It is no secret that racism runs rampant in the south. Cross burnings still happen, homes and shops still fly the Confederate flag, and the KKK is still jarringly active. With the current political turmoil and division in the United States, many young people have the desire to become more socially aware but don’t have the means to do so. Enter Jennifer Mitchell, a Sociology Professor at Kingsborough Community College. Her goal is to teach the students in her class how to think bigger than themselves, and to understand how the world operates.
Her journey has been an extensive one. From Mississippi, as well as her time in Europe and then Asia, with a community development project. Then settling in Brooklyn and teaching Sociology at Kingsborough, has all brought her in contact with people from various walks of life. It has also given her insight into the ways of the world and how the Sociological perspective differs from area to area.
“One thing I’ve noticed from students, that when you live in a city, although you can find students that are just as set in their ways here, I find, generally speaking that when you live in a city where every single day when you’re rubbing elbows around people who look different, sound different, you know, dress different, have different faiths,” Mitchell said. “It’s just easier to talk about these kinds of things when it is a reality of everyday life for people. Versus like when you’re in west Texas which is very, very religious and it’s also like it’s pretty fundamental religious out there, Christian based fundamentalism, it’s just you know, it’s this way.”
Spending her childhood in Mississippi, Mitchell knew from the time she first understood what racism is that something was very wrong with her society’s perception of such social issues.
Sitting down at her cluttered desk in a cozy office she shares with a colleague, Mitchell flashes a warm and welcoming smile.
“I chose American Studies as a major because I grew up in one of the three highest poverty areas in the country,” Mitchell said. “And it’s also very much steeped in the history and current issues of race and racism. And I don’t know, it never made sense to me. The systems as much as you can understand them when you’re twelve or fifteen didn’t make sense to me, and the explanations didn’t make sense to me. And so, I chose American Studies because I was like, something’s not right and I don’t understand it.”
Growing up in a Protestant family, Mitchell was no stranger to the social pressure that religion has over people, and how it affects their lives. Because of her awareness of racial inequality at an early age; her criticisms of Southern society and its deep ties to Religion allowed her to take a critical look at her views of the world.
“Because I at the age of twelve basically rejected organized religion, I think that it just sort of allowed me to without hesitation believes science,” said Mitchell.
Like many people, Mitchell made an initial attempt at college as an American Studies major at the University of Colorado, but it didn’t work out. After transferring to another college that didn’t offer a course in American Studies, she decided that getting a degree in Sociology would be a good alternative.
After College, she started working with a community development project in various countries. Seeing the conditions that people there were living in was jarring to someone who thought they had seen the worst the world had to offer.
Mitchell said, “What was so shocking was like, the abject poverty. As I said I grew up in an area that has high rates of poverty, and you could see it. But the poverty that we saw in Sri Lanka was just- I mean, wow.”
These awful conditions are a reality that most people in the United States will never have to face. From living in tents under bridges to laying down planks of wood to walk on because there’s just swamp. However, to people living in that part of the world, it’s just a part of their life. To the tenants of “Plank City,” that is what’s normal.
“So you would see these kinds of shelters and you could see inside of a lot of them were really clean as best as they could be, given the circumstances,” said Mitchell. “And then you’d see water and then you’d see electrical wiring that was hooked up from something and you’re just like- this place is going to explode.”
Sociology is the study of society. The way it works and why it functions in a certain way. It analyzes the most fundamental building blocks of people’s lives. Many don’t look any further than what affects them, and why should they? It doesn’t make any difference to their world.
However, the world is a bigger place than, “small town, U.S.A” and it has been the mission of Mitchell to help anyone who takes her class see that.
Life in Bangkok and Sri Lanka is vastly different from life in Mississippi. The culture shock of these experiences had a drastic effect on how she views the world.
“I think that it made such an impact that I can’t explain how big of an impact it was,” said Mitchell. “Because it just opened my little head up to like, the possibilities that life doesn’t have to be in the Mississippi Delta.”
Photos by Matt Hirsch