My name is Dominique Branson, and I am entering into my fifth year as a graduate student in the Department of Linguistics. My dissertation research focuses on the intersection of race, criminal justice, and African American Language (AAL) use at two critically important points along the School-to-Prison Pipeline (STPP)—the classroom and the courtroom. In each of these settings, Black Americans’ access to justice is limited by negative perceptions of their language, and I aim to dismantle these barriers by making them visible through my research.
This summer, I served as a Humanities Engage summer immersive fellow with the City of Pittsburgh’s Gender Equity Commission (GEC). The GEC was created to identify how and to what extent discrimination manifests against all women and girls in the City of Pittsburgh and the GEC’s mission is to achieve equity for women and girls in the City of Pittsburgh. In my position, I conducted an audit of the GEC’s communication strategy, collaborated with stakeholders to strategize about grant applications and funding the commission’s work, and I developed ways to engage members of the greater Pittsburgh community in gender equity work. I was particularly excited about my summer immersive because of previous work I had done with the GEC (Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race (pdf)) and a team of researchers to investigate gender and race inequities across Pittsburgh in the arenas of health, income, employment, and education. I felt that by doing this earlier work, I had a pre-established rapport with the GEC and its commissioners that aided me in my new role. I was also excited to continue to use my research expertise in linguistics to contribute to the GEC’s equity work. However, I discovered that, in working with the GEC as a summer immersive fellow, I learned from the commission new ways to centralize gender in my research.
While my research focuses on race specifically, I found the immersive with the GEC to be particularly enlightening in the ways that the commission centers intersectionality in their equity efforts. Intersectionality considers the multifaceted ways in which gender and race interact to shape the unique experiences of gendered and racialized persons, especially Black women and girls. For one aspect of my dissertation, I found that Black girls are disciplined in schools more than all other students for subjective offenses that are related to their linguistic practices. By centering intersectionality in their approaches to gender equity work, the GEC can specifically address issues involving Black girls’ language and high rates of school discipline that may be overlooked by examining gender or race inequities alone.
During my summer immersive, I learned about the importance of networking and I gained skills in making strategic connections with other likeminded individuals who are passionate about race and gender equity. In addition, while I have written grant applications for small research and community grants, during my immersive with the GEC, I collaborated with stakeholders to begin an application for a million-dollar grant to support Black-woman and Latina business owners through the innovative use of alternative capital. Although, due to circumstances beyond our control, we were unable to complete the grant application by the deadline, we are continuing to partner together to consider other opportunities for funding the work of the GEC.
At about the mid-way point of my immersive, an election took place indicating that there would be a change in leadership in the mayor’s office. As such, the priorities of my role shifted to maximize my efforts before the change takes place. These shifts required that I be flexible and open-minded during the final weeks of my immersive. While the change was unexpected, I gained insight into what it truly looks like to work in a city government office and the challenges that those working for equity face as administrations are potentially subject to change at every election. From this, I considered new ways of addressing the social problems I study as policymaking can be challenging during administration shifts.
Being a summer immersive fellow with the GEC was an invaluable experience that allowed me to utilize my linguistics knowledge for gender and race equity—which is the primary goal of the work that I do! I recommend that departments incorporate summer immersives for graduate students more deeply in their curricula to inspire students to transform their research and academic efforts into social justice and equity work that can impact peoples’ lives outside of academia. Students who are interested in doing a summer immersive in the future should be flexible and realistic about their goals in order to maximize their experience. From the outset, it is helpful to consider the ways in which the immersive could benefit their overall graduate school goals while remaining open-minded about what the experience has to offer.