Guest Post from Shannon: Gang Leader for a Day, by Sudhir Venkatesh

Shannon, of The Time Traveler’s Wife fame, is back to offer her thoughts on a new sociology/economics book for the masses.  You may have read a bit about Sudhir Venkatesh in Freakonomics, but now he has his own format to discuss crime, poverty, and the projects.

Sudhir Venkatesh’s book, Gang Leader for a Day, is his account of the six years he spent in Chicago while working on his PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago.  During this time he became impassioned to return to the root of sociology and discover people in their most natural environments.  His solution?  Conduct his own research in the projects.  For a guy from suburban California, it was a wake-up call to say the least.

Through his interviews, Venkatesh became entwined with J.T., a gang leader who was college educated and had chosen to go back to the projects.  J.T. was quickly rising through the ranks and willing to let an eager student follow and study his every move.  Venkatesh does an excellent job of keeping the story moving by telling short vignettes in an impersonal voice.  Although he shares some of what he was thinking at the time, he withholds judgment – a standpoint that allows him to draw connections between policy, economic development, sociology, poverty, the drug trade, and demographics.  The situational account of what actually happens in the projects and more importantly why it happens provides a realistic glimpse into the problems and amazing coping mechanisms of those in poverty, as well as the options and decisions governments have to ameliorate the over-arching issues that pervade “bad” areas of large cities such as Chicago.

This was a fascinating book and was written in a very conversational style. Right after I finished it I had the opportunity to hear Venkatesh on his book tour. I would suggest that others supplement their reading in this way if possible. He spoke of much more of the background behind some of the decisions and was even somewhat self-deprecating in noting his idiocy in certain situations.  While there was a certain amount of fear, he became more and more desensitized by some of the scenarios in which he found himself, including fights and drive-by shootings.  His recount is not just from memory but also directly from the many notes he would scrawl after spending all day and night in the projects.

During his lecture at the University of Iowa, I asked him how he personally coped with the information he now knew (much of which was regarding illegal activities) and the violence he saw.  He spoke of feeling somewhat schizophrenic – he practically lived in the horrible conditions of the projects by day and then spoke with disgust about ridiculous subjects like the height of the ivy growing on campus buildings by night.  After his talk,  he pulled me aside and said that he would go into a bar after being in the projects and release all of his thoughts, experiences, and feelings to the bartender.  To this day, that bartender is the only person besides Venkatesh himself who knows everything that happened during those six years.

I would highly encourage you to read the book.  It is an easy one to pick up periodically and really opened my eyes to the whys and hows behind the actions of those on the south side of Chicago.  By no means did Venkatesh presume that this book would serve as a guide for public policy or encompass all of the problems of those in the projects, but he wanted his readers to know that even he, who made mistakes and stupid decisions, was able to learn, discover, and experience.  In my opinion, he was incredibly successful in his efforts.

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