Assistant Professor Diane Wong, of Rutgers University–Newark's Political Science Department, has won a competitive Pipeline Grant from the Russell Sage Foundation, in partnership with the Economic Mobility and Opportunity program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Wong is one of 21 scholars to receive the award for 2021. She’ll use the $26K grant to work on a book titled, You Can't Evict a Movement: Intergenerational Activism and Housing Justice in New York City, which will examine the political response of residents in Manhattan’s Chinatown to evictions, landlord harassment, cultural erasure and other forms of dispossession.
“I'm so grateful to see this work valued, affirmed and supported by the Russel Sage Foundation, and grateful that I’ll be able to continue this community-rooted project and work with and intergenerational team this summer,” said Wong.
Wong, whose research lies at the intersection of poverty, housing and Asian-American Studies, is a first-generation Chinese American born and raised in Flushing, Queens, in New York City. She has years of experience working with the community in Manhattan’s Chinatown as a tenant organizer and advocate, among other roles, and brings that experience, plus an art and literature background, to her academic work, along with methods such as ethnography, participatory mapping, archival research and oral history interviews.
According to Wong, New York City has one of the highest Asian-American poverty rates in the country: One out of five families are under the poverty line, and one in 10 tenants are taken to housing court each year by their landlords. Creeping gentrification started the tenant displacement, and by forcing so many businesses to close or reduce their services, the Covid-19 pandemic has made those numbers even worse, as has the rising tide of anti-Asian-American violence, leaving the close-knit community to feel like it’s under seige.
“It’s ironic that so much has been written about gentrification, yet we know so little about how those most impacted are actually affected or resist,” said Wong. “Most work focuses on the crisis without imagining the alternatives. My work asks, What does it mean for those most impacted to build a radically different future? How can Asian-American elderly, immigrants and queer youth fight to stay in place? I look at tactics, spaces and how people are activating each other.”
It’s ironic that so much has been written about gentrification, yet we know so little about how those most impacted are actually affected or resist.
Methodologically, it’s community-engaged research that drives Wong’s projects forward, and this one is no exception. To that end, Wong is building an intergenerational team of researchers drawn from the neighborhood to collect oral histories and other data for the book. The team, which will range from college-age students to senior citizens, will conduct interviews with tenants, organizers, mutual-aid organizations, elders and others; provide translation and interpretation; and transcribe interviews.
“In thinking about how social science can be a vehicle for social change, it’s important for community members themselves to participate in the research and lead knowledge production,” said Wong. “And the intergenerational aspect is critical for knowledge-transfer across generations. A lot of social science is not built this way, but it adds a lot of richness and nuance to the project.”
Wong will also bring her humanities and arts background to the project by combining audio from her oral histories with stitched-together still photos taken with a 360-degree camera she’ll be using to document the stores, living and other spaces where she and her team will conduct interviews.
All of this will help her capture the effects of both long-term gentrification and the changes that have taken place since Covid-19 hit last year.
“I hope this project serves as a way to build community as everything feels distant and under pressure with Covid,” said Wong. “I’m grateful to Russel Sage for offering these opportunities, especially to junior scholars to do this type of work.”