Faculty Friday: Carrie Preston
Faculty Friday is a series highlighting members of the Initiative on Cities (IOC) Faculty Advisory Board, by exploring their work on campus and in the city. This week, we are highlighting Carrie Preston, Professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and the Director of Kilachand Honors College.
Diya Ashtakala: Tell me about yourself and what you are currently working on.
Carrie Preston: I’m a Professor in the English Department and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies programs and I also direct Kilachand Honors College. I’ve been looking in two different directions. One is a newly completed book about audience participation in anti-racist theatre. The other is that I’ve pivoted to working on forced displacement and refugee concerns. I’m developing a new program in Texas this January for students to explore and learn about the challenges at the border in the Lower Rio Grande valley, an area that includes Brownsville and McAllen, Texas and on the other side Matamoros, Mexico. This course also fits with my new research interest, particularly the humanistic perspectives on forced displacement because I think humanities largely haven’t been deployed to study the global challenge of forced displacement and refugee crises.
What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by cities?
It’s challenging to identify just one, but I would say that the biggest urban challenge I would like to address in my work is how cities can enable the full participation of all individuals, and this involves their full selves: race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, nationality, or lack of citizenship. How can we configure cities to allow communities to fully participate? Full participation is a different perspective on diversity and equity, and I use this term very intentionally. I am a supporter of diversity and equity, but I think today those words have been emptied of their meaning and waived around. For me, the term full participation is still meaningful and not a phrase that gets batted around. It is more active.
How can cities work to enable full participation?
I don’t think cities are thinking enough about concepts like full participation, but I think that they can be working on that in line with the many challenges that cities face. The ground level of participation is the right to vote. How can cities allow their constituents to participate fully in voting and other democratic processes? This includes transportation to polling places, ensuring accessibility, and the protection of the right to vote at the state and federal levels – fighting against laws that restrict the right to vote passed by states in the US. How can we provide childcare support that’s needed so that people can vote, giving people time off to vote without cutting pay? There have been efforts to make polling days holidays. Running in elections means that you are privileged, you have the funding and resources. This form of participation is out of reach for so many people. I would like to see more radical forms of participation made accessible at the level of cities.
How can students become more engaged with cities and play a role in addressing issues?
I would love to see our students at Boston University engage with the city. One way that we, as professors and educators, can enable that is by breaking down the walls of our classrooms, designing assignments that get our students out into the communities, seeing problems, and beginning to address them. We waste the tremendous learning opportunities that we have around us when we think that assignments should be imaginary. We need to design assignments that take students out to the city. Our students have tremendous energy and many of them want to do good work in the world. We have never seen a generation so concerned with inequity and injustice, but their energy needs to be harnessed and given direction. BU could be a place where we are doing that deliberately intentionally.
I am a huge supporter of the MetroBridge program at IOC which is trying to do this work. I’m eager to find ways to support the program and to build more opportunities like MetroBridge, and I encourage more professors to get involved with the program and to bring MetroBridge into their courses.
If you were the Mayor of Boston and had unlimited resources, what program or project would you pursue and why?
The first problem that I would want to work on is offering universal, high-quality childcare and preschool to all children in Boston. I think the pandemic has shown us the importance of quality education for young children. Public school, we realized, is not just about educating our children but also about enabling the rest of the city to work. When school wasn’t in session, it meant that parents weren’t in the workforce and weren’t involved in city politics. Schools, pre-k education, and childcare are probably the most essential baseline problems that I would like to work on in Boston. We know how important early childcare programs are, and a small investment at a young age makes a tremendous difference for their entire lives. Pre-K programs are effective both at offering educational opportunities and later lead to better professional outcomes; they also reduce poverty, crime, incarceration, and enable so much more fulfillment.
What do you love about Boston?
There’s so much I love about Boston! I love the city’s deep commitment to learning and the life of the mind, which I think is the feature of Boston that is connected to the many educational institutions in the city. I love the great enthusiasm for the Boston sports teams and the pride and spirit they produce. My office is in Kenmore which is close to Fenway. I enjoy that community feeling and spirit during my walk to the train station. Baseball makes us feel closer, and when we can come closer together around a sports team, we can come together around a lot of other concerns. I think those two features, this great life of the mind alongside this celebration of athletic achievement are awesome features of the Boston community.
What is your favorite city and why?
My favorite US city is Boston because it is my city. I didn’t grow up here, but I moved here 15 years ago to work at BU, and I’ve fallen in love with this area. In my book that I just finished about audience participation in anti-racist theatre, all of the plays were performed here in Boston. It is very much a Boston-based book. There are several cities around the world that I love partially because they have been central to my research. Kyoto, Japan would probably be my favorite city in another country.