Are We Safe? Depends on Who You Ask.

Left to right: Michele Andre, Atheena Fraser and Gabrielle Giordano

Left to right: Michele Andre, Atheena Fraser and Gabrielle Giordano
June 23, 2014

Recently, a group of BMCC students conducted on-the-street interviews as part of their research project, “Fear of Crime and Drugs in my Neighborhood” led by Professor Yolanda Martin, Coordinator of the BMCC Criminal Justice program.

Administering a survey to people in their neighborhoods, students in Professor Martin’s Crime and Justice in the Urban Environment class considered links between a person’s demographic identity, and his or her perceptions of crime and safety.

They also entered their findings into an online database, wrote a research paper and then a group of them—Michelle Andre, Atheena Frasier, Gabrielle Giordano (and Dylan Giordano, who had participated in the project last fall)—presented a summary of their project at the recent Left Forum Conference sponsored by John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, and held at the CUNY Graduate Center in midtown Manhattan.

“I was nervous, but I don’t think it showed,” says student researcher Michele Andre. “We did a prep in class, so that really helped.”

“Over 5,000 people attended the conference and we were the only undergraduates presenting,” says Dylan Giordano. “The audience asked a lot of really fundamental questions, and brought up areas we weren’t familiar with.”

Atheena Fraser adds, “They chose me to go first on the panel, so I had to break the ice and set the stage for everyone else. But I also got to socialize with really good people who are involved in the field I’m hoping to be in.”

“The conference brings together activists and academics, so we had a lot of practitioners in the audience,” says Professor Martin.

“Being there gave the students a chance to see how people incorporate research into their work; how you can become an agent, not just a passive recipient of information or data that is collected.”

Going beyond the textbook

The interview project was first conducted in Fall 2013, and was the subject of a panel, “Beyond the Textbook: Student Research and Primary Sources as Learning Tools Among Community College Students.”

That panel, moderated by Professors Yolanda Martin and Katherine McLean, was part of the conference Beyond Access: Latino Education and the Community College held at BMCC.

“We discussed proactive learning methods the project provided, by requiring that the students reach out to and interview people in their neighborhoods,” says Professor Martin.

“As they reviewed their findings, they analyzed the responses in terms of participant demographics, class, where the subject lives, and other factors. This fostered a higher level of analytical thinking in the students.”

From the student’s point of view, “Proactive learning is better than just reading books and taking exams because it sticks with you,” says Atheena Fraser.

“This is the only class I had that was designed this way, and I remember everything we did in that class. It was me doing the research, as opposed to reading about it and taking a multiple choice exam on the material at the end of the semester.”

Surprise findings

Armed with a clipboard and list of questions, Atheena Fraser was surprised by some of the things she learned about her neighborhood, Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

“Avenue B, as you go up, it’s more Caucasian,” she says, “and as you go down Avenue B, you see more people of color and public housing.”

When conducting the same research in Fall 2013, “I targeted African Americans in the neighborhood to interview,” she says, “and I guess I got a better reception because I’m physically similar to them—so the second time around, in Spring 2014, I tried to target Caucasians.”

The result?

“They thought I was a beggar and it was hard to get their views on drugs and crime,” she says, “but I did manage to get two people to speak to me and one was a white military veteran who’d been living in the Lower East Side since the crack and heroin epidemic, so he had positive things to say.”

A new wave of law enforcement professionals

Dylan Giordano sees the project as being about race, but also being about “the disparity between lower and upper classes,” and Michelle Andre notes that “there is a lack of trust in law enforcement that seems based on class.”

Andre’s middle-income neighbors—whose class identity resembles that of individuals working in law enforcement—“would sit down and have meetings with police groups,” an event less likely to happen, she says, with lower-income residents of the neighborhood.

As criminal justice majors with social science training, Professor Martin’s students are part of a new wave of law enforcement professionals who see crime in a context of socio-economic factors.

After earning her associate degree in criminal justice at BMCC, Michelle Andre plans to study psychology with a minor in criminal justice at SUNY Albany. Atheena Fraser is considering the criminal justice program at John Jay College as her next step, and so is Dylan Giordano, who plans to earn both a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a masters in psychology.

“I think this class will probably give me a better understanding of how the FBI and police can use a community policing approach,” he says.

“The shift today is how to focus on preventive measures in response to crime, as opposed to reactive police work,” says Professor Martin. “You need trust, to communicate.”

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  • Students interview their neighbors, to collect data for a research project
  • They correlate demographic identity, with perceptions of safety and crime
  • Led by Professor Yolanda Martin, they present their project at the Left Forum Conference sponsored by John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY

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