Research

Public Policy Expert Mark Warren

Public Policy and Public Affairs Expert Mark Warren

Spring 2015

Mark Warren, associate professor of public policy and public affairs at UMass Boston, likes to take on big issues. Warren is the author of nine journal articles, four books, and thirty other publications, but he says he prefers to write books. Books allow him the space to flesh out his ideas and data in more depth and comprehensiveness, and are also more accessible to the larger public than journal articles. The urge to reach a wider audience stems from Warren’s commitment as a sociologist who studies bottom-up approaches for building and revitalizing communities. Rather than seeing community members as passive victims of an unjust system, Warren sees them as active agents of change in their own lives and communities.

Take for example, Warren’s latest book, A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform. Co-authored by Warren and Karen L. Mapp, lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), the book was a product of a national research project conducted under their leadership with students at the HGSE. The study investigated how community organizing groups work for school reform and educational justice, and the scholarship it produced in the form of the book and related materials is now being used by community leaders and educators to improve quality and address equity in public education.

In April 2015, Warren earned two prestigious fellowships that support his research on building an educational justice movement and organizing against the school-to-prison pipeline. With the College Board Fellowship to Advance Educational Excellence for Young Men of Color, he will spend the 2-015-2016 academic year in residence at the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute, a premiere global center for African-American and African research at Harvard University. Recognizing past accomplishments and future promise, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship will also support this research which Warren expects to turn into his next book.

Warren has always been committed to producing scholarship that is relevant to policy and social change. Producing knowledge for the sake of knowledge, Warren says, should not be the real purpose of graduate school. “Many students come to graduate school,” Warren explained, “because they wish to bring about social change, but as soon as they get here, they are put inside silos. Instead, we should teach students how to do collaborative work. To collaborate not just with professors and peers but also with communities that are working for social change.”

The commitment to collaborate with community members is the motivation behind URBAN, the Urban Research Based Action Research Network of which Warren is a national co-chair. URBAN  is a network that brings together scholars and communities to create new forms of knowledge that address pressing social justice concerns. Warren envisions URBAN’s Boston chapter to be an incubator for projects that investigate issues such as school reform, the quality of jobs available in the new economy, and the effects of gentrification on low-income communities. Ultimately, their goal is to improve people’s capacities via workshops and other activities in which scholars and community activists collaborate on research that brings about social change.

How can members of different communities come together to work toward social change? In two previous books, Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice and Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy, Warren found that the motivation to take action for racial justice is profoundly moral and relational. His study, the first of its kind, showed how white activists come to find common cause with people of color when their core values are engaged, and when they develop a vision of a racially just future they understand to benefit everyone–other whites and people of color.

The same principles apply in Warren’s teaching. He sees research, service, and teaching as tightly integrated, and believes in giving students opportunities that get them out into the community. “I am a member of many communities in which I am active,” he explained. “There’s a community in the classroom, there’s my professional community, and there’s a community in the town where I live. I want to help build a community of learners and action-oriented people. In the classroom, I want my teaching to really matter. I want my students to think differently as a result of it.”

Warren has a similar vision for the larger community. “In Brookline where I live, the parents are empowered,” said Warren; “Whereas in marginalized communities parents often aren’t organized and empowered.” In these communities, Warren has found that parents, young people, and educators want to work to bring about social change together. The tools are there. What’s needed is collaboration.

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