Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Susan Greenbaum

Co-Major Professor

Elizabeth Bird


community engagement, neoliberalism, nonprofit organizations, social justice, urban poverty


Neoliberal restructuring of the state has had destructive effects on families and children living in urban poverty, compelling them to adapt to the loss of social welfare and demolition of the public sphere by submitting to new forms of surveillance and disciplining of their individual behavior. A carceral-welfare state apparatus now confines and controls the bodies of expendable laborers in urban spaces, containing their threat to the neoliberal socioeconomic order through criminalization and workfare assistance, resulting in a new symbiosis of prison and ghetto. The resulting structures of punishment, police surveillance, and criminalization primarily surround African Americans living in high poverty and low income urban neighborhoods. Criminalization intrudes into the everyday lives of African American youth as well, pushing them out of school and into the criminal (in)justice system at an early age. This process may appear natural and inevitable to those experiencing it, but it is really the result of political, economic, historical, and social forces, including institutional discourses, public policies, and investment in law enforcement at the expense of community development and social welfare.

This dissertation presents the results of five years of engaged ethnographic collaborative research with African American youth while I was volunteer director of Moses House, a community youth arts organization based in Sulphur Springs, a high poverty neighborhood of Tampa, Florida. Grassroots nonprofit organizations such as Moses House are often created and guided by dedicated community leaders, but social marginalization can prevent them from securing resources and labor necessary to sustain an organization. Engaged anthropologists can use forms of community engagement to leverage university resources, social networks, and student service-learning to assist grassroots organizations, in the process learning firsthand about the political, economic, and social forces that produce and reproduce the injustices against which such organizations and their communities struggle. As a doctoral student in an applied anthropology graduate program, I was able to assist the organization in revitalizing itself and applying for IRS nonprofit status, as well as to advocate for the very existence and viability of the organization itself in opposition to a variety of antagonistic forces.

Through the process of doing social activism on behalf of the organization, I was able to establish solidarity with people in the community who were socially networked through Moses House. As an outsider to a community rightfully suspicious of outsiders, especially ones who are white, gaining the confidence of residents was a prerequisite for doing engaged research that intended to explore how African American youth living in a high poverty neighborhood experience marginalization and criminalization, and how they can communicate their experiences through their own production of creative media. In a variety of mentoring, advocating, and parenting roles, I was able to build empathic, trustful relationships and observe how various policies, procedures, practices, and institutional discourses are criminalizing African American youth in nearly all aspects of their everyday lives. Accompanying Moses House youth through various educational, recreational, and governmental agencies and institutions, I learned with them not only how they were being seriously harmed by the policies of the carceral-assistential state, but also how they were able at times to resist or avoid the system to their own advantage. Using critical dialogue while in conversation with Moses House youth, I nurtured an ongoing analysis of their everyday reality in order to reveal what is criminalizing them and constraining their agency, in the process collaboratively constructing transformative activities, practices, and educational programs that were based on the youths' own aspirations toward social justice, personal success, and community betterment.

In establishing social justice based approaches to improving community well-being, grassroots organizations such as Moses House can be understood as spaces that foster and support critical dialogue, social activism, and cultural production and as sites of collective struggle against racism, poverty, and criminalization. University-community engagement can shed light on these social problems, provide research and analysis that is not only rigorous but meaningful and relevant to the community, offer technical assistance for nonprofit leadership, management, and fund development, as well as assist in designing and implementing community-based alternatives and solutions to community-identified problems.