by Stephanie Guirand
For whatever reason, the only sound I could stomach on my walk from the train station to the campus was the Bridgerton score. Melodic, familiar, and escapist—the music was interrupted by a WhatsApp call. I answered. Come to find out, one of my research participants was shot in the head the night before. He was nursing life-threatening injuries at a hospital in Boston. My feet continued in the same fashion—one step in front of the other. My feet led me to my destination but my mind was a swamp, all muggy and full. Luckily, I was consoled by members in my cohort. I was consoled because I was frantic and saddened. I was consoled because it is right to support people in their time of need. At that moment, I could not articulate what it was I was feeling. It was conveyed nonetheless.
All of the sudden, I had been transported back to the field via this WhatsApp call. When I was conducting fieldwork just weeks before that call, I was overwhelmed. My research participants were not foreign one-time encounters. The stories I gathered were not extractions that I would stake a career on. I knew these people. That is to say, they were not strangers to me. The research participant in question is about four years older than me. We were just far apart enough in age not to have been at school at the same time, but we were certainly in community. He grew up in the same housing projects as me. His high school friend is married to my high school friend. We went to the same Black Lives Matter meetings and protests. He could vouch for me, that was the foundation of the trust. That is why he agreed to take part in my study. Through this research, we found out that we have so much in common.
It was his partner who called. She knew that just the week before I had been in touch because they were served an eviction notice. In fact, the night of the shooting he had an appointment with me over zoom to go over the meeting with the landlord. I already had one foot in the field and one foot out. My fieldwork centers the stories of African-descended men’s housing stories. After reading Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies, I focused my attention on a service-based fieldwork method. After interviewing these men about their housing histories, we worked together to make plans to address their housing goals. This particular research participant had moved up in status. He had attended/completed a series of bootcamps and programs. He had acquired training to work in a high tech profession. Coming from the projects as he had, he changed his stars. This eviction notice was the catalyst for finding a new place to live. He had been ready to move anyway, that is why he reached out to me.
I consoled his partner as best I could, while holding in the shock. We made a plan for helping her find emergency accommodations. Afterall, she couldn’t sleep in that house; it is the one in front of which he was shot. And there was still the matter of the eviction notice. And his daughter—was he on child support? My notes on that matter were illegible. I felt guilty. It was my responsibility to help him move. We were planning for December 1st. We had a plan that failed once before. I felt anger at the landlord who had rejected his application because she needed $200 more a month than he could afford. Just think, had she not been so unwilling to give him a break, he would have been living in a safer neighborhood. I felt helpless.
What happens when a surgeon loses a patient? A PhD is not the same as a medical doctor, but in the moment the failure felt the same. He isn’t dead, thank goodness. But his life is forever changed. Instead of moving to a community where people have all of their needs met, he now has to live with a bullet lodged into his brain—it isn’t safe to remove it. Will he ever have all of his needs met? After a week, he is recovering as well as can be expected. He sat up on his own. He is breathing on his own—no longer on the ventilator. He can squeeze the hand of his relatives and doctors to indicate answers to yes/no questions.
But I still feel guilt, anger, and responsibility. I am not just a researcher. He is a member of my community. I am accountable to him and to the people in his life. I cannot simply be out of the field. So now, I am still working with his partner on the paperwork regarding the eviction notice. We have created a community cohesion and mutual aid team to support the family. He had been working to envision this in his activism before he was shot. I’ve been in touch with the city council to get support on her emergency accommodations. I have been calling other community members to see about raising funds and collecting Christmas gifts for his three-year-old daughter.
The line is blurry. Where is the field when you are of the community? When does fieldwork end when people still need help? What is my responsibility here? At the end of my first round of fieldwork, I got on a plane to leave the field. I intended to take care of myself. But two of my research participants had gotten arrested. One was faring far worse than when I interviewed him months earlier. One person got into an SRO, but was curious about my suggestion to look into going to university. One person had finished purchasing their first home and his son had gotten accepted, with a scholarship, to a prestigious private high school. There were highs and lows of fieldwork. The lines continue to blur between the friendships that were cultivated, the injustices of systemic racism, and the weight of the responsibility that I held as an insider/outsider researcher.
This is no doubt as far from Malinowski as a scholar could get. I haven’t gone native. I am in it; I am a native. I am holding grief for the life this participant lost and for the fact that I couldn’t help in time. I am holding grief because, in my nineteen years of education, I haven’t been taught how to sit with grief in scholarship. So I am asking now: what is it to hold grief as a scholar?