Interview w/ George Greenidge Publicly Engaged Scholar Award Winner
George (Chip) Greenidge, Jr., a Ph.D. Candidate at Georgia State University, was the winner of the 2021 Publicly Engaged Scholar Award. George is a scholar-activist whose commitments span non-profit work, government service, philanthropy, and education. Recently, he was President of the Boston Empowerment Zone, a federally funded HUD initiative aimed at economic investment in U.S. urban neighborhoods, and the Founder and Executive Director of the National Black College Alliance, Inc., a nonprofit focused on providing alumni mentors to college and high school students. Currently, George is also the Founder and Director of the Greatest MINDS, an organization which aims to promote public discourse, citizenship and inclusive democracy. He is also a Visiting Democracy Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School. Benny Witkovsky and Andrew Messamore reached out to George to discuss his career. Thanks to George for agreeing to participate in our interview!
This abridged interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Tell us about the community-based work you did before starting graduate school?
A lot of my original community-based work started in my mid-twenties. I was extremely focused on getting people–particularly young people of color–involved in local politics from thinking about running for office and particularly voting, also creating a new generation of civic leaders and getting my peer group to get active. In late 1999, we brought together over 250 Black Bostonians to talk about the leadership divide that was happening in the Black community. It was hugely successful, and it got the eye of the Mayor of Boston Thomas. M. Menino. At this meeting, we’re all 20 somethings and we were just beating the crap out of him about quality of life for Black Bostonians. He had a really good relationship with the older black community, but not with the younger black community. And we let him know it. [The story] was in the Boston Globe for three days. And, boy — did he hate the paper highlighting the city’s Achilles heel about race. He was like, “Someone get those young whippersnappers and get them over to me. I’m getting dragged into the paper – get them to meet me in city hall”. We met him the next week. So that is one example of how I learned to be a convener and organizer.
Another example was a convening I organized in 2011 called the “25 Years After Crack Forum”. This retrospective forum highlighted the effects that crack cocaine epidemic has had on Boston’s Black community in the 1990s. In this forum, I brought together community members that were affected by crack, people that were hurt or affected, and helped them to use their voice for policy change. That’s the power of convening and – bringing voices to the forefront to the discussion. We brought together federal prosecutors, drug-dealers, nurses, public health officials, and children (who are now adults) from crack addicted families as a day of reckoning and healing. People talk about how this public sociology lens is a way to bring people in and talk about problems and how things could be. For some of us, you know, “armchair sociology” is not the way to go. We need to bring these discussions more into public space, reviewing the data and information and also do something with and share the data. So that’s what I think I’m going to carve my career in doing. Really taking all these different policy reports and white papers and letting the community wrestle with the information, and understand it, and to demand change. Interestingly enough, looking at today’s opioid epidemic in urban cities, it is quite different the reaction when it is people from a different racial background where it has been deemed as a public health crisis compared to the criminalization “lock em all up strategy” seen during President Reagan through President Clinton years’ War on Drugs program and policies.
How did that work help inform your academic research?
I always found community organizing fascinating, especially on how groups and organizations are formed from political stances, to school improvement to hobbies to poetry to the arts. And I thought that was very important: how people organize to start things–community organizations, community groups. So watching this with a sociological lens of how people initially formed as a collective and how they develop strategies and work together to achieve objectives and their mission. I learned the power of convening as a way to bring people together and to hear different insights of how people think about things – it is great feedback and qualitative data for me to use when traditional quantitative methods can’t answer the problem..
My mom laughs and tells me that ever since I was in grammar school “I was the kind of student that would show up and make yourself known and push and push”. These days, I have also been very experimental in my approaches to how to get information out to people. I am learning to merge old school ways i.e. phone calling, passing out flyers to what we have now by working online utilizing social media channels. These college students of today have dragged me along to teach me new tricks. You know I’m an old school organizer, so now I’m learning the new ways of TikTok and Instagram as an engagement strategy and that Facebook is for old people. It’s like if you don’t put it on Instagram, young people ain’t showing up. So these are all new tools and technology and I’m learning them – I’m having a good time learning them as well.
So what does being a convener mean? How does that contrast with other kinds of public sociology?
Right after graduate school, when I got my masters, I worked at a community foundation and our role was to give out millions of discretionary dollars to Boston nonprofit programs. I was 26 at the time, bringing together nonprofit groups, community organizations and so forth. I learned the power of convening as a way to bring people together. I listened to the different insights of how people thought about things, not just the traditional academic, or corporate executive or government department head, and all that but other unheard voices. It was the magic of the power of the community organizer being at the table, the power of bringing the mothers against gun violence, community advocates, and immigrant organizing groups out there. I have heard so many people share their own individual powerful stories.I learned how advocacy has a profound impact, and how nonprofits and community groups have a voice, and how people organize to start things. I thought that was always fascinating: that kind of sociological lens of how people merge together or work together to achieve their mission statement. I always found fascinating what role that the civic and community and neighborhood organizations play – they are crucial and central to building an inclusive democracy.
Who have been important mentors or examples for public sociology for you?
To me growing up in Cambridge, MA, I have always had colleges and universities at my doorstep. I was able to participate in community events, summer academic mentoring programs and even play sports and participate in campus lectures . One thing I had were incredible mentors like Bob Moses from SNCC/The Algebra Project and then Charles Ogletree from Harvard Law School. They were huge mentors to me. Lani Guinier from Harvard Law School as well, who recently passed away last month you know, she was fantastic. She was always inviting me to different events that she was doing and so forth. So, I’ve gotten some really good mentors and I hope that I can pass that along to the young people that I’ve worked with at Black Colleges and at Georgia State and the Greater Boston area. The connections that I think the Black intellectual, or all intellectuals, need to have with their students is to make sure they’re readily available and to help them think critically about the world in “real life events.” We need to re-invent the word “office hours” to include many new things such as bringing students to conferences and community talks, hosting functions at coffee shops and minority owned restaurants, or volunteering to do neighborhood cleanups. Bring them to things, don’t just say come to my office hours. Let them see the world, let them network, let them think critically about how they would occupy the world. Last year and this year, I was involved with college students in Boston and Atlanta with local, state and national elections and organizing voter registration drives. It is also important that we carry on the public work of Guinier, Moses and Ogletree, and the work of voting rights and equal rights.
What do you think about this work in today’s era of attacks on Critical Race Theory and more politically engaged scholarship?
Well actually….. It is quite funny – I’ve been teaching Critical Race Theory in all my classes, I just don’t think I’ve said that’s what it is. That’s the way that my elders have taught me. At the same time, I think about when I was a grammar school student and in civics in second grade, they made us learn about the 40 presidents of the United States from George Washington to President Ford. And I saw their faces and pictures and said, why? That means I can’t be president as a Black Person – I saw only white men? Why can’t I be President? Just answering that question is the meaning of critical race theory as I posed it to my group of 2nd grade classmates, my siblings, my teachers, my parents, and grandparents. I asked the question: why is there someone that looks like me not on that list? I also asked why there were no women. Those are the questions I was seeking answers to. Another example: I had to go ask my mom when I was young, “Why can’t I go to a certain parade in Boston?” It was the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1977. My white friends are going with their parents, so why can’t I go with them? I think in our Black communities. We’ve always taught Critical Race Theory, but usually it’s done at the family kitchen table or family front porch as “the talk”. This discussion has always been done in community organizations and churches, and it’s also done at work. If they don’t like when we teach Critical Race Theory, let’s do what we can do to work with semantics. Like some universities after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders by police officers, some universities are trying to limit student organizing and student speech by limiting student fees, by doing away with “student meetings.” Our students need to get creative and students say fine – just do “seminars” and “workshops” and “teach-ins.” So, semantics. They want to play the word game – semantics – let’s go ahead and do it. So, I encourage students to change the words. And continue with your agenda as one of those strategies
How do you keep up the energy for this work given all of these challenges?
You know, I think about my great grandfather, George R. Margetson (b.1887- d.1952) a poet, and my great uncle, George C. Greenidge (b.1916 – d. 1997) who worked for the Pullman Company. When they were constantly told “no” because of their skin color, they continued to represent Black excellence and still achieved. I admire them by thinking of them in the 1920’s and the 1950’s helps keep my energy up. In 1915, I also think about my great grandfather George Reginald Margetson who was published poet in the early 1900s, and his work not given just due many book editing companies believed that negroes do not write poetry. He wrote over 7 books of poetry – they are actually all available on Amazon, and he was recently featured in Kevin Young’s recent 2020 book African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song. I also think about my great uncle, George C. Greenidge, my grandfather’s brother and also my namesake from Roxbury, MA. He changed this country as a Pullman Porter in 1952 by filing a discrimination complaint against Pullman Company to make sure that Black people can be conductors on trains. But they blocked them or tried to by saying, “oh well, you’re Black, you can’t be a conductor.” And he said, “Oh really, I can do a job faster than three of those other people!” He stood up! These men in my family remind me that this work is hard, however, we must carry on the legacy of pushing for racial and social justice. So I think about my relatives being exhausted every day. I think about how many times the racism and the white establishment told them no and they woke up and continued the daily battleon the race problem in the United States, and still is carried on to this day. And the work that I carry on is their legacy. I really hope my work in the community and academia reflects all the struggles and challenges my ancestors fought for.
How would you like to see Community and Urban Sociology—or Sociology in general—evolve to do better community-engaged research?
The idea of convening as activist sociology or community engaged research—–it’s something that needs to be in all sociology, in all sociologists’ utility belt. It’s something we all should start to utilize to be better sociologists and connect our work and get more respect in the field. But it’s not just going to the community when we have a special project. No, we don’t want it to be, “Oh geez, here are those University students and professors again, they’re going to come and ask all these questions.” We have to be an integral part of the community. To go during the times where you just want to sit and listen. Come to the community meeting and don’t be the person that comes with all the answers, be the person that comes as a participant. Be a servant and a participant – Pass out and serve hotdogs and hamburgers at the festival, you know, do all those basic community-building things and I think that’s where we will get better data collection, I think that will build better trust and we will be better scholars by doing so. Sweep up the floor, put up the chairs, do all those kinds of things. Listen – Because, you know what, there are some barbers and some hairdressers that are better interviewers than all of us out here. They talked to people in the chair every day and they got better data and information out of people. So we can learn from them as well. It’s not, And it can’t be just, “They got those $20 gift cards – let’s talk”. Nope. We’ve got to be more in sociology, and I think especially Community and Urban Sociology. Our presence should be a public and warmer presence. To understand our work in community sociology, I paraphrase my Sister President Johnnetta B. Cole, President Emeritus of Spelman College and Bennett College : “We should not give until it hurts, —- we should give until it heals.” That is where we see our work and research is doing the most good for the community.