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Sociologist Nina Johnson, Students Examine Neighborhoods Affected by Incarcerations

Nina Johnson

For Nina Johnson, engaged scholarship is about erasing the boundaries between scholars and the communities they study.

“It’s not just talking about or reading about the world,” says the assistant professor of sociology, “but being in it.”

Johnson will continue to embody that ethos as a 2019–2020 Engaged Scholars Initiative Fellow, collaborating with fellow scholars committed to civic and community engagement and building upon her new research on the impacts of mass incarceration at the neighborhood level.

“It’s exciting,” Johnson says of the opportunity, noting its alignment with her work on “equity and access, engagement, mutuality, and reciprocity” in Philadelphia communities.

The Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility, for which engaged scholarship is central, supported Johnson’s research and application for the fellowship.

“The Lang Center could not be more thrilled to see Professor Johnson recognized for her work as an emerging leader of engaged scholarship in higher education, and we look forward to seeing what she brings back to the Swarthmore community as a result of this fellowship,” says Katie Price, associate director for co-curricular programming and outreach for the Lang Center.

The Eastern Region Campus Compact named 12 higher education faculty and staff members to this year’s cohort from a highly competitive pool of candidates. The fellows will participate in an 18-month learning and leadership process, combining professional development, collaboration, and scholarship.

“While we enjoy generous support at Swarthmore for engaged scholarship, it is wonderful to have a cohort of colleagues and mentors to help navigate some of the same issues and questions I’m examining,” says Johnson. “It is an additional level of accountability and support.”

For her research project—which Johnson says sits at the intersection of race, urban sociology, and politics—she tapped a team of Swarthmore students and other local scholars. Among the latter group are people formerly or currently incarcerated.

“This isn’t just research on a community but with a community,” says Johnson. “We are centering the experiences of those most impacted by carceral policy, and no voice will be excluded.”

Zeroing in on the two Philadelphia zip codes most affected by mass incarceration, the team is looking at the impacts to communities and neighborhood institutions, as well as the types of supports that exist—or do not. They spent last summer filming neighborhoods with a GoPro camera to see what was happening across homes, businesses, community centers, and more.

The next phase, Johnson says, is to partner with organizations on the inside and outside. That will mean gathering the life histories of people who are incarcerated as well as studying community institutions to see how people are dealing with having family members, friends, and neighbors incarcerated along with high levels of policing.

“How communities are handling this level of people leaving and coming back is something that hasn’t really been looked at by the scholarly community,” says Johnson.

The project represents the best of what engaged scholarship has to offer, says Price.

“Professor Johnson’s work not only helps us understand how carceral policy differently impacts certain neighborhoods, but stands to change those policies by providing policymakers with new knowledge co-created with the communities most adversely impacted.”

Johnson, who also teaches classes and works on a think tank at the State Correctional Institutions Chester (Pa.) and Phoenix through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, lauds the support of the Lang Center, as well as the Department of Sociology & Anthropology and Program in Black Studies, in her pursuits of engaged scholarship.

"Teaching, learning, and researching together inside as colleagues and peers is the foundation of our praxis,” she says. “This research comes out of that work and complements it.”

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