Working with and conducting research in sensitive communities

Patrick J. Holladay, Ph.D. - Tourism RESET Research Fellow

Associate Professor - School of Hospitality, Sport and Tourism Management - Troy University - Brunswick

Sensitive communities can be defined in a number of different ways. The idea of ‘sensitive’ can have a vast array of connotations from race, ethnicity, economic position, gender, sexuality, religion and so forth. In this case, I am going to write about the Gullah Geechee communities of the Southeast coast and barrier islands. The Gullah Geechee people are a distinct group of African American people, originally from West Africa with a unique culture, foodways, and heritage. Of particular importance is the fact that the Gullah Geechee developed their own creole language.

Gullah Geechee sweetgrass sewing

Gullah Geechee sweetgrass sewing

Much of what I have written here comes from conversations with elders and community leaders in the Gullah Geechee community. For instance, several of the first points come from Queen Quet’s book WEBE Gullah/Geechee Cultural Capital & Collaboration Anthology, which is an anthology of rights and justice writings. Other ideas came from Heather Hodges, Executive Director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission and from Amy Roberts, Executive Director of the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition. The rest are mine from 20-some years of field research and some lessons learned, while the others should (I hope) simply be common sense.

I would like to start with respect. Respect should underpin everything I will outline. Respect that Gullah Geechee is a living culture. In essence, this is about remembering that this is not a group in some distant history to be studied. They are a living, breathing community with feelings, families and day-to-day lives like everyone else. It’s important to keep in mind that people do not want to feel like they are being placed in a jar to be looked at and examined.

Another important aspect is to respect Gullah Geechee language. It is not okay for any community visitor to ask someone to ‘speak Gullah for me’. Further, it is also insensitive to attempt to speak Gullah Geechee to Gullah Geechee people. I suppose in some cases if the work is around linguistics and you are invited to try to speak some words then that would be fine. In all other cases, just don’t do it.

Gullah Geechee communities are both insular and private. It is very important to gain permission before coming into communities. Do not simply show up. Permission can be gained by speaking with elders and community groups ahead of time. Explain what you would like to do, its potential benefits, who you are and where you come from.

There are a number of films, books and other accounts of Gullah Geechee people and communities. Do not, however, use fictional films or books as primary references. Gullah Gullah Island, for example, was a popular kid’s show on Nickelodeon in the 1990’s. But Gullah Gullah Island and its characters are not real. The funny thing is that you would be surprised by how many tourists come to the Southeast coast and ask how to find Gullah Gullah Island!

Gullah Geechee sign on display at Geechee Kunda in Riceboro, GA

Gullah Geechee sign on display at Geechee Kunda in Riceboro, GA

Next, follow through with your word with people assisting you. This is absolutely critical. Be a person of your word. You should seek to build trust and relationships. In my own work, I found it important—for years in some cases—to sit with elders and members of the community to listen, become someone who is familiar and not to be a “know-it-all” researcher.

Another piece of this idea is to not “parachute in”. What I mean by that is to do a data grab and leave because you are too focused on your research, paper you want to write and/or grant you received. Coming into a community simply to take data, leave and never come back or share what you have learned is the ultimate in selfish research.

GGHC-logo-01.png

Speaking of research, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission has a Research Consortium that facilitates research and communication about research. It was during one of these meetings that the point was made to be specific to communities – Gullah Geechee is not monolithic. The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, for example, stretches from North Carolina to Florida. As you can see on this interactive map of the Corridor, there a myriad of communities and places. Each has its own unique character.

Another thing for a researcher to consider is that it may be hard to get Institutional Review Board forms signed. Be aware that there is a great deal of caution among Gullah Geechee when dealing with the government, outsiders and giving out private information. This stems for generation after generation of battles over land, rights, justice, privacy, educational and economic opportunities and more. There are ongoing conflicts over heirs property and development of coastal and island lands that are being hard fought by Gullah Geechee communities. Again, this returns to the need to build trust, relationships and to do what you say you are going to do.

Continuing that thought (and to reinforce this concept), the Gullah Geechee are private. There are some incredibly sensitive and sacred practices and places like the ringshout and praise/prayer houses. Any research into these areas needs to be carried out with deep respect, full permission and complete transparency.

The Historic Harrington School - a 1920s era Gullah Geechee schoolhouse on St Simons Island

The Historic Harrington School - a 1920s era Gullah Geechee schoolhouse on St Simons Island

Next, there are historic taxonomy/classification issues across research. A researcher should be aware that work with Gullah Geechee communities and individuals goes back into the 1800’s. Language and terms vary from Negro, to Colored, to African American and there are even differences in characterizations of Gullah and Geechee with the published literature and research.

Finally, it is not necessary to always enter into Gullah Geechee communities. It is a good idea to use research institution collections, historic societies and festivals. There is a plethora of information in these places. Indeed, the Georgia Sea Islands Festival, held on St. Simons Island, Georgia, where I live is one of these. The Festival was started in the 1970’s by Bessie Jones and Mable Hillery of the Georgia Sea Island Singers and is still going strong over four decades later. Festivals like this can be found all along the Southeast coast and are terrific places to learn about culture, language, food, spirituality, storytelling, community and more.

I will close with these three thoughts to encapsulate what I have written here. Practice mindfulness and be aware of your words and actions. Be reliable and always do what you say you will do. And be consistent, keep showing up to build trust, friendships and a place in the community.

Geechee Gullah Ringshouters from McIntosh County, GA

Geechee Gullah Ringshouters from McIntosh County, GA

“We Live in a Vertically Biased World”

By: Stefanie Benjamin, PhD for Tourism RESET

HRT-410 students with Brett Heising at the Downtown Hilton Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee.

HRT-410 students with Brett Heising at the Downtown Hilton Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Late December, I was making my annual drive to Miami, Florida to visit my family over winter break. It was on this arduous, boring, flat drive through Florida that I decided to try to wake myself up and re-listen to The Evolution of Accessible Travel podcast produced by SKIFT. During this podcast, I realized that this could be an incredible collaboration and partnership with my HRT 410-Strategic Management of Hospitality & Tourism students at the University of Tennessee … the wheels were turning my friends!

As an Assistant Professor in Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management, this class serves as our senior capstone course unpacking marketing and managerial strategies of hospitality and tourism. With this specific course, I tend to focus on a student-driven project with some social equity or sustainability component drilled in. However, as any good professor sometimes does … may have waited a wee bit to organize and plan the official ‘final project.’ But, as Spiderman said …. with great procrastination comes great responsibility. He said that right?

brettapproved.com -  Accessibility Information on the Places You Want to Go

brettapproved.com - Accessibility Information on the Places You Want to Go

With Spiderman in mind, once back in Miami, I contacted brettapproved, a company founded by Brett Heising that helps people with disabilities (PWDs) travel more confidently through user generated data - think of Yelp but rating the accessibility and inclusivity of hospitality and tourism spaces for PWDs. Brett started the company in 2012 simply for wanting to shower on a business trip but not having access to a roll-in shower - even though it was promised by the hotel staff. His company disseminates information for PWDs to ‘travel more confidentially.’

I believe everyone regardless of any given disability or mobility challenge, deserves to travel — confidently
— Brett Heising

Fast forward to two months later on a rainy, cold, dreary February Sunday in eastern Tennessee. I got into my car excited, yet somewhat nervous, to meet Brett Heising at the Knoxville airport. As I was preparing my students for Brett’s visit, I realized that I was also anxious to meet Brett, as this was my first time interacting and escorting a person in a wheelchair for a sustained period of time. I was scared that I was going to screw up, say something offensive, or run into challenges with Knoxville’s hilly terrain or moderately accessible university campus … I didn’t know what to expect.

As I got closer to the terminal I texted, ‘out in front’ - as our Knoxville airport is quite small, I thought that this was no big deal. Not realizing my ignorance, Brett responded that he was picking up his luggage and kindly asked if I could come in and assist. This was my first aha moment … as Brett is someone who uses a wheelchair, the action of ‘meeting me outside’ with his luggage wasn’t as easy or accessible as for an able-bodied person. This first interaction was the beginning of understanding how PWDs potentially travel. After we successfully figured out how to load Brett’s wheelchair into my car, we were off to Adopo to discuss our working project for HRT-410 over pizza.

Over dinner, we shared similar popular culture references and our mutual love for The Big Lebowski abiding as The Dude does. His spirit and attitude was warm and inviting and our mutual passion for social equity was apparent - even though he identifies as a White, cisgendered, heterosexual man, the intersection of being a PWD shared similar biases and disadvantages as my identity as a woman in our society. We spoke about how PWDs earn 13.6% less than able-bodied people and are significantly more likely to lose a job, be unemployed, or refused the promotion or position. Compared with the Gender Pay Gap where women working full-time, year-round earn just 80 cents for every dollar that men earn - not to mention Women of Color earn less than White women. We shared our stories regarding discrimination and vowed to continue persisting as social equity fighters … even though it is challenging and filled with frustration, pain, depression, and disappointment.

Notice the person ... not the chair.
— Brett Heising

During Brett’s week in Knoxville, he visited our classroom and shared with the students his lived experiences, not specifically as a PWD, but as a human being wanting and deserving of respect and dignity - and access to a damn roll in shower! He focused on inspiring the students to put forth as much effort and passion as humanely possibly with everything they do and reiterated that, “we live in a vertically biased world.”

Brett Heising engaging with HRT-410 students on campus at The University of Tennessee.

Brett Heising engaging with HRT-410 students on campus at The University of Tennessee.

Brett’s visit was also coupled with a class site visit to his hotel at the Downtown Hilton to view what an accessible or ADA room looks like, how he views the property in terms of accessibility, and how we can be more aware of PWDs guests’ needs if our students will work in the industry. Part of this project is educating our students to become fully aware of PWDs expectations and needs when traveling so that they can share this knowledge with hotel front of house staff in Knoxville, our RHTM advisory board, and at the Greater Knoxville Hospitality Association (GHKA) monthly meeting in April. Additionally, our students will help generate reviews for Brett’s website, as part of their overall grade, consisting of tips to assist PWDs when visiting Knoxville. Hopefully, instilling the skills to be allies for PWDs can potentially encourage them to be advocates for social equity and seduce universal design within hospitality and tourism.

Myself, Brett, and Jill Thompson - Director of GHKA after Brett’s presentation to our Knoxville community.

Myself, Brett, and Jill Thompson - Director of GHKA after Brett’s presentation to our Knoxville community.

Brett’s visit to Knoxville ended appropriately … over a beer and margarita on a Wednesday evening on Gay Street. We breathed a sigh of relief as we successfully navigated the streets and curb cuts of Knoxville in the rain, facilitated great conversations with our students and community, and wrapped up any loose ends with the project and expectations we had for our students moving forward.

Brett’s visit to Knoxville taught me more than I was expecting … he mentioned early on during his visit for us to notice the person not the chair. Although he shared that the chair is essentially part of him … it isn’t only him. I teach my students that in order for us to move toward diversity and inclusion, we must actively and empathetically see and listen to people with different lived experiences. However, as my students continue to work on their presentations and projects, I wonder will this project have a lasting effect on them? Is this helping to foster change or an awareness around PWDs? Or is it just another project simply for a grade to graduate? Only time will tell …