In this post OHMA student Alissa Funderburk (2017-2018) introduces the second Future Voices Fellow, Desmond Austin Miller. Alissa recently conducted a one-on-one interview with Desmond to learn more about her classmate’s life, education, work, and research interests.
Where do you belong? What is your place? How is space fragmented? Who determines what space belongs to whom? These are the types of questions that weave through the systemic issues of our city, and the history of this country. These are also questions that Oral History masters students Lynn Lewis and Demond Austin Miller are currently asking. From manifest destiny to displacement, erasure, gentrification, and homelessness, “belonging” is a word that resonates with both Lynn and Desmond as they discuss their academic interests and the work they have done.
Desmond Austin Miller was chosen as a Future Voices Fellow for the 2017-2018 academic year based on his exceptional potential to contribute to the development of the field of oral history. Another promising individual whose proposed work contributes to the Columbia Center for Oral History Research mission of documenting the central issues and conflicts of our times, Desmond, like Lynn, has worked closely with homeless people in his city.
Desmond joins the 2017 OHMA cohort as a recent graduate of Lafayette College where he majored in Anthropology & Sociology with a minor in Africana Studies. As a Posse Scholar, Desmond was part of an exceptional group of students that further developed his appreciation for community and intergenerational support, caring for one another.
During his time at Lafayette, Desmond noticed the economic influence of the college on the surrounding city. “Columbia kinda sits up on a big hill, but so does Lafayette,” he explains. “Imagine if Columbia sat on a hill so big that it was looking over all of the city, that's kind of like what Lafayette is. We’re on this huge, steep, you know, mountain and you just look right down at the city, at the city, at Easton.” According to Desmond, this positioning allows for students to be “disjointed from the goings on” and “ignorant of the school’s economic force.” The college is well endowed, and Desmond recalls how Lafayette is “the driving force economically in Easton and the Lehigh valley” so much so that the school received government funding even when the city's last public library couldn't afford to open back up. Interest in this type of power dynamic is just a small part of the motivation for Desmond’s academic studies.
As a native of Washington D.C., Desmond spent his summers in the District working in various spheres of the non-profit scene in education administration and homeless advocacy. One of the projects he has dedicated much of his time to is Street Sense, a D.C.-based 16-page bi-weekly street newspaper that raises public awareness of homelessness and poverty in the city and creates economic opportunities for people experiencing homelessness.
Desmond’s interest in the field of oral history comes from multiple interactions and experiences in recent years. Learning about the Western Apache from Keith H. Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places, being introduced to the co-director of OHMA and her research on Lower East Side squatters, working in an oral history archive, and a journalism internship at American University, all helped to prepare and guide him to this program. “I knew that I wanted to do something related to storytelling and story making, or recording in some way,” he recalls. “Everyday I'm getting up and I'm just thinking how fortunate I am that they kinda saw in me something. They saw something that they said they want someone like that here.”
Desmond hopes to further explore his research interests in human rights activism, homelessness, power, race, and other topics at Columbia through the methodological lens of oral history because he sees it as an interdisciplinary field that mixes ethnography, anthropology, social justice and journalism. Currently his work investigates the effects of gentrification in New York City, with special attention to the historical and personal significance of places to the people who inhabit them. In his opinion, every place has a story, whether it's an institution or the block somebody raised their kids on. He sees an obvious connection between the growing visibility of gentrification and the longtime issue of homelessness. “It’s like unacceptable to me. I just, I still, I’ll never understand how we can live in the most opulent society to ever exist in the history of our planet, of human civilization and still have this as a problem. Or how other things can so easily distract from that problem.”
Alissa Funderburk is a part-time Oral History MA student at Columbia University currently serving as one of OHMA’s communications fellows. A Columbia College graduate (2012) and New Yorker, Alissa has worked at York Preparatory School for the last four years.