Meeting the Ethical Responsibilities of Activist Research while on the Tenure Track

Nelson Flores

University of Pennsylvania

I consider myself an activist researcher whose research is embedded within a larger activist agenda that aspires to dismantle social inequality and improve the conditions of racialized communities. The question I have been grappling with for the past three years is how to balance the ethical responsibilities of being an activist researcher with the demands of a tenure-track faculty position at a research university.

Because the tenure review process usually privileges research over community work it can be tempting to solely advocate for racialized communities at academic conferences or in academic journals. The irony is that many well-meaning researchers end up further contributing to the marginalization of racialized communities by converting them into commodities at the service of the researcher’s tenure process. We, therefore, have an ethical responsibility to engage in direct advocacy work in the communities that we serve. In my work this has included a range of activities in educational settings including facilitating parent meetings, assisting in the writing of grant proposals, providing professional development to teachers and developing curricular materials.

How does a tenure-track professor have time to do all of this community work? The answer is best illustrated by a recent meeting that I had with local school district officials. While we were developing a plan of action one of the district officials asked, “How will this fit into your research?” My response was “What we are doing right now is my research and whatever we plan to do will become my research.” My advocacy work is my research and my research is my advocacy work. Some might argue that this blending of research and advocacy makes me biased. I would argue that it makes me an ethical activist researcher who ensures that I have the time to contribute my expertise to the communities that have opened their doors to me.  

This ethical responsibility to engage in community does not need to become a distraction from presenting at academic conferences and publishing in academic journals. In my work I try to use academic journal articles as venues for developing counter-narratives that refuse to represent racialized communities through the white supremacist frameworks that have historically and continue to permeate social science research. Specifically, in my academic journal writing I develop critical genealogies of hegemonic concepts that are complemented by empirical data from my community work to offer an alternative approach that rejects white supremacy. The goal is to challenge dominant academic framings of ideologies as existing “out there” in research sites and critically examining the ideologies “in here” in academia that have been and continue to be complicit in the marginalization of racialized communities.

My end goal is for these two levels of work to coalesce around a coherent theory of social transformation—the one level embedded in local community struggles that are directly relevant to the day-to-day lives of my community partners and the other level embedded in larger epistemological concerns that are directly relevant to my academic peers. Though working toward a coherent theory of social transformation while worrying about tenure and promotion is certainly daunting, being strategic with how I organize my time has helped me balance these two goals that I hope to achieve.