UWO Sociology Students Reflect Upon Discrimination, Social Infrastructure, and Their Connection

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Students in the Applied Sociology course at UW Oshkosh have spent their spring semester learning about what it means to be an engaged sociologist in a diverse world, and the importance of social infrastructure for healthy civic life and dealing with issues like racism, homophobia, and political divisiveness.

They spent part of their final class period writing this piece with their professor.

Early on, the students — majoring in sociology, psychology, social work, human services leadership, and other disciplines — learned that being an engaged sociologist means fulfilling the dual commitments of the field: viewing the social world through the sociological eye (using critical thinking to dig below the surface to understand how individuals are shaped by their societies and vice versa) and taking action to address the issues they identify.

“One of the most important things I learned from this class,” said Molly McCarthey (second-year sociology major from Appleton), “is to use sociological imagination to try to see things from other people’s point of view rather than our own.”

Working in groups, they have taken that sociological eye out into the field of campus and beyond, to observe a variety of potential sites of social infrastructure. This is the term popularized by sociologist Eric Klinenberg in his book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life . 

According to Klinenberg, social infrastructure is, “the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact” and help “produce the material foundations of social life”, including settings that allow for people with diverse backgrounds to have positive interactions and learn from each other. Examples include: libraries, third places (not home, not work, where conversation is the main activity – cafes, coffee shops, bars, and more), schools, parks, trails and paths, and mass transit.

These students have studied what happens in such places and why it matters. Some have worked on projects with the Winnebago County Public Health department’s social connectedness team and Re-Think Coalition, helping organize a community reading and discussion of Klinenberg’s book (go here for more information) and planning and implementing the recent pop-up crosswalk on Knapp St.

They have also applied the dual commitments of sociology to dealing with the multiple, well-publicized incidents of racism and homophobia shared on social media this semester by UWO students, in their class discussions and participation in multiple forums in this regard outside of class.

During the final class of the semester, they discussed several questions related to this work, which are shared below along with some of their responses.

What are the most important things you learned about social infrastructure and why it matters?

According to Jamie Voigt (graduating social work major, with minors in sociology and psychology, from Kenosha),”What stood out to me is how much health is related to social interactions, and that social infrastructure sites provide a forum for social interactions.”

This echoes key arguments from Klinenberg.

“It really matters how much we value such spaces,” said Abby Lavery (first-year sociology major from Neenah), “as well as the people who utilize them.”

Lavery connected this point to an anecdote from Klinenberg about a mother with a young child (who is, of course, loud at times) finding the public library to be one of the only spaces that was welcoming to and providing activities for her and her child.

One group focused on mass transit as potential social infrastructure. According to Nikki Nelson (fourth-year sociology major from De Pere), “The bus system is important not only for transportation but also because for some individuals it may be their only form of social interaction in their day.”

Another key finding was that just because there is social infrastructure present, it doesn’t mean that there is equitable access to it.

By extension, according to Brittany Burgess (fourth-year psychology major from Fond du Lac), “if everyone doesn’t have equal access, then how can you consider it social infrastructure?”

Sometimes, what seems like a wonderful place of communion is actually just a good ol’ boys’ club of some sort.

Finally, the students agreed that sites of social infrastructure are critical to encouraging inclusive interactions, developing sociological imagination, and cultural competence.

What are your biggest takeaways from the bias incidents and responses to them?

“One of my biggest takeaways,” said Alicia Davila (fourth-year sociology major from the Milwaukee area), “is that despite it being very frustrating and wrong, we can’t expel them. We can invite them to leave or to try to rise above and learn from it.”

Argued Voigt, “It’s our job as engaged sociologists to question these rules. Maybe they need to be changed!”

Some further noted that these incidents might have been avoided if the university had a stronger background check system in place, increasing the collective sense of safety on campus.

Again, though, noted Nick Burnett (second-year psychology major from Merrill), “There’s a fine line between excluding people with incidents of various kinds in their backgrounds and accepting them into this school and its social infrastructure where they can learn and grow as a person.”

Ryan Fay (graduating sociology major from Wausau), paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (another sociology major), added, “Responding to hate with hate only provides perpetrators of hate speech with an audience and strengthens their commitment to such ideas.”

Students also expressed frustration with the fact that this sort of thing keeps happening, and forums are held, but it doesn’t necessarily change anything. Further, said McCarthey, “It feels like a pat on the head, ‘Oh, everything’s okay. We’re taking care of it.'”

Some noted that more action seems to take place when it involves financial impacts on the university.

A somewhat different take on this issue came from Rebecca Danke (fourth-year human services leadership, with a sociology minor, from Neenah): “This showed that the bias and racism that we might think or wish were gone, is not really. We need to stand together and speak up to not let this happen again.”

On a positive note, the students agreed that it was encouraging to see that people of many backgrounds viewed this as wrong and came together to address the issues.

What positive things about UWO students do you want local people to know?

Said Voigt, simply, “We care.”

Matt Aussem (second year biology major and Spanish minor from Milwaukee) expressed that, “UWO students are actively making their community a better place through social activism around sustainability-related issues, safety concerns (such as the pop-up crosswalk), and educating others on what they’re learning at UWO.”

Added Cobi Watson (second-year psychology and criminal justice major from Illinois), “Local people may not realize how much campus organizations (in Greek life, etc.) are doing to raise money and awareness for causes in the wider community.”

“Even if nothing’s changed yet, in regards to the bias incidents,” said Logan Riley (second-year elementary education major from Highland, Wisconsin), “the sheer number of people outraged by them shows that this is something people really care about.”

Kali DeBroux (second-year sociology major minoring in criminal justice and psychology from Sturgeon Bay) agreed, adding, “This showed that we weren’t going to tolerate that behavior and really wanted to demonstrate support for the victims of it.”

Contrary to negative stereotypes about younger people such as those from Gen Z, these students want people to know that they are concerned about social issues, and the question is more about how to mobilize them to generate change.

Now that you’re at the end of semester and keeping the second commitment of sociology in mind, what do you want to go and do about any of these issues?

The students were in consensus that this semester’s events show how positive change can emerge from negative situations, consistent with classical sociologist Georg Simmel’s argument that conflict is actually positive in some important ways and a necessary element of social change.

“I feel like these are the incidents that empower students to step up and make change,” said Yue Thao (graduating human services leadership major from Appleton). “I know I want to.”

“A simple thing I want to do is educate people I come across on these issues,” said Davila.

“I want to go beyond talking, and advocate for people of every culture,” said Danke.

Said Alexa Kickland (third-year psychology major from Kimberly), “I plan to encourage people to speak up because their voices are being heard and many of us really do care and want to make things better.”

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In addition to the students quoted above, Tiahna Greer, Isaac Schwartz, and Arielle Serrano were present during this final class period and contributed to the story through their discussion.

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Paul Van Auken

Paul Van Auken has been a member of the sociology and environmental studies faculty at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh since 2007, after completing a Ph.D. in sociology from UW-Madison. A native of Iowa but resident of Wisconsin since 1999, Paul conducts research on issues related to neighborhood, community, land use planning and access to public space, sustainability, and teaching and learning. He also practices public sociology, regularly writing a column called “Shortening the Distance” for Oshkosh Independent. He is currently living in the central city of Milwaukee while on sabbatical and among other things is writing about Oshkosh through the lens of his experiences there.

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