the opportunity to engage directly with the people and families for whom we fight every day from our computers when we research, analyze, or write. Remind ourselves why we do our work and better understand those for whom we work. There are many ways to be more active in our social justice work beyond publishing numbers and words in our reports. We can use social media. We can organize marches or short and long-term relief and empowerment projects. We can sit down and chat with people going through adverse situations and seek to understand how our research and organizational skills, time, and money can support sustainable, community-led solutions. In so doing, I believe that we will benefit from knowing ourselves better as researchers and human beings.

Travel to my country always helps me remember why I do what I do. It reminds me that our social policy work can lead to systemic, long-term change and a better future—not only for M, but for many more boys and girls, families, and entire communities. It can be emotionally difficult to directly work with people because of their trauma or needs. In my case, I struggled with writing this post and telling M’s story because it was a painful reminder that M is possibly still being exploited and working on the streets, while I return to the privileges I have as a graduate student. But if I don’t share his story; if I don’t work with and for him; if I don’t demand that the government do its job; if I don’t use and give of my talents, time, and money, positive change and freedom in M’s life will take longer to occur—or they will not happen at all, and M’s life will become just another number making up the poverty statistics of a small Latin American country.

[1] M’s real name has been withheld for security reasons.

By Fernanda Escobar, PhD student