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Protest on the Edge

Sociology Professor Kelley Strawn spent his summer as he always does, looking for the Holy Grail in a sweltering city in Mexico. After the sun rises, the temperature climbs past 100 and the air is thick as a sauna. Strawn spends his days indoors, in an air conditioned library, navigating online databases and typing words in a search engine: "sit in," "protest," "blockade," "rally," "march."

He has more than 65,000 news articles on his hard drive, but he's collecting more, and during a handful of trips to Mexico City he succeeded in acquiring official state and police records of protest events. "That's the Holy Grail of research -- getting state officials to turn over data they don't want you to know they have," he says.

Strawn is tracking news events to better understand what the media is, and is not, telling the public when protests occur. He wants to understand how protest becomes radicalized and how social movements turn to social unrest or even violence, and Mexico is his laboratory.

"We can't take the stability of our neighbors for granted," he says, "especially Mexico. Not everyone there has bought into the system because for everyone who has power, many more do not. There's a delicate balance.

"The country is undergoing major social, political and economic changes -- in a deliberate manner. We assume that because Mexico has a relatively long history of stability, things will remain stable. In 2000, though, one-party rule was broken and the political structure shifted right, toward a more conservative government."

Events in 2006 offer both hope of continued stability, through the highly contested but peaceful transition of federal power to a new congress and president, and reason to be concerned: The schism between the affluent and poor is becoming ever more unstable.

Changing Track
Strawn didn't mean to end up in Mexico. Two years into a sociology PhD program, he threw caution -- and his professional track -- to the wind, took a two-year leave of absence, and headed for Mexico, where he taught at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM), a system of private schools with 30 campuses in Mexico. "It's essentially high school prep and a privatized university system, one of the only Mexican schools accredited by North America," he says.

The campus where Strawn taught is based in Culiacán, a city of 750,000 people and counting. Immigrants from around the world find their way to the valley where two rivers meet, creating a vibrant ethnic melting pot, but the population is still largely Mestizo (a blend of Caucasian and Amerindian) and Catholicism still dominates. In spite of Culiacán’s size, the campus is known as one of the smaller, more provincial branches.

Strawn returned to the States after two years and brought two things back with him: a wife, a Culiacán native and fellow teacher, and a deepened conviction about social justice. He immersed himself in his sociology studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with new energy and a stronger sense of purpose. "My whole state of mind was elevated," he says.

"I have seen so many inequalities in Central America and Mexico," Strawn continues, remembering the impoverished barrios from his travels. "Wealth is so unequally distributed in these countries, and this puts tremendous pressure on social and political institutions. That I have family there makes it all the more real to me. In many ways, this guides my research as a sociologist and fuels my determination to engage students in discussions about causes and solutions."

Thinking Past the Labels
Now Strawn returns to Mexico each summer, to the ITESM library with its Spanish-language databases. He collects and categorizes and works to shed light on why people block streets, why they march, why they organize.

He hopes to instill passion and a sense of social justice in his students. "I want them to be critical thinkers who won't just accept presented information. At the same time, I don't want them to be cynical or pessimistic because the problems are so difficult to solve."

Strawn wants his students to ask questions and seek solutions without the baggage of labels -- Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, right-wing, left-wing -- getting in the way.

"I don't like how the world puts us into those categories, or how our public discourse invokes these labels in ways that grossly over-simplify complex issues. A fundamental tenet in sociology is that social explanations are seldom as obvious as we think they are. Thus, it's important to value all positions regardless of which place you're coming from, whether you're talking about inequalities in wealth, health care, the death penalty or what the legal definition of marriage is going to be. It shouldn't come down to whether we're liberals or conservatives. What should matter is what we're doing right and what we need to do better.

"Most important," Strawn says, "is to be hopeful about what any one individual can accomplish."



02-15-2007