Happy Hour with Dr. Mai Nguyen
Local writer and V&V friend, Jamie Williams, sat down with Dr. Mai Nguyen, an Associate Professor in the Department of City & Regional Planning at UNC-Chapel Hill. Read their conversation, and then come hear more from Mai at the next Vert & Vogue Happy Hour event on Friday, August 17th, from 5:30 – 6:30pm.
Dr. Mai Nguyen knows that for her research to have an impact people have to see it. She counts herself among a group of academics who are searching for innovative ways to use technology and other mediums of expression to bring their work to the masses.
But, there is a huge difference between open access journals and putting on a stage production based around a research project, which is exactly what Nguyen did with “In the Shadows of Ferguson,” which debuted in December of 2017.
“In the Shadows of Ferguson” brought Nguyen and her team’s extensive research to life. Utilizing 100 years of housing and urban policy, the work tells the tale of St. Louis and its suburb of Ferguson leading up to the killing of Michael Brown.
The traditional thing to do would have been to publish a research article that would have been read by fellow academics, but would likely not achieve much attention outside of the Academy. Nguyen knew this topic deserved more.
“I think after the last election me and several of my colleagues were interested in moving the conversation outside of the university in order to have a broader impact. This project was my attempt to get outside of the silo of the university, to connect to the community, and tell a story,” Nguyen said.
She’ll have another chance to connect with the community as the next speaker at Vert & Vogue’s ongoing Third Friday Happy Hour series on Aug. 17. Before that, though, she shared a bit more information on her path here and what motivated “In the Shadows of Ferguson.”
Q&A WITH DR. MAI NGUYEN:
Can you tell me a little bit about your background and where you grew up?
I grew up in Southern California on a farm in a rural area. So, it’s interesting that I went in the total opposite direction by pursuing my PhD in urban planning. I graduated from UC Irvine and now am on faculty at UNC.
Do you remember what sparked that initial interest?
I was really interested in residential mobility and why people chose to live in certain neighborhoods. What I realized over time was that based on a history of policy over the last 100 years, many people don’t really have freedom of choice regarding where they live. So, then I became interested in the consequences of those policies.
Now, I am a housing scholar. I study contemporary topics like affordable housing and gentrification among other things.
What initially interested you in digging into the history of Ferguson?
I wanted to focus on the history of housing and urban policy in and around St. Louis and how it came to be that five years ago, Michael Brown was shot.
When you go to Ferguson, what strikes you is that it’s just like any other suburb. It’s not the impoverished place that was portrayed during some of the coverage of the protests. It’s just a really common typical, anywhere USA. The dynamics and policies of Ferguson could happen anywhere.
But then, Ferguson and St. Louis specifically have been at the center of several important civil rights decisions throughout the years, so I wanted to look at that as well.
I have often described this work as ‘from Ferguson to Ferguson,’ thinking about the legacy of Plessy v. Ferguson and how ‘separate but equal’ has never really been equal.
What source materials do you use for a project like this?
I utilized a broad range of media including government reports, photos, images, newspaper articles, advertisements, maps, plans, film footage, and of course talking to people on the ground.
So, how did the idea for a stage production begin to take shape?
Through my research in St. Louis, I met several artists and activists who just became excited about the project and wanted to participate. I had so many talented collaborators: actors, spoken word performers, we worked with a documentary filmmaker to film the first performance. I would say that I was able to bring the intellectual connection to the material and they definitely provided the emotional connection.
And how was the production received?
In the panel discussion after the performance, we heard from several audience members who said they didn’t know this history and wondered how they could be unaware of these decades of housing policy. In that way, I think we achieved our goals of broadening the conversation here in our community.
Do you think this is a key example of how academics and researchers can reach a broader audience with their work?
Of course I still think we have to have our peer reviewed journals, but new media is changing the way that we disseminate information. Ultimately, we want to tell a story and different stories are going to reach different audiences. If we don’t change some of our methods for story telling it will be easy to lose impact.
What is next for this project?
We are in the process of creating an online, interactive multimedia tool to talk about segregation in St. Louis. It will be linked to housing policy and show maps to tell some of the history. It will be accessible widely online. I also hope to make a documentary about the “In the Shadows of Ferguson” project.
And, as it is Happy Hour, what is your go to drink?
My favorite cocktail is a French 75.
We hope you'll join us on the 17th to visit with our special guest and enjoy a drink on the house!