When news first broke in 2014 about the Flint, Michigan water crisis, Katrinell Davis was as surprised as the rest of America, but for a different reason: that it took so long for a public health disaster to happen in her hometown.
Davis, assistant professor of sociology, experienced inadequate public services first-hand while growing up in Flint, motivating her to become an expert on how public policy disproportionately affects lower-income communities. Her research examines the intersection of race, gender, and work trends within the American labor market and how it negatively affects working people.
Students in Davis’ "Race Relations in the U.S." course learn about these issues through her research, which often relates to current events like the Flint water crisis. It's one of many courses that satisfy UVM's diversity course requirement, put in place to help prepare students for responsible citizenship in an increasingly complex global society.
Davis, who first became interested in public policy as it relates to lower-income populations as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Poverty Center, was conducting research in Flint prior to when the estimated 100,000 residents were exposed to high levels of lead.
“I was looking at this in 2012, well before anyone was concerned about environmental injustice in Flint," says Davis, who is working on a highly anticipated book on the topic. "My research focuses on the life chances of low-skilled poor people living in low-resource communities, so I want my students to understand how these inequalities are created and how they negatively affect working people in cities across America. One of the best ways to do that is to expose them to my research."
Davis' prior research has been a combination of both qualitative interviews and quantitative data. Her Flint study, however, is based heavily on public records that she secured from filing Freedom of Information Requests with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency.
"My book is about the Flint community’s response to environmental racism and the truly historic legacy of pushback there -- and the degree to which citizens have any real power or voice to make change," Davis says. "It won’t be about the spectacle we saw unfold on TV after Flint and Hurricane Katrina and the anecdotal studies that followed. That's not my study. I'm relying on archival data from federal and state agencies that speaks to the history of this particular problem and the health consequences of environmental racism as measured by lead exposure."
Hard work is not enough
Davis' students are also reading her just-released Hard Work is Not Enough: Gender and Racial Inequality in an Urban Workspace (University of North Carolina Press, 2017) based on her Ph.D. dissertation at University of California at Berkeley. Davis spent months riding buses with African American women transit workers in the San Francisco Bay area to document their struggles in dead-end jobs with intolerable work conditions following the Great Recession of 2008.
The employment experiences of these women, Davis found, were undermined by workplace norms and administrative practices designed to address flagging workplace morale, and ultimately weed out employees who couldn’t withstand it. Davis has published journal articles on similar topics including “An End to Job Mobility on the Sales Floor: The Impact of Department Store Cost Cutting on African American Women, 1970-2000” in Feminist Economics.
“I wanted to show how government manpower policies, administrative policies, and shifts in unionization have severely limited the prospects of low-skilled workers,” she says. “You sign up for a job thinking it’s something it’s really not with the work conditions eventually becoming unmanageable. You could leave, but most people can’t afford it, so they get stuck in really difficult situations.”