(Editor’s note: The WVU Magazine online features women who have made their career in science or related field at the University. They each have a different, fascinating story to tell about how they’re contributing to human knowledge. Visit the site to find monthly updates on A Year of Women in STEM science, technology, engineering and math.)
In fifth grade Rachael Woldoff traveled 57 blocks to school in central Philadelphia.
A bus, an elevated train and another bus took her from her home at 74th Street to her magnet school at 17th Street.
Her neighborhood was Jewish, Italian and Irish. But on public transportation and in her new school, people were diverse. They were poor, they were rich, they were middle class. They were Asian. They were black. Some had parents who had graduated from college, and some, like her, did not.
The young Jewish girl who’d never experienced any of these social situations learned to negotiate differences. You talk to people, you inevitably say things you shouldn’t, you learn from it and in the end you know a lot more about people than you used to. Ever since then, she’s voraciously sought to better understand this experience.
In her first college sociology class, on race and ethnic relations, she found that she could make this consuming interest her career.
“I was like, ‘There’s a field of science that does this?’” she said.
Woldoff has taught sociology at West Virginia University for 10 years. She teaches classes on juvenile delinquency and a capstone on the television show The Wire about the city of Baltimore and its communities. The talk in these classes is more than candid. And in The Wire class, it’s about dynamics of poor, black neighborhoods, the causes of community violence and the difficulties that people have leaving a neighborhood they don’t want to be in.
“It’s very difficult to talk about these topics,” Woldoff said of the discussions. “When I gave a talk on my book in Pittsburgh?one of my neighbors was like ‘I can’t believe you said these things out loud at the library.’”
Her response is that you should see what happens in her classroom.
As she tells the story of urban America, her students tell their own stories. Some are stories of poverty, addiction, prison, suicide, and rehab among their parents, their siblings and themselves.
They simmer under the surface of our lives, but the last things people want to talk about are race, drugs, neighborhoods and crime.
“Neighborhoods and race? Forget it,” she said. “Everybody feels guilty about where they live and how they chose it.”
Just talk to people
Woldoff studied a neighborhood called Parkmont for her book White Flight/Black Flight: The Dynamics of Racial Change in an American Neighborhood about racial housing patterns. She knocked on doors. Some of those doors led to elderly white residents.
Scholars have often described this group as being left behind, unable to move because of age and infirmity as their neighborhoods integrate.
When Woldoff began her research, she was told that those residents don’t participate in “white flight” from integrating neighborhoods because they can’t.
“I was like, ‘How do you know that?’”
The answer: Why else would you live in a black neighborhood?
So she had to ask older people about something that most people don’t want to talk about: money.
“I would say, ‘Can you afford to move?’” she said. “And they would say ‘Yeah, when I break my hip I’m going to move because I can’t go up the steps.’”
She learned that they weren’t marooned. They did have a choice. They loved their neighborhoods. And they formed bonds with their new African-American neighbors, who often helped them to age in place and stay in their homes.
She wouldn’t have found this if she hadn’t talked to residents, doing what social scientists call qualitative research. She requires her students to do the same. Her capstone class asks students to collect demographic data and interview residents in neighborhoods in nearby Pittsburgh.
And just like sociology has changed her, it’s changed them.
One of her recent students started college after his military service. The assignment required him to interview one resident. By the end of it, he’d talked to more than 10 people and conducted observations in the community at Bible study and on Election Day.
“He just went back, and he did the work,” Woldoff said. “He said it was life changing for him, and he’d been to Afghanistan and Iraq.”
This year her book White Flight/Black Flight won 2013 Best Book in Urban Affairs Award and she was recognized with the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Researcher Award.
“It’s mostly about wanting to understand how society really works from multiple perspectives and how and why people make the choices they do because I think one sad thing about being a sociologist is you’re pretty aware of the structural constraints to changing society,” Woldoff said.
“I’m not under the delusion that my work is going to change residential patterns in cities or how mobility decisions occur, but I do feel like it definitely offers some unexpected insights into race relations, housing, and the struggles people have in making their residential preferences a reality.”
Life’s about choices
Just like everyone else, Woldoff has had structural constraints in her life. She’s a tenured woman who’s married with a child, which still isn’t very common in academia in part because women haven’t reached parity in this workforce. But there’s another less talked about part.
As a graduate student, she saw two sides. She saw the women with children who dropped out and the women who didn’t pursue a family, even though they wanted one some day.
She took cues from her grad school advisor, who was also married with children. The advisor and her husband would alternate days taking care of child emergencies. It worked for them, but she saw how it’s a delicate line that requires a lot of communication and a lot of mutual respect for each partner’s career aspirations and parenting responsibilities.
“It’s really hard. I feel like the more flexible the workplace can be the better off everyone is,” she said. “Women have really tough decisions to make about when they’re going to match up with someone, whose career is going to steer things, who is going to live where, how many kids to have and when to get started.”
She’s also seen women buy into the delusion that they can have both while only working toward one.
For Woldoff, meeting that challenge means she has the family she always wanted, and she does the work that she has passionately pursued for her whole life—since she was in middle school: to understand how society works and to helps others do the same.
“I can’t imagine not doing this job,” she says. “Sociology is like a religion to me; It explains so much about inequality and helps people make sense of the world’s problems.”
By Diana Mazzella
CONTACT: University Relations/News
Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.