Q&A with Celeste Watkins-Hayes, Our Next ‘Off the Grid’ Writer-in-Residence

The Northwestern sociology professor’s thoughts on inequality, HIV/AIDS research, writing, and more

Celeste Watkins-HayesGrowing up in Southfield, Michigan, Celeste Watkins-Hayes noticed the vast economic, political, and cultural differences between her town and nearby Detroit. “There was a very clear awareness of how fortunate we were and how not everyone had the opportunities that I had,” she says. With an early interest in social justice issues, Watkins-Hayes enrolled at Spelman College in Atlanta, and then attended Harvard University, where she received her master’s and Ph.D. in sociology. In 2003, she arrived at Northwestern University, where she has taught sociology and African American Studies for eight years.

Her book, The New Welfare Bureaucrats: Entanglements of Race, Class, and Public Reform, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2009. That same year, Watkins-Hayes was awarded with a National Science Foundation grant to study women living with HIV/AIDS in the Chicago area.

Here, a few questions for our newest writer-in-residence:

Did you grow up wanting to study sociology? What piqued your interest in social justice?

I came from a family that was always interested in social justice issues. I grew up middle-class in Southfield. My father was a banker. By the time he retired, he was president of Bank One Michigan, which went on to become part of Chase. My father was the second black member of the Detroit Golf Club, which was ironic because my grandfather used to park cars at country clubs. He was a bank messenger, so the idea that his son ended up being a president of a bank is interesting. My father also ended up helping to integrate a country club. It wasn’t just about him wanting to play golf, but also about pushing to see networks of business people integrated.

Also, our church was in Detroit, and it was one that was very involved in social justice issues. Detroit has gone through so much strife in the last several decades, and much of the wealth in the area is now concentrated in the suburbs. To see the city struggle in the way it has has been sad, but at the same time, there’s a potential story of redemption there.

Following Alex Kotlowitz and Dmitry Samarov, you’re our first academic writer-in-residence. Do you consider yourself foremost a researcher, a writer, a teacher, or something else?

I would definitely say servant-scholar. I very much enjoy being a researcher and a teacher, but I see it more as a means to an end. I’m very interested in analyzing and responding to issues of inequality, whether that’s racial, gender, class inequality that prevents people from getting access to opportunities. For me, research, writing, and teaching are ways to address those issues, and my service work is another way. I am a trustee for Spelman—it’s a volunteer board position. I mentor several young people across the country, mostly young women with connections to Spelman, and I do some local board work too, including for the Test Positive Awareness Network. [Watkins-Hayes was on the board there from 2007 to 2010.]

Your first book, The New Welfare Bureaucrats, was about how welfare officers deal with the tricky bureaucratic, political, emotional aspects of their job. How did you come up with the topic?

My early work [at Harvard] was on welfare recipients, but I started to get interested in the very important role that institutions play in the lives of low-income families. In my research, I would hear a lot about was the welfare offices. They had these notorious reputations, and I became curious about what it was happening in those places. I was interested in the institutional aspects of how people navigate poverty.

The New Welfare Bureaucrats opens like a journalistic piece of work, describing a quintessential scene in a welfare office. Not many academics write that way. 

I wanted to grab the reader. I wanted the book, as much as possible, to be rigorous in terms of scholarly standards, and useful to the people who could potentially benefit from it. Hitting the theoretical arguments and speaking to the sociological literature is important, especially with your first book, but I wanted to begin it in a way that would attract readers. 

For me, the writing process is one where I have to be motivated and inspired. I can’t just kind of sit down and write about anything. And I have to feel as though I have a sense of what I’m going to say. The nice thing about being a professor is that I can balance writing with teaching, engaging in verbal dialogue, and taking on leadership roles in organizations.

What’s it like doing research in Chicago as opposed to Boston, and what has been the most surprising finding in your HIV/AIDS research so far?

Because I didn’t do HIV/AIDS-related research in Boston, it’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. But I think one of the biggest differences is that Chicago has such a history of being a social laboratory—it’s one of the epicenters of sociological research, so continuing in that tradition is important. Also, so much of my research in Boston was first-time work, so I was learning what it takes to be a good, rigorous researcher. Now I think I have it down a little more. And you have more credibility when you’re doing the research as a faculty member than as a student, so access has been easier here than in Boston.

In Chicago, I’ve been most surprised by how extensive the network of providers is for people living HIV/AIDS and how strong the activist activity is around the disease. Typically the way people think about coping with a serious diagnosis such as HIV/AIDS is that friends and family are the most important resource. We’re finding that the majority of economic and social support and information for women living with HIV/AIDS is actually coming from the network of nonprofit service providers. 

You’re very busy these days—researching, advising post-docs and grad students, chairing the African American Studies department, and traveling for lectures across the country. Why take on Off the Grid?

That is a very good question—because I don’t know how to say no? To be honest, I am very interested in making sure that my work reaches a broader audience. That is very important to me, and any opportunity that I get to make that happen, I’m likely to say yes, even if it means adding a little more to my stress level. In my research, we’re finding out how women with HIV are making ends meet, and about the social dynamics—their relationships with families and friends—that inform how they get their money and spend their money. The research has implications for health management, things that have been proven to improve the quality of life for people living with HIV. We’ve got this very big research study, and it would be really a shame if only other academics learned what we are learning.

 

Photograph: Courtesy of Celeste Watkins-Hayes

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