Psychology Flexes on the Dance Floor

Last fall, Ragnhild (Ragz) Bruland received $10,000 at the AC3 Festival and Conference for Flex, a youth dance mentorship program she co-founded five years ago. The award — a major nod of approval at one of the hip-hop community’s biggest events — has given a major boost to Ragz, a Cognitive, Social, and Developmental Psychology PhD student at The New School for Social Research, as well as to the Flex teachers and students she works with.

As the New School News wrote in 2018:

The FLEX program employs renowned dancers from the local community to work with students on choreographing dance routines; stimulating students’ creativity while also helping them to develop their self-esteem, cooperation, and communication. Currently there are two modules of the program, “FlexIN” which works with students on-site in secure detention centers, and “FlexOUT” which provides free workshops for students in community centers in New York City.

The teacher-student relationship is absolutely crucial to the program. “One of the aims of this program is to introduce these kids to a community of dance where they can learn and practice a constructive artistic outlet,” writes Ragz. “Mentorship, one of the key components in Flex, provides youth with a touchstone of safely to rely on — developmental research shows that having one or more caring adults in a young person’s life increases the likelihood that they will flourish, and become productive adults themselves.”

The Flex program isn’t just grounded in psychology research; it’s also contributing to the field. Ragz has worked closely with advisor Howard Steele, Professor of Psychology, to develop an experimental framework to evaluate the program.

“The overarching inquiry of this research is to discover if there are aspects of Flex that may make it more beneficial than traditional mentorship alone,” she writes. Three groups are part of Ragz’s research: those who participate in the full Flex dancing and mentorship program; those who only receive mentorship; and those who do not participate in the program. Everyone involved in the study completes short questionnaires designed to assess social emotional functioning as well as resilience. In addition, all participants as well as Flex teachers join in semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions. 

Research is ongoing, and involves several graduate students from NSSR as well as the Schools for Public Engagement. However, several Flex participants can already attest to how the program has changed lives. Sticks Harvey, a 29-year-old Flex teacher, got involved five years ago, right as Ragz was getting the program off the ground. “I liked Ragz’s vision and what she understood Flex to be,” he says. “This is an approach for youth to channel their anger and do something different. Instead of being violent, you could dance it off.” 

Credit: @Anwander

He signed up to demonstrate the dance at a youth detention center but stuck around to teach. A highlight for him was working with youth to put a program together for a family visitation day. “When they perform and got praise, that was new for them,” says Harvey. “Even if they say they’re not dancers, it gives them a chance to try. And there’s no pressure. Not everyone gets it right away.” 

He’s not the only one whose life has been changed. “Flex gave me a new path careerwise,” Harvey says. “My mind reshaped when I met these teens. I try to be a more positive leader for them.”

Marie Borden is a mostly self-taught dancer who began studying Flex about eight years ago and recently joined the Flex program as a teacher. “Flexing is a form of freedom, a form of creativity,” the 28-year-old says. Working with Ragz as well as with elementary and middle school-age youth, she has seen firsthand how dancing can help students express themselves and handle anger and pain. “They don’t know how to release their emotions, and I help them with that. When kids come to me with problems, I tell them, ‘Don’t think about what to do, just dance!’ And they feel a lot better.”

When Harvey and Borden talk about their experiences Flexing, they are careful to cite their many teachers and recognize their place in the growing Flex legacy. Now, they’ve become those teachers for another generation of youth. “What was passed down to me continues to be passed down,” says Harvey, commenting on both the dancing as well as the culture that surrounds it.

Flex is fundraising to expand the program and support the research project. Come see Flex teachers and students celebrate the program’s fifth anniversary with FLEX HYPE, performed live on Friday, September 27, 7 PM at The New School, and on Saturday, September 28, 7 PM at BRIC. 

Lucas Perelló, Politics PhD Candidate, Wins Fulbright to Honduras

Free elections contested by parties are central to our conventional notions of democracy. But on what basis does a voter relate to their party: ideology, favors, personal interests, something else? And once party systems are established, how do they evolve? For New School for Social Research Politics PhD candidate Lucas Perelló, these questions provide the framework for his dissertation. And starting in September, he’ll be investigating them as a Fulbright Scholar in a country going through a nearly unprecedented political shift: Honduras.

Born in the U.S. and raised in Chile, Perelló studied politics broadly before focusing on comparative politics, especially in Latin America. After completing an MA in Chile, Perelló completed an MA in Applied Quantitative Research at New York University. But as he approached a career as a political scientist, he felt something was lacking. Looking to expand his conceptual formation, Perelló moved a few blocks north to NSSR.

“The New School overlapped with one of my other interests, which was to expand my methodological knowledge qualitatively. I was drawn to the emphasis given to aspects of development to solve conceptualizing things differently, giving you a different theoretical lenses to study particular political phenomenon.”

Political Party Shift

Immersing himself in empirical case studies and theory, Perelló began to formulate a research plan that married these elements tightly while renewing his passion for comparative approaches. “I study how political parties, and how is it and why is it that party systems change…and how it is that political parties engage with voters,” Perelló says. In this case, ‘political party systems’ refers to how elections are set up, whether voters choose between two parties or multiple parties. The question of party linkages looks at how parties get votes.

“This is a continuous debate within political science and comparative politics, but originally people thought political parties would appeal to voters on either on a programmatic basis, or a clientelist basis, or a charismatic one.” In other words, people vote for a party based on either an ideological agreement, a quid-pro-quo arrangement whereby a vote can be redeemed for favors, or force or personal magnetism of a candidate alone.

Of course, one party can have multiple sorts of such ‘linkages’ with voters, varying according to target demographic, general level of development, or ideology, and changing over time. With this interest party linkages and their evolution, Perelló was drawn to a comparatively understudied region, Central America, specifically Honduras. “Honduras actually presents very interesting insights into the entire discussion of party system change, and the types of party linkages that exist within society,” Perelló says.

Case Study: Honduras

Like many Latin American countries, Honduras transitioned from military dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s. For several decades after — even through a coup in 2009 — the country featured a two-party system that operated on a decisively clientelist model. But in the 2013 elections, a fundamental shift occurred: the two-party system gave way to a multi-party one, including an upstart Anti-Corruption Party led by a popular sportscaster.

“What is interesting about this change is that not only did the party system change quite abruptly, but the types of linkages that the political parties are adopting also shifted suddenly,” Perelló explains. Whereas clientelism and corruption were once the norm, programmatic appeals on the basis of ideology are gaining ground, especially among wealthier constituencies.  

There are several reasons that clientelism can lose its power. Appeals based on loyalty-for-favors become weaker as countries become wealthier. Additionally, clientelism can disenfranchise large parts of a population. “There’s many levels associated with this, but at least in the Honduran context these are very exclusive networks,” says Perelló. “For example, you can have a low-income household that is very dependent on some specific policies. The benefits that you might receive from these policies that are actually aimed at reducing poverty are contingent upon who you vote for. And [the government can] keep the electorate poor because they’re dependent on them if they want to stay in power. It’s been so entrenched that the way that it also molds how individual voters, how citizens actually see democracy.”

Because this shift from clientelism to programmatic appeals in developing countries is so unusual, Honduras is a fascinating case study against which to test existing theories of party systems and linkages. Perelló has visited Honduras several times, but found that pervasive clientelism made it nearly impossible to access the people and spaces relevant to his research. It also made for an interesting situation of mistaken identity. Once, while dressed up for a visit to the National Congress, dozens of older women surrounded him. “They approached me with receipts, with CDs, pictures of their kids, asking me if I could get their sons or their daughters who just graduated a job, if I could help them pay for receipt of electricity,” he says. Only when he opened his mouth to speak — in Chilean Spanish — did the crowd realize he was not a government official and could not help them. Local politicians were similarly reluctant to let Perelló in, stonewalling him or only disclosing details of the opposition’s approach.

Opening New Doors

Returning for 10 months with the prestigious Fulbright scholarship and an office and teaching position at Central American Technological University (UNITEC), Perelló is hopeful that more doors will open to him, especially among the political elite. “I really need to spend more time there — more time to conduct interviews, more archival research,” he says. He applied to several different grants and credits his Fulbright success to the wisdom and guidance of David Plotke, Professor of Politics and his dissertation advisor, as well as Tsuya Yee, Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs. But he’s cautious: “A Fulbright can work in favor or against you in the sense that, perhaps you’re seen as a representative of the U.S. government who’s meddling around internal politics of a country that has been historically intervened by the U.S. But at least to get my foot in the academic world, Fulbright has so far worked in my favor!”

Despite his focus on Honduras, Perelló believes his project can help scholars and the public understand how political systems can move away from clientelism, and how two-party systems can become more open and contested. “My overall objective in understanding these changes is to understand how can you strengthen democracy in countries that have such a strong authoritarian past.”

Economics PhD Student Kyle Moore Talks Policy and Capitol Hill

This story originally appeared on the Insights blog from the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at The New School for Social Research

Kyle Moore starts a new job on Capitol Hill next week. He’ll be joining the Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) as a Senior Policy Analyst.

Our first order of business is to offer Kyle a hearty congratulations on his success! Kyle is a long-time member of the SCEPA and New School community, and we wish him well as he goes forward in his economics career.

Kyle earned his MA in Economics from the New School for Social Research, served as a SCEPA fellow within the Retirement Equity Lab (ReLab), and went on to pursue his PhD in the department, which he is currently writing. Some of Kyle’s ReLab work can be found here and here. The Review of Black Political Economy also recently published his research done with ReLab.

As Kyle begins his journey to impact policy within the hallowed halls of our government, he shares a little of his experience below. His story reflects the same desire to confront some of today’s biggest challenges that attracted many of us to the New School. He talks about how he got to where he is today and gives some advice to those who will follow him.

  1. What will you do in this job?

    My role will be to write reports and issue briefs on the economic policy issues that matter to Democratic Members of Congress, to prepare briefings for and help contact experts to participate in Congressional hearings on those topics, and to help write the JEC response to the annual Economic Report of the President.

  2. Can you describe your research work and focus?

    As a researcher, I’m mainly interested in understanding the causes and consequences of identity group-based social and economic disparities. I want to provide explanations (and hopefully policy solutions for) persistent gaps in health, wealth, income, and employment across race and gender. To do this, I work within the traditions of stratification economics, institutional economics, and the political economy of health. My dissertation work is centered on the health consequences of racial disparities in access to economic resources and exposure to potentially stressful events. I also have a deep interest in the philosophy of social science and in economics’ role in academia and policy circles as a social science

  3. What interested you in working on Capitol Hill?

    My interest in working with the JEC, and with economic policy more broadly, stems from my view that social scientists have a responsibility to put their knowledge and their work into practice. Because the subject matter of the social sciences (particularly economics) is human well-being, those who have the time and resources to study the social sciences are called to two purposes: to make others aware of the causes and extent of social and economic problems, and to do what’s possible to alleviate those problems. Inequality, poverty, and racial disparities in mortality and morbidity are too important to be treated as only academic concerns; they have real consequences for people’s lives. Working with the JEC gives me the opportunity to get research directly into the hands of members of Congress — research that could make a real impact on people’s life chances.

  4. What are your hopes as you go forward in this new position and in your career?

    I’m looking forward to learning a lot about how economic policy is shaped while working with the JEC. My hope is that I’ll be able to direct people towards better understandings of the causes and consequences of economic inequality. I’d especially like to bring the expertise I’ve built studying persistent racial economic disparities to the staff, in hopes that progress can be made towards reducing those disparities. I also hope that the position will give me a more well-rounded understanding of economics and economic policy, beyond my current areas of expertise, that will be valuable for the students I plan to teach once I make my way back into academia.

  5. How did your time at SCEPA and in the NSSR Econ Department influence your decision to work in policy?

    Taking courses within the Economics department at NSSR and working at SCEPA and the Retirement Equity Lab set me up to take on this role in policy. Both sets of experiences were essential in shaping my understanding of the relationship between academic research and economic policy.
  6. NSSR’s Economics department is steeped in a tradition of political economy that’s constantly asking of its students “What is the end (purpose) of economic study?” Without that framing, it’s possible to treat economic study as just a set of interesting data puzzles. The critical perspective that’s baked into the coursework at NSSR steers students towards discussions of social and economic inequality, and what we can do about that inequality. Working at SCEPA and ReLab allowed me to put that critical frame developed through courses in the Econ department to practice, translating academic research into policy briefs and white papers using accessible (non-academic) language. I was able to produce a body of work on the intersection between race, aging, and retirement policy while there, developing some expertise on those subjects. I also gained valuable technical skills working with statistical software, government databases, and longitudinal surveys that I’ve used for my own research and will continue to use in my work with the JEC.

  7. As a role model for other NS Economics students, what advice would you give a current NS Econ student if they wanted to follow in your footsteps?

    It’s important to seek out opportunities to produce work with your name on it that will be publicly distributed. Whether it’s a blog post, an op-ed, a chapter review, a policy brief, or an academic research paper. Your body of work is something that accumulates over time, follows you throughout your career, and will often open a lot of doors for you. Any time is a good time to start writing.

    Start going to seminars, academic conferences, and events. Ask questions there, meet people, talk about your research, and if you don’t have a clearly defined topic, talk about what you’re interested in. The key is to make connections with people; the more people that know who you are and what you’re interested in, the more of a chance there is that when they hear about an opportunity that might be good for you, they send it your way. Doing good work is a necessary but insufficient condition for getting to a position where that work can make a difference.

    Put together a group of colleagues and mentors you can rely on to speak openly with about work, research, and the troubles that come along with academic life. It’s not easy for anyone, and no one gets through coursework or research entirely on their own. Research and scholarship are both social processes, so it makes sense that the best research and scholarship is done in groups. Most importantly though, having people to talk to and confide in is essential for maintaining mental health throughout grad school.

  8. Given the polarization of politics today, what role do you think current New School Economics student can play in creating real and positive change?

    NSSR Economics students are perhaps uniquely positioned among the universe of Econ students in that they aren’t discouraged from taking Economics’ role as a social science with real social and political implications seriously. NSSR Econ has a “vision” that is, at its core, unabashedly progressive. That vision is something that economics as an academic discipline desperately needs, but it’s equally needed at think tanks and in the places where economic policy is shaped.  

Set Up for Success: Historical Studies MA Students Accepted to Top PhD Programs

Well-known for its doctoral programs in the social sciences and philosophy, The New School for Social Research also offers terminal Master’s degree programs that allow new graduate students to dig deeply into a topic and develop their research skills while preparing for careers or for additional graduate study.

This year, several 2019 Historical Studies MA graduates were accepted at top History PhD programs that support their research interests. Their experiences illuminate how the department can help emerging historians identify, prepare for, and confidently choose the best next steps in their scholarly careers.

Ella Coon, a Minnesota native, first moved to New York to attend Columbia University where she majored in printmaking. Later, while working as an archivist at the LeRoy Neiman Foundation, she discovered her passion for combing through archives. She had long been interested in history, especially the Cold War and the political debates that underpinned it, and she began to seek opportunities for research that could combine research and art.

“I’ve always wanted to be at The New School,” Coon explains. “I was attracted by the faculty, but also to what seemed like a progressive environment.” That scholars and students in the department were unafraid to innovate methodologically or to delve into the political implications of their research “was really refreshing.” 

As she deepened her understanding of the politics and economics of the Cold War, she began working closely with Associate Professor of History Julia Ott and Assistant Professor of History Emma Park, both of whom teach classes in the history of capitalism. Coon cites their encouragement and flexibility with helping her craft a project while also gathering resources and preparing essential elements, such as a literature review, to help her write a strong thesis at the end of her second year.

“From the beginning of the program there was a sense that you should be thinking about what you’re going to do at the end,” Coon explains. A large part of that work happens during  a required third-semester seminar in which students workshop their theses and also prepare PhD applications. “Faculty would come in every other week to talk about their work and their methodology, but then some weeks were dedicated to helping us apply by going over our projects with that in mind,” Coon says.

It worked. She completed her thesis, which examines the political economy of technology transfers between the U.S. and Comecon during détente. And in Fall 2019, she’ll be heading back uptown to start a PhD in History where it all began — Columbia University.

By contrast, Deren Ertas moved to New York from Turkey at just 11 years old. She threw herself into books, primarily as a way to learn English. “Then I just kept reading,” Ertas says, reflecting on the path that led her to major in the College of Social Studies at Wesleyan University.

She discovered her passion for history while writing her undergraduate thesis on the 2013 Gezi Park protests that swept across Turkey. Through analyzing protest rhetoric, Ertas began to focus on how Turkish practices of civil disobedience and resistance had developed historically, as well as how a Turkish national identity had been constructed more generally. “In Turkey we’re kind of fomenting hatred for each other all the time and I was interested in how that dynamic had been historically configured by different political projects,” Ertas explains.

As her interests in history developed, so did her passion for political theory and theorists such as Hannah Arendt, who drew her attention to NSSR as a potential next step. “Of course I wanted a strong background in history, but I also wanted to continue to take classes in different disciplines and develop my insights through an engagement with different methods,” Ertas says. “I couldn’t go to a more traditional program, that’s not the kind of relationship I want to have to my field.” Conversations with Assistant Professor of History Aaron Jakes and the possibility of taking classes with major thinkers like Willy Brandt Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and History Ann Stoler helped her realize this was the place for her.

Ertas knew that she had made the right decision while delivering a paper at the 2018 Radical Democracy Conference. “Andreas [Kalyvas, Associate Professor of Politics] and some other students in the class really encouraged me to present this paper, and I’m glad they did because it led to a shift. I decided to dedicate myself to academic work full time and pursue my application to PhD programs in Fall 2018” she remembers.

Ertas credits Historical Studies faculty with helping her develop the content of her thesis, which explores the ways in which the project of modernizing and liberalizing reforms undertaken by the Ottoman state in the 19th century (known as the Tanzimat) can be understood as an effort to address specific problems in tax levying and military recruitment as well as a modern project of nation-building. She also examines the way resistance to these modernizing projects — much like the Gezi Park protests — established patterns of resistance that recurred in later Ottoman and Turkish politics.

“My conversations with [Professor Jakes] were fundamental in terms of my understanding of my work and how to situate it within the field of Middle Eastern history” she says. Jakes also invited her to participate in a small gathering of scholars to workshop his forthcoming manuscript, which  allowed Ertas to see different aspects of what academic life could be like. “Those experiences were intellectually enriching at every turn,” she added.

As she crafted her PhD application, she received support from other Historical Studies faculty members, and Jakes also urged her to continue reaching out to people in her top-choice programs. “He kept encouraging me because I was feeling very shy,” Ertas explains. “Pushing me to do that was very important!”

The recipient of the 2019 Outstanding Master of Arts Graduate Award for Historical Studies, Ertas will pursue her PhD in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She is happy about staying in the East Coast, which will allow her to sustain the close connections she made with NSSR faculty and students. “I’m excited to go from one place where I can forge my own path to another place where I can do that,” she says.

Consuming the Past: Victoria Flexner and Edible History

Founded a century ago, The New School for Social Research sought to have leading scholars teach night courses to working professionals, fostering a community both cutting-edge and non-traditional with respect to student age and academic background, as well as to the kind of learning taking place inside its fledgling walls.

While the university has transformed since then, this vision still holds true today — at least for Victoria Flexner, a 2019 MA graduate of the Historical Studies program. Flexner’s work is unorthodox in more than one sense; a part-time student and full-time business owner, Flexner’s academic focus is on food history, an emerging field she explores with a thesis that incorporates the latest scholarship as well as historical fiction.

A native New Yorker with a French father and chef uncle, Flexner grew up in a family with a strong passion for good eating. As a teenager, she worked in food service. But she didn’t think of herself as a lover of things gastronomic until she left the city to complete her undergraduate degree in Scotland. “The food was terrible!” she remembers. She realized that if she wanted to eat well while away from home, she was going to finally have to learn how to cook.

Having learned how to fare for herself in a foreign land, Flexner graduated and returned to New York. Drawing on her passion for food and her knowledge of the city’s restaurant industry, she was able to secure a job as a publicist for celebrity chefs and restaurants. “While I was working in food PR,” she says, “I was like, ‘There’s got to be a way to take my love of history and my practical skill set of having worked in the food business and blend the two together.’”

The result was Edible History, a company that hosts themed dinners based on historical recipes. Flexner introduces each course with a short history lesson, while her team brings out authentic recreations of meals from across the centuries: three types of ceviche from pre-Columbia, colonial, and modern Peru; dinner as it would have taken place in 10th-century Baghdad; a bit of medieval Mongolian cuisine. In 2018, she hosted a feminist-focus dinner party inspired by Judy Chicago’s famous art installation “The Dinner Party”; major outlets from the New Yorker to Vogue covered it.

From Flexner’s “Feminist Food, Feminist Art” dinner

As her business expanded, Flexner was decided to pursue additional education. “I realized if I wanted to be any kind of authoritative voice on history — if I wanted to stand in front of people and talk about history and not only have them care but to take me seriously — I needed to get another qualification,” she explained.

Flexner chose NSSR because it offered freedom to do explore what she wanted — a freedom she didn’t see at other New York universities. “It felt like what I was trying to do with food and history where it’s not quite the food business, not fully academic, it’s kind of existing in this weird new space,” she said. The parallels between Flexner and fellow Historical Studies alumnus Rien Fertel, who studies barbecue in the American South, are many.

NSSR doesn’t employ any food historians, but this isn’t so unusual; the academic study of food history is relatively young, and there are few specialized graduate programs in it. “The field is kind of a mix between popular history and a newer academic version which is still figuring itself out,” Flexner said. Food historians vary in the kinds of materials they study; some are more archival materials-based while other are more theoretical  The study of food is not only the history of a cuisine — its ingredients, its influences — but also about the institutions and cultures that it’s connected to. Some food historians argue, for instance, that the desire for luxury food products such as pepper and spices paved the way for European expansionsim and imperialism. “The entire world from different spheres was drawn together because of a search for a luxury food product. That’s pretty mind blowing,” Flexner explains.

Flexner’s time at NSSR allowed her to explore food history through a variety of different periodical and regional lenses. Her work culminated in Spring 2019 with a thesis on the history of the restaurant in New York.

From Flexner’s “Evolution of the New York City Restaurant” dinner

As a social practice, the restaurant first emerged in 1760s France and gradually made its way to the United States. Flexner argues that the restaurant truly came into its own due to a number of overlapping factors, but cited one of them as the emergence of the 19th Century boarding house. During a period in which most New Yorkers lived in boarding houses,  where meals were served in a common area and at set times. “The food was notoriously disgusting at all boarding houses across the spectrum,” Flexner says. A combination of a desire for good food and lack of access to private kitchens created a market for third spaces in which people could pay to eat. “By 1855, there would have been eateries that had the components of what we now recognize as the restaurant,” Flexner adds, alluding to a public-facing private food service venue offering a menu of options and working within certain operating hours.

The overlap between her business and her studies has been fundamental to her success in juggling her studies and a full-time job. “Research that I’ve done at school has benefited Edible History, of course, and I’ve brought my experiences from the business into school if I could. It all feels interrelated and I’m here because I want to become a better historian. It’s beyond useful,” Flexner reflects.

That interrelation inspired Flexner to propose an unorthodox approach to her thesis: As she would an Edible History dinner, she carefully blended traditional historiographical narrative with a bit of historical fiction to narrate the story of the restaurant’s development through the experiences of fictional characters like Lorenzo, an early restaurant pioneer. By adopting this approach, and with the support of her mentors Associate Professor of History Oz Frankel and Professor of History and Department Chair Jeremy Varon, Flexner hopes to heighten her ability to do what impassions her.

“I’ve had one woman tell me that recently, ‘You know, I always hated history, and then my husband started making me come to these dinners. Now I buy history books and read them for fun!”‘ Flexner remembers. “That’s the dream!”