“Power Does Nothing Without Command”: An Interview with Eve Ewing

Eve Ewing recently won the 2019 O.L. Davis Jr. Outstanding Book Award for Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side.  Eve is an impressive person. In addition to winning awards for her book, Eve is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago as well as a poet and visual artist. Also, this year, Eve published 1919, a poetry collection focused around the 1919 Race Riot of Chicago. Eve’s is also co-creator of Riri Williams, a Marvel Comic Book character also known as Ironheart (as in the fierce female, next generation version of Iron Man).  Eve’s accomplishments and contributions and vast, but it is also worth mentioning Bughouse Square…one of my very favorite podcasts. Needless to say, I felt more like a fan than a serious academic when I called Eve for our interview.  

Dan: Congratulations on your (O.L. Davis Jr. Outstanding Book) award. It meant so much to us. It’s certainly touched a lot of people throughout the world. We even saw you on the Daily Show. A question that I have, though, the appendix in your book describes your process and your personality really well.

Eve: Thank you.

Dan: Beyond just the methodology, what were some other specific challenges that you faced in doing research for your book?

Eve: Well, I think one challenge is that I made the methodological decision, that was partially a practical decision, that I wasn’t going to try to do anything that involved getting inside a school or talking to kids within a school setting, just because the access, the likelihood that CPS was going to grant me access to that type of conversation was just so low. So, I made the decision to think about, “Okay, well, how can we answer these questions outside of school?” As a graduate student, it would have been really difficult for me to get … because CPS has its own, what they call a research review board. It’s really just an IRB, but it would have been really difficult for me to come in, both as a graduate student, also as someone with a really critical project and actually be inside school buildings.

So, I think that the benefit of that challenge was it helped me be aware of something that has now guided a lot of my work, which is thinking about just, quote unquote, “Education research” as being not just about the things that happen within the four walls of a school building, but thinking about communities and people outside of schools as having really critical knowledge for understanding these kinds of educational insights. So, I think that’s going to end up being a good thing. Now, somewhat surprisingly, I do have a better relationship with the research side of the school district. They actually kind of like me and like the book, so that’s a pleasant surprise. I think most of the people that I’m kind of indicting in the book are … They’re no longer around, so makes it a little bit easier for the Fair Oaks to tolerate me.

Dan: That makes sense. We have this thing we call outtakes (in AATC’s Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue journal), but it’s stories that didn’t quite make the article or the book. I was wondering if you had any stories that didn’t make the book that you wish that had?

Eve: There’s a part originally in the book, in the dissertation version, where I’m riding the bus to go to a candlelight vigil. While I’m on the bus, I’m taking note of the sort of school landscape of the neighborhood. So, it’s right after school time and all these kids are getting on and off the bus and they’re all wearing different uniforms and coming from different schools and so I’m kind of looking at the way the choice landscape is playing out in this moment. Oh, those kids are from that charter school and those kids are from the other public school and those kids are from …

As I’m watching the kids, they’re kind of like … I always like watching kids, just hearing them have conversations in public spaces. So, these are teenagers, like middle and high school students. As they’re talking, the bus driver stops the bus and he’s like, “This bus is going to run express to 79th street or something.” This is strange to me because this is not an express bus. So, the teens get really frustrated because they’re all going to miss their stop and so most of them get off and kind of tumble off the bus. I get off the bus too, and right as I’m getting off, the bus driver kind of sort of smirks at me or gives me this look and I realized that the bus is not actually running express, that this is a ploy that he has come up with to get all those kids off the bus.

So I’m really mad, so I’m like cursing and I’m like, “Oh you … ” basically he almost got me. I almost basically missed my way of getting where I was going because I fell for this goofy trick and so I’m really mad and I start … He’s also taken me out of my policy analysis reverie because I was like, “Oh, I’m going to miss my stop.” So, I kind of gently curse at the bus driver, not in a … In a good-natured, what I hope was a good-natured way and make my way back on the bus. So that scene ended up getting cut because I just didn’t want it to be … I try to be pretty judicious about where and when I’m including myself in the book and is it really illustrative for me to be sharing my personal story or my … Obviously the whole book is told through my voice, but I don’t want the book to be primarily about me and so I try to be really judicious and so I cut that one out, but I did think it was sort of funny.

Dan: Thanks for sharing that. Yeah, your book really captures a sense of place that humanizes Brownsville and the schools in such a way that it sheds light on how cruel the policies of social efficacy can be. Can you talk a little bit more about the mourning chapter and your intentions behind presenting the loss of institutions in this way?

Eve: Sure. Yeah, well, thank you for that compliment. That’s definitely what I was trying to do, so I hope I was successful in that regard

In terms of really trying to humanize and illustrate a place, but I guess what that chapter … It’s the last chapter in the book and I wanted to make sure that I make space for feeling and affect in the book. My undergraduate degree is in English. When I was an undergraduate, I did a lot of work on kind of thinking about affect and thinking about emotions. I also … As a critical race spirit and also as a black feminist, through all of those traditions, the centrality of actually allowing space for your feelings and the idea that your feelings or your experiences of something can offer a valid point of departure for understanding something theoretical, that’s [inaudible 00:07:34] that permeates all of those critical positions.

So, those were the kind of intellectual reasons, but it was really one of my first unexpected findings in interviewing people because when I set out to figure out when I interviewed people was, originally, I wanted to know the frame of, this is racist, right? These school closings are happening because they’re racist. I wanted to know if that was something that lay people thought, that people on the street thought, outside of academic and activists. I wanted to know if regular people who were most impacted by this policy, if they themselves had that framework, or if they felt like, “No, the schools are underutilized.” Basically, I wanted to know what narrative they bought into. When I sent out of my original … the questions in my interview protocol were things like, “This person says race played a role. This person says race didn’t. What do you think? Who do you agree with?” Very quickly, it became clear that that was a non-starter. It was nonnegotiable, not even really a question for most people. Of course, this was racist.

What became more interesting was, that I didn’t expect, was the frequency with which people were talking about death and the frequently with which people were using death as a metaphor. One of the lines that I quote where somebody says, a former teacher says, “Every day I walk by the empty building and it’s like walking past a tombstone.” That was the line that, I think, really set it off for me, where I realized this is something that I really need to explore. So, I’m grateful that I had a chance to put forth what I do think is a … What I hope is a helpful, theoretical idea that already lots of people have said, “Do you think that this theory applies? Do you think this theory applies to that?” People are using it in really productive ways that I’m really proud of, but I’m also really proud that the theory came directly from my conversations with people. I think it’s important as a scholar to just leave space for yourself to be surprised and to … What my mentor, Sarah Lawrence, writes a lot of about listening for voice. Listen for a story, not listen to a story, and trying to leave yourself open to what people are trying to tell you.

Dan: Thank you. We were also curious, in the aftermath of the recent teacher strikes in CPS, how optimistic, or not, are you about the ways that CPS and Mayor Lightfoot are responding to the needs of the students and their families?

Eve: Well, whenever people ask me about optimism, I always say, “I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I’m a pragmatist,” so I think that’s … I really believe that power can do nothing without command. I try to never be in the business of sort of just trusting politicians as people because my job, as I see it, is not to interact with them as this is a nice person or not a nice person, but what are you going to do? So, I think that I’m really concerned. I’m really grateful that the Chicago Teachers Union made the decision to think about the holistic needs of young people in framing their demands for the strike. I hope that that provokes more people, again, to have this broader vision of what education means, what schooling means besides just instructional delivery and to think about things like, do our students have a safe place to live? Do our students have healthcare? Do our students have somebody to talk to when they’ve experienced trauma? For many, many, many kids in Chicago, the answer to that question is no. So, I think I’m grateful on that end.

I think that the questions about funding and how we’re going to pay for things are so much bigger than one school district or one city. I think that these are really societal questions about what we value as people and as citizens. I’m really concerned that the debate about “how do we pay for this” or “that is still a very small-scale debate” in a way. What I would like to see is for politicians to ask questions about funding and think about funding in the same audacious, bold, visionary way that they do when it comes to things like recruiting the Amazon to headquarters, right? The idea that when you really want to make something happen, what does it look like to say, this is all hands-on deck, this is really important, we’re going to put everything on the table to make this come to fruition? As opposed to bickering over the same things we’ve been bickering over for years. So, that’s the kind of really bold, courageous, moral leadership that I’m always looking for and also why I’m not a politician myself because I think it’s really hard. I think it’s really hard to do that. I think it’s just really difficult.

Dan: Thank you for the candid answer. Could you ever imagine presenting Ghost in the Schoolyard in more of a graphic form? Like your own comic book artwork…?

Eve: Oh, that’s a really interesting question. Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. No one’s ever asked me that before. I think that that’s not something that I would take the lead on doing, but I would be really excited if somebody thought that that was a project that they wanted to undertake. If they felt that the lessons of the book were enduring enough and important enough that they wanted to adapt them in that way, that would certainly mean a lot to me. I think that I would be more interested in seeing somebody else’s interpretation of what they thought, how they thought that should work. One of my favorite books that educationists teach, the comic book version, A Journey in Comics, which is an adaptation of Bill Ayres’ memoir, To Teach. I really love that book and I think that there are other examples of graphic adaptations of things becoming accessible ways for people to tackle really complicated ideas.

I also, I want to shout out, there’s a local newspaper here called the South Bend Weekly.  The South Bend Weekly, actually, they did some oral interviews around school closures in the Englewood neighborhood and they had a comic book artist, a cartoonist, adapt some of the oral histories into graphic works and they’re really great, so yeah, I think that’s not something I would do, but if someone else wants to do it, that would be an honor.