An Interview with Dr. Erin M. Kerrison: "Justice work looks a lot like love"

Our team conducted research to support our Black Lives Matter, Always project in August of 2020 and we had the pleasure to speak with Dr. Erin M. Kerrison. Dr. Kerrison’s work and experience enabled her to provide a unique insight into the Black Lives Matter movement, student activism and the role of data in the social impact sector.

As a UC Berkeley Assistant Professor, Dr. Kerrison's work extends from a legal epidemiological framework, wherein law and legal institutions operate as structural determinants of health. Specifically, through varied agency partnerships, her mixed-method research agenda investigates the impact that compounded structural disadvantage, concentrated poverty and state supervision has on service delivery, substance misuse, violence and other health outcomes for individuals and communities marked by criminal legal system intervention.

Dr. Kerrison's research has been supported by the National Institute of Justice and the National Institute on Drug Abuse and her recent empirical research has been published in Health Services Research, Punishment & Society, Law and Human Behavior, and Social Science & Medicine. Dr. Kerrison holds a BA in Sociology and Philosophy from Haverford College, an MA in Criminology, Law and Society from Villanova University, and a PhD in Criminology from the University of Delaware. She was also awarded a Vice Provost's Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania and serves as an active member of the American Society of Criminology, the Law & Society Association, and the Society for Social Work and Research.

Activism Always: What do you think is going to happen related to the Black Lives Matter movement in the following months and then maybe even years?

Dr. Erin M. Kerrison: With the Black Lives Matter movement, we're all cultivating new ways of being in community. This is really meaningful as we imagine what the Black Lives Matter hashtag communicates, what the movement can offer, and what kind of legacy we want to build.

I think there's a lot of opportunities for Black Lives Matter, given the way we're connecting more vastly and more inclusively. Now, you don't have to actually be on campus or in person to do this work ― you can still be in community virtually. I think that's going to become really meaningful for Black Lives Matter in the coming months, and in the long term even. I will say what I think is really important is that when people say it, they mean it. It’s easy to put a placard in your window, or a flag up on your lawn, or something “woke” in your email signature. I see a lot of Twitter handles with the fist or the blacked out square. But, particularly with social media, those identities are curated. People very carefully frame and build the outward persona they want to share with the world. But their politics, what they do in the voting booth, what they do with their neighbors, and what they do when they read job applications is varied ― the proof is in that pudding. I'd like to see Black Lives Matter meaning Black Lives Matter and not just [be] a slogan. What will be required for that in the future is an individualized and very private commitment to living out those politics.

I always say to folks, justice work looks like love, it looks like a shared respect...It's not just about police terrorism, it's about our health. It's about making sure that we have the same possibilities as you do. And so I ask folks: “If you don't think that I deserve that, why not?”

Activism Always: What are ways that we can encourage individuals to take these individualized and private actions ― especially since so much of it right now is very publicized on social media?

Dr. Erin M. Kerrison: I struggle with this because the real question is, “how do I get people to care about my well being?” Some folks say, “Make a story that's relatable and show folks how their privilege protects them from the challenges that I'll have to face.” I also want to add that I'm a very privileged Black person, relative to other Black Americans. In the US, I enjoy a lot of privileges, so Black is not a monolith either. Even among Black Americans, we have different ethnicities and religious faiths and geographical contexts, for example. So, I want to make sure we name that with Black Lives Matter there has to be an umbrella ― a large umbrella under which all those lives are considered. But, I always say to folks, justice work looks like love and it looks like a shared respect, rather than trying to convince someone that me or people who look like me deserve to live. For example, [we deserve to live] because Black Lives Matter was born in the Ferguson protests following Mike Brown's death. It's not just about police terrorism, it's about our health. It's about making sure that we have the same possibilities as you do. And so, I ask folks, “If you don't think that I deserve that, why not?” and for [them] to sit with that question.

Because I think a lot of it, too, is [that] we're in a space that‘s so competitive. We're in a settler colonialism legacy that's still robust and enduring, and we’re in capitalism; this is a moment where folks are unemployed. They haven't paid rent for months and their kids are at home, trying to learn. It's an impossible situation. So, the instinct is to hoard ― and not just materials but sympathy and visibility. And so, if you don't care about me, why don't you? I want you to think about that. And, if it's resource-related or ideologically-related or something like that, why deny me the same things that you enjoy and that you say you need? Sit with that and think about what those influences are. What are those urgencies that you've identified? And I think if you sit with it long enough, you'll see they have nothing to do with me ― I didn't do anything to you.

So, what I'm saying is there's a call to action in this movement where there are shared interests; it's not a zero-sum game. We're not in competition for dignity. We're not in competition for healthcare access. We're not in competition for safety and joy. I would argue, in fact, that yours is wrapped up in mine. So yeah, I’d start there with asking people to interrogate ― what would you stand to lose if my life mattered? And if you can answer that question and really interrogate why you even think you'd be at a loss if my life mattered, that's a good launch point to start from.

Activism Always: What do you want to see change from a student activism side?

Dr. Erin M. Kerrison: I would like for students to not have to take risks alone. It's always going to be a struggle to fight with and on behalf of people who are oppressed. These arrangements are not arbitrary, and they've got deep roots. It's always going to be an uphill battle to do that

work. And part of that battle is the risks you take; it could be even like missing class to be on Sproul Plaza. Again, we're doing something very different now that we're not on campus, but striking, boycotting, and things like that; our students always take up. They're always in the front lines, always in the trenches. I would like to see more colleagues among faculty, staff, administration, and leadership do more than just tolerate that work.

You [students] have First Amendment rights and things like that, and you're adults. If you want to miss class because you're spending energy and time somewhere else where that work is just as valuable, if not more so, than your instruction, then fine; but there are still penalties. Because you're making choices and making calculations where you prioritize something over another, we as an institution may not be on the same page in valuing what you think is important. I want to see more alignment in our values because I always say “the kids are alright.” and we could stand to follow your example. So, I'd like to see that much more with student activism, [that it] is not just institutional tolerance of that energy, but in fact, explicit endorsement and material support.

Data are wonderful. They're observations, but they don't exist in a vacuum ― for something to be an observation, it has to be observed so that's an intentional decision that people make to measure ‘X’. And things for which we don't have data, it doesn't mean that the phenomena doesn't exist, it means we haven't observed it or haven’t cared to.

Activism Always: How could data driven work have an impact on the Black Lives Matter movement in your opinion?

Dr. Erin M. Kerrison: It depends on who's talking because data can be mobilized by folks who don’t want Black Liberation. For example, we have these bell curve assessments around Black IQ. There's data that our bone structures are different, our brains are different, and [that] there's different kinds of capacities that we can use to operationalize and execute tasks and things like that. These are all data that has been collected and used to support or evidence eugenics and to justify chattel slavery.

Data doesn’t exist alone or on its own. There are intentions in how data are collected and which ones aren't collected, how they're interpreted, how they're disseminated to whom, and in authorship with whom.

Data are wonderful. They're observations, though and they don't exist in a vacuum. For something to be an observation, it has to be observed, so that's an intentional decision that people make to measure ‘X’. For things [for] which we don't have data, it doesn't mean that the phenomena doesn't exist. It means that we haven't observed it or haven’t cared to observe it. What I'll ask about data-driven anything is, who said it was important and what are they going to do with it?

Dr. Kerrison’s insights grant both hope and action items for future generations of activists and allies. Read more about Dr. Kerrison and her work here.

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