Sawyer offers these young men a way to use hip-hop as a medium of expression to discuss “their pain, faith, hopes and dreams and provide an outlet for the things they were going through.”
Sociology of Hip Hop
Former Quinnipiac student Carol Ann Jackson explains that meeting Dr. Don Sawyer changed her life in a number of ways, after she first encountered Sawyer in his “Sociology of Hip Hop” class. Though Jackson had taken a number of undergraduate sociology classes, she notes that Sawyer “changed the game” when he came to Quinnipiac- bringing “passion, perspective, expertise, and difference.”
Jackson adds that Sawyer brought more than just academic research into the classroom; he Skyped musical artists and brought in classroom guests. “His lessons weren’t just based on theory,” she adds. “Don not only studies what he teaches, he has lived it and brings a unique and powerful perspective to the classroom.”
In part her life was changed, she explains, because she learned about herself even as she learned more about the dynamics of hip hop and a culture she claims is essential to her sense of self as a young black woman, a culture that is “constantly misrepresented and overlooked.”
As she learned more about Sawyer’s background and adversities he had faced, she realized that it was possible for someone like her to become someone like Sawyer. She notes, “For the first time in my life, I met someone who had made it out of the hood and into the academic sphere, and he used his life and expertise to interrupt the various systems that affect kids who were like us. He shared my passion, he shared my vision, and he found a way to bring his scholarship to the real world.”
If You Could Not Fail
Quinnipiac student K. Unique Johnson describes Dr. Don Sawyer’s courses as both entertaining and enlightening, as he uses media, discussion, historical events, and personal experiences to dissect topics in the classroom. She adds, “Sawyer does not simply teach terms and facts. He educates his students to learn application of concepts. Sociology is a broad subject in which every aspect can be debated. He works to help with understanding that your reality is not everyone else’s, an important aspect when studying how human society functions.”
Kevin Volpe, another of Sawyer’s former students at Quinnipiac, explains that Sawyer is more than just a professor to him. Volpe calls Sawyer a “father, role model, and inspiration.” Recalling his first week of class, Volpe remembers Sawyer posing a provocative question: “What would you do, if you knew you could not fail at whatever you chose to do in life?”
Volpe notes that while many people focus on obstacles to their goals, Sawyer helps his students move past that point of view, showing that he cares about his students and their ability to carry something valuable from the semester. He shares, as well, that Sawyer has an uncanny ability to encourage students to maintain a positive mindset to face any future challenges. Volpe states, “He has helped better the community as well and has given many children hope through his Crossroads Collective Program. He is the definition of what a role model should be.”
A Mentor, An Activist, An Inspiration
Carol Ann Jackson graduated from Quinnipiac in May of 2013 and was offered a full-time job in a Fortune 500 company. Rather than jumping into the job market, she decided instead to pursue her interests in urban sociology, education, race, and stratification; she plans to earn her doctorate and ultimately teach in the academic sphere, while making a difference with inner-city youth. She shares, “My dream is to use all of the education I have gained to help them make it–to help them be more than just another inner-city statistic: to be someone just like Don.”
Jackson notes that it was particularly frightening to walk away from a salary, benefits, and the promise of a 401k to attend school for another five or six years, especially in this economy, yet she was inspired by seeing the difference Sawyer is making in the lives of so many students. She adds, “Whenever he tells me about how he was able to make it, I realize I would rather chase my dreams and encounter any obstacle rather than live a stagnant life of regret.”
Jackson explains that Sawyer isn’t just a professor but “a mentor, an activist, an inspiration.” She shares that he stayed in contact with her after graduation, helping her plan for a PhD program. When she asked him for insight, she notes that he somehow found time among all of his varied responsibilities to help her chase her own dreams. She adds, “He is history in the making. And I am honored and fortunate to know him and have his guidance.”
Conversations about Race: Crystalizing not Paralyzing
In a campus that is predominantly white, both students and professors acknowledge that having conversations about race can be tricky. Sawyer explains that students have to be challenged yet still have a “safe space in the class” where they can make mistakes in these conversations while keeping an open dialogue. It needs to be “crystalizing, not paralyzing,” Sawyer adds.
Quinnipiac graduate Stephanie Argudo recalls first learning about the “school to prison pipeline” in Sawyer’s classroom, as they analyzed education through micro/macro-level theories. She adds that Sawyer’s class “fundamentally changed my view of America’s education system and made me realize that it is quite flawed.”
Argudo was also impressed that Sawyer pulled so much from his own experiences to teach and-even more intriguing, for her-from students’ experiences. Argudo believes she and her peers learned a great deal from the others’ experiences. She notes, “Here each of us learned that even though we were all in the same university, many of us were taught differently because of where we came from: location, social status, personal ambitions, culture, and so on.” She believes Sawyer’s goal was to help them realize how lucky they were but to also recognize that other people who seek higher education may face nearly impossible obstacles to get there.
In taking Sawyer’s “Race and Ethnicity” class, Argudo appreciated Sawyer’s ability to moderate meaningful discussion, letting everyone know that what he expected was participation of some kind and being respectful of others’ opinions. After learning a great deal about race and gender inequalities in the legal system, particularly with regard to domestic violence and sexual assault, Argudo has been motivated to attend law school and work toward removing some of these inequalities.
Quinnipiac colleague Dr. Keith Kerr notes that Sawyer has undoubtedly had the most significant impact on the Quinnipiac Sociology department in the last decade. In what is now the most popular Sociology course on campus, Sawyer regularly brings in local and international hip-hop talent and has even organized the class into team-based hip-hop “battles,” where they play tracks and then “sociologically analyze the lyrics” for an audience.
Kerr notes, “Taking students through the history of hip-hop, the corporatization of the genre, the power structures at play, as well as the racial and gendered themes that are dealt with in the lyrics, with one class, Dr. Sawyer has produced a generation of undergraduate sociology students at Quinnipiac that far outpace previous cohorts in their deep grasp of sociological interrogation.”
Kerr adds that Sawyer is offering a new course this semester that is centered on visual-sociology, as he seeks out new ways to engage students with sociological concepts and themes. He calls Sawyer a “tour-de-force in the classroom,” adding that the scholarly work accompanying the powerful pedagogy is no less impressive. Sawyer’s scholarship, examining intersections of race, urban youth culture, and education, offers a compelling and nuanced look at public-oriented sociology, all with what Kerr calls “an eye toward a public, participatory, justice-oriented sociology.
Resisting Narrow Analysis
Dr. Kerr notes that Sawyer’s scholarship and methodology “place him at the forefront of the most recent advancements within sociology,” and he believes the strength of Sawyer’s published works come, in part, from drawing on older traditions within the field in order to pair these nearly forgotten traditions with contemporary theories and methods.
This move, according to Kerr, allows Sawyer’s work to move toward a “much more fruitful era of sociology.”He is particularly impressed with Sawyer’s recent studies in hip-hop culture, with a focus on the perceived anti-intellectualism often wrongly applied to the subculture. He adds that Sawyer’s work demonstrates a deep exploration of hip-hop culture that shows hip-hop practitioners to be “critical consumers, resistors of dominant institutional and racial structures, and also socially aware and active agents who understood hip-hop as a textually rich tradition, while also being aware of potentially negative and harmful aspects of hip-hop.”
Finally, he praises Sawyer’s work for linking micro-level analysis to macro-structural societal elements, showing through his ethnographic data how hip-hop is reflective of young people’s place in the dominant educational culture, while offering those young people the opportunity for radical resistance to those same structures.
Ultimately, Kerr sees Sawyer’s work as pushing against the current turn in the field of sociology that has worked to narrow analysis for scholars and academics. He adds, “Dr. Sawyer shows his study’s relevance in understanding historical oppression, educational inequality, framing by the dominant culture of black youth culture as ‘low brow,’ and in understanding hip-hop as a resistive and radical response to the larger world that his study’s subjects find themselves in.”
Don Sawyer remembers the earliest days of the Crossroads Collective program. Focused on using sociology in real-world applied ways, Sawyer was constantly seeking methods for using academic resources to make a real-world impact, and seeing “hip hop as a language of youth” was one place to interrupt a dangerous cycle that was being constantly perpetuated by an educational system that was failing some students.
The question guiding his research and pedagogy was, “How do I meet them in this space and give them a high-quality experience?” A few years ago, he was presenting at a conference about using hip hop as a medium for expression, and a principal approached him to ask if he would consider working with some of their at-risk students, those most in danger of dropping out of school. More than willing, Sawyer agreed and they came up with a plan. They didn’t know if any of the students who were assigned to the class would show up, but not only were all of the students there-they were all early and waiting.
In his first seconds in front of the classroom, Sawyer just “spit a rhyme,” and the barriers were immediately broken light continued down. Students were invested. He asked how many of them were writers, and none responded affirmatively. Yet, when he asked how many rap or write rap, several said they did. His goal then became to show them they were indeed writers. The class quickly grew from 25 to 44 students, just by word of mouth.
Over the next few weeks, students involved in the Crossroads Collective showed a downturn in disciplinary reports and showed increased attendance. Sawyer was not tutoring them-he explains that he was simply “invested in their lives.” He took them to his old neighborhood and to conferences at Columbia University, NYU, and CUNY.
Sawyer watched some of them have that “a-ha” moment, recognizing that a professor from a university could have started in Harlem (exactly where Sawyer himself started). In their conversations during the Crossroads Collective program, they cover what matters to those students; they discuss ways to face violence in their communities.
They develop their voices as they seek out “solutions and plans” for problems in their own lives or in their communities. He facilitates the conversations, including the disagreements. He models empathy and the tools for listening. He talks to them about continuing their educations, including considering community college or four-year colleges and universities. “They were nervous about the unknown,” he explains. Many of them would be first-generation college students, and he tells them that he was a first-gen college student too, so he understands the fears and uncertainties
Forging Connections to Alter Worlds
Quinnipiac colleague Sue Hudd explains that Sawyer has accomplished something few young faculty can: earning the respect of marginalized young men from the local community who are at grave risk of dropping out of school. He has also helped them recognize the possibilities for education in their lives. In “Sociology of Hip Hop,” taught at both Quinnipiac and Cross, Hudd notes that Sawyer provides students a chance to witness firsthand the world of another, bringing students together to learn and share in a “hip hop forum.”
Hudd states, “This direct exchange, which allows both the Cross and the QU students to present their work, creates mutual understandings, and both groups of students develop a richer appreciation for what it might mean to ‘walk in each other’s shoes.’ I have no doubt that there are immense long-term effects that emerge from these exchanges. Don is altering both our world and their worlds with his ability to forge these connections.”
Dr. Sue Hudd also praises Sawyer for his commitment to students beyond the university walls, explaing that despite Sawyer’s relocation to Connecticut for his position at the university, he stayed involved with the young men he mentored during his dissertation study, watching them grow from 7th graders to high school seniors. He still makes visits to Syracuse to check on them, and they will be attending college in fall 2015; two already have acceptance letters.
The program, which supports adolescent males who are attending area middle schools, gives Sawyer the opportunity to offer “timely mentoring of at-risk youth,” which Hudd notes can “go a long way toward sustaining a value for education among a group of young men who face challenging life conditions, and who live in environments where the opportunity to put a good education ‘to work’ are limited at best.”
At Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven, Assistant Principal Dina Natalino has watched Sawyer use the Crossroads Collective program to impact the lives of many young men. In addition to engaging these students in conversations that matter, and allowing these young men to express their thoughts in a safe and comfortable atmosphere, he also offers them many new experiences, both in and out of New Haven.
Natalino notes, “Over the past two years, many members of the Crossroads Collective that were originally deemed at-risk of dropping out of school made it to graduation. “She shares that Crossroads has undoubtedly impacted many Wilbur students. Currently, many of the seniors that have participated in Crossroads Collective for three years are now applying to colleges, and she adds that Sawyer has been instrumental in supporting that process as well.
“Our young men know that Dr. Sawyer truly cares for them, and that he will continue to be an important part of their lives after they graduate from Wilbur Cross High School,” Natalino concludes, “and that has made all the difference.”