University of Delaware Professor Yasser Payne’s Efforts to Decrease Wilmington’s Crime Rate
Growing up running the streets of Harlem, Payne’s seen more than his share of violence—and he believes he has a way to end it. Will it change a troubled Wilmington?
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To find out who they truly are, one need only watch “The People’s Report,” a new documentary film that shows residents of Southbridge and the East Side explaining their values, as well as their attitudes about crime, about their communities, about themselves. The film tells the story of Payne’s Wilmington Street PAR Project, a two-year effort to train 15 people—12 men and three women—from those neighborhoods, men and women associated with street life, including some felons, to survey others about their lives and neighborhoods, then analyze the results in a truly scientific way.
One result of the study is hard data that can become the basis of sound public policy. The other is a mirror the community can hold up to itself in order to find a new way, to plant a garden in the heart, where violence doesn’t exist, neither physical violence, nor the sort of institutional, structural violence that keeps people from reaching—from ever even seeing—their emotional and, to a lesser, but still important degree, their material potential.
And it works. Members of the PAR (participatory action research) team have found gainful employment. Some have enrolled in college. Two are working on advanced degrees. And Yasser Arafat Payne believes he has found a way to transform communities by transfiguring individuals.
“Why do PAR? In part to demonstrate to the PAR family who they can be, to show them a little love,” Payne says. “The best finding I’ve learned: love trumps money, every time.”
Trained as social psychologist at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, Payne, an associate professor of Black American Studies at the University of Delaware, is, foremost, a street ethnographer, but of a different kind. Most street ethnographers come from outside the populations they study. They develop a theory or determine questions they want to answer, then design a program of study or experimentation.
Payne and members of the Wilmington Street PAR family—and he very much considers them family—are the people they study. They have an insider’s view of poor, black, urban neighborhoods, so they know what questions to ask. More important, the people they survey and interview respond candidly because they face researchers who are like themselves, community members who understand their experiences. When it comes to understanding how people deal with poverty and why they commit crime—how they cope with structural violence—this is important. Participatory research can mean the difference between conjecture, speculation or unsupported theories—there are many when it comes to race and class—and real knowledge.
“My doctoral adviser once told me that research has a lot to do with the biography of the researcher,” Payne says. “I come from the community—my family and myself. So if I can understand that, maybe I can help.”