Autoethnographies of a Pandemic from Brooklyn’s Epicenter

Editor’s note: Today we are pleased to announce the launch of a two-week blog series, featuring eight autoethnographies from students at Brooklyn College. We extend our thanks to Professors Jeanne Theoharis, Joseph Entin, and Dominick Braswell for organizing the series and selecting the pieces for inclusion. In this introduction, they discuss the goals of the series and how covid-19 impacted the lives of their students during the spring and summer months. Follow this link to read all the essays in the series. 

Black Lives Matter Rally (Flickr/David Geitgey Sierralupe)

Sirens, falling sick, worrying about sick family members, losing jobs, adjusting to online learning, having to work while other New Yorkers are sheltered at home, mustering forward with school, going hungry, taking care of siblings, having no privacy, looking out for neighbors, more sirens. This was the spring for many Brooklyn College students.  

Brooklyn College students and the communities they come from were economically vulnerable even before COVID struck; the majority of BC students come from families with incomes of $40,000 or less. A study done before the pandemic found 48% of CUNY students experiencing food insecurity within the month and 14% homeless within the previous year. BC students come from neighborhoods that are food deserts, that have been transformed by gentrification, that include disproportionate environmental hazards (like waste removal sites and bus depots). Before the virus hit, most students, along with their family members, worked long hours both on and off the books—and many didn’t have health insurance. And then the coronavirus struck—exacerbating preexisting inequalities, creating new ones, and leading to new forms of mutual aid and organizing.

In the spring, the Social Science Research Council announced a new grant initiative for research on inequality and the pandemic.  Despite ample recognition that COVID-19 is hitting Black communities, immigrant communities, poor Americans, and undocumented people disproportionately hard, hearing from young people in these communities is exceedingly rare. So we submitted a proposal for a pandemic autoethnography project to make space for students to analyze and contextualize what was happening to them and those around them. To our delight, we were one of the research projects the SSRC funded. The grant enabled Brooklyn College student researchers from deeply-impacted communities across the city to spend the summer crafting autoethnographies of their family and community experiences of the pandemic. We held biweekly meetings and a mini-conference so they could think through these issues together and bounce ideas off each other. Each student picked an issue to anchor their piece around, marrying their own personal experiences with strands of research to amplify the context. The results were breathtaking—a panoramic view of the various ways communities across NYC have suffered, struggled, persevered, and resisted.

Eighteen students took part in the summer project, and their autoethnographies have now been deposited at the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Brooklyn College COVID-19 archive. Getting us beyond the numbers, these narratives not only examine the impacts of the pandemic on jobs, physical and mental health, family well-being, and food security, but provide a granular look at the preexisting social conditions in place before it hit. They also illuminate Black joy and resiliency, the ties of immigrant communities, the invaluable work a cross section of BIPOC New Yorkers performed to keep the city functioning, and the organizing and community mobilization that sustained Brooklynites, as the state failed to provide adequate basic support. They tell stories that weren’t being shown in the media, by people who weren’t being interviewed.

The purpose of this collective autoethnography was, at its root, to preserve an essential historical record, capturing the impacts of this moment in New York City, the initial US epicenter of the pandemic, on some of its most hard-hit communities by community members. To do so, these young people set the terms for how to understand issues of inequality and the pandemic as it played out in their communities. At its heart, then, this project set out to address a key shortcoming in the research that followed the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which too often took Black New Orleanians as victims and objects of study and let them set the terms and directions of study. In the narratives collected here, Black, Latinx, and South Asian students not only recount moving tales of individual and collective struggle, but also set the frames and the questions, pointing us to the essential research that needed elucidating and the context critical for illuminating it.

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Jeanne Theoharis, Joseph Entin, and Dominick Braswell

Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College; Joseph Entin is Professor of English at Brooklyn College; and Dominick Braswell is a graduate of Brooklyn College and now a Ph.D. student in Africana Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.