Charlotte Ryan's Back Story

For four generations, my family has worked in Lowell’s factories and breweries. Breaking that pattern, I left Lowell at seventeen to study history at Harvard where I worked as a research assistant at the Schlesinger Library for the History of Women in America, as a student leader in Education for Action and as a campus coordinator for the United Farm Workers. While leading a service-learning project in Mexico, I became interested in cultural resistance to U.S. presence. On graduation, I won a Rockefeller Traveling Fellowship to explore music’s impact on social change in Popular Unity Chile; I sang with Kuru Vun, the Agriculture Ministry’s baile folklorico and studied Freirian approaches to adult education and cultural change.

After the 1973 coup, I worked for a decade as a labor organizer at Boston City Hospital, and as an organizer for a Boston community school program, my job description reading, “ease racial tension.” I organized block clubs to encourage dialog among Dominican, Haitian, West Indian, African American, Irish and Italian residents, led participatory research on housing gentrification, and expanded accessibility to adult education classes for recent immigrants, particularly Haitian and Dominican women with small children. I also began to use life histories to document neighborhood residents’ understandings of racial transition. During this period, I completed a Masters in Education at Boston University focusing on adult education as a forum and tool for community building. My thesis used English as a Second language curriculum to dislodge stereotypes of African Americans held by recent Chinese immigrants.

After teaching field-based courses for several years at UMASS Boston’s College of Public and Community Service, I decided to undertake a doctorate in sociology with social movement scholar, William Gamson at Boston College. My dissertation focused on two marginalized communities that successfully expanded their political power by linking community organizing and media outreach. I completed a post-doctorate at Harvard School of Public Health where I focused on Freirian methods of integrating public health communications and participatory action research.

In the decade since completing my post-doctorate, I have blended university teaching with extensive participatory action research and community education projects. As Co-Director of the Media Research and Action Project (MRAP), I design and lead participatory action research projects at the interface of communications and social change. Most projects involve undergraduate and/or graduate interns as well as community activists.

Most broadly conceived, I want to identify transformative practices that strengthen community efforts to establish consistent democracies. By consistent democracy, I mean communities that embrace differences while addressing inequalities of race, class, gender, sexuality, language and/or nationality. Since media form the convening systems of our historical period, communications projects often provide an initial entry point. My goal, however, remains documenting sustainable ways to address inequalities of power, or put positively, ways to make democracy more consistent.